Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Day of Absence

To realize how much white America loved minstrelsy is a reckoning painful or shameful, depending on one’s ancestry. Minstrel shows were never meant for people of African descent to see; they were intended for white eyes only, and white people flocked to them.

Period cartoon showing white people thronging to a minstrel show.

In the guise of popular entertainment, minstrel shows functioned as anti-Black propaganda plain and simple. They spread degrading stereotypes of Black people to parts of America even before Black people got there.  To find a modern-day equivalent one would have to join in the jingoistic jeering at a stadium Trump rally.  “At one point,” says an actor in Theater Alliance’s theatrical clapback, “minstrel shows were bigger than baseball.”

Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 Day of Absence: A Satirical Fantasy “was conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white-face,” he wrote. Theater Alliance has expanded on the concept and staged the classic one-act preceded by cast-written sketch comedy—satires that roast and refute the prejudice to which minstrel shows pandered. And the subversive dramatic action begins the instant one steps inside the theater.

[READ Andrew Walker White’s rave review of Day of Absence.]

Standing eight feet high are massive historical posters for minstrel shows. They are disturbing to look at; one wants to hurry past them. Yet there is something strangely compelling about them, for they have been colorized with a painterly patina that attracts the eye even as the underlying imagery repels. Stepping further into the theater one sees a proscenium’s worth of such posters, suspended around the stage like a sideshow of grotesques rendered picturesque.

The cast of ‘Day of Absence.’ Back: Kalya Warren, Jonathan Del Palmer, Ezinne Elele, Jared Shamberger, Charles Franklin IV, Nia Savoy, Kaisheem Fowler-Bryant, Sisi Reid and Damondre Green. Front: Dylan J. Fleming. Photo by Manaf Azzam.

I do not recall a set design that so emphatically frames the esthetic and politics of the performance to follow. Here everything about minstrelsy is turned on its head. Here on in-your-face display is the iconography of white people’s historical derogation of Black people. And here simultaneously is its subversive reversal, a cooptation for opposite purpose, the conversion of artifacts of hate into objects of political art—and ultimately an insistence that the white gaze perceive itself.

The signs called for in Ward’s script were the “jumping off point,” Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson told me. And “to stay true to the minstrel performance,” that idea evolved into posters from the period. “They were all incredibly easy to find,” Robertson said. “There’s a ton of them out there. We focused on ones with white people in blackface. Then we found a few just absolutely grotesque caricatures of Black individuals and Black performers. And we picked a balance.”

Posters for the back of the house during ‘Day of Absence.’ Color renderings courtesy of Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson.

To control the color of each poster, Robertson prepared renderings showing how they should look when finished. Once printed out in black and white on a large format printer, the posters were mounted onto wood and became vast canvases for Scenic Artist Bridget Willingham to paint on.

“I had some freedom, like the texture,” Willingham told me. “The posters are very grungy. I was playing around with the paint and I would show it to Johnny and I was like, Is this too dirty? And he was like, No that looks perfect.”

Willingham shared with me her personal touch in the posters’ aged and weathered look. “For me when I was painting them I was heavily uncomfortable,” she said. “I didn’t know the show, and I was painting this very racist imagery. And the reason it was uncomfortable for me is because I don’t believe in these things. And I think I overloaded on the dirt—a lot of brown scumble everywhere—because I was trying to cover it up.

“When I learned what the show was about and the message they were trying to give to the world,” Willingham continued, “I felt better and more comfortable with painting them.”

Similarly Robertson shared that “when the cast first saw the posters, they were taken aback by them. But then they were impressed at the intention.”

Kayla Warren, Kaisheem Fowler-Bryant, Sisi Reid, Jared Shamberger, Charles Franklin IV, and Ezinne Elele in ‘Day of Absence.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

That double-take reaction to the posters—which audiences can readily relate to—is a measure of the power of the design now on exhibit in Theater Alliance’s production of Day of Absence. One must look twice. Once to see in this imagery the hateful roots of American racism. And once again to see the artful way these reclaimed, rerendered posters frame an extraordinary evening of Black-centric subversion that should not be missed.

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

Day of Absence plays through November 3, 2019, at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

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What to Send Up When It Goes Down (tour report)

Woolly Mammoth Theatre, in conjunction with its staging of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, has brought to DC a show produced by the Harlem-based Movement Theatre Company that is specifically by, about, and for Black folks. Titled What to Send Up When It Goes Down, the work was written by Aleshea Harris in response to racialized violence. Part ritual, part audience participation, part play, and part celebration, What to Send Up is being performed at three different venues—Duke Ellington School for the Arts, Howard University, and THEARC—on its way to a run at Woolly October 30 to November 10, 2019. This is my report on the tour.

Stop one: Duke Ellington School for the Arts, October 13, 2019

On the walls: Love letters to Black people. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

During an opening ritual on this Sunday evening, the audience was asked to speak the name of Atatiana Jefferson once for every year of her life before a white police officer shot and killed her in her home. About 60 people—about half of them Black, half of them non-Black—were gathered around a chalk circle drawn on the floor in the middle of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts blackbox theater. On the surrounding walls were lengths of orange plastic safety fencing hung with handwritten love letters to Black people. As the ritual leader counted from 1 to 28, the group’s voices intoned Atatiana Jefferson in unison—to honor a young Black woman who, the leader said, “was killed by an idea.”

In the lobby: A display of “photographs and names of over 200 African American women, men, and children whose lives were brutally cut short due to racialized violence…. We send it up for them all, and for the thousands who are not on these walls.” Photos by Reginald Eldridge Jr.

A CNN headline the next morning said: “Former police officer found not guilty of murder in shooting death of unarmed black veteran.” As yet another dot got connected between real-life acts of anti-Blackness violence, it was as though the performance the night before was still going on.

In a conversation with Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for American Theatre magazine, Aleshea Harris spoke of her intention in writing What to Send Up When It Goes Down:

I knew this piece would have to do with Black people being killed by police officers with impunity. The idea was to hold people accountable, be confrontational, let it be messy, let it be angry, and let it tread as absurdly as the idea that a Black person could be killed on camera unarmed and the person who killed them get away with it. That is an absurd reality. I wanted to mirror that absurdity in the form of the play….

We’re mad and we have a right to be mad, because the gaslighting of anti-Blackness is: “You imagined that.” Or “It’s really about economics, not race.” There are so many ways people duck and dodge the uncomfortable reality that anti-Blackness is ingrained in the fabric of our country . I wanted it to be a no-gaslighting space.

The mood that night was somber, reflective, at times silent in sorrow, at times awkward during subversive skits about liberal-white racism, at times caught up in the vigor of angry foot-stomping dance. And always: no gaslighting.

Around the circle: The cast of ‘What to Send Up When It Goes Down’ (Beau Thom, Ugo Chukwu, Denise Manning, Rachel Christopher, Nemuna Ceesay, Javon Q. Minter, Alana Raquel Bowers), In the center: Kambi Gathesha as the ritual leader. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

People responded readily in response to requests for participation. At a point we all went around the room and said our first name. At another point we all went around the room and said a word for how we were feeling. But as the leader’s requests continued, an awareness became evident that many Black people present in the circle had experienced threats and assaults, including by an officer of the law, that the non-Black people there simply had not. That sobering consciousness of having come into the room from two differently raced places was never to let go. So it was that when we were asked to “share a group yell as a strategy for sharing our feelings about the untimely death of Atatiana Jefferson together as a community,” the full-throated yell that went out from everyone only seemed the sound of impromptu unanimity. For in fact throughout the performance there was the explicit understanding that, as one leader said,

It is not often that Black people have a safe, public space for expressing their unfiltered feelings about anti-Blackness. We are taking that space today.

In the lobby: A memorial to Trayvon Martin alongside a letter from Aleshea Harris about how his murder moved her to write this play. Photo by DCMTA.

That space created in grief and solidarity by What to Send Up When It Goes Down was openly owned by the cast and audience members who were Black and respectfully acknowledged by audience members who were non-Black. Such rare space will recur in town just 21 more times. To be in it, see information below.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down presented by The Movement Theatre Company will be performed next October 17 to 20, 2019, at the Howard University Black Box Theatre, 2445 6th St NW, Suite 1044 Washington, DC, and October 24 to 27 at THEARC West Black Box, 1801 Mississippi Ave SE, Washington DC. Tickets for these tour stops are available online.

Following the tour, What to Send Up When It Goes Down will be performed October 30 to November 10, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets for this run at the box office or online.

Note that Woolly Mammoth Theatre has posted on its website a detailed summary of What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which contains numerous spoilers but may be helpful for anyone concerned or apprehensive about what the performance experience holds.

GalaPro (review of a captioning app)

How does that new GalaPro app work? How well does it work? And what’s it like to watch a show with it? This inquiring theatergoer wanted to know.

Many Deaf and hard of hearing people are already familiar with GalaPro, but it was news to me. The free app runs on a smartphone or tablet and displays read-in-the-dark captions in sync with a live performance. Currently on Broadway, GalaPro is available for use at 18 hits (among them Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and To Kill a Mockingbird). I didn’t need to trek to New York to try it, though, because GalaPro has been fully implemented for about half a year for all shows at Signature and Arena, and Ford’s is soft-launching it right now with August Wilson’s Fences.

A simulation of what captions look like on a smartphone running GalaPro.

I am hearing and I am a huge fan of simultaneous captioning. When theaters have offered it (notably Mosaic), I always glance back and forth between watching the performers and reading along with their script as projected on the set. (At home, too, I prefer to watch cable with the closed captions on.) I’m a word wonk. I dig seeing the writing—literal evidence of the author’s exact intent that preexisted whatever’s on.

For me, simultaneous captioning, far from being a distraction, adds a level of engagement, another way to grok what’s going on. It also yields surprising insights, like when I see that an actor has delivered a line not quite as written (which happens not infrequently). Far from being a gotcha moment, these unauthorized alterations give me an instant glimpse into how an actor has made the role their own. (Playwrights, please do not take umbrage. I am not advocating that actors freewheel; I am merely saying that when they do, it interests me—and I appreciate knowing what the writer meant the actor to say.)

The GalaPro logo, which identifies its app icon.

My chance to test out GalaPro came when I was going to Signature to see Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone. This turned out to be a good place to start. “GalaPro is another step in making Signature more accessible to all audiences,” Jennifer Buzzell, director of marketing and sales, told me. “We are marketing the product not just to people with hearing loss but to literally everyone who comes in our theaters.”

Smack dab in the Signature lobby is an attended GalaPro information kiosk stocked with how-to leaflets and borrowable smartphones, tablets, and hands-free holding stands. You can’t miss it.

“Signature does quite a bit to promote our technology and make their patrons aware of the service,” Dominic Mota, GalaPro operations manager, told me. The push has paid off. According to Mota, “Signature has the highest usage of any regional theatre in our GalaPro portfolio.”

Screenshot of a GalaPro setup page.

Before I arrived, I downloaded the GalaPro app (which is available on the App Store and Google Play) and went through the easy preliminaries as spelled out on the leaflet that Signature now tucks into every program: Log in, create an account, choose Washington DC Metro Area from the dropdown, choose my show, select Closed Captioning, and click Start.

The rest I had to do at the theater: Turn my phone to airplane mode, connect to the show’s dedicated wi-fi network (the app tells you its name and password), and turn off my phone’s notifications. Once in my seat, the name of the play began to glow in dim red letters against a black background. This would be how the captions would look once the show began. It’s possible to customize this display—adjust the font size and brightness slightly—but if you weren’t aware you can just finger-swipe (see screenshots below), it’s a little tricky to find the touch control to do so. Instructions say to use the settings button in the top left corner of the screen, but that button is virtually invisible. You have to keep stabbing your finger at that corner before it shows up. Once it does, you can also pick whether you’d like red type or gray.

Pro tip: Remember how to finger-swipe instead.

As the show started and actors started speaking, their lines of dialogue began to show up automatically on screen. Each character’s name appeared faintly above their lines. And for the most part the lines were in sync with what was said.

Screenshot from GalaPro’s in-app tutorial.

GalaPro uses artificial intelligence to advance the text to each speech as it is spoken, and the way the system is taught how to do this is fascinating. As Buzzell explained, Signature sends the coded script to GalaPro to be uploaded into the system. Then for the first eight run-throughs, the captions are cued manually as the GalaPro system listens through the soundboard and learns to recognize the actors’ voices. After that, the system operates on its own for the rest of the run, guided only by the actors on stage. If an actor drops a line, GalaPro knows to skip ahead and catch up. Similarly if an actor misspeaks a line, GalaPro can get back on track.

Screenshot from GalaPro’s in-app tutorial.

Every now and then, though, GalaPro will seem to get confused and suddenly flutter-scroll rapidly forward and backward until it finds its place in the script again. A frequent theatergoer who has used GalaPro regularly at both Arena and Signature—in combination with an ALD (assisted listening device)—had tipped me off to this little glitch, which I noticed a couple times too. But then in an instant as if by magic the captions would be in sync again. As this frequent user said to me, “When it works, it’s fabulous.”

Escaped Alone is built of alternating scenes between four white Englishwomen chit-chatting Britishly in a garden and extended apocalyptic monologues delivered by one of them in front of a curtain. GalaPro did not add much to the chit-chat scenes—plus the fragmented text was performed so briskly there was no point keeping up with the screen. But I found the GalaPro app a surprisingly valuable enhancement during those densely poetic apocalyptic monologues, the writing of which is mind-blowing. While the cataclysmic imagery and language Churchill deploys is horrifying and grotesque, I took keen private pleasure in following along and savoring her amazing text—which coincidentally deepened my appreciation of the extraordinary performance of the actor delivering it (Valerie Leonard).

Screenshot of a GalaPro setup page.

For contrast I tested GalaPro at Arena at a performance of a very different play, August Wilson’s Jitney, which has a lot of fast banter among nine African American characters, eight men and one woman. The text is very specific to the play’s time and place, the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1977, and it included many idioms and references to proper names unfamiliar to me. In this case GalaPro served me as an instant personal translator so that I never had the feeling I was missing something outside my culture because I didn’t quite catch it.

My takeaway: the GalaPro app can have different applications for different types of theater, and one’s own unartificial intelligence can quickly learn what works for which.

I do wish I had the opportunity to test GalaPro during a musical, but none is playing locally right now. Based on the two experiences I’ve had with straight plays, however, I can readily imagine that the app would be handy for picking up on lyrics that might otherwise get lost.

Whereas at Signature, there’s a house manager at that GalaPro lobby kiosk to ask for setup assistance, at Arena, I found, one can get help from an usher. Also at Arena, the GalaPro how-to leaflets are not on lobby display but available on request at the box office.

Screenshot of shows in DC currently available on GalaPro

Often people wonder whether GalaPro will annoy others. Though I cannot speak for actors onstage, I noticed that when there’s a total blackout, a very slight glow emanates from the phones of folks who are on GalaPro and reflects faintly from their faces. I should think that visual marker of rapt attention would be kind of affirming. As for my seat mates at Signature and Arena, I doubt they noticed. The screen stays dark, with dim lettering that can’t be seen sideways; one has to be looking directly at it. Plus, one can’t get calls or other interruptions because one’s phone is in airplane mode. And these days that certain silence too must be reassuring.

Will we see GalaPro in theaters elsewhere in the DMV? I asked Dominic Mota (who before becoming GalaPro’s operations manager was Signature’s front-of-house manager). “We have quite a few other venues in the area who are interested,” he said, “and are moving forward with the intent to install and offer our services soon.”

My verdict: Would I, a confessed textophile, use GalaPro at the theater again? Absolutely. It’s like having the writer’s words in the palm of my hand.

SHOWS MENTIONED:

Escaped Alone plays through November 3, 2019, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.

Jitney plays through October 27, 2019, at Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or go online.

Fences plays through October 27, 2019, at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (888) 616-0270 or go online.

RELATED:
GalaPro’s homepage is here.
Kennedy Center’s listing of up-coming sign-interpreted and captioned events is here.
DC Arts & Access Network (DCAAN) has a calendar of local events and programs with accessibility services here.

 

My Barking Dog

“Barking dog” is what the Latin name for coyote means, and we learn a whole lot more about the critter in this wildly imagined comedy, a two-hander by Eric Coble. For instance for several years now, coyotes have been abandoning the wilds and begun showing up in cities. (Indeed, they can be found in DC’s Rock Creek Park and in Maryland and Virginia statewide.) But coyotes are not exactly what this play is about.

Running only through October 13, 2019, in a wildly entertaining production presented by Edge of the Universe Players 2 and directed by Michael Chamberlin in the intimate Caos on F space, My Barking Dog is as wondrous as it is weird. Melinda, a printing plant worker, and Toby, jobless and half-heartedly looking for work, are visited by a coyote that changes their lives—and perhaps urban life as we know it.

Christopher Crutchfield Walker (Toby) and Tia Shearer (Melinda) in ‘My Barking Dog.’ Photo by Lock & Co.

“This is a true story,” says Melinda, played delightfully by a gamine-like Tia Shearer in T-shirt and bib overalls.

“It may not all be accurate—,” adds Toby, an amiably winning Christopher Crutchfield Walker, his wrinkled shirt untucked, his tie undone.

“But it’s all true,” declares Melinda.

And if you can buy into that conundrum and the fanciful tale to come, you’re in for a wild ride.

Prefacing the play, we hear a track by the Talking Heads: “I got some wild, wild life /  I got some news to tell ya oh oh / About some wild, wild life”—a tease to both the show’s theme and the stunning sound design by Tosin Olufolabi, which will shortly astonish and surround us. We sit on stools arranged at random within the playing area, the entire floor of which has been painted blazing yellow—like a no-exit hazard zone. Around the space are four pillars of crumpled paper speared on floor-to-ceiling spindles. And as we entered the theater, the two actors were lying huddled/cuddled on what looked to be a thick black shag rug but turns out to be black plastic mulch passing for ash. This mini-dystopia set design by Giorgos Tsappas combined with Kristen P Ahern’s suitably nondescript costumes and Colin K. Bills’s curiously disorienting light scheme makes for one of the most original theatrical worlds I’ve seen come to life at Caos.

Christopher Crutchfield Walker (Toby) in ‘My Barking Dog.’ Photo by Lock & Co.

The play begins with a stretch of first-person character exposition that seems to be ambling nowhere. As Melinda and Toby deliver their several monologues, we learn, among other things, they’re both loners. Melinda likes to work her night shift in the plant when no one else is there: “If I wanted to talk to people I’d work with people.”

For his part, Tony keeps trying to get a wifi connection in his apartment, where he stays put most of the time: “The hardest thing about being unemployed is that you get to know your neighbors. Better than you want to.”

Tia Shearer (Melinda) in ‘My Barking Dog.’ Photo by Lock & Co.

Both Shearer and Walker make this meander as appealing as it can be, but not till that lone coyote drops in does the play kick into fully charged storytelling. And doggone it, what a tale gets told.

When the coyote shows up—symbolically signaled by Olufolabi’s amazing music cues—it is absolutely real to Melinda and Toby, who live in the same building and share the same fire escape but have never met. The coyote connects them. They feed it. They stay up at night to watch for it. They get to know it, and in a surreal way it knows them—or so they believe and imagine. When the coyote doesn’t come around for a while, Toby goes to a park to find it by tracking its distinctive poop, which he graphically rhapsodizes about (in a speech that surely qualifies as a close encounter of the turd canine).

There’s a point to it all. A big and important and provocative idea. A notion that does not tumble out of one’s mind once the show is over. And it hits Melinda and Toby at the same time:

TOBY: The question is: Are the coyotes the last dregs of a wild we are inevitably surrounding… or are they the first scouts of a wild that is inevitably surrounding us?
MELINDA: The question isn’t what right does he have to live in my city. the question is what right does my city have to be in his life?
TOBY AND MELINDA: And that changed everything.

So much of the enjoyment of The Barking Dog is the surprises Coble has in store—what Melinda decides to do next, what happens to Toby—and it would spoil the fun to know too much. Suffice it to say that “The wild need a home too” becomes Melinda’s activist mantra, Toby gets an unexpected family, and maybe, just maybe, the earth is better where the wild things are.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

READ David Siegel’s feature “‘My Barking Dog’ Explores Wildness and Uncertainty at Caos on F”

My Barking Dog, presented by Edge of the Universe Players 2, plays through October 13, 2019, at Caos on F – 923 F St NW, Washington DC. Purchase tickets online.

I Am Her

Midway through this taut, fraught drama about sexual trauma, a woman named Ana, a wife and young mother, is suddenly triggered. We are not told exactly why. It might be the Kavanaugh hearings broadcast, which she has just turned off in disgust. It might be the #MeToo zeitgeist, the rising tide of righteous rage. Whatever the precipitant, Ana is seized by a retrieved memory of  what happened to her when she was a child of six. Until she was nine, she was molested by her babysitter, her uncle. And she passes out.

Melissa Hmelnicky, whose deeply affecting performance as Mom Ana is the story’s emotional anchor, comes to in the arms of her supportive husband Jon, played attentively by Christian Sullivan. The graphic details of Ana’s abuse are artfully and tactfully depicted. Madelyn Farris as Child Ana plays innocently with her dolls stage left as an unctuous male voiceover (Sullivan again) makes her promise never to tell. Meanwhile Hmelnicky on her knees as adult Ana stage right tries to communicate acceptance to her vulnerable and victimized young self.

The moment when grownup Ana and Child Ana bond across their lifetime of buried pain is one of the most exquisite scenes of human mercy I have ever seen on stage.

Melisssa Hmelnicky as Mom Ana and Madelyn Farris as Child Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

The persistence of trauma from sexual abuse is the timely theme of I Am Her, a first play by Amanda Moskowitz. The work is autobiographical, a fact that’s a large part of its impact. After experiencing her own sudden-onset memories of childhood sexual abuse, Moskowitz decided to utilize the creative process of theater to heal—herself as well as others. Judging from the rapt reception by the audience who witnessed the performance Friday night in the Rehearsal Room at Woolly, that transformational potential has only just begun.

Christian Sullivan as Mike and Madelyn Farris as High School Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

The three actors begin in half light by unpacking their costumes from a wooden box. Only later does one realize this is figuratively a play of unpacking memories. The first scene takes place in high school, where giddy High School Ana (Farris) crushes on a jock named Mike (Sullivan), of whom it is said “You can almost smell the popularity!” For Ana, however, it turns into a bad romance with an aggressive jerk whose anger she accedes to—in what is basically a date rape.

Christian Sullivan as lawyer Joseph and Melissa Hmelnicky as Career Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

We know we are in for a sequence of successive sexual traumas by the next scene, when Career Ana (Hmelnicky) ill-advisedly sleeps with a co-worker, Jay (Sullivan, in another of his persuasive toxic-man impersonations). After Ana ends their affair, Jay retaliates. In a consultation with an employment lawyer, Joseph (Sullivan), Ana is unsympathetically advised she should forget about suing for hostile work environment and instead just resign—for the sake of her professional reputation.

That same undermining motif appears when Ana’s Father (a bespectacled Sullivan) tells Child Ana (Farris) she must never tell her mother what happened and there must be “no cops”—because “You don’t want that kind of reputation following you around.”

Other incidents in Ana’s life dramatize the complexity of sexual trauma—especially how she is made to feel responsible for what a man did to her and how she gets further blamed for her shame. Attuned to her suffering, we hear her haunting lines of self-reproach:

I never said no…
I didn’t say a word…
I didn’t know what he did to me…
I was never okay…

And in admiration we attend to this author’s brave declaration through Ana of her truth.

Melissa Hmelnicky as Mom Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

The staging is simple—a doorway, a couch, a table, moved around for different scenes. Director Toni Rae Salmi has shaped the transitions between with a cinematic flow that is well served by Lighting Designer Ian Claar. Sound Designer Julia Colpitts notably lends vivid ambiance to a raucous high school house party. And Intimacy Choreographer Mallory Shear has adeptly coached the show’s requisite bad touches.

I Am Her promised

trauma experts and resources available at each performance for anyone in need. We also invite the audience to stay after each performance for the 30-minute talk back sessions, which have been designed for continued context, dialogue, and support.

The night I was there, Producer Mimi Brodsky Kress talked with special guest Thomas Manion, director of the Montgomery County Family Justice Center in Rockville. If one knows or loves someone who has survived sexual abuse, Kress asked, what should one say? Manion’s answer was immediate:

I’m here for you. I support  you. I believe you.

Amanda Moskowitz’s I Am Her eloquently and succinctly says that too.

Credits
Madelyn Farris: High School Ana, Waitress, Roberta, College Ana, Child Ana
Christian Sullivan: Mike Baker, Joseph Koplan, Jay Russo, Gino Pantleone, Ana’s Father, Jan, Family Member
Melissa Hmelnicky: Career Ana, Therapist, Mom Ana
——
Produced by Mimi Brodsky Kress and Amanda Moskowitz
Directed by Toni Rae Salmi
Stage Management and Sound Design by Julia Colpitts
Dramaturg Consulting by Laura Esti Miller
Intimacy and Fight Choreography by Mallory Shear
Lighting Design by Ian Claar
Set Design and Construction by Michael Salmi
Light and Sound Production by Woolly Mammoth Staff
Photography by Michael Bennett Kress
Videography by Gregory Walsh

Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.

I Am Her played October 3 to 5, 2019, as a self-produced production in the Melton Rehearsal Hall at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. For news of future productions, follow I Am Her on Facebook and Twitter (@IAmHerPlay1).

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

Can one laugh heartily at a satirical comedy—be thoroughly engaged by the entertaining characters, story, and performances—and then after it’s over mourn what it was about? That was for me the postshow recoil from Jocelyn Bioh’s delightful School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, now playing at Round House Theatre in a vivacious production directed by Nicole A. Watson. The sadness that Bioh’s script keeps beneath the surface hit like unforeseen grief.

Debora Crabbe (Mercy), Awa Sal Secka (Ama), Jade Jones (Nana), Kashayna Johnson (Paulina), and Moriamo Temidayo Akibu (Gifty) in ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

 

My colleague Ramona Harper in her fine review had given me a heads-up. School Girls, she wrote:

sashays into the world of African teen queens with a comedic briskness that’s funny and charming but also seriously sobering….

School Girls is not only comedic entertainment but also sharp criticism of a worldview that teaches women—in Africa as well as the US—to value themselves by the shade of their skin….

Skin bleaching, body shaming, and self-loathing are themes that give School Girls a deeper punch.

Further forewarning appeared in the handsome new Round House lobby, where there hangs a display—very worth a read before seeing the play—pointedly critiquing the white western beauty standards now gone global that women are expected to conform to. And a trenchant program note by Round House Dramaturg Gabrielle Hoyt attributes “racist beauty standards that create a desire for skin bleaching” to “centuries of colonial rule, [when] white officials dominated the hierarchies of nations throughout Africa, Asia, and South America.”

So conceptually I was briefed. Plus, I was familiar with white feminists’ writings about “the beauty myth” and how “beauty hurts.” So the uncomfortable-to-watch fat-shaming scene that begins Bioh’s play locked me in immediately to these Ghanian school girls’ struggle to love themselves and feel lovable in a world that never stops judging their worth by their looks.

Moriamo Temidayo Akibu (Gifty), Claire Saunders (Ericka), Debora Crabbe (Mercy), and Awa Sal Secka (Ama) in ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

 

But why, I wondered, given all this preparation, did an enormous sorrow sneak up on me after?

And then I remembered.

In the early 1980s I worked for five years at Essence as managing editor. Then as now, the magazine focused on Black women’s hair, beauty, and fashion, but back then there was an openness to more literary and substantive writing by, among others, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin (both of whose work I was fortunate to acquire and see through to publication). One day I reached out to Alice Walker, whose The Color Purple had just been published, to ask if she had anything she would like to see in Essence. Yes, she did, as it happened. Please send it, I said.

It was an amazing read, a literary essay about colorism, which she defined as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” It was full of vivid references to fiction by Black authors, and bold assertions about the extent and nature of colorism and other forms of gendered and raced oppression. Edited for length, the essay was published in the June 1982 issue of Essence as “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” (later reprinted in full in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens). I did not know at the time that some later scholars would consider that essay the first explicit coinage of the word colorism.

But I’m getting ahead of the story—as memory often does.

Debora Crabbe (Mercy), Theresa Cunningham (Headmistress Francis), Jade Jones (Nana), Moriamo Temidayo Akibu (Gifty), Awa Sal Secka (Ama) in ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

What School Girls brought back to mind was what happened when the manuscript of that essay by Walker was circulated for comment among the other editors—all smart, strong Black women committed to empowering other Black women. I did not anticipate how much pain and anger the piece would provoke among them. Some even argued against publishing it at all.

Susan L. Taylor, the inspired and inspiring editor-in-chief, brokered a compromise. Essence would assign a dark-skinned Black woman to write a personal essay, and a light-skinned Black woman to write one as well. These two essays would be published on either side of Walker’s, to balance its painful topic emotionally, under the overall title “Embracing the Dark and the Light.”

I learned then about a depth of hurt that would never be mine and that I could never have imagined and that I knew, in sadness, I must never forget.

I cannot say what memories and emotions will arise when you see School Girls. But see it you should. It opens eyes and hearts and may even help heal—as laughter often does.

Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play presented by Round House Theatre, plays through October 20, 2019, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100 or go online.

The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers

Sitting in the front row in a child-size chair, I watched a puppet show based improbably on a play by Tennessee Williams. The occasion was a preview at Spooky Action Theater of a never-before-produced script that Williams wrote as a university student and titled The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers. Subtitled “A Japanese Fantasy in One Act,” it had been mounted in miniature by Natsu Onoda Power, who not only directed and designed it but built almost every bit of it.

“I’m very crafty,” she joked as we chatted in the theater afterward.

Director Natsu Onoda Power with the kamishibai (picture play) puppet stage she built for ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers.’ Photo by Laura Mertens.

The play will have its world premiere September 26 to 29, 2019, at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Renowned for imaginative stagings that include her Helen Hayes Award–winning adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Onoda Power was approached by David Kaplan, the festival curator and cofounder, to do Falling Flowers utilizing kamishibai, a Japanese art form that translates as picture play. “The script invited some sort of unusual visual treatment,” Onoda Power said. “And they were specifically looking for people who knew kamishibai.”

Onoda Power knew the form well. She had been using kamishibai as inspiration for several recent multimedia works. For each of the three scenes in Falling Flowers, she amplified and enhanced it.

In the first scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers,’ Dylan Arredondo (The Emperor) and Jared H. Graham (The Prime Minister) operate two-dimensional puppets. Photo courtesy of Spooky Action Theater.

“Kamishibai is usually a set of illustrated placards with narration on the back. You flip it to reveal different pictures to tell the story,” she explained. “Falling Flowers starts out in the first scene looking like traditional kamishibai then introduces cut-out two-dimensional puppets. Then in the second scene it moves to miniature three-dimensional puppets. And in the third scene we use Noh-inspired masks—not worn on the performers’ faces but held in their hands and operated like puppets to tell the story.”

Drawing inspiration from the 11th-century Japanese classic The Tale of Genji, Williams wrote Falling Flowers about an Emperor who enlists his Prime Minister to help him find a wife. The Emperor expects her to be a wonderful poet. He won’t settle for anyone who isn’t. Eventually he finds the Princess poet he’s looking for and they fall in love.

In the second scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers,’ three-dimensional puppets come in to play. Photo by Natsu Onoda Power.

“There are many layers of meanings in the progression of the characters’ representation from illustration to cut-out puppets to full-size,” Onoda Power explained. “I thought that for Williams, Falling Flowers was an experiment in storytelling. I imagine him writing it like an exercise. He was taken by this ancient Japanese text and wanted to do his own version of it. I wanted to do something similar: a study in different forms of storytelling that I am actively borrowing.

“It’s not mimicry, it’s more adaptation—my own adaptations of established forms.”

Nobody familiar with Williams’s body of work would think Falling Flowers part of it. And one wonders how many other works he put in the drawer that were also not what we think of as Williams. “This is like a delightful surprise, that he was even compelled to do it,” Onoda Power said. Her staging of Falling Flowers is a form of “honoring his imagination,” she said, “boldly approaching different forms and then using them.

In the third scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers,’ Noh-inspired masks are used as puppets. Photo by Natsu Onoda Power.

“There’s another reason behind the multiple modes of representation,” she continued. “This is a text that if someone were to write it today, they may be accused of cultural appropriation. It’s Tennessee Williams essentially writing in the Japanese voice. And because we’re putting it up in the contemporary U.S., there are some challenges. Like who’s going to play these characters if we do it with humans? Do they have to be Japanese actors? Except these characters are hardly authentically Japanese—and what’s authenticity anyway? However, if we do it with puppets and not just one set of puppets or one set of illustrations but multiple, then we see many different ways in which we perceive these characters, all of which constitute the complex figures that these characters are.”

The cast of three—Dylan Arredondo (The Emperor), Jared H. Graham (The Prime Minister), and Melissa Carter (The Lady and The Princess), all alumni of the National Players touring ensemble—had worked with Onoda Power before. At the preview I saw, they seemed completely in sync with the performance style, the language, the puppetry, Onoda Power’s vision, and one another.

Dylan Arredondo (The Emperor), Jared H. Graham (The Prime Minister), and Melissa Carter (The Princess) in scene three of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers. Photo courtesy of Spooky Action Theater.

“I often think about many versions of ourselves,” Onoda Power reflected. “We present ourselves in so many different versions in our daily lives. And all these versions are true. I wanted to play with that idea with multiple puppet possibility.”

Melissa Carter (The Princess) and her princess finger puppets in the second scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers.’ Photo courtesy of Spooky Action Theater.

This esthetic approach also gives context to the gender politics of the play. “I felt that many different forms of puppets could give us a meta commentary about that,” Onoda Power said. “We think we’ve come so far in the way we speak about gender or we enact gender, but we’re not yet in full human form. We’re in the closer-to-human but still masked-puppet phase. The transformation of performance styles in the three scenes is a record of a gender discourse.”

I noted that the three actors seemed to put air quotes around much of what they said—notably Melissa Carter as The Lady and The Princess. When she’s reacting, you can see that she’s commenting all the time. Onoda Power shed light on that.

“There’s a line at the top of the third scene where the Emperor asks, ‘Are you a princess?’ And she says, no, ‘I’m just a stupid woman.’ We wanted to inflect that line with ‘because everybody said so.’ ”

Mask in progress for ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers. Photo by Natsu Onoda Power.

Besides working out the presentation conceptually, besides working with the performers on acting style and props, Onoda Power also designed and constructed everything—the puppets, the toy stage, the placard paintings, the masks—it’s all her handiwork (except six cute little princess finger puppets that Carter offered to make and wears in scene two). Onoda Power possesses an extraordinary synthesis of conceptual and dramatic artistry with mechanical and sculptural dexterity.

“I don’t think I can separate them,” she told me. “A lot of the ideas come while I’m making things. Also, in rehearsals as we work with things, sometimes the objects give you ideas. You don’t know until you have the puppet in your hand what it’s going to do.

“I usually do the first phase of rehearsals with mockups. Then I take a little time between the initial rehearsals and the final set of rehearsals to make everything. For this one, we had three days of workshop in July and then we didn’t really come back until four days before preview. I had a month and a half in between for me to figure things out.”

When the show goes on the road to Provincetown, it will be set up for outdoor performances and taken down at night. It’s all compact and transportable. “Everything fits in a suitcase,” she said. “Everything is built to fit exactly. Everything has its compartment. And I made custom pillows for each piece, so for instance, each mask has a little cushion that closes with Velcro and protects it.”

The family-friendly show runs about 35 minutes. It has grownup themes, it’s not a children’s story, but it’s told as if it were, which is both disarming and engaging, and it’s totally accessible. A kid could watch the show and be inspired go home and write a poem.

What makes The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers seem like Williams of the future, a precursor of his work to come, is its reverence for imagination and the poetic soul.

“Only verse makes things eternal. Only literature and art make things eternal,” Onoda Power said of the play. “It’s celebrating art.”

Running Time: About 35 minutes, with no intermission.

The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers was produced by Spooky Action Theater and was performed in previews September 21, 2019, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. The play will have its world premiere September 26 to 29, 2019, at Wa Garden, 220 Commercial Street Provincetown, Massachusetts, as part of the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Tickets are available online.

The Book Club Play

Whether you’re an avid reader or a theater buff or both, there’s a supersmart, superfunny show up in Silver Spring that should be on your short list.

Marking its 52nd anniversary (!), community theater Silver Spring Stage has programmed a tantalizing year of contemporary classics—among them Sweat by Lynn Nottage, Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, and Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne. Kicking off its season is the The Book Club Play by DC’s own comic genius Karen Zacarías, the only local on American Theatre magazine’s list of most-produced playwrights.

Nicholas Bashour (Will), Camille Pozderac (Jen), Jasmine Jones (Lily), Spencer Knoll (Rob), Lena Winter (Ana) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

We’re in the home of married couple Ana and Rob, their comfortable living room to be exact, designed by Bill Dunbar with a decor that never met an earth tone it didn’t adore. The bossy newspaper columnist Ana, played with arresting gusto by Lena Winter, conducts the titular book club here, and its members are already gathered to dive into Moby-Dick.

Camille Pozderac (Jen), Nicholas Bashour (Will), Jasmine Jones (Lily) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

There’s Ana’s closeted friend Will, played with amusing agitation by Nicholas Bashour. There’s the eager-to-fit-in Lily, assistant to Ana at work, played with impressive brains and brass by Jasmine Jones. There’s Ana’s ex-collegiate-jock husband Rob, who never reads the assigned book, played with relatable out-of-place-ness by Spencer Knoll. Arriving late is their anxious and insecure friend Jen, played with outstanding emotional precision by Camille Pozderac.

The twist is that Ana by prior arrangement has permitted a documentary filmmaker to install a camera to record everything they do and say. So it’s: Let’s put on a reality show! At first, all introduce themselves to the camera (and thereby to us). But a running gag is that they are often oblivious of it, especially during hilariously awkward and compromising goings on—which over the course of their six biweekly meetings include three impetuous full-mouth kisses and sudden declarations of passion. As ever, a subtext is sex.

Zacarías has packed a catalogue of other clever treats into this comedy, and one of most interesting is the book choice she’s given each character. Lily, for instance, astonishes everyone by picking Twilight. And laggard reader Rob, humored with a chance to name a childhood fave, opts for Return of Tarzan.

Nicholas Bashour (Will), Lena Winter (Ana), Camille Pozderac (Jen), Jasmine Jones (Lily), Andrew S. Greenleaf (Alex), Spencer Knoll (Rob) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine Photo by Harvey Levine.

Caroline Adams (Pundit) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.Photo by Harvey Levine.

A surprise drop-in is Alex, a comp lit professor played with low-key certitude by Andrew S. Greenleaf. Alex was invited by Lily when she saw him in the laundry room of their building reading Twilight. This prompts Will and Ana to fulminate over the fact Alex was never vetted. But it also introduces a fun current of controversy about the relative worth of high-brow classics and pop-culture fare. Alex praises the latter. All of which is to say the enticing comedic tension that heats up in The Book Club Play is not only sexual but intellectual.

Caroline Adams (Pundit) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.Photo by Harvey Levine.

There’s some terrific meta-theatricality at play, notably the monologues between scenes by Caroline Adams, who appears as five different characters, each more outrageous than the last, riffing on the meaning of books. Adams seems to transmogrify before our eyes as she becomes by turns a literary agent, a Walmart stock manager, a skydiving librarian, and more. These interludes cover for the cast’s five full changes of costume (designed with astute flair by Eric Scerbo), but they’re also their own reward.

The Book Club Play at Silver Spring Stage is truly novel, an actual thinking person’s entertainment. And as directed by Karen Fleming at a brisk and witty pace, it’s the theatrical equivalent of a laugh-out-loud page turner.

CAST
Ana: Lena Winter; Lily: Jasmine Jones; Rob: Spencer Knoll; Jen: Camille Pozderac; Will: Nicholas Bashour; Alex: Andy Greenleaf; Pundit: Caroline Adams.

PRODUCTION TEAM
Director & Co-Producer: Karen Fleming; Co-Producer: Jennifer Dorsey; Assistant Director: Janet VA Replogle; Stage Manager: Denise M. Gilmore; Set Designer & Master Carpenter: Bill Dunbar; Scenic Painter: K.O. Myers; Set Construction & Painting: Nancy Davis, Karen Fleming, Denise Gilmore, Joyce Kraimer & Joy Wyne; Set Dressing: Nancy Davis, Bill Dunbar & Joy Wyne; Lighting Designer: Bill Strein; Lighting Technician: Jim Robertson; Projections: Steve Deming; Graphics: Leigh K. Rawls; Sound Designer & Composer: Patrick Hughes; Sound Technician: Jeff Mikoni; Properties Designers: Carlton & Jane Maryott; Costume Designer: Erie Scerbo; Photographers: Harvey Levine &Jon Goell; Artistic Liaison: Jacy D’Aiutolo; Opening Night Reception: Seth Ghitelman.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

The Book Club Play plays through October 12, 2019, at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD, located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center. Purchase tickets at the door, by phone (301) 593-6036, or online.

Q&A: Maria Manuela Goyanes on Fairview, Race, and What’s Next at Woolly Mammoth

I saw Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview opening night at Woolly, and I cannot stop thinking about its originality—not only in form but in intent. I’m not writing about the production—my colleague Amy Kotkin did the DCMTA review—but if I were, there’s so much I wouldn’t want to give away that all I would say is: Just go see this play.

Woolly has done some brilliantly disruptive plays in the past. I’m thinking of Gloria and Kiss, which I loved, where midway through, the form of the play cracks open into a whole new theatrical dimension. Fairview goes even further. By my count it cracks open four times.

Nikki Crawford (Beverly), Samuel Ray Gates (Dayton), Woolly company member Shannon Dorsey (Jasmine), and Chinna Palmer (Keisha) in ‘Fairview.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Fairview is explicitly about race, and as such it asks everyone who sees it to acknowledge their own. I’m descended from Norwegian and German immigrants, which in America translates to white. And I cannot recall anything in theater that so intensively makes a white audience member conscious of their whiteness as something that takes up space.

Fairview begins the first season programmed by Maria Manuela Goyanes, who has been on the job as Woolly’s artistic director for a year. In a warm phone call just after Fairview opened, I asked her how she was feeling. “Grateful and appreciative of the DC community,” she said. “Very embraced and excited to be here. Really appreciative of the staff.” And then we got down to an extraordinarily frank conversation about Fairview the play, race in DC, and what’s ahead at Woolly.

John: When you programmed Fairview, what were you thinking?

Maria Manuela Goyanes

Maria Manuela Goyanes

Maria: I saw the play in New York on the fourth preview, and I was blown away by it. This was before it won the Pulitzer, before people were talking about it. And I found myself having a transformative experience. I identify as Latina, but I’m very white-presenting. So I found the play to be thrilling and difficult and challenging. And I remember going up to Jackie [Sibblies Drury] afterward. I knew she was a Woolly playwright because we had done her We Are Proud to Present, her breakout play, not too long ago. I had just gotten the job at Woolly. And I said: Please let me do this in my inaugural season at Woolly. My instinct and intuition was: This is the conversation I need to be having.

I hadn’t even moved to DC yet. So when I did finally move to DC and talked to folks about the play and had my senior staff read it and started to get to know the city, I realized: DC was a majority-black city until recently. It’s still majority people of color. And I thought to myself, in terms of a season opener, it was important that people knew that Woolly was going to do thought-provoking work and challenging content—that finding me and having me take over for Howard [Shalwitz] didn’t mean we were going to be any less risky in the work we were doing.

But then I also thought to myself: What is the most urgent conversation I want to be having with my company of artists as well as with the audiences? And it felt like Fairview checked all those boxes in the most exciting way—and in a scary way. It’s a very bold move for the first show. And I think that says I’m doing something right when it comes to Woolly Mammoth.

When you programmed Fairview, in what sense did you see it as a play for white people and in what sense is it a play for people of color?

Well, here’s the thing I want to tell you: I don’t want to prescribe an audience’s reaction to the show because I think that can be harmful. And what do I know ultimately in terms of that? However, we are doing a community conversation after every performance for folks who want to process it, and in the community conversation we are breaking folks by racial affinity.

I intentionally programmed Fairview next to What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which I cannot wait for you to see, John. Remember in the monologue that Keisha the daughter has at the end of Fairview where she says:

Keisha: If I could tell the story I want to tell us,
my people,
my colorful people,
you would hear it
if I could tell it,
and it would be something like
a story about us, by us, for us, only us.

Chinna Palmer as Keisha in ‘Fairview.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

For Woolly Mammoth it felt like: Well, then, that’s what we need to do. If we were going to take the challenge of Fairview, then we need to program after Fairview a show that is specifically about and for and by black folks.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down is about healing from racialized violence. It’s by the Movement Theatre Company, which is run by all people of color. Great, amazing young producers. And it is a play that is speaking to one of the most urgent issues that is happening to black folks in this country, which is anti-blackness, which has been the case for now centuries. For me Fairview and What to Send Up When It Goes Down are really of a piece. Even though Aleshea [Harris] and Jackie weren’t writing these shows to be seen together like this, they are both speaking to something that I’m incredibly passionate about—and it felt like Woolly Mammoth needed to answer the challenge that Keisha gives us at the end of Fairview.

Keisha also challenges the white people in the audience to think about “what you can you do to make space for someone else.”

Yeah.

That line just went boom for me.

That was exactly the thinking. If Fairview is about folks learning how to make space, then how does Woolly Mammoth make space? And that’s something to do with the new lobby, with What to Send Up When It Goes Down, with the intentionality of our work with connectivity.

In the new Woolly Mammoth lobby: Inscription acknowledging the land and the history of slavery. Photo by Mike Morgan Photography.

Fairview holds up to critical view how white people view representations of black people in a particular comic sitcom. It now strikes me that the same dynamic—spectatorship through an unself-consciously white lens—is what’s almost always going on whenever white people watch plays about characters of color, even in stories told by playwrights of color.

Shannon Dorsey, Tatiana Williams, and Cyndii Johnson in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

For instance, when Woolly did BLKS, which I loved, that was a play the black playwright [Aziza Barnes] deliberately intended to be by and for black people, yet it was being hugely enjoyed at Woolly by audiences that were majority white. After seeing Fairview, I’m now wondering whether white audiences were even seeing the play the playwright wrote.

I don’t identify as white, right? Even though I’m white-presenting. To me the challenge I think—for you, John, or any white-identified person—is how to actually start to be able to lift and name and acknowledge what slavery did in this country. I mean, you see what’s happening, right? You see we can’t pretend that racism only exists if you wear a hood. It’s something that is operating all the time, and it’s a system that we all live in. So to me part of that conversation is how do we make space for other stories. And the act of witnessing is a different act than the act of identifying with, you know what I mean?

Wow.

To be able to see people with the fullness of their humanity, hopefully working toward creating greater empathy and understanding and more engaged citizenry in this country. That’s really what I think Aziza is doing for young twenty-something, queer, fem black women, you know, black folks. And BLKS is just like a day in the life: Look at what we have to deal with, think about, and be in conversation with. Acknowledgement of it is the first thing.

I’m mixed. My father is from Spain, from Hispanic culture and European culture, and my mother is Dominican. So I have to square my values and my intentionality having a deep understanding and analysis of what that means for me to move through the world. Certainly, my experience is different from black and brown folks, even in positions of power. I get to do things and be things because people don’t know where I come from. They don’t ask. They don’t assume those prejudices and biases come from the racist structures and systems that we live in. I have a lot of privilege in that way. So how do I move responsibly and intentionally? There’s just a lot of conversation to be had about it, no question.

‘Invitation to the Party’ by Donna Walker-Kuhne. Click to buy on Amazon.

Donna Walker-Kuhne wrote a really profound and practical book about multicultural audience development—

Are you talking about Invitation to the Party?

Yes. And it was based on her experience at The Public Theater in New York. So I wanted to ask you, since you have had experience working at The Public, what insights or lessons learned there do you think could be applied at Woolly in particular and in DC more generally?

‘Emergent Strategy’ by adrienne maree brown. Click to buy on Amazon.

Well first of all, let’s plug that book so that everybody reads it because Donna Walker-Kuhne is brilliant. A lot of the things she speaks about are foundational. The culture is shifting at great speed, and there’s great writing that is even more contemporary. The book by adrienne maree brown Emergent Strategy comes to mind. It’s a really amazing strategy book to help us do this kind of work. It’s like a little bit of a Bible for me. So I would also love to shout out that book.

The Public is such a larger scale than Woolly, and so for me what I want to lift here is that I feel really excited to have a local community that is as dynamic and rich and robust as Washington, DC, the DMV area. Woolly is a 265-seat house. I could actually know everybody in the audience on a particular night, which is a beautiful thing. And so I’m excited about those strategies that Donna talks about and that adrienne maree brown talks about and thinking about it at a hyperlocal level.

I know you asked me a question about The Public, but I want to bring it to Washington, DC, and the glory of being in a place where people are incredibly proud of being from this area. I’m getting to meet those folks and put some of these things into practice with this community and that’s tremendously exciting.

The aspiration that’s evident in the programming of Fairview makes me so excited about what you’re going to do next. I mean, it’s just a knockout season opener. It’s one of those plays that will alter people’s brain mapping.

Oh gosh I hope so, I love that.

I attended the Woolly open house for its new lobby, which was the day after Fairview opened, and I was so moved by the new inscription on the wall. I just choked up looking at it as you read it aloud:  

Woolly Mammoth acknowledges that this theatre stands upon occupied, unceded territory: the ancestral homeland of the Nacotchtank whose descendants belong to the Piscataway peoples. Furthermore, the foundation of this city, and most of the original buildings in Washington, DC, were funded by the sale of enslaved people of African descent and built by their hands.

It’s so consonant with everything you’re doing.

Thank you so much. It means a lot to me. And here’s the thing about all of the words up there on the entry wall, the land acknowledgement and the acknowledgement of the history of slavery: I hope it is not just going to be inspiring for folks who walk in, but also help us be accountable to those words. I hope that you as part of this DC artistic community will also help Woolly be accountable. It shouldn’t just be words.

Fairview plays through October 6, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or go online.

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

What the Constitution Means to Me

When Heidi Shreck steps out onto the Eisenhower stage and has what seems an informal, ad-libbed, introductory chat with us, the first thing you notice is her joy. She seems genuinely happy to be here. Putting us utterly at ease, she’s visibly bubbling to share with us her story: how as a 15-year-old in Wenatchee, Washington, she entered debate contests, sponsored by local American Legion posts, that tested and showcased her knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. The rules required that she be as personal as possible. Whatever she said had to be about how the Constitution had affected her own life. Debating agreed with her. She got really good at it. She won enough prize money to put herself through college.

Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Behind her is a simulated American Legion hall (the unprepossessing set is by Rachel Hauck), its wood-paneled walls filled with framed headshots of white male veterans in uniform. Shreck enters the set and begins to speak as her 15-year-old self giving competitive seven-minute presentations. A nerdy Legionnaire sitting stage left (Mike Iveson) keeps time on his stopwatch. Schreck does not imitate her younger self, but she delivers convincingly the reconstructed words of that whip-smart kid. Under pressure, she gets a little flustered, but she crushes it.

Shreck is incredibly funny, her timing so fine-tuned it could put clocks out of work. She has the audience enthralled. The laughs come fast, one right after another. The slightest pause can turn hilarious. Her humor is dry and self-effacing. “I was raised to be psychotically polite,” she says at one point, explaining why she was smiling when inside she wasn’t.

Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Intellectually I know that Shreck is giving a practiced, scripted performance. Even when ad-libbing, she has to be acting. She has been directed (efficiently by Oliver Butler) as surely as she has been stage-lit (proficiently by Jen Schriever) and costumed (casually by Michael Krass). She’s playing herself in a play she wrote that became a breakout hit in New York, garnered Tony nominations for best play and best actress, was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, and now comes to DC for a brief run that’s almost all sold out.

But what is happening in this intimate moment in this vast theater has no artifice, no self-importance, no premeditation. Heidi Schreck is simply being herself, and she is so personable and spontaneous and emotionally transparent it’s as if we have met a new friend.

This bond with the audience is spun of gold, and it never breaks, even when Shreck gets to the core of her case, which is an argument with America’s past. Hers is a debate with the wealthy white men who owned wives and slaves and who wrote a Constitution that left out women, Africans, First Nations, other people of color, and anyone else unlike themselves.

I had read a fair amount about how entertaining and engaging Shreck’s play and performance are—and all of it proved breathtakingly true—but nothing prepared me for the radical critique at the heart of it: a personal and political takedown of the rich white male supremacy that the Framers enshrined in the Constitution.

“What does it mean if this document offers no protections against the violence of men?” Shreck asks—having told us story after story of men’s abuse of women in her family including her mother and going back to her great-great grandmother.

Summarizing nine white men’s judicial groping that finally found in the Constitution a penumbral right to privacy to permit, with limitations, birth control and abortion, Shreck states the obvious: “Our bodies, our bodies, had been left out of this Constitution from the beginning.”

Not for nothing did Gloria Steinem call the show “a miracle.”

And not for nothing did Shreck call the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause “the most miraculous clause in our entire Constitution.” So much hope hangs on that clause—civil equality rights for folks of all sorts—but by a thread that can snap, as it did in the 2005 case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales. That was when the Supreme Court decided against a woman who had pled with local police to enforce the restraining order on her threatening husband. The police did nothing. The husband killed her three children.

Feminist legal scholars have called this decision the death of the 14th Amendment for women and children. This ruling is most devastating for women of color, transwomen, binary and non-binary folx, women with disabilities, immigrants — people who are less likely to be helped by police than I am. It’s especially devastating to indigenous women, who suffer the most violence in our country.

Shreck spells out the constitutional-law civics lesson here, simply and clearly:

I learned about two kinds of rights: negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights protect us from the government taking our stuff, locking us up, killing us. Positive rights are active rights. They include things like the right to a fair trial, the right to counsel, in some countries the right to health care. Our Constitution primarily, with some exceptions, is a negative-rights document, and Scalia, an originalist, was adamantly a negative-rights kind of guy, which is in part how they decided that Jessica Gonzales was not entitled to any active protection from the police. I also learned that if we had an Equal Rights Amendment, she might have been protected under that. And I understood for the first time why my mom cried when it didn’t pass.

Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, and Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

At points two other performers take the stage. Midway through, Mike Iveson drops his Legionnaire guise and shares, as himself, his own story of being punched in the face for not presenting as male enough. And at the end, an extraordinary 14-year-old named Rosdely Ciprian, a dynamo debater in her own right, has a delightful scene with Shreck during which they toss a coin to decide who should argue for abolishing the Constitution or for keeping it.

What the Constitution Means to Me not only talks back to hundreds of years of American patriarchal history and jurisprudence; it also speaks to the present moment:

Democracy is something we have to make happen, we have to fight for, every single day.

What the Constitution Means to Me is the most necessary work of American theater of this century so far, and it is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the tenuous future of equality.

Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, with no intermission.

What the Constitution Means to Me runs through September 22, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. The few remaining tickets for the run are available online or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

What the Constitution Means to Me will launch a national tour—with an actor to be announced in Heidi Schreck’s role—at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in January 2020, with stops to follow in Charlotte, Hartford, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, with more to be announced.

The script published by Theater Communications Group will be available November 5, 2019.