Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: February, 2018

The Raid

Can social justice happen without militancy? Can ideals of equality become real without resort to violence? These questions gnaw at the mind during Theater Alliance’s powerfully eloquent staging of Idris Goodwin’s The Raid, an imagined confrontation between two icons of Abolitionist history—John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Both those men dedicated their lives to ending slavery, but they advocated and acted upon markedly differing tactics.

Nicklas Aliff as John Brown in The Raid. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Brown as played by Nicklas Aliff is riveting in his hot-headed intensity. A white man, he has a plan to raid the Harper’s Ferry national armory in order to supply guns to an army of black men who, he envisions, will hole up in the Alleghenies and launch sorties to free slaves by force. Brown’s secretary and second-in-command, Henry Kagi, also white, is anxious that their plot will be discovered, and in Josh Adams’s fervent portrayal he is an arresting bundle of nerves.

Marquis D. Gibson as Frederick Douglass in The Raid. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In a quarry late at night, Brown and Kagi come to rendezvous with Frederick Douglass, whom Brown wants to persuade to lead the black army. They first meet Douglass’s close associate, a taciturn man nicknamed the Emperor (a sturdy Dylan J. Flemming), who like Douglass was an escaped slave. When Douglass arrives, in the dignified bearing of Marquis D. Gibson’s magnetic portrayal, the playwright raises the stakes:

John: Frederick— You must know—slavery will not end without bloodshed.

and

Frederick: America would demolish the Alleghenies before it submits to the will of a terrorist band.

The tactical lines of debate become ever more sharply drawn.

John:  Where reason fails — Force is necessary.
Frederick: When profit is involved—it only means blood, gallons and gallons, piles of bones—innocent people—
John: I don’t intend to harm any innocent people.
Frederick: The innocent are always harmed.

The Raid is staged in the round, as befits its politically personal purpose. On the walls Scenic Designer Jessica Cancino has mounted huge abstract montages of ripped cardboard, as if detritus after strife. The seven actors in the cast enter familiarly, addressing the audience as themselves and taking seats among us until they perform in scenes.

Besides Aliff, Adams, Fleming, and Gibson, the cast includes Ensemble members Tiffany Byrd as a tough-minded Harriet Tubman, Robert Bowen Smith as a youthful John Brown Jr., and Moira Todd as Mahala Doyle, grieving widow of a man who died in John Brown’s ill-fated raid—all of whose performances seen up close emit a conviction that goes beyond creating a character and resembles more the presence of a truthful self.

The cast of The Raid. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Colin Hovde paces the show with almost dreamlike segues from place to place and time to time; and movement choreographed by himself, Cliff Williams III, Robert Bowen Smith, and the Ensemble mesmerizes. Lighting Designer Megan Thrift and Sound Designer Kevin Alexander give dramatic specificity to the scene shifts, yet the overall effect is less docudrama and more a kind of communal mental event through which we may weigh our point-by-counterpoint relationship to its through-line of competing values.  Costume Designer Danielle Preston has the cast in contemporary clothing suggestive of their roles in the story, which enhances the impression that we are all of us in this together. In a sense, the setting of the play is the interior of the conscience each person brings to it.

The play does not skirt the ironic fact that it was the white man Brown who prepared for armed struggle and the black man Douglass who on principle would not go there. The play also tacitly acknowledges the fact that what each person brings to their disagreement will be shaped by their own experience of race in America. For instance,

Harriet: White men get wide breadth of choice, but black folks are born into war. No choice. It starts the moment we’re born. You don’t learn to fight, you’ll die.

And this crackling exchange:

John:  It shouldn’t be me. It should be you. It must be an ex-slave that leads his own people out of slavery. Like Moses led the Hebrews! I know you, Frederick. I really know what’s in your heart!
Frederick: You know what’s in my book, John. You have NO idea what’s in my heart. You may feel for my plight, the emperor’s plight—you may feel it deep in the purgatory of your being but you will NEVER know what’s in my heart.
John: Because I am white?
Frederick: Not because your skin is white. But your way is white. Quick to grab weapons, when there is any threat to what you consider yourself entitled to. A black man is born fighting the sand in the hourglass. We seek life. We seek peace. A freedom to live as you seek chaos and anarchy.

The cast of The Raid. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

For anyone with an activist bent, The Raid cuts into conflicting questions of tactics like a theatrical scalpel. “A movement requires—small and large—all manner of tangible and theoretical contributions,” says Douglas. But exactly which contribution will be one’s own life’s work?

The Raid is no armchair meditation about means to ends. It is, rather, an immersive engagement in the particulars of one historical struggle as a way to dive deep into the metadrama that befalls every social justice movement: whether to rely on reason or force, whether to press one’s principles from within institutions or without, whether to use the law or break it, whether to risk something or everything.

No one who wants their life to make a social-justice difference will leave Theater Alliance’s The Raid unenlightened or unmoved.

Running Time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Raid plays through March 18, 2018, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-241-2539 purchase them online.

 

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The Lathe of Heaven

Puppets, people, props, projections, and sci-fi pop up a lot on DC stages, but not often with the narrative verve, literary cred, and nonstop wit of The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted and directed by acclaimed theatrical deviser Natsu Onada Power from the book by renowned fantasy fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven is Spooky Action Theater’s dazzling entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Le Guin died at the age of 88 while the show was in rehearsal. Years before she gave Spooky Action Artistic Director Richard Henrich permission to adapt The Lathe of Heaven for the stage. Had she lived to see or hear of the lively results, I suspect she would have been impressed with what Power has done—the way one illimitable imagination might recognize another.

Matthew Marcus (as George Orr) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

There’s a storyline based on the novel about a very ordinary, unassuming man named George Orr (Matthew Marcus) who has one extraordinary power: his dreams can alter reality. Troubled by this, he goes for counseling to a sleep specialist, Doctor Haber (Matthew Vaky), a seeming humanitarian who is revealed as a powermonger seeking to harness Orr’s powers for malevolent purposes. But first Haber—concerned that he may be invading Orr’s privacy by studying his dreams—refers Orr to a tough-minded, civil rights lawyer, Heather Lalache (Erica Chamblee). As it happens, Heather is badass and biracial, the nerdy white dream weaver falls in love with her, and he tries to end racism in the world by dreaming everyone gray.

There are plenty of twists to that plot, but the real story that unfolds on stage is one of breathless anticipation for what captivating inventiveness will happen next.

The play takes place the year the novel was published, 1971—making all years afterward “far far in the future.” Before it begins, Sound Designer Roc Lee spins period tunes such as “Dream Weaver” and “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just then released.

Three white shelving units packed with white storage boxes command the stage (Power did the novel set design). Stage right and left are metal tables that are in view of video cameras, about to be utilized by the inspired Projection Designer Danny Carr. During the show, members of the Ensemble (Mark Camilli Jr., Vanessa Chapoy, Jonathan Compo, Michaela Farrell, Kate Ginna, Adrian Jesus Iglesias, and Maddy Rice) sit at those tables nimbly positioning puppets, mounted graphics, and other objects to be shown on the shelving units. Over the course of the 90-minute run time, this mini meta-theater effect just keeps getting cleverer.

For instance, as George tells Dr. Haber about a traumatic experience he had as a boy when his inappropriate Aunt Ethel had creepy designs on him, the scene is enacted seriocomically on camera by puppets. This sets up a story point: George dreamt she was killed in a car crash and sure enough she was. But it also captures our own imaginations in the creative abundance of the show’s storytelling method.

Michaela Farrel (Ensemble), Matthew Marcus (George Orr), Matthew Vaky (Doctor Haber) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

There’s a real world outside the play, with billions of people and even some aliens, so there’s a thread of social commentary. At one point newspaper headlines are projected about overpopulation, pollution, bombings, and other calamities—which Haber in cahoots with George’s dreaming tries to manipulate for better or for worse. But to assure us this show’s an audience-friendly amusement and not a slog through issues, we’re treated to a folksy scene of Ensemble member Maddy Rice singing a lovely song about Portland, Oregon, because, well, that’s where Le Guin set the story.

Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny gives the three main characters credible real-world wardrobes but the Ensemble gets to wear fanciful stuff such as gray zippered uniforms and incongruous white shoes. Lighting Designer Adam Bacigalupo’s delightful work sometimes evokes a pinball game (which at one point Lee literally lets us hear). And Props Designer Caolan Eder’s playful wit is all over the place, such as the colander contraption George wears on his head while Dr. Haber measures his brainwaves, and the hooves made of cardboard boxes with which members of the Ensemble conjure a horse.

Matthew Vaky as Haber turns in an imposing performance that is both good guy and bad guy. Matthew Marcus as George Orr is a wonderfully worthy nerd. And Erica Chamblee as Heather Lelache conveys a dimension of conscience that nicely centers the play.

Maddy Rice (Ensemble), Matthew Marcus (George Orr), Michaela Farrel (Ensemble), Kate Ginna (Ensemble), Erica Chamblee (Heather Lalache), and Vanessa Chapoy (Ensemble) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

But it is in the love relationship between George and Heather that the production most astonishingly merges acting and design. Near the end, their characters are represented by gray puppets, with Chamblee, Marcus, and the Ensemble bringing Heather and George to life in an erotically magical connection.

The Lathe of Heaven at Spooky Action Theater transforms fantasy fiction prose into an ingenious multimedia entertainment and could not be more enjoyable. R.I.P., Ursula K. Le Guin. Brava, Natsu Onada Power. And kudos to the whole cast and creative team.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Lathe of Heaven plays through March 11, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

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Tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin by Natsu Onoda Power and Richard Henrich

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Ursula K. Le Guin (Novelist) published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation.  She has received many awards including Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, and the National Book Foundation Medal.

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Natsu Onoda Power (Adaptor/Director). Natsu Onoda Power playwrighting credits include The T Party, A Trip to the Moon, and Astro Boy and the God of Comics (2015 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Director in Small Theatre). Directing credits include projects at Olney Theater, Center Stage Baltimore, Studio Theatre, Theatre J, Forum Theatre, Synetic Theatre.

 

 

Translations

There’s a lovely scene just before intermission that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It is 1833 in agricultural County Donegal Ireland, and two star-crossed lovers—Maire (Samantha Gonzalez), a young woman who speaks only Irish, and Lieutenant George Yolland (Trevor LaSalvia), a British soldier who speaks only English—have met in the woods in the heat of a sweetly passionate attraction. They seem blissfully oblivious to the fact that they come from opposite sides of a colonialism-driven divide.

Trevor LaSalvi (Lieutenant Yolland) and Samantha Gonzalez (Maire) in Translations. Photo by Kirk Kristlibas.

There to interpret for them is Owen (Steven Kelly), a multilingual young Irish man, moonlighting from his job as a translator for the British army. In the script all three characters speak in English so that we the audience can understand them, even though Maire and George can’t understand each other. It’s an enthralling device. And the communication gap speaks volumes.

That’s but a glimpse into the high emotions and complex issues in Brian Friel’s play Translations, directed with acute sensitivity by Jodi Kanter, head of the George Washington University theater and dance program. Friel’s play is set in a fictional Irish village at the time when the forces of the Crown have come to impose British rule and change place names into the King’s English. As a documentary parable about colonialism, it is, sad to say, timeless—and this ardent student production does justice to the unjust story.

Kevin Adams (Hugh Mor O’Donnel), Hayes Lynch (Jimmy Jackin), Samantha Gonzalez (Maire), Jacob Pearce (Doalty), Katrin Baxter (Bridget), and Cara McErlean (Sarah) in Translations. Photo by Kirk Kristlibas.

The action takes place in a barn being used as a schoolhouse, and Scenic Designer Jingwei Dai’s stone walls, wooden beams, and slatted windows and doors pull us into the down-to-earth dimension of the play. Lighting Designer Carl F. Gudenius nicely streams in daylight and dapples it invitingly, while Sound Designer Aria Nawab introduces folksy interludes of fiddle between scenes.

Two veteran Keegan Theatre Company actors are on board: Kevin Adams as the headmaster Hugh Mor O’Donnel, a man whose fondness for Greek and Latin is well matched by his fondness for drink; and Timothy Hayes Lynch as Jimmy Jack, a student much older than the others. The professional polish of their sparring interplay is a treat.

But the student cast more than holds its own connecting us vividly to their individuated characters: Thomas Martin as Hugh’s put-upon son (and Owen’s older brother) Manus; Katrin Baxter, Cara McErlean, and Jacob Pearce as the earnest and ebullient students Bridget, Sarah, and Doalty; and Connor Driscoll as British officer Captain Yancey, the bad cop to Owen’s good. Jacob Pearce in particular does some appealingly scene-stealing work as rebellious Doalty.

Costume Designer Kelvin Small creates an authentically rustic look for the Irish and an officiously pompous look for the encroaching English. And Dialect Coach Susan Lynskey deserves a shoutout in several tongues for the cast’s smooth handling of the Gaelic, Greek, and Latin that Friel freely inserts into this play.

A moving evocation of how community cohesion and tradition gets lost in translation to imperialism, Brian Friel’s Translations at George Washington University is well worth a look and listen to.

Running Time: About two hours 5 minutes, including one intermission.

Translations plays through Sunday afternoon February 18, 2018, presented by The Theatre & Dance Program at the George Washington University Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

 

Peepshow

“Who here is a feminist?” asked the Ring Announcer (Amelia Hensley). As she signed, wearing a bright red pantsuit and standing on a thick padded mat as used for a contact-sport match, a nearby hearing actor translated. “Who here fights for gender equality?” As if on cue, hands went up in the audience. We were being welcomed to the Feminist Fight Federation—or FFF as we were urged to finger-spell it—where the battle for gender equality was about to be waged as a live-action cartoon.

There followed a rowdy display of stage-combat stunts that pitted yay! Suffragette (Elaine Yuko Qualter) against boo! Founding Father (Kerry McGee), then yay! Housewife (Tosin Olufolabi) against boo! Big Daddy (McGee), and ended with a sendup of female infighting that had rad Riot Grrrl (Sandra Mae Frank) brawling with rad Sista Girl (Natasha Gallop) joined in the fray by generic Basic Betty. (McGee out of man drag).

Tosin Olufolabi (in yellow) and Kerry McGee in Peepshow. Photo by Sandi Moynihan Multimedia.

This was during Peepshow, dog & pony dc’s latest “audience integration” extravaganza, an intermissionless immersive experience devised for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival by an entirely “non-male-identifying” cast and creative team, for an audience of anyone game for anything who would then “complete the ensemble.”

Those expressions in quotes are dog & pony dc parlance for its egalitarian approach to creating theater that pitches the audience into the show. As dog & pony dc fans know well, and as newbies find out fast, if you want to watch from a safe passive-spectator perch, you’d do better going someplace else. But if you want to feel a fun part of the action, you can’t do better than dog & pony dc.

A pre-show press advisory made sure I would get this:

dog & pony dc invites audience to do any number of things during a given show. We respectfully request media reviewing our work to not intentionally disengage because they believe distancing will add objectivity and perspective. It will, in fact, keep you from experiencing the event in totality.

The upshot of this engagement was an unexpectedly good time. I say unexpectedly because truth to tell the thematic content announced for Peepshow included some pretty serious stuff:  men’s sexual objectification of women, the friction between waves of feminism, women’s complicity in their own oppression. It sounded more like the syllabus for a women’s studies course (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) than a formula for unabashed theatrical exuberance—which is what Peepshow essentially is.

The evening is staged in five loosely connected sections, the middle one being the abovementioned female fight club, which had the audience revved up and in on the joke from the get-go.

Natasha Gallop with audience in Peepshow. Photo by Sandi Moynihan Multimedia.

The first scene played off the title: Four actors in faux showgirl garb posed come-hitherly through windows rimmed in LED strip lights  (Amelia Hensley , Elaine Yuko Qualter, Sandra Mae Frank, and Natasha Gallop). It was an obvious and clever nod to XXX peepshows and red light districts, and the lovely ladies in their bodices, hoop skirts, and Marie Antoinette wigs were evidently lampooning. Yet it put the audience in an awkward spot. To play along or not? Were we supposed to respond leeringly to their lures using the male gaze satirically? How does one do that?

Before long the foursome sang snippets of “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago but with lyrics changed to “She had it coming.” Almost shockingly the names of recently exposed sexual harassers began to scroll on a flat screen and a cast member read them aloud—leaving no doubt what real-world events had precipitated these parody proceedings.

Audience members from February 7 enjoying the multisensory moment of Peepshow. Photo by Sandi Moynihan Multimedia.

You don’t want to know too much going in, so I’ll give just a taste of the rest by mentioning an amazing scene that had no words. The set is a painted backdrop depicting a seashore, and a woman wearing an old-time bathing outfit (Ouida Maedel) is sunning herself and having a very pleasant time. To the side are buckets filled with what appears to be seaweed. Eventually, everyone in the audience gets handed one. And the mysteriously self-gratified bather shows by her example how we are to discover and savor what’s inside. I won’t give it away except to say that when I realized afterward what was symbolically going on, it blew my mind.

I left the performance aware that dog & pony dc has created in Peepshow a very different kind of safe space—a safe play space—for motley roomfuls of #MeToo and #TimesUp advocates and allies…and anyone else who is fed up with finding a harasser and abuser around every corner and having a perpetrator for a president. What dog & pony dc is up to is not only wholly entertaining. It is deeply replenishing. And right on time.

Performers: Sandra Mae Frank, Natasha Gallop, Amelia Hensley, Ouida Maedel, Kerry McGee, Tosin Olufolabi, Elaine Yuko Qualter, Carol Spring
Conceived and developed by Rachel Grossman, Tosin Olufolabi & Ivania Stack
Director: Rachel Grossman
Choreographer: Lorraine Ressegger-Slone
Set & lighting designer: Annie Wiegand
Costume designer: Claudia Brownlee
Sound designer: Tosin Olufolabi
Production dramaturg and assistant director: Jordana Fraider
Devised by Claudia Brownlee, Jordana Fraider, Sandra Mae Frank, Natasha Gallop, Kala Granger, Rachel Grossman, Amelia Hensley, Ouida Maedel, Kerry McGee, Tosin Olufolabi, Elaine Yuko Qualter, Lorraine Ressegger-Slone, Carol Spring, Ivania Stack & Annie Wiegand
Production and stage management: Emilie Moore, Trent Harper, Kala Granger
ASL Translation: Sandra Mae Frank & Amelia Hensley, with Annie Wiegand & Kala Granger
Performance interpreters: History Estil-Varner & Mary Beth Morgan with
Rhea Kennedy, Cara Schwartz & Jayne Tubergen

Running Time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

Peepshow plays through February 25, 2018, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Rehearsal Hall – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Recommended for ages 18 and older. Completely accessible to and enjoyable by hearing and Deaf audience members. To maintain intimacy of the experience, attendance is capped at 30 persons per show.

dog & pony dc (Playwright) The creation of Peepshow began with 16 artists attending an intensive devising weekend in August 2017. From there, dog & pony dc’s artistic leadership duo, Rachel Grossman and Ivania Stack, and company member Tosin Olufolabi, drafted the show outline. Peepshow’s spectacles were then crafted by Grossman, Stack, and Olufolabi, co-founder/company member Lorraine Ressegger-Slone, and Sandra Mae Frank, Natasha Gallop*, Kala Granger, Amelia Hensley, Ouida Maedel, Kerry McGee*, Elaine Yuko Qualter*, and Carol Spring (* = company members). dog & pony dc is an ensemble-based devised theatre company comprised of hearing and Deaf artists. While dog & pony dc creates new plays and interactive experiences, the company’s mission is to inspire self-discovery, forge new relationships, and champion social change.

Familiar

When the 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival comes to a close and the hits to emerge from it are tallied, Danai Gurira’s comedy Familiar will surely be on the shortlist.

Gurira’s play Eclipsed—a brutal story about a Liberian rebel war lord’s sex slaves and a female Liberian freedom fighter’s attempt to rescue them—had a hugely successful run on Broadway, where it has to have been the most politically gripping play about African women ever seen on the Great White Way. With Familiar, Gurira continues her focus on women of African ancestry, but this time the politically gripping story she tells is tucked inside—wait for it—a gut-bustingly funny comedy set in a suburb of Minneapolis.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Anne, seated), Kim Sullivan (Donald), AndyTruschinski (Brad), Drew Kopas (Chris), Sharina Martin (Tendi), Twinkle Burke (Margaret), Woolly company member Shannon Dorsey (Nyasha), Inga Ballard (Marvelous) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The storytelling starts with Set Designer Paige Hathaway’s eye-filling two-level interior of a middle-upper-class home, tastefully decorated in white and beige. It’s like a whitewashed canvas awaiting bold strokes of color (which the play more than delivers). The home belongs to a sixty-something married couple—he’s a lawyer, she’s a biochemist—who are emigres from Zimbabwe, but there is not a hint of Africa in the decor. There are however icicles hanging from the exposed roof and frost on the windowpanes, as it’s subzero Minnesota winter. The look is coolly assimilationist, Architectural Digest style.

Inga Ballard (Marvelous), Woolly company member Shannon Dorsey (Nyasha), Kim Sullivan (Donald) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Oh, but there’s a carved antique Christian cross on the wall. And Donald, the husband (a stalwart Kim Sullivan), attempts to hang a map of Zimbabwe, but his wife, Marvelous (a marvelously authoritative Inga Ballard), wants it taken down. The conflict that’s to heat up between Western values and African traditions has only just begun—and already laughter is rolling sitcom style.

Donald and Marvelous’s younger daughter, Nyasha (a delightfully droll Shannon Dorsey), has flown in from New York, where she’s been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter and feng shui consultant. To try to better understand her Zimbabwean roots, she recently visited Zim, as she calls it; but having been raised by parents who completely Americanized her, she did not know the language and could not connect.

Drew Kopas (Chris), Sharina Martin (Tendi) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The occasion is the wedding of Donald and Marvelous’s older daughter, a successful lawyer named Tendi (a strikingly nuanced Sharina Martin) to Chris (a charmingly earnest Drew Kopas), who co-founded a nonprofit that does human-rights work in Africa. They met cute in a charismatic Christian congregation. As it happens, Chris is Caucasian (“a white boy from Minnetonka”), and the play mines their cross-cultural contrast for much enjoyable humor. Interestingly, the values and culture clash that really erupts in the play is not so much about the wedding couple as it is about bitter differences and animosities among Marvelous and her two sisters.

The younger sister, Margaret (an amiable Twinkie Burke), has a Ph.D. with no career to show for it and likes to drink. Marvelous has welcomed her for the wedding. But Marvelous is outraged when her older sister, Anne (a force-of-nature Cheryl Lynn Bruce), arrives from Zimbabwe to officiate at a traditional roora—the so-called bride-price ceremony—which Tendi and Chris have opted for out of respect for Tendi’s forebears. Marvelous is adamantly opposed and sparks fly.

Gurira uses that disagreement over roora to precipitate some very funny scenes and some very sobering ones, and both sorts cut to the quick of her theme. Not a punchline or sight gag is untethered to her purpose. For instance, in roora the groom must have a go-between to negotiate with the bride’s family how much he owes them. For this task Chris taps his younger brother Brad (the agreeably goofy Andy Truschinski). There ensues a hilarious scene in which both white guys are on their knees awkwardly clapping and dropping offerings of cash at Anne’s bidding into a wooden bowl. The turnabout subtext of the ritual is priceless.

AndyTruschinski (Brad), Drew Kopas (Chris), Twinkle Burke (Margaret), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Anne) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

There is also a scene between Brad and Nyasha that closes Act I that is so howlingly funny it turned intermission on opening night into a buzzy party.

Among the play’s more serious moments are some trenchant and timely speeches about the price paid by immigrants who forsake their cultural identity for the sake of success and assimilation. For instance:

ANNE: You people want to sit in this country and act like Zimbabwe no longer exists? IT EXISTS!! And it is where YOU are from! You people haven’t been back ONCE! As though there is some other land where you were birthed and suckled! You want to keep these whites happy, FOR WHAT? They are going to take our daughter to be in their family! She is going to lose her name, she is going to start having … children that will talk like her, (imitating an American accent) ‘MAWM, I want to go to the MAWWL MAWM! I want PIZZA!’ … They will be asked where they are from and they will say, MINESOOOTA, and that will be IT!

The most pivotal character in the play turns out to be one who never appears; we only hear of her. She is deceased. Her name is Florie. She was a fourth sister (Auntie Florie to Nyasha and Tendi), a Zimbabwean liberation fighter, “very involved in the armed forces that were fighting the colonial regime.” Says Auntie Anne: “She was a revolutionary really. Very, very brave.” Figuratively Florie is also a sister to the liberation fighter in Eclipsed.

Costume Designer Karen Perry supplies bold dashes of bright colors for the three sisters and Tendi. Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and Sound Designer Justin Schmitz subtly create a realistic ambiance. And the work of Director Adam Immerwahr is exceptionally impressive. Not a breath is out of place, not a beat does not take us into the heart of this phenomenal play.

It is Gurira’s great gift to be able to regale us with torrents of humor in easily recognizable family squabbles—set in the snow-white American Midwest of all places—and at the same time anchor her play firmly in the political reality of her characters’ ancestral home. Near the end, she then tops it off with a big family-secret reveal. On the face of it, that heart-stopping surprise might seem to border on melodrama. But actually, brilliantly, it brings home and personalizes an ongoing identity and liberation struggle that for each of her characters is precisely her point.

Look for Woolly Mammoth’s production of Danai Gurira’s Familiar at the top of a lot of must-see lists this season. It is, quite simply, a comedic masterpiece.

Running Time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

https://www.woollymammoth.net/event/familiar

Familiar plays through March 4, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.

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Danai Gurira (Playwright)

Danai Gurira is an award-winning playwright and actress. The author of Familiar, The Convert, and Eclipsed, Danai currently stars as Michonne in AMC’s critically-acclaimed original series The Walking Dead. Danai’s other film credits include Black Panther, Mother of George, The Visitor, 3 Backyards, and Restless City.

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Character Building by Booker T. Washington

There is something heart-stirring and inspiring about this new one-man musical. In between excerpts from glorious hymns and spirituals, the great African American educator and orator Booker T. Washington gives us a pep talk about how to live an honorable life—exhorting us to lift ourselves up, to be productive, to be of service—thus the title, Character Building. 

Booker T. Washington last appeared on a local stage as a pivotal character in Ragtime at Ford’s, based on E. L Doctorow’s novel. Here all the words are Washington’s own, unfiltered by anyone’s fiction, edited by Adapter/Director Martin Blank from informal Friday night talks that Washington gave to groups of 18-year-old students at the school he founded now known as Tuskegee Institute.

This was not long after Emancipation, and most of the students were former slaves. So historically we are far removed from those for whom the words were originally meant. Yet Washington’s words are so eloquent and urgent they demand to be heard again today. They touch us and galvanize us the way a thrilling preacher can. It’s history but it’s right on time. Because given where our national leadership has lately been mired, attending to Character Building is a satisfaction and a relief. It’s like discovering an ennobling ethical message in a bottle that has been adrift in an ignoble swamp.

Gregory Burgess as Booker T. Washington in Character Building. Photo by Kayla Mahood, Stone Photography.

On the upstage wall inside the small black box at Capital Hill Arts Workshop is projected a photograph of Booker T. Washington. It stays there throughout, a reminder of the man we now get to meet in the personable and imposing performance of Gregory Burgess.

At an upright piano stage right sits Musical Director Scott Farquhar, whose rousing Overture samples from songs in the show. Wearing a sharp vested suit (by Costume Designer Kristina Lambdin), Burgess enters a stage set simply with a writing desk, a chair, and drinking water on a small table. The spare effect achieved by Set Designer Halsey Taylor and Lighting Designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke fittingly keeps Burgess the focus of our attention.

Burgess has a wry twinkle in his eyes, even when he’s at his most earnest. And listening to his rich baritone vocals is a pleasure. There are nearly 20 musical numbers in the 50-minute show so, do the math, they go by quickly—just long enough to touch us with such classics as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” “Go Down Moses,” “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” “Shall We Gather at the River.” The multiple segues between spoken and sung sections are handled with extraordinary grace, and Blank’s apt juxtapositions of admonition and musical inspiration are a revelation.

Unlike many a contemporary self-help guru who preaches self-involvement to the privileged, Washington offered students solid advice about success that still rings good and true. For instance,

In considering your time, today, this week, this month, have you done your
best? I fear many of you, when you look at your conscience, must answer
that you have not. There have been minutes, hours, days, which you have
completely thrown away. If you have not done your best, straight from your
heart, in all your work and in life, it is not too late to make amends.

Get hold of this idea: you can make the future just what you want to make it.
You can make it bright, happy, useful, if you learn this fundamental
lesson—it never pays to do any less than your very best. To succeed, live
good, honorable lives by learning how to do something uncommonly well.

Crucially Washington linked success to service to others:

I call your attention to this fact: one thing is dependent for success upon
another; one individual dependent for success upon another; one family in a
community upon other families for their mutual prosperity. The same is true
in nature. One thing cannot exist unless another exists—cannot succeed
without the success of something else.

Washington was born a slave, raised himself up to get an education, and founded more than 3,000 schools for African-American children in the South—meaning he knew whereof he spoke. And throughout Burgess’s fine performance, the passion in Washington’s mission comes through vividly in his every conscientious phrase, his every wise word.

The show is intended for both school and adult audiences and easily builds a rapport with both. At one point during the performance I saw, Burgess sat on the steps next to a youngster and said, “You see? You see?” And he seemed to.

Music Director Scott Farquhar with Gregory Burgess as Booker T. Washington in Character Building. Photo by Kayla Mahood, Stone Photography.

For about a half-dozen musical numbers, Burgess and Farquhar sing together. Musically this works, their voices blend well, it’s a nice change of pace. But it temporarily makes the show about two guys dueting—one of whom we’ve gotten to know, the other we haven’t. Dramaturgically the pairing reads as a step out of character for Washington and interrupts the continuity of our engagement with him. In future productions (which I fervently urge that there be), an onstage youth choir—giving voice to the student generation Washington cared about and spoke to—could take this already soaring show to even greater heights.

Character Building plays through Black History Month only on Saturdays at 1:00 p.m., and seating is limited. As a theatrical testament to one of the most influential characters in Black History—and as a reminder of what matters in the character one calls one’s own—this powerful and pertinent musical is a hugely rewarding experience.

Running Time: About 50 minutes with no intermission.

Character Building plays Saturdays through February 24, 2018, at American Ensemble Theater performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) – 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, which are Pay What You Will, call CHAW 202-547-6830. (All proceeds from ticket sales benefit CHAW and its tuition assistance program, which allows low-income and homeless children the opportunity to make art.)