Pillar of Salt: Looking back at the Best and Worst of 2017

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BBC News - Trump looks at sun during 2017 eclipse

(via BBC News)

“We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news/
Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true/
All of us worried, all of us buried, and our feelings deep/
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap/
Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it/
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly”

– Kendrick Lamar, “LUST.”, DAMN. (2017)

[NOTE: If you just want my pop culture round-ups, skip down to the .gif of Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks.]

Damn… it’s really been a while since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? Hell, back in 2013 I was just a frustrated Black actor with single-man irritation who occasionally channeled those frustrations onto this on this here blog as I continued to look for full-time work, tried to get cast in more than just a few productions a year, and regularly put up with harassment by local law enforcement as I hoped like Hell that I wouldn’t have to leave my hometown of San Francisco. Nowadays, I’m… four years older.

In all fairness, I haven’t been in complete stasis in the intervening years. Though I’ve yet to nail down a full-time job – despite coming reeeeally close after several interviews – I’ve been working my ass off with freelance writing work: I was a film critic for Bellus magazine; I had a bi-monthly column about theatre that ran for two years; I did both official and ghost-writing corporate work (see most of these in the “Copywriting” and “Journalism” links above); and I spent the summer of 2017 working on a project so high-profile that I can’t talk about it in detail because I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

I seem to never do as much acting as I’d like, but I’m learning to enjoy quality over quantity. I had an on-screen speaking role in the film The Diary of a Teenage Girl (I’m now SAG-eligible), I made my Berkeley Rep debut when I went on as an understudy for Jeff Augustín’s The Last Tiger in Haiti (I’m now an equity candidate), and I did a lot more writing and directing. I’ve also done more supernumerary and lightwalker work with the SF Opera. Given that a lot of the toxic folks I cut off this year were theatre colleagues, part of me expected to never be cast again. I’m glad that’s not the case.

I’m still single, but in 2014 I started a six-month relationship that I can only describe as… tumultuous. And I still get shit from police, but that’s lead to one of my most frequently-read blog posts, so I know I’m not just shouting out into the darkness.

Unfortunately, the possibility of leaving San Francisco is still in the air, hanging above me like the Sword of Damocles. Procuring full-time work would likely put that off, but if you’ve ever read my “Osmosis” entries (I’m bringing ‘em back, I swear!), you know how tricky that’s been for me. Still, the financial windfall afforded me from this year’s freelance work has me cautiously optimistic that I can stick around. I don’t know what it is that’s getting me so far through the interview process for hiring managers to simply dump me at the last minute, but this past year has proven that I’m more qualified than most of the folks applying.

This has also been a year in which I cut ties with a lot of what-the-kids-these-days-call “toxic personalities”. There were far more of them than I expected, but dropping each one was akin to removing a tumor before it metastasizes. Still, removing something cancerous from your body tends to leave big scars, if not missing limbs.

So where does all of this leave me at the end of 2017? Well, if you’ve ever read any of my personal entries here, you know that I’m constantly asking myself “How do I fit in here?” I’ll say this for 2017: I think I’ve gotten an answer.

At the tail-end of 2016, two important theatre-related occurrences took place for me: 1 – the-theatre-company-with-which-I’d-collaborated-since-2010 dissolved (for the second time, mind you), leaving me without a specific theatre “home” anymore; 2 – I began reviewing theatre again, this time attending shows in an official capacity. Since I was no longer writing my “objective” bi-monthly theatre column, I could once again use my reviews to be completely honest about the shows I was seeing. This went about as well as could be expected.

I’m obviously not the Bay Area’s most important theatre critic (that would be Lily Janiak of the San Francisco Chronicle), so I’m always surprised that anyone reads my reviews, let alone actual theatre folk. But they do. My review of Cutting Ball’s Hedda may have damaged a friendship of mine, and my pointing out the racism in Shotgun’s production of The Events led to an e-mail exchange with the director who tried to “whitesplain” that her show couldn’t be racist because… reasons. And that was before my review of Blasted led to me being trolled by a commenter who suggested my review was biased simply because it wasn’t glowing (I deleted all but the first of his comments).

At the same time, I would occasionally get comments from strangers who had similar reactions to shows, actors grateful that anyone saw – let alone wrote about – their modestly-advertised production, and one playwright using a quote from my review on his website. Hell, the artistic director of a very prominent theatre company recommended me – yes, me – for a theatre critic opening at a well-known publication (a job I may yet still get). So yeah, there have been some advantages to throwing my two cents in on local productions as I continued act and audition.

Yes, I still act and audition. Again, not as much as I’d like, but I still did it. I wound up doing most of my acting and directing with a company I’m proud to have seen blossom over the past few years. In my one full-length production, I got to play one of the most well-known characters in all of literature. I didn’t know if or how my reviewing theatre would affect my chances of being cast, but I’m glad I kept at it. Whether onstage or off, I find myself inextricably linked to the Bay Area theatre community. And I love that. Last week, one of my favorite local directors – nay, one of Northern California’s best directorial talents – was announced as the new artistic director of one of SF’s most renowned theatres. This announcement came after the company she founded dissolved. Her role in Bay Area theatre changed, but she decided to make lemonade out of the lemons.

That’s how I’d like to think of this past year. As I write this, I’m five days past my birthday, thus ending The Fortnight from Hell for another year. I’ve spent the past year reconsidering what it means for me personally to be an American, a Black man, a native San Franciscan, a writer, and a theatre artist. It meant making some major changes and dropping a lot of dead weight, but I think I’m ultimately better for it. Like this time last year, we find ourselves in a state of uncertainty (thanks in no short part to that sun-gazing asshole whose photo is at the top this entry), but we’ve come too far to turn back now.

Twin Peaks - Dale Cooper - Good enough for me

So… what about pop culture?

As usual, a lack of funds kept me from engaging with as much pop culture as I would have preferred. Still, I took in quite a lot of it, and developed some rather strong opinions about it. In fact, skim over my entries from the past year and you’ll see that I wrote about it, too.

Granted, I missed out on writing on some key milestones (Wonder Woman, Blade Runner: 2049) and just flat out refused to talk about others (I saw some theatre shows so bad that it would be impossible for me to talk about them without a string of obscenities). My literary input was shamefully low, and my television selections become more, well, selective – I don’t care if a show has a rep, I’ll miss out on it if it doesn’t appeal to me.

So, without any further ado, here’s my take on 2017’s film, music, and theatre contributions.

FUNNIEST THING I READ ALL YEAR:
The Root.com – Panama Jackson at a Jagged Edge Concert

I’ll be honest, y’all: despite being a proud Black-American Gen-Xer/Yer/Millenial/What-the-fuck-ever-I-am-at-this-age, I can’t recall a single song by Jagged Edge. I remember the Boyz II Men/Jodeci/Mint Condition days of my ‘90s teen years, and I remember the Usher/NeYo days of the 2000s. But if you put a gun to my head, I can’t recall a single JE track. I mean, I knew the name, just not any of the songs. Apparently, they have a long-running beef with 112 ? I remember 112 ‘cause they did tracks with Biggie and had a masterpiece with Cupid, but who were Jagged Edge again?

Anyway, Panama Jackson of the website VSB (Very Smart Brothas, now a subsidiary of TheRoot, itself now a subsidiary of Gizmodo/Fusion) is a longtime fan, so he paid his own damn money to see ‘em play in 2017. It’s bad enough to read how his heart breaks because the “concert” was sum buh’shit, but the real gold comes from his recounting of an earlier JE concert that got… sweaty.

Thank you, Panama – your inexplicable devotion to JE made for Internet comedy gold.

Hon. mention:            Medium – Anything written by Frankie Griffen (He’s a local comedian. Goddamn you for being so funny, Frankie.)

MOST IMPORTANT THING I READ THIS YEAR:
Vanity Fair – “These are the Women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of Sexual Assault

When Ronan Farrow’s original story broke in October, it set off a bomb with shockwaves felt around the world. What makes the Vanity Fair piece so important is that it came in the aftermath, giving names and faces to some who were anonymous in Farrow’s piece and offering a platform for new voices. It showed how the evil of just one man stretched far and wide to many of the most recognizable women in the entertainment industry.

Weinstein accusers - photo by David Banks for NY Times

And they were just the tip of the iceberg. Photos via Getty/Composite byDavid Walter Banks for The New Yorker/Vanity Fair

If you think the #MeToo movement is bad because it points the finger at beloved shit-bags like Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, and yes, Trump, then you’re probably the type who thinks #BlackLivesMatter is stopping cops from doing their job (see my “Cop. Out.” entry for that). In other words, the problem isn’t the movement, the problem is you.

Hon. mention:

1 – Hypocrite poster-girl Lena Dunham defends her lying Girls co-writer accused of raping Aurora Perrineau

2 – Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o becomes the first accuser Weinstein calls out by name

Ah, White feminism. The latter-half of that term is a great thing that should be encouraged. Unfortunately, bad things happen when coupled with that “W” prefix. Suddenly, “all for one and one for all” becomes “hang the Black chick out to dry”. That’s why Justin Timberlake gets to headline the Super Bowl again, while Janet Jackson is still banned.

If you ain’t about intersectionality, you ain’t real.

MOST PLEASANTLY SURPRISING FILM:      Spider-Man: Homecoming

Y’all have no idea how long I’ve been wait for a halfway decent Spidey flick. This one went way beyond that. Thank you, MCU.

Hon. mentions:          Life, Sleight, Your Name (see below), and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Each of those was better than it had any right to be.

MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM:              Blade Runner: 2049

Fuck this movie. I’m both glad and disappointed that I never got my review up for it. In 2016, Denis Villenueve directed the most pretentious, overrated sci-fi “epic” of the year. What could possibly be worse? Doing the same thing as a follow-up to one of the most beloved sci-fi films of all time. Ridley Scott’s original is far from perfect – hell, its flaws are even more pronounced these days – but it has ideas that it illustrates excellently. 2049 takes every criticism of the first and cranks it up an interminable level. Like Arrival, Villenueve is more concerned visuals rather than narrative coherence. And he’s not Terence Malick, so he can’t pull it off.

(Dis)hon. mention:                The Circle (It took a lot of talent to make a film that shitty.)

BEST FILM:                         Your Name

My expectations are not high for the upcoming live-action US remake by JJ Abrams, so if you haven’t seen this animated modern masterpiece, please do so now.

Hon. mentions:
1 – Get Out
I saw myself in this film. I saw America in this film. I saw truth in this film. Fantastic.

2 – I am not Your Negro
Jordan Peele recently quasi-joked that Get Out was “a documentary”. Well, I am not Your Negro is a documentary. The words spoken in it are just as relevant now as they were when spoken some 50 years ago.

3 – (tie) It, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok
I couldn’t pick just one – these were all a lotta fun.

WORST FILM:                    The live-action American remake of Ghost in the Shell

Click the Your Name link above to read my thoughts on this whitewashed pile of shit.

BEST MUSICAL SURPRISE:                   Discovering Grime music.

Ever wonder who all those guys were on stage with Kanye at the Brit Awards a few years back? Turns out they were stars of a then-emerging Black British music scene called “Grime”. Clicking on the Vox link above will tell you all about it, though I still don’t know why they refuse to identify themselves with Hip-Hop (especially when they all do identify as rappers)? Whatever. Despite its name, Grime actually reminds me of an evolution of the sound RZA first brought in the mid-‘90s, with a Bone Thugs kinda flow.

Grime albums topped UK “Best of” lists this past December, and we Stateside are slowly starting to get acquainted with names like Skepta (check out “Shutdown,” that’s all I ask), Dizzee Rascal (“Space”), and Stormzy, whose album Gang Signs and Prayer wound up No. 1 on most of those aforementioned “Best of” lists.

Only time will tell if this is a genre with legs or just a passing trend, but Black Britons get so little respect for their contributions to music that it’s great to see them dominate at least one year in their homeland. And, best of all, the music ain’t bad.

Hon. mention:                        SZA. (‘Nuff said.)

BIGGEST MUSICAL DISAPPOINTMENT:       No new albums from Kanye or Kid Cudi.

It was the sort of news music fans love: after a well-publicized beef in 2016 (and Yeezy had a lot of those that year), Kanye and Cudi were not only back on speaking terms, they were back in the studio. Although 2017 came and went without any follow up to the cryptic “#EverybodyWins” hashtag, we were still blessed with news that Cudi’s next album will be exclusively produced by ‘Ye (who still has us waiting for his tentatively-titled album TurboGrafx 16).

Whether you recently re-listened to 808s and Heartbreak or play “Father Stretch My Hands” at least once-a-day (I did both), it gives us a lot to look forward to in 2018… just wish it had happened last year, is all.

(Dis)hon. mentions:
1 – No matter how bad they treat women, labels continue to defend Kodak Black, XXXtentacion, and Chris Brown.

2 – Taylor Swift refuses to publicly denounce her ever-growing White supremacist fanbase. It doesn’t matter how many songs you do with K.Dot or Future – having Black friends contractually-obligated guest spots doesn’t absolve you from racism.

BEST ALBUM:                                Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Play it backwards or forwards; play it on the run or at the crib; play it for the fam or for yourself. If you still don’t know why “Kung-fu Kenny” Duckworth is the best MC in the game, you haven’t been paying attention.

Hon. mention:                               Jay-Z – 4:44

It took Warren Zevon the end of his life to show the sincerity Jay did on this album.

BEST SONG:                                    Future ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Mask Off (Remix)”

This Metro-produced track already had everything going for it: Future’s flow, creepy atmosphere, those flutes! What could possibly improve it? K.Dot, that’s what.

Hon. mentions:                                  Remy Ma – “shEther

Using a classic diss track for your own usually never works. An underdog (established though Remy may be) going against a big star almost never works. Using one long verse for a song with no video surely never works.

Remy didn’t care. She re-staked her claim by flipping Nas’s classic Jay-Z diss track and going for Nicki Minaj’s throat. And she cut deep.

BEST THEATRE SURPRISE:       Gritty City Rep – New World Disorder

Colleen Egan has been telling me about Gritty City for years, but I never found a good time to see a show. My aforementioned “official capacity” changed that. After seeing their interesting-if-uneven production of MacBeth, I was much more impressed by their dystopian future follow-up. Not a perfect show, but my inner-theatre-kid wished he could have been in a production with the resources these kids have.

Hon. mention:                                    Discovering the name “Margo Hall”

As a director, she elevated brownsville song (b-side for tray) above the conventions that weighed it down. As a presenter, she both entertained and controlled the audience at the TBA Awards. And as an actor, she was nothing less than a force of nature in Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey. I don’t know why I’d never seen her before, but I’m sure as hell not gonna forget her now.

MOST DISAPPOINTING THEATRE:                 Hamlet at ACT

A renowned actor in the lead, a director helming one of her final shows as artistic director, and one of the greatest works of drama ever written – what could go wrong? Everything. This show was physically painful to sit through, a misunderstanding of the source material, and a misuse of the talented cast involved. I honestly hope Carey Perloff can do better before she leaves ACT, because this is a bad way to retire.

(Dis)hon. mentions:
1 – Theatre Rhino – Flim-Flam
I won the raffle the night I saw this. I now have a coffee mug on my desk reminding me of a show so absolutely terrible that it couldn’t end until it introduced pedophilia into the story. No, I did not make that up.

2 – Anything at The Shelton
Whether butchering Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge or making illegal changes to The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, The Shelton did some of truly inexcusable things under the false pretense of “art”.

3 – Ain’t Too Proud and An Octoroon at the Berkeley Rep
The Temptations not only made some of the greatest music of all time, but they lead rich, complex lives over a great many decades. Ain’t Too Proud doesn’t honor that, it truncates it and robs it of its power. The Rep did much better with musicals with Monsoon Wedding, but that too had its flaws.

An Octoroon posits itself as an intelligent discourse on racism in the arts, but is actually just “Racism for Dummies (Even More Remedial Edition)”.

BEST PERFORMANCE (FEMALE):        Karen Offereins – Phédre at Cutting Ball

Yes, I’ve known Karen for almost eight years now. That doesn’t change the fact that hers was one of the best unsung performance of the past twelve months. Quiet dignity and frustration are harder to pull off than one would imagine, but Karen did both masterfully.

Hon. mentions:
1 – Margo Hall in Black Odyssey at Cal Shakes
See the above.

2 – Charlie D. Gray in Where All Good Rabbits Go at FaultLine
For the record: Charlie identifies as non-binary. I’m putting it here as one of the best performance of a female character.

3 – Alisha Ehrlich in Belleville at Custom Made
I didn’t write a review of this one because the day I saw it was its closing. That doesn’t change the fact that Alisha – whom, like Karen, I’ve known for a number of years – broke my heart with her portrayal of the self-destructive American in Paris. I’ve seen that sort of self-destruction first-hand; it’s not easy to think about let alone recreate. Alisha did both with top-notch skill. She’s one of those local talents who manages to surprise you with each and every new performance.

4 – Safiya Fredericks in Grandeur at the Magic
A terrible script elevated by two wonderful performances, hers and Carl Lumbly’s. She was also amazing in Black Odyssey.

5 – Grace Ng in You for Me for You by Crowded Fire

BEST PERFORMANCE (MALE):                        Ryan Hayes in Breeders

All these months later and I’m still floored by the nuance and idiosyncratic realism of this performance. Again, sometimes the hardest thing for an actor to pull off can be normalcy. Ryan’s character was one who actively sought out a sense of normalcy all his life. Now that he’s found it, the love of his live may ruin it. It’s an honest and heartbreaking portrayal of a relationship than anyone can understand. I’m glad I got to see it done so masterfully.

Hon. mentions:
1 – Carl Lumbly in Grandeur
The mediocre script wasn’t worthy of such a wonderfully complex performance.

2 – Casey Robbins in House of Yes at Custom Made
Because of THAT MOMENT.

3 – Lance Gardner in An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep
Again, a fine actor elevates mediocre material.

BEST SHOW:                     You Mean to Do Me Harm at SF Playhouse

With a racist in the White House, it makes sense that 2017 was a year for the arts to explore discrimination. What’s more, shows like Grandeur, An Octoroon, and How to Be a White Man were written by people of color. Unfortunately, all of those shows failed because they oversimplified racism from every angle.

Then there was Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm. Written by a person of color, but refusing to talk down to its audience about race. Two Asian actors/characters, two White actors/characters, and all the tension that scenario can create. Add in a beautifully minimalist set and intelligent direction by Playhouse AD Bill English and you have a great show that forces the conversation America keeps avoiding.

Hon. mentions:
1 – Bridgette Portman’s Ageless at Quantum Dragon
Of all the shows for which I didn’t write reviews, this is the one I most regret. I showed up opening night. I really hope the show had decent audiences in its short run because it’s a heartbreaking sci-fi tales of love, loss, and the inevitability of mortality. It’s the sort of well-written, well-directed, well-designed show (all those roles filled by women, who are also the narrative focus of the story) that people always look for in contemporary theatre, but claim doesn’t exist. If it has another production, I urge you to seek it out.

2 – Breeders at FaultLine
It seemed as if I was the only one who enjoyed this show. Well, if I’m alone in that sentiment, then so be it. The way You Mean… explored racism and Ageless explored ageism/sexism, so too did Breeders explore adult relationships. I constantly beg the theatre gods to give me a human dramedy like this, and hoo-boy did they deliver! Worries about parenthood, infidelity, aging, spousal abuse, and assimilation are handled in a skillful (and funny) way that doesn’t reduce any of them to a thesis topic. Combine all that with fantastic set design and great performances, and this was one of the best Bay Area shows of the past twelve months.

3 – Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey at Cal Shakes
What can I say about this show that hasn’t already been said? Read my review above to see why Cal Shakes’ is bringing it back again this year.

4 – Samm-Art Williams’ Home by the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
We recently learned that Aldo Billingslea will take over as Artistic Director (interim, though it may be) for the LHT now that Steven Anthony Jones is retiring. If Aldo’s production of Home is any indication, the company is in good hands.

 

BEST POP CULTURE MOMENT:                       Kanye tells Trump to fuck off

As an unapologetic Kanye fan, even I’ve found it tough to defend some of his more outlandish behaviors over the years (or anything he’s ever said about Amber Rose). But not even I could come up with a defense for his infamous pro-Trump rant, his appearance at Trump Towers, or the tweets showing the signed copy of Time magazine. Why, Ye – why?!

Then something happened. Maybe it was Trump having the Kardashians’ yacht raided after Kim slammed the Muslim ban, maybe it was because he finally got help for his obvious mental health issues. Whatever it was, Kanye dropped Trump like a bad habit.

He spent the rest of 2017 holed up with Kid Cudi creating music. He only emerged to show off his new kicks or help fans with disabilities. If there’s one thing 2018 needs, it’s a return of the real Kanye. Let’s hope we get it.

Hon. mentions:
1 – Moonlight rightfully takes the Oscar from “Bla-Bla-Bland”

A picture’s worth a thousand words:

Barry Jenkins

2 – Wonder Woman and Get Out put to rest any lingering doubts about the box office appeal of films created by and starring PoC and women.

WORST POP CULTURE MOMENT:     Everything surrounding Harvey Weinstein.

Do I even need to explain?

A SINGLE IMAGE THAT SUMS UP 2017 IN A NUTSHELL:
Look at the top of this entry. That idiot has nuclear launch codes. Didn’t anyone read The Dead Zone?

Okay, ’18 – whaddya got for us?

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