Everything Moves

"When we think of 'the commons,' we think of the collective commons of the air, the earth, water... but what if we consider the commons of the collective imagination?" -Amy Russell, The School of Embodied Poetics

David Byrne & Deathlessness

Last night at incredible David Byrne concert, the opening act was gorgeous French/Cuban/West African duo: Ibeyi. Twin sisters, stunning, Afro-Cuban Haitian inspired music. They live in Paris. They introduced a song about the importance of strong girls and women and, referencing the current president's exhortation to grab women by the pussies, they decided to sample Michelle Obama's speech (with her permission) in their song. A few seats down from us at the Shrine Auditorium, a man yelled, with ferocious hatred "Get out of our country!" to the women on the stage. I know this is a small instance of the grander horrors going on, and I also know that freedom of speech is a vital right. what struck me though was the hatred. the tenor of the room shifted, like the air ripped apart, and hatred tore through the seams. My own body flushed and fumed. What exactly was this man threatened by? Here these women are on stage being so generous, so full of life and spirit, so powerful. oh. oh yeah. that is exactly what he is threatened by.

The power of empowered physical presence. The threat of embodied joy.

It was actually hard for me to concentrate my attention back on the show, because i was having images/fantasies of finding that man and literally hitting him in the head with a bat and saying "no sir, YOU get out of OUR country." like, really strong violent imagery. which was super important to notice. because the painful thing is my violent urge is not different than his yelling "get out of our country". and the true power was in how Ibeyi continued, undaunted, undeterred, undiminished by the hate. in fact they went on to sing a stunning anthem called "Deathless." and then of course there is the incomparable David Byrne. who came out on stage holding a brain like a hyper contemporary hamlet, as an opening to his epic tour, "American Utopia." As two gorgeous dancers/harmonizers, a black woman and a white man, backed him up, he sang/spoke to all of us:

Put your hand out of your pocket
Wipe the sweat off of your brow
Now it feels like a bad connection
No more information now
As it passes through your neurons
Like a whisper in the dark
Raise your eyes to one who loves you
It is safe right where you are
Here is an area of great confusion
Here is a section that's extremely precise
And here is an area that needs attention
Here is a connection with the opposite side

With twelve musicians and dancers of every shape, color, and size, the ridiculously amazing evening ended with a rendition of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout" in a call and response inviting the audience to say the names of black women and men who have died by law enforcement in this "American Utopia." It was hard not to wonder what the hater a few rows down from me was feeling when the rest of the crowd was screaming the names of Sandra Bland and Freddy Gray. But perhaps David Byrne and Ibeyi showed me by example that rather than waste energy (and hypocrisy) reacting to and seeking to harm the haters, there is indefatigable power in taking the space, keeping the space, dancing, singing, screaming, being, saying the names. So rather than meeting hate with hate, the night met hate with love. and the hate was drowned, dissolved in the percussion and the pulse.

The Grotesque

In Lecoq grad school we did an extensive deep dive into "The Bouffons" and "The Grotesque." Theatrical territories that deal with absurdity, mockery, gallows humor, and the subversive... the painful laugh accompanying the tragic sense of bewilderment at the incongruities and cruelties of life. Yesterday's press conference with Drumpf The Bully deepened my full body understanding of these theatrical territories. The terror of watching the buffoon mock CNN and call it "fake news" and the Orwellian double speak. In some ways as a contemporary American isolated from the living reality of daily life under a dictator (a life so many humans on the planet know intimately), I've had the luxury of not fully understanding "The Grotesque" in my bones. Forgive me if this is incoherent. Though in a way incoherence is at the heart of all of this.

Add to it that AT THE SAME TIME, Rex Tillerson is saying he doesn't know whether Exxon lied about climate change knowledge, and the ways Tillerson has colluded with and protected brutal dictators for decades (he refuses to respond to questions which criticize Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines' brutality and Exxon's human rights abuses in Indonesia, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinnea are very real).... the surreality of what is going on... the way the country is tumbling forward amidst all of this cognitive dissonance... I guess it's good to understand human nature more deeply. But I would trade a deepened appreciation of grad school for some semblance of class and dignity in our civil life in a heartbeat.

I appreciate Meryl Streep's call to take our broken hearts and turn it into art. I guess I just feel at this moment something I've not quite felt in this particular way - which is, I'd trade art in a heartbeat for a reality in which there was no more cause for art. If somebody said "ok there will be no more plays or art ever but the earth will be spared the nightmare of an Exxon CEO as secretary of state, and the bombing in Syria will stop, and civil rights will be an actual reality (because it's not despite our nostalgia for the 60's), and these things will be protected with perpetual ferocity, I think I'd say cool. I'd get dust protectors and book covers for all of the plays that exist. I'd hire the best art conservationists. And wail dirges as art descended into the earth and become fodder for the worms of real life compassion. It's both a deepening of appreciation for artists like Vaclav Havel and Dario Fo and Augusto Boal and Pussy Riot... as well as an existential sadness.

This must be the true sadness of clown.

 

FLWRS by Szalt

FLWRS by Szalt was like an I.V. to my soul, and I didn’t even know I was thirsty. With no knowledge of the show before hand, I found myself gutted by the performers and sideswiped by their stunning virtuosity. Days later, I feel giddy having experienced such fruitional mastery. With no words, five women create such an irrepressible vocabulary of space and body, that FLWRS speaks tomes.

FLWRS breathes itself as a panoply of what it means to experience the world in a woman’s body. Yet, thankfully, I never during the course of the performance found myself thinking “this is about something.” My ideas and concepts were never able to get ahead of the sheer delight of raw experience as I surrendered to the spaces created by the dancers’ bodies. Grasshopper dominatrix. Adolescent shame. Solidarity. Threat. Perk. Play. Delight. Death. Insanity. Unison. Flickers and shimmies and scurries and sprawls. Power. Chorus. Solo. Dream.

Only days after, still reeling with raw inspiration and gratitude for witnessing the range of what is possible with this human body, do I consider the aboutness of FLWRS. Szalt creates a space that is refreshing, supportive, strong, and important. As Trump eviscerates Machado. As Hillary smiles dutifully. As grandmothers die and nieces hit puberty. As aspirants lean in, as victims speak out. As my wife hugs me on her way to bed and I feel the shape and the weight of her body. Which for a decade has loved my body. Ever changing, definitely aging, yet ever capable of lightness, flight, and ageless play.

Thank you Szalt.

And congratulations to all who made the Live Arts Exchange/LAX such a joy.

 

FLWRS, by Szalt. Photo from http://www.stephaniezaletel.com/f-l-w-r-s.html

FLWRS, by Szalt. Photo from http://www.stephaniezaletel.com/f-l-w-r-s.html

Ghost Town: A Venice Community Play

Last night I had the great fortune of seeing Cornerstone Theater Company’s Ghost Town: A Venice Community Play.  Cornerstone is an incredible company that develops original shows through rigorous and all-inclusive community conversations. Ghost Town featured over 40 actors and community members giving voice to the hidden history of race, class, and economic development in Venice. The play successfully resists dogma or easy answers, and instead leaves audiences to contend with open controversial questions.

 

I attended the show with my wife, who is the Associate Director at Venice Arts, a nonprofit that teaches film and photography to low income kids in the Venice community, and whose students have photos exhibited in conjunction with the production of Ghost Town.

 

From Venice Arts on Lincoln Blvd, my wife and I walked to the show at Oakwood Park. Heading due west, I experienced for the first time one of Venice’s famed “Walk Streets,” idyllic pedestrian-only passageways through hundreds of gorgeous single family homes nestled together in close community. Edenic yet chic, lush yet manicured, the Walk Streets gave me a visceral experience of precisely the controversies Cornerstone is grappling with in Ghost Town

 

The play features as a character Abbot Kinney, who designed the Walk Streets at the turn of the century as part of his vision for an Italian-inspired Venice in America. It also features Arthur Reese and Irving Tabor as two African Americans representative of the larger effort by African Americans to build out Kinney’s vision.  Oakwood itself is one of the first neighborhoods in which African Americans could own property in the United States.  

 

Walking through the Venice Walk Streets today in 2016, there is a visceral tension between the clear intention of community, and the blatant desire for exclusivity as evidenced by the astronomical home values (not to mention the distinctive fences articulating the boundaries of each property). The houses along the Walk Streets currently stand in the 1 – 3 million dollar range.

 

It could have been the angle of the afternoon light… it could have been the chickens I saw feeding under rows of vegetation in one of the proximate yards… but moving through the Walk Street, I had a momentary flash of feeling I was in a different country. Costa Rica?  Mexico? Until I heard the conversation floating from the very white women lounging on the very geometric architectural straight-out-of-Dwell-magazine sundeck raised slightly off the ground a few yards from the roaming chickens. “Well he’s not the only equity investor of course.” “No yeah totally of course want some more iced herbal tea?”

 

As disturbed as I was by the exclusionary affluence, I was perhaps more disturbed by the way my mouth involuntarily wattered at the suggestion of the herbal tea. Mmmm… I want some of that.

 

Before the show, my wife and I enjoyed a pear-arugula-burrata pizza on Abbot Kinney, and after the show we enjoyed black olive brittle ice cream in a homemade waffle cone from Salt & Straw.  In between these epicurean adventures, we bore witness to caricatures of parts of ourselves on stage, as embodied by the gentrifying hipsters in Cornerstone’s provocative play. And it wasn’t necessarily pretty.

 

Other parts of ourselves were embodied in Cornerstone’s play as well. My wife and I are part of the rapidly shrinking middle class in this country. Though we traverse in burrata pizzas and Intelligencia espressos, such indulgences are felt by our budget. We don’t live in Venice, nor could we if we wanted. We live in a very modest apartment, and we wonder if we will ever be able to afford a house in Los Angeles.  Perhaps more importantly, though, we wonder about how we may or may not be implicated in the rising tide of gentrification and hyper-inflation.

 

Cornerstone’s Ghost Town asks us to consider the historical and sociological costs of such gentrification and hyper-inflation. With real community members on stage, the experience of the show is direct. As a viewer, I was compelled to feel the reality of market forces on the real lives of actual human beings in the community.

 

Thanks, Cornerstone.