Saturday, December 30, 2017

Activism and Art: Looking Back on the Free Southern Theater with Seret Scott

Seret Scott

Political activism and art have always had a complicated relationship: art can enhance the power of an activist message, while the sense of purpose imparted by a political message can elevate a work of art. However, the imperatives of creating great art and serving an activist agenda often conflict, diluting the political themes of a given work or rendering it painfully didactic.

In normal times, the task of reconciling these contradictory impulses might not feel as urgent. However, as virtually anyone who’s vaguely familiar with contemporary politics in the United States is aware, these aren’t normal times. The election of Donald Trump and the emergence of a distinctly fascist strain of politics in the world’s most powerful democracy has led to the politicization of nearly everything, from late-night talk shows to professional sports leagues.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Dionne Brand (1984)

Dionne Brand, in 2016. (Photo: Andrea Karr)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1984, I sat down with Canadian poet, novelist, and essayist Dionne Brand.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Dionne Brand emigrated to Canada in 1970. In 1978, she published her first book of poetry,  Fore Day Morning: Poems. When we spoke in 1984, her fourth, Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, has just been published by Williams-Wallace. Brand was Toronto's Poet Laureate from 2009-2012 and she was admitted to the Order of Canada earlier in 2017. Her most recent publication was the novel Love Enough, published in 2014.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Dionne Brand as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1984.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Best Games of 2017: Anime, Automatons, & Adventure

Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata was released in February.

The impulse to categorize, rank, and quantify games is a natural one, given the sheer volume that’s available to play in any given year. But it’s also antithetical to deeper thinking and incisive critical analysis; it’s the same petty list-making that has turned film discussion on the internet into a virulent Petri dish of tribal toxicity. “Best of Year” discourse is small-minded, superfluous, and uninspired – but dang if it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

I’m not above a little treat now and then. Here’s a list of the best games I played in 2017. Happy Holidays!

–  Justin Cummings

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Some Dark Holler: The Oxford American Annual Southern Music Issue, Winter 2017

This year’s 19th annual music issue of The Oxford American features alt-country musician Sturgill Simpson on the cover with a defiant, rebel-like smirk suggesting the music from his home state, Kentucky, is back with an in-your-face attitude. But the cover portrait is nothing but a gentle ruse because this 99th issue is an ambitious collection of essays about finding “the middle ground,” that is, where artists remove themselves from their physical environment to find their voice while acknowledging the pull of home. The Kentucky music scene, like most of the southern United States, is shaped by the rural geography and its urban centers, which is why this particular issue is so passionate about discussing the contrasts between the socioeconomic backgrounds of the musicians who call the state home.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Illyria: Stage Folk

John Magaro and Fran Kranz in Richard Nelson's Illyria. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Richard Nelson must be the most prolific playwright in America. Within the last several years he wrote the four Apple Family plays and the three Gabriel plays; the published texts of his work take up most of a shelf at the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. And though I haven’t liked everything of his that I’ve seen or read, much of his work is first-rate, including some – like Nikolai and the Others, his 2013 portrait of the community of émigré Russian artists in New York after the Second World War, with Michael Cerveris and John Glover as Balanchine and Stravinsky – that deserved much more attention than it received. There hasn’t been much chatter about his latest, Illyria, which received a fine production at the Public, directed by Nelson himself, that closed a couple of weeks ago. Illyria is about the young Joe Papp, struggling to keep his first Shakespeare festival, in Central Park, alive in 1958 despite poor houses, fading finances and the menacing political climate: when the play begins, Papp (John Magaro, in a gruff, vivid performance) has just been fired from his job as a TV producer because the House Un-American Activities Committee has shown an interest in him. It’s a good play – well constructed, with a stage full of interesting, articulate characters whose conversation is well worth tuning into. And for theatre buffs, this glimpse into the scrambling, scrapping lives of young, idealistic, would-be-world-beating thespians of six decades ago has a special appeal and a special charm.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Who’ll Remember The Buns, Podgy? The Beatles’ Christmas Records

Happy Christmas Beatle People! The Christmas Records, a vinyl collection, was released on December 15.

The interwebs – lately anxious over the coming monetization, courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission, of the entire internet; and dispirited as Donald Trump and the GOP delivered a historic largesse to themselves and to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans – were lit up for a few happy hours earlier this month. Via YouTube and other outlets, a recording few had ever heard, and almost as few believed to be real, came to light: an 18-minute remnant of Unforgettable, something put together in late 1965 by Paul McCartney for the sole enjoyment of his fellow Beatles. I and many others first learned of this item in All Together Now (1975), by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, the first attempt at a complete Beatles discography, where (in a section on “Bootlegs”) it was generically dubbed Paul’s Christmas Album. “Perhaps the rarest Beatle recording in existence,” the authors called it. “It’s a special treat for the other three. Paul recorded a special album in which he appears as an announcer, a singer and a comedian. Only four copies were ever pressed.” For years I doubted this: it sounded too much like something dreamed up by a fan, floated as a joke, and then transformed via rumor from fetish to fact. (After all, the same section of the same book asserted the existence of such unreleased Beatles songs as “Pink Litmus Paper Shirt,” “Colliding Circles,” and “Four Nights in Moscow” [!]; only in 1999 was it revealed that most of these titles were the prankish inventions of a Beatle bystander.)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Year of Reading: My Favourite Books of 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of We Were Eight Years in Power. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk)

With the exception of A God in Ruins, all of the books discussed below were published in 2017. I did not realize until I assembled this list that every entry consists of either at least two historical timelines or the bleeding of the past into the present either through investigative reportage or by way of past memories surfacing into the present consciousness of characters Bob Douglas

Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is the most outstanding book I read this year, original and beautifully written, spiced with a soupçon of Tolstoyan flavour. A Russian Count juxtaposes his early life in Czarist Russia with his current life; he was sentenced in 1922 to permanent house arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Through his impeccable manners and urbanity, he skillfully negotiates alliances that will result over thirty years later in a courageous attempt to dramatically alter the life of a young woman who has become his de facto daughter. A book to be savored and reread.

Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is a most satisfying novel, punctuated with drama, poignancy and humour. Superior to its predecessor, Life After Life, which played too promiscuously with the concept of time, allowing its protagonist, Ursula Todd, to constantly relive her life, A God in Ruins focuses on a single life, that of Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, narrated in out-of-order chapters. Teddy never fulfills the promise that he briefly showed as a minor character in the earlier novel, apart from one major exception. He excels as a skipper for a crew of bomber pilots during World War Two, and these chapters, which have been impeccably researched, are among the most powerful in the novel. His civilian life afterwards never reaches that level of intensity in part because no one wants to hear him talk about the war and partly because of circumstances. His less-than-satisfying marriage is tragically cut short and he is left with a ghastly daughter, Viola, who turns out to be a ghastly mother. Late in the novel we are given a major clue to Teddy’s fraught relationship with Viola. By the time we finish reading, we realize that Atkinson has pieced together a beautifully rendered mosaic that is deeply moving.