She’s All That: The Original Eliza Doolittle

Pygmalion
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda
July 30–August 24

(L to R) Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins in California Shakespeare Theater's production of Pygmalion, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.

(L to R) Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.

The word Pygmalion does not resonate with most young people, myself included, but about halfway through enjoying the show at Cal Shakes’ eucalyptus-nestled outdoor amphitheater, I realized I was no stranger to the story—indeed, I’d seen its spinoffs many times as a child: in My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, and She’s All That. Little did I know that while I was starry-eyed for Freddy Prinze, Jr. and Paul Walker (R.I.P.), I was watching a watered-down version of a story rooted in class and feminist criticism. As a socialist, activist and playwright, Shaw was very concerned with class privilege and gender roles. And the show features a powerful female lead, uncommon for the Victorian era in which the play is set. Continue reading

Superheroes & Ideology: FilmFront Episode #1

What do superhero films tell us about American culture? How do the ideas in superhero movies inform our beliefs about society, individualism, gender and power?

Join PopFront’s resident critic in this video article about cultural politics and superhero blockbusters—the first of the occasional FilmFront series.

Marxist Mixtape: V.I.P. – “Buut Wallz”

A quick survey of the most memorable lines from nineties hip-hop is enough to confirm that the dominant hip-hop culture at the time was saturated with a normalized sexism. “B*tches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” growled Dr. Dre on 1992’s The Chronic; growing up in the nineties, I recall hearing children repeat this during middle school P.E. long before I ever actually heard the song. Likewise, Snoop Dogg’s motto/anthem “G’z Up, Hoes Down” was so embedded that these words were frequently etched onto bathroom stalls at the same school.

One notable response to the industry culture was Lil’ Kim’s 2000 song “Suck My Dick,” an aggressive ur-feminist reaction to the breed of mainstream hip-hop culture that glorifies sexism and objectifies women. On “Suck My Dick,” Lil’ Kim delivers a harsh response in the same vein as the sexist lyrical mode she emulates. She pulls out all the same tropes—glorification of her genitals (“Imagine if I was dude and hittin’ cats from the back/ With no strings attached / Yeah n***a, picture that! / I treat y’all n***as like y’all treat us”) and demands of oral sex and money (“All I wanna do is get my pussy sucked / Count a million bucks in the back of an armored truck”). Continue reading

Love the Player, Hate the Game

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. 
By Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Taccone
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, May 16–June 29

(l to r) At Berkeley Rep, Mark Margolis (Gus), Tina Chilip (Sooze), and Joseph J. Parks (Vito) in Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” Photo courtesy kevinberne.com.

(l to r) At Berkeley Rep, Mark Margolis (Gus), Tina Chilip (Sooze), and Joseph J. Parks (Vito) in Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” Photo courtesy kevinberne.com.

There is a phantom haunting the theater—the phantom of socialism. Look to the Bay Area theater scene, and you’ll notice an array of socialist playwrights and subject matters: Berkeley Rep just opened The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, its second definitively radical show, after Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. All of California Shakespeare Theater’s non-Shakespeare shows this season were written by socialists (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun [read our review] and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion). The (Tony-winning) San Francisco Mime Troupe is avowedly far-left, but then they’ve always been. Remarkably, Shotgun Players just wrapped up a trilogy of Tom Stoppard plays about obscure Russian radical Alexander Herzen, “the father of Russian socialism” (I am unsure which is more shocking—that they decided to put up the entire trilogy, or that Stoppard’s yawn-worthy dialogue resulted in the trilogy’s run being extended).

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Review: “A Raisin in the Sun” at California Shakespeare Theater

A Raisin in the Sun
Directed by Patricia McGregor
California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda
May 25–June 15

Cast photo of Raisin in the Sun

(L to R) Ryan Nicole Peters as Ruth Younger, Zion Richardson as Travis Younger, Marcus Henderson as Walter Lee Younger, and Margo Hall as Lena (Mama) Younger in Cal Shakes’ A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Patricia McGregor; photo by Kevin Berne.

My husband quickly tucked his blunt under his baseball hat to save for another time as we hiked up the hillside, towards the Cal Shakes theater, to see Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. We quickly realized we were the only young latinos among an aged sea of silver and white hair in Orinda, California. He had misread this outdoor venue by a mile; obviously this was not the place for him to blow a hazy low cloud from his swisher, which he had brought from our East Bay home in hopes to pacify him, while I dragged him out to see a play on a Friday night.

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The Drive and Dump of the American Dream: An Alien Ethnography

When I relocated from The Netherlands to Silicon Valley, I was invited to an “ice-cream social” in a cul de sac of Eichler homes. We got talking about the environment—a popular topic in Northern California—and one professor proudly announced that this was the street with the most Priuses in the country. It was also a street that, despite the constant sunshine, did not boast one clothesline; clothes dryers, along with a vehicular commute to the local supermarket, were, it would seem, the most convenient option. Conspicuous consumption is also convenient; it is much easier to buy coffee in a 60% recycled cardboard cup or pay luxury money for a Prius to rack up some nice middle class enviro-points than it is to make arduous lifestyle adjustments. Lifestyle is what you buy, not what you do.

After this experience, conspicuous environmental consumption and absolution by-product became something of an obsession for me living as a tourist to this squeaky-clean dream. I had come to study—or “scrape the fat,” as I like to refer to it—at the prestigious Stanford University, which entailed a generous stipend to fund my voyeuristic fascination with American culture. On my first day I was dumbfounded to find the waste bins full of biodegradable corn starch forks and brown paper cardboard plates. It seemed that having to wash up was too much to ask—as was a functioning compost system to facilitate the actual biodegradation of food and forks.I figured that since I was going to be living without any money for the next six weeks while waiting for my scholarship to come through, I could at least make a meal of the cutlery. Unfortunately, they didn’t taste so good and turned out to be surprisingly unsuited to the microwave.

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Marxist Mixtape: Watsky ft. Chinaka Hodge – “Kill a Hipster”

“Only hipsters like zombies,” my friend commented as she watched the zombies prance around in Watsky’s “Kill a Hipster” music video. The zombie-hipster metaphor is particularly apt given the racialized origins of both hipsters and zombies: Zombies originated in Afro-Caribbean Haitian folklore—corpses that could be reanimated through necromancy—yet in the past decade that history was mostly forgotten, as the zombie became a semi-humorous staple of Western youth culture (evinced by the popularity of media like the book Zombie Survival Guide [2003] and films 28 Days Later and World War Z).

The hipster, too, has its origins in appropriation of both African American and other cultures—something Norman Mailer first noted, but which Watsky does an effective job of illustrating. “Hummus, hummus, I’m getting hummus, hummus,” he chimes at the zombified hipsters lounging in the park, practicing Spanglish at the taco truck. Watsky and the video hipsters’ adoption of keffiyehs—a symbol of Palestinian resistance that became completely stripped of meaning after its hipster appropriation, on ironic par with Che Guevara shirts—illustrates the same kind of cultural forgetting. Continue reading

Can Oakland buck the gentrification trend?

A series of civic dialogues have been taking place in Oakland on the subject of development and gentrification. Oakland Reconstructed: The Birth of a District was one such event, billing itself as an attempt to “bring as many un-likeminded people as possible together to have as honest a discussion as participants were willing to engage [in].” PopFront will be covering this and future forums in Oakland as they progress.

As the tech boom creeps north and east, it seems inevitable that Oakland will face the same structural changes that remade San José, the Peninsula and now San Francisco. But is redevelopment inherently harmful? On April 2nd, a town-hall style forum was held in midtown Oakland to tackle this very topic. The group that hosted the event, Top Ten Social Club, titled the evening “Oakland Reconstructed.” The panel featured Jahmese Myres, a local Senior Research Associate at the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE); Jeremy Liu, a Bay Area native and Co-Founder of Creative Development Partners (CDP); Orson Aguilar, Executive director at the local Greenling Institute; Alan Dones, an Oakland Native and principal of ADCo, LLC and managing partner and co-founder of SUDA, LLC; and Mike Ghielmetti, a local founder and president of Signature Development Group.

From left to right: Calvin Williams, X, Jahmese Kathleen Myres and X. photo by Dakarai Towle.

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Marxist Mixtape: Michael Smith and Mark Fischer – “Go For it Mike” (1984)

Long before Tim & Eric made a career out of avant-garde parodies of commercial culture, American video artist Michael Smith cultivated an alternative persona to do just the same.  Meet “Mike,” the lovably simple, middlebrow hero of Smith’s ongoing (now decades-long) series of art videos, “Mike’s World.” In Smith’s own words, “Mike” is “a modern-day Candide,” perennially confused and overwhelmed by technology, glued to routine and infinitely suggestible. He is, in other words, the perfect consumer, naïve enough to be molded by whatever advertisement or scrap floats his way.

In the inaugural (and my favorite) video from the “Mike’s World” series, “Secret Horror,” we are treated to scenes of Mike whining over spilling his bridge mix (his favorite snack), being overwhelmed by appliances that gnaw at his attention, and getting abducted by sheet-wearing ghosts—themselves manifestations of the ghosts in the television to which he is addicted. Continue reading

The Salesperson’s Stories

Article Illustration 3With a wallet freshly fattened by my first commission check, I proudly marched into my place of employ for the first time not as a salesperson, but as a customer. My feet springing on the buoyant surface of the socioeconomic level to which I had ascended, I readied myself to at last engage in the ritual to which my newly heightened stature earned exclusive participatory rights. In so many words, I prepared myself to make a purchase. But this wasn’t just any purchase. For I wouldn’t return to the grand threshold of Barneys New York with eggs or bread, pots or pans, socks or underwear. My purpose at this moment was singular in its irreverent flouting of necessity for the sake of paying worship to its opposite. Luxury, a quality that I saw living and breathing in the seams of that Fall 2010 Balenciaga dress. A design roused from the house’s storied archives, it was classic, it was modern, it was fabulous. It was most definitely worth $1,395.

The concept of such an object’s value, ensconced as it is within the artificial structures of  production and consumption that gird the tenuous constructs of the capitalist economy, is necessarily divorced from the reality of its utility.  Rather, the value assigned stems from a collective illusion, internally generated and externally sustained, of the worth of that object’s possession.  Such worth is illusory because the desire to own an object is preceded by the desire to acquire the object.  In other words, the desire to have obscures the more pressing desire to shop. Continue reading