Barra Grant has gotten a lot of press attention for her one-woman show, “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter.” She calls it a dark comedy, and it’s onstage at the Edye, the black box theatre at Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center.
The show is both funny and painful. Bess Myerson was the first and only Jewish Miss America and was the toast of New York, in politics, on TV and on the social scene in the 50s and 60s. During her reigning year, Bess was shunned by commercial sponsors, as advertisers refused to let a Jew endorse their products. But for Jews of the era, she was a shining example.
Until her star was tarnished by scandal, including her involvement with a mafioso, shoplifting and trying to “bribe” a judge by offering his daughter a job. Bess died at age 90 in Santa Monica.
Barra tells a very personal story. Bess was very self-involved, a child of the Depression who would hoard things like ketchup, salt and sugar packets from restaurants, and in search of the next man who could provide for her. She was, as Barra points out, always busy and not available for the kind of relationship Barra craved.
Barra managed to maintain her relationship with Bess as she was trying to become her own person. She became an actress, a screenwriter and found the man of her dreams who loved her beyond words. He was her savior, and their daughter is the result of that loving relationship but cancer took him. As Barra says, mothers and daughter, like it or not, are welded at the hip. She says she learned how to parent from her mother—by not doing what her mother did to her.
The stage is set with a red, white and blue throne; a bed and a side table with a telephone—one that rings with the voice of Monica Piper as Bess who interrupts Barra at all hours of the night, with threats of suicide, and barbed comments about Barra’s life. It’s a miracle that Barra came out of it alive and that she and her own daughter have such a blessed relationship.
This isn’t a “woe is me” or a revenge tale. It’s one that reveals the triumph of love, well applied to a life that’s been scarred by emotional damage.
It’s at the Edye through August 12. Visit https://www.missamericasuglydaughter.com and use code BESS for $10 discount.
ART AT THE BARRETT GALLERY
If you’re going to the Edye or The Broad Stage, stop in at the Pete and Susan Barrett Gallery just behind the theatres, featuring StudioEleven, a group of independent artists who worked and studied at Tom Wudl’s studio and who focus on processes and ideas.
You’ll be blown away by “outsider artist” Mindy Alper’s stunning, giant-sized sculpted bust titled “Melanie.” Mindy was the subject of “Heaven is a Freeway Jam on the 405,” an Academy Award-winning documentary short. Suffering from depression, anxiety and OCD, she is on a multitude of medications and uses her art to channel these issues.
CROWING ABOUT ART
But the artist whose work immediately captured my eye was Lisa Segal. We’d met briefly a few years ago, when she told me she was both a poet and an artist, and we stayed in touch. It was her email reminder that got me out to this show, and I was happy to bump into her and chat for a few minutes about the nature of her utterly unique work.
She epitomizes the “ideas and process” philosophy of StudioEleven, and two of her three pieces are crow-focused. It’s not easy to describe her work, she calls it flat paper sculpture. There is dimensionality, but it’s not really visible in a photo.
“Basho’s Crow: The Thirteenth Hour” grabbed me by the throat when I walked through the gallery. Lisa recalled that this rectangular piece, featuring typographical elements, grids, boxes and squares along with a crow on a branch, came about as she was preparing for a poetry reading.
She began editing the poem, deleting lines on her computer screen, and realized, “The lines that were left were all about equal length, and the height of what was left on the paper was equal to that. At that point, the poem became a typographical element, something I’ve always wanted to do: meld my words with my art.”
She took that typographical element, cut it into strips and began interspersing them in alternating patterns. That became the background; it’s similar to a barcode, but not really, because you think you can almost discern letters.
Atop this, she placed grids and small boxes, some color, and the crow. Why the crow? Lisa says, “To me, this piece is a visual representation of the sound a screeching crow makes.”
When mulberries come into season across the street from her studio, crows collect them. “One of the crows came by as this work was being created, and used to stare at me through a window,” she said. “Being an intelligent creature, he began to placing the mulberries he’d collected into the crevices of my skylight so they wouldn’t roll away; I started taking photos of him.”
Thus inspired, her works take wing. The show is on view through August 4.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.