Getting some culture: two plays…

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Since we’re lucky enough to live in a town with a big university presence, this means that we are also able to take advantage of some of the cultural offerings that come our way, and we recently went to two plays, both about some under-appreciated women which was a good touch as it’s Women’s History Month.

The first one was a one-woman play called “The Other Mozart” (written and performed by Sylvia Milo), and focused on the true story of Nannerl Mozart, Mozart’s older sister who was also a prodigy with music, but due to her gender and the times, didn’t receive all the attention that her younger brother did.

The solo actor was the sister in question, and so the play was presented through her eyes and thus the audience could track her musical life as she is recognized for her musical talents, but then slowly overtaken and eclipsed by the younger Mozart. I think this is probably a really good play, but the university sound system was very muffled and so it was pretty hard to keep up with what was going on.

That, and I had the ill-fortune to have a tall guy with a big bobble-head sit right in front, and it was uncanny how his head movements would match mine at almost every turn. So – good play. Bad venue. I’d still go and see this play, but only in a smaller theater with a good non-karaoke-based sound system.

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The other play was a completely different experience (thankfully). This was also a one-woman play, but in a much more intimate setting which made it easy to hear what the actor was saying and thus keep up with the action.

Called “If a door opens: a journey with Francis Perkins”, it was written and performed by a regional actor called Charlotte Keefe and focused on the life and times of said Francis Perkins, who was one of the earliest female Secretary of Labors in the twentieth century. She worked with presidents and others to help secure the 40-hour work week, social security benefits, and generally looked out for child and female workers at a time when they were over-used and under-paid.

Perkins also played a sentinel role in improving workplace safety standards as she was in NYC at the same time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and knew how to effectively work with politicians, unions, and others to pass new laws improving working conditions for everyone who was not a rich white man. 🙂

I was not familiar with Perkins (or the actress who played her), but by the time we came to the end of the play, I was astonished at just how much Perkins achieved at a time in the twentieth century when women were not encouraged or supported in their working lives if they upset the status quo.

I really enjoyed this experience, and recommend that if you see this play coming anywhere near you (whether with this actor or another), you take the hour or so to see it. Perkins was a firebrand whose mark still remains on the twenty-first century workforce.

And then later on this week, we’ve got tickets to listen to Ruth Reichl, former NYT food critic and best-selling author… Riches abound right now.

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February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

Praisesong for the Widow – Paule Marshall (1983)

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As part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition, this novel was a fine way to kick off the month-long project. It also happens to be one of the Viragos that I’ve had on my shelf for absolutely AGES and so it checked all my boxes, even more so when I had finished it because it was REALLY good. (Sorry. Got a bit shouty there for a second. It’s that good.)

This novel focuses on a few days in the life of a well-off African-American woman who impulsively decides to leave a Caribbean cruise, but is uncertain why. She has a strong feeling that she has to leave, but why does she give in the impulse? That’s the spotlight of this great feminist novel – what exactly is going on with protagonist Avey Johnson? “It’s completely out of character…” according to herself and her friends. But jump ship she does.

It’s an ethereal novel, very dream-like in places with time and scenery floating by at odd times. I found this to be unnerving at first, but once I gave into the flow of the writing and went along with it, it seemed as though it could not be written in any other way. Most of the novel is written from the POV of Avey – her thoughts, her dreams, her ideas, her experiences – and as the story progresses and we get to know her, her actions start to make perfect sense as the pages fly by.

Avey is a widow, her former husband fairly rule-bound and straight-forward, upwardly mobile and with fairly successful grown-up kids, all of which makes it even more perplexing why she suddenly jumps ship on the small island of Granada, without tickets or a plan or her friends. She seems to have done everything “right” as a middle-class African-American woman of the time – married carefully, raised the children, kept the house… And yet, for the first time during this cruise, she has been unsettled with memories of her childhood holidays with her great-aunt in the south with whom she danced on the beach and reached towards Africa…

By decamping from the expected cruise trip, Avey finds herself with a day to spare before her plane can take her back to New York and as she wanders around Grenada’s port town, she’s bombarded with new experiences and new languages, with different people and with different experiences, none of which really fit into her life as it was previously lived.

Avey ends up meeting an older Granadian man who invites her to travel along with him and other islanders back to his native island of Carriacou where they return every year to reconnect with family and community. And it’s here in Carriacou where Avey finally pieces together the puzzle that she’s forming in her head, where the trance-like feelings that she’s been experiencing and which she experienced with her great-aunt as a child would be clarified…

It’s a novel rich in colors, sounds, music and dancing. It’s a novel about returning to your roots and understanding your past in order to live your future, and it’s a novel about respecting things that may be hard to understand when you first meet them. One could also argue it’s about expected gender roles and expectations as well, as this experience only occurs now that her husband has died and she is with other female characters (her friends).

I loved this book which should be no surprise as I’ve loved the other two Paule Marshall books I’ve read (Brown Girl, Brown Stones  and Merle and Other Stories ), and this novel was a super way to kick off Black History Month.

Next up is….

 

Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (1983)

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Since I’ve been digging more deeply into authors (and characters) of color, Jamaica Kincaid’s name has kept cropping up and so when I saw this title in a thrift shop the other day, I picked it up with interest. After struggling mightily with another book and finally admitting defeat, it was with somewhat relief that I picked this one up and found it to be a joy to read. I loved it and will definitely be picking up more of Kincaid in the future.

So – this was a fiction read, a bildungsroman (posh way of saying “coming of age”) that follows a young girl growing up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It starts in the middle of her childhood and follows to her teens when there is a sudden change that happens to her that affects all her relationships, particularly that between herself and her mother. Previously adored, the teen protagonist now faces her mother with unexplainable rage and resentment, and the reader watches how this enigmatic development affects her life as she grows and changes. It’s pretty hard to watch but understandable for the most part as who, at some point during their teen years, wasn’t sorely embarrassed by one’s parents at one time or another for no particularly compelling reason?

So, as mentioned, protagonist Annie knows that this is how she feels, but doesn’t really understand why; with nothing to put her finger on, the closest that she is able to come to is describing it as “carrying the thimble that weighed worlds” deep down inside her. Who would understand that, she thinks sadly? No one, and her days go by with her repelling all that seemed perfectly fine until a few months ago with the arrival of that internal thimble.

Annie’s early to mid-teen years were deliriously happy with a mutually adoring relationship between her mother and herself, but once that dark feeling is established, things change for the worse and both of them are confused and frustrated by this sudden change. It’s never mentioned, but then neither of them has the right vocabulary to do that. (It’s fairly typical teenaged angst, but when you’re going through it, it’s a big deal, right?)

The narrative is structured as a series of eight chapters, each one describing a particular episode in Annie’s life (big and small) and spotlights the ebb and flow of school friends, confusion about this sudden dissatisfaction of almost everything in life, and no tools to impact it either way. I would think that anyone who was a teenager (or who knows a teenager) would be able to relate on some level, really.

The depths of the descriptions of the lushness of Annie’s life on Antigua reflect the depth of the introspection that is seen through the PoV of Annie. She is a ferocious and witty character with a fearless attitude to life. It’s equally frustrating and admirable at the same time, really.

This was a fabulous read on a rather endless plane journey, but the time passed really quickly (which underscores how good the read was). I loved loved loved this book.

Their Eyes were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

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Written in 1937, Their Eyes were Watching God was one of the first African-American feminist novels to achieve widespread prominence in the U.S. Obviously, African-American novels had been written by women before this, but not widely published and, in fact, this one was written 13 years after she had published her first short story (although this was only her second novel).

This is a good read. It’s a bit of a challenge at first as it’s mostly written in a strong dialect from the South, but when you get used to this (and it doesn’t take long), this is a great read. The novel’s protagonist, Janie Crawford, is a young African-American woman who struggles to find her place in a pretty unfriendly world with regard to her ethnicity and gender. However, as the story progresses, Janie grows and learns and this ends up being a bildungsroman by the end.

harlem-renaissanceJanie is a strong character who leaves her strict grandmother’s shack to start a not-very-enthusiastic marriage with a much older man who her grandmother wanted her to wed. Janie is struck with the notion of love being a very natural and romantic thing, of blossoms and beautiful moments, so when the marriage is not like that dream after a while, it’s a shock. She ends up running away with a very ambitious traveling salesman and then when that hits the skids, she elopes with a happy-go-lose guy. As her heart wanders, so does Janie with her husbands and this ends up a powerful story of growth written at a time when society did not support it (and in fact worked against it) for many people.

Not only is this a good story, but it’s brilliantly written and unlike my rather staid diet of mid-century British novels and Victorian old guys. This is lyrical and was very influenced by the African-American and Southern folklore that Neale Hurston has studied during her academic years. She was very familiar with the stories and songs and such lore is a frequent reference throughout the novel.

Janie weathers her life through awful marriages, through poverty, through misogyny, and it all really erupts when a hurricane careens through her small community on the Florida coast. The apocalyptic weather reflects her own life’s turmoil and as the hurricane passes, so does the life of Janie reach a new balance in many ways…

hurricaneThe hurricane description is really one of the best parts for me – Neale Hurston nails the descriptions and the feeling of powerlessness for people impacted by severe weather events – Janie’s community is small and somewhat temporary; its population consists of mostly transient field workers and it’s quite a close community for the short time that they are all together. Neal Hurston describes the hurricane as an all-powerful being in many ways – of an omnipotent god who takes no mercy and shows no fear. In a way, it may represent the feeling of impotence that African-American people may have felt living their lives in the US at that time – no vote, no representation, little self-determination power etc… However you interpret it, it’s a powerful description and metaphor of a catastrophic storm.

 “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God…”

Horizons play an important and ongoing role throughout this narrative . For Janie, the horizon seems to be a far-off unreachable place until she meets Tea Cake. Her first marriage did not work out; her second marriage to the traveling salesman meant that they both ran off to meet their own new horizon, and the third (with Tea Cake) was described as them reaching their horizon.

At the end of the novel, Janie “pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes. She called in her soul to come and see…”

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Zora Neale Hurston had an interesting life as well, and it’s clear that some of this story’s plot is autobiographical at points. She attended Howard University for a few years around 1917 or so and gets an Associate’s degree – this at a time when very few women were even allowed in higher ed., and even fewer African-American women. She graduated in the end from Barnard (where she had been the sole black student and one of the oldest ones at the same time) and published fiction pretty widely as part of the Harlem Renaissance group. She led a life of academic research and fiction-writing, going through several marriages, and then ends up working as a maid in Florida, having a stroke and getting care at an indigent hospital and then being buried in an unmarked grave. She was a forgotten author until the 1970’s when Alice Walker and others brought her writing to the fore. It’s quite a fascinating story in and of itself.

So – good read. Not the easiest read in the world, but good all the same and thoroughly worth the effort.

ETA 06/29/2017: Even though this read is now a few years back, it’s one that I continue to think about and actually love more and more as time goes by. It’s worth sticking with…