4 arts justice reads, 1 play, 3 books, 8 drag queens, 1 travelogue, 1 batch of jumbled thoughts from a representation-in-the-arts panel, 1 stubborn poem
“You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders.”
— Mary Beard in the London Review of Books: a long but good read about women in power, in literature and real life.
“Millennial artists and arts managers are starving, broke, indebted, overworked, and wholly taken advantage of by this industry. We have to work other jobs just to be able to afford to work in the theatre. There is no way ‘in.’ It’s increasingly difficult to make the work, to show work, to develop your craft, and secure the funds or pay out of pocket to fulfill the kind of call to action that was being solicited. How can we continue to encourage people to dream this dream? Would you encourage your loved ones to keep driving a car that is running on fumes? How can you eat when everyone is starving?”
— Genée Coreno, my former summer internship roommate and “Lee Miller” in my one-act play, wrote a brave and much-needed treatise for HowlRound.
“[Women] are conditioned to ever prove ourselves, as if our value is contingent on our ability to meet the expectations of others. As if our worth is a tank forever draining that we must fill and fill. We complete tasks and in some half-buried way believe that if we don’t, we will be discredited. Sometimes, this is true. But here is a question: Do you want to be a reliable source of literary art (or whatever writing you do), or of prompt emails?”
— Melissa Febos, hitting dangerously close to home on Catapult.
“These images are cliché and hackneyed, because there’s no specificity beyond location—just an opportune moment to display poor subjects needing divine intervention. This is precisely what photography in this moment needs not to do. It needs to be more generous and less exploitive.”
— Seph Rodney at Hyperallergic on Alex Majoli’s documentary photographs and the aestheticization of suffering.
“Let the Right One In”
Play at the Alley Theatre (National Theatre of Scotland, directed by John Tiffany)
Film (2008, directed by Tomas Alfredson)
I’ve always been too scared to watch the film versions of this adolescent vampire love story, but figured the stage version couldn’t possibly be as frightening. I was right—only one or two jump scares. But the film was also not as scary as I had feared, although that may be because I knew what was coming.
The original story is set in Sweden, but the Scottish theatre company’s heavy accents and still-barren set had a similar affect for an American audience. The set was a climbable forest of birches and the industrial jungle gym where Oskar and Eli meet, with rolling gym lockers and trunks to transform locations (include a dramatic “swimming pool” tank). The whole thing had a very “national theatre” feel to it, with a soaring soundtrack by Olafur Arnald that becomes an additional character and John Hoggett’s choreographed exhortations of emotions in what is, in non-theatrical truth, a very stark story reflected in stark dialogue, mostly between children.
I did appreciate John Tiffany’s direction much more than in his 2013 production of “The Glass Menagerie” at the ART (read more about my feelings on that). I learned that J.K. Rowling specifically wanted him to direct “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” after seeing his “Let the Right One In”; such was the mastery in which he captured the nature of adolescent romance.
Too bad they couldn’t do the cat attack/burst into flames move on stage, though. Also, in the final train scene (totally beautiful onstage), Oskar appeared to have aged into an adult. But in the film, he’s clearly the same 12-year-old, which didn’t pack the same punch of permanent devotion. Film to stage adaptations are always interesting (page to film to stage, in this case); it’s such a clear illustration of how artists’ choices affect the final effect.
“The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press, 2015
The style of this unconventional memoir is totally pleasing: nonlinear, self-referential, comfortably academic. And sexy. And short enough to not become a drag. This is the first time I’ve expressly thought of a book as considerate in its intellectual and personal fervor. I’d never read anything quite like it.
“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan
I read somewhere that the book (which will soon be a film) is “a cross between Jane Austen and ‘Gossip Girl,'” and I can’t really top that description. My contribution: I know I’ve described books in the past as “perfect airplane books” without it being a compliment, exactly. I thought I might be the case with “Crazy Rich Asians,” but by two thirds of the way through I was totally invested, and stayed up way too late to find out what happened. At 403 pages it should take most of a long flight to read–although its descriptions of lavish air travel may be too painful if you’re flying coach. Still, Kwan’s prose is an escape into a very specific world not often depicted in novels, walking a fine line between celebrating and condemning excess.
Oh, I remember where I read that Jane Austen/Gossip Girl comparison: I clicked on this article featuring the newly-cast (and gorgeous) male lead for the film. No regrets.
“Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin, 2006
I want to see the musical when it comes to Houston, so I figured I’d better read the book first. Expertly sad and lovely, like everyone has been saying since it was published. The narrative alone is compelling, but the illustrations make it transcendent. Looking forward to playing the “how will they adapt it” game when the musical comes to Houston in May—a la “Let the Right One In” this month—although given how quickly I teared up at the 2015 Tony performance of the song “Ring of Keys,” outcomes look good.
The RuPaul’s Drag Race Hater’s Roast
In 2012, RuPaul’s Drag Race officially replaced Project Runway as my must-see reality show. Just have to note that the “Hater’s Roast” is a fabulous event featuring some of the best contestants and, dare I say it, way more fun than just watching lip-syncing performances. Highly recommend to all fans (deep cuts from the show make it not entirely newb-friendly) if the tour comes to your city.
Paul and I drove to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara for spring break—my first time in California. Unfortunately I was sick with a sort throat/cold for most of it and didn’t have the energy to plan excursions as effectively as usual (I can’t believe we didn’t go to LACMA, I blame Sudafed). But it was surreal to see the Hollywood sign, hike up to Griffith Observatory, and see some favorite comedians (we were in the audience for this edition of “Put Your Hands Together” podcast). We saw dear friends, my uncle ,and the Pacific ocean. We resisted so much merchandise at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, although I did get a butter beer.
People have told me that LA is similar to Houston in some ways, and they’re right: it’s huge and sprawling, has awful traffic, and is unreasonably hot. But the scenery is far more beautiful, the highways are wind-y (not sure if that’s a positive, just different), and it has the Pacific instead of the Gulf. And then there’s Houston’s humidity, and Texas senators… maybe it’s wisest to stop comparisons there.
But, here’s a good Houston thing:
I’m not an opera fan and didn’t see the Houston Grand Opera’s (HGO) production of “Nixon in China.” But the Houston Chronicle’s theater critic Wei-Huan Chen did, and while I have characteristically and pettily pegged him as another “breathless Houston theater critic” (how dare you praise something I didn’t like that one time), he is one of the best writers in town and wrote a great critique of the HGO’s use of yellow-face in the production. (Best to read the original article before reading on.)
With that in mind, I jumped at the chance to attend “Representations and 21st Century Responsibilities in the Performing Arts” at the Asia Society on March 31. I love panels. They’re like the internet come alive, except everyone is forced to have real credentials and bear real embarrassment for boneheaded comments. While the event was sparked by Chen’s review, organizers took pains to bill it as a general discussion. But with artistic director of HGO Patrick Summers onstage, I was expecting some direct confrontation.
Of course, that didn’t really happen. The most cringe-worthy moments actually came from other panelists, from my point of view, but it was still disappointing that Summers wasn’t taken to task more handily for at least one question. I don’t mean pitchforks, but couldn’t we have one moment of consequence? Despite the explicit defining of “yellow-face” and “whitewashing” for the discussion, yellow-face didn’t come up at all until the Q&A.
Before Chen could ask his question, an elderly lady (and seeming HGO ringer) asked a question that gave Summers the opportunity to say that he never considers race while casting singers. Her mic wasn’t working properly and she was hurried off, but I heard catches of “horrible Houston Chronicle writer” and an accusation that Chen said that singers should only be cast to characters of their own race. This is a shitty and sadly typical interpretation of the argument, and I wish the panel had challenged her framing.
Granted, I’m not an arts administrator whose organization’s fate rests on the shoulders of subscribers like her. Plus, Q&As are a monstrous time-suck, and the panelists may have felt they couldn’t afford the time. Still, this oversight is in line with Chen’s comment a few moments later: that this feel-good discourse is a get-out-of-racism-free card for “nodding white people.”
The rest of Chen’s question went something like “why is it that no one was talking about this before I wrote the review,” and he was promptly shut down by moderator Sixto Wagan. (Full disclosure: Sixto and I have worked together a few times at UH). “Why is nobody talking about this,” also a noted clickbait headline tool, discounts activists and administrators who have been working on these issues for their whole careers—”probably longer than you’ve been alive,” said Sixto. “This panel and these issues are bigger than just one production.”
It was difficult to come away with a clear takeaway (expected), but from the discussion, it seems like the choice of what to produce and what is written in the first place is the root of the issue—topics far larger than the discussion at hand. Why did HGO choose to do “Nixon in China” if they weren’t going to make an effort to be culturally sensitive? Summers did say they are going to form a task force for future productions, and that they are dedicated to informed dialogue while shaping each production, so that’s something. The panelists’ range of perspectives and experiences, at least, made for an interesting evening. I’m grateful for all Houston artists, administrators, and writers who keep nodding white people uncomfortable and aware.
Poem stuck in my head, maybe because of this illustration series:
“Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.