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Atlanta and Queen Sugar: Two More Americas To Consider

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Written by Scott Woods
Photo via FXnetworks

This past week was a glorious time, sitting in anticipation of not one but two critically-lauded out the gate TV shows starring almost exclusively black casts that don’t look like trash. It was downright odd to be surrounded by the marketing for them, with their flickering promises of hip, beautiful black people doing…whatever it is Atlanta was selling, anyway. I had a better grip on Queen Sugar’s narrative since it’s based on a novel, but Atlanta was coy. Having watched the first two episodes of both shows now, I’m both pleased and perplexed. It’s mostly Atlanta’s fault, but I want to start with Queen Sugar because that’s the easy one.

Queen Sugar is a typical family drama executed in wonderfully untypical cinematic fashion for a television show STARRING BLACK PEOPLE. A lot of Queen Sugar is good for a show STARRING BLACK PEOPLE. I welcome it’s well-acted, well-cast, finely directed offering of what is ultimately predictable fare.

Queen Sugar isn’t going to win any Emmys (it might get nominated for a couple), but it brings to the table an Oscar-worthy co-creator in Ava DuVernay, who in my mind can do no wrong right now. She’s also not content with just collecting Oprah bread: she’s hired all-women directors for the whole season, thrown Meshell Ndegeocello on the music, and is generally crafting a show that visually and rhythmically rivals anything that’s hit the small screen. The changes she made to the novel bring the story more firmly into familiar TV drama territory (perhaps to its detriment; we’ll see), but she’s setting up some interesting angles that will probably pay off in ways other shows on TV won’t, mostly because they’re told by, about and for black people. It’s a solid show overall, and for a black show it is head and shoulders in quality over all its other competition.

…depending on how you feel about Atlanta.

atlanta

Promotional Still from FX’s Atlanta, Starring Donald Glover (Center) and Brian Tyree Henry (Right)

I’ve tried not to drag in any baggage about Donald Glover to Atlanta, mostly because what I’ve accessed about him past Community I found lacking. His music is okay, his stand-up is boring, and his interviews are generally a mash of ideas I hope he was drunk when pronouncing. Glover can act and clearly has a couple of axes to grind, so I held out hope for something impressive in Atlanta, trying hard to stay away from anything that might reveal what the commercials did not reveal. Well, two episodes in and I’m still wondering. And not in that, “Oh, this is Seinfeld” kind of way. More in that “This better start making sense quick or else” kind of way. I’m okay with not knowing for now, and I trust that whatever questions I might have will be answered, but I’m not sure I’m going to like all of the answers.

Let’s get something straight: Atlanta is a good show. It’s well-executed, has a great cast, and is strongly written. There are scenes in it that I loved (the Pulp Fiction-inspired golden wings box scene leaps to mind). But overall it’s politically tapped out, which in 2016 seems egregious. It’s not interested in having a conversation about issues, which isn’t a crime for a TV show, but the way it introduces issues and then moves on is more about finding the humor that can be wrung out of the awkwardness of the exchange of ideas than any attempt to actually unpack them well. Which is kind of Glover’s MO, so I’m not surprised, but I’m a little sad that he’s taking that tack here. It’s a stand-up’s tack, but Atlanta isn’t even a proper sitcom. It has long swathes (for a TV comedy) where it’s not trying to be funny at all, which gives it depth, but then it pulls its punches in a “I was just playing” way. 

Take the jail scene with the mentally ill prisoner. A large amount of time is spent making a straight-up joke of the mentally ill prisoner. Glover’s meager one-liner about him actually needing help isn’t offsetting all of the comic relief pressed upon that character fully at his expense, and the resulting beatdown the character receives only serves to open up another can of worms about police brutality that also doesn’t get addressed. It’s a scene that is emotionally affecting, but not really effective. And the show has a lot of moments like that, depending on how you feel about transsexuality, the n-word, drug dealers, the state of modern hip-hop, parenthood, and a half dozen other issues that get dog-whistled onto the screen, but largely only in the interest of punchlines. Don’t get me wrong: as a testimony to how well this show is executed, I laughed at a lot of those jokes, but I bemoaned the lost opportunities as well. A lot of it ended up being a guilty pleasure for me. 

Glover’s character Earn is charming if almost wholly unlikeable. I can see why no one hangs with this dude except his ex-girlfriend, and I haven’t seen a reason why she continues to do so yet. Perhaps Earn is a further extension of the multiplying variations of niggers Glover likes to traffic in for comic and shock effect in other platforms. Perhaps he’s just unpacking his issues with his blackness the only way he knows how: creatively. I’d rather he call up whoever Beyonce has been using as a politics coach over the last few years and take another crack at it. I promise, it’s not about respectability politics with me. It’s about Glover presenting what he thinks black people are like and about, knowing (and hoping) that his audience is going to be predominantly white, and offering up a show that caters to those goals. When it’s me and you hanging out at the barbershop, cool, do your thing. But there is a great deal of this that feels like an introduction to black people as Donald Glover sees them for an audience that isn’t black. This isn’t a straight to bootleg joint. This is running on FX. I know black people who didn’t even know either one of these shows was happening this week because they don’t pay for cable. Considering what we‘re offered here as examples, I’m mildly concerned on a political level. Not enough to say “don’t watch that coon trap”, but enough to say, “watch what your white friends and co-workers have to say about it.” I have a nagging fear in the back of my head that this will be the show white people see as the pinnacle of black storytelling this year. If it were a show aimed at me as its audience, or with enough winks at me to let me know that it knows someone like me is there, I’d care less. But it isn’t. This is a show designed for white audiences that happens to be extremely black. I’m sure Glover would disagree, to which I’d suggest he doesn’t have the track record to suggest I’m too far off the mark here. 

I appreciate that two well-made, critically acclaimed black shows hit the air purporting to speak to the black experience and yet could hardly be more dissimilar. In fact, I love that dichotomy. I’m glad that America is getting more slices of the black pie to sample. Most of the black people I know fall between the character spectrum of these two shows politically, sexually, and intellectually, so there’s still plenty of stories left to tell. Keep America guessing, black creatives! We’ve been telling y’all for years we had other flavors. And while these flavors might be doing things with their grits that I may not like, they’re good enough that I’ll throw some shrimp in their respective bowls for now and dig in.

But I’m watching you Atlanta. I can tell that Queen Sugar isn’t going to hurt my feelings. It may not live up to my creative expectations in the long run, but it hasn’t assailed me with a single n-word or shoot-out yet, and one of its main characters sells drugs and another held-up a store. Atlanta, on the other hand, is already kind of giving the “politically attuned me” the middle finger, which is cool, but I promise you: no one is rooting for that show to strike a chord more than me, so I hope we can meet in the middle somewhere down the line. 

Maybe I’m rooting too hard for black TV to rise to the political occasion. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy whatever comes on whatever terms it sees fit to present. Maybe I’m still smarting from the political blowback of Nate Parker/Birth of a Nation. Maybe the point should be that no one gets to dictate our blackness to us, not even us. Maybe we’ve come far enough that that’s the point and now it’s every school of thought for itself. Maybe TV is a bad place to figure that out. Maybe TV is very much the front line. That’s admittedly a lot of questions for these two shows moving forward beyond “Is it funny?” or “Is it dramatic enough?”, and for all parties involved. I have my fingers crossed for some good answers because I’m not wired to simply dismiss the political implications of what two shows in such elevated positions in the zeitgeist might represent.


scottwhoScott Woods is the author of Urban Contemporary History Month and We Over Here Now (2016 and 2013 respectively, Brick Cave Books) and has published and edited work in a variety of publications. He has been featured multiple times in national press, including multiple appearances on National Public Radio. He emcees the Writers’ Block Poetry Night, an open mic series in Columbus, Ohio. In April of 2006 he became the first poet to ever complete a 24-hour solo poetry reading, a feat he bested with seven more annual readings without repeating a single poem.

www.scottwoodwrites.net

 

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Arts & Music

Serenity now! 614 interviews Jason Alexander ahead of Cbus performance

Mike Thomas

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If you’re expecting a stand-up comedy routine from a frumpily-dressed Jason Alexander full of jokes about soup and shrinkage and Festivus, move on.

Alexander’s still getting laughs. But, they’re a different kind as he returns to his roots as a Broadway show performer, taking his singing, dancing, piano-playing, storytelling routine across the country with a pops-style show that will arrive in Columbus this month. Alexander will join the Columbus Symphony Orchestra to tell the story of his life on the screen and stage.

(614) recently had the delightful opportunity to speak with the Tony Award-winning actor about the show, his love of poker, and the influence of George Costanza on our culture in 2019.  

(614): “An Evening With Jason Alexander” comes to the Ohio Theatre on April 27. What can our readers expect from
the performance?

JA: (Chuckling.) I’m only laughing because I’ve been doing this for about three years, and that’s always the first question! So “An Evening With” is a pop show that I’ve been doing for about three years all around the country. I know most people may not immediately think of me as a singer if they know me from my roles on television, but it is a more-or-less autobiographical journey through my love affair with music from the Broadway stage.

Some of it is things that I’ve performed on Broadway, some of it is not. A lot of it is very funny. A lot of it is just great music. It’s a slightly different show in that, although there’s a symphony orchestra up there, it does feel like an intimate evening. There’s lots of storytelling, and at one point in the show I bring about seven people up on the stage—and they are truly not plants, I pick them at random—and they wind up performing a number with me.

How does preparing for a role like this where you’re appearing as yourself differ from a performance where you’re appearing in character?

The preparation is all emotional. I went into performing because I was a really shy kid, so I was able to hide in plain sight. I could be with people, be out in front of people, and I was always more or less hiding behind some character. I’ve always said the five worst words for me in the English language are, “Ladies and gentlemen—Jason Alexander.” That usually scares the hell out of me! That means I have to go out there and be myself. 

The beautiful thing about this show is the preparation was all in creating the show. If you’re going to go in front of people and take their time and present yourself as an entertainer, what story or stories do you want to share, and how do you want to play with an audience so they have a
very full and very rewarding time? That was all the hard part. In the actually getting up and doing it, I’ve been pretty lucky that I’ve been playing with some of the best orchestras in the country, so when I’m up there I’m generally having a pretty good time. If I’m not, something’s gone terribly wrong. 

You’ve made a name for yourself in the competitive poker world, even appearing in the main event at the World Series of Poker. How did your interest in poker begin?

Almost everybody in my business bumps into poker at some point, because if you do theater and movies, there’s a lot of down time. More often than not, somebody will say, “Hey, let’s play some poker.” But it was around the time that the celebrity poker shows started in the early 2000’s that I remember being invited to be a player on a televised poker thing, and my publicist represented [professional Poker player] Phil Hellmuth at the time, and he said “Hey, I represent this professional poker player, would you like a lesson?” And I said, “What the hell. The guy calls himself a professional poker player. Let me go see who he is.” After about ten minutes my head was spinning. I realized there was so much about this game I did not understand, never knew, would never understand. But I became fascinated with it. 

It is such a rich game in that there are so many ways you can play it. You can play it as a mathematical player, you can play it as an instinctual player. It is an actor’s game because you are always making impressions about yourself at the table, always trying to understand the impression other players are making. I’m so fascinated by the game, but my fascination does not, unfortunately, mean that I am good at it. I am entertaining at the table, I generally know right from wrong, but sometimes right doesn’t work, and even knowing wrong I have proceeded to do the wrong thing time and time again. It’s kind of like life, you never stop being surprised and learning more about it. 

I also meet amazing people at the poker table, fascinating people that I would never otherwise meet. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 30 years and I work in the entertainment business, so I don’t often meet guys who are driving buses in Cleveland, Ohio, or work in accounting firms in Wyoming, but at the poker table you meet people from every walk of life.

For nine seasons in the 90s, you played the iconic role of George Costanza on the classic sitcom Seinfeld. What lessons can George teach us in 2019, or where in our modern culture do you see the character’s influence?

Well, if I am to believe social media, the president is making a lot of George-isms. The one that keeps being tweeted at me is, people believe the president may be subscribing to the Costanza philosophy of “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” I am afraid, unfortunately if you want to be serious, that the sort of selfishness and short-sightedness and narcissism that George Costanza was certainly guilty of may have infected a lot of our modern culture right now, and to nobody’s good, I’m afraid.

Jason Alexander will perform at the Ohio Theater on April 27th at 8 p.m. For tickets information, visit columbussymphony.com/events.

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Arts & Music

You can sit with us: 6 fan favorites coming to Broadway in Columbus stage

Laura Dachenbach

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Six incredible shows including Columbus premieres, revivals, and long-running favorites, make up the 2019-2020 Broadway in Columbus series season.

In an exciting reveal last night, coupled with performances from local and Broadway performers, CAPA announced its 2019-2020 PNC Broadway in Columbus series in what looks to be an especially exciting lineup of shows.

The series will kick off with two shows that deal with the difficulties of adolescence. The critically-acclaimed Dear Evan Hansen (Sept. 17-22) tells the story of a private letter that shouldn’t have been read publicly, its tragic results, and the complexities of fitting in, while Mean Girls, (Oct. 22-27) written by former high school theater nerd and SNL writer Tina Fey and her husband Jeff Richmond, is a musical adaptation of the film of the same name that looks at cliques and Queen bees. Mean Girls comes to Columbus straight from its Broadway run.

In November, Les Misérables (Nov. 19-24) continues its “One Day More” in its almost 35 years of existence. This touring version will be freshly staged and its updated look is inspired by the little-known paintings of Victor Hugo that have been converted into backdrop projections.

Les Misérables

The New Year will kick off with another film adaptation, Anastasia (Jan. 29-Feb. 2). The stage version maintains your favorites tunes such as “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December” while adding 16 new songs. This version of the last Romanov daughter, written by Terrence McNally, happily says “do svidanya” (goodbye) to Bartok the Bat and the zombie version of Rasputin and replaces them with a conniving secret police officer.

Anastasia

My Fair Lady (Mar. 11-15), the musical that launched Julie Andrews into Broadway prominence, is sometimes called “the most perfect musical of all time.” A social commentary about language and society, My Fair Lady features a lineup of perennial Broadway favorites such as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” And “On The Street Where You Live.”

My Fair Lady

Wrapping up the subscriber season is Miss Saigon (June 9-14), the love story of an American GI and a young Vietnamese woman who bears his child, is written by the same creative team as Les Misérables. This revival contains additional Vietnamese lyrics and exceptionally spectacular stage effects.

Miss Saigon

Jersey Boys (Jan. 10-11) and the ever-“Popular” Wicked (Apr. 22-May 17) are optional subscriber package add-ons to the season. CAPA also announced that Come From Away, a musical about true events during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks will be included in the 2020-2021 season.

To renew your season subscription or to become a subscriber, visit broadwayincolumbus.com.  You can also call (800-294-1892) or just stop in at the CAPA Ticket Center at 39 E State St. It’s a season you really won’t want to miss!

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Arts & Music

You won’t have to go “On the Road Again” for this Willie Nelson music Festival

Mike Thomas

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Look out all you Highwaymen, the Red Headed Stranger is coming to town - and he’s bringing a few friends with him.

American music legend, activist, and all-around badass Willie Nelson will bring his “Outlaw Musical Festival” tour to Columbus’ Nationwide arena on June 23. The festival will make stops in 10 cities this summer, with the Columbus leg featuring support from The Avett Brothers, Alison Krauss, Old Crow Medicine Show, Dawes, and an opener TBD.

Each stop on the tour will feature an “Outlaw Village,” showcasing crafts from local artisans as well as festival attractions and local food and drink offerings.

Tickets for the festival’s Columbus show go on sale Friday, March 8th. Presale will begin Wednesday, March 6 at 10am and go through Thursday, March 7 at 10pm or while supplies last. Enter offer Code ARENA.

For more information, visit the tour website.

In the meantime, please enjoy this fantastically weird tune from the pre-Shotgun Willie days.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjKPXs4q4IA
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