Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: June, 2019

The Heroes’ Tale (DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival)

This power plant of a play knocked me out two years ago during the Capital Fringe Festival and knocked me out all over again in the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival. The Heroes’ Tale debuted in 2011, and in the years since it has been touring with much of the original cast and creative team intact. That longevity and loyalty are a testament to the play’s power in performance.

The four Heroes of ‘A Heroes’ Tale.’ Photo by Kwesi.

Four black men in their forties sit around a chess game in Dupont Circle park in 1980. They open the show singing silky four-part harmony, an upbeat song about themselves: They are the 1342 Dupont Circle Heroes. (“White folks pretended we didn’t exist so we started calling ourselves Heroes.”) They’ve been friends for more than 20 years, since before the area was gentrified. Their elaborate handshake seals their longtime bond, and they enjoy their Boone’s Farm wine.

The story the play subsequently tells—of what happened between 1960 and 1980—is a stunner. In one brief hour, The Heroes’ Tale by Cheryl Butler-Poole weaves themes of race hate and sexual assault into a gripping narrative of love, betrayal, and the longing to know one’s roots. Directed by her husband, Gregory Poole, the show features character acting of an extraordinarily assured caliber.

The way the tale unfolds—its structure, moving back and forth between 1960 and 1980, revelation by revelation, from point of view to point of view—is an important reason the play has such power and suspense.

Twenty years ago, three of the Heroes were convicted of raping a white woman (“Black steet gang rapes white girl” said a headline at the time), and they spent ten years in prison for the crime. They didn’t do it. They don’t just say they didn’t; they really didn’t. But who did do it, and with what consequences for whom, left me breathless by the end.

Autumn Butler (Thyme) in “The Heroes’ Tale.’ Photo by Kwesi.

Thyme (Autumn Butler) is a young woman who is both a character in the story and a witness to it.  She observes everything, from a stool upstage. And just when the Heroes’ male-male banter gets to be too much, she steps through the fourth wall and lets us know what she’s feeling.

The four Heroes are Feets (Gregory Poole), TJ (Manuel A. McCoy Sr.), Black Jimmy (Steve Langley), and Suede (Terrance Hawkins). Their lives have changed but they still harmonize. In a nice touch, they let us know how during the sixties they helped keep the neighborhood safe for white hippies and gays: “If you hung out here, you had Heroes’ protection.”

Autumn Butler (Thyme) and Dena Colvin (Mother) in ‘The Heroes’ Tale.’ Photo by Kwesi.

There’s a white woman we first meet in a 1960 park scene as a hippie, singing “Scarborough Fair” (Dena Colvin). She and Suede meet and get it on. As Mother, she will name her daughter Thyme. “I’m brown,” Thyme tells her Mother years later. Kids at school tease her and call her “a dop head.” Thyme sets out to find her father. She does not know—nor do we—whether she will discover “the missing piece” of her life or “a wrecking ball.”

Pivotal to the story is an actual street gang, a racist one: White Boy 1 (Ben Church), White Boy 2 (Mark Mumm), and White Boy 3 (Todd Leatherbury). Their joking is coarse. Their penchant for violence is vicious.

It’s a crafty work of theater that can lead us from not knowing what to expect to being mind-blown by what we find out. But it’s a brilliant work of theater that can link such narrative suspense to high-tension powerlines of race, class, and sex. What results in The Heroes’ Tale is electrifying.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

A Heroes’ Tale played June 29 and 30, 2019, at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC, as part of the 2019 DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival.

RELATED:
Opening Weekend at the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival (Photo Feature) 
by Malcolm Lewis Barnes

The Boy from Troy (DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival)

One looks for hope where one can find it. And sometimes hope pops up on its own, unexpected. That kind of hope, not sought out, can catch in one’s throat, can even move one to tears. Such was what happened when I watched a one-night-only original musical production based on the life of the legendary Civil Rights Movement leader John Robert Lewis, performed by a racially diverse group of ten boys and girls who attend the Rose L. Hardy Middle School.

‘The Boy from Troy’ at THEARC Theatre. Photo by Anna Reif.

This was obviously no professional theater production, and this was not the kind of play one often sees with an uplift message tacked on at the end so audiences do not leave bummed. This was instead a performance suffused with implicit hope from the moment its young cast took the stage.

They had me at “Hallelujah,” their first musical number together. And it wasn’t so much the quality of their vocals that moved me; it was the generational promise in their racial harmony and the transparency of their sincerity that shone through.

 

BFT.4

‘The Boy from Troy’ at THEARC Theatre. Photo by Anna Reif.

The show had been introduced and framed by grownups: Leon Clark singing “Go Down Moses” in his rich, warm baritone a cappella and George Shirley reading the ringing words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail from a lectern stage right. Overhead began a succession of eloquent documentary photographs of Dr. King, Congressman Lewis, and the Civil Rights struggle.

 

In this august context on the huge THEARC Theatre stage, the kids might have seemed diminutive, diminished, but even in their youthful awkwardness and fledgling poise, their singing and simple storytelling owned every moment.

‘The Boy from Troy’ at THEARC Theatre. Photo by Anna Reif.

The show touched on six episodes in John Lewis’s life beginning with his boyhood in Troy, Alabama, where he was denied a library card in a “whites only” library—a scene acted out with choreographed playground games. The cast mimed pickaxes as the scene shifted to the harsh labor tenant farmers endured. We learned young Lewis practiced preaching to chickens. And early on, we were told, he embraced the ideals of patience, compassion, and nonviolence.

The story continued with the event in 1957 when Lewis was 17 and Dr. King sent him a bus ticket to come to Atlanta to meet with him, later tagging him “the boy from Troy.” Watching two slight ensemble members act out the momentous event between these monumental historical figures was touching beyond words.

‘The Boy from Troy’ at THEARC Theatre. Photo by Anna Reif.

‘The Boy from Troy’ at THEARC Theatre. Photo by Anna Reif.

Particularly poignant was a scene depicting the confrontation between voting-rights marchers and state troopers in Montgomery, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. For different episodes in the show, the students would slip offstage to change T-shirts such that white or black represented the race of the characters they were playing. The T-shirt color was not necessarily the race of the student, which became the subtextual point. The weight of that costuming choice on the parts the students played was powerful, notably in a beautiful musical mashup when half the cast wearing white sang “America the Beautiful” while half the cast wearing black sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Robert F. Kennedy entered the story, and when a student portraying him delivered his announcement that Dr. King has been shot, it sent chills. Also expressive were scenes shown in projections and depicted onstage of Lewis’s marriage to Lillian Miles, his election to Congress in 1986, and President Obama’s bestowing on him the Medal of Freedom.

‘The Boy from Troy’ at THEARC Theatre. Photo by Anna Reif.

As the large-screen filled with images documenting John Lewis’s life and the Civil Rights Movement, the stirring sight of these 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th graders earnestly telling the stories seemed a glimpse at what Dr. King might have meant when he dreamt of children one day living in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The ensemble’s final song together was “Imagine.” I doubt there was a dry eye.

Running Time: About one hour, with no intermission.

The Boy from Troy played June 26, 2019, at THEARC Theater – 1901 Mississippi Ave SE, Washington, DC, as part of the 2019 DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival.

Congressman John Lewis on the Capitol steps with Rose L. Hardy Middle School students in the 2018 cast of ‘The Boy from Troy.’ Photo by Romas Maith.

The Boy from Troy had its world premiere at the Rose L. Hardy Middle School in June 2018 and was invited by the DC Black Theater & Arts Festival to be performed at the THEARC—the first time a DC Public Schools production has been so recognized.

The production grew out of Paul Reif’s History Day project in 2017. The theme that year was “Taking a Stand,” and Paul selected Congressman Lewis and was able to interview him for his multimedia report.

In 2018 the students met with Congressman Lewis on the steps of the Capitol and sang for him one of the show’s numbers, “Hallelujah.”

The Boy from Troy program credits:

Artistic Director: Romas Maith; Musical Director: Leon Clark; Producer: Tim Reif
Scenes I, II, IV Adapted by Romas Maith; Scenes III, VI Adapted by Tim Reif; Scene V Excerpts from President Johnson’s Voting Rights speech chosen by students
Digital Images: Paul Reif; Mural: Stephen Newbold and His Fine Arts Students; Piano: Mason Eva-Buckner

Act One, Early Years
Scene 1: Walking with the wind — A tornado threatens the house
Scene 2: Library Card — John Lewis is turned away
Scene 3: John Lewis meets Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Act Two: Later Years
Scene 4: Bloody Sunday — Voting Rights March of March 7, 1965
Scene 5: Excerpts from President Johnson’s Voting Rights speech
Scene 6: John Lewis and the civil rights movement in transition

Based on Walking With the Wind, A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis with Michael D Orso, and March, A Graphic Novel, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Ensemble Cast
Sarah Albannai, 8th grade; Aaron Curtis, 6th grade; Mason Eva-Buckner, 8th grade; Noel Mulugeta, 8th grade; Paul Reif, 9th grade; Sarah Reif, 7th grade; Lily Roslof, 8th grade; Katrina Tracy, 8th grade; Elijah Wynn, 7th grade; Isaiah Wynn, 7th grade

With special appearances by Leon Clark, singing “Go Down Moses,” and George Shirley, reading excerpts from Letter from Birmingham Jail

MUSICAL SELECTIONS
“Go Down Moses”
“Hallelujah”
“America the Beautiful”
“We Shall Overcome”
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round”
“Gone Too Soon”
“Imagine”

RELATED:
Opening Weekend at the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival (Photo Feature) 
by Malcolm Lewis Barnes

Baldwin’s Nigger (DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival)

With the recent release of  I Am Not Your Negro and If Beale Street Could Talk, the eminent writer James Baldwin received significant cinematic attention. This has been followed in DC by two provocative portraits on stage: Psalmayene 24’s  Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son, seen last April at Mosaic, and Reginald T. Jackson’s Baldwin’s Nigger, seen last weekend in the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival. Now more than ever, Baldwin’s important voice needs to be heard, and Writer/Director Jackson gives us much to listen to in this captivating bio-play.

We meet Baldwin as a young man, already an acclaimed author. There is a record player in the room, some LPs (Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald), some books, a typewriter, and a table with two glasses and two large liquor bottles, which are full for now. Baldwin has invited home another homosexual young man, Ezra, who is white and Jewish. But this is no ordinary pickup. Ezra has come on behalf of several wealthy white donors who want to support the Civil Rights Movement but are reluctant to do so visibly. Ezra wants to get to know “Mr. Baldwin” (as he calls him)—very intimately, it turns out—and in exchange, Ezra offers to write him a million-dollar check for the cause right then and there.

“Call me Jimmy,” says Baldwin, warmly but warily.

Jimmy proposes they play a game, “a variant of strip poker.” For each of Ezra’s questions that Jimmy answers truthfully, Ezra is to write another zero on the check. Deal.

Sentell Harper (Baldwin) and Sean Mannix (Ezra) in ‘Baldwin’s Nigger.’ Photo by S. Dennis Thompson.

The tension between the two—political, racial, sexual—is palpable from the beginning. Sentell Harper as Jimmy captured with uncanny verisimilitude the cadence of Baldwin’s speech, the grace of his body language, the glint of his darting eyes, the charm of his impish smile. Harper’s fine performance was almost a channeling. Sean Mannix as the fictional Ezra conveyed very persuasively the character’s abject emotional neediness, but his reliance on a cartoonishly broad New Joisey accent seemed unnecessary to the play.

James Baldwin (1924–1987)

Once Ezra begins peppering Jimmy with questions, it becomes apparent that Jackson’s script borrows ingeniously and extensively from Baldwin’s actual words—which are inimitably eloquent. There’s a passage at the beginning, for instance, that is pretty much verbatim from a speech Baldwin gave in England in the 1960s that was documented in the 1968 film Baldwin’s Nigger. (That film’s title refers explicitly to Baldwin’s discussion about his forebears’ life as the property of a slaveowner named Baldwin. Jackson adopts the title for a different but also unsettling purpose, which would be a spoiler to reveal.)

In the course of Jimmy’s answers to Ezra’s often impertinent questions, we get an amazingly rich glimpse into Baldwin’s life story—his upbringing in Harlem, his precocious preaching in a Pentecostal church as a teenager, his male and female lovers, his mentors and saviors, his writing career and political views.

Why do you call yourself a Negro?

Is it true you were molested as a child?

Who was Grace, the woman you almost married?

Is Rufus in Another Country, who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, modeled on Eugene Worth, the friend you loved who did the same?

And the Baldwin texts Jackson artfully incorporates comprise a wealth of wit and wisdom:

I don’t believe in race. I don’t believe in color.
To live free, you have to get free of labels.

Oppression keeps you thinking small.

Though the setting suggests the 1960s, the script itself time-travels, as in this striking passage from Baldwin’s trenchant takedown of masculinity, published in 1985 in Playboy of all places:

The American ideal of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of
masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden — as an unpatriotic act — that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.

Sentell Harper (Baldwin) and Sean Mannix (Ezra) in ‘Baldwin’s Nigger.’ Photo by S. Dennis Thompson.

There’s a smidgen of humor in the byplay between Jimmy and Ezra. “I’m pouring out my heart,” says Jimmy, tapping the table mock-scoldingly, “now get out your checkbook.” And Jimmy watches closely as Ezra enters each successive zero on the check. But there’s a far more serious undercurrent because from the beginning the two are playing a potent a game of who’s using whom. Jimmy, in his trim sharp suit, smokes and drinks and maintains his erudition and self-possession throughout. Ezra meanwhile gets sloppy drunk, makes clear he wants to have sex with Jimmy, and steadily undresses. Jackson’s culmination of this creepy story arc is a shocker.

Ultimately, though, what makes Baldwin’s Nigger such a rewarding theatrical experience is not this sensational twist but the adroit way the play as a whole teleports to us the brilliance of James Baldwin. For this much credit is due to both Reginald T. Jackson’s engrossing script and Sentell Harper’s impressive impersonation.

Running Time: About 80 minutes with no intermission.

Baldwin’s Nigger played June 22 and 23, 2019, at THEARC Blackbox – 1801 Mississippi Ave SE, Washington, DC, as part of the 2019 DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival.

RELATED:
Opening Weekend at the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival (Photo Feature) 
by Malcolm Lewis Barnes

Mike Daisey’s A People’s History at Capital Fringe

I remember being so bored by my high school American history class that I got a D in it. This was not normal. My report cards always had A’s and B’s. So the kindly elderly woman who taught the course, and who doubled as a guidance counselor, interpreted my near-flunk as a signal I might have something psychopathological going on. At her behest, I was administered a battery of tests—the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Rorschach inkblot test, and I can’t recall what else. Strangely—as I now look back—it occurred neither to her nor to me that there might actually have been something psychopathological about that American history class.

If only Mike Daisey had taught the course, I would have been spared.

This was my eureka realization after my immersion in the master monologist’s A People’s History—an epic 30-hour theatrical experience that is coming to DC for the Capital Fringe Festival. Daisey performs A People’s History in 18 successive chapters, each about an hour and a half long. Perhaps because I had interviewed Daisey about a couple of his shows at Woolly Mammoth—The Story of the Gun and The Trump Card—I was offered access to audio recordings of last year’s sold-out Seattle Rep run of A People’s History if I would agree to write about it.

I’m a huge fan of Daisey’s work, but still…30 hours? That sounded like a slog. What I did not expect was that as soon as I started listening, I got hooked—like addicted—so much so that my anticipation for each subsequent chapter kept spiking, and by the time the series was over I began relistening from the beginning. All told, I racked up more than 50 hours with Mike Daisey’s voice bogarting the brainspace between my earpods.

And I’m here to tell you: A People’s History is so good and so damn important, I plan to attend and report on each and every live performance in the Kogod Cradle at Arena July 5 to 21.

A People’s History is larded with Daisey’s characteristically garrulous humor—he tells self-deprecating tales from his life, he riffs on life’s ironies, he ribs the audience, he lobs a fusillade of f-bombs, he lofts stirring flights of lyricism. In the recordings, roughly half of each chapter got laughs; the other half met with silence—which I infer was maybe people squirming in discomfort or sitting stock still in mortification—because what Daisey lays out is the dark heart of the history of our country that’s never talked about in schoolbooks and that’s erased in nationalist myth.

The set for Mike Daisey’s ‘A People’s History’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Here is just one tidbit: We’ve all been told that George Washington had wooden teeth, right? Well, that’s not true. His dentures were made from teeth pulled out of the mouths of living slaves whom he owned. The documentation is irrefutable; it’s in his own letters to his dentist. White historians just never mentioned it—because this truth was not on message for the father of our country who never told a lie.

Daisey’s method is inspired. He compares and contrasts two dramatically different versions of American history: on one hand, the “default propaganda,” and on the other, what really came down. For the whitewash, his source is his 1983 high school American history textbook, An American Pageant. For the actuality, he cites mostly from Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States. The upshot is a scathing takedown of American exceptionalism, imperialism, and triumphalism and a cold-eyed account of the nation’s ignominious origin in genocide and slavery.

Daisey minces no words. He calls Ameria’s history of genocide and slavery “one of the most bloody, psychotically awful, vicious histories in the history of the world.” America, he says, is “the only nation of its scale and size that is founded on such monumental crimes.”

That’s probably a Fourth of July buzzkill. And for sure there’s anger in Daisey’s method. But what he’s up to as a political artist here is uniquely worthy of serious attention. For what Daisey has done is invent an original form of theater that literally alters consciousness. It changes fundamentally how we understand. Because it makes the past make sense in a way that makes the present make sense.

A war declared on a false pretext? A tax cut to make the rich richer? Teargassing babies at the border? You name it. Pick any recent governmental outrage. Daisey’s A People’s History will put it in factual, actionable context: America’s been there and been doing that ever since Christopher Columbus made first contact with the people who lived here—people whom he promptly enslaved and whom white Americans subsequently exterminated.

Mike Daisey in ‘A People’s History’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Angela Nickerson.

Turns out Daisey didn’t much like American history in high school either.

It seems like things just fucking happen. It’s a bizarre narrative that doesn’t make any sense.

That was the reason I started pouring myself into this project. Because everything that is happening to my country started to feel like it was changing and shifting.

He describes his 18-part project as

trying to grind away at American triumphalism, which is written into us so deeply you don’t notice it. But when you grind away you reach a point where the raw wood of then matches the wood of 2018.

Suddenly the history of our country becomes a useful narrative because it makes sense with the fucked-up world we’re in now. When you draw through the lines of genocide and hate and how groups get alienated and left out and the way power constructs itself, that is how the world starts to make sense and suddenly history seems immediate and personal.

If ever our troubling times called for a particular work of live theater, this moment and this magnum opus is surely it.

Nothing I’ve experienced in theater comes anywhere near Mike Daisey’s A People’s History in mental/moral transformative impact.

Running Time: Each chapter is about 90 minutes without intermission.

A People’s History will be performed in 18 different chapters from July 5 to 21, 2019 (see schedule below), in The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington. Tickets are available online and at the door. Your first ticket is $35. After that, tickets to subsequent performances in the series are $20 each.

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE

Each performance of A People’s History is a sequential chapter of United States history, starting with the landing of Columbus in 1492 and concluding today in 2019.

Chapter 1: The Gold Earring, July 5 8pm
Chapter 2: The Revolution That Wasn’t, July 6 2pm
Chapter 3: The Skin Of All Your Teeth, July 6 8pm
Chapter 4: The Blind Spot, July 7 2pm
Chapter 5: The Manifest Destiny, July 7 8pm
Chapter 6: The Other Civil War, July 9 8pm
Chapter 7: The Oligarchs Love You, July 10 8pm
Chapter 8: The City That Was Free, July 11 8pm
Chapter 9: The Hunger That Waits, July 12 8pm
Chapter 10: The American Kryptonite, July 13 2pm
Chapter 11: The Revolutionary War, July 13 8pm
Chapter 12: The Black And Silent Wall, July 14 2pm
Chapter 13: The Problem That Has No Name, July 14 8pm
Chapter 14: The Happy Ending, July 16 8pm
Chapter 15: The Tyranny Of Wisdom, July 18 8pm
Chapter 16: The Limits Of Imagination, July 19 8pm
Chapter 17: The Chimes At Midnight, July 20 8pm
Chapter 18: The Living Moment, July 21 7pm

HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop

I have to marvel at all the ways the national culture temple named for our 35th president reaches out to an audience that looks like America. There’s no such uniform audience, of course—no performing art is one-size-fits-all—and KenCen is hip to that. Case in point is the institution’s expansive commitment to Hip Hop Culture—an urban black and brown phenom that wasn’t yet born when JFK was around.

HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop, which played two nights in the Family Theater, is a female-centric tribute to Hip Hop, a genre not always welcoming of young women either as artists or audience. Lyrics are often rife with misogynist name-calling and sexual objectification. (The other day I tried to listen to a rising young male rapper named Blueface whom I’d seen praised to the skies in WaPo. He seemed to be competing in a  contest for who could say fuck, bitch, pussy, and ho most often.) HERstory, written and directed by Goldie E. Patrick, features a cast of five female characters who explicitly set out to resurrect and reclaim Hip Hop so that it can be theirs.

(On stage, from left:) Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys), Billie Krishawn (Eve), Audei Polk (Maxine), (above:) Preshona Ambri (Lele) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

DJ Miss HER amped up a pre-show jam to the rhythm of the beat as if for a dance party, though everyone was seated in rows. The audience—mostly middle-school-age kids of color—filled the auditorium with the kind of irrepressible energy and excitement one might expect in a school assembly. Their anticipatory enthusiasm was infectious (and why can’t grownup theatergoers get with some of that?). From the jump, it seemed HERstory could as well be staged in a club where everyone was free to move.

A comic prologue was delivered by Heather Gibson as “Ya girl, KK,” “spilling the tea,” as if posting live on social from a news event. Amidst audible sh-sh-sh-ing (did I mention these cool kids kind of brought their own show with them?), KK managed to establish the big dramaturgical metaphor of the evening: The genre Hip Hop would be personified as HER (after Common’s 1994 hit “I Used to Love H.E.R,” an acronym for Hip Hop Is Everything Real). She is in a hospital intensive care unit, on her death bed, with life-threatening injuries. It is anyone’s guess whether she’ll make it.

Audei Polk (Maxine), Billie Krishawn (Eve), Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Blue scaffolding on stage (Timothy Jones did the nicely functional scenic design) represents, among other locales, the ICU. A feeble heartbeat monitor beeps (Cresent Haynes did the excellent sound design, which subsequently included sampling from Hip Hop tracks familiar to the rap-along crowd). Besides these musical mashups (rap, gospel, r&b), vivid lighting effects (designed by John Alexander) and animated projections (designed by Katherine Freer) did an eye-filling job of punching up momentum as the somewhat labored story unfolded.

Four characters are introduced, each of them with a personal stake in the survival of Hip Hop: Maxine, a longtime fan (Audei Polk ); Eve, an earnest grad student (Billie Krishawn); Isys, a foremother and former performer (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman); and Lele, a feisty music producer (Preshona Ambri). One by one we get their first-person stories, typically framed in response to topic questions projected like surtitles on the backdrop— “When did you meet Hip Hop?” “Have you ever felt alone?”  The whole cast was excellent but Krishawn’s agile performance as a brainy scholar of Hip Hop (with some serious dance moves) and Freeman’s dignified performance as a Hip Hop elder (“Have you ever been called a bitch by your brother?”) were outstanding.

Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Isys) in ‘HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop.’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Over the course of the play, Eve adorned the hospital room with a growing shrine to HER of flowers and other memorabilia. As the device of topic questions began to get repetitive and the one-note metaphor of HER’s medical crisis persisted, the show really hit its stride with comic relief that often came in the form of snarky friction between the characters’ points of view. There was also much amusingly trenchant sass-back at the misogyny in lyrics by male rappers, the industry’s corporate dominance of the genre, and the presumptuous appropriation of Hip Hop by white artists and consumers. The funny bits and jokes seemed to land with the audience to greater effect than did the overarching, ultimately unresolved metaphorical storyline, which challenged even my attention span. Notably, a brief scene involving a comic takedown of two white screaming fangirl/rappers (uncredited in the program) got the most raucous laugh of the night.

Somewhat unsteady as musical-theater plotting but tremendously sound in its values—a rock-solid commitment to black and brown young women’s right to express themselves through Hip Hop on their own terms—Goldie E. Patrick’s HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop is a work well worthy of mainstage production, at Kennedy Center and beyond. Because America needs to look more like this.

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

HERstory: Love Forever, Hip Hop played June 14 and 15, 2019, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC – presented as part of the Irene Pollin Audience Development and Community Engagement Series.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2

How do I love this play? Let me count the ways.

My colleague David Siegel’s review heaps accolades on the Round House Theatre production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Lansburgh. Indeed the impeccable direction (Nicole A. Watson), the inspired design (Paige Hathaway, set; Helen Huang, costumes; Harold F. Burgess II, lighting; Roc Lee, sound), and the four starring performances (Nancy Robinette, Holly Twyford, Kathryn Tkel, and Craig Wallace) comprise one of those thrilling peak experiences in theater that one remembers for years after.

But it was the writing that burned into my brain the most. Hnath’s script can be gut-busting funny—and the laughs are smart, never cheap—but at its core, the play is a scorching explication of what it takes and what it costs for a woman to own her own self in a world defined by men.

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House attempted as much 140 years ago. Nora’s epically controversial exit—when she walks out of her suffocating marriage to Torvald, leaving three children behind—became the door slam heard round the world. It incited arguments for decades and presaged Betty Friedan’s 1963 critique of “the problem that has no name”: the hidden unhappiness of middle-class housewife-mothers.

Very like Ibsen before him, Hnath as a pro-woman male playwright has imagined and articulated the inner life of a fictional female, Nora, with remarkable sensitivity and verisimilitude.

Holly Twyford (Nora) and Craig Wallace (Torvald) in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Hnath’s sequel begins 15 years after Nora’s exit in the same upper-middle-class home with a knock on the double door upstage. She’s baaack. We find out why (she thought Torvald filed for divorce; he didn’t; she needs him to). We find out what Nora has been up to (she relished life alone for a while then had numerous lovers). We find out who she has become (a famous, financially secure feminist novelist, writing under a pseudonym).

Hnath’s plotting of the backstory is fascinating.

And we realize the stakes for this self-determining woman are still steep, civil inequality still undermines her independence, she is still threatened with penalties that prosper male supremacy. Somehow I don’t think Ibsen would be rolling in his grave at what Hnath has done. I think he would be applauding. He might even be in awe.

Nancy Robinette (Anne Marie) and Holly Twyford (Nora) in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

In the first scene, between Nora (Twyford) and Anne Marie (Robinette), we learn that Nora now has a politics explicitly grounded in her personal:

NORA: I no longer see a reason for marriage
I think that women who are not happy in their marriages should refuse to honor the contract and leave…
Marriage is cruel, and it destroys women’s lives

Nora not only believes this; she espouses this, in a book that has become a best-seller. Anne Marie—the nanny who raised Nora then brought up Nora’s three children after she abandoned them—proceeds to puncture the class privilege in Nora’s pronouncement:

ANNE MARIE: I didn’t have a father with money like you had a father with money, I didn’t have the same options you had. Do you think I wanted to leave my home and become a nanny? My options were—what—working in a factory and wearing my body down to the point of uselessness at an early age, or I could go out and be a prostitute

Holly Twyford (Nora) and Kathryn Tkel (Emmy) in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

In a subsequent scene, Nora meets her youngest child, Emmy (Tkel), now an assertive, self-possessed young woman. And here Hnath introduces a generation divide that sounds a lot like tensions today between so-called second-wave and third-wave feminism. Emmy, who is engaged, rejects Nora’s condemnation of marriage outright:

EMMY: I want to be held. I want to be possessed. I want to be somebody’s something— I can see you cringe when I say what I’m saying. But that’s about you, and it’s not about me, and I’m telling you what I want, and you may want something different for yourself, but don’t make my wants about your wants

I mention these two points in the script because they illustrate an impressive political dimensionality in Hnath’s play that doesn’t get a lot of attention. As predicted by its premise, A Doll’s House, Part 2 cuts into gender inequalities and simmering male-female resentments with a scalpel—the scenes on the subject between Nora and Torvald (Wallace) are scalding, and when in the last scene they almost duke it out, their contretemps gets so explosive they as much as stop the show. But it is Hnath’s artful incorporation of class and generational conflict that really rounds out a brilliantly conscious work of theater.

Running time: About 95 minutes with no intermission

A Doll’s House, Part 2 presented by Round House Theatre, plays through June 30, 2019, at the Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100 or go online.

Byhalia, Mississippi

The pivotal character in this profoundly moving comedy is Laurel, a young woman who has relocated from Jackson to Byhalia, Mississippi, to make a life with the young man she plans to love for the rest of her life. She is pregnant and overdue. A snob might think them “white trash” because they’re broke and this is the South, but they are rich in joy and mutual affection. And in Caroline Neff’s incandescent performance, Laurel keeps us caring about her every instant—not least when no one else does because her baby turns out to be black.

Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi, won Chicago’s prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work in 2016, and it was highly praised in DC Metro Theatre Arts when it was staged in 2017 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Now The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has mounted a new production that pulses with ever more funniness and feeling as its seven scenes unfold.

Caroline Neff (Laurel), Jack Falahee (Jim), and Cecelia Wingate (Celeste) in ‘Byhalia, Mississippi.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The play takes place in Jim and Laurel’s low-cost, single-story house set down on a concrete block foundation. Designed by Cameron Anderson, it looks as if a flood or a twister would be the end of it. Analogously, the play puts the foundation of Jim’s and Laurel’s relationship to the test of a storm that neither of them saw coming.

The play opens with hilarious bickering between a very pregnant Laurel and her overbearing, hypercritical mother, Celeste (an alarmingly credible Cecelia Wingate), who is visiting for the delivery.

They keep saying “I love you” to each other even when what they say is snarky and cutting. It is a motif that Linder sustains brilliantly throughout. I cannot recall a play containing more mixed-message “I love you”s.

We see Jim smoking pot on the roof. As he comes inside, with a spritz of Febreze that fools no one, he encounters Celeste’s longstanding low opinion of him. Laurel, fed up with her mother’s judgments and nagging, insists that she leave. Alone together, Laurel and Jim have a playful, sexually charged scene that establishes their passion for each other in spite of some rifts. Jack Falahee is arresting as a lanky and wired Jim who we sense could explode any moment in lust or rage.

Blake Morris (Karl) and Jack Falahee (Jim) in ‘Byhalia, Mississippi.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The second scene takes place after the birth of the baby that is Laurel’s but not Jim’s. Jim bursts in on Karl, his buddy from childhood, who has been helping out preparing a nursery. Just on the basis of the fact that Karl is black, Jim accuses him of fathering the baby. The insult wounds Karl deeply, and we see in Blake Morris’s nuanced portrayal of Karl the start of a rupture in their friendship.

Matters go even worse between Laurel and Jim when she returns from the hospital with the baby they had planned to name Bobby if a boy or Bobbi if a girl. Jim is in an unbecoming fury. He wants to divorce her. Laurel tries to reach him, to ask his forgiveness, in hopes he will stay with her and regard the baby as his. Jim just wants out.

Laurel’s mother, Celeste, returns and wants another kind of end to it. She wants Laurel to get rid of the baby, to give it up for adoption. Laurel says no.

In the second act, an elegantly dressed black woman arrives named Ayesha, a childhood friend of Laurel’s. As it happens, she is the wife of the man who fathered Laurel’s child. Aimé Donna Kelly brings a magnetic hauteur to the role, never more imposing than when she orders Laurel to take the baby and get out of town.

Aime Donna Kelly (Ayesha) and Caroline Neff (Laurel) in ‘Byhalia, Mississippi.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

It’s now Laurel and her baby against everyone. She gets no one’s sympathy except ours. And we care for her, oh how we care for her, that she and the baby will be alright.

Kimberly Senior directs with a lifeline to every character’s truth and to every heart in the house. Jen Caprio’s uncondescending costumes remind us that though these characters are lower class, they are individuals with real lives. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design most strikingly announces someone’s arrival with the sound of tires on gravel.  Jennifer Reiser’s lighting captures both the garishness of overhead fluorescents and the homely warmth of thrift shop lamps. And Dave Anzuelo’s fight choreography is spot-on character-specific.

In a riveting play through which flow powerful and complex themes of love, forgiveness, and racism, Linder has created in Laurel a role for the ages. She is a character of humble status whose resilience and moral stature rank with theater’s greatest heroines. And Caroline Neff’s performance in the role is indelible.

Don’t miss this superb production of an absolutely extraordinary new play.

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

Byhalia, Mississippi plays through July 7, 2019, presented at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324 or go online.

The Oldest Boy

Sara Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy tells a gut-wrenching story serenely, almost gently. At the heart of it is the bond between mother and child, a tie that Ruhl knew intimately when she wrote the play, shortly after she herself gave birth. In The Oldest Boy, she creates a dramatic correlative for her own mixed feelings of maternal attachment and anticipated separation—and strikingly she sets this very personal young mother’s story in a context she knew from research not first-hand: the world of Tibetan Buddhism.

An unnamed character identified in the program as Mother (Jenna Sokolowski), who is American, is married to Father (Rafael Untalan), who is Tibetan. They have a three-year-old son named Tenzin, the titular Oldest Boy, who is depicted as a puppet (voiced by Al Twanmo). One day Mother and Father are visited by Monk (Franklin Dam) and Lama (Steve Lee), who inform them that their son is a reincarnated lama and so must be taken to India to be raised and taught in an all-male monastery. The central conflict in the play thus becomes whether Mother and Father can let the boy go and make peace with having done so.

Jenna Sokolowski (Mother), Matthew Marcus (Puppeteer), Al Twanmo (Oldest Boy) in ‘The Oldest Boy.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The production directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer at Spooky Action Theater is lovely to look at and listen to—its stunning ceremonial evocations of Tibetan Buddhism in music, movement, and design lend a reverent aura of authenticity that transports us to a captivating world of ritual and faith (for this much credit goes to Movement Director and Music and Cultural Consultant Tuyet Thi Pham). And in addition to Sokolowski’s frequently heartwrenching performance as Mother-facing-separation-from-her child, the actors in the four Tibetan roles (Dam, Lee, Twanmo, and Untalan) inspire a sense that a seemingly surreal story is being told truthfully.

Improbably but enchantingly, the Oldest Boy puppet (constructed by Matthew Pauli) resembles not at all a rambunctious, whiny toddler but rather a child wise beyond his years, a wide-eyed small person with an unchanging expression of knowingness and composure—as though he was born that way.

Whatever one may believe about reincarnation, Ruhl’s script is cleverly persuasive that this puppet boy really is the embodied return of Lama’s revered teacher, who died just before Tenzin was born. Theater can play tricks like that, so we willingly play along. Further, we are given to understand that the boy will be exceedingly well taken care of by nurturant and worshipful monks, and his parents can visit on weekends. Thus what could be a sorrow-filled story of loss (bordering on child-snatching) is magically melded to a beatific story of distinction (bordering on glory). And in the tension between, Ruhl leaves us uncertain whether we are to feel the distress of bereft parents trying to reconcile themselves to an impending separation or whether we are to accept gracefully a plot point that as framed in the play is the boy’s divine destiny.

And then about midway through, the Mother asks a rhetorical question that cracks apart the whole predicament…

MOTHER: Why does every religion have stories about giving up your child?

I’m not sure if Ruhl meant that line to take us out of the play, to go all meta on what is going on, but it does, especially as Mother starts citing the Bible…

MOTHER: I always thought the Abraham story was so awful…. God comes down and says, “Abraham, kill your son to prove your faith in me.” And so Abraham puts his son on a slab of rock and is about to stab him and God says, “What are you doing, Abraham, I was just kidding!”

And there’s more scriptural sourcing. Mother has a separation nightmare, a version of the Solomonic parable about the child claimed by two mothers. In her dream, it is Lama tugging at one of the puppet boy’s arms and she herself tugging the other—so hard she tears off the child’s arm.

Other religious stories on the theme come to mind: Mary venerated for letting the fruit of her womb go off to temple when he was barely twelve. Hannah venerated for turning her son Samuel over to priests when he was barely weaned. Funny how the sanctified menfolk required in the practice of patriarchal religions seem all to have been ripped untimely from womenfolks’ wombs. I’m not sure it was Ruhl’s intent to reflect on that fact, but The Oldest Boy sure puts the issue front and center, for instance when Father touts this patriarchal party line:

FATHER: Our son was chosen not just for himself, but to benefit others. You must think bigger than being only a mother.

MOTHER: Only a mother? He came out of my body.

Mother doesn’t have to wail the words to convey her indignation at the dis.

Steve Lee (Lama), Jenna Sokolowski (Mother), Rafael Untalan (Father), Franklin Dam (Monk) in ‘The Oldest Boy.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

As the second act of The Oldest Boy begins, Mother and Father are in India for what will be their ceremonial farewell to Tenzin, and Mother is again pregnant. Dramaturgically this conception is convenient, almost pat: it reassures us they will have a spare as they’re about to lose an heir. But the zinger Ruhl delivers comes in a gender reveal. Mother tells Father she feels something, knows something. About to lose a son to a sanctum of men—a near universal in the lives of mothers—she has a profeminist premonition that brings her passing peace:

MOTHER: It’s a girl. It has to be. If she’s a girl, she can’t be a lama.

Running Time: About two hours, including one intermission.

The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies plays through June 30, 2019, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th St NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online, by phone (202) 248-0301, or at the theater one hour before performances.

Second Body

A Post-Play Palaver coauthored with Sophia Howes

Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DC Metro Theater Arts writers who saw the same performance, got really into talking about it, and decided to continue their exchange in writing. That’s what happened when Senior Writers and Columnists Sophia Howes (Dangereuse) and John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) participated in Second Body, a unique immersive theatrical event and personal communication experience.

Second Body utilizes some basic audio technology to allow two volunteers in two different spaces to conduct a conversation with each other through two entirely different people—actors who function as living avatars. Synetic Theatre is presenting demonstrations of the performance experience in conjunction with its run of Richard iii.

John and Sophia, who had both seen Richard iii, attended Second Body intending only to observe and not take part. But after watching two volunteers go through it, they decided to give it a try. The transformative experience they each had surprised them both.

Arlo Hill in the lobby of Synetic Theatre June 1, 2019, explaining to the audience how ‘Second Body’ works. The two chairs behind him are where a volunteer and an actor/avatar will sit and converse.

John: It took me a while to figure out what in the world this was. Initially, even the tech setup was perplexing. The very personable facilitator-host, Arlo Hill (an actor himself), welcomed everyone, gave us some high-concept framing for what was about to transpire, and explained what would happen. He would ask for two volunteers (I’ll call them A and B). Volunteer A would stay in the lobby and Volunteer B would go to another room. Each would wear a headset mic that would transmit what they say to one of two actors wearing an earpiece. (The actors were from the Richard iii cast.) The actor hearing Volunteer A’s voice would speak the words back simultaneously to Volunteer B. Similarly, the actor hearing Volunteer B’s voice would speak the words back simultaneously to Volunteer A.

Frankly, this didn’t make much tangible sense until I watched two volunteers—who didn’t happen to know each other—go through it. And then something changed for me, relaxed in me. Maybe it was Hill’s warm and reassuring manner or maybe the simple free will and transparency in what I saw and heard, but this suddenly seemed safe enough to try. And I turned to you and asked you if you’d like to try it too.  What were you thinking?

Sophia: I was thinking, I hope John doesn’t rope me into this! But I really enjoyed the first two sets of volunteers. And this new type of theater is really intriguing. So I thought, as long as I don’t have to be the one on stage I’ll give it a try.

I was led into a back room and provided with a headset microphone attached to a transmitter. I was still a bit confused about what I was supposed to do, but eventually, I figured it out. I was sitting opposite an actress who would be speaking John’s words. He would be on stage opposite an actress who would be speaking my words. I had no idea what we would talk about, or how in-depth our conversation would turn out to be.

At first, we talked a bit about Richard iii, which we both admired.  But then John floored me with the following remark. “We have both lost significant others. Maybe we can talk about that.”

John: I know, I was surprised I said that too. But it didn’t come out of the blue. It came from the experience of talking to you, whom I knew,  as if you were present. And somehow, strangely, that put me in mind of conversations I’ve had in my mind with the loved one I lost…as if she were still present.

It all started when we were chit-chatting about Richard iii. I remember I asked “you” (the actor opposite me)  what the heck Second Body had to do with that show. (In my own mind: not much.) Then “you” (the actor) gave a very smart answer, so typical of you. It was about how Richard is played as a cyborg, a semi-artificial being, not in his own body, or something like that. Sorry if I can’t remember exactly what you said because something else was going on that was blowing me away. As I listened to the actor say the smart things you said, I recognized you as you, even though you were not there.

Then weirdly I was reminded of something. It was a story I’d never told you, but there was something about talking to you this way made me want to tell it now.

Arlo Hill in a ‘Second Body’ publicity photo.

Not long ago I was walking in Penn Quarter and a young man came up to me on the street, called my name, knew me. But I didn’t recognize him and kind of stared at him blankly. Then he said, “Oh, sorry, you didn’t know” (or words to that effect), and explained that he had transitioned since I knew him years before as a female coworker. And sure enough, as soon as he said that, I recognized the person I knew, not from how he looked (which was now very different) but from some sense I instantly recalled, of—what?—his central self? his core character? his distinctive chuckle? I don’t know. All I knew is that I immediately relaxed and said, “Oh, hi, so good to see you again!”

All of this is to retrace the uncanny pathway whereby this Second Body experience led me to think and talk about something I have rarely shared—and certainly something you and I have never discussed: my waking and dreaming conversations with someone I knew and who knew me for 31 years whom I sometimes still believe I am communicating with. In that strangely transcendent but absolutely real Second Body moment, I knew that you as my friend would understand exactly what I was talking about—even though I was telling this all to a perfect stranger.

Sophia: I think loss as a subject makes many people uncomfortable. And, with a friend, you don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings by bringing it up. If you had actually been there, I don’t think we would have talked about it. But because it was someone else’s body and not you, I had a different reaction. When you mentioned conversations with your lost loved one, I felt free to express how I really felt.

It was a relief to hear about your conversations. I have them with my late husband, who passed away three years ago from brain cancer. I usually focus on trying to convince him that I am doing well and handling things just fine, for myself and as a mom.

Of course, that’s not always true! But it makes me feel better to say it.

John: I agree, what we said to each other during Second Body is not something we would be likely to have said face to face. And if even if we ever did, I doubt it would be with the same sense of ease and lightness I felt confiding in this way—all while addressing an actor I didn’t know and in front of an audience of people I’d never met in my life!

It was totally unlike conversing on the phone or instant message or even FaceTime, because the voice I heard was someone else’s—but I totally knew it was coming from you. Afterward in a talkback, someone mentioned being reminded of a seance—but that wasn’t what it was for me either. A seance connotes some otherworldly, out-of-body intervention. For me the Second Body experience was completely different: more like an unexpected opening in my life, a chance to access and consciously accept with grace something in myself, something true to me, something that it turns out I wasn’t yet on intimate speaking terms with: my own constant capacity to recall someone not physically present but still living in my heart and mind.

I’ve had a lot of peak emotional experiences in live theater. That’s why I keep going, hoping it will happen again. And it does, striking like lightning in lots of ways. Apparently, the Second Body communication you and I shared was very emotional for those watching. Arlo for one was in tears. But I can honestly say I’ve never had a more personal or more emotionally freeing theatrical experience than I had in the subjective trust I felt that I could truly talk with someone I knew who was not literally there. And that was the key. It was not grieving. It was freeing.

Running Time: About an hour.

Afterward: Arlo Hill, John Stoltenberg, Sophia Howes.

Second Body is performed/demonstrated through June 16, 2019, at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets are available online.

Everyone’s personal experience of Second Body will be different. Here’s more about what to expect from the Synetic Theatre website:
Incubated and developed at Sightline Arts through a yearlong initiative exploring the shifting divide between the virtual and the real, Second Body is a hybrid of communications technology and old-fashioned face to face conversation, in the format of a live performative event. At a Second Body event, the audience is witness to a surreal encounter: two volunteers in two different spaces engage in a conversation through the bodies of two entirely different people. This overlaying of multiple conflicting identities and relationships onto a single pair of individuals creates a strange, disorienting, thrilling, and often unexpectedly hilarious experience—prompting a whole range of social, political, technological, and philosophical questions. Imagine speaking to your friend, your child, your spouse, in a different body.  What impossible conversations might be possible?