Charlotte Squawks really does meet SNL – just look at the cast

Charlotte Squawks X: Ten Carolina Commandments bills itself as Saturday Night Live meets Broadway. Since it invites the comparison, I feel free to make it.

Saturday Night Live, after being embroiled in controversy over its lack of black female cast members unless you counted Kenan Thompson in a dress, at last added Sasheer Zamata. However, this year’s edition of Squawks didn’t get the memo, as it has no African American women in the cast. Unless you count the big guy in a short skirt, spangled heels and a bad wig rubbing against the Pat McCrory stand-in. That would be Kevin Harris, a perennial show favorite when he dons drag. To some, that appearance may have left them wanting more. To others, it was hardly subtle and not all that funny. The Flip Wilson Show was a long time ago.

Madam C.J. Walker: She had a dream — Local playwright Kami Shalom brings the first self-made female millionaire’s story to life.

Despite conventional wisdom, Madam C.J. Walker did not invent the straightening comb. The woman who started life as Sarah Breedlove of Louisiana — the first child in her family born into freedom, in 1867 — earned fame and fortune through ingenuity, innovation and hard work. Despite hard times and loss, Walker is regarded as America’s first female self-made millionaire after she developed products to help grow healthy hair, and when she died in 1919, left two-thirds of her fortune to black charities.

Kami Shalom hopes to correct the record with a transformation of her own. The Charlotte performer, writer and teacher will play 20 characters of all races, ages and genders to tell Walker’s story. Call Me Madam: The Making of an American Millionaire, presented by On Q Performing Arts and written and performed by Shalom, will take the Duke Energy Theater stage Jan. 29 through Feb. 1. Walker’s inspiring life translated into a local play is just one example in Charlotte of the strength and accomplishments of African-American women being reclaimed, on and off the stage.

Broadway comes to Charlotte, courtesy of an almost native son

If you had any doubts about the durability of the Motown songbook, stop worrying. Hours of auditions for the Broadway hit Motown the Musical and its upcoming national tour meant “Dancing in the Street” got a workout. And even after dozens of renditions – in various keys and at different tempos by singers not named Martha and the Vandellas – it still sounded pretty good.

It helped that each note was sung with passion – and the occasional dance move – by the 150 or so hopefuls who started lining up outside Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte on Saturday morning, hours before the 11 a.m. start time for the chance to hit it big at an open call.

Charlotte isn’t Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, the go-to places for Broadway auditions. Enter “Motown” director Charles Randolph-Wright, raised in York, S.C., where one of his instructors was actress and director Polly Adkins, familiar and honored on the regional theater scene. Randolph-Wright has often returned to his roots, and particularly to Actor’s Theatre, which has staged his plays Blue and Cuttin’ Up. He was there on Saturday to hear each a cappella note in the first round and, if a singer impressed, a second round try with piano accompaniment.

Michael Pollan name-checks North Carolina amid warnings about a ‘cooking paradox’

Americans spend more time watching televised cooking shows than actually cooking. “We’ve managed to turn cooking into a spectator sport,” said best-selling author Michael Pollan. Plus, wouldn’t you know, “the less we cook, the fatter we are.” While Pollan’s visit to Queens University Thursday night was thoroughly entertaining, such depressing truths sprinkled throughout made the food star’s talk pretty scary, too.

The way Pollan writes, food is history and culture, as well agriculture; cooking is therapeutic, a political act. If “the family dinner table is the nursery of democracy,” he said, grabbing fast food on the run really could be the decline of civilization we suspected all along. Pollan explores where what we put in our stomachs really comes from, something that would have been obvious 75 years ago, he said, but now results in such revelatory New York Times best-sellers as The Omnivore’s Dilemma,The Botany of Desire and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

After his description of a vast, industrialized potato farm with machines spewing toxic insecticides just so those fried spuds sprouting from bright cartons remain unblemished, you immediately vow to start digging out a patch of dirt or trolling farmers markets. “If you grow vegetables, you will cook them; you will feel guilty if you don’t,” he said – even though you might have to learn to use more than the microwave.

So it was a relief to hear Pollan bring the discussion close to home.

American history X: How Kinsey exhibit at Gantt Center fights the ‘myth of absence’

“Any Person May Kill and Destroy Said Slaves,” reads an arrest proclamation from 1798. Issued for “Jem” and “Mat” by Warren County, N.C., it may as well have been a death sentence. Even if Jem and Mat, two escaped slaves, were able to get to the North to a state that had abolished slavery, they would still be in danger. A clause in the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right of a slave owner to recover his or her “property,” and the Fugitive Slave Act signed into law by George Washington in 1793 that made it a federal crime to help an escaped slave.

The document is part of The Kinsey Collection: Where Art and History Intersect, which is showing at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture until October. The more than four centuries’ worth of art, historical documents, photographs and artifacts that Bernard and Shirley Kinsey have gathered in more than 40 years of marriage shine a light on what can’t be denied or extinguished: African-American sacrifice and achievement is part of American history, not just African-American history.

Will the Democratic South rise again?

It was almost but not quite like being in the middle of the action on Inauguration Day. If you opened the door of the restaurant on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol, you could practically hear echoes of President Obama’s speech and Beyonce’s rendition of the National Anthem, real or lip-synched. But it was all a little muddled. You could say the same about the state of the Democratic Party in the South.

I watched the inauguration ceremonies on big screens in the eatery, surrounded by Southern Democrats with a plan. I listened to strategies designed to re-establish the party’s dominance in the region it once owned. Because of issues of race, social issues and habit, for starters, it won’t be easy.

DNC 2012 Notebook: Southern-fried pessimism intrudes on the party

Meet the new South, which has some of the same problems as the old South.

It’s undeniable that a black mayor welcoming a black president into a city can tout skyscrapers, sports and a thriving arts scene. But despite those signs of growth, in the region that has gained political prominence — both parties chose the South for their national conventions — some intractable challenges remain, especially for the poor and the young.

Let’s put it this way: Despite the goodies, a weekend brunch for journalists, with a lineup of experts, was demoralizing. Held at the Charlotte Observer, the topic was “The South and Presidential Politics 2012: Red States and Purple States.” The moderator was PBS’ Judy Woodruff, a Duke grad. The panel was UNC Chapel Hill all the way.