April 2018: Gym for the Soul

polka horse

“While You Were Sleeping” from Toni Hamel’s “Land of Id” series. Via Toner Magazine


Texas has signed a bill into law that prohibits the state institutions from contracting with businesses or individuals who are boycotting Israel. Seriously: you have to sign a contract that includes language asserting that you do not support the boycott. I guess it passed a few months ago, but it just came to my attention when a Facebook friend saw the language in one of his own contracts. He was freelancing was at the University of Houston, my former employerthey didn’t create the policy, but since they receive state funding, they have to comply. He’s in an ongoing lawsuit about it… the whole thing is baffling, since it’s so blatantly unconstitutional.


“Dragon Lady,” written, directed, and performed by Sarah Porkalob
OBERON, March 22-24


Sarah Porkalob (right) and her grandmother, Maria, titular “dragon lady.” Photo via BosFilipinos.com

I completely forgot to include this show in last month’s round-up, which is nuts because it’s kind of an unforgettable show. In this one-woman musical, performer/activist Sarah Porkalob hilariously and poignantly portrays at least 10 of her family members, framed by her grandmother recounting her past on the eve of her 60th birthday. Porkalob is a totally wonderful performer, physical and sharp, and the band lifted the whole enterprise to a new level. Do see her if she tours your town.


I did 250 interviews in four geographic areas of the country. I didn’t know anything about the school-to-prison pipeline, so it all surprised me. I had to open up my learning curve about that. Everything I began to hear, including the language, was new to me. For example, I didn’t anticipate that, as I looked at school discipline, I would learn things about trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences scores, stress, how poverty affects not only emotional development but also cognitive development…. This play is meant to be what it is, a film, a work of art that I hope will excite people who have different resources and different kinds of abilities than I do to make a difference.

— Anna Deavere Smith on “Notes in the Field” in an interview for the Washington Post

On my birthday, I saw Anna Deavere Smith perform “Notes in the Field” at Boston College, a filmed version of which recently came out on HBO. In it, she performs as about 10 of the people she interviewed (the movie has more than the live version I saw). The live performance was more of a hybrid lecture, with Smith giving a conversational introduction to each different character she portrayed—no costume changes, no set pieces. She moved more seamlessly from character to character in the HBO version, aided by projections, costume changes, and even the odd musician (the characters were introduced with captions).

Whereas she had to ask the live audience if we had seen the video of Freddie Gray being beaten, shackled, and tossed in the back of a paddy wagon by the police—sustaining injuries from which he later died, including an almost totally severed spinal cord—in the film, we watched the video together. Emotionally and artistically speaking, that was the most significant difference. She says in the WaPo interview that she hopes the film can be used in classrooms—I agree that that could be a great place for it.


You can’t force people to collect the “correct” art, of course…. as local gallerist Hilde Lynn Helphenstein told me, “Immediately in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the market made a clear pronouncement that it is still focused on work which is sexually exploitative of female representation.” Yet, is it really a shocker that the pretty paintings of pretty young ladies were snapped up faster than the [“Propaganda Pots”]?

“Who’s Afraid of the Female Nude?” by Michael Slenske and Molly Langmuir for The Cut

I’m not terribly interested in this article’s central question—”Can a male artist still paint a female nude,” I mean, isn’t that a rehash of “can men even talk to women now”?—but the exploration is a fascinating ride. Since part three is a quiz, presenting paintings and asking the reader to guess the sex of the artist (I got most of them wrong), the reader feels guided into a conclusion that genitals ultimately don’t affect representation in contemporary art the way the #MeToo movement might suggest. It seems like two different questions regarding the male vs. female gaze. But overall, the disorientation from one section of this article to the next is intentional. Interesting perspectives all the way through, nonetheless.


Anne Bogart describes the theatre as a gym for the soul, where both artists and audiences practice empathy, but what does it mean to empathize? These two shows remind the audience that empathy requires work and that “to empathize” is an action, not simply some magical feeling that appears. 

“A Guide to Constructing Empathy” by James Wyrwicz for HowlRound, reviewing “Say Something Bunny!” by Alison S.M. Kobayashi and “Margarete” by Janek Turkowski. Both shows incorporate found audio/visual footage and reconstruct the lives of their subjects, with the writers/performers taking an active part in that construction. 


Another pattern that I’ve noticed while observing other people—like white rock critics assessing hip-hop, men explaining women to themselves, or Torontonians who once visited Thailand debating the ketchup content of Pad Thai—is that people who aren’t marginalized in some way love appointing themselves the authenticity police of those who are, often with a passion and confidence that’s inversely proportionate to their actual knowledge. 

There is something about the word “real,” though, that hits me specifically as an autistic human. 

“Real Autism” by Sarah Kurchak for Hazlitt


I realized that what I don’t like about this picture is the “equity” slide is accommodating for height differences. It is perpetuating the differences we are trying to address with equity are inherently biological. It continues this dangerous narrative that racial equity is “helping” people of color and communities of color because we are inherently and biologically deficient. 

“Can We Stop Using the Box Graphic When We Talk About Racial Equity?” by Heidi Schillinger for Fakequity. Just realized this article is a year old, but it’s still relevant!


I don’t want to parent like I pick stocks. For too long, I think white kids like I was have been taught that equality is simply a matter of getting all the best stuff for people of color, or poor people, too, rather than reckoning with the notion that equality may actually require white, rich kids to have less. Even more, that having less might feel far better, less toxic, less distracting, less like there is a story underneath the story that no one is telling you. And it makes you feel kind of crazy and undeserving of all that has been given to you because, guess what, you kind of are undeserving — in the sense that no one in a just world would justify some kids having so much more than other kids. Except we do. Because we’re lost. And moving too fast.

“Stop Asking and Answering Other People’s Questions” by Courtney E. Martin for On Being. A good mix of stories here about parents’ school choices for their kids. 


While death positivity takes many forms, a major tenet of this movement is the advocation for a “good death,” a death that is in line with one’s own individual values…. But it’s not always this simple. It’s true that categorizing any death as “good” is radical in our death-fearing society, but lurking behind this movement is a complicated disparity and dichotomy: A good death is often a privileged one, and the bad deaths — the violent, untimely, unexpected and patterned deaths — are disproportionately experienced by the country’s most marginalized people.

“Who Gets To Have A ‘Good Death’?” by Tessa Love for The Establishment


The writers of The Lion King admitted to recognizing certain similarities between their tale and Hamlet, once they decided that Scar would be Mufasa’s brother. They even leaned on that similarity for a time while scripting before dispensing with it. But people still call out The Lion King for being an animated version of Hamlet, and argue the point constantly. Why? Because an uncle kills his brother for the throne and is eventually unseated by his nephew? It’s a pretty basic comparison. Plenty of stories do this kind of thing. Unless Simba actually struggles with madness, I’m not seeing much of a parallel.

“What We Mean When We Call Something ‘Shakespearean'” by Emily Asher-Perrin for TOR. Interesting piece in general, but immortalized because I hate it when people say that “The Lion King” is an adaptation of “Hamlet,” and Asher-Perrin is on the same page. Themes exist, people.