Kai Wright: It is the season for making lists. Let's make one together. I want to hear all of your years in review recommendations, movies, TV, books, which pieces do you think told us something about ourselves as a society right now. Things that offered windows into our collective soul. We'll be joined by the New York Times's co-chief film critic A.O. Scott, who's been thinking about the increasingly blurred line between performance and real modern life.
Plus, I'll share some musical history that grabbed me this year, a Black woman who was called The Voice of a Century and who captured the globe's ears with her empathy.
Terrance McKnight: That's the thing about her. No matter what she was singing, she made it seem so personal like she had lived that experience.
Kai Wright: Find out who she was, coming up on the United States of Anxiety.
Regina de Heer: Can you name one piece of art or cultural representation that sustain you this past year?
Sebastian: Jane the Virgin on Netflix, Elements of Magical Realism just created such moments of joy and it just points out that life is absurd in and of itself, and even the things that feel mundane and like trivial, there's magic in it.
Ali The film The Good Liar. Oh, my God, The Twists and Turns and then, right when you think you've solved it, no. It's a completely different ending.
Anastasia: What's disturbing me is, artists on social media showing through their art that we're not alone, there are also other people going through the same thing.
Caroline: My friends and I started a theater company over Zoom. Creating art has been a really helpful outlet for me.
Will: I saw the film Liqueurs Pizza, which I loved. It was just so buoyant and lively. It just restored my faith in the film industry and in people.
Maddie: The supportive community on TikTok, seeing people interact and really lookout for people, that's been very uplifting to see.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Friends, let me share with you that I do enjoy A Year and List because honestly, I miss a lot along the way in a year, and now's when I learned what I got to go back and experience. This year, I get the special treat of turning to you for help. I want to hear all of your recommendations for art and culture that grabs you in 2021; talking movies, TV books, TikToks, whatever it is.
Which pieces told us something about ourselves as a society right now, and why? That's important. I want to hear the why. First, I am also turning to someone who does this for a living. I am particularly bad at keeping up with film, or I guess I should say streaming of all sorts at this point. I'm excited to talk with A.O. Scott, who is the Chief film critic for the New York Times. Welcome to the show.
A.O. Scott: Great to be here, Kai.
Kai Wright: The best performers issue of The Times magazine is out this week. A.O. Scott introduces the issue with an essay and of course his own lists. We should say you go by Tony, not by your fancy byline initials A.O.
A.O. Scott: Yes, I hide behind the byline, but I'm Tony to my friends. You're in that category.
Kai Wright: Me and all of our listeners are now your friends, Tony.
A.O. Scott: Excellent.
Kai Wright: Thanks for coming on. In your opening essay for the issue, you seem to wrestle with the premise of your job. I have to say, it forces you into this disorienting debate over what performance is in the context of modern life? You've got this great line about the past couple of years. You write, "The shadows on the wall of Plato's cave stopped being metaphors. They were us." What were you getting at?
A.O. Scott: Well, one thing that has really struck me in the last few years is, a few things. One is how much time we spend on screens. Right at this moment, you and I are looking at each other on-screen, in some way what we're doing is a performance, is a screen performance. In the first year of this pandemic situation, when we were all not leaving home as much and even more tied to our screens, it began to occur to me that this boundary that we think about between life and performance, between the screen and real life has been steadily eroding, maybe over the last 100 or more years.
I was really fascinated this time by the performances that I saw by actors working in a range of styles and different approaches, that really we're trying to get at in new ways what it is to be authentic in a performance, which in a way is a contradiction. The whole thing about performance is that it's not authentic, it's pretending, somebody is acting like someone else.
In a lot of cases this year, some of the most interesting performances I saw were people pretending in effect to be themselves. One of the performers on the list is Bo Burnham whose Netflix special inside was sort of a Netflix stand-up comedy special in a room by himself, playing himself. Playing with the idea of being a self on the internet, on the screen, on Zoom, in all of the new mediated ways we found.
I did find, as you said, at the premises of my job, which is to be able to understand and analyze and evaluate and judge what people are doing, what actors are doing when they're performing, felt a little bit shaky, a little bit undermined. I wasn't quite sure anymore.
Kai Wright: Just to stick for a minute with how this affects us before we talk about the performances or the professional performances, I guess, I think it is increasingly hard for all of us to distinguish, as you point out between experience and performance. I guess my first question is, is that a technology question for ourselves, or is there something deeper that's at work? I know you're a film critic, but it also makes you think about us as humans.
Is there something deeper at work here in our society than just the technology part of it?
A.O. Scott: It's a good question because technology and culture are always closely linked and influence each other in different back and forth ways, but I do think that our experiences of each other, our experiences of human interaction have changed a lot, not just through the pandemic, but maybe that's intensified it and made it more visible, but through the rise of social media certainly.
Through also, the political and ideological fragmentation and disharmony that's such a part of our life in this country. You can't say what's cause and what's effect ever, it's all chickens and eggs. In a way, this essay was an attempt to articulate it, to try to begin to make sense of it, some aspects of it for myself. I do feel that there are shifts underway that are partly technological and partly cultural that we don't quite understand yet.
Including having to do with just how we consume different kinds of stories and representations, whether we're going to movie theaters, or going to in-person performances, or watching things streamed into our homes. All of those are the way that we organize and order our time, and our consumption of whatever we're calling culture, or art, or stories, or representations, or performances, or vicarious experiences, that is changing, and it's having effects on how we are as individuals and as a society.
Kai Wright: I read in the essay, a quiet call to arms may be around coming to characters and each other with curiosity, as opposed to, I don't know what else, but talk about that a little bit.
A.O. Scott: I was thinking about this, because I was trying to think about what makes different forms, different genres, different media, different. I write about movies, so I have certain biases towards non-serial, let's say, single standalone stories, what we used to call movies and it's different. If you're watching a TV series, you have a different relationship to things, and if you're watching TikTok or other kinds of videos, or if you're on Instagram or Twitter, it's something else.
One thing I always worry about as a critic is that we're going to get locked into our habits, and patterns, and established tastes. That we're going to in a way become prisoners of the algorithm. We like one thing and Netflix or whoever, or Apple Music or Spotify will say, "You'll also like this thing," and we'll become passive and incurious. Also, we will only seek out people who we recognize or feel comfortable with or think are deserving of our empathy or who are to use two very problematic words and in criticism, likable or relatable, who we can identify with, to like or relate to. I think that that can be very limited.
I was thinking, "I like looking at people who I don't know, who I don't understand, who I want to learn about, who I may not feel entirely comfortable with, but I'm thinking well, I want to know what this person is going through. I want to know who this person is." I think that that actors and really good performers can do that. Can take an initial recognition or curiosity and just go with it. I'm thinking of Denzel Washington's extraordinary performance as Macbeth in this movie that Joel Coen had made of Macbeth.
Kai Wright: That is coming?
A.O. Scott: Yes. It's coming out. It'll be in theaters and on Apple TV at the end of the year. It's a play that may or may not be familiar, but the character feels completely new and you think-- I was watching it and thinking, "This guy is terrifying and he's doing some very, very terrible things, but I do want to know what is going on inside his head. I do want to know how he understands himself and his own actions." That's certainly not about likability or relatability, or even in a way empathy.
It's about recognition of the human circumstance and the human temperament and the human personality that exists in this character, and that this actor who I think is maybe the greatest of all right now is putting into that character.
Kai Wright: Denzel Washington makes it onto your list of best performances for this performance and it is his thing to make us curious about some awful person that has become something of his genre, at least for me. You mentioned Bo Burnham and Inside one of the themes that it seems. I want to talk about some of the themes that you've seen this year. One of the themes that seems that comes up is loneliness. Inside is certainly an example of that.
Tell us more about that film and what struck you about the performance around loneliness?
A.O. Scott: I thought it's this idea where Bo Burnham is sitting in a room with a camera and a lighting rig and himself and some sound effects and it's edited so that you don't know how long it's lasting. It's 90 minutes long, but it could be weeks. It could be months. It could be one day. It's that experience that a lot of us have had during the pandemic of feeling time and our own experience getting away from us and becoming very shapeless and elastic.
It's also about the terrible situation of living in your own head, of trying to figure out who you are and how you're going to be in the absence of any immediate human interaction. A lot of that is referencing not just lockdown and the literal physical situation of being in a room by yourself, but also the way we live in social media and on the internet and on screens where we're interacting with people who aren't quite real to us, or who we don't know if they're real or not.
He does a lot with Twitter and Instagram and TikTok, and the ways that these allow us to have these counterfeit relationships with other people and with ourselves. The feeling of loneliness in this movie is very profound, and it's very funny. There's a lot of satire of internet culture folded into it. He has these funny songs that he sings about Instagram and Tinder and all of these things.
At the core of it is just this feeling of real isolation, of real solitude, that as smart as you are, as eloquent and sophisticated and knowing and ironic as he is in all of his takes on contemporary culture, that doesn't solve the problem of loneliness. You can be the smartest person in the world, and you can't think yourself out of this, in this case, a literal box that he's inside of.
Kai Wright: I have to imagine a lot of people over the last couple of years can relate to that thought.
A.O. Scott: It was almost true, I resisted watching it for a very long time. People were talking about it and writing about it, and I even started it on Netflix a few times. It wasn't reviewed as a movie, so I could catch up a little later, but I was just thinking this is a little too close. It's a little too real. I've lived this for 18, 19, 20 months. I'm not sure I want to just go into this other guy's version of it, but it is worth it.
It goes back to what we were saying before about curiosity. It's not a comfortable thing to watch. It's very funny and it's very clever, but it's not a lot of fun. I think there's value in experiences and performances that are troubling or disturbing or too close to home at some point.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with A.O. Scott, co-chief film critic of the New York Times about the best performers issue of The Times Magazine, which is out now. We'll talk more after the break.
Kusha: Hi everyone. This is Kusha, I'm a producer, here's a listener voicemail we got in response to last week's episode about the Supreme court and the current case on abortion. If you have a response to this episode or anything else, email us, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Written messages are great, voice recordings, even better. Again, the address is email@example.com. Thanks. Here's the message.
Speaker: This is all about communication and the left is failing at this on so many fronts. In the latest instance, it seems the left is unaware that there are parallel arguments underway. The language of the left is my body, my right, my life, the language of the right is unborn life murder. Brett Kavanaugh's one example of people on the right who seem to have appropriated the language of the left to shut down an unwanted discussion by saying he was offended, which is considered a concept of the left.
I've heard some anti-vaxxers using the, "My body, my right," argument against being vaccinated. Once victories is in steering, the language of the argument are had then more new wants, loftier concrete ideas can be introduced. This is what I'm trying to say.
Kai Wright: That's a little collection of sounds from the big and little screen this year meaning of which maybe sparks some emotional memories for some of you. We heard a bit, let me take some of them off here. We heard a bit of West Side Story, The Green Night, Squid Game, Tick, Tick... Boom, In the Heights, Judas and the Black Messiah, Succession, of course, and Summer Of Soul. Maybe some of those are on your own best-of list for 2021.
If so, call us up. Tell us why. I want to hear all of your recommendations for art and culture that grabbed you this year. It can be movies, TV, books, whatever, but which pieces told us something about ourselves and our society right now, and why?. (212)-433-WNYC that's (212)-433-9692, you can also tweet us using the #USofanxiety. I'm joined by A.O. Scott, the co-chief film critic of the New York Times. Tony, before the break we were talking about loneliness in Bo Burnham's Inside.
There's another film that makes or set of performances that make your best of list that I also love. This is Passing with both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. They're playing the main characters in an adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel. It's about a Black woman passing as white, but actually who's dancing around the fictional color line in general and loneliness and performance.
Both of these two things we were talking about before the break are a big part of what's happening in their characters. What struck you in the film?
A.O. Scott: Exactly as you say, we sometimes have an idea that we have some authentic self and that performance is a way of dissembling or disguising or getting away from that self. What Passing does so brilliantly and disturbingly is to show how on both sides of that it doesn't quite work. You have these two women who both Black women who have known each other since childhood, and they encounter each other in Manhattan one day, it said in the 1920s.
The character played by Ruth Negga is living as a white woman. She's married to a quite racist white man but the first thing that you see in the movie is the other character, Tessa Thompson, who lives in Harlem, is married to a Black doctor, is living a very respectable upper-middle-class life there. You see her being mistaken for a white woman. You see her inadvertently unintentionally, accidentally passing and she becomes more and more obsessed and frustrated with her friend and also more confined and frustrated by the performance that she has to put on as a respectable wife and mother and upstanding citizen.
What's fascinating is that the Ruth Negga character experiences the freedom and also the risk and danger of her performance and of her crossing back and forth. A lot of the times she comes up to Harlem and it's not clear what anyone up there thinks or knows about who she might be and what her background might be, but she does it with a great deal of mischief and improvisational brilliance, and also a great sense of risk.
Whereas Tessa Thompson character who is increasingly obsessed with her and I think in love with her, feels more and more hemmed in and constrained and imprisoned by her performance, which the world wouldn't even recognize as performance. This is just her being who she is.
Kai Wright: That's what I love is it's not nominally a performance, she's just performing being middle class and being Black and being okay when she's not, she's not happy. The only thing that's true about that is that she's Black.
A.O. Scott: She has to be a mother in the way that she interacts with her children feels more and more artificial and stiff and strange. She interacts with her maid and her husband and every one of these relations feels, and you can feel it feeling to her as something false, as something that's just not somehow who she is or who she wants to be, but she doesn't have any sense of an alternative except maybe the example that horrifies and also fascinates her of this friend who is living in this other dimension of performance, where she's in fact performing all the time and is aware of it, but is in some way in control.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Allie in Brooklyn, who I think also loved Passing. Allie, welcome to the show.
Allie: Hey, hi, it's Allie, who you know. I loved Passing. I was just talking about it with my partner and it feels like it does ask more questions than give answers, which is something very rare in film in the last couple of years, especially, in the films that have been streaming on Netflix. I love that you find yourself not really knowing what was truthful and what wasn't truthful, and just an impression of what was happening in Tessa Thompson's character's mind.
At the end, it feels like a psychological thriller on top of all these bigger questions around race. I honestly had not really witnessed the psychology of a Black woman in film in this way ever I think and so that was really refreshing and the perspective as well.
Kai Wright: That's great, thank you. Let's go to Anna who's joining us from Sweden. Anna, welcome to the show.
Anna: Thank you. I guess we're in a United States of the world.
Kai: That's right.
Anna: No, I just wanted to give a shout-out to Zadie Smith, she wrote this Intimations I just picked up in a bookstore because I didn't have anything to read. It's six essays and it got me to her other essay collection, Grand Union. I haven't read her in a long time. Yes, tried to say earlier to the woman who first spoke to me here on the line and tried to say why it was good, but it's just really good [laughs] to read.
She writes from the perspective of New York. She doesn't put the gravity of it on page. It's told very simple and very genuine and it's just, but since she's doing it in such a simple and personal way, you can feel.
Kai Wright: Anna, thank you for both of those. Let's hear from Dan in Bridgewater, Connecticut. Dan, welcome to show.
Dan: Hi. Let me just first say that I'd give anything for dinner with your guest and a few other people so we can discuss The Human Condition. I mean, it really grasped a lot of things. I'm a Cold War refugee and I came to this country and was introduced to the race problem in America as opposed to how it was in Western Europe and there were two movies that really struck me. One was 21 Bridges and the other one, The Green Book.
They so illuminated that color line that is so artificially put in today and it's such a big issue today as opposed to the human interaction line. As a physician, as an emergency room physician, I've seen both sides of the color line in this country and in Vietnam at the front as opposed to the rear. These lines get completely obliterated and there's this tremendous human unity that's being terribly barrier by color line, by nationality line.
My wife is Chinese so for her, her situation is very interesting and I'm still waiting for Hollywood to make good movies. When I raised my kids before--
Kai Wright: Dan, I'm going to stop you there just for time but thank you. Tell me, anything there that jumps out at you, particularly this idea of still waiting for Hollywood to make good movies about color?
A.O. Scott: Yes. Hollywood has, I think, a long history of not quite getting it right, let's say, to be generous. There's a great book that I always teach by James Baldwin called The Devil Finds Work, which is his own personal history of involvement as a movie-watching child and then as an adult trying to make movies with Hollywood's particular versions of the American racial neurosis.
There is a movie that has nothing to do with that, that did figure in my 10 best list and in my list of acting. It goes to something that I think Dan was saying just about the feeling of common humanity that can emerge across differences. It's a movie called Drive My Car, a Japanese film. The main character in it is a theater director and the kind of theater he does, he does these experimental productions of classic plays.
At the beginning, he's doing Waiting for Godot, and then he's doing Checkoffs, Uncle Vanya, but what he does is he has cast who come from all different countries, all performing in their own languages. There are these multi-lingual performances where the people don't necessarily understand the words that each other are saying, but what they do understand is the emotions and the communicated meanings of the text even though some of them are speaking Korean or Mandarin, or Japanese or Tagalog.
The scenes of these rehearsals and performances where these characters are speaking unintelligible language to each other are some of the most powerful moments of acting that I have seen in a very long time and go to that question of just what is it that we see in each other? How do we communicate? Where does this empathy and curiosity and human connection that is possible come from? I've never quite seen it presented in such a powerful and strange and beautiful way because we're all strangers to each other, we don't understand each other, and yet we're capable of some kind of recognition or connection.
I think art and maybe, in particular, arts that involve performance, show us some of that.
Kai Wright: We have to talk about West Side Story, of course, it's on your best-of list. You said you chose it because mostly there are big emotions and memorable songs and unabashed faith that sincerity will always be stronger than cynicism, but of course, you also had a wonderful conversation with Tony Kushner, one of the authors of this adaptation, Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, about the tensions of this story, right?
I mean, here we are, again, with a couple of white guys writing about Puerto Ricans in a work that has constantly been criticized for that. What did he tell you about that tension?
A.O. Scott: Yes, it was very interesting to talk with him. It's funny that you mentioned this, a friend of mine last night said that my new job title should be New York Times West Side Story Bureau Chief [laughs] because I spent a lot of time with this. What Kushner said was a couple of things. One is that, and this is not to excuse anything, but it is the original 1957 musical is very much a product of its time and place and the ideas and sensibilities of the four men Arthur Lawrence, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins, who made it, who conceived of this idea of putting Romeo and Juliet, making a musical of it and setting it among the youth gangs of the west side about which they did not know very much, and didn't necessarily bother to find out.
Their idea of what both the Anglo and the Puerto Rican gangs where they came from and who they were, was about as deeply researched maybe as Shakespeare's understanding of Verona and Monjo, and these places in Italy, that he had never really been to so, but I think Kushner and Spielberg were aware of the criticisms of both of the casting of the original film, which was mostly white actors in the Puerto Rican roles with the notable, significant exception of Rita Moreno.
They also Kushner, in particular, working on the screenplay, wanted to get into the history. Wanted to say, "Well, okay, what was really going on at this period in this neighborhood?" Who were these people really? What was going on in the two different communities? What is the reality that underlines and underlies that original story? I think they did a lot of very interesting work to bring that out and to dramatize not just the eternal romance and tragedy and Romeo and Julietness of it all but some of the American social and cultural reality that it grew out of, while still respecting, I think the innovations in music and choreography.
Kai Wright: We have to leave it there.
A.O. Scott: Sorry.
Kai Wright: All right, sorry, we'll have to leave it there, Tony. We got to get to a break. A. O Scott is the Co-Chief film critic of the New York Times.
A.O. Scott: With a lot to say about West Side Story.
Kai Wright: He's got lots to say about West Side Story, I suggest you go check them out, and his best performances list of 2021. Up next we'll turn to music, but we're going to look much further back than the past year. If I told you there was a Black woman in the 1930s, who was basically as much of a global powerhouse as Beyonce is today. Could you name her? We'll talk about her life and her music after a break.
That is the trailblazing singer Marian Anderson. Here's another cool thing that happened in the arts this year, Sony Classical released a commemorative book about Anderson's legacy, including 15 compact discs. Yes, I said compact discs, featuring her entire catalogue of RCA Victor recordings, that's 42 years of songs. It just made us think here's this Black woman, a classical musician who, in the 1930s, was full-on Beyonce.
At one point, she was the highest-paid singer in the United States, this Black woman in an overwhelmingly white space she was a global superstar. Yet, I suspect many listeners know next to nothing about her, very much including me. Let's learn something about Marian Anderson and her music. I called up one of the great voices of American Radio Terrence McKnight, the evening host of WQXR here in New York City, who is working on a book about Black artists and the classical stage. He had a lot to say about Miss Anderson. Terence, thanks for joining us.
Terrance McKnight: Of course, thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: If people know one big factoid about Marian Anderson, it's that she held this famous controversial concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Remind us of that story. What happened and why was it important, historically?
Terrance McKnight: In 1939, Marian Anderson, sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 people came out to hear her sing, there was a radio broadcast. She started by singing My Country Tis of Thee.
It really shook the country because for someone who at this point in her career was in her 40s, someone who had sung with the New York Philharmonic, someone who had given a debut at Town Hall, someone who had toured throughout Europe and was considered the busiest singer in America, Asia, and Europe, in the 1930s. She sang at Lincoln Memorial 1939 because she had been refused a concert in Washington, DC, Hewett University was trying to bring her and the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her Constitution Hall.
As a result, the president's wife got involved. Eleanor Roosevelt got involved. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She resigned as a result of them discriminating against this Black singer, who had conquered three continents. [laughs] She sang to thousands in Lewisohn Stadium in New York in 1925. Almost 15 years later, she's being discriminated against, just because of her skin tone and that was a big deal.
One of the listeners that day to that 1939 concert was a 10-year-old Martin King Jr. He entered an essay contest at school and he talked about Marian Anderson. He said she sang as never before with tears in her eyes when the words of America rang over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces Black and white and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
King went on to say, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America. She inspired a young Martin King, and she inspired a generation and generations of singers, man, I think about [unintelligible 00:37:15] a few years ago. It was more than a few. I just remember she barely moved, yet she commanded the attention of the audience. Just pure elegance. When you look at Marian Anderson, that's what you get onstage and offstage, just pure dignity, elegance. When she opens her mouth to sing, it's all there, man. I think that's why she was able to just capture the attention of so many people for so many decades.
Kai Wright: She left the United States fairly early in her career, right. She'd gone to Europe, in the '20s. I gather, in part because she had to because she had to escape segregation here in order to be a performer.
Terrance McKnight: Well, she got an opportunity. After high school, she wanted to go to music school in Philadelphia but was denied. They said they didn't accept colors. She got the scholarship from NANM, National Association of Negro Musicians who provided her with funding, as did her church, Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, to study privately. She got a private teacher and her talent was just phenomenal and word got out.
Then she went off to Europe, man, she was singing so much. I think there was a six-month period where she sang 120 concerts.
Kai Wright: Wow. Was that typical back then? Was that the work that people did or was she just an over-the-top worker?
Terrance: I think she just loved to sing. There was the opportunity now and the other thing to remember is that when she was born in 1897, and through the first few decades of her career, the most potent type of American entertainment was minstrelsy. That's what she was up against. She was the antithesis to how minstrelsy portrayed Black folks. I'd imagine there was a shock, as she stood up there, and she was able to sing in French, and in German, and Italian, and in English, for that matter. Marian Anderson, was able to accomplish all of this in the '20s and '30s. Then certainly we can move up to the '50s.
Because up to this point, there weren't Black singers singing at the Metropolitan Opera and so that was still another barrier that had to be torn down, and she did it.
Kai Wright: In 1955, she becomes the first Black singer at the MET, correct?
Terrance McKnight: That's correct. Interestingly enough, she sang the masked ball severity opera, which Verity had asked for this character. She played the character of Eureka, which was a witch and Verity had asked that this person be of color. Typically, that role was sung by someone in Blackface. They didn't have to do it that night.
I think I will say that I believe she was the highest-paid singer on stage that night.
Kai Wright: Okay. Get it, Marian. Tell us more about the music itself and her contribution to American music itself. She started with the gospel.
Terrance McKnight: I'm going to say, well, let's call it spirituals because if she was growing up, gospel music hadn't really happened. It didn't happen until the late 1920s and '30s. Marian grew up singing those spirituals, that authentic American music that informed jazz that informed so much of our vernacular music. Now that's what she grew up to. That's what she was so famous for singing. You can't think about, he's got the whole world in his hands without going back to Marian Anderson. She really made that tune sing.
He's got the whole world in His hands,
He's got the big, round world in His hands,
He's got the wide world in His hands,
He's got the whole world in His hands.
You know well man, anytime young musicians who grow up in church, that church audience is tough. If you've ever had to say an Easter speech or some kind of speech in front of a church congregation. I grew up in a Baptist church so I know those folks they know real when they see it and when they hear it.
Kai Wright: Yes, indeed.
Terrance McKnight: They want to get you right. Marian Anderson grew up going to two churches. Her mom was Methodist. Her father was a Baptist, but her father's sister was a singer and she was going to the Baptist church. Her Paps would take her to hear her aunt sing. By the time she was 10 years old, she joined a course in Philadelphia and then I believe she gave her first solo in church at 11 years old. If you can stand up in front of the church folks, you learn how to do the job.
Oftentimes it was said about Miss Anderson's performances, that they seemed so intimate as if she was singing in a salon or a parlor. I think that had something to do with that small church upbringing.
Kai Wright: In classical and operatic music, what was it about particular, her music, her musical style, her singing style that was unique or that we need to know to understand her?
Terrance McKnight: For one, it was her range. She was a control toe, so she could sing very deep and with a lot of husk, but she could also sing very bright and high. She had just this wide range, but also to just, if I could explain it, I could do it and I can't, you just know it when you hear it. I've spent the last couple of days just listening to her, just go from handle to spirituals, to Bach, to music for the holiday and it's very special.
There were folks who said she was, had the voice of a generation or the voice that you hear in a century. It's true.
Kai Wright: Is there a particular song in the classical and operatic tradition that you think dear listener, if you're going to go out and be introduced to Marian Anderson in her range today, go download this.
Terrance McKnight: If you've ever felt that someone didn't like you listen to her sing. He was despised
He was despised.
Comes from Handle's Messiah and she'll make you feel a little better. She'll make you feel okay about folks, not really caring for you in that moment.
Despised and rejected.
She really captures what Handle was trying to get across in that music.
Rejected of man.
You get the sense that it's personal and that's the thing about her. No matter what she was singing, she made it seem so personal like she had lived that experience.
Kai Wright: Do you remember discovering her or when she first touched you?
Terrance McKnight: It's hard to remember but one thing that I found touching is something I learned about her recently and she started her-- well that big concert you were talking about 1939, that was Easter Sunday. Well, she gave her last recital as a singer Easter Sunday, 1965, but she didn't leave the stage. She continued to narrate. She did Lincoln portrait by Aaron Copland and she continued to advocate for justice and integration and equality.
Her nephew, James DePreist became an important conductor in Oregon in Portland, but he was also heavily involved in New York. He was an assistant conductor with New York, Philharmonic. Then he was a conductor with the symphony of the new world, the first integrated professional orchestra in the country, that was in the '60s. Well, Marian would go on stage with that orchestra and just show up and she would try to raise money for that orchestra, raising money for the cause of integration.
One of the musicians he was telling me the other day, he said, I remember James DePreist conducting symphony of the new world. After the concert, he said, "Okay, we're going to go to my auntie's house." He said, so he didn't think much about it. They got on a train, went uptown, came to this apartment and he said there was a woman walking around, serving tea with an apron on. When he turned around, it was Marian Anderson.
He said, but she was just so elegant and she served us tea. This thing about her humility, it just wasn't on stage was something that she carried with her seeming in her personal life.
Kai Wright: I have to say before I let you go, you're working on a book about not only Marian Anderson, but about Black folks and classical music in general, you want to give us a tease, and when it's coming?
Terrance McKnight: I'm off to a good start. Finishing is something I'll have to ask you about on the sidelines but yes, I think the relationship that Black artists have to classical music is an untold story. It's not a historical look at Blacks and classical music. It's more taking interviews of folks that I've come across us over the years. Many of whom are in their 90s and 80s who were there at that point of integration, who were there also when you had Negro orchestras.
Hopefully, I'll expose some things that folks hadn't thought about. My purpose man is to find a way forward that's more inclusive. When we go to the concert hall, we see all of our culture up there together and not this hierarchy of culture and certainly not just Black composers or Black artists in February or March, but something that's more reflective of what America can be.
Kai Wright: Thank you so much for this time, Terrance.
Terrance McKnight: Kai, thanks so much for having me talk about what I love talking about.
Kai Wright: All right.
Terrance McKnight hosts the evening show on WQXR here in New York City. That's our sister station, which just celebrated 85 years on the air playing classical music. You can catch his show every weeknight at 7:00 PM Eastern.
United States Of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. A theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass band. Sound designed by Jared Paul, Milton Ruiz was at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Virginia Dorris, Karen Fillman, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter, Kai_Wright, or send me an email at AnxietyWNYC.org, and of course, I hope you'll join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern, stream it @wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC until then take care. Thanks for listening.
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