Category Archives: Culture

Artist Spotlight: South Seattle Songstress Shontina Vernon

Shontina Vernon
Shontina Vernon

Interview conducted by Marcus Harrison Green

In love is an easy state to tumble into with Shontina Vernon’s music. Perhaps it’s because you can’t quite figure out what genre along the musical spectrum lays claim to her inimitable sound. Folk? Rock? Jazz? Blues? Soul? All season the flavoring of her melodious entree. Or, it could be that her lyrics, layered with so much meaning, provide a sharp counter to those currently being spewed from our radios – which seem to be directly rehashed from the dialogue of Green, Eggs, and Ham. Or, it might just be because her songbook spans such a wide range of human experience that it becomes nigh impossible for your ears to be infected by one of her tunes without it causing you to harken back to a pivotal moment in your own life – whether love squandered, hopes realized, or dreams stalled. In any case, Vernon’s music, similar to the emotion it inspires, simply put, is just really damn good.

The Texas native and University of Washington educated playwright/singer-songwriter, returned to the city last year, making South Seattle her home. And though she travels back and forth to the East Coast and internationally, our novel area has served to reignite her creative embers, while providing her a much needed site of repose between projects. We were able to stop replaying her last album just long enough to catch up with Shontina in person, to discuss her own love for music, her upcoming projects, and life in South Seattle.

 

Emerald: Common wisdom suggests that you have to leave Seattle, especially the southern end of it, and go somewhere else in order to achieve success in most artistic endeavors. You’ve lived in pretty much every major city in the United States, what is it that continually  brings you back  to South Seattle?

Shontina Vernon: It’s a combination of things, but mainly timing. I’ve lived in Atlanta. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York, but Seattle is unique to me. It has a quaint small town vibe, yet feels like a great place to incubate new ideas. The pace here suits my life at the moment. I travel a lot, and re-entry here is always so easy. And the natural beauty could reawaken even the most dormant imagination. Being an alum of UW has also meant that I have access to a really solid artistic community. Seattle’s the kind of place where on one hand, I wish more people knew about it- and there were more people of color- but then again, I don’t always want to share it. Blame the introvert in me.

 

Emerald: The lyrics of your songs have so much depth and meaning behind them. They’re a welcome contrast to many that are currently produced by the music industry. How are you able to create songs that resonate so powerfully with the listener?

Shontina: I try to be a really good listener myself, to what my experiences at any given moment are trying to show/teach me. I had a very rich life growing up in Texas, so I pull from there a lot. I’m adopted, but my mother was born in 1917 and my father was born somewhere around 1893, so I had very old parents who were rooted in a time that is so not now. They were very much country people, very simple salt of the earth people. I think that the way that they lived their lives seeped into me, along with the way that I hear and experience music, so some of that root sound, blues sound in my music, comes from them. I’m also a theater artist,  so I use what I know about playwriting/acting to help me get into different perspectives in terms of writing a song. It allows me to step into a character so to speak and write from that place. There’s so many ways to write music, and I employ them all, at least I try to.

 

Emerald: Would you say singer/songwriter is your primary occupation? You do so many other things.

Shontina: I would say my primary occupation is that I’m a storyteller. That is the one thing that is fundamental to all of the disciplines in which I work.  As an artist, I have the unique vantage point of being aware of all the different stories for which I am the intersection, or the culminating event. Stories ask to be told in different ways, so I try to honor that and tell them with whatever form best suits the telling.

 

Emerald: Is it even possible to describe your creative process when working on musical project?

Shontina: No (laugher). It’s not. Because it’s so different depending on the thing I’m making.

 

Emerald: Okay, let’s isolate one of your works. The song Dreamer, which I think is absolutely amazing, how did you go about writing it?

Shontina: I don’t even remember writing the song (laughter). What I remember is where I was when I wrote it. That time in my life, who I was with, the conversations we were having. The conversations that I was having with myself. How I wrote it?  I don’t really know. I just know what inspired it. I also seem to remember that the melody and the words came together. As of late, I’ve been experimenting with music and sounds, producing more tracks and allowing the lyrics to come as they come. My last song I released, “Snake Oil Man” was like that.

 

Emerald: So for you is art akin to that Ernest Hemingway quote that, “In order to write anything you have to live life first?” Essentially life itself is the muse for an artist?

Shontina: Yes, because life is everything, right? Everyone that shows up, every place that you live, every place that you visit, that is all fodder for what you write. But, how you will write about those things is always a surprise. You never know. I forget who the writer is, but there’s this quote about writing being as much of a process of discovering one’s self in what you write, because sometimes things about you are revealed to you right on paper that you weren’t quite consciously aware of, so there’s this relationship between you and the work all the time.

Music to me tends to reveal more about how I feel. I mean, I feel pretty intelligent in terms of what I’m thinking at any given moment. I do feel smart, but when I work in music, it all of a sudden becomes clear to me about how I felt about a situation rather than what I thought about a situation. Feelings are harder to get at.

 

Emerald: As an artist, how do you define a successful career? For some it’s monetary reward, for others it’s acclaim for what they do. What is it for you?

Shontina: For me it’s, “Does it feel good and am I happy doing it?” And I don’t mean that superficially either. If I’m making art, but unable to sustain a life for myself, then it doesn’t feel good. And it makes me worry for the kind of art I’m making from that place. It isn’t successful. Now, if I’m making tons of money, but my creative life is languishing and there is no art. Same. There is no joy in that either. It’s not about accolades or lots of money. I think those things are fine. I don’t personally have a judgment about those things, but at the end of the day, you still rest with you, and those just aren’t the things that I imagine will stand out on my deathbed. It’s got to feel good on all fronts or I’m just not doing it (laughter).

 

Emerald:. Your songs often mix tragedy and humor. Why is that?

Shontina: Life is just like that. And I think you see and understand things more clearly with contrast. Something is sadder if it follows something really, really joyful. It’s more joyful if it follows something really tragic and really sad. So I think that’s the musician in me that says that they have to play together. I’ve now lived long enough to see myself make decisions that I thought were really good, that farther down the line turned out to be bad, and I’ve made some decisions that I thought, “this is really bad,” and farther down the road they turned out to be the best thing, so the truth is that you don’t really know. You just have to include it all in the telling of a good story.

 

Emerald: I know that Joni Mitchell has been a major inspiration for you, but who else has played a role in your artistic development?

Shontina: So many! I’m a huge fan of Junot Diaz as a writer. When I first read his book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it sort of freed my writer’s mind me from some of its constraints.  I think, because he is someone coming to the states from the Dominican Republic, he has an eye that peers into this world, and that world. Again, contrast. There is also Audre Lorde. I was here in Seattle, when I went into a bookstore and found an anthology of her work. Poetic, pointed and raw. I was just like,  “Where has this person been my whole life!” Growing up in Texas there wasn’t a lot I was exposed to. I was dreaming a life for myself with no evidence that it was possible. Neither of my parents had much schooling, so there’s a lot that you’re like, “Well, how do I do this? Can it even be done?'”

Musically, I listen to everything. I’m a huge fan of the old jazz heads – Thelonius, Mingus. Abbey Lincoln was a revelation for me. Her compositions are so beautiful and wise. It’s funny, I love her music, but Joni Mitchell is more of a literary influence for me, because of the way she used words to paint pictures. She was a visual artist that approached music from that mind. Hearing her and Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading, a lot of them reminded me, that, “I’m a musician, and story is my way in.”

 

Emerald: What do you want people to say about you after seeing one of your performances?

Shontina:  I want them to come out with the feeling of not wasting the hour or two, with  the feeling of what’s possible. If their imaginations get stretched at all, if they come out with any questions, that’s good for me.

 

Emerald: So what’s next for you?

Shontina: Several things. I’m working on a collaboration called the Storyband Project, a kind of theatre lab for musicians to experiment with storytelling. I’m also expanding a new theatre piece that I presented here in March at CD Forum’s Creation Project. It’s called NOTE TO SELF: Postcards from Cuba and Beyond, and it takes a look at Black American identity against a global canvas. Of course I can’t wait to record some music. I’ve already started working on material for the next album. And finally, I’m collaborating with a group of writers on a web series being developed through Eclectic Brew Arts. It’s a story that follows a young church, and the evolution of some of its members. And it’s called BATTLE AXE.

 

Emerald: What advice do you have for any burgeoning artist from around this area? Especially for those who keep hitting a bump in the road?
Shontina: The first thing is, don’t kid yourself about what you want or why you want it. I encourage people to really look inside themselves. If you’re pursuing capital A – ART, just to seek validation of your worth outside of yourself,  that’s a dangerous place to begin. Not that some haven’t started there and found their way. But I say that because we have the kind of  culture here in America that really knows how to exploit that individual. The machine is waiting to eat you. But If you’re committed to making art because you know you have something of value to give/to express, then make it. It will find its proper place if you are simply committed to the discipline required to make it. Take care of yourself. Fill your life with good people, take note of the beauty that is around you, and make a point to leave the world better than when you came.

For more information on Shontina, including upcoming shows and events, please visit: http://www.tinavernon.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @tinavmusic

Homegrown Seattle Film Producer Ramon Isao

by Mary Hubert

RamonProducing a film seems like rather a nebulous task. We have the director, who directs, the actors, who act, the designers, who create the world of the piece, and the writer, who writes the thing. But what does a producer do, exactly? He is the forerunner, the organizer, the person who makes the thing happen. And Ramon Isao, an up-and-coming writer/producer in the Seattle film scene, certainly fits that mold.  The energetic, talkative, and charismatic young artist is set to do his third feature this summer, Dead Body, a slasher-meets-mystery flick sporting a cast and crew of young up-and-coming Seattleites and shot in a cabin a few miles out of town.

When I asked Ramon how long he’s been writing, he said, “I’ve always written, even as a kid. I started out with fiction, but 8 years ago, my buddy Kevin asked me to help rewrite a movie called Zombies of Mass Destruction”. A completely new experience for Ramon, he jumped on the chance, and the two were able to produce the feature amidst positive reviews.

Then, along came Junk – a film he described as “A raunchy, evil comedy – the work that I’ve decided my parents never need to see”. In addition to co-producing and co-writing, he co-starred in this one, playing a character that he put as “disturbingly like myself”. Ramon said that learning to act in this type of role changed everything for him as a writer and producer. He exclaimed, “I gained a newfound appreciation for what actors did!”

Fresh from these two successes, he has jumped headlong into co-writing and co-producing – along with co-conspirator Ian Bell – a combination slasher and mystery flick called Dead Body. Seen it a million times? That’s what I thought. When I asked him why this movie was so special, he pointed out the never-done combination of slasher and mystery. Turns out, it’s hard to do – Isao has worked with Ian for months to crack the formula, involving high school kids, a game gone wrong, mystery, death, and campiness all bundled into one delicious little flick. With it, he’s interested in “combining the humor and the absurd with violence”.

Believe it or not, though, the new genre isn’t what Ramon is most excited about. He spent most of his time gushing about the talented group of young Seattleites working on the film. Ramon said he was “dead lucky to score” the cast and crew. As Ramon put it, “Every single one of these people is super talented – I’m mostly just excited to show off to everyone that I landed all of these awesome collaborators!” Almost as exciting for Ramon is that he can do a film in his hometown, with people in his hometown, about an area in his hometown. His goal with this group is to build a community of Seattleites to make art with, project after project.

Upon asking him what a Seattle layperson should do to get involved with Dead Body: He laughed, and said, “Come to us! Email me at dbfilm2014@gmail.com if you want to be a PA throughout August – you’ll get some food and experience, and get to kick it with some kickass artists!” You can also check out their Kickstarter to donate – cool perks include a Halloween party with the cast and free tickets to see the movie at one of the festivals it will be circulating at (Ramon is shooting for horror festivals and SIFF, to name two).

His response to my query of how to get into film in general? Get out there and do it! “It’s easy!” he said, and immediately laughed. “No, I’m lying. It’s fucking hard. But you just have to go do it. Start making things! You gotta make the bad shit to get to the good shit”. So, you heard him, would-be film guys. Start making movies, even if they’re terrible. Get out there with your camera and shoot shit – you never know when you’ll get your break. And stay tuned for more on Dead Body – I expect we’ll be seeing more about it soon.

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.

Review of South Seattle Theater Group’s Modern Spin on Robin Hood

by Mary Hubert

Actors from Anything Is Possible Theatre's Production of Robin Hood
Actors from Anything Is Possible Theatre’s Production of Robin Hood

When I sat down with Ellen Cooper, the Executive Director of the Anything is Possible Theater Company, I was excited. Ellen, who also wrote the company’s current rendition of Robin Hood, was in the middle of telling me just why her company was different from all of the other kids’ theaters out there. Her reasons were compelling ones.

Above all, she talked of how the messages in children’s shows are not deep enough. The Anything is Possible Theater Company, she said, sought to bridge the gap between real-life issues and what is deemed appropriate for children.

To this end, she said, Robin Hood is set in the present, where the Merry Men are homeless youth and the Sheriff is an old rich businessman. By recontextualizing an old classic, they are able to grapple with issues that many children in the low-income areas of South Seattle face, while still providing the draw of a time-honored tale. This would then spark discussion in families about topics like class inequality and homelessness. She described Robin Hood as “A relevant show about people’s lives. It demonstrates an active and positive way to respond to what’s happening through community-building”.

Other things about this company also sparked my interest. Ellen mentioned the pay-what-you-can night and low ticket prices, designed to make the play accessible to a low-income crowd. AIP even gave away 40 tickets to Treehouse, a Seattle organization serving foster children. And in a neighborhood where this happens to be one of the only theaters in existence, let alone one serving children, AIP’s community-mindedness was something I gravitated toward immediately.

So, it was with high hopes and a growing excitement that I sat down to watch “Robin Hood.

The play did do some of what Ellen mentioned. The set was a homeless encampment, complete with a “99%” poster behind a chain link fence and a tent upstage. The costumes furthered this concept – the Merry Men were dressed in mismatching, ripped clothing, and the “bad guys” – the Sheriff of Nottingham, his daughter, and the host of barons and kings – were in business attire. From the offset, the stage was set for an interesting take on Robin Hood.

But then… the characters opened their mouths. And out came a jumble of what sounded like terrible Shakespeare. As I struggled to figure out why on earth the characters were speaking like this, I realized that as an attempted throwback to the traditional Robin Hood dialogue, Ellen had decided to write it in a strange approximation of pseudo-Old English. With that, what could have been an insightful look into why Robin Hood is relevant to our time – especially to the citizens of Rainier Valley – became simply a concept smacked onto a play that didn’t really fit.

Ellen’s idea to set Robin Hood in modern times, highlighting the disparity between classes in a way that would resonate with the community’s large low-income population, is a brilliant concept for a children’s show. Using a time-honored classic like Robin Hood to bring audiences in and then showing them a new way to look at it is all well and good. However, if you are going to do that, then do it. Language sets the time period for any play, so to not alter it made what would have been a brilliant commentary into a disjointed modernization of a dated text.

This was just the first of many examples of a half-realized concept. The stage was very narrow, so many of the scenes were conducted in a line. Though some handled their text and movement with ease, too often the scenes played like a presentation. The myriad of accents only added to the issue – we had Irish, British, American, and some odd combinations of the three, which served to confuse the audience rather than create a cohesive world.

For all of that, the show was enjoyable. Adorable children and talented young adult actors made us all smile as they carried out the telling of Robin Hood’s tale with gusto. Broad-sweeping villains made kids gasp and adults chuckle. The ensemble seemed to connect with each other in a way that was endearing, especially with a multi-generational cast. And despite some flaws and my disappointment that the show didn’t completely live up to my expectations, I found myself enjoying the piece.
The Bottom Line: Ellen has attempted to recontextualize children’s theatre by making it relevant and placing it in an area where kids have limited access to art. Although her show does not entirely succeed, her effort to create change and get the children of South Seattle involved in art is admirable. Go support the Anything is Possible Theater Company.

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company,  the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.

 

South Seattle Theater Company Introduces Robin Hood To The 21st Century

by Staff Writer

 

Robin Hood does  Jay- Z  and Hendrix?  Anything is Possible Theatre’s  upcoming production of the merry archer and his band of cohorts Robin Hood has little in common with  your grandfather’s version of the  classic tale.  The South Seattle theater company has  promised to present the story as you have never seen it before, complementing its enduring theme of economic inequality and social justice  with hip hop music, electric guitars and a strong and  courageous Maid Marian ripped directly from the 21st century.

The play will run two consecutive weekends at the Rainier Valley Cultural Arts Center and will feature a special Giving Night on June 21st , where  along with entrance into the show, tickets  will include  admittance into a post – performance social  benefiting organizations, including the Rainier Valley Food Bank, the  Columbia City Church of Hope and Project Cool, working to alleviate poverty and hunger within the South Seattle area.

 

Showtimes are below:

June 13 7:00 p.m.

June 14 7:00 p.m.

June 15 2:00 p.m. (pay-what-you-can performance)

June 20 7:00 p.m.

June 21 7:00 p.m. *Special Giving Night* (see below)

June 22 2:00 p.m.

 
For more information on Anything Is Possible Theatre please visit: http://www.anythingispossibletheatre.org

 

Lady Speaks The Blues: South Seattle Poet Monique Franklin

Monique Franklin
Monique Franklin

It greets you like a bewitching tonic; a smooth liqueur culled from honey suckle. Its every utterance serves as an intoxicant to your ears. You can’t help but become entranced by its seeming contradictions, as nothing so raw could seduce you by its polish, nothing so genial could paralyze you with its power, and nothing so delicate could rumble with so much emotion. However, it indeed accomplishes just that, and it is the voice of South Seattle performing artist Monique Franklin.

This voice she possesses has bedazzled the throngs who have attended her spoken word, poetry, and performing arts performances across the Central District and South Seattle. Functioning as her main chisel to craft the provocative tales she shares on stage, that deal with everything from the emotional complexities of abortion, to the alienation inherent in growing up biracial, to the imbecility of misogyny, with the common thread that they evoke experiences so strong that they fill lived in by the audience. It’s no wonder that she’s been mentioned as the Billie Holiday of spoken word.

Comparisons notwithstanding, the Franklin graduate,and single mother, refuses to confine her gift to stage performances, as it seamlessly transitions to advocacy for causes dear to her heart, relaying instructions to her students at tap class, explaining algorithms to an enthralled group of computer science geeks, and expressing her chi while practicing martial arts. Hers is a voice which rarely ever rest, much to an audiophiles delight.

 

Emerald: Not only are you the unofficial poet laureate of South Seattle but you’re also soon to recieve your Computer Science degree from the University of Washington. Poetry and Computer Science seems like an interesting convergence.

Monique Franklin: Even though people think of it as dry, Computer Science is really a creative endeavor. As a programmer you can make anything. It also appeals to me because I’m hoping to help African American, LGBT, and other underrepresented communities have access to something which may elude them. It’s unfortunate that we all get taught at an early age that certain subjects are for certain types of people or that we’re born good at math, and that’s just not true. I failed math in High School and went back and learned it in college, and was then able to pursue Computer Science because of it.

Poetry is something I’ve been doing since I was a child; it’s kind of what I’ve been doing all along.  I came to it because it helps me filter what’s going on in life, it helps me to take another look at it and understand it.  It’s how I process things. I didn’t actually share my poems with anyone until I was 21, but I’ve been writing since I could write, which is since I can remember. I think having that incubation period is really important in developing your own voice and in creating sacred space. Still to this day I write things that are not for anyone else;  they’re only for me.

 

Emerald: Could you share some of your of your history in growing up in the South Seattle Area and how that’s influenced your life and work?

Monique: I grew up on 37th and Andover and going to John Muir Elementary. I come from a single parent family of five – my mom raised all us. I’m kind of in the middle. I have an older sister and three younger brothers, and that was really informative growing up. I was eventually bused out to Orca, which is an alternative school, and that became a pivotal time in my life because we were one of the only black families there. I’m biracial, my mother, who raised me, is white and my father is black, and so even though I was raised in a diverse community,at a very early age I learned that people are fairly superficial. There would even be some who would say, “Oh, you’re half white, I can’t trust you.” As a young person, my understanding of why that was, is different from my understanding of it now, with the cultural perspective of what it means to be black in America, or what it means to white in America. People made a lot of assumptions about me, so it was pretty interesting growing up.

People would ask me questions like, “Is that really your mom?”  It wasn’t just children who would ask, it was adults too. Some of the teachers and people in the stores, would ask my mom “Did you adopt those kids?” People just feel uncomfortable when they don’t have the answer to the race question in their mind and so they feel entitled to get this information. In addition I grew up very athletic and my mom actually coached most of my teams until I got into Middle School. I grew up playing volleyball, basketball, softball, and football, before the boys actually sprouted in middle school. I was considered the A-Train, I used to drag the boys across the field. It was pretty exciting, still the highlight of my elementary lunch time experiences.

The highlight of my sports career though, is at Franklin High School, where the basketball team I was on actually had the highest GPA as a championship team. We actually got honored in Olympia, WA for setting a record for Grade Point Average. The whole legislative body took a moment to recognize us. It was an exciting time to be at Franklin High School.

 

Emerald: Well, you certainly seem to have the confidence of a top tier athlete during your performances as they definitely don’t appear presented by the stereotypical neurotic artist. How has athletics shaped your art?

Monique: Well, I’d be lying if I said that I’m supremely confident always, and that I don’t have any confidence issues to speak of. So I can’t say that, but I will say that when I approach my art I say that I don’t want to not do the things I want to do because I’m afraid, or because I don’t think I have enough guff.  I have the same conversation with youth. I tell them that  it’s okay to be afraid, but it’s not okay to not do the things you want to do because you’re afraid.You can’t grow if you’re comfortable all the time. So that’s definitely how I approach my art and my life.

Overall, I feel like my spirit is of an inner warrior and I’m trying to develop that so that encompasses the competitive spirit I picked up from athletics . I mean I’m undefeated in thumb wrestling. If you want to find out we can do it later (laughter). I grew up playing games, and in a family of five competition was rampant. Even now I have a game brewing. I’m supposed to visit New York shortly, and I want to experience it and do some writing, but I want to challenge someone in basketball while I’m there.

 

Emerald: You’re engaged in a tremendous number of activities. You’re a poet, writer, performer, mother, tap dance instructor, computer science enthusiast. If you had to pin it down, what best defines you?

Monique: I think what really defines me is that I’m willing to learn anything. I’m really community minded. I’m trying to lead the way on Social Justice issues, so those are things that would define me. I love to work with our youth so that defines me.

I look at it like I’m me first and art is something that I do. So whatever I do, I’m going to bring whatever gifts I have to bear to do that. So if there is an organization that I’m supporting and they need a poet I’m going to bring my artist self to that venue. I think it’s irresponsible not to speak up when you should, and however that looks. Whether that’s me as an artist, or me as a mother, I think it’s the responsible thing to do.

 

Emerald: What most sparks you to create poetry and your spoken word performances?

Monique: I think it’s evolving. Right now  the desire I have is that’d I’d like to be known. I don’t want to be famous, but I want to be known. In the sense of being understood and in the sense that I have stories that I want other people to know.  It’s the idea that I have a truth I want to speak right now, and maybe that won’t always be my driving force, but that’s what it is right now.

When I see other people I enjoy their diversity, and the ways in which they do things, the nuances, and  the details of how they do things are interesting to me. I think that bleeds into  my scientific interest. I’m a researcher, so I’m there with my pen  and pad, taking down notes, “That was really amazing what they did there,” but also I think I’m generally interested in knowing other people. There’s something you learn from an artist  about that artist when they’re performing, even if they’re not presenting themselves. The choices they make in inventing someone else as a character is telling.

 

Emerald: What artist influence you today?

Monique: As an artist I write about all types of things, but I’m really influenced by music a lot, though I don’t listen to very much of today’s. The musicality from today’s music is just gone, the loopiness of it can be annoying. It’s catchy, but it doesn’t stimulate me. I listen to Prince, Maxwell, but also to 80’s rock. I like good music, however that comes. I’m into Jazz, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. I’m influenced by dancers, Michael Jackson, and the Nicholas Brothers. My poetry is also influenced by the sciences I’ve taken. I have poems wrapped in metaphor, just strictly around science and love and relationships.  My daughter is a huge influence as well. My last show was titled Momma’s Muse which incorporated some of our real life experiences, with her permission, and also pulls in some other stories from people’s lives, which illustrated what I was trying to convey better than my own could.

 

Emerald: How is it that you’re able to be so emotionally naked onstage, saying very intimate and provocative things? That would frighten most people.

Monique: It comes back to that desire as an artist to be known, and for me the power of art is one of those teaching tools. People don’t  all have the same experiences, but people can share in an experience through art,  and some of that sharing can provoke conversations. Many of them that I wish I would have had the benefit of before I made certain decisions in my life. For me art is  an opportunity to provoke those conversations to happen between other people. Whether or not it’s a strong, “I don’t believe in that, you shouldn’t do it.” Well, at least it’s a conversation, and then also, this goes back to being able to wrap some of the experiences of others into the characters I am on stage, it was really liberating for me to be able to take it on and tell someone else’s story, but to still have aspects of my own story intertwined. So I think the whole mix of it, people don’t know what is true and what’s not when you’re own stage, it gives you a certain level of removal. When I’m on stage, it’s never just my story, there’s always something more.

 

Emerald: You’re very outspoken about LGBT rights as a poet and performance artist. Where does that stem from?

Monique:  For ten years of my life I grew up with two moms and so it created a situation, because during that time there was no protection for people who had alternative lifestyles. They could get fired from their jobs, so we couldn’t have many conversations within our household about it because it would jeopardize my mom’s employment  So that meant each of us had to come up with different ideas of what that meant and unfortunately when we stepped out of our house the overwhelming conversation about it was very negative. It was another opportunity where I found myself in between these places in society and I had to figure it out. It was things that others have the privilege not to think about it until they choose to think about it.

 

Emerald: So did your writing and poetry serve as a type of release from all that was going on while you were growing up?

Monique: Writing and poetry was how I made sense of things, It was my internal conversation that I had with myself about what was going on, and what was really important in the world. I did a lot of philosophical writing about what was going on in my life and what was truly important about being a human being.  I felt like the world had a crisis and so it led me to be a loner. I didn’t trust many people, and I didn’t think most people understood what was important. That meant  I was very selective about who I let into my circle. I didn’t want anyone in my house who felt my mom was an evil person just because she was who she was.

 

Emerald: So does are you of the belief that great art is born out of life’s adversities?

Monique: Good art can come from anywhere. The thing is that humanity is so complex, and you can have an artist make the most beautiful painting and be a deplorable human being. That’s just a fact, but you can’t deny that they’re gifted. The reality is that we are complex, and we have great beauty and we have great horror, it just is what it is. There’s not a person on the planet who can say that they’re happy with every decision they’ve ever made.

I think art is gifted to some people, I think with others art is something they’re driven to develop, I think there’s a lot of things that come into art. I can only speak from where my art comes from, because I’m interested in a lot of different things and I’m interested in developing those different areas, I’m ambidextrous and a Gemini, so all this stuff kind of rolls together. For me art is about what piques my interest in the moment. There’s a sound that maintains my art; it’s very rhythmic and musical.

 

Emerald: So the melodic flow in your poetry is a conscious effort?

Monique: Yeah, I think as an artist, as a poet, I have my own aesthetic around how things sound. When I’m creating something the way it sounds is important, even the way it feels is important.

 

Emerald: What’s your process for coming up with some of your more ingenuous lines and metaphors in your poetry?

Monique: I have a poem called System Administrator it’s actually an erotic piece.

 

Emerald: The title completely gave that away (laughter).

Monique: What I like about metaphor is you say things without having to say it, you get to kind of hide some things, just like in the title of that poem. There’s some ambiguity about it. It’s tongue and cheek to me and that’s way it’s fun. I’m working on a whole erotic chat book called applied physics, and it’s all wrapped around a metaphor right now that are related to certain physicals properties, such as gravity and the uncertainty principle. There’s just certain things that lend itself towards looking toward a certain perspective.

 

Emerald: You’re a fairly successful artist and yet you don’t have any formal training, so to speak, in terms of an MFA or Arts Degree. What would you say to those people who have always wanted to write or perform poetry, or those who have always wanted to follow a passion, but just can’t seem to muster up the nerve?

Monique: It goes back to fear, no one is saying go stand on the corner and hold a sign that says, “will work for rhymes.” (laughter) Success started to come for me with the belief that what I was doing was going to work out in the end, and that I was just going to take the steps I needed to take to get to that end. It has to be more than hoping. It must be knowing that it’s going to work out and I’m going to do everything that I need to do in order for it to work out. If it’s something that you have a passion for, you need to start taking little steps in that direction, and what you’ll see is that the universe will seem to conspire to get you where you need to be. You start moving in that direction and opportunities will start opening up for you, but it takes hard work. It isn’t like I’m just going to roll out of bed and it’s going to be great! Chance plays a role for some people, but for the rest of us we need to work hard.

 

Emerald: They say that for a poet happiness is elusive. How do you define happiness at this stage in your life?

Monique: One of the things I learned about being a mother was how much I value community, which is in stark contrast to when I was growing, as I wasn’t too impressed with humanity (laughter). However, I realized that I needed other people in this life. You need other people to be truly happy and successful. It’s about developing those relationships. finding people you can trust, and to trust yourself is important. I’d say happiness is possible, and defining your own happiness is necessary. I say think about what makes you happy, and find more of that, even if it’s just twenty five more minutes a day of that, and as you increase your happiness quotient life will change for you.
For more information on the multi-talented Monique Franklin, including upcoming shows and events, please visit www.verbaloasis.com. You can also follow Monique on Twitter @VerbalOasis

South Seattle Goes To SIFF: BFE Review

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of our series South Seattle Goes To SIFF

Courtesy of SIFF
Courtesy of SIFF

We’ve all driven through those towns that seem like no one lives there – or that no one should. Bleak, dusty horizons, the occasional meth head ambling by, and a corner store that looks like it hasn’t had a customer in the last century or two. In BFE, director Shawn Telford seeks to portray the lives of those who live in these forgotten towns – particularly, those still young and figuring their shit out. Sound familiar? It is – we’ve seen this storyline more than enough times over the last 25 years. However, despite numerous glaring issues, the film turns out to be quite entertaining.

The loosely constructed storyline follows three high schoolers in the town of BFE: Ian, preoccupied with caring for his dying Grandpa; Ellie, living in a meth house while trying to protect her baby sister; and Ellie’s boyfriend Zack, who must deal with his attraction to his friend’s mother. Sound like a lot? Just you wait, we’re not done! We still have to throw in Tom, the Korean kid battling against the “old ways” of his stern father; a scraggly crew of drug dealers; and a horde of other teenage boys that are buddies with our leading crew.

Telford has attempted to create a slice-of-life style flick that draws parallels between the intersecting lives of everyone in the town. And largely, he succeeds. The dialogue is witty, the scenes with the boys remind me of my own high school adventures, and there are enough characters to fill a movie three times the film’s length. Which actually turns out to be the problem with this cute little movie: it needs to be three times as long to successfully fit that many stories.

In the first half of the film, we see missed moments happen again and again –scenes that try to be both funny and poignant instead have to rely on the barrage of jokes flying throughout every scene, because with so many characters to get to, we can’t possibly get enough screen time with each to care about them. True, the jokes are well thought out, and everything rolled along relatively seamlessly, but I found myself wanting more from the first half of the film than giggles.

Things start to pack a bit of a punch as the movie progresses. We get a few brilliantly performed villains and start to feel for these teens stuck in a dead-end town. We do wish they would stop stating – very obviously – that they are stuck in a dead-end town… but no matter.

As a whole, the film did about 75% of what it set out to do. The town was there, the characters were there, the clichés were there, and the jokes were certainly there. I was rarely bored, and when I was, the kickass soundtrack was always there to distract me. Telford’s use of close camera shots was aesthetically pleasing, and though the ending was cheesy, it fit with the fluffiness of the movie as a whole.

What I missed from the film were the gut-punches, the investment in the brilliantly witty characters, the desire to watch them succeed and the hurt when they did not. The problem with throwing all of the moments in instead of selecting the best ones is that the audience comes away with none of them. In short, everything was there – just too much of it.
The bottom line: Despite the film’s overall disjointedness and Telford’s desire to cram six storylines into a 90-minute film, the witty dialogue and killer soundtrack made the piece a very enjoyable bit of fluff. Go check it out!

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.

South Seattle Goes To SIFF: Review of Obama Mama

Editor’s Note: The Emerald was extended an invitation to cover the Seattle International Film Festival. As our arts reportage serves the dual purpose of showcasing the amazing array of artist and their projects, who reside within the South Seattle area, and also to draw attention to unique artistic works which are rarely highlighted elsewhere, yet have the potential to be enriching cultural experiences for our readers, The Emerald accepted the opportunity to cover a few select films playing at the festival which we felt would be of particular interest to our readership.

Photo courtesy of SIFF
Photo courtesy of SIFF

by Mary Hubert

The opening of Obama Mama began with a black and white picture of Stanley Ann Dunham amidst audio recordings of people lauding her intelligence and spirit. As the video progressed, I realized immediately that this was going to constitute the bulk of the film. The first hour of the film consisted entirely of interviews with Dunham’s old classmates, recounting how smart, curious and progressive she was through a combination of anecdotes and a very, very extensive history of the civil rights movement. Though the film did an adequate job of beating into the audience that Dunham was, for being born and raised primarily in Texas, progressive and a mental force to be reckoned with, as an audience member I felt inclined to announce, “Okay, I got it!”

The history of the 1950s-1970s, as well as interviews with the same five high school classmates, was repeated ad nauseum, and I found myself wondering whether the director had placed any faith in her audience that they had knowledge of basic history. The persistent repetition of basic facts was drilled into our brains still more thoroughly through the use of short animated sequences to further clarify the points being made. For example, a drawing of a black and a white hand joining to create a cartoon baby was used when an interviewee spoke of Dunham and Barack Obama Sr.’s marriage. The combination of illustration, repetitive interviews, and historical facts succeeded in creating a strong picture of who Dunham was as a young woman, but the information that was relayed could have been achieved in half the time that the movie utilized.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the film centered on Dunham’s work campaigning for the rights of Indonesian female laborers. Though the film did effectively detail this it was again with the over-thoroughness that made me uninterested by the time this chapter was over. As a result, we didn’t get to her life’s work until over an hour into the film. This had the effect of boring me enough that I was much less invested in Dunham’s fascinating work in Indonesia than I ordinarily would have been. That being said, the section of the film dealing with her work in Indonesia was the strongest aspect of the piece, mostly due to the stand alone strength of her labor. The Indonesian culture that was detailed in the film was additionally fascinating, but again had little to do with Dunham and felt once more like a history lesson.

Ultimately, the film felt as if the director did not have enough material to fill an entire 90 minute SIFF piece, so instead of shortening the work, she simply dragged out each section to fill the time. This was even apparent in the vagueness of the interview candidates – many of their points centered on speculating what Dunham “would have done” or “would have liked”, as if they did not know her in the slightest – and in fact, many did not. Additionally, they used the same five photographs of her, as if they did not have any others. Although the film made a bold choice in not involving Obama in its production – it focused on Dunham’s work by itself rather than her relationship with the President – the result was a dearth of material that made what they did have too lengthy and overly sentimental. By the time the film got to Dunham’s 1995 death, rather than being saddened by the passing of a truly remarkable woman I was relieved that this would be the final montage I had to sit through before the end of the film.

The bottom line: A truly remarkable life of a wonderful woman was made boring by over-explanation, lack of information, and pointless montages that took away from, rather than added to, the uniqueness of Dunham’s life. The documentary was unsuccessful in creating a compelling story out of her life – if you’re interested in Obama’s mama, Obama Mama might not be the best source.

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion,  she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.