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11 standout moments from watershed year in Buffalo culture

On one of the coldest nights of the coldest February in Buffalo’s recorded history, a troupe of young actors gathered in the Mount Olive Baptist Church hall on Delavan Avenue to rehearse for a performance of local writer Marie Mullen’s new play about the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

After the rehearsal, the actors, nervous about performing the play two weeks later for bombing survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph and hundreds of spectators, joined hands in a circle and prayed for their show to be a success.

More than any scene from the play itself, which won approval from Rudolph and an ecstatic overflow crowd when it premiered in early March, it was that simple moment of collective anticipation and hope from a cast and crew of dedicated volunteers, that made the starkest impression. It was a moment that seemed to reach far beyond the boundaries of the stage, that said something much bigger about the importance of art in our lives.

The past year, one of the busiest and most promising in Western New York’s recent cultural history, was filled with such moments for me. From interviews with the writers, actors and artists who presaged and promoted this city’s renaissance to solitary afternoons ambling through the changing streetscape, 2015 was a constellation of lasting impressions, each one another little confirmation that the region’s greatest asset is its creative culture.

• On the side of a home goods boutique on Elmwood Avenue, the intense eyes of Cortney Morrison-Taylor stare out at passers-by, following them Mona Lisa-like as they shuffle down the sidewalk. I didn’t know Morrison-Taylor, who died unexpectedly in March. But like many who took a moment to stare back, I was deeply moved by Max Collins’ wheatpasted tribute to her – a memorial that will fade like a memory, as the elements slowly dissolve it into dust.

• One January afternoon on the set of Jewish Repertory Theatre’s “Beau Jest,” a lighthearted comedy about confounding parental expectations, I sat with esteemed actor and director Saul Elkin and his daughter Rebecca Elkin-Young to talk about their lifelong love for the theater and for each other. The conversation touched on topics from the expectations of fathers and of faith, but settled on a point that the Elkins’ performances made clear: Some people, people like them, were born to be on the stage.

• Earlier this month, I got a voicemail message that hit me like a truck: Michael Hake, the great Buffalo music director, who I’d known for more than a decade, had died from a heart attack at 52. Like many who knew him, I went that evening to MusicalFare Theatre, where his friends and colleagues gathered to process what had happened. It was a moment that reminded me about the intense sense of community and support that makes this theater scene special.

• In a beautifully restored house in the Parkside neighborhood, I sat with Lawrence Brose to rehash his harrowing, numbing six-year legal battle against the federal government on charges that were ultimately downgraded. As we talked, the antique clocks that defined Brose’s long absence from the cultural scene he helped to create ticked around us, defining the profound sense of loss – of time, of money, of confidence, of creative energy – that defined his life for far too long.

• On a whim one rainy April morning, I took a drive down to the tiny village of Celoron, where an impossibly creepy statue meant to look like Lucille Ball was at the center of a burgeoning social media controversy. Standing face to emotionless face with the undead thing, I decided I had to know how the unholy creation came to be, and set out on one of the most entertaining reporting missions of my career. From the ladies in the village hall to the tight-lipped customers at the Moose Lodge, I came away with one of the strangest stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to write.

• When a friend texted me one day in March to say he had an extra ticket to that evening’s Sabres game, I had no idea I was in for the weirdest art installation I’d ever witnessed. Though I made light of it on Twitter, it truly did strike me as a defining moment in Buffalo’s cultural history – a bizarro world where the home team becomes the enemy and losing becomes the goal.

• I’ve long thought of Kristen Tripp-Kelley as one of Buffalo’s best actors, but it wasn’t until this year that I got to see her in action as a teacher. The students in Tripp-Kelley’s theater class at Nichols created one of the most honest pieces of theater about 21st-century Buffalo to emerge from any local company, professional or otherwise. In their production, “Buffalo Myth,” the students came face to face with their city and all its contradictions and forced their audience do the same.

• Few local artists have lived a life as productive and as multifarious as Harold Cohen, the 90-year-old former dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning whose May exhibition in the Manuel Barreto gallery contained the latest evidence of his restless creative drive. Standing with Cohen in his Chippewa Street studio as he described his working process, moving to more pliable materials as he grows older, was an education in the art of staying engaged.

• One of the most enlightening conversations I had all year was with Dana McKnight and Seth Girod, two of the restless creative minds behind the collective and alternative art space Dreamland on Franklin Avenue. In the space of an hour or so, they detailed to me their collective dream: To create a special, safe place for artistic creation of all kinds, with a defiantly DIY spirit and a front-and-center commitment to diversity.

• I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that there is a gunshot in Suzan-Lori Parks’ play “Topdog/Underdog,” which I heard during the play’s performance in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center’s cinema in February and will stay with me for years to come. There was something electric in the air that night, owing in equal part to extraordinary performances from Amilcar Hill and Preach Freedom and to the fact that Ujima was able to create such a consummate production after unceremoniously losing its home of more than 30 years the week before. It was, like all of the moments above and many more I’ve run out of space to list, a testament to the strength, versatility and resilience of this region’s creative community.

Here’s looking forward to an even busier and brighter 2016.