Tag Archive: los angeles

  1. Far from Black and White

    Leave a Comment

    When two black women stood up and left in the middle of the first act of “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” Anna Deavere Smith’s fascinating work of documentary theater about the Rodney King race riots, I entertained the possibility that they truly had somewhere to be.

    Then another pair of black women walked out. Most of the audience waited till intermission to escape: At the start of the second act, only five or six people remained in the audience who weren’t obviously associated with the play. The audience wrote their own review, it seems, and they weren’t very kind.

    What went wrong?

    Nine actors portrayed almost 40 characters in a series of loosely connected monologues, directed by Michaela Johnson ’17 and playing tonight at the Underbrook. Each monologue addressed race, violence, identity, family and politics, and each person is introduced by name, occupation and ethnicity. Actors were largely cast against their ethnicity and gender. A black man played a white woman, a white woman played a black woman, a black woman played a Korean man, and so on.

    These casting choices are undeniably distracting. Of course, that is the point: to challenge our expectations of what bodies should play what roles. But it also feels like the wrong point. Isn’t the lesson of 1992 — and of 2015 — that race still overwhelmingly matters? That we need to let people speak for themselves, if we’re to understand their point of view?

    And besides, the accents! White characters sounded like Southerners, or Brooklynites. One Latino character sounded Irish, while another veered into Eastern European mixed with Britishized Indian English. Korean accents were just as variable. I don’t think there’s any way of getting around it: The ethnic accents will be offensive to most people’s taste.

    The brilliant conceit of the original production was that Anna Deavere Smith played all the parts. In the absence of an obvious plot, some of the drama must have resided in watching the virtuosity of Smith’s instantaneous character switches. And besides being a masterful actress, she had intimate knowledge of each character, having personally conducted the interviews that became the basis for the play’s monologues.

    Johnson’s production does not compensate for the plotlessness. The show wanders, then drags. It lasts two and a half hours, and the bizarre second act dissipates whatever momentum the first builds.

    Admittedly, the monologue-interview format is hard to pull off, since it presents the vexed task of sounding off-the-cuff without coming across as aimless. In their attempt to mime spontaneity, the actors wind up talking too fast, and still the monologues often fail to hold attention, or they hold it for the wrong reasons.

    The cast is talented, and enthusiastically took up on the unenviable job of constantly switching roles. But too many characterizations were off-base or half-baked. Hershel Holiday ’18 provided a galvanizing bit of comic relief as Elaine Young, but at the price of turning a complex character into a ditz. Maxine Dillon ’17, too, is a compelling performer, but spoke each character’s lines in the same register. I was especially dismayed to watch Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a great orator, played like a narcotized Mariah Carey, breathy and incoherent.

    Sensitive subjects shouldn’t be avoided in theater at Yale. Race still forms a deep and contentious rift in American life, and it’s admirable for this group of students to have confronted it. But to the extent that theater seeks to bring people together in conversation, it shouldn’t alienate people to the point of walking out. Johnson, in an email, wrote of the play that “in light of the atrocities of the past year, our team believes it is urgent.” She put on an earnest, bold, deeply flawed play — which seems far more worthwhile than shying away from the challenge altogether.

  2. Fallen Angel

    Leave a Comment

    “Angels” begins promisingly.

    A tableau of partiers frozen in red light … a white-winged angel dancing drunkenly around them … an interlude of Los Angeles radio DJ banter as the lights go up on a funny exchange between a pair named Calvin and Helen.

    It’s a charmingly surreal opening, and squarely within the realm of what might be expected from a play whose self-description talks of “the intersection between fantasy and reality.” It’s a shame, too, because the angel conceit turns out to be relatively minor and impossibly stupid. Which brings us to the rest of the play.

    Calvin is an LA native. Helen is from Spartanburg, South Carolina. They’ve met at Santa Monica College pre-orientation, and he’s enticed her to dip into his lifestyle of relentless oceanside partying before summer is over. One by one, his private-school friends wake up, and impart bits of information. For example, they like summer. (I know because one of them yelled “God bless summer!” to cheers of affirmation.) Furthermore, they all start college tomorrow. (I learned that when one of them said, “We all start college tomorrow.”)

    Shaun, Harry, BB, and Pierce — Calvin’s crew — are very hungover, as BB reveals by exclaiming, “Holy worst hangover ever!” Pierce is the de facto chieftain: He wakes with his head in a traffic cone, from which he extracts a bag of weed before climbing a picnic table and unleashing a torrent of stoner wisecracks and wisdom. It’s 10 a.m., and everyone opens a beer. The party is back on!

    Helen is our avatar as she quizzes the Californians on the logistics of their beach-bum lifestyle and gawks in horror at each reply. She wears a perturbed look during the entire play, but then, most of the actors’ faces seem stuck in one expression.

    Draped in an uninspired mixture of neon, Vans, Hawaiian shirts, floral print, plaid cargo pants, aviators, and flat brim hats, our protagonists (we eventually learn) are entertainment executives’ kids who have uniformly decided to cling to LA for another four years — except for Ivy League Harry.  Predictably, they employ the word “like,” to, like, not-so-great effect. Less predictably, they use phrases like “Jesus tap dancing Christ” and say “boink” to designate the carnal act.

    When it comes time to clarify Pierce’s hazy backstory, a lifeguard appears onstage to divert the slacker-king while the friends solemnly recount the legend to Helen. Pierce, actually two years ahead of the others, was a star football player with national-league potential who mysteriously quit the sport at the peak of his success. A tangle of subplots explains his current status: a charismatic, perennially inebriated beach-dweller lionized by a rotating gang of high schoolers. Otis Blum ’15, who wrote the play, is competent as Pierce but commands no gravitas.

    The storyline soon threatens to break down into clichés — first up, sex! BB and Harry flirt hard in a stereotypically hot-girl-and-nerd-finally-getting-together type of way. His impending departure for The Ivy League dooms their romance, but she spends the interim passionately asking questions like “Do you think you’ll ever smoke weed?”

    Helen, for her part, abandons Calvin for a fling with Pierce but has to compete with ex-girlfriend Emily, who, whatever her reasons for intermittently popping up at Pierce’s hobo dominion, is a bright spot of subtle acting.

    Next up, violence! Somewhere in the two-and-a-half-hour play, we are made privy to the distressing disappearance of 14-year-old Stella Mallick from last night’s rager. Her older brother thinks Pierce is guilty, and so they fight. (Let’s all try to forget the two men staggering about, yelling “Stella! Stella! I want my baby down here”).

    The band of partiers is likeable and energetic. That much should be said. But BB’s manic laughter, Harry’s choice to downplay all his important lines, the general bungling of key pieces of dialogue, and the unpleasant sense that actors are lapsing into improvisation will likely test audiences’ patience.

    “Angels” should be credited with having a plot, momentum, and some dramatic tension. Looking back, I feel some fondness for the characters, if only because I was in their shoes about 24 weeks ago. But the final point that must be driven home is that a minority of lines failed to induce a cringe or grimace.

    Soliloquies about Los Angeles contain epigrammatic nuggets like “No one’s actually from LA. We’re all tourists.” One-liners pack as little punch as “He didn’t die. He was just moderately displaced.” After being compared to trash by his opponent, Pierce challenges him to a fight with the retort, “Bring your rubber gloves and a trash bag. I am trash, and just like trash, I can’t be gotten rid of.” Vouching for the epicness of a party, one guy says, “The girls wear pretty much nothing but the scantiest of outfits!” Climactic moments are punctuated with tortured utterances of “What the fuck, dude?”

    To the critic ever on the lookout for an emblematic line, inadvertently an apt commentary on the play itself, one standout was: “Ain’t nobody got time for your theater nonsense.”

    I could go on. A neglect of lighting and sound effects … noxious nods to Tupac Shakur … Ivy League Boy whining about being hit on at a gay bar (after going to a gay bar) … Bechdel Test out the window. “Angels” has an insistent way of not being over.

    Perhaps my favorite moment came during intermission in the form of “City of Angels,” a transcendent ode to the city. If you’re looking for more melancholic mythologizing of youthful excess and urban ennui, go listen to Drake’s new mixtape. If you’re looking for a buddy comedy with something to say about entertainment culture, see “The Interview.” Heck, read “Looking for Alaska,” that cheesy, teeny volume of pseudo-philosophical pulp.

    For those of you who choose to see “Angels:” the show runs through Saturday, Feb. 21st.

    Directed by Max Fischer; produced by Hannah Sachs; with Colin Groundwater as Calvin, William Viederman as Shawn, Lindsay Falkenberg as Helen, Cody Kahoe as Harry, Charles Margossian as Tyler, Logan Kozal as BB, Otis Blum as Pierce, Naima Hebrail Kidjo as Emily, Gia Velasquez as Stella.

  3. Transcontinental Homelessness

    Leave a Comment

    When I got back to New Haven, I was drowsy and bleary-eyed and my head ached. I rubbed my eyelids, and when I looked up, there was Yale. The intermittent naps that I took on my flight and shuttle-ride over had spread a haze over everything. As I got out of the shuttle, I remembered scraps of my day: tabloids, romantic comedies, security, the Band-Aid on my mom’s nose as she hugged me goodbye.

    Now I am in the throes of shopping, sleeping on my plastic mattress and eating cashew clusters in the middle of the night. The sky is pale and the ground is cold, and there’s always the sound of sirens but never of the airplanes back home. I’m starting to feel the brief pangs of agoraphobia that come with walking into a dining hall at six o’clock.

    Yet this has been by far the most seamless transition I’ve made from going home to coming back during my time at Yale, despite the dramatic change of scenery.

    There used to be something terrible in the prospect of moving. Moving meant swept floors, sweaty foreheads, boxing up my belongings and feeling those half-comforting waves of nostalgia. My mom cried when she sent me away freshman year. The following May, I cried when I had to move out of Farnam Hall. I hated that Ikea lamps had to be thrown out, I hated the beat-up couches on Old Campus and the people rummaging through piles of discarded clothing.

    Now, these motions and emotions have become routine. The jolt of displacement is still there, but it’s no longer new. What’s new is the complacency I feel towards the jarring nature of change. More and more I feel that I am leading two separate lives, one at home and one at school. My life at home consists of baking cookies with my brother and fighting with him, gossiping and laughing with my sister, watching movies with my parents. I kvetch. I yell and I call names and I storm out of rooms.

    I don’t do that here. The stakes are too high for me to unleash sincere anger on my friends — there’s the risk they’d drop me. I pacify resentments and offenses and desires into small hints, perpetual OK-ness. And what am I to do without the arguments and reconciliations, the hurt and unconditional love that lend a clearly defined rhythm to life at home? There’s only an unpatterned mass of days, the flux of intellectual arguments and hangouts and parties. I brew in new ideas and desires and become absorbed inevitably into the Yale bubble. I try to puncture it with phone calls to my brother and Skype calls to old friends; the bubble re-forms.

    The best I can hope for is to find some meaning in the blur of rain and meals and books here. Some community forms, fluid no doubt, replenished and emptied by a quarter each year. That counts for something, I guess. I switch rooms and roommates, seniors graduate and strangers live in my old dorm, but I’ve still got my friends and Harkness Tower.

    A professor of mine freshman year quoted someone who said we live in an age of “transcendental homelessness.” I didn’t know quite what that meant at the time, but I feel its meaning now. I jet from home to home and it is still unclear which is which. I wake up in the middle of the night, think I’m back in LA and let out a sigh of fear mixed with relief; I look at the window grille and know I am here.

  4. Burnt Siena

    Leave a Comment

    Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted his fresco of “Good Government” in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico 700 years ago. Workers run scythes over the hills outside the city walls. Orange shingles rise and fall like dust swirling in the wind. Burnt sienna roofs cut into green Tuscan hills that roll into farmland, vineyards and wineries. Lorenzetti’s landscape looks like the Siena of today. The same green hills swell into purple mountains in the distance. The cobblestone walls still snake around a city of convoluted alleyways.

    I never figured out the streets. One main thoroughfare leads you through the city but to get to the monuments takes extra effort. You can’t just see a building, decide you want to go there and walk towards it. You’ll get lost in serpentine trails of cobblestone that will break the soles of your shoes and you’ll wind up going back the way you came.

    The stones are immobile. Nothing grows or decays. The water flows from aqueducts built centuries ago. The feeling of your historical insignificance hovers over you when you look at Siena from a rooftop. Old palazzos, old belfries, old air. You imagine that a thousand years ago the air was just as dry, the mountains just as purple, the cobblestones just as unyielding. It’s not the kind of age I’m used to. It’s the weight of centuries, of ancient human bodies being buried under green hills and rotting and turning to soil raked by the scythes of their descendants. It’s the weight of a plague that killed half the city in the Middle Ages and a war that scarred its people seventy years ago.

    I couldn’t grasp this historical heaviness. I didn’t matter to Siena. Its streets could have swallowed me up and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

    But the people of Siena have made some difference. The city has headed somewhere since its founding, even if it’s unclear just where. When you talk to today’s locals, they will tell you how something like the Palio evolved to its present form. The Palio, a race held every year in the public square, dates back to the 1200s, when citizens raced their haltered cows across a grassy field. Now it’s horses that gallop around cobblestone streets matted with a layer of dirt. It took 800 years of citizens to make that change from cow to horse, grass to dirt. They counted for something.


    The 118 Freeway in Los Angeles is a rich historical monument, but not for the same reasons. An outsider will find nothing in it. To him it is just a freeway, wider than most, rutted in parts. But when I drive along the 118, I discover a collection of selves: There is me when I am five in a booster seat; when I am twelve; when I am eighteen and have my own car. My memories have turned the 118 into something more than just a freeway. When I take the curved overpass and see the San Fernando Valley sprawled out before me, I feel I matter in some way. Who else would be there at that moment to see the tract homes bathed in smog? Sometimes I think that without me the 118’s leaden gray layers would dissolve into the air, stripped of any purpose.

    In the absence of a historical narrative, you matter immensely. You carve out your own biographical space in a city where nothing happens. There are no military victories to celebrate or great churches to help bridge the gap between now and before. Instead, there are freeways and trees, parked cars and fences. They compose my history. I could tell you about the time I trespassed onto the Knollwood Country Club Golf Course by myself and ran in the sprinklers and felt more alone than I’ve ever felt since. I could show you the bend in Pineridge Street that leads you away from the setting sun and back to it. But I couldn’t tell you the history of my neighborhood of Granada Hills. There is only the history of myself. There is neither urgency nor inevitability to any of it. It has no epochal sweep. This history depends on whether I decide to write my name in wet cement, or pull leaves off a hedge.


    In Granada Hills, you can sometimes smell a metallic odor. The collective trash of Los Angeles putrefies in the Sunshine Canyon Landfill and the odor wafts down to the people in the valley below. If it’s really bad, you can call a professional smeller who comes to your street to record the smell. “Smells like the dump all right,” he says. He takes down some notes and leaves. They say there’s going to be a class action suit and all those notes will matter to someone.

    The waste will never be put to good use. It won’t be buried underground or made into fertilizer. The people of the San Fernando Valley probably can’t even make money off a lawsuit. There is only an enormous landfill situated atop a hill and its passing odor.

    We have not built any burnt sienna churches or painted any grand frescos. Buildings crop up out of nowhere and get torn down again without explanation. The recurring wildfires lose their terrifying power to destroy a city’s history when there is no history to destroy.

    When you drive along the 118 at 80 miles per hour, you feel light as air. You’re the only person living, the only person driving this way. You are racing the other drivers to the edge of the freeway, to the ocean. You get out of your car and face away from the waves breaking against the shore. The water recedes, the foam dissolves. The sand drips away and only your feet remain, planted on the beach as long as you can hold them there. The sand yields to the shape of your feet, yours alone, and leaves an impression. The water washes over and it disappears.

  5. Real States

    Leave a Comment

    My first motive in writing this review of “Still Life: 1970s Photorealism” — to say “Go, go see this” — is accomplished in few words. The second motive — to say, “This is what I saw” — takes a couple hundred more. Today I recorded the things I saw speaking into my iPhone. This review is the direct transcription of that Voice Memo, with some edits made for clarity and brevity. 

    The walls are orange. And there is a man sitting in the corner with newspapers and a beer. He is hanging out after a long day of work. Or maybe this is his work. Next to him the headline of the sports magazine reads: “More Bad Luck.” It’s a copy of the New Haven Register. One wonders if an actual New Haven newspaper was part of Duane Hanson’s original sculpture installation.

    “It’s Open” reads the poster above the Louisiana Superdome and immediately, from the effects of lights shining on other lights, I think, “This is real.” It really does look like a photograph until I see the Kentucky Fried Chicken scene, whose outlined letters are too sketched and nervous to be real, although that blurring sketchy quality was probably a real property of the original light that just appears fake here. This painting, Noel Mahaffey’s “Louisiana Superdome — Times Square” (1977), makes for a different greeting than the seated man but an equally strong opening impression. And it also immediately raises what seems to be one of the tacit questions of the show (besides the unanswerable question, “What is realism?”) which is: When pursuing this fidelity to the photographic style, why does the artist choose to break from it?

    The opening hallway’s drawings and paintings announce some of the problems staged by photorealism. There’s something mechanical, Teutonic and draftman-like in some of the paintings collected from the Documenta 5 exhibition of 1972. These works appear more as exercises than as finished pieces and as I say this, I see that that guy sitting in the chair with his beer is still watching me.

    My favorite painting in the show is probably of the tangerines, called “Tangerine Sugar” by Ben Schonzeit. You can see the luscious flesh of the tangerine almost bursting into Rorschach abstraction yet still remaining a most real, chaotic, juicy, membranous offering. It is dripping with some solidity, but it also seems as though it could float away into ephemeral dots of its own pastel at any moment.

    In contrast to the lively colors of that tangerine, there are the fruits of John Clem Clarke. He paints a quince (which I’ve been told is a type of pear), a melon and a cucumber. And his weirdly dark arrangement recalls those Spanish still-life paintings by Zurbaran or kitchen life paintings from the 16th and 17th century.

    The Chuck Close portrait is also amazing because it is sad. In its attempt to capture everything perfectly, there is something tragic about the fact that the attempt might always be a failure.

    There’s a cool Richter at the show as well — “Portrait of Holger Friedrich” — where Richter’s characteristic blur shows the photograph as a process, as a moment in time, as a shake of the hand over a negative in the studio. It reminds me of when a painter chooses to show his brushstrokes, or paint his own hand, painting. And the exactitude of his blurring seems even harder to “get right” than simple clarity would be.

    Why a show about photorealism? How can we think through Los Angeles, urbanism, New York, automobile culture, with these paintings?

    In one nook, there’s a grouping of cityscape paintings of cars and diners and old homes and streets and small businesses and country Chevrolets that are coming and going and the dust is California, and Sacramento, if you keeping driving, is just around the bend. If you walk around the whole room, it’s like you’re driving up to Sacramento getting all of these sights and snapshots of all the things you see from the car for a second and then remember and then forget soon thereafter. This car-ride effect is the most successful curatorial choice in the show.

    On the flipside, Duane Hanson’s “Drug Addict” is the worst-placed object in the show. It used to be placed downstairs on the first floor of the YUAG around a corner, and you used to just turn around and walk into it and that was very surprising. Here he seems denied the agency of surprise. Still, the pain and the shock and the reality of his pain are probably somehow better amplified by the white walls of this museum space than on the street, as just another object.

    The last painting I want to talk about is the gigantic face of “Giummo” by Ben Schonzeit, who also painted the tangerines. Giummo is a guy who looks like an aging rock star with black curly hair and big aviator glasses for reading. You can see the black stubble on his beard, and half his face is cast into shadow — it’s a profile perdu and it’s so sad because he’s looking at us but he’s not looking at us. And his nose is red and burned from too much sun, and his skin feels oily and aged and he’s like plastic or cellophane.

    You want to reach out and touch him, but when you do, you don’t get anything back. And that darkness is obviously enhanced or lost by his mass of hair and he’s looming like the blurry Richter painting of the photo of Holger Friedrich but he isn’t because isn’t he real?