Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In Search Of Darker Angels

Writing is a strange craft. Some writers agonize over each word; others capture their thoughts, organize them in their minds, and almost effortlessly manage to commit them to text. Some writers are notorious for spending more time editing and rewriting their work than they do creating a first draft.

With the New York City Opera presenting the American premiere of Peter Eotvos's operatic adaptation of Angels in America, playwright Tony Kushner was asked by The New York Times about the process of watching one's writing be transformed into a piece of music. Kushner responded:
"When you’re a writer, it’s what Shaw says: All writing aspires to the quality of music. No matter how great the writing is in a play, it’s always going through the prison house of language; there’s always rationality attached to it. And it’s thrilling when your words are sung. It goes places; it makes things possible. Maybe if I were Shakespeare, it would be possible without music, but for me there’s a frustration, a ceiling I feel I’m banging my head against. In Mozart, in Shostakovich, in Wagner, you often get this feeling that you’re rooted in the rational but you’ve gone to some place that isn’t circumscribed by geometry anymore. It’s in another realm."
Playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner

While the words that appear in textbooks, user manuals, and other forms of nonfiction rarely "sing," the words that a fiction writer or lyricist gives to a character's thoughts and emotions often rest on a strange musicality. Whether the writer makes use of alliteration, meter, or rhyme as handy tools of his craft, an extensive vocabulary helps to inspire and color one's work. Two shining examples of this can be found in novelty numbers crafted by songwriter Walter Marks for Bajour (a 1964 musical that starred Chita Rivera, Herschel Bernardi, and Nancy Dussault).

With all the current talk about cultural appropriation, perhaps this is a good time to ask what spurs a writer's artistic vision. Is it race? Sexuality? Politics? Religion? Recently, while watching a screener for The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (the opening night film of the 2017 Frameline Film Festival), I was struck by a piece of archival footage in which a journalist asked Maupin what it was like to be a gay writer. Maupin responded quite frankly that he considered himself to be a writer who happens to be gay as opposed to a gay writer.

Two dramas with strong cultural overtones are being presented to Bay area audiences this month. In one, a Filipino-American writer creates a drama around a forgotten black artist. In the other, a black artist creates a meditation about another black artist in which he restores the full flavor of that man's sexuality as an essential part of the deceased man's life. If Ella Fitzgerald could ask "Is it real or is it Memorex?" then perhaps audiences should take the time necessary to ask "Is this cultural appropriation or a genuine work of art that risks making people uncomfortable?"

* * * * * * * * *
One of the quiet gems being screened during the 2017 Frameline Film Festival is a restored print of Isaac Julien's haunting 46-minute film entitled Looking For Langston, which includes archival footage taken during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as well as some erotic/exotic fantasies that evoke the work of such gay artists as James Bidgood and Robert Mapplethorpe.

A scene from Looking For Langston

Although the opening sequence of Julien's film includes a recreation of the 1967 funeral of Langston Hughes, the rest of the work is a cinematic meditation shaped by the poems of powerful black writers such as Hughes, James BaldwinEssex Hemphill, and Richard Bruce Nugent.

A scene from Looking For Langston

Images of  Bessie Smith and other famous black artists are mixed with visions of naked bodies sensually intertwining as beautiful men slowly dance in each others arms with angels hovering nearby as they caress each other's bodies. In other scenes, men kiss each other with seductive skill as their naked bodies relax and find their sweet resting spot.

A scene from Looking For Langston

In the festival's program book, B. Ruby Rich writes:
“It’s hard to imagine a more perfect year for Looking for Langston to be restored to its full elegance. Isaac Julien’s prophetic 1989 black-and-white film claims the same fierce poetry, desire, argument, and history now being widely celebrated in the films of Barry Jenkins and Raoul Peck. Julien is still ahead of his time, though his Langston has the homosexuality missing from I Am Not Your Negro and the naked bodies excised from Moonlight. The result is a dreamy meditation on the past and the present, with angels loitering on the balconies and club kids disappearing into thin air. Smoke and mirrors? Langston uses every trick in the book to imagine a utopian moment already in danger, where race-crossing from black to white and back unites male bodies in and out of tuxedos, with and without champagne to toast their dalliances.”
Poster art for Looking For Langston

With a musical score that dips into jazz and blues, Julien's film slowly and slyly weaves the power of a black man's identity with his sexual desire as it looks back to a time when homosexuality was "a sin against the race, even if it was a widely shared one." As it captures the rapturous and knowing initial moments of eye contact that ignite feelings of lust between two men (whether they be cruising in a posh mansion or a moonlit municipal park), Looking For Langston uses poetry, music, and art to fill the screen with images that are powerfully antithetical to the stereotypes that were fed to the masses in blaxploitation films.

Although the 25-minute television version of Looking For Langston in the clip below lacks the more overtly sexual scenes contained in the full version (nor can its graininess compare to the beautifully restored print), it offers a rare combination of powerful images created by poetry and cinema to communicate the sensual beauty of men ... and the men who are so powerfully attracted to it.

* * * * * * * * *
The Magic Theatre recently presented the world premiere of a new play by Han Ong entitled Grandeur. Set in 2010 and beautifully directed by Loretta Greco, the play's three characters are:
  • Gil Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly), an African-American man known for his work during the 1970s as a spoken word artist who chose to describe himself as a "bluesologist." Having published his first novel (The Vulture) at the age of 21 and been widely acclaimed for "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," generations of hip hop musicians have looked to him as the godfather of rap (even though he's been out of the spotlight for nearly 16 years). Despite his reputation as a jazz and blues artist, his recently released LP entitled "We're New Here" has caused a wave of excitement in knowledgeable circles. But at 65, Scott-Heron seems much more interested in scoring some crack than bathing in the cultural importance of his latest achievement or worrying about his legacy. Why? He's a flawed cultural icon nearing death whose recklessness has, in many ways, been his undoing.
  • Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks), Gil's 42-year-old niece who is working toward getting her degree from Barnard College with a major in Ancient History. Her past experiences granting journalists (from Rolling Stone and other publications) access to to her uncle have left her deeply suspicious of anyone who shows up wanting to interview him. A streetwise woman who has no problem administering "tough love" to anyone who challenges her, Julie is not about to take shit from anyone.
  • Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), an aspiring 32-year-old journalist who had heard about Gil from friends and recently noticed an old man drooling all over himself on a subway train. When he realized the identity of the seemingly homeless man, Barron determined that getting an interview with the musical legend could open editorial doors and become his stepping stone to being taken more seriously as a journalist. Despite having an assignment from the New York Review of Books, Steve is easily unnerved when Scott-Heron suggests that he is the envoy of Death. It should come as no surprise that Gil and Julie see right through Barron's lame posturing.
Rafael Jordan as Steve Barron in the world premiere
of Han Ong's Grandeur (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Han Ong, whose Reasons to Live. Reason to Live. Half. No Reason premiered at the Magic Theatre 25 years ago, offers a fascinating description of how and why he was inspired to write Grandeur:
“I teach a class called ‘Everyone Is A Play’ in which one of the things I do is assign obituaries. Everybody in class reads a week’s worth of obituaries in The New York Times and we bring the one obituary that speaks to us into class. We all pitch our obituaries and, at the end of it, we choose two. Everybody writes a play based on one or the other. Sometimes people choose obituaries of really famous people, so the obituaries are really long and really detailed. The other way to go is to choose an obscure obituary so you get your own territory to mark. There are people of great accomplishment who we don’t know. For me, that neglect is always a willful, step-by-step planning that leads to that (time has passed you by, but the champions who could revive your name are not around)."
Carl Lumbly and Rafael Jordan in a scene from the world
premiere of Han Ong's Grandeur (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)
“Gil Scott-Heron was a man of vast accomplishment, but by the time you go to him at his death there’s that thing of ‘Gil Scott-Heron who?’ So, in a way, you kind of get to make him your own. When I decided to write about Gil Scott-Heron it was because he was a forgotten man. My memory of him was revived by a few articles on the occasion of the release of his first album in 16 years. There was an aura of commemorating somebody who time had forgotten (even though it’s not as innocent sounding as that).”
Carl Lumbly as Gil Scott-Heron in the world premiere of
Han Ong's Grandeur (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Part of the magic Ong infuses into his story is the way each character has a distinctive voice and way of using language that reflects both their personality and their life experience.
  • Gil is the real thing -- a poet who can effortlessly spin out riffs and cadences when inspired but whose ambition has evaporated with age and his hunger for crack. He describes songwriting as "a telepathic gift -- the spirits dictate and you transcribe."
  • Barron wishes he could wax poetic and have a poet's fluency with words. Alas, what comes out out of his mouth often sounds clumsy, timid, academic, and devoid of passion.
  • Miss Julie, on the other hand, has quite a mouth on her. She is (as a friend of mine used to say) refreshingly blunt.
Safiya Fredericks as Miss Julie in the world premiere
of Han Ong's Grandeur (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Grandeur takes place in Scott-Heron's dimly lit Harlem apartment which (along with projections) has been designed by Hana S. Kim and lit by Ray Oppenheimer. Enhanced by Sara Huddleston's sound design (especially during the subway flashback), Magic Theatre's production takes a while to weave its spell over the audience. Carl Lumbly's magnificently layered portrayal of Gil Scott-Heron reveals the old man to be no one's fool but his own. Fondly whispering the nickname "Father Langston" when Steve Barron mentions the dead poet, Lumbly depicts a man who is well aware of his past but, at this point in life, has pretty much had the wind knocked out of his sails. (A minor piece of trivia: Although he claims to be 65 in Ong's play, when Scott-Heron died on May 27, 2011 he was 62 years old).

Carl Lumbly as Gil Scott-Heron in the world premiere of
Han Ong's Grandeur  (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Performances of Grandeur continue through June 25 at the Magic Theatre (click here for tickets).

No comments: