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April 10, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

April 10, 2006

Showing The Kids Which Way To Go

A homegrown Poetic Dream and a new kind of dance

The basement hall at Trinity Church on Lark Street has the look and acoustics of a large high school auditorium. Last Saturday night it was packed with several hundred happy chattering high school kids, so loud that us few beleaguered adults could hardly hear ourselves think. But the show that we were waiting to see was for the kids, not for us old folks. The Wife and I were there to watch and maybe learn.

We had come to see the latest production by our neighbor Latasha McBride, “Talent Is... A Poetic Dream” at her invitation. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect, but we did know that Latasha has unusual ideas about the purposes of art and performance. We were curious to see the extent of her talent, and to see if she had found an audience for her productions.

The flyer for her show promised that it included the amazing Nyoda Step Team, made up of dozens of Albany High School girls. I’d seen them for the first time last January 16 during the Martin Luther King day event at Thomas O’Brien School in Lincoln Park. (This annual event took place immediately after the ceremony at the MLK Statue in Lincoln Park, blogged about here.)

How to describe Nyoda? Long ago in my youth, I would occasionally encounter teenage girls who, when they would get together to play loud music, would clap their hands and slap their bodies to the rhythm. A pair of girls might create some impressive rapid routines, whacking their hips, thighs, knees and smacking each others hands, all the while chanting the lyrics to the song. And of course, they would stomp their feet. Sometimes these routines could be elaborate and impressive, but nothing would come of it but their own passing amusement.

Well, imagine twenty or thirty of these girls, slapping and stomping and chanting in perfect coordination, demonstrating a whole repertory of choreographed routines. Imagine that they are so good at doing this that they win awards and competitions. There you have the Albany High School Nyoda Step Team.

The flyer that we got from Ms. McBride declared that the show would start at “7:05 sharp!” Sadly, this promise turned out to be untrue, it started at 7:42 by The Wife’s wristwatch. It appeared that the delay was because Ms. McBride, who acted as the MC and central performer of the production, had a head cold and was having some trouble. Indeed her voice was not very resonant during the performance, but like a real trouper she carried through to the end.

The delay gave us plenty of time to get solicited by the Nyoda kids for a fundraiser drawing. We bought an “arms length” of tickets for five bucks, enough tickets to run from your shoulder to your hands. The kids started to stretch tickets over The Wife’s stumpy little arm, when suddenly she peeped, “No, do his arm!”

The kids enthusiastically complied, but I should say that this was very unfair. I am genetically composed of a menagerie of nationalities, but I swear that one of my great grandparents married an orangutan because I’ve got arms that practically dangle on the floor when I stand up. We ended up with a stack of raffle tickets.

The show turned out to be a series of short skits over the course of an hour or so. As soon as it started, the kids around us immediately quieted down and carefully followed the performance, engaged and fascinated by the action on the stage and on the floor in front. This was no school assembly with a captive audience forced to pay attention. It was clear that Ms McBride knew exactly what she was doing and who she was talking to, and she managed it with apparent ease.

At first, it was for all the wrong reasons that I thought that the show connected so well with the kids in the audience. There were some popular cultural references that went right over our old heads, the sort of things that the young embrace to separate themselves from us oldsters. There seemed to be a lot of audience connections with the performers and dancers. And the short skits were all easy quick in and out, make the point, shut up and move on to the next one.

And there was the highly accessible funky familiarity of the production, like a slapped together school talent show. There were plenty of glitches throughout which added to the overall effect. But understand that I’m not suggesting that the glitches were PLANNED, rather that Ms. McBride provided plenty of ROOM for glitches to occur, and they did.

After a day’s thought, it occurs to me that the real reason that the show worked so well for these high school kids is that it was almost completely a story about the future. In fact, the show started with an indictment of the past, as a nasty thing that needed to be left behind. The skits moved in order to self worth, accomplishment, reaching for a goal, a side trip into protecting one’s self from harm, acknowledging the community and one’s family roots, and finally the importance of the spiritual as validation and ultimate goal.

All this was presented as a road map for life. Us old folks, after three or four or five or more decades of life, take ever increasing delight in looking backwards. This is because we have accumulated so much nonsense that needs to be sorted out, so much information to process. At the same time, as we grow older and our expected futures grow shorter, the less likely we oldsters are inclined to look fondly in that forward direction.

We adults forget that the young kids don’t think the same way that we do. For them, the promise of the future is their real life. The past is at most nothing more than a series of false starts.

Imagine how distressing and ultimately boring it must be for a teenage kid to sit through a play or production about people who who talk endlessly about their past. Such stories can only be a kind of burden, of potential value but hardly enjoyable. It is with this point that we see the depth of Latasha McBride’s understanding of her receptive young audience, and of what they wanted and needed to see.

I couldn’t imagine this audience of high school kids sitting still through the production that me and The Wife had traveled to see the night before. We drove an hour and a quarter to Mass MOCA in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to behold a bizarre reworking of the old Henrik Ibsen play, A Doll’s House. Bizarre is an understatement, although the actors did follow the original script closely. We had front row seats (center right) to what can only be described as a circus freak show.

Let me describe. The male actors were all shorter than four foot six inches, and all of the adult actresses were over six feet tall. At one point, there were maybe twenty windows behind the performers displaying coordinated marionettes. Some of the dialogue was delivered by giant sheets unfurled from the ceiling. Performers crawled around the stage floor, hid themselves inside giant crates and would break into sing-song voices. There were a number of simulated sex acts, including oral and auto. There was opera karaoke.

At the climactic final scene, the actress who played the central character Nora, standing high above the stage behind a balustrade, stripped herself completely nude, pulled off her wig to reveal a shaved head, and in a haze of smoke and confetti declared “I no longer believe in miracles!”

I’m not making up any of this. There were lots of witnesses.

Okay, so maybe the Albany kids would have stared at this lunacy wide-eyed, but certainly without much connection or understanding. Whether played straight or insanely, A Doll’s House is, after all, an 1879 Swedish Victorian era play about the underlying pressures that ultimately destroy an upper middle class marriage. It is a story of how a lifetime of lies can catch up to one’s self, and in an instant irrevocably tear relationships apart.

What storyline could be more distant and painfully boring to a young kid with no past worth mentioning and a seemingly endless yawning future stretched out ahead? Latisha McBride understands this point very, very well. With her production of Talent Is... A Poetic Dream she demonstrated that she knows how to put this understanding to good use for the kids and for the community. That’s real talent.

Seen in this way, her well-considered talk and dance story in a funky church basement was a triumph that towered high above some outrageous but ultimately desperate rehashing of an over analyzed classic piece of literature performed at a world famous Berkshire art museum.

The show in the Trinity Church basement ended, but everyone stayed for one more thing. There was the drawing for the 50/50 fundraising raffle, which had yielded a grand prize of forty five dollars. Oops. My long orangutan arm had won the prize.

This would not do. The Wife hurried up to the front to donate our prize to the Nyoda Step Team. As she approached the stage, I heard a young voice behind me say “Who won?” Another voice answered, “Some white lady!”

Well, I could see The Wife speak to the folks onstage, and suddenly everybody up there was full of smiles and making joyful noises. I hope the extra few dollars makes a difference for the Team. Sometimes it’s best not to take home the prize.

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