The Bay Area presents winter arts to warm the heart and stimulate the spirit
There is nothing chilly—or, in the case of California’s relentless, torrential atmospheric river storms in early January, nothing soggy—about the 2023 winter arts scene in the East Bay. With dozens of music, dance, theater, visual arts and film offerings and tons of crisp, hot new talent appearing, the hardest part for audiences will be selecting where and how often to spend their hard-earned entertainment dollars.
Looking at the possibilities in the next three months, it’s difficult to recall that just one year ago the omicron variant surged and people planning to attend live shows were scrambling to locate discarded KN95 masks and get updated boosters…or they were sheltering at home and returning to streaming performances online, a far less satisfying option.
While a small handful of music and theater events in late December 2022 and early January of this year have sold out or extended their runs, it would be naïve to suggest local presenters, performing arts venues and artists themselves are out from under the COVID cloud and no longer struggling. That said, the best thing arts supporters can do this winter is to buy tickets—not only to boost the bottom line for the local arts scene, but to hold the industry accountable for changes it began to promise in 2020 that in 2023 are still unfolding and indeterminately permanent.
What are those promissory changes? If the pandemic streamlined the budgets and sheared every possible excess of arts organizations and artists, the calls for social justice and equity—in particular, after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and protests worldwide—sharpened their missions and purpose. Many organizations grabbed onto “diversity, equity and inclusion” banners.
In 2023, by scrutinizing the repertoire, artists, outreach programs, leadership and programming of an arts entity, it’s easy to recognize where zealous, early enthusiasm for supporting more LGBTQ+ artists and artists of color is genuine, and where it is not.
All of that said, East Bay’s bountiful winter arts events are to be celebrated. This list is by no means comprehensive and comes with an invitation to be in touch with any hidden—or not so hidden—gems that have been overlooked. Readers may send in their comments and let everyone know that when it comes to in-person art experiences, the East Bay this winter is red hot.
Noteworthy Music at Freight & Salvage
Those stepping lively may catch at least one show in the Freight’s annual Django Reinhardt Birthday Celebration, Jan. 20-23. Jazz guitarist Reinhardt was born in 1910 and was a Manouche (French Roma) child-prodigy, referred to as the world’s first jazz guitar virtuoso. He was known as the originator of Jazz Manouche, a genre that shifted the placement of brass instruments as the centerpiece in a jazz ensemble to the guitar. Reinhardt died in 1953, and festivals in his honor continue worldwide.
During the three-night run in downtown Berkeley, the kaleidoscopic lineup of artists and bands appearing include Rhythm Future Quartet, Hot Club of San Francisco, Tatiana Eva-Marie, Stephane Wrembel, Mimi Fox Quartet/À Django Avec Amour, Duo Gadjo, Hot Club of Cowtown, Trio Dinicu and Hot Club of San Francisco. The festival offers multiple workshops for musicians of different levels, with special focus on jazz guitar styles, violin jazz technique and more.
The Freight barrels boisterously into February with a rousing show featuring the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The Feb. 18 event is the choir’s 8th Annual Black History Month Celebration. This will be a visible example of how music and singing can reflect a human rainbow. Director Terrance Kelly is the epitome of exuberance. If one man can hug and heal a nation with positive energy and sweet sound, he’s the guy.
Similarly, three shows March 4-5 featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo shimmer with multicultural, profound messaging and joyful, expressive movement that never feels gratuitous, pedantic or excessive. This year, the South-African vocal ensemble will introduce their new album, Songs from Lindiwe, with songs written by group leaders Thulani, Sibongiseni and Thamsanqa Shabalala. There’s just something about a group of guys singing and moving in harmony that sweeps one’s heart up and blows all gloom away.
Music, Dance and Conversation at Cal Performances
There is at least one stellar reason to hustle up and hurry out today, Jan. 18, for a live show at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. The lineup of talent for the one-night “Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour” engagement hits its peak with the presence of multiple-Grammy-winning vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Grooving with Bridgewater along the high bar she sets is the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and a band led by pianist Christian Sands, with saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn. This means it’s a night of top pedigree jazz standards sung, scatted, bopped and crooned to celebrate the festival’s 65 years delivering jazz music to the faithful.
Ira Glass returns Feb. 11 after appearing annually prior to the pandemic, with a night of storytelling based on his role as host and creator of the public radio program, This American Life. The radio show is the first program ever awarded a Pulitzer Prize for audio journalism. With more than five million listeners, it’s a safe bet Glass knows his way around a mic.
In addition to autobiographical stories that draw from recent history and his encounters during decades as a broadcaster, Glass never hesitates to use his audio bully pulpit to press into issues such as gun violence, political havoc, immigration, social and economic inequities and other prickly topics. Remarkably, Glass somehow always finds the funny, even in the hot mess of everyday life.
In a nutshell, liberation and rhythm are everything when it comes to the Washington, DC-based Step Afrika! troupe. Long ago and shameful in America’s history, drums were outlawed among enslaved Africans in the American South in an effort to cut off their communication, connection and culture. Undeterred, Black people developed body percussion: juba, hambone, tap dance, stepping and more.
A big splash at Cal Performances this winter is the U.S. premiere of South African visual artist William Kentridge’s Sibyl. With music composed and conceived by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd, the chamber opera production is presented on March 17-18 in two parts.
Part 1, The Moment Has Gone, is a film by Kentridge that is screened accompanied by a score written for live piano and an all-male vocal chorus. Part 2, Waiting for the Sibyl, is an opera featuring a richly textured score with chants and piano and distinguished by nine vocalists and dancers who interact and create magic with hand-painted sets, animated ink drawings, swirling projected text, collage and shadow play. Spectacle abounds in this contemporary opera.
The Sound Room Does Small Scale Right
Yup, one will have to choose on Feb. 11 between (Ira) Glass (see page 8) and Tiffany (Austin). With both shows landing on the same day, there’s no split screen option, darn it. If one does choose songs over stories, be assured of no regrets because they’ll be joining what is already a monster-size wave of appreciation for a Bay Area jazz vocalist, Tiffany Austin.
Appearing in the Sound Room’s intimate setting with her quartet, the influence of singers such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin are evident in Austin’s songwriting and delivery. Her cool demeanor and sizzling vocals layered upon the quartet’s troupe of instrumentalists creates a gorgeous jazz portrait. On the way out, one may pick up a CD (Unbroken, Nothing But Soul) and take Austin home for extended listening pleasure.
Eyes and Ears: Art at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
MATRIX 280: Theater of Human Melting presents a slim slice of the creative work by the late Berkeley-based artist and teacher, Frank Moore (1946–2013). Publicity, articles and reviews tend to emphasize that Moore was born with a physical disability and used his art in multiple genres to break down cliché or patronizing misconceptions about people with disabilities and their ability to interact and communicate.
But there’s so much more than this narrow lens affords. Through paintings, performances, public access television and writing, Moore’s exuberance and his sometimes confrontational art practices challenge viewers to question misperceptions about art itself, regardless of how it is produced or who produces it.
The impetus for the exhibition was the museum’s recent acquisition of two paintings: Mariah (1977) and Patti Smith (1979). Guest curators Vincent Fecteau and Keith Wilson created an exhibit with 29 of Moore’s works on canvas and a monitor playing the video Let Me Be Frank. The exhibit opens Jan. 25 and runs through April 23.
BAMPFA’s Black Life series hits a highlight Feb. 18 with filmmaker Paige Taul, an Oakland native making a rare stop in the East Bay for a screening and conversation about her work. Taul’s experimental cinematic form, according to comments she has made in the past, “tests the boundaries of identity and self-identification through autoethnography to approach notions of racial authenticity in veins such as religion, style, language, and other Black community-based experiences.”
It’s a mouthful and one that audiences will want to hear her parse and peruse when she is joined in conversation by Black Life co-curator ruth gebreyesus, a writer and producer based in the Bay Area. The program includes a selection of Taul’s films made primarily using 16mm or super 8 film.
Celebrate Moons and Murals at Oakland Museum of California
OMCA wraps up the first month of the year with the 22nd Annual Lunar New Year festival on Jan. 29. The four-hour festival opens with a lucky lion dance performed by Developing Virtue Secondary School, followed swiftly by a lineup of Garden Stage presentations. Special highlights are: a Vietnamese 16-string đàn tranh (zither) performance by Vân-Ánh Võ, and a street style dance performance and lesson by Str8jacket, as seen on America’s Got Talent.
Hands-on activities in other locations at the museum include creating paper lanterns, paper-cut rabbits and care cards made for older adults experiencing food insecurity in Oakland’s nearby Chinatown and Little Saigon. Food and beverage purveyors add a variety of items, mostly from Bay Area AAPI chefs.
Teens and adults may want to loosen their purse strings enough to access (with gallery admission) a special edition of Oakland Asian Cultural Center’s Open E.A.R.S. for Change. Stephanie Hoang moderates a conversation about cross-racial solidarity with oral historian Roy Chan and Carolyn Johnson of the Black Cultural Zone.
The museum’s Friday Night on the Grid event Feb. 3 honors Black History Month and the women of the Black Panther Party through communal art-making. The West Oakland Mural Project (WOMP) is a live community mural painting project overseen by the women’s collective that during this event will supply all the materials and encourage visitors to paint their Alma Thomas, Frida Kahlo or Faith Ringgold masterpiece outdoors in Koret Plaza.
Music by DJ Monk Earl in the Amphitheater adds tunes to the communal mural-making and underscores WOMP’s mission to pay tribute to Black women and serve the people through love, education, community building activities and healing.
Theater Roundup: The Tip of a Sizzling Iceberg
The theater community is rich with shows that offer humor, gripping drama, challenging topics and particularly aggressive intersections of mediums that combine spoken and acted narratives with film, puppetry, dance, music, animation, art installments and more. An unusual slate of new and familiar actors blends to make the East Bay one of the best places to discover young talent without losing sight of veteran, mature players in the prime of their careers.
Among the not-to-miss are Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Cambodian Rock Band (Feb. 25-April 2), a new play with music and songs by Dengue Fever that tells the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor after 30 years returning to Cambodia, where his daughter will prosecute a famous Cambodian war criminal. Cambodian is directed by Chay Yew.
Over at Aurora Theatre Company, there’s Paradise Blue (Jan. 27-Feb. 26). Directed by Aurora’s associate director Dawn Monique Williams and the new installment in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Trilogy, the jazz drama introduces Blue, a talented trumpeter, who considers selling his nightclub in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood amid concerns about his house band’s future, urban decline and renewal, and his own legacy.
Oakland Theater Project continues pumping out intrigue with two upcoming productions. The first is the world premiere of Exodus to Eden (Feb. 3-26), written and directed by Oakland Theater Project co-founder and co-artistic director Michael Socrates Moran. Created specifically for OTP, an ensemble of 17 actors gathers echoes of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the Book of Exodus, and spins out a contemporary, updated and epic story of struggle in America.
Tagging onto the last days of winter and spilling into April and the onset of spring, Is God Is (March 31- April 23) is Aleshea Harris’ multi-award-winning play, directed by OTP co-artistic director William Hodgson. The play centered on two women—twin sisters who seek justice and call up the ghosts of Spaghetti Westerns, hip-hop and Afropunk to achieve it—was a smash hit off-Broadway in 2018 and had a successful run in London’s West End. Clearly, imagination knows no bounds on this year’s winter season theater stages.