Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: August, 2018

Marie and Rosetta

I could well make this a one-word review: Wow. After the sensational opening of Marie and Rosetta at Mosaic last night, wow was first word I heard from everyone I talked to, and wow was the first word on my lips as well. This play with music featuring phenomenal performances by four black women is so enrapturing and overwhelming in soul sisterhood and singing power, it leaves one speechless.

The production’s two shining actor-vocalists are Roz White and Ayana Reed. Together they are incandescing in a show that has smash hit written on it in starlight.

Ayana Reed (Marie) and Roz White (Rosetta) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

White plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the legendary singer-guitarist who in the 1940s merged gospel, jazz, and blues and originated what became known as rock ’n’ roll. It was a swinging, soaring, irresistible synthesis of the sanctified and the sensual. No one before Sister Rosetta Tharp had done what she did. Among those who later acknowledged her importance and influence were Little Richard, Elvis Pressley, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. Yet for decades after her death in 1973, her contribution to music history and culture was forgotten. Only recently has it been given its due. Just this year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Playwright George Brant sets the story in 1946 as Rosetta, then 31, rehearses with her protégée, Marie Davis (Reed), on the night before they embark on tour together. They are in a funeral parlor; this being the segregated South, they could get no other lodging. “We are Northern Negroes,” Rosetta says. “We got to be invisible.”

Marie, 23, is freaked out at the prospect of spending the night there. Set Designer Andrew R. Cohen has made the space opulently somber, with three caskets upstage. But an upright piano promises uplift for the living soon as Marie and Rosetta get their hands on the keys.

From left: Ayana Reed (Marie), Ronnette F. Harrison (Piano), Roz White (Rosetta), and Barbara Roy Gaskins (Guitar) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Actually White and Reed don’t do their own playing. Director Sandra L. Holloway had the inspired idea to position a real pianist on stage, and the superbly nuanced artistry of Ronnette F. Harrison syncs with both characters like a glove. Similarly, when Rosetta picks up her guitar, the strings are fingered by the rocking Barbara Roy Gaskins, stage left. With the quadruple threat of White, Reed, Harrison, and Gaskins under the masterful musical direction of e’Marcus Harper-Short, Marie and Rosetta turns into a soul-stirring exaltation of musical greats then and now.

White’s driving delivery of the show’s first song, “This Train,” got the opening-night audience revved. But it was Reed’s stunning delivery of the second song, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?,” that got goosebumps going. And in the distance between those two songs, one secular and one sacred, the quick-witted script unfolds the engrossing tension between Marie’s pious reverence for the church and gospel and Rosetta’s ease in more worldly venues and genres. Rosetta needs Marie’s piety to get back in the graces of audiences who frowned on Rosetta’s gigs at the Cotton Club and other profane places. But Rosetta also needs Marie to fully share the stage and not be backup. So as the show progresses, Rosetta accustoms Marie to her ways—telling Marie to lose the “vibrator” (vibratto) and showing her what swinging, swiveling hips are all about. And Holloway’s choreographic gifts are on delightful display as White and Reed strut, jump, and shimmy through their electrifying duets. Watching Marie’s transition from trembling churchmouse to Rosetta’s amped-up peer is one of many joys in this show, and never more hilarious than when they partner on the raunchy “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.”

MarieAndRosetta-Press-9 small

Roz White (Rosetta) and Ayana Reed (Marie) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Technically the production is impeccable. Lighting Designer Johnathan Alexander respects the drama with impressive subtlety and nuance. Sound Designer and Engineer Gordon Nimmo-Smith balances voices and instruments with such clarity and authenticity we are never even aware of amplification. And Costume Designer Michael A. Murray gives Marie and Rosetta each a garment that elegantly goes with the story flow and enhances the dance.

There are about a dozen musical numbers in the show—some high points being Rosetta’s dextrous guitar work on “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” the classic “Rock Me,” and the tender “Up Above My Head,” whose simple lyrics sum up Rosetta’s faith in the hereafter:

Up above my head
I hear music in the air
And I really do believe
There’s a Heaven somewhere

Meanwhile in the here and now, over on H Street, there’s a heaven going on upstairs at the Atlas, and the music in the air there has the joint jumping.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Marie and Rosetta plays through September 30, 2018, at Mosaic Theater Company performing 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.

Playlist for Marie and Rosetta on Spotify by Mosaic Theater Company

The Interstellar Ghost Hour

Here’s an idea for a grad lit student in search of a dissertation topic:  “Bewilderment and Brilliance in the Theater of Kathleen Akerley.” That thought flipped through my head after I watched The Interstellar Ghost Hour, this year’s August offering from Longacre Lea, the artistic home of prolific local playwright and director Kathleen Akerley.

I have followed and written about Akerley’s work for a few years—Fear (2016), the double bill How We Died of Disease-Related Illness and Bones in Whispers (2015), Night Falls on the Blue Planet (2015), and Pol Pot & Associates, LLP (2014)—so I know to expect it to be wildly original, dense with ideas, and cerebrally challenging. That said, I found myself unusually flummoxed by her latest.

Christine Alexander as Iris in The Interstellar Ghost Hour. Photo courtesy of Longacre Lea.

Christine Alexander as Iris in ‘The Interstellar Ghost Hour.’ Photo by Séamus Miller.

On the one hand, if I were given a comprehension quiz about The Interstellar Ghost Hour, I’ve got a feeling I would fail. A young woman named Iris travels through spacetime as an astronaut in order to make peace with her dead parents. She does meet up with them, as she remembers them and as they were before she was born, and she does have strained conversations with them. That much of the play, even though presented as sci-fi, has a recognizable relationship narrative.  But along the way, Iris also meets up with a surreal assortment of spectral and telecast figures, ancient and modern, some who show up on a huge television screen, some who appear on stage, and some who transmogrify back and forth. They seem to have no discernible connection to Iris’s motivation to visit her parents in the afterlife. They’re really more like tangential riffs on abstract notions of nourishment and discipline, said to be the sine qua non of good parenting. Plus Iris appears as three different iterations of herself. Next to all this disorientation, Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole was linear lucidity.

Read David Siegel’s review, which gives a terrific overview of all the goings on.

On the other hand, though I was frequently baffled, I felt a hunch that The Interstellar Ghost Hour may be brilliant. Existential insights and aphorisms fly by with dizzying portent, at a speed that’s the consciousness equivalent of film in fast motion. I can’t say I got it, but I would never aver there was nothing to get. So with that in mind, I decided to mine the text for insights into Akerley’s distinctive technique.

What stood out for me first was the richly poetic diction, notably in Iris’s monologs. Here, for instance, is one of the Irises talking about traveling into space. It is lyricism nearly as transporting as the experience she describes:

ALT IRIS: When I left the atmosphere of this planet — I think you understand now how much you don’t understand that sentence — I finally realized there might be nothing in front of me. I might be simply flying out into ice and nothing: no touchstones from astronomy books, no sights that would be alien in their scope but familiar in their beauty, just darkness, ice, and nothing until I ran out of fuel and died in silence. I could’ve turned back right then, I still would’ve been welcome home as an adventurer, it still would’ve made an amazing story. But there’s something in me that was more willing to possibly travel for nothing, into nothing, for all my days remaining nothing, rather than to come back safely and talk about it with my feet on the floor and the sky over my head. The sky is now part of the definition of me, because I grew out of up and down. I’m still in the sky.

Though Akerley is obviously averse to milking moments for their emotion—no sooner has Iris said something touching but what the script skitters off someplace else—there are passages that if time took a breath could break your heart. This is especially true when Iris gives voice to what has been unspoken between her and her parents. Here, in yet another version of herself, Iris addresses her father, who in life was capable of both beating her and tucking her in gently at night:

GHOST IRIS: I loved you. Isn’t that amazing? I loved you when there was no reason to other than I was too small to know how people should behave. I loved you . . . I still love you. But I’m willing to bet you wish I’d mourned you differently. I’m willing to bet if you had a chance you’d hit the restart so you could hug me more often than you hit me, so that I could love you like a daughter and not like a forgiving friend, so that I would have punched the universe in the face to keep it from taking you.

[T]here are three versions of you now and I can’t do anything about that but accept it. There’s the guy who did the cruelest things I’ve ever experienced and I don’t know what to think about him, and there’s the you who was my friend but who was still a coward about his mistakes but still, my good friend, and he died, and there’s the you I think you are now, big enough in time and space to be all your good traits and none of your bad, but I can’t ever know that you in human time which means I can’t know that you really at all and I can’t even really be sure, Dad, neither can you, that if you somehow got zapped back into your body you wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. And thanks to you I will always be someone who thinks love is just the tool I have to use to fix a relationship I didn’t ask for and I didn’t break.

Christine Alexander as Iris in ‘The Interstellar Ghost Hour.’ Photo by Séamus Miller.

The fact that the deep well of emotion I can now read in Iris’s monologs barely registered for me during the performance seems a consequence of Akerley’s skip-to-something-else technique. The script’s brisk rhythm contraindicates empathy with its own main character. This may be inadvertent, but I surmise it is intentional.

The reason I surmise that has to do with the second big thing that stood out for me when I read The Interstellar Ghost Hour. Not only are there quick cuts between scenes (some of which are inexplicable till later); there are literally quick cuts interlinearly. There will be passages of dialog in which the transitional connection between speeches is like a paragraph was excised. Actors of the high caliber Akerley casts presumably fill in the lacunae in rehearsal. But when the scene goes by lickety-split, it can seem like non-sequitur after non-sequitur.

That said, there are shining gems that flicker by—like poetic zingers inviting us to collaborate in the making of meaning. Here, for instance, is an exchange between Iris and a Chef, a character from the ancient past who has been giving a televised cooking lesson using a recipe devoid of nutrition. Chef challenges Iris with an odd multiple-choice question, then…

IRIS: Which answer will make me understand what’s going on here?
CHEF: Ah! But understand in which part of your brain?
IRIS: Um, the part I think of when I wonder whether I’ve understood something?
CHEF: That happens everywhere in your brain.
IRIS: You can’t know something unless you can explain it.
CHEF: So intellectual apprehension as opposed to intuitive awareness as opposed to muscle memory?
IRIS: I’m taking this down to yes/no questions.

And there, in a nutshell, is the conundrum of understanding what the entire play seems to be toying with.

Akerley’s cinematic intuitions are on prominent display in the video segments that pop up on screen. But there’s something about Akerley’s writing in The Interstellar Ghost Hour that is cinema-inspired in another way as well. It has to do with the pace of ideation on the page and the rate of iteration on stage. It is a technique that gives the effect of film frames flickering by fast because in-between frames have been skipped. This induces the mental apprehension that here is a sui generis universe designed by a visionary intelligence. By happenstance said creator is at times impatient with ordinary mortals’ capacity for comprehension and antipathetic to feelings that linger long enough to be felt. But the feelings are there. And sense is not absent.

Thus the brilliant and sometimes bewildering theater of Kathleen Akerley, DC’s preeminent outré auteur.

Running time: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

The Interstellar Ghost Hour plays through September 9, 2018, at Longacre Lea performing at The Callan Theatre at The Catholic University’s Drama Complex – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. To reserve tickets, go online.


In the Closet

“It gets better” is the premise and promise of a multimedia campaign that since 2010 has tried to offer hope and encouragement to LGBTQ+ youth. The message can be life-saving. Nearly all such youth at some point despair because they cannot see a future for themselves. The new play In the Closet by Siegmund Fuchs puts that adage to the acid test, playing out the parable through real-life-time, through times that are bad not better. The engrossing result is a stirring multigenerational comedy about self-worth and self-acceptance that gives moving new meaning to gay coming of age.

Director H. Lee Gable is also artistic director of Rainbow Theatre Project, a six-year-old company that has never before staged the world premiere of a script. “I personally identify with this play a lot,” Gable writes in a program note. “In many ways it is my life.” Judging from the audience reaction on opening night, In the Closet is going to hit home for many others.

Christopher Janson (Man #2) and Tim Caggiano (Man #1) in ‘In the Closet.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

The playwright calls the play “a metaphysical comedy,” and its storytelling takes place in what the youngest character calls “a highly functional closet”—because it is equipped with a kitchen. The setting is not literal. “It’s a metaphor,” says the oldest; “run with it.” And Set Designer Greg Stevens has imagined the figurative space with bright, whimsical black-and-white cartoons of Container Store shelving stage left and right and blazing white florescent-lit clothes hanging in neat rows on racks.

Dramaturgically this notional setting proves to be one of the playwright’s two genuine strokes of genius. (The other I’ll get to.) As the play proceeds, the closet functions ever more eloquently and persuasively as an existential frame of mind made tangible on stage—not unlike the mysterious room in which Jean-Paul Sartre set No Exit.

The program identifies the four characters as Man #1, who is in his sixties, Man #2, in his forties; Man #3, in his twenties; and Man #4, eighteen. As Fuchs introduces them to us one by one, we see they are all wearing variations on the same theme: casual blue shirts and denim jeans (Stevens also designed the costumes). As the play opens our eyes to what exactly their relationship is to one another, a wonderfully nuanced texture of hilarity and poignancy unfolds.

The oldest (a delightfully blunt Tim Caggiano) is in the closet because his husband has cancer, and the institutions for treatment and elder care are unwelcoming of same-sex next of kin.

The fortysomething (a fascinatingly fraught Christopher Janson) is in the closet because he is having panic attacks because he is still single and loveless and the gay community is unwelcoming of men his age.

The twentysomething (an impressively adroit Zachary Dittami) is in the closet because he has been raped by two men. In the real world he is testifying at the trial (still bandaged and bruised from the assault), and the prosecutor has told him to pose as straight because juries don’t believe gay men.

The eighteen-year-old (a winningly wide-eyed Patrick Joy) is in the closet because he has just gone to his first gay bar, just hooked up for the first time and had sex with a man, and now is filled with shame and remorse mixed with memories of newfound, long-imagined pleasure.

Zachary Dittami (Man #3) and Patrick Joy (Man #4) in ‘In the Closet.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

The narratives that Fuchs weaves from these four lives engage us in a profound drama of ideas and emotions. The men each have flashback scenes, set off stunningly by Sound Designer Cresent Haynes’s music tracks and Lighting Designer James Morrison color shifts. For instance, the eighteen-year-old has a monologue about his first time that in Joy’s delivery is achingly beautiful. And the twenty-something has a flashback replaying in gripping detail his testimony at the trial and the actual details of his rape. The full ensemble takes part: Dittami as the victim/witness, Caggiano as the judge, and Caggiano and Janson as the prosecution and defense attorneys. It is a knockout scene.

“We’re constantly putting ourselves in and out of closets,” as one man says, giving objective credence to this subjective state of mind. “I actually convinced myself I’d never come back here,” says another.

There’s a big reveal at the end of Act One that I wish I could give away because it’s the playwright’s other stroke of genius. As a dramatic device, it not only occasions some of the play’s most sublime humor (the play is packed with laughs); it also invites us into what is most personal and moving at the heart of the play.

Tim Caggiano (Man #1) and Zachary Dittami (Man #3) in ‘In the Closet.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

Ultimately In the Closet really does affirm that “it gets better”—but in unexpected ways and with a lived-in, life-long reality check. And it is precisely because of that longitudinal honesty, combined with generous wisdom and gentle wit, that many who have their own closet story to tell will here find healing.

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

In the Closet plays through September 15, 2018 at Rainbow Theatre Project performing at the DC Arts Center— 2438 18th Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.


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.


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.