10 Works and Performances That Helped Me Make Sense of 2023

by The Technical Blogs

“I hope you don’t mind if we carry on,” Juicy says at the end of “Fat Ham.” The other characters in the play then begin cleaning and clearing the stage, an act that affirms Juicy’s proposition and, in this work inspired by Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, suggests that there might be a way for them to work through their shared trauma together.

Those words hit me hard when I heard them last spring. I was staving off my own mourning as my family prepared for the 10th anniversary of my brother Shaka’s death from cancer. That, coupled with political crises and global despair, pushed me to find film, television and performances that helped me make sense of my grief and, hopefully, find a release for it.

I almost didn’t see what ended up as one of my favorite plays of the year. I could not wrap my head around the story line of a Black, queer, “Hamlet”-like play, even after it had won over my fellow critics and earned the Pulitzer Prize for best drama. Then I saw it on Broadway. I was startled by its clever transformation of an Elizabethan-era depressive into Gen Z ennui through its main character Juicy (Marcel Spears), a 20-something mourning his father’s death as well as the hyper-masculinity that his family and society impose on him. Though Juicy sneaks glances and shares asides with the audience, “Fat Ham” truly breaks theater’s fourth wall when the cast stages a surreal group cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” and then again with its unexpectedly liberatory final scene that invites us to join them in a party filled with glitter, gender fluidity and Black joy. (Read our review of “Fat Ham.”)

Who knew that if you killed off Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the show’s most dynamic character, his children would easily make up for his lost charisma? The “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong, that’s who knew. I can’t think of three more heart-wrenching performances of parental loss than Shiv (Sarah Snook), her voice breaking as she pleads, “Daddy? I love you. Don’t go, please. Not now,” on the phone; Roman (Kieran Culkin), breaking down during his eulogy; and Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the most tragic, as he loses his bid to replace his father as chief executive. In the end, Kendall simply stares out at the water rather than being buoyed up or submerged in it as he has been in the past. A man without a company, it is a fate that, for him, is far worse than death. (Read our review of the “Succession” finale.)

Winner of a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature, “A Thousand and One,” sensitively explores the failure of society’s safety nets to protect Black families and the lengths Black mothers will go to ensure their children’s future. But underneath that story is another: one about the personal voids we try to fill. Appearing in her first leading role, Teyana Taylor plays Inez, a mother scarred by her childhood in foster care. She infused this character with such electricity and vitality that I found myself championing her every move, even, or especially, her most morally ambiguous decisions. (Read our interview with the director.)

What if someone you pined for turns out to be your soul mate, not in this life, but another? This tension drives Celine Song’s debut film “Past Lives,” a tender portrait of two adults, Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who forged a special bond as classmates in Seoul but lost touch over the years. Their poignant performances and Song’s intimate directing style make the chemistry between these two characters believable. But, we, and they, are left with the sense that the chasm caused by immigration (and the self-invention it requires) is insurmountable, making longing the most consistent emotion available to them. (Read our review of “Past Lives.”)

When he first conceived of writing a play based on his childhood in rural, segregated Georgia, Ossie Davis tried to write it straight. Once he realized that satire was better suited to capture the absurdity and tragedy of American racism, he premiered his first play, “Purlie Victorious.” Back on Broadway 62 years later, the play, directed by Kenny Leon, stars Leslie Odom Jr. as the ambitious preacher Purlie and Kara Young as Lutibelle, a naïve young woman he brings home to impersonate a dead cousin whose inheritance Purlie wants. The resulting ruckus undercuts an enduring racial stereotype — that all Black people look alike — while sharing a radical vision of Black pride and interracial solidarity. Odom is a mesmerizing triumph and Young a hilarious tour de force, while this is Leon (“Fences,” “Topdog/Underdog”) at his very best. (Read our interview with the cast and director.)

Jeffrey Wright is a consummate screen stealer — this year alone, I wanted more speeches from his General Gibson in “Asteroid City” and more shade from his Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in “Rustin.” But not since “Basquiat” in 1996 have I seen Wright as a lead in a feature-length film, and his performance in Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” reminds us what an actual loss this is for those of us who love watching movies. He wholly embodies Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a novelist who, in the process of mourning the death of his father and sister, is torn between staying true to his highbrow literary vision and caricaturing Black life to make money and take care of his mother. Wright gives a nuanced, captivating performance, punctuated with humor, anger, desire and vulnerability, while his character conveys the frustrations of Black artists who refuse to conform to the white gaze.

There are so many painful separations and sentimental reunions on “The Last of Us,” the dystopian HBO series based on the video game of the same name, that it is hard for me to pick the most affecting one. I am choosing the story in which Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old orphan who is immune to the brain infection that has decimated most of the world, reconnects with her former roommate Riley (Storm Reid), who left to join the resistance. When Riley takes Ellie on an overnight trip to an abandoned mall, we see how liberating their adolescent female desire for each other is, making this night of last memories even more apocalyptic. (Read our review of “The Last of Us.”)

When Jodie Comer, best known as an assassin on “Killing Eve,” decided to do her first major stage role, she went big with “Prima Facie.” Alone on a Broadway stage for 100 minutes, Comer commands our attention as Tessa Ensler, a barrister who has moved up in the British class system only to be pulled back down as a victim of a sexual assault. Tessa finds herself in a paradox: In the past, she has defended male clients from assault accusations. Comer moves through the emotions of grief, shame, self-doubt, rage and hope with such intensity that it still seems impossible to me that this was her professional stage debut. (Read our review of “Prima Facie.”)

Despite its notable lack of Emmy nods, “Reservation Dogs,” the first television show where every writer, director and main character was Indigenous, redefined American television over three seasons. While it is primarily a coming-of-age story, this final season’s episodes veered thrillingly into family drama, horror, science fiction and comedy. I am sad to say goodbye to these characters, but I am grateful for its brilliant ensemble and its affirmation of community, and how a people who lived and grieved together can, through ritual and remembrance, find their way back to each other and teach themselves, and those watching them, how to heal. (Read our interview with the “Reservation Dogs” showrunner.)

“Uncle Jonny made my dress,” Beyoncé rhymes on “Heated,” a single from her 2022 album “Renaissance.” “That cheap spandex, she looks a mess.” That playful line reminds us that she dedicated this album to her maternal uncle Jonny, a Black gay man who helped raise her and died of H.I.V./AIDS-related causes. (She released her concert film on Friday, which was World AIDS Day.) The lyric also declares the political aesthetics of “Renaissance” and the house music and Black queer ballroom cultures that inspired its sound and her style on this year’s behemoth world tour. She encouraged us to wear our most fabulous silver fashions and become human disco balls that mirrored “each other’s joy.” And so we came, witnessed and participated in what was more like a Black church revival than just a stadium concert, in which we left feeling as beautiful in our skin (and our clothing) as she appeared to us onstage. (Read our review of Beyoncé’s tour.)

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