Sunday, November 19, 2023

Opera X: A Space Exploration


The Dresser loves seeing opera as a simulcast broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera. This is how on November 18, 2023, she saw X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, the opera by composer Anthony Davis, his cousin—poet and librettist—Thulani Davis, and his brother Christopher Davis who wrote the story/book for this work. Why the Dresser loves the simulcast experience is because during the intermission (and there were two twenty-minute intermissions in this three-act, over three-hour opera) the audience is treated to interviews that provide a wealth of information that you do not hear if you attend the live performance. Another benefit is that the cost of admission is a fraction of the ticket price for a good seat live at the Met. Also, the camera close-ups are much better than what a viewer with binoculars can hope to see.


Overall, the Dresser was glad she saw X. The first act which tells the story of the young Malcolm Little (X) with its rhymical layered jazz,  big chorus, dancing, beautiful costumes, and spaceship was as exciting as the Dresser expected, given the preview she had seen. During the first intermission, host Angela Bassett (who played Malcolm’s wife in the film Malcolm X) revealed that the space ship had a connection to Marcus Garvey, a Black separatist who organized an American Black nationalist movement that included a shipping line named the Black Star Line that was supposed to ship Blacks to Africa. Somehow, Garvey’s beliefs about the future for Black people plays into Director Robert O’Hara’s abstract Afrofuturistic production. Does it work? Well, while the Dresser was willing to suspend disbelief in Act I, not so much in Acts II and III.


Act II deals with Malcolm’s imprisonment for various crimes like stealing and the friendship with Elijah Mohammed that leads Malcolm to become a Muslim activist. Act III deals with Elijah Mohammed’s disapproval of X’s outspokenness. Act III ends with X’s assassination. While Act I swirls with action, variety, and color, Acts II and III are more black and white with reality and therefore do not integrate plot-wise with that hovering space ship.


Director O’Hara’s choice of cast also required some suspension of disbelief. In this production, Malcolm X is cast as baritone Will Liverman who is a short, compact man whereas the historic Malcolm X was tall and thin. Malcolm’s wife Betty (who also plays Malcolm’s mother) is soprano Leah Hawkins, a Rubenesque woman who seems bigger in body and voice than Liverman. Their performances are perfectly professional but there is no spark between them since they do not look like they belong together. The Dresser, however, loved the casting of high tenor Victor Ryan Robertson in the roles of Street and Elijah Mohammed. In the role Street, Robertson is reminiscent of Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. As Elijah, Robertson projects an exceptional otherness as a holy leader that feels right for the role.


What the Dresser liked best about this production of X was the libretto with its short words and repetitions and the music which conductor Kazem Abdullah said was difficult but which he brought across so well. The passages with haunting saxophone solos made the Dresser think of shadowy film noir. A seatmate pointed out that influences ranged from Thelonius Monk (Epistrophy), Leonard Bernstein (e.g., West Side Story’s “When you’re a Jet”), and Stravinsky (Rite of Spring).


X runs through December 2, 2023, at the Metropolitan Opera.



Friday, November 17, 2023

Woman at the Crossing: Heart, Home, Healing


Susan Okie’s Woman at the Crossing, winner of the 2023 Off the Grid Poetry Prize, shows the complexity of everyday living and the choices we make…or don’t. The Dresser sees this in the book’s title poem where a doctor (yes, Susan Okie is a medical doctor) examines a woman in pain, prescribes an x-ray, then departs in her car. Stopped at a traffic light, the doctor notices a woman on the street with a sign professing her pain—hungry, lost my job, three kids:


The light changes and I


drive on behind safety glass.

This woman at the crossing:

desperate soul, racketeer, both?

One day I’ll park, walk back

to speak with her.


In this face-paced 21st century life, we are often haunted by things we do not do as well as decisions we make sometimes too impulsively. In “Willy of Kisumu, Kenya, 1992,” Okie lets Willy, a young street boy into her home to play video games with her similarly aged sons. Willy makes her sons “uneasy” and her boys ask her not to let Willy in again. Before he leaves, he says he will go back to school if only Okie gives him money for books. She knows he sniffs glue and most likely won’t go back to school but gives him money anyhow.


I hand it over and he disappears. Next time,

 perhaps, a new story, but the same questions

and the eyes that freeze me, old as stars.


Other instances that haunt permeate the collection. In “The Life of Secrets,” Okie finds relatives that her family hoped to hide:


This year, I found my tia-abuelas,

two old ladies, Mexican half-sisters

of my grandmother from a marriage


that my gringo family tried to erase.

Their house in Cuernavaca is filled

with sunlight, saints, dark paintings.


In “My Father in Mexico City, 1921,” the poet writes from the perspective of her father as a six-year-old who,  while waiting for his lunch in the beautiful bird-filled courtyard of his home,  witnesses his grandfather sneaking a woman into the house:


Rapping at the door. A shout: grandfather.

The birds dart off. You keep still,

listen to the rapid Spanish, catch a whiff

of perfume. He crosses by the fountain

with someone whose skirts rustle

as her hurries her upstairs.


Occasionally, what haunts also mystifies. The Dresser wonders whether “In Hades” is a nightmare or something that actually happened. Here are excerpts:


I’ve gone under.

My thoughts dart

like small blue fish.

It isn’t safe

to speak. I’ll be

sliced open…



I see a man—vast,

dark. He pins

my arms, wrestles me

to the ground. I watch

myself fall.


My eyes are bandaged.

One is torn inside…


Someone unwraps them—

a detective shows me

photos. Men’s faces

swim past.



“In Hades” is preceded by “interior with Young Woman” which concerns a young woman who is taken to a borrowed house by a man she doesn’t know well. When he comes on to her, she “recoils” and becomes an abstract painting in the style of Picasso. “In Hades” is followed by “A Doctor’s Eye: Thy Bed of Crimson Joy.” While the poem concerns a recalcitrant patient who has been told that alcohol will speed his death and it does in the most horrific way, what catches the Dresser’s attention is the sub-title of this poem. Thy Bed of Crimson Joy comes from this short poem by William Blake:


The Sick Rose


O Rose, thou art sick:

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm,


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy;

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.


Of course, the sick rose can stand in for that patient who gets his mother to sneak in beer and then has an incident where blood gushes from this throat and the doctor attending him who must be an inexperienced medic cannot get any other doctor to help because the man has flagrantly brought on his own death and cannot be healed. It could also be a suggestive touchstone for the women in the two poems coming before “A Doctor’s Eye”—these women who may have suffered some degree of molestation.


In Woman at the Crossing, finding a comfortable and safe place known as home is a recurring theme in this collection. It manifests largely in section 4 which most often concerns love and care for the environment and our place in the cosmos. The dramatic cover art, “Cathedral Rock” by Walter Weiss (Okie’s husband), confirms the importance of finding home on our planet. On this topic, the poem that resonated the deepest for the Dresser—“Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices”—narrows down to the love the poet had for her father who was plagued by some kind of stomach ailment but who was working on “a musical about Odysseus, the man who loved/ home but couldn’t seem to get there.” Section 4 is the only section of the book prefaced by a quote. Section 4’s quote is “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” by Henry James. The heart weighs heavily and earnestly in this carefully written and presented first full-length collection by Susan Okie.


Sunday, November 5, 2023

Nobel Laureate Jon Fosse's Strong Wind


On November 3, 2023, Scena Theatre artistic director Robert McNamara presented the United States premier of Strong Wind by 2023 Nobel Laureate in Literature Jon Fosse as translated in English by May-Brit Akerholt. The Dresser found this compelling one-hour, intermissionless drama with word play echoing Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit—1944) and Gertrude Stein’s poetry, such as “If I Told Him, a Completed Portrait of Picasso” (1923). Sterk vind (Strong Wind) debuted in 2021 according to Wikipedia which lists 34 of his plays, 33 works of prose, 13 collections of poetry (one of which is titled Stein til stein (2013)), and three collections of essays.


Strong Wind performed in the black box theater of Washington, DC’s Arts Center before an audience just under 50 people has a cast of three unnamed players. The Man, played by Stas Wronka, returns home to discover that his wife—The Woman (Sissel Bakken) is cohabiting with another man—The Young Man (Robert Sheire). At first, he thinks she has moved from the home he expected to return to, and she agrees that she has moved. Throughout the play the nature of reality is questioned as well as small assumptions made about daily living.


Repetition and reversals populate what The Man says as well as an undercurrent of Western philosophy such as his discussion about what he sees out the window of the place he now calls home and maybe always called home. His patter unfolds something like this, “What I see is always the same, but it changes like a wink of the eye. Perhaps it changes when I blink my eyes. I don’t know the difference between winking and blinking.” His discussion suggests the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who put his foot into a stream and realized that the world is in constant flux and hard—no, impossible—to nail down. Stas Wronka excels at thoughtfully conveying how difficult it is to communicate his thoughts and feelings through his spoken words and body language.


He also has an extended monologue about time and the phenomenon of knowing the difference between past, present, and future. His riff about “Never now, not now, never here” clearly sounds like Gertrude Stein who learned from her Harvard University professor William James that now had the smallest window of occurrence and yes, James used the word window which dominates Fosse’s play.


Without embarrassment The Young Man kisses and makes love to The Woman. They pantomime a ballet where she uses the wall for a solo segment of the dance which shows her sexual rapture. The Man collapses to the floor and rolls around. Then gets up and has a moment of clarity that reveals the home is on the fourteenth floor in a building with a lot of glass panes. At this moment, as The Man talks about the strength of the wind, the Dresser started fearing the worst for him. Here the conflict between the three intensifies.


The Young Man removes The Woman’s shoe and stocking and bites on her toes. The scene is shocking not only for The Man but also for the audience. Then The Young Man asks, “Why can’t we both live here?” Here the Dresser heard echoes of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? except Fosse manages to examine the complexities of sexual and mature marital relationships in minutes versus Albee’s hours. Hats off to Sissel Bakken and Robert Sheire as well as director Robert McNamara for such effective acting and direction.


The play has a subdued soundscape created by composers Roger Doyle and Andrew Bellware. While there is some musical variation that includes a style the Dresser calls techno and something else reminiscent of film noir scoring, most of the background sound is recognizable as wind and people on the street.  


If you are in Washington, DC, take this opportunity to get familiar with the work of Jon Fosse who has won many prestigious awards. Strong Wind runs through November 26, 2023.