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Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017

Actor Mikéah Jennings unpacks his powerful performance

Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 is an epic, scorching, and surreal satire of white liberalism in the era of Trump. It takes place at that ominous juncture in recent American history when the newly elected President pressured FBI Director James Comey for loyalty, Comey refused, and Trump canned him. With a massive snowstorm imminent, seven forty-something liberals gather in an Upstate New York country home and flailingly try to cope.

It’s like Big Chill except maybe it’s democracy that just died.

Alyssa Keegan (Teresa), Anna Ishida (Jools), James Whalen (Richard), Jennifer Dundas (Allie), Jeff Biehl (Jim), Tom Story (Andrew), and Jon Hudson Odom (Louis) in ‘Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The play is challenging to follow because there’s a lot going on in it (some might say too much)—with time leaps, topic shifts, stylistic lurches, derailed trains of thought—all staged with consumate flair by Director Saheem Ali. But what Washburn has done in the writing that’s so brilliant is capture viscerally and relatably the world that really is too much with us: a world where authoritarianism has triumphed, a world we flounder to make sense of, a world where liberalism has lost its moorings, the world we are awash in.

Six of Shipwreck’s hilariously hand-wringing liberals—Jim (Jeff Biehl), Allie (Jennifer Dundas), Jools (Anna Ishida), Teresa (Alyssa Keegan), Andrew (Tom Story), and Richard (James Whalen)—are relatively self-aware about their whiteness. The ethnicity of the seventh, Louis (a commanding Jon Hudson Odom), is unspecified (the script says only “a person of color”). But Louis fits right in because he and Andrew are a gay couple and both lawyers and really, really rich.

As Jim, the most radical among them, admits, “We’re living in a class bubble.”

Washburn has scripted the group’s banter with brittle wit, and in it we can catch their self-consciousness about what Allie calls “ultra white liberal performativity”—which, she reminds them, they had agreed to avoid. As Allie observes, “white liberals cannot talk about race”—meaning not that they shouldn’t but that they’re awkward-to-awful at it. Apropos Trump’s shocking victory, for instance, Allie says, “You know who wasn’t surprised by this? The black people. They saw Trump coming.” The stage direction that follows speaks volumes: “Everyone immediately becomes slightly but distinctly uncomfortable.

Mikéah Ernest Jennings as Mark in ‘Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Pitching these ineffectual liberals’ self-absorption into sharp relief, Washburn introduces us to Mark, a character whose point of view will emerge as pivotal. Mark was adopted as an orphan in Kenya by a white couple who owned a farm. Subsequently he was raised in an entirely white community. Mark does not interract with the country home cohort except to observe them, and in a series of riveting monologues he speaks directly to us the audience.

As I watched Mikéah Ernest Jennings’s powerful performance in the role on opening night (when one of his speeches landed with such impact that applause stopped the show), I sensed that his monologues were being played so personally it was as if they were meant for each individual in the audience. They connected unlike anything else in the show. Mark’s story was being told to us by an accomplished actor whose program bio declares his interest “in the inutility of the 4th wall” and who as a performance creator

collaborates with artists who reframe the conventional audience/performer relationship as a way to highlight the performance of the audience as an equally vital component of the theatrical ritual.

I realized I needed to know more from this performer’s perspective on this trenchant and timely play.

John: At the very beginning of the play Mark says: “Did I go through a brief period, after college, where I pretended I’d been raised by black folks in a black community? Yes I did. It was exhausting.” Do you remember your first thoughts when you read that?

Mikéah: Yes. I grew up first-generation Caribbean American in the rural Mojave Desert. It was just desert and sky. There was not another black family until I was 13. Like, there is no reflection, there is not another person that is going to tell you who and what you are. So reading Mark’s story, I was like, I understand this. It’s a story that I had not seen. And it’s a story that is very politically and racially complicated.

I was raised in a very black-positive household. We had black angels on our Christmas tree, we listened to calypso in the house. My parents were very much Caribbean-identified and that was my history. But for someone like Mark, I absolutely understood growing up on a farm in a rural environment and not having anyone who looks like you and then navigating a world where people around you are also navigating that new world because they don’t know how to deal with you.

Mark’s part is written as monologues at different ages. Mark’s white father Lawrence (a sympathetic James Whalen) also has several monologues. At one point, Lawrence quotes Mark as a boy saying to his father, “‘You got me because you couldn’t afford a white baby’”—and Lawrence admits it’s true.

I think Mark hears that. I think he knows that. And this is the brilliance of what Anne has juxtaposed, ’cause you’re not dealing with the seven other people who are now sitting in the farmhouse talking and having this conversation.

During the play Mark imagines a lot. You have several powerful monologues where you imagine what it would have been like to be enslaved. You say at one point, “It’s seventeen/eighteen hundred and whatever. And I’m property. Actual, legal, property.” You go on to imagine working the fields, being whipped, having your daughter wrenched from your arms and sold. To us the audience those speeches are devastating. Would you talk about how it feels to play them?

It’s not just Mark imagining what those things are as an adult. It’s him imagining his younger self imagining them. It’s the 16-year-old Mark who doesn’t get it yet, who doesn’t understand the gravity of what he’s doing. When he says, “Yeah. I guess I’m tough enough,” it’s not a punchline. It’s awkward. And it’s weird

It’s like watching the 16-year-old try to find himself in history, trying to give himself a history.

It’s horrible. It’s horrible.

Mikéah Ernest Jennings as Mark in ‘Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

As I was watching Shipwreck, it occurred to me that the character of Mark was functioning like a lens through which to read what was going on in the rest of the play—especially the scenes in the country home among the seven friends Louis calls “us liberal privileged bubbled us.” At times Mark walks into those scenes silently, just observing. And as the play went on he began to seem to me like a kind of reality check on how they all think and act. During rehearsals were there discussions of Mark’s place in the play as a whole?

Absolutely. I was rehearsed very separately from the other seven. Their scenes are so dense, and they’re incredible performers. The first time we did a full runthrough, I was like, Oh, I’m in a totally different play than they are. I watch what they’re doing and it’s vivid and it’s alive and it’s percolating. Then all of a sudden, I’m talking to the audience, and it’s a really, really different play.

There were some line changes to clarify the relationship between Mark and these people. Where we have arrived is that they are not fantasy; they are projections of Mark’s psyche and assumptions. He’s like, I know these people; these are people I know and so they’re real. And I love that.

In the end he’s like, These are people who are like my friends. I think that’s important. Mark is creating this world and these people, and these very dense, very heavy conversations are coming out of him trying to understand his life and his selfhood and his position in the world.

Mikéah Ernest Jennings as President George W. Bush and Jeff Biehl as Donald Trump in ‘Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

You also have a very funny fictional scene set in 2003 where you appear suited up as President George W. Bush and visit the real estate mogul Donald Trump to persuade him to support the Iraq War. Dubya’s a part that looked fun to play. Was it?

Yes. Weird. But yes. It was very specifically in the script Anne wrote that we were not supposed to illustrate or exaggerate any characteristics that would suggest we’re George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Don’t do an impression, don’t do anything suggestive or broad. And Anne and Saheem have that brilliant grand writer-director point of view that’s very specific and performance-based: Imagine you are these grand titans and you believe in what you’re saying. It’s super simple, it’s really pure. And it’s gonzo. It’s big. But it’s fun to play. And Jeff Biehl is fucking fantastic.

The question of representation in theater is a button so hot it burns. Here in DC in particular, stories about black lives told by black artists matter. In Shipwreck, Mark knows the white liberal world so intimately he helps us see it. He is a black character written by a white writer in order to reveal white lives. How do you think about that fact?

I know it is going to be problematic. I know it is going to be contested. That was my thought from the moment I read the script and accepted the part. When we started rehearsals I asked Anne very explicitly, Are you prepared for people asking why you think you can speak to this experience in a really emotional and psychological way in this play? She’s fabulous ’cause she was like, It just happened. And I can accept that because it makes sense.

My parents moved to the U.S. in their early twenties. They had three sons. We knew our history, my parents took us to the library, we did the whole nines. We knew what North American historical blackness was, but I grew up in a majority white community. That’s where I was built. So when I matriculated into society there was a collision of ideas. All of a sudden people were like, Who are you? Where are you from? And when I read the script I was like, I know this is going to be complicated. I know this is going to be like fucked up. I know people are going to be upset about this. Acculturation is something that black people do not talk about, you know? And it’s very real.

I have friends who have run into this same kind of collision, like: Where do you fit? Because if you’re not black enough, then when you meet black people, they’re like: Oh, you’re not black enough. You’re like: Okay. However, you’re never going to be white. Never. That’s just, you know, your skin. So then, where are you? For Mark it’s like: What is the function of my existence right now? Why am I here? That was something that was so exciting to me and dangerous. This voice makes sense to me.

Mikéah Ernest Jennings

Mikéah Ernest Jennings is an art theater and performance creator from the Mojave Desert living in New York making his debut at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Interested mainly in the inutility of the 4th wall, he collaborates with artists who reframe the conventional audience/performer relationship as a way to highlight the performance of the audience as an equally vital component of the theatrical ritual. Mikéah has collaborated with Annie B. Parsons/Big Dance (17C), Lila Neugebauer (The Signature Plays), Charlotte Brathwaite, Young Jean Lee (The Shipment), Dan Rothenberg/Pig Iron (I Promised Myself to Live Faster), Caden Manson/Big Art Group (SOS, Deadset, Flicker, House of No More), and Jay Scheib (Platonov, World of Wires, Bellona). Nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play, The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia, for The Legend of Georgia McBride, Mikeah has taught performance at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The New School.

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

Shipwreck: A History Play plays through March 8, 2020, at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or go online.

RELATED: Beatrice Loayaza’s review of Shipwreck.

 

Boy

“Oh, god. Maybe it didn’t work,” the mother exclaims in alarm. It’s the moment in this hold-your-breath drama when she realizes the gender experiment done on her child, one of two identical twins born male, had been a horrendous failure. The experiment, instigated by an opportunistic sexologist, entailed coercing the child into being a girl after a botched circumcision had cauterized off the child’s penis.

Vishwas as Dr. Wendell Barnes and John Jones as Adam Turner in ‘Boy.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The play by Anna Ziegler, titled Boy, was inspired by a true story. The riveting and affecting production at Keegan Theatre sweeps us into the emotional mess that that doctor made of that child’s life—an inconceivable inner torment that in John Jones’s phenomenal performance feels heartrendingly real. The play ushers us into the resistance and resilience of that brave child, who began when a tween to insist on living as the boy he was born to be. Eventually, in his early twenties, he falls in love with a young woman who loves him back.

Susan Marie Rhea directs with all the care this sensitive story requires. Matthew J. Keenan’s simple, sonogram-shaped set in baby blue subtly streaked with pink suggests a calm space where pleasant infant memory happens, with a doorway passage to places unknown. Yet as the story shifts back and forth in time—from the child’s troubled youth as Samantha to the boy’s self-chosen identity as Adam—inter-scene projections by Jeremy Bennett evoke embryonic cells whorling under a microscope and sounds by Niusha Nawab amplify fetal heartbeats, and it is as if we are immersed in remembered medicalization.

The extraordinary supporting cast of four—Karen Novack and Mike Kozemchak as the mother and father, Vishwas as the doctor, Lida Maria Benson as the girlfriend—are each movingly invested in seeking to understand the anguish of the central character played by Jones. But Ziegler’s script, which at times feels underwritten, stays on the chatty social surface of things, leaving depths of unspoken emotion to the actors to understand and deliver. And it is here that Jones’s performance is most striking, for they have found far, far more feeling than is in the text. It is as though they have so personally identified with the character’s gender journey that in the intense immediacy of their expression we cannot but travel along.

John Jones as Adam Turner and Vishwas as Dr. Wendell Barnes in ‘Boy.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Watch how Jones as Samantha tries to pretend to be a good girl in order to please the exacting doctor, even as doing so is a constant contradiction of self. Watch their tremulous resolve when as Samanta they defy the doctor’s direction that she submit to vaginoplasty.

And watch how as Adam they recoil when Jenny, the enthusiastic and joyful young woman whom Adam is genuinely attracted to, asks him simple questions about his childhood. Adam can’t go there. Adam cannot reveal to Jenny his past as a false girl. And Jones lets us see the pain and sadness of that self-enforced silence. Then watch Jones’s release of throttled feeling when at last Adam declares to Jenny, “I think about you constantly.” And watch the incredibly moving scene when Jones as Adam says, “I’m not like other men,” then touches Jenny without touching her, only speaking descriptive words and asking if she feels it.

Portions of Boy are excruciating to contemplate. (And the true story on which it is based is even more so.*) But in John Jones’s transcendent performance as both the girl Samantha and the boy Adam, this play ostensibly about sex assignment becomes an indelible journey of the genderless heart.

This one’s too precious to pass up.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Boy plays through March 7, 2020, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

Cast
Adam Turner: John Jones
Dr. Wendell Barnes: Vishwas
Jenny Lafferty: Lida Maria Benson
Trudy Turner: Karen Novack
Doug Turner: Mike Kozemchak

Production Team
Director: Susan Marie Rhea
Set Designer: Matthew J. Keenan
Sound Designer: Niusha Nawab
Lighting Designer: Alberto Segarra
Projections Designer: Jeremy Bennett
Properties / Set Dress Designer: Cindy Landrum Jacobs
Costume / Hair / Makeup Designer: Alison Samantha Johnson
Dramaturgs: Elizabeth Winston, Clarke Whitehead
Stage Manager Emily Dwornik

*Boy is inspired by the life of David Reimer (1967–2004) as told by John Colapinto originally in a 1997 article in Rolling Stone titled “The True Story of John/Joan” and later in his 2000 book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised a Girl. Anna Ziegler has toned down what really happened considerably. In real life David, his mother, and his identical twin brother committted suicide.

The Boy Detective Fails

“I’m good at finding out the truth,” says Billy Argo (Spencer Coben), the boy-prodigy detective, near the beginning of this clever, quirky, and quite touching musical. So observant of clues is Billy that he solves case after case—à la Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys—relying only on a magnifying glass, his prodigious powers of deduction, and his two crime-solving partners, buddy Fenton (Patrick Donoghue) and younger sister Caroline (Emma Wallach). But in his earnest search to solve a personal mystery that pains him deeply—why Caroline killed herself—Billy comes up against a harsh truth about adulting: Not everything is solvable and knowable. Or, as the script has it:

People can’t right every wrong.

Life’s most important riddles don’t have an answer.

The story is perfect for retelling by undergrads who themselves are about to face what’s incomprehensible and unachievable in the real world and after.

Spencer Coben (center) as Billy Argo with cast of ‘The Boy Detective Fails.’ Photo by Jeff Watts.

The Boy Detective Fails premiered at Signature Theatre in 2011 with book by Joe Meno, who based it on his fantasy novel of the same name, and music and lyrics by Adam Gwon. For its brief run at American University, the musical has had fresh, youthful life breathed into it by a likable student cast and an utterly charming production directed by Aaron Posner.

Scenic Designer April Joy Vester surrounds the action with wooden shelving containing a hodgepodge of mismatched lamps, props, and oddments—like an archive of evidence. The 16-member cast performs the opening number, which sets up Billy’s story, with such full-throated vivacity the show’s a grabber from the get-go.

In Billy’s quixotic quest for the answer to his sister’s suicide, he meets a showful of comic characters. Among them is the evil Professor Von Golum (Ally Baca), who was imprisoned for kidnapping a girl Caroline’s age, a case that Billy cracked. Another is the charlatan telemarketer Larry (Ross Bollinger), by whom Billy is briefly employed. And then there’s the cute kleptomaniac Penny Maple (Madison Green), with whom Billy falls in love. Throughout, Coben captures winningly Billy’s sincerity and awkwardness.

Madison Green (center) as Penny Maple with cast of ‘The Boy Detective Fails.’ Photo by Jeff Watts.

The music is pleasantly if conventionally show-tuney. (Musical Director Nathan Beary Blustein nimbly conducts a small orchestra from upstage of the shelves. The well-mic’ed solo and ensemble singing serves all the songs well, with standout vocals by Coben, Wallach, Baca, and Graciela Rey as Dale, another kid detective.) But it’s the witty lyrics that are most enjoyably edgy. They do not shy away from postadolescent existential angst, and the cast delivers them with delicious bite.

All the elements of stagecraft are excellent. Britta Joy Peterson has done choreography that is both eyecatching and character-driven. The lighting by Jason Arnold lends a lively theatricality to both the playing area and offstage. Sydney Moore costumes the cast in a smartly enhanced version of street clothes. And Neil McFadden’s sound design includes some amusing voiceovers.

Especially impressive is the fluid and inventive movement of the cast in the space. A song-and-dance solo might have a backup chorus “tapdancing” in sneakers. Or “set pieces” such as desks or a cave or a wall might be physically configured by the ensemble. Or an ingenue might dance with a man’s hat and jacket on a rolling coat rack. Or a complex scene change might be covered by an attention-holding long kiss. Throughout, the dramatic momentum seems driven as much by the characters and urgent storyline as by the actors’ bodies in ingenious motion.

Graciela Rey, Rebekah Umansky, Ross Bollinger (as Larry), Kelsey Walker, and Kacy Sullivan in ‘The Boy Detective Fails.’ Photo by Jeff Watts.

The show hits anxious nerves familiar to anyone who remembers growing up and passing through the know-it-all phase:

It’s scary out there.

I’m afraid of everything.

Evil is all around.

To that age-appropriate agitation, the show offers a strangely assuring and enduring message:

There will always be mystery.

Some things we don’t ever get the answers to.

There’s no reason to be afraid of not knowing the answer to everything.

The Boy Detective Fails at American University succeeds charmingly as both entertainment and useful truth.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.

The Boy Detective Fails plays February 13 to 15, 2020, presented by the American University Department of Performing Art at the Greenberg Theatre, 4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Cast
Billy Argo: Spencer Coben
Caroline Argo: Emma Wallach
Fenton Mills: Patrick Donoghue
Penny Maple: Madison Green
Professor Von Golum: Ally Baca
Larry/Mr. Mammoth: Ross Bollinger
Detective Brown: Janie Gohen
Dale Hardly: Graciela Rey
Violet Dew: Rebekah Umansky
Nurse Eloise: Kacy Sullivan
Therapist: Sultana Oureshi
Ensemble: Domonic Brunnacioni, Zach Dore, Daniella Ignacio, Natasha Sookrah, Kelsey Walker

Musical Numbers

ACT ONE
Prologue: Ensemble, Billy
Billy Argo, Boy Detective: Company
Caroline: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble
Amazing: Larry, Billy
Out of My Mind: Professor Von Golum, Billy
Old Tree House: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble
As Long As You Are Here: Penny
Evil: Professor Von Golum, Ensemble
Haunted Mansion: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble
I Like (The Secret Song): Billy, Penny
After Secrets / Haunted: Billy, Caroline, Fenton, Ensemble

ACT TWO
That’s All: Dale, Violet, Billy, Ensemble
Little Mysteries: Penny, Billy
Amazing (reprise): Larry, Billy
Billy Argo, Boy Detective (reprise): Ensemble
Always: Professor Von Golum
Let Me Save You: Billy, Caroline, Ensemble
Finale: Billy, Penny

Creative and Production Team
Director: Aaron Posner
Musical Director: Nathan Beary Blustein
Choreographer: Britta Joy Peterson
Fight Choreographer: Robb Hunter
Scenic Designer: April Joy Vester
Lighting Designer:  Jason Arnold
Costume Designer: Sydney Moore
Sound Designer: Neil McFadden
Production Manager: Greg Anderson
Technical Director & Assistant Production Manager: John Stahrr
Costume Shop Manager: Barbara Tucker Parker
Lighting & Audio Coordinator: Erin Sullivan
Scenic Charge Artist: Meaghan Toohey
Assistant Directors: Fabiola E. Clemente Lizardi, Daniel Patton
Assistant Music Director: Gideon Brewer
Assistant Music Director: Gideon Brewer
Assistant Choreographer: KT Aylesworth
Stage Manager: Sydney Peltz
Assistant Stage Manager: Andrew McMichael, Rachel Mosely, Fiona Murphey
Production Dramaturg: Mercedes Blankenship
Props Artisan: Cameron Osterneck
Student Props Supervisor: Ayla Taffel
Front of House Mix Engineer: Megan Hastie
Sound Board Operator: Catherine Onsi
Microphone Technician: Alli Pearson
Light Board Operator: Heather Adams
Spotlight Operators: Max Laro, Bella Lundquist
Wardrobe Crew: Alyse Bierly, Nicole Scamuffo
Graduate Operations Assistant: JR Watson

Orchestra
Flute: Thea De Jong
Clarinet: Yannick Joseph
Bass: James Blair
Percussion: Jim Hofmann
Piano/Conductor: Nathan Blustein

Heroine

Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DC Metro Theater Arts writers who saw the same performance, got really into talking about it, and decided to continue their exchange in writing. That’s what happened when Senior Writers and Columnists David Siegel (In the Moment) and John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) saw the U.S. premiere of Heroine at The Kennedy Center.

Mary Jane Wells in ‘Heroine.’ Photo by Greg Macvean.

A hit at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Heroine was written and performed by British actor, writer, and voiceover artist Mary Jane Wells. She performs alone on stage wearing a U.S. Army camouflage uniform. In a 2017 interview, Wells described her show in these blunt and personal terms:

Heroine is a one-woman show based on the true story of Danna Davis, who is a personal friend. She served as a lesbian soldier in the U.S. Army for ten years during “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The only woman in her entire company, she is also a survivor of MST [military sexual trauma]. She worked her way up to be a squad leader and one of her assailants was placed in her squad.

When she led a dangerous mission into a combat zone in the Middle East, both he and Danna were practically the only ones to survive it, because she carried him home on her back.

It is an incredible true story that explores who you have to become to heal and move on with your life, and what you have to give up to forgive.

David: Leaving the performance of Heroine at The Kennedy Center, I was in silence. I had just witnessed and taken into my very core a harrowing production about the horror of sexual violence and the absolute terror of being in wartime military service. I needed time to process all that I had witnessed. There are so many layers to unpack for what is not a relaxed performance for anyone with a beating heart.

John: The scene where Wells enacts Danna Davis’s gang rape by fellow soldiers was searing, almost too hard to take in. “We’re gonna make a real woman of you,” she quotes an assailant saying to her. I cannot imagine how that scene landed for rape survivors in the audience. (Davis prefers to say of herself not that she is a survivor but that “I am a rape exister.”) The trigger warnings that precede the show are there for good reason.

Besides Wells’s excruciating depiction of sexual assault in the military, another thing really struck me: The fact that Davis’s rape happened during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) meant that if she ever reported it, she could be outed as a lesbian and dishonorably discharged from the military service she felt so committed to—meaning her assailants knew they could get away with it.

“I wanted to rape them back,” she says.

Mary Jane Wells in ‘Heroine.’ Photo by Greg Macvean.

A post-show panel of experts made clear that even as rates of reporting have risen, incidents of sexual assault in the U.S. military have been steadily increasing. Also, despite the end of DADT, there still is a stigma on being LGBT that inhibits reporting. So Heroine is in no way dated; it is right now. And the national silence about military sexual trauma—when all the talk is of increased defense spending—is a national disgrace. I salute Mary Jane Wells not only for her extraordinary performance but also for her bravery in exposing this Achilles’ heel of our American military.

David: Yes, you are right. What also struck me deeply, as one who served in the military, was the depiction of a firefight—in this case in an alley somewhere in Iraq. Over the past years I have been asked to review a number of theatrical productions about war. Each shakes me, as did Heroine.

In Heroine the firefight began with Mary Jane Wells depicting Davis’s role as a squad leader in charge of a vehicle driving along being hypervigilant and then…to be attacked. It was a production scene full of noise and lighting and the intense inner monologue of Mary Jane Wells as the squad leader. As squad leader, she was responsible for those with her. She had to make command decisions affecting the lives of those with her, including the life of the soldier who raped her. Her inner turmoil was clear. I can’t explain military service, other than how we were trained to take care of one another during such situations. (Though the final scene in Platoon was likely all-too-real, and certainly as a one-time military officer, the word fragging has meaning to me ).

I also could understand why squad leader Wells (portraying Davis) decided to take what was a risky assignment. It was a time when women were not supposed to be in active combat situations, if I recall. The desire to prove oneself to others and oneself was not lost on me.

Mary Jane Wells in ‘Heroine.’ Photo by Greg Macvean.

As squad leader, she had to make decisions that led to the death of those attacking her Humvee. And there is one enemy death that she was personally responsible for. A death that when it was depicted on stage, many in the audience cringed—or might have missed. It was such a revealing moment. One that she could have omitted, but she did not. She was very brave to have it on stage; it added to the layers of Heroine. The enemy is out there, what do I do? “How could someone do that?” was what I heard as I left the performance. I chose not to engage them. Also, the depictions of PTS in Heroine both from her rape and the firefight—well, from some other work I have done, I know that is so very real.

And more to your points. My now 36-year-old daughter had a number of young women friends who volunteered for military service. One served in Iraq (flying a military medical helicopter through hostile fire) and one in Afghanistan (Navy Seebee who had to deal with roadside explosives). They would engage me since I had once served and they trusted me as one who would listen and hear them. Their stories made Heroine more than a theatrical performance for me. Why they joined the military. The issues they faced. Why they continued in military service. I will never forget a call received from one of the young women at about 3 a.m. my time. She was somewhere in Afghanistan, scared; suicide seemed to be on her mind. To this day I will never ever forget that call.

John: America has turned a deaf ear to so much trauma associated with military service. A patina of patriotism and an exoskeleton of American exceptionalism seems always to cover that trauma up. I remember a 1997 book by Judith Herman titled Trauma and Recovery that revealed (I think for the first time) that the PTS suffered by soldiers in combat and the PTS suffered by survivors of sexual assault are the same. The fact that The Kennedy Center has brought over Heroine—which puts that trauma center stage—seems to me momentous and makes this an event not to be missed.

I also want to say how much I marveled at the emotional artistry in the way Wells takes us from the horrific through the humorous to an ending that I can only describe as heartrendingly hopeful and healing. Wells means to “speak the underneath,” she says, and she sure does. The fact this is a true story makes its narrative arc all the more moving. And as I left the theater I felt a kind of gratitude to Wells for taking me through it all—and to Davis for allowing her truth to be told.

David: I salute Davis as well for another reason. A smaller number of Americans currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than at any time since before WW II. As the size of the military has shrunk and with no active draft, the connections between civilians and military service members have become more distant. For some, military service is for others. In the last data I saw, for those who served in the military after 9/11, about 85 percent say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military and their families.

Heroine being produced at The Kennedy Center is truly momentous for it can bring the sacrifices of those who serve to a wider audience to ponder.

Recommended for age 18 and up. Contains triggers, strong language, and graphic content.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Heroine, presented by the Kennedy Center’s World Stages Program, plays February 12 to 14, 2020, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to upcoming events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

Credits
Written and performed by Mary Jane Wells
Life Story: Danna Davis
Directed by Susan Worsfold
Produced by Sarah Gray
Sound Design by Matthew Padden
Lighting Design by George Tarbuck
Production Management: John Wilkie

For the Heroine website, click here.

Gun & Powder

It may surprise you (as it did me) that the title of this melodic world-premiere musical does not refer to gunpowder. The word gun means there’s a pistol (which gets dramatically deployed). But the word powder refers to the ivory-colored concealer that a fair-skinned African American woman applies desperately to her face and upper torso in order to keep her husband-to-be believing that she is white like he. Adding to her predicament: the white man she’s to marry has hired help who are Black like she.

That piquant scene, which the bride-to-be sings alone at a dressing table, is laced with race-based tension and set to lovely music—as is the rest of the show, which on the surface is an enchantingly entertaining Wild West adventure yarn. Set in post-Emancipation Texas against pretty painterly projections and performed by an expert cast with exquisite voices, the show is tunefully ear-pleasing and a stunning eyeful—even as it touches deftly the third rail of race and identity in America.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Donald Webber Jr. (Elijah) in ‘Gun & Powder.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Gun & Powder was conceived by Angelica Chéri, who wrote the book and lyrics based on the lives of her two great-great aunts, Mary and Martha Clarke. They were light-skinned African American twins whose sharecropper single mother, Tallulah Clarke (Marva Hicks), was deep in debt to their white landlord. On impulse, Mary (Solea Pfeiffer) and Martha (Emmy Raver-Lampman) decide to head west and pass for white in order to get money for their mother by any means necessary. As Chéri’s family lore had it, Mary and Martha became outlaws and made out like bandits. In the captivating show Chéri created, with luscious music by Ross Baum, the sisters also each fall in love: Mary with a white man, Jesse (Dan Tracy), whom she marries, and Martha with that man’s Black butler, Elijah (Donald Webber Jr.).

Early on the show is propelled by an engaging payback momentum: There’s a terrific comic scene in a train car occupied by white passengers. When Mary and Martha enter, appearing to be unaccompanied white women, two of the men start taking sexual advantage of them. Martha whips out the pistol her mama gave her and takes aim. Abruptly all the men grovel, emptying their pockets of dollar bills and tossing them to the sisters. With that, Mary and Martha are off and running on what becomes a cunning crime spree to take back wealth that was stolen from their enslaved forebears.

That revenge engine gets sidetracked by romance, however, as Mary’s and Martha’s respective love affairs unfold. And it is here, in various scenes of intimacy and self-revelation and sexual connection, that the show’s script and songs soar with profound perception about how race and authentic sense of self relate.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in ‘Gun & Powder.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

One outstanding example is a scene with Elijah alone on stage. It is just after he has met  Martha and, sensing she seems “somethin’ familiar,” suddenly feels seen by her. He has a heartrending solo, sung gorgeously by Webber:

ELIJAH: …I’M SUPPOSED TO BE INVISIBLE….
I KNOW TO KEEP QUIET,
MY FACE TO THE FLOOR….
THEY TELL ME I’M LOWLY,
NOT MUCH OF A MAN….
THEY TELL ME I’M WORTHLESS,
JUST MADE FOR THEIR SERVICE,…
BUT THAT DON’T MAKE SENSE TO ME.
NO, NOT ANYMORE.
‘CAUSE SHE SAW WHAT THEY CAN’T SEE.
WITH HER, I MIGHT NOT BE INVISIBLE.

Meanwhile, Mary, about to wed the rich white man who is smitten with her, longs to be seen for who she is. As she frantically powders herself, we hear Pfeiffer’s lovely voice singing achingly as if to Jesse:

MARY: I’M WHAT YOU WANT.
ALL YOU COULD WANT….
I DO THE TRICK.
I DO MY BEST.
I PLAY THE PART. I PASS THE TEST.
OH LOVER,
WOULDN’T YOU LOVE ME JUST THE WAY I AM?

Dan Tracy (Jesse) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in ‘Gun & Powder.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Before Mary and Martha set off on their spree—which Elijah will later scoff at as their “Robin Hood crusade” of “shootin’ and stealin'”—their mother cautioned them:

TALLULAH: JUST BEWARE MY DARLIN
NOT TO GIVE YOUR SOUL AWAY,
IF YA PLAY THIS DANG’ROUS GAME,
DON’T FORGET WHAT’S IN YOUR VEINS.

And that theme of blood-based racial identity courses through the show, culminating in a rousing all-company finale, led by Mary:

MARY: I CAN’T RUN FROM WHAT THE TRUTH IS,
‘CAUSE THE TRUTH IS…
IT’S IN THE BLOOD, IT’S IN THE BLOOD,
IT WAS IN THE BLOOD ALL ALONG.
WHO I AM.
ALL I AM.
HERE I AM.
ALL OF ME.

I CAN COVER IT UP,
I CAN TUCK IT AWAY,
BUT AT THE END OF THE DAY,
THE BLOOD WILL STILL BE,
OH THE BLOOD WILL STILL BE,
ALL OF ME….

When the white journalist John Howard Griffin underwent dermatological treatment in order to pass as  Black—which he wrote about in his 1961 book Black Like Me—he did so in order to learn about racism in the segregated Deep South as experienced by the people on whom it came down. In an analogous way, the ingenious storyline of Gun & Powder—in which two Black women pass as white in the latter 19th-century West—interrogates and illumines how and why racist white people acted then as they did.

But anyone who knows of the so-called “one-drop rule” in America’s history might be taken aback at how Gun & Powder leans into the biologism of race. The one-drop rule in U.S. law (which defined a person as Negro if they have only a drop of African blood) is unique to America and has applied only to American Blacks, typically with racist intent and consequences. Gun & Powder clearly seeks to reclaim and redeem racial biologism as a triumphal metaphor for unity, empowerment, self-acceptance, and pride. Certainly that’s the musical and lyrical note on which the show ends, and surely it speaks upliftingly in these terrible times. Still, one cannot forget that the one-drop rule was historically, in Audre Lorde’s famous phrase, a master’s tool.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Gun & Powder plays through February 23, 2020, at Signature Theatre – The Max, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online.

READ David Siegel’s rave review, “Signature Theatre’s commanding ‘Gun & Powder’ pulls no punches.”

 

Huff

At the start of this brave performance, we see on a dark stage a young man who is making a suicide attempt. He is wearing cargo pants, a tee, and sneaks and has a food-storage bag over his head. The plastic is duct-taped tight around his neck so there’s only so much air in there. He speaks to us, alarming us, about how few minutes he has before anoxia kicks in.

Finally at the very end of the solo show, he stands relaxed before us and gently speaks to us one word of release: “Breathe.” And in between that near death and that breath of life is a magical-realism narrative that ricochets between disturbing and lighthearted with such verve that at times it takes one’s own breath away.

Cliff Cardinal in ‘Huff.’ Photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

Nominated for Quebec’s 2016 Critic’s Awards, Huff is the creation of award-winning Cree actor and playwright Cliff Cardinal. The show, which is having its U.S. premiere at Kennedy Center, was incubated at Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous performing arts company.

The story Huff tells is about an Indigenous boy (the narrator) and his two brothers, one older and one younger. Their  mother, abused by their father, turned to drink and hanged herself. Now, living in poverty on the rez with that father and their stepmother, the boys get high by sniffing fumes from siphoned gasoline (hence the slang word huff). The oldest brother attempts suicide (the scene we saw first) and sexually abuses the middle one in the shower. The narrator seeks comfort from his kookum (Cree for grandmother). And infiltrating and disrupting the action throughout is the Trickster, mythic personification of unpredictability.

In a buzzed, bravura performance, Cardinal plays all these characters and more, shifting from one to another like a charismatic chameleon. Even as Cardinal is enacting mordant, taboo subject matter, there’s an infectious glee in his presence and an irresistible connection with the audience that convey inexplicable optimism and resilience. When Cardinal calls us his “imaginary friends” we believe him. And when he has us sworn in by literally shouting out our go-to swear words, we’re absolutely on board for the wild ride.

The stagecraft gets impressive in the light and sound cues, which punctuate and propel the storytelling with pinpoint precision and aural impact. But the set is simplicity itself. A chair, two crates, and a few props.

Cliff Cardinal in ‘Huff.’ Photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

There’s a funny bit when Clifford acts out an incident among students at a reservation school using brown beer bottles to represent the Indigenous kids and a beer can for the white one. And at another point he takes a Mason jar of tomatoes and dumps it into a basin, exclaiming in jest as he does so, “Look, I’m Mom!” He then proceeds to slather the tomatoes all over himself like blood, and the performance swings again from comic to caustic.

“I write stories that haunt me, that grab me and won’t let go,” Cardinal has said.

The play was written trying to show the spirit of really mischievous kids, who have a lot of joy and they’re also in a really hard situation. So my feeling is that the stage belongs to that spirit, and that spirit is mischievous, it’s chaotic, it’s unpredictable.

And there’s a lot of joy in this story. There’s a lot of joy. You know, when you’re a kid it’s about your imagination. You’re not sitting in every moment thinking about how sad things are; you’re thinking about how you can make them fun.

In a talkback on opening night, Clifford was asked whether the story in Huff, which felt intensely personal, was in fact autobiographical. He answered no, it’s fiction, by which he meant “the real lived experience plus the lie.”

In one of the show’s jokey scenes, one boy asks another what his “sacred gift from the Creator” is. The second boy answers by demonstrating. He inhales solvent fumes from a brown paper bag and blows into the mouth of the other boy, who promptly gets a rush. In a Tricksterish way, Cliff Cardinal’s own sacred gift from the Creator is very like that. He tells stories of his people and breathes life into them onstage so that we in turn can share in the high of his art.

Recommended for age 16 and up.

Huff plays February 6 to 8, 2020, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to upcoming events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

Huff is a Native Earth Performing Arts production presented by the Kennedy Center’s World Stages Program

Credits
Written and Performed by Cliff Cardinal
Directed by Karin Randoja
Set and Costume Designer:  Jackie Chau
Lighting Designer:  Michelle Ramsay
Sound Designer:  Alex Williams
Stage Manager: Jennifer Stobart
Technical Director: Allan Day
Producer: Ryan Cunningham

 

The Royale

This play about a boxer packs so many emotional punches into its compact six rounds, you might not know what hit you. As fists fly, bells clang, terse words burst, and the cast claps out each repercussion, you might feel the pace of your own pulse race. And even if the sport of boxing leaves you cold (as it does me), you might be moved to shed a tear and cheer.

Marco Ramirez’s The Royale was inspired by the life of African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who is fictionalized as Jay Jackson. In Director Paige Hernandez’s award-magnet production (seen last fall at Olney Theatre Center and now running at 1st Stage), Jay is played by Jaysen Wright, who is giving a full-on physical, vocal, and passion-filled performance of the caliber and charisma that makes stars.

Lolita Marie as Nina and Jaysen Wright as Jay in ‘The Royale.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Also in the top-tier cast are James J. Johnson as Jay’s trainer, Clayton Pelham Jr. as Jay’s sparring partner, and Chris Genebach as Jay’s white promoter. They each have magnificently moving moments, but it was when Jay’s sister entered the story that I got totally knocked out.

The sister’s name is Nina. She and Jay grew up together but have not seen each other in years. She arrives by surprise to warn him of the deadly racist violence that is certain to ensue if he pursues his great hope of defeating the white man who is reigning heavyweight champion. Lolita Marie plays Nina with the starchy concern of a fierce older sister, and her foreboding is well-founded. Already at Jay’s matches, guns have been seized from angry white men. Nina knows that if Jay wins there will be loss. She accuses him of fighting for personal glory, because “he always wanted the apple at the top of the tree.”

Jaysen Wright as Jay, Chris Genebach as referee, and Lolita Marie as Nina in ‘The Royale.’ Set and costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

At a point in the play, Jay appears to be boxing the white champion but that opponent is not there; Nina is in the ring instead. And their brother-sister confrontation—which is punctuated by rapid punches, shotgun dialogue, and a racket of claps—takes us deep into Jay’s heart and lays bare what drives him to box.

It’s not why Nina thinks. It’s not the motivation Jay’s trainer, promoter, or sparring partner might suppose. It’s not even anything like what makes a whole lot of men fight, whether in or out of the ring, which is basically the need to defend their manly honor by punching out another man’s lights. No, what’s driving Jay is something else altogether. And it’s heartstopping.

JAY [to Nina]: You remember that pharmacy on Colby Lane?… You remember how much you liked those posters they’d put out front?… Posters for toothpaste, Posters for perfume – … How much you liked those pretty ladies…
NINA: You’re outta your mind – …
JAY: Ain’t one o’ them looked like you – …

Jay is remembering something Nina does not want to think about. Jay is remembering her insecurity because she could not conform to white beauty standards. And in a chilling flashback, Jay tells Nina how he remembers her trying to straighten her hair:

JAY: Just a little boy, come lookin’ for his sister –
NINA:  Stop it, Jay –
JAY: Ain’t but nine years old –  … Just a little boy walkin’ up to a screen door, Smell of burning meat –
NINA: Jay I said stop –
JAY: Screaming –
NINA: Jay –
JAY: And he can see her, Sobbin’ on the kitchen floor, Hot iron in hand, Blood runnin’ down her neck, He can see his sister, He can smell her skin, He can smell the smoke that used to be her hair, … But she won’t open – … She won’t open – … She’s crouched and screaming and alone and there’s blood runnin’ down her neck but she won’t open so he pounds on that door, Nina – … He’s pounding that door down ’cause he wants to help her – …’Cause she was tryin’ to make herself look like them, Nina – … Tried so hard she made this mess of herself – ’Cause she ain’t never seen no posters looked like her….

I’m standing at that screen, I’m pounding at that door, Where I always been, every minute, every day – … every punch I ever threw, Every punch I ever took. … I’m just tryin’ to fix that.…I’m still tryin’ to tell you – … I’ma make it right. … I’ma change things.

At that I lost it. I expected The Royale to be a play about men boxing. And it is. But this extraordinary writer, this amazing director, this incredible performance—never have I felt in theater such a poignant and powerful portrayal of a brother’s love for his sister.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

The Royale plays through February 23, 2020, 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.

The Royal is a regional premiere co-production between Olney Theatre Center and 1st Stage.

READ Bob Ashby’s rave review of the show when it was at Olney, “A Black boxing champion battles racism in ‘The Royale’ at 1st Stage”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Dominion Stage has given this rowdy, irreverent, and rollicking rock musical a remarkably woke production that is as rousing as it is reflective and as satiric as it is unsettling. Set in 1800s America, the show with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and book by Alex Timbers is based loosely on the life of Andrew Jackson, who is portrayed as a swaggering emo rock star.

The cast of ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

An infectious sense of high-spirited freedom swept the stage and seemed to pump the audience on opening night. The talented young cast sings, plays, and dances us into a Hair-like countercultural frenzy with a pounding rock score. From the jump, the show is amped-up fun, yet it unfolds a true tale that’s dead serious, for what Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson exposes is the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans carried out by the seventh U.S. president, whom it dubs, without much hyperbole, “America’s Hitler.”

The real Andrew Jackson was a slaveowner who as president implemented a ruthless policy that forced Native people from the Southeast to journey westward past the Mississippi to “Indian territory.” During this disgraceful chapter of U.S. history, which Native Americans named the Trail of Tears, thousands of Cherokees perished.

To give some idea of this guy’s character, Donald Trump is a huge fan. He had a portrait of Jackson hung in the Oval Office.

As a musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson has all the makings of a crowdpleaser: a great emo–meets–Green Day score, profanity-spiced comedy, artistic licentiousness, a sexy romance, South Park–ish audacity. As Dominion Stage’s ebulliently anarchic production proves, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is exuberantly entertaining—even as its treatment of Jackson’s despotic “Indian Removal” campaign can be viewed as a grim lampoon of the racist and autocratic values that continue at the core of this country’s white nationalist populism.

“I’m federal Metamucil; I’m here to unclog the system,” Jackson boasts in the script. “The people are not going to stop Andrew Jackson from doing what Andrew Jackson knows the people want.” Act One ends with Jackson vowing, “Gonna listen to the people’s voice!” By “the people,” of course, he means angry white frontiersmen and other anti-elite types he riles up. He decidedly does not mean Indigenous people—whose depiction in this very musical has come under fire.

The controversy goes back to the oughts when, as Politico reported, New York’s Public Theater mounted Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson without consulting anyone in the Public’s own Native Theater Initiative—and Native Americans protested the show fiercely. When in 2014 a theater company in Minneapolis staged a production, Navaho Playwright Rhiana Yazzie, founder of the New Native Theatre, published a withering critique of the script. Over the years protests have prompted cancellation of several other productions. And shortly before this production opened, the local Angel Rose Artistic Collective (a Two Spirit–led group whose Siwayul: Heart of a Womxn I reviewed in April) called out Dominion Stage for “doing a vehemently anti-Native play that celebrates a genocidal hero of white supremacy.”

On opening night I asked Matthew Randall, president of Dominion Stage, whether he was aware of this ongoing controversy before programming Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and he told me yes. Early in the rehearsal process, in fact, the company’s website posted an open letter from the director, Danielle Guy, titled “Is BBAJ a problematic show?” Confronting the show’s problems directly and describing what Dominion Stage would do differently, she wrote:

We have made great effort to find the balance between showing Jackson as a charismatic leader to the white frontiersmen of the 1800s, as well as the unapologetic racist whose decisions still have repercussions to this day.

The artistic team and myself have made sure to approach all portrayals of Native Americans in a way that is respectful. This was something that the original production got extremely wrong. And we intend to fix that with our production.

[Together with] a colleague from the Cherokee Nation…we dissected the entire musical, and identified what was unnecessarily problematic and what was not.  We were then able to brainstorm solutions and different approaches to these parts of the script, while also staying within the legal limits of the show rights.

We were also able to have a guest from the National Museum of the American Indian, and an Indigenous American herself, come to a rehearsal and watch the actors in a run of the show….

Any responsible assessment of Dominion Stage’s efforts must therefore evaluate not only the performances and stagecraft (which were outstanding) but also how effectively the production addressed that which is problematic in the material.

The first sign one gets of Dominion Stage’s eyes-wide-open intent appears in lobby showcases, where there are factual displays about “the Cherokee Removal,” historical personages involved, and the BBAJ controversy itself. The next such signal is a disclaimer in the program. As is common in theater these days, audiences are advised there will be “mature language, simulated violence…sexual innuendo, and other adult themes.” What’s unusual is the inclusion in that list of “offensive historical content.”

The company is inviting us, in other words, to take in this show with double vision: to appreciate the theatrical illusion without losing sight of the disturbing historical reality it’s based on. For any theatergoer with a social-justice conscience, this makes for a heightened experience of sensation and sensibility.

The BBAJ Band in ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

The laid-back set by Amber Kilpatrick is lit like a boho light show by Jeffrey Scott Auerbach and Kimberly Crago and looks like a pop-up venue for a hip-homey rock concert. The floor is a patchwork of carpets; the walls are hung haphazardly with flags and fabrics. On a bandstand stage right Music Directors Robbie Taylor (guitar) and David Weinraub (keyboards) conspire with David Smigielski (guitar), Christopher Willett (bass), and Tito Perez (drums) to blow the roof off the blackbox. (So loud is the band that at the beginning on opening night the mic’ed singers could not be heard.)

The 14 spirited cast members take dominion of the stage to an opening number, “Populism,” choreographed by Jolene Vettese with energy, urgency, and broad comedy. Their costumes by Anna Marquardt are an eclectic mix of punk and grunge in red, white, black, and blue. You’d think the American Revolution had come again, except the sardonic lyrics are about America’s own imperialism and colonialism:

It’s the early nineteenth century
and we’re gonna take this country back
for people like us.

The headliner is a charmingly cocky Matt Calvert as bad boy Andrew Jackson. Throughout Calvert dares us to decide whether we stan Jackson or can’t stand him. It is a complexly compelling portrait that suits the part perfectly.

In a flashback to Jackson’s boyhood, we see him with his father (Daniel Lakin) and mother (Brittany Washington) as they get killed before his eyes by Indian arrows. Thwing! Thwing! The stage directions say the deadly arrows fly in from the window, and as written the book suggests that the trauma of seeing his parents die like this is what fueled Jackson’s later genocidal obsession. But the incident is an insensitive invention by the book writer. That’s not at all how Jackson’s parents actually died, and audiences who don’t already know this would have no way of finding out from the script. Guy’s directorial solution is to play the scene so absurdly that it comes off as the fiction it is. As mother and father each hear the scripted Thwing! (the witty sound design is by Christopher Beatley), they goofily pluck an arrow that’s been stuck into a silly Styrofoam wig head stage left and mock-impale themselves. This directorial choice doesn’t correct the script’s historical inaccuracy, but it significantly dampens and downplays what’s ethnically defamatory in the book’s dramaturgy.

Lindsey Litka as Rachel Jackson and Matt Calvert as Andrew Jackson in ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

At a point Jackson falls in love with the woman he will marry, Rachel, played by a sinuous and sultry Lindsey Litka in skin-tight black leather. They have a scene together that is part sexy-hot and part plain creepy. In the midst of full-on passion, the actors mime cutting their own forearms and bleeding together into a basin. They have a lovely, angsty song, “Illness Is a Metaphor,” which is about love as disease (and strangely echoes “The Word Is Your Body” in Spring Awakening about love as a bruise). The intense scene as performed by Litka and Calvert’s illustrates again how we are shown two things at once: an alluring young-love romance plus can’t-watch cutting.

As in a rock concert there’s much up-close interaction with the audience, making they’re having a good time. Calvert is particularly good at working the crowd, as is the delightful Melanie Kurstin, who as Storyteller does so one on one from an audience member’s lap.

But a good time is not had by all. There comes the genocide of Native Americans, which is narrated in a musical number that as written is almost cutesy. It’s called “Ten Little Indians,” a winking reference to the children’s rhyme. Nothing about the song as performed in the Dominion Stage production is cute. It is closer to a dirge, and I caught that at least one insulting lyric line had been excised.

Morgan DeHart, Michael Gale, Danny Frumento, Daniel Lakin, and Cristian Bustillos (back to camera) in ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

In the context of all the rock-out flash and fervor, it is the show’s solemn portrayals of Native Americans that most powerfully prompt reflection. Particularly impressive is Jennifer Rose as Black Fox, the historical Native American chief who was Jackson’s liaison to tribal leaders. Rose plays the role with an inner dignity and strength and a stillness that speaks volumes. Throughout there is no stereotypical costuming. Instead when actors speak as a Native character, they wear a patch displaying a tribal seal.

This simple symbol increases in eloquence. In a scene near the end, Andrew Jackson is alone onstage, presumably isolated in shame, while one by one all the other cast members slowly cross the stage wrapped in a blanket, presumably smallpox-infected, with a tribal seal patch attached. There is in that procession a reverence and respect for those who were genocided that did not come with the script licensed from Music Theatre International. It was found and created under Danielle Guy’s compassionate direction by a community of artists committed to keeping faith with the truth.

My forebears came from Norway and Germany; I cannot speak as someone for whom representation of Indigenous people in Amerian theater matters personally. I cannot say whether this Dominion Stage production rehabilitates or redeems a work that Native theater artists have legitimately long complained of. I can say, however, as someone who cares deeply about the moral life of American theater, that Dominion Stage’s zesty production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a must-check-out showcase of accountable social-justice aspiration.

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

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson plays through February 15, 2020, presented by Dominion Stage performing at Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two—2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia. Tickets can be purchased online.

MUSICAL NUMBERS

ACT ONE
Populism, Yea, Yea! – All
I’m Not That Guy – Matt
Illness as a Metaphor – Matt, Lindsey, Danny, Michael, and Brittany
I’m So That Guy – All
Ten Little Indians – Hana, Meghan, Brittany, Melanie, and Becki
Vote for Jackson – All
Corrupt Bargain – Hana, Becki, Brittany, Melanie, Meghan, Daniel, Morgan, and Jennifer
Jackson Is a Loser – Hana, Becki, Brittany, Melanie, and Meghan
Rock Star – Erickson, Brittany, Matt, and All
Great Compromise – Lindsey and All
Public Life – Matt and All

ACT TWO
Crisis Averted– Erickson and Michael
Saddest Song – Matt, Michael, Melanie, Cristian, and Erickson
Second Nature – Michael and Meghan
Hunters of Kentucky – Band, Melanie, Michael, Matt, and All

PRODUCTION CREDITS
Executive Producer: Jennifer Lyman; Director and Producer: Danielle Guy; Music Directors: Robbie Taylor and David Weinraub; Choreography: Jolene Vettese; Fight Choreography: Craig Lawrence; Stage Manager: Carlie Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Miren; Lighting Design: Jeffrey Scott Auerbach and Kimberly Crago; Sound Design: Christopher Beatley; Set Design and Master Carpenter: Amber Kilpatrick; Properties: Jacob Reese; Costume Design: Anna Marquardt; Hair and Makeup Design: Chanel Lancaster

CAST (in alphabetical order)
Meghan Bentley: Female Soloist and others; Cristian Bustillos: u/s Andrew Jackson, Monroe, and others; Matt Calvert: Andrew Jackson; Morgan DeHart: John Quincy Adams and others; Erickson Foster: Male Soloist and others; Danny Frumento: Van Buren and others; Michael Gale: Bandleader and others; Melanie Kurstin: Storyteller and others; Daniel Lakin: John Calhoun and others; Lindsey Litka: Rachel Jackson; Jennifer Rose : Henry Clay, Black Fox, and others; Hana Tawil: Lyncoya and others; Becki Turner: Cheerleader and others; Brittany Washington: Elizabeth Jackson and others

THE BBAJ BAND
Music Co-Director/Keyboards: David Weinraub; Music Co-Director/Guitar: Robbie Taylor; Guitar: David Smigielski; Bass: Christopher Willett; Drums: Tito Perez

RELATED:
“Isabella Star LaBlanc, who plays Tiger Lily in ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company, on why Native stories matter,” interview by John Stoltenberg.

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.