Age: Old enough to know better than to answer this question sincerely 🙂
Hometown: Houston, TX.
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: First-Generation. A daughter. Former organizer.
What was your favorite live performance this year and why?: Self Accusation at Theatre Y- I completely misunderstood the play, but the visuals moved me to my core, and it was essentially theatrical.
What is the purpose of arts criticism?: Most art, in America, particularly theatre is seen as “high culture.” The role of arts criticism should be bold in asserting that there is no such thing as “high” and “low.” There is no art or show that someone should be scared of witnessing for fear of “not getting it.” The point of arts criticism isn’t to “solve” the art form or completely deconstruct the art form so that the reader has no “work” to do. Instead, arts criticism should be a primer for potential art consumers while situating itself firmly in the history of the art form.
Critics should be “historians” or at least familiar with the lineage of the art which they criticize while still keeping it current for those who may not have all that knowledge.
Reviews (Most Recent First)
Having opened on Halloween in Raven Theatre’s more intimate Schwartz space, I was expecting there to be more Hoodoo, more magic in Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love, directed by Wardell Julius Clark. Though the Hoodoo is lacking, there is enough love in the play to keep you settled throughout its almost two hour and a half long run.
Hall, known for being the first black woman to win an Olivier Award for Best New Play, is a playwright who writes for space. Each of her plays is located in very specific locations, and it is the location that catalyzes the drama. Memphis is a character just as much as the people on stage and scenic designer, Sydnee Lynne Thomas, renders an apt rendition of the rural countryside. The choice to show Toulou’s bedroom while never seeing the interiority of Candylady’s dwelling alludes to the types of transparency afforded to the women and highlights a chasm that plays out at the climax of the play. I especially enjoyed the choice to have the clothesline link the homes of the two women. Each home had a screen door which is appropriate to the setting although in pivotal moments the sound of the doors tended to deplete the tension.
What kept me enthralled throughout the entire performance was Shariba Rivers’ Candylady. From the moment she stepped on change, the mood changed and we were swept in by her bawdy musings about life, relationships, and love. With clear control of the words Hall had written, every sentence sounded right. Martasia Jones (Toulou) shined when paired with Rivers as a scene partner and their chemistry illuminated the stage in the closing scene of Act 1. It is when Toulou and Candylady are sharing space with each other and even doing magic together that the bonds that bring them together feel bombastically palpable, yet somberly ephemeral.
Having seen Matthew James Elam earlier this year in Victory Gardens’ Pipeline, I was impressed by his ability to inhabit the arrogant lothario of Ace of Spades in those moments when they came, and I’m sure as the run continues the consistency will follow suit. Toulou’s brother, Jib, is played convincingly by Christopher Wayland Jones, as he performs the role of the rhetorically righteous yet behaviorally bankrupt brother though at times, the acting could be a bit overwrought. The uneven acting becomes blatant when it came to two card playing moments in the show where the tension of the words was not married to the stage action, a challenging script quirk in a play that emphasizes the game of spades so much.
While the stereotype of the lothario artist and the unethical religious figure is a very visible trope in theatre dramas, the women in the play are far more than stereotypes and it is through Toulou’s and Candylady’s relationship that the heart of this play pumps the hardest and the loudest.
Hoodoo Love is running at Raven until December 15.
Multimedia: Looking Back on the Anti-Hero
In preparation for Netflix’s release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, I decided to rewatch the series I loved so much when I was a teenager. In 2010, Netflix released the first three seasons onto its burgeoning platform. Thirteen at the time and wanting to be a part of “high culture,” I was quick to binge the series. The show was being heralded by many television critics as one of the best shows of that year and was repeatedly being referred to as the best show not being watched. Critics were raving, so I followed the experts.
When Breaking Bad was airing, it was hard to escape the personification of Walter White as an anti-hero: the word critics used to describe a white man with nebulous ethics, involved in shady (albeit) criminal activity. The anti-hero felt like it was everywhere in the early 2010s. I accepted the anti-hero label without thought when I was younger. As I was rewatching the series now, I couldn’t help thinking why the word anti-hero had been used to describe this character when it was so clear to me that Walter White was a straight-up villain.
I wonder what this word anti-hero allowed in criticism and how the shadows of that word linger in criticism, but also, in the state of the media journalism today where bad is never called bad, but is frequently spoken around. For years, villains – not anti-heroes – dominated the television landscape. A certain part of the population learned to understand them, see the nuances of their behavior, make rationalizations (i.e excuses) for their harmful behavior, and justified their violence through character psychology. How did this use of the word “hero” affect the ways in which we talked about these men and their actions?
If TV critics engaged with Walter White as a villain rather than an anti-hero, I wonder what the language around discussing bad behavior and evil characters could have created for the future (now my present). I wonder what linking the word hero to morally bankrupt men permits in current depictions of white men in fiction as well as how they are discussed in the media. Using anti-hero instead of villain, or protagonist, or even antagonist, or any word that wasn’t linked to “hero”, these criticisms reconciled and validated the destructive choices these men made, by attributing it to a complex and nuanced character profile. Conversely, this complexity and approach to nuance was barely afforded to the victims in their lives, particularly their wives. Walter White murdered and verbally abused his business partner Jesse White incessantly, yet it is his wife, Skylar, who drew the most ire from fans.
When I was thirteen, I learned to comprehend and make sense of bad men. In conceiving of them as anti-heroes, it affirmed the bad guy as holding more complexity and nuance than the good guy ever could. The anti-hero becomes connected to the world of hero without ever having to become a hero or exhibit any type of heroism. Instead the prefix “anti-” allowed for a type of bridging over with hero where the true significance of the character came from how the anti-hero deviated from heroism. The anti-hero was allowed to live out their own set of ethics and justice without being tethered to the concept of “good” like a true hero. To be fair, Breaking Bad deviated from this tradition and encouraged a binary approach to good vs. bad thinking since moral behavior underlined the plot action in the show.
Calling Walter White a bad man should not have been a hard task. “Bad” was in the name of the show. Breaking Bad literally alludes to Walter’s journey of becoming bad or…Breaking Bad. While the point at which Walter “broke bad,” is highly debated by fans, it is understood that Walter White became bad. A bad hero is simply a villain. Therefore, the show became a villain’s journey, yet unfortunately, I don’t think the show’s direction ever allowed Walt to be a villain. Rather it held him suspended in the land of the anti-hero which is made so clear in how the show ends its six season. Spoiler Alert: The ending highlights a man who dies surrounded by the source of his power while in the last days of his life rather than showcasing a villain who dies in the basement of a white supremacist meth lab. The end serves as an ode to Walt’s journey rather than an indictment.
On my first watch, I loved the hero’s ending. On the second watch, I was craving the indictment. I wished for Walt a heavier, more unforgiving indictment of what his choice of business brought onto his family and those who have been caught in the cross fires of his greed and ego. For some, the inability to indict Walt is not enough to think poorly on a show since its direction and cinematography, and editing, and design, and writing were so impeccable, and the show as a whole has helped shape modern television. In its technical greatness, Breaking Bad helped propel television from entertainment to the sphere of art. However, it was not just the show that was elevated, so was its main character: the anti-hero. Bad men were postured as subjects of art to be studied and placed on a pedestal of understanding and compassion. You didn’t have to like them, but if bad men were complex, then they were worth comprehension, while their victims remained casualties of what must first be understood.
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
As part of the 3rd Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, Teatro Vista presents Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy, co-directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Ricardo Gutiérrez. The Bookspan of Den Theatre is transformed in to a late 50s/early 60s starter home flanked by brown- not white- wooden fences. The visual aesthetic of the set and costuming grounded me in the world of the play. José Manuel Díaz-Soto, the set designer, alongside the costume designer, Sanja Manakoski, succeed in realizing the patterns and color palette of the time period. The long rockabilly skirts and button-down blouses worn by the youthful and on-trend Betty, played by Janyce Caraballo, contrasts starkly with the hip-hugging capris and polo blouses worn by the headstrong eldest sister, Gina (Ayssette Muñoz). Even the mother, Elena’s (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) outfits with her collared suburbia dresses are thoughtful choices meant to highlight the values and ideals of the women of the Morales family.
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy by Evelina Fernández tells the story of the stalwart housewife with the philandering husband trying to hold her family together for the sake of her children. It is, also, the story of Gina, the eldest daughter, disappointed by her mother who refuses to leave the philandering and abusive husband as she repeatedly declares that she will live a life unlike her mother. This is, also, the story of the youngest daughter Betty who comes of age through finally accepting reality rather than filling her mind with fantasies of her childhood crush, John F. Kennedy. The characters disrupt action to sing standard early 60s pop songs, but it’s not a musical. Though each woman gets her own arc, it is difficult to track the thematic stakes of events especially when all their drama is played out through the men in their lives.
Gina berates Betty and chastises Elena. Betty is implicitly understood as a daddy’s girl, so she doesn’t get any one-on-one time with her mother. It is through talking and bearing their wishes to the men in their lives that Elena, Betty, and Gina reveal their inner thoughts which wouldn’t be a problem if one of the flimsy thematic threads of the play wasn’t one of both independence and intergenerational understanding and respect among women.
As a result of the underwritten relationships among the characters, many actions that should’ve been more emotionally resonant seemed hollow and unearned. Gina’s dream sequences of talking to John F. Kennedy and then Fidel Castro, the projections of early 60s duck and cover drills, and the vintage political speeches through projections served to make the play feel disjointed rather than cohesive. All these artistic choices were meant to put us in the early 60s, but I found myself wanting that time to be directed towards emotionally investing in the characters.
The Brothers Size
Walking into Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size, directed by Monty Cole, I am struck by the black rubber shreds that swallow the floor of the stage where upon a mound lies a mattress instead of a tomb. Yu Shibagaki’ set instantly transported me into a world I had nothing but curiosity toward, and the subsequent performance in turn satisfied every ounce of intrigue and interest.
McCraney draws on Yoruba mythology and folkloric traditions to tell a story about brothers rooted in the cultural history of a West-African ethnic group. He picks up on one of the most notable relationships within West African cultures which is that dynamic between eldest sibling and those that follow behind. The eldest sibling lays the path for siblings to follow. Ogun Size, played steadily by Manny Buckley, is the eldest son who owns his own car mechanic shop while Oshoosi Size, with a charming performance by Patrick Agada, has recently returned from a stint in jail. How can a business owner and a convict exist within the same family? How can brothers of the same genetic stock experience such drastically different outcomes?
Rather than highlighting their difference, Cole’s production heightens the similarity between the two brothers. In a set that resembles a graveyard more than a workplace, both Ogun and Oshoosi live and work where death permanently looms. Despite death’s presence, Ogun still works and labors. It is how he imposes control and order on his life while Oshoosi floats. It isn’t easy finding work as a formally incarcerated individual. Ogun sees Oshoosi’s unemployment as a lack of discipline rather than a symptom of a criminal justice system that criminalizes long past one serves their time. Ogun, then, takes his responsibility as Oshoosi’s brother to set him straight.
The control that Ogun tries to institute on Oshoosi is so domineering that it resembles the surveillance and control demanded by prison instititutions. The juxtaposition between jail and sibling relationships asks us to think of the ways that in loving our younger siblings we are replicating the systems of surveillance and control created by impersonal and violent institutions that separate families rather than bring them together. When is the love we show our siblings actually a violation of their personal autonomy?
McCraney’s words, bolstered and elevated by Cole’s artistic direction, artistically denounce control, for it is intimacy and vulnerability that must take root for affection and love to grow. No where is the power of such simple undertakings made as legible in the production than in the moments of dreaming and recollection that are beautifully rendered on stage through moving music (Jeffrey Levin), well-designed projections(Rasean Devonte Johnson), and an intriguing set-up where a camera phone on stage is connected to the projector so that we, the audience, can see the action on stage almost as if we’re in a movie.
Though part of the Young Adult series, anybody older should expect to find a production that denies seniority as a prerequisite for wisdom when wisdom is an act of compassion not regulation.