Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

No Time Like The Present

July 25, 2009

Ayana Hampton
Photo: Blackantphotography

The doldrums of July in Los Angeles can be a difficult time for fans of live performance. Luckily it’s REDCAT to the rescue with the latest installment of the New Original Works Festival which annually welcomes a variety of local performers to display their wares over a period of several weeks in the modern black box theater at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This weekend featured the first of three programs and while neither the festival nor the individual programs are in any way a competition, hands down the “winner” of the evening was Ayana Hampton. A CalArts grad with a variety of web-based and small independent credits to her name, Hampton appears as the star and raison d’etre for The Ayana Hampton Show, a hilarious 40 minute blitzkrieg of commentary on race, sex, fame, and politics in the form of an ersatz variety show. It’s a big production with a back-up band, The Morning After, and a trio of dancer/singer/drag artists, The Lustrous Blackup Dancers. Hampton goes for the throat with abandon in a maniacal series of characters from a stoner mom, to a frustrated young actress, to Michelle Obama. There are several rock songs mixed in here, all with over-the-top funny, vulgar, and blisteringly smart commentary about being the odd one out in a culture that uses that oddity as a primary source for fetish. Much of the material in the performance has been developed in smaller formats and then restructured for the evening, which can be found recorded on Ms. Hampton’s website. Now arguably, these funny bits may not add up to the most polished or cohesive whole. However, the sheer amount of guts and energy clearly demonstrate a great big and very smart talent making The Ayana Hampton Show a calling card not to be ignored.

There were two other performances on this weekend’s bill. First was a multimedia work entitled [ab][ac][us] from a collective of performers and video artists who go by the name of Early Morning Opera. The piece featured a single character, Paul Abacus played by Sonny Valicenti, and a dancer/camerman, Garrett Wolf. Behind the performers were a series of five screens hung in a single sloped column approaching the floor. Abacus launches into a long modernist monologue about the dropping of borders in a new world order as if he’s some slightly out-of-whack motivational speaker. Writer and director Lars Jan derives the elements of Paul's diatribe from a variety of 20th-century figures ranging from the likes of Edward Tufte and Joel Osteen to Carl Sagan, Benedict Anderson, and Buckminster Fuller. Meanwhile images, maps, and video feed of Abacus’ own performance are projected on the screens above. It was an attractive experiment, but one that didn’t seem to be quite as edgy or maddening as one might expect from its content. Kind of like Network without the shouting. It seemed to function more like a review of a graduate degree screening exam reading list than a performance piece. But it was billed as a work-in-progress, so later versions may have more to say.

Sandwiched between these efforts was a short dance and performance excerpt from Sheetal Gandhi entitled Bahu-Beti-Biwi or Daughter-in-Law, Daughter, Wife. Gandhi borrows traditional folk music and dance elements to construct an exthibit of the trials and perspectives of several South Asian women who may or may not be related. They range from an elderly grandmother to a child begging her mother to access elements of a more Westernized culture she idolizes. While there is a lot of bird mimicking movement and the slow rain of white feathers from above, Gandhi mixed things up with some short character monologues fleshing out these characters. And while I like the character studies a lot, the excerpt was just that, as if a much bigger picture was only being peeked at in one brief moment. But the overall night was a good start for the festival that will continue over the next two weeks and will feature a number of interesting works including new material from comic and actor Lauren Weedman in the first weekend of August. So there may be a cure for the summertime blues after all.

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