The West Indian Front Room

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The West Indian Front Room
The Visual Inspiration behind Let There Be Love
By Nirmala Nataraj

The West Indian Front Room exhibition
at the Geffrye Museum, 2005-2006
Photo by John Neligan
In 2005 Kwame Kwei-Armah was moved to write Let There Be Love after seeing an art exhibition at London’s Geffrye Museum of the Home. The show, entitled The West Indian Front Room: Memories and Impressions of Black British Homes, recreated the front rooms of African-Caribbean immigrants of the 1960s and ’70s, while providing stories from the first wave of West Indian immigrants to England. The vivid installations, awash in a sensorial landscape of sounds and sights, struck Kwei-Armah profoundly, and from his memories of the “politics of my family’s front room,” the story of Alfred, Gemma, and Maria emerged.

The exhibition’s curator, Michael McMillan, describes the quintessential front room, which is derived from the Victorian parlor: “colorful floral-patterned wallpaper and carpet that never matched, a glass cabinet that displayed glass and chinaware you never used, plastic-covered sofas, homemade crochet doilies, framed photographs . . . and other elements that embodied the family’s aspirations, prescribed codes of behavior, and moral values.” The exhibition itself included such memorabilia alongside compelling first-hand narratives of West Indian immigrants.

McMillan, who is also a playwright and fine artist, met Kwei-Armah in 1988. At the time, Kwei-Armah was acting in one of McMillan’s plays, First Impressions. After this creative collaboration, McMillan and Kwei-Armah kept in contact, although McMillan was unaware that Kwei-Armah had seen The West Indian Front Room “until he told me it had inspired his writing Let There Be Love,” recalls McMillan. When McMillan saw Let There Be Love during its inaugural run at London’s Tricycle Theatre in 2008, he “was struck by how Alfred and his relationship with his home caregiver, Maria, signified the shifting landscape of migration in British society,” he says.

McMillan, whose family hails from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, notes that the exhibition reveals the struggles and social aspirations of the black diaspora. “For many of [the people in] their generation, moving from living in one room to having a front room in a home of their own was a sign that you had ‘made it.’ No matter who you were, if the front room looked good, then your family was respectable.”

McMillan’s 2005–06 exhibition was well received by black British audiences, as well as others from immigrant and working-class backgrounds, ultimately garnering over 35,000 visitors. In 2009 The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home was published by Black Dog Publishing; it has been a reliable visual reference for A.C.T.’s production of Let There Be Love.

McMillan’s exploration of the importance of music among London’s West Indian immigrants is also apparent throughout Let There Be Love. The key item of furniture from the front room that Kwei-Armah decided to focus on is the “Blue Spot” radiogram, a common feature in West Indian homes throughout Britain. The radiogram usually included a radio and phonograph housed in a wooden cabinet, sometimes with a drinks bar beneath it. Jazz, soul, ska, bluebeat (Jamaican rhythm and blues), calypso, and reggae were imported in the form of seven-inch vinyl records, which offered immigrants a sense of home “that they could listen and dance to,” says McMillan.

McMillan and other cultural commentators have suggested that the arrival of the television subverted the formality of the front room and led to its eventual disappearance. “Many of my parents’ generation have passed away, and their front room stuff has either been dumped or been used in my exhibitions,” says McMillan.

Other West Indians have returned to their home countries, taking with them the contents of their front rooms. However, one can still occasionally find front rooms much like Alfred’s, where West Indian elders cherish what they worked so hard to acquire.

For more about Let There be Love, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Let There be Love visit act-sf.org/love.

A Simpsons Lover’s Guide to Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

Monday, March 2, 2015

By Adam Odsess-Rubin

Costume designer Alex Jaeger’s 
rendering of Bart Simpson 
for A.C.T.’s production of
Mr. Burns
If humanity ever suffers an apocalypse, The Simpsons, with its encyclopedic collection of movie-star cameos, original couch gags, and literary references, would offer survivors a detailed archive of the last 25 years. The Simpsons is American society writ large. Winner of 31 Emmys, a Peabody Award, and the record for the longest-running sitcom in television history (561 episodes and counting), it has been lauded as a simple yet effective satire on the dysfunctional nature of the American family, and a piercing look into the complexities of human nature. The many characters that populate this seemingly simple TV show reflect American society in a fun-house mirror meant to simultaneously entertain and provoke.

The heart of the show is the Simpsons family. Homer, the father, is an irate buffoon who serves (poorly) as a safety inspector at Mr. Burns’s nuclear power plant. Marge, the mother, is cautious and thoughtful, and works hard to keep the family together. Lisa, the older daughter, is the moral center of the show, a genius and die-hard liberal intellectual. Bart, the son, is a sassy yellow Dennis the Menace, never found without the slingshot he uses to terrorize his teachers. Lastly, Maggie is the silent baby, witness to the family’s antics. Supporting characters, of which there are hundreds, include Chief Wiggum, an inept donut-eating policeman; Abe Simpson, the forgetful grandfather who loves to tell war stories from his past; and Mr. Burns, the evil and greedy owner of a nuclear power plant who would rather block out the sun than lose money.

Mr. Burns playwright Anne Washburn has pointed to the universal appeal of The Simpsons as a major reason for its popularity, saying, “The characters, when you think about them, are durable archetypes—Bart is a Trickster; Homer the Holy Fool; Marge, I suppose, is a kind of long-suffering Madonna; and then the inhabitants of Springfield are an almost endlessly rich supply of human (and non-human) personalities.” But while the goofy family from the fictional town of Springfield is undoubtably average, they and their fellow townspeople are also undeniably unique. In large part, the show’s popularity is due to the fact that it has always encouraged audiences to laugh at, and admit, their own faults.

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening
at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.
In 1990, the Los Angeles Times called The Simpsons “perfectly conceived and executed,” while the Boston Globe has deemed it “TV’s most intelligent comedy.” The Simpsons has graced the covers of TIME, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and even The Advocate, for a groundbreaking episode featuring filmmaker John Waters as Homer’s gay friend. The show’s influence has also spread worldwide to TV sets as far away as Mexico, Lithuania, and Japan. It has been dubbed in dozens of languages, banned on primetime TV in China, and adapted to fit Muslim sensibilities in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The Simpsons has always been visceral and immediate, even in its earliest renderings as a series of crudely drawn skits for The Tracey Ullman Show. The show has crafted episodes around immigration (“Much Apu About Nothing,” 1996), gun rights (“The Cartridge Family,” 1997), and the environment (“Trash of the Titans,” 1998). Given its penchant for being current and politically relevant, the show has weathered a fair amount of controversy. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, President George H. W. Bush said, “We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family, to make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” In 1990, Barbara Bush said the show was “the dumbest thing” she had ever seen. Of course, The Simpsons retaliated with a parody—season seven’s  “Two Bad Neighbors,” in which the first family moves in across the street from the Simpsons.

With the ever-increasing popularity of current-event satirists like Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park, The Book of Mormon), Jon Stewart (The Daily Show), and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), some critics believe it has been difficult for The Simpsons to keep up in recent years. But it is impossible to deny the show’s influence. Although critics complain that it can’t measure up to South Park and Family Guy, these shows wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by Groening almost 30 years ago. MacFarlane acknowledged this debt, saying, “The Simpsons created an audience for primetime animation that had not been there for many years. They basically reinvented the wheel.”

It is no coincidence that Washburn chose The Simpsons as the sole surviving cultural artifact after the apocalypse. The Simpsons has permeated all aspects of our culture, deconstructing celebrities, fads, and trends by way of spoof, riff, and satire. Various Simpsons episodes have tackled film classics from Psycho to A Clockwork Orange (Hitchcock and Kubrick seem to be favorite targets) and plays from Macbeth to Rent. The antagonist of “Cape Feare” and regular Simpsons supporting character Sideshow Bob is a lover of theater. In “Cape Feare,” he sings songs from the H.M.S. Pinafore and shows off his branded prison number—24601, the same inmate number as Jean Valjean’s in Les Misérables. The Simpsons has devoted entire episodes to spoofing Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (“A Streetcar Named Marge”) and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (“The President Wore Pearls”).

Indeed, audiences find pleasure in deciphering the treasure trove of obscure pop-culture nods sprinkled throughout episodes. The potency of memory, storytelling, and one of our most iconic pop-culture staples intersect in Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. As Washburn suggests, even if a nuclear meltdown or global warming were to destroy civilization as we know it, it’s likely that The Simpsons would, indeed, endure.

For more about Mr. Burns, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Mr. Burns visit act-sf.org/burns.

A Prologue Discussion: Anne Washburn’s MR. BURNS at A.C.T.

Go behind the scenes of Anne Washburn's post-apocalyptic play with a discussion ranging from nuclear meltdowns to Springfield Follies

Amidst apocalyptic chaos, a group of survivors find comfort in recounting a beloved episode of The Simpsons in Anne Washburn’s exhilarating Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. Director and A.C.T. Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker joins Washburn onstage to discuss the importance of “low-brow” media and why we cling to stories in the face of tragedy. Moderated by A.C.T. dramaturg Michael Paller, this discussion will give you a revealing look at this mind-blowing theatrical homage to our popular culture.



For more about Mr. Burns, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Mr. Burns visit act-sf.org/burns.
 
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