Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

Culture Vulture: Jacolby Satterwhite and David Byrne

October 31, 2020

I’m pretty sure the first time I laid eyes on Jacolby Satterwhite’s work was when it appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in the form of “Reifying Desire 6,” an eye-popping animated video (above) densely populated by writhing black male figures, words, phrases, and a kaleidoscopic meteor shower of images and objects. It was sexy, psychedelic, groovy, and unforgettable.. I couldn’t wait to see more. Happily, he’s super-prolific so there’s been lots to follow. I knew he had a show this fall (his Instagram kept reminding me), and by chance I wandered onto his website just in time to realize it was closing the next day. So I hopped on my bike and in less than half an hour I was at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in Chelsea walking through “We Are In Hell When We Hurt Each Other,” a luscious visual, aural, trippy, intellectual bombardment.

It comes at you from so many angles. One launching point for the show was the album of dance tracks the artist put together (with collaborator Nick Weiss) based on original songs his beloved mother Patricia (who lived with schizophrenia and died in 2016) sang a cappella into a cassette recorder. The songs serve as soundtrack to an 18-minute virtual-reality film that one viewer at a time could watch at the gallery; I came too late to get a crack at the headset, but selected scenes were projected onto the gallery: a tribe of CGI fembots (modeled on the artist’s own body but decked out as Grace Jones-like warriors) inhabit a video-game landscape of menacing orbs and other intruders whom the figures easily vanquish. (The artist has said he got into the video game Final Fantasy while being treated for cancer as a kid.)

Present as a sort of goddess-matriarch figure in many iterations is the legendary fashion model Bethann Hardison, still looking magnificently regal at 78 (above); the ritualistic battles she oversees resolve into the final image of a floral shrine to Breonna Taylor.

Then there’s a multimedia sculpture called Room for Doubt – four larger-than-life nude male figures (again modeled on the artist’s body) in the midst of some kind of cryptic healing ritual involving golden ropes tied around their heads.

As Patty Gone wrote in her review for the online magazine Hyperallergic, Room for Doubt reimagines Caravaggio’s 1603 painting, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” in which the famous non-believer dips a finger into Christ’s wound. In Satterwhite’s version, four life-size nudes mimic the poses of Jesus and company, their torsos containing small screens showing a performance in which Satterwhite grimaces as he drags his body across a floor. There’s no messiah or disciple here, only shared sacrifice. Stillness creates room to behold another’s pain.” On the floor in the shape of animal hides are papyrus-like scrolls with rough drawings and notes (not unlike the note-to-self scribblings Jean-Michel Basquiat would include in his rich collage-landscapes).  

A version across the room, called simply Doubt, is one of several works in neon, including a kind of hilarious, witty neon version of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Picasso’s rendition of which formed a key moment in the emergence of Cubism as a modern way of seeing and making art.

Besides drinking in these heady, color-saturated works, the high point of my visit was meeting the artist, whom I instinctively knew would be there. (Where else would an artist want to hang out?) He turned out to be friendly, handsome, and chatty, the kind of artist whose temperament lends itself to effortlessly discoursing about his work, where it comes from, what dots he’s connecting, etc.

You could happily entertain yourself for some time disappearing down the rabbit hole of his videos and interviews, enumerated on this page.

He told me I could watch the video in extra high-def on YouTube at home, and I scanned the QR code but couldn’t find the video later. Instead, Andy and I wound down from the crazy week by watching Spike Lee’s film version of David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO Max. It was great revisiting the show, which we saw and loved on Broadway for the design, the lighting, and the exuberant performances. Spike Lee clearly had fun capturing Annie-B Parson’s fluidly inventive choreography from all angles, including backstage and Busby Berkeley-like aerial shots.

Culture Vulture: TOUCHING HISTORY at the Palm Springs Art Museum

March 26, 2020

To quote Alanis Morrissette, isn’t it ironic? When the Palm Springs Art Museum decided to mount the first exhibition on the West Coast commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall gay-liberation rebellion, associate curator David Evans Frantz chose to commission eight contemporary artists to create new work, and the theme he selected was…Touch. That certainly seemed entirely reasonable, unremarkable, or simply admirably out-of-the-box when the show opened last October. It felt that way even when I saw “Touching History: Stonewall 50” Sunday March 8, when museum docent Vinny Stoppia gave a guided tour for members of the local chapter of California Men’s Gathering aficionados.

By the time the museum closed to the public March 17, the show had become a relic of a bygone era, one that has given way to the new era of Touching Nobody.

But let me take you through a few of the high points of the exhibition for me, starting with the vintage poster that seems to have inspired Frantz to adopt the theme of touch for this overview of post-Stonewall gay life. (click on images to enlarge)

3-8 touch one another

3-8 touch poster credits

3-8 touching history artists3-8 touching history manifesto

“Touch is powerful, affirming, and unruly.” I love that!

3-8 kang seung lee


I was particularly moved to see these works paying homage to Tseng Kwong Chi, a downtown legend and a colleague of mine when I worked for the Soho Weekely News when I first moved to New York. Kwong Chi produced a number of iconic images, including the photograph of statuesque dancer Bill T. Jones that became a widely beloved poster by Keith Haring (a signed copy of which hangs in my apartment to this day). A number of artists have used the erasure technique (including Christian Holstad) but Kang Seung Lee’s representation-by-absence of Tseng Kwong Chi felt especially poignant to me.

3-8 kang bklyn bridge

3-8 dugan fabbre trans elders

Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabree’s portraits of trans elders are gorgeous.

3-8 sky and mike pic

3-8 sky and mike text

3-8 adult content

The first inkling I got about this show came from reading an article by Jerry Saltz in New York magazine about Robert Andy Coombs, the remarkable young white disabled artist whose work consists largely of beautiful, boldly erotic portraits of the artist interacting affectionately with naked friends. The article suggested that there was an entire show devoted to Coombs at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Actually, there are only two photographs by Coombs in the show but they’re amazing — intense, frank, beautiful.

3-8 coombs blow job

3-8 coombs text

3-8 coombs cuddle on couch


Culture Vulture: Under the Radar Festival and Duane Michals at the Morgan Library

January 20, 2020

Under the Radar, the annual festival of cutting-edge international work centered at the Public Theater, always opens the year with a bang. I feasted on three events in one day.

Aleshea Harris, one of the cadre of fierce amazingly original playwrights of color who’ve emerged in the last few years, created WHAT TO SEND UP WHEN IT GOES DOWN , which presents itself very specifically as a ritual first and foremost for black people to heal/address the situation of violence against black people in this country. “Please note that it is not often that Black people have a safe, public space for expressing their unfiltered feelings about anti-Blackness. We are taking that space today.” The playwright and the company she works with (Movement Theater Company) incorporate many elements of pagan ritual, African village ceremony, trauma therapy, and spiritual workshops to make every moment of the experience participatory, not sit-back-and-watch theater. Whitney White directed the uniformly strong performers: Alana Raquel Bowers, Rachel Christopher, Nemuna Ceesay, Ugo Chukwu, Kambi Gathesha, Denise Manning, Javon Q. Minter, and Beau Thom (above, photo by Ahron R. Foster).

I read the text when it was published in American Theatre last year, which blew me away, and the experience itself is super-powerful, from gathering in the lobby surrounded by photographs of black people killed by police to the very end of the show, which looks different for black and non-black audience members. I took very much to heart the statement Harris has an actor read at the end of the show to the non-black audience: “A good friend once told me that we each have a different job where challenging racism is concerned. She spoke to the ways she could use her privilege as a white woman to dismantle the white supremacist ideology that contributes to the deaths of so many people. As a Black woman and writer, I am uniquely positioned to create a piece of theatre focused on making space for Black people. This is one way I can contribute. This is my offering. I’d like to end this ritual by challenging you to consider what you are uniquely positioned to offer. As a non-Black person, what is a tangible way you can disrupt the idea responsible for all these lives needlessly taken? My hope is that you will consider this deeply. My further hope is that your consideration will turn to action.” I have some ideas. I want to percolate more. WHAT WE SEND UP had a short run Off-Broadway last year and will have another short run at Playwrights Horizons this summer.

I went from that intense reality directly to the moon – via TO THE MOON, a 15-minute virtual reality piece co-created by Hsin-Chien Huang and Laurie Anderson. Five people at a time sit on stools wearing a headset and holding joysticks for a trip through space. There were some beautiful images and speeches familiar from Anderson’s recent work, but the piece as a whole was so SCARY! I’m not a gamer and I’m amazingly prone to vertigo, so I stayed pretty low to the ground. When the video provided the opportunity to fly through space or climb a high steep mountain, I had to shut my eyes. It was so crazy: I knew I was sitting on a stool with a headset on and my feet on the floor but my palms were sweating and I was making involuntary fear sounds.

Then I got to see MUKHAGNI, created and performed by a young-ish gay male couple, one of them Bengali-American (Shayok Misha Chowdury), the other biracial/African-American (Kameron Neal). They do the entire 90-minute performance totally naked: cook food, stand with video projected onto their naked bodies, lie on the (stage-soil-covered) floor speaking into microphones dangling inches above their faces, talk about death and death rituals in various cultures and cremation and their respective families. (The title means “mouth fire,” which is how cremations along the Ganges begin.) They take a pile of birch trunks and build a kind of square seating area, then they rearrange the tree trunks into a kind of bonfire structure. Then the lights come up and they sit in folding chairs and talk to the audience about their relationship in a funny structure (“on our 15th date we did this…on our 312th date we did that…on our 186th date we decided to make this piece,” etc.) — a regular activity on “dates” was to visit cemeteries — then there’s a mourning ritual where Chowdury creates a garland of fresh flower blossoms while Neal shaves his head with a clipper. So amazing and sweet and strong and not exactly like anything I’ve seen before. But it’s the sort of thing I’ve watched my friend Keith Hennessy create over the years, elements of spiritual ceremony combined with pop-culture savvy non-linear performance art. I wish this show would have a longer run somewhere. You can see more pictures on their website:

A few days later I met my friend Liam Cunningham at the Morgan Library to walk through the beautiful exhibition “Illusions of the Photographer: Duane Michals at the Morgan.” I’ve long admired Michals’s work, distinctive for the interplay of image and language, poems and sentences and stories handwritten in the margins around his usually black-and-white, often enigmatic photographs.

The show is partly a retrospective but also an “artist’s choice” event, meaning that Michals got to root around in the Morgan’s archives to pull out art works that struck his fancy or that resonate with his own work.

Liam (who is a legendary photographer in his own right) took this beautiful picture of me in front of Sol LeWitt’s giant Wall Drawing 552D.


Culture Vulture: Top Theater of 2019

December 28, 2019


  1. Fairview – I was a latecomer to Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, having missed it at Soho Rep and caught up with it at Theater for a New Audience (in a bigger and I have to imagine more ideal space). The play, Sarah Benson’s production, Mimi Lien’s set, Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography, and the masterful ensemble (especially Mayaa Boateng, Heather Alicia Simms, and Roslyn Ruff, below, photo by Richard Termine) rocked my world with its canny employment of theatrical elements to dramatize how we perform race for each other.

2. Octet – Composer Dave Molloy continued to astonish with this a cappella musical about a 12-step group for internet addicts, with a superb cast directed by Annie Tippe with extraordinary music direction by Or Matias.

3. American Utopia – David Byrne turned his latest album tour into a Broadway spectacle with the help of choreographer Annie-B Parson, staging consultant Alex Timbers, lighting designer Rob Sinclair, and whoever devised the technology to allow the musicians to roam the stage as self-contained entities.

4. Hadestown – Pop songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s adaptation of the Orpheus myth was a revelation to me, beautifully staged by the great Rachel Chavkin with a bunch of remarkable performances, including Amber Gray, Reeve Carney, and standout ensemble member Timothy Hughes.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation surpassed my expectations, thanks to Bartlett Sher’s tough production and Celia Keenan-Bolger’s indelible Scout.

6. Fefu and Her Friends – Lileana Blain-Cruz’s exquisite staging of Maria Irene Fornes’s famous, rarely seen 1977 theatrical groundbreaker, with excellent sets by Adam Rigg, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, and top-notch performances by all, especially Amelia Workman and Brittany Bradford.

7. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven – another rich, messy, double-slice of life from Stephen Adly Giurgis with a crazy good ensemble (above, photo by Monique Carboni) directed by John Ortiz, especially Elizabeth Rodriguez, Kristina Poe, and the towering Liza Colón-Zayas.

  1. “Daddy” A Melodrama – Jeremy O. Harris has unerring instincts for language, stories, and imagery that make theater electric. Like his Slave Play (currently on Broadway) and Black Exhibition (recently at Bushwick Starr, above, Miles Greenberg with Harris, photo by Sara Krulwich), Daddy made up for its imperfections with puppets, outrageous performances, and Alan Cumming suddenly grabbing a mic to sing George Michael’s “Father Figure” with a female gospel trio singing backup.
  2. Adaku’s Revolt – MacArthur fellow Okwui Okpokwasili mounted this beautiful small piece for young audiences at the Abrons Arts Center.
  3. Soft Power – David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori collaborated on this curious, ambitious fun musical-within-a-play about reimagining The King and I from a Chinese point of view in order to heal the 2016 election results and Hwang’s experience of being stabbed.

Special Mention: Madonna’s Madame X show at the BAM Opera House was surprising, annoying, theatrical, and unforgettable.

Other memorable performance highlights: Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, beautifully staged by Stephen Brackett with brave Larry Owen in the lead; Netta Yerushalmy’s epic Paramodernities at New York Live Arts; Becca Blackwell and Danielle Skraastad in Hurricane Diane; exquisite design and direction of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole at LCT3 with Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Karen Kandel; Phelim McDermott’s beautiful campy production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera with a strong lead performance by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (above); Lauren Patten in Jagged Little Pill; at least Part One of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance on Broadway; Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman; Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas; Come Through, Bon Iver’s collaboration with TU Dance; and the Encores! Off-Center production of Al Carmines and Irene Fornes’s quirky, smart, devastating musical Promenade.


December 11, 2019

For a three-actor one-set 85-minute no-intermission play, there’s A LOT going on in Donja R. Love’s one in two, which just opened in a production by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Theater.

It’s part of the single most exciting development in contemporary American theater, the explosion of productions by playwrights of color who are not only telling stories we otherwise wouldn’t be hearing but conveying them in convention-smashing, formally inventive ways that are reconfiguring our fundamental ideas of what theater can be. As a 60-something white cismale theater maven, I love watching the trickle of once-a-generation innovators like Maria Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Young Jean Lee turn into a torrent of fiercely talented, jaggedly individual poets of time-space-language (Jackie Sibblies Drury, Aleasha Harris, and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, to name just a few of an emerging fertile crop). Donja R. Love belongs to a subset of that group, the tribe portraying queer black male experience with tremendous courage, humor, and sexual honesty (cf. Robert O’Hara, Jeremy O. Harris, and Michael R. Jackson). Even within that group, Love steers into a much smaller subset of writers dealing with the ongoing impact of HIV on black gay lives; most of the others that come to my mind (Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint) were swept away at the height of the epidemic.

The title refers to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 that chillingly asserts that “one in two Black gay men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.” (By comparison, the stats are one in eleven for white gay or bisexual men, one in four for gay or bisexual Latino men.) Numbers figure heavily in the play. When the audience enters, the three actors sit silently on the austere white set (by Anulfo Maldonado) under screens racking up numbers at an alarming rate. When the play starts, their first action is to “take a number” like from a deli counter, and then they engage the audience in an applause-o-meter process of deciding which of them will play characters #1, #2, and #3. Jacobs-Jenkins used a similar ploy with his play Everybody, in which certain roles were assigned by lottery, but after seeing one in two it’s even more mind-boggling to realize that all three actors have the entire script memorized and are ready to play any of the characters at a moment’s notice.

The main character, #1, has a name (Donté), while the other two actors play all the people he encounters on his journey from HIV diagnosis through all the hurdles of denial, depression, telling your family, getting treatment, joining a support group, contemplating suicide, negotiating hook-ups, the solace of substances. These fleetly morphing scenes are skillfully staged by Stevie Walker-Webb with minimal props and Cha See’s evocative, precise lighting. At the performance I saw, chubby, dark-skinned Edward Mawere played #1 (below, right, photos by Monique Carboni), while willowy, light-skinned Jamyl Dobson was #2 (below, left) and buff, scruffy Leland Fowler was #3. All three were excellent, brave, and beyond vanity. One provocative aspect of the show is contemplating how different certain scenes might have looked if the roles were switched around.

A statement by the playwright, handed out with the program as the audience leaves, reveals to what extent the play is autobiographical and how much speaks for the community of his peers. Because like the earliest AIDS plays (I’m thinking of William M. Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart),  one in two functions as potentially life-saving community education. It’s easy to be blasé about HIV these days. I mean, everyone knows it’s evolved into a manageable chronic disease, treatable like diabetes, right? And everyone knows that there’s this miraculous new drug regimen called PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) that pretty much guarantees you will never contract HIV, right? Well…not so fast. Not everybody has the same access to information, resources, community support, and internal wherewithal.

Watching the play I was haunted by a disturbing op-ed piece by a young black gay writer named Daryl Hannah that ran in the New York Times in September 2017 with the headline “Why Anti-HIV Medicine Isn’t For Me.” Much as I wanted to argue with Hannah, I couldn’t contest his personal feeling of lacking a community of peers with whom he could sort out his anxieties and hesitations, any more than I could dismiss the widespread suspicion the black Americans have toward doctors and Western medicine, given the Tuskegee syphilis trials and other hideous historical abuses. And not just black Americans. Hannah’s op-ed piece appeared the same week that the supernaturally gifted theater composer Michael Friedman died of AIDS at age 41. You would think such a death would be preventable in this day and age, in New York City…and yet I just heard another sad story of a biracial 32-year-old suicide in Brooklyn, too isolated and too scared to share his HIV status with his family.

one in two doesn’t traffic in preachiness or Pollyanna attitudes. It lays out messy scenes from Donté’s dilemma in the manner of Brechtian lehrstücke (learning-plays). I can imagine a peer-group discussion minutely dissecting the scene in which Donté fumbles his way through questions about disclosure and condom use with a Grindr hookup who calls himself Trade Hung Like Horse Underscore 99 (one of many hilariously meta touches in the play).

The playwright impressively omits easy conclusions. As soon as I saw the set, I noticed there were no exits onstage. Besides referencing Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist drama, Maldonado’s set also reminded me of Adrian Piper’s stark-white installation What It’s Like, What It Is #3, with its evocation of prison surveillance panopticons. And the play doesn’t wrap things up with a tidy ending because, guess what, the story of HIV isn’t over.

Other Culture Vulture expeditions in brief: among the seven other shows I saw in the last two weeks, the only one that really left me cold was 32 rue Vandenbranden by the Flemish company Peeping Tom at the BAM Next Wave Festival, an acting-school exercise in competing for attention onstage. I didn’t love Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morissette musical on Broadway I had such high hopes for (mainly out of admiration for book writer Diablo Cody), though I completely dug Lauren Patten’s understated performance as teenage lesbian Jo, whose literally show-stopping rendition of “You Oughta Know” (above, photo by Matthew Murphy) has Tony Award written all over it. (Director Diane Paulus engineered that for Andrea Martin in her staging of Pippin.) Oskar Eustis’s revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day at the Public Theater is as clunky and unsatisfying as the original was, but Crystal Lucas-Perry is dazzling as Zillah, and Jonathan Hadary as Xillah speaks not just for the playwright but for the audience when, pointedly likening the current political atmosphere to German in the 1930s, he delivers the raw cry, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

I very much admired Thomas Ostermeier’s well-acted production of History of Violence at St. Ann’s Warehouse, my introduction to hotshot young French literary star Edouard Louis. I loved seeing the multimedia spectacle Come Through at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn (above, photo by Eric Timothy Carlson), a strange and sublime collaboration between the St. Paul-based company TU Dance and adventurous experimental rocker Justin Vernon, whose band Bon Iver shared the stage performing a mixture of songs from their latest album and odd numbers written just for this piece.

I also loved Stephen Adly Guirgis’s rambling, raggedy Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (above, photos by Ahron R. Foster), with its crazy, beautiful, harrowing, poignant scenes of life in a Harlem women’s shelter and a gigantic ensemble of amazing actors, including LAByrinth Theater Company superstar Liza Colón-Zayas (below left, with Andrea Sygowski), who I think is one of the finest actors onstage today.

Best of all was Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends at Theatre for a New Audience. I’m one of the dinosaurs who can boast of having seen the legendary original 1977 production at the American Place Theatre, directed by Fornes herself, most memorable of course for its unprecedented middle section, which shuffled the audience through four scenes taking place simultaneously in different areas of the theater. Talk about breaking the fourth wall! Blain-Cruz’s production, though, is better in every way. Sleek, beautiful, wittily designed (count the animal images hidden like Hirschfeld Ninas among Adam Rigg’s set and Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes — see below, photo by Gerry Goodstein), wonderful performances by excellent actors, all of it perfectly preserving the enigmatic poetry of Fornes’s play.

I enjoyed having dinner afterwards with my friend Jay (at the delicious new Mexican gastropub around the corner, Las Santas) and parsing the echoes of Mabel Dodge Luhan (intimate friend of Gertrude Stein’s) in Fefu, expounding on how the final image of the play influenced Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and counting the number of lesbians onstage.



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