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Ocean Vuong Makes His Fiction Debut, in the Form of a Letter



By Ocean Vuong

“On Earth We’re Briefly Beautiful” is Ocean Vuong’s second debut. His first, as poet, was spectacular and met with huge reward, even garnering comparisons to Emily Dickinson. The expertise on show in that ebook, “Evening Sky With Exit Wounds,” is simple, and if you happen to haven’t but learn his poetry, I’d suggest beginning there earlier than venturing on to Vuong’s debut as a novelist. Most of the identical themes and obsessions hang-out each books: Violence is one, whether or not from the American conflict in Vietnam (Vuong himself is Vietnamese-American), or from inside the household; queerness is one other; the physique itself; race; ecstasy and pleasure. In truth, the novel is titled after one in every of Vuong’s poems, and in a approach you possibly can consider this second ebook as one thing like a slicing from the primary, planted in new soil and morphed into some new genus.

All to say, it’s an experimental, extremely poetic novel, and due to this fact tough to explain. The structural conceit of the ebook is ostensibly a letter written from a son, Little Canine, to his mom, Ma. However this letter is almost 250 pages (with poemlike sections within the second half), containing a prolonged essayistic meditation on Tiger Woods’s Asian heritage, his ideas on Duchamp’s “Fountain,” and loads of literary musings on figures like Roland Barthes. Most essential, Ma, or Rose, can not learn, so the protracted dedication is known as inside.

The vanity could make for some pretty strains, as when Little Canine falls for an additional boy: “There have been colours, Ma. Sure, there have been colours I felt once I was with him.” Studying that line, I used to be reminded of Melanie’s well-known B-side, “Look What They’ve Carried out to My Track, Ma”; there in addition to right here, the ability lies within the intimacy of that “Ma” on the finish of the chorus, in capturing the will to take the ache of the world residence to mom and maintain it as much as her like a damage she would possibly kiss. That act is a type of talismanic seal, a spell, a gesture that transforms damage into therapeutic by way of the shared perception in its energy.

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The truth is that Little Canine has been kissing Ma’s bruises his entire life. Ma emerges as troubled, troubling and enchanting. Her personal mom, Lan, survived the conflict by doing intercourse work, and Ma’s father, whom she by no means knew, was one in every of Lan’s American soldier purchasers. Throughout the postwar years, Rose suffered the brutal bullying penalties of being a mixed-race baby. Little Canine was born in Vietnam, however his household flees as refugees to Hartford when he’s only a toddler. He’s raised by his uneducated mom (who works at a nail salon) and grandmother in 1990s America.

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Leslie Jones Is Ready to Rock the Boat, Hard



When Louis C.K. returned to the Comedy Cellar nine months after confessing to sexual misconduct, many criticized the club in tweets and articles, and a few protested and walked out of shows. But the only star comic to stop performing there was Leslie Jones.

She started spending more time at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side near her home. “They took his picture down,” Jones said of that club, adding: “Mine’s up.”

Over lunch in the Flatiron district, Jones, who has talked to the Comedy Cellar’s management about her disappointment but has returned to the club after a long stint away, said it was a personal decision. “I knew girls,” she said, pausing and holding a stare, “and they got to walk into the club and see him talking to the owner. That ain’t cool.”

Using a metaphor she returned to a couple times in our two-hour interview, Jones said she no longer cared about rocking the boat: “I am at the age when I will get off the boat and get on another damn boat.”

Last year, she exited the biggest yacht in comedy, “Saturday Night Live,” and when asked why, Jones paused, uncharacteristically cautious: “I’m 52 and tired. ‘S.N.L.’ is a hard job. It’s 100 hours a week,” she said. “Also, it’s an institution. I get bored. And I want to do different things.”

So she is, with movie and television projects in the works this year (the “Coming to America” sequel, a reboot of “Supermarket Sweep,” which she will host), along with a just-released special, “Time Machine,” a dynamite hour on Netflix directed by the showrunners of “Game of Thrones,” David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They were her third choice, behind Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams (both were booked).

Onstage and off, Jones is not short on swagger. “I want to be the next Johnny Carson,” she said. “I want ‘The Tonight Show’ really bad.” But what about Jimmy Fallon? “I love Jimmy, but Jimmy is going to leave in a minute,” she said. “And who are they going to possibly fill that spot with?”

After clarifying “except Seth Meyers,” she answered her question with a roar: “ME!” She then flashed a stern face that pushed defiance into a deliriously funny kind of self-parody.

Leslie Jones thinks a lot about funny faces. She has studied the greats — Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, who she said had “the best faces in the game” — and developed her own go-to expressions from hours of testing in front of a mirror. There’s the withering glare that writers on “Saturday Night Live” would write into scripts as “the Leslie Look.” It was inspired by the exasperation of her late brother, while a photo of her father serving during the Vietnam War is the model for her most unhinged expression, eyes popped out, one more than the other, a glance she uses to intimidate audiences and tame hecklers.

When Jones kills at clubs — and she can lay waste to an audience in a way that few others today can match — it can seem like a force of nature, the work of raw charisma and a tornado of energy. But make no mistake: She’s a veteran student of her craft, honing her act since 1987 when she started telling jokes onstage as a Colorado college student in a contest before moving back to Los Angeles. However, she describes her new hour as a reintroduction. Since rocketing to fame on network television, she has an entirely new audience, one that’s far whiter than the crowds she played to early in her career.

When asked about the difference, Jones says white audiences are “so much easier,” before cackling and assuring me she loves the high standards of her black fans. “You know how they say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere?” she said. “If you can make it with a black audience, you can make it with anyone.”

In the last few years, Jones’s comedy has also evolved thanks to a collaboration with the comic Lenny Marcus, a bespectacled Jewish tactician of a stand-up who opens for her and gives notes on jokes.

Jones, six feet tall with a booming voice, has always been a ferocious and freewheeling performer, but Marcus convinced her to make a set list for the first time, to stick to the same jokes at every show as opposed to improvising new lines and also to be more strategic with crowd work. “She is also so quick and even when just talking, she’s captivating,” Marcus said by phone.

“Lenny gave me discipline,” Jones said. “He has a whole different way of doing comedy. It’s like merging peanut butter and jelly.”

While it’s common for comics to use writers, it’s unusual for them to give them credit on a special. Jones understands this, but said she hoped to be an example, to give stand-ups permission to help one another. “Netflix was like: It would look better” if she only billed herself as a writer, Jones explained, but she said she would “feel disgustingly sleazy” doing that. She and Marcus are both credited as writers and producers.

(As for the “Game of Thrones” directors, she was a big fan of the show and simply asked, expecting they wouldn’t be available. They were, and wound up using nine cameras to tackle the formidable challenge of translating her visceral live act to the screen, which Jones was especially excited about.)

The funniest moments in a Leslie Jones performance are not really the move from setup to punch line but the radically extreme pivots between emotions. No comic alive travels a greater distance between confidence and vulnerability. In her most ambitious bit in the new special, she dramatizes texting a boyfriend, veering from angry dismissals to heartbreak and desperation in mere moments. “It’s not easy to date Leslie Jones,” she says, a line written by Lenny Marcus.

Being lonely in love has been a common theme of her comedy since the start of her career. Her first reliable joke involved telling women who can’t find a man to visit the produce section of the supermarket, before whipping out a cucumber and later taking a bite out of it. “Do you know how many rotten cucumbers were in my car?” she said, laughing at that early prop work.

“I respect crazy girls,” she said. “You know the woman caught in the chimney trying to go down her boyfriend’s fireplace? I felt her on a whole other level. Every female been there. Every female who says we can keep it casual, she done passed by your house twice.”

She often plays this love-struck obsessive in her comedy (think of her gushing over Colin Jost on “Weekend Update”), but it comes from a real place. On dating, she can sound hopeless, talking about her fear of dying alone. “I’m tall. I got a big mouth. I’m not Beyoncé,” she said, bluntly handicapping her chances. “Everyone is like: There is someone out there for everybody. Nah, I don’t believe that.”

Jones doesn’t hide insecurity so much as flaunt it. She recalls old slights or insults vividly. There was the time her brother told her she wasn’t funny and was an embarrassment to the family. And there was the tour with Kevin Hart in London about 15 years ago, when he told her she would never make it big because she doesn’t do real jokes or talk about herself onstage. He later apologized, and while noting that Hart was a different person back then, Jones said the comment fueled her: “Nobody was following me that night.”

As a famous black woman in comedy, Jones has taken more abuse than most. After the sexist controversy over a gender-reversed “Ghostbusters,” which she starred in, Jones became the target of trolls. Her phone was hacked, and nude photos were spread across the internet.

Jones quickly turned this incident into comedy on “Saturday Night Live,” but she said that the intensity of the backlash got to her, briefly. It didn’t make her stop sending nude photos. “I remember the person I sent it to was like: ‘You ain’t learned yet? You learned nothing,’” she said, letting out a booming guffaw.

And when the trailer for another “Ghostbusters” was recently released, she saw it as vindication for the worst critics. “It pissed me off,” she said. “It feels like: They did it wrong and we know you guys were upset about that little girls’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ so we’re going to do it right now.”

She added that her movie was hurt by studio interference and an edit that took out 20 minutes of strong material, and she wished she had spoken up in protest. “If I was the Leslie I am now, I think it would have went different,” she said, shifting her face into not exactly the Leslie Look but something adjacent. “Big franchise, don’t rock the boat,” she said. “I wish I would have rocked the boat.”

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Feuding Families Take Center Stage



LONDON — Family life doesn’t have much going for it in “The Duchess of Malfi,” the blood bath of a play from John Webster in which corpses are piled high by a conclusion that is merciless even by 17th-century standards.

Centering around an ill-fated Italian noblewoman and her two venomous brothers, this favorite of the London stage has resurfaced in a sleek, stylish production from the director Rebecca Frecknall, at the Almeida Theater through Jan. 25.

Frecknall made her name on this stage with a highly abstract production of “Summer and Smoke” in 2018 that made its way to the West End. The similarly stripped-back, installation-art feel to her latest production is of a piece with the Almeida’s Continental aesthetic, as filtered through such English directors as Robert Icke, a former Almeida artistic associate.

Much of Chloe Lamford’s set — itself ready for display in Tate Modern — is given over to a glass box that makes the characters into human specimens on display. Microphones appear on cue, and chapter headings let us know where we are in Webster’s labyrinthine narrative.

The characters tumble toward the abyss, as Lydia Wilson’s transgression-prone Duchess lingers in view of the audience even after Webster’s text has relegated her to oblivion: The onstage structure becomes a transparent mausoleum whose inhabitants won’t be so easily dispatched.

And so the play’s women become silent witnesses from beyond the grave to the bloodshed of the men, who behave like beasts. (One of them — Jack Riddiford’s Ferdinand, the more outwardly crazed of the brothers — starts thinking he’s a wolf.) It’s a play that honors its author’s near-contemporary, Shakespeare, while mining even further depths of depravity.

Politics, and not (thank heavens) the threat of spilled blood, weigh heavily on a father and his daughter in “Snowflake,” the Mike Bartlett play at the Kiln Theater through Jan. 25. The timing means that Clare Lizzimore’s lit fuse of a production will finish just a week before Britain is set to leave the European Union, as Brexit, after many delays, finally takes place.

Andy (Elliot Levey), the 48-year-old widower and father who gets the entire first act to himself, is pro-Leave, though he’s far more concerned about reconnecting with his estranged daughter than with matters of state, at least at first. That explains his jittery anticipation as he paces a church hall in the run-up to Christmas, in the hope that the child he hasn’t seen in three years will make a festive-season appearance to her still-devoted father. (Her affection for him, we quickly realize, is more ambivalent.)

After the intermission, Bartlett brings into the fray the errant Maya (a spiky Ellen Robertson). Her conciliation-minded girlfriend, Natalie (Amber James), arrives first so as to smooth the way for the set-to that follows. Maya, it comes as no surprise to discover, isn’t just emphatically pro-Remain but views Andy as a relic from a bygone era: a man whose enthusiasm for James Bond and “The X Files” consigns him to an uncritical past that the culturally hyper-aware Maya wants no part of. “The X Files,” to her, is merely “two white people scared of aliens.”

Bartlett has explored such competing mind-sets before, in the richer, more nuanced “Albion,” which will return to the Almeida next month. By comparison, “Snowflake” seems slight: an exercise in theater-as-showdown, but one that, to its credit, values both points of view.

Bartlett’s neat title refers to the wintry conditions of the holiday season when the play is set, as well as to those overly emotive, fragile members of the younger generation to which Maya and Natalie belong. And Levey, a reliable ensemble player too rarely given such a hefty part, tears into the play’s lead role as the well-meaning parent who can’t budge a child’s implacable resolve.

Can these two find a shared way forward, and will the divided country they inhabit? Bartlett suggests only that identity politics alone won’t take you very far. Within families, love is helpful, too.

That’s assuming, of course, that you know who your family is. The revelation of an unknown family member signals the provocative starting point of “The Arrival,” at the Bush Theater through Jan 18. This 70-minute two-hander is the bristling playwriting debut of Bijan Sheibani, the well-established theater director whose National Theater production of “Barber Shop Chronicles” traveled to New York last month, and who doubles as his own keen-eyed director here.

Set on an unadorned, circular stage that suggests a gladiatorial ring, the play introduces two British Iranian brothers, five years apart in age, who meet for the first time. Tom (Scott Karim), 35, the older, was put up for adoption before Samad (Irfan Shamji) was born.

Greetings have barely been exchanged before the brothers make clear their differences: Samad is more expensively educated and bookish, while the leaner, more impulsive Tom gives off an energy that Samad can’t match.

Told across 16 scenes, the last of which pushes events forward several years, the play has the feel of an uneasy mating dance.

Both performers are terrific. Shamji’s eyes hint at a reserve not easily cracked, while Karim’s volatility keeps pace with a restless sound design from Gareth Fry that suggests an amplified heartbeat. In the end, their arrival in each other’s lives merely leads to a further departure. The two may share DNA, but any emotional bond remains poignantly out of reach.

The Duchess of Malfi. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Almeida Theater, through Jan. 25.
Snowflake. Directed by Clare Lizzimore. Kiln Theater, through Jan. 25.
The Arrival. Directed by Bijan Sheibani. Bush Theater, through Jan 18.

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The Lewis Prize Awards $1.75 Million for Music Education



The Lewis Prize for Music, a new philanthropic organization focused on fostering music education and career development in young people, announced its first slate of winners on Tuesday. The $1.75 million will be awarded to the leaders of nine organizations in eight states.

The prize, which is split into three categories and includes both long-term and single-year support, was founded in 2019 by the philanthropist Daniel R. Lewis.

“My vision is to ensure opportunities to learn, perform and create music are available to all young people,” said Mr. Lewis in a statement. “Ideally, this would be happening in every school, but that isn’t the case, especially in low-income and historically marginalized communities.”

The Accelerator Award, which provides $500,000 for multiyear support, was given to Community MusicWorks, which provides classical music educational programs in Providence, R.I.; My Voice Music which brings songwriting, recording and performance mentorships to mental health treatment and detention centers in Portland, Ore; and The David’s Harp Foundation, a San Diego-based organization that works to develop job skills through music with youth in the juvenile justice system.

Brandon Steppe, the founder of the David’s Harp Foundation, said that the grant will go toward hiring a program coordinator dedicated to connecting with youth as they transition out of incarceration.

“What we’ve noticed is that when these young people come from being incarcerated back into the community, there’s a gap in our service there,” he said in a phone interview. He added that the rest of the money will go toward building “arts-based diversionary programming in the community,” in an effort to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system.

Winners of the Infusion Award, which provides $50,000 over one year, include programs aimed at inspiring Native American music educators and composers, bringing traditional Mexican music education to the children of immigrants, providing music and entrepreneurship training for young musicians of color in Detroit and building support for the next generation of New Orleans brass band musicians.

Project 440, which offers entrepreneurial training for young musicians in Philadelphia and Spy Hop Productions, which partners with schools and arts- and community-based organizations to offer music mentorships in Salt Lake City, each received $25,000 for one year through the prize’s Finalist Award.

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