Don Shewey’s 2021 in Review

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Don Shewey
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My cultural round-up has usually centered on theater. This year theater finally did come back and hooray for that but late in a year otherwise unusually dominated by TV and movies (I logged 150 on my watchlist). It’s hard to know how to make any kind of ranked list – Best Things Of The Year – but my #1 discovery was AROOJ AFTAB, the queer Pakistani-born Brooklyn-based singer whose gorgeous album Vulture Prince nabbed her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and whose show at Pioneer Works was my first indoor concert since the Before Times. Website

LAURIE ANDERSON’s six Norton Lectures wandered deeply and widely over history, literature, science, politics, and personal reminiscence. Website

Television has never been my go-to but I felt deeply fed by watching all four seasons of the Australian series Please Like Me (website) and I have The New Yorker’s Alex Barasch to thank for making me curious and then a big fan of creator and star Josh Thomas (his second series, Everything’s Going To Be Okay not so much). I generally resist the big shows everyone loves and talks about (will I ever watch Succession? Doubtful) but I broke down and watched Ted Lasso, shocked by how good the writing and performances were; ditto The White Lotus and Hacks.

Documentaries I always have time for, and this year the music docs were stellar. Questlove’s Summer of Soul made going back to the movie theater rapturous. Also great: Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers. In a category of its own was Peter Jackson’s revisiting The Beatles: Get Back, eight hours of bliss for this Beatlemaniac. I’m a latecomer to Frederick Wiseman’s long slow masterpieces but this year his City Hall blew me away with its portrait of Boston city government and charismatic mayor Marty Walsh (now running Biden’s Department of Transportation). Hulu’s Pride series impressed me by going above and beyond familiar (white) faces and names in front of and behind the camera.

Also in another category was Can You Bring It, the documentary about BILL T. JONES, the dance company he created with his late partner Arnie Zane, and recreating the AIDS-era piece D-Man in the Water. Jones also created one of the finest live performances I saw this year, deep blue sea at the Park Avenue Armory, a fierce mashup of Moby Dick and Martin Luther King, Jr., with a cast of 100 dancers and state-of-the-art visual design.

I saw lots of feature films, online and on the big screen, my favorites being Nomadland (with stunning performance by Frances McDormand), Zola, The French Dispatch, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Art-house streaming services turned me on several great unheralded foreign films: Aquarius, directed by the Brazilian master Kleber Mendonça Filho, with an astonishing lead performance by Sonia Braga, and Arab Blues, a French-Tunisian comedy by first-time director Manele Labidi.

SARAH SCHULMAN figured heavily in my cultural year, first with Let the Record Show, her exceptionally thorough and well-written history of ACT UP, and then the Criterion Channel allowed me to catch up with Stephen Winter’s 2015 Jason and Shirley, in which Schulman and Jack Waters give mind-boggling performances as documentarian Shirley Clarke and Jason Holiday, the subject of Portrait of Jason. Another book that excited me this year was Paul B. Preciado’s essay collection An Apartment on Uranus, which also served the function of making me track down the powerful, legendarily transgressive film Baise-Moi by Preciado’s former partner Virginie Despentes.

Between the pandemic shutdown and the post-George Floyd racial reckoning, whose work gets shown and how we get access felt quite transformed this year. The best live theater I saw were two highly experimental pieces – Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., performed by the ever-great Deirdre O’Connell directed by Les Waters, and Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room, with an unforgettable frail-tough performance by Emily Davis as government whistle-blower Reality Winner — that wound up playing in rep! on Broadway! Another live triumph: Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah at the Public Theater, sharply staged by Candis B. Jones on Adam Rigg’s spectacular set with five strong performances. Streaming allowed me to catch Kristin Wong’s excellent solo show Sweatshop Overlord after its run at New York Theater Workshop. Almost always in a category of his own, WALLACE SHAWN distinguished himself playing Lucky in Scott Elliott’s remarkably effective Zoom version of Waiting for Godot and had the good fortune to have Lili Taylor perform his monologue The Fever at the Minetta Lane. But one of the absolute best Things of the Year was the release of two exquisitely produced theater-of-the-ear six-part podcasts (available online for free) of Shawn’s dark drama The Designated Mourner and his surrealist comedy Grasses of a Thousand Colors, performed by the original New York casts (including Shawn himself) directed by Andre Gregory with phenomenal sound design by Bruce Odland.

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