Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: September, 2019

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

Can one laugh heartily at a satirical comedy—be thoroughly engaged by the entertaining characters, story, and performances—and then after it’s over mourn what it was about? That was for me the postshow recoil from Jocelyn Bioh’s delightful School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, now playing at Round House Theatre in a vivacious production directed by Nicole A. Watson. The sadness that Bioh’s script keeps beneath the surface hit like unforeseen grief.

Debora Crabbe (Mercy), Awa Sal Secka (Ama), Jade Jones (Nana), Kashayna Johnson (Paulina), and Moriamo Temidayo Akibu (Gifty) in ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

 

My colleague Ramona Harper in her fine review had given me a heads-up. School Girls, she wrote:

sashays into the world of African teen queens with a comedic briskness that’s funny and charming but also seriously sobering….

School Girls is not only comedic entertainment but also sharp criticism of a worldview that teaches women—in Africa as well as the US—to value themselves by the shade of their skin….

Skin bleaching, body shaming, and self-loathing are themes that give School Girls a deeper punch.

Further forewarning appeared in the handsome new Round House lobby, where there hangs a display—very worth a read before seeing the play—pointedly critiquing the white western beauty standards now gone global that women are expected to conform to. And a trenchant program note by Round House Dramaturg Gabrielle Hoyt attributes “racist beauty standards that create a desire for skin bleaching” to “centuries of colonial rule, [when] white officials dominated the hierarchies of nations throughout Africa, Asia, and South America.”

So conceptually I was briefed. Plus, I was familiar with white feminists’ writings about “the beauty myth” and how “beauty hurts.” So the uncomfortable-to-watch fat-shaming scene that begins Bioh’s play locked me in immediately to these Ghanian school girls’ struggle to love themselves and feel lovable in a world that never stops judging their worth by their looks.

Moriamo Temidayo Akibu (Gifty), Claire Saunders (Ericka), Debora Crabbe (Mercy), and Awa Sal Secka (Ama) in ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

 

But why, I wondered, given all this preparation, did an enormous sorrow sneak up on me after?

And then I remembered.

In the early 1980s I worked for five years at Essence as managing editor. Then as now, the magazine focused on Black women’s hair, beauty, and fashion, but back then there was an openness to more literary and substantive writing by, among others, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin (both of whose work I was fortunate to acquire and see through to publication). One day I reached out to Alice Walker, whose The Color Purple had just been published, to ask if she had anything she would like to see in Essence. Yes, she did, as it happened. Please send it, I said.

It was an amazing read, a literary essay about colorism, which she defined as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” It was full of vivid references to fiction by Black authors, and bold assertions about the extent and nature of colorism and other forms of gendered and raced oppression. Edited for length, the essay was published in the June 1982 issue of Essence as “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” (later reprinted in full in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens). I did not know at the time that some later scholars would consider that essay the first explicit coinage of the word colorism.

But I’m getting ahead of the story—as memory often does.

Debora Crabbe (Mercy), Theresa Cunningham (Headmistress Francis), Jade Jones (Nana), Moriamo Temidayo Akibu (Gifty), Awa Sal Secka (Ama) in ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

What School Girls brought back to mind was what happened when the manuscript of that essay by Walker was circulated for comment among the other editors—all smart, strong Black women committed to empowering other Black women. I did not anticipate how much pain and anger the piece would provoke among them. Some even argued against publishing it at all.

Susan L. Taylor, the inspired and inspiring editor-in-chief, brokered a compromise. Essence would assign a dark-skinned Black woman to write a personal essay, and a light-skinned Black woman to write one as well. These two essays would be published on either side of Walker’s, to balance its painful topic emotionally, under the overall title “Embracing the Dark and the Light.”

I learned then about a depth of hurt that would never be mine and that I could never have imagined and that I knew, in sadness, I must never forget.

I cannot say what memories and emotions will arise when you see School Girls. But see it you should. It opens eyes and hearts and may even help heal—as laughter often does.

Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play presented by Round House Theatre, plays through October 20, 2019, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100 or go online.

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The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers

Sitting in the front row in a child-size chair, I watched a puppet show based improbably on a play by Tennessee Williams. The occasion was a preview at Spooky Action Theater of a never-before-produced script that Williams wrote as a university student and titled The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers. Subtitled “A Japanese Fantasy in One Act,” it had been mounted in miniature by Natsu Onoda Power, who not only directed and designed it but built almost every bit of it.

“I’m very crafty,” she joked as we chatted in the theater afterward.

Director Natsu Onoda Power with the kamishibai (picture play) puppet stage she built for ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers.’ Photo by Laura Mertens.

The play will have its world premiere September 26 to 29, 2019, at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Renowned for imaginative stagings that include her Helen Hayes Award–winning adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Onoda Power was approached by David Kaplan, the festival curator and cofounder, to do Falling Flowers utilizing kamishibai, a Japanese art form that translates as picture play. “The script invited some sort of unusual visual treatment,” Onoda Power said. “And they were specifically looking for people who knew kamishibai.”

Onoda Power knew the form well. She had been using kamishibai as inspiration for several recent multimedia works. For each of the three scenes in Falling Flowers, she amplified and enhanced it.

In the first scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers,’ Dylan Arredondo (The Emperor) and Jared H. Graham (The Prime Minister) operate two-dimensional puppets. Photo courtesy of Spooky Action Theater.

“Kamishibai is usually a set of illustrated placards with narration on the back. You flip it to reveal different pictures to tell the story,” she explained. “Falling Flowers starts out in the first scene looking like traditional kamishibai then introduces cut-out two-dimensional puppets. Then in the second scene it moves to miniature three-dimensional puppets. And in the third scene we use Noh-inspired masks—not worn on the performers’ faces but held in their hands and operated like puppets to tell the story.”

Drawing inspiration from the 11th-century Japanese classic The Tale of Genji, Williams wrote Falling Flowers about an Emperor who enlists his Prime Minister to help him find a wife. The Emperor expects her to be a wonderful poet. He won’t settle for anyone who isn’t. Eventually he finds the Princess poet he’s looking for and they fall in love.

In the second scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers,’ three-dimensional puppets come in to play. Photo by Natsu Onoda Power.

“There are many layers of meanings in the progression of the characters’ representation from illustration to cut-out puppets to full-size,” Onoda Power explained. “I thought that for Williams, Falling Flowers was an experiment in storytelling. I imagine him writing it like an exercise. He was taken by this ancient Japanese text and wanted to do his own version of it. I wanted to do something similar: a study in different forms of storytelling that I am actively borrowing.

“It’s not mimicry, it’s more adaptation—my own adaptations of established forms.”

Nobody familiar with Williams’s body of work would think Falling Flowers part of it. And one wonders how many other works he put in the drawer that were also not what we think of as Williams. “This is like a delightful surprise, that he was even compelled to do it,” Onoda Power said. Her staging of Falling Flowers is a form of “honoring his imagination,” she said, “boldly approaching different forms and then using them.

In the third scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers,’ Noh-inspired masks are used as puppets. Photo by Natsu Onoda Power.

“There’s another reason behind the multiple modes of representation,” she continued. “This is a text that if someone were to write it today, they may be accused of cultural appropriation. It’s Tennessee Williams essentially writing in the Japanese voice. And because we’re putting it up in the contemporary U.S., there are some challenges. Like who’s going to play these characters if we do it with humans? Do they have to be Japanese actors? Except these characters are hardly authentically Japanese—and what’s authenticity anyway? However, if we do it with puppets and not just one set of puppets or one set of illustrations but multiple, then we see many different ways in which we perceive these characters, all of which constitute the complex figures that these characters are.”

The cast of three—Dylan Arredondo (The Emperor), Jared H. Graham (The Prime Minister), and Melissa Carter (The Lady and The Princess), all alumni of the National Players touring ensemble—had worked with Onoda Power before. At the preview I saw, they seemed completely in sync with the performance style, the language, the puppetry, Onoda Power’s vision, and one another.

Dylan Arredondo (The Emperor), Jared H. Graham (The Prime Minister), and Melissa Carter (The Princess) in scene three of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers. Photo courtesy of Spooky Action Theater.

“I often think about many versions of ourselves,” Onoda Power reflected. “We present ourselves in so many different versions in our daily lives. And all these versions are true. I wanted to play with that idea with multiple puppet possibility.”

Melissa Carter (The Princess) and her princess finger puppets in the second scene of ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers.’ Photo courtesy of Spooky Action Theater.

This esthetic approach also gives context to the gender politics of the play. “I felt that many different forms of puppets could give us a meta commentary about that,” Onoda Power said. “We think we’ve come so far in the way we speak about gender or we enact gender, but we’re not yet in full human form. We’re in the closer-to-human but still masked-puppet phase. The transformation of performance styles in the three scenes is a record of a gender discourse.”

I noted that the three actors seemed to put air quotes around much of what they said—notably Melissa Carter as The Lady and The Princess. When she’s reacting, you can see that she’s commenting all the time. Onoda Power shed light on that.

“There’s a line at the top of the third scene where the Emperor asks, ‘Are you a princess?’ And she says, no, ‘I’m just a stupid woman.’ We wanted to inflect that line with ‘because everybody said so.’ ”

Mask in progress for ‘The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers. Photo by Natsu Onoda Power.

Besides working out the presentation conceptually, besides working with the performers on acting style and props, Onoda Power also designed and constructed everything—the puppets, the toy stage, the placard paintings, the masks—it’s all her handiwork (except six cute little princess finger puppets that Carter offered to make and wears in scene two). Onoda Power possesses an extraordinary synthesis of conceptual and dramatic artistry with mechanical and sculptural dexterity.

“I don’t think I can separate them,” she told me. “A lot of the ideas come while I’m making things. Also, in rehearsals as we work with things, sometimes the objects give you ideas. You don’t know until you have the puppet in your hand what it’s going to do.

“I usually do the first phase of rehearsals with mockups. Then I take a little time between the initial rehearsals and the final set of rehearsals to make everything. For this one, we had three days of workshop in July and then we didn’t really come back until four days before preview. I had a month and a half in between for me to figure things out.”

When the show goes on the road to Provincetown, it will be set up for outdoor performances and taken down at night. It’s all compact and transportable. “Everything fits in a suitcase,” she said. “Everything is built to fit exactly. Everything has its compartment. And I made custom pillows for each piece, so for instance, each mask has a little cushion that closes with Velcro and protects it.”

The family-friendly show runs about 35 minutes. It has grownup themes, it’s not a children’s story, but it’s told as if it were, which is both disarming and engaging, and it’s totally accessible. A kid could watch the show and be inspired go home and write a poem.

What makes The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers seem like Williams of the future, a precursor of his work to come, is its reverence for imagination and the poetic soul.

“Only verse makes things eternal. Only literature and art make things eternal,” Onoda Power said of the play. “It’s celebrating art.”

Running Time: About 35 minutes, with no intermission.

The Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers was produced by Spooky Action Theater and was performed in previews September 21, 2019, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. The play will have its world premiere September 26 to 29, 2019, at Wa Garden, 220 Commercial Street Provincetown, Massachusetts, as part of the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Tickets are available online.

The Book Club Play

Whether you’re an avid reader or a theater buff or both, there’s a supersmart, superfunny show up in Silver Spring that should be on your short list.

Marking its 52nd anniversary (!), community theater Silver Spring Stage has programmed a tantalizing year of contemporary classics—among them Sweat by Lynn Nottage, Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, and Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne. Kicking off its season is the The Book Club Play by DC’s own comic genius Karen Zacarías, the only local on American Theatre magazine’s list of most-produced playwrights.

Nicholas Bashour (Will), Camille Pozderac (Jen), Jasmine Jones (Lily), Spencer Knoll (Rob), Lena Winter (Ana) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

We’re in the home of married couple Ana and Rob, their comfortable living room to be exact, designed by Bill Dunbar with a decor that never met an earth tone it didn’t adore. The bossy newspaper columnist Ana, played with arresting gusto by Lena Winter, conducts the titular book club here, and its members are already gathered to dive into Moby-Dick.

Camille Pozderac (Jen), Nicholas Bashour (Will), Jasmine Jones (Lily) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

There’s Ana’s closeted friend Will, played with amusing agitation by Nicholas Bashour. There’s the eager-to-fit-in Lily, assistant to Ana at work, played with impressive brains and brass by Jasmine Jones. There’s Ana’s ex-collegiate-jock husband Rob, who never reads the assigned book, played with relatable out-of-place-ness by Spencer Knoll. Arriving late is their anxious and insecure friend Jen, played with outstanding emotional precision by Camille Pozderac.

The twist is that Ana by prior arrangement has permitted a documentary filmmaker to install a camera to record everything they do and say. So it’s: Let’s put on a reality show! At first, all introduce themselves to the camera (and thereby to us). But a running gag is that they are often oblivious of it, especially during hilariously awkward and compromising goings on—which over the course of their six biweekly meetings include three impetuous full-mouth kisses and sudden declarations of passion. As ever, a subtext is sex.

Zacarías has packed a catalogue of other clever treats into this comedy, and one of most interesting is the book choice she’s given each character. Lily, for instance, astonishes everyone by picking Twilight. And laggard reader Rob, humored with a chance to name a childhood fave, opts for Return of Tarzan.

Nicholas Bashour (Will), Lena Winter (Ana), Camille Pozderac (Jen), Jasmine Jones (Lily), Andrew S. Greenleaf (Alex), Spencer Knoll (Rob) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine Photo by Harvey Levine.

Caroline Adams (Pundit) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.Photo by Harvey Levine.

A surprise drop-in is Alex, a comp lit professor played with low-key certitude by Andrew S. Greenleaf. Alex was invited by Lily when she saw him in the laundry room of their building reading Twilight. This prompts Will and Ana to fulminate over the fact Alex was never vetted. But it also introduces a fun current of controversy about the relative worth of high-brow classics and pop-culture fare. Alex praises the latter. All of which is to say the enticing comedic tension that heats up in The Book Club Play is not only sexual but intellectual.

Caroline Adams (Pundit) in ‘The Book Club Play.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.Photo by Harvey Levine.

There’s some terrific meta-theatricality at play, notably the monologues between scenes by Caroline Adams, who appears as five different characters, each more outrageous than the last, riffing on the meaning of books. Adams seems to transmogrify before our eyes as she becomes by turns a literary agent, a Walmart stock manager, a skydiving librarian, and more. These interludes cover for the cast’s five full changes of costume (designed with astute flair by Eric Scerbo), but they’re also their own reward.

The Book Club Play at Silver Spring Stage is truly novel, an actual thinking person’s entertainment. And as directed by Karen Fleming at a brisk and witty pace, it’s the theatrical equivalent of a laugh-out-loud page turner.

CAST
Ana: Lena Winter; Lily: Jasmine Jones; Rob: Spencer Knoll; Jen: Camille Pozderac; Will: Nicholas Bashour; Alex: Andy Greenleaf; Pundit: Caroline Adams.

PRODUCTION TEAM
Director & Co-Producer: Karen Fleming; Co-Producer: Jennifer Dorsey; Assistant Director: Janet VA Replogle; Stage Manager: Denise M. Gilmore; Set Designer & Master Carpenter: Bill Dunbar; Scenic Painter: K.O. Myers; Set Construction & Painting: Nancy Davis, Karen Fleming, Denise Gilmore, Joyce Kraimer & Joy Wyne; Set Dressing: Nancy Davis, Bill Dunbar & Joy Wyne; Lighting Designer: Bill Strein; Lighting Technician: Jim Robertson; Projections: Steve Deming; Graphics: Leigh K. Rawls; Sound Designer & Composer: Patrick Hughes; Sound Technician: Jeff Mikoni; Properties Designers: Carlton & Jane Maryott; Costume Designer: Erie Scerbo; Photographers: Harvey Levine &Jon Goell; Artistic Liaison: Jacy D’Aiutolo; Opening Night Reception: Seth Ghitelman.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

The Book Club Play plays through October 12, 2019, at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD, located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center. Purchase tickets at the door, by phone (301) 593-6036, or online.

Q&A: Maria Manuela Goyanes on Fairview, Race, and What’s Next at Woolly Mammoth

I saw Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview opening night at Woolly, and I cannot stop thinking about its originality—not only in form but in intent. I’m not writing about the production—my colleague Amy Kotkin did the DCMTA review—but if I were, there’s so much I wouldn’t want to give away that all I would say is: Just go see this play.

Woolly has done some brilliantly disruptive plays in the past. I’m thinking of Gloria and Kiss, which I loved, where midway through, the form of the play cracks open into a whole new theatrical dimension. Fairview goes even further. By my count it cracks open four times.

Nikki Crawford (Beverly), Samuel Ray Gates (Dayton), Woolly company member Shannon Dorsey (Jasmine), and Chinna Palmer (Keisha) in ‘Fairview.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Fairview is explicitly about race, and as such it asks everyone who sees it to acknowledge their own. I’m descended from Norwegian and German immigrants, which in America translates to white. And I cannot recall anything in theater that so intensively makes a white audience member conscious of their whiteness as something that takes up space.

Fairview begins the first season programmed by Maria Manuela Goyanes, who has been on the job as Woolly’s artistic director for a year. In a warm phone call just after Fairview opened, I asked her how she was feeling. “Grateful and appreciative of the DC community,” she said. “Very embraced and excited to be here. Really appreciative of the staff.” And then we got down to an extraordinarily frank conversation about Fairview the play, race in DC, and what’s ahead at Woolly.

John: When you programmed Fairview, what were you thinking?

Maria Manuela Goyanes

Maria Manuela Goyanes

Maria: I saw the play in New York on the fourth preview, and I was blown away by it. This was before it won the Pulitzer, before people were talking about it. And I found myself having a transformative experience. I identify as Latina, but I’m very white-presenting. So I found the play to be thrilling and difficult and challenging. And I remember going up to Jackie [Sibblies Drury] afterward. I knew she was a Woolly playwright because we had done her We Are Proud to Present, her breakout play, not too long ago. I had just gotten the job at Woolly. And I said: Please let me do this in my inaugural season at Woolly. My instinct and intuition was: This is the conversation I need to be having.

I hadn’t even moved to DC yet. So when I did finally move to DC and talked to folks about the play and had my senior staff read it and started to get to know the city, I realized: DC was a majority-black city until recently. It’s still majority people of color. And I thought to myself, in terms of a season opener, it was important that people knew that Woolly was going to do thought-provoking work and challenging content—that finding me and having me take over for Howard [Shalwitz] didn’t mean we were going to be any less risky in the work we were doing.

But then I also thought to myself: What is the most urgent conversation I want to be having with my company of artists as well as with the audiences? And it felt like Fairview checked all those boxes in the most exciting way—and in a scary way. It’s a very bold move for the first show. And I think that says I’m doing something right when it comes to Woolly Mammoth.

When you programmed Fairview, in what sense did you see it as a play for white people and in what sense is it a play for people of color?

Well, here’s the thing I want to tell you: I don’t want to prescribe an audience’s reaction to the show because I think that can be harmful. And what do I know ultimately in terms of that? However, we are doing a community conversation after every performance for folks who want to process it, and in the community conversation we are breaking folks by racial affinity.

I intentionally programmed Fairview next to What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which I cannot wait for you to see, John. Remember in the monologue that Keisha the daughter has at the end of Fairview where she says:

Keisha: If I could tell the story I want to tell us,
my people,
my colorful people,
you would hear it
if I could tell it,
and it would be something like
a story about us, by us, for us, only us.

Chinna Palmer as Keisha in ‘Fairview.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

For Woolly Mammoth it felt like: Well, then, that’s what we need to do. If we were going to take the challenge of Fairview, then we need to program after Fairview a show that is specifically about and for and by black folks.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down is about healing from racialized violence. It’s by the Movement Theatre Company, which is run by all people of color. Great, amazing young producers. And it is a play that is speaking to one of the most urgent issues that is happening to black folks in this country, which is anti-blackness, which has been the case for now centuries. For me Fairview and What to Send Up When It Goes Down are really of a piece. Even though Aleshea [Harris] and Jackie weren’t writing these shows to be seen together like this, they are both speaking to something that I’m incredibly passionate about—and it felt like Woolly Mammoth needed to answer the challenge that Keisha gives us at the end of Fairview.

Keisha also challenges the white people in the audience to think about “what you can you do to make space for someone else.”

Yeah.

That line just went boom for me.

That was exactly the thinking. If Fairview is about folks learning how to make space, then how does Woolly Mammoth make space? And that’s something to do with the new lobby, with What to Send Up When It Goes Down, with the intentionality of our work with connectivity.

In the new Woolly Mammoth lobby: Inscription acknowledging the land and the history of slavery. Photo by Mike Morgan Photography.

Fairview holds up to critical view how white people view representations of black people in a particular comic sitcom. It now strikes me that the same dynamic—spectatorship through an unself-consciously white lens—is what’s almost always going on whenever white people watch plays about characters of color, even in stories told by playwrights of color.

Shannon Dorsey, Tatiana Williams, and Cyndii Johnson in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

For instance, when Woolly did BLKS, which I loved, that was a play the black playwright [Aziza Barnes] deliberately intended to be by and for black people, yet it was being hugely enjoyed at Woolly by audiences that were majority white. After seeing Fairview, I’m now wondering whether white audiences were even seeing the play the playwright wrote.

I don’t identify as white, right? Even though I’m white-presenting. To me the challenge I think—for you, John, or any white-identified person—is how to actually start to be able to lift and name and acknowledge what slavery did in this country. I mean, you see what’s happening, right? You see we can’t pretend that racism only exists if you wear a hood. It’s something that is operating all the time, and it’s a system that we all live in. So to me part of that conversation is how do we make space for other stories. And the act of witnessing is a different act than the act of identifying with, you know what I mean?

Wow.

To be able to see people with the fullness of their humanity, hopefully working toward creating greater empathy and understanding and more engaged citizenry in this country. That’s really what I think Aziza is doing for young twenty-something, queer, fem black women, you know, black folks. And BLKS is just like a day in the life: Look at what we have to deal with, think about, and be in conversation with. Acknowledgement of it is the first thing.

I’m mixed. My father is from Spain, from Hispanic culture and European culture, and my mother is Dominican. So I have to square my values and my intentionality having a deep understanding and analysis of what that means for me to move through the world. Certainly, my experience is different from black and brown folks, even in positions of power. I get to do things and be things because people don’t know where I come from. They don’t ask. They don’t assume those prejudices and biases come from the racist structures and systems that we live in. I have a lot of privilege in that way. So how do I move responsibly and intentionally? There’s just a lot of conversation to be had about it, no question.

‘Invitation to the Party’ by Donna Walker-Kuhne. Click to buy on Amazon.

Donna Walker-Kuhne wrote a really profound and practical book about multicultural audience development—

Are you talking about Invitation to the Party?

Yes. And it was based on her experience at The Public Theater in New York. So I wanted to ask you, since you have had experience working at The Public, what insights or lessons learned there do you think could be applied at Woolly in particular and in DC more generally?

‘Emergent Strategy’ by adrienne maree brown. Click to buy on Amazon.

Well first of all, let’s plug that book so that everybody reads it because Donna Walker-Kuhne is brilliant. A lot of the things she speaks about are foundational. The culture is shifting at great speed, and there’s great writing that is even more contemporary. The book by adrienne maree brown Emergent Strategy comes to mind. It’s a really amazing strategy book to help us do this kind of work. It’s like a little bit of a Bible for me. So I would also love to shout out that book.

The Public is such a larger scale than Woolly, and so for me what I want to lift here is that I feel really excited to have a local community that is as dynamic and rich and robust as Washington, DC, the DMV area. Woolly is a 265-seat house. I could actually know everybody in the audience on a particular night, which is a beautiful thing. And so I’m excited about those strategies that Donna talks about and that adrienne maree brown talks about and thinking about it at a hyperlocal level.

I know you asked me a question about The Public, but I want to bring it to Washington, DC, and the glory of being in a place where people are incredibly proud of being from this area. I’m getting to meet those folks and put some of these things into practice with this community and that’s tremendously exciting.

The aspiration that’s evident in the programming of Fairview makes me so excited about what you’re going to do next. I mean, it’s just a knockout season opener. It’s one of those plays that will alter people’s brain mapping.

Oh gosh I hope so, I love that.

I attended the Woolly open house for its new lobby, which was the day after Fairview opened, and I was so moved by the new inscription on the wall. I just choked up looking at it as you read it aloud:  

Woolly Mammoth acknowledges that this theatre stands upon occupied, unceded territory: the ancestral homeland of the Nacotchtank whose descendants belong to the Piscataway peoples. Furthermore, the foundation of this city, and most of the original buildings in Washington, DC, were funded by the sale of enslaved people of African descent and built by their hands.

It’s so consonant with everything you’re doing.

Thank you so much. It means a lot to me. And here’s the thing about all of the words up there on the entry wall, the land acknowledgement and the acknowledgement of the history of slavery: I hope it is not just going to be inspiring for folks who walk in, but also help us be accountable to those words. I hope that you as part of this DC artistic community will also help Woolly be accountable. It shouldn’t just be words.

Fairview plays through October 6, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or go online.

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

What the Constitution Means to Me

When Heidi Shreck steps out onto the Eisenhower stage and has what seems an informal, ad-libbed, introductory chat with us, the first thing you notice is her joy. She seems genuinely happy to be here. Putting us utterly at ease, she’s visibly bubbling to share with us her story: how as a 15-year-old in Wenatchee, Washington, she entered debate contests, sponsored by local American Legion posts, that tested and showcased her knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. The rules required that she be as personal as possible. Whatever she said had to be about how the Constitution had affected her own life. Debating agreed with her. She got really good at it. She won enough prize money to put herself through college.

Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Behind her is a simulated American Legion hall (the unprepossessing set is by Rachel Hauck), its wood-paneled walls filled with framed headshots of white male veterans in uniform. Shreck enters the set and begins to speak as her 15-year-old self giving competitive seven-minute presentations. A nerdy Legionnaire sitting stage left (Mike Iveson) keeps time on his stopwatch. Schreck does not imitate her younger self, but she delivers convincingly the reconstructed words of that whip-smart kid. Under pressure, she gets a little flustered, but she crushes it.

Shreck is incredibly funny, her timing so fine-tuned it could put clocks out of work. She has the audience enthralled. The laughs come fast, one right after another. The slightest pause can turn hilarious. Her humor is dry and self-effacing. “I was raised to be psychotically polite,” she says at one point, explaining why she was smiling when inside she wasn’t.

Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Intellectually I know that Shreck is giving a practiced, scripted performance. Even when ad-libbing, she has to be acting. She has been directed (efficiently by Oliver Butler) as surely as she has been stage-lit (proficiently by Jen Schriever) and costumed (casually by Michael Krass). She’s playing herself in a play she wrote that became a breakout hit in New York, garnered Tony nominations for best play and best actress, was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, and now comes to DC for a brief run that’s almost all sold out.

But what is happening in this intimate moment in this vast theater has no artifice, no self-importance, no premeditation. Heidi Schreck is simply being herself, and she is so personable and spontaneous and emotionally transparent it’s as if we have met a new friend.

This bond with the audience is spun of gold, and it never breaks, even when Shreck gets to the core of her case, which is an argument with America’s past. Hers is a debate with the wealthy white men who owned wives and slaves and who wrote a Constitution that left out women, Africans, First Nations, other people of color, and anyone else unlike themselves.

I had read a fair amount about how entertaining and engaging Shreck’s play and performance are—and all of it proved breathtakingly true—but nothing prepared me for the radical critique at the heart of it: a personal and political takedown of the rich white male supremacy that the Framers enshrined in the Constitution.

“What does it mean if this document offers no protections against the violence of men?” Shreck asks—having told us story after story of men’s abuse of women in her family including her mother and going back to her great-great grandmother.

Summarizing nine white men’s judicial groping that finally found in the Constitution a penumbral right to privacy to permit, with limitations, birth control and abortion, Shreck states the obvious: “Our bodies, our bodies, had been left out of this Constitution from the beginning.”

Not for nothing did Gloria Steinem call the show “a miracle.”

And not for nothing did Shreck call the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause “the most miraculous clause in our entire Constitution.” So much hope hangs on that clause—civil equality rights for folks of all sorts—but by a thread that can snap, as it did in the 2005 case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales. That was when the Supreme Court decided against a woman who had pled with local police to enforce the restraining order on her threatening husband. The police did nothing. The husband killed her three children.

Feminist legal scholars have called this decision the death of the 14th Amendment for women and children. This ruling is most devastating for women of color, transwomen, binary and non-binary folx, women with disabilities, immigrants — people who are less likely to be helped by police than I am. It’s especially devastating to indigenous women, who suffer the most violence in our country.

Shreck spells out the constitutional-law civics lesson here, simply and clearly:

I learned about two kinds of rights: negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights protect us from the government taking our stuff, locking us up, killing us. Positive rights are active rights. They include things like the right to a fair trial, the right to counsel, in some countries the right to health care. Our Constitution primarily, with some exceptions, is a negative-rights document, and Scalia, an originalist, was adamantly a negative-rights kind of guy, which is in part how they decided that Jessica Gonzales was not entitled to any active protection from the police. I also learned that if we had an Equal Rights Amendment, she might have been protected under that. And I understood for the first time why my mom cried when it didn’t pass.

Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, and Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

At points two other performers take the stage. Midway through, Mike Iveson drops his Legionnaire guise and shares, as himself, his own story of being punched in the face for not presenting as male enough. And at the end, an extraordinary 14-year-old named Rosdely Ciprian, a dynamo debater in her own right, has a delightful scene with Shreck during which they toss a coin to decide who should argue for abolishing the Constitution or for keeping it.

What the Constitution Means to Me not only talks back to hundreds of years of American patriarchal history and jurisprudence; it also speaks to the present moment:

Democracy is something we have to make happen, we have to fight for, every single day.

What the Constitution Means to Me is the most necessary work of American theater of this century so far, and it is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the tenuous future of equality.

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

What the Constitution Means to Me runs through September 22, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. The few remaining tickets for the run are available online or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

What the Constitution Means to Me will launch a national tour—with an actor to be announced in Heidi Schreck’s role—at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in January 2020, with stops to follow in Charlotte, Hartford, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, with more to be announced.

The script published by Theater Communications Group will be available November 5, 2019.

Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness

It isn’t every day you see a play that merges Becket and Martha Graham. That’s my takeaway from watching the hybrid form of Surfacing play out at the Atlas: Three actors are strictly circumscribed in separate spaces—like Becketian characters stuck in trash cans. Unseen and unheard by one another, they speak in abstract fragments about their lives in extremis: displaced, dispossessed, in danger. The play’s subtitle, An Inventory of Helplessness, sums it up.

Intermittently (and unaccountably), the actors step out of their bounds—rectangles outlined on the black floor in white—and solo wordlessly about the playing area in Graham-y interpretive dance. Then back into their confines they go. Then back to the dance floor. And so on.

Nichole Chimere (A), Greg Ongao (C), and Christine Jacobs (B) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

A brand-new company named Expats Theatre, founded by Karin Rosnizeck, makes its DC debut with the U.S. premiere of Surfacing, directed resourcefully by Rosnizeck, who also translated the text from German. The script by Russian-Austrian author Julya Rabinowich has three characters in captivity, designated A, B, and C. A program note helpfully explains their backstories, which the nonlinear storytelling takes a while to get to: An anguished Nichole Chimere plays A, a refugee; she’s cooped up stage right with only a cot. Centerstage is B, a kidnap victim imprisoned for eight years played agilely by Christine Jacobs; she’s literally boxed in a black carton. Stage left is C, a young man played ably by Greg Ongao who seeks justice but risks vengeance on his life if he leaves his apartment; he has but a stool to stand on and righteously rail from.

Their free-associational language is syntactically in shards that are left to us to piece together:

Nichole Chimere (A) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

A: Waves
C: Then I have faith again. Again and again,
B: Then I believe again that it’ll be over soon.
A: just a little while –
C: then it will be over. Promise.
B: he said, promised. But it wasn’t over.
C: Nothing but fucking lies. It will never be over.
B: because he never kept his promises, only kept me locked up, so I kept promising it all to myself.
A: who can be so stupid as to believe all this, only me I guess, only me…
C: maybe next year, that would be great, next year –
A: just a few more months, you can do it, just these few months, and then –

Nothing changes for them. A waits for G. C waits for J. But no one comes. They stay put. It is a familiar Becketian trope, and as a metaphor for the stasis of these characters’ respective crises, it is curiously apt.

Christine Jacobs (B) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

Rosnizek has modulated the actors’ volume, conducting them like a spoken-word trio sometimes solitarily staccato and sometimes in sync. They never connect with anyone. We the audience become their only witness, and truth to tell we too are lost. We get the passion of their intent without evident sense. We observe their intensely performed feelings, which lack cogent narrative context so they do not resonate or land. It is as though the three captives are abandoned, including by us. We become default players in an existential metaphor for the unmoved and unempathic. And so it is that Expat Theatre’s subversive Surfacing challenges our presumption that for outsiders’ suffering to be valid we must vicariously feel it too.

Greg Ongao (C) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

Diverting choreography (interpolated into the otherwise static script) is by Erica Rebollar, who has devised arresting abstract tableaux, such as B’s intriguing play of hands against her bare, bent-over back, and A’s hurling himself against a wall. Expressive music and sound design for for the movement passages is by composers Charlie Campagna (for A and C) and Jeff Dorfman (for B).

The lighting by Ian Claar conveys a fitting claustrophobia, from which visually refreshing projections (uncredited) offer respite (and a chainlink and barbwire reality check). Much drama and emotional momentum come from Johnny Dahm Robertson’s propulsive sound design, which samples roaring waves, chirping birds, rolling thunder, and preshow prerecorded snippets from the splintered script we’re about to hear.

According to its website, Expats Theatre “is devoted to connecting people across cultures through theatre and the performing arts.” Ironically (and no doubt unintentionally), its first full production exemplifies and elicits disconnection.

Except that who knew Becket and Martha Graham could get along?

Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.

Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness runs through September 29, 2019, at Expats Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab One, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

The Just and the Blind (REACH Report)

“How does a black boy become an American?” asks spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph. “How does he learn his role to play?”

For Joseph the question is personal and visceral. In The Just and the Blind—which was given a moving performance September 9, 2019, during The REACH Opening Festival—he speaks in powerful autobiographical poetry as the father of a teenage boy. Bewailing “the black boy’s curse” of racial profiling, he refuses to let his vulnerable son “be seen as a monster in the dark.”

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Drew Dollaz, and Daniel Bernard Roumain in ‘The Just and the Blind,” as performed at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

Local theatergoers will recall Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s autobiographical Word Becomes Flesh, which Theater Alliance staged as a choreopoem for five actors (in a production that received five Helen Hayes Awards). Word Becomes Flesh told of an unnamed young black man who as a boy was abandoned by his father and who now is about to become himself the father of a son. He does not know how to do it or be that.

The Just and the Blind feels like chapter two. In it, Joseph wrestles with how to spare his 16-year-old son from the carceral fate of “one in four black men [who] are system-involved”—a statistical probability that, Joseph notes, is “like one in three women are victims of sexual assault.”

There is a heartbreaking refrain:

Get home to me, son.

At one telling point Joseph, who sees himself in his  son, also sees himself in the three young black men his son’s age who approach him alone on the street. He feels a threat, like “a grown man afraid of the shadow of his youth.” He thinks about crossing the street. “We have so much self-hate that when we see ourselves we are afraid,” he says. “They fit the profile like I did…. I’m most afraid of what I most know.”

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Daniel Bernard Roumain in ‘The Just and the Blind,” as performed at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

In a series of multimedia vignettes, The Just and the Blind opens up the core story of Joseph and his son—musically, choreographically, and cinematically—with three other artists on stage and several off. Joseph’s longtime collaborator, composer-violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, performed original compositions at the piano and on electronic violin that were in deep harmonic conversation with Joseph’s spoken words. Drew Dollaz, who pioneered “flex” street dance, interpreted Joseph’s text with his own poetry-in-motion of believe-it-or-not twisted limbs and contortions, including a passage in toe shoes. And DC-based vocalist and songwriter Cecily in sparkling black gown brought her shimmering soprano to two of Roumain’s compositions, one based on Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Among the talents offstage were Director Michael John Garcés, Projection Designer David Szlasa, Animator Xia Gordon, Photographer Brittsense, and Investigative Journalist Lisa Armstrong (whose recordings of phone interviews with juveniles in reform school and others sentenced to life became a chilling part of the storytelling).

As black-and-white documentary footage from civil rights protests, police crackdowns, and freedom marches played on screen in the background in between color stills of fathers and children, the work as a whole took on an urgency and eloquence above and beyond the sum of its profound parts:

We have a constitutional right to literacy, a right to language, and a right to love.

The Just and the Blind was originally commissioned by Carnegie Hall, where it was performed March 5, 2019. Joseph, besides being an acclaimed spoken word artist, is vice president and artistic director of social impact at The Kennedy Center—which doubtless made The Just and the Blind a perfect programming choice to inaugurate The REACH.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Drew Dollaz in ‘The Just and the Blind,” as performed at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

In a talkback Joseph spoke of being influenced by Paulo Freire’s advocacy of critical pedagogy—the idea that knowledge is never politically neutral and that teaching is inherently a political act. Accordingly, Joseph and his collaborators intend to turn film shorts based on The Just and the Blind into teaching moments between fathers and sons who have been separated by the prison system. One of those shorts, Fear, closed the program (see trailer below).

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission, plus Q and A and a six-minute film adaptation of the text, Fear.

The Just and the Blind was performed September 9, 2019, in Studio K of The REACH as part of The REACH Opening Festival, which runs through 22, 2019, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. The complete schedule is here. Free timed passes are available at the box office, by calling (202) 467-4600, or online.

The REACH Opening Festival at The Kennedy Center: How Not to Be Overwhelmed

Marc Bamuthi Joseph performing a portion of The Just and the Blind as a TED Talk:

Official trailer for Fear presented by Sozo Media:

The Smuggler

The bar is open and there’s 100-proof theater on tap. It’s a stirring play about an Irish immigrant bartender, and it’s shaking up a classy new cocktail bar where only 30 patrons at a time can see it.

Solas Nua—the company renowned for importing to DC fresh artistic talent from Ireland—has staged The Smuggler, a monologue in verse by Ronán Noone, at the Allegory bar inside the new Eaton Hotel on K Street. The play is a storytelling solo performed by Artistic Director Rex Daugherty (who nimbly mixes craft cocktails for customers while doing so!). This has to be one of DC’s coolest site-specific shows ever (the program lists drink specials!). And on top of the kick of the spirited ambiance, Solas Nua’s The Smuggler is a spellbinding, up-close-and personal drama about the struggle for survival and self-worth of documented and undocumented immigrants in America today.

Rex Daugherty in ‘The Smuggler.” Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

In the role of Tim Finnegan, a 42-year-old would-be writer trying to make ends meet by tending bar, Rex Daugherty grabs us from the get-go with his hale-fellow charm, Dubliner drawl, and urgency to be understood. Pacing restlessly back and forth in a black apron and jaunty hat, he regales us with his knotty tale, intently connecting eye-to-eye. Some are seated at the bar directly in front of him; others are mere yards away. His penetrating gaze and poetic performance beguile.

The story Tim tells takes place in a speakeasy on a WASP-centric island off the coast of Massachusetts. Tim, though now a U.S. citizen, cannot support his wife and infant son. That angers her. That pains him. “It’s a thin line between desperation and acting immorally,” Tim shares as we see him segue into illegality. At first it’s petty theft. Eventually he’s embroiled in a highly profitable but criminal smuggling scheme whereby immigrants are disappeared then reappeared in new lives.

The ending is happy…but it’s complicated.

Rex Daugherty in ‘The Smuggler.” Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Noone writes in an arresting style of free verse that sometimes rhymes, and in Daugherty’s deft delivery it plays on the ears with delight and surprise. Here, for instance, is one of Tim’s several digressions:

If you did a
Study
On poverty
Sure lack of education
Lack of resources
No money
But make no mistake it’s
An industry
And it’s to someone’s benefit
To keep you down
Stripping you of your endurance
And temerity
Till eventually you accept
That there is no such thing
As equality
You just have to keep
Stepping on each other
Increasing the disparity

I love how the words poverty, industry, temerity, equality, and disparity don’t just rhyme; they propel Tim’s point. The rest of Noone’s scintillating script is like that.

Rex Daugherty in ‘The Smuggler.” Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The story includes ten other characters—among them Tim’s wife and in-laws—each of which Daugherty portrays distinctly and precisely, without parody or a pause in momentum. Laley Lippard’s direction is a marvel of its own, particularly in Daugherty’s dramatic use of the space (at one point he leaves the bar and roams the room), his inspired use of potable props (watch as he punctuates his lines with mixology), and an emotional arc that modulates through multiple octaves of meaning. There’s listenable bar music by Matthew M. Nielson before and after. And—with no lighting instruments in sight—Marianne Meadows creates some of most subtly immersive lighting I have ever seen.

So raise a glass to Solas Nua’s The Smuggler. It’s a first-rate fusion of play, place, and player that those fortunate to get into will be reminiscing about over drinks years from now.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

The Smuggler plays through October 6, 2019, presented by Solas Nua performing at the Eaton DC / Allegory Cocktail Bar, 1201 K Street Northwest, Washington, DC (located on the first floor of the new Eaton Hotel, tucked away behind the Radical Library). Tickets are available online.

 

The Kennedy Center 2019 Page-to-Stage Festival (Reports)

Monumental Theatre Company: Montgomery

Music, Book, and Lyrics by Britt Bonney
Direction by Kevin McAllister
Musical direction by Cedric D. Lyles

Cast:
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Halo Wheeler
JO ANN ROBINSON: Kelli Blackwell
MARY ANNE COLVIN.: Tomi Nelson
ROSA PARKS: Shayla Lowe
MARGARET JOHNSON: Alex De Bard
Q.P. COLVIN: Wendell Jordan
E.D. NIXON: Ian Anthony Coleman
FRED GRAY: Ricardo Blagrove
MAYOR GAYLE: Brent Stone
OFFICER WARD: Brice Guerriere
ENSEMBLE: Megan Bunn
ENSEMBLE: Ashley K. Nicholas

Band:
BASS: Jason Wilson
GUITAR: Beth Cannon
DRUMS: Tarek Mohamed
KEYBOARD: Cedric D. Lyles

Act One of this new musical totally bowled me over last year at Page to Stage. Set in 1955 in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, it tells the true story of a 15-year-old African American girl named Claudette Colvin whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman prompted the Montgomery bus boycott and preceded the similar, more well-known refusal by Rosa Parks. As we come to learn, young Claudette’s act of resistance was even nervier. This year, 12 extraordinary singer/actors and four musicians read, sang, and played a one-hour 20-minute condensed version of both Acts One and Two. The book, lyrics, and blues/gospel/rock score of Montgomery are all by Britt Bonney, who now has convinced me will one day be a major figure in American musical theater.

The show began with the stirring “(Let It) Roll On By,” which—counterintuitively for a story about civil rights activism—is about not making waves, about putting up with injustice: “Wear the mask that grins and lies,” the ensemble sings. The next big musical number is Claudette’s “(You Gotta) Make a Move,” in which she states unequivocally there won’t be any change until the oppressed rise up en masse. The two songs one after the other establish a profound thematic tension that courses through the show: the urgency for social-justice activism versus the play-it-safe impulse to maintain the status quo. What activist cannot relate?

After Claudette’s refusal, officers kick and jail her. In alarm Margaret, her childhood friend,  sings “Girl in Trouble.” Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women’s Political Council (and another figure hidden from history who is given a spotlight in Montgomery), urges that a bus boycott begin immediately in “Bring the Rain” (“What are we waiting for?”). A civic official voices the status quo: “The only law is Jim Crow law; the rest don’t matter.” But Claudette knows better; she knows that according to the Equal Protection Clause there can’t be different laws for different people. In “Rebellion On My Mind” (a phrase the real Claudette Colvin shared with Bonney in an interview), we see Claudette’s grit and determination. She soon gets legal assistance from the NAACP and a young lawyer named Fred Gray. “Did she break the law or did the law break her?” Fred asks. There is a telling scene when Fred, in “The Trial (You Do You),”  coaches Claudette on her trial testimony. “Don’t quote the Constitution,” he says. Meaning, don’t seem too smart. Meanwhile Jo Ann sings “Don’t Ride the Bus,” a rousing power ballad urging on the boycott.

Claudette, it turns out, is deemed “a poor test case: she’s too poor, too dark”—and she has become pregnant. Rosa Parks, who was active in the NAACP and was older and lighter skinned, is recruited for the role in “Good Christian Woman.” Parks is arrested for the same thing Claudette was. Parks became the face that launched the protest and entered history. But Montgomery gives the real rebellion girl Claudette her due.

I counted at least a half dozen musical numbers so powerful and moving they could become breakout hits on their own. The finale for instance: “Long Road Behind (Long Road Ahead)” reflects such deep and emotional understanding of how political change happens that I can imagine it becoming a social-justice anthem with impact akin to “We Shall Overcome.”

________

Brave Soul Collective: #BlackGayRage

Conceived & Produced by Monte J. Wolfe

In a two-hour anthology of short monologues and two-handers, Monte J. Wolfe  created what was definitely, as he told the Washington Blade, “an emotional roller coaster.” The theme was the rage that comes from “lives lived as the other.” The purpose, as he said in his introduction, was “to unpack what lies beneath our collective rage.”

The cast of ‘#BlackGayRage’ (clockwise, from top right): Monte J. Wolfe, Josette Marina Murray, Michael Saine-Andress, Damión Perkins, Rodderick Sheppard, Reginald Richard.

There were heavy, painfully personal motifs: The murder of transwomen, including by police, in “See Her” (“Black transwomen’s lives matter too!”). The anger of a man attacked by another black man who wants to stand up for himself and be violent back, in “These Hands” (“Who am I when I’m not fighting?”). The struggle of a man who wants to disappear because he does not conform, in “Unpacking.” The self-hatred of a woman derided for her “fat ass” who turns around and derides another’s, in “Aye Yo!” The agony of a man whose longing for intimacy with a man is haunted by the father who did not love him (“Fuck man, what is wrong with me?”), in “Fuck.” The torment of a man on “The Down Low” (“Maybe someday I’ll be gay but not today”). An excruciating howl of hurt against white people, against straight black people, against other gay black men, in “Wishful Thinking.” A deeply wounded young man contemplating falling to his death, in “Put on a Happy Face.” A young gay man in bed alone with a bottle of wine contemplating and craving normality, in “Normal.” A lyrical and fond memory of transwoman, in “Coco’s Song.”

There were also minidramas into which shone the human humor of recognized truth: A married woman seeking advice from her gay male friend because her husband, though straight, wants her to peg him, in “Switch Hit.” Two gay brothers grieving very differently over their lost mother (“We’re gonna get through this together”), in “You Are My Friend.”  A mother who’s comically in denial consulting her gay hairdresser about her son (“My son is not gay!”), in “Let’s Talk Shop.”

Two short works stood out for me. One was a deeply moving monologue, “Nursing an Ally,” a true story told by a woman who, during the 1980s HIV/AIDs crisis, learned from her mother what it means to be an ally. Her mother, a nurse, would faithfully and selflessly visit black gay men with AIDs. Though she never used the word ally, “I was learning from my mother that #LGBTQallyrage is real.”

The other standout, “Revelations,” had the makings of a riveting one-act tragicomedy. It was a confrontation between a homophobic cleric and his lesbian daughter, who is broke and needs a place to stay. Their exchange is bitter and bitingly funny. The mind-boggling revelations about their backstory—including the father’s repression of a gay affair—keep piling on, and the complexity of these characters keeps surprising us in the satisfying way the best plays do. It left me wanting more. —John Stoltenberg

#BlackGayRage was an anthology of the following 16 works by 10 writers, performed by a cast of 6 (see photo above):

Act I

Introduction
Written & Performed by Michael Sainte-Andress & Monte J Wolfe

“See Her”
Performed by Josette Marina Murray & Damión Perkins
Written by Thembi Duncan
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“These Hands”
Performed by Reginald Richard & Rodderick Sheppard
Written by Anthony Green
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Unpacking…”
Written & Performed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Aye Yo!”
Performed by Josette Marina Murray
Written by Red Summer
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Fuck”
Performed by Rodderick Sheppard
Written by Mario Gray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“The Down Low”
Performed by Reginald Richard

Written by Kevin Carswell
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Switch Hit”
Performed by Damión Perkins & Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Zukeh Freeman
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

Act II

“You Are My Friend”
Performed by Rodderick Sheppard & Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Rodderick Sheppard
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe & Alan Sharpe

“Coco’s Song”
Performed by Damión Perkins
Written by Red Summer
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Let’s Talk Shop”
Performed by Rodderick Sheppard & Josette Marina Murray
Written by Zukeh Freeman
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Normal”
Performed by Reginald Richard
Written by Mario Gray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Nursing an Ally”
Written & Performed by Josette Marina Murray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Put On Your Happy Face”
Performed by Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Mario Gray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Revelations”
Performed by Michael Sainte-Andress & Josette Marina Murray
Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe

“Wishful Thinking”
Written & Performed by Monte J. Wolfe

________

African-American Collective Theater (ACT): Come To Find Out

Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe

I do not know of another local playwright who is as prolific, polished, and precise in their craft, as attuned to nuances of diverse characters, as quick with a laugh line, as captivating in plotting, as loyal to their community, and as breathtaking in insight as Alan Sharpe. The Center for Black Equity and DC Black Pride named an award after him, and gave it to him, in recognition of his contributions to the LGBT+ community. He has been invited to participate in the 2019 “Playwrights’ Arena” program at Arena Stage. If you have never seen Sharpe’s work, you likely have no idea what you’ve been missing. His compilation of new short plays for this year’s Page to Stage was a terrific introduction—and the reaction from the audience could not have been more exultant. —John Stoltenberg

“Conversations”
Neal and Simone, who’ve been together for three years, are getting married and planning to have a baby. But he’s had bro jobs and unprotected sex with a stripper a month ago and Simone finds out. Uh oh.
Clockwise, from top left: Zuke Freeman (Quincy), Erika Jones (Simone), Monte J. Wolfe (Neal), Keanna Faircloth Ursula), Darnell Morris (Mario)

“Split/Decision”
A mini-drama about gay DV. Horny boyfriends Jermaine and Skip get interrupted by a visit from their friend Morris, who has just been beaten again by his boyfriend. Morris goes into their bathroom to sob, then comes out resolved to return home because the man who batters him is the man he loves.
Antwain Cook (Jermaine), Donald Burch II (Morris), Maurice T. Olden (Skip)

“House Special”
Gideon, a sweet coffee shop waiter, is smitten with Gloria, a regular customer who’s trans and has her guard up. Gideon assures her he knows and it’s cool.
Ameirah Neal (Gloria), Justin Greene (Gideon)

 

“The OTHER One”
At a private school, Marlon and Jeremy are not only both gay but the only black students. So why doesn’t Jeremy want to be friends? The high cost of assimilation.
Jordan Brown (Marlon), Davon Harris (Jeremy)

 

“Permission Slip”
Jo-d, who is nonbinary, needs their girlfriend Kat to tell their truth to Kat’s mother—who believes Jo-d is a boy—but Kat is reluctant. Kat’s and Jo-d’s mothers visit. A wise and witty vignette about GNC erasure.
Clockwise, from top left: Tyasia Velines (Jo-d),  Abbey Asare-Bediako (Kat), Wilma Lynn Horton (Willette), Josette Marina Murray (Summer)

“night-SHIFT”
Set in the back of a dark Greenwich Village bar during Stonewall, an edgy confrontation between a hostile but maybe aroused uniformed Cop and the T-Girl Suspect he may be arresting or harassing or molesting.
Tristan Phillip Hewitt (Cop), Ameirah Neal (Suspect)

 

“It Is What It Is”
Ron rhapsodizes about being muscled and having hot naked sex with Tyson Beckford. Turns out it’s a dream, and it’s interrupted by his wife (and mother of his kids) who is calling for him from off stage. “I’m coming,” he yells back.
Juan Raheem (Ron)

 

“Night Train”
An elegiac look back at four Pullman porters in the 1940s, two of whom are retiring…maybe to spend their sunset years together.
Clockwise, from top left: Charles Harris, Jr.(Zeke),  Darrell Evans, Darrell Johnson, August Bullock

 

________

Young Playwrights’ Theater: No Hood Story

Written by Tyrese Rowe
Directed by Farah Lawal Harris

Cast:
Lawrence: Justin Weaks
Maurice / Peter: Jay Sun
Boy/Greg / Mr. Rivers: Louis E. Davis
Woman / Geneva / Naima: Heather Gibson

Tyrese Rowe’s No Hood Story is a stirringly poetic and personal coming-age-story about a young writer named Lawrence. He’s a captivating character, and we get to know as a sensitive child and through his teens finally as a university student owning his authentic voice. Playwright Rowe is a sophomore at UDC, and his is the second full-length play to be developed for production by YPT—the first was Josie Walyus’s touching family-and-friends drama Three Cheers to Grace. No Hood Play is slated to be staged at Anacostia Playhouse in April directed by Eric Ruffin. A 90-minute workshop reading Labor Day morning gave a very promising preview.

Pictured: Playwright Tyrese Rowe.

No Hood Story is largely autobiographical, said the author during the talkback; and one can sense his genuine immersion in the text at every turn. The part of Lawrence was read by Justin Weaks with an emotional acumen preternaturally commensurate with Rowe’s words. For much of the play, Lawrence addresses the audience directly. He has many long monologues interspersed with brief scenes with supporting characters in Lawrence’s life (among them his beloved grandmother Geneva, his older brother Maurice, his older cousin Greg, his writing teacher and revered mentor Mr. Rivers, his love interest Naima). Many of these characters have long speeches to the audience as well.

Dramaturgically, this is a nervy choice: It means that the main character’s through-line action is mostly narrated first-person by the main character. So our connection to the play depends almost entirely on our connection to Lawrence. As the workshop reading suggested, the reason that’s likely to work in full production is that the language Rowe has given his characters is so astonishingly beautiful and compelling. There’s really no way to convey what it is that Rowe has accomplished here but to quote a passage at length.

Lawrence: I was born July 3rd, but the next day was no Independence Day for me. Same way it wasn’t for the slaves working in the field.The day I claimed freedom was the day I understood our communities do not define me and understood my responsibility to define it. Too many seek to portray themselves through the image society paints. I rely on my instinct. Not the words of others who know nothing of what I carry. The eyes are crafted from experience. Look at the person next to you. I want you to stare at that person’s skin and ask yourself, “What is beauty?” Now look inside of his or her eyes. If you can hold it long enough, you’ll see that you truly know nothing of what that person carries, which is why we are incapable of comprehending love. We all see it differently. The first step to loving another is to understand why that person carries what they do so dearly. How do I know? I was forced my entire life to study neighborhoods and the people in it, to escape the accusations society accuses me of. For the other side doesn’t care to study us. But they don’t hold power—I do. I write, and my teacher, Mr. Rivers taught me, “the job of a writer is to make the terrible beautiful, so that the terror falls away and the beauty is a light in the darkness.” He also taught me that, “the goal of all art is freedom.” Not the image society displays. All you have to do is learn to trust your gut. I once wished that I could escape the fact that I was a failure, until I discovered I exist within a failed system. I learned to overcome shame by embracing that failure, asserting independence, and claiming freedom. However, I am no accomplished man unless I help others recognize what I have.

Hearing Rowe’s long speeches is like listening to pearls of wisdom that seem to have come unstrung but somehow follow and flow propelled by a passionate heart.

Besides Lawrence growing older in successive scenes, there isn’t much “engine” to the play. One thing happens after another, and there’s no apparent ongoing conflict or obstacle or problem to be resolved. Except that there is, and it’s subtle. Early on Lawrence relates an incident that touches him and haunts him. A mysterious middle-aged woman approached him on the street, placed her hand on his forehead, and said to him: “The gods have blessed you.”

Is that true? Could that be true? The quest of this gifted young writer to find out—and to find the light inside him—becomes a profound meditation on the meaning of life. —John Stoltenberg

There will be a free staged reading of No Hood Story at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Sydney Harman Hall Thursday, November 8, at 6:30 pm. The full production of No Hood Story at Anacostia Playhouse will run April 9 to 30, 2020. Tickets will be on sale in the fall.

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Rainbow Theatre Project: Blue Camp

Written by Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna
Directed by Christoper Janson

Cast (with excerpts from character breakdown):
Reginald Richard: THEUS McCUTCHEN (Straight solder accused of murder)
Moses Bossenbroek: BILLY WHEELER (Fierce and flamboyant gay soldier and drag entertainer)
Rocky Nunzio: BARRY HOWARD (Straight soldier who frequently goes AWOL)
Daniel Riker: ARNOLD MALLOY (New Yorker, expert on gays in art and literature)
Jared Swain: JANTZEN HILL (Outed by an informant, passion for cars and men)
Ivan Carlo: ALVIN BAILEY (Straight solder with passion for stealing cars)
Lansing O’Leary: GARY PETERSON (Raised fundamentalist Christian, confused about his sexuality)
Jared Graham:  SERGEANT SWANGER (Ambitious, in charge of soldiers being processed out)
Noah Beye:  STEVE DUGGER (Alcoholic corporal, up for trying things)
Craig Houk: COLONEL (Crusty WWII vet, anxious for a Vietnam ground war)

Blue Camp takes us back to 1964, just as LBJ was ordering American ground troops into Vietnam. Based approximately on history, the play is set at an Army camp where soldiers are awaiting disciplinary action: there’s a “blue” barracks for homosexuals and a “green” barracks for criminals.

Playwrights Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna have created a vivid cast of characters, crafted crackling comic dialog, and told a fascinating story. The two-hour-with-intermission reading Monday was a tantalizing preview of the show’s full production in the fall.

It must be said that there is enough sexual-innuendo humor and fabulousness in Blue Camp to earn the adjective blue and the noun camp with distinction. Especially at the beginning, the jokey banter among the gay characters and their wicked rejoinders to the straight characters’ taunts played like a queer comedy in camo.

But the authors were clearly up to something far more substantial, and ultimately quite moving. It takes hold as we learn characters’ backstories, what they’re in for and why, and what punitive consequences they face. It unfolds in entertaining incidents such as Billy’s performance in drag at the officers club, and the green and blue teams’ face-off in a baseball game (both true stories). And the momentum builds with inter-scene news-flash announcements that track the Tonkin Bay attack and subsequent escalations in the administration’s warmongering. The mounting far-off military calamity and the intimate character storylines in Blue Camp intersect at the end with a lump in the throat and a punch in the gut. —John Stoltenberg

Blue Camp will play October 31 to November 24, 2019, in the Thurgood Marshall Gallery at Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 555 Water Street SW, Washington, DC 20024.