Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: April, 2019

10 Questions for the Brains Behind The Tarot Reading

Quill Nebeker and Alan Katz play a game of full disclosure.

Even in this theater town abounding in innovation, The Tarot Reading stands out as an original. I can’t think of anything it’s quite like. After I saw an iteration last year (The Tarot Reading IV), I wrote that cocreators Quill Nebeker and Alan Katz “had conceived what seemed a wholly new framework for experiencing live theater.”

Quill and Alan don’t usually call themselves cocreators; in Tarot lingo, they are the “Summoners.” And they would say that The Tarot Reading experiences are actually cocreated by a cast of seven “Mediums” who cocreate “Revelations” (sophisticated mini theater games), each performed in front of an audience of “Witnesses” for a single “Seeker” who has drawn one of the 21 Tarot cards.

With The Tarot Reading V about to open at Anacostia Arts Center, I proposed to Quill and Alan a game of Q&A:

Your Revelation, should you choose to play along, will be fulfilled when you see each other’s answers to the following ten questions once they are published jointly in DCMTA. But until then, no peeking! You must submit your answers directly to this faux-Medium without consulting each other and without cc’ing or bcc’ing anyone.  (And yeah, this is like Newlyweds Game except for the glaring dissimilarities.)

Alan Katz and Quill Nebeker, from ‘The Tarot Reading III.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

John:  What were The Tarot Reading’s influences and what do you consider The Tarot Reading’s closest kin?

Quill: The most immediately recognizable influence is Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. We straight-up jacked the structure of the thing from the Neos [Neo-Futurists]—it’s twenty-one artist-generated micro-plays told in completely random order. The less-recognizable influence is the body of performance by Tim Miller, whom I had the great pleasure to see, study, and interview during college. From Tim, we got the “no lies” aspect of it, which is another way of saying the personal storytelling bit. He also gave us I suppose an ethos of a kind, the idea that in performing one’s own story, one could make a difference in the world in a way that fiction cannot. You can see some of his his extremely queer, totally intimate, hilarious and heartbreaking performance art on his YouTube Channel.

Alan: There are three influences that I can point to, though all of them are tangential. The first and most obvious is the Neo-Futurists, whose work Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is baked into my theatrical bones. I don’t go to NYC or Chicago without seeing them. Their driving ideas—that a theatrical evening can be made of many discrete and beautiful moments, that theater should come from the lives of the performers, that theater should make a fundamental change in the world, that iteration is the key to consistently bringing an audience back to the theater—are the same ideas that drive The Tarot Reading. Personally, I draw a ton of influence from Mike Daisey, who (for all the controversy surrounding his work) I count as one of the greatest solo performers of our time. His All the Faces of the Moon—29 monologues performed on 29 nights and not coincidentally full of references to the Tarot—showed me that things that seem truly impossible can be done with enough ambition, and, more importantly, that there is nothing that will move an audience like the true personal vulnerability onstage. Another influence that deserves mentioning is local playwright Gwydion Suilebhan’s Transmission. While the content and values of Transmission contrasts starkly with The Tarot Reading, that work showed me the absolute necessity of comfort and safety in the creation of interactive experiences. Walking into Transmission at Atlas was like coming into a living room, and consequently audiences were able to show much more of themselves than they might otherwise.

Why did you come up with The Tarot Reading in the first place? What void were you wanting to fill in DC theatergoers’ lives? What were you missing as theater practitioners personally?

Quill: We wanted to make a place that audiences could and would want to come back to over and over again. We also wanted to make an institution, of a kind, that shined a light on the incredibly creative people in DC. We used to joke around that we wanted to be the indie version of Shear Madness, something that showed up on résumés all over the city and brought people together for having both done this weird thing.

Alan: The deepest motivation for me was and is the lack of consistent platforms for theatrical storytelling, as opposed to productions. Most theaters in DC are or attempt to be versions of the regional theater model: find a play, rehearse it for a few weeks, perform it for a few weeks, then be done with it. That model doesn’t really interest me creatively. DC audiences need places that they can return to again and again and still find new and innovative storytelling. We need something that matters now, in the moment, that we know will be here in the future. We need a theater that doesn’t die on closing night. But most importantly, DC needs a place that can empower artists to tell their own stories with their amazing, variegated skill sets. So much of the regional theater model is artists trying to force their stories on other artists: an artistic director demanding certain stories be told, a playwright prompting others to say their words, a director determining how an artist emotes, a choreographer controlling how an artist moves. DC theater needs freedom. DC theater needs empowerment. That’s what we strive for. And that’s why we do this over and over: so we can get better at providing that service for artists and giving audiences a true and wild taste of what artists can do when they are empowered.

By now The Tarot Reading’s got ardent fans who have some idea what they’re in for, even if it’ll all be brand-new.  What should first-timers know to expect? 

Quill: Some people when they hear that its interactive get nervous; it’s like they expect we’re going to haze them or something. First-timers should know to expect us to always ask before we do something together—it’s like sex, affirmative consent is both necessary and also makes the whole thing much more fun. I think related to that is that first-timers sometimes think they’re about to experience some kind of, like, dark, ritual indoctrination. There are cult-y things about the show, and sometimes I guess we get a little spoopy in the name of fun, but it’s not ever gonna be like Children of the Corn or Rosemary’s Baby. They should expect a variety show at heart, not a horror show.

Alan: Variety and truth-telling. We hope to show audiences a barrage of truly felt and meaningful entertainments that will have real-life effect beyond the room. Expect your interaction to be opt-in and consensual, and expect to see real risks being taken. Expect a performance that feels like a party, talks like an occult ritual, and opens its heart like a dear friend.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What are your own beliefs or inclinations or hunches about superstition, the occult, mysticism, and the like? And why might The Tarot Reading appeal to someone who thinks that’s all hokum? 

Quill: I hold a handful of superstitions, most of them having to do with sports. Much to my sadness, I shaved my playoff beard last night, and I will stare daggers at anyone who dares utter the words “no-hitter” or “shutout” in the middle of what might be one. I also respect a lot of theater superstitions, in part because I’ve seen how breaking them can affect people who genuinely believe in them. As far as the occult, mysticism, astrology, etc., go, I don’t buy into it much except as far as the fun of internet memes is concerned. In fact, when Alan proposed to me the idea of using the Tarot cards as inspiration, I was skeptical. It took him a while to convince me that was a good idea, artistically speaking, because I had a skeptic’s bias against the concept.

I think The Tarot Reading might appeal to someone dismissive of those things because, for this skeptic, it became a way to experience the magic of the Tarot mythos that doesn’t ask to compromise either one’s belief in it or lack thereof. We’re not actually doing divination or cartomancy. We’re not asking whether or not you believe in some foretold future. We’re only asking you to be inspired and entertained by the way the card manifests itself in the reality of this show, in the present.

Alan: The thing about hokum is that it is built to deceive, to hide, to grift. All we do is show faith and trust in each other and in the power of leaving space for something magical to happen. Not to make it happen, nor force it, nor for manipulation, but simply to open the door to a place where people can be loved and respected in the way that all people need to be. When it comes to magic, our trust and adherence to randomness (in the order of the show and in the choosing of the cards for Seekers) has produced amazing, unexpected results. A fundamental rule of magic is that one takes out what one puts in, which is why we ask every audience member for a Sacrifice when they arrive. I have seen people sacrifice some of the most amazing things—a baby blanket, a childhood toy, poems torn from their journal, mementos of an ex-lover. The people who give up those things invariably receive experiences that they have needed and enriched their lives more than they could have known. I don’t need to believe in magic, any more than I need to believe in the Sun or a hot fudge sundae or this keyboard I’m typing on. They simply exist. They are concrete despite my belief. And it’s my choice, all of our choices, to react to and use that reality in ways that are good for us and our world.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

At every performance there’s what you call a “safety valve”—a gesture anyone in the audience can make at any time to signal that they’ve been triggered or want to opt out of their participation in a revelation. Has that gesture ever been employed? If so, what can you say about why and what happened?

Quill: I can say that that the safety valve has functioned as intended before, but I can’t say anything more specific than that. Why and what happened in those moments, that’s not my story to tell. Our job is to make sure people have a good time, and have a space where they can try something maybe a little risky in a controlled environment in the name of entertainment. If someone doesn’t want to do something, or doesn’t feel safe for whatever reason, my job isn’t to ask “why” or “what happened”; it’s to take care of them in that environment where they’re no longer having a good time. Part of that is also honoring their privacy in those moments.

Actually, in the spirit of your Revelation-qua-interview, I should tell you that Alan and I pulled a safety valve on you and did confer about this particular question, because how we answered it would impact the safety of the people who come to the show. The fun we have at The Tarot Reading can’t happen if anyone ever feels like we’re going to air out their trauma later, so we approach that aspect with a great deal of care. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that The Tarot Reading is, like, a dour, group therapy experience—that couldn’t be further from the truth—I just don’t want anyone reading this to feel like they’re gonna be forced to do something they don’t want to do in the name of other people’s fun, or that what they do at The Tarot Reading will be put on display later without their consent.

Alan: I can say that it has been used and been used effectively. I can say that the people who have used it have been cared for by others especially employed for that purpose and that has been done with respect and discretion. What I can’t say are any details of those circumstances. But here’s why: the only reason that people can take the risks that we ask them to take and (as we say) put the personal at stake is that they have entrusted us with their physical and emotional safety. To share the circumstances of another person’s distress without their permission would be a betrayal of that trust. I would want anyone, including you, to know that if you needed to be elsewhere during a Revelation, we would provide that space for you. And no matter what you said in that place of safety, it would be held in confidence.

In the two Tarot Readings I’ve attended, there are comical situations with very witty ad-libbing juxtaposed with portions that are from-the-gut emotional and very personal for the mediums. How much of that is plotted out beforehand? And since the sequence of the emotionality of different Revelations is basically random—literally the luck of the draw—what control do you have over the dramatic/comic arc of a given show?

Quill: Well, in terms of mood or tone, we encourage the Mediums to explore a range—it is a variety show after all—but we don’t ever dictate, like, “okay that’s your haha one, now show me your cut-my-guts-out one…” It’s up to the Medium to interpret the card; we’re not here to demand that what they do fits into a genre or whatever. That would get stale fast.

As far as the sequence goes, you pretty much covered it. It’s basically random, literally luck of the draw, we don’t have control over the dramatic/comic arc of a given show. I gotta say it’s hilarious how often people ask us this question, especially after the show—I promise you, we aren’t rigging the run order! If you feel what appears to be something of a narrative thread at The Tarot Reading, it is only that which weaves through this thing called human existence. Alan would say, as he does to his daughter, “life is a glorious cycle of song.”

Alan: Part of our strategy as Summoners (for Tarot V, Joan Cummins and I) is to prepare Mediums for truly being present during the performance. Recognizing mistakes and acknowledging them, checking in with their true feelings in a situation, and reading the body language and voice of a Seeker all contribute to that feeling immediacy because they are, well, truly immediate. We also work with Mediums on tiering strategies that open the possibilities in a Revelation for a Seeker to opt in to more participation while keeping well-crafted instructions and options for them in reserve if they get stuck or nervous. As far as arc goes, there are strategies that can be employed to give the impression of an arc while still staying true to the randomness of the show. Encouraging the Mediums to explore a different feeling in each of their three Revelations helps, as does using the Fool (the MC of the evening) to anticipate, defuse, or reset feelings from Revelations. But honestly, the dramatic or comic success of The Tarot Reading is rooted in a trust of the randomness of the process and not trying to force or rig something out of view.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What can you reveal about the behind-the-scenes process for rehearsing and preparing Revelations and Mediums? And can you briefly introduce who the Mediums will be?

Quill: Uh, I mean I could say a lot about it. It is an iterative process; we learn how to do it better every time we do it. A lot of staging a Revelation is learning when to ignore the things we’ve done previously in order to help the Medium through whatever their artistic process is. We’ve gotten pretty good at the orientation aspect of it, though; like there’s a whole “this is what the Tarot Reading is” rehearsal, and there’s a whole “test your Revelation with an actual random person who didn’t help make it” rehearsal. We try to give them a structure to strike against, something that generates a little creative friction.

The Mediums for Tarot V are Gwen Grastorf, who does a lot of vaudeville-style physical comedy; David S Kessler, who is a retired biologist and a solo-performer; Rachel Menyuk, who is an archivist, a dancer, and puppeteer; Toni Rae Salmi, who is an actor-singer-director; Rebecca Speas, who is a classical theater actor, a historian, a bookseller, and book podcaster; Shaquille Stewart, who is a rapper, musician, poet, and actor; and Yasmin Tuazon, who is a movement and dance artist, voice actor, and yoga teacher. They’re great, come see them.

Alan: We’ve created a from-scratch approach to the rehearsal process that has developed and changed over each iteration. Right now, we have an introductory meeting where Mediums learn about the process as a whole and then draft their cards, just like a sports draft. Then they get some time to percolate on ideas and ask questions about their cards before they pitch ideas for Revelations. We whittle their many ideas down to one in the Alpha phase, where each Medium has a rehearsal devoted to them, culminating in a showcase where they Seek for each other and give each other feedback. Then another round of individual rehearsals before we bring in people who haven’t been a part of the process at all to playtest their Revelations in what we call the Beta showcase. The following week, we incorporate the feedback that’s been received and solidify what each Revelation will be, with a concrete structure that won’t undergo any more major changes. Then we integrate tech and do run-throughs then we open! We have a great group of weirdos this time around, and you can read their quirky bios here.

This year are two ways to take in The Tarot Reading—a 9-card version and a 21-card version. Why would someone choose one and why would someone choose the other?

Quill: If you are super into the interactive thing, and want to guarantee that you can do that, you want to get a Seeker ticket for the 21-card Classic Tarot.

If you could take or leave the interactive thing but are still into big, communal, immersive experiences, you may want to see full cycle of 21-card Classic Tarot but just as a Witness.

If you’re super into the variety show, see cool performers doing random things thing, but prefer to see a show that doesn’t keep you out past 10, you want to see Nine Card Draw. This may also be true if you think you could be into the interactivity thing, but aren’t sure, and maybe don’t want to make a decision until you get there.

Alan: It depends on how you like your theater. Some people want to get entirely enveloped in a world, drinking in as much content as their brain can stand and trying to experience absolutely every feeling they can. That’s who the 21-card version is for—people who want it all, no matter how much time it takes.

Some people say that their favorite theater functions best within a specific format and that they’re most comfortable with getting in, having a great time, and getting out with time for post-show drinks and an early bedtime. Often those people will say that their optimal show is 90 minutes with no intermission, and that’s exactly what our Nine Card Draw performances are.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What does your crystal ball say? What’s your dream or vision for the future of The Tarot Reading?

Quill: Ask again later.” By that I mean The Tarot Reading is by design a thing where our trajectory is charted by iterating upon what we’ve done before, so I won’t ever know until I see what happened this time around, and start thinking about how we can improve upon that. If I knew exactly what I wanted the future for The Tarot Reading to be, I don’t think it would be The Tarot Reading anymore.

Alan: My dream is to have a home. Have a place where people can come consistently to experience variety and truth-telling in theater on a regular basis. Give us a place, and we’ll fill it with wonder.

What’s the wildest/weirdest/funniest thing anyone ever said to you as they were leaving a performance of The Tarot Reading?

Quill: The wildest things to me are the things people say to me about The Tarot Reading, like, days or weeks afterward, when they tell me that they’re doing something differently than they used to because of something they experienced, or they show me what they did with a thing we gave them. It’s wild to me that what we do in this thing that is mostly for entertainment can have an impact on people in that way, even if it’s just a little thing. If there is a way in which we are playing with visions of the future at The Tarot Reading, that is it.

My mom puts every card she gets on her refrigerator, like she did with my childhood drawings. I got a kick out of that for a while, because it’s not like I made the Revelation—the Medium made the Revelation! I said that to her, and she told me it was vain to assume that she put them there for me. She gave me the okay to share this story.

Life is a glorious cycle of song.

Alan “I couldn’t read what it said on your butt. I think some of the marker sweated off. What did it say?”

Running time: About 90 minutes (Nine Card Draw); about three hours (Classic Tarot).

The Tarot Reading V plays May 9 through 26, 2019, produced by The Arcanists at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online (where you can find explanations of the types of tickets—Nine Card Draw or Classic Tarot, Witness or Seeker).

For information about future performances, follow The Tarot Reading on Facebook or join the Tarot Reading mailing list.

Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy

Fifty years ago Rolling Stone reported completion of a new album by Pete Townshend and called it “probably the most important milestone in pop since Beatlemania. For the first time, a rock group has come up with a full-length cohesive work that could be compared to the classics.” The effusive praise was prescient. Tommy became a sensation. And as the eye-popping and robust new production at Kennedy Center suggests, what Tommy has to say today may be even more significant than then.

The Who’s Tommy, as it’s now called, is a sung-through rock opera about a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” in the 1940s who becomes such a phenomenal “pinball wizard” that people begin to believe he is their spiritual leader. The show opened last night in the Eisenhower Theater to a rapturous standing ovation as part of the Broadway Center Stage series.

“Broadway Center Stage performances,” we are advised, “are presented as semi-staged concerts. The actors will carry scripts in hands for various scenes of their performance”—which turns out to be gloriously untrue. Not a script in sight. Nothing semi about it. This production pulls out all the stops, pushes all the right buttons, flips all the right flippers, and scores a powerball of a show.

From left: Casey Cott (Tommy), Hudson Loverro (Tommy, Age 10), and the cast of ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Set and Projection Designer Paul DePoo erects a massive structure of girders astride a stepped stage and floods the upstage wall with stunning story-propelling imagery—from grim World War II bombers to a flashy pinball arcade to the haunting eyes of a lonely child. He also gives the actors multiple white-framed set pieces that, moved around from scene to scene (not quite yet smoothly), function as tables, doorways, a pinball machine, and more.

The show seems just as fully conceived as a hit musical on tour, an effect made blazingly visible in Lighting Designer Jake DeGroot eye-glazing bright colors and animated strip lighting. At times it’s as if we’re inside a pinball machine. The full orchestra, conducted with punch and precision by Musical Director Lynne Shankel, is situated in pits upstage, which lends a rock-concert feel to the showier numbers. And in a vast auditorium where acoustics can be iffy, Sound Designer Kai Harada has worked some kind of magic that makes the actors’ voices come through clear as a bell in perfect balance with the band.

Casey Cott, known to fans of the CW series Riverdale, gives a muscular and winning performance as grown-up Tommy and brings a strong voice that especially impresses on his rocker vocals. Tommy at age 4 is played by Declan Fennell and Tommy at age 10 is played by Hudson Loverro; their lovely voices, vulnerability, and stoic isolation are highlights of the show.

As Tommy’s father and mother, big-musical veterans Christian Borle (Captain Walker) and Mandy Gonzalez (Mrs. Walker) each bring affecting parental compassion to their roles. Gonzalez’s vocals are particularly rich, and Borle handles Captain Walker’s challenging character arc with great grace.

Casey Cott (Tommy) and the cast of ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Townshend, who wrote the music and lyrics and coauthored the book with Des McAnuff, built into the musical a childhood for Tommy that shocks and disturbs still today: Captain Walker goes off to war leaving his wife pregnant; while he’s away she gives birth to Tommy. Then, believing her husband has been killed in combat, she takes a Lover (Rory Donovan). Captain Walker returns unannounced, finds his wife in another man’s embrace, and shoots the Lover dead. Four-year-old Tommy witnesses the murder, reflected in a mirror. His mother and father order him not to say anything about what he has seen. So traumatized is Tommy that he becomes deaf, dumb, and blind on the spot. Subsequently he is sexually abused by his father’s brother, Uncle Ernie (Manu Narayan, whose dulcet pipes contrast starkly with the character’s dark heart), and sadistically tormented by his Cousin Kevin (a nimbly malevolent Wesley Taylor).

Besides Tommy’s great classic-rock score, and despite the troubling underpinnings of its plot, Tommy is chock full of entertaining song-and-dance numbers, and Director and Choreographer Josh Rhodes puts the energetic young cast through their paces way more ambitiously than “semi-staged concert” would suggest (at times perhaps too ambitiously; the choreography on opening night was not yet tight). The cast of characters is large (see credits below) and their voices are uniformly excellent. The choral and duet work is wonderful—as when grownup Tommy sings to and with his younger self. A few solos that stood out were the vocal star turns of the high-strutting Kimberly Nichole as The Gypsy (to whom 10-year-old Tommy is nearly forced to go for sexual initiation) and the elegantly dreadlocked Mykal Kilgore (in multiple vivid roles). On opening night the audience didn’t audibly respond until The Gypsy’s show-stopping scene about 45 minutes in, and from then on the joint was jumping, culminating in a rock-concert-slash-revival-meeting starring rocker Cott that lifted everyone to their feet.

Casey Cott (Tommy) and the cast of ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The narrative embedded in Tommy of a traumatic childhood was prompted by Townshend’s own. As he disclosed in his 2012 autobiography, around the time he was 6, he was sexually abused by an uncle. Recently Townshend has acknowledged that he cannot even perform Tommy in its entirety anymore. The last time he tried, two years ago at Royal Albert Hall, he suffered what he described as “a mental crash” halfway through.

I had a flashback to childhood abuse. The second night was OK, but the first night I nearly walked off the stage…which would have been awful. I wasn’t playing very well and I was feeling dizzy. I almost blacked out and it was just horrible. I don’t know where it came from because I’ve been working with Tommy. I’ve been investigating it — where it comes from in my life and childhood, writing about it in my biography. So it was quite a shock.

Mandy Gonzalez (Mrs. Walker), Casey Cott (Tommy) and Declan Fennell (Tommy Age 4) in ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The conversation around the trauma of childhood abuse has enlarged and deepened in the 50 years since Tommy premiered, and so there are aspects of the show that now must be handled with newfound sensitivity—not only because the incidents could be triggering but because the well-being of two child actors is at stake. Director and Choreographer Rhodes has staged the scenes involving both Cousin Ernie’s “fiddling about” with young Tommy and Cousin Kevin’s tormenting with enormous care, a kind of PG decorum actually, which today seems absolutely fitting.

What this directorial approach means for how the story plays in this production is interesting. Far from blunting dramatic impact, it makes us care about Tommy all the more. Our apprehension about the welfare of the child actors translates into intensified concern for Tommy the character, which carries over into our emotional identification with Cott’s grownup Tommy.

There’s a marvelous moment when Tommy age 4 walks through a white frame box and out the other side walks Tommy age 10. And at the end all three Tommys are brightly spotlit inside three such boxes. Though they are separated, the congruence among them is deeply moving.

Tommy’s life touches the hurt child still in us all and lets us know we’ll be okay.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.

Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy plays through April 29, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased at the Kennedy Center Box Office, by calling 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or online.


Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional Music and Lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
Musical direction by Lynne Shankel
Scenic and projection design by Paul DePoo
Costume design by Andrea Hood
Lighting design by Jake DeGroot
Sound design by Kai Harada

Cast (in order of appearance)
Tommy: Casey Cott
Captain Walker: Christian Borle
Mrs.Walker: Mandy Gonzalez
Uncle Ernie: Manu Narayan
The Gypsy: Kimberly Nichole
Cousin Kevin: Wesley Taylor
Minister: Charl Brown
Officer #1: Mykal Kilgore
Officer #2: Kaleb Wells
Nurses: Taylor Iman Jones, Tiernan Tunniclife, Trina Mills
Allied Soldier #1: Nick Martinez
Allied Soldier #2: Michael Milkanin
Lover: Rory Donovan
Tommy, Age 4: Declan Fennell
Judge: Michael Milkanin
Tommy, Age 10: Hudson Loverro
Cousin Kevin’s Mom: Samantha Gershman
Hawker: Mykal Kilgore
Harmonica Player: Rory Donovan
Allied Soldier #2: Michael Milkanin
Lover: Rory Donovan
Tommy, Age 4: Declan Fennell
Judge: Michael Milkanin
Tommy, Age 10: Hudson Loverro
Cousin Kevin’s Mom: Samantha Gershman
Hawker: Mykal Kilgore
Harmonica Player: Rory Donovan
First Pinball Lad: Nick Martinez
Second Pinball Lad: Kaleb Wells
Specialist: Charl Brown
Specialist’s Assistant: TiemanTunniclife
Sally Simpson: Taylor Iman Jones
DJ: Olutayo Bosede
Local Lads, Lasses, Reporters, Ensemble: Olutayo Bosede, Charl Brown, Rory Donovan, Samantha Gershman, Taylor Iman Jones, Mykal Kilgore, Nick Martinez, Michael Milkanin, Trina Mills, Khori Petinaud, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, MathewVarvar, Kaleb Wells, Sharrod Williams, Kristin Yancy

Drums: Joe Mowatt
Electric Bass: Paul Henry
Guitar: Manny Moreira, Jim Roberts
Horn: Geoffrey Pilkington
Keyboard: Michael Gacetta, Anthony Nalker, Alex Tang

Disrupting the White Comfort Zone: A Q&A with Gary L. Perkins III about P.Y.G.

I have an ongoing interest in how theaters in DC with predominantly white audiences raise and represent the issue of race. And one of the things I’ve been noticing is how the white comfort zone functions in programming and in performance.

If you Google “white comfort zone” you’ll get results about home decor. But to anyone halfway woke, the phrase has another, self-evident meaning: It’s the mindset of a subset of white theatergoers who are disinclined to have to think too hard about the realities of racism. So theaters around town program around the white comfort zone differently, with works of theater that relate to it differently—some try not to upset it, some will unsettle it just a little, and some intend to seriously disrupt it.

This all came to mind as I watched the very provocative and hilariously discomfiting new play now running at Studio Theatre, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.

[Read Barbara Mackay’s review.]

I recognized Gary L. Perkins III, one of the three actors in the show, from his work in three previous productions I’d written about for DC Metro Theater Arts: The Frederick Douglass Project, Word Becomes Flesh, and The Shipment—all of which, like P.Y.G., navigate the white comfort zone in significant ways. So I asked if we could chat about that.

John: Let’s start with your performance in P.Y.G. as Alexand Da Great (which is amazing, by the way—the dancing, the rapping, the singing, the acting, I loved it). I was there opening night and there seemed to be a lot of awkwardness in the audience, which seemed intentional on the part of the play. There were points that were fraught with tension about race but in a jokey way, sometimes in a serious way, sometimes in a jokey way that you didn’t know was jokey. It was as if the play wants us to have a good time but it also wants to shake up a lot of presumptions typical of white people.

Gary: Absolutely. My experience is very similar. There’s different focus in conveying a message in a direct way or in a farcical way—like the commercial breaks that happen throughout the play. My character Alexand is a very direct character. He’s very outspoken and headstrong about his opinions. So to reel that in during the commercial breaks, where the underlying messages were conveyed through humor, was a bit of a struggle.

Gary L. Perkins III (Alexand Da Great) and Seth Hill (Blacky Blackerson) in ‘P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle’ written and directed by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

You do a commercial for a product called DeWoke, an aerosol spray that will erase political consciousness.

Yeah, it takes your mind off what reality is and keeps you oversaturated with consuming.

There’s also a commercial for WhiteMen’s shoes.

Yeah, that’s delivered by Blacky [Seth Hill]. I play the character who is buying the WhiteMen’s shoes, and it’s about what privilege offers and how you can use that privilege in your everyday life.

Seth Hill (Blacky Blackerson) and Gary L. Perkins III (Alexand Da Great) in ‘P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I’m interested in your conversations during rehearsals with your castmates and the playwright-director about the race themes in the play, how those themes will play for audiences, what’s the intention.

Tearrance finished a play last year at Mosaic Theater Company called Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies. Afterward, a lot of white people asked him, “Well, what can we do?” So in response, he started writing this play, as a means to give them an idea of what they can do.

In the rehearsal process, we wanted to be authentic in that response. That’s where we started from, and it was very collaborative, making sure the message was always there no matter the means of getting it across—whether through the reality-tv scenes and the tensions between the characters or the farcical commercials.

In performance, how have audiences been responding? Is that awkwardness still around?

I think it is initially. At the beginning, it’s reality tv. The characters have confession scenes presenting who they are and what’s going to be happening in the play. And audiences are comfortable with the spectacle of that part. But then as we get to the WhiteMen’s shoes commercial, it’s just pure shock. The message is so direct and so blunt that most audiences aren’t expecting it. You can feel it takes a while for them to open up and warm up to the type of humor that’s being presented in this play.

It’s a very nervy and edgy kind of humor.


Seth Hill, Simon Kiser, and Gary L. Perkins III in 'P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.' Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Seth Hill (Blacky Blackerson), Simon Kiser (Dorian Belle), and Gary L. Perkins III (Alexand Da Great) in ‘P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I was impressed that the three actors seemed to have a kind of cohesion about what’s going on, even though there’s a lot of tension between the characters given that two are black and one is white.

This play is predominantly about cultural appropriation, and we understood that cultural appropriation is a two-way street. It doesn’t just work with one culture stealing from another culture to their own advantage. So we wanted to make that two-way street clear in the struggle between each character and in their own self. This is very much a self-identity play as well because it’s a journey that each character goes through to discover who they are.

It isn’t just the Justin Bieber figure who goes on a journey; it’s also Blacky and Alexand. And there’s a dynamic between Blacky and Alexand in the play that’s also interesting. Blacky starts out much more radical—


—and then he becomes more assimilationist, and your character Alexand tries to hold him to account for that.

Absolutely, and Alexand holds Blacky accountable in the sense that they’re there to teach the pop star. Alexand’s journey starts with trying to keep Blacky—his friend, his brother, his cousin—focused on what the objective is. Remaining true to that objective, Alexand realizes that he’s being consumed by this environment that’s unfamiliar to him.

Gary Perkins III as Frederick Douglass in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Gary Perkins III as Frederick Douglass in ‘The Frederick Douglass Project’ by Psalmayene 24 (‘An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland’) and by Deidre Kinahan (‘Wild Notes’), directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

You rap in P.Y.G. and you rapped in Solas Nua’s The Frederick Douglass Project, where you played Frederick Douglass. But that was a very different kind of play with a very different relationship to the audience.

L-R: Michael Crowley, Dan Westbrook, Gary Perkins III, Tiffany Byrd, and Kevin Collins in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Michael Crowley, Dan Westbrook, Gary Perkins III, Tiffany Byrd, and Kevin Collins in ‘The Frederick Douglass Project.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The environment was powerful in itself. The play was presented in a tent across the river from where Frederick Douglass’ house was. And the space was very intimate. Many people are familiar with him but the play modernized him.

Your performance was magnificent, and having the real historical character being portrayed brought a kind of gravity to it and a seriousness and importance that was really stirring.

Oftentimes we see Frederick Douglass in his later life, after he’s had all his accomplishments, so it was a breath of fresh air to portray him at a younger age.

In Theater Alliance’s Word Becomes Flesh, you played part of a group of five men who are giving poetic voice to one man’s life experiences. It’s a very choreographed piece and won the 2018 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Ensemble.

Gary L. Perkins III, Clayton Pelham, Jr., Justin Weaks, Chris Lane, and Louis E. Davis in ‘Word Becomes Flesh’ by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, directed by Psalmayene 24. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

That was a genuine ensemble piece because it’s five different men portraying five versions of one black man—and for 60 minutes of movement, we had a bond onstage through choreopoems. The message itself was not only timely, it’s timeless—the urgency of understanding the struggles black men go through on a day-to-day basis. We were realizing that for ourselves and for people who may not understand what we have to deal with.

I thought that from a white audience’s point of view, the cohesion among you all was as much the message of the play as the playwright’s text. It was an experience of a bond that was about the fact that you were all black. And that had nothing to do with deference to a white audience; it was you being you.

Even with that cohesion, we talked a lot in the rehearsal process about the lifeline, and the lifeline being the breath, and how breath was so important through this piece because we’re all supposed to be the same character, and so to be one and the same with one breath was very important.

Darius McCall, Gary L. Perkins III, Shannon Dorsey, Mark Hairston, and Dexter Hamlett in ‘The Shipment’ by Young Jean Lee, directed by Psalmayene 24. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

You appeared in The Shipment at Forum, and its treatment of race themes was also jokey. It was modeled on a variety show and it included comedy sketches. One of them is set in a video shoot that’s supposed to feature a rapper, played by you.

The show is in three parts. It opens with standup. Then it goes into a minstrel show. And it ends with a dinner party. What sparked my interest even before I auditioned was that the play is about black self-identity and it’s by an Asian American woman.

Of the four plays we’re talking about here, The Shipment was in many ways the most in-your-face about race.

Yes. And I think it goes back to the structure of the minstrel show. It was very raw. The jokes in the opening standup were very raw. It may have been a little overbearing in the humor—

Oh, it was powerful. It took you aback. But I thought it was great.

We often forget in the American theater that that’s what the platform of theater is, to have the voice of the voiceless and messages that no one else will say.

Gary L. Perkins III. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

These four plays up to the present with P.Y.G. are all about black identity. Reflecting back on them, what about you has changed with each? What did each role draw on that was different and distinct? As an actor, how did you move into each of those different spaces?

For me as a performer over the years, it’s really shaped the narrative I want to express when I’m auditioning and accepting roles in certain stories to be a part of. One of the reasons I’m an actor is that acting is therapy—to step into other lives and minds of fictional and nonfiction characters. So there’s been growth along the years. It’s grounded me as a man. And it’s a beautiful opportunity to have a part in these stories when in American theater it’s predominantly stories of white men.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.

PYG or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle plays through April 28, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or go online.

Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son

The splashy opening is spectacularly preconception-smashing. We know we’re about to see a play premised on a 1953 meeting in a Paris café between the literary lion Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the up-and-coming cub. But beyond that, any expectations we may harbor get blown out of the water the moment James J. Johnson (as Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (as Baldwin) begin a crowd-rousing rap-dance. The sound system is blaring Jay Z and Kanye West’s profanity-laced “Ni**as in Paris.” And (this production being projection-captioned) every crude word is glaring on the set.

The number is such a sensory overload—and so damn good—one wants to hit replay and rewatch it then and there.

Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) and James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) in ‘Les Deux Noirs.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Playwright Psalmayene 24’s semi-fictional story takes us next to a more conventionally staged scene in a café between Wright and Baldwin. The actual meeting was occasioned when the upstart Baldwin famously critiqued Wright’s bestselling novel Native Son and Baldwin’s cheek piqued Wright’s wrath.

As we quickly learn, conventions of dramatizing that event have been dispensed with. In Les Deux Noirs, the two leads behave as the litterateurs never would in life. Besides breaking into rap and dance, they do verbal smackdowns and comedy sketches. They have escapades with the wait staff. Historicity is but the jumping off point for Psalmayene 24’s leaps of imagination.

The structure of Les Deux Noirs is basically a man-to-man débat—by turns a very classy one, a very crude one, a very woke one, a very cartoonish one—but a cockfight nonetheless.

RICHARD: Ahhh, the gloves are coming off and we’re going to bareknuckle it.
JAMES: You’ve backed me into a corner like one of those rats from your novel. I have no choice but to fight my way out.
RICHARD: Be warned that you’re going to have to knock me out in order
to raise your hands above your head in triumph.
JAMES: I’ll do my best.

The play’s explicit grounding in combat makes the work akin to watching a contact sport, a battle between two black men.

They tussle in multiple ways, including insults about each other’s sexuality (Wright was heterosexual; Baldwin, homosexual). Baldwin criticizes Wright for marrying a white woman and takes him to task for the sexual violence his character Bigger Thomas commits:

BALDWIN: Why did you rape her? Bessie—the young, Negro woman in your book, Native Son?

He continues this line of attack with Wright’s treatment of Mary Dalton:

BALDWIN: You gave Mary such a sweet and muted death compared to Bessie. Suffocation by pillow, fueled by a potent mix of fear, frenzy, and lust. But you couldn’t help gratifying the terror that exists in every crevice of the mind of those who call themselves white by savagely chopping her head off with a hatchet. And yet, ironically enough, the author of such a hideous act purports to champion the interests of Negroes.

Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) and James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) in ‘Les Deux Noirs.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

(Mosaic’s programming of Les Deux Noirs in rep with, and in conversation with, Native Son is inspired—and is never more impactful than when Psalmayene 24 has Baldwin challenge the novel’s violence against women. Relatedly, in Psalmayene 24’s direction of Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Native Son, he carefully stylizes those scenes to avoid sensationalizing them.)

Fueling the gendered tension between the two men, Wright refers to Baldwin as “a little sissy” and calls him “a Negro homosexual with a fetish for white men.”

The night I saw the show the audience was audibly registering every parry and thrust, an enjoyment the show openly invites because so much of it is framed comedically. There’s a silly bit when Baldwin and Wright go back and forth, tit for tat, pouring each other’s drink into their own glass. And both Johnson and Hunter are adept at physical comedy, as in their rapper personas and a farcical chase around the table. Curiously, the clowning in their showdown works—as does all humor that overlays and originates in anxiety. The spectacle of two men contesting manhood will make anyone apprehensive, and if laughter breaks the tension it’ll be all the heartier.

James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) in ‘Les Deux Noirs.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

The narrative arc of Les Deux Noirs leads to an aspirational resolution. It’s when Psalmayene 24 has both men come to terms with what they’re really battling about: what it means to be black.

There is a visually stunning scene when a waiter is taking snapshots of Wright and Baldwin and projected behind them is a montage of stock photos of African American stereotypes. Though Wright and Baldwin do not turn to look, it is as if both carry the pictures in their minds.

Their rapprochement comes after they each let down their guard, let go their armor, and speak a truth to each other that transcends truce.

WRIGHT: I know some people despise Bigger and the despicable crimes he commits. To that I say good. If you detest him, change the circumstances that made him. Change the philosophy that deems a man better because of his pink skin. Change the belief that a man is worse because he is the color of rich ebony. Change the system that conspires to keep the Negro’s neck between its boot and the unforgiving ground. Native Son was written to be a rock in the boot of that system. A rock that afflicts the foot until it is forced to take the boot off our necks—finally and forever more.

BALDWIN [rapping]: When will we come together to supersede our fear?
No more hate against Black, no more hate against queer
I don’t know man but I believe in the possibility
Of the moral victory
I don’t know man but I believe in the probability
Of the historic victory
I don’t even know man but I see the inevitability
Of the ultimate victory

Les Deux Noirs is surprisingly a lot of fun. But it’s also an indelibly personal imagining of how two great black writers might have rapped their way as artists from adversaries to allies. Definitely a show not to miss along with Mosaic’s gripping Native Son.

Running time about 65 minutes, with no intermission.

Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son plays through April 27, 2019, in repertory with Native Son through April 28, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.


Review – ‘Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Michele Simms-Burton
Review – ‘Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Ramona Harper
Magic Time!: ‘Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by John Stoltenberg
Director and Playwright Psalmayene 24 Discusses ‘Native Son’ and ‘Les Deux Noirs’ by Michelle Simms-Burton

The Peculiar Patriot

Inside the DC Jail with Liza Jessie Peterson and The Peculiar Patriot

Tucked inside her uproarious one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot—which she performs through April 20, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth—is an appalling account of the prison system. One doesn’t expect such a serious takeaway from a show that starts out so funny.

Peterson inhabits a character she created named Betsy LaQuanda Ross. Betsy is visiting her close friend Joanne, who is incarcerated. Peterson sits at a table as if in a prison visitors room and speaks to us the audience as if to Joanne. Occasionally she embodies other characters, such as two men in Betsy’s life, Pablo and Curtis. Mainly Betsy shares confidences girlfriend-to-girlfriend and displays a quilt she is making to honor incarcerated friends and family members.

Liza Jessie Peterson in 'The Peculiar Patriot' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘The Peculiar Patriot’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Peterson frontloads the performance with laughs, earns our trust, then slowly but surely delivers some sobering information: The U.S. prison industrial complex profits from the incarceration of black and brown bodies. It is a massive business increasingly privatized. In white-populated rural areas where prisons are typically built, local economies are entirely dependent on it. And today the war on drugs is to prisons what the slave trade once was to plantations: the supply line for a financially indispensable subjugation.

“No matter where I go with this play,” Peterson told me, “I have to perform it in a jail facility that’s in the area of the theater. That’s always important for me.”

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘A Peculiar Patriot’ at the DC Jail. Photo by Muntaquim Muhammad.

So it was that on a recent Monday morning Peterson performed A Peculiar Patriot in the DC Jail. It was the same 90-minute play she was doing at Woolly, minus staging effects. The audience of women and men were all wearing orange.

In a phone interview with Peterson afterward, the activist conviction and artistic commitment that I’d seen on stage came through loud and clear.

John: When and where did you begin performing A Peculiar Patriot in prison?

Liza Jessie Peterson: The first draft of the script was actually workshopped at Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security penitentiary for men in Napanoch, New York. I had been a guest there several times as a poet, to perform and to speak with the writers’ group. This was back in 2000, 2001. Most of the men there were doing long sentences. I was visiting maybe twice a year. I would see the same guys. So I figured this would be a great opportunity for me to read them some pages, get some feedback and their insight.

Did the play already have your character Betsy talking across the table to a friend who’s inside?

Yes. The first draft of the script was the setup you saw at Woolly, which is Betsy talking to her best friend Joanne. I just wanted the guys to hear it. And it wasn’t a performance, it was just a workshop. The men loved it, they gave me feedback, we talked about it. And they gave me their approval, their validation. That’s when I knew I had something I could take back out to the community, and I felt confident because I had their approval.  I had validation from the people that the play is talking about.

The first time I performed it in jail was at Rikers Island in 2003. Rikers Island has ten or eleven different facilities, and I performed it in five or seven. Then I took it back to Eastern Correctional upstate so the guys there were able to see the finished product. That led me down the rabbit hole of performing it in between 30 and 35 penitentiaries across the country.

At some point, the play stepped onstage in front of a theater audience. How did that happen?

At first, there weren’t many theaters that were interested in it. This was before The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s seminal book, which cracked open the conversation nationally. This was before mass incarceration was even a term that people were using. This was before social justice was a thing that people were talking about nationally. It was a subject that wasn’t sexy. And it still isn’t, but people are talking about it. It’s a thing that people want to embrace now, which is great. But back then doors were not opening. Theaters were afraid to touch it. It was too edgy, too provocative. I was told it was going to scare the funders and subscribers. So I took it and did the prison tour— I leaned into the love and the love happened to be in prison.

Could you talk about some of the differences and similarities for you as a performer between doing the show for an audience of ticket buyers who have come to a theater like Woolly and doing it for people who are incarcerated and who have been gathered in a space to see your show?

People in theaters have different entrances into the world of the play. Some have been affected by mass incarceration. Some know nothing about it. Some have a little bit of knowledge. Some have been previously incarcerated. It’s the same with the incarcerated population that I perform for. Some don’t know about any of the information or statistics. They’re just caught up in it and it’s a total awakening. Some are nodding their heads and they’ll have an amen corner—they’re like, “Yes, yes,” ’cause they know. The show is affirming to them.

So it’s pretty much the same. The difference is that performing in prison, there’s no sound cues, no light cues, no video. It’s stripped down. It’s just me and the table and the quilt and a microphone. That’s it. I cut my teeth doing the play in jails. I’ve performed in hallways, in cafeterias, in classrooms, in chapels, wherever the prison has space for me. That’s where I do it.

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘A Peculiar Patriot’ at the DC Jail. Photo by Muntaquim Muhammad.

Would you talk to me about the performance in the DC Jail— how it went and what the responses were?

It was great. This was only the second time I’ve performed in prison for a coed audience because usually the men and women are segregated. So performing for incarcerated men and women at the same time was very powerful. The women, they immediately become Joanne, the person Betsy is talking to. And the men, they automatically totally identify with Pablo and Curtis.

They saw themselves at different entry points and it was really transformative. I always get so much inspiration and positive charge because the play is for them, it’s about them. And my intention is to inspire them and to affirm them and to let them know that they’re loved and thought about and they’re not disposable, that they matter and that we need them.

They affirm me as much as I affirm them. They affirm that my message is important. They affirm that my art is still necessary.

If someone said to you, “Liza, I want to be as brave and as effective an artist/activist as you”—meaning: “I want to combine my art and my social justice activism as commitedly as you do—what would you tell them they should know?

It’s never about the recognition or the cameras or the press. It’s always about the people. Be ready for the long haul. Be ready to be in it for the long game. And always stay grounded in what your intention is and who it’s for. As long as you stay grounded with the people and the community, eventually doors will open to your dream and to your commercial success. If that’s your only goal, commercial success, you’re in it for the wrong reason. But if you’re in it to touch people, to heal people, to inspire people, to change people, to make a difference in people’s lives, then be ready to roll up your sleeves, get some dirt under your fingernails, and just keep grinding for the community, grinding for your people.

You have to have the spirit of a black panther in your heart, and that is an unyielding love for your people, whoever your people are.

The Talkback, the Response

I was not at Peterson’s DC Prison performance, but I got a vivid eyewitness account in a phone interview with Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad, a professor of criminology at Howard University. Dr. Muhammad specializes in the consequences of parental incarceration on children (the topic of her very moving TedTalk). She also facilitates a program in the DC Jail that includes incarcerated individuals who watched Peterson perform

Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad: Liza created such a safe space it almost caught the incarcerated individuals off guard. By the time she got to Betsy’s second visit and the third visit and the fourth visit, they couldn’t contain their laughs. I mean, she just won over all of the hearts of the men and the women.

Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad. Photo courtesy of Dr. Muhammad.

After the performance, I led a really intimate dialogue with the incarcerated males and females. And when it got to the commentary, the incarcerated individuals were talking about how it made them take a time lapse. They went back in their lives and thought about, sometimes for the first time, the experience of the visitor. When you are incarcerated, you don’t get to see the landscape you’re going to, so when you’re shipped out from one jail into a full prison into a penitentiary, you’re not enjoying the landscape of the ride. That’s what free people are able to do. Liza really gave us all new eyes.

Later I stay and continue to run my classes. The brothers and sisters are still engaging and talking about those experiences and what it meant for them. It lives on in them. They are still empowered. Individuals talked about how they got right on the phone and made a collect call and told their family members that are local, “You have to see this piece.” They carry the passion in them, and it’s still in there. It’s still in the space. Liza changed the space. She made it okay to talk about the lived experiences of individuals.

There’s one scene where she talks about engaging with this correctional officer who pats her down in a way that was uncomfortable, that was unconstitutional, that shouldn’t have happened, but she made it a satire. She was able to laugh about it. She was able to make the audience say that when things happen, acknowledge them, but keep moving. She drops a lot of jewels—saying white supremacy is this, you have white devils that look at these sort of issues—but that’s not a chip on your shoulder. I mean, she literally is sitting there, brushing things off of her shoulders. Her message is not “Let’s divide, let’s go and be vicious.” She’s saying, “Let’s love. Let’s acknowledge and let’s love. Let’s acknowledge the people that are visiting us. Let’s say thank you for that.”

There was an incarcerated woman and man in the audience who talked specifically about “I’m doing this different,” through tears. Through tears, they’re saying, “I’m doing this different. I am the individual that went out there and said I was going to do X, Y, and Z, and I thought about myself. I didn’t think about what that felt like to my family. I didn’t know what it felt like to them.” And through this play, they were saying to Liza, “You helped me feel what it means when I get it wrong—I’m carrying an entire family and an entire community.”

You had men that talked about how they never knew the experience of their parents; they were incarcerated in rural facilities, and their parents and their mothers had visited them across 22 years. And being able to see what that meant—being able to be remorseful and empathetic to the collateral consequences that families go through—this production hits it on the head. And for Woolly Mammoth Theatre to get this performance on stage, to be behind it, inside of a correctional facility, they got it right. It’s changing lives. It’s changing lives of individuals.

There was one guy, when I went on the unit yesterday—and if you could only see the passion that he had in talking about this one-woman show. I mean, he had never seen a production in that way. He thought about memorization, he thought about narrative, he thought about climax, he thought about writing—he thought about being able to do it himself, he saw the power in the arts.

And when you bring that into carceral spaces, spaces that don’t have windows that open, spaces that don’t allow individuals to be free the way they could be in society, the play lives on. That play will forever ricochet through the insides of that correctional space.

[See Ian Thal’s review of A Peculiar Patriot.]

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘The Peculiar Patriot’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission.

The Peculiar Patriot, presented in association with National Black Theatre and Hi-Arts, plays through April 20, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the venue or order online.


“When did money become the thing—the only thing?” asks an ambitious young financial journalist in her opening monologue. She then answers her own question: “The mid-eighties. 1985 to be exact…. It was like a new religion was being born.” What follows is a riveting economic epic that Playwright Akad Akhtar calls “a ritual enactment” of “the origins of debt financing”—the crafty new religion’s credit creed.

As we learn, that journalist, Judy Chen (a briskly tenacious Nancy Sun), is researching a book that if published “would torpedo every piety of this new faux-religion of finance.” So hang on tight, because this show is going to be (as they say of the market) volatile.

Perry Young (Raul Rivera) and Nancy Sun (Judy Chen) in ‘Junk.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Performed in the round on the Fichhandler stage, Junk is a sleek look at the slick world of the high-rollers, wheeler-dealers, and pecuniary schemers whose machinations made fortunes and changed the course of American finance. It takes place when high-yield junk bonds came into being—new investment and buyout maneuvers that manufacture debt in order to create wealth. Making money from its absence sounds counterintuitive to folks familiar with ordinary forms of borrowing: car payments, student debt, mortgages, and the like. But Junk makes us privy to a new trade secret of the super-rich.

The protagonist of Junk is a cunning trader named Robert Merkin. “Debt is an asset,” he is quoted in a Time magazine cover story about him. Though modeled loosely on Michael Milken, the inventor of junk bonds who made billions then did time for his crimes (after which he still had billions), Merkin is not written as a money-grubbing bad guy. As played by the lanky and likable Thomas Keegan, he’s an amiable fellow, a decent family man, well-liked by his associates (though distrusted by his adversaries and competitors). To his credit he has a sensitivity to income inequality that though capitalist to its core is sincere:

MERKIN: The only real way to get rid of racial prejudice in this country is to make wealth available to everyone. Because the only thing we care about more than race in America? Is wealth.

And he is very open about what he’s up to, as he tells the inquiring journalist:

CHEN: You’re known for calling debt an asset. To a lot of people  … that idea of debt having value is confusing.
MERKIN: What is debt, but the promise to pay? From that promise, everything else flows. Debt is the nothing that gives birth to everything.
CHEN: That’s very abstract.
MERKIN: Is it? What’s money? Debt on a piece of paper. That’s all a dollar bill is. The US government’s promise on paper to honor the face value of this debt.
CHEN: Right.
MERKIN: And how does the US government honor that debt?
CHEN: It sells Treasury Bonds.
MERKIN: It sells debt to honor debt. Uncle Sam sells bonds to create money. That’s what we’re doing. Selling bonds to create value.

Edward Gero (Thomas Everson Jr.), Thomas Keegan (Robert Merkin), and Jonathan David Martin (Israel Peterman) in ‘Junk.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The storyline of Junk—what Merkin is up to right now—centers on his attempt to take over a steel company that is listed on the Stock Exchange, which would be a coup for him. He intends to risk none of his own money; instead, he’ll raise funds from investors whom he’s made megawealthy, and use the steel company’s own cash flow as collateral to borrow the purchase price.

This makes the antagonist of the story the chief executive of that steel company, Thomas Everson, Jr. Played with a poignant earnestness by Edward Gero, Everson is a principled man. He has diversified the company into other profitable divisions in order to save the money-losing steel business that he inherited. The suspense in Junk’s sometimes dizzying plot is whether Merkin’s hostile takeover will succeed, which would mean he’d shut down the profit-sinkhole steel division and put 15,000 people in rural Pennsylvania out of a job.

Junk has a cast of 17, a few of whom double, so we meet a lot of characters. Remarkably, we get to know each of their stakes in the story. Here are the major ones.

Edward Gero (Thomas Everson Jr.), Perry Young (Raul Rivera), and Thomas Keegan (Robert Merkin) in ‘Junk.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Merkin’s circle of staffers and clients includes Israel Peterman, an eager corporate raider whom Merkin taps to front takeover money (played with wired vigor by Jonathan David Martin); Raul Rivera, a lawyer in Merkin’s firm (a smooth and savvy Perry Young); Murray Lefkowitz, a man for whom Merkin has made millions but who now fears to gamble (a touchingly anguished Michael Russotto); and Boris Pronsky, a man literally indebted to Merkin who proves his downfall (a curiously agitated Elan Zafir).

Everson is advised by two women: Maximilien (“Max”) Cizik, who was Everson Sr’s investment banker for twenty years (a no-nonsense Lise Bruneau) and her colleague Jacqueline Blount, a young, brainy, top-of-her-class lawyer (a briskly proficient Kashayna Johnson).

Akhtar’s script features four super-smart major women characters who are consistently respected as such. Besides the journalist Chen and Emerson’s advisers Cizik and Blount, there’s also Amy Merkin, Robert Merkin’s wife. She and he met in business school, and she’s his financial collaborator and confidant; she knows how to work the market just as well as he does, if not better. They’re teammates—in love, new parenthood, and wealth accumulation. And she is played by Shanara Gabrielle with a keen intelligence that makes their scenes together some of the most electric in the show.

Another laudable layer of Akhtar’s script is its handling of race and ethnicity. Chen is Chinese Amerian; Rivera is of Cuban extraction; Blount is African American; and Merkin, Peterson, and Cisek are Jewish. Unsettling undercurrents of prejudice surface at unexpected turns.

Among Merkin’s foils (there are several, including in law enforcement) is a man named Leo Tresler. Leo is a ridiculously rich private equity expert with a very low opinion of Merkin, as Chen learns when she interviews him for her book. As played with ingratiating entitlement by David Andrew Macdonald, Tresler makes moves on Chen that lead to a sexual payoff at her place. In another of Chen’s very share-y chats with us, she admits that it wasn’t his going down on her that got her off; it was when she fantasized about his enormous financial power.

Later Leo explains the meaning money has for men:

TRESLER: A man is a funny thing, Judy. A man is what he has…. Everybody wants to say it’s something else. Something more noble. But it’s not. What a man has is what makes him in the eyes of the world, and in his own eyes…. And the last thing a man wants to feel is that there’s another man out there who has what he doesn’t, and that the woman he might be falling in love with knows it.

The way this sexual subplot informs the main plot about a hostile takeover is mindblowing.

Akhtar’s storytelling is fluid. Scenes are over and out. The story races apace like a stock market ticker. And Jackie Maxwell directs all in an unerring uptempo.

Set Designer Misha Kachman’s utilitarian set pieces, notably bright white tables, glide in and out. Akhtar’s dialogue is rat-a-tat-tat percussive. It’s as if the playing area is a trading floor for barbs and retorts. Many scenes are phone conversations, but there’s not a phone prop in sight; Lighting Designer Jason Lyons isolates each actor in a harsh white spot and the effect is gripping. Costume Designer Judith Bowden handles the ’80s power suits and big hair with nuance and eloquence. Sound Designer Darron L West gets all the office-world noises just right; and during confidential scenes between Merkin and Pronsky in a parking garage, West creates the empty echo of their voices amazingly.

Junk is a perfectly on-point power play and a formidable achievement in dramatic and political storytelling. It offers profound insight into how the moneyed in America got us where we are. And it ends on a promissory note of iniquity and inequity to come.

Full cast (in alphabetical order):
Union Rep/Corrigan Wiley: Elliott Bales
Giuseppe Addesso: Nicholas Baroudi
Maximilien Cizik: Lise Bruneau
Kevin Walsh: JaBen Early
Charlene Stewart/Lawyer: Amanda Forstrom
Amy Merkin: Shanara Gabrielle
Thomas Everson, Jr.: Edward Gero
Mark O’Hare/Curt: Michael Glenn
Devon Atkins/Waiter: Dylan Jackson
Jacqueline Blount: Kashayna Johnson
Robert Merkin: Thomas Keegan
Leo Tresler: David Andrew Macdonald
Israel Peterman: Jonathan David Martin
Murray Lefkowitz/Maître d’/Counsel: Michael Russotto
Judy Chen: Nancy Sun
aul Rivera: Perry Young
Boris Pronsky: Elan Zafir

Other credits
Director: Jackie Maxwell
Set Designer: Misha Kachman
Costume Designer: Judith Bowden
Lighting Designer: Jason Lyons
Sound Designer: Darron L West
Fight Director: Lewis Shaw
Dialect and Vocal Coach: Lisa Nathans
Casting Directors: Victor Vazquez and Geoff Josselson
Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Danielle Albert
Production Assistant: Dayne Sundman

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

Junk plays through May 5, 2019, at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or purchase online.

Pinter Rep

When Pinter is performed with precision, with exacting attention to the text—as is the case with Scena Theatre’s razor-sharp Pinter Rep—the effect can be both unnerving and exhilarating. The tension of Pinter’s incessantly menacing language keeps us on tenterhooks, which is of course the point. One does not go to Pinter to unwind.

Four short plays comprise Pinter Rep. Three put the screws on. The last is hilariously unhinged. And Artistic Director Robert McNamara has delivered an appropriately sparse and austere show.

Sound Designer Denise Rose sets the tone with atonal preshow music. Lighting Designer Jonathan Alexander makes scenes dim as befits their darkness. Set Designer John Antone keeps the bare-walled black box the cold world of the plays. Costume Designer Mel Chen evokes with simplicity the power of some characters over the powerlessness of others. We are here for the language, everything seems to say. Pay attention to the text.

Irina Koval (as the wife, Gila) and Christopher Henley (as Nicolas) in ‘One for the Road,’ part of Pinter Rep. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

In One for the Road, Christopher Henley, playing a wannabe autocrat in some nameless fascist state, brings to the role a wickedly oily wiliness. Nick, as he’s called, takes vicious delight in first interrogating and humiliating a prisoner, then toying with the man’s seven-year-old son, and finally interrogating and humiliating the man’s wife. He does so, he says, for the sake of “god, country, and honor”—a patriotic narrative that emerges in insults and innuendoes interrupted by swigs of whiskey (hence the title). “I love death,” Nick proclaims, “the death of others.” The prisoner whom he assaults verbally is on the verge of tears the whole time, sobbing at the mention of his incarcerated wife; and Robert Sheire plays the role in such palpable pain it is hard to watch. The son, a spritely Cecilia Smith, likes to play airplane and is never harmed, though we fear he will be. And Irina Koval as the persecuted and broken wife gives a performance that is heartbreaking.

Thus are set forth the dramaturgical and political outlines of this brief evening: one character’s sadistic authoritarianism dominating one or more other characters, who suffer their subordination helplessly.

Karin Rosnizeck (Elderly Woman), David Johnson (Guard), and Mikey Bevarelli (Prisoner) in ‘Mountain Language,’ part of Pinter Rep. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Next up: Mountain Language, in which occupying soldiers in another nameless country torment the indigenous mountain people by refusing them medical care, torturing them, and forbidding them to speak their native language, insisting they speak “the language of the capital.” Henley, Sheire, David Johnson, Greg Ongao are the brown-shirted brutes and Koval, Karin Rosnizeck, Mikey Bevarelli are the three victimized villagers.

Robert Sheire (top left, Des), Christopher Henley (bottom left, Blindfolded Man), and Greg Ongao (Lionel) in ‘The New World Order,’ part of in Pinter Rep. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

In The New World Order, Henley returns bound, blindfolded, and stripped to his skivvies as a prisoner threatened and interrogated by two factotums of another fascist state. This isn’t Nick getting his comeupance; this is yet another demented domination game and Blindfolded Man is but a nameless stooge. What’s amped up from the play before it is that this time the two tyrannizers (Sheire and Ongao) have a lot of jovial male-bondy banter. One calls the other a cunt, for instance, then moments later calls him a prick. It’s got to be one or the other, protests the insultee; cunt and prick are contradictions. Their grim patriotic purpose: “to keep the world clean for democracy.”

Robert McNamara (Pres) and Christopher Henley (Officer) in ‘The Pres and An Officer,’ part of Pinter Rep. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

The fourth short work is The Pres and An Officer, a play found on a notepad after Pinter’s death and now being given its U.S. premiere. This one’s a fun one. Robert McNamara plays a pompous and addled U.S. president (Pinter passed in 2008 so it’s not You Know Who). The Pres instructs the Officer to carry out some horrific orders that are as laughable as they are plausible. Henley, as the very worried Officer, is a perfect foil to McNamara’s comedically larger-than-life portrayal.

I have not yet mentioned the misogyny that is unmistakable in all but the last play. There’s the insult “fuck pig” hurled by a man to a woman in not one but two of the plays. There’s a man’s crack about how intellectual women have a better “ass wobble.” There’s the men’s laughter at the ridiculous notion that women could have “theological aspirations.” There’s the fact that the wife in the first play has been serially raped by her captors and Nick demands that she tell him how many times. There’s the mountain woman’s plaintive appeal to the men occupying her village, “If I fuck you will everything be alright?”

What makes this Scena production so illuminating—about Pinter’s world and our own—is that the first three plays make graphic how men’s authoritarian obsession with dominance and humiliation of women and other men is joined at the hip with misogyny. It’s not something separable. It’s the DNA of despotism.

So when in the fourth play we come to a cartoon of a president, a psychotic and a bully drunk on his power, we should not be surprised if we are reminded of He Who Grabs Them by the Pussy.

Do see this Scena production of Pinter. It is is not only riveting. It is revelatory.

Running Time: About 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Pinter Rep plays in repertory with Beckett Trio, Part Two through May 5, 2019, presented by Scena Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn)

American theater blows off a lot of folx. Leaves out their voices. Doesn’t cast them. Isn’t interested in their stories. Two-Spirit indigenous transpeople, for conspicuous instance, are among the marginalized and erased.

In theatrical retort, an emerging arts collective called Nelwat Ishkamewe (which means Indigenous Root) is presenting a sublimely compelling solo performance piece that intentionally centers the life and ancestral lineage of a Salvadoran Two-Spirit trans femme youth named Alex.

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Alex in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

Alex enters to a boppy beat-box track with a backpack on her back and a jaunty yellow flower in her hair—and she minces no words. She is angry that her native language and culture have been violently stolen. She is angry about the self-hate that results (“our internalized white supremacy, our internalized transmisogynoir”). And she is determined to reclaim and celebrate her identity through ceremonial communing with her ancestors (whom at one point she calls transcestors).

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Siwayul in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

The actor who plays Alex (as well as three other characters in masks) is also the playwright, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul. Xemi, as she is known to friends (it’s pronounced Shem-ee), is herself “a Two Spirit Trans Womxn from Kuskatan (El Salvador),” as she explains in an enlightening self-profile. Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn) is a “one-Femme theatrical play” adapted from a book of her poems—and the language in the piece is by turns piercingly personal, stirringly spiritual, and harrowingly political.

In the work, playing briefly at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Siwayul is one of the masked characters Xemi plays: the revered deity of Two-Spirit Womxn. When Xemi speaks as Siwayul, her voice is prerecorded as though from an ancient oracle.

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Siwanawal in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

The parenthetical in the title, Heart of a Womxn, refers to a realization that Alex comes to that she is not, as some have othered her, a gay man, but that she is in fact, as Siwayul reassures her, a trans femme with the heart of a womxn—an affirmation that the piece celebrates, in poetry, song, and dance.

The black box space is set with black-draped tables holding masks, a drum, Alex’s signature yellow flower, and Alex’s tablet. A captivating track of indigenous drums, flutes, and vocals weaves in and out of the dozen scenes, and pools of light follow the actor around as if seeking a way through the dark. One of the characters, appearing in a skull mask, is Siwanawal, the spirit of La Llarona of Indigenous Mesoamerican folklore. Xemi’s performance in this fierce passage achieves a stature almost tragedian as her now deepened voice becomes a wail for all weeping womxn.

Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul as Nantzin Paula in ‘Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn).’ Photo by Angel Garcia.

A third masked character is Nantzin Paula, a historical figure who helped revitalize the Nawat language. Xemi performs her scene wearing a grinning mask in Spanish and in Nawat, and sings a song completely in Nawat. Here and at other points in the show, when Xemi acts from behind a mask, it is as though emotions are released and selves and spirits expressed that could not be so rawly real otherwise.

One senses throughout that Alex’s quest for clarity and certainty about who she is (and has every right to be) echoes Xemi’s own journey to selfhood. That resonance of autobiographical authenticity is what makes Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn) all the more truthful, all the more urgent, and all the more worthy of witness.

Spirit Worker/Siwayul/Siwanawal/Nantzin Paula/Alex: Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul Director: Alexa Elizabeth Rodriguez
Choreographer: Dane Figueroa Edidi
Stage Manager: Ahanu
Set Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Costume Designer: Angel Garcia
Prop Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Mask Designer: Ahanu
Graphics Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Sound Designers: Ahanu & Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechu
Light Designer: Emmelia Talarico
Hair/Make-Up: Angel Garcia
Assistant Stage Manager: Reignbeaux Xochitl
House Manager: Kariwase Duprey

Running time: 55 minutes with no intermission. Performed mostly in English with some Spanish and a little Nawat.

Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn) plays through April 12, 2019, presented by Nelwat Ishkamewe Two-Spirit Theatre performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased by email ( or online.

Native Son

When one has an overwhelming experience in the theater—as I did watching Native Son at Mosaic—it can take some time to process. This is especially so if the work is unlike anything one thought possible for theater to do.

For context, this is a passage from the review by my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague Ramona Harper:

The play is a boiling cauldron of blistering raw emotion and free-form flights of fancy that open the sealed doors to the taut, jagged mind of a Black man and in doing so blast wide open the sealed windows of a nation that refuses to come to terms with its racist past. It exposes the warning signs that lurk therein and has a clear message for the divisions we are witnessing today.

The cast of ‘Native Son.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Pointedly, the play—brilliantly distilled by Nambi E. Kelley from Richard Wright’s classic novel—is all about race in America. No scene, no line, no plot point is not about race in America. And this succinct experience will necessarily have a novelty for a white theatergoer that it may not for someone for whom life in America is about race day in and day out.

This unfamiliarity, aka privilege, is a liberty analogous to that which a man can have when he imagines he is in circumstances that are not about gender (even if they actually are). A woman, meanwhile, may be more likely to be mindful that inattention to gender dynamics is a luxury she cannot afford.

Though Native Son is set in Chicago the 1930s, its lens on white privilege is still lucid. “White folks don’t let us do nothing!,” says the main character, Bigger Thomas (Clayton Pelham, Jr). “They own the world.” The word they occurs often in the play and almost always means white people. For those who are they, this may take some getting used to.

Clayton Pelham, Jr. (Bigger), Melissa Flaim (Mrs. Dalton), and Vaughn Ryan Midder (Black Rat) in ‘Native Son.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

In an inspired stroke of playwrighting, Kelley introduces a character not in the novel called Black Rat (Vaughn Ryan Midder), who gives voice to Bigger’s inner thoughts and dramatizes the split sense of self that white privilege exacts.

THE BLACK RAT: We all got two minds. How we see them seeing us. How we see our own self. But how they see you take over on the inside. And when you look in the mirror – You only see what they tell you you is. A black rat sonofabitch.

Theatrically the entire play takes us into Bigger’s mind. The setting by Ethan Sinnott is an abstraction of tenements and shards of shattered glass. Kelley’s scenes are structured as units of thought in Bigger’s mind, sometimes going forward in time and sometimes back. The dialogue is staccato. The scenes are short and taut. Each scene propels the action with a riveting tension, and each for Bigger is also a specific psychic event.

Lolita Marie (Hannah), Vaughn Ryan Midder (Black Rat), and Clayton Pelham, Jr. (Bigger) in ‘Native Son.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Typically a particular word at the end of one scene will be echoed at the start of the next. For instance, Bigger, in an interview for a chauffeur job, has just told his future employer, a wealthy white woman (Melissa Flaim):

BIGGER: They said I was stealing. But I wasn’t.
MRS. DALTON: Are you sure? They say you can drive a car. But if you steal –

Immediately lights come up on Bigger’s mother (Lolita Marie).

HANNAH: The only stealing you should be doing is for the Lord, Bigger.
(She sings.)

This pickup of steal is not wordplay, it’s free association: Bigger’s mind being reminded of something then something else then something else. The script makes dozens of similar leaps with pairs of words such as fire, stop, nervous, scared—seemingly random seams that go by imperceptibly. The effect is mesmerizing. It’s as though the free flow of scenes immerses our consciousness in the current of Bigger’s ineluctable fate. With each such subconscious link, we become more invested in how he thinks.

Psalmayene 24 directs the stylized staging with a breathtaking mastery of momentum and meaning. The tension in the storytelling never lets up. The figure of Bigger looms ever larger. His crises of inadvertent criminality cascade. His interior battles with Black Rat keep raising the stakes.

Vaughn Ryan Midder (Black Rat) and Clayton Pelham, Jr. (Bigger) in ‘Native Son.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

This is a powerful production of a provocative play that makes us privy to the conscience of a character whose fateful conflicts are a complex confluence of racist circumstance and bad judgment. How we weigh those two factors in calibrating Bigger’s culpability will necessarily be informed by our own circumstances and judgment. But of this there can be no question: Native Son at Mosaic stands as a must-see instance of theater’s singular ability to transcend identity and invite empathy.

Can’t wait to see next Psalmayene 24’s dramatized debate between Richard Wright and James Baldwin (Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son) and see how it connects.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

Native Son plays through April 28, 2019, in rep with Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son from April 7 through April 27, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

[Read “Director and Playwright Psalmayene 24 Discusses ‘Native Son’ and ‘Les Deux Noirs’” by Michele L. Simms-Burton]



There’s a lot that’s shocking and disturbing in this show, as well there should be—it’s based on the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. That massacre—during which 15 died, including the two shooters—introduced random school shootings to our national nightmare, something once inconceivable. Now 20 years on, the horror is still sinking in, and the “Why?” has not gone away. The question only looms larger—because there have been more than 232 school shootings since.

columbinus—written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli in the aftermath of Columbine—is an artful amalgam of interviews with teens, parents, and survivors. It was first read at Arena in 2003 and premiered at Round House in Silver Spring in 2005 and went on to win multiple awards during a successful run Off-Broadway. “columbinus is not a play,” said Coauthor Paparelli; “it is a theatrical discussion.”

In deciding to bring columbinus back to rekindle that discussion, 1st Stage Artistic Director Alex Levy has done something both nervy and necessary. Nervy because the topic is grim. And necessary because it’s high time we took another look at what columbinus has to say.

Levy explains:

I ultimately decided to program the show because of what I believe theatre can do. The tragedy of school shootings strikes at our very worst nightmares, and it is so terrifying that it is almost too difficult to confront. But, in a theatre, with a community, we face it together. What is too painful to face alone, we can do together and be stronger, even uplifted, for having done it. We can struggle with big questions that are too terrifying to ponder by ourselves. That’s why I make theatre, and that’s why I chose to take on this show.

Co-directors Levy and Juan Francisco Villa have deliberately set this production in a very, very dark place. It’s a fictional high school that could be anywhere because the potential for a school shooting could be anywhere. But at 1st Stage the turbulent world of adolescence that columbinus immerses us in has been conceived by Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki as a black cage-like hellhole, with funhouse mirrors reflecting back every teen’s anxiety about fitting in. Lighting Designer Conor Mulligan splits the darkness with light so stark it eviscerates privacy. Sound Designer Kenny Neal plays angsty emo rock and tracks of strange distortion. And this unsettling setting becomes more and more relevant as we witness the ensemble of eight students enact all the everyday dynamics of dominance and disparagement that leave no one with a worthy sense of self and that drive some to retaliatory rage.

Brett Cassidy, Alex Reeves, Thais Menendez, Rocky Nunzio, Joe Mucciolo, and Patrick Joy in ‘columbinus.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The entire cast, all 1st Stage first-timers dressed realistically by Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt, is captivating: Jennie Bissell, Brett Cassidy, Patrick Joy, Thais Menendez, Joe Mucciolo, Rocky Nunzio, Jonathan Del Palmer, Alex Reeves. Though they are not identified in the program by role, the script gives each a representative quality (such as athletic prowess, academic smarts, religious faith), which the actors make uniformly vivid. And Joy and Nunzio emerge memorably as the two bullied and disaffected loners who bond in self-defense over guns and pipe bombs.

The ordinariness of high school life unspools in two dozen raw and graphic scenes with innocuous titles such as Morning Ritual, Cafeteria, Physical Education, Creative Writing. It does not take long for the arsenal of wounding slurs and innuendos to be deployed: faggot and pussy for the boys, whore for the girls (as one sums up, high school was “four years of looks, smirks, and fuck-offs”). All of which is precursor to acts of physical brutality, and resentment that demands revenge.

Projection Designers Robbie Hayes and Patrick W. Lord do outstanding animated visual storytelling. Props such as a rosary or a pack of cigarettes first seen on screen come nimbly into play in the hands of the actors (the actual ones are by Props Designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs). And at several key points text scrolls on screen with chilling impact, as when Joy delivers an angry screed written by one of the kids who killed.

Patrick Joy in ‘columbinus.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The last scene of the play, titled Aftermath, is powerfully moving: It consists of testimonies from survivors in the years following the shooting. Even though what we feel is sheer grief, it comes as a relief, an emotional respite from the unrelenting unease elicited by the harrowing scenes before. Much of that unease is about what this trenchant production illuminates perhaps more clearly than was possible 20 years ago: We live in changed times. School shootings have not stopped, but there is now greater awareness of how humiliating interpersonal dominance functions to enforce gender norms and punish deviation. 1st Stage now connects that conversation to gun violence.

“I have so much rage inside of me,” says one of the two depressed and alienated loners who determine to exact revenge. There may have been additional reasons they were triggered to commit lethal violence, but they were not alone in bearing the brunt of the derision and ridicule that columbinus presents as the common lot of youth. That is the inescapable truth this uncompromising work of theater asks us to see. The psychic violence that erupts in shootings is going on all the time.

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

columbinus runs until April 20, 2019, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856.