Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Second Shepherds’ Play

Watching the Folger Consort’s robust and warmhearted staging of this medieval mystery play, I was struck by how curiously it connects us today to the audiences who first saw it performed. Here we were twenty-first-century citizens of a nation that didn’t exist when acting troupes took this show on the road to town squares. And what worked then was working again.

I don’t mean all the lovely period music that Adapter and Director Mary Hall Surface has artfully  interpolated into the plot. I’m not talking about the fine cast of musicians-actors-singers-dancers-puppeteers who enact the age-old material both boisterously and reverently. And I’m not referring to the terrific period-ish peasant attire by Costumer Adalia Tonneyck. No, I mean the way the storytelling built into the structure of The Second Shepherd’s Play funnels us from earthy fun and farce into an experience of transcendent meaning as if neither time has elapsed nor anything in us as human beings has changed.

Few of the townsfolk in the Middle Ages knew how to read, and few escaped the poverty of the class they were born into. Theater back then was an educational outreach arm of the Church of Rome, totally subject to its rules. Women were totally subject to men’s rules as well, since husbands literally owned their wives as chattel property. Life was brutish, nasty, and short, and the Christian mystery plays were created to save souls on the fly.

Yet here we were comfortably ensconced in the august Folger Theatre, relatively well educated and well-off in a secular society, way past passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts (if not the Equal Rights Amendment), and here we were digging broad comedy worthy of the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges that begins with woebegone shepherds complaining of the weather and the rich but most of all their shrewish, unappealing wives.

Here, for instance, is a taste of the play’s casual misogyny in a speech by the shepherd Gib (written as is the whole play in a distinctive a a a a b c c c b rhyme scheme):

But, young men of wooing, for so God us wrought,
Beware well of wedding, and hold well in thought:
“Had I known” is a thing that serveth of nought.
Much constant mourning has wedding home brought,
And grief,
With many a sharp shower:
For thou mayst catch in an hour
What shall savour full sour
As long as thou lives.

For as ever I read epistle, I have one [wife]  by the fire,
As sharp as a thistle, as rough as a briar.
She is browed like a bristle, with a sour face dire.
Had she once wet her whistle she could sing like a choir
Her paternoster.
She is as great as a whale,
She has a gallon of gall:
By him that died for us all,
I would I had run till I lost her.

After the heist of one of their sheep by Mak, a fellow shepherd, the stolen critter is discovered concealed by Mak and his scheming wife Gill in a cradle as if it’s a newborn baby—and the play turns into a vulgar parody of the very Nativity the play was ostensibly written to promote.

Then suddenly the tone pivots again as if to a whole other play. An Angel appears to the shepherds  and announces the birth of Jesus, and they’re off following a star toward Bethlehem in what becomes an exhilarating, glorifying, and totally smirk-free manger scene.

There awaits for those who attend The Second Shepherds’ Play at Folger Theatre an extraordinary experience in time travel back six centuries to the past as well as a remarkable theatrical passage from farce to faith.  One might think both gaps unbridgeable—unless one has witnessed what happens in this exceedingly well-crafted show.

Copenhagen

The storytelling in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen—which won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Playis ingeniously done. The play’s three characters are deceased. They are actual historical figures whom Frayn extensively researched then imagined conversing in an afterlife on a circular stage space that has no specific time but three actual chairs. They speak sometimes to one another and sometimes to us the audience and sometimes as if to some indeterminate cosmos. Frayn’s exquisitely literate script is all talk but it’s riveting talk. And it interweaves exposition, dialogue, and interior monologues in a precise and coherent but not-quite-linear technique that so far as I know is unique to this play.

As I watched Perisphere Theater’s taut and mesmerizing production just opened at Logan Fringe Art Space, I experienced the play’s story and language playing in my mind with exactly the fascination I recall when I watched the Broadway production (which I did perched in onstage seating that surrounded the circular set). Director Heather Benjamin, the cast, and the design team have executed this singular play’s intentions and tensions with spellbinding skill.

The play purports to be about a mystery, a question mark of history that hovers over a particular meeting in 1941 in Copenhagen that occurred when the Danish Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr and Margrethe Bohr, his wife and confidant, were visited by the German Nobel-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg. The very first lines of the play establish both the mystery that Frayn will unravel and the method of afterlife memory he will use to do so:

Margrethe  But why?
Bohr  You’re still thinking about it?
Margrethe  Why did he come to Copenhagen?
Bohr  Does it matter, my love, now we’re all three of us dead and gone?
Margrethe  Some questions remain long after their owners have died. Lingering like ghosts. Looking for the answers they never found in life.
Bohr  Some questions have no answers to find.
Margrethe  Why did he come? What was he trying to tell you?

As the story unfolds, we learn that Copenhagen is German-occupied, Bohrs is Jewish, and Heisenberg now heads a German physics project that could be devising a nuclear bomb. We also learn that they first met in Denmark when Heisenberg was 22 and Bohrs was 38, they became mentor and mentee (more like father and son), as theoretical physicists they were colleagues and collaborators, and all three remained friends—until the Nazis came to power and war broke out.

So there was a lot at stake in that mysterious 1941 meeting that Frayn now has their memories try to recover. As it turns out, there was more than any of them knew.

What makes Copenhagen absorbing as a work of dramatic literature is that in performance it steadily keeps raising the ante about what is at stake. Because the play proceeds to a big reveal—a cognitive point when we realize that what is at stake is more than a personal visit but rather  a critical nuclear juncture in the geopolitical history of the world—the direction and acting need to sync like theatrical fission. And this they do in Perisphere’s production. John Decker as Niels Bohr, Ben McRoe as Werner Heisenberg, and Sue Struve as Margrethe Bohr play like charged particles on an underlying wavelength, like a gravitational forcefield for the mind.

And another thing. This play performed right now, in post-election America—with all the text’s historical references to tyrannical power, racist nationalism, and capacity for nuclear annihilation—takes on a real-world portent that’s like a bomb set to go off.

Arguing with God

Always on the lookout for provocative  theater in improbable places, I went to the one-night-only DC premiere of a politically edgy and surprisingly funny send-up of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, at the historic Whittemore House, home of the 94-year-old Woman’s National Democratic Club.

As if that weren’t disconnect enough, the play—John B. Henry’s Arguing with God, directed by Rick Davis—was acted out by a cast of 28 mostly amateur performers wearing ersatz biblical garb in a grand room before notables and club members in fancy cocktail dress.

The tony crowd seemed to find the audacious script and devil-may-care performances thoroughly enjoyable. There were huge laughs at the steady flow of witty quips  (who knew so much SNL-style sketch comedy could be extracted from Scripture?). And by the end of the play, the audience seemed quite caught up in its final moral/philosophical/theological conundrum: the intractable tension between top-down power and the injustice that unchecked power metes out to those on the bottom. I sensed in the room a level of engagement with actual ideas and consequential questions that would be the envy of many a more polished theatrical troupe.

Perhaps it was because the play’s portrayal of Yahwah—as a belligerent, vindictive, and peevish bully with a proclivity for smiting people  (a not erroneous reading of His character in the Bible)—bore an uncanny resemblance to the personality of this nation’s president-elect. I cannot say for sure, and this conjecture is solely my own. But the script certainly contained some telling tipoffs—like a joke about Tic Tacs.

The first scene cracked me up. Yahweh, wearing a dark robe and a silly headdress with little sparkly lights, stands on a platform in front of a throne. A chorus of women in thrift-chic gowns boogies in singing “You’re So Vain,” and they point their fingers at Yahwah accusingly/tauntingly in time with the lyrics (“You’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you”). Turns out, the women have Yahweh’s number—and it is the women in Henry’s play who will consistently stand up to Yahweh’s obsessed powermongering.

The play takes as its structure several biblical episodes that it calls Yahweh’s “failed experiments” in picking “chosen people.” The first takes place in Eden, where we meet a very uppity Eve and a somewhat doofus Adam. Eve, not happy about having  come second-class from Adam’s rib, mouths off at Yahweh, which Yahweh did not intend for women to do. They are of course purged for disobeying Yahweh’s stricture about the apple.

There’s a subsequent episode about Noah and his wife, here named Joan. When Yahweh tries the chosen people thing again by putting Noah and family afloat in a boat, Joan is nauseated by Yahweh’s mass drowning of innocent people—and Yahweh’s demanding expectations again run aground.

Later scenes involve Abraham and Sarah, and David and Bathsheba (whose rape by David the play does not skirt). Throughout Henry’s play it is the women who take their stand on the side of justice but are run roughshod over (“god smacked”) by Yahweh and His men-ions.

Henry’s writing is sharp and smart, pithy and epigrammatic—well nigh Wildean, actually—and it makes for delightful listening. Here, for example, is an exchange between Yahweh and Abraham. (An amusing sound effect like electrocution and a puff of fake smoke punctuated Yahweh’s rants and rages in the performance I saw.)

GOD: …it’s simple: You give me OBEDIENCE, I give you unheard-of POWER.
ABRAHAM: That’s a great trade. We’ll live forever by the sword.
GOD: Forget soft power. I prefer shock and awe. Rule by fear.
ABRAHAM: Is there anything more I have to do?
GOD: Yes, the sons of Israel can’t marry the daughters of
unchosen people.
ABRAHAM: Why not?
GOD: I wasn’t born yesterday. I’ve learned my lesson with Eve.
Females charm their husbands. Before long chosen men will worship
the gods of their women rather than ME.
ABRAHAM: I won’t quarrel with that.
GOD: Every son shall be circumcised on his eighth day.
ABRAHAM: Boy—that certainly will make us exceptional. We’ll
have lots of skin in the game.
GOD: OBEY or be cut off from Israel. Take his foreskin NOW!
CHIEF CIRCUMCISER: This won’t take long with my sharp knife.
Dammit, hold still.
[The Circumciser-in-Chief takes a blade to Abraham’s groin.]
SARAH: (enters quickly) Please be careful. I’m his wife! And he has
a lot more sowing to do

Henry’s script is available online for download. I suspect it reads cold very much as satisfyingly and thought-provokingly as it played at a fast clip in the humble enactment I enjoyed the other night.

Production Program Credits
Costume & Props Director: Paula Hughes; Costume Assistant: Sonja Taylor; Drama Poo Bah: Richard Squires; Sculptor: Joan Danziger; Humorists: Richard Rymland, Travis Brown; Moral Stylist: Tuck Grinnell; Moral Philosopher: Bruce Fein; Literary Philosopher: Francisco Prado; Augustinian: John Kiser; Stage Consultant: Cooby Greenway; Photography & Video: Ray Boc; Video & Editing: Mark Cooley; Judaic; Advisors: Mark Breslaw & Allan Brownfeld; Hebraic Advisor: Ed Luttwak; Social Media: Max Mohr

Performer Program Credits
Jester: Sam Lewis; Yahweh: Travis Brown; Adam & Ghost of Adam, Young David, House of Israel: Max Blumenthal; Eve & Ghost of Eve, Michal, Woman of Israel: Anya Parampil; Noah & Ghost of Noah, Amelkite King & Ghost, House of Israel: Finlay Lewis; Noah’s Family, Isaac & Ghost of Isaac, Ghosts of David’s Children, Ghost of First Born, House of Israel & Ghost/Levi Group/Philistines: Camron Reynolds, Bagley Shehabi; Joan & Ghost of Joan, Woman of Israel: Gail Kitch; Abraham & Ghost of Abraham, House of Israel: Bill Nitze; Circumciser-in-Chief: John Lewis; Sarah & Ghost of Sarah, Woman of Israel: Faith Lewis; Moses & Ghost of Moses: Hugh Hill; Samuel, House of Israel: Joe Baldacchino; King Saul, House of Israel: Robert Randolph; King David, House of Israel: Colin Davies; Goliath, Notary, House of Israel: Casey Eitner; Bathsheba, Woman of Israel: Gay Barclay; King Solomon, House of Israel: John Lesinski; Pharaoh, House of Israel: Wolfgang Schaefer; Daughter of Pharaoh, Woman of Israel: Mary Sherman Willis; Hittite Wife, Woman of Israel: Nina Herrick; Attendant, House of Israel: John Jacquemin; House of Israel & Ghost/Levi Group/Philistine: Walter Nicklin, Cameron Ashkar, Soroush Shehabi; Woman of Israel: Louisa Preston, Molly McCartney, Susan Rappaport, Shelley Giordano

Running Time: About 65 minutes with no intermission.

Arguing with God played November 29, 2016, at the Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation performing at the Woman’s National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 20036.

Black Nativity

I saw Black Nativity last year at Anacostia Playhouse and was so thrilled by it (as I wrote in my rave review), I had to go again this year.

I went  expecting to see a reproduction of a splendid show every bit as good as before. That’s what theaters typically do when they remount a hit, and this was Theater Alliance’s third year in a row producing this uplifting Christmas show.

But what I saw was instead brilliantly different, a glorious  re-envisioning of the entire production. The cast, the music, the costumes, the choreography and direction—I could not believe how much has changed! Exactly as before, it’s an exhilarating must-see,  a theatrical and musical high from beginning to end, a pulse-pounding pageantful of talent and praise. But even if you think you’ve already seen Theater Alliance’s Black Nativity, the new production is a must-see-once-more.

Black Nativity was born in the 1960s as a song play by the great African American author and activist Langston Hughes, who based it on the narrative of the birth of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke. It was intended to be performed by an all-black cast. Hughes—who today would likely identify as same gender loving—enriched the King James Version of the text with his own poetic gifts and artfully inserted such Christmas carols as “Joy to the World” and “Oh Come Let Us Adore Him” (sung old-time gospel style) and Negro spirituals such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

In the first of its two acts, Black Nativity relates the familiar stories surrounding Christ’s birth—no room in the inn, shepherds watching their flock, the visit of the magi, and so on. Much of the storytelling is ceremonial and movingly reverential, set to a soaring score newly arranged by Musical Director e’Marcus Harper-Short, but there are many flashes of levity and wit as well. The scene when shepherds watching their flock learn of Jesus’ birth is played as comic relief, as one of them (a delightful Derrionne Key) keeps nodding off instead of looking out for the sheep. At another point Amaiya Holley, Catrina Brenae, and Jocelyn Jenkins sing backup as if they’re a girl group out of Motown.

For this act that harks back to long ago, Costume Designer Brandee Mathies dresses the ensemble of ten in an all-new wardrobe of boldly colorful and ornately adorned headwear and robes that are raiments of wonder. The simpler, flowing garments of Mary and Joseph, who are danced not spoken or sung, are in a contrasting palette of earth tones and white. The effect is stunning.

Director and Choreographer Princess Mhoon, who did the choreography last year, has reconceived it significantly. For instance the lovely dance performances of Mary and Joseph (Danielle Glover and Tony Thomas II) appear as scripted during the birth narrative (Glover’s dramatic depiction of Mary’s contractions is particularly gripping; Thomas’s panic is eloquent, his lithe leaps extraordinary). But Mhoon has them reappear in scenes throughout the show, such that at times it’s as if they evoke the presence of angels.

The second act, set in the present day, was staged powerfully last year by Director Eric Ruffian as a church service with contemporary political overtones. In Mhoon’s vision the second act is a stirring, belt-it-from-the-mountaintop Christmas concert, and Costume Designer Mathies gives the magnificent choir a wardrobe of eye-popping red.

Harper-Short’s fresh arrangements become even more striking in Act Two: well-known carols shifted to a minor key, jazz and blues stylings, and more. The originality in his unconventional treatment of familiar Christmas tunes is alone worth a visit this season to Anacostia Playhouse. His “Silent Night” is especially surprising.

The five women and five men who comprise the ensemble are phenomenal: Catrina Brenae, Frank Britton, Demitrus (Demie) Carter, Amaiya Holley, Jocelyn Jenkins, Derrionne Key, Branden Mack, Shanté M. Moore, R. Joshua Reynolds, and Awa Sal Secka. The  musicians who get the joint rejoicing sound much greater in number than the three we see on stage: Harper-Short on keyboard, Jon-Matthew Hopkins on drums, and Yusef Chisholm on bass.

Scenic Designer Brian Gillick’s set, the only element of the show basically unchanged from last year, creates a space that can seem both nave and concert stage. Lighting Designer John Alexander achieves effects that seem as if the sun is streaming through stained glass, and a suspended lantern stands in brightly for the star of Bethlehem. A wirelessly mic’ed, full-throated chorus and a loud band make for a major audibility and amplification challenge, but Sound Designer/Engineer Dan Deiter rises to it without a glitch. Close your eyes and just listen and you’re lifted up to live-music heaven.

The joyous celebration that Langston Hughes began more than half a century ago has become one of the most beloved works of faith-based American musical theater. Perhaps it has no peer. If so, there’s a profound reason: Part of Black Nativity’s power is the depth of religious devotion in the worship traditions that express its scriptural source. But another part of the work’s power arises from how beautifully and meaningfully it can be adapted and shaped by the artistic teams who stage it to reflect the times and communities in which it is performed. In that sense Theater Alliance’s fresh new production of Black Nativity is as suffused with a timeless gift of spirit as it is infused with creative inspiration and grounded in a neighborhood’s here and now.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Black Nativity plays through December 31, 2016, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

The Christians

A debate about the existence of hell is combusting in the nation’s preeminent Jewish theater. And that particular drama in that particular venue could not be more anomalous.

There is in Judaism no eternal damnation after death—no conception of it, thus no controversy over it. Not that there’s a shortage of guilt among Jews; there’s plenty to go around. But Yahweh the God of the Hebrews never mentioned you go to hell for it.

Yet now onstage at Theater J, a theological rift among Christians about whether hell exists is raising the rafters.

Jews have rituals to observe for atonement from guilt, but for some weird reason the guilt going around among Christians has needed a divinely ordained driver in the form of  really dire consequences if you don’t get off the hook before you die for screwing up in life. Said exoneration, Christians say, can be had only one way: You have to consciously accept that a Jew named Jesus of Nazareth was God’s authorized Surrogate and cancelled your guilt debt by dying Himself.

Funny how free-floating guilt seems so endemic in our species. Other higher mammals can seem to feel sad or bad but they don’t walk around feeling guilty; only homo sapiens do that.  Where guilt comes from and how to get rid of it has been the stuff of faiths and cults and human hopes since time immemorial.

Curious too all the ways humans have come up with for obviating guilt, for  experiencing atonement, forgiveness, and salvation. Apparently apologizing and making amends whenever you screw up is not enough, and would be never-ending even if it were.

So that is briefly the psychic and spiritual backstory for the intellectually transfixing script and emotionally searing performances that in Theater J’s current production of Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians have coalesced into a major event of the  DC theater season.

For starters and for shockers, the Theater J space has been transformed into the nave of a megachurch. The whole megillah.

Three illuminated crosses—sleek brass fabrications of the Golgotha trio—are suspended upstage. A lectern, chancel seating, and various mics are arranged about. Behind the crosses is a jumbo screen upon which Scenic and Projections Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson has clouds drifting by in a heaven-like sky along with lyrics to explicitly Christian hymns.

Standing in the balconies on either side are members of a spirited choir singing said hymns, with their conductor and pianist/organist. (On opening night it was the stirring voices of the Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ James E. Jordan Jr. Choir. At other performances of The Christians, there will be different church and community choirs.) Sconces that normally surround the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater auditorium now appear within the set as well, making it seem as if this whole place had been built to begin with as a Christian house of worship. Which folks who are keenly aware that Christianity already has a plenty big footprint in America might reasonably chafe at.

But for anyone accustomed to the view from a Christian pew, this was déjà vu. And even for those unfamiliar with such liturgical depictions, all these ersatz trappings of faith called forth a certain suspension of unbelief. For as soon as a minister character started preaching a sermon to us—an oration that went on for twenty-odd minutes—we were all pitched into a blurry borderland between audience and congregation. That disequilibrium was, I believe, by design. And in a production directed with consummate skill by Gregg Henry, that ambiguity was among the evening’s greatest existential achievements.

Do we applaud the choir as if we are congregants or as if we are theatergoers? When the minister says “Let us pray” and the actors in character onstage bow their heads, do we do so as well? And if we do, are we praying or are we playing along with audience participation?  When an “Amen” is called for, how are we to respond? Like we do when and where we worship, or like we’re cold-reading a script?

Who are we, really, in this moment? Who were we when we came in and who have we now become in this time and space?

In what sense is this theater “creating the audience” for itself (as lots of great theater does)? And/or in what sense are we playing a role we’re used to playing in places where we go (or used to go) to actually pray? And/or in what sense are we reserving our right as attendees in the classical “seeing space” that is theater to observe, to witness, to reflect, to assess—not aloofly, but not spiritually invested either?

And who are we when the debate then combusts? when the characters take sides? when the senior minister Pastor Paul (played both nobly and humbly by Michel Russotto) divulges in his sermon that he is not on board with the concept of hell—and all hell breaks loose in his parish? when Elder Jay (a down-to-business Michael Willis) warns of the fiscal down side of Pastor Paul’s going rogue? when Associate Pastor Joshua (an absolutely on-fire Justin Weaks) leads the pro-hell faction out the door? when parishioner Jenny (a deeply moving Annie Grier) confronts Pastor Paul with rebuttal questions so heartfelt we feel their ache? when Pastor Paul’s own wife and soulmate (a magnificent and emotionally wrenching Caroline Stefanie Clay) says she doubts she can be his helpmeet in this schism he has wrought?

If our intellects have been snared in the dispute, if the arguments have engaged us, if  what is at stake at all cathects our minds if not at our souls—whether or not we have a dogma in this race—who are we then?

At a time when a bullying demagogue has inflamed religious intolerance and ethnic animus with a fervor that harks back to Hitler, this particular drama in this particular venue could not be more propitious. To watch Lucas Hnath’s characters in The Christians wrestling with whether hell is a requisite for incentivizing good behavior, at Theater J—a cultural context where folks who are neither more nor less given to guilt  are nevertheless sensibly indifferent to  the existence of hell—is, quite simply, one of the most astounding experiences I can imagine any theater in town offering during these perilous times.

LINK: “It’s Our Most Jewish Play This Season”: A Q&A With Adam Immerwahr About ‘The Christians’ at Theater J

Straight White Men

Playwright  Young Jean Lee’s audacious title refers to the particular—the white widowed father (Ed) and his three grown sons (Drew, Jake, and Matt) who are on stage for most of this naturalistic comedy—as well as the generality of straight white men (as in Jake’s mention of “people like us…privileged white dickheads”).  So one might reasonably assume this play is all about the menz.

But there are some very interesting and important women in Straight White Men, beginning with the women of color we hear rapping some explicit heavy shit on a sonic-boom-level sound system as we enter The Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre. And just before the play begins another woman of color steps on stage, a character identified in the program as Stagehand-in-Charge (played with riveting swagger and attitude by Jeymee Semiti). Semiti gives a cheeky cellphone speech, signals to the booth to kill the house lights, then appears wordlessly between scenes to briskly reset the stage.

Intriguingly, Lee’s script specifies that Stagehand-in-Charge be played by an actor who is “transgender or gender nonconforming…preferably a person of color.” (Semiti—who in real life is a human-rights activist for transgender equality—embodies nonbinary like nobody’s business. Her performance instantly commands the Mead stage and leaves no doubt she would own any role she was in.)

Lee’s script also specifies that “the pre-show music, curtain speech, and transitions… should create a sense that the show is under the control of people who are not straight white men.”

Under the control. Them’s some serious words.

I suspect audiences seeing this show will differ greatly in whether they grok that. Director Shana Cooper certainly did. But it’s entirely possible to pay attention to the four men in the play, all of whom are performed superbly, and not consciously notice the significance of all the women mentioned in the script. I take that to be a measure of Lee’s crafty and subversive coding.

The play is set in the family room of Ed’s house, where his son Matt also lives. Matt’s two brothers, Drew and Jake, have come home to celebrate Christmas, in a replay of playful childhoods past but with grownup tensions and anxieties. Ed’s wife, their mother, passed some years ago. Though her death hit Ed hard, he’s doing better now, and she has a warm place in the memories of her sons, who now direct their concern to their seventysomething dad. We never learn their mother’s name, strangely. But the script is  constructed such that she’s an unseen character whose presence infuses just about everything that happens.

The first scene contains a hilarious sendup of how men are supposed to think and act. Jake and Drew obsess about craving Christmas cookies but desist because they’re fearful they’re getting fat. For about a page of dialogue, they sound just like— Well, you get the picture: Lee has begun deconstructing expectations.

We find out who their mother was to the brothers through a prop. In a closet they discover the board game she made for them when they were boys. It’s called Privilege. Their mother had taken a Monopoly game and given it radical political consciousness. When the box is opened, for instance, we see she has drawn under the lid the sixties raised-fist black power symbol. And on the game board itself is an anti-money symbol and the radfem raised fist inside a woman’s symbol.

With childlike delight, Drew and Jake begin to play again this homemade board game that was  a fixture of their youth. First there are sight gags about gross ways to roll the die. (These guys do bro culture with perfect arrested-development authenticity.) Then, getting serious, Jake draws an Excuses card (converted by their mother from a Community Chest card):

“What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking.” Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.

Then Drew soberly draws a Denial card (formerly a Chance card):

“I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist.” Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail.

This is who their mother was. This was her love for them and her hopes for them. She was home-schooling them in how to be a decent human being. Or, as Ed puts it later on, “How else were you gonna learn not to be assholes?”

Ed, as we find out, was completely on board with his deceased wife’s teaching aid. “One of your mother’s craftiest inventions,” he calls it with respect. Ed (played by Michael Winters with a wonderful mix of warmth and gruff love) is himself a very decent man, kind and generous to family and neighbors, and he has tried with all his heart to be a good father to his boys. So too do we learn from this telling board-game scene that his wife tried with all hers to be the mother she knew they would need to have had as they grew up. She knew they would be growing up in a world where given their privilege they had a particular responsibility to act consciously and ethically, and she wanted them to know that too.

What the play is about then, is how the three grown brothers have handled differently the lessons their mother tried to instill in them when they were boys.

Jake (an appealing and slick Bruch Reed) has become a well-off banker, now divorced from the African American woman who is the mother of their two children. He is not handling the lessons well and he knows it.

JAKE: Look at me! I’m an asshole, but people kind of like me, whether they know it or not.
DREW: Jake, you’re not as big an asshole as you’d like to think.
JAKE: Yes, I am! My company’s run almost entirely by white guys, and I do nothing about it. I make “ironically” racist jokes, I give straight guys shit about “acting gay”, I talk about which of our interns I want to fuck. As much as I’d like to bring someone other than a white guy to a client meeting, the clients don’t want it, so I’d never do it. Together with my ex-wife, I’m raising our kids to be as white as possible, except for when their blackness makes them more appealing tokens.

Drew (a delightful and comically antic Avery Clark) has become a writer and college teacher whose last novel was “a radical attack on the crassness of American materialism.” Though he’s politically clued-in, his real commitment now is to his own self-actualization and happiness. Ironically it is his banker brother who calls him on his BS.

DREW: Jake, I know this may be a hard concept for you to grasp, but what makes me happy is using my abilities in service to something bigger than myself.
JAKE: Oh yeah? And who are you serving?
DREW: My students, my readers, my community–
JAKE: Oh come on, Drew, that’s just pursuing your ambition. How is being another white guy with tenure making a difference?
DREW: You can be a white guy and make a difference.
JAKE: No, our success is the problem, not the solution!

Matt (whose underlying unhappiness is very movingly portrayed by Michael Tisdale) was always regarded as the most gifted, the most promising. Now he has moved in with his father because he works as a lowly temp for a small social-change organization and is deep in student-loan debt. He is also deep into a depression that during the play precipitates a dramatic emotional breakdown. His brother Jake, again riding a righteous high horse, tries to shake Matt out of his self-deprecating, self-defeating negativity.

JAKE (To MATT): You believe a guy like you is supposed to sit down and shut the fuck up!
MATT: Nobody’s ever told me to shut up.
JAKE: Of course not, because you’ve always done such a good job of taking a backseat! All your female and queer and minority co-workers probably don’t even notice you’re there!
You’re being an ally, putting yourself in a service position, right? Making copies for the oppressed? You’re trying to live in accordance with what you believe.
ED: What’s that?
JAKE: That there’s nothing people like us can do in the world that isn’t problematic or evil, so we have to make ourselves invisible!…
Women and minorities may get to pretend they’re doing enough to make the world a better place just by getting ahead, but a white guy’s pretty hard-pressed to explain why the world needs him to succeed. So Matt’s trying to stay out of the way.

Clearly none of the brothers has completely forgotten or become oblivious to the lessons about privilege that their mother tried to imbue in them. Those lessons are as much their shared family culture as the goofy pajamas they all don on Christmas Eve. But their mother lingers over the play and their lives like an oracle. And like conflicted, equivocating disciples, the brothers wrestle before our eyes with how to live her lessons in real life. That they don’t succeed is the source of both the play’s hilarity and solemnity.

Were the brothers under the control of their mother? No. They were obviously loved and taught and influenced by her. But the script is explicit that despite her best intentions and efforts, her lessons did not stick as well as she hoped.

Many are viewing Straight White Men today as timely post-election social commentary. Some are also taking it to be an unwelcome personally impugning denunciation. I see it very differently. I see in Studio Theatre’s extraordinarily entertaining and canny production a play that speaks as profoundly as any I know to the challenge of living an honorable life in an unjust world where one’s privilege makes dishonor easy. The play is not about having answers. It’s not about telling anyone what to do. It’s about being honest about the struggle. And in that regard, Young Jean Lee has lain the problem bare.

(Re)Acts: Where Do We Go From Here?

“We certainly didn’t prepare ourselves for this,” said Forum Theatre Artistic Director Michael Dove Monday night at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre. He was addressing a packed house of folks who had come for an evening of short, timely theater pieces in Forum’s (Re)Acts series, which has included such hashtag-able topics as #Orlando and Forced From Home #RefugeeCrisis. Tonight’s topic was to be the 2016 presidential election and was titled, when planned back in August, Where Do We Go From Here?, no hashtag.

When Dove asked the audience “How are you all feeling?,” the dispirited responses called out included “fearful” and “angry.” (In my own mind, which I did not speak, I had retitled the event #WeAreSoFucked.)

As recently as a month ago, a promotional email from Forum hardly hinted at what would be the mood of the room on this night.

Whether November 8th leaves you joyously uplifted or packing your bags for Canada, we know you’re going to need a place to process your post-election emotions….

No matter what happens on election day, in the aftermath of this brutal and polarizing election, we all have more questions than answers. In six short works, our playwrights will ask how we got here, what could have been, and where we go from here.

Within  a few days since the election, Dove and the assembled creative teams put together a program such as had never been envisioned but now had an emotional urgency probably without political precedent in the memories of those were there.

The performances, shown in the photographs below, took place in front of the set for Open Circle Theater’s production of The Who’s Tommy. (Because I had seen and enjoyed that show just days before, I got an earworm soon as I walked in with the lyrics “Donny, can you hear me?”)

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The Five Stages of Trump Grief
Written by: Alexandra Petri
Performed by: (Re)Acts Cast

Starting out funny might not seem an obvious choice, but that’s what Forum did.  The sharp-edged text, written by Washington Post opinion writer Alexandra Petri and published November 11, was a jokey/dead-serious takeoff on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. (It can be read online.) Not having come expecting to laugh, the audience seemed disarmed, relaxed, and opened to what was to follow.

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Excerpt from Let It Flow!
Written and Performed by Caroline Stefanie Clay
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Caroline Clay has been working for a few years on a one-woman show about Florynce Kennedy (1916 – 2000), the legendary radical feminist activist, lawyer, lecturer, and civil-rights advocate. Kennedy was badass and brilliant. “You cannot live a risk-free life,” Clay quoted her, dressed in Kennedy’s trademark leather vest and BULLSHIT-imprinted shirt. I knew Kennedy briefly in life, and I recognized in Clay’s exuberantly performed excerpt a spot-on homage to a woman who broke paths that still need breaking. If anything got clear Monday night, it was that Florynce Kennedy must not be forgotten and Caroline Clay’s Let It Flow!  must have a full production.

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Llevame al Rio (Take Me to the River)
Written and Performed by Alina Collins-Maldonado and Sharalys Silva
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The water poured into a bowl from a pitcher in this beautiful, poetic vignette becomes a metaphor for the grief of a mother in a folk tale weeping for her latinx children, and for her daughters who in a racist and sexist world are regarded as whores. Gradually the water means the river along a border where a bully would build a wall.

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Don’t Worry, Little Girls and What Trump’s Victory Tells Boys Everywhere
Written by Alexandra Petri
Performed by Sara Dabney Tisdale and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
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Two hot-off-the-presses texts by Petri were spliced together and intercut to convey the message that the election sends to children. Trying very hard to cheer and uplift, Sara Dabney Tisdale read from “Don’t Worry, Little Girls” (published November 8, available online). Contrapuntally and triumphantly, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh read from “What Trump’s Victory Tells Boys Everywhere” (November 9, available online). The effect was chilling.

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Self-Care
Led by Nora Achrati
5-self-care

Nora Achrati conducted an audience-participation segment based on a set of cards intended to help kids feel better about themselves when they’re feeling down, with messages like “hug yourself,” “make a funny face,” and “have a snack.” This silly-semiserious relief was much welcomed by the audience, who got into it (along with the goldfish crackers Achrati passed around).

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If it will feed nothing else, It will feed their revenge
Written by Jenna Duncan
Performed by Ahmad Kamal
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A class act, an artful and smart monologue based loosely on speeches about tolerance and forbearance from Merchant of Venice. 

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Voice
Developed and Performed by Kathy Gordon
7-voice

A moving silent movement piece that evoked the beating heart and agony of not having a voice.

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Why I Woke Up Ready to Fight:
Written by: Jacqueline Lawton
Performed by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Alina Collins-Maldonado, Sharalys Silva, Sara Dabney Tisdale, Sarah Corey;, Norah Achrati, Ahmad Kamal
8-why-i-woke-up-ready-to-fight

A choral exhortation to start now to reclaim this damaged country.

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A post-show discussion led by gifted facilitator Jordana Fraider confirmed and affirmed Forum Theatre’s achievement in assembling this evening on short notice: It really had become an occasion “to process post-election emotions” and, as Michael Dove put it in his opening remarks, “an opportunity to double down” in activist resistance.

Running Time: About one hour 30 minutes, with no intermission (plus facilitated discussion afterward).

(Re)Acts: Where Do We Go From Here? played one night only November  14, 2016 at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD.

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Six Degrees of Separation

Having been watching a con man on the national stage for too long now, I found myself last night watching a con man on a local theater stage from an unusually timely point of view.  To put it simply: Had I not recently been so focused on a particular professional dissembler and how he does it—how he plays people—I am not sure I would have had eyes to see the genius in Ryan Swain’s performance as Paul, the central character in Keegan Theatre’s Six Degrees of Separation.

To the white well-to-do Manhattanites who take Paul into their well-appointed homes unawares, he’s an amiable young black man who just got mugged and is friends with their kids who are away at college. But we know, way before the script tells us—because John Guare’s play has been around a while and made into a movie—that Paul is not at all who he seems.

Thus from the instant Swain steps on stage, we are privy to Paul’s scam—and we get to watch Swain play Paul playing Paul playing the white people. We see that Swain’s every nuanced inflection, every glance, every gesture is calculated—but calculated to seem uncalculated. And so we watch him portraying the character who is constantly impersonating the person the white folks will fall for, sensing and feeding their needs, helping them feel the way they want to feel, to think about themselves how they want to be thought of, to be who they can be only in that special dynamic between a performer’s virtuoso deceiving and an audience’s volitional believing.

To be sure, the well-off white folks who succumb to Paul’s ruses are very well played as well: first Ousie (Susan Marie Rhea) and her husband Flan (Ray Ficca), then Kitty (Karen Novack) and her husband Larkin (Jon Townson), then Elizabeth (Kathleen Mason) and her boyfriend Rick (Matthew Sparacino). All convey their characters’ credulity and gullibility with perfect credibility. We do not think them dummies; we just see they’re being duped, by a first-rate imposter who seems guileless as a puppydog.

But their job is to act at face value. They need see and get that which their characters see and get. As actors they need not veer from their veneer of verisimilitude.

The character of Paul, however, has layers of ulterior motives and a sixth sense for dissimulation. The script never has him whisper asides to the audience that would help us read him, or read into him, or know what’s going on within. To infer anything about this character’s inner life while he is conniving, we have only the actor’s acting to go on.

Keegan Theatre’s stimulating production of Six Degrees of Separation is worth seeing for  all the reasons my colleagues Julia Hurley and David Friscic have pointed out. The reason that knocked me out last night, however, was the fascinating performance of Ryan Swain. His every iota of onstage energy is literally beguiling.

Milk Like Sugar

This beautiful play about black teenagers with bleak futures left me with such a melancholy sadness that two days later (on what was then Election Day), it had not gone away.

I share that not to keep anyone away from seeing the play, which opened Sunday night at Mosaic Theater Company in a profoundly moving production directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. The script by Kirsten Greenidge is tender and trenchant, at times breathtakingly lyrical, as we can hear in the actors’ voices and see in surtitles. To ensure that all shows this season will be accessible to the Deaf community, Mosaic has launched an  initiative involving simultaneous projection of the text onto the set.

And what a text it is.

The premise of the play is that three 16-year-old girls promise to get pregnant together. Margie (Ghislaine “Gigi” Dwarka), who is already pregnant, goads Talisha (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) and Annie (Kashayna Johnson) to get busy and be PG too. The three have been BFs since their breasts developed early, the beginning basis of their bond. Theirs is a giddy and scrappy sisterhood, adrift in superficial obsessions with brand names, boys, and baby showers.

During a scene early in the play Annie tries to get with 16-year-old Malik (a sweetly earnest Vaughn Ryan Midder) so she can keep her part of the pact. Annie’s attempts to seduce him are not working because Malik has aspirations for himself—to find a ticket out of these deprived straits. Poverty and institutionalized neglect are the parameters of the play. Its title Milk Like Sugar refers to powdered milk, a staple of the poor. So it is with a touching sense of honor, self-esteem, and altruism that Malik demurs about having sex and tries to elevate Annie’s sights for herself instead.

MALIK: Poppin’ out babies before you can vote ain’t for you.
ANNIE: I’m, I’m tryin’ to find a more excellent way.
MALIK: Yeah, what way that?

Malik shows Annie his way: a telescope he bought in hopes of making a favorable impression on college admissions with his interest in astronomy. But Annie turns on him and mocks him.

ANNIE: No school gonna think this the astronomy club, Malik. You shouldna wasted your money….
MALIK: You can be real nasty, you know that?   I’m…I’m tryina help you. I ain’t interested in throwing away my ticket and staying around here the rest of my life, wasting away like the rest of you all.
ANNIE: What that supposed to mean?
MALIK: The world a beautiful place. If it knocks you loose, it your job to hold on tighter.

The play is littered with lovely lines like that last one.

For any hearing audience member interested in how dramatic literature gets from page to stage, the technical effect of the surtitles becomes an enhancement of the theatergoing experience. It offers instant opportunities to read Greenidge’s idiomatic dialog while being constantly blown away by the rhythms and inflections the talented actors have found in it to play.

Much of Milk Like Sugar seems quite funny at first; on a textual surface it’s so skillfully crafted and performed that it plays like a clever comedy with a soupçon of social commentary. But slowly the seriousness of what the characters each face creeps in, jumps out from around corners, startles, and steadily the story becomes sobering.

Annie’s mother, Myrna (a strikingly strong Deidra LaWan Starnes), has a job cleaning offices at night. She gets fired from it for using a computer to compose short stories, which she believes will be her ticket, though she is functionally illiterate.

The three girls in the ill-conceived pregnancy pact have a classmate named Keera (a poignantly waiflike Tyasia Velines) whom they ice out of their circle. Keera, who is very religious,  proselytizes with zeal as though it’s her spiritual ticket out. Meanwhile she lives an illusion to mask the hardships of her actual life.

The play begins with a visit by the three girlfriends, all terrifically played, to a tattoo parlor to seal their pact with matching ink. There they meet a 23-year-old tattoo artist named Antwoine (an affectingly gentle Jeremy Keith Hunter), who has both a talent for art and a big heart. Annie later visits him alone, for the insemination she seeks, and she asks him about the artwork he creates with a needle.

ANNIE: You always knew you wanted to draw? …  Like when you was little? Like someone liked what you drew and said you’re good, you on the right path with that.
ANTWOINE: Used to draw little cartoons for my Dad. Corny, but he he liked them—
ANNIE: Cause it’d much be easier around here if I had something I was really good at, something lift me up above everything else everybody else. Like this girl down the hall in my building she plays the cello and got into one of those programs. She goes to high school in New Hampshire now. Comes home at Christmas only cause they lock the dorm. That her ticket out and she not letting go of that ticket for nothing. I don’t have a ticket.

None of the kids in Milk Like Sugar get handed a ticket. None of them get told that they’re good, or that they’re on the right path. Teachers of any quality leave for better jobs in better schools.

The kids do have hope. They are all full of hope. Eloquent and soulful hope, even when misguided (meaning unguided). But Milk Like Sugar frames their hoping so we cannot mistake it for a sugarcoated happy ending.

Milk Like Sugar now at Mosaic goes to the heart with heaps of humor—then breaks it to tears with the aftershock of authenticity.

Girl in the Red Corner

Among the adages that keep women put down and passive is the one that goes, “Good girls don’t fight.” It’s a specious presumption that infects culture like an immobilizing toxin. It’s an addle-brained notion passed from mother to daughter like an incarcerating curse. And its legacy to sons is license and incentive to be the cockfighters and dominators who enforce it. Yet against all odds, some women learn to resist and renounce it—as in the gripping and graphic new play  Girl in the Red Corner.

Stephen Spotwood’s impressive script for Girl in the Red Corner is the first to be produced by The Welders 2.0 (the second generation of the innovative playwrights’ collective). It opened last night at The Atlas Performing Arts Center in a knockout production directed by Amber Paige McGinnis.

Spotswood does for his main character Halo what Sly Stallone did for the movie role Rocky—create an arresting and irresistible character whose trajectory goes from down and out to triumph. Except that Halo becomes victorious through Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)  instead of boxing. And Rocky being a dude had a leg up that Halo doesn’t.

Set Designer Deb Sivigny has turned the Lab Theatre II into a smashing black-and-gray fight cage. There’s a padded octagonal playing area surrounded on three upstage sides by chain-link fencing, which also wraps around the blackbox, in which we sit as if spectators to a match. The play’s disparate scenes are all performed here, at times in Lighting Designer Laura J. Eckelman’s unsparing glare, and whenever actors are not on stage, they sit ringside as if awaiting their next round. The stark authority of this ambiance, together with Sound Designer Chris Baine’s pounding tracks, generates an adrenaline rush that begins just pre-show and spikes again throughout.

Halo (compellingly played by Audrey Bertaux) recently ended a five-year marriage by dumping her layabout pothead of a husband. Now she’s quit her job two weeks short of unemployment benefits because her boss was sexually harassing her. With no prospects in sight, she scopes out a local MMA gym where she watches a trainer named Gina through the window. Finally Halo gets up the nerve to walk in and begin private lessons. The scenes of sparring and heart-to-hearting between Halo and Gina (in a terrific performance as tough cookie by Maggie Donnelly) are among the show’s punchiest and most poignant.

Halo lives at home with her mother Terry (a wonderfully versatile Lisa Hodsell, also appearing in two other roles), who is alcoholic and whose menial-job hours are being cut. Also under Terry’s money-scarce roof live Halo’s sister Brinn, a stay-at-home mom (played with touching conviction by Jennifer J. Hopkins), and Brinn’s husband Warren (an equally versatile Nicklas Aliff, appearing also as Gina’s boss at the gym).

One of the play’s many sharp-edged observations is the precise way Spotswood depicts  the four women characters’ different relationships to fighting, as both metaphor and fact of self-assertion.

“Fighting doesn’t help,” Terry warns Halo, opting out of an employee-employer  confrontation.

“I don’t want to fight,” says Brinn, dodging a sisterly confrontation.

Gina, on the other hand, has to fight. It’s how she got off drugs; she knows if she quits fighting, she’ll have a relapse.

And Halo knows in her gut that she needs to prove to herself that she can fight.

It’s Gina’s and Halo’s grit that drives the show. Bertaux’s portrayal of Halo begins with a timidity and tentativeness but by the end has an intensity that feels like invincibility.  It’s a fascinating and thrilling arc. Among the standout scenes along it is the show-stopper when Donnelly’s steely Gina goads Halo into punching her mitt harder and harder by persistently hurling demeaning cliches at her (“Calm down.” Pow. “Don’t be so emotional.” Pow. “That time of the month?” Pow.)

Over the course of Girl in the Red Corner we are drawn deep into Halo’s inner emotional life as well as the vulnerable interiors of Gina, Brinn, Terry, and even Warren, who loses his job trying to help Halo get work. A female character not seen but who becomes a vivid presence in the play is Halo’s 13-year-old niece Ella. There’s a beautiful subplot in their emerging bond, a sense that Ella will learn her own rebuttal to “Good girls don’t fight” from her beloved aunt.

McGinnis’s direction is of the order of distinction that other directors will surely esteem. Her deft transitions between scenes are alone worth watching in admiration. Costume Designer Erik Teague not only outfits the fighters with verisimilitude; he pulls off the neat trick of keeping the actors’ doubling and tripling clear cut. And what Fight Director Cliff Williams III has done brilliantly is carry these characters’ storylines vividly through their every grapple, grimace, and groan.

Girl in the Red Corner is a triumph. For Halo. For The Welders. For women who fight the good fight. And for all to whom this matters, more than we may know.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.

Girl in the Red Corner plays through November 20, 2016 at The Welders performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

LINK: “Magic Time! ‘In the Cage, She Has a Fighting Chance’: A Q&A With Stephen Spotswood About His New Play ‘Girl in the Red Corner’ at The Welders”