Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Afternoon in Bushwick: Rebellious Subjects Theatre Presents "Twelfth Night" at Goodbye Blue Monday

Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare play that we read in school, back in the spring of 1965 in Neil Berger's eighth grade English class at Meyer Levin J.H.S. 285, in preparation for seeing a professional production aimed at New York City students at Grady Technical High School in Sheepshead Bay.

It's still our favorite Shakespeare comedy, and we've taught it the past three springs in a row, the last two years at the fabulous School of Visual Arts and before that at Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix.

We've played excerpts from various versions of Twelfth Night for our classes: an animated 1992 joint Russian/British production for our SVA animation majors; the 1969 BBC-TV classic with Ralph Richardson, Joan Plowright and Alec Guinness; the 1996 film directed by Trevor Nunn, set in Victorian times, with Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, and Nigel Hawthorne; and the 2005 high-tech contemporary multicultural BBC-TV production with Parminder Nagra and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

In the summer of 1990 we went to a much-hyped, star-studded New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night at Central Park - set in turn-of-the-century Monte Carlo, it featured Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Gregory Hines, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, Stephen Collins, Fisher Stevens and John Amos - that was truly awful. Our companions that night, author/literary agent Linda Konner - who was in our eighth grade class - and her boyfriend, the astute longtime Newark Star-Ledger theater critic Peter Felicia, walked out in the middle, but we held on out of cheapness. And we've probably seen half a dozen other productions of the play over the past thirty years.

Few were as memorable as the version we had the privilege of seeing this afternoon: the new Rebellious Subjects Theatre company's bold interactive production of Twelfth Night at Goodbye Blue Monday, Bushwick's own BoHo bar/coffee shop/live music venue on Broadway. It was incredibly good in every respect: acting, pacing, staging, and the wonderful accompanying music written by Jacob Wise, who performed brilliantly on clarinet (through family connections, we know that instrument better than any other) and percussion. He was accompanied onstage by Jessica Chen on piano and Joshua Morris on bass from further back in the space.

Via the B48 bus down Lorimer Street and the B46 down Broadway to Malcolm X Boulevard, we got to GBM about ten minutes before the starting time of 4 p.m. and found a seat at a front table by the raised stage. But the site-specific production roamed through all parts of the venue as its various subplots unfolded, and at one point Feste, the fool, handed us a kazoo to help make the midnight racket that would rouse the wrath of Malvolio and set the revenge subplot in motion, and we complied.

A young group of energetic performers, the cast included Tiffany Abercrombie, Kyle Dean Reinford, Lauren Ferebee, Ben Friesen, Stacy Jordan, Zak Kostro, Ed Malone, Tommy Nelms, Miguel Pinzon, Kyle Williams and Patrick Woodall. They all were funny, had good timing and moved effortlessly from space to space and between the various strands of the gender-bending comedy.

It's often hard for young American actors to be practiced in the rhythms of Shakespearean speech, but the cast performed admirably. We were a bit puzzled at first when the early part of the play cut out Viola's mourning her presumed drowned brother, but in the end that decision made sense in the highlighted text version that followed.

There are challenges in staging any play in an open space where people are coming in and going out, and yet we saw the actors respond expertly to a fussy toddler, three latecomers who'd clearly just walked in for an early evening drink, and people going to the bathroom. The production was as seamless as possible.

The standout performances came from a playful and seductive Feste (Patrick Woodall) with skillful singing performances, often a tricky thing to pull off; a Malvolio (Ed Malone) who managed to keep the balance between officiousness, silliness, and wronged indignation; a passionate, brave and heartbreaking Antonio (Miguel Pinzon); a lively and surprisingly smart Sir Toby Belch (Kyle Williams); and a Viola (Lauren Beth Ferebee) who seemed weirdly perky at first but whose insouciance proved winning as the play moved so quickly that it was hard to believe that two hours without intermission had elapsed.

Actors playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ben Friesen) and Maria (Stacy K Jordan)were good at doing comic business; Orsino (Tommy Nelms) and Sebastian (Zak Kostro) were played nicely as straight men who are a little slow in getting what's going on inside them and around them; and a first-rate Olivia (Tiffany Abercrombie) was sharper and saucier than the often dull interpretations actors give this role.

Melisa Annis' direction created a triumphant if understated production which bodes great things for the Rebellious Subjects. And Goodbye Blue Monday is always a pleasant place to hang out, whether there's a play, music, film, or nothing but sitting and staring at your glass as you get drunker.

We, of course, are teetotalers, but just because we are virtuous, that doesn't mean we don't expect others to enjoy their cakes and ale. But for us, this wonderful production was food and drink enough - at least till we got a slice of marinara pizza at Sal's on our way back home.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Saturday Night in Greenpoint: "The Legends of Style" Show at Alphabeta

(Exhibit photos courtesy of BH-The Boys; please see his Flickr album of the show plus comments)

We've just walked back to Dumbo Books HQ from The Legends of Style exhibition and opening reception at Alphabeta, Greenpoint's suddenly-famous street gallery. Dawdling around McCarren Park, we managed to hear quite clearly the last 25 minutes of the Sonic Youth show at the pool as we watched a desultory kids' soccer game and Latino families enjoying some Labor Day weekend barbecue and the view of the Empire State Building, tonight done up in blue and white. Goodbye, pool, for now!

We very much enjoyed the time we spent at our first time at Alphabeta and were quite impressed with the store and the artworks. Although Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), called Alphabeta "the equivalent of creating a criminal supply shop," we can report that strict adherence to government regulations caused them to ask even doddering old men for their ID's before anyone entered.

Luckily, our Arizona driver's license having proven that we were past the legal age to drink and buy spray cans - not that we do either - we got a scarlet "OK 21" graffiti'd on our right hand, allowing us to enter the world of Alphabeta. (When we start tagging in 2014, we plan to be known be known as 3X OK 21.)

Legends of Style, presented by Joshua Ivory, featured the work of old school writers such as STAY HIGH 149, FUZZ ONE, RIFF170, BUTCH2 TFP, PART TDS, PESO 131, KOOL 131, NIC 707, CHAIN 3, NOC 167, MIN ONE, DUSTER UA, TACK FBA, and DEZ who were ubiquitous to all of straphangers who endured the horror that was the subway system back in the bankrupt Beame administration.

DJ Kay Slay (formerly DEZ as featured in the 1982 documentary Style Wars and also formerly our cuz Keith Grayson) and The Fearless Four ("Rocking It") deftly provided the beats for a nice-sized diverse crowd, many of whom were taking pics.

It made us quite nostalgic to see the artful stylings of the legendary FUZZ ONE, for example, well-lit and hanging in on an art gallery wall more than thirty years after we first encountered it riding the IRT from the Junction to Manhattan back in the day when the 3 and 4 trains went to Flatbush Avenue/Brooklyn College. In the '70s, when we were both a lot younger, FUZZ ONE did his tagging on the Bronx end of the line with crews like The Ebony Dukes and The Fantastic Partners.

And among the many works of aerosol art hanging in both Alphabeta's roomy back gallery and the pleasant huge outdoor space, was one by our old friend STAY HIGH 149, sometimes called the Godfather of Graffiti, who was singled out by Norman Mailer in his brilliant book The Faith of Graffiti for his top-to-bottom tags.

One writer has called STAY HIGH 149
one of the most famous, influential and admired writers in the history of New York City aerosol art. Most notably admired for his unique tag. He drew a smoking joint as the cross bar for his "H". Each tag was accompanied by a stick figure from the television series The Saint. He also frequently wrote the phrase "Voice of the Ghetto". His logo/name came to define "street cool" for many subsequent generations of writers.

And his work's still cool, even when not in the street.

It was a really nice gathering last night. The music was good, the people were friendly, and the art was exhilarating. Since moving back to New York two years ago we've developed a number of allergies, but thankfully Krylon isn't one of them.

(Photo of Legends of Style courtesy Art Jones; please see his album on Flickr for more)

Alphabeta, Brooklyn’s only spot to buy cans (they are displayed in locked metal cages), is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood, not the menace portrayed by Councilmember Vallone. As Margot Adler's NPR report we heard a while back said about the view that equates aerosol art with vandalism:
But recently, the Tate Modern Museum in London had graffiti artists paint the building.

Andrew Michael Ford, the director of the Ad Hoc Art Gallery in Brooklyn, says he knows street art has come of age when there are art shows like the one at the Tate:

"It sent a wave around the world that it's legitimate, relevant and people need to pay attention to it," says Ford, who adds that he believes graffiti art and other forms of street art will be appearing in more museums in the future.

The people who run Alphabeta want to ensure that the store is a success by riding that wave. Its founders hope that it will be as much an art space and event space as it is a store.

We understand where Councilmember Vallone is coming from (besides Astoria). We're older than he is and remember that the tagging on trains and everywhere back in the bad old days of the '70s seemed to be another sign that New York City was falling apart and in chaos. But it wasn't.

As Norman Mailer, the Brooklyn Heights-based genius we had the pleasure of meeting a number of times and whom we read with pleasure from adolescence on, wrote:
. . . we do not know with what instruments we will draw in years to come nor by which materials. Will it be by the laser of a laser up on the canvas of a bubble cloud chamber that gangs of artists will shift the patterns of the atom, and do we have a clue to the beauties of growth and malignancy we will yet create and in which arenas? . . .

Perhaps that is the unheard echo of graffiti, the vibration of that profound discomfort it arouses, as if the unheard music of its proclamation and/or its mess, the rapt intent seething of its foliage, is the herald of some oncoming apocalypse less and less far away. Graffiti lingers on our subway door as a memento of what it may well have been, our first art of karma, as if indeed all the lives ever lived are sounding now like the bugles of gathering armies across the unseen ridge.

(Storefront photo courtesy of the divine Miss Heather, Greenpoint's premier blogger)

You can see the Legends of Style show at Alphabeta through September 26. Check out the store and see for yourself what Charlie Halsey, Leif McIlwaine and their crew have done with it. And check out the work of some amazing street artists. We're grateful for all of them. Isn't life wonderful!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tuesday Night at the McCarren Pool: Open Space Alliance Community Bloc Party, Taste of Williamsburg and Summerscreen Presents "Rushmore"

Upon stepping down into McCarren Park pool around 6:30 p.m. this evening, we found a penny. Heads up. We bent down and picked it up.

It was The L Magazine's last Summerscreen Tuesday night show of the summer and supposedly the last free event (Sonic Youth on Saturday will cost you) at the pool for now, as it will be returned to its original state. As Moses (Robert) said, Let there be water.

(Photo courtesy Brownstowner)

Plumb tuckered out after all our running around, we weren't planning on coming to the pool tonight. For us, summer is ending, as tomorrow is the first day of classes at some of the six college campuses where we've taught 25 classes in the past couple of years since moving back to Brooklyn.

But we got a last-minute call from the Swinging Sixties Senior Center on Ainslie Street. The designated Old Brooklyn Native Observer for tonight could not make it - something about an overdose of prune juice and vodka - so could we pinch-hit?

We agreed to be on hand to monitor things at the community bloc party for the Open Space Alliance, the wonderful organization helping to make North Brooklyn the greenest part of the city. OSA has made all the pool events possible, has supported renovating the pool for swimming and ice-skating, and is actively seeking an appropriate venue for future outside events.

Like Emerson, who liked the silent Sunday church before services began, we like the pool best when it's quiet, as it was when we arrived. People were setting up blankets, smiling and laughing, buying the little tickets at the Taste of Williamsburg benefit for OSA.

There were tables for wonderful local food places with mouth-watering cuisine from all over the world: Taco Chulo (our favorite), Fanny, Brooklyn Label, Lodge, Urban Rustic, Falafel Chula (another favorite), Wine Cellar Sorbet and more.

And there were also the usual tables for Brooklyn Brewery, Greenpoint Wines and the other food stands that have been at the pool every Tuesday night since July. Starbucks was handing out (well, actually people had to put their hand in the big cold barrel) frozen caffeine and a man from Ito En came around and gave us a free bottle of blueberry green tea.

The group who sit by the south end of the pool and try their best not to look at the movie, bless their hearts, were getting started getting sloshed on something stronger as The King Left came on to play.

Corey, Mark, Ian, and Graham sang about a little girl who had a little curl guess where, and did covers of a song by The Monkees (forty years ago a boy in Marine Park who wanted to be our boyfriend said we reminded him of Davy Jones, the liar) and The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon".

After a while, we walked home for a short schoolwork break and got back just after Kent Jones of the Film Society of Lincoln Center introduced the night's screening of Wes Anderson's seminal 1998 film Rushmore.

We first saw it in the winter of 1999 at the AMC Ridge Plaza off I-495/State Road 84 in Davie, Florida, where we were living and teaching fiction writing and organizational communication, whatever that is, at Nova Southeastern University. A couple of years ago we watched it again with our parents on TV in Arizona.

As the FreeNYC capsule of tonight's movie said,
The unrequited love triangle of eccentric teenager Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), rich industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray), and their mutual love for elementary school teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), Rushmore put both Anderson and Schwartzean on the map for a lot of viewers and is a true modern classic.

But it's so much more than that. As TotalFilm's review notes:
The joy of Rushmore is that although it rarely goes the way you think it will, it always stays believable. Herman may regard Max as a friend, but at the same time he’s unwilling to bow to some upstart kid. And, while Max appears poised and at ease with the adult world, he’s still just a kid, prone to the temper tantrums and general twattish behaviour all 15 year olds display. It’s in generational inconsistencies – such as when Herman matches Max’s adolescent fury or Max outdoes his peers – that Rushmore excels. . . Filmed on autumnal locations and backed by an oddball soundtrack that’s as eclectic as the story itself, Rushmore is a genuinely one-off comedy.

The age difference between Max Fischer and Herman Blume in Rushmore is about what the age difference is between nearly everyone else watching the movie and us, we think, even as we smile and chuckle. This movie marked the start of Bill Murray's later work in movies like Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic in which he plays middle-aged men in transition and maybe in crisis.

Like everything else, of course, the movie eventually ends, literally with the closing of a red velvet curtain. We were standing against the back of the pool, way over on the northernmost fringe of the crowd, watching the screen and the crowd from a pleasant vantage point.

People applaud. The MC guy thanks everyone for coming, reminds us to clean up after ourselves, says a few other things, ending with "See you next year!"

And suddenly we're standing up, an old face in a young crowd, one person in an empty poolful of people, not really kicking and only silently screaming as we make our way to the lesser-used Leonard Street back exit, going home to watch Hillary and The Cult of Sincerity.

Summer's lease hath all too short a date. But while it lasted, bitches, wasn't it wonderful?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Monday Night in East Flatbush: Patti LaBelle at Wingate Field

(Photo courtesy of Dave Marez)

Although we missed all the other shows in the 26th summer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series, we were thrilled to be able to get to our old neighborhood of East Flatbush to attend tonight's evening with Patti LaBelle, a down-home diva if there ever was one. We left Dumbo Books HQ in Williamsburg after 6:30 p.m. but made excellent time via the G train to Bedford/Nostrand and then the B44 bus down Nostrand Avenue from Lafayette Avenue to Winthrop Street.

Walking along Winthrop along with the others heading for Wingate Field, taking handouts advertising everything from pack-and-shipping services and R&B concerts to the state senate candidacy of Simcha Felder, whose supporters were everywhere, we looked just south to the big tower of the Kings County Hospital complex.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Tobin)

Back in the early 1950s, when we were a little kid just the other side of it at our great-grandmother's house on East 42nd Street, that old tower and the tall smokestacks seemed so tall, the landmark of our neighborhood whether we were at Bubbe Ita's or a block away at our grandparents or three blocks from there at our other grandparents - or at our apartment on the other side of Utica Avenue by Snyder.

We could see Kings County Hospital when we rode the Church Avenue trolley with Bubbe Ita; she let us pull the cord to get off at our own block of East 54th Street.

We could see it coming out of Miss Pruzan's kindergarten class at P.S. 244; after buying a Justice League comic and drinking a malted at Mrs. Mogg's candy store on Church Avenue and East 43rd just across from Rubinson's pharmacy (still there!); leaving George and Anna's barber shop/beauty parlor, where Tony the barber one Saturday asked our eighth grade English teacher Mr. Berger in the next chair whether he thought The Catcher in the Rye was too dirty for kids to read; and we could see the tall hospital building as we walked up East 43rd Street bawling our eyes out after our companion, Lambie Pie - a fuzzy white stuffed lamb with a music box inside that played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" - was tragically lost.

But our two grandmothers searched every inch of Church Avenue that afternoon and found Lambie Pie in the corner of the laundromat and brought him back to us, where he remains, one ear and eye gone perhaps, but still capable of chiming out his song. Hallelujah! - as our friend Pastor Harvey Jamison of Glorious Trinity Baptist Church in Crown Heights would call upon us all to say tonight at Wingate Field.

(We love the Rev, but he always asks the Lord's blessing for everybody - including sinners like "the media." And we can understand his praying that God give our youth "jobs instead of jails" and "Christ instead of crack," but "manners instead of marijuana"? The two things are not incompatible, as the very polite pot-smokers we encountered yesterday at the McCarren pool will attest.)

Ah well, in his (and our) garrulousness, Pastor Jamison has a role model in the night's MC - of course, our friend Marty Markowitz.

(Photo courtesy of Darlin Nic)

When we arrived on the field - after mistakenly standing on the VIP line for twenty minutes (forgetting that we were in Brooklyn, at first it made no sense to us that ordinary people could waltz right through while VIPs had to stand on an unmoving line) and being body-searched by security (we left our hard-shelled reading glasses case at home because it was mistaken for a pistol last year at the Anita Baker show) - Marty was introducing the young ladies of the Brooklyn Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority that - to be serious here - does an incredible amount of good work in the community and who last night were concentrating on getting folks registered to vote.

About a third of the people in huge crowd - easily twice, maybe even three times, the size you get at the McCarren pool - were carrying around unnecessary yellow Simcha Felder for State Senate fans that got handed out as we were entering. At least they didn't read "I'm a fan of Simcha Felder" because these people, like us, were not here to hear politicians but Miss Patti LaBelle. (Those who preferred listening to politicians were at home watching Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi say stuff we all know by now.)

Councilmember Felder had the sense to recognize this, for at his turn onstage, he simply yelled, "How many of you want the concert to start?" three times, with him and the crowd getting louder every time. We still had to sit through the raffles for free dinners at Applebee's and God-knows-what for National Grid (it was bad enough when Broooklyn Union Gas became Keyspan, but this new name sounds Orwellian) and more of Marty's introductions of politicians (God bless Councilmember Eugene Mathieu for refusing to come onstage and talk) and business leaders.

We were, however, glad to cheer detectives Detective Matthew Walker and his NYPD colleagues who caught the "shameless mutant" (Marty's words, somewhat unfair to the X-Men) who mugged the old lady in that disgusting video we've all seen and who's been responsible for other attacks on seniors in the community (props too to the folks who saw something and said something).

And we were glad to cheer when WBLS's Dr. Art Lee introduced the legendary Hal Jackson, whose voice is more familiar to us than our own (luckily). At 94, this pioneer - first African-American radio sports announcer, first African-American network radio announcer of any kind and, around the time we were the little kid on East 43rd and Linden Boulevard, the first NYC radio personality to broadcast three daily shows on three different stations in the same day - looks amazing and is still going strong. (Listen to WBLS on Sunday afternoons to hear for yourself).

Finally, finally, finally, Marty said, "This is it!. . . Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Patti LaBelle.

And there she was, to the sounds of "We Will Rock You." In a black gown under a white shawl she soon removed (she'd later take off her high heels), Patti looked beautiful. For a self-described 64-year-old diabetic - no, she is not shy about discussing her age ("47 years in the business") or her illness ("I got it, it don't got me") or pretty much everything under the sun, like being menopausal (she got some men to admit we are, too).

She started off with a great rendition of "New Day," and then - as she did between each number - talked to us, really talked to us in an unpretentious, genuinely friendly way. During the night she spoke to individuals - mostly guys - in the audience, like the man with fantastically long dreads she'd seen walking to the concert an hour before. (It took him 20 years to grow it, he said.)

The crowd, of course, was mostly black, but there was a small but vocal contingent of gay white men (and Patti spoke out against any kind of prejudice, including homophobia, during her set) - for whom we like to think she sang "Lady Marmalade." Oh man, we had to bite our lip to stop ourselves from becoming a spectacle.

A kid standing next to us apparently noticed, and said, "I guess you like her." We nodded. He said she was doing good for someone her age, though he admitted he and his friends really didn't listen to this kind of stuff, "from a different generation."

We told him the last time we'd seen Patti live was many years before he was born, maybe 1971, when she was playing Whitman Auditorium with John Prine and The Bitter End with some Scottish folkie whose name we can't recall. It was around the time we wore a button with a raised fist saying The People Will Free the Panther 21.

Back then the trio were going through an odd hitless period - but we loved Patti then as much as we did at 11, when the Bluebelles were the sweethearts of the Apollo, and as we would later when Patti achieved solo success and an astonishing longevity as a performer.

She sang hit after hit - "If You Only Knew," "If You Asked Me To," "The Right Kind of Lover" and many more - and though she kept saying that other people - Mariah Carey, Bonnie Raitt, and other friends - sold a lot more records of each song than she did, Patti LaBelle just proves she can do it all. And at the same time be the among the nicest performers we know.

As we stood on New York Avenue waiting for the B43 bus to take us back to Williamsburg - we left around 9:20 p.m., because although Miss Patti said she'd "sing till she dropped," we were flagging - we felt like we'd been blessed to be at Wingate Field tonight. And it felt like heaven.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Evening at the McCarren Park Pool: Yo La Tengo & Titus Andronicus at the Close of the Last JellyNYC Pool Party

We didn't expect to get into the last JellyNYC pool party today, but at 6:40 p.m. the line to enter the pool dwindled to about thirty people, so we decided to get on line. One couple came after us, and then the black-T-shirted event security guys came back and yelled, "The line is closed! This is the end of the line!"

So we were one of the last three people to enter the last pool party. We thought that for a little while, but then they relented, and a few stragglers came in after us.

We'd been standing outside the front entrance of the pool on Lorimer Street watching the line go in for about an hour, taking notes, thinking that would prove interesting.

At 1:15 p.m. we'd made a pass by the pool, but with 45 minutes to the official opening time, the crowd was longer than any one we'd seen even at 1:50 p.m. so we went home.

We figured we'd report on the people trying to get in. From the time we got there at 5:40 p.m. till just before we hopped into line, the crowd stretched back as far as we could see, an endless sea of mostly young, mostly white people.

(Photo courtesy Williamsburg Is Dead, a blog you should subscribe to that knows a lot more than we do)

The funny thing is, the pool parties have a deserved reputation as a hipster hangout, yet it seemed to us that maybe one of out five people on line were humans we'd see on the street and immediately classify as hipsters.

There were even a good number - maybe one of every forty people - who seemed over 40, and quite a few Latino kids looking like our Southside neighbors. We'd never seen so many people in their twenties without a single one listening to an iPod. A lot of them had food and drink, seemingly unaware that anything but water is verboten in the pool. (They do have to sell stuff there - at least we think that's the reason.)

We were offered unfinished, or in a few cases, totally unstarted, food and drink of every kind: cashews, strawberries, cantaloupe, pitas, shakes, juices. Others were allowed to step to the side and gulp down their beverage or wolf down their food before entering.

But where were the older Asian ladies who go through our block's garbage to hunt for bottles and cans? They could have made a fortune as people were throwing plastic bottles of water and a few cans away. Often people missed when they tossed the bottles, so we decided to be a good citizen and play Phil D. Basket (an old public service cartoon character you're too young to remember). Three people were nice enough to shout, "Thanks!"

When we got there, the MC - whoever he is - was pretty much thanking people and issuing what sounded like a valedictory statement before he introduced Yo La Tengo, a group we've really liked for about two decades. (Embarrassingly, we were introduced to their music in an aerobics class.) Anyway, we were sure we could hear Yo La Tengo just as well as we would have in the pool, so we were content to watch the entering and exiting crowds.

By 6 p.m. people were coming out of the pool at a pretty fast clip. Oddly, it seemed to us, they'd stop the line just as a lot of people were coming out, and they'd speed up the line - weird how some people straggled after presumably waiting so long - as quickly as the laggards who hadn't opened their bags and backpacks could get moving.

(Maybe the security staff should take a page out of the TSA's lines at airports and divide the group into self-identified "expert pool party people" and "casual pool party people" to be more efficient.)

Eventually we figured out that the blue-T-shirted lady with the Parks Department was controlling the flow on the basis of "fifty in, fifty out." We figured this out by asking her.

Anyway, as the line finally dwindled, we got on it and at 6:43 p.m. we were inside the pool. It was more crowded than any time we'd been there. Not only was the pool itself wall-to-wall people, but the concrete walkways were totally jammed.

Photo courtesy the ubiquitous Feast of Music; check out his post, "Parting Blast," on the last pool party)

Somehow we found a space pretty much in the center, right up against the railing so we had a good view. Yo La Tengo was doing their last song. They had just about dismantled the Slip 'n' Slide, but the dodgeball players were going at it just as it started. (As one blogger noted recently, isn't dodgeball associated with the kind of people you don't really expect to end up in Williamsburg at 22?) Lots of people were taking pics around us, holding their cellphones and cameras high.

"Hey, thanks very much," said Ira Kaplan after the song ended. He thanked by name all the guys playing onstage and to raucous cheers, the musicians walked off. Then the pool party MC - we wish we knew his name - came on and said, "I don't know about you, Brooklyn, but I can't think of a better band to end our three years of pool parties than Yo La Tengo." More cheers and applause.

"Borough President Marty Markowitz was here earlier and he said he's looking forward to another summer," the MC said. "We're going to have another fucking summer!" Cheers, although that seemed ambiguous to us.

"Let's hear it for Yo La Tengo!" After enough cheers and applause, the band members come back onstage. It's 6:53 p.m., 11 minutes after we entered.

"Thank you," Ira Kaplan says, and he mentions the Obama tables that were set up (the show as sort of a benefit for the Obama campaign; we got a "Brooklyn for Barack" poster of today's pool party at the end, as did anyone who wanted one - but then we also got a Topshop women's white tank top that someone threw at us that we don't know what to do with). "This next song is dedicated to the Obama/Biden campaign." More cheers, and then the band goes into The Dead C's "Bad Politics":

Bad politics, baby!
Bad politics!
Your face is full of fake today
And now there's nothing I can say. . .
Bad politics, baby!

Then they bring out one of the day's earlier acts, Titus Andronicus, to join them ("I hope they're out there"), and they pass around water bottles. Knowing the venue's future, Ira says, "as a public service, let's start filling up the pool." And the band members pour water down on the crowd in front of them.

A young woman puts herself between us and the railing and with scissors starts cutting the wires holding up the Scion ad banner.

Ira says the final next song will be a tribute to "the great state of New Jersey" (Yo La Tengo is from Hoboken, Titus Andronicus from Glen Rock), kind of "passing the mantle. . . because the end of the pool is pretty much it for Williamsburg and Brooklyn. . . People will move across the Holland Tunnel, move across the Lincoln Tunnel, and then they'll see real misfits."

(Photo courtesy Forklift on Flickr)

And then, as you can see on this video at Prefix Magazine), the two bands go into The Misfits' "Where Eagles Dare":
We walk the streets at night
We go where eagles dare
They pick up every movement
They pick up every loser
With jaded eyes and features
You think they really care

I ain't no goddamn son of a bitch
You better think about it baby
I ain't no goddamn son of a bitch
You better think about it baby, babe

"Thanks a lot, everybody!" And they exit, and so do we, and so does everyone else. No more McCarren pool parties.

You better think about it, baby.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday in Fort Greene: The Fourth Annual Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival

We arrived right on time at 3 p.m. today at beautiful Fort Greene Park for the Fourth Annual Fort Greene Literary Festival. Having been to last year's event (you can read our 2007 coverage on Louise Crawford's Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn) as well as the one in 2006, we knew we were in for a treat. And we weren't disappointed.

Much credit for the Festival goes to the New York Writers Coalition (NYWC), a neighborhood Fort Greene fixture at 80 Hansen Place, and under the direction of the dynamic Aaron Zimmerman, its founder and executive director, and many others, last year provided more than 1000 creative writing workshop sessions at more than 45 locations throughout New York City. (Thanks to NYWC for photos above and kids' photos below; you can see more at their website.)

Kudos for their work on the Festival also go to these presenters: chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council and Fort Greene resident Johnny Temple's indie publishing firm Akashic Books, "dedicated to the reverse gentrification of the literary world"; the Fort Greene Park Conservatory, who've done so much good work (those of Brooklyn natives know in what bad shape the place was before they came along); the well-known agency Global Talent Associates; and The Walt Whitman Project - a great Brooklyn organization known for events like tomorrow's reading, "Walt Whitman in the Neighborhood," at the Clinton Hill Art Gallery.

This year's featured writers were four current or former poets laureate:

New Jersey's famously controversial Amiri Baraka, a legend and a favorite of ours since the summer of 1969, when we saw a production of his plays "Dutchman" and "The Toilet" in the basement theater at Brooklyn College's Whitman Auditorium;

Bed-Stuy's "Janitor of History," Louis Reyes Rivera, a living bridge between African and Latino American communities whose work we first caught late at night years ago at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe;

Hal Sirowitz of Queens, also the best-selling poet in Norway and someone whose very funny work we've known and loved long before he got famous, back in the downtown scene of the late '70s and early '80s, writing for mags like Benzene and Zone;

and the best-selling (The Pursuit of Happyness, with Chris Gardner) and award-winning Quincy Troupe, former State Poet of California, now living in Harlem, who we first knew as a teacher at Richmond College (since merged with Staten Island Community College to form the College of Staten Island) when we were getting our M.A. in English at that school by the St. George ferry landing in 1973-74.

While the theme for this year's adult writer Festival guests was poets laureate, it just as well could have been, as far as we're concerned, Grand Old Men of People's Poetry. We suspect the organizers might be criticized for a lack of women writers, but they dominated in previous years, and these guys are not exactly the Establishment. And we've gone to a lot of events this summer where people were onstage, but this was the first one where all the performers whose next birthdays will range from age 60 to age 75.

Considerably younger - and the highlight, again this year, for us - were the two dozen or so kids from NYWC's summer New York Youth Writers Workshop at Fort Greene Park. Last year's MC, Laurie A. Cumbo, executive director and founder of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA), again did a wonderful job but was particularly adept at putting the kids at ease (we overheard her telling them beforehand that "any butterflies in your stomach will fly away just before you go on") - as well as pronouncing sometimes challenging, if beautiful, names.

We came early enough to score a coveted seat in the shade and got to look at the makeshift stage all afternoon amid the ginkgos, maples, and weeping willows, with the mellow golden tones of the imposing art deco Brooklyn Tech building as the backdrop.

Laurie first introduced a great performance by the Indoda Entsha Percussion Ensemble, whose core group has been together for 17 years under the director of E. Preston Riddick aka A'ma Sakura Ka. They play a powerful and seductive blend of traditional West African, Afro-Cuban and hip-hop music, and today the men in the band were joined by five female dancers in bright African garb who got things off to a lively start.

Then the kids from the NYWC workshop came up to read; some of them we remembered warmly from last year's Festival.

Aleisha Small, first up, read two coming home narrative poems, "Mystical Keys" and "The Stormy Night," followed by Paul Francois, whose longpoem "Bad Day," in his matter-of-fact style surrealistically invoked the kind of flying bacon we've heretofore encountered only in the visual art of James Rosenquist.

David Nduka delivered two poems, one about basketball and James Brown, the other about a cat who attacks the President! . . . and starts a riot! Aliyah Jones' first poem began, I am a bird soaring in air / I hate being eaten. We know the feeling.

Bengum Abam-Depass's contribution was a list poem of things he likes, like visits to Texas and lots of adjectives, while Christopher Small's "My Mom" was a tribute to the woman "who protects me" and "mostly talks on the phone." Alberta Devor read a plaintive poem in the voice of a tree who has "grown taller than all of my friends."

Next up, Tristan Regist reprised the "stormy night" theme, this time darker - all hope is lost - and then read a beautiful poem about the "sound of fear" in which he said fear "smells of cayenne pepper." Then Aidan Amog recited a jaunty ode to the scooter of his dream. Both Aidan's poems employed sophisticated tropes and complex syntax.

Anneliese Treitmeier-McCarthy's long poem, befitting her status as one of the older kids, was a thoughtful and eloquent look at "Wartime in a Child's Eyes," narrated by a girl huddled in a basement during the bombing of her hometown. Anneliese was followed by the much littler Talaia Regist in a pink polka-dot dress, whose poems were about growing wings to fly to Florida to visit grandma and a reflection on "Happiness." Happiness for us was listening to her poems.

Josiah Livingston, a cutie in dreads and shorts, read "The Things I Care About," in which the environmentally-conscious young poet celebrated "all the polar bears in Antarctica." Immediately afterward, the scholarly Ijangmarie Abam-Depass read a love letter to her Montessori pre-K and a narrative showing how good can come out of even broken glass.

Joella Fraser, in a little red dress, read "I Open the Door." What do you think the speaker saw when she did that? Hint: it's really, really scary. She followed with a piece called "Don't Tell Me" that reminded us of Jamaica Kincaid's classic monologue "Girl."

Osose Ebesunum, one of the older girls, read a whimsical narrative about being hit by lightning and being transformed into, in turn, a flying girl, a mermaid and the crown princess of a secret city. Her "Ode to Snow" asked, "Why don't you come every day?" Um, it was a good poem but as with some of Amiri Baraka's work, we disagree with its sentiments.

Raquel Hoisen, another older poet (still under 13, we'd guess), told about a fish who was simultaneously imaginative, belligerent and claustrophobic and then in "A Troubador's Song" used not only sophisticated rhyme but skillfull anastrophe (Lost the enemy was).

Najaya Royal, one of last year's standouts, whom we also saw earlier this summer at the Women's Health Festival in Bed-Stuy, read her now-classic (to us, anyway) "Teardrops" and "If I Were a Song," which invokes the hope found by field slaves in their inspiring music, a theme that would later be taken up by the adult Louis Reyes Rivera.

Joseph Francois, another poet we enjoyed last year, used rhyming couplets to good effect in "The Day I Fell Down" and call-and-response (Could someone say amen?) in "If I Could Fly," while Ashley Quarless fetchingly read a moving poem in the voice of a dying tree.

Gabriel Treitmeier-McCarthy contributed a poem about his cat and another one about a fearsome storm that nevertheless ended with a line that relieved our fears: However, I survived. Future rock star that he is, Gabriel daringly eschewed the steps and jumped off the platform following his solo.

Although that was a hard act to follow, Kayla Quarless was up to it with her "I Am Sad in Winter" (see, not everyone likes snow) and "Don't Tell Me to..." (go to bed/ turn off the TV/ shut the computer/ teach my sister social studies). And then Tamara read one of the afternoon's most sophisticated lyrics, "Where Are the Stars?" and the sharply-drawn "Behind the Door."

Anjelika Amog (in case you haven't figured it out, a lot of these poets are siblings, like William and Dorothy Wordsworth or Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti) recited "Boredom," avoiding the fallacy of imitative form by enlivening the poem with lines like boredom smelling like week-old cheese. She also included skillful use of slant rhyme, and her next poem, equally complex, employed allusions to childhood chants like "Rain, rain, go away" in the middle of the narrative.

Jediael Fraser read "Nervousness," which evokes tasting "your own taste buds because they're huddling together" and "clouds laughing at you and booing you offstage." Needless to say, Jediael went offstage to applause and cheers following his second poem, which employed an ABAB rhyme scheme and whose setting moved from Prospect Park to Disneyland to the bright lights of Broadway.

Last but not least was Shyanne Bennett, who at first seemed as if she embodied some of what the speaker in Jediael's "Nervousness" was experience but soon settled into a beautiful long poem that was married an emo sensibility to a spiritual awakening for "weary eyes, tired eyes."

Laurie Cumbo then asked all of the poets to come forward to the stage for a group photo and a final round of appreciative applause by the audience. As Laurie warned parents that the adult readers' work would probably contain, not surprisingly, "adult content" not suitable for young'uns, the Indoda Entsha Percussion Ensemble were brought back on for a reprise performance.

Starving, we trekked over to Myrtle Avenue - a street we still recall as "Murder Avenue" from back in the bad old days (though we do miss our stalwart Myrtle Avenue el) - for a slice of Sicilian at the always-friendly Little Louie's pizzeria on the corner of Adelphi. We came back satisfied - and with a can of Diet Pepsi - for the performances of the poets laureate.

Louis Reyes Rivera read excerpts from his 155-page epic poem in progress, Jazz in Jail, an allegory in which Jazz gets together all the forms of music engendered by the African Diaspora and is put on trial for conspiracy. Reyes Rivera used the rhythms and tricks of jazz, hip-hop, doo wop and bebop - as well as varied voices in selections like "Where Silence is Brass" and "Amicus Curiae" to blinding effect.

Strongest of all was Reyes Rivera's final section in the voice of Mother Blues, a lament in the form of legal argument indicting history for misappropriating the music of the slaves, from the fields to, well, 20th century New York City:
Ask Alberta Hunter why you find her so blue
She said she'd be be paid for the sounds she made
But never got paid her due

(We were lucky enough to see Alberta Hunter sing at our beloved Cookery on West 8th and University in the Village after she'd finally, in her 80s, been rediscovered following too many years of obscurity as a nurse on Roosevelt Island.)

Hal Sirowitz, up next, walked unsteadily onstage and had to read sitting down. Putting the audience at ease with his first poem, which explained that his Parkinson's disease has not affected his performance in the bedroom, he also proved that his dry delivery in that trademark Brooklyn/Queens accent, still makes his poems funny, even if you've heard them a dozen times before, as we have.

His "Mother Said," "Father Said," and "My Therapist" poems are justly famous but basically all of his poems are not just wryly amusing but are a special species of Jewish wisdom literature:

Quincy Troupe, up next, read some of his newer work (he has lots to choose from, having authored 17 books) like "Switchin in the Kitchen," which employs fast-footwork wordplay and "rapology" to segue from "the sick war, invented by chicken hawk cheney-bush wags" to "pigology" and "filo-plumes."

Most exciting was the last part of his long poem, "My Solo," which preaches the gospel of neo-hoodoo from the point of view of a contemporary griot who invokes historical figures from Miles Davis (whom Troupe has written three books about) to Marie Laveau.

Amiri Baraka was the last poet of the day, reading some of his "Poems for Newark" such as "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" with its fierce concern for social justice and its cultural commentary:
Remember Steppen Fetchit how we laughed
An all your Sunday school images giving flesh and giggling
With the ice pick high off his head
Made ya laugh anyway
I can see something in the way of our selves
I can see something in the way of our selves
That's why I say the things I do, you know it

Fiercer still was his attack on "peanut-head yellow Negroes" who talk as if they have a hundred pickles in their mouth in "Local Peanuts." It never mentions Newark Mayor Cory Booker's name, but it's pretty devastating and provocative.

Baraka said his last poem would be
"Somebody Blew Up America,"
the controversial poem that caused him to be removed as poet laureate of New Jersey. We started to get up, not wanting to be offended and trying to get a head start on everyone else leaving, but stopped on the side to listen to him as the poem gathered force.

Baraka's performance was masterly and masterful; we think, whatever its questionable assumptions, the poem stands as a tour de force which indicts of much of the powers who've controlled the West over the past few centuries, but you can judge for yourself via this performance on YouTube:

After that, Laurie Cumbo said she wasn't going to try to follow up except to thank everyone for coming and that books and other info were available at the Akashic Books and Brooklyn Public Library tables. For us, this was the best Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival yet.