Friday, June 13: Freed Up by Friedlander
For tens of thousands of people, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas started Saturday evening with the Lailah Hathaway/Ruben Studdard concert on New Haven Green. For a few hundred, it began 24 hours earlier at a low-key jazz cello concert-cum-slide show during a pre-fest “Kick-Off Gala.”
Friedlander’s under-an-hour exhibit of sultry sounds and black-and-white images calmly fit all the thematic needs of A&I 2014.
The festival’s announced theme this year is “transformation and tradition,” but “transportation” could be added to that mix. Friedlander’s Block Ice and Propane was inspired by family trips he was dragged along in as a child, six weeks a year of summer highway driving in a makeshift camper van with his mother, sister and his famous photographer father, Lee Friedlander. (The older Friedlander’s celebrated pictures of American jazz legends are currently on display at the Yale Art Gallery.)
A&I patrons and sponsors came to the Iseman Theater Friday cooing about the key lime pie they’d just had at a gala party in Yale’s Beinecke Library. They calmed down considerably for Friedlander’s concert, which was moody and cerebral despite its summery sensibility. Friedlander seldom touches a bow to his cello; he prefers to pluck and strum, urging out literally vibrant notes that have sound warm and open yet also isolated and refined.
Many in the audience were dressed to the nines, but Friedlander was an artist of the black T-shirt and unpressed gray suit-pants variety. He travels with less gear than do many jazz musicians who play New Haven clubs: a small amp and standing microphone for his otherwise unelectrified cello (a fancy carbon fiber model which allows for myriad rapid special-tunings). He’s got a laptop to monitor the giant projected photos (by his father, naturally) which backdrop his playing. The images are massive, and Friedlander’s music set-up is sparse, but it’s the instrumental tunes which are center stage. Though he’s also known as an improviser and a composer of film soundtracks, Friedlander doesn’t noodle or fade into the background for this autobiographical excursion. He plays structured songs he’s composed, and breaks them up with anecdotes about those emotionally loaded family road trips. The punchlines of the anecdotes invariably become the titles of the next songs. Friedlander’s not showy. There’s a folksiness to Block Ice and Propane, but also a New Yorker magazine intellectuality and reserve. He’s not at all showy. In fact, when telling his tales of childhood, you can see his leg quiver with nervousness.
One of the storied had Friedlander’s short-tempered dad repeatedly screaming at a waiter: “Well, who the hell wants cold chicken?” That led to an instrumental titled “Cold Chicken,” and also to this comment from a guy seated behind me in the audience: “I like cold chicken.”
Saturday June 14: Lemon Flavored
My daughters and their friend Emma were the first in line when Box City opened on the Green at noon. They were the settlers, the hardy pioneers of this year’s cardboard metropolis. They constructed homes and businesses out of boxes, then (and this is where Box City really reflects New Haven values) have to apply for zoning permits to place their buildings on the cityscape which rapidly forms within the Box City tent. Once permits are in hand, sensible zoning guidelines are promptly are ignored, and the kids erect their houses, hotels or (in the case of my daughter Mabel) restaurant-boats wherever the hell they want to.
Box City was one of the first events happening on the Green. At noon, other areas were still being readied. There was a sound check on the Elm Street stage, and crew members were still fixing the tarpaulin “walls” of the off- limits-to-the-public section around the stage. Dozens of people had already laid out blankets and lawn chairs for the Lalah Hathaway/Ruben Stoddard concert happening seven hours later.
There was one big crowd on the Green before noon, for an event which showed how much the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has morphed into a local community festival. It was an awarded presentation for the city youth soccer league.
I tested the volunteers at the info booth for the first time today, and they failed. I needed to know if they had a detailed description of one of the Yale Institute For Music Theatre shows. They started to look in one of the little A& I guidebooks which were printed weeks ago and were compiled before the YIMT shows’ titles were even known. I tried to explain that, but they were curt: “Yes, it’s in here.”
Around 25 years ago, when I was briefly a staffer at the City of New Haven Department of Cultural Affairs, one of my jobs was to call sponsors of events on the Green and explain to them that, no, they couldn’t put huge banner ads for their companies onstage. Advertising of any kind, we made clear, was not permitted on the Green.
To my memory, it was the city’s own Jazz Festival and Summer Concerts on the Green series rather than the International Festival of Arts & Ideas which first trod the slippery slope of allowing a banner with sponsor’s names (but not logos, old-NPR style) to be hung behind performances. The argument was obvious: if you sponsor an event, you want people to know you’ve sponsored it. Deep-pocket sponsors are hard to find; why downplay their help?
Still, Green aesthetes warned that this would lead to grander and bolder ads. “Tut, tut” was the implied reply. But indeed, when you gave the sponsors an inch, they took the Green. Bigger, logo-emblazoned banners emerged. Then “info” booths with free Frisbees and such.
Which led inevitably to this: a Ford automobile showroom on New Haven Green, with half a dozen cars parked on the otherwise well-cared-for common land, and incessant amplified announcements of how the swarm of car salespeople there could “find the best Ford for you.”
Where’s Occupy New Haven when you need them?
I spent too much time on Saturday afternoon wandering around the Green wondering where the tent for the clown show was going to be. Turns out there isn’t one. I’d arranged my tickets for Ile O, by French circus theater troupe Barosolo, without realizing that it was an outdoor show. The tix are for special seating near the stage (kind of like what the festival does with the roped-off area for the evening Green concerts). I haven’t seen Barosolo yet, but one of my kids did, and when she learned I had tickets for Sunday, she told me exactly where to sit. Turns out she’s picked me seats exactly where the splashing from this waterlogged entertainment is most intense.
The Yale Institute for Music Theatre started five years ago. The program, administered by the Yale School of Drama, workshops new musicals. Only works by “emerging” composers are considered; YIMT’s goal is to help young composers and lyricists who are just getting started on their careers. (Many are recent graduates of music theater graduate programs at NYU and Columbia). At Yale, two new musicals are chosen each year to get rewritten, reworked, revised and otherwise “put on their feet” by professional actors, directors, music directors and consultants. The culmination is a public “reading,” where the show is performed script-in-hand with a piano score and no sets or props. YIMT provides the shows, and for most of the program’s existence the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has provided the audiences.
To write actual reviews of these shows would be criminal. They have “work-in-progess” stamped all over them. Before the Saturday 1 p.m. reading of the post-apocalyptic (yet funny and jaunty) community-building saga Afterland, composer/lyricist Benjamin Velez and writer/lyricist Kathryn Hathaway explained that in the past two weeks they’d “rewritten the script several times and cut two songs,” while YIMT Artistic Director Mark Brokaw (who directed the reading) noted that Saturday afternoon was “the first time doing the whole thing in order together.”
YIMT shows come in all sizes, shapes and paces, but due to the fact that they’re all written by “emerging” types in their 20s, they tend to share similar themes of self-discovery, coming-of-age, intergenerational strife and survival in the real world. With the festival’s self-imposed theme of “Transformation and Tradition,” Afterland was readymade for A&I 2014. So is the other YIMT show this year, a coming-of-age road-trip story called Clouds Are Pillows of the Moon by Tidtaya Sinutoke and Ty Defoe.
I’ve attended nearly every edition of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre, and love watching the developmental process in full flower: actors digging into roles nobody else has ever played, musicians (for Afterland it was pianist/music director Kimberly Grigsby and percussionist Shane Shane) finding the proper pace and volume and instrumental accents. Mostly I like sneaking peeks at a show’s writers—it’s fun to catch them mouthing the words silently to songs they wrote. They’re the only ones in the audience who know what’s coming next.
If you don’t (didn’t) see Lemon Andersen star in his signature longform performance piece County of Kings at the Yale University Theater Saturday or Sunday night, looks like it was your last chance. As of this writing, tickets are still available for the 5 p.m. Sunday performance at the Yale University Theatre, for as cheap as ten bucks. County of Kings deserves support as much for what Andersen lived through to create it as for how well-made and well-performed a show it is. Andersen is a confident, crafty actor. By design, this is a set piece of rehearsed, staged theater. But Lemon Andersen has a hip-hop artist’s skill of spitting memorized verse as if it were natural and conversational. He also struts and gestures with realism and grace. When he mimes putting his arm around his brother or a friend, it’s not an empty wave of his arm; you feel the warmth.
County of Kings is Andersen’s own story, of a kid from Brooklyn whose mother dies of AIDS, whose other family members can be distant and neglectful, whose school days are fraught with bullying and misunderstanding. The tale gets even more dire, with drug-dealing and teenage fatherhood and a prison sentence. It’s framed, however, with empowering experiences like Andersen finishing a 300-page book for the first time, getting up onstage tentatively for his first poetry jam, and (in the triumphant opening scene of the whole show) sharing the Tony Award for Special Theatrical Event as a cast member of the Broadway version of Def Poetry Jam.
In an interview last month at the Arts & Ideas offices, Andersen made abundantly clear that he was done as a performer. This despite having appeared in a couple of Spike Lee movies and recently studied Shakespearean acting at New York’s Public Theater and performing County of Kings for years. He’s a playwright now, and he’s done his homework. He speaks of his fondness for the classics, and other master 20th century craftsmen such as Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets. He’s also in touch with some of the edgiest writers of now. He’s friends with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the fiery playwright who’ll have a world premiere at Yale Rep next season. His main theater collaborator is Elise Thoron, a Yale grad who directed County of Kings and also worked on Andersen’s forthcoming project ToasT (which will premiere at the Public Theater next year).
Following his well-attended 5 p.m. Saturday performance of County of Kings, you could find Lemon Andersen at the Lalah Hathaway/Ruben Studdard on New Haven Green. During the day, the Green had been, ahem, transformed from a city park into something more closely resembling a concert stadium.
You could find just about everyone else there as well. The crowd was estimated by New Haven police to be around 40,000 people. That may well be a festival record—the only other A&I show that would seem to come close would be Little Richard back in 1998. Sure puts the lie to any carping that A&I is for some mythic group of elitist culture types. Last year, the fest set records for its ticketed shows, demonstrating the largest economic impact in its 19-year history. This year it’s setting attendance records for its free shows.
The show itself belonged to Studdard. Hathaway did fine, but Studdard sang the most and moved the crowd the most, leading sing-alongs and making dynamic dramatic pauses that brought prolonged shouts and cheers and whoops and applause. His repertoire (some of which turned into duets with Hathways) ranged from Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” to “Superstar” by the New Haven-raised Karen & Richard Carpenter.
Studdard ruled, but he used Hathaway’s touring band to do it. I knew Studdard only from his early American Idol days as a smooth-standards crooner, and was unprepared to see him front such a kick-ass band. The drummer was fast and propulsive, the bass deep and rich, the guitar versatile and fluid. It was the keyboardist who fascinated me most—he’d lugged along a Hammond Organ, with accompanying cabinet, but only used that gorgeous instrument for a few songs. He relied instead on a Yamaha Motif ES7 electric keyboard for most of the set. Curious choice. That Hammond, when he deigned to use it, raged. Here’s a taste: