Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: March, 2020

Whitney White on directing James Baldwin’s classic The Amen Corner at Shakespeare Theatre Company

In 1955 James Baldwin had just turned 30 and had written a play about a storefront church in Harlem that he could not get produced in New York. There was “no market” for it, he was told. Coincidentally in Washington, DC, Owen Dodson was looking for a play by a Black playwright to be performed by the Howard University Players. Dodson reached out to Baldwin, offered to stage the play at Howard’s Spalding Hall, and invited him to come to DC for rehearsals. There he would continue to do rewrites on what became his masterpiece The Amen Corner.

The cast of ‘The Amen Corner.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Shakespeare Theatre Company has brought The Amen Corner home in a magnificent production that has been getting critical raves and rapturous audience praise. Its gifted director, Whitney White, is not new in town. She directed a powerful work by Aleshea Harris called What to Send Up When It Goes Down that late last fall toured four community venues then had a sold-out run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. In form it was a ritual by, about, and for Black people; its content was a response to racialized violence.

I was eager to talk with her because I attended and reported on What to Send Up at each of its tour stops, and I had come to an enormous appreciation of how tightly directed and committedly enacted it was. It seemed absolutely real and true and in-the-moment, every time as if for the first time. So I began by asking how she did it.

John: Would you talk about how as director you achieved that extraordinary sense of personal presence without seeming like performance?

Whitney: When I first read the script, I had a physical and emotional response. It felt very much like a piece of music, it read like a score, with intense rhythms, aggressive spoken language, and beautiful moments of quiet. Then there were all the moments that called for choreography and the songs that Aleshea has written. So the entire work manifested for me like a sonic and physical experience. And I knew the movement had to be something that could activate the actors. The choreography couldn’t be superfluous, it wasn’t about a step-step-touch routine. So when I started choreographing it, I knew I wanted to find things that could allow the actors to fall deeper into the purpose of the piece. And the purpose of it is to celebrate Black men, women, and children who’ve lost their lives to racialized violence. I wanted it to feel ritualistic, but I also wanted it to be something that actors needed. The movement isn’t for the audience. It’s not decorative. It’s necessary. So I knew I had to pull this incredible text together with purposeful choreography, with the beautiful songs Alesha had written then with the purpose of the evening, which is to celebrate and acknowledge Black lives. 

When you were directing The Amen Corner, was your process similar? 

When I read The Amen Corner, I also had a very physical and emotional response to the story. The play is focused on a mother trying to keep her home and church together while also zooming in on a Black community that is dealing with issues of power and safety. I had a physical response to Margaret as a single Black woman trying to hold her world together, trying to keep her seat of power. But I also had a physical and emotional response to David in the story, because I identify with this young man whose family is trying to keep him close to home and away from the outside world. The dangerous, white world. And he, David, wants to go out there and be an artist, which is a dangerous thing even to this day. So I had a similar response. But what’s different is that The Amen Corner is told on such an epic scale. You see the inside and outside. And my mantra for directing it was: It takes a village. I feel that’s very true in the Black community. We have to pull so many resources from so many places just to survive. And I wanted to make a world that felt like the village was always there. Everything was always on view and privacy was very hard to have. The piece is very different [from What to Send Up] structurally, but I still wanted to have movement and music. That’s the root of it that activated the actor. The choreography you see in The Amen Corner really was generated with the actors. In the church services, for example, we looked at video and researched and a lot of people in the cast had experience with movement that surrounds Black worship. But we added things to activate the actor: what do you need in this moment to be as emotionally radically vulnerable as possible? What both pieces share in common is radical vulnerability.

My next question is about the problematic history in American theater of how white audiences watch Black people perform.

Oh God.

I’ve seen shows where the cast is all Black and the audience is almost all white and I can sense some of that problematic history still happening—you know what I mean?

Yeah, yeah.

What to Send Up changed the terms of that history dramatically. It was unapologetically Black, it was about Black lives, and it was explicitly not about centering the experience of white audiences. So my question is: During production of The Amen Corner, did that problematic history come up in your mind? And if so, how did your direction bend that history toward justice?

Wow. First of all, I want to thank you for that question. It’s not many journalists that are looking at that so deeply and I’m grateful that you asked it. You know, it’s a complicated thing, the history of viewing the Black body in America—that’s what we’re talking about. Every form of entertainment you see that you consider to be American really comes from a community of Black people who were taken from their homes and brought here. Singing and dancing and laughter and worship and movement was always a form of survival and defiance; and that survival and defiance, those mechanisms, have been appropriated by mainstream culture—jazz, hip hop, contemporary music and movement as we know it. So we have this longtime history of being culture creators but not often recognized for it. And then you come to the theater, which is usually predominantly white audiences, and people are looking to digest entertainment, looking to have catharsis, looking to feast, you know, on the Black body in these ways.

We had really great conversations about it. I was gifted on The Amen Corner with a very incredible cast of professionals, from E. Faye Butler to some of my students at Howard. And they all were actively engaged with their own artistry and the way they engage with white audiences, so it wasn’t the first time they had these conversations. Turning it into justice is such a great question because I often told the actors, “Give the moment what it needs.” Like, you’ll go to a musical on Broadway and at the end they’ll come out after the curtain call and sing and dance a whole new number and they’re turning out to the audience and they’re working so hard for the white gaze. In The Amen Corner there are many moments when the dancers’ backs are mostly to the audience—for example in Act Two when Sister Moore does that beautiful service, with the thunder and lightning—because that moment is for them; it’s not for the audience. You can witness it but you are not invited into it the same way you are in the opening service—because the dramatic circumstances have changed and the community now needs to look in within itself to decide what to do about Margaret. Often the way that I tried to deal with this issue of the gaze and having it be dignified and having there be justice in it was to just remind the actors, “Hey, you don’t have to overwork in this moment. Do what you feel. Do what you need.” So we broke traditional musical theater logic sometimes to honor the truth of what it feels like to be viewed by a white audience.

The cast of ‘The Amen Corner.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

The action of Baldwin’s play happens among Black people in a particular community—though it’s very accessible to non-Black audiences and can be appreciated as universal. But Baldwin, never one to hold back, clearly meant it to tell some Black folks’ family business, to air some laundry—a metaphor that literally hangs over the set. How as a director did you approach both that universality in the play and that particularity in Baldwin’s intent? Put another way: How do you think about and direct a work that racially, and necessarily, has a dual audience?

Well, in a way it was refreshing for me to work on a piece that dealt with Black people dealing with each other and trying to survive with each other—intraracial relationships versus interracial relationships. Sometimes when you’re working on a play with non-Black characters, it so fast becomes about them. I call it the Iago effect. Othello is a play I work on a lot in my artistic life. I’ve directed it, I was an associate on it once, I’m doing a music adaptation of it. But the play is called Othello and every time I go see it, it’s the Iago show. It’s insidious how white characters can take over our own narratives. So it was incredibly freeing just to focus on this little amen corner, this corner of life, this microcosm of Black spiritual life in Harlem. I didn’t have to take extra care of anyone or step outside myself in any way. And we had so many beautiful, honest, easy moments in rehearsal. I was like, this is too good to be true.

How do you hear Baldwin’s voice in The Amen Corner Is it the voice of the preacher he was as a boy, the justice oracle he became as a man, the poet he always was—?

Everybody knows James Baldwin as the political activist, the man doing the brilliant speeches, the man dealing with racism in America and preaching and educating about that. But I feel here we get to see Baldwin as an artist. He is really making a world with character and plot and emotion and I feel his voice pop up in every character, even our fierce Sister Moore. When she says [of Sister Margaret], “If you think this woman who can’t bring peace to one person can bring peace to a whole lot of people,” I hear Baldwin there that we as Black people are looking for peace and light. I hear it when David says, “Mama, who’s going to speak for us?”—because Baldwin turned away from that religious community to speak for himself and for us. I hear it when Luke is dying and confronts Margaret and confronts the hypocrisy of the lifestyle that she has chosen to lead. Because Baldwin allowed himself to make this play that was focused on the Black community, he was able speak so many ways, with so many points of views through different characters. He gets to have his voice come from the many.

What about this time and this town makes The Amen Corner mean more than when it was written? 

Baldwin’s play is kind of a masterpiece, and it’s crazy to me that it hasn’t been done at every regional theater with a major cast and budget. But it was particularly powerful doing it in DC. It was a homecoming. It had its time at Howard; Baldwin himself spent so much special time in DC. And DC is also the capital of our nation. The conversations I had with people in DC about politics and race and theater and music were so rich, and it just felt very important to bring the work back home there before it hopefully spreads across the nation again. I purposefully tried to work with as many DC-familiar or DC-local artists as possible. That’s also what made it feel so special to the region, I wanted people to come and see themselves reflected on stage, not just because they’re Black, but because they’ve been in shows you love, you might know them. The strongest aspect of The Amen Corner is the notion of community, and so I was like, I need to invite the DC community into the work as early as possible. It just felt right for me to do it here because I feel like here I could really focus on community building and the story—less glitz, you know, less of the hype, just focus on the play itself. I had the space to do that in DC, which I’m very grateful for.

The location as written is a storefront church and you and the design team have opened it up on a grand opera scale.

Yes, the designers took what was in the text and exploded it in such a thrilling way!

Would you talk about your impulse and vision for that expansion?

Daniel Soule, our set designer, and I have been working together for several years. When we had to visit the theatre, we took the train down to DC and we sat and just felt the aura of the space. The Harman is so vast. People who had worked there in the past told me, Oh, that’s the hardest thing about it; you’re going to want to cut it down. But we thought, No, this space’s greatest asset is its size. We wanted to embrace it however we could.

I kept telling Daniel that I wanted to feel in a real way that the inner emotional world is the outer world and vice versa, because I kept imagining how invasive it would be to be Margaret, trying to make your breakfast after you preached all morning and then people just come into your house. I don’t know what I would do in that situation if I always had the watchful gaze of the community literally in my home. So we expanded that idea. I was like, Let’s put it all outside. And Dan was drawn to the world of  film noir, which manifested in the black brick walls. And it was just the greatest way to obliterate the traditional structure and go for the emotional feeling of the landscape.

I was so impressed with the way the production moves back and forth between the church drama and the family drama, from ritual/ecclesiastic to kitchen and bedroom, between the gorgeous and moving big music scenes and the smaller domestic scenes where some of the darker themes are.

Thank you. DC kind of welcomed me on both productions with open arms, and I’d like to say, Oh, it’s all me and the design team and we thought it all up. But what makes theater theater is the community you do it in and the people you do it for. I travel around directing a lot now, which I’m very grateful for, but being welcomed, welcomed in, it just sets the tone of the work you’re able to make.

Mia Ellis as Margaret Alexander in ‘The Amen Corner.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

In many ways The Amen Corner is a play about women. The main character is Sister Margaret, a Pentecostal minister. Women are the mainstays of the congregation. And for a script written in 1955, it can be very proto-womanist, like in that line where Margaret says:

The only thing my mother should have told me is that being a woman ain’t nothing but one long fight with men. And even the Lord, look like, ain’t nothing but the most impossible kind of man there is.

And later when Brother Boxer says:

Sister Margaret weren’t nothing but a woman who run off from her husband and then started ruling other people’s lives because she didn’t have no man to control her.

What do you make of Baldwin’s sexual politics in the play?

It’s outrageous, isn’t it? Sometimes when I’m reading The Amen Corner, I feel the way I feel about Hedda Gabler: Ibsen wrote an extremely bold, noir, radical sex art femme piece, and I don’t know how he did it but I feel the same way about Baldwin. This was the era of the politics of Black respectability. Dr. King is coming and the Civil Rights Movement is coming and so many people felt the only way to advance our ethnic group was through perfectionism and showing our best side. And Baldwin says, Let me show you this side, these women, Odessa, Sister Moore, Sister Boxer and Margaret. I mean, they have some of the most intense intellectual dialogues about power and faith and what a woman should be like in order to be in power. It feels incredibly forward-thinking. Baldwin has imagined a world of women leaders. The other church that’s talked about is also run by a woman, and then Sister Moore takes over the church [that Margaret led]. Baldwin has envisioned this world in which Black women rule, literally. And it was very, very fun to get into doing that. I think Baldwin’s showing how Black women can be pillars of our community, and he’s showing that in a unique way. He’s also showing us in an imperfect way, which I think is really good, because we’re living in the time of the independent woman who can do it all. That’s a myth that breaks women’s backs. And Baldwin is showing that we are human. Powerful but still human.

Antonio Michael Woodard as David and Mia Ellis as Margaret Alexander in ‘The Amen Corner.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

There’s a main plot and a subplot. The main one is about Margaret’s fall: the congregation learns she has deceived them and they turn on her. The subplot is about David, Margaret’s musican son, and his journey to liberation—which you have called a queer narrative. Would you talk about how Baldwin relates those two story lines, and how what’s female-centric and what’s queer in the play connect?

I think that David’s story has a very queer aspect to it because he goes against what he’s supposed to go toward. He comes out by the end of the play into his artistic self. He admits, “Mom, I’ve been lying to you for a long time and I don’t want to lie anymore.” It’s that brave moment of declaring to the people that you love, something that many people who are minorities—whether you are a person of color or Black or queer, LGBTQ, questioning, anything—there’s that moment when you have to say to the mainstream or to your own family, Hey, this is who I am and I don’t want to lie about it anymore. That language is so, so specific and beautifully honest. David says, “I can’t stay here in this house. I don’t want to hate you. I don’t want to tell any more lies. I’ve seen your life. And I’ve seen my father’s life and I want my own life.” And that’s where I get the idea of queerness. He’s been trying to pass as his mother’s idea of a good child and finally he can’t.

We have David’s story against a very Julius Caesar kind of power takedown, the other story of Margaret. This is also why the play is relevant for DC: It’s a chilling look at groupthink. It’s hard to say who’s right and who’s wrong. Sister Moore can be viewed as a villain but she’s not. She’s genuinely looking for peace for her religious community. And Margaret has been lying to that community. But if we’re talking about God and Jesus and faith and love, is it right to push her aside in that way? Sister Moore systematically wins over the hearts and minds of the people to the point that by the last scene they’re trying to make their own decisions but the decision’s already been made. It’s a very chilling look at what happens when humans group and are fearful because ultimately they’re just trying to keep their corner of the world safe from the dangerous outside world. Fear drives us to groupthink in what can be very odd ways. So it’s interesting to have the story of a young man coming out against the group and then that group eating itself and spitting one out. You have a quintessential look at the individual versus the group. What is the individual citizen’s responsibility to groupthink and group politics and what is the point at which you can’t follow the group anymore?

Chiké Johnson as Luke and Mia Ellis as Margaret Alexander in ‘The Amen Corner.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

There’s also a love story in the play, an embattled one, between Margaret and her wayward husband Luke, and there’s an almost unbearably emotional scene before he dies where it all unfolds—

I know!

—and it took my heart away. How as a director do you know when you’ve got a scene like that to work so it will work for the audience? Because it was just overwhelming to watch.

Well, Luke’s bedroom takes up the smallest real estate of the stage. It’s all the way stage right in this intimate little corner. And I credit the power of that scene to the two actors, Chiké Johnson [Luke] and Mia Ellis [Margaret], because they had a beautiful chemistry and way with each other from day one. They had an immediate respect for each other that translated every single day when we were working. It was inspiring to see. I kept holding onto: We never do things in the right time. That was my only guiding light there. Something will happen and you’re full of regret and you’re full of: I wish, I should, I did this or I should’ve done that, or “if only I could start again”—which is what Margaret says. And I wanted the scene to be over before I could feel like it was over. To me that’s what life feels like. You always think you’re going to have another minute to say the things you want to say to the people you love or to get what you want or to be honest or true to yourself. And then boom, life subverts that. And when Luke dropped the trombone mouthpiece, I just wanted to feel like it came too soon.

Finally, I wonder if you would respond to this passage from Baldwin’s introduction to the play:

I was armed, I knew, in attempting to write the play, by the fact that I grew up in the church. Knew that out of the ritual of the church, historically speaking, comes the act of the theatre, the communion which is the theatre. And I knew that what I wanted to do in the theatre was to recreate moments I remembered as a boy preacher, to involve the people, even against their will, to shake them up, and, hopefully, to change them…

Wow. How brave is that to look back on your own childhood, on people you loved and people who probably loved you, and to try and change those people and people of the now and people of the future? I just think it’s a testament to his brilliance as an artist and political, intellectual seeker to be able to take his own very specific experience. I mean, how much more specific could you get than being a boy preacher? That’s not something most of us in America have experienced. And somehow he takes this hyperspecific human experience and you’re watching in the audience and you’re like, This is my story. And it’s just incredibly bold and dangerous. I love what you said: The laundry is literally on the stage. Baldwin is doing something that could have really, really cast him out of the community at the time. But he’s doing it so honestly and with such empathy that you don’t feel that he’s talking dirty about his Black community. You feel like he’s trying to understand that. I’m incredibly moved by that quote because he took the personal and made it universal. So if he can do it then maybe we’re all not that different at all. It’s really hopeful. You know, if a white audience member who lives in DC can come and see this story inspired from the experiences of a Black boy preacher, then maybe we’re not so across the divide as we thought.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

The Amen Corner plays through March 15, 2020, at the Harman Center for the Arts, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or go online.

READ Ramona Harper’s review, “James Baldwin’s ‘Amen Corner’ bears witness to the Beloved Community”

Whitney White

Whitney White
NEW YORK: WP Theatre/Second Stage: Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord | Soho Rep: Zawe Ashton’s for all the women who thought they were Mad | The Movement: What to Send Up When It Goes Down (New York Times Critic’s Pick). REGIONAL: Williamstown Theatre Festival: Jonathan Payne’s A Human Being, of a Sort (starring Andre Braugher and Frank Wood) | PlayMakers Rep: Jump (National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere) | IAMA Theatre Company: Canyon (LA Times Critic’s Choice) | Long Wharf Theatre: An Iliad | Juilliard: Rita Tambien Rita | Trinity Rep: Othello | Endstation: Br’er Cotton. OTHER: Associate Director: Broadway: Marvin’s Room | Roundabout Theatre Company: If I Forget | Atlantic Theatre Company: The Secret Life of Bees. Whitney is an Associate Artist at Roundabout. AWARDS: Recipient of the Susan Stroman Directing Award. Past fellowships: 2050 NYTW Fellow, Ars Nova, Drama League, the Inaugural Roundabout Directing Fellowship, and Colt Coeur. PERSONAL: Whitney’s original musical Definition was part of the 2019 Sundance Theatre Lab and her musical look at MacbethMacbeth in Stride, was part of the 2019 Under the Radar Festival (Public Theater). Training: Brown University/Trinity Rep: MFA, Northwestern University: BA.

Pass Over

There is a drama on stage right now at Studio Theatre—Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu—so harrowing it will stop your heart. In it, Christopher Lovell and Jalen Gilbert give two of the most powerful performances to be found in the DMV. The intense experience of Pass Over is followed by no curtain call for release. The audience is left to absorb the impact of what just happened.

Pass Over is set under a lampost on an inner-city street corner where two young Black men are hanging out—Moses (Lovell) and Kitch (Gilbert). Moses aspires “to rise up to my full potential / be all I could be / you feel me? / I got plans to get my ass off this block.” Kitch, inspired by Moses, wants to join him on the journey. Together they imagine (with authorial echoes of the Exodus story) what it would be like to “pass over” into “the promised land.” And yet (in grim reminiscence of Waiting for Godot), they don’t leave; they remain where they are.

Christopher Lovell (Moses) and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) in ‘Pass Over.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

We get viscerally why they stay. At the first of several points in the play when nearby gunshots explode, Moses and Kitch instinctively dive facedown to the ground, their hands above their heads: This is their everyday life. They are besieged by white police who are killing Black men to keep them in line. They live in fear for their Black lives. Their stasis has a history. It is racism’s PTSD.

Moses and Kitch pass time amusing themselves with games and in playful verbal sparring—a poetic barrage of crude street slang that includes near nonstop use of the n-word. They are not literally brothers, but between them is a b-boy bond, with overt aggression and coded affection as two sides of the same chump change.

In the interplay between their bodies in motion and brisk riffs of speech, there emerges a heightened performance style that absolutely stuns with originality and eloquence. Director Psalmayene 24 has done something extraordinary: Lovell and Gilbert so physicalize the text’s every rhythm, breath, and pulse that we could be beholding some brand-new form of choreopoem.

Christopher Lovell (Moses), Cary Donaldson (Mistr), and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) in ‘Pass Over.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

A third character enters: a prim white man dressed nattily in light tan suit, bowtie, and straw hat (Cary Donaldson). He carries a picnic basket and exclaims “Gosh, golly, gee!” He got lost on his way to his mother’s. His name, he tells them, is Master. “Everything is mine,” he lets them know. He is both absurd cartoon and all-too-real symbol of the white power Moses and Kitch are always up against, even when it’s benign.

The fearsome force of that power materializes when an armed white cop enters (Donaldson again). He demands to know where Moses and Kitch are going. “Nowhere,” they answer. He browbeats and insults them. He demands that they self-identify as “stupid / lazy / violent / thug.”

After the cop is gone, they wonder aloud, “What if po-pos [the police] keep coming back and we never get up off the block?” As though in mournful reply, they recall the young men they knew who were killed by po-pos. The recitation of those names is wrenching.

Debra Booth’s spare urban set is backed by girders and broken concrete. Stuffed teddy bears propped by Deborah C. Thomas are tied to the lampost, a memorial to Moses’s murdered brother. Megumi Katayama cues up mordant, melancholy music and jolting gunfire. Moses and Kitch are dressed for the street by Brandee Mathies in hoodies, caps, and distressed jeans, while the two white characters are suited up for prerogative and privilege. Night passes into day and back into night under subtle, incremental light cues by Keith Parham such that we sense time pass and stand still all at once.

Christopher Lovell (Moses) and Jalen Gilbert (Kitch) in ‘Pass Over.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

For Moses and Kitch, the American Dream is out of reach. A metaphorical apple pie is literally taken from them. Their hopes keep getting crushed by hate. In a moment of despair, they consider passing over into heaven by their own hand. Then Master has the last word.

“You hear me?” and “You feel me?” are refrains throughout, questions Moses and Kitch keep asking for comprehension and connection. They are questions the whole play asks as well. Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Studio Theatre not only must be seen. It wants to be heard by an honest mind and felt by an open heart.

Running Time:  Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.

Pass Over plays through April 12, 2020, at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or go online.

Community Tour
In addition to performances in the Metheny Theatre, Studio will take a complete dramatic reading of Pass Over to intergenerational audiences throughout the DC-metro area. Facilitated talkbacks will accompany the reading to help audiences process the play and explore the context of Nwandu’s work with more depth. The Pass Over Community Tour will visit:
• Duke Ellington School of the Arts (3500 R Street NW)—April 1, 2020, at 8pm
• Howard University’s Environmental Theatre Space (2455 6th Street NW)—April 8, 2020, at 11am and 7pm
• Anacostia Neighborhood Library (1800 Good Hope Road SE)—April 15, 2020, at 6:30pm
• Shaw Neighborhood Library (1630 7th Street NW)—April 16, 2020, at 2:30pm
• Joe’s Movement Emporium (3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, MD)—April 18, 2020, at 2pm and 8pm

 

Einstein’s Wife

The history of science is studded with female geniuses snubbed by sexism. There’s biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, geneticist Nettie Stevens, chemist Alice Ball— And several such brilliant women’s brains have appeared on stage, notably in Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky (about astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt), Emilie (about mathematician-philosopher Emilie Du Châtelet), and Ada and the Machine (about computer visionary Ada Lovelace).

Now comes  Einstein’s Wife by Serbian playwright Snezana Gnjidic, which is cause for an International Women’s Day commemoration, because the universe of overlooked female scientists rediscovered through theater just expanded glowingly.

Sasha Olinick as Albert Einstein and Cecelia Auerswald as Mileva Marić in ‘Einstein’s Wife.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

The title character is Mileva Marić, who was Albert Einstein’s first wife and a brilliant physicist in her own right. During their courtship and marriage, she made significant and uncredited contributions to the theories that were to bring him renown. ExPats Theatre has produced a fascinating and moving play about their relationship based on an idea by, and translated by, Milena Trobozic Garfield.

The play is not a docudrama; it’s “an imagined encounter” that takes place where Mileva and Albert are stuck together in a private hell for eternity. Based on newly available personal correspondence between Mileva and Albert and to their friends, the script is perfectly pitched in voices that sound like real people and brought vividly to life by Cecelia Auerswald as Mileva and Sasha Olinick as Albert.

In some of their most entertaining moments, Mileva can be deliciously sardonic, for instance

ALBERT: You were a genius.
MILEVA: Yes, I was a genius. I was the one who showed you that time and space are not absolute and you went around bragging about it.

They play-act scenes from their relationship, including when they met at Zurich Polytechnic, where she was a diligent student and he, lazy and mediocre. Here we first see Mileva’s having to cope with Albert’s presumptuous passion, as when he barges into her room and makes an unwanted sexual advance and she does not resist or object “Because I am polite.”

They also pass the time by playing games—Mileva sarcastically proposes one about his ego she calls “How famous is Albert?”

After Mileva bore Albert three children and subsumed her intelligence in mothering and homemaking, he moved on to Elsa, who became his second wife. These fraught circumstances get aired in poignant and prickly scenes that are among the most pointed in the play.

Cecelia Auerswald as Mileva Marić (play-acting as Elsa) in ‘Einstein’s Wife.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

The first inspiration for Einstein’s famous theory of relativity (summed up in the formula E = mc2) gets attributed to Mileva in a bedroom scene:

MILEVA:  Albert, listen, I am convinced that motion stops time…

Which he ignores with lamely amorous condescension:

ALBERT: You are my stopped time…

Despite several romantic scenes that make clear they once did love each other, the play ultimately gives Mileva ample dignity in recrimination, as when she says:

MILEVA: Your hell is my liberation.

Karin Rosnizeck directs with precision; each emotional shift and volley of wit gets the kind of compelling attention that consistently pulls in ours. The byplay between Auerswald and Olinick is a constant pleasure. But what stands out most about the play is the script’s unsentimental, un-sugar-coated look at how a woman’s brilliance got eclipsed in love with a man who…lost interest.

There’s a cringeworthy scene near the end, for instance, when Mileva reads aloud the text of a letter based on one that Albert actually wrote to her:

MILEVA: A list of Albert’s divine needs and holy commandments:
“You” meaning me, “will take care of the following things:
That my clothes are always in order
That I am served three meals every day at regular times…in my room
That nobody, under any circumstances, touches anything in my room or at my desk”

ALBERT: What’s wrong with that?

MILEVA: I’m not finished.  Now let’s hear your emotional requests:
“You” meaning me “have to promise that in all your future contacts with me you will:
One: never badmouth me, especially in front of the children,
Two: leave my room immediately and without questions the moment I say so,
Three:  You will not expect any love or sympathy from me,
Four—

At which point Albert grabs the letter and tears it to pieces.

Sasha Olinick as Albert Einstein and Cecelia Auerswald as Mileva Marić in ‘Einstein’s Wife.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

For all the playful humor and lighthearted warmth in the way Einstein’s Wife liberates Mileva Marić Einstein from sexism in science history, the play pulls no punches about the sexism she got stuck with at home with Albert.

One well may deduce that Einstein = male chauvinism2.

Credits
Einstein’s Wife by Snezana Gnjidic. Idea and translation by Milena Trobozic Garfield; Director: Karin Rosnizeck; Assistant Director: Mary May; Cast: Sasha Olinick as Albert Einstein and Cecelia Auerswald as Mileva Marić; Set Design: Alexa Ross; Costume Design:  Alisa Mandel; Lights/Projection Design: Dylan Uremovich; Sound Design: Karin Rosnizeck and Laura Schlachtmeyer; Stage Manager: Laura Schlachtmeyer; Fight Choreographer: Ian Claar

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Einstein’s Wife plays through March 22, 2020, presented by ExPats Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab Theatre II, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

READ David Siegel’s review, “Plenty to chew on in ExPats’ thoughtful production of ‘Einstein’s Wife’”

Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes

Dani Stoller’s world-premiere comedy Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes is funny and witty and in its own quirky way quite deep. Plus it puts the screw in screwball.

Discovered in the SigWorks talent-incubator program at Signature Theatre—where it is now enjoying a sold-out run—Easy Women tells of a 34-year-old woman named Lee (Shanara Gabrielle) whose husband has kicked her out for infidelity and who comes home to her mother Marian (Susan Rome) for solace. Empty-nesters Marian and her second husband Richard (John Leslie Wolfe) already have a full house. They’ve taken in two teens: Richard’s pregnant niece Kitty (Jordan Slattery) and a troubled boy from next door named Bobby (John Austin).

Tensions flare, laughs abound, passions rise, revelations shock, meltdowns amuse, love reconciles.

For the full story, read Amy Kotkin’s review, “All under one roof in Signature Theatre’s ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes’”

I knew as soon as I saw the play that I wanted to talk with the playwright, whose distinctive comic voice had cracked me up and whose take on sex had aroused my curiosity.

Shanara Gabrielle (Lee) and Susan Rome (Marian) in ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

John: Congratulations on the sold-out run.

Dani: Oh my God. Can you imagine? It’s amazing, isn’t it?

How does it feel to have a hit right out of the gate?

It’s wonderful and scary. With this many people coming, I don’t know how many really know what the show is about. You can put in content warnings up the wazoo but people can get affected in a way they didn’t expect. What’s exciting is that people were willing to take the chance to say yes to something that they didn’t really know about.

Your bio in the program is all about your acting. When did the playwriting bug bite?

I’ve always loved to write. My mother always said, No matter what you do, I just hope you never stop writing. It was like an escape. When I moved here I kept getting work as an actor, so I was writing just for myself.

How does your acting background influence your playwriting?

I just want to write things that I would want to do if I were acting in it. As an actor, you’re constantly auditioning or performing in other people’s work and you kind of learn what you like, what you enjoy, what makes something hackneyed, what can be a cheesy—

Are you aware of what makes it actable?

People have said to me that the words in Easy Women seem chosen very particularly—and that’s very true.  I wanted it to sound like comic music. All the words are there for a reason. I didn’t want anything superfluous.

There are some really interesting themes in the play that are hilariously expressed but seem to come from a personal and meaningful place—like the fact that, as you’ve described yourself, you are “a body love warrior.”

Oh yeah.

And you work as a certified health and wellness coach.

I do.

The theme of women’s body issues runs throughout the play, particularly in the character of Marian, the mother [Susan Rome].

Oh yeah. I wanted to write something about a woman who was an adult and still grappling with these issues but who also wasn’t frigid or anti-sex.  She and Richard, her husband [Jordan Leslie Wolfe], have very intimate moments. So it’s not about the whore/Madonna thing. It’s about being confused about this new version of life.

Susan Rome (Marian) and John Leslie Wolfe (Richard) in ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

It seemed you’d taken stuff you take very seriously and turned it into a kind of comedy that’s not only relatable but also cathartic.

The play started when a friend and I were talking about affairs, and I was like, What happens when maternal love is stretched to the limit? That’s how Susan, who plays Marian, describes the play, and I think that’s pretty much perfect. Originally it was a reconciliation story between a husband and a wife. It ended up as a love story between a mother and a daughter, which to me was exciting and unexpected.

That mother-daughter relationship between Marian and Lee [Shanara Gabrielle] is really the heart of the play.

I think so too.

We see it play out in ways that at times are laugh-out-loud funny and at times touching and moving. How much of your own experience as a daughter is in the play, and what has it meant to you make a play about it?

The character of Marian is a very theatricalized version of my mother. Parts of the story are very true in terms of things that my mother has said to me and conversations we’ve had. That was the most exciting and scary thing—putting this on the page, getting to write this stuff with my mother in mind, and being able to pay homage to her. She recently saw the play for the first time and she loved it. Afterward, when she met Susan, my mom said, “Oh, it’s so nice to meet me.”

I’ve loved hearing women talk about how this play made them want to call their moms—or they saw themselves or their daughters or their mothers in it. Not that I’m not happy to get compliments from men, but I really did write it for mothers and daughters. It warms my heart in a weird way when people feel calmed by seeing themselves in a family that is extremely dysfunctional.

You also describe yourself as “sex-positive” and “a writer of complicated women”—and again there’s much in the play thematically related to that, expressed especially through the character of the daughter Lee.

Yeah, Lee is a sex-positive person, and the show in my mind is not demonizing sex. She’s realizing that it’s not the sex that is the issue. So many other things go into that intimacy or lack of intimacy. And I didn’t want to write a play where sex is wrong or she’s bad for doing it. It’s more a realization of what is the need behind the need.

A lot about the character of Lee and choices she makes struck me as being a fascinating and original portrayal of the female protagonist. Not to give too much away, but her sexual agency ranks right up there with a horndog man’s.

Sure.

By her own account, she’s insatiable. But unlike such a libertine male protagonist, Lee turns out to have an acute conscience and keen self-awareness about her actions.

Thank you.

She’s got that point where she realizes the consequences of her acts, and we watch her learn that in front of us, and it’s kind of exemplary. In the #MeToo era, I’ve seen no man own his sexual behavior as we see Lee do—not in life and not on stage.

The end of the first act is pretty polarizing. Some people are like, Well, that was wrong. And some people are like, No, it seems totally fine. I wanted people to be uncomfortable and unsure of certain things. I wanted to take away the idea that sex had consequences because it wasn’t the sex that was the issue. It was the why.

For me Lee’s realization is not that sex is bad. It’s a realization for her about what has been missing and what she’s been doing as a way to fill the void and how that way of filling the void has led to way more complications that she doesn’t actually want. It’s been leading her away from what she wants.

Shanara Gabrielle (Lee) and John Austin (Bobby) in ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

That scene at the end of the first act just blew me away. It’s between Lee, who’s 34, and the 18-year-old Bobby [John Austin] from next door. We might be getting into spoiler territory here, but I think you’ve done something there that’s really significant in the history of sexual politics on stage.

Well, it wasn’t originally in the script. Joe Calarco, who directed two workshops of the play, was like, Hey, man, if we’re going to talk about Lee’s sexual proclivity, we have to see it in action; we got to go there. And I was like, Really? ’Cause to me that allowance was kind of shocking, to be given that opportunity. But I was like, Okay, cool. So I went home and I wrote the scene.

What was your concept for it?

My goal was to showcase what happens in a way that there are multiple expressions of consent, because consent should be continual and it should be enthusiastic. There is a significant age difference and power-dynamic difference between Lee and Bobby. However, he does speak in the affirmative and do certain movements in the affirmative three times, which are written into the script. The blocking was written in too. This scene is specific and the scene is a big part of telling the story and it is leading into a huge Act One finale and we need to be able to see Lee as redeemable.

It’s really essential to the story.

I think so.

There’s a point in the performance when it crosses your mind, Oh my gosh, this is thisclose to sexual assault. And yet the scene is so carefully calibrated and the consent you mentioned is very clear.

Like him looking away and her deciding to stop touching him and then him taking her hand and being like, That’s cool. There are some people who probably won’t like the humorous spin on it, but I think the humor gives the audience room to breathe. It’s intense and jarring, because how can this be funny and scary and maybe in some people’s mind an assault? And then it goes into this huge battle between the mom and the daughter, which I love watching other people watch because it’s like, Am I allowed to laugh? This is funny, but I’m so uncomfortable. That’s really what I wanted to capture. Messiness is fucking funny to me.

My last question is about writing complicated women protagonists at this moment in time. We’re used to a history of dramatic literature in which mainly men have scripted such roles.

Yep.

But today female and female-identified playwrights are going their own new way. How do you see yourself and your work in that revolution?

Oh man, that’s the goal as I keep writing. I want to create space for women who are messy, for women who make mistakes, for women who are in the gray area. You know, there’s an idea of like, This is a good woman, this is a bad woman, and all the things that go along with it. And I was like, We can be multifaceted and not be defined by one particular thing. In Lee’s case, the topic of the show is infidelity, but we can’t let that be the defining thing. And we can’t have people see her through their own lens based on that thing. The only way that people can grow and change and be better is if we leave the judgment at the door. So my goal is to keep writing parts that women want to play—not just because they need the health weeks and want a job but because they actually want to play these parts that have some teeth and make them question themselves. In the rehearsal room there were moments of the actors being like, I can’t tell if this is me not thinking that this part makes sense or me fighting against a part of the show that makes me scared. I think that the best things come out of things you do that terrify you. And I have a pretty fearless group of actors in there led by Susan and Shanara. I couldn’t be fucking luckier. They’re tanks. They’re amazing.

 

Dani Stoller ACTING: Signature: Really Really, Dying City, Matt Connor Christmas cabaret. DC AREA: Olney Theatre Center: The Crucible, The Diary of Anne Frank, Annie; Studio Theatre: Carrie the Musical, Invisible Man; Folger Theatre: Midsummer, District Merchants (world premiere), As You Like It; Keegan Theatre: Airness, Hair, Dogfight; 1st Stage: Bat Boy (Helen Hayes Nomination), Blithe Spirit, The Good Counselor, The Italian-American Reconciliation. UPCOMING: Olney Theatre Center: The Humans.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, including one intermission.

Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes plays through March 29, 2020, at Signature Theatre – The Max, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online.

Boys Don’t Cry

Boys Don’t Cry made this boy cry.

It happened near the end. I had been watching a performance by the French dance company Cie Hervé Koubi. Seven shirtless male dancers, all from different countries, were doing the most amazing gymnastically inspired choreography. And I had been awestruck as much by the muscularity of their movements as by their utter absence of macho aggression.

Scene from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Frédérique Calloch.

They were powerful yet graceful. Confreres not competitors. Breathing and sweating and trusting together—flipping and leaping, lifting and carrying, sliding and break-dancing, entwining and head-spinning—in what seemed virtuosic escape as much from gravity as from the toxicity that is masculinity. (See trailer below).

Then one by one, while the others still danced, they stood at a mic and spoke about growing up as a boy expected to be good at combative sports.

Scene from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Nathalie Sternalski.

One told of being shamed into soccer (“I hate soccer”). Another of being intimidated by a gym teacher and cut from a team. Another of a dream in which his mother, wearing shorts and heels, played in his place on the soccer team and rescued him. Another of being pushed into martial arts—his father signed him up and he lasted one hour (“I hate judo”). Another of being bullied and beaten for being skinny and unathletic and wanting his father to see his wounds and understand his hurt and comfort him—only to be told what a big disappointment he was.

A disappointment to dad. A dad who did not want his son to dance. A story shared, we can surmise, by all the sons we see on stage.

Some emotional nerve had been hit. Something that removed this reviewer from objectivity.

It was after a narrator told that the father who had passed judgment on him had passed— It was after that narrator dedicated the next dance “To you, Dad”— It was while the entire troupe was suddenly dancing in liberation and jubilation and exultation—

That was when I lost it. That was when art and life crashed into each other and left tears at the scene.

Choreographer Hervé Koubi with dancers from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Frédérique Calloch.

Cie Hervé Koubi, founded by Algerian native Hervé Koubi, was on a multi-week U.S. tour, giving two performances February 29 and March 1, 2020, at Dance Place and a third March 3 at CenterStage in Reston Virginia.

In a preshow talk, Koubi and choreographic assistant Fayçal Hamlat described Boys Don’t Cry as “an autobiographical project.” They explained that the cast would be speaking the text (by Koubi and noted French author Chantal Thomas) for the first time in English. They also mentioned the intentional diversity in the company. Hamlat is Muslim and Koubi is Jewish (about which they remarked in unison, “It doesn’t matter”). One dancer is from Israel, another from Palestine, others from other countries in the vicinity of the Mediterranean.

When the curtain rose the set was so white and lit so bright (by Lionel Buzonie), my eyes needed a moment to adjust. The seven dancers (costumed by Guillaume Gabriel) were also all in white. The choreography was an enthralling combination of complex coordination and spirited, supple ease. A tight huddle formed, for instance, then seemed to blossom like a flower as arms reached out in quest or supplication.

In a scene set to the sound of a soccer game, there were no opposing teams; there was only the vigor of a synchronized ensemble. Other sounds and music called forth other maneuvers and moods—electronica, Diana Ross singing “Love Hangover” (I wanna get over…), a song in Arabic by Moroccan singer-songwriter Oum, a churchlike choir (original compositions were by Stéphane Fromentin).

Now and then, while one was at the mic, others would rest upstage and towel off. There was something even in their exhaustion that affirmed embodied resilience. Boys Don’t Cry serves as a rallying cry of resistance to the soul-crushing notion that boys should be unfeeling. And it could literally save lives.

Scene from ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Photo by Nathalie Sternalski.

Choreography: Hervé Koubi & Fayçal Hamlat
Text: Chantal Thomas & Hervé Koubi
Choreographic artists: Mohammed Elhilali, Zakaria Nail Ghezal, Bendehiba Maamar, Nadjib Meherhera, Mourad Messaoud, Houssni Mijem, Et Houssaini Zahid
Music: Diana Ross, Oum, Russian traditional songs
Original score: Stéphane Fromentin
Costumes: Guillaume Gabriel
Light design: Lionel Buzonie

Production: Hervé Koubi Dance Company

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Boys Don’t Cry played February 29 and March 1, 2020, presented by Hervé Koubi Dance Company (Cie Hervé Koubi) performing at Dance Place – 3225 8th Street, NE, Washington, DC.

Click here for information about the March 3, 2020, performance at CenterStage in Reston Virginia.

For tickets to other Dance Place events, call (202) 269-1600, or purchase them online.

 

This Bitter Earth

A poetic and politically charged same-gender-loving love story, This Bitter Earth by Harrison David Rivers—now playing in a powerfully moving production at Theater Alliance—strips bare the hearts, hurts, and sexual heat of two men who face the hate outside across the color divide.

Noah Schaefer (Neil) and Justin Weaks (Jesse) in ‘This Bitter Earth.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

They meet by happenstance in 2012 at a Black Lives Matter protest following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. Jesse (Justin Weaks), a young black aspiring playwright, is there reluctantly; his black roommate made him come. Neil (Noah Schaefer), a young white antiracist activist, is there in earnest, and he catches Jesse’s attention with an impromptu rally speech. Their subsequent high-tension connection is electric; their sexual attraction, intense. And as the play moves fluidly back and forth in time over the course of their two and a half years together—and as the story plays out against the persistent history of young black men shot dead—we are drawn ever more deeply into Jesse and Neil’s heartrending relationship: Their laughter and lovemaking. Their affinities and idiosyncrasies. Their arguments and cross-cultural disconnects.

Their contrasting backgrounds are disclosed in two separate meet-the-parents scenes. Justin’s mother and father are devout Baptists in denial about their son’s being out. Neil’s are wealthy liberals who welcome Jesse warmly.

But pivotally,  a conflict arises early on between Jesse’s and Neil’s disparate responses to the antiblack violence in the world outside.

NEIL: …I find it hard to believe that you’re not bothered by what you see when you look around. When you watch the news or read the paper. When you leave yr apartment—
JESSE: It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of protest or whatever, the importance of speaking up and speaking out. I know my history. I’ve seen Eyes on the Prize—

Later, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, when Neil is preparing to go to Fergusson on a Freedom Ride—which Jesse declines to join and dismisses as a “’we are the world’ tour”—the conflict between them escalates:

NEIL: You know, you accuse me of my white guilt, but what about your apathy?

The privilege Neil brings into the relationship and the caution Jesse necessarily carries with him ignite what may be one of the most ruthlessly truthful interracial love stories the American stage has seen.

Noah Schaefer (Neil) and Justin Weaks (Jesse) in ‘This Bitter Earth.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

We sit on four sides of a multipurpose playing area (designed by Brian Gillick). Though it is set with a bed, bench, table and chairs, it’s more an unspecified memory space painted in magenta and aqua patterns (by Leila Spolter) as if huge petals from memorial flowers had fallen. While interlaced scenes play out here in intimate closeup, we will infer the where, when, and why from what Jesse and Neil say.

Overhead hang inauspicious clear shards. Between scenes flow the characters’ reminiscent music tracks and sounds (by Justin Schmitz) of breaking glass and drum-brushed cymbals. Dynamic changes of light (by John D. Alexander) heighten each dramatic location and emotional shift. Standing at opposite corners are two abstract doorways on which at times appear video projections (by Nitsan Scharf) of the actors’ eyes, lips, and hands. The visual effect while the actors are live onstage is stunning—the projections outsize and surreal, the performances painfully personal and in the moment.

Justin Weaks (Jesse) in ‘This Bitter Earth.’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

Weaks as Jesse is magnetic from his opening monolog, where he first quotes Essex Hemphill, whose poetry will propel the play in profound ways. Weaks’s grace in motion and nuance of face and voice bring breathtaking shades of meaning and dimensions of feeling to the role. The dramaturgically assured directorial hand of Otis Ramsey-Zöe is especially evident in the clarity with which the performances illuminate how race inflects Jesse’s and Neil’s everyday life and in the fluency with which Rivers’s luminous language comes through.

Here, for instance, is a passage from a monologue in which Jesse explains with unabashed honesty why so many men he has been with have been white.

JESSIE: …maybe it’s that white men are allowed to be soft
That they’re encouraged by their mothers or their grandmothers or
whomever to be artistic
And self-aware
And maybe black men aren’t given that opportunity
(Not with the same frequency anyway)
Because maybe gentle gets you killed.
And maybe I’m attracted to that softness.

The physical interplay between Weaks and Schaefer’s characters is the sensual heartline of the play, its erotic epicenter, and is present throughout in Dane Figueroa Edidi’s exquisitely sensitive intimacy choreography. With Jesse and Neil’s every kiss, caress, and cuddle, we sense they have found with each other, for some brief and precious time, a trust and passion that might just might mitigate all that in the world would tear them apart. And when the action bursts out in actual choreography—as when Neil persuades Jesse to join him in the Twist, when Weaks breaks out in a gay bar “I Will Survive” number, and when Weaks stops the show dancing Jesse’s dream of a party with only black people—baby, the body electric gets sung.

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

This Bitter Earth plays through March 22, 2020, at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

Credits
Director: Otis Ramsey-Zöe; Assistant Director: Vaughan Ryan Midder; Lighting Designer: John D. Alexander; Scenic Designer: Brian Gillick; Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz; Costume Designer: Brandee Mathies; Props Designer: Eric Swartz; Projections Designer: Nitsan Scharf; Intimacy Choreographer Dane Figueroa Edidi; Master Electrician: Elliott Shugoll; Scenic Artist: Leila Spolter; Assistant Scenic Artist: Megan Holden; Stage Manager: Thomas Nagata; Takeover Stage Manager: Ricky Ramón; Assistant Stage Manager: Genny Ceperley; Line Producer Aria Velz