Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: September, 2016

Come From Away

When I saw this new musical on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, there were no more than ten minutes during it when my eyes were dry. They welled up from the first scene. Sure, I know I tear up easily, as did my dad. I’ve even been kidded about it. But never before has a show left me so awash.

By the end I had no clue how I could talk about a show that had left me without words. A show on its way to Broadway that’s so moving and inspiring I would see it again in a heartbeat.  A show that told a true story about human kindness that touched me in a place in my soul I think I did not know was there.

Now to read the barrage of reviewers’ accolades this show has garnered is to go, “Yes, yes. That’s true. All true.”

And now to hear the blizzard of audience buzz about this show is to think, “Well, no wonder. Of course.”

Come From Away is a show the likes of which American musical theater has never seen: an uplifting emotional epiphany about accidental altruism that leaves you a better person than before you went in. A five-star review by my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague David Gerson explains succinctly why Come From Away at Ford’s Theatre has become a hit :

Come From Away is a celebration of the unflappable human spirit, and the generosity and kindness that always seems to manifest itself in our darkest hours. And it earns every tear, laugh, and cheer that it deservedly gets.

So watch your back, Hamilton. Another blockbuster’s on the way.

 

 

 

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I Call My Brothers

Forum Theatre has a knack for picking trenchant works of theater that buzz with relevance to hot-button topics. Its current offering is a perfect case in point. Given this nation’s rising tide of Islamophobia in the turbulent wake of 9/11, Forum Theatre’s bold season opener, I Call My Brothers, could not be more timely or more urgent to be reckoned with.

The script is both expressionist fable and memory play. It takes us into the life and psyche of an Arab man named Amor in the aftermath of a suicide car bombing.  Amor had nothing to do with the crime; he’s completely innocent. A lone radical did it, someone who wore a keffiyeh. Yet because Amor fits the terrorist’s ethnic profile, he is instantly under citywide suspicion and at constant risk of racist reprisal.

At one point Amor’s friends spell out for him the desolating implications.

The goal is to blend in. The goal is to become invisible. Leave your keffiyeh at home. Do not carry a suspicious bag…. Smile at everyone and everything… Apologize for existing…  You are not safe anywhere…. Don’t attract anyone’s attention…

Time in the play is fractured. Scenes jump-cut. A structured tension in the text keeps every moment on edge.

In contrast to the crisis that has defined Amor’s world since the explosion that rocked it, we get glimpses in fragments of Amor’s everyday relational life: scenes with his best friend, his brothers, his cousin, the woman he’s enamored of who doesn’t love him back.

But the relationship that haunts him is the relationship between himself and the bomber. In one of the most profound and troubling moments of a play that is full of them, he says: “I’m not sure how much of it is in my head, you know?”

So distressed does Amor become that he loses hold on what’s real and what’s not. He may or may not be under surveillance; he may or may not know it. He tells of a poignant dream he had:

I started walking, I crossed streets, I squinted at the sun, I was an ordinary person, I didn’t stand out in any way, nobody saw me and thought I was a…

He doesn’t finish. He cannot speak the word by which he has been unspeakably otherized.

The play resounds with such immediacy, familiarity, contemporaneity, and psychological depth soundings that one might suppose it was written recently right here. But it was written in Sweden by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, an internationally renowned and award-winning playwright and novelist whose father is Tunisian and whose mother in Swedish. Khemiri did not invent the suicide car bombing. It happened in Stockholm in 2010.  Khemiri’s personal knowledge of its racial-profiling repercussions is the brutal basis of I Call My Brothers, and the source of the honesty at its heart.

Khemiri’s text as originally translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles has been seamlessly Americanized by Forum such that the play seems to echo the emotions of countless people of color who live similarly in fear here. And the spectacular Forum production directed by Artistic Director Michael Dove leaves no nerve unfrayed. Lighting Designer Max Doolittle, Sound Designer Justin Schmitz, and Projections Designer Hannah Marsh in particular have devised cunning and stunning effects.

Three of the four actors play multiple roles: Saleh Karaman as Amor’s best friend Shavi and others, Nora Achrati as Amor’s cousin Ahlem and others, and Sarah Corey as Amor’s love interest Valeria and others. There is evident chemistry among them, each a very personable presence we readily relate to. Karaman’s appealing performance as Shavi  in particular engaged the audience from his very first scene.

The role of Amor had to be recast midway into rehearsals when the original actor became unavailable, and though Ahmad Kamal had the part down cold on opening night—didn’t miss a beat—his presence was slightly less affecting than his castmates’.  For the play to work—for the drama in the character’s inner psychology to propel and focus the show—I needed to feel Amor’s performance more than I did. In a long monologue near the end, though,  Kamal brought forth a genuine charisma and force of personality that promised what’s surely to come during the run.

Audiences may differ in their experience of the plethora of special effects in the show—sudden shifts to amplification, line-by-line light cues, shocking flashes and crashes. Combined with the relative emotional remoteness in the portrayal of the central character, this could have an alienating effect (and not in a good Brechtian way).

And really, this is a play that wants no distance between us. This is a play whose emotional truths we need to feel even though they be not our own. Forum Theatre is to be commended for bringing I Call My Brothers to the Silver Spring Black Box and for demonstrating once again the indispensable power of theater to connect us internationally and close to home.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

I Call My Brothers plays through October 1, 2016 at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

Lobby Hero

 

The imposing lobby of a tony Manhattan apartment building—all sleek gray marble, glass, and stainless steel—commands the spacious 1st Stage stage. Sound Designer Neil McFadden has created a transporting outdoor urban soundscape, and Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki and Lighting Designer Mary Keegan have created the sort of  immense, personalityless interior where anonymous comings and goings fit right in and anything too personal would be improper.  And it is here that we  become privy to the  lives of four ordinary working people who could not afford to live in this building. Two are employed in security; two are on the police force. And they are about to collide in a riveting revelation about loyalty and lies.

Kenneth Lonergan’s award-winning  Lobby Hero, which premiered in 2001, is a flashback to that time just before 9/11 when two building  security workers and two cops on the neighborhood beat could believably hobnob without video surveillance cameras all around. Instead it is we the audience who are entrusted to espy the inner dynamics of their goings on—and what an explosive plot we see unfold.

It all begins quite quotidian. A black security-firm supervisor pulls rank on a white lobby attendant. A seasoned male police officer pulls rank on a young female officer-in-training. The confrontations as scripted are credible but scarcely rise to eloquence. The four actors at work on this huge set bring an electrical charge to each exchange; yet there seems in the play text itself to be an insistent commonplaceness, a mundane flatness, a sense of being in no hurry to prick up our ears and clench our minds around the compelling conflicts of conscience at its core.

But hang in there.

Jeff, the uniformed lobby security guard, on the job just nine months, is not quite a loser but knows he easily could be if he doesn’t keep this job. He wants—no needs—to be liked. He’s a joker, sometimes inappropriately. He’s a loner, he longs for a girlfriend, he’s uneasy in all-guy situations. And he wants to make something of his life but he doesn’t yet know what. Aaron Bliden brings to the role such a likeable mix of earnestness and slackerness that we can’t help but root for him.

William, Jeff’s wrapped-tight supervising captain, is all about discipline. He comes from a background that could readily have coaxed him into a life of crime, but he has stayed the course of honor and respect for the law. So strict is is his sense of duty that he berates Jeff for being lax about the requisite minutia of his job.  And then we find out William is embroiled in a lie told out of loyalty: a false alibi for his brother, who has been arrested for a heinous rape-murder.  Justin Weaks brings such intensity, inner power, and quicksilver timing to the complex role that he pretty much dominates each scene he’s in.

Bill, a married uniformed police officer with years of service under his belt, is up for a commendation and doesn’t want to blow it. His partner is Dawn, a young rookie three months on the force, and he has taken her under his wing. In her eyes he is everything a good man and a good cop ought to be. There is sexual attraction between them but they keep their relationship professional. And then Dawn finds out from Jeff that all the time Bill has asked her to stand guard in the lobby while he paid a visit to a resident, he was actually getting laid with a woman known to have frequent male callers. There ensues a breakdown of loyalty and an imbroglio of mistrust due to lying that ensnares Jeff and William too.

Matthew Sparacino brings to the role of Bill an impressive self-important swagger that at times seems downright dangerous. He’s a character who’s not at all a nice guy but played here like blazes. And Laura Artesi brings to the role of Dawn a truly touching tremulousness beneath her tough-cop pose. When Dawn finds out about Bill’s betrayal, and what an overbearing sexist he is, her heartbreak and fear fill the stage like an emotional break-in alarm going off.

We learn near the beginning that Jeff is smitten with Dawn but she’s not interested.  There then develops a love story between them that’s as intriguing and insightful as it is tender. More than that I’ll not give away.

The production of Lobby Hero that Artistic Director Alex Levy has programmed and directed at 1st Stage is first-rate. Levy has respected the text with astute trust in its integrity as a thought-provoking mirror held up to everyday ethics and  quiet moral heroism.  There are laughs here and there, but this is something quite other than a conventional comedy. Though it seems to begin in shallows, it steadily reveals itself to be deceptively and arrestingly deep.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Lobby Hero plays through October 9, 2016  at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

This is one of those plays you’ll likely want to keep thinking and talking about. For a schedule of post-show discussions click here.

Page-to-Stage New Play Festival: Brave Soul Collective and African-American Collective Theater

Two of DC’s most important independent theater collectives bearing witness as black artists to #BlackLivesMatter are Brave Soul Collective and African-American Collective Theater (ACT). Both commemorated milestones Saturday with bills of new short plays in Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival. In the afternoon, Brave Soul marked its tenth anniversary with Tenfold: An Evening of Brave Soul Performances,  conceived and produced by Monte J. Wolfe. That was followed in the evening by ACT’s More Than a Mouthful…, written and directed by Alan Sharpe, marking ACT’s twenty-fifth anniversary

For several years now I have observed both collectives to be consistent producers of important storytelling about black lives, and both to be generally overlooked by DC’s  mainstream theater world. Judging from the excellence of the past writing I have seen staged by both companies (almost all the plays are set in DC), and considering the high quality of local talent showcased in this new work (writers, directors, actors), this oversight makes no sense to me…except as an instance of #TheaterSoWhite.

One of the best things about Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival—which marks its own fifteenth anniversary this year—is how well the breadth of its free programming represents the diversity of what smaller independent theater companies in town are up to. As I wrote in “DC Theater’s Whopping Wayfinding Problem,” nothing makes it easy for theatergoers to discover DC’s vibrant indie theater scene. If you’re not intentionally seeking out more than what theaters with substantial ad budgets are doing, all that creativity will go unnoticed and unseen. But for two full days each Labor Day weekend, Page-to-Stage kind of fills that void—as KenCen becomes an all-you-can-see theatrical buffet that makes you wish you could taste everything and then go back for seconds of the good stuff.

There was plenty of good stuff  in Tenfold and Mouthful. Either program alone would have been a complete and satisfying evening in the theater. Back to back, they were a foodie’s heaven.

Below are the credits from each of the two programs with annotations. I cannot review particular performances here (much as I might want to enthuse about some of them), because Page-to-Stage adheres to Equity rules about staged readings, a principle I respect. So what follows is more like a descriptive menu that tells what’s in each dish—and reports briefly what each short play was.

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TENFOLD: AN EVENING OF BRAVE SOUL PERFORMANCES

See Her
Written by Thembi Duncan
Performed by Josette Marina Murray
A black woman pays eloquent homage to slain black trans women and fiercely protests their erasure (“This is not the oppression olympics…. See her. Her black life matters too”).

______

Lip Locked
Written & Directed by Jared Shamberger
Performed by Zukeh Freeman & Monte J. Wolfe
A socially conscious comedy about two gay fathers of an adopted one-year-old son, and the tensions that flare up between them over their finances and fundraising.

______

Hashtag, You’re It
Written & Performed by Jared Shamberger
A satirical standup routine about a gay man haplessly obsessed with social media relying hilariously on tweets, texts, pins, and emojis to find the man of his dreams. (Along with the audience I howled with laughter throughout. It needs to be on YouTube.)

______
Virginia Is for Lovers
Written & Directed by Jared Shamberger
Darnell Morris & Kandace Foreman
A touching comedy about a straight man and a woman who has fallen for another woman and is gently letting him know she’s leaving him (“I have a big heart to love many people”). He doesn’t take it well.

______

Black & Blue…& Pink
Written & Directed by Jared Shamberger
Performed by Monte J. Wolfe
An intense drama about a black gay police officer being interrogated because after witnessing his white partner bludgeon a gay black man, he impulsively shoved the fellow cop off a bridge (“Everyone has some kind of rage that they keep buried”).

______
Musical Chairs
Written & Directed by Monte J. Wolfe
Performed by Zukeh Freeman
The poignant and painful struggles of a young man who grew up in the foster-care system, never knowing when he would be wrenched from his foster parents and sent back, trying to win at a game he was left out of…and then coming out (“I still feel broken and damaged like a loser”).

______
My Sweet Black Babushka
Written by Josette Marina Murray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe & Josette Marina Murray
Performed by Barbara Asare-Bediako, Kandace Foreman & Josette Marina Murray
Three powerful dramatically linked monologues (the first of which I wrote about admiringly when it was performed by Thembi Duncan in Brave Soul Collective’s Plot Twists…  In the first (performed by Asare-Bediako), a black mother driven by grief over the death of her son who was killed by a cop commits eye-for-an-eye justice (“A mother is not supposed to bury her child!”). In the second (Foreman), a black female police officer, proudly loyal to the badge she wears, agonizes over having done at the crime scene what she was trained to do: block the grief-stricken mother from coming near her son’s dead body (“Do you understand we [police officers] are in pain too?”). In the third (Murray), the bereaved mother’s sister, speaking on behalf of the family, tells of the artistic interests she inspired in her beloved nephew and mourns the immeasurable loss (“My sister is broken in pieces…. Where is the justice? Where is the peace?”).

______
But Keep the Old…
Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe
Performed by Monte J. Wolfe, Zukeh Freeman, Jared Shamberger & Darnell Morris
A funny and compassionate intergenerational character sketch in which three gay friends come to visit their reclusive older friend “to rescue him,” because he never goes out and it’s as if he “disappeared.”

______
Character Flaws
Written & Performed by Monte J. Wolfe
A complex and evocative personal testimony about anger, fear, and demons from a sero-positive gay man whose HIV is now undetectable (“It’s in the rearview mirror”), but who still feels “like a time bomb ticking, ready to explode.”

______

The range of emotions evoked by the series of performances in Tenfold was extraordinary, and the audience seemed attuned to every one. During the talkback several artists acknowledged Producer Monte J. Wolfe, whose artistic vision, powers of persuasion, and prime-mover-ship evidently shaped the program’s important substance and entertaining appeal. I recommend looking out for whatever Brave Soul Collective does next. On the basis of the Brave Soul programs I’ve seen so far, I do not doubt it will be #TheaterThatMatters.

Running Time: About two hours with one intermission.

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MORE THAN A MOUTHFUL…

The Imperial We
Performed by Reginald Richard (as Winston),  Ricardo Lumpkin  (Blaine), Michael Sainte-Andress (Toussaint Dubonnet) &  Talmach White (Nigel Hawthorne)  
A domestic comedy about two young gay men, married to each other, and the difficult guests they have invited to dinner: two flamboyant older men who once were a couple but now cannot stand each other. (The vicious way they cut each other was hilarious; Sharpe is particularly adept at jaw-dropping one-liners.) The younger men’s objective: to get the  older men to move in together to a recently renovated room in their home because  the younger men have been supporting them and the exes are living beyond the young men’s means.

______

Fitting the Description
Performed by Tristan Phillip Hewitt (Kofi ), Emmanuel Kyei-baffour (Van), Cleavon Meabon IV (Nelson) & Donald Burch III (Uncle Stacy)
A stinging commentary on exploitation in do-gooder charity. Two idealistic young gay men visit the father of a young woman killed by cops in order to solicit his permission to use her in their campaign “to galvanize the community.” When they find out she’s not the perfect victim, because she was born a boy, they drop their plan—and the play’s sting pivots to take on anti-trans bigotry too. (Improbably, this complete twist in the play’s content landed with remarkable force. Here as in many of Sharpe’s short plays, his melding of meaning and humor was ingenious.)

______

Bedtime Story
Performed by Keanna Faircloth (Brenda) & Monte J. Wolfe (Nick)
A sharp-edged anti-romance about a woman and a man who are parents of a son. They don’t live together anymore, though he comes around regularly to be a good daddy to the child. Turns out a while back he came out as gay and left the child’s mother to live with a man. Now he and his lover have broken up—and he wants her to take him back and let him stay the night. She tells him no, she no longer trusts him, and she’s moving on. (I was particularly impressed by how Sharpe wrote this woman’s character.  He avoided all the stereotypical gay-male-centric pitfalls and instead created a woman character with enormous, integrity, likeability, and independence.)

______

Matter Matter
Performed by Maurice T. Olden (Marcus Ransom), Gregory Ford (Nolan Bellamy) & Kevin L. Sanders (Bradford Ransom)
A trenchant drama about an older retired gay man, now an artist, who gives shelter to an attractive young gay man who was just teargassed in a demonstration outside. The younger man, who spends most of the play shirtless, thinks the man is after him for sex. But he’s not; he’s just trying to help him, despite the troubled young man’s violent streak, a trait he got from his father. Seeking his son, the young man’s father pays a surprise visit, assumes the worst is going on—and shoots the well-meaning older man.

______

Prom Night P*ssy
Performed by Davon Harris (Jeffrey),   Tony Donaldson, Jr.  (Tyrone)  & Erika Jones  (Yolanda)
A motel room sex comedy  in which an introverted young man and a cocky young man make a plan to have sex with their high school prom dates that night. The shy boy’s date has gone partying elsewhere, but the bolder boy’s date shows up and lets the timid one know she knows  he’s gay and secretly lusts after his hunky chum. She also lets him know in all likelihood his chum would be into getting it on too. After she ditches them both to go to a party, it turns out she was right on both counts.

______ 

Sex/Toys
Performed by Zukeh Freeman (Kenny) &  Darnell Morris (Anthony)
A domestic comedy full of zingers about masculinity and the gendered child-rearing that enforces it. Two married gay fathers of a four-year-old named Jaden bicker about what toys to buy for their boy’s birthday—whether very typically masculine toys, as the more softer-seeming dad wants, or whether more typically girl toys like dolls, as the tougher-seeming dad knows is that Jaden really wants. (I wrote admiringly of this savvy script when it was performed in May in ACT’s 24/7. Having now seen it again, I appreciate Sharpe’s comedic takedown of manhood even more. In my book, Sex/Toys is a classic.)

______

Don’t Just Play With It!
Performed by Juan Raheem (Trade) & Raquis Da’Juan Petree (Weldon)
An older man and a younger man he met for sex online are alone somewhere in the woods. The sexually repressed older man is about to be victimized by a hustler, a thug who taunts him cruelly and intimidates him into sucking his dick. The tense turnabout ending is abrupt—and gives the title More Than a Mouthful… shocking bite.

______

 Narrators:  Gregory Ford & Monte J. Wolfe

Alan Sharpe’s outstanding body of work has found a fan base that was represented at this program with evident enthusiasm. Audience engagement was off the charts. Each twist of each story line, each tightly crafted punch line, elicited audible enjoyment, astonishment, empathy, or affirmation. Sharpe said by way of introduction that twenty-five years ago he set out to create theater in a niche underrepresented on the DC stage: the black and gay experience. He has mined and mastered that story source and more. He has raised the bar for socially conscious plays that crackle with zingers, are peopled with quirky but totally believable characters, and play at a zippy pace. He’s doing something that to my knowledge no one else in town does, and Sharpe’s growing fan base seems to recognize—correctly, I think—that taken together his short small-cast plays actually contain multitudes.

Running Time: About two hours with no intermission.

Related links:
Brave Collective Soul Collective’s 9th Anniversary’s ‘More Plot Twists.’
DC Black Theatre Festival: ‘Plot Twists…’
Magic Time! A Report on ’24/7′ at African-American Collective Theater
Magic Time! ‘Good Hope Road’ (Staged Reading)
A Report From Page-to-Stage: ‘Hand Jobs’