It’s time to announce the winners of the MasterMind® Awards, now in their ninth year.
Well, it’s almost time. Before we get into all of that, let’s gander all the way back to 2016 and reflect on Houston arts over the past year.
Several theater companies settled into their new and/or improved homes. Alley Theatre has gotten cozy inside its $46.5 million renovated space and expanded its programming to include Lott Entertainment Presents events. The brand-new-ish MATCH has also provided venue space for many performing arts and music presentations.
In the dance community, Stanton Welch nailed the choreography in the Houston Ballet’s stellar version of The Nutcracker, featuring a spritely rendition of Clara played on opening night by Melody Mennite.
Visually, there has been no better sight than the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, a former drinking water reservoir turned public-art piece that can also be viewed from the ground level via Donald Lipski’s Down Periscope installation.
There were many landmark birthdays. The Society for the Performing Arts and A.D. Players Theater (which is very close to opening a beautiful new $18 million, 450-seat venue near the Galleria) are in the middle of their 50th-anniversary seasons, while the Ensemble Theatre and MECA are currently blowing out the candles on the big four-o.
As is custom, a panel of judges from the Houston Press scours the local arts landscape, considers the public’s input and zeroes in on impressive and unique contributions to the arts community over the previous 12 months. Three winners are then selected and given a no-strings-attached $2,000 check and a plaque during the Houston Press Artopia party. (The 2017 version is scheduled to take place from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday, January 28, at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter Street.)
All in all, the 2016 MasterMind® winners are doing well.
In April, the University of Houston’s Moores Opera Center’s Anna Karenina won second prize in the National Opera Association’s 2016 Opera Production Competition category. Additionally, a recent Moores graduate, Kirsten Chambers, played the title role in New York Metropolitan Opera’s Salome. Buck Ross, Moores Opera Center director, has kept busy schooling future classical music professionals and presenting full-scale productions such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He said the oversize MasterMind® check is still in the center’s lobby, “partly to shame others into giving us money,” he jokes.
Houston Independent School District’s EMERGE program expanded to include resource-challenged high school students in Spring Branch ISD and now includes more than 300 participants. The fellowship opportunity, founded and led by Rick Cruz, gives admissions counseling and scholarship application help to students applying to “Tier One” colleges and universities. The first EMERGE participants, who recently graduated from Smith College, Georgetown, Tufts and Rice universities, started working their first post-college jobs. Cruz, who has moved to the district’s College Success program, continues looking into expansion opportunities. “It can be disheartening to not be able to work with kids,” says Cruz.
Horse Head Theatre Co. artistic director Jacey Little plugged away at the tedious-yet-big-deal things — applying for grant funding on time, for instance — to try to help grow the migratory company. Horse Head — known for its bizarro multimedia reality bender The Whale: or, Moby-Dick — presented the “harsh political theater” of Lidless and the comedic The Judgment of Fools that was based upon the angst over the 2016 United States presidential election. “One of our goals…is giving the audience an experience that’s not just sitting in a dark theater and then going away and forgetting about it,” says Little.
Now, roll back the curtain, cue the drum roll, raise a glass of bubbly and say a ta-da or two. It’s time to announce the 2017 winners:
The Oral History Project
A few years ago, Sarah Canby Jackson discovered that a boots-on-the-ground chronicling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Houston and southeast Texas had never been done. “Not even a scholarly paper from Rice University or the University of Houston,” says Jackson.
Jackson teamed with longtime HIV/AIDS social worker Tori Williams to create The Oral History Project. The shoestring operation, run predominantly by volunteers, will dedicate the next three years to interviewing more than 100 people associated with the Houston HIV/AIDS epidemic. Rice University will make the collection available at its archive house and via its website.
Jackson says that this is as good a time as any for an authoritative cataloging of HIV/AIDS in Houston because “the raw oozing wound has just begun to scar and heal.”
According to the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, in 1993, Houston’s 9,312 diagnosed AIDS cases ranked seventh nationally; since 1981, approximately 22,000 Houston-area individuals have died from AIDS-related complications.
Houston hip-hop DJ staple Ruben Jimenez remembers when local concerts were magic. “We would go to a show and we went home feeling elated and couldn’t wait for more,” says Jimenez, known to many as DJ Baby Roo.
Nowadays, attending a rap show, which often includes a ridiculous number of acts slapped together on a smooshed bill, can feel more like a chore. “I found that I was miserable with my culture. And by my culture, I mean hip-hop,” says Jimenez.
Jimenez founded the multi-pronged Roologic Records, which seeks to present music in a precise, curated, digestible and, well, enjoyable manner. The record label also takes a hi-fi approach to music releases, thanks to an agreement with Symphonic Distribution, a digital music distributor that has partnerships with online music stores in Europe and Asia.
“The little girl in the Irish suburbs who likes this music is just as important to us as the girl in The Woodlands who likes Houston hip-hop,” says Jimenez.
Cone Man Running Productions
By chance and pretty much at the same time, Christine and Michael Weems and their good pal Eddie Rodriguez, who had all bonded together at New York City’s Phare Play Productions, left NYC for Houston. In 2011 the trio created Cone Man Running Productions, which has presented zany theater experiments and serious full-act works inside of the Heights’ Obsidian Theater. Bryan Maynard joined the board in 2014.
One carryover from New York, Spontaneous Smattering, is perhaps the best known in the theater’s repertoire. The short-play festival, presented twice a year, forces playwrights, directors and actors to pull off a play after only 24 hours’ notice.
The first nine versions of Smattering reaped close to $10,000 and multi-thousands of cans of food for the Houston Food Bank. For the next installment, scheduled for June inside of Cone Man’s soon-to-be new home at The Landing Theatre, proceeds from ticket sales as well as donated reams of paper will go toward Houston-area teachers.
The Oral History Project
Maybe the orange juice started the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Houston.
As crazy as it sounds, that was the thinking among some in the local gay community after Anita Bryant, the “Paper Roses” singer and longtime spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, began a loud opposition movement to gay rights in the 1970s.
“I’ll never forget us thinking, ‘Oh, maybe it’s in the orange juice. Anita Bryant is killing us,’” says the openly gay Amber David of Houston in a recent interview with The Oral History Project, a Houston-based organization that’s collecting stories from Houston’s AIDS survivors and activists, family members, political figures, physicians, religious leaders and historians.
When it’s completed in about three years, The oH Project, founded in June 2016 on the 35th anniversary of the first documented cases of AIDS, will be the first time the complex story of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Houston area has been told. More than 100 transcribed interviews will be housed by and made available online through Rice’s Woodson Research Center.
“If it was just in the archive community, it would still be an idea on a shelf,” says Sarah Canby Jackson, an archivist for Harris County, who co-founded the project with Tori Williams, the director of the Office of Support for the Houston Ryan White Planning Council, a Harris County organization that directs federal funds toward HIV health and support services.
So far, the capturing of memories, moments and experiences — prepared by an all-volunteer team of four interviewers — has been horrifying and inspirational.
“You would find out you had AIDS. Then you would get fired,” says Williams. “Without health insurance, you wouldn’t be able to pay your rent and [would] get evicted. Homeless, and thinking you had six months to live, you’d write hot checks and then go to jail.” AIDS patients, often abandoned by their families, were left to die alone at home or in the streets.
As for the local response by elected officials and the health-care industry, “Houston was unique and stood out for doing spectacularly stupid things,” says Jackson. She brings up the dark day in 1985 when Houston mayoral candidate Louie Welch declared on live television that one solution to the local AIDS crisis would be to “shoot the queers.”
But there are also many inspirational stories, says oH Project board member and interviewer Ann Pinchak.
In the late ’80s, the Colt 45’s AIDS Trouble Fund group raised money to help AIDS sufferers pay their rent. A number of elected officials who didn’t seem sympathetic to the cause would do positive things behind the scenes. And the Harris County Hospital District established the Thomas Street Health Clinic in 1989; the first freestanding HIV outpatient facility in the nation currently treats more than 5,000 patients annually.
Additionally, “Houston had the largest religious response in the country,” says Jackson. “A lot of patients would go to MD Anderson or the county hospital and the staff wouldn’t even come into the room. Instead, little old church ladies would come and change the sheets and read to them.” In 1986, Bering United Methodist Church formed an HIV/AIDS support group that to this day meets weekly in Montrose.
“The lesson is to not panic and not demonize or shun people,” says Pinchak. “Ebola is much more dangerous, but there’s much more of a stigma with AIDS.”
“It’s okay if you hire people with AIDS,” adds Jackson. “You’re not going to get it if you do.”
It had been a minute since Ruben Jimenez, a Houston-area DJ for the past 20-plus years, had been out and about checking out hip-hop concerts on the regular. A full-time day job, DJ gigs at night for extra income, and raising two teenaged sons, who live with Jimenez in the northern reaches of the Heights, will vaporize any free time.
Jimenez, a.k.a. DJ Baby Roo, wasn’t feeling the scene.
“I started going to rap shows where there were 15 acts. By the time the headliner came onstage at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday, you hated your existence. You hated music,” says Jimenez, 40. His animated speaking voice, crammed with a rich vocabulary and non-nuanced real talk, fills the back room of Chilosos Taco House on East 20th Street, where he hangs out almost every day.
Jimenez, born in Pasadena and raised on Houston’s north side, is an authority on local hip-hop. In high school, he spun rap records at local skate parks and gang parties and took himself on the road with the Wu-Tang Clan affiliate group Gravediggaz during a Texas run. Jimenez also nuzzled into DJ stations at long-defunct bars Deep Phat, Magic Bus and the Waxx Museum, and started working the door at the Hip-Hop Coffee Shop, where he would be stoked on whoever performed that night.
Fast-forward to Houston hip-hop over the past five years or so, when Jimenez and a handful of other bored onlookers have attempted to stay awake to watch the touring act — more out of obligation than for any sort of delight — in a pay-to-play show. The common-practice model forces inexperienced local performers to sell tickets to friends and family just to get on a bill that ends up oversold like a jam-packed airline flight.
Jimenez says, “You’re already fighting the internal dialogue of the fickle music fan” on whether he should deal with getting to the show, forking over money and potentially sitting through hours of not awesome to see the main act, oftentimes after midnight on a weekday — or just stay home. “You rob everyone of joy with this bullshit business model.”
In response, Jimenez, an IT supervisor at Norton Rose Fulbright, created the “social experiment” Roologic Records, which is more of a boutique concert presenter and record label collective than a cutthroat music-industry business. Jimenez cannibalized an old Sony contract and stripped all of the scary-to-the-artist language, such as ownership clauses, publishing rights and merchandising terms.
In return for full artistic control, Roologic’s roster of music and visual artists — which currently includes Giant Kitty, Space Villians*, Sobe Lash and Genesis Blu — must promote the crap out of every single one of the label’s products, whether it’s live at one of Roologic’s three-act-bill concerts or on social media.
“Other acts promote their album like it’s their own album,” says Jimenez, holding up the red salsa, which he has used to saturate a plate of papas a la mexicana at Chilosos, to illustrate an artist’s album on Roologic. “Then when an album by another artist drops,” says Jimenez, clutching and raising the green salsa next to the red, creating a Christmas-like scene, “all of the artists, including the one who has recently released an album, are expected to promote the album.”
The way an album sounds is insanely important to the hi-fi sound nerd, who says that he bought a pricey Infiniti because its almost perfect sound system was “like a pair of headphones in the car.” When the Tax Day Flood destroyed the car, he wasn’t bummed one bit because he snatched the insurance money and bought another Infiniti, one that had a more desirable speaker package. “I didn’t even test-drive it.”
Because of his dedication to the highest-quality sound, Roologic inked a deal with Symphonic Distribution, which distributes 24 bit/96 kHz files to online music stores all over the world.
The day after New Year’s Day, after throwing a successful yet costly Fuck 2016 New Year’s Eve show at House of Blues, Jimenez, feeling a bit bummed, lay on the couch watching the downer Inside Llewyn Davis. “As an artist, if you’re thinking about giving it all up, don’t watch that movie.”
He called a friend. “I’m spending time away from my family, showing up to work sleepy. Why am I doing this? Why do I want to own something with so little return? Can you just tell me that I’m sick?”
The next day, the Houston Press informed him of his MasterMind® award. He’s re-energized to make the scene fun and inspirational to him and others again.
“The best way to experience anything is to actually enjoy it,” he says.
Cone Man Running Productions
Eight playwrights show up to the theater on a Friday night and draw a genre, whether it’s horror/monsters, sports, superheroes, spies or parody, from a hat. The same goes for the cast names. A theme, such as “guilty pleasure song,” must be incorporated, as well as a mandatory line of dialogue.
The catch: Everyone has fewer than 24 hours to write a short play, memorize the rushed script and find costumes for a one-act for Cone Man Running Productions’ biannual Spontaneous Smattering.
At the same time, Christine Weems, founding board member of Cone Man, and her team sprint around town looking for props. “I literally pick things that I can get eight of at the dollar store,” says Weems. “One time we also brought in a park bench and a lamppost.” The audience watches the lunacy unfold and chooses winners for best script, top plot and best in show.
“We’re playing theater games and asking people to pay admission,” jokes the Houston-born Weems, who started Cone Man in 2011 with her playwright husband, Michael, and her best friend, Eddie Rodriguez.
Weems, a graduate of Klein High School — where she was, in her words, “a prototypical Asian honor student kind of kid” — has a law degree from the South Texas College of Law Houston and practiced locally for about five years. After paying off law school debt, she decided to move to New York in 2005 to pursue theater. She met her future husband Michael in New York, and the couple currently live with their three children in Spring.
In NYC, Christine and Michael became heavily involved in the theater community, eventually becoming board members, along with Rodriguez, of Phare Play Productions, a Manhattan theater production outfit that focuses on the development of new works by green talent.
Eventually, the money pit that is New York swayed the couple out of their 85th Street apartment in Manhattan’s upper west side and back to Houston in 2010. Rodriguez also relocated to Houston, where he founded a law firm focused on bad faith insurance litigation.
Though Smattering (which the Weemses realized while at Phare Play) has been “the gateway drug into Cone Man,” says Weems, the company — which has rented space from Obsidian Theater but will soon move over to the Landing Theatre — has proven adept at presenting original mainstage shows.
Cone Man has premiered 12 works, including Michael Weems’s Okay Better Best, a dark comedy that composer Rhonda Kess adapted into a musical. Hunter Foster, who broke into Broadway via the lead role of Bobby Short in Urinetown, directed a previous workshop of the musical in New York.
The theater company recently finished up a regional debut run of Insomnia Café, a play by Breanna Bietz that chronicles a pair of diehard fans of Friends as they try to re-create the sitcom in real life.
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In addition to running Cone Man, Weems has acted in and directed plays for Boiling Point Players and served as the artistic director of Playhouse 1960’s Short Play Festival. And all that has occurred after normal business hours. By day, Weems, who started her own law practice at McGowen and Caroline streets in November, litigates medical malpractice, auto accident and mass tort cases.
The Cone Man name comes from a longstanding joke she has with her husband. Shortly after the birth of their second child, Weems, a humongous fan of the Astros and her undergraduate alma mater Texas Longhorns, started running half marathons. The New York City Half Marathon was one of her first post-giving-birth runs.
Weems explains that 30 minutes after the race starts, the cone man and his truck collect the course-marking cones, beginning from the starting line and continuing on the same path as the runners. “If he catches up to you, you can’t keep running. Instead, you get a ride to the finish line,” she says.
“I was about two miles from the finish when I saw the cone man. I’m cursing, thinking I’m going to die, but I finished before the cone man got me,” says Weems. “He helped me to keep going, to keep pushing forward.”