The Black President Comes To the Great White Way Top Broadway Production for 2009

Whether you are walking or driving in Times Square, the gridlock can feel as if you are going to a United Nations Summit.  The electricity from the flashing lights and projection screens places you are on another planet, but when you walk into the Eugene O’Neil Theater you are transported into time. 

After passing through the doors you are no longer in modern day New York City, you are whisked to Lagos, Nigeria.  Pictures of black leaders adorn the walls colored in rainbow hues.  The espiritu of the Orishas openly gather like spectators at a coming out party.   It is the time of bell bottoms and dashikis and on the continent of Africa Afrobeat is being brought to the masses.  Who is pied piper you ask, the black president of course, not Barack, but Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

On Broadway the spirit and long overlooked legacy of Fela Kuti is being resurrected through Fela! The Musical, courtesy of director Bill T. Jones.  From the opening curtain to the last one, Fela!  The Musical leads the audience through a high energy journey that follows a particular time in Fela’s life.  The musical takes place in the Shrine, Fela’s famous club in Lagos.   It may his final performance, as he is contemplating leaving Nigeria six months after the brutal murder of his mother, played by Lillias White, by the hands of government soldiers.  His existential crisis is explored through the number “Trouble Sleep.”

Like the actual performances held at the Shrine, Fela, brilliantly portrayed by Sahr Ngaujah, interacts with the audience through his music, testimonials to the corruption in Nigeria and storytelling.  The play tells the story of how Fela came to be the originator of Afrobeat, focusing on his influences like the Yoruba religion and artists like James Brown and John Coltrane.  It takes the audience back to Fela’s friendship with Sandra Isadore, played by Saycon Sengbloh, a relationship that spawned Fela’s awareness of self.  This awareness was brought to life in the number “Upside Down.” 

Fela began to reflect this awareness in his music and took it back with him to Nigeria from abroad and it is of course Fela’s music that is the highlight of this production.  For the majority of the people Fela! The Musical will be their first introduction to Fela’s music, but for me this musical is a homecoming.  As a devout househead, Fela is one of our high priests; his music is extremely influential to our community and music. 

My feet were moving to Fela’s feverish horns, African rhythms and powerful lyrics way before I knew about the man and the sacrifices he made for his beliefs.   At times it was torture to remain seated while watching numbers like “Zombie”, “Expensive Shit”, “I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)”, “Yellow Fever” and “Water No Get Enemy”, some of my favorite Fela tunes.  I wanted to get up with the rest of the cast, gyrate and move my feet in praise of the black president.

The choreography was magnificent with footwork; pelvis grinding and aerial moves that remind me of the incensed lit, baby powered dance floors I spin on and dance circles I revolve in.  In fact, everything about the musical feels authentic.  The use of multimedia helps to guide the audience deeper into Fela’s world.  Sahr Ngaujah is perfect as Fela Kuti.  Sometimes I thought he was Fela; the extensive research he did for the role paid off.  He delivers a performance that is worthy of a Tony nomination and win. 

The most powerful point in the play is the recreation of the raid on Fela’s compound.  “The Storming of Kalakuta” was one of the most compelling dramatizations I have seen on stage.  The impact of the barbarous acts committed on that day was not lost on the audience although the scene was not visually graphic, yet the visions were still seared into your mind anyway.  Fela! The Musical is a tour de force in American musical theater, long live Fela Anikulapo Kuti. 

Video courtesy of FelaonBroadway.com

From Harlem to Off Broadway Top off Broadway Production for 2009

Women had The Vagina Monologues; thanks to Jim Jones hip hop heads have their own soliloquies.  Hip Hop Monologues: Inside the Life & Mind of Jim Jones first debuted off Broadway in 2008 and had a brief revival in March.  It was a theatrical listening party of sorts as it featured singles from his album Pray IV Reign.  The play appears to be an autobiographical account about Jim Jones.  Playing himself, Jim Jones returns to Harlem to take the audience through different sequences of his life –relationships with his baby’s mom, fake friends, the police and himself are all examined.  Ultimately Jim has to decide if he should give his street life.

Director J. Kyle Manzay makes great use of the stage blending props and multimedia to give the audience the ultimate Harlem experience.  When I think of Harlem, I think of a place where cats are always on the move, even when they are sleeping they are looking for ways to make moves.  Hip Hop Monologues: Inside the Life & Mind of Jim Jones moved and Harlem shook from beginning to end.  It is a cleverly crafted showcase of an artist who is definitely on my top ten best rapper list.  My sincere hope is that more productions like it will be debuting in the decade to come.

History of Violence Top Live Art Installation for 2009

Violence is almost as American an activity as baseball.  This country was liberated by war; our forefathers were nothing more than wig wearing rebel rousers.  This fact, I’m sure, was not lost on British artist Russell Young when he first envisioned A History of Violence

In March, Bagatelle teamed up with Keszler Gallery to present a private viewing of the exhibit.  Young’s work added a sassy energy to the romantic French bistro.  The dimly lit chandeliers and track lighting glimmering off the freshly painted silk screens gave the restaurant sex appeal.  It was a delight to sip wine and watch Russell create right before our eyes.

Before the art world beckoned, Russell past incarnations included celebrity photography and directing music videos.  A History of Violence examines the connection this country has to violence through iconic imagery and eye popping color.  I’m sure Russell’s background in photography aided in his selections of photos, which were stunning and told individual stories that help to contribute to the entire visual narrative.

Don't talk to me about heroes, most of these men smoke cocaine. 2006 Screen print on canvas

Hollywood has always had a fascination with the Wild West; in fact movies depicting boisterous stories from that time help to save Hollywood and television.  Shows like Wagon Training, The Rifleman and Maverick taught generations of kids about the rough frontier existence, morality and how violence is sometimes a necessary part of living.  No movie sums these lessons up better than The Magnificent Seven.  The movie was just as majestic as the soundtrack.  To see Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and company astride their steeds, ready to save the day, all in pink plays with the ideas of masculinity, vigilantism and heroism. 

Marlon Brando "Oh that boy's a slag" 2007 Acrylic and enamel screen print on linen

What makes bad boys so appealing?  It is a question that has perplexed parents and their daughters since the beginning of time.  Russell chose one of the ultimate bad boys to make his statement about the allure of a man who lives outside of the law, makes his own rules and still has a heart –Marlon Brando in The Wild One.  Painted boldly in red, Brando in his biker gear and looking defiant as ever in dark shades shows exactly why the bad boy is so tantalizing – there is nothing more intoxicating than the idea of a man being able to protect a woman from peril and no one messes with a bad boy.

Beauty, at times can be tragic, like a moon plant that dies in the face of dawn.  The photo of Marilyn Monroe trying to shield her face as she suffers is the epitome of tragic, fragile beauty.  This photo shows that sometimes the violence can come from within and is inflicted on ourselves.

The most compelling installation completed that night was of a gun cataloged by police.  By sight it is an ordinary handgun until the audience learned that it is a photo of the gun that killed John Lennon.  Instead of paint, Russell uses blood. 

Mouths hung as Russell smeared the blood on the silk screen.  The silence in the room while he is creating the piece was beyond creepy as we all came face to face with the mayhem that a violent mind can create.  As we sipped our wine in this trendy restaurant, the idea that violence is a part of our history and our present was never clearer to me.  Safety is only a hope, not a guarantee. 

The Dali Lama stated, “It is my belief that whereas the twentieth century has been a century of war and untold suffering, the twenty-first century should be one of peace and dialogue. As the continued advances in information technology make our world a truly global village, I believe there will come a time when war and armed conflict will be considered an outdated method of settling differences among nations.”    It is this sentiment that came to mind when I witnessed the canvas of President Obama shimmering in gold paint. 

It is no wonder the photo sold that night, Obama represented hope and change to many around the world, and is the perfect visual representation of historical change.  Art is at its best when it stimulates your senses.  The History of Violence did that and more.

Photos courtesy of KB Network News and http://www.russellyoung.com

All American Creation

“Born in the USA,” would definitely be the phrase used to describe An American Art and Craft Collective, held at Grown and Sewn, located at 184 Duane Street in Tribeca.  Inside this store is a perfect weaving of art and fashion. 

Figures

Bruce Springsteen’s classic song brought attention to the disenfranchised in America in the 1980s – those dealing with the repercussions of the Vietnam War, joblessness and a struggling economy.  In the wake of the Great Recession, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and issues with our environment, there is no greater time to have a merged exhibition like An American Art and Craft Collective, especially since we are on the verge of a new decade.

Purvis Young

An American Art and Craft Collective brings together the works of urban visual griot Purvis Young and the Grown and Sewn collection. Grown and Sewn Dry Goods Collection is an innovative approach to casual fashion.  The collection’s signature product is the “Kax” and takes the best elements from the khaki and jean. 

The Kax is 100% cotton and is washed, baked and finished.  Every aspect of Grown and Sewn is American made down from the cotton used in the clothing to the rivets sewn on the Kaxs.  All the manufacturing of this product is made in the USA, with almost every region of the country contributing to bring Grown and Sewn to the masses.  This clothing line makes a powerful statement toward fixing what ails our society by offering a product that is environmentally friendly and provides jobs to Americans. 

Up in Arms against the System, c. 1987

The work of Purvis Young is provided by Skot Foreman Fine Art.  Purvis is a self-taught artist out of Overtown, Miami, Florida.  In his work he reuses squiggly lines and eyes to display the underbelly of American society, individuals caught in the system of poverty, incarceration and street life.  His pieces are full of rage, passion and reality that shine a spotlight on topics that most people would rather not focus on. 

Angel Baby Crib, c.1991

Purvis used the debris of Overtown, old cribs and pieces of wood, to create a body of work that tells a specific story, a somber story, that is nonetheless part of the American experience.  What is more disturbing to me is the thought that without artists like Purvis Young, this story would not be heard. 

Although I have viewed Purvis’ work before, seeing it in this setting was like witnessing it for the first time.  Purvis’s work is layered in such a way that upon each viewing a new facet is discovered.  The store’s décor also added a special element to his work.  There are huge bales of cotton cleverly placed through out the store; the tables are hand crafted with antique figurines and an old sewing table.  These raw components help to accentuate the coarse quality of Purvis’ work. 

Eyes, c. 1992

An American Art and Craft Collective will be on display until January 15, 2010 and is a marriage about what is best about American culture at a time when America needs it most.  After braving the blistering wind to get to Tribeca, I was electrified by what I saw and warmed with a renewed sense of hope.

Photos of Purvis Young’s artwork courtesy of Skot Forman Fine Art and Purvis Young.com

Stimulating Simulation

Sergey Dikovsky ANSWER (2008) Oil on canvas

December in New York City guarantees three things – hordes of people at Rockefeller Center, a steady drop in the temperature and the occasional cold.  While fears of the H1N1 virus have the whole country in the grips of fear contemplating whether to get a flu shot, I am waging my own battle with the common cold.  Since the topsy-turvy weather and my cold have kept me indoors this week, I unfortunately was unable to go to any galleries, parties or shows.  Then I remembered, thanks to Jessica Porter I have a gallery right at my fingertips.

Jessica Porter

In 2006, Jessica launched Raandesk Gallery with an accompanying live exhibition in Chelsea.   Raandesk Gallery is an alternative to viewing art in a traditional venue allowing anyone with access to the internet the chance to broaden their visual horizons and expose potential art buyers to an experience that is less stodgy than the traditional gallery visit.

Jessica has always dreamed of owning a gallery.  The dream was present when she attended the University of Delaware where she studied Art History and French Language & Literature with the intent of becoming an international corporate curator.  A dwindling market prompted Jessica to become a consultant for an international fine arts shipper.  She also attended at the University of Maryland and received her Juris Doctorate in 2001.   Throughout her various career paths, Jessica never abandoned her original dream and in 2005 she began to turn her dreams into a virtual reality.

Raandesk Gallery currently represents over 30 artists and their work is only a click of a mouse away.  Along with the virtual gallery, Raandesk conducts several live exhibitions in venues throughout the city including Vino Vino and Gallery Bar.  In fact, my first introduction to Raandesk Gallery and Jessica Porter was at Gallery Bar.   From our first meeting I could tell that Jessica is passionate about what she does as well as the artists her gallery represents, which is always a good thing for an artist. 

Laura Salierno MARCH 3:42 PM (2005) C print, shot on 645, 220 Fuji film, printed on Fuji crystal archive paper with a luster finish

ART2Gift, Raandesk Gallery’s latest exhibition, can be found at 16 W. 23rd Street and online.  ART2Gift is a multi-medium marketplace that allows consumers to buy cotemporary art at extremely affordable prices ranging from $35 to $500.  The exhibition will be on display until January 2010.  So if you’re stumped for ideas for Christmas this year, a piece of art might be the way to go.  Whether you are viewing the work in person or online Raandesk Gallery always delivers the opportunity to dive headfirst into the world of contemporary art, stuffy nose and all.

To learn more about Raandesk Gallery, their artists and art rental program please visit www.raandeskgallery.com

Photos courtesy of Raandesk Gallery