The Road to Sound contributor James May suggested we wade into non-musical territory for one of our 2020 year-end lists, and I quite liked the proposition. After all, many of us consume art outside of music, even if music writing and making is our primary focus. I opened this list up to any writers who were interested in submitting a pitch, and it was wonderful to hear ideas about theatre, food, television, and books — areas outside of my realm of intensive knowledge, but vastly important aspects of our livelihoods. The resulting article lays out each writer’s reflection or list on one of those art forms, centered on what they consumed in 2020.
Books of 2020
by James May
I really love to read. When I was in college I switched from a math to an English degree because I figured taking classes about books was the best way to ensure I kept the habit up. Forcing time for this hobby has always been important; all the more so since leaving school, in the hopes of keeping up on music topics, and this year, in the hopes of filling all this quarantine-imposed time.
Reading differs fundamentally from listening to music. The scope of time and attention shifts, the rate of experience slows. I tend to be about a year behind on releases; of what I read this year, only three were from 2020, and nine from 2019.
At the beginning of 2019, I set a goal to read 50 books; I got to 35, and set the same goal for this year. When I started this piece, I had landed at 47. In the remaining days of the year I filled in the gap and then some; 51 of 50 as it stands, tipped over the edge by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Next year, I don’t think I’ll set a number goal—after two attempts, I’ve decided title count isn’t the best way to measure (or nourish) a reading habit.
In that spirit, I’ll share my favorite reads of this year with a nod to Bandcamp’s recent approach to lists, grouping by themes and self-understood categories. And you can check out the full list of what I read at the end!
The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)
Say Nothing (Patrick Radden Keefe)
Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)
Educated (Tara Westover)
Have you ever watched, incredulous, as somebody’s experience leads them to a radically different understanding of the world than you? (for instance, “I’m really worried about COVID, I was talking about this with my friends last night at our monthly dinner at the brewery and we were just—” indicates to me that they are not, in fact, really worried about COVID.) I butted up against lots of reality-dividing gulfs this year; over COVID, over protests and racism, over the election.
These books, for me, lived in and around those gulfs. Michelle Alexander’s illuminating The New Jim Crow hardly needs introduction. Her project is not simply a litany of statistics (as I sometimes felt about Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing). It’s a critical interrogation, exposing the separation between what we’re told the criminal justice system is for, and how it actually molds our communities.
More personally, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe and Educated by Tara Westover criss-crossed socio-cultural divides by way of narrative. Keefe tells the story of The Troubles in Northern Ireland through testimony of former IRA members — folks who undertook gruesome acts with the understanding that their resistance would lead to a united Ireland. Westover recounts her upbringing under Mormon survivalist parents, and the worldview-tweaking gaslighting of medical neglect and emotional abuse. The meeting of critical history and sympathetic personhood in these works made them unforgettable.
I also tackled the reality-breaking cult classic Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. This doorstopper is as bewildering as anything I’ve ever read. Part war-time “detective” chase across Europe, part expansive situational comedy, part unflinching construction of delusion, by the end of the book my sense of reality had mostly disintegrated — as had my sense that that mattered. This was a bucket list book for me, and my immediate response was simply that I have to read it again.
James Shamelessly Rekindles his Deep Love for Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Earthseed Saga (Octavia Butler)
Broken Earth Trilogy (N.K. Jemisin)
She Would Be King (Wayétu Moore)
The Seep (Chana Porter)
I mean, the heading says it all. I binged the entirety of Game of Thrones in pandemic months one and two; my partner and I started a long-term Star Trek watch project, currently in season two of Deep Space 9; I re-read Dune (not my favorite tbh) and thumbed through some short stories by my most read author of 2019, Ursula Le Guin.
I likewise prioritized books that met my outside-our-world cravings. Chief among them was N.K. Jemisin’s masterful Broken Earth Trilogy. I was transfixed by Jemisin’s worldbuilding, so well developed that the series moved fluidly from high fantasy to sci-fi and back based solely on the inner-workings of the universe. If you have ever enjoyed a fantasy book, you will enjoy these fantasy books.
I also tackled Octavia Butler’s classic Earthseed saga, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents — though I would recommend waiting until the pandemic passes to take it on yourself. This set felt uncannily prescient, presenting a United States where the structures of government and economy have crumbled under the weight of corporatism and beleaguered citizens, leaving folks to survive by way of desperate crime or radical community.
Then, the joyous stories. Chana Porter’s The Seep was a perfect bite-sized romp, totally indulgent in fantastical imagination. Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King took magic realism to West Africa, penning a world where three characters boxed in by their identity assume dreamlike protection of an emerging Liberia.
I read some other notable fantasy/sci-fi this year but, for me, these were four books that most fully folded imagination and narrative into one another.
Who am I to you?
Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin)
Open City (Teju Cole)
Just Us (Claudia Rankine)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong)
Earlier this year I was chatting about Sally Rooney’s Normal People with a friend who doesn’t typically read fiction and found the book unremarkable. It got me thinking about why I so loved fiction: somebody writes into life a perspective that simultaneously invokes my experiences and widens my memory aperture to consider new pieces of personality and emotion. When I read Normal People, I felt it tug at my own life by articulating relationships that eerily captured the emotional turmoil of being a shitty teenager in high school. Clearly, I enjoyed that book.
By way of extraordinarily crafted language and incisive commentary, these four books provided that individually-rooted perspective on the world. In the past two years I’ve finally addressed the James Baldwin-sized hole in my education. I’m bowled over by his deftly addressing complex socio-cultural topics through exquisitely written characters. Giovanni’s Room met this expectation yet again. I don’t know that explaining the story matters as much as to say that if you like strong characters negotiating complicated relationships wrapped in stunning prose, this (and any Baldwin) is for you.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous seems to inherent Baldwin’s legacy. Vuong’s frankness pries open spaces for immense emotions, crevices filled in with stunning writing. The unsettling disturbances of Little Dog’s family met as equal the passionate retellings of his sexual and emotional development.
Open City by Teju Cole was one of my few re-reads this year. I was so glad I picked it up again; the way Cole intermingles history, theory, and identity is beautifully finessed. When I first read it, I thought it was an interesting set of experiences. This time, I was totally sucked into the nested pillars against which Cole’s narrator measures his sense of space and belonging.
Claudia Rankine’s Just Us set forth a similarly powerful set of pillars about which to understand identity, transmitted in her deliberate and poetic musings. I found her reflections totally disarming, both vulnerable and incisively peeling away the detritus of social context to get at core negotiations of race and power. Plus, the book is beautifully made, taking advantage of the physical medium in ways that text collections seldom do.
Above all, these four books are beautiful. They contain writing that, if I were a writer, I would aspire to emulate. These authors know the pull and punch of each phrase, and craft them so wonderfully I felt I could live in their thoughts and with their characters. They capture a world in each word, and expand it with the next.
Éliane Radigue: Intermediary Spaces (Julia Eckhardt)
The Race of Sound (Nina Sun Eidsheim)
The Sonic Episteme (Robin James)
Sounding Race in Rap Songs (Loren Kajikawa)
Forces in Motion (Graham Lock)
Keeping abreast of academic ideas (or, ideas that you can more easily learn about in the academy) is tough when you’re… not in the academy. To help offset that, I spent a lot of time dedicated to recent books on sound studies, musicology, and composers. Of those I read this year, these five stuck with me most profoundly.
I tried to make more space this year for writing by or about composers, amidst my typical sound studies and musicology reading. I was really excited by Forces in Motion by Graham Lock and Intermediary Spaces by Julia Eckhardt, books dedicated to the music of and interviews with Anthony Braxton and Éliane Radigue, respectively. Though wildly different in their aesthetics, I admire both of these composers for their extraordinary dedication to their craft, to intensely pursuing that sonic thing that gives vibrancy to their work. Each book covered biography, history, influence, philosophy, and music in equal measure; I would highly recommend them to anyone interested in engaging with these wonderful artists.
The remaining three were all theoretical or musicological works, each addressing divergent topics but all totally reorienting my understanding of their topics. Loren Kajikawa’s Sounding Race in Rap Songs is a really wonderful exploration of sampling in hip-hop, and how different techniques and histories combine to signify particular expressions of identity in production. Nina Sun Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound traces the history of vocal characteristics and technique, pointing out how certain these sounds assumed to be “inherent” are, in fact, culturally constructed and thus embroiled in positioning identity.
Robin James’s The Sonic Episteme was, for me, one of the most challenging reads of the year—but immensely rewarding. She observes that a set of sonic characteristics, such as working in “harmony” or aligning to one “vibration”, work to “qualitatively structure social practices in much the same way that neoliberalism uses statistics”, thus maintaining subversively inherent structures that they propose to erase. If that sounds nuanced, it is; I spent a lot of time thinking through this book as I read it, and still don’t know that I came out with full understanding. But it’s a set of suggestions I’ve continuously thought about since reading, and I’m excited to re-engage with James’s ideas when the time arrives.
I, Just, Really Loved These
The Yellow House (Sarah Broom)
Hopscotch (Julio Cortázar)
The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
The Dragons, The Giant, The Woman (Wayétu Moore)
East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
Could I have stuck these last books into one of the above categories? Yeah, probably. But another thing I’m trying to remind myself is not everything has to be justified to be enjoyed — maybe that will be my criteria for reading in 2021.
Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House was the craze of the New Orleans literary world in 2019 — all the more so after winning the 2019 National Book Award. A memoir about her African-American family who lived in New Orleans East, an area compromised by various developers and city governments, Broom captures a very particular history of Black communities undergoing ecological destruction and structural abandonment. If you like memoirs with larger social contexts, you must read this beautiful book.
Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch has frequently appeared on lists of books I really love, so I finally got a copy and read it this year. Kind of. I read it the boring, normie way: in order. Which means, next year, I’ll read it the suggested way — in a predescribed jumble of chapters that include nearly 100 extra chapters outside of what I’ve already read. I’m excited to do so; tracing the protagonist’s disturbing detachment from normalcy, drifting amidst his acquaintances and antagonizing bizarre social situations, was engrossing enough. But I’m a sucker for meta-narrative constructions, and it sounds like Hopscotch will not disappoint.
Wayétu Moore’s memoir, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women, tells the author’s story of fleeing civil war in Liberia, growing up in the United States, and reconnecting with her family history. I bought this immediately after reading She Would Be King; while I thought the latter was more effective, Moore’s memoir still found the wonderful blend of storytelling and history.
The same friend who found Sally Rooney wanting has been recommending Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to me since we met. I finally picked it up this week and flew through it, so immense and tugging was the story. In 2003, Didion’s husband suffered a major cardiac episode and passed away; in the following months, her daughter also was in and out of hospitals for neurological illness, eventually dying herself. Didion processes this year of grief in disarming prose. She filters her family’s life through triggered recollection, medical labyrinths and powerlessness, thoughts of dinners in New York and Hawai’i, of her husband’s penchant for rereading books to “find out how they worked, technically”. This is going to be close to my final book of the year; if any a year should end with this poignant document of mourning, it’s this one.
Which means I’ll end my list with the first book I finished in 2020: Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the oldest book of my list and one of the longest. A lot of people have been telling me to read this for a while, and I’m glad I finally did so. This story is breathtaking, and I’m not totally sure I could explain why. Something about the earnest yearnings of the characters and the bracing prose gave enormous weight to a story I wouldn’t typically love. Instead, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Here’s my full list of reads this year, from first to last. More than previous years, I think the chronology here is interesting. I’m a one-book-at-a-time reader (another change for next year), and seeing the ebb-and-flow of the year as reflected by the genres, the topics, the authors I reached for is quite the ride. And, more importantly, I hope it’s a resource for book ideas!
East of Eden – John Steinbeck
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States – Roxanne Dubar-Ortiz
The Seep – Chana Porter
The Yellow Room – Sarah M. Broom
Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
Made to Stick – Chip & Dan Heath
Bloodchild – Octavia Butler
Say Nothing – Patrick Radden Keefe
Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture – Jace Clayton
Human Chain – Seamus Heaney
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern
The Sonic Episteme – Robin James
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters – Ursula Le Guin
The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
She Would Be King – Wayétu Moore
The End of Policing – Alex Vitale
Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music – Graham Lock
The Dragons, The Giant, The Women – Wayétu Moore
The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) – N.K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth #2) – N.K. Jemisin
The Stone Sky (Broken Earth #3) – N.K. Jemisin
Open City – Teju Cole
The Race of Sound – Nina Sun Eidsheim
Educated – Tara Westover
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar
Dune – Frank Herbert
Sounding Race in Rap Songs – Loren Kajikawa
Éliane Radigue: Intermediary Spaces – Julia Eckhardt
Death by Meeting – Patrick Lencioni
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman
Just Us – Claudia Rankine
Black Elk Speaks – Black Elk
Nothing to See Here – Kevin Wilson
A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
The Three Body Problem – Liu Cixin
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
An Introduction to Music Technology – Dan Hosken
The Baron in the Trees – Italo Calvino
Gertrude Stein’s America – Gertrude Stein
Between Air and Electricity – Cathy van Eck
Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) – Octavia Butler
Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
I Am Not Your Negro – James Baldwin
Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2) – Octavia Butler
Captivology – Ben Parr
The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
Reviews of the Restaurants on Portland’s Williams Avenue
by Catherine Sinow
What: Reviews of the restaurants on Williams Avenue in Portland. No bars because those are too depressing right now.
Why: I moved to Portland, Oregon two weeks before the lockdown. Living right by a food street and having little interest in exploring the broader city (quarantine will do that to you I guess), it’s only natural that I would set out to eat at every restaurant on Williams. I’ve eaten almost all of this food alone, in take-out form, in my living room. (Other eating locations include the sidewalk and the park.) I’ve also watched the restaurants go from open to closed to take-out only to “we’ll wait on you outside” to “eat inside at a small capacity and we’ll pretend that’s safe” to “we only do take-out but eat the take-out in our take-out dining pods right by the restaurant.” It’s been a downer, but also tasty.
Please note: These are arranged from north to south (roughly).
Also note: this place is gentrified as hell. Just want you to know that I know.
Rovente Pizza: pretty good!
Open Tandoor: Indian food. Pretty good!
Coco Donuts: Pretty regular selection, so regular that their lavender donut is not actually lavender flavored, it’s just purple. I can get into that as opposed to Blue Star donuts on Mississippi Ave, which does dumb shit like put chili flakes on the donuts.
Sisters Deli: Will close any month now. This sandwich shop occupies what is (or feels like) the largest restaurant space on the block. I can’t even look at it because it feels like such a money guzzler. Nice pastel color scheme. Have only eaten here once and it was okay, but the catering photos look pretty tasty.
JinJu: a “patisserie” co-owned by a pastry chef and a chocolatier. Last year Portland Monthly awarded it “Best Restaurant,” period. I don’t know if I’d say best but they sell delicious truffles that are glossy and luminous like they’re covered in car paint. The cookie-brownie hybrid, the “Brown-kie,” is also delicious.
XLB: this Americanized Chinese food is trustworthy in an “I don’t want to cook so I guess I’ll just do this again!” way. Pork bao and shrimp noodles are solid. Has free fortune cookies outside that have uninspiring fortunes.
Muse Cheesecakes: does this place exist? It shows up on Google Maps but in real life it’s a house. It either doesn’t exist or someone is slinging professional quality cheesecakes out their window. UPDATE: It’s apparently inside the distillery that I never go to because I’m a child who would rather drink soda.
Poa Cafe: breakfast cafe that serves stuff like matcha, avocado toast, and things with chia seeds in it. Good. Sells these nice black cloth masks that I have lost three of so far.
Quesabrosa: shamefully, I have not given this place a full chance due to the seven lifetimes worth of Mexican street food I ate in my 25 years in San Diego. I got a burrito which was stupid because I vastly prefer tacos. People love it though.
Closed Peruvian restaurant: I can only assume this was the best restaurant on the street because Peruvian food is the best food. When I signed my lease here this place was open, and when I came back with my car full of stuff at the end of the month, it was closed. I should be getting a discount on rent because of this.
MF Tasty: This food cart is the best restaurant on the block. They do an “I Ain’t Driving to Keizer” burger, which is a reference to how there is an In-N-Out burger in the somewhat nearby town of Keizer that has a four-hour wait. From the mouth of a California child: this is better than In-N-Out.
Crisp: salads place. My mom always tells me “treat yourself to a Crisp after a week of hard work!” over the phone. She loves Crisp because she’s a mom. It’s good if you like healthy, which I do not.
La Cocina: took me a while to remember the name since that means “The Kitchen” in Spanish and let’s be real, that’s a boring name. This place is well decorated and looks like it would have been SO fun before the pandemic. I don’t really drink but I would have gotten smashed on a margarita and danced on the table. Extra points for mole.
Eem: Thai food. When I visited to look for apartments, the line was two hours long. Finally made it there in October during their ongoing “takeout or eat in our outdoor dining pods” phase and it was okay I guess. I grew up eating at the same Thai restaurant every 2 weeks so according to me, anything that’s not Spices Thai Cafe in San Diego (before they changed owners) is inferior.
Kimura Toast Bar: this was the last place I ate at on the street. I only did it so I could finish this article. I got a creme brûlée toast and the bread was thick and fluffy. The cream was good but a bit much. When I first bit into it I said “Wow, is this real life?” which inspired someone near me to order the same toast.
Kayo’s Ramen Bar: pretty good!
EaT oyster bar: I’ve never eaten here because I don’t like oysters. Back in San Diego, I was at a gastropub called Tiger! Tiger! (now closed—RIP) and a woman was ordering a hundred dollars worth of appetizers. She offered me an oyster from her oyster platter. I let the raw jelly blob slip down my throat and it was one of the grossest things I’ve ever tasted.
Sushi Hada: Revolving sushi bar. Ate here with my parents when I first moved and it was awesome. I suppose they do takeout now but the sushi isn’t even that good; the fun part was the conveyor belt. It makes me so sad.
Life of Pie: has a wood-fired pizza oven. That’s all that needs to be said. Oh, and the name is dumb.
What’s The Scoop: pretty good ice cream. I made friends with someone who works there and they give me free stuff. Scoop does an otherworldly thing called “toasted marshmallow” where they top your ice cream with marshmallow goop and fire it with an actual blowtorch. Is this normal and somehow I have never seen it?
Memoz: a “build your own dessert bar” in which you choose your batter and add-ins and they bake it inside a small oven for several minutes. Basically Cold Stone except hot. I went in one Covid evening and all the board games were shoved into a corner and the owner seemed irritated. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. Dessert was marginally tasty but there wasn’t very much of it on my plate. It closed about a month after I went. Permanently closed, Google Maps says.
The People’s Pig: above average BBQ food served out of a blue shack. Great mac and cheese, potato salad, and house-made pineapple soda.
The Best New Theater of 2020
by Cat Sposato
In what was a spectacularly difficult year for live performance, these creative individuals and collectives produced innovative theater pieces that are challenging the industry’s gatekeeping practices.
If 2019 was the year of the Broadway Elite’s temper tantrums over the need to preserve “the sanctity of the live performance” by keeping theater inaccessible, 2020 was the year that showed them exactly how hurtful that gatekeeping is to the future of the industry. While the Broadway vanguard struggled to keep themselves afloat in the Zoom-world COVID-19 brought us into, creatives that have long been ignored by the industry found ways to keep hope for the future alive online.
10) Richard Nelson’s “The Apple Family” series. Standout piece: What Do We Need To Talk About?
One series that seamlessly moved to the online space this year was the continuation of Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama. For the first time since 2013, Nelson brings the Apple family to life on Zoom, at a time when we need them the most. The plays catalog the extended Apple family’s Zoom calls, and the audience is given fly-on-the-wall access to their attempts at connecting throughout the pandemic. The first play in the series, What Do We Need To Talk About? is a powerful exploration of the pandemic’s wide-reaching intra-and inter-personal ramifications. Each member of the family grapples with the psychological toll the pandemic has brought: Sally Apple Halls is too terrified to leave her house while she quarantines away from her COVID-19 infected partner, Tim; Tim is reeling from the loss of his friend who passed from COVID-19 complications and the fear for his own health; Barbara, a high school teacher, worries about the pandemic’s impacts on her students; the entire Apple family grapples with the loss of their uncle, Benjamin. Following the Apple Family on their Zoom conversation inevitably reflects the yearning for connection prompted by the pandemic.
9) Virginia Grise “SolFest: A Latinx Theater Festival” Standout Piece: Soñar es luchar
The Sol Project is the national theatre initiative dedicated to amplifying Latinx voices across the industry. This year, The Sol Project’s “SolFest: A Latinx Theater Festival” went virtual with their Play At Home initiative that commissioned three short plays by Latinx writers. The standout piece of the initiative was Virginia Grise’s Soñar es luchar, is a love letter to the dreams of women living on the complex soil of borderland Texas. It’s a stunning conversational piece between The Woman Who Dreams and The Girl Who Sleeps All Day. Shot completely on iPhones, the visual accompaniment to Grise’s striking conversation is haunting with its powerful exploration of the Texan border. The play is described by Grise as “performance as a lucid dream,” and it lives up to that reputation through its rapidly changing visual backing and disorienting pace. Soñar es luchar tests the limits of what theater is and can be now that it exists online by eradicating the idea of the stage and blurring the lines between theater and short-film to create a wholly immersive experience. It is a testament to the ingenuity of Grise and her collaborators that demands to be seen.
8) Andrew Barth Feldman’s “Broadway Whodunit?” series. Standout Piece: Murder at Montgomery Manor
2020 was the year for Gen-Z broadway stars to take the reigns of their creative projects and that’s exactly what Dear Evan Hansen star Andrew Barth Feldman did with his creation of “Broadway Whodunit?” 18 year-old Feldman created a truly transformative and immersive digital theatrical experience in which audience members must become “detectives,” following along with the mystery virtually, exploring various digital rooms for clues, and submitting answers in exchange for points and a spot on the coveted Whodunit leaderboard. Feldman’s Gen-Z Broadway peers, including the likes of Alex Boniello (Dear Evan Hansen), Reneé Rap (Mean Girls) and Shereen Pimental (West Side Story) serve as our storytellers for the evening, taking on various personas and propelling the plot as they see fit. This truly exciting series of works is incredible in its ingenuity and ability to connect to Gen-Z theater lovers. By transforming the way fans engage with theater by placing them directly into the storyline in a way that is authentic and compelling, Feldman has taken the archaic constraints of the Broadway stage and blown them up for the world online. In this transition to virtual storytelling, no series this year has been quite as innovative in its design, compelling in its expansion of format, and seamless in its execution as this one.
7) Brando Crawford, “Acting for a Cause” series. Standout Piece: Pride and Prejudice
The table read has undergone a very profitable transformation in 2020’s Zoom-propelled theater landscape, and creator Brando Crawford knew exactly how to perfect it in his “Acting For a Cause” series. Available for free play on YouTube, Crawford has staged multiple readings of plays while sourcing some of Broadway’s biggest Gen-Z talent, including Lexi Underwood (Little Fires Everywhere), Brandon Flynn (13 Reasons Why), and Jacob Elordi (Euphoria). Crawford has leaned into the freedom from restraints that these online stagings provide and has done some excellent casting for these pieces. In Crawford’s stagings, there are no limitations for the roles Black and Brown creatives can take on, which is what makes these readings so incredible. Crawford has given many of Broadway’s emerging artists of color leading roles in his readings, which has only increased the star power of these actors and made the archaic casting constraints associated with Broadway seem not only anachronistic but also painfully wasteful. With stagings of The Importance of Being Earnest, Twelfth Night, and Jane Eyre that feature stars like Auli’i Cravalho, Justice Smith, Jessica Frances Dukes, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as leads, Crawford reimagines what is possible in these readings when freed from the constraints of exclusively white casting. Crawford also makes these free performances widely accessible online and uses the revenue generated from donations and advertisements to support various charitable causes, ultimately innovating what the purpose of theater truly is . All in all, “Acting For a Cause” has shown that Broadway has the capacity to wholly expand its scope of stories if it abandons its propensity for gatekeeping.
6) Allison Svagdis, “SheNYC Summer Festival” Standout Piece: Intentions
CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT
The SheNYC Summer Festival is New York’s theatre festival dedicated to showcasing the original works of women writers and composers. This year, the festival was held digitally, allowing theater lovers from all over the world to experience the magic of these powerful works. The standout piece of the festival was Alison Svagdis’ Intentions, which explored the realities of grappling with the trauma of childhood sexual assault as an adult. Svagdis’s main character, Gina, is a brutally honest portrayal of what it means to face your trauma head on while the rest of the world is relentlessly moving forward. Svagdis’s characters are vivid and honest and heartbreaking to watch. In an industry where there is not a lot of space for depictions of college-aged young adults, Svagdis candidly explores the realities of navigating the liminal space between teenagedom and adulthood in a way that is both poignant, necessary, and powerful. In a year where space for self-reflection has become almost stifling in its abundance, Intentions gives us a beautiful example of both the hardships and liberation that come with the necessary act of confronting your pain.
5) Sis, The Next Generation Project, and Barthoberfest “Haunted Love: A Halloween Play Festival” Standout Piece: The Lovers by Jhaunay-Amanie Hernandez
Theater artists have used the democratizing accessibility proffered by our transition to online performance this year to garner attention and support for projects that would have been ignored by the Broadway mainstream, and SIS has done this exceptionally well. SIS is a Black Trans activist and theater artist that is a Broadway mogul in the making. SIS, founder of The Next Generation Project, uses her theatrical endeavors to elevate the works of Black and Brown theater artists across the country. The incredible “Haunted Love” was a Halloween-themed collection of short love stories produced by SIS in collaboration with Andrew Barth Feldman. “Haunted Love” centers the stories of Queer and Trans Black and Brown characters, telling stories of witchy dark-academics racing to finish an assignment on Halloween, secret society rituals, and Afro-Latinx bruja sapphics confessing their love for each other. SIS shows us precisely what the Broadway vanguard has been depriving its audiences of in the name of exclusion. The festival showcases the ingenuity of Queer and Trans Black and Brown creatives, and how fresh, exciting, and compelling their storytelling is. “Haunted Love” reminds us of the beautiful breadth of storytelling that is out there for the future of Broadway, if it truly wants to survive.
4) Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway and BLACK LIVES, BLACK WORDS International Project, “Plays for the People” series. Standout Piece: Call For The Wailing Women by Katrina D. RiChard
The Black Lives, Black Words International Project is a Chicago-based activist theater company that commissions new plays and films with the aim of ensuring that Black narratives are “told by and in complete control” of Black artists across the globe. Their Plays for the People series was brought to fruition this summer online as a means of articulating the pain, frustration and need for escapism of the Black community by elevating the work of Black artists. A highlight of the series is Katrina D. RiChard’s play, Call for the Wailing Women, which is a take on Euripides’ tragedy The Suppliants. RiChard transposes the Greek tragedy for the modern day, focusing on the narrative on two mothers fighting for the lives and honor of their sons. It is an exploration of life, death, family, and endurance: Four subjects that are all so poignant and relevant given the events of this year. RiChard forces us to grapple with the question of how far we are willing to go for those we love. The performance is searing, gripping, and probably too close for comfort.
3) The National Theatre, “Death of England: Delroy,” by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams
“Death of England: Delroy” is a stunning one-man play starring Michael Balogun and written by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams. This is the first and only piece of theater on this list that was performed in-person this year. Cut short from its run at the National Theatre, “Death of England: Delroy” ran in-person for one night only due to England’s second national lockdown. The performance was recorded on its opening (and closing) night and was available on the National’s YouTube channel for a full day on November 27th. The 90 minute solo show is an earnest examination of identity and class in modern British society. Balogun’s honest and searing portrayal of Delroy is what makes this piece come alive. The intensity of Delroy’s interactions with police and the British carceral system on the day of his daughter’s birth comes alive as Delroy meets past and present by fixating on the pivotal moments in his life that led him to this arrest. The play takes its audience on a journey of urgent reckoning fitting for the urgent realities of our current moment by exploring the systemic racism of the British carceral system. In a year where performances on the stage were almost non-existent, “Death of England: Delroy” brought us a blisteringly hopeful reminder of the power of live theater.
2) SIS and The Next Generation Project, “Our Offering” Written by Antonio Lasanta and Gage Tarlton
“Our Offering” was everything we needed in 2020. This piece was the most beautiful disruption to the Broadway community that only could have been done by SIS and her incredible collaborators. “Our Offering” was a stunning exploration of love, life, death, and what comes after that left me breathless, mostly because of its authenticity in catering directly to Gen-Z audiences. The piece was spearheaded by incredible Gen-Z creators from across the country, showing Broadway exactly what it’s missing out on when limiting opportunities for emerging talent to tell their stories. Antonio Lasanta and Gage Tarlton’s writings were exceptionally transformative in their ability to make you care about their characters, and they smartly incorporated trends and 2000’s nostalgia in a way that felt authentic and honored its largely young adult audience. Seeing a piece that was unapologetically by and for a young adult audience was incredibly moving, especially because these experiences are often left out or trivialized within the genre. “Our Offering” is an incredibly important examination of the human experience, wherein every facet of identity and life for all of its characters (including whiteness) was interrogated with great nuance. The play took no experience for granted, and did a better job of exploring identity than anything I have ever seen. The credit for this goes partly to SIS for her casting and recruitment of talent, partly to her creative team, and partly to her cast composed of incredibly talented Black and Latinx emerging artists across the country. “Our Offering” showed us precisely why it’s time to hand over the reigns of theater creation to the upcoming generation of artists.
1) The Commissary, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and New Neighborhood “Why Would I Dare?: The Trial of Crystal Mason” conceived by Thomas Marin Ireland, Reggie White, and Peter Mark Kendall.
Let me be clear: “Why Would I Dare?: The Trial of Crystal Mason” was probably the most transformative piece of theater I watched all year. The play was a staged reading of the real-life court transcript of activist Crystal Mason’s 2018 trial brought to life on the virtual stage. In 2016, formerly incarcerated individual Crystal Mason was attempting to fully participate within her community by casting a vote in the election that year. She was arrested for this act and sentenced to five years in prison for her attempt. “Why Would I Dare?” brought the deeply unjust process of Mason’s trial to life in the most honest way possible. The piece centers the fight of a Black woman for her hard earned freedom, and how the carceral system and all of its nebulous policies make it impossible for anyone to play by the rules. There were no alterations to the transcripts, and, under the guidance of Mason herself, the actors sought to portray the trial on-stage as closely to how it occurred as possible. “Why Would I Dare?” is a deeply critical look at the trappings of the American Prison Industrial Complex that showcases the destructive impact of this system on marginalized communities. In a year where the racist disparities across policing, sentencing, and incarceration were pushed to the forefront of the national conversation, “Why Would I Dare?” re-imagined how theater could propel the discussion and expose the injustices of these America’s institutions. The piece is a thoughtful and carefully crafted response to the demands of the year as it explores the realities of the criminal legal system without the need for fabrication. It shows us all how theater can be used as a powerful tool in the movement towards creating a more just America. This virtual reading directly confronts the Broadway vanguard and its prior complicity to the normalization of oppressive policies. “Why Would I Dare?” acknowledges the power of theater as a medium and tells the anachronistic, “everything’s-gonna-be-alright” attitude of Broadway elite to get a grip on the realities of our nation.
2020 was the year of the Broadway outsider: Ultimately, this year proved that the limitations on creativity posed by the Broadway Elite were depriving audiences of transformative and innovative storytelling across the genre. As the pandemic rocked the community and halted in-person performance, it has given up-and-coming artists across the industry the space to challenge theater’s norms and granted often-ignored artists the chance to showcase their storytelling abilities. Black and Brown artists, Queer and Trans artists, and Gen-Z artists saved the industry this year. If we take anything away from 2020, it’s that if Broadway wants to survive, it needs to center the stories of the creatives it has worked so hard to ignore.
A Look Back at The Almighty Johnsons
by Paige Lyman
2020 found me rewatching a lot of media that I loved in high school. One of the shows that I returned to was a three-season show from New Zealand called The Almighty Johnsons. This show was one of my absolute favorites, and rewatching it about 5 years after my last complete watch-through definitely reminded me of that. There’s engaging and contentious family drama in just about every episode. The show follows four brothers who are reincarnations of Norse gods, highlighting how their different godly powers each have varying levels of effectiveness — which adds to the typical bickering between siblings.
Airing from 2011-2013, the show follows the Johnson brothers who serve as vessels to various Norse gods. The basic premise is that the Norse gods migrated to New Zealand several generations back, and when the descendants of those initial families turn 21, they’re reincarnated. The brothers aren’t alone either! They’re surrounded by other Norse gods and goddesses. The show sets up a quest for the youngest Johnson brother (who becomes Odin, the ruler of Asgard, on his 21st birthday) to set out to find the reincarnation of Frigg, who is Odin’s wife in Norse mythology.
In a TV landscape that’s rife with stretched out narratives, I really loved returning to The Almighty Johnsons this year because it delivers characters and a story that work together within a narrow frame. It focuses on a select cast of characters and explores the city it’s set in (Auckland, New Zealand). That, coupled with the interesting take on Norse mythology, makes for a show that’s grounded despite its far-reaching mythological storyline.
There’s a compelling interwovenness of Norse mythology in the everyday lives of the main characters. One particular story from the mythology that’s tied into the show is Yggdrasil, the tree of life. Michele, one of the goddesses in the show, finds out that when she holds a branch of Yggdrasil, she can heal just about any ailment. Certain characters embrace their godly powers while others sometimes refuse to use them. Anders and Mike Johnson, the two oldest of the brothers, are prime examples of this contrast. Anders embraces his powers of persuasion, which come from Bragi, while Mike, who is the vessel for the god of the hunt Ullr, doesn’t want to use his power to find anyone he wants to win every game he plays. He does eventually use it, but not after persistently trying to live a normal life.
The Almighty Johnsons has always brought me a lot of fun, and it was no different watching it in 2020. There’s a fantastic mix of comedy and drama and a cast of characters that always makes me happy! I’ve always had an interest in media that gives mythology of any kind a new spin, and The Almighty Johnsons does just that in a modern setting that’s rife with the tension of strained relationships.
Untitled Reflections on Film
by Vanessa Ague
In the pre-pandemic alternate universe, I would go to the movies at least once a week. I’d take the G train across Brooklyn, get off at Fulton Street, and walk to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to watch each film they presented. I saw Lady Bird there twice, once in a crowd and another time alone at a Friday matinee with three others, and both times I cried as the bright screen illuminated my face and the theater’s darkness subsumed my own. I’ve cried at BAM more than any other public location in New York, I think.
This was what living in New York was to me for more than 2 years: Catching a movie every lazy Sunday afternoon and catching a concert every other night of the week. Hopping between distant stops in downtown Brooklyn back to basements in Bushwick. In one day, life went from the hustle-and-bustle daily consumption of all the art in the city’s 20-mile radius to an indoor limbo. That was March 2020.
Living in the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States was something that needed to be forgotten, so in March, I decided I wanted to rewatch Studio Ghibli films as my form of escapism. Miyazaki’s layered magical-realism-surrealism was a rabbit hole worth jumping into, a well of distant wisdom far from the dismal reality of everyday life. Studio Ghibli was also my favorite film company growing up; the vibrant drawings and complex stories drove my sense of imagination and early-onset desire to read far too deep into the media I consumed.
My head spun from that one-week binge rewatch of Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro. Some were cute distractions, others forced me to mine my way down a spiral staircase of possible interpretations, all were worthwhile thought exercises that took me away from the constant barrage of somber news. I found myself writing thousand word essays in text messages about the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist metaphors hidden in the bright-colored secret world of Spirited Away, the anti-war environmentalist ethos of Princess Mononoke.
Part of going to all those shows and all those movie theaters during the years before 2020 was to talk about what they meant with friends, to analyze which moments we loved and which we hated. The times when we’d all be walking back to the G train, hemming and hawing over a mismatched guitar or the poignant ending of Lady Bird. I so badly wanted to relive the feeling of intellectual connection, of minds coming together to attempt to find the most elucidating meaning to the art we consumed. In that moment, nostalgia-streaming Miyazaki films and mercilessly texting my friends about it was all I had. Maybe it was enough.