“YEAR, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Is it April already?
I’ll be honest with ya, folks: I was gonna just skip over the 2019 year-in-review. And I know I’m not the only one. It’s not enough to look back at another shitty year, but it was also the capper of a mixed-bag decade. I won’t say the decade was a total wash because it wasn’t – in fact, I achieved some things in the past ten years I thought I never would. After spending the previous decade (my 20s) adrift with no direction, I spent the past decade (my 30s) doing a lot of the creative stuff I should have been doing a decade prior.
I’ve written, directed, acted, produced, and developed more work than I can count. I even had a speaking role in an award-winning film that people actually know! I’ve also started a career as a “professional” writer that has seen me published locally and nationally. I’ve written for companies you’ve probably never heard of and one I’m absolutely certain you have (Samsung). I’ve commented on the local art scene so effectively that companies actively seek me out to review their work… when others aren’t cursing my name for less-than-flattering reviews.
If you’d told me a decade ago that my no-degree-havin’ ass would be able to say he’d achieved all that and more (just look at the “Journalism” category on this site’s menu), he’d have thought you were crazy.
And yet… I find myself looking back at the former year like a bad movie that couldn’t end quick enough. Like Justice League. In fact, just like Justice League, 2019 ended with a teaser for a follow-up that no one wanted, but no one would able to avoid. A follow-up named COVID-19.
As I type these belated words, the 2019 novel Coronavirus (just like a shitty year to brand itself on the worst thing possible) has grown from something localized to China to a worldwide pandemic that has wiped out an entire generation of Italians. American-born Asians are being attacked in the streets, gun-nuts are hoarding weapons like Branch Davidians, and the Idiot-in-Chief – who fucked up so bad that we got hit harder than we should have – has somehow found new ways to fuck it up even more.
So… how could I possible look at this new year/decade with anything other than apocalyptic panic? Because of Regina King. Yes, really.
Whereas most of you reading this will likely have only discovered Regina King from her role in Legally Blonde 2 (which I still haven’t seen, despite being a fan of the first), I’ve been up on homegirl since 227. I remember her roles in Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Higher Learning. I remember when she was Khadijah’s shitty potential roommate on Living Single. I remember finding out that she was the voice of both Huey and Riley on the animated version of The Boondocks. I’ve been down with Regina King since jump street.
But even I wasn’t prepared for what she showed in 2019. Although it was technically as 2018 flick, it wasn’t until January of the following year that I finally got to see her revealing performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, my favorite film that year. As much as I want to tear my hair out at the Academy’s decisions, giving her the Little Gold Man was one of the few good decisions they’ve made in recent years.
Still, as much as I’m willing to always check out Regina’s work, I was not looking forward to Watchmen. It was bad enough that Zack Snyder’s shitty adaptation still lingered in my mind like the world’s worst fart, but the fact that it was being run by Damon Lindelof didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. And what the fuck was up with those trailers? What did any of that have to do with Alan Moore’s deconstruction/scrutinization of the superhero as an icon?
Well, we found out didn’t we? Despite having everything going against it, Watchmen pulled off nothing short of a television miracle, delivering the best tv show of the year (possibly the decade, if not for Atlanta). Its interpretation of superheroes was actually well in-line with Moore’s outspoken views. They followed up Moore and Gibbons’ comic with a story about history being written by the (White male) winners, about destiny vs. free will, and about the necessity of heroes to inspire the layman to achieve greatness.
And at the center of it all was Regina King as Sister Night, a fascinating character played by a more-than-capable actor. My year started with Regina King greatness and it ended with it, too.
And, just like in Watchmen, I refuse to let the potential threat of Armageddon consume me. I’ve been trying to keep my acquaintances optimistic as we battle this COVID-19 nightmare – not because I have rose-tinted glasses, but because it’s something I know I can do and it does make a difference. And yes, I believe the things I’m saying. When last year ended, we had no idea that we’d be in the eye of this particular storm.
But all storms pass. So, too, will this one. And soon this will be something remembered distantly, rather than fretted upon in the present. I look forward to that day. And, like Sister Night, I know we’ll get to fight again. We won’t even recognize then who we are now.
Speaking of distant memories, let’s do some inventory of last year, shall we? Before I decided to finish this entry, I was happy to just leave off the year with this entry Since I’m not a rich guy, I don’t have as much money to throw around on art and pop culture. But I’m a professional theatre critic, so the following will lean heavily on the work I get to see for free.
Nevertheless, here are some thoughts I had about last year’s output.
BEST ARTICLE I READ: The Hustle – “The Video Store that Survived Netflix”
Growing up in both SF and Daly City, Captain Video was the pre-Blockbuster video village that shaped most of my childhood. As a devout daily reader of The Hustle, even I was surprised to find this article, revealing that Captain Video hasn’t shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s one thing to think of VHS as obsolete, it’s another to recognize it as a format that is still home to material never made available on any other.
And Captain Video’s long life is a testament to the power of small businesses.
PUBLICATION I GAVE UP ON: The Daily Beast
I used to love this site and everything written on it. But now, it’s just a glorified blog; a platform for mouth-foaming rants rather than a legit news outlet. And the paradox is I agree with (most of) those rants, but the standards for the site have dipped so low that the average piece comes off as being written by a 15-year-old who thinks they just know everything about politics.
BEST ACTRESS: Rinabeth Apostol
From melting the heart of a jaded newsman in Groundhog Day to resolving her status as a racial curio in The Chinese Lady, Rinabeth’s performances were the stuff of envy. I’d only discovered her as the de facto “straight woman” in 2018’s Two-Mile Hollow, but her 2019 output proved her a force to be reckoned with. Other cities are trying to steal away this Bay Area native, but I hope she always finds time to return home.
Runner-up: Martha Brigham in The Daughters‘ Sandbox premiere at SF Playhouse
It is not easy being an understudy, especially if you actually have to go on (believe me, I’ve done it for the Berkeley Rep). It’s even harder to make reading a script on-stage look natural when you’re trying to live as a character. But on opening night of The Daughters, Martha Brigham did both. Her last-minute grasp of the story – done entirely script-in-hand – didn’t take away from the verisimilitude at all. She was able to contribute to a character she’d inherited and proved that the show does indeed go on. Cheers to her.
BEST SHOW I DIDN’T REVIEW: Just Theater – Cry it Out
I was there opening night. I’d gotten in free, as I often do, but not as a member of the press. As such, I was under no obligation to review the show. Plus, I have strong thoughts about the people who run the stage on which the show was performed.
Nevertheless, this Just Theater production of this show about modern parenting worries still lingers with me months after I saw it. Press or no press, I should have given it a good word. Damn good work, all involved.
BEST SET DESIGN: Katie Whitcraft – Fahrenheit 451
I’ve been privileged to know Katie Whitcraft for several years now. She has a habit of doing a lot of hard work only to get very little credit – that’s not right. If any work of hers deserves recognition, it’s the set she built for Quantum Dragon this year.
I’ve seen big-budget touring shows (lookin’ at you, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) that put as much ingenuity into their sets as Katie did. And when the Easter egg-filled set reveals its biggest secret – opening up at the middle like a book – I couldn’t pick my jaw up off the floor. Katie’s set is proof that a fertile mind beats a fat wallet any day of the week.
Runner-up: The Jungle
Before The Curran became the Wizarding World, it became the claustrophobic setting for this true story of how the Western world fails refugees. The entire theatre was transformed, with chairs having been ripped out and a new low ceiling having been put in, plasma screens all about. Even for those of us not sitting “on-stage”, it was an immersive experience that could only be experienced first-hand.
Runner-up: The Daughters‘ Sandbox premiere at SF Playhouse
I love my hometown of SF. I find beauty in its natural splendor as well as its architectural beauty. The Daughters covers two eras of The City: the conservative ’50s and the just-ended 2010s. Set designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke captures both of these eras in lovely detail, with the meticulous “cleanliness” of the former and the unapologetic grime of the latter. Like the story of the play itself, the set wasn’t meant to last forever, but someone had to capture it for all time. I’m glad I was there to see it.
BEST COSTUMES: Kathleen Qiu – An Invitation Out
Say this for Quantum Dragon: even if they show itself isn’t perfect, the artisanal work is undeniable. Qiu was also responsible for the 3-D printed monochromes of QDT’s production of Universal Robots. Here, she unleashes a Technicolor showcase that’s often blinding to look at, but still very telling about how each character sees themself. I wanted to know more about how these folks chose these particular threads, and how I could make them myself. The costumes were so loud that they seemed to drown out everything else in the show. That’s not at knock against Qiu. Not in the least.
FUNNIEST THEATRE MOMENT: Annie Dick’s hand gesture in Let’s Kill Jessica
If you’ve followed my writing for long enough – particularly my old Theater Pub column – then you’ll know that Claire Rice never ceases to amaze (and terrify) me. I didn’t review her latest show because I’ve done so much work with Awesome Theatre that it’s hard for me to be objective.
Still, I have to know: was it Claire’s script, Nikki Meñez’s direction, or simply Annie Dick’s own inspiration that led to the most hilarious moment of their office slasher comedy. Seeing the titular Jessica give a limp underhanded wave at a co-worker was so goddamn funny I nearly fell out of my seat. Months later, it still makes me chuckle – almost as much as co-workers showing up all wearing the same top.
Runner-up: Jasmine Milan’s super-creepy speech in Bull in a China Shop
There are so many ways this scene could – nay, should – have gone wrong. But it didn’t. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.
Runner-up: KML’s How Does that Make You Feel? – “Bangs”
Just… just watch:
SHOW I HATED BUT EVERYONE ELSE LOVED: The Flick at Shotgun
As a critic, I know that making sweeping generalizations about an entire generation is both pretentious and disingenuous. (You can’t tell about an entire generation until you’ve been removed from it.) That said, I still believe the two worst playwrights of this generation are Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Annie Baker. The former is a blowhard who has a fetish for shock value, and the latter is the personification of the “White Girl with a Pen”.
The Flick is a terrible play for a great many reasons, but the most egregious might be how it’s what happens when a White writer creates a Black character with absolutely no insight into the Black experience. Read my review for more detail (I was a Black nerd/cinema usher, like this play’s lead character), but this horrible play and its moronic plotting are reason enough for Baker to never write again.
And Shotgun also did one of the best shows this year (see below).
BEST OVERALL SHOW The Jungle at Curran
The Curran is home to Hogwarts for the next couple of years (except now, because… COVID). But their last show before the switch was both of its time and timeless. It was a low-key technical marvel and a sad character drama put together masterfully. I hope we see something like that on the Curran again one day.
Runner-up: The Daughters‘ Sandbox Premiere by SF Playhouse
Not only is this just a well-written show, not only does it tell a unique story about the history of my favorite city, but the aforementioned performance and set design have only increased my appreciation for the show in subsequent months. Again, it’s not perfect (Patricia Cotter’s occasionally gets lost in the woods), but the story and characters have life – thanks, in no short part, to director Jessica Holt. Should this play follow its Sandbox predecessors to have a full-fledged production, the world will only be richer for it.
FAVORITE SHOW: Kill Move Paradise at Shotgun
Rather than call this a runner-up to The Jungle, I’ll just point out the fact that this show is the right way to tackle a serious subject without talking down to your audience. Intelligent characterization, fascinating set design, and heart-breaking plot turns result in the 2019 show for which Shotgun should be most proud.
BEST OVERALL THEATRE EXPERIENCE Getting back to the circus
After not seeing a circus in over 20+ years, I saw two within the span of a week. Not only were they each a wonder to behold, but I’m now at the age where I can drink, which made them all the more fun.
Runner-up: Finally seeing Hamilton
I’ve known Daveed Diggs since 2008. In 2019, I understudied for “Leo” in White Noise, a role he originated. Since he moved to New York years ago, I’ve watched and celebrated his success from afar. But since I’ll never get to New York myself, I just took it for granted that I’d never see the Lin-Manuel masterpiece of which he took part; and my hatred of bootlegs made those out of the question. Even when the show finally came to the Bay Area, it brought its absurdly-high ticket prices with it. Every entry into the shows lottery resulted in bupkis. I just wasn’t meant to see the show.
Then… I did. Totally worth it.
WORST MOVIE(s): Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Joker
I’ve written so much about these two incel faves that the words have lost all meaning. Despite the objectively bad technical choices made in both movie, I recognize that personal taste is just that. If you like these films, fine. But I’ll still judge you the way I’d judge someone who has The Federalist Papers on their bookshelf next to their copy of Atlas Shrugged. Such is not the sign of a good human being.
It takes a lot of work to make Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani unfunny. In that respect, this flick is a success.
Runner-up: The Kitchen
As I watch this, I’m a few days past having finally seeing Aquaman… which sucked. Hard. And people wonder why I stay away from DC movies? If not for the candy-colored mania that is Birds of Prey, I’d avoid them all together.
SHITTY MOVIE I DIDN’T SEE BUT WISH I HAD: Cats (pre-patched)
Release the “Butthole Cut”.
LAUDED MOVIE(s) I DIDN’T SEE: Midsommar and Parasite
I had chances to catch ‘em both, but they evaded me like greased-up Pokémon. I’m sure I’ll see ‘em eventually, but it sucks that I missed ‘em on the big screen.
BEST FILM: Us
It didn’t leave the immediate impact that Get Out did… and that’s a good thing. This film has lingered with me long after having seen it. As much as Jordan Peele wishes cosplayers wouldn’t dress as the Tethered, that’s to be expected when you make something memorable.
Runner-up: Little Women
Every frame of this flick held me. This is how you do a book adaptation the right way.
SHAMELESS FAN SERVICE DONE WRONG: The Rise of Skywalker
JJ Abrams is the Frank Miller of sci-fi: he started as a promising talent, but has devolved into a complete and utter hack. I hate this movie as much as I loved The Last Jedi – you heard me!
SHAMELESS FAN SERVICE DONE RIGHT: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Yes, this is a play, but the point stands. As a critic, I got a free pass to Opening Day of JK Rowling’s six-hour (not counting dinner break) love letter to her own creation. And it is fantastic. Every moment is a Potterhead’s delight and a marvel of live-action illusions. The prices are completely absurd, but if you can get one, enjoy yourself to the fullest.
Runner-up: Avengers: Endgame
The very idea of the MCU was absurd. The thought that they could succeed, let alone be the decade’s single most lucrative intellectual property, was ridiculous. But they did it. As contradictory as it may seem, the fast-moving action was all part of a decade’s worth of slow world-building that closed out its story (or this phase of it) in grand style.
As I said in my review: Endgame isn’t perfect (the dropped or glossed-over threads from Infinity War still irk me), but it’s a very satisfactory pay for ten years’ worth of loyal viewership. And still, the difference between the MCU and the DCEU is that the former actually loves its characters as much as the fans do. When I saw Endgame, the crowd I was with wasn’t all that different from the video you see attached. It was a communal experience of genuine emotional resonance over what was essentially just escapist entertainment.
That’s why I can’t wait for the COVID-19 panic to end. I want nothing more than to share those experiences again.
WORST TV SHOW: The Righteous Gemstones
I tried with this show – I really did. I love Danny McBride, but he and David Gordon Green (remember when he was supposed to be PT Anderson 2.0?) already fucked up Halloween with a shitty sequel/reboot. Now they’ve got a whole show. It had moments, but they’re all fleeting. And, like their Halloween debacle, it’s getting an unnecessary follow-up.
BEST/WORST TV MOMENT: Watching the Game of Thrones finale with friends
Not since Mad Men has a show started out so promising only to screw the pooch in its later seasons. As bad as the final episode was, it was totally worth it to see it with folks who, like me, shouted at all the WTF moments.
BEST TV SHOW: Watchmen
I mean, obviously.
Take note, Mtv: this is what a US version of Skins looks like.
Runner-up: What We Do in the Shadows
Two words: “Fucking Mike!”
Runner-up: The Deuce
See, HBO? That is how you close out of one your shows. (see also: Silicon Valley)
Damn. Good. Sci-fi.
MOST FRUSTRATINGLY PROMISING NEW SHOW: His Dark Materials
I know, I know: I’m talking about HBO a lot for TV, but whatever. I’ve never read Philip Pullman’s novels, nor did I see the original (much-despised) film version of The Golden Compass, so I came into this show fresh. This show has a lot of potential, if it could just get out of its own goddamn way and let the story unfold. Here’s hoping…
WORST MUSIC MOMENT: Everything about Drake.
Yes, everything. Whether he’s brushing aside his cultural appropriation accusations, making himself out to be the victim for hiding a kid, or just the way he’s a petty bitch accusing everyone else of being petty bitches… I’m done with Drake. The final straw for me was him saying he had a “moment of hesitation” about working with Chris Brown because of Brown beating Rihanna, but Drake let the moment pass and worked with Brown anyway. Fuck. You. Aubrey.
BEST MUSIC: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Watchmen soundtrack
I hate Hate HATE that I can’t get this on CD. Hell, I can’t even get it digitally in its entirety (unless I go on Amazon, which I will not do – and 7digital only has Vol. 2).
Nevertheless, this is a stunning work of art. Trent and Atticus somehow top the work they did for The Social Network a full decade prior. This is an amazing score for an amazing show. It just sucks that I can’t hear it over and over again.
Runner-up: Kanye West – JESUS IS KING
I know, but I can’t help it when I have a purely emotional reaction to a piece of art.
Li’l ol’ Me
BEST PURCHASE I MADE: My new laptop
It’s a Dell Inspiron 15 7000 2-in-1… with a 4K touchscreen and a stylus! I swear I think I heard Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U” play when I first opened it!
MOST FUN FREELANCE JOB I HAD: Being a British linguist
In high school, I grew the habit of spelling everything in its British variant (“colour”, “centre”, “faeces”, etc.). When discussing it with English teachers, I’d always fall back on the fact that, y’know, it is English. I still do it in my personal writings and journals, but stick to US versions for professional work and this site.
When the offer came in for a high-paying job rewriting American content for a British customer base… my time had come at last. That’s how I bought my new laptop.
BEST STEP TOWARD IMPROVING MY MENTAL WELL-BEING: Killed Off My Twitter Account
You may recall that last year I killed off my FB and Amazon accounts for good. A year on, I wondered why the hell I even still had a Twitter account; especially since I hadn’t even logged in since August of 2016. But, as I knew from FB, still having an account meant my info was still being sold.
I couldn’t think of a single reason to keep the account, so this past year I logged back into Twitter… to kill my account forever. And nothing of value was lost. Kill off yours and see how much better you feel.
BEST STEP TOWARD IMPROVING MY PHYSICAL WELL-BEING: Gave up Added Sugar.
Folks, added sugar is terrible and everyone knows it. Not only that, but giving it up is trickier than you would think. Thank God I live in the Bay Area, but still – trying going to a farmers’ market or Trader Joe’s to find a loaf of bread that doesn’t have sugar added. Still, I got around it. And I’m all the better for it.
BEST THEATRE MOMENT AS A PERFORMER: Being felt up in Carmen… by Carmen
Y’all know I love being a supernumerary. This time, I got to be part of the SF Opera’s 2019 production of Bizet’s Carmen, with J’Nai Bridges in the title role. If you know the show then you know Carmen has to flirt. A lot. And she does even more flirting during “Habanera”, teasing all the boys who stare at her with their jaws open. I was one such guy. She flirted, teased, and tickled. I loved every moment.
BEST LONG-FORM PIECE I WROTE: “Happy if She were Nappy”
Who’da thunk that a quickly-written piece about Storm from the X-Men would not only boost my site’s visitor numbers, but wind up being linked to and quoted in other articles? When people tell me in person they like what I wrote I tend to quip, “I’m surprised anybody reads what I wrote.” But I am appreciative.
Representation is important, both in art and art critique. With professional art criticism at its lowest numbers ever, I know that my being a Black art critic makes me even more of an outlier. That, to me, makes it all the more important for me to keep doing it. I have a perspective the others don’t and I have a platform with which I can be heard. What’s more, I know for a fact that people are listening. So, when one of the most prominent Black characters in Western pop culture is caught up in the middle of one of the biggest mergers in history, it’s worth a word or two.
As an artist myself, I love being part of the artistic process – which is what critics are. And as a writer, it’s reassuring to know I’m not just shouting out into the ether. Which leads me to…
BEST VALIDATING MOMENT AS A WRITER: Being sought out to review work.
This past year, I got more unsolicited requests than ever. In addition to already being on the press lists for damn-near every major theatre company, numerous independent producers and artists sent me notices in the hopes that I’d look at their work and give my two cents. Critics are often the most despised participants in the artistic ecosystem. I myself have gotten a lot of hate for the reviews I’ve written.
(One Bay Area director in particular still carries a grudge against me because I pointed out the racism in her show. I now have an absurdly-long e-mail thread of her trying to Whitesplain racism to me… which just makes it all the more racist. I keep contemplating the idea of releasing that thread in its entirety so everyone can see what a hypocrite she is.)
So, for companies to actively seek out my opinion – which has no guarantee of being positive – is something I greatly appreciate. If you want me to look at your work, I will genuinely consider it and, if I have the time, do my best to experience it. That’s no guarantee of a positive review, but it speaks well of you for wanting your work considered honestly.
BEST THING I LEARNED: This is not the end.
I seem to learn that lesson every year, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We’re in the middle of the most trying time most of us will ever know, but even now there are signs that the worst is either behind us or coming to an end. And it will end. Before we know it, we’ll all be kvetching about absurd pop culture ephemera ad nauseum – and not just shitty John Lennon covers by absent-minded celebs.
This isn’t the best time, but looking back at the previous year just serves as a reminder that every shitty point in time passes. This one will, too.
I’ll see you there when it does.