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The works, memory and achievements of Amiri Baraka, the influential poet, playwright, essayist and cultural theorist who died Jan. 9 at 79, will be celebrated Saturday in the Twin Cities, a place where he had tremendous influence.
"Dutchman," Baraka's landmark play that was turned into a film, was the first work produced at Mixed Blood when the theater was founded by Jack Reuler in 1976. It was directed by Lou Bellamy, who would go on to found Penumbra Theatre.
Baraka gave frequent readings in the Twin Cities, often travelling with family members.
"Spirit Reach," as the tribute is titled, will be hosted by novelist, professor and educational theorist Alexs Pate, and Arleta Little, arts program officer at the McKnight Foundation.
The slate of performers includes multi-instrumentalist and composer Douglas Ewart, rapper Toki Wright, actor Sha Cage and dancer Leah Nelson.
The free event also will feature performances by such pre-eminent spoken word artists as Bao Phi, Tish Jones, J. Otis Powell, E.G. Bailey, Truthmaze, Andrea Jenkins and veteran poet Louis Alemayehu.
2-4 p.m. Sat., Capri Theater, 2027 W. Broadway, Mpls. 612-822-0015 or online. Admission is free.
POST BY CAROLINE PALMER, SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
Vanessa Voskuil’s “The Student” premiered Thursday night at The O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University. The evening-length work makes an impression, not only for its cast of over 150 dancers and singers but also for its strong conceptual vision, albeit one that is only partly realized. The thematic connections are both brilliant and tenuous. There are spellbinding moments of visual and kinetic harmony. And while ultimately “The Student” loses its way over the course of two hours, it still shows a fascinating journey through its creator’s mind.
This ritual-like work is built around the massing of groups of people engaged in repetitive movement and idiosyncratic breaks. As the performers enter the auditorium walking backwards they move with a sense of gravitas, slowly and purposefully, determined to maintain a respectful order. Their neutral-colored costumes and spare environment suggest a stark futuristic society, one in which emotions are stripped down and repurposed.
And that is an important point – Voskuil actually delves into an array of human states in “The Student” and yet they are not dramatic. The work, set to sternum stirring compositions from Janika Vandervelde and sound designer Jesse Whitney, is about the process of learning and, consequently, the process of becoming through learning. This evolution is deliberate, marked by visual and textual tableaux. We see hints of pioneering avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson’s influence here. Voskuil’s peeling back of layer upon layer of meaning from subtle sources reflects a shared approach.
“The Student” stands out for its intelligence and questioning spirit. Both Paul Herwig and Chris Conry ponder the existential quandaries Voskuil poses, but they also add wit and wordplay to the mix. There’s black humor in the recurring appearance of a hanging noose, complete with a cardboard cutout of Voskuil. The performers sit and scribble in the air around them, rote learners eventually overwhelmed by the task. A gorgeous sense of flow unfolds as movement ripples through the crowds onstage, especially as the performers roll from the back of the stage and fall into the orchestra pit, as if controlled by a force far bigger than them. And they are – Voskuil, despite her slight frame, is a powerful presence with a command of how to move large groups of people for her creative ends.
But the work has diminishing returns, despite an injection of impressive voice work from members of the Perpich Center for Arts Education Chorale Ensemble, Hamline University Women’s Chorale and St. Catherine’s University Women’s Choir. The questioning grows weary in its circularity and the work struggles to find an ending. The themes become repetitive and less interesting, too self-involved. In some respects one could argue this is the moment of mastery, when everyone in the piece (and watching it, too) finds an answer. But Voskuil’s intentions are not that pat. The process of learning often reveals nothing more than the need to continue searching.
“The Student” will be performed again Friday, April 4 at 7:30 p.m. For information go to http://oshag.stkate.edu.
The cast of "Mr. Burns, a post-electric Play" at Playwrights Horizons last year./Photo from Playwrights Horizons.
All’s Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare reminded us. And it appears that a potential loss for Park Square Theatre’s 2014-15 season has a reasonably happy ending, thanks to cooperation from the Guthrie.
Park Square had announced an ambitious line-up of 19 projects for what will be the company’s first season with two stages. “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,” by Anne Washburn, was slated for the new 200-seat thrust stage and it felt like a real coup to snare this buzzy play to christen the new space.
Show business, though, can be a weird deal. Park Square had a deal with Samuel French to produce the play but in a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, another agent and the playwright had been negotiating with the Guthrie and ACT in San Francisco for an agreement that would guarantee the play’s Twin Cities premiere at the big blue house.
“We had received a contract for the show, it was a done deal,” said Richard Cook, Park Square’s artistic director. “He [the Sam French agent] was commanded to officially yank the license.”
Guthrie Director Joe Dowling said it was one of those "bizarre situations. Inevitably, because the Guthrie is larger, the playwright wants it here because the royalties will be bigger."
The Guthrie and Park Square had a similar situation two years ago when Cook signaled an early interest in the play “Stick Fly,” which had Broadway all tingly. In that case, Cook thought he had exclusive talking rights with the playwright and her agent, while the publishing house was involved with another potential deal that would have involved the Guthrie and Penumbra. When the dust settled, Park Square produced “Stick Fly” last fall.
This time, it was obvious the Guthrie was going to get “Mr. Burns” and that might have been the end of the story. However, in conversations over the rights, Cook told Dowling that Park Square had once wanted the rights to “4,000 Miles,” a dramatic comedy by Amy Herzog. Again, the Guthrie had the rights and, Dowling said, the play was "definitely being considered for production."
But Dowling called Cook and offered to work together to transfer the rights to Park Square. So the St. Paul theater gets the Herzog play, which had been a Pulitzer finalist in 2013. On Monday, Cook signed Gary Gisselman to direct.
“Joe was wonderfully gracious,” Cook said.
Dowling said the co-production with ACT-San Francisco will be part of the Guthrie season, expected to be announced next week. The plan is to put "Mr. Burns” on the proscenium stage.
Fans filled the seats at the Cowles Center on Sunday night to celebrate James Sewell Ballet co-founder Sally Rousse. “Sally Jubilee!” marked the dancer/choreographer’s 50th birthday and the end of an era as she is moving on from the company after 24 years. So it was only fitting that the evening began with a tongue-in-cheek eulogy from animator Bill Burnett, who created the cartoon "Tutu the Superina" for Nickelodeon with Rousse.
“She who danced has gone on to join the other late greats in ballet heaven,” he intoned. “Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Travolta.” Of course the joke is that none of these folks have passed on but people react to career changes like they are a sort of death.
Video of Rousse and Sewell working out moves early in their partnership showed two young innovators with a lot of creative chutzpah. When they stepped onstage Sunday night to perform the beautiful duet “Tryst” each showed that the passage of life events – including their marriage, two children and divorce – can deepen an onstage bond.
While there were many tender moments including the return of former Sewell members Christian Burns and Brittany Fridenstine-Keefe the evening was also filled with plenty of fond jokes at Rousse’s expense. According to Sewell her studio nickname is “tree frog” because of an uncanny ability to climb around on other dancers’ bodies. Dancer/choreographer Penelope Freeh, a Sewell Ballet member for 17 years, recalled how Rousse hopped into the cab of an idling beer truck blocking an alleyway in order to move it so they load up their car for a tour. “The driver was dumbstruck,” said Freeh, “But it got the job done.”
And speaking of making things happen, Patrick Scully, who introduced contact improvisation to the Sewell Ballet, described Rousse’s activist spirit by recounting how the petite ballerina stood up to the Cowles Center architects who were entertaining the notion of having the dancers use the same bathrooms as the patrons.
Perhaps the funniest scene of the night, however, belonged to the performance trio Mad King Thomas (Theresa Madaus, Tara King and Monica Thomas) wearing tutus and toe shoes, assuming ballet poses while reciting a list of wild rumors about why Rousse was leaving Sewell Ballet. “She was fired,” they hissed. “She was hit by a bus! She slept with the boss! She’s moving to a cattle ranch in Australia where the cattle are in dances narrated by Hugh Jackman! She had Hugh Jackman’s baby! She quit and tore up all the costumes! It was a frenzy of tulle!” It was a brilliant send-up of the dance scene’s catty side.
Many expressions of appreciation for Rousse came from the heart. Freeh described Rousse’s willingness to share her roles with other dancers. Longtime friend, the poet Heid Erdrich, called her “intrepid not tepid.” All of the evening’s performers waltzed with Rousse while wearing costumes from her roles (including Sewell modeling Rousse’s hamburger tutu and French-fry headpiece from 2011’s “Le Dance Off”). Former Sewell and current Minnesota Dance Theatre member Justin Leaf serenaded Rousse with a sweet rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
The show concluded with Rousse and Noah Bremer of Live Action Set dancing an excerpt from a work they are developing for the American Swedish Institute. “What’s next?” he asked Rousse. “It’s in the lobby!” she exclaimed, while being carried off funeral-style by her fellow dancers. The Brass Messengers struck up a festive march.It was time for birthday cupcakes.
Some Twin Cities performing arts venues have come in for severe criticism in recent years over issues involving inclusion, diversity and casting — issues that confront the field nationally.
The Children’s Theatre came into the cross-hairs for its casting of “Disney’s Mulan, Jr.” The Guthrie was critiqued for lack of gender and racial diversity for its celebratory 50th-anniversary season. And the Ordway was upbraided for booking “Miss Saigon,” perhaps the biggest theater tour in terms of employment for Asian or Asian-American actors but one whose characters are deemed to be problematic.
Yet at this moment, this last week of March, 2014, the offerings of major stages in the Twin Cities have never been more diverse. (And all the shows are commendable.)
Over at the Ordway, which has made conscious strides to address historical disparities, there is a sterling Broadway tour production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” That staging, directed by Diane Paulus and starring Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran (above, photo courtesy of the Ordway), harmonizes operatic, gospel and musical theater voices in a spectacular show.
The Guthrie Theater is a veritable festival of diversity. All shows on its three stages look like a mosaic of America. Director Marion McClinton’s “Othello,” playing on the Wurtele Thrust, stars Peter Macon as the title character and includes Regina Marie Williams, Sun Mee Chomet and Kurt Kwan, among others. (Macon is pictured, left, opposite Stephen Yoakam's Iago in a photo by Joan Marcus.)
Director Lou Bellamy’s excellent production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” which stars Erika LaVonn and James T. Alfred, opened Friday in the McGuire Proscenium.
Upstairs in the Dowling Studio, Caryle Brown has written, directed and produced “Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House,” a fanciful and engaging one-act in which the fictional character urges the 16th president to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. James A. Williams plays a magisterial Uncle Tom while Steve Hendrickson delivers a spot-on portrayal of Lincoln.
For its part, the Children’s Theatre has “The Scarecrow and His Servant,” which has a diverse cast that includes new company member Traci Allen Shannon and two performing apprentices. (The show stars Dean Holt and Brandon Brooks as the title characters.)
Walker Art Center just hosted Campanhia Urbana de Danca, from Brazil, in its McGuire Theater. The company, whose members live in Brazil's favelas, offer hip hop dance from a global perspective.
At the History Theatre, Austene Van has directed a diverse cast in Helen Benedict's "Lonely Soldiers." The ensemble includes Jamecia Bennett (right, photo by Scott Pakudaitis), Hope Cervantes, Yiana Rhazzie and Santino Craven.
Last week, Threads Dance Company performed with Sweet Honey in the Rock at Cowles Center, a venue that regularly showcases diverse talent.
No one moment is representative of an ecology. Still, this one is worth noting.
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