Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Chibok Girls: Our Story

One night five years ago, a horror happened in Chibok, North Eastern Nigeria. The Boko Haram—Islamicist terrorists who believe that Western education is evil—abducted 276 girls from the school where they were avidly getting just such an education. The harrowing story of that brutal abduction and punishing aftermath is told in a powerfully poetic theater piece that had its U.S. premiere during the inaugural CrossCurrents festival hosted by the Lab for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University.

Meg Otanwa, Leelee Byoma, and Tobi Igbenoba in ‘The Chibok Girls’ at Georgetown University. Photo by Colin Hovde.

Written for the stage and directed by Wole Oguntokun, artistic director of Nigeria’s Renegade Theatre, The Chibok Girls: Our Story is based on testimonies of girls who survived the abduction and members of their communities. The voices in the play are seared with fear and sorrow. Here, for instance is one girl’s rendering of the events of that night, in a section called “Welcome to Womanhood,” when men disguised as guards broke into their dormitory:

Just strange men in uniform who looked at us through hooded eyes.
Bearing weapons of all kinds.
And now we knew they were not real soldiers.
I do not know how it came upon us
But we just knew
And we shivered in this knowledge.
There was too much darkness surrounding them
Swirling through their clothing and their gestures

They loaded us in the back of the vehicles and started the engines.
Girls screamed. Slaps and kicks rent the air. There were many cocked guns.
And then when we were all seated
One walked down the line of vehicles waving and calling out
I did not know if it was a friendly greeting or a farewell.
“Welcome to womanhood,” he said.
“Girls of Chibok, I greet you.
Welcome to womanhood.”

‘The Chibok Girls Our Story.’ Photo by Renegade Theatre.

The sadism implicit in that sinister greeting became manifest as girls were forced to have sex with their fanatic abductors, the “men with dead eyes.”

The insurgents slaughtered some girls’ parents and set fire to houses. Some girls were killed, some were ransomed, some were recruited to be suicide bombers, and some escaped. This is the voice of one who got away:

I jumped into the bushes to my left
And ran. I heard sharp cracks beside me
Whistles past my ears
Branches fell ahead of me
I was told when my family found me after two days
That they were the sounds of bullets passing me by.
I learnt that the bullet you hear is not the one that kills you.

But life thereafter came with a price, as a survivor tells in a section called “Stigmata”:

When I go to the stream, the other girls keep their distance.
I have been marked in an unseen way.
“I am the wife of Boko Haram”
I have been touched by the devil
And it is not a mark that can ever be washed off.
It is a dark glow, a halo that is around my head
I see pity, disgust, and revulsion on the faces of my own people.

‘The Chibok Girls Our Story.’ Photo by Renegade Theatre.

The Chibok Girls, which premiered four years ago in Lagos, was performed eloquently on the Gonda Theatre stage by an ensemble of four young women in black leotards (Leelee Byoma, Tobi Igbenoba, Jennifer Osammor, and Meg Otanwa). At times they sang and danced; mostly they delivered Oguntokun’s elegiac text in a declamatory tempo, surrounding each line with a kind of reverential silence, now and then breaking out in heartrending bursts of emotional urgency. They were accompanied by a terrifically in-sync drummer (Dolapo Kodaolu), and Oguntokun himself appeared briefly and scarily as a soldier in camo with a rifle. The paneled backdrop, on which the 20 section titles were projected, was plastered at its sides with documentary photographs and reports of the event from international news media—flat depictions stark contrast to the vivid voices alive before us.

Story after story and stanza after stanza go by with painful poignancy. The unremitting script triggers wrenching mental images. Nothing but the words themselves can convey how breathtaking is this play.

We were children who had learnt to whisper
Our intimate conversations with Death;
Bodies violated by soulless men
While watched by silent gods
Who played board games
As youthful dreams bled into the sand.

Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, with no intermission.

The Chibok Girls: Our Story played May 7, 8, and 9, 2019, presented by Georgetown University’s Lab for Global Performance and Politics as part of its CrossCurrents festival at Davis Performing Arts Center, Gonda Theatre, 37th and O St., N.W., Washington, DC.

 

 

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God of Carnage

The set foreshadows the coming fracas.  There’s a fault line down the middle where this living room seems sliced in two. And something’s out of whack. The halves do not align. Like two stressed tectonic plates beneath the surface predicting a quake any second, Matthew J. Keenan’s astute set design sets us on edge.

That’s just one instance of shrewd staging in Keegan Theatre’s smartly entertaining production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, a riotous free-for-all among four grownups. The setup is simple. In a playground spat between two eleven-year-old boys, Henry suffered minor injuries when Benjamin hit him in the mouth with a stick. Henry’s parents, Veronica and Michael (Lolita Marie and DeJeanette Horne) have invited over Benjamin’s parents, Annette and Alan (Susan Marie Rhea and Vishwas), in hopes of resolving things civilly. But as microaggressions mount, marital rifts emerge, and tempers flare, the adults begin bickering and brawling worse than kids behaving horridly. The play’s running joke is, as Annette says early on, that “parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves.”

Susan Marie Rhea (Annette) and Lolita Marie (Veronica) in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman

If there’s a Richter scale for hilarity, this show’s aghast guffaws would surely register. But the play also contains some intriguing serious bits: evolutionary/anthropological explanations for all the mayhem. Reza plants speculation after hypothesis about how humans’ savage instincts are never completely constrained by civilization, so they erupt like volcanic lava—respectable social graces be damned. That’s how I remember the play on Broadway some ten years ago: It played like a primitive, primal screaming match that left everyone hapless victims of something brutal embedded in culture and human nature. Curiously, there’s something comforting about that interpretation. It universalizes the idiotic “boys will be boys” trope into the equally idiotic “humans will be humans”—like a handy, all-purpose absolution of moral responsibility.

Veronica is the character who most vehemently argues against that predetermination:

VERONICA. I don’t see the point of existence without some kind of moral conception of the world…. I’m standing up for civilization! And it’s lucky there are people who are prepared to do that!

Lolita Marie’s standout performance as Veronica impressively gives that argument significant standing. But in Reza’s combative script, Veronica’s moral fervor fails, it persuades no one, and savagery wins the round.

Vishwas (Alan), DeJeanette Horne (Michael), and Lolita Marie (Veronica) in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Director Shirley Serotsky has lent Reza’s play a more interesting and more relevant interpretation. Just as that fissure in the stage presages the hostility to come, Serotsky’s staging lets us see afresh the intrafamilial precursors of Benjamin’s and Henry’s tiff: This production pointedly highlights how the two husbands’ crude and rude sense of “virility” has been a longstanding exasperation for the wives, whose efforts to civilize them have been in vain:

ALAN. You know, speaking personally, my wife had to drag me here. When you’re brought up with a kind of John Wayne-ish idea of virility, you don’t want to settle this kind of problem with a lot of yakking. (Michael laughs.)

ANNETTE. I thought your model was Spartacus.

ALAN. Same family.

MICHAEL. Analogous.

VERONICA. Analogous! Are there no lengths you won’t go to to humiliate yourself, Michael?

If you’ve never seen God of Carnage, you should, it’s a modern comedy classic, and Keegan offers a superb chance to enjoy it. If you have seen the play and know the story, watch closely how Serotsky conducts who bickers and brawls with whom—couple versus couple, spouse versus spouse, women versus men, men versus women, Annette versus Veronica, Michael versus Alan… The conflict scenarios are ever-shifting and elide into one another. But what comes through loud and clear is that the antecedent of this anxious comedy is not human evolution in the ancient past. This is a completely contemporary comic parable about why two young apples have fallen not far from two trees.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

God of Carnage plays through May 25, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

The Children

Three retired nuclear physicists meet in a quaint cottage not far from the nuclear power plant where they once worked and where a catastrophe has occurred. Earthquake, tsunami, tidal wave, radiation—like  Fukushima, Japan, except seaside in England. And so there goes the neighborhood. It sounds like the setup for an apocalyptic sitcom. And though indeed there are eruptions of smart laughs, dry humor, and even a delightful dance number in what follows, the real explosions go off in one’s mind as the implications of this electrifying thriller sink in.

Richard Howard (Robin), Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel), and Naomi Jacobson (Rose) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Lucy Kirkwood is one of those playwrights you can’t wait to know what they’ll tackle next. Her Chimerica at Studio Theatre and NSFW at Round House Theatre were dazzling dramatizations of epically consequential issues on an emotionally intense human scale. This track record would be reason enough to check out The Children without reading another word of this rave.

Long married Hazel and Robin have evacuated their farm, which is in the nearby “exclusion zone,” and are making do conserving electricity, which comes on after 10. With survivalist optimism, Hazel does yoga and prepares healthful meals and Robin takes the Geiger counter along when he goes to check on the beloved herd of cows they left behind, one of whom they named after the theoretical physicist Heisenberg.

Naomi Jacobson (Rose) and Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

At rise, Robin is off making his cow rounds when Hazel is surprised by a visit from Rose, a former coworker from the now-lethal power plant. Hazel hasn’t seen Rose in 38 years. Why has she come here? What is she up to? What does she want? Not till near the end do we, along with Hazel and Robin, find out, and it’s a breathtaking bombshell of an ask—which had best remain unforeseen. But couldn’t Rose have blurted it out sooner? Like maybe ten minutes in? Maybe so, but then there’d be no play—i.e., we’d be deprived of all the riveting disclosures about these three retirees that Kirkwood’s spellbinding script delivers.

Jeanne Paulsen’s Hazel is a chattering bundle of nerves. Her unease is unceasing. Paulson plays Hazel’s apprehension so completely it becomes the paramount emotion of the play; and her performance, of intensifying interest. But it’s Hazel’s sustained suspicion and simmering hostility toward Rose that cinch our sense of suspense.

Naomi Jacobson’s Rose, meanwhile, emanates enigmatic composure. She is uncannily familiar with the place, she knows exactly which cupboard has the glassware, and that unnerves Hazel further. Hazel realizes that Rose has been here when Hazel wasn’t. Before Hazel and Robin married, as Hazel knew, Robin and Rose were an item  But it turns out this humble abode, now a pied-à-terror, was where Robin and Rose would continue their affair.

Richard Howard (Robin(, Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel), and Naomi Jacobson (Rose) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The vertex of this romantic triangle is Richard Howard’s Robin, an amiably brainy lunk. He and Hazel have raised four children, the oldest a troubled 38-year-old daughter. These were to be the couple’s sunset years, lived out in bucolic bliss. (The script’s choice observations about aging—e.g., Hazel to Robin: “You are past your sell-by date”—audibly amused the AARP-esque audience I was with.) Then everything that could go wrong did.

Enfolding these characters’ backstories—of domesticity, health crises, marital distrust—is Kirkwood’s stirring evocation of humans’ irresponsibility to the Earth and the cost of overconsumption (“We cannot have what we want just because we want it,” says Hazel pointedly, a dig at her husband’s betrayal as well). The children of the title are the legions who’ll bear the legacy left by their ecologically reckless forebears.

Richard Howard (Robin) and Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Electrical power lines are prominent in scenic designer Tom Kamm lived-in kitchen set, and there comes a stunning stagecraft effect that is too mindblowing to reveal. Lighting Designer Miriam Nilofa Crowe artfully shifts time into candle-lit evening then shocks the eyes with a fluorescent glare when the power surges on. Sound Designer Broken Chord establishes the natural environment of nearby sea surf and seagulls and gets a Geiger counter to click on cue. Costume Designer Nephelie Andonyadis gives Rose remarkably truthful clues to her character’s past. And Director David Muse absolutely astonishes with his nuanced handling of interpersonal moments among and between these precisely cast actors.

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children is a captivating masterpiece of small-cast theater that’s actually about the stage that is our planet. Perhaps its most urgent and disquieting aspect is the way its three very intelligent characters come to realize what they cannot know about what they have done.

This is a play whose see-by date is right now.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Children plays through June 2, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or go online.

Oslo

It is rare that theater seriously asks us to believe something far beyond itself. Typically we are asked to suspend disbelief about let’s-pretend that happens on stage. The gripping and inspiring play Oslo leaves us with a different ask, one that in retrospect seems a massive task: We are challenged by the end to believe that a peace process between sworn enemies is not only plausible onstage but possible in the real world.

Playwright J.T. Rogers has dramatized the true story of the delicate back-channel negotiations in Norway between Israel and the PLO that culminated in the historic 1993 Oslo Accords. Official United States-led diplomatic efforts then as now were failing (“Fuck the State Department,” a bureaucrat says at one point). A Norwegian married couple, Terje Rød-Larsen (Cody Nickell) and Mona Juul (Erin Weaver), got it into their heads that they could parlay Norway’s neutrality and Rød-Larsen’s notions about organizational psychology into secret face-to-face meetings between Israeli and Palestinian delegates. Their idealistic idea—daft on the face of it given all the violence being done by both sides—was that if the adversaries could meet each other personally and see each other as fellow human beings, familiarity and trust would arise such that agreement could be reached incrementally, sticking point by sticking point.

Erin Weaver (Mona Juul) and Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen) in Round House Theatre’s current production of ‘Oslo.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Against all odds, it worked. There comes a point in Act Two when two men representing the opposing sides affirm their agreement by shaking hands, and Mona, who sometimes addresses the audience directly, tells us “the world began to change.” Even though we know a moment like that is going to come—because we know the story ends with a big deal—the gesture of that handshake takes one’s breath away. Somehow and by surprise it taps into some unacknowledged reservoir of longing for amity and reconciliation. We are seeing a theatrical emulation of a human meeting that really happened once, and something in us wants to believe it could happen again but we fear it never will. Certainly not with a bellicose president whose firmest handshakes are with other autocrats.

Rogers’s insightful script, Ryan Rillette’s crisp direction, and a deft cast keep Oslo’s storytelling engrossing and its diversity of characters vivid. A lot is spelled out, especially by Terje, about the fascinating theory underlying what he and Mona are up to—it’s a person-centered methodology, not organization-centric; it’s about gradualism, not all-or-nothingism. It also involves a cushy retreat and ample creature comforts like waffles and scotch. As Oslo unfolds, we can see clearly how that personal approach played out in practice, sometimes well and sometimes not so well—with ever optimistic Terje urging everyone to “push on” though there’s no “roadmap.”

In ‘Oslo,’ negotiating for the PLO: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire) and Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour). Negotiating for Israel: Gregory Wooddell (Ron Pundak), Sasha Olinick (Yair Hirschfeld), and Juri Henley-Cohn (Uri Savir). Photo by Lilly King

Even more than what gets arrestingly told to us, what struck me about the Round House Theatre production is what gets simply shown to us without comment—particularly in the nuanced performances by Nickell and Weaver of Terje and Mona. For instance, when negotiators’ tempers flare and Terje is dissed, he never takes the bait; he always does something to defuse the situation. Even when physically threatened, he doesn’t counter attack; he withdraws, explaining nonconfrontationally, “I won’t be your punching bag.” His neutrality does not neuter him; to the contrary by his modeling of a manhood not invested in dominance and disparagement, it emerges as one of the reasons the all-male combatants come to feel at ease with one another.

The gender dynamics of effective conflict resolution stand out even more in how Mona comports herself. In this fraught world of contested masculinity, she is well aware that her presence as a woman is having a civilizing influence against what could easily turn into a brawl. At the same time, her adroit deflection of attempts to sexualize and hit on her steadily establish her as a voice the negotiators listen to and respect, as in her persuasive speech to them all reminding them of all the mothers and children their incessant strife has slain.

Erin Weaver (Mona Juul) and Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen) in Round House Theatre’s current production of ‘Oslo.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Within Rogers script about the Oslo Accords back channel, there lies the equally illuminating story of the back channel behind it: the scenes between Mona and Terje about trust-breaking and trust-building in their relationship. Theirs is a marriage of true minds and empathic principles. It is not uniformly harmonious, but we see that it always pushes on.

Ultimately what Oslo illustrates is that without  Mona and Terje in the room—and their respective defections from standard-issue gender specs—everything would have broken down. Left to their own devices, these posturing men would have made a mess of it.

Oslo is not just history. It is a must-learn lesson for tomorrow.

Running Time: Approximately two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Oslo, presented by Round House Theatre, plays through May 19, 2019, at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100 or go online.

Review: ‘Oslo’ by Round House Theatre by David Siegel

 

10 Questions for the Brains Behind The Tarot Reading

Quill Nebeker and Alan Katz play a game of full disclosure.

Even in this theater town abounding in innovation, The Tarot Reading stands out as an original. I can’t think of anything it’s quite like. After I saw an iteration last year (The Tarot Reading IV), I wrote that cocreators Quill Nebeker and Alan Katz “had conceived what seemed a wholly new framework for experiencing live theater.”

Quill and Alan don’t usually call themselves cocreators; in Tarot lingo, they are the “Summoners.” And they would say that The Tarot Reading experiences are actually cocreated by a cast of seven “Mediums” who cocreate “Revelations” (sophisticated mini theater games), each performed in front of an audience of “Witnesses” for a single “Seeker” who has drawn one of the 21 Tarot cards.

With The Tarot Reading V about to open at Anacostia Arts Center, I proposed to Quill and Alan a game of Q&A:

Your Revelation, should you choose to play along, will be fulfilled when you see each other’s answers to the following ten questions once they are published jointly in DCMTA. But until then, no peeking! You must submit your answers directly to this faux-Medium without consulting each other and without cc’ing or bcc’ing anyone.  (And yeah, this is like Newlyweds Game except for the glaring dissimilarities.)

Alan Katz and Quill Nebeker, from ‘The Tarot Reading III.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

John:  What were The Tarot Reading’s influences and what do you consider The Tarot Reading’s closest kin?

Quill: The most immediately recognizable influence is Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. We straight-up jacked the structure of the thing from the Neos [Neo-Futurists]—it’s twenty-one artist-generated micro-plays told in completely random order. The less-recognizable influence is the body of performance by Tim Miller, whom I had the great pleasure to see, study, and interview during college. From Tim, we got the “no lies” aspect of it, which is another way of saying the personal storytelling bit. He also gave us I suppose an ethos of a kind, the idea that in performing one’s own story, one could make a difference in the world in a way that fiction cannot. You can see some of his his extremely queer, totally intimate, hilarious and heartbreaking performance art on his YouTube Channel.

Alan: There are three influences that I can point to, though all of them are tangential. The first and most obvious is the Neo-Futurists, whose work Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is baked into my theatrical bones. I don’t go to NYC or Chicago without seeing them. Their driving ideas—that a theatrical evening can be made of many discrete and beautiful moments, that theater should come from the lives of the performers, that theater should make a fundamental change in the world, that iteration is the key to consistently bringing an audience back to the theater—are the same ideas that drive The Tarot Reading. Personally, I draw a ton of influence from Mike Daisey, who (for all the controversy surrounding his work) I count as one of the greatest solo performers of our time. His All the Faces of the Moon—29 monologues performed on 29 nights and not coincidentally full of references to the Tarot—showed me that things that seem truly impossible can be done with enough ambition, and, more importantly, that there is nothing that will move an audience like the true personal vulnerability onstage. Another influence that deserves mentioning is local playwright Gwydion Suilebhan’s Transmission. While the content and values of Transmission contrasts starkly with The Tarot Reading, that work showed me the absolute necessity of comfort and safety in the creation of interactive experiences. Walking into Transmission at Atlas was like coming into a living room, and consequently audiences were able to show much more of themselves than they might otherwise.

Why did you come up with The Tarot Reading in the first place? What void were you wanting to fill in DC theatergoers’ lives? What were you missing as theater practitioners personally?

Quill: We wanted to make a place that audiences could and would want to come back to over and over again. We also wanted to make an institution, of a kind, that shined a light on the incredibly creative people in DC. We used to joke around that we wanted to be the indie version of Shear Madness, something that showed up on résumés all over the city and brought people together for having both done this weird thing.

Alan: The deepest motivation for me was and is the lack of consistent platforms for theatrical storytelling, as opposed to productions. Most theaters in DC are or attempt to be versions of the regional theater model: find a play, rehearse it for a few weeks, perform it for a few weeks, then be done with it. That model doesn’t really interest me creatively. DC audiences need places that they can return to again and again and still find new and innovative storytelling. We need something that matters now, in the moment, that we know will be here in the future. We need a theater that doesn’t die on closing night. But most importantly, DC needs a place that can empower artists to tell their own stories with their amazing, variegated skill sets. So much of the regional theater model is artists trying to force their stories on other artists: an artistic director demanding certain stories be told, a playwright prompting others to say their words, a director determining how an artist emotes, a choreographer controlling how an artist moves. DC theater needs freedom. DC theater needs empowerment. That’s what we strive for. And that’s why we do this over and over: so we can get better at providing that service for artists and giving audiences a true and wild taste of what artists can do when they are empowered.

By now The Tarot Reading’s got ardent fans who have some idea what they’re in for, even if it’ll all be brand-new.  What should first-timers know to expect? 

Quill: Some people when they hear that its interactive get nervous; it’s like they expect we’re going to haze them or something. First-timers should know to expect us to always ask before we do something together—it’s like sex, affirmative consent is both necessary and also makes the whole thing much more fun. I think related to that is that first-timers sometimes think they’re about to experience some kind of, like, dark, ritual indoctrination. There are cult-y things about the show, and sometimes I guess we get a little spoopy in the name of fun, but it’s not ever gonna be like Children of the Corn or Rosemary’s Baby. They should expect a variety show at heart, not a horror show.

Alan: Variety and truth-telling. We hope to show audiences a barrage of truly felt and meaningful entertainments that will have real-life effect beyond the room. Expect your interaction to be opt-in and consensual, and expect to see real risks being taken. Expect a performance that feels like a party, talks like an occult ritual, and opens its heart like a dear friend.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What are your own beliefs or inclinations or hunches about superstition, the occult, mysticism, and the like? And why might The Tarot Reading appeal to someone who thinks that’s all hokum? 

Quill: I hold a handful of superstitions, most of them having to do with sports. Much to my sadness, I shaved my playoff beard last night, and I will stare daggers at anyone who dares utter the words “no-hitter” or “shutout” in the middle of what might be one. I also respect a lot of theater superstitions, in part because I’ve seen how breaking them can affect people who genuinely believe in them. As far as the occult, mysticism, astrology, etc., go, I don’t buy into it much except as far as the fun of internet memes is concerned. In fact, when Alan proposed to me the idea of using the Tarot cards as inspiration, I was skeptical. It took him a while to convince me that was a good idea, artistically speaking, because I had a skeptic’s bias against the concept.

I think The Tarot Reading might appeal to someone dismissive of those things because, for this skeptic, it became a way to experience the magic of the Tarot mythos that doesn’t ask to compromise either one’s belief in it or lack thereof. We’re not actually doing divination or cartomancy. We’re not asking whether or not you believe in some foretold future. We’re only asking you to be inspired and entertained by the way the card manifests itself in the reality of this show, in the present.

Alan: The thing about hokum is that it is built to deceive, to hide, to grift. All we do is show faith and trust in each other and in the power of leaving space for something magical to happen. Not to make it happen, nor force it, nor for manipulation, but simply to open the door to a place where people can be loved and respected in the way that all people need to be. When it comes to magic, our trust and adherence to randomness (in the order of the show and in the choosing of the cards for Seekers) has produced amazing, unexpected results. A fundamental rule of magic is that one takes out what one puts in, which is why we ask every audience member for a Sacrifice when they arrive. I have seen people sacrifice some of the most amazing things—a baby blanket, a childhood toy, poems torn from their journal, mementos of an ex-lover. The people who give up those things invariably receive experiences that they have needed and enriched their lives more than they could have known. I don’t need to believe in magic, any more than I need to believe in the Sun or a hot fudge sundae or this keyboard I’m typing on. They simply exist. They are concrete despite my belief. And it’s my choice, all of our choices, to react to and use that reality in ways that are good for us and our world.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

At every performance there’s what you call a “safety valve”—a gesture anyone in the audience can make at any time to signal that they’ve been triggered or want to opt out of their participation in a revelation. Has that gesture ever been employed? If so, what can you say about why and what happened?

Quill: I can say that that the safety valve has functioned as intended before, but I can’t say anything more specific than that. Why and what happened in those moments, that’s not my story to tell. Our job is to make sure people have a good time, and have a space where they can try something maybe a little risky in a controlled environment in the name of entertainment. If someone doesn’t want to do something, or doesn’t feel safe for whatever reason, my job isn’t to ask “why” or “what happened”; it’s to take care of them in that environment where they’re no longer having a good time. Part of that is also honoring their privacy in those moments.

Actually, in the spirit of your Revelation-qua-interview, I should tell you that Alan and I pulled a safety valve on you and did confer about this particular question, because how we answered it would impact the safety of the people who come to the show. The fun we have at The Tarot Reading can’t happen if anyone ever feels like we’re going to air out their trauma later, so we approach that aspect with a great deal of care. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that The Tarot Reading is, like, a dour, group therapy experience—that couldn’t be further from the truth—I just don’t want anyone reading this to feel like they’re gonna be forced to do something they don’t want to do in the name of other people’s fun, or that what they do at The Tarot Reading will be put on display later without their consent.

Alan: I can say that it has been used and been used effectively. I can say that the people who have used it have been cared for by others especially employed for that purpose and that has been done with respect and discretion. What I can’t say are any details of those circumstances. But here’s why: the only reason that people can take the risks that we ask them to take and (as we say) put the personal at stake is that they have entrusted us with their physical and emotional safety. To share the circumstances of another person’s distress without their permission would be a betrayal of that trust. I would want anyone, including you, to know that if you needed to be elsewhere during a Revelation, we would provide that space for you. And no matter what you said in that place of safety, it would be held in confidence.

In the two Tarot Readings I’ve attended, there are comical situations with very witty ad-libbing juxtaposed with portions that are from-the-gut emotional and very personal for the mediums. How much of that is plotted out beforehand? And since the sequence of the emotionality of different Revelations is basically random—literally the luck of the draw—what control do you have over the dramatic/comic arc of a given show?

Quill: Well, in terms of mood or tone, we encourage the Mediums to explore a range—it is a variety show after all—but we don’t ever dictate, like, “okay that’s your haha one, now show me your cut-my-guts-out one…” It’s up to the Medium to interpret the card; we’re not here to demand that what they do fits into a genre or whatever. That would get stale fast.

As far as the sequence goes, you pretty much covered it. It’s basically random, literally luck of the draw, we don’t have control over the dramatic/comic arc of a given show. I gotta say it’s hilarious how often people ask us this question, especially after the show—I promise you, we aren’t rigging the run order! If you feel what appears to be something of a narrative thread at The Tarot Reading, it is only that which weaves through this thing called human existence. Alan would say, as he does to his daughter, “life is a glorious cycle of song.”

Alan: Part of our strategy as Summoners (for Tarot V, Joan Cummins and I) is to prepare Mediums for truly being present during the performance. Recognizing mistakes and acknowledging them, checking in with their true feelings in a situation, and reading the body language and voice of a Seeker all contribute to that feeling immediacy because they are, well, truly immediate. We also work with Mediums on tiering strategies that open the possibilities in a Revelation for a Seeker to opt in to more participation while keeping well-crafted instructions and options for them in reserve if they get stuck or nervous. As far as arc goes, there are strategies that can be employed to give the impression of an arc while still staying true to the randomness of the show. Encouraging the Mediums to explore a different feeling in each of their three Revelations helps, as does using the Fool (the MC of the evening) to anticipate, defuse, or reset feelings from Revelations. But honestly, the dramatic or comic success of The Tarot Reading is rooted in a trust of the randomness of the process and not trying to force or rig something out of view.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What can you reveal about the behind-the-scenes process for rehearsing and preparing Revelations and Mediums? And can you briefly introduce who the Mediums will be?

Quill: Uh, I mean I could say a lot about it. It is an iterative process; we learn how to do it better every time we do it. A lot of staging a Revelation is learning when to ignore the things we’ve done previously in order to help the Medium through whatever their artistic process is. We’ve gotten pretty good at the orientation aspect of it, though; like there’s a whole “this is what the Tarot Reading is” rehearsal, and there’s a whole “test your Revelation with an actual random person who didn’t help make it” rehearsal. We try to give them a structure to strike against, something that generates a little creative friction.

The Mediums for Tarot V are Gwen Grastorf, who does a lot of vaudeville-style physical comedy; David S Kessler, who is a retired biologist and a solo-performer; Rachel Menyuk, who is an archivist, a dancer, and puppeteer; Toni Rae Salmi, who is an actor-singer-director; Rebecca Speas, who is a classical theater actor, a historian, a bookseller, and book podcaster; Shaquille Stewart, who is a rapper, musician, poet, and actor; and Yasmin Tuazon, who is a movement and dance artist, voice actor, and yoga teacher. They’re great, come see them.

Alan: We’ve created a from-scratch approach to the rehearsal process that has developed and changed over each iteration. Right now, we have an introductory meeting where Mediums learn about the process as a whole and then draft their cards, just like a sports draft. Then they get some time to percolate on ideas and ask questions about their cards before they pitch ideas for Revelations. We whittle their many ideas down to one in the Alpha phase, where each Medium has a rehearsal devoted to them, culminating in a showcase where they Seek for each other and give each other feedback. Then another round of individual rehearsals before we bring in people who haven’t been a part of the process at all to playtest their Revelations in what we call the Beta showcase. The following week, we incorporate the feedback that’s been received and solidify what each Revelation will be, with a concrete structure that won’t undergo any more major changes. Then we integrate tech and do run-throughs then we open! We have a great group of weirdos this time around, and you can read their quirky bios here.

This year are two ways to take in The Tarot Reading—a 9-card version and a 21-card version. Why would someone choose one and why would someone choose the other?

Quill: If you are super into the interactive thing, and want to guarantee that you can do that, you want to get a Seeker ticket for the 21-card Classic Tarot.

If you could take or leave the interactive thing but are still into big, communal, immersive experiences, you may want to see full cycle of 21-card Classic Tarot but just as a Witness.

If you’re super into the variety show, see cool performers doing random things thing, but prefer to see a show that doesn’t keep you out past 10, you want to see Nine Card Draw. This may also be true if you think you could be into the interactivity thing, but aren’t sure, and maybe don’t want to make a decision until you get there.

Alan: It depends on how you like your theater. Some people want to get entirely enveloped in a world, drinking in as much content as their brain can stand and trying to experience absolutely every feeling they can. That’s who the 21-card version is for—people who want it all, no matter how much time it takes.

Some people say that their favorite theater functions best within a specific format and that they’re most comfortable with getting in, having a great time, and getting out with time for post-show drinks and an early bedtime. Often those people will say that their optimal show is 90 minutes with no intermission, and that’s exactly what our Nine Card Draw performances are.

From ‘The Tarot Reading IV.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

What does your crystal ball say? What’s your dream or vision for the future of The Tarot Reading?

Quill: Ask again later.” By that I mean The Tarot Reading is by design a thing where our trajectory is charted by iterating upon what we’ve done before, so I won’t ever know until I see what happened this time around, and start thinking about how we can improve upon that. If I knew exactly what I wanted the future for The Tarot Reading to be, I don’t think it would be The Tarot Reading anymore.

Alan: My dream is to have a home. Have a place where people can come consistently to experience variety and truth-telling in theater on a regular basis. Give us a place, and we’ll fill it with wonder.

What’s the wildest/weirdest/funniest thing anyone ever said to you as they were leaving a performance of The Tarot Reading?

Quill: The wildest things to me are the things people say to me about The Tarot Reading, like, days or weeks afterward, when they tell me that they’re doing something differently than they used to because of something they experienced, or they show me what they did with a thing we gave them. It’s wild to me that what we do in this thing that is mostly for entertainment can have an impact on people in that way, even if it’s just a little thing. If there is a way in which we are playing with visions of the future at The Tarot Reading, that is it.

My mom puts every card she gets on her refrigerator, like she did with my childhood drawings. I got a kick out of that for a while, because it’s not like I made the Revelation—the Medium made the Revelation! I said that to her, and she told me it was vain to assume that she put them there for me. She gave me the okay to share this story.

Life is a glorious cycle of song.

Alan “I couldn’t read what it said on your butt. I think some of the marker sweated off. What did it say?”

Running time: About 90 minutes (Nine Card Draw); about three hours (Classic Tarot).

The Tarot Reading V plays May 9 through 26, 2019, produced by The Arcanists at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online (where you can find explanations of the types of tickets—Nine Card Draw or Classic Tarot, Witness or Seeker).

For information about future performances, follow The Tarot Reading on Facebook or join the Tarot Reading mailing list.

Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy

Fifty years ago Rolling Stone reported completion of a new album by Pete Townshend and called it “probably the most important milestone in pop since Beatlemania. For the first time, a rock group has come up with a full-length cohesive work that could be compared to the classics.” The effusive praise was prescient. Tommy became a sensation. And as the eye-popping and robust new production at Kennedy Center suggests, what Tommy has to say today may be even more significant than then.

The Who’s Tommy, as it’s now called, is a sung-through rock opera about a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” in the 1940s who becomes such a phenomenal “pinball wizard” that people begin to believe he is their spiritual leader. The show opened last night in the Eisenhower Theater to a rapturous standing ovation as part of the Broadway Center Stage series.

“Broadway Center Stage performances,” we are advised, “are presented as semi-staged concerts. The actors will carry scripts in hands for various scenes of their performance”—which turns out to be gloriously untrue. Not a script in sight. Nothing semi about it. This production pulls out all the stops, pushes all the right buttons, flips all the right flippers, and scores a powerball of a show.

From left: Casey Cott (Tommy), Hudson Loverro (Tommy, Age 10), and the cast of ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Set and Projection Designer Paul DePoo erects a massive structure of girders astride a stepped stage and floods the upstage wall with stunning story-propelling imagery—from grim World War II bombers to a flashy pinball arcade to the haunting eyes of a lonely child. He also gives the actors multiple white-framed set pieces that, moved around from scene to scene (not quite yet smoothly), function as tables, doorways, a pinball machine, and more.

The show seems just as fully conceived as a hit musical on tour, an effect made blazingly visible in Lighting Designer Jake DeGroot eye-glazing bright colors and animated strip lighting. At times it’s as if we’re inside a pinball machine. The full orchestra, conducted with punch and precision by Musical Director Lynne Shankel, is situated in pits upstage, which lends a rock-concert feel to the showier numbers. And in a vast auditorium where acoustics can be iffy, Sound Designer Kai Harada has worked some kind of magic that makes the actors’ voices come through clear as a bell in perfect balance with the band.

Casey Cott, known to fans of the CW series Riverdale, gives a muscular and winning performance as grown-up Tommy and brings a strong voice that especially impresses on his rocker vocals. Tommy at age 4 is played by Declan Fennell and Tommy at age 10 is played by Hudson Loverro; their lovely voices, vulnerability, and stoic isolation are highlights of the show.

As Tommy’s father and mother, big-musical veterans Christian Borle (Captain Walker) and Mandy Gonzalez (Mrs. Walker) each bring affecting parental compassion to their roles. Gonzalez’s vocals are particularly rich, and Borle handles Captain Walker’s challenging character arc with great grace.

Casey Cott (Tommy) and the cast of ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Townshend, who wrote the music and lyrics and coauthored the book with Des McAnuff, built into the musical a childhood for Tommy that shocks and disturbs still today: Captain Walker goes off to war leaving his wife pregnant; while he’s away she gives birth to Tommy. Then, believing her husband has been killed in combat, she takes a Lover (Rory Donovan). Captain Walker returns unannounced, finds his wife in another man’s embrace, and shoots the Lover dead. Four-year-old Tommy witnesses the murder, reflected in a mirror. His mother and father order him not to say anything about what he has seen. So traumatized is Tommy that he becomes deaf, dumb, and blind on the spot. Subsequently he is sexually abused by his father’s brother, Uncle Ernie (Manu Narayan, whose dulcet pipes contrast starkly with the character’s dark heart), and sadistically tormented by his Cousin Kevin (a nimbly malevolent Wesley Taylor).

Besides Tommy’s great classic-rock score, and despite the troubling underpinnings of its plot, Tommy is chock full of entertaining song-and-dance numbers, and Director and Choreographer Josh Rhodes puts the energetic young cast through their paces way more ambitiously than “semi-staged concert” would suggest (at times perhaps too ambitiously; the choreography on opening night was not yet tight). The cast of characters is large (see credits below) and their voices are uniformly excellent. The choral and duet work is wonderful—as when grownup Tommy sings to and with his younger self. A few solos that stood out were the vocal star turns of the high-strutting Kimberly Nichole as The Gypsy (to whom 10-year-old Tommy is nearly forced to go for sexual initiation) and the elegantly dreadlocked Mykal Kilgore (in multiple vivid roles). On opening night the audience didn’t audibly respond until The Gypsy’s show-stopping scene about 45 minutes in, and from then on the joint was jumping, culminating in a rock-concert-slash-revival-meeting starring rocker Cott that lifted everyone to their feet.

Casey Cott (Tommy) and the cast of ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The narrative embedded in Tommy of a traumatic childhood was prompted by Townshend’s own. As he disclosed in his 2012 autobiography, around the time he was 6, he was sexually abused by an uncle. Recently Townshend has acknowledged that he cannot even perform Tommy in its entirety anymore. The last time he tried, two years ago at Royal Albert Hall, he suffered what he described as “a mental crash” halfway through.

I had a flashback to childhood abuse. The second night was OK, but the first night I nearly walked off the stage…which would have been awful. I wasn’t playing very well and I was feeling dizzy. I almost blacked out and it was just horrible. I don’t know where it came from because I’ve been working with Tommy. I’ve been investigating it — where it comes from in my life and childhood, writing about it in my biography. So it was quite a shock.

Mandy Gonzalez (Mrs. Walker), Casey Cott (Tommy) and Declan Fennell (Tommy Age 4) in ‘Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The conversation around the trauma of childhood abuse has enlarged and deepened in the 50 years since Tommy premiered, and so there are aspects of the show that now must be handled with newfound sensitivity—not only because the incidents could be triggering but because the well-being of two child actors is at stake. Director and Choreographer Rhodes has staged the scenes involving both Cousin Ernie’s “fiddling about” with young Tommy and Cousin Kevin’s tormenting with enormous care, a kind of PG decorum actually, which today seems absolutely fitting.

What this directorial approach means for how the story plays in this production is interesting. Far from blunting dramatic impact, it makes us care about Tommy all the more. Our apprehension about the welfare of the child actors translates into intensified concern for Tommy the character, which carries over into our emotional identification with Cott’s grownup Tommy.

There’s a marvelous moment when Tommy age 4 walks through a white frame box and out the other side walks Tommy age 10. And at the end all three Tommys are brightly spotlit inside three such boxes. Though they are separated, the congruence among them is deeply moving.

Tommy’s life touches the hurt child still in us all and lets us know we’ll be okay.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.

Broadway Center Stage: The Who’s Tommy plays through April 29, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased at the Kennedy Center Box Office, by calling 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or online.

CREDITS

Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional Music and Lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
Musical direction by Lynne Shankel
Scenic and projection design by Paul DePoo
Costume design by Andrea Hood
Lighting design by Jake DeGroot
Sound design by Kai Harada

Cast (in order of appearance)
Tommy: Casey Cott
Captain Walker: Christian Borle
Mrs.Walker: Mandy Gonzalez
Uncle Ernie: Manu Narayan
The Gypsy: Kimberly Nichole
Cousin Kevin: Wesley Taylor
Minister: Charl Brown
Officer #1: Mykal Kilgore
Officer #2: Kaleb Wells
Nurses: Taylor Iman Jones, Tiernan Tunniclife, Trina Mills
Allied Soldier #1: Nick Martinez
Allied Soldier #2: Michael Milkanin
Lover: Rory Donovan
Tommy, Age 4: Declan Fennell
Judge: Michael Milkanin
Tommy, Age 10: Hudson Loverro
Cousin Kevin’s Mom: Samantha Gershman
Hawker: Mykal Kilgore
Harmonica Player: Rory Donovan
Allied Soldier #2: Michael Milkanin
Lover: Rory Donovan
Tommy, Age 4: Declan Fennell
Judge: Michael Milkanin
Tommy, Age 10: Hudson Loverro
Cousin Kevin’s Mom: Samantha Gershman
Hawker: Mykal Kilgore
Harmonica Player: Rory Donovan
First Pinball Lad: Nick Martinez
Second Pinball Lad: Kaleb Wells
Specialist: Charl Brown
Specialist’s Assistant: TiemanTunniclife
Sally Simpson: Taylor Iman Jones
DJ: Olutayo Bosede
Local Lads, Lasses, Reporters, Ensemble: Olutayo Bosede, Charl Brown, Rory Donovan, Samantha Gershman, Taylor Iman Jones, Mykal Kilgore, Nick Martinez, Michael Milkanin, Trina Mills, Khori Petinaud, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, MathewVarvar, Kaleb Wells, Sharrod Williams, Kristin Yancy

Orchestra
Drums: Joe Mowatt
Electric Bass: Paul Henry
Guitar: Manny Moreira, Jim Roberts
Horn: Geoffrey Pilkington
Keyboard: Michael Gacetta, Anthony Nalker, Alex Tang

Disrupting the White Comfort Zone: A Q&A with Gary L. Perkins III about P.Y.G.

I have an ongoing interest in how theaters in DC with predominantly white audiences raise and represent the issue of race. And one of the things I’ve been noticing is how the white comfort zone functions in programming and in performance.

If you Google “white comfort zone” you’ll get results about home decor. But to anyone halfway woke, the phrase has another, self-evident meaning: It’s the mindset of a subset of white theatergoers who are disinclined to have to think too hard about the realities of racism. So theaters around town program around the white comfort zone differently, with works of theater that relate to it differently—some try not to upset it, some will unsettle it just a little, and some intend to seriously disrupt it.

This all came to mind as I watched the very provocative and hilariously discomfiting new play now running at Studio Theatre, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.

[Read Barbara Mackay’s review.]

I recognized Gary L. Perkins III, one of the three actors in the show, from his work in three previous productions I’d written about for DC Metro Theater Arts: The Frederick Douglass Project, Word Becomes Flesh, and The Shipment—all of which, like P.Y.G., navigate the white comfort zone in significant ways. So I asked if we could chat about that.

John: Let’s start with your performance in P.Y.G. as Alexand Da Great (which is amazing, by the way—the dancing, the rapping, the singing, the acting, I loved it). I was there opening night and there seemed to be a lot of awkwardness in the audience, which seemed intentional on the part of the play. There were points that were fraught with tension about race but in a jokey way, sometimes in a serious way, sometimes in a jokey way that you didn’t know was jokey. It was as if the play wants us to have a good time but it also wants to shake up a lot of presumptions typical of white people.

Gary: Absolutely. My experience is very similar. There’s different focus in conveying a message in a direct way or in a farcical way—like the commercial breaks that happen throughout the play. My character Alexand is a very direct character. He’s very outspoken and headstrong about his opinions. So to reel that in during the commercial breaks, where the underlying messages were conveyed through humor, was a bit of a struggle.

Gary L. Perkins III (Alexand Da Great) and Seth Hill (Blacky Blackerson) in ‘P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle’ written and directed by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

You do a commercial for a product called DeWoke, an aerosol spray that will erase political consciousness.

Yeah, it takes your mind off what reality is and keeps you oversaturated with consuming.

There’s also a commercial for WhiteMen’s shoes.

Yeah, that’s delivered by Blacky [Seth Hill]. I play the character who is buying the WhiteMen’s shoes, and it’s about what privilege offers and how you can use that privilege in your everyday life.

Seth Hill (Blacky Blackerson) and Gary L. Perkins III (Alexand Da Great) in ‘P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I’m interested in your conversations during rehearsals with your castmates and the playwright-director about the race themes in the play, how those themes will play for audiences, what’s the intention.

Tearrance finished a play last year at Mosaic Theater Company called Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies. Afterward, a lot of white people asked him, “Well, what can we do?” So in response, he started writing this play, as a means to give them an idea of what they can do.

In the rehearsal process, we wanted to be authentic in that response. That’s where we started from, and it was very collaborative, making sure the message was always there no matter the means of getting it across—whether through the reality-tv scenes and the tensions between the characters or the farcical commercials.

In performance, how have audiences been responding? Is that awkwardness still around?

I think it is initially. At the beginning, it’s reality tv. The characters have confession scenes presenting who they are and what’s going to be happening in the play. And audiences are comfortable with the spectacle of that part. But then as we get to the WhiteMen’s shoes commercial, it’s just pure shock. The message is so direct and so blunt that most audiences aren’t expecting it. You can feel it takes a while for them to open up and warm up to the type of humor that’s being presented in this play.

It’s a very nervy and edgy kind of humor.

Absolutely.

Seth Hill, Simon Kiser, and Gary L. Perkins III in 'P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.' Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Seth Hill (Blacky Blackerson), Simon Kiser (Dorian Belle), and Gary L. Perkins III (Alexand Da Great) in ‘P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I was impressed that the three actors seemed to have a kind of cohesion about what’s going on, even though there’s a lot of tension between the characters given that two are black and one is white.

This play is predominantly about cultural appropriation, and we understood that cultural appropriation is a two-way street. It doesn’t just work with one culture stealing from another culture to their own advantage. So we wanted to make that two-way street clear in the struggle between each character and in their own self. This is very much a self-identity play as well because it’s a journey that each character goes through to discover who they are.

It isn’t just the Justin Bieber figure who goes on a journey; it’s also Blacky and Alexand. And there’s a dynamic between Blacky and Alexand in the play that’s also interesting. Blacky starts out much more radical—

Right.

—and then he becomes more assimilationist, and your character Alexand tries to hold him to account for that.

Absolutely, and Alexand holds Blacky accountable in the sense that they’re there to teach the pop star. Alexand’s journey starts with trying to keep Blacky—his friend, his brother, his cousin—focused on what the objective is. Remaining true to that objective, Alexand realizes that he’s being consumed by this environment that’s unfamiliar to him.

Gary Perkins III as Frederick Douglass in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Gary Perkins III as Frederick Douglass in ‘The Frederick Douglass Project’ by Psalmayene 24 (‘An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland’) and by Deidre Kinahan (‘Wild Notes’), directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

You rap in P.Y.G. and you rapped in Solas Nua’s The Frederick Douglass Project, where you played Frederick Douglass. But that was a very different kind of play with a very different relationship to the audience.

L-R: Michael Crowley, Dan Westbrook, Gary Perkins III, Tiffany Byrd, and Kevin Collins in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Michael Crowley, Dan Westbrook, Gary Perkins III, Tiffany Byrd, and Kevin Collins in ‘The Frederick Douglass Project.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The environment was powerful in itself. The play was presented in a tent across the river from where Frederick Douglass’ house was. And the space was very intimate. Many people are familiar with him but the play modernized him.

Your performance was magnificent, and having the real historical character being portrayed brought a kind of gravity to it and a seriousness and importance that was really stirring.

Oftentimes we see Frederick Douglass in his later life, after he’s had all his accomplishments, so it was a breath of fresh air to portray him at a younger age.

In Theater Alliance’s Word Becomes Flesh, you played part of a group of five men who are giving poetic voice to one man’s life experiences. It’s a very choreographed piece and won the 2018 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Ensemble.

Gary L. Perkins III, Clayton Pelham, Jr., Justin Weaks, Chris Lane, and Louis E. Davis in ‘Word Becomes Flesh’ by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, directed by Psalmayene 24. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

That was a genuine ensemble piece because it’s five different men portraying five versions of one black man—and for 60 minutes of movement, we had a bond onstage through choreopoems. The message itself was not only timely, it’s timeless—the urgency of understanding the struggles black men go through on a day-to-day basis. We were realizing that for ourselves and for people who may not understand what we have to deal with.

I thought that from a white audience’s point of view, the cohesion among you all was as much the message of the play as the playwright’s text. It was an experience of a bond that was about the fact that you were all black. And that had nothing to do with deference to a white audience; it was you being you.

Even with that cohesion, we talked a lot in the rehearsal process about the lifeline, and the lifeline being the breath, and how breath was so important through this piece because we’re all supposed to be the same character, and so to be one and the same with one breath was very important.

Darius McCall, Gary L. Perkins III, Shannon Dorsey, Mark Hairston, and Dexter Hamlett in ‘The Shipment’ by Young Jean Lee, directed by Psalmayene 24. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

You appeared in The Shipment at Forum, and its treatment of race themes was also jokey. It was modeled on a variety show and it included comedy sketches. One of them is set in a video shoot that’s supposed to feature a rapper, played by you.

The show is in three parts. It opens with standup. Then it goes into a minstrel show. And it ends with a dinner party. What sparked my interest even before I auditioned was that the play is about black self-identity and it’s by an Asian American woman.

Of the four plays we’re talking about here, The Shipment was in many ways the most in-your-face about race.

Yes. And I think it goes back to the structure of the minstrel show. It was very raw. The jokes in the opening standup were very raw. It may have been a little overbearing in the humor—

Oh, it was powerful. It took you aback. But I thought it was great.

We often forget in the American theater that that’s what the platform of theater is, to have the voice of the voiceless and messages that no one else will say.

Gary L. Perkins III. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

These four plays up to the present with P.Y.G. are all about black identity. Reflecting back on them, what about you has changed with each? What did each role draw on that was different and distinct? As an actor, how did you move into each of those different spaces?

For me as a performer over the years, it’s really shaped the narrative I want to express when I’m auditioning and accepting roles in certain stories to be a part of. One of the reasons I’m an actor is that acting is therapy—to step into other lives and minds of fictional and nonfiction characters. So there’s been growth along the years. It’s grounded me as a man. And it’s a beautiful opportunity to have a part in these stories when in American theater it’s predominantly stories of white men.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.

PYG or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle plays through April 28, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or go online.

Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son

The splashy opening is spectacularly preconception-smashing. We know we’re about to see a play premised on a 1953 meeting in a Paris café between the literary lion Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the up-and-coming cub. But beyond that, any expectations we may harbor get blown out of the water the moment James J. Johnson (as Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (as Baldwin) begin a crowd-rousing rap-dance. The sound system is blaring Jay Z and Kanye West’s profanity-laced “Ni**as in Paris.” And (this production being projection-captioned) every crude word is glaring on the set.

The number is such a sensory overload—and so damn good—one wants to hit replay and rewatch it then and there.

Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) and James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) in ‘Les Deux Noirs.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Playwright Psalmayene 24’s semi-fictional story takes us next to a more conventionally staged scene in a café between Wright and Baldwin. The actual meeting was occasioned when the upstart Baldwin famously critiqued Wright’s bestselling novel Native Son and Baldwin’s cheek piqued Wright’s wrath.

As we quickly learn, conventions of dramatizing that event have been dispensed with. In Les Deux Noirs, the two leads behave as the litterateurs never would in life. Besides breaking into rap and dance, they do verbal smackdowns and comedy sketches. They have escapades with the wait staff. Historicity is but the jumping off point for Psalmayene 24’s leaps of imagination.

The structure of Les Deux Noirs is basically a man-to-man débat—by turns a very classy one, a very crude one, a very woke one, a very cartoonish one—but a cockfight nonetheless.

RICHARD: Ahhh, the gloves are coming off and we’re going to bareknuckle it.
JAMES: You’ve backed me into a corner like one of those rats from your novel. I have no choice but to fight my way out.
RICHARD: Be warned that you’re going to have to knock me out in order
to raise your hands above your head in triumph.
JAMES: I’ll do my best.

The play’s explicit grounding in combat makes the work akin to watching a contact sport, a battle between two black men.

They tussle in multiple ways, including insults about each other’s sexuality (Wright was heterosexual; Baldwin, homosexual). Baldwin criticizes Wright for marrying a white woman and takes him to task for the sexual violence his character Bigger Thomas commits:

BALDWIN: Why did you rape her? Bessie—the young, Negro woman in your book, Native Son?

He continues this line of attack with Wright’s treatment of Mary Dalton:

BALDWIN: You gave Mary such a sweet and muted death compared to Bessie. Suffocation by pillow, fueled by a potent mix of fear, frenzy, and lust. But you couldn’t help gratifying the terror that exists in every crevice of the mind of those who call themselves white by savagely chopping her head off with a hatchet. And yet, ironically enough, the author of such a hideous act purports to champion the interests of Negroes.

Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) and James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) in ‘Les Deux Noirs.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

(Mosaic’s programming of Les Deux Noirs in rep with, and in conversation with, Native Son is inspired—and is never more impactful than when Psalmayene 24 has Baldwin challenge the novel’s violence against women. Relatedly, in Psalmayene 24’s direction of Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Native Son, he carefully stylizes those scenes to avoid sensationalizing them.)

Fueling the gendered tension between the two men, Wright refers to Baldwin as “a little sissy” and calls him “a Negro homosexual with a fetish for white men.”

The night I saw the show the audience was audibly registering every parry and thrust, an enjoyment the show openly invites because so much of it is framed comedically. There’s a silly bit when Baldwin and Wright go back and forth, tit for tat, pouring each other’s drink into their own glass. And both Johnson and Hunter are adept at physical comedy, as in their rapper personas and a farcical chase around the table. Curiously, the clowning in their showdown works—as does all humor that overlays and originates in anxiety. The spectacle of two men contesting manhood will make anyone apprehensive, and if laughter breaks the tension it’ll be all the heartier.

James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) in ‘Les Deux Noirs.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

The narrative arc of Les Deux Noirs leads to an aspirational resolution. It’s when Psalmayene 24 has both men come to terms with what they’re really battling about: what it means to be black.

There is a visually stunning scene when a waiter is taking snapshots of Wright and Baldwin and projected behind them is a montage of stock photos of African American stereotypes. Though Wright and Baldwin do not turn to look, it is as if both carry the pictures in their minds.

Their rapprochement comes after they each let down their guard, let go their armor, and speak a truth to each other that transcends truce.

WRIGHT: I know some people despise Bigger and the despicable crimes he commits. To that I say good. If you detest him, change the circumstances that made him. Change the philosophy that deems a man better because of his pink skin. Change the belief that a man is worse because he is the color of rich ebony. Change the system that conspires to keep the Negro’s neck between its boot and the unforgiving ground. Native Son was written to be a rock in the boot of that system. A rock that afflicts the foot until it is forced to take the boot off our necks—finally and forever more.

BALDWIN [rapping]: When will we come together to supersede our fear?
No more hate against Black, no more hate against queer
I don’t know man but I believe in the possibility
Of the moral victory
I don’t know man but I believe in the probability
Of the historic victory
I don’t even know man but I see the inevitability
Of the ultimate victory

Les Deux Noirs is surprisingly a lot of fun. But it’s also an indelibly personal imagining of how two great black writers might have rapped their way as artists from adversaries to allies. Definitely a show not to miss along with Mosaic’s gripping Native Son.

Running time about 65 minutes, with no intermission.

Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son plays through April 27, 2019, in repertory with Native Son through April 28, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Related:

Review – ‘Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Michele Simms-Burton
Review – ‘Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Ramona Harper
Magic Time!: ‘Native Son’ at Mosaic Theater Company by John Stoltenberg
Director and Playwright Psalmayene 24 Discusses ‘Native Son’ and ‘Les Deux Noirs’ by Michelle Simms-Burton

The Peculiar Patriot

Inside the DC Jail with Liza Jessie Peterson and The Peculiar Patriot

Tucked inside her uproarious one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot—which she performs through April 20, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth—is an appalling account of the prison system. One doesn’t expect such a serious takeaway from a show that starts out so funny.

Peterson inhabits a character she created named Betsy LaQuanda Ross. Betsy is visiting her close friend Joanne, who is incarcerated. Peterson sits at a table as if in a prison visitors room and speaks to us the audience as if to Joanne. Occasionally she embodies other characters, such as two men in Betsy’s life, Pablo and Curtis. Mainly Betsy shares confidences girlfriend-to-girlfriend and displays a quilt she is making to honor incarcerated friends and family members.

Liza Jessie Peterson in 'The Peculiar Patriot' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘The Peculiar Patriot’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Peterson frontloads the performance with laughs, earns our trust, then slowly but surely delivers some sobering information: The U.S. prison industrial complex profits from the incarceration of black and brown bodies. It is a massive business increasingly privatized. In white-populated rural areas where prisons are typically built, local economies are entirely dependent on it. And today the war on drugs is to prisons what the slave trade once was to plantations: the supply line for a financially indispensable subjugation.

“No matter where I go with this play,” Peterson told me, “I have to perform it in a jail facility that’s in the area of the theater. That’s always important for me.”

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘A Peculiar Patriot’ at the DC Jail. Photo by Muntaquim Muhammad.

So it was that on a recent Monday morning Peterson performed A Peculiar Patriot in the DC Jail. It was the same 90-minute play she was doing at Woolly, minus staging effects. The audience of women and men were all wearing orange.

In a phone interview with Peterson afterward, the activist conviction and artistic commitment that I’d seen on stage came through loud and clear.

John: When and where did you begin performing A Peculiar Patriot in prison?

Liza Jessie Peterson: The first draft of the script was actually workshopped at Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security penitentiary for men in Napanoch, New York. I had been a guest there several times as a poet, to perform and to speak with the writers’ group. This was back in 2000, 2001. Most of the men there were doing long sentences. I was visiting maybe twice a year. I would see the same guys. So I figured this would be a great opportunity for me to read them some pages, get some feedback and their insight.

Did the play already have your character Betsy talking across the table to a friend who’s inside?

Yes. The first draft of the script was the setup you saw at Woolly, which is Betsy talking to her best friend Joanne. I just wanted the guys to hear it. And it wasn’t a performance, it was just a workshop. The men loved it, they gave me feedback, we talked about it. And they gave me their approval, their validation. That’s when I knew I had something I could take back out to the community, and I felt confident because I had their approval.  I had validation from the people that the play is talking about.

The first time I performed it in jail was at Rikers Island in 2003. Rikers Island has ten or eleven different facilities, and I performed it in five or seven. Then I took it back to Eastern Correctional upstate so the guys there were able to see the finished product. That led me down the rabbit hole of performing it in between 30 and 35 penitentiaries across the country.

At some point, the play stepped onstage in front of a theater audience. How did that happen?

At first, there weren’t many theaters that were interested in it. This was before The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s seminal book, which cracked open the conversation nationally. This was before mass incarceration was even a term that people were using. This was before social justice was a thing that people were talking about nationally. It was a subject that wasn’t sexy. And it still isn’t, but people are talking about it. It’s a thing that people want to embrace now, which is great. But back then doors were not opening. Theaters were afraid to touch it. It was too edgy, too provocative. I was told it was going to scare the funders and subscribers. So I took it and did the prison tour— I leaned into the love and the love happened to be in prison.

Could you talk about some of the differences and similarities for you as a performer between doing the show for an audience of ticket buyers who have come to a theater like Woolly and doing it for people who are incarcerated and who have been gathered in a space to see your show?

People in theaters have different entrances into the world of the play. Some have been affected by mass incarceration. Some know nothing about it. Some have a little bit of knowledge. Some have been previously incarcerated. It’s the same with the incarcerated population that I perform for. Some don’t know about any of the information or statistics. They’re just caught up in it and it’s a total awakening. Some are nodding their heads and they’ll have an amen corner—they’re like, “Yes, yes,” ’cause they know. The show is affirming to them.

So it’s pretty much the same. The difference is that performing in prison, there’s no sound cues, no light cues, no video. It’s stripped down. It’s just me and the table and the quilt and a microphone. That’s it. I cut my teeth doing the play in jails. I’ve performed in hallways, in cafeterias, in classrooms, in chapels, wherever the prison has space for me. That’s where I do it.

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘A Peculiar Patriot’ at the DC Jail. Photo by Muntaquim Muhammad.

Would you talk to me about the performance in the DC Jail— how it went and what the responses were?

It was great. This was only the second time I’ve performed in prison for a coed audience because usually the men and women are segregated. So performing for incarcerated men and women at the same time was very powerful. The women, they immediately become Joanne, the person Betsy is talking to. And the men, they automatically totally identify with Pablo and Curtis.

They saw themselves at different entry points and it was really transformative. I always get so much inspiration and positive charge because the play is for them, it’s about them. And my intention is to inspire them and to affirm them and to let them know that they’re loved and thought about and they’re not disposable, that they matter and that we need them.

They affirm me as much as I affirm them. They affirm that my message is important. They affirm that my art is still necessary.

If someone said to you, “Liza, I want to be as brave and as effective an artist/activist as you”—meaning: “I want to combine my art and my social justice activism as commitedly as you do—what would you tell them they should know?

It’s never about the recognition or the cameras or the press. It’s always about the people. Be ready for the long haul. Be ready to be in it for the long game. And always stay grounded in what your intention is and who it’s for. As long as you stay grounded with the people and the community, eventually doors will open to your dream and to your commercial success. If that’s your only goal, commercial success, you’re in it for the wrong reason. But if you’re in it to touch people, to heal people, to inspire people, to change people, to make a difference in people’s lives, then be ready to roll up your sleeves, get some dirt under your fingernails, and just keep grinding for the community, grinding for your people.

You have to have the spirit of a black panther in your heart, and that is an unyielding love for your people, whoever your people are.

The Talkback, the Response

I was not at Peterson’s DC Prison performance, but I got a vivid eyewitness account in a phone interview with Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad, a professor of criminology at Howard University. Dr. Muhammad specializes in the consequences of parental incarceration on children (the topic of her very moving TedTalk). She also facilitates a program in the DC Jail that includes incarcerated individuals who watched Peterson perform

Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad: Liza created such a safe space it almost caught the incarcerated individuals off guard. By the time she got to Betsy’s second visit and the third visit and the fourth visit, they couldn’t contain their laughs. I mean, she just won over all of the hearts of the men and the women.

Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad. Photo courtesy of Dr. Muhammad.

After the performance, I led a really intimate dialogue with the incarcerated males and females. And when it got to the commentary, the incarcerated individuals were talking about how it made them take a time lapse. They went back in their lives and thought about, sometimes for the first time, the experience of the visitor. When you are incarcerated, you don’t get to see the landscape you’re going to, so when you’re shipped out from one jail into a full prison into a penitentiary, you’re not enjoying the landscape of the ride. That’s what free people are able to do. Liza really gave us all new eyes.

Later I stay and continue to run my classes. The brothers and sisters are still engaging and talking about those experiences and what it meant for them. It lives on in them. They are still empowered. Individuals talked about how they got right on the phone and made a collect call and told their family members that are local, “You have to see this piece.” They carry the passion in them, and it’s still in there. It’s still in the space. Liza changed the space. She made it okay to talk about the lived experiences of individuals.

There’s one scene where she talks about engaging with this correctional officer who pats her down in a way that was uncomfortable, that was unconstitutional, that shouldn’t have happened, but she made it a satire. She was able to laugh about it. She was able to make the audience say that when things happen, acknowledge them, but keep moving. She drops a lot of jewels—saying white supremacy is this, you have white devils that look at these sort of issues—but that’s not a chip on your shoulder. I mean, she literally is sitting there, brushing things off of her shoulders. Her message is not “Let’s divide, let’s go and be vicious.” She’s saying, “Let’s love. Let’s acknowledge and let’s love. Let’s acknowledge the people that are visiting us. Let’s say thank you for that.”

There was an incarcerated woman and man in the audience who talked specifically about “I’m doing this different,” through tears. Through tears, they’re saying, “I’m doing this different. I am the individual that went out there and said I was going to do X, Y, and Z, and I thought about myself. I didn’t think about what that felt like to my family. I didn’t know what it felt like to them.” And through this play, they were saying to Liza, “You helped me feel what it means when I get it wrong—I’m carrying an entire family and an entire community.”

You had men that talked about how they never knew the experience of their parents; they were incarcerated in rural facilities, and their parents and their mothers had visited them across 22 years. And being able to see what that meant—being able to be remorseful and empathetic to the collateral consequences that families go through—this production hits it on the head. And for Woolly Mammoth Theatre to get this performance on stage, to be behind it, inside of a correctional facility, they got it right. It’s changing lives. It’s changing lives of individuals.

There was one guy, when I went on the unit yesterday—and if you could only see the passion that he had in talking about this one-woman show. I mean, he had never seen a production in that way. He thought about memorization, he thought about narrative, he thought about climax, he thought about writing—he thought about being able to do it himself, he saw the power in the arts.

And when you bring that into carceral spaces, spaces that don’t have windows that open, spaces that don’t allow individuals to be free the way they could be in society, the play lives on. That play will forever ricochet through the insides of that correctional space.

[See Ian Thal’s review of A Peculiar Patriot.]

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘The Peculiar Patriot’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission.

The Peculiar Patriot, presented in association with National Black Theatre and Hi-Arts, plays through April 20, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the venue or order online.

Junk

“When did money become the thing—the only thing?” asks an ambitious young financial journalist in her opening monologue. She then answers her own question: “The mid-eighties. 1985 to be exact…. It was like a new religion was being born.” What follows is a riveting economic epic that Playwright Akad Akhtar calls “a ritual enactment” of “the origins of debt financing”—the crafty new religion’s credit creed.

As we learn, that journalist, Judy Chen (a briskly tenacious Nancy Sun), is researching a book that if published “would torpedo every piety of this new faux-religion of finance.” So hang on tight, because this show is going to be (as they say of the market) volatile.

Perry Young (Raul Rivera) and Nancy Sun (Judy Chen) in ‘Junk.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Performed in the round on the Fichhandler stage, Junk is a sleek look at the slick world of the high-rollers, wheeler-dealers, and pecuniary schemers whose machinations made fortunes and changed the course of American finance. It takes place when high-yield junk bonds came into being—new investment and buyout maneuvers that manufacture debt in order to create wealth. Making money from its absence sounds counterintuitive to folks familiar with ordinary forms of borrowing: car payments, student debt, mortgages, and the like. But Junk makes us privy to a new trade secret of the super-rich.

The protagonist of Junk is a cunning trader named Robert Merkin. “Debt is an asset,” he is quoted in a Time magazine cover story about him. Though modeled loosely on Michael Milken, the inventor of junk bonds who made billions then did time for his crimes (after which he still had billions), Merkin is not written as a money-grubbing bad guy. As played by the lanky and likable Thomas Keegan, he’s an amiable fellow, a decent family man, well-liked by his associates (though distrusted by his adversaries and competitors). To his credit he has a sensitivity to income inequality that though capitalist to its core is sincere:

MERKIN: The only real way to get rid of racial prejudice in this country is to make wealth available to everyone. Because the only thing we care about more than race in America? Is wealth.

And he is very open about what he’s up to, as he tells the inquiring journalist:

CHEN: You’re known for calling debt an asset. To a lot of people  … that idea of debt having value is confusing.
MERKIN: What is debt, but the promise to pay? From that promise, everything else flows. Debt is the nothing that gives birth to everything.
CHEN: That’s very abstract.
MERKIN: Is it? What’s money? Debt on a piece of paper. That’s all a dollar bill is. The US government’s promise on paper to honor the face value of this debt.
CHEN: Right.
MERKIN: And how does the US government honor that debt?
CHEN: It sells Treasury Bonds.
MERKIN: It sells debt to honor debt. Uncle Sam sells bonds to create money. That’s what we’re doing. Selling bonds to create value.

Edward Gero (Thomas Everson Jr.), Thomas Keegan (Robert Merkin), and Jonathan David Martin (Israel Peterman) in ‘Junk.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The storyline of Junk—what Merkin is up to right now—centers on his attempt to take over a steel company that is listed on the Stock Exchange, which would be a coup for him. He intends to risk none of his own money; instead, he’ll raise funds from investors whom he’s made megawealthy, and use the steel company’s own cash flow as collateral to borrow the purchase price.

This makes the antagonist of the story the chief executive of that steel company, Thomas Everson, Jr. Played with a poignant earnestness by Edward Gero, Everson is a principled man. He has diversified the company into other profitable divisions in order to save the money-losing steel business that he inherited. The suspense in Junk’s sometimes dizzying plot is whether Merkin’s hostile takeover will succeed, which would mean he’d shut down the profit-sinkhole steel division and put 15,000 people in rural Pennsylvania out of a job.

Junk has a cast of 17, a few of whom double, so we meet a lot of characters. Remarkably, we get to know each of their stakes in the story. Here are the major ones.

Edward Gero (Thomas Everson Jr.), Perry Young (Raul Rivera), and Thomas Keegan (Robert Merkin) in ‘Junk.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Merkin’s circle of staffers and clients includes Israel Peterman, an eager corporate raider whom Merkin taps to front takeover money (played with wired vigor by Jonathan David Martin); Raul Rivera, a lawyer in Merkin’s firm (a smooth and savvy Perry Young); Murray Lefkowitz, a man for whom Merkin has made millions but who now fears to gamble (a touchingly anguished Michael Russotto); and Boris Pronsky, a man literally indebted to Merkin who proves his downfall (a curiously agitated Elan Zafir).

Everson is advised by two women: Maximilien (“Max”) Cizik, who was Everson Sr’s investment banker for twenty years (a no-nonsense Lise Bruneau) and her colleague Jacqueline Blount, a young, brainy, top-of-her-class lawyer (a briskly proficient Kashayna Johnson).

Akhtar’s script features four super-smart major women characters who are consistently respected as such. Besides the journalist Chen and Emerson’s advisers Cizik and Blount, there’s also Amy Merkin, Robert Merkin’s wife. She and he met in business school, and she’s his financial collaborator and confidant; she knows how to work the market just as well as he does, if not better. They’re teammates—in love, new parenthood, and wealth accumulation. And she is played by Shanara Gabrielle with a keen intelligence that makes their scenes together some of the most electric in the show.

Another laudable layer of Akhtar’s script is its handling of race and ethnicity. Chen is Chinese Amerian; Rivera is of Cuban extraction; Blount is African American; and Merkin, Peterson, and Cisek are Jewish. Unsettling undercurrents of prejudice surface at unexpected turns.

Among Merkin’s foils (there are several, including in law enforcement) is a man named Leo Tresler. Leo is a ridiculously rich private equity expert with a very low opinion of Merkin, as Chen learns when she interviews him for her book. As played with ingratiating entitlement by David Andrew Macdonald, Tresler makes moves on Chen that lead to a sexual payoff at her place. In another of Chen’s very share-y chats with us, she admits that it wasn’t his going down on her that got her off; it was when she fantasized about his enormous financial power.

Later Leo explains the meaning money has for men:

TRESLER: A man is a funny thing, Judy. A man is what he has…. Everybody wants to say it’s something else. Something more noble. But it’s not. What a man has is what makes him in the eyes of the world, and in his own eyes…. And the last thing a man wants to feel is that there’s another man out there who has what he doesn’t, and that the woman he might be falling in love with knows it.

The way this sexual subplot informs the main plot about a hostile takeover is mindblowing.

Akhtar’s storytelling is fluid. Scenes are over and out. The story races apace like a stock market ticker. And Jackie Maxwell directs all in an unerring uptempo.

Set Designer Misha Kachman’s utilitarian set pieces, notably bright white tables, glide in and out. Akhtar’s dialogue is rat-a-tat-tat percussive. It’s as if the playing area is a trading floor for barbs and retorts. Many scenes are phone conversations, but there’s not a phone prop in sight; Lighting Designer Jason Lyons isolates each actor in a harsh white spot and the effect is gripping. Costume Designer Judith Bowden handles the ’80s power suits and big hair with nuance and eloquence. Sound Designer Darron L West gets all the office-world noises just right; and during confidential scenes between Merkin and Pronsky in a parking garage, West creates the empty echo of their voices amazingly.

Junk is a perfectly on-point power play and a formidable achievement in dramatic and political storytelling. It offers profound insight into how the moneyed in America got us where we are. And it ends on a promissory note of iniquity and inequity to come.

Full cast (in alphabetical order):
Union Rep/Corrigan Wiley: Elliott Bales
Giuseppe Addesso: Nicholas Baroudi
Maximilien Cizik: Lise Bruneau
Kevin Walsh: JaBen Early
Charlene Stewart/Lawyer: Amanda Forstrom
Amy Merkin: Shanara Gabrielle
Thomas Everson, Jr.: Edward Gero
Mark O’Hare/Curt: Michael Glenn
Devon Atkins/Waiter: Dylan Jackson
Jacqueline Blount: Kashayna Johnson
Robert Merkin: Thomas Keegan
Leo Tresler: David Andrew Macdonald
Israel Peterman: Jonathan David Martin
Murray Lefkowitz/Maître d’/Counsel: Michael Russotto
Judy Chen: Nancy Sun
aul Rivera: Perry Young
Boris Pronsky: Elan Zafir

Other credits
Director: Jackie Maxwell
Set Designer: Misha Kachman
Costume Designer: Judith Bowden
Lighting Designer: Jason Lyons
Sound Designer: Darron L West
Fight Director: Lewis Shaw
Dialect and Vocal Coach: Lisa Nathans
Casting Directors: Victor Vazquez and Geoff Josselson
Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Danielle Albert
Production Assistant: Dayne Sundman

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

Junk plays through May 5, 2019, at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or purchase online.