Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.21: Andrea Hairston

The Storytelling of 2012
by Andrea Hairston

Real Time Performances
The Big Circus Show this year—filled with good and bad clowns, wild beasts, amazing acrobats, and cranky ringmasters—was the November Election. Audience participation part was very exciting; however, it was an excruciatingly long show. The bloated budget for smoke and mirrors, for lying and grandstanding drained our spirits. We spent so much time fussing over nonsense—legitimate rape, the slacker 47%, etc. The Gate Keepers trying to keep folks out of the big tent were also infuriating. I did a lot of cursing. Yet, I must confess that the final act was a HUGE relief.

On Stage
While in Germany this past summer, my German friends “gave” me a Bavarian folk theatre production for a birthday present—Da Himmegugga roughly translated as "The Stargazer." ( This musical SF & F play is about a wild peasant inventor, the Himmegugga, who is certain of imminent alien visitation! He sends out signals to the aliens believing they will share his cosmic sense of wonder and be able to answer the question of God’s existence. The Himmegugga’s daughter sticks by him but his neighbors think he is a misanthropic crackpot making wild contraptions that are as pointless as his star gazing. The Himmegugga has stopped talking to his best and oldest friend. House trolls (marvelous puppets) wreck havoc with his home life, stealing and rearranging the chaos of hilarious inventive junk. Only the audience sees the trolls who include us in their mischief. None of his inventions work, and it’s looking pretty bleak when an alien finally drops in for a visit and transforms the Himmegugga’s relation to the cosmos. It turns out that God is in the marvel of inventions and meanings we make together.

The actors speak in Bavarian dialect. The text is full of Bavarian wit and wisdom, and the production is done for the home crowd. The rest of us hang on by the seat of our pants in high German. Elfriede and Erwin Ringsgwandl wrote, produced, directed, and acted in the production which started as a I have a barn, let’s do that play we’ve been talking about community production. Da Himmegugga is now in a big tent and selling out to enthusiastic crowds (even a few non-Bavarians) twelve months in advance. The play celebrates the local and intimate that embraces the cosmic and the universal. The audience is part of the action. We are stargazers, inventors plagued by trolls, hanging on to dreams. Here is a song in many languages pleading with the alien to come visit. This mythic, folk SF epic stands in sharp contrast to:

The Movie I Wanted to Like But Just Couldn’t
Beasts from the Southern Wild. The cinematography is stunning. The child actress playing the lead is absolutely compelling. I dashed to the movie theatre at the promise of a mythic story riffing on New Orleans, flood waters of Biblical proportions, and a bold little black girl. Beyond the corruption and decay of postindustrial, late capitalist civilization, white and black folks have made a place of wonder—the Bathtub—below sea level. Here, their spirits are not drowned. Floods wash away their world-trailer park trash-kingdom. Monstrous black beasts storm the ruins of their devastated world and are turned aside by the grace of the child heroine who is fierce beyond her years!

What’s not to love?

We all see different movies. I saw another Topsy wild black child raising herself. I saw folksy poor people without history, context, or motivation, filmed in their beautiful, picturesque, primitive glory. Racism is magically over! I endured another mythic presentation of Noble Savages never combing their hair, eating at troughs, and celebrating patriarchal masculinity. The Noble Savages cling to their irrational magical thinking when hospitals tempt them with healing. The Savages are close to the beasts and forces of nature who torment and threaten them. Mute women are the hand maidens to their noble savagery, ghosts and vague memories. Girl children must be tough, never cry, and align with the patriarchal Savages if they wish to survive.

For me Beasts was regressive nostalgia masquerading as visionary divination.

Books and Movies 

Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam, The Receptionist and Other Tales by Lesley Wheeler, Up Against It by M. J. Locke, Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older, and Bitterblue by Kristen Cashore were full of visionary divination…and also beautiful language, great story telling, and provocative ideas. I’d wake up at four in the morning and pick up one of these books and not care that insomnia might wreck the next day! Sister Citizen for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough by Melissa V. Harris-Perry mixed literary analysis and political theory for a provocative read.

I enjoyed Argo, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, and Flight. There was also the delicious serial melodrama of Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. Pariah ( and directed by Dee Rees was a revelation. The film does a compelling exploration of the lives of young, black, queer women in Brooklyn. The script and cast are very strong—particularly the lead, Adepero Oduye.

We inhabit the stories we tell and we become the characters we imagine. I am grateful to these storytellers for the Andrea that will go charging into 2013!

Andrea Hairston is the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre and has created original productions with music, dance, and masks for over thirty years. She is also the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College. Her first novel from Aqueduct Press, Mindscape, won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award and was shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick Award and the Tiptree Award. Her second novel, Redwood and Wildfire, which Aqueduct also published, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award earlier this year. This year Aqueduct also published Impolitic!, which Andrea co-authored with Debbie Notkin, in connection with WisCon, where both were the 2012 guests of honor.


nephilista said...

An excellent summation, and a useful list of recs. Thanks for that. I'll be looking for a US production of Da Himmegugga

Anonymous said...

Sing it and say it! I love your analysis of the election and most particularly of the beastie movie which kinda drove be nuts with its unexamined positions, imagery, and politics - while seeming so blithely naive that it was participating in and repeating the same old same old.

Anonymous said...

After I saw Beasts I felt like I was the only person in the world who was underwhelmed by it. I was cautiously excited in advance--there seemed to be a lot of elements of promise, and then so many people whose opinions I respected said they loved, loved, LOVED it, and I wondered why they did and I did not. Thank you for handing out some possible answers.