Contemplating some of this year’s favorite BSR stories

The Weekly Roundup: A 2021 retrospective

11 minute read
Festive fireworks frame around text that reads: The Weekly Roundup: A 2021 Retrospective...A year of contemplation at BSR.
A curation of features, essays, and profiles to capture the essence of 2021. (Image by Kyle V. Hiller.)

If you don’t know by now, I "ABC": always be contemplating. With 2021 suddenly at its denouement, I find myself contemplating what the narrative has been at BSR this year. I’ve made my picks for some of my favorite stories that we’ve published this year, but I use the term “favorite” loosely here. These stories are favorites because they fit what I think is the overall narrative for my year at BSR.

The pandemic forced us all into a full stop in early 2020. Now, nearly two years later, it still feels like we’re in a pause or a holding pattern that’s keeping us from making any “moves.” I’m grateful for that. I needed that full stop. I needed to slow down. I want to pause for a little longer for my own sake and for the reasons explored in the pieces I’ve picked for the final roundup of the year.

In 2022, I will be contemplating the art of play, finding the story that’s true for me, considering what spaces I feel safe in, and what access means to me. I don’t expect 2022 to be “better” but I do insist on change—for me and for everyone—because it is long overdue.

My picks for features and essays

Surviving New Year’s 2022 means finding the story that’s true for you
By Michelle Chikaonda

Anytime Michelle Chikaonda writes, I read with the utmost of intention and attention. Her meditation on the stories we have to tell, reflecting on the year at the turn of the new one, and how we have to acknowledge that change is a great button on so many of the conversations that have been published at BSR in 2021.

In it, Chikaonda says that “New Year’s Day is one such point in our culture, a day on which we all seem to collectively agree on the value of intentionally reflecting on where we are, where we’ve been, and where we want to go.” Considering what that means as we move toward 2022, she adds that “there is a different feeling palpable in the cultural air—that so much has gone wrong and then stayed there that having hope for better times feels not just foolish, but hopelessly naïve. Even dangerous. We’re living in a time of multidimensional chaos—a job market in an unprecedented flux, weather systems gone haywire, and of course the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic which has claimed more than 800,000 lives in the US alone. To imagine that things could be better next year feels akin to choosing to ignore reality.”

I’m sitting with this essay knowing that 2022 isn’t going to be better and that the reality is that no year has ever been “better.” We collectively lamented the year past every new year in the beforetimes. Resolutions, proclamations of how the new year is going to be “my year,” and other monumental statements that come around now have long felt overzealous and heedless. But now? It’s ignorant, foolish, and may actually be a disservice to ourselves. Michelle’s solution? “Find the right story and you’ll survive.”

We can’t find the right story unless we take this time to pause, too. Michelle talks about that in her essay about time-loop films (a follow-up to an essay she wrote in 2020 about the same topic):

“If we lean into the bracing silences of the pandemic time freeze, we can begin to hear resonances of the things we have long silenced, the desires we have been too scared to heed for fear of upending everything we have built our lives upon until now. The time-loop films show us the power of using this extended freeze to examine our lives; perhaps not all of us are as deeply stuck as the protagonists in these films, but I think that all of us stand to gain from a deliberate, up-close look at the structural integrity of our lives, and see if they measure up to what we told everyone and ourselves we wanted and believed.”

Well, damn.

Decades after childhood, is it too late to learn how to play?
By Anndee Hochman

Anndee Hochman has written some fantastic essays and features for us, but this one really struck a chord with me. As someone who has been struggling with “how to play” since getting caught in grind culture over the last several years, Hochman's essay resonated with me in a cathartic way. She writes, “The world still seethes. The jury is still out. What I’m learning is that my notions of play may have been all wrong. Turns out, the way I play is the way I live: more reflective than raucous, more about exploring than erupting. Subtle. Subversive. Play is a muscle; I’m discovering new ways to use it.”

I also love Hochman's essay from March, coming a year after the beginning of pandemic life. In it, she writes that “If this year has taught me anything, it’s that every moment is like that: We’re always teetering on the precipice of something, never knowing what delight, reprieve, or catastrophe is headed our way. It reminded me that uncertainty is the human condition, something we share no matter our race, geography, or gender.”

It’s being on that precipice that shows us just how alive we are. That's why we can't deny change, and that's why we can't expect next year to be better when we haven't confronted what lingers with us from the year just past.

Two male cast members, in splendid blue 18th-century coats, face each other onstage. One has a quill in his outstretched hand
You can’t control what happens, but how will you shape the story? (Photo of the 2021 national tour of ‘Hamilton’ by Joan Marcus.)

A look back: why the Philly theater scene needs the Black Lives Matter movement
By An Nichols

If I’m being honest, I’m still relatively new to the world of theater. I wasn’t an active theater-goer until 2015, but during the pandemic, I’ve questioned not only my own place in that world, but how people who look like me belong, participate, and contribute to theater. Opportunities for them, for us, are far and few between, and An Nichols explores that with a scrutinizing perusal of Philly’s art scene. She asks the big questions, too, like “do artists feel safe, represented, and acknowledged?” and “have theater administrators improved their organizations’ diversity policies?” Unfortunately, many of the big questions don’t have answers, and they may not have them for a while, if at all.

Looks like there's room for change there, too. Here's to 2022 moving the needle forward for marginalized communities.

Fitzrovia’s Passyunk Avenue restaurant takes South Philly flavor abroad
By Emily Savidge

Before quarantine happened, I had booked my first trip ever across the big pond. I was going to spend a week on the faculty of a writing retreat in France, but before that, I was going to spend a week-long solo sabbatical in London. It would have been a great trip for self-discovery (maybe—it could've been a disaster and I'll never know), but alas, that didn’t happen. I still carry some sadness about that chance, and it would have been cool to experience Philly through the eyes of London. But for now, I'll have to settle for compromise via Emily Savidge's profile of the Passyunk Avenue restaurant in London born from the Philly-raised JP Teti. Teti’s love for Philly really shines through, realistically undeterred in the face of Covid-19: “This will pass, and soon Passyunk will be open again," he says. "You’ll pop in, and you’ll hear Philadelphia accents from people visiting, and it’ll be like old times again.”

Maybe I’ll get out to London someday, but for now, I’ll have to continue to visit vicariously through weekend futbol matches and Doctor Who episodes. My fingers are crossed for a visit to Passyunk Avenue in the future.

The bar at Passyunk Avenue; pasted along the back wall are dollar bills, posters, and a neon Budweiser sign.
Try the Citywide Special at the Passyunk Avenue bar. (Image courtesy of Tremont Photography and Passyunk Avenue.)

Stop calling essential workers heroes and start actually helping us
By Michelle Nugent

The title says it all, folks. No one wants to be a hero, and calling essential workers heroes is another way to exploit them. Looking forward, we have to work against that narrative. We don’t need heroism, we need resources, better working conditions, increased pay, equality and equity … The list goes on. Michelle Nugent’s points are sharp and unrelenting, calling out "bootstrap regressives" and social progressives alike. She writes, “It’s easy to call people superheroes in 280 characters or less. It’s a lot harder to make material change in their working life, but that would be downright heroic.”

Let's keep it real, y'all: change lives through action, and it dies by thoughts and prayers.

One year later, I’m still speaking up about pandemic narratives that ignore disability
By Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Accessibility has been a primary focus of mine since I started with BSR, and fellow staffer Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer’s essay offers an intimate snapshot of parenting, navigating disability in a world still choosing to ignore it, and calling out narrow-sighted pandemic narratives. She writes, “But I’ve also been more keenly aware than ever that if you are not disabled yourself, or living with a disabled loved one, you could easily have no idea of what life is like for disabled people. Every time I opened a major media outlet to read about parental burnout, pandemic fatigue, or overwhelm, the stories were about parents of neurotypical children. Stories about parenting and disability in the pandemic were few and far between.”

Williams, a Black woman, poses for a portrait with her arms crossed in a grassy field.
Philly-based Kelli S. Williams is part of the 2021 Mural Arts Philly Black Artist fellowship class. (Photo by Alicia Smith.)

Contemplate Philly's future with these profiles from 2021

Before the pandemic, we weren’t publishing profiles of artists, creators, entrepreneurs, and leaders. When everything shut down at the beginning of quarantine in 2020, the BSR staff (like many other outlets) scrambled to reconsider and rebuild our coverage and editorial calendar. In turn, outlets were forced to contemplate their mission again, too. Who are we serving? How are we serving them? For BSR, I wanted to know who aren’t we serving?

Profiles became a great opportunity to highlight folks who didn’t have the privilege of hosting events, putting together shows, or access to large platforms. I was concerned that marginalized folks would be quickly forsaken when Covid-19 first settled in, and this was my response: let’s start running profiles of people who may otherwise go unseen, unheard, or forgotten.

I’m looking forward to the profiles we’ll be running in 2022, but I wanted to share some of my favorites from this year. I implore you to check out and support the people mentioned in these wonderfully written pieces, and I hope at least one of these stories resonates with you.

Illustrating joy, queerness, and justice with Kah Yangni’s mural We Are Universal
By Jared Michael Lowe

Jared Michael Lowe crafted an incredible piece on Kah Yangni and their new mural, Philadelphia’s first mural celebrating transgender people. Talking about the mural, it was Yangni’s intention that “the love is felt when viewing We Are Universal.” They said in the interview that “I wanted the colors to make someone feel warm, safe, happy, and energized … The color and the text are doing the heavy lifting of the emotion that I want people to feel when they view it.”

Opening the doors and turning the pages with Books & Bagels founder Ellen Cappard
By Dara McBride

The Philly area has had a handful of wildly successful book shops open up in recent years by Black entrepreneurs like Amalgam, Harriett’s Bookshop, and Uncle Bobbie's. Add Books & Bagels to that list. Founded by Ellen Cappard, known in her circles as “the book whisperer,” her new shop opened in Wilmington this past September. If you find yourself around Wilmington’s West Side, then be sure to pay a visit.

Yangni at a podium with a microphone. They're wearing a light colored blazer and shirt, with the mural behind them.
Yangni speaks at the dedication for the mural. (Photo by Steve Weinik.)

Talking stop-motion animation with Kelli S. Williams
By Christina Anthony

Kelli S. Williams is making waves in animation, an industry that is lacking: “there have been so few people who look and think like me in those spaces … I take that responsibility very seriously and always consider that as I create.” Take a few minutes to watch the first three episodes of her web series This is Tru.

Civil rights, one step at a time: Mural Arts Fellowship for Black Artists recipient Ken Johnston
By Jared Michael Lowe

Activism and change happen one step at a time, and for Ken Johnston, that’s a literal truth. This summer, we got to highlight Johnston’s “walks to freedom” and how he considers himself a “walking artist” in a fascinating snapshot of a unique path to justice.

The magic behind Christina Rosso-Schneider’s new book Creole Conjure
By Jordan Cameron

Even before the pandemic started, being creative was a challenge for me. Seeing Christina Rosso-Schneider pen not one but two books while keeping her shop (A Novel Idea on Passyunk) afloat during a pandemic is a marvel to behold. When she talks about it with contributor Jordan Cameron, she’s both candid and humble, making this profile a whimsically inspirational read.

What to expect in 2022?

I don't know what to expect next year. I don't know what the narrative will be when it comes to Covid-19—2021 was staggeringly different from 2020 in many ways, but it still feels like the same old. I want change for myself and others. I want to re-discover the art of play. I want to find places where I feel safe. I want to find the narrative that allows me to thrive. I'm grateful for these and many other stories that we've published this year—they've been instrumental in my own insight and reflections, and they will certainly serve as beacons as I navigate this thing called life in what has thoroughly been an incredibly strange new decade.

Regardless, cheers to it all—to all the melancholy and to all the joy, to the life and the death, to the change, to the stillness, and everything in between.

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