Singer-songwriter Allison Russell brought her "Outside Child" and open book to The Ark

MUSIC REVIEW

Allison Russell by Marc Baptiste

Photo by Marc Baptiste

Singer-songwriter Allison Russell seeks out what she calls the “hidden canon” of the oral tradition: the songs, stories, lore passed on through time, primarily from and for women. Ann Arbor's The Ark is one of those places where the hidden canon has been voiced frequently for a very long time, and Russell’s concert there on February 25 felt like the perfect place to carry on that tradition.

U-M's modern-leaning production of "Antigone" explores grief in the pandemic age

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sam White, founder of Shakespere in Detroit, guest directed the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s recent production of Antigone (February 17-20). She felt the weight of the pandemic while conceiving of the staging and decided that rather than putting on a play written in 441 BCE as some sort of separate escapism from our current world, the two can interact and help one another.

As part of its Black History Month celebration, musical theater met Kahil El’Zabar & Co.'s jazz in perfect harmony at Encore

MUSIC REVIEW

Kahil El‘Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on stage with singers from the Encore Musical Theatre, February 18, 2022

Kahil El‘Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on stage with singers from the Encore Musical Theatre, February 18, 2022. Photo courtesy of Encore.

The “great American songbook” and jazz have always had a strong relationship. Popular songs have been an important source for jazz improvisation from the very beginning and jazz has influenced popular music composers to adapt dynamic rhythms, blue notes, and the uptempo style of the emerging jazz players of the 1920s.

The Encore Theater is celebrating Black heritage with an exciting pair of musical reviews this month. On February 18, a program called Modern Jazz Meets Musical Theater made a strong case that the popular music of the golden age from the 1920s to the 1950s was a collaboration of a diverse group of performers and composers that is still rich and vibrant today. Many of those who created the American Songbook were first-generation immigrants from Europe and Black Americans who found a common voice.

The man making that case is, as the Encore program says, the legendary Kahil El’Zabar, an inspired percussionist, driving band leader, and wise teacher. El‘Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble joined forces with four superb singers to give us a sampling of show tunes, blues, and pop standards in a smokey setting on the Encore stage. Each song segued from vocalist and band to rich, lively, thought-provoking jazz improvisations on the music and then rounded back to the singers.

Because the "Layl" belongs to lovers in choreographer Ali Chahrour's musical play

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

UMS's production of Layl. A couple is embracing in this black and white photo.

Photo courtesy of UMS

The curtains opened and revealed a dark stage. It was silent, and over the course of a few minutes, lights started to show the audience fragments of what was on stage while keeping the illumination dim enough that you had to squint to see there were people with instruments tucked in the left corner of the stage.

Eventually, the light, though still low, revealed everyone on stage: Sharif Sehnaou on guitar, Hala Omran with a microphone, Aya Metwalli with a guitar, Simona Abdallah on drums, and above them all, Ali Chahrour lay on top of the speakers, one arm dangling and the other with a bouquet of dead flowers in his hand.

This is the entry to Layl (Night) by Ali Chahrour, presented at the Power Center in Ann Arbor on February 12.

Mary Sibande's "Sophie/Elsie" sculpture anchors UMMA's African art gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Sophie/Elsie is a striking sculptural figure, vibrant and visible from a distance, a colorful, bright beacon in the newly expanded and reopened African galleries at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Johannesburg-based artist Mary Sibande’s fiberglass sculpture, created in 2009, and initially on display during UMMA’s closure, is now permanently installed. In the early days of the museum’s closure, Sophie/Elsie was visible from outside the galleries—then, construction came, and she was no longer visible from outside.

But Sophie/Elsie is once again on display in the reimagined space of UMMA’s African galleries. Along with works by Jon Onye Lockard, Shani Peters, Jacob Lawrence, and many more, Sibande’s sculpture brings new life to the gallery space as part of the ongoing initiative We Write to You About Africa, in which “contemporary African artists, scholars, and curators will be asked to write about their work on postcards, in their first language, and mail them to UMMA where they will be displayed alongside their works.”

The reinstallation—including a gallery extension—is now open to visitors in the Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen Gallery of African art and Alfred A Taubman Gallery II.

Ann Arbor Gallery Crawl: Catching up with recent exhibits and new art spaces

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Double Goddess: A Sighting in the Abyss by Ayana V. Jackson at A2AC Gallery

Double Goddess: A Sighting in the Abyss by Ayana V. Jackson at A2AC Gallery. Photo by K.A. Letts.

COVID-19 has wrecked plans and canceled events for nearly two years (and counting). It has sabotaged the momentum and slashed the incomes of Ann Arbor’s small community of visual artists and galleries, leaving a cultural landscape greatly altered in ways large and small.

But the creatives here are nothing if not resourceful and, well, creative. 

My recent tour of the art spaces and non-profits in Ann Arbor and environs left me encouraged—and impressed—by the resilience of the city’s art community. Here are some of the changes I came across while reintroducing myself to the local art scene in early December 2021: 

Stamps Gallery's "Envi­sion: The Michi­gan Artist Ini­tia­tive" celebrates creators who are inspiring the next generation

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Stamp Gallery's Envision logo

Based on my direction of approach to the University of Michigan's Stamps Gallery, I didn’t see Michael Dixon’s large-scale sculptural alligator head with one sharp, gold tooth before entering—though it's visible in the gallery’s large front windows.

Inside the sculpture’s large open jaw, children’s toys rest as if inside a toy box. Among them, a selection of brightly colored balls, dolls, and books we might recognize from a modern store, but also amidst the display are racist toys such as a mammy doll, which remind viewers that these harmful toys are still collected and sold, holding a space in contemporary American culture that often escapes criticism.

This idea is further enforced by the inclusion of problematic Dr. Suess books, which became a topic of national conversation this past March.

Dixon is among five artists represented in Envi­sion: The Michi­gan Artist Ini­tia­tive, a new program focused on promoting the careers of Michigan-based artists.

This awards initiative “rec­og­nizes the cre­ativ­ity, rigor, and inno­va­tion of Michi­gan-based artists and col­lab­o­ra­tives—and hon­ors their role in inspir­ing the next gen­er­a­tions of artists in our state.”

Giving 'Em Hell: Fred Grandy captures the complex character of Harry Truman in a one-man play at Encore

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Fred Grandy as Harry S. Truman

Fred Grandy served four terms as a Republican congressman from Iowa. Grandy is an actor who quit his role as Gopher Smith on the popular television series Love Boat to enter the partisan and always contentious world of politics (and sometimes governance?).

In these particularly partisan times, Grandy is touring in the one-man play Give ‘Em Hell Harry as that most Democrat of presidents Harry Truman. 

Encore Theater is taking a break from musicals to present this surprisingly relevant look back at Truman’s crucial and politically charged presidency in his own words.

Truman didn’t seek the presidency, it was thrust upon him. He had been plucked from his seat as a senator from Missouri to run with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was seeking his fourth term. 

When Roosevelt died just four months into his new term, Truman took office while the United States was still at war. He had never been taken into Roosevelt’s confidence and he hadn’t been informed that an atomic bomb had been developed, and the decision on whether to use it or not fell on him.

Truman had a reputation as a blunt and honest man. As a senator, he led a committee to investigate waste and corruption in the war effort. He even challenged his president on several issues. But he was dedicated to the New Deal and Roosevelt’s transformative presidency. He was not FDR, but he brought a common sense, down-to-earth approach to an overwhelming position.

Harry Truman never minced words. He was blunt, uncensored, and proudly partisan. But this people’s president was also a good storyteller, slyly humorous, and tried with some success to work with those on the other side of the partisan divide, while also zinging them and their conservative views.

Theatre Nova celebrates the season with song, dance, and silliness in "An Almost British Christmas"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Monica Spencer, Dan Morrison, and Bryana Hall in "An Almost British Christmas" by Carla Milarch and R. MacKenzie Lewis, directed by Carla Milarch at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

Monica Spencer, Dan Morrison, and Bryana Hall in An Almost British Christmas by Carla Milarch and R. MacKenzie Lewis, directed by Carla Milarch at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

‘Tis the season to make jolly. ‘Tis also the season to be silly.

British music halls celebrate Christmastime with pantos (short for pantomime, but not really about mimes). A panto is a play based on a fairy tale that provides a framework for slapstick, satire, song parodies, dancing, clowning, a touch of bawdiness and lots of good cheer to see out the year.

Several years ago, Carla Milarch, founding director of Theatre Nova, and R. MacKenzie Lewis introduced the panto to Ann Arbor with An Almost British Christmas. Every Christmas season since (except for last year, of course) Nova has presented a new panto. This year Nova is reviving the original show, more or less, with some topical humor to fit this particular year.

But it’s really the silliness that counts.

Shizu Saldamando’s exhibit "When This Is All Over/ Cuando Esto Termine" captures the anxiety and depression of pandemic art

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Shizu Saldamando, When This Is Over

Shizu Saldamando, When This Is Over, 2020, washi paper, wire, glue, ribbon, found fence, 42” x 48” x 5

Over the past year, I've come across artwork that exemplifies what I would describe as a new genre: pandemic art. A significant number of emerging creatives are making work that displays a high level of anxiety and depression brought on by their isolation and a well-founded sense that their lives, plans, and ambitions have been put on hold. Shizu Saldamando’s solo exhibition When This Is All Over / Cuando Esto Termine, on view at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery until December 10 and curated by Amanda Krugliak, is yet another example of this distressed trend. 

It's clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for early career professional artists like Los Angeles painter Shizu Saldamano. Her diverse circle of friends, many of them Latinx and/or LGBTQ, represent a cross-section of young creatives eking out their existence in L.A.’s gig economy. Right now, they are pursuing their avocations—as musicians, artists, DJs, and the like—in the midst of economic and medical uncertainty.

They are the subjects of Saldamando’s large portraits.