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Beyoncé and Jay-Z Work It Out in the Louvre

Pop music has long cherished collisions with the visual arts. Andy Warhol’s peelable banana cover for the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut disk and his zipper motif for the Rolling Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers album both wittily played with the horndog ethos of rock ’n’ roll. In 1976, five years before the debut of MTV (and almost seven years before Michael Jackson became the first African American artist featured on the channel), David Bowie turned to a surrealist classic in lieu of a warm-up band for his Station to Station tour. Thin White Duke fans, eager for the rapturous feedback of the album’s title track to wash over them, were nonplussed when the 1929 black-and-white film Un Chien Andalou began to play. Doubtless many were only dimly aware of Salvador Dalí as a comic stereotype of the mad artist, and even fewer knew of Luis Buñuel’s artistic provocations. But when the film’s infamous eye-slashing scene lit up the various arenas on the tour schedule, groans, screams, and knowing cheers from art students in the audience mixed with the pot smoke.

In their new video, “Apeshit,” Beyoncé and Jay-Z shock in more subtle ways, not least by pulling off the shoot of their dynamic and complex music video at Paris’s Louvre Museum in total secrecy. The video opens on a young man in dreads, sneakers, and ripped jeans wearing angel wings; sirens wail in the distance and bells toll forlornly, an elegiac soundscape in a city that has seen too much terror in recent years.

But the Louvre is one of civilization’s bastions against the world’s latest wave of nihilism, and music’s supreme power couple make the most of it. Dancers do crunches on a broad staircase, and when they later gyrate in formation in front of Jacques-Louis David’s immense 1807 canvas commemorating the coronation of Napoleon, their abs are as prominent as those on the Greco-Roman statues. Throughout the video, the flesh of the performers echoes the realistic figurative representations, whether in paint or stone. The emperor himself said of David’s 20-foot-high, 32-foot-long painting, “What relief, what truthfulness! This is not a painting; one walks in this picture.”

Of course Napoleon hadn’t imagined anyone dancing into it. And, as with almost the entire canon of Western art, the assembly on David’s canvas is all white. In contrast to the song’s lyrics — “Have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?” — this is a staid bunch, in their regal and clerical robes, lit as if by a passing sunray. Throughout “Apeshit,” the choreographed moves of black performers are entwined with the eternal poses of the white figures, the two now preserved in an art form unknown to the classical masters.

Graceful arabesques for a missing head

And while Palo Veronese’s monumental The Wedding Feast of Cana (1563) depicts Christ’s miracle of converting water into wine, it also celebrates conspicuous consumption on a level any successful rapper could savor. Bey amps the mood with her blistering rap:

“Poppin’, I’m poppin’/My bitches are poppin’/We go to the dealer and cop it all/Sippin’ my favorite alcohol/Got me so lit I need Tylenol/All of my people I free ’em all.” The wealthy partied hard back in the day — Veronese transported the biblical scene from Galilee to palatial digs in Venice. So perhaps Beyoncé’s last line references the few dark-skinned figures serving food and drink at the lavish banquet, even as her flowing finery marks her as an equal with the sumptuously garbed swells in the painting.

There is precedent for this mix. The great African American painter Kerry James Marshall once wrote me in an email, “There is such scant representation of the Black body in the historical record, that I believe I have a duty to advance its presence using every means at my disposal.” Marshall has achieved this goal through compositions that thrum with a pictorial force grounded in classical figurative traditions, even as they push space into new realms of abstraction. And Kanye West took a fascinating leap into the baroque era when he donned a hoodie adorned with Caravaggio’s Deposition for his performance at the “121212” concert, re-creating on stage the chiaroscuro illumination that gave that hard-living master’s compositions such dramatic presence.  

David’s “Intervention of the Sabine Women” as showcased in “Apeshit”

Sonic rumbles drift through “Apeshit,” as if the music were being played in some far-off hall (one scene was shot in the Louvre’s basement), a bit of melancholy that chimes with most listeners’ knowledge of the marital problems the couple has experienced. (Their new album, Everything Is Love, has been released under the joint moniker the Carters, and completes a trilogy about their down-and-up relationship that began with Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade and has continued with last year’s 4:44 from Jay-Z.) Now, when Bey lip-synchs to Jay’s voice — “Have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?” — the high-living couple seem again to be joined as one in the spotlight.

This notion of resurfacing stronger is driven home in a number of ways. For instance, the artist who sculpted Winged Victory of Samothrace more than 2,000 years ago never expected it to be displayed without a head — as it has been since its discovery on a Greek isle, in 1863 — yet the statue now stands as a beautiful survivor of whatever troubles once buried her in the earth. Director Ricky Saiz calls back to the winged young man in the video’s opening scene while giving the ancient figure new life through the line of dancers’ heads that weave before it in graceful arabesques.

The video cuts a number of times to David’s 1799 Intervention of the Sabine Women, another tale of fraught relationships. The painting’s narrative is set after the Romans’ abduction of the women of the neighboring Sabine tribe. Time has passed, and Hersilia, the daughter of the Sabine leader, is married to the Roman leader Romulus. Hersilia is the painting’s central figure, voluptuous and regal in clinging white dress, her arms outstretched as she interposes her own body and that of her children between the two men in her life in order to convince them not to kill each other. The canvas had a personal dimension for the artist — he painted it partly in an effort to reconcile with his estranged wife, who disagreed with his vote to guillotine the king during the Revolution, and also as a symbol encouraging the French people to heal that conflict’s bloody wounds on the body politic. More drama, no doubt, than even rap’s most prominent power marriage can boast, but like the artists who have made the cut at the Louvre, Bey and Jay haven’t gotten where they are by thinking small.

So when Jay-Z raps about being dissed by the Grammys last year — eight nominations/zero wins — as he stands in front of Géricault’s gargantuan Raft of the Medusa, knowledgeable viewers might flash on a sense of disproportion. (And Pogues fans will recognize the canvas from the cover of that band’s 1985 Rum Sodomy & the Lash album.) Géricault’s 1819 painting portrays the grisly tale of a French vessel running aground, with the ship’s officers, connected politicians, and upper-class travelers escaping in lifeboats while the crew and poorer passengers were cast adrift on a makeshift raft. Murder, mayhem, and cannibalism ensued, making for a political scandal upon which Géricault heaped more controversy by placing a black man as the hero signaling the rescue ship, which also signaled the artist’s abolitionist sympathies, as France wavered on ending slavery. We are in different times, but by pulling us into this painting (and including a cut to a kneeling statue), Jay is reminding us of the blatant racism of slavery then, and of the NFL’s collusion against players who act on their conscience today. “I said no to the Super Bowl: You need me,” he raps, “I don’t need you/Every night we in the end zone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” History, the video tells us, is always present.

Jay-Z: Oh-for-8 at the Grammys. But he’s still starring at the Louvre.

Back in the winter of 1992–’93, I was at the Museum of Modern Art getting passes for the big Henri Matisse retrospective. The joint was jumping, with crowds surging through the lobby and — a bit north of their usual haunts — large men with serious bling roaming the sidewalk and calling out, “Matisse tickets. Who needs tickets? Who’s got tickets to sell?” When I finally made it to the head of the line, an elderly gent in a suit was stammering to the young man at the information desk, “Do you know what’s happening? It’s an outrage…there…there are people out front scalping tickets! This is an art museum.” The MOMA rep and I looked at each other incredulously, and I said, “You’ve never been to a Knicks game?” (Those were the days when you could actually turn a profit on Knicks tix.)

Henri no doubt would have appreciated it. After all, what artist wouldn’t love a crowd going apeshit over his or her — or their — art.

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500 Years of Drawing at the Met Reveals Roots of Modernism

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) was literally a Renaissance Man. Born in Arezzo, Italy, he was a successful painter and architect who bequeathed to history a tome that laid much of the groundwork for what we consider art-history writing today: Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari also displayed a keen appreciation for drawing, an art form that sparkles with the speed of execution and rough beauty we now associate with modernity.

In the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection,” wall labels describe drawings from the medieval era created on sheets of animal skins “bound together into model books that functioned as archives of copied designs.” These volumes might contain renderings of various kinds of flora or fauna or architecture, which apprentices in a master’s workshop would copy into other works. As art historian Francis Ames-Lewis has written, “Certain figure types, studies of heads, and even landscape motifs recur in a range of paintings in the workshops of both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, [which suggests] transmission of motifs through copy-drawing.” But as paper, a support more easily prepared than animal hides, became available in the mid-1400s, drawing got more improvisatory, a way for the eye, mind, and hand of the artist to explore variations of composition, volume, and narrative. Artists’ personal sketchbooks became more individualistic as they gained the means to execute landscapes on the spot or make quick, multiple studies of live models. Vasari summed up the medium’s importance to the expansion of naturalism and humanism that characterized the Renaissance revolution in the visual arts: “Drawing is the necessary beginning of everything, and not having it, one has nothing.”

“Self-portrait, Study of a Hand and a Pillow” by Albrecht Dürer, ca. 1493

In Taddeo Zuccaro’s 1557–58 pen and ink-wash drawing The Martyrdom of Saint Paul, quickly brushed-in shadows heighten the drama of the apostle’s beheading. The composition, a study for a ceiling fresco in a Roman church, had to be resolved in advance, as the artist could not retract his moves once they were solidified in paint and plaster. The drawing is filled with lithe movement and street-level grit—stomachs hang over the belts of slouching Roman legionaries—which becomes more rigid and illustrative in the final painting, palpable atmosphere sacrificed for didactic narrative.

Many of the drawings exhibited here are credited simply as “circle of” or “follower of” master artists of the day, examples of the necessary, years-long apprenticeships taken by highly accomplished artists whose names are lost to history. A depiction of Christ being flagellated evinces the influence of Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato technique on an unknown Northern Italian artist; through delicate shading, soft blending of tones, and fine modeling, artists were attempting to capture the three-dimensionality they perceived in the real world, that indefinable join of flesh with the surrounding air. Paper was still such a valuable commodity in the late 1400s that even an artist as successful as Leonardo sometimes reused a sheet. In his Study of a Bear Walking, Sketch of a Forepaw, we can see the virtuoso working out the anatomy of his subject (perhaps after dissecting the animal) atop a faint earlier drawing of a seated woman. Such palimpsests reveal Leonardo’s restless search for aesthetic innovation—how exactly does a shadow curve around the volume of a figure or object?—and his scientific investigation into flying machines and human anatomy. Although he was not a prolific painter, Leonardo created thousands of exquisitely detailed and visionary drawings, which resonated with artists in his own time as well as such modern provocateurs as Ralph Steadman. While most famous for his ink-splattered collaborations with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Steadman devoted an entire 1983 book to Leonardo’s genius.

“Head of a Bearded Man Wearing a Turban” by the Master of the Death of Absalom, ca. 1510

In the Met show, Renaissance imagery from north of the Alps gets a bit wiggy. A drawing from the Circle of Rogier van der Weyden, rendered on a curved arc of paper, depicts men pushing chairs around with shovels, a study for a sculpture that played, according to the wall label, on a Dutch pun for a chairlike contraption used to punish felons. Head of a Bearded Man Wearing a Turban (circa 1510) is notable for its heavy, weathered features and stylized curls portrayed on gray-toned paper, on which shadows are deepened with ink and highlights delineated with white gouache, and for the artist’s posthumous moniker, “Master of the Death of Absolom.”

More than a hundred years later we get Rembrandt’s fast and furious red-chalk sketch after Leonardo’s mural The Last Supper. In the Dutchman’s study (1634–35), the apostles are depicted through swift, angular contours, rearing back in shock or turning on one another as Jesus announces the betrayal that will soon befall him. Detail is sacrificed to mood as quick outlines search for a dramatic angle to Christ’s head—ghostly locks of hair appear behind a more emphatically resolved countenance wearing a headdress—while fluttering hands punctuating the horizontal composition convincingly express concern and agitation. Rembrandt, who never traveled abroad, worked from a Milanese artist’s engraving of Leonardo’s painting. This formal translation allowed Rembrandt’s imagination license to rework the scene. In the lower right corner, Rembrandt includes a wriggling dog not found in Leonardo’s original, as well as a large canopy over the central figures replacing Leonardo’s more austere and classical interior. Rembrandt also added an emphatic signature, which some scholars speculate may have been an attempt to prevent his own sketch from being confused with one by the earlier master. Or perhaps he was simply proud of a strong composition that had come into its own as a psychologically dynamic portrayal of one of Christianity’s most dramatic events.

“Foal (Le Poulain)” by Georges Seurat, 1882–83

It is in Rembrandt’s nonchalance about finish that one sees a reflection of the aesthetic of our own age. This is evident in Georges Seurat’s 1882–83 Conté crayon drawing of a foal, in which nothing is clearly defined but the ambience is understood. The animal’s dark form is framed by shadowy tree trunks, its bushy tail, angled rear legs, and long raised neck implying youthful energy and motion, as if considering one last romp before twilight descends. Where Leonardo took an almost scientific interest in delineating his bear, Seurat is satisfied to scribble out glimpses of experienced life almost as swift as the shutter of a camera, his gradated atmospherics as evocative as any blurred photograph.

Similarly, in his 1895 Street Scene in Paris, the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton conveys the hurly-burly of a modern metropolis with figures scurrying to the edges of the frame as a woman in a broad hat seems about to ram her garment box directly into the viewer. Purple, red, and blue gouache provides colorful accents to long black dresses pulled into sharp angles by the wind. Here, as the 20th century dawns, ideas of pattern and abstract form trump naturalism. The nude woman in Henri Matisse’s 1923 charcoal drawing is a naturalistic depiction of fleshy equipoise but also, through a mirror reflection, a witty conceptual conflation of the physical world as seen in both three and two dimensions.

“Street Scene in Paris (Coin de rue à Paris)” by Félix Vallotton, 1895

In some ways this exhibition can be seen as a curtain raiser to the Met’s show of more than 130 Michelangelo drawings, which opens in two weeks. But the earliest studies in the current exhibition were executed around 1420, a half-century before Michelangelo was even born. The fascination here is that such fragile entities—sheets of paper traced over with lines—have survived half a millennium, and that this ephemeral medium continues to trigger artistic revolution, over and over again.

Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
metmuseum.org
212-535-7710
Through January 7

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This Is Not a Ball Is an Unfocused History of the Soccer Ball

An unfocused nonfiction mishmash, This Is Not a Ball hastily investigates the history, appeal, and symbolic power of the soccer ball — and, more generally, the ball as an instrument of play — while also functioning as a promo piece for co-director Vik Muniz’s art installation in Rio de Janeiro’s Azteca Stadium.

That project, in which 10,000 soccer balls are arranged to form a giant soccer-ball design modeled after a Leonardo da Vinci illustration, is given an inordinate amount of attention by the filmmakers, who don’t seem to realize that the completion of the work (and the logistical hurdles that must be overcome) is dreadfully dull.

Unfortunately, the rest of the material proves no more compelling. Muniz hops from one locale and interview subject to another (including Cosmos‘s Neil deGrasse Tyson) to discuss topics — the “perfection” of the spherical shape, the role soccer plays in building communities and helping people transcend adversity — that the film handles with utmost glibness.

Glossy, superficial, and rife with scattershot tangents (Myanmar games of chinlone! Chinese spheres molded out of soil!) that make cursory arguments about balls’ socio-religious value, This Is Not a Ball is like a bad undergrad term paper — all highfalutin thesis, little coherent evidence.

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Film

The latest archival assemblage by Milan-based filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi is the final panel in their World War I triptych. Where Prisoners of War (1995) and On the Heights All Is Peace (1998) dealt with the massacre of civilian populations, Oh, Uomo is more viscerally horrifying: The focus is largely on the effects of modern warfare on the human body. The movie’s title is taken from Leonardo da Vinci and so is its premise, namely that images of suffering will promote empathy. “The Face of War,” the most notorious section of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 photography collection War Against War!, documented the hideously blasted, melted, shattered features of World War I’s wounded survivors. A similar gallery of destroyed and reconstructed faces is at the heart of Oh, Uomo.

Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi typically treat each scrap of unearthed footage as though it were a holy relic. The original film is step-printed and slowed down to reveal fleeting expressions and gestures, as well as to emphasize the material nature of the scratched, blotchy, fragile celluloid stuff itself. The preciousness of the preserved footage is underscored by color tinting. But no matter how beautiful the ruddy gold or electric chartreuse, the effect is not exactly distancing. There’s also an intermittent soundtrack, but the movie is almost always a stronger, more awe-inspiring experience without the presence of an editorializing musical counter-irritant.

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Atrocity Exhibition

“The appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked,” Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. The success of The Passion of the Christ notwithstanding, that sounds a bit hyperbolic—still, if Sontag is correct, there should be a line around the block at Anthology Film Archives this week for Oh! Uomo (Oh! Man).

The latest archival assemblage by Milan-based filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Oh! Uomo is the final panel in their World War I triptych. The previous films dealt with the massacre of civilian populations, but Oh! Uomo is more viscerally horrifying, focusing largely on the effects of modern warfare on the human body. The movie’s title is taken from Leonardo da Vinci and so is its premise, namely that images of suffering will promote empathy. Da Vincian too is the scientific interest in human anatomy.

War has no rationale here. Oh! Uomo naturalizes carnage in its first shot with graceful biplanes wheeling through a bird-filled sky. (Even before World War I broke out, Italy had used this new invention—another da Vinci idea—as the means to bomb the restive natives of their colony Libya.) The arrival of a military band cues music: Ghosts already, soldiers on horseback are shown riding out of the stables toward the battlefield, while priests make an offering. The officers, shown in negative, include Mussolini (perhaps a flash-forward). Then shells explode and the earth is consumed in the conflagration. So much for combat.

Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi have been making archival films for nearly 20 years—the encyclopedic actualité compilation From the Pole to the Equator remains their most widely seen work, but their style has been widely imitated. The couple treats each scrap of unearthed footage as though it were a holy relic. The original film is step-printed and slowed down to reveal fleeting expressions and gestures, as well as to emphasize the material nature of the scratched, blotchy, fragile celluloid stuff itself. The preciousness of the preserved footage is underscored by color tinting. But no matter how beautiful the ruddy gold or electric chartreuse, the effect is not exactly distancing.

“The gruesome invites us to be spectators or cowards, unable to look,” Sontag notes in apparent self-contradiction. So it is with Oh! Uomo, once pain arrives in the form of maimed children and starving war orphans. Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel the need to up the sensory ante. The choral keening that accompanies the image of one bedridden girl escalates into a rhythmic mock wailing that grows increasingly abusive with footage of a dead child atop a mountain of corpses. (The filmmakers have made this mistake before—accompanying People, Years, Life, their account of the 1915 Armenian massacres, with a discordantly cloying requiem.) Sound is intermittent throughout Oh! Uomo, but the movie is almost always a stronger, more awe-inspiring experience without the presence of an editorializing musical counter-irritant.

The underlying question, of course, is, will these sights turn people against war? The Bush administration must think so—at least to judge from its news management style, blocking images of American casualties, let alone those of civilians or enemies. “The Face of War,” the most notorious section of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 photography collection War Against War!, documented the hideously blasted, melted, shattered features of World War I’s wounded survivors. (These “broken mugs,” as the French called them, also appeared in Abel Gance’s 1938 anti-war feature J’accuse.) A similar gallery of destroyed and reconstructed faces is at the heart of Oh! Uomo: Eyes are surgically removed, ears repaired, jaws refastened.

The filmmakers end their terrifying exposé on a strangely positive note with the production of heroic cyborgs. The wounded learn how to screw on their new hands or fit into prosthetic legs. Many are cheerful; they smile as they model their afflictions. Humanity has successfully turned itself into an object.

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Show World

“Moti Mentali,” the title for the savvy show of photographs of children and adolescents at the Marvelli Gallery (526 West 26th Street, through November 15), comes from Leonardo da Vinci. Though its literal translation from the Italian—”the motions of the mind”—is rather clumsy, it does suggest da Vinci’s use of the phrase to describe portraits that allow us some insight into the sitter’s state of mind. Even if that insight is fleeting and mostly imaginary, the photographs Marvelli has chosen to evoke it are provocative, and the conversation he sets up among them is especially compelling.

The exhibition was apparently inspired by the obvious affinity between the work of several contemporary female photographers—Hellen van Meene, Rieneke Dijkstra, and Ingar Krauss—and their Victorian forebears Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll. But Marvelli’s sensitive juxtaposition of the work renders this intricate web of attraction and influence anything but routine. Several of Cameron’s dark-eyed maidens appear to have been reincarnated in Krauss’s and van Meene’s young girls and one strikingly androgynous boy. Every flash of impudence, inwardness, and soulfulness finds its reflection within the room. Whether they were photographed in 1869 or earlier this year, all these subjects share a gravity and grace so lovely their impression is hard to shake.

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Divine Powers

For centuries Leonardo da Vinci’s work has provided divine inspiration for artists and thinkers. Finally it has found its way to the stage. Mary Zimmerman’s production (originally created in 1993) draws on Leonardo’s semi-scientific jottings, made between 1475 and 1519. Reflecting the mind of the original Renaissance man, the notebooks contain musings on painting, light, the human figure, the grace of birds, elementary physics, and even love. Leonardo records measurements, tells anecdotes about neighborhood children. He praises various features of the earth and species in a clinical voice sometimes given to spiritual tendencies. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci isn’t so much a play as a recitation with stage pictures; in unison or as soliloquy, cast members take turns speaking as Leonardo, while others demonstrate principles or act out scenarios inspired by the subject matter.

The trouble is that, divinely inspired or not, The Notebooks is a work of directorial pastiche with frustrating immobility. “This is a collection out of order,” someone announces in the first scene, adding, “The subjects of the world are many.” That pronouncement is typical of the adaptation’s ventriloquism. Zimmerman makes Leonardo speak for her frequently, and his authentically individual voice never quite comes through. Whatever expressive potential the notebooks might have is undercut by the staging’s relentless cuteness and gimmickry. Outfitted in vaguely period vests and frocks, ensemble members perch and swing on jungle-gym bars overhead, pulling open drawers from side walls to reveal water troughs and staircases. They sit on the floor and draw, test out flying contraptions, flirt, and dance. Such playfulness, however, always hews to Zimmerman’s literalism. When the notebooks catalog the distances between body parts, out comes the tape measure as a man extends his arms. When the text contemplates how the body shifts weight “from support to support,” a couple demonstrates with gymnastic holds. When Leonardo lists 18 positions the human figure can assume—”to run,” “to stand upright,” etc. —everyone plays Twister. For a passage on the beauty of flight, a woman appears on the window ledge as a falcon and flaps her arms. The piece mostly rests on these glib illustrations, though some sequences gesture more metaphorically to universal mysteries, with ambient music and images of flight or desire.

What’s surprising about the production is how little biography or poetic resonance comes from the text, which the company tends to recite with the nuance of a server running through dinner specials. Zimmerman doesn’t ask her audience to think much, or even to listen or watch with particular care, only to admire the performers for speaking directly to us and telling us that humanism is about the wonder of it all. “Everything comes from everything,” intones one Leonardo at the conclusion—an idea that might have framed the production had it been embedded in the staging rather than announced.


Fresher forms are incubating in the laboratories of the “New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival.” Hip-hop and drama share more than you might suppose. Both proceed—or purport to—from a need to speak out, to make stories public. Both require a certain electricity in the transmission, regardless of their ultimate message or meaning. Flow, a solo monologue written and performed by Will Power (for the festival and New York Theatre Workshop), makes the genres’ affinity apparent. The charismatic young actor-MC performs seven segments, inhabiting and commenting on personae from a mythic urban neighborhood: Ole’ Cheesy, a street- corner raconteur; a teacher in the projects; a dreadlocked preacher; a dance instructor; and others. Each is a storyteller in some way, and each fits as a different piece of a fantastical social mosaic.

Power has a striking presence, glowing and wiry, with cornrows pulled neatly back. He darts around the stage, dancing and gliding in and out of the characters he celebrates in rhyme and song. DJ Reborn punctuates and underscores throughout, mixing and scratching live from her station at the set’s fire-escape window, and looking on approvingly as Power holds forth in the streetscape below. His monologue—directed by festival founder Danny Hoch—points to hip-hop’s progressive side: no gangsta misogyny or homophobia here. Several of his people counsel on the virtues of health food, and another admonishes a bus driver to accept difference (“Didn’t your ancestors die so that you could be equal?”). Power creates his strongest moments when carving out incisive caricatures—as when he imagines a busload of church deacons turned vigilante, or when he sends up a young “freestyle queen” happily oblivious to the world outside her personal rhythm.

Flow testifies more to Power’s stage charisma than to his depth as a dramatist, leaving you more taken with the teller than the tale. Though the segments are framed with riffs on the number seven, they are mainly held together by his positive state of mind, an irrepressible performance infusing griot-style narrative with a freshly energized beat. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Power affirms, “Use the stories that you know and just flow.”

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Room in Housing Works

Location East New York

Rent $600/mo. (sliding scale)

Square feet 350

Occupant Nathan Mosley (businessperson)

What is this painting of a cabin in the woods? The windows have yellow light, the way a house looks on a summer night, just before it gets dark. That was my grandmother’s house in Warrington, North Carolina. I spent every summer there. I painted it from my head. I have a great art therapist. She says, You don’t have to be Leonardo da Vinci. That painting with the bouquet of flowers, I made it for Shante. She’s my girlfriend. She lives down the hall. Six of the 32 residents here are women.

You’ve lived at the Housing Works center for homeless people with AIDS/HIV for two years. You were a drug user for 27 out of the last 30 years, homeless for 10, living in boxes, the A train. And now you’re in this bright room with a stuffed rabbit that says “Be Happy,” crocheted curtains, perky green plants, and an angel in a white satin dress hanging from the lightbulb string. This 1997 beige brick building is so clean. It must be the most hygienic place in New York—creamy pale yellow walls, big television sets, weight room, dining area where we just saw the music teacher eating a sandwich. The first Housing Works opened in the East Village. How did you get here? April 8, 1999—I’d just had my last pint of wine, same clothes on for months. I was sick every day—praying God would end my life. I checked in to the Mid Brooklyn Sober Up Station. I’d been in and out for years. They referred me here. At first, it was more comfortable to sleep on the floor, in sneakers. When you live in a box, you have to get out quickly. My family moved from North Carolina to Brownsville when I was seven, 1961, then Bushwick. My friends and I were drinking wine, smoking pot. My father was a cook; my mother worked in a factory sewing vacuum cleaner bags. At 14, I got introduced to heroin. My parents had me arrested, put me in a Rockefeller program. I got out, overdosed, then acid, marijuana, alcohol. I met my kids’ mother in ’73. In between having kids—we have four—I started smoking crack. We lost our apartment. Three kids live in Red Hook now with their mother. I see them twice a month.

If your parents had stayed in the South, would you have gone in the direction you did? Yes. My nephews down there went that way also. The ’70s—that’s what was going on: peace, love, acid, ‘ludes, black beauties. I’m definitely a product of the era.

What’s your daily schedule? I take 24 pills a day. When I first got here, my T-cell count was 164; my viral load was 68,000. Now my T-cell is 514, viral load undetectable. My custom-made medicine is working. I found out I was HIV-positive in ’93. I was in rehab. They were paying people to take the test. Usually I get up at 7:30, see what’s for breakfast. Sometimes it’s too loud down there. Me, I stay out of the negativity. Not everyone here is drug free, but me and Shante are. I go to nine groups a week—nutritional, substance abuse. I used to make 22. Now I do a lot of stuff on the outside. I sell porcelain dolls, colognes, and perfumes. I got my little shopping cart. I’m trying to get a vendor’s license. For now, I’m like a specialty person—Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day.

Can you stay here forever? Until I go to that big Housing Works in the sky. Or I consider myself able to work. They don’t rush you out. I’m anxious to let go. I want to live in Brooklyn.

With Shante? She mentioned it’s kind of close quarters here. We’ll live separately, but in Brooklyn. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Shante’s barbecuing on the patio right now. She likes to cook. She’s from Brownsville. When she came here, I saw her and I fell in love right away. I let her know. I said, I got eyes for you. We go out a lot, movies, Central Park. We eat in the Village. I love gyros. Sometimes we go and bring sandwiches back here. I put on a little candle. Put on my Luther. Turn down the lights.