The Show Must Go On! (COVID-19 and the Art of Zoom)
Updated: Aug 16
The COVID-19 crisis has dealt a staggering blow to the performing arts.
Theaters have had to close. As have concert halls, including SFJazz, various jazz clubs, movie theaters, San Francisco’s well-loved City Arts and Lectures, Kepler’s Literary Foundation with its various book events, Stanford University and its wonderful lectures, many of which are open to the public. All these institutions of creativity have been forced to adapt, and have switched many events to an online, streaming format.
Here are some of the performances I watched in this new era: plays, musical events, jazz concerts, literary events, and even a graduation ceremony!
The first show I watched in this format, in late March, was Gloria, a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins about vicious office politics in a publishing house. ACT-SF had recorded it during a live performance (back when we still had those.) It was a disappointment, partly because of the play itself (dark comedies are not my cup of tea,) and partly because of the quality of the production. When they recorded this live performance some months ago, apparently with a camera or two, I do not think they had anticipated that presenting shows online would be the only option in the not-so-distant future. The main camera was placed at the very back, and periodically you could see people walking in front of it. Very amateurish.
Among the many shows ACT-SF had to cancel was the sequel to Qui Nguyen's outstanding play Vietgone which I reviewed in 2016. I was eagerly awaiting the June production of Poor Yella Rednecks, Vietgone Part 2. Fingers crossed that it can be staged without much delay when live performances can resume.
The Disney Plus broadcast of Lin-Manuel Miranda's sensational musical play Hamilton was at the other end of the spectrum from Gloria! Of course, this was produced by Disney with streaming and movie theaters in mind, after recording a live 2016 performance. The investment for multiple cameras, sound and editing was no burden to Disney’s deep pockets, and naturally, the production was outstanding in quality. As for the artistic quality! I was astounded by the rhyme, rhythm and meter, melody, stagecraft, choreography, singing and acting. An absolute 10 out of 10. I had been worried that I might not understand the lyrics because of the pace of the music. I don’t often listen to rap music. But to my surprise, I did in fact understand just about everything.
I watched it on July 4, a day after it had premiered on Disney Plus. During the July 3 premiere, a Twitter Watch Party was in full swing, and I glanced occasionally at Twitter to see the exchanges. There were amusing tweets from Lin-Manuel Miranda and his wife Vanessa. They offered hilarious snippets of their kids’ reactions. King George was a big favorite among their youngsters, with his comedic appearance, lines and diction. And also, as my daughter observed, a lot of spit. When Vanessa tweeted her goodbye to the watch party to put the children to bed, LMM tweeted a line from the play “Best of wives and best of women,” spoken in the play by Hamilton to his wife Eliza.
Of the performers, I was most enthralled by Renée Goldsberry who played Angelica Schuyler--her power, her energy, her flashing eyes, her stature and stance, her glorious voice. What a performance!
I wondered why she looked so familiar, and where I might have seen her before. And eventually remembered – she played Assistant District Attorney xx in the TV series “The Good Wife,” an excellent show. Watching that some years ago, I had no idea she had such an exquisite singing voice.
When Hamilton was being performed live in San Francisco, tickets were far too expensive. I thought I would see it eventually, some day, but never imagined that I would be able to see the original Broadway cast perform the show! What a huge stroke of good fortune that Disney had filmed it in 2016 on Broadway, and decided to release it during the pandemic.
Polar Bears, Black Boys and Prairie Fringed Orchids
On Juneteenth (the commemoration of the end of slavery in the US on June 19th 1865,) several theater companies came together to support a reading of Polar Bears, Black Boys and Prairie Fringed Orchids, a play by Los Angeles playwright Vincent Terrell Durham. Hosted virtually by PlayGround, a Bay Area community theater hub, it was “a powerful exploration of the explosive class and racial collisions between environmentalism, gentrification, and racially triggered police violence in America,” as described by the Stanford Repertory Theater in its blurb for a 2019 live performance.
Each actor was in his or her home, and read the lines. The format worked well: the power of the text overcame the absence of a single stage.
A white couple is hosting dinner at their New York City home. Their guests are Black Lives Matter activists. One brings a guest, a white man; another is a bookshop owner and the last is a mother whose 12-year-old son was shot by police in a park. He had been playing with a toy gun.
It was powerful, poignant and incredibly moving. At the end, as the names of Black Americans killed by police appeared on the screen, the actress who played the bookshop owner wept. As did I.
He Said and She Said
Naatak Theatre Company has started hosting plays via Zoom: SNL or Saturday Naatak Live! The tech-savvy group has made a wonderful breakthrough in zoom enacting. Their production of He Said and She Said by Alice Gerstenberg, directed by Poulomi Sarkar, was not a reading but an actual live performance with four screens, four characters, costumes, and some elements of a set. Iwatched it on July 11, 2020.
The play was a hoot, and the actors Harshavardhana, Khushboo Kalyani, Preeti Bhat, and particularly Sayantanee Dutt as the incorrigible gossip Mrs. Puri, kept the audience in splits.
I was impressed by the positioning of the screens / actors, the passing of objects from one actor to another, seemingly through the junction of their screens. It must have required much coordination and prevision to get the direction each actor faced while speaking to the other just right. It gave the impression of them being in the same room, sharing a stage—a welcome illusion. In the post-play discussion, we heard some of the challenges of staging a virtual play from the director. She said the group rehearsed for six weeks.
This play from Naatak Theatre Company was a brilliant success. I watched it on August 8th, 2020. A special court session in India is convened online with two lawyers and a judge, hearing testimony of a woman who was raped at a village temple festival. The play tackles patriarchy, casteism, and victim-shaming in a powerful 30-minute production.
While all the actors -- Preeti Gupta as Ponnu, Vikram Ramanarayanan as Keshavan, Divya Balu as Arundhati, and Anindita Mukherjee as the judge Raji -- were impressive, Preeti Gupta stole the show with her evocative, arresting face. Her eyes and expressions somehow made me remember that most luminous of stars, Smita Patil.
Writer / director Anush Moorthy, who said in a post-play discussion that he had written it a year ago, made some recent changes to the script in light of the pandemic. Moorthy was inspired by Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman , as well as a Marathi film Court.
Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and in today’s world, Zoom is the mother of all inventions. Not surprisingly for a group of creative techies, Naatak has completely conquered zoom as a medium for plays, making the productions seem just effortless. Bravo!
City Arts and Lectures presented a conversation between two poets : Mary Karr and Kaveh Akbar. They were eloquent, beautiful, luminous.
This was my reaction, posted on Twitter, in the manner of the iconic Mastercard ads.
Driving to SF in traffic for a 7.30 PM event: 1 to 1.5 hours
Driving back home after the event: 40 minutes.
Being able to stay home & see/hear these beautiful, brilliant poets up close on my TV: Priceless.
Kepler's Literary Foundation and Kepler’s Books have held several book events, and I attended a few more than I might have otherwise because of the sheer convenience. I hook my computer up to the television, join a zoom presentation and then sit back on my sofa and soak it in.
In one of my favorite events, Angie Coiro spoke with Alka Joshi on her book The Henna Artist, which I have reviewed previously. The book discussion was preceded by a sitar solo by musician Egemen Sanli.
I also watched Angie Coiro in conversation with renowned economist Robert Reich on his book The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It.
Another wonderful conversation was between writers Joyce Carol Oates and Laila Lalami, to discuss Oates' new book Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. From the Kepler's blurb:
"Oates’ latest novel begins with an incident of police aggression in which a 67-year old white former mayor attempts to intervene on behalf of an Indian American motorist being attacked at the side of the road. The older man is kicked to the ground and tasered at close range. Hospitalized, John Earl McLaren quickly dies of a stroke. Several years in the writing, this novel’s opening feels eerily close to headlines, before transitioning into a literary Knives Out family free-for-all."
So many students have been robbed of their graduation. No eager anticipation of commencement, no excited gatherings on campus with peers. In this disappointing turn of events, colleges worked to commemorate the event by conducting virtual graduation ceremonies. This opened the event up to anyone in the world with an Internet connection!
Illumination Night is a beautiful, magical tradition at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The paths on campus are lit up with Chinese lanterns, and graduating seniors and everyone on campus strolls along these paths. As this was not to be, the college requested alumni to post on social media pictures of lights. On April 16th, the night before graduation, I tweeted a photo of lights in my backyard.
Music for Hope: Andrea Bocelli at the Duomo Cathedral.
On Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020, Andrea Bocelli, the Italian tenor, gave a solo performance at the great Duomo Cathedral in Milan, which was empty of course. It is said to be the largest classical live stream in YouTube history. The purity of his voice offered hope to a nation ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to the world. It has been viewed more than 40 million times since it was first shown.
Lady Gaga, "One World Together at Home"
Lady Gaga partnered with the World Health Organization and Global Citizen to launch a virtual festival called "One World Together at Home" on April 18, aimed at uniting the world in the fight against coronavirus. There was music, of course, and also comedy as well as accounts from essential workers: doctors, nurses and grocery workers across the world. It was a star-studded international cast. Here is Lady Gaga, singing “Smile.” What a voice!
SFJazz Fridays at Five concerts
SFJazz launched its Fridays at Five concerts on April 24th, with a previously recorded concert of Zakir Hussain performing in 2018 with Dave Holland and Chris Potter. The engaging concert was followed by an interview with the Ustad.
SFJazz solicits donations to a “Tip Jar.” I wish they didn’t call it that. Tips are not large donations, at least for most of us. Why not just have a “Donate” button? Or “Support SFJazz” button? I think they sold themselves short with “Tip Jar” and I hope people have been donating generously, despite the name.
Some concerts are so popular that they used to sell out before I could get a ticket. And so it was that I was unable to attend one where Marcus Shelby performed with Angela Davis, in May 2019. I was thrilled to see that this concert was to be one of the Fridays at Five events. “Marcus Shelby Quintet with Angela Davis – Blues Legacies and Black Feminism”, with vocal performances by Terri Lyne Carrington, Tia Fuller, Tammy Hall, Paula West, Tiffany Austin, and Kim Nalley. Hearing Strange Fruit (a song about lynching, famously sung by Billie Holliday) after an introduction of its history by Angela Davis, was the most powerful performance in that hour. I had goose bumps. Strange Fruit, Davis said , is “the most influential and most profound example of the intersection of music and radical social consciousness.”
The legendary jazz club in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, NY, has been broadcasting livestream events of concerts performed at the club. I went there in 2015 with my daughter, not quite 10 years old then. We were staying at a friend’s place in the West Village, a stone's throw from Village Vanguard, and went to the 1st set of Russell Malone Quartet. It was amazing then to make a pilgrimage to perhaps the storied jazz club on the planet, and it has been wonderful to listen to concerts livestreamed from there during the pandemic.
I saw the Eric Reed Quartet on July 10 (Eric Reed on piano, with bassist Dezron Douglas, Drummer McClenty Hunter, and Saxophonist Stacy Dillard.
The Terell Stafford Quartet performed on July 17th, with Terell Stafford on trumpet, Bruce Barth on piano, David Wong on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums.
On Aug 1st, the Fred Hersh trio performed with Fred Hersch on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Joechen Ruckert on drums. Fred Hersch smiled as he introduced a Sonny Rollins tune, pointing to a photo of Rollins who did the first recording at the Vanguard!
From the Artist's Studio
Vocalist Tiffany Austin & bassist Marcus Shelby performed together on Sunday June 7, and again on July 30th, with Glen Pearson on keys. The latter performance was hosted by Social Call: A Livestream Series Calling for Social Change. The powerful, beauty of the old spirituals, and their calls for action, were both uplifting and sobering.
After many of these online events, I donate what I might have paid for a ticket via their website. The artists have to survive this banishment from the live stage, and that can only happen if each of us can help in whatever way we can. Art is essential to life, it brings us together and keeps us sane in these trying times. Let us keep it alive through virtual shows until we can watch shows in person.