Friday is more fun with puns…

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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.

Six American Plays for Today – Bennet Cerf (1961)

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When I was at the library the other day (shocking, I know), I was searching for a copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’m still trying to read classics every now and then, and (at the same time) fill in some holes in my ongoing Century of Books project (which now has its own page, btw), and so thought this would do the trick in several ways.

Additionally, I’ve been dying to go to a live community play here in town, but the choices have been slim pickings lately…

So, having difficulty finding a copy of the Hansberry play on the shelves, I got to taking down copies of other similar books that might have had the play contained inside, and thus, this rather old edition of “Six American Plays for Today” (when “today” was 50 years ago) leaped into my hands.

plays_index_revI don’t really have a really deep background in drama or plays, and so it’s almost guaranteed that almost any play that I pick up is going to be one with which I am unfamiliar (apart from the usual school syllabus ones). So, I opened this book and bingo, it had an unadulterated copy of the Hansberry play along with five other plays, none of which I’d ever heard about. Undaunted, I checked it out.

This was an interesting read in several ways, one of which was that a number of these plays are a product of their time (unsurprisingly). When this edition was released, “A Raisin in the Sun” had recently been published in 1959 at the height of the U. S. Civil Rights movement and the script has a very much “in the present moment” feel of it as it covers housing discrimination, racial relations, and other hard-hitting topics. (See review of “A Raisin in the Sun” here.)

The other plays were ones with which I was not familiar. I had heard of Tennessee Williams and his “A Streetcar Named Desire” but had not read any of his work (or this one, Camino Real), but the other playwrights were new to me. So, I just worked my way forward through the book, and had a fine time, really.

However, I have to say that in retrospect that these plays aren’t really that memorable apart from Dore Shary’s Sunrise at Campobello (about the life of FDR) and Lillian Helman’s Toys in the Attic (although upon reflection, I have no idea why it’s called that title…) Perhaps it would be a different experience to see these plays live in a stage setting. (I bet it would.)

Despite that rather pallid review, this made a nice change in pace…

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

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Wow. What a powerful play this was to read. I can only imagine what it’s like to experience as live theater.

A Raisin in the Sun* is a play (and then film) published in 1959 which sees the lives of an African-American family in Southside Chicago as they try and decide which of several potential directions their family could take in the near future.

I’d heard of this play and the film, but never seen either of them, and, in the mood for a play-reading of some description, this came to the surface. Read in the twenty-first century, this was an intense read (especially towards the end of the final act), so I can only imagine how powerful this message was when it was presented on stage. It certainly took my breath away, let me tell you.

A_Raisin_in_the_Sun_1959Hansberry was awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year for this work, which was notable for a boatload of reasons: she was the youngest playwright to receive this award, the first black writer, the fifth woman, and although it’s a hard-hitting play, it was met with really good critical acclaim (apart from that award) and Hansberry was recognized for being one of the first American playwrights to realistically portray the African-American experience on stage.

Set in the 1950’s, the play focuses on the Younger family, a working class family who are just about to receive a large check from the life insurance of one of the family’s patriarchs. As money easily can do, the idea of the large financial check has each family member thinking about s/he would like to spend it leading, naturally, to conflict that reflects American life and values during the 1950’s. Does the family sort out this situation? You’ll have to read it to find out.

And it’s this conflict, which arises in the very first scene, that threads throughout the play spanning a wide range of topics from housing, discrimination, employment, addiction to hope, optimism, and being true to yourself. I’m wondering if this is a literary work that’s read in a lot of high schools and if so, do the students really appreciate the strength of the narrative arc?

Very curious about seeing the film with Sydney Poitier (1961)  now…

* The title of the play comes from poem by Langston Hughes (“A Dream Deferred”):

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The Clothesline Muse

clotheslineWe were culture vultures the other day when Texas Tech brought “The Clothesline Muse” to a local stage and it was really a great experience. I’m not really a huge fan of modern dance having got nightmares from my early teenaged years of doing it at school during PE. (“Look – Be a leaf in the wind!!”) But this performance was not at all what I was expecting and I loved it.

It’s a multidisciplinary performance piece (and I say “performance piece” to sound arty, but another way to describe it could be a musical/dance/play/poetry mix which would still be accurate) – anyway, it’s an extremely polished well produced play (of sorts) which focuses on the relationship between a grandmother who is moving into an assisted living place and is being helped with the packing by her young granddaughter. As the boxes are packed, the granddaughter is struggling to meet her work deadlines at the same time (via phone/email), but as they eventually slow down the pace of packing, the elder woman starts to tell the younger stories of her long-ago youth. These stories cover the personal but also the political: emerging labor movement rights, African-American history, civil rights issues, women’s rights… All seen through the lens of the grandmother who was a washerwoman, a laundress, and as the play continues, it shows that there can be pride in the most menial of jobs.

This was a fantastic mélange of music and memory, of lithe young dancers doing impossible moves with their bodies and of the slow stiff body of the aged, of songs giving voice to those who had none… I think I may sound a bit gushy here, but this play is good enough to be gushy about. The singers were fantastic – jazzy (without being annoyingly improvisational) and extremely good. Nnenna Freelong plays the lead role and she is an award-winning Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and wrote the play. What was a great extra touch was that once the performance was over, the cast came out to the front of the stage and took questions and answers from the audience (who included high school as well as univ students). For such a great cast to take the time to add this educational component that was very well received by the younger audience members.

The Clothesline Muse is touring the US right now, so you might want to check the listings to see if it’s coming close to where you are. I highly recommend it if you like music, plays, dance, issues-focused culture, or extremely good anything.

Loved it!

(Just made it at the end of February as part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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