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Weekend Preview: Count Basie Orchestra, The Piano Lesson, No Child, The Residents, And The North Park Craft Mafia


On this weekend preview, we'll look at two new plays on San Diego stages as well as an avant-garde band called The Residents and the Count Basie Orchestra that still knows how to swing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Any weekend that boasts performances by both the Count Basie Orchestra and the eyeball helmet-wearing group The Residents has earned the right to be called eclectic. Adding to the variety of events in San Diego is a Valentine's crafts fair and an abstract art exhibit called “Plastic Fantastic.” And, as they say in the late-night commericals, that's not all. It’s time for the Weekend Preview here on These Days and I’d like to welcome my guests. Maya Kroth is editor of Where San Diego and Performances magazines. Maya, welcome

MAYA KROTH (Editor, Where San Diego magazine and Performances magazine): Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Keli Dailey is a staff writer for the Union-Tribune. Keli, welcome.

KELI DAILEY (Staff writer, San Diego Union-Tribune): Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s start off with “The Piano Lesson” at the Cygnet Theatre. It’s August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, and it’s presented this weekend at Cygnet. Let’s start out remembering about August Wilson and why he was so important to contemporary theatre.

DAILEY: Well, you know, he’s one of the few masters of stage writing who’ve actually won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and he shares company with guys you might recognize: Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and three others. But here we have a black baby boomer from Pittsburgh—he passed away in 2005—but he’s remembered for this vivid canon of work that documents black life in America, notably 10 tragicomic plays in a series called “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” And this includes “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.”

CAVANAUGH: I see. So it’s set in 1936. Where does it fall in the cycle? What is it about?

DAILEY: Well, each play in “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” it’s also known as ‘The Century Cycle,’ focus on a decade in the 20th century. So “The Piano Lesson” was the fifth play in the century cycle and it’s set in 1936, Pittsburgh. “Fences” was sixth, and it’s – it was set in the 1950s, and both of those plays won a Pulitzer, by the way.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, okay, so this is the second Wilson play Cygnet has done. They did “Fences.” I understand a lot of the same creative team that worked on “Fences” will be back for “The Piano Lesson.”

DAILEY: That’s right. They’ve got all these three-named thespians that are…


DAILEY: …making a return. It’s Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, which is the director, Antonio “TJ” Johnson, and Mark Christopher Lawrence. And those first two actually got Critic’s Circle Awards for “Fences.” And so they’re back on this team, too.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s also another local actor, Monique Gaffney, who stars in the play. Tell us about her.

DAILEY: Yeah, Monique Gaffney, you know, she’s the one San Diego actor that I’m closest to becoming star struck about.


DAILEY: She’ll fill the stage with this character, I’m pretty sure. She plays the angry, cold, vulnerable sister Berniece. And it’s the story about the Charles family who battle over a piano. And it’s not just a – it’s a one-of-a-kind piano. It was an heirloom. And it was a – slave owners had actually traded some slaves for this piano, and those slaves were the Charles family’s ancestors.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So it’s an intense family drama but should we expect some flashes of humor?

DAILEY: You know, that’s August Wilson. He’s got pathos and tenderness and humor and it’s going to be really funny at parts and, you know, it’s a – it’s a family piece and your families are really complex and it’s about family.

CAVANAUGH: They are, indeed. “The Piano Lesson” will be at the Cygnet Theatre until February 28th. Maya, there’s a restaurant happening in North Park/South Park, North Park slash South Park, 30th on the – 30th on the 30th. Am I right? Did I get that right?

KROTH: That’s 30th on the 30th, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: And this is a brand new event. What exactly is it?

KROTH: It’s basically a restaurant crawl, kind of a down – a dine around town sort of thing. You know, 30th Street in North Park and South Park has slowly become one of the best kind of restaurant rows in San Diego, so they’ve gotten together and they’ve decided to do this thing on the 30th of every month where a lot of the restaurants and bars on that strip are going to be participating and offering little, you know, little bites, little tapas for two dollars, sort of encouraging you to stop and have a bite and a drink at one place and then move on to the next and make a night of it.

CAVANAUGH: Even though there’s no 30th in February, are they going to do it then?

KROTH: They are. Jay Porter, who organized it, he told me that they’re going to do it on the 28th of February…

CAVANAUGH: All right.

KROTH: …just to be slick.

CAVANAUGH: Now which restaurants? Can you give us an idea of which restaurants are participating?

KROTH: This month, there’s going to be about 8 to 10 restaurants and they – they’re sort of sprinkled all across 30th Street. Down on the south end in South Park, there’s a restaurant called Alchemy and they’re going to be serving an Estancia Beef & Ginger Potsticker in a ponzu reduction. And then in the middle, in this – right in the heart of North Park, Urban Solace has these amazing cheese biscuits that everybody loves.


KROTH: They’re going to be doing an order of four of those for two dollars. And then up on the north end, at Jayne’s Gastropub on 30th Street near Normal Heights, they’re going to be doing a spice Niman Ranch lamb on puff pastry with crème fraiche.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I mean, I have a question here, what dish must people try? But I suppose we should try all of them. Is there anything special, though? Any kind of favorite restaurant on the 30th Street crawl that you have, Maya?

KROTH: I – I really love – I’ve eaten at all of them and I love all of them but if I had to choose one, I would probably say the Linkery…


KROTH: …is my favorite for a couple of reasons. I mean, I like what they’re about ethically. You know, they get everything from family farmers and it’s all organic and no hormones. But also, the food is just really good. And I don’t know if they’re going to be serving this as part of the 30th on 30th but they have this signature dish that’s a lardo ice cream sandwich. I know, that’s the reaction people get but it’s actually ice cream made from the rendered fat of a fatback of pork and it’s much more delicious than it sounds. It…

DAILEY: It’s got to be.

KROTH: …actually tastes a lot like butter pecan ice cream.

CAVANAUGH: Well, fabulous. 30th on 30th is, as we’ve been saying, a monthly event. It will start this Saturday on 30th Street from North Park to South Park. Keli, “No Child” at the La Jolla Playhouse, a one-night, one-woman show. What is it about?

DAILEY: Well, it’s Nilaja Sun’s one-woman show, as you mentioned, and at it’s heart it’s about introducing kids to the craziness and wonder of live theatre. And it belongs to the genre I’d like to call teacher as miracle worker. You know…


DAILEY: …”Stand and Deliver”…


DAILEY: …and “Miracle Worker.” But except this is a riot. This is a really funny piece. It’s set in the crumbling Bronx public high school called Malcolm X High and there’s metal detectors, there’s security guards, there’s broken bathrooms, and there’s kids that fit in with this milieu that are, you know, unruly and Nilaja comes in to teach them, to stage a play. A 10th grade class is going to do a play. And it’s a one-woman show, as we mentioned, and she plays herself and she does all these impressions of these wild ADD, Red Bull pumped-up kids, and it’s hilarious.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Nilaja Sun won the OBIE Award for her script. She obviously must have worked in education at some time, is that right?

DAILEY: Yeah, she got it for her performance because she plays all these nutty characters…


DAILEY: …and she was a teaching artist, and I believe she still does that, in New York in the public schools, which means that she acts on the side. That she actually auditions and stars in things because teaching artist, I was like what is that, you know.


DAILEY: It’s like a teaching mathematician. Like, you know, what does that mean? But, you know, teaching artist is someone who teaches and then also has a career.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. So you say there were a lot of different accents, a lot of different characters, a lot of different voices to master. Does she transform herself physically as well?

DAILEY: You know, she plays 16 characters in “No Child” and she actually wrote this for 2 or 3 people and so her having to inhabit, you know, the Dominicans that are in the class and the Jamaican security guards and, you know, all the other flavors and ethnicities that you find in Bronx in a deteriorating, poor neighborhood, and she just is amazing. The gestures are really subtle but she pops in and out of them so crystal clear that you can follow that it’s a different character speaking, and her voices, you know, she does accents, all sorts of things. And, you know, at some point, it feels like everyone in the classroom is talking because you…


DAILEY: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s one woman doing all this crazy stuff.

CAVANAUGH: It’s a tour de force. Proceeds from the production will benefit the La Jolla Playhouse’s education and outreach programs. Tell us about those programs.

DAILEY: Well, they’ve got a play that’s called “Chile Pod” and it was written by a Native American playwright, Rhiana Yazzie, and it tours 32 county elementary schools. So, you know, here you are introducing kids to live theatre both in the performance, you know, the narrative of the play, “No Child,” and then also in real life. La Jolla is really committed to introducing kids to theatre.

CAVANAUGH: So “No Child” will be presented at 7:00 p.m. this Saturday at the Mandel Weiss Theatre in La Jolla. Back to you, Maya, for the avant garde band, The Residents. Now these guys have been around since 1969 but we don’t even know if the same people because they have a very unique presentation. What do they look like?

KROTH: When they’re performing, you mean?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I guess I do.

KROTH: Because we don’t know what they look like in real life. As we know, their identities are shrouded in mystery but when they perform, often they wear tuxedoes with a top hat and, as you’ve been mentioning, the helmet – the eyeball helmet, just their faces obscured with a helmet painted with a single bloodshot eyeball. Sometimes the tuxes are all white, sometimes they’re black, sometimes their suit’s made out of newspaper, sometimes the helmet is replaced with a hood, sometimes it’s a gas mask but always, always with their faces covered.

CAVANAUGH: So we don’t know the makeup of the band. We don’t know if these are the same people from 1969, really, although I think they say they are. How is it that their identities haven’t surfaced in such a long time?

KROTH: Well, it’s not for lack of trying, I’ll tell you that much. There is this whole cult of Residents fans and everybody’s been speculating for decades on who these people are. There’s a lot of speculation that it’s their management team, Cryptic Corporation, which makes all of the media statements for the group in the press, is made up of Homer Flynn and Hardy W. Fox, and there’s a lot of speculation that those two are, in fact, the core of the group. And one researcher even went so far as to compare the voice prints of some spoken words segments of Residents albums with an audio from a lecture given by Homer Flynn, and says that the voice prints prove that, you know, they’re virtually identical so it’s probably the same guys.

CAVANAUGH: Now, let’s hear a little something from The Residents. This is a song called “The Bunny Boy” from their 2008 concept album, “The Bunny Boy.” Maya, what is the album about?

KROTH: How to even begin? It’s an album based on an internet video series and the premise is this, okay, so there was this character named Bunny who is purportedly a friend of The Residents who makes videos from his secret room and posts them on YouTube. And in the videos, he asks viewers to help him locate his missing brother, who has gone missing on the island of Patmos in Greece. And so it was kind of this interactive, multimedia project where viewers could e-mail Bunny and he was e-mailing them back for a little while. So The Residents made a record sort of like a soundtrack to this whole multi-media story. It’s a very high concept, more of an art piece than just pure music.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s hear it. This is The Residents with “The Bunny Boy.”

(audio of clip from “The Bunny Boy” performed by The Residents)

CAVANAUGH: That’s The Residents with “The Bunny Boy.” And I’m wondering, Maya, besides the eyeball helmet, what should concert-goers expect from this live show?

KROTH: Well, this live show is part of a new tour they’re calling The Talking Light Tour, and it just opened. It only had one date in Santa Cruz so far, so San Diego’s the second date. But I saw a clip of it on YouTube and, you know, as the music sort of implies, it’s going to be a very theatrical show. There’s sets, there’s costumes, there’s masks, there’s multi-media, some kind of disturbing video footage that’s incorporated into the whole thing, so – and the storyline and apparently it’s about an older man who is questioning the decisions he made as a teenager and also wondering whether or not the events of his past actually happened at all. It’s sort of a meditation on death, if you will.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Okay, so The Residents will perform tomorrow at the North Park Birch Theatre. The doors open at 7:00 p.m. Let’s move on to a very different sort of musical experience, Keli. The Bowerbirds are performing at The Loft. Who are the Bowerbirds?

DAILEY: Well, they’re – It centers around a Raleigh couple, Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, who’ve lived in the woods and – in an Airstream, and made this music, this really folky music that doesn’t need electricity, obviously. And they’ve been turning back the clock, you know, joining – clock on Dylan going electric, in my mind…


DAILEY: …and joining like Bon Iver and like other bands on simplistic, naturalistic music. You know, shiny accordions and shivering bass drums and acoustic guitars.

CAVANAUGH: How many people in the band?

DAILEY: You know, they have a rotating cast that comes with them on tour and often they’ve got Mark Paulson on drums with them, a friend of Phil Moore’s.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let’s take a listen to them. This is the Bowerbirds with the song “Northern Lights” from their latest album, “Upper Air.”

(audio of clip from “Northern Lights” performed by the Bowerbirds)

CAVANAUGH: That’s the Bowerbirds with the song “Northern Lights” from their latest album “Upper Air.” Keli, do you like this album?

DAILEY: You know, it’s what I call slow down music…


DAILEY: …and, you know, obviously, you wouldn’t be dancing to this.


DAILEY: But I really like it. It reminds me of the area that they’re from, you know, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, kind of feel. It’s a – it’s like snails and creeping beetles and handmade crafts and flickering candlelights, you know. It’s really sweet music.

CAVANAUGH: And for their live show, can you expect to just sort of sit back and relax?

DAILEY: Totally. Like Austin City Limits, you know.


DAILEY: It’s going to be at The Loft at UCSD, which is an up-and-coming space, and there’s a big piece in the Union-Tribune on Sunday that George Varga’s writing about how this is a really cutting edge performance space nowadays. And I really want to see them because they’ll be a very honest performance. And it’s a Monday, so we are stretching the boundaries of Weekend Preview…


DAILEY: …for it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we always do.

DAILEY: We should.

CAVANAUGH: The Bowerbirds will perform at The Loft Monday, February 1st at 9:00 p.m. We move on to the San Diego North Park Craft Mafia Valentine’s Day event. It’s a mouthful. Maya, tell us about it.

KROTH: Well, first of all, great name, right?


KROTH: North Park Craft Mafia, I love it. It’s our local version of a national organization called the Craft Mafia, which was started out in Austin, Texas. And our San Diego chapter started about three years ago and basically it’s just a collective of crafters, people who make things by hand, DIY, everything made with love.


KROTH: There’s almost 40 Craft Mafias now worldwide.

CAVANAUGH: And what will be unique about the Valentine’s Day event?

KROTH: They will be having a make your own Valentine’s Day table, make your own valentine table, so in addition to being able to purchase handmade items from the vendors that are going to be there, you can make your own little valentine’s card.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So what would you recommend getting someone who’s hard to buy for at this event?

KROTH: That’s a tough call but usually the complaint is that, you know, what do you get someone who has everything?


KROTH: But the great thing about crafting is that you – they can’t possibly have it because most of these things are one of a kind.

CAVANAUGH: One of a kind, exactly right. The San Diego North Park Craft Mafia’s Valentine’s Day event, oh, my goodness, will be this Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. and that is at Queen Bee’s Art & Culture Center in North Park. Keli, Allison Renshaw’s first west coast show at the Oceanside Museum of Art. Tell us about Allison. What kind of art does she make?

DAILEY: Well, she’s an Encinitas-based artist who does abstract paintings and she’s represented by the Quint Contemporary Gallery, which, you know, they’re a powerhouse locally. And she’s a – she’s on her way up, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: But is – this is her first west coast solo show?

DAILEY: It’s actually her first show in a museum.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.

DAILEY: She’s done a lot of galleries and, you know, she’s been in museums on the east coast in Delaware and also in New Mexico, and it’s a really big moment for any artist when you make the transition from galleries to a regional museum like the Oceanside Museum of Art. And her work isn’t your typical minimalist work that you’d see repped by the Quint. You know, you go there and it’s really stripped down. This is more boundary pushing for Quint, the director told me. And her older work was more Rorschach tests…

CAVANAUGH: Right, uh-huh.

DAILEY: …and she’s been moving into more imagery and collage and color. And the director, Ben Strauss-Malcolm at Quint, says it’s candy dreamscapes.

CAVANAUGH: Why is the exhibit called “Plastic Fantastic?” What does that have to do with the images?

DAILEY: Well, you know, it’s about the artificiality of – in San Diego, you know, the McMansions next to the coast and horrible lions and horses in front of someone’s house right by Beacon’s Point. You know which one I’m talking about. And so she’s created these explosions on canvas that now have more of a narrative for an abstract painter. That’s kind of crazy to consider but if you think about it really hard, you can see kind of lipstick reds and, you know, a blue kind of like our ocean. I’m sorry, for a moment I was searching for the word ocean.

CAVANAUGH: Ocean, yes.

DAILEY: Yeah, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: That big water to the west, yes. The opening is this Saturday night, and opening at the Oceanside Museum of Art is not necessarily a boring staid sort of art – art – art affair.

DAILEY: Well, it’s a beautiful building, first of all, but they’ve got music and hors d’oeuvres. It’s $10.00 for nonmembers to get in there but I’ve heard that a meet-up group called All Things San Diego is bringing their 2000 social junkies to this event or at least, I think, 30 people have said they’re a definite yes.


DAILEY: But the party hounds’ll be there, too, as well, so…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay. All right. So “Plastic Fantastic,” an exhibit by Allison Renshaw will be on display at the Oceanside Museum of Art starting this Sunday. It runs until June 20th. Now, Maya, we’re closing out with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra at Anthology. And it’s – give us a little history, if you could. We don’t have much time but on this big band, I’m surprised they’re still around.

KROTH: 75 years, can you believe it? It was founded by Count Basie in 1935 and even though Count Basie died in 1984, the Count Basie Orchestra continues. I mean, they’re just a legend in big band jazz. They started out in Kansas City. Count Basie was a piano player in a big band there and the band leader suddenly passed away so the Count stepped up and started this band, and has handpicked the musicians who have been participating in it ever since. And to this day, most of the musicians that play with Count Basie Orchestra have been handpicked by the Count himself.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. So is there also a vocalist with them?

KROTH: For this show, there will be, Carmen Bradford, who was actually discovered by Basie and sang with the orchestra for nine years.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And when we talk about a big band, are we talking about a big band or is it…

KROTH: Oh, yeah.


KROTH: There’s about 19 musicians, I think, that play. So they’re going to fill the stage at Anthology.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us just a little bit about Anthology in our closing moments, where they’ll be playing.

KROTH: It’s a great addition to our local jazz scene. It’s an amazing venue down in Little Italy there. The acoustics are just fantastic. And they’ve also got a really great restaurant in-house there, so you can kind of make a night of it.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, the Count Basie Orchestra will perform at Anthology this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. We got a lot through, ladies. Thank you so much.

KROTH: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Maya Kroth, editor Where San Diego and Performances magazine. And Keli Dailey, staff writer for the Union-Tribune. These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Megan Burke, Sharon Heilbrunn, and senior producer Natalie Walsh. Production Manager is Kurt Kohnen, with technical assistance from Tim Felten. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. The executive producer of These Days is John Decker. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, hoping you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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