Critical Writing, Uncategorized

Movie Review

‘13th’: Uncovering the Exception to the Rule

Valerie Cook

Director Ava Duvernay (Selma) unveils a chilling new documentary that delves deep into an issue that has long been a part of America. At first glance, the documentary might appear to skim the surface of corrupt prison systems in America. However, within the first five minutes it makes a bold declaration on the history of the 13th Amendment, the shape in which it molded our country and its perpetual effects on our society.

Right off the bat the film takes us back to the days of the abolition of slavery, highlighting the 13th Amendment, which was created to abolish slavery. The phrase “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime” flashes on the screen within the first two minutes, introducing the main argument that criminalizing African Americans has become the new form of slavery. “Except as punishment for a crime” is seen as the exception to the rule that slavery is unconstitutional.

The documentary takes a deeper look into the pitfalls of the justice system from the abolition of slavery all the way to present day. The extensive research and preparation is evident as the film paints the picture of the hardships of African Americans facing discrimination by the police and the justice system. Simplified diagrams and statistics are presented throughout so that people can understand the bigger picture of what is going on. Stories are told throughout the decades that all embody the issues and effects of mass incarceration.

The individual stories are perhaps the most powerful pieces of the film. The story of Kalief Browder, who was just 16 years old when he was sent to prison for supposedly stealing a backpack, is a perfect model for the faults in our system. The majority of African Americans are pressured to take a plea deal rather than go to trial, regardless of whether they’re innocent or not. Browder would not claim to be guilty when he wasn’t and decided to take a stand against the justice system. He was held in prison for three years under inhumane circumstances until the charges were finally dropped. He later committed suicide after the emotional turmoil that he went through during his unwarranted time in prison.

Stories like Browder’s add an emotional connection to the viewers who may be separated from the issue and cast a sense of urgency in the need for change. Although the film covers a good chunk of time, it neither drags nor distances itself from the relevancy of the issue today. At one point, we see images from riots and police brutality in the 1960s with an unnerving voiceover by President Trump saying things like “I love the old day. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,” in reference to a protestor at one of his rallies. The juxtaposition of Trump’s comments as a voiceover to police brutality in the sixties sends a strong message that not only are things not changing—they might be getting worse.

The goal of this film is to shock people as much as it is to expose an ongoing issue. The film itself discusses how shock factor is sometimes a necessary tool to get people to listen. It’s impossible not to feel the weight of the images as they flash upon the screen—lynching, beatings, and shootings throughout American history.

“13th’ clearly presents the prominent issues of police brutality as it is today while reaching back through history to make meaningful connections and unearth an ultimate problem of prolonged mass incarceration of African Americans. However the questions remain, why is this still an issue today? How can it be changed? The documentary wraps up its argument with the commentary on how people often claim they would never tolerate slavery, segregation, or discrimination, but ends with the impactful words: “we are living in that time, and we are tolerating it”.




Critical Writing, Uncategorized

Music Review

Music of Love and Loss: More than a recital

Valerie Cook

When I hear “recital” I tend to envision an amateur desperately hoping to perform without a misstep, often without success; that could just be how my recitals as a kid went. However, the faculty recital in the Ramsey Center deserves more than the label of “recital”. This performance in the faculty concert series was anything but amateur. The musicians weaved together an exciting performance of complex piano pieces performed by former UGA faculty member Richard Zimdars, paired with captivating vocals by tenor Lawrence Bakst.

The evening may have only consisted of two musicians, but the music created resonated with rich tones throughout the concert hall. In contrast to Zimdars’ slight frame and adorable bowtie, he played the piano with such compelling intensity that I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He has taught master piano classes all over the world and spent the last 40 years as a professor at UGA. It came as no surprise that tenor Bakst has performed in opera houses in Europe for 25 years—his stage presence was strong as he looked straight ahead into the audience and confidently delivered strong opera vocals in both Italian and German.

The performance was themed “Music of Love and Loss”, and by reading the English translation of the lyrics it was clear what the pieces were about. However, the program translations weren’t needed to see and hear the emotion spilling from both the pianist and opera singer in their gripping delivery.

There were some pieces of exclusively piano, and I was not thrilled to notice on the program that one of the piano compositions was a fifteen-minute ballad. However, Zimdars performed the piece so artfully and enchanting that by the end of the piece I was in such a state of relaxation, I hadn’t realized that fifteen minutes had passed.

The unduly named “recital” was a free concert in the UGA performing arts center and was far superior to anything that I could have expected. At times I felt as if I were in an Opera house in 17th century Europe. I was not expecting to feel transported to a different time and place, but that is what music has the power to do if performed right. I was pleasantly surprised with the wonderful, bold sounds as Bakst and Zimdars filled the room with music of love and loss.


Critical Writing

Theatre Review

‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

Valerie Cook

Fully prepared to sit through a delightful, yet mediocre production, the University of Georgia Theatre Department’s production of ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ was a pleasant surprise. Fresh from Broadway, ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is an absurd comedy written by playwright Christopher Durang. His works often deal with social issues through a comedic spin. Kristin Kundert, director of the UGA Theatre Department production of the play, brings this piece to the stage and explores the bleak themes of hopelessness and isolation in a comedic form that allows the audience a brief escape to laugh about the familiar sufferings of life.

‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is centered on the eccentric lives of two siblings and their adopted sister. The character’s namesakes are inspired from Russian playwright Chekhov’s productions, notable for his dark themes including loss, self-pity and suffering. Chekhov often referred to his works as comedies, however Durang’s goal with ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is adaptation on Chekhovs themes where one does not have to speculate as to whether it is a comedy.

The production won a Tony award for Best Play in 2013 and is filled with quips and fast paced acting. The UGA production lives up to the high bar that this two-act play set on Broadway, with developed characters and perfect comedic timing. Half of the cast—Katherine Butcher (Sonia), Larry Cox Jr. (Vanya), and Anna Pieri (Masha) are second-year acting students pursing M.F.A.s. These three are quite clearly the seasoned actors of the cast. Butcher was arguably the star of the show, with her phenomenal Maggie Smith impression and her ability to gain the empathy of the audience. Although the majority of the play was well cast, the weakest aspect would have to be the character of Spike (JD Heyers), who seemed to be cast solely on the basis that he was physically fit, as called for by the role. Although Heyers slowed the authenticity of the performance, it did little to ruin the production as a whole. I still found myself interested in the characters and their fates throughout the production.

After winding down into the depths of the UGA Fine Arts Building, the cozy atmosphere of the cellar theatre was not as dreary as I had imagined. The stage is nestled right up to the front row, which allows for the audience to feel fully immersed into the world unfolding before them. The entire play takes place in one setting—the sibling’s living room. Although I am not usually a fan of one-set productions, the scenic designer Eric Chamness did a fantastic job creating a visually appealing atmosphere that avoided a monotonous aspect. The set is filled with angles and slopes, adding a depth to the set that creates a dynamic environment for the actors. Costume design by Erica Manzano succeeds in capturing the personas of the characters, however it was not a highlight of the production by any means. At one point, the audience had a clear view up the actors clothing that could have been avoided an eliminated a distraction from an otherwise enchanting performance.

The UGA Theatre Department captures the essence of both Durang and Chekhov in this delightful comedy. It will be showing in the Cellar Theatre from February 16-26. At just under two hours, the production is enjoyable but not overly stimulating. There is no need to see this production more than once, however it is not an evening wasted. As director Kristen Kundert said of her intentions with the play, “enjoy the play, laugh, love, live.”