Three years ago, The Ark was set to be the venue for the Midwest premiere of The Fourth Messenger, a musical with a modern perspective on the life and teachings of the Buddha. Then the pandemic hit and the musical was canceled.
Now, almost three years to the day, The Fourth Messenger, with book and lyrics by Tanya Shaffer and music and additional lyrics by Vienna Teng, will finally get its Midwest premiere at The Ark on March 18. The concert-style performance will be a benefit for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s popular home for folk, jazz, and alt-country.
In an interview with Shaffer in 2020, she described what inspired the musical while she was on a spiritual retreat.
“The idea came to me on a nine-day silent retreat when I was supposed to be clearing my mind,” she said. “I was thinking about the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, where he was found under a tree and vowed not to get up until he found enlightenment. Then for many days and nights, all the temptations of the world are trying to get him up. And it came to me that it would be cool as a song and dance, the temptations standing under a tree and then thinking the whole story would be a musical because it has that scale of a hero’s quest, and so I got excited on the retreat and for many hours forgot about my breath and I thought about the musical.”
Shaffer didn’t pursue the idea for another five years. She said she had trouble deciding how to handle the story about the historical Buddha and his teachings.
“I started to think how would people view this story if it was a woman, and I wanted to update it and make it feel very relevant and contemporary,” Shaffer said. “So it took me five years to find my way into it and then many years to workshop.”
The Fourth Messenger premiered at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, California, in 2013 and was presented at the New York Musical Festival in 2017.
Stephanie Heit's New Hybrid Memoir Poem "Psych Murders" Examines Shock Treatment, The Aftermath, and How Time and Memory Move in Unexpected Ways
What do you do when the brain “acts more colander than container?”
Poet Stephanie Heit tests out an answer: “Strengthen your faith in electricity.” Her hybrid memoir poem, Psych Murders, reports on the decision to experience and recover from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Psych Murders contains a number of sections, often titled with questions such as “What brings you pleasure?” and “Are you safe?”
This journey with shock therapy and other attempted remedies takes the poet to a point where:
How to swim.
Lose any sense
This path also later reaches a place where, “Hope became a location.” The poet expresses some bitterness that, “I thought they’d figure out the code. No lack of rigor. But my body didn’t respond the way the data predicted.” Still, the side effects like memory loss and frustrations do not fully define the process for Heit. Instead, Heit concludes with the poem, “Testament,” which consists of a series of “I am” statements that embrace all parts of her identity.
Shortly after the start of the book, the Murderer appears, often described in third person, but always menacing and forming his own character, as the poet observes, “…I’m not alone. I have Murderer stalking my every move.” In a distressful twist in the poem, “The Murderer: Primetime,” he gets a chance to speak and shares his goal to reach her because he states of the poet that, “She haunts me—the one who slow danced in my grip. I’ll wait.” Despite his persistence, the Murderer’s interest in suicide nevertheless does not come to fruition, a victory for the poet and us readers.
Instead, Heit describes learning to live with the circumstances. The poem, “Chronic,” shows a begrudging acceptance that:
Chronic sounds like forever. Persistent forever. With a twang to the way the “ic” sticks in the throat. Almost guttural. Starts out ok. Chron, like chronological, that domino effect, out of control falling because gravity exists. But the ending turns. I am stuck with Chronic the rest of my life. Better than Terminal unless it refers to airports. Though at least with Terminal there is beginning, middle, end. Chronic is middle with no way out.
The poet shows us how, on the one hand, Chronic comes with its downsides, but on the other hand, Chronic means being alive.
Heit is a queer disabled poet, dancer, teacher, and codirector of Turtle Disco, a somatic writing space, based in Ypsilanti. We spoke to Heit about her writing, teaching, latest book, and next project.
Friday Five: Ben Miller and The Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra, cv313, Benoît Pioulard, Joanna Sterling, Seaholm
Friday Five highlights music by Washtenaw County-associated artists and labels.
This week features experimental sounds by Ben Miller and The Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra, ambient dub by cv313, shoegaze by Benoît Pioulard, indie-folk by Joanna Sterling, and pop-punk by Seaholm.
Bach to the Start: U-M professor Dr. James Kibbie revisits J.S. Bach's complete organ works in a series of concerts as he prepares to retire after 42 years
On the evening of April 16, when Hill Auditorium fills with the opening notes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, University of Michigan organ professor James Kibbie will be on the precipice of completing an incredible achievement.
This work is the final of Bach’s 281 solo organ compositions that Kibbie will perform in his 18-concert series that began in September 2022. It's a monumental musical offering that marks the end of Kibbie’s 42-year tenure as professor of organ at the University of Michigan.
The concert series also marks the culmination of Kibbie’s life-long relationship with Bach’s music.
“I’ve been working on this a long time,” Kibbie says. “Some of the first simple pieces I learned on the organ were by Bach.”
Keys to the Past: Ann Arbor’s Legacy of Theater Organs Creates Timeless Moviegoing Experience for Patrons
It was New Year’s Eve 2011 and we wanted a low-key way to celebrate.
The theater’s Screening Room featured a couple of showings, and we opted for the 9 pm show. That way, we could see the film and still get home to watch the Times Square ball drop at midnight on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
When we arrived at the theater, we saw a musician playing a Hammond organ about 20 minutes before The Artist started.
The organist provided pre-show entertainment and didn’t accompany The Artist during its screening, but his performance sparked our curiosity about the instrument, including the 1927 Barton pipe organ in the Michigan’s Main Auditorium.
For us, the theater organ served as a brief musical portal to the past, recalling a bygone era when it accompanied silent films at movie palaces from the 1900s to the 1920s.
Over the years, we’ve enjoyed seeing organists perform on Barton pipe organs at the Michigan Theater—the only one left in Ann Arbor—and Detroit’s Redford Theatre. Those beautiful theater organs offered warm welcomes as we took our seats to watch different films.
Nearly a decade later, I wanted to learn more about local theater organs, the theaters that housed them, and the organists who play them.
Encore Theatre’s "Once on This Island" combines lilting songs, dynamic dancing, and caustic social commentary
Deep bass drums beat out a rhythm inviting people to dance. They dance to keep alive their spirits and their culture. They dance with joy, but life is never easy, even on a Caribbean island—especially when the island is Hispaniola and the country is Haiti.
Haiti is a troubled land. It has been hit hard by earthquakes, hurricanes, and a long history of unstable governments.
But the people of Haiti are resilient and fight back time and again. They also are in a divided country. There is a racial divide between the wealthy mixed-race elites and the struggling peasant class.
Once on This Island is based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love. Lynn Ahrens’ book and lyrics for the musical Once on This Island combine a love story with a caustic take on class in the Caribbean. Stephen Flaherty composed the music that combines Caribbean beats for lively dances and soaring pop music for plaintive songs of yearning.
The Encore Musical Theatre presents an energetic, even passionate, production of the Ahrens-Flaherty musical through March 12 at the Maas Performance Center in Dexter.
Friday Five: Alex Belhaj's Crescent City Quintet, Josie Ala Quartet, Galen Bundy & Travis Aukerman, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Shigeto & Melanie Charles, Westbound Situation
Friday Five highlights music by Washtenaw County-associated artists and labels.
This week features New Orleans jazz by Alex Belhaj's Crescent City Quintet, post-bop jazz by Josie Ala Quartet, ambient-gospel jazz by Galen Bundy & Travis Aukerman, spiritual jazz by Mark de Clive-Lowe, Shigeto & Melanie Charles, and chamber-bluegrass jazz by Westbound Situation.
This is a very late, backdated edition of the Friday Five because you can't stream jams when you're sans electricity. Shout-out to the 2023 ice storm.
Award-winning poet and writer Naomi Shihab Nye set her latest middle-grade-fiction novel, "The Turtle of Michigan," in Ann Arbor
Naomi Shihab Nye is best known for her poetry—she was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010-15, and the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2019-21.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that her newest novel for young readers, 2022's The Turtle of Michigan, is built from subtle, sharply observed moments more than a page-turning plot. (It was recently named a 2023 Michigan Notable Book and will be out in paperback on March 14.)
Set in Ann Arbor—where Nye has taught writing—Turtle begins with eight-year-old Aref (pronounced “R-F”) and his mother taking off in a plane from their homeland, Oman. Aref’s father, having flown to Michigan a few weeks earlier, reunites with them at the Detroit airport, then drives his family to their new, small apartment in Ann Arbor.
Mosley is the lead vocalist of an Ypsilanti fuzz-rock band of three high school friends who have been making music together for over a decade. Mosley is joined by drummer McKinnon Main and guitarist Anthony (Tony) Scott. Last October, the group finally finished the process and seized an outcome: its debut album, this was it.
Nestled midway through the album is one of the group’s favorite and most important tracks, “settle.” Like any great Midwest emo song, it begins on the porch. You can practically smell the American Spirits when you tune in.
“‘Cause staying in is much like going out / at least when we still had the choice / but since we don’t we can just make it easier to / settle the mind behind these red-laced bedroom eyes,” the chorus rings.
Although it may sound like an ode to quarantine, “settle” raises questions about fate, the promise of temporary relief, and what the future holds. It starts with a dance on the porch, teetering between going out and staying in, and by the end, you’re invited inside.
“It was kind of a lynchpin where it seemed to connect all the songs around it,” Scott said. “But it also felt like a real step forward lyrically for us. To step out of our comfort zone instrumentally was also a driving factor, and we really felt like we had something at that point.”
Courtney Faye Taylor explores racial injustices and the killing of Latasha Harlins in her debut poetry collection
Poetry becomes both memorial and voice in Courtney Faye Taylor's first book, Concentrate, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The University of Michigan alum's poems honor, research, bristle, and circle back to the life and killing of Latasha Harlins, a Black girl gunned down by a Korean store owner, Soon Ja Du, in Los Angeles.
“In any black sentence, you’d love nothing more than to had made no mistake.” The opening prose poem that ends with this sentence mourns and fortifies Black womanhood. As Aunt Notrie says in the next poem, “The Talk,” it “Ain’t about trying, it’s about doing.” These lines do not let injustices lie but instead, “The poet wades into an uneasy ocean of interrogations that do not permit her any distance from what she has witnessed her entire life,” writes Rachel Eliza Griffiths in the introduction.
Some of the poems revisit history, like March 16, 1991, when Harlins lost her life. The poet starts another prose poem to outline how:
A timeline details a seriousness of events. As a diagram of occurrence, a timeline’s chief objective is to show how passed happenings caution and contaminate our contemporary sense of momentum. A professor may author timelines to teach what precedes and what follows genocide. On the overhead, Rwanda is a centipede with its head in Belgium and tail on stage of the ’05 Oscars.
The past remains with us as warning and blemish, and Taylor writes, “So I’m drawing a line.”
Other poems fashioned like Yelp reviews make stark the differences in treatment and standards among people. One of them gives two stars for “BLACK OWNED BUT HOURS WRONG ONLINE.” Such an offense garners a bolded complaint and strong consequence that “I will find a Korean store.” The loss of business for incorrect hours reinforces inequity and harshness.
Eventually, the poet goes to Los Angeles and visits the site of Harlin’s murder, “But there are no signs of murder, memorial, or resistance when I arrive. The ground is like any ground. Normalcy devastates. Stillness lies to me about history.” Taylor’s poems teach us that what is not visible is still present.
Early on, Aunt Notrie defines the word "concentrate" as “A strong, hard focus.” Taylor takes on that focus to scrutinize history through the poems. Later, Concentrate is a call to action, as in “Concentrate. We have decisions to make. Fire is that decision to make.” The word “we” leaves no one out. It is all of us who have responsibility.
Taylor is a writer and visual artist who earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Prize in Poetry. We spoke about Taylor's time in Ann Arbor, her poetry, and Concentrate.