One was an understudy. One competed on a reality television show. One opened for Fleetwood Mac outcast Lindsey Buckingham. In 2018, these hardworking young artists caught the eye of a Star Tribune arts reporter or critic. And in 2019, they're poised to turn more heads with promising new exhibitions and albums, theater productions and concert dates, poems and comedy sets. Here are nine outstanding Twin Cities artists to discover in the new year.
Joy Dolo, actor/podcaster
Joy Dolo is an actor, an improviser. A stealer of scenes. In 2018, she stole bunches of them, performing with Ten Thousand Things and Sod House Theater, Mixed Blood Theatre and the Moving Company. And each month, she cracked up the crowd with Blackout Improv, an all-black comedy troupe that, after consistently selling out the Phoenix Theater, moved into Mixed Blood's bigger digs. Then, in the midst of "Is God Is" — a performance our critic and others praised — she became a podcast host. With each episode of "Forever Ago," a history podcast by American Public Medica, Dolo and a kid explore the history behind everyday objects — skateboards, shoes, emojis. She charms the young co-hosts, and us, too. "Omigod, I did have a busy year," Dolo said by phone, laughing. "It did feel like an opening of some kind." But this year, she predicts, will be better. She'll play an Oprah-inspired Gandalf in "The Hobbit" at the Children's Theatre. She'll collaborate on a new work. And she'll try a new role: assistant director. Oh! There's more. "I have something else in the fall," she added, "but I don't know if I can say it yet." Can't wait.
Jenna Ross, arts and culture reporter
Chris Kroeze, musician
Like St. Paul's Nicholas David, Chris Kroeze of Barron, Wis., had considerable barroom experience before landing in the finals of NBC's "The Voice." Like averaging 200 gigs a year, polishing those hot guitar licks and that tender tenor voice that can wail. There's no doubt that Kroeze knows his way around classic rock and classic country, the staples of bars in the hinterland. It's his guitar prowess that could set the 27-year-old "Voice" runner-up apart from all the other TV talent-show contestants over the years. Under the pressure of live TV, he held his own whether ripping off a fast, tasty solo with the Doobie Brothers or the studio pros in "The Voice" house band. Despite his biker look, the burly, bearded Kroeze is a teddy bear, with a sweet smile, bright eyes and playful eyebrows. And you couldn't get more touchy-feely than "Human," the new ballad he introduced on "The Voice" under the guidance of country kingpin Blake Shelton. Kroeze has already lined up some high-profile summer appearances at the huge Country Jam in Eau Claire, Wis., and opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing. Lest you think he is already getting too big for his jean jacket, he'll perform his first post-"Voice" concert on Feb. 22 at the Barron Area Community Center, the first venue in which he ever performed — for a middle-school talent show.
Jon Bream, music critic
Kiara Jackson, actor
"Wait, that's HER?" is the first thing I scribbled in my notebook after the second act of "Cardboard Piano" began last January at St. Paul's Park Square Theatre. I was talking about Kiara Jackson, whose work I was seeing for the first time in a major role. Actually, it turned out I was seeing the University of Minnesota graduate in two major roles in Hansol Jung's tricky new play. Before intermission, she was electric as a feisty lover whose romance must stay hidden in war-torn Uganda. After the break, she had transformed into a matter-of-fact minister's wife who learns her life is a lie. Two distinctive, indelible performances that were linked by the intelligence of the actor performing them. I regret that I missed Jackson as Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker" at Yellow Tree Theatre last fall, but I'm vowing not to make that mistake again.
Chris Hewitt, theater critic
Pao Houa Her, photographer
Pao Houa Her's artwork blends straightforward documentary-style photography with a sense of wonderment and illusion, creating new mythologies. Not only is she the first Hmong-American woman to receive an MFA in photography from Yale, but she's also been producing work nonstop. In 2018, the Blaine-based artist (represented by Minneapolis' Bockley Gallery) presented a solo exhibition at Midway Contemporary Art called "My Grandfather Turned Into a Tiger," a title that nods to family lore concerning her grandfather's death during the Vietnam War. She also was included in group shows at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston; the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, Thailand; the Front triennial in Cleveland, and the inaugural Elevation Laos "Depths" exhibition. There's more to come in 2019. In January, her solo show will travel to Platform Centre for Photographic and Digital Arts in Winnipeg. She also was chosen to participate in the prestigious Light Work Artist-in-Residence Program in Syracuse, N.Y., offered specifically to photographers.
Alicia Eler, art critic
J.S. Ondara, musician
He first gained attention locally in 2016 by releasing raw but ebullient Haley Bonar and Bob Dylan covers under a different name, Jay Smart. And then he spent 2018 touring as Lindsey Buckingham's and Anderson East's opener. Now, this Minneapolis transplant from Kenya is ready for his close-up under his own name with his own internationally touted debut album, "Tales From America," due Feb. 1 via the legendary Verve label (see also: Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald). Rolling Stone already gave him an artist-to-watch write-up that fittingly hyped his music as "if Dylan sang Odetta, and not the other way around." His status as a proud immigrant, which plays into several of his songs, also makes him an artist to listen to beyond just his remarkable singing talent. Ondara performs Jan. 19 at First Avenue for 89.3 the Current's birthday bash.
Chris Riemenschneider, music critic
Chloe Radcliffe, comedian
It usually takes a stand-up comic eight years to pack a punch on stage. Chloe Radcliffe has done it in half that time. When she started out, much of her humor circled around the striking birthmark on her face. But that kind of material can only take you so far — and Radcliffe knows it. She grew leaps and bounds in 2018, as both a monologuist and an emcee. No one introduces her peers with more gusto. Radcliffe's growing confidence is also evident by her relatively recent move to New York, where she's quickly becoming a regular on the club scene and has to be inching closer to snagging a coveted late-night TV appearance. The media website Thrillist recently named her Minnesota's best undiscovered comedian. Fortunately, she still performs in the Twin Cities on an almost monthly basis. Let's hope she keeps coming home after going big time.
Neal Justin, TV critic
Rajane Katurah Brown, actor
Fresh out of Spelman College, promising singer/actor Rajane Katurah Brown moved to the Twin Cities to be a performing apprentice at the Children's Theatre. She did a year of shows there, including spelling Paris Bennett as Dorothy in "The Wiz." But Brown really shone in 2018 next to Jamecia Bennett in "Marie and Rosetta," teaming up with the multiple Grammy winner to deliver strong acting and beautiful music. In the upcoming year, Brown has been cast in Ten Thousand Things' "Into the Woods" and "Cinderella" at CTC. She also got some good news over the holidays, news that will allay concerns about losing such a talent to New York or Chicago: The Children's Theatre has signed her to a contract as a company member.
Rohan Preston, theater critic
Hieu Minh Nguyen, poet
Hieu Minh Nguyen's poems rattle your brain, then refuse to leave it. Read these lines, from his 2018 book "Not Here," then just try to forget them: "I can't stop talking about desire./ I used to think of it as a pane of glass I would press my face against/ & then one day it came, one day I fell through." Or these: "No matter where we go, there's a history/ of white men describing a landscape/ so they can claim it. I look out the window/ & I don't see a sunset, I see a man's/ pink tongue razing the horizon." Thanks in part to this new collection, published by Coffee House Press, 2018 was a big year for the queer, Vietnamese-American, Minneapolis-based poet. Nguyen was awarded the prestigious Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. In June, the New York Times praised his poems, saying they "feel at once raw and ruthlessly condensed." That review ignored the usual distance between poet and speaker, detailing the abuse and racism Nguyen has encountered, noting his "talent for turning harsh memories into elegant verse." Nguyen hadn't been expecting the piece, he said by phone: "Reading that article and seeing the work and my life fuse together in someone else's mind was kind of an overwhelming thing." In January, Nguyen will graduate with an MFA from North Carolina's Warren Wilson College with the bones of what might become his next collection. But these days, he is creating without a product in mind. He's working on fiction, too, and screenwriting. "I like the idea of being able to write something that isn't so close to me."
Kenny Broberg, pianist
Concert pianists mature slowly, but 25-year-old Kenny Broberg has already sent sparks flying in the classical firmament. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Broberg began playing his parents' upright piano while still an infant, before studying with Joseph Zins at Crocus Hill Studios in St. Paul. Just 18 months ago, Broberg hit piano pay dirt by winning the silver medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. A string of international performance opportunities followed, including an impressive concerto debut with the Minnesota Orchestra. Broberg is currently completing his studies in Kansas City, but returns to the Twin Cities March 31 for his biggest home-state recital yet. His recital for the Frederic Chopin Society features works by Medtner, Debussy and Ravel along with Marc-André Hamelin's fiendishly difficult Toccata on "L'Homme Armé." Broberg has technique to burn, but it's his refined musicianship and platform manner that really mark him as a special prospect for the future.
Terry Blain, classical critic