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‘Hamilton’ star Daveed Diggs: Slam poetry saved my life 


At 4 a.m. Saturday, Daveed Diggs left the party celebrating his last performance in the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” threw some clothes in a bag, and jumped a train for Washington.

A little over 12 hours later, he was at the Kennedy Center, emceeing the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals. “It’s not hyperbole when I say, I need this so bad right now,” he announced to deafening cheers from the audience.

The poetry slam is an annual competition for teenagers run by Youth Speaks, a nonprofit organization focused on youth education and the oral art of spoken word, or poetry recitation. This year’s event was huge, drawing more than 500 teens from all over the world. But when Youth Speaks was founded, in 1996, it mostly touched kids living in the Bay Area, including one Oakland native named Daveed Diggs.

“I had to make this happen,” Diggs said in an interview before taking the stage. “They would have loved me to finish out the weekend at ‘Hamilton,’ but I wanted to do this.”

Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, with a baseball cap taming his mass of curly hair, he spoke thoughtfully about his youth and his artistic path, frequently flashing his signature wide grin.

Diggs was a student at Berkeley High School just as Youth Speaks was planting its roots in the neighborhood. The group, Diggs said, made poetry and spoken word just another teen activity, as common as parties or football games.

“It was a part of what you did growing up,” he said. “It was woven in the fabric of the community. I don’t think I realized how special that was until I left. I didn’t know that it wasn’t part of what everyone did when they were teenagers, which was to go watch your friends spit poems.”

As a result, Diggs ended up with a group of friends who all write and perform. When the 34-year-old accepted a Tony Award this year for his dual roles as Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton,” he gave a shout-out to Rafael Casal and Chinaka Hodge, two Youth Speaks veterans he has been close with since his youth. Both also had roles in the festival.

In high school, Diggs participated in poetry slams co-organized by Youth Speaks. The group’s founder and executive director, James Kass, still remembers the first time he saw Diggs perform.

“I remember the intelligent nature of his work,” Kass said. “On the stage, he was dynamic. The same energy you see in ‘Hamilton’ now, that was evident when he was a young person.”

Diggs used to write his poems 10 minutes before a show on a notecard scribbled with thoughts and arrows connecting ideas. It wasn’t until Youth Speaks that he learned how to get organized, he said, and think about structure and word choice.

“I was a very good performer, but not a great writer,” he said. “Then Youth Speaks came in, and I got to see the poets they were working with, and they started working with the poets at Berkeley High School. I became very aware that the way they were teaching writing was great.”

Shortly after, he started to write rap songs using the techniques he had learned, forming and joining multiple hip-hop groups that eventually led to his meeting “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in Miranda’s freestyle group, Freestyle Love Supreme.

After graduating from Brown University in 2004, Diggs worked for Youth Speaks as a teacher, imparting the same lessons he had absorbed when he was a budding artist.

“I was really aware, even while it was happening, that the discovery of arts education in my life sort of saved my life,” Diggs said. “As a kid, you don’t have a ton of spaces where you are honored, where what you think is honored, and what you say is revered.”

The personal, political and intimate nature of spoken-word performance translated to his acting as well.

“Acting is about finding truth and finding the way to convey the truth,” he said. “These kids writing their own stories have such easy access to that. I do try to access what I learned from watching them when I’m acting. What are the ways to feel really honest? If it feels forced, it’s not going to work. It doesn’t matter if you wrote the words or not.”

Diggs hoped his presence at Brave New Voices would show the teens that they, too, could make a life from the world of poetry, hip-hop and performance.

“Maybe I can make them a little less stressed out about the future,” he said. “I was so stressed, man. When I was 17, I was so worried about what the hell was going to happen. Maybe it’ll take some of that stress away.”

Youth Speaks’s goal, Kass said, is to create a new generation of people who will define the culture of the future — just as Diggs is doing.

“Here’s a young person we’ve known who is now one of the hottest people in American theater,” Kass said. “Now he is speaking to an entire audience of people that could be him in 15 to 20 years.”

Diggs’s appearance at the festival wasn’t entirely selfless, however. He’s been in a “Hamilton” bubble for two years, and now he needs to recharge. For that, it made sense to return to where he came from, even if he was tired from pulling an all-nighter.

“The energy in the room is crazy,” he said, laughing. “It’s crazy. Every time I come to one of these things, I’m sweating and crying and laughing and screaming. It’s been a while since I was just in a room where kids were being brilliant and honest. I need this for myself. I really wanted to make sure I had the space to come here, and be inspired, and remember what this is like.”

Phantom of the Opera Restaged National Tour Review

Here it is folks, my complete review of the “new” re-staged US national tour.  Below the cut you’re going to find a scene-by-scene review as well as overall impressions, observations, and opinions regarding this new staging.  My old school phan cohort, @inkedalchemy​ attended this performance with me and we were honestly trying to stay as open minded and neutral as possible regarding a new look to the classic show.  In general, there were things that we liked, and could see worked into the original production.  We also saw things we did not care for at all.  But despite that, we’ve compiled a thorough review for you all to read and consider.

But before I get started, I will emphasize the fact that this is NOT a game of “WTF do you know,” nor do I wish to start another internet flame fest between those who prefer the new tour and those who prefer the original production.  Let’s all be adults, let’s all be civil, let’s all respect each others’ opinions.  Those who felt I was unfairly judging the new tour before told me I could not have an opinion on it without seeing it in person…well, I went and paid money and did that.  While there were aspects I enjoyed, my overall impression of the production did not change.

Keep reading

At 4 a.m. Saturday, Daveed Diggs left the party celebrating his last performance in the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” threw some clothes in a bag, and jumped on a train for Washington.


A little over 12 hours later, he was at the Kennedy Center, emceeing the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals. “It’s not hyperbole when I say, I need this so bad right now,” he announced to deafening cheers from the audience.


The poetry slam is an annual competition for teenagers run by Youth Speaks, a nonprofit organization focused on youth education and the oral art of spoken word, or poetry recitation. This year’s event was huge, drawing more than 500 teens from all over the world. But when Youth Speaks was founded in 1996, it mostly touched kids living in the Bay Area, including one Oakland native named Daveed Diggs.


“I had to make this happen,” Diggs said in an interview before taking the stage. “They would have loved me to finish out the weekend at ‘Hamilton,’ but I wanted to do this.”


[…]


In high school, Diggs participated in poetry slams co-organized by Youth Speaks. The group’s founder and executive director, James Kass, still remembers the first time he saw Diggs perform.


“I remember the intelligent nature of his work,” Kass said. “On the stage, he was dynamic. The same energy you see in ‘Hamilton’ now, that was evident when he was a young person.”


Diggs used to write his poems 10 minutes before a show on a notecard scribbled with thoughts and arrows connecting ideas. It wasn’t until Youth Speaks that he learned how to get organized, he said, and think about structure and word choice.


“I was a very good performer, but not a great writer,” he said. “Then Youth Speaks came in, and I got to see the poets they were working with, and they started working with the poets at Berkeley High School. I became very aware that the way they were teaching writing was great.”


Shortly after, he started to write rap songs using the techniques he had learned, forming and joining multiple hip-hop groups that eventually led to his meeting “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in Miranda’s freestyle group, Freestyle Love Supreme.


After graduating from Brown University in 2004, Diggs worked for Youth Speaks as a teacher, imparting the same lessons he had absorbed when he was a budding artist.


“I was really aware, even while it was happening, that the discovery of arts education in my life sort of saved my life,” Diggs said. “As a kid, you don’t have a ton of spaces where you are honored, where what you think is honored, and what you say is revered.”


[…]


Youth Speaks’s goal, Kass said, is to create a new generation of people who will define the culture of the future — just as Diggs is doing.


“Here’s a young person we’ve known who is now one of the hottest people in American theater,” Kass said. “Now he is speaking to an entire audience of people that could be him in 15 to 20 years.”


Diggs’s appearance at the festival wasn’t entirely selfless, however. He’s been in a “Hamilton” bubble for two years, and now he needs to recharge. For that, it made sense to return to where he came from, even if he was tired from pulling an all-nighter.


“The energy in the room is crazy,” he said, laughing. “It’s crazy. Every time I come to one of these things, I’m sweating and crying and laughing and screaming. It’s been a while since I was just in a room where kids were being brilliant and honest. I need this for myself. I really wanted to make sure I had the space to come here, and be inspired, and remember what this is like.”

“In my 38 years of being involved with selling tickets for various activities, I don’t believe there has ever been this kind of ‘but how do I get my-tickets’ conversation,” said Deborah F. Rutter, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.


“Hamilton” is scheduled to be at the Kennedy Center for 14 weeks in the summer of 2018; on Wednesday, the center started selling tickets for its 2016-17 season, with the promise that anyone who subscribes that season, and renews next, will be guaranteed tickets. The effort to goad people into subscribing for two years to get tickets to the show prompted criticism in The Washington Post from a blogger, who called it a “quite high entrance fee,” and from a letter writer, who criticized what she called “extortionist prices.”


Ms. Rutter said there would be tickets available for purchase to nonsubscribers, but that it only made sense to reach out to try to bolster subscriptions first.


“People have accused us of gouging, but it’s not gouging — if you want to be first in line, the best way to do that is to be a subscriber,” Ms. Rutter said.


The strategy is already proving a significant boon to theaters where “Hamilton” will be staged — some are nonprofits, and some are commercial enterprises, but all depend on subscriptions or memberships as important elements of their budgets. Many arts groups have hard times sustaining subscription bases as consumers gravitate toward more à la carte and last-minute planning for their cultural activities.


“We live and breathe by the subscription model,” said Lauren Reid, chief executive of the theater unit at Key Brand Entertainment, which brings shows to 40 stages in North America through its Broadway Across America subsidiary.


Ms. Reid said she had never seen as high a level of consumer awareness about a new show as for “Hamilton”; consequently, she added, every theater expecting “Hamilton” is “teasing” it early to promote subscriptions.


“The bottom line is ‘Hamilton’ is really good for our industry,” she said. “It’s an event, and it’s a cultural moment, and it’s unusual that we have an opportunity like this to highlight something special.”


The tactic is working. In Chicago, the first city outside New York where “Hamilton” will be seen (starting on Sept. 27), Broadway in Chicago has sold out its fall subscription package for the first time, according to Lou Raizin, the organization’s president.


The company has not yet started selling tickets to nonsubscribers — and there will be many such tickets available, because the show plans to stay in Chicago as long as sales are healthy. But, Mr. Raizin said: “We believe there will be very strong demand. You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to have that opinion.”


In San Francisco, where “Hamilton” is expected to run at the SHN Orpheum Theater for 21 weeks, starting next March, SHN, which operates two locations in the city, expects to have 40,000 members enroll for its 2016-17 season, up from the usual 20,000 to 23,000. “‘Hamilton’ has been an incredible driver for membership sales,” said Greg Holland, SHN’s chief executive. Also noteworthy, Mr. Holland said, was that 80 percent of the new membership buyers were first-time visitors to the company’s website.


In Iowa, Des Moines Performing Arts has said that “Hamilton” will come for an unspecified length of time at unspecified dates during the 2017-18 season, but that has been enough to cause a spike in subscriptions to the coming season.


“We’ve more than doubled the number of season tickets purchased compared to a year ago, and our renewal rate is shooting up to the levels we always aspire to,” said Jeff Chelesvig, the center’s president and chief executive. “Our goal is 11,000 subscribers, and I have no doubt we’ll plow through that.”


The lead producer of “Hamilton,” Jeffrey Seller, said he was aware that theaters were using the promise of a future production of the show to market shorter-term subscriptions.


“I’m O.K. with it — it’s good for the theater in general,” he said. “The only thing I don’t want anyone to say is that if you don’t buy a subscription, you won’t be able to get a ticket, because there will be single tickets. They won’t sell out through subscriptions.”

Afghanistan’s first female conductor

By Shaimaa Khalil

For many years, the Taliban banned music and the education of girls in Afghanistan - and although many women still find themselves restricted, one 17-year-old has become the country’s first female conductor.

Kabul is a noisy place with helicopters, sirens, and heavy traffic. But walking into a building in one of the city’s quieter neighbourhoods, I’m welcomed by quite a different sound.

Boys and girls are playing the piano, cello and flute as well as traditional Afghan stringed instruments such as the rubab and sarod. This is the Afghanistan National Institute of Music - the only school of its kind in the country.

The female students have just finished their first concert. Their male colleagues were watching and are now milling around, playing and chatting before heading home at the end of a big day.

What was so special about this concert - apart from the fact that it was an all-female ensemble playing music to a big audience in the middle of violence-ridden Kabul - was that it was led by the country’s very first female conductor, 17-year-old Negin Khpolwak who is also a student here.

Now, she has retreated along a concrete corridor to one of the rehearsal rooms where she’s sitting at the piano playing one of her favourite pieces - Piano Sonatina in C major by the Italian composer Muzio Clementi.

I can see she’s still learning it but what she lacks in experience, she makes up for with her spirit and passion.

“Khosh Amadeed - welcome,” says Negin with a shy smile. “Today my hands are aching a bit so I am not on a top form. But I love practising the piano.

"All I want is to become a very good concert pianist and conductor, not only in Afghanistan, but in the world,” she says.

“So did you grow up around music?” I ask. “No,” she says looking startled.

She comes from a poor family in Kunar province, a conservative area - one of the strongholds of the Taliban insurgency in the north-east of Afghanistan.

“Girls in Kunar don’t go to school and many are not allowed to study music by their families,” she says. “So I had to go to Kabul to fulfil my dream. My father helped me.”

When Negin was nine, he sent her to live in a children’s home in Kabul so that she could get an education. That’s where she first started listening to music and watching performances on television. 

She auditioned to join the institute and has been studying here for four years - of more than 200 students, about a quarter are girls. It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Negin’s mother was happy for her to go to school, but didn’t like the idea of her studying music. She wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

“My uncle told us, ‘No girls in our family should learn music. It’s against tradition.’”

Under pressure from her relatives, Negin had to leave the institute for six months. Eventually her father intervened, telling her uncle, “It’s Negin’s life. She should study music if she wants to.”

“So I came back,” she says.

This is a common problem, according to Ahmad Sarmast, the founder and director of the institute. “A child is enrolled with the full blessing of their parents but then an uncle or aunt or grandfather or village elder starts putting pressure on the parents to pull the child out of the music programme or from education in general.”

It’s not just tradition and conservatism that the institute has to contend with - there’s also violence. There are many here who believe most music is sinful. Last year, one of the student concerts organised outside the campus was targeted by a young suicide bomber - one person in the audience was killed while Sarmast’s hearing was damaged and eleven pieces of shrapnel lodged in his head.

“Does that not scare you, the prospect of further bombings?” I ask him. “No,” he says. “We are part of this struggle. We are standing against violence and terror with our arts and culture, particularly with music. That’s one of the ways we can educate our people about the importance of living in peace and harmony, rather than killing each other.”

He looks at Negin. “Part of my inspiration is her and students like her, who keep coming here despite the difficulties.”

In February 2013, Negin was chosen to represent the institute on a trip to the US where she performed at the Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, playing the sarod.

“It was so amazing. I felt so good but I had always wanted to become a pianist,” she says.

So after she returned to Kabul, she started learning the piano and took up conducting as well.

“It was my first time [conducting a performance] today. I was so happy. I cried when I got on the stage and saw all the people in the audience. I want Afghanistan to be like other countries in the world, where girls can become pianists and conductors.”

With that in mind, she’s also been practising conducting male and female students together in the mixed orchestra.

“So, when you become a famous pianist and play abroad, can I come along for free? Or will I have to pay for an expensive ticket?” I ask.

“Hmmm, no, sorry you have to pay,” she jokes. I say goodbye promising, one day, to come to one of her concerts.

And as we drive through checkpoints amid the noisy traffic, I can still hear Negin’s beautiful music along with the faint but still persistent promise of hope in Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Huong Ly.

CeCe Winans Joins Star-Studded Celebration to Show Honor To Entertainment Legends

Cece Winans and Kerry Washington.

        

     

Los Angeles, CA (Monday, December 7, 2015) - The stars were out in the nation’s capitol Sunday evening to pay tribute to a group of well deserving legends that represents decades of extraordinary entertainment.  Award-winning singer Cece Winans was part of the all-star tribute to the trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson at the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors, and ended the segment with a powerful and touching version of “Blessed Assurance” that received a standing ovation.

   

  

Also joining Winans in the segment was Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Terence Blanchard, Tyler Perry and The Cicely Tyson High School Performing Arts Choir. Serving as Music Director for the evening was multi-talented Rickey Minor and his amazing band. “ I’ve been working towards excellence for many years and it’s awfully nice when people recognize it’, says Minor.

    

  

“Tonight was a defining moment for me.  I can’t expressed how blessed I am to be here. I was so honored to be able to use the gift that God is gave me to honor a woman who has done so much for our community and nation. Cicely Tyson is the best. I will never forget this night,” says Winans.                       

      

  

In addition to Ms. Tyson, this year’s honorees includes: Rita Morena (actress/singer); George Lucas  (Filmmaker); Carol King (Singer/Songwriter) and Seiji Ozawa  (Conductor).  

    

  

CeCe Winans, Tyler Perry and Viola Davis.

  

   

Their lifetime artistic achievements will be broadcast in form of gala on CBS Tuesday, December 29 at 9:00p.m., ET/PT. The presentation of a Kennedy Center Honors to the popular rock band, T Due to the health of Glenn Fry, The Eagles has been postponed until 2016.