Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: November, 2019

19: The Musical

On the day I was to see 19: The Musical—which is about how the amendment granting women the right to vote came to pass in 1920—our Constitution Denier in Chief made a perfectly timed gaffe. There he was at his Oval Office desk surrounded by women who had come to watch him put his Sharpie to the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemorative Coin Act—a bill that would direct Treasury to mint a special one-dollar coin (which had worked out so well for Susan B. Anthony).

Upon signing, a stumped Trump asked in all seriousness: “I’m curious why wasn’t it done a long time ago?”—the meaning of the word centennial apparently out of reach of his brain.  Then, in all self-servingness: “I guess the answer to that is because now I’m president, we get things done.”

19: The Musical has a presidential character nearly as alarming a buffoon: the pompous Woodrow Wilson (Brian Lyons-Burke in top hat), who famously stalled women’s suffrage and jailed and tortured suffragists. At odd moments the musical has him muttering to anyone in earshot, “Mansplain, mansplain, mansplain.” He may be historically a dick,  but here he’s the butt of the joke.

For nearly three years, Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw (book and lyrics) and Charlie Barnett (music) have been collaborating on a musical that would popularize the much-ignored story of the courageous women who fought for decades against a system stacked against them to get the right to vote. The idea was to have it ready by the women’s suffrage centennial next year. Notable figures in this struggle—such as Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Ida B. Wells—would be brought to life in scenes and show tunes together with a chorus of dancers and singers.

Scene from ’19: The Musical.’ Photo by John Meyers.

Portions of the work in progress have been presented in more than 30 workshop productions. I reported on one at 1st Stage last January, which was when I first recognized not only the outstanding songwriting gifts of the creators but also the enormous challenge they had undertaken: to reconcile the requirements of a song-and-dance Broadway-style musical with the underlying gravitas and hostility in the history of women’s suffrage, which in fact had taken a punishing path to its happyish ending. Now aptly at the National Museum for Women and the Arts (though on a small stage not well equipped for live theater), the full two acts with book intact had their world premiere, and the creators’ material could be appreciated more clearly—even when at times the execution got in its way.

The musical begins at the end, right after the 19th Amendment has passed, with an opening number that is inspired. The stage fills with women wearing black-and-white T-shirts that say Suffragist and singing a lighthearted ditty to a tune you could do the Charleston to, “19 (We Won).” It’s about how inequality “will soon be over”:

The 19th Amendment makes our gender ascendant!…
Our fight for equal rights is done!…
We should have equal pay within the year!…

This witty sendup of over-optimism, accompanied by over-ebullient choreography, gets the show off to a smart start. You just know a reality check is coming. Indeed, a savvy apparition appears—Susan B. Anthony, who in history did not live to see suffrage but who here as “Sue B” (Brenda Parker) warns the revelers in song that it’s not going to be “Easy.”

Scene from ’19: The Musical.’ Center: Brenda Parker (Susan B. Anthony). Photo by John Meyers.

We next meet a central figure in the struggle, Alice Paul, here nicknamed “AP” (Katie Ganem), who sings a beautiful ballad as a letter to her Mother (Karen Bralove) about her aspirations for equality and freedom (“Dear Mama”). Her fierce determination will lead a movement (and, coincidentally, propel the musical’s book) with a seriousness of purpose. AP teams up with Lucy Burns (Krystle Cruz) in a winking vaudeville-style number called “Partners in Crime.” Together they launch the National Women’s Party and the stage fills again with singers singing and dancers dancing to a rousing womanifesto, “New World Order.”

This buoying up of spirits will become a musical motif of the show as it turns its attention to the daunting conflicts—both external and internal—that the real-life movement faced.

The first of those conflicts is dramatized with the introduction of Carrie Chapman Catt (Maria Ciarrocchi), whose conservative blouse and skirt reflect her politics (“I’m Prim, So What”). Though Catt’s got plenty of grit (“You best not mess with me!”), she contrasts with the radical activism of AP and Burns (who will later wear a T-shirt saying Feminist AF). Subsequently in the show a tactical difference will divide them: Catt wants a cautious state-by-state approach to women’s suffrage; Paul insists the focus be federal. Here, in another upbeat song-and-dance number, the musical cleverly depicts the stresses and successes of coalition-building toward a common goal (“Two Sides of the Same Coin”).

A visit to London proves a sobering turning point. The American suffragists meet with British suffragists, in the persons of Christabel Pankhurst (Elizabeth Keith) and Emeline Pankhurst (Millicent Scarlett), who had been brutally jailed for public protests. “Power responds only to pressure,” Christabel tells them, meaning power will crack down on dissent. The Americans get the point, which is underscored when foremother Sue B reappears to spur them to civil disobedience: “Don’t make my mistakes… The right is more precious than peace.” Later AP will address a rally of women activists about what the future may hold: “I cannot guarantee you your safety. I cannot guarantee you your life.” And the show as essential feminist civics lesson gets a whole lot more real.

Scene from ’19: The Musical.’ Center: Millicent Scarlett (Ida B. Wells). Photo by John Meyers.

With the introduction of Ida B. Wells (Millicent Scarlett), the show confronts the racism of white suffragists head-on. Born in slavery and raised as a free woman, Wells became an important journalist of the era and was devoted to Black liberation. Here the character functions as the show’s conscience. When a major suffrage demonstration is being planned, AP critically decides that Wells should not march in front, so as not to lose the support of “white Southern ladies.” Several gorgeous songs express Wells’s dismay—and Scarlett’s vocals are powerful—”Will You Be Here for Me” and “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” in which AP pointedly stands her ground. Finally AP decides Wells can march in the rear with the  Howard University contingent. “I’ll march where I damn please” is Wells’s response:

Don’t talk to me about your pain… How dare you ask me to wait?… No more can I stand for this privileged equality… Only the Black woman can say when and where I enter.

That last line references the title of a work by the African American historian Paula Giddings, and it’s just one example of the many quotes tucked insightfully into the script. Another is a line the book gives to Alice Paul—”Courage in a woman is often mistaken for insanity”—which was actually what a male shrink said when refusing Woodrow Wilson’s order to declare her crazy.

The show includes some very dark episodes in the struggle, indelible reminders of just how brave these women were. In silhouette, backlit by red light, we see women political prisoners who have gone on hunger strike (“Jailed for Freedom”) being forcibly funnel-fed. Similarly in silhouette we see women arrested at a protest being pummeled by cops with billy clubs. “Protest, arrest, release, repeat” goes the refrain of another song-and-dance number (“Release & Repeat”), this time devoid of naive cheer.

During a visit to Wilson’s office, Alice Paul is amusingly met with the aforementioned mansplaining plus musical condescension: “Be a Sensible Girl,” he sings, backed up by a bouncy chorus line in polka dots. Preoccupied with a gathering war in Germany, Wilson is unsympathetic to her cause. “La la la” he says, plugging his ears to tune her out. Unimpressed, AP later calls him a “charlatan, fraud, hypocrite.” Only massive public pressure—which included a silent protest at the White House (“Silence”)—was to change presidential and congressional minds. But that pressure came at a great cost for movement sheros, who in 1917 were viciously imprisoned and tortured at the Lorton jail in Northern Virginia. (A museum near the site will open next year.)

After the embarrassment of that “night of terror,” Congress passed the 19th Amendment, leaving it up to at least 36 of the states to ratify. The nailbiter came down to Tennessee, where the outcome would be decided by the vote of one tiebreaker: Representative Harry Burn (Gregory Scott Stuart). In one of the most amusing and touching scenes, he is schooled by his mother (Scarlett) in the beautiful “Listen to Your Mother”—and he comes around.

There follow more big musical numbers of celebration and empowerment including a “Reclaiming Our Time” chorale and a very moving “My country, ’tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty, / Of thee I sing…” When near the end Alice Paul reads the actual text of the 19th Amendment, it comes not with the fizzy optimism of the beginning but with deep emotion well earned:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

19: The Musical reclaims a time when women fought like hell and paid a price so that women today can go to the polls—even if like most white women in America three years ago they vote a racist idiot into the White House. The book is sturdy, the lyrics are skillful, the score is first-rate. I’ve listened to and enjoyed the preliminary cast album on Spotify over and over. It’s terrific.

That said, the show feels long, and the boost-your-spirits musical numbers get repetitive. Worse, the choreography was too show-off-y for this small stage, too cutesy, and did not so much enhance the storytelling as distract from it.  At times it was as if Busby Berkley and June Taylor had a quarrel and no one won. The production of this musical needs to trust more the substance of its storyline. There’s too much ingratiating, too much making nice.

The creators are raising funds to do an industry reading in New York for Broadway investors, producers, and directors. My hope for this show is that it secures such professional backing and that its next iteration will be a production conception worthy of the very promising material. (Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.)

Musical Numbers

ACT I

19 (We Won)
Easy
Dear Mama
The Reasons
Partners in Crime
New World Order
I’m Prim, So What
No Matter the Price
Will You Be Here for Me
Put Yourself in My Shoes
Will You Be Here for Me (Reprise)
Missy
The Bloody March
Liberty For Inez
Dear Mama (Inez Reprise)
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Sensible Girl
The War at Home

ACT II
Right Women, Right Time
Dear Lucy
Silence
Release & Repeat
Victory Will Be Mine
Damned if I Do
Release & Repeat (Reprise)
Reclaiming My Time
Night of Terror
Jailed for Freedom
Evolution
Hypocrite’s Tango
Easy (Reprise)
19 (Reprise)
So Close
Listen to Your Mother
Dear Mama/19 (Reprise)
Easy (Reprise)
Reclaiming Our Time (Reprise)

Cast

Alice Paul (aka AP): Katie Ganem
Carrie Chapman Catt: Maria Ciarrocchi
Emmeline Pankhurst / Ida B. Wells: Millicent Scarlett
Lucy Burns: Krystle Cruz
Sue B. Anthony (aka Sue B): Brenda Parker
Christabel Pankhurst / Inez Milholland: Elizabeth Keith
President Woodrow Wilson / Dr. Gannon: Brian Lyons-Burke
Police Chief Sylvester / Representative Harry Burn: Gregory Scott Stuart
Chorus & Dancers: CinCin Fang, Haylee Green, Raquel Jennings (swing), Danielle Marquis, Angela Norris, Reyina Senatus, Katy Sherlach, Elizabeth Spikes, Rebecca Weiss, Katie Zajic
Ensemble: Alexis Primus, Katy Sherlach
Mother / Ensemble: Karen Bralove

Production Team 

Jennifer Schwed: Writer/Lyricist/Director/Producer
Doug Bradshaw: Writer/Lyricist/Director/Producer
Charlie Barnett: Composer/MusicalDirector/Arranger/ Piano/Producer

Costumes: Jennifer Schwed
Lighting Design: Dan Martin
Sound: Turner Bridgforth
Vocal Captain: Millicent Scarlett
Choreography: Danielle Marquis, Angela Norris
Dance Captain: Kristen Briscoe
Stage Manager: Elise Edwards

Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes, including one intermission.

19: The Musical played November 25 to 27, 2019, presented by Through the 4th Wall Productions performing at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Avenue NW, Washington. DC.

RELATED:

Magic Time!: ‘ 19: The Musical’

Photo Feature: Behind the Scenes at ’19 the Musical’

Past Is Prologue in New Musical About Suffragists

White Pearl

An explicit Q&A with Actors Diana Huey and Zachary Fall about their explosive scenes in Anchuli Felicia King’s dark comedy.

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl is a hilarious, fast-paced satire set in the Singapore office of a cosmetics startup called Clearday that sells skin-whitening cream to Asian women. As the play begins, the six Asian women who work at Clearday face a public-relations catastrophe: an anti-Black advertisement for the company’s product White Pearl has been leaked and gone viral.

During the ensuing frenzy, one of the women, the valley-girl-ish Built, gets a call on her cell. Her swaggering French ex, Marcel, is in the lobby, and he wants to see her. There the two have a scene together that blew me away. Later they have another scene together, in a bathroom stall. It was even more explosive.

Diana Huey (Built) and Zachary Fall (Marcel) in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

As I watched White Pearl, I sensed that those two scenes between Built and Marcel were contributing to the impact of the play in a really interesting way. They seemed to function like a subplot, a play within the play, affecting and reflecting the meaning of the whole play.

Curious to follow up on that notion, I had a chance to talk with the actors who perform those two mind-blowing scenes—Diana Huey and Zachary Fall. I first asked them about…

Their characters

John: It’s very clear in the script and in your performances who your characters are to each other. Who are your characters to yourselves? 

Zachary Fall (Marcel) in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Zachary: To me Marcel is someone who would consider himself a desperate romantic and passionate, but he’s also that sort of macho French that I see a lot, that I know a lot, and that really irritates me. He’s not someone I would particularly like.

Diana: Yeah, he’s difficult..

Zachary: Yeah.

But he’s someone you’ve seen in life. 

Zachary: He’s very close to some people I have met and have known and still know sometimes through the occasional Facebook argument. Some of them are even in theater, in the artistic scene, which always surprises me because I tend to imagine those people as being open-minded, super left-wing-progressive. And yet you sometimes find yourself faced with someone who thinks the MeToo movement is bull crap and thinks that men are men and women are women and each have their role and all that stuff.

So in life you would have judgments on this character, but you have to be this character.  

Zachary: Yeah, I do. I have to embrace his madness.

Diana, who is Built to you? 

Diana Huey (Built) in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Diana: She’s very blasé when reading the Buzzfeed article [about the racist advertising video that has gone viral]. Like, I’m just going to laugh this off ’cause else what are we gonna do? She was very clear, like, Oh, my daddy pays for everything. And that’s probably how she got the job, through some connection from her father. But for the past couple years or so, this is the first time that she’s actually really worked hard and has been good at something. Then this tumultuous ex boyfriend comes back and blows it all up. And it’s so maddening, ’cause it’s like, I finally did something in my life and you’re taking it away from me. For the first time, this selfish airheaded girl who has been given everything, finally works for something and it’s taken away, which is just the worst and is why she’s so unhinged around Marcel.

 

Their backstory

There once had to have been a romance between your two characters.

Diana: Absolutely. I think they were definitely passionately—

Zachary:very passionately—

Diana: —in love with each other. That’s what Des [Director Desdemona Chiang] was working a lot in rehearsals: to find the thing that was so attractive about that person, that electric spark that made them both so desperately in love with each other.

Zachary: Even today parts of you are like, Oh, he’s hot, I hate him.

Diana: I hate him. Yeah, exactly.

Zachary: And then he’s like, Omygod you broke my heart, I love you so much. I want you back.

Diana: They’ve probably broken up and gotten back together and broken up and gone back together.

Zachary: Yes. 

Diana: This was a very regular thing, which is why she’s like very clearly: I am done. There is no game. I’m not playing with you anymore. Like I’m actually done. No more. 

Zachary: And in his mind it’s like, No, it’s like the other times.

Diana: That’s like what we always do, cat and mouse and then have electric sex and then keep going and then break up— 

Zachary: Yeah.

Diana: —the cycle.

Their rehearsal process

Talk about how you rehearsed your roles and your two scenes, the first in the lobby and the second in a bathroom.

Zachary: Thankfully from the get-go when we met, we hit it off really well and we immediately started bantering.

Diana: Yeah. We’re always sparring, just constantly.

Zachary: Always.

Diana: Always.

Zachary: Always.

[Laughter.] 

Diana: Like, that’s just the way we’ve been from the beginning. So that works.

Zachary: Yeah, that works. And that meant that when we then got into the [rehearsal] room and had to start being mean and aggressive to each other, we felt completely safe and secure and comfortable.

Diana: Comfortable, yeah. We’d already established that quick rapport and one upping of each other.

Zachary: Whenever we’d try something new we’d check with the other one, but most of the time it was like, Yeah, just go for it.

There’s a lot of aggressive physicality in your scenes— 

Diana: Absolutely.

—some really hard-to-watch physical moments. You have to have a basis of trust to work that out.

Zachary: Yes.

Diana: Definitely.

Zachary: If we didn’t have this relationship, we would have had to approach it very differently and much more carefully.

Diana: It would just have been more work. It was strangely very, very easy.

Zachary: Yeah.

What kind of direction did the director give you for your two scenes?

Diana: Mostly it would have been about technical things like blocking and the physicality and stuff. But as far as the gritty gross relationship, Des just let us try things and it slowly developed.

Zachary: Because in the second scene, Built was given so much more physical power over him and she was on top of that battle, Des wanted in the first scene for Marcel to have more of the physical, domineering side. She wanted Marcel to have moments of physical dominance over Built to make the switch in the second scene even bigger.

Diana: Yeah.

What were the biggest challenges in finding these characters and performing those scenes? 

Diana: I mean, they’re both so ugly.

Zachary: Yeah, there’s some pretty nasty things in both.

Diana: Whenever I’m the meaner person, like grabbing you by the balls, the only way I can do it is to think about how much you screwed me over and how much I hate you and how much you took away from me. And that’s like to justify her complete insanity.

Zachary: It’s allowing yourself to give into that violence and anger that you normally know to channel and you know that’s not a thing you do.

Diana: Right.

Zachary: But you have to acknowledge and embrace that those characters will go there.

Their scenes

I’ve noticed that a lot of reviewers don’t seem to know what to make of your two scenes so they give them short shrift and only pay attention to the rest of the play. But the Built-Marcel storyline has a major function in the power of White Pearl. Marcel precipitates the crisis that kicks off the play. And the Built-Marcel subplot obviously shapes the main plot. But thematically there’s something more nuanced and resonant going on.

The other scenes in the play are about “big themes”—racism, the beauty industry, corporate greed, global capitalism—and much of the buzz about White Pearl has justifiably been about those topics. But your scenes are distinct. The playwright has made your two scenes more than one sixth of the play. I counted the pages. 

Diana: Wow.

You didn’t know that. 

Diana: Nope.

Zachary: Didn’t count it, no.

The playwright made your two scenes very important to the play. She meant them to be very significant. And interestingly, those two scenes don’t touch at all on the big themes running through the play. Their focus is solely on this one woman and this one man—this independent woman exec and her crazy, scary ex—and the sexual politics of their relationship.

Zachary: Yeah.

This bad romance from hell. 

 Diana: Yeah. We’re focused on our relationship; it’s not about Clearday, it’s not about White Pearl, the ad.

It’s not about Asia, it’s not about racism, it’s totally sexual-political dark comedy.

Zachary: Yeah.

Diana: Hm-hm.

It’s very specific. But it also has a universality that I think is the intention of what those scenes are doing. 

Zachary and Diana: Yeah. Right.

They’re like every bad romance. 

Zachary: One of the things that’s brought up in Marcel’s monologue is the white man working in Asia and how there’s a lot of white models who are hired for a lot of Asian magazines. And when Felicia was talking about Marcel’s looks, she brought up that when he walks in we want people to think, Oh, the colonizer is here. That’s one of the aspects that is brought up through that character, but it’s quite subtle.

Very.

Zachary: Mostly it plays on the gender dynamics.

Here’s this play set inside a company called Clearday, whose founder says: “Women need whitening cream, women need beauty products in general, because women—all women—hate the way they look. They hate themselves.” And the subtext is, Use our beauty product to be desirable, to meet a man.

Diana: Right.

Jody Doo, Diana Huey, Resa Mishina, and Shanta Parasuraman in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo bt Teresa Wood.

And plopped into the middle of this storyline about the marketing of beauty is this story about this woman’s really horrible relationship with a man. When Built gives graphic instances of what Marcel did to her, the script leaves no doubt she’s telling the truth. 

Zachary: That’s a literal description.

Marcel says she’s exaggerating. But the playwright means for us to believe Built.

Diana: Yeah, that’s a literal description of what happened. 

Zachary: He says that because he romanticizes it his mind. 

Diana:  And in rehearsals, I’d be like, ’Cause you’re totally crazy. And he’s like, Am I crazy or am I passionate? 

 Zachary: The way the ads sell the product is by making it about beauty. It’s about being more desirable. In the advert [the racist Clearday video], there’s this fickle guy who just keeps switching from one girl to the other depending on her looks and how white she is. And then in comes this a-hole [Marcel], this horrible man who himself seems to be quite fickle.

A real-life drama.

Zachary: He comes here on a whim, completely out of impulse, and creates this big mess. 

Diana: Before we started rehearsals, I started reading through the reviews from the London production, and a lot of those reviews were like, Oh, in the less-interesting storyline— That was a big thing in London, as well as the Sydney production. They were saying the stakes weren’t high and why is this here?

Zachary: The stakes are very high. 

Diana: I’m screaming and I’m livid in those scenes and like, the stakes aren’t high?!

Zachary: And he’s putting himself at risk professionally, financially, and emotionally because he’s there knowing what the relationship can be and not knowing how she’s going to react. There are huge stakes for both of them, all while playing on the gender dynamics.

What would you most like people to pay attention to in your two scenes? What would you like people to notice and to get? 

Zachary: One thing that infuriates me in this character is the machismo, the completely assumed machismo and sense of righteousness that he’s definitely in the right. The toxic romanticization of the guy chasing the girl no matter what, no means yes, and all that stuff. That’s basically the mentality he lives on. It comes from all those toxic masculinity backgrounds.

Diana: I think it’s so interesting that there’s one male character in the play—one white guy among six Asian women—and he’s not the hero.

Zachary: Oh, no.

Diana:  It’s not like practically every other story, where Here’s the white guy to save the day. 

Zachary: He’s the crazy ex.

Diana:  He’s the crazy ex. And he has this white savior complex—like, Come on, baby, I’ll take care of you like I always do.

Zachary: I may create the problem, but I can also solve it.

Diana: Watch me clean it all up and I’ll save you from the thing that I did. 

Zachary: When you think of the various wars in the past few years, it’s like, I’m going to create this huge conflict. 

Diana: Yep.

Zachary: And then I’m going to solve it for you and I’m going to be—

Diana: And I’m going to be the good guy, look what I did. I think it’s so great to finally have this play that’s written by an Asian woman directed by an Asian woman starring Asian women. And it’s not about a white male who, you know—

Zachary: He’s the problem, not the solution.

Diana: He’s the problem, yeah.

____

Zachary Fall and Diana Huey at Studio Theatre November 16, 2019. Photo: DCMTA.

Diana Huey most notably played Ariel in the first National Tour of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, where she made international headlines for facing racism over her casting as an Asian-American actor and her activism for diversity in the arts. Other favorite productions include Kim in Miss Saigon at the Signature Theatre and Flatrock Playhouse, Sherrie in Rock of Ages at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Kira in Xanadu at Hangar Theatre, and originating the role of Spider in Pasek and Paul’s James And The Giant Peach at Seattle Children’s Theatre.  She has also appeared on TNT’s Leverage and Netflix’s It’s Bruno!. Diana is the proud recipient of a Helen Hayes Award for Miss Saigon and a Gregory Award for The Little Mermaid.

Zachary Fall recently appeared in the award-winning Subject Mater at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Other UK stage credits include Tartuffe at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End, a trilogy of Tennessee Williams plays entitled Kingdom of Earth at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone at the Barons Court Theatre. French stage credits include Richard III with La Manufacture touring France and Switzerland and Dans La Foule with Adesso e Sempre (currently in pre-production). Television credits include PoldarkVersaillesGenius: PicassoGuiltCrossing Lines, Immortality, and Reinas. Film and gaming credits include AlliesThe Division 2, and A Plague Tale: Innocence. His production company, Woven Voices, won a Scotsman Fringe First Award for their production of Subject Mater. Zachary received a BA in Acting from the Drama Centre London.

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

White Pearl plays through December 8, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or go online.

Airness

In the competitive national and international air guitar scene, contestants vie for championships and prizes by pretending to play (or “shred”) imaginary guitars to 60-second tracks from classic rock ‘n’ roll. Typically their performances—intensely physical and crazily choreographed—are more over the top than real rockers’. Now, thanks to Playwright Chelsea Marcantel’s uproarious  Airness, you can not only drop in on that weird world—you can rollick in an all-out comedy that’s fricking funny, hella heartfelt, and badass brilliant.

Marcantel’s play, getting its DC premiere, first stirred excitement two years ago at the Humana Festival. The Keegan Theatre production directed by Christina A. Coakley lives up to that buzz and then some. An incredibly talented cast and inspired design team have created a rock-your-world theatrical experience that’s as feel-good as a concert by your favorite rockstars—with an all-access pass to their dramas off-stage.

Harrison Smith (Shreddy Eddy), Gary L. Perkins III (Golden Thunder), Chris Stezin (Facebender, and Billie Krishawn (The Nina) in ‘Airness. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The story makes stops at dingy dive bars in cities across the country: Staten Island, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, L.A….  Centerstage, Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan has installed a funky bar with barstools on a worn tile floor. Overhead is a screen ID’ing the city we’re in, and beside it are Projection Designer Nitsan Scharf’s eye-popping mashups of archival rock music videos.

Stage left is a modular unit that functions as a platform for air guitar performances, and stage right is a set piece that becomes various green rooms and backstage areas. Properties and Set Dressing Designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs has accessorized the stage with an awesome display of music posters, booze bottles, and other paraphernalia to sweep us into the scene and make us feel we are somewhere really cool.

Drew Kopas (D Vicious) and Forrest A. Hainline IV “The Fahking Rockr” (Announcer) in ‘Airness. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Quickly we meet a tribe of air guitarists whom we will follow as they trek from contest to contest. An Announcer (Forrest A. Hainline IV “The Fahking Rockr”) introduces them by their idiosyncratic stage personas: Shreddy Eddy (Harrison Smith), Golden Thunder (Gary L. Perkins III), Facebender (Chris Stezin), and Cannibal Queen (Dani Stoller). A fifth, D Vicious (Drew Kopas), the reigning champion, shreds his air guitar to prerecorded cheers and applause—and he’s so good we cannot help but clap along, becoming in that moment the contest crowd for all the air guitar acts to come.

There’s witty banter among them about song choices and past contests, then a newcomer arrives, Nina (Billie Krishawn). Nina plays real guitar in a real band, and now wants to compete at air guitar. The coaching she gets from the tribe, and especially from Shreddy Eddy, brings her and us up to speed on the rules and wherefores of the air guitar world. For instance, there are six “pillars” on which contestants are judged: artistic merit, originality, feeling, technical ability, charisma/stage presence, and an elusive quality known as “airness,” which, as Nina and we learn, is a kind of inner authenticity and personal  truthfulness.

Afterward the catty Cannibal Queen—accustomed to being “the only vagina in the room”—gives Nina private pointers on what it means to be a girl in this boy’s club: “You have to fight for every second of stage time and that starts with not dressing like a prostitute.” Marcantel’s eye on the gender politics of her story is both clever and keen.

The cast members etch each character so vividly, it’s impossible to single any out; they are as individuals and as an ensemble one of the strongest casts I’ve seen on a DC stage.

Dani Stoller (Cannibal Queen) in ‘Airness. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Along the way there are some emotional upheavals among them. Nina, for instance, believed that she and D Vicious were engaged, but she learns he’s getting it on with Cannibal Queen. And Facebender’s estranged daughter shows up for a show; he hasn’t seen her or her mother for six years. As “the man who ain’t afraid to rock with his heart on his sleeve,” Facebender tries to reach out, reconnect, and speak to her through his air guitar routine.

The unforgettable power of this production explodes in the cast’s performance of their air guitar licks, of which there are, happily, a lot. Sound Designer Kenny Neal has built into the show a knock-your-socks-off playlist of rock classics in one-minute cuts (see Spotify link below). Lighting Designer John D. Alexander has connected the many mini rock concerts with a nonstop light show. Costume Designer Sydney Moore has given a different exaggerated look to each character’s stage persona in each city—the outrageous wardrobe overflows. And whatever paces Choreographer Jessica Redish and Air Guitar Consultant Doug “The  Thunder” Strook have put the cast through have resulted in a show full of thrilling air guitar performances. Some even are hilarious. Nina, for instance, mimics an aged “Ruth Slayer Ginsberg.” And Golden Thunder drops trou to flash his butt in stars and stripes underwear.

“One never understands airness,” says Golden Thunder to Nina. “One achieves airness.” And further, he says, the greatest thing about air guitar, what air guitar teaches, is this: “Everything we need to rock is already inside us.”

You may walk into Keegan Theatre’s Airness knowing nothing about the world of competitive air guitar. And that’s okay. Because you will leave more with it and much the wiser and most of all wildly entertained.

Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Airness is a regional premiere co-production between Keegan Theatre and 1st Stage.

Airness plays through November 30, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

Airness plays December 5 to 29, 2019, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856.

 

Occupant

“True if interesting” is Louise Nevelson’s byword in Occupant, Edward Albee’s witty and wise bioplay about the famous sculptor. She was quite the character. For Nevelson, in the hagiography according to Albee, truth was relative to the attention it could attract. Facts for Nevelson were not carved in stone but malleable and assemblable as if wood. Or so Albee would have us believe.

In the first-rate production directed by Aaron Posner now at Theater J, we watch fascinated as one great artist pays tribute to another, warts and all. How did Nevelson become who she became? That’s the hook. But also, underneath: How is Albee’s retelling of her life and work refracted by his own?

Is this man’s admiring portrait of this woman authenticatable? Maybe, maybe not. Who’s to say? And how Albee-ish is that?

Nevelson was in life a tall woman such as would have interested him (Cf. his play about three of them). She had a son to whom she was a rotten mother (Albee could relate). She had a youthful infatuation with a beautiful blue-eyed boy (ditto). And Nevelson and Albee were in fact friends.

Nevelson, despite misogynist carping from critics, achieved stature in the art world rarely accorded artists of her sex. She did not do this in sisterly solidarity (she was no proto Guerilla Girl), but by gosh she did it. And Albee, who was not known for feminist leanings, has set about telling that story. As only he can.

Jonathan David Martin as The Man and Susan Rome as Louise Nevelson in Edward Albee’s ‘Occupant.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The dramatic conceit in Occupant is that the octogenarian Nevelson, who has been dead for 31 years, is being interviewed on this stage in the present moment by a pleasant unnamed man. For two acts he questions her, talking her through her life story, amused by her dry humor, bemused by her quirks, impressed with her grit, trying to tease out the truth.

In less capable hands the part of this nosey nudnik could quickly get on one’s nerves—not only Louise Nevelson’s (as it is scripted to) but also ours (which would not be good). Happily, Jonathan David Martin brings to the role of The Man such wry charm, boyish zest, and tweedy warmth we are won over immediately and for keeps. His wonderful portrayal is reminiscent of the TV talk show host Dick Cavett in his younger years. Indeed if this incessantly inquisitive character as played by Martin had his own celebrity-interview vlog, one can easily imagine how watchable it would be and how viral it could go.

Susan Rome as Louise Nevelson commands the stage with a spontaneity, grandiosity, and luminosity that would make Auntie Mame and Mama Rose consider retirement. Wearing Nevelson’s trademark sable eyelashes, big beads, and fabulously multipattern smock and slacks, Rome parades the stage, cracks asides, winks and smirks, claps her hands, rolls her eyes, sticks it to The Man, in all embodying to the hilt the artist’s defiant self-chosen self. “Be yourself; be only yourself,” she says. Her mantra.

Susan Rome as Louise Nevelson in Edward Albee’s ‘Occupant.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When Nevelson speaks of not fitting in so she made everything fit her, when she protests the possession that comes with marriage, when she jokes that “if you say things enough people believe it,” when she mockingly mimics being bounced up and down by her husband during sex, when at last she stands triumphant in the midst of her towering artwork—Rome entirely owns the character, inspires esteem, and models a message of fierce female determination to live and create on her own terms.

That empowering message flows like a raging rapids through the play, and Albee has given Nevelson eloquent words to express it, such as this speech near the end:

If you finally come into yourself like I did, if you finally know the space you occupy, well, then, you go on. You don’t relax; you don’t bask in it…You work harder than ever. You turn the world into one huge Nevelson. It was fucking wonderful. And what was wonderful was what I’d always known would happen—deep inside of me—if I could only ever find it, if I could only hang on.

Jonathan David Martin as The Man and Susan Rome as Louise Nevelson in Edward Albee’s ‘Occupant.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Together Rose and Martin are a terrific team—delightfully testy at first, then taking us steadily into painful territory almost too personal to hear, finally exuding the kind of camaraderie one finds between two fine stand-up comics.

On the back wall, looming over this truth-seeking session, Projection Designer Devin Kinch displays some thirty feet high the classic black-and-white photograph of Nevelson in her later years. As we hear her life story unfold, including its difficult and dark periods, we are thus ever reminded that this is the oversized self that she actualized herself to become.

Scenic Designer Nephelie Andonyadis (who also did the two costumes) provides a calm conversational setting for the first part then delivers at the end an amazing array of knock-off-Nevelson sculptures, which Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky makes seem as monumental as the artist.

Did this man tell this woman’s story faithfully? Maybe. Maybe not. Nevelson’s gone, so she can’t say. Albee too. It’s a perfect Albee-ish perplex. But pay attention to the attention Albee pays her. You will get caught up how he does it. You will be drawn in more and more as her life goes on. And you will leave, after her death, in absolute awe of what she did.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Edward Albee’s Occupant plays through December 8, 2019, at Theater J in the newly renovated Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, located inside the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington DC.  For tickets, call 202-777-3210 or go online.

Agnes of God

Following on Factory 449’s electrifying production two years ago of Lela & Co.—which earned Helen Hayes Awards for both its director (Rick Hammerly) and star (Felicia Curry)—the company now presents Agnes of God with not one but three phenomenal female performances.

It’s like lightning striking twice in triplicate.

The story told in John Pielmeier’s 1979 play may be familiar from the 1985 film. Set in a convent, it starts with the discovery in the room of a young nun a bloody dead baby in the wastebasket, strangled. The tremulous novice sister, Agnes (Zoe Walpole), has been charged with manslaughter. A chain-smoking, hard-driving court psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Felicia Curry), has been assigned to assess Agnes’s sanity and suss out how she got pregnant. Hovering over the evaluation and investigation is the convent’s prickly headmistress, Mother Miriam Ruth (Nanna Ingvarsson).

Felicia Curry (Doctor Martha Livingstone) and Nanna Ingvarrson (Mother Miriam Ruth) in ‘Agnes of God.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography LLC.

What’s set up as a psychiatric-criminal procedural turns quickly into a gripping disquisition on faith and doubt, the holy and the profane, the miraculous and the material, and ultimately who God is. It may be best not to know more going in (unless of course one already does) because (whatever one’s religious beliefs) this warhorse of a drama delivers one stunner revelation after another.

As directed by Rick Hammerly, the Factory 449 production is visionary. Staged in the tiny Anacostia Arts Center black box, it could not get more intimate. The audience sits on each side of a blueish triangle on the floor. Greg Stevens’s eloquent set is simplicity itself. At each vertex of the playing area is an emblem pointing to Agnes: an old wooden cross, a child’s swing, a statue of the Virgin Mary—i.e., her devout Christian faith, her lost innocence, and her conviction the conception was immaculate.  As we are to learn, these points are all at issue for Martha—and Miriam would rather the nosy shrink not go there. I cannot recall a scenic design that so insightfully sets the stage for a play’s inner conflicts.

Zoe Walpole (Agnes) in ‘Agnes of God.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography LLC.

Alison Johnson costumes the cloistered sisters in sumptuous habits—Miriam, in black and white; Agnes, in gray. Completing the apt palette, Martha appears the polished professional in earth-tone skirt, leather jacket, and heels.

Agnes sings a lot during the play—and Walpole’s voice is every bit as angelic as the script says—but particular praise goes to Kenny Neal’s sound design, which literally lends Agnes’s vocals an ethereal reverb. This audible effect is echoed visibly in William D’Eugenio’s versatile lighting, which smoothly shifts scenes and at times makes the space seem sanctified.

Zoe Walpole (Agnes) and Felicia Curry, Nanna Ingvarrson (Mother Miriam Ruth), and (Doctor Martha Livingstone) in ‘Agnes of God.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography LLC.

Besides her dulcet voice, what Zoe Walpole brings to the role of Agnes is extraordinary. Trace her performance from its initial timidity through her gathering terror all the way to her excruciating howl and physicalization of pain (in a climactic scene best not divulged) and you will behold a young actor who has joined the firmament of stellar talent.

Among those top-tier talents are Factory 449 members Nanna Ingvarrson and Felicia Curry. Ingvarrson’s Mother Superior is a portrait in inner torment who is determined to present herself as beatific and benign. As Miriam’s implicatedness unfolds and her anger at Martha implodes, Ingvarrson’s unraveling is both awesome and fearsome.

Felicia Curry’s emotional range and raw authenticity would steal the show even if she were not in every scene, which she is. There might seem to be several Martha’s in the play—the complex part is written that way—but all her facets belong to the magnificently cut gem that is Curry’s searing performance.

Factory 449’s Agnes of God is a triumph of a production with a trinity of divine performances. Pray you’ll get to see it.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes.

Agnes of God plays through November 24, 2019, presented by Factory 449 at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

Sea

“It feels unknown. This is nowhere somehow,” says a character in this intriguingly cryptic poetic play by the acclaimed Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse. Indeed, where are we? And what is going on? Staged in a bare black box where six actors portray six characters in disconnect from one another, Scena Theatre’s production of ‘Sea’ churns with undercurrents of insinuation.

An enigmatic scene between Shipmaster (Buck O’Leary) and The Guitar Player (Greg Ongao) begins the play. Shipmaster keeps asserting that he is master of the ship and, without evidence, that they are at sea. Guitar Player keeps asking where are the others. This goes on. Then one by one actual others show up and say “I’m here.”

Sara Barker (The Woman) and Eamon Patrick Walsh (The Man) in ‘Sea.’ Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

First to appear are The Man (Eamon Patrick Walsh) and The Woman (Sara Barker), who may have a romantic relationship—or at least The Man keeps asking The Woman longingly not to leave him. And then, far apart, enter The Older Man (Kim Curtis) and The Older Woman (Ellie Nicoll), who do turn out to seem a couple—though they scarcely ever speak to each other.

At a point The Woman implores The Older Woman and The Older Man to acknowledge her as their daughter. They ignore her, seeming neither to see nor hear her. At a later point The Guitar Player does the same; he implores them to recognize him as their son. Nothing. No response.

As if out of nowhere, The Woman praises The Guitar Player’s most beautiful guitar playing. He then plays soundlessly, like air guitar, and she dances to music only she seems to hear. In time everyone seems to hear the soundless beautiful guitar playing. Eventually they all dance to it, each in their own world.

And the fact that Sea may literally not be fathomable may be the point.

Greg Ongao (The Guitar Player), Sara Barker (The Woman), Eamon Patrick Walsh (The Man), and Buck O’Leary (Shipmaster) in ‘Sea.’ Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Jon Fosse, Europe’s most produced living playwright, has also authored novels, poems, plays, children’s books, essays, and journalism. His work has been translated into more than fifty languages. He has been mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet Fosse’s plays are almost never staged in the United States. And I’ve pondered why.

Here is my hypothesis: Fosse’s unique theatrical voice—which has been compared to Beckett’s—is one that American ears don’t yet know how to hear.

“My way of writing plays is about restriction, to achieve concentration and intensity,” Fosse has said. “A play doesn’t necessarily need a lot of exterior drama, but it needs a strong inner tension, to be charged.”

Watching Sea one definitely gets that. There is no discernible plot, there are no character arcs as such, there’s not a clear time and place. But in every line and every silence in between there is tension that keeps one glued.

Also, Fosse has said, “Everything I’ve written can perhaps be called a sort of mystical realism⁠—not ‘magical,’ but mystical.”⁠

And one can readily recognize in Sea what is seemingly about real life…but actually most probably not.

Ellie Nicoll (The Older Woman), Greg Ongao (The Guitar Player), and Kim Curtis (The Older Man) in ‘Sea.’ Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Another quality evident in Sea is its ethnicity—a concept Americans don’t typically associate with pale-skinned people who live near Nordic fjords. But Fosse has said very specifically that an important influence on his writing is

the way of talking in these rural areas of Norway, where people are famous for not talking much. They are rather silent people, like the people in my plays. They are also famous for almost never expressing their feelings out loud, but the truth is that they have very strong feelings, and the feelings somehow come out in other words. You talk about something very usual, but underneath you are talking about something else…. That may explain why it is often said that the people where I grew up are always ironic. They are! They never say what they mean or feel, they say something else. The talk is at least double.

Thus Fosse’s language is distinctly spare, terse, oblique, plain-spoken, often lacking affect. Having grown up in Minnesota among folks whose forebears came from Fosse’s culture, I can relate. I recognize how such language functions to bury emotion. And so it was that watching Sea I came to appreciate the work of the six actors in this cast who have created a sense of the feelings packed down inside their intentionally unfeeling lines. I watched each of the six as they subtly did so. I was not moved. That was not the point. But I was greatly impressed that under Artistic Director Robert McNamara’s astute direction, an acting style materialized before my eyes that got at what Fosse tries to get at:

What language can say is just a very little bit of what there is. To me that is obvious. And my plays are, I think, somehow saying just this—what is the most important is impossible to say in the language of words. And if I manage to write well, I still can say what is not possible to say by words—it is said in the silences, the pauses, the breaks.

It is often said that the characters in my plays don’t manage to communicate. In a way it is obviously so. In another way it is not so at all, because they understand one another completely, I feel, they don’t need to complete the sentence to say what they want to say.

See Sea and be swept away by a deep dive into the unsaid.

Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.

Sea plays through November 24, 2019, presented by SCENA Theatre performing at the DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Resident Director: Gabriele Jakobi
Sound Designer: Denise Rose
Lighting Designer: Jonathan Alexander
Costume Designer: Mei Chen
Stage Manager: Mavonte Johnson
Assistant Director: Anne Nottage

RELATED columns about Jon Fosse by John Stoltenberg:
‘Someone Is Going to Come’ at Scena Theatre
‘Someone Is Going to Come’ (a workshop production) at Scena Theatre

Veils

Four African American women address the audience as if speaking to a department store clerk. Each is shopping for a dress—a dress, they stress, that must be “special.” As they turn to the faces of four girls projected onscreen upstage, we realize that the horrible 1963 Birmingham church bombing has just occurred, and these women are each seeking in sorrow the garment their daughter will wear to the grave.

Scene from ‘Veils.’ Photo by Courtney Baker-Oliver.

Of such heartstopping theatrical moments has the moving new play with music Veils been made. An emotional historical pageant of grief and resilience, Veils pays tribute to women veiled in mourning, with a focus on Black lives lost in bloodshed during the sixties Civil Rights Movement. Longtime Restoration Stage collaborators Steven A. Butler, Jr. (playwright) and Courtney Baker-Oliver (director) along with Justin Thompson (musical director) and an outstanding cast of nine singer-actors have created an exquisitely beautiful experience of enduring sorrow, honor, and healing.

The upbeat preshow music includes “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome,” but the show proper starts in somber silence with a black-and-white montage of images of the fallen—Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and painfully more. Then lights come up on Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton (Roz White), seated stage right at her dressing table, getting ready for his funeral.

“I can’t do this!” Sybrina says—words that will become a refrain during the play. “Lord, I Need You to Help Me,” she sings—one of several original songs written for the show by Baker-Oliver and Butler, Jr.

Suddenly waves crash and thunder rolls and a storm at sea floods the stage heralding the entrance of Yemaya (Desiré DuBose), the African ocean goddess, wearing a fabulous cerulean blue gown and spiked headdress (Baker-Oliver and Butler, Jr. also did the costumes). “I am the mother of all mothers,” Yemaya says, “healer of the broken heart.” For a goddess, she is very down to earth:

YEMAYA: Do you think you are the only woman to lose her child? Your pain isn’t new. We have been passing the veil from generation to generation since the beginning of time—ever since men decided that they wanted to possess more than just the soil under their feet.

Yemaya then proceeds to reveal to Sybrina (and thereby to us) a succession of other bereaved women. Butler, Jr., and Baker-Oliver use this connective thread of shared sorrow—lightened now and then by humor and sustained throughout by gorgeous vocals—to thematically link the entire show.

Scene from ‘Veils.’ Photo by Courtney Baker-Oliver.

Among the highlights of Veils is a scene encapsulating women’s prominent role in sit-ins, bus boycotts, voter-registration drives, and other sixties Civil Rights protests. The Ensemble sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the first of several deeply affecting tableaus.

Andrea Gerald as Fannie Lou Hamer in ‘Veils.’ Photo by Courtney Baker-Oliver.

Fannie Lou Hamer (Andrea Gerald), whose son James Chaney was murdered by the Klan during a Freedom Ride in Mississippi, tells of being arrested and jailed and beaten with a blackjack by two African American inmates (“my own people!”) on orders from white troopers.

Keep your eyes on the prize,” the Ensemble sings. “Hold on, hold on.”

Upstage a projected photo shows the sign marking the river site where Emmet Till’s corpse was found—and there is a racist’s bullet hole in the sign. Standing in front of it, Emmet’s mother, Mamie Till (Corisa Myers), tells of tearing open his pine casket with her bare hands to bring his body back to Chicago to show the world what was done to him.

Jeremy Keith Hunter and Roz White as Medgar and Myrlie Evers in ‘Veils.’ Photo by Courtney Baker-Oliver.

Myrlie Evers (Roz White), widow of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, says of the outpouring of protest that followed his death: “They took away my Medgar and gave me a movement.”

Wearing a glittering gold skin-tight costume, the American-born French entertainer and civil-rights activist Josephine Baker (Suli Myrie, in what is nearly a comic turn) makes a speaking appearance at the March on Washington and says alongside Dr. King:

JOSEPHINE BAKER: I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world

Folksinger Joan Baez (Jenna Murphy, playing a ukelele) sings “Birmingham Sunday” as a haunting accompaniment to the dress-shopping scene:

Come ’round by my side and I’ll sing you a song
I’ll sing it so softly it’ll do no one wrong
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine
And the choir kept singing of freedom


Corisa Myers and Jenna Murphy as Viola Liuzzo and her best friend Sarah in ‘Veils.’ Photo by Courtney Baker-Oliver.

More silent documentary images of grief fill the screen, including footage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy (Jenna Murphy), wearing bloodied gloves and slip and echoing “I can’t do this!,” asks imploringly: “Tell me what to do, Jack!”

Butler, Jr. has gathered several stories in Veils that may be unfamiliar but once told become indelible. For instance: There was a white housewife named Viola Liuzzo (Jenna Murphy), who was a fervent Civil Rights activist and joined the Selma to Montgomery marches. She was murdered by the Klan to make an example of what would happen to any other white woman with similar ideas.

Suli Myrie as Angela Davis in ‘Veils.’ Photo by Courtney Baker-Oliver.

And Veils excerpts the Black Journal television interview between Tony Brown (Jeremy Keith Hunter) and Angela Davis (Suli Myrie) in which Davis delivers a line that got the biggest audience reaction on opening night: “You can’t make more powerful white men without submissive white women.”

Other Black women in mourning include Lorena Ware (Suli Myrie), whose boy Virgil Lamar Ware was gunned down at the same time as the Birmingham church bombing—so his story got no attention.

Constant sorrow is the dramatic episodic structure of Veils. It’s what holds the work in its arms. It’s what holds the work in the audience’s heart. Which should come as no surprise, because constant sorrow is what life itself is like for countless women. The surprise is that with Veils two such multitalented African American young men have undertaken this profoundly womanist theme with such deep empathy and authentic respect. This, to my knowledge, is a first in theater history.

Veils’ last performance is Sunday, November 10, 2019. See it while you can.

Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Veils, presented by Restoration Stage, runs through November 10, 2019, at THEARC West Black Box Theater, 1801 Mississippi Avenue SE, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-714-0646 or go online.

CAST
Roz White as Sybrina Fulton/Myrlie Evers
Desiré DuBose as Yemaya
Jeremy Keith Hunter as Tracy Martin/Medgar Evers/Tony Brown
Corisa Myers as Ensemble/Soloist/Mamie Till
Andrea Gerald as Ensemble/Fannie Lou Hamer/Alberta King
Brandyn Ashley as Ensemble/Soldier’s Mom
Kandace Foreman as Ensemble/Fannie Lee Chaney/ Betty Shabazz
Jenna Murphy as Bull Conner/Joan Baez/Jacqueline Kennedy/Rita Schwerner/Viola Liuzzo
Suli Myrie as Ensemble/Josephine Baker/Lorena Ware

PRODUCTION STAFF
Executive Producer: Sandra Evers-Manly
Producers: Courtney Baker-Oliver and Steven A. Butler, Jr.
Associate Producer: Kimberly C. Gaines
Restoration Stage Chief Executive Officer: Dr. Will Cobbs, Jr.
Production Stage Manager: Ronald Lee Newman
Set Designer: Courtney Baker-Oliver
Costumes and Properties: Courtney Baker-Oliver and Steven A. Butler, Jr.
Lighting Design: Jerry Dale, Jr.
Sound and Video Designer: David Lamont Wilson
Sound Engineers: Michael Willis and Aaron Gerald
Graphic Design and Photography: Kimberly C. Gaines
Master Carpenter: Robert Hamilton
Pre-recorded Sound Engineer: Justin Thompson
Production Assistants: Kal Jackson, Mandrill Solomon, Adonis Guiellmo

SONG LIST

ACT I
“Lord, I Need You To Help Me” (Sybrina)
“Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” (The Women)
“Eyes On the Prize” (The Women)
“Mississippi Goddamn” (Fannie Lou Hamer)
“They Laid Medgar Evers In His Grave” (Corisa Myers)
“Birmingham Sunday” (Joan Baez)
“Come Sunday” (Yemaya)

ACT II

“Yellowbird” (The Women)
“Colorblind Angel” (Corisa Myers)
“Eyes on the Prize Reprise” (The Women)
“Dedicated” (The Women)

Protest/Vaněk Unleashed

In honor of the Czech dissident, political prisoner, and playwright Václav Havel, Alliance for New Music-Theatre has served up a two-course theatrical repast in DC’s most outré new arts venue, Dupont Underground. A circular tunnel that used to be a subterranean streetcar station, this acoustically unique space is now where ANMT is theater in residence. If you haven’t been down there yet, this would be a good occasion to check it out.

First on the bill of fare is Vaněk Unleashed: An Absurd Musical Fantasy, an original work inspired by Havel and featuring Ferdinand Vaněk, a character Havel created as a wry stand-in for himself. The character Vaněk appears again in the second offering, Protest, which was actually written by Havel. The pièce de résistance of the evening is decidedly Protest.

David Millstone (Staněk) and Drew Valins (Vaněk) in ‘Protest.’ Photo by Michael Yeshion Photography.

The two productions, billed jointly as The Havel Project, mark the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the bloodless coup led by Havel that began November 17, 1989, in what was then called Czechoslovakia. Commemorating that date and that event—which led to Havel’s election as president—ANMT commissioned the Czech artist Jan Kaláb to create a massive graffiti mural on the wall one walks by on the way to the performance.

No other playwright living or dead has so explicitly and effectively altered political history. For that reason alone, The Havel Project merits attention.

Graffiti art by Jan Kaláb in Dupont Underground commemorating November 17, 1989, the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Photo: DCMTA.

Havel’s two-hander Protest—a powerhouse of a political parable set in a repressive surveillance state—contrasts the courage of a dissident activist (Vaněk) with the accommodationist comfort of a passive sympathizer (Staněk). Because the play when written was banned, it was originally performed undercover in private apartments. What spoke then in a kind of code to audiences living under a totalitarian regime speaks with uncanny clarity to our domestic stakes today, when freedom’s fall to fascism seems no longer inconceivable and real resistance matters. The Alliance for New Music-Theatre production of Protest plays with an urgent edge of contemporary pertinency that is sharp as a knife. Plus its comedic satire is cathartically hilarious.

The play takes place in the home of Staněk (David Millstone), who once lived a politically fringy life but now, having made it big as a television writer, lives comfortably well off, keeps his radical past at a remove, and enjoys gardening and fine brandy. He could easily be pegged a bourgie sell-out except he finds himself in a situation that he knows needs an activist assist. His daughter’s boyfriend, a pop star, has been imprisoned by the authorities. In hopes of mounting a petition campaign to free the young man, Staněk has invited his still-dissident longtime friend Vaněk (Drew Valins) to come for a visit. Vaněk was once himself a political prisoner. Staněk needs his political cred but doesn’t want to take any risk of his own. Vaněk turns the tables and challenges Staněk himself to sign the petition. Will he or won’t he? Dare he or daren’t he? Vaněk’s and Staněk’s disagreement about political tactics drives the drama, and the way Millstone and Valins play out their psychological cat-and-mouse game and contest of principles is electrifying. It’s like Pinter but with purpose.

Drew Valins (Vaněk) and David Millstone (Staněk) in ‘Protest.’ Photo by Michael Yeshion Photography.

Under the brisk and witty direction of Artistic Director Susan Galbraith, Millstone leads Valins in seeming to connive, leaning over the parlor table, then crawling under it as if to avoid being surveilled. At another point Millstone takes Valins offstage into darkness down the tunnel as if to give officials the slip.

The playwright has given Staněk most of the lines, and Millstone plays them to the hilt, sometimes shouting them resoundingly into the cavernous tunnel. His performance is fantastically frenetic. Vaněk has far fewer lines, and Valins’s delivery is more deliberate, more quietly certain, less emotionally ostentatious. Clearly the audience Havel wrote for would have known what Vaněk was thinking because they like Havel were like Vaněk, so the character had less need to explain himself. Staněk’s complicit sanctimony and contempt for Vaněk’s moral superiority is where the play becomes a revelation and a truth bomb.

[READ Barbara MacKay’s interview with Susan Galbraith in “‘Protest/Vaněk Unleashed’ heads underground in upcoming Alliance for New Music-Theatre production.”]

Drew Valins (Vaněk) in ‘Vaněk Unleashed.’ Photo by Michael Yeshion Photography.

Whereas the tunnel venue’s acoustics serve the actors in Protest dramatically, they seriously compromise enjoyment of the part-spoken, part-sung Vaněk Unleashed, a mélange of American musical, silent screen comedy, and operatic styles. The book by Susan Galbraith (who also directs) is based loosely on Havel’s letters from prison to his wife, Olga. The music is by Maurice Saylor, who with Galbraith co-wrote the lyrics.

Havel is represented (as he was in Protest) by the character Vaněk (appealingly played again by Drew Valins), who is now a political prisoner. His wife is named Eva (Michelle Eugene). The main stage serves as a jail, with movable units of black bars, and a separate platform off stage right is the living room where Eva is at home. There are five supporting characters who come in and out of the action: Blonde Soprano, Prison Secretary, and Revolutionary (Meghan McCall); and Pavel Landovsky and Prison Foreman (Peter Boyer).

The cast of ‘Vaněk Unleashed: Michelle Eugene (Eva), Meghan McCall (as Revolutionary), Peter Boyer (as Revolutionary), and Drew Valins (Vaněk). Photo by Michael Yeshion Photography.

Especially when actors were singing operatically with lax diction, it was very difficult to understand what their characters were trying to say. At other times the volume of the prerecorded music overwhelmed comprehension even of speaking voices. The music was very pleasant; the orchestra sounded fine; there were many amusing visual moments such as when strobe lights simulated silent movie flicker and old-timey title slides appeared above the stage; the actors were giving it their all. But because audibility problems made the busily surreal storyline of Vaněk Unleashed impossible to follow (unless perhaps one had the libretto in one’s lap), the performance overall was energetic but vague.

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

Protest and Vaněk Unleashed play through November 17, 2019, at Alliance for New Music-Theatre performing at Dupont Underground (public entrance is at 1500 19th Street NW, Washington, DC, on north side of Dupont Circle next to Starbucks and across from Dupont Hotel). Tickets may be purchased online.

Note that Dupont Underground is accessible only by a stairway only partially equipped with handrails and has no restrooms, although patrons may use facilities in the lobby of the Dupont Hotel across the street.

Credits for Vaněk Unleashed
Director and Co-Lyricist: Susan Galbraith
Composer, Co-Lyricist, and Recording Producer: Maurice Saylor
Music Direction: N. Thomas Pedersen
Movement: Emma Jaster

Other Creative Credits
Lighting Design: Lynn Jocelyn
Sound and Production Design: John Regan
Theater and Set Construction: Matty Griffiths
Props and Costumes: George Thomas Wang

Orchestra
Recording Conductor: N. Thomas Pedersen
Piano and Rehearsal Pianist: Janghyo Yoo
Reed 1: Katie Ravenwood
Reed 2: Rogelio Garza
Trombone: Todd Baldwin, String Bass: Kim Parillo
Percussion/Toy Piano:  Erika Johnson
Recording and Mastering Engineer: Gregg Martin

Blue Camp

This world premiere comic drama about gays in the military takes us back to July and August of 1964 when LBJ was ordering American ground troops into Vietnam in response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which we were later to learn was fake news). Against that unfolding tragedy of toxic macho bellicosity, Rainbow Theatre Project’s Blue Camp deploys a human interest story with tenderness and truth.

Based approximately on actual events, Blue Camp is set at an Army camp where unacceptable soldiers are awaiting military disciplinary action. On a bifurcated stage, there’s a “blue” barracks for suspected homosexuals and a “green” barracks for accused criminals. Neither love nor lust is lost between them. The straight malefactors insult the may-be gays with ribald digs, and the gays return the fire with flaming shade. Prominent among the blue boys is Billy, who wears his queerness like a badge of honor (“I told the bastards the truth from day one”) and doubles as a drag entertainer.

Moses Bossenbroek (Billy) in ‘Blue Camp.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

Billy was inspired by an African American gay man named Perry Watkins, who was decorated for his service, performed in drag in military clubs across Europe, and was one of the first to challenge the military ban on homosexuals. Doubtless because Watkins in life was so iconic, Billy is the most memorable character in Blue Camp, and he is played by an assured Moses Bossenbroek with extraordinary charisma.

Moses Bossenbroek (Billy) in ‘Blue Camp.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

There’s enough sexual innuendo humor and fabulousness in Blue Camp to earn the adjective blue and the noun camp with distinction. Especially in the rivalry between the barracks at the beginning, the jokey banter among the gay characters and their wicked rejoinders to the straight characters’ taunts come off like a queer comedy in camo.

Playwrights Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna have created a vivid cast of characters, crafted crackling dialog, and told a fascinating story packed with tension and high stakes. A dishonorable discharge would mean disgrace and no G.I. Bill. So we have seven soldiers onstage who are uniformly on edge. 

Billy has survived in the service because he can type 120 words a minute and entertains in feminine finery at the officers club. But make no mistake: he’s also a serious jock and fierce cadet.

Lansing O’Leary (Gary Peterson) in ‘Blue Camp.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

Gary Peterson (Lansing O’Leary), after having suffered a religious exorcism “to kick out the homosexual demon,” was ordered by his preacher and parents to enlist in the Army because it would make him a man. He is now assigned to the blue platoon because he got caught getting blown by a barracks mate.

Jantzen Hill (Jared Swain) was stopped for speeding by an MP whose ample bulge he fancied. They spent eight days and nights in a hot tryst, then the closeted MP, to avoid detection, ratted on him.

Arnold Malloy (Daniel Riker) is a brainy bookworm and scholar on gays in art and literature. He’s in the blue barracks because his stash of classical male nudes and homoerotic lit got discovered. “I’m being punished for having taste,” he says—to which Billy retorts, “Whom did you taste, dearie?”

Alvin Bailey (Ivan Carlo) is a straight solder consigned to the green barracks because he stole an Army jeep for the hell of it. He gets his kicks from theft, a habit he got into “when my Mom would sleep on the couch all day and I’d get hungry. I’d go steal food. It was so exciting. I started taking other shit.”

Barry (Rocky Nunzio), another straight soldier, is in for going head-over-heels-in-love AWOL: “I just wanted to see my girl…five times,” he explains.

Reginald Richard (Theus McCutchen) in ‘Blue Camp.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

Theus McCutchen (Reginald Richard) is a straight soldier charged with murder, so his case is pending trial in a military court. Seemingly the most hardened criminal (a toughness Richard nails), Theus also has the most psychologically brutal backstory (which Richard delivers with affecting feeling). It’s not exculpatory, but it’s emotionally explanatory. When he was a child, Theus watched helplessly as his mother was beaten by a stepfather, who then turned his wrath on him.  Years later, Theus was chatting up a woman in a bar when a man claiming to be her husband started slapping her—and Theus snapped.

Military brass are represented by Steve Dugger (Noah Beye), a gay-friendly corporal who’s got a drinking problem; The Colonel (a scarily brash Craig Houk), determined to get grunts on the ground in Nam; and Sergeant Swanger (Jared H. Graham), who is put in charge of processing these “delinquents and queers” for a dicey tour of duty.

“What difference does it make if we throw deviants at the commies?” says the cynical Colonel. “Hell, we can throw them back in the gutter after we win the war, if they make it back.”

In this perilous context are touching scenes of unexpected connection between the men. For instance, Janzen and Alvin bond like bromantic buds over racecar driving and car mechanics. Billy composes for Gary a coming-out letter to send to his mom and dad if he doesn’t come back—

BILLY: The truth will set you free.
GARY: Do you ever think about hell? …
I mean for being, well…like the way you are.
BILLY: Hell is trying not to be the way you are.

—after which Gary and Billy share a quick kiss. Improbably even Sergeant Swanger and Billy have a slow dance at the officers club. Such moments of fleeting feeling are where Blue Camp opens its heart.

The production directed by Christopher Janson is serviceable. Its shoestring budget shows, and it has been shoehorned into a church meeting room with all seating on the same level and low, acoustical-tile ceilings. The play deserves another run in better circumstances. Still, despite these limitations, Lighting Designer Elliott Shugoll has rigged an effective array of spots and LEDs, and Set Designer Simone Schneeberg serves the storytelling with corrugated steel walls, a back-lit projection screen, versatile wooden cubes, and a strand of slats hung from a clothesline that pulleys in and out to separate the green barracks from the blue.

Costume Designer T.F. Dubois does the military garb persuasively and gives Billy best-of-show in a boa-trimmed gown for the big Act One finish. And Sound Designer Elliott Lanes plays back a nostalgic triumph of sixties tunes (The Chordettes’ “Lollipop,” The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around”…) along with haunting copter effects.

Jared Michael Swain (Jantzen Hill), Noah Beye (Steve Dugger), Rocky Nunzio (Barry), Ivan Carlo (Alvin Bailey), Moses Bossenbroek (Billy), and Daniel Riker (Arnold Malloy) in ‘Blue Camp.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

What keeps us at attention in Blue Camp is what the authors were up to. It takes hold as we learn the characters’ compelling backstories, what they’re in for and why, and in the idiosyncratic instants when they connect in spite of all that divides them. It unfolds in enjoyable incidents based on true stories such as Billy’s performance in drag at the officers club, and the green and blue barracks’ face-off in a baseball game (called by James Gardiner in voiceover), which was Sergeant Swanger’s idea “to build morale and comradery.” And the emotional momentum builds with inter-scene news flashes that track the Tonkin Bay attack and subsequent escalations in the administration’s warmongering (announced convincingly by Rick Foucheux).

We get to know these guys. We come to care about them. We want none of them in the line of fire. Looking back we want the Vietnam War never to have happened. Which is why the mounting far-off military calamity and the intimate character storylines in Blue Camp intersect at the end with such a lump in the throat and punch in the gut. 

Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, including one intermission.

Blue Camp plays through November 24, 2019, presented by Rainbow Theatre Project performing in the Thurgood Marshall Gallery at Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 555 Water Street SW (across from Arena Stage), Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.