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.
Multimedia: Crazy Rich Asians
Though there are a range of Asian identities in the world, a modifier that seems to have weight in the US’s over generalizations of Asian identities, is that of the ‘crazy rich asian’. Jon M Chu’s film titled Crazy Rich Asians, is a hilarious yet beautifully nuanced film that confronts what that wealth may look like. It was shot in Malaysia and Singapore in exquisite mansions filled with opulent rooms, stately furniture, lavish meals, and the likes of exuberantly wealthy people, known to each other as family.
The structure of romantic comedy serves as a first layer of accessibility to an audience who may not relate as readily. And yet Crazy Rich Asians was able to embody the aspects of a classic rom-com without feeling cliche. This could have been because instead of watching a traditionally white woman be swept off her feet by a traditionally white man, we see the humble and honest love of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding), both impressive as a well-educated Chinese-American woman and a wealthy stylish bachelor from Singapore. Things become tricky for Rachel as the news of her partners’ wealth is revealed during a trip to his family estate in Singapore. There, she is met by his suspicious and judgemental family all the while adjusting to the customs and boundaries confronting her at every turn.
Some themes felt unfamiliar, ranging from extravagance like the wealthy taking helicopter rides like we take ubers, to cultural barriers such as the perils of not returning after studying abroad, or bringing an American girlfriend home. The film was able to engage all audiences by addressing these themes on multiple fronts.
Interestingly, game theory became a plot point in the film. Rachel has to learn how to have the upper hand in the story of her life as well as the competitive game of mahjong she plays with her husband’s mother, the daunting Michelle Yeoh. The film differs from some of its rom com predecessors by giving the women more freedom to be, Michelle’s character is not just cold but analytical and focused. The women in this film are not permitted to dim their light to protect the fragile masculinity of their partners. All of this subtle commentary is topped off with strict comedy, watching Awkwafina, playing Peik Lin, whipping around in her pink Audi equipped with a cocktail dress, a ballroom dress, and a walk-of-shame outfit ready to wear in her front-facing trunk.
The production value was stunning. It brought the quality that we often tie to old money, namely, beauty. The wedding, that frames the context for this trip, which begs to have a more detailed showing, was gorgeous, as the decor resembled that of a lily pond, and the flowers recently thrown by the children in the aisle, floating to the top of a river that slowly filled the aisle which the bride and bridesmaids shortly after waded through. The audience became flowers and glowing bugs as they built a canopy of lights over the pond, sadly interrupted by scenes of the two protagonists confessing their love for each other silently across the room.
The film itself, in addition to its beautiful imagery and engaging plot, served as an underlying examination of the title itself. The term, ‘crazy rich Asians’ seems to have the most weight for the American capitalist and audience member that views these material goods as having value. The title reflects potentially the thoughts of an outsider looking in, rather than how someone inside the story may self identify. Kevin Kwan’s story enables the film’s flaunting of excessive wealth, and it provides a contextual double: the understanding of wealth and family status versus material status— heightening what is being built over what can be bought.
Indicators of wealth and class for these characters are situated in family names, education, and assets, as they all went to Cambridge and Oxford and own large companies and real estate. Conversely, the more gaudy characters spend their excessive wealth on trivial material goods, down to a subtle critique of Peik Lin’s mom as tacky after designing their home after the extravagant Palace of Versailles, or Donald Trump’s bathroom, another dig at the American capitalist. Therefore, Crazy Rich Asians critiques its own stereotypes without inviting ownership of its culture from any other audience. Crazy Rich Asians is a great way to start a conversation about a culture you didn’t know before, and possibly learn something about your own in the process.
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.