Encore Theatre’s "Once on This Island" combines lilting songs, dynamic dancing, and caustic social commentary

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

A woman dancing on stage during Encore Theatre's Once on This Island. She is bathed in red-pink light.

Photo by Michele Anliker.

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

MUSIC FRIDAY FIVE

Cover art for the albums and singles featured in the Friday Five.

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

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Author Naomi Shihab Nye and her book The Turtle of Michigan

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. 

"This Was It": Normal Park Reflects on Its Decade-in-the-Making Debut Album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Ypsilanti fuzz-rock trio Normal Park

Normal Park's Jordan Mosley, McKinnon Main, and Anthony Scott seized making their debut album this was it in Ypsilanti and Wyandotte. Photo courtesy of Normal Park.

“So we’ll take process over outcome,” Jordan Mosley sings—or rather yells— on the sixth track, “settle,” from Normal Park’s this was it.

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

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Courtney Faye Taylor and her book Concentrate. Photo by Lucas Carpenter.

Author photo by Lucas Carpenter.

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.

Friday Five: Electrifying Audiences, KUZbeats, Blaine Nash, Gabriel Sadat Ferguson, Unblo-Fact

MUSIC FRIDAY FIVE

Art for the albums and singles featured in this week's Friday Five.

Friday Five highlights music by Washtenaw County-associated artists and labels.

This week features art song by Electrifying Audiences, soundtrack vibes by KUZbeats, rap by Blaine Nash, solo piano by Gabriel Sadat Ferguson, and vaporwave by Unblo-Fact.

 

"'I have a crisis for you': Women Artists of Ukraine Respond to War" acts as an archive of witness and response

VISUAL ART INTERVIEW

Sonya Hukaylo, Escape, 2022

Sonya Hukaylo, Escape, 2022.

"I have a crisis for you": Women Artists of Ukraine Respond to War was first shown at the University of Michigan's Lane Hall Exhibit Space last August 25 through December 16, and it was brought to U-M's Weiser Hall from January 3 through February 23.

And the curators don't think the exhibition is complete.

“I can’t say it's a finished project, because it will have afterlives,” said co-curator Jessica Zychowicz, director of the U.S. Fulbright Program in Ukraine, who also earned her Ph.D. from U-M.

She and co-curator Grace Mahoney—a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures, and a graduate fellow for exhibits at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at U-M—hope the multimedia exhibit keeps finding new venues beyond Ann Arbor and can serve as an educational tool, or at least serve as an archive of work in which women describe and respond to their own particular experiences of war.

"I have a crisis for you" features paintings, writing, photos, and more by:

- visual artist and sculptor Kinder Album
- photographer J.T. Blatty
- visual artist and U-M grad student Oksana Briukhovetska
- visual artist and designer Sonya Hukaylo
- filmmaker, artist, and performer Oksana Kazmina
- visual artist Lesia Kulchynska
- poet and translator Svetlana Lavochkina
- visual artist Kateryna Lisovenko
- poet and screenwriter Lyuba Yakimchuk

Zychowicz and Mahoney did their curation remotely: Mahoney from Ann Arbor; Zychowicz from Warsaw, Poland, where she moved from Kyiv when the invasion began. To inform the project, the curators drew on previous relationships they had with the artists and writers as well as their own scholarship: Zychowicz is the author of Superfluous Women: Art, Feminism, and Revolution in Twenty-First Century Ukraine, and Mahoney is the series editor of Lost Horse Press' Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series.

Zychowicz and Mahoney recently talked with me over Zoom to discuss the exhibit. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Annie Bacon and Kyle Rasche Come Together to Write the Michigan-Based Musical "The Keeper" and Perform Songs February 17 at Trinity House Theatre

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Michigan singer-songwriters Annie Bacon and Kyle Rasche will perform "The Keeper" February 17 at Livonia's Trinity House Theatre.

Annie Bacon and Kyle Rasche have written a Michigan-based musical called The Keeper that centers around the White Shoal Lighthouse in the Straits of Mackinac. Photo courtesy of Annie Bacon and Kyle Rasche.

Back in October, two Michigan folk singer-songwriters formed an unexpected partnership.

Ann Arbor’s Annie Bacon and Alto’s Kyle Rasche met at the Folk Alliance Region Midwest conference outside Chicago and quickly learned they would be ideal collaborators for a new musical.

“I think we both knew of each other, and I was a fan of Annie before we [had] actually met in person because she had written this amazing folk opera a few years ago,” said Rasche, who writes, records, and performs under the moniker Chain of Lakes. 

Within only a few short hours of meeting Rasche, Bacon started writing the initial songs for a full-blown, stage-ready musical called The Keeper and shared them with him.

“I’d done my stalking and knew she’d be great to work with and immediately shared my dream with her to write a musical that had been germinating for a few years,” he said. “She came back to my room later to work on it with a bunch of it already written.”

Shannon Lee's Album "Stars" Follows an Emotional Journey Through Love and Loss

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Shannon Lee performs at the 2022 Holler Fest in Brooklyn, Michigan.

Shannon Lee (second from left) performs at the 2022 Holler Fest in Brooklyn, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Shannon Lee.

Shannon Lee wanted her new album to progress like an emotional journey, from the pain of a broken relationship and the loss of a loved one to the rediscovery of love. The seven songs on Stars trace that quest, though it’s a subtle sojourn.

“I’m not sure if other listeners can tell but I wanted to start the album off with my heartache and loss and have the album move toward lighter themes, which I think I accomplished,” said the Ypsilanti-based Lee.

Anymore” and “I’ve Gone Away” cover the break-up phase, while “Brother” recounts the tragic loss of her brother on New Year’s Day four years ago and “Stars” imagines his light shining down on her. Lee then pays tribute to a fellow songwriter on “Sunni Leilani” and closes Stars with two songs, “Here to Stay” and “Sing to Me,” that revel in love.

Lee’s songs share elements reminiscent of folk and Americana artists such as Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, Patty Griffin, and Lucinda Williams, and cites artists who were played in her house while growing up as influences.

“I always had an ear for music; ever since I was a kid,” Lee said. “I had a knack for picking out harmonies in three or more part harmony singing, too, and always found myself singing along to my dad’s records. His collection of course had Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and many more in that classic rock vein.”

An Honest Mistake: Purple Rose Theatre’s “Human Error” Uses Comedy and Relationships to Bridge the Nation’s Growing Political Divide

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of "Human Error" at the Purple Rose

Two couples unexpectedly form a lifelong connection in the Purple Rose Theatre comedy Human Error. Photo taken from the Purple Rose Theatre's Facebook page.

It’s no secret, this is a divided country. The chasm has widened between liberal and conservative, rural and urban, and religious and not so much. We don’t talk to each other; we scream at each other.

Playwright Eric Pfeffinger takes this disturbing truth and imagines what would happen if right meets left under unusual circumstances in Human Error, a comedy having its Michigan debut at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.

Madelyn and Keenan, described as NPR-listening, latte-sipping blue staters, have gone to a fertility clinic in hopes of starting a family. Unfortunately, as a nervous doctor tells them, their fertilized embryo has been implanted in another woman’s uterus.

Heather and Jim, described as small-government, churchgoing, card-carrying NRA members, agree to meet with Madelyn and Keenan, and after discovering they don’t have horns, Heather agrees to give the liberal couple the baby when it’s born. 

Director Lynch R. Travis and his uniformly excellent cast do a good job of balancing Pfeffinger’s mix of broad comedy and heartfelt connections. The set is simple and spare. White chairs become a car, storage bins, and love seats. The stage backdrop is a set of curved gray-white walls for easy entries and exits. The audience is not distracted by scenery from the point the playwright hopes to make.