Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Waiting for Substantive Change: Referencing Beckett's 'Godot,' Antoinette Nwandu's 'Pass Over' Offers a Powerful Perspective at Steppenwolf -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Pass Over
a world premiere play
by Antoinette Nwandu
directed by Danya Taymor
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 9

As a straight, white, Jewish, lifelong suburbanite, I cannot suggest I have direct understanding of what an African-American--or any other minority, or a woman for that matter--experiences on a daily basis, let alone over the course of a lifetime.

I also can't deny that there have been times when being in the vast minority myself--on a train, in a park, etc.--has made me somewhat uncomfortable. Perhaps in this and other ways, I have been guilty of racism.

But I wholeheartedly believe that no one is less than equal to me due to the color of their skin (or their gender, religion, sexual orientation, country of origin, etc.).

And while far from a scholar on the complexities of the racial divide, I not only believe it deplorable when blacks are insulted, denigrated, stigmatized, etc., and barbaric when specific cops (and others) harass, brutalize and kill individuals without due provocation or subsequent punishment, I absolutely believe that the white power structure of the United States has been historically and systemically guilty of outright abuse and racism in many ways that have restricted African-Americans from equitably enjoying opportunities and freedoms.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Certainly this includes overtly horrifying examples such as slavery, lynchings, the KKK, segregation, "Whites Only" water fountains/rest rooms/restaurants, racial epithets, beatings, voting suppression, etc., etc., etc., but also to vast consequence, discriminatory mortgage lending practices established in the 1930s by the Federal Housing Administration, an agency of the U.S. government. (See this piece I posted a couple years ago.)

Due to "redlining," blacks were denied the ability to buy homes in many areas of the United States, and this meant that generational wealth--via real estate ownership--of African-Americans has lagged behind that of other citizens, with relegation to poorer areas also equating to generally inferior educational and employment opportunities.

Explaining all this may certainly seem like a rather odd, obtuse and extraneous way to begin a theater review.

But I believe much of the messaging of Antoinette Nwandu's new play, Pass Over--in a world premiere at Steppenwolf's upstairs theater--pertains to various elements of what I tried to address above.

And resonated with me as such.

Especially as the play openly uses metaphor, symbolism and allusion to make powerful & overt statements about African-American lives and authoritarian injustices that hamper their progress, I ultimately liked the play largely because I concur with what I think it is trying to say.

I believe this important to note because of the recent controversy regarding Hedy Weiss, longtime theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Her review of Pass Over included viewpoints that some denounced as racist, including Steppenwolf Theatre itself, which said in a statement:
"We denounce the viewpoints expressed in some of these reviews as they fail to acknowledge the very systemic racism that PASS OVER addresses directly. Particularly egregious are the comments from Sun Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism."
The backlash against Weiss included a petition begun by the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition asking that theaters "not invite Hedy Weiss to the run of any present or future productions."

To me, several of the comments detractors have taken umbrage with in Weiss' reviews--and occasional in-person appearances--going back years are indeed egregiously offensive.

I won't defend her for beliefs I find quite objectionable, but must note that I never personally had perceived racist, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic or body shaming remarks in her reviews until they were pointed out (with the caveat that I don't read her much, never having been a Sun-Times subscriber and preferring the Tribune's critic Chris Jones). 

That she seemingly has praised many works with African-American themes and performers may be besides the point, but I found only a few of the offending examples cited truly wretched. While I won't question anyone's outrage, I can also see where a few blatantly insulting phrases may have been "cherry picked" from among thousands of reviews (many of which feed theater marketing efforts with positive blurbs attributed to Weiss).

I'm getting a bit lost in the weeds here, but while I admire Steppenwolf for openly standing against racism, I had a problem with their blatant condemnation of Hedy Weiss as a theater that champions open expression and provocative statements. (Whether Weiss has been explicitly blackballed from Steppenwolf remains unclear.)

It made me wonder if I could comfortably see Pass Over and review it without worrying that any negativity might offend.

After now seeing it--and the behest of a friend with whom I had a good discussion--I'm wondering if my liking the play because it aligns with my sociopolitical beliefs is any more or less valid than Weiss taking issue with parts that didn't mesh with hers.

Which may still very well go beyond what a theatrical review should be assessing, but the point is not moot.

If you lean to the right and believe it proper to mention the proliferation of black on black crime anytime the epidemic of police brutality against African-Americans is decried, unless Pass Over changes your mind--which great theater can--chances are you won't embrace the play.

Certainly, as Weiss effusively praised, the acting in Pass Over--by Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker and Ryan Hallahan--is excellent.

And while I have never seen nor read Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, the way writer Nwandu has paralleled that absurdist work into a portrayal of two young African-American men hanging around a hardscrabble stretch of town while wishing to one day reach "the promised land" is clearly quite imaginative.

Though I had noted my Judaism at top, I am not observant and much of the play's religious symbolism--Hill's character is named Moses--likely went beyond my comprehension, but the dialogue is consistently compelling.

I won't reveal what happens when a white cop played by Hallahan shows up, but I found it in keeping with the statements the play seems to be making--given all-too-common viral videos of horrendous acts--without necessarily condemning all police officers.

My biggest issue with the play, dramatically, was the way another white character, named Mister (and also played by Hallahan), appears in a very unrealistic way.

What he represents--devilish duplicity, as I read it--is extremely powerful, but though I get that the play is to be taken as metaphorical, allegorical, symbolic, etc., more so than realistic, the gritty setting and streetwise dialogue between Moses and Kitch (Parker) captivated me with its glimpse into a world I don't see enough, even in my entertainments.

So the unnatural arrival of Mister felt too overt, a way largely for Nwandu to help get her point across without otherwise fitting into the scenario at hand, as unrealistic and referencing Waiting for Godot as it may have been.

One can certainly argue that anything is fair game in the realm of theater, but the truth is that I can't cogently explain precisely why I never felt Pass Over to be a @@@@@ (out of 5) play. And the truth is, I was perceiving it as likely a @@@1/2 play until a rather striking moment near the end kicked me in the gut and made me think something along the lines of, "Wow, that was really powerful. I get the point and agree with it."

Hence @@@@ for a play with a vital perspective and well-dramatized point of view.

At least to my way of thinking.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Pix of 56: My Photos of Mark Buehrle's White Sox Uniform Number Retirement Ceremony - June 24, 2017

As heretical as it may sound to some, I am a fan of both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox.

This goes back to my childhood when the Cubs were more readily on the family TV and--with friends, relatives and school field trips--more commonly attended, but the White Sox had night games, an exploding scoreboard and the wonderfully-coiffed Oscar Gamble.

And, before he switched sides of town, Harry Caray.

The Sox were the first Chicago baseball team in my lifetime to make the playoffs and, years later, to win a World Series (in 2005). I reveled in both, with t-shirts to prove it, although I was admittedly a bit more overjoyed when the Cubs finally won it all last year. (If the two teams play for a title, I'll root for the Cubs, but otherwise unabashedly support the Sox as well.)

With close friends who are more avidly and exclusively White Sox fans, I've enjoyed going to many Sox games over the years and was--quite fortuitously--at Mark Buehrle's first no-hitter in 2007 (the only one I've ever seen live; I was a day shy of being at his 2009 perfect game). 

A cornerstone of the White Sox for 12 seasons, Buehrle was--rather astonishingly--a 38th round draft pick with little fanfare who would make it to the majors just two years later at the age of 21, win 214 regular season games (161 with the Sox), make five All-Star teams, garner four Gold Glove Awards, help the Sox capture their first title in 88 years and earn nearly $140 million dollars.

Yet his considerable on-the-field accomplishments only partly explain why Buehrle is so beloved by Sox fans, such as my best friend Jordan who considers him his all-time favorite player by a wide margin.

By almost all perceptions, Buehrle is a humble, down-to-earth, exceptionally cool guy who was as personable with members of the grounds crew as with his teammates or club executives. (This piece he recently wrote for The Players Tribune is a wonderful read toward that end.)

And his tarp-sliding rain delay escapades further bespeak his knack for exuding child-like passion while never taking himself too seriously to have fun. 

Finishing his 16-year major league career with the Toronto Blue Jays--you can view his impressive stats here--Buehrle retired after the 2015 season.

This past Saturday, the White Sox and their fans warmly welcomed him back to Chicago with a day in his honor, at which his uniform #56 was retired.

So I was delighted when Jordan and his wife Erin wound up with an extra ticket to offer me. Though interested, I don't think I would have otherwise gotten to the game, which itself didn't work out so well for the White Sox. (They lost 10-2 as starter James Shields served up the first career homers to three different Oakland A's.)

I also caught up with my diehard Sox pal Dave and another friend, and as is my wont took numerous pictures throughout the pregame ceremony for Mark Buehrle.

To honor him, but also to thank my friends for enabling me to see it in person, here are some of my best shots:

Longtime White Sox announce Ken "Hawk" Harrelson served as the ceremony's MC. On the chairs to his right are
Mark Buehrle's wife Jamie, daughter Brooklyn, his parents and Jamie's mother. Former Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is in
the white shirt closest to the bottom, alongside Jerry Reinsdorf, Ken Williams, Jerry Manuel and Don Cooper..
This was before the Buehrle ceremony began, but I got a good shot of Frank Thomas reporting to his TV gig
alongside Bill Melton.
In addition to Thomas several of Buehrle's teammates were present, including Joe Crede (in the blue shirt) and
to his left, Jon Garland and Jim Thome. Sitting behind the former players were members of the Sox' clubhouse,
maintenance and/or groundskeeping crew from Buehrle's years in Chicago.
At bottom right, Mark Buehrle takes the field with his son Braden, as also shown below.

With his own number already retired by the White Sox, Frank Thomas spoke at the ceremony.
White Sox principal owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who noted the large turnout to salute Buehrle by telling him:
"We don't get 40,000 fans at every game."
On behalf of the White Sox, Reinsdorf gave Buehrle both an ATV and pickup truck.
After making this incredible play in 2010, Buehrle gave the baseball to a young fan,
who on Saturday brought it back for him.

A brief video I shot of the unveiling of Mark Buehrle's number 56 among other retired numbers.

I'm not sure what Mark's dad was photographing here as his son spoke.
During his speech, Buehrle insisted Jamie, Braden and Brooklyn stand alongside him.
I thought it was classy for several current A's to watch the ceremony and join in the standing ovation.
 Mark Buehrle greeting Jon Garland
Always classy, Buehrle again shows his appreciation for White Sox crew members.
Former White Sox slugger Ron Kittle made this commemorative artwork for Buehrle and poses with him.

Braden Buehrle, Mark's son (soon to turn 10) sang the National Anthem
Brooklyn Buehrle, Mark's 8-year-old daughter, threw out the first pitch...
...and her purported velocity was noted as exceeding her dad's in his prime.
The White Sox take the field on Mark Buehrle Day. Giving up 10 runs in a game lasting nearly 3-1/2 hours,
they did not exemplify him well.

A commemorative pin given to all fans on Saturday

All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2017. Please do not repost without permission or attribution.

MCA's Finely-Curated Takashi Murakami Exhibition Introduces Me, Contemporarily, to Mr. DOB, Arhats and the Concept of Superflat -- Art Review

Art Exhibit Review

Takashi Murakami
The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Thru September 24

I've repeatedly conveyed my inability to appreciate much in the way of contemporary art, at least at the museum level.

I have a number of friends I consider excellent artists, and routinely see pieces I very much like at local art fairs, so I will not say that great art is no longer being made.

And acknowledging that art--like beauty--is in the eye of the beholder, I hold all working artists in high regard, even if I may not be smitten by the resulting works. That some are able to make a good living, or even a fortune, is something I applaud, simply on principle.

But whether in the contemporary galleries of some of the world's best art museums, or at institutions specifically devoted to newish works--including Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)--I have rarely found myself enchanted.

This may well be a silly generalization, but I tend to find contemporary art heavy on gimmick and light on aesthetic allure or--per my admittedly imprecise barometer of perception--"greatness."

So although I seek out art museums on every vacation I take and get to the Art Institute of Chicago several times each year, in recent years I've generally only gone to the MCA for special exhibits or events.

The last of these, until now, was the traveling David Bowie Is exhibition in 2014, which I had originally seen in London the year before. I felt it was excellent, but a look at what else was hanging at MCA at the time reiterated my general distaste for museum-level "contemporary art."

When I first heard mention of a "Murakami exhibit" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, my mind went to the acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. I haven't read any of his works--which include Norwegian Wood, IQ84 and Kafka on the Shore--but saw a play based on the latter and wondered if perhaps an exhibition was created to showcase striking visuals suggested in the books.

But I soon learned that the exhibit focuses on Takashi Murakami, a contemporary artist of some renown though unknown to me. (It seems he may be best known to some for designing cover artwork for Kanye West's 2008 album, Graduation.)

I took a bit of note when some art-savvy friends posted on Facebook about visiting the exhibition--officially titled Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, which comes from a Japanese saying about an octopus in distress that chews off its own leg to survive, knowing that it will regenerate--and became all the more intrigued by a Tweet sharing that Bono and the Edge got a private tour while in Chicago for a pair of U2 concerts in early June.

Appreciating that the museum is free for Illinois residents every Tuesday, I decided to take a look recently prior to carrying on to a White Sox game.

Before getting to the exhibition itself--which I found to be an excellent representation of a worthwhile artist, if not quite filled with what I'd consider phenomenal art--let me note that I am not thoroughly versed in Japanese culture.

I love the films of Akira Kurosawa and others of that realm, and found the film Spirited Away to be sensational, but am generally oblivious to anime and manga.

As noted, I haven't read Haruki Murakami though I've heard nothing but high praise, yet--largely incidentally--just prior to my MCA visit, I had read three novels by Keigo Higashino, seemingly Japan's most popular mystery writer.

So I was happy to further indoctrinate myself into the contemporary creativity of Japan, a country I hope to one day visit.

The exhibit, which is wonderfully compiled, curated and written to show how Takashi Murakami's art has developed and changed over the past 30 years, begins with a short video interview of the artist that I highly recommend all attendees view.

Via the clip, I learned that in addition to Japanese animation, Murakami was heavily influenced by "American sci-fi," predominantly Star Wars, and that one of his primary aims is to blur the line between high art and low culture.

In the spirit of merging these realms, many of Murakami's works--at least to a certain point in his oeuvre--feature a Mickey Mouse-type character dubbed Mr. DOB, as those three letters are represented in his ears and face.

Murakami has used--and in a variety of ways, morphed--Mr. DOB, from singularly dominating canvases to being rather small in a sea of color to being depicted sculpturally.  

Although I can't say the exhibition left me with a precise understanding of the term "Superflat," this is--per wall text--a theory of art Murakami coined in the late 1990s as he blended Eastern and Western artistic traditions.
"Superflat describes a world that blurs disctinctions between high art and low culture, a world that is metaphorically flattenend by the atomic bomb. Murakami explored these ideas in his mutable character Mr. DOB, which he continued to mutilate, duplicate, stretch, distort and adapt."
The video and exhibit text also explained that--following the artist's rise to widespread prominence in the early years of the new millennium, including the work with Kanye--he was, understandably, tremendously affected by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011.

This led to a series of large-scale works--aided by a vast studio staff, as chronicled in a video depicting Murakami's working methods--featuring numerous "arhats," which are Buddhist monks on their way to spiritual enlightenment, tasked with spreading understanding and healing.

In the exhibition, there is a long gallery featuring two huge arhat sculptures and giant paintings that spread the length of the room, reminding me of Monet's Water Lilies at the L'Orangerie in Paris and perhaps stylistically even more so, Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze in Vienna. (I also had perceived the influence of Lichtenstein and Warhol in the Mr. DOB pieces.)

Takashi Murakami also created a roomful of large works expressly for the MCA exhibit, with a multi-paneled painting and monumental sculpture inspired by the show's subtitle, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.

Certainly the exhibition went a long way in helping me understanding its subject's artistry, and if rating merely the exhibit's breadth, explanations and accompanying materials, I'd probably bestow @@@@@.

But while I genuinely enjoyed much of Murakami's art, I don't feel much compunction to seek out more of it.

If I were to come across a similar exhibit at some other major museum, with time allowing to peruse either it or a well-regarded permanent collection, I'd undoubtedly choose the latter.

And forgetting that they fetch a fortune, I don't think I'd opt to hang a Murakami on my walls, even if given an original.

Incidentally, one of my favorite pieces shown is among the least emblematic of the styles for which Murakami has seemingly become well-known worldwide.

Picture of a Turtle "Does It Dream of the Lindberg Star," created in 1987 when the artist was just 25, uses muted hues and--though obviously hard to make out on screen--a considerable amount of raised texture.

Call me a traditionalist, but I guess I prefer to see what I perceive as impressive technique, and perhaps aesthetic depth, rather than simply eye-catching flash.

So while I'm glad to now know of Takashi Murakami as a renowned, living, contemporary artist, and liked much of what I saw at the MCA strictly at face value, I can't say the exhibit--excellent in its own right--all that greatly abetted my appreciation of what appears to constitute museum-level fine art created in this century.

But especially for the right price, I'm glad I took a look.