Winter arrived early this season, barely halfway through autumn. So some of us have already settled into our hibernating tendencies. Reading around the fireplace. Bingeing on Netflix. Powering up the sound machines to drive away the blues.
And then there is the list-making. What a year it was! In culture and life. I’m mostly out of the business of ranking cultural experiences or making best-of-the-year lists. But consuming culture is pretty much the life I lead, and 2018 seemed like a big year — in Kansas City and some of the places to which I was fortunate to travel.
Yo-Yo Ma with the Kansas City Symphony last spring certainly qualified as a peak musical experience. So did Janelle Monáe’s electrifying show at Starlight under the Open Spaces umbrella. And the Kansas City Ballet’s knockout premiere of “The Wizard of Oz.”
And speaking of Open Spaces, my shortlist of memorable moments included the Nick Cave video installation, “Hy-Dyve,” in a deconsecrated East Side church; Dawn DeDeaux’s consecration of public park space, “Freefall: Prophecy and Free Will in Paradise Lost,” which transformed a hillside into a contemplation zone of symbolic columns and the poetry of John Milton; Federico Solmi’s surround-video experience “The Great Farce” at UMKC’s Gallery of Art; Jill Downen’s minimalist sculpture “An Architectural Folly From a Future Place,” loaded with maximalist ideas at Swope Park; and Lucia Koch’s activation of a vacant lot at 18th and Vine, “The Call, Calling,” an installation piece, with music by fellow Brazilian Domenico Lancellotti, that seemed to capture Open Spaces’ essential spirit of seeing the city in new ways.
Some research opportunities got me to New York twice last year. And that meant a few hours here and there in jazz clubs (Esperanza Spalding with Fred Hersch at the Jazz Standard — yes) and theaters. I can now check “Hamilton” off the bucket list (propellant, high-energy fun). And the quiet, if-only charms of “The Band’s Visit” were enjoyable. But for rewarding off-Broadway drama, I ventured downtown to catch Nathan Darrow, a Kansas City-trained actor of wider repute, in Tennessee Williams’ not-often-seen “Summer and Smoke.” The show, at Classic Stage Company, is something of a prequel to “A Streetcar Named Desire” and contains some similar, emotionally volatile dynamics. Later that week I happened to meet a friend-of-a-friend Williams scholar, who pronounced it the best production of the play he’d ever seen and Darrow the best male lead. Score!
I don’t read as widely as I did while in the trenches as a book critic. Nowadays my reading tends to be project focused, though everyone needs a break now and then. Early in the year, at a literary seminar in Key West, I was immersed in Caribbean voices. The late Derek Walcott (“Omeros”), for instance, stands as a mentor and touchstone for a younger generation of poets, essayists and fiction writers who hail from the islands, including Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Ishion Hutchinson and Nicole Dennis-Benn. Edwidge Danticat, Caryl Phillips, Jamaica Kincaid and the Cuban novelist Leonardo Paduro were also among the big-name authors I was lucky enough to hear and read again.
As for notable books that held my interest, how’s this for eclecticism: John Farrell’s award-winning biography of Richard Nixon; Jonathan Eig’s bio of Muhammad Ali; Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel “The House of Broken Angels”; Terrance Hayes’ essential and up-to-the-minute volume of poetry, “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin”; and David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a riveting, tragic history of murder, racism and greed in our region.
Of course, what all this means is, the bar is set pretty high for another sizzling cultural year, now underway and awaiting your attention.