Review: Nora Chipaumire’s “Portrait of Myself as My Father”


Nora Chipaumire

Nora Chipaumire pulls no punches. / Photo by [|Elise Fitte-Duval].

There’s a reason that Nora Chipaumire’s [|“Portrait of Myself as My Father”] earned a spot in University Musical Society’s [|Renegade series], which highlights cutting edge artists (and works) that take risks.

“Portrait,” an avant-garde dance work conceived, costumed, lit, choreographed, directed and performed (along with Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, also known as Kaolack, and Shamar Watt) by Chipaumire, is now being presented at Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym.

And once audience members enter the performance space – a boxing ring, bordered by red, white, and blue ropes, and surrounded by bleachers on four sides – they immediately confront bright halogen lights, a loud, electronic soundscape, and Chipaumire herself, talking into a boxing microphone that dangles from the building’s rafters.

If you think this doesn’t give you the chance to feel comfortable and settled, you’re right. You won’t. And your heightened alertness will likely be sustained throughout the hour-plus show.

For “Portrait” is all about overwhelming your senses (Philip White’s music ranges from distorted electronica and white noise to pulsing hiphop and drumming, and the room is shrouded in complete darkness, save for the portable halogen worklights, which sometimes shine directly in your line of vision); subverting conventions (like any kind of linear narrative); and collapsing areas of difference, whether it’s time – combining ritualistic African dances with ultra-modern, avant garde movements – or gender. Indeed, Chipaumire, a woman, acts as our guide to black manhood and masculinity while wearing football shoulder pads, a sheer black bra, and low-slung black pants, with a mostly-shaved head.

Ndiaye, meanwhile, is dressed in little more than a pair of red shorts, and he’s the primary subject of Chipaumire’s exploration, charismatically acting out her instructions and observations. Often, her questions slowly build upon each other: “How do you become a man? How do you become a black man? How do you become an African black man?” And both Ndiaye and Chipaumire are connected by cloth tethers that stretch far beyond the boxing ring, as well as to each other, simultaneously suggesting a familial umbilical cord and enslavement.

Tall, lanky Watt acts as more of a one-man stage crew, audience wrangler, and circus ringleader, dressed in a black tailcoat and red track pants, but he plays a larger role within the show as it progresses. During one segment, he wowed the crowd by repeatedly leaping over the boxing rings ropes and onto the floor.

Chipaumire deconstructs black African manhood by breaking it down into gestures, which is to say, specific ways of moving through the world. She states early on that “This is a manifesto about the black African,” and in her artist’s statement in the program, she talks about how personal the piece is. For the piece is inspired by Chipaumire’s experience: she last saw her father when she was five, and he died in 1980. She has since tried to learn more about him, and fill in some of the blanks, but in the end, she can never know him, and she imagines him in a boxing ring, doing battle not only with the forces of the larger world, but within himself.

This leads to an arresting final moment in the show, wherein Chipaumire is seen in the darkness carrying Ndiaye on her back, and Watt asks, “What is this about?” Chipaumire answers that it is about her father, whose carcass she carries with her. It’s a powerful image, and it achieves a fierce intimacy. But I must confess that before this scene, I struggled mightily to fit the show’s pieces together in any kind of cohesive, emotionally impactful way. I’d committed so much energy trying to unlock the show’s mysteries that it ultimately eluded me.

Even so, there are clearly some intriguing, complex ideas driving “Portrait.” Even as Watt repeatedly yells “Champion!” and leads the crowd in applauding Ndiaye, as he goes through the paces of Chipaumire’s sharp demands, you can’t escape the reminder of how often we watch black male bodies perform athletic feats for our pleasure and public consumption.

So some of these thought-provoking, disquieting moments definitely land, but mostly, this “Portrait” inevitably seems blurred.

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

Portrait of My Father continues Saturday, November 19 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, November 20 at 2:00 pm at the Downtown Boxing Gym in Detroit, 6445 E. Vernor Hwy. Tickets are [|available here] or through the ticket office by calling 734-764-2538. For more information, visit [].

Review: Jonathan Safran Foer at Rackham Auditorium


Jonathan Safran Foer

Here he is.

One of the first things that bestselling author [a:Foer, Jonathan Safran|Jonathan Safran Foer] (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Eating Animals) mentioned in his talk at Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium on Friday night was that he’d always rather engage in conversation than do a straight-up reading.

The reasons why became evident soon after the evening’s host, author/U-M professor Doug Trevor, invited audience members – from the crowd of about 550 – to approach one of two microphones to ask Safran Foer a question. When the second fan at the mic said that his favorite author, Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), once claimed that the reader was his best friend, Safran Foer’s wit kicked into high gear.

“Now I’m jealous of Jonathan Franzen,” said Safran Foer. “Did you have to say that? … Couldn’t you just ask, ‘What’s your relationship with your reader?’ And his first name is Jonathan, too, which just made it that much worse.”

After Safran Foer asked for the fan’s first name (Justin), he said, “My favorite reader’s first name is also Justin.” When Justin responded by saying, “I greatly respect you, too, as a writer,” Safran Foer quipped, “Respect is for losers.”

Digressions weren’t likely to throw off Safran Foer’s readers, of course, who have come to appreciate the author’s sometimes funny, always insightful literary side-trips.

Though Safran Foer’s latest novel, [b:1493028|Here I Am], focuses on a marriage in decay, a family in crisis, and an earthquake in the Middle East, it primarily draws its title from the biblical story of Abraham. For when Abraham called upon by God to make an unbearable sacrifice, he simply replies, “Here I am.”

Safran Foer - whose visit was sponsored by Literati Bookstore, and who was dressed casually in a gray plaid button down shirt and camel brown pants on Friday night - spoke at length about not feeling a need to focus on momentum and plot when writing novels. “Why is the plot so important?” said Safran Foer. “TV takes care of plot these days. Books don’t have a burden to entertain people. Books have a different burden, which is really hard to articulate, even though it’s so unmistakable when it happens. I think it has something to do with … the feeling of being known. If you really love a book, or really moved by a book, transported and changed by a book, the physicality of it disappears, and the characters and plot disappears, and language disappears, and you’re just left with this feeling of being known. … When I write, I want my books to be forceful expressions of my sensibility.”

Safran Foer’s work is often called “cerebral” and “ambitious,” but during Friday night’s talk, he insisted, “I don’t think unless I’m either writing or in conversation with somebody. I do not. I’m always curious, if other people are really different, or if they just haven’t thought of it that way before. I don’t have an active interior monologue. I don’t walk down the street by myself thinking things other than, ’It’s unseasonably cold,’ or, ‘I feel like Chinese food,’ or whatever. I do not have thoughts. They don’t self-generate. They’re always responsive. So that’s why I love conversations, and that’s why I love writing, because writing creates a context for thought.”

A father of two young boys, Safran Foer made non-literary headlines in recent years when he and author Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) separated and divorced; when an email correspondence between him and actress Natalie Portman – the only person who actually appeared in the story’s sexy accompanying photographs – was published in the New York Times’ T Magazine; and because he’s been dating actress Michelle Williams. But Friday evening’s talk focused solely on Safran Foer’s work and his newest book, which nonetheless deals with the challenge inherent in sustaining a marriage over time.

“People who are married and entertain the notion of divorce get divorced,” said Safran Foer. “Even if they don’t legally or technically get divorced, to entertain the notion is to break something, because marriage is the absence of divorce. That’s what it is. … Some people choose to do it, and that is what it means to get divorced. Some people will not allow that to be a choice. And that’s what makes it a marriage.”

Finally, Safran Foer talked about how changes in his life and perspective feed into his sense of his work.

“I always feel like I hear a little voice saying, ‘This is the last thing you’re ever going to write,’” said Safran Foer. “Not in the sense that I’m going to die, and not in the sense that I won’t write another book, but in very straightforward sense that, the person writing this book will not write another book. And proof of that is when I look at my old books. I did not write those books. Obviously I have more in common with the person that did than anybody else, but they are not reflections of my sensibility. They’re reflections of the sensibility of the person I used to be.”

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

Preview: Local Author Scott Savitt Discusses His New Book "Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China"


Scott Savitt

Crashing the Party with local author Scott Savitt.

Former foreign correspondent Scott Savitt, who’s called Ann Arbor home for a little over a year now, is celebrating the release of his new book Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China with local appearances on Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.

The book starts with Savitt’s harrowing account of spending 30 days on a hunger strike in a Chinese prison; and it later explains how the tragic death of his high school girlfriend set him on the path to spending years of his life in China. But the last section he needed to write to complete the manuscript – about Tiananmen Square, where Chinese political protesters were confronted by tanks and military force in 1989 – may have demanded the most courage.

“I had never revisited that, even in all the years since it happened,” said Savitt. “You have to move on somehow. And speaking as a journalist, the story continued. People were arrested, people went into exile – you had to keep covering the story. … So I wrote that section last. My publisher got to a point where he said, ‘Maybe you just can’t do it,’ and I said, ‘No, I can.’ So I finally cranked it out one sleepless night, and then the next morning, I read it to [U-M faculty member Dr. Rebecca Liu], and I started sobbing uncontrollably. It just made me realize how repressed that emotion was. It was still there. I don’t like calling things ‘syndromes’ but post-trauma – that’s real, and I still have it for sure. … It was something people are not built to see.”

But Savitt’s unique journey began when he was a freshman at Duke University. One Sunday night, he spoke by phone with his girlfriend, a high school senior, and 12 hours later, after suddenly becoming ill, she lay comatose in Yale University Hospital. She died one week later.

Shortly thereafter, Savitt was back on campus, leading a wilderness survival training program (Outward Bound), when he heard about Duke’s new student exchange program with China. The requirements were rigorous and included taking an intensive Chinese language course five days a week for one school year.

“I feel pretty certain that, if not for that untimely death, I wouldn’t have done something like that,” said Savitt. “I could have shown you China on a map, but otherwise, I didn’t have that mindset at all. I just felt like, ‘I want to get out of here.’”

So Savitt left for China in 1983. First, he was a student, but he then began working as a journalist – first for Asiaweek Magazine, then The Los Angeles Times, and United Press International. At age 25, he become the youngest accredited foreign correspondent in China.

“I’d never really thought about being a journalist for my career,” said Savitt. “ … But at that time, in China, there were very few ways you could stay there when you weren’t a student. You had to get a job visa. You could teach English, and I did that, too. But getting a job in the foreign news bureau was the best job you could get, and it would utilize my Chinese language skills and my writing ability. … It was really easy to sell articles then.”

After witnessing, and reporting on, the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, Savitt founded his own independent, English language newspaper in China, called Beijing Scene – which eventually led to his 30 day imprisonment in a small dark cell, in solitary confinement, and then deportation.

“The compliment I usually get from all sides [about the book] is that I’ve really tried to be fair about China, because having those experiences – it would be easy to become embittered,” said Savitt. “But I’m not. By the time those events happened, I was ready to leave, anyway.”

But Savitt’s sustained residence in China, fulfilling a number of different roles, lends him a far more comprehensive view of this huge, complicated country than is normally available to journalists.

“We rely on (journalists) to tell us what’s happening in places, but in many cases, they don’t exactly know,” said Savitt. “It’s not that easy. If I’d never started a business, there would be stuff about China I just wouldn’t know. … There are very few Americans or journalists who’ve seen the inside of a prison cell, or seen how business gets done – which involves paying bribes for pretty much everything.”

Given Savitt’s deep knowledge of, and vast experience with, China, you might wonder what we, and our political leaders, get wrong about the country.

“What I get the most is, ‘Oh, I thought China was going to pass us like we’re standing still – that China is the future, and we’re the past,’” said Savitt. “I would disabuse people of that notion. China’s used to highlighting our own shortcomings, but it’s never going to pass us on per capita income. … The general consensus is that China will grow old before it grows rich. In many areas, it’s still a third world country. Yes, the cities people have visited are modern, because they leapfrogged other parts of the country. But many places never had landline phones to begin with, so they went from no phone to cell phones, which saves a lot on infrastructure. … But the main thing I always say to people is, if they’re the future, how come thousands of Chinese people line up every day to move here, and no one is lining up to move there? Nobody who’s not from China stays there permanently. And when people are making a decision about where to raise children, the vast majority of people would rather be here.”

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

Scott Savitt discusses his book at two local appearances: Tuesday, November 1 at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books, and on Tuesday, November 29 at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.

Review: Bestselling author Margaret Atwood at Rackham Auditorium


Margaret Atwood

The Tempest retold as Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood.

The full-capacity crowd at Rackham Auditorium on Friday night not only got to hear witty insights from one of our era’s greatest, most accomplished writers, Margaret Atwood (decked out in black and orange for Halloween); they also got to hear the septuagenarian Canadian novelist/poet rap.

Why? Because her newest novel, [b:1493102|Hag-Seed], features prisoners putting on their own version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and one excerpt Atwood read included an inmate’s extended riff that ends with “Oh no! Oh no more Prospero,/Too bad, how sad, that’s what they said:/He must be dead./So now I’m the man, the man, the big man,/I’m the duke, I’m the duke, I’m the duke of Milan.”

Hag-Seed is one of a group of books that have been published as part of the [|Hogarth Shakespeare project], wherein Shakespeare plays are retold by acclaimed contemporary novelists. Literati Bookstore sponsored Atwood’s Ann Arbor appearance.

Atwood - seated alone on Rackham’s stage, beside a round, low table with a floral arrangement - earned several laughs from the crowd as she read portions of her new novel, holding the book with hands sheathed in glow-in-the-dark skeleton gloves. (She said she was wearing them in honor of the upcoming U.S. Presidential election.)

When she finished, she said, “Now, if you have questions, I will answer them. If I don’t like your question, I will reformulate it. We do learn things from watching TV, don’t we?”

Many of the crowd’s questions concerned one of Atwood’s most enduring, classroom-friendly novels, [b:1007355|The Handmaid’s Tale] (1985) – a dystopian novel that imagines that, following a terrorist attack that leaves our democracy in ruins, a revolution with a theocratic bent suspends the U.S. Constitution, and as a complete societal re-organization happens, women are stripped of all rights.

Atwood said that when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she’d been reading about America’s 17th century Puritan theocracy, as well as mid-century dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

“I’d always wanted to write one, but most of them are written from a male point of view, and I thought it would be interesting to turn that around and take a female point of view for the narrator,” said Atwood. “ … I made it a rule in writing the book that I would not make anything up. I would use only things that had really actually happened somewhere at some time, or for which we had the technology.”

Atwood noted that a TV series inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale is now filming in Toronto, and she made a cameo appearance in it.

Regarding writing genre fiction, Atwood said, “I don’t divide books up that way at all. I divide them into books I like and books I don’t like. Because it doesn’t matter what genre is on the shelf in the book store. … It’s like a filing convenience. … So I do those things because it never occurred to me not to do them.”

One audience member raised the question of why Atwood set her take on The Tempest inside a prison, when the environment plays such a key role in the play. “The last three words of the play are, ‘Set me free,’” Atwood said. “ … You don’t say ‘set me free’ unless you’re not free. … Once you’re into themes of revenge, you’re always into stories about liberation from something.”

Atwood read and spoke for a little over an hour, and one of the last questions came from two high school teachers who asked what she’d tell young people about why reading is important. “Language is the oldest fully human thing that we have, and stories are pre-built-in,” said Atwood. “ … It had to have been a survival trait over long numbers of years. So stories are how we understand our world. We understand them partly through graphs and charts, but only if somebody tells us the story behind the graphs and charts. … What does this mean that the blue line is going up, and the red line is going down?”

Before wrapping up the question-and-answer portion of the evening (and beginning the book signing part), Atwood made a joke regarding the upcoming U.S. Presidential election: “In The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada’s the place she escaped to, so you’re all welcome.”

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

Preview: Kevin Smokler's "Brat Pack America" book release party with Michigan Theater double feature, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club"


Brat Pack America, by Kevin Smokler

Brat Pack America. // Author Kevin Smokler.

Writer/journalist Kevin Smokler grew up watching ‘80s teen movies in Ann Arbor, and he’ll be doing that again in the coming weeks, since the release of his new book, [b:1499830|Brat Pack America: Visiting Cult Movies of the ‘80s], inspired the Michigan Theater’s fall film series, [|"Kids in America: '80s Teen Classics"] which kicks off on Monday, October 10 with a double feature: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at 7 pm and The Breakfast Club at 9:30. Smokler will be in attendance, as will director John Hughes’ son, James Hughes, and both will offer their insights about the films.

“I knew I wanted to write about the movies I grew up with, but I knew I had to find something else to say about them,” said Smokler, a Greenhills School grad who now lives in San Francisco.

As Smokler started revisiting beloved movies from his youth, he noticed that they were consistently set in places that weren’t Los Angeles or New York City, but rather fictional towns like Shermer, Illinois, or the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, or the Midwestern city of Chicago. Locations played a key role in these films, so in addition to talking to actors, writers, and directors, Smokler went on ‘80s teen movie pilgrimages to Goonies Day in Astoria, Oregon, a Lost Boys Tour in Santa Cruz, California and more.

Fittingly, Smokler views the book as a “giant Trapper Keeper of trivia” about these movies, and one of the interviews he most anticipated was with director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless). “She’s responsible for two of the most important teen movies of all time,” said Smokler. “I was pretty worried about what I could ask her without collapsing into a Spicoli/Cher Horowitz quote-a-thon, which I’m sure she’s heard a thousand times and didn’t need me wasting her time with.”

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A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. // Unidentified Peter Gabriel fan.

Of course, watching movies you loved as a kid when you’re an adult can sometimes be a sobering experience, and not everything held up well. “I’d liked Adventures in Babysitting, and that might have been because I had a crush on Elizabeth Shue, or because we would sometimes drive to Chicago for a Blackhawks game, but God, is that an appallingly racist movie,” said Smokler. “ … And The Outsiders is still a good movie. It’s just beneath the skill level of a director like (Francis Ford) Coppola. S.E. Hinton, at 17, somehow wrote a book that’s more cogent and stronger thann Coppola could make it as a movie at 40. I just think the movie coasts on the collective talent of the people who made it.”

Some movies, though, hold up or even improve when viewed from adulthood. For Smokler, this category included Fame and the Matthew Broderick teen tech drama, WarGames. “WarGames is surprisingly sophisticated for what is a political thriller, more in the tradition of The Parallax View,” said Smokler. “It also has a great cast. There’s something special about that, too.”

But you can’t write about ‘80s teen movies without discussing director John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club). “He did not stretch himself much,” said Smokler. “He was a miniaturist of sorts. He was a vertical filmmaker, in that he drilled down on what he did very deeply. … A journalist friend of mine had gone to a gifted and talented school for black teens in Bethesda, and he loved The Breakfast Club, but he was also aware that this was a white person’s fantasy. The same with Star Wars. … The thing that’s so complex about Hughes’ legacy is that he painted with a small palette of colors but his stories registered as universal. It’s both an achievement and troubling at the same time.”

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Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago.

While working on the book, Smokler watched more than 50 films (about 40 get discussed in Brat Pack America), at the pace of usually 4-5 a week. Once Smokler defined what made something a “teen” movie, he also determined where the film era started (Breaking Away).

Heathers is the movie that literally blows up the genre,” said Smokler. “It’s designed as a satire of the genre, and that how you know that a genre’s time has passed. … Heathers predicts grunge and Quinten Tarantino and feel more ‘90s than it does ‘80s.”

But Smokler believes that the cinematic family line from ‘80s teen movies continues in the form of movie adaptations of John Green’s work (The Fault in our Stars, Paper Towns), The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Superbad, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl and more.

Even so, Smokler’s book invites readers to take another, closer look at the originals, which will be all the easier due to the Michigan Theater’s series, which includes Pretty in Pink, Adventures in Babysitting, The Lost Boys, Say Anything, Back to the Future, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and WarGames.

“I didn’t have as big of an idea as they did,” said Smokler, referring to the Michigan Theater’s staff. “ … I’d dropped Russ (Collins, Michigan Theater executive director and CEO) a note saying, ‘I’ve got a book coming out, and I’m from Ann Arbor.’ And he said, ‘We don’t have an idea yet for a fall film series.’ … At age 7, I sat in that theater’s balcony and watched things like, The Wizard of Oz. It’s the fulfillment of a dream to appear at the Michigan now as a working artist.”

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

Michigan Theater’s fall film series, [|"Kids in America: '80s Teen Classics"] runs through December 8.

Review: "Mr. Joy" at Theatre Nova


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Matthew Webb is Mr Joy.

While watching Daniel Beaty’s play [|Mr. Joy at Theatre Nova], I immediately thought of Yong Kim, the owner of Mary’s Fabulous Chicken and Fish in Ann Arbor, who was robbed and brutally beaten with a plastic milk crate while walking to his car from the restaurant in 2014. Kim was 74 at the time of his attack, and the assailants turned out to be two teenage boys.

According to press reports, Kim managed to do something many of us would struggle mightily to do: he forgave his attackers.

Mr. Joy tells a similar story, through the prism of one actor playing several characters. In the play, longtime Harlem shoe repair shop owner Mr. Kim is robbed and beaten one night, but he won’t tell the police who his attacker was. And while Mr. Joy is the play’s nucleus, we never actually see him. Instead, we hear perspectives from those whose lives he’s touched: a homeless former painter; an 11 year old girl from the projects with AIDS, Clarissa, who considers herself his apprentice; Clarissa’s feisty grandmother; Clarissa’s schoolyard boyfriend, Peter; a young poet, DeShawn, who finds hope at church; Mr. Joy’s Ivy League-educated, real estate dealer son; the son’s rich, black Republican boss; the boss’ white girlfriend, who yearns for a child; and the boss’ transgender, flight attendant daughter, Ashes.

The hands-down best thing about Mr. Joy is seeing actor Matthew Webb embody each of the play’s characters with tremendous focus, care, and zeal. With an assist from director Billicia Hines’ guiding hand, Webb uses minimal costume changes and props – a notebook, a blazer and briefcase, a pair of red pumps, etc. – and efficient physical cues, like posture and gait, in addition to vocal inflection, to delineate the transitions between characters, and the effect is powerful. Despite the number of characters, and despite a couple of them earning a tenuous-at-best place in the narrative, Theatre Nova’s production never lacks clarity, and Webb’s performance is truly gripping to behold. (Those who previously saw the actor perform in TN’s I and Thou will leave Mr. Joy a much deeper appreciation for his talents and versatility.)

That said, Beaty’s play itself doesn’t provide much that’s bracing or new or thought-provoking regarding our ongoing national discussion of race, class, and inequality in America. Yes, there are moments of both sweetness and pain in the show; and DeShawn, in one scene, performs an impassioned performance poem that taps into the rage and fear and frustration of the community.

But we also hear familiar banalities from Grandma Bessie about faith, and how important it is to make the effort to talk to people; we see a character who will forever define himself by his own worst act – yet it’s hard to believe he even committed the crime, based on the short glimpses we’re shown of him, so the play’s “big reveal” feels instead like an unsatisfying, unearned authorial shortcut.

And finally, we have a politically conservative black man’s self-imposed estrangement from his child, born a son, because he chooses to undergo surgery to become a woman. This level of emotional complexity demands a play unto itself, frankly, in order to really dig into the issues involved; getting the drive-by version inevitably falls short.

Set designer Kelsey Nowak keeps things simple, with a busted brick wall backdrop (in front of a screen for occasional projections), a bench, milk cartons, a stool, a coat stand, a store sign, and a raised corner for Mr. Joy’s regular customers to leave shoes as a kind of prayer for his recovery. Daniel C. Walker lights the show beautifully, signaling character and mood transitions. And costume designer Carla Milarch (who also designed the show’s sound) found clothes that were neutral, but also wholly appropriate, for Webb to wear as he navigates between a broad variety of characters.

I’ll confess Theatre Nova’s design elements, paired with Webb’s powerhouse performance, had me seduced as the lights came up; but the more I thought (and wrote) about the play, the more I couldn’t overlook the script’s shortcomings. For unlike Ta-Nehisi Coates’ invigorating, harrowing, brutally honest book Between the World and Me – a letter to Coates’ son about growing up as an endangered black man in America – Mr. Joy never takes the risks necessary to push us into new, uncharted territory in regard to talking about race; and that’s precisely where we need to go if anything’s going to change.

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

Mr. Joy runs through October 23 at the Yellow Barn, 410 W Huron St, Ann Arbor. Visit [|] for tickets.

Review: The TEAM's "RoosevElvis," presented by UMS


The TEAM's RoosevElvis

Elvis and Roosevelt take a rowed trip.

One unforgiving truth of fame is that when you become larger-than-life, you’re also conversely diminished, so as to seem elusively inhuman.

Brooklyn-based The TEAM’s experimental theater production [|RoosevElvis], now playing in Ann Arbor by way of University Musical Society, begins with a scene that illustrates this very point. Theodore Roosevelt (Kristen Sieh) and Elvis Presley (Libby King) sit next to one another in director’s chairs, sharing a microphone between them as they take turns voicing odd autobiographical facts and anecdotes.

Significantly, the back-and-forth doesn’t feel like two competitors trying to one-up each other – yes, Roosevelt stridently brags, but Elvis isn’t intimidated, blithely contributing his more modest memories with a laid back slouch. In this way, the exchange illustrates key differences between the two icons of American masculinity.

Sieh, decked out in Roosevelt’s trademark facial hair and glasses, as well as a fringed cowhide suit (Sieh designed the shows costumes as well), employs a sharp patrician delivery that echoes Katherine Hepburn. We hear about Harvard, and how he won an election at age 23. “What a great story,” she says often, congratulating herself.

King, as Elvis, wears blue suede shoes (of course), jeans, a white T-shirt, and a red, short-sleeved button down shirt, topped with a modest Elvis wig, of course. Far more retiring and relaxed than Roosevelt, Elvis talks about being an only child, moving to Memphis, and hearing his first record played nine times in a row on the radio.

But after this introduction, the green screen behind them disappears to reveal the drab apartment of Ann (King), a shy, lonely, 35 year old meat-packing plant employee in Rapid City, South Dakota. (During the transition, you see video footage of her at her workplace.) As Ann, King enters the apartment with a 6 pack, drinks a beer, and engages in a one-person conversation between herself and her idol, Elvis, about having, for the first time, connected with a woman via the Internet. Soon Brenda (Sieh), as a self-assured taxidermist who’s in town for a conference, emerges wrapped in an Elvis towel from the bathroom.

So yes, it takes a few minutes to get your bearings while watching RoosevElvis – and, fair warning, you likely never will completely. But that’s the aim of experimental work, of course. You have to let go of the desire/expectation for linearity and absorb all the ideas and trippy images that are playing out in front of you on stage.

Even so, there is at least a loose narrative at the center of RoosevElvis: Ann’s hopeful, extended date with Brenda – a Roosevelt fan, not coincidentally – turns sour as the two women take a road trip to the Badlands, including stops at Mt. Rushmore and Wall Drug. Though the show relies a bit too heavily on Andrew Schneider’s backdrop videos, the clips are often used in interesting ways. For instance, when Ann recoils from Brenda’s sexual candor in a diner, two video screens show the two women eating their meal in silence, thus underscoring the fact that what began as a hopeful adventure into love has ended in an uncomfortable, miserable stalemate.

Roosevelt and Elvis appear to have earned a place in Ann’s psyche because they embody ideals of masculinity, and as a woman who wears men’s Y-front briefs, and feels like “one of the guys” among the men working at her side at the meat packing plant, Ann is working through who she is, and whom she wants to be. Plus, her rough break-up with forthright, Roosevelt-like Brenda, who calls her “un-brave,” rattles her enough to drive her to take a solo trip to Graceland. Along the way, she leaves Roosevelt and Elvis behind in a hotel room, which they know bodes well for Ann; but when left with just each other, they clash and criticize each other, exiting with the classic line, “Let’s take this outside.”

There are many other delightful, strange, surprising moments in RoosevElvis, wittily directed by Rachel Chavkin: Sieh’s Roosevelt ballet, in which a gentle, beautiful grace is combined with showy muscle-flexing; a sudden, one-off Ann-Margaret moment; Roosevelt pulling on boxing gloves and calling for a TEAM member to start the footage from “Planet Earth,” so that he may punch at the bison individually on-screen (hysterical); Sieh’s funny, uncanny portrayal of a Spirit Airlines representative, urging Ann to stay on hold; the thoughtful use of rowing machines as a set piece (the set was designed by Nick Vaughan); and a Thelma & Louise tie-in that’s far more than a pop culture wink.

But King is the show’s emotional core, and she delivers a dignity, a humility, and a hunger that’s palpable, both in Elvis and Ann. That’s not to say that every part of the show hits its mark. With a running time of just over 90 minutes, the show feels oddly labored after a while, particularly following Brenda and Ann’s final, bracing phone conversation. And there’s a brief scene in which King and Sieh transform into diner waitresses for just a moment – and I still don’t know what purpose that served.

That’s OK, though. When an innovative theatrical company like The TEAM goes on an adventure and asks you to come along, I think it’s mostly worth the bumps in the road to experience the ride.

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

RoosevElvis runs through Saturday, October 1, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University Ave. Visit [] for more information and tickets, or call 734-764-2538.

Review: Liberty's Secret: The 100% All-American Musical


Liberty's Secret

Cara AnnMarie and Jaclene Wilk do the "Spin Control Tango." // Andy Kirshner at the premiere screening Thursday night. / Photo by Jenn McKee.

"This is like the bar mitzvah I never had," U-M art and music professor Andy Kirshner joked while standing on the Michigan Theater's stage on Thursday evening, hosting the premiere screening of his locally made, original feature film musical, Liberty's Secret.

Indeed, the quip aptly described the event's affectionate, enthusiastic, communal atmosphere. (Kirshner's last words at the mic were, "Could my wife please raise her hand, so I can find my seat?") Approximately a thousand people turned out to see Kirshner's film about an unlikely romance that blooms between a jaded, Jewish Presidential campaign communications manager (Nikki, played by Chelsea native and U-M grad Cara AnnMarie) and a sheltered, small-town pastor's daughter (Liberty, played by Oakland University grad Jaclene Wilk) whose angelic singing voice makes her not just America's viral sweetheart, but the picture of "family values" wholesomeness that Nikki's moderate Republican candidate, Kenny Weston (Williamston Theatre co-founder John Lepard), needs to win.

Clearly, Thursday night's crowd enjoyed playing "spot the local artist": There's U-M professor and theater artist Malcolm Tulip, leading a "gender re-orientation camp" number in the Michigan Union ballroom! There's former Performance Network artistic director and actor David Wolber, playing a security guard that puts the stop on Purple Rose Theatre artist Tom Whalen! There's local actor Rusty Mewha, playing Weston's cynical campaign manager! And in what might have been the most well-received featured appearance, Kirshner himself, wearing a bushy wig, played Rolf Schnitzel (?!), host of the cable news program, The Briefing Room.

Local filming locations included Ann Arbor's Millenium Club, the Vineyard Church, a former restaurant in Ypsilanti, a wedding chapel in Milan and more.

Getting the tone right for satire is often tricky, and Kirshner stumbles occasionally, making Liberty's well-intentioned father and his congregation too cartoonish at times, and painting Weston in broad, George W. Bush-style strokes. He wisely checks this impulse now and then, most notably when Liberty calls out Nikki for looking down her nose at everyone who believes in God. And there are some pretty fun touches, too, like when Weston's debate prep takes place in front of a white board that has mixed-up messages like "It's the stupid economy," and when Liberty's definition of love as self-sacrifice prompts Nikki to reply, "No, that's co-dependency."

Kirshner's original score, while varied and sophisticated, only sometimes sounds like it belongs in the world of musical theater. The most successful number by far is a tap duet between Liberty and Nikki called "Stay on Message," which not only spotlights Debbie Williams' fun choreography, but dissects the doublespeak of political rhetoric, as Nikki instructs Liberty on how to translate terms for the media ("Don't say 'intervention,' say 'keeping peace,'" etc.). In addition, the song goes some distance toward partially filling a larger gap in the narrative, which is: what makes these two very different women fall in love with each other? We're told that they do, but there's little meat on the bones of this particular (and crucial) development.

But these artistic quibbles don't detract from the fabulously fun party that hundreds of locals, students and community members both, attended to collectively celebrate a project that brought them together. The film's two female leads do fine work, and Lepard seems to have the time of his life playing a bumbling politician. Mewha's reaction shots alone earn big laughs, and Alfrelynn J. Roberts, Nikki's colleague and friend, gracefully grounds the story by way of sharing her own past with Liberty's father.

So Liberty's Secret may be destined to be more of a local hit than a national one, but in many ways, it's Kirshner's funny, sweet valentine to the community he calls home; and because of how recently the Supreme Count ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, watching a wedding with two brides - who serenade each other, no less - can be quite moving.

(Liberty's Secret is available for pre-order at [|], with delivery expected in early November. Shortly thereafter, it will be available on iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other formats.)

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

Preview: Falling Up and Getting Down, UMS Season-Opening Live Skateboarding + Music Celebration



Andy MacDonald at Ann Arbor Skatepark. / Photograph by [|Morgan Andrew Somers].

Both athletes and musicians must be able to improvise, but they rarely do so in tandem.

That will change on Sunday, when the University Musical Society and Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark, in collaboration with City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation, present a free-style show that combines professional skateboarding with live jazz music.

“Falling Up and Getting Down” takes a concept originated by jazz pianist/composer and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Jason Moran – who kicked off the UMS season in 2013 with a Fats Waller Dance Party at Downtown Home & Garden – and brings it to Ann Arbor.

Previously, Moran helped put together a similar event at the Kennedy Center and at the San Francisco Jazz Center, but Ann Arbor’s show will be the first to take place at an in-ground, permanent skatepark.

“The Ann Arbor Skatepark is such a special place,” said UMS senior programming manager Mark Jacobson. “Kids can go there and be safe and hang out and stay out of trouble. The phrase ‘skateboarding saves lives’ is something I truly believe in, just like I believe that music saves lives. Young adults go to the skate park to find themselves, and to find a community. … I’d been at the skatepark’s grand opening, in June of 2014, and I had this thought: how ridiculous would it be if UMS had a season-opening celebration at the skate park?”

Perhaps not so ridiculous, but there has been a lot of work involved over the course of the last year; and although the event costs tens of thousands of dollars to produce, UMS is absorbing the cost into its budget so that anyone can attend for free (though pre-registration is required at

“We’re giving back to the community that we love, and that we live in,” said Jacobson. “ … I think right now we have 1,400 registrations, but I think we’ll see 2,000 or 2,500 people out on Sunday. … Roughly the first 90 minutes will be exhibition skaters, from 2:30 to 4, with live DJs providing the music, and then we’ll have the pro skate demo with live music and professional skateboarders.”

Those skaters include X game legend Andy Macdonald; “old schoolers” Ron Allen and Chuck Treece (who’s an accomplished musician himself); young “vert” skating star Tom Remillard; and pro lady skaters Jordyn Barratt and Natalie Krishna Das. Tadd Mullinix and Alvin Hill will DJ the first portion of the event, while Moran and his band, The Bandwagon, featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, will provide “Falling Up”’s live, free-style jazz.

There will also be food trucks on site, including Ricewood BBQ, Bigalora Wood Fired Pizza, Cheese Street, and Reilly Craft Creamery.


Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. / Photograph by Clay Patrick McBride.

The event promises to be different from anything UMS has presented before – but that’s part of its appeal.

“Over and over again, when we survey our audiences about what they’re looking for, and what they’re excited by, they consistently tell us they want new and unusual and innovative presentations. They want to engage with art in unique and unusual ways, and this checks all the boxes.”

So Jacobson believes that a sizable portion of UMS’ established audience base are willing to give “Falling Up” a chance; but he’s also excited that the show offers those normally beyond UMS’ – and jazz’s – typical reach with a fun point of entry.

“Jason Moran’s brilliant,” said Jacobson. “In addition to his playing, which is phenomenal, … he has such rich ideas and concepts. … For many of these kids who will be listening to his music on Sunday, many of them will have never listened to live jazz before in their lifetime. They’ll be exposed to this artform, this amazing American art form, that they otherwise wouldn’t be.”

“Falling Up” is a rain-or-shine event, though “the safety of the athletes is prioritized,” said Jacobson. “They can’t skate if the surface is wet, but if we find ourselves in that situation, we’d hope that the party could still go on in some way.”

The main hope, of course, is that the crowd will get to see skaters and music artists collaborating in exciting and unconventional ways.

“This whole notion of improvisation between musicians and athletes – they really feed off each other, with the musicians pushing the skaters to try different things, and the skaters prodding the musicians to jam harder. It’s very reciprocal, with a lot of give and take in terms of energy.”

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

Falling Up and Getting Down takes place at the Ann Arbor Skatepark, Sunday, September 11. Free, with advance registration required. Exhibition begins at 2:30 pm. For more information and to RSVP, visit [].

Review: Theatre Nova's Dear Elizabeth


An epistolary play of impassioned poets.

An epistolary play of impassioned poets.

While watching Theatre Nova’s lovely new production of Sarah Ruhl’s play, Dear Elizabeth, drawn from 30 years of correspondence between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the phrase “alone together” comes to mind often.

Why? Because although they both experience love off-stage – Bishop with a woman in Brazil named Lota, Lowell with three different wives – their true first love is words; and like a jealous, possessive lover, words, when you’re a professional writer, demand that you spend most of your waking life alone with them, and only them.

So it’s not surprising that Lowell and Bishop – who lived a similarly isolated artistic existence, and consequently understood each other deeply – flung letters to each other as if they were life preservers.

In life, Lowell and Bishop wrote more than 800 letters to each other, offering praise and feedback for each other’s work; celebrating each others’ awards and personal victories; and chronicling their travels, as well as their battles with inner demons (Bishop’s depression and alcoholism, Lowell’s bipolar disorder). Not surprisingly, even the prose of their casual letters rings gorgeously poetic; in reference to a lighted swimming pool, Bishop wrote, “it is wonderful to swim around in a sort of green fire. One’s friends look like luminous frogs.”

The inherent challenge of an epistolary play, of course, involves giving the audience something to watch, not simply listen to. Ruhl lays the foundation for a visually satisfying production by way of stage directions, calling for occasional projections, and giving the actors a template for connecting scenes through actions; they also “live” certain quirky moments as they speak the words of their letters instead of pretending to write them.

But director David Wolber gets much credit, too, for adding his own creative touches, effectively using props, different areas of the set, and a movement pattern for the actors – partly inspired by Lowell’s frustrated observation that the two poets seem connected by a wire, so that when one moves, the other does as well – that keeps the audience engaged.

Another tricky prospect, however, involves how to present the poets in their moments of weakness, such as when Bishop pulls two filled wine glasses from her desk to drink. It’s initially funny, but when she then pulls out a bottle of rubbing alcohol and downs that, too, we know we’ve suddenly gone down the rabbit hole of addiction. Wolber and actress Carrie Jay Sayer handle the shift with sensitivity, not playing it too heavily or too lightly, but rather suggesting a haunting, all-too-natural progression into darkness. (Wolber specializes in plays about artists and the process of creation, so play and director are ideally matched here.)

Joel Mitchell is marvelous and heartbreaking as Lowell, a man who struggles mightily in his own life, and uses that as material for his confessional poetry. Sayer, meanwhile, is well-cast as Bishop, conveying the emotionally guarded poet’s simultaneous desire to connect to Lowell while also always maintaining an arm’s length distance; and the actress nails a running gag wherein, after showering Lowell with praise over a poem or collection, she pauses and says something like, “There are just three words I take objection to,” or “I have two minor questions.”

Similarly, Lowell critiques his letter-writing in a postscript – “The last part is too heatedly written, with too many ‘ands’ and so forth” – thus providing a glimpse of the writer’s particular brand of neurosis. But this telling moment also suggests why he and Bishop never find happiness for long: they each can’t stop trying to edit their own lives.

Carla Milarch designed the show’s sound (including key exterior noises), as well as its costumes (Mitchell pulls different jackets and sweaters from a coat stand on stage). And Daniel C. Walker designed the show’s lighting and set, with adjacent workspaces for each poet, a ladder upstage center, and a large, short rock downstage right.

Indeed, in Dear Elizabeth, the rock marks the spot where Lowell and Bishop spent time together on a beach one day in Maine, early in their friendship. In a rush of feeling, Lowell nearly proposed to Bishop there, and he later confessed this to Bishop, writing, “asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Though this is a beautiful, emotionally powerful admission to make, Dear Elizabeth makes you realize that in Bishop and Lowell’s case, Lowell’s failure to propose likely resulted in the pair having the most satisfying and durable kind of marriage they could ever hope to share with each other.

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

Dear Elizabeth runs through Sunday, September 25, at the Yellow Barn, 410 West Huron, Ann Arbor, MI, 48103. Call 734-635-8450 or visit [|Theatre Nova] for tickets.