Anyah Royale Akanni
Hometown: Chicago (Bronzeville)
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: My perspective as a writer is made unique by my identities as a queer person, a black woman, a masculine female. The lenses that I write from include, but are not limited to, being a recent graduate who values learning and changing, challenging the systems that disenfranchises minorities, bringing empathy to art.
What was your favorite live performance this year and why?: I am a person who is dissuaded by titles like favorite. Favorite implies a side by side comparison. Yet, what makes a live performances great to me, is what makes it distinct as a work of art. With that being said, my favorite live performance this year was His Shadow: A Parable, written by Loy A. Webb and directed by Wardell J. Clark at 16th Street Theater. This play is at the top because of how all the parties involved were able to transform the space, and take us through time to tell a story that has been relevant for the last 400 years; the individual drive to be great, and police/state brutality. The play has only 3 actors and the space is what we call intimate, but the story and its telling encompasses so many stories and so many people. It’s a play that has me, a strict ‘carpe diemist,’ begging for its remount.
What, in your opinion, is the purpose of arts criticism?: As a linguist and lover of language, I looked up definitions to formulate my opinion of arts criticism and its purpose. From definitions of critic, critique, criticism, and critical I got closer to what we may mean by art criticism. Art criticism is an expression of analyzing, interpreting and judging art. In my opinion, the purpose of art criticism is to contextualize the play. The work of contextualizing an art is to bring it in communication with other factors. Art criticism could do this by speaking on the meaning of the art, or the artistry, or the audience. The purpose being that the readers of art criticism have a foundation for understanding the art.
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
When we speak about the American experience do we speak of hope? We certainly speak critically of the past, its pitfalls and its triumphs, questioningly of the present, and often, greatly for the future. Maybe because it’s easier to pull out truths from the past. It feels a bit more distant. Where we can gain perspective and move forward, to build the grounds for hope.
Teatro Vista, a theater company dedicated to producing stories and centering voices exploring the perspective of the Latinx community presents Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy written by Evelina Fernández which brings these legacies and stories into the light. Based in the Den theater’s Bookend space, The play unfolds the story of a Mexican-American family of 6, named Morales, making sense of the turmoil of the 60s in America. It is headed by the matriarch Elena (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who is battling her loyalty to her family, and thus complacency with her husband’s infidelity. Her husband, Charlie (Eddie Martinez), born of a deported father and struggling mother, made the promise of marriage and family young, a promise he now struggles to keep. The boys older brother Johnny (Nick Mayes) and younger brother Bobby (Joaquin Rodarte), are accurate in their portrayal as attractive, conceited, and father-loving on one hand, and awkward, sensitive, and father-fearing on the other. Yet they often seemed static next to their dynamic counterparts, the Morales sisters— the truth-telling realist and eldest sister Gina (Ayssette Munoz), and her romantic dreamer of a younger sister Betty (Janyce Caraballo).
Playwright Evelina Fernández layers the characters’ stories in Hope amid the Cuban missile crisis. Directors Ricardo Gutierrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce through their sharp visions heightened the retellings through the lens of a sitcom, dancing from scene to scene. With its playful direction and the addition of rock music, the very real grimness of the world is highly contrasted with a Brady Bunch type joviality, crafted by the lighting and projections of Joe Burke. Jose Manuel Diaz Soto, as well, makes interesting use of the depth of the space- A home whose layers move backwards from us like adding books to a shelf, effectively putting the most valuable rooms of the daughters at the forefront, and the parents’ room distant but not hidden.
Though the story tackled many topics, the more complicated ventures being the Mexican-American identity, diplomacy, war, deportation, as well as fractured family structures, mental illness and coming of age. I walked out of the show feeling like a part of it was inaccessible. As if, the truth of the Mexican-American experience is one you only get if you are. The motion of the actors, the vibrant gestures and deep love is made distant when layered behind the telling of the “American story.”
Maybe that is what this play is about. Acknowledging the tension that America has on Mexican and other Latinx communities living here now. The play contains a simplistic American-friendly story that might appeal to the masses, but the playwright refuses to let their story be limited by our perspective. Adding in layers of Mexican-American identity which defies the simple story that might be more accessible to mass audiences. What is gained by making this layered story where the Mexican-American identity is kept slightly at a distance is that it keeps it safe from consumption and access by those who do not embody or identify with the experience, which can often be the root of erasure.
Recalling the older latinx man sitting in front of me and how he rejoiced in places I wasn’t intuitively inclined to, I realized maybe Hope was about seeing the play through the layer most accessible to you. Maybe in Hope everyone saw what they could. For me, Hope embodied complexities that we would rather distance ourselves from like childhood traumas and how they lead to broken families; a reminder that in the time of Scorpio moon, the simplest thing might be the most inaccessible if not without the complexities.
The Brother’s Size, directed by Monty Cole, gives the audience a view into black masculinity like looking at the inside of a geode. Though masculinity is typically portrayed as being at odds with vulnerability and sensuality, the beauty of this play lies in bringing exposure to the softer relationships between the men. Brought to life by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, Oshoosi (Patrick Agada), Ogun (Manny Buckley), and Elegba (Rashaad Hall) skillfully showcase through friendship and brotherhood a nuanced view of masculinity, which allows the audience an insight that feels both vulnerable and private.
Cole, in his direction, highlights the softness of the pain of brotherhood through oral storytelling and music. Truthfully portrayed by Agada, we follow Oshoosi who embodies the feeling of the younger brother, someone who needs to be protected. As a formerly incarcerated man, he struggles with what it means to be free in a world that must ‘let’ him be free. Though Oshoosi has been let out of jail, the feeling that he has served his punishment and is now free has not set in as the prospect of prison or fruitless work looms over him. As he explores this freedom, the need to protect him grows stronger in his older brother Ogun (Buckley), and his friend Elegba (Hall).
Alongside the beautifully written words by McCraney, cohesion between the design elements allows the juxtaposition of hard and soft to run steady throughout the play like the drum in the opening number, choreographed by Breon Arzell . Yu Shibagaki, scenic designer, balances hardness and exposure. The shredded tire landscape that makes the ground along with sturdier shovels and tires give the set a feeling of being dense and solid. Yet the simplicity of the back wall heightens the sense of vulnerability through its exposure. The audience gets to see what we typically do not see. This exposed wall makes a perfect canvas for projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson to showcase a tight view of the actors that highlights closeness and cinematic intimacy.
In this raw view of the tenderness between brothers, the audience is left yearning for black boy joy.