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

by John Stoltenberg

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.”

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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

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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

 

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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.

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