No Blue Memories: Black Poet Gwendolyn Brooks via Manual Cinema

“No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” was presented on a Chicago stage during the centennial of the birth of the noted poet, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category. Now, three years later, it is being presented as an hour-long video for free online at Manual Cinema from August 10 to 17, as part of the company’s tenth anniversary “Retrospectacular,” presenting four of its most popular shows.
What the video retains is the play’s delightful jazz and blues infused score, which helps bring forth the poet’s own jazzy rhythms in such famous poems as this one about seven teenage pool players she spotted in her neighborhood dive on the South Side, the Golden Shovel:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Drink gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

It also offers a look at a down-to-earth woman who spent a lifetime writing extraordinary poems (published from the age of 13) and at the same time devoted her life to mentoring schoolchildren, inmates and hospital patients, reflecting a philosophy expressed in the last three lines of one of her poems:

Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song
Live in the along.

What the video of “No Blue Memories” doesn’t do well is show what Manual Cinema does at its best — or, indeed, what Manual Cinema does, period. The videos of their shows may look like animated features, but to call them animations is to miss the beauty and ingenuity of what the company creates. The unusual hybrid of theater and cinema uses live actors and musicians, shadow puppetry, cardboard cutouts,  hand drawings on overhead projectors, and twice the accessories employed in the old radio dramas.

I saw my first Manual Cinema plays on stage at the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar festival, “Lula Del Ray” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”  Each was simultaneously a silent film, and the making of that film — with the cast and crew running around on stage in front of us to create in real time what was on the screen behind them. This worked especially well with Lula, about a lonely, star-gazing girl in the desert of the American Southwest in the 1950s who bravely adventures to the big city. We’re treated to a catalogue modern film techniques manually created – long shots of beautiful sunsets, extreme close-ups of Lula’s expressive face, panning, fade-outs, Dutch angles, tracking shots… There is hilarious moments when she finally meets the country music duo she idolizes, and realizing that they were no more substantive than the cardboard cuts being used to depict them. (Lula was the first video presented at the Retrospectacular; Frankenstein will be presented August 17-23.)

Unlike those plays, “No Blue Memories,” which was commissioned by the Poetry Foundation, is full of words spoken aloud — Brooks’ words of course; it would be absurd to do otherwise.  Yet Manual Cinema’s approach is much the same as with their other shows, live actors turned into animated characters in silhouette; use of modern camera techniques; some gorgeous hand drawings.  The few times her words were smartly projected on the screen made me wish they had done this more often. I’m not sure it makes as much sense to present both a movie and the making of the movie when the subject is a poet, but in any case the making-of part doesn’t much register on the video.

Such concerns are likely to mean little to those meeting Gwendolyn Brooks for the first time.
At the unveiling of a sculpture by Picasso in Chicago in 1967, Brooks delivered a mischievous poem:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages—
And it is easier to stay at home…

How could she have known, more than half a century later, there would be a special new resonance to that last line.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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