Searching for the Right Words: Julia Cho's award-winning "The Language Archive" makes its Michigan debut at Theatre Nova
When Julia Cho read about dying languages, she wondered if losing a language meant something larger—losing a whole way of looking at the world.
In her whimsical play The Language Archive, Cho explores the questions: Do languages that develop between people in a country (or a marriage) die when the participants die? Does the culture die when the language does?
First produced in 2009 at The South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, California, and then in 2010 at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City, The Language Archive makes its Michigan debut at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova, February 3-26, directed by Carla Milarch. (The play won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to a new English-language play by a woman.)
“There are sixty-nine hundred languages in the world. More than half are expected to die within the next century,” says George, a linguist and the play’s protagonist. In addition to his native English, George speaks eight languages including Greek, Cantonese, Esperanto, and Elloway—the last of which is a dying fictional tongue.
Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar brings spiritual energy to Encore Theatre’s "American Songbook" concerts
Kahil El’Zabar has a very clear memory of the greatest performance he ever attended.
“I saw [John] Coltrane at a club called McKee’s in Chicago,” the jazz percussionist and band leader said in a phone interview. “I was 15 and [drummer] Elvin Jones went to sleep while he was playing and never lost a beat. The telepathy, the power of communication and connectivity, of mind and spirit in music, that one moment changed my life because I knew that I would want to be part of that embrace for the rest of my life. I would always search for that moment when you are beyond consciousness and can express something greater than yourself. I hope for that every time. When you do it, it is the most exciting and humbling experience you ever experience.”
El’Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble will bring his unique approach to the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, Feb. 3-4. Last year at about the same time, El’Zabar and his group performed at Encore’s Modern Jazz Meets Musical Theatre; this year the theme is A Modern Exploration of the American Songbook.
The innovative, award-winning musician will celebrate his 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble next year. His career has been influenced by both his African heritage and growing up in one of America’s legendary jazz cities, Chicago.
El’Zabar’s music has a rich spiritual component that comes from both his experience in Africa and his exposure to the masters of jazz.
“When I came out of Lake Forest College in ‘73, I had an eight-month residency in Ghana,” he said. “I was at the University of Ghana in a city called Legon. Just how people related on a human level, the connection of touch, not just physical but eye and voice and through performance; it seemed to have this spirit that I wanted to retain in my own music.”
As a teenager in Chicago, he got to know performers like Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He admired the energy.
How Human: Lily Talmers returns to Ann Arbor with two new excellent albums that explore deeply personal and universal experiences
I’m alright; I am
Just the tide’s gone still and I’m left waiting for something to happen
For anything to happen; For good things to happen
Well, good things are happening for the Birmingham native and University of Michigan graduate.
In the past few months, she's released two terrific albums: the aforementioned Killer, an 11-track, stripped-down collection of songs performed live, and Hope Is The Whore I Go To, which features 10 strings-and-brass-colored tunes recorded in studios from Ypsilanti, Michigan to Brooklyn, New York.
Both albums highlight Talmer's exquisite amalgamation of 1960s folk-pop, Eastern European brass bands, and the melancholy melodies of Brazilian and Mediterranean music. Her twang-tinged voice is a slightly untamed powerhouse that's more than capable of delivering her heartfelt, poetic lyrics exploring personal and spiritual relationships with the drama and delicacy they deserve. Think of a jazz singer who hasn't sanded the edges off her voice but can still duck and weave in and out of the music like an instrumental virtuoso. (Canadian cult singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara is the closest analog to my ears.)
"If Hope Is The Whore I Go To is the primordial scream version of the message I’m trying toward," Talmers says in the interview below, "It's Unkind to Call You My Killer is the inward recoil. I’m telling you something in the first record, and in the second I’m kind of just admitting things to myself."
Since graduating from U-M, Talmers has moved to Brooklyn but makes frequent trips back home, including a stop on Sunday, January 8 at The Ark for her first headline show at the venue.
In 2021 Pulp did an extensive piece on Talmers for her debut full-length release, Remember Me As Holy, and in late summer of this year, former AADL public library associate Katy Trame talked to Talmers about her life and brilliant new records.
—Christopher Porter, Pulp
Everybody's Kranky: In a recorded talk, Bruce Adams discussed his recent book on the rise of Chicago's thriving 1990s independent music scene and the influential record label he cofounded
For a guy who cofounded a record label named kranky—small k, thanks—that used marketing slogans such as "Honk if you hate people, too," Bruce Adams is one of the nicest people in the music industry.
Adams' new book, You're With Stupid: kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music, recalls not only the rise of his experimental label but also the inventive, genre-hopping sounds that were coming out of the city in the 1990s. It was also a time when major labels swooped into town to sign the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Liz Phair after Nirvana showed corporations that the independent music scene could sometimes provide commercial hits.
A former Ann Arbor resident, Schoolkids Records employee, and WCBN-FM DJ, Adams moved to Chicago in 1987 to work for various music-distribution companies. He also worked at the influential Touch & Go Records as a publicist, handling bands such as Ann Arbor's Laughing Hyenas as well as Slint, Die Kreuzen, The Jesus Lizard, and many other bands that took the energy of punk rock and twisted it into new forms of dynamic and frequently very heavy music.
But in 1993, Adams and his colleague Joel Leoschke looked at the stacks of indie-rock CDs and 7-inches flooding into the Cargo Distribution warehouse where they worked and decided they wanted to do something completely different with their record label. The duo took their inspiration from 1970s progressive-music labels such as Editions EG, which counted Brian Eno's transformational ambient albums in its catalog, and ECM Records, which focused on jazz (and classical) that came from a more European approach to improvisation; more open to exploring space and unique timbres rather than blues-informed swing. They also looked toward German kosmische musik of 1970s groups such as Neu! and Cluster as well as then-contemporary psychedelic bands such as Spacemen 3, which played drone-based rock 'n' roll.
Adams and Leoschke wanted kranky to represent music that was artful, hazy, and deep—and they found the perfect first band for their new label: Labradford.
Prazision was the debut album by the Richmond-based duo (later trio) Labradford, which used guitars drenched in reverb, 1970s analog keyboards that weren't popular then, and sung-spoken vocals that blended into the vast smudge of ambient sounds.
The label went on to release albums by godspeed you! black emperor, Stars of the Lid, and kranky's most popular act, Low, the slowcore band fronted by the husband and wife duo of Alan Sparhawk and the recently deceased Mimi Parker. The label still continues to this day, releasing forward-looking music by Grouper and Jessica Bailiff as well as albums by Dearborn's Windy & Carl and Ann Arbor's Justin Walter.
Adams and Leoschke used what they learned from working for indie labels and distribution centers in order to not make the same mistakes they saw happening over and over: treat the bands with respect, pay them, and only release music you love. In the words of American poet Joe Perry, kranky "let the music do the talking."
A lot of music memoirs are filled with gossipy details, but since Adams really and truly is a nice guy, You're With Stupid avoids any deep, dark revelations or pointed barbs. It's more a survey of the vast amount of creative musical endeavors that defined Chicago in the 1990s rather than salacious tales of excess.
Adams discussed You're With Stupid at the Ann Arbor District Library's Downtown branch at 6:30 pm on Thursday, November 17. I was the guy interviewing him, and we talked about the kranky's groundbreaking music and the 1990s Chicago independent music scene.
A video of our chat is below, and for those unfamiliar with the label, Adams picked five tracks and added commentary to introduce new listeners to the kranky sound:
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's take on "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a mystery that explores a spectrum of emotions and relationships
Cassie Mann was a fan of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and was excited when Simon Stephens' stage version became a hit in London and New York.
“I went to New York and saw the Broadway version and just loved it,” she said. “It’s got so many elements to it. It’s a family drama, it’s got humor, it’s a mystery, it’s got themes of perseverance and it’s a good character-driven play and yet it’s got a love of fun stuff that goes along with it.”
Mann wanted to direct a production for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and was all set to stage it in 2021, when the show was canceled because of the pandemic. This pause gave Mann a chance to delve a little deeper into the play and its unusual perspective.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins as a mystery. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the corpse of a neighbor’s dog and sets out to discover who murdered the dog. Though never explicitly remarked on in Haddon’s novel or Stephens’ play, Christopher is on the autistic spectrum. The story of this mystery and what comes after is told from Christopher’s perspective as a sort of therapy suggested by his teacher, Siobhan.
The play is a family drama revolving around Christopher’s troubled relations with his parents. But it’s also a celebration of his determination, his wit, and his mathematical genius.
Mann read some books on autism and one book in particular influenced her approach to the play.
The legend of Robin Hood has been told for centuries. In the usual version, he is a nobleman who has been forced from his estate. He gathers a band of “merry men” who are dedicated to robbing from the rich and giving to the desperately poor.
But in earlier versions of the story, told in verse and song, Robin robbed from the poor but didn’t give to the rich and didn’t have noble aspirations. Playwright David Farr has returned to that earlier version of Robin Hood and to a very different Maid Marion, who challenges the outlaw to be a better man.
The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama will present Farr’s The Heart of Robin Hood at the Power Center for the Arts, December 8-11.
Director Geoff Packard said that Farr takes a decidedly different view of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
U-M Gilbert and Sullivan Society celebrates its 75th anniversary with pirates, policemen, and paleontologists
With cat-like tread, a rollicking band of pirates will step upon the stage from December 8-11 as they have done about every four years since 1949 when the two-year-old University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS) gave its first performance of The Pirates of Penzance.
Sparkling tunes and lyrics replete with irony, wit, conflict, and romance make it no surprise that UMGASS would celebrate its 75th anniversary with a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s two-act comic operetta. Director David Andrews says, “It’s probably the best known and best loved of Gilbert and Sullivan’s pieces.” Andrews says the show doesn’t just have catchy melodies that people hum on the way out: “Some people are humming on the way in,” he says of the well-known show.
U-M's production of the musical tragedy "Bernarda Alba" mixes period costumes and an abstract set to confront contemporary issues facing women
Fredrico Garcia Lorca wrote The House of Bernarda Alba in 1936, shortly before he was murdered by a nationalist firing squad during the Spanish Civil War. Michael John LaChiusa shortened the title to Bernarda Alba when he set the play to music and added lyrics; he made some changes to the play while keeping the essential story:
Bernarda Alba assumes the role of family head after her husband’s funeral. She orders her five unmarried daughters, ages 20-39, to mourn for eight years, as her mother did before her. It will be as though the house is bricked up; even crying is forbidden. One problem is that three of the sisters are enamored with the handsome Pepe el Romano—the eldest is engaged to him—and jealousy takes center stage. But what exactly can the sisters do under the circumstances? Turns out, some life-altering things.
When the musical tragedy opened at Lincoln Center in New York in 2006, the scenic design was drab, a realistic depiction of this closed and lonely home.
For Linda Goodrich's production of LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba adaptation that's running November 10-13 at the University of Michigan, scenic designer Jungah Han dropped the drab for what Goodrich calls a “wildly inventive” set. The stark red floor is bordered by a black playing area, with a kind of ceiling that descends to oppress the characters. Actors step out of character and onto the rim at times to witness the action or to narrate.
Bill Edwards prefers to keep his songwriting in perspective—though not necessarily his own.
The Ann Arbor singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist pens sentimental narratives from different viewpoints on his new Americana album, Thirteen Stories.
“Sometimes [people] listen to or see a singer, and they assume the song you’re singing is from your own perspective. It doesn’t always have to be; that’s very limiting I find,” Edwards said.
“You can use your imagination and sing from somebody else’s perspective. It’s all colored by my personal experience, and some of it’s very personal, but not all of it.”
Throughout Thirteen Stories, Edwards channels the mindset of a hall of fame baseball player, a seasoned songwriter, a nostalgic boater, a distraught wife, and other compelling characters.
“I want [listeners] to get outside themselves a little bit and experience emotion from somebody else’s point of view,” he said. “Can you identify with this even though it’s not necessarily my point of view or their point of view? Do the songs communicate well enough what somebody else might be going through?”
Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" gets a contemporary update with new music at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre
"Therefore play, music."
—Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing
It’s become customary for directors to find ways to make Shakespeare more accessible.
When director David Widmayer proposed the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing as the play to welcome audiences back to the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, he embraced Benedick’s call for music.
“My original pitch was to replace the violence in the show with the metaphorical violence of a battle of the bands,” he said.
That proposal was turned down, but music remained a key element for the production, including some cast members creating original compositions for Shakespeare’s verse.
Widmayer has performed in several Shakespeare productions at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. This is his second time directing a Shakespeare play.
“I was looking for something that basically we could have fun with and get the audience back into the theater,” Widmayer said.
In Widmayer’s reimagining of Much Ado, musicians and artists go off to war but when they return they lay down their arms to return to the arts. The time is now, but the titles and arrangements of Shakespeare’s world exist in this imaginary version of modern times.
“It’s a place where people can come and perform music and find joy in that art together,” Widmayer said.