Artists of the Year

Iraq. SARS. Jay Leno, Still on television practically every night. Yeah, 2003 was about as much fun as a social disease.

Let's get the facts out of the way first. On November 2 of next year, George Walker Bush is going to win reelection in a mudslide. By the end of his second term in 2008, mortgage interest rates will be above 8.5 percent and inflation will be above 5 percent--or growth will be below 2 percent and deflation will be barking at the door. (If you've got a problem with a little wiggle room in your macroeconomic forecasts, stop picking up the free paper and subscribe to the Wall Street Journal.)

Four years from now, abortion will be legally prohibited in every state that fought on the losing side of the Civil War, plus all the states where livestock and poultry outnumber humans. The pension system will be speeding toward a $50 or $100 billion government bailout and social security will be headed in the direction of private retirement accounts. There will be no recourse to sue doctors and corporations for major punitive damages in American courts. The elimination of bankruptcy protection will leave many Americans as lifelong debtors. Everyone is going to be really, really fat. Sea levels will start to submerge the islands of the South Pacific and new mercury emissions will send songbirds plummeting from the skies and shit is going to seem pretty apocalyptic for anyone who doesn't look at the apocalypse as a positive religious development.

Then Jeb Bush will move into the White House.

Aaron Horkey

It feels good to say all that, doesn't it? Yeah, in a political sense, 2003 was about as much fun as tongue-kissing a car battery. But how much worse can it get? Well, you've seen my prediction. And I challenge anyone who doesn't believe that Jesus controls the weather or that Ayn Rand is a talented novelist to offer up something more hopeful.

So if the sky really is falling, what should we make of the gentleman I saw shuffling through the aisles of a movie theater a few months back, handing out folded-up flyers for a production of The Madwoman of Chaillot? Who would bother forming a new community troupe, the Northeast Actors' Theatre, while Minnesota's civic culture is turning into an arctic Indiana? And who would decide to donate all proceeds from those amateur performances to the cash-starved city library system?

Inexplicable, right? But not an isolated incident. A week or two later, I was attending a lecture at the Jewish Community Center titled "The Great Museum Cafeterias of the Western World" when I noticed a gaggle of adults streaming into a bare auditorium, lugging instrument cases behind them. Yes, on a Wednesday night, a roomful of these folks was gathering to rehearse in an orchestra of unknown patronage and obvious unprofitability. What were they doing there? Who was going to listen to them? Why were they bothering?

I'm not going to tell you that life is worth living or that the world's not going to hell. Lying will get us nowhere. But apparently some people have looked at the available evidence and reached a different conclusion. And I've got to confess that it's strangely stirring to witness people coming together to create something for no material gain and scant public notice.

On the subject of publicity: Not all the folks celebrated in our annual artists of the year issue are toiling in total obscurity. As long as talk-show hosts have couches, Bill Murray will be invited to sit on them. If Liz Phair just moves that guitar strategically placed between her legs on her, um, intimate, album cover, she's bound to be noticed by the nation's Maxim subscribers. And Kevin Garnett has been said to bring home a respectable paycheck. We're happy nonetheless that our contributors have singled out these folks--and a couple of dozen others--for some laudatory words in our pages. Closer to home, it's not hard to imagine the tributes to local artists that lead off this issue ending up on some proud mother's refrigerator. It's the least we can do.

Oh, and by the way: The St. Paul Jewish Community Center Orchestra performs works by Bach, Brahms, Rossini, and orchestra member Michael Shulock on March 3. Go ahead and give them your support: We'll need someone to stick around and fiddle while Rome burns. --Michael Tortorello

 

James Austin Williams
BY DYLAN HICKS

Let's say a tourist comes to Minnesota to visit Como Zoo, Cuzzy's, Knollwood Mall, the childhood home of Nick Coleman, or another of our major attractions. And let's further imagine that this tourist doesn't speak English--knows only German or some other obscure foreign language. But being a fan of the theater, she wants to check out a play anyway. Well, if such a person were to stumble upon something starring James A. Williams, I'd say there's a good chance that she'd understand everything she really needed to understand.

Because Williams has what a critic is sometimes forced to call "presence," that mix of intelligence, physiognomy, elocution, charisma, and 11 other things the best actors marshal to hold our attention. For starters, his is a sonorous, built-for-tragedy voice--loud and clear but with a slight rasp that contributes to his air of hard-won wisdom. It's the kind of voice that could quiet a junior high pep rally, the kind that comes partly from training and partly from genetic fortune. One might expect an imposing set of pipes from Williams, because he's a big, big man--and threatening when he needs to be. As an imprisoned, oddly statesmanlike serial killer in Pillsbury House Theatre's staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, he towered over the sinister corrections officer played by Emil Herrera. Every time Williams showed his character resisting the urge to clobber the taunting jailer, his repression was as powerful as a blow to the solar plexus.

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