When I was training to become a Master Gardener, I remember the first time I looked at a seed under a microscope at the Huntington Library and Gardens Laboratory. A bean had been cut in half so we could observe the parts that would become the root, stem and leaf, all of life contained in a tiny, coated package. As I looked, the light from the microscope warmed the bean and suddenly the leafy part popped up, as if it were ready and raring to grow.

For me this was a truly profound moment, and I remembered it as I watched the powerful, important and convincing new documentary called “Seed: The Untold Story.”

Directed by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, it’s the story of the devoted seed keepers who are desperately trying to protect and conserve the heritage of real seeds from the claws of biotech and agrochemical companies, which have taken control of the majority of the world’s seed supply, the source of all our food.

This could not be more timely as the German chemical company Bayer — once

part of IG Farben, the company that manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi concentration camps — has announced it is trying to buy Monsanto, the company that created Agent Orange and genetically modifies seeds to make them insect and weed resistant. This has resulted in new, more resistant weeds and pests, and loosed a glut of glyphosate into the soil and our food supply — a pesticide considered by many European scientific studies (but not our own EPA, announced this week) to be a cancer-causing agent.

In less than a century, more than 94% of the diversity of seed varieties has disappeared, wiping out 12,000 years of food heritage and pushing some seeds toward extinction. The few brave and dedicated souls at seed banks and in indigenous communities are profiled as they tackle what truly is the ultimate David vs. Goliath tale. The outcome will impact everyone on the planet, and that’s not an exaggerated claim.

The film is an unrepentant advocacy movie, and why not? Monsanto has the ear of government, with a powerful lobbying arm in Washington. Monsanto has successfully killed GMO labeling. Former Monsanto lawyer Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court. USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is an advocate of genetically modified crops. Michael Taylor, former vice president of public policy and chief lobbyist at Monsanto, is senior advisor for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

While big business stacks the deck against consumers, this movie celebrates seed heroes, scientists and environmentalists who care that the birthright of seeds passed down through generations is being taken over by private industry and corporate interests.

Tickets are available now http://www.laemmle.com/search?q=SEED&x=0&y=0

There’s a Q&A on 9/30 and 10/1 with the filmmakers. Don’t miss it.

MA RAINEY AT THE TAPER

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Mark Taper Forum now is simply one of the best big stage productions I’ve seen all year.

Phylicia Rashad, an award-winning stage actress whose name might be more familiar to TV watchers as Bill Cosby’s sitcom wife, is a respected theatre director with many credits to her name, and she’s crafted a nearly perfect version of August Wilson’s play.

Wilson is the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright renowned for chronicling the heritage and history, decade by decade, of the black experience in 20th century America.

For some of the actors, this is a reunion: several appeared at the Taper in Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in 2013. This may account for the natural ease with which they interact with one another.

As one of the earliest blues recording artists, the real Ma Rainey (“mother of the blues”) is credited with bringing the blues to the masses via recordings of sometimes very salty songs. A former vaudeville performer she was a tough business woman, and at least as portrayed in this play, quite the celebrity diva.

The play is set in a Chicago recording studio, with nervous nelly producer Sturdyvant (Matthew Henerson) and Ma’s manager Irvin (Ed Swidey), both white, trying unsuccessfully to keep the recording session on time and free of hassles.

Ma (brilliantly played by Lillias White) is late and when she does arrive, she brings along her entourage including her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Lamar Richardson) and her love toy Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro).

While they wait, the musicians banter about music, life, philosophy, shoes and sandwiches arguing amongst themselves with humor and underlying tension. Glynn Turman plays Toledo, the pianist and elder statesman of the band. Keith David as Slow Drag, Damon Gupton (Cutler) are the seasoned musicians who’ve worked with Ma before.

But young upstart trumpeter Levee (Jason Dirden) shakes things up with a cocky attitude claiming that he represents the future of music. He challenges Ma at every turn, both in and out of her sight, and in the end, creates a tragic ending.

Lillias White is outstanding and as a musical stage star and knocks it out of the park with her portrayal of Ma as both boss lady and singer. But the entire ensemble meshes flawlessly for a dazzling night of theatre.

Only one complaint: the stage is divided in upper and lower terraces. The upper is the recording studio and the lower is the musicians’ rehearsal room. When the musicians are downstairs, some of what they say gets muffled a bit and is hard to hear. Otherwise it’s a perfect production.

 

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at culturewatch@www.smdp.com

 

PHOTO CAPTION

SEED Will Bonsall of Scattered Project sits outside his barn with a rare variety of corn that he saved from a dying neighbor in Maine.

 

Photo credit: COLLECTIVE EYE FILMS