Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning musical sings of a singular poet’s journey from self-loathing to self-respect.
Stopping off at Woolly Mammoth on its way to Broadway — following an off-Broadway run that won it the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — Michael R. Jackson’s extravagantly original musical, A Strange Loop, is in a class of smash hits by itself. I’ve been trying to think of anything else that comes close to resembling it, and I can’t. In thematic dimensionality and depth, raw candor, and knockout meta-theatricality, A Strange Loop is beyond compare.
At the show’s core is the unrelentingly self-referential story of a fat Black queer cis man trying to write a musical about a fat Black queer cis man trying to write a musical about…and so on. At the center of this funhouse of mirrors is a 25-year-old semi-autobiographical character named Usher (who also works as an usher to support his writing aspirations). Although gifted with scathing wit and luscious musicality, he is awash in self-loathing and sexual ambivalence and “starved for Black affirmation and affection.” An agonized auteur, he has written into the script six actors to play (and project) his Thoughts. Assuming a swirling multiplicity of roles, they variously torment him with self-doubt and taunt him for his artistic and sexual failure.
The wonder of the show is that this ruthlessly self-lacerating lead — played by the phenomenally talented and charismatic Jaquel Spivey, making his professional debut — becomes easily one of the most adorably complex characters who might ever win you over onstage. Within minutes you begin to root for him. The more his Thoughts dump on him, the more his Bible-thumping parents deride him, the more desperate and demeaning his sex life, the more lovable he becomes. And that is just a glint of the genius in this musical.
Precisely in his specificity, Usher becomes instantly empathetically resonant. Plainly his struggle to own a sense of self he can embrace without disgrace is embedded in social particulars and signifiers—his BMI, his Blackness, his quest for dick. (Be advised that A Strange Loop does not hold back in graphic detail about some gay male sex practices.) And yet in what has to be one of musical theater’s greatest dramatic reversals, Usher’s recircling solipsism of longing to feel worthy of someone’s love comes to seem essentially like everyone else’s too.
Strangely, we are looped in.
The set by Arnulfo Maldonado starts out a gray stone wall with six doorways in which appear the six Thoughts, who are costumed by Montana Levi Blanco in a mix and mashup of neutral work clothes and workout togs. Under a rumpled plaid shirt, Usher himself wears his politics on his black T-shirt (with a nod to bell hooks). What begins drab eventually turns fab, with eye-popping lighting effects by Jennifer Schriever plus a shape-shifting set that culminates in a stunning scenic reveal: for a brain-blasting gospel musical that Usher writes to satisfy his homophobic folks.
The extraordinary ensemble — L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6) — were all members of the off-Broadway original cast and are clearly at home in Usher’s distraught mental landscape. Their vibrant vocals (music direction by Rona Siddiqui) and vigorous choreography (by Raja Feather Kelly), combined with their countless character impersonations, make for a musical theater lover’s dream team.
At one point all six Thoughts don dusty-rose robes emblazoned with a Christian cross to portray Usher’s mother. At another point, she is portrayed in a pink go-to-church dress by John Andrew Morrison singing “Periodically” — one of many show-stopping solo turns. The Thoughts’ dramatic fluidity and versatility sustain an astonishing support system for Spivey’s wrenching performance as Usher, whose solos and scenes alone on stage have breathtaking conviction.
In addition to the plotline that concludes with Usher’s over-the-top-satirical gospel musical (“AIDS is God’s punishment” is the refrain), A Strange Loop features a haunting story arc about Usher’s sex life. Determined to get (as the script puts it) butt-fucked more often, he ventures into “Gayville,” where he faces app rejection (“Too Black. Too fat. Too fem”). Then (in a number called “Inwood Daddy”), an older white man on the down-low lures him into what turns out to be brutal anal intercourse as racist domination. What follows that hard-to-watch scene may be one of the most revelatory numbers ever in a Broadway-bound musical. It’s called “Boundaries”:
WHY DID I DO THAT? DOWN ON MY HANDS AND KNEES? WHY PLAY SUBMISSIVE? WHAT ARE MY BOUNDARIES? … WHY DO I DO THIS? BOW DOWN AND PEOPLE PLEASE I CAN’T KNOW FREEDOM WITHOUT CLEAR BOUNDARIES
The script, I hasten to add, is loaded with laughs; it whizzes by with like a zillion zingers, and Director Stephen Brackett paces the show brilliantly and hilariously. And yet savor those amazing moments when the laughs abruptly halt, as though the audience as one just got gobsmacked by a damn-that-was-deep truth.
In a sense, A Strange Loop is a singular poet’s excavation of all the stuff that stands in the way of claiming the value of their first-person singular pronoun — their journey from self-loathing to self-respect. Many another theater artist has done autobiographical digging and come up with a work that lets us know them.A Strange Loop is in that rare category of painfully honest self-referential works that help us sense something unsaid about ourselves.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
A Strange Loopruns through January 2, 2022, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC, with performances Tuesday to Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 pm and 8 pm; and Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm (except December 12, which features a 7 pm performance only); Monday, December 27 at 8 pm. Single tickets start at $32 and are available online, by phone at (202) 393-3939, and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twenty-eight Pay-What-You-Will tickets are also available to every performance by selecting the PWYW seats and adjusting the ticket price. Patrons who are 30-years-old and younger may, at any time, purchase Section C tickets for $20 to any performance. There are also discounts available for educators, first responders, and active U.S. military personnel, spouses, and veterans. More information is available at woollymammoth.net.
COVID Safety: Entrance to any event at Woolly Mammoth will require proof of vaccination or, for those who are not vaccinated, proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of the event start time. Guests may show physical or digital proof of their health status. Masks must also be worn at all times while in the building.
A STRANGE LOOP Book, music, and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson Directed by Stephen Brackett Choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly Music directed by Rona Siddiqui Produced in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions
CAST Jaquel Spivey (Usher), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6), and Christopher Michael Richardson (Understudy for Usher and Thought 4).
CREATIVE TEAM Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting design by Jennifer Schriever, sound design by Drew Levy, hair/wig/makeup design by Cookie Jordan, vocal arrangements by Michael R. Jackson, intimacy choreography by Chelsea Pace, orchestrations by Charlie Rosen
Schedule of accessible performances during the run of A Strange Loop
Open Captioned performances feature permanently visible, on-screen text description that displays dialogue, identifies speakers, and describes other relevant sounds. Tuesday, December 7 Tuesday, December 14 Tuesday, December 21 Tuesday, December 28
ASL Interpreted performances feature interpreters placed inside the theatre who translate what the actors are saying and expressing to the audience. Saturday, December 11 Matinee Sunday, December 19 Matinee
Audio Described performances feature live narration interspersed with the actors’ dialogue used to provide information surrounding key visual elements. Wednesday, December 15 Wednesday, December 29
“What is important in this moment for Signature,” says its new artistic director, “is how we are creating a culture of consent going forward.”
When I was preparing for this interview, I looked back at my DC theatergoing and found nearly two dozen shows I’ve seen that Matthew Gardiner directed, going back to the world premiere of Really Really in 2012, which I loved. It was among his first shows at Signature Theatre after being hired in 2010 as associate artistic director. Connecting the dots of his productions since, I found myself appreciating and admiring the extraordinary scope of theatrical brilliance he’s put on stage. For his talent as a director of musicals, he has received three Helen Hayes Awards and more than a dozen nominations.
I’m always interested in how artistic directors think. I’ve talked to a number of them when they just came into an artistic director job here in town — Ari Roth, Adam Immerwahr, Maria Manuela Goyanes, Simon Godwin. (And my colleague Ramona Harper recently talked with Karen Ann Daniels.) I’m always curious why they choose what they choose, how they lead, what they hope to make happen, who they are. There is a lot that goes into theater-making, but always, for me, the vision and values of a theater’s artistic director are key — so it has been on my mind to talk with Matthew.
With the reopening of live theater and his production of the musical Rent coming up, this felt like a good time. Even as he is right now in rehearsal for the iconic rock musical that will kick off Signature’s new season, he is also in a sense in rehearsal to play his new role as Signature’s AD.
In a cordial phone call, I asked him about three topics: Rent, which opens under his direction at Signature November 2; the musical theater genre generally, which very much matters to him and which he excels at; and his new artistic director role and responsibility at Signature, as distinct from the role he was in before, in the aftermath of his predecessor and mentor’s resignation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
John: When Rent opened 25 years ago, it was very much of the moment, like an anthem of a generation. How do you see the show through the lens of today — what’s happening in the world now around race, gender, class, contagion — and how will your production show us what you see?
Matthew: Signature is known for reimagining great pieces of musical theater, and Rent has been a musical we have discussed many times over the years as a piece that we should reimagine. But I never connected to it in the moment that we were discussing it. I was always like, Well, I love it for its nostalgic value in my life, but what is the value to share that story in this moment?
As we entered this past year and a half of disconnection and isolation and lacking community, the show hit me in a completely different way. Some people would see it as “Matthew has picked Rent because we have just gone through this pandemic” — like I’m trying to correlate the AIDS/HIV epidemic in some way. But really the thing that landed to me was the idea of the need for community and the need for found family and the need to break free from isolation. I thought that was important in this moment, as we reemerge and come together to hear stories and be together again. And that’s why we landed on Rent to reopen Signature.
To speak to the present moment, sometimes it is easiest to do so by holding up a magnifying glass to the past. So while to some, a musical written in the nineties may feel outdated, to me there are things about Rent that resonate even more now.
You have cast members who weren’t born when Rent began.
Yeah. At the first rehearsal I was talking about what Rent meant to me. I was in middle school when the musical premiered on Broadway. And I started to recognize that what I was saying about my experience with the piece was not the same for many of the twentysomethings in the room.
What’s the rehearsal room been like for this show? Is there something about it that’s different?
Oh, incredibly emotional, magical. The difference in the room is that it all feels more special. It doesn’t feel like anybody is taking this for granted or like this is another job. We are creating something for a live audience after a year and a half of not being able to do so.
For folks who have seen Rent before, on stage or on film, and who might not get the point of seeing it again, what moments in your production might we look for where you as director have done something different and specific to touch us or speak to us here and now?
Honestly, the big thing is that the piece resonates more for me now. It resonates for the artists in a way now that it wouldn’t have a year and a half ago. I’ve never been a director that hammers away at an idea to try to prove the relevance of a piece of work in the here and now. We can still set it in the nineties and it can still be evocative of that time period and still ring true to the moment we’re living in. And the way it’s going to ring true is the importance of it to the artists that are telling the story, whether it is the designers or the actors or myself. We are going to view it through a lens that is ours in the present moment.
We are not remounting Michael Greif’s very important original production.We are very much looking at it and going, Let’s break it apart. Let’s ask questions about it. Let’s look at this from a new angle. What does it mean if this moment happens in a completely different way? I don’t want to share anything too specific about moments we’re doing differently, but I will say I’m not setting Rent in 2021. It’s set in the late eighties early nineties, and it is very specific to that moment in time.
I’d like to talk next about musical theater more generally. You’ve said that Signature’s commitment to musical theater is what first drew you to the place. What is it about the musical theater form that you personally most love and cherish?
Oh, it’s the way that music cuts directly to your heart. It cuts directly to the emotion behind the moment. Regardless of whether it’s musical theater or just music used in theater, the way that music can impact an audience, the way that music cuts to our core, is really something special.
Musical theater has a remarkable history, in terms of how the original musicals came together, how it went from operettas to musicals, and the influence of all the immigrants to the island of Manhattan, the Black community coming up from the South, all of those musical influences combining to create an art form that is so American. At the same time, musical theater has a history of elevating outsider voices that haven’t historically been heard, not necessarily in the writing team, but in the stories that are being told. Going forward I’m very interested in how we continue that tradition, but in a way that is more authentic to the actual voices that have been underrepresented. That is very important to me. That’s what’s exciting about the future of musical theater.
You’re also a choreographer. What is it about dance and musical theater that you so care about and have devoted so much of your career to?
In a musical, you sing because the emotions are too much and go beyond what can be expressed through words, and we dance because it even goes beyond singing. Dance to me is the ultimate way of expressing oneself in musical theater. I’m in theater because I love storytelling, but I love storytelling that defies expectation, that is outside the natural or realism. And nothing is less naturalistic and realistic than musical theater, right?
You’ve said: “My hope is that Signature is really a leader in the field for the future of musical theater. I hope we can push the envelope and represent voices that have been underrepresented on our stages in the past.”
You’ve also said: “Signature’s reason for existence has to do with the advancement of musical theater. I want to see how we can take that genre forward.”
Arguably, American musical theater as a genre and industry has had the effect — intentional or unintentional — of maintaining privilege and the status quo. Do you see a future where musical theater can intentionally be a medium for social change, for instance toward equity and community building?
You know, yes, musical theater as a genre has been a white man’s game for a very long time. If you look at the musicals that have been on the Broadway stage, upwards of 80 percent have been written by white men.
But musical theater at its essence comes from a place of voices that weren’t heard. Think of George M. Cohan, whose grandparents were Irish immigrants and who wrote “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: He was making a political statement, saying, I am here too, I’m American. And think about Irving Berlin and the history of Jewish writers in the American musical theater. And think of the influence of Black composers on everything. These voices are embedded in the musical theater world but haven’t necessarily been allowed to be represented in the most authentic way. We all love stories like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Sound of Music, which are inherently stories about the outsider or the point of view that is outside of the status quo. I want to see that continue. But how can we make that continue in a way that is more authentic? How do we make sure that the voices that are telling those stories are the most authentic and representative, and truly diverse, to break apart the status quo?
We think of musical theater as broad commercial appeal, but what those original composers were attempting to do — what Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein were attempting to do with West Side Story, even before that what Rodgers and Hammerstein were attempting to do with their entire canon of musicals — was to expose the cracks in the status quo. Whether or not they were successful and whether or not they’re still valid today is a completely different discussion, but that’s what they were attempting to do. Kander and Ebb, Cabaret. All of these are musicals that very much expose America for what it is.
Who is your team inside Signature for focusing on and furthering the future of musical theater, and what outside resources do you look to for guidance, inspiration, or advice?
Right now, I’m looking to build the team. I’m looking to pull in a new associate artistic director and a director of artistic development to help me put that plan into action. Currently, I am sort of flying solo at Signature. It is going to be important that the team surrounding me has the same goals that I do but also brings to the table viewpoints that aren’t the same as mine, that have different perspectives on the kinds of stories that should be on our stage and the kind of composers and writers that we should be pursuing to put on our stage. Externally, I am constantly looking at broadening the artists that I am in communion with, the creative producers and the creative minds and the dramaturgs. I’m constantly looking to expand my tent and the people I am looking to for advice and influence and new and differing perspectives. That’s always going to be really important to me, that I’m inviting people into my world that have a varied perspective.
Signature has been working with the Wayfinding Partners consultancy around anti-racism and racial equity. How will that work relate to future musical theater programming and production? Are you thinking differently about season planning and hiring?
Wayfinding Partners is specifically geared toward helping us view everything through an anti-racist, anti-oppressive lens. Over the last year, they have worked with our staff and Signature’s board helping us to see what our biases are, what are the things that are standing in our way from being a truly anti-racist organization. That is the way in which they have been helpful, and they will continue to be helpful to us. They won’t be selecting our programming or changing what we are doing in terms of our artistic products, but they are definitely changing the lenses through which I am viewing not just Signature but the world. It’s going to be up to me and to our artistic team and Signature as a whole — after this past year and a half of conversations looking at our racial equity plan and making various commitments — to see to it that what we are putting on our stage is diverse and representative of our community.
I’d like to ask two questions about the responsibility you now bear in your role as Signature’s artistic director — as an arts leader whose choices, decisions, and public-facing communications are now being looked to by the community of theatergoers and theater-makers.
You succeeded Eric Schaeffer, whom you met in summer 2002 and whom you have described as “without a doubt the person I consider my mentor.” I’ve also had a very important mentor in my life, someone who changed me, someone whose influence stays in me though we ended differing, so I’ve thought deeply and personally about my next question, which is about the experience of being mentored:
What lessons did you learn from Eric about what to do and how to be, and what lessons did you learn from him about what not to do and how not to be?
Eric has been a part of my life since I was a sophomore in college. So certainly my experience with him — as an assistant, the ways in which he built this theater that I have been privy to for over 18 years — has in many ways influenced me. It’s a hard question to answer because I’m not sure that I am fully cognizant in this moment of the ways that he has shaped me as an artist and a leader, but I am constantly aware in moments of the ways in which I am like him, and also the ways in which I am very different from him. What made Eric wonderful was that he was a great captain of a ship, and he was able to get so many people to rally behind his vision. I would hope I am also capable of exciting people and getting people all on board and driving toward the same goal. I think I’ll leave it on that positive thought.
The circumstances of Eric’s resignation had to have affected you personally, but my question is about the meaning of those circumstances in the larger context of audiences and arts workers. For some of those people, the circumstances of Eric’s resignation were painfully polarizing. For a while on social media, it was as if there was team defender and team denouncer. I was following it. I saw friendships frayed, I saw trust broken, it hurt all over. Now that you have succeeded Eric as artistic director, it seems to me you are in a truly tough spot because what you do and say will necessarily serve either reconciliation and healing or revisionism by silence. What are your thoughts about that? What do you feel needs saying? What needs to be done?
The goal always is for Signature to be a place that is safe. I have had many, many conversations with many individuals in the past year and a half to both assess the ways in which Signature may have failed in the past as well as the ways that Signature can provide assurances in the future. It is of utmost importance to me going forward that Signature be a place that is free of harassment, free of discrimination. There have been many personal conversations, private conversations. That is what is important in this moment, that Signature is able to offer a space of safety and of joy.
In the new artistic director role that you have, do you see yourself communicating this outside the Signature workplace, to audiences and the arts-worker community?
I think that we have made every effort to make it clear that we take the accusations of people seriously. There are many conversations that have taken place internally at Signature about the ways in which our policies need to be looked at and our practices need to be looked at. For example, we’ve added a new position of resident intimacy consultant is looking with me at all of our policies and making sure that there is a culture of consent at Signature at all times. What is important in this moment for Signature is how we are creating that culture going forward.
One last question: what most excites you about Signature’s next season?
I’m excited about welcoming our audiences back into our space. I am excited for them to see the faces that they have known and loved for many years, the artists that they have come to respect, back on our stage. I’m also excited to introduce them to new audiences and to new artists and to new writers, to new voices. That’s what I’m very excited about in this moment.
Rent plays November 2, 2021, through January 2, 2022, in the MAX at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40–$108), call (703) 820-9771 or go online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.
Closed captions for RENT will be available for every show via the GalaPro app.
The text keeps us off-kilter in a way that tickles us silly even as a sobering undercurrent churns.
Of course, the funny thing about Spooky Action Theater’s The Realistic Joneses is that it’s not really realistic. On the surface, it sort of seems so—two conventionally married couples, new neighbors who happen to have the same surname, chatting about this and that, keeping up with everyday real-life stuff. The author, Will Eno, has said he “wanted to really just write a naturalistic and realistic play.” Sure. But Eno is a wry and wily writer. Attune to his characters’ loopily elliptical nonsequiturs and you LOL. Then attend to the fear and pain in the interstices between their random thoughts and banal bon mots and, well, you don’t know quite what to do…because it’s funny and not funny, at precisely the same time.
Spooky Action’s deft treatment turns this delectably peculiar play into a full-on pleasure. The text keeps us off-kilter in a way that tickles us silly even as a sobering undercurrent churns about two husbands’ parallel progressive illnesses, their respective wives’ hopes to cope, their awkward flirting with each other’s wives as if wishful swingers. As performed by a superb and seasoned cast of four, the show is an engrossingly dimensional experience that could not have been had on Zoom. It needs us all to be in the same room…where we can hear what’s going unsaid.
The tubular tree trunks set about the stage are the first tipoff that this landscape is rural-surreal. The upstage wall is an abstractly painted mountain range in the distance, in flat shapes and shades of blue. Two forest-green platforms that stand stage left and stage right serve as each couple’s home; an Ikea-ish table and chairs on one, a huge packing carton on the other. Here and there are real objects: a backyard firepit, insecticidal candles, a garbage can. But the space never purports to be a real place.
The first couple we meet, Jennifer and Bob Jones, are older, more set in their ways, and married longer than the second couple we meet, Pony and John Jones, who just moved in next door and drop by and dote on each other as besotted newlyweds do.
There is an amusing testiness between Bob (Todd Scofield) and Jennifer (Lisa Hodsoll): He’s sullenly suffering some ailment with mysterious intermittent symptoms; she’s being the accommodating, long-suffering wife trying to stand by him and be upbeat. Lovebirds they’re not, but Scofield and Hodsoll are completely convincing as long-term caring spouses…whose best days may be behind them.
Pony (Kimberly Gilbert) and John (Dan Crane) pop over from next door, she all ditzy and atwitter, he all vague and vainglorious, and the both of them all over each other. Next to the staider Bob and Jennifer, they make a whimsical pair. Gilbert, who does delightful dim bulb better than anybody (“I don’t really have an attention span”), is utterly transfixing—and reason enough to see the play. She is the effervescent Energizer Bunny of every scene she’s in.
Eno’s language is a mix of tics, zig-zags, false starts, and small-talk throwaways, but now and then a kind of koan pops up:
“It’s such a pretty night,” says Jennifer to Bob. “It’s so quiet. You can almost hear the clouds go by.”
Such lines play like evocations of the ethereal, as when distant church bells ring and Pony says, “Listen to that, John. It’s like a real place.”
“Yeah,” John replies.”It just makes you feel right in the middle of the whole lonesome thing.”
Now and then too there are flat-out punchlines:
“Nature was definitely one of the big selling points,” Pony says, explaining why they moved here. “Plus, the school system’s supposed to be good.”
“Oh, do you have kids?” Jennifer asks.
“No,” says Pony, “it’s just, John hates stupid children.”
It’s a beat that warrants a rimshot.
Says Jennifer at another point, apropos something she said: ”I’m sorry. I just kind of blurted all that out.”
To which John says, understandingly, “That’s all right. That’s what separates us from the animal. You never hear animals blurting things out. Unless they’re being run over by a car or something.”
That kind of inaptness, which crops up a lot, just cracks me up.
Often as not, the characters talk past each other, which seems not to faze them. Indeed, clueless miscommunication is one of the play’s most endearing motifs. “People talk about things, or they don’t,” says John. “It doesn’t really matter.” In that sense, the play is comedically satisfying like Seinfeld—except with mortality looming overhead like audible clouds.
John is having symptoms of something. A sharp electronic tone pings whenever he feels a pain stab and his body spasms. Coincidentally, John has the same progressive disease that Bob has. It’s called, we are told, Harriman Leavey Syndrome, and the doctor after whom it is named—the discoverer of it and the world’s leading expert on its treatment—happens to live right here in this anonymous town. John has not told Pony that’s the real reason they moved here. His lie lingers unremarked then wafts away unresolved. What goes unsaid in this talky play speaks volumes.
The credible-sounding disease, HLS, is not a real one, I learned afterward. Eno made it up. I would have liked to know that going in, so I’m sharing it here, because it’s completely consistent with the playwright’s tease-y toying with the tipping point between real and not.
The director, Gillian Drake, who animates the proceedings with panache, has opted for a realistic acting style that approximates sitcom. I’m not certain that approach does best justice to the script’s distinctive sendup of everyday speech. Eno’s quirky wit at times got short shrift, I felt. His bemusing humor may need something akin to air quotes, a more droll distance in delivery from conventional domestic comedy. Something more in keeping with the heady koans that keep being blurted out.
But that’s a mere quibble.
The show as a whole is a complete treat and I recommend it highly.
Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, with no intermission.
The Realistic Jonesesplays through October 24, 2021, performing Thursday through Saturday evenings with a Sunday matinee, at Spooky Action Theater, at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets (general admission, $30–$40; seniors, $25–$35; students, $20), call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.
The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno Directed by Gillian Drake
Bob Jones: Todd Scofield Jennifer Jones: Lisa Hodsoll John Jones: Dan Crane Pony Jones: Kimberly Gilbert
Assistant Director: Matthew Vaky Stage Manager: David Elias Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith Set Design: Giorgos Tsappas Lighting Design: Alberto Segarra Costume Design: Robert Croghan Props Design: Elizabeth Long Movement Coach: Robert Bowen Smith Additional Costume Design: Melissa Leigh Gilbert Assistant Stage Manager: Jenna Keefer
Working rocks Black Lives Matter Plaza with a musical that matters
You wouldn’t know it from Working, the upbeat musical being given an exultantly excellent production outdoors on Black Lives Matter Plaza, that the labor news these days is decidedly downbeat. The delta variant has put a damper on economic recovery, with less than a third of expected jobs created last month. More than 9 million workers lost pandemic unemployment benefits — on Labor Day of all days — with workers of color and mothers hit hardest.
Against that grim background and in front of AFL-CIO headquarters — with the stunning scenic effect of its glass, marble and gold “Labor Is Life” mosaic mural visible through the windows — a gutsy and gifted project called Working in DC has put on an ebullient show to remind us of the everyday dignity of work. Not the stats about it. Not the policies that police it. Not the pay rates of it. The real-life first-person emotional and relational valuation of labor as experienced by workers themselves. A show about ordinary people’s search, as Studs Terkel put it in his introduction to Working (the 1974 book upon which the musical is based), “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
What we do for a living, after all, is pretty central to who we be.
So it was that on a seasonably pleasant Labor Day evening I sat in one of four rows of folding chairs, stone benches, and stools stretching in front of a playing space some 70 feet wide and took in what looked to be a set improvised of under-construction scaffolding and strung with literal work lights. The Grotowskian “poor theater” esthetic might be said to apply here, but more aptly this design seemed driven by dedication to take-it-to-the streets activism.
Indeed the stated goals of Working in DC, the producing collaborative, sound very little like a theater institution with a real estate footprint:
• Uplift the stories of the working class, highlight the dignity of work, and deepen the connection to the valuable identity of workers in America • Utilize live theatre performance as a tool for civic engagement • Honor front-line and essential workers through public performance • Strengthen the relationship between the labor and arts sectors • Highlight the history and current efforts of the labor movement • Provide a platform for public interrogation of the value of work, labor justice, social and racial justice, and the state of labor justice in the arts. • Bring DC residents from every ward and visitors from across the country to free, public, live events at Black Lives Matter Plaza September 3rd – 19th, 2021
Working, A Musical, based on actual oral histories, is a swiftly paced flow of catchy and touching songs interspersed with scenes that function as sharply drawn character sketches. The ensemble’s opening number, “All the Livelong Day,” sets the Whitmanesque tone: “I hear America singing.” And hear America we do, as the versatile cast of nine actor-singers portray some two dozen jobholders — from trucker to tech support, from grocery checker to iron worker, from community organizer to stone mason.
Throughout are telling details of what life is like in the work world: The project manager’s droll distinction between her “OK boss” and her “Satan boss”…the delivery boy’s delight when a customer says,“Keep the change”…the full-of-himself hedge fund manager who believes “unless you have losers, you cannot have winners”…the fireman’s pride when he says, “I put out a fire, I helped save someone. I did something on this earth.”
Everything is out in the open; backstage is basically upstage, where actors change costume pieces and pick up props when switching parts; an ample sound system carries the singers’ potent pipes perfectly clearly, along with the rousing band, likely all the way to Lafayette Park. The performance is public in every sense — a testament to the organizers’ foundational principle of radical hospitality, which extended ingeniously, the night I saw the show, to a voluble vox populi drop-in.
Among the striking moments was when two character arcs were paired, connected in a way that brought out a larger meaning. A receptionist and a tech support worker, for instance, riff simultaneously on what they each do as communicators, and suddenly it gets meta. An elder care worker and a nanny sing a moving song together that resonates with parallel human dependency in infancy and old age.
The sidewalk stage also rocks with eye-popping choreography, as when a waitress, singing a song in celebration of the art of what she does, leads a chorus of customers in a near show-stopping number. And there are visually striking directorial touches as when a cleaning lady’s song is backed up by other women miming the wiping of a window, a housewife is accompanied by other mothers cradling blankets as babies, a millworker’s song is framed by two factory shadow plays.
Working, A Musical, playing at Black Lives Plaza for only two more weekends, is the sort of truthful theater that may prompt one to reflect on one’s own truth — the experience of one’s own workaday work life. It’s also the sort of honest theater that makes plain the work it took to make it. After months of pandemic-imposed unemployment in the theater community, this outdoor production is a bold showcase of arts workers at work — which Working in DC is explicit about:
Our core leadership team is … interested in dismantling the hierarchy of the traditional producing model in theatre. We are passionate arts makers guided by principles of transparency, joy, anti-oppression, anti-racism, and collective leadership. We hope to create a sustainable model that re-imagines the future of the arts in America.
As one character says during the show: “History is a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life.” The entire entertaining evening was a vivid dramatization of that point. Don’t miss it.
Running Time: About 85 minutes, with no intermission.
Working, A Musical presented by Working in DC runs weekends September 3 to 19, 2021, outdoors at 815 Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, DC. Tickets (free or by donation) are available online. Seating is general admission.
WORKING, a Musical From the book by STUDS TERKEL Adapted by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and NINA FASO With Additional contributions by Gordan Greenberg Songs by: CRAIG CARNELIA, MICKI GRANT, LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, MARY ROGERS and SUSAN BIRKENHEAD, STEPHEN SCHWARTZ & JAMES TAYLOR New Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire
ALL THE LIVELONG DAY | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (with acknowledgments to Walt Whitman) Chris Genebach (as Mike Dillard, Ironworker) and Ensemble
DELIVERY | Music and Lyrics by Lin–Manuel Miranda Randyn Fullard (as Freddy Rodriguez, Fast Food Worker)
I’M JUST MOVIN’ | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz Emily Zinksi (as Babe Secoli, Grocery Checker) and other Checkers
BROTHER TUCKER | Music and Lyrics by James Taylor Carl L. Williams (as Frank Decker, Interstate Trucker)
JUST A HOUSEWIFE | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia Alexandra Palting (as Kate Rushton, Housewife) and other Housewives
MILLWORK | Music and Lyrics by James Taylor Alyssa Keegan (as Grace Clements, Millworker)
IF I COULD’VE BEEN | Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant Ensemble
THE MASON | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia Jay Frisby (as Anthony Coelho, Stone Mason)
IT’S AN ART | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz Alyssa Keegan (as Delores Dante, Waitress) and Customers
JOE | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia Thomas Adrian Simpson (as Joe Zutty, Retiree)
A VERY GOOD DAY | Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda Jay Frisby (as Utkarsh Trajillo, Elder Care Worker) and Alexandra Palting (as Theresa Liu, Nanny)
CLEANIN’ WOMEN | Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant Theresa Cunningham (as Maggie Holmes, Cleaning Lady) and other Cleaning Women
FATHERS AND SONS | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz Chris Genebach (as Mike Dillard, Ironworker)
SOMETHING TO POINT TO | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia Chris Genebach (as Mike Dillard, Ironworker) and Ensemble
CHARACTERS Mike Dillard, Ironworker – Chris Genebach Amanda McKenny, Project Manager – Theresa Cunningham Freddy Rodriguez, Fast Food Worker – Randyn Fullard Rex Winship, Hedge Fund Manager – Thomas Adrian Simpson Babe Secoli, Grocery Checker – Emily Zinksi Terry Mason, Flight Attendant – Alyssa Keegan Frank Decker, Interstate Trucker – Carl L. Williams Johnnie, Tech Support – Randyn Fullard Sharon Atkins, Receptionist – Emily Zinksi Kate Rushton, Housewife – Alexandra Palting Conrad Swibel, Mail Delivery Man – Jay Frisby Roberta Victor, Prostitute (sex worker) – Randyn Fullard & Emily Zinski Candy Cottingham, Fundraiser – Thomas Adrian Simpson & Theresa Cunningham Grace Clements, Millworker – Alyssa Keegan Allen Epstein, Community Organizer – Chris Genebach & Carl L. Williams Anthony Coelho, Stone Mason – Jay Frisby Eddie Jaffe, Publicist – Thomas Adrian Simpson Delores Dante, Waitress – Alyssa Keegan Joe Zutty, Retiree – Thomas Adrian Simpson Tom Patrick, Fireman – Chris Genbach Utkarsh Trajillo, Elder Care Worker – Jay Frisby Theresa Liu, Nanny – Alexandra Palting Maggie Holmes, Cleaning Lady – Theresa Cunningham Ralph Werner, Student – Randyn Fullard Charlie Blossom, Ex-Newsroom Assistant – Emily Zinksi
CAST Theresa Cunningham Jay Frisby Randyn Fullard Chris Genebach Alyssa Keegan Alexandra Palting Thomas Adrian Simpson Carl L. Williams Emily Zinski Emily Erickson (Swing) Emmanuel Elliot Key (Swing)
STAGE MANAGEMENT Karen Currie – Stage Manager Joey Blakely – Production Assistant Kate Wander – Production Assistant /COVID Officer Tiffany Ko – Costume/Production Assistant
PRODUCTION MANAGEMENT Jenn Schwartz – Production Manager Ryan Love – Technical Director
CREW John Nolan Rachel Prell Ashley Wagoner
CREATIVE Shanara Gabrielle – Director Ashleigh King – Choreographer William Yanesh – Music Director
DESIGN Andrew Cohen – Scenic Moyenda Kulemeka – Costumes Justin Schmitz – Sound Alberto Segarra – Lighting Minjoo Kim – Assistant Lighting Jordan Ealey – Dramaturg
MUSICIANS Manny Arciniega – Percussion Matthew Schleigh – Guitar Jason Wilson – Bass
CORE TEAM Shanara Gabrielle – Lead Collaborator; Artistic Producer Trés McMichael – Social Accountability & Partnerships Director; Associate Producer Jake Bridges – Development Director; Associate Producer Mallory Miller – Events & Operations Coordinator Jorge Acevedo – Casting Director & Artistic Advisor Quoc Tran – Administrative Coordinator Katerina Moser – Marketing & Communications Intern Isabella Benning – Social Media Management Intern and Ms. Elise Bryant, Executive Director of Labor Heritage Foundation
This interview first appeared March 10, 2020, just days before the coronavirus shut down theaters and stopped the run of The Amen Corner. Shakespeare Theatre Company is reviving that acclaimed production for a limited time only—September 14 to 26, 2021—and single tickets are on sale now online.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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?
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—
—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 September 14 to 26, 2021, 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.
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 Macbeth, Macbeth in Stride, was part of the 2019 Under the Radar Festival (Public Theater). Training: Brown University/Trinity Rep: MFA, Northwestern University: BA.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s must-see sound-and-light installation incites two writers’ viewpoints.
By John Stoltenberg and Sophia Howes
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 Sophia Howes (Dangereuse) and John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) attended the sound-and-light experience Blindness now playing for limited audiences seated socially distanced and masked on the stage of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.
John: I remember my unease when Shakespeare first announced there would be a run of Blindness last December. At the time—as COVID was on a rampage—I could not imagine sitting for an hour and a half indoors with several dozen strangers anywhere, much less at a theater. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, I had not been able to imagine focusing on a live performance of any sort without being distracted by anxiety about getting infected. And I remember my relief when late in November, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced restrictions on entertainment venues that meant Shakespeare had to call off its run of Blindness.
That was then. Blindness has now been running for real at Shakespeare since May 1, 2021. (See our colleague Susan Galbraith’s rave review. Sold-out houses have prompted STC to extend the show through July 3.) And I still can’t get over the sense of giddiness I felt when I knew I would be experiencing it myself, in person. This would be my first time inside a theater in nearly 15 months. I was vaxxed and psyched and eager to take it in.
Blindness is adapted from a novel by Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago about a mysterious epidemic of blindness that besets the population of an unnamed place. People inexplicably go blind. They suddenly see everything as white. We are told the story aurally through headphones as we sit in twos under multicolored fluorescent lights that episodically go out and leave us in pitch darkness. Much has been made of the relevance of Blindness to our present pandemic, but what struck me right away was how little that current context mattered to me as I was following the tale. I was sitting there feeling a personal immunity that left me at liberty to experience the production not as a trenchant pandemic metaphor and ingenious workaround (which it is) but simply as innovative immersive storytelling stagecraft. So it was that I found myself more entranced by the techniques and technology than moved by the narrative as resonant allegory.
Would I have felt more personally invested in the story if I had felt more personally fearful of today’s plague? Perhaps. But had I not felt so free of personal risk, I would never have dared venture inside. Call it a Contagion-22.
Sophia: The moment that really knocked me out was when the lights rose on the empty theater auditorium. This symbolized for me all the lives we have lost in the pandemic. In a way, it’s hard to grasp. Each person has their own story. And the numbers are so overwhelming.
For me Blindness was a beautiful piece of poetry. The lights coming on and going off. The sounds. The sense that no matter what happened we would not escape. And yet there was also beauty. The music. The careful arrangement of the words. An extended metaphor, so relevant to our times that it can be applied to many different situations.
I once became blind in one eye due to a botched operation. The doctor, an arrogant sort, laughed and referred to it as debris that would clear up. It didn’t. It was like a curtain coming down. They had to do another whole operation, and it could happen again at any time. I try not to think about it. It was a very limited experience, a snapshot of what being blind must be like. I have no idea. Which is why the parts when we literally could not see were so powerful.
On another level the piece is about human cruelty. The blind people seem to be helpless and are treated terribly. The narrator attempts to help but also joins in the cruelty to some extent. She seems emotionally detached from her husband. Her response to the carnage is largely to attempt some form of practical assistance. But she doesn’t ask the blind people what they need. Nor does she connect personally to her husband’s pain. Perhaps the trauma has numbed her.
We don’t know what the blind people are thinking. That was a question I had. What are they thinking?
John: During passages when all the lights are out (including the exit sign) and we sit motionless and voiceless in a claustrophobia of total darkness, we are sightless witnesses with only our hearing to know what’s going on. And at such times there is a sense in which we become the silent blind population in the story. Or so it felt.
Perhaps to make the point, every so often the lights blaze on in an instant with a brightness so glaring it forces our eyes to adjust. Then light lingers as an afterimage on our retinas like a glimpse of the whiteness the blind in the story are said to see.
The light and sound tech serve the aural narrative in mind-altering ways. What is happening in the story is indivisible from what is happening to us.
We wear headphones with uncanny 360-degree audio, which conveys a spatial dimensionality unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The narrator’s voice we hear throughout is the wife of a now-blind ophthalmologist, and she alone among the internees in quarantine can still see. When she spoke intimately just behind my left shoulder as if only to me, it was so convincing I felt that if I turned my head I might face her and feel her breath. In another moment I could hear her excruciating cry coming from some echo-y chamber yards away. At another point when she discovers a storeroom of food, her sheer vocal joy and pleasure was so infectious I could not help smiling unseen. At yet another juncture as pouring rain fell everywhere in torrents, I heard her desperately trying to wash, to clean “the filth of the soul…the filth of the body….it’s all the same.” The story was incessantly surrounding me in my hearing and moving around in my mind, and I felt peculiarly present and drenched in it.
Something had been altered in my sense of hearing, I realized later as I was taking a walk in the woods. I was newly attuned to the immaterial soundwaves that signal spatial dimensionality in real life. How far distant is that specific sound? What precisely is my geolocation in relation to that other sound? “Don’t lose yourself,” the nameless narrator says near the end, “don’t let yourself be lost.” To my astonishment I found myself newly grounded by sound. I felt my ears had learned a new way of knowing where I am.
Sophia: I love this quotation from the novelist Saramago:
I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.
I wonder what it is I do not see about myself or others. I wonder how my own prejudices or upbringing might blind me to things that are evident to other people. I wonder how others might be blinded to certain truths by their own background or set of beliefs.
I have been reading about cults recently, and one of the things I found amazing was that in apocalyptic cults, once the day of the supposed apocalypse occurred and nothing happened, many people would not leave the cult. They would just revise their expectations. This, to me, is a form of blindness. If you have sacrificed enough for something, you are under tremendous pressure to believe in it.
Running time: 75 minutes
Blindness runs through July 3, 2021, with viewing times at 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; there are also showings on Wednesdays at noon. Tickets are $49, except weekend and Wednesday matinees, which are $44; all tickets are general admission. Tickets for Blindness are available for purchase now online. All artists, dates, and titles are subject to change.
ENHANCED SAFETY PROCEDURES Patrons will be seated onstage at Sidney Harman Hall in a socially distanced manner and will never be seated next to someone outside their own party. A limited number of single tickets are available for purchase by calling the Box Office, (202) 547-1122. All patrons and staff will wear masks at all times while in the building, and must stay home if they are feeling ill or experiencing any symptoms of illness. To stay within the guidelines of D.C.’s ReOpenDC plan, the seating capacity is limited to 40 guests and there will never be more than 50 people in the building. Complete information about STC’s Safety Guidelines is available here.
Playwright Dane Figueroa Edidi mixes romance and vengeance and packs volumes of truth into stunning poetic dialog.
I approached this radio version of Dane Figueroa Edidi’s Ghost/Writer with keen anticipation. I saw s staged reading of a previous version of the play during the 2019 Womxn On Fire Festival at Keegan Theatre. It was then titled Writer’s Block and costarred Edidi and Michael Kevin Darnall. In exultation afterward I did something I rarely do: I rave-tweeted about it: “Totally blew my mind. Catch it if you can.” Naturally when I heard that Rep Stage was planning a full production of the play, revised and now called Ghost/Writer, I knew I must see it.
Then came the great shuttering, and that full staging was put on hold.
Pandemic necessity having been the mother of extraordinary innovation in theater, I should not have been surprised that the genius who wrote this play for the stage would reconceive it as a radio play. But what blew my mind all over again, as this time I could really listen to it closely, was the language of it—language that alchemized profound insights about racial injustice and sensuality into some of the most stunning poetic dialog I’ve ever heard.
Here for instance is Patrick, a white man, recalling his deceased Black girlfriend, Sara:
Her voice was music That kind of rushing brass Like a trumpet It shook me
She was freedom The way wind is unconcerned with the constraints of gravity
I know the definition of gravity She taught me that definition She taught me love
But this country This world has a way of tearing good things from a man Making him choose between safety and forever
The play is filled with ka-whump moments like that, passages that stir an explosion of recognition instilled by a writer who can pack volumes of truth into a single line.
The play shifts place and time dramatically in ways that would take considerable stagecraft to achieve. As a radio play, though, the beautifully written narration Edidi has given her characters, combined with evocative sound effects (by Tosin Olufolabi), serve to invite us into worlds and otherworlds and fly us through time. We are left in our mind’s eye to set the scenes and take in the story.
And what a story it is.
The play starts in Tulsa in 1920, prior to the race massacre there known as Black Wall Street. Already the Klan has been killing Black people. One of the victims was Sara, the young Black girlriend of a Irish immigrant’s son named Patrick. To avenge her murder, Patrick killed the Klansman who committed it. Now he’s a fugitive, and he seeks the help of a legendary cis Black woman named Ruby (“a Healer, an herbalist, a vigilante…ready to enact justice when justice needs a fresh set of hands”).
PATRICK: They killed more Black boys / I know they coming for me RUBY: It’s funny how white folk can make even the most tragic things that happen to Black people about them
Into this fraught sociopathology of anti-Black race hate, Edidi introduces an intricate and improbably intimate relationship story between the wise Ruby and the rube-like Patrick. Their tense and sometimes tender exchanges are a pleasure all their own. There are often testy moments between them, as when she accuses him of cowardice for wanting to flee and he concedes she’s right:
PATRICK: I’m sorry RUBY: You stay sorry PATRICK: Please forgive me RUBY: I don’t owe you shit PATRICK: I know (Pause) RUBY: Wanna know what I done for my people / For every one of them white supremacist you killed I done killed twenty
Yet later, to convey their passion, there’s this lush audible stage direction:
He looks at her And she at him And they kiss A Kiss of necessity A kiss planted there just so they can make sure they remember who they are A Kiss that would remind them there is no way to turn back
Act One establishes two engrossing themes that are in tension, both of them embodied in two fascinating characters and a page-turner of a plot: the sensuality of romance and the justice of vengeance. Act Two, which has a gobsmacking ending that I’ll not reveal, binds those themes together into an indelible parable.
It is 2019 in Baltimore, and we’re in a condo owned by a rich author and playwright named Charles. He is another white man with a problem—he’s got writer’s block—and he has turned for assistance to Rebecca (“A Black Trans woman, a secretly infamous ghost writer”). The symetry with Act One becomes more and more engaging as we learn Charles’s story of his high school sweetheart, Angelique, who appears in a flashback. She broke up with him because he wanted her to abort their pregnancy and she refused, and something horrible happened to her afterward. Rebecca coaxes Charles to disclose what that was. She says it’s necessary to get closure on his writer’s block. But she has something else in mind. Something along the lines of reparative justice.
Edidi plays Ruby, Rebecca, and Angelique, and brings to each role an inflection, emotional truth, and pride that she had to have known was in the words because she put them there. It is absolutely fascinating to hear her as if writing in the moment out loud. Patrick (with a lovely Irish lilt in his voice) and WASPy Charles are both played by Steve Polites, who navigates two complex character arcs with a range of honesty and duplicity that is extraordinary.
Danielle A. Drakes has directed this audio production with great care and flair. The result is immersive attention to authorial excellence that visual stage arts often compete for but that here the mind has all its own.
Because there are many narrative shifts of time and place in Ghost/Writer, and because of the doubling and tripling in the cast (which is intrinsic to the play), it can sometimes seem a challenge to follow all that’s going on. For that reason I recommend listening with the captioning on. That way, even if one gets momentarily lost, one can not only hear but witness the sheer brilliance of the writing.
Ghost/Writer is an aural and moral experience not to be missed.
Ghost/Writer is available on-demand until May 23, 2021. A single ticket is $15; a household ticket is $25. To purchase tickets, visit repstage.org. If you need assistance with your order, send an email to email@example.com or call 443-518-1500.
CAST Dane Figueroa Edidi Steve Polites
ARTISTIC TEAM Playwright: Dane Figueroa Edidi Director: Danielle A. Drakes Sound Design: Tosin Olufolabi Sound Engineer: Austin Sapp Dramaturg: Otis Ramsey-Zoe
Stage Manager: Ricky Ramón Assistant Stage Manager: Tiffany Ko
The master monologuist takes an unblinking look at Scott Rudin, Andrew Cuomo, and himself.
Men behaving badly is a masterplot in life and art as old as time, and Mike Daisey has given it a doozy of a twist. Not ten minutes into his one-night-only monologue Scott and Andy and All the Boys, he poses a jaw-dropping question: “Why not just get rid of men?” For the moment he means it, in all earnestness. “How do we get rid of the men?”
Then with Swiftian wit he pivots to a comic scenario about putting down all men as one would euthanize a dog. Realizing that goofy plan wouldn’t work globally, he invokes a Marvel supervillain named Thanos, renowned for wiping out half of all life with a finger snap. But Thanos does so at random, which for the gendercidal purpose is no use. Getting rid of men, Daisey concedes, would be kind of impractical.
As he says this there is in his voice and face what seems a trace of disappointment.
I was tuning in on YouTube, so I do not know how Daisey’s riff on offing men landed with the folks watching in person at the Kraine Theater in New York. I heard scattered, startled laughter and what seemed stunned silence. I can only surmise that fans familiar with Daisey’s inimitably expressive range as a monologuist sensed here the brink of dead-seriousness and hilarity to which he often brings his rapt audiences. It’s disconcerting and unsettling, but in a good way. It’s how he discombobulates us out of our preconceptions.
Still: a man talking with personal passion about hating patriarchy so much he imagines getting rid of it by getting rid of all men. That’s got to be a hot button topic one is not likely to hear in a locker room much less an off-Broadway black box.
The publicity hook for this 80-minute show is two boldface names—the theater and film producer Scott Rudin and the New York State governor Mario Cuomo—whose histories of male-pattern bullying and abuse have recently become widely known. Daisey engrosses us with a damning dossier on each.
Scott Rudin—he of the eye for award-magnet art—has for decades hired a procession of young assistants into a hellscape work environment where he berates them and breaks them and hurls objects to hit and hurt them. In effect they were in training to be victims. Rudin’s reputation as an abuser was no secret in the biz; it was only when Vulture and Hollywood Reporter delivered the receipts—first-person testimony from those he abused—that he was publicly outed as, in Daisey’s words, “an asshole.” Yet industry reaction to the stories, Daisey says, was silence. “When does the American Theater reckon with Scott Rudin?” he asks, galled at the social complicity that enables men in power to throw their weight around.
Andrew Cuomo was for a brief time “America’s Governor,” calming a country with caring counsel as he filled the COVID-info void left by 45 (“a man who was a walking syphilis culture”). Cuomo was finally shining his own light in the shadow of his father, New York State governor Mario Cuomo. But then his reputation unraveled. He was caught sending COVID-infected people back into nursing homes and covering up how many were dying inside. He was exposed by testimony about an office culture where attractive young women hires were made to dress up daily in heels and where Cuomo touched and groped and otherwise sexually harassed them. To this day, Daisy notes, there has been no justice, no accountability, not even a formulaic lame apology such as Rudin’s. Andrew Cuomo is still in power.
“Shitty men are everywhere,” Daisey shares, hardly an original observation. But what Daisey does in this monologue is count himself among them. Genuinely and astonishingly. With a singular sincerity rarely seen.
He does this with a framing story about “a very gendered fight” he had with his girlfriend. It was about something homey and humdrum: sheets. She asked him one day when they were rushing out on a trip if the sheets on their guest bed needed to be washed and he said they were fine. They were not fine and he knew it; they were far from fine. But he said they were fine anyway. When she learned of the lie she was furious (justifiably so, he fully admits).
Daisey devotes a compelling chunk of this monologue to parsing that seemingly minuscule incident. What was he thinking? Why did he think he could get away with it? Why did he do it knowing it was wrong? “I’m still trying to figure out,” he says, “what I thought would happen.”
And in a breathtaking leap of logic he connects this ethical micro to all other shitty men’s ethical macro: knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway.
I want to understand what I was thinking when I said the sheets are fine. Why I thought that would work. I need to be awake enough to not do it again.
Amid all the laughs, there’s a lucid lesson here. With Scott and Andy and All the Boys, Mike Daisey singlehandedly redefines the concept of mansplaining. He strips the practice of its condescension and defensiveness and turns it into a conscientious and humble discipline of self-examination as a man.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes
Scott and Andy and All the Boys, created and performed by Mike Daisey, was livestreamed May 7, 2021, from the Kraine Theater in New York City produced by FRIGID New York.
Epigraph from the program for Mike Daisey’s Scott and Andy and All the Boys
One of the world’s leading experts clears up what theaters need to know.
I first learned of Dr. Linsey Marr when I read a startling opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times July 30: As “a civil and environmental engineer who studies how viruses and bacteria spread through the air,” she wrote, “I believe that the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 via aerosols matters much more than has been officially acknowledged tao date.”
She was not talking about those exhaled droplets that are said to fall to the ground within six feet such that so-called social distancing is a fix. She was talking about the even teensier aerosols that can waft in the air and spread the virus hither and yon.
Reading further about Dr. Marr, a professor at Virginia Tech who is quoted often in public health coverage, I realized that she knew something that the theater community had an urgent need to know.
The theater community (meaning theater management, union leadership, theater practitioners, other arts workers, and audience members alike) is at an awkward impasse. Theaters have been wrestling with issues of safety—in the lobby and auditorium, in rehearsal rooms, backstage, in dressing rooms, and the control booth—while still much in the dark. There simply has not been a lot of science-based guidance that is specific to theater spaces. So I reached out to Dr. Marr.
While very busy, she graciously made time for us to talk. In a warm conversation, I learned that she is herself a theatergoer. She’s never had experience onstage or backstage, but she is, she says, “an appreciator,” with season tickets to the Virginia Tech performing arts series. I also learned that aside from being awesomely knowledgeable across multiple disciplines—the New York Timescalled her “one of the world’s leading scientists on airborne viruses”—Dr. Marr has that rare gift for making things plain and clear.
John: I feel I should first thank you for your service to the nation’s well-being.
Dr. Marr: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.
When theaters went dark in mid-March, there were mixed messages from the CDC about whether masks were necessary outside of medical contexts. At the same time, there was a lot of concern about sanitizing and disinfecting of surfaces. Given what science has learned about COVID since, do you think surface transmission has been overemphasized and transmission through the air by aerosols not emphasized enough?
Yes, absolutely. We are now referring to all these surface-cleaning protocols as “hygiene theater.” Time and resources could more effectively be directed toward cleaning the air—which means not spraying things in the air, but better ventilation and filtration.
Looking at the risk of aerosol transmission at close proximity indoors—on a scale from breathing to talking to speaking to singing loudly to shouting to coughing and sneezing—where would you rank laughter?
Thats a good question. A good hearty laugh is probably somewhere between speaking and shouting.
And a mask would mitigate that?
Yes, a good mask should mitigate that.
But without a mask, at close range, there is the same risk from laughing that loud singing would be?
I think so. Or even a cough. I know when I laugh, I’ll sometimes get visible droplets on things, which means there’s even more of the smaller things we can’t see coming out.
Now that theater has migrated from the stage to online, audiences can no longer be a body laughing as one. Everyone is home on Zoom. And laughing in large numbers in close quarters is potentially lethal—which is a terrible thing to think about laughter.
It’s supposed to be the best medicine.
Under what circumstances would you tell someone—an actor, for instance—that it would be safe to participate in an indoor live theater production today?
I think if there are few people on stage and it’s a large stage, high ceilings, and if the audience is very sparse.
Under what circumstances would you personally go to a live theater performance indoors?
I don’t think I would.
There are no circumstances today that—?
I would do outdoors. Or I’ve seen on your website there was a drive-in performance. That seems like a great idea.
One theater in DC—the first local company to resume live performances indoors—has installed a new HVAC system with HEPA filter designed to change the air six times an hour.
Okay. That’s what we target.
So, assuming mask wearing and social distancing, you would think that would effectively mitigate aerosol transmission risk?
It depends on how many people there are in that theater.
The theater seating capacity is more than 200, but they’re planning to have no more than 50 people in the entire building at one time, including cast and backstage crew and audience.
If everyone’s masked, I think that’s probably okay. Let me rephrase that. I will say it’s a lower-risk situation.
They’ve done the best job of ventilation that can be done?
They’ve done a very good job of ventilation if it’s reduced capacity. And if people are required to wear masks, then that sounds like excellent risk mitigation.
As audience members arrive, their temperature will be checked. But how reassuring can that routine be given the fact that asymptomatic people can be infectious?
I think it’s hygiene theater. Hopefully, it emphasizes to people that if they do feel any symptoms, they shouldn’t be out in public. But because we have so much asymptomatic transmission going on, temperature checking is of limited utility. It mostly makes people feel good.
What else do you consider hygiene theater?
The idea of the deep cleaning—like all the attention to wiping down nooks and crannies—and certainly any kind of fogging of the air would fall into that category.
It’s performative, not—
Because of the administration’s meddling, the authority of the CDC has been compromised, and the U.S. has pulled out of the World Health Organization. How are theaters to know what and whom to believe?
I don’t know of any resources specifically for theaters, but I do know that the Harvard Healthy Buildings program has been putting out a lot of really good material at its website, where they have a COVID-19 section. Their focus has been on schools, but there can be some similarities between schools and audiences in terms of the numbers of people you have around. And school is like a performance for the teacher, right?
Since the pandemic began—in the context of widespread denial about the climate crisis—public health experts have been met with partisan suspicion and rebuke. What, if anything, can theater makers do to help restore Americans’ confidence in science?
Oh, that’s a great question. Make scientists seem cool. On TV shows they lionize doctors and first responders and athletes, but nobody’s really lionized scientists.
On Friday, September 18, the day this interview took place, the CDC changed its guidance and now acknowledges that inhalation of aerosols (microscopic droplets or particles) is the main way that COVID-19 is transmitted.
Dr. Linsey Marr is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. She holds a B.S. in Engineering Science from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. She leads the Applied Interdisciplinary Research in Air (AIR2) laboratory and teaches courses on air pollution and environmental engineering. She is a Fellow of the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate and serves on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology. Dr. Marr’s research group studies the emissions, transformation, transport, and fate of pollutants in indoor and outdoor air. She is especially interested in emerging or nontraditional aerosols such as engineered nano materials and viral aerosols such as viral pathogens and how they can be physically and chemically transformed in the environment. Her research on the airborne transmission of infectious disease has focused on influenza, Ebola virus disease, and Legionnaires’ disease. She collaborates broadly with others to understand how changes at the microscopic to global scale affect public and environmental health. She tweets at @linseymarr.
During the past seven-odd years that I’ve contributed to DC Metro Theater Arts, I’ve written about upwards of 600 shows—sometimes as the designated reviewer (when I followed criticism conventions) and sometimes as freewheeling columnist (when a colleague was assigned the review so I was at liberty to engage with a work however I wished). Looking back, I realized that the freestyle columns that were most fun to write are still fun to read. I’ve collected here my five faves. —John Stoltenberg (Read time: about 15 minutes.)
5 reasons Christopher Boone liked ‘Curious Incident’ at Round House better than on Broadway
I had already marveled at The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway, so before seeing the production at Round House I decided to read the novel it was based on. I was so charmed by voice of Christopher Boone, the fictional narrator, that I could not help but borrow it. —J.S.
My name is Christopher Boone and I am 15 and I am brave and I can do anything. I know that because I traveled by train by myself from Swindon to London and I solved the mystery of a neighbor lady’s murdered dog and I found my mother who I thought was dead and I wrote a book.
A man named Mark Haddon published my book under his own name and called it The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I am okay that he did that, just so everyone knows I wrote it.
My favorite teacher Siobhan made some suggestions but she would tell you I wrote it too. Also I made the drawings.
A man named Simon Stephens made a play out of my book. He told everyone it was based on a book by Mr. Haddon but that was not true. He needed to say it was based on a book by me. Sometimes adults lie. That comes up a lot in my book, especially with Father and Mother. I did not like finding out how much grownups lie because I believed that loving means never lying and I wanted to be loved which meant I did not like being lied to.
I do not tell lies. I can’t tell lies. I don’t know how grownups do it. I think they might have a behavioral problem.
There was a big production made of the play that Mr. Stephens said was his. I went to see it in a big Broadway theater. The stage was inside a big picture frame and there were lots of bright flashing lights and the floor and all the walls were computer screens and there were animated graphics that made me dizzy and distracted and it was hard to pay attention to the characters, even though one of them was Father and one of them was Mother and one of them was Siobhan and one of them was me.
I sat up close but some seats in the theater were so high up and far away I wondered what people in them could possibly see. The play won a lot of awards and a lot of people came to see it. I was okay with that, just so everyone knows it’s about me and my book. I wondered if some people might have thought the play was about computer graphics, though. I could not tell. Everything was enormous, which made the characters seem negligible (which is a word I used in my book once to say how small I felt).
A man named Mr. Stoltenberg took me to see the play at a very much smaller theater with a rounded stage that came right up to the laps of some audience members and no one had to sit very far away at all. Afterward Mr. Stoltenberg asked me if I liked the play better that way and I said yes I did. Then I made a list of reasons why to send to Mr. Stoltenberg as a thank-you for taking me.
Reason 1. I like to think in pictures. I like to do maths in my head and I’m very good at that and I like to do detecting and think about things logically and I’m very good at that too. But mainly I see what I’m thinking while I am thinking it. I explained that in my book. So l liked it when things my character said or thought appeared projected on a screen like drawings that were as alive as I pictured them to be. It was like the drawings were performing right along with the actor who was pretending to be me. That meant I could see inside my own brain. And when he played Tetris, I could play along.
Reason 2: I say in my book I play computer games but I never said I played Tetris. The people who put on the play made that up. It’s false but it’s not really a lie. And the back wall of the set is made up of boxes like a big Tetris game in three dimensions so it all worked out. The show had a lot of good thinking in pictures like that and it didn’t make me dizzy or distracted.
Reason 3. The actor who pretended to be me is named Harrison Bryan and he already pretended to be me once before at another theater. I don’t know if he plans to make a career of pretending to be me but if he did he would be very good at it and I would be okay with that just so he doesn’t do identity theft. A lot of what Harrison Bryan says in the play Mr. Stephens took from my book, but he also says some things Mr. Stephens made up, like for instance this: “I don’t like acting because it is pretending that something is real when it is not really real at all so it is like a kind of lie.” In my book I never said that. People laughed when Harrison Bryan said it but I didn’t get the joke. And I was okay with how Harrison Bryan pretended to be me even though he’s not really me because he did so many true things. Like a lot of times when someone said something to him he would make a look with his face and go hmmm or hunh like he was thinking something that he couldn’t say out loud because Mr. Stephens left it out but Harrison Bryan knew it would be on my mind.
Reason 4: The actors who pretended to be Father and Mother also did many true things and it hurt a lot to watch and remember what happened. Ever since I wrote my book I have not known what to do with that hurt and I could see that Harrison Bryan could not figure that out either. It seems to be a problem that does not lend itself to logic or detecting which made me very sad.
Reason 5: Siobhan. I could not have become me without her. The actor who pretended to be her did so many true things that she made me feel believed in all over again. That made me happy I got to see this version of the show. I wasn’t overwhelmed but I was whelmed. And I know that’s a real word because I looked it up and it means something very good.
Even though in my book I don’t have any friends unless you count Siobhan, which you can’t really do because she is my teacher, if I could I would ask Harrison Bryan if he would be my friend. I like a lot of things about him that I like about me. For instance he seems very good at maths and logic and he is very good to the white rat who pretends to be my pet rat Toby. If Harrison Bryan said yes he would be my friend I would ask him next if he would like to call me Boone Christopher since his own name is backward. He seems like someone who would get that joke.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (by Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon, directed by Ryan Rilette andJared Mezzocchi) played November 21 through December 22, 2019, at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda MD.
‘The School for Lies’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company
After delighting in David Ives’ rhymed couplets for 90 minutes, something must have rewired in my brain, because I couldn’t quit thinking in them.
The set that we see is a towering eyeful, The interior decorator spared nary a trifle, For decked all about are amusing objets d’art On loan from museums with tastes tres bizarre. Claes Oldenberg’s oversize cherry and spoon’s Propped opposite that dog in balloons by Jeff Koons, Which is hung in a bird cage directly ovah Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa. So many cultured sculptures from who knows where, Plus Pedro Friedeberg’s gold hand chair! Could it be these fine artworks are what meet our eyes? Or might we be in for a bigger surprise?
Bingo, in case you’re still paying attention: This comedy is shot through with pretension. Ergo its title, a snarky rant Against society’s predilection for cant. Mon dieu! another drama about truth and illusion! Have we not seen such plays in profusion? Why dust off Molière for our modern amusement? He’s yesterday’s news, man, what’s the inducement? The dude wrote in French, he has to be translated What was funny back then has got to be outdated. Bottom line, can we enjoy what’s about to go on? Absolutament! And yes we Kahn.
The costumes alone are enough to drop jaws The foppery and finery would give Sun King pause. He’d invite the whole cast to Versailles too Since they’re all worthy of giving high fives to. I was nuts about the show if you haven’t deduced. The performance could not have been better produced But what got me hooked was the way it was written, David Ives’ script had me totally smitten.
His crackerjack couplets, his playful bag of tricks, Made my ears want more and more as if I needed a fix. When he worked in some words that were crude or risque It was like I’d been tossed a verbal bouquet. Once he even mimicked Valleyspeak and rap And my higher cortex went, Oh snap! For an hour and a half this went on and on As ear candy goes it was bon upon bon bon Delicious his rhymes were, like fine French fromage, I could not resist serving up this homage. So delightful they were, so wicked and sublime, Oh yes! said my mind, hit me up one more time! And then it hit me I’d been guessing or predicting How each couplet would finish. God it got addicting!
Some might surmise all this rhyming’d be annoying But I’m here to tell you it was not at all cloying. It altered my brain, rearranged how I listened Linguistic piss and vinegar made me totally blissened. If you see School for Lies, which I heartily recommend You will hear what I mean: The script has pleasures no end.
The School for Lies (by David Ives, adapted from Le Misanthrope by Molière, directed by Michael Kahn) played May 30 through July 9, 2017, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.
‘Falling Out of Time’ at Theater J in Verse
“Fun to read” does not describe this one. The production was painful to watch. It was unrelievedly about death, about parents who had lost offspring; and despite excellent performances, the play as a whole left me dulled and detached. I wrestled with what to write. Because the script’s central grief had never been mine, it felt wrong to just say “this and this didn’t work for me.” Instead I decided to see if I could get inside the pain that prompted the play. Inspired by the script’s blank verse, I did it this way.
There is so much sorrow in this show Nine fine actors playing nine parents All mourning dead children Searching to see them again Seeking to be with them one more time Speaking words of unspeakable loss Each groping their solitary way Going in circles Burdened by unbearable grief Each child’s dying retold Each child’s death relived Mothers and fathers intoning One by one Poems of loss and sadness Lyrical lines of lamentation Becoming a chorus of bereavement No longer alone Finding solace in shared heartbreak In freeing verse In full disclosure of private pain All their sadness aired No more to be said Able to breathe again Still their children are dead Gone from them Yet they have found the words To say what it is like What it is To lose the precious life of one’s child
So know this before you go: It is all in verse And it is all about sorrow Soulful sorrow, all of it A show made solely of sorrow Yes, one note A note you may know But this singular maybe-familiar note has been scored like a magnificent symphony And it is voiced by nine superb soloists Who become an exquisite choir That may lift you up If you have already known the note
Falling Out of Time (based on David Grossman’s novel, adapted and directed by Derek Goldman) played March 17 through April 17, 2016, at Theater J in the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington DC.
A Love Letter to ‘Dear Evan Hansen’
It’s a show about a kid who writes himself letters, so why not? And I really was this overwhelmed.
Dear Dear Evan Hansen,
I know it might sound odd, but this is a love letter to a musical.
I saw you for the first time in my life last night, and I knew right away I had to write you to tell you it was love at first sight. You moved me, you thrilled me, you out and out wowed me. (Gosh, I hope you will not think me weird for gushing.)
You’re a musical about a lonely and depressed high school senior named Evan Hansen who writes letters to himself to cheer himself up—which is why you’re called Dear Evan Hansen (duh). What happened last night, though, was that you cheered me up. I remember when we finally had to part, I left you where you’re staying at Arena Stage (I assume that’s temporary and you’ll be relocating to Broadway, where I hope we can meet up again, because I really want to stay in touch). As I walked out into the summer night, I found I could not shake the feeling of elation you had given me. So I figured you might understand why I felt compelled to publicly declare my passion for you this way.
I haven’t yet read what any of your other admirers may be saying about you. I can only imagine they were similarly smitten. (How could they not be?) But I hope you will take to heart this letter to you, because there’s something really important and personal I want to share with you.
And it’s this, dear Dear Evan Hansen.
Until I met you I had never in my life seen a musical I would call redemptive. I don’t mean redemptive in any divine sense, because you never mentioned faith. I mean in the very human sense of revealing to us a very identifiable inner self that feels so isolated and unworthy it will pretend to be someone else for acceptance. (You nailed it: Everyone’s got Imposter Syndrome. We’ve all been there done that.) And then you showed that self be caught in a Really Big Lie and stricken with recrimination.
You presented a central character, Evan, whose dramatic character arc is actually a profound trajectory of conscience—who despite his good intentions in deceiving others comes to realize that he has totally, totally screwed up. The deception he committed was so wrong he cannot stand himself. And by that point in the second act when Evan falls apart emotionally in a morass of crushing guilt and remorse (in his song called “Words Fail”), you embody on the stage such a searing image of a self feeling utterly irredeemable that I was stunned into awed silence. You dug a hole for your main character so deep it seemed impossible to climb out of, and you dramatized exactly what being at a moral nadir feels like.
What happens next, though—and what prompted me to write you this letter—is that you found a way for that main character to atone and go on. It was as if a redemptive miracle occurred on stage, except of course there was no divine intervention. There was only the careful, conscientious craft of a brilliant book writer (Steven Levenson) and two equally brilliant composer/lyricists (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Together they had told a story on stage so original, emotionally identifiable, and redemptive that what’s possible to achieve in a musical got a Big Bang that will ripple through theater history from now on. Plus everyone who attends can come out a healed and happier person.
Thank you, dear Dear Evan Hansen.
Dear Evan Hansen (book by Steven Levenson, lyrics and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, directed by Michael Greif) played July 10 through August 23, 2015 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC.
‘The Norwegians’ (‘Da Norvegians’) at Scena Theatre by a Norvegian
This last one is all for laughs, but first a serious setup: Before my forebears came to America where they became “white,” they were German in Germany (on my mother’s side) and Norwegian in Norway (on my father’s). I do not much own my cultural heritage anymore, but I keep working at renouncing the white privilege that my lineage made my birthright. To that end, I find, the best takedown is sometimes a sendup.
So dere’s dis play goin’ on in town called Da Norvegians, and it’s set in Minneapolis and it’s got Norvegian characters in it, so I tought I should go check it out, on accounta I vas born dere and grew up dere an’ my fodder vas Norvegian, so I know da lingo pretty good, doncha know. I tought maybe I could assess da play for accuracy in how it depicts my Minnesota Luteran cultural milieu, ya know. Plus it mentions lutefisk, vich I myself ate ven I vas a child, dough I hated it. I hated everyting about it: da smell, da taste, da consistency, vich vas like rubber. It’s a traditional Norvegian delicacy but I could never understan’ vy dey dint yust leave it back in Norvay. Ennaway, dat vile fish vas served special at Christmas in my fodder’s fodder’s dining room in Minneapolis, and I never hauled off and said how much I hated it, ’cause dat vould not be nice.
Nobody in da Minnesota Luteran family I grew up in ever hauled off an’ said anyting. It vas yust not done, doncha know. Dere vas an unspoken ting dat it’s a sin to be angry or rude or confrontational. So you learn to lump it and stuff it. C. Denby Swanson who wrote Da Norvegians got dat part right fer sure. Dere are dese two Minnesotans, Tor an’ Gus, who are business partners, an’ dere business is contract killing—vich isn’t very nice necessarily, but neverdaless Ron Litman and Brian Hemmingsen who play dem make it very funny how dey practice dere profession using nice manners. Dere’s a lotta laughs about dat, you betcha.
Dere are also two non-Minnesotans in da play, and you can tell dey are from elsewhere because dey are not Norvegian and dey don’t talk Minnesotan at-tall. Dey are two vimmin named Betty and Olive. Betty is from Kentucky and Olive is from Texas, an’ it turns out dey vere boat dumped by dere respective boyfriends and so dey become clients of contract killers to off dere not-nice boyfriends. Uff-dah! Dat makes for very funny complications, you betcha. An’ Nanna Ingvarsson and Nora Achrati who play dem are so funny dey reminded me of dat British comedy team Joanna Lumley an’ Jennifer Saunders. Someone should write a notter play for dem two because it’s so rare dat vimmin togedder get to be over-da-top hilarious like Ingvarsson and Achrati are ven dey are trash-talkin’ dere fateless men.
I got to tinkin’ dat if dese two vimmin characters vere Minnesota Norvegian, dere vould be no play, because it’s not nice to kill your boyfriend yust because he dumped you, an’ every Minnesota Norvegian knows dat, doncha know. If dey vere Minnesota Norvegian vimmen, dey vould need a much bedder reason den dat to kill dere boyfriends! Dern tootin’! Minnesota Norvegian vimmin dumped by ex-boyfriends yust lump it and stuff it. So it’s a good ting fer dis funny play dat Betty an’ Olive came from Kentucky and Texas.
The Norwegians (by C. Denby Swanson, directed by Robert McNamara) played March 19 through April 19, 2015 at Scena Theatre, performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, D.C.