My 3 Things - February 2017

(What is this thing called My 3 Things? Find out in the FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Marian Anderson’s “If He Change My Name”

How I love a wire rack filled with postcards.  There’s a certain childlike fascination induced by the spinning of these contraptions. Placed near the shop door or the cash register, they’re almost always a little rickety and invariably make a kind of hushed squeak when turned. The fun is in the treasure hunt of finding the perfect postcard for the perfect person.

Firmly in the grip of such a reverie at the great Manhattan bookstore Book Culture recently, I stopped on a mesmerizing Richard Avedon portrait of Marian Anderson (the one shown in the Youtube link above.) She’s mid-word, mid-song with a wind blowing her hair up and around perfectly pursed lips. It’s an imperceptible moment caught: the forming of a syllable. I bought the postcard immediately. 

It sat on my desk for a week, the magic of the arresting, sensuous image working on me. Then one day, when I should have been doing a great many other things, I sat down to listen to Anderson’s music and read about her life.

I didn’t know that Marian Anderson grew up in Philadelphia, a city I think of as my own. I didn’t know that it was only through the influence of the adults in her life, most notably her aunt Mary, that she was encouraged to sing and stay close to music. Virtually every avenue of music study was closed to her because she was black and poor (her mother, though trained as a school teacher could not teach in Philadelphia at the time because of a law that applied only to black teachers, not white ones). I did not know that her early life was marked by death. Her father was accidentally struck on the head while working at the Reading Terminal (he sold coal and ice) and, in order to survive, her family moved in with his parents. Less than a year later, Marian's much-loved grandfather Benjamin (who was born a slave and was the first of his family to move north) died.

She could afford neither high school nor music lessons, but thanks to the efforts of her pastor and others in her community, she was provided the opportunity for both. She applied to the all-white music college (now the University of the Arts) and was told they “don’t take colored.” 

Her big break came when she was 28. She won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic and was invited to perform with the orchestra. Audience and critics were moved. Riding a wave of support and interest, she stayed in New York to study and sing. Because of her skin color, she couldn't progress any further with her career, so she moved to Europe where she was received enthusiastically. Her fame spread and by the late 1930s, Anderson was once again singing in the U.S., though she still faced much discrimination.

Here’s where the story gets familiar and where I'll leave off: In 1939, The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Anderson permission to sing to an inter-racial audience in their Constitutional Hall in Washington, D.C.

The outrage caused by this refusal led to the resignation of thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Her letter to the DAR included this zinger: “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed." The furor eventually led to the open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, for which we all know and love Marian Anderson.

A postcard is usually a trivial thing: to be dashed off, a small remembrance, correspondence "lite." Sometimes, though, it's much more than that.


2. SEEING: Shakespeare’s The Tempest at St. Ann’s Warehouse
This production of the The Tempest, anchored by the great Harriet Walter as Prospero, and with songs by one of my musical heroes Joan Armatrading, completes a trilogy of all-female plays staged by Phyllida Lloyd. I was lucky enough to see the other two (Julius Caesar, Henry IV) as they were performed over the course of the last four years. 

Shakespeare's Tempest is set on a magical island. Lloyd stages her version in a women’s prison. Any island is a kind of prison, and the layers of meaning here continue to pile up. Just when the inmates (and we) are totally engaged, believing every hip drop of the sprite Ariel’s magic, the realities of prison life — guards, loud sirens, cells, uniforms — break in and the inmates have to shut up, line up, and clean up until the guards leave again and the magic continues. We swerve from world to world to world. By the end, the players that long for their freedom (Ariel, Caliban) are literally set free: we see them escorted out of jail. 

Where are we? The dualities explored in this play — perception / reality, freedom / bondage, master / slave, reality / fancy, loyalty / treachery — must be re-thought when every player is un-free, a slave of sorts, living in the un-reality of the modern industrial prison complex. In this play within a play within a prison, questions keep multiplying: What is played? Who is played? Who is really master? Prospero? The guard barking the orders? To say nothing of untangling the gender knot Lloyd tied by casting all women in a romance that was written with only one female character.

If you are in New York, the show runs until February 19. Don’t miss it. 


3. SWIRLING IN THE EDDY OF TIME: A photograph by Augustus Frederick Sherman at the Met

Augustus Frederick Sherman; Chinese woman, German stowaway, Sami woman from Finland, Algerian man, Hungarian woman, Swedish woman, Russian Cossack, Dutch girl, all Ellis Island, New York, 1905-1917

Augustus Frederick Sherman; Chinese woman, German stowaway, Sami woman from Finland, Algerian man, Hungarian woman, Swedish woman, Russian Cossack, Dutch girl, all Ellis Island, New York, 1905-1917

A week ago, in the churn of President Trump’s chaotic, ill-conceived executive order banning all refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, I went on one of my usual walkabouts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With no particular destination in mind, I just wanted to be surrounded by 5000 years of art.

On the second floor, on the right side of a narrow corridor leading from European Paintings 1250-1800 to 19th- and 20th-Century European Paintings, there is a wall dedicated to photographs. Only about eight or ten photos fit in this non-gallery. I always love to see what’s on view. This day, I paused at the first photograph and got stuck. After looking for many minutes, I nearly left the Met, feeling a kind of vertigo brought on by the confluence of current events and the events in a photograph from a hundred years ago. 

Here is what I saw: nine portraits arranged in a grid. They were made by Augustus Frederick Sherman sometime between 1905 and 1917. 

Sherman was an American photographer who worked as an employee of the Executive Division of Immigration. He used his job to capture with utter clarity and respect the immigrants arriving at the great reception hall at Ellis Island in New York. 

For 30 years, starting in 1880, the U.S. saw a staggering growth in annual immigration, nearly doubling from 450,000 to 880,000 arrivals. To contemplate the influx of this many immigrants in such a short time is almost nearly impossible for us. Sherman’s career coincided with this unprecedented time in the nation’s history; he had the position and the inclination to capture this tremendous spectacle. 

During our un-presidented time in America, looking into the faces Sherman captured so openly, I felt sick to my stomach. I was looking back to the future: these are the people that made the country in which I now live, the country whose current President seems hell-bent on keeping people exactly like them out.

Look into their eyes. Look at their clothes, their hands, their postures. Imagine what they were thinking, what their worries were, their joys. Imagine what they left behind, what they were looking forward to, what they hoped they would find here. What is so different now? What would a modern Sherman capture? And where would he capture it? JFK? Many of us did imagine such things when President Trump signed his order. That’s why we’re outraged and saddened, writing letters, calling our officials, and donating to the ACLU. That’s why stumbling on this photograph at this moment was so chilling. Amidst 5000 years of art, I saw nine faces from a century ago reflecting the urgent questions of this very moment.