Much Ado About Some Things

May-June 2016

Events   Literary News
Beckett’s Happy Days at Yale
Apr. 29-May 21; New Haven, CT: Yale Repertory Theatre performs Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days about talkative, optimistic Winnie. Stuck up to her waist in a mound of scorched earth in Act 1, up to her neck in Act II, she prattles on to her laconic husband, who lives in a hole behind the mound. Click here for details.

African Hamlet from the RSC
May 1-Aug. 13; Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s first black actor to play Hamlet, Pappa Essiedu stars in a version reset in Africa, with a focus on Prince Hamlet’s indecision. Did his uncle kill the Prince's father and when is it time to exact revenge? Click here for more details.

Don Quixote Spinoff at SMC
May 19-29; Santa Monica, CA:
The Santa Monica College Theater Department performs Man of La Mancha, a 1964 musical spinoff of the play I, Don Quixote and of Cervantes’s original novel. In the musical, imprisioned by the Spanish Inquisition, Quixote defends himself by staging a play within the play. For more details, click here.

Hamlet Spinoff at Oregon State U
May 12-14, May 20-22; Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Theatre performs Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, about two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who, in-between its scenes, tell jokes and have talks on free will, death, and more. Click here for details.

Austen Femme Fatale Onscreen
May 12, 27; Los Angeles, CA and New York, NY: Retitled Love & Friendship, Austen's unpublished Lady Susan comes to U.S. cinemas, opening first on the East and West Coasts. Kate Beckinsale stars as the unscrupulous, newly widowed Lady Susan, who angles for husbands for herself and her daughter. Click for first screenings in L.A. and New York.

An All-Female Taming in NY

May 24-June 26; New York, NY:
Public Theater opens its 2016 Shakespeare in the Park season at Delacorte Theater with an all-female production of the Bard’s Taming of the Shrew, about marriageable Bianca and older sister Katherina, who’s far from marriageable until she meets her match in the wily Petruchio. Click here for details.

Stratford Distills Bard's Histories

May 30, 31—Sept. 24; Stratford, ON: Breath of Kings: Rebellion distills two Shakespeare plays into one: Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. In the first, fellow nobles force Richard to abdicate. In the second, successor Henry and his unruly son, Hal, defend control of the throne. In the sequel, Breath of Kings: Redemption, which combines Henry IV, Part 2 to Henry V, first the unruly prince “sobers up." Then he conquers France and woos its princess. Click here for details.

Asian Winter’s Tale at OSF
June 9-Oct. 16; Ashland, OR: Oregon Shakespeare Festival stages an Asian and Asian American The Winter’s Tale that resets the tragicomedy in dynastic China and the American Old West. King Leontes, convinced that his innocent wife is guilty of adultery, punishes her and their unborn daughter at the cost of years of separation and the life of their son.
For more details, click here.

Two Gentlemen at Tulane U
June 18-July 2; New Orleans, LA: The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University performs Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare's comedy about the friendship of Proteus and Valentine and their love for the same woman.
For performance details, click here.

Othello in the American Civil War
June 24-Sept. 17; Vancouver, B.C., Canada: Bard on the Beach resets Shakespeare’s Othello, about a black general who succumbs to blind jealousy, in the American Civil War. As in the original, underling Iago convinces the newly married Othello that his white wife is committing adultery, to disastrous effect. Click here for performance details.

Rose Tattoo at Williams College
June 28-July 17; Wiliamstown, MA: First up at the Williamstown Theatre Festival is Marisa Tomei in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tatto. A grieving Italian American widow withdraws from the world and expects her daughter to follow suit. Then a hot-blooded trucker arrives at the door. Click here for more details.

Ma Rainey at the National
May 1-18; London, England: Winner of the 2016 Olivier Award for Best Revival, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is slice-of-life social history. See the article to the right for a summary and show clip. For more details, click here.

  Pulitzer Prizes 2016
April 18, 2016, saw the announcement of Pulitzer Prizes for excellence in American letters and drama. The award consists of a certificate and $10,000 in prize money to each of the winners. Below are descriptions of the winning titles in six literary categories:

POETRY Ozone Journal by Peter Balakian
Both intensely personal and sweeping, a collection of 17 poems features the titular "Ozone Journal," whose speaker remembers excavating the bones of Armenian genocide victims in the Syrian desert for TV's 60 Minutes in 2009. The task triggers the speaker's memories of 1990s Manhattan and a cousin dying of AIDs. Other poems, as well, are full of historically evocative images—for example, Andy Warhol's portrait of communist leader Mao Zedong in "Warhol/Mao, '72": "I saw his face on a wall / at a party in a parlor looking out on the Hudson, / at a fundraiser for the winter soldiers / over blocks of cheese and baguettes...."

GENERAL NONFICTION Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
The history profiles the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, focusing in part on insiders such as Dr. Basel al-Sabha, who treated Zarqawi in prison. Highlighted are missteps by the U.S, among them, the linking of Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, which gives Zarqawi first a cause, then a battleground that helps catapult him to fame.

BIOGRAPHY Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
From childhood in California and Hawaii to mature adulthood in New York, Finnegan documents his surfing career and world search for the perfect wave. Living in tents, cars, and cheap apartments, painfully aware of being a rich, white American in dirt-poor places where people covet what he's left behind, he finally discovers the holy grail of a wave in a memoir full of unprecedented surfing descriptions: "The straight-overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended above the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing...."

DRAMA Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Describing the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton through rap, hip-hop, and R & B ballads, the musical creates a sense of perpetual motion on the part of young rebels shaping the future of an unformed America. Aaron Burr, Hamilton's nemesis, narrates. The production is history-making in that it changes the traditional image of Hamilton, and stars black and Hispanic actors, who lay claim to the history as their own.

HISTORY Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles
What's new about this history is its focus not on Custer's death at age 36 at Little Bighorn, but on his life. Graduating last in his class at West Point, Custer fails at some endeavors but distinguishes himself as a brilliant tactical leader in the Civil War. He's complex: vain, romantic, reckless, brave, flamboyant, insecure, self-serving. While he's respectful to his ex-slave domestic, Eliza Brown, he's also bigoted and ruthless to deserters and Plains Indians. Little Bighorn is an afterthought in this history, relegated to an epilogue.

FICTION The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The novel distinguishes itself for de-Americanizing the portrayal of the Vietnam War. An adult narrator, born to a Vietnamese mother and French father, is a Communist agent for an old school chum in the North. Working undercover, the narrator spies on another old chum in the South, who, after the (gripplingy described) fall of Saigon, immigrates to Los Angeles. The narrator follows, in order to spy on ex-patriate activity. His postwar adventures take him from filmmaking, to assassinations, to an anti-Communist plot against the regime in Vietnam. During this last adventure, the narrator goes temporarily insane in an experience that leads to some penetrating insights on the nature of revolution.


Ma Rainey's
Revival in the UK

Aristotle would be pleased. On the London stage now is an African American masterpiece that observes his rules for drama, or the rules derived from his theories: one action, one place, one 24-hr time. The show is a National Theatre revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A blues singer makes an album in a Chicago recording studio one day in 1927. A deceptively simple play by August Wilson, the drama drives home how racism victimized black musicians in the jazz age. The focus is on the musicians themselves, whose views unfold gradually and build to an explosive climax. And the effect, in this stellar revival, is transformative. Reaching beyond the historical era, the production sheds light on racial violence today.

Sharon D. Clarke portrays Ma Rainey. She's a formidable presence, sassy and savvy, this "Mother of the Blues" Like Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's tragedy, her aura is felt long before her entrance, almost halfway through the play. Before then, we meet her black band (ages 40s-60s): book-smart pianist Toledo (played by Lucian Msamati), bassist Slow Drag (Giles Terera), trombonist Cutler (Clint Dyer): "One … two … you know what to do," chants Cutler to start off a song. And they do indeed know what to do. So does a younger, fourth musician, the band's trumpeter, Levee, (O.T. Fagbenle). In his early 30s, Levee comes in sporting a pair of new, highly-prized shoes. Ambitious, argumentative, he's anxious to update the ensemble's early jug-band sound. Will Ma Rainey record his new version of "Black Bottom" or her old one? As they wait, the four men shoot the breeze, divulging tidbits from the past: At age 8, one saw his mother raped; another’s wife left him for religion's sake. Present-day tidbits surface too, with help from two whites, the studio owner, Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie), and Ma Rainey’s manager, Irvin (Finbar Lynch). Rainey finally storms into the tri-level studio in a tumult. There's been an accident involving a white cabbie, who isn't about to "haul no colored folks" in his car "if you want to know the truth of it." True to his mantra, Irvin, her white manager, "handles" the matter, then moves on to record Ma Rainey and the band—after she gets her promised Coca-Cola. We glimpse softer sides of Rainey too. But to the whites, every inch the diva, she milks her fame, knowing full well that the respect they show her is contingent on the money she earns them. Her records sell. So she barks and they deliver. Let her have her Coke, her entourage (girlfriend Dussie Mae, nephew Sylvester), the version of "Black Bottom" she prefers, her nephew (who stutters) record a few lines on her album, her payment in cash instead of checks. Shrewdly not signing a release until then, Rainey gets all that she wants. But ambitious Levee does not. White studio owner—surprise, surprise—reneges on his promises to the hopeful Levee. The band is crestfallen for him too—you see it on their faces. And in the end, the results are catastrophic for one of them, in a production that is universally acclaimed for its spot-on performances, with one quibble about the set: Some playgoers object, albeit mildly, to the "disruptive" way the rehearsal basement (under the recording studio, which itself sits under a sound booth) keeps appearing and disappearing from below the stage.

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