Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: February, 2016

Word Becomes Flesh & for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

There is a critical conversation going on in Anacostia right now that may be one of the most  urgent and honest exchanges between black women and black men the American theater has ever known.

The conversation is between two choreopoems, one composed and staged from a black man’s point of view (Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Word Becomes Flesh, directed by Psalmayene 24) and one composed and staged from a black woman’s point of view (Ntozake Shange’s classic for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, directed by Deidra Starnes).

In a brilliant stroke of programming, Theater Alliance has presented these two works in repertory. When I went to see them yesterday, first Word Becomes Flesh followed by for colored girls…, I expected to review them separately. I knew right away afterward I couldn’t. They say too much to each other and together. And what they say is so personal and profound that it resonates with an importance beyond its powerful parts.

* * *

Word Becomes Flesh is the poet’s voice of one young black man performed in the voices of an agile and emotion-baring ensemble of five: Louis E. Davis, Chris Lane, Clayton Pelham, Gary L. Perkins III, Justin Weaks. Speeches, riffs, raps, and slam fragments are shared, split up, echoed, amplified. Singly and as a chorus their bodies (choreographed by Tony Thomas)  physicalize their aspirations and the emergency of their lives. The effect is gripping.

An early refrain sets the tone of heartrending storytelling in a world hazardous to “brown boys”:

Everyday begins
with a black man
on the run.
Early to rise, early to run
Just in case the polices come

A narrative emerges about an unnamed young man whose father abandoned him. We follow him as he pursues “the scent of potential sex” to its exultant consummation with a young woman he gets pregnant. We follow him as he is emotionally torn apart between wanting to abandon his unborn son like his own father did and, alternately, facing up to what it will mean to raise a boy whose life will be in ceaseless jeopardy “in the land of the free by the blood of the slave”:

Only 5 months in the womb we’ve been hunted for so long my son
My son are you going to be hunted too

The personal narrative becomes ever more intense. Lighting by William K. D’Eugenio frames each electric scene shift. Sound design and original music by Nick tha Ida underscores each heartfelt raw beat of the words. Flashes of wit and warmth come as a joy and a jolt, but the harsh stories being told about a black man’s life in “the system” don’t let go. Each of the ensemble members has a stunning solo turn and there’s an extended one by Jeffrey Weaks—which includes an agonizing-to-watch passage about not wanting to be black—that absolutely astounds.

At the end comes an image of extraordinary transcendence. There can be no mistaking in that moment the hope and love that became Word Becomes Flesh.

* * *

I remember seeing for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf at the Public Theater in New York just before it opened on Broadway in 1976 (becoming only the second play by a black woman to do so; Lorraine Hansberry’s  A Raisin in the Sun was first). I remember the mostly female audience’s excitement around the thrust stage as Shange’s unabashed homage to sisterhood and female self-empowerment unfolded. (In those early days of second-wave feminism, for colored girls… was viewed as a breakthrough for all women; there was as yet nothing like it in commercial theater.) The horrifying story told in the poem “a nite with beau willie brown” has never left me. Seeing that scene  in the new Theater Alliance production gave me chills all over again.

What was breakthrough about for colored girls… was not only its celebration of self-love (“I found god in myself and I love her fiercely”).  It was the authenticity—both wickedly funny and brutally frank—of its depiction of women’s relationships with men. For women who’ve been there, done that, every poem in the piece offers a “remind you of anything?” recognition scene.  Men’s passion and fascination, fecklessness and faithlessness, unkindness and cruelty—it’s all there, divvied up among the vigorous voices of women clothed in vivacious colors of the rainbow, in free verse as razor sharp as it is rhapsodic.

Director Deidra Starnes performed in a production of for colored girls… directed by Shange herself, and every detail of this production bespeaks Starnes’ deep-inside connection to each meter and meaning in the script.

To declaim and dance to life this rich text on the Anacostia Playhouse stage, Starnes has assembled a cast of seven who are simply phenomenal—Christa Bennett, Kashayna Johnson, Naomi LaVette, Alina Collins Maldonado, Lolita Marie, Sharisse Taylor, and Natalie Tucker. Each gives outstanding performances of their solo poems—Natalie Tucker’s hilarious and touching delivery of “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” almost stopped the show, and Kashayna Johnson’s delivery of “a nite with beau willie brown” was heart-stopping.

Lighting Designer Dan Covey beautifully highlights their every hue and cry.  Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson interjects lovely tunes. And Choreographer Sandra L. Holloway shapes these wonderful women’s magnificent moves. That Theater Alliance has revived for colored girls… in such a fine production, in such a sensitive interpretation, with such sensational performances, gives every reason one might need not to miss seeing it on its own. But there’s even more reason to see it with Word Becomes Flesh.

The text used in Theater Alliance’s for colored girls… is the version Shange updated in 2010 to add stories of a woman’s relationship with a PTSD-affected Gulf War vet and another woman’s relationship with an HIV-infected man. What’s striking about these two inclusions is that they reference societal perils with more specificity than did the play in its original  incarnation. Back in the 1970’s, the world of for colored girls… was a world of women and the men in it.  Its scope was never the world their men were in. And that’s what makes Theater Alliance’s pairing of these two plays so groundbreaking and such a peak instance of theater’s potential to inspire conversation.

The two casts of these two plays stand on the same stark stage—multilevel gray slabs designed by Ethan Sinnott. They wear costumes by the same designer, Marci Rodgers (hip-hop athletic wear for the men, gorgeous gowns for the women). But the most significant fact about them is that, implicitly, their characters now inhabit the same world. One doesn’t necessarily know that watching the plays one at a time. In Word Becomes Flesh, the women in these men’s lives are mostly offstage and we don’t hear from them (except briefly when they’re mimicked). In for colored girls… the men in these women’s lives are mostly offstage and we don’t  hear from them (except briefly when they’re mocked). But there’s something about the performances that is sure to share a time and place in one’s mind afterward.

I asked both directors about it, because I had such a strong sense that there was deep accord between the two productions. Turns out that from the very first table read when both casts were in the room the whole time, they have been collaborating behind the scenes in a generosity of mutual support that has included watching each other’s runs. From the get-go, these directors and these actors intended that the women given voice by Ntozake Shange and the men given voice by Marc Bamuthi Joseph would hear what each other was saying via the memory and imagination of each theatergoer who attends to both.

I have never seen a double bill that comes anywhere near doing  what these two paired plays do. I have never before experienced such great theater in the interstice and implicit cohesion between two such singularly powerful works.

Word Becomes Flesh

Running Time: One hour with no intermission

Word Becomes Flesh plays through March 26, 2016, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

Running Time: One hour 30 minutes with no intermission.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf plays through March 26, 2016, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

In repertory weekday evenings. On Saturdays both plays are performed and ticketed separately. On Sundays both plays are performed as a double bill with a 15-minute intermission.

 

 

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Riot

Last night in a small, tucked-away space in Silver Spring, I watched a “real time” drama so exciting and original, so drop-dead funny and knock-out suspenseful, that I left the theater dazed and euphoric.

The play is called Riot. It takes place in Sam’s Coffee Shop—a room of not more than 600 square feet that Set Designers Kevin Kearney and Toly Yarup have turned into a hangout for townies and students from nearby Whitney College, complete with café tables, blackboard menu, real coffee, and pastries. The event that precipitates the play is a demonstration just outside demanding that the college toss its mascot name “Crusaders” (whose sectarian history might offend non-Christians) and adopt “Patriots.” As the play unfolds, the demonstration outside turns violent and the violence comes inside, shockingly.

Six incredibly quick-witted acting talents improvise plot points and characters that have been blocked out by three brilliant co-creators: Director Sue Schaffel, Assistant Director Garrett Schaffel, and Fight Director Claudia Rosales. Now and then an actor will stop and shout “Wait!,” the lighting (designed by Simon Ellerbe) will abruptly shift, and an either/or question will be posed to the audience, whose answer will determine what happens next in the story. This means the show plays out differently each performance.

The questions last night cleverly echoed contested social issues, and at a couple points these canny show stoppers prompted out-loud debate that became its own riveting drama. For instance after an alarmingly rough altercation between a police officer and a young townie, the audience was asked which one provoked it. A case could have been made for either. Audience engagement was off the charts.

Large flatscreen monitors ranged about the room by Technical Coordinator Orion Stekoll display a running Twitter feed about what’s going on (some of this is done in real time in response to the improv and some of it was prewritten to support the storytelling, but it all seems totally spontaneous). The tweets, each with the hashtag #MeetatSams, not only track the rising tensions outside but also comment on the flaring character clashes inside. The effect of watching the action then glancing intermittently at the tweeting about it was for me an unprecedented experience in live theater.

Andrew Quilpa plays Chris, the barrista; Smitty Chai plays Ryan, the townie; Christopher Holbert plays Officer Frank Bell; Nerissa Hart plays Nicole, the demonstration organizer; Mollie Goff plays Andrea, a Whitney student; Jennifer Berry plays Stacy, a reporter from a local television station. Without exception the performances were gripping.

Riot plays only through February 28, and the space can accommodate an audience of only 27. The show is already selling out and there’s no way everyone who’s going to want to see it will get in.

Running Time: About one hour 15 minutes (may vary from show to show).

Riot plays through February 28, 2016 at The Highwood Theatre – 924 Silver Spring Avenue, in Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are $25 (student tickets $20) and can be purchased online or at the door.

Promised Land

At a point in Mosaic Theater’s Promised Land—a powerhouse of a play performed inside an intimate space that’s more like a concrete bunker than a black box—we see the searing image of people fenced out. Refugees, huddled masses depicted by a cast of seven, stand backlit upstage of a chain-link fence, their pleading arms upraised in shadow against a translucent screen. We hear no words yet the transcendent impact of that image rends the heart.

And who could have guessed that on the very day this play would open in the rehearsal room at Woolly Mammoth, Pope Francis would chide off the cuff ex cathedra:

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.

Turns out, as Promised Land makes plain, it’s not Jewish either.

The play by Shachar Pinkas and Shay Pitovsky tells multiple and interwoven stories of survivors  of civil war in East Africa  looking to Israel for asylum—i.e., some semblance of the national sanctuary that was made home to survivors of the Holocaust in Europe. It begins as the eight cast members, utilizing the theatrical form of devised documentary, address us directly and barrage us with statistics about the extent of the problem. It’s an onslaught of info that’s more than we can take in—”more than we can take in” being, of course, the point of view of those who want refugees kept out.

The play does not hold back in portraying the prejudice in the policies that have excruciating effects on so many seekers of safety. There is a chillingly smarmy speech delivered by the Mayor of Eilat (“My African friends, please go back to your homeland, we wish you well”)  and a chillingly bigoted speech delivered by a contractor (“You might get Ebola from the sight of them, and if they sneeze on you, HIV is inevitable. What do I know about them? Why should they come from Africa?”)

Remarkably, though, the play in performance is suffused with youthful hope, which at moments comes through like an idealistic song sung against a din of despair. We are reminded of that disquieting context by Eric Shimelonis’s stunning sound design, whose vehemence jolts us, makes us jump, between each compelling scene. We cannot escape seeing that sinister world as represented in Andrew R. Cissna’s fierce set (that fence) and climactic lighting.  Yet it is the performances of the young cast—especially when enacting  refugees’ stories—that stand in starkly humane contrast and move us ever more deeply as the play proceeds.

In multiple roles, under the vigorous direction of Michael Bloom, are Audrey Bertaux, Aaron Bliden, Felipe Cabezas, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Awa Sal Secka, Brayden Simpson, and Kathryn Tkel. I witnessed each of them embody, in various ways and roles, the interpersonal case for an empathy-based ethos, which experienced as a whole overflowed the stage.

There’s a scene near the end where the actors each stand at a mic and say aloud actual telegrams sent by refugees in search of lost family members. The words of one of them seemed to give voice to the entire endeavor’s undercurrent of  hope and longing:  “I pray to God that there are no more barriers in the world.”

And later there’s a scene that’s an enactment of a vigil last May at which two rabbis, both women, spoke. Their words seemed the very heart of the play:

God repeated the commandment to protect the stranger at least thirty-six times because it’s a really hard thing to do. Now that we are in our own land, it is something that takes real faith in God, and embracing discomfort — in a way that keeping kosher or Shabbat does not.

But it is the real test of the Jewish soul. As Jews, we have suffered so much and so we have a great responsibility toward strangers. The refugees here need our protection, kindness and humanity. This is our religious and moral responsibility.

There is a palpable sense in which Promised Land—which was conceived and created in Tel Aviv at Israel’s national theater by an ensemble of young professionals—is fittingly played here by actors who are all close in age playing characters both older and younger than themselves.

As the third offering in its Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival, Mosaic Theater has brought us the invigorating voice and vision of a new generation of theater makers who see themselves as peacemakers and bridge builders.

Promised Land bears a title the brittle irony of which is little lost here in DC, and it must have been harsh to hear in Tel Aviv. But this is a nervy and unexpected work. In its inception it looks to the future, not the past. In its performance it could help move us there.

____

After the run at Woolly, the cast will take a concert version of the show to George Mason University March 1 and to American University March 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

god commanded: protect the stranger

emotional ethical spirital heart after conflicted complicate fraught

Constellations

 

We enter a mini coliseum and take our seats on cushions of many colors on one of several rows of blue benches encircling the blank stage. The dim lighting feels hallowed; the music, reverential. There are no back rests—perhaps we are not expected to get too comfortable? Guess not. For though we do not know it yet, we are about to become spectators at an experimental relationship laboratory wherein the courtship and mating behaviors of a particular millennial man and woman will be dissected—sliced, diced, examined, and reexamined—under the unsentimental glare of a geometric tangle of florescent lighting tubes.

Experimental is the operative word in this operating theater, for British Playwright Nick Payne’s quirky script keeps trying out the same relationship moments and events different ways with different inflections and different outcomes.

Two phenomenal actors give the experiment their all. Lily Balantincz plays Marianne, a physicist, and Tom Patterson plays Roland, a beekeeper. In 50 discrete scenes they enact with split-second transitions and instant recall of ever shifting emotions the story of a young couple that isn’t exactly a story; it’s more like  fractured narrative fragments whose  continuity, such as it is, is for us to infer, or maybe make up, for Payne’s play plays with us even as these two astonishing players play it.

We get that Marianne and Roland meet cute; we see multiple iterations of that. We get that they fall in love and live together sweetly then go through rather ordinary crises of sexual unfaithfulness; we see multiple iterations of that (sometimes she’s having the affair; sometimes he is; there’s delightful gender switching in the discrepant plot bits). Finally we get that Marianne and Roland’s relationship is tragically tested by the playwright’s injection of a terminal illness. Now what? Abruptly this couple, together with the conventionality of their coupling, are thrown for an interesting and perhaps emotionally engaging loop. But cue the multiple iterations lest our sympathies and empathies have too much to work with.

Constellations comes to Studio’s Stage 4 black-box lab space in a first-rate production given precisely paced direction by Artistic Director David Muse, an aptly unnerving sound design by Ryan Rumery, a dramatically discombobulating light design by Michael Lincoln, and the aforementioned shrewdly sterile set by Debra Booth. Couldn’t be better.

Constellations also comes with a dossier of adulation for its writing—in particular for its central conceptual conceit and structure justification, which is that “in the quantum multiverse,” as Marianne tells Roland, “every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” I can see why Muse might have thought this script would click as have Studio’s other recent imports by innovative Brits. Mike Bartlett’s Cock and Clare Lizzimore’s Animal, for instance, shared a fizzy, brittle wit laced with human anguish in extremis that left audiences stirred and shaken. And certainly Constellations offers two technically challenging roles that if done right would be  certain to showcase virtuosity—exactly as can be seen on stage right now.

And make no mistake, Lily Balantincz’s and Tom Patterson’s fine-tuned, quicksilver, insta-truth-telling performances make Studio Theatre’s Constellations a unique must-see. Watching the two of them serve and volley, thrust and parry, is like watching two ace players in the sport of love at the peak of their game.

The script itself, however, is more of a stunt than a stunner. It teases us, taunts us, to take from it some semblance of emotional relational substance, some sustainable moments of feeling with these two people’s feelings. After skimming along the surface for two thirds of its length, it seems about to submerge us—when we learn of the terminal illness—in the tough stuff of health and sickness, love and loss, and it promises to do so within an original form that will yield life insights of the sort great theater often offers. But that expectation of this playscript would be misplaced. Any insights tucked inside Constellations are splinters and shards; they never coalesce.

Turns out it’s not easy to have your novelty and your gravitas too.

Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, without intermission.

Constellations plays through March 6, 2016 at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet

Last night I had the great satisfaction of watching Howard University students take on the challenge of a certifiably risk-taking play—Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet—and with it showcase nine student actors who took risks in performance that delivered an eveningful of moment-to-moment emotional payoffs.

By the end I had no doubt that the director, Maleke Glee, a Howard senior making his directorial debut, is a rising artist to watch.  I could only surmise how much sensitivity, support, and insight he brought to the process of eliciting, shaping, and pacing those nine talented performances. With a power-packed script in hand, he took the actors places that took us places—exactly as one hopes of pros.

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet is set on a Louisiana bayou during the weather run-up to Hurricane Katrina, so the play has a lot of rainfall in it, evoked like a liquid kaleidoscope by Lighting Designer Khaiya Darnell (who also makes the play’s dream scenes lovely to look at). Scenic Designer Sarah Alexandria Evans creates a multipurpose playing space out of crisscrossing docklike runways that seem to suggest deep water lies always nearby.

The central character, 16-year-old Marcus, is in search of himself—in particular his sexuality. He is struggling with being “sweet,” meaning gay, and urgently needs to know if his dead father was too. In Austin Farrow’s arrestingly nuanced performance we see Marcus grow from timid and troubled to ebullient as he comes out and comes more into himself.

Two girls are Marcus’ “besties”—Shaunta (Devonne Bowman) and Osha (Brianna Naadira McAdoo). The interrelationship among Marcus, Shaunta, and Osha  that runs throughout the play is both charming and moving (not least because Osha has a crush on Marcus that he cannot reciprocate). Bowman’s and McAdoo’s fascinatingly exuberant performances bring the intimacies and complexities of their friendships vividly to life. And their Act Two dream sequence—when the three cut loose to a terrific dance track from Sound Designer Kemai Ballard—was a showstopping delight.

Two young male characters trigger Marcus’ inner torment in different but related ways. The first we meet is an agemate, Terrell, who taunts Marcus cruelly for being sweet and lusts after his bestie Osha. Martese Caudle brought to the role a thuglike swagger and aggression that would be borderline off-putting had he not made it so hilarious. When he beat a hasty exit in pursuit of (his words) Osha’s ass, the sold out opening night audience fell out.

The other of Marcus’ young male foils is 22-year-old Shua, who is visiting from the Bronx and who seduces Marcus into what becomes his first sexual experience. The brazen eroticism and braggadocio that Mericus Adams brought to the role was nothing short of  electrifying. The several scenes between Adams and Farrow generated a homoerotic temperature that went considerably past hot. And purely as acting craft, their work together was a master class in risk taking.

Emanating from  Marcus’ coming-of-age narrative are matters with repercussions in a community of other characters, and excellent performances were turned in by actors playing these people:  Taylor Hunt as Shun, Osha’s mother; Khadija Jamila Roane as Oba, Marcus’ mother; Latoya Nzingha Lewis as Elegua, an elder; and Neko Ramos as Ogun, Elegua’s nephew. All of them rose well to the perennial student-production challenge of playing characters much older than themselves, but Lewis’ commanding presence as Elegua rewarded her risk-taking with particular impact.

Costume Designer Asia McCallum brought to the production an artful mix of hip contemporary and traditional garb. Music Direct Javon Ford made  the cast’s occasional choral interludes compelling and melodious.

All in all, for any adventurous theatergoer who’s used to taking chances on unknowns, this one’s a sure bet. There’s a bunch of young talents here who won’t be unknown for long.

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

Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet plays through Sunday, February 14, 2016 at The Howard University’s  Al Freeman Jr. Environmental Theatre Space in Childers Hall – 2455 6th Street NW, in Washington, DC.  Purchase tickets online.

When the Rain Stops Falling

This play by Andrew Bovell in this 1st Stage production burned so many astounding images onto my brain—and sent into my ears so many searing exchanges—that my head is still spinning.

For instance there’s a scene when we see the same character, Elizabeth Law, at two different ages in her life played by two different actors. (The play travels back and forth in time over 80-odd years, between rooms and landscapes in England and Australia, with eras and locales overlapping and segueing into one another—which sounds lots harder to follow than it actually is.) Thus we see Kari Ginsburg playing the younger Elizabeth; Teresa Castracane, the older, on the same spacious stage in the same placeless neutral gray set of see-through scrim (handsomely designed by Luciana Stecconi and eloquently lit by Brittany Diliberto), each wearing age-appropriate clothes (smartly designed by Kelsey Hunt) befitting a rather ordinary matronly Englishwoman.

We have already seen the younger Elizabeth’s howl of betrayal and outrage upon discovering that her husband, Henry, has been keeping a shameful secret and living a terrible double life. (It would be a spoiler to say more. When the Rain Stops Falling is nonstop suspenseful; its plot points are disclosed in a confluence of revelations that cascade one upon another—some so literally breathtaking I gasped involuntarily.)

We have seen Henry (a role Dylan Morrison Meyers makes indelible) demolished in self-reproach. We have already seen the younger Elizabeth expel him from her life, for he has become a stranger to her—he the adoring father of Gabriel, their seven-year-old son. (Elizabeth will never tell Gabriel the horrible reason his father left—an absence that will distress Gabriel all his life.) And now we see Elizabeth younger and Elizabeth older onstage at once. They neither see nor speak to each other, but as embodied in two powerful performances by Ginsburg and Castracane they send unspoken emotional depth charges to us in the audience—for we now behold what that dreadful sins-of-the-father plot point has done to Elizabeth long after her son is grown and gone from her life too.

The moment is beyond heartbreaking. In substance it surpasses Ibsen’s Ghosts. It approaches the fearsome pity of classic Greek family tragedy.

And there’s more upon more over the two-hours traffic of this sprawling and enthralling intergenerational epic—which Time magazine named best play of 2010—in a fascinating  production directed rivetingly by Michael Dove.

A page in the program contains a paragraph synopsis, a color-coded genealogy chart titled “Two Families Across Four Generations,” and a note titled “Family Tree Explained.” Taken together they’re a listening assist I recommend, because it tips you off the way myths familiar to theatergoers in Ancient Greece functioned as a collective Spark Notes for the drama about to unfold onstage.  Soon enough you will learn that the payoff for perusing this quick preshow crib sheet is profound.

The play begins in a downpour—the ensemble rushing about under umbrellas—then a  zone of dazzling poetic diction that becomes its linguistic home, even as the stories’ times and places shift.  An old man living on an Australian coast is about to receive a visit from the son he abandoned. And a fish falls out of the sky. Lest we expect lifelike to be naturalistic. And lest we suspect the improbable of being anything but true to life.

In ensuing scenes a tapestry of interwoven images unfurls—of fish soup, of rooms, of hats, of rain, of familial friction, of young love, of life new born and death impending. And it envelops you—washes over you, actually, like coastal surf, or like the rain that seems ever to fall (in Sarah O’Halloran’s subtle and lovely sound design).

We meet Gabriel Law (a touching Scott Ward Abernathy) who has come to Australia in search of  the man who abandoned him when he was seven. There he meets Gabrielle York (a feisty Sara Dabney Tisdale), a roadside diner waitress who chooses him to be her first time. Their love is complicated not only in and of itself but by what has been passed down to them unawares and what they in turn unwittingly will pass down. Therein lies the deepest satisfaction of this play: to see revealed in multiple time frames and interconnecting lineages all the legacies in lifetimes that the characters before us cannot possibly know themselves but that a brilliant script in a beautiful production makes as transparent to us as scrim.

Also outstanding in related roles are Frank Britton as Joe Ryan, stepfather to Gabrielle’s son (whom she names Gabriel, after his father); Amy McWilliams as Gabrielle York late in life (when the failure of memory is all there is); and Mark Lee Adams as Gabrielle’s boy Gabriel grown up (with a slate not blank but already much etched).

When the Rain Stops Falling—which, ironically, reminds us how little we can really know much less remember about all that lives through us in our lives—is a wonderfully original work of topnotch theatrical artistry that is as readily accessible as it is utterly unforgettable.

Running Time: Two hours, without intermission. (When the Rain Stops Falling is indeed a long drink of water, but in performance its two hours fly by; its pacing is pulse-beat perfect. Still, one might wish to limit one’s literal liquid intake beforehand as there will likely be restroom lines after.)

When the Rain Stops Falling plays through February 28, 2016  at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)

The production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ acclaimed three-part saga now having its regional premiere at Round House Theatre is some of the most amazing storytelling I’ve seen on stage. Amazing on account of the stories themselves, and equally amazing on account of how they are told.

In an essay titled “Possession,” Parks gives this provocative inkling about what she’s up to:

[T]heater, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to–through literature and the special strange relationship between theater and real life—locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.

And that’s exactly what Parks does in Father Comes Home…  The language alone—an idiocyncratic mix of imagery and idiom, delivered by an extraordinary acting ensemble—is unmistakably alive, a unique aural experience of passion, poetry, and proclaiming. Not to mention the pleasures of the play’s political profundity, its touching truisms, its comedy, its twists and turns.

The play begins in 1862 on a plantation, where four “less than desirable slaves” as  the playscript calls them (Jefferson A. Russell, Jon Hudson Odom, Stori Ayers, and Ian Anthony Coleman) are trying to guess whether Hero (Jaben Early), also a slave, will leave with their owner, who’s headed off to join the Confederate Army and wants his loyal lackey  along. Hero’s decision is fraught with complications, and the way Parks plays them out and strings everyone along is utterly engrossing. There are complex relationships to reveal between Hero and Homer (Kenyatta Rogers) and between Hero and Penny (Valeka J. Holt). By the time Hero declares he’s going, the stakes of the story have scaled to the epic heights of Greek tragedy: an enslaved “Colored man” who’s serving his “Boss-Master-Boss” who’s serving in battle on the side that’s defending slavery.

“All we’ve got is the trust between us,” counsels The Oldest Old Man (Craig Wallace). Yet  as the drama about Hero’s choice unfolds, Parks lets us see clearly how it’s a Hobson’s choice—and how easily what tethers these characters together could be severed in this system where they have no say.

One of the many powerful achievements of the play is Parks’ portrayal of the way “race” gets projected and parlayed in the systematic privileging of “white.” In her essay “An Equation for Black People Onstage,” Parks poses these questions:

Can a White person be present onstage and not be an oppressor? Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed? For the Black writer, are there Dramas other than race dramas? Does Black life consist of issues other than race issues?

Parks herself takes up the challenge in those questions—in three plays that take place in the Civil War South!—with unique and astonishing ingenuity and artistry.

Part 2 is set in a wooded area where a Confederate Colonel (Tim Getman) and his captive, a Union Captain (Michael Kevin Darnall), are lost somewhere midway between their respective approaching armies. Hero enters carrying the wood and water his master directed him to fetch, and what follows is an extraordinary sequence of scenes on the themes of race, freedom, and human worth that are no less insightful for being hilariously entertaining. The poppycock Colonel, for instance, has a show-stopping monologue that begins, “I am grateful every day that God made me white” and ends “For no matter how far I fall, and no matter how thoroughly I fail, I will always be white.” The night I saw the show, I heard gasps of recognition that dared not breathe, the uneasy sounds of squirming, explosive guffaws. Was it meant to be funny? In her essay titled “Elements of Style,” Parks  tips us off to her revolutionary use of humor:

Laughter is very powerful—it’s not a way of escaping anything but a way of arriving on the scene. Think about laughter and what happens to your body—it’s almost the same thing as throwing up.

The overarching and cumulative effect of this masterwork, masterfully directed by Timothy Douglass, is an experience of brazenly original storytelling and blazingly theatrical style that will keep you riveted—and your mind in a state of being blown all during and long after.