The Migration Review: The African-American Exodus In Painting and Dance

Millions of African-Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities in the North in the decades after World War I, one of the largest migrations in the history of humanity, ignored by most newspapers (except the black press), but famously captured by a 23-year-old painter named Jacob Lawrence. In 1941, he created The Migration Series, 60 paintings that depict the mass exodus of African-Americans from the South. The series caused a sensation. In 2011, a dance company called Step Afrika! created The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, turning visual art into dance theater. The 80-minute show — it, too, in its own way sensational —  is now on stage through November 26 at New Victory Theatre.

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Theater Images from the Met Museum Collection

Below are theater-related images from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among them, a statuette of an actor from Attica, Greece 2,500 years old. Theater masks from first century Rome. A theater robe for an actor in 18th century China. A 19th century poster by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Edwin Booth in a cigarette ad!  A series of abstract paintings in 2001 inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
The Met this week made all of the public-domain images of artwork in their possession — around 375,000 — free for anyone to use
Click on any image to see it enlarged and to read the extensive captions, provided by the museum.


Theater at the new National Museum of African-American Culture and History

The National Museum of African-American Culture and History officially opens today in Washington D.C. Among the almost 37,000 objects in its permanent collection are photographs, programs and the like connected to the theater. Below is a sample. (Click on any photograph to see it enlarged and read the captions)


Also, check out the exhibition Taking the Stage


“Taking the Stage provides visitors with the opportunity to reconnect with some of their favorite popular culture memories as well as to contemplate how the roles black artists played on the stage and screen reflected changing aspirations, struggles, and realities for black people in American society.”

Caught review: Trickster Theater about Dissident Chinese Art…or is it?

“Caught” messes with your head in the most exquisite of ways. In part a send-up of the art scene – the conceptual artist as con artist — it is itself a form of conceptual art, and a series of cons. But the author of the Play Company production that is at the Downstairs Theater of La Mama through September 24 is not just an entertaining trickster. The show is in places very funny, but it also has some thought-provoking things to say about truth and lies and perception….about the pitfalls of cultural exchange….and other things.

It’s probably best, frankly, to see “Caught” the way I did, without knowing much about it. All I knew was that it involves a Chinese dissident artist, and that there were surprises. In this way, I suppose “Caught” undermines the critical art – which is apt, because it undermines much else, including itself.

Below the photographs from the show is a brief description of it, trying to keep spoilers to a minimum.

“Caught” begins as an art installation, “Lin Bo: Jail Seeking Prisoners.” Lin Bo, we are told, is a Chinese dissident artist who spent two years in prison in China and, now settled in New York, re-created his jail cell and rented it out on Airbnb for a dollar a day; 42 New Yorkers responded, and the art exhibition on the walls in the vestibule leading into the La MaMa theater is essentially a group of photographs and a couple of static videos of the guests in the re-created jail cell.

Once the audience is seated in the theater, Lin Bo, standing in front of the jail cell that was presumably used in his “Jail Seeking Prisoners,” gives a lecture tied to a book that is about to be published about his art and his experiences. It includes a slide show of the art scene in Beijing, which is fascinating in its own right. Then he explains what landed him in prison – his creation of an “imaginary” protest hooked to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, simply a poster that called for a rally on the anniversary, but gave no location for it. The conditions he describes of his imprisonment are grim. At the end of Lin Bo’s talk, we applaud.

And the scene changes, to an office in the New Yorker Magazine, where Joyce the author of a recent article about Lin Bo, and Joyce’s editor Bob, engage Lin Bo in amiable publishing chit-chat – until they gingerly bring up what turns out to be the real reason for the meeting: They have received an e-mail from a prominent academic authority on Chinese prisons who questions a number of details in Lin Bo’s account.

Without going into details, I’ll say that this second scene, which undermines the first, takes a swerve into the unexpected, then ends with bows and applause. A third scene follows, a discussion between the curator and the Chinese artist Wang Min, with whom Play Company collaborated in “the extraordinary hybrid theater art installation piece you just experienced.” It is here that some of the main themes of the show are explored, bringing in the cases of Mike Daisey and James Frey, who were publicly dressed down amid accusations of fabrications in their works. It too undermines the scene before it, takes a swerve into the unexpected, and ends with bows and applause. By the end of the fourth scene, which also swerves into the unexpected, the audience is unsure of everything, including whether to applaud.

All this might sound frustrating, but it’s actually fun to experience, helped along by the credible acting and fine work in a small space by the design team.

The program is not distributed until after the show is over. If you’re planning to see “Caught,” maybe you should wait to read the credits.


The Play Company at the Downstairs Theater of La MaMa

Written by Christopher Chen

Directed by Lee Sunday Evans

Set by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume sby Junghyun Georgia Lee, lights by Barbara Samuels, sound and music by Jeremy S. bloom, art installation concept by Miao Jiaxin, production stage manager Megan Schwarz Dickert.

Cast: Louis Ozawa Changchien, Leslie Fray, Murphy Guyer, Jennifer Lim.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Tickets: $35 to $55

Caught is scheduled to run through September 24. It looks to be sold out for the rest of its run, so they’ll either have to extended it (again), or transfer to a bigger theater.


Hamilton Musical’s Celebrity Signings

“This is history!” Steven Spielberg scribbled. “No words — just exaltation,” wrote Oprah. “The best show ever! (Outside The Producers)” – Mel Brooks. “God Bless” – Denzel Washington. “Fucking Bitches” – Danny DeVito.

Celebrities and politicians cover the picture of Alexander Hamilton backstage at the Richard Rodgers Theater, when they are invited to visit after the show. New York Magazine, capitalizing on the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (as am I, obviously), has declared this week Hamilton Week, because Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755, and is running a series of articles about the musical, including a reproduction of the backstage wall with closeups of a couple of dozen of its signatures.



Theatrical Superstitions: Sheen Center Exhibition

Yes, people have been telling actors to “break a leg” for hundreds of years, but not for the reason you may think, according to Rebekah Lazaridis in the video below. An actress since the age of 12 and a painter of stage sets, Lazaridis has created an art exhibition at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture exploring the most familiar theatrical superstitions — why you cannot whistle in a theater, or say the title of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and what a ghost light is for, and why actors blame Thespis.

Entitled “Broken Legs” — she gets around to explaining that too — Lazaradis created all her art works using discarded theatrical scenery. “Each piece is painted in black and white on old tattered black velvet theater curtains (also known as ‘legs'”) — !! “They are then spliced (broken), skewed and reoriented, then stitched back together transforming into an entirely new image.”

Art As Activism

In the midst of this week of momentous change, the New-York Historical Society has opened an exhibition, Art As Activism, of graphic art from the 1930s to the 1970s that promoted various causes. Notice the first poster is for a 1938 play by Langston Hughes, “Don’t  You Want To Be Free” at “Lincoln Centre” (a different Lincoln Center than the one we now know.)

“Long before digital technology made worldwide communication possible,” the curators write, ” graphic artists used the powerful tools of modernist art to inform communities, stir up audiences and call attention to injustice.” The exhibition is drawn from the Merrill C. Berman Collection, which, judging from the sample below, apparently does not include art for gay rights. So I’ve added three from a 2013 New-York Historical Society exhibition, and two from the Marriage Equality movement, which yesterday culminated in the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Art as Activism runs through September 13, 2015.

Click on any picture to see it enlarged and read the caption.

The Way They Live: The Civilians Discover America At The Met

CiviliansWashingtonCrossingTheDelawareWhat does it mean to be an American?

The Civilians, the first-ever theater-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, finished their year-long residency with a flourish by addressing that question with their last show at the Met, “The Way They Live.”

The title comes from the first of more than a dozen works of art that the theater troupe selected from the Met’s American Wing,  projecting them one by one on the screen of the museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, and putting each cleverly at the center of its own scene or song. Each scene and song was based on verbatim transcripts of interviews both with people who work at the museum, and with people who were visiting it. A cast of seven portrayed the cavalcade of real people as they commented on or debated the work of art.

The result, which ran for just two performances (May 15th and 16th), was something of an illuminating and unusually entertaining art history lesson — akin to what I considered the best scenes in the recent Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles.  The seven original songs, in a range of styles from jazz to art song to Native American folk music, were a highlight. They were surprisingly well-crafted (given that they were based on transcripts) — and not just tuneful, but sometimes even powerful and moving, especially Kirsten Childs’s “Never” inspired by the painting “Dressing for the Carnival” by Winslow Homer (number 7 below), and Ty Defoe’s “In All Directions,” inspired by “End of the Trail” by James Earle Fraser (number 13.)  Overall, “The Way They Live” also offered a glimpse into the way Americans today think (or at least talk.)

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged, with caption.

One of the first things we learned in the show is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art created the American Wing in 1924 with a primary aim of acculturating the rush of new immigrants — teaching them what it means to be American. This seems less easy to define now than then, judging by the dissonant themes explored in the show, including racism, sexism, and jingoism.  That first painting “The Way They Live,” done by Thomas Anshutz in 1879, depicts a black woman and two young boys tending to a vegetable garden. The Civilians performer, portraying a curator the troupe interviewed, points out how angry they look, and that the painting was originally entitled “Cabbages” – which suggests something less than full respect for the people in the painting.

There seemed to be a consensus against the two sculptures by Erastus Dow Palmer, the first (5 Indian Girl, or the Dawn of Christianity) suggesting that conquering the Indians was for their own good, the second (The White Captive) promoting the idea that women want to be raped. (About the first one, one curator remarked: “Everybody says ‘Oh, she’s looking at her cell phone.'”)

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” is probably the most famous of the works of art selected, and it elicited a wide range of comments. One said: “In my 31 years here, I’ve taught that painting maybe 300 times, and it’s never the same.”  Another believed it has more to do with the era in which it was painted — 1851, the period that led to the Civil War — than the era that it depicts. One saw it as representing what’s wrong with war, and preferred the Vietnam War Memorial for emphasizing what all wars are really about — death. “It’s overrated, I think because of its size.” One reported overhearing people saying again and again that its overriding emotion is hope.

“The Way They Live” was the third piece by the Civilians at the Met; the others were “Let Me Ascertain You,” a cabaret-style hodgepodge meant to introduce The Civilians to the museum’s patrons, and “The End and the Beginning,” billed as  “romp through dying, death and the afterlife” at the Temple of Dendur, using transcripts of interviews with the  museum’s Egyptian art curators.  This first theatrical residency has been remarkable, a promising experiment that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, in part because each show had only a couple of performances.

Now, there have been other examples of collaboration between a museum and a theater troupe. The theater company Native Voices has been in residence at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, a museum of the American West, since 1999. But I am unaware of any collaboration that,  like the Civilians at the Met, has attempted to use visual art to create performance art — to translate one art form into the other. The possibilities that could emerge out of greater connections between museums and theaters — practical, economic, and aesthetic — are thrilling.

More information on the works of art:

The Magnolia Vase

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Madame X

Indian Girl, or The Dawn of Christianity

Dressing for the Carnival

Portrait of the Artist by Mary Cassatt

The Last Moments of John Brown