In Pages from the Arts, we review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.
Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.
If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
Take YOU Wherever You Go: A Memoir
By Kenny Leon
Grand Central Publishing, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
This book’s title derives from advice given Kenny Leon by his beloved “Grandma Mamie,” who helped raise him, and whose influence infuses her grandson to this day. He has indeed “taken” himself through careers as an actor, trailblazing regional theater artistic leader, and award-winning director for Broadway and live television. Whenever I see the name “Kenny Leon” attached to a project, I know attention must be paid.
Born in 1956 Tallahassee, Florida, and later coming of age in St. Petersburg, Leon was largely raised by his mother and his singular “Mamie.” Originally interested in becoming a lawyer, he graduated college with a political science degree, but turned to the arts as a life’s path by the late 1970s, eventually affiliating with Atlanta’s Academy Theater as both actor and director. In 1988, after years of taking Academy productions around the country, and offering theatrical outreach to marginalized groups within his own community, Leon became associate artistic director at the Alliance Theatre, also in Atlanta, rising to the post of artistic director in 1990.
In his narrative, Leon offers an engrossing look at his 11-year tenure as one of the few African-Americans to head a large regional theater company, during which time he strove to offer Atlantans a multicultural experience from both playwriting and performance standpoints, and to continue outreach to the city’s less-affluent neighborhoods.
After his tenure at Alliance came his own True Colors Theater Company in 2002, founded and led by Leon with the goal of presenting and thus preserving African-American theatrical “classics,” including works by the late August Wilson, with whom Leon later worked closely. Wilson aficionados will likely find much to enjoy in this book as well, as Leon keenly describes their collaboration and the enormous influence the playwright had on his own career, life, and worldview.
Broadway came along for Kenny Leon in 2004, when he directed a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sean Combs, and as Lena and Ruth, respectively, Tony Award winners Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. The Lorraine Hansberry masterwork would become a touchstone for sorts for Leon, as he went on to helm its 2008 television adaptation which starred many actors from the earlier Broadway cast.
And most significantly, Leon received his own Tony Award as Best Director of a Play for the 2014 Raisin reprise featuring Denzel Washington as Walter Lee. His other Broadway directing achievements have included August Wilson’s Fences (also starring Washington and Tony winner Viola Davis in 2010); 2011’s The Mountaintop with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett; and most recently, the 2018 revival of Children of a Lesser God starring Joshua Jackson and Tony nominee Lauren Ridloff. Last but not least, Leon has overseen live TV productions of Hairspray and The Wiz (2015 and 2016, respectively).
Throughout his recollections, Leon stresses the importance of collaboration among theatrical artists. In reflecting on his close personal and professional association with August Wilson, he comments: “To this day, I think the most sacred union is that of the writer and the director on a new play. The process is never more beautiful and pure. When a writer works with a director, with real trust between them, they can solve any problem. Working with August on all those plays gave me the blueprint for the relationship I want to have with every writer.”
At age 62, Kenny Leon continues to stretch and explore new vistas as an artist and citizen of the world. But never far from his consciousness are lessons learned via the women who raised him. He concludes with: “[My mother’s and grandmother’s] support of me was and is very spiritual. They see it as a continuum. I know for a fact that I am the heir of August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and [director] Lloyd Richards….Part of what I am doing as an artist and as a person on this planet is making things right for all of us across time. We won’t know until we die what it all means and how different times and worlds overlap. I believe they’re all connected. And I know that Grandma Mamie would take joy in where I am today….She helped to bring it about, after all.”
From a grateful grandson.
Know-It-All Jazz: The 50 Crucial Concepts, Styles & Performers, Each Explained in Under a Minute
By Various Authors, Edited by Dave Gelly
Wellfleet Press, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I didn’t have a stopwatch in hand while reading this brief yet unique book, so I can’t vouch for its subtitle’s “under the minute” claim, but it is undeniably both a quick and worthwhile read.
Several music experts, under the editorship of Dave Gelly, offer fledgling jazz followers a superb one-stop shopping tutorial in the genre, from historical, instrumental, and biographical standpoints. For the most part, each explored topic occupies one page of text along with several sidebars, and those single pages lead in turn to striking color montages on subsequent pages, including photographs of many performing greats. Therefore, from a visual perspective alone, there is much here to attract and retain reader attention.
The major chapter categories include “styles of jazz,” “instruments of jazz,” “vocal jazz,” “classic jazz albums,” “jazz & the blues,” and more. The authors also intermittently punctuate the brief narratives with double-page tributes to, in their opinions, jazz history’s most influential movers and shakers: Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, B.B. King, and Craig Taborn (with whom I was unfamiliar). Including Fitzgerald in this select group helps balance out somewhat the book’s testosterone-laden contents; while the writers do mention women’s contributions to the genre, male influences predominate.
Current-day jazz trends are also discussed, and helpful glossaries are scattered throughout the narrative, along with appendices listing further print and virtual resources.
This book is a colorful, information-rich, and intriguing means of introducing casual readers to a seminal American musical genre, and a jumping-off point for further exploration—an opportunity to indeed “know it all” someday.
By Philip Ridley
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Ollie and Jill are young British marrieds, expecting their first child. They’re not happy in their current house and really want to somehow go more up-market and find a “dream home”—solely for the sake of their unborn son, of course.
One day, they receive a mysterious letter from a Miss Dee who tells them they’ve been chosen to participate in a “new scheme” known as The Creation of Dream Homes, sponsored by the Department of Social Regeneration. The happy couple agrees, and, with the help of human “renovators,” their rise in housing status and comfort level is swift, albeit thanks to some questionable quirks. They are indeed a greedy pair, though always with the future of “our child” as top priority—or so they say.
Playwright Ridley takes what, on paper, would seem to be squirm-inducing material and makes it perversely amusing in pure black comedy style. Readers and audience members will likely laugh in spite of themselves. And they will also marvel at the demands placed on the actors portraying Ollie and Jill: the pair is nearly always front and center while the play’s action unspools continuously, with no off-stage breaks. And in one memorable and pivotal “party scene,” they are also called upon to voice upwards of six additional characters. The play is both sharply satiric and an acting tour de force.
Dallas’ Kitchen Dog Theater recently had the regional premiere of Radiant Vermin. It’s a clever, yet deceptively complex work sure to provoke amusement, with perhaps a cringe or two along the way.
» Pages from the Arts appears on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
- August 2017: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September 2017:A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October 2017: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November 2017: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.
- December 2017: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
- January 2018: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
- February 2018: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale.
- March 2018: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.
- April 2018: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May 2018: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June 2018: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July 2018: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August 2018: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September 2018: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October 2018: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse