Thanksgiving in London

This month we fly the stars and stripes to mark Thanksgiving (23 Nov), the most important American festival of the year. It marks the first harvest festival of the English and Dutch settlers in America – the first Pilgrims landing in the New World in 1620.

On another note, November also marks the one-year anniversary of the election victory of Donald Trump and, love him or loathe him, it goes down as one of the biggest shocks in US election history. President Trump moving into the White House has led to seismic changes that go far beyond the 50 states of the USA; his presence is felt in areas from international global security and immigration control to climate change policy – and an unforgettable media presence.

Telling the Founding story
Take, for example, the groundbreaking Broadway show Hamilton, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for drama plus 11 Tony awards, predicted to take London by storm when it arrives at the West End (from 21 Nov). The show incurred the wrath of President Trump when its racially diverse cast made a public statement to vice president Mike Pence, on stage, expressing their concerns at the Trump administration. Pence was booed by the audience, and the president demanded an apology for the ‘harassment’ they caused.

It certainly made the show even more newsworthy and popular. This hugely successful hip-hop musical tells the story of little-known American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, from his upbringing as an impoverished orphan in the Caribbean to his arrival in New York, and subsequent tangles in the American Revolution.

Theatre aficionados – and those lucky enough to have bought a ticket for the performance in London – are eager to see if the West End show will lead to a similar slew of awards. Its cast of predominantly British black, Asian and Middle Eastern actors is set to be joined by the show’s original creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, at some point in the West End.

One man who would probably have loved to get his hands on an elusive Hamilton ticket is Benjamin Franklyn. Apart from a Founding Father, he was also a scientist, diplomat and philosopher. At Benjamin Franklin’s House, an unassuming 1730s townhouse, where he lived between 1757 and 1775, you can get a more conventional overview of America’s birth. A keen musician, he wrote a string quartet, and also invented a glass ‘armonica’ – for which the likes of Mozart composed music specially.

Dig deeper into America’s Deep South social history at the Young Vic’s performance of Yellowman (from 22 Nov). Set in poverty-stricken South Carolina in the turbulent 1970s, it focuses on childhood friends Alma and Eugene, whose friendship develops into something much deeper as they grow up. Yet their different racial backgrounds (the lighter-skinned Eugene is teased as being a ‘high yella’) leads to powerful tensions and internal racial prejudice within the black community.

All-American art
There’s hardly a more influential artist than the Jasper Johns when it comes to making the Stars and Stripes into an icon. The American’s famous 1958 work, Flag, is a version of the US flag made from a mixture of pigment and molten wax, complete with lumps and smears, onto strips of newspaper. The flag, said Johns, is something “the mind already knows”. You can see this, and many more of his works, at the Royal Academy of Art’s major retrospective, Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ (to 10 Dec).

Equally as ‘American’, but representing the underbelly of US culture, the late Jean-Michel Basquiat was a prodigy of the downtown New York art scene, creating powerful graffiti statements across the city. Basquiat: Boom for Real at Barbican Art Gallery (to 28 Jan) shows more than 100 of the superstar’s works, who used a breadth of materials from spray paint to collage. Amazingly for someone so unconventional, the son of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents and dying of a heroin overdose in 1988 aged just 27, earlier this year an auction sold the most expensive American painting ever: his 1982 piece Untitled, in oil slick, spray paint and acrylic, reached $110.5m – ‘mind-blowing’ as the New York Times described it.

Say a little prayer
There’s a large American expat community in London – many of whom head to St Paul’s Cathedral each year for its US Thanksgiving Day service. This year it’s likely to be attended by the new US ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson [confirm final info before press!], a billionaire investor and now owner of the New York Jets American football team. Prayers are led by an American pastor, and an American choir leads the hymns. Representatives from the Marine Corps bear flags at the service, and there may even be a message from the President.

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