ART: Kerry James Marshall’s Masterful “Mastry” Exhibit Opens Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Works from Kerry James Marshall’s “Mastry” exhibition (collage by Maeve Richardson)

by Callie Teitelbaum

The “Mastry” Gallery, created by African-American artist Kerry James Marshall, walks you through Marshall’s journey of making it as a fine artist – a field dominated by whites for centuries.  Marshall was born in Alabama in 1955, and as a child was a part of the last wave of The Great Migration to the west, a region still full of promise and opportunity. Marshall’s family settled in South Central Los Angeles and while growing up in Watts, Marshall pursued art and was an active participant in the movement that encouraged an increase of black artists in the art community.  All of Marshall’s work contributed to his mission to prove that art by blacks was just as challenging and beautiful as the white art which was typically celebrated.

The exhibit shows Marshall’s earlier works such as “The Invisible Man,” which is a collection of small scale portraits of people using the darkest shades of black, emphasizing Marshall’s idea that black people in society blend into the background.  The exhibition displays how Marshall’s work developed, and include many of his large scale paintings.

Marshall changed the style of his work because he realized that a big statement called for a grander canvas.  A large three-piece work called “Heirlooms and Accessories,” appears to be a necklace with a woman’s face in it at first glance.  However, once one’s eyes adjust to the painting, fine lines start to become more distinct, and it is clear that there is a lynching occurring in the background.  The faces in the painting are witnesses at the lynching, and the expressions of indifference are utterly shocking. While “Heirlooms and Accessories” seem to be referring to the necklaces, accessories serves as a double meaning because it also refers to those who were accessories to murder.  This is a prime example of the depth and meaning behind each of Marshall’s work.

“Harriet Tubman” by Kerry James Marshall

All of the paintings reflect Marshall’s commentary on black identity in the U.S. and in traditional western art.  In his piece “Harriet Tubman,” Marshall paints an image of Harriet Tubman on her wedding day, with hands with white gloves essentially hanging this piece of art in a museum.  Marshall’s feeling that museums are responsible for the lack of black art is portrayed in this piece.  Museums typically hold the standard of what is beautiful and worthy, and Marshall makes the direct statement of what should be celebrated in this work.

The exhibition is especially engaging because of the varying emotions each work provokes.  While pieces such as “Slow Dance,” which illustrates two people peacefully dancing, provokes calmness and peace, other pieces express injustice and anger.  Marshall’s versatility and innate talent for art is clear as his work consists of completely different mediums and subjects.  The exhibition allows you to fully observe all of Marshall’s different forms of art and varying ideas, and is not limited to a specific time period or brand of art.

Marshall’s range of mediums and subjects include large to small scale, canvas paintings to comics, common people to historical figures, and glittery mediums to the blackest of paint.  This ability to effectively utilize different forms of art makes Marshall a unique artist, and a unique person who has learned to effectively communicate in a way people of all race, gender, and social class can understand.  Marshall’s works are visually stunning to say the least, and his success in spreading the meaning of his art and pursuing his career despite the circumstances of racial discrimination, is truly inspiring.

The Mastry exhibit opens on March 12 at the Museum Of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and runs through July 3.

RISE UP: Why “Hamilton: An American Musical” is Still a Must-See

Cast of "Hamilton" (

Cast of “Hamilton: An American Musical” performing “My Shot” (photo via nytimes.com)

The first song I heard from the Hamilton soundtrack was “My Shot.”  This song, the third one in the first act, serves the important role of introducing the ten-dollar-founding-father-without-a-father Alexander Hamilton: his burning ambition, his sophisticated oratory, his commitment to revolution.  But the verse that hit me the hardest, that immediately told me that something exceptional was going on with this show, was this one, sung by young abolitionist John Laurens (played by Anthony Ramos):

 

Rise Up!

When you’re living on your knees, you rise up

Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up

Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

This verse — in the show an exhortation to the 18th century colonists to revolt against the British government — is universal and timely enough to be a rallying cry for any recent social justice movement.  As soon as I heard it, I knew Hamilton was trying to do something special.  Without being didactic or preachy, Hamilton was telling people to stand up for their rights, take a seat at the table, and participate in America.  

Much ink has been spilled about Hamilton: about its innovative hip-hop structure, its diverse cast, its best-selling cast album (including time at No.1 on the Billboard Rap charts), its unprecedented popularity on Broadway, its brilliant and social media-savvy creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, its eleven Tony awards.  But despite its runaway popular success, and its seemingly universal appeal, Hamilton feels to me — and I suspect to many fans — deeply personal.  As a mixed-race person, a lawyer who attended the same college as Hamilton, a federal government employee, and a life-long musical theatre nerd, the combination of the music, the lyrics, and the cast feels urgent and relevant.  

Jessica Davis (l), Tony Ramos (m), Julie Bibb Davis (r) [photo courtesy Julie Bibb Davis]

Jessica Davis (l), “Hamilton” cast member Anthony Ramos (c) and Julie Bibb Davis (r) [photo courtesy Julie Bibb Davis]

For my teenage children, who follow the charismatic and thoughtful cast on Instagram and Snapchat, it has made American history feel applicable to their daily lives in a way their school classes never have.  And when we were fortunate enough to see the show on Broadway, watching the diverse cast play the (white) American founders, and seeing how Miranda has also worked to make what has usually been understood as being primarily a story of men include the contributions of women, had an impact that cannot be overstated.

Hamilton shows the influence of American musical theatre traditions that range from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Sondheim to Disney.  The show is most solidly rooted, however, in black musical traditions.  Hamilton’s hip-hop and rap songs have garnered the most attention, but that only scratches the surface.  “What’d I Miss” is a wonderful homage to Cab Calloway, with elements of ragtime and even funk.  

“The Schuyler Sisters” echoes groups like Destiny’s Child, “Wait for It” starts with a dancehall reggae beat, and “Say No To This” is an R&B slow jam straight out of the 90s.  In addition, most of the original main case is black, including Okieriete Onadowan (Mulligan/Madison), Tony nominee Chris Jackson (Washington), and Tony winners Leslie Odom, Jr. (Burr), Renee-Elise Goldsberry (Anjelica), and Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson).   Continue reading

TV REVIEW: BET Comedy “Zoe Ever After” Starring Brandy Hits All the Right Notes

ZoeEverAfter-16x9

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, GBN Editor-in-Chief

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson

I have to admit, I wasn’t planning on watching it, mainly because these days I don’t have the opportunity to view much television outside of what my 9 and 6 year-olds are viewing. If you want to ask me what’s happening on the Disney Channel or PBS Kids – I’m your woman. BET and Centric, not so much. But when I got an email from former colleague and uber-producer Debra Martin Chase announcing the premiere of her new sitcom “Zoe Ever After”, I made a point of setting my DVR to record it so I could carve out a moment to watch and support.

That moment came this morning, and I am so glad it did. “Zoe Ever After,” created and executive produced by Chase, Erica Montolfo-Bura and former “Moesha” lead Brandy Norwood (who stars in the titular role), is a delightful, smartly-written, acted and executed half-hour comedy about Zoe Moon, a woman restarting her life with a new cosmetics business, new love interests and a new parenting arrangement after filing for divorce from her famous boxer husband Gemini Moon (Dorian Missick).

Set in Manhattan,”Zoe Ever After” is actually filmed in Atlanta, but unlike some other half-hours shot there, its look and feel don’t come off as claustrophobic or cheap. The sets and visuals, though limited, are beautifully styled and on point. The costume design is equally striking, and if the show keeps it up, Brandy could add “fashion maven” to her actor/singer calling card.

But even more important than the look or  basic premise is how well “Zoe” deals with its themes – the difficulty of dating after a break-up, co-parenting with an ex, the struggles of running a new business (the air conditioning breaks down in Zoe’s office and she is stubbornly against taking her ex’s help to fix it, even though the contractor he sends (Ignacio Serricchio) generates more heat than the system he’s repairing), and the internal tug-of-war that occurs when you still have feelings for the person who broke your heart.

All of the actors, including intended comic relief characters, on-a-mission-to-get-married best friend and publicist Pearl (Haneefah Wood), fashionable, openly gay assistant Valence (Tory Devon Smith) and bright, adorable son Xavier (Jaylon Gordon), make strong impressions, but Brandy in particular shines as she charmingly and believably navigates dramatic moments like where she tells her ex how he always made her feel invisible, or sillier ones where she gets pooped on by a dove (which is a clever metaphor tied to a story point, believe it or not).

The preliminary ratings and social media on “Zoe’s” debut are also strong, so BET looks to have a good compliment/counterpoint to “Real Husbands of Hollywood” on its slate, and I am personally looking forward to finding more time away from “Lab Rats” and “Arthur” to see if Zoe does indeed get her “ever after.”

“Zoe Ever After” airs Tuesdays on BET. To view the premiere episode, check your local listings or access clips via BET.com.

REVIEW: BET’s “The Book of Negroes” Miniseries is a Compelling Look at a Slave’s Journey

As a handsome period miniseries, “The Book of Negroes,” which premieres tonight on BET and continues through Wednesday, is a first for a network whose original offerings have often seemed something less than ambitious. That the miniseries is Canadian-made, based on a novel by African Canadian author Lawrence Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jamaican-born Canadian director Clement Virgo, is noteworthy but does not diminish the moment. What would PBS be without the BBC?

The series’ provenance does mean that, as a story of slavery and escape from slavery, it differs in substance and theme from American tellings. The road here, which begins in Mali in 1761 and ends in London in 1807, runs through snowy Nova Scotia (by way of South Carolina, New York and Sierra Leone); in its recounting of the American Revolution, from the black (and Commonwealth) perspective, the British are better than villains and the colonists not quite heroes.

“The Book of Negroes,” which refers to a historical ledger of colonial African Americans granted freedom by the British for their help in the war, is itself a paean to names, words, storytelling and literacy, as containers of the past, organizers of the present and keys to the future. Its heroine is Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis, “The Help”), the bright, independent child of bright, independent parents; she has been trained as a midwife but dreams of being a jeli, or griot, an oral historian of her people.

The first hour, which follows Aminata from Mali to South Carolina, is the series’ most original and compelling. It’s powered by a deep, serious and at surprising times sweet performance by Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, now 11, who plays the young Aminata. The scenes in which she is captured and hustled on her way, through one strange experience after another, toward American slavery, have a sharp-focus dreaminess to them, a kind of horrible beauty. With little exposition, seen as they are from the point of view of one lacking words or context, they feel less played than lived through.

As the series progresses and history moves more swiftly by, its points are made more explicitly; the ironies float on the surface. (Colonial white Americans describe themselves as “slaves” to the British.) For some characters, the story arcs, whether of sin and redemption or of just desserts finally served, are fairly mathematical — sometimes at the expense of an emotional payoff. The story stays novel enough, nevertheless, and the understated tone of the production and performances keep the drama grounded. Hill and Virgo catch the ordinariness even in the awfulness — the creepy dailiness of the business of slavery, and the capability of those who profit from it to regard themselves just and even tender people. In the same way, to the opposite effects, they allow their protagonists daily lives and love; they are not victims all the time.

At the same time, “The Book of Negroes” is an adventure story, a straight-up classic romance. Lyriq Bent plays Chekura, Aminata’s longtime love interest.

The heroine’s fearless and clever character, the self-knowledge and self-possession her tormentors lack, and her gift for survival are fixed from first to last. She is sometimes thwarted but never altered. If this makes “The Book of Negroes” less psychologically complex than it otherwise might be, there are real pleasures and comforts to be had from it.

“The most capable woman I’ve ever seen,” New York innkeeper Sam Fraunces (Cuba Gooding Jr.), of Fraunces Tavern fame, calls her. (There is an old tradition, without much scholarly support, that Fraunces, who was nicknamed Black Sam, was of African descent; in any case, Hill goes with it.) Aminata holds on to her name; she trades slap for slap; no one can tell her what to do. She asks George Washington (a bit of an officious boob in this rendering), “Do you think the Negro will one day have his freedom like you Americans?”

“I’m afraid the general must be on his way,” his flack responds.

review by Robert Lloyd via latimes.com

THEATER: Actor John Douglas Thompson Triumphs in Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” at Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn

John Douglas Thompson in “Tamburlaine, Parts I and II.” CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times 

The mass-murdering title character of Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine,” a man proud to call himself “the scourge of God,” has never been big on apologies. Not for him the regretful introspection of short-tempered Shakespearean tyrants like Macbeth, Lear or even nasty old Richard III.

Self-knowledge, who needs it? Being a world conqueror means never having to say you’re sorry.

It feels only fitting that Michael Boyd’s improbably enjoyable “Tamburlaine, Parts I and II,” which opened on Sunday night at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, should make no excuses for its redemption-proof hero or for the long and bloody plays over which he rules.

Embodied by a truly titanic John Douglas Thompson in this Theater for a New Audience production, Tamburlaine is a force of nature in the sense that typhoons, tidal waves and earthquakes are. Would you ever try to explain why such phenomena behave as they do? All you can do is sit back open-mouthed, observing the carnage and ducking the flying body parts.

A whip-cracking John Douglas Thompson in “Tamburlaine, Parts I and II,” forcing former world leaders to pull his chariot. (Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Now who, you might ask, could possibly be entertained by such a sorry, gory epic of unrelenting destruction, in which power-crazed narcissists scramble for supremacy? Well, you might want to check the recent most-watched television and movie lists, or talk to the legions who binge on “Game of Thrones.”

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OPERA: South African Isango Ensemble Reimagines Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at New Victory Theater

Pauline Malefane, foreground, of the Isango Ensemble in a reimagining of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” at the New Victory Theater. (EMON HASSAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Less glockenspiel, more drumming! A very different sort of “The Magic Flute” took the stage at the New Victory Theater on Sunday afternoon in front of an attentive and appreciative family audience. This two-hour adaptation of Mozart’s fairy tale opera was presented under the Xhosa title “Impempe Yomlingo” by the South African Isango Ensemble, a company that recruits performers from townships in the Cape Town area and presents classics from the Western canon in an updated, African context.

But perhaps “updated” isn’t quite the right word: In the program notes, the show’s director, Mark Dornford-May, relates a myth from the Tsonga tradition about the andlati birds that live high in the mountains and cause terrifying storms and lightning. Only a hero brave enough to seek them out with a magic flute can appease them and avert destruction.

“The story may never have reached Mozart, but the similarities are fascinating nonetheless,” Mr. Dornford-May writes. “Who knows? Maybe one of the greatest pieces of European opera had its roots and inspiration in a South African folk tale.”

Certainly, few productions can match the colorful exuberance and pulsating energy of this “Flute,” or field as versatile a cast as this, in which every member sings, dances and drums. The bare set evokes a township square. The traditional orchestra is replaced by eight marimbas, supplemented by an array of percussion, including djembes, oil barrels, hand clapping and — standing in for Papageno’s glockenspiel — suspended water bottles of graduated pitches. Tamino’s flute is a trumpet, played with jazzy vigor by Mandisi Dyantyis, the ensemble’s co-music director and conductor.

The vocal performances were a testament to South Africa’s deep pool of singing talent. The notes were all there — Pauline Malefane courageously scaled the heights of the Queen of the Night’s arias; Mhlekazi Mosiea was a dignified Tamino; Ayanda Eleki, a proud, patriarchal Sarastro — even if there were times when they audibly strained the limits of the singers’ technique. But the cast offered portrayals with ample personality and charisma, among them Zolina Ngejane’s superfeisty Pamina and Zamile Gantana’s bon-vivant Papageno.

But this African “Flute” is, above all, a story of community, and the music, too, is at its most convincing where it draws on South Africa’s glorious choral tradition. If that means taking liberties with Mozart’s score, fine: Tamino’s taming of Monostatos and his posse of slaves suffers no injury by the infusion of a bit of calypso rhythm. The celebrations that greet Sarastro’s first appearance — complete with ululating women — are a jubilant riot.

The communal aspect also raises the stakes for the lovers’ trials, which are presented as a series of tribal initiation rites, with Tamino’s face painted white, like that of a tribal youngster embarking on a circumcision ritual. In traditional productions, this is often the part of the opera where the tension slackens, but in this post-apartheid setting, the young people’s quest for dignity, wisdom and reconciliation is shown to be of vital importance to everyone.

THEATER REVIEW: Craig Grant, aka “muMs”, Sets His Life Story to Hip-Hop in “A Sucker Emcee”

“A Sucker Emcee”: Craig Grant, also known as muMs, in his show at the Bank Street Theater. (Credit: Ruby Washington/The New York Times)

Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau set to a hip-hop beat, Craig Grant offers his confessions in “A Sucker Emcee,” produced by the Labyrinth Theater Company. While a D.J. (Rich Medina) moves between two turntables, scratching and spinning, Mr. Grant tells the story of his life in rhymed couplets.

Mr. Grant, also known as muMs, speaks in a gentle growl with just a trace of a native Bronx drawl, though he can send his voice swooping up and down the social register. Dressed in Nikes and a T-shirt proclaiming “The Truth,” he spends most of the show near the front of the bare stage, lips pressed close to a microphone.

Though he’ll occasionally speak as his mother, his father, a friend or a teacher, he spends most of the piece as simply himself, narrating youthful screw-ups with fondness and exasperation.

In some ways his story is standard bullet-point autobiography. He begins with his volatile Bronx childhood, darts through some dissolute college years, chronicles his subsequent ups and down as a rapper and actor (best known for his role in the HBO prison drama “Oz”) and finally returns, with hard-won maturity and grace, to the borough of his birth. So far, so familiar. But what adds urgency and fierce pleasure to the monologue, directed by Jenny Koons, is his debt to music. D.J.’s, it seems, saved Mr. Grant’s life. “Before hip-hop, I couldn’t speak,” Mr. Grant recalls. The music gave him a voice, a place, a future, helping him to “turn all that hate into a dance and a chant.”

Mr. Medina provides backing beats to Mr. Grant’s chants and sometimes helps him pay more direct homage to the heroes of his youth — KRS-One, Rakim, the Sugarhill Gang. Even when the show threatens to turn into some sort of lecture demonstration, it’s still pretty good fun, with Mr. Medina illustrating each style and technique while Mr. Grant narrates and occasionally threatens some B-boy moves.

Even when the story ends with Mr. Grant’s returning to the Bronx and caring compassionately for his aging mother, the beat and the applause don’t stop.

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