Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cave Canem Poetry at City of Asylum

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 12:05 PM


Terrance Hayes is a pretty good poet. Arguably, he's Pittsburgh's most prominent poet right now. In 2010, the National Book Foundation thought enough of him to hand him the National Book Award for poetry.

But the quality of Cave Canem's annual visit to City of Asylum last night was such that Hayes took the opening slot on a four-poet program and it didn't feel like a case of undue hometown deference to visiting artists. 

In fact, departing the big standing-room-only tent City of Asylum had set up on a closed-off North Side street, I couldn't recall a night of poetry hereabouts in quite a while that was both stronger and more lively.

And I haven't even mentioned the surprise, evening-ending appearance by the venerable Nikki Giovanni. 

Cave Canem was founded in 1996 by poets Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte to nurture African-American poets. Eady and Derricotte (who teaches at Pitt) have grown their baby into a major cultural force. They've got 344 national fellows. One faculty member is just-named U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway.

The reading, which drew some 300 people to Monterey Street, was part of the group's annual multi-day series of workshops and events in the Pittsburgh area.

The audience was filled with Cave Canem students and faculty, and the readers (all faculty themselves) felt free to do a mix of classic, new and even in-progress work. 

Hayes led off with a stunning set of mostly new and unpublished poems, including one that in part describes his attempts to learn piano: "I was trying to play the 12-bar blues with two bars … I was tyring to play the sound of applause by trying to play the sounds of rain." He also read the provocative (and provocatively titled, after a parlor game) "Kill, Fuck or Marry" and a poem ostensibly about wigs whose wordplay was almost too dense to follow (and too rapidly spooled off to take notes on). 

Acclaimed poet and novelist Angela Jackson followed. Her work, including an excerpt from a long piece about an enslaved forebear, was potently lyrical; a signature piece titled "The Smoke Queen," a breathless assertion of existentially indomitable blackness, brought the crowd to its feet. And her raunchily comic, folk-myth-imbued comic poem "The Man with the White Liver" had people all but rolling in the aisles, perhaps not least because Jackson at first seems so grandmotherly.

The young poet who introduced Thomas Sayers Ellis described him as "Albert Einstein and Richard Pryor." Though he didn't talk much astrophysics, the intensely cerebral but quite entertaining Ellis (pictured) lived up to the billing. When reading much of his work, he's got  a unique, stylized manner, percussively emphasizing the rhythm. Ellis is experimental but also endlessly quotable. Some of his work's about being a black poet in a white-dominated culture: "I no longer write white writing, but white writing won't stop writing me." He read of women on the street who "clutch their purses because they want you to think you've stolen something," while in the art world, "they clutch their purses because they know you know they've stolen something."

One more: "Love is when people like the same food and like the same toys. War is when people dress up like salads and eat each other." He also performed ("read" is too tame) excerpts from a promising longer poem he wrote after Michael Jackson's death.

The offical program closed with another National Book Award-winner, Nikki Finney. She began with a calmly furious poem about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina whose key images include a government helicopter making "observational" manuevers over a flooded city full of starving, dehydrated people but doing nothing to help them. She also read a wonderfully strange and affecting poem about her mother feeding her fish as an infant, and finished with a harrowing in-progress piece about a U.S. soldier who was raped and murdered on a base in Iraq.

Things wrapped up with Giovanni, a pioneer in the 1960s of the black-arts movement who now teaches at Virginia Tech. She read a couple pieces, including an hilarious brag with lines like "I am so hip, even my errors are correct."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gem of the Ocean at Pittsburgh Playwrights

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 4:00 AM

It's the last week to catch this fine production of one of the best of the ten plays in August Wilson's so-called Pittsburgh Cycle.

The work is notable because, although it was one of the late Wilson's final plays to debut, it's chronologically where the Cycle begins: in 1904, in a house on Wylie Avenue, in the Hill District. 

Like every other Wilson play, it's set in a single space, with no set changes. But in the Pittsburgh-born playwright's grand vision, Gem nonetheless seems to encompass the whole of the African-American experience to the date of its setting. Several characters are ex-slaves, for instance, and two of them are old Underground Railroad hands, stories about which experience powerfully underpin a few scenes.

Most striking, however, is the appearance of Wilson's most iconic character, Aunt Ester — a 200-plus-year-old former slave who's now a wise woman and washer of souls." Her presence in the Hill is discussed throughout the Cycle, but I'm pretty sure Gem is the only time she appears on stage. She's embodied here in a memorable performance by Chrystal Bates, who manages to make Ester earthy and uncanny at the same time.

Meanwhile, among very much else, in Gem Wilson offers a riveting dramatization of what the law means, and is worth. The play's signal incident, which occurs offstage, is the death of a tin-mill worker who drowns in the river fleeing lawmen who would take his freedom on the unsubstantiated charge he stole a bucket of nails.

The play's climax involves a bit of anarchistic justice-serving. And it's no coincidence that the chief antagonist is Cesar Wilkes, who's one of Wilson's best heavies and also a lawman who can abide no rule-breaking, even for a greater good.

Here's Ted Hoover's review of the show for CP.

Playwrights is the most dedicated interpreter of Wilson's work in town, staging a different installment of the Pittsburgh Cycle each year for the past nine. The troupe, under artistic director Mark Clayton Southers, is also arguably the best producer of Wilson's work in town. 

This production, directed by Southers, also stars Jonathan Berry, Kevin Brown, David Crawford, Kim El, Alan Bomar Jones and Wali Jamal.

There are four more shows at Playwrights' Downtown space, at 8 p.m. Thu., June 21; 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., June 23; and 3 p.m. Sun., June 24.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Global Navigators at Space and Wood Street

Posted By on Mon, Jun 11, 2012 at 2:16 PM

A notable element of the Distinctively Dutch arts festival was a preponderance of multimedia. I didn't catch all the festival performances, but nearly every one I did see incorporated video heavily, from the performance art of Wunderbaum's Detroit Dealers and PIPs:lab's Diespace to the sensory overload of JacobTV's avant-opera The News. 

No surprise, then, that the larger of the festival's visual-art exhibits is also heavy on video. Global Navigators is spread over three galleries: Wood Street, Space and 709 Penn. Nadine Wasserman has already reviewed this intriguing show for CP, but here's a final nudge to see it before it closes this weekend.

Two works in this group show especially struck me. At Wood Street, Peter Bogers' "Unleashed Content" is a room-sized video installation with 36 video projections in a grid, each connected to a speaker hanging from the ceiling. (Don't mistake the speakers for mere sculptural elements, as apparently many visitors do at first.) Bogers took the unruly results of Internet video searches for words like "fight" and edited them into a synchronized spectacle that might bowl you over. (Wood Street also houses "Nummer acht, Everything is going to be alright," a darkly humorous high-concept video by Guido van der Werve, a still from which is pictured here.)

And over at Space, I spent some quality time with Mark Boulos' "No Permanent Address." It's a five-screen video document of his stay with some Maoist guerrillas of the New Peoples' Army, in the Phillippines. The segment I saw depicted a small group of men and women camping in the jungle, awaiting a firefight with enemies whom they believe to be just 300 yards away. They carry automatic weapons; they sing "The Internationale"; they tell what drove them to guerrilla warfare. In general, they seem to be ordinary people driven to the edge. (One masked young woman wears a butterfly barrette in her hair.)

As demonstrated by the terrific Girls 'N Guns photography show, which recently closed at 707 Penn gallery, the artists in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust-organized Distinctively Dutch Festial don't need video to succeed. But they definitely know how to use it.

Global Navigators closes Sun., June 17.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Squonk Opera’s GO Roadshow at the Arts Fest

Posted By on Sat, Jun 9, 2012 at 1:37 PM

Folks departing the fest (and likely the wonderful set by the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and then heading up Penn Avenue last night ran smack into the world premiere of Squonk’s latest. It’s a theatrically minded art-rock concert performed on the back of a flatbed truck.

I previewed the show for CP,  even sitting in on rehearsal, but it was hard to imagine how this one would turn out. The variables were many, from the logistics of setting up the portable stage to the outdoor acoustics and lighting.

The band must have started a little earlier than announced, but I caught the final half-hour of the 45-minute show. The stage was parked on a closed-off Penn, so that its backdrop was Downtown’s skyscrapers, and it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the new subway stop.

It’s a competitive location, visually, and to be sure the stage looked a lot bigger when I saw it up close, during rehearsals at the Squonk farm.

And while the acoustics last night were good — new Squonk singer Anna Elder was in fine voice — volume was an issue. I was standing only a few rows of people from the edge of the staging area, and I could have used the music a little louder.

Still, the tunes were lush and lively, the choreography was funny, and a few of the stage bits came off really well. The floating-head blimp’s mouth opened and closed on cue (as though it were singing); the video projections looked good on the screen of spinning rotors; and Jackie Dempsey’s keyboard rotated on its horizontal axis, while she played it. The nicest acoustic surprise was how well the calliope mounted atop the truck’s cab sounded as played by Steve O’Hearn.

Squonk designed the show to travel, and it’ll be trucking to area performances all summer, starring with shows at Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Park, on July 12.

But you can catch GO Roadshow several more times at the arts festival, too, starting with shows today at 1, 4 and 9:45 p.m. There are two more Arts Fest shows on Sunday, at noon and 7:45 p.m.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Wilson Center Head to Depart

Posted By on Fri, Jun 8, 2012 at 3:32 PM

André Kimo Stone Guess has decided not to renew his contract as president and chief executive of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

But Guess says he's leaving, in part, because he's accomplished the goals he set when he came to the Center two years ago.

Those goals included: improving the Center's arts programming; making it more accessible to the community; and refinancing its debt, largely incurred in the construction of the Center's landmark $40 million Downtown headquarters

Before coming to Pittsburgh, Guess had been a vice president at New York's prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center (a job he left in 2006). In an interview today with City Paper, he says he wanted to make the Wilson Center -- which had opened just a year prior to his arrival -- into a home for "a world-class [arts] program that everyone could be proud of."

He cited well-received performances by the Center's dance ensemble and jazz orchestra; showcases including last year's Black Dance Festival; and visual-art shows like a recent exhibition of work by Romare Bearden. And he noted the Center's theater initiative, headed by Pittsburgh-based, nationally known director Mark Clayton Southers.

While the Center has one of the newer, and better-appointed, performing-arts facilities Downtown, Guess says he wanted to "make sure the entire community knew [the Center] was for them." Accessibility initiatives included free shows, ticket giveaways, and rental subsidies for groups that wanted to use the Center's theater, dance studio or other facilities. "I'm proud of what we've done in that regard," he said.

On the financial front, Guess says that when he arrived, the Center owed $11.2 million, said Guess. But last week it closed on a refinanced mortgage for $7 million.

The reduction reflects grants from funders, including the R.K. Mellon Foundation and the Kresge Foundation, Guess said. It also reflects a $2 million grant from the Heinz Endowments, secured in late 2011 after the Center successfully raised matching funds.

Meanwhile, Guess said that the Center's operating budget had improved as well. Tax records show that in the year ending June 30, 2010 -- shortly after Guess arrived -- the Center ran a deficit of about $1.4 million. "It's gotten better over time," he said. Guess said that the current year's deficit (which is still pending final accounting) will be much smaller, on a budget of $3.4 million.

He added that the Center's operating budgets have also been dented by expenses related to the newness of the building, like paying contractors' bills. "The organization has never really had a normal operating year," he says. That should change now, he says.

The Center's original mortgage was an interest-only arrangement, Guess says. He says the Center was actually unable to pay down principal on its debt until its recent receipt of the grants. Now it can begin to pay down the rest.

Reached by phone, Center board chair Aaron Walton told CP that the Center plans to launch another capital campaign shortly. "Long way to go, but we're headed in the right direction," said Walton.

After his contract expires June 30, Guess will remain with the Center for three months to facilitate its transition during the search for a new executive. After that, he plans to return to his hometown of Louisville, Ky., where his parents and his wife's parents live, and resume running the arts and nonprofit consulting firm he ran before taking the Wilson Center job.

"It was a good time to pull the chain and get off at the next stop," he said of his departure from Pittsburgh. "I've enjoyed my time here. It's been great."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Three Rivers Arts Festival Juried Visual Art Exhibition

Posted By on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 4:00 AM

There's a good bit of bodily anxiety on display in this annual showcase for regional artists. 

In this show at the Trust Arts Education Center, you can see it most bluntly in Kyla Groat's installation "My Body Will Betray Me," whose centerpiece is twinned wax casts of a woman's torso, one with a breast, the other with a scar. Nearby, Melissa Bryan's painting "Desperation" recalls some of Bosch's gorier vignettes, depicting an elaborate disemboweling of a creature not quite human.

And that's just on the building's third floor. The bulk of the show – which includes 61 works by 46 artists — is on the fourth. There, you'll find work like Marla Roddy's "Internal Manifestations." The sculpture sits in a corner, looking like a pile of diseased gourds, or perhaps, cuing from the title, unwell human organs.

There's a similar feel to Rhellie Beach's "Legume," a felt sculpture that suggests some kind of fungal, metastasizing growth – especially in the companion photograph, where the sculpture is seen to be slung, scarf-like, over a woman's naked torso. In that context, it's also easy to get the willies from Jenna Boyle's "Mandrake." The installation features rootlike shapes suspended by twine from a tenuous canopy of dead branches and rotting plants; given the mandrake root's folkloric associations with the human body, one can't help thinking of human entropy.

  Close by, meanwhile, sits Groat's sculpture "Empty," which has a more existential cast. But this work of glazed ceramic and bronze nonetheless depicts the figure of a man, his lower half mostly dissolved, bound and suspended inside a sort of miniature cavern.

Still, curators Murray Horne (of Wood Street Galleries), Michael Olijnyk (of the Mattress Factory) and Linda Benedict-Jones (of the Carnegie Museum of Art) have buffered this disquieting theme with quite a bit of humor and other moods. Groat herself (who seems to be this show's du jour featured artist) contributes a fun, somewhat surreal wooden sculpture of conjoined-twin chairs. That sits right by W. Kramm's "String Chair" (the Best of Show winner), which cleverly creates the 3D illusion of a chair with nothing but black elastic string.

Other fun stuff includes Christopher Galiyas's cheeky, pop-culturally saturated paintings (one of which is a map of North America labeling Canada "America's Hat"). 

Painter Jesse Best contributes two works displaying his vivid, graphic way with acrylic and resin on wood. Jason Lee's "Euthenic Device: Canopy" deploys a nature-in-a-light-box installation to critique virtual experience. And there are solid contributions from artists including Thomas Bigatel and Seth Clark

Even themes of bodily distress get tonally different treatments. William Schlough's funny sculpture "Untitled (Pay Phone)" depicts a life-sized man who's gotten sucked headfirst into a street-corner-style payphone stand, with just his kicking, airborne legs still visible, his suitcase sitting on the ground where he once stood. A sticker on the side of the phone box reads "No to Authoritarianism Be It Capitalist Socialist or Religious"; it's not clear whether our victim would have been better off using a cell phone, or short-wave radio. 

Zachary Brown continues his series of paintings of contemporized religious icons with "Lazarus" – a beautiful, comtemplative piece whose subtext of rebirth doesn't make its depiction of death any less compelling.

The exhibition continues daily through Sun., June 10, at 805 Liberty Ave. Hours are 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, and noon-6 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Braddock's Tony Buba Honored with Prestigious New York Screenings

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2012 at 5:00 PM


Buba has spent his whole career — some four decades — documenting life in his half-forgotten blue-collar hometown. But now he's getting some long-overdue national-level notice, with a generous five-day retrospective at arguably the choicest cinematic venue in New York, if not the country.

Plan your road trip now: From Fri., June 8, through June 12, Anthology Film Archives will show all three of Buba's feature-length films, including his 1988 masterpiece, Lightning Over Braddock, and The Braddock Chronicles, a compendium of 12 brilliant short documentary films. 

Anthology is little-known outside cinephile circles. However, for a single living filmmaker, getting booked for five days there is like scoring a week of solo shows at Carnegie Hall.

The retrospective has already drawn a half-page feature in this past Sunday's New York Times, including a color photo of Buba sharing a laugh with a neighbor in Braddock.

In a phone interview today, Buba, with typical modesty, called the Anthology screenings "pretty exciting." In his own interview with the Times, Anthology's film programmer, Jed Rapfogel, was considerably more effusive. He said that Buba's work — at once goofily comic, seriously political and deeply humanist — "has no parallel in American cinema."

Buba's work has been shown widely over the years, with one-person exhibitions at venues as notable as The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. And Lighting Over Braddock, for instance, won best film at the U.K.'s Birmingham International Film Festival. (That's Buba in the accompanying publicity still for Lightning, posing with Rankin's old Carrie Furnace.)

But Buba says that until the Anthology show, his only other extensive retrospective came three years ago, in Cologne, Germany. (Buba's fans include German master Werner Herzog, who became enamored of Buba's work while visiting Pittsburgh in the 1980s.)

Buba is broadly a documentarian, but his films are far from newsreels. Even the briefest of them is emotionally complex work; films like "Betty's Corner Cafè" (1976), a portrait of the denizens of a shot-and-a-beer bar, are humorous, bittersweet but rough-edged slices of life.

In Lightning Over Braddock, Buba went even further afield: The film is ostensibly about his relationship with the town he spent all those years documenting, but also includes fictional and fantasy elements like a production number at a ruined steel mill, complete with dancing and original music.

The Braddock Chronicles includes such Buba classics as 1974's "J. Roy: New and Used Cars" (about an irrespressible entrepreneur in the dying mill town); 1979's "Sweet Sal," about motor-mouthed hustler Sal Carullo; and "The Mill Hunk Herald" (1981), about the legendary steelworkers' newspaper.

Also on the program is No Pets (1994), Braddock's only straight fiction film, a drama about a working-class guy and his dog, based on a short story by Pittsburgh-based writer Jim Daniels. There's even George Romero's Martin (1976), a psychological horror film shot in Braddock — partly in the homes of Buba and his family members — and for which Buba handled the sound recording. 

Most of the work will be shown on 16 mm film, the medium on which it was originated.

Buba credits the Anthology booking partly to a fellow Braddock native: artist Latoya Ruby Frazier, a young photographer who documents Braddock and whose work was recently featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Frazier and Buba have collaborated on several exhibitions recently, and Frazier has frequently praised his work.

While Anthology isn't showing anything more recent than Struggles in Steel, a full-length 1996 documentary about black millworkers, co-directed with Ray Henderson, Buba remains active. Recently he documented grassroots efforts to prevent UPMC's closure of its hospital in Braddock. He's also working on a sequel titled Thunder Over Braddock.

Lightning Over Braddock, incidentally, recently also screening at Light Industry, a Brooklyn microcinema.

I asked Buba if in the early days, he had expected his films would have such staying power.

"You hope to make stuff that's sort of timeless. You never really think it's actually going to happen," he says. "It's fun being [68] and still having your stuff out there."

"What's amazing to me is the hold ‘Sal' still has on people," he adds, meaning the wild and riveting character study "Sweet Sal." "Even with all the reality television … people are still fascinated by him."

Buba says the political edge in works like Lightning and "Shutdown" (1975), about a truckers' strike, resonate especially well in the age of the Occupy movement.

Buba and his wife, Jan, are heading to New York on Thursday and will spend the week for the screenings. They'll be joined not only by friends in New York, but also by a Pittsburgh contingent including longtime local friends and collaborators like cinematographer John Rice, Buba says.

Buba impishly suggests that other supporters from Pittsburgh "take the Megabus up and take the midnight bus back."

Friday, June 1, 2012

"War on Science" Lecture at Science Center

Posted By on Fri, Jun 1, 2012 at 10:05 AM


Countless politicians claim we're in the midst of a "war on Christmas" or a "war on religion." But John Radzilowicz, director of science and education at the Carnegie Science Center, believes there's a more important battle taking place: a war on science.

Radzilowicz, who teaches at Pitt and California University of Pennsylvania, lectures Monday night at the Center's Café Scientifique series about science-related myths, and the institutions that perpetuate them.

"I think some people are taking advantage of the confusion around science and using it to spread misinformation," Radzilowicz says in an interview. "It's all around us."

His free talk will focus on how new findings are distorted, and what people can do to minimize the damage.

Radzilowicz blames a variety of recent trends for Americans' distrust of science. One is the media's insistence on representing "both sides of the story," even if one side can't believably substantiate its claims. Another is the proliferation of bogus think tanks. (He singles out the Discovery Institute, a nonprofit that promotes intelligent design.) He even cites the cautious terminology scientists themselves use.

"They always present their results in a way where they say, ‘More research is needed,'" he says. "In some ways, scientists can almost be seen as being guilty of not being as strong with their results, because it's not the nature of the culture they work in."

At the same time, Radzilowicz maintains that one of the discipline's greatest virtues is its ability to self-correct. Unlike in most other fields, scientists constantly modify one another's conclusions — and in doing so, improve our understanding of the world.

"It is not a weakness of scientists to say, ‘Well, I believe this is the answer today, and if you can give me new information, then I might have a slightly different answer tomorrow,'" he says. "It does not give you absolute truth with a capital T."

Radzilowicz says he's not hoping to convert any creationists Monday night: Most likely, audience members will already agree with him. Instead, he hopes to supply like-minded individuals with the tools needed to sway skeptics.

"When they find themselves in situations where they're discussing issues in science, they [will] have just a little more information they can draw upon," he says. "I think that's a worthwhile outcome."

The talk is at 7 p.m. Mon., June 4. (Doors open at 6 p.m.) The Science Center is located at 1 Allegheny Ave., North Side. Dinner is available for $8. Call 412-237-3400 for more information.


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