Robert Faires' Top 10 Works That Spoke to Me About 2020
Throughout 2020, performances and books seemed to contain messages about the year – its trials, its traumas, and its echoes in history
I experienced less art this year (for reasons that don't need repeating), but so much of what I did experience seemed to be telling me something about this year – its trials, its traumas, its echoes in history. Here are some I can still hear.
1) (RE)CURRENT UNREST (dance theatre X) Not even COVID could stop Charles O. Anderson from completing and presenting his years-in-the-making magnum opus on systemic racism and oppression of Black people in America. Though its gripping, raw, profound movement and images came through a screen, the streamed live performance had the urgency of a 2020 protest in the streets.
2) EVEREST (Austin Opera) Weeks before the shutdown, this opera by composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer provided a haunting, poignant picture of extreme isolation and death. But if AO's production was a harbinger of what we'd be facing with COVID, it was also a lesson in surviving nature at its harshest, in human resilience, and in remembering those we lost.
3) THE ZEALOT AND THE EMANCIPATOR (Doubleday) By telling the stories of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln in tandem, historian H.W. Brands reframed their complicated passions and flawed efforts to free enslaved Black people, and also revealed striking parallels between the elections of 1860 and 2020. The extreme polarization, violent rhetoric, distortions – we've been here before.
4) 19TH AMENDMENT MURAL (Downtown Austin Alliance) There was no ignoring the 19th Amendment's centenary, thanks to the 100-foot tribute painted on the LINE Hotel by Sandra Chevrier and Shepard "Hope" Fairey. It reminded us not only that the seven-decade battle for women's suffrage was heroic – Wonder Woman breaking chains front and center! – but that women would be a potent force in the 2020 elections.
5) MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET (UT Dept. of Theatre & Dance) Even with Katrina bearing down on Plaquemines Parish, this play's titular young hero persisted in his search for identity and history and came to a new understanding of himself as Black and gay. This gorgeous, absorbing, magical, funny, heartbreaking production – among the department's finest – proved that disaster shouldn't keep us from self-discovery.
6) THE CONTROL GROUP (Penfold Theatre) Penfold's answer to the quarantine was to make theatre more intimate and personal. Its series of one-on-one phone calls between you and a scientist in the future seeking to solve an anomaly in the time stream created a welcome human connection. But still more heartening was the work's message that small kindnesses could save humanity.
7) FEDERICO ARCHULETA Big Medium may have brought this beloved Austin muralist indoors for the revelatory mini-retrospective "Adiós, Amén, Hasta Luego," but El Federico spent most of 2020 where he always has: On the streets, and there he blessed us with a brilliant artistic response to COVID, the "Praying Washing Hands."
8) BEYOND THE CLOUDS (Blue Lapis Light) A departure from the sky-high spectacle of BLL's usual dances, this work kept dancers close to the ground, confined to small scaffolds and apart from one another. It conveyed the pain of quarantine, but Sally Jacques also choreographed gestures of prayerfulness and serenity, suggesting a spiritual way past our isolation.
9) BARN 8 (Graywolf Press) As our lives shrank to the size of our houses, novelist Deb Olin Unferth gave us the world – through chickens. Her tale of an improbable hen heist – stealing a million in one night! – was as expansive as it was absurd, expounding on all things poultry and embracing all things human, including failings and frailties. That's openness and compassion we need now.
10) EVERY BRILLIANT THING (Zach Theatre) Theatre with audience participation has become unthinkable since the pandemic hit, so I'm thankful this show was staged before. Its conceit of everyone present helping the sole performer – here, an engaging Kriston Woodreaux – list the pleasures that make life worth living created a communal celebration of simple joys and the wonder of existence, and that's helped me treasure what I have during this most trying of years.