Review: U-M's Clybourne Park Finds Deep Humor in Our Sad Racial Dance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Maid Francine (Blair Prince) in Bruce Norris’s comic drama Clybourne Park

Maid Francine (Blair Prince) in Bruce Norris’s comic drama Clybourne Park.

It's still an awkward dance. When it comes to the subject of race, we seem to invent new language just to avoid the blunt words and ingrained feelings that are simmering just below the surface.

There are few places where that is more true than southeastern Michigan with a long, bloody history of racial animus. Flint and the Detroit school situation are just the most recent examples of the unresolved prejudices that politically correct speech can never hide.

The University of Michigan's School of Music, Theater and Dance couldn't have picked a more relevant and powerful play than Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. But be warned, anyone expecting a sermon on race relations will find instead a hilariously serious comic drama. This is a play that exposes that awkward dance with sharp wit and a rare ability to understand the real complexity of the issue. The play has won the triple crown of theater awards, the British Olivier, Broadway's Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize and this U-M production is brilliant at making us laugh while unpeeling the many layers of code words that separate us.

406 Clybourne Street is the house in a white Chicago neighborhood that a black family moved into in Lorraine Hansbury's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. The first act of Norris' play set in 1959 centers on the white couple who have sold this home and are anxious to move out to escape the pain of the death by suicide of their Korean veteran son. The second act takes place in 2009 as an upscale white couple are meeting to discuss plans to modernize the now ravaged home in what has become a low-income black neighborhood.

This is serious stuff. But even in this first act director John Neville-Andrews uses Norris' stylized speech moving at a brisk pace, perfectly capturing the various anxieties at 406 Clybourne. The second act moves at an even faster pace, with more laughs but also more direct confrontation. His cast handles this very precise language skillfully, capturing every nuance of meaning and wringing every bit of the humor that dulls the deeper pain. In addition, each actor in the play has two distinctly different characters. That transformation is awesome.

In Act One, Jack Alberts is Karl, a leader of the community association, who comes to warn Russ and Bev that selling their house to a black family will lead to the end of their tight, white community. Alberts' Karl is a tightly wound, nerdy accountant type. He can't let a bad argument go, he can't let anyone else get a word in to dispute his notion that mixing races is a bad idea. His tight suit and undersized fedora perfectly highlight Alberts' performance. In Act Two, Alberts is Steve, a modern, hip guy, a real urbanite who wants to come back to the city and make it new again. This is where Alberts really nails the character, a slick guy who thinks he's post-racial, until he finds out he's not.

Lila Hood plays Karl's sweet, deaf wife Betsy, a victim of another kind of mindless patronization, and Steve's very modern wife Lindsey, an urban woman who claims at one point "half my friends are black." Again, Hood plays two characters who couldn't be more different and captures the sadness and isolation of Betsy and the whip-smart intelligence and total cluelessness of Lindsey.

David Newman goes from depressed father Russ in Act One, to broad comic punctuation as a construction worker in Act Two. His performance as Russ explodes as he makes a case that not all decisions hinge on the issue of race, even in Chicago. It is a plea for the personal over the social and political. His comic turn is a complete turn around.

Madeline Rouverol is the center point of Act One as Bev, a woman with high anxiety over the death of her son and the increasing depression of her husband. She talks a blue streak, she fidgets, she gushes. And when it comes to relating to her black maid, she displays the easy bigotry that passed/s for liberalism. She thinks she and the maid are friends, how quaint and how sad. In Act Two, Rourverol is a real estate lawyer, Albert and Betsy's daughter, who also thinks she's free of prejudice. Rouverol gets some very funny lines here that she places with pinpoint timing.

And about that maid, Francine. Blair Prince is devastating in this pivotal role. She presents herself as a dutiful employee, even as she is about to lose her job. But she's not one to be pushed around and she disdains Bev's phony liberal overtures (bribes), with looks that would wither a forest. When confronted by Karl to stand in for her race and answer his absurd challenges she dances to avoid and not offend while clearly showing that she is deeply offended. In Act Two, the tables have turned. She is the educated, tart tongued Lena, defending her community against its impending gentrification. It was her family who moved into 406 Clybourne. But here again, she dances around the issue until push comes to shove. Prince shows all of this in her expressive face.

Aaron Huey is Francine's kindhearted husband Albert, who shows that slowly dying deference to whites that makes old movies so uncomfortable. But Huey's Albert also shows his real feelings in his face and when things get a little too insulting he reacts with quick wit. As Lena's husband Kevin, he is a young professional at ease with whites, sharing similar interests, knowing the same people, sharing the same good life in Chicago. But as Act Two goes on, the bonhomie gets thin and then explodes and Huey masters that slow burn.

Jordan Rich plays Jim, a minister in Act One, who tries to straddle two contradictory ideas at once and do it with Christian charity. The temptation to overplay this sanctimony is avoided and Rich makes the character real. In Act Two, he's a building inspector who acts as a referee as the conversation moves from funny to dangerous. He gets one of the night's funniest lines.

The set design by Gary Decker is superb. In Act One, the house is a solid, old Chicago house, real wood trim, plaster walls. It's untidy only because the moving boxes are scattered about. In Act Two, fifty years of increasing poverty and the neglect poverty causes are evident in the home that is also in the early stages of demolition. The change is eye-popping.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


Clybourne Park continues 8 pm Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19-20, and at 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on the central campus of the University of Michigan. Tickets at the League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538.

Review: Mid-West Furniture Zoku

REVIEW VISUAL ART

Mid-West Furniture Zoku at the Ann Arbor Art Center's 117 Gallery

Mid-West Furniture Zoku at the Ann Arbor Art Center's 117 Gallery. Photo by Terry Soave.

If you enjoy challenging your notions of what is functional, what is craft, and what is art then you’ll find the Ann Arbor Art Center’s latest exhibition, Mid-West Furniture Zoku, especially engaging. While it is rare to view the collective works of local art furniture designers, do not doubt that this type of talent exists all around us. A deeply rooted and growing community, these are artists that earn their living either by making or teaching furniture design – or both. Once you learn about local modern masters such as these, you can further support them with your interest and by visiting their sites, both virtual and physical (really, call them up, plan a field trip, or just stop on by).

Exhibit co-curators and art professors John DeHoog, of Eastern Michigan University, and Ray Wetzel, of the College for Creative Studies, did an exceptional job selecting this concentrated, yet highly diverse grouping of artists and arts educators to represent “our regional clan of furniture makers, designers, and educators”, or our “Furniture Zoku”, to challenge preconceived notions. According to DeHoog:

“As educators we always look at exhibitions as having an educational role for students and for the public, so Ray and I wanted to collect work that was thoughtful, challenging, and in some cases provocative. The result is a group of objects that in my mind fall into the following categories: 1 – practical/functional, 2 – art furniture, 3 – sculpture that happens to use furniture, and 4 – conceptual.

While the viewers may not consciously pick up on the distinctions, I think they understand that there are makers working in certain common veins. Ray and I also made deliberate efforts to show ranges in scale (from miniatures to the very tall sculpture), ranges in material (wood, metals, fabric…) and ranges of mood (playful to serious). In all cases though, the level of craft is very high, and the love/respect for materials evident.”

In some cases, an artist’s work may be easily placed neatly in a single category. Others’ work may fall into two, three, or even all four of the categories mentioned by DeHoog.

Detroit artist Marco Terenzi, a graduate of the Art Furniture program at the College for Creative Studies, creates work that defies categorization. His fully functional replicas of woodworking hand tools are impeccably articulated in quarter-scale miniature. Functional, though not practical, these pieces are becoming highly sought-after collectibles. The precision necessary to successfully accomplish this type of construction and functionality is mind-boggling, but Terenzi is intensely disciplined. He’s even replicated his workshop in fully functional quarter scale. And, at 25 years old, he’s only just getting started.

Safe and Tools by Marco Terenzi

Safe [brass and steel] and Tools [brass, steel, bronze and rosewood] by Marco Terenzi. Photo by Terry Soave.

Detroit-based functional furniture and object designer, Andy Kem's Rand Table, made from American ash and molded cork, holds center stage in the main room of the exhibit. Kem has this to say about his approach to creating functional objects:

“Using wood, man-made wood products, and rapid prototyping, my work delves into two directions: on one hand more traditional craft techniques—but interpreted in nontraditional ways—and on the other, the use of digital tools to enable and realize new interactions amongst the parts that constitute the objects I create. In the merging of my different investigations, my work transcends function to arrive at a unique aesthetic language.”

Curator Ray Wetzel said about inviting Andy Kem:

“I wanted to bring the product design approach to furniture design and manufacture into the conversation. Andy has done quite a bit of work with c-n-c cut parts and manufactured raw materials. I've always liked Andy's work and his approach to design and maintaining craftsmanship. His work is formal, subtle and detailed.”

Rand Table by Andy Kem

Rand Table [American ash and molded cork] by Andy Kem. Photo by Terry Soave.

Also falling into the category of practical/functional, is the work of Ann Arbor-based furniture designer, John Baird. You may have interacted with his work if you’ve frequented local establishments like the AUT Bar or Salon 344. Reminiscent of old wooden classroom desks that conjure feelings of familiarity and durability, but with a modern and elegant edginess, Baird has on exhibit a prototype and finished version of the short-run, custom-fabricated stools he designed and produced for Comet Coffee.

Comet Stool Prototype and Comet Stool by John Baird.

Comet Stool Prototype [oriented stand board] and Comet Stool [fin-ply] by John Baird. Photo by Terry Soave.

On the subject of art furniture, it would be impossible for me not to mention the work of Maxwell Davis, Professor and Head of the Art Furniture Area at the College for Creative Studies, I mention it not only because (full disclosure) he’s my partner, but because he has also served as instructor and mentor to several of the other artists in this exhibit. More than his artwork, this to me is his most poignant contribution here.

One of the two works on exhibit by Davis is Chair #13, a glass and stainless steel chair that defies all intellectual, tactile, and functional logic. I love to see viewers reach out and run their fingers along this chair’s jagged-cut spine. The thick, raw edges of cut glass with their reflective waves and promise of danger, visually sewn together with rounded hot glass stitches, are near impossible to resist! The chair’s seat, back, and legs are all made from various forms of hot and cold glass, inviting the assumption that it doesn’t actually function as a chair. It does.

Presenting a temptation greater than touching the edges of broken glass, the most irresistible pieces in this exhibit to me, are those made by Aaron Blendowski. Blendowski is a Detroit-based furniture and object designer, who also works as Fabrications Coordinator at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and Co-Founder of OmniCorpDetroit. His Moderondack Chairs, made from natural and stained cypress, are joyfully oversized, simple and shapely; but not quite flawless. Their voluptuous seats are swimming with the natural detail of the textured wood grain that has been intentionally alternated during the process of gluing together the thick strips from which the chairs are constructed. The occasional knothole or indentation in the wood are left in plain sight. Finely-shaped and sanded to a smooth and shiny finish, I will neither confirm nor deny having broken a 117 Gallery rule while viewing these pieces.

Nicholas Stawinski may be the most unexpected furniture maker to fall into the category of art furniture, based on what we usually think of when thinking about upholstered furniture. A native of Detroit, Stawinski is an artist, furniture designer, and fourth-generation upholsterer who uses the post-industrial landscape of Detroit as his inspiration. Stawinski says:

“My work pays homage to the ottoman and footstool forms that I helped my father create in the back of our upholstery shop. Through recognizable shapes and the motifs of furniture, my ottomans contort and connect in ways that make the forms new and unfamiliar. Some of the fabrics I use reference specific interiors—such as my grandmother's living room in Michigan, where I would spend time while my father and grandfather worked in the shop downstairs— while others recall the endless parade of floral armchairs that marched through our door. Other shapes and patterns draw from memories of riding across Detroit in our delivery van, going to help little old ladies in retirement homes select fabric for their favorite chair, the one—they say—that will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. In this way, my ottomans are a celebration of the work ethic and skilled trade of upholstery, taught to me by my father and grandfather, as well as the way interior spaces shape our memories.”

Left: Moderondack Chair, detail by Aaron Blendowski. Right: Aunt Pat’s Living Room  and Charlie’s House by Nicholas Stawinski.

Left: Moderondack Chair, detail [cypress] by Aaron Blendowski. Right: Aunt Pat’s Living Room [upholstery and maple] and Charlie’s House [upholstery and maple] by Nicholas Stawinski.Photo by Terry Soave.

I must also acknowledge my appreciation for the multi-faceted perspective on functional and conceptual furniture design of Detroit-based artist Colin Tury. While the highly graphic conceptual piece "Remember me…" made from ash and steel, is representative of Tury’s general aesthetic, it is but an ever so small glimpse of his overall talent as a furniture designer. Tury’s work easily traverses all categories from practical and functional to conceptual. It manages to be lanky yet graceful, and cautiously modest, while also conveying balance and confidence. Tury states:

“To me, craft is an important factor to our culture because it provides us a reminder that we are all still human and that we make things for a reason, not just to look at. Furniture specifically shares importance in that we are all unconsciously intimate with it throughout our day. Modern furniture has become a game of geometry in which designers compositionally arrange basic shapes and colors, and eliminate any feature beyond its basic function. We have lost all sense of material in a sea of powder-coated aluminum and veneered particleboard. I want to present material in furniture for its true nature, and highlight human error because it is a reminder that someone consciously created it. I strive to create conceptual meaning to all my pieces so that it can tell a story beyond its own physical existence. Materials play a big role in this because they have unique, yet specific, physical attributes that we can obey or abstract. A story can exist just in bringing two materials together in an interesting way.”

“Remember me…

“Remember me…” [ash and steel] by Colin Tury. Photo by Terry Soave.

In my mind, the only truly disappointing aspect of this exhibit are the posted signs constantly reminding visitors not to touch the artwork, when the very nature of the work evokes the desire to touch and interact with it.

Because, after all, it is furniture.


Terry Soave is Manager of Outreach & Neighborhood Services and also coordinates exhibits at the Ann Arbor District Library.


"Mid-West Furniture Zoku" will run through March 5, 2016, at 117 Gallery at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 10 am-7 pm, Saturday 10 am-6 pm, and Sunday 12-5 pm. Artist and Curator Talk: Thursday, February 18, 6-8 pm. Co-curators John DeHoog and Ray Wetzel, along with some of the artists of Zoku, will talk about their processes and artworks from the exhibition.

Review: Ruta Sepetys on Salt to the Sea

REVIEW WRITTEN WORD

Ruta Sepetys at Literati

Ruta Sepetys told some salty stories at Literati on February 10th.

Local young adult author and history fanatic Ruta Sepetys came to Literati on February 10th to discuss her newest work of YA historical fiction, Salt to the Sea.

The book tells the tragic story of teens Joana, Emilia, and Florian, refugees fleeing from Poland and the advance of the Red Army at the end of World War II. Each from a different background and a different country, their paths cross aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a real, historic ship that almost no one, including myself, seems to have heard of—despite it being the scene of the worst maritime disaster in world history.

Literati staff opened the evening with a quick introduction of the local author, making sure to mention that her novel Between Shades of Gray was the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti reads book of 2014. Then Sepetys stepped over to the microphone to introduce herself, her background, and her newest story. Her enthusiasm for writing and storytelling was obvious, but it was clear by the way she lit up as she launched into the Wilhelm Gustloff's tragic tale that she was really in it for the history.

According to her avid research, the Wilhelm Gustloff was a German cruise ship that set sail into the Baltic Sea at the end of World War II packed with thousands of refugees searching for safety. The ship, designed to carry a maximum of 1,400 passengers, was filled with so many fleeing survivors that when it finally set sail, it carried 10,000 passengers, pressed into dining rooms, dance halls, and even the emptied swimming pool. Rooms meant to fit two contained 15 or 20 people. The ship was so heavy, it was forced to sail in deep water—and that's where a Soviet submarine found it and where three well-aimed missiles led to the world’s most fatal maritime tragedy, sinking the ship and sending 9,400 people to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Using only a handful of black and white photographs and her undeniable enthusiasm, Sepetys managed to paint a vivid picture of the tragedy and of her research process and keep the crowd completely rapt. With the flair of a master storyteller she managed to pull the audience into the story, hold us in suspense, impress on us the horror of the Gustloff's sinking—and then lighten the heavy atmosphere with a few anecdotes about her search for facts on the ship and its history.

Salt to the Sea was a mammoth effort in research for Sepetys, as she traveled to Poland and several neighboring countries to meet survivors of the disaster, hear stories from men who had dived the wreckage of the Gustloff, and wade through mountains of artifacts and heirlooms from those who lived the tragedy.

Sepetys explained that she chose to tell the story through characters from several different nationalities—Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, and others—because she had found that the narrative of history could drastically change based on whose cultural experience was being told. You might write a book and think you know what it’s about, she said, but the story is really decided by the reader—and different countries can take one story in some vastly different directions.

She offered up her 2013 novel, Out of the Easy, as an example. Translated into dozens of languages, no two countries seemed to agree on what the book was about. Sepetys, when she wrote it, meant it to be about a girl living amongst the bordellos and brothels of 1950s New Orleans and struggling to shape her own destiny and make a life for herself outside of “The Big Easy.” But in France it’s marketed as a story of feminism in historical context. In Germany it’s a noir thriller. In Poland it’s about decisions and the dynamics that affect choice. And in Thailand, I kid you not, it is called The Hooker Book.

This diversity of interpretations fascinated Sepetys, and gave her a goal for this newest book: to show how the significance of a story could change from person to person, country to country. The author's genuine excitement was infectious and even the Q & A portion of the evening was entertaining as Sepetys enthusiastically answered questions from the audience and listened intently when audience members told their own family refugee stories. It was evident that the stories left the greatest impression on her and she made it clear that telling those stories was Salt to the Sea's main purpose. What exactly affects how history is shaped? Who decides how the stories get told and which stories get told?

Ambitious though it seems, Salt to the Sea works to tell a multitude of those stories within one, tragic story—history, as it is written by the victors and as it is written by the victims.

Salt to the Sea was released on February 2nd.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and if she ever writes a book she is totally calling it The Hooker Book.

Feeling Cross: David Cross at the Michigan Theater

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

David Cross had a little bit of fun at the Michigan Theater this Saturday.

David Cross had a little bit of fun at the Michigan Theater this Saturday.

Downtown Ann Arbor shivered with excitement and near-frostbite as over 1,000 comedy-lovers flocked to Michigan Theater on Saturday, February 13 for David Cross's Making America Great Again tour. The return of this stand-up legend was an event not to be missed.

Even if you don't recognize Cross by name, it's likely you've encountered his work before. Maybe you've seen him in the cult tv show Arrested Development, heard his voice in the Kung Fu Panda series, or stumbled upon his sketch show W/ Bob & David on Netflix. He's kept busy over the last twenty years recording comedy specials, starring in The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and popping up in shows like Modern Family and Archer. One of my favorite little facts about Cross (there's no stopping this train now) is that he appears in both Men in Black and Men in Black II as completely different characters. (Not that you need an excuse to watch MIB.)

As a first-time visitor to the Michigan Theater, I was admiring my surroundings when someone extremely exciting took the stage to make an announcement. It was an American Sign Language interpreter. I couldn't help but wonder if this man would be interpreting the entire performance, because as a fan of David Cross's previous work, I knew what levels of vulgarity were possible. Where would the line be drawn for ASL interpretation?

Suddenly, the music got louder. Actually, it was deafening, but then I started picking up lyrics about a show...did I hear "David Cross?" I knew for certain this was the Making America Great Again theme song when I heard the phrase "turn off your cell phones or you'll be punched in the dick." This was going to be a good show.

Cross emerged with a beard even lumberjacks would envy. He wore a baseball cap, jeans, and a blue zip-up sweatshirt reminiscent of his Arrested Development Blue Man Group costume. Even Cross was completely entranced by the ASL interpreter. He tried a couple of test words, including "Ethiopia" and "Sputnik." Other, more...mature words definitely happened. This interpreter was legit.

Then came the traditional introductions, a time when performers compliment the town they're visiting to the delight of their audience. Cross mentioned that he'd been walking around town, and I later heard he'd been to HopCat. So what did David Cross have to say about Ann Arbor? "It's ok." He followed up with the question, "Is Ann Arbor still the most literate city in America?" and in response to audience applause, "Good for you."

Throughout the show, Cross paced along the stage, spouting what sounded like stream-of-consciousness commentary, jumping from one topic to the next effortlessly. His jokes reflected real life, from dysfunctional family gatherings to religion to politics. Surprisingly, despite the name of his tour, certain Republican presidential candidates were only mentioned in passing. More time was devoted to advocating for gun regulation; he sarcastically vented that "there's nothing more American than reading about a senseless...gun death."

Cross paused his ranting periodically to interact with an intoxicated audience member. Their banter seemed so natural that I started to wonder if she was an intended part of the show. Eventually, he gave in to her interruptions and handed her the microphone, and she sent her "peace and love to everyone." Cross, with total professional ease, chuckled and proceeded with his show saying, "So that was a little bit fun."

The night seemed to end before it started, and when it was over, Cross reemerged from backstage to take a group photo of the audience for his facebook page. If you missed the show this time, dry those tears! Rumor has it that Cross will record his performance on Friday, April 22 as a comedy special.


Kayla Coughlin is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and is intrigued by American Sign Language possibilities.


David Cross returns to Michigan on Thursday, March 18, 2016, appearing at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids.

Review: You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry, You’ll Learn Absolutely Nothing: Taylor Mac and His History of Popular Music

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE MUSIC

Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Music

One of Taylor Mac's many costumes, designed by his long-time collaborator Machine Dazzle. Photo by Peter Smith.

Taylor Mac is not a teacher. If you’re interested in learning history—take a class. Read a book. Get sucked deep into a Wikipedia black hole and hang out for a while.

On Saturday, February 6th, actor, performance artist, and drag queen, Taylor Mac gave a performance of his A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that made me laugh, made me cry, and made me extremely uncomfortable. The only thing it didn’t do was teach me any history. Which, considering just how much it attempted to do—and successfully managed—was not such a big surprise.

Hosted by the University Musical Society, the show was part stand-up routine, part concert, part drag-show, and part performance art. I have no words for this sort of performance amalgamation, and so I was perfectly willing to accept Taylor Mac’s own description of the event as a “radical fairy realness ritual.”

From the start, it was clear that the event would be unusual. Our host, Taylor Mac, came on stage in a hot pink skirt suit spray painted with an American flag on the back, a sash made of soup cans, and a jaunty little hat. Behind him on stage sat a band of seven musicians—a pianist, a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, a guy who seemed to be playing a different instrument every time I looked at him (saxophone, trumpet, flute, possibly the flugelhorn), and finally, two exceptionally powerful back-up singers.

Mac began the show by explaining the bare bones of his musical project—each hour of the three-hour performance would be dedicated to a different ten-year period: 1956-1966, 1966-1976, and 1976-1986. Each decade came complete with its own costume, eight or nine songs from the time, and a central historic theme. This performance was just a fraction of a much larger endeavor Mac has planned for a later date, a 24-hour performance with an hour for every decade from America’s inception in 1776 all the way up to the glorious pop-fest that is the year 2016. Mac explained the idea that he would be on stage for a full 24 hours, singing and entertaining non-stop without food, bathroom, or sleep breaks, with the casual air of someone who is either very confident or incredibly irresponsible. Possibly both.

Probably both.

The first decade of our less-ambitious 3-hour show, ’56-’66, focused on aspects of the Civil Rights movement, or, as Mac puts it, “Songs Popular in the Bayard Rustin Planning Room.”

It kicked off with a slow and sultry rendition of Jay Hawkins’s “I Put A Spell On You.” By itself this would have been excellent entertainment—Mac’s stellar flair for theatrics is matched by his smooth, powerful voice. But just in case the audience had started to settle into the comfortable idea that they were at some tedious concert-meets-comedy-meets-drag-show, Mac introduced a new and terrifying element: audience participation.

After a very brief introduction of the racially tense atmosphere pervading the late ‘50s, Mac asked all of the straight, white people in the audience to stand up and slow-motion run to the sides of the room, simulating white flight.

“I understand that there won’t be a lot of room for you over there,” Mac said to the amazingly willing audience as they wiggled and stepped over each other to get to the sides of the room, “But I really want you to get the feel of the suburbs. I want you to be so close together that there’s a straight, white person on top of you even when you really don’t want a straight, white person on top of you.”

By the end of the song, I wasn’t sure if I was laughing, crying, or hyperventilating. If you’ve never seen a hundred people of all ages, including senior citizens, slow-motion run to the sides of a room and pack in like sardines, I highly recommend it.

With all of the elements fully introduced, the show really got under way. The ‘56-‘66 hour contained a bit of background on race issues and centered its attention on the March on Washington, though unfortunately most of the story that Mac told focused on the imagery of getting on a bus to go to the March. It involved an awful lot of audience playacting of getting to the bus/being on a bus/singing on a bus, without much actual information on the March itself.

Despite the fact that Mac didn’t tell much of a story, the music certainly did. The songs were well-chosen, a combination of Civil Rights anthems like The Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and chart-toppers like The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin' On” and Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The songs that came with their own clear message, such as the impossible-to-misinterpret “Mississippi Goddam” were as powerful as you might expect. But even the popular hits, thrown in front of the backdrop of the 1950s and forced into context gave songs like Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” deeper meaning and even greater muscle.

I’ll admit it—the ‘56-‘66 decade was definitely my jam. But the following decades carried the same sort of structure and a lot of the same impressive weight.

Taylor Mac

Mac's costumes from '56-'66 (left) and '66-'76 (right). Photo by Peter Smith.

Curtis Mayfield’s "Move On Up" transitioned us into the 1966-1976 decade, as Mac stripped down to a tiny yellow Speedo on stage, then disappeared behind the curtain and remerged in an outfit made up of so many different things that I honestly couldn’t tell if it was a dress, a jumpsuit, or if he’d tripped and fallen into a scrap box on his way back to center stage. The whole ensemble was tied together by a rainbow cape made of clear plastic tubes and a glittery silver headdress. This era had its eye trained on the beginnings of the gay liberation movement and the Stonewall riots of 1969. Songs included Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Patti Smith's "Birdland," and The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."

Taylor Mac

Photo by Peter Smith.

The 1976-1986 decade focused on the idea of the '70s and '80s club scene and their infamous "back rooms." This aspect of history seemed like an odd choice until I realized that these "back rooms " were a prevalent part of Mac's own experience as he came up in the club scene. Dressed in a bright silver jumpsuit with a ruffled purple shawl and a shiny purple mohawk, Mac told his most personal (and most graphic) stories during this era in between Laura Branigan's "Gloria," David Bowie's "Heroes," and Prince's "Purple Rain."

The gaps between each song were filled with comic stories, musings, and, of course, the obligatory ridiculous activities that come with performance art. During the 1956-1966 portion of the show, audience members were asked to dance, march, engage in some pretty exaggerated crying, and, finally, to email Rick Snyder.

Sometime around the 1970s, we were handed ping-pong balls to throw at Mac as he ran through the aisles in his rainbow-tube cape and yellow Speedo. As we moved into the late '70s part of the show, Mac pulled an older gentleman up on stage and sang him a love ballad, while the pianist groped the man’s leg.

In the '80s, he had an entire row of the upper balcony come downstairs, go behind the curtain onstage, and emerge in ridiculous wigs, boas, and glasses and dance through the aisles. Each activity was a bit more unbelievable than the last, finally culminating in a college-aged boy standing patiently still while Taylor Mac kissed him and rubbed glitter lipstick all over his face. Permission was not asked, just a perfunctory, “You’re over 18, right?”

Taylor Mac

Photo by Peter Smith.

It was wonderfully weird, and, while the entire thing carried the feel of a glittery game of Russian roulette as we waited to see who would be Mac’s next participation victim, it also succeeded in doing exactly what Mac had told us it would—creating a shared experience for the audience. The audience was incredibly good-natured, dancing when asked, moving when asked, and making sure to applaud loudly and sincerely for anyone who was a good enough sport to obey instructions like, “go stand on stage, but don’t smile and don’t dance” or “lay down on the floor and let these five strangers carry you out of the room.”

From all this highly entertaining madness, I only came away with one critique. As a person who would have loved all the elements of this show even if they were completely separate and not one giant, Katamari Damacy-style ball-of-everything, I was absolutely enchanted by this performance, so much so that I didn’t even resent Mac for keeping me up past my 8 pm bedtime. Give me comedy, music, or drag any time of day and I’m game. But I was also interested in the promise of some really good history-nerd satisfaction, and so I was a bit let down by the minimal emphasis on the actual history.

While Mac did occasionally address the lack of historical fact—“If you want to know more about the March [on Washington…Google it. What about this outfit says anything more than Wikipedia?”—I felt like it was such a shame to dismiss the history so casually because of how much it could have brought to the show. Even the barest skeleton of historical facts would have ramped up the storytelling element and could have made this fun and flighty show a little bit stronger and a lot more engrossing, particularly in the gaps between musical numbers.

But considering how much it did do right, I really can’t fault it for the one thing it didn’t completely ace. The show managed to be a masterful musical performance, an entertaining drag show, and a surprisingly fun communal audience experience, so really, who cares if he didn't include a history lesson? It was still a performance I’m not likely to forget. At least, not in this decade.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and, despite this positive experience, still thinks audience participation is the worst.


Review: Jive Colossus At The Club Above

REVIEW MUSIC

Jive Colossus plays the recently remodeled Club Above

Jive Colossus plays the recently remodeled Club Above.

Ann Arbor-based Jive Colossus, an eclectic ten piece jazz-funk ensemble, played at The Club Above on Saturday, February 6. Unable to cram themselves all onto the small stage, keyboardist Mike Ager was relegated to the floor nearby, but no one seemed to mind, least of all the enthused crowd.

The band members are known to pick up various instruments over the course of a performance, including triangle, tambourine and maracas, but, along with the keys, Jive Colossus mainly features its talents on two guitars (played by Rich Wright and Ed Green), a trumpet (Ross Huff), a baritone sax (David Swain), a trombone (Asim Khan), a bass (Tony Ketz), and two sets of drums, played by Jim Predhomme and Keith Poncher, as well vocalist Shelley Catalan. The band members range in age, and the genuine enjoyment they get out of hearing each other - and themselves - play makes them a very fun band to watch.

The crowd for JC was older, but the energy was high until closing time. The band played mostly original songs, but did a few covers, including a cover of “Ride or Die” by The Budos Band, which was met with enthusiasm. Like any good ensemble band, Jive Colossus gave their different sections time to shine, allowing the horns, drums, and keys to all solo at different points in the songs, which was great fun.

The music of Jive Colossus is, unsurprisingly, great for dancing. Fast-paced funk beats laced with a little bit of a Caribbean feel kept the dance floor hoppin’ all night at The Club Above, the recently remodeled second floor of Heidelberg.

The vibe inside The Club Above is a little trippy, with space scenes painted on the walls and flat screen TVs showing slowly moving swirls of color, but the dance floor is big, and there’s a good amount of seating, both at hightop tables and on couches and lounges. The venue is definitely worth checking out, especially if Jive Colossus happens to be on the stage.


Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Review: Direct from Sundance - The Lobster

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell, and Ben Wishaw in The Lobster

John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell, and Ben Wishaw in The Lobster.

Before a special, packed, “Direct from Sundance” screening of The Lobster got underway on Thursday, February 3, at the Michigan Theater, Executive Director/CEO Russ Collins appeared on stage with Sundance Film Festival programmer Hussain Currimbhoy.

By way of introducing The Lobster, which won the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Currimbhoy said, “This one has a certain sense of humor and sense of irony, and it addresses structures that control us and stop us from being ourselves. … (The film’s) absurd, but we figured this was the town that brought us Madonna and Iggy Pop, so you can handle absurd, right?”

Filmed in Ireland, and directed by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster tells the story of a newly dumped husband (Colin Farrell, sporting glasses, a moustache, and extra weight) who must now go to a hotel to try and find another partner. He has 45 days to do so, or he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. (His brother, now a dog, accompanies him.) At this hotel, masturbation is forbidden; hotel staffers, as part of their duties, bring guests to arousal without orgasm; and potential partners must share a trait. Consequently, one widower hotel guest with a limp (Ben Whishaw) regularly bangs his face against things to make his nose bleed, in order to match with a nosebleed-prone woman; and Farrell’s character pretends to be callous to match with the hotel’s longest-surviving guest, who has earned her extended stay by successfully shooting down the escaped, off-the-grid “Loners” that live as a tribe in the wilderness.

When Farrell’s ruse is revealed, he flees and joins the Loners, who allow masturbation but forbid romantic coupling of any kind, punishable by mutilation. Yet it’s in this setting, of course, that Farrell finds love with another short-sighted person, played by Rachel Weisz. The two develop a secret language of gestures, but when the loners’ sadistic leader (played by Lea Seydoux) figures out what’s happening, she metes out a cruel bit of justice, leaving Farrell with an excruciatingly painful choice.

In addition to Farrell and Weisz, John C. Reilly plays a hotel guest who’s struggling mightily with the system’s strictures; but he, like everyone else in this black comedy, is stoic above all else, moving grimly, with resignation, through each day. Plus, as Currimbhoy noted after the film, Lanthimos was drawn to shoot the film in Ireland not only because of the country’s aggressive film incentives, but also because of the natural landscape’s “gray light” quality, which gives the exterior shots in The Lobster a washed-out look.

“He needed a certain kind of setting or atmosphere that only Ireland has,” said Currimbhoy.

The film’s first half, set at the hotel, achieves fresh, affecting balance between horror and humor – to name one example, after couples form, if they fight often, they’re assigned a child to parent (which I found hysterical) – and makes you question the deep-seated, constant social pressures upon us to pair off, as well as the myriad ways society tends to condescend to those who live outside that model.

And while Farrell’s character’s defection to the Loners provides a kind of satisfying symmetry – the opposite model has significant flaws, too, and of course he finds love not in the place that’s rigidly designed for it, but in the space where it’s forbidden – the latter part of the film drags and lacks the weird spark present in the hotel scenes. The ambiguous final scene, though, is likely to spur heated discussions, as well as some frustrated anger.

The Lobster was part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight Series, which consists of “films from other festivals that the programmers love,” said Currimbhoy. “Movies that won’t get picked up for distribution, probably, but that have a certain quality, something fresh.”

Some of the biggest news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, of course, involved the controversial drama, Birth of a Nation, which focuses on African American preacher Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion aimed at freeing slaves in Virginia, and the violent retaliation by whites that followed.

During The Lobster’s post-screening discussion, Collins confirmed that Cinetopia – the annual international southeast Michigan film festival that was born at the Michigan Theater – was in talks to bring Birth of a Nation to the Mitten State (hopefully) when the festival happens June 3-12, 2016.

The Michigan Theater’s relationship with Sundance began in 2010, when Sundance rolled out a program wherein 8 films that had just had their world premieres at Sundance in Park City, Utah, were shipped out to a handful of art house theaters across the country for a one-night screening, and one or two people involved with the film – a director, a star, a producer – would be on-hand to answer questions. (The first Sundance movie shown at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater through this program was the comedy Cyrus, and one of the stars, Jonah Hill, plus filmmaker brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, appeared.)

More recently, Sundance’s close ties to the Michigan Theater (and Collins, who helms the annual, Sundance-affiliated Art House Convergence conference in Park City) have resulted in Ann Arbor becoming the sole site for this kind of special screening.

And Currimbhoy’s inaugural visit seems only to have cemented the good relations between Ann Arbor and Park City.

“I am loving this place, by the way,” Currimbhoy said. “It has really surprised me. … You are lucky to live in a place with a theater like this.”


Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, but also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Review: Sondheim on Sondheim Soars at Encore

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

The company of Encore Theatre's Sondheim on Sondheim

The company of Encore Theatre's Sondheim on Sondheim.

Imagine you've been invited to a sophisticated party at the Manhattan apartment of the dean of American musical theater, Stephen Sondheim. In the course of the evening, guests will perform from Sondheim's rich vault of musical theater pieces that brought a new irony, maturity and depth to Broadway. And Sondheim, himself, will explain his craft, his artistic growth and his sometimes troubled life.

And it's all happening magically on Broad Street in Dexter at The Encore Theatre.

This is the set-up for Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical revue conceived by Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine. A wide-range of beautiful music from the Sondheim catalog is presented by live performers while on a large screen videos show Sondheim in interviews and documentaries covering his career from his early success as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne through his career as the most successful Broadway composer of recent history. Sondheim is an engaging, witty and insightful host, willing to share the "secrets" of his trade, learned at an early age from another master, Oscar Hammerstein II. He is also quietly reflective about a lingering sadness in his life.

Four men and three women arrive on stage dressed for a cocktail party. A man sits at a grand piano going through the finger movements of a piano lesson and we're off for an evening of laughs, tears and much in between, because this is a cast that understands Sondheim.

Director Daniel Cooney was a little nervous on Feb. 5 because a cast member was unable to perform, so he was a singer short. Not to worry, with the help of a few index cards, the cast members rose to the occasion and filled in the gaps. Talk about troupers!

Cast members Peter Crist, Leah Fox, Daniel A. Helmer, Kelsey Pohl, Thalia V. Schramm, Jim Walke and Adam Woolsey make a fine ensemble around music director Tyler Driskill's skilled piano accompaniment. But they also shine on their special moments, the kind of theatrical moments that are almost exclusive to Sondheim's repertoire.

Kelsey Pohl brings sass and brass to "Now You Know" and sexual energy to "Ah, But Underneath." She has a commanding voice and energy.

Jim Walke is a big guy who gets to handle the more dangerous songs. As the mad baker from Sweeney Todd, he roars through "Epiphany" and as a potential killer from Assassins he ruminates sadly and madly on the power of a gun in "The Gun Song."

Daniel A. Helmer gets the spotlight as a feuding songwriter on "Franklin Shepard, Inc." and is fierce and funny, as he is in several ensemble pieces. He takes a quieter turn on Sondheim's best reflection on art itself in "Finishing the Hat."

Adam Woolsey offers a slow, quiet reading of Sondheim's concluding statement in Company, "Being Alive." Woolsey's version is powerfully sad with just a hint of positive self discovery. Peter Crist gets the spotlight on "Is This What You Call Love," which he sings with the right note of wounded confusion.

Thalia V. Schramm and Leah Fox perform a counter rendering of sad love-maybe songs "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" with all the wistful weight intended.

Schramm is also excellent on two of Sondheim's most complicated songs. On "In Buddy's Eyes," her near tears performance underlines softly the song's bitter regrets. And on Sondheim's most famous song "Send in the Clowns," Schramm delivers all the poignancy of love lost that has made the song so beloved.

Cooney's staging and Driskill's musical direction make the complex blending of video and live performance flow effortlessly. The ensemble pieces are crisp and natural. The solos are well defined. And all of it keys nicely off the Sondheim videos, which are a series of revelations.

Set designer Sarah Tanner has created an eye-popping rendering on a Manhattan apartment, meticulously decorated with show biz photos, old posters and playbills, a display of game boards and bric-a-brac. The room is appropriately furnished and looks out on a city skyline. Andy Galicki handles the complex lighting design and the precise video presentation.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


Sondheim on Sondheim continues Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 21 at the Encore Theatre in Dexter. For tickets, call the Encore Theatre box office at (734)268-6200 or visit the website at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets/

Review: Momentum - Great Modern Dance with all the Weirdness You Might Expect

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Dancers in a piece by Camille A. Brown.

Dancers in a piece by Camille A. Brown.

The University of Michigan Department of Dance trains young people to be excellent modern dancers and then frequently asks them to perform bafflingly academic pieces. Their most recent performance, Momentum, running at the Power Center from now until February 7th, showcased this duality. The first three pieces were all choreographed by Department of Dance faculty, and the finale by guest choreographer Camille A. Brown.

Momentum opened with a piece by local dance legend Peter Sparling. I generally like Sparling’s work, but recently he has become enamored of video projections which tend to overwhelm his choreography. His work for Momentum, “Big Weather,” featured not one but two video screens between which the dancers moved. The videos contained a strange mix of images, including stars, corpses, sandbags, and at one point, a stuffed elephant falling slowly from a table. The dancers wore heavy rubber boots that they took off and on throughout the piece, which was set to pounding and not particularly rhythmic percussion music. If I’m not describing much of the dancing, it’s because I was too distracted by the trappings of the piece to focus on the actual movement. At his best, Sparling, a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, can choreograph wonderfully thoughtful modern dance pieces. However, “Big Weather” seemed more the work of an artist who has been insulated within academia for a little too long.

I was worried about the issues that would plague the second piece, “Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” choreographed by Bill DeYoung, because the program notes described it as about “the relentless dog-eat-dog momentum of office dynamics.” But after a strange start featuring a fake tennis match (which I quickly forgot), “Cheating, Lying, Stealing” became a fun and fast piece that worked beautifully with the music choice. The lead dancer, dressed in silver lamé, danced with such a stunning and precise ferocity that I could easily understand why all of the others dancers were following her lead by the end.

Amy Chavasse’s piece “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” showcased some of the younger and less experienced dancers and brought a great sense of play to Momentum. I had a hard time focusing on the beginning because I was preoccupied by a dummy that was covered in duct tape and tied up to a movable piece of shattered plexiglass at the back of the stage. I half-expected the dummy to turn out to be a real dancer who might pop out at any moment, so I braced myself for the surprise. I did not have this same fear with the life-size stuffed alpaca watching static on TV in the front of the stage, although I found it equally confusing. “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” featured some nice partnering and the dancers, dressed as what I can only describe as futuristic merpeople, seemed to be truly enjoying themselves.

The last piece of the night was choreographed by Camille A. Brown, who will be bringing her new work Black Girl–Linguistic Play to the Power Center on February 13th. Brown’s piece, “City of Rain,” was far and away the best of the night. It would be worth going to see Momentum for this work alone, which allowed the Department of Dance to show off their most amazing dancers. Of particular note is Beynji Marsh, a junior from Chicago who could easily be mistaken for a professional dancer. Marsh’s precise control over his body is matched by the emotion and nuance he brought to the choreography. He is a true and notable talent and I look forward to seeing his dance career flourish. All of the dancers in “City of Rain” were excellent, and it was a moving and lovely end to the evening.

Stuffed alpacas and rubber boots aside, Momentum is worth your time. The dancers are talented, though their abilities were sometimes lost amid the choices of some of the more academic choreographers. Notably missing from Momentum was a piece from faculty member Robin Wilson, who is one of the most accessible and excellent choreographers in the Department of Dance. Wilson acted as Rehearsal Director for “City of Rain,” but it would have been great to have gotten an original work from her as well. I could have done with fewer video screens and unused but overbearing set pieces. My date for the evening, my father, suggested that the faculty be required to choreograph to only Katy Perry music for a year, just for the challenge. Although I’m more of a Taylor Swift fan myself, I can’t help but agree with the sentiment. In the meantime, get a ticket to Momentum and enjoy it for–and despite–all its weirdness.


Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL and former dancer.


Momentum continues its run at the Power Center through this weekend, with performances Friday and Saturday, February 5 and 6 at 8 pm, and Sunday, February 7 at 2 pm. Tickets range from $22-$28, and students with ID can attend for $12.

Review: New Technologies and Victorian Society

REVIEW VISUAL ART

The Kiss of Peace, circa 1865 [albumen print on paper] by Julia Cameron. Loch Katrine, from Sun Pictures in Scotland, 1844 [calotype on paper] by William Henry Fox Talbot. Images courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

The Kiss of Peace, circa 1865 [albumen print on paper] by Julia Cameron. Museum purchase 1975/1.63 // Loch Katrine, from Sun Pictures in Scotland, 1844 [calotype on paper] by William Henry Fox Talbot. Museum purchase made possible by the Friends of the Museum of Art 1980/1.144. Images courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

It perhaps isn’t too ironic that Charles Dickens’ opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities can also serve as a vivid motif for the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection.

As Dickens writes in his 1859 novel contrasting two opposed worldviews of late 18th century Industrial-era European culture: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

As he himself notes, Dickens might as well have been writing of his own time. And as illustrated in UMMA Curator Emerita Carole McNamara’s selection of some of this museum’s most significant photographic holdings, mid-19th century England would have indeed been among the best and worst of times. As the exhibit shows us by example (and McNamara’s choices are certainly peerless), England was undergoing rapid transitions in both technology and society that would affect and influence the world.

The Victorian era—measured by the 63 year reign of Queen Victoria of the House of Hanover; dated 1837 (on her assumption of the British throne) to precisely the turn of the 20th century—was a paradoxical period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities, and highly moralistic national self-confidence often described as Pax Britannica because of the progressive rise of British prosperity fostered by the nation’s worldwide empire.

But it was also a time of sometimes brutal industrial consolidation coupled with an unprecedented population growth as millions of British subjects continued their equally unprecedented migration around the country as well as around the world—and particularly from the British countryside to the country’s urban centers. London especially swelled from one and a half million inhabitants at the beginning of the Victorian era to more than triple that number by the end of the century.

There to capture this extraordinary social, political, economic, and cultural transition was a technological marvel that would reshape the history of art as well as how we see the world. For, prior to the innovation of the photographic camera in the early decades of the 19th century, draughtsmanship and painting had always vacillated between impulses of realism and fancy. And although various forms of pre-camera photographic equipment go as far back as ancient China and ancient Greece, the notion of photography as a practical technology was spurred in the early-19th century through the development of chemical photographic processes.

As McNamara says in her introduction to New Technologies of this era:

“The first half-century of British photography charts the journey of a new medium with distinct expressive and artistic potentials. Although photography served as an aid to science and exploration, it captured aspects of British society in ways that are poetic and artistic. Early photographers exploited existing pictorial conventions and their subject matter is often derived from painting traditions—portraits of family members and friends, still-lifes of household objects, and landscapes.”

In short, spreading quickly around the world, mid-19th century photography emancipated art from its dependence on subjective creativity by giving photographers the ability to capture images drawn directly from life. And these pioneers were quick to explore the new technology with increasing alacrity.

Some of the earliest images on display—three 1844 salted paper prints from calotype negatives: “Part of Queen’s College, Oxford”, “Loch Katrine” (from the “Sun Pictures of Scotland”), and “Bust of Patroclus” (plate five from “The Pencil of Nature”)—reflect the range of British photography at this seminal period as crafted in what can only be described as an inspired creativity by William Henry Fox Talbot.

Fox, one of England’s foremost photographic technologists of the time, invented a photographic procedure through his silver salt and nitrate process that made it possible to produce as many positive prints as anyone would wish of any image. And Fox’s forays into what is now called contact printing fostered the development of landscape photography and artful photojournalism with a zestful fidelity that’s still breathtaking today.

Among the socially-oriented documentary works on display are David Octavious Hill’s circa 1840s carbon print “St. Andrews, Baiting the Lines” drawn from his “A Series of Calotype Views of St. Andrews” and John Thomson’s equally penetrating 1876-77 Woodbury type “The Crawlers” drawn from his “Street Life in London” series; both works where the emphasis is to give viewers a sense of what life would have been like for the 19th century British working class.

This is surely among the worst of times as the photographs clearly show us a society caught on the moorings of seriously pressed workers (in Hill’s photo) and a thoroughly economically depressed mother with child on her lap (in Thomson’s photo) even as the country was itself among the more enlightened polities in the world at that time.

Likewise, as we see in New Technologies, portraiture would be slow, but steady in evolving. Largely because of the length of time necessary to develop negative plates through bulky equipment, the posture of early portraiture sitters is far more formal than what we’re used to seeing. As such, John Adamson and Robert Adamson’s circa 1841 salted paper print from calotype negative “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” is a decidedly straight-forward no nonsense visage.

Yet even as a palpable steely discomfort renders Brewster’s portrait rather starched, this famed Scottish scientist, mathematician, and editor of the influential 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopedia (as well, coincidently, inventor of the first three-dimensional lenticular stereoscope camera) poses patiently for the brother Adamsons. Focusing on the seated Brewster’s white hair as well as left-hand crossed on his waist; “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” crafts a decorous ceremonial portraiture that’s common to this day.

Technology itself is best represented by Scotsman James Stewart’s 1878 albumen print, “No. 247.” This seemingly simple profile of a steam locomotive is actually handsomely pregnant in both its photographic and technical articulation. Certainly one of the most important inventions prior to the Victorian era, and also a technology that was relentlessly worked upon through this period, the external combustion engine was of as much fascination to the Victorians as rockets still are to us in our time.

Stewart’s composition is flawless. The steam locomotive is depicted squarely in the center of the photograph with remarkable attention paid to its sleek design. A concise masterwork, Stewart pays attention to the locomotive from its striking forward smoke box to its perched cab with the photo being crafted sufficiently to scale as to accent its curvilinear brake shoes in contrast to its horizontal air brake pump. “No. 247” is a fastidious rendering of this marvel of 19th century machinery.

But perhaps the most stunning composition in New Technologies is Julia Margret Cameron’s circa 1865 “The Kiss of Peace” albumen print. Cameron, a deeply religious woman who only began photography at middle age, most often photographed her family. Yet in this inspired composition of friend and domestic depicting the Christian tradition of “the kiss of peace” practiced as a gesture of friendly acceptance, Cameron’s “The Kiss of Peace” is also a keenly observed proto-feminist mediation on the status of women in Victorian society.

The photograph’s mood is reminiscent of the distinctive British Pre-Raphaelite art that had a uniquely influential popularity only shortly before the advent of photography. As such, the models’ wind-blown hair, simple cloth drape, and their languid diagonal gaze mirror an inward melancholy that in turn suggests that period’s conception of the supposed innocence of femininity—but Cameron clearly knows better. As knowingly heartfelt as it is aesthetically accomplished, her “Kiss of Peace”—certainly one of the most famed photographs of the 19th century—is a profound mediation on the paradoxical symbolic and heightened dramatic sensibility of the Victorian era.


John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.


University of Michigan Museum of Art: “New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection” will run through May 8, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.