Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Mike Daisey’s A People’s History at Capital Fringe

I remember being so bored by my high school American history class that I got a D in it. This was not normal. My report cards always had A’s and B’s. So the kindly elderly woman who taught the course, and who doubled as a guidance counselor, interpreted my near-flunk as a signal I might have something psychopathological going on. At her behest, I was administered a battery of tests—the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Rorschach inkblot test, and I can’t recall what else. Strangely—as I now look back—it occurred neither to her nor to me that there might actually have been something psychopathological about that American history class.

If only Mike Daisey had taught the course, I would have been spared.

This was my eureka realization after my immersion in the master monologist’s A People’s History—an epic 30-hour theatrical experience that is coming to DC for the Capital Fringe Festival. Daisey performs A People’s History in 18 successive chapters, each about an hour and a half long. Perhaps because I had interviewed Daisey about a couple of his shows at Woolly Mammoth—The Story of the Gun and The Trump Card—I was offered access to audio recordings of last year’s sold-out Seattle Rep run of A People’s History if I would agree to write about it.

I’m a huge fan of Daisey’s work, but still…30 hours? That sounded like a slog. What I did not expect was that as soon as I started listening, I got hooked—like addicted—so much so that my anticipation for each subsequent chapter kept spiking, and by the time the series was over I began relistening from the beginning. All told, I racked up more than 50 hours with Mike Daisey’s voice bogarting the brainspace between my earpods.

And I’m here to tell you: A People’s History is so good and so damn important, I plan to attend and report on each and every live performance in the Kogod Cradle at Arena July 5 to 21.

A People’s History is larded with Daisey’s characteristically garrulous humor—he tells self-deprecating tales from his life, he riffs on life’s ironies, he ribs the audience, he lobs a fusillade of f-bombs, he lofts stirring flights of lyricism. In the recordings, roughly half of each chapter got laughs; the other half met with silence—which I infer was maybe people squirming in discomfort or sitting stock still in mortification—because what Daisey lays out is the dark heart of the history of our country that’s never talked about in schoolbooks and that’s erased in nationalist myth.

The set for Mike Daisey’s ‘A People’s History’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Here is just one tidbit: We’ve all been told that George Washington had wooden teeth, right? Well, that’s not true. His dentures were made from teeth pulled out of the mouths of living slaves whom he owned. The documentation is irrefutable; it’s in his own letters to his dentist. White historians just never mentioned it—because this truth was not on message for the father of our country who never told a lie.

Daisey’s method is inspired. He compares and contrasts two dramatically different versions of American history: on one hand, the “default propaganda,” and on the other, what really came down. For the whitewash, his source is his 1983 high school American history textbook, An American Pageant. For the actuality, he cites mostly from Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States. The upshot is a scathing takedown of American exceptionalism, imperialism, and triumphalism and a cold-eyed account of the nation’s ignominious origin in genocide and slavery.

Daisey minces no words. He calls Ameria’s history of genocide and slavery “one of the most bloody, psychotically awful, vicious histories in the history of the world.” America, he says, is “the only nation of its scale and size that is founded on such monumental crimes.”

That’s probably a Fourth of July buzzkill. And for sure there’s anger in Daisey’s method. But what he’s up to as a political artist here is uniquely worthy of serious attention. For what Daisey has done is invent an original form of theater that literally alters consciousness. It changes fundamentally how we understand. Because it makes the past make sense in a way that makes the present make sense.

A war declared on a false pretext? A tax cut to make the rich richer? Teargassing babies at the border? You name it. Pick any recent governmental outrage. Daisey’s A People’s History will put it in factual, actionable context: America’s been there and been doing that ever since Christopher Columbus made first contact with the people who lived here—people whom he promptly enslaved and whom white Americans subsequently exterminated.

Mike Daisey in ‘A People’s History’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Angela Nickerson.

Turns out Daisey didn’t much like American history in high school either.

It seems like things just fucking happen. It’s a bizarre narrative that doesn’t make any sense.

That was the reason I started pouring myself into this project. Because everything that is happening to my country started to feel like it was changing and shifting.

He describes his 18-part project as

trying to grind away at American triumphalism, which is written into us so deeply you don’t notice it. But when you grind away you reach a point where the raw wood of then matches the wood of 2018.

Suddenly the history of our country becomes a useful narrative because it makes sense with the fucked-up world we’re in now. When you draw through the lines of genocide and hate and how groups get alienated and left out and the way power constructs itself, that is how the world starts to make sense and suddenly history seems immediate and personal.

If ever our troubling times called for a particular work of live theater, this moment and this magnum opus is surely it.

Nothing I’ve experienced in theater comes anywhere near Mike Daisey’s A People’s History in mental/moral transformative impact.

Running Time: Each chapter is about 90 minutes without intermission.

A People’s History will be performed in 18 different chapters from July 5 to 21, 2019 (see schedule below), in The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington. Tickets are available online and at the door. Your first ticket is $35. After that, tickets to subsequent performances in the series are $20 each.

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE

Each performance of A People’s History is a sequential chapter of United States history, starting with the landing of Columbus in 1492 and concluding today in 2019.

Chapter 1: The Gold Earring, July 5 8pm
Chapter 2: The Revolution That Wasn’t, July 6 2pm
Chapter 3: The Skin Of All Your Teeth, July 6 8pm
Chapter 4: The Blind Spot, July 7 2pm
Chapter 5: The Manifest Destiny, July 7 8pm
Chapter 6: The Other Civil War, July 9 8pm
Chapter 7: The Oligarchs Love You, July 10 8pm
Chapter 8: The City That Was Free, July 11 8pm
Chapter 9: The Hunger That Waits, July 12 8pm
Chapter 10: The American Kryptonite, July 13 2pm
Chapter 11: The Revolutionary War, July 13 8pm
Chapter 12: The Black And Silent Wall, July 14 2pm
Chapter 13: The Problem That Has No Name, July 14 8pm
Chapter 14: The Happy Ending, July 16 8pm
Chapter 15: The Tyranny Of Wisdom, July 18 8pm
Chapter 16: The Limits Of Imagination, July 19 8pm
Chapter 17: The Chimes At Midnight, July 20 8pm
Chapter 18: The Living Moment, July 21 7pm

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HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop

I have to marvel at all the ways the national culture temple named for our 35th president reaches out to an audience that looks like America. There’s no such uniform audience, of course—no performing art is one-size-fits-all—and KenCen is hip to that. Case in point is the institution’s expansive commitment to Hip Hop Culture—an urban black and brown phenom that wasn’t yet born when JFK was around.

HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop, which played two nights in the Family Theater, is a female-centric tribute to Hip Hop, a genre not always welcoming of young women either as artists or audience. Lyrics are often rife with misogynist name-calling and sexual objectification. (The other day I tried to listen to a rising young male rapper named Blueface whom I’d seen praised to the skies in WaPo. He seemed to be competing in a  contest for who could say fuck, bitch, pussy, and ho most often.) HERstory, written and directed by Goldie E. Patrick, features a cast of five female characters who explicitly set out to resurrect and reclaim Hip Hop so that it can be theirs.

(On stage, from left:) Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys), Billie Krishawn (Eve), Audei Polk (Maxine), (above:) Preshona Ambri (Lele) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

DJ Miss HER amped up a pre-show jam to the rhythm of the beat as if for a dance party, though everyone was seated in rows. The audience—mostly middle-school-age kids of color—filled the auditorium with the kind of irrepressible energy and excitement one might expect in a school assembly. Their anticipatory enthusiasm was infectious (and why can’t grownup theatergoers get with some of that?). From the jump, it seemed HERstory could as well be staged in a club where everyone was free to move.

A comic prologue was delivered by Heather Gibson as “Ya girl, KK,” “spilling the tea,” as if posting live on social from a news event. Amidst audible sh-sh-sh-ing (did I mention these cool kids kind of brought their own show with them?), KK managed to establish the big dramaturgical metaphor of the evening: The genre Hip Hop would be personified as HER (after Common’s 1994 hit “I Used to Love H.E.R,” an acronym for Hip Hop Is Everything Real). She is in a hospital intensive care unit, on her death bed, with life-threatening injuries. It is anyone’s guess whether she’ll make it.

Audei Polk (Maxine), Billie Krishawn (Eve), Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Blue scaffolding on stage (Timothy Jones did the nicely functional scenic design) represents, among other locales, the ICU. A feeble heartbeat monitor beeps (Cresent Haynes did the excellent sound design, which subsequently included sampling from Hip Hop tracks familiar to the rap-along crowd). Besides these musical mashups (rap, gospel, r&b), vivid lighting effects (designed by John Alexander) and animated projections (designed by Katherine Freer) did an eye-filling job of punching up momentum as the somewhat labored story unfolded.

Four characters are introduced, each of them with a personal stake in the survival of Hip Hop: Maxine, a longtime fan (Audei Polk ); Eve, an earnest grad student (Billie Krishawn); Isys, a foremother and former performer (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman); and Lele, a feisty music producer (Preshona Ambri). One by one we get their first-person stories, typically framed in response to topic questions projected like surtitles on the backdrop— “When did you meet Hip Hop?” “Have you ever felt alone?”  The whole cast was excellent but Krishawn’s agile performance as a brainy scholar of Hip Hop (with some serious dance moves) and Freeman’s dignified performance as a Hip Hop elder (“Have you ever been called a bitch by your brother?”) were outstanding.

Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Over the course of the play, Eve adorned the hospital room with a growing shrine to HER of flowers and other memorabilia. As the device of topic questions began to get repetitive and the one-note metaphor of HER’s medical crisis persisted, the show really hit its stride with comic relief that often came in the form of snarky friction between the characters’ points of view. There was also much amusingly trenchant sass-back at the misogyny in lyrics by male rappers, the industry’s corporate dominance of the genre, and the presumptuous appropriation of Hip Hop by white artists and consumers. The funny bits and jokes seemed to land with the audience to greater effect than did the overarching, ultimately unresolved metaphorical storyline, which challenged even my attention span. Notably, a brief scene involving a comic takedown of two white screaming fangirl/rappers (uncredited in the program) got the most raucous laugh of the night.

Somewhat unsteady as musical-theater plotting but tremendously sound in its values—a rock-solid commitment to black and brown young women’s right to express themselves through Hip Hop on their own terms—Goldie E. Patrick’s HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop is a work well worthy of mainstage production, at Kennedy Center and beyond. Because America needs to look more like this.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.

HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop played June 14 and 15, 2019, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC – presented as part of the Irene Pollin Audience Development and Community Engagement Series.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2

How do I love this play? Let me count the ways.

My colleague David Siegel’s review heaps accolades on the Round House Theatre production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Lansburgh. Indeed the impeccable direction (Nicole A. Watson), the inspired design (Paige Hathaway, set; Helen Huang, costumes; Harold F. Burgess II, lighting; Roc Lee, sound), and the four starring performances (Nancy Robinette, Holly Twyford, Kathryn Tkel, and Craig Wallace) comprise one of those thrilling peak experiences in theater that one remembers for years after.

But it was the writing that burned into my brain the most. Hnath’s script can be gut-busting funny—and the laughs are smart, never cheap—but at its core, the play is a scorching explication of what it takes and what it costs for a woman to own her own self in a world defined by men.

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House attempted as much 140 years ago. Nora’s epically controversial exit—when she walks out of her suffocating marriage to Torvald, leaving three children behind—became the door slam heard round the world. It incited arguments for decades and presaged Betty Friedan’s 1963 critique of “the problem that has no name”: the hidden unhappiness of middle-class housewife-mothers.

Very like Ibsen before him, Hnath as a pro-woman male playwright has imagined and articulated the inner life of a fictional female, Nora, with remarkable sensitivity and verisimilitude.

Holly Twyford (Nora) and Craig Wallace (Torvald) in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Hnath’s sequel begins 15 years after Nora’s exit in the same upper-middle-class home with a knock on the double door upstage. She’s baaack. We find out why (she thought Torvald filed for divorce; he didn’t; she needs him to). We find out what Nora has been up to (she relished life alone for a while then had numerous lovers). We find out who she has become (a famous, financially secure feminist novelist, writing under a pseudonym).

Hnath’s plotting of the backstory is fascinating.

And we realize the stakes for this self-determining woman are still steep, civil inequality still undermines her independence, she is still threatened with penalties that prosper male supremacy. Somehow I don’t think Ibsen would be rolling in his grave at what Hnath has done. I think he would be applauding. He might even be in awe.

Nancy Robinette (Anne Marie) and Holly Twyford (Nora) in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

In the first scene, between Nora (Twyford) and Anne Marie (Robinette), we learn that Nora now has a politics explicitly grounded in her personal:

NORA: I no longer see a reason for marriage
I think that women who are not happy in their marriages should refuse to honor the contract and leave…
Marriage is cruel, and it destroys women’s lives

Nora not only believes this; she espouses this, in a book that has become a best-seller. Anne Marie—the nanny who raised Nora then brought up Nora’s three children after she abandoned them—proceeds to puncture the class privilege in Nora’s pronouncement:

ANNE MARIE: I didn’t have a father with money like you had a father with money, I didn’t have the same options you had. Do you think I wanted to leave my home and become a nanny? My options were—what—working in a factory and wearing my body down to the point of uselessness at an early age, or I could go out and be a prostitute

Holly Twyford (Nora) and Kathryn Tkel (Emmy) in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

In a subsequent scene, Nora meets her youngest child, Emmy (Tkel), now an assertive, self-possessed young woman. And here Hnath introduces a generation divide that sounds a lot like tensions today between so-called second-wave and third-wave feminism. Emmy, who is engaged, rejects Nora’s condemnation of marriage outright:

EMMY: I want to be held. I want to be possessed. I want to be somebody’s something— I can see you cringe when I say what I’m saying. But that’s about you, and it’s not about me, and I’m telling you what I want, and you may want something different for yourself, but don’t make my wants about your wants

I mention these two points in the script because they illustrate an impressive political dimensionality in Hnath’s play that doesn’t get a lot of attention. As predicted by its premise, A Doll’s House, Part 2 cuts into gender inequalities and simmering male-female resentments with a scalpel—the scenes on the subject between Nora and Torvald (Wallace) are scalding, and when in the last scene they almost duke it out, their contretemps gets so explosive they as much as stop the show. But it is Hnath’s artful incorporation of class and generational conflict that really rounds out a brilliantly conscious work of theater.

Running time: About 95 minutes with no intermission

A Doll’s House, Part 2 presented by Round House Theatre, plays through June 30, 2019, at the Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100 or go online.

Byhalia, Mississippi

The pivotal character in this profoundly moving comedy is Laurel, a young woman who has relocated from Jackson to Byhalia, Mississippi, to make a life with the young man she plans to love for the rest of her life. She is pregnant and overdue. A snob might think them “white trash” because they’re broke and this is the South, but they are rich in joy and mutual affection. And in Caroline Neff’s incandescent performance, Laurel keeps us caring about her every instant—not least when no one else does because her baby turns out to be black.

Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi, won Chicago’s prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work in 2016, and it was highly praised in DC Metro Theatre Arts when it was staged in 2017 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Now The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has mounted a new production that pulses with ever more funniness and feeling as its seven scenes unfold.

Caroline Neff (Laurel), Jack Falahee (Jim), and Cecelia Wingate (Celeste) in ‘Byhalia, Mississippi.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The play takes place in Jim and Laurel’s low-cost, single-story house set down on a concrete block foundation. Designed by Cameron Anderson, it looks as if a flood or a twister would be the end of it. Analogously, the play puts the foundation of Jim’s and Laurel’s relationship to the test of a storm that neither of them saw coming.

The play opens with hilarious bickering between a very pregnant Laurel and her overbearing, hypercritical mother, Celeste (an alarmingly credible Cecelia Wingate), who is visiting for the delivery.

They keep saying “I love you” to each other even when what they say is snarky and cutting. It is a motif that Linder sustains brilliantly throughout. I cannot recall a play containing more mixed-message “I love you”s.

We see Jim smoking pot on the roof. As he comes inside, with a spritz of Febreze that fools no one, he encounters Celeste’s longstanding low opinion of him. Laurel, fed up with her mother’s judgments and nagging, insists that she leave. Alone together, Laurel and Jim have a playful, sexually charged scene that establishes their passion for each other in spite of some rifts. Jack Falahee is arresting as a lanky and wired Jim who we sense could explode any moment in lust or rage.

Blake Morris (Karl) and Jack Falahee (Jim) in ‘Byhalia, Mississippi.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The second scene takes place after the birth of the baby that is Laurel’s but not Jim’s. Jim bursts in on Karl, his buddy from childhood, who has been helping out preparing a nursery. Just on the basis of the fact that Karl is black, Jim accuses him of fathering the baby. The insult wounds Karl deeply, and we see in Blake Morris’s nuanced portrayal of Karl the start of a rupture in their friendship.

Matters go even worse between Laurel and Jim when she returns from the hospital with the baby they had planned to name Bobby if a boy or Bobbi if a girl. Jim is in an unbecoming fury. He wants to divorce her. Laurel tries to reach him, to ask his forgiveness, in hopes he will stay with her and regard the baby as his. Jim just wants out.

Laurel’s mother, Celeste, returns and wants another kind of end to it. She wants Laurel to get rid of the baby, to give it up for adoption. Laurel says no.

In the second act, an elegantly dressed black woman arrives named Ayesha, a childhood friend of Laurel’s. As it happens, she is the wife of the man who fathered Laurel’s child. Aimé Donna Kelly brings a magnetic hauteur to the role, never more imposing than when she orders Laurel to take the baby and get out of town.

Aime Donna Kelly (Ayesha) and Caroline Neff (Laurel) in ‘Byhalia, Mississippi.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

It’s now Laurel and her baby against everyone. She gets no one’s sympathy except ours. And we care for her, oh how we care for her, that she and the baby will be alright.

Kimberly Senior directs with a lifeline to every character’s truth and to every heart in the house. Jen Caprio’s uncondescending costumes remind us that though these characters are lower class, they are individuals with real lives. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design most strikingly announces someone’s arrival with the sound of tires on gravel.  Jennifer Reiser’s lighting captures both the garishness of overhead fluorescents and the homely warmth of thrift shop lamps. And Dave Anzuelo’s fight choreography is spot-on character-specific.

In a riveting play through which flow powerful and complex themes of love, forgiveness, and racism, Linder has created in Laurel a role for the ages. She is a character of humble status whose resilience and moral stature rank with theater’s greatest heroines. And Caroline Neff’s performance in the role is indelible.

Don’t miss this superb production of an absolutely extraordinary new play.

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

Byhalia, Mississippi plays through July 7, 2019, presented at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324 or go online.

The Oldest Boy

Sara Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy tells a gut-wrenching story serenely, almost gently. At the heart of it is the bond between mother and child, a tie that Ruhl knew intimately when she wrote the play, shortly after she herself gave birth. In The Oldest Boy, she creates a dramatic correlative for her own mixed feelings of maternal attachment and anticipated separation—and strikingly she sets this very personal young mother’s story in a context she knew from research not first-hand: the world of Tibetan Buddhism.

An unnamed character identified in the program as Mother (Jenna Sokolowski), who is American, is married to Father (Rafael Untalan), who is Tibetan. They have a three-year-old son named Tenzin, the titular Oldest Boy, who is depicted as a puppet (voiced by Al Twanmo). One day Mother and Father are visited by Monk (Franklin Dam) and Lama (Steve Lee), who inform them that their son is a reincarnated lama and so must be taken to India to be raised and taught in an all-male monastery. The central conflict in the play thus becomes whether Mother and Father can let the boy go and make peace with having done so.

Jenna Sokolowski (Mother), Matthew Marcus (Puppeteer), Al Twanmo (Oldest Boy) in ‘The Oldest Boy.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The production directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer at Spooky Action Theater is lovely to look at and listen to—its stunning ceremonial evocations of Tibetan Buddhism in music, movement, and design lend a reverent aura of authenticity that transports us to a captivating world of ritual and faith (for this much credit goes to Movement Director and Music and Cultural Consultant Tuyet Thi Pham). And in addition to Sokolowski’s frequently heartwrenching performance as Mother-facing-separation-from-her child, the actors in the four Tibetan roles (Dam, Lee, Twanmo, and Untalan) inspire a sense that a seemingly surreal story is being told truthfully.

Improbably but enchantingly, the Oldest Boy puppet (constructed by Matthew Pauli) resembles not at all a rambunctious, whiny toddler but rather a child wise beyond his years, a wide-eyed small person with an unchanging expression of knowingness and composure—as though he was born that way.

Whatever one may believe about reincarnation, Ruhl’s script is cleverly persuasive that this puppet boy really is the embodied return of Lama’s revered teacher, who died just before Tenzin was born. Theater can play tricks like that, so we willingly play along. Further, we are given to understand that the boy will be exceedingly well taken care of by nurturant and worshipful monks, and his parents can visit on weekends. Thus what could be a sorrow-filled story of loss (bordering on child-snatching) is magically melded to a beatific story of distinction (bordering on glory). And in the tension between, Ruhl leaves us uncertain whether we are to feel the distress of bereft parents trying to reconcile themselves to an impending separation or whether we are to accept gracefully a plot point that as framed in the play is the boy’s divine destiny.

And then about midway through, the Mother asks a rhetorical question that cracks apart the whole predicament…

MOTHER: Why does every religion have stories about giving up your child?

I’m not sure if Ruhl meant that line to take us out of the play, to go all meta on what is going on, but it does, especially as Mother starts citing the Bible…

MOTHER: I always thought the Abraham story was so awful…. God comes down and says, “Abraham, kill your son to prove your faith in me.” And so Abraham puts his son on a slab of rock and is about to stab him and God says, “What are you doing, Abraham, I was just kidding!”

And there’s more scriptural sourcing. Mother has a separation nightmare, a version of the Solomonic parable about the child claimed by two mothers. In her dream, it is Lama tugging at one of the puppet boy’s arms and she herself tugging the other—so hard she tears off the child’s arm.

Other religious stories on the theme come to mind: Mary venerated for letting the fruit of her womb go off to temple when he was barely twelve. Hannah venerated for turning her son Samuel over to priests when he was barely weaned. Funny how the sanctified menfolk required in the practice of patriarchal religions seem all to have been ripped untimely from womenfolks’ wombs. I’m not sure it was Ruhl’s intent to reflect on that fact, but The Oldest Boy sure puts the issue front and center, for instance when Father touts this patriarchal party line:

FATHER: Our son was chosen not just for himself, but to benefit others. You must think bigger than being only a mother.

MOTHER: Only a mother? He came out of my body.

Mother doesn’t have to wail the words to convey her indignation at the dis.

Steve Lee (Lama), Jenna Sokolowski (Mother), Rafael Untalan (Father), Franklin Dam (Monk) in ‘The Oldest Boy.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

As the second act of The Oldest Boy begins, Mother and Father are in India for what will be their ceremonial farewell to Tenzin, and Mother is again pregnant. Dramaturgically this conception is convenient, almost pat: it reassures us they will have a spare as they’re about to lose an heir. But the zinger Ruhl delivers comes in a gender reveal. Mother tells Father she feels something, knows something. About to lose a son to a sanctum of men—a near universal in the lives of mothers—she has a profeminist premonition that brings her passing peace:

MOTHER: It’s a girl. It has to be. If she’s a girl, she can’t be a lama.

Running Time: About two hours, including one intermission.

The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies plays through June 30, 2019, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th St NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online, by phone (202) 248-0301, or at the theater one hour before performances.

Second Body

A Post-Play Palaver coauthored with Sophia Howes

Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DC Metro Theater Arts writers who saw the same performance, got really into talking about it, and decided to continue their exchange in writing. That’s what happened when Senior Writers and Columnists Sophia Howes (Dangereuse) and John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) participated in Second Body, a unique immersive theatrical event and personal communication experience.

Second Body utilizes some basic audio technology to allow two volunteers in two different spaces to conduct a conversation with each other through two entirely different people—actors who function as living avatars. Synetic Theatre is presenting demonstrations of the performance experience in conjunction with its run of Richard iii.

John and Sophia, who had both seen Richard iii, attended Second Body intending only to observe and not take part. But after watching two volunteers go through it, they decided to give it a try. The transformative experience they each had surprised them both.

Arlo Hill in the lobby of Synetic Theatre June 1, 2019, explaining to the audience how ‘Second Body’ works. The two chairs behind him are where a volunteer and an actor/avatar will sit and converse.

John: It took me a while to figure out what in the world this was. Initially, even the tech setup was perplexing. The very personable facilitator-host, Arlo Hill (an actor himself), welcomed everyone, gave us some high-concept framing for what was about to transpire, and explained what would happen. He would ask for two volunteers (I’ll call them A and B). Volunteer A would stay in the lobby and Volunteer B would go to another room. Each would wear a headset mic that would transmit what they say to one of two actors wearing an earpiece. (The actors were from the Richard iii cast.) The actor hearing Volunteer A’s voice would speak the words back simultaneously to Volunteer B. Similarly, the actor hearing Volunteer B’s voice would speak the words back simultaneously to Volunteer A.

Frankly, this didn’t make much tangible sense until I watched two volunteers—who didn’t happen to know each other—go through it. And then something changed for me, relaxed in me. Maybe it was Hill’s warm and reassuring manner or maybe the simple free will and transparency in what I saw and heard, but this suddenly seemed safe enough to try. And I turned to you and asked you if you’d like to try it too.  What were you thinking?

Sophia: I was thinking, I hope John doesn’t rope me into this! But I really enjoyed the first two sets of volunteers. And this new type of theater is really intriguing. So I thought, as long as I don’t have to be the one on stage I’ll give it a try.

I was led into a back room and provided with a headset microphone attached to a transmitter. I was still a bit confused about what I was supposed to do, but eventually, I figured it out. I was sitting opposite an actress who would be speaking John’s words. He would be on stage opposite an actress who would be speaking my words. I had no idea what we would talk about, or how in-depth our conversation would turn out to be.

At first, we talked a bit about Richard iii, which we both admired.  But then John floored me with the following remark. “We have both lost significant others. Maybe we can talk about that.”

John: I know, I was surprised I said that too. But it didn’t come out of the blue. It came from the experience of talking to you, whom I knew,  as if you were present. And somehow, strangely, that put me in mind of conversations I’ve had in my mind with the loved one I lost…as if she were still present.

It all started when we were chit-chatting about Richard iii. I remember I asked “you” (the actor opposite me)  what the heck Second Body had to do with that show. (In my own mind: not much.) Then “you” (the actor) gave a very smart answer, so typical of you. It was about how Richard is played as a cyborg, a semi-artificial being, not in his own body, or something like that. Sorry if I can’t remember exactly what you said because something else was going on that was blowing me away. As I listened to the actor say the smart things you said, I recognized you as you, even though you were not there.

Then weirdly I was reminded of something. It was a story I’d never told you, but there was something about talking to you this way made me want to tell it now.

Arlo Hill in a ‘Second Body’ publicity photo.

Not long ago I was walking in Penn Quarter and a young man came up to me on the street, called my name, knew me. But I didn’t recognize him and kind of stared at him blankly. Then he said, “Oh, sorry, you didn’t know” (or words to that effect), and explained that he had transitioned since I knew him years before as a female coworker. And sure enough, as soon as he said that, I recognized the person I knew, not from how he looked (which was now very different) but from some sense I instantly recalled, of—what?—his central self? his core character? his distinctive chuckle? I don’t know. All I knew is that I immediately relaxed and said, “Oh, hi, so good to see you again!”

All of this is to retrace the uncanny pathway whereby this Second Body experience led me to think and talk about something I have rarely shared—and certainly something you and I have never discussed: my waking and dreaming conversations with someone I knew and who knew me for 31 years whom I sometimes still believe I am communicating with. In that strangely transcendent but absolutely real Second Body moment, I knew that you as my friend would understand exactly what I was talking about—even though I was telling this all to a perfect stranger.

Sophia: I think loss as a subject makes many people uncomfortable. And, with a friend, you don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings by bringing it up. If you had actually been there, I don’t think we would have talked about it. But because it was someone else’s body and not you, I had a different reaction. When you mentioned conversations with your lost loved one, I felt free to express how I really felt.

It was a relief to hear about your conversations. I have them with my late husband, who passed away three years ago from brain cancer. I usually focus on trying to convince him that I am doing well and handling things just fine, for myself and as a mom.

Of course, that’s not always true! But it makes me feel better to say it.

John: I agree, what we said to each other during Second Body is not something we would be likely to have said face to face. And if even if we ever did, I doubt it would be with the same sense of ease and lightness I felt confiding in this way—all while addressing an actor I didn’t know and in front of an audience of people I’d never met in my life!

It was totally unlike conversing on the phone or instant message or even FaceTime, because the voice I heard was someone else’s—but I totally knew it was coming from you. Afterward in a talkback, someone mentioned being reminded of a seance—but that wasn’t what it was for me either. A seance connotes some otherworldly, out-of-body intervention. For me the Second Body experience was completely different: more like an unexpected opening in my life, a chance to access and consciously accept with grace something in myself, something true to me, something that it turns out I wasn’t yet on intimate speaking terms with: my own constant capacity to recall someone not physically present but still living in my heart and mind.

I’ve had a lot of peak emotional experiences in live theater. That’s why I keep going, hoping it will happen again. And it does, striking like lightning in lots of ways. Apparently, the Second Body communication you and I shared was very emotional for those watching. Arlo for one was in tears. But I can honestly say I’ve never had a more personal or more emotionally freeing theatrical experience than I had in the subjective trust I felt that I could truly talk with someone I knew who was not literally there. And that was the key. It was not grieving. It was freeing.

Running Time: About an hour.

Afterward: Arlo Hill, John Stoltenberg, Sophia Howes.

Second Body is performed/demonstrated through June 16, 2019, at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets are available online.

Everyone’s personal experience of Second Body will be different. Here’s more about what to expect from the Synetic Theatre website:
Incubated and developed at Sightline Arts through a yearlong initiative exploring the shifting divide between the virtual and the real, Second Body is a hybrid of communications technology and old-fashioned face to face conversation, in the format of a live performative event. At a Second Body event, the audience is witness to a surreal encounter: two volunteers in two different spaces engage in a conversation through the bodies of two entirely different people. This overlaying of multiple conflicting identities and relationships onto a single pair of individuals creates a strange, disorienting, thrilling, and often unexpectedly hilarious experience—prompting a whole range of social, political, technological, and philosophical questions. Imagine speaking to your friend, your child, your spouse, in a different body.  What impossible conversations might be possible?

Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho

Antiquity is in the house and what’s old is new again. Taffety Punk is presenting two short theater pieces featuring its signature integration of dance, drama, and music based on voices from Ancient Greece—in the first the Lesbian poet Sappho and in the second the Athenian tragedian Sophocles. Both pieces are set to eloquent contemporary texts in plain English crafted by the classicist and acclaimed poet Anne Carson.

The Fragments of Sappho

The double bill begins with a 25-minute theatricalization of Carson’s translation of fragments of lyric poems about the erotic by Sappho. There’s not much left of Sappho’s literary output: bits and pieces on papyrus, mentions by other writers, only one complete poem. But Taffety Punk has staged what remains—and filled in the gaps where words go missing with music, movement, and ingenuity.

Erin White and Teresa Spencer in ‘The Fragments of Sappho.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The best instance was when Teresa Spencer delivered a poem whose missing matter had been replaced with silence. She would speak isolated words and phrases and in the lacunae it was like the audio cut off—except her mouth kept moving. Someone who could read lips would know what she was saying, because Spencer had composed her own complete poem, which she performed full of feeling, connecting emotional dots left ages ago by Sappho. The effect was transfixing.

Little wonder that Choreographer Katie C. Sopoci Drake and Director Marcus Kyd were inspired to fill in the blanks between text tidbits as enticing as these:

You came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing

but I am not someone who likes to wound
rather I have a quiet mind

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time

What was Sappho meaning? What was she feeling? With whom? About whom? Taffety Punk has set out to surmise.

Katie C. Sopoci Drake in ‘The Fragments of Sappho.’ In background: Dan Crane, Esther Williamson, Katie Murphy. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Drake was joined by four other dancers in lavender leggings and pink tops (Amanda Blythe, Safi Harriott, Katie Murphy, Erin White). Together and in solos and pairs, they sought Sapphic expression in a grandly gestural style reminiscent of Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. At times the pace seemed more rushed than the ensemble could keep up with; one wished for more synchronicity and intentionality. Still, the lithe, lyrical, text-driven choreography accompanied by the raw growl of Kyd on bass and rimshots by Dan Crane on drums made for startling contrasts.

Among other imaginative finishes for Sappho’s ellipses was Esther Williamson singing an original song on a mic that went into echo amplification—as if resounding through time.

The sole surviving whole poem,  delivered by Williamson, was a prayer to Aphrodite that ends, hauntingly: “Be my ally.” It was a touching tribute to a long-ago poet from Lesbos whose love and longing had been recollected with respect.

Antigonick

The heftier half of the bill was Taffety Punk’s staging of the one-act play Antigonick, translated by Carson from Sophocles’ Antigone, directed by Kelsey Mesa with choreography by Kelly King. It had some knockout moments.

Lilian Oben as Antigone in ‘Antigonick.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The text begins with a cheeky translator’s note, intended to be performed, containing erudite references to analyses of Antigone by Hegel, Brecht, Judith Butler, et al. Here it is played back as a voiceover while Lilian Oben as a white-gowned, anguished Antigone goes like WTF and rolls her eyes. Instantly this much-studied character out of a distant dusty classic becomes real and relatable.

The piece is chock full of other contemporizing touches. To rave-like music, for instance, members of the Chorus bounce parkour-like off the walls. And an invented character in overalls named Nick (Katie Murphy) keeps going around measuring things, pulling down panels of scrim from the ceiling, and doing other puzzling stage business—until a surprise plot wrap-up at the end.

Amazingly in the midst of this delightfully hyperactive staging, the Sophoclean story comes through solidly and powerfully. In Oben’s deeply felt performance we get at gut level Antigone’s determination to give her dishonored dead brother a decent burial despite the petty edict of the king, and we get viscerally the tragic price Antigone pays for her loyalty and resistance.

Lilian Oben (Antigone) and Teresa Spencer (Ismene) in ‘Antigonick.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The supporting cast is equally strong, particularly in the big confrontation scenes. The first is between Antigone and her sister, Ismene (Teresa Spencer), who tries to argue Antigone out of her recalcitrance (not gonna happen). Then there’s King Kreon (a deliciously dastardly Dan Crane) getting the Guard (an arrestingly emphatic Louis E. Davis) to rat out Antigone’s grave goings-on. And another is the excruciating tension between Kreon and his son Haimon (an earnestly impassioned Danny Puente Cackley), who intends to wed Antigone and detests his father for his mistreatment of her. At points such as these Carson’s script can get scathing, and this cast can bite off each trenchant mouthful and chillingly spit it back.

The Chorus interludes—often ponderous and awkward in modern times—are here handled with engaging verve. As the ensemble, Cackley, Davis, and Spencer are joined by Esther Williamson and Rachel Felstein. (Davis also impresses as Messenger, Spencer also has a nice cameo as Kreon’s aggrieved wife Eurydike, and Felstein—a standout in the Chorus—also has a fascinating turn as the blind seer Teiresias.) We know going in that Antigone’s death is foregone, but its staging—her metaphorical lifeline is literally severed—is breathtaking.

Credit Anne Carson for a script that bursts with language so alive it seems never to have been dead. And kudos to Taffety Punk for refreshing a classic and shaping such a satisfying show.

Design credits: Chris Curtis, light design; Jen Gillette, costume design; Marcus Kyd, sound design; Amy Kellett and Donna Reinhold, set and prop manifestation; Renee Beaver and Aaron Beaver, scenic artists.

Running Time: About 95 minutes, including one intermission

Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho play through June 8, 2019, at Taffety Punk Theatre Company performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door or go online.

The cast of ‘Antigonick’: Rachel Felstein, Dan Crane, Esther Williamson, Lilian Oben, Teresa Spencer, Danny Puente Cackley, Katie Murphy, and Louis E. Davis. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem

Dane Figueroa Edidi is one of DC’s most original and multitalented theater artists. A dancer, actor, poet, playwright, and choreographer, she is also a teacher, novelist, political commentator as well as (in her words) a priestess, goddess, and healer. Having followed  her work for several years now, I can attest: Dane Figueroa Edidi is a sui generis force of star power and storytelling sorcery.

Back in early 2016 I had a conversation with Edidi (a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee) and Natsu Onoda Power (recent recipient of two Helen Hayes Awards for The Lathe of Heaven). The topic was the representation of trans lives in the theater (“Trans Lives and Theater as Change Agent”). To my question about how gender and acting had played out in her life, Edidi answered:

I’ve always wanted to play divas. I wanted to play queens, I wanted to play Lady Macbeth. I never wanted to play Desdemona, but people wanted me to play Othello. And so in my training, there was this fight in the way people perceived my body—they were not feeding into my dream of being these amazingly great women. So what I did was study these great women’s roles separately aside. I would take the training that I was getting in class, and then I would utilize that as Clytemnestra or as Lady M or as Medea. And I would be in my room, practicing these monologues and learning these amazing women—because I knew that eventually we would get to this place.

Dane Figueroa Edidi and Autumn Angelettie (Drummer) in ‘Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem.’ Photo courtesy of Manaf Azaam.

By “this place” Edidi could well have meant the present moment, as she is now commanding the Theater Alliance stage at Anacostia Playhouse in her solo play Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem. It is a monumental performance, combining lyrical poetry, sensual dance, familiar tunes, catchy raps and chants, and ancestral invocation. And it is DC’s first mainstage production of a play written and performed by a local trans artist of color.

The play takes place in an ethereal throne room designed by Debra Kim Sivigny with translucent walls lit by Niomi Collard to suggest someplace outside time. The preshow playlist by Kenny Neal portends a theme: “Black Women,” “Ladies First,” “A Woman’s Worth…” Edidi enters wearing a headscarf over her flowing dreads and a festive two-piece garment of multicolored print (also by Sivigny) as she rings a tiny sacramental bell. A Drummer, Autumn Angelettie, accompanies Edidi, who as Priestess invites the audience to join her in a ceremonial call-and-response acknowledgment of black women ancestors: “Ashe, Ashe…”

What Edidi has begun is a bold reclaiming of Greek myth as Mother Africa’s, a rereading/re-rendering of the ancient tragedies that transforms them into poetic-justice narratives centering black women—both as righteous agents of their destiny and as rebels to patriarchy. As politico-poetic dramaturgy it is audacious, and Danielle A. Drakes has directed it with prodigious passion.

Edidi dons a colorful robe that looks African/Indonesian that has been draped over the throne. Suddenly she is the Goddess Queen Klytmnestra, recounting how Agamemnon murdered her first husband and first child then raped her and made her his wife—this before Agamemnon killed their daughter Iphigenia in order to raise sufficient wind to sail to Troy to war. (Those who have seen or will see The Orestia running concurrently at Shakespeare Theater Company will note that Edidi has ingeniously included versions of the myth not mentioned by Aeschylus.)

Among Edidi’s gifts as writer and performer is her preternatural talent for giving voice to the fury of women wronged. She is scary good at it. There is plenty of playfulness in Klytmnestra, quite a bit of humor and wit, melodious music (including a moving sing-along at the end)—but when time comes for Klytmnestra’s righteous rage to kick in, Edidi tears up the stage.

Dane Figueroa Edidi and Autumn Angelettie (Drummer) in ‘Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem.’ Photo courtesy of Manaf Azaam.

Besides the title role, Edidi portrays several other female characters, among them Klytmnestra’s sister Helen (she whose beauty launched a thousand ships), their mother Leda (she who was raped by Zeus posing as a swan), her slaughtered daughter Iphigenia, and her husband Agamemnon’s concubine Kassandra. Each supporting character is signaled by a different sampling of black music and art. For instance, Klytmnestra’s matricidal son Orestes, the only male character in the cast list, is depicted as a gangsta rapper.

The play presumes some foreknowledge of the myths it artfully appropriates—the cascade of poetic eloquence can make plot points easy to miss—and the program provides no synopsis or who’s-who, which could have made the characters’ stories easier to follow. But even without a backstory briefing, the dramatic and emotional peaks that erupt in Klytmnestra well earn the word epic. And Sivigny’s set, Neal’s sounds, Collard’s lights, and Angelettie’s drum punctuation make for a stagecraft experience every bit as spectacular as the physical and vocal range of Edidi’s tour-de-force performance.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Klytmnestra plays through June 16, 2019, at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

Correction: An earlier version of this review said that Klymnestra “is DC’s first mainstage production of a play written and performed by a trans artist of color.” In fact it was preceded by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Draw the Circle at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Klytmnestra is the first such production by a local trans artist of color.

Sooner/Later

A rom-com about manhunting…at Mosaic? That’s probably not the sort of fare you’d expect from DC’s preeminent theatrical platform for social-justice programming. But who is to say that fair should have no place in what a woman wants in life and love?

Sooner/Later is a deep, bittersweet dive into one woman’s longing for an authentic relationship—with herself, with a man, and with a child—not necessarily in that order. “I want a kid so badly,” says thirty-something Nora at one point. “More than I want a man.” But Nora does not want to be a single mom: “I’m doing it the old-fashioned way or I’m not doing it at all.” That is the dilemma that drives this delicately nuanced drama by Allyson Currin, who has artfully steered clear of the sentimental and veered toward the transcendental.

Cristina M. Ibarra (Lexie), Erica Chamblee (Nora), and Tony K. Nam (Griff) in ‘Sooner/Later.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

The play is in two acts that segue one into the other. In the first, we meet a vivacious teenager, Lexie (Cristina M. Ibarra), who keeps egging on Nora (Erica Chamblee) to find the man who will be her dad—which means sending Nora on blind dates and picking out what to wear. “This outrages the feminist in me,” Nora jokes, not really joking. The delightful interplay between Ibarra’s and Chamblee’s performances is sharp-funny and sharp-biting:

NORA: Do I have to go on this date?
LEXIE: I’m making you.

NORA: So we are two lifeless females waiting for some guy? I’m not liking the sound of that.
LEXIE: It’s not about “some guy.” You know that.

NORA: At some point doesn’t it behoove me to cultivate my own personhood or something like that? That’s what the magazines recommend.

Nora goes to meet her blind dates at a nearby coffee shop called Grounds for Impeachment (which got an apt laugh). A thirty-something man named Griff (Tony K. Nam) happens by and notices her waiting there, futilely, for guys who turn out to be no-shows. Between Griff and Nora there blooms a gently quirky courtship—though it takes a while for them both to realize it—and the scenes between Nam and Chamblee are so charming and disarming we sense long before their characters do that they are perfect for each other. Chamblee gets the broad humor in Nora’s prickly reluctance just right, and Nam’s sensitive portrayal of Griff’s empathic patience especially impresses. He’s like a model of how not to be a dick, even as, without irony, he freely admits to being one.

LEXIE: They MIGHT connect.
But there is nothing I can do about it.
There is only probability and chance. I have to sit back and wait.
And long for the mother and father I know I want someday…

Tony K. Nam (Griff) and Erica Chamblee (Nora) in ‘Sooner/Later.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

DC playwright Allyson Currin’s Sooner/Later is the fourth “locally grown” play produced by Mosaic Theater—following Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded, Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s  Queens Girl in Africa, and Psalmayene 24’s Les Deux Noirs—and it significantly represents Mosaic’s recent resolve to foreground women’s voices, with support from the Trish Vradenburg Play Commission.

Sooner/Later premiered at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park a year ago with an all-white cast. In choosing actors of color for the DC premiere, Director Gregg Henry brings a dimension to the play that aligns and resonates with Mosaic’s cultural-fusion mission. And the normalized beauty in the biracial family they form is a big part of how and why this play touches the heart with the soul of equality.

As the second act begins, Lexie is no longer the ardent matchmaker; she has become a tempestuous teen given to self-pitying tantrums. For her mother Nora and, now, her father Griff, she is a handful and a half. But time has been bent. Then and now are not what we thought. Something metaphysical is going on. As we piece together what was, in the first act, and what comes after, in the second, Sooner/Later takes on unexpected poignancy. Somewhere in the middle distance between the playwright’s imagination and ours, the lives of Nora, Lexie, and Griff become a singular story of happiness and sorrow commingled.

Tony K. Nam (Griff), Cristina M. Ibarra (Lexie), and Erica Chamblee (Nora), in ‘Sooner/Later.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Debra Booth’s set is a beige proscenium box that doesn’t exist anywhere except possibly in the characters’ minds. An oversize drawer pulls out stage left revealing a wardrobe of fashions from Target and T.J. Max tellingly chosen by Danielle Preston, and from this assortment Lexie selects what Nora should wear. Underscoring Lexie’s several stirring monologues—including a stunner Ibarra delivers about the seven ages of woman—Evan Cook lets us hear subtle strains of string instruments and murmurs of nature. And Kyle Grant’s lights shift place and time with dreamlike ease. By design, just like in memory, we are given few moorings, with the result that the exquisite moment-to-moment relational emotions in Sooner/Later are always at the forefront for us to feel.

Running time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Sooner/Later plays through June 16, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.

The Member of the Wedding

It was nearly 70 years ago that Carson McCullers adapted her beloved 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding into a prizewinning Broadway play. Set in a small Southern town, the story centers on two indelible characters: Frankie, a white preteen tomboy, and Berenice, the African American housekeeper hired by Frankie’s widowed father to take care of her.

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published 14 years later, is set similarly in a small Southern town where a white tomboy named Scout is cared for by an African American housekeeper named Calpurnia hired by Scout’s widowed father, Atticus Finch.

Zoe Walpole (Frankie), Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice), and William Carroccio (John Henry) in ‘The Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

With To Kill a Mockingbird now a smash hit on Broadway in Aaron Sorkin’s controversial adaptation, the warmhearted production at 1st Stage of its literary precursor takes on a sheen of timely theatrical interest. And that anticipation is amply rewarded—for Zoe Walpole, whose flighty fancifulness lights up the stage as Frankie, and Deidra LaWan Starnes, whose empathy and dignity anchor the drama as Berenice, are giving two of the must-see performances of the season.

Zoe Walpole (Franie) and Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Frankie’s character arc runs the gamut of adolescent growing pains. She doesn’t fit in. She’s self-conscious about her looks. She’s nervous and at loose ends. Her mood is mercurial. She feels lonely and left out.  But she’s got her heart set on one big hope that impels her throughout the play. Her older brother Jarvis (Jonathan Helwig), who’s in the service, is about to marry Janice (Caroline Dubberly), and Frankie loves them both so much she aches at the thought: “My heart feels them going away—going farther and farther away—while I am stuck here by myself.” So Frankie determines to go with them on their honeymoon and be with them and part of them wherever they live.

Berenice tries to talk sense into the girl. The testy-sympathetic byplay in Starnes’s and Walpole’s scenes together is wonderful to behold. Starnes, in particular, gives Berenice both a sternness and a gentle playfulness, as when she mimics a cat and mimes Noah’s two-by-two ark, such that this specific black/white mother-figure/daughter relationship becomes ever more moving and ever more evocative.

Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

As we later learn, Berenice has her own impossible longing. Her first husband Ludie was the love of her life, and since he died she has married several different men trying without success to recover the love she lost. “My intention was to repeat me and Ludie,” she tells Frankie. When a suitor she’s seeing, T. T. (Dylan J. Fleming), drops by with her reefer head foster brother, Honey (Jonathan Del Palmer), we see passionate personal and family dimensions in Berenice’s character beyond her job as housekeeper, and Starnes’s glowingly rounded portrayal enriches both the play and us. There’s a stunning passage when Berenice is trying to explain to Frankie—deludedly obsessed with love for her brother and his wife—Berenice’s own drivenness to re-find love. Frankie is too young to understand, but we get it; we get that this beautifully nuanced play unfolds and embraces two parallel human heartaches across chasms of generation and race.

Michael Crowley (Mr. Addams), Zoe Walpole (Frankie), Jonathan Helwig (Jarvis), S. Gabriel Mackenna (John Henry), and Caroline Dubberly (Janice) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The Member of the Wedding comes to us from a time when storytelling on stage could afford to be languid. Accordingly, we are given considerable time to meet several supporting characters before Frankie’s and Berenice’s emotional through-lines catch hold. The most delightful and intriguing is Frankie’s clever six-year-old cousin, John Henry (William Carroccio in the performance I saw, sharing the role with S. Gabriel Mackenna). There is a poignant three-way bond among Berenice, Frankie, and John Henry; and John Henry’s own character arc is touching: He likes to play dress-up, including in Berenice’s hat and shoes. We can sense in this affectionate production that both Frankie and John Henry might identify as gender nonconforming or nonbinary were they written today.

We also meet two parents: John Henry’s mother, Mrs. West (Rebecca Ballinger), and Frankie’s shopowner father, Mr. Addams (Michael Crowley).  Mr. Addams is upright and a good provider, yet with his character the play injects ugly reminders of white people’s casual racism. When Mr. Addams drops the n-word, the appalled look on Starnes’s face speaks volumes not in the script.

Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice), William Carroccio (John Henry), and Zoe Walpole (Frankie) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The tender loving care in Cara Gabriel’s direction is evident everywhere. The entire cast play their parts very well, if occasionally a little halting in the performance I saw—but it’s Starnes and Walpole who forge the show into an emotional whole. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design creates a homey, period kitchen, patio, and backyard arbor in tones of ivory and moss green that all feel believably lived in. The same fond verisimilitude can be seen in Jason Arnold’s light design, Debra Kim Sivigny’s costume design, and Felysia Furnary’s props design. Neil McFadden’s sound design creates a credible context of offstage crickets, bluesy trumpet, and piano being tuned; and in tandem with Arnold’s lights, an enormously effective storm. (I did wish, however, that from where I sat front row house left there had not been a speaker drone in between sound cues that not only annoyed but made the actors sometimes hard to hear.)

It says something about our times that two white Southern women writers, Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers in The Member of the Wedding, still have something of importance to say about race relations in America. And it says something about American theater that these two works can still prompt conversations we still need to have. The one is in New York at scalpers’ rates. The other is readily available and affordable at 1st Stage in Tyson’s Corners—and it’s well worth the trip.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

The Member of the Wedding plays through June 2, 2019, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856.