Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: October, 2019

What to Send Up When It Goes Down (tour report)

Editor’s note: Woolly Mammoth Theatre, in conjunction with its staging of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, has brought to DC a show produced by the Harlem-based Movement Theatre Company that is specifically by, about, and for Black people. Titled What to Send Up When It Goes Down, the work was written by Aleshea Harris in response to racialized violence. Part ritual, part audience participation, part play, and part celebration, What to Send Up was performed at three different venues—Duke Ellington School for the Arts, Howard University, and THEARC—on its way to a run at Woolly, now to November 10, 2019. Senior Writer and Columnist John Stoltenberg reports on each of the four tour stops.

[READ Ramona Harper’s review and personal response, “Aleshea Harris’ ‘What To Send Up When It Goes Down’ is cathartic release against racialized violence.”]

Stop four: Woolly Mammoth Theatre, October 30, 2019

This powerful ritual of Black grief, anger, and love arrived last night in full force at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where it will be performed only until November 10, 2019, as a living, uplifting memorial to lives lost to anti-Black violence. Nothing before seen on a major DC mainstage has been so deeply personal, so profoundly moving, and so unapologetically Black in its conception and celebration.

Nemuna Ceesay, Denise Manning, Alana Raquel Bowers, Rachel Christopher, Ugo Chukwu, Beau Thom, and Javon Q. Minter in ‘What to Send Up When It Goes Down.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The stage of the Woolly theater has been stripped bare. The playing space with the ritual’s white circle extends to the wings and the back wall. Orchestra seating is supplemented by two rows of chairs on both sides. During vigorous episodes of step-dancing, the people seated on stage can feel the vibration of the cast’s pounding feet as if through their own bones. The orange safety fencing hung with love letters to Black people now sweeps around the entire circumference, with hundreds more hand-written notes than before. Coming from the ritual’s three smaller previous venues, it now seems monumental.

The intensity and authenticity of the cast members’ performance was undiminished. At times, as before, they were working from pain and rage. At all times as before they kept alive love. And even as the audience at this larger scale was more responsive than before—laughing loudly, for instance, during the absurdist satires of white privilege—the personal presence of the cast members seemed more expansive too.

At each of the tour stops I’ve attended, the racial ratio of audience members has subtly affected how the ritual is audibly responded to—a variable the performers seem keenly attuned to. Last night at Woolly, where out of about 90 people approximately three-fifths were Black and two-fifths were non-Black, reactions were definitely more voluble, typical of a more theatergoing crowd, and the cast kept faith with it without any loss of soul.

Downstairs the Woolly Mammoth Theatre classroom: A display of “photographs and names of over 200 African American women, men, and children whose lives were brutally cut short due to racialized violence…. We send it up for them all, and for the thousands who are not on these walls.” Photos by Reginald Eldridge Jr.

The pictures and memorials that have accompanied the tour are now in the Woolly classroom, and there are many more photos than before. Whereas at prior stops people have taken in this lobby display silently, somberly, almost reverently, last night at Woolly there was more of an outgoing, opening-night vibe.

In a lobby speech before people are shown into the theater, a cast member says:

Let me be clear: this ritual is first and foremost for Black people…. We are glad non-Black people are here. We welcome you but this piece was created and is expressed with Black folks in mind. If you are prepared to honor that through your respectful, conscientious presence, you are welcome to stay.

At no point have I observed among other non-Black participants anything but such conscientious respect. And though the transformational effect and emotional experience of the piece will differ depending on one’s race, from what I can tell from what people say during a go-round that is part of the ritual, What to Send Up When It Goes Down is having a deep impact on everyone who sees it.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down presented by The Movement Theatre Company will happen until November 10, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or online.

Stop three: THEARC, October 25, 2019

Denise Manning, Alana Raquel Bowers, and Kambi Gathesha in ‘What to Send Up When It Comes Down.’ Photo by Teresas Castracane.

After runs at a high school (Duke Ellington) and a university (Howard), the DC tour of What to Send Up When It Goes Down traveled East of the River to the sprawling cultural and social services campus known as THEARC. There in the Black Box, the largest performance space on the tour so far, I witnessed the impactful ritual play to about 30 participants (with a racial ratio about four-fifths Black, about one-fifth non-Black). As on previous stops, there was a chalk circle in the center and love letters to Black people arrayed on orange plastic safety fencing on all four walls, but the increased height and expanse of the room meant more dramatic light cues and lent a kind of majesty and momentousness to the event.

Off the lobby before showtime: DC Central Kitchen volunteer Naomi Jacobson with free meals. Photo: DCMTA.

There was also a generous context of hospitality. For all performances at THEARC, free meals were available—first come, first served, starting 90 minutes before showtime: bagged sandwiches, fruit, chips, and bottled water labeled DC Central Kitchen, the provider.

During the ritual itself, I became aware of subtle adjustments made by the cast to the larger space and smaller house. This audience was no less present and attentive than at previous tour stops but it was noticeably less vocal, so the cast was filling the space with their audible conviction—and at times their physicalized grief and rage—on everyone’s behalf. I surmised from the private tears I could observe that on this night the piece was happening for people with more interiority than unanimity. But it was no less powerful.

In the lobby: A display of “photographs and names of over 200 African American women, men, and children whose lives were brutally cut short due to racialized violence…. We send it up for them all, and for the thousands who are not on these walls.” Photos by Reginald Eldridge Jr.

Now having seen the show three times, I have come to an enormous appreciation for how tightly directed and committedly enacted it is. What to Send Up seems absolutely real and true and in the moment, every time as if for the first time.

A little more than a year ago, during preproduction, Whitney White the director described on a Kickstarter video what the piece would be:

Why this piece now? It’s speaking loudly. It’s speaking unapologetically. It’s an experience. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before. It’s not like a traditional play. It’s a ritual that takes on very different aspects. It’s speaking boldly. It’s fierce. It’s fast. It’s nasty. It’s dangerous. And it shakes you. It’s talking about violence against Black bodies, violence that we’re all experiencing. Giving everyone that comes, if you’re willing and open,…a strategy to deal with the shit that we’re all going through. That will pull you in, suck you in, and take you on an amazing ride.

Whitney White foretold the show precisely.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down presented by The Movement Theatre Company will happen until November 10, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or online.

Stop two: Howard University, October 18, 2019

What to Send Up When It Goes Down is not a play. Nobody in it is playing. That became unmistakably evident when the Movement Theatre Company’s production happened in the Howard University Black Box Theatre—a space smaller than its previous venue but filled with the same number of people, about 60, closer in and closer up.

There is a script by Aleshea Harris. It has been published. The players follow it, word for word. But the text is to its enactment as liturgy is to sacrament.

The Ensemble of ‘What to Send Up When It Goes Down.’ Photo by Teresas Castracane.

Harris has said she never intended What to Send Up “to be treated like a play,” which makes it unlike anything else on stage in DC maybe ever.  As Harris writes in a letter on display in the lobby:

I will always insist that this piece is a real ritual. The players aren’t pretending to be carrying out a ritual. They are in it. We are sincerely gathered to honor those who’ve been taken too soon….

As a ritual, it is meant to bring something into being: an event wherein Black people are invited to breathe, laugh, yell, feel joy, feel anger, bear witness, speak the names, commune, sing, see one another, and be reminded that we are seen and matter.

In the lobby: Badges of grief. Photo: DCMTA.

The racial ratio of the audience was approximately four-fifths Black and one-fifth non-Black. There were a good many Howard students in the house. And on this night the ritual became conspicuously cathartic—the word my colleague Ramona Harper used in her deeply moving and personal review of the work. There was audible audience response throughout, not just during the call-and-response portions of the script—indications of recognition and identification, utterances of affirmation. While I do not doubt that the experience of What to Send Up can be individually and personally cathartic for Black participants when not markedly in the majority, at Howard that catharsis became openly, publicly, collectively shared.

At points in the ritual a cast member will call out “Black people,” and the audience will call back “Yeah.” Repeated like an incantation, the exchange on this night became ever louder and more impassioned, like a long-suppressed shoutout to oneself and one another. And the same intensity of engagement was audible during the comedic bits—absurdist sketches featuring Miss, a ludicrous white lady in white gloves and pearls; Man, her shufflin and shuckin driver; and Made, her aproned housekeeper, who’s faking her cookin and cleanin and actually fixin for armed revolt.

Ugo Chukwu (Miss), Rachel Christopher (Made), and Beau Thom (Man) in ‘What to Send Up When It Goes Down.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

One might not associate absurdism with Black-centric, Black-affirming ritual but Harris does. As she said in an interview with Huffpost:

Absurdist theater feels like home. Whenever I experience it, I’m like, well, that just makes so much sense to me…. Absurdism is a name for a way of responding to a world which no longer makes sense…. It dwells wherever there is trauma, and certainly there is trauma in the existence of black people in America.

On this my second opportunity to view and report on the What to Send Up DC tour, the function of absurdism in the ritual’s catharsis became palpably apparent, like a counterintuitive but profoundly political coup de théâtre. And it occurs to me I may have missed this resonance with real life the first time because I am not Black.

In the lobby: A display of “photographs and names of over 200 African American women, men, and children whose lives were brutally cut short due to racialized violence…. We send it up for them all, and for the thousands who are not on these walls.” Photos by Reginald Eldridge Jr.

The players do not play-act. They follow Harris to the letter on that. What happens during What to Send Up is not so much actors performing as shamans divining. And at times what one witnesses seems to come from a depth of rage and anguish that cannot be attributed to any art but only sourced from life. Cast Member Rachel Christopher, for instance, has a long monolog as Made about the talk she wishes she’d had with her son before he was shot. And Christopher delivers Made’s words with such chilling and breathtaking vehemence as would be considered a showstopper if this were a show. But it’s not.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down presented by The Movement Theatre Company will happen until November 10, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or online.

Stop one: Duke Ellington School for the Arts, October 13, 2019

On the walls: Love letters to Black people. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

During an opening ritual on this Sunday evening, the audience was asked to speak the name of Atatiana Jefferson once for every year of her life before a white police officer shot and killed her in her home. About 60 people—about half of them Black, half of them non-Black—were gathered around a chalk circle drawn on the floor in the middle of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts blackbox theater. On the surrounding walls were lengths of orange plastic safety fencing hung with handwritten love letters to Black people. As the ritual leader counted from 1 to 28, the group’s voices intoned Atatiana Jefferson in unison—to honor a young Black woman who, the leader said, “was killed by an idea.”

In the lobby: A display of “photographs and names of over 200 African American women, men, and children whose lives were brutally cut short due to racialized violence…. We send it up for them all, and for the thousands who are not on these walls.” Photos by Reginald Eldridge Jr.

A CNN headline the next morning said: “Former police officer found not guilty of murder in shooting death of unarmed black veteran.” As yet another dot got connected between real-life acts of anti-Blackness violence, it was as though the performance the night before was still going on.

In a conversation with Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for American Theatre magazine, Aleshea Harris spoke of her intention in writing What to Send Up When It Goes Down:

I knew this piece would have to do with Black people being killed by police officers with impunity. The idea was to hold people accountable, be confrontational, let it be messy, let it be angry, and let it tread as absurdly as the idea that a Black person could be killed on camera unarmed and the person who killed them get away with it. That is an absurd reality. I wanted to mirror that absurdity in the form of the play….

We’re mad and we have a right to be mad, because the gaslighting of anti-Blackness is: “You imagined that.” Or “It’s really about economics, not race.” There are so many ways people duck and dodge the uncomfortable reality that anti-Blackness is ingrained in the fabric of our country . I wanted it to be a no-gaslighting space.

The mood that night was somber, reflective, at times silent in sorrow, at times awkward during subversive skits about liberal-white racism, at times caught up in the vigor of angry foot-stomping dance. And always: no gaslighting.

Around the circle: The cast of ‘What to Send Up When It Goes Down’ (Beau Thom, Ugo Chukwu, Denise Manning, Rachel Christopher, Nemuna Ceesay, Javon Q. Minter, Alana Raquel Bowers), In the center: Kambi Gathesha as the ritual leader. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

People responded readily in response to requests for participation. At a point we all went around the room and said our first name. At another point we all went around the room and said a word for how we were feeling. But as the leader’s requests continued, an awareness became evident that many Black people present in the circle had experienced threats and assaults, including by an officer of the law, that the non-Black people there simply had not. That sobering consciousness of having come into the room from two differently raced places was never to let go. So it was that when we were asked to “share a group yell as a strategy for sharing our feelings about the untimely death of Atatiana Jefferson together as a community,” the full-throated yell that went out from everyone only seemed the sound of impromptu unanimity. For in fact throughout the performance there was the explicit understanding that, as one leader said,

It is not often that Black people have a safe, public space for expressing their unfiltered feelings about anti-Blackness. We are taking that space today.

In the lobby: A memorial to Trayvon Martin alongside a letter from Aleshea Harris about how his murder moved her to write this play. Photo by DCMTA.

That space created in grief and solidarity by What to Send Up When It Goes Down was openly owned by the cast and audience members who were Black and respectfully acknowledged by audience members who were non-Black. Such rare space will recur in town just 21 more times. To be in it, see information below.

 

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down presented by The Movement Theatre Company will happen until November 10, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or online.

On tour in DC leading up to the Woolly Mammoth run, What to Send Up When It Goes Down was performed October 12 and 13, 2019, at Duke Ellington School for the Arts, 3500 R St NW, Washington, DC; October 17 to 20, 2019, at Howard University Black Box Theatre, 2445 6th Street NW, Washington, DC; and October 24 to 27 at THEARC West Black Box, 1801 Mississippi Ave SE, Washington DC.

Note that Woolly Mammoth Theatre has posted on its website a detailed summary of What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which contains numerous spoilers but may be helpful for anyone concerned or apprehensive about what the performance experience holds.

Theory

Academia has inspired several thematically penetrating plays featuring female protagonists—the two teachers falsely accused of being lesbian lovers, for instance, in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 The Children’s Hour, and the passionate and hubristic title character in Jay Presson Allen’s 1966 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Now comes Norman Yeung’s Theory, a trenchant intellectual thriller featuring Isabelle (Musa Gurnis), a young, white, tenure-track professor of film theory who is both married to an African American woman and passionate and hubristic.

Camilo Linares (Jorge), Josh Adams (Richard), Benairen Kane (Davinder), Tyasia Velines (Safina), and Muna Gurnis (Isabelle) in ‘Theory.’ Photo by John Chavez.

“I’m a professor of critical thinking,” Isabelle mouths off in her office to her department head, Owen (Tony K. Nam). “Nothing is offensive to me.”

“You keep pushing your liberal agenda so hard, someone will push back!” he retorts.

“Nothing offends me,” Isabelle also asserts at home to her wife, Lee (Andrea Harris Smith)—even as they are looking at racist posts on the online discussion board that Isabelle set up for her film theory class and adamantly refuses to moderate.

“Ask me if I’m offended,” Lee claps back.

Andrea Harris Smith (Lee) and Musa Gurnis (Isabelle) in ‘Theory.’ Photo by John Chavez.

Even Isabelle’s class pushes back. “Everything’s ‘allowed’ here, guys,” she tells them of that free-for-all electronic forum.

“That’s a terrible idea,” says one of her students.

“You can’t, like, just do forcible trusting on us,” says another.

Thus early on in this brazenly brainy play, you suspect that Isabelle’s progressivism—her anything-goes-in-academic-inquiry ideological purity—is about to precipitate a fall. And sure enough, that’s what happens, in a horrific and haunting twist that I’ll leave you to be surprised by when you take in the play.

There is an intriguing similarity between Yeung’s Theory and Mosaic Theater Company’s #WokeSeason opener, Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, which is also about a woman—a high-flying PR professional—who is brought down by her passion and pride. Fabulation is in part, as I wrote in my review, “a cautionary tale about a female striver who leaned in so far she lost her balance.” So too, Theory tells a cautionary tale about an ultra-liberal female prof whose progressivism, stretched to its limits, proves her undoing.

Theory does this by tapping into the touchy zeitgeist of contemporary academia. Anyone who hasn’t been an undergrad for the last few decades might be startled by how uptight college life has become. Students now expect and demand trigger warnings and content warnings about anything that might conceivably offend anyone, microaggress against anyone, or make anyone feel unsafe. Guest lecturers with un-PC views are routinely no-platformed. Public shaming and so-called cancel culture prevail on campus and social media.

Tony K. Nam (Owen) and Muna Gurnis (Isabelle) in ‘Theory.’ Photo by John Chavez.

Yeung vividly dramatizes this recent centering of student hypersensitivities in the characters of Richard (Josh Adams), Davinder (Benairen Kane), Jorge (Camilo Linares), and Safina (Tyasia Velines), who collectively become the play’s antagonist. Thus when Isabelle makes them watch the 1915 pro-KKK film Birth of a Nation and the 2000 pro-porn French film Baise-Moi, they vociferously object.

“You keep pushing your liberal agenda so hard, someone will push back!” Owen had warned her.

“You can’t force your students to join your revolution, can’t make them carpe diem the shit out of everything,” Lee had chided her.

And sure enough, some of Isabelle’s students fight back by placing anonymous hate-filled and sexually graphic posts on the discussion board that not only test how far she will let them go but also menace her and Lee’s private life. (That’s when Theory takes off as a thriller.)

Musa Gurnis (Isabelle) in ‘Theory.’ Photo by John Chavez.

Mosaic’s Associate Artistic Director Victoria Murray Baatin directs a sleekly cinematic production that stimulates the mind’s perceptual acuity like a film projected at more frames per second than it was shot in. And the payoff is in the audacious questions Theory fleshes out: How can anyone be offended by nothing? How clueless and supercilious can one be? Simultaneously Theory considers the provocative opposite: How can robust academic inquiry coexist with vigilante repression? How anti-intellectual and censorial can that get?

Playwright Yeung is anything but doctrinaire. He puts the tough paradox to us. His thumb is never on the scale. “I revel in the gray,” he has said.

Thus does Theory become an invigorating drama of critical ideas that replays in the mind the next day the way a catchy tune gets stuck in one’s head.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, with no intermission.

Theory plays through November 17, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in the Lang Theater, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-399-7993 extension 2, or go online.

Tiramisù

Tiramisù—the caffeinated confection from Italy—translates as “pick me up” or “cheer me up,” which makes it the perfect name for the hilarious new solo show Michael Burgos brought to DC Arts Center last weekend. “A playfully ridiculous romp through Italy” (as his promo aptly puts it), Tiramisù played to a packed house full of fans of Burgos’s first solo show, the sold-out 2015 Capital Fringe hit The Eulogy (which my colleague Ramona Harper called “delightfully wacko”). And the laughter was nonstop. I myself laughed so hard that like the titular dessert it felt like a coffee buzz and sugar rush rolled into one.

Michael Burgos in ‘Tiramisù.’ Promotional photo by John Schlia

Burgos, a Falls Church native, has been touring The Eulogy across America and abroad collecting goo-gobs of praise and prizes. He is an astounding talent. He just debuted Tiramisù in Colorado at the Boulder Fringe Festival, where it won for Best Solo Performance, and he’s taking it next to Athens, Georgia, then Australia and Mexico. Which is a pity because Tiramisù begs for a genuine run in DC.

Burgos is part mime, part clown, part zany, part goof-off. And he has perfected a unique comic persona that invites audience participation even as he himself participates in the audience’s responses and reactions. At each slight sound from the audience, some quicksilver smile or glance or twitch of his will register that he is sweetly attuned to us. And that instantaneous comedic reciprocity so completely takes us in and makes us laugh all the more that it’s as if we are at one with his wit.

Standing ovation for Michael Burgos in ‘Tiramisù‘ at DC Arts Center October 26, 2019. Photo courtesy of Paul Cassens.

The bits and sketches in the show are all loosely and loonily related to Italy and Italian tourism. For instance as the soundtrack of an airport boarding announcement warns us to “beware of pickpockets,” Burgos himself is randomly nabbing bags and purses—and the audience howls.

As though in Rome, he does a goofy riff on the Julius Caesar “Lend me your ears” speech, which soon turns into his butt talking—you had to have been there—and a groaner of a pun, “Lend me your rears.” This is followed several scenes later with Burgos pretending to be a priest placing imaginary “crackers” on people’s outstuck tongues and then passing out tiny plastic glasses of real wine. Several scenes later he’s handing out imaginary gelato cones to audience members who sensuously lick them. It’s all irresistibly nutty and one cannot help but play along.

Burgos prances and minces through a faux fashion show. He tosses around a floppy packaged pizza. He gets some audience members onstage crushing grapes. He cajoles another audience member into a street fight with a fake knives. He has a couple read from a script as Leonardo da Vinci while he becomes a bewigged Mona Lisa with gag bad teeth.

And there’s more. The audience can’t get enough.

Near the end, Ave Maria plays. At the sublime and ridiculous finish he sings uncertainly a silly song in praise of tiramisù. And the audience sings along and bonds with him like it’s some cockamamie kumbaya.

If ever this guy is in the vicinity, veni vici and vidi him.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Tiramisù was performed on October 25 and 26, 2019, at the DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW, Washington, DC. For information about future performances, visit Michael Burgos’s website and follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

About Michael Burgos
Michael Burgos is an internationally acclaimed writer and performer with a bent towards physically-based performance. In July 2015, Michael Burgos made his DC debut at the Capital Fringe with his first one-person show, The Eulogy. The show garnered raves; and Burgos went on to perform the show in 33 cities across 11 time zones. The Eulogy became a 12-time internationally award-winning solo performance, most notably winning Best Comedy at the 2016 Adelaide Fringe (the second-largest performing arts festival in the world).

Burgos holds a Diplôme from École Philippe Gaulier (Paris, France) and a B.A. in Theater from George Mason University, where he received the Chris Parsons Acting Award, the Greenspring Players Scholarship, and the Outstanding Achievement in the Major Award. In addition to studying with theater guru Philippe Gaulier, Michael trained in Washington, DC with master teacher Dody DiSanto, a teaching protégé of the late Jacques Lecoq. While at George Mason University, Burgos was one of the founding members of the university’s improv troupe, the Mason Improv Association.

Simon Godwin on Conscience in Everybody and Himself

In his first major interview since moving into his office, the new artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company unpacks his values. 

On the day after opening night of Everybody, the first show in Simon Godwin’s much-heralded first season as artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company, I visited him in his office to ask him questions about what conscience means to him personally and professionally.

The theme was partly prompted by Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s waggish remake of the medieval morality play Everyman, directed wittily by Will Davis. In it, the main character, a stand-in for all of humanity, is confronted by the allegorical figure Death and pressed to account for how they have lived. (That they is singular because in the playfully profound production now at the Lansburgh, any one of five actors might by lottery play the part, including one, Avi Roque, whose pronoun actually is they and whose performance in the role opening night blew me away.)

Although conscience is not an allegorical character in either Everyman or Everybody, it is implicitly always centerstage. Pricking our conscience is the whole point of the play. And so I began by asking Godwin about his own.

Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Simon Godwin at his desk in the green room that is his office. Photo: DCMTA.

John: You seem someone whose conscience is like a software program that’s always running in the background and in the foreground when called for. But it’s always underneath your consciousness.

Simon: Yes, yes.

That’s not to say it never gets a glitch or never needs a reset.

Of course.

But its default mode is always on.

That’s what I aspire to. Definitely. The pilot light of conscience.

Coincidentally last night, the opening night of Everybody, it put conscience centerstage, without ever using the word.

That’s right. I’m glad you saw that. Yes. That’s awesome.

You’ve said that “in our atomized time, identity has become a political battleground,” but you seem to have very deeply thought about your own identity. For instance, you once said: “Feelings are not in opposition to being a man; feelings make the man.” Would you say more about what that means to you?

I enjoy art that celebrates emotional complexity and paradox. And the more at home we become with nuance, complexity, paradox, the better we function in the world. To reduce or to shut down or to judge takes us in one direction. In contrast, to open, to explore, to feel, these are not patriarchal values; they follow a different paradigm. The phrase from Hamlet comes to mind “speak feelingly” and, from the ending of King Lear, “The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

I have been given the opportunity to see whether I can embody these values—as a director, as an artistic director, as the leader of an organization, as the companion to an audience—and even, because of our prestige and privileged position here in Washington, in some way to a nation.

This comfort with feeling is what is supposed to be suppressed to be a man.

Yes.

To be a manager. To be a patriarch.

Yeah.

You’ve said everything that’s counter to that. Is that how you experience it too?

I gravitated to the arts, as many of us have, because they involve being part of an environment that offers alternative paradigms. Whenever I’ve tried to be a patriarch or a bossy male, it hasn’t worked for me. I don’t make good art. I don’t make people happy or motivated. If our aim is to create, lead, and generate energy, this rigidity is not useful. The stories that we treasure from Shakespeare, or even the Greeks, describe characters clinging onto a viewpoint and finally discovering that the world will beat them, that their own rigidity will destroy them. And this reminds me of a phrase of Peter Brook’s that I say at the beginning of every rehearsal process: “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.”

Nancy Robinette (Death) with Kelli Simpkins, Alina Collins Maldonado, Ayana Workman, Elan Zafir, and Avi Roque (Somebodies) in ‘Everybody.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

You’ve said that you are a feminist but you are “searching for how to be a better feminist—as an artist, as a director, as a man, every day.” How did you come to see yourself that way? And why does it matter to you?

Whenever somebody declares that they are a finished product or “I have successfully attained a level of wisdom or political sophistication,” I always feel skeptical because the moment we claim to know is the moment we know least. I’ve been taught by failure as much as success about how little I know, and how much more powerful the question is than the answer. As a young director, I realized after doing play after play that I’d had a very vibrant intellectual training at Cambridge, but I didn’t understand my own instincts. I wanted to find a new pathway to knowledge, inspiration, and playfulness.

Having an inkling of what was missing led me to leave my job at Northampton [at Royal and Derngate Theatres] and embark on two years of training in the Lecoq method of physical theater in London with a great teacher, Thomas Pratki. A lot of his work was around failure, which is the other very unpatriarchal thing to experience or allow. It was a very great safe space for two years to be away from everybody and undergo a series of experiences that were not about being successful. They were to do with understanding and experience, not about being “good.” When I emerged from the training, I was much more comfortable about encouraging actors to take bigger risks in rehearsal. It doesn’t matter if it goes wrong! The feeling of “Don’t make me do something I am bad at” compartmentalizes and restricts us.

You’ve been very open about your values. When you came to Shakespeare Theatre Company, you said of your first meeting here:

It was important I could say explicitly that I might look like a white male, and indeed might be a white male, but my wish and my work is striving to be beyond that and be open to all kinds of influences and people and collaborators and voices…. 

What I’ve got to do is demonstrate that my agenda is not the agenda that you might associate with a white middle-class male. That I can put my experience and my, if you like, privilege, at the feet of a new generation of artists, of all backgrounds.

 How do those words feel to you five weeks into the job?

Well, look, John, we’re sitting together the day after my first production as artistic director opened. It’s no coincidence that production was called Everybody. It’s also the first time STC has ever produced a play by an African American dramatist.  Change is urgently needed and it begins here.

Branden grew up in Washington and came to the Shakespeare Theatre Company as a child. He grew up with the classics, and is now very celebrated around the world. He renders the classical core texts through the lens of identity, race, sexuality, humor, gender, and grief.

Alina Collins Maldonado, Ayana Workman, Avi Roque, Elan Zafir, and Kelli Simpkins (Somebodies) with Yonatan Gebeyehu (Usher/God) and Nancy Robinette (Death) in ‘Everybody.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

The night last February in the Harman when you introduced your first season, I was struck that the only white male playwright was going to be Shakespeare—Timon of Athens and Much Ado About Nothing, both to be directed by you—and I was impressed that your cross-race and cross-gender casting promised to be genuinely inclusive. I’d like you to talk about how your choices around these two plays reflect on your own conscience—and how the plays themselves speak to the theme of conscience in Shakespeare.

I immediately think of Hamlet’s “thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”—and the danger “of thinking too precisely on th’ event,” another phrase he uses—conscience, used in the wrong way, can paralyze us and become a source of terror. At the end of the play, Hamlet says, “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” I can’t predict the future. I can’t know the future.

I can just be available to what’s in front of me. And that’s a key theme in Shakespeare: the notion that suffering humbles us and brings new knowledge. So Timon of Athens, who goes from being “happy” in the first half with lots of “friends,” discovers that these friends are not truly his friends. His life of privilege is replaced by a life of poverty. Then, in the second half of the play, he is given beautiful poetry to say about the human condition. And that is a very Greek idea: suffering bringing wisdom.

We also understand conscience as being a moral compass—intuition would be another word —a feeling that what we’re doing is right or wrong at any one moment. Shakespeare was interested in what it means to have many voices inside, to experience inner conflict. Characters articulate these voices through monologues, which are essentially a means of discovering what conscience is saying. And, as you rightly say, in Everyman, the original, and in Everybody, conscience is effectively a character.

Shakespeare saw Everyman, we think, as a child, and all those allegorical figures like Conscience or Friendship become renamed in his later work. I think of Buckingham in Richard III being Friendship. Or Vice—which is not in Everyman but is in the other medieval allegorical plays—becomes Richard III.  He’s taking archetypes and naming them and making them characters. I’m sure there are characters in Shakespeare that you could say are modeled on Conscience, but essentially Hamlet is all those characters in one, and that’s why Hamlet is such an astonishing creation.

We have this word mindfulness now, which I think is a way of talking about conscience in everyday life—how being present makes space for conscience to come into our existence. The Empty Space is the title of Peter Brook’s extraordinary book. It’s such a radical notion that theater isn’t about stuff or bulk. Finally, it’s about clearing something away, letting something go, making room for something new to appear.

Avi Roque, the Somebody who played Everybody on the opening night of ‘Everybody.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

I’d like to name the rest of the plays in the season and ask you for a quick response about how each expresses or relates to your own conscience. You’ve already mentioned Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Yes.

Peter Pan by Lauren Gunderson.

Peter Pan is fascinating because it’s based around the myth of the boy who wishes never to grow up. Going back to conscience—it’s also about maturity and how we grow up. How do we ripen? How do we try and get more sensitive as we get older rather than less? The world is a brutal place, and it’s very easy to get hardened by it.

John, you have obviously kept your heart open, through many experiences and deliberate attempts to do so. Peter Pan is somebody that will not grow up, who wishes not to mature. And that’s a very appealing position to all of us, in a way, resisting experience, and trying to stay as we are. So, there’s Peter’s ambivalence around growing up and Wendy’s wish to grow up, especially in this new version, where she’s empowered to be a kind of role model for Peter. She becomes an agent of change, an agent of “Let’s grow up consciously.” And I really love that about the story. It doesn’t judge us for wanting to be young—and to hide. It just presents an alternative paradigm.

The Amen Corner by James Baldwin.

The Amen Corner is a play of leadership. A female pastor leads her congregation and wrestles with dissent. She wrestles with how to be a fair and strong leader—without compromising her family or sense of self. The drama stems from the obstacles she faces and her need for conscience to help lead her through this grueling path.

Romantics Anonymous by Emma Rice.

Romantics Anonymous is the more frivolous part of the season. I was drawn to it because Emma is a classical director who was running the Globe when she directed it. It was and remains part of her aim to create tender, celebratory work about the heart. There’s great room here for that generosity of spirit here.

You’ve referred to the difference between what you’ve called “the British relationship with race and the American relationship with race.” Would you share your thoughts about that, what you’ve learned, what you hope, what you intend?

I’m here very much to learn. I’m five weeks into the job. Claiming to know what race means in America would be a classic example of what I described earlier—hubris. I acknowledge that race means something different here than in the UK.  To understand the DC context, I need to work with the widest range of artists, leaders, and thinkers. I’m an apprentice around this area, no question. Every community has different memories and different wounds. It’s incumbent on me to understand the situation, and to speak to that with care, respect, and attention.

Nancy Robinette (Death) with (back row:) Alina Collins Maldonado, Ayana Workman, Kelli Simpkins, Elan Zafir, and Avi Roque (Somebodies) in ‘Everybody.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

One thing British theater and American theater have in common is that in both there have been instances of inappropriate and abusive behavior by theater practitioners in positions of authority. Some of those instances have been reported; I think most have been ignored. As the top manager of a major theater and as the father of two daughters, how do you see your role and responsibility in the #MeToo era?

My work has always been about creating a feeling of safety in the spaces where I have been the leader. I want all voices to be heard. I want everyone to understand and practice an ethical code of behavior. Simultaneously, it’s about me understanding the EDI structures and guidelines [equality, diversity, and inclusion] on a very concrete policy level, to see whether we are inscribing into the organization practices that protect people in all areas, in all departments.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” said Immanuel Kant. Our work is to acknowledge that our efforts always need to be refreshed and intensified.

My last question: Going back to the storyline of Everybody, in which the character of Everybody has to give an accounting of how they lived, how would you like your time at Shakespeare Theatre Company to be remembered?

The word exhilaration comes to mind, John. I want this era to be remembered as an era of inescapable engagement for all. I want my time to feel urgent; a call to action.

Thank you.

Thank you; these are some of the most beautiful questions I’ve been asked in an interview. It’s felt like good practice for accounting for myself on the day of judgment!

Ahmad Kamal (Love), Ayana Workman (Somebody), Elan Zafir (Somebody), Nancy Robinette (Death), Kelli Simpkins (Somebody), Avi Roque (Somebody), Alina Collins Maldonado (Somebody), and Yonatan Gebeyehu (Usher/God) in ‘Everybody.’

Everybody plays through November 17, 2019 at Shakespeare Theater Company — Lansburgh Theater — 450 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

 

 

Right to Be Forgotten

Right to Be Forgotten is a play written from the outside in. By that I mean, its intention is to illustrate a legal issue: the tension in U.S. law between privacy and freedom of speech, a tension exacerbated by the internet. To lend that abstract conflict accessible emotional resonance, Playwright Sharyn Rothstein has crafted a human interest storyline about a young man named Derril.

John Austin (Derril) Melody Butiu (Marta) in ‘Right to Be Forgotten.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Derril (played arrestingly by John Austin) is haunted by online trash talk about a mistake he made ten years ago when he was a socially awkward 17-year-old. Derril is now a socially awkward grad student in literature who wants one day to teach. He knows his searchable past could derail his career. The plot turns on his efforts to get that youthful indiscretion expunged, or de-indexed, so that it no longer shows up when his name is Googled. He does not deny the mistake, which involved a female classmate. He just wants it digitally forgotten so he can move on.

[READ Bob Ashby’s review of Right to Be Forgotten.]

Rothstein’s script is razor smart. There are acerbic laugh lines aplenty and the story and stakes are clear as day. The production directed by Seema Sueko zips by like a high-tech legal procedural. Shawn Duan’s projections turn Paige Hathaway’s set into a manic smartphone screen; dazzling computer code floods the stage. The characters are precisely drawn and incisively performed. And I wanted very much to follow along with the play’s outward argumentation about how big tech companies cloak themselves in the first amendment to maximize profits from wholesale violation of people’s privacy.

But instead, I found myself watching Right to Be Forgotten from the inside out. By that I mean, my attention was commanded by Rothstein’s invented story centered on Derril, not the argumentation it was intended to illustrate. I wanted to know: What exactly did Derril do, and at what cost to the classmate to whom he did it?

Shubhangi Kuchibhotla (Sarita) and John Austin (Derril) in ‘Right to Be Forgotten.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

In the first scene, Derril tells a young woman, Sarita (appealingly played by Shubhangi Kuchibholtla): “The me you meet online is going to terrify you.” They are on a sort-of first date; there is a sort-of attraction between them. Suddenly Derril blurts out a confession that his name is not what he told her it was; he has been using a pseudonym so his past shame won’t show up in search. And Sarita is promptly put off.

So not only could Derril’s online disgrace kibosh his career; it’s going to quash his love life. Thus motivated, Derril seeks out Marta (a delightful Melody Butiu), a shrewd privacy-rights lawyer, in hopes of getting that past erased. Marta proceeds to draw out of him the “he said” of what he did. And the script proceeds to position Derril as its hero, the aggrieved party.

John Austin (Derril) in ‘Right to Be Forgotten.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ten years ago Derril became besotted with a young woman classmate named Eve who had stood up for him when he was bullied and taunted for being gay. (He’s not.) He fast got a crush on her and kept following her and showing up at her house. He was not stalking her, he says, and he is not a criminal, he says; he just wanted to be near her—over and over for months. Marta is promptly suspicious of his hair-splitting.

Derril’s dilemma is that soon after his not-stalking-not-crime-committing, someone posted online a damning blog detailing his persistent unwelcome behavior. The blog went viral, and women added comments about men who had done unwanted things to them as well. So Derril’s name online is mud.

Marta, a sympathetic civil-rights activist at heart, takes Derril’s case. For the moment Derril’s conception of his dilemma is not the fact of what he did; it’s that it got exposed and damaged his reputation. In a move to repair it—and in one of the play’s many sharp twists—Marta concocts a PR scenario whereby Eve would go public forgiving Derril. Thus there comes a scene between Derril and Eve (an amazingly moving Guadalupe Campos), in which Derril is tasked with asking Eve for forgiveness. But the scene turns wrenching as we learn along with Derril that what he thinks he did does not approximate how Eve, to whom he did it, experienced it.

John Austin (Derril), Melody Butiu (Marta) and Guadalupe Campos (Eve) in ‘Right to Be Forgotten.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Promotion for Right to Be Forgotten has been at pains to frame what Derril did as a “mistake” and an “indiscretion,” and Rothstein’s script itself couches his misdeed as an enamored youth’s excess of infatuation with no malicious intent, not a smidgen of sexual predation. Then in that pivotal scene between Derril and Eve, this inside story’s stakes and Derril’s character arc take an abrupt turn.

Guadalupe Campos (Eve) in ‘Right to Be Forgotten.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Not to give too much away, but for the first time in the play we see Derril have to reckon with what his behavior did to Eve. He has to get out of his own head and hear out her heart. And he listens. And it changes him.

We don’t see the change in Derril right away. But there comes a scene a little later when he makes a decision motivated by that empathic learning that is expressly in Eve’s interest, not his own. Derril’s choice comes as a surprise, we don’t see it coming, but it is immediately credible and it lifts the stature of his character before our eyes. I so admire that moment and how Rothstein has prepared for it. It is the moral apogee of the play and for me the main reason Right to Be Forgotten needs to be seen. That moment needs to happen more in life.

That said, if I step back and look at Right to Be Forgotten from the outside in, to see how the Derril/Eve narrative is functioning to dramatize a contest between free-market capitalism and human-rights-based regulation, I get a little…annoyed. And the reason is that in the #MeToo era, it has become very problematic to treat sexual politics as a parable about something else—for instance to tell a story about unwelcome behavior by a man toward a woman and make it about his reputation online not her injury in life. In the real world (remember the Kavanaugh hearings?), exactly such gaslighting has been employed to protect perpetrators and impugn victims. Conflating the right to be forgotten online with a right to be forgiven is nonsense. I know of no moral universe in which forgiveness is an entitlement.

Rothstein gets this, I believe. If she didn’t, she would not have scripted that powerful moment when Derril gets what he did to Eve. Ironically, though, that inside moment exposes what’s muddled in the play’s outside argument: It deals only with harm to reputation. And that’s a very myopic and privileged notion of the real-world harms being done to people online. Or for that matter in life.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Right to Be Forgotten plays through November 10, 2019, in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or go online.

Day of Absence

To realize how much white America loved minstrelsy is a reckoning painful or shameful, depending on one’s ancestry. Minstrel shows were never meant for people of African descent to see; they were intended for white eyes only, and white people flocked to them.

Period cartoon showing white people thronging to a minstrel show.

In the guise of popular entertainment, minstrel shows functioned as anti-Black propaganda plain and simple. They spread degrading stereotypes of Black people to parts of America even before Black people got there.  To find a modern-day equivalent one would have to join in the jingoistic jeering at a stadium Trump rally.  “At one point,” says an actor in Theater Alliance’s theatrical clapback, “minstrel shows were bigger than baseball.”

Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 Day of Absence: A Satirical Fantasy “was conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white-face,” he wrote. Theater Alliance has expanded on the concept and staged the classic one-act preceded by cast-written sketch comedy—satires that roast and refute the prejudice to which minstrel shows pandered. And the subversive dramatic action begins the instant one steps inside the theater.

[READ Andrew Walker White’s rave review of Day of Absence.]

Standing eight feet high are massive historical posters for minstrel shows. They are disturbing to look at; one wants to hurry past them. Yet there is something strangely compelling about them, for they have been colorized with a painterly patina that attracts the eye even as the underlying imagery repels. Stepping further into the theater one sees a proscenium’s worth of such posters, suspended around the stage like a sideshow of grotesques rendered picturesque.

The cast of ‘Day of Absence.’ Back: Kalya Warren, Jonathan Del Palmer, Ezinne Elele, Jared Shamberger, Charles Franklin IV, Nia Savoy, Kaisheem Fowler-Bryant, Sisi Reid and Damondre Green. Front: Dylan J. Fleming. Photo by Manaf Azzam.

I do not recall a set design that so emphatically frames the esthetic and politics of the performance to follow. Here everything about minstrelsy is turned on its head. Here on in-your-face display is the iconography of white people’s historical derogation of Black people. And here simultaneously is its subversive reversal, a cooptation for opposite purpose, the conversion of artifacts of hate into objects of political art—and ultimately an insistence that the white gaze perceive itself.

The signs called for in Ward’s script were the “jumping off point,” Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson told me. And “to stay true to the minstrel performance,” that idea evolved into posters from the period. “They were all incredibly easy to find,” Robertson said. “There’s a ton of them out there. We focused on ones with white people in blackface. Then we found a few just absolutely grotesque caricatures of Black individuals and Black performers. And we picked a balance.”

Posters for the back of the house during ‘Day of Absence.’ Color renderings courtesy of Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson.

To control the color of each poster, Robertson prepared renderings showing how they should look when finished. Once printed out in black and white on a large format printer, the posters were mounted onto wood and became vast canvases for Scenic Artist Bridget Willingham to paint on.

“I had some freedom, like the texture,” Willingham told me. “The posters are very grungy. I was playing around with the paint and I would show it to Johnny and I was like, Is this too dirty? And he was like, No that looks perfect.”

Willingham shared with me her personal touch in the posters’ aged and weathered look. “For me when I was painting them I was heavily uncomfortable,” she said. “I didn’t know the show, and I was painting this very racist imagery. And the reason it was uncomfortable for me is because I don’t believe in these things. And I think I overloaded on the dirt—a lot of brown scumble everywhere—because I was trying to cover it up.

“When I learned what the show was about and the message they were trying to give to the world,” Willingham continued, “I felt better and more comfortable with painting them.”

Similarly Robertson shared that “when the cast first saw the posters, they were taken aback by them. But then they were impressed at the intention.”

Kayla Warren, Kaisheem Fowler-Bryant, Sisi Reid, Jared Shamberger, Charles Franklin IV, and Ezinne Elele in ‘Day of Absence.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

That double-take reaction to the posters—which audiences can readily relate to—is a measure of the power of the design now on exhibit in Theater Alliance’s production of Day of Absence. One must look twice. Once to see in this imagery the hateful roots of American racism. And once again to see the artful way these reclaimed, rerendered posters frame an extraordinary evening of Black-centric subversion that should not be missed.

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

Day of Absence plays through November 3, 2019, at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

GalaPro (review of a captioning app)

How does that new GalaPro app work? How well does it work? And what’s it like to watch a show with it? This inquiring theatergoer wanted to know.

Many Deaf and hard of hearing people are already familiar with GalaPro, but it was news to me. The free app runs on a smartphone or tablet and displays read-in-the-dark captions in sync with a live performance. Currently on Broadway, GalaPro is available for use at 18 hits (among them Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and To Kill a Mockingbird). I didn’t need to trek to New York to try it, though, because GalaPro has been fully implemented for about half a year for all shows at Signature and Arena, and Ford’s is soft-launching it right now with August Wilson’s Fences.

A simulation of what captions look like on a smartphone running GalaPro.

I am hearing and I am a huge fan of simultaneous captioning. When theaters have offered it (notably Mosaic), I always glance back and forth between watching the performers and reading along with their script as projected on the set. (At home, too, I prefer to watch cable with the closed captions on.) I’m a word wonk. I dig seeing the writing—literal evidence of the author’s exact intent that preexisted whatever’s on.

For me, simultaneous captioning, far from being a distraction, adds a level of engagement, another way to grok what’s going on. It also yields surprising insights, like when I see that an actor has delivered a line not quite as written (which happens not infrequently). Far from being a gotcha moment, these unauthorized alterations give me an instant glimpse into how an actor has made the role their own. (Playwrights, please do not take umbrage. I am not advocating that actors freewheel; I am merely saying that when they do, it interests me—and I appreciate knowing what the writer meant the actor to say.)

The GalaPro logo, which identifies its app icon.

My chance to test out GalaPro came when I was going to Signature to see Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone. This turned out to be a good place to start. “GalaPro is another step in making Signature more accessible to all audiences,” Jennifer Buzzell, director of marketing and sales, told me. “We are marketing the product not just to people with hearing loss but to literally everyone who comes in our theaters.”

Smack dab in the Signature lobby is an attended GalaPro information kiosk stocked with how-to leaflets and borrowable smartphones, tablets, and hands-free holding stands. You can’t miss it.

“Signature does quite a bit to promote our technology and make their patrons aware of the service,” Dominic Mota, GalaPro operations manager, told me. The push has paid off. According to Mota, “Signature has the highest usage of any regional theatre in our GalaPro portfolio.”

Screenshot of a GalaPro setup page.

Before I arrived, I downloaded the GalaPro app (which is available on the App Store and Google Play) and went through the easy preliminaries as spelled out on the leaflet that Signature now tucks into every program: Log in, create an account, choose Washington DC Metro Area from the dropdown, choose my show, select Closed Captioning, and click Start.

The rest I had to do at the theater: Turn my phone to airplane mode, connect to the show’s dedicated wi-fi network (the app tells you its name and password), and turn off my phone’s notifications. Once in my seat, the name of the play began to glow in dim red letters against a black background. This would be how the captions would look once the show began. It’s possible to customize this display—adjust the font size and brightness slightly—but if you weren’t aware you can just finger-swipe (see screenshots below), it’s a little tricky to find the touch control to do so. Instructions say to use the settings button in the top left corner of the screen, but that button is virtually invisible. You have to keep stabbing your finger at that corner before it shows up. Once it does, you can also pick whether you’d like red type or gray.

Pro tip: Remember how to finger-swipe instead.

As the show started and actors started speaking, their lines of dialogue began to show up automatically on screen. Each character’s name appeared faintly above their lines. And for the most part the lines were in sync with what was said.

Screenshot from GalaPro’s in-app tutorial.

GalaPro uses artificial intelligence to advance the text to each speech as it is spoken, and the way the system is taught how to do this is fascinating. As Buzzell explained, Signature sends the coded script to GalaPro to be uploaded into the system. Then for the first eight run-throughs, the captions are cued manually as the GalaPro system listens through the soundboard and learns to recognize the actors’ voices. After that, the system operates on its own for the rest of the run, guided only by the actors on stage. If an actor drops a line, GalaPro knows to skip ahead and catch up. Similarly if an actor misspeaks a line, GalaPro can get back on track.

Screenshot from GalaPro’s in-app tutorial.

Every now and then, though, GalaPro will seem to get confused and suddenly flutter-scroll rapidly forward and backward until it finds its place in the script again. A frequent theatergoer who has used GalaPro regularly at both Arena and Signature—in combination with an ALD (assisted listening device)—had tipped me off to this little glitch, which I noticed a couple times too. But then in an instant as if by magic the captions would be in sync again. As this frequent user said to me, “When it works, it’s fabulous.”

Escaped Alone is built of alternating scenes between four white Englishwomen chit-chatting Britishly in a garden and extended apocalyptic monologues delivered by one of them in front of a curtain. GalaPro did not add much to the chit-chat scenes—plus the fragmented text was performed so briskly there was no point keeping up with the screen. But I found the GalaPro app a surprisingly valuable enhancement during those densely poetic apocalyptic monologues, the writing of which is mind-blowing. While the cataclysmic imagery and language Churchill deploys is horrifying and grotesque, I took keen private pleasure in following along and savoring her amazing text—which coincidentally deepened my appreciation of the extraordinary performance of the actor delivering it (Valerie Leonard).

Screenshot of a GalaPro setup page.

For contrast I tested GalaPro at Arena at a performance of a very different play, August Wilson’s Jitney, which has a lot of fast banter among nine African American characters, eight men and one woman. The text is very specific to the play’s time and place, the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1977, and it included many idioms and references to proper names unfamiliar to me. In this case GalaPro served me as an instant personal translator so that I never had the feeling I was missing something outside my culture because I didn’t quite catch it.

My takeaway: the GalaPro app can have different applications for different types of theater, and one’s own unartificial intelligence can quickly learn what works for which.

I do wish I had the opportunity to test GalaPro during a musical, but none is playing locally right now. Based on the two experiences I’ve had with straight plays, however, I can readily imagine that the app would be handy for picking up on lyrics that might otherwise get lost.

Whereas at Signature, there’s a house manager at that GalaPro lobby kiosk to ask for setup assistance, at Arena, I found, one can get help from an usher. Also at Arena, the GalaPro how-to leaflets are not on lobby display but available on request at the box office.

Screenshot of shows in DC currently available on GalaPro

Often people wonder whether GalaPro will annoy others. Though I cannot speak for actors onstage, I noticed that when there’s a total blackout, a very slight glow emanates from the phones of folks who are on GalaPro and reflects faintly from their faces. I should think that visual marker of rapt attention would be kind of affirming. As for my seat mates at Signature and Arena, I doubt they noticed. The screen stays dark, with dim lettering that can’t be seen sideways; one has to be looking directly at it. Plus, one can’t get calls or other interruptions because one’s phone is in airplane mode. And these days that certain silence too must be reassuring.

Will we see GalaPro in theaters elsewhere in the DMV? I asked Dominic Mota (who before becoming GalaPro’s operations manager was Signature’s front-of-house manager). “We have quite a few other venues in the area who are interested,” he said, “and are moving forward with the intent to install and offer our services soon.”

My verdict: Would I, a confessed textophile, use GalaPro at the theater again? Absolutely. It’s like having the writer’s words in the palm of my hand.

SHOWS MENTIONED:

Escaped Alone plays through November 3, 2019, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.

Jitney plays through October 27, 2019, at Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or go online.

Fences plays through October 27, 2019, at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (888) 616-0270 or go online.

RELATED:
GalaPro’s homepage is here.
Kennedy Center’s listing of up-coming sign-interpreted and captioned events is here.
DC Arts & Access Network (DCAAN) has a calendar of local events and programs with accessibility services here.

 

My Barking Dog

“Barking dog” is what the Latin name for coyote means, and we learn a whole lot more about the critter in this wildly imagined comedy, a two-hander by Eric Coble. For instance for several years now, coyotes have been abandoning the wilds and begun showing up in cities. (Indeed, they can be found in DC’s Rock Creek Park and in Maryland and Virginia statewide.) But coyotes are not exactly what this play is about.

Running only through October 13, 2019, in a wildly entertaining production presented by Edge of the Universe Players 2 and directed by Michael Chamberlin in the intimate Caos on F space, My Barking Dog is as wondrous as it is weird. Melinda, a printing plant worker, and Toby, jobless and half-heartedly looking for work, are visited by a coyote that changes their lives—and perhaps urban life as we know it.

Christopher Crutchfield Walker (Toby) and Tia Shearer (Melinda) in ‘My Barking Dog.’ Photo by Lock & Co.

“This is a true story,” says Melinda, played delightfully by a gamine-like Tia Shearer in T-shirt and bib overalls.

“It may not all be accurate—,” adds Toby, an amiably winning Christopher Crutchfield Walker, his wrinkled shirt untucked, his tie undone.

“But it’s all true,” declares Melinda.

And if you can buy into that conundrum and the fanciful tale to come, you’re in for a wild ride.

Prefacing the play, we hear a track by the Talking Heads: “I got some wild, wild life /  I got some news to tell ya oh oh / About some wild, wild life”—a tease to both the show’s theme and the stunning sound design by Tosin Olufolabi, which will shortly astonish and surround us. We sit on stools arranged at random within the playing area, the entire floor of which has been painted blazing yellow—like a no-exit hazard zone. Around the space are four pillars of crumpled paper speared on floor-to-ceiling spindles. And as we entered the theater, the two actors were lying huddled/cuddled on what looked to be a thick black shag rug but turns out to be black plastic mulch passing for ash. This mini-dystopia set design by Giorgos Tsappas combined with Kristen P Ahern’s suitably nondescript costumes and Colin K. Bills’s curiously disorienting light scheme makes for one of the most original theatrical worlds I’ve seen come to life at Caos.

Christopher Crutchfield Walker (Toby) in ‘My Barking Dog.’ Photo by Lock & Co.

The play begins with a stretch of first-person character exposition that seems to be ambling nowhere. As Melinda and Toby deliver their several monologues, we learn, among other things, they’re both loners. Melinda likes to work her night shift in the plant when no one else is there: “If I wanted to talk to people I’d work with people.”

For his part, Tony keeps trying to get a wifi connection in his apartment, where he stays put most of the time: “The hardest thing about being unemployed is that you get to know your neighbors. Better than you want to.”

Tia Shearer (Melinda) in ‘My Barking Dog.’ Photo by Lock & Co.

Both Shearer and Walker make this meander as appealing as it can be, but not till that lone coyote drops in does the play kick into fully charged storytelling. And doggone it, what a tale gets told.

When the coyote shows up—symbolically signaled by Olufolabi’s amazing music cues—it is absolutely real to Melinda and Toby, who live in the same building and share the same fire escape but have never met. The coyote connects them. They feed it. They stay up at night to watch for it. They get to know it, and in a surreal way it knows them—or so they believe and imagine. When the coyote doesn’t come around for a while, Toby goes to a park to find it by tracking its distinctive poop, which he graphically rhapsodizes about (in a speech that surely qualifies as a close encounter of the turd canine).

There’s a point to it all. A big and important and provocative idea. A notion that does not tumble out of one’s mind once the show is over. And it hits Melinda and Toby at the same time:

TOBY: The question is: Are the coyotes the last dregs of a wild we are inevitably surrounding… or are they the first scouts of a wild that is inevitably surrounding us?
MELINDA: The question isn’t what right does he have to live in my city. the question is what right does my city have to be in his life?
TOBY AND MELINDA: And that changed everything.

So much of the enjoyment of The Barking Dog is the surprises Coble has in store—what Melinda decides to do next, what happens to Toby—and it would spoil the fun to know too much. Suffice it to say that “The wild need a home too” becomes Melinda’s activist mantra, Toby gets an unexpected family, and maybe, just maybe, the earth is better where the wild things are.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

READ David Siegel’s feature “‘My Barking Dog’ Explores Wildness and Uncertainty at Caos on F”

My Barking Dog, presented by Edge of the Universe Players 2, plays through October 13, 2019, at Caos on F – 923 F St NW, Washington DC. Purchase tickets online.

I Am Her

Midway through this taut, fraught drama about sexual trauma, a woman named Ana, a wife and young mother, is suddenly triggered. We are not told exactly why. It might be the Kavanaugh hearings broadcast, which she has just turned off in disgust. It might be the #MeToo zeitgeist, the rising tide of righteous rage. Whatever the precipitant, Ana is seized by a retrieved memory of  what happened to her when she was a child of six. Until she was nine, she was molested by her babysitter, her uncle. And she passes out.

Melissa Hmelnicky, whose deeply affecting performance as Mom Ana is the story’s emotional anchor, comes to in the arms of her supportive husband Jon, played attentively by Christian Sullivan. The graphic details of Ana’s abuse are artfully and tactfully depicted. Madelyn Farris as Child Ana plays innocently with her dolls stage left as an unctuous male voiceover (Sullivan again) makes her promise never to tell. Meanwhile Hmelnicky on her knees as adult Ana stage right tries to communicate acceptance to her vulnerable and victimized young self.

The moment when grownup Ana and Child Ana bond across their lifetime of buried pain is one of the most exquisite scenes of human mercy I have ever seen on stage.

Melisssa Hmelnicky as Mom Ana and Madelyn Farris as Child Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

The persistence of trauma from sexual abuse is the timely theme of I Am Her, a first play by Amanda Moskowitz. The work is autobiographical, a fact that’s a large part of its impact. After experiencing her own sudden-onset memories of childhood sexual abuse, Moskowitz decided to utilize the creative process of theater to heal—herself as well as others. Judging from the rapt reception by the audience who witnessed the performance Friday night in the Rehearsal Room at Woolly, that transformational potential has only just begun.

Christian Sullivan as Mike and Madelyn Farris as High School Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

The three actors begin in half light by unpacking their costumes from a wooden box. Only later does one realize this is figuratively a play of unpacking memories. The first scene takes place in high school, where giddy High School Ana (Farris) crushes on a jock named Mike (Sullivan), of whom it is said “You can almost smell the popularity!” For Ana, however, it turns into a bad romance with an aggressive jerk whose anger she accedes to—in what is basically a date rape.

Christian Sullivan as lawyer Joseph and Melissa Hmelnicky as Career Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

We know we are in for a sequence of successive sexual traumas by the next scene, when Career Ana (Hmelnicky) ill-advisedly sleeps with a co-worker, Jay (Sullivan, in another of his persuasive toxic-man impersonations). After Ana ends their affair, Jay retaliates. In a consultation with an employment lawyer, Joseph (Sullivan), Ana is unsympathetically advised she should forget about suing for hostile work environment and instead just resign—for the sake of her professional reputation.

That same undermining motif appears when Ana’s Father (a bespectacled Sullivan) tells Child Ana (Farris) she must never tell her mother what happened and there must be “no cops”—because “You don’t want that kind of reputation following you around.”

Other incidents in Ana’s life dramatize the complexity of sexual trauma—especially how she is made to feel responsible for what a man did to her and how she gets further blamed for her shame. Attuned to her suffering, we hear her haunting lines of self-reproach:

I never said no…
I didn’t say a word…
I didn’t know what he did to me…
I was never okay…

And in admiration we attend to this author’s brave declaration through Ana of her truth.

Melissa Hmelnicky as Mom Ana in ‘I Am Her.’ Photo by Michael Kress Photography.

The staging is simple—a doorway, a couch, a table, moved around for different scenes. Director Toni Rae Salmi has shaped the transitions between with a cinematic flow that is well served by Lighting Designer Ian Claar. Sound Designer Julia Colpitts notably lends vivid ambiance to a raucous high school house party. And Intimacy Choreographer Mallory Shear has adeptly coached the show’s requisite bad touches.

I Am Her promised

trauma experts and resources available at each performance for anyone in need. We also invite the audience to stay after each performance for the 30-minute talk back sessions, which have been designed for continued context, dialogue, and support.

The night I was there, Producer Mimi Brodsky Kress talked with special guest Thomas Manion, director of the Montgomery County Family Justice Center in Rockville. If one knows or loves someone who has survived sexual abuse, Kress asked, what should one say? Manion’s answer was immediate:

I’m here for you. I support  you. I believe you.

Amanda Moskowitz’s I Am Her eloquently and succinctly says that too.

Credits
Madelyn Farris: High School Ana, Waitress, Roberta, College Ana, Child Ana
Christian Sullivan: Mike Baker, Joseph Koplan, Jay Russo, Gino Pantleone, Ana’s Father, Jan, Family Member
Melissa Hmelnicky: Career Ana, Therapist, Mom Ana
——
Produced by Mimi Brodsky Kress and Amanda Moskowitz
Directed by Toni Rae Salmi
Stage Management and Sound Design by Julia Colpitts
Dramaturg Consulting by Laura Esti Miller
Intimacy and Fight Choreography by Mallory Shear
Lighting Design by Ian Claar
Set Design and Construction by Michael Salmi
Light and Sound Production by Woolly Mammoth Staff
Photography by Michael Bennett Kress
Videography by Gregory Walsh

Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.

I Am Her played October 3 to 5, 2019, as a self-produced production in the Melton Rehearsal Hall at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. For news of future productions, follow I Am Her on Facebook and Twitter (@IAmHerPlay1).