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Newsletter: Essential Arts: One composer’s personal reflection on Juneteenth

A portrait of composer Derrick Senam Eugene Skye.
Composer Derrick Senam Eugene Skye has a new piece premiering with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
(Hannah Arista)

What’s that thumping noise? It’s not the morning newspaper being thrown at your door. It’s the Essential Arts newsletter hitting your inbox. I’m arts reporter Jessica Gelt filling in for Carolina Miranda, who is likely finding art you didn’t know about in a part of the city you rarely go. The worst of the heat wave has passed for now and the weekend is upon us, so let’s get to it.

Celebrating Juneteenth

Juneteenth is finally a federal holiday, and even though government recognition of the date that commemorates the end of slavery in America came more than a century late, this moment is still one to be celebrated. My colleague Makeda Easter curated a list of arts and culture events to commemorate the day — including live music, art and dance in Leimart Park Village, and a party at the Fountain Theatre after the matinee performance of Obie Award-winning play An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Times reporter Julissa James reached out to Black artists, poets, organizers and skateboarders who shared their Juneteenth plans for a story about how Juneteenth coinciding this year with our vaxxed summer is creating a unique opportunity for joy and reflection.

I had a fantastic talk with composer and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra artistic advisor Derrick Senam Eugene Skye, who just changed his legal name from Derrick Spiva Jr. as a way of reclaiming his heritage and distancing himself from the name given to his enslaved ancestors. Skye was careful to point out that his decision was in no way meant to disassociate himself from his current family, who still go by Spiva, and whom he greatly loves and admires.

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Skye’s composition, “Ready, Bright,” which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, is receiving its premiere on Juneteenth via a beautifully shot video conducted by LAMC artistic and associate artistic directors Grant Gershon and Jenny Wong, and choreographed by Yeko Ladzekpo-Cole.

Skye says “Ready, Bright” is about being freed from restraint and describes its release on Juneteenth, along with the public announcement about his name change, as a lovely bit of convergence reflecting several issues of significance to him.

As a history buff, Skye has long been interested in his genealogy. He was frustrated to find that it is difficult for Black Americans to discover their African roots partly because of the names they were given by slave owners. He said that after emancipation many Black Americans kept their plantation names in the hope that tracing the name would help them reunite with family members they had been separated from.

These names stuck generations later, and families like Spiva’s found ways to make the names their own and infuse them with new meaning rich with family history. Still, Skye wanted to know more. He took a genealogy test and discovered some West African and Central African heritage. He also found that he had a significant amount of European heritage. That discovery felt quite complex.

“I think a lot of people share that kind of complexity,” Skye said, adding that the knowledge made him want to move boldly in a new direction.

A surname, he thought, is all about context, and in this case, much of that context was about ownership and property.

“It just felt like a good time for me to proclaim who I am now, and where I want to go in the future, and also to respect and honor the past at the same time,” he said. “Because both can be done, and we can do it here in this country.”

The name Skye has personal significance since Skye spent his early years gazing up, wondering about the universe and hoping to become an astronaut. Instead, he found the cosmos in music.

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A new museum rises in Orange County

Orange County Museum of Art could not have timed the construction of its new building at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa any better. While the state’s museums remained largely shuttered during the pandemic, OCMA was hard at work on its $93-million new home by Morphosis Architects, the 80-person studio founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.

Deborah Vankin stopped by for a guided tour of the “fluid, light-filled structure,” which is about three-quarters finished and has been in the works for nearly a decade. The finished product will double the museum’s exhibition space, Vankin writes, and also has the added benefit of being post-pandemic friendly. The indoor-outdoor nature of the space was not intentional, since it manifested as an idea pre-COVID. It nonetheless features “skylights, retractable walls, more than 10,000 square feet of green space and an outdoor plaza accommodating up to 1,000 people for events.”

Construction framework at the Orange County Museum of Art.
The Orange County Museum of Art under construction at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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Vankin also checked in with a variety of reopened museums about their mask rules now that the state and county health departments have lifted them for vaccinated people.

Here are the responses she received:

Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens: Vaccinated visitors may now go without masks indoors and outdoors. Unvaccinated visitors can go without masks outdoors, but they have to wear them indoors (except when eating and drinking). The museum made its decision, spokesperson Thea Page said, based on the latest guidelines from the California Department of Public Health.

The Broad: All unvaccinated visitors (age 2 and older) must wear masks while inside the Broad. The museum says it is following California Department of Public Health’s Face Coverings Guidance, which aligns with CDC recommendations.

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Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County: All visitors ages 2 and up —vaccinated or not— are required to wear masks at all times when indoors to protect “vulnerable populations, including” the museum’s “youngest visitors — those 11 and under.” (This also includes the butterfly pavilion.)

Modern art surprises

Los Angeles County Museum of Art last week opened a permanent collection installation for modern art featuring 250 works by more than 200 artists. Times art critic Christopher Knight checked out the show and highlighted three unanticipated offerings that visitors should make sure to not miss.

“When an art museum reinstalls its permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and works on paper, perspectives can be freshened, recent scholarship given a platform and surprises unwrapped,” Knight writes.

A colorful Cubist sculpture
Cecil de Blaquiere Howard, “Guitarist,” 1915-17, polychromed wood
(© Museum Associates/LACMA)

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MacKenzie Scott showers Amazon money on L.A. community groups

MacKenzie Scott, the novelist, philanthropist and the third-richest woman in the world, this week gave away $2.74 billion to organizations that focus on the arts and combat racial discrimination. Makeda Easter writes about Los Angeles community groups that benefited from the windfall, made possible by the Amazon stock Scott maintained after her divorce from mega-mogul Jeff Bezos.

Asian American theater company East West Players told Easter that the gift it received was the largest in its 56-year history. The Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A., which landed $10 million, said the same. East L.A. community arts center Self Help Graphics & Art, which has been instrumental in supporting Latino artists and the Chicano civil rights movement, was given $1 million.

A flower- and photo-bedecked Day of the Dead altar
Day of the Dead altar “Altar for Carlos Zaragoza” at the Self Help Graphics Community Arts Workshop.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

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Welcome to the golden age of American playwriting

There have been other wonderful, groundbreaking eras in American playwriting, but Times theater critic Charles McNulty delivers proof in a new column that says we are currently living in a golden age for the craft.

McNulty writes that the first pandemic-era play he’ll be seeing is the Fountain Theatre’s outdoor production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2014 play “An Octoroon.”

Jacobs-Jenkins, McNulty writes, “is part of a cadre of American dramatists who have been dragging our stodgy, risk-averse theater into the 21st century. Spanning a 20-year age range, this cohort includes such pathbreaking talents as Ayad Akhtar, Young Jean Lee, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Julia Cho, Rajiv Joseph, Annie Baker, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Samuel D. Hunter, Lucas Hnath and Jeremy O. Harris.

These writers and more, McNulty contends, make this era the most exciting he’s seen in nearly three decades.

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Three actors in plantation-era clothing
The Fountain Theatre’s “An Octoroon” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins with, from left, Pam Trotter, Vanessa Claire Stewart and Matthew Hancock.
(Jenny Graham)

Why Hollywood needs to stop rebooting white shows with Latino casts

The Times recently ran a package of stories focussing on Latino underrepresentation in Hollywood. Our own Carolina Miranda chimed in with several stories, including one that talked about why white shows should no longer be rebooted with Latino casts.

Old favorites “One Day at a Time,” “Charmed” and “Party of Five” have received this treatment, among others, and Miranda writes, “it appears that TV studios are hellbent on recycling old U.S. properties and dressing them up with a veneer of Latino.”

Such efforts, however, “can also be a lazy default for fixing issues of representation while setting narrative traps: programming that fits into Hollywood’s narrow vision of what is Latino rather than programs that provide a more nuanced Latino worldview.”

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Get your hot vaxxed summer on with these arts events

Matthew Cooper has rounded up another stellar list of arts events to keep you busy this coming week, including an Andy Warhol exhibit at NeueHouse Hollywood and a live music and comedy revue featuring drag artists Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine, aptly titled “Battle of the Vaccinated Bitches.”

And last but not least ...

Tomorrow is Father’s Day, so don’t forget to honor the dads in your life by leaving them alone for the day. I’ll be sitting by the 10-foot Summer Waves pool in the backyard while my kids go nuts on each other in their floaties and my husband does whatever it is that he does in the garage. Hot vaxxed summer, indeed.


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