Tuesday, January 28, 2020

CTC's Three Little Birds Is As Bright As Jamaica Itself

It's been a while since I made my way to Children's Theatre Company...

Photo by Glen Stubbe

But when I saw the folks involved in producing Three Little Birds I knew it was time to return. A musical of Bob Marley songs with an all-black cast featuring Nathan Barlow, Kory Laquess Pullam, a few new-to-me faces and production team including Trevor Bowen and *the* Shá Cage? I mean how could I possibly miss it?!

Photo by Glen Stubbe

Three Little Birds has a little bit of the same vibe as the books of Nnedi Okorafor*, particularly Zahrah The Windseeker. The play follows Ziggy, a Jamaican boy with luscious dreadlocks who loves his island home but is scared to go outside lest he encounter a devastating hurricane or an evil local spirit like Duppy, who steals children's hair for his powers. Ziggy is persistently chased by Nansi, a young girl with a crush on Ziggy who is a trickster with a zest for life. Ziggy's best friend is a bird named Doctor Bird from the other side of the island, who fully embodies the relaxed, no-stress Jamaican approach to life. Ziggy's mother Cedella hates seeing her son so shut in and encourages him to take a more childish, adventurous approach to life (and step away from the TV). After his mother's nagging, Nansi finally convinces Ziggy to take a trip to the beach but they are quickly lost and alone in the jungle. Isolated in the dark trees, Duppy follows Ziggy in order to entrap him and steal his beautiful long dreadlocks. Ziggy and Nansi team up with the audience to defeat Duppy and save his lovely locs, retaining Ziggy's power and defeating Duppy once and for all. They then return safely to Ziggy's home, where they fill his mother in on the full adventure.

Photo by Glen Stubbe

It's an extraordinary amount of plot to cram into a show that's barely over an hour long, but the cast drives us through with ease. Ellis M. Dossavi Alipoeh was charming as Ziggy, and I hope to see him shine in future productions. KateMarie Andrews was the perfect choice for mischievous Nansi, with a high energy and huge smile that wound us all in her web. Nathan Barlow's gorgeous voice made for a delicious Doctor Bird, and my main complaint is that we did not hear enough of him throughout the show - I wanted a few more star-turning solos! Timotha Lanae brought fluttering choreography as Doctor Bird's friend Tacoomah, and Lynnea Monique Doublette was magnificent as Cedella and other ensemble cast members. I have no idea how I've missed Doublette until now, but suffice to say that her outstanding charisma has me on high alert for future performances! And Kory Laquess Pullam was a clear crowd favorite as the devious Duppy; I'm not sure I've ever seen him have so much fun on stage, and it was such a pleasure watching him relish every sly line with a wink and a flourish. This whole team seemed to have such a blast together, and their energy really carried through to the audience.

Photo by Glen Stubbe

Lawrence E. Moten III's scenic design is a riot of color that brightly invited us to the balmy Jamaican beach, a welcome respite from the cold outside. Paired with Trevor Bowen's equally splashy costume design, it made for a vibrant, eye-catching production. Clever lighting and sound effects from Wu Chen Khoo and Stan Severson, respectively, easily placed us from home to jungle to back again, and the performers made most of the dynamic stage. Alanna Morris-Van Tassel provided high energy, afro-centric choreography that perfectly paired with the bluesy guitars and deep drums expertly directed by Sanford Moore. Three Little Birds is not only an entertaining musical but includes hilarious educational interludes, such as an audacious depiction of the history of colonial powers on the island of Jamaica that had me in stitches but learning things as well. Overall, Director Shá Cage has brought to life an unapologetically, firmly black and proud production that couldn't be better timed going into Black History Month.

Photo by Glen Stubbe

That embrace of complexity is at the heart of Three Little Birds and a good reason to go. It's short but packed with content; visually bright with a deceptively deep plot; filled with entertaining music and educational history that we could all stand to know a little more about. Popular culture tends to associate Bob Marley (and by extension all reggae) with marijuana and little else, which is such a shame because he stood for so much more. And in an age where black children are (incomprehensibly) still being told how to wear (and most often to cut) their hair, there is immense power and grace in seeing a positive depiction of protective styles told through a proudly black lens. Three Little Birds gently expands our understanding of island history, black hair and reggae music and wraps it in an entertaining, adventure-filled package. Please go support this dynamic young creative team - I think there's no better way to celebrate Black History Month in #tctheater. For more information about Three Little Birds or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Glen Stubbe

*If you haven't heard of Nnedi Okorafor, I HIGHLY suggest immediately going to your local library site to order her books - think of them as a Harry Potter-style universe but exclusively African. It's unbelievably magical. I'll wait.

Photo by Glen Stubbe

Monday, January 27, 2020

Guthrie's Noura is Unafraid to Ask Hard Questions

Can you fix a broken heart? 

Photo by Dan Norman

One of the unfortunate side effects of America's broken educational system is that it completely prevents a nuanced understanding of the world. Take, for example, the average American's cultural understanding of the Middle East. Do they understand the difference between Persian and Arab? Sunni and Shiite and Wahabi Muslims? Do they know there are dominant religions present other than Islam, and the cultural traditions that transcend religion to provide commonalities between them all?

Photo by Dan Norman
Frequently the answer is no or not really, and that lack of detail is crucial. People vote for elected officials to conduct policy decisions on behalf of American citizens without knowing the full story of the places that will be affected, inevitably creating potential for enormously disastrous policy choices.

What's the fix? Taking the burden upon ourselves to become informed citizens and invest time in growing our understanding and perspective of people and places different from us. What's the best way to do it?

Photo by Dan Norman
Surely one of the most fun (if not impactful) is to watch boundary-pushing theater like Noura, now showing at Guthrie Theater. Noura tells the story of an Iraqi Christian refugee named Noura who has lived in New York City with her family for the last decade. Aside from her best friend Rafa'a, who is an Iraqi Muslim refugee and close childhood friend, Noura is isolated from her community - her family has fled their home in Mosul and now lives in locations scattered across the globe. Her isolation and longing for past tradition is a key reason she is so intent on "adopting" Maryam, another refugee from Mosul - but with much different memories of the life and culture she left behind. There are several revealing twists that deeply impact the characters' relationships to each other that I will not reveal here, but they are just as heartbreaking as the circumstances the characters flee. Noura leaves the audience with a deep ache and a slightly closer understanding to the immense grief faced by those who have to flee their homes without knowing if they will ever see them again.

Photo by Dan Norman

As Noura, Gamze Ceylan is moving and confined, conveying an almost crazed appetite for comfort and familiarity. Watching Ceylan unravel is difficult but vital, and she fully takes us all down with her. Fajer Kaisi is shocking as Noura's husband Tareq, with a few choice lines that had even the most stoic audience members clutching their pearls. Kal Naga is the ultimate homme fatale (can I do that?) as Noura's friend Rafa'a, and he seemed easily the most reasonable and open minded character to me. Layan Elwazani plays Maryam with a quiet defiance, displaying a strength I found magnetic the longer the performance went on. And Aarya Batchu was fine as Noura's son Yazen.

Photo by Dan Norman

The production design, like the cast and the script itself, is a study in scarcity, leaving most things to liminal spaces in between what's actually said. Matt Saunders' scenic design constructs an apartment out of brightly marked shipping crates; what should feel like a cozy home instead feels like a sterile pass-through. Dina El Aziz delivers some quietly elegant costume design that I genuinely coveted, and it felt very New York City. Reza Behjat and Sinan Refik Zafar provide equally staid lighting and sound design, respectively, literal enough to place us in the present but suggestive enough to impart little ghostly whispers that infuse even the most seemingly loving interactions with a chilly fear.

Photo by Dan Norman

The last time I saw a Taibi Magar-directed production it was Familiar, easily one of my top five favorite shows of all time. Noura is a much more difficult beast to love - it's not funny or winsome or, well, familiar - but it still has very important things to say and displays Magar's impeccable attention to detail. I learned so many nuances to Iraqi history and culture that I didn't before, and wept inwardly to think of the many real-life people who have been left in a position just like Noura's. Crises like refugee migration, terrorist attacks and invasion of nations are not problems with easy solutions, and you won't leave this play filled with answers. Instead, Noura asks all of us to come with closed mouths and open ears, simply to receive a story of grief and heartache, and to try not to repeat the mistakes of our past. To do a little better next time. To find a way, any way, to help our fellow neighbor - because we never know when it will next be us. I'm so glad the Guthrie decided to tell not only Noura's story but other stories as part of the Arab diaspora, and I highly encourage you to check out their work this month. For more information about Noura, to buy tickets, or to research other shows as part of the Guthrie's upcoming Arab series, click on this link.

Photo by Dan Norman

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Theater Latte Da's Bernarda Alba is Blackly Beautiful

When is the last time you saw an all-female cast?

Photo by Dan Norman
It's a short list for me. There was Six, a treatise on Henry VIII's wives that's about to blow up on Broadway; the eternally lovely Steel Magnolias at the Guthrie; the Jungle's devastating The Wolves and heartfelt School Girls; Park Square Theatre's lyrical Marie & Rosettatranscendent Nina Simone: Four Women, and hilarious Calendar Girls; Penumbra's goddess-like For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf; Prime Productions' powerful Little Wars; Theatre Elision's sweet debut Ragtime Women; the Jungle's stunning Two Gentlemen of Verona (also Sarah Rasmussen's Artistic Director debut); and that's just about all I can remember.

Photo by Dan Norman

All of the above were excellent, but it's a real shame how rare it is. I've been writing about theater for almost 10 years now, and the list above totals 11 shows out of the hundreds I've watched, 5 of which were in produced in the last year. Makes you think twice, right?

Photo by Dan Norman

Thankfully we now have another excellent addition to this list currently running at Theater Latte Da. Bernarda Alba is a brand new epic in the tradition of Man of La Mancha but with hauntingly familiar themes, a dark exploration of female life that is still sadly all too true. Bernarda Alba is a fearsome matriarch who rules her home of five daughters with an iron fist after her incestuous husband dies. Determined to keep her daughters chaste until married off to a man of the appropriate caste, Bernarda holds them captive under lock and key to disastrous consequences. Unschooled in the ways of the world, Bernarda's daughters lay vulnerable to predatory male attention and ruthlessly competitive between each other. I won't spoil the turn the story takes, but suffice it to say it's a tragic ending that remains devastatingly common in our allegedly modern world.

Photo by Dan Norman

Bernarda Alba benefits from a truly rock star cast, beginning with the HBIC herself Regina Marie Williams as Bernarda. Williams has long been a favorite local star of mine, with the queenly carriage of Angela Basset and the fearsome talent of Viola Davis. Her performance here is deliciously severe, and the whole audience shivered every time she struck the stage floor with her cane. The roles of Bernarda's daughters feature many of my favorite local actresses. Kate Beahen is Angustias, the oldest and the family outcast. Nora Montañez is Magdalena, the second oldest and most chaste of the five sisters. Britta Olmann is the pious Amelia; Meghan Kreidler is Martirio, the "ugly" sister (which couldn't have been more ironic casting if they tried); and Stephanie Bertumen is Adela, the untameable youngest. Together this quintet forms a stunning chorus, ranging from deep contraltos to trilling sopranos, and their diverse voices blend as well as their diverse performances into the narrative.

Photo by Dan Norman

A spectacular standout for me was Aimee K. Bryant as Bernarda's right hand servant Poncia; I was so glad to see her fantastic talent on display with this powerhouse crew, where she more than held her own. I can't think of anyone better suited to narrate the story, and Bryant's lithe vocal stylings fully entranced the audience by the end of the first song. Sara Ochs proves once again that she's one of #tctheater's most versatile performers, anchoring the cast vocally and doubling as swaggering male figures. Kim Kivens is eerie as Bernarda's mother Maria Josepha, at times a terrifying presence on stage. And Haley Haupt rounds out the cast as another servant, providing plenty of vocal color.

Photo by Dan Norman

The detailed scenic design from Kate Sutton-Johnson revealed so many layers as the show continued. For example, it turns out that most of it is constructed from strung ribbons and lace, echoing the theme of "women's work" that is at the heart of Bernarda's conflict with her daughters. It was a subtle but brilliant touch that added so much texture and movement to the set, completely unlike anything I've seen. Mary Shabatura lights the stage like a film noir, and when combined with Kevin Springer's soft sound design that warmly embraces silence, it provides a reverent patina to the show. Alice Fredrickson's costume design is functional and sexy all at once, giving each actress plenty of dramatic fabric to swan around in. Kelli Foster Warder's choreography cleverly turns the actresses into castanets and horse hooves, and none of it seemed forced.  I loved director Crystal Manich's vision for Bernarda Alba, and the rest of the strong production team she assembled delivers a crisply clear production and high quality performance that truly draws you in.

Photo by Dan Norman

I think Bernarda Alba belongs in the canon of great female roles. It reminded me of some of my favorite dark stories starring women - August: Osage County, Doubt, How To Get Away With Murder, Sunset Boulevard - but with the musical themes of Man of La Mancha. I have a sneaking suspicion that some regular theater goers might consider eschewing Bernarda Alba because of its all female cast which would be such a shame - these actresses are giants in our local theater community and it's such a pleasure watching them sink their teeth into complex, difficult roles finally worthy of their talents. Bernarda Alba has all the quality Theatre Latte Da is known for delivering; don't chintz yourself by missing it. It's the first show I've seen in 2020 and if this is a harbinger of things to come we are in for a very good year of theater. For more information or to buy tickets before Bernarda Alba closes on February 16, click on this link.

Photo by Dan Norman

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Books and Reads of 2019

It's that time of year again... 

It's been a while since I did a reading roundup and it's the last day of 2019, so I figured - why not?

Long-time followers know that I am an avid reader. I try to hit at least 100 books read every year, which is normally not a problem for me. Last year I wanted to step it up to 110 books or more, but (un?)fortunately got derailed with a lot of special trips (more to come on those! keep checking here) that sucked up reading time so my total remains at 100.

So without further ado, here are the best of the 100 books I finished in 2019. It's important to note that these are not all books published in 2019 - it's the best of the books I read in 2019, several of which have been on my list for years. Hopefully you will find something great to add to your list here for 2020, whether or not it's new. And if you like this content, make sure to follow my Books page on Compendium and Goodreads to stay updated on my latest great reads.

Best History Book - Tie 

2019 seemed to be the year of non-fiction for me. For some reason I was drawn more than usual to richly researched books, and it was very hard to choose between the best of them. Both of these books enriched my understanding of world history and filled in massive gaps left by my sub-par American education on global history. Both are slower reads but highly worth reading.

A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green

This is the best single history of any part of Africa I've ever read and should honestly be taught in all schools. I picked it up after my month-long trip in West Africa because my overall knowledge of African history and cultures is so severely lacking - the only region we ever learned about in school was Egypt and even that was almost remedial - and I needed to have a more well rounded understanding of the world. This was the perfect book to fill in my gaps. It's impeccably sourced and researched but remains quite readable and includes lots of maps, charts and photos to help visualize the information. The author provides highly nuanced approaches towards gender history and politics, the true impact of colonialism and religious influence, and embraces a complexity that dazzled me.

I wish more history books were this thorough and honest; there is no cover up or one-sided perspective here. The insistence on depth enriches every chapter and leave you with a full 360 degree view of life in West Africa in the period of transition between the 15th and 18th centuries. Toby Green's approach to history by using currency to explain how slavery started and true impact it had in this region and globally is a brilliant idea, and I think this information should be taught in all American classrooms as a mandatory part of understanding why chattel slavery was different and how deeply it robbed an entire continent of its potential. If I could give this more than 5 stars I would. Highly, highly recommend.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

I've heard this book so frequently mentioned by several highly successful folks on various podcasts and interviews as one of their favorites that I finally had to see what all the hype was about. What I got was a totally fascinating history that has completely changed much of my understanding of medieval Eurasian history. We hear so little (and certainly never positive) news of Mongols or Mongolia today, but the legacy left by Genghis Khan and his progeny, particularly Khubilai, is truly remarkable and deserves a much closer, fairer examination than it has often gotten. For example: did you know Genghis' empire was larger than all of North America combined and far, far larger than any other in history? He's the most successful empire builder to live past the age of 35 (dying at age 70). He introduced modern concepts like diverse leadership teams (always promoting on ability and intelligence, not by family relationship) and the first ever paper currency to strengthen his empire. His armies always included mobile engineering teams who would construct the infrastructure and weaponry needed for each specific voyage on-site as it was required, essentially a battalion of human 3D printers. They were also the first fighting force to successfully capture cities by traveling across frozen waterways. He was the first person to unify what is now India and China, and it's not impossible to think those nations would never have existed without his organizational influence.

If you're a history buff this is a must-read to enrich your understanding of world history and understand what short shrift the Khans have gotten over the years. It's not an apologia or a white wash - there were some highly violent, destructive acts taken by these armies and they are honestly depicted here - but that is only a tiny part of their story and the other side really deserves to be told. I found this completely fascinating and am recommending this book to people constantly.

Best Science Book - The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by Julie Des Jardins

This was an amazing read that will launch 1,000 more - there are so many incredible women scientists I learned about through this book who I otherwise would never have heard of. The long history of women's difficulty in entering scientific fields is well researched here; my only quibble is that I wish it was a little more diverse including a wider range of women of color. The book groups subjects roughly by era but also by scientific discipline, a theming which helps show the lineage between female scientists and how they were able to build upon each other (much like you might see "genealogies" of chefs, academics or other professional careers). Portions about women who were deliberately cut out of promotions, Nobel prizes, etc. were completely infuriating and I can't begin to imagine the scientific discoveries we lost as a result. It was really interesting to note the differences Jardins drew between the style of male and female scientists. Sometimes this could get a bit exaggerated, but I do think there's something to be said for a difference in approaches yielding different results. This is a great read for all lovers of narratives like Hidden Figures and discovering those whose vital contributions have been historically overlooked. 

Best True Crime / Mystery - Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

I came across this book in an article about the Oklahoma! musical revival, threw it on my list for shits and giggles, and it completely blew me away. Killers of the Flower Moon has the same power of a Truman Capote, Jon Krakauer or Erik Larson kind of nonfiction; it's impossible to put down and almost as difficult to believe that its dark narrative is 100% true. I was shocked at how little of this history I knew and how violent it was. The contemporary American attitude towards Native Americans tends to be negative ("why aren't they over it yet?"), without recognizing how far the trauma committed against native peoples extends even into the present day. The events of this book take place well under 100 years ago and are shockingly evil, including deceptive marriages, poisoning and violent assault of people's spouses and own children, theft and worse. This book unwinds like a good mystery novel with plenty of suspects, moving targets, and unsolved mysteries that span decades. It's also a light history of the founding of the FBI, which is an event that I didn't know I needed to learn about and information I feel will be useful in the future. I highly recommend this, especially to fans of mystery or true crime books. It's another missing piece of American history that I've already called upon in the months since I read it.

Best Sports Book - Levels of the Game by John McPhee

I don't normally read sports books, but I'd seen this recommended by Tim Ferriss and others for years and finally got tired of hearing about it. Levels of the Game is surprisingly hard to find but it was so worth the wait. Everything said about this slender book is true: it is so much more than simply a sports story, and it really is one of the best pieces of short writing I've ever read, a true masterpiece of short form. I flew through the 150 pages or so in a single sitting and have been mentally chewing on it ever since.

At surface level this is just a gripping play-by-play of a legendary tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Charles Graebner; however, I quickly learned there is so much more packed in here. Deep character studies and biographies of both contestants are seamlessly interwoven throughout the match, and through them a window in to the wider issues of mid-20th century (and, I would argue, contemporary) America. The intense focus and detail here manages to make a brilliant case study of polar opposites of American privilege, racism, regional discrimination, classicism, religion, culture and so much more. It's truly a study in contrasts and had Graebner and Ashe not been teammates playing for Team U.S. in an international competition at the same time this match occurred, I think this match would have become as famous as Billie Jean King's "Battle of the Sexes" but in a racial context.

This book is truly fascinating, even for those who don't like sports very much, and if for no other reason it's worth a read for the truly excellent prose. I am still astonished at the mountains of detail John McPhee packs into clean, simple but elegant language in well under 200 pages - it's a masterpiece of construction and I am definitely striving to achieve his economic, elegaic style in my own writing.

Best Memoir: Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

Immigration seems to be the issue of our times and there is no better book to read to understand this issue than Dear America. Something that gets lost in all the numbers and statistics on either side of the immigration debate is the vital understanding that these are not things we are talking about - they are people who have thoughts, feelings, needs and rights. There is so much nuance lost in the soundbite-driven conversations by talking heads on cable news, and people's lives are hanging in the balance.

This book has the perfect levity between personal memoir experience and hard data. As a former reporter for the Washington Post, Vargas is no slouch with his research, and all the data here can be backed up. Whichever side of the immigration debate you're on, I'd highly encourage you to pick up Dear America and gain some core understanding of this issue from someone who knows it most intimately. I suspect it's going to continue to be vital knowledge to have, especially as our economy continues to evolve. This is a must-read for every American citizen and I'd recommend it to any demographic.

Best Book About Women: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Say what you want about GOOP: I was turned on to Mary Beard through GOOP's podcast and if I get nothing else out of it, it was fully worth it. This stunning, perfectly concise text analyzes the place and perception of women in Western society stemming back to the classical age (aka Greeks and Romans) and it is a fascinating look at texts like The Odyssey that so many of us have read (but this time with totally fresh eyes). I think most of us are aware by now how deeply rooted sexism is, but I also think we do not always see how explicitly and intentionally grounded that sexism is all the way back to our earliest cultural myths. Beard utilizes several delightful contemporary examples to apply her theories, and I blew through this in barely over an hour. Highly recommend this for all readers - it's got deep things to say in an easily accessible package and will really blow your mind with some of her examples.

Best African Lit / Locally Published Work: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

I have been reading a huge amount of work by African writers over the last few years, so when I saw that Minneapolis publisher Graywolf Press was releasing this I had to snap it up right away. This book was so good. It is truly diasporic and managed to weave three totally different character's plot lines seamlessly together, making it a story that people of many different identities could engage with. Structurally it is reminiscent of Yaa Gyaasi's transcendent novel Homegoing, although this has more complexity and narrative threads to weave together and a spicy dose of Marvel's Luke Cage to keep it modern. It felt to me like modern African superhero magical realism, with a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wakanda and Marlon James all mixed together. It makes for a really fresh combo and I was deeply pulled into this narrative; it was hard to believe that this was Moore's debut novel and this book packs a lot of plot into 300 short pages. If you're into mystical fantasy / historical fiction, this is definitely one you should pick up.

Best Novel: The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal  

I fell in love with Balli Kaur Jaswal after reading Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows, which I saw on a Reese's Book Club pick. This book (her second) solidifies her as one of my favorite new authors. This has all the touristic charm of stories like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but without the colonial gaze. Jaswal is so expert at having honest conversations about issues directly affecting women but packaging it into a treacly beach read text, which is stunningly difficult and achieved here with ease. Topics covered here include sexual assault, abortion, arranged marriage, immigration, sexism, Punjabi culture, and more - which sounds heavy but I promise that Shergill Sisters was one of the most fun reads I had all year. I flew through this book and could easily have devoured a whole series.

Best Fantasy: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia  

I'm always looking for new fantasy fiction and I couldn't have been more thrilled with this one. I know almost nothing about Mayan civilization and mythology, something I am actively working to rectify. I found dipping into this new world really fascinating, especially with the complexity it treats death. It's a thrilling fantasy tale but also romantic and uniquely empathetic in a way I haven't seen in similar books; the author makes a point of prioritizing compassion and grace even in the characters with the darkest and most twisted motivations. This is a complete world on its own (lots packed into just over 300 pages!), but I could easily see it becoming a detailed series. It's like American Gods meets Akata Witch, but Mexican / Mayan style. Highly recommend to fantasy / mythology lovers who want something unique and new to read.

Best Children's Book - Tie 

I read a lot of children's literature this year. I know some people consider children's books not to be "real" literature or cheating for book counts, but hear me out: anyone who has attempted writing projects knows that writing more concisely is actually harder than providing length. Being able to communicate a full story in 50 pages or less with short, easy to pronounce words that can entertain grownups and kids alike is no easy task. Thankfully there are some fantastic new arrivals to the children's lit scene that you and the kiddos in your life can equally enjoy.

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o 

I threw this on my to-read list the second I heard Lupita Nyong'o was writing a book and so was one of the very first to get this from the library. Let me tell you - it lives up to all of the hype and more. The illustrations are luminous, seemingly glowing off the page, and are totally captivating with rich, full hues. The story is extremely affecting and you can tell how personal it was for Nyong'o to write. I had teary eyes only a few pages in, and the beautiful resolution will put a real warmth in your heart.

This is intended to speak to kids who are feeling downtrodden about their dark skin, but I actually think it's a good book for all kids to help soften assumptions / answer questions about skin color differences. Reading something like this at a young age would have helped introduce ideas of racial awareness to me at a foundational level that would have really served me later in my adult life, and I'm so glad it exists for kids now. I want this book to get ultimate support for the simple message (and to support Nyong'o, of course), but it's also just a very high quality, beautifully illustrated children's book that is among the year's best. Highly recommend for grownups and kiddos alike.

Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

This made the rounds on a bunch of best-of lists for children's books last year, and I found it really delightful. It's a simple book but one that beautifully shows how to accept and even celebrate people who present differently. I've always loved the term mermaid for trans / queer people and this book makes it even prettier. The centering of black and brown bodies in this story is also special and a beautiful celebration of diverse life.

In the debate around trans and LGBTQIA rights, one of the first questions raised is always "well what do I tell my children?" A book like this gives an easy answer: just tell them the truth. Kids are far more open minded and accepting than they get credit for, and I'm so glad that books like this exist to make the conversation easy for all parties. This is appropriate for kids of any age but especially ages 3 - 8 or so and definitely is a good tool for helping to explain the existence of queer / trans people if a child is asking about it. The colorful illustrations are also a top selling point.

Best Fairy Tale Re-mix: Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is a perennial fave and the second I heard she had re-imagined a fairy tale I had to check it out. There's a lot to recommend this book, Solnit's feminist re-imagining of Cinderella among them, but the real standout to me were the stunningly gorgeous die-cut illustrations. Every image is portrayed through intricately cut silhouettes and it's a lovely way to tell the story. I almost wish this were a picture-only book, just to have more delicate illustrations to enjoy. This is probably best enjoyed by grownups or older kids (I'd say age 8 and up?) to get the full effect.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Thrillist: How to Volunteer in the Twin Cities This Holiday Season

Don't be a Scrooge. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

The season of giving is upon us! While that most often means an exhausting list of shopping, wrapping, and gift giving and receiving, I also like to think that it's a time to think even more than usual about giving back to our communities. And the best part is that volunteering is FREE - it just requires a little effort to sign up and schedule a few hours to give back.

Click here to see my list of the best organizations to volunteer with and donate to for Thrillist at this time of year. Please keep in mind that these are worthy causes ALL times of year; but if you're trying to squeeze in some final gifts before tax season, or want to share a portion of your gifts with the wider community, these are perfect places to turn to first. Let me know in the comments - what did I miss? Who else would you add to this list?


During the season of gratitude and giving, is there any better time of year to consider giving back to your community? Many organizations struggle to advertise when they need help, especially when funding is limited. To help connect the dots, we have rounded up plenty of options for causes around the Twin Cities that can use your helping hands now, or at any time of year, to build a better community. If you still can’t find anything on this list that calls to you, head to Hands on Twin Cities or Volunteer Match to search from hundreds of other opportunities.

For those concerned about homelessness and surviving the cold weather
Homelessness is a growing epidemic in the Twin Cities. AEON is one of the best organizations working to solve this problem by preserving and building affordable housing for communities in transition from experiencing homelessness, and nearly 95% of donations go to support operations. PRISM provides holistic services, healthy food, and weather appropriate clothing. Elim Lutheran Church opens cold shelters this time of year. Bridging provides necessary housing items for people transitioning out of homelessness. If you’d rather volunteer directly in a shelter, reach out to St. Stephen’s, People Serving People, or Simpson Housing Services.

For those passionate about helping the elderly 
One of the most overlooked communities year-round is the elderly. Little Brother partners younger volunteers with older folks to help them find and enjoy social engagement. Neighbors Inc. provides gift assistance for seniors who may not be able to exchange gifts with friends and family. Other great organizations include MN Seniors, Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, and Volunteers of America Minnesota and Wisconsin, all of whom find people to visit less mobile elderly in senior homes. If you’d rather fly solo, simply stop by the nearest senior center to you to share your gifts; musical performances are especially appreciated.

For those passionate about food justice and feeding the hungry
One in eight children in Minnesota is at risk of experiencing chronic hunger. Second Harvest Heartland connects food to people in need, providing more than 89 million meals and 32 million pounds of fresh produce to over half a million people in the state. Loaves and Fishes is another great option for group volunteer projects. The Sheridan Story generally focuses on packing meals for kids so they can eat over the weekend. Appetite for Change is a fantastic option for anyone focused on creating intersectional good, where you can help them educate students on urban farming and leadership, or work on-site in the restaurant incubator. Campus Kitchen is a model of food efficiency, repurposing leftover cafeteria food to provide over 1,000 meals each month to organizations around Minneapolis. And Open Arms Minnesota cooks and delivers nutritious foods to those suffering from life threatening illnesses.

For those passionate about education and literacy
Education is a field that is perennially looking for volunteers. From January through May, the Minnesota Urban Debate League is seeking some to judge debates between the 1,200 students they serve across Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Minnesota Historical Society hosts History Day every year at the University of Minnesota and you can be a judge of student research projects. The East Side Freedom Library houses non-circulating research collections and needs volunteers for educational programs. If you’re passionate about music, consider contacting the Walker West Music Academy, an innovative school that trains students of all ages in music of the African-American tradition. Urban Ventures always needs help with after-school programs and coaching opportunities. Give the gift of a lifelong love of reading through Reading Partners. Or consider going straight to the source and volunteering through Minneapolis Public Schools or St. Paul Public Schools.

For those concerned about current immigration policies
Few subjects are as heated right now as immigration and refugee resettlement. The International Institute of Minnesota needs ongoing help with a number of services for new arrivals to the U.S., including employment placement. The Minnesota Council of Churches provides similar services and has long been a trusted first point of contact. The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota always needs help providing free legal advice to those caught in between systems. Advocates for Human Rights needs volunteers in a similar capacity, but also offers opportunities for less technical roles like observing court proceedings. Contact the International Education Center to help teach English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

For those dedicated to making this a happy holiday season
Events targeted towards the holidays are often the first time people get experience with hands-on volunteering. Through the end of November, Free Bikes 4 Kidz needs volunteers to clean and fix donated bikes for Christmas gifts. Operation Christmas Child or Toys for Tots are justifiably famous gift-giving charities that have robust local outposts. Interfaith Outreach is an inter-religious way to offer gifts, or Hospitality House Youth Development subsidizes the cost of holiday gifts so parents can shop for items their kids want. There’s the upcoming Not So Silent Night Holiday Market, which benefits YouthLink MN. Best of all is that many of the goods for sale benefit local causes and all are locally made, like Larissa Loden’s gorgeous jewelry company which donates 5% of all profits to support Cookie Cart.

For those who like to drink their beer and do good, too
One of the coolest trends in the rise of our urban breweries is the vast amount of community engagement they have spurred. Finnegan’s is the one that started it all, donating profits from every beer sold since its 2000 inception to community organizations and hosting ongoing Community Action Nights and Reverse Food Truck events. One of Minnesota’s most famous breweries, Surly has ongoing events ranging from blood drives to food deliveries through its program Surly Gives A Damn. Dangerous Man Brewing has a similarly robust program that hosts events all year; it’s an approachably low-key involvement that allows volunteers to show up as they’re available via their email list. For the more physically active, the Brewery Running Series raises funds for local organizations, lets you run a short race, and gives you free beer privilege (we call that a win-win-win).

For those who want to support diverse communities
As governmental aid for immigrant and refugee communities continues to dwindle, organizations servicing such groups need more help than ever. For the East African community, consider the African Development Center, which includes a bank, community center, and educational classes on finance and business. The SEAD Project helps the Southeast Asian diaspora and also has a satellite office in Laos. And there are a host of groups working with the local Latin American community: Consider La Oportunidad, which hosts youth and literacy programs; CLUES, helping with food distribution, ESL teaching and mentorship; or the Latino Economic Development Center, which hosts several key fundraisers throughout the year to provide vital scholarship money to Latino students.

For those concerned about climate change
If you’re more of an outdoorsy type, consider working with local environmental causes. Start with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, which has a list of environmentally-focused organizations seeking volunteers. Help keep local green spaces fresh by volunteering with the Minneapolis Parks Organization or Hennepin County. The Women’s Environmental Network has a host of ways to get involved in environmental causes with a group of like-minded ladies. For larger scope projects, the Minnesota DNR is always looking for people to help clear trails, gather seeds, and identify species. A more low-key way to help out is through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which has several ideas that citizens can implement on their own. If giving back is a more a resolution for 2020, reach out to Great River Greening, which hosts targeted restoration events every spring and fall at sites around the Twin Cities.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Band's Visit Is A Quiet Masterpiece

This is the one. The one I've been waiting for. 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I can't describe to you how incredibly excited I was to see The Band's Visit last night. I was hooked ever since seeing Katrina Lenk's magnificent performance of "Omar Sharif" at the 2018 Tony Awards (the same night she won best performance by a leading actress in a musical). I wasn't able to see a performance with the original cast in New York City, so I was thrilled to find it coming to Minneapolis as part of the Broadway tours through Hennepin Theater Trust.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Band's Visit is quite simple on the surface, telling the story of a small group of Egyptian musicians who get lost on their way to perform for the opening of a new Arab Cultural Center in Israel due to a mix-up of the name of the town they are to visit (they end up in Bet Hatikva, rather than Petah Tikvah). The troupe is stranded with little money and taken in by a cafe owner named Dina, who feeds them and finds homestays for them to pass the night until the next bus to Petah Tikvah will run. Dina immediately connects with the conductor Tewfiq and contemplates a romantic relationship with him as she later gives him a tour of Bet Hatikva, a dream that seems to flourish until withering as she learns his sad past. Haled, a younger member of the band, sneaks out to enjoy a night on the town and ends up counseling a shy young man named Papi in the art of flirting. Simon, an older musician, witnesses a fight and difficult relationship between the husband and wife he is staying with. His music provides a sense of peace to them as they resolve their fight. A boy waits endlessly by a payphone for his girlfriend to call. Much like the nearby sea, life ebbs and flows in Bet Hatikva until the night ends, the band boards their bus to Petah Tikvah, and Dina's life returns to the everyday cycles it always endured.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

There has been a lot of hype about this show (it did win 10 Tony Awards, after all) and I wasn't disappointed. The success of The Band's Visit begins and ends with Chilina Kennedy who is magnificent as Dina. Kennedy has a dynamic voice and sexy, lithe presence that does complete justice to this complex character. James Rana was quietly lovely as the shy and tortured Tewfiq, and his understated performance added real power to this role. Joe Joseph blessed us with a gorgeous voice as Haled, and his smooth stylings provided welcome comedic moments and some beautiful romantic ballads. The musical standout of the show for me may have been Mike Cefalo's unexpected star as the young Telephone Guy, with a haunting solo that rose admirably into chorus to close out the show with "Answer Me." I also have to shout out the crew of silent musicians who played their instruments live on stage in various formations. They were spot-on and added a rich additional layer of perspective to the staging, almost like an extra group of friends to watch with, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The clever set is, like the show, much more than it first appears. Seemingly a drab collection of sandy colored buildings, each structure unfolds into varying levels of depth to provide totally new settings (for example, flip open a wall and an alleyway is suddenly a roller skating club). A turntable stage cleverly allows for dynamic choreography and scene changes, quickly transitioning us through locations and plotlines. Several well-chosen projections are also included, almost creating dreamscapes as characters describe their inner desires, and I appreciated the mystical affect they offered.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

We live in a noisy world. A disjointed world. A hurting world. A world in chaos. The success of a show like The Band's Visit, an uncomfortably quiet, emotionally haunting, darkly comedic, 90 minute meditation on finding beauty through life's hardest moments in one of the most conflict-ridden areas of the earth, is hardly assured. And yet... I couldn't help thinking in the dark theater, sitting in communion with my fellow arts lovers as the stunning strings of "Omar Sharif" wafted through the air like the most precious incense and Chilina Kennedy gracefully wended like altar smoke around the moonlit stage, that maybe The Band's Visit is exactly what such a world needs.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is a production that defies all attempts to classify itself into dichotomies, staying firmly put in the much messier, harder but truer, world of the liminal. There is no good or bad, villain or hero, right or wrong. Actions taken with good intentions have devastating consequences, just as actions that might be classified as bad or immoral provide some of the only moments of happiness these characters experience. I found it a moving, vital salve to the extreme noise that confronts me every time I look at my newsfeeds. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to turn off the noise, listen to the sounds around us, and silently conduct our bodies into harmony with the natural world, weeping hearts and all. The Band's Visit is a lovely, wistful balm for what ails us all these days and highly worth a visit. Click here for more information or to buy your tickets before it leaves town on December 15.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Norwegians is a Dark Delight

What would happen if the Coen Brothers wrote a script for the stage? 

Photo courtesy of Dark and Stormy

After seeing The Norwegians by Dark and Stormy Productions (my first ever time!) last weekend, I think it would look similar to that.

Part whodunit, part murder mystery, part dark comedy, The Norwegians tells the story of two women who try to kill their ex-boyfriends but make the mistake of hiring a gang of Minnesotan Norwegians to do it. The Norwegians like to strut and pontificate about their fearsomeness, but when it comes down to brass tacks they've got nothing on, say, the mafia (or the Italians living in Wisconsin, as it were). This gang is much more Swedish Chef than Tony Soprano, and their consistent inability to actually do something rather than talk in circles demonstrates just how befuddled they are. Several twists reveal surprising connections between the characters as the drama unfolds and by the end we are left guessing as to who will actually follow through with the assassinations. It's a little like a farcical, more romantic version of Fargo.

The best moments of The Norwegians for me were the ones poking fun at Minnesota's deeply Scandinavian roots. As a descendant of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants myself, I found many of the jokes spot on. Luverne Seifert is especially good as Tor, the ringleader of the Norwegians and a proud Scandinavian. Seifert nails the regional accent and has several witty quips. As Tor's partner Gus, Avi Aharoni hits several emotional peaks and valleys; he's especially adept at projecting crazy eyes from beneath his parka. Jane Froiland was a little baffling to me as Olive; her emotions blow like the wind, and it could be a little hard to pinpoint the character's state of mind. Regardless, Froiland clearly relishes her role and it seemed like she had a lot of fun. Sara Marsh was chilling as the jaded, jilted Betty. I fully believed she was more than capable of assassination, and I hope I don't encounter any women like Betty anytime soon.

The scenic design by Joel Sass is bare bones: a simple table, four chairs, a table cloth, a desk lamp, and a scattering of "snow" on the floor is all it includes. It really worked for me, casting strong contrast and shadows throughout the stage (along with some innovative lighting from Mary Shabatura) that gave this show a film noir patina. The costumes by A. Emily Heaney are similarly straightforward but evocative, and it's amazing what a complete world is conveyed through such a simple and limited number of objects.

This was my first time at a Dark and Stormy Productions show, and I'm sure it won't be my last. I loved the tongue-in-cheek nature and fearless parody of Minnesota culture, which is long overdue in my opinion. There are a few meandering moments in the script, but overall The Norwegians is the #tctheater live action rendition of a Coen Brothers movie that I never knew I needed. It's a good seasonal performance that is void of the treacly holiday spirit so prevalent at this time of year, meaning: if you're also a Grinch in December, skip the holiday shows and head to Northeast Minneapolis for this darker, wryer performance instead. A word to the wise: this performance space is definitely hard to find, especially on dark winter nights, so allow yourself more time than you think you need to get there so you don't get lost (like I did... multiple times). The Norwegians runs through January 5; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.