The Muse (Art & Culture)

And the Academy Award Goes To…Someone Who Can Actually Accept It

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of last weekend’s Golden Globes and today’s announcement of the Academy Award nominees (among which much to my dismay neither Fruitvale Station nor Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom were included, but I digress) I felt the need to discuss Hollywood’s problems with public speaking.

As I watched the Golden Globes on Sunday, I found myself annoyed by the winners’ continuously subpar acceptance speeches. First, please understand that this is not a post about grammar, eloquence, etiquette, or anything like that. I don’t expect, and I don’t think anyone else expects, for award show speeches to be comparable to The Gettysburg Address. And I don’t really care if the winners dance the jig, trip and fall, or bring fifty people on stage with them. I don’t even really need or expect to be moved or inspired in any particular way. I just ask that if they are going to make an acceptance speech that they actually say something.

As I G-chatted back and forth with my friend on Sunday night as we watched the Golden Globes, the dysfunction and repetitive empty monotony was killing me. “Oh my God, if one more person gets up here and says how shocked they are and how they don’t have anything prepared, I’m going to scream,” I said to myself, to my friend on G-chat, and out loud to  my television.

Whenever I hear someone say how shocked they are to win–except in certain circumstances–I’m immediately doubtful. “Are you really shocked?” I ask myself and the so-called “shocked” winner. Just by virtue of the fact that you were nominated, you knew that there was at least some possibility that you were going to win. No matter how slim you thought your chances of actually winning were, at most award shows, with approximately five nominees per category, there is at least a 20 percent chance that you will win. That means that there is a 20 percent chance that you will have to get on stage and make a speech. You might be incredibly honored, but are you really shocked?

Sure those are not the best odds in the world. But the Golden Globe fairy doesn’t just sneak up behind you in your seat as you’re minding your business, drinking your wine, and watching the show and say, “Surprise! You win! No go talk.”  That is no slim margin. There’s no excuse for not having “anything prepared.” And if you’re Jennifer Lawrence, current Hollywood “it girl,” are you really shocked? I mean, really? I wasn’t–even if you weren’t my first choice.

I understand that some people may think it’s arrogant or presumptuous to prepare anything because they do not actually know whether they are going to win, no matter the margin of possibility. However, unless you are the type of person who can adequately wing it if your name happens to be called, preparation does not undermine humility. False modesty isn’t cute either, especially when it’s followed up by no words. If anything, I think it’s arrogant to assume that the audience and the viewers want to watch 50 people say how shocked and unprepared they are and try to hold their liquor, or whatever else for three hours, no matter how much we like your outfit and especially with no musical or other form of distraction or entertainment (at least in the case of the Golden Globes). In the proverbial words of Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Why not put some thoughts together just in case the odds play out in your favor? Write some names down on a piece of paper. Jot down a little outline: thank God (if that’s your preference), your family, friends, agent/manager/lawyers/business people, cast/crew, the Academy and/or whatever other agency voted for you to win, and the fans. Good night. Feel free to find a nice inspirational quote to stick in there for decoration if you want. Then, walk off stage. Boom.

I also understand that emotions and nerves are involved, so even the person who jots down names on a piece of paper might forget it. All the calm and decorum in the world can go out of the window when that moment hits. Of course, I have never won an award of that magnitude and I cannot predict how I would react in these people’s shoes. Public speaking is one of many people’s biggest fears. I get that. However, I think you can be emotional and still somewhat articulate. Again, by articulate, I don’t mean grammar or eloquence, I mean the ability to convey a logical thought.    At the very least, everyone should not get on stage and say how unprepared they are. Nominees need to work it out amongst themselves before the show and leave the “I’m-so-unprepareds” to a three person minimum.  If worse comes to worse and you win and you don’t know what to say, you’re actors/performers/entertainers: fake it till you make it.

And here’s another solution: if you really don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything. Merritt Wever hit the nail on the head with her Emmy speech when she said, “Thank you so much. I gotta go. Bye.” That’s all it takes. All I’m saying is don’t stand on the stage and have us watch you fumbling and bumbling and  saying “oh my God” over and over again until the music starts playing. That doesn’t take 30 seconds or a minute or however long they give you to speak.

I’ve even thought about the possibility of having an option to waive acceptance speeches. Just as they would have the presenters accept someone’s award on his behalf if he wasn’t present, they should give the winners an option to opt out if acceptance speeches aren’t their thing or if they don’t have anything to say.

No one likes excessive formality, but the laxness of these sorts of presentations has gotten out of hand. As a kid, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time on stages, in the arts, and learning speaking and self-presentation skills. In a choir that I was a part of as a teen, we had this exercise that we had to do called “Say Your Name.” That meant that when it was our turn, we had to “turn our lights on” (smile, stand up straight, etc., not fidget, etc.) and introduce ourselves. Before we could even start singing, we had to learn how to just “be” on stage and in the public eye. So, it bothers me to have to watch people who have actively sought and been given a stage trip all over themselves on it. I know they have communications and public relations people.

Thankfully, the 9th grader who introduced President Obama recently did a much better job than all of the award winners at the Golden Globes, but other young people watching the Golden Globes might not be as skilled. And no, this isn’t just another “celebrities are role models” pitch (because if you read this blog, you already know how I feel about that). This is about the importance of not wasting a platform. No, I don’t believe that everyone has to be a master public speaker or perfectly poised (because I’m not and probably never will be), but I believe that if you have the ability to speak, you have to use it. If you are fortunate enough to be given an opportunity and a platform to speak, you really have to use it. If you have an audience, do something worth watching–even if it isn’t necessarily “unique” or memorable.  A speech is not just a potential award show disaster. It is a real privilege that not everyone has.

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The Muse (Art & Culture)

Make Way for the Good Girls: A Review of the Mixtape Nehanda: The Best Part

nehandaA few months ago, I raved about my love for R&B songstress Elle Varner’s debut album Perfectly Imperfect. Even more than Varner’s unique voice, I loved her lyricism and how much I felt the songs on her album related to me as a young woman. Well, recently, my college friend Akilah shared the link for her new mixtape, Nehanda: The Best Part on my Facebook wall, and I got that feeling all over again. The music was positive, motivational, relatable, and for lack of a better term–poppin!– all at the same time. I loved the mixtape so much that I decided to do my part to get the word out. Check out our discussion about her creative journey, the music industry, and the return of the good girls…

Q: First, introduce yourself to the people.

A: I am Akilah Muhammad. I’m from Houston, Texas. I’m fairly new to the music world, but I have a performance background because I went to a performing arts middle school and high school. I go by my middle name, Nehanda, as my artist name because not only do I feel that Nehanda is a unique name that no one else has as an artist, but it also has three meanings that I think all describe me well. The first meaning is “solid,” like a rock. The second meaning is “recurring revolutionary spirit,” and the third meaning is “the beautiful one has arrived.”

On her approach to her music: My goal is to be one of the tools of a paradigm shift in music. God has put me on this earth to help jump-start something new. I have an obligation to use my artistic background to show young girls that you can be a positive figure in the world, instead of what’s being promoted–the promiscuous, bad chick, bad traits of women that are being glorified.
I named the mixtape “Nehanda: The Best Part” because I’m gonna give you the best part of me. I’m gonna show you the best part in me, and I’m gonna see the best part of you. I’m striving to be the best part of music, the best part of the music industry, the best part of the black woman, etc.

That goal is evident throughout the mixtape which includes songs like “Keep Her Sacred,” a tribute to the women who respect themselves and the men who respect them in return, featuring RG and Michael X, and “Good Girls,” which says, “We good girls always stay the cleanest. Don’t like drama, we just rise above it…” In order to accomplish her goal of making music that is poppin yet positive, Nehanda–who wrote all of the songs on the mixtape–uses popular beats that the average listener would dance to at a party or hear on the radio, but changes the lyrics to those that uplift and inspire listeners rather than denigrate or disillusion them.

Q: So, it’s sort of like what Kirk Franklin did for gospel music, right? Make it rhythmically relevant and appealing but let the music serve a higher purpose at the same time?

A: Exactly. What artists have to do is look at what the problem is. The beats are what get our attention. Change the toxic part and make it positive. It’s a very easy solution to a long problem.

Q: What about the argument that artists simply give the public what they want to hear? Do you think the general public would go for keeping the beats but making the lyrics positive?

A: I think the public would go for it, but what artist would have the courage to stand? That excuse is a means to cover up the cowardice. Michael Jackson and Prince were trendsetters. Being an artist is about more than just giving the people what they want. It’s about having the strength and the foundation to give them something better. If the people are telling you what to do, then you are not an artist. Period.

Q: You are a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI). The mixtape features excerpts from the Minister Farrakhan. The NOI and Minister Farrakhan often generate strong responses and certain perceptions from people. How do you navigate that, and what role does your faith play in your mixtape and in your artistry?

A: I had to include my faith in the album because it is how I conduct my life, and it will always play a role in my message and in my delivery. At the same time, I have to tailor my message to the general public, and it is not so much about religion as it is about giving people something to uplift their minds and their consciousness.

On the people who will be reluctant to accept that, regardless: That’s where the artistry comes in. It doesn’t matter. I have to be myself regardless of all of these outside opinions.

Q: What is it going to take for good girls to make a comeback in popular culture?

A: It’s going to take a whole culture-shift to start bringing it back to the self-respect era of the 90s with the Queen Latifahs and the MC Lytes. There would have to be a campaign that shows young girls that it is good to be good–not just in music, but in fashion, TV shows. There would have to be male rappers who start to uplift women. We have to get together and unite as artists and build on that. Once you unite and build with each other, that’s when your movement becomes a movement.

Me: So basically we need U-N-I-T-Y? *Queen Latifah voice*

Nehanda: Yes!

Nehanda says that her goal for right now is just to get the mixtape out to as many people as possible. She hopes to perform in a few places and eventually record an album. Ultimately, she would like to be an independent artist so that she can control her image and message.

In all earnestness, I urge everyone to support this project. I am blessed to have lots of incredibly talented friends with lots of projects, and I don’t advertise all of them like this. I truly believe that this is great music that we all need and can benefit from.

So please download the FREE mixtape at http://nehanda.bandcamp.com/ and spread the word!

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The Muse (Art & Culture)

Karma Is a Flickkkk…My Thoughts on Django Unchained

English: Quentin Tarantino in Paris at the Cés...

Quentin Tarantino (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight I went to go see Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained. When I first heard that this movie was in the works, I was a little wary because it was being described as a funny movie about slavery and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of such an important part of my history and American history being mocked or satirized. But when I heard that Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington were starring in the movie, some of my worries were eased because a part of me felt that they respected themselves and their history too much to be a part of something that would be disrespectful of such a horrible time in history–at least at this stage of their careers anyway…

In the last couple of weeks I have read and seen a lot about the film. Believe it or not, this was the first Quentin Tarantino film I’ve seen (Kill Bill never seemed like my cup of tea). Given that the majority of the articles that I read about him and Django mentioned Tarantino’s films’ penchant for action and bloody violence, it seemed like even less of a surprise that Django would be my first Tarantino experience. When I realized that Django was intended to be a slave revenge story reminiscent of old American westerns, I began to be even more intrigued.

Without giving the movie away, I will say that I honestly really enjoyed it. Despite Spike Lee’s stated misgivings (and I am a huge fan of Spike’s work), I didn’t feel that the film was “disrespectful to my ancestors.” While some moments were obviously intended to be light-hearted, the film was clear about the horrors of slavery. In some ways, I even found It refreshing to be able to laugh at the ridiculousness of the slave masters, the slave system, and racism in general. All in all, I don’t think anyone goes to see a Quentin Tarantino movie for a history lesson (on that note, I don’t think this movie is for kids or for the uninformed or dangerously under informed), and for what it was, I think the movie was good.

However, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out my gripes with the film of which I think moviegoers and film producers alike should be aware:

1. The continuation of the legend of the white savior. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that legend, it’s the tendency for movies that deal with the immorality of racism and strive for some sort of justice or equality to have a “white savior” figure whose kindness makes the strivings of the oppressed blacks even possible. We all know that collaboration between whites and blacks fueled the Civil Rights and Abolitionist movements, but the white savior legend often depicted in movies tends to make the black figure look helpless and completely dependent on the generosity and lessons of his white superhero.

For the most part, Django continues with and is even based on this trend. I’ve seen that relationship described as a sign of brotherhood in this film, but I have a hard time seeing it as such because Django’s “teacher” did not help him simply out of the goodness of his heart; he saw him as beneficial to his business.

2. The over-the-top Uncle Tom character. Again, those of us who know our history know about the distinction between field and house slaves, as well as about the divisions that that dynamic created and continues to perpetuate among African Americans. We know that not all African Americans (just like any other ethnic group) feel the same sense of loyalty towards one another. Still, I resent the fact that the other main black character in the film had to play such a role of sabotage. Even in a movie about slavery, black people have to be the ones cutting one another down, because that’s exactly what the media is lacking, right?

I also didn’t like that they had Django take on the traits the slave masters at times. Even if it was only to “play a character” as he had been instructed in order to complete their mission, if Tarantino really wanted to tell a revenge story, he should have fostered some unity among Django and the other slaves.

3. Misconceptions about submissiveness. At one point in the film, Leo DiCaprio’s character has this long speech about the natural submissiveness of blacks and how he doesn’t understand why black slaves didn’t just kill their masters and gain their freedom that way. All I could think was, “hello?” “Has Tarantino ever heard of Nat Turner? You know, the original black slave who went from plantation to plantation killing masters?” And Turner is only one example of several insurrections that slaves attempted. And insurrections weren’t the only form of resistance to slavery: Negro spirituals, The Underground Railroad, the list goes on and on…

In keeping with the misconception of submissiveness, I really didn’t like how the other black slaves seemed to be so in awe of Django rather than joining him themselves or displaying their own savvy. I guess there was only room for one enlightened slave in this film.

4. Limited role of women/Kerry Washington. I get it. It’s slavery. It’s 1858. Girl power might have been a bit out of place. But not really: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. Yes, we hear that Washington’s character is a runaway and feisty, but why don’t we ever get to see any of that? For much of the movie, she plays a damsel in distress. Her first real English line in the film comes at the end. Really though? I get the Western theme, but come on…

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The Muse (Art & Culture)

Nobody’s Perfect but This Album Comes Close: My Thoughts on Elle Varner’s Perfectly Imperfect

Let me begin by saying that I do not claim to be a music expert. I do sing. I was trained in the art of bravado, voice control, breathing, and riffs and runs, especially as they pertain to the world of gospel and R&B–and I played a smidgen of piano back in the day. With that said, I know plenty of people who pride themselves on their  musical knowledge and aspirations, their industry expertise, and their talent for writing music reviews, and I am none of those people. I am, however, a music enthusiast. It is from this place of sheer enthusiasm that I feel the need to testify about the greatness of Elle Varner, and specifically about her debut album Perfectly Imperfect.

My first exposure to Elle Varner came by way of her lead single “Only Wanna Give It to You.” (I’m pretty sure I had heard of her before that because she was a BET Music Matters artist, but honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention then.) My first impression was that I loved her voice. It was different, kind of like Chrisette Michele meets Macy Gray with a tad bit of Alicia Keys thrown in at points, but still uniquely her own.  It was one of those situations where I had heard the song quite a few times, liked what I heard each time, yet I’d never heard the song in its entirety. So pretty soon I found myself googling something along the lines of “who sings the song about bees, honey, and new shoes?”

So, then I had her name.  Not long after that I realized that she would be opening for Chrisette Michele at the inaugural event of a new concert series in Cramton Auditorium on my now alma mater’s campus. So being the huge Chrisette fan that I am, I had to go, and a friend of mine joined me. Elle came out with nothing but her guitar and a microphone and killed it. Of course she sang “Only Wanna Give It to You,” along with the album closer, and honest and fun track about her struggle with body image, “So Fly,” as well as what would go on to become the smash hit “Refill” –which I fell in love with immediately, by the way. That night, I downloaded her amazing mixtape “Conversational Lush,” told all my friends to do the same, and from that moment forward I was a diehard Ellephant–yup, you read that correctly.

But if it was her unique voice that initially caught my attention, it was her lyricism that made me a true fan. As one Washington Post reviewer says, yes, everyone struggles to sing along to the hook on “Refill” and the vocals (and the fiddle) are amazing, but to me, the song is pure poetry. When I first heard it, I thought, “you’re likening the depths of your feelings for this person to being drunk? “Oh, the metaphors! How perfect and genius.” I felt the same way about the shoe motif in “Only Wanna Give It You,” once I figured out who she was, that is.

That smooth poet-like lyrical genius continues throughout the album, particularly in songs like “Welcome Home” and “Leaf,” where the relationship metaphors abound. I thought Adele’s 21 was a young heart’s musical manifesto, but Perfectly Imperfect has the beautiful simplicity and vulnerable sentimentality to pose right next to 21 in its B-girl stance on the shelves of contemporary music history.

For me, what makes the album truly great is that Elle captures the moments that so many of us can relate to, like possessing the necessary bravery to take a risk on love. “Maybe in another life/I could be the girl/ who walks up to the guy/ and tells him/tells him how she feels inside/but not tonight…” she sings on “Not Tonight,” one of the songs that makes it into my three-way tie for favorite track on the album. I’ve ranked “Damn Good Friends” and the previously mentioned “Welcome Home” as my other two favorites, but that’s really not accurate because I honestly love the ENTIRE album from start to finish–and I don’t say that often.

Having the courage to sing about her imperfections on songs like “So Fly” makes her both an anomaly in the music industry and extremely honest and relatable to many listeners. “…Now in my 20s all that matters is sex, cars, and money/I ain’t got none of the three/so basically, I am invisible to all of the fellas, and I sit at home jealous/there was no Golden Ticket in my chocolate today…” she regrets. (My bad. Y’all don’t know about that life, huh?) Seriously though, who, besides India Arie maybe, admits that in this music age where it’s all about being the baddest chick?

Honestly–even if you are the baddest chick–when was the last time you heard an album and thought, “oh my God, she’s actually singing, she’s singing my life, AND I’m not ashamed to have my 6-year-old little cousin sing along to this!” ? That was a serious question….I’ll wait.

Perfectly Imperfect is perfect because it’s real. It’s a musical chronicle of the failures, successes, emotions, moments, and memories that make up our lives. No, you may not jam to it at the club–except maybe to the  hip hop-esque baseline of “Only Wanna Give It to You.” However, you could play the  narrative about a night of partying, “Oh What a Night,” when you get home and feel like reminiscing. More importantly, don’t we have enough club bangers? What we don’t have enough of is good music that actually sells and is played on national and international airwaves.

As I said earlier in my Twitter frenzy about the album, I haven’t been this excited about an R&B album since Chrisette Michele’s Epiphany–which I bought both digitally on iTunes and a hard copy in stores–and I’ll be doing the same thing for Perfectly Imperfect. You should too. Seriously.

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The Muse (Art & Culture)

“Say What Now?”: Frank Ocean and Separating Lyrical Content from Musicality

Frank Ocean single-handedly generated something like a tidal wave throughout the music world recently after posting a letter on his Tumblr page that detailed his past love for and romantic relationship with another man.

By now, many of us have probably read and/or listened to commentary praising Ocean’s honesty and bravery and analyzing what his confession means for the world of hip hop (commercial hip hop anyway), which is often characterized almost ad nauseum as being offensive to women, hyper and stereotypically masculine, and homophobic. So, acknowledging that Ocean’s “coming out” could indeed have a significant influence on hip hop music and culture, I want to discuss how listening to his new album Channel Orange made me think about how, why, and what the public filters, accepts, and rejects when listening to music.

While listening to Ocean’s album and texting a friend of mine back and forth, I asked him if he had heard the album yet. He said that he hadn’t. I then asked if he was one of those people who had decided to boycott the album due to Frank’s “revelation.” He said that he wasn’t, but that he would have to be “selective”  about which songs he listened to on the album. When I asked what he meant by that and why, he explained that he did not want to listen to a guy sing about another guy.

Ironically, at that point in the conversation, I had just finished listening to the song “Forrest Gump,” a song which is clearly directed towards another man and uses affectionate terms like “boy.” To be perfectly honest, although I support the right for same-sex couples to feel, love, and act however they want, I was initially taken aback upon first hearing the song. I had honestly never heard anything like it before–a man singing a romantic love song for another man.

However, the song forced me to think about how same-sex couples typically relate to music. For example, everyone enjoys listening to a good love song that expresses sentiments that they can relate to or even sentiments that they cannot yet relate to but to which they hope to be able to relate some day.

As a black woman, I can’t imagine what life would be like without a classic Mary J. Blige track to cry or sing along to when I need it. Yet, until listening to the “Forrest Gump” song, I never stopped to think about if or how Mary’s use of masculine pronouns like “he,” “his,” or “him” or even terms like “boy” might affect the ability of a lesbian to fully relate to or feel comfortable with the song because that lesbian’s reality was not directly being depicted. The same might be true for a homosexual male who listens to Usher’s Confessions album after a break up. So, while I might have been temporarily unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Frank singing to another man, I realized that this inability to directly relate might be someone else’s constant reality.

Of course, one does not have to be the same gender or sexual orientation as a singer in order to enjoy or relate to a song. When I’m listening to Stevie Wonder sing “My Cherie Amour,” he says “girl” but I can still relate to the sentiment. I might change it to “boy,” if I sing the lyrics out loud, but probably only if I were singing it to someone in particular or to an audience. Otherwise, I’m just appreciating the song and the gender behind the sentiment is not really a big deal.

Yet, my friend argued that he did not want to hear the songs Frank addressed to another man because he did not agree with the content. Still, I wondered, assuming that the problem that he had with Frank’s content was not an ideological one (like opposition to same-sex relationships) then why could he not separate the song’s content from its musicality?

I pointed out that many women separate content from musicality all the time. If we did not, most music would never sell. I choose to believe that many, if not most, women do not agree with, cannot relate to, or do not support songs that say “Shawty dance like a video vixen/Said her man be on that bull**** pimpin”” or even ones that say “Ladies, if you love your man, show him you the flyest/grind up on it, girl, show him how you ride it,” but they like the song.

Regardless of whether that’s a good thing or not, they like the beat, the sentiments that express their current mood, or whatever. They separate the content from the musicality. A song is a song and they can appreciate its different elements separately, whether they agree with all of them or not. So what makes listening to Frank Ocean singing about another man different? My friend argues that women are just naturally more accepting of musical content that they don’t personally support, but are we really? And, if so, why is that?

Challenging homophobia in hip hop (and media and art in general) can open doors for challenging all forms of gender-based oppression, like patriarchy and misogyny, if we learn to make positive and conscious decisions about our representations of ourselves, and most importantly one another. Just as listening to the Channel Orange album forced me to consider how same-sex couples respond to their relative omission from much of media and art, maybe the consideration of these other viewpoints can finally lead to some changes in the representations of women and other minority groups in these artistic arenas and in society in general.

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The Muse (Art & Culture)

Keepin’ It Real About Race Relations: My Thoughts on Broadway’s Clybourne Park

*Author’s Note*: I despise the term “gentrification” because I have issues with its etymological root. Who are “the gentry” and does that make original residents peasants? I have similar issues, although not for the same reason or with the same level of intensity, with the term “urban renewal.” However, for the purposes of this post (and to make my life easier) I will use both terms, and usually interchangeably.

As a writer and performer, I have always loved the theater and (when time and funds allow me) I try to keep up with what’s going on there. So when Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park won Best Play at this year’s Tony Awards–after winning the Pulitzer last year–I felt a little behind (on my literature and my theater) and had to get to googling because I had never heard of it.

From my preliminary research, I was able to gather that it was being pegged as a modern-day response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (one of my favorite plays, EVER–the book, the Sidney Poitier version of the movie, and Diddy on Broadway) that dealt with racism and gentrification. So, when discount tickets for Clybourne Park became available on Goldstar–if you don’t know about Goldstar, you have just been put on and you’re welcome–I had to go see it. So I did. Last night. And my my my, did those summaries sell it short!

Frankly, it was quite possibly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,–and I’m not just talking Broadway–and not simply because of good acting (although the actors were great), but because the play was thought-provoking, incredibly bold, and honest.

Without giving too much of it away, the play is set in the mythical Clybourne Park section of Chicago, first in the 1950s and then in the present-day. (Grappling with two time periods. Don’t you love it already?) If you’ve ever read or seen Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, you might remember Karl Lindner, a white member of the neighborhood association where the Younger Family is set to move after they receive Walter Sr.’s long-awaited insurance check, who pays the family a visit in the hopes of dissuading them from moving into his neighborhood.

Well, Clybourne Park begins by telling the story, including greater and more obvious depths of Lindner’s reaction and anti-integration efforts, of the family into whose home and the neighborhood into which the Youngers would ultimately move.  (Genius, right? Beginning a story by relaying the other side of where a classic one leaves off?)

When the play makes its way into the present-day, the same house and neighborhood where the white family had once lived and into which the Youngers would ultimately move, has over the years become become run-down; the neighborhood is also now economically deprived and predominantly black, due to the eventual “white flight” that occurred after the arrival of the Youngers. Thus, Lindner’s worst fears when he tried to stop the sale of the house have been realized. However, the house has now been sold to a young white couple who  represent the wave of “urban renewal” that the neighborhood is undergoing.

As the young white couple responds to the concerns of the now-African American neighborhood association representatives vying to maintain the historical significance of their community in the face of the impending social, political, and economic changes it is experiencing, in the process known in many communities of color as gentrification, the play demonstrates great irony while weaving together both the mindset and dialogue of the two time periods. In doing so, it highlights the cyclical nature of history in the context of ongoing cultural and racial tension.

In this insightful review of the play that appeared in New York Magazine ( It’s great; go read it after you finish reading this) and is now being distributed as a supplement to the show’s Playbill, Frank Rich argues that through its blatant attacks on racism masked as political correctness, the play illustrates the myth of a post-racial society in the age of Obama. I would agree that it definitely does that. One character even mentions the election of President Obama when the racially charged yet initially delicately navigated discussion about the “‘value” of the neighborhood gets heated.

However, to me, the genius of Clybourne Park is that it tackles the cultural and racial hostility and discord in this country head on. It says what so many of us are thinking but would almost NEVER say in “mixed company.” It goes from having an Emily of Gilmore Girls feigned politeness and decorum to having an Archie Bunker meets Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing level of candidness to it . The reason the joke exchange in the play is so horrendous yet hilarious is because it speaks to all of the resentment, frustrations, prejudice, and stereotypes that people of all races seldom discuss and are often not allowed to let boil over except in the instance of some political scandal.

As is the case with many comedy routines, it is the raw and relatable, yet embarrassing truth of the sentiment relayed that most of us are laughing at, not actual humor. Like the audience in the theater last night (myself included) laughing at purposefully racist jokes, we laugh at the awkward inappropriateness of it all. It’s the “oh-my-God-did-he-just-say-that-out loud-I-do/say/think-that-all-the-time factor.” It’s the comedic courage in the face of our general polite cowardice that gets the laugh.

Imagine if black Harlem sat down with Columbia University real estate developers (and students and graduates who move in, for that matter)  and told them how they really feel? (Honestly, I’m sure at least some of them have at some point, but anyway…) Being a native New Yorker, I can honestly say that I’ll never forget a friend of mine who was born and raised in Harlem who called me in tears as she talked about her apartment building being renamed and things changing before her very eyes. A lot of my fellow Brooklynites will tell you in a heartbeat that they don’t know anything about Prospect Heights, but they used to know Bedstuy and Crown Heights.

That deeply rooted and superficially handled tension is Clybourne Park.

Also, as I believe all good art and media should do, the play forced me to think about things from another perspective. As anti-gentrification as I am prone to be, until last night I’ve never stopped to think about how similar those sentiments might sound to those of Karl Lindner when he was trying to keep the Youngers out of his neighborhood. Granted, it’s the economic expulsion or “pricing out” of poor (and usually) people of color that makes me object to gentrification, but according to the play, Karl Lindner would argue that he was looking out for the economic interests of his neighborhood as well, so…

After watching the play, I realized that we are really all just looking for our place in this society (particularly those who have been historically, politically, and socially disadvantaged and are still grappling for true power and influence–and I’m not just talking about people of color–but I digress…) No one wants to feel like his or her space or home or way of life is threatened or challenged and that, I believe, is the root from which all of these tensions arise.

As much as we like to say that there are not multiple Americas, there are. We are different. We have different customs and cultures and that’s what makes us great. Unfortunately, we are often so busy trying not to step on one another’s toes (even as most  groups get completely stepped on in some way in the process) that we forget to learn how to truly co-exist–no euphemisms, assimilation, or prejudice necessary. Needless to say, I still don’t agree with poor people of color being pushed out of their neighborhoods, but I acknowledge the need to facilitate meaningful and productive discussions that lead to true progress.

In my Aquarius idealism, I often express what I believe to be the benefits of an embrace of open-mindedness and true multiculturalism. So as Bev from Clybourne Park reminds us, rather than protesting against them, maybe we should all get to know one another’s different “dishes,” because as long as we continue to act as though our differences are automatically threatening, negative, and divisive and/or to attempt to minimize, nullify, or deny their existence in the so-called name of unity, we will get nowhere.

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