Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Lady Lay (report)

As you take your seat at Scena Theatre’s production of Lady Lay, don’t be surprised to see the spitting image of Bob Dylan in the house. It’s the actor Ron Litman, who will pop into the play anon.

Lady Lay by Lydia Stryk is Scena’s entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and in it we hear from the voice of a young woman who (like Stryk) lives in Berlin. The time is 1989. The woman’s name is MariAnne (Ellie Nicoll). She’s an employment-office clerk whose crush of clients are desperate for a job and who herself is desperate for a life.

An ensemble of eight plays the clients—Kevin O’reilly (Seth) Aniko Olah (Frau M), Matt Dougherty (Herr D), Amanda Forstrom (Frau F and Frau Y), Edward Nagel (Herr K), Jennifer Bevan (Frau H), and Madeleine Adele (Frau L). At the beginning they sit in two rows facing each other and mime like robotic functionaries. Then one by one they have an appointment with MariAnne to appeal for work.

The tedium is credible and MariAnne is beside herself with boredom. One day as chance would have it she gets turned on to the music of Bob Dylan. She  becomes so enamored that he appears to her. (Litman’s uncanny emulation of the legendary troubadour steals every scene he’s in.) The encounter with Dylan’s music and his antiestablishment affect have a transformative effect on MariAnne: She is inspired to seek a way out of her humdrum existence. She goes from being a groupie to being the agent of her own life. The Berlin Wall falls and the theme of freedom is evoked with great fervor.

Director Robert McNamara and Assistant Director Alexandra Linn Desaulniers have made maximal use of a minimalist set. Upstage center is MariAnne’s desk, which anchors the proceedings. The actors—who play multiple roles throughout—utilize the several wooden chairs to set a variety of scenes, including an English-language classroom and the interior of an airplane. Sound Designer Denise Renee provides an ample sampling of Dylan’s tunes—the welcome effect of which for me was to prompt me  to play his albums when I got home.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Lady Lay runs through October 10, 2015, at Scena Theatre performing at at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


After I saw an early Women’s Voices Theater Festival production (I’ve been to 16 and counting), a question lingered in my mind: Exactly what distinguishes a play as being in a woman’s voice other than the fact that the author is female? Well, last night I got an answer that had my mind reeling.

It’s a doozy of play with a central character, Rachel, whose story could not be other than a woman’s. It’s a play that dramatizes Rachel’s relational and inner life so intuitively and specifically that its author could not be other than someone who has lived a woman’s life. The play is Animal and the author is Clare Lizzimore. And to witness the cracking good Studio X production of Animal now playing at The Studio Theatre is to behold a brilliance of uniqueness and universality that exemplifies why the Women’s Voices Theater Festival exists.

Rachel can be very funny. Lizzimore has given her a mordant wit, a sardonic tongue, and a torrent of zingers that Kate Eastwood Norris tears into with a tenacity that turned gasps to laughs and laughter to gasps. But Rachel is having a massive  mental meltdown—an authentic clinical diagnosis as it turns out. (I had not heard of it but I Googled it after; Lizzimore got it spot on.) Rachel can’t sleep, she’s super stressed and hyper, she’s manic then morose, she imagines that unreality is real.

Tom, Rachel’s husband, is for the most part solicitous. He tries to be kind, he tries to let her know he loves her. Cody Nickell plays him with earnestness and sensitivity, and Lizzimore writes their relationship in language that sears:

Rachel: Why are you so nice to me? You’re banging your head against a brick wall here, and you just keep running, and there’s blood, and it’s in your eyes, but still you run, bang, bang, bang—
Tom: Cause I know you’re behind it.
Rachel: What if I’m not?

Rachel’s tormenting symptoms, which from the beginning are more than she can cope with, become more than Tom can handle as well. At his tipping point between restraint and resentment, he blurts out,

You’re a mess. You really really are. You push and push, and I put up with it. But no. Not now.

Rachel’s unflappable shrink is Stephen, and their early scenes set an entertaining tone of sharp repartee laced with dark humor. Responding to his suggestion that she join a support group of others who suffer similarly, she comes back at him with comic/caustic sarcasm:

That’s like putting someone with claustrophobia in a lift and saying it’s okay because there’s this whole other group of people who feel exactly the same; and don’t worry they’ll all be here in a minute.

Joel David Santner playing Stephen is fascinating as he walks the role’s fine line between sympathy-for-hire professional competence and Rachel’s dim view of him as a cartoon.

In the world of the play, which episodically blurs into the world of Rachel’s mind, there are three other characters—a drop-in dude named Dan (whose hornyness Michael Kevin Darnall makes hilarious), a wheelchair-bound invalid Older Woman (whose wordless simpering Rosemary Regan makes ominous), and a Little Girl (whose bluntness Anaïs Killian makes touching with a skill well beyond her middle-school years).

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch gets each beat, move, and effect precisely right. Set Designer Rachel Hauck has the play happen in a black box within a black box with the audience seated on four sides of a shiny black square stage. It is a perilously polished surface on which we watch Rachel’s mind slip and lose its grip. Together Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky and Sound Designer Daniel Kluger have broken up the play’s succession of scenes with abrupt and unnerving effects that aptly capture the protagonist’s shattered cognition.

And the fact that the protagonist is female is organic to the play. Animal frames the meaning of a woman’s voice about a woman’s life with profound importance and particularity. The image of animality in the title is evoked both textually and subtextually as Lizzimore steadily discloses the play’s secrets. The distinct way those secrets are gendered and grounded in human mammality comes as a mind-blowing reveal. It would be wrong to give away any more than that the ending is a knockout.

As One

To all appearances, As One is a chamber opera about someone who transitions from the gender category he was assigned at birth into the gender category she believes she belongs in. As One presents itself as a transperson’s story, in other words—but there’s a twist that makes the work a magnificent high point in theater’s portrayal of the inner experience of gender generally.

The opera, conceived and composed by Laura Kaminsky, is a monodrama whose single character is performed by two singers. One of them, a baritone, plays Hannah Before, beginning in his youth. The other, a mezzo-soprano, plays Hannah After, encompassing her young adulthood. But unlike other gender-bending enactments, As One does not give us Hannah Before in a first part transforming into Hannah After in a second (as happens in, for instance,  Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, where a single actor plays Orlando as a boy in Act One then as a woman in Act Two). In As One, Hannah Before and Hannah After are both onstage throughout. They each sing soaring solos at times and in heartfelt harmony or counterpoint at others. They present to us a singular self whose lyrical introspections, contrapuntal exchanges, interknit vocal lines, and overlapping ranges become a pulsing metaphor for the multidimensional universe of human sexedness.

The brilliance of As One is that it completely subverts the obsolete male/female binary. As One models instead a multi-octave aural world within which one’s pitch when one sings—to oneself, in a duet, along with a chorale of others—need have no either/or; it need have only the glory of song.

And what voices we hear in the new UrbanArias production now playing at Atlas! Luis Alejandro Orozco as Hannah Before and Ashley Cutright as Hannah After sing with exhilarating power and sensitivity. And in those rare moments when they sing exactly same note—literally as one—the effect is sublime.

Orozco and Cutright’s physical presences on stage are balletic with grace and stunning in synchronicity. Theater history is replete with tropes of conventionally attractive cis male and cis female performers depicting sexual chemistry or tension. But in As One, Orozco and Cutright—who indeed are extremely attractive—play not two lovers but the very same self, learning to love themself, and they do so with such exquisite subtlety that I was blown away. To see, for instance, one actor comfort the other who is in some distress is to be utterly transported out of one’s everyday ways of seeing.

Near the beginning is a scene in which Orozco and Cutright, standing on either side of a clear plastic panel, embody mirror image to each other, with Hannah Before seeing himself as, and longing to be, Hannah After. From that instant on, the empathic reflection of one actor’s performance in the other’s became a feeling-flooded through-line.

Last night in a talkback after the show with the cast and creative team, I asked how—as actors accustomed to playing opposite another actor in the role of an “opposite” sex—the two had achieved such authenticity of unanimity. Director Octavio Cardenas answered by relating what he called “an accident in rehearsal”: One day, he said, Orozco and Cutright both forgot their blocking in a scene, and for a telling time they looked intently to each other as if to find in the other the memory they each lacked. “That’s it,” Cardenas said he told them (I’m paraphrasing); “you just found who you are to each other on stage.”

The story line, crafted into a soulful libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, begins with a boy on his paper route in a small town and ends with a woman discovering her true self in another country. Along the way in the journey are richly evocative passages. At one point, which was eloquent, Hannah Before and Hannah After sing of seeming to live in separate cities connected by a bridge they must keep traversing back and forth. At another, which was excruciating, Hannah After is brutally attacked while Hannah Before recites names of murdered and disappeared transpeople.

UrbanArias General Director Robert Wood said of that grim recitation in a recent interview, “Based on the names and countries of origin of the victims, it was immediately clear to me that most of them were people of color. That really hit me hard. So I decided to cast our production with two wonderful singers of Hispanic origin. To me, it was important to acknowledge that transgender people come from every conceivable background.”

(Conceivably As One could also be cast to acknowledge that transgender people are not only hearing. Thinking of Deaf West Theater’s production of Spring Awakening now on Broadway, I can readily imagine the physical interplay between the two Hannahs leaping to even greater artistic expressivity and gender-illuminating relevance if performed in ASL.)

Co-libreticist Reed, who herself is trans, is an acclaimed filmmaker, and the film she created for As One—projected onto the stark, abstract set designed by Adam Crinson—visually supports the storytelling with such striking seamlessness and effectiveness as I have rarely seen in live theater. Sarah Riffle’s costume designs, beginning with the actors in matching athletic shirts, jeans, and sneaks, beautifully captures the identities they don. Riffle also designed the lighting, which kept the imagined worlds of the play shimmering before our eyes.

Wood conducted a string quartet (Sarah D’Angelo, Saskia Florence, Megan Yanik, Danielle Cho) that was much more than accompaniment; it became another character. As One was commissioned by American Opera Projects, where Laura Kaminsky is composer-in-residence, and its simplicity—four musicians, two singers—was for me a source of its success as theater. To my non-opera-savvy ear, the string quartet sounded more interesting musically than did the vocal lines for the Hannahs, which were relatively less melodious, but that never diminished my thrilled immersion in the singular sensation of two voices with gendered connotations singing as one self-engendered human being.

The poetic libretto of As One is available for download, and if you can’t catch this too-brief run, I recommend its reading pleasure. But hearing is believing: As One is one resonant wonder.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

As One plays through October 10, 2015, at UrbanArias performing at The Paul Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.


Kimberly Reed’s film about As One on (6:14)


The Kennedy Center’s entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival was a one-night-only reading of Roe, a new two-act play by Lisa Loomer that dramatically personalizes pivotal chapters in the backstory of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The issues around abortion that were passionately contested in that case—and became a flashpoint for deep political divisions in America—have become even more explosive today. With anti-abortion legislators prepared to shut down the government in order to defund Planned Parenthood—the entire organization, not just the abortion services it provides with private funding—a playwright’s skillful, balanced, and clear-eyed take on the real-life run-up to Roe v. Wade could not be more timely.

The parentage of Roe the play is impressive. Last night’s reading was planned by The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and The Kennedy Center Kenan Fellowship Program in association with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which commissioned Loomer to write a work about Roe v. Wade as one of 37 plays “sprung from moments of change in United States history” for its ambitious American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.

Roe will premiere at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a full production next year. For the time being, an audibly engaged audience of about a hundred in The Kennedy Center Theater Lab were treated to a preview reading by 13 top-tier actors directed by Bill Rauch.

What follows is therefore merely a preliminary report, not a full-on review.

Loomer’s play focuses on two key historical figures: Sarah Weddington, the young prosecutor who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, and Norma McCorvey, who as a pregnant 22-year-old seeking an abortion was enlisted by Weddington to be the plaintiff known as “Jane Roe.” The choice to pit these two personalities against each other served the script and the reading experience well.

We see Weddington, 24 when the play begins, in a women’s consciousness-raising group whose uptight members have just read Our Bodies, Our Selves and are fumblingly following its instructions for inspecting their cervixes. We meet McCorvey in a  lesbian bar as a good-time gal with a gift for gab that the audience greatly enjoyed (E.g., “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a pool table” and “I’m so poor I can’t afford to pay attention”). The tension between this delightful dyke and this ladylike lawyer gets the play off to a snappy start.

There are a number of novel stage effects called for in the script. For instance, the ensemble at times dons robes to represent the Supreme Court. The actual recorded voices of Justices Burger, Stewart, White, and Marshall can be heard during Weddington’s argument before the court. And there is a running theme about the unreliability of first-person accounts that is set up when Weddington and McCorvey—in direct address to the audience outside the chronology of the play—hold up and reference their respective books: Weddington’s A Question of Choice (1992) and McCorvey’s I Am Roe (1994). The accounts differ on telling points, and the script makes dramatic use of the disparities. The script also spots discrepancies between I Am Roe and McCorvey’s second book, Won by Love (1998). The problem with history, one narrator explains, is that not only do people not agree with each other; “people don’t agree with themselves.”

In two dozen tight scenes, the play goes from 1969 to now, and its sweep and scope can be gleaned from the following cast list, which highlights the historical figures portrayed. (Sarah Agnew and Sara Bruner will play their roles in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiere; all the other actors are local to DC.)

Sarah Agnew: Sarah Weddington
Sara Bruner: Norma McCorvey
Tonya Beckman: Ilene (McCorvey’s friend), Kate Michaelman (president of NARAL Pro-Choice America), and others
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey: Connie Gonzales (McCorvey’s long-time partner) and others
Rick Foucheux: Supreme Court Justice Blackmun (who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision) and others
Kimberly Gilbert: Melissa (McCorvey’s first child) and Emily* (a seven-year-old Evangelical Christian)
Michael Glenn: Henry McCluskey (a Dallas adoption lawyer), Jay Floyd (who represented Dallas County DA Henry Wade and argued the anti-abortion case), and others
Helen Hedman: Mary (McCorvey’s mother), Betty Friedan (author), and others
Paige Hernandez: Roxanne* (a pregnant young woman)
Thomas Keegan: Philip “Flip” Benham (an Evangelical Christian minister and leader of Operation Rescue) and others
Susan Lynskey: Linda Coffee (an attorney who with her colleague Weddington brought the 1972 case that challenged the Texas anti-abortion law), Eleanor  Smeal (president of the National Organization for Women), and others
Dawn Ursula: stage directions reader
MaryBeth Wise: Gloria Allred (women’s rights attorney) and others

*These and many other roles in Roe are non-historical characters, created by the playwright.

It will come as no news to those familiar with the fallout from Roe v. Wade that the woman at the center of the case, “Jane Roe,” in real life converted to Evangelical Christianity then Roman Catholicism and joined the anti-abortion movement. To its credit the play Roe makes that character arc completely comprehensible and emotionally compelling. When McCorvey, for instance, learns from reading A Question of Choice that Weddington herself had an abortion and never told McCorvey, she is outraged: “If you wanted to help me get an abortion, why didn’t you tell me where you got yours?!” McCorvey yells, understandably feeling betrayed.

McCorvey says she feels “used by the feminists and used by the press,” and the play pulls no punches about how that in fact was what happened and how it left her isolated, without support, and needy for the embrace and acceptance of fervent believers. (I was reminded of Linda Marchiano, known as “Linda Lovelace” for her role in Deep Throat, the making of which was the basis of Lovelace, a film I reviewed for this site. For years afterward Marchiano testified against the pornography industry—in the context of the feminist anti-pornography movement—about how she had been harmed, but near the end of her life she went back to making porn because she needed the money. What happens to poster people when the posters come down is often not a pretty picture.)

To be sure, the play does stay faithful to the spirit of the Roe v. Wade decision in underscoring the principle that the right to choose (under current interpretation of the Constitution, at least) belongs solely to the pregnant woman—not the state, not the church, not anyone else. In a surprise of a scene that functions like a coda, a young pregnant woman confronts Weddington and demands to know whether abortion is murder. Weddington waffles, citing the fact that a fetus has not been judicially defined as a person.

“Don’t give me the law,” says the young woman; “give me the truth.”

“We can give you the choice,” Weddington answers measuredly, “but you have to choose.”

Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Roe was read September 28, 2015, at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, 2700 F St. NW. Washington, DC.

Bhavi the Avenger

Marquis D. Gibson does something in his magnetic performance as the title character in Bhavi the Avenger that I don’t recall ever seeing in theater before: he pretty much singlehandedly makes sense of an entire 90-minute play. Solely through his remarkable moment-to-moment emotional investment in the role—which never wavered and never seemed anything but truthful—together with a dancerly physical presence that was mesmerizing, Gibson kept me engaged in a story, and caring about a character, that I am  almost certain I would have found so layered under metaphor and parable as to be, at least on first viewing, puzzling.

In this launch production from Convergence Theatre (part of CulturalDC’s Mead Theatre Lab Program), Gibson plays a young man who works in a call center. When he dons his telephone headset and answers a caller, his is the voice we hear from somewhere around the world, typically India, asking for instance for the model number in order to troubleshoot some glitch in a gizmo. As often as I’ve spoken with such a distant voice, I’ve never wondered what this person’s life might be like. Playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm has, however—and in doing so he has situated that imagined life in a story line so idiosyncratic its import still has me pondering.

Of great importance for Chisholm’s main character is his name. He prefers Bhavi, his birth name, which was also the name of his father, who died before he was born. As correctly pronounced it rhymes with lovey; its first syllable is like the second of above. Callers from abroad kept hearing it as Buddy, though, and eventually for familiarity’s sake it became Bobby. But in his real life Bhavi wants to be called Bhavi, especially by Bill, his smarmy and overbearing white boss (played appropriately gratingly by Alex Miletich IV). But to Bhavi’s earnest and sincere request, Bill says no way—the first of many disses and identity derisions we will see Bhavi endure on his job.

There are several side stories, including Bhavi’s infatuation with Prudence (the sweetly graceful Inés Dominguez del Corral), who has a third eye with which she can see past and future. Another involves Amma, Bhavi’s no-nonsense mom (the robustly stolid Kecia Campbell), who drives a taxi and accepts, if not encourages, Bhavi’s and Prudence’s canoodling in the backseat.

And then there are the layers of metaphor and parable. A pregnant elephant has been savagely killed, decapitated, one year into what should have been a two-year gestation. When Bhavi learns of the carnage from a news broadcast (Miletich doubles as an unctuous Radio Announcer), he is grief struck, such is his sense of connection to the animal. The elephant then appears as if in an afterlife—portrayed in this production as  shadow play—and sternly gives Bhavi a mission of revenge: “Find the man who deserves his death,” the elephant says (for it speaks, periodically in poetic but opaque parables), “and kill him.”

As if to taunt him into confronting the elephant’s unequivocal instruction, Bhavi keeps finding handguns in the oddest places (including in the container of mulligatawny soup his mother gives him!), which becomes a very funny running sight gag—until its repetition also becomes strangely unsettling. In the well-known convention of playwriting, one can expect that if a gun is displayed on stage, it will later likely be used. Well, here Bhavi finds handguns all over the place. Given the motivation to murder the man who deserves it (as per the beloved elephant’s charge) and the lethal means so readily at hand, what is Bhavi going to do?

In truth that sounds more suspenseful than Bhavi the Avenger plays. Director Elena Velasco’s spare staging puts the audience right in the action—two banks of chairs facing each other with a runway down the middle for live actors and a rear-lit screen at one end for the shadow puppetry—and the result is engrossing. Nathaniel Collard’s lighting is entrancing, notably when it creates ripples of water or a chameleon skittering about the playing space. Madeline Belknap’s apt costumes give us important details of character that we might not glean at first glance. A nonspeaking character credited as Performer (Asif Majid), plays a deft role as Bhavi’s dresser in addition to drumming now and then. The theatrical effect of the multiethnic casting and the imaginative stage craft is intriguing, even as the play itself yields temporary puzzlement.

I say temporary because as I write this the morning after, the meaning of Bhavi the Avenger forms more clearly in my mind. It very much has to do, I think, with Bhavi’s place in the play as what a promotional squib calls a “model minority.” And key to my supposition is Gibson’s illuminating performance, which makes palpable, in ways the ambitious script doesn’t quite, exactly what it means and feels like for a person of color to experience unceasing microaggressions in a white-defined work world and to endure it with a chipper smile, because the alternative is no job. To tell more about Bhavi’s compelling character arc would be to give too much away.  Suffice it to say, when you see this enigmatic play, the character of Bhavi as indelibly embodied by Marquis D. Gibson will stay with you long after.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

Bhavi the Avenger plays through October 11, 2015 at Convergence Theatre performing at The Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door 30 minutes before the performance begins, or online.

Queens Girl in the World

Theater J has just extended the run of Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s semi-autobiographical Queens Girl in the World through October 18, and my viewing of the play last night left no doubt in my mind about why. As writing for the stage, it is a transcendent theatrical treasure. As solo performance, it is (to borrow the 60s slang of its main character) beyond boss.

Queens Girl in the World is also a breathtaking dramatization of the meaning of race consciousness in America.

In one of the play’s profusion of poignant moments, the titular Queens girl, Jacqueline Marie Butler, learns of the 1963 bombing in a Baptist church in Birmingham that left four girls dead.   As she recites the names of the murdered girls, black-and-white photos of their faces appear on the back wall of the set. The girls are about her own age, Jackie reflects. One of them resembles a girlfriend.

At this point in the play, Jackie is attending the Irwin School in Greenwich Village, almost all of whose students are white. She shuttles back and forth daily on the subway between Greenwich Village and her parents’ home on Erickson Street in a black neighborhood in Queens. Jackie knows that all the white former homeowners have fled—an exodus prompted by her father’s purchase of their house. Jackie also knows that there is a divide between her world at home and her world at school, a split that requires the presentation of her very self to switch. She is, she says, “afraid of being the wrong me in the wrong place.” So she turns to writing, because “it helps me make peace between the Erickson Street Jackie and the Irwin School Jackie.”

Suddenly in the white world of her school days, the Birmingham bombing changes everything. Jackie realizes the adults and students around her now perceive her blackness differently. Though they do not do so meanly—a counselor checks in on her solicitously—the experience stings. “Why does it take blowing up a church for them to see me?” Jackie asks.

The event not only changes the meaning of her race in the eyes of others; the experience  becomes central to Jackie’s consciousness of the meaning of her race to herself. “Where will I find my place in the world?” she asks, now aware that the world is more precarious and treacherous than she imagined. And in an eloquent scene accompanied by words projected on the set, Jackie reads to her classmates a poem she wrote affirming and owning her blackness.

Presumably this pivotal scene was in Jennings’s script before the mass shooting in June at a Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston that left nine people dead. For a short while, white pundits’ conscience was pricked. (Somehow news cycles function like mental rinse cycles when it comes to white Americans’ understanding of whatever #BlackLivesMatter might be about.) Still the echo of 2015 Charleston in Jennings’s reference to 1963 Birmingham felt like a sonic boom.

Queens Girl in the World begins as something of a light comedy, and last night swells of laughter in the audience rolled like precision-paced waves (Eleanor Holdridge’s direction is masterful). The play is essentially a young girl’s coming-of-age story—we see her coping hilariously with parental overprotectiveness, girlfriend dramas, boyfriend crushes, and the like. Dawn Ursula, who gives a virtuoso performance as the endearing Jackie (while also channeling an entire cast of other characters), utterly charms the audience. And in a subtle way, the play is crafted to invite the audience into a viewpoint that—not unlike Jackie’s—is not race-conscious at all. To be sure, the details of Jackie’s world—especially its popular music—reference black-infused culture. But Jackie herself attaches no particular political significance to being, and being seen as, black. And in a wonderfully winning way, the play allows or invites the audience also to see past the protagonist’s race.

Even Jackie’s anguished report of an incident involving a neighbor, Grampa Wilson—as chilling as it is—serves to keep the audience lulled into a consciousness of a character who could be Anytween. See that? Jackie was just treated like a girl in a male world. We have not actually seen her treated as a black girl in a white world as well.

What happens in Queens Girl in the World is that Jackie, who grew up not knowing a whole lot about race hate, learns about it and then some. (There is a stunning and stirring passage in Act Two when a “freckle-faced man with kind eyes”—Malcolm X—comes to visit her family’s home.) At the same time what Jennings’s play makes happen for an audience is an opportunity—through identification with a lovable lead character—to join Jackie’s journey to race consciousness right alongside her.

I can’t guess for how many white audience members that effect occurred last night. Maybe many, maybe a few. But what I do know for certain is that Queens Girl in the World opened its arms to that possibility—and embraced us all in the pure passion of its extraordinary vision of a place for Jackie in the whole wide world.

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Queens Girl in the World plays through October 18, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

The Point

Four-year-old Arcturus Theater Company—a group of DC theater enthusiasts committed to presenting plays that will “prompt discussion on topics that do not come up naturally in everyday conversation”—has chosen as its entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival The Point, by Marilyn Ansevin Austin. The Point is about a subject no one wants to contemplate much less talk about: the faltering of one’s mental faculties as one homes in on the end of one’s life. As such the play becomes a discomfiting occasion to think about the end of thinking.

This is a first work for the stage by Austin, a late-blooming playwright who has been in private practice as a psychotherapist; and in the script one can sense evocative familiarity with troubled and haunted psyches. The main character, Fran (played by Margeaux Martine). has been a successful physician. She has been the main support of her family (her grown ungrateful children—two daughters and two sons—and a ne’er-do-well husband) but now finds herself loosing track of more and more. As the play opens, in the well-appointed living room of her home on the ranch she owns, Fran is feebly trying to remember how to do her taxes as she forgets her appointment for an important licensing exam. In her character one can sense the incipient fear of aging—not only out of one’s profession but out of one’s mind.

Fran’s dearest friend is Annie (Melissa B. Robinson), who is older but sometimes calls Fran “Mother.” Theirs is a touching and mutually supportive sisterhood—Annie also helps out by feeding Fran’s horses—but Annie is aware that Fran is slipping. Early on in the play Fran, in order to silence an incessantly barking dog, takes out her pistol and shoots it. “I don’t know why I did that—shot my dog,” she tells Annie.

In yet another of the dubious decisions Fran has made without thinking clearly, she has offered free room and board to a hunky ranch hand named Greg (Mohamed Numan). Greg doesn’t actually do much work—he slacks off on all his chores—but instead plays on Fran’s sexual vulnerabilities. In the first hint of dark shadows in the play’s back story, Greg forcefully comes on to Fran and tells her, “I want to be in bed with you—just like your daddy was.”  He also—in the run-up to the shocking scene that ends Act One—callously extorts her.

Another dear friend of Fran’s is Jerry (Kim Curtis), a former priest. We get a graphic clue as to why he’s defrocked when Julie (Cristen Stephansky), one of Fran’s daughters, arrives and we learn that years ago she accused “that groping old pedophile” of some really bad touch. In a confrontation between Julie and Jerry—the sharpest-edged scene in the play—we hear Jerry defend himself against those charges: he claims that what Annie felt was inappropriate was innocent and misconstrued. I was uncertain whether the playwright intended for us to believe Julie or Jerry (I myself was persuaded by Annie), but I definitely got a compelling picture of just how askew Fran’s judgment had become: She had never mentioned to Julie that she was friends with Jerry, and Julie arrives to find her molester in her mother’s embrace.

A lone man above reproach makes a walk-on appearance near the end, a Delivery Man (Will Hawkins, who also designed sound and lights).

The dark recesses of The Point’s back story contain the makings of a roiling and gripping drama. An aging MD who adored the father who may have molested her, a daughter betrayed not only by her priest but her own mother, a manipulative grifter who plays on an older woman’s insecurities… Unfortunately that’s not how The Point plays (though there is much grist here for substantive and topical discussion). As playwriting craft, its carpentry is shaky. Scenes don’t so much end as simply stop. The dialog has motivation holes and pacing problems. The script needs workshoping and woodsheding and a good dramaturg in the wings.

The acting was servicable but rarely more. Director Ross Heath has staged the work on the cramped stage of a church assembly room packed with so much furniture the actors can barely maneuver around it. There was an awkwardness throughout, unrelieved by the kind of emotional insight that Austin’s fascinating and provocative raw material warranted.

A true flash of brilliance, however, could be heard in Music Composer Evan J. Dice’s score. a portion of which can be heard here.

Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, including one intermission.

The Point plays through October 10, 2015, at Arcturus Theater Company performing at Capital Hill Presbyterian Church – 201 4th Street SE, Washington, DC 20003. Tickets may be purchased online.


Lucy Kirkwood did not think up the word Chimerica—it was coined by a historian and an economist to name the combustably combined economies of China and the U.S.

But wowza did she think up a whiz-bang thriller of a play about it.

Chimerica the play—just opened at The Studio Theatre in a crackerjack production—runs three-plus hours, but it zips by like the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner. The dialog is so sharp and snappy, the storyline so gripping, the characters so specific and original, and the scope of its themes so epic, that Chimerica plays like an action flick of intellection, and brings the history we live in to dazzling life before our eyes.

Chimerica gets off to a factual start: the iconic photography from 1989 showing a lone protester taking a stand against one of the tanks that rolled through Tiananmen Square and quashed a pro-democracy demonstration the morning before. The media dubbed him the Tank Man, but who he was and what became of him has never been known. Jumping off from that image and that info gap, taking what she calls “an imaginative leap,” Kirkwood has devised a narrative peopled with American and Chinese characters, set back and forth in New York City and Beijing, and spanning more than two decades, all in 38 enthralling scenes.

Getting that sprawling story to sprint on stage, Director David Muse has placed and paced the play with extraordinary dexterity.  Scenic Designer Blythe R. D. Quinlan has created a marvelously multipurpose set—featuring upper and lower interiors and a turntable—that swiftly changes scenes. Lighting Designer Mary Louise Geiger and Sound Designer Matt Tierney have cued shifts of locale visually and aurally at a quick clip. And Projections Designer Zachary G. Borovay has turned the stark gray wall of Quinlan’s set into an ever unfolding panoply of places and events.

Kirkwood’s whip-smart script is handled by the cast with such expertise and nimble authenticity that I would watch and hear them play it again in a heartbeat. The main character is Joe (Ron Menzel), a news photographer whom Kirkwood imagines took a picture of that lone protester’s dramatic confrontation with that tank. The protester’s moral and physical bravery has touched Joe deeply. He can’t shake it. And so, some 20 years later, Joe sets out to track him down.

Watching Chimerica, one is always aware that Joe’s quixotic quest to find the Tank Man is the device Kirkwood is relying on to propel her suspense-filled plot. Which it does, brilliantly, and it stays stolidly in the driver seat even as the play rubbernecks wryly at a host of Big Issues—journalistic ethics, corporate marketing, the fact that “China has the whole country [the U.S.] by the pocketbook.” But unlike a McGuffin (the nickname Hitchcock famously gave his story gimmicks), Kirkwood’s plot device has an eloquent raison d’etre:  “People need to know that there is real heroism in the world,” says Joe.

Joe’s pursuit encounters a major obstacle when Frank, his assigning editor and boss (Paul Morella), wants the story spiked, and Mel, Joe’s fellow-reporter and buddy (Lee Sellars), sides with Frank. Joe’s pursuit becomes curiously complex when he gets an anonymized communique from Zhang Lin, a friend from his Beijing days (Rob Yang), exposing China’s cover-up of its lethal smog levels. And Joe’s pursuit takes a complicated romantic turn when he falls for Tessa, a marketing guru slash thoroughly modern vixen (Tessa Klein).

Doubling in supporting roles (Kirkwood’s expansive character list is as well-wrought as her play) are Julie-Ann Elliott, Kenneth Lee, Jordan Barbour, Diana Oh, Jacob Yeh, Kelsey Wang, and Jade Wu. The distinctions they each draw between their several roles are continuously impressive. Particularly remarkable in this regard is Jacob Yeh (whose portrayals range from young lover to sadistic guard).

In the character of Joe, Kirkwood has created the kind of complex and flawed hero one keeps thinking and talking about after. His quest to find Tank Man, as high-minded and idealistic as can be, coincides with, among other lapses, his using a skeevy tactic to obtain information from an elected official (Julie-Ann Elliott) and his being kind of dick in relation to Tessa. I loved the lifelike truthfulness with which Kirkwood made that all cohere, and Menzel’s command of the role is superb.

Kirkwood reportedly worked on this play for six years, and the breadth of her research in it is astounding. Her dialog crackles with insight and telling detail. The metastory in Chimerica—about the meaning of the discordant politics but merged economy between China and the U.S.—resonates on the sort of grand scale one rarely finds in live theater. Yet it is Kirkwood’s humanizing of her epic—how she has made it happen between and among completely believable and fascinating characters—that makes Chimerica a profound achievement.

Chimerica premiered in London and became a massive hit there, even though it has little to do with the U.K. and everything to do with the U.S. at this very moment. Studio Theatre now introduces Chimerica to America, where it most belongs. And what a pleasure to meet this play.

Running Time: Three hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Chimerica plays through October 18, 2015 at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Step Afrika! Step Explosion (on tour)

I just discovered a phenomenal performing arts group that rocked and moved me as much as any experience in theater I can recall. The name of the group is Step Afrika!, an organization renowned around the world for its use of the traditional dance form of stepping to inspire young people, build community, develop talent, and much more.

I had heard of Step Afrika! but it was not on my mental map of the DC theater landscape. I thought of it as something separate, as dance (an art form I can appreciate but I never look to, as I do to theater, as my soul sustenance of choice).

I was wrong.

Within minutes of watching a Step Afrika! performance the other day at Pepco’s Edison Place Gallery—it was called Step Xplosion, a free show that tours all eight wards of the District every summer—something began to stir in me and flood me. By the end, exhilarated and blown away, I realized that Step Afrika! is completely of a piece with everything that matters most to me about theater.  As art, as lens on life, as live performance, as communal ritual, as collective humanizer, as moral compass, as change agent (the list goes on), Step Afrika! purely as theater is absolutely extraordinary.

This is my short list of what impressed me:

The virtuosity of the performers (all utterly amazing); the caliber and precision of the choreography (inventive and inspired); the connection and engagement with the audience (a bond built, never broken); the percussive, propulsive beats (the surround sound of unison hands, feet, and voices); and especially the stories—set up in a spoken introduction then told implicitly and powerfully solely through sound and movement (stories of political unity and resistance, of racial justice, of gender equality, of human worth and hope).

Step Afrika! does a world of worthy work. You can check out all that they do online. It’s awesome. But until you’ve shared the same sound and sight space with some of Step Afrika!’s artists in a live performance, you likely won’t know what I’m talking about when I say that Step Afrika! doesn’t need to do any more of what theater does; theater needs to do more of what Step Afrika! does.

Running Time: 45 minutes

StepAfrika! at Pepco Edison Place Gallery 9-3-15Update: The Step Afrika! company members whose electrifying performance I saw were Reginald Barrington, Christopher Brient, Danielle Dubois Glover, Joe Murchison, Artis J. Olds, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, and Andrew Vinson Jr. (Their bios can be found here.)

Step Afrika!’s annual Step Xplosion tour plays three more free performances in Washington, DC, September 9, 2015, at 6pm at Deanwood Recreation Center (1350 49th Street NE); September 13, 2015,  at 6pm at Joy of Motion (sold out), Friendship Heights (5207 Wisconsin Avenue NW); and September 16, 2015, at 6pm at Columbia Heights Recreation Center (1480 Girard Street NW).
Step Afrika!’s Step Xplosion tour culminates with Step Show September 26 at 2pm at Raymond Recreation Center (3725 10th Street NW).

All performances are free. Reservations online are recommended.

Night Falls on the Blue Planet

Kathleen Akerley’s Night Falls on the Blue Planet is a rapturously funny and brainy comedy about a woman named Renee who is losing her mind and finding her body. (Or something like that. It’s complicated.)

In Act Two there comes a comic monolog so gut-bustingly, jaw-droppingly brazen that last night it stopped the show. Kerri Rambow playing Annette, Renee’s elder sister, delivers the speech seated on a chair as if in a restroom stall. Pissed because another woman has had the temerity to take a poop in the stall right next to hers—even though all the others are wide open!—Annette takes off on a potty-mouthed rant that, in Rambow’s supremely gifted performance, was one of the most  hilarious schticks I’ve seen on stage.

The fact that this sidesplitting episode takes place in a women’s room in a play during the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is just…too perfect. And that’s a tip-off to how delightfully felicitous is this whole show.

Renee (played with passion and grace by Jeanne Dillon-Williams) is not doing at all well. Her ex has custody of her son, whom she feels she has failed as a mom. She goes through whiskey by the bottle. Her life is a hot mess. Renee has come to stay with her younger sister, Holly (played with exquisitely empathic comic timing by Natalie Cutcher), who is rightly alarmed about Renee’s well-being and offers her a gift of deep-tissue massage to work out the stress of said mess.

Little do Holly or Renee (or we) know what message that massage will bring. Increasingly, as Renee goes back for more and more sessions—her masseuse, Claudia (Amanda Haddock-Duchemin), offers her a bulk rate—Renee’s reality is altered. The first time this happens, there is a dramatic change in lighting (design by John Burkland) and lovely/eerie music (original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis), and we see Renee facing us downstage center enacting the experience of being massaged while Claudia, upstage facing the back wall of the set, performs the massage. Under Rex Daughterty’s astute direction, the writing, the performing, and the stagecraft converge to become a metaphorical passageway into a phenomenal other world where Renee has gone and the play is about to take us.

Thereafter the play moves back and forth between the real and the surreal, and as that other world unfolds, Renee’s body  becomes the canvas for a painting that depicts (in her mind) the landscape and seascape of her inner aspiration to escape her pain and trauma. For Renee, the massages permit her to realize and own that there is something more concrete about her body than her mind, and indeed her body makes more sense. “My heart has lasted longer than any of my ideas,” she tells Holly. Renee even books a yoga instructor, Daniel (Peter Finnegan), who happens to be an artist and who assists Renee by body-painting her where she cannot reach.

For her part Holly wants only to help and be supportive. She gets that Renee “is trying to find out what’s in her” but “she’s going somewhere weird.” She tries to get through to Renee, whose body keeps showing up with more and more paint on it. To Renee the paint represents images of the natural world that are analog to her true inner self, but to Holly it’s only more cause for alarm. (Kelsey Hunt designed not only the costumes but the body painting.) “This is no different than a midlife crisis,” Holly tells Renee; “this is just way prettier.”

In a beautifully expressive pas de deux between Haddock-Duchemin and Dillon-Williams (choreographed by Daugherty), we see Renee literally lifted aloft to imagined freedom on the strength of her masseuse.

As Renee journeys further into her imagined world, the reality-based set (designed by Paige Hathaway) transforms into an abstract painting, and Holly’s fear for Renee increases. Uncomfortable about the attention Holly sees Daniel giving her sister’s barely clothed body, Helen warns Renee that he appears to be objectifying her. “Well, right now I’m an object,” Renee retorts, in a stunning/shocking Act One closer.

In hopes of saving Renee from herself (a rescue Renee defiantly does not want), Holly asks their older sister, Annette—with whom Holly is on good terms but Renee is on the outs—to pay a visit. Annette’s entrance in Act Two is hysterically funny in a way you have to see to believe. Suffice it to say that Renee has engaged Daniel, Claudia, and Holly to participate in a playlet Renee has written and they are playing along in hopes of humoring/healing her—and so it is that Annette comes to play-act the aforementioned biffy bit.

On one hand Night Falls on the Blue Planet is a three-sisters play that I doubt any dude could have done. The dramas among Renee, Holly, and Annette have a real-life brittle edge, even as played here for laughs, and Williams’s, Cutcher’s, and Rambow’s portrayals of those comic/turgid tensions are a thrill to behold.

On another hand Night Falls on the Blue Planet is a masterful meditation on the internal and external verities of a woman’s life. Akerley has got to be one of the most brilliant thinkers writing for the American stage, but her work (I think she would concede) has sometimes verged on the cerebral in a way that can leave audiences behind.  Not so with Night Falls, though; no way. This is a crowd-pleaser plus. A light entertainment with deep thoughts. Its script is structured to shift episodically into an alternate world in a way that opens for Akerley a clown-carful of story-grounded opportunities to let loose her signature rich poetic diction—which in Night Falls on the Blue Planet becomes sweeping in meaning.

Is Renee really losing her mind? or is she really finding herself (“the me who is me”) in her own body on her own terms?

In Theater Alliance’s world-premiere staging at Anacostia Playhouse, Night Falls on the Blue Planet catapults to the top tier of Women’s Voices Theater Festival must-sees and must-think-abouts.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Night Falls on the Blue Planet plays through September 27, 2015 at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


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