ArtSEA: ‘Malcolm X’ lands at Seattle Opera via spacecraft

Plus, the Seattle Asian American Film Festival returns, and summer music festivals are shaping up.

photo of a stage performance with a large gray spaceship appearing to "beam up" a man below

‘X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X’ (seen here in a production at The Met), is Seattle Opera’s first mainstage work by a Black composer. (Marty Sohl / The Metropolitan Opera)

Today a private spacecraft made the first U.S. moon landing in 50 years. (As this newsletter goes to press, however, aeronautics teams have yet to receive communication from Odysseus, the lander.) Among the lander’s high-tech cargo is a laser retroreflector array, a stereo camera, a low-frequency radio receiver (all courtesy of NASA) and in addition, a pioneering work of art.

Jeff Koons: Moon Phases, by the revered and reviled American pop artist, is a clear plastic cube containing 125 one-inch-diameter stainless steel balls. Representing phases of the moon, each silver sphere is named for an important figure in human history.

It’s considered the first authorized artwork to land on the moon (though there have been other rogue lunar installations, including 1969’s tiny “Moon Museum,” which included a drawing by Andy Warhol and may or may not have made it to space).

The lunar arrival of Moon Phases is an artistic sort of flag-staking “in celebration of human imagination and ingenuity,” as Koons puts it — at least in terms of the illustrious figures associated with each steel sphere: from Aristotle to David Bowie, Harriet Tubman to Helen Keller, Gandhi to Lucille Ball. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not make the cut, but Malcolm X did.

Leah Hawkins (Louise Little) with Jace Johnson (Young Malcolm) in the background, in Seattle Opera's staging of ‘X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.’ (Sunny Martini)

To this arts writer, the sculpture’s arrival seems perfectly timed with the landing of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Seattle Opera (Feb. 24 - March 9). This too marks a notable artistic milestone. It’s the first time Seattle Opera has presented a mainstage work by a Black composer: Anthony Davis (who won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for his most recent opera, The Central Park Five).

When X was first performed in 1985, biographical operas — much less operas about Black figures in recent history — were not commonly staged. So X went largely unproduced for decades, until a collaboration of several opera companies brought it back to life with a grand restaging that premiered at the Detroit Opera in 2022, appeared at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in 2023 and now takes the Seattle Opera stage.

Crosscut Now host Paris Jackson and I recently visited the venue for a behind-the-scenes look at the production during rehearsals. (Watch our artist interviews, rehearsal footage and a peek into the costume shop.

I’m always excited to get a glimpse of a show coming together, and this was certainly the case with X. From our front-row seats in the rehearsal room, we were thrilled to hear the singers’ soaring voices juxtaposed with the angular, jazz-inflected score. 

And while the Seattle Opera’s ensemble is slightly smaller than the one that appeared at The Met, one aspect of the production is exactly the same: a giant circular spaceship (or “mothership”) that hovers over the stage. 

This Afrofuturist element — on which at times are projected images from Malcolm X’s life, as well as the names of Black victims of lynching and police brutality — suggests that the slain civil rights leader’s life transcends time and space, as well as offers hope for beaming up to a better world.

A still from the documentary ‘She Marches in Chinatown,’ screening at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. (Della Chen)

Also landing today is the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (at Northwest Film Forum in person Feb. 22 - 25; online Feb. 26 - March 3). This 12th annual edition boasts a wide range of film genres from across the diaspora. 

To wit: a documentary about tennis prodigy Michael Chang; a drama based on the true story of a Vietnamese cab driver forced into helping prison escapees; the story of a Korean American adoptee searching for her birth mother; a short doc about two brothers trying to keep a 115-year-old Japanese pastry shop alive in the Bay Area; and an animated short about an ambulatory fortune cookie

Among the enticing array of shorts is a doc by local photographer-turned-filmmaker Della Chen. She Marches in Chinatown (screening in person Feb. 24; online Feb. 26 - March 3) tells the fascinating story of the one-of-a-kind Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team.

I’ve seen the team perform many times at parades and festivals — their striking red and gold uniforms and meticulous moves are hard to miss. But not knowing the history of the group, I assumed it was based on a long-held cultural tradition. So I was fascinated to learn that it was formed from scratch by local restaurateur Ruby Chow in 1952. 

The film explains how Chow came up with the unusual combination of military-style precision and dramatic costuming: She asked her friend Ted Yerabek, a Seattle Police Department drill team instructor, if he would teach a group of girls military marching drills. And the unforgettable outfits came courtesy of her husband, Ping Chow, who as a trained Cantonese opera singer thought the girls should wear warrior costumes in the operatic tradition.

It worked. The group has continued to draw girls of various ethnicities over decades ever since, including under the leadership of Chow’s daughter, beloved former City Councilmember Cheryl Chow. Both deceased, the Chow women speak via archival footage that accompanies recent interviews with the girls for whom the drill team feels like home.

(Illustration by Valerie Niemeyer)

Making another landing of sorts are the summer music festival lineups, which have started arriving in my inbox in recent weeks — as sure a sign of spring as Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction.

The Chateau Ste. Michelle Concert Series is still evolving, but starts off with Sarah McLachlan (May 25 & 26) and includes John Legend (July 20 & 21).

The Gorge Amphitheater’s lineup is filling in (May through early September), with tickets on sale for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, ODESZA, Blink 182 and Dave Matthews Band’s customary multiday stint.

The Marymoor Live summer concert series (at Marymoor Park in Redmond) includes The Avett Brothers (July 12), Blues Traveler (July 13), Melissa Etheridge with Jewel (July 17) and Primus (July 18). All on sale now.

Presale tickets are available starting today for the 40th anniversary of the insanely popular Zoo Tunes series (at Woodland Park Zoo, June 16 - Aug. 21). This year’s lineup includes Norah Jones, Car Seat Headrest, The Roots, Violent Femmes and The Decemberists. These will sell out fast, as usual!

Day In Day Out Festival (at Seattle Center, July 12 - 14), a relative newcomer of the summer bunch, will feature bands including The Head and The Heart, Bleachers, Carly Rae Jepsen and Sudan Archives. Tickets go on sale tomorrow (Feb. 23).

You can already buy tickets for the Northwest Tune-Up Festival (July 12 - 14 on the Bellingham waterfront), and while the music lineup is still TBD, the fest promises the bike races and beer/cider tastings.

Tickets for the popular Timber! Outdoor Music Festival (July 25 - 27 in Carnation) go on sale March 1 for a lineup yet to be announced.

And no details yet, but word has it that after last year’s well-reviewed revival, Bumbershoot will be back over Labor Day weekend.

Ah, I can almost feel the hot sun on my face … and the stranger spilling a beer on my backpack.

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