“Everything stupid,” thirteen-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) says at the beginning of Amman Abbasi’s impressive debut film, Dayveon. Dayveon lives in a rural Arkansas town, where he is having a hard time overcoming the recent shooting death of his beloved older brother, Trevor (Errick Tillar). The wayward, disillusioned adolescent lives with his sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), and her gentle giant of a boyfriend, Brian (Dontrell Bright), but when Brian reaches out to him, Dayveon runs off. He is taken in by the local Bloods gang, led by Mook (Lachion Buckingham, who also served as a producer) and Country (Marquell Manning), who take him and his best friend, Brayden (Kordell “KD” Johnson), on a convenience store robbery that goes wrong, but even that does not deter Dayveon from staying on the bad track, angry at a world that has let him down. Despite knowing better, Dayveon continues hanging out with the gang, leading to a moment of truth that will determine his future.
Shot by Dustin Lane in a cinéma vérité style using natural sound and light and handheld cameras, Dayveon was partially inspired by the HBO documentary Gang War: Banging in Little Rock and Abbasi’s experience working on Craig and Brent Renaud’s four-part Al-Jazeera series Fight for Chicago. Abbasi, who cowrote Dayveon with Steven Reneau and composed the score, did extensive research for the project, workshopping script ideas at a boot camp for troubled youth and casting nonprofessional first-time actors who collaborated on the mood and dialogue to enhance the reality of the story. The danger is indeed palpable; the gunshot wound that Brayden shows Dayveon is not fake, as Johnson actually got shot away from the set during the making of the film. The seventy-five-minute film, which follows in the tradition of such poignant dramas as David Gordon Green’s George Washington and Lance Hammer’s Ballast — in fact, Gordon Green is an executive producer on Dayveon, along with James Schamus (Ang Lee, Todd Haynes) and Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals), among others — moves at a slow, deliberate pace, with Blackmon adding mumbled voiceover narration that further reveals his frustrations, living in a society that offers little hope. Abbasi, whose Pakistani family settled in Arkansas when he was nine, goes slightly astray in the film’s last fifteen minutes, falling into a trap that is too simplistically resolved, but Dayveon is still a tense, involving tale with a unique and compelling personality.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 1, $30
While canoeing about twenty years ago, Suzan-Lori Parks was randomly struck with the title of a play inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: She wanted to write a show called Fucking A. It’s a great name for an ambitious work that turned out to be neither a reimagining of nor a response to the 1850 literary classic about adultery and punishment in 1642 Puritanical Boston but instead something wholly its own, with just a few key references to Hawthorne’s book. A fresh, stirring revival of that 2000 play opened last night as part of Parks’s Signature Theatre residency, running in tandem for the first time with its Hawthorne-related companion, 1999’s In the Blood, which together are known as the Red Letter Plays. Fucking A takes place in “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere,” where Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) works as an abortionist, an always-visible “A” branded into her skin. She is saving money so she can have a picnic with her son, Boy Smith, who has been in jail for thirty years for having stolen some meat from the very wealthy family he and his mother cleaned for. The rich girl who told on him is now the First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley), wife of the Mayor (Marc Kudisch). Furious that his spouse has been unable to give birth to his heir, the Mayor is having an affair with Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), Hester’s best friend, who wants to marry the Mayor but in the meantime is more than willing to accept his money as payment for services rendered. Commenting on Canary Mary’s sexy yellow dress and high heels, Hester says, “It makes you look like a whore.” Canary responds, “I am a whore.” Hester counters, “Yr a kept woman,” to which Canary replies, “Im a whore. Yr an abortionist Im a whore.” Everyone in this unnamed place, in an unnamed time that could be the past, the present, or a postapocalyptic future, is just as direct, knowing exactly who they are and what they want out of this world, as indicated by the appellations Parks gives them, most of which describe their position and/or their inner nature. Hester is being courted by the kindhearted Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), who is not bothered by what she does for a living. (In a crafty touch, they wear matching bloodstained aprons.) Everyone is on edge when a convict, Monster (Brandon Victor Dixon), breaks out of prison and is on the loose, being tracked by a trio of Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, and Ruibo Qian) who can’t wait to capture and torture him, setting up a brutal conclusion.
In Fucking A, Parks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (in 2002 for Topdog / Underdog), has created an updated classical tragedy fraught with contemporary societal issues. Despite the characters’ descriptive names, they go beyond mere caricature as they deal with systemic misogyny, racism, class conflict, financial and education imbalance, fearmongering, legalized abortion, rape, and general injustice. Determined to get vengeance, Hester declares about the Mayor’s wife, “When she was a little Rich Girl she thought she owned the world. And anything she wanted she could buy. Sent my son away to prison with a flick of her little Rich Girl finger. She cant buy a son or a daughter now but I can buy mine. Im buying mine back.” Hester has been paying into the Freedom Fund for years in order to just visit her son, but the cost keeps going up as his sentence keeps getting longer; as the fund’s motto says, “Freedom Ain’t Free!” The actors, many of whom also play musical instruments in the balcony, occasionally turn to Brechtian song, both serious and funny, to further their characterization and the plot, something that Obie-winning director Jo Bonney (Lynn Nottage’s Meet Vera Stark, Parks’s When Father Comes Home from the Wars) works in seamlessly. The Hunters sing, “With jobs so scarce and times so hard / Some folks have turned to crime / The law locks all the bad ones up / They lock em up all the time / When law locks em up, they make a fuss / But when they escape, it’s good for us! / Cause we hunt.” Referring to his semen and the loyalty he so craves, the virile Mayor proudly belts out, “Marching and swimming / And marching and swimming / Saddle up! / Take aim! / Atten-tion! / At ease! / Charge! Charge! Charge! Charge!” And in a duet Hester and Canary explain, “Its not that we love / What we do / But we do it / We look at the day / We just gotta get through it. / We dig our ditch with no complaining / Work in hot sun, or even when its raining / And when the long day finally comes to an end / We’ll say: ‘Here is a woman / Who does all she can.’”
Rachel Hauck’s ramshackle set usually serves as the room where Hester cleans up after performing abortions but is swiftly turned into a local pub, Butcher’s shop, a bench by the ocean, and the Mayor’s house, with a dark open doorway and stairs in the back that harken to something more outside. When talking about abortions, sex, and their vaginas, the women often speak in a different language called Talk, which is translated in surtitles; the only male who can understand even a few words and sentences of the women’s Talk is the sensitive and caring Butcher. Emilio Sosa’s costumes further define the characters while maintaining the mystery of time and place; Hester’s blood-soaked apron and the Scribe’s (Kudisch) outfit seem to fit in the Middle Ages, while the Mayor’s suit and the First Lady’s and Canary Mary’s clothing is decidedly modern. Oscar, Obie, and Emmy winner Lahti (Chicago Hope, Swing Shift) is transcendent as Hester, her every gesture signaling the utter desperation she feels, trapped by her “stinking weeping” brand. Thompson (Black Codes from the Underground, Pericles) is sweetly touching as Butcher, who delivers an extensive monologue on all of the crimes his daughter has committed, listing just about everything under the sun, including at least several sins that every member of the audience knows only too well, tacitly implicating each one of us in the proceedings. Three-time Tony nominee Kudisch (Hand to God, Assassins) deliciously chews up whatever is in his path as the Mayor and the drunken Scribe while also playing the bass guitar, and Stanley (On the Town, Company), in her daringly red dress, and Kalukango (The Color Purple, Our Lady of Kibeho), in her bold yellow attire, are excellent as two very different women who are essentially after the same thing. Parks, whose Signature residency began with The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead and Venus and continues with In the Blood, which opens September 17, is fierce in her writing, which sparkles with overt and subtle dichotomies that bring it all together beautifully. Lastly, in a time when color-blind casting is all the rage, the ethnicity of the actor playing Hester has a critical impact on the play. In the 2003 production at the Public Theater, S. Epatha Merkerson was Hester (with Bobby Cannavale as the Mayor, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Canary Mary, and Peter Gerety as Butcher); the entire power dynamic shifts depending on Hester’s color (as well as that of other characters), a thought that can send even more shivers down your spine than you’re already experiencing watching this superb revival. We can think all we want that we don’t see color, but it’s another key part of what makes Fucking A fucking awesome.
Who: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, Mira Wang, Vanessa Perez
What: Carnegie Hall concert
Where: Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, 881 Seventh Ave. at Fifty-Seventh St., 212-247-7800
When: Monday, October 16, $40-$250, 8:00
Why: Bill Murray has been singing his whole career, from goofing around as Nick the lounge singer on Saturday Night Live, where he would make up words to the Star Wars theme and annoy Linda Ronstadt, to delivering a rousing rendition of “Let’s Get Physical” on Late Night with David Letterman and a tender karaoke version of Roxy Music’s “More than This” in Lost in Translation. But just as he went from being a comedian to a more serious actor, he will be taking his vocal career to unseen heights on October 16 at Carnegie Hall for “Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds,” an evening of classical music and American literature. Suburban Chicago native Murray and German cellist Jan Vogler, who met on an airplane in 2013, attended a poetry walk across the Brooklyn Bridge together in 2015, and then decided to team up on this project, will be joined by Chinese-born violinist Mira Wang (Vogler’s wife) and Venezuelan-born pianist Vanessa Perez on compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, Astor Piazzola, Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Henry Mancini, Van Morrison, Leonard Bernstein, and others; Murray will recite text by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Sondheim, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and more alongside Vogler’s Stradivari cello. With its international quartet, the show will also focus on various connections between America and Europe. “I am bathing in this experience, really. I can’t get enough of it,” Murray said in a statement. The New Worlds studio album will be released by Decca Gold on September 9. For a sneak peek at what to expect, check out this promotional video.
New York City Center
131 West 55th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tickets go on sale Sunday, September 10, 11:00 am (get place in line starting at 10:00 am)
Festival runs October 2-14, $15
One of the hottest tickets of the season is always the annual Fall for Dance Festival at City Center, ten days of performances by twenty companies from around the world, each show a mere fifteen bucks. This year’s lineup is stellar once again, with such troupes as Trisha Brown Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Abraham.In.Motion, the San Francisco Ballet, Stephen Petronio Company, and the Pennsylvania Ballet performing works by such choreographers as Christopher Wheeldon, Kyle Abraham, Alexei Ratmansky, Ronald K. Brown, Crystal Pite, Mark Morris, and Michelle Dorrance. Most evenings will be preceded by free dance lessons by members of one of that night’s performing companies, open to all ticket holders (Tango Fire, October 4; Cie Art Move Concept, October 5; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with Ronald K. Brown, October 6; Ballet BC, October 11; Company Wang Ramirez, October 12; Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, October 13). More advanced dancers can sign up for master classes ($15) with Dorrance Dance (tap) on October 3 at 6:00 and with Wendy Whelan (ballet) on October 14 at noon. Tickets go on sale Sunday, September 10, at 11:00 am, but you need to get your place in line at 10:00, so don’t waste any time if you want to see any of the below programs, because these events sell out ridiculously fast.
Monday, October 2, and Tuesday, October 3, 8:00
Miami City Ballet
Vincent Mantsoe, GULA, choreographed by Vincent Sekwati KoKo Mantsoe
Trisha Brown Dance Company, You can see us, choreographed by Trisha Brown
Dorrance Dance, Myelination, world premiere Fall for Dance commission, choreographed by Michelle Dorrance
Wednesday, October 4, and Thursday, October 5, 8:00
Pennsylvania Ballet, Rush©, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Cie Art Move Concept, Nibiru, choreographed by Soria Rem and Mehdi Ouachek
Stephen Petronio Company, Bloodlines: Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton
German Cornejo’s Tango Fire, Tango Fire, choreographed by German Cornejo
Friday, October 6, and Saturday, October 7, 8:00
Sanjukta Sinha, IceCraft Dance Company, Kin-Incede, choreographed by Padma Bhusan Kumudini Lakhia
American Ballet Theatre, Souvenir d’un lieu cher, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Open Door, choreographed by Ronald K. Brown
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Paquita, after Marius Petipa
Wednesday, October 11, and Thursday, October 12, 8:00
Gauthier Dance//Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart, Streams, choreographed by Andonis Foniadakis
Abraham.In.Motion, Drive, world premiere Fall for Dance commission, choreographed by Kyle Abraham
Sara Mearns and Honji Wang, No. 1, world premiere co-commission, choreographed by Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez
Ballet BC, Bill, choreographed by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar
Friday, October 13, and Saturday, October 14, 8:00
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Solo Echo, choreographed by Crystal Pite
San Francisco Ballet, Concerto Grosso, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson
David Hallberg, Twelve of ’em, world premiere Fall for Dance commission, choreographed by Mark Morris
Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Matria Etnocentra, choreographed by George Céspedes
Longtime writer and composer Alexander Janko’s directorial debut, Year by the Sea, is a Hallmark Hall of Fame-type drama that ebbs and flows with the tide, mostly treacly and predictable but led by a lovely, understated performance by Karen Allen. Allen plays real-life writer Joan Anderson, author of the film’s source book, A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman. After her older son, Andrew (Tyler Haines), gets married and her husband, Robin Wilcox (Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer), gets transferred to Wichita, Joan suddenly decides to set off on a new adventure by herself, moving to a ramshackle house in Cape Cod that is reachable only by rowboat across Narragansett Bay. She quickly gets a job working for fishmonger John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson); becomes friends with the impulsive, free-spirited Joan Erikson (Olivier Award winner Celia Imrie), who is married to famed developmental psychiatrist Erik Erikson (Alvin Epstein); and tries to help Luce (Monique Curnen), who is in an abusive relationship with Billy (Kohler McKenzie). Meanwhile, Judy (Jane Hajduk), who is married to John, is suspicious of how close Joan A. and her husband are getting. And then Joan’s agent, Liz Bloomington (S. Epatha Merkerson), arrives, trying to get her client back on track with her next book.
Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman), who won acting awards at six film festivals for the role, is charming as Joan, her eyes fraught with emotion yet now open to new possibilities ever since her husband asked her, “Why can’t you ever be satisfied with what we have?” She balances determination and uncertainty with a graceful ease. Despite being based on fact, the film’s narrative struggles to avoid clichés, with sappy, overly sentimental dialogue that often devolves into New Age speak and silly plot twists relating to freedom and finding one’s true self. Even the score, which was composed by Janko (Anastasia, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), is cloying, as are the original songs by indie duo the Weepies. The Cape Cod setting is beautiful and it’s heartwarming to see three key roles for women over sixty, but that’s not quite enough to hold it all together. Year by the Sea opens September 8 at Lincoln Plaza, with Janko, Allen, and producer Laura Goodenow participating in a Q&A following the 7:20 show that evening.
I never went to boarding school, but if I had, I’d like it to have been at the Headfort School in Kells, County Meath, Ireland, which promises “an education that lasts a lifetime.” The institution, founded in 1949 in a two-hundred-year-old building, is highlighted in the extraordinarily enchanting documentary School Life. Director and cinematographer Neasa Ní Chianáin and director and producer David Rane focus on the daily exploits of husband and wife teachers John and Amanda Leyden, who have been at Headfort for more than forty-five years. The film follows them from their quaint house to their classrooms and special projects: John, tall and thin, with an acerbic wit and scraggly white hair on the back of his head, is putting together the school rock band, while Amanda, short and stout with an infectious enthusiasm for life, is staging Hamlet with a handpicked group of students. Headmaster Dermot Dix, who attended the school himself and had the Leydens as teachers, gives them a wide berth, and they are allowed to be themselves, questioning the existence of a supreme being and supporting same-sex marriage; in fact, everyone at Headfort, from the teachers to the students and the administrators, is encouraged to be themselves, rather than pigeonholed into standard, uniform expectations. Dix even considers it a place where students can “horse around” and “get mucky and muddy”; at one point John, who also teaches math and Latin, is outside in the forest, pushing one of the girls on a makeshift swing. Previously titled In Loco Parentis — “in place of parents” — when it was a hit at Sundance, School Life rarely shows any mothers or fathers, which is extremely refreshing in this age of helicopter parenting. Ní Chianáin (Fairytale of Kathmandu, The Stranger) also avoids talking heads, instead opting for a fly-on-the-wall style that puts us right in the middle of things, without so-called experts explaining to us what is happening and why it’s all so engaging.
John and Amanda can be brutally honest when it comes to their students’ artistic talents — witness John’s interaction with a new girl who had stopped coming to the music room — but they care deeply about the kids, discussing them at home to figure out if they were too hard on someone or whether a specific child needs special attention. They both also know that this is what they were meant to do, and that they are still at the top of their game. “I wouldn’t be wasting their time if I was no good,” Amanda says. Meanwhile, John opines, “What else would you do all day?” As the end of the school year nears and the graduating students start receiving acceptances from their next institution of higher learning, there is a heart-tugging cathartic pain as they contemplate saying farewell to their Headfort friends, and particularly John and Amanda. You’re likely to feel the same way, having gotten to know such unique kids as Eliza, Florrie, Ted, Megan, Charlie, and Olivia while falling under the spell of the Leydens. “Remember me,” Ted shouts in the play, portraying the ghost of Hamlet’s father. After watching School Life, you’ll never forget the extraordinary John and Amanda Leyden and everyone else at Headfort. Is it too late to go back to boarding school?
In 2015, Minnesota dentist Dr. Walter Palmer shot and killed the beloved Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, setting off international outrage about trophy hunting. Director Shaul Schwarz and codirector Christina Clusiau explore the much-reviled sport, with surprising results, in Trophy. The film, beautifully photographed in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia by Schwarz and Clusiau, can be extremely difficult to watch, but it is a must-see even though it includes several scenes of brutal animal shootings, including the harrowing killing of an elephant that cries out after it falls to the ground, its family nearby. But what starts out as a horrific look at hunters who pay seemingly ridiculous amounts of money to hunt the Big Five — it can cost upwards of half a million dollars to shoot a buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion, and rhino — quickly turns into a compelling study of conservation, poaching, and sustainability. “I know that a lot of people are confused how hunting and conservation go together,” Safari Club International Foundation president Joe Hosmer says. Despite a serious decline in the number of lions, elephants, and rhinos in the world since 1900 — the film points out that sixty percent of all wild animals have been lost since 1970 — some argue that hunting is necessary and that breeders are helping keep these animals from disappearing from the planet, while others claim just the opposite. “There’s a big industry in our country, not just the crocodiles — the lions, the sable, the buffalo. Everything has been bred for a purpose,” says Christo Gomes, hunting outfitter for Mabula Pro Safaris. “So, yeah, sure, some of them will be hunted. We as humans are going to eat it, we are going to use the skins; that’s the cycle of life.” Born Free USA CEO Adam Roberts explains, “You can just pick whatever animal you want from the menu that they offer you, see the price, and book the kill.” Ecologist and author Craig Packer sees both sides of the issue but can’t escape the basic idea that “canned hunting [is] not sport; it’s just killing.” South African Predator Association president Pieter Potgieter complains, “If we can’t get hunters to hunt our lions, we slaughter the lions and sell their bones.” Somewhere in the middle is South African wildlife officer Chris Moore, whose job is to find a balance between canned hunting, poaching, and animals that can destroy local families’ livelihoods. “Every single morning I look in the mirror because we’ve got to make sure that we don’t cross the bounds . . . that we can’t lose our humanity for humanity,” he says, acknowledging that some hunting is absolutely necessary to help both the animal population and the people, who are desperately poor, but adding, “We have to keep this fight going.”
One of the central figures in the film is Buffalo Dream Ranch owner John Hume, the world’s largest rhino breeder, who has been selling off his vast assets to maintain the species. Every two years, Hume shaves off his rhinos’ horns so poachers won’t kill the animals in order to get the valuable objects; he firmly believes that the legalization of the rhino horn trade is essential to the survival of the animals. “The odds are stacked against them, and I’m always for the underdog. But more to the point, I got to know them, and they are the last animal in the world that deserves the persecution,” he says. “They don’t deserve it. They are the nicest, most user friendly animal that wants to stay this side of extinction.” Schwarz and Clusiau also follow Texas sheep breeder Philip Glass, a Bible thumper who comes from a hunting family and is seeking to score the Big Five. In describing a kill, Glass says, “And then you pull the trigger, and boom! You got him. And then all of that anticipation changes into a different emotion, of joy, and relief, and excitement, and anticipation, because you want to go over to him and see, what does he look like. What does he feel like. Where did he fall.” But it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the hunters as they clean up their kill, cover up the blood, and then pose for photographs over their trophy. As professional hunter Gysbert van der Westhuyzen, who leads trips in Namibia, says, “You have to work for your trophy. We believe here that if you want to hunt, it’s all in the foot, it’s walk and stalk. It’s also giving the animal a chance.” But he then tears up and heads off camera when asked if he ever gets attached to any of the animals he ultimately releases to be hunted. “There [are] animals you can’t let go of. You know, you will be playing with them and they become like a friend.” The film also includes a breeding auction, a look inside the Safari Club Convention in Las Vegas, a heated court case, and an intense debate over conservation between Hume and Born Free Foundation CEO Will Travers. But then you watch a hunter shoot a crocodile and yell, “It’s party time!” and it’s hard to think of anything other than what’s right in front of you. Schwarz (Narco Cultura) and Clusiau, who previously collaborated on A Year in Space and Aida’s Secrets, have done an outstanding job examining all sides of a surprisingly complex issue, which is about a lot more than just a dentist shooting a gorgeous beast and proudly posing with his victory. Trophy opens September 8 at the Quad with a series of Q&As with Schwarz and Clusiau on September 8 at 6:50 joined by producer Chris Moore and editor Jay Sternberg, September 9 at 6:50 with Time magazine photo editor Kira Pollack, and September 10 at 4:20 and then 6:50 with New York Times international photo editor David Furst.