Meet the photographers, writers, comedians, and actors who shined in 2017
Black is beautiful. That’s the message Bobby Rogers hopes to impart with his photography. “The Blacker the Berry,” his debut exhibition at Public Functionary this fall, featured 10 photographs of black subjects posed against jewel-hued backdrops and draped in elegant threads. The portraits, measuring 3-by-4 feet each, impart an aesthetic of ancient royal relics, while the slick quality of the photographs lends a futuristic, otherworldly bent.
While growing up in north Minneapolis in the ’90s, Rogers wasn’t exposed to contemporary black artists. “A lot of what I learned about myself in the early stages came through hip-hop and came through listening to musicians talk about their blackness and being able to relate to it and being able to relate to their journeys,” he says.
He began teaching himself how to photograph through YouTube videos, blogs, and practice. After graduating from MCAD, Rogers amassed a body of work, including a portrait series, inspired by the hashtag #BeingBlackandMuslim, that was picked up by BuzzFeed.
When Tricia Heuring of Public Functionary approached Rogers about doing a solo show, Rogers had planned an amalgamation of his photo projects. But when he arrived at a portrait he’d done of a black woman looking elegant and proud in blue velvet, he realized he wanted to explore that style of portraiture more.
What viewers notice immediately about the series is the subjects’ eyes: They’re glowy white, a look achieved with contacts and what he calls “post-production magic.” The effect is inspired by anime, spirituality, and mysticism.
Rogers’ photography isn’t meant to be a provocative visual stunt. Rather, he wants to elevate images of black culture to counteract societal narratives of blackness. “I want these images to restructure the inter-prejudicial mindset that a lot of blacks have of themselves of not being beautiful,” he says. —Erica Rivera
At the 2017 Ivey Awards, Meghan Kreidler won twice: She was honored as a member of the Vietgone ensemble, and subsequently received this year’s prestigious Emerging Artist award. Accepting the latter, she left the audience with an appropriate rallying cry for 2017: “Screw fear!”
This year Kreidler exploded on the Twin Cities theater scene with one unforgettable performance after another, from a conflicted daughter in the History Theatre’s Paper Dreams of Harry Chin to a fierce Aldonza in Theater Latté Da’s Man of La Mancha to the knowing bombshell Linda Low in Flower Drum Song, a collaboration between Theater Mu and Park Square Theatre.
“I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride,” says Kreidler. “I can trust my ideas and my choices.”
Though this was a breakout year for Kreidler, she’s no stranger to local stages. After graduating in 2013 from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA program, she began landing roles with some of the area’s most prominent companies. Among them, perhaps most critically, was Theater Mu.
“Growing up, I always felt like I had to look a certain way if I was going to be successful; have certain features, basically just very European,” says the actor, whose mother is Korean-American. “When I did my first show with Mu, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a whole other world that I didn’t know existed.’”
Kreidler’s busy life in theater could be enough, but she’s also an emerging rock star, fronting Kiss the Tiger. When they perform live, she makes full use of her powerful stage presence.
“I don’t consider myself a musical-theater singer, even though I’ve done a lot of musicals,” she says. “Having the experience of singing in the band gave me a different idea of how I can approach it.... Playing music has helped me find more abandonment in my theater work.”
Her double life, and her rising profile, inevitably lead to questions about where she’s headed.
“I don’t know how sustainable it is,” she says about going from rehearsal room to rock club. “I’m still pretty young, I guess, and have a lot of energy.” She already has commitments through August (including a stint with puppetry in the Children’s Theater’s Lorax). —Jay Gabler
Writer and spoken-word artist Bao Phi’s 2017 veered between extremes. On the positive end, he published his second collection of poetry, Thousand Star Hotel, and his first children’s book, A Different Pond. The poems unpack a lifetime’s worth of experience, from fleeing Vietnam as an infant, experiencing racism growing up in Minneapolis, struggles in therapy, and his fierce love for his eight-year-old daughter. A Different Pond is based on early-morning fishing excursions with his father, during which he learned what life was like in Vietnam.
In October, Phi brought his daughter with him to his Twin Cities Book Festival appearance. “It was 50-50 whether she would heckle me or not,” he says with a laugh.
His author appearances extended far beyond Minnesota, however. Via Kickstarter, he met his goal of $6,000 in a week, a total that increased to $10,000 by the end of the campaign. Those contributions funded a tour for Thousand Star Hotel. Phi has traveled in four-day blocks by bus or train with stops in Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
As program director at the Loft, Phi celebrated the 15th anniversary of Equilibrium, a spoken-word series he founded. “Running anything for 15 years is a feat, let alone something that lasts 15 years for indigenous and people of color and it pays everyone,” he says.
While those professional accomplishments are enough to make any author envious, on the personal side, Phi says, “It’s been a difficult year.” Worry and depression dogged him; despite his success, he struggled with being down on himself. Therapy-guided introspection helped. “I’m trying to enjoy the good things. I’m doing my best,” he says. “I’m trying to appreciate every moment that I have with my daughter, and I’m trying to appreciate how gracious and generous people have been with these two books.” —Erica Rivera
In July, when Edina native Emily Fridlund received the news that her debut novel, History of Wolves, was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize, she was busy with something more important: giving birth. After a day or two of recovery, she checked her email and “assumed that I must have misunderstood, because this was not something I was expecting at all,” she says. “It was quite a shock, totally overwhelming news in the context of an overwhelming time.”
History of Wolves is set in the northern woods of Minnesota. The protagonist, a 14-year-old girl nicknamed Linda, is “sort of overlooked and not taken seriously for lots of reasons: because of her gender, because of her poverty, because she’s an outcast,” Fridlund says.
History of Wolves started years ago as a short story that Fridlund wrote while working on her Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. “I was missing Minnesota, missing winter, and so I created this little world that allowed me to travel back,” she says. She published the story; in 2013, it won the McGinnis-Ritchie Award. Though Fridlund thought she was done with the piece, she found herself returning to it years later. “It was kind of a thought experiment,” she says.
That experiment yielded results most young writers can only dream of. In September, Fridlund advanced to the Man Booker short list; a month later, she flew to London with her husband and son for the awards ceremony. As a first-time novelist among fellow short-listers like Paul Auster and George Saunders, she was understandably nervous. “I was still getting used to the idea of this very private story finding its way in the world in a more public fashion,” she says.
Though Saunders snagged the prize, Fridlund was still honored to have had the committee take her book so seriously. “I worked a long time on it and I felt strongly about it,” she says, “but you never know when you write a book if it will have the impact that you intend.” —Erica Rivera
April Sellers creates performance pieces out of movement, text, songs, sequins, and politics. While she deals with heady stuff like the deconstruction of the sexual male-female binary, she aims to entertain. She views her approach as similar to that of a standup comedian who pulls you in with humor, then swerves into something else.
“I entirely reject the idea that artists need to be community healers. We should be shining a light, wielding a megaphone,” she declares. Through the April Sellers Dance Collective, she tells the stories of her generation and provides a platform for other voices, including those of transgender people and queer feminists.
“My responsibility is to pull in what’s happening in the world and my own history—my feminism, my years as a tapper, all my lovers, all the costumes I’ve ever worn,” she insists. While her work sparkles like a rhinestone, it also demonstrates a mature sense of craft and a deep-seated intelligence. Sellers is a risk-taker with a relentless passion for getting every detail just right.
Take Animal Corridor, her latest—and possibly greatest—foray into transgressive performance. Sellers wanted to face head-on what she terms, “the hairy alpha man inside me. I have a fuck-ton of aggression that I needed to explore.”
Her performers must have it all, as Sellers asks a lot of them. They need to be skilled movers, singers, actors, and improvisers. But most of all they need to bring themselves to Sellers’ rigorous process. She uses material from their lives, and asks them to play with prompts. “I want the performers to craft the dance in the moment, while they are running around,” she says.
Purposeful running around seems to define Sellers. She’s gaining a national reputation through residencies all over the country. With artists from Portland, Chicago, and New Jersey, she has launched GRUNT (Grass Roots US National Tour), a network designed to support artists who are emerging in their touring experience. —Linda Shapiro
Kory LaQuess Pullam
In June, Minnesota Playlist published a widely read critique of the Moving Company’s Refugia, on stage at the Guthrie Theater. “From beginning to end,” wrote the author, “it is a production that feels like yet another story that was told from the perspective of individuals who are in a bubble.”
The essay carried particular weight as it came from a writer who was also a working actor who had an incentive to avoid ruffling feathers. Nonetheless, he felt it was important to speak out. “Looking back, I felt very vulnerable,” says Kory LaQuess Pullam about his post, which helped spur the Guthrie to host a public conversation about the production.
“I feel like that’s my responsibility,” he reflects. “There is power in numbers, there is power in our voices.”
The conversation demonstrated Pullam’s impact on the Twin Cities theater scene.
A Texas native who moved to Minnesota in 2013, Pullam is also a teacher, a writer, and a comic. He’s a co-founder of Blackout Improv, one of the country’s few all-black improvisational comedy troupes. It’s become a center for audiences and artists who want to be a part of the most essential conversations happening in the Twin Cities.
Pullam also brings the live-wire energy of an improv show to his scripted roles. This year, those have included a sexy ex in Penumbra’s Girl Shakes Loose, an ardent socialist in Girl Friday’s Idiot’s Delight, and the Prince of Denmark himself in Park Square’s Hamlet.
In addition to all of that, Pullam also leads his own theater company. Underdog Theatre has produced two well-received shows written by Pullam, and Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale is coming up in March.
“I don’t fear failing,” says Pullam. “Yes, directing and writing my own show might go very wrong. And who knows? Maybe it will. But if that’s what it takes to make it happen, then I’m going to do it.” —Jay Gabler
Shá Cage’s ingenious creativity and sense of play come alive in work where she both creates and performs. This December, she debuted Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Show, combining storytelling, music, dance, and rap into a joyous coming-of-age tale.
“She’s kind of fearless,” says frequent collaborator Wendy Knox, artistic director of Frank Theatre. “She takes things further than you can ever imagine.”
Cage also graced the Guthrie stage in two Shakespeare plays this year. She was impressive as the King of France in King Lear, demonstrating her command of classical text and subtle sense of humor, and later bore the emotionally heavy role of Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet.
“She adds to the room,” says Joseph Haj, who directed her in both pieces. “She makes any room she’s in a better room by virtue of her presence.”
Cage’s giving nature is seen in the broader community as well, especially as she lifts up underrepresented and marginalized voices. As the curator for the Catalyst series at the now-shuttered Intermedia Arts, Cage works tirelessly to support artists, especially artists of color.
Cage is helping the program continue, even without Intermedia. The Underbelly series, part of Catalyst, features emerging and underrepresented voices. Pangea hosted it this year, and the evening was curated by Akiko Ostlund.
“I have never seen her working solo,” Ostlund says. “She always has community in her mind. I think ‘community’ is the word she uses the most.” —Sheila Regan
After three and a half decades, Red Eye Theatre is transitioning its leadership. Life’s Parade, starring company manager Miriam Must, couldn’t have been a better send-off. The ensemble production, conceived by artistic director Steve Busa and written by Katharine Sherman, was joyous and offbeat. In the play, muses help Must tell the story of a life’s journey.
As a performer, Must brings an impish audacity to her work. Her openness, curiosity, surprising vocal choices, and movement often go against the grain. Over the years, Busa and Must have developed a shorthand vocabulary. “We share a simpatico idea about what is really doable onstage,” he says.
Red Eye came together after Busa met Must while visiting the Twin Cities for a project with the Playwright’s Center. After returning to New York, he and Must had many late-night conversations over the phone, dreaming up how to start a new theater company.
“[Must] is really excited about risk and possibility and experimentation,” says Chantal Pavageaux, who participated in Red Eye’s Isolated Acts series last spring. “[Failure] can be very uncomfortable for people, especially in rehearsal. Miriam can see the other side of the forest in a way.” —Sheila Regan
Carly Van Veldhuizen
If you’ve run across a unique display at an event that made you say, “That is fucking rad,” chances are it was done by Carly Van Veldhuizen. As founder of the award-winning Girl Friday creative group, Van Veldhuizen has been responsible for some of the most interesting custom installations in the Twin Cities, using nontraditional materials to create visual masterpieces.
“I look for materials that tell a story,” Van Veldhuizen says. “I like texture, quantity, and movement that create a wow factor. I like to say our installations are purposeful art.”
Some examples of that wow factor include a magnificent sprawling rainbow balloon wall that swallowed up the Mall of America’s rotunda, a never-ending ring of red and white balloons in the lobby of the downtown Target, and a patriotic red, white, and blue balloon chain at the Fine Line.
While some might say Girl Friday has a signature look, Van Veldhuizen says she doesn’t want to get pigeonholed.
“We’re not balloon artists,” she insists. “We use balloons, but that’s not what we do exclusively.”
Whether that means creating an origami-inspired paper backdrop for a Super Bowl pep rally, foam wigs and laser-cut logos for Regis Salon, or dangling chandeliers of paper leaves for a one-of-a-kind wedding, Girl Friday’s work has been making a statement.
It’s ironic that her pieces have been immortalized in countless wedding pics. “I was a wedding planner, and I sucked at it,” Van Veldhuizen admits. “The design side—without all of the other details and planning—made more sense for me.” —Patrick Strait
Baddies Comedy Co.
Comedians Brandon Riddley, Pierre Douglas, and Bruce Williams opened their own comedy club, Baddies Comedy Co., in February with the goal of catering to black and urban comedy fans.
“We helped bridge that gap between urban and mainstream comedy locally,” says Douglas of the trio’s success. “For years there was tension that really didn’t have to be there, but having a platform allowed us to invite comedians over and show them that we’re all working toward one common goal.”
Their efforts were noticed not only locally, but nationally. Kevin Hart filmed an episode of his Comedy Central show, Hart of the City, at Baddies with a handful of local talents, including Williams. It aired earlier this month.
“Becoming diverse in our material and appeal made it easier for us to work all types of rooms,” Douglas continues. “It’s allowed us to become comfortable in the moment.” —Patrick Strait
Concepts of extinction, time, endurance, and agency on the part of both dancers and audience thread through iterations of choreographer Morgan Thorson’s Still Life series, the most recent of which occurred at the Cowles Center in March. During that 90-minute version, the audience sat onstage for a work of charming, disarming, alarming, and insouciant choreography.
There were animal sounds, vocal outbursts, moments of stillness and freneticism, and moves from yoga, cheerleading, and children’s games. The piece was underscored by Sxip Shirey’s cinematic soundscape and illuminated by lighting designer Lenore Doxsee.
In 2015, the work was performed over a three-month period in the galleries of the Weisman Art Museum. For the 2017 version, Thorson instructed the dancers “to kill the choreography,” which meant they could make changes and insert their own spontaneous responses. That included interacting with one another and interacting with the audience. It was a risky proposition.
Still Life works as a memorial to the ecological disasters and species extinctions occurring in real time. After the Cowles performance, however, the dance became a memorial of another kind. On May 19, Doxsee died of ovarian cancer. “We are anxious to do the piece again, this time as an homage,” Thorson says.
Where and when the next iteration of Still Life will be performed is being negotiated. In the meantime, Thorson is choreographing a new work, Public Love, commissioned by the Walker Art Center to premiere in 2018. —Camille LeFevre
Harrison David Rivers
When Harrison David Rivers arrived in 2013 for a one-year fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center, he didn’t have a place to live. Then he met Josh Wilder, another fellow. After hours of conversation and wine, Wilder invited him to stay—for good. “You take the sofa, I’ll take the bed,” he told him. “We’ll pay $150 in rent, and we’ll just be crazy writers together.”
At 35, Rivers has already had the kind of success most playwrights only dream of: an MFA from Columbia, residencies with the best Off-Broadway theaters, premieres at the National Black Theatre in New York and the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco. In 2018, his work will hit Twin Cities stages for the first time with premieres at the History Theatre, Penumbra, and Theatre Latté Da.
As a black, queer playwright, he writes about lives on the margins in surprising ways. And She Would Stand Like This adapted a Greek tragedy by Euripides to explore themes of belonging, freedom, and illness in underground NYC drag culture.
Rivers often leaves key questions unanswered, such as the time period or a character’s age, in his drafts. While this can bedevil directors and actors, Rivers holds his ground as the play is workshopped. Watching them navigate the story’s gaps reveals interesting discords that he can hone in future drafts. “If I tell you everything,” he says, “then what did we collaborate on?”
For This Bitter Earth, which comes to Penumbra in May, Rivers was commissioned to write about political violence against black male bodies. Instead, he wrote a love story, and found a way to weave it into the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s his most personal play to date.
After moving in with Wilder, Rivers met his husband a few weeks later. On a recent trip to New York, he retrieved the last of his belongings: Ellison’s Invisible Man, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a box of notebooks, and a treasured stuffed animal. —Kip Dooley