Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: August, 2018

Happy Ending

Happy Ending is a one-act satirical comedy written in the 1960s by Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company. He had written an op-ed for the New York Times called “American Theatre: for Whites Only?” that prompted funding and other support for the new company. The NEC’s mission was to create theater by black playwrights from the black point of view primarily (not exclusively) for black audiences. It’s easy to forget what a radical notion about representation that was back then. For that memorial reason alone, the revival of Happy Ending just opened at Anacostia Playhouse is well worthy of attention.

But do not come expecting a museum piece—because this Happy Ending is fresh, funny, and bursting with song-and-dance pizzazz. Yes, song and dance! Director Ella Davis has juiced up this modern classic with a riot of musical numbers. Some of the tunes that embellish the zany storyline are familiar (“What a difference a day makes”); more are brand-new. As composed by Marion Johnson and performed by a spirited cast with big voices, they get the joint jumping. And by the time of the show’s happy ending (no spoiler: the title gives it away), Ward’s comic gem has jumped out of history into the hysterical present.

Krinessa Pinket (Vi) and Jennifer Lee (Ellie) in ‘Happy Ending.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

Happy Ending tells the story of two shrewd black maids, both sisters: Vi (Krinessa Pinkett) and Ellie (Jennifer Lee). For years they have worked for a wealthy white couple, the Harrisons. As the play opens they have just been let go, though, because Mr. and Mrs. H are getting a divorce. Vi and Ella are beside themselves with sobbing. And the reason for their over-the-top weeping is the comic twist of the play: All this time they have been engaged in a cagey embezzlement scheme, lifting food, clothing, and other items of value from the Harrisons, who own too much to notice. “We’re only getting back what we deserve,” says one. It’s a kind of DIY reparations scheme, and it touches a nerve of economic injustice that Ward ingeniously connects to the funny bone.

The play takes place in a ’50s Harlem kitchen—stylish in Set and Lighting Designer P. Precious Porter’s rendering—with green walls, blue appliances, black-and-white checkerboard floor, and, as we learn, a freezer and pantry packed with pilfered food. The interplay between Pinkett and Lee is priceless; their broad comedic skills pull us into Vi and Ellie’s hilarious pathos right away.

Krinessa Pinket (Vi), Jennifer Lee (Ellie, standing), and Greg Watkins (Junie) in ‘Happy Ending.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

Their nephew Junie enters (Greg Watkins), having gone for a job he didn’t get. Somewhat surprisingly, Watkins, who cuts a charmingly dapper figure, begins doing smooth dance moves to a song of resilience and self-determination—”I’m black and I’m proud. I’m a strong man walking,” he belts—and even more surprisingly, he plays it straight to the audience. From then on, the show lifts out of fourth-wall staging, shifts into musical comedy gear, and takes off in a flurry of feel-good mirth.

A fourth character, Ellie’s beau Arthur (Charles Harris), shows up in time to join in a showstopping celebratory musical closer when the story’s promised happy ending is revealed. It’s hard to imagine Happy Ending ever ending with more upbeat joy.

Charles Harris (Arthur), Jennifer Lee (Ellie), Krinessa Pinket (Vi), and Greg Watkins (Junie) in ‘Happy Ending.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

Happy Ending is a co-production between the Anacostia Playhouse and the All About the Drama Theater Group. Throughout, Costume Designer Luqman Salim’s clothes reflect the period but with a subtly fresh eye, as befits the entire production’s inventive reimagining.

Before the play proper begins, period jazz plays as we see a slideshow of black-and-white photographs of ’50s Harlem street scenes and notables such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lorraine Hansberry, Count Basie. It’s a very well crafted flashback by Sound and Projection Designer Tewodross Melchishua Williams that aptly locates the story in its time and place and soberly reminds us that the Civil Rights Movement was still just starting out.

These projections are followed by a less successful audio-visual enhancement, a six-minute film called “A Day in the Life of Vi & Ellie—Meet the Harrisons.” In it, Writer/Director Davis stages the backstory scene in which Vi and Ellie are dismissed. Only referred to in Ward’s script, that scene is here played out literally, and somewhat stiffly, with Pat Martin appearing as Mr. Harrison, Adele Robey as Mrs. Harrison, and Pinkett and Lee as Vi and Ellie. While the film does spell out the story’s inciting action (and arguably makes the play’s early exposition more accessible), the flat, forced tone misleads our expectations because the play that follows is actually a cunning bundle of fun.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Happy Ending plays through August 25, 2018, presented by the Anacostia Playhouse and All About the Drama Theater Group at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

 

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The Story of the Gun

Mike Daisey’s monolog The Story of the Gun is a show both hilarious and sobering, and he begins it with a wry riff on who we are who have come to see it. As he joshingly reminds us, we are liberal theatergoers, meaning that in the national conversation about guns we’re way to the left. Fair enough, he’s got us pegged. Except, he adds dead serious, there’s important stuff entirely missing from that conversation—stuff Daisey’s going to tell us. And damn, does he.

Read my interview, Mike Daisey Takes Aim at ‘The Story of the Gun’ in America

I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going—in fact, I earnestly urge the opposite—but at the end of this evening of laughing my head off, I left kind of bummed. I found my brain bursting with new information and understanding, all of which could be summed up in this: The gun problem in America is even worse than I knew.

Mike Daisey, creator and performer of ‘The Story of the Gun.’

During the show, Daisey explains how the United States was “built on the gun” and how “guns are the heart of who America is.” There’s no way not to take what Mike Daisey’s saying as damning news. But there’s no public provocateur in the nation better able to deliver damning news so enjoyably.

He promises to block out from his presentation anything we might see on CNN or anything from the flame wars between gun-rights and gun-control proponents. He wants to avoid, he says, “the buzzwordification of everything” so as to get in touch with “the fuckedupness.” Guy’s got a gritty gift of gab.

What follows is Daisey’s sweeping narrative about the invention of gun technology and its eventual use by the “pasty white people” who arrived in the New (to them) World to murder millions of people who were here already. In Daisey’s unsparing telling, the shameful saga continues with the use of guns to terrorize shipped-over black people. Addressing the audience directly as if we are the America that did this—as anyone white and woke could surmise we are—Daisey’s voice darkens. “You genocided, you enslaved at the point of a gun,” he says. And the case he makes that America could never have come into being without the gun is staggeringly irrefutable.

He goes on a fascinating tangent (actually, all his tangents are fascinating) to explain how the Bill of Rights got tacked on to the Constitution: it was because angry militia members did not trust the ruling class that wrote the darn thing and demanded the right to armed revolution if need be. The framers knew they needed to accede to this gun-wielding citizenry or else the whole document was doomed. Thus was enshrined the right to bear arms—a right exercised initially by militias in every town locked and loaded to shoot natives and black people.

As Daisey points out, the gun is of no use at all today for its original purpose: “The gun doesn’t stop the government from imposing its will anymore.” Then, he dryly observes, the people who back then agitated for gun rights to keep a check on the government would not belong today to the NRA. They’d join the ACLU.

One of the things I especially admire about Daisey’s work is that he does not evade the sexual politics of his topic. Instead, he goes there, both humbly (because he is a straight white male) and outraged (because men). He went there in The Trump Card in an excoriating takedown of the shameless pussy grabber. And he goes there in The Story of the Gun: “The gun is a very male weapon, very phallic,” he says. “It’s a man’s way of forcing his way on the world.”

There’s more, lots more. His revelations about the NRA—how it built its corporate identity through fear and racial animosity—are shocking. His respect for the students who survived the Parkland shooting and have become activists is inspiring—they were not yet trained to think change is impossible.

I know of no theater artist with Mike Daisey’s power to synthesize and distill centuries of history through a clear-eyed lens of politicized conscience and still keep his rapt audience laughing and learning and in the palm of his hand.

Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, with no intermission.

The Story of the Gun plays through August 9, 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.