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Weekend Preview: Julian Plenti, Topdog/Underdog, Bent, The Drums and More

Weekend Preview: Julian Plenty, Topdog/Underdog, Bent, The Drums and More
Some great music and theater takes place around town this weekend, including a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks and a solo project by Interpol frontman Julian Plenti.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In a continuing effort to prove that Thursday is the new Friday, the Weekend Preview is here again on These Days. This week we spotlight two ambitious local theatre productions, a mix of music from pop to kuduro—and we’ll find out what that is—plus a sampling of the popular Arts Nights around town. I’d like to welcome my guests. Keli Dailey is a content producer for SignOnSanDiego and she covers arts and entertainment for and the Union-Tribune. Welcome, Keli.

KELI DAILEY (Content Producer, SignOnSanDiego): Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Seth Combs is the Arts Editor at San Diego CityBeat. Hi, Seth.

SETH COMBS (Arts Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s get underway, Keli, with the UCSD Theater & Dance Department’s production of “Topdog/Underdog” by Suzan-Lori Parks. She’s an important contemporary playwright. Tell us a little bit about her.

DAILEY: Well, you know, she was the first African American female to win a Pulitzer in 2002 for this production “Topdog/Underdog.” Actually really important thing about the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, you get it for the script and not for the production.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that.

DAILEY: Yeah, yeah, so it’s the text, and it’s the only award the Pulitzer awarded for any theatre production. It’s in Drama. And this – she is the most lucky person I can conceive of. She’s in her forties and she actually took courses with James Baldwin when she was in college. So she’s got a particular kind of voice, she’s very experimental, and she’s one of my favorites.

CAVANAUGH: What is her play “Topdog/Underdog” about?

DAILEY: It’s, you know, it’s a Cain and Abel story and it’s two African American brothers who live in a seedy apartment together and basically it’s sibling rivalry that revolves around getting women, learning the Three-Card Monte hustle, and it’s really about the language. And it’s amazing, it’s one of the most lonely, rowdy, two-person productions I’ve seen.

CAVANAUGH: In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, this made quite a splash in 2002. Tell us about – did it play on Broadway or was it off-Broadway?

DAILEY: Well, you know, it started off-Broadway in 2001 with Jeffrey Wright, who you’ve seen in “Scream” before. I saw him in “Casino Royale” in the follow-up, and Don Cheadle, who you know from the “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Hotel Rwanda” films. And in 2002, Cheadle was replaced with Mos Def, who is like this underground icon. He’s not underground but he’s a hip-hop artist, and I love this guy. He has a background in acting, too, so he joined with Jeffrey Wright on the Broadway production in 2002 and everyone just went nuts for it. The New York Times loved it. A couple of people found it difficult with the tempo but it’s like a cappella hip-hop when you hear it, when you see it. It’s very funny. It’s a tragic comedy. It’s about, you know, the existential traps of the African American male. But it is also a guy named Abra -- named Lincoln – Lincoln, and he’s dressed up as Abraham Lincoln in an arcade for his employment and people visit that arcade and shoot him with pop-guns. That’s one of Suzan-Lori Parks’ winks at her – at the history of America. And his brother’s named Booth.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right, yeah.

DAILEY: Of course…

CAVANAUGH: Now it’s all coming back to me.


CAVANAUGH: I remember this play now. The UCSD Theatre Department production, the director is Nadine George-Graves. She says she thinks this is a difficult play. Tell us a little bit about the production that we’re going to be seeing at UCSD.

DAILEY: Well, you know, it’s in the Arthur Wagner Theatre. It’s a really intimate black box space. And the audience is a part of the show this way. You know, it’s your three-sided black box. And it’s difficult in that it’s kind of dangerous language, you know, it’s a lot of f-bombing, a lot of Bernie Mac kind of language. It attacks normal speech and it’s very repetitive and it’s gorgeous. I love it myself. But it also attacks the myth of the American dream. Like it’s like a con, is what the director has said.

CAVANAUGH: Like the Three-Card Monte that they play. Is this produced entirely by students?

DAILEY: The director’s not a student but the production staff and the two stars, Johnny Gill and Bowman Wright are MFA candidates. And UCSD’s program is great for training professional actors. And I’ve got to say Johnny Gill is one of my favorite local actors and he’s a third year so we have to catch him in performances before he leaves us and goes on to New York or Los Angeles. He’s very – he’s like a young Brando to me. He’s…


DAILEY: I call him the closer because he can show up at the end of a scene and just go straight to crying and like volatile and amazing. I love this little guy.

CAVANAUGH: “Topdog/Underdog” runs through Saturday night at the Arthur Wagner Theatre on the campus of UCSD. Seth Combs, tell us about “Bukara (sic) Som Sistema.” Am I saying that at all correctly? It’s a group from Portugal. They specialize in kuduro music. Tell us about them and what kuduro music is.

COMBS: You did a pretty good job of that.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

COMBS: Well, the way we look at kuduro, it’s very contemporary and even a rather gentrified way of looking at a particular genre of music. But the word itself comes from Angola, Africa, which is in the southwestern area of the continent, just north of South Africa. The word means ‘stiff bottom’…


COMBS: …in Portuguese, which is the language most spoken there. And it got this name because of the particular style of music and it originated in the eighties and it made the female dancers, well, just protrude their bottoms and shake it like they just don’t care. So it’s this incredible beat that was a mix of calypso and samba and soca music. So while we were over here in the U.S. geeking out to New Wave, Africa was giving us this whole new template of rhythm and contemporary beats that electronic acts have since incorporated into their own music.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ve got to hear this version of it now. Let’s listen to a sample. This is the sound of kuduro from Buraka Som Sistema.

(audio of clip of kuduro music performed by Buraka Som Sistema)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Buraka Som Sistema, the sound of kuduro. And let me ask you, Seth. What’s the makeup of this band? Is this all electronic music?

COMBS: They incorporate live elements. I mean, they all are multi-instrumentalists but, you know, but as you mentioned they’re from Portugal and they’re really more of a collective rather than, you know, a proper band. You know, they’re four guys, one was a deejay, one was a producer, one’s a singer, and they were all interested in starting a project that centered around this particular style or genre of music. And they’re often credited with starting what they call progressive kuduro music.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right, with the electronics added into it.

COMBS: Right.

CAVANAUGH: And of course they won an MTV European award, didn’t they?

COMBS: Right, yes, for best Portuguese act.

CAVANAUGH: Now what’s their live show going to be like?

COMBS: Well, it’s – Like I said, it’s primarily instrumental but there’s – they will have live elements. One of the people that you just heard on that song is MIA and obviously she’s a very huge act and she’s not going to be performing with them. But they do have, you know, a live drummer, a live singer incorporated into the live show and, you know, they have people that tour with them and – but mostly the guys are, you know, behind little switchboards and turntables, like that.

CAVANAUGH: Got it. And I – my apologies to the people because I murdered the name of this band to begin with. It’s Buraka Som Sistema and they play at the Casbah this Friday night. The Casbah, gosh, I can’t say anything. Keli, let’s talk about theatre. Diversionary and Ion Theatres have joined forces to bring a classic work to the stage. It’s called “Bent.” What’s it about?

DAILEY: “Bent” is a Holocaust drama and we follow a gay man into the concentration camps, Dachau. And it came out in 1979. It’s a really wonderful, very heart-wrenching and courageous play.

CAVANAUGH: And what does the title refer to?

DAILEY: “Bent.” Bent is slang for homosexual or at least it was in Europe right about the time of – that we join the characters here. It is something I’ve seen in a film before. Actually I watched a movie of it and it came out in ’97 with Clive Owen, and I haven’t seen the production yet but Ion Theatre puts on some of the most challenging, interesting modern, edgy works so they’ve got my full faith. I’m going to see them tomorrow night.

CAVANAUGH: Now this has a – This play, “Bent,” has an historical significance. It was originally done back in 1979 in London’s West End. What was so groundbreaking about it at the time?

DAILEY: Well, you know, it’s interesting. That production starred Ian McKellen as the character that we follow into the camps. You know him from “Lord of the Rings,” “X-Men,” wonderful guy. And London’s West End, very fashionable, this was 10 years after the Stonewall riots when police raided the Stonewall Inn in the West Village in New York, and it really marked the beginning of the gay civil rights movement and gay identification. It was a year after Harvey Milk had been assassinated in San Francisco, the supervisor who was openly gay. And, you know, just the tide was really turning and people were becoming more visible in the GLBTQ community.

CAVANAUGH: And “Bent” runs through November 22nd at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. Well, from that – the significance of “Bent” we move to a new album from Julian Plenti, Seth. And the fans of the band Interpol might be excited about this. Why is that?

COMBS: Well, Julian Plenti is the alias of Interpol’s lead singer, Paul Banks, and this is his first real solo album.

CAVANAUGH: So Paul Banks is Julian Plenti.

COMBS: Yes, it’s just an alias.


COMBS: I don’t really know. I mean, he could certainly use his real name and sell more records but he preferred – I think he preferred—I’m speculating, of course—but I think he preferred a little more anonymity and didn’t want it to be about like, oh, here’s Interpol’s lead singer doing a solo album.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, let’s play a cut from it and see if, indeed, he does sound like Interpol’s lead singer doing a solo album. This album’s called “Julian Plenti Is Skyscraper,” and the track is called “Games for Days.”

(audio clip from Julian Plenti’s “Games for Days”)

CAVANAUGH: And that is from an album called “Julian Plenti Is Skyscraper.” It’s a track called “Games for Days.” And I want to ask you both, Keli and Seth, are you fans of Interpol?

DAILEY: Oh, I’m a big fan. At least their first album, “Turn on the Bright Lights.”

COMBS: Yeah, I would have to say I don’t think I’m alone in saying this but their last album was a bit of a letdown but I would say I’m a fan overall.

CAVANAUGH: Now this isn’t the first pseudonym Banks has worked under. It’s not just Julian Plenti. He was a hip-hop producer named DJ Fancy Pants. Uh, Seth.

COMBS: Well, he’s not so much a producer but Fancy Pants was – is his deejay name.


COMBS: He’s a huge fan of both contemporary and vintage hip-hop and he used to deejay with a friend in New York and some guy came in and called him Fancy Pants…

CAVANAUGH: Well, there you go.

COMBS: …like, look at you with your fancy pants.

CAVANAUGH: The rest is history.

COMBS: Yes, that was the name that stuck, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: Julian Plenti, aka Paul Banks from Interpol, will perform at the House of Blues this Saturday night. Keli, there are a number of Arts Nights happening this weekend, so many that it was tough to choose just one. Give us a rundown on some of the Arts Nights that you’re excited about.

DAILEY: Well, we’ve got so many things to choose from. You know, freckling the calendar here, there’s – tonight there’s The A List: Sampling the Studio. It’s presented by the Athenaeum. They – It’s a young professionals night. We gather in University Heights tonight—it usually happens in La Jolla—but you get to see live music and digital music, live art being created by a painter, Mark Jesionowski, and digital art. It’s really just a interesting mix.

CAVANAUGH: For those who aren’t familiar with how these Arts Nights work, basically what can people expect?

DAILEY: You know, you can expect drinks.

COMBS: Ye-ah…

DAILEY: At least that’s what I expect when I show up, especially to Ray Night, which happens the second Saturday’s of the month. It’s their longest and biggest ongoing arts and culture night in North Park. There’s usually wine – it’s gone by 9:00 p.m.


DAILEY: It’s every Saturday, the second Saturday, like I said. There’s also Kettner Nights in Little Italy, which is a great – it’s just a big open house. It’s like visiting your neighbor’s house when they’re selling it. You should buy some things, usually, too. There’s also a new one called Voices at Onyx in the Gaslamp. It’s presented by the people who put on Sight & Sound, which is, you know, fusion music and arts. There’s body airbrush painting, it’s all kinds of nutty…


DAILEY: …things going on.

CAVANAUGH: Seth, are you excited about any one of these Arts Nights?

COMBS: Yeah, I think Voices at Onyx is going to be – has the potential to be a great event especially since there’s not really a whole lot of galleries in downtown anymore so it’s – it’d be really – it’s nice to see people coming down there again and doing art shows.

DAILEY: And that’s Saturday, yeah.


CAVANAUGH: That’s great to just get out and sort of mix and celebrate art. We were going to be talking about The Drums, who are playing at The Loft at UCSD on Sunday night. We have run out of time. We’re going to be hearing their cut, “Let’s Go Surfing,” from their album “Summertime” as we say goodbye. I want to thank you both so much for coming in. Seth Combs and Keli Dailey, thank you so much.

DAILEY: Thank you, Maureen.

COMBS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We know what to do now this weekend. Thank you. I want to let everyone know These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Josette Herdell, Megan Burke, Sharon Heilbrunn and senior producer Natalie Walsh. Production Manager is Kurt Kohnen, with our director today, Tim Felton. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. Hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.