Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: October, 2018

The Agitators

“Do you still believe there can be a country for all?”

When that blunt question comes up in The Agitators—Mat Smart’s deeply affecting play about the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass—one almost has to catch one’s breath. For that question not only challenged those two great justice fighters; it is the question that tests our nation still.

In Mat Smart’s powerful telling, what goes down between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass goes way beyond bio-drama. Here we see two noble seekers of equality and hear heartstrings of the history they left unfinished.

Marni Penning as Susan B. Anthony and Ro Boddie as Frederick Douglass in ‘The Agitators.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Some may already know in outline the play’s reality-based plot: In life, Anthony and Douglass were family friends. They made common cause in the Abolition movement, having come to it from different standpoints. She was white, a Quaker. He was black, an escaped slave. What mattered was not whether they abhorred slavery for the same reason; what mattered was ending it. So it was that in their shared passion for equality—and in mutual regard of their respective gifts as writers, orators, and agitators—they forged an uncommon friendship.

After the Civil War ended slavery, Anthony and Douglass turned their attention to what both hoped would be universal suffrage. Their allyship was fractured, however, over the 15th Amendment, which would enfranchise only black men, and neither white nor black women. Douglass, from his standpoint as a black man, advocated for the amendment, believing it a more achievable objective than voting rights for women. From her standpoint as a woman, Anthony was betrayed, and their political falling out was bitter. He accused her of accepting funding from a racist; she accused him of accepting funding from a misogynist. They stopped communicating. But after the 15th Amendment passed, Douglass dedicated himself to agitating for women’s suffrage shoulder to shoulder with Anthony. They kept at it the rest of their lives. Their friendship and appreciation of each other resumed. (Women finally got the vote long after both had died.)

But don’t come expecting an archival costume pageant. The production of The Agitators now playing at Mosaic, under the wildly imaginative direction of Kenyatta Rogers, is a rapturous mashup of musical and staging styles that blows the dust off history like there’s no yesterday.

Marni Penning as Susan B. Anthony and Ro Boddie as Frederick Douglass in ‘The Agitators.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

The eclectic incidental music includes such period tunes as “Song of the Abolitionist” then fast-forwards to “It’s a Man’s World” and “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves,” along with orchestral instrumentals, violin solos, rap, and more. Some scenes even take place as shadow plays, dance, and quasi Kabuki. The entire show is a visual and aural astonishment.

Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson fills the house with effects so virtuosically intense—pounding heartbeats, screeching train—that they achieve the stature of another character in the play.  Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson devises two mobile units, one for each principal’s study, that join to be other places. The action is framed by a gray bas-relief proscenium, and from everywhere hang billowing sheer white panels like diaphanous dustcovers. Lighting Designer Alberto Segarra deftly deploys old-time footlights along with eye-popping strobes. And Projections Designer James Morrison animates the display with locomotive steam, flames, and captions for the Deaf and hard of hearing.

As written and performed, both leads are personable and at the same time imposing, easily code-switching to their iconic characters’ rhetoric. Ro Boddie plays a robust Douglass, down to earth in daily life yet capable of delivering Douglass’s elevated diction with exhilarating verve. Marni Penning plays a genteel, genial Anthony, less stern than one would suppose from photos, and somewhat given to melodrama. But when she chides Douglass for his paternalistic treatment of his wife Anna (who never learned to read), her spot-on reproof meets a murmur of approval from the audience. Though the two are not quite evenly matched in stage stature—one can better picture Boddie’s bold Douglass galvanizing a crowd on the lecture circuit than one can imagine Penning’s circumspect Anthony giving such a speech—the two are absolutely each other’s equal in convincingness of conscience. When Douglass urges Anthony, “Use your words as weapons for moral change,” Boddie and Penning leave no doubt their characters both know what depth of conviction it takes to do so.

Costume Designer Amy MacDonald renders Anthony’s and Douglass’s wardrobes with a fascinating subtext to the play: the very unequal freedom in garments worn by women and men at the time. MacDonald gives Douglass dapper shoes, slacks, and waistcoats that Boddie can stride about in effortlessly. Anthony’s heavy floor-length gowns, by contrast, have so many restrictive underlayers that Penning sometimes appears less attired than upholstered. One cannot help but be impressed that Anthony traveled from town to town so weighted down and overdressed.

Adana Paul as Ensemble, Marni Penning as Susan B. Anthony, Ro Boddie as Frederick Douglass, and Josh Adams as Ensemble in ‘The Agitators.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Rogers adds an ensemble of two actors not originally in the script, Adanna Paul and Josh Adams, who sometimes appear as mentioned characters (Paul as Douglass’s dutiful wife Anna, Adams as a menacing white man), sometimes shove set pieces around, sometimes dance to Elena Velasco’s expressionistic choreography. They are a pleasant presence.

The Agitators brings home one of the most emotionally fraught contradictions in the cause of social justice: What is the tradeoff when one pursues a tactic that doesn’t completely live up to one’s ideals? (“Equality piece by piece” Douglass calls it.) What is the cost of never compromising on principle if that means never getting anything done? Douglass makes the point by telling Stanton a fable a la Aesop about a huge oak tree that is felled in a storm while willowy reeds that bend in the wind survive.

Even more movingly, The Agitators asks whether this can ever be a country for all by asking the underlying question: Will Americans ever have the united strength to fight in the interests of one another as much as we fight in the interest of ourselves?

Incisively linking America’s past and present through two monumental lives, The Agitators propels us as citizen theatergoers into the pulsing and problematic heart of our still-far-from-perfect union. What Mosaic Theater has achieved here is purpose-filled playmaking at its finest. It shows not only then. It illuminates now.

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

The Agitators plays through November 25, 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.

During every performance of The Agitators, captions showing dialog and descriptions of the sound design will be projected on the set for the Deaf and hard of hearing.

 

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Long Way Down

Long Way Down, adapted from the renowned young adult novel in verse by Jason Reynolds, is told in the voice of a 15-year-old named Will and performed by the prodigiously talented Justin Weaks. He is on stage alone for just over an hour. The story he tells is gripping, its content almost too unsettling for young adults. The other characters he evokes are vibrant and distinct; the poetic language he speaks is ablaze, as vivid as any I’ve heard on stage. Long Way Down in all its qualities is a one-act drama so good that grownup theatergoers could easily make it a hit. Yet here in Kennedy Center’s Family Theater there are young people, lots of them, accompanied by their parents, young readers, many clutching their copy of the book, mostly boys. And Weaks holds this whole intergenerational audience in the palms of his hands.

Justin Weaks as Will in ‘Long Way Down.’ Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

The book by Jason Reynolds was a New York Times best-seller, boasts a host of awards, and was a National Book Award finalist. Now having read it, inspired by this performance, I can see why. Written as a series of poems that pulse with sensation and narrative momentum, Long Way Down is propelled by Will’s grief over the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn, and his determination to follow the rule of revenge:

If someone you love
gets killed,

find the person
who killed

them and
kill them.

With intent to do the deed, Will finds the gun that was Shawn’s, tucks it into his waistband, and takes an elevator seven stories down to the lobby. It’s a ride that in real time would be a minute but in Long Way Down takes longer, because at each floor the elevator stops and another character from Will’s past gets in: his Uncle Buck, a girl named Dani he knew in grade school, his Uncle Mark, his Pop, Shawn’s friend Frick, and at last Shawn. They all congregate in the elevator in a haze of cigarette smoke, and they themselves are ethereal because they each died shot by a gun.

Justin Weaks as Will in ‘Long Way Down.’ Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Weaks does not so much impersonate these spectral visitors as express who they are to Will, with a suggestion of a characteristic gesture here, a slight vocal alteration there. So we never lose sight of this lone man’s passage into memory and how remembering these dead people tests his will.

It is bravura solo storytelling.

The scenic design by Tony Cisek evokes the elevator interior with shiny, translucent panels that envelop the action and display, under William K. D’Eugenio’s animated lighting design, arresting projections designed by Michael Redman, including Will’s clever anagrams (canoe = ocean). Danielle Preston costumes Will in oversize streetwear that accentuates his youth and fragile agility. And Nick Hernandez amplifies the narrative with extraordinary music compositions and sound design, including samples from Shawn’s prized Tupac and Biggie.

Adapted for the stage with a fine ear for an actor’s presence by Martine Kei Green-Rogers, and directed with passion and precision by Timothy Douglas, Long Way Down is the world premiere of a project commissioned by The Kennedy Center. It is a hugely successful and satisfying production.

Justin Weaks as Will in ‘Long Way Down.’ Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

But curiously, except for the young people in the audience, I would have had no notion that Long Way Down was not a theater piece intended for adult sensibilities. Weaks as Will often addresses the audience personally, confidentially, never condescendingly, and always with the same naked honesty that I’ve seen him bring to roles in plays with mature themes. So as I left the theater I found myself wondering what it was about Long Way Down—both the source material and this stage adaptation—that connects so intimately to the lives of boys as young as 12.

And what I realized is this: Reynolds’s writing mines the inner emotions of his character’s mind with such veracity that it becomes a touchstone for feelings it is possible for a boy to have that are forbidden in his world where manly masks must be worn. Long Way Down is utterly unabashed about showing Will’s fear, insecurity, and vulnerability, and it is brutally realistic about the gendered expectations on him that he must live up to but isn’t sure he can. “No crying” is one of the rules Will believes he must obey. Will’s inner emotional life, which shines so clearly through Weaks’s transparent performance, becomes by extension an emotional universal: forbidden feelings of frailty Reynolds’ writing makes familiar, ownable, not to be suppressed, okay to be expressed.

Long Way Down is ultimately not so much a play about gun violence. It is about the violence done to one boy’s inner emotional life, and his coming of age in learning he need not fear feelings he is not supposed to have.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

Long Way Down plays through November 4, 2018, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

LINK: “My Job Is to Crack Open My Soul”: A Q&A with Justin Weaks by John Stoltenberg

VIDEO: Jason Reynolds talks about his book Long Way Down (first a shorter version, then a longer version)

 

 

Actually

The vexing concept of consent in sex gets a seductively smart parsing in Anna Ziegler’s Actually. Now playing in an electrically well-acted Theater J production directed by Johanna Greunhut, Actually zeros in on the zeitgeist like a heat-seeking laser.

Ziegler sets up a riveting he-said/she-said narrative about two first-year Princeton students who after a night of heavy drinking have sex in his dorm room. Later she reports it as rape and the case goes before the school’s Title IX board.

Jaysen Wright as Tom and Sylvia Kates as Amber in ‘Actually.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Ambivalence and ambiguity are everywhere.

She tells us her “default state” is

This zone of wanting something and not wanting it at the same time.

He says

We were drunk. She was into it… And if she wasn’t into it at some point…well then my body, my brain, convinced me she was. I wasn’t knowingly…I didn’t do anything knowingly…I know that.

We watch and listen raptly trying to track exactly what happened that alcohol-fueled night. We learn they met in a bar. She thought he was hot; he thought she was hot too.  When he invited her back to his room, she went willingly, and she got into his bed willingly. He did not force her to have sex but during it “he got a tiny bit rough” and then she “wasn’t into it anymore” and she stopped and she said, “Actually, um.”

So was the sex they had rape?

Jaysen Wright as Tom in ‘Actually.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Click to read my colleague Beatrice Loayza’s incisive review.

The suspense unspools as we learn who these two people are. Tom, who says he parties and has sex every night, is black and comes from poverty. Amber, also practiced in partying and having sex, is white and comes from wealth. Ziegler thus calibrates her characters’ sex, race, and class to place them on a playing field as level as possible given the societal imbalance between men and women.

Jason Wright’s performance as Tom is charismatic. From the endearing charm he exudes at the beginning, to his playfulness when they meet cute, to his howl of anguish when he stands accused, Wright’s stature as an actor becomes augmented before our eyes. In Sylvia Kates’s arrestingly mercurial performance as Amber, we see a complexity of boldness and self-doubt, of fortitude and nerves—even as all the while her acute mind is racing a mile a minute. “God, do you ever stop talking?” Tom asks Amber at one point—gently and very much smitten.

Jaysen Wright as Tom and Sylvia Kates as Amber in ‘Actually.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

So was what happened that night what they both wanted to happen, or only what he wanted to happen?

Actually’s ending comes as a breathtaking surprise, but before then its storyline steadily teases out a fundamental problem with the notion of consent: Women give consent and men try to get it. Men are the horndogs and women are the gatekeepers. Men drive and women yield. Men are the potential perps and women the potential pushovers. As Actually vividly dramatizes, this lopsided notion of consent puts both the man and the woman into impossible boxes.

So-called affirmative consent—the practice of actively, mutually soliciting enthusiasm throughout a sexual encounter—is now the legal standard for universities in some states. But it is an ideal better expressed on paper than in real-life hookups. Certainly such consistent clear-channel communication never occurs to Tom and Amber—though a condom is not forgotten.

A lot of he-said/she-said questions arise after the fact because he-wants/she-wants questions did not get asked earlier—a dilemma that Tom’s and Amber’s story presents as made-up drama but that’s all over in real life.

So how exactly are two people ever to know for certain that what is happening between them sexually is not merely acquiesced to but mutually and enthusiastically wanted in an equilibrium of self-possessed agency?

Well, actually…

Go see this play and go figure.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Actually plays through November 18, 2018, and (because Theater J is “around town” this season while the Edlavitch DCJCC undergoes renovation) performances are at Arena Stage  in the Kogod Cradle — 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at 202-777-3210 (1-4 pm, Monday through Friday) or go online.

Note: Theater J’s box office and Will Call will be located outside Arena’s Kogod Cradle on the second level beginning one hour before each performance.

 

The Fall

There is so much to be blown away by in The Fall, the powerful and thrilling performance piece devised and performed by seven South African students. Their majestic musicality, their propulsive movement, and their righteous verve evoke a revolution and a revelation. Three years ago, these performers were all part of an uprising at the University of Capetown, a student protest against colonialism as symbolized by a statue on their campus of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. They wanted the statue to come down and they got it done. They tell the story in The Fall, a theatrical experience that cries out to be seen, heard, and felt.

Click to read my colleague Bob Ashby’s insightful review of this outstanding show.

The Fall depicts student activism with vivid authenticity and visceral authority. The story it tells expands into a sweeping indictment of all residual colonialism along with inequalities of sexism, racism, and classism. But nothing about The Fall is abstract; every dance, song, and spoken-word scene has the personal conviction and commitment as must have been lived in the moment of the movement. These gifted playmakers were not just eye-witnesses to a story; they incited it. They were players who propelled it, and they made it theirs.

The cast of ‘The Fall.’ Photo by Oscar O’Ryan.

All of which makes The Fall—especially for anyone with a radical past or present—a vivid enactment of what goes really down inside activist organizing. The exterior objective may be—as it was with these students—to disrupt, defy, and make demands by putting bodies on the line. But in the interior—in meetings thrashing out tactics and hashing out frictions—unit cohesion and trust can prove so fracturable things fall apart and the center cannot hold.

The Fall dramatizes these dynamics of discord with wrenching verisimilitude. At one point, the students debate calling for a general strike and shutdown of the university, a tactic to pressure the administration to do the right thing. But one of their group is slated to take a critical medical exam at the same time. Not taking the test will end his shot at a career. The agony in the scene is palpable as the group struggles to determine what the right thing to do is for themselves.

The cast of ‘The Fall.’ Photo by Oscar O’Ryan.

Even more polarizing and gripping to watch is the scene about midway through when the female-identified characters call out the male-identified characters on their sexism. (There are three of each plus one who identifies as nonbinary.) The confrontation is so raw and explosive one wonders how these actors can possibly get along offstage and on the road, given that the characters they play seem pretty much themselves.  For anyone who has ever been in a political group riven by such rage—women trying to get through to men about how their oppression replicates the very oppression the group is fighting against, and defensive men fighting back instead of listening—that scene rings excruciatingly true.

After that seemingly irreconcilable rift there comes a dramatic resolution that is as theatrical as it inspiring. A new issue arises, having to do with the cost of tuition, something that affects everyone regardless of gender. Urgently the activists respond by mobilizing anew, in the cause of fee-free education, which effectively closes the play’s chapter on sexism by changing the subject. One might think The Fall just copped out. But one would be mistaken. For now is when the phenomenal vocal and choreographic chops of the cast play their most important role in the show.

By now we know that the characters we see on stage were lived by the actors who portray them. And by now we know that the actors are capable of playing conflict among themselves with such believability it seems to really rip them apart. So when next they resume their rhythmically synced dancing and their gorgeously harmonic singing—at once as themselves and as their characters—they communicate a profound cohesion that surpasses the strife we have seen. And that inspiriting accord becomes The Fall‘s indelible gift.

To receive it, just see it.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Fall plays through November 18, 2018, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-332-3300 or go online.

 

How I Learned to Drive

I’ve been wary of this play since it was first produced in 1997. I remember hearing that it was about a pedophile and his niece and that its treatment of the uncle was sympathetic. So I didn’t trust it. And I stayed away.

I was not reluctant as a survivor, or as someone who anticipated being triggered about past abuse. I’m aware there are some who have avoided this play because of that. My reason was less personal than political. I didn’t want to see an abuser valorized. The world is already glutted with that.

Plus, years ago in New York, I saw a pandering production of the playwright’s 1994 play Hot ‘N’ Throbbing. It dealt with pornography and domestic violence in a way that felt skeevy and left me utterly cold. Looking back, judging from its current Wikipedia entry, I suspect the production was at cross-purposes with the playwright’s intent, or maybe I just wasn’t getting it. But at the time I was put off her work.

As you might surmise by the way I’ve backed up into this parking space that is my column, How I Learned to Drive took me on a very different ride from the one I feared.

Read Amy Kotkin’s review of How I Learned to Drive
and David Siegel’s column about it.

What made me decide to give it a go was when Round House Theatre announced that it would be directed by Amber Paige McGinnis. I first got to know of deep values in her work when she directed Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s play based on the feminist classic by Virginia Woolf. Recently I marveled at the “magnificent precision” in her direction of  Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo. So it was inconceivable to me that McGinnis would take on this project if it was going to be problematic—meaning sucky in its treatment of the pedophile and dodgy in its treatment of his prey.

The pre-show soundtrack—with lyrics like “Thank heaven for little girls” and “My baby does the hanky panky”—seemed a little leering. But what changed my mind about the play itself once it began was the precision with which Vogel’s script depicted each beat and breath in the progression of the uncle and niece’s relationship, and the meticulously specific performances of it by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Li’L Bit and Peter O’Connor as Uncle Peck.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Li’l Bit and Peter O’Connor as Uncle Peck in ‘How I Learned to Drive.’ Photo by Lilly King.

We never doubt that between niece and uncle there is a very real relationship, and we never lose sight of the fact that it is a profoundly imbalanced one. Each move Uncle Peck makes is about seduction—though Li’l Bit is unaware. And every response on her part is about her longing to be seen and appreciated—a need Uncle Peck sees only as something to play on for his purposes.

Here, for instance, is an exchange from a scene when the uncle and the niece are parked in a car after he has taken her to a restaurant and coaxed her to have a drink.

PECK: Have I forced you to do anything?
(There is a long pause as Li’l Bit tries to get sober enough to think this through.)
LI’L BIT: …I guess not
PECK: We are just enjoying each other’s company. I’ve told you, nothing is going to happen between us until you want it to. Do you know that?
LI’L BIT: Yes.
PECK: Nothing is going to happen until you want it to. (A second more, with him staring ahead. Then, softly:) Do you want something to happen?
(PECK reaches over and strokes her face, very gently. LI’L BIT softens, reaches for him, and buries her head in his neck. Then she kisses him. Then she moves away, dizzy again.)
LI’L BIT: …I don’t know. (PECK smiles; this has been good news for him — it hasn’t been a “no”.)
PECK: Then I’ll wait. I’m a very patient man. I’ve been waiting for a long time. I don’t mind waiting.

Make no mistake, the performance gets intense. “Nothing is going to happen until you want it to” becomes a leitmotif throughout the play. “Only what you want,” he says to her while he is shooting suggestive photographs of her in his basement when she is 13.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Li’l Bit and Peter O’Connor as Uncle Peck in ‘How I Learned to Drive.’ Photo by Lilly King.

Though we don’t find out right away, the play is structured in the form of the grown Li’l Bit’s flashbacks as she recalls the trauma her uncle caused her, in order to reclaim herself from it. The scenes are not chronological. A metaphor about driving, going forward then shifting to reverse,  and years projected on the back wall let us know that. Though we may not always track exactly how old Li’l Bit is in her remembering, we can easily follow the narrative of what caused her pain.  Of one particularly harrowing incident, she says, “That was the last day I lived in my body.”

Both the script and the production foreground Li’L Bit’s pain—probably made more recognizable as such in the #MeToo present than it was back in the day. And both the script and the production frame the bad end that the uncle comes to not as pitiable but as pathetic. Our sympathies are never messed with by a trumped-up he-said/she-said equivalence.

What finally won me over about How I Learned to Drive was when I reflected on all I had witnessed about Uncle Peck’s slow and subtle manipulation and all I had witnessed about Li’l Bit’s guileless longing to trust and be loved. And I realized there was more here than what’s purported to be.

As a thought experiment, I took away their age difference and imagined them both legal adults. (I know, that would make the play no longer a story about pedophilia, but bear with me here.) If you consider precisely the moves Uncle Peck makes and how Li’l Bit falls for them—what is spelled out in Vogel’s script and persuasively present in McGinnes’s direction—you have a man whose art of the con is so nuanced and intuitive it’s the perfect playbook for pickup artists. And you have a woman whose societally induced insecurity has exposed her to wiles that she wants to believe mean adoration.

Much of what happens to Li’L Bit happens to women all the time. Much of what Uncle Peck does, men do all the time. Why are we appalled by this only when it happens to children?

That’s when I came around to thinking that How I Learned to Drive is a classic text on the dramaturgy of sexual politics. It not only deserves to be seen; it needs to be seen.

Running time: One hour and 40 minutes. with no intermission.

How I Learned To Drive plays through November 4, 2018, at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100, or purchase them online.

 

Blight

A few years ago, the teenage son of a single mom shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, and now the nice suburban home they lived in is a blight. The house not only brings the neighborhood down; it brings the whole town down. Enter two women, married to each other, who buy the house and move in. They bring with them a rift about whether to have kids—and now whether to raise them here. Such is the intriguing setup of Blight, written by a man and directed by a man and produced by the explicitly woman-centric Pinky Swear Productions.

Have I teased you into this infamous house yet?

Pauline Lamb as Silvia and Rachel Manteuffel as Cat in ‘Blight.’ .Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Among the surprises in store in John Bavoso’s absorbing comic mystery fable, handily directed by Ryan Maxwell, is that it’s about lots more than a house.

We get a hint there will be big reveals with Scenic Designer PJ Carbonell’s empty eggshell-white living room, in which the few furnishings are covered in muslin. Fanny, a real estate agent (the delightfully badass Dannielle Hutchinson), ushers in the househunting couple, Silvia (an enjoyably scrappy Pauline Lamb) and Cat (the arrestingly reticent-to-feisty Rachel Manteuffel). At the center of the play is Silvia and Cat’s relationship, a relatable mashup of harmony and discord, and Lamb and Manteuffel play all the octaves of it, from lovey-dovey to how-dare-you, with virtuosic ease. (Shoutout to Intimacy Director Emily Sucher for all their sapphic stuff, which they meld into like butter.)

The mayor of the town, Tracy (an amusingly iron-lady Jacqueline Chenault), shows up to welcome the new homeowners with a basket of fruit. “Isn’t that a little too on the nose?” asks Silvia, which is typical of Bavoso’s dry wit. The mayor and city council want to buy the blighted house and raze it. The homeowners will have none of it.

Then the play pulls off a portentous theatrical trick. Silvia and Cat leave the stage and presto we are in the home where the teenager and his mom live. We might guess we are now in for a ride, and we would be right, because during Blight the same set time-travels back and forth between before the shooting and after.

(I recently saw this device used in Kathleen Ackerley’s also-intriguing The Interstellar Ghost Hour. If it has a name, I don’t know it. But I do know it does amazing and spacey things in one’s head.)

Rebecca Dreyfuss as Loretta and Thomas Shuman as Kristofer in ‘Blight.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

We now meet the gangly Kristofer (a magnetically angsty Thomas Shuman) and his over-worked, over-stressed mother Loretta (an achingly sensitive Rebecca Dreyfuss). They are the other center of the play. The mounting conflict between them turns on Kristofer’s hurt and anger over his dad’s abandonment of him—an angle in the play that not only motivates the plot but reveals Bavoso’s keen ability to delve into the psychology of a character even in the midst of his script’s wit.

There are three other characters in Blight whose exact relationship to the story is best found out from the stage: A real estate inspector named Dave (a solid, straight-shooting Robert Heinly), who avers he’s not a “ghostbuster.” A fundy-Christian neighbor named Craig (a disarmingly amiable Brian Crane). And a firebrand pro-choice activist named Lisa (an entertainingly rad Hilary Kelly).

Lighting Designer Katie McCreary deftly shuttles us back and forth between time frames, as do Katherine Offutt’s properties and set dressing. Costume Designer Heather Whitpan’s standouts are the sloganed T-shirts some characters wear. And Sound Designer Crescent Hayes cleverly interleaves the scenes with pop song commentary.

Rebecca Dreyfuss as Loretta and Thomas Shuman as Kristofer in ‘Blight.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

If you’re reading between the lines, you might infer that what’s going on in Blight is not so much about real estate as about the birthing and raising children. Whether to. How to. Why to. Or not. “You can do everything the right way and still raise a psychopath,” says the beleaguered Loretta at one point.

Aside from its laughs, which are scattered but sharp, at its core John Bavoso’s Blight is an engagingly original exploration of one of women’s most fraught choices in their childbearing years. Written from an implicitly women’s point of view, it has been imagined with insight and empathy by someone wombless. And that goes way beyond theatrical chick-trick.

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

Blight, presented by Pinky Swear Productions, plays through November 11, 2018, at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

 

Chocolate Covered Ants

When three hours in the theater elapse faster than many a 90-minute performance, it’s a good bet you’ve been in the thrall of a master storyteller. And that’s what happens in Chocolate Covered Ants, the hit play by Steven A. Butler. First produced by Restoration Stage in 2016 at Anacostia Playhouse and now remounted at THEARC, Chocolate Covered Ants pulses with electrifying candor about race, gender, and black fatherhood.

The title refers not to the exotic delicacy but to black men whose experience of white privilege is as being crushed underfoot like ants. During the two-act play, we hear the wrenching stories of six black men and the black woman who tries to understand them. Vividly performed and fascinatingly scripted, they come to seem to us as real as life. Their interrelated conflicts rivet us, making us care so much what will happen to them that we lose track of real time.

Suli Myrie (psychologist Dr. Adrienne Hilton Taylor) and MarQuis Fair (one of her research subjects, Tyrone Jackson) in ‘Chocolate Covered Ants.’ Photo by Kianga Lee.

I heard much buzz about the first production but never got to see it. When this revival was announced, I jumped at it, not least because it was another chance to see the work of a playwright who had awed me already. When I saw his The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus, I praised “Butler’s genius in crafting and combining all his character-driven narratives,” and I can now applaud Chocolate Covered Ants for the same reason.

The show begins with sirens and flashing police lights and six black men facing the audience.  A voiceover shouts, “Hands up!” and they all yell, “Don’t shoot!” This jolt is followed by their breathless responses to that unseen white cop. One says:

I’m standing here with my hands up, praying that you will understand that—just like you—I have a family to go home to.

Another says:

You don’t have to fear me, my brother… You’re the one holding the gun.

Then each has a monolog, breathtakingly poetic, that takes us into his life. Still addressing that white cop but in a sense also all white people, the first says:

Let’s be honest. It’s not the hoodie that scares you. It’s what it covers up; what it hides underneath. It’s my nose that can smell your bullshit from a mile away. It’s my chocolate colored skin that doesn’t burn in the sun—and ages better than yours. It’s my eyes that with one piercing glance into yours can make you question your very well-being. It’s my lips that form words like ‘no justice; no peace!’ It’s my ears that can figure out every secret and plan you try to hide from us….

The scene shifts to the office of Dr. Adrienne Hilton Taylor, a psychologist who has been researching black women. To complete that project she is now studying black men, in particular, black men who grew up without their biological father. Her intent is to help black women understand what hurts in the hearts of the men in their lives. It is a promising premise that proves to have a powerful emotional payoff.

Suli Myrie (psychologist Dr. Adrienne Hilton Taylor) in ‘Chocolate Covered Ants.’ Photo by Kianga Lee.

Dr. Taylor has arranged for five men deprived of their biological fathers to be interviewed and paid for their time. One by one they arrive, from different cities and walks of life, and each of their scenes with her becomes as engrossing as its own one-act play. Dr. Taylor’s sassy assistant, Michelle Pitts, provides much comic relief.

I won’t synopsize these characters’ narratives—which include Dr. Taylor’s own complicated relations with her ex and her father—because the play really surpasses the sum of its parts. And the succession of those stories—their artful aggregation, their surprising intersection—never lets our attention lapse and ultimately leaves us awestruck. Chocolate Covered Ants portrays personal dramas about individuated characters then connects them with shattering force. Taken together, Butler’s thematic scope, empathically drawn characters, and dynamic language have the heft and dimension of a classic. In worldview, voice, and form, Chocolate Covered Ants is a triumph. It belongs in the canon of contemporary plays produced across the country.

Playwright Steven A. Butler and Director Courtney Baker-Oliver on the set of ‘Chocolate Covered Ants.’ Photo by Kianga Lee.

Running Time: Three hours with one 10-minute intermission.

Chocolate Covered Ants, presented by Restoration Stage, runs through October 28, 2018, at THEARC Black Box Theater, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-714-0646 or go online.

The 20-page program for Chocolate Covered Ants can be viewed here.

Promotional video about Chocolate Covered Ants featuring castmember MarQuis Fair

 

Aida

Just before intermission in Constellation Theatre Company’s sparkling and stirring production of Aida, there comes a wonderful “Wakanda Forever” moment. The fearless Nubian princess Aida (a majestically poised Shayla S. Simmons), captured with her countrypeople who are now enslaved in Egypt, lifts their persecuted spirits with “The Gods Love Nubia.” The ensemble joins in the musical number, as do Aida’s allies, the house slaves Mereb and Nehebka (Da’Von Moody and Ashley Johnson-Moore, both magnetically poignant):

The gods love Nubia
We have to keep believing
Though scattered and divided we are still its heart

And the singing is absolutely glorious.

For anyone wondering how in the world this mammoth Broadway musical could work in a modest blackbox on 14th Street, here’s the answer: a pulse beat of conviction among the performers so persuasive it’s as if this epic myth were their own.

The storyline of Aida the musical, which is set in 3000 B.C.E., is of course not native to anywhere on the continent of Africa. It began as an opera written by Italians in the nineteenth century, then in the twentieth it was made a musical by Disney with music and lyrics by two Brits. Book writers Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang have done a crafty job of making the roundabout plot relatable, and Elton John’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics are terrifically listenable. But in lieu of the legendary pageantry of both opera house and Broadway versions of Aida, what makes Constellation’s show soar is its opulence of talent.

Scenic and Lighting Designer A. J. Guban—perhaps referencing the pyramids, or maybe the loves of the three leads—sets the story amid a profusion of triangles: on the floor in a pattern of blue, black, gold, and silver; overhead in frames; and onstage in forced-perspective shapes and angles that light up in bright colors. Even more spectacular are Costume Designer Kenann M. Quander’s jewel-bedecked and gilded high fashions for Egyptian royalty, uniforms and gowns for their minions, and earth-toned rags for their slaves. Notably, the fashionista Egyptian princess Amneris (a spunkily comic Chani Wereley) gets her vanity on in a succession of outfits each more eye-popping than the last.

Chani Wereley as Amneris, Shayla S. Simmons as Aida, and Jobari Parker-Namdar as Radames in ‘Aida.’ Promotion photo by Andrew Propp.

The show could well be called Radames and Aida, for their love, à la R&J, transgresses and transcends a boundary between hatreds. Radames (a strapping, lovely-voiced Jobari Parker-Namdar) is the Egyptian captain who invaded Ethiopia and captured among his conquests the beautiful Aida. Radames becomes fatefully infatuated with Aida; her self-possessed feistiness arrests him—but he’s already engaged to material girl Amneris.

Among the intriguing aspects of the script is the fact that each of the three romantic leads—Radames, Aida, and Amneris—has a father who plays a differently pivotal role in their lives and the story. Amneris is daughter to Pharaoh (a handsomely authoritative Kaylen Morgan), so when Radames marries her he will have a son-in-law’s sinecure. Aida is daughter to Amonasro, king of Nubia (a sensitively dignified Wendell Jordan), who loves her dearly but is affronted that she would fall for an Egyptian. And good guy Radames is son to the evil and conniving chief minister Zoser (a deliciously malicious Greg Watkins), who intends to ensure his son’s enthronement by offing the Pharaoh.

Director Michael J. Bobbitt, Musical Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, and Choreographer Tony Thomas II have together triangulated a compelling production with a first-rate cast of actor-singer-dancers and a band so well balanced by Sound Designer Roc Lee that we hear every musical nuance, every emotional note.

Read ‘Perhaps He’s a Prodigy.’ How Walter “Bobby” McCoy Went From High School to the Heights of DC Theater, an interview with the musical director of Aida, by Nicolle Hertvik

A few highlights for me (besides the thrilling “The Gods Love Nubia”) were “How I Know You,” in which Aida and Mereb recognize each other as compatriots, tenderly sung by Simmons and Moody; “My Strongest Suit,” in which Amneris and her Attendants go clothes crazy, hilariously sung by Wereley and ensemble; “Elaborate Lives,” in which Radames declares his love for Aida, gorgeously sung by Parker-Namdar and Simmons and reprised movingly as they await their tragic entombment.

Aida the musical is a big show, with an epic story and outsize characters. But up close in small at Source, performed with artistry and affinity, it just couldn’t feel any better.

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

Aida plays through November 18, 2018, presented by Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online.

Credits

Music by Elton John   Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Directed by Michael J. Babbitt   Musical direction by Walter “Bobby” McCoy
Choreography by Tony Thomas II
Scenic/Lighting Designer: A.J. Guban
Costume Designer: Kenann M. Quander
Sound Designer: Roc Lee
Properties Designer: Tony Koehler
Fight Choreographer: Ryan Sellers
Associate Music Director: Marika Contouris
Production Stage Manager Kirsten E. Parker
Assistant Director: Sean-Maurice Lynch
Assistant Choreographer: Patricia “Pep” Targete

CAST

Aida: Shayla S. Simmons
Radames: Jobari Parker-Namdar
Amneris: Chani Wereley
Zoser: Greg Watkins
Mereb: Da’Von Moody
Nehebka: Ashley John
Amonasro: Wendell Jordan
Pharaoh: Kaylen Morgan
Ensemble: lan Anthony Coleman, Lawrence Hailes, Ashley Johnson-Moore, Amber Lenell Jones, Wendell Jordan, Kaylen Morgan, Ashley K. Nicholas, Greg Watkins, Topher Williams, Tara Lynn Yates-Reeves

BAND

Conductor/Keyboard 1: Walter “Bobby” McCoy
Keyboard 2: Marika Countouris
Flute, Alto Flute, Bamboo Flute, Oboe, English Horn, Alto Saxophone: Mila Weiss
Guitars: Jaime Ibacache
Bass: Jason Wilson
Drums/Percussion: Manny Ardniega

UNDERSTUDIES

Demitrus “Demie” Carter (Amonasro/Ensemble); Takara Clark (Ensemble); Candace Foreman (Ensemble); Amber Lenell Jones (Nehebka); Wendell Jordan (Zoser); Benjamin Kramer Kwalick (Ensemble); Ahmad Maaty (Pharaoh/Ensemble); Da’Von Moody (Radames); Nia Savoy (Amneris); Topher Williams (Mereb); Tara Lynn Yates-Reeves (Aida)

 

Anon(ymous)

Countless migrant children have been separated from home and family in war-torn parts of the world, and there is no way all their stories will be told. But Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous)—just opened in a lyrically dreamlike production directed by Jon Jon Johnson—finds a way to contain those multitudes. Borrowing loosely from The Odyssey, Anon(ymous) traces the parallel narratives of a teenage boy who lost his home and his mother and a mother who lost her home and her son.

Because the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis, its point of view is intriguingly both youthful and mature. The language is eloquently simple; the scenes are dramatically direct; the characters are vivid types. Yet the ruthless sounds of war intrude and there is no mistaking the harsh realities the show evokes.

Eirin Stevenson as teenage refugee Anon and Toni Rae Salmi as his mother Nemasani in ‘Anon(ymous).’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

As the audience arrives, Sound Designer Niusha Nawab broadcasts a BBC radio report about uprooted civilians, people fleeing violence, government offensives, huts burned, cattle killed, UN camps, disease, atrocities, tears. It is a bracing and grim documentary prelude to what turns out to be a more nuanced, more interiorized mise-en-scène. An ensemble of the displaced enters sorrowfully in Lighting Designer Ian Claar’s mottled half-light. One by one they huddle vulnerably under Set Designer Eric McMorris’s colorful assemblage of clothing hung on clotheslines that criss-cross the stage. Wearing rag-tag garb pulled by Costume Designer Robin Weiner, they are expressive of all those who yearn to breathe free.

This chorus of refugees then begins a haunting ode to home. It beautifully establishes the childlike storybook voice of the play:

Where I come from is oxen in rice fields and hills the color of green tea.
Where I come from is jungles filled with jaguars and pythons thick as a grown man’s thigh.
Where I come from is poison frogs the size of a thumbnail and squirrels that can fly from tree to tree.
Where I come from is waterfalls taller than the tallest skyscraper…

We meet the son and the mother: the young Anon (Eirin Stevenson) and the grieving Nemasani (Toni Rae Salmi). And we learn they got separated in the same circumstances. There was a war. They escaped by boat. There was a storm. The boat they were on sank. People drowned and disappeared. Neither Anon nor Nemasani knows the other is alive. But because we now know them both, we can anticipate their longed-for reunion, the hope for which sustains the play’s momentum through the episodes that follow.

And what an ingenious patchwork those episodes are. For instance, there is a scene in a sweatshop where refugee women are sewing clothing, and among them is Nemasani, stitching a shroud for the son she presumes dead. The brutish factory manager Mr. Mackus (Peter Mikhail) comes on to Nemasani and demands she marry him—making her the latest in his succession of mail-order brides. It is a striking instance of how the play can suggest adult-themed storylines in the language of Disneyesque innocence.

And there is a scene that establishes how Anon washed up half-dead on a beach and was rescued by Calista (Madelyn Farris), whose rich father owns the beach and a whole lot more. She insists on kissing him but he refuses—a touch that surely would be relatable by tweens.

Eirin Stevenson as Anon and Shaquille Stewart as Pascal in ‘Anon(ymous).’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

In scenes that follow, the character of Anon is shown to be as chameleon-like as Odysseus. He changes his name situationally, sometimes calling himself Nobody. He is adopted by a very wealthy American family—Nice American Father (Aron Spellane), Nice American Mother (Kara Turner), Nice American Daughter (Madelyn Farris)—but they aren’t his family and they aren’t his home and he runs away. He is befriended by Pascal, a refugee from West Africa (Shaquille Stewart), who helps him hide from immigration police in a tunnel. He scrounges for food discarded in garbage bags by an Indian restaurant run by Ali (Mikhail) and Ritu (Tamekia Jackson). Upon seeing its sign saying CURRY, he takes the name Koo Ri.

The stark realities faced by fleeing refugees are imaginatively and intergenerationally summoned in a scene in a truck driven by Strygal (Stewart). Beside him in the front seat are Anon and another young refugee named Belen (Cindy Wang). Strygal creepily puts the make on Belen and she resists. Anon, hearing sounds from the back of the truck of crammed refugees being transported, insists that Strygal pull over. Strygal refuses and Anon grabs the wheel. The truck crashes, followed immediately by another haunting ensemble chorus:

I came to America on a ship.
I came to America in a truck.
I walked a thousand miles.
I crossed a giant desert.
It was so hot I couldn’t breathe.
It was so cold, my fingers froze.

I had so many hopes.
I had so many dreams.
But I died
I died
I died along the way.

Noa Gelb as Naja in ‘Anon(ymous).’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

The play’s goriest scene involves an eyepatch-wearing, wine-swilling butcher, Mr. Zyclo (Spellane), who intends to make sausage out of Anon. Zyclo’s pet bird (Turner) enters comically squawking and stalking about in high heels. In a show of avian allyship worthy of an animated cartoon, she gives one her shoes to Anon to poke out the butcher’s good eye and the other she uses to bludgeon him to death. It’s a gross-out scene sure to have pleased the kids, and a nicely timed respite for grownups from the heavy political reverberations at play.

In true Disney-magic fashion, Iizuka introduces a girl who is a goddess, Naja (Noa Gelb). She is like a brainy BFF to Anon, and a sweet romance blooms between them. They even share a kiss.

ANON: Do all goddesses kiss like that?
NAJA: No, just me.
(Anon and Naja kiss again.)
ANON: I’m really homesick.
NAJA: I know.
ANON: It’s like a big empty room inside of me.
NAJA: I know.
ANON: What if you want to go home, but there’s no more home to go home to? What if the one person you love more than anything, what if they don’t remember you?

Later, when Anon is in peril of being impaled by an angered Mr. Mackus, Naja suddenly appears with a sword and, like Calista before her, saves Anon’s life. So there’s girl power for the kids too.

The morning after I saw Anon(ymous)—in a pleasurable staging of a lovely play that can be appreciated openheartedly with child’s-eye simplicityI awoke to a headline reading “Splitting families again on table at White House.” It was a shocking reminder that the stories about migrant children told through myth and fantasy in Anon(ymous) do not have magical happy endings in real life. And that BBC preshow broadcast is more like how it goes down.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Anon(ymous) plays through October 27, 2018, presented by Theatre Prometheus at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre– 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD (next to the AFI Silver Theatre). Tickets are available online.

Cast 
Eirin Stevenson: Anon
Noa Gelb: Naja
Peter Mikhail: Mr. Mackus, Ali, Ignacio, Ensemble
Aron Spellane: Senator Laius, Mr. Zyclo, Nice American Father, Ensemble
Kara Turner: Mrs. Laius, Zyclo’s Bird, Nice American Mother, Ensemble
Toni Rae Salmi: Nemasani, Ensemble
Madelyn Farris: Calista, Serza, Sewing Lady #2, Nice American Daughter, Ensemble
Cindy Wang: Nasreen, Belen, Ensemble
Tamekia Jackson: Ritu, Sewing Lady #1, Ensemble
Shaquille Stewart: Pascal, Strygat, Ensemble

Production Crew 
Jon Jon Johnson: Director
Genevieve Dornemann: Stage Manager
Eliza Mott: Assistant Stage Manager
Robin Weiner: Costume Designer
Niusha Nawab: Sound Designer
Ian Claar: Lighting Designer
Maddy McKeague: Assistant Lighting Designer
Eric McMorris: Technical Designer and Set Designer