“Anybody that’s different, we’re ready to be prejudiced against them” – Jonathan Balazs’ documentary Mars Project

[Image Source: marsprojectmovie.blogspot.ca]

[Image Source: Mars Project]

One of the things I love most about social media is that, if you allow yourself, you can expand your horizons beyond the provincial – those traditional boundaries of geography, life experience, education, family – to defy and redefine the term “friend.” This is a revolution in the making, and none of us can really see the forest for the trees at this point as to how differently our communities, virtual or otherwise, ultimately will look in the future.

That being said, I was honored when Canadian filmmaker Jonathan Balazs reached out to me via Facebook as a follower of this blog to see if I would review his documentary Mars Project (click here for more info). I was thrilled that he wanted to share his work with me – evidence of the global footprint we all can create with just a few keystrokes.

(As an aside, this morning, I heard Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook and author of Lean In speak at Detroit’s Adcraft Club breakfast. I appreciated her candor about the toxic effects of sexism, racism, ageism, and all the other nasty “-ism”s in society today. Interesting factoid: 63% of facebook’s 1.28 BILLION users return every day.)

Balazs’ documentary, a brisk 60 minutes, offers the haunting tale of a hip-hop artist Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart who may or may not be suffering from mental illness and how his frustrations with the health care system lead him to explore more spiritual/humanistic options to cure his “affliction”.

We learn Khari’s story in his own words through voice-over as well as through first person interviews with his twin brother Addi, who telegraphs a palpable mix of frustration, rivalry, annoyance, and love. We also hear from representatives of the mental health profession who express their frustration with their own colleagues’ tendency toward quick medicinal fixes and reductive categorization. One doctor observes, “Anybody that’s different, we’re ready to be prejudiced against them.”

Arguably the most interesting question the documentary grapples with is the “chicken or the egg” phenomenon of whether insanity breeds great art or the intensity of the artistic process prompts social maladjustment. Art as therapy?

The film pointedly critiques a society that often labels “mentally ill” those folks who view the world differently. In watching Addi and hearing him articulate his understandable frustrations with Khari, the viewer may intuit a rush to judgment that occurs out of annoyance and jealousy as much as it does concern for his brother’s well-being.

The filmmakers don’t offer us any easy answers to these questions, and, at times, I wondered if Khari had created this persona of a hip-hop artist plagued by demonic voices (that may or may not come from space!) as a quirky means of differentiating and marketing himself. Yet, as the film runs its course, illuminating the reality of Khari’s difference, it becomes apparent that his musical gifts come with a price.

Balazs uses a variety of techniques to illustrate Khari’s unique place in a world that rejects him. At one point. a radio interview is played wherein the DJs remark how Khari’s music is 10 years ahead of its time, while his own brother, a member of the crew, admits he can barely bring himself to listen to it.

The film is shot in a grainy hand-held fashion that suits the subject matter, with some interesting layered effects as footage is projected on brick walls and other stationary objects in and around Edmonton, the twins’ hometown.

I have had a tenuous relationship with hip hop in recent years, though I was a big fan in high school and college. Those artists who speak to me have always been a bit left of center, be it De La Soul or Black Sheep or Jungle Brothers or Digable Planets or even more mainstream folks like Kanye West and Erykah Badu.

I also find myself questioning the efficacy of modern approaches to mental health, which seem more about bringing everyone “in-line” to “normalcy” … when I’m not sure any of us really know what that is or what that looks like.

I’m not meaning to start a debate here about mental health doctrine or about the artistic merits of Kanye West, but I will concede that this documentary gave me a lot of food for thought … and makes me want to find some of Khari’s musical output. And, in this sense, Balazs did his job as a documentarian beautifully. Balazs is a filmmaking force to watch.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Cost of feeling: Two Muses production of Next to Normal

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[Image Source: Two Muses Theatre]

This isn’t a review. If anything it’s an ode to a phenomenal local professional production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal.

(In full transparency, several of my friends have been involved in putting this production together … and I even donated a nickel or two to the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund it.)

I had seen a few numbers from the Broadway production of this challenging show on the 2009 Tony Awards, and I promptly bought the two-disc cast album, but I had not yet ever had the privilege of seeing it.

It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey, details in rock opera form the travails of a young couple as they careen toward middle age, navigating Yuppie-dom, petulant teenagers, and a predilection for making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. A traumatic cloud hangs over their McMansion, the truth of which is revealed M. Night Shyamalan-style toward the end of the first act.

This narrative context – which shares its genetic code with such tragic familial dramas as The Subject Was Roses, Glass Menagerie, Fear Strikes Out, Ordinary People, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or All My Sons – is the perfect framework to explore the thorny topic of mental illness in today’s America. Our overeager societal penchant for pharmacological solutions receives the most caustic critique, though the authors have plenty to say about gender, age, economics, and the medical profession writ large.

The musical ends with an open-ended if nebulous note of hope, a hope that seems to rely chiefly on honesty, candor, risk-taking and acceptance as the true road to any mental recovery from a catastrophic event.

For those who haven’t seen this show, my words above may be, excuse the expression, maddening. I don’t mean to be coy (Roy! – with apologies to Paul Simon) but if I say more I will spoil the twist that sets the show toward its inevitable conclusion. So there. (You know you’re headed to Wikipedia right … about … now!)

Keeping in mind my admission that many of these folks are friends and acquaintances, the Two Muses cast, in my estimation, was uniformly excellent. With minimal staging, heartfelt performances, and a blessedly light touch, the six-person ensemble (Diane Hill, Nathan Larkin, John DeMerell, Aubrey Fink, Rusty Daugherty, and Richard Payton) delivered an exceptional show. Hill and DeMerell captured beautifully the delicate and painful dance of a couple perfectly wrong for one another, whose youthful good intentions have calcified into painful resentment.

With expert direction by Hill and Barbie Weisserman (including additional staging by Frannie Shepherd Bates) and strong musical support from Jamie Brachel (and fully visible musicians sharing the stage with the actors), this production strips away any visual distraction, simply and effectively using lighting, movement, and a simple chrome dining table and chairs to evoke a wide vary of locations, moments, and emotions.

So, here’s the punchline, Metro Detroiters. You only have one more shot to see this stellar production. Run don’t walk to the Two Muses website – www.twomusestheatre.org – and get your tickets for tomorrow (Sunday, June 30) afternoon. You won’t be sorry!