Sunday, May 29, 2016

Chicago Bound--AIC, MCA, and Goodman Theatre

Not much better than a trip on the train to Chicago anchored by an exciting and thought provoking play at the Goodman Theatre, visits to the Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art, some fine eating, and an overnight stay with good friends.

At the Art Institute we spent a nice hour with the famed "Life" magazine photographer Gordon Parks. The exhibit chronicles a creative meeting between him and the author of "The Invisible Man" Ralph Ellison.  Few of the photos and text actually reached publication, but this resurrection mostly from Parks' archives says more than enough to get you thinking about what was then and what we have achieved in our racial history.

Lunch was in the courtyard at the AIC and Jim enjoyed the soup and the fountains.

The following day we paid a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art that seemed to carry on the theme of the Parks/Ellison exhibit.  The photo below was for me the centerpiece of  Kerry James Marshall's retrospective now on at the MCA.  It reflected back to Ellison's masterpiece and forward to Marshall's large, often ironic paintings that covered the image of the African and the African America in the history of art in total and in the history of American society. 

Marshall's acclaimed Garden Series dominated one room with pictures of stereotypical white life overlaid with the irony of life as it was actually lived in the housing estates of urban America.

 A fuller outline of Mr. Marshall's life and his art can be found by putting his name into any search engine..

  Jan had a quiet moment while reading up on the artist and his work. The catalog for this exhibition is outstanding by the way.



Now on to the Goodman Theatre production of Lorraine Hansberry's "The Sign in Sydney Brustein's Window."  First off it was superb on all fronts.  The acting was crisp and telling without giving way to potential for melodrama in the multiple plot lines. The set was a tour de force with its hyper-realistic !960's New York apartment literally floating in a framework of urban scaffolding that went up into the flies and down into the bowels of the basement trap room.  The lighting enhanced every element by capturing the realism of sunrise, sunset, and the evening hours. Best effect of all was the fiery all surrounding glow of hell that encased the Brustein home as his world imploded around him. 

Thematically this is a grand and sweeping play. It might easily have been made into a trilogy or cut into a tighter more focused piece had Hansberry lived to edit or reconsider its scope. The American Theatre clearly lost  a brilliant artist far just as she was reaching her maturity. 

Why is the play so good yet so frustrating as we think about what Ms. Hansberry might have done with it?  To answer the question partially let us just consider just how many themes and plot elements she is juggling and trying to integrate by the end of its two long acts.  She does tie them all up, but it is damnably complex stitching.  Let me try to summarize the plot and then let you decide whether she would have been better to slim it down or expand it into multiple plays.  

Sydney Brustein is that traditional New York liberal--a socially conscious Jewish striver who  wants a  life necklace of real pearls, but keeps coming up with plastic fakes.  As his marriage sputters and he  tries to recover from his most recent business debacle,  he leaps into the purchase of a community newspaper.  Even though he wants to stay clear of editorial causes, he is convinced to help with the election of  a so called reformer (Wally O;Hara) who is really just another party hack,    Poof, the sign in the window of the play's title. Wally wins the election but Sydney discovers that nothing will change. Political reform as a way to correct the ills of society is not going to occur. 

Hansbery also gives Sydney a frustrated wife who aspires to be serious actress, but can only manage a commercial for a home permanent product that doesn't work.  In addition there is a struggling black, gay, avant garde playwright,  neighbor who suddenly authors a hit but doesn't seem to know how to deal with it. Poof--if politics can't fix the world,  will toleration of all lifestyles and the vision of the arts provide an avenue to  fulfillment and social justice?

To further extend the reach of the play, Hansberry gives Sydney's troubled wife two twisted sisters. The eldest has acquiesced to her husband's infidelities to keep her upper class life style and a thumb on the lives of her two siblings. Sydney's wife is full of resentment at this meddling. The youngest sister, who is a call girl, doesn't turn up until late in the script but is talked about a good deal.  She is engaged to one of Sydney's best friends,  who happens to be a very light skinned black man. This allows for miscegenation, prostitution, and inter-marriage attitudes of the sixties to be folded into this smoldering dramatic stew,

The wife's family had a long Greek name but shortened it to Parados.  For the uninitiated these are the entrance alleys for the chorus and many of the characters in a Greek drama.  This gives Hansberry  a chance to lard the play with a series of theatrical references from Willy Loman to Strindberg.  I may have been the only person in the audience to get the Strindberg reference as I had just finished reading a biography of him where it talked about the fact that he could never actually watch one of his own plays in performance.  So is Sydney a latter day Oedipus, committed to helping his community only to find the tragic truth he is the problem? Or is he a Jason to the killer Medeas around him who will butcher all of his noble offspring? Not sure but there is a lot to think about in this play and to attach to the history of minorities and social movements in past and present societies.

Ambitious, complex, through provoking it was and that's enough for one weekend. 

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