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Black Plays Are Knocking on Broadway’s Door. Will It Open?


“I don’t know how to solve the diversity issue on Broadway,” Bioh said, “other than calling attention to it, and cultivating a generation of producers who are not afraid.”

The three jukebox musicals with Black writers already expected next year include two that opened in 2019 and were paused by the pandemic: “Ain’t Too Proud,” about the Temptations, with a book by Dominique Morisseau, and “Tina,” about Tina Turner, with a book by Katori Hall. The newcomer is “MJ,” about Michael Jackson, which has a book by Nottage and is aiming to open next April.

Each of those musicals is, to a degree, presold based on a popular song catalog. But for plays in today’s Broadway economy, marquee casting often calls the shots.

For example: The producer Robyn Goodman is looking to bring Cheryl L. West’s “Jar the Floor,” a 1991 play about four generations of Black women, to Broadway, but said, “for Broadway you have to have a star or two, and we were close to that, but now nobody knows their schedule, and we just have to wait a couple months until people start planning.”

“Blue,” a 2000 play by Charles Randolph-Wright about a successful family of funeral home operators, is being produced by Brian Moreland, who is also producing “Thoughts of a Colored Man.”

Moreland tried to get a Broadway theater for “Blue,” directed by Phylicia Rashad, co-produced by John Legend, and starring Leslie Uggams and Lynn Whitfield, before the pandemic. When he couldn’t, he booked it into the Apollo Theater in Harlem, which is not a Broadway venue (although there is discussion about reconsidering that).

Sensing that the climate is shifting, he is again hopeful. “If they could shake loose a Broadway house,” he said, “we would take it.”



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At Magazzino, Social Distancing Devices Vibrate. So Does the Art.


COLD SPRING, N.Y. — I’ve been cheating, and it’s likely you have been too: Six feet apart is a lot farther away than most people seem to hope it is.

I know this because at the recent reopening of Magazzino Italian Art, the museum of postwar and contemporary work here in the Hudson Valley, I wore a piece of social-distancing hardware called an EGOpro Active Tag. It was attached to a lanyard around my neck.

The tag is required for all visitors, and it’s programmed to vibrate for a few seconds every time the wearer is closer than six feet to a tag worn by another person.

Mine buzzed a lot.

I misjudged my spacing quite a few times, and the incessant buzzing was annoying. But that’s the point, of course. It made me retreat, and quickly.

“The technology makes a lot of sense to me,” said Harry Wilks of Plattekill, N.Y., one of the visitors I encountered. “It would make even more sense on the weekend, when it’s more crowded.”

My interviews weren’t exactly helping the situation. Mr. Wilks added, “Mine didn’t go off until you came up to me to talk.”

Magazzino, founded in 2017 by the collectors Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu, is the first museum in the United States to use the technology.

That Magazzino takes pandemic safety seriously is clear from the beginning of a visit there. Temperature checks are now required for all visitors, administered in a little tent outside the entrance. “Nobody’s fussing about it so far,” said Jay Nicholas, a visitor services assistant, who took mine. Masks are required, too.

The museum, which was closed for four months, is admitting 10 people per half-hour via advance reservation, and it assumes a 90-minute visit. It could have more visitors, according to state and county guidelines, but they decided to start cautiously.

“We wanted to find a way to have a new normal,” said Vittorio Calabrese, Magazzino’s director. “Art does not stop.”

It was roomy and very quiet inside the high-ceilinged white galleries, arranged in a ring; the 20,000-square-foot building was designed by the Spanish architect Miguel Quismondo. In galleries four and five, of eight, there are several artworks that incorporate neon, and I could distinctly hear the neon humming.

Highlights from the collection assembled by Ms. Olnick and Mr. Spanu fill most of the galleries, part of an ongoing exhibition called “Arte Povera,” dedicated to the Italian movement of the same name from the 1960s and ’70s, when pioneering Italian artists voiced their dissent about the direction of society.

Works by the movement’s greatest names are on display, including Alighiero Boetti, Giuseppe Penone, Jannis Kounellis, Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz and Michelangelo Pistoletto.

The collection shows how Arte Povera encompassed many different media and styles, with a conceptual approach that frequently addresses nationality, immigration and geography; some of the practitioners worked until very recently, or are still at it.

The current selection starts in the lobby, with Mr. Pistoletto’s reinterpretation of the Italian tricolor flag, made with rags, “Stracci italiani” (2007). Inside the galleries, his cheeky “Adamo ed Eva” (1962-87) is a portrait of a naked couple on polished stainless steel, so that the viewer can’t help but enter the picture when standing in front of it. At 87, he is still working.

Mr. Boetti (1940-1994) is represented by several works, including “Mappa” (1983), an embroidered work that he commissioned Afghan artisans to help him make, and “Pannello luminoso” (1966), a Color Field-style red rectangle.

Scattered throughout are works by Mr. Kounellis, who died in 2017, on the theme of travel and on the journey of memories. He gets his own dedicated gallery, too. It has a 1960 untitled painting mixed with several later sculptures in steel and iron (one of them incorporates coffee, which you can smell before you get to it).

Ms. Merz — the only prominent woman in the group, who died last year — is represented by several pieces including “Senza titolo (Untitled),” a 2009 small, upward-facing head on a pedestal. Made of raw clay, it almost appears to cry and retains traces of the artist’s touch around the eyes, nose and mouth.

Now, there’s also a special show, “Homemade,” in the last gallery, featuring work made by eight Italian artists quarantined in New York during the pandemic. It began as an online and Instagram invitational, and morphed into a real exhibition.

“Magazzino wanted to support artists making new work during this time,” Mr. Calabrese said.

He added, “Some of these artists had to deal with a lot of anxiety and stress. And the common sentiment was that this kept them going. We called our regular video meetings ‘Zoom apperitvi.’”

One of the artists in “Homemade,” Alessandro Teoldi, was on site when I visited. To keep our buzzers calm, we circled each other at a remove as we chatted.

Mr. Teoldi, who hails from Milan and lives in Brooklyn, talked about his 2020 piece “Untitled (Delta, Norwegian, COPA, Lufthansa, Thomas Cook Airlines, Hawaiian and Iberia),” which is an abstract assemblage of stretched airline blankets that looks from afar like a painting. He made it just before the pandemic hit.

“I buy them on eBay or I steal them when I travel — or when I used to travel,” Mr. Teoldi said. I think his phrasing made us both a little wistful.

His commissioned works, a series of four reliefs called “Untitled (hug),” gets at an essential feature of the pandemic — the lack of physical intimacy. The four panels, cast in cement after starting out as a paper collage, all show people hugging.

The material, Mr. Teoldi said, helps underline “being home but not being able to move, stuck in a building made of cement.”

Having a commission to work on “was a great experience for me,” Mr. Teoldi said. “Quarantine was such a scary time.”

The other artists in “Homemade” are Andrea Mastrovito, Beatrice Scaccia, Danilo Correale, Davide Balliano, Francesco Simeti, Luisa Rabbia and Maria D. Rapicavoli.

The EGOpro Active Tag that was making my viewing of their works extra-safe is an adaptation of technology that has been around for a while, using ultra-wideband radio waves.

The tags were developed by the Italian company Advanced Microwave Engineering, which then partnered with the American company Advanced Industrial Marketing, nicely mirroring the married union of the Sardinia-born Mr. Spanu and Ms. Olnick, who is from New York City.

The technology is currently in use at the Duomo in Florence, Italy, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“Proximity detection was developed to keep people away from machines, for safety,” Rob Hruskoci, the founder of Advanced Industrial Marketing in Indianapolis, told me. “Until March, no one cared about keeping people away from other people.”

Mr. Hruskoci said that two other U.S. museums had purchased the system.

José Pazos, a New York City-based artist who had come up for the day, said that the system worked well for him.

“This is by far the most responsible approach I’ve seen,” Mr. Pazos said. “This is the standard until we have a vaccine. As citizens of New York, we have to protect each other.”

Mr. Spanu and Ms. Olnick were on hand for the reopening — they live about five minutes away in Garrison — and were sitting in Magazzino’s big, open courtyard, around which the galleries circle.

I wondered about the high-tech approach and whether it was somehow out of place, given that Arte Povera — literally “impoverished art” — had commonplace materials as one of its core tenets.

Ms. Olnick had a thoughtful answer.

“Arte Povera artists were expressing their times — the big transitions they all lived through, the freedom and idealism,” she said. “Their motto was, ‘Art is life.’ And this” — she gestured at a small, distanced circle of people all wearing masks and attached to buzzers — “is life now.”


Magazzino Italian Art

2700 Route 9, Cold Spring, N.Y.; 845-666 7202, magazzino.art. Entry is free, but reservations are required.



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When Brad Photographed Gwyneth – The New York Times


The relationship between photographer and subject has been fraught since long before Susan Sontag characterized it as part of the “shady commerce between art and truth” in her 1977 collection of essays On Photography. Photographers, after all, make the eye of the beholder literal, placing the subject consistently at their mercy to be idealized, stripped down or otherwise interpreted for the world as they see fit.

In fashion, this increasingly has meant airbrushed into some version of hyper-artificial, bot-like perfection. Or it did. Now, because of the coronavirus, all of that has been upended, as glossy magazines have resorted to purposefully raw and homespun selfie-shoots, or FaceTime and Zoom videos.

Or, in the case of Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, who enlisted 23 celebrity friends and their significant someones to play subject and translator for his latest ad campaign, portraiture-by-lockdown buddy.

“I thought I would ask my friends to ask the people they loved to take their pictures, to show them not as what they do, but who they are,” he said by, yes, Zoom from Rome. He was speaking from experience, having been photographed for the campaign by his 14-year-old daughter, Stella. In the photo, he is standing in their garden, holding a sign with the word “empathy” scrawled in his wife’s lipstick.

“I think I look different,” Mr. Piccioli said, referring to the way he looks in professional shoots with photographers like Juergen Teller, who shot his spring 2019 campaign. Stella “looks at me with different eyes, and I look at her like a father.”

Instead of being paid for their work, all of the Valentino subjects donated their fees (a total of 1 million euros) to the Lazzaro Spallanzani hospital in Rome, the center of the Italian struggle against Covid-19. In return, they got to pick who would capture their image, as well as what word they thought represented the values we need at this time.

The choices themselves are revealing. Gwyneth Paltrow asked Brad Falchuk, her husband and the co-creator of her Netflix show, “The Politician.” Rafferty Law, the actor, model and son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, asked his mother, with whom he was sheltering in place outside of London, along with all his siblings, assorted friends and his mom’s partner and his children. (There were 10 kids in total.) Laura Dern asked her son, Ellery Harper. Ellery, in turn, asked his younger sister, Jaya.

Frances McDormand asked Bruno Delbonnel, the French cinematographer who has long worked with her husband, Joel Coen. They had been shooting a new version of “Macbeth” when they were shut down by the pandemic. Mr. Delbonnel was living next door to them in Northern California until production could resume; he was concerned that if he went home, he said, “the guy in the White House doesn’t allow me to come back.”

Janet Mock asked the makeup artist Wendi Miyake, who has been her best friend since middle school in Hawaii. And so on.

Almost all of the photographers used iPhones. Most did their own hair and makeup and didn’t have any special lighting. They got to edit the pictures before they were sent to Valentino, so the end products can be taken as how they want to be seen, rather than as how a brand wants them seen. That’s a pretty big shift.

Ms. McDormand, for example, who didn’t do hair and makeup at all, sent only one picture to Valentino; Ms. Mock sent 20 — out of “approximately 300” taken, Ms. Miyake said. Mr. Piccioli said the final submissions were barely retouched at all.

Ms. McDormand, who was photographed in her outdoor shower (“one of the places I am happiest”) wearing an elaborate pale pink ostrich hat, hadn’t sat for a portrait since Annie Leibovitz captured her some three years ago at the time of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She also hadn’t done any advertising work since a Pabst Blue Ribbon ad in the 1980s, and a voice-over for Carmex.

Ms. McDormand said she agreed to be part of the campaign because of the charity component. She had connected with Mr. Piccioli after the pandemic hit Italy, and they had discussed the frustration of not knowing what to do, given that “we each only know how to do one thing.”

“At the end of the day, it’s an ad campaign for a big fashion house, and I’m very mindful of this,” she said. “This is a very specific time in our culture where we are all trying to balance the needs of the human species with the institutions we’ve created. What this does is provide a glimpse of our personal lives. It’s an alternative to a Zoom meeting.”

She was also excited to enlist Mr. Delbonnel.

“We had so much fun,” she said. “My husband was there, my son was there, and we were already in sync because we had been working together, being scared together, watching movies together. I asked for a hat, because I knew I could pull it off. The hats let me go to a really thoughtful place I can understand.”

Mr. Law, who looks an awful lot like his father, said he and his mom had been busy during lockdown making little films, so it made sense to him to ask her to take his picture — even though, as Ms. Frost said, “I borrowed an Olympus and didn’t really know how to use it.”

She mostly posed him in doorways because, she said, she liked the “framing. In the end, he just threw on the shirt Valentino had sent him without buttoning it because Ms. Frost wanted something that played down the idea of celebrity and focused more on the idea of this creative kid in her house.

“She’ll get an expression that I might otherwise hold back from another photographer,” said Mr. Law, who was photographed holding his sign — “connection” — in his teeth.

Ms. Miyake characterized the whole experience as a kind of grown-up game of dress-up. (She posed Ms. Mock in a green sequined evening gown amid more leafy greenery.) Ms. Mock, she said, “has been my little muse since we were kids and I practiced hair and makeup on her.” The whole experience, she said, was so good she’d like to do it again.

“But with a bigger crew and budget,” Ms. Miyake said.



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Four Artists on the Future of Video Art


After having a solo show at Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco cut short because of shelter-in-place orders, Isaac Julien, 60, was working in Santa Cruz, whose University of California branch is home to the Isaac Julien Lab. Known for sumptuous videos centered on radical histories, which he releases in multiple formats, from single-screen cuts to immersive multiscreen installations, Julien is scheduled to have a show at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco in the fall.

Filming would be impossible right now. Maybe the gods were looking down on me in 2019, because I had the kind of mad intention of making these two gigantic projects — “A Marvellous Entanglement,” on the architect Lina Bo Bardi, and “Lessons of the Hour,” on Frederick Douglass — and I did. That has meant that 2020 has been the kind of year with more exhibitions and my making single-screen versions of work, so a time when it’s more postproduction. If I had not done that, this would be very disruptive. There really are some things you can continue doing while social distancing, and there are some things that you cannot.

And yet, we’re seeing this flourishing of video art and media works on social-media platforms. I participated in this Metro Pictures film festival, which I think was really successful. I really enjoyed seeing “Baltimore” [his 2003 short starring Melvin Van Peebles] during that time, and it was great to be able to post about it on Facebook and Instagram, to have all the responses to the work. I realized that a lot of the video artworks that one makes — they become, in a way, connected to the time when they were made. People have the memory. But it’s great to be able to redistribute them on social-media platforms and to introduce the work to new audiences. Viewers were really excited, and this made me think about the possibility of how those works could live in a different capacity. When we have an exhibition of work showing in a museum, maybe we can have a single-screen version on social media simultaneously and think about both platforms as exhibition spaces.

What was good about the festival was that you got excited about who was going to be the next artist, and then you looked at the films, and you had time to look at them, and you could really learn things. Since then, other works of mine have been shown at special events. For example, in Brazil, the Goethe-Institut in Salvador showed my Fanon film [“Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask” (1995)] — it was just on for 24 hours, and it was watched by over 37,000 people. We kind of couldn’t believe it when the figure came out. Funnily enough, the Fanon film was also showing in an exhibition in Singapore, and they showed it online, too, and some friends from Germany saw it. So you have this internationalization of the platform, of different people watching different works.

This kind of lit the fuse. I got approached by lots of other institutions and museums, and I thought to myself, “OK, hang on here a minute. I think I might stop and think about it a little bit more, because maybe we can do it ourselves, in the studio.”



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His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not ‘Black Mozart’


Last month, Searchlight Pictures announced plans for a movie about Joseph Boulogne, the 18th-century composer also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

When the announcement was made, headlines resurrected yet another moniker for Boulogne: “Black Mozart.” Presumably intended as a compliment, this erasure of Boulogne’s name not only subjugates him to an arbitrary white standard, but also diminishes his truly unique place in Western classical music history.

Few musicians have led a life as fascinating and multifaceted as Boulogne’s. Recounting it, however, is an exercise in educated guesswork. What is known is scantily and contradictorily documented, when not purely anecdotal. To make matters worse, a 19th-century novel by Roger de Beauvoir, “Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges,” intertwined fact and fiction so seamlessly that many of its fabrications gradually found a place in Boulogne’s assumed biography.

What we know is that Boulogne, the illegitimate son of a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved African-Guadeloupean woman, was born between 1739 and ’49 on the island of Basse-Terre, the western half of the archipelago of Guadeloupe. When he was about 10, he and his mother followed his father and the rest of his legitimate family back to France, where Boulogne was enrolled in elite schools and received private lessons in music and fencing.

His first claim to fame, in fact, was as a champion fencer, the best-known disciple of the renowned master La Boëssière. A painting depicting a match between Boulogne and the Chevalier d’Éon remains on display at Buckingham Palace.

Boulogne’s extraordinary fencing talent led Louis XV to name him Chevalier de Saint-Georges, after his father’s noble title, even though France’s Code Noir prohibited Boulogne from officially inheriting the title because of his African ancestry. He earned a nearly mythical status even across the Atlantic: John Adams described him as “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”

Very little is known about Boulogne’s musical training. But when François-Joseph Gossec, one of France’s pioneering symphony writers and most prominent conductors, founded the Concert des Amateurs series in 1769, he invited Boulogne to join its orchestra, first as a violinist and later as its concertmaster.

Boulogne’s first documented compositions are from 1770 and ’71. While these are clearly works by a composer still searching for his voice, they already demonstrate his commitment to the new and unexplored. The six string quartets of his Opus 1 were among the first in that genre to be written in France. His three sonatas for keyboard and violin (Op. 1a) feature those instruments as equals, breaking away from the Baroque tradition of basso continuo, which was still very much in vogue. His harmonies, textures and formal schemes place him within a Classical style that was still in the process of forming.

His first public and critical success as a composer came with his two violin concertos (Op. 2), which premiered in 1772 at the Concert des Amateurs series, featuring Boulogne himself as soloist. The level of craft and sophistication in these pieces far surpass his efforts of the previous two years. The particularly beautiful Largo movement of the second concerto already features many trademarks of his later style, including a penchant for whimsical colors that run the range of instruments and an understanding of how to balance orchestral forces with clarity.

When Gossec was invited to direct the Concert Spirituel series in 1773, he named his concertmaster as his successor. Under Boulogne’s direction, the Concert des Amateurs orchestra became widely regarded as the best in France, if not all of Europe. His raised profile as a conductor led to an invitation in 1775 to apply for the directorship of the Académie Royal de Musique, the country’s most prominent musical position. His candidacy, however, was crushed by a petition to Marie Antoinette from a group of performers who objected to “accepting orders from a mulatto.”

Also in 1775, he wrote two symphonies concertantes for two violins and orchestra (Op. 6), his initial contribution to a genre he and other French composers of the time helped define. A hybrid of the Baroque concerto grosso and the Classical concerto, a symphonie concertante usually featured two or more soloists in a virtuosic dialogue that emulated a musical duel. Boulogne wrote eight such pieces between 1775 and ’78, a testament to the demand for them among French audiences.

In 1778, Mozart traveled to Paris, staying from March to September and briefly under the same roof as Boulogne, hosted by Count Sickingen. It is implausible, to say the least, that Mozart did not hear Boulogne’s music during this period. Intriguingly, Mozart’s first composition after his return to Austria was his Symphonie Concertante in E-flat (K. 364). And in an article published in 1990 in the Black Music Research Journal, Gabriel Banat points to the remarkable similarities between an excerpt from Boulogne’s Violin Concerto (Op. 7, No. 2), from 1777, and a passage from Mozart’s K. 364, from the following year. The gesture in question recurs in Boulogne’s solo string writing — a difficult sequence climbing to the highest register of the instrument, immediately followed by a dramatic dip — but had never appeared in Mozart’s work until this Presto.

When lack of funding forced the Concert des Amateurs to end in 1781, Boulogne and his musicians found a home with the newly formed Concert de la Loge Olympique, which quickly gained a reputation as the best orchestra in Europe. It was under this umbrella that Boulogne conducted the premiere of Haydn’s six Paris symphonies, among many other important commissions.

Discouraged by his persistent lack of success in opera, by dwindling patronage because of changes on the political scene, and by his increased activism in the French Revolution as an enlisted officer, Boulogne sharply reduced his musical activities toward the end of his life. He died in 1799, not a penniless man, but certainly a far less relevant and valued figure in French society than he had been a couple of decades earlier.

Nevertheless, his influence in France and abroad, both as a curator and a creator, was felt long after his death. It is a remarkable fact that his music has survived two centuries of neglect caused by the systemic racism that permeates the notion of a Western canon. Neither his omission from music-history textbooks — of the two most used in America, he gets a brief, vague mention in one and is absent from the other — nor a lack of advocacy from programmers, publishing houses and record labels have erased him completely.

This is the ultimate proof that Boulogne doesn’t need to be anyone’s second best — let alone anyone’s Black echo. So, yes, I cannot wait to see the movie. But spare me the awful nickname.

Marcos Balter is a composer and Professor of Music Composition at the University of California, San Diego.



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A Director Brings Cerebral, Sexy Style to Opera Classics


In 1989, the pair returned to Krakow and enrolled at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts. There, Mr. Warlikowski studied with Krystian Lupa, a towering figure in Polish theater who makes long, slowly unfolding works based on literary texts.

In an interview, Mr. Lupa said that a student production by Mr. Warlikowski, drawn from the writings of Proust, marked him as a rising talent. “I felt there and then that Krzysztof Warlikowski was going to be a distinguished director,” he said.

This potential was not always seen by Polish critics, many of whom found Mr. Warlikowski’s early work too strongly influenced by his teacher. “The umbilical cord of our student-pedagogue relationship had not yet been severed,” Mr. Lupa said. But, he added, the first inklings of Mr. Warlikowski’s mature style were already clear in those 1990s shows, particularly an enduring fascination with “perverse, unobvious, not straightforward situations, where one person inflicts pain on another.”

His stark, bloody 1997 staging of Sophocles’s “Electra,” his Warsaw debut, was poorly reviewed. Looking back in 2004, however, the critic Maciej Nowak wrote in the theater journal Notatnik Teatralny that, in that production, Polish theater “made contact with what was happening on the stages of Western Europe.”

By the time Mr. Warlikowski staged his first important opera — Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” in its French version, at the Polish National Opera in 2000 — he was beginning to be celebrated as an original voice, though still a provocative one. The 2001 “Hamlet” in which Mr. Pondiezialek (pronounced pon-ya-JOW-ek), in the title role, took his clothes off, was shocking when it played in Poland, and many audience members walked out, said Piotr Gruszczynski, a dramaturg who works with Mr. Warlikowski.

“A naked actor onstage was something totally new,” he said.

But this was Mr. Warlikowski’s international breakout: It was rapturously received when it traveled to the Avignon Festival in France, and an offer to work at the Paris Opera followed.



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How to Sell Books in 2020: Put Them Near the Toilet Paper


If you want to sell books during a pandemic, it turns out that one of the best places to do it is within easy reach of eggs, milk and diapers.

When the coronavirus forced the country into lockdown this spring, stores like Walmart and Target, which were labeled essential, remained open. So when anxious consumers were stocking up on beans and pasta, they were also grabbing workbooks, paperbacks and novels — and the book sales at those stores shot up.

“They sell groceries, they sell toilet paper, they sell everything people need during this time, and they’re open,” said Suzanne Herz, the publisher of Vintage/Anchor. “If you’re in there and you’re doing your big shop and you walk down the aisle and go, ‘Oh, we’re bored, and we need a book or a puzzle.’ There it is.”

Big box stores do not generally break out how much they sell of particular products, but people across the publishing industry say that sales increased at these stores significantly, with perhaps the greatest bump at Target. In some cases there, according to publishing executives, book sales tripled or quadrupled.

Dennis Abboud is the chief executive of ReaderLink, a book distributor that serves more than 80,000 retail stores, including big box and pharmacy chains. He said that in the first week of April, his company’s sales were 34 percent higher than the same period the year before.

“With the shelter in place, people were looking for things to do,” he said. “Workbooks, activity books and just general reading material saw a big increase.”

Some grocery chains and pharmacies saw an increase, too, even though books are far from the core of what they offer. A spokesman for Rite Aid said that since the beginning of March, the company has seen an increase in book sales generally, as well as in children’s books and puzzles. Meijer, a superstore chain based in the Midwest, also saw a “strong uptick” in book sales since the beginning of the pandemic, a spokesman said.

That company is in the process of expanding the book department in about 80 of its 253 stores, part of a plan that was in place before the pandemic. In addition to the advantage of just being open, stores like Target were able to step in when Amazon pulled back on delivering some products, like books and toys, so it could prioritize in-demand household goods and medical supplies.

Among the big box chains, each has a somewhat different bookselling approach. Walmart offers a lot of commercial fiction, books on topics like self-help and weight loss, as well as children’s books. Much of Target’s selection is aimed at female readers. Costco sells many classics, like “The Wizard of Oz” and Jane Austen, along with children’s workbooks.

But all the stores tend to stay in the same general neighborhood, selling books that are highly commercial. And they are a dominant force in commercial fiction. Mr. Abboud said that for some of the biggest authors in that category, as much as 75 percent of their volume flows through his company.

Even in normal times, getting a book on the shelves of a Target or a Walmart is a coup. As with anything they buy, when one of those chains stocks a title, they buy a lot of copies — as many as 30,000, a significant amount in an industry where a 50,000-book printing is considered a big bet.

At Costco, a big best seller might sell more than 100,000 copies. There, books are chosen by Pennie Clark Ianniciello, a longtime buyer who every month anoints one of her favorites as a “Pennie’s Pick,” a distinction that can substantially boost sales.

“The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna,” a novel by Juliet Grames, has sold almost 15,000 hardcover copies since it was published in May 2019, according to NPD BookScan. The paperback, however, was a Pennie’s Pick, and has sold more than 18,000 copies since it was published less than three months ago.

“If it hadn’t been a Pennie’s Pick, it would have been problematic because other brick and mortar bookstores were closed,” said Sarah Burnes, Ms. Grames’s literary agent. “Because it was a Pennie’s Pick, it sold thousands of copies.”

Walmart also saw its book sales jump.

“Covid-19 and the government stimulus checks have increased the demand for books in a big way, particularly on the adult books side,” Leigh Stidham, a Walmart spokeswoman, said in an email. “The fiction genre is strong despite some new title releases being pushed back to later in the year. Also, educational book sales have increased significantly since day cares and schools have been shut down.”

The question for publishers is whether this bump will continue. Have buyers been reconditioned to pick up books in different places, or will they go back to their old habits when running errands feels less fraught? Mr. Abboud of ReaderLink said he expects sales to fall, but not to previous levels. In the meantime, there are those who are starting to venture back out.

Carmina Ortiz went to the Target store in Edgewater, N.J., with her son Max, 8, last month to make a return. While they were there, they went to the young reader section, because the summer stretching out ahead of them is going to be a long one.

“I want him to read another series,” she said. “I’ve got to be the event coordinator, or it’s going to be all TV and video games.”



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Two Syrian Brothers, One Longing to Stay, the Other Determined to Leave


THE ROAD FROM RAQQA
A Story of Brotherhood, Borders, and Belonging
By Jordan Ritter Conn

“Humanizing”— the word often used to praise immigrant and refugee narratives — should be unnecessary: The fact that we are all human should be a baseline assumption, not an argument or a writerly achievement. Yet it’s never been clearer that the basic humanity of others is something that is now continually in question, both in the United States and around the world. Jordan Ritter Conn’s riveting debut book, “The Road From Raqqa,” is a well-wrought portrait of two brothers, Riyad and Bashar Alkasem, and their journeys out of Syria: Riyad as a young lawyer who went to California to learn English in 1990, and Bashar, also a lawyer, who fled to Turkey and then Europe in the midst of the Syrian civil war in 2016. Conn pushes beyond simply humanizing the Alkasems; the book portrays Syria and the United States as multifaceted and complex, both capable of generosity and oppression, with histories as interconnected as the brothers’ own.

As a child, Riyad is steeped in family lore that traces his ancestry back to the founding of Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, through a gracious act of generosity. In government-run summer camps, he falls in love with a version of Syria that exists only in regime propaganda. Disillusioned after learning of the massacre of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama by the Syrian Army in the 1980s, he leaves a burgeoning legal career to chase the ephemeral America of inspirational politicians and tree-lined movie scenes. If Riyad’s trajectory from dishwasher in Los Angeles to restaurateur in suburban Nashville is quintessentially American — success comes after his restaurant, Café Rakka, is featured on Guy Fieri’s show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” — so too are the indignities and injustices he faces. Especially after 9/11, Riyad asks: “Who is a bigot? Who is just a jerk? Does the difference matter?” For Riyad, his new country is a mixed place that has “confounded him,” but also “delivered delirious joys.” As he learns to live with the contradictions, however, he experiences a growing nostalgia for the Raqqa of his childhood.

Meanwhile, until the civil war, Bashar has preferred his stable, if not always safe, life in regime-held Syria (where “the walls have ears”) to his brother’s in America, where he encounters a minefield of prejudice when he makes an extended visit. He takes up the legal career Riyad abandoned and is on the cusp of becoming a judge when the revolution ignites in 2011. Bashar cannot fathom life outside the family home where the Alkasems have resided for generations, even as the war escalates and the Islamic State moves in.

Conn builds tension slowly and with great sympathy, adding necessary context to clarify political nuances. He alludes to the background of Bashar’s wife, Aisha — also a lawyer — who is more critical of Syria’s government and eventually persuades her husband to leave; Conn describes Aisha’s “passion, her will to fight” in contrast to her more cautious husband and I found myself wishing her story had been granted more space, especially because she carries much of the emotional weight of the book’s final scenes. Conn keeps the stakes high and the decisions fraught until the very end, when Bashar, his wife and their children plunge into a journey that feels like both the wrong solution for a family that never wanted to leave and the only choice available to them.

As complicated and ever-shifting as their views of Syria and the United States are, the brothers’ affection for Raqqa is unwavering. Conn translates their memories into a resplendent love letter to an obliterated city, where Riyad swims as a boy in the Euphrates and gathers recipes from his relatives, and where Bashar poignantly lays out pillows and blankets to look at the stars with his daughters in the courtyard of their family home at night before the bombs drop. The loss of that Raqqa feels unbearable.



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Did America Use Bioweapons in Korea? Nicholson Baker Tried to Find Out


To my nonscientist’s eye. Similar caveats — “we may never have incontrovertible proof,” “it’s remotely possible, though perhaps eternally unprovable,” “we may never know,” “it’s at least possible,” “will we ever know?,” “let me just blurt out what I think happened,” etc. — infest Baker’s narrative, usually preceded or followed by wild accusations (and, occasionally, by a sign of self-awareness: “I lay in bed some of today reading more of this book, hating it, excited by it, embarrassed by it”).

At times, the book is framed as a deliberate challenge to the intelligence community: “I could be completely wrong. The only way to prove me wrong is by declassifying the entire document.” But this is not how a historian proceeds. Again and again, Baker bristles with anger over actions that were “seriously contemplated” by the C.I.A., other intelligence agencies and the military — but never undertaken. “I felt trembly and disgusted at the same time,” he writes of Operation Sphinx, a proposal to gas millions of Japanese from the air during World War II. “It’s a horrible and disillusioning thing to know that your own country was passing around a paper like Sphinx in the Pentagon.” Really? To know that in a brutal war men thought brutal things?

At another point, he questions the “long, interesting, confusing letter” he got from Floyd O’Neal, one of some 30 captured American airmen and Marines who “confessed” to germ-warfare bombing in Korea. O’Neal’s confession is “surprising and moving, though, whether or not it’s true,” Baker tells us. O’Neal “recanted completely” after he was released, and writes in his letter of sustaining torture so awful he still won’t describe it to Baker more than 50 years later: “What they did for the next days I don’t care to discuss but I finally agreed to sign their confession.” There is nothing surprising or moving about a coerced confession, save for O’Neal’s ability to endure the price it exacted.

Baker concedes that “Americans individually have done good things,” a gesture followed by a banal list that includes “sunglasses,” “topiary,” “no-hitters” and “the midcentury New Yorker.” Yes, and also little baby ducks and old pickup trucks. This is another affectation of virtue, not a moral argument.

I share Baker’s disgust with all the crazy, wasteful, illegal, counterproductive and murderous things the C.I.A. has done, and no doubt continues to do. Hell, I even like dogs. Baker’s Olympian worldview, though, takes him to almost the same place he landed in “Human Smoke,” his paste-up 2008 history of the road to World War II: immobilized by purity and concluding that we should never have intervened, even to stop the Nazis. Americans are neither beasts nor angels, just human beings trying to forge our way through the murky moral choices this world poses. To pretend otherwise is perhaps the worst deception of all.



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Late Night on Trump’s Virus Briefings: ‘The Reboot Nobody Asked For’


Welcome to Best of Late Night, a rundown of the previous night’s highlights that lets you sleep — and lets us get paid to watch comedy. Many of us are stuck at home at the moment, so here are the 50 best movies on Netflix right now.

President Trump resumed his coronavirus briefings on Tuesday, with a senior member of his administration saying the plan was to keep them short, tight and centered on the president.

“Now, I don’t know how they’re going to do that unless they fit the president with one of those doggy shock collars,” Stephen Colbert said on “The Late Show.”

“Man, that sounds less like democracy and more like an episode of ‘Narcos.’” — TREVOR NOAH

”Unidentified soldiers throwing protesters into an unmarked van on the streets of Portland? Like, I don’t care who you are, nothing good has ever come from an unmarked van. It’s never like, ‘Get in the van! Get in the unmarked van! We’re going to Disney World!” — TREVOR NOAH

“And how are people even supposed to tell the difference between being arrested and being kidnapped? Because I don’t know if you noticed this, but in America, random dudes walk around in camo gear holding guns all the time.” — TREVOR NOAH

Nikki Glaser, guest-hosting “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” shared some of her virtual dating exploits on Tuesday night.

Mary Trump will talk about her uncle Donald with Stephen Colbert on Wednesday’s “Late Show.”



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What’s on TV Wednesday: ‘Amadeus’ and ‘The Last Full Measure’


AMADEUS Stream on nationaltheatre.org.uk. Nearly four decades after its debut, Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” was reborn at the theater that spawned it — the National Theater in London — in this 2016 production, which dropped an actual orchestra onto the National’s Olivier stage. Directed by Michael Longhurst, this telling of the rivalry between the composers Antonio Salieri and Amadeus Mozart pairs the Southbank Sinfonia with the actor Lucian Msamati, who plays Salieri. Msamati stars opposite Adam Gillen, who plays Mozart. This production “sounds different from any previous ‘Amadeus’ and, perhaps more important, feels different,” Matt Wolf wrote in a review of the production for The New York Times. He called it “a vibrant staging.”

THE LAST FULL MEASURE (2020) Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube. A bureaucrat fights to get a fallen war hero the Medal of Honor in “The Last Full Measure,” a drama written and directed by Todd Robinson. Set primarily in 1999, the film casts Sebastian Stan as Scott Huffman, a Department of Defense employee who, at the urging of a Vietnam veteran (William Hurt), revisits the case of William H. Pitsenbarger, an Air Force medic who died in the war. (Pitsenbarger was a real soldier; the film is based on actual events.) This involves speaking with Pitsenbarger’s parents (played by Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd) and veterans who knew Pitsenbarger — conversations that dredge up buried secrets. In his review for The Times, Glenn Kenny wrote that the movie’s “story mechanics are creaky,” but that the “raw pain that Hurt dredges up in the movie’s last quarter constitutes some of the most wrenching acting he’s ever done.”

LA FLOR (2019) Stream on Mubi. When stateside audiences had the opportunity to see this movie from the Argentine filmmaker Mariano Llinás in theaters last year, they may have been nervous to take the plunge: It’s more than 13 hours long. But viewers looking for something to dig into while housebound will surely find at least one piece that resonates with them in the film, which is divided into six genre-jumping sections. The movie stars four women — Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa and Laura Paredes — who juggle a handful of roles. It is both “an example of rampant serialism and a commentary on the phenomenon,” A.O. Scott wrote in his review for The Times, though he added that the film “is perhaps more fun to think about than to sit through, though there are some exquisitely beautiful sequences.”

AMERICAN INJUSTICE: THE FIGHT FOR POLICE REFORM 11 p.m. on BET. Soledad O’Brien will discuss police reform with politicians, activists and members of law enforcement. Her interviewees include the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi; the Congressional Black Caucus leader, Karen Bass; the N.A.A.C.P. president and chief executive, Derrick Johnson; and the Charlottesville, Va., police chief, RaShall M. Brackney.



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Intimacy Is Overrated: Concerts in the Livestream Era


Luckily for listeners, musicians online have been stretching — and, frankly, cheating on — both the definition of a live performance and social-distancing strictures. Some have learned to treat the screen as a stage allowing some artifice, even in real time. It might be a plant-crammed home setup, or a playfully changing video backdrop, or a digital light show. At least it’s more than a feed from a grainy smartphone camera on a tripod.

As musicians settled into livestreaming, physically separated bands started reuniting, virtually and then in person. Digital reunions are usually cheats. Latency — the delay between a live action and when it’s received — barely affects an office meeting, but it can be deadly to the subtle, split-second interactions of musicians working together. So-called livestreams of physically separated bands are likely to be feats of editing: multiple tracks laid down as they are in a recording studio.

The trickery may be obvious, as when Kevin Parker presents himself multitracking instruments to become Tame Impala, or Keith Urban suddenly multiplies himself in a supposedly livestreamed performance. Musicians may be bobbing their heads to the same beat in the now-familiar video grids, but that simulated Zoom meeting isn’t actually happening; it’s a quiet tribute to musicianship that those patiently assembled, multitracked grids still find a groove. The grids take the “live” out of livestreaming — face it, they’re music videos — but at least there’s an image of cooperative effort: one thing we used to take for granted at concerts.

Quarantine has also brought new formats: the disc jockey D-Nice’s online dance parties with chat scrolls full of A-list names; the battle series Verzuz, concocted by the producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, that double as mutual-appreciation sessions. Most have been streamed from isolation, but on June 19 — Juneteenth — Alicia Keys and John Legend shared a studio, playing back to back at pink and black pianos. Social distancing did not prevail; they hugged at the end.

As stay-at-home guidelines have receded, musicians have been gathering in person at nearly empty clubs, at recording studios and in outdoor spaces. When I watch, I can’t help calculating how far apart the players are standing, who’s masked and who’s not, the number of cameras and whether someone is carrying them, who set up the equipment and who will be loading it out. These venues, built for music, are mostly empty, and presumably the few workers on site take precautions. But there is still no vaccine, and every close personal encounter is a risk — particularly indoors, particularly where breath is expended on singing and playing instruments.

Hallowed music spaces like Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver and Antone’s in Austin, Texas, have opened their doors for streamed benefit performances. In Boston, Fenway Park opened the stadium to Dropkick Murphys — plenty of open space.



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