Tag Archives: biography

All that (Inventor of) Jazz: Jelly’s Last Jam and The Lonesome West, reviewed.

My reviews of Signature Theatre’s new production of George C. Wolfe and Susan Brikenhead’s early-90s Jelly Roll Morton bio-musical Jelly’s Last Jam, and Keegan Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s late-90s black comedy The Lonesome West, are in today’s Washington City Paper.  Notice is served.

WaPo book review: Without Frontiers: The Life and Music of Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel Without FrontiersI was pleased when Ron Charles, the Washington Post‘s book critic and one the Style section’s very best writers, reached out to ask if I’d like to review a trio of upcoming auto/biographies — that’s two autobios, one bio — by artists. The first of those, in RE: Daryl Easlea‘s new biography of prog-rock provocateur-turned-adult-rock-minimalist Peter Gabriel, is the Sunday Arts section and online now.

Writing it last weekend inspired me to play some Gabriel albums for the first time in many, many years. Easlea repeats the conventional wisdom about how Gabriel’s last album to have any notable chart impact, 1992’s Us, was the denser, more difficult follow-up to his five-million-selling So. I loved Us when I was in high school, which gives you a hint what kind of 16-year-old I was. Most of it still sounds good to me.

He Is Marshall: Laurence Fishburne does Thurgood Justice

You could be forgiven for being a little wary of Thurgood, George Stevens, Jr.’s one-man stage biography of the Hon. Thurgood Marshall, as performed by Laurence Fishburne. What’re the odds a grade school-to-grave account of the life of the first African American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, boasting a star of such Zen-like solemnity that you totally believed him about us all being pickled, hairless pod-dwellers plugged unawares inside The Matrix, could be anything more than plodding hagiography? Great for high school history and government classes, but nothing made with such worthy intentions could possibly be any fun. Right?

Sez you. Point one, Fishburne, reprising his role from a Broadway run two summers ago, is as impish and avuncular as he is authoritative. Whether lurching across the stage with on a cane or channeling LBJ’s puffed-up, Lone Star imperiousness, he’s a captivating presence for every second of this 95-minute monologue. Point two, the story of Marshall’s life — one Stevens seems to have taken a strict-constructionist, if anecdotal, approach to interpreting — is simply a hell of a story, so rich in incident and character (and names — his Uncle Fearless gets a lot of play here) and humor and triumph that it seems too good to be true. Continue reading

In Shadowboxer, the Brown Bomber gets an opera

When Joe Louis took only 124 seconds to knock out Max Schmeling in 1938, it was one of the most historic sports triumphs of the 20th century.

Schmeling, a reluctant representative of Nazi Germany, had defeated Louis two years earlier, and the Reich’s propagandists had proclaimed that result — Louis’s first professional loss — as a demonstration of Aryan supremacy. The rematch was broadcast in dozens of languages. In dispatching Schmeling, Louis became a hero to a world that trembled before the ascendant Nazi war machine, and the first black man to achieve broad acceptance as a symbolic ambassador for the United States.

Leon Major, artistic director of the Maryland Opera Studio, was five years old when his father turned on the radio to hear that fight. It was over in less time than it took Major’s dad, a tailor in the shtetl, to get a glass of tea from the kitchen.

Now 77, Major isn’t quite sure whether he remembers the match firsthand, or if he heard about it later. Memory is funny that way, especially when we’re very young. But Major vividly recalls Louis’s career-ending loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951.

“That incident stayed with me, because it was so devastating to so many people,” Major says. Even Marciano had looked up to Louis — he visited the fallen champ backstage after the fight to apologize for beating him.

Four decades would pass before Major began thinking seriously about making Louis’s life the subject of an opera, but once the notion seized him, it wouldn’t let go, even after numerous composers and a librettists turned the commission down. Some even suggested an opera about Jackie Robinson instead. Continue reading

Signature’s goodly Wife, Long on Persuasion

Whatever scenario Doug Wright had in mind when first he interviewed Charlotte von Mahlsdorf with the aim of writing a play about her, we can safely assume it was something more conventional than his prismatic meta-biography, I Am My Own Wife.

Wright’s single actor, multi-character opus won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004, more than a decade after Mahlsdorf first began recounting her strange (and possibly tall) tale into his tape recorder. Along the way, the playwright grappled with a Berlin Wall of writer’s block, beguiled by premise-thickening revelations about a subject he’d initially hoped to venerate as a hero. But the complexity that so confounded him turned out to be the very thing that gives his play about a cross-dressing furniture collector in fascist East Germany an unlikely universal resonance.

Director Alan Paul’s absorbing new Signature Theatre production of I Am My Own Wife is — sorry — an ideal marriage of performer and material, entrusting its 36 roles to the versatile craftsman that is Andrew Long. Biographies seem more suited to the solo-performer approach than do other kinds of stories: We are vast, we contain multitudes, etc. Continue reading

Art Spiegelman: Deleted Scenes

spiegelman-illus-web-layers

What a thrill it was for me to talk last week with comics master Art Spiegelman, who’ll give his Comix 101 lecture tonight at the Corcoran. If you’re still curious after reading my preview (it’s a PDF) in today’s Examiner (aimed, like Spiegelman’s talk, at comic book civilians, after all), here’s a little more Spiegelmania, in the from of excerpts from our conversation last Thursday.
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