INDY Week 3.3.21

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Raleigh | Durham | Chapel Hill March 3, 2021








Parents describe a wrenching twelve months of “Zoom fatigue” as schools prepare to reopen B Y KATHLEEN HOBSON, P. 5


Raleigh W Durham W Chapel Hill VOL. 38 NO. 7


Teachers and parents of students in public schools describe a challenging year.


A transformational project is coming to Chapel Hill's Rosemary Street.


10 Garden Terrace tenants want to renegotiate their leases. BY CAROLINE PETROW-COHEN


A Black former consular officer detailed alleged mistreatment at the U.S.-Mexico border; then, her account went viral. BY THOMASI MCDONALD


A visionary new book cafe opens in East Durham.


Two new albums wield transportive power.




19 Phone a stranger in a new 600 Highwaymen participatory performance. BY BYRON WOODS

20 North Carolina native Ramin Bahrani is recognized by the Criterion Collection. BY JONATHAN MICHELS

2.24 Corrections Last week, in our 15 Minutes interview, we reported that the projected number of Asian residents in North Carolina in 2033 per the newest census is half a billion; the correct projected figure is half a million.

THE REGULARS 3 15 Minutes

4 Op-ed

In our timeline of Black History, we wrote that Duke University's Board of Trustees voted in 1961 to admit undergraduate students regardless of race to the university. In fact, it voted that year to admit students to its graduate and professional schools without regard to race, creed, or national origin.


COVER Illustration by Jon Fuller

Last week's print version of the story entitled "The Inclusion Delusion" did not include comment from the NC Musuem of Art. The INDY was using an outdated contact email for the museum's public relations manager.


Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald


Digital Content Manager Sara Pequeño

Editor in Chief Jane Porter Interim Managing Editor Leigh Tauss Interim A+C Editor Sarah Edwards


March 3, 2021

Theater+Dance Critic Byron Woods Contributors Will Atkinson, Paul Blest, Jameela F. Dallis, Michaela Dwyer, Grant Golden, Spencer

Griffith, Lucas Hubbard, Brian Howe, Kyesha Jennings, Mary King, Drew Millard, Glenn McDonald, Neil Morris, Dan Ruccia, David Ford Smith, Chris Vitiello, Ryan Vu, Nick Williams Interns Anna Mudd, Emma Lee Kenfield



Creative Director

Director of Sales John Hurld

Annie Maynard Graphic Designer

Jon Fuller Staff Photographer

Jade Wilson

Raleigh Sales Manager MaryAnn Kearns

INDY Week |


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C I RC U L ATI O N Berry Media Group

Contents © 2020 INDY Week All rights reserved. Material may not be reproduced without permission.


Last week, Brian Howe wrote about how local arts organizations are working to diversify, but questioned whether the (mainly) white people in charge are truly

willing to give up power. Reader AALIYAH BLAYLOCK wrote on Facebook: “Honest question! Why fight to be included when you can do your own thing and have it received by your community? Especially in the art world! I think Black people are putting way too much efforts in being included by people who have fought to exclude them without cease for too long! Instead of worrying about that, just create your own! If I’m wrong, help me understand!” Leigh Tauss wrote about a proposal under consideration by the Raleigh City Council to offer tax breaks to developers in exchange for community benefits. These Tax Increment Grants could potentially include John Kane and soccer club owner Steve Malik’s proposed Downtown South project. Reader KEVIN WILSON responded on Facebook: “This should be laughed out of city hall. In addition to gentrification, the other main reason to reject it is simple: Once Steve Malik self-demoted [the North Carolina Football Club], the case for a soccer stadium in downtown Raleigh evaporated. Spending (tens?) of millions on a venue for a team that is now in the third tier of the US soccer pyramid is moronic.”

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15 MINUTES Kyle Villemain, 28 Founder of The Assembly, BY JANE PORTER

How would you describe The Assembly? It’s a digital, statewide magazine about people, institutions, and ideas in North Carolina that launched last month. We publish two to three new stories each week; a subscription costs $3 a month for access to all content, with one free article per month, and a weekly newsletter. We’re focused on deep, longform reporting and smart-ideas writing about the state, and our intention is to give great writers the time and space to take a big swing at compelling stories. We think North Carolinians want that kind of magazine-style writing you can read about national figures—and that kind of reporting should be done here.

What niche does The Assembly fill in our state’s media landscape? I found there wasn’t enough journalism about powerful institutions, especially at the statewide level. There is a lot of innovation in North Carolina around journalism, but a lot is city-specific, like the INDY, or Axios Charlotte, or there are industry-specific outlets like Business North Carolina, EdNC, or North Carolina Health News. I didn’t see a statewide outlet like Texas Monthly or Cal Sunday doing long-form, deeply reported journalism about the whole state, and North Carolina is a compelling enough place to have that. We are a 10 million-plus state and we have the right ingredients to build this kind of magazine.

How do you find your writers? We take pitches and are eager to hear from folks who have a story they want to tell. The Assembly has been in the works for nine months, and a lot of that time was reaching out to folks who have written stories about North Carolina before, who used to work in newspapers and magazines across the state—authors based here. In our launch issue, two of our big articles were written by Kevin Maurer and Belle Boggs, authors who live in Wilmington and Alamance, respectively, and that is the kind of talent hidden here.


What in your background prepared you to launch The Assembly and edit these stories? My background is as a speechwriter at UNC and higher ed institutions, and my role was largely as an editor of other people’s words and ideas. It taught me to find a compelling story and make it accessible and well-structured, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. We are really a convening place, because we have so many great writers–journalists and academics and folks in policy roles—who have a lot to say about what is going on.

The Assembly is focused on power, you’ve said. Could you talk more about that? We look at who has power, how they got it, and what they are doing with it. That means institutional power, but it also means movement power and people power. This is about folks who are trying to make change and could be making change, and what they are and are not doing. North Carolina has powerful people who are liberal, who are conservative—and we need an outlet that is going to look at folks regardless of where they are coming from and report on what they are doing. Our focus on power allows us to look at environmental issues, higher ed issues, political issues, cultural questions. It gives us a broad perspective, and we found a good response [from] folks who want that kind of reporting.

Does The Assembly have a progressive or conservative angle from which writers approach their stories? No. We will be writing articles that will make Republicans upset and Democrats upset, at different times. The best example of an analogy is The Atlantic. It occupies a space where folks on both sides of the aisle see value in its work. That doesn’t mean it reaches for some ideal of both sides in each article, but it approaches writing by working to tell stories and hold people accountable across the spectrum. W

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OP - E D

Equal Everywhere North Carolina cities—and the U.S. Congress—should follow Durham’s lead on LGBTQ protections BY BARBARA GOLDSTEIN


y wife Ann and I have experienced so much together here in North Carolina, the state that we love and have called home for more than three decades. After moving here to pursue graduate degrees at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, we graduated, started new jobs, and purchased a house together. We’ve attended the weddings of our children and watched as they’ve built their adult lives. We’ve celebrated the births of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who now number a total of 17. And next year, we’ll celebrate 40 years together, a happy milestone for two women now in our 70s and 80s. We’re proud to have done all of that in North Carolina—and this month, we’re prouder than ever: Finally, multiple cities in North Carolina—including Durham, where we live—have passed local ordinances protecting members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination. It appears that a new day in North Carolina has arrived, now that we have somewhat recovered from the shame of HB2 (the infamous “bathroom bill”) and lived through the years of HB142, which disallowed the passage of LGBTQ protections but recently expired. Since LGBTQ North Carolinians lack state and federal nondiscrimination protections, local leaders are stepping up to fill in the gaps. It is so encouraging to see that lawmakers feel this is an issue important enough to address. It is so critical that today’s youth know they are not alone—that someone cares enough to look out for their rights. Ann and I have personally been fortunate enough to not get fired, or turned down for health insurance or any other service, because of our sexual orientation. But we always felt an existential fear of discrimination or harm. The threat was always present, so we were always careful. We never hid who we were—but we also did not openly refer to the nature of our relationship unless we felt safe. I recall wearing a borrowed skirt to a job interview in 1996 so I would appear “gender appropriate,” instead 4

March 3, 2021

Barbara Goldstein and her wife, Ann


of the pants I prefer wearing. That’s a stark contrast for today’s LGBTQ young people, whom I watch proudly holding hands and openly displaying various forms of rainbow clothing and paraphernalia. Thankfully, times have changed. However, there are still a vast number of LGBTQ people who experience discrimination in housing, employment, health care, adoption, and public accommodations. Transgender women of color face shocking violence, including police brutality, and so many queer people are relentlessly bullied. We all should be able to equally engage in every aspect of society—but many LGBTQ people do not have that freedom. I’m hopeful that the passage of these LGBTQ ordinances in Durham and other communities marks a major step toward dignity for all LGBTQ North Carolinians. Coming out can be very scary for some people, but to know that the community supports them can lead to a breakthrough in one’s feeling of self-confidence and security. These protections will help parents be better listeners to their children. They will help young people feel more pride in their identities and stand up to anti-LGBTQ bias.

Of course, like many states, North Carolina is also a little late to the party on this issue. But I believe that our local steps forward are a signal of growing momentum nationwide for LGBTQ protections: North Carolinians and a supermajority of all Americans are ready for these protections. It’s well past time for our representatives and senators in Congress to look around the country and see how much of an impact they could make on the daily lives of LGBTQ people by coming together and passing federal nondiscrimination legislation. My wife and I want all of our grandchildren—including three who have come out as LGBTQ themselves— to grow up in a country where no one is left vulnerable to discrimination because of who they are or who they love, no matter where they live. That will only be possible with a federal law, which is long overdue in our country. We’ll keep raising our voices for those nationwide, sweeping protections. In the meantime, we’ll celebrate the wonderful news of city after city in North Carolina taking action. And next year, we’ll toast to our 40th anniversary knowing that our local leadership voted to protect LGBTQ residents like us. W




The Longest Year Parents describe a wrenching 12 months of “Zoom fatigue” as schools prepare to reopen







ary Barzee’s seven-year-old son, Leo, sits down at their kitchen table to begin another day of online school, a routine he has been stuck in all school year. As his teacher starts the lesson, she cannot see that behind the camera, her student is crafting paper airplanes and does not have his book open to the correct page. Barzee sits at the kitchen table with Leo, trying to balance working from home and helping her son with online school. “This has already gone on for a year, and I am in a pretty desperate situation with my first-grader,” Barzee said in an interview. “He has major Zoom fatigue. He’s regularly crying, and his self-esteem has taken a major hit. It’s a disaster. His teachers are doing the best they can, but they cannot see what’s happening on the other end of the screen.” In a five-to-two vote in February, the Durham Public Schools board approved a plan to begin bringing students back to school on March 15—reversing a previous decision to keep classrooms closed for the rest of the school year. The vote—which arrived following almost a full school year of online instruction—came in response to Senate Bill 37, which proposed that all K-12 public schools open for in-person learning again, overriding any local school boards that had decided to keep schools closed. Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill on Friday, and the state Senate failed by a single vote to override the governor’s veto on Monday.

Teachers Want Vaccines Barzee said she will return Leo to in-person learning at George Watts Montessori Elementary School as soon as it is available, because he has struggled with virtual learning. At the same time, she acknowledges the concerns of educators, who recently became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine and say they should be vaccinated before they are asked to return to school. “I want to advocate for vaccines for teachers and other school staff who will be going back to teach in person,” Barzee said. “I have hopes that Durham schools can provide safe in-person learning environments for students and teachers, too.”


Reopening schools could save other families from desperate situations. Kristin Cunningham said she had to quit her full-time job and find part-time work that she could do at home, for less money, just so she could oversee the online instruction of three children who are George Watts students. “I felt kind of abandoned by the public school system, because so many people rely on that system being in place to care for their children and to be able to work,” Cunningham said in an interview. “I work in health care, and I didn’t have the option of working from home.”

Parents Sacrifice Careers Across the country, parents have had to make career sacrifices so that they can help their children with virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This burden most often has fallen on working mothers, who are nearly three times more likely than fathers to stay home and take care of the kids, according to research from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve. “We’re just barely hanging on,” Barzee said. “Everything to do with my job is dictated by [my son’s] class schedule.” Many parents are concerned that their young children are forced to spend too much time in front of their computers, when they should be socializing and playing outside. “Virtual instruction is not working for my first grader,” Maria Cattani, of Clarendon Street, said in an email to the DPS board. “Despite heroic attempts by her and

the teacher, every day we end up in tears and tantrums. My kid has heart-wrenching meltdowns about [how] she wants to go back to school. She wants to play, she wants to do puzzles, Legos, build forts.” Barzee has opted out of virtual art, music, and P.E. classes for her first-grader and his preschool brother. She homeschools those subjects herself, so her boys won’t have to spend their entire day online. “Before [the pandemic], we were extremely cautious about screen time,” she said. “We didn’t have a TV in our house. It’s just been really difficult to watch my kids’ attention span diminish.” In an email to the DPS board, Pablo Ariel, also of Clarendon Street, described how his six-year-old daughter had a meltdown over her virtual homework. She could not stop sobbing as she repeated over and over, “I just want to go to school. I just want to go to school.” “Kids’ voices have been absent from the discussions about reopening,” Ariel said. “Virtual learning for young kids is a failure, and they are suffering.” For many children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), online instruction is simply not an option. IEPs are special education services tailored to serve children with disabilities or other challenges that might impede their success in school. “My son is autistic and will not do Zoom school. So he essentially is receiving no education at all this year from the school system, which I believe to be illegal and a

March 3, 2021


lation of the Americans With Disabilities Act,” the parent of a four-year-old boy, who asked to be anonymous to protect the child’s privacy, said in an interview. “I feel disappointed at the lack of creativity or flexibility from the school system. It felt like the needs of neuro-divergent kids were coming in last.”

DPS Enrollment Has Declined The decision to begin reopening schools could make a crucial difference for enrollment numbers in Durham Public Schools, which lost 2,850 students at the beginning

of the school year. More parents have told DPS officials that they might find other options for their children, such as charter or private schools, unless classroom instruction is restored. “Virtual school is not working for our child and our family,” Meghan Brown, of Inverness Drive, said in an email to the DPS board. “We are being forced to change school districts unless Durham changes their mind. Not trying to pressure, but it’s just our reality.” The DPS website has details of the plan to restore in-person instruction for families that want it.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will attend in-person class every weekday except for “Wellness Wednesday,” which will be remote. Students in grades six through 12 will be divided into three rotating groups, so that each group has in-person instruction for two days a week and virtual school for three days. All students with IEPs have the option for in-person instruction up to four days per week. The reopening plan includes provisions for personal protective equipment, social distancing, and other measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Bettina Umstead, the DPS board chair, said in a press release

that students who opt to continue learning from home will help increase the safety for teachers returning to the classrooms. “If you can and if you are able, it’s important that you keep your students at home, so that we can have proper social distancing and support our staff in this plan,” Umstead said. “I want everyone to know that we care deeply, each and every one of us, about every single one of our educators, every single one of our students, and this is not a decision that we make lightly.” W This story was written for 9th Street Journal, a Duke University student publication.



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March 3, 2021


Chapel Hill West view of East Rosemary Street Redevelopment project RENDERING BY PERKINS & WILL

Golden Opportunity A Rosemary Street plan begins with a familiar structure, adds a new parking deck, and aims to usher in a new era for Chapel Hill BY SARA PEQUEÑO


nyone who has ever lived in Chapel Hill has their own version of Franklin Street. It’s the college-town thoroughfare they played in—bars they frequented, shops they bought University of North Carolina gear from, burger joints, record stores, seamstresses, head shops, and other small businesses they once loved. It’s Sutton’s and the Varsity and He’s Not Here and memories folded into the cracked sidewalk and aging brick. The Franklin Street of today, of course, is a bit different: The storefronts are the same, but new businesses serve new residents. Some are shells of Franklin Streets past, with “FOR LEASE” signs in their windows and rings of dirt where neon lettering used to be. Some of these storefronts have been vacated due to COVID-19, but others have been empty for longer.

The current version of Franklin Street needs a resurrection. Enter Rosemary Street. The East Rosemary Street Redevelopment Project, a partnership between the town’s planning department and Charlotte-based Grubb Properties, could change downtown Chapel Hill drastically in the coming years. It could also be the catalyst that launches the town into the 21st century, evolving it into an innovation hub on par with Raleigh and Durham. The three-phase project has already started. In February, the town blocked off the lower half of the Rosemary-Columbia parking lot to begin work on the CVS Plaza building (or the NationsBank building, depending on your personal Franklin Street). The renovations

began months ago, but the final steps will include giving the property new windows, a new HVAC system, and new electrical systems for continued use as office space. The second and third phases are when the tangible changes really kick in. Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill’s economic development officer, says that the construction of a 1,100-space, seven-story parking deck will begin in May or June, and is expected to be completed in 2022. As the deck is built, Grubb Properties will try to get the final piece of the project puzzle approved: a 200,000-squarefoot office building with two floors of lab space that could create 800 new jobs and generate almost $1.3 million in tax revenue for Chapel Hill. The project could also mean that the college town will finally find a way to keep its college graduates around— that’s the hope, at least. “We have a lot of college kids, and a lot of seniors,” Mayor Pam Hemminger says. “Then we get families, because they come here for the good K-12 school system. But we’re missing the young people who graduate from school; we’re missing the people who don’t want to pay those kinds of taxes, who don’t have kids.” Raleigh and Durham are regarded as two of the best cities for young professionals in the country. Chapel Hill is not. Hemminger says that while some companies may have opened up shop there because they were already considered “business cities,” previous town governments told commercial developers to stay out. It made a lasting impression on developers. “We actually said we weren’t interested in businesses before,” Hemminger says. “Then we said, ‘We have a long process, and it doesn’t actually yield a better outcome, and if you’re not willing to go through our process, then you’re not really committed.” These platitudes are tied to downtown as much as the pizza places and fan stores are. In 2010, the INDY chronicled the town’s plan to revitalize Franklin, Rosemary, and their side streets after they were decimated by the Recession; this plan looked similar to the proposals in a plan from 2001. Go back another decade, and a 1991 study of the area seems to mark the moment when downtown Chapel Hill became frozen in time: The town’s objective back then was to minimize commercial zonings in favor of residential and office spaces that would preserve Chapel Hill’s “village concept.” This led to today’s Rosemary Street, which is awash with small parking lots and student apartments instead of an auxiliary business district.

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Another view of East Rosemary Street Redevelopment Project

This planning concept also meant that recent college graduates, as well as working-class residents, would be largely unable to live in town. The town was suburbanized; its property taxes increased. Hemminger says that now, Chapel Hill is more than 80 percent residential. Despite a long-strained relationship between students and townsfolk, Chapel Hill’s large student population—most of them dependents with little to no income of their own—may be why the federal government decided to declare the 100 block of East Rosemary Street an Opportunity Zone in 2018. Opportunity Zones mean investors get tax breaks for building in low-income areas with room for potential economic growth. The Opportunity Zone in Chapel Hill runs as far north as Estes Drive, and includes parts of East Franklin Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Only 252 Opportunity Zones have been designated in North Carolina, and this is the only one in Orange County. While the county has one of the highest median household incomes in the state, Hemminger suspects that college student income may have given them a chance in the selection process. For Grubb Properties, this was the only way to make a profit on the CVS building, which it bought in 2019. “We looked at the CVS building, Rosemary building, before it was for sale,” Joe Dye, the executive vice president of Grubb, told the INDY. “It was very expensive, and it requires a lot of capital for investment.”


The real estate group already had a footing in the town: Founder Bob Grubb bought Glen Lennox, a mixed-use community just east of UNC’s campus, in the 1980s. Since then, the owners have held onto the property, and are currently renovating and rebuilding in the neighborhood. “He loves Chapel Hill,” Hemminger says of Clay Grubb, the CEO of Grubb Properties and Bob’s son. “He wanted to do something interesting here. And because there’s an Opportunity Zone, it allows him to do it.” Aside from the eventual office spaces and tax revenue, Chapel Hill also gets the opportunity to tackle another famed quirk: its parking problem. The East Rosemary Street parking deck that connects to the CVS building is poorly lit and underutilized. Dye says there wasn’t much Grubb could do except tear it down and rebuild. The parking deck will likely be completed in 2022, but the town’s skyline won’t change much. Bassett says it’ll only appear to be one story taller than the current structure. The new and improved deck will add between 200 and 300 spaces to downtown, including 80 electric vehicle charging stations. The university is also working to invest in the East Rosemary Street deck. It will buy 100 parking spaces for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, which will move its operations from Jackson Hall to downtown, another change that would alter Franklin Street’s appearance and foot traffic. Gordon Merklein, the associate vice chancellor of real estate operations at

“We’re putting a lot of energy into downtown, because we truly believe it’s the backbone.” UNC, says the school hasn’t made any firm commitments, but “is committed to working with developers on attracting research companies and startups to the area.” The final office building will replace the Wallace Deck, owned by the Town. Chapel Hill and Grubb Properties plan to trade parcels, so the Town can gain control of the new East Rosemary Street parking deck. Per the Opportunity Zone requirements, Grubb Properties will own and lease the space for 10 years before the company can sell it to someone else. The building has not been approved by the Chapel Hill Town Council, but Bassett suspects that plans will be finalized by the end of this year. Hemminger says she has been surprised at how little pushback the project has received; even the Historic Commission is onboard, since Franklin Street’s historic charm will remain intact. Bike users were worried about inviting more cars, but a single parking deck means fewer confused out-of-town drivers circling downtown. And churches needn’t worry: Parking in the new deck will still be free on Sundays, just as it is now. Change to our personal versions of Franklin Street is hard to face, but it’s happening now, after years of idling. And Franklin Street’s “village” feel—the iconic short buildings that hold memories for thousands of alumni who visit every year— isn’t going away. “We’re putting a lot of energy into downtown, because we truly do believe it’s the backbone,” Hemminger says. “It needs to be the place people want to be—whether they’re coming to visit, whether they live here, whether they work here.” W

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Durham Garden Terrace Union members march to the home of the man who manages Garden Terrace for its owner PHOTO BY KATE ALEXANDRITE

A United Front Garden Terrace tenants are still fighting for repairs and fair housing BY CAROLINE PETROW-COHEN


t Durham’s Garden Terrace Apartments in Lakewood, resident Maryeri Sarmiento is tired of being ignored. Her apartment is riddled with maintenance concerns, she told the INDY through a translator, and her requests for repairs regularly go unanswered. Wood is rotting under the kitchen sink, and mold is growing on air vents in the bathroom. Water seeps under the front door when it rains, she says, and a wooden cabinet is missing its fourth wall. Sarmiento says her husband, Santos Ortiz, has been fixing things himself, but hasn’t received reimbursement. “Anything ... in here that’s working well, it’s because we fixed it ourselves,” she says. Sarmiento and Ortiz are not alone. Following months of property managers allegedly ignoring their complaints, a group of Garden Terrace residents, many of whom are immigrants and low-income, have banded together to demand repairs. 10

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City inspectors have since found numerous housing code violations at the 56-unit complex, and maintenance work is now underway. But some residents call the repairs an inadequate, short-term solution to larger problems. Since fall, tenants have worked to protect and expand their rights. They’re calling on Jonathan Dayan, who manages the investment group that owns Garden Terrace, to begin negotiations for new lease agreements. The standoff between Dayan and the tenants escalated last month, when protesters marched to Dayan’s home to demand repairs and stable rent.

Overdue Repairs In November, a group of tenants gathered in Raleigh outside the office of Wilson Property Management, the company that manages Garden Terrace, to protest

what they called unsafe living conditions and cases of unfair evictions. Tenants said they had submitted countless maintenance requests, but never saw the repairs completed. Many families face mold, rotting wood, and plumbing issues in their units. Wilson owner Beth Black met with the tenants that day. She asked for specific maintenance requests so they could begin repairs, she says, but only received two work orders from the residents in attendance. Following the protest, tenants contacted Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department. According to department records, City officials began inspecting the complex in December and have found more than 120 housing code violations. Records cite excessive dampness, faulty or missing smoke detectors, and improper sanitation. Inspectors also noted loose flooring, flaking paint, and ventilation issues in bathrooms. Before City inspectors got involved, tenants said their complaints fell on deaf ears. But Black and Dayan say they were not aware of any issues prior to the demonstration. “We had no idea that things had gotten so bad,” Black says, “because the tenants weren’t turning anything in to us.” Tenants can submit maintenance requests through a resident portal or by calling Wilson directly, Black says. Dayan added that it’s impossible to erase records of tenants’ requests for repairs. Dayan and Black say they are now working with the City to address problems at Garden Terrace. Both say they wish they were aware of the situation earlier. “We give them instructions on how to submit work orders,” Dayan says, “but we don’t know what’s going on inside the units unless they tell us.” Sarmiento and her family tell a different story. She says she called and emailed multiple times to request maintenance, but never got a response. Dayan told the INDY that maintenance teams are currently working on Sarmiento’s unit. “The tenants’ goals are my goals,” Dayan says. “I want Garden Terrace to be a nice place to live.” Black is relieved that City inspectors brought the conditions to her attention, she says. “[Dayan] doesn’t want them living like that, I don’t want them living like that, my property manager doesn’t want them living like that,” Black says. “We want to get it fixed; we want to get it right and for everybody to be safe and happy.”

The Garden Terrace Tenants Union The severe maintenance issues at Garden Terrace have shed light on a broader struggle. Residents have teamed up with community organizers to rectify what they say is an uneven power dynamic between tenants and their landlord, forming the Garden Terrace Tenants Union in December with the help of Durham-based Bull City Tenants United. Fany Sarmiento, the union’s president and Maryeri’s sister, says that roughly three-fourths of Garden Terrace residents have joined the union. Many feel neglected and taken advantage of, she says. Fany Sarmiento says she believes Dayan is trying to force the tenants out of their homes by refusing to repair their units, rendering them unlivable. Once the units are empty, she says, she suspects Dayan will hike the prices and look for new renters. In October, Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order strengthening federal protections against eviction in North Carolina during the pandemic. Those federal protections are in place through the end of this month. The union is the tenants’ way of standing up for themselves, Sarmiento says. She believes they are stronger together than they would be as individuals. The union wants a collective lease agreement that would give each tenant access to fair treatment and acceptable living conditions. They want to open negotiations with Dayan to establish a binding contract that would ensure prompt repairs, keep rents stable, and prevent unfair evictions. On February 7, Garden Terrace residents invited Dayan to meet with them to begin negotiations for a new lease agreement, but he did not attend. Tenants say they have never received a direct reply from Dayan, despite reaching out multiple times. Dayan says many of the tenants’ demands are not legally feasible. The leases used at Garden Terrace are approved by the N.C. Bar Association, he says, and cannot be adjusted once a tenant has signed. “I hope to have that conversation with [the tenants] and explain it to them directly, but we will not set that kind of precedent of renegotiating a lease,” Dayan told the INDY. Furthermore, Dayan says he’s not able to negotiate collectively. “There is no legal entity called the Garden Terrace Tenants Union,” he says. “I’m more than happy to

meet with any individual leaseholder, but I can’t do anything with this group.” Dayan says he is willing to meet with a small, socially distanced group to discuss concerns and explain the situation. But so far, the tenants’ attempts to meet have been outside of business hours and against public health guidelines, Dayan says. Tenants invited Dayan to meet with them on Sunday, February 21; after he didn’t show up, they marched to his Durham home to voice their demands. Dayan says he received the invitation, but would not attend a meeting on the weekend. Wilson property manager Deanna Sweat replied to the invitation via email, stating that the company understands tenants’ concerns about maintenance and housing security and offering to meet with a “COVID-sensitive size group.” “We would also like … to tell you about our ongoing maintenance work so far and the plan going forward, so we can have a transparent process and also happy to conduct a short training on the web portal we use for maintenance requests so that nothing gets lost in the cracks moving forward,” Sweat wrote. Dayan says tenants did not reply to Sweat’s email. Many do not speak English, complicating the dispute. He says he was not expecting dozens of protesters to come to his home on a Sunday and that he felt unfairly targeted and had trouble communicating with the group. “I told them that there have not been any evictions,” he says, “but they don’t trust me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to sue them, but they have crossed a lot of lines.” Dayan says the group marched up his driveway and began chanting at him while his son was playing in the backyard. The residents and their supporters say they won’t be deterred. In a media advisory from Bull City Tenants United, leaders wrote that they remain determined to negotiate a binding contract. “The tenants will be inviting more members of the community to join them … planning to turn up the heat in the event Dayan continues to ignore them,” the release said. Dayan says he wants to help the tenants and is working hard to complete the maintenance repairs as quickly as possible. But he won’t discuss the possibility of a reformed lease agreement. “A lease is a binding contract,” Dayan says. “Legally, we can’t do anything.” W

BILL BURTON ATTORNEY AT LAW Un c o n t e s t e d Di vo rc e Bu s i n e s s L a w UNCONTESTED In c o r p o r a t i o n / L LC / DIVORCE Pa r t n e r s h i p MUSIC BUSINESS LAW Wi l l s INCORPORATION/LLC WILLS C o l l e c t i o n s SEPARATION AGREEMENTS Mu s i c


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March 3, 2021



March 3, 2021


What does an in-person art experience look like during a pandemic? On Saturday, Durham was home to an outdoor multi-media event, centered around artists’ responses to the conditions we’re living under. Featuring curation by SITES founder Stephanie Leathers and dance by Courtney OM’s OM grown dancers company, the event kicked off with a sound and movement performance outside the Accordion Club, welcoming attendees before they entered the bar. Out on Accordion’s back patio and in the park behind it, there was a well-balanced mixture of music, visual art, dance, and film for people to enjoy while socially distancing. W

March 3, 2021


Durham resident Tianna Spears PHOTO BY JADE WILSON

drugs, despite carrying a Global Entry card that ostensibly grants expedited clearance to pre-approved travelers. Later, on her blog, What’s Up With Tianna, Spears chronicled some of her experiences: I drove my vehicle from my house in Mexico across the Ysleta-Zaragoza International Bridge into El Paso, Texas on Saturday, January 19, 2019. A CBP officer flagged me into secondary inspection, for what I estimate was more than 15 times since I arrived in Mexico—at least once a week. The official inquired if I was a U.S. citizen, motive of travel in the United States, reason of visit in Mexico, and if the car I was driving was stolen. I sat on a cold bench and endured further questioning. I showed my Diplomatic Passport, stating I worked at the U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juárez, and lived there. “Sure you do,” he laughed.

Crossed Lines A Black former consular officer chronicled alleged mistreatment by U.S. border officers. She raised thousands for Durham organizations after her blog post went viral BY THOMASI MCDONALD


ianna Spears joined the United States Foreign Service because she wanted to represent America. In October of 2018, she started as a consular officer with the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Every day, she interviewed around 25 immigrants applying for U.S. visas for work, study, and travel. “It wasn’t safe,” Spears, now a Durham resident, tells the INDY of life in the Mexican city, which has been riddled with government corruption, drug-fueled gang violence, and poverty since the early 1990s. “I lived in a gated community [with] barbed wire and a security guard.” 14

March 3, 2021

But it wasn’t Juárez’s crime and corruption that made Spears’ work life difficult. Instead, it was officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who turned her dream job into a nightmare. During her six-month tenure in Juárez, Spears says she experienced repeated racial profiling by CBP officers. Many of her trips back to the U.S. turned into drawnout ordeals as CBP officers regularly ordered Spears, who carried four different types of identification with her, to pull into a secondary line of cars where they questioned her embassy credentials. Time and again, she says, she was subjected to body and vehicle searches for

During the six months Spears worked in Juárez, Spears says she was harassed at least 25 times by CBP officers. “Clearly, they knew who I was,” she tells the INDY. Spears says the repeated harassment she experienced at the border and the State Department’s failure to address it after she filed complaints wore heavily on her. “I tried to speak up, but no one helped me,” she says. “No one made the harassment stop.” Spears sought the help of a therapist, who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. “I’m a lot better,” she says. “But I’m still very much impacted by what happened to me.” Spears says she didn’t feel safe sharing her experiences publicly until she returned to Durham and the last of her belongings were moved out of Mexico. Five days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Spears says she “drank a lot of coffee” and wrote a lengthy blog post, “What Do I Want from White People? (An Illustration on Being Black in America),” documenting the outrages by a country that sanctions police violence against Black people and detailing her experiences as a Black woman working as a foreign service officer. The post, excerpted in this story, went viral. A new official appeared and searched my car, tossing around the contents in my backseat and glove compartment. He took his left hand and rubbed it up and down my car windows. “I’m going to meet my friend in El Paso,” I stated. “When you talk to a man, you look at the ground. Do you understand me?” He glared at me, face full of

“He glared at me, face full of disgust. The officers laughed. My shoulders tense.”

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3.6 disgust. The officers laughed. My shoulders tense. “May I speak to your manager please?” I asked. The on-duty manager approached, crossing his arms, and asked, “What do you want?” I told him about my negative interaction with the previous officers. The manager laughed and asked the motive of travel into the U.S. I told him I was going to meet a friend for coffee and was asked why I needed to come to the U.S. to partake in that activity. “I’m a U.S. citizen,” I reiterated. Spears is a California native who moved to Durham with her parents when she was nine years old. She recalls hearing the call to prayer from the Jamaat Ibad Ar Rahman mosque in the mornings and the Hillside High School band playing during football games. After graduating on a scholarship from Ravenscroft High School in Raleigh, Spears enrolled at North Carolina State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in 2014, then a master’s degree in International Relations from Northeastern University. As an undergraduate, Spears studied in Costa Rica and became interested in working for the State Department. In 2018, the department selected her to participate in its Consular Fellows Program, where Americans interested in a career in foreign service can work adjudicating visas in a consulate abroad. “I remember seeing the embassy and thinking, ‘I could work there,’” she says. “I wanted to travel, meet new friends, and represent the United States abroad. I knew there weren’t too many people of color, especially Black women. I knew America needed more representation across the board. I thought I was the perfect candidate.” When I reiterated that his account of the frequency of secondary inspection was incorrect, the manager scoffed, his team standing behind him almost mocking me. “Just because you say you work at the Consulate, does not mean that you are

not smuggling drugs into the country,” he said. Extremely frustrated and irritated, I asked how in the world I would be able to get top secret security clearance to work for the United States Government. The manager then told me, “I do not know, but I do know what drug dealers and smugglers look like.” When I asked him to explain, the manager stepped forward, attempting to intimidate me, crossed his arms, looked at me up and down, and said, “You know what I mean.” I was furious at his insinuation that I was a drug smuggler and his racially charged implication based off of my appearance. I demanded an apology from the manager for the disgusting and unjust defamation of my name and my character.

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Spears says she thinks the Trump administration’s callousness toward people of color played a role in border officers’ behavior toward her. “The blunt racism, the sexism, demagoguery, and xenophobia—all of that coming from the U.S. president empowers and emboldens the Department of Homeland Security border officers to act in hostile and retaliatory ways,” she says. Spears also blames the State Department for creating a work environment that did not value her safety. The CBP manager took another step forward to stand on top of the platform that the bench sits on, positioning him to be a couple inches taller than me. He placed his hand on his gun in the holster, finger around the trigger, and told me to get back in my car. His body language and his hand looked like he was just about to shoot. I did not move. Shaking. I remember wondering if he would just shoot me. Why not? I had already said too much. Shaking. I requested his supervisor. The CBP Supervisor came out to secondary inspection, greeting me by saying, “I remember you.”

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March 3, 2021


“I remember wondering if he would just shoot me. Why not? I had already said too much.” The State Department employs some 76,000 people worldwide, according to a 2019 agency report, a third of whom are career foreign services officials and civil service employees. Black employees make up just over 15 percent of foreign service and civil service employees, according to the department’s 2019 five-year workforce plan—just above the 13.4 percent of the African American percentage of the national population. Meanwhile, fewer women and people of color are represented in senior-level career jobs at the State Department than white men. While women account for over 42 percent of foreign and civil service leadership posts, Asian Americans comprise 4.5 percent, Hispanics 6 percent, and Black people 10.7 percent. The border officers from Spears’ experiences were never disciplined. Last week, a State Department spokesperson told the INDY on background that CBP officials became aware of Spears’ allegations of repeated harassment and that an investigation was launched four days after Spears filed her complaint. On March 8 of 2019, following reviews by the Department of Homeland Security, the case was referred to the CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility in El Paso. The spokesperson wrote that, in the CBP’s review of a 30-second video of the incident involving the officer with the gun, the “footage is clear that the officer never moved his hands towards his weapon nor postured himself in a manner that could be construed as threatening or intimidating,” and that Spears’ “public claim that a CBP officer effectively threatened her by placing his finger around the trigger of a firearm is completely unsubstantiated, and, in fact, contradicted by video evidence.” The spokesperson later added that the full investigation “found no evidence of misconduct.” Less than a month after Spears filed her complaint, she was transferred over 1,000 miles away, to the U.S. Consulate in 16

March 3, 2021

Mexico City, where she interviewed about 100 visa applicants each day. Spears quit working for the State Department in October of 2019. “Or, more like, [was] forced out,” Spears explains. “The environment was not conducive to my mental health issues, and it was hard to fend for myself.” This June, following her blog post going viral, Spears created a GoFundMe she called “A Love Letter To Durham,” where she wrote of her love for the city that raised and nurtured her, of a grandfather that worked at NC Mutual, and a grandmother who was a public school teacher. “I wanted to give back to Black and Brown organizations,” Spears says. The campaign raised more than $33,000. Spears distributed the money to a handful of community organizations including Black Girls CODE, Blackspace, the Boys & Girls Clubs, Durham Literacy Center, El Centro Hispano, Urban Ministries of Durham, Walltown Children’s Theatre, and N.C. Central’s Office of International Affairs, for study abroad. Spears says she’s healing while writing and seeking “a more creative life;” she’s focusing on creating a storytelling platform for voices that aren’t always heard, or heeded. “I want to be in a space where I’m growing, healing, and open to whatever opportunity presents itself,” she says. On her blog, she writes: You will rise again to face another day. Build a community. Love your mother, love your father. Go to church and sing a song, a local community center, and support a friend and family member’s small business. Gather for homecoming at the local Historically Black College & University that your dad’s entire family attended. Build a scholarship fund for students in your family’s honor. Hug your elders and ask them how they’re doing. Listen. Protest. Vote. Celebrate your Blackness. Continue to show up as your authentic self in all spaces. Dance, share stories, pray. W


An Open Book Naledi Yaziyo and Bev Makhubele’s vision for a colorful, inclusive new bookstore-café in East Durham BY EMMA KENFIELD


hen the image of a library comes to mind, it’s often stuffy and still, pairing literature with silence. Conversely, mention of a hip new coffee shop might conjure images of young professionals, glowing Apple logos, and the clattering rush of keyboards. But when Bev Tumi Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo picture their creation, Rofhiwa Book Café, they see color, accessibility, and a celebration of Black culture. Rofhiwa will be located on the southwest corner of Angier Avenue and South Driver Street in Old East Durham. Rofhiwa means “we have been given” in Tshivenda, a language of South Africa. “I like to imagine that on a Saturday morning, when a family is deciding what to do with the day, Rofhiwa might be part of their plans,” Yaziyo says. In early February, Makhubele and Yaziyo launched the bookshop website; they hope to open the shop doors in March. When they do, the pair plan to carry a carefully curated selection of adult and children’s books by Black authors and serve coffee from Black roasters. The vision, they say, is of a vibrant space that fosters conversation and community. As a child, Makhubele noticed that the books they were encouraged to read in school did not match the books their mother talked about reading growing up. They were excited about Goosebumps, while their mother could recite whole passages from certain African novels. A piece of cultural connection and representation was missing. In 2014, Makhubele began sorting through their late mother’s belongings and dug out her well-loved copy of Megokgo ya bjoko by South African author O.K. Matsepe. The wrinkled paperback helped them discover a passion for

collecting rare and out-of-print novels by Black authors. “A lot of these books go out of print, and then they disappear,” Makhubele says. “I wanted to get my hands on as many as I could—in this life, anyway.” Shortly after, in 2017, Makhubele decided they wanted to make these rare novels accessible to children and adults, in a space that felt like home. And thus, Rofhiwa was born. Yaziyo, who is curating the book selection, has unorthodox ideas about the way a bookstore can be organized. She wants to reimagine the typical shelving of bookstores and libraries, where genres are sorted categorically. She thinks of literature as a living being, and wants to group books in conversation with one another. “A crime novel can sit next to a romance, yes,” Yaziyo said. “But at Rofhiwa, a crime novel is sitting next to a romance and a piece of historical fiction, and what’s special about it is that they are from different regions where Black people live and make life. And they reflect different experiences.” Take Mpumi’s Magic Beads by Lebohang Masango, a children’s book set in Johannesburg that depicts a little girl who can transport out of the city by the magic beads in her hair. When intentionally placed beside James Baldwin’s Little Man Little Man, a story of a child living in Brooklyn, it becomes part of a larger dialogue about the global limitations that city life poses for Black children wanting to play. “That conversation is held across time, across two very different cities,” Yaziyo says. “But there’s a way that you can read those books and not have those conversations. So I’m trying to think about how we can place those books in such a way that that conversation becomes obvious.”

Naledi Yaziyo and Bev Tumi Makhubele, owners of Rofhiwa Book Café

Rofhiwa is not the first Black-owned bookstore to open in Durham. The Know Bookstore, which was run by Bruce Bridges for 18 years on Fayetteville Street, was a longtime community cornerstone—a jazz club, soul food café, and lecture spot allin-one. Its patrons remember the space as a celebration of Black culture; one perfumed with the smell of incense and fried chicken. The bookstore shuttered in 2009, though, and today the space is vacant, with plans in the works for it to become a Checkers location. The historic 406 South Driver Street building where Rofhiwa will open, meanwhile, also has a storied past. In previous lives, it has been home to numerous community-centered spaces, including a pharmacy, a physicians’ office, and a barbershop. Between 2018 and 2020, the space was occupied by the popular pie shop, East Durham Bake Shop, which closed abruptly in September, amid employee allegations of a toxic workplace.


Yaziyo and Makhubele hope to enhance the sense of community and Black excellence that has long existed in the area. Neighboring Black-owned businesses include a screen printing and t-shirt service, a barbecue supply store, a diner, and two barbershops. “I think when people say, ‘We’re so excited that this corner is coming to life,’ they mean the collective effort of everybody,” Makhubele said. “We’re just hoping to be half as good as our neighbors.” In December, Makhubele and Yaziyo launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Rofhiwa’s construction. They were met with an outpouring of community support: By January 12, the campaign had reached its $40,000 goal, accruing 1,032 backers in just over a month. “We want to make something where Black people feel like they deserve to be there,” Makhubele says. “We live here. This is home for us. And this will be home for you.” W

March 3, 2021




In the Groove The evocative, transportive powers of a Raundhaus anniversary compilation and a Solomon Fox debut BY GRANT GOLDEN AND BRIAN HOWE


March 3, 2021



HHHH [Self-released; Feb. 24]

HHHH [Raund Haus; Feb. 26]

The evolution of Gabe FoxPeck’s creative prowess has been a fascinating journey to watch. First introduced to the local scene as onethird of Durham’s R&B/hiphop trio Young Bull, Fox-Peck has since received Oscar and Grammy nods for his co-production work on “Stand Up,” from Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, and for his production work on St. Louis rapper and singer Smino’s latest mixtape, She Already Decided. But with Solomon, we see Fox-Peck, playing as Solomon Fox, flexing his creative muscles on a project all his own. The result is an evocative record of lovesick R&B tunes. Solomon is indelibly marked by Fox-Peck’s gospel inspirations. Each track is finely fleshed out with lush harmonies, which add depth to his sparse arrangements. Less is more when it comes to these productions, as full-bodied bass lines help guide simplistic keys and guitar licks, all riding atop a drunken drum beat. This technique allows Fox-Peck’s densely layered vocals to take center stage, showcasing his powerful melodies and playful wordplay. Tracks like “Home for Summertime” and “Turtle Hole” brim with vivid imagery, eliciting memories of the yearnings of youth and lost loves. Whether he’s singing about chasing the sunrise in big cities or hazy day trips on the Eno River, each song charts a well-wrought narrative. The lyrics string the listener along with anticipation, melding clever rhyme schemes with a legato vocal style that glides with ease. Solomon feels like a fresh direction for an artist who has already defined himself as a standout in various other projects. Marrying elements of soul, R&B, and gospel, Fox-Peck builds a dreamy palette of sounds. And thanks to his remarkable attention to detail, these tracks are both heavily replayable and immensely fun to unpack. Solomon is moody enough that it might catch you in your feelings, but this sultry debut always keeps a groove within close reach. —Grant Golden W

There’s an image I will forever associate with Raund Haus, the Durham-based collective and label that’s celebrating half a decade of far-out beats with the compilation RH-101. It’s Halloween, 2019, and a man dressed like an Old West undertaker is onstage at Motorco. With a dramatic flourish, he presses a glowing button on a custom console, dropping a drum into the sample stretching the air, and this tall kid posted up by the stage just can’t take it. First, his arms fly up like he’s literally falling over the drop. Then, bobbing deeply, he clutches his head as if it were the only thing keeping him afloat on the vortex of the beat. There’s something very Raund Haus about that union of heady music and bodily transportation. Even the out-of-town headliner at the show, Daedelus, is emblematic, as an emissary from the genre-omnivorous, fantastically stoned LA beat music scene (think Flying Lotus) that Raund Haus has replicated in Durham. The comp features previously unreleased tracks from artists, mostly homegrown, who have played shows or released records with the crew. Beyond the commonalities between them—plush bass, inventively broken rhythms, mutated samples that taunt you to identify them—this set thrives on diverse approaches to an aesthetic that has fruitfully widened with time, admitting various strains of electronic dance music into its lo-fi hip-hop core. Here, Saint James chops a soul song into a J Dilla jigsaw. There, Kyoju concocts serene, slippery study beats. Elsewhere, j0eru slips into a sweet spot between headphones and dancefloors, while Axnt infuses trap with fleet drum-and-bass palpitations. FootRocket’s evolution from blistering footwork to euphoric pop-house continues, while the ever-unpredictable Treee City runs a tasty electro-soul tune right up to the forbidden borders of dubstep. For a crash course in the Raund Haus vibe, it’s the next best thing to one of their parties, and it portends more years of hip-shaking, head-nodding, mind-blowing music to come. —Brian Howe



Carolina Performing Arts | 600 Highwaymen | Tuesday, Mar. 2–Sunday, Mar. 14; $15 suggested donation |

When a Stranger Calls Participatory performance piece A Phone Call offers a rare chance at connection BY BYRON WOODS


t exactly 2 p.m. last Thursday, I dialed a number somewhere in southeastern Massachusetts, entered a six-digit event code on my cell phone, and joined a conference call from my home office with a total stranger. And just like that, I found myself plunged into a disquieting theatrical future. “This is not going to be… a conversation,” said a voice at the other end of the phone, pausing awkwardly mid-sentence. Thus began part one of A Thousand Ways, a multi-platform performance art triptych that Carolina Performing Arts is presenting starting this week. The stilted inflection continued: “It might feel like it”—pause—“should be, but it’s not.” The narrator of the production’s first installment, titled A Phone Call—and the only voice heard during the work, outside of contributions solicited from our two-person audience—had already asked us to say hello: “Nothing else. Just hello.” Then it cast us, in a still-to-be-revealed drama, as Person A and Person B—and warned us to listen up, since its abilities as an interlocutor were limited. “I try to speak with clearness,” it confessed, “but I cannot repeat.” Great moments in theatrical elocution? Hardly. But then again, the sole performer from the New York-based company in our virtual dress rehearsal wasn’t even human: It was an artificial intelligence-driven voice app. Over the next 50 or so minutes, the vocal clone would lead us through a curious mélange of braided experiences. Its central story, about a broken-down car leaving our group stranded, is an obvious enough metaphor for the country’s current moment. “The feeling of abandonment [evoked in A Phone Call]—being thrown out in the middle of nowhere, having to figure out how to respond and survive—makes sense

for our times,” noted audience member Sara Billmann, who participated in another performance of the work. But as that narrative continues, the audience is prompted to provide increasing amounts of material for the performance. The initial traumatic narrative becomes interlaced with seemingly random requests for biographical information. Among them are items that seem lifted from a marketing questionnaire: Are we married? Do we smoke? Have we ever held a gun? As A Phone Call continues, the AI’s requests become more personal, soliciting information about our heritage, and the people we come from: What they valued, and what we did and didn’t carry on from them. Descriptions of first-grade classmates and a photo from childhood lead, at the end, to very pointed, particularly disclosive questions: What is something that is gone, that you wish you could get back, and that you know won’t ever return? These prompts, in turn, are interwoven with requests for details of where we’re experiencing the work, and physical cues to perform a series of seemingly simple acts, some of which will be familiar to those acquainted with somatic psychology: the self-comfort of a gently stroked forearm or eyebrow, the grounding effect of a hand on one’s chest or cheek. If these discursive activities seem off-putting in print, well before the end of A Phone Call they become aimed at something that so many of us badly need to conjure in our current social moment: a sense of intimacy—of swift, close knowing between two total strangers. In recent decades, social scientists have toyed with the idea of accelerated intimacy. A famous set of 36 questions developed in the 1990s has been claimed to help any two people fall in love.

A photo for A Phone Call


But the pandemic has put our culture’s issues around attachment and relationships into sharper focus. As the COVID19 crisis has threatened human lives, it has also threatened and circumscribed— where it hasn’t fundamentally erased— the possibilities of intimacy itself. Co-creator Abigail Browde notes how intimate encounters have become “much more precious, much more charged” in a time when it’s become unsafe to encounter one another. “We weren’t so good with strangers to begin with—gravitating, falling prey to divisive ideas and assumptions about who one another were, in this concept of the Other,” she says. “We were doubling down with fear on that kind of categorization and an inability to widen the ways we hold or approach one another. It was like, God help us if we are now literally perceiving, even more than we were to begin with, that one another’s bodies are threats.” That development comes with troubling implications. “‘Who is perceived to be dangerous to me’ is the sort of survival question that has gotten hardened and amplified in ways that are obviously highly discouraging,” Browde says.

To counter that narrative, Browde and co-creator Michael Silverstone have woven together a surprisingly contemplative narrative of disaster and its aftermath and placed it against the backdrop of its audeience members’ individual lives. The result is an unlikely work of psychosocial synesthesia: an audio work that manages to help us see one another, and a participatory story about strangers, in which the participants are no longer strangers by its end. Its somatic strategies and carefully selected mind games invoke internal mental channels of communication to deal with trauma. As raw material, they incorporate not only the story outlined in the text, but the people who are participating in its telling. In short: This is necessary practice in intimacy, in a world where intimacy itself seems to harder and harder to find. “It’s forcing us to reimagine a world which is more open, and where there are more opportunities to find connections and meet people from all walks of life,” Billmann says. Despite everything that divides us, she finds A Phone Call “a reminder that, at the core, we still have much in common, even if the surface differences might be the most apparent.” W

March 3, 2021





[Jan. 13; Netflix]

[Feb. 23; Criterion]


The Bahrani Effect The humane films of North Carolina native Ramin Bahrani earn a spot in the Criterion Collection BY JONATHAN MICHELS


n the heels of the release of Ramin Bahrani’s third movie, critic Roger Ebert hailed him as a “new great American director,” comparing him to a young Martin Scorsese. On February 23, the Criterion Collection released his first two films, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, on Blu-ray and DVD. With the induction of these two films into the collection, the Iranian-American Winston-Salem native takes his rightful place among the world’s master filmmakers. It’s a high honor for Bahrani to have his pictures included in the collection, which restores and releases high-quality digital prints of “important classic and contemporary films.” The 45-year-old North Carolinian will now have his work showcased alongside other film giants like Akira Kurosawa, Agnès Varda, Federico Fellini, and Wong Kar-wai. 20

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Bahrani is certainly having a moment. Not only is his past work receiving the renewed attention that it deserves, but he’s also been garnering rave reviews and Oscar buzz for his new Netflix film, The White Tiger, released January 13. The film has been described as the “anti-Slumdog Millionaire” for its sobering and realistic look at the destructive effects of India’s caste system. Many of the same themes that are on display in The White Tiger can be seen in Bahrani’s first feature, Man Push Cart, which follows a Pakistani immigrant named Ahmad as he struggles to climb America’s social hierarchy in New York City as a street vendor. Ahmad was once a rock star in Pakistan—one character calls him the “Bono of Lahore”—but in New York City, he’s focused only on pulling his

cart up and down the streets, hoping to make enough money to secure custody of his son. Whether this modern-day Sisyphus is successful depends less on how long he works selling doughnuts and coffee—or how much energy he devotes to pulling his cart alongside busy street traffic—than whether he can withstand the social alienation of his adopted home amid the paranoia and fear that grips New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Criterion edition of Man Push Cart includes a handsomely printed essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri, a making-of documentary, and Bahrani’s 1998 short, Backgammon, which is notable as the only film of his to date that draws directly on his experience as a second-generation immigrant growing up in the South. In a revealing supplemental feature, the director also sits down with Hamid Dabashi, Bahrani’s former Iranian studies professor at Columbia University, to discuss his complicated feelings about growing up in the Tar Heel state and his career-long fascination with telling stories about outsiders, particularly Black and brown immigrants. “In some obvious way, the fact that all these films are with immigrant characters or first-generation, the fact that everybody feels like an outsider—this all has to do with growing up as an Iranian in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,” Bahrani tells Dabashi. “Nice place, but there’s not a lot of diversity.” A serendipitous trip to the bustling automotive repair shops and junkyards of Willets Point in Queens, however, captured Bahrani’s attention and became the backdrop for his second feature, 2007’s Chop Shop. This sophomore effort is as diverse in color and sound as Man Push Cart is muted and dark. The drama centers around immigrant siblings Ale and his sister, Izzy, as they struggle to carve out a stable life for themselves amid the chaotic chop shops in Willets Point. Ale convinces his sis-

ter that their ticket out of poverty is a food truck. Sadly, as with Ahmad in Man Push Cart, Ale and Izzy cannot help but become ensnared in the American capitalist system that views immigrants, not as people looking for opportunity, but as sources of wealth extraction. The quiet drama of Chop Shop pivots on whether the bonds of family are powerful enough to overcome the economic forces that seem bent on dividing the siblings. Like every Criterion release, there is enough bonus content included with Chop Shop to please both casual viewers and longtime devotees of Bahrani’s work. Among this content is a touching making-of featurette that reunites the director with actor Alejandro Polanco, who played Ale. Ironically, the former child star took a page from his movie character and now oversees a fleet of mobile car washes. Be sure to check out a far-ranging conversation between Bahrani and writer Suketu Mehta, which allows the director to share his political and social views of the world—perspectives that he seldom puts into words in his films. Bahrani clearly understands that any cinematic exploration of what it means to be a human being today—either here in the U.S. or overseas, as he does with The White Tiger—must grapple with the evils of hyper-exploitation, racial capitalism, and colonialism. Recognizing his limitations with camera placement and visual technique as a budding artist, Bahrani says that he believed his job with Man Push Cart and Chop Shop was to force audiences to look in a direction where nobody else was looking. After sixteen years of of American occupation in the Middle East, an economic recession, and a global pandemic, more and more Americans are joining the ranks of the working poor. You would think it would be easier for us to recognize our shared struggle, and yet Bahrani’s skill at shifting our gaze toward our shared humanity remains as essential as ever. W

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