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    In Covid’s Early Days, Her Loss Resonated. She Hopes Her Hope Does, Too.

    LOS ANGELES — Amanda Kloots is not surprised that she’s famous.You don’t move to New York from Ohio at 18, go to countless thanks-but-no-thanks auditions, dust yourself off again and again, or practice tap dance nightly on your small apartment bathroom floor in case a spot in the ensemble for “42nd Street” or the Rockettes opens because you think you are best suited to a life of quiet anonymity. More

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    A Writer’s One-Act Plays Debut, Continuing Her Resurrection

    By staging Kathleen Collins’s rich psychological portraits of Black women, a theatrical group aims to enlighten, heal and inspire.“No one is going to mythologize my life,” the playwright and filmmaker Kathleen Collins said in 1984 to a group of film students at Howard University. “No one is going to refuse me the right to explore my experiences of life as normal experiences.”Collins’s insistence on portraying the ordinariness of African American women’s lives rather than reproducing the Hollywood narratives that pathologized or mythologized them is resonating with a new generation of Black women artists who have recently discovered Collins and her work. Part of what makes Collins’s writing so appealing is her attention to the complex internal struggles and external journeys, of what Elizabeth Alexander calls those “Bohemian Black women” who often work as artists and academics, and have a robust intellectual life. Because she renders them with such care and imbues them with such vulnerability, her characters have heightened insights and are aware that they are both liberated and alienated by their knowledge of how others see and stereotype them.Such rich psychological portraits of Black women are what originally drew Afrofemononomy, a group of Black femme theater artists, to Collins’s plays. In addition to adapting that Howard University speech into a monologue, they are also performing “Begin the Beguine,” a quartet of Collins’s one-acts that have never been produced before.Over the past two weekends, under a program titled “Work the Roots,” Afrofemononomy performed the title play “Begin the Beguine,” about the actress Ruby Dee and her son, the blues guitarist Guy Davis, as well as “The Healing,” “The Reading” and “Remembrance” at various locations in New York City (from a lawn in Harlem to a park in Bedford-Stuyvesant). On Saturday, May 29, they will present the premiere of a mixed-media installation called “Gold Taste” that is a response to “The Essentialisn’t,” a theatrical work by one of the group’s members, Eisa Davis. The piece will be available for viewing until June 27 at Performance Space New York’s Keith Haring Theater.Jennifer Harrison Newman dances with audience members as part of the performance.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesThe debut of Collins’s plays is part of a continuing resurrection of her works after her death from breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 46. Largely because of her daughter Nina Lorez Collins’s commitment to preserving her mother’s legacy, we are now able to access the gifts of Collins’s ambitions and archive, including the theatrical release in 2015 of her 1982 film, “Losing Ground”; the publication of her short story collection “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” in 2016; and, in 2019, the arrival of “Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary,” a mélange of her short stories, plays, diary entries and film scripts.Davis, an actress and playwright recently seen in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” first became acquainted with Collins’s writing when she was asked to do a public reading of Collins’s short stories at the Brooklyn Public Library in 2017. But, she now realizes, Collins has been with her a lot longer. “She is a literary foremother for me that has just been under my nose all this time,” Davis said. “When Nina first gave me these plays, I was like, ‘Kathleen Collins, Kathleen Collins, Kathleen Collins,’ and then I looked at my bookshelf and I found ‘9 Plays by Black Women,’ an anthology from the 1980s, and her ‘The Brothers’ in there. It’s the only play of hers that was ever produced, [a production of the Women’s Project, now WP Theater] at American Place Theater.”A line from Collins’s play “Remembrance” on a wall at Performance Space New York reads, “Last night, I dreamt I danced in the image of God.”Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesOnce she read Collins’s other plays, she immediately shared them with her friends and other Black female theater artists with whom she frequently collaborated in the most quotidian of ways: over dinner, on museum trips and visits to the beach, via texts, after seeing plays together, and, in the past year, over Zoom. By 2019, their casual interest in Collins’s plays turned into the more concrete idea of staging and sharing them with the broader public.“In a lot of ways, this was an attempt to take the model of our friendship and then apply it to the conditions under which we collaborate,” Davis said.The director Lileana Blain-Cruz (“Marys Seacole”) said learning about Collins’s plays enabled her to take different risks. For the project, she has thoughtfully transformed Collins’s “The Reading,” a 30-minute play that anticipated our conversations about racial microaggressions today. Set in a Black psychic’s waiting room, a tense conversation ensues between Marguerite (Kara Young), a Black fashion designer, and Helen (Amelia Workman), a white romance novelist. As Helen tries to assert her entitlement, Marguerite pushes back, and eventually denies Helen an opportunity to take up the space that she, as a white woman, feels obligated to inhabit.Amelia Workman in “The Reading.”Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesAudience members at the performance.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesFood, books and more were on display.Jeenah Moon for The New York Times“For me, the celebration and the exploration collectively around Kathleen Collins’s work is another way of seeing each other before we even knew how to see each other in existence and collectivity,” she said. “That, for me, is really moving because I was like, ‘Oh, this is somebody that I should have known.’” She added, “Now I get to discover, and I don’t have to discover alone.”In addition to the moving performance by individual actors, these plays, which were not open to critics to review, were made even more engaging because of the casting and staging. Collins wrote “The Healing” and “The Reading” with white characters but because Afrofemononomy cast from within their group, they provided a space in which Black actresses were always front and center. This gesture was intensified by the intimacy of their set. At the end of “The Reading,” the audience was led by the actress Jennifer Harrison Newman to dance with the cast, an invitation that turned the luminescent installation and graffiti scrawled wall that read “Last night, I dreamt I danced in the image of God” (a line from another Collins play in the quartet) into a communal party celebrating Black women’s creativity.April Matthis, left, and Stacey Karen Robinson perform “Begin the Beguine,” by Kathleen Collins, at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in Manhattan. Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesBy inviting us to these tender moments in which Collins’s Black female characters pull back their layers, the performances themselves transport both those fictional characters and this real-life Black cast far beyond the strict racial and gender categories that envelop them and us.“These are stories about the interior lives of Black women,” Nina Lorez Collins told me. “One of the reasons I like the “Begin the Beguine” is because it is about race, but it is also not. It’s really about the interior life of this artist, this young woman. And I just don’t think we’ve seen anything like it.” As avant-garde as Collins’s characters were in her time, they still remain singular today, giving us rare social insights into how we can navigate our unique moment of slowly returning to each other, to public spaces, and ultimately, live, in-person performances. In the foreword to “Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary,” the fiction writer Danielle Evans described Collins as “a master of the moments when the interior becomes the exterior, when all pretense drops away.”This blurring between our inner selves and the identities projected back onto Black women was at the heart of Afrofemononomy’s take on “Remembrance,” described as “a kind of personal séance.” Under the directorial consultation of Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”) and featuring Davis as The Woman and Kaneza Schaal as Collins talking to the Howard students, this becomes a conversation between two Black women who, while each giving their own monologue — one taking place in a bathroom, the other at a lectern — end up, at times, dissolving into each other. All the while they demand the audience see Black women in public with the same clarity that we see ourselves in private.April Matthis and Stacey Karen Robinson performed “Begin the Beguine” at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in Manhattan. Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesBut such revelations and reversal of gazes will also be critical to large swaths of the American theater community that is still grappling with debates about inclusion, equity and white gatekeepers as it seeks to attend to the harm of racism, and institutionalize the healing that Collins’s vision offers for her Black characters and for the Black female theater artists who embody them.After spending two weeks performing, and a couple of years studying Collins, Afrofemononomy decided to close with Davis’s music theater piece “The Essentialisn’t” in the group installation “Gold Taste,” and reimagine a much earlier moment when the Harlem Renaissance writers W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen debated racial representations in their era. It begins with the ever vexed question, “Can You Be Black and Not Perform?”Extending Collins’s legacy to Davis, the Afrofemononomy member Kaneza Schaal said, “Eisa is [also] sitting on a trove of plays she has written. And it is up to us, to see to it, that our own daughters are not the first people to produce that work.” She continued, “It is urgent to address Davis and Collins simultaneously. The intellectual harmony Eisa creates with her foremothers is astounding, and yet another extension of this fabric.”The Essentialisn’t: Gold Taste installationMay 29-June 27 at Performance Space New York, 150 First Avenue; performancespacenewyork.org. More

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    ‘Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue’ Review: China Through Writers’ Eyes

    Jia Zhangke’s documentary illuminates a vast and complicated history in a series of intimate conversations.The films of Jia Zhangke, documentary and fictional, zoom in on the granular details of individual lives. At the same time, they are chapters in the single, unimaginably complicated story of China’s transformation in the decades since the 1949 revolution. Jia, who was born in 1970, tends to dwell in the recent past, and to circle back to Shanxi, the part of northern China where he grew up, but he’s also attentive to the continuities of history and geography, the connections between generations and places.His latest documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” is intimate and specific, consisting mainly of interviews with three writers — Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong — associated with Shanxi. They reminisce about their families and careers, and also about their sometimes wrenching, sometimes exhilarating experiences during the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s and ’70s, and later periods of urbanization and capitalist expansion. Colleagues, neighbors and family members, listed as “witnesses” in the end credits, contribute their own anecdotes and insights. The movie is an affecting group portrait and also a complex and subtle piece of literary criticism.Watching it, I wished I was more familiar with the work of its subjects. Some of it has been translated into English, notably Jia Pingwa’s “Ruined City” and Yu’s “To Live,” which was the basis for Zhang Yimou’s acclaimed 1994 film. But Jia Zhangke’s patient listening and the elegant clarity of the movie’s structure — it advances in roughly chronological order, divided into short sections that explain where it’s going — make it accessible to the curious as well as illuminating to the already knowledgeable.More than that, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” demystifies historical episodes that are often presented, at least in the West, as abstractions, and personalizes large-scale events. Politics hovers over the writers’ lives, but their sense of national and regional history is filtered through work, family and landscape. Jia Pingwa recalls the hardship that his father, a teacher, suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Yu talks about his career transition from dentist to novelist. Liang delves into painful recollections of her mother’s illness and her sister’s marriage. Between the lines of their conversations with the unseen director you can intuit the elusive larger story — about the evolution of a poor, rural corner of an emerging global superpower — that is both his subject and theirs.Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns BlueNot rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. In theaters. More

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    Paul Mooney, Trailblazing Comedian, Dies at 79

    A comic writer and performer, he was known for his boundary-pushing routines about racism and social justice and for his work with Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle.Paul Mooney, the boundary-pushing comedian and comedy writer who made his views on race, racism and social justice abundantly clear as Richard Pryor’s longtime behind-the-scenes partner, a contributor to “In Living Color” and a performer and writer on “Chappelle’s Show,” died on Wednesday at his home in Oakland, Calif. He was 79.The cause was a heart attack, said Cassandra Williams, his publicist. Mr. Mooney was found to have prostate cancer in 2014.If you knew Mr. Pryor’s work, you probably knew Mr. Mooney’s words. The two worked together on the short-lived 1977 variety series “The Richard Pryor Show”; “Pryor’s Place” (1984), Mr. Pryor’s unlikely attempt at a children’s show; television specials; the album and film “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip” (1982); the autobiographical film “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling” (1986), which Mr. Pryor starred in and directed; and Mr. Pryor’s 1975 appearance as host on “Saturday Night Live.” That episode included a now-famous escalating-racial-insults job-interview sketch with Chevy Chase, written by Mr. Mooney.In an interview with The New York Times after Mr. Pryor’s death in 2005 at 65, Mr. Mooney described himself as Mr. Pryor’s “Black writer.”As a writer on “In Living Color,” Keenen Ivory Wayans’s hit sketch comedy show that had its premiere on Fox in 1990 with a predominantly Black cast, Mr. Mooney was the inspiration for and co-creator of Homey D. Clown, a less than jovial circus-costumed character who was forced to interact with children (part of his parole agreement) and usually ended up frightening them.As a writer and performer on “Chappelle’s Show” in the early 2000s, Mr. Mooney played Negrodamus, a turbaned mystic who foretold the future (Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political prospects, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s marriage), appeared as the expert in “Ask a Black Dude” and reviewed movies alongside white female critics. Discussing “Gone With the Wind,” he revealed that Hattie McDaniel, who played the enslaved character known as Mammy, had been reincarnated as Oprah Winfrey — for the money.Mr. Mooney’s film roles included the singer Sam Cooke in “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978) and Junebug, an old-school stand-up comedian with equal amounts of dignity, integrity and genius, in “Bamboozled” (2000), Spike Lee’s dark farce about a television network bringing back the minstrel-show genre.On “Chappelle’s Show” in the early 2000s, Mr. Mooney played Negrodamus, a turbaned mystic who foretold the future.Comedy CentralPaul Mooney was born Paul Gladney on Aug. 4, 1941, in Shreveport, La., to George Gladney and LaVoya Ealy, who were both teenagers. When Paul was 7, he moved with his mother and her parents to Oakland, where he was largely raised by his grandmother, Aimay Ealy.Although some reports said he had taken his stage surname from the Hollywood actor Paul Muni, he corrected that in his 2007 memoir, “White Is the New Black.” His family loved nicknames, he wrote, and his grandmother just started calling him Mooney when he was a child.Paul was 14 when he and his mother moved to nearby Berkeley. There, at a local movie theater, he won his first “hambone” contest, performing an African-American stomping dance that involves slapping and patting the body like a drum. It was then that he realized that he loved applause — and prize money.He had his first taste of fame when he became a teenage regular on a local dance-party television show. After the Army (he was drafted and served in Germany), he came home to all kinds of sales jobs and, even more, to a future in entertainment. He did his first stand-up comedy (alongside friends who were folk singers), created a Black improvisational group called the Yankee Doodle Bedbugs, and joined the noted improv group the Second City. He also took a job for a while as ringmaster of the traveling Gatti-Charles Circus, which, he said, just called for looking good and telling jokes.Mr. Mooney and Richard Pryor (seated) attended the premiere of Spike Lee’s concert film “The Original Kings of Comedy” in Los Angeles in 2000. With them were, from left, Walter Latham, one of the film’s producers, along with Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, Mr. Lee and D.L. Hughley.Fred Prouser/ReutersHe met Mr. Pryor in the late 1960s at a party, and they soon discovered that their personal lives were antithetical. “Pryor was a self-loathing, drug-addicted genius, Mooney an industrious teetotaler, but they bonded over laughs and a distrust of the white Hollywood power structure,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in 2010.Mr. Mooney continued his comedy career after Mr. Pryor’s death, preserving his routines in documentaries and DVDs like “The Godfather of Comedy” (2012) and “Jesus Is Black — So Was Cleopatra — Know Your History” (2007).In “Jesus Is Black,” his three sons — Shane (whose mother was Yvonne Carothers, whom Mr. Pryor married in 1973) and Daryl and Dwayne (twin sons from an earlier relationship) — appeared as themselves. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.Mr. Mooney had strong opinions, even about himself.“Whatever that thing is that white people like in Blacks, I don’t have it,” he wrote in his memoir. “Maybe it’s my arrogance or my self-assurance or the way I carry myself, but whatever it is, I don’t have it.”Marie Fazio contributed reporting. More

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    Covid, the Musical? Jodi Picoult Is Giving It a Try.

    Working with a playwright, the best-selling author has turned the symptoms of illness into songwriting prompts for a new musical called “Breathe.”About halfway through “Breathe,” a new musical created by the best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult and the veteran playwright Timothy Allen McDonald, a fed-up, locked-down father of three sums up the challenges of the pandemic in a two-word refrain: “It’s brutal!”Adam, played by Colin Donnell, is lamenting the challenge of shoehorning virtual kindergarten alongside two demanding careers — Donnell’s partner-in-exhaustion is his real-life wife, Patti Murin — but he speaks for all of us who have been crowded and alone, enraged and bereft, at various points this year.Before we get to the logistics of writing, staging and filming a musical in the midst of a pandemic, let’s address the elephant in the Zoom: Why would anyone want to watch a 90-minute theatrical production about Covid-19 — especially one with scenes named after symptoms many of us have experienced firsthand? (They are: Fever, Aches, Swelling & Irritation, Fatigue and Shortness of Breath.)“I know there are going to be people who aren’t ready for this and maybe never will be,” said Picoult in a phone interview from her home in New Hampshire. “That said, I think there are some very funny moments in ‘Breathe.’ You laugh more than you might expect to.”The prolific author — who has a novel, “Wish You Were Here,” out on Nov. 30 — said she was inspired to create “Breathe” because she wasn’t ready to tackle Covid-19 between the covers of a book. Fiction writing can be a lonely slog, and Picoult enjoys the spirit of collaboration that comes with writing for the stage, which has long played a role in her life.“You don’t want to hear me sing,” she laughed. “But my kids were involved in theater and I run a teen theater group in my copious amounts of free time.” (Trumbull Hall Troupe was established in 2004 and donates its net proceeds to local charities.)Denée Benton performing the “Fever” section of the show in an empty theater.Jenny AndersonPicoult and McDonald have collaborated before, beginning with a stage adaptation of “Between the Lines,” the young adult novel she wrote with her daughter, Samantha van Leer. The musical was set to open Off Broadway in April 2020; but, of course, the ghost of Thespis had other plans and the production has been postponed until the 2021-22 season.Over the weekend of March 7, 2020, the pair — who referred to one another in separate conversations as “the other half of my brain” — attended the wedding of the “Between the Lines” actor Arielle Jacobs in Tulum, Mexico. “When we came back, everyone at our table got Covid except me,” Picoult recalled.“I started getting a sore throat and I knew something was wrong,” McDonald said. “The thing I felt first was shame. I was 13 when the AIDS crisis started; I knew I was gay and I remember how people said the epidemic was God’s way of correcting a wrong. When you experience something like that at such a young age, it sticks with you.”Inspired by Jonathan Larson’s memorialization of the AIDS epidemic in “Rent” — and also by the interconnectedness of characters in “Love Actually” — Picoult and McDonald got to work on a series of stories about the impact of the pandemic on the lives of four pairs of people: strangers who meet at a wedding, a gay couple at a crossroads, the aforementioned overwhelmed parents and a married pair who have stopped communicating.Then George Floyd was murdered. “Tim and I both felt that the protests that arose were intimately tied to the pandemic, and we knew we weren’t the right ones to write about it since we’re two white writers,” Picoult said. “So we made a call to Douglas Lyons, who is an incredibly talented book writer as well as a lyricist and an actor. We said ‘This is what we’re doing and we would love for you to be part of our family.’ I think within 10 seconds he said yes.”From left: Daniel Yearwood, Josh Davis and T. Oliver Reid filming the “Fatigue” section of “Breathe.”Jenny AndersonWith Ethan Pakchar, Lyons wrote “Fatigue,” about a Black police officer whose son is arrested at a protest and badly mistreated by his father’s colleague. “I didn’t put my own face into the gravel. He did,” says the son, who is played by Daniel Yearwood.The “Breathe” team consists of five songwriting teams (one for each vignette), four directors plus supervising director Jeff Calhoun and a fleet of actors, including the Tony Award winners Kelli O’Hara and Brian Stokes Mitchell, as well as Denée Benton, Matt Doyle and Max Clayton, among others. Some of its members have never met in person.“It felt like every two weeks when we would have a meeting, the Zoom would double exponentially,” Picoult said.McDonald and Picoult funded the project. “It was a couple of hundred thousand to get it filmed. That was the biggest cost,” Picoult said.“We do not expect to become stinking rich off this,” she added. “The point was, it’s our job to chronicle stories and this is one that needs telling.”In March 2021, the cast and crew met in New York at the 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall to record over a period of three days. There was no audience or set; actors wore lockdown-appropriate clothing (fuzzy slippers, a waffle-weave shirt) and were accompanied by a lone piano. Later, the orchestra would be recorded in separate rooms in Nashville.“The whole thing was reverse engineered,” said Picoult.She joined remotely, watching the action from a “very weird camera angle on the side of the stage” and listening through the music director’s feed.Picoult, outside her New Hampshire home, has a longtime interest in theater, which encourages collaboration, compared to the largely solitary act of writing fiction. Kieran Kesner for The New York TimesMcDonald had the pleasure of greeting participants as they arrived at the Y: “To see them three-dimensionally! To see them wearing pants and shoes! That was just so cool.” The 54-year-old has been involved with dramatic productions since he was 11; the pandemic brought a bittersweet milestone: the longest he’s ever been away from a stage.“When we walked into this beautiful theater in the middle of a technical rehearsal, with that buzz and chaos we all love as theater people, everyone just broke into tears,” said McDonald, who lost his father-in-law to Covid-19 in July. “But we were smiling at the same time, with full body chills. I don’t know what that emotion is but it was truly a sense of magic.”On May 14, “Breathe” will premiere on Overture+, a streaming service for the performing arts, and the original cast recording will be released by Broadway Records. The show will be available through July 2.Viewers will see rows of empty green seats behind the actors, whose scripts and music stands lend a behind-the-scenes intimacy. In a peculiar way, those flipped-up seats are more striking than the backdrops and razzle dazzle you might expect from an in-person production in ordinary time.So are the typewritten interstitials at the beginning of each chapter, announcing the ever-increasing number of Covid-19 deaths worldwide between March and June of 2020. Just as “Come From Away” captured the sense of global citizenship that flickered briefly after 9/11, “Breathe” aims to connect the dots between people living in isolation.“When you go to see a show, you’re sitting in your own individual chair and, whether you’re in the balcony or the front row, you’re feeling a unified emotion,” Picoult said. “To me, that was a metaphor for what was going on during lockdown. We were all in our isolated pods and we were all feeling the same thing. There was something transformative about that that made me think, we should try to make sense of this through musical theater.” More

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    How One Graphic Novel Looks at Anti-Asian Hate

    In “Cyclopedia Exotica,” the artist and writer Aminder Dhaliwal created a fictitious community facing xenophobia, fetishization and media misrepresentation. It’s resonating with her thousands of Instagram followers.In the new graphic novel “Cyclopedia Exotica,” immigrants with one eye coexist uneasily with their two-eyed neighbors.Members of the cyclops community are targeted by curious online daters and porn addicts, as well as cosmetic surgeons eager to give them that desirable two-eyed look. They contend with xenophobes protesting mixed marriages, hateful comments from subway Karens and, in some cases, physical violence.In 2018, when the artist and author Aminder Dhaliwal began sharing pages with her nearly 250,000 Instagram followers, she was drawing from her experiences as a South Asian woman growing up in England and Canada, but she wondered if the topic was relevant.“I remember saying to a friend, I want to do a book on microaggressions, but that’s, like, so old. Is it even worth doing?” she said in a phone interview from Burbank, Calif., where she now lives.Three years on, Dhaliwal’s book seems particularly of the moment. It’s tough to miss the parallels between its characters, minorities singled out because of their eyes, and the spate of reported attacks on Asian people in the United States over the past months. “I could not imagine that this would be happening this year,” she said.The graphic novel begins with the story of Etna, the world’s first cyclops sex symbol. Her critically acclaimed 2018 debut, “Woman World,” imagined an idyllic, supremely chill future in which guys went extinct years ago. (Spoiler alert: They aren’t really missed.) Published by the Canadian comics house Drawn & Quarterly this month, “Cyclopedia Exotica” is her second book and has already connected with a diverse readership.“A lot of the microaggression stuff was specifically about Asians,” Dhaliwal, 32, said. “But I also get questions like, ‘Is this about queer people?’ Or, ‘I relate to this so much as a trans person.’”Born in Wembley, London, she moved when she was 11 to Brampton, Ontario, a predominantly South Asian suburb of Toronto. She loved to draw from an early age, tracing the covers of her brother’s video game cases and creating Harry Potter fan art. She knew she wanted to do something art-related but wasn’t sure what she could do or whom to even ask. “Being an Asian kid, I feel like my family had access to every doctor,” she said. “But I didn’t know anyone doing art.”Inspired by a presentation at Sheridan College given by a Disney “Beauty and the Beast” animator, Dhaliwal enrolled in the school’s animation department. “He was this larger guy with a big old beard, and he flips a switch and he’s Belle,” she said. “It was just bananas to me. I knew at that moment that I wanted to dedicate my life to this craft, because it just seemed so fun and silly.”After graduation, Dhaliwal found work in Los Angeles as a writer and artist on animated shows like “The Fairly OddParents” and “Sanjay and Craig.” The work was rewarding — in 2020, she earned a spot on Variety’s list of “Ten Animators to Watch” — but the secrecy and nondisclosure agreements involved wore her down. “So much of my day-to-day is hidden behind N.D.A.’s,” she said. “You get exhausted not getting to talk about the cool things you’re working on or getting to process the hard things you’re going through.”Aminder Dhaliwal began sharing pages on Instagram in 2018. “I remember saying to a friend, I want to do a book on microaggressions, but that’s, like, so old,” she said. “Is it even worth doing?”Joyce Kim for The New York TimesAfter working for four years on a pilot for an animated series that never got greenlit, she knew she had to create her own comics, things she could post online for immediate feedback. She started with a Harry Potter spoof, then a tongue-in-cheek comic based on the Japanese manga series “Death Note.”“Woman World” came to Dhaliwal after she participated in the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles and saw signs that read “the future is female.” What might that look like, she wondered? As with “Cyclopedia Exotica,” she questioned her idea early on. “I remember starting to write it and thinking like, ehhh, feminism is doing great,” she said. “And then the #MeToo movement happened, and I was like, oh yeah.”The animation industry had its own reckoning in 2018, dubbed the #MeToon movement. Dhaliwal and her fellow animator Megan Nicole Dong (“Pinky Malinky,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2”) joined others in creating an organization that led to changes in human-resources practices at several studios and the one-year suspension of the “Loud House” creator Chris Savino following sexual harassment allegations. “Initially, we were just trying to create a safe space to talk about things that had been happening in animation,” Dong said. “But it evolved into a much bigger movement within our industry.”The success of “Woman World” gave Dhaliwal new confidence. “I had been working as a comedy writer for years and didn’t know if I was funny,” she said. “I remember asking one of my office mates, ‘Am I funny?,’ which now seems like such a sad question. It’s like a teenager asking a friend, ‘Am I pretty?’ I didn’t realize how much I needed someone else to say yes, you’re funny.”Unlike “Woman World,” the inspiration for “Cyclopedia Exotica” didn’t come from a march or movement. “I wish I could tell you there was some really beautiful reason,” Dhaliwal said. “But truly, I just found cyclops so interesting. So often they just look like people, except for their one defining feature. The first thing I remember sketching were pinup drawings of cyclops, and it went from monsters in erotica to looking at how minorities find acceptance through being attractive.”Dhaliwal is among several artists who have showcased and serialized their work on Instagram, including Lucy Knisley (“Kid Gloves”), Shelby Lorman (“Awards for Good Boys”), and Liana Finck (“Passing for Human”). Like Dhaliwal, many use social-media platforms to show their work, describe their creative processes and discuss everything from depression to writer’s block.“Cyclopedia Exotica” begins with the story of Etna, the world’s first cyclops sex symbol. Later, other cyclops deal with being perceived as overly submissive, the lack of cyclops representation in Hollywood movies, and worries about whether mixed children will have one eye or two.“Aminder has always been so observant about everything,” Dong said. “She’s also friends with so many people, and so many different kinds of people, that all of these things in her book feel very authentic, because they’re either based on things she’s experienced or things her family and friends have gone through.”One cyclops goes to a cosmetic surgeon to get two eyes — a nod, Dhaliwal said, to double-eyelid surgeries targeted at Asians. The character’s surgery doesn’t take. “People die for beauty, because they feel they don’t look a certain way,” she said. “But so often people trivialize beauty, and say things like, you need to get over it, or you need to be OK with yourself.”“That’s the message animation shows always try to tell kids,” she continued. “Be true to yourself. But I think that can be really hard to swallow when the world has punished you so often for being who you are.”In many ways, the current climate of anti-Asian hate feels familiar to Dhaliwal. “I remember after 9/11, and for the next 10 or 15 years, it just sucked having brown skin. It seemed like every offhand joke was about being a terrorist. And then you get this odd experience where you’re like, finally, the Eye of Sauron turns to another group, and your first reaction is like, phew, we’re out of it, the eye’s not on us anymore! When instead, we should be thinking: No one should ever feel like this.”Dhaliwal is working on a new comic series that she hopes to begin posting on Instagram this month. She’s also written for the upcoming Netflix animated series “Centaurworld,” created by Dong, and was recently selected to serve as a mentor and consultant on the Creative Council of Cartoon Network’s shorts program, “Cartoon Cartoons,” which will showcase the work of diverse and up-and-coming animators.While Dhaliwal probably won’t be telling her mentees to just be true to themselves, she will be able to share what it means to be a working animator in an industry that’s gotten more inclusive but still has a ways to go. “I’m going to get to give creative feedback to all these people who are trying to make something and do something really creative,” she said. “It’s exciting to be in this position, because I’ve been in their position so often.”Follow New York Times Books on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast. More

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    Andy Weir’s New Space Odyssey

    When Andy Weir was writing his new novel, “Project Hail Mary,” he stumbled into a thorny physics problem. The book’s plot hinges on a space mold that devours the sun’s energy, threatening all life on Earth, and that propels itself by bashing neutrinos together. He needed to figure out how much energy would be produced […] More

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    Rediscovering France’s Early Female Playwrights

    A growing movement within French theater is reclaiming the work of forgotten female artists, and reviving a lost concept: le matrimoine.PARIS — How many women had professional careers as playwrights in prerevolutionary France, between the 16th and 18th centuries? Go on, hazard a guess.The answer, according to recent scholarship, is around 150. Yet if you guessed the number was close to zero, you’re not alone. For decades, the default assumption has been that deep-seated inequality prevented women from writing professionally until the 20th century.Now a growing movement within French theater is reclaiming the work of forgotten female artists, and reviving a lost concept along the way: le matrimoine. Matrimoine is the feminine equivalent of patrimoine — translated as patrimony, or what is inherited from male ancestors. In French, however, patrimoine is also the catchall term to describe cultural heritage. By way of matrimoine, artists and academics are pushing for the belated recognition of women’s contribution to art history, and the return of their plays to the stage.Matrimoine is no neologism. “The word was used in the Middle Ages but has been erased,” said the scholar and stage director Aurore Evain. “Patrimoine and matrimoine once coexisted, yet at the end of the day all we were left with was matrimonial agencies.”When Dr. Evain started researching prerevolutionary female authors, around 2000, she quickly realized that French academics were behind their American peers. In the early 1990s, Perry Gethner, a professor of French at Oklahoma State University, had already translated plays by Françoise Pascal, Catherine Bernard and other 17th- and 18th-century women into English, and published them.At home, on the other hand, the idea that female colleagues of Molière had been overlooked collided with entrenched narratives. The classical French repertoire revolves around a trinity of male playwrights — Molière, Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille — whose works are taught in schools and widely seen as models of national literary genius.Yet all three men crossed paths with acclaimed female peers. “Le Favori” (“The Male Favorite”), a verse tragicomedy written in 1665 by Madame de Villedieu, was performed by Molière’s own company before the king at Versailles. When Dr. Evain staged it again in 2015, over three centuries after it was last performed, the French playwright and director Carole Thibaut was struck by the similarities between “Le Favori,” which revolves around a courtier who challenges the hypocrisy of royal favor, and Molière’s “Misanthrope,” written the next year.A portrait of Madame de Villedieu (1640-1683).The British Museum“I love Molière, but there are two scenes that are basically plagiarism,” Thibaut said in a phone interview. “He borrowed heavily from ‘Le Favori.’”Before the French Revolution, most female playwrights were upper-class single women who needed to earn a living. In the 19th century, their numbers kept growing: Scholars have found at least 350 women who were paid for their writing, from the revolutionary activist Olympe de Gouges to Delphine de Girardin, both of whom had plays in the repertoire of the Comédie-Française. Many of them hosted literary salons, starting with Germaine de Staël; some, like George Sand, also wrote under a pseudonym to get around gender-based prejudice.Yet not a single one of these women has a meaningful presence on the French stage today. Until the late 2000s, even feminist writers knew nothing of their work. The first volume of a French anthology of prerevolutionary female playwrights (edited by Dr. Evain, Gethner and the New York University professor Henriette Goldwyn) wasn’t released until 2007.When Thibaut, who is now at the helm of a National Dramatic Center in the city of Montluçon, first heard Dr. Evain speak at a conference two years later, the notion of matrimoine came as a revelation. “I fell apart. I started crying,” she said. “She taught me that instead of being at the dawn of a feminist awakening, we were part of a cycle, which sees women emerge and then be erased.”That historical insight coincided with a renewed focus on gender inequality in French theater, in the wake of two government audits. Until 2006, none of the five national French theaters had ever had a female director. There has been some progress since: While only 7 percent of national and regional dramatic centers, the next tier of public institutions, were led by women in 2006, the proportion was 27 percent in 2019. Still, in March, an open letter published in the French newspaper Libération complained about the lack of women being appointed to top theater jobs since the start of the pandemic.From 2009 onward, Thibaut, Dr. Evain and other activists joined forces through an association, known as HF, to push for change, and matrimoine became one of their rallying calls. In 2013, Dr. Evain launched the annual “Days of the Matrimoine,” a festival that runs alongside the “Days of the Patrimoine,” a national celebration of France’s cultural heritage.That visibility is now affecting younger generations of scholars and artists, like Julie Rossello Rochet, a playwright who completed a doctoral dissertation last year on her 19th-century predecessors. In a phone interview, she said that studying their work had helped her process the unease she felt as a young writer: “I kept hearing, ‘Oh, it’s so rare, a woman who writes for the stage.’ Actually, it isn’t.”A performance of  Madame Ulrich’s “La Folle Enchère” (“The Mad Bid”) directed by Aurore Evain. The play had its premiere in 1690 at the Comédie-Française.Carmen MariscalThe scholars interviewed agreed that women’s plays offer a different perspective from that of male playwrights — a female gaze, so to speak, shaped by the authors’ life experiences. “They promoted women’s intelligence,” Dr. Rossello Rochet said.“They created strong female characters, who choose politics over love, as well as male characters who choose love,” said Dr. Evain, who also pointed to the attention they paid to the role of fathers.The two prerevolutionary plays Dr. Evain has directed since 2015 speak to that originality. In addition to “Le Favori,” she brought back Madame Ulrich’s “La Folle Enchère” (“The Mad Bid”), a comedy that had its premiere in 1690 at the Comédie-Française. The plot cleverly toys with gendered expectations: In it, an older woman endeavors to marry a younger man, who is himself a woman in disguise. “It’s an early queer play, in which everything is upside down,” Dr. Evain said. “Order is never restored: The leading lady is in drag until the end.”While a handful of smaller theaters, like the Ferme de Bel Ebat in Guyancourt, have welcomed productions like “La Folle Enchère,” persuading programmers to invest in the matrimoine remains a challenge. The Comédie-Française, where multiple women have presented their work over the centuries, has yet to revive a single one of these plays.In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde in 2017, the troupe’s director, Eric Ruf, said he was “working on it,” but added that it would be hard to sell main-stage tickets for a “little-known” playwright. (A spokeswoman for the Comédie-Française declined to say whether there were plans to bring back plays by women in future seasons.)Yet feminists believe that unless these early women’s plays are performed and taught, history may yet repeat itself. “If we ignore our matrimoine, if we don’t change the way we think about our culture, the women who came after us may not leave a legacy, either,” Thibaut said.In the eyes of Dr. Rossello Rochet, the benefits are obvious for young playwrights. “Having a history has given me deeper roots,” she said. “It has made me feel stronger.” More