Movies, Theatre

Familiarity breeds appreciation

Yesterday brought two currently rare examples of seeing people I know perform onstage – and in film. Initially thought it was the first time that had happened in over two years, but I now recall there have been a handful of occurrences since leaving the Bay Area (where that situation was much more frequent.)

In the afternoon I cheered on friends from The Penny Seats for their annual “Five Bowls of Oatmeal” performance given in collaboration with local non-profit 826michigan, which is itself, coincidentally, an offshoot of a San Francisco-based organization. This event was the culmination of several weeks of writing workshops with 826 volunteers and local middle school aged students, collaborating with the students to write short plays that (VERY IMPORTANT) had to have oatmeal incorporated into them. And the students succeeded! Many writers were in the audience yesterday to see their work and be (humorously and thoughtfully) interviewed in between some of the plays.

Of course for me there was an extra appeal in the performance: seeing my friends take on new and often outlandish roles, like a loaf of bread, a winter storm, a few babies, children who are budding actors, police officers and various types of food (just to name a few…) with everyone clearly having a great time loosening up and honoring the student’s written word. I can’t forget to mention the creative cartoon-style props and thoughtful attention to sound design that were an integral part of the complete performance.

In the evening I again ventured to the State Theater (quickly becoming my most frequently visited local cinema) to see the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave, featuring college friend Lupita Nyong’o in a key supporting role. I’m not exaggerating when I mention that Lupita has received considerable press attention for her work in this film, with corresponding Oscar buzz. A quick Google search yielded many recent examples including 3 from the past 10 days (!) which I will link to here:

The New York Times highlights Lupita’s fashion sense
The LA Times checks in with Lupita as the Oscar season begins
and most honorably…
The Springfield Republican interviews several of our Hampshire professors about their experiences working with Lupita.

The Republican’s opening comment that “But for those who knew her when she was a student at Hampshire College, the applause is nothing but expected” resonated with me for obvious reasons, as I was always impressed with Lupita’s dedication to her/our college pursuits that I observed, and am happy to observe support for her continuing to come from our alumni community.

Where both of the observations in this post stem from college theatre connections, it makes me feel very grateful for my time at Hampshire College. Relatedly, there’s a good chance I would not be here in Ann Arbor right now if I hadn’t gone to Hampshire… but that’s for an alternate reality science fiction-style post.

The film – 12 Years A Slave? Easily one of the most intense, visceral and harrowing films I’ve ever seen in the movie theatre. I’m sure those feelings were connected to knowing that the story is based on a real event, combined with a sad knowledge of slavery’s reality and heavy footprint in history. It’s a film that generates quiet contemplation (there are no words, really) although I am sure it will be a recurring presence in the film awards season ahead.

An esteemed cast gave power to the characters, with Chiwitel Ejofor in the devastating lead role (and seeming to make a comeback of sorts after being less visible on screen for the past several years), easily rising to the front of Best Actor conversations, while several well-known actors offered supporting portrayals of varying importance to the story.

I had some quibbles with a few technical aspects of the film, but can’t deny that director Steve McQueen brought a powerful tone, emotional resonance and consistency to the story.

“12 Years” is definitely not an easy film to absorb, but one that is clearly a must-see, if you are up for it.