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UW-L play tackles themes of racism, family

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse theater department hopes to broaden awareness of our current racial climate, using an award-winning play as the vehicle.

The theater department will stage “Appropriate” starting next Friday and running through Oct. 22 in the Toland Theatre.

“Appropriate,” winner of the 2014–15 Obie Award for Best New American Play, follows members of the Lafayette family as they return to their dead father’s Arkansas homestead and discover evidence of his racist past while going through his belongings.

Director Beth Cherne said she is drawn to plays that having something important to say, and in today’s national racial climate, “Appropriate” brings these discussions to the fore.

While the cast of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is entirely white, it still allows audiences to take a look at the nuances and subtleties of racial attitudes.

“That was part of the fun and challenge with this play,” she said. “The themes and messages are not direct. The actors have to bring them up and highlight them in their performance.”

A relatively unique feature of the production was the use of a dramaturg, or research specialist, who helped dig into the history and culture of Southern racism. UW-L senior Caitlyn Nettesheim started working on the play last January and her work helped flesh out the play and get the actors into the right mindset for their roles.

Her research also will be on display on the panels and murals in the lobby that audiences encounter before each production. Along with information on the cast and crew, the panels let audience members explore the history of hate crimes in the United States. Lynchings were common not just in the South, with recorded lynchings as far north as Duluth (in 1920).

“A lot of the show deals with the family dealing with its history of racism and the country’s history of racism,” Nettesheim said. “My job was to bring forth this information and provide more perspective.”

As part of the Thursday, Oct. 19, performance, UW-L ethnic and racial studies Professor Richard Breaux will facilitate a post-show discussion. Audience members will have a chance to reflect on some of the heavier content of the play as well as the history of race and whiteness in the United States.

Instead of leading the discussion, Breaux hopes to be a facilitator of the conversation. And it is an important one to have, he said, in light of recent incidents such as the protests and violence in Charlottesville, Va., as well as incidents of white nationalism and white supremacy around the country.

“I hope to add perspective rather than just give perspective,” he said. “It is appropriate given the time we are living in.”

Because of the mature themes and content of the play, Cherne said “Appropriate” is not intended for audiences of all ages. She hopes audiences will get a lot out of watching this dysfunctional family deal with its past and the actions of its patriarch.

“I hope they enjoy the roller-coaster ride,” she said. “I hope they listen and get the full depth of the play.”

Movie review: ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a wondrous spectacle

Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has taken on the herculean task of directing the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” a feat that seems nearly impossible to pull off, considering the reverence with which fans hold the original, one of the most unique and influential pieces of sci-fi cinema. Villeneuve’s film, “Blade Runner 2049,” is a remarkable achievement, a film that feels distinctly auteurist, yet also cut from the same cloth as Scott’s film.

This epic riff on the styles, themes and characters of “Blade Runner” expand the scope and story of this world. Written by original screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, “2049” is a meditative and moving film, sumptuously photographed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins in the finest and most astonishing work of his career. He paints with light and shadow, creating a wonderfully tactile sense of space and texture, using a palette of slate, cerulean and marigold. The aesthetic is subdued, yet thrilling. The score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, sounding like rumbling engines and blaring sirens, simultaneously lulls and agitates.

To belabor story details is to miss the bigger picture of “Blade Runner 2049.” The style is rich, the themes are complex, but the story is a simple, classically cinematic tale. A man is faced with an existential quandary through which he reckons with his own soul and identity in the face of incredible dehumanization.

As LAPD officer K, searching out illegal replicants, Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as a successor to Deckard (Harrison Ford). His nonchalance reflects the emotionally remote environment, the uneasy, distrustful daily existence in this dystopian, isolated future. He is riveting when K’s spirit tries to break through the studiously placid surface. Sylvia Hoeks stuns as Luv, a character who seems to be a reference to Sean Young’s Rachael, just a whole lot tougher.

This is a dark future that feels all too plausible. Nothing is sleek and shiny, but worn and faded. K wears comfortable knits under his avant-garde top coat. He conducts his detective work the old-fashioned way, through card catalogs and micro-film — a blackout wiped out digital records, so this modernist world has become analog again. It’s just different enough, but the drone warfare, dumpster bandits, child labor, and sex robots are all simply extensions of things that already exist.

“2049” is a wondrous spectacle, imbued with haunting questions about humanity. But it is flawed, as epics tend to be. At a beefy 2 hour, 43 minute run time, the film loses grip on its tight control of the storytelling in the third hour, and flails before finding an appropriate ending. And while K’s intimate connections with others reflect the existence of his soul, one can’t help but feel that the perspective on sex in the film is deeply rooted in uninterrogated male fantasy, despite the presence of fascinating female characters.

The conceit of both films is the Turing Test — human or machine? The conceal and reveal exposes both the soul of machines and the coldness of a humanity that forces subordinate beings into slavery in the service of capitalism. But is a machine sentient? What denotes personal bodily autonomy? What value can be found in the liminal space between human and machine? “Blade Runner 2049” poses those questions, raised 35 years ago, with a piercing, urgent sense of intelligence and intimacy.

Randy Erickson: Tom Petty left the world a better place

This time of year always takes some getting used to for me. I’m an early riser, and I really don’t much like getting up before the sun. But this week, it’s felt dark all day, every day, ever since I realized the sad news about Tom Petty was true.

The newsroom at the Tribune already was in a somber state Monday because of the horrible mass shooting Sunday in Las Vegas when the first reports started surfacing that Petty had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t doing well. Unlike some of the musicians I have mentioned at work, Petty didn’t draw blank looks from my mostly younger co-workers. Everyone knew who Tom Petty was, and the news was a shock to all.

Any other week, Tom Petty’s death would have been “sad news on the doorstep,” but until today, our print editions haven’t acknowledged his passing. That might seem strange — even incomprehensible to some — but it has been a weird week with lots of other big news. His death wasn’t confirmed in time for Tuesday morning’s paper, and by Tuesday afternoon it didn’t seem like the big news it had the day before.

I went to bed Monday night thinking maybe he could miraculously pull through, and it was a hopeful omen for me when I didn’t see anything in the next morning’s paper (which I still always read before going online — go ahead, call me a dinosaur).

Petty is the fourth musician this year whose passing compelled me to write a column. Chuck Berry and Glen Campbell joining the heavenly band weren’t huge surprises. Local guitarist George McCune’s death was as much a shock as Petty’s, but the weight of Petty’s passing has been so hard to shoulder. He was one of my biggest musical heroes.

Petty hooked me the first time I heard “Breakdown” on my car radio during my high school days. I loved the way Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers, eased into the song, built it to a crescendo and then brought it back down to a simmering fadeout. It had a different dynamic than anything I’d heard and there were so many things to love about it — the sliding bass run on the verses, the sinewy organ fills, the slinky guitar riff, the way Petty sang the verses with a hint of some kind of exotic accent.

And even with my rather basic guitar skills and untrained voice, my bandmates and I could perform a convincing version of the song. It was a simple song, really, but compelling. Maybe it wasn’t that danceable, but it seemed so COOL.

Even in his early songs, Petty was showing signs of brilliance as a songwriter, keeping things simple and skillfully mining the human experience for lyrics that years later people would know by heart, not hesitating to give them full-throated voice at his concerts. In the end, he was a master.

I’ve seen Petty roughly half a dozen times, more than I’ve seen any other recording artist, and I’ve bought every studio album he ever put out (even the Mudcrutch and Traveling Wilburys albums). Other than The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen and a few artists who only put out a couple records, I haven’t had the kind of obsessive devotion I had for Petty. It’s like the awesome songwriter Todd Snider wrote in “Vinyl Records” — “I’ve got piles and piles and piles of Tom Petty.”

I haven’t loved every album like I adore “Damn the Torpedos” — a “desert island” album for sure — but I’ve always been able to count on Petty to make it worth my money. It makes me sad there won’t be more Petty songs, and I hate that he was taken so suddenly. He had to know he was loved, though, especially after this year’s recently conclude 40th anniversary concert tour, which I was lucky enough to catch this summer in St. Paul.

Check out Sunday’s paper for a proper appreciation of Tom Petty. And meanwhile, listen to some Petty songs. It might make you feel like he’s not really gone.

Rock on ...