An important part of the mission of the Sunday Best Reading Series entails supporting talented emerging literary artists by providing a forum through which they can share their work with the larger community. This aspect of Sunday Best’s charge came to the fore on March 6th when the series hosted a benefit for the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA). NoMAA, ably helmed by executive director Sandra Garcia-Betancourt with the assistance of program director Diana Caba, is a non-profit arts service organization that cultivates, supports, and promotes the works of artists and arts organizations who live in Manhattan north of 155th Street.
Among the programs and services that NoMAA provides to the Northern Manhattan arts community is a Regrant Program funded by JPMorgan Chase Foundation and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation. NoMAA grants are awarded to artists and arts organizations in Washington Heights and Inwood who submit proposals for specific individual or collaborative projects. On March 6th, Sunday Best proudly featured performances by three local literary artists who received individual NoMAA grants for 2011: Will MacAdams, Christine Toy Johnson, and Lola Koundakjian.
A portion of the contributions taken at the door went to benefit NoMAA and its efforts to strengthen Northern Manhattan’s arts community. Sunday Best sees itself as a vital and supportive participant in and beneficiary of that community. This event served as an emphatic reminder of the importance of interconnectedness and community to artistic endeavor.
The first of the afternoon’s readers was Will MacAdams, whose writing springs from the intersection of theater and everyday life. MacAdams read excerpts from his performance poem Water and Stone, which was created as part of a four-play cycle based on interviews with residents of Warwick, New York, an arts and farming community located 55 miles north of New York City. Drawn to a farming community for reasons related to “finding roots,” MacAdams spent a year volunteering at a farmer’s market in Warwick and began work on Water and Stone at the end of that year.
Warwick was originally settled at the turn of the twentieth century by Polish immigrants who found it boasted some of the most fertile soil in North America. In the years following World War II, waves of farm workers emigrated to the area, first from Puerto Rico and Jamaica and, more recently, from Mexico. Water and Stone explores the stories that emerge from the experiences of those who came to Warwick during these two waves of emigration and from the land that connects them. Through MacAdams’ honest, open voice, Sunday Best audience members heard the stories of an amazingly varied cast of characters from the farming community, including Beverly, a school teacher originally from Philadelphia, who marvels as a long line of cows, taking its time crossing the road, brings traffic to a complete standstill; Cheryl, a farmer and descendant of Polish immigrants who recounts her struggle against tomato blight; Everett, who recalls his parents’ sale of topsoil in the late 1950s which resulted in the stripping of 15 to 20 acres of his family’s land; and the lettuce worker who finds connection between Warwick and his land of origin when he realizes that both he and his family back home can look up and see the same stars in the night sky.
Dealing with cultural connections of a different sort, Christine Toy Johnson read a short theatrical piece that touched upon the role of food and tradition in defining and practicing cultural identity. Four of Toy Johnson’s full-length plays, as well as a documentary that she created with her husband about the first person of color to be drafted into the precursor organization to the NBA, were recently inducted into the Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection of the Library of Congress. At the same time, the Library of Congress requested that Toy Johnson write a short theatrical piece on the theme of “Confronting My Ancestor,” to be performed at the first Asian American Playwriting Conference which will take place later this year in Washington, D.C.
The result is Do These Jeans Make Me Look Fat?, an entertaining dialogue between the narrator and Linda, a neighborhood fixture and proprietor of the No. 1 Chinese restaurant on 181st Street in Washington Heights. In an effort to avoid an obligatory visit to her mother’s house for Chinese New Year and the irresistible gustatory overload that such a visit entails, the narrator seeks comfort in her favorite local Chinese take-out place. Inevitably, however, she finds herself reminiscing with Linda about her ancestors, her childhood at the dinner table, and her family’s reliance on food to preserve their Chinese roots even as they strove to assimilate into American culture. Anyone who has ever stopped in at No.1 for a late-night order of pork lo mein will immediately recognize the character of Linda, and anyone who has ever straddled an uncomfortable cultural divide will sympathize with the narrator’s ambivalence.
The program closed with the poetry of Lola Koundakjian. Koundakjian’s first collection of poems includes works written in both Armenian and English and translated into Spanish. This afternoon, she read poems full of sensuous joy that touched upon themes relating to love, sex, music, and food. However, Koundakjian noted that she had recently discovered a “political side” to herself; in that vein, she read two more somber “political” poems, one about her travels through Hiroshima and another about the friendship between a Palestinian girl and an Israeli boy who meet in the hospital ward where they are treated for wounds sustained as a result of the ongoing violence in the Middle East. Koundakjian noted that much of her work is autobiographical but added, with a touch of humor, that “poets like to elaborate.”
Danielle Lazarin, another NoMAA grantee who was scheduled to read, could not attend because she went into early labor. (She later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.). Sunday Best hopes that she will read at a future event. In the meantime, you can find some of Lazarin’s work online, including her story Dinosaurs at Five Chapters, her story Gone at Boston Review, and her interview with novelist Dan Chaon at Fiction Writers Review.
Thanks to the efforts of Veronica Liu of Washington Heights Free Radio (WHFR), the technical wizardry of Sunday Best sound technician Theo Rosen, and equipment provided by Sig Rosen through the Renaissance Chorus Association, this event was recorded and aired on WHFR during its Wednesday night broadcast on March 9. If you missed any part of this event or attended but would like to hear it again, you can download and listen to the audio file on Sunday Best’s program page on the WHFR website.
A big thank you to Susan Sermoneta who filled in as Sunday Best photographer for this event. You can see more of Susan’s photography on her website and her Flickr photostream. Susan’s photos of this event have been uploaded to Sunday Best’s Flickr account, which you can access here and on the sidebar of this blog.