08 July 2022

The Exorcism at the Heart of A Strange Loop

I imagine a lot of people go see A Strange Loop and don't realise what they're getting themselves into. I imagine the older white woman sitting next to me was often confused by what she was seeing and hearing, and with me blocking the aisle and no intermission, she was stuck.

It's a great play for thinking, helped along by the presence of the main character's Thoughts on stage. I thought a lot about struggling in a world that seems to reject you, about living close to your dreams but never quite in them. I thought about stories that need to be told, that the stories are often painful, frightening. We are never best equipped to tell them, but their necessity draws them out. To engage in theatre is to reckon with fear.

Sometimes a play is not a story but a set of feelings. A Strange Loop is more like that, even though we do get glimpses of a story. It is an introspective. It reminded me of Hair, but Hair suffers from whininess. A Strange Loop doesn't whine; it bellows.

“What is it about?” the typical Broadway audience member (white, straight, entitled) wonders. “Is this another one of those gay AIDS-obsessed plays like Rent? We love the gays.” (I'm sure you do.) Usher describes himself as “fat, Black, queer” and six Thoughts help him tangle with issues of loneliness, acceptance, creativity, and, above all, his parents. He is writing the play as it happens. He and it are complicated.

The utopia Usher (and by extension Michael R. Jackson) cruises can only be found in its negation. Usher is strongly opposed to the work of Tyler Perry, often critiqued as trans- and homophobic even as Perry is celebrated for his contributions to society as a Black artist and philanthropist. Usher seeks out the company of “Inwood Daddy” to quench his sexual thirst, only to find himself debased with racial slurs. Usher's ideal situation, where someone like him is accepted in society, where he can find love and not be lonely all the time, where his own work representing fat-Black-queerness has a place, is never plainly stated; rather, it is elegantly shown through negatives.

When we first meet Usher's parents, they are many voices and bodies. Their size and vocal power indicates the level of fear Usher has at confronting them. This is the fear that must be vanquished by the end of the play. Ironically, Usher succeeds by mounting a Perry-style gospel play reflecting his mother's worldview back at her—AIDS is God's punishment. The tableaux and music are beautifully grotesque; the feeling is one of horror. The audience feels the horror that Usher's mother may be feeling, given the look on her face. For Usher, the prolonged moment is one of catharsis. Even though he doesn't seem to get the resolution he wants from his mother (who still loves him but still thinks God will punish him for his queerness) he does come to a realization: that he is in charge of how he feels about the events of and people in his life. The outgoing message turns positive as the pressure of the play's negativity eases off. The Artaudian exorcism is complete.

This is not a linear play, and while I maintain that all musical theatre belongs in a category with absurdism, A Strange Loop is further along on the spectrum than most. The main character must be defined in order to be the main character, but the main character seeks to (re)define himself through the play. Nothing actually happens in the play; ostensibly, everything that “happens” occurs in the mind of Usher. A Strange Loop fully exposes the theatre and its double—it does and does not exist at the same time. It only exists when it does, and when it stops existing, it lingers.

I imagine there are those who will or have analyzed A Strange Loop through the lens of narrative structure. I imagine they are missing something by not delving into the play's metatheatrics. I imagine it doesn't matter. The play is wonderfully singular.

05 July 2022

Zenzile Confronts Us

There exists a genre of theatre that examines the life of a single person deemed great or otherwise revered by a swath of society. Less notable examples include Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show, and King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story. Terrence McNally’s Master Class lives in this genre, with its dualist exploration of the life and work (musical and otherwise) of Maria Callas, as does Lawrence and Lee’s Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The latter carries a message beyond its biographical content—individualism is good?—making the theatrical performance more than just a dramatization of a life story. The performance becomes a charge for the audience.

The argument could be made that examining the lives of people who lived within certain messages or political spheres merely amplifies that message or politics. There’s nothing transcendental about repetition, as Thoreau would no doubt aver. In the case of Dreaming Zenzile, a biographical memory play about Miriam Makeba, not only are the messages of its subject amplified, but they resonate with other messages very present and vital to society today.1 Makeba fought against segregation and racism through her music and her actions—she was as stateless as Marx when South Africa, her home, rejected her application for a new passport—while being a beloved performer in the western world, facile in the languages of jazz and pop music. She used her popularity to raise awareness of the cultural destruction that had happened and continued to happen in South Africa and all over the colonized world. Her story is ripe for dramatization, but what Somi Kakoma does in her portrayal and assembly of Makeba’s life events is honed for the cultural and political battles going on today. 

Somi is a product of Africa.2 Her parents emigrated to America from East Africa, one from Rwanda and the other from Uganda. She is also a force in the international jazz scene; when Makeba died in 2008, Somi brought together some of Makeba’s collaborators, colleagues, and friends to memorialize her at the former Village Gate, where she had performed before.3 It was Somi’s first attempt at connecting with Makeba’s spirit. Dreaming Zenzile is the fullest fruit of that connection. Makeba’s spirit seems to possess Somi during its entirety. 

Dreaming Zenzile reimagines Makeba’s final concert as a mesh of memories, of traumas and triumphs.4 Its situation—in 2008, just after Barack Obama becomes the first Black President of the United States—points the audience’s attention to the “now” even as the events of “then” play on stage. Within the first ten minutes, the audience is indirectly told to keep aware of the current ongoing struggle against white supremacy, racism, and neocolonialism in America. That injunction is made more direct in the second act, when the audience is directly put on the spot—“Why are you here?!” Miriam demands with the thrust of two fingers on one hand pointing, or maybe it’s Somi herself asking the question—during a monologue delivered in a tight spotlight that deserves every accolade available. Here is where Dreaming Zenzile is most like Master Class, but Somi’s work never feels dry or stale. They are Somi’s own words for Makeba, put through Makeba, and they are words the audience needs to hear. “Why are you here?!” functions similarly to the repeated “Wake up!” that ends Spike Lee’s School Daze. The audience is commanded to reckon with itself.

1. Somi Kakoma, Dreaming Zenzile, performance 15 June 2022 7:00pm, New York Theatre Workshop.
2. While she is credited as Somi Kakoma for Dreaming Zenzile, she typically performs under her first name only.
3. A New York Times article from 1961 announcing her presence (“rolling her remarkably bright, large eyes and clicking like a field of beetles”) at the Village Gate is buried among advertising and the restaurant guide. Arthur Gelb, “Miriam Makeba and Leon Bibb Open Shows,” The New York Times, 5 May 1961, sec. food fashions family furnishings, p. 24.
4. King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story has a similar conceit, though its two acts are two different final concerts—the first is the final broadcast of The Roger Miller Show on television, and the second is Miller’s final live performance before his death. The conceit is handled more clumsily in King of the Road, the mechanism is inartfully on display throughout, and Mary Miller (Roger Miller’s wife when he died and also a writer of the show) couldn’t help but insert herself only towards the show’s end, as if she was a saving grace for Miller. (Cort Cassidy and Mary Miller, King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story, performances 27 April – 14 May 2017, The Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach, California.) Somi deftly inserts herself throughout Dreaming Zenzile without calling attention to the fact.

07 January 2021


I was cleaning out some files and stumbled upon a letter I wrote in 2011. I don't believe it was ever replied to, and A Prairie Home Companion has undergone many changes since then—most notably, not hiring me to replace Garrison Keillor. In addition to Keillor not being quite who we all thought he was, I was at the time living in Hauppauge on Long Island with my then-fiancée, now ex-wife, and contemplating a move to California. Enjoy.


Hello there!

I was saddened to read a recent New York Times article about the inevitable stepping down of Garrison Keillor as full-time host of A Prairie Home Companion, his being such a fixture of the program. Like many listeners, I was thrown off by hearing guest host Sara Watkins that one show back in January, fearing something dreadful had happened to Mr. Keillor. (Luckily for my poor heart, his soothing baritone voice came on later in the episode and I, like so many others, could calm down.)

Last night as I drifted between this world and the dreamless, an odd thought occurred to me and I scrambled to scrawl the letters “APHC,” underlined several times, on a bedside piece of paper. There aren't many jobs I feel comfortable enough to do extremely well; I wasn't the answer to the New York Mets' managerial problems, and I won't be elected U.N. Secretary General anytime soon. But I can speak, I can sing, and I can write. So I'd like to offer myself as a possible guest host.

My qualifications include several years working in the theatre in New York and on Long Island (notably with Theatre Three and Momentum Repertory Company), and a few years hosting radio shows and doing radio theatre on local station WFTU. As an elder and music director in the Presbyterian church (and the grandson of a minister), I'm also rather familiar with Protestant hymns (“Old Rugged Cross” being one of my favorites). Many of my written works are sitting on the desks of magazine magnates, just waiting for their chance to be seen on the printed page; but many others are children's shows and theatrical pieces that have delighted hundreds, even fives of hundreds. At 26 years old, I'm a fast study with a decent skill for improvisation, willing to do anything that needs to be done. My instruments include voice (tenor), piano, and guitar.

One of my stumbling blocks has been and will continue to be my lack of Midwesterness. This is something I have been working on for a few years with my fiancée's father, native of southern Illinois. We are both confident that with further, fully immersive training, being more Midwestern will become as natural to me as catching a subway or hailing a cab.

Anyway, that's more about me than I ever cared to put in one letter, and for that I'm sorry. But I do hope you'll at least take a look at me and see if I wouldn't be an acceptable way to continue this find radio program well into the future. It will be difficult no matter who steps into the role; Mr. Keillor is so admired and revered. But I trust everything will work out as it is meant to work out.

Thanks for your time.


Kevin Story


I wonder why they didn't want to reply to that.

13 December 2020

The Naked Truth

I posted a video today in honor of reaching 400 subscribers on YouTube. Usually, I just say thank you or talk about the projects I'm working on, but today I talked about traditions which fall into the category of performance.

The wife and I enjoy watching our fair share of YouTube videos. We watch a range of things, but many of them are videos from Kenyans or other Africans because, as you can imagine, it can feel a bit isolating to be living thousands of miles away from where you were born, raised, and spent (at this point) more than half your life. (That's Grace's situation; I live about 50 miles from where I grew up.) For me, these videos are a learning experience, whether they are specifically about Grace's culture or about another culture in Africa, and they also can remind me about my own experiences in Kenya.

We were watching videos of different tribes performing dances. Grace had found some Luo ones which, to my eye, were very theatrical in nature. Many of these performances are done by schools. It's great to see a culture passing on its traditions and societal knowledge through them. I don't necessarily understand what's going on, but that's not the point. These performances aren't for me, and my analysis of them is limited to my own understanding.

Our rabbit hole led us to a celebration dance by some Xhosa people in South Africa. YouTube had put a warning on this video because the content might be objectionable. I wondered what it could be. Would there be some cruel violence involved? No, it turns out. The “objectionable” content was that some of the performers were bare-chested.

Nudity is handled so strangely in America, isn't it? In our culture, we censor nudity in order to protect people. Who are we protecting? We all get naked at one point or another. And some of us even dance and perform naked. But in some places there are laws against it. In New York City, it is not illegal to be in public topless, yet people (mostly women) get stopped by the police about it.

In Xhosa and other cultures, there is no taboo about nudity. Creating a taboo about it might actually do more harm than good. When there is a taboo about something, it makes certain kinds of people want to indulge in it. When the indulgence in question is nudity, you find perversion. And all these people are trying to do is participate in their traditions.

A further search led me to discover Khaya la Bantu, a “cultural village” in South Africa. It seems like they (I presume colonists) set up a place where tourists can go to see how indigenous people live. It's sort of like what we call a restoration village here in America. I'm reminded of a book I read in middle school about a teenager who discovers she's been living in one and that there is a modern world outside, if only she can escape. At what point does the performance of tradition become a meaningless spectacle—thus erasing a society's cultural memory?

I refer to Paul Connerton's How Societies Remember when I say that. These traditions—rituals, dances, etc.—are a way for a culture to pass along vital memories and knowledge. Examples are found throughout the world, even here. I wonder if curating performance for a western gaze—stripping it down, or covering it up, as it were—dilutes the power of these traditions. Do we erase these people by putting a warning label on them?

I don't know enough about Xhosa traditions to know if the video we watched was “authentic”, or a true display of what a dance like that would be like. (Indeed, the performance seems to be part of an event hosted by the Port Elizabeth Heritage Society, which might be a colonial entity.) But seeing it accompanied with the warning gives me a feeling of weirdness. Are Grace and I voyeurs of some kind of cultural porn?

There are further problems to discuss here, including how a society like the Xhosa handles the few within their group who might have nefarious purposes, or even how they now have to handle the outside influence. I talk a bit about the Maasai in Kenya in the video I posted. But these are threads to pull on another day.

10 November 2020

An Artist? In This Economy?!

Some frequently asked questions (FAQs):

You say you're an artist, but you're not a painter. Why?

Good question. An artist is anyone who creates art, and art is much more than just paintings. Visual arts include painting, to be sure, but also sculpture, collage, design, and, in some cases, video installations. Performing arts include (traditionally) music, theatre, film/video, dance, and that nebulous thing called performance art. I won't go into too much of a philosophical discussion about the nature of performance, but it's enough to say that most art, if not all of it, “performs” in a certain sense; that art either performs itself, or it causes the audience/viewer to perform, or both.

As someone who has worked a lot professionally in musical theatre, I can tell you that the nature of musical theatre is multidisciplinary. That is to say, it encompasses several of these subcategories of art. There is music and theatre, obviously, but also dance, usually design (with painting, sculpture, and/or collage in the mix), and occasionally video.

But, as you can see, my work is not neatly defined as “musical theatre” in a traditional or even experimental sense. So, it's more correct to say that I am a multidisciplinary artist. I engage with many of these different areas of art, not all at the same time necessarily, in order to create art. I make videos which feel more documentary or educational in nature, where I also write and record the music and create graphic design elements. In an upcoming series, I create a character using my acting skills in order to talk about the nature of the city I call home, New York City.

When you create your profile, Patreon asks you to say what you are creating. “Joe is creating music.” “Imani is creating eye-popping designs.” I just changed mine to say “Kevin Story is creating.” And I think that's the most accurate way to put it.

Okay, so you're a “multidisciplinary artist.” Great. How do I buy your art? It's not like I can hang it on the wall.

It's really easy. Either join my Patreon to get unlimited access to everything I create (depending on your tier), buy my music on Bandcamp or Sheetmusicplus, contact me to commission work, or Venmo or PayPal me.

Now, some of it you can hang on your wall. I can do artsy versions of my sheet music, for example. (Ask me about my “Wedding Song.”) I also dabble in collage, graphic design, and photography. So don't just assume there's nothing to hang on your wall.

But, the bulk of my art, as I said before, is performance-based. I make art by doing it. So, when you buy my art, what are you buying?

If you're like Jay Sloat, the Congregational Church of South Glastonbury, Middle Island Presbyterian Church, or Mandarax Music Ensemble (to name a few), you ask me to write you some special music, just for you, one-of-a-kind, which I then painstakingly create for you—either by writing out the sheet music so others can perform it, performing it myself or with others, recording it, or any combination of these. This is true of theatre work, of videos... of anything, really. If I don't think I'm the right fit for a project, I will let you know who I think is. (For example, while I'm okay at graphic design and photography, I would probably send you to Phowzie to get the real deal.)

The most cost-effective way for you to support my work, though, is via Patreon, where you basically pay for a subscription. Everything becomes available to you, depending on if you are interested in my music, my videos, or my arts-in-education work.

Hold on, now. “Arts-in-education work”? How is that performance?

Studies have shown that when teachers perform more in their classrooms—something as simple as gesturing while teaching—their students perform better on assessments. I write curricula for arts educators, of course, but also for other subject areas to use in their classes to encourage better learning overall. That's what Rogue Pedagogy is all about—but perhaps that's a topic for another time.

Where do I find your art without paying for it?

Geez. Okay. Well, my YouTube channel is a good place to find most of what I'm doing these days. Do me a favor and subscribe. I have a goal of getting to 1,000 subscribers by January 2021.

I also have a Soundcloud. And you can see some of what I'm up to by following on Bandcamp and Patreon—free of charge! And, of course, social media is a good place to find me. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and (sometimes) Tumblr.

But I hope you like what you see and decide it's worth supporting this multidisciplinary artist. Even a dollar or two can go a long way!