INDY Week 12.22.2021

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Raleigh | Durham | Chapel Hill December 22, 2021

Pierce Freelon on leaving the city council, his Grammy nomination, and the people who have guided his path BY JEREMY CARBALLO PINEDA, P. 9

Life Shifting

Raleigh W Durham W Chapel Hill

Kalkidan Miller, a teenager who was attacked by a man at a Black Lives Matter vigil, and 20 other impactful stories of 2021, p. 15

VOL. 38 NO. 49



NEWS 5 7

Tenants of a Durham apartment complex are fighting back after being told to leave their homes just in time for the holidays. BY THOMASI MCDONALD Raleigh's city council is considering implementing changes to elections and council terms, but reisdents are skeptical of the proposals. BY JASMINE GALLUP


Pierce Freelon reflects on his Grammy nomination, his work on Durham's city council, and the people and experiences that have shaped his life. BY JEREMY CARBALLO PINEDA


Take a look back at our 21 most impactful stories of 2021. BY SARAH EDWARDS AND JANE PORTER


For the next two weeks, consider giving to these local nonprofits doing crucial work across the Triangle.


16 20 Triangle albums that made a long year better. BY INDY WEEK STAFF AND CONTRIBUTORS

19 Lemon Sparks' sophomore effort is power pop with dark edges. BY EDDIE HUFFMAN

20 Theater came back swinging in the last half of 2021: Here are the year's best shows, with nods to those we lost. BY BYRON WOODS 21 Dance film meets comedy in the latest chapter of Anna Barker's unfinished autobiography. BY BRIAN HOWE 22 Mahershala Ali's star power is in overdrive in Swan Song. BY LEIGH TAUSS

3 Op-ed


4 Editor's Letter + Drawn Out 24 Culture Calendar

COVER Photo by Brett Villena / Design by Jon Fuller


MaryAnn Kearns Durham/Orange/ Chatham Counties

John Hurld EDITOR I AL Editor in Chief Jane Porter Managing Editor Geoff West


Arts & Culture Editor Sarah Edwards

Theater+Dance Critic Byron Woods



Creative Director

Senior Writer Leigh Tauss

Contributors Will Atkinson, Madeline Crone, Grant Golden, Spencer Griffith, Lucas Hubbard, Layla Khoury-Hanold, Brian Howe, Lewis Kendall, Kyesha Jennings, Glenn McDonald, Anna Mudd, Dan Ruccia, Rachel SImon

Annie Maynard

Wake County MaryAnn Kearns

Staff Writers Jasmine Gallup Thomasi McDonald Editorial Assistant Lena Geller Copy Editor Iza Wojciechowska

December 22, 2021

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Jon Fuller Staff Photographer

Brett Villena

Durham/Orange/ Chatham Counties John Hurld Sales Digital Director & Classifieds Mathias Marchington

C I RC U L ATI O N Berry Media Group

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Last week, Lena Geller wrote about Raleigh chef Scott Crawford’s new restaurant in Clayton, just a hop across county lines in Johnston County. Our readers on Facebook had thoughts about Crawford, Cookshop, Clayton, and, wouldn’t you know it, Chick-fil-A, which Clayton has been trying to recruit for years. We’d argue that Crawford did them one better. Here’s what some had to say about the Clayton culinary scene.

“Excited to be dining at the Cookshop tonight for the first time,” wrote Facebook commenter JIM NAPIER. “Nice to have another fine restaurant within walking distance. Hopefully Clayton will get the Chick-fil-A one day, if for no other reason people will quit talking about how bad they want one!” “This is much better than a chick fil a,” wrote commenter CLAIRE REID. “That stuff ’ll kill ya.” “Just left [Cookshop] and the food was outstanding,” wrote commenter ALICIA RENEE WALLACE. “Amazing addition to Clayton.” “Clayton is a great town and thanks Scott Crawford for bringing your passion and culinary skills,” wrote commenter BILL CLAYTON. For the web this week, Sarah Edwards wrote about Saint James in Durham reopening following the gas explosion in Brightleaf Square in 2018, and then, of course, having to reopen again in the wake of the pandemic. Readers are glad for it. “So excited for reopening!” wrote Facebook commenter CHARLENE MONTOYA. “Last dinner there was at the beginning of COVID (3/14/2020) for my husband’s birthday. Wonderful food. Can’t wait to go back!” “HURRAH!!! Really loved this place and so glad to see it will be coming back,” wrote commenter RENEE STRNAD. Finally, again for the web, Sarah wrote about Giorgios Bakatsias opening two new restaurants in Raleigh’s North Hills, bringing his total number of operations to 14. “This guy is a restaurant machine!” wrote BLAKE TEDDER on Twitter. “And most of them are great.” Get boosted, folks, and show some love to your favorite reopening restaurants—and the newcomers, too—in 2022.


OP - E D

Repairing the World We must stand in solidarity with our Jewish neighbors to fight rising anti-Semitism. BY NIDA ALLAM


his year, the FBI reported two startling figures: first, that there has been an increase in hate crimes, and second, that crimes targeting Jewish people comprised almost 55 percent of all religious-bias incidents. Incidents like the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue and the Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville have shown that Jewish people are less safe in this country than they have been in decades. We cannot sit by while our Jewish neighbors are under attack; we must stand in solidarity with them and unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its forms. As a Muslim woman, I know the dangers of religious discrimination and how bigoted language can lead to acts of violence. In 2015, three of my dear friends were shot to death in their home by their neighbor, who hated them and harassed them because they were Muslim. Their killer had previously threatened them, but because North Carolina does not have strong hate crime protections, no action was taken to protect them, and their lives ended much too soon. The Muslim community in the Triangle was left reeling after this act of violence, which we never thought could happen in our progressive, immigrant-friendly community. The deaths of my friends were a devastating reminder that we cannot allow any act of religious discrimination to go unacknowledged or unchecked. This will require learning and accountability from everyone—myself included. In the past, I regrettably and unintentionally invoked anti-Semitic tropes in a tweet attempting to call attention to the United States’ withdrawal of humanitarian aid from the Palestinian people. In another instance, I attended and livestreamed a protest at which destructive and anti-Semitic language, which I do not condone, was used by some of the protesters present. For my

tweet and lack of sensitivity to what was captured and then posted in my personal livestream of that protest, I deeply apologize. I stand by the urgent need to end Israel’s illegal, violent occupation of the Palestinian people. But the movement to end the occupation, secure a lasting and peaceful resolution with Israel, and defend the human rights of everyone living in the region is a movement for justice and peace, in which anti-Semitism must have no home. I am grateful to my neighbors in the Jewish community, who have engaged in a loving process of accountability to educate me on the harm my words have caused. I am committed to not only doing better myself but also holding those around me accountable. Resources like Carolina Jews for Justice’s powerful anti-Semitism listening project helped me better understand the prevalence of anti-Semitism in our community as well as its historical roots. I also encourage others to educate themselves, especially as we lose access to the last generation of Holocaust survivors, their stories, and their memories. As an immigrant, an elected official, and a member of our community, I want to build a world in which every person—regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed—can not only survive but thrive. The Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, offers a model for how we can work toward true equity for all peoples. We can have a community where everyone feels safe, welcomed, and respected, but only if we commit to building it together. W

“We can have a community where everyone feels safe, welcomed, and respected, but only if we commit to building it together.”

The writer is a Durham County commissioner and candidate for U.S. Congress.

December 22, 2021


EDITOR’S LETTER Dear Reader, I’ve been thinking a lot in the past year about what a modern-day manifestation of fascism in the United States might look like, and I’ve decided that while I can’t give you a solid definition, I can give you examples. It’s like that other thing—you know it when you see it—and in this past year (in the past five years, really), we’ve seen fascism take shape here as much as I’ve personally been thinking about how I would define an interpretation of fascism in our 21st-century society. That is to say, we’ve been seeing what amounts to fascism a lot. The year 2021 started with an attempted coup d’etat in Washington D.C., where disgruntled Trump supporters ran amok in the nation’s Capitol building, attempting to halt congressional vote counting to affirm Joe Biden as the country’s 46th president. Democracy held that day, but, as we’re learning, it held by a thread so tenuous that there’s precious little to stop it from snapping the next time a Trumpster, or Trump himself, wants to steal an election. We may have Mark Meadows’s cretinous number this time around, but what’s to prohibit someone less bumbling from successfully toppling this American experiment to the ground? To say democracy is teetering is to take the optimistic view; in some ways, it’s already crumbling. This year, Texas enacted an abortion law so extreme that scholars have noted its deep roots in what we would traditionally recognize as fascist states, Nazi Germany and Italy under Mussolini. The U.S. Supreme Court—a 6-3 conservative majority even though two Republican presidents who appointed five of these conservative justices lost the popular vote—refused to block the law. The court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade next summer. And, locally, Wake County Public Libraries just took the drastic step of banning a graphic novel aimed at teens that explores LGBTQ relationships. It’s been a year devoted to the supression of free academic thought in some circles, and I don’t think I need to remind anyone of who bans—or burns—books that espouse ideas they don’t agree with. The year ahead, right now, looks grim. The third wave of the pandemic threatens, misinformation rages like wildfire, wildfire rages like wildfire as the planet warms, and democracy is at a precipice. It’s hard to find something positive to say. My wish for the new year is that Congress, if it can muster the political will to do nothing else, will pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Though it won’t fix gerrymandering in the states and Congress, the bill at least will protect voters from unjust, racist, and undemocratic attacks on their rights. Despite recent setbacks, I still have high hopes for passing the Build Back Better bill, and, less realistically (or more idealistically), for abolishing the filibuster and expanding the U.S. Supreme Court. But I won’t get carried away. I’ll end by saying, in a time when conspiracy theories and misinformation are rampant and when elected officials are less accountable than they’ve probably ever been in recent history, the Fourth Estate—journalism you can trust and rely on, especially at the local level—is critical to upholding something that resembles a democratic society. Your support of our work through our Press Club is invaluable, and I sincerely thank all of you for your contributions. I expect some changes to the INDY in the new year, which I’ll plan to share with you as soon as I can. In the meantime, thank you for reading. I hope, despite it all, you’ll all have a safe, happy, and prosperous 2022. Sincerely,

Jane Porter

December 22, 2021



Help save local journalism.






Put Out Tenants of Durham’s Braswell Apartments are fighting back after learning they’ll need to vacate their homes just in time for the holidays. BY THOMASI MCDONALD


t’s never a good time to lose your home. But being put outdoors during the Christmas holiday season has to be the worst. Scott Cogwell, 52, has lived at one of the apartments at Braswell Properties in Durham for 18 years. He’s lived his entire life in the Walltown neighborhood where the Braswell apartments are located. For Cogwell, there is no holiday spirit this Christmas season after a realtor with a growing reputation for renovating and flipping declining properties is forcing him out of his home. “I refuse to be kicked out of my neighborhood where I was born and raised,” Cogwell said this week. “And it hurts to know ain’t nobody got no compassion or heart. It’s like evil spirits done took over the world and nobody cares nothing about anything but that dollar.” Cogwell made his pointed albeit roughhewn remarks while standing in the rear of the apartments along with his fellow tenants and supporters on a late, overcast Monday afternoon, as the day’s chilly temperatures nosedived below 30 degrees. Nearly 75 people stood on muddy, gray gravel and brown leaf-covered ground behind the nondescript, low-slung, redbrick apartments including fair housing advocates and clergy members who arrived to support the tenants. Late last month, the tenants abruptly learned that they will have to move by New Year’s Eve from the place some have called home for decades. The tenants, with the help of Bull City Tenants United, a local group of renters who want to build tenant power and put an end to evictions, wrote up six demands that they are requesting their landlord respond to by Thursday.

Among the demands: they want all moving costs paid by their former landlord, Vinson Braswell, who recently sold the apartments to Reformation Asset Management (RAM), a local investor-focused realty company. The tenants also want RAM to give them enough time to move to homes that are affordable. Many of the residents are on fixed incomes and are sick or disabled. They also want the former owner to reimburse them for repairs they made to their apartments. Additionally, the tenants want the city to monitor the repairs to ensure the dwellings are safe. On November 29, the Braswell tenants received a terse one-page letter from Marina Cashion, RAM’s director of property management, who told the tenants that their leases would not be renewed and they all had 30 days to vacate the premises. In addition to being told that their security deposits could not be used to pay their final month’s rent, Cashion told the tenants that the letter was a legal document and that failure to comply with the vacate notice could result in legal proceedings so that RAM could regain possession of the property, along with the tenants being potentially liable for attorney costs and court fees. “Eviction papers will be filed at the courthouse the first day of the following month after your deadline to vacate if the property has not been vacated,” Cashion stated in the post-Thanksgiving letter. RAM president Charles Bulthuis told the INDY this week that the building went under contract in October. The buildings are now owned by two unidentified Triangle residents. Bulthuis said it was October when Vinson

Braswell Properties in Durham


Braswell visited the property and told the tenants they would not have to pay November or December rents because he had sold the buildings. Bulthuis said his company has helped about 300 families with Section 8 vouchers over the past four years find affordable housing because of their focus on fixing up run down properties for working class families. Bulthuis said he sent a representative out to the apartments to gather email and phone numbers in order to help them locate affordable housing. “No one contacted us,” he said. “We sent multiple staff out to the property multiple times during and after business hours.” Instead, he said the tenants decided to dramatize what was going on through the media. In recent days, RAM was contacted by officials with Durham’s Housing for New Hope, which has offered to help the Braswell tenants find new homes and pay their deposits and first month’s rent. Bulthuis said on Tuesday that he still has not heard from the tenants. On Monday, the tenants, in addition to making public their demands, pleaded one by one with their new landlord for compassion and time to find new places to stay. They begged the city to intervene and put a stop to this hard-hearted move during one of the coldest times of the year. “It takes at least two to three months to find something,” said Janice Sanchez, who moved into her apartment less than three months ago. “And then we got to

think of the money. I mean, you got heart patients, you got diabetics. You got a lot of health issues going on over here. I’m a heart patient. I had triple bypass heart surgery. And this is a lot of stress. We ain’t being ugly or nothing. We ain’t trying to make nobody look bad, but we are trying to expose what needs to be exposed.” The tenants’ words evoked a familiar scenario in the city’s housing and eviction crisis that began long before the pandemic. “It ain’t just happening here. It’s happening in a lot of places and people are just scared to speak out because they’re scared they’re going to be put out,” Sanchez added. Short of the gun violence that’s cutting down the Bull City’s children in the springtime of their lives, who gets to live in Durham is the city’s most pressing existential threat. As the INDY previously reported, the forces of gentrification—exacerbated by a housing shortage along with the arrival of more affluent newcomers who are buying properties in historically Black communities near downtown—may be even more insidious than the broken promises of urban renewal programs that displaced thousands of Black homeowners and hundreds of Black-owned businesses more than half a century ago. The prospect of being forced out of their homes has been traumatizing for the tenants. Eighty-two year-old Lothania Roberts is the primary caretaker for her adult son who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. “One day he told me, ‘Momma, let’s go,’”

December 22, 2021


Lothania Roberts, Braswell Properties resident she said. “‘Let’s just go with the clothes on our back. Don’t we have to go?’” Eighteen-year-old Durham School of the Arts student Brenda Martinez could only get the word, “since” out of her mouth before she broke down in tears and couldn’t continue. “It’s been very difficult time for our grandmother who is trying to find a place to stay for us to go to the same school,” said the teen’s brother, Hector Martinez, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who attends a Montessori School in Walltown with his kid brother, Jireh, a fifth-grader who has lived at the Braswell apartments since he was one month old. “She’s having a hard time finding an apartment where the bus goes by. We always have food in our house, TV, WiFi; everything we need for school. But the landlord treats us different, like we’re not human. It’s not fair.” The treatment of the tenants, they say, is in line with how the landlord has treated the property itself over the years. Caretaking is minimal and the threat of violence ever-present, tenants said. Cogwell, the longtimer, talked about killing rats in his apartment by trapping them in a cage and shooting the animals with a pellet gun. Donna Dumas, 47, who has lived at her apartment since she was born, and now lives with her 80-year-old mother and two sons, told of enduring multiple break-ins. Tenants described homes with dirt floors, unheated units where electric sockets explode, and small children having to sleep between their parents at night to keep warm. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pastor of Walltown’s St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church that’s located just around the cor6

December 22, 2021


ner from the substandard apartments, reminded the tenants and their supporters of the Christmas season’s central story about a couple, and a wife pregnant with child, who could find no room at the inn. “God was with that family, so we know who God is with now,” Wilson-Hartgrove said, reminding the tenants that in the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth, there was no room at the inn even if Mary and Joseph had money to pay. “But you have already paid, and you’ve been paying for a long time,” he told the tenants. “And the person that took your money was stealing from you.” Wilson-Hartgrove added that instead of keeping up with repairs, Braswell, the property’s original owner, looked at the price of land increasing tenfold in Walltown before deciding to sell and make a lot of money. “What’s happening with these tenants is happening to people all around Durham,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. There’s a tumbledown sign reading “Braswell Properties” in front of the run-down apartments along Buchanan Boulevard; the property is divided by Englewood Street. “Rats live on one side, possums on the other,” Luz Romero, a 23-year-old married mother of two small children told the INDY. “You can hear them at night in the walls,” Romero said about the possum infestation in her home. “Three times they come into my bedroom. They don’t eat anything. All they do is knock things down and rip stuff open. And you can hear them going, ‘hiss hiss click.’” Romero’s neighbor, Alejandro Estala, said her husband has had to make repairs in every room of their apartment. “We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Estala said. W



A Split Ticket Raleigh’s city council is considering changes to its elections and elected officials’ terms. Residents, already wary of the council postponing the 2021 municipal elections to next year, have mixed feelings about some of the new proposals. BY JASMINE GALLUP


ix months ago, behind closed doors, the Raleigh City Council voted to postpone the November election to 2022, effectively giving current members an extra year in office. That alone was enough to prompt outrage from the public. But what happened next seems to have permanently damaged the trust many Raleigh residents have in their government. In that same session, council members secretly voted to make the change permanent, moving the election from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years to coincide with federal elections. In the long run, that change may be beneficial—it’s expected to increase voter turnout by up to 370 percent. But the way the decision was made drew mass criticism from Raleigh residents, voter advocacy organizations, and even Governor Roy Cooper. Now, the city council is considering even more changes to local elections, including extending the terms of council members from two to four years. “The well has been poisoned just a little bit with what happened,” says Caroline Fry, interim advocacy director at Democracy NC. “There’s a lot of distrust out there right now.” Fry says she hopes the decisions the Raleigh City Council is making are driven by the people they represent. “It’s really important to figure out why the changes are necessary,” she says. “Is this a direct result of things they’re hearing from their constituents? Where is this coming from?” The proposed changes come from 10 people appointed last year by Raleigh officials to study how best to modernize city elec-

tions. The formation of the study group was prompted by a citizen petition. The group, which includes local community activists and veterans of city boards and commissions, also was tasked with reexamining the salaries of the mayor and council members. They came up with six unanimous recommendations that, if enacted, would change how elections are held, how much the mayor and city council members are paid, and how many members sit on the city council. One of the recommendations— that elections be moved to even-numbered years—has already become law. The group also recommended that the city • extend the terms of council members from two to four years; • hold staggered elections in which district council members would face reelection one year and the mayor and at-large council members would face reelection the next year; • increase the size of the city council from eight to nine by adding one district seat; • increase the mayor’s pay by 49 percent— from $24,550 to $36,511—and the pay of each council member by 66 percent— from $18,021 to $29,848; and • create a program to educate voters and encourage them to vote. According to one online poll, which had garnered a little more than 1,000 responses by mid-December, most people favor increasing the salaries of the Raleigh mayor and council members. The same poll, which was conducted by the city, showed that more than 65 percent of people favor increasing the city council’s size to nine members by adding either a district or an at-large seat.

Raleigh City Council PHOTO COURTESY OF CITY OF RALEIGH On the other hand, poll participants were overwhelmingly opposed to extending terms from two to four years. About 59 percent of people also disagreed with staggering the elections of council members. Gerry Cohen, an adjunct instructor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, cautions against giving the poll too much weight, however. Per the numbers, only about 0.2 percent of Raleigh residents participated. “I wouldn’t assume who is for and who is against anything,” says Cohen, citing the 1972 referendum that created the current rules for Raleigh elections. Back then, he says, “The News & Observer editorialized against [the referendum] and the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association organized against it. From what I’ve researched, everyone was against it except the voters, who overwhelmingly passed [it] … by a 60-to-40 margin.” Most voters would welcome a chance to decide on these issues themselves, but they may not get the chance. Although the city council has sought some public input using the online poll and holding several “listening sessions” in the community, council members have the power to enact election changes themselves through a simple vote. To get election changes in front of voters, Raleigh residents would have to peti-

tion for a referendum. The petition would need about 54,000 signatures—or that of 10 percent of voters who turned out in the previous municipal elections. Ziya Gizlice, like many poll participants, was critical of the way Raleigh officials are considering election changes. “This whole process, to me, is full of conflict of interests,” Gizlice wrote in the comments section of the poll. “Extending your own terms, appointing a committee to recommend to you what you want.”

The pros and cons: moving elections to even-numbered years When it comes to the election changes themselves, there are arguments for and against every proposal. Many elected bodies, including the Wake County school board and Winston-Salem City Council, have moved their elections to even-numbered years in an effort to increase turnout and have been very successful, says Cohen. In the Wake County school board’s last odd-numbered election cycle, only 125,000 votes were cast. In the first even-numbered election, that number increased fourfold to 500,000, says Cohen. Although there was some roll-off, in which people who voted

December 22, 2021


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“This whole process, to me, is full of coflict of interests. Extending your own terms, appointing a committee to recommend to you what you want.” for president left the bottom of their ballot blank, it wasn’t significant overall. “From the top to the bottom of the ballot, [the number of voters] dropped from 700,000 to 500,000,” says Cohen. “But you have to compare that with the 125,000 who voted in the 2013 cycle. There was some fatigue, but you still have four times as many people voting. “When [people] say [voters] wouldn’t be interested in November, well, there’s no facts to bear that out at all.” Another criticism of moving elections is that there will be an influx of uninformed voters. In speaking to other voter advocates, Fry found some were worried about presidential campaigns drowning out local races, she says. “We don’t want the big federal races to overshadow the local races,” she says. “In odd years, there’s oxygen for local races the way that there’s not in presidential election years, when you turn on the TV and it’s just nonstop [campaigning].” In an effort to keep voters informed, the study group recommended creating a voter education and engagement program. The city could email voters about important election dates, create and give out a voter guide with information about candidates, and campaign to encourage people to register to vote.

Extending term limits to four years

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December 22, 2021

Of North Carolina’s 552 city and town councils, 393 use four-year terms—about 71 percent of the state’s municipal governments. That pattern continues in cities with more than 25,000 people, like Raleigh. Of those 34 city councils, 25 use four-year terms. Members of Raleigh’s study group recommended the capital city follow suit, arguing that two-year terms are too short for effective governing. Since local policy changes and development projects are often yearslong endeavors, some say two-year term limits disrupt the continuity of such initiatives. Additionally, if council members are under constant pressure to campaign and fundraise, they may be more open to influence by lobbyists. On the other hand, shorter term limits could keep council members more accountable and curb the influence of money in

politics by guaranteeing officials will face reelection every two years. “If NC legislators can all stand for election every two years and U.S. congress members can all stand for election every two years, so can Raleigh’s mayor and council,” wrote one poll participant, Timothy Niles. “Expanding the terms to 4 years is a simple attempt to give people time to forget about poor decisions before a councilor comes up for election and accountability.” Almost all cities that use four-year terms also have staggered elections, wherein some city council members face reelection one year and others face reelection the following year. Theoretically, holding staggered elections would prevent an entire city council from being ousted at once, allowing the remaining members of the board to continue long-term initiatives. “The argument for staggered terms is that you shouldn’t have to risk a turnover of all the board members at once,” Cohen says. “The other thought is that if the voters want to make a wholesale change, why stop them from doing that?”

Increasing pay for the city council Although sitting on the city council is technically a part-time job, demands put on members often exceed 20 or 30 hours per week. Members of the study group suggested pay raises to more closely match the pay given to mayors and council members in cities of a similar size. They also hope that by raising pay the barriers for lower-income candidates will be reduced. About 57 percent of people who responded to Raleigh’s online poll agreed the mayor and city council members should receive the suggested raises. Some Raleigh residents, however, took a different stance. “If they’re willing to spend money and listen to the study group about giving raises, then they should be spending more money on education, on things for kids like hospital care treatment,” said Carmen Rodriguez, who showed up at a listening session this month to take notes for the Hispanic community. “A lot of Hispanic parents work a lot of hours,” her 15-year-old son Uriel added. “[They should look at] after-school care for kids, just to help parents that work overtime.” W


Durham Pierce Freelon PHOTO BY BRETT VILLENA

“I knew it was my dad,” Freelon continues confidently and contemplatively, “because it was a mixture of tears of joy and gratitude.” Freelon says he couldn’t form words for 20 minutes after the announcement. His mom’s nominated album was a love letter to her late husband and Freelon’s dad, Phil Freelon, who died of ALS in 2019. “I would be able to walk her down that red carpet and she wouldn’t be alone in celebrating this victory,” Freelon says.


Life Shifting As a Grammy-nominated musician and former elected official, Durham’s Pierce Freelon is walking in the footsteps of his ancestors. BY JEREMY CARBALLO PINEDA


n a night in late November, when every breath returned as fog, Pierce Freelon’s frame—locs nested under a black beanie and face covered by a geometric-patterned mask—appears in my view at the top of the steps at Dashi. It’s his first time visiting the downtown ramen shop and izakaya since the COVID19 pandemic started. We had only ever spoken before over Zoom and I recognize Freelon’s distinct voice, scratchy, with the cadence of a caring older brother who’s as smooth as Snoop Dogg but probably isn’t about to roll one up. Sitting down at the bar, we order a tokkuri of cold sake.

“Here’s what I learned about sake—you’re not supposed to refill your own cup,” says Freelon after our first sip out of matching tan ochokos. “So, if you see this getting low, it’s your job to fill it up,” he says, holding his ochoko out. The previous week, both Freelon, 37, and his mother, Nnenna Freelon, received Grammy nominations, he for his children’s album Black to the Future and his mother for her new album Time Traveler in the category of Best Jazz Vocal Album. “When my mom got nominated, I started speaking in tongues,” says Freelon, acting out the scene, “like I was literally possessed by a genie or spirit.”

reelon was born and raised in Durham and nurtured in a star-studded family. Nnenna Freelon is a six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and his father, Philip Freelon, was monumental in the world of architecture, where he’s best known for leading the design of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon has been writing music since high school, when his lyrics reflected concerns of the time like relationships and breakups. As a kid, he says, he had imaginary friends and created plays for his family. Though naturally inclined toward the life of an artist, which isn’t always easy, Freelon has had a pretty good life, from all accounts. I ask him if there were any tough life events that spurred paradigm shifts. He counters that trauma is an interesting way of framing shifts. “I can’t think of anything traumatic that was life-shifting for me, but I can think of several things that were life-shifting,” Freelon says. “The pivot wasn’t around a bad thing.” One of these shifts was his first comedy improv show at the Durham School of the Arts, where he went to school. “I was like, wait a minute, you mean we sit on stage and people give us ideas and we make up a show on the spot?” he says. “Like, that’s crazy. Yeah. That was life-shifting.” But it’s the lessons he learned during his upbringing that led him to choose to apply his natural abilities toward his community instead of pursuing a more lucrative career. “My mom and dad were easily the biggest influences and most direct moral guides in life,” says Freelon. His father imparted two major principles on him. First, he made him question who deserves to have access to beauty. “His answer to that question is everybody,” Freelon says. Second, the senior Freelon encouraged his son to find his passion and natural ability and give it back to the world. “You may not have seen my dad on the front line marching,” says Freelon. “But he was intentional about

December 22, 2021


leveraging his gifts and his talents in the direction of projects that helped shape the type of world he wanted to see.” Phil Freelon would routinely turn down contracts for projects that went against his moral values, including casinos or prisons, Freelon says. Instead, he used his abilities to give aesthetic value to regular folks, in schools, libraries, and community centers. “He made those buildings as beautiful as he made museums,” Freelon says.


o stranger to acclaim, Freelon graduated with distinction and highest honors from UNC–Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in African American studies. Since 2007, he’s been a visiting lecturer of political science and music at Syracuse University, North Carolina Central University, and UNC–Chapel Hill. In 2010, Freelon became the youngest person appointed by the governor, then Governor Bev Perdue, to serve on the North Carolina Arts Council. Five years later, Freelon won a Daytime Emmy for the PBS web series that he cofounded, Beat Making Lab. The animated musical series The History of White People which Freelon helped write, compose, and codirect was an Official Selection of the 2018 and 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. And all throughout this time, Freelon composed and released music inspired by his children, ancestors, and heritage, including his 2020 debut album D.a.D., inspired by his journey through fatherhood. In 2014, after teaching song writing and beat making for several years in Africa and the Caribbean, Freelon says his ancestors spoke to him. Moved by a mantra from his grandmother Queen Mother Frances Pierce to bloom where you are planted, Freelon came back to North Carolina. He opened Blackspace, a center offering “Black and Brown youth a breathing space to manifest their dreams,” according to its website, in its first location on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. At Blackspace, teens can learn poetry, coding, 3-D printing, animation, beat making, rap, photography, and DJing—all for free. Soon after, Blackspace, a “safe cosmic space for Black youth,” as Freelon likes to call it, opened a second location in downtown Durham at American Underground. Blackspace’s second opening created another opportunity for Black youth to “explore the digital arts and the Black beyond, like Afrofuturism and the Black cosmic consciousness,” Freelon says. In 2016, Joshua Rowsey, who goes by 10

December 22, 2021

“I was like, wait a minute, you mean we can sit on stage and people give us ideas and we make up a show on the spot? Like, that’s crazy. Yeah. That was life-shifting.” the artist name (J) Rowdy, knew Freelon as “the cool professor at UNC.” They were both in the world of music and eventually ran into each other. Freelon asked Rowsey if he could volunteer at Blackspace and run a workshop for kids once a week. Rowsey accepted. In the beginning, Rowsey says he would work in Blackspace just about every day. He says he noticed that his skills were developing in a similar fashion as Freelon’s. “I saw the love for the work that we were doing,” says Rowsey, “so I think it just became natural to get guidance and understanding on how I could develop as an artist and person.” Rowsey now teaches a course at UNC– Chapel Hill, directs the hip-hop program at Blackspace, and hosts the PBS show Classroom Connection. “Pierce has turned himself into my big brother and my mentor,” Rowsey says. “I don’t think it was by accident.” He marvels at how Freelon is able to juggle so many different projects simultaneously. “He’s an emcee—that’s someone that leads,” says Rowsey. “That’s someone that utilizes their voice for their community. I do think he’s a time traveler—but I can’t prove it right now.”


is music gives voices to kids who do not have a voice,” says Katie

Stone. Stone is executive director and host of The Children’s Hour, a public radio show for kids that runs on 120 stations in five countries. Stone invited Freelon to be guest DJ and host for an episode this year called “Being a Leader.” Stone says she envisioned the episode to be about people who have dedicated their lives to being leaders in the community. At the time, Freelon was serving on Durham’s city council. In the episode, he teaches the children what he does in that role. Stone says she firmly believes that Freelon is building bridges across the children’s music world and redefining a genre

that used to be dominated by white people. She says she was especially frustrated that D.a.D did not receive a Grammy nomination in 2020 but says this year, the Grammys reflect an emerging genre in children’s music that she calls “refreshing.” “[Freelon] has been raised to be a leader and to elevate everyone around him in that process,” says Stone. “You can tell he’s deeply listening to you.” Stone adds that she was impressed by the respect that Freelon showed her young guests on The Children’s Hour—“so much so that they brought it up to me after the episode,” she says. “I haven’t gotten out for a picnic with him,” says Stone, “but I can’t wait for that day to happen.”


n September 2020, Freelon was appointed to serve as Durham’s councilman for Ward 3, the first public office he has held. For his confirmation ceremony, as he was sworn in by his wife, Katye, Freelon dressed in a magnificent, two-toned, silver agbada, or a wide-sleeved, flowing robe worn by men in West Africa. Freelon says he has been immersed in western culture for his whole life but is clear he has not allowed his upbringing to subsume his ancestors’ culture. While Freelon is clearly driven to serve, I ask why he would take on the position on the council, as time-consuming, low-paying, and often thankless a job holding public office can be. “I don’t do things for money,” Freelon says. He says he chose to serve because it was the right thing to do. “My work on the city council is fueled by love, frankly love of Black people, love of social justice and equity,” Freelon says. “Those are the reasons why I ran.” As a kid, his parents taught him that money would not make him happy. “I didn’t run because the salary was poppin’,” Freelon adds. But one of the major policy proposals Freelon spearheaded on council did have

to do with money. This fall, he led the charge to increase the salaries of council members by $10,000 annually. While the proposal passed six to one, it was controversial in some circles. “Our elected officials who want a $10,000 raise haven’t shown that our tax dollars deserve to get them that,” said Sheryl Smith, an activist who lives in Franklin Village, in an interview with a local media outlet. “My babies still sleep on the floor because of the gun violence that we hear.” But Freelon, who had already planned to step down from the council before the raises went into effect, said that while he empathized with those in the community who didn’t agree with the move, the new salaries would provide greater access to public office for working-class citizens rather than favoring wealthy people who could afford to serve. “If you’re a single mother and want to run for office, how can you possibly afford to do it?” he asks. Freelon says he understood the skepticism about the council’s decision. “My reaction to the community response is empathy,” he says.


s we finish our last sips of sake at Dashi, Freelon talks about his decision not to run for reelection to his Ward 3 seat. Mainly, he says, it’s because he had moved out of the district and therefore couldn’t run for the position even if he wanted to, though he decided against running for another seat on the council instead. Freelon wrapped up his tenure on council earlier this month, with newly elected councilman Leonardo Williams stepping into his place. “I don’t feel the same sense of urgency that I did in 2017 when the median age of city council was like 65,” Freelon explains, “and when there wasn’t a young Black member in sight.” That same year, he ran in the Durham mayoral race against Steve Schewel, who ultimately won and served as mayor through this year, declining to run for reelection to a third term. For now, Freelon says, he will enjoy his time in retirement. He’s going to “spend time with family, and make art, and get back into Blackspace,” Freelon says. But he isn’t disappearing from politics, whether as an advocate or a future elected official once again. “I’m not ruling anything out. I’m keeping an open mind,” he says. “If the call to serve comes, like it did in 2017, I’ll consider running again.” W

Keith “Bubba” Lusk, housed at Durham's COVID motel


The INDY’s Most Impactful Stories of 2021 BY SARAH EDWARDS AND JANE PORTER


t’s been a long year—the longest, we wrote back in March in a story about Zoom fatigue, online learning, and COVID-related school closures—and here we are, emerging on the other side, not necessarily better off but, as many of our most impactful stories of the past year suggest, with at least some glimmers of hope for the future. From our breaking reporting from inside Durham’s COVID hotel to our exclusive feature on Pioneers Durham—and all the stories of feral cats, contaminated water, affordable housing, and the challenges facing the restaurant industry that have come in between—revisit 2021 with us through our most widely read, affecting, and important stories.


Inside Durham’s COVID Motel

In early January, Leigh Tauss got an exclusive look inside a Quality Inn on Hillsborough Road in Durham where the state's Department of Public Safety (DPS) held inmates recently released from prison who may have been exposed to COVID-19. But the former inmates say they were being held involuntarily and complained of poor conditions, bed bugs, rodents, leaky roofs, no access to laundry facilities, bad food, and other issues. They couldn't access health care, they said, and the risk of contracting and spreading disease was ever-present. While this was undoubtedly a scary time— pre-vaccine, when COVID cases were beginning to surge and hospitals were filling up— the COVID hotel, which the state closed

in May, was controversial and protesters demonstrated outside the hotel regularly, decrying conditions inside. Several ethical questions arise from such a setup, and our reporting brought deserved scrutiny to DPS and how it treated inmates who were, by all other accounts, entitled to go free.


After a Month of Public Comments, Orange County Sends Buc-ee’s Back to the Drawing Board

Last winter, Sara Pequeño followed plans for Bucc-ee’s, a Texas-based gas station chain, to build a massive gas station, restaurant, and convenience store hub in Efland in the northern part of Orange County. Pequeño followed the story for several months, from when the Buc-ee's

plans first came into view for Efland residents and when they went before county commissioners in a series of public hearings to when the county commissioners sent plans for the gas station back to the drawing board and when the Buc-ee's plans ultimately were scrapped in early February. The stakes for residents, who were facing “a 120–gas nozzle behemoth—one of the largest gas stations in the United States—built on top of a watershed that feeds directly into Seven Mile Creek, then the Eno River, then the local water supply,” couldn’t be overstated. This story shows the power residents can have in shaping what kind of a community will exist for them in the future.


Family Members of Inmates Who Died Allege Negligence at Johnston County Jail

In January, prison staff at Johnston County jail found Eric Cruz, a 23-year-old arrested on burglary charges, dead in his cell. Another inmate in the jail told the INDY he had heard Cruz, who had kidney disease, begging the jail staff for help in the days before he died. Thomasi McDonald reported that Cruz’s death was “the latest in a series of inmate deaths at the Johnston County jail over the past two years.” Two inmates died at the jail in 2019; another died of suicide in 2020; and a fourth man, Robert Perniciaro, was found hanging in his cell on January 6. Perniciaro later died at the hospital. Johnston County sheriff Steve Bizzell defended his staff, but the pattern is troubling. We hope to bring you an update on the situation at Johnston County jail next year.


Women Came to Hope Church Looking for Fellowship and Healing. Disrespectful Behavior from Church Leaders Drove Them to Leave.

In February, writer Katie Jane Fernelius put the spotlight on Hope Community Church, the fast-growing, multicampus megachurch where women had come for healing but were met with disrespectful behavior from church leaders instead. In her long, throughly reported piece, Fernelius details the accounts of three women who allege a range of transgressions spanning several years, from sexual assault and harassment by church staff to being ignored when they brought their concerns to church leadership. Pastor Mike Lee, who founded Hope Church in 1994 and led it for nearly three decades, left the church after our story was published. (Readers have told


us Lee retired.) Churches, by way of their spiritual influence and attraction for those who may be vulnerable, hold powerful positions in our communities, especially here in the South. That’s why churches and religious organizations should be held accountable for their roles, the work they do, and the positions they take.


White-Dominated Arts Institutions Are Keen to Diversify. But Are They Willing to Give Up Power?

In July 2020, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, a group called North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation released a petition calling on local visual arts institutions to develop and implement racial equity plans “with measurable goals in the areas of hiring, organizational culture, leadership, and organizational transparency.” It was specific, and it had a goal: six months to get the work going. Brian Howe, former arts and culture at the INDY, reported on the petitions (which took the form of local and statewide institutional asks) in 2020 and followed up in early 2021 to see what changes, if any, had been made. The result is a detailed, up-close piece with leaders at Ackland Art Museum at UNC–Chapel Hill, Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, VAE Raleigh, and the North Carolina Arts Council.


Scott Crawford's Journey to Sobriety Guides His Vision for a Healthier Industry

When a sprawling, multipart “as told to” interview with Scott Crawford was first on the table, we were hesitant—could an interview stand on its own at that length? It could. Crawford’s story about alcoholism, addiction, and the sharp edges of the restaurant industry is gripping. “I will never forget how much I enjoyed the feeling of that burn,” Crawford began the interview, speaking of his first drink at the age of 11. “It was warmth, confidence. It was all the things I was lacking in one sip.” Certainly no one would accuse Crawford, now sober and a five-time James Beard Award nominee, of lacking confidence. His journey to falling in love with the restaurant industry and becoming sober feels essential during a time when the hospitality industry, long known for being neither particularly supportive nor sustainable, is shifting its norms. “Restaurants are truly magical, amazing places,” Crawford concluded toward the end of the piece, “but the magic can’t exist if the culture is toxic.”

December 22, 2021



A Teenager Was Attacked at a Black Lives Matter Vigil. Now, She’s Working to Fix the State’s Hate Crime Law.

In her April story, Sara Pequeño wrote about Kalkidan Miller, a teenager who was attacked by a man at a Black Lives Matter vigil and is now working to change North Carolina's hate crimes law. Following the terrifying physical attack against her, Miller, who was 19 at the time, began working with lawmakers in the state house and senate to craft language for the state's Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill aims to change the definition of a hate crime, consider it a felony, and require reporting of hate crimes at the state level. North Carolina's current hate crimes statute, at two sentences long, is woefully inadequate. And while House Bill 354 didn't get a hearing this session, it's certain to be back in future sessions. Meanwhile, Miller, who was successful in adding ethnic intimidation to the charges against her attacker, is continuing her work as a speaker and advocate.


Asian American Business Owners in Durham Describe Fear amid National Rise in Hate and Violence

One of the most important aspects of the INDY's hyperlocal reporting is the way our writers can take national trends and contextualize them for our readers. This is what writer Hannah Miao did in her story about Asian American business owners in Durham during a time when discrimination, violence, and hate crimes against Asian Americans were spreading in the United States due, in part, to misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. In the weeks after a shooter in Atlanta targeting Asian American businesses killed six women, Miao spoke to Secrets Pho & Noodle Bar owner Kenny Wong and manager Henessee Asaro as well as ZenFish Poké Bar owner Janet Lee about the hardships they were facing. These hardships included attempted burglaries of their businesses as well as racist abuse and harassment leveled against them—all compounded by an unprecedentedly trying time for all those working in the food service industry nationally.


Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Experience with UNC is Emblematic of a Common Struggle for Black Women in Academia

One of the most maddening, politically volatile, and frankly depressing stories to emerge in the Triangle this year was the saga of UNC–Chapel Hill’s botched hiring of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist (and UNC alumna) Nikole Hannah-Jones. To quickly recap: UNC’s journalism school 12

December 22, 2021

Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse, formerly Mandolin Orange PHOTO BY BRETT VILLENA

and dean Susan King wanted to hire Hannah-Jones for a Knight Professorship in Race and Investigative Journalism but were stymied after megadonor Walter Hussman Jr.—the journalism school’s new namesake— raised objections. After agreeing to hire Hannah-Jones without tenure, the Board of Trustees then voted again to hire Hannah-Jones with full tenure, but by that time, Hannah-Jones had had enough and turned down the offer. In her story, Sara Pequeño chronicled similar experiences Black women professors have had with the university and how the dearth of Black women on the faculty has hampered the university’s ability to recruit faculty and students, educate students, and create a vibrant, inclusive campus culture.


To Survive, Many Triangle Arts Organizations Applied for Federal Aid. Are They Getting the Help They Need?

For nearly two decades, Byron Woods has been writing for the INDY Week and charting the world of Triangle theater—its ups and downs, its three- and five-star productions. During COVID-19, that attention has been trained entirely on the pulse of the local theater ecosystem: How would local companies, already running on razor-thin margins and dependent on live productions, continue to make art and survive? Over the course of several pieces, including this one, Woods conducted dozens of interviews, closely reporting on music venues and local arts organizations as they clung to fundraisers, Zoom improvisations, and federal grants like the Save Our Stages Act. By June, when this piece was published, numerous local organizations still had not gotten the relief they needed; by October, when Woods published the follow-up, “Post-Vaccines, Local

Theater Companies Take Stock of What Was Lost—and What Comes Next,” the stakes had become clearer, as some organizations folded and others soared ahead. It’s important documentation, all of it, but as we head into the new year with the threat of a new variant, the work is ongoing.


How Crook’s Corner Lives On in Kitchens across the United States

In early June, Crook’s Corner announced its closure—news that marked the end of 40 years of business, and the end of an era. Within a day, the news was in The New York Times and the subject of national tributes, and for good reason. Though it would be impossible to pay a full tribute to the legendary southern restaurant—and its lore of honeysuckle sorbet, Atlantic Beach pie, and shrimp and grits—a worthy tribute also gives flowers not just to the current Crook’s but the Crook’s of founders Bill Neal and Gene Hame, the Crook’s that has made its way into restaurants around the Triangle through mentorships, and the Crook’s that has traveled by cookbook recipes to kitchens all over the world. Infused with academic research and admiration, Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme’s tribute does just this. “Good restaurants,” she wrote, “beget good restaurants.”


Several Prominent Triangle Restaurants Are Shifting Away from Tipping. Is a Fairer System on the Way?

During the past several years, consumers have begun to find unfamiliar new terms like “fair wage charge” and “automatic gratuity” appearing on restaurant bills. Tipping, long the norm in the hospitality industry, has come into question, especially during

the pandemic, when restaurants have been struggling to break even and restaurant workers are even more at the mercy of things out of their control. During this time, Lena Geller wrote, “the discourse around tipping grew more critical, and some Triangle restaurant owners saw an opportunity to start chipping away at the industry’s cast-iron conventions.” She went on to interview workers and restaurant owners at local institutions like Pizzeria Toro, Lantern, and Monuts that have shifted their tipping models. Geller, a part-time editorial assistant at the INDY, is also a longtime restaurant worker and writes from the keen, knowing perspective of both a journalist and someone who has refilled hundreds of drink orders. So much of the inner workings of restaurants is obfuscated; here’s a story, though, that untangles the system and clearly spells out the terms.


After Years as Mandolin Orange, Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin Knew It Was Time for a Change

Sarah Edwards’s summer story on one of the Triangle’s most beloved homegrown bands neatly captured the past year and a half, especially for those who work in the arts, in a COVID-cracked nutshell. Partners Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, known for years as the band Mandolin Orange—a name and a band both synonymous with North Carolina, as the story notes—changed their performing name to Watchhouse in an era that itself has been synonymous with change and released a self-titled album under the new moniker. “There’s a line in the Watchhouse song ‘Beautiful Flowers,’” Edwards wrote, “that seems to speak to that restless tension, as it trickles planetary decline down to its particulars. In the song, lamenting a butterfly that has been crushed against a window shield, Frantz gently croons, ‘The summertime blues, they’re burning red hot.’ It’s one of the best lines on the album, landing with a perfect spark in 2021.”


Legacies of Lincoln

In a three-part series we published this summer, writer Joel Sronce connected the dots between the civil rights movement in Carrboro and Chapel Hill to the legacy of the Mighty Tigers, the Lincoln High School football team whose players and members were active in the fight for equality in the region and across the state. Taking us back to the high school homecoming games and drug store sit-ins of the 1960s, Sronce documented, through dozens of interviews and archived material, how Lincoln players would lead their

team to victory on some nights, while on others, they would be arrested for refusing to leave Chapel Hill’s Colonial Drug store. The movement extends to the present day, where students—with some football players among them—are carrying the mantle of equity and equality in a school system that has some of the highest levels of learning disparities in the state.

solutions, such as using inclusionary zoning, pursuing land banking, and, aspirationally, getting the state legislature on board with policies that lead to the creation and preservation of affordable units. The takeaway from both pieces is clear—the housing supply is dwindling, but local leaders still have the opportunity to act quickly and decisively to address the problem.



Is Raleigh’s Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin Breaking City Code by Feeding Feral Cats?

In one of the year’s strangest and most entertaining stories, Leigh Tauss looked at the hypocrisy that sometimes undergirds decision-making by elected officials and the unfair—if unintentional—consequences of those choices. In response to a venomous pet cobra escaping and roaming a North Raleigh neighborhood, the city council weighed an ordinance that would prohibit keeping dangerous animals as pets and would, among other things, ban feeding feral cats. At a meeting, Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the feeding-feral-cats piece went too far, remarking that she feeds feral cats and doesn’t think people should get in trouble for it. Turns out feeding feral cats has already been illegal in Raleigh for years, and people have been cited for doing it. Immediately after the mayor’s comment, the city’s animal control department suspended enforcement of the code that outlawed feeding feral cats at the behest of the city attorney. To make matters worse, an animal control employee who publicly criticized the mayor’s comment was placed on leave.


A Pandemic Plus Longstanding Lack of Support from Legislative Leaders Means Wake Educators Are Leaving the Profession

Reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—school closures, mask mandates, virtual academy—students, parents, and educators alike have experienced a tough year. In a story this fall, Jasmine Gallup reported on the staggering number of teachers who, during the pandemic, have opted to leave teaching. Their reasons varied. Some educators hadn’t received a raise in years; others were stressed out about the pandemic, overworked, and anxious. On top of this, school support staff, including nurses, teaching assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors, were quitting in droves as well. It was enough to make the Wake County school board take notice. This month, the board voted unanimously to give raises to all school employees and raise the minimum hourly wage to $15 an hour.

What Happens When a Non-LGBTQ-Affirming Church-Meets-Coffee-Shop Comes to a Particularly Queer Part of Durham?

Roast Turkey at Ideal's Sandwich & Grocery by Brett Villena


At Ideal’s Sandwich & Grocery in East Durham, There Are a Lot of Layers

There are always a lot of layers in any enterprise, but at Ideal’s—a sandwich shop that opened in late summer on Angier Avenue—the layers are especially thick. And the parts are integral, with drool-worthy, “oozing cross-sections,” as Lena Geller wrote: “Eating an Ideal’s sandwich sans bread would be like carving the minerals out of a geode; sure, the insides can stand on their own, but the outer casing is integral to the magic.” Owners Ian Bracken and Paul Chirico opened it quietly over the summer as they settled and got to know neighbors. For a while, the shop functioned as something of a partially open “sandwich speakeasy,” though lines down the block quickly betrayed its burgeoning popularity. Another layer: Ideal’s opened in a quickly gentrifying part of Durham, and when Bracken and Chirico applied for grants, city council members were initially skeptical of Ideal’s promises of community accessibility but were won over. Under Geller’s attentive reporting, the story of a sandwich shop is about much more than just meat and cheese.


A New Bill in Congress Would Allow Survivors Exposed to Contaminated Tap Water at Camp Lejeune to Sue the U.S. Government for Damages

This summer, Lewis Kendall wrote a long piece about a bill in Congress that would allow former Camp Lejeune service members and their families to sue the federal government for damages related to contaminated drinking water. Kendall spoke with several former service members and their relatives whose health had been impacted by water contaminated by vol-


atile organic compounds, including PCE (tetrachloroethylene) and TCE (trichloroethylene). Thousands of people who served at Lejeune during the 1950s through the 1980s saw family members and themselves get sick with illnesses ranging from cancer to adverse birth outcomes, which was attributed to drinking contaminated tap water. For years, these families have been prohibited from suing the federal government for damages but the bill—the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021—would change that. The bill has stalled in a U.S. House committee since it was introduced in March, but advocates say they are hopeful it has a chance at getting through.


The Triangle Housing Shortage Has Escalated Since the Onset of the Pandemic and the Triangle’s Municipalities Can Address the Region’s Dwindling Stock of Affordable Housing—if They Act Quickly and Decisively

In this two-part series, Jasmine Gallup looked at the Triangle’s affordable housing crisis and how the region’s major cities, including Durham and Raleigh, arrived at this point. But instead of simply spelling out doom and gloom, dire as the situation is, Gallup’s solutions-oriented pieces suggested steps local officials, developers, nonprofits, residents, and many other stakeholders can take to address the problem and help stem the tide of homelessness and displacement before it’s too late. In the first part, Gallup spoke with homeowners and renters at risk of displacement and talks to housing experts about how cities like Raleigh can slow gentrification through loans, tax relief, rent control, land trusts, and affordable housing preservation. In part two, Gallup looked at some different

The prospect of a homophobic church with “a millennial aesthetic and emphasis on food, friends, and fellowship” opening in prime real estate space in the heart of downtown Durham had social media all abuzz before writer Sarah Edwards spoke with the church/coffee shop’s leader to confirm that, yes, Pioneers Durham, set to open this winter, really is non-LGBTQ-affirming. But the story does much more than establish this basic fact. It’s a look at a changing downtown in a growing city and what role, if any, a conservative church with an enterprise aspect built-in will have in shaping a growing, changing community into the future. This well-written, deeply reported story is an astute character analysis, too—nothing is more telling than when Pioneers pastor Sherei Lopez-Jackson tells Edwards she had a vision of her “running away from something in a wedding dress.” We’ll definitely be following this story into the new year.


Her Take

Kyesha Jennings knows every corner of Carolina hip-hop. Since 2018, Jennings, who teaches at NC State, has been covering festivals and reviewing records for the INDY; since mid-2020, she’s trained her focus on educating and uplifting readers through the recurring column “Her Take: On Carolina Hip Hop.” In this past year, Jennings has followed buzzy up-and-coming artists like Charlotte’s DEVN and Kaze4Letters, but “Her Take” has also shone light on other essential parts of the industry, from local hip-hop podcasts and videographers to creatives and graphic designers like Joseph “Headgraphix” Headen. The column also honors the writers who have paved the way: in her August 11 column, Jennings interviewed nurse and pioneering blogger Nancia Odom, who spent several years documenting the local hip-hop scene. Every column ends up functioning like an oral history, scholarly lecture, remixed playlist, and love letter all rolled into one. We’re lucky to run it. W

December 22, 2021


A Place at the Table

Give Guide Supports and advocates for justice and peace across diverse social and political groups by educating and advocating for systemic change. Works with the community to end sexual violence through advocacy, education, support, and prevention. 2 Is dedicated to helping homeless animals in our community find permanent, loving homes where they will be treated as family members for the rest of their lives.


December 22, 2021

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December 22, 2021


M U SIC Vague new taxonomies such as “beat music” and “bass music” have been rushing to keep up with the likes of Raund Haus ever since. RH – 101 includes the chillest study beats and the dustiest breaks to orient yourself by, but these lodestars stretch rays all over: into techno, footwork, and ambient; house; and pop. If Raund Haus was kind of like the Very Online baby of Boards of Canada and J Dilla, its fifth birthday marked how much it’s grown, and the anything-goes-as-long-as-it-knocks vibe has produced nine more releases since then. —Brian Howe

Flock of Dimes: Head of Roses

Sub Pop; Apr. 2 When Jenn Wasner sings “I want to be good / and I want to mean it” on the track “Two” from her new album Head of Roses, there can be no doubt that she does. Wasner’s voice has always been seismic and stylish, but when singing intimate admissions it also quavers with raw, vulnerable conviction, like a window prism redirecting light all around a room. Head of Roses brims with those raw, elemental moments: written in the aftermath of a breakup, the album reckons with heartbreak at its most mutual and messy alongside satisfying swirls of bass and synth. It’s not just the production and vocals that shine in Head of Roses, though: just this week, Wasner made it onto Guitar World’s list of the best 10 guitar solos of the year. She is good, and when she lights into her electric guitar, she really does mean it. —Sarah Edwards

Facing the Music From Afrofuturist children’s music to queer outlaw country, wispy electro-pop heartbreak to joyous beats about Black love: Here are twenty Triangle releases that made this long year better. BY INDY WEEK STAFF AND CONTRIBUTORS

Speed Stick: Volume One

Don Giovanni Records; Jan. 22 Released in January, Speed Stick’s debut album is kind of a perfect homage to music-making in the first year of the pandemic. Drummers Laura King (Bat Fangs) and Thomas Simpson (Love Language) sent 10 drum tracks to 10 musician friends, including Kelley Deal, Mac McCaughan, and Ash Bowie. They tailored each drum track to appeal to those friends and told them to have at it. The result is a glorious mishmash of sounds and styles, some expected—like the keening indie rock of “Twin Collision” featuring Simpson’s bandmates in Love Language or the introspective rap of Juan Huevos’s “Lurk on Me”— and some unexpected, like the placid synths of Mac McCaughan’s “SS Grandmama” and Ryan Gustafson’s “Let It Shine.” Still others seem from another dimension entirely, like the almost drum-free ambiance of “Spleed Splick.” Lis16

December 22, 2021

tening top to bottom, you never know what’s coming next, a testament to the range of what drums can be. —Dan Ruccia

Various artists: RH – 101

Raund Haus; Feb. 26 Raund Haus, the platform for a Durham-based collective of like-minded North Carolina beatmakers, encapsulated the eclectic consistency of its first five years of parties and releases in this compilation album last February. It holds a sped-up mirror before a West Coast instrumental hip-hop evolution that started in the nineties, when crate-diggers like Peanut Butter Wolf unraveled crackly vinyl grooves into stoner-friendly loops, and then evolved rampantly alongside technology that could build samples and shape basses in, like, four or five dimensions.

al Riggs: I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep

Self-released; Apr. 2 The ever-prolific al Riggs was busy again this year, releasing an odds-and-ends compilation, a Christmas covers album, and a fistful of singles in addition to the full-length I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep. Billed as “junky, hissing, ultimately triumphant queer country,” Big Electric Fan adds bits of pedal steel and hushed hints of lo-fi twang to Riggs’s warm melancholy, characterized by their comforting tenor and evocative reflections that reward repeat listens. Riggs’s sweeping sonic perspective is far removed from whatever passes for country on commercial stations these days, while their stellar song writing is rife with the kind of confessions, conflicted feelings, and clever turns of phrase to make them a Nashville outlaw for a new era. Flanked by queer country icons Patrick Haggerty and James Wilson, Riggs’s rousing take on the traditional “Ragged But Right” serves as an anthem of reclamation, redefining the genre on their own terms. —Spencer Griffith

Khrysis: The Hour of Khrysis

Jamla Records; Apr. 21 The best way to describe Khrysis’s fifth studio album, The Hour of Khrysis, is as a cohesive rap project for grownups. On this project, Soul Council member Khrysis shines the light on himself, proving exactly why he is a superproducer. The project features collaborations with a mix of

heavy hittas and legendary emcees including Evidence, Problem, Mumu Fresh, De La Soul, Rapsody, Pharoahe Monch, Busta Rhymes, and many more, including Khrysis himself rapping over his own traditional hip-hop beats. One of the highlights of The Hour of Khrysis is the production, including the reunion of The Away Team. —Kyesha Jennings

Kooley High: Lazy Sunday

M.E.C.C.A Records; Apr. 23 Raleigh’s favorite hip-hop collective gifted us with a concept EP that outlines the perfect lazy sunday. The EP’s three main singles, “Hold Up,” “Rollin’ in the Hay,” and “Lazy Sunday” are repurposed across eight tracks. Following the structure of early nineties hip-hop projects, listeners can enjoy a single, a remix, and an instrumental of each track. Despite its brevity, the project offers more than enough to make a dedicated Kooley High fan frustrated that the fiveman crew hasn’t reached mainstream success—that’s how good it is. And although three out of the four producers are outside of Kooley High’s camp, the EP fits soundly within Kooley High’s sonic landscape. —Kyesha Jennings

Pierce Freelon: Black to the Future

Blackspace x Only Us; Apr. 30 After noticing a lack of diverse content in children’s music, Pierce Freelon set out to prioritize the futures of Black youth. With his second family-focused children’s album, Black to the Future, Pierce Freelon relies on Afrofuturistic influences to offer thought-provoking content to young audiences. By focusing on emotional intelligence and emotional vulnerability, Black to the Future offers access to an arts-and-science tool kit for raising healthy Black children. Similar to those on D.a.D., the tracks on Black to the Future help parents navigate specific milestones like getting through the first day of school and doctor’s appointments. The Grammy-nominated album uniquely integrates audio artifacts from his family archive into the production, thus layering a deeply personal project with multigenerational stories about parenting rooted in love. —Kyesha Jennings

Bowerbirds: becalmyounglovers

Psychic Hotline; Apr. 30 Dark but not doomed, ruminative but not wrecked, becalmyounglovers was Phil Moore’s first album as Bowerbirds since 2012, following a romantic and artistic dissolution with Bowerbirds bandmate Beth Tacular. Despite being an eagerly anticipat-

ed return nearly a decade in the making, the album flew (kind of shockingly) under the radar. Maybe that was a product of the album’s relative calm: though it does churn with introspection, it’s not an angry or overly wounded breakup album, and Moore has had time to process and make meaning out of change. That’s where the “Sweet Dissonance” of experience comes in, as Moore croons on the 11th track: “We come made for this / That sweet dissonance / Nothing paves the road for us.” becalmyounglovers is wistful, lilting listening—the kind of album you might put on the morning after a long night of good-byes when light clears the way for something new. —Sarah Edwards


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Blue Cactus: Stranger Again

Sleepy Cat Records; May 7 Aptly suited to soundtrack this unprecedented season of inescapable cohabitation, Blue Cactus’s Stranger Again extracts beauty from the broken. The Chapel Hill–based country duo comprises Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez, who double as romantic partners offstage. The pair’s undeniable chemistry compounds beyond their simpatico, amalgamating in a palpable reflection on love, loss, and the prickling, lurking presence of both. At the helm with his guitar, Arnez carefully layers in searing pedal steel from Whit Wright, then anchors the production with Alex Bingham’s bass and Gabe Anderson’s percussion. The resulting soundscape—like a scene from a vintage postcard or a windshield sunset sinking across the American Southwest—serves as a pedestal for Stewart’s surrendering vocals. Her stripped-back storytelling leaves room for the listener to lament. These two lovers reach deep into the pockets of their sonic lineage to revive the high lonesome sound of country yesteryear, hand-delivering it to a new generation through a modern lens. —Madeline Crone

Nnenna Freelon: Time Traveler

Origin Records; May 21 In Time Traveler, multi-Grammy-nominated jazz artist Nnenna Freelon documents her journey grieving her beloved husband of four decades, the world-renowned architect Phil Freelon. While the title offers the suggestion that time is a construct, the 11-track project reminds listeners that love comes before grief, and love will still be there after. Released after a 10-year recording hiatus, Time Traveler exemplifies what it’s like to grieve and mourn freely. Freelon’s voice is an instrument that expresses pain, sadness, mourning, love, and happiness. Snippets of recordings of her husband’s voice are weaved throughout the project, symbolical-

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December 22, 2021


ly reuniting the two soulmates in the form of a sonic love letter. —Kyesha Jennings

Magic Tuber Stringband: When Sorrows Encompass Me ’Round

Feeding Tube; June 25 In the second half of 2021, Durham’s Magic Tuber Stringband have been seemingly everywhere, playing so many house shows, rock clubs, and festival stages that it’s been nearly impossible to keep up. They’ve also found time to release two fantastic cassettes (with apparently more recordings on the way for 2022), which document their peripatetic take on fiddle and guitar music. A friend of mine aptly described their sound as the meeting point of Tony Conrad and John Fahey, observing how they fuse joyous, open-tuning folk songs (either their own or well-chosen covers) with enveloping drones. Evan Morgan and Courtney Werner know how to spin out a line, be it a simple waltz or a spinning, interlocking melody. Once they get going, it feels like they could just keep going off into the sunset. —Dan Ruccia

Hiss Golden Messenger: Quietly Blowing It

Merge Records; June 25 The old adage “We are our own worst critics” rings true throughout M.C. Taylor’s 10th Hiss Golden Messenger release, Quietly Blowing It. Penned amid a breakdown compounded by a global health crisis, Taylor weighs in on the existential from the confines of his Durham basement studio. At first pass, Taylor’s dynamic musicianship is almost hypnotic: Songs like “The Great Mystifier” and “Painting Houses” meld into a gentle, rhythmic meditation. But if you listen closely, his lyrics, like a rallying cry out into the ether, shake you from a trancelike state. “Way Back in the Way Back” and “Hardlytown” present more questions than he claims to know the answers to. Yet instances of careful optimism breakthrough, like eminent rays piercing through towering storm clouds—a reminder that the answers to the hard questions are, in fact, worth seeking. —Madeline Crone

The Mountain Goats: Dark in Here

Merge Records; June 25 The steady evolution of The Mountain Goats has carried the once-solo project of songwriter John Darnielle a long way from the lo-fi storytelling of his earliest albums. With the 20th Mountain Goats album, Dark in Here, Darnielle’s writing resides in the familiar stories of lost souls seeking redemption amid biblical allusions, poetic details, and galvanizing turns of phrase. 18

December 22, 2021

But the band—now mostly solidified into a quartet comprising singer/guitarist Darnielle, drummer Jon Wurster, bassist Peter Hughes, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas—has gifted Darnielle’s perennially affecting tales with polish and fluid dynamics that give a jazz-inflected, cinematic gravitas to Darnielle’s songs. —Bryan C. Reed

Pat Junior: Gold Fangs on Sunday

Self-released; July 7 The Raleigh-raised rapper and beatmaker Pat Junior is known for eloquent, soul-baring dispatches on the pains of being a Black man in America, and that didn’t change on Gold Fangs on Sunday. Nevertheless, he always pits trauma against joy, which, against all 2021 odds, decisively prevailed on his third album. While still a maestro of overcast moods (as in the single “Rest!”), Pat greeted the world with a sunny new smile on tracks like “Black Beamin’,” where he flaunts his writing degrees in flawlessly structured verses extolling universal Black love. Retaining his ideal of strength in vulnerability, Pat bolstered his tried-and-true form of lyrical southern rap through close scrutiny of film-music titans like Joe Hisaishi and Hans Zimmer, upholstering rugged basses and ticking triplets in layered orchestration created by his own custom sample company, Pelham & Junior. The sweeping widescreen sound lent a justly towering scale to his large-writ personal dramas. —Brian Howe

BANGZZ: You Took My Body Long Ago and Now I Am Taking It Back

Potluck Foundation; Aug. 13 Without a doubt, BANGZZ’s You Took My Body Long Ago and Now I Am Taking It Back was one of the most exciting full-length Triangle debuts to emerge out of the muck of 2021. Bandmates Erika Kobayashi Liberi and Jess Caesar’s cathartic garage punk is rowdy and hilarious, with song subjects as assertive as the album title: “Hell Is Other People” declares one, followed by “Your Asian Fetish is Racist” and “Never Speak of Marriage As an Achievement.” Gloriously noisy and defiant, the band leaves no doubt that that they have plenty more to say. —Sarah Edwards

The Muslims: Fuck These Fuckin Fascists

Epitaph Records; Sep. 24 “Trigger warning: fascists may be offended,” Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz tweeted last summer, unleashing the title track of The Muslims’ first album for his big-deal punk label, Epitaph Records, on an

unprepared punk populace. And fascists— or at least the weird coalition of anti-progressive interests that now reflexively rally around them—indeed were. The YouTube comments were a tumult of cheers and jeers: the sound wasn’t punk enough, the message wasn’t deep enough, touting antifascism was just cozying up with the corporate media. Never mind that the Durham band’s album, which starts by depicting Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten getting punched in the face and ends with a song called “John McCain’s Ghost Sneaks into the White House and Tea Bags the President,” has deep influences thrumming under its catchy hooks, with wiry shards of classic English bands like Crass and X-Ray Spex. Never mind that simple fascist-fucking is (or used to be—and the naysayers are all about “used to be”) an ancient punk trope. It was one thing to be a queer, Black and brown punk band with a Muslim background. But to, like, make a big deal about it, after being admitted to the white man’s canon, and maybe sort of imply that the fascists are coming from inside the house? As the pearl-clutching purists’ own evident shock should have proved to them, it was the punkest thing that happened in 2021. —Brian Howe

Nora Rogers and Kristopher Hilbert: Light in the Left Hand Self-released; Oct. 1 Though best known for her pyrotechnic guitar work in Solar Halos, Object Hours, and, recently, Deep Fog, Nora Rogers has been quietly crafting dense and dynamic drone since her 2019 solo debut, Lapilli. But where that album echoed some of her Solar Halos tones, with crackling guitar taking the lead over swells of cello, her latest venture, Light in the Left Hand, goes deeper into textural explorations. Working with producer Kristopher Hilbert, who adds guitar and pedal steel, Rogers has crafted something more meditative and enveloping. From the title track’s throbbing tremolo and slow crescendos to the smoldering reverb that gives “Late Watch Shift” its spacious and contemplative mood, Rogers and Hilbert make great use of effects to transform the timbres of their instruments into something otherworldly. In whole, the album feels at once grounded and transcendent, its slow-moving meditations offering opportunities for both reflection and escape. —Bryan C. Reed

Cochonne: Emergency

Sorry State; Oct. 8 So much of Cochonne’s sound comes down to singer Mimi Luce’s vocal acrobatics. She can go from bored request to sar-

castic come-on to paranoid rant to ecstatic squeal to disaffected recitation all within a matter of seconds. It makes for a ragged, raging propulsive force to these songs, with the rest of the band frantically trying to keep pace. It’s no surprise, then, that they choose a rampaging brand of post-punk, complete with jerky guitars and swirling synths, akin to the darker side of The B-52’s or the Triangle’s own Fitness Womxn. No other sound could really keep up. It’s a shame that this all-too-brief album is also the band’s farewell. —Dan Ruccia

Various Artists: Sacred Soul of North Carolina

Bible & Tire Recording Co. / Music Maker Foundation; Oct. 15 In the world of the church, there’s a reason for the holiday season—and Sacred Soul of North Carolina centers the Lord in rousing fashion. Recorded in February 2020 in the small eastern North Carolina town of Fountain in an exultant pre-COVID sprint, these 18 soul-stirring songs do more than just sing Jesus’s praises, though. Eleven different powerhouse groups rooted in the churches of tight-knit communities around Greene County honor the jubilee tradition’s ancestral roots while documenting its electrifying evolution from a cappella folk style to today’s hard-charging funk, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll mode. Whether you’re a believer or not, you can’t deny the intrinsic joy and revelatory power of gospel music. Grounded in the enduring ties of family and faith, Sacred Soul of North Carolina pays necessary tribute to the intensity and ecstasy of this vital Black art form. —Nick McGregor

Rodes: All of My Friends

Self-released; Nov. 19 The debut album by singer-songwriter Rodes (MK Rodenbough) is an ode to the unrequited. We learn, as the final guitar break and chorus from “I’m Not Gonna Get What I Want Tonight” fade into “Man on the Moon,” that unseen forces, earthly and cosmic, tamper with outcomes, keeping us at arm’s reach. Across these songs, warm, ponderous chords rub against shiftless, mid-tempo drums and semi-isolated vocals, as significant modes of address are deftly transferred from palate to ear. The album title comes from a line in the acoustic ballad “Bricks”: “I’ll make amends with all of my friends come Monday / Won’t be the one who ruins the fun or stops it halfway.” The titular “friends” are the songs themselves just as much as the studio collaborators, confidants on lonely nights, accompaniment in moments not documented in song, small green shoots in a swath of dense forest. —Harris Wheless W



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Raincloud In the Sun, the sophomore effort of the Lemon Sparks, is power pop with a dark edge.

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eff Carroll has shown up in album credits for years, but more for his technical expertise than for his own music: He has mastered records by Mandolin Orange (now Watchhouse), Ron Sexsmith, 6 String Drag, and I Was Totally Destroying It. But every few years he steps away from his Mac, straps on a Gibson, and spouts a new batch of finely crafted power pop songs. Raincloud in the Sun is the latest by Lemon Sparks, Carroll’s trio that released its self-titled debut in 2015. Lemon Sparks showcased original Carroll songs for the first time in 15 years, making up for lost time while mining rock history. The album split the difference between the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Big Star’s #1 Record, melding quirky ambience and crunchy guitars. The group tied it all together with gorgeous melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and a jumpedup cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen.” At the time, Lemon Sparks joined a run of sophisticated, Wrecking Crew–worthy pop records from Triangle artists, alongside Up in the Air by Brett Harris, Oleander by Skylar Gudasz, I Still Look for You by Anne-Claire, New Songs for the 20th Century by Chris Stamey, and Game Day by Peter Holsapple. Six years later, Raincloud in the Sun picks up where Lemon Sparks’ debut left off and returns with a darker edge better suited to the pandemic era. “Don’t call me if you’re bleeding in the night,” Carroll sings. “I won’t be there in the right ways.” Gone is the bubbly mood of songs like “Carl Wilson’s War” and “Digging Up Flowers,” replaced by the bittersweet melancholy of “When You Close Your Eyes” and “Ellie.” Carroll’s textured, understated vocals convey both moods equally well. To advertise or feature petnew for adoption, Every member of the group contributes toathe album’s dense layers. Drummer please contact and percussionist Greg Tourian also sings backup. So does bassist Rick Lassiter, who adds guitar, keys, and strings. Lassiter contributes a song for the first time, the wistful, REM-ish “Canyon.” Guest musicians include Don Kerr, a longtime Sexsmith sideman, and Holsapple, who plays Hammond organ on the soaring, Spoon-like title track. To advertise feature aitspet The latter is one of several places where Raincloud in the Sunortranscends dark for“Jangaroo” adoption,(aplease times and rocks out, along with “Laughable” and nod tocontact Big Star’s “Kangaroo,” perhaps?), which features funked-up electric piano from another guest, Todd Montgomery. If the new album never quite reaches the lofty heights of Lemon Sparks’ debut, it’s a worthy successor and a booster shot on the cusp of another uncertain year. W

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December 22, 2021

Double Vision Actor Mahershala Ali’s star power is in overdrive in Swan Song, a sleek sci-fi film that grapples emotionally with love and mortality. BY LEIGH TAUSS


f you knew your death was imminent, how far would you go to shield the ones you love from heartbreak? Would you sub in a perfect genetic copy of yourself, complete with memories, to seamlessly replace you and spare your family from the grief of your passing? Or would you selfishly savor every last moment you had? What’s the ethical thing to do? What’s the most loving? That’s the central question pulsing at the heart of Swan Song, a new film directed by Benjamin Cleary and fronted by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali doing double duty playing a man diag-

nosed with a terminal illness as well as his cloned counterpart with motivations of its own. Set in a slick and minimalist near future, Ali’s Cameron Turner is an artist and loving husband to Poppy, played by his Moonlight costar Naomi Harris. Turner suffers from ever-worsening seizures that threaten to end his life at any time, leaving Poppy, their son, and their unborn child fatherless. It’s a world where smartphones are all but embedded into human minds, and technology, while tethering humans together, also manifests as imparting a sobering distance.

Cameron is presented with an option by his doctor, played cerebrally by Glenn Close: he can swap in a cloned version of himself, embedded with his personality and all of his memories and allow his family to live on in blissful ignorance as he awaits his fate alone. It’s a fairly simple story line that moves slowly, anchored by Ali’s complete acquiescence to his characters. And Ali delivers a captivating performance that brings to life the grief, anguish, and even jealousy Cameron must confront when deciding what’s best for his family. The film’s plot is so thin that, if anchored by any other actor, it would surely be a flop. But Ali brings nuance to his character, exploring the ways in which love is selfish and selfless and all the heartbreaking contours in between. At times, Swan Song toes the line of oversentimentality, spared only by the chilly sci-fi world-building that serves to cool down its emotional overtones. Regardless, if you can surrender yourself to the story, it will jerk the tears. For Cleary, who hails from Ireland and is best known for his Academy Award–winning short film Stutterer, it’s an impressive debut. My main critique is that Swan Song could have probably been about 30 minutes shorter. Then again, every moment Ali is on screen, which is nearly all of them, is a moment to savor. Is this the deepest film ever made? Hardly. But it’s beautiful and thought-provoking and sad. Its central question will stick with you for days after viewing. What would you sacrifice for love? W


Making a Comeback After a long intermission, theater came back swinging in the last half of 2021. The year’s best shows, with nods to those we lost. BY BYRON WOODS


t was a year in which theater, dance, and other performing art forms went into all but total eclipse, as companies and artists were pushed to the brink to engineer their survival. So, naturally, PlayMakers Repertory Company closed the year with a November production of The Skin of Our Teeth. In Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning script, the proxy for civilized humanity—an urban family from Jersey—is threatened by never-ending crises. Director Vivienne Benesch and her creative team leaned into these catastrophes, clearly exorcising pent-up frustrations by staging escalating breaches in nature, politics, and civic life with the concentrated, nihilistic glee of five-year-olds playing “Demolition Derby” with Hot Wheels. The fizzy, surprisingly festive result depicted what Butoh choreographer Akaji Maro once termed “a cheerful apocalypse.” And that’s the funny, semifatalistic vow on behalf of humanity embedded within the production: Yes, we will carry on. Somehow. That doesn’t, however, mean that it’s going to be easy for the local live arts crew, particularly since companies no longer can predict (or base their budgets) on pre-pandemic business models. “People are planning things later,” says David Henderson, artistic director at Honest Pint. “Who knows what the COVID numbers are going to be three weeks from now?” Since resuming live performances, performing arts groups across the area have seen alarmingly low advance ticket purchases followed, at least in some cases, by sizable last-minute walk-up sales. “It just means we don’t know that—or if—they’re coming,” Henderson says. “How do you budget for that?” Last week, Theatre in the Park posted a photo on Facebook of A Christmas Carol’s ticket line, stretching from the DECPA

box office out and alongside South Street. “There was an old formula: if I sell this many tickets and get this many engagements on social media, it’s going to equal us not losing a tremendous amount of money,” recalls Women’s Theatre Festival executive artistic director Johannah Maynard Edwards. “But that’s gone now. Everything’s on a case-by-case basis.” Edwards credits WTF’s switch to a paywhat-you-can model of ticketing with a large part of the festival’s 150 percent increase in revenues this year. “We’ve kind of turned all our ticket buyers into donors and company stewards.” After a year of “stratospheric growth” in which the festival grew into a truly national effort, Edwards expects slower, more sustainable growth in 2022. “We’ve adopted an ethic of care,” she says, prioritizing care for the festival’s staff and artists above the audience and funders, reversing a popular dynamic in the arts. To that end, February’s Occupy the Stage festival will be prerecorded, to permit higher production values and lower stress among artists and technicians. (“It’s win-win-win,” Edwards says with a smile. ) Even with a season abbreviated by COVID, exceptional work abounded. Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s 20th-season celebration featured a luminous live show, a vivid coffee-table book, and Marc Levy’s moving documentary, We Are Here. Before that, 600 Highwaymen’s uncanny A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call helped quarantined audience members overcome lockdown isolation by participating in a story about strangers who are, by the end of the play, no longer strangers. Up-and-coming director Ana Radulescu piloted noted actor Lily Nelson through an emotional gauntlet in Burning Coal Theatre’s June production of Girls and Boys, and Mike Harrison and T.J. Swann dueled for the

Hayley Cartee, Adam Valentine, and Saleema Sharpe in Playmaker’s The Skin of Our Teeth. PHOTO BY HUTHPHOTO soul of a realtor and a community in Pure Life Theatre’s dramatic version of August Wilson’s Radio Golf. After playwright Howard Craft and lead actor Gil Faison triumphantly returned to NC Central University in the revival of Craft’s 2002 drama, The House of George, a vibrant septet lead by Aurelia Belford disclosed the struggles of a young Black artist coming into his own in Peace of Clay, a work that Craft cowrote with playwright Mike Wiley, at Theatre Raleigh. That show immediately followed Rebecca Clark and Angela Travino, whose work as a young and older Alison Bechdel convincingly bookended the regional premiere of the musical Fun Home. In December, comedian Joseph Richards bared a soul abused by southern Christianity in his confessional solo show, Breaking Up with Jesus. We close with memories of two artists who left us earlier in the year. Was actor Jordan Smith well regarded by his community? Judge for yourself. When he was physically unable to use his voice for a year in 2007, a local theater company staged a show of three works by Strindberg, Pinter, and Beckett with him—all featuring riveting central characters who never spoke. Smith reclaimed his voice and soldiered on, gracing theaters across the region with his signature gravitas and bonhomie, before unwillingly retiring several years ago after medical setbacks. He also supported his art form behind the scenes, with wise counsel and generous financial support before his death in April.

The title of that show above? Silence by the Masters. Smith truly was one. When I called director Wendy Ward in early July, hoping to get details for her coming season, I expected a wry, cozy chat like we’d had before. In the past five years, the Durham auteur had quickly risen through the local ranks as a director and teacher of Sanford Meisner’s alternative to method acting, with a reputation for getting unexpected results from inexperienced actors. Even seasoned critics couldn’t spot the two first-timers in her suspenseful production of Jacuzzi in 2016. But she ultimately achieved her greatest success in incisively devised and deeply researched original works, including I Wish You a Boat, a haunting view of an early 20th-century shipwreck at sea. In her unorthodox Revival, audiences scrutinized a congregation of believers head-on, as the spirit moved among some of them in a midcentury summer tent meeting. In 2019, Ward cast a gleefully jaded eye on the foibles of contemporary culture in Infinite Possibilities, a send-up of tony wellness resorts. But when we spoke in July, Ward told me she was in the fourth, final stage of pancreatic cancer. She died two weeks after our conversation. “I saw some of the best acting of my life in her studio,” notes former student Matt LeBlanc, now a creative director in advertising in Los Angeles. “It was the energy she was able to cultivate there: the commitment, the dedication, the hive mind. People found this emotional truth—the public solitude and a connectedness there.” W

December 22, 2021




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Failing Better Dance film meets cringe comedy in the latest chapter of Anna Barker’s unfinished autobiography BY BRIAN HOWE


lthough I’m a big fan of the Durham dance-theater artist Anna Barker’s work, I haven’t written about it since the first multimedia show by her company, real. live.people, premiered in 2014. We became friends after that, and my conflicts regarding her new dance film, Level Up, are hopelessly numerous. I even pop up as a background extra in a bar scene. But friendship—as a measuring stick, a balance beam, and a bracing pillar—is one of Anna’s perennial themes, so perhaps this impartial conversation won’t go amiss. Mainly funded by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, Level Up was filmed by Ned Phillips and edited by Emily Jean Frachtling. Begun a year before the pandemic, it’s both an omnibus and an extension of Anna’s three evening-length stage works, with video as a container for dance instead of the other way around. With plentiful callbacks, it also adds to the saga of a dancer named Anna who is grappling with the meaning of success amid systemic wreckage in a very recognizable Durham. It’s populated by some dancer-actors playing themselves (especially Barker’s best friend and company cofounder, Leah Wilks) and others in character, like poor Christopher Grohs, hilariously cast against type as a boorish mansplainer. Infusing modern dance into a cringe comedy about bad dates, service-job humiliations, sexist auditions, brutal rehearsals, and unclear payoffs, the work is about the struggle that produces the work. Its laughs are slipping masks for pains and fears; one gripping set piece conjures the hemmed-in feeling of an encounter with a menacing man. With the majority of the 45-minute runtime given to narrative, Level Up is accessible by design, greeting curious newcomers with a Sylvan Esso song (donated, as were all of the familiar locations in this “love let22

December 22, 2021

ter to Durham”), along with original music by regular composer Adam Lindquist. Level Up premiered at PS37 in September, and now it’s available to rent for $10 via Vimeo On Demand through January 13. INDY WEEK: There’s a lot of theater in your dance theater, so I’m not surprised that there’s a lot of film in your dance film. Level Up is almost a narrative short about a dancer, isn’t it? ANNA BARKER: “Dance film” has a

connotation of abstraction, and because of my mission statement about accessibility, I really didn’t want to make that. After my first show at Motorco, my grandmother said to me, “Well, that wasn’t dance, but I did like it.” That’s great. I don’t care if people think it’s dance or theater or whatever. I love breaking down those barriers, because sometimes people are afraid of dance or feel they don’t have the right words. This is basically your fourth evening-length work with the same themes of trying and failing and trying again, with Leah as your friend and collaborator and Christopher playing these awful mansplainers, this time an axe thrower instead of a disc golfer.

Very rarely do we make something up. These are experiences that I’ve had or that Leah has had. Whether I’m dealing with relationship failures, or as a dancer, or what my ideal version of success looks like now versus five years ago, I just try to get really specific. There are a lot of other people who’ve experienced similar things, and I want them to be able to see themselves. What is more universal than the idea of personalized success and failure? I also think that it’s interesting to be releasing this film now because it’s highlighting so much failure in the dance community—for example, how auditions work,

Anna Barker in a still from Level Up


where a man with no experience can get picked over a woman with 30 years of experience. I was worried if it would still be relevant, but there’s been a total upheaval in what the dance community is prepared to return to—not being paid for rehearsals, for travel, hurting your body dancing on a concrete floor. People who’ve seen the film are saying, “That’s exactly what we don’t want to go back to.” Your life-work boundary is pretty porous, which makes Leah an interesting character— your key collaborator, but also someone you kind of measure yourself against.

I think that exists in almost any friendship, particularly in the dance world. When I was living in New York all my friends were dancers. I would see them in auditions, and we were so competitive that we wouldn’t even talk to each other. There’s something really awful about how any semblance of community goes completely out of the window when you have to compete. So yeah, I’m talking about Leah here, my best friend who does everything with me. But this is not just about me and Leah. This is about two women who are doing something together and are going to run into competitive feelings, all related to the

idea of success. It’s about this larger issue. But, you know, a lot of people have told me that they think the film is about my friendship with Leah. So, there’s this Anna character, and she keeps going through the same things over and over. Do you see change and growth for her, or is she just stuck, rolling a boulder up a hill?

I see growth. I think there’s always some moment of realization of not wanting to be taken advantage of. Sometimes it happens slowly. I am not interested in putting a bow on any of this, right? Because life is not like that. The struggle never goes away. For me, the character is about being very honest about the difficulties of being an artist at my age, and a woman, and then doing what we all do, which is kind of getting on with it. I try to find these moments of humanity. I’m always going to be afraid of failure. I’m always going to be striving for something, and the grass is always going to be greener. But if there’s not a resolution, there are always these moments of recovery, where I look around and I’m still intact. I still have my body, and I can move forward, and life is hilarious and difficult. W

December 22, 2021


CULTURE CALENDAR art Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau Visionary Oct. 23–Jan. 23, various times. NCMA, Raleigh. The Anniversary Show Dec. 16–Jan. 30, various times. Triangle Cultural Art Gallery, Raleigh.

Arts Discovery Educational Series: Paperhand Puppet Intervention $8 (general admission); free (DPS students). Wed, Jan. 5, 9:45 a.m. The Carolina Theatre, Durham. Beads of Distinction: Yoruba Royal Caps from the Collection of Rhonda Morgan Wilkerson, PhD Jul. 14–Dec. 26, various times. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill.

Break the Mold: New Takes on Traditional Art Making Sept. 25–Feb. 6, various times. NCMA, Raleigh. Focus on the Peck Collection: Abraham Rademaker and Haarlem’s Spaarnwouder Gate Oct. 22– Jan. 16, various times. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill.

Ghost of a Dream: Aligned by the Sun (through the revolution) Aug. 13–Jul. 3, various times. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill. Home for the Holidays Gallery Show Dec. 10–Jan. 15, various times. The ArtsCenter, Carrboro. I Remember Dec. 10–Jan. 27, various times. Durham Arts Council, Durham.

In Relation to Power: Politically Engaged Works from the Collection Sept. 9–Feb. 13, various times. The Nasher, Durham. Jean Charlot: Visions of Mexico, 1933 Dec. 11–Jun. 5, various times. The Nasher, Durham. Lakea Shepard: Malik: Sovereign of Faith Sept. 16– Aug. 29, various times. CAM Raleigh, Raleigh.

NC Artist Connections: The Beautiful Project, Stephen Hayes, and

Hồng-Ân Trương

Sept. 4–Feb. 13, various times. NCMA, Raleigh. NCCU Department of Art Student Works Dec. 17–Jan. 27, various times. Durham Arts Council, Durham. Mikael Owunna Oct. 1–Feb. 13, various times. CAM Raleigh, Raleigh.

Off the Map: The Provenance of a Painting Sept. 23–Jan. 9, various times. The Nasher, Durham.

Taylor White: Laocoön and the Algorithm Sept. 4–Aug. 8, various times. CAM Raleigh, Raleigh.

Perseverance, Pride, Power: Alun Be’s Empowering Women Series Apr. 9–Feb. 13, various times. CAM Raleigh, Raleigh.

Talent Within: The NCMA Staff Art Exhibition Aug. 14–Feb. 13, various times. NCMA, Raleigh.

Scott Hazard: Bellows Oct. 1–Aug. 14, various times. CAM Raleigh, Raleigh.

Still from The Hip-Hop Nutcracker

What’s in the Box? $8 (members), $10 (nonmembers). Wed, Jan. 5, 10 a.m. NCMA, Raleigh.

Damian Escobar




stage A Christmas Story: The Musical $15-200. Dec. 28– Jan. 2, various times. DPAC, Durham.

Diva Royale Drag Queen Show $20+. Sun, Dec. 26, 1:30 p.m. GOLD LOUNGE, Raleigh.

Affion Crockett $22-72. Sat, Jan. 1, 6:30 p.m. Raleigh Improv, Raleigh.

The Hip Hop Nutcracker $25138. Sun, Dec. 26, 2 p.m. DPAC, Durham.

Carolina Ballet: The Nutcracker $44-195. Dec. 17–24, various times. Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh.

Lilith Flair: A Drag King & Burlesque Experience $10. Sat, Jan. 1, 8 p.m. Ruby Deluxe, Raleigh. Murray & Peter Present: A Drag Queen Christmas $50-150. Thurs, Dec. 23, 8 p.m. The Carolina Theatre, Durham.

Big Something $20-40. Dec. 29–Jan. 1, various times. The Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh. Christian James & The Paint Buckets with Renzo Suburbn, Sixgatsu, and Annalee Beck $10-15. Wed, Dec. 22, 9 p.m. The Pour House Music Hall & Record Shop, Raleigh. Damien Escobar $45-75. Wed, Dec. 29, 8 p.m. Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh.

Joe Troop & Friends $15-100. Thurs, Dec. 23, 7 p.m. The Fruit, Durham.

Peter Lamb and the Wolves $15. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. Bond Brothers Eastside, Cary.

New Year’s Day Karaoke $7. Sat, Jan. 1, 7 p.m. Studio Motif, Durham.

R&B Wednesday All Black Affair $10-15. Wed, Dec. 22, 9:30 p.m. The Sheraton, Raleigh.

Sam Fribush Organ Trio $8-10. Thurs, Dec. 23, 9 p.m. The Pour House Music Hall & Record Shop, Raleigh. Smell the Glove $10. Thurs, Dec. 23, 10 p.m. The Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh.


December 22, 2021


holiday parties & seasonal events

screen Holiday Drive-In $30. Dec. 23–31, 6 and 10 p.m. 5624 Mial Plantation Road, Raleigh. It’s a Wonderful Life $11.75. Wed, Dec. 22, 7:15 p.m. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Raleigh. PBS NC Virtual Preview Screening and Discussion: Missing in Brooks County Tues, Jan. 4, 7 p.m. Online.

2022 New Year’s Eve Gala $236.36. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh. 2022 New Year’s Eve Red Carpet Bash $150-1,800. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. Botanical Lounge, Raleigh.

New Year’s Eve at Umami $20-30. Fri, Dec. 31, 10 p.m. Umami Asian Bistro, Raleigh.

PLUS New Year’s Eve Bash $30. Fri, Dec. 31, 6:30 p.m. PLUS Dueling Piano Bar, Raleigh.

New Year’s Eve Virtual Family Comedy Show Fundraiser Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. Online; streamed live from Zweli’s in Durham.

Posh on the Hill New Year’s Eve $79-599. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill.

New Year’s Eve at The Willard Rooftop $150. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. The Willard Rooftop Lounge, Raleigh.

Bollywood NYE 2022 $20-50. Fri, Dec. 31, 10 p.m. Zayka Indian Cuisine, Raleigh. Boom or Bust NYE: Dinner and Burlesque $109. Fri, Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. Mateo Bar de Tapas, Durham.

African American Dance Ensemble Kwanzaa Fest Sat, Jan. 1, 11 a.m. Durham Armory, Durham.

Bull City’s Annual Christmas Party feat. DJ Skillz $10-15. Thurs, Dec. 23, 9 p.m. The PickleBack 2, Durham.

A Liqueur Family New Year’s Eve $5-12. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. Ruby Deluxe, Raleigh.

Burning Bowl Service Sun, Dec. 26, 11 a.m. Unity Center of Peace, Chapel Hill.

All Black NYE Affair $20. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. Fairfield Inn & Suites RaleighDurham Airport/ Brier Creek, Raleigh.

C3 New Year’s Electric Celebration $2545. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. 5205 Capital Boulevard, Raleigh.

Black & White Cartier New Year’s Party $20-400. Sat, Jan. 1, 7 p.m. 3519 Maitland Drive, Raleigh.

Christmas Eve Cookie Exchange Fri, Dec. 24, 12-9 p.m. The Glass Jug Beer Lab, Downtown Durham.

Christmas Plugged: Synchronized Light Show Dec. 22–Jan. 3, dusk to midnight. Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, Durham. Clockwork Ball: A Steampunk Masquerade $20. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw. The Doomsday Ball: Goth New Year’s Eve Party $25-30. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. The Wicked Witch, Raleigh. Dressed Up to Get Down New Year’s Eve Party $601,000. Fri, Dec. 31, 6 p.m. Tin Roof, Raleigh. Fire & Ice AfroCaribbean Xmas Party $15+. Sat, Dec. 25, 10 p.m. Nuvo Lounge Bar, Raleigh.

First Night Raleigh $12-16. Fri, Dec. 31, 2 p.m. 30+ venues in downtown Raleigh. Fortnight Brewing New Year’s Eve Party $12-30. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. Fortnight Brewing Company, Cary. Gatsby’s House NYE Party $1051,019. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. The Sheraton, Raleigh. Hayti Legacy Kwanzaa Celebration Sun, Dec. 26, 12 p.m. Hayti Heritage Center, Durham. Holiday Arts and Crafts Party Wed, Dec. 22, 5 p.m. Ben & Jerry’s, North Hills Raleigh. Lanza’s Cafe NYE Launch Party Fri, Dec. 31, 7 p.m. Lanza’s Cafe, Carrboro.

Little City Brewing’s All Inclusive NYE 2022 $150. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. Little City Brewing and Provisions Co., Raleigh. Magic of Lights $55-59. Dec. 22–Jan. 2, various times. Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, Raleigh. Mindful Bodies New Year’s Eve Dance Fitness Party $10. Fri, Dec. 31, 10 a.m. Millenium Sports Club, Durham. Naughty or Nice Ugly Sweater Silent Party $12-20. Thurs, Dec. 23, 10 p.m. 440 Nightclub, Raleigh. New Year’s Eve at Drive Shack $3001,200. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. Drive Shack, Raleigh.

North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival $11-25. Dec. 22–Jan. 9, various times. Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary. North Carolina’s Official New Year’s Eve Extravaganza $15-650. Dec. 31, 9:30 p.m. North Raleigh Hilton, Raleigh. NYE on the Hill $50-75. Fri, Dec. 31, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing, Raleigh. Oak House New Year’s Eve Party $25-40. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. The Oak House, Durham. The “Official” Downtown Raleigh New Year’s Eve Celebration $5-299. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. Raleigh Union Station, Raleigh.

Raleigh NYE Bar Crawl $30-45. Fri, Dec. 31, 6 p.m. The Ugly Monkey Party Bar, Raleigh. Raleigh’s New Year’s Eve Party $65-275. Fri, Dec. 31, 7 p.m. RaleighCary Hilton Garden Inn, Raleigh. The RINK: Outdoor Ice Skating in Downtown Raleigh $11. Dec. 22–Jan. 1, various times (open 12-7 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 12-10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day; closed Christmas Day). Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh. Starry Night NYE Party $50-75. Fri, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. C. Grace, Raleigh. TJ’s Grown Folks New Year’s Eve Party with DJ Cleve $25-200. Fri, Dec. 31, 9 p.m. TJ’s Night Life, Raleigh. Winter Wonderland with Goats $13.50. Dec. 22–24, 26, and 29–31, various times. Spring Haven Farm, Chapel Hill.


December 22, 2021





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this week’s puzzle level:

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There is really only one rule to Sudoku: Fill in the game board so that the numbers 1 through 9 occur exactly once in each row, column, and 3x3 box. The numbers can appear in any order and diagonals are not considered. Your initial game board will consist of several numbers that are already placed. Those numbers cannot be changed. Your goal is to fill in the empty squares following the simple rule above.

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December 22, 2021




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