The Breeze Bends The Grass - Incredible Women Artists!

- By Louisa Dyer -

I am so excited to see this play! Mark your calendars now for March 12-15 at NC Stage Company because you won’t want to miss The Breeze Bends the Grass. Originally a spoken word piece by the eloquent and irreverent Arbutus Cunningham, she asked Krista Detor, musician activist extraordinaire, for a little music to enhance it. After a bit of collaboration, Krista suggested that if expanded, it would make a great play. And it does!

Untitled-1Funded by the Indiana Arts Commission, directed by Danielle Bruce, this award winning play is about the lives of four women artists in the early 20th century: Painter Marie Goth; Metal Artist Janet Payne Bowles; Landscaper Selma Steele; and Ceramicists, The Overbeck Sisters. Typically I don’t get excited about musicals, but I’ve heard these women sing and very much look forward to hearing them over and over. Their performances in The Breeze Bends the Grass are hauntingly powerful, and the women they portray will speak to the soul of every person who has ever been determined to live who they really are.

The show takes place in four acts with each a focus on one artist; the stage is minimally set with only a single constructed set piece—a baby grand piano, with shifting silhouettes reflecting each of the artists’ media. The piece brings to light the lives and struggles of these women artists and in the end, it may well shift your view of yourself in the here and now. Each of the women portrayed contributed in unique ways to their field, but more importantly to my mind, to the collective consciousness of expressing creative truth. Here’s a short video of how the play came to be and a few moments within it:

Arbutus Cunningham knows much about saying what’s on her mind and in her heart. I first heard her gifted storytelling in Cincinnati, but she is an Indiana icon, originally from Texas with an accent to prove it. To get a feel for the raw power in Arbutus’ celebrated writing and her unique voice, here’s a TEDx video called Big Mystery where she explains how pretty much everything in existence came to be:

In brief, Arubtus and Krista, along with Playwright Kris Lee, studied each of these women’s legacies and captured specific moments of their lives, to highlight the trials and joys of living one’s creative truth. Aren’t you curious how much has changed in 100 years?

Selma Steele – wife of renowned Indiana landscaper TC Steele, 25 years his junior and unapologetic that she was so much more than “the little wife at home;” she was a trained artist and teacher. Selma created a 250-acre Indiana landscape that still exists as a powerful testament to her artistic vision.

Janet Payne Bowles, Metal Artist, did something no woman had done before, and took the world by storm. She exhibited her metalworks and won in the World’s Fair; and she had chalices in the Vatican, all while raising two children. Her determination not to sacrifice her life as an artist, no matter what, inspires audiences everywhere to stay focused on what truly matters.

Marie Goth (played by Krista), an award winning Indiana painter known for her portraits, is honored royally by the Brown County, Indiana, Art Guild that houses much of her work. The play highlights the enduring bond she had with her sister, who supported her in the early years. Both were painters and their relationship supported and nurtured each of them.

And the Overbeck sisters: their mother was apparently a force of nature that insisted that art must be the main focus of any meaningful existence. The sisters were ceramicists, and unlike almost any other women of the times, they were never supported by any man. The play highlights their journey through the Great Depression, 20 years after opening their shop, and what it took to keep their art alive. Not long ago, one of their pots sold for $58,000 so we can be assured they did indeed weather that storm!

As Arbutus mentions in her narration, these were brilliant, determined women living ferocious lives, fighting for personal connection and expression in ways not many women had done before. Each of them insisted on a life that would keep them free to pursue creative expression.

The cast originally included both authors, Arbutus Cunningham and Krista Detor, plus stellar performers Amanda Biggs and Lara Lynn Weaver. The very talented Kate Braun has since replaced Arbutus in the show. For a taste of the incredible musical and acting talent in The Breeze Bends the Grass, here’s a brief trailer that highlights a few of the powerful voices:

The business of being an artist, especially a musician, earning a livelihood through creative endeavors, fascinates and mystifies me. Perhaps it’s my fiercely independent hillbilly nature, or a love of lyrics that stir the soul, or letting my body get lost in a rhythm with no thought involved, or maybe it’s that artists bare their own souls to express something vital to their existence—but I NEED their soulful creativity on a daily basis! I can’t perform, yet value the contributions of countless performers that enrich my life. Those in this play have individually and collectively rocked my world.

Not only does The Breeze Bends the Grass showcase women artists from the early 1900s, it lives through the undeniable gifts of the women on stage, each a powerhouse in her own right. This past year I have been awed by the soul-punching talent of Krista Detor. Flat Earth Diary is her first solo album in four years with international rave reviews. She’s been #1 on the Euro-American Chart, and in the top 10 on U.S. Folk and Independent Music Charts. She is not just a songwriter, nor accomplished musician, nor poignant entertainer, but a social activist who truly cares. Reviews of her role in Breeze frequently include the world “stunning.”

Amanda Biggs, who plays Selma Steele, is an internationally prized Opera singer who sings many styles of music with clarity and gusto. Her powerful voice literally astounds me and her new self-titled album, Amanda Biggs, is a confluence of folk/blues/pop, ranging from Bonnie Raitt-style blues to ethereal haunting folk, with a bunch of rootsy country-blues and Southwestern Americana thrown in. Add the beautiful acoustic string work on a dizzying array of instruments that uplifts, supports and surrounds Amanda’s soaring voice and it’s nothing less than a transpersonal experience. Amanda’s passion for healing people with her voice comes through, as she shares Selma’s passion for healing through the beauty of nature.

Lara Lynn Weaver has performed for many years in and around Bloomington, Indiana, as part of Kaia vocal ensemble, and with other performers, notably Kid Kazooey (Kevin MacDowell). R.E. Paris, theater critic, wrote of her stellar performance in Breeze as simply “wonderful.”

Kate Braun is a newcomer to the production, taking Arbutus’ roles, so I know little about her other than she is a fine actress and singer. Since Krista sings her praises, I will be content with that for now, trusting her finely honed artistic instincts. As various awards attest to and many reviewers have noted, this play is not to be missed; it speaks to the soul and opens the heart in appreciation for the tenacity of the human spirit.

It might be easy to forget while watching and listening that all these women lead intensely busy lives, attempting as artists to support themselves in a social climate that barely supports the arts. The level of commitment required, the sheer energy necessary to keep the show on the road, speaks as loudly as the passion displayed in each performance. Audiences of all ages can soon experience the thrill of seasoned, creative veterans blending their talents for the edification of all those present.

Today most artists, and especially women artists, face similar struggles as those of 100 years ago. It remains hard to live a creative life that supports oneself financially and spiritually. Yet as The Breeze Bends the Grass reminds us, the world is still full of wonder if we but notice. As the closing lines suggest: Maybe you take note of the light in the last moments of dusk, maybe you name the hue of a rooftop, maybe, unexpectedly, you see it – the way the breeze bends the grass.

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