Friday, October 28, 2011

Culture versus Counterculture

What happens to artists who found their voices and began their careers as part of the counterculture?
Two recent local events offered a fascinating opportunity to contrast the sights and sounds of the counterculture from distances of four decades and 10,000 miles. In each case, I found myself wondering if the old axiom -- "The more things change the more they stay the same" -- is true.

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Recently screened at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival, a new film by Laura Gamse and Jacques de Villiers entitled The Creators looks at some of the talent that has emerged from South African ghettos. Among the artists profiled are:

Blaq Pearl, a young woman who teaches creative writing to inmates in the same prison where her brother taught prior to his death. After her older brother, a hip hop activist named Mr. Devious, was murdered in their hometown of Mitchell's Plain by a rival gang, Blaq Pearl became a writer and performer specializing in the spoken word. Even though her brother's killer has been released from jail and lives in an adjoining neighborhood, Blaq Pearl continues to use poetry as a way to break free from the violence of street life.

Warongx, an Afro-Blues duo. Originally from rural Eastern Cape, Ongx (who won first place in a 2007 South African music competition) joined forces with his friend Wara to form the band Warongx. Together, they sing songs written in Xhosa while most other artists prefer to make recordings in English. Because the recording deal Ongx was promised with a large production company failed to bring him any income, he is forced to wash dishes and perform on streets and trains in order to get by.

Faith47, a subversive graffiti activist fighting for public art whose large message murals have been inspired by the African National Congress's 1955 document known to all South Africans as The Freedom Charter. Faith47 paints murals on walls in townships whose levels of violence are worse than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. Her artistically gifted and extremely bright son, 11-year-old Cashril Plus, is her biggest fan.

Mthetho, a young man with a big voice whose father left behind a CD of Luciano Pavarotti singing opera arias. Able to memorize and mimic the music on the CD, Mthetho helped support his single mother until she died from AIDS. Left on his own, he got caught up in a gang lifestyle that resulted in multiple stabbings and a large knife scar on his cheek. Determined to learn more music and support his family with his singing, Mthetho's optimism has yet to collide with the fact that he doesn't understand the words he is singing. Nor does he have a strong sense of pitch.

Sweat.X, a radical black/white performance art duo (Spoek Mathambo and Markus Wormstorm) from Soweto and Pretoria. The two musicians often take their style of performing ("pump up/get down music") out to poor communities in the Karoo region of South Africa.

Sweat.X (Markus Wormstorm and Spoek Mathambo)
performing outdoors in The Creators

Emile Jansen was active in anti-apartheid protests and and school boycotts in his younger days. Not only was he shot at by police, he witnessed the death of friends who were trying to overthrow South Africa's apartheid government.  A former breakdancer for the hip hop group Black Noise, he now tries to contribute to a more conscious culture among South African youths by leading breakdancing workshops and helping young men prepare for B-boy competitions.

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Several things must be taken into consideration when approaching the touring production of Hair that recently arrived in San Francisco:
  • More than four decades after its premiere, the popular musical created by James RadoGerome Ragni, and Galt McDermott must now be seen as a period piece.
  • Because the Selective Service System stopped issuing draft orders in 1973, theatergoers born after 1958 have never known the white-knuckle fear of being drafted.
  • With today's military comprised of volunteers, the controversy accompanying one's identification as a conscientious objector has largely disappeared from society.
  • In her attempt to make Hair relevant to modern audiences, Diane Paulus (who was born while the original production was still a box office hit) has aimed her staging squarely at theatergoers with attention deficit disorder.
  • If the sound level for this production's amplification could be cut in half, not only would the resulting drop in sound distortion allow audiences to hear the words more clearly, people would get a better show (when every musical number is loud or louder, the sweet lyricism of a song like "Frank Mills" loses its charm in the resulting cacophony).
  • There is a perverse irony to be found in the fact that the cast of a musical celebrating the natural gifts of the human body should include a chorus whose men, for the most part, seem to have waxed their torsos in order to remove any signs of body hair.
Steel Burkhardt as Berger in Hair

Nevertheless, counterculture is still very much in today's news. Despite the presence of costumed "flower children" handing out daisies to the crowd in front of the Golden Gate Theatre on opening night, the performance I attended took place within 48 hours of police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the Occupy Wall Street protest in Oakland. As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of France's gift to the United States of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus's "tired and poor ... huddled masses yearning to breathe free" can be found in tent cities across America.

What struck me as truly remarkable about this production of Hair was how hard it has become to shock a modern audience.
Berger (Steel Burkhardt) and Claude (Paris Remillard) in Hair
Photo by: Joan Marcus

Ironically, some of the original production's wit and sassiness have disappeared in the new Paulus staging, replaced by Karole Armitage's "wild child" style of choreography.  Gone is one of Broadway's funniest costume tricks (the mammoth sequined dress spoofing The Supremes), which has been replaced by a clueless rendition of "Black Boys/White Boys" that completely misses the satirical point of the song.

This is very much a Hair for the digital age. The touring company's website proudly boasts "We've got merch" and audience members who dance onstage after the show can look for themselves in a video clip the following morning.

Unlike the original production (whose performers didn't wear body mikes), the touring cast of Hair has a video blog which includes backstage interviews with cast members as well as video clips of Steel Burkhardt and Paris Remillard answering questions from fans that were posted on the show's Facebook page.

Hud (Mike Evariste), Berger (Steel Burkhardt), and Wolf
(Matt DeAngelis)salute the flag in Hair (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Phyre Hawkins opens the show with a solid rendition of "Aquarius." Sara King's rendition of "Easy To Be Hard" takes on a more bitter irony than usual. Will Blum scores strongly as Claude's father and Margaret Mead, with Liz Baltes going for the guilt as Claude's mother. Corey Bradley and Nkrumah Gatling were among the more impressive members of the Tribe.

One thing is for sure. Unlike the original production (which moved from Joseph Papp's Public Theatre to Broadway), this ain't your father's version of Hair. Deafeningly loud, aerobically performed, and severely commercialized, this is a reworked Hair for a very different generation. Here's the trailer:

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