Those familiar with Ira Glass' wry, quizzical voice as the host of public radio's This American Life will get to experience his unique brand of storytelling in person when he appears at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 23. The appearance comes after a week in which This American Life made headlines when a piece involving monologist Mike Daisey's trip to a factory creating Apple computer products was revealed to be mostly fabricated. We were able to get Glass on the phone in New York to talk about his appearance at DPAC, and while we were told by his representative in advance that he wouldn't go on the record about the Daisey incident, he surprisingly made a short statement at the interview's end—after we'd discussed everything from his new style of presentation to his surprising history with North Carolina and more.
Independent Weekly: Tell us about your appearance at DPAC.
Ira Glass: Basically, I stand onstage with an iPad. With the iPad, I can run music and clips and audio from various things. And I can re-create the sound of the radio show this way. It's basically me talking about how we make the show, what we do in making the show, and just kind of an excuse to play funny, memorable clips from the show.
How has using the iPad changed the way you do these live performances?
I mean, at a gig like this—it used to be any time I was onstage, I had to have CD players and a mixing console, but now I can run all that from the iPad. I have a mixer for all my clips—it's amazing, and it's something I can do onstage. It's much better than just sitting behind a desk, which is very unnatural, for me anyway.
It's sort of like how high schools will do musicals with these devices that can re-create an entire orchestra.
I should steal that! I should get that on my iPad and cue the orchestra and sing songs from The Music Man.
It'd be appropriate for your venue.
I'm always so bad at venues like that, where people are used to seeing Broadway road shows, and there are these massive flies behind the curtain to move scenery, and then it's just me onstage with an iPad. But I do believe I will deliver an evening of entertainment for people.
How did you enjoy your last trip to Durham?
I love North Carolina. When I was reporter based in D.C., I did a bunch of reporting in North Carolina, and vacationed in North Carolina, and I just fell in love with the area. It's like Maryland, where I'm from, only better in every aspect.
My only understanding of Maryland comes from The Wire, so I'll take your word for it.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, I didn't have to grow up in the housing projects or anything. I felt perfectly safe. I mean, seriously, when I was coming up, the only TV or film existence Baltimore had was the films of John Waters, and you could feel good about that.
But I don't know what happened that made Baltimore, you know, the single most fucked-up place in America—like if you have a crime drama, and New York and Los Angeles are just not dangerous enough, then the place you locate it is Baltimore. I don't know when we made that transition.
There were some surprise winners at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last weekend in Brooklyn, even as last year's victor, Dan Feyer, won his second straight championship. Filling in answers to a very difficult puzzle with a dry erase marker on a whiteboard before a crowd of 600 vanquished contestants, Feyer defended his title in rather anticlimactic fashion, beating the runner-up by more than three minutes. (Finishing second was none other than Tyler Hinman, whom viewers of the 2006 documentary Wordplay would recognize as the red-haired wunderkind who became the tournament's youngest champion. Hinman went on to win the next four competitions before being deposed by Feyer).
No, the surprise winner wasn't Feyer, but the 140 entrants—about a quarter of the total—who bested Dr. Fill, a ruthless competitor with a novel approach to solving and with a realistic shot at finishing first, despite having never competed at the tournament before.
Allow me to explain.
Dr. Fill is a computer algorithm created by Matthew Ginsberg, an AI expert and crossword constructor. It's not the first of its kind—a team of computer scientists from Duke brought a cyber-solver called Proverb to the tournament in 1999—but it's undoubtedly the best: While Proverb limped to a bottom-half finish, in simulations of the previous 34 tournaments, Dr. Fill would've won three outright.
The name "Dr. Fill" is a pun on Dr. Phil McGraw, and in crossword lingo, "fill" also refers to the words in the grid (the "entries") collectively. Not coincidentally, fill is one facet of crossword puzzles that computers have already mastered, not in the solving but in the making: While it takes human ingenuity to come up with lively themes and tricky clues, computers have proven adept at generating interlocking words to fill in the white squares.
That's a pretty straightforward task for a machine: Draw from a database of kosher character strings and fit them into a grid. It's a math problem. But finding answers to clues like "Late riser?" (GHOST) or "Turn left, say?" (RADICALIZE)—that's a taller order.
The life of notorious Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas may have gotten the epic, big-screen treatment with American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas. But if you ask documentary filmmakers Ron Chepesiuk and Al Bradley, there was another black, New York capo named Frank that made Lucas look like small potatoes.
Chepesiuk and Bradley collaborated on The Frank Matthews Story: The Rise and Disappearance of America's Biggest Kingpin, which will be playing Friday at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham. It's a fast-paced, investigative chronicle of Matthews, the Durham-born drug dealer who ended up controlling all the heroin dealings up and down the Eastern Seaboard in the early '70s. The only black drug lord to have direct ties with the famed French Connection drug pipeline, his Brooklyn-based operation stretched across 20 states, making him a target in the eyes of both the feds and the Italian Mafia. In 1973, Matthews went from gangster to fugitive when he jumped bail, supposedly taking with him $15 million–$20 million and a beautiful girlfriend, and hasn't been heard from since.
"I came across Frank Matthews and I was just fascinated by this story," says Chepesiuk, 56, a Canadian-born, true-crime journalist and author who has spent five years researching Matthews. "You know, a young, Southern kid goes north and makes it big as a criminal. And not only that—it follows some of the usual patterns—but he becomes an international dealer. And perhaps, I would say, the first, big, African-American drug dealer in history."
Chepesiuk got together with documentary filmmaker and music-video director Bradley (also known as "Al Profit") last fall to collaborate on the film. "For me, the crime story is interesting," says native Detroiter Bradley, 36, "but also the history of Durham and just looking at the conditions in America that allowed the stars to align in the late '60s and '70s—with the rise of drug use and the civil rights movement, etc.—all kind of coming together to allow this creation of the black super-gangster of the early '70s."
The pair traveled to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Durham, snagging interviews with friends and confidants, fellow black mobsters who did business with Matthews, and law enforcement officials who were (and still are) on the hunt for Matthews. They found that Matthews' legend has turned him into a real-life Keyser Söze, with those who knew Matthews—especially folks from Durham—not wanting to say much. Says Bradley, "You almost get the impression in Durham that people think he's on the outskirts of town, waiting to hear something bad about him and he's gonna come in and do something."
Even law enforcement officials gave cooperative but limited support. "They didn't want to give us too much information, and they certainly didn't want to give us and pictures or anything," says Bradley. "Whereas, you know, I did a documentary on the Detroit Mafia and one of the federal prosecutors gave us a box with, like, a hundred pictures in it and said, 'Do what you want. I don't care.'"
"He's an urban legend," adds Chepesiuk, "and that's one of the reasons why I thought it was important to do this project."
Bradley and Chepesiuk hope that these leery people will see the film (which is also available for sale and digital download at www.frankmatthewsmovie.com) and perhaps contribute to a second, more personal volume of the Matthews story they're planning to do. "We're hoping that once people see what we did with the first documentary," says Chepesiuk, "they'll step forward and be willing to volunteer information and to help us out to do a follow-up documentary, which would be even more comprehensive than the one we just did."
Of course, they also hope that this doc will get a certain someone out of hiding. Jokes Bradley, "Maybe Frank will show up [at Hayti] to defend his honor."
The Frank Matthews Story: The Rise of Disappearance of America's Biggest Kingpin plays Friday at 7 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center. Bradley and Chepesiuk will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. Admission is $5. For more details, call 683-1709 or go to www.hayti.org.
Artists are a resourceful lot. In their hands, common materials become artifacts charged with new significance. Often this transformation is powered by an artist’s imagination or vision of metaphorical possibility. Other times it comes from sheer necessity—one uses what is at hand, almost regardless of the material itself.
Western artists typically use found or discarded materials to revel in their materiality or to implicate the wasteful systems and habits that caused the materials to be discarded. There’s a whole disorganized era of “recycle/reuse” art. But this term is a luxury of the First World, a place where an infinite amount of stuff is made infinitely available, while dropping a plastic water bottle into a bin is still held as some kind of noble act.
The title of this exhibition is apt. Anatsui isn’t recycling stuff into other stuff. He’s taking whatever materials are available to him to carry the content that he wants to express. Themes of traditions and folktales, protest against violence, the strength of community, and, most of all, the optimism inherent in the communicative act, all persist throughout each decade of his career and in each medium he chooses. And he encodes meaning most frequently in a writerly way.
But while I’m certainly looking forward to several of the touring productions, including the season opener, War Horse, I was left wondering, What does this lineup say about the current state of Broadway?
Eight plays will come through DPAC starting in October: War Horse, Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Jekyll & Hyde, Mary Poppins, Anything Goes, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Sister Act.
On Friday afternoon, the theater and SunTrust previewed the lineup with a special presentation for season ticket holders that consisted of a reception, Durham Mayor Bill Bell praising the lineup and a video segment produced by official media sponsor WTVD-11 (reporting from New York!) that highlighted the shows (good luck finding it on their website, though).
But what got me out of the house for this junket was a live presentation of Joey, the life-sized horse puppet from War Horse. More on that in a minute.
Did I mention that "New York Has Never Been So Close"?
I rarely get up to New York, but based on my last few trips, I concede that this slogan represents an accurate cross-section of Broadway’s current or recent hits. While some, like the latest Mary Poppins, have been around for several years (and in Jersey Boys’ case, have come through the North Carolina Triangle before), others are relatively new, with War Horse premiering on Broadway only about a year ago after its successful run in England.
A stage play, particularly one with many effects, sets and cast members, is something that is seemingly immune to the changes in distribution brought about by the Internet and digital media. Sure, someone will post a camcorder version of a show online once in a while, but the experience of live theater is difficult to translate to, say, a recorded DVD version. Only rarely does a show get broadcast on PBS or other venues, and even then, it’s hardly the same experience.
While music, TV, film and even books are able to become viral in a short period of time, there’s still a much longer wait for a Broadway show to attain the combination of cachet and technical development that allows for people all over the country, and the world, to experience it live through a tour.
It might be a boon to those of us in smaller markets to have hit productions going on tour quickly, but on the other hand, it also highlights just how commercialized Broadway has become in its efforts to keep up with changing times. Without speaking to the quality of the eight shows, most of which I haven’t seen, I can break down that almost all fall into the categories of “Based on a Movie,” “Revival of an Older Show” and of course, “Jukebox.”
These aren’t necessarily bad things. Jersey Boys, for example, is a terrific show that offers real insight into the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and is more than just an uncanny impersonation. And this is hardly a new trend—read up on Broadway history, and you’ll find virtually any book and/or movie you can imagine has been adapted into a musical at one point or another (the most infamous example, Carrie, was recently revived in a de-camped version, and excoriated by critics again for denying audiences the Grand Guignol spectacle they craved).
But last year’s big hit, The Book of Mormon, was an anomaly on Broadway: a hit show that was written directly for the stage with original songs. The quality of the work clearly speaks for itself, but would The Book of Mormon have even made it to Broadway if it didn’t come from the creators of South Park (and, lest we forget, Avenue Q)?
Book of Mormon aside, It’s starting to seem like the most unrealistic thing about the Broadway-themed TV series Smash is that it purports to depict plans for an original Broadway musical with original songs.
In searching my mind for successful original musicals of the last few years, I keep finding qualifiers. Yes, Wicked has had a long and successful run, but perhaps it was familiarity with Gregory Maguire’s source novel (or more likely, musical mainstay The Wizard of Oz)—that brought in the initial audience?
The swashbuckling pulp hero first appeared in print in 1912, several years before Burroughs' other invention —Tarzan of the Apes—who, thanks to cheaply produced movie serials and TV shows over the decades, is still a household name. While Hollywood has struggled to bring John Carter's adventures to the screen since 1936, it probably didn't help they were set on Mars, with a main character who could leap over tall buildings in a single bound, who fought side-by-side with 15-foot-tall four-armed green men as fleets of giant airships sailed over mile-high cities—or that everyone strode about the strange Martian landscape utterly naked except for their weapons.
It was this fantastic vista that helped fire up the young imaginations of science-fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Carl Sagan specifically mentioned Barsoom—Burrough's name for Mars—as one of his prime inspirations for eventually pursuing astronomy as a career. Other words from Barsoom's imaginary language will seem familiar to modern ears: Jed (king) and banth are only one letter removed from George Lucas' Jedi and bantha, and he cribbed "Sith" in its entirety.
No coincidence: The tales, originally cliff-hanging short stories in early pulp magazines, had been collected into 11 novels in the 1950s and 1960s when Lucas was growing up. (Princess Leia had nothing on Burroughs' heroine Dejah Thoris, the original pistol-packing princess, and the many fantasy artist depictions of Dejah, clad only in elaborate jewelry, is the direct inspiration for the Leia's infamous metal bikini in Return of the Jedi.)
Propelled along by iconic covers from a young Frank Frazetta, the paperbacks sold millions over the next few decades as part of the exploding genre of "Sword & Sorcery" that included the repackaged collections of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
When Gary Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons with Dave Arneson in the early '70s, he lifted so many elements from the Barsoom books for his game that the Burroughs estate successfully sued the fledgling publisher. While Gygax agreed to remove all of the trademarked material, such as character and creature names, the swashbuckling, princess-rescuing, high-adventure conceits remained. D&D has been played by millions over the past 40 years, and is widely cited as the strata on which modern video games are built.
Marvel Comics published a popular comic book adaptation in the late '70s that introduced another generation to the world Burroughs imagined. Thrice since then have comic book publishers tackled Barsoom, including, most recently, a small imprint that is currently showing John Carter and Dejah Thoris as Edgar Rice Burroughs intended—naked—and is involved in yet another lawsuit with the ERB estate.
In an odd twist that has become an object lesson in copyright, Burroughs' family controls a few trademarks related to the property, but not the early novels themselves, which are now in the public domain. While a conundrum for the courts, it is a boon for readers: you can currently read the first volume, "Princess of Mars," on the Library of Congress site for free.
Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek’s influential 1920 drama, R.U.R., wrestled with some of the principal dilemmas confronting the 20th and 21st centuries. The play that famously gave the word “robot” to the world brooded on the ability of technology to alter the meaning and value, not only of labor, but life itself. It presciently anticipated a future in which technological innovations could rapidly—and disastrously—change a culture’s economics, politics and military might; a world whose ethics are regularly challenged, if not outstripped, by the speed of such developments.
For all that, Capek’s futuristic work is rarely produced on the modern stage—and with reason. R.U.R. was popular in Europe and a Broadway success in the early ‘20s, during a period when melodrama was at the height of its popularity. The decline of that form means that the original text hasn’t aged very well; to contemporary eyes, it now seems stilted, stiff. Though he venerated R.U.R. for its contribution to our language, Isaac Asimov, no small authority himself on the history of robots, had concluded that Capek’s version was “a very bad [play]” by 1979.
But when playwright Mac Rogers began revisiting a childhood interest in genre forms after moving to New York, he took on R.U.R. to fill a two-week slot at Manhattan Theatre Source in 2007. He enriched the work by merging biographical details from Capek’s life into the body of a play that already had autobiographical elements. The result was UNIVERSAL ROBOTS. The success of a workshop production in 2007 led to a full, four-week run in New York in 2009.
Rogers’ name may well ring a bell with older theater fans, particularly among readers with a background in the region’s college theater. As a playwright, he was already producing worthwhile work during his undergraduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-1990s.
I don’t smoke weed, which perhaps give me a slight disadvantage in enjoying things weed smokers would normally find amusing.
One of those things is the comedy team of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (aka Tim and Eric), the duo whose surreal sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! has been a staple on Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network’s pothead-friendly block of nightly programming.
Like most comic performers whose weird, subversive brand of humor has found them a cult audience on cable, Tim and Eric bring their act to the big screen in Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. In the movie, Tim and Eric are inexplicably given a billion dollars by a psychotic mogul (Robert Loggia) to make a movie, which they blow on a three-minute short starring a Johnny Depp impersonator in a diamond-covered suit.
When the mogul demands his billion dollars back, they try to come up with the money by skipping town and attempting to operate a shopping mall, a run-down wasteland filled with strange businesses (a used toilet-paper store?), vagrants and a wandering wolf.