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Another Vanguard Year for the Arts

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette


From year to year, in every season, the arts, entertainment and culture scene on Martha’s Vineyard grows richer and more diverse.

In every month of 2019, Island artists, arts organizations, schools and libraries created a vibrant mix of experiences, frequently breaking new ground. To begin with, we heard new, often stirring music from unexpected sources.

The bhangra beats of Brooklyn-based Red Baraat, led by Sunny Jain on dhol — a double-headed South Asian drum he played with sticks — had a thrilled audience dancing deliriously at the Chilmark Community Center in February. We can thank the Winter Yard, an extension of the Yard in Chilmark, for including concerts and dances like this among its cold-weather offerings. Regardless of whether or not the musicians’ names are familiar, these events are unfailingly worth attending.

In vocal music, Michigan composer Thomas LaVoy’s cantata In Heaven, Hereafter, based on the writings of chicken-keeping 19th-century Island entrepreneur Nancy Luce, received a moving performance by the Island Community Chorus last spring.

Mixing music with storytelling, cabaret has been enjoying a good year. From January through April, the Wicked Good Musical Revue at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse brought together some of the Island’s best classically-trained singers, one of whom also does a little tap-dancing, with special guests in a monthly series of themed show-tune programs.

The playhouse also presented several one-woman shows last spring, including Wicked Good mainstay Molly Conole’s original and highly personal Seaglass, Quilts and Song: A Life in Pieces.

Musicals, including Camp Jabberwocky’s standing-room-only pastiches in July and August, are among the Island’s most beloved arts traditions.

In February, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School performing arts department delivered an enchanting As You Like It with 22 songs that effortlessly took the place of much Shakespearean exposition, and in July the Island Theatre Workshop presented Once Upon a Mattress.

Classical music was at its best this year, with the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society programming four high-caliber string quartet concerts over the summer and an October cello festival that included performances, spread over two nights, of all six Bach suites for the unaccompanied instrument.

An Island piano tuner and pianist earned national recognition in 2019: David Stanwood, a longtime resident of West Tisbury, was named to the Piano Technicians Guild Hall of Fame at the guild’s annual convention in August.

In popular music, the summer Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series returned with a diverse lineup of shows by Steve Earle and the Dukes, Audra McDonald, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn and other boomer/GenX favorites.

Playing solo on the same stage, Richard Thompson sounded almost as clear as if he were in a recording studio, while at Union Chapel, Jonathan Richman — who has grown from an early punk influencer to a kind of mystical, singing Mr. Rogers for grown-ups — captivated the audience with just his voice, a classical guitar and some tasteful conga-playing by Tommy Larkins.

And Beach Road Weekend, brought to the Island by the same team behind the Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series. For three days in August, Veterans Park in Vineyard Haven was turned into a multi-stage venue for big-name and local bands. A screening of Jaws, its score performed live on stage by the Cape Symphony conducted by Jung-Ho Pak, kicked off the festival, which closed with a group led by Phil Lesh and left a general impression that the Island’s first three-day pop festival had gone off without a hitch.

Island musicians and music-lovers of all affinities celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Chilmark Pot Luck Jam, held monthly at the Chilmark Community Center through May and again beginning in November.

In October, Ladyfest returned to Oak Bluffs with female-led acts including Sabrina and the Groovers, who turned in a powerful performance on Circuit avenue. Days later, vocalist Sabrina Luening suffered a stroke and fellow musicians quickly began organizing benefit concerts and a fund-raising campaign in support of her recovery.

Island musicians — and movie-lovers — also drew together in April to pay tribute to the closing, after more than 30 years, of the Island Entertainment video rental store. A farewell concert at the Katherine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, called That’s Island Entertainment, was a rollicking, heartfelt evening of movie music and songs featured in films.

It was a good year for the Island’s film festivals, with local programmers giving us a first look at new films on their way to international acclaim.

In March, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival in Chilmark delighted audiences with the long-awaited Aretha Franklin performance documentary, Amazing Grace, and introduced It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, now in wide release. The Chilmark-based festival returned over the summer with screenings and events, often including live music, at a variety of locations including the Beach Plum Inn, and added a weekly discussion series with local and off-Island thinkers.

In September, the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival lived up to its name with movies from Asia, the South Pacific, Europe and South America, along with the American-made Lucky Grandma, set in New York’s Chinatown. The festival’s closing film, Parasite, had recently won the top prize (the Palme d’Or) at the Cannes Film Festival and is currently making its way onto short lists for the Academy Awards, with some critics saying the South Korean comic/tragedy has a shot at the Best Picture Oscar even though it has subtitles.

Other film festivals this year included the Spectrum LGBTQ+ festival in May, the FILMusic festival in June and the 17th African American Film Festival in August.

And one lucky Island audience packed the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven for an invitation-only screening of the new documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, by seasonal Islander Stanley Nelson, in August.

Stage theatre continues to thrive on Martha’s Vineyard, indoors year-round and outside in season. Much of it is centered at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, where the “cheap & painless & free” Shakespeare for the Masses presented a hilarious take on Richard III in January.

Along outdoor performances of A Winter’s Tale at the Tisbury Amphitheatre, the playhouse presented a strong summer of main stage productions and new play readings, as well as a touching October production of Our Town that included community members of differing abilities in the cast.

Artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo also runs an improvisational class for people with disabilities, and last month the playhouse hosted the Winter Yard’s 2019 debut, a live radio play called Pang! by artist-activist and UCLA professor Dan Froot that takes aim at the issues behind food insecurity.

The Yard continued its core mission in 2019, bringing cutting-edge modern dance, hip-hop and tap innovators to Chilmark and down-Island halls like the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center while also providing lessons and workshops for schoolchildren, community members and seniors.

Existing only in the off-season, Pathways Arts continued to pack a variety of performances, presentations and interactive events into its Chilmark Tavern space.

In 2019, Islanders welcomed the new Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Vineyard Haven to the arst scene, which over the summer hosted a rare exhibition of works by Thomas Hart Benton — many from private collections, including that of his daughter Jessie in Chilmark — along with two small Island landscapes by his onetime protege, Jackson Pollock.

Monthly group shows at Featherstone Center for the Arts began in February with My One and Only and continued through the year, ending this month with the annual holiday gift show. Photography shows of note this year included Albert O. Fischer’s at the playhouse in January and Wayne Smith’s show in October.

The Island’s newest potter, Micah Thanhauser of West Tisbury, opened his Merry Farm Pottery studio in 2019, currently by appointment only or online. Not far away on State Road, glass artist and metal sculptor Barney Zeitz began work on a new public sculpture for Fall River’s Government Center.

In literature, Jill Jupen was named Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate through 2021 and former U.S. poet laureate Bill Collins gave his every other year reading at Featherstone.

Among novels by Islanders published this year, Shakespeare for the Masses dramaturge Nicole Galland’s On the Same Page is a disarmingly satirical romance set on the Vineyard and There You Are, by Mathea Morais, follows a pair of music lovers who meet in a St. Louis record store.

First-time author Janet Messineo found a major publisher for her book of fishing essays, Casting into the Light.

And a world of readers joined Islanders in mourning the deaths of celebrated authors Ward Just and Tony Horwitz, whose book Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide was published this spring, just a few months before his death, to great acclaim.

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