REVIEW: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower… Where do I start?

I believe this was the first opera I’ve ever seen. And I was not disappointed. I laughed, cried, and even had the privilege to sing along. After the show, my friend Anna described Parable of the Sower as the best play she’d ever seen in her life. “I was tearing up basically the entire time… the music was consuming. It was so so fantastic,” she remarked. 

The opera is based on the post-apocalyptic novel written by Octavia E. Butler, written by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Despite being published in 1993, the story is set in 2024, eerily close to this year. Already, Butler starts to draw parallels. The play deals with a Christian-esque group in a world that faces environmental degradation on a grand, terrifying scale. The church members essentially live in Noah’s ark – their walled city is safe, while the outside world is gonna end. The Reverend – the main character’s father – is the only one who is allowed to leave the walls and see the city.

Up on the balcony, people chat as the clock ticks down to 4pm. There is a person onstage, already in character; the audience is left unsure of whether the show has already started or not. The lights don’t go down, the cast strolls in, unannounced, and the start just sort of happens.

Opening the play, Toshi Reagon tells us that Butler “burned [Lauren] with hyper empathy.” An element that I missed – until my fantasy worldbuilding class’ post-opera discussion – were Lauren’s magical powers. She feels others’ pain, and there are subtle cues – like a flash of purple when her brother stabs his hand with a pencil to get her attention, or her falling down as other people get shot – that several of my classmates pointed out.  “If I can feel your pain, do I know you better, if I can fly in your joy?” Lauren asks.

The first scene is all auditory: two news channels chirp out overwhelming news, lapping over each other, in a volume-too-loud, ear-assaulting amalgam. This launches into a song, where the talents crooned at different directions of the audience, “What you gon’ do?” Even though I sat all the way up on the balcony, it felt like they were staring, arch-eyebrowed, right at us, and I felt a pang in my stomach. “The world’s on fire, you can’t hide.” The line between fiction and reality blurred once more.

In their situation: a “dystopian America wracked by the violence brought on by unrelenting greed and systemic injustice” (UMS blog), it all boils down to us versus them. There exists a religious dispute between Lauren and her father, the reverend, exploring the scale of beliefs ranging from God is good, God is change, to God have mercy. Lauren devises her own truth while others present the fixed truth that most of her family is invested in. She believes in the need to embrace change and do something different, because it’s only a matter of time before their safety crumbles down. “There’s a new world coming, everything gon’ be turning over,” Lauren sings. While others sing back, “do you really think the world gon’ end?”

I enjoyed how the cast encouraged audience interaction. I didn’t feel shy about bobbing my head, or tapping a foot. When a person in the audience clapped at the words being exchanged onstage, Toshi stopped mid-speech to say, “Hey, I won’t stop you.” Many times, a few people would let out whoops that soon launched the whole audience into applause. The actors had such a commanding presence; they were able to start the theater into a clap, with ease. They also played with breaking the fourth wall. “Octavia Butler is not playing with us,” Toshi remarked, after the first act. She directly asked the audience to naturally join into the chorus of the song – “Don’t let your baby go, don’t let your baby go to Olivar – ” and it was really beautiful to hear the audience participating. Everyone in that large room – those onstage and those spectating – felt more connected. I could feel them sowing the seeds of community with these little moments. 

Every person onstage flaunted their flawless vocals, and the opera doesn’t feature one person too heavily; it feels like each character gets their own moment in the spotlight. I especially loved the electric guitar riffs, or when the guitarist would back a singer’s vocals, perfectly in sync with their inflections.

In the song with the chorus, “Are we supposed to live like this?”, the strings are beautiful and psychedelic; warpy, wonky. I appreciated how this broke my expectation of what an opera had to be: very classical, prim, and proper, with a soprano hitting notes that could break glass. 

The songs that struck me the most were Lauren’s “Has anybody seen my father?” a heartbreaking, repeated chorus where her voice gradually breaks with each repetition, and the more mellow, emotional solo by Lauren’s mom. Both had such intimate lyrics that the theater flooded with it. It felt too heavy to move, or in any way disrupt this moment. I’ll admit that tears bubbled from my eyes, and I stiffly let them run, not even lifting a hand to break the mood.

True to an opera, the second act made me fall asleep. This isn’t to say that the show fell off, or that I was the only one slightly sleep-deprived. While the first half of the show had lights that never dimmed, the lighting was all of a sudden pitch-black dark, spotlights lightly glazing the characters as they entered the hellscape outside, complete with dangerous people and violent criminal elements. Because of the lighting, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe my ensuing drowsiness was purposeful, intentional. When I woke up, I realized we’d all been asleep while the characters were still fighting for their lives – belting through, by far, the most grueling song – through this continuous struggle outside of the wall. But for me, it all kind of turned to background noise, in the dark. As I took care not to wake up on my neighbor’s shoulder, UMS was playing with genre. At the end of the story, the troupe stands clustered together, in a haunting formation. Smoke floats over their heads, like angels, as they stand in ruin. After resting for a long while, the electric started back up, with gusto, and served as a wake-up alarm as multiple neighbors startled awake.

What I saw when I woke up

To finish, every seat in the house was in standing ovation. I was in awe of the amount of talent in the room, trying to digest it all. On the walk back, Toshi’s closing words circled through my head: “We have to fall away from the limitations billionaires have put on us. It will only happen if you give up the lives they have assigned us.” My friend Isabelle pointed out the liminality of how parables are passed – to my point about sleeping, there is a presence through absence. “Their words are gonna fall on people, stick with some, take hold, grow, and spread.” That is the power of the parable.

Read more about the performance here: https://ums.org/performance/parable-of-the-sower/

REVIEW: Holi Festival

Unlike today’s chilly temperatures, the weather for the annual Holi Festival at Palmer Field was warm and welcoming, mirroring the celebratory nature of the holiday. Although there is debate about the mythological origins of the festival, Holi is traditional Hindu festival, meant to honor the arrival of spring while also commemorating the triumph of good over evil. Though there are regional variations of Holi celebrations in India, the practice of playing with colored powders and water is common.

The event was hosted by the Indian American Student Association, Hindu Students Council, and Indian Student Association. They did a wonderful job of creating a fun festival, complete with music, dancing, and delicious Indian snacks. This was my first time celebrating Holi at the university, and it was amazing to see the community come together for a fun-filled afternoon. Strangers and friends alike stood shoulder to shoulder and slowly became more and more colorful as the event went on. It truly was entertaining to witness the multi-colored clothes and shoes of people walking around the grounds.

Being a member of such a large university can make it hard to connect with others, especially given the recent pandemic. Events like these allow students to meet others who share the same experiences and interests (alongside students just interested in learning about other cultures) to help build a sense of community and belonging. I’m very glad that Holi at Michigan returned after pausing for COVID, and I look forward to participating in the festival again next year!

REVIEW: Perspectives: An Exhibition of AAPI Expression

I came to the exhibition severely underdressed. Upon entering the gallery, I was greeted with warm lighting, a spaced out selection of art – giving most pieces their own living space to breathe – and a room full of artists and patrons of the arts. Most are dressed well, not to the nines, but in knee-length black dresses or cardigans, getting semi-formal down to a tee. That label was always a bit confusing for me– what constitutes semi, and how much is too formal? Either way, it didn’t matter. What everyone really came here to see was the art.

Placed in each corner of the room, projectors loop videos, rerunning the media art. For the photography, there are display boards that MA:E and the photographers hammered in themselves. Most of the paintings and fine art span the walls, a couple placed in the center of the room.

After the opening remarks and an acknowledgement about the term AAPI and how it generalizes an incredibly diverse community, especially for Pasifika communities, the gallery tour begins. We roam like sheep, tranced by each new work. Everyone cranes their necks to get a better look, arching around one another to see fit. As much as I enjoy how art is in the eye of the beholder, I like hearing directly from each artist. They explain their intentions specific to each piece and the personal meaning behind their art. The distinctness of each artist’s style and voice, and the unique experiences that shape them, are especially apparent.

Some of the pieces that stood out to me:

Riya Aggarwal’s highly-detailed, depthy paintings immediately caught my attention. Each piece flaunts a deliberate to-the-brim intricacy, yet deftly skirts around appearing too busy. I liked how the content of Riya’s paintings were neither black nor white: she specifically explores the cultural tension between “following in the footsteps of my ancestors and creating my own path.” I admired how her artwork elicits feelings of both pride, celebration, and conflict. In True to My Roots, the dark background, body language, and facial expression of the subject evoke a gripping emotionality. 

True to My Roots (2020)

Keri Yang’s paintings pop off the page. I like how even the non-3D elements push the limits of their dimension and create visual allusion. Soulmates plays with border, as the subject encroaches outside of its backdrop.

Soulmates (2021)

Perched high up on the wall, taller than the artist herself, is Michelle Ha’s The Girl with the Iron Fist. With her art, Michelle hopes to “represent Asian American experiences by focusing on representing true narratives rather than focusing on the suffering that prejudices bring.” The lighting in the bathroom of the painting is synonymous to the ballroom’s dim ivory brilliance. “With oil paintings historically being about possession and male pleasure in the western context, I bathed my subject in the light of reclaiming that gaze.” I like how the subject looks half taken off-guard, half-bored yet unwavering. Through peering at the audience, this subject, performing the mundane task of brushing her teeth, confronts “the biases the audience has about East Asian American Women. On another layer, by showing the subject doing an activity anyone may do, I make the experience of being an East Asian American woman more accessible to those that find it hard to find empathy with those different than themselves.”

 

The Girl with the Iron Fist (2021)

Dorothy’s Masked is striking, from both afar and up close. From across the room, at first I thought the aquamarine on the girl’s face looked like tears. The painting emphasizes the importance of masks, and Dorothy chose her subject, her friend Angela, “because of the increase in racism against Asians at the time since the AAPIA community was being blamed for the virus.”

Masked (2020)

Angeline Tran’s Missing Eye, “an experimental top made of denim, selvage, and buttons sewn together both by machine and hand,” was my personal favorite. The material is sewn “to overlap itself and create the illusion of an eye socket and the buttons are placed in the middle, depicting the pupil.” With one eye lying on the breast, and the other at the belly, the garment represents heart and gut instinct. I loved this piece because of its visual attractiveness, message, and frankly, because it’s just so cool. It was also one of the only 3D, sculptural works in the gallery. I am just starting to take a STAMPS sewing mini-course, and hope to take a garment construction class in the future. As someone who expresses creativity largely through writing, exploring visual mediums has been a therapeutic, refreshing process. Angeline’s inventiveness and utilization of scrap material and selvage inspires me to create with intention and take risks with garment sculpture!

Missing Eye (2021)

Event Program: https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/66499721/perspectives-gallery-digital-program

REVIEW: Schwarze Adler (Black Eagles)

Last Friday the German Department hosted a free curated screening of the 2021 independent documentary film “Schwarze Adler” (translated from German: “Black Eagles”). The space they held it in at North Quad was great – it was huge, with floor-to-ceiling windows spanning the length of one wall, whiteboards and cushy chairs spanning the other, and a big blank wall up front to project the film onto. The physically-distanced chairs they’d set up in the room were fairly packed with people coming for the event.

Watching this documentary was a pretty emotional experience for me (which is why it took me so long to write this review!).

Steffi Jones, former defender for the national team

Seeing footage in 2021 of fans at a soccer game doing the Hitler salute will do something to your psyche. I’m privileged — some people don’t have the choice of whether to turn away from the screen, because they live through this every day. Imagine being a player on a professional sports team where the only difference between you and your teammates is that your skin is a shade darker. You’re trying to focus on the game you’ve trained for for most of your life when you suddenly hear 1000s of fans in the stands surrounding you, most of which are from your own country where you were born and raised, yelling at you to go back where you came from. That’s an experience that was recounted by every single German soccer player interviewed in this documentary.

The way fans treat athletes is something worth having a whole discussion on. Cheering for your favorite players and booing when the other team scores is all good fun. But when that morphs into jeering, chanting hateful racial slurs, and hurling insults at players, that’s when it becomes absolutely cruel. Michigan football games are not immune to this behavior. We put athletes on pedestals, but they are not made of titanium, they’re made of flesh and blood! They’re humans just like us and when fans dehumanize them, they deprive them of so much: joy from being on the field, joy from being with their teammates, and the focus they need to stay in the game.

Gerald Asamoah, former forward

Many of the players in the documentary talked about how hearing those shouts of “go back to your country” and “kick out the negro” would affect their playing, and they thought about it for the whole rest of the game. At one point one of the players, Gerald Asamoah said he had “never seen such hate anywhere else before.” One of his fellow teammates of color left Germany to play for Ghana because of the experience. Another player, after being subjected to it for half a game, picked up a small red crate on the sidelines and threw it down in a fit of anger. His teammates said nothing to him — the referee just handed him a yellow card. Another recounted how sad it made him when he saw that not only were the parents chanting slurs, but their small children were too.

Almost all of the players also made connections between the way they were treated to Germany’s dark history. “How can you show this behavior when we have seen exactly where it leads?” I think the same could be said of racism in our country. The U.S. has an equally dark history, it’s just that it’s usually glossed over in our history textbooks.

When the credits began to roll, I was feeling kind of hopeless and defeated. I know that’s not the right response to world issues, but I couldn’t help it. But then one of the professors from the German department got up to say a few words.
Here’s what she said, paraphrased:
“Don’t be disheartened. These thoughts of racism have accrued over centuries and it will take time to undo them. Martin Luther King Jr. was only assassinated 52 years ago so really we’re just at the beginning of the work to undo it. And don’t feel bad if you are not the one who goes out and marches and shows up in a big way. The small acts matter to. Every act of kindness, and every act that does something to acknowledge the humanity in others matters.”

So go out and show up in a small or in a big way this week, and know that we have a long way to go but every act matters.

REVIEW: Prisons and Politics in America Exhibit

Tucked away in a corner of Hatcher North’s first floor is the Audubon room, named for the extremely rare volume of naturalist James Audubon’s “Birds of America” paintings that it houses. From now until March 24, it also houses the Prisons and Politics in America exhibition curated by Julie Herrada.

“Prisons and Politics in America: An Exhibit of Art, Poetry, Letters and Prison Resistance from 1890 to Today,” examines the political reasons for why people are imprisoned: for speaking out, for writing, for violating repressive laws, framed because of their color or politics, for stealing from the rich, for refusing the military draft, for whistleblowing, for attempting to overthrow the government, for standing up for a belief, or for walking over a forbidden line.

The items focus on maintaining one’s humanity behind bars, promoting political causes, and offering solidarity in support of prisoners.

 

 

The exhibit was pretty small, with a total of 39 items, but I thought it was a fitting size. The items on display were well-chosen and represented a variety of time periods, activist movements, and prison injustices. I learned a great deal by walking around and slowly taking each artifact in, reading the thoughtfully-written blurb about each.

“San Quentin Days: Poems of a Prison” by Anonymous

There were all sorts of artifacts: from protest pinback buttons to FBI Wanted posters to comics to a recipe for DIY prison ice cream. The most moving parts of the exhibit for me were the sections displaying prison writing: poetry, letters, memoirs, books. Writing is one of the most powerful tools of expression that a prisoner has, and also is one of the only ways they have to connect to the outside world. Some of the items in the collection were extremely rare and among only a few surviving copies around the world. Writing is hard enough in a comfortable space – can you imagine how difficult it must be to write from prison?

I had forgotten how far back the history of protest and activism goes. Every time a new movement starts , to me it can feel like a whole new isolated effort, which is a huge sign of my privilege. There are many who are not given the chance to forget the history to which movements are attached to because those issues affect them every single day. Rarely is there an injustice so new that there were no ancestors who had to fight it in their time too.

 

Free John Now! Poster, 1971

The exhibit sparked some thoughts for me on how activism has changed over the past century and how it has stayed the same. The language in some of the items in the exhibit was very similar to the language I see in protest posters printed today. Strong language, fueled by a sense of justice. Images of chains and bondage and upright fists underneath calls to action like “FREE [X]” and “STOP [Y].”

Attica. Poster, [197?]
The greatest difference I see is because of something that modern-day activists have that the past did not: digital technology. I am amazed at the materials people used in the past — postcards, buttons, flyers — that had to be distributed by hand and on foot. Imagine if the leaders of the 1919 labor strikes in Detroit had access to a computer at the library where they could open up a Microsoft Publisher document, put together a graphic and slap it on Facebook or Instagram for free. It has been said often in the Information Age, but I’ll say it again: our modern-day ability to disseminate information so quickly and widely is borderline magic.

Free Gary Tyler Poster, [197?]
I will say that I would have arranged the exhibit a little differently. The arrangement of artifacts seemed to maximize how much I had to walk. I also would have also liked it if items that were part of the same “movement” or at least from the same time period in history were placed close together to make the exhibit feel more cohesive. The decision to put this exhibit in the Audubon room strikes me as a bit strange, given that James Audubon was known to oppose the abolition of slavery and argued that black and indigenous people were inferior. Many of the incarcerated people mentioned in this exhibit were of black or indigenous origin and were jailed by blatantly racist judicial systems on little to no evidence, a term labeled “legal lynching”. A small acknowledgement of the fact that their stories are right now sharing the same space with the legacy of a proslavery individual would have been thoughtful.

If you’re ever studying in Hatcher, I highly recommend slipping away for a bit to check out this exhibit in the Audubon Room on the first floor. It is well worth the visit and I guarantee you’ll learn something new!

REVIEW: Choir Boy by the Rude Mechanicals

The subtitle “…A moving story of sexuality, race, hope, gospel music, and a young gay man finding his voice” was already enough to get me to the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on a Saturday night to see this play. Then I found out that Choir Boy was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Academy Award-winning writer of the film Moonlight, and I was doubly sold. Something to know about me: I love any chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit, especially those with vastly different stories than mine.

This production was put on by Rude Mechanicals, a student-run theater group on campus. They produce one play a semester and run everything themselves, from costumes to set design to the actors and crew. This was the first Rude Mechanicals production I’d ever been to and I was impressed. The trailer they made for the play was really cool and just shows how much work they put into it:

I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who has yet to see this gem of a play, but I will say that it is so very RELEVANT. A recurring theme throughout the story is intimacy: who gets deprived of it in society, who you’re allowed to have it with. The actors were so incredibly talented and displayed the intimacy of the play so well. My favorite character was Anthony, the main character’s roommate, for this reason. Whenever the cast sang together it filled the entire theater and gave me chills. They harmonized like they could do it in their sleep. The audience was super into it – cheering and clapping after each musical number, ooh-ing in sympathy when characters got hurt, hmm-ing to the lines of dialogue that struck the deepest.

I will say that I don’t think this was a very accessible production. None of the performers wore microphones which made it hard to hear them at times, especially when they were speaking with their backs to the audience. More than once I would hear the audience burst out into laughter around me and wonder what joke I had just missed on stage. The seating arrangement of the Lydia Mendelssohn theater is also not my favorite and isn’t tiered in a way that allows you to see the stage well from the rows that are not at the front. It’s a historic theater which is something to keep in mind. All in all I think the students did what they could with the space they had.

If you have a chance to go see the Rude Mechanicals’ production of Animal Farm next March, I highly recommend you take it!