Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: January, 2020

RS/24

Summoning a galaxy of African American recording stars, this poignant one-act sometimes seems like a sublime dream with vintage music. There are ethereal visions, vivid Afrofuturist visitations, and ancestral invocations that cohere more in emotion than in sense. At the same time, the play tells the tender linear story of a young woman who sells sex on the street and an older man who sells vintage LPs in his record shop, where they happen to meet one momentous night.

They don’t have sex. And that’s not a spoiler. Because what they actually have is an unexpected connection that’s far deeper.

Kazi Jones as Karma and Clayton LeBoeuf as Hubie in ‘RS/24.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

The play’s title, RS/24, refers to this 1970s-era record store, which is open 24/7; and Clayton LeBouef, who wrote and directs, plays Hubie, the quietly principled proprietor. LeBouef’s stage and screen acting credits include roles in NBC’s Homicide Life on the Streets and HBO’s The Wire. Impressively persuasive as Hubie, LeBouef becomes the play’s moral center of gravitas.

As playwright LeBouef has drawn inspiration from his stints as a deejay in the DC club scene: “I used to spin vinyl at Ed Murphy’s Supper Club, the Mark IV, and the French Underground,” LeBouef told the Sentinel when RS/24 premiered at Anacostia Playhouse two years ago. “I saw how music could impact people in various ways, and how it was a powerful healing force.”

Anacostia Playhouse has brought back RS/24 for an encore run through February 9, 2020. Co-directed by Cheryl Hawkins and Ella Davis, the revival has been handsomely mounted. The interior of Hubie’s shop is stocked with dozens of vintage LP covers featuring a who’s who of African American recording artists—Lionel Richie, Chaka Kahn, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and many, many more. Stacked on racks, piled in milk crates, even displayed in the blackbox entryway, this abundance of prop merchandise makes the stage set seem more like a living music museum, as though one could walk right in and browse around and hear memories replay.

The whole place has an appealing aura (the set consultant was Megan Holden). Wooden planks suggest a shacklike roof hung with black-and-white photos of recording artists; there’s a sales counter with stools, a vintage turntable on a shelf, some 45s on a spindle; a huge gold platter commands the floor center stage; and behind an upstage raised platform is a projection screen that will reveal the world just outside and a universe beyond.

Above: Jennifer Lee (JNandi) as Arc Angel, Larry E. Hull as Sun Ra, and Vaunita Goodman as Arc Angel; below: Kazi Jones as Karma and Clayton LeBoeuf as Hubie in ‘RS/24.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

There’s a prologue of about eight minutes that mystifies in an intriguing way. Under otherworldly colors (John D. Alexander designed lighting), two women in white robes and gold headwraps, perhaps ancient African royalty (costume design is by Luqman Salim; Vaunita Goodman and Jennifer Lee are credited as Arc Angels), sanctify the space with a prayerful magical flower and scattered glitter. This segues to an animated projection of the faces of music greats (Whitney Houston, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Prince, many more) that appear like exploding novas in a time-travel through starry space (sound and visuals design is by Tewodross M. Williams).

Then we see, striding across the platform against a dark and dank alleyway—in thigh-high boots, blond wig, denim shorts, and a hot pink laced bodice—a woman with a gun. She will drop into Hubie’s all-night record shop and try to seduce him. And the engrossing narrative part of the play is suddenly underway.

Her name, she says, is Melody—though it turns out to be Karma—and she is played by Kazi Jones with very credible street smarts and marketing moves. The scenes between her and Hubie are touchingly written and sensitively performed. Perhaps because Hubie is more intent on respecting and helping Karma than using her, a kind of trust arises in her, maybe for the first time in her life.

LeBouef’s theme of the healing power of music gets a stunning enactment when Karma admits to Hubie that her first time on the street she was terrified—so scared that she ducked into an alley and sang to herself to get up the nerve. Hubie asks her to sing the song. She does, at a mic on a platform stage left, acapella—as if wearing the black jeweled gown with pearls hanging just behind her. Turns out Karma always dreamt of making it as a singer. “Do what you want to do,” Hubie urges. And there comes a gentle moment of nonsexual intimacy between them that just might count as genuine sexual healing.

Kazi Jones as Karma and Clayton LeBoeuf as Hubie in ‘RS/24.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

Interspersed are some more surreal elements. Inexplicably Sun Ra appears in white and gold robe, flanked by the Arc Angles now playing violin and flute; and as if dreamt by Hubie, he poetically intones about how “words soar” and “birds soar” and “songs soar” and they “lift us up to a higher space.”  There’s a probably symbolic subplot about a strange box that Hubie received a directive in a dream he should dig up from under a tree. (In a related memory sequence, Lee movingly portrays Hubie’s Grandmother.) And there’s yet another subplot, this one brutally in real time, about Karma’s coworker on the streets (Goodman) and the man named Georgetown (Hull) who pimps and browbeats them.

Hubie’s mission in keeping open his record shop around the clock, he says, is to create “a place blessed with sound, sweet scent, and a purpose to fulfill.” As in any remembered dream, the disparate parts of RS/24 may comprise no logical whole, yet they assemble in the mind as if a unified experience anyway. What lifts RS/24 to a higher place is that in evoking the powerful influence of African American music in story, memory, and dream all at once, it harks back to a past before vinyl gave way to streaming but that is still the present and still points to a purposeful future.

Running Time: 75 minutes, including one intermission.

RS/24 plays through February 9, 2020, at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World

This thoroughly delightful offering from Mosaic Theater Company has all the makings of a lighthearted rom-com. Boy picks up girl. He invites her to his place. She initiates sex. It’s hot. Though they come from different backgrounds, they click. He’s shy and old school. She’s forward and modern. But hot is hot and love is love and they fall for each other, hard. Then his old-school fiancé shows up. Oops.

Rachel Felstein as Sheri and Ahmad Kamal as Musa in ‘Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

True to Mosaic’s worthy mission, this rom-com has a higher purpose. Programmed as part of Mosaic’s estimable Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, this briskly witty comedy is, in Artistic Director Ari Roth’s words, “a romantic fable” about “intercultural union.” Specifically, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, which is set in the present in an American city, is about the cross-cultural romance between Musa (Ahmad Kamal), an earnest, reticent Muslim cab-driver born in Egypt, and Sheri (Rachel Felstein), a frisky, do-me waitress born in America. By the end of Act One, their cross-cultural coupling is complicated by the surprise return from Egypt of Gamila (Sanam Laila Hashemi), Musa’s sensibly modest Muslim betrothed.

Sanam Laila Hashemi as Gamila and Rachel Felstein as Sheri in ‘Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

This rom-com thus is freighted with some important and intriguing baggage about identity and immigration—a theme evoked in Nephelie Andonyadis’s apt set, which is stacked high with luggage as though on a navigable blue sea.

Playwright Yussef El Guindi—himself born in Egypt and now based in Seattle—knows how to entertain with sparkling repartee and tease with the sort of sexy stuff that calls for a skilled intimacy consultant (in this case, Claudia Rosales Waters). But El Guindi also keeps focus on the larger issues of identity, integrity, and cross-cultural connecting that his play wants to point to.

For instance, Musa’s buddy Tayyib (Gerrad Alex Taylor), a clever Egyptian-born luggage merchant, gives Musa a serious admonition about hooking up with Sheri:

TAYYIB: Musa: you can not be a foreigner twice in this country. When you are out here, you are a foreigner, but when you go home, you must be allowed to hang up your foreigner hat and be yourself. Do not mistake the woman who gives you pleasure with the woman who will surround you with things that feed you…. Gamila is a beautiful woman. She will make you feel at home. And without this home, this country will eat you up little by little.

Musa, for his part, makes the case to Gamila for his newfound sensual assimilation:

MUSA: You want to keep in touch with your roots? I don’t want roots! I want things I know nothing about. I want a life where I don’t know where it goes. With us, the story it would be—it would be very clear—and customs and tradition and family; and this is who we are and where we started and this is where we are going. All the way to when they bury me. I don’t want the rest of my life to be what I know. This story where I know beginning, middle and end. Yes, Sheri is not you. She is very strange and perhaps wrong for me, but maybe that is what I need. The wrong woman. Maybe I need the wrong woman in my life.

Meanwhile Sheri, quite perplexed by it all, offers this wry observation:

SHERI: What is it with this—needing to stick with one’s own? I don’t get it. Doesn’t that make the world an even smaller place?

I will admit that for me the play’s rom-com form did not support all the larger meaning it meant to. The merry metaphors of sexual attraction as international exchange and sex itself as cross-cultural merger seemed awkwardly inattentive to the many ways that any heterosexual congress is already about a man and a woman from different cultures. Which is to say, the script felt more conversant with men’s culture than with women’s. Director Shirley Serotsky has dealt with this gendered imbalance artfully, and Felstein’s performance of Sheri was excellent. Still, the role of Sheri as written seemed more a conventional male projection than a credible character in her own right. And in that sense the play felt not as woke as it wished to be.

Gerrad Alex Taylor as Tayyib, Sanam Laila Hashemi as Gamila, Freddie Lee Bennett as Abdallah, Rachel Felstein as Sheri, and Ahmad Kamal as Musa in ‘Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

That said, there are passages in the play that soar and seem to transcend all borders. For instance, there’s a speech near the end by Musa’s devout Muslim roommate, Abdallah (Freddie Lee Bennett), who went on a pilgrimage to Mecca but drowned on the way home when his ship sank. Wearing a traditional white gown and cap, Abdallah appears unseen by the others and delivers a prayerlike monologue so moving one could choke up at the beauty of it:

ABDALLAH: One more look. Before my body washes ashore and they bury me. Before they find my suitcase floating and identify me. Look where my memory—my spirit, takes me. To this place. To the struggles I had here. I went—I traveled to give thanks. To walk with strangers gathered for something. To walk in what I knew would be a crush of too many people gathered to give thanks. A coming together. Of people from everywhere; with different tongues and looks and ways of seeing things. And for all of us to remember a time before we were—before we were strangers to each other….

Abdallah is speaking literally of the Hajj, the gathering of Muslim pilgrims at Mecca. But in his moving words one can also hear a benedictory metaphor for the hope of global human harmony.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World plays through February 16, 2020, presented by Mosaic Theater Company in the Lang Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets, call (202) 399-7993 ext. 2 or go online.

 

Pipeline

The set for Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline at Studio Theatre could not be any whiter. Its white walls of freshly painted concrete blocks span the breadth of the stage and extend around the audience. Its glistening white floor shines like new. High on the walls, light glows through sparkling clean white frosted windows. For this story about a Black boy sent by his parents to a pricey white boarding school, Scenic Designer Arnulfo Maldonado has built a world so spotless-white and institutional it seems unreal. Except that what’s about to go down for that Black boy will have everything to do with the reality of the institution of whiteness.

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in ‘Pipeline’; background: live projection of Justin Weaks as Omari. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The boy’s mother, Nya, is a 30-something single public school teacher who in Andrea Harris Smith’s deeply affecting performance is on the verge of unraveling. She is overcome with grief and foreboding because her teenage son, Omari, powerfully portrayed by Justin Weaks, has just physically assaulted a white teacher in class. She knows this now means Omari is at risk of expulsion and possible charges that could ensure him a position in the school-to-prison pipeline. The pipeline that sucks in Black youth as a matter of state-sanctioned policy and imprisons them for profit. The pipeline that she and Omari’s father hoped they could exempt their Black son from by schooling him where it’s white.

The narrative unfolds over ten intense scenes directed tightly by Awoye Timpo. We meet Omari’s foxy-smart Latinx girlfriend, Jasmine (Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez); Nya’s dedicated coworkers Laurie (Pilar Witherspoon) and Dun (Ro Boddie); and Nya’s slickly successful ex, Xavier (Bjorn DuPaty), who performs fatherhood remotely by paying Omari’s tuition and sending punctual child-support checks.

Early on we find out what Omari’s offense was: he shoved his teacher against a smartboard, an abrupt act of aggression that got videoed and is going viral. But all along, the play leads us to wonder why. Why did Omari do that? Why did he snap? What was happening inside him that made him suddenly act out in such rage?

READ Bob Ashby’s review, “Mother and son fight to stay afloat in ‘Pipeline’ at Studio Theatre.”

The production surrounds Omari’s crisis with graphic visuals that give stark social context. Projections Designer Kelly Colburn episodically floods those white walls with brutal footage of Black youths brawling, rioting in the streets, getting brutalized by police, violent montages of chaos. But Omari acted alone. In a cultured literature class. Within a world of white privilege where he knew he didn’t fit. Where he felt targeted and regarded with suspicion.

Omari explains to his mother how in a class where he was the only Black student, his teacher’s singling him out triggered him to attack back:

OMARI: We get to discussing the reading, Native Son—Richard Wright. And he start asking questions. What made Bigger Thomas kill that woman? What were his social limitations? What made the animal in him explode? And who he lookin’ at when he askin’ all these questions, Ma. Who he lookin’ at?

Justin Weaks as Omari and Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier in ‘Pipeline.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography

In a later scene, Omar retells the same inciting incident to his father, except now his anger at his teacher’s racialized insinuation is compounded by his anger and hurt over Xavier’s absence from his life:

OMARI: I sat there. Listenin’ to [the teacher talking about] single mother poor angry animal Bigger Thomas. And when the teacher come askin’ me what I thought, I felt like he was sayin’ something to me. Like he knew I was sitting there, thinkin’ about you, feelin’ single mother poor angry animal Bigger Thomas–like. And he start sayin’ Mr. Joseph—what made Bigger Thomas do that to that girl? What were his social limitations? What made the animal in him explode? And he lookin’ at me….

Both Nya and Xavier struggle to understand why Omari reacted as he did, and Omari tries mightily to explain himself, how he felt he was being regarded by the teacher as an animal. But there’s more about what motivated Omari to attack that Morriseau lets us know in clues tucked in the voices of other characters. One of them is Omari’s girlfriend, who says to Nya:

JASMINE: Sometimes people push you too far. Make you feel like an animal from another jungle. Like you don’t belong even when you’re here. Cuz they got expectations that you of the wild. So you become the expectation. But it ain’t born in you, know what I’m sayin’. It ain’t what you want to be. It’s what you become….

Another character with a crucial clue is Dun, the Black security guard in Nya’s school:

DUN: How you gonna stop it [Black boys fighting] if you don’t know the source? … Gotta know what they carry in them. The resentment and the rage…there’s a legacy in that.

Nya herself finally grasps the history of what’s at stake for Omari—and confronts the crushing stigma of the angry Black man head-on—in a speech she gives to the school board hoping to persuade them not to press charges:

NYA: … This rage is not his sin. It was never his sin. It is his inheritance.

Pipeline is a must-see play. It burns with the passion of a loving Black parent and blazes with insight about her at-risk Black son. And as this luminous Studio Theatre production makes clear, it shines a bright light on what gives white the right.

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

Pipeline plays through February 16, 2020, at Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or go online.

A Measure of Cruelty

The casual cruelty that constructs men’s certainty they’re real men—and the cost of that violence to others and to themselves—comes under scathing scrutiny in Joe Calarco’s shattering one-act A Measure of Cruelty. Directed by the author as a site-specific experience in a bar in Bethesda, this gripping production by 4615 Theatre Company rips open raw wounds done by and done to three generations of men.

Appearing in ‘A Measure of Cruelty’ at Flannagan’s Harp and Fiddle bar: Ethan Miller (Derek), Scott Ward Abernathy (Buddy), Nick Torres (Teddy).

Flannagan’s Harp and Fiddle, which bills itself “the oldest neighborhood bar in town,” has a wrap-around bar surrounded by tables and chairs from which sightlines are unobstructed as three engrossing actors roam the room. The most electrifying is Ethan Miller, who enters as 15-year-old Derek all hopped up and anxious and playing headbanging music with a remote. As we will learn, Derek is hiding out in this bar named Eddie’s because he flicked the Bic that set on fire a bullied classmate named Patrick.

Derek is being harbored by Buddy, a war vet who is haunted by the disparagement and death he dealt Afghanis. Buddy has taken Derek in like a big brother in vain hopes of saving him and somehow redeeming himself. But as becomes clear in Scott Ward Abernathy’s stolidly volatile performance, Buddy has a father whom he cannot forgive either.

Teddy is that dad. Teddy did something terrible to Buddy’s brother, Eddie, attempting to toughen him up; Eddie consequently committed suicide; and Buddy holds their father responsible. As played with bluster and age-appropriate arrested emotional development by Nick Torres, this patriarch barkeep is a piece of work.

Ethan Miller (Derek) and Nick Torres (Teddy) in ‘A Matter of Cruelty.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Calarco’s succinctly constructed script is packed with chilling plot points that are deployed not so much like exposition as explosions in a minefield of intergenerational gendered dominance. Derek did it to Patrick; Buddy does it to Derek; Teddy did it to Eddie and does it to Buddy and Derek. The rapid-fire dramatic action comes in spurts of physical oneupsmanship (Matthew Castleman did the in-our-face fight choreography), and it is interspersed with unexpected incidents of male-male comfort and affection even as Calarco’s dialogue depicts indelible vignettes of male-on-male bullying.

Calarco’s language throughout is vivid and blunt but particularly impressive in Derek’s apocalyptic, Clockwork-Orange-y, ADHD-ish speeches, which Miller, a rising young local talent, delivers dead-on. And Jordan Friend’s sound design—which includes newscasts, war sounds, and sirens—has you-are-there authenticity that’s remarkable given the nontheater space we’re in.

Scott Ward Abernethy (Buddy) and Ethan Miller (Derek) in ‘A Measure of Cruelty.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

In the immediacy of this intimate barroom, Joe Calarco’s A Measure of Cruelty offers a front-row seat to the slap-hug-slap-hug and rage-remorse-rage-remorse of wounding and wounded men. It’s at once a punch in the gut and a tug to the heart. And just like in life, there is no fourth wall. There is no wall at all.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

A Measure of Cruelty plays January 18, 19, 25, and 26, 2020, presented by 4615 Theatre Company at Flanagan’s Harp and Fiddle, 4844 Cordell Avenue, Bethesda, MD. Performances are at 2 p.m except January 26, which is 1 p.m. Tickets are available online.

Sheltered

A gathering stormcloud looms over this exquisitely wrought play by Alix Sobler. “How bad is it going to get?” a character wonders aloud. No one can answer. “It can’t go on like this much longer, can it?” she asks. No one can say. The time is spring 1939. It and this mean Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Europe. All five characters are aware of it but none knows what’s to come. None has any conception of the “final solution” now called the Holocaust. And in the fraught space between our knowing and the characters’ not knowing, Sheltered at Theater J engages the very moral fiber of our being.

Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr, who directs Sheltered with transfixing emotional precision, has called Sobler “a rising star of the Jewish theater.” Indeed Sheltered is to all appearances a very Jewish play. It tells of a married Jewish couple in Providence, Rhode Island—Evelyn and Leonard Kirsch—who embark on a mission of conscience to rescue 40 Jewish children in Vienna (which has been occupied by Nazis for a year) and resettle them with Jewish families in America. Though this story arc is based on an actual American Jewish couple who in 1939 rescued 50 Jewish children, Sheltered plays less like a history recap and more like a familiar contemporary domestic drama about marital and parental tensions. In form and style, it’s kind of conventional, really, a little like a television soap. Even the naturalistic upscale interior scenic design (by Paige Hathaway) and fashionable period costumes (by Kelsey Hunt) say elegance and equanimity. Except that the stakes—as we know with far more horror than the characters can imagine—are life and death.

Erin Weaver (Evelyn Kirsch) and Kimberly Gilbert (Roberta Bloom) in ‘Sheltered.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The genius of Sheltered surfaces as we watch it simultaneously in the then and in the now. We listen to the characters deliberate and agonize about this drop-in-the-bucket rescue mission, knowing full well that millions will soon be murdered. And in the process of our engagement with the specificity of Sheltered as a Jewish story defined by its time, the play takes on an urgent universality, a nonsectarian cri de coeur, as if perhaps somewhere even now uncounted children might be being sent to concentration camps and as if perhaps we can choose not to think about it because it’s not close to home and as if perhaps we can look the other way and do nothing and as if hopefully the next election will solve everything.

As if.

Alexander Strain (Martin Bloom) and Kimberly Gilbert (Roberta Bloom) in ‘Sheltered.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

In Act One, Evelyn (Erin Weaver) and Leonard (David Schlumpf) have invited another couple, Roberta (Kimberly Gilbert) and Martin Bloom (Alexander Strain), to a dinner party in their home in hopes that the Blooms will agree to take in a rescued child. Sobler’s script, though mostly very funny, is unsparing in its depiction of the Blooms’ and the U.S. government’s disinclination to get involved:

MARTIN: Of course it’s a shame, considering what’s going on with the Jews in Europe. But. Well. A line has to be drawn. America has to put herself first. It’s only fair.

We live in a democracy and we must have faith that our leaders know what they are doing. Let the Europeans handle it.

The script expands on that theme in Act Two, which takes place in a hotel room in Vienna, where Evelyn and Leonard have come to select the children they will bring back with them to America. Unexpectedly they are visited by Hani Mueller (McLean Fletcher), the mother of a five-year-old Austrian boy who is on the Kirsches’ list. At one point, Hani excoriates America’s privileged inaction:

HANI: … The whole world knows. They sit and they watch. While these monsters ruin our livelihoods. Destroy our incomes and families and dignity. And what do the Americans do? Your hero Roosevelt? Nothing. Cowards, all of you.

Sobler has brilliantly structured the play around two climactic persuasion scenes. One of them anchors Act One and the other anchors Act Two. Significantly, both of those scenes happen between women, with the men out of the room.

Near the end of Act One, Martin and Leonard exit to admire Leonard’s new Cadillac, and Evelyn alone with Roberta persuades her—mother to mother—to take in a child. That scene is so rich with insight, including into Roberta’s abusive marriage, and Weaver and Gilbert perform it with such gutsy emotional authenticity, that the entire play plunges suddenly to that elusive depth where the moral power of theater dwells.

McLean Fletcher (Hani Mueller), David Schlumpf (Leonard Kirsch), and Erin Weaver (Evelyn Kirsch) in ‘Sheltered.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

In Act Two, Evelyn sends Leonard off on an errand to buy some aspirin so that alone with Hani she can persuade another mother to give up her child. It will be best for the boy, Evelyn explains. But the choice for Hani is excruciating. And Sobler’s script and Weaver’s and Fletcher’s performances are breathtaking. Particularly heartbreaking is Hani’s hope:

HANI: We will be together through…whatever comes.
EVELYN: And you’ll all be reunited soon, of course. Once this all … passes.

What does getting involved mean in the scale of things, in the context of humanitarian catastrophes? What can an individual really do anyway? Wouldn’t it be nuts to even try? To this point earlier in Act One, Roberta challenges Evelyn and Evelyn answers:

ROBERTA: What kind of a person does something so crazy?
EVELYN: A person who can’t just sit by and watch.

This play hits so close to home this moment in America, it gives one chills. For we cannot know how darkling the sky could yet become.

Running Time: Two hours including one intermission.

Sheltered plays through February 2, 2020, at Theater J in the 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.

READ Barbara Mackay’s review, “Theater J examines world history, good and bad, in ‘Sheltered'”