Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: July, 2018

Barococo (2018 Capital Fringe)

Happenstance Theater, the much-lauded purveyors of cheekily sophisticated whimsy, have brought another original devised work to Fringe, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you might want to have that checked.

Happenstance’s distinctive theatrical style—honed for a dozen years now under the artistic co-directorship of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell—entails highbrow clowning, lush design, witty lifting from history, lots of mime, minimal text, and a collective imagination that thinks nothing of mixing kooky and astute. The show now on the boards at Arena is called Barococo (a portmanteau from Baroque and Rococo). The periodish couture of it is shown in this promo photo, but really to be fully appreciated these erudite zanies must be seen in performance.

Karen Hansen (Doppio Gernelli Von Sharfenberghopf), Alex Vernon (Leslie Pmplemousee de Citron-Pressé), Sarah Olmsted Thomas (Dauphine Marionette), Sabrina Mandell (Olympia Stroganovskaya), Gwen Grastorf (Constance Blandford Plainview), and Mark Jaster (Astorio Cavalieri) in ‘Barococo.’ Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater Company.

Barococo was conceived of as a spoof of the aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary France and, by insinuation, the one percent now. It’s a brilliant comic conceit and could not be more cathartically on time.

Stage right are a harpsichord and other instruments of the era, which during the show will be played euphoniously by Karen Hansen, musical director. Elsewhere are a table and two fencing foils that other members of the giftedly twisted ensemble—Mandell, Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon—will shortly put to hilarious use.

The show opens with animated tableaux vivants, which play back as though on rewind. Handkerchiefs, a sword, a deck of cards, a book—the cast makes of simple props a sequence of nonsequiturs. It doesn’t make much sense, but its silliness is irresistible.

There follows a series of games—riddles, charades, hide and seek—with clever bits of dialogue (“Soon we will all be history!”). The sight gags, which I won’t spoil, are priceless, as are the puns and double entendres (to a cellist: “Touch the G string. That’s the spot”).

There are some lovely musical interludes as when a chamber ensemble joins Hanson, who plays multiple instruments ambidextrously. And the high point of the clowning is a pantomimed grande bouffe that becomes a slo-mo food fight and had the opening night audience howling.

Happenstance freely acknowledges (I’m paraphrasing) that the company subsumes substance to style on playful purpose. Yet the parodistic point of Barococo becomes deliciously explicit at the end, when the elite get their comeuppance, albeit comedically (“You cannot starve the people and not expect to pay”).

Perhaps because this piece is brand-new, it feels slightly uneven. The majority of the passages are polished to perfection, but a few seem still tentative in timing and intent. For instance, in the opening moments, the characters play “what’s going on here?” uncertainty apparently for laughs, but it doesn’t land as such; it’s just unsure. This I’d bet will get better during the Fringe run. For the most part, be assured: Barococo plays with a pace and panache that make it a pastel parfait of frothy fun.

Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

Barococo plays through July 22, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater: Cradle – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.



People for Whom the World Spins and Turns

The boarding house play is a staple in theater. Assorted folks who might otherwise never cross paths are thrown together by a playwright who then grips us with their backstories, intertwined character arcs, big reveals, and badinage. Sometimes the setting is a rooming house (Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s Stage Door), a hotel (Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore), a flop house (Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré)…you get the idea. Perhaps the boarding house play is such a quintessentially American genre because we buy the melting pot idea abstractly but know how hard it is to get along.

Elle Marie Sullivan (Haley), Ayesha Gowie (Cheryl), Matthew Castleman (Steve), James J. Johnson (Daryl), and Kevin S. Boudreau (Ron) in “People for Whom the World Spins and Turns.” Photo by Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks.

The Essential Theatre is now presenting a world premiere play about five recovering addicts who are all in a kind of boarding house, a 28-day recovery center. Written by James J. Hsiao, MD, and directed by Founder/Artistic Director S. Robert Morgan, People for Whom the World Spins and Turns has all the best qualities of the classic boarding house drama: a miscellany of fascinating characters whose conflicts, quirks, and compulsions keep us riveted. But People for Whom the World Spins and Turns adds a twist from another classic genre: Once the story gets cranking, it becomes a wickedly clever whodunnit.

The mysterious culprit commits not a murder but rather an invidious breach of recovery program protocols. Someone—we don’t find out who till the stunner end—is planting addictive substances in the common room to make the other residents fail, to tempt them into falling off the wagon: a bottle of beer, pot-laced brownies, a bag of white powder. Multiple people are implicated with motives and means, and the suspense steadily builds.

Besides the sturdy script, what makes the show gripping is the caliber and intensity of the acting. Morgan’s brisk direction has the cast hopped up on so much energy that the combative patches of dialog ricochet and the intimate monologues hit hard.

Honesty in rehab is not only highly valued but essential. Each of the characters has a compelling story to tell, and each of the skilled actors seems to have lived each character’s life viscerally.

Steve (Matthew A. Castleman) is on staff and the group’s facilitator. His parents were killed in a car accident by a guy who was DUI. Steve turned to drugs in his depression. He’s been clean for three years but he knows how hard it is to quit.

Haley (Elle Marie Sullivan), a feisty college student, has been forced into rehab by her father as a condition of paying more tuition. Her mother died of breast cancer, on drugs to ameliorate the chemo pain. That got Haley started. She’s angry and flirty and acerbically astute (“Even when it comes to drugs, women suffer more.”)

Ron (Kevin S. Boudreau), a hotshot, driven lawyer, also doesn’t believe he belongs in rehab, but his firm has mandated it if he expects to make partner. He’s rich and can afford a pharmacopia of pricey drugs, which he deludedly believes he can indulge in without being impaired.

Daryl (James J. Johnson) was born a crack baby, was a drug runner as a kid, and continued to deal into young adulthood until he was using more than he could sell. He’s a regular relapser, been to rehab five times already, and is so much at home he brings a Bob Marley poster for his bedroom wall.

Cheryl (Ayesha Gowie) tells perhaps the most heartrending story. A boyfriend got her hooked then abandoned her (“He loved his dope more than he loved me”).  To pay for her habit, she sold her body. And four years ago she bore a son, whom she cannot see.

Elle Marie Sullivan (Haley), Matthew Castleman (Steve), Ayesha Gowie (Cheryl), Kevin S. Boudreau (Ron), and James J. Johnson (Daryl) in “People for Whom the World Spins and Turns.” Photo by Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks.

Set Designer April Joy Vester locates the characters’ self-disclosures within institutional gray walls. There’s a common area with kitchen, mismatched chairs, and a pool table where several games are played. Sound Designer Crescent R. Hayes offers inter-scene music by turns eerie and new agey. Costume Designer Luqman Salim provides the characters a catchall of casual lounge-around-home-home attire, complete with flip-flops and scuffies.

The characters vacillate between propping one another up with pep talks and bromides and undermining one another in anger and rancor. Lighting Designer Ian Claar transitions nicely between characters’ tense scenes together and their revelatory inner monologues addressed to the audience.

One learns a lot about addiction in People for Whom the World Spins and Turns, but it always feels organic, never like infotainment. And the excellence of theatrical craft on display in The Essential Theatre production makes it consistently engrossing and kind of a high.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

People for Whom the World Spins and Turns plays through July 15, 2018, at The Essential Theatre performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, SE, in Washington DC. Tickets are available online.


East of the River

Community engagement is a noble aspiration for a lot of theaters around town. The challenge is to make theater matter to folks who live in the nabe. To connect the institution to the community, to be responsive to their needs, not just the theater’s. To figure out how to build audiences through show-related local partnerships and such.

All sorts of community-engagement initiatives get tried. Some theaters’ efforts fare okay, some not so much. It’s a big deal and a thorny problem, especially in DC, where income inequality is worse than anywhere else in the U.S. And truth be told, most DC theater caters to those who have—even on those occasions when the show being produced is about those who have not.

Often overlooked is perhaps the most obvious community-engagement tactic: Find out what matters to the community already and then make theater out of it.

The cast of ‘East of the River’ in rehearsal. Photo by Star Johnson.

I witnessed an extraordinary instance of success at this: a one-night-only workshop of an original musical called East of the River, based on interviews with residents of Anacostia and presented to a capacity crowd in the black box at the Anacostia Arts Center by a fledgling project called the Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab. The talk-back/community conversation that followed was on fire. I cannot recall seeing a post-show audience as roused and revved up.

The idea began with Star Johnson, who’s a talent to watch. Upon learning about the Anacostia Arts Center Residency Incubator program, she put in an application to work with the local community to devise an original musical about Anacostia, which she would direct. The result was a one-act musical so alive with relatable characters, emotional specificity, musical integrity, lyrical felicity, and social-justice urgency that it felt like a mini Rent.

It was not a reviewable performance. Everyone was on book. But I can report that the material, the method of its creation, and the performers’ conviction made the evening galvanizing.

‘East of the River’ Writer/Director Star Johnson.

Johnson wrote the book and collaborated with others on lyrics and music (see credits below). The premise of the storyline is brilliant: It supposes that Whole Foods is going to open a store in Anacostia, which is one of DC’s largest food deserts (so-called because residents have no nearby access to healthy food). In fact, Whole Foods has no reported plans to do so, but that only makes the setup all the more a provocation.

And what’s remarkable is how many divergent community perspectives the musical represented. This was no one-note agitprop for or against gentrification.

A character named Alvin comes on like a hotshot in favor of the new store. He’s got an urban planning degree and he advocates zealously for the city’s plan to revitalize the neighborhood.

ALVIN: Look around, the city is evolving
Things are changing
People moving
Has to be a way to mix new with old

A character named Chris sees the downside:

CHRIS: Yeah, Al, well a Whole Foods opening means I need to get the hell out of Anacostia because that’s not what I value in my neighborhood. It’s gonna bring the kind of people that are afraid of the type of people who live here. And this doesn’t need to be a neighborhood based on fear.

Variations on that debate run throughout. In addition, there is some wonderfully sharp humor. For instance, a musical number based on “the oft-forgotten August Wilson play… Two Negros and a Big Box Store,” sung by Dee and Tam,

Keep your head down low
No eye contact
Be unassuming
Blend in…

They deliberate whether to wear their hoodies up or down. Knowing full well the risk, they decide to wear them up.

There are eloquent choral refrains, such as “When will the broken be whole again,” and anecdotes that ring painfully true, such as:

DEE: First time I ever went into a Starbucks alone, I was 14, in Dupont Circle and….my friends and I were accused of plotting to steal the tip jar. I’ve never stolen anything in my life. That shit stuck with me.


ALVIN: There’s nothing more hurtful than walking on MLK past a liquor store and the homeless man sitting there asking for change is the same kid you used to sit next to in class and you wonder – what happened?

In the all-company Finale, a character named Wanda solos on an anthem of resilience:

WANDA: Rivers form a barrier
No one’s gonna bury us
This is our city
Born and raised never went away
This is our city
No one’s gonna bury us
No one’s gonna take away
The beauty, the spirit
The grit, the soul, the roots, oh
No one’s gonna bury us
No one’s gonna bury us

East of the River was of the audience, by the audience, and for the audience. It was a case study in how theater can open community conversation artfully and authentically. All of DC theater—and all of DC for that matter—would do well to take note.

See NPR’s story on the production,
“Musical ‘East Of The River’ Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia”

Running Time: 35 minutes

A concert staging of East of the River played June 29, 2018, presented by The Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab performing at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC.

The Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab has announced a second performance of East of the River July 25 at 8 pm at Anacostia Arts Center. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and seating is limited. Tickets are available online. For inquiries, contact

Alvin: LJ Moses
Dee: Karen Elle
Yvonne: Patricia Williams Dugueye
Nikki: Brittney Sankofa
Wanda: Miriam Bowden
Tam: Preshona Ambri
Jazz: Alesia Ashley
Kel: Amber Waltz
Chris: Nicole Summons

Julian Johnson, Keyboard
Amber Waltz, Guitar
Boom Washington, Percussion
Musical Numbers
Introduction (Company)
Manchego Cheese (Nikki)
Becky and Bryce (Chris & Kel)
How Do You Get to Anacostia? (Tam & Jazz)
We Can’t Stop (Alvin)
Two Negros and a Big Box Store (Dee & Tam)
Out With the Old (Company)
Back At Me (Jazz)
Finale (Wanda)

Talk-back/community conversation moderated by Harvey Fitz
Book by Star Johnson
Lyrics by Star Johnson, Preshona Ambri, Alesia Ashley, with contributions from Sisi Reid
Music by Julian Johnson, Amber Waltz, Boom Washington, Star Johnson, and Preshona Ambri
Arrangements by Julian Johnson, Boom Washington, and Amber Waltz

Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab is a part of the Residency Incubator program at Anacostia Arts Center and sponsored by ARCH Development.


The Till Trilogy

The murderous race hate that killed young Emmett Till in 1955 is alive and well. The impunity with which white assailants get away with it is still much with us. And the irony is that the iconic injustice of Emmett Till’s horrific death is what shone a bright light on all that. His story is pivotal to U.S. history and central to #BlackLivesMatter. As a character says in the third part of this sweeping, impassioned, and poetic saga by Ifa Bayeza, the trial of Emmett Till’s white killers—who were acquitted, against all reason—was “the last battle of the Civil War” and “the first battle of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) in a photo taken by his mother December 25, 1954.

The Till Trilogy was given a concert reading over three evenings on the Lang stage as a Mosaic Theater Company special event. The first part, The Ballad of Emmett Till, has had several productions before, but this was the first time all three parts were presented together.  I was there not there to review, so what follows will not evaluate the actors’ performances (although they were, every one of them, laudable). Instead, I can report that even as readings “on book,” the three parts—stylistically and structurally distinct yet with narrative continuity and mesmerizing musicality of language—accumulate in the mind with indelible impact.

Part 1: The Ballad of Emmett Till
Written and directed by Ifa Bayeza

From first-hand accounts in interviews Bayeza conducted with people who knew Till, she composed The Ballad of Emmett Till to recount his last two weeks alive. Six actors play thirteen roles. What emerges most vividly is Till’s character, a dimension absent from the newspaper coverage but here given sympathetic reality. The jazz-like rhythmic language, cinematically fluid storytelling, and overlapping split scenes remind one of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem technique in For Colored Girls…, which ought not surprise: Bayeza and Shange are sisters and frequent collaborators.

Till, whose nickname is Bo, takes a trip from Chicago to Mississippi to visit his uncle and cousins in the summer of 1955. Before he goes, his mother, Mamie, admonishes him:

MAMIE: Mississippi’s not the same as here, Bo. It’s another place. Different. The white people are different. You don’t speak unless you are spoken to. And you say, “Yes Sir, yes M’am,” when you are.
BO: I already do that. I – I know how to be polite.
MAMIE: I’m not talking about that! If a white woman even approaches, you got to move off the sidewalk.
BO: You serious? That the silliest thing I ever heard of.
MAMIE: I’m very serious.
ENSEMBLE: You. Do Not. Look. At them.

That exchange proves chillingly auspicious. Later in the play comes the scene where Bo, buying some bubble gum for a dime in a store from a white woman, Caroline Bryant, does not look away from her, politely puts the coin in her hand. This minor, innocent incident Carolyn describes in a racially inflammatory version to her husband Roy and his twin brother Ray. They then go looking for the boy, bludgeon him to death, make his face a mass of bloody pulp, and drop his body in the river. The decision by Emmett’s mother to leave his coffin open at the funeral, for all the world to see, ignited outrage across the country that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.

In Bayeza’s telling, Emmet is a relatable fifties teenager, smitten with a girl he meets, hanging out with buddies, got his eye on some new shoes. He’s got a stutter, he’s socially awkward, he’s naive about a lot, but he’s smart and idealistic. This exchange with his Uncle Mose, whom he visits in Mississippi, gives a glimpse of him, and a distills a bit of the play’s rich idiom.

BO: Mama say I’m a Seeker.
MOSE: What is it that you seek?
BO: Everything! Excitement! Life! The the the BIGNESS of it, the wholeness of it.
I wanna do things. I wanna see things. I wanna feel things. I wanna know things!
MOSE: … Cherish what you have, son. What you got. I seen a wall of flesh, seven deep, nine across, terrible winds, buildings blown like branches, people hung to trees, just leafless twigs. They put us to work on the levy – and when the water began to wash over, they made us to lie down and form a human levy of a hundred men. The high water come, drownin’ men, the pressure, squeezing the life out th’others. Bodies buried in the clay. Children, women, strong men, all the same. Gone. Lost. I wanted to bring them back. I wanted to make them whole. My people swept away, swept away, swept away. All the time, over and over, swept away – torn from they land, torn from each other – I was not gonna let that happen. I was gonna hold this ground. I was gonna plant myself, right here. This land was promised. We worked it. We earned it. I thought I’mo lose it again. I can’t. I can’t. I prayed for an answer. A sign. How I’mo do this? … Then here you come. The Seeker.

Playwright/Director Ifa Bayeza.

Part 2:  Benevolence
Written and directed by Ifa Bayeza

In this part there are four actors, and the play is in two acts. The first is about a white couple, Carolyn and Roy Bryant (introduced in Part 1). The second is about a black couple, Beulah (Bea) and Clinton Melton. Whereas The Ballad of Emmett Till is drawn from interviews and research, Benevolence is “an imagined story evoked from a real one.” Because it focuses in emotional closeup on those two relationships, it is the easiest of the three parts to follow in a staged reading and was as a consequence the most moving.

Act One dramatically establishes—in domestic, trial, and dream scenes—Carolyn’s resentment of her husband Roy for having to mind the store and Roy’s constant assault of her with misogynist rage. His abuse is verbal and visceral. He demands that he tell her what happened when the black boy came into the store. Among the insults he hurls at her: “You ain’t nothing but a runner-up cheap cottonseed whore.” The play makes clear that this is the contempt-filled context in which Carolyn fabricates the story that set Roy and Ray on the trail of Bo. Afterward, Roy tells Carolyn, “We killed a niggah fuh you”—as if their shared race hate was all that could ameliorate the animosity between them.

Act Two follows the relationship of a married couple, Bea and Melton, from the point of view of the community on the periphery of the Till murder and trial. We learn of Bea and Melton’s falling in love, we learn of the tension between them when after she has borne him children he fathers another with another woman. And most wrenchingly we learn what the acquittal of Till’s killers meant to them, as in this angry and grief-struck exchange:

BEA: Don’t nobody care bout no dirt poor nigguhs like us. Some high yellah light n bright kid from Chicago show up, got the NAACP, national news. Where they at—where they at huh, when somebody disappear in the swamp, some gal get snatched from the side of the road, some stranger dangling from a tree with his manhood stuck down his throat. Where was they at then?! Emmett Till, Emmett Till, I’m sick of hearin’ about him! Least he had a name. The bayou can’t hold all the dead bodies buried out there. No name nobodies.
MELTON: Like us? … It don’t have to be this way, Bea. We outnumber them. If we stand up, we got a chance to change.
BEA: We ain’t got a chance in hell. They got guns, Melton, they got the law, they got the power. Always had and always will. We only got each other, our family, our children. The future here with me.
MELTON: It’s not enough.
BEA: It’s all we’ve got.

Though Bea and Melton are based on real people, in Bayeza’s eloquent evocation, they come to represent young Emmett’s entire black family.

Part 3: That Summer in Sumner
By Ifa Bayeza
Directed by Victoria Murray Baatin

Part 3 tracks the trial. Based on the actual transcript, it is necessarily more of a judicial procedural and therefore somewhat less character-driven drama than were Parts 1 and 2.  But in a stunning touch, Bayeza has Bo reappear throughout—the boy who came into our hearts in Part 1, given a sure place in shared memory thanks to this epic triptych docu-poem in his honor.

Keith Royal Smith, who read the role of Emmett Till in parts 1 and 3 of “The Till Trilogy” at Mosaic Theater Company.

Missing from Bayeza’s narrative is the historical coda in which in 2007 Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted to Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University professor, that when she said Emmett grabbed her hand and was sexually crude to her—testimony that persuaded the all-white, all-male jurors to acquit Till’s killers—she was flat-out lying.

In this era of reckless disregard for truth and facts, driven often by ethnic animus, Ifa Bayeza’s The Till Trilogy stands as an essential theatrical call to our nation to reckon with its racist past.

And Mosaic Theater Company—which can be counted on to be a beacon of conscience—is to be commended for giving this full work a hearing. From the looks of Mosaic’s next season—collectively titled How Hope Happens—that beacon will be ablaze.

The Casts

Part 1: The Ballad of Emmett Till
Woman 1/ Miss Mamie/Simeon/ Caroline: Billie Krishawn
Woman 2/Mamoo/Heluise/Miss Lizabeth: Erica Chamblee
Emmett: Keith Royal Smith
Man 1/Uncle Mose/Johnny B./H.L.: Jason B. Mclntosh
Man 2/Wheeler/Bo II/ Roy Bryant: Thony Mena
Man 3/Bo III/Maurice/Ruthie May/Milam: Christian R. Gibbs

Part 2:  Benevolence
Woman 1: Caroline Bryant: Betsy Helmer
Man 1: Ray Bryant, Roy Bryant, Mr. Breeland, Dave Killingworth: Drew Kopas
Man 2: Clinton Melton, Medgar Evers: Christian R. Gibbs
Woman 2: Beulah “Bea” Melton, Mary Johnson, Delores Grisham: Mia Ellis

Part 3: That Summer in Sumner
Jimmy Hicks/Emmett Till/Judge Swango/Bl Mims: Keith Royal Smith
Mamie Till Bradley/Cloytde Murdock/Amanda Bradley/Ruby Hurley/Adline Loggins: Bianca Lipford
Dr. Howard/Mose Wright: Michael Anthony Williams
Ernest Withers/Willie Reed/Congressman Giggs/Butler: Christian R. Gibbs
Caroline Bryant/JJ Breeland/Bobby Hodges: Betsy Helmer
JW Milam/Sheriff Strider/ JW Kellum Featherstone/Chester Miller: Nick Torres
Roy Bryant/Special Prosecutor David Smith Porteous/ Bailiff: Drew Kopas
Stage Manager (for all three parts): Ronika S. Harris

The Till Trilogy was read onstage June 12 (Part 1: The Ballad of Emmett Till), June 18 (Part 2:  Benevolence), and June 23, 2018 (Part 3: That Summer in Sumner), at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002.

For information about Mosaic Theater Company’s 2018-2019 season, How Hope Happens, click here.