Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: April, 2018

After the Rehearsal and Persona

Back in college in Minnesota, I was so into the forlorn films of Ingmar Bergman that I think he affected my mental health. I could relate to his bleak Nordic worldview, which I associated with long dark winters and repressive religion, never a good combination. So for years whenever I felt bummed or blue, I would go see a Bergman film to cheer myself up. And it always worked. Because if he could so matter-of-factly confront the existential abyss of life and make out of it such great art, what the hell was I belly-aching about? Compared with the soul-wrenching crises his characters kept having, my problems were small-potatoes.

Bergman’s downers were my uppers.

Last night in the Eisenhower Theater I watched Director Ivo van Hove’s powerfully penetrating stage adaptations of two screenplays by Bergman in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center. And as I sat transfixed—along with what seemed the entire audience—I remembered why I fell so hard for the Swedish filmmaker’s work in my youth. Bergman, I was reminded, held up a fearless lens and through it stared down human despair, disillusionment, guilt, grief, carnality, rejection, existential angst. He did not blink or look away, nor did he humor us. And van Hove’s spectacular yet minimalist staging had faithfully stripped Bergman’s cinematic language to its emotional essentials, conveyed by mesmerizing performers. So it was that just like years ago when I would walk out of a movie house showing a Bergman flick with my cloud of gloom gone, I left the Eisenhower elated.

Gijs Scholten van Ashat as Hendrik Vogler and Gaite Jansen as Anna in After the Rehearsal. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

The evening consists of two parts connected by a theater theme. The first is After the Rehearsal, based on a television movie Bergman wrote and directed in 1984. It is a multilayered, brutally raw psychosexual drama about two actresses in the life of a controlling, emotionally manipulative, and rapacious theater director named Hendrik (the formidable Gijs Scholten van Ashat, who, fascinatingly, makes Hendrik not a total dick). The play occurs backstage in Hendrik’s office, a wide expanse designed by Set Designer Jan Versweyveld with tacky casting couch and a sleezy sheet taped to the wall on which Hendrik sometimes projects images from a video camera as in a voyeuristic screen test.

The imperious way Hendrik doles out parts in his plays to women affirms the adage that power is the greatest aphrodisiac, and in Bergman’s depiction of these women, both are smitten. The younger is a beautiful 23-year-old, Anna, currently in rehearsal for a Strindberg play Hendrik is directing (Gaite Jansen’s nuanced performance of the seductively wise ingenue is a gem). The sexual electricity between Anna and Hendrik would light up a few fresnels, and we are led to suppose they are headed toward a pre-#MeToo affair.

Sound Designer Roeland Fernhout interrupts their heatup with some startling loud music cues that suggest time may be being played with, maybe place too. And sure enough, in comes another woman, 46-year-old Rachel who arrives in what is apparently Hendrik’s memory or imagination (Anna, who is onstage the whole time, is oblivious to her).  Turns out, Rachel is Anna’s mother, whom Anna loathes but with whom Hendrik had a years-long liaison before Rachel became a broken-down alcoholic whom he no longer cared to cast. Rachel (an amazingly unfiltered and crazily compelling Marieke Heebink) wants Hendrik to want to have sex with her again, and unsurprising we are led to suppose that the haughty horndog does.

That all sounds like a sordid soap opera but that’s not how After the Rehearsal plays out at all. Performed in Dutch in a production by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, with clear, easy-to-read surtitles projected on the set, After the Rehearsal is a theatrical eruption of Bergmanesque language ripped from some roiling subconscious that sometimes makes your eyes pop and jaw drop just to read.

Marieke Heebink as Elisabeth Vogler and Gaite Jansen as Anna in Persona. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

The second play, Persona, is also about two women, but this time the sexual electricity is theirs and there’s no man between them to please (other than, arguably, the auteur). It is based on Bergman’s 1966 classic by the same name starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. In the film as in van Hove’s adaptation, a famous stage actress named Elizabeth Vogler has abruptly become mute in the middle of performing Electra, and she and a nurse named Alma withdraw to an island where, ostensibly as therapy for the actress’s inexplicable silence, the two women embark on what becomes an erotically charged commingling of personalities.

Heebink returns as the actress having a meltdown, Jansen returns as the earnest and caring nurse, and together they possess the stage like furies at the rapture. The play begins with the tortured actress lying nude and still on a stainless steel table under harsh hospital fluorescents, and the story is set up by a Doctor (an impressively shrink-like Frieda Pittoors), who narrates at length what has befallen Elizabeth and what the course of treatment will be.

I’ll take a moment to note that the Doctor’s long monologue is one of many instances during the evening where van Hove’s minimalist staging and Bergman’s distilled language achieve such a grip on the audience that vast passages go by of just people staying still and talking, and we listen with the kind of rapt attention said to make pin-drops resound.

And I’ll digress again to say that the scenic effects in Persona are so phenomenal and astounding I dare not give them away—except to tease that they involve falling walls, wind, and water. The stage spectacle combines with Persona’s explosive psychic and erotic revelations to create an experience for which enthralling and thrilling are insufficient words.

Running Time: Three hours, including one intermission.

After the Rehearsal and Persona play through Sunday, April 22, 2018, in the Eisenhower Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

Other recent productions directed by Ivo van Hove presented by at The Kennedy Center:
Review #1: ‘A View From the Bridge’ at The Kennedy Center by Michael Poandl
Review #2: ‘A View From the Bridge’ at The Kennedy Center by David Friscic
In the Moment: ‘A View From the Bridge’ at The Kennedy Center by David Siegel
‘Antigone’ at The Kennedy Center by Michael Poandl


“Master Harold”…and the Boys

One of the most quietly profound moments in Athol Fugard’s anti-apartheid play “Master Harold”…and the Boys—just opened in a powerfully moving production at Round House Theatre—happens in a simple conversation about a park bench. The exchange is between a white 17-year-old named Hally (Nick Fruit) and an older black man named Sam (the magnificent Craig Wallace), who since Hally was a little boy has been his best friend. Hally recalls the time Sam made a kite for him—”the most splendid thing I had ever seen,” Hally says. One day Sam took him to a park and taught him to fly it. But once the kite was aloft, Sam tied the string to a park bench and walked away, leaving Hally alone.

HALLY:  I wanted you to stay, you know. I was a little scared of having to look after it by myself.

Later we find out why Sam left.

SAM: I couldn’t sit down there and stay with you. It was a ‘Whites Only’ bench. You were too young, too excited to notice then. But not anymore….

You know what that bench means now, and you can leave it any time you choose. All you’ve got to do is stand up and walk away from it. 

Craig Wallace as Sam and Nick Fruit as Hally in Round House Theatre’s production of “Master Harold” … and the Boys. Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.


It struck me as I heard those words that that whites-only park bench, which functions in Fugard’s play as a marker of white privilege in 1950 South Africa, takes on far-reaching resonance today in the context of DC theater, where maintenance of a white comfort zone overdetermines what gets programmed.

What would it mean, knowing what we know now about what white privilege in theater looks like, if we just stood up and walked away from it?

For one thing it would mean, I suspect, more productions with the conscience and clarity of this essential-to-see play now superbly mounted at Round House.  During it, Hally’s subtly racist microaggressions against Sam build to a corrosive climax that will leave Hally ashamed for the rest of his life. It is a play with limited seating in the comfort zone.

Running time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.

“Master Harold”… and the Boys plays through May 6, 2018, at the Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

For a full picture of the play and its production qualities, see my colleague Amy Kotkin’s fine review, ‘Master Harold…and the Boys’ at Round House Theatre.


The Caucasian Chalk Circle

With admirable nerve and imagination, Constellation Theatre Company has mounted an endlessly inventive production of a work by a playwright who dares us to enjoy him.

Bertolt Brecht wrote plays to make a point. He was not one of those writers, so fashionable nowadays, who eschew messages and proffer experiences devoid of consequences. Thus with The Caucasian Chalk Circle—just opened in a tuneful, eye-catching, and kinetic production at Source—Brecht meant for us to take home more fundamentals than fun.

Written just after World War II, the play begins with a dispute between two factions of peasants over land that Nazis recently occupied. One group wants the land to raise goats. The other wants the land to grow fruit. Emerging from all the diverting storytelling that follows is a simple maxim: The land should go to whoever can make the best use of it. Which in Brecht’s anticapitalist worldview is an argument for power to the proletariat.

Yesenia Iglesias as Grusha and Teresa Spencer as Governor’s Wife (Matthew Schleigh as Azdak in the background) in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

To bring this point to life, one of the peasant groups puts on a play adapted from an ancient Chinese folktale about a child-custody dispute between two women. To resolve their competing claims, a judge instructs them to place the child in the center of a chalk circle and tug its arms in opposite directions. Whoever can yank the child out of the circle gets to keep it. But as in the biblical story of King Solomon, who in similar circumstances proposed slicing the kid in two, the true mother yields to the other for the sake of the child—thus proving to one and all who genuinely deserves to have custody.

Matthew Schleigh as Singer in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

And thus the peasants’ play within the play “about who owns what and why.” Lest there be any doubt that we in the audience bear responsibility for comprehending what this charming fable is about to get at, there is this sobering exchange at the beginning, between an Expert from the International Development and Reconstruction Commission (an amusingly prim Teresa Spencer) and a Singer who will narrate the story (an appealingly rocker-voiced Matthew Schleigh).

Expert: You won’t preach at me, will you? I hate those plays where they preach at you.
Singer: It’s our job to entertain. Your job to draw conclusions.
Expert: Hmm … How long does it last?
Singer: About a couple of hours.
Expert: Couldn’t you make it shorter?
Singer: No.

Some two and a half hours later, a song sung by the Ensemble spells out the conclusions we were to infer:


In between that setup and that summary is a terrifically staged show with original music that more than lives up to Constellation Theatre Company’s reputation for spectacular design and production values. The hardscrabble black-and-gray set by Scenic and Lighting Designer A. J. Guban is an amazing warren of entrances and exits around concentric circular steps, with some audience members seated inside the action as if in dugouts. Director Allison Arkell Stockman adeptly keeps the buoyant cast of 14, who play 60 characters, bolting on and off apace. That is, when they’re not making stunning stage pictures (like a rope bridge across a river), or executing Choreographer Tony Thomas II’s angular dance moves, or pausing to sing beautifully listenable music by Brian Lotter and Schleigh, accompanied by a lively pit band (Ben Lurye on keyboard, Manny Arcinega on percussion, Schleigh on guitar). And Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt dresses all 60 distinct characters in a blazing kaleidoscope of colors and textures from regal to rustic, from brocade to sackcloth.

Yesenia Iglesias as Grusha and Drew Kopas as Simon in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Though the political import of Brecht’s epic might fit tidily in a TED Talk, his intention is to reach our emotions before prompting us to reach his conclusions. To that end Act One features an involved storyline about a young woman named Grusha (a magnetic Yesenia Iglesias) who rescues and flees with a royal-born child (an adorable doll by Puppet Designer Matthew Aldwin McGee), along the way falling in love with a soldier named Simon (a dashing Drew Kopas) and encountering worrisome threats to her and the child’s safety and well-being. In Act Two—headed toward the final chalk-circle showdown between Grusha and the child’s vain and unsympathetic birth mother (Spencer again)—Brecht basically restarts the play with a secondary involved storyline, chronologically parallel to Grusha’s and somewhat less interesting, that establishes the character of Azdak, the trial judge (Schleigh again).

Audience members seated inside the set, Yesenia Iglesias, and Tamieka Chavis in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Brecht even in his heyday was not Mr. Emotionally Relatable, but there is plenty to enjoy in the performances of an ensemble that also includes Kieth Irby, Greg Ongao, Natalie Cutcher, Amanda Forstrom, Scott Ward Abernethy, Ashley Ivey, Lisa Hodsoll, Brian Reisman, Tamieka Chavis, and Billie Krishawn. And for those seated in the dugouts, there is the head-spinning excitement of full-circle immersion in the action.

Constellation has wisely chosen a very fresh-sounding translation by Alistair Beaton, a left-wing Scottish writer whose version of the antifascist The Arsonists was recently staged at Woolly. Constellation has done a nice job of swapping in American idioms for Beaton’s Britishisms, so the language itself is no barrier, and the cast, which is subtly mic’ed, speaks it distinctly. Yet the structure of the text of The Caucasian Chalk Circle epitomizes the playwright’s pet Verfremdungseffekt—a  distancing technique intended to keep us the audience from getting so wrapped up in the narrative we stop being conscious unpackers of conclusions. So whether we find The Caucasian Chalk Circles involved storylines involving is not entirely up to either Constellation or us.

Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays through May 13, 2018, at Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street North West, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.



For a Cirque-head such as myself, anticipation of a new Cirque du Soleil show coming to town kicked in months ago. It had been two long years since Cirque last pitched its Big Top here, with Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities, a show I praised to the tent top:

Kurios’  marvels will not only wow one’s inner kid-at-the-circus, as all Cirque shows do. Kurios’ artistic achievement will also enchant adventurous theater folk with its sophisticatedly trippy mix of imagery from cinema and steampunk.

Four years ago it was Amaluna, which Cirque conceived as “an ode to femininity and renewal” and brought in Broadway legend Diane Paulus to direct. In my rave review I quoted her:

“I wanted to create a show with women at the center of it, something that had a hidden story that featured women as the heroines.” And wowza, did she ever.

Now comes Luzia, easily one of Cirque’s sunniest and loveliest shows—a sensuously dreamy mix of imagery from an imagined Mexico layered over performances so spellbinding you will enter a whole other reality.

Running Woman scene from Luzia. Photo by Laurence Labat. Costumes by Giovanna Buzzi. © 2016 Cirque du Soleil.

Like nearly all Cirque titles, the word Luzia is Cirque’s invention: It combines the Spanish words for light (luz) and rain (lluvia), key components of the show’s stunning look. Luzia transports us visually and viscerally to a garden of marigolds, a rousing fiesta, a leafy forest, a cactus-strewn desert, a summery seashore, a solemn scene of votive candles, a boisterous dance hall, an old-time movie set, and beyond. Unlike even the most immersive movie, Luzia’s illusions are present to us in the very moment we share with the people we see on stage.

I don’t know for a fact that other fans of the Montreal-based entertainment brand call themselves Cirque-heads, but I am certifiable: Of the 21 current productions, I have seen ten (plus six that have been retired). So when I say that with its touring production of Luzia Cirque has upped its production game stupendously, that comes with some cred.

Back in 1993 Cirque branched out from touring its phenomenally popular performances and began mounting shows for long runs in permanent locations. Ever since there has been a perceptible difference between Cirque’s tent shows and Cirque’s resident shows—not in terms of the stellar artistry and mythlike mise-en-scène (a seamless synthesis of music, circus acts,  choreography, stage design, costumes, acrobatics), but in terms of what production effects can practicably be achieved. For instance in Las Vegas, which now boasts seven Cirque installations, O is played in a huge water tank, and the stage floor in tilts vertically.

Aeral Straps scene from Luzia. Photo by Matt Beard. © 2017 Cirque du Soleil.

Luzia features breakthrough production effects that Cirque has never trucked from place to place before. The stage is made of two concentric turntables. Early on there’s a massive double treadmill upon which birdlike acrobats fly through hoops in motion on motion. Then there’s rainfall in which aerialists, trapeze artists, and ring dancers perform wet—as in slippery when… And in the middle of the stage is revealed a circular water tank into which a supple strap artist spectacularly dips and splashes while it rains.

There’s no way to encapsulate the whole enthralling show, and Luzia is definitely something one has to experience oneself to appreciate and even to believe. But here for first-timers and fellow fans are a few teaser features.

Jaw-dropping circus acts have been a fixture of Cirque’s shows since the beginning, each new production showcasing never-before-seen displays of daring and dexterity. Some involve apparatus, like the two huge swings between which acrobats are flipped through the air while somersaulting. Or the oversize hoops within which dancers spin and pivot in the rain. Or the big fixed trapeze that an artist swings in a full 360 degrees as high as the upper rigging. Or the twin poles upon which a very built gymnast balances on his hands, does pushups and other stunts of strength, as the wobbly poles get higher until it’s so risky he needs a safety wire.

Football Dance scene from Luzia. Photo by Matt Beard. © 2017 Cirque du Soleil.

Equally awe-inspiring are the acts that involve a minimum of equipment but physical agility to the max. Three men fling a young woman into the air every which way, catching her with trust and precision while she performs dance moves aloft between their thrusts. Two adorable young people dressed in street clothes and each with a soccer ball perform astounding tricks solo, then become beautifully moving in their leg-over-leg teamwork, which they sustain in the rain. And a young contortionist who balletically puts his arms and legs where you would think no human body could can also, literally, sit on his own head.

As always in Cirque, there are sophisticatedly silly clowns. Luzia features a terrific one who’s a one-man running gag. We see him tumble out of a plane opening a parasol when his parachute fails. We see him trying vainly to fill his empty canteen from rainfall that always shuts off just when he needs it. And we  play along during his whistle routine when with but shrill trilling tweets he gets us whooping and hollering.

Prominent also in Luzia are a lot of supersize creature puppets: a metallic horse that gallops after a running woman with butterfly wings, an armadillo, a snake, a cockroach, cacti, a cougar. These figures, visibly operated by humans, blend into the action surreally and delightfully.

Dance hall scene with puppets from Luzia. Photo: Matt Beard © 2017 Cirque du Soleil

Curiously one performance in the show—among the many that that elicit gasps of awe and wonder—is not a human one; it is a technological and hydraulic coup de théâtre. It happens when the water falls as a rain curtain in which appear images—birds, fish, flowers, leaves—generated by tiny valves that open and close faster than a blink and have been programmed to send stenciled shapes shimmering down.

There’s a clever slogan that performers say in a fascinating video series of episodes from the show called LUZIAself—pronounced “Lose ya’self.” Truth to tell, that’s what really happens. You do lose yourself at Luzia. And for theater lovers of all ages, it is an enrapturing experience like none other.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

Luzia plays through June 17, 2018, under the white-and-gold Big Top at Tysons II, 8025 Galleria Drive, Tysons, VA 22102. Tickets are available online. For booking assistance call (877) 924-7783.




Roz and Ray

This is an absolutely absorbing medical drama performed with full-on passion by two of DC’s top-tier actors. Susan Rome plays Roz, a hematologist dedicated to her role as healer, and Tom Story plays Ray, a single dad dedicated to keeping alive his hemophiliac twin boys. The story traverses a timeline beginning in 1975, when the twins are children and blood products are still an effective treatment for hemophilia, through the “gay plague” years when the twins reach their late teens and the blood supply has been contaminated—meaning that nearly all hemophiliacs are dying of AIDs.

Susan Rome as Roz and Tom Story as Ray in Roz and Ray. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Though that summary of the setup sounds like a disease-of-the-month made-for-TV movie, the performances in the production at Theater J, under the compassionate direction of Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr, place before us two utterly believable whole people who are trying with all their might to do the right thing and can’t.  Because offstage an ineluctable tragedy is unfolding. And there is no right thing left to do.

We see the choices they are faced with. We watch each of them agonize. We see him contest her choices, and we see her admit remorse. And steadily through this sturdy drama, we see the consequences of their decisions. When Ray says he has tried to read When Bad Things Happen to Good People, we get it: We are witnessing ruinous things happening to well-meaning people.

Not unlike as happens in real life. And not unlike how the ancient tragedians did it.

Playwright Karen Hartman’s achievement in Roz and Ray is to script a two-hander Greek tragedy. The functional Fates in her play are as real as eons ago the Fates were in myth: A virus run amok, Big Pharma, governmental indifference, medical science trying to cope—all a fickle offstage malevolence essentially impervious to human well-being. Our two heroes Roz and Ray are helpless to counteract these Fates. As indeed they cannot; they can only react. For whatever agency they may like to think they have, whatever few choices they may want to think they can make, the Fates call all the shots.

Susan Rome and Tom Story in Roz and Ray. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hartman’s story does contravene one of Aristotle’s unities, however: It jumps back and forth in time. Projections appear above the stage to point us to what year we’re in. And the challenging text demands that Rome and Story, with their consummate skill, quickly recalibrate their characters’ emotional lives for scenes played out of chronological sequence. Thus as the narrative flashes to and fro, we are spared feelings of pity, grief, and fear such as the Fates called forth when the contagion was full-blown and there was yet no stopping it.

Inspired by the medical career of her late father, who treated hemophiliac children, Hartman set out to tell a story that has been missing in the succession of plays about AIDS: a story about the collateral damage from transmission through the blood supply. She did not make that up. Everything else she did. Which is why at times the play’s momentum feels a second-hand happenstance, not sui generis character-generated heat.

Susan Rome and Tom Story in Roz and Ray. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

But for those who remember and lived through the plague years, Roz and Ray offers a rare gift. It is a chance to review that grim time from the distance of a contextualizing seeing place. Yes, there is tragedy in life. Yes, there be forces with us like the Fates. But there is always human agency left to us with one another—as for instance when Roz and Ray finally forgive each other their errors.

Roz and Ray is more than a medical drama about a disease. It is a poignant parable about the fundamental meaning of our lives.

Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.

Roz and Ray plays through April 29, 2018, at Theater J’s Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, located inside the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington DC.  For tickets, call 202-777-3210 or go online.


Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s son, Samori, was 15 when his father wrote a book addressed to him, Between the World and Me. Before that book won the National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, it was a heartfelt message to a boy whose father knew he could be shot dead for no reason except he was black. The pain and pride, the anger and anguish, the hope and helplessness Coates feels at this unjust prospect flow through the book like a flooding river of tears.

Te-Nehisi Coates

For me reading the book, through welling eyes of my own, was to experience a writer whose graceful command of language and cut-to-the-root political insight left me humbled and in awe. Coates is often compared, aptly, to James Baldwin, whose voice, especially in The Fire Next Time, resounds through Between the World and Me. And—of particular importance to me—Baldwin and Coates both articulate what it means to be white, with a conscience and clarity I almost never find in the work of white writers.

Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates refers to people, especially Americans, who “believe they are white.” At the very beginning, he tells of a TV news host in DC who

wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to the question is the American believers themselves. The answer is American history.

Baldwin makes a similar point in an essay titled “On Being White…And Other Lies”:

America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie. White men—from Norway, for example, where they are Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.

Coates began writing Between the World and Me shortly after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. Samori was born into the same world, a place where the boy’s black body could at anytime be destroyed in order to sustain someone’s belief in himself as white. Between the World and Me is propelled by Coates’s purpose to tell his son as much truth about that contingency as he can—knowing full well that, as he writes to Samori, “I can’t save you.”

Marc Bamuti Joseph and Jason Moran (top) during Between the World and Me at the Kennedy Center. Photo courtesy of Jati Lindsay.

The passion on the pages of the book became searingly and exhilaratingly present in the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center when eight illustrious black artists read passages from it to a packed house Sunday afternoon. It seemed an audience not only of fans but of seekers, listeners eager and prepared to be moved and inspired by the truths they knew Coates had told.

The readers, all superb vocal artists, brought a full range of emotions and declaration from dirge to poetry slam. They included superstar tap dancer, choreographer, and actor Savion Glover; Hip Hop playwright Marc Bamuthi Joseph, librettist of the opera We Shall Not Be Moved; Emmy Award–winning actor Joe Morton (Scandal); actor/arts collaborator Greg Alverez Reid; rap artist Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots; Broadway and film actor Pauletta Pearson Washington; This Is Us’s Susan Kelechi Watson; and 12-time Grammy Award–nominated singer Ledisi.

On a raised platform were a pianist (Jason Moran), a guitarist (Mimi Jones), and a drummer (Nate Smith) who intermittently enhanced the readings with exquisitely sensitive jazz accompaniments. These were composed for the occasion by Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, who also conducted. The full stage was emblazoned with projections designed by Tal Yarden with Five OHM Productions that began subtly situating the storytelling with indistinct patterns and became steadily more and more powerful, culminating in a furious montage of headlines about black bodies felled.

Ledisi (left) and Black Thought during Between the World and Me at the Kennedy Center. Photo courtesy of Jati Lindsay.

The passages chosen followed Coates chronologically from his youth in Baltimore, to his days at Howard University (and its yard called The Mecca), to his becoming a writer, to his meeting Samori’s mother, to their home in Brooklyn… The black body is a recurring theme. The essential below is another, meaning being the one who must be taken down by one who believes himself white. And a portion of the narrative from the book is told of Coates’s dear friend from Howard named Prince Jones who, Coates learned as he was writing the book, was shot and killed by a cop. Thereafter Coates pays a visit to Prince’s mother, Mrs. Jones, in a passage that aches with grief and courage.

The program was developed and directed by Kamilah Forbes, a friend of Coates’s from their days at Howard and now executive producer of New York’s Apollo Theater, which produced the performance in collaboration with the Kennedy Center. The show was first performed a week before at the Apollo. Now arrived in DC, the entire endeavor represented an extraordinary convergence of institutional resources and artistic talents, all focused on sharing the experience of a text so personal yet so political that it seemed to coalesce every heart in the house.

Joe Morton during Between the World and Me at the Kennedy Center. Photo courtesy of Jati Lindsay.

Surely this fine project should have a life beyond this brief run. I can even imagine that stripped down to its soul, simply the language and the writing, this beautiful adaptation of Between the World and Me by Lauren A. Whitehead could be done in readers’ theater productions on campuses across the country for years to come.

Names of the sections of the program were projected on the set (lighting design by Jane Cox, scenic design by Michael Carnahan),  functioning as a visual table of contents for the topics and continuity of the storytelling. Following is a partial listing of the passages and artists who read each.

Son, I Write to You in Wisdom
Joe Morton

Young, Naked & Black in Baltimore
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter

The Schools, the Streets. Arms of the Same Beast

The Malcolm Expansion: T and His Blooming Consciousness
Greg Alverez Reid/Michelle Wilson

Meeting the Mecca, In Awe, Wonder & Unapologetic Pride
Susan Kelechi Watson

Becoming a Writer, Curiosity, and Vertigo
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Michelle Wilson, Greg Alverez Reid, Pauletta Pearson Washington

All These Women & You, a Romance
Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Lessons to Samori
Joe Morton

Pulled Over in PG County, in Fear
Savion Glover

The Mystique of Prince Jones (We Know)
Greg Alverez Reid

I Imagined Myself Like Prince (Think of All)
Joe Morton

Fire for the Rest of My Days
Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Damn It All, a Sorrow Song with Whiskey Glass
Michelle Wilson

Aimless & on Guard in Brooklyn
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter

The Escalator Story: Ta-Nehisi and His Rage
Joe MortonSusan Kele, chi Watson

It Had to Be Blood, a Folklore
Marc Bamuthi Joseph

My Eyes, These Doors, Forged in Shadow
Pauletta Pearson Washington

Long Live the Struggle: Ta-Nehisi and the Voices of the Collective
Joe Morton, Greg Alverez Reid, Marc Bamuthi Joseph,Michelle Wilson, Black Thought

The Void Speaks Back, a Moment with Dr. Jones
Greg Alverez Reid, Pauletta Pearson Washington (as Dr. Jones)

The Final Wisdom, a Joy

Cast of Between the World and Me at the Kennedy Center. Photo courtesy of Jati Lindsay.

At the very end, after the cast and musicians had been vigorously applauded, names began to appear projected on the set. The audience getting ready to leave the theater instead stopped still, stood hushed, somberly watching and reading as countless names scrolled upward, names upon names of black bodies shot down, names Coates knew his son could be among, black bodies some there could have known. It was a powerful tribute to a collective sorrow that as yet knows no end.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Between the World and Me played twice on April 7, 2018, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC.


Underground Railroad Game

“What the fuck was that?” a friend asked me at the opening night reception for this show at Woolly. To which, still reeling, I could only answer, “Yeah, what the fuck?”

The cringe-inducing show we had just seen is misleadingly titled Underground Railroad Game. Created and performed by Jennifer Kidwell, who is black, and Scott R. Shepard, who is white, it begins in the guise of a lesson for middle-schoolers about the history of slavery. There is a brief enactment set in a barn in which Kidwell plays a runaway slave and Shepard plays a Quaker Abolitionist. Then there’s a scene change to a classroom and Kidwell and Shepard appear as Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart. A school bell clangs, and they address us the audience as middle-schoolers while they give us instructions for a live-action educational role play: Under each of our seats we are to find a blue or gray toy solder, which splits us into a Union army and a Confederate army. Now we are contestants in a game that involves the blue team rescuing black rag dolls and the grey team capturing the same dolls and returning them to their masters.

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard in Underground Railroad Game. Photo by Scott Suchman.

It’s a funny, enjoyable bit, an overtly ironic take on how the underground railroad functioned. (It echoes the wonderful metatheatricality of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s extraordinary An Octoroon, recently revived at Woolly.) And Kidwell and Shepard are both appealing and engaging performers. They win over the audience with ease.

Before long the show takes an unexpected turn. Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart begin a romantic relationship. They take walks together. They hold hands. Their talk turns sexual. She tells him a joke about a child who took her cat to school. Asked why, the child said she heard her father tell her mother, “Soon as that child leaves, I’m gonna eat dat pussy.” The humor continues in that un-PC vein. And the play explicitly plays with the racial difference between the two. There are thus a lot of awkward moments in their interaction that, as evidently intended, the audience recognizes and finds funny.

(At this point the quickwitted badinage between Kidwell and Sheppard reminded me a lot of early Mike Nichols and Elaine May routines. And I sensed in the house the familiar uneasy amusement one hears when mainly white DC audiences chuckle nervously whenever a play plays the race card for laughs.)

So far so good. Two teachers, one black and one white, plausibly entering into a personal, probably sexual relationship outside the classroom.

But then the show transforms into something else. We see these two people’s sexual relationship acted out on stage. At one point she, wearing a gown with an oversize skirt, deliberately bares her breasts and he luxuriates in kissing one. It is not clear just now who she is or who he is. (Rhett Butler making out with a ball-gowned Mammy, to flip the Tara plantation narrative? No idea.) Thereafter at her invitation, he crawls under her enormous skirt and, as we are given to understand from her orgasmic moans, does eat her pussy.

Jennifer Kidwell (top) and Scott R. Sheppard (bottom) in Underground Railroad Game. Photo by Scott Suchman.

This inscrutable erotic tableau then segues into graphic raceplay. I name it raceplay because at no point in the sex scenes we see performed is the eroticization of her race outside their equation. And we get quite some eye-popping sights of their roleplaying: bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, together with intense fight choreography. In what may have been intended as fair-play turnabout, she strips him naked, slaps a ruler against his behind leaving his butt cheeks red, and then uses the same ruler to diddle his dick. Whether we are to understand that he during this session with this black dominatrix is somehow dealing with his white guilt, I cannot guess. There are not many narrative clues to go on. There’s just a long scene of raceplay.

I’ll pause now to say that if what I have just described is something you would buy a ticket for to see with your own eyes, you may appreciate this show.

I’ll also add that at no point was there any hint that Kidwell and Sheppard’s roleplaying was anything but consensual. The two have been working together on this show for five years and they devised everything in it. No alarms went off that Not In Our House ought to hear. Yet the audience seemed stunned into silence, dumbfounded in discomfort. I myself felt as if as if my consent had been trespassed.

Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Then somehow as if in a blur the show went blithely on. The raceplay ended, the performers returned to their chipper personas as Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart, we were back in the garishly lit classroom, and we were all regaled as if what had happened had not happened.

It was a lurch I could not go along with; nor could I at the end join the standing ovation. I was undone. I needed time to process this disconcerting show. It was weird to be expelled from the theater without the opportunity for a talkback.

Eventually, as I mulled on my own, two questions came to me:

Question 1: Had I just been gulled into a very personal and graphic exploration of how the history of chattel slavery in America has inspired, for some willing partners in interracial relationships, the vocabulary and transactions of sadomasochism? I know, for instance, that in BDSM (bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism), so-called slave training is a thing. So I do not doubt that among the residues of slavery has been such adulteration of intimate relationships. Nor, for that matter, do I doubt that some people replay aspects of the history of the Holocaust to get their rocks off. Human sexuality is vastly malleable in what it can eroticize, and online pornography has become the of kink. For some people hierarchy is hot; I get that. That’s one of the reasons unjust hierarchies persist. But I’m fine reading about this, thank you very much. Don’t need it thrust in my face unawares.

Question 2: Had I just watched the history of chattel slavery in America be rewritten and treated pedagogically as an S&M scene? Like, with blacks and whites all consenting adults getting off on it? Like, erasing all the eroticized race hate and woman hate it took to drive the historical reality of rape—displacing all that in our minds, helping us not have to think about it, giving us instead an unforgettable mental picture of S&M raceplay, which, however discomfiting actually functions as a comforting distraction from the horrific reality that happened and is still happening?

If the answer to Question 1 is yes: Underground Railroad Game needs a content warning: “This show graphically dramatizes how the history of slavery in America has become for some people a sexual fetish.”

If the answer to Question 2 is yes: Underground Railroad Game needs a conscience warning: “This show graphically demonstrates how in a city like DC, with all the stories about racism that need to be told, one otherwise highly respected theater company has chosen to produce some of the most morally oblivious drivel since minstrelsy.”


One more advisory: Connecting to the show’s thematic undertone vis a vis the sexualization of race—in particular, what it means for black women—there is a display in the Woolly lobby of antique black dolls. Their skirts are spread wide open, and each doll is mounted on a pedestal with an angled mirror beneath it such that one can snatch an upskirt view.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Underground Railroad Game plays through April 29, 2018, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

Paper Dolls

Paper Dolls has such an open heart and such largesse of spirit that you might well leave the theater verklempt with hope.

The play with songs by Philip Himberg, directed by Mark Brokaw, tells an improbable story, one that nobody could make up but that really happened. The play is based on and inspired by a 2006 Israeli documentary film named Paper Dolls about a group of Filipinos who work by day as caregivers to elderly Orthodox Jews and at night perform in drag at dive bars in Tel Aviv, Israel’s LGBTQ mecca. Within this thriving subculture—counterintuitively for a country founded on a faith that ritually segregates men from women—the divinely ordained gender binary gets a wholly human remix.

Kevin Shen (Chiqui), Jon Norman Schneider (Jiorgio), Ariel Felix (Sally), Rafael Sebastian (Cheska), and Evan D’Angeles (Zhan) in Paper Dolls. Photo by Stan Barouh.

For Mosaic, Paper Dolls might also seem an improbable programming choice. Five brightly bewigged girly boys prancing around in glam getups sharing the stage with shuffling gray-bearded Chassidim in black—what is this, some kind of cynical sendup? No, Paper Dolls is quite the opposite: a sincere call to heal divisions in an eloquent enactment that ennobles us all. Which puts it perfectly on point to Mosaic’s purpose.

Though Paper Dolls is not about politics per se, Israel’s policies toward Palestinians explicitly frame the narrative. As we learn from an intro projected on the set, the Israeli government, having closed its borders to Palestinian workers during the second Intifada, turned to workers from far off lands to perform labor deemed beneath Israelis. Ironically, in order for the nation to distance certain different bodies, it had to let in differently different bodies from a greater distance.

Among the jobs once done by thus purged Palestinians was taking care of the very old—something that Filipinos, on temporary work visas, turned out to be especially well suited for. As one of the five explains:

CHESKA: We respect old people. Filipinos, we are devoted. We are far from our home but we practice our culture here.

Besides Cheska (Rafael Sebastian), the members of this affinity group who call themselves the Paper Dolls are Zhan (Evan D’Angeles), Sally (Ariel Felix), Jiorgio (Jon Norman Schneider), and Chiqui (Kevin Shen). The play traces their intertwined stories with tender affection. We see them singing and dancing and cheekily assimilating Yiddish into their lyrics. We see them caring attentively for their old men, who appear to have accepted them. And in the drag queens’ full-on musical numbers, there is infectious ebullience and freedom. At the same time, the show keeps in view the tristesse of geriatric difficulties, against which the drag queens’ joie de vivre effects a moving interplay between living out loud and quietly dying.

ohn Bambery (Etai) and the Paper Dolls in Paper Dolls. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The main plot turns on an Israeli filmmaker, Etai (John Bambery), who discovers the Paper Dolls and wants to make a documentary about them. In an early exchange he explains why:

ETAI: We always hear the same stories about Israel. But, you are a part of this country we do not see. You dolls are . . . something different.

At that Zhan, sporting a homemade menorah with battery-operated candles on her head, asks casually:

ZHAN: How are we “different”?

The line gets a huge laugh—and introduces us to the play’s insight into what’s different, who decides, and at what cost.

CHESKA: Next week, Etai, come to the Chasid neighborhood where we work. There we dress like boys, and the Jewish we take care of—they wear the costumes.

The Dolls do not readily accept Etai. He is an outsider, not like them. He presumes too much familiarity with them and is chided when he enters their dressing room.

CHIQUI: Do you always come where you are not invited…? You are bored maybe? You know—there are no Arab houses here for you to bulldoze.

ETAI: This is what you think of me? I am not that kind. Really. I am not your enemy, Chiqui. Give me a chance.

Later, the Dolls’ distrust of Etai subsides.

ETAI: You guys, you are something else.

CHESKA: Maybe not so different from you. You have a boyfriend, Etai?

ETAI: Maybe.

CHESKA: So, you do make sex with men?

ETAI: I do not talk about it.

There follows a comic scene in which a couple of Dolls tell of peeping into a mikvah ritual bath and seeing young Chasids giving one another hand jobs.

We learn of ostracization experienced by the Dolls in their families at home for being different. Etai too has a story.

ETAI: You cannot believe how my brothers look down on me. In my family, men are men. Women are women. That is it.

As if to underscore the play’s blurring boundaries between genders presumed different, Act One ends with the Dolls performing a sensational mashup of genres presumed different: “Hava Nagila” and “Lady Marmalade.” And there’s still another act of unlikely reconciliation to come.

In Paper Dolls, the humanity of the drag queens bursts forth from the stage and invites us into its embrace. We are witness to their systemic invisibility, their fear of being otherized by all except each other. Yet their resilience and loyalty, their unstinting regard for their charges, all the moments when they step outside “man” and “woman” and into human—this is what ultimately connects us to them at a dimension that surpasses conscious logic. And this is where Paper Dolls becomes a profound theatrical metaphor for the possibility of cross-cultural peace and understanding.

Paper Dolls is such an astonishment of entertainment, such a portal to the heart, and such a celebration of conciliation that it may well be Mosaic Theater Company’s most Mosaic show yet. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes including one intermission.

Paper Dolls runs through April 29, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.