Saturday, March 16, 2013

A week's gleanings

There's not really a method to my cultural wanderings, so it's just a coincidence that I saw two fascinating documentary projects back to back in the middle of the past week, and two pieces about the redemption of downtrodden women yesterday and today. Happy coincidence, though! Contrasts, too.

The first documentary was "Jai Bhim Comrade," actually a 2-hour version of the 3-hour original, presented by its maker Anand Patwardhan. Patwardham, India's most distinguished documentarist, spent fourteen years filming Dalit political organizations in Maharashtra and, especially, the singers and artistic performers in their movements. The amazingly resonant result is - even in the shorter version - often devastating but also full of moments of joy and resolve. In Q&A he said he was optimistic about Dalit rights for the long term, not the short term.

The other documentary was "The Empire Project," an ongoing work of one of our alums Kai O'Neill and his partner Eline Jongsma, tracing the "unintended consequences of Dutch colonialism" across four continents. They introduced their project as part of a new Lang Religious Studies series inviting alums to reflect on how their experiences in our classes have helped and shaped them. In his senior work, Kel developed a method he now calls "exploded feature" - materials are offered in a form which lets/forces the reader to make her way through them without a prescribed sequence - which underlies their transmedia project, which uses multiple screens, parallel storytelling, etc. A very promising body of work!

The first piece about downtrodden women was Astor Piazzolla's tango opera "Maria de Buenos Aires" of 1968, performed by Opera Hispanica at Le Poisson Rouge, a bizarre poetic piece about a a poor orphan girl who is drawn into and destroyed by the underworld of BA but lives on as a ghost impregnated by the words of a somewhat demonic poet and is now the saintly protrectress of baby girls. I have not seen a purer version of the myth of the "madonna/whore," nor do I hope ever to. Can you even believe anyone could write this in 2013: Who is this woman of the night that wanders the streets without fear or reason? Is she a mother, a child, or a ghost? Saint or harlot? She is María, the most common name, and the name of the Most Exalted. She will not be confined by categorizations, she absorbs all assumptions. Ugh. Piazzolla's wonderful music doesn't really lend itself to narrative anyway.

The second piece, was the play "Wine in the Wilderness" by Alice Childress, a masterpiece of African American drama I confess I had not known about before. It was composed a year later than Piazzolla's, and seems to take on just the male romanticization of female ruin at its heart. An artist is painting a triptych about black womanhood, comprising a painting of a hopeful girl, of a splendid queen, and of a ruined woman "ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar, poor, and dumb." Some friends bring a young woman they met in a riot for the third canvas, nobody telling her what the triptych is about. When she finds out, she gives them a talking-to like nothing I've ever heard, but would love to hear again. (There's one more performance, tomorrow 2pm: go if you can!) Actress Ayomide Akinsanya takes her character through a revelatory transformation from apparently silly and conventional to proud and commanding, provoked by the condescension of the artist and his educated friends, who like their heroes and images not to be able to talk back to them. It's a transformation you might not credit in any other medium than live theater, and it's positively thrilling!

Not bad for a four-day stretch! (I won't tire you with details of the rarely performed opera "Francesca da Rimini" which I saw at the Met on Tuesday, an often expertly derivative opera about nothing much.)

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