Monday, January 29, 2018

The Wiz is a Wondrous Experience

2018 kicked off with a hot collaboration from two of the Twin Cities' anchor theater companies, and it couldn't be a better way to start off the year in #tctheater. 

Photo by Dan Norman

If you grew up in America, chances are you've seen The Wizard of Oz. In fact, you've probably seen it multiple times - on TV movie specials, in anniversary screenings in theaters, on various community theater stages, and maybe even read the original novels by Frank L. Baum. MGM's transcendent film adaptation (which holds up shockingly well on screen 80 years after its first release) was an instant classic and has remained a bedrock of the American cultural imagination ever since.

Photo by Dan Norman

So you've seen The Wizard of Oz... but how about The Wiz? In all the magic of the original it's easy to forget the one major thing that was omitted in the story line: people of color. Despite a fantastical universe filled with munchkins; talking scarecrows, tin men and lions; flying monkeys; witches; and myriad other magical creatures, it seems to have been beyond our collective imagination to diversify the casting to include people who weren't white. The Wiz takes this original story, modernizes it and fills it with a different set of cultural references and an all-black cast. The film adaption circa 1978 is a classic in its own right and stars (among many other VIPs) a luminescent Diana Ross and heartbreakingly youthful Michael Jackson. Despite the familiar plotline, The Wiz has a thoroughly different feel and fiercer urgency from The Wizard of Oz thanks to the casting exchange, and it's a perfect example of the difference it makes to have a wide variety of people and experiences represented on stage, as well as a testimonial to the good things that can be created when we decide to eschew the “classics” and bring things into the modern era.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Children's Theatre Company (CTC) paired up with Penumbra Theatre to bring The Wiz to the stage, and who could be better qualified to do so? I saw The Wizard of Oz on stage at CTC a couple of years ago and it remains one of my favorite shows I've seen, ever; combined with Penumbra's talented cast members and deep legacy, this Wiz is a powerhouse performance that is one of the blackest things I've seen on stage in the Twin Cities and a riotous performance from start to finish.

Photo by Dan Norman

The best part of this Wiz, bar none, is the stellar cast. CTC and Penumbra pulled all the extensive strings they have to flesh out the roster, and boy, did it ever pay off. The performance begins and ends with the stellar, supremely talented Paris Bennett as Dorothy, whose powerhouse, pitch perfect vocals are chillingly fabulous from the very first note. My only real complaint about this production is that we couldn't just listen to Bennett sing for a few hours straight on her own (which is to say: I don't have many complaints), and the moments when Bennett is allowed to shine solo, sans orchestra or even fellow cast members, are truly mesmerizing.

Photo by Dan Norman

Bennett is not alone in talent, though. The cast also features Grammy award winner Jamecia Bennett (who has a standout solo of her own as Glinda in the second act); an extensive and shockingly good list of local luminaries such as Aimee Bryant bringing her best Effie Trinket and smooth singing to the role of Addaperle; Rudolph Searles III shredding the dance floor in unlaced Timberlands as the Lion; a hilarious basso in T. Mychael Rambo as The Wiz; a poignant contralto from Greta Oglesby as Aunt Em and Evillene; and an absolutely resplendent Dennis Spears as the Tinman, in what I am convinced is his best role yet. Dwight Leslie is a promising newcomer to Penumbra as the Scarecrow, and the entire cast is supported by a resplendent cadre of ensemble characters including thrilling young actors like China Brickey, one of my favorite young local performers to watch in coming years.

Photo by Dan Norman

Matthew LeFebvre is back designing costumes for this performance, and they're some of his most inventive yet. The Lion has vibrant dreadlocks and dances with the aforementioned unlaced Timbs; Dorothy has a sweet but modern schoolgirl vibe; the yellow brick road features dancers in Lego-fied cargo pants that are reminiscent of In Living Color; each of the witches has technicolor costumes that pop off the stage into vivid, gaudy life; the munchkins have sculptural wigs that are straight out of the Hunger Games; and the whole thing is sure to dazzle the eye. Choreography, expertly developed by Patrdo Harris, is vital, athletic and reminiscent of African American greats such as Alvin Ailey and Misty Copeland; I wish there were more straight dance interludes to let these talented hoofers really soar. The set, designed by Vicki Smith, is evocative but a little underwhelming for my taste; with such creative costumes and talented performers, why not go all the way and fly them through the cyclone or really maximize the magic I've seen before on stage at CTC? It's still very good, and the detailed projections go a long way to adding depth - I just would have liked a little more of the awe-inducing trickery I've seen there before.

Photo by Dan Norman

Co-productions can be very tricky to pull off well, but I can attest that Penumbra and CTC really got this one right. We obviously don't know what kind of negotiations were made behind the scenes, but it seems like a true creative partnership out in the red seats, and I was really happy with how vibrant this whole production of The Wiz was. From the A++ talented cast to the dynamic costumes and robust dance chops, The Wiz is a living testament to why (every once in a while, at least) we really should reinvent the wheel. Go for the eye candy, stay for the heavenly musicality of one of the most talented casts I've seen in a while. The Wiz is thankfully open through March 18, but tickets are selling fast, so make sure to click here to learn more and reserve your seats before it closes.

Photo by Dan Norman

Monday, January 22, 2018

Thrillist: Best Winter Date Ideas

What do you do when the weather is cold and #dryjanuary is only half over? 

Photo from Thrillist

If you're feeling a little stir crazy and uninspired with your dating life (I don't blame you), look no further than this comprehensive list of winter date ideas that I pulled together for Thrillist. There's something for everyone on this list, from theater to classes to nature appreciation and outdoor athletic activities. There's so much going on in the Twin Cities right now - especially thanks to the Superbowl coming - so there's no excuse not to venture out and enjoy some of our unique things to do. Take a look at my list by clicking here and tell me - did I get it right? What would you add? I'd love to hear your suggestions! 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Spotlight: Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in A Testament of Hope

"Let me say that we have failed to say something to America enough. However difficult it is to hear, however shocking it is to hear, we’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country. We have got to face the fact that racism still occupies the throne of our nation. I don’t think we will ultimately solve the problem of racial injustice until this is recognized, and until this is worked on."

Photo from Wikipedia.

It's no great secret that I love books.

I posted a roundup of my favorite reads last year here (previous roundups can be found by clicking here and here), and it's one of my favorite things to write about. Reading has been a passion of mine since I was a child, and no other practice has been more beneficial in opening my mind and my heart to continued growth and empathy.

Considering the many fraught events of the last year or two, I found myself feeling somewhat overwhelmed with all of the political noise. How could we ever climb out of this, I thought? How can we ever hope for a brighter day? Is all of our progress lost? How can I, an individual, do anything impactful to help solve these problems?

As a test to myself I decided to channel this angst into action and research by reading A Testament of Hope cover-to-cover. This hefty tome (clocking in at well over 600 pages) is a collection of almost every writing and speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Encompassing essays, letters, speeches, books and pamphlets, and interviews, the book is organized by type and provides a magnificent survey of the full philosophy of one of our nation's greatest heroes. It's the best place I could have channeled my energy last year, and I can safely say that now, exactly one year after I began this project, I have learned so much and gained so much wisdom from this text. I will certainly be revisiting it frequently going forward, but I wanted to summate some of my favorite lessons from the book. This year marks 50 years since King was killed and we have a lot of ground to make up; there's no better place to turn than the source itself to figure out how to get where we need to be.

1. White people need to do more to fix racism and racist policies. A lot more. Especially in the North. 

If there was a single takeaway that most impacted me personally it was this one. One of the major themes of King's work that we love to forget, particularly after he won the Nobel prize and had gained international fame, was his extreme disappointment with the lack of support for civil rights among white people, particularly Christians and political liberals. The single biggest factor in slowing the march of progress of the Civil Rights Movement was the lack of initiative in the white community to speak out about obvious wrongs, challenge fellow white people on their racist beliefs, financially support the movement, demand that the political system change to one of true fairness, and most importantly to admit and apologize for the destructive racism that has poisoned America from day one. Black people didn't invent systemic racism, white people did, and until that cause/effect is directly addressed, our society will not be truly equitable. It is not enough to point fingers at "those rednecks" down South and pat ourselves on the back. Racism is pervasive, insidious, and takes many forms - even up in the great white North. We need to address those issues here just as urgently as Alabama had to tackle Jim Crow.

2. Dr. King was far more radical than anyone wants to admit. 

One of the reasons I felt so driven to read all of this book was that the true history of a person tends to get muddled or deformed as time passes, and I had a suspicion this was true of King. Turns out, I was right. King has become such a mythical figure in the collective American memory that his work is often distilled to a single, whitewashed quote - "I have a dream" - and the finer, more important points of his arguments are lost. It was extremely beneficial to fully submerge into his philosophy of nonviolence and harsh recriminations of the American system. The popular image of King might be a warm and fuzzy memory, but we'd be better off to remember the real, more pointed King, the King who went to jail, preached against war at all costs, and who approached American policy with unflinching honesty and unending grace in the truest sense of that term.

3. Racism hurts everyone, not just black people. 

The systemic inequalities facing our society have trickle down effects that end up affecting all of us. Whether it's watching our neighbors suffer while we look on, to enabling class exploitation or simply reducing the tax base through unfair wages, every American citizen is impacted by our racist laws and policies. We are all in this together and acknowledging that shared burden is the only way we're going to fix these massive problems.

4. Real persistence can get you anywhere, even with a small amount of resources. 

It's highly instructive to revisit success stories like the Montgomery bus boycott. It can feel overwhelming to work in a social movement - where will you find money to promote your cause? How will you convince people to join your cause? If the power structure has no incentive to change, how can you convince them to? The Montgomery boycott was effective because everyone participated, it was never broken - despite extreme personal sacrifices on the part of many who had very little - and it made an enormous financial impact to the city's bottom line. Had any of those elements failed (and they almost did), the boycott itself would have failed as so many before it. Good organization and clear demands can get you a very long way, so it's important not to get caught up in the trappings of fundraising or political infighting to the neglect of specifying your goals and consistently following through on your promised actions.

5. We have more in common than we don't. 

Perhaps the most powerful gift King had was the ability to gently remove prejudices and stereotypes to help people find common ground. Reading his interviews to diverse cross-sections of audiences, from African-Americans to Jews to Southern and Northern White America, he was a master at making his arguments seem personally impactful. None of the achievements King is known for could have happened without a supportive base, and I'm hard-pressed to think of another person who was so able to truly unite such a broad cross-section of society. King was not a popular man even at the height of his work - his approval ratings never exceeded 45% of the population until after his death - but he still managed to draw an intriguing group of dedicated volunteers from key demographics who made a huge impact with very few resources.

I'd like to leave you with some quotes from the last piece of A Testament of Hope, a short book King wrote called the Trumpet of Conscience. It's one of the last pieces he published and so extraordinarily timely that I hard a hard time not copying the entire document. You can find links to the full text here, and it's worth grabbing a copy if you're able. I hope you all have some meditations and actions of resistance to celebrate the life of Dr. King today; I know I will be finding ways to participate on my own as well.

"Let me say that we have failed to say something to America enough. However difficult it is to hear, however shocking it is to hear, we’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country. We have got to face the fact that racism still occupies the throne of our nation. I don’t think we will ultimately solve the problem of racial injustice until this is recognized, and until this is worked on. [...]

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. [...] This generation is engaged in a cold war, not only with the earlier generation, but with the values of its society. It is not the familiar and normal hostility of the young groping for independence. It has a new quality of bitter antagonism and confused anger which suggests basic issues are being contested. [...]

The tempest of evils provides the answer for those adults who ask why this young generation is so unfathomable, so alienated, and frequently so freakish. For the young people of today, peace and social tranquility are as unreal and remote as knight-errantry. […] Ironically, their rebelliousness comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. […] Their radicalism is growing because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only it social system but the evils it contains; so, naturally, it is intensifying the opposition. [...]

Of course, by now it is obvious that new laws are not enough. The emergency we now face is economic, and it is a desperate and worsening situation. For the 35 million poor people in America – not even to mention, just yet, the poor in the other nations – there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist. You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, denying in his case the very creed of his society. Now, millions of people are being strangled in that way. The problem is international in scope. And it is getting worse, as the gap between the poor and the “affluent society” increases. [...]

As a minister, I take prayer too seriously to use it as an excuse for avoiding work and responsibility. When a government commands more wealth and power than has ever before been known in the history of the world, and offers no more than this, it is worse than blind, it is provocative. [...]

The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both white and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. [...]

In a world facing the revolt of ragged and hungry masses of God’s children; in a world torn between the tensions of East and West, white and colored, individualists and collectivists; in a world whose cultural and spiritual power lags so far behind her technological capabilities that we live each day on the verge of nuclear co-annihilation; in this world, nonviolence is no longer and option for intellectual analysis, it is an imperative for action."

Friday, January 5, 2018

Out There 2017: Teatro El Público: Antigonón

The Walker's annual mindbending theater festival got off to bombastic start last night. 

Photo Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Do you ever just feel a little bored? Just a little worn out, like things are the same ol' same ol' all of the time and just aren't as intriguing anymore?

Thankfully I had a very revitalizing year of theater in 2017 (you can see my best-of round up here), but it's always nice to do something totally new to mix it up, especially at this time of year when resolutions abound and everything is being reexamined with fresh eyes.

The Out There series at the Walker Art Center has long been one of my favorite ways to mix up my engagement with and understanding of the performance arts. I've seen everything from the legendary Bill Jones to hip hop laden spoken word to split stage Japanese magical realism to a completely indescribable Baz Luhrman-esque on-stage dance fest, and it just keeps coming.

This year promises to provide more of these mindbending works, beginning with Teatro El Público's Antigonón. One of my favorite parts of the Out There festival is the fact that it draws incredible international talent to the Twin Cities, allowing us all to affordably see groups we'd never otherwise be exposed to. Teatro El Público, an edgy Cuban group, is just such an entity.

Antigonón, a radical piece by Carlos Diaz (a leading member of Havana's underground theater and drag scene) re-envisions Sophocles' famous play Antigone. Antigone's subject matter clashes in Antigonón with intense drag costumes, political commentary and a montage of graphic historical film footage to create an emotional, kinetic show that will shove you straight in the chest. The performers are led by a group of three powerful women who narrate us through the bulk of the show with a presence that I can only describe as fearlessly vigorous. From the first word each woman hisses, stomps and punches her way through the narrative, and their unstoppable energy drives Antigonón forward with force. The two male performers provide a softer delivery that includes a folksy song sung in drag and a series of explicitly eye candy poses. It's an interesting gender flip and one that I wasn't expecting.

Be warned, if you are a sensitive person, that this is not a performance for the fainthearted: at least 80% of the performance is done in full or partially explicit nudity and there are plenty of swear words throughout the dialogue; even though they're in Cuban Spanish, you'll know exactly where it's going. I don't mind an edgy delivery (so long as the ends justify the means) and it was fine for me here, with the nudity in particular used almost as a blunt against the sharp narration. It's easy to forget how artistic the nude human form can be, and these performers had no problem displaying their masterpieces here. I enjoyed the creative costumes once they were utilized, and my only real complaint is that I wish we had heard more from the single black female performer. Her poetic, sonorous soliloquy moved me more than any of the rest of the dynamic action, and I'd have liked to have more exposure to her narrative throughout the performance.

Either way, Out There shows are always an insight into the unknown that provide a refreshing break from the usual theater fare. You may love it, you may hate it, but there's no doubt that you'll leave an Out There performance with food for thought and a fascinating topic of conversation. Each performance runs for one weekend only, meaning you have only two days left to see Teatro El Público: Antigonón. I suggest you head to this link to learn more and buy tickets, and a word to the wise: you can get a discount if you purchase for the whole series at once.

For a roundup of past Out There performances I've covered, see the following: 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

FREE: Reading of a New Play + Learn About DREAM Act and DACA

Start the New Year off right by learning about DACA, the DREAM Act, and how to truly help your neighbors. 

Photo by Mark Van Cleave

If I haven't sung the praises of Karen Zacarias enough yet, let me correct that right now: she is one of my favorite new playwrights and I am dying to see what she comes up with next. I was first introduced to Karen Zacarias through the excellent production of Native Gardens at the Guthrie last year (which easily made my top 5 performances of the year), and I've been keeping a sharp eye out for her next work ever since.

She's popped up again in a reading taking place at the Mixed Blood next week (in partnership with the Guthrie) of her play Just Like Us, which discusses the topic of DACA recipients and the very serious, very sad, imminently looming issues facing them today. The mixed event will do a short reading of part of the play and end with a panel discussion and community conversation about these issues centered on ways to build empathy and awareness in our wider community. I think the event is a fabulous idea and I hope it's packed to the gills. I've copied the bulk of the press release below; please read through and take a visit to Mixed Blood for this wonderful event! If you go, make sure to reserve spaces; it's free but you will not get in without an RSVP.


The Guthrie Theater (Joseph Haj, Artistic Director) and Mixed Blood Theatre (Jack Reuler, Artistic Director) today announced their partnership to present Enacting the Dream: Select Readings from Karen Zacarías’ Just Like Us and a Community Conversation about the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) on Tuesday, January 9 at 7 p.m. at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 South 4th Street, Minneapolis. Enacting the Dream is an opportunity to reflect upon the lived realities of the roughly 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients living in the United States. The event is free, but reservations are required through the Guthrie Box Office at 612.377.2224, toll-free 877.44.STAGE, or online at There will be an RSVP check-in at Mixed Blood Theatre on the evening of the event. Due to limited capacity, there is a two-person limit per reservation.

Enacting the Dream features select readings from Native Gardens author Karen Zacarías’ play Just Like Us followed by a panel discussion including public officials, immigration experts and DREAMers. As a March 5 deadline looms before the bulk of the DACA permits begin to expire, well over 6,000 DREAMers living in Minnesota remain unsure of their future status in the United States. Enacting the Dream provides the opportunity to build empathy and awareness about the challenges faced by those whose path to citizenship remains unclear.

Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler said, “The Guthrie and Mixed Blood offer complementary platforms from which to observe and decry societal wrongdoings and offer affirming alternatives. Enacting the Dream makes the political personal. Issues of immigration and concerns of immigrants and refugees occur daily on Mixed Blood’s block (on which 4,500 people from 65 countries reside). Since 1989, Mixed Blood has produced theater by, about, for, and with Latinos in Spanish and English with bilingual casts, which led me to see the heart-wrenching world premiere of Just Like Us in Denver in 2013. I was moved by its coming-of-age storytelling of four Latina friends in the shadow of disparate immigration consequences. As one cast member said, ‘It’s about finding the courage to build your own destiny.’ Societal progress occurs because of an aggregation of incremental changes. Enacting the Dream is an important ingredient in that process.”

“Our theaters make really lousy forts, but they make very good bridges,” echoed Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joseph Haj. “Hosting these free community Happenings where listening and dialogue provide a safe backdrop for exploration and learning is an important part of our mission at the Guthrie Theater. For Enacting the Dream, the Guthrie is pleased to partner with Mixed Blood, which champions equity and animates social change through its artistry, community relationships and universal access.”

Based on Helen Thorpe’s bestselling book, Just Like Us is a documentary-style play that follows four overachieving Latina teenagers in Denver, two of whom are documented and two who are not. Their close-knit friendships begin to unravel when immigration status dictates the girls’ opportunities, or lack thereof. When a political firestorm arises, each girl’s future becomes increasingly complicated. Just Like Us questions what makes us American.