What does Obama have to do with MN arts?

Last week’s New Yorker offered an article on the “post-racial politics” of Newark mayor Cory Booker, an African-American and a friend of Sen. Barack Obama, with whom he shares an idealism about racial cooperation.

Here, our thriving arts scene is launching into a season of perhaps the most frank and imaginative exploration of race we’ve seen in many years. Not that any of the shows are necessarily billed as such–and this, I think, is promising. While it’s dangerous to think we can move on as a society without bringing special attention to this issue, it’s progress, I believe, in a state as white as this one to think we can broach the discussion with the same comfort and candor as anything else. Like it was the most natural thing in the world–because of course it should be.

By having these issues in front of us in so many places, in so many forms, they become part of the daily fabric of our conversations, our thoughts, and not the ‘hot-button’ topics, the ‘controversial’ subject matter, the ‘uncomfortable’ subject matter they were once considered.

What am I talking about? It begins with The Syringa Tree, at the Jungle Theater starting February 1. A seemingly predictable play about the love between two families–one black, one white–in South Africa in the early 1960s (trouble afoot, ya think?), it goes deeper than expected while pulling out the theatrical stops. One actress (in this case, the terrific Jeune Lune regular Sarah Agnew) playing 24 characters (old, young, Afrikaaner, Zulu) tracing the magic and darkness of Africa during those chaotic times. It won “Play of the Year” honors from the Village Voice and the Obies. And it could be very fine here, directed by Joel Sass.

Then there’s the exhibition by Minnesota artist Andrea Stanislav that opened last week at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that addresses the lingering effects of 19th century Manifest Destiny beliefs, particularly in the environmental values, or lack thereof, that were imposed in the westward push. Within her multimedia exhibition are Edward Curtiss’s famous photos of Native Americans transformed into Warhol-like ghosts, as though the figures are celebrity icons, artifacts of our obsessions.

Starting February 8 at the Illusion Theatre (then moving to the Pillsbury House Theatre on February 20), the play Same Difference follows two young black men, Anthony and Jamal, from very different backgrounds who are thrust together as college roommates. A hit at the 2007 Minnesota Fringe Festival, it exposes stereotypes with incisive wit.

And of course, no institution here has been exploring these issues longer than Penumbra Theatre, which begins its cycle of the late August Wilson’s plays with The Piano Lesson starting February 21. Not to be confused with The Piano or The Piano Teacher, this Pulitzer Prize winner is a dramatic masterwork, charging a family piano with centuries’ worth of American history as siblings haunted by the legacy of slavery squabble to keep it. When Penumbra first staged the play, in 1993, Wilson said it was the best production yet–no surprise considering Penumbra’s long relationship with Wilson and the African-American community he explored with such gravitas.

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