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Books

John Porcellino’s Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man is the comics equivalent of Nabokov’s Butterflies—an idiosyncratic collection of every Porcellino story dealing even tangentially with the titular insects (culled from the 15-year run of his delicate, autobiographical King-Cat zine), rounded out by three superb new offerings.

Call it this summer’s buzz book. In his twenties, Porcellino worked mosquito abatement—tramping through marshes, ladling out larvicidal Bti (his boss claims that it “would be totally harmless for a human to eat”). He also drove a spraying truck for long shifts, at a maximum speed of 12 miles per hour. Life in the slow lane perfectly describes this artist’s m.o.—in a typical King-Cat story, patient observation shades into epiphany or hallucination. In the hypnotic “Chemical Plant/Another World,” our hero drives his spray truck into a bizarre, hermetic machine-city, through “weird streets with names like ‘Technology’ ?”; a jungle of pipes and steam surrounds him as reality slips away.

Porcellino often provides dates of occurrence and composition, and the gap is beguiling; in its modest way, this Diary becomes a meditation on memory and creation. (See the hilarious, untitled series of blank panels, sparked by a pencil from a Holiday Inn and written while drunk.) Another pleasure is watching his style and sensibility evolve, from early Panter-esque scratchings and an aggro persona to a perfectly controlled minimalist line and eventual empathy for all living things. This final sentiment might seem corny if “The Owl” weren’t so haunting—the bird glides above his truck “like a ghost,” weirdly beautiful. Only later does he realize it’s dying from the poison, and he puts his career to rest.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Theater

The Pool and the Rabbit Hole

While many summer theater festivals flee the city for leafy climes, others, stuck at home, develop ingenious strategies for cooling off. “Swim Shorts II” stages its site-specific one-acts in and around the rooftop pool of the 57th Street Holiday Inn. Taking a more cerebral route, the Ontological Theater’s “Blueprint Series” explores chilly subterranean depths.

In the “Blueprint” emerging directors’ series, Eric Powers weighs in on the dark side with Alice: What is the fun? With a company of six, he’s deconstructed and updated the original Lewis Carroll fantasy to make it fresh and tangy. Presenting selected episodes at a headlong pace, he stages them with an eclectic mishmash of music, dance, costumes, and props.

From chapter to chapter, different actors portray our heroine while the other company members do eccentric takes on old favorites, from the White Rabbit to the Door-Mouse. The Cheshire Cat, for example, mouths his enigmatic lines as a smarmy emcee on a reality-TV show, where Alice appears as an unwilling contestant.

Working with a low budget, the director achieves some startling effects. To show Alice plummeting down the rabbit hole, he arranges a team with electric fans about the hapless girl. As one points a fierce wind up her billowing skirt, another blows her long hair into a vertical dance—an image both suggestive and piquant. Later the Queen of Hearts parades by with a troupe of fashionistas. The absurdity and unfairness of their croquet game comes through with a twist when the Queen straps on shoulder pads and arm guards while her young opponent stands helplessly staring at her hands clad in oven mitts.

The witty musical accompaniments to these shenanigans range from Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan to country, rock, and folk. Especially unexpected and funny bits include the treacly theme from Cats and the Bugs Bunny sign-off notes. While Powers sets these laughs in motion, he never neglects the tale’s nightmarish aspects, infusing it with the frightening and macabre. Birds with phallic beaks dance menacingly at Alice before attacking her en masse. Hands reach out to grab her ankles. Dissonant music rises to a deafening din, then abruptly switches off. Lights, shadowy or unreal red, glare into this murky world.

Some directorial choices seem less inspired than others: Rotating actors for Alice makes more sense in theory than practice; stepping outside the action to comment feels old and unnecessary. But overall, Powers, with his talented troupe, does successfully answer the question he poses in his title—Alice: What is the fun?

There’s also humor in another Blueprint offering—Savages, written and directed by Timothy Braun—but the amusement quotient leeches out as the real content emerges. A short, stylized dialogue between two high-school girls, the piece starts off with girl talk about a hunky guy. He’s the school hero, the football player, the all-American can-do guy. The two trade hyperbolic stories about him, juxtaposing the ridiculous with the sublime. Rose, the pretty, popular girl, brags that he’s asked her to the prom. She’s the heartless one: Think Heathers. Rosie, the hanger-on, drools. The two gossip about an Arab classmate, the “dirty, brown” girl “with the dishrag on her head.” She dared speak up against responding to terrorism with more violence. Then Rose recounts what Rosie prefers to forget—how their hero raped and crippled the girl in the school lunchroom. Does anyone feel sorry?

The allegorical element in this script, American power rapes Arab land, seems simplistic, but the interaction between two American schoolgirls casts a pall. Throughout their conversation, these characters stare at the audience through a picture frame, presumably a mirror, while they comb their hair. Painfully extended frozen silences between them feel like directorial affectation, but at other times Braun’s use of silence and sound, darkness and light, intensifies what these girls evoke with their casual blend of cattiness and racism. We see what they do not when they stare into the mirror. The vision unsettles.


Don’t want to think about politics and death? Join the summer frolic around the Holiday Inn pool at “Swim Shorts II.” The laughs in the series’s Evening A, when they come, float on the surface. (The one-acts of Evening B start August 6.) Take Peter Morris’s Two Gingers, a study in contrast with Savages. Two Bronx-accented twentysomethings sun themselves while bitching about their slobby boyfriends. They trade descriptions of the perfect man: He won’t smell bad and he’ll shave all over, including his balls. When a gorgeous hunk of this general description dives into the pool, they bare their claws over who will get him. It surprises only these dimwits that he’s gay. Done with good spirits, this little tidbit entertains. Staci Swedeen’s No Sweat features another pair of friends, these women pushing 50. As one begs and bullies the other to join her in aquatic aerobics, warm feelings and a few laughs erupt. These one-acts are the best of the five playlets because they capture, however superficially, something truthful in the interaction between friends. The others, while mostly silly and lame, provide a chuckle here or there—and one features a mermaid in the pool ripping into a country song about the joys of beer. As you sip your drink while the sun sets on the Manhattan skyline and wait your own turn to jump in the pool, you can imagine worse ways to spend a summer evening at the theater.

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Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Style THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Buppie Meltdown

Like Milli Vanilli’s and Matty Rich’s, hers had been a short yet glorious reign. But the New Year was here, and there was no more avoiding it. She had healed her inner child; now the time had come to pull the plug on her inner hostess. Fly the mud-cloth flag half-mast above the Soul Cafe. My alter ego Monifa Stewart has left the building.

Wasn’t it obvious that those vixens who claim to be Monifa’s dear friends had come up with the name? It was the perfect description, so they said, of their girl’s fondness for a certain personal style and home decor that can best be described as Afro-Saxon. You know the telltale signs. Celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Belong both to the Studio Museum of Harlem and MOMA. Drape your Ethan Allen couch in fabric from the generic Motherland. Can’t remember a rap lyric since ”hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” but love Jamiroquai. Buy coffee table books like I Dream a World and Homecoming: The Life and Art of William H. Johnson. Own a coffee table, period. Should be out protesting Proposition 209, but can’t find the time. Need I go on?

She wasn’t exactly sure when it had all begun. But one day early last year she had simply cast her brain, art, and man aside, and become a full-time Monifa. And like those characters in The Colored Museum, who gave up on the travails of black life in America and went to live inside the lacquered world of Ebony magazine, our girl had gone to live inside some amalgmam of the cocoa-brown womb of Essence and the snow-white parlor of Living.

Hours that could’ve been spent finishing her novel or making love were now put at the service of color schemes, china patterns, and marbleizing the walls of her dining room a milky shade of cinnabar. And whereas she had been known to dive into East Village mosh pits or rub bellies in Flatbush dancehall clubs, cooking was now her escapist cultural activity of choice. What will it be tonight, honey? Monifa would coo. Smothered chicken or fried whiting? (Somebody should have cold slapped her at that point, but who knew?)

The worst part, however, of this whole Monifa trip was the need, the dire need, she had developed to throw parties. Monifa had become a virtual crack ‘ho for home entertaining. Cocktail parties. Spades parties. Juneteenth parties. Name it, she was throwing it. Expense was a nonissue. At least once a month without fail, Monifa was on the phone to her people. Bring the Merlot, I have the chicken wings. Party over here.

At first, Monifa’s rationale for this sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior had to do with race, naturally. In place of a regular spiritual practice, these gatherings were to her a form of black church. Bread was broken, libations were poured, and the devil was danced away. Opening her home, Monifa reasoned, was a cultural inheritance handed down from her grandmother, known as ”Aunt Lane” to the many who loved her. When Monifa was growing up in the 1970s, folks came by Aunt Lane’s on the regular to get a plate of her sublime macaroni and cheese, talk the talk, and be fortified against the Man and his pettiness.

But these gatherings had come to seem less about a communion of kin as they were about affirming that Monifa and her crew were not among the newly dis-entitled, the self-medicated, the street-corner pharmacists, or, least desirable, the how-to-marry-a-black-man set, whose butts were still glued to the bar stools of B. Smith or the newest, latest, shall we say, far too common, buppie watering hole. Monifa’s people had some place (particular) to go to show off their new money, and to Monifa’s house they went.

In her heart, Monifa knew that her party addiction had less to do with Aunt Lane and the trans-Atlantic African communal tradition than it did with that malaise known as Buppie Meltdown–a sort of nouveau-riche itis of the soul. The Ebonics dictionary defines itis as the fatigue following a good meal. Buppie meltdown, so it follows, is about getting race weary soon after getting your piece of the rock.

Let me elaborate. They hadn’t realized it yet, but Monifa’s tribe of artists and professionals had become latte-sipping insiders, more akin to the complacent black middle class. They used television as a sedative, went to the occasional black play, and were certainly more apt to rush out to see Wings of the Dove than Amistad.

They spent more time chatting about the antics of the black, rich, and famous than fussing over the race problem. A running gag of late at Monifa’s gatherings involved ”monies,” a play on Autumn Jackson’s desperate attempt to blackmail her alleged Ghost Dad Bill Cosby. ”Please pass the monies,” folks were going around saying, a snap that was always good for a self-righteous cackle, the buppie equivalent of a three-minute crack high.

The excesses of Monifa, the inner hostess, seemed to accelerate with the emptiness she felt in her cultural and civic life. She didn’t go out and volunteer at a women’s shelter. No, she threw more parties. Things were status quo until the holiday season struck. Money started getting tight and folks got ugly.

At Monifa’s Kwanzaa gathering, some ”brothers” told an off-color gay joke, and then washed it down with laughter. Now, down the street, or so Monifa imagined, her liberal white friends were at dinner parties weighing in intelligently on the debate between the Sex Panic sexual liberationists and the more conservative wing of the gay community who preached monogamy. But here at Monifa’s house, much to her shame, some–excuse me–ignorant folk were giggling about ”homos.” Oh no, no, no. Didn’t Monifa read them, in their face, in public?! Oh yes, she did.

But it was a hollow victory. Breaking bread with the folk wasn’t what it used to be. After that unfortunate incident, everything went downhill. Even her annual shopping trip to the Kwanzaa expo at the Javits Center failed to lift her spirits. So it was true. Black folks were no longer kin, just an ethnic market left to pick dry. Monifa had been in denial for too long.

And so it happened that Monifa, the perpetual Afro-romantic, lost her innocence. She called several friends to announce her retirement. Monifa would join the tired, cynical masses who had given up. You know the kind. Those folks who call Kwanzaa that ”Kum-ba-ya shit” and go around shaking their heads and saying, ”Your people, your people.” Those who casually drop the ”N” word, never offer to help young mothers navigate their baby carriages up the subway stairs, and whose eyes glaze over when anyone wants to talk about why the NAACP is so damn silent lately.

Monifa canceled her subscription to Heart & Soul. Tore up her earth mama, superwoman, girlfriend, and diva cards. The last day of Kwanzaa came and went without fanfare. She packed up her vintage kinara–inherited from her aunt, the ’60s cultural nationalist–and settled in for a long winter of solitude.

Yet hardly a week had gone by before the calls started coming. Her Christmas-Kwanzaa tree, stripped of its black and gold ornaments, was still on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage pickup. How about a Brazilian caperina party, or a black ball where everyone could come dressed as their favorite black historical figure? (If you were melanin-deprived, you could come as Carl Van Vechten or Jack Johnson’s wife. We can fit you in, no problem.) Monifa resisted the urge to say, as her six-year-old cousin had the nerve to hurl at her recently, ”Speak to the hand.”

Suddenly a force larger than Monifa took over. She felt herself drawn inexplicably to the first-edition copy of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking she kept on display in her country kitchen. After all, the King holiday was coming up. Perhaps something to honor King would be nice, especially in this the age of civil rights retrenchments.

Familiar smells came from the kitchen. Garlic and ginger marinade for the wings. Smoked turkey frying up for the collards. Her husband looked up from his copy of Quarterly Black Review of Books and shook his head. Before he could talk some sense into her, Monifa had left the building….She was last spotted in the Blackberry section of Macy’s eyeing the cowrie-shell napkin rings and mumbling to herself, ”You can never have too many of these.”

Categories
Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Style THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Buppie Meltdown

Like Milli Vanilli’s and Matty Rich’s, hers had been a short yet glorious reign. But the New Year was here, and there was no more avoiding it. She had healed her inner child; now the time had come to pull the plug on her inner hostess. Fly the mud-cloth flag half-mast above the Soul Cafe. My alter ego Monifa Stewart has left the building.

Wasn’t it obvious that those vixens who claim to be Monifa’s dear friends had come up with the name? It was the perfect description, so they said, of their girl’s fondness for a certain personal style and home decor that can best be described as Afro-Saxon. You know the telltale signs. Celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa. Belong both to the Studio Museum of Harlem and MOMA. Drape your Ethan Allen couch in fabric from the generic Motherland. Can’t remember a rap lyric since “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn,” but love Jamiroquai. Buy coffee table books like I Dream a World and Homecoming: The Life and Art of William H. Johnson. Own a coffee table, period. Should be out protesting Proposition 209, but can’t find the time. Need I go on?

She wasn’t exactly sure when it had all begun. But one day early last year she had simply cast her brain, art, and man aside, and become a full-time Monifa. And like those characters in The Colored Museum, who gave up on the travails of black life in America and went to live inside the lacquered world of Ebony magazine, our girl had gone to live inside some amalgmam of the cocoa-brown womb of Essence and the snow-white parlor of Living.

Hours that could’ve been spent finishing her novel or making love were now put at the service of color schemes, china patterns, and marbleizing the walls of her dining room a milky shade of cinnabar. And whereas she had been known to dive into East Village mosh pits or rub bellies in Flatbush dancehall clubs, cooking was now her escapist cultural activity of choice. What will it be tonight, honey? Monifa would coo. Smothered chicken or fried whiting? (Somebody should have cold slapped her at that point, but who knew?)

The worst part, however, of this whole Monifa trip was the need, the dire need, she had developed to throw parties. Monifa had become a virtual crack ‘ho for home entertaining. Cocktail parties. Spades parties. Juneteenth parties. Name it, she was throwing it. Expense was a nonissue. At least once a month without fail, Monifa was on the phone to her people. Bring the Merlot, I have the chicken wings. Party over here.

At first, Monifa’s rationale for this sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior had to do with race, naturally. In place of a regular spiritual practice, these gatherings were to her a form of black church. Bread was broken, libations were poured, and the devil was danced away. Opening her home, Monifa reasoned, was a cultural inheritance handed down from her grandmother, known as “Aunt Lane” to the many who loved her. When Monifa was growing up in the 1970s, folks came by Aunt Lane’s on the regular to get a plate of her sublime macaroni and cheese, talk the talk, and be fortified against the Man and his pettiness.

But these gatherings had come to seem less about a communion of kin as they were about affirming that Monifa and her crew were not among the newly dis-entitled, the self-medicated, the street-corner pharmacists, or, least desirable, the how-to-marry-a-black-man set, whose butts were still glued to the bar stools of B. Smith or the newest, latest, shall we say, far too common, buppie watering hole. Monifa’s people had some place (particular) to go to show off their new money, and to Monifa’s house they went.

In her heart, Monifa knew that her party addiction had less to do with Aunt Lane and the trans-Atlantic African communal tradition than it did with that malaise known as Buppie Meltdown—a sort of nouveau-riche itis of the soul. The Ebonics dictionary defines itis as the fatigue following a good meal. Buppie meltdown, so it follows, is about getting race weary soon after getting your piece of the rock.

Let me elaborate. They hadn’t realized it yet, but Monifa’s tribe of artists and professionals had become latte-sipping insiders, more akin to the complacent black middle class. They used television as a sedative, went to the occasional black play, and were certainly more apt to rush out to see Wings of the Dove than Amistad.

They spent more time chatting about the antics of the black, rich, and famous than fussing over the race problem. A running gag of late at Monifa’s gatherings involved “monies,” a play on Autumn Jackson’s desperate attempt to blackmail her alleged Ghost Dad Bill Cosby. “Please pass the monies,” folks were going around saying, a snap that was always good for a self-righteous cackle, the buppie equivalent of a three-minute crack high.

The excesses of Monifa, the inner hostess, seemed to accelerate with the emptiness she felt in her cultural and civic life. She didn’t go out and volunteer at a women’s shelter. No, she threw more parties. Things were status quo until the holiday season struck. Money started getting tight and folks got ugly.

At Monifa’s Kwanzaa gathering, some “brothers” told an off-color gay joke, and then washed it down with laughter. Now, down the street, or so Monifa imagined, her liberal white friends were at dinner parties weighing in intelligently on the debate between the Sex Panic sexual liberationists and the more conservative wing of the gay community who preached monogamy. But here at Monifa’s house, much to her shame, some—excuse me—ignorant folk were giggling about “homos.” Oh no, no, no. Didn’t Monifa read them, in their face, in public?! Oh yes, she did.

But it was a hollow victory. Breaking bread with the folk wasn’t what it used to be. After that unfortunate incident, everything went downhill. Even her annual shopping trip to the Kwanzaa expo at the Javits Center failed to lift her spirits. So it was true. Black folks were no longer kin, just an ethnic market left to pick dry. Monifa had been in denial for too long.

And so it happened that Monifa, the perpetual Afro-romantic, lost her innocence. She called several friends to announce her retirement. Monifa would join the tired, cynical masses who had given up. You know the kind. Those folks who call Kwanzaa that “Kum-ba-ya shit” and go around shaking their heads and saying, “Your people, your people.” Those who casually drop the “N” word, never offer to help young mothers navigate their baby carriages up the subway stairs, and whose eyes glaze over when anyone wants to talk about why the NAACP is so damn silent lately.

Monifa canceled her subscription to Heart & Soul. Tore up her earth mama, superwoman, girlfriend, and diva cards. The last day of Kwanzaa came and went without fanfare. She packed up her vintage kinara—inherited from her aunt, the ’60s cultural nationalist—and settled in for a long winter of solitude.

Yet hardly a week had gone by before the calls started coming. Her Christmas-Kwanzaa tree, stripped of its black and gold ornaments, was still on the sidewalk waiting for the garbage pickup. How about a Brazilian caperina party, or a black ball where everyone could come dressed as their favorite black historical figure? (If you were melanin-deprived, you could come as Carl Van Vechten or Jack Johnson’s wife. We can fit you in, no problem.) Monifa resisted the urge to say, as her six-year-old cousin had the nerve to hurl at her recently, “Speak to the hand.”

Suddenly a force larger than Monifa took over. She felt herself drawn inexplicably to the first-edition copy of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking she kept on display in her country kitchen. After all, the King holiday was coming up. Perhaps something to honor King would be nice, especially in this the age of civil rights retrenchments.

Familiar smells came from the kitchen. Garlic and ginger marinade for the wings. Smoked turkey frying up for the collards. Her husband looked up from his copy of Quarterly Black Review of Books and shook his head. Before he could talk some sense into her, Monifa had left the building….She was last spotted in the Blackberry section of Macy’s eyeing the cowrie-shell napkin rings and mumbling to herself, “You can never have too many of these.”