Judging by the sharp increase in complaints about illegal amateur firework displays this year, many New Yorkers might have already had their fill. The city’s aerial pyrotechnics typically reach a climax with its official spectacle, Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks. But this year, New York’s annual Independence Day celebration has been split up into a series of five-minute shows at locations across the five boroughs in order to discourage large crowds from gathering. The highlights from these displays, which began on Monday, will be broadcast on NBC on Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time, along with a live finale. The telecast will also feature musical performances by John Legend, Lady A, the Black Eyed Peas and others.
ART & MUSEUMS
Blunting the Edges of Protest
By kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to show his opposition to racial injustice, Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, set off a nationwide debate over the nature of protest and patriotism.
Kaepernick’s gesture made the artist Kota Ezawa feel much more connected to this country, his adopted home after moving from Germany. On Friday at 7 p.m. Eastern time, the Whitney Museum of American Art will stream on Vimeo “National Anthem,” Ezawa’s two-minute animation of the football players who followed Kaepernick’s lead. (The video will remain on Vimeo until Sunday at 10 p.m.) Ezawa recreated frames of actual footage using watercolors. Much in the same way his 2019 animation of the O.J. Simpson trial recontextualizes that history, “National Anthem” blunts the edges of the players’ protests, leaving us free to examine them anew.
Taking a knee has found its way into arenas completely unrelated to football. Police officers across the country have knelt to show solidarity with, or to pacify, those protesting George Floyd’s death. This gesture has taken on a life of its own, triggering new debates, layered atop the first, about how it is being used — or abused. Now that the N.F.L. has reversed its ban, we can watch Ezawa’s video and contemplate how we want patriotism to be demonstrated today.
The Old West Myth, Rewritten
With her face on a wanted poster, Bella Patterson slips out of town. It’s 1877 in Tupelo, Miss., and Bella is a young Black woman guilty of nothing but embarrassing a rich white predator. That is enough to put her in danger, though, so she catches a train to New Mexico.
A comic romance wrapped in an Old West adventure, Kirsten Childs’s musical “Bella: An American Tall Tale” is a big, bold, beautiful fiction. But in its fashion, as one lyric promises, it is also “one hundred and ten percent absolutely true” — a correction of those whitewashed myths from our past that omit whole populations.
With a voluptuous heroine who can look after herself, thank you, “Bella” was an underappreciated, absolute delight when Robert O’Hara directed it at Playwrights Horizons in 2017, and its ebullience comes through on the cast album. From the opening number, “Big Booty Tupelo Gal,” the show celebrates Black female beauty — in Bella’s case, an inheritance from a long-ago ancestor, the Itty Bitty Gal.
What you won’t get from the recording is the wild scope of Bella’s story, with all its silliness and heartache. For that, pair listening to the album with reading the script, published by Samuel French.
Pop & Rock
Behind the Boss’s Music
Bruce Springsteen has long been a poet laureate for blue-collar Americans — even though, as he quips in the opening moments of his “Springsteen on Broadway” Netflix special, he’s never actually seen the inside of a factory nor worked a five-day week until his stint at Manhattan’s Walter Kerr Theater. The film documents the one-man show Springsteen performed there some 236 times from 2017 to 2018. Despite the bare-bones set and pared-down arrangements, the rock legend fills the stage with his greatest asset: a peerless talent for storytelling.
One of Springsteen’s biggest hits, “Born in the U.S.A.,” will likely be a fixture on Fourth of July playlists this weekend. But to ignore the critique behind the song’s ostensible patriotism would be a slight to his songwriting. In “Springsteen on Broadway,” he tees up the tune with tales about young men he knew who were killed while serving in Vietnam, and he explains the often-misinterpreted chorus, saying that it’s “a declaration of your birthplace, and the right to all the blood, and the confusion, and the pride, and the shame and the grace that comes with birthplace.” An embodiment of the American dream himself, Springsteen offers a lens through which to consider to whom that dream is available, and who has been sacrificed for it.
Making the Fourth for All
The event, Celebrate July 4th @ Home, comprises five free hourlong activities (all require online registration) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday. Taking place on Zoom and incorporating related art projects, the interactive festivities underscore the many heritages found in America. Hablemos @ Casa, for Spanish speakers, will focus on a reading and discussion of a picture book about Salvadoran immigrants. In addition to patriotic tunes, a singalong at 11 a.m. will include anthems like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is identified with the African-American struggle for justice.
At noon, educators from the Jackie Robinson Museum will lead an exploration of Robinson’s lifelong commitment to civil rights. Next, a historical interpreter from the society will read excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s seminal speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” First delivered to a largely white audience on July 5, 1852, the oration laments, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
The day will conclude with an opportunity for children to make the 2020 holiday their own by assembling a museum-style installation about their ancestors’ history and culture.
Where the Laughs Are Safer
The architectural aesthetics most conducive to live stand-up comedy — low ceilings, cramped quarters — are also the most hazardous during a pandemic. Contagious laughing has become the least desirable activity, right at a time when we might need to laugh the most. But live comedy doesn’t have to be all doom and Zoom in 2020.
At outdoor spaces across the country, performers have commandeered the transmitter-and-speaker technology that makes drive-in movie theaters possible. The Bel Aire Diner, in Astoria, Queens, was an early adopter, not only showing films in its parking lot but also hosting comedy, with stand-up sets now on Tuesday and Friday nights.
One of the few New York City comedy clubs blessed with a backyard, Q.E.D., also in Astoria, began hosting live comedy last week on its patio, protecting audience members with abundant health precautions. The club’s schedule this weekend includes open mikes on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, Charles McBee’s “Nerd Is the New Black” on Saturday night and much more. For fans who prefer to stay home, Q.E.D. is selling discounted tickets to watch the live shows on Zoom.
SEAN L. McCARTHY
Giving a Symphony Its Due
William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” which premiered in 1934 and was revised by the composer in 1952, made the journey from LP to CD to streaming through an early take on that 1952 revision, led by the famed conductor Leopold Stokowski. Another recording, by Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, saw the light of day in the 1990s. But Dawson’s lone symphony merits more attention than it has received.
A fresh approach to it by the conductor Arthur Fagen and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, released in June on the Naxos label, provides us with another crucial look at this complex, vibrant opus. During some climaxes, this interpretation leans away from the straightforward, triumphal connotations that were fashionable in performances of symphonic Americana at the midcentury. Yet because exuberance isn’t the only goal of this music, the cooler sheen of the Vienna’s ensemble sound offers an incisive look at Dawson’s experimentalism.
In a 1999 article for the Black Music Research Journal, the scholar John Andrew Johnson surveyed the richly unpredictable variations within Dawson’s score and pronounced it “patently modern, even avant-garde.” Those textures are easier to perceive throughout Vienna’s rendition — as in the crisp yet purposefully questing quality of the symphony’s final beats.
SETH COLTER WALLS
In 1970, Tina Ramirez, the daughter of a Mexican bullfighter, founded the community-based arts troupe Ballet Hispánico to celebrate Latino dance and culture. Today, it’s one of the country’s top contemporary companies, consistently producing fresh, invigorating work performed by polished, vigorous dancers.
It’s a great shame that this invaluable troupe can’t have a proper golden anniversary celebration, with live performances witnessed by the generations of dancers, choreographers and fans who have been inspired by its spirit and impacted by its tireless efforts to support and promote Latino artists. But the silver lining is that its fantastic online gala, “Noche Unidos: A Night of Dance and Unity,” held on Tuesday, is now available for the next two weeks on the company’s website and YouTube channel.
The hourlong event includes new work — mostly solos and duets — by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Pedro Ruiz, Andrea Miller, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano and Michelle Manzanales, among others. Some dances are performed in studios, some at sandy locales, and one around a kitchen counter. Musical interludes feature supporters such as Gloria Estefan (on guitar) and Arturo O’Farrill (on keyboard), and Rita Moreno, Norman Lear and more provide congratulatory words. The company’s savvy artistic director and chief executive, Eduardo Vilaro, serves as an engaging M.C. Don’t miss his sultry salsa at the end.