After nearly a year's hiatus, Pages from the Arts is back in TheaterJones, and will run bi-monthly. In this column, 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 written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, who has retired from the Dallas Public Library and is now based in Urbana, Ill.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts: A memoir by Dallas arts philanthropist Donna Wilhelm, trailblazing women of comedy, a rembrance of Woodstock, and the script of Elise Forier Edie's The Pink Unicorn.
A Life of My Own: A Memoir
By Donna Wilhelm
La Reunion, an imprint of Deep Vellum Publishing, 2019
Local philanthropist and long-time arts benefactor Wilhelm describes her varied and challenging experiences, and her ultimate quest of achieving “a life of her own.”
Growing up in a Hartford, Conn., immigrant boarding house run by her Polish mother, Wilhelm would eventually become the corporate wife of an Exxon executive, enmeshing her body and soul into the corporate culture, while navigating relocations to multiple countries during her decades-long marriage, along with adopting and raising two children. After a divorce and other upheavals, she would finally establish deep roots in Dallas, the city she now declares to be her “longest home.”
In her years here, Wilhelm has been an originating donor of KERA’s Art & Seek, and a Dallas Theater Center Life Trustee, and has associated with SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. Along with her arts activities, she has also been a trustee of the DFW World Affairs Council.
Wilhelm’s memoir does not deal directly with her Dallas arts allegiances to any extent, so those interested in her service specifically to DFW must look elsewhere. However, she does offer a well-written, detailed, and often engrossing look at her personal development, ranging from a complicated childhood with its share of family secrets, to adjusting to sudden changes of habitat around the world in tandem with her husband’s continual promotions via Exxon, to the gradual decision to end her lengthy marriage and reach for a life reflecting her own talents and aspirations. More local emphasis on her part might have been welcome, but Wilhelm does succeed in depicting her multi-faceted journey towards the “life of her own” she always deserved.
» Note: The Dallas Museum of Art's Arts & Letters Live Series hosts a conversation with memoirists Donna Wilhelm and Peggy Wallace Kennedy, hosted by Krys Boyd of KERA, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Dallas Museum of Art. Find more information here.
The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy
By Sheila Moeschen, illustrated by Anne Bentley
Running Press, 2019
This book will quickly disabuse anyone still persisting in the belief that “comedy” is a man’s world. Moeschen offers brief but entertaining profiles of 50 gifted ladies and their unique brands of humor, from the mid-20th century to present day, with a strong nod to women of color.
Rather than rely on birth chronology or the alphabet, Moeschen divides her chosen 50 into whimsical categories: “super smarties”; “daringly disruptive”; “mighty misfits”; and “brazen badasses.” Hence, comedians from different decades can be found in each section, though the final portion — the “badasses” — features more present-day performers. Many of these women are undeniable household names, while others may be lesser known at this point, though deserving of wider recognition. Each profile extends approximately three pages — and all are illustrated by blazingly colorful portraits by Anne Bentley. Throughout, Moeschen capsulizes the ladies’ lives and comic personae with a blend of wit and occasional snark, but always laced with positivity and great affection.
Among the “funny women” in this mix: Tina Fey, Nora Ephron, Carol Burnett, Mabel Normand, Sarah Silverman, Moms Mabley, Kristen Wiig, Marie Dressler, Tracy Ullman, Tig Notaro, Leslie Jones, Cameron Esposito, Issa Rae, Fanny Brice, Elaine May, Mindy Kaling, Wanda Sykes, the immortal Lucille Ball, and so many others.
So enjoy the party, hosted by 50 remarkable women.
Woodstock: Back to Yasgur's Farm
By Mike Greenblatt
Krause Publications, 2019
In August 1969, I was a sheltered, apolitical 15-year-old book nerd, so news of some sort of music festival taking place that month in New York State over a long weekend did not really register with me. It was Woodstock, of course, and while I eventually was made fully aware of the event’s musical and social significance, its deeper impact still escaped me, until this year’s plethora of 50th anniversary celebrations became inescapable.
Fortunately, there are many options for us senior citizens trying to catch up on our long-ago “current events.” For example: Mike Greenblatt was there that weekend, and he now shares his own impressions, along with fascinating reminiscences from a wide range of also-participants, in this vivid and colorful volume. It’s a joy.
As legend tells us, festival promoters that year anticipated perhaps 100,000 attendees, but lo and behold, that number swelled to half a million, which meant logistical chaos in numerous areas — food, water, bathroom facilities, medical assistance, and much more. And don’t forget the weather! A monsoon downpour erupted that weekend, leaving the farm and fields a sea of muck and mud. (As someone who avoids heavy rainstorms if possible, I shudder at how terrible those conditions must have been.)
But were there riots on that soggy occasion? Fisticuffs? Sexual assaults? Police action? Damage to property? Miraculously, not at all. As Greenblatt puts it: “There was no violence, no murder, no rape, not even a reported fight, which is absolutely amazing when you consider the elements and the lack of food, water, and bathrooms. It could never happen again.”
That’s not to say, however, that pharmaceuticals of all shapes and sizes weren’t in plentiful supply all three days, but again, no overdoses or illegal dealing — it was mellow, man, even in the midst of societal strife stemming from the ongoing Vietnam War and civil rights struggle. Greenblatt comments: “The fact that the people created the festival with all the hardships be it rain, traffic, and sanitation issues, and still rose above that without any real outside leadership or enforcement, spontaneously deciding to make it work: that right there epitomizes the ’60s, the power of the people.”
Greenblatt interweaves his own stories from that weekend with memories from the behind-the-scenes guys (all guys, of course: this was 1969) describing the challenges faced in building the stages, hanging the lights, and programming the sound just so — and then having to retool everything in a flash once the rains hit: all way engrossing.
But what about the music? Greenblatt doesn’t skimp on inside dish about the performers who made it through the indescribable freeway traffic to appear at the gig — many of them eventually high as kites, but usually still able to offer dynamite sets, even when the alleged “schedule” totally unraveled, meaning that some acts were literally shoved on stage ahead or behind their originally-slated times with little or no warning. (He also offers a special sidebar listing the performers who should have been there that weekend, and why they weren’t.)
In one entertaining section, Greenblatt breaks down the acts as they finally materialized, citing who performed when, for how long, and for how much money. (e.g., “Saturday, Aug. 16. The Who. 5:30 a.m. to 6:35 a.m. Performance Fee: $6,250.” That time is not a typo, by the way — the so-called schedule became more or less nonexistent at some point.)
The headline performers included the somewhat-famous, the legends, and the would-become legends — Joan Baez; Richie Havens; Janis Joplin; Jefferson Airplane; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Country Joe McDonald; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Jimi Hendrix; Carlos Santana; Melanie; Sly & the Family Stone; Sha Na Na; Arlo Guthrie; Ravi Shankar; and many more. Some of these performances would be included in Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 Oscar-winning documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, but, for various reasons, many would not, creating some intragroup friction that would linger.
Not all the sets that weekend were stellar. As John Fogarty described in his memoir Fortunate Son: “…[from the stage] it was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, the souls coming out of hell. All these intertwined young people, half nude and muddy, and they looked dead. The Grateful Dead had put half a million people to sleep.” In other instances, the performers were overly stoned by the time their stage turns finally arrived, and it showed.
Over and above the author’s enlightening text, Greenblatt’s book is also a feast for the eye, as it is lavishly illustrated with photos, posters, and full-page psychedelic designs between chapters. (And the section headings themselves set a puckish tone: my favorite is “But Mom, There Will be Adult Supervision”.)
In short, this is a simply wonderful book — a feast for those to whom “Woodstock” is only a textbook footnote and for those who actually experienced the weekend in all its amazingly positive, never-to-be-repeated glory. Pretty darn groovy.
The Pink Unicorn
By Elise Forier Edie
Independently Published, 2018; Original Copyright, 2013
I love one-person shows, i.e., witnessing an audience carried into a new world through the sheer power of a solo presence. But the performer’s material needs to be top-notch as well. I recently came upon a play script that is just that. To quote a threadbare, yet true, cliché: I laughed and I cried.
The Pink Unicorn first sprang to life in 2013 in Washington D.C., and has been performed sporadically around the country. Arguably, its most notable production was offered at Pittsburgh’s Out of the Box Theater in 2018 and starred Tony-Award-winner Alice Ripley, who subsequently brought it to off-Broadway. In my opinion, regional theater companies everywhere should leap at the chance to include this work in their seasons, including those in DFW.
Trisha Lee is a 40-something widow living in small-town Sparkton, Texas, still mourning her beloved husband’s accidental death and single-mothering teenage daughter Jolene, whose boon companion is Beetlejuice the Tarantula. One fine day, said daughter announces to Mom that she’s now “gender queer” and “pansexual” (say what?), and wants to be called only “Jo”.
Well-meaning Trisha is dumbstruck but wants to do the right thing by her only child, and thus she begins a stumbling journey through the “gender” minefields. But she faces some exasperating moments: “Nothing on the Internet had what I was really hoping to find which was the thing I could say or do that would make it all go away. The whole gender neutral thing, let’s be frank here people. I was not a fan.”
Nevertheless, Trisha bravely soldiers on, and her uncertain path includes stumbling upon a bona fide lesbian at her town’s fundamentalist church, a congregation led by “Pastor Dick” (that’s right). But when Jo and a few friends attempt to create a Gay-Straight Alliance at their high school, things get serious, and Trisha is thrust into controversy and new ways of thinking she could never have anticipated.
I think Trisha is a perfect character for a solo show: we watch her run the gamut from genuinely shocked, to questioning the changing world around her, and ultimately reaching out to ideas and people never before on her radar, all the while supporting her cherished daughter no matter how puzzling Jo’s new self-definition may be.
There’s also great humor in the mix, to be sure: “Right after that one line [in the Bible] about homosexuality, there’s another line that says it’s a sin to eat shrimp. So I mean, a man kissing another man is about on par with dinner at Red Lobster, at least in the sin department. That follows, don’t it?” But despite lingering moments of incredulity at how she’s inwardly evolved in unforeseen ways, Trisha triumphs, and her final moments with us are deeply moving.
The Pink Unicorn offers so much — topicality; a “down-home” perspective on society’s changing reality; and a thoughtful treatment of the importance of family. But perhaps, above all, it represents a tour-de-force opportunity for some fortunate actresses, and a message so needed to be heard in Sparkton, Texas, and everywhere else.
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
- November 2018: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
- December 2018: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.
- February 2019: A book about the past and future of the New York City Opera; the script to Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man
- March to October: On hiatus