Good morning, Essential Arts readers. November darkness is upon us and Thanksgiving prep is ratcheting up, but culture stops for no one. I’m Times theater critic Charles McNulty, filling in this week for Carolina A. Miranda to get you caught up on the latest arts news.
The present and future of livestream theater
On Tuesday, I attended a Broadway show from the comfort of my couch in Los Angeles. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” the critically acclaimed new play by Jocelyn Bioh, is being livestreamed in this final week of the play’s run at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Bioh, a Ghanaian-American writer and performer, burst onto the playwriting scene a few years ago with “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play.” “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” marks her Broadway writing debut, and I was loath to miss it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be in New York again until after the show closed.
For those of us living outside New York, the League of Live Stream Theater is a godsend. In February, the Broadway production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Beyond Riverside and Crazy’’ was livestreamed. I had seen the play off-Broadway and then at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. But I was eager to catch the New York production again, most especially for Stephen McKinley Henderson’s earthquake of a performance (justly nominated for a Tony Award and unjustly robbed of the win).
“Jaja’s” is a workplace comedy, set in a Harlem hair braiding shop on a hot summer day in 2019. Donald Trump’s divisive, anti-immigrant, us-vs.-them presidency was in its pre-pandemic hell-fire phase.
The African immigrant women who work at the shop relate to one another like family members. In other words, they shout and fight, gossip and backbite, sympathize, laugh and occasionally break out in dance moves. The customers, a mix of demanding divas and friendly drop-ins, have personalities as large as the women who make their Beyoncé hair dreams come true.
This Manhattan Theatre Club production, directed by Whitney White, draws out the loud, rollicking hilarity. Some sound-related issues at the start of Tuesday’s livestream were eventually resolved. I appreciate the appointment-viewing aspect of these offerings, but I wish they were more regularly provided, so that the setup was more routine and technical glitches didn’t create so much uncertainty.
Mid-performance, my landline erupted with one of those impossible-to-block spam calls. My cell was on silent, but the four rings of the house phone followed by answering machine brouhaha (yes, some of us are still living in 1988) was a reminder of the benefit of in-person theater, where it’s so much easier to cut yourself off from the rest of the world.
Still, I found myself transfixed by the ensemble, which includes Dominique Thorne as Marie, Jaja’s academically gifted 18-year-old daughter who’s held back by her undocumented status; Zenzi Williams as Bea, the territorial queen of the shop, always spoiling for a fight with her rival stylists; and Brittany Adebumola as Miriam, a quieter worker with a fierce spirit burdened by painful memories of what she left behind in Sierra Leone.
The play, which livestreams through Sunday, takes a dramatic turn in its final moments. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” delves into the harrowing vulnerability of the undocumented. Marie’s plight brought to mind the situation of the high school characters in Martyna Majok’s drama “Sanctuary City.” But comedy is Bioh’s true strength, and her comfort with mixing genres suggests the influence of Lynn Nottage, whose plays “Ruined” and “Clyde’s” broke ground for “Jaja’s.”
This is such a rich age for American drama, yet theatergoers across the country are dependent on the timorous taste of artistic directors. The League of Live Stream Theater, the nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing live performances to audiences around the world via livestream, can play a vital role in expanding access to high-caliber work of an adventurous spirit.
Post-COVID, the idea of digital theater seems superfluous. Who has the time or brain space? Yet many of us would love to be able to experience the best of Broadway and regional theater. To get an update on the status of the League of Live Stream Theater, I reached out to co-founder Oren Michels.
Is this the first Broadway production to be livestreamed since “Between Riverside and Crazy”?
It is. I am not aware of any others.
How many livestream offerings can we expect moving forward?
We have another 10 to 12 productions either under contract or verbally confirmed for the next year but expect that there will be more.
What are the factors limiting growth? Union contracts? Legal obstacles? Cost?
On the nonprofit side, every production has different reasons. In some cases, rights holders won’t authorize streaming. In others, there are cast members or others on the creative team who won’t authorize it. And in others there are definitely financial considerations. On the for-profit side, the substantial up-front payment needed to capture and stream makes it too economically risky for most shows.
How do you decide what to livestream?
We do so in partnership with the nonprofit theaters we work with. On the regional theater side, each of the theaters that applied put forth a show for which they had the rights to stream and felt it could be done effectively. We then made sure that each was workable budget- and schedule-wise, and are setting our schedule appropriately. For nonprofit Broadway shows, it really comes down to whether the rights holders, cast, creative team and producing company are on board. If everyone wants to stream and agrees to do it at a rational budget, we’ll do it.
What are the incentives for Broadway producers to participate?
Certainly it starts with bringing in audience members who would otherwise not be able to see the show — and generating revenue. But it also builds awareness of the show for touring and other productions (for commercial producers) and awareness of the company and the rest of its productions (for nonprofits). It also keeps people connected to Broadway when they aren’t in New York — 70% of our audience streams from at least 50 miles away. Many of those people will also come to New York to see other Broadway shows.
Is the audience growing or declining?
Audience is definitely growing. Each show we do our overall list gets larger, and we have thousands of repeat viewers.
For streaming tickets to “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” click here.
On and off the stage
In other theater news, I reviewed Alex Edelman‘s solo comedy show “Just for Us,” about his encounter with a group of neo-Nazis, who were airing grievances in an apartment in Queens when a genial Jewish comic walked into their lair. The show, which is at the Mark Taper Forum through Nov. 26, was a hit on Broadway earlier this year and will definitely appear on my 2023 highlight reel.
I also reviewed “Lines in the Dust,” Nikkole Salter‘s enlightening (if overwritten) social justice drama about how the inequities of public school districting compounds economic inequality. The production at the Matrix Theater, a presentation by Collaborative Artists Bloc and Support Black Theatre, throws a spotlight on policies that keep America separate and unequal.
Were you hooked on the spectacle of Gwyneth Paltrow‘s recent legal travails? Well, there will soon be a new musical on the whole affair. “Gwyneth Goes Skiing” is set to have its West End premiere in London in December. Staff writer Emily St. Martin has the scoop on this theatrical goop.
Times game critic Todd Martens checked out “Castle in the Sky,” a new immersive theater production running this month in downtown L.A. Set in what press materials refer to as L.A.’s “most famous Art Deco residential historic landmark, the Oviatt Penthouse and Rooftop Terrace,” the show re-creates in vintage Prohibition-era detail the high-flying life of James Oviatt, a flamboyant clothier from the silent film era who, as Martens describes it, “had a long, slow fall from grace.”
Art and architecture
Art critic Christopher Knight has a review of a retrospective on multidisciplinary artist Paul Pfeiffer. The new exhibition of more than 50 works at Little Tokyo’s Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art offers, according to Knight, an “extraordinarily compelling survey of the artist’s work in digital imagery.” It’s also, he writes, suffused with resonance at a time when we’re “swallowed up in spectacular social and political upheaval, intensified by the depredations of digital life that traffics in images of state violence.”
Staff writer Lisa Boone takes a tour of the Koreatown home studio of Ken Gun Min, whose solo show “Sweet Discipline From Koreatown” has just opened at Shulamit Nazarian. Don’t let the jaunty surfaces fool you. “It’s a façade,” Min says of his paintings. “They are pretty, but their backstory is serious and dark. I’m interested in the repressed history of L.A. and the undocumented people who have been lost. I want people to get a chance to think about history and the time they are living in.”
Staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II reports from the California Science Center, where giant rockets were lifted into place, an installation milestone at the future home of the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
Benjamin Schneider reviews “Portal: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities,” a book by John King about a landmark building that, “with its sweeping unobstructed views of the San Francisco Bay, has had a unique vantage on American urban history.”
Dispatch from the field
Times art critic Christopher Knight submitted a mini-dispatch after a recent visit to Regen Projects.
Concerned about AI? You should be. Identity is fundamental to human experience, and slipping in knowledge fabricated by machines or software explodes assumptions, compounding the confusion around it. At Regen Projects, British artist Gillian Wearing’s five-minute HD film projection is a welcome corrective. It’s from 2018, the year human intellect rated by a Stanford reading and comprehension test was beaten by Chinese language-processing technology made by Alibaba. For “Wearing Gillian,” the artist hired, costumed and directed more than two dozen actors of various ethnicities, ages and genders to portray her. The quick-cut mix makes your head spin, but the effect is reassuring: Whatever promises AI might make, Wearing’s art insists that identity is never an answer but always a question. She keeps the inquiry alive.
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Staff writer Nardine Saad reports on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s good showing at the 2024 Grammy Award nominations. Among the nominees, conductor Gustavo Dudamel received a nod along with the orchestra for “Adès: Dante” in the orchestral performance category.
Steven Vargas has all the latest happenings in the L.A. Goes Out newsletter, including where to catch the most festive Christmas tree lighting events.
South Coast Repertory announced that Managing Director Paula Tomei will step down at the end of the current season. She has been with the Costa Mesa theater for 44 seasons, serving as managing director for the last 30 years. During this period, SCR became a national powerhouse of new play development. World premieres by Donald Margulies (“Collected Stories,” “Brooklyn Boy”), Richard Greenberg (“Three Days of Rain”), David Lindsay-Abaire (“Kimberly Akimbo”), Amy Freed (“The Beard of Avon”), Lynn Nottage (“Intimate Apparel”), Qui Nguyen (“Vietgone”), Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”) and Lauren Yee (“Cambodian Rock Band”) were a regular occurrence in the theater’s heyday under Tomei, whose rich legacy includes supporting the launch of the Pacific Playwrights Festival in 1998.
When she leaves her post in August 2024, it will mark the end of an era for SCR, which was founded in 1964 by Martin Benson and David Emmes. Tomei, who is married to Emmes, has provided a crucial management link with the theater’s founding vision since Benson and Emmes stepped down in 2011. The American repertory is richer because of Tomei’s service. Staff writer Sara Cardine has more on the story.
On a personal note, I lost my closest friend, Ivan Bart, at the end of October. He was the former president of IMG Models and a trailblazing advocate for diversity in the fashion industry. A memorial ceremony took place in New York at Spring Studios on Monday, and performer Cynthia Erivo sang a heartbreaking rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and later joined a gospel choir for a few choruses of “Goin’ Up Yonder.”
I had taken Ivan to the 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple” and we were blown away by the nuclear brilliance of Erivo’s Tony-winning performance. Ivan was a friend of Marisa Tomei’s at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn and had been an accomplished musical theater performer at school. He taught me more about musical theater than anyone else. I still recall the impromptu seminar he gave me as we took the subway from Brooklyn in the summer of 1988 to see the Lincoln Center Theater production of “Anything Goes” starring Patti LuPone. Were it not for Ivan, I’m not sure I would have had the courage — or audacity — to pursue a career in the theater.
In the news
Magic can apparently keep you sane.
Are good looks a liability in stand-up comedy?
Shakespeare’s First Folio proves the enduring power of print.
And last but not least …
A video of Erivo singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the 2020 National Memorial Day Concert.