Friday, August 11, 2017

The Holler Sessions Brings the Heat

What IS jazz music? 


Photo by Maria Baranova

How do you define it? Who are "real" jazz musicians? How do you listen to jazz?

As arguably music's most postmodern art form, jazz can be polarizing. People either love love love it, or they really love to hate it. The rest of the world tends to sit on the sidelines, intimidated by the music, never really knowing what to do with it.

Photo by Maria Baranova

For people of any camp, there is now thankfully The Holler Sessions, a brilliant new entree into the world of jazz music in the form of a one man show by Frank Boyd. Boyd's irascible character is a Kansas City radio DJ who make it his mission to bring the best jazz music to his audience. Gliding through legend after legend, Boyd takes the audience on a journey through music history to some of the best jazz covers and bands, detailing the specialties of each. And when I say legends, I mean it: Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and many others all make appearances. Boyd's encyclopedic trivia is a delight to die hard fans and an accessible introduction for those who are unfamiliar, and at several points in the show the audience is invited to call in - literally, on their cell phones - to be guided through trivia about select musicians. There is a delightful surprise at the end that I won't spoil for any future audience members here, but suffice it to say, it's the only appropriate culmination for the show after we have learned so much about this art form.

Photo by Maria Baranova

Frank Boyd is an intriguing person to lead this journey. At first he felt a little too Bernie-bro for me and I found myself a bit irritated with his delivery, but as the show progresses it's clear that Boyd has nothing but respect and love for the art of jazz. His delivery is somewhere between J.K. Simmons in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, with a whiff of Paul Giamatti and Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure. It's a performance that slowly builds and really grabs you towards the end of the show, and in retrospect I really appreciate how he has structured the performance. One thing is undeniable: I learned a whole lot, and I suspect the rest of the audience did too.

The set is a static, small staging of the inside of a manic devotee's radio studio, abundant with scraps of paper and post-its, trash, coffee, whiskey and some kind of nameless upper. The clutter never detracts from Boyd's magnetic presence, and strategically placed lighting and hidden props continue to make appearances as he shuffles through the detritus to unveil ever-more records, quotes, images and factoids to teach us about jazz. At several points of the show Boyd even turns the lights off completely for moments at a time or cuts off the sound entirely, forcing the audience to listen without distraction to the pieces and to contemplate their significance. It can feel a little unsettling, but it really does require you to pay attention, and those quiet moments are the ones in which you really start to understand the point Boyd is trying to make.

Photo by Maria Baranova

The Holler Sessions is an excellent entree into the world of jazz for novices, especially young ones, and it's a trip I'd recommend taking. I loved that Boyd dabbled with audience interaction on their phones via call-in segments; even though the delivery was clumsy, it's a trend I am sure we will be (and SHOULD be) seeing more of as performers and audiences become younger and more digitally focused. The Holler Sessions almost feels like a live YouTube series developed for an exclusive live audience. We are all in on Boyd's mission, and if you're not on board by the end of the show you are truly missing out. The Holler Sessions runs at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through August 20. Take a leap and check it out; I bet you'll be glad you did. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

And for those of you who want a deeper dive into under-appreciated music, I HIGHLY recommend reading Kevin Young's The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, an authoritative journey through the history of music performed by African-Americans that was published by Minneapolis' own Graywolf Press a few years ago. It's beautifully written by a local college professor and it will truly open your eyes to the world of hip hop in a way few things I have encountered can. You can find more information about it by clicking on this link

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Wonderful Trip through The Immigrant Journey Project

The Immigrant Journey Project is everything that Refugia should have been but wasn't. I hope it has an incredible audience engagement; it deserves it.  


This little map was the most beautiful way to connect all audience members' families' journeys to the United States! 

When I was arranging to see The Immigrant Journey Project, the media rep I was in contact with made sure to send a disclaimer: "don't forget that these performers aren't professional actors!", she said. She needn't have worried. I can safely say that The Immigrant Journey Project is one of the most candid, moving, intimate works I've seen in a while, and the mixed cast is a huge part of it's success.

Let me back up for a second and start at the beginning. The Immigrant Journey Project marks the culmination of a three year long development process between Mu Performing Arts and several community groups, including CHAT, the Hmong Elder Center, SOY, Wilder and WISE. The grant-funded project was devised to help Asian-American elders and more recent immigrants to tell their stories through learning about theater and puppetry. The Immigrant Journey Project takes the scripts and stories written by dozens of participants and distills them into a series of short vignettes that shine a light on each of these unique narratives. The show is split into three themes: past (where Hmong elders tell of their lives as youth living in their villages); present (young immigrants talk about their recent immigration to the United States and their observations of cultural differences); and future (Mu Performing Arts cast members imagine a futuristic potluck in space). The result is a show that has it all - wonder, humor, ennui, heartbreak, gratitude, perspective and a whole lot of heart.

The Immigrant Journey Project opened with the story of Pa Lee Thao as she remembered sweet stories from her childhood in the village, such as losing a shoe in the river and going on dates. All of the vignettes told by the Hmong elders are told by the elders themselves in Hmong, which are then translated into English by one of the actors. It was so special and beautiful to see these wise community members become animated and engaged as they shared pieces of their past, many of which were beautiful and elegantly simple. The one exception was "Poison From the Sky 'Tshuaj Saum Ntuj' " by Cher Pao, in which he detailed how his village and their farms were poisoned by chemicals dropped on them during one of the many wars that devastated SouthEast Asia in the twentieth century. Pao's abrupt style was shattering, and the simple facets of his story laid bare the horror he witnessed as a young man. It was incredibly moving, and added a lot of gravitas to the rest of the show.

In between the Hmong elder's stories were two other biographical series. One, called "WISE," was the more modern telling of three young girls who are recent immigrants to America. Each has had a very different cultural and familial experience and has arrived to the United States for different reasons, but they also share several themes. Standouts included stories about the first time each encountered snow and the difference between foods and eating habits in their respective cultures versus the U.S. The girls were shy but engaging, and their vibrant, youthful perspective brought great energy to the performance. It was a joy seeing them work with the experienced Mu performers, with whom they clearly shared a warmth and comfortability that was inspiring to see.

The final series was the fictional and much more creative "Futuristic Potluck," staged by Mu Performing Arts' cast members. These were much sillier (and funnier) stories that were a huge hit with the children in the audience. There were some strong political themes raised in these potluck narratives, such as social anxiety, sexism, gender rights and cultural reflections on the year 2017 (from 50 years into the future of course), but the overwhelming sense from this series was community and positivity. Normally I would have found something like this potluck series to be really out of place and a waste of time in a show like this. However, when woven between the more serious and emotional true stories of the young and old immigrants featured here, the futuristic potluck provided a welcome dose of humor that helped break up each series of stories.

The live music on stage was unique and beautiful.

All of the stories of The Immigrant Journey Project were told through puppets made by the artists themselves under the expert tutelage of Masanari Kawahara (also known as Masa). I've seen Masa's puppets in action before but they never struck me quite as they did in this performance. Each puppet was clearly made with love and care, and it was so beautiful to see the artists represent themselves visually. Their vibrant and expressive use of color and shape made the puppets very relatable, and displacing their story through a puppet (rather than "acting" themselves) really helped to build confidence and project each person's narrative. The futuristic potluck puppets were abstractly creative (very reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy, actually) and a whole lot of surrealist fun. They were also shockingly expressive, a testament to the strong voice work of the Mu cast members.

The Immigrant Journey Project is exactly what we need more of in Twin Cities theater and an inspired choice for Mu Performing Arts to wrap up their 25th season. It is such a brilliant way to bring real-life stories to the stage in an authentic, respectful and engaging way. I love that it was able to give back to the community both in terms of training and arts, and in educating the audience about these vital stories. The Immigrant Journey Project is everything that Refugia should have been but wasn't. If you went to see the latter show, I strongly urge you to support The Immigrant Journey Project too. These are real stories from real refugees and immigrants about their real experiences in both of their homelands, and I am certain that any audience can find something to learn from these brave artists.

Tickets to see this show (at the new-to-me and fabulous Steppingstone Theater) cost only $10, and rest assured that any money you spend will be well utilized by Mu Performing Arts to continue this kind of community-focused work. My only wish upon leaving the theater last weekend? I would love to see this project re-created with the many other incredible immigrant communities we have here in Minnesota. While this is technically outside of Mu's mission and scope, they have proven themselves to be expert custodians of such narratives, and I hope we can apply their expertise to lift up other communities as well.

I highly encourage everyone of all ages to check out The Immigrant Journey Project with Mu Performing Arts at Steppingstone Theater before it closes on August 20. It's the perfect way to wrap up your summer theater series, and it's a model for artistic community engagement in the future. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Best Books I've Read in 2017 (So Far)

As usual, I have set several lofty reading goals for myself for this year.


A post shared by Becki Iverson (@beckiiverson) on

If you follow my book recommendations you know that I am obsessed with Goodreads - I have no idea how I would track all of the great reading I do over the years without it! This year I've had the good fortune to join a fabulous book club that is reading its way around the world, beginning with the Middle East. It's called Around the World in 80 Books (anyone can join! click here to find the group) and I highly recommend it - I've tremendously enjoyed the pieces we've explored so far, especially because even for an avid reader like me, it has pushed me to pick up and research things I never would have found on my own. It's free, it's easy, and it's so inspiring!

Since I seem to be crushing my target of reading 100 books this year, I thought it would be great to break up the top books with a review of the first half of the year. Wherever you're at in your reading journey, I'd highly encourage you to pick up one (or all) of these - they may seem random but they have a lot to offer! And if you want even more suggestions, follow along my blog's Books page (link here) or check out my post on the best books I read in 2016 (link here).


Most Helpful for Challenging Societal Norms: Happy City by Charles Montgomery 


I've recently been very interested in the politics and process of city planning and community layouts, and there was no better introduction to that subject than this beautifully written book. Charles Montgomery leaves no stone unturned in his new vision for how our urban centers could work. He truly inspired me to remember that every single thing in our lives is designed (and designed for a reason) - while this can feel defeating, it also means that it can always be changed. I really appreciated that Montgomery is not afraid to be blunt and straightforward about some of the most harmful aspects of traditional urban design, especially in the form of racism and classism. The good examples he uplifts of cities who are thoughtfully innovating for the future are truly well-rounded. For example, they always include provisions for the traditionally most reviled among us (say, drunk homeless people) in innovative, loving ways that provide spaces for all citizens - and isn't that what we say we want our societies to be in the first place?

Since I have returned to living without a car (essentially for my day to day needs at least) a few years ago, I have been SO much happier and healthier. Restricting our cities to be built for cars is honestly tyrannical, and Happy Cities lays this reasoning out in compelling detail. I would urge everyone to give this wonderful book a shot and open their minds to the possibility of living differently from what conventional wisdom dictates. There are so many more ways to enjoy a rich, vivid life that have nothing to do with working thousands of hours of overtime and spending half your day commuting in a car. Definitely check this little gem of a book out!


Most Unexpectedly Spiritual Science Book: The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery


This is one of the most marvelous little science books I've ever read. It takes a very humanistic, Krista Tippet's On Being approach to zoology by focusing on the octopus (although plenty of other animal information is included as well) through our understanding of the octopus's consciousness. The book reads almost like a memoir, following Montgomery through her travels, her personal interactions with the octopuses (which is correct as opposed to octopi for the plural - little known fact), and other bits of knowledge about the ocean that she weaves in through the central location of the Boston Aquarium.

I've always really struggled with zoos and aquariums as "homes" for wild animals - I think it's rather cruel - but Montgomery makes quite the case for it here, describing how much safer and long lived the animals are as well as the kinds of care they receive that they never could in the wild. She also details how many octopuses (and other fish) are released, if possible, back into the wild before the end of their life so they are able to complete and breed naturally. There is no doubt that the keepers working with them are very committed to giving each a safe, happy life, and that they are imminently qualified to do so. This book lets you peer "behind the curtain" of a zoo/aquarium's operations, and it was really interesting.

Animals tend to get the short end of the stick in measuring intelligence and that is a shame. Montgomery does a wonderful job of explaining how smart octopuses are and how little we are able to comprehend their consciousness - after all, they are composed completely differently from us and have a completely different perspective on the world. There is no denying that octopuses are smart though and that they have distinctive personalities. For anyone who wonders about animal consciousness and eating meat, this will be striking.

The Soul of An Octopus is a wonderful read, especially because it closer ties us to a species not like our own. With the advance of climate change and other multi-national issues facing us, it will take all of earth's creatures respecting and caring for each other to make it through. The Soul of An Octopus really helps bridge the divide between humans and cephalopods, and it's a fascinating walk through their underwater world.


Most Societally Necessary: Hunger by Roxane Gay 


Roxane Gay is such an important writer that I'm not sure how to even review her bibliography - it's really in a category all its own. I adored Bad Feminist, but Hunger is so different, such a unique piece of work, that it's hard to categorize. It's far and away the best thing I've read either about obesity or sexual assault and related PTSD, but also includes so many important details about life as a woman, as a woman of color, as a woman of size (not just heft but height), as a daughter of immigrants (I could go on and on).

There is so much incredible detail wrapped into this book, truly encapsulating an intersectional experience and indirectly demonstrating why it is so hard to talk about intersectional issues. Which part of yourself and your identity does each of your experiences belong to? Which parts of your identity are more important? Are resources equally available to help you depending on race or gender or socioeconomic status? How do you move through pain? How does pain tangentially affect other areas of your life? How do you forgive yourself? Once you've started to heal from your pain, how do you leave it behind after you've carried it for so long?

There are so many rich, rich things to glean from this book, and I think every citizen should read it to have a more compassionate and comprehensive understanding of life as a woman who is obese, survivors of sexual assault, and an enormous range of related things. Roxane is so incredibly brave for writing and sharing this honest, raw book. I can't recommend it highly enough or thank her enough for writing it. We needed it and didn't even know it.


Best History Book: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg


Talk about timely! This book could not have been published at a more opportune moment. Nancy Isenberg has written an absolutely riveting, thoughtful, highly necessary piece on the history of class in America and how it intersects with race issues. This should be required reading for every citizen. There is no way for us to solve the problems we are facing without understanding where they come from, and Isenberg starts at the very beginning. How many people know how classist the initial immigrants to America were? Or that the constitution was initially set up to base citizenship on property ownership, an influence that colors our view of people living here today? Or that the bungling of Reconstruction post-Civil War was not just devastating for former slaves but also for the white Southern poor?

The research here is exhaustive and truly spectacular, and Isenberg's pointed, clear, riveting writing is perfectly aimed to strike the heart of American mythology about progress and fairness. Although unfortunately named, White Trash is a book that will be a standard in learning about American class and race history for decades to come. If you found yourself questioning the results of the election or have a hard time understanding why white poor people tend to vote or act as they do, this is a great place to start. Also related in fictional form that is a great followup: Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake, about the lives of coal miners in West Virginia.


Funniest: You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson


I discovered Phoebe Robinson through the podcast 2 Dope Queens, and I'm SO glad I did. Not only have I now been introduced to Phoebe's solo podcast Sooo Many White Guys (best. intro. song. everrr.), but she is absolutely hilarious, so thoughtful and well rounded, and is single-handedly helping (at 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams) to create an innovative new space for comics of color. In other words: all she does is win win win no matter what.

I was really excited to read this book and it didn't disappoint. It reads just like Robinson speaks, full of her vernacular - it's like you're having a direct one-on-one conversation with her. This casual feel allows her to really dig in to meaty issues but with humor and finesse, and she has a lot to add to many conversations (particularly around intersectionality and feminism) that are vital to our progress today. I feel like for women of color (WOC) this book will feel familiar - none of the issues Robinson discusses will be new ones - but they still might be a hilarious new spin on old woes. In particular, I adore her clever way of abbreviating words. It's a little jarring at first but once you're in on the joke it's really charming and adds a lot of modernity to the feel of her work.

As a white woman, I found a lot of what she said to be important information to me and in learning to listen to other voices and to respect/understand/honor the differences between us. For any ladies who went to the women's march and want to learn more about intersectionality and some of the specific difficulties WOC face today, this is a great primer - I'd encourage you to pick it up.


Best Book for Women: Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu 


Forget Lean In; THIS is the book that every woman needs to read. Drop the Ball is a magnificent testimony to all the ways that women convince ourselves that we fall short and torment ourselves with unnecessary and unrealistic expectations. It is perfect for anyone who is too busy in their day to day and struggles to to find time for their real priorities (so... everyone?) and for those with a fierce imposter syndrome. Drop the Ball is a perfect piece demonstrating that women need to get out of our own way in order to lead happier, healthier lives. Dufu's insights are so much more realistic and nuanced than Sheryl Sandberg's; I'd love to see more books by realistic, intersectional women like this be published.

There are a few flaws with the book that are minorly addressed but could use more treatment. The entire concept is really based on a heteronomative, committed partnership - there's not a ton of language in here for non-CIS relationships or for single people. Although these items are not often explicitly addressed, however, I still think there is a lot of wisdom that can be gleaned here that is still useful for anyone falling outside of a heteronormative partnership, and much of this advice is even more vital in that context. For example: don't be afraid to recruit a "village" to help you. Build and maintain a network to call upon. Release your facade of perfection and meet people honestly with where you are truly at, and accept help when it is offered to you. Build strong relationships with others (especially other women). Be straightforward about your expectations and clear about your needs when you make a request. Stand up for yourself. Practice self care.

I cannot rave enough about Drop the Ball. It reflects a lot of conversations my partner and I had when we first lived together, and I wish I had had a book that so clearly laid out ways in which I was not only failing myself, but failing him. We need to have higher expectations of our partners - it is insulting to treat them like mindless creatures incapable of helping around the home. We need to have higher love for ourselves - we deserve time to rest and recuperate from our busy and stressful lives. We need to get off the perfection hamster wheel - it's unrealistic and completely unnecessary, and life is way too short to get caught up in keeping up with appearances.

What kind of world could we make if women really freed ourselves from the chains of eternal domesticity, learned to accept a little mess here and there, and instead focused our time and energy on our real passions and drive to improve society? It's an attainable fantasy, and the only people in our way is ourselves. Stop preventing yourself from finding peace and success. Read Drop the Ball - it is vital for women of any age and their partners should read it too for insight into why their S.O. has the expectations they do/is societally conditioned the way they are. I adored this book, and you and your partner will too.


Best Graphic Novel(s): The March Series by John Lewis 


I am so, so inspired by this wonderful series. Whoever suggested John Lewis make his story into a graphic novel is seriously a hero. I've studied the civil rights movement all my life, but something about the visual nature of this series really hit me in a way that all the thousands of textbook pages I've read never has. The art in these is truly gorgeous and I really got engaged and emotional with this story. Even in just black and white, the drawings are visceral, active and engaging, and they will keep you riveted to the narrative from start to finish. Book 3 is especially spectacular, and I promise it will keep you riveted to each page.

It's so easy to forget what happened (even in recent history) to get us to today, and the unimaginable pain the civil rights marchers went through is rendered here in astonishing, vibrant life. I highly recommend this to everyone - I think anyone can find some great, inspiring lessons here.

To the publishers: Please don't stop with this series! There is so much more of this story to be shared. I would love a graphic novel series like this on other marchers and activists, maybe Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez next?


Most Insightful: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss


I have always had somewhat of an unfair aversion to Tim Ferriss (I can't explain it, he just turns me off a little), but I couldn't resist the idea of this new book with interviews from the super successful of every stripe. I'm so glad I read this! It took a long time to get through but there is so much great information packed into these short interviews. They're funny, heartwarming, inspiring, and will kick your ass into gear towards accomplishing your goals.

In fact, this is one of the few books I would recommend re-reading and revisiting, as one pass through alone won't allow all of the great information here to really sink in. There is something in this book for everyone, from elite athletes to military personnel to comic strip authors, world renowned novelists, great chefs and titans of tech and industry. It's truly an all-encompassing book and I would highly recommend this for anyone who feels a little stuck or uninspired in their life. If you can't find anything in these hundreds of pages to cheer you, nothing ever will!

And if you're a podcast devotee like moi, check out Tim's podcasts (which each of these excerpts in the book is culled from). They're free master classes from the best in the world at their respective crafts - great for taking a long walk or run and doing some serious contemplating!


Best Memoir: The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar


This book was one of our book club choices and it was so incredibly informational. I didn't realize how little I knew about Libyan history until I picked it up, and it's fascinating. Hisham's story of his search for his father is devastating and presumably unending, but through his grief he has managed to create a gorgeous testimony to the value of Libya, of the reason to fight for your freedom, and the ideal that sacrifice is worth it if the end goal benefits everyone.

If you're wondering why Qaddafi had to be removed from power and where Libya can go from here, Hisham has several thoughts to share. I learned so much about North Africa and life under a dictatorship in this lyrical, lovely little book and I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a primer on what is happening there. There are shockingly few great books about Libya and North Africa in general (tends to be the case when an entire generation's worth of writers and artists are imprisoned by a ruthless dictator... but I digress), so it behooves you to really savor the lyrical prose and rich history Hisham presents here.


Best Business Book: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight


I was NOT expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. Being somewhat of a hippie liberal, it's easy to hate on big corporations and think of them as greedy, soulless entities. That understanding, however, ignores the fact that behind every corporation is a very human, very fallible founder, who has made many tradeoffs to help realize their vision. Shoe Dog is so much bigger than being a book about Nike and touches on life, exploration, vision, determination, problem solving... I could go on and on.

Whether you love or hate Nike (particularly its sweatshop legacy), it's impossible to deny the complete revolution Nike created in the shoe industry, all of which started with a simple and noble mission to help provide better shoes made explicitly for the American body. What Nike is today is obviously far more complex than that initial vision, but there are good and bad things to all sides of that story. Be warned that this is a book solely from the perspective of the founder, Phil Knight, so it is going to be overly celebratory. Knight casts himself as the downtrodden, underestimated hero of this story, and it's a compelling narrative (although admittedly lopsided).

If you are able to set aside any concerns you might have about that, this will be a romping good read. It also really humanizes the kind of decisions corporations have to make that aren't always well publicized or explained amidst controversial media uproars. What good are corporations able to do overseas outside of eliminating their sweatshops? What kind of impact and ripple effect can a company have on something as simple as re-working the chemicals in a processing element in order to make a whole industry safer? Who preys upon the corporation itself?

Shoe Dog is a really interesting exploration of these questions and so much more. Anyone interested in creating a start-up or learning more about the interior mechanisms of corporate manufacturing should pick this up. It's not only inspiring, it's enlightening, and you will absolutely fly through it.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Unleash Your Inner Viking with Circus Juventas' Nordrsraga

 Nordrsraga is a little punk, a little sexy, and a whole lot of rock and roll.


Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

What's dark and flies and is sparkly all over?

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

Why that would be Nordrsraga, the latest show from the Twin Cities' resident circus arts school, Circus Juventas. I've written about Circus Juventas before and how cool their work is - I mean honestly, what a fun way to get kids both interested in exercise and in touch with their bodies - but this year's annual extravagant performance reaches a whole new level for them.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

The only Circus Juventas show I've had the pleasure of attending previously was Peter Pan, which was obviously well suited to the circus format. Let me tell you: Nordrsraga blows Mr. Pan straight out of the water.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

Nordrsraga loosely tells the story of Norwegian mythology by following Thor (who we may all remember with the big hammer?) as he sets on a quest through the nine worlds to retrieve his stolen hammer Mjölnir from his malicious brother Loki. Thor is joined on the quest by an impressive young boy named Leif (who we find out later is Thor's long-lost son). Together they journey through the monasteries of Midgard, the ice realm (Niflheim), the sunny land of elves (Álfheimr), the dark land of the dwarves (Svartálfaheimr), the fearsome land of the giants (Jötunheimr), the land of fire (Muspelheim), and all the way down to the foundation of the tree of the world itself, Yggdrasil. Many mischiefs follow Thor, Leif and their companions, but by the end of the show Mjölnir is returned and all is righted in Asgard.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

At around three hours long (yes, be prepared!), Nordrsraga has to be filled with feats of bad-assery in order to keep you engaged, and don't worry: it does. Among the incredible tricks are a Viking ship suspended from the ceiling, with trapeze artists plunging off of it; some really gorgeous fire choreography including a full size, flaming sword wielded by a totally badass fire maiden; a series of tightrope walks; giants walking on stilts; elaborate trampoline choreography; and much more. My favorite though were two series of truly spectacular ribbon acrobatics that managed to be both heart pounding and graceful at once. These performers are true athletes regardless of their ages, and I had the best time seeing their skill levels blend throughout the story. I wish I had a cast list (I couldn't find one), but I have to give a strong shout out to the performers who played Thor and Leif. Both were spectacularly fit and clearly understood the art of over-the-top showmanship, reveling in their physicality and giving the audience a truly fiery, engaged performance from top to bottom.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

If you're not familiar with Norwegian mythology, I would recommend doing at least a cursory glance through Wikipedia before hitting Nordrsraga. You can get the gist of the story if you don't, but it really helps to engage with the narrative if you already know which creatures are which. There is also not a lot of narrative here to help you and no program to reference, so if you're more of a story person than a visual person, it definitely helps to have done some prior research. I'd also recommend getting some snacks - three hours is no joke! - and bringing a cushion for the stadium seating, which can get a little uncomfortable after a performance that long.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

Last weekend I celebrated my birthday, and I cannot express how exciting it was to check this show out at that time. I'm half Norwegian, so this mythology is something I find highly comforting, fascinating, and under-appreciated. It was so cool to see the legends of my ancestors wrought in glittering detail under the big top for Nordrsraga, and I'd highly recommend it for viewers of any age.  For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

MUST SEE: The Guthrie's Extraordinary Native Gardens

You NEED to spice up your summer with this hilarious, poignant, perfectly timed show. 


Photo by Dan Norman

I'm not gonna lie: Last weekend I just wasn't feeling going to the Guthrie. 

I mean don't get me wrong, I love it there and I love live theater (heck, I do have this blog after all). But I was feeling a little beaten down from a long work week, it was gorgeous outside, and all I wanted to do was throw on my favorite athleisure and take a long walk outside to the greenest patio in Minneapolis. 

I'm SO GLAD that I roused myself to go anyway, because I was treated to what may be my favorite Guthrie performance of all time: the delicious, delightful cast of Native Gardens

Photo by Dan Norman

Native Gardens tells the story of Tania and Pablo del Valle, first-time homeowners in a ritzy, waspy neighborhood, as they navigate their relationship with their new neighbors Frank and Virginia Butley. The Butleys have been living next door for decades and initially provide a warm (although somewhat ignorant) welcome, until the del Valles begin renovation work on their back yard. Upon revisiting the plans of their new home, the del Valles discover that what they assumed was the Butley's yard actually overtakes their own by two feet in width. Determined to reclaim their property and get their back yard sorted in time for hosting a work barbecue, the del Valles tackle the Butley's intrusion in a straightforward manner that is hardly well received. The ensuing conversations over whose property belongs to whom, what kind of values in property ownership really matter, an unbelievably hilarious and simultaneously finely nuanced exploration of racial stereotypes, and all sorts of other issues - ageism, sexism, classism, pretty much every ism there is - leads the audience through a riotous performance that left us breathless with laughter. 

Photo by Dan Norman

There are only four speaking roles in this show and each actor has knocked theirs out of the park. Anchoring the cast is Twin Cities legend Sally Wingert as the Halliburton contractor and ball buster Virginia Butley. Wingert can convey in a single raised eyebrow what many actors struggle to demonstrate in an entire monologue. Her perfectly forged iron-strong will is an excellent foil to Steve Hendrickson as Virginia's simpering, plant-obsessed husband Frank. Equally as formidable are Jacqueline Correa who is absolutely marvelous as the extremely pregnant, environmentally-focused Tania del Valle, and Dan Domingues, who is delicious as Tania's high-powered lawyer husband Pablo. Together this cast really lets sparks fly and they hold nothing back; there are word battles, hose battles, chainsaw threats, shrieks of defiance, spying on lawns in the middle of the night - the antics are unending. Each actor's total commitment to their part really sells the absurd (yet relatable!) plot of Native Gardens, and they are *so* worth going to see. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Hats off to the creative team because this production design is glorious. Despite the show's very brief run time of only 80 minutes and no intermission (music to my ears!!), each character has multiple costume changes that perfectly evoke their current status, be it a very pregnant woman gardening in overalls or a sumptuous cashmere sweater thrown over Virginia's waspy frame. We have Kara Harmon to thank for that delicious detail in costuming. And Joseph Tilford left no stone unturned in his unbelievably detailed set. Seriously, this scenic design has everything - a full size oak tree, lush garden spaces (with plants that actually release dirt when pulled up), wood chips flying from a chainsaw as it is released on the tree, and so much more. The show could have survived with a far more simplistic set but the rich attention to detail here really kicks Native Gardens up to the next level. I mean guys, they have a running chainsaw and a hose spraying all over - how can you beat that?! 

Photo by Dan Norman

Native Gardens is the rarest of plays that marries world-class writing, best-in-craft actors, a spectacularly detailed production design and perfectly paced timing to create a truly universal theater experience. Every character in this show is right and wrong about some things, making each of them relatable in some way to the audience. Despite the show's short run time each character is richly drawn, and the intimacy we share with them as they navigate this tricky situation of managing adjacent properties not only lets us in on all of the jokes but helps us truly empathize with each of their experiences. Thanks to Karen Zacarias' flawless script, Native Gardens is a master class in dismantling the stereotypes and assumptions we make about people upon appearance and demonstrates how we can't ever assume we know anything. I am convinced that any audience member of any age will adore this show, and thankfully you have a lot of time - through August 20! - to check it out. You absolutely need to buy tickets to see Native Gardens (it is worth the hour and a half you won't be outside, I promise). Find more information and buy tickets at this link

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Giggling at the Guardians of the Fallacy + Downtown's Best New Date Night Restaurant

Brave New Workshop's latest brings humor back to our unending political drama.


Photo courtesy of the Brave New Workshop

Hats off to the Brave New Workshop's (BNW) always-on-point branding, which led me to believe that their latest show was supposed to be a superhero spoof. Think about it though: when is the last time you heard of Guardians of the Galaxy? I thought so (#wonderwoman #trumped #getit?).

Instead, BNW chose to spoof the current political climate (again), relieving all of our exhaustion with the never-ending news cycle with a few laughs. In an era where everyone is offended all the time about something or another, why not celebrate that fact and take it all the way?

Like all their shows, Guardians of the Fallacy: Executive Disorder takes BNW's trademark wry humor and infuses it into a number of pointed, timely sketches. These include Donald Trump singing his own praises in parodies of pop songs; forlorn women spending endless days on the couch with slow jams and photos of Hillary Clinton, hiding from their depressing post-election reality; and a magnificent tour of the future Trump dynasty's presidential library, including a full suite reserved solely for screenshots of his Twitter account. Hillary makes a couple of appearances reminding everyone why they should miss her, and the actors each take turns starring in pieces that help release some of the collective tension and disappointment in the current political reality.

LOVE the BNW's clever branding schemes. Always on point! 

The regular cast is here for this show - meaning Ryan Nelson as the Trump impersonator extraordinaire, Denzel Belin with his signature double take delivery, Tom Reed as the closest thing in the Twin Cities to Andy Samberg, Lauren Anderson with her Hillary wig and guff to match, and the always hilarious Taj Ruler with a medley of spot-on characters that keep you rolling in your seat.

I will say overall that the energy felt a little lower on this show than usual - I think we're all a little drained with this subject matter - but the show was still hilarious. Our friends (who were visiting BNW for the first time ever) absolutely loved this performance and raved about it for hours afterwards. If you haven't gone to a BNW show yet, I'd highly recommend it - Guardians of the Fallacy runs through October, so you have tons of time to go! More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

After the scripted show the audience has the opportunity to check out the cast in a series of improv sketches. I have always stayed for these session and I'd highly recommend you do the same - it's like two shows for the price of one! Pro tip: if you go, make sure to plan some good suggestions for their sketches. The most inventive of the night we went was "Pineapple Surprise," which turned into a musical delight.

Mercy outdid themselves with this gorgeous, summery scallop dish.

I'd also like to mention that a trip to BNW makes a fabulous group outing or date night. This time my guy and I took four of our friends on a big couples date bonanza and we had such a great time! It's so fun watching people discover the joys of my old theater favorites for the first time and our crew really enjoyed themselves.

If you decide to take the group route and want a suggestion for where to eat before, you have to check out the new Mercy restaurant inside the Le Meridien Chambers hotel downtown (previously the overpriced and over-formal Mirin). They have a great (for downtown Minneapolis) happy hour running twice a day every day, but that's not even the best part. In addition to gorgeously cooked food (I had a scallop/corn/pepper/succotash medley that was phenomenal; the regular menu also features duck with potstickers, pork chops, beer can chicken and steaks and oysters), they offer an unbeatable deal of a true party punch.

Two words: PARTY. PUNCH. Yes, you need it. Now. 

When is the last time you ordered a group beverage at a restaurant? Never? I thought so. Remedy that IMMEDIATELY if you go to Mercy, where we got a booze laden and perfectly curated punch bowl that managed to please every palate. For those who have had the IPA vs. cosmopolitan vs. rose wine battle in group settings, this is no mean feat. It was also a whole lot of beverage; although the menu lists it as 6-8 servings we easily got three times that out of it. In fact, that single bowl of punch covered libations for six moderate to heavy drinkers for an entire dinner and pregame moment, and it all worked out to about $8 per person. That kind of price is unbeatable in such a restaurant and general location; I highly recommend you check it out for your next group event. Additionally, Mercy has one of the few (really nice!) off-street patios in downtown, which you can check out any time you dine there. More information about Mercy can be found by clicking on this link.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Some Thoughts on High End Restaurants and Racist Servers

I have been hedging on writing this post for a couple of years now, but I feel like it's time to speak out. 

Why can't we all be as charming as Marcus Samuelsson? (Photo here)


Guys, we need to have a chat.

I'm not sure how to write this and I've been thinking seriously about it for months, but after an experience my partner and I had (again) at a nice restaurant over the weekend I just feel the need to call it out: we have got to do something about racism in the service industry.

Here's a little back story: my partner is a chef and a Togolese American. He trained at Le Cordon Bleu, has two degrees, speaks three languages, and is truly one of the nicest, most beautiful people you will ever meet. I have never, ever introduced him to anyone who thought he was mean or rude or a waste of their time. I consider myself beyond blessed to have this man in my life and I thank my lucky stars every day that I get to wake up  next to him.

Since he is a chef and we live near downtown Minneapolis, it would seem pretty natural that we really love to eat out. We consider getting a great meal to be a true artistic experience; watching an open kitchen function properly is like witnessing a great ballet - graceful, poetic, inspiring and skillful. We love food of all kinds from all places, from the cheapest pho and banh mi hole-in-the-wall to getting a great multi-course dinner from a linen tablecloth-type establishment.

Our tastes really run the gamut and we've eaten all over the Twin Cities and enjoyed the best of what they have to offer, as well as some of the worst. And there is only one thing that has ever truly destroyed our dining experience. It's not bad food. It's not inattentive service due to busyness. It's not dress codes or prices or lack of parking or loud ambiance. It's intentionally bad service that is clearly racially motivated.

I want to preface all of what follows to say that I understand that working in a service industry is HARD. It is an often thankless, physically demanding job. It doesn't matter if you're a cook or a busboy or a bartender or a server, often your nights can be exhausting, especially when dealing with demanding patrons. I can totally empathize with someone who is overloaded because they're covering too many tables, or has a broken walk-in and the food is slow to come out, or just started their job and is training in their role. I believe in always tipping at least 20-25%. Like I said, we eat out a LOT. I will never cut a tip for someone who has been busy and doing their best to keep up.

But there are some servers who treat us badly because they make a host of assumptions of who we are when we sit down at their restaurant. I have overheard servers complaining among each other about being seated with tables filed with people of color (POC) because they just *know* that these guests will run out on the bill or not tip (I am not kidding, I have overheard this exact conversation). I have watched servers bend over backwards for patrons to either side of us (who are older, and white) and have us wait 15 - 30 minutes between orders or drink refills or to get our checks. Let me give you a detailed case study from the now-closed Brasserie Zentral:

In the short year-long-ish life of Brasserie, I ate there at least seven times. Half of those were with my partner, and half were with friends or coworkers (all of whom were white). The first time I went was with coworkers, and we had a wonderful experience. The food was incredible (to this day still some of the best food I've had the pleasure of eating in the Twin Cities), the service was great, the prices were reasonable, and I was hooked. I came back a couple of weeks later with my partner, so excited to share this wonderful restaurant with him, and all of a sudden things were different. The food was still divine, nothing about prices on the menu had changed, but somehow the service felt....off. We were waiting at least twice as long as those around us to order. Food (which was perfectly cooked and made in an open kitchen not far away so we could directly see it) sat out, getting cold, waiting to be taken to us. Glasses at the tables around us were filled promptly and gracefully, while ours sat empty for most of the night. Other patrons' checks were whisked to them with a smile and witty banter, and we had no more interaction with our server than simply putting our order in. We decided it may have been an off night for her, left our normal generous tip, wrote a note about how much we loved the food, and decided to give it another try.

Guys, we went back there THREE MORE TIMES. Two of those times we had the same server again, and guess what? The experience was the same. Each time she neglected us, each time we left her a large tip, each time we were utterly perplexed as to how a place with such incredible food could generate such an obviously biased service experience. If we had gone there on our own (and I'd never gone with others) I might have written it off as just off nights for that particular server, but I went other times with all white groups of guests, had the same server, and had a phenomenal experience. It was night and day. There was one variable that changed between those visits, and it was race. And that sucks.

I cannot express to you how infuriating this problem is. To catch a popular phrase our money is "as green as anyone else's," and there is no excuse for making assumptions about your patrons' circumstances and giving them a shitty experience based on that assumption. This myth about POC providing bad tips may be "true" but only in the sense that people won't tip when they receive poor service - ever think of that? Who among us is going to drop over $100 on a meal and then leave a 25% tip for someone who couldn't be troubled to stop by to chat or fill glasses or take orders or bring a check in a timely fashion? Especially when you have witnessed them to be capable of doing this to patrons sitting no less than a foot or two away?

The worst part is that just one bad service experience reflects poorly on an entire restaurant, and that's not fair to everyone else working there who is doing a great job. We are not afraid to tell our friends not to patronize a certain place when we have had problems. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and it is a huge shame to have a restaurant's entire capital - the millions of dollars that went into facilities and decor, the hard (and often thankless) work of the chefs and cooks sweating in the back to create delicious and beautiful food, the dream of a new restaurant owner - completely killed because one server decided their tip might not be as high as they want and gave patrons a poor experience (which they then report to all of their friends, coworkers, family....you get the idea).

Our experience at Brasserie Zentral, which was so clearly biased, was also unfortunately not our last. Without fail, every few months there's another place that raises our hackles and gets added to the "be wary" list. The latest offenders include 510 Lounge* and now, last weekend, a bartender at Tullibee asked us (and only us) to leave the bar we were sitting at with other patrons around.

This piece was supposed to be a retrospective of that dinner at Tullibee - and I want to write something about that later too, it's such a cool thing they're doing with farm-to-table work and accessible tastings and a beautiful space - but I just couldn't bring myself to write a glowing adulation after we essentially were asked not to partake with everyone else by one bartender who was on a high horse. Over an hour of great food and conversation was totally dismantled by one guy who singled us out. There was not enough seating at this event. Other patrons had migrated to the bar to have a seat. We stood for over an hour waiting for a place. We picked the furthest corner to stay out of the way when we finally decided to sit, and there were plenty of other seats at the bar available. Not a single other patron with their compostable plates was asked to move elsewhere. It really sucked.

So here's my plea for the restaurant industry: please, please have a training with your serving staff about how to treat ALL patrons equally. Please say explicitly that it is not cool to assume that the black family walking in won't tip you and to chintz them on their experience. Please address these issues immediately if they are raised to you by patrons who know they are being singled out. 

I want restaurants to succeed. I want to keep eating out. I want my partner to be able to be proud of the industry he has spent more than ten years of his life putting his passion into, the industry for which he has missed holidays and birthdays and weddings of siblings, all in order to help make dining a great and inclusive place. Don't let one person's racist assumptions ruin an entire industry. Please train your servers (and bartenders and anyone client facing!) and do it today. Your restaurants and all of your patrons deserve better. 

*The host was wonderful, as was another server we passed on our way in. Unfortunately once we sat down, our server loudly requested to be moved to another table, was huffy when he wasn't traded out, refused to look my partner in the face and only took his order through me (literally I was the only person who could talk to this guy... I wonder why?), and aggressively grabbed my partner's credit card out of his hand without a thank you or even a single word when we were ready for the check. It was so bad that this other server saw what was going on and stopped by a few times to check in. She was lovely and it was much appreciated - but she should not have had to do that. Get it together 510 Lounge.