Monday, February 21, 2005

Aida? You brought her! Or, the perils of blackface

I went to see the LA opera production of Aida Saturday night, and I am happy to report that blackface is alive and well in the world of opera. This production had no fewer than 6 people in black face/body makeup and afro wigs playing Ethiopians. Is the opera world that bereft of black people? Could you not, in LOS ANGELES find 8 black dancers? Although Aida herself was black, her father was wearing dark make-up and an afro wig, as were several of the dancers who were playing Ethiopians. The fun thing, though, was they made everyone wear the same body make-up, so it actually looked like everyone was in black face, even the black dancers.

I am confounded. On the one hand, they are playing Ethiopians, and that’s the point of the opera. On the other, the Egyptians were rather multi-cultural in this production, aside from their yarn and bead wigs. Historically, there would have been a basis for the ruling Egyptians to be lighter skinned during the Ptolomeic period, but not everyone. And would there have been Asian Egyptians, wearing bronzer? My sense is you either go for it, or you don’t. It’s traditional now to have a black woman sing Aida, whether she be African, American, European in nationality. But what of the other Ethipoians? If you are really worried about everyone being the same ethnicity, then cast everyone of the same ethnicity, or just forget about it. Do it with costumes, don’t pull us out of it further with everyone wearing dark makeup and looking like Al Jolson. There’s no reason for that. I know opera can be sorely behind the times, but come on. It seems a slap in the face to all of the people who worked hard to knock down those walls. When Maria Callas played Aida, did they make her wear dark makeup?

One of the more hysterical moments (other than getting flashed by a dancer during a push up move when his lamé skirt flew up –lucky me in the 6th row) was the Egyptian/Ethiopian battle told in ballet. It’s so unfortunately effete that you’re unsure whether they’re going to kill each other or go out for cocktails. Fight has changed in dance. Come on, folks. Everyone applauds graciously, but I can’t help but think it’s because they paid as much as they did for tickets. After Robbins’ West Side Story stuff, you must be able to come up with something a little more fresh.

Voices—Aida (Michelle Crider) was great, even though eight months pregnant—I have to give it to her for that—I can’t even imagine. Amneris (irina Mishura) had a heavy back placed Russian sound that I didn’t think was always appropriate. She also had a habit of tilting her head and making sweeping straight arm gestures, as if she was presenting a washer/dryer on the Price is Right. But like I said, I was sitting close; it’s possible in the upper balcony she came across as the paragon of subtlety. Her acting improved by the end, which was welcome. That character must be one of the most schizophrenic in opera (I love him! I hate him! I hate you! I'll make you pay! Oh, just kidding, let me help you! Oh, no, you can't die! I'll save you! Oh, I failed, so I'll just hang around your tomb in flowing robes and weep!) The men were great, although Radames (Franco Farina) had a couple of straining moments--but there are some killers in that score--he did a great job with Celeste Aida, but seemed a bit tentative (read: frightened) of the high notes at the end. Or, perhaps I'm projecting my own fear of whether he would make it. Aida’s father (Lado Ataneli) was strong, and infused some energy into the second act (even in blackface). I was struck by sitting so close how loud the men were compared to the women. I was thinking that in those huge houses the high sound travels to the back, while the low stays in the orchestra. I have a harder time hearing the men generally from my usual cheap seats.

The last thing I had seen in the Dorothy Chandler pavilion was Renee Fleming in recital, with just a piano. One of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had, not only for her filling the space with no mic, but for her acting. It’s such a challenge to fill a house like that and still be able to act. Unfortunately, from where I was, the Aida singers were a bit wooden. I felt like I was doing a lot of the work for them. But hey, the ticket was free, so it’s all good by me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Mrs. Minix & The Fried Chicken Lady

I went last night to see a friend’s one-person show. Yes, that’s a particular jumble of words that strikes fear into the heart of any theatergoer. But, in a wonderful surprise, I was treated to a heartfelt performance and some unforgettable characters.
Mario Burrell’s show "The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter the Juice” is a tour through his life, focusing on his relationship to his Father, a well-known black Hollywood journalist and publicist, and his relationship to performance, especially as it is filtered through being black. We meet several people in his life, and hear of some incredible experiences, from sitting on Cicely Tyson’s lap as a child, to having to go on in the Broadway production of Rent after two days’ rehearsal.
What really buoyed me, though, was a particular characterization of a teacher Mario works with. He is currently teaching kindergarten in the LA Unified public school district. He introduces us to the woman he teaches with, Mrs. Minix. Mrs. Minix is a confident talker. We meet her during lunch time, when she is treating herself to a tongue sandwich “You won’t see me trying to eat no health food,” she says. She has an opinion on everything. She tells us about the teacher next door, her, car, her husband, and her kids parents. It’s on the subject of the children that Mrs. Minix becomes fierce. To one mother, who says she may not be able to afford lunch for her son, Mrs. Minix says “I told her, ‘if you can afford to get those tacky nails done, and you can afford that cheap-ass weave on your head, then you can buy lunch for your son.” She then tells us the story of a child who is having a birthday on that same day, who has one brother in prison, and another who was shot and killed. He told her he never had a birthday party. So she gives him one. And it’s this love for the kids she teaches, seemingly boundless, that pulls us in. She tells us how former students stop by all the time to tell her hello and see how she is. She has bought them books, clothes, She has even put a couple of them through college. She says all they need to hear is that life is what you make it (she tells a story of interrupting another teacher’s classroom who was trying to tell her students how hard life is). The emotion for me is doubly strong, knowing that it’s based on a real person. Mario manages to pull off one of my favorite feats in the theater—introduce us to a character through comedy that we think we will know and can dismiss as stock, and then show us a huge heart and humanity underneath. It’s one that lights up the stage, and reminds you of the power that one person can have.
I have to say my other favorite comic creation of the night was the Fried Chicken Fairy. Mario does a great bit about auditioning for a TV show, one in which the casting director tells him to be more “urban”, then “a little less Sherman Oaks, a little more Inglewood”, and finally, “more black”. Confused about what this is, he is visited by his fairy Godmother, the Fried Chicken Fairy, a woman dressed in white with a bucket of KFC and a wand, who tells him to bug out his eyes and swivel his neck and he’ll be a star. Brilliant. He comes to realize he is “too black” for the white shows and “too white” for the black shows.
There is a point in here where Mario visits his Grandfather, who tells him how light skinned blacks are more beautiful, which is why he married a light skinned woman and had light-skinned children --“The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, but if it’s too dark, what’s the use?” He tell us a poignant story about not being able to pass like the rest of his family, so he had to ride in the back of the train while his sister rides in front. He ends up holding a white woman’s bag for the entire trip so he can stand in the same coach as his sister. This is set in contrast to Mrs. Minix, who first brings up the “Blacker the berry…” while telling us that she has no use for “piss-colored” light-skinned black men, apologizing for offending Mr. Burrell while she says it. (Please excuse if I mis-quote for any reason—I don’t have a script in front of me and this is from memory). The brilliance here is that we aren’t presented ideas like these for shock, but rather as part of how complex all our attitudes are. Setting this against trying to get a job in the television industry is perfect, as its storytelling is based on easily identified characteristics. Anything that may confuse or challenge is kept to a minimum, so the stories told are all of a piece. I have been thinking lately about a lot of things I see, and feeling like they aren’t stories I want to hear or to tell. I applaud Mario for telling his own, and telling it with such grace that we all can’t help but want to hear it.

Monday, February 14, 2005


I’ve just had a week’s worth of one of the worst colds I’ve ever had. Needless to say, I have not been that up for writing, sitting instead in a fog of head congestion and daytime television. If you ever really want to despair for our culture, just watch a few days of day time television.
I’m not going to go on about our discontents, which seem legion, but rather the lie of self-help. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We’ve been raised in this country to believe we can be anything we want to be. And lately, that has also been being as rich as we want to be (this is perhaps nothing new, but only the baldness of it that is). And I’m thinking this is uniquely American—it’s what makes us great, but also I think is what’s becoming our undoing.
Not only because we are perpetually dissatisfied, but because I wonder if we are all participating in a lie. Maybe anything is possible here, but it’s arrogant to think that this can be a world view.
Americans seem to view the rest of the world’s troubles as a lack of vision, a lack of strength, that we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We can’t even do that in this country. We have people who are getting poorer and poorer as our rich get richer. And everyone is buying books telling them how if they work a little harder they will get what they want—riches, fame, a fabulous life. Is this a lie? Is everyone smart enough to be President (the current yahoo excepted), have business saavy to run a company, talented enough to entertain a stadium of people? Current episodes of American Idol point to "no", and also show the pain when that dream destructs. Certainly not an argument against dreaming, but an incredible testament to people's aptitude for self-deception.
I just saw the most amazing documentary, “Born into Brothels”, about the children born in the red light district of Calcutta. A couple of these children’s lives were changed by the woman who helped them learn photography and get into better schools. But the majority were not allowed to change by their parents, and will end up in the same dismal situation. I just kept thinking of Anthony Robbins and his cronies. Sure, the message sounds great. But aren’t there sometimes external forces that stop us from getting what we want? Is getting what we want even in our best interests? Can everyone be president?
I’m still foggy from this cold, and this is not gelling the way I’d like, but there is something here I will explore—is the American view large enough to hold the world? And is the dissatisfaction of our country an indicator of the direction the world is heading?