Best Author 2019 | Natalie Diaz | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

A skilled athlete as well as an author, poet Natalie Diaz imbues her works with movement and physicality, opening windows for the world onto her own experiences as a queer indigenous woman, but also the wider context of colonialism past and present. Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community whose passions include revitalizing indigenous language. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published in 2012. Her second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, will be published in 2020. Diaz holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Poetry at Arizona State University, where she teaches as well. She's also a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. You'll often find her doing readings around town or collaborating with other creatives, proving there's always another path to share or window to throw open.

On December 9, the citizens of the world take a deep breath to forget their troubles and celebrate the only holiday that matters: Ja Rule Day. We have Anwar Newton to thank for this special occasion, which the rapper has acknowledged every year since its inception in 2016 (when he isn't fielding questions about his role in the Fyre Festival). The Valley comedian is also one half of the team that produces This Week Sucks Tonight, which relocated to Stand Up Live earlier this year. His Twitter account frequently fires shots at everything nerd culture holds dear, from Marvel movies to Game of Thrones. Phoenix will eventually have to create a day to honor Newton. Until it does, let's have a laugh.

One thing that remains imperative to comics, no matter where they're from or what style of comedy they perform, is the overall feel of the room. Many things play a role in what makes a room especially conducive to a great performance, like size, acoustics, and seating layout. Stand Up Live, at CityScape in downtown Phoenix, is one of those special rooms; you can deduce this from the high-profile comedians who are booked there year-round. The stage is perfectly set like a U-shaped tongue sticking out into the crowd, just far enough to feel personal while never seeming crowded or cramped. Whether the room is sold out for a comedy A-lister or the front section is filled with local comedy connoisseurs on a Thursday evening to see what antics will ensue in This Week Sucks Tonight, the energy at Stand Up Live is always ripe for laughter.

Benjamin Leatherman

Repent! is a devilishly irreverent comedy show hosted by local comedian Michael Paul Kohn, who plays a fictitious crackpot evangelist called Pastor Mike. With the help of his gospel-belting co-host, First Lady Right Twix (Iesha Renée), he guides the audience through a hilarious and blasphemous sermon that is not easily forgotten. The show is equal parts stand-up, sketch, and improvisation, and has featured some of Phoenix's best comedians. Repent! is an example of what great comedy should be: controlled chaos. It is a multifaceted performance during which comics have their time on stage to earn laughs with a prepared set, and are afterward subject to anything the erratic hosts throw at them — usually a gut-busting dive into the comics' social media pages, exposing some of their more embarrassing moments. Intermittent sketches featuring characters dreamed up and performed by local comedians round off the show's havoc, thus making it one of the most unusual comedy shows in Phoenix.

There's no i in team (unless your team name is "I, Robotnik"). If you want to win gold and glory at a trivia night, you'll need a team. And there are few better excuses for getting a group of trivia fiends together than Boulders on Broadway's trivia events. Every Tuesday and Saturday night, Boulders on Broadway hosts a contest (with first-, second-, and third-place teams winning gift certificates to BOB). What makes the trivia nights at Boulders so good is the pacing. Each round has only a handful of questions, making the trivia action fast-paced. And the difficulty level of the questions scales pretty well: There are plenty of easy questions to build up team scores and make folks feel like geniuses before the brainbusters start coming at you. The fact that Boulders also has a pretty outstanding assortment of beers on tap, and excellent pizza and wings, is an added bonus.

We love Nearly Naked Theatre, and not just because artistic director and founder Damon Dering always gets at least one cast member to take off all their clothes. Founded 20 years ago, this longstanding avant-garde troupe has brought us everything from Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy to Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show to not one, but two productions of Peter Shaffer's Equus. If the Naked folks don't hit it out of the park with every production, they do always deliver something unique and original. And if they've lately been hard to find (their website hasn't been updated in a couple of years, and it's rumored that they've left their former home at Phoenix Theatre), it's always worth it once you find them.

Stray Cat's production of Jack Thorne's dark drama belonged almost entirely to Veronica Mars actor Duane Daniels. As a creepy fellow who hides behind trees and slits the throats of college kids, he created a canny set of scenes that helped elevate an otherwise ordinary story. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by John Lindqvist, and on the author's screenplay for a 2008 Swedish film adaptation, Let the Right One In sold like crazy to fans of vampire fiction and those who like their romance to include a certain amount of gore. The blood in Stray Cat's production, nicely directed by the company's artistic director, Ron May, was neatly contained, though — fortunately — Daniels' performance was not. He played a shifty slob who skulked about a cold, lonely set, the whites of his eyes illuminating shadows and suggesting evil with just the set of his shoulders and the grumble of his voice. Bravo.


Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End isn't so much a play as a collection of zippy one-liners lifted directly from the writing of the popular newspaper columnist and bestselling humorist, who died in 1996. And Arizona Theatre Company's production couldn't do much to save this stale honorarium by playwright sisters Allison and Margaret Engel. They hadn't bothered to write much of a story, instead creating a timeline they borrowed wholesale from Bombeck's many essays about motherhood, housewifery, and the place of women in contemporary culture. Bombeck herself is lost in the Engels' bid for laughs aimed at her wry assessment that motherhood was hard, and the world was a wearying place to live in. If there was anything to recommend this tired tale, it was Jeanne Paulsen's neat performance as Bombeck. Affable and demure, Paulsen did what she could with this recitation of Bombeck's aging punchlines. Rather than impersonate the columnist, she channeled instead her quiet anger, folding it (as Bombeck had done) in humor and a friendly shrug. Hurrah to Paulsen, then, for making the most of a mostly bad thing.

After Phoenix choreographer and dancer Liliana Gomez learned about the BlakTina Dance Festival launched in Los Angeles back in 2013, she partnered with founder Licia Perea to create a BlakTina Dance Festival here in Phoenix, eager to highlight the contributions of black and Latinx creatives on the local arts scene. Now called the BlakTinx Dance Festival, the event brings together diverse movement artists and audiences for contemporary dance works that explore shared humanity, human emotion, and sociocultural issues related to women's rights, the immigrant experience, systemic racism, and more. The festival incorporates poetry, film, and other creative expression, breaking down walls between art forms as it punctuates the power of movement to effect change.

Technology gets used way too often by performance artists who think it makes their work more relevant or accessible. Take note, choreographers. Audiences are way past wanting to ruminate on the ways digital technology is challenging human connections. Instead, they want to see more works like Drone, a contemporary dance piece performed by NobleMotion Dance of Texas during the 2019 Breaking Ground Contemporary Dance and Film Festival at Tempe Center for the Arts. Its embrace of drone technology was authentic and effective. By giving a drone that hovered over dancers humanlike properties, choreographers democratized humans and machines, prompting audience members to consider whether machines might be capable of artistry in their own right. Scary thought? Yes, scary good.

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