Ask Your Mama

February 20, 2014

The past several weeks have been very busy at school. This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar in 20th century American literature that I’ve never taught before, so I’ve been kept busier than usual in preparing for my classes. Linda and I have had the chance to eat out more often than usual, in part because a couple of good new restaurants have opened nearby. Portfolio Cafe at the corner of Junipero and Fourth Street most certainly be getting close to its 25th anniversary; it recently underwent a renovation that mainly seemed directed at shedding any image it might have of a 20th century coffeehouse. The rear area still retains its laid-back ambiance, but the front now seems to possess more of a Peet’s polish, though still having some measure of individuality. The storefronts next to Portfolio’s, which I read at back in 1993 with Harry Northup and Linda Albertano, had been vacant for almost two years, or so it seems, but very recently two restaurants have opened up, one featuring an Argentinian menu and the other specializing in Peruvian cuisine. We had a free meal at the latter a couple of days before it officially opened because the owners apparently wanted to conduct a trial run of the kitchen. We can’t wait to go back.

Bridge Markland presented a one-actress performance of Robbers in a Box last this past week at CSULB. The advance publicity hinted that she was adept at playing both female and male roles, and perhaps she is accomplished in that regard if she avails herself of speaking in her native language. Unfortunately, she presented what amounted to a karaoke version of Schiller’s drama. Recorded voices intoned the dialogue as Markland toyed with puppets and a wig to enact an adult variation of a child’s fantasy of theater. Indeed, the title of her evening suggested the mise-en-scene, several short linked walls were unfolded as to resemble a large cardboard container, such as the kind a child might appropriate from the leftovers of a moving-van. Markland use of that space would have been much more lively if she had spent time thinking about ways to incorporate that element into a metatheatrical meditation rather than assembling a collage of pop music songs that rarely seemed to apply to the mood of the moment in the play.

Linda and I saw Sarah Jones in a performance of her Bridge & Tunnel in NYC, and the gap between the Markland’s and Jones’s quality of performance and talent is enormous. I still fondly recollect the manner in which Sarah Jones managed to play a variety of roles with extraordinary dexterity. I would hope to have a chance to see her again. Markland’s performance was simply another evening of theater aspiring to be memorable, but never getting past the first whiff of possibility.

Far, far more accomplished than Markland’s staging was a one-time performance of Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama, It opened with a trumpet solo by Ron McCurdy, who walked out of a darkened passageway to the side of the auditorium’s seating onto the stage in a elegant, understated arrival. McCurdy led his band through the paces of a dozen or so compositions with joyful affirmation of one of Hughes’s lesser-known works.  Actor and director Malcolm-Jamal Warner read Hughes’ book-length poem. There were several very witty moments in the text. Hughes recounts Louie Armstrong being asked if he could read music. “Not enough to hurt my playing,” Armstrong replied. (That response reminds me of the section in WC Williams’s Spring & All in which the assessment of technique runs like this: “That sheet stuff’s a lot of cheese.”)

The film collage that accompanied the music and reading of the poem added little to the public performance, which was free and open to the public. I’m happy to report that the Bovard Auditorium was almost completely full. We sat in the first section of the balcony and there are were only a handful of empty sets behind us in the rear balcony.