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.

Williams was similarly striking in Penumbra Theatre's Two Trains Running, where he played Memphis Lee, an often slighted, mad-at-the-world diner owner with a business on its last legs. Toward the play's end, Memphis enjoys a rare victory, and Williams let fly with his marvelous laugh--a drawn-out guffaw that tends to follow him from stage to stage. Memphis's victory became a shared one, a little universal moment, and a bit more evidence that James Williams is the Esperanto of Twin Cities actors.

Dylan Hicks is theater critic for City Pages.


Aaron Horkey

Alison McGhee

If you knew then what you know now, would you still choose to have lived your life? That's the question that hangs over Was It Beautiful?, the third novel from Minneapolis writer Alison McGhee. In terms of hard lessons, the book's protagonist William T. makes Job look like a whiny piker. His son is dead. His wife, who blames him for it, has moved out. He has lost his job, and is drifting through late middle age in a fog of regret. Even his ancient, diabetic cat has gone missing. Who wouldn't contemplate life's injustice?

Like McGhee's previous two novels, Rainlight and Shadow Baby, Was It Beautiful? is set in the snow-bound Adirondacks hamlet of Sterns, a richly imagined fictional translation of the author's childhood home. The three books, in fact, constitute a loosely connected trilogy, each a variation on a single theme--loss. Yet sad as the stories are--and Was It Beautiful? is a terribly sad novel--there's nothing maudlin or faked in McGhee's writing. Funny and elegiac by turns, she evokes Sterns as a place of both stifling smallness and communal compassion.

And despite the miasma of grief that hangs over Sterns in Was It Beautiful?, McGhee chooses to end her triptych with an image of renewal, a snowstorm, and an embrace that promise William T. at least temporary respite from the slings and arrows of fortune. In McGhee's bighearted fiction, even this latter-day Job eventually realizes that the answer to that first question is, emphatically and always, yes.

Peter Ritter is a staff writer at City Pages.


Brother Ali

The charts say that this year's rap game was dominated by one MC who considers Kevlar haute couture and another who has an advanced Prince complex. But search from St. Paul to Stankonia and you won't find anyone as fresh and compelling as Brother Ali.

Known to the IRS by his given surname, Newman, this Madison-born, Michigan-bred Twin Towns transplant had a banner campaign. He dropped his first CD, Shadows on the Sun, on Rhymesayers. He clocked his first full year of hard touring. And he notched his first splashy cameo on Atmosphere's single "Cats Van Bags." But more than anything else, Ali spent '03 smashing preconceptions.

See, in a world obsessed with its reflection, Brother Ali is built like a major household appliance. And in a society fixated on phenotype, his outsider status transcends race: Yeah, he's an albino--sun-shy, squinty-eyed, and pink as a carnation. He's also a devout Muslim. As a friend noted recently, "Elijah Muhammad never imagined this."

Then there's his position in the indie-rap underground. This roost is ruled by diarists and sci-fi freaks, but Ali staked his claim with old-school skills: as a KRS-like exponent of faith as a force for empowerment, and as a swaggering battle champ whose verbal body count includes some amusingly unconventional targets (like poetry-spouting groupies) among the standard-issue shady promoters and shoddy peers. (As Ali puts it on "When the Beat Comes In": "There's eight million ways to stretch words around beats/And six million rappers are sharing the same three.")

Spitfire wit aside, though, it's in his guise as the self-styled "modern urban Norman Rockwell" that Ali truly shines. On standout tracks like "Picket Fence," "Forest Whitiker," "Dorian," and the new "God's Rainwater," he grapples with growing up, getting by, and raising a family. All while working a job that takes him on the road for six weeks at a time and braving a neighborhood where "we don't have bar mitzvahs/we become men the first time our father hits us." Drawn from life, Ali's portrayals are penetrating, unsentimental--and often, as you might expect, unexpected.

Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.


Uri Sands & Toni Pierce-Sands

Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands share the sort of communication familiar to life partners who are also creative co-conspirators. In a room filled with dancers, Uri will demonstrate a movement. And then his muse, Toni, will act as his interpreter, translating his intent with a kinetic language culled from years of, well, just knowing what he means.

Considered separately, the athletic Uri and lithe Toni are formidable and accomplished dance artists. Their careers, after all, were forged with the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Together they complement each other's drive to succeed, but also--one expects, for the sake of a healthy relationship--they laugh quite readily at their intensity, rolling eyes and making jokes.

In June Sands and Pierce-Sands staged a short but impressive run of SPACE-T.U.-EMBRACE at the University of Minnesota's Barbara Barker Center for Dance (the show will be remounted in June 2004). Uri choreographed the program while Toni served as rehearsal director and performer. The show skillfully combined elements of modern dance, classical ballet, jazz, and hip hop--plus West African and Indian forms--with a mixture of potent solos, duets, and group works. Several top local dancers formed the pickup company while Uri (who splits his time between the Twin Cities and North Carolina Dance Theater in Charlotte) prowled the stage to a Radiohead tune. Toni found a kindred spirit in Aparna Ramaswamy during an elegant duet showcasing the unexpected connections between modern and Bharatanatyam dance forms.

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