Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Till Trilogy

The murderous race hate that killed young Emmett Till in 1955 is alive and well. The impunity with which white assailants get away with it is still much with us. And the irony is that the iconic injustice of Emmett Till’s horrific death is what shone a bright light on all that. His story is pivotal to U.S. history and central to #BlackLivesMatter. As a character says in the third part of this sweeping, impassioned, and poetic saga by Ifa Bayeza, the trial of Emmett Till’s white killers—who were acquitted, against all reason—was “the last battle of the Civil War” and “the first battle of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) in a photo taken by his mother December 25, 1954.

The Till Trilogy was given a concert reading over three evenings on the Lang stage as a Mosaic Theater Company special event. The first part, The Ballad of Emmett Till, has had several productions before, but this was the first time all three parts were presented together.  I was there not there to review, so what follows will not evaluate the actors’ performances (although they were, every one of them, laudable). Instead, I can report that even as readings “on book,” the three parts—stylistically and structurally distinct yet with narrative continuity and mesmerizing musicality of language—accumulate in the mind with indelible impact.

Part 1: The Ballad of Emmett Till
Written and directed by Ifa Bayeza

From first-hand accounts in interviews Bayeza conducted with people who knew Till, she composed The Ballad of Emmett Till to recount his last two weeks alive. Six actors play thirteen roles. What emerges most vividly is Till’s character, a dimension absent from the newspaper coverage but here given sympathetic reality. The jazz-like rhythmic language, cinematically fluid storytelling, and overlapping split scenes remind one of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem technique in For Colored Girls…, which ought not surprise: Bayeza and Shange are sisters and frequent collaborators.

Till, whose nickname is Bo, takes a trip from Chicago to Mississippi to visit his uncle and cousins in the summer of 1955. Before he goes, his mother, Mamie, admonishes him:

MAMIE: Mississippi’s not the same as here, Bo. It’s another place. Different. The white people are different. You don’t speak unless you are spoken to. And you say, “Yes Sir, yes M’am,” when you are.
BO: I already do that. I – I know how to be polite.
MAMIE: I’m not talking about that! If a white woman even approaches, you got to move off the sidewalk.
BO: You serious? That the silliest thing I ever heard of.
MAMIE: I’m very serious.
ENSEMBLE: You. Do Not. Look. At them.

That exchange proves chillingly auspicious. Later in the play comes the scene where Bo, buying some bubble gum for a dime in a store from a white woman, Caroline Bryant, does not look away from her, politely puts the coin in her hand. This minor, innocent incident Carolyn describes in a racially inflammatory version to her husband Roy and his twin brother Ray. They then go looking for the boy, bludgeon him to death, make his face a mass of bloody pulp, and drop his body in the river. The decision by Emmett’s mother to leave his coffin open at the funeral, for all the world to see, ignited outrage across the country that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.

In Bayeza’s telling, Emmet is a relatable fifties teenager, smitten with a girl he meets, hanging out with buddies, got his eye on some new shoes. He’s got a stutter, he’s socially awkward, he’s naive about a lot, but he’s smart and idealistic. This exchange with his Uncle Mose, whom he visits in Mississippi, gives a glimpse of him, and a distills a bit of the play’s rich idiom.

BO: Mama say I’m a Seeker.
MOSE: What is it that you seek?
BO: Everything! Excitement! Life! The the the BIGNESS of it, the wholeness of it.
I wanna do things. I wanna see things. I wanna feel things. I wanna know things!
MOSE: … Cherish what you have, son. What you got. I seen a wall of flesh, seven deep, nine across, terrible winds, buildings blown like branches, people hung to trees, just leafless twigs. They put us to work on the levy – and when the water began to wash over, they made us to lie down and form a human levy of a hundred men. The high water come, drownin’ men, the pressure, squeezing the life out th’others. Bodies buried in the clay. Children, women, strong men, all the same. Gone. Lost. I wanted to bring them back. I wanted to make them whole. My people swept away, swept away, swept away. All the time, over and over, swept away – torn from they land, torn from each other – I was not gonna let that happen. I was gonna hold this ground. I was gonna plant myself, right here. This land was promised. We worked it. We earned it. I thought I’mo lose it again. I can’t. I can’t. I prayed for an answer. A sign. How I’mo do this? … Then here you come. The Seeker.

Playwright/Director Ifa Bayeza.

Part 2:  Benevolence
Written and directed by Ifa Bayeza

In this part there are four actors, and the play is in two acts. The first is about a white couple, Carolyn and Roy Bryant (introduced in Part 1). The second is about a black couple, Beulah (Bea) and Clinton Melton. Whereas The Ballad of Emmett Till is drawn from interviews and research, Benevolence is “an imagined story evoked from a real one.” Because it focuses in emotional closeup on those two relationships, it is the easiest of the three parts to follow in a staged reading and was as a consequence the most moving.

Act One dramatically establishes—in domestic, trial, and dream scenes—Carolyn’s resentment of her husband Roy for having to mind the store and Roy’s constant assault of her with misogynist rage. His abuse is verbal and visceral. He demands that he tell her what happened when the black boy came into the store. Among the insults he hurls at her: “You ain’t nothing but a runner-up cheap cottonseed whore.” The play makes clear that this is the contempt-filled context in which Carolyn fabricates the story that set Roy and Ray on the trail of Bo. Afterward, Roy tells Carolyn, “We killed a niggah fuh you”—as if their shared race hate was all that could ameliorate the animosity between them.

Act Two follows the relationship of a married couple, Bea and Melton, from the point of view of the community on the periphery of the Till murder and trial. We learn of Bea and Melton’s falling in love, we learn of the tension between them when after she has borne him children he fathers another with another woman. And most wrenchingly we learn what the acquittal of Till’s killers meant to them, as in this angry and grief-struck exchange:

BEA: Don’t nobody care bout no dirt poor nigguhs like us. Some high yellah light n bright kid from Chicago show up, got the NAACP, national news. Where they at—where they at huh, when somebody disappear in the swamp, some gal get snatched from the side of the road, some stranger dangling from a tree with his manhood stuck down his throat. Where was they at then?! Emmett Till, Emmett Till, I’m sick of hearin’ about him! Least he had a name. The bayou can’t hold all the dead bodies buried out there. No name nobodies.
MELTON: Like us? … It don’t have to be this way, Bea. We outnumber them. If we stand up, we got a chance to change.
BEA: We ain’t got a chance in hell. They got guns, Melton, they got the law, they got the power. Always had and always will. We only got each other, our family, our children. The future here with me.
MELTON: It’s not enough.
BEA: It’s all we’ve got.

Though Bea and Melton are based on real people, in Bayeza’s eloquent evocation, they come to represent young Emmett’s entire black family.

Part 3: That Summer in Sumner
By Ifa Bayeza
Directed by Victoria Murray Baatin

Part 3 tracks the trial. Based on the actual transcript, it is necessarily more of a judicial procedural and therefore somewhat less character-driven drama than were Parts 1 and 2.  But in a stunning touch, Bayeza has Bo reappear throughout—the boy who came into our hearts in Part 1, given a sure place in shared memory thanks to this epic triptych docu-poem in his honor.

Keith Royal Smith, who read the role of Emmett Till in parts 1 and 3 of “The Till Trilogy” at Mosaic Theater Company.

Missing from Bayeza’s narrative is the historical coda in which in 2007 Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted to Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University professor, that when she said Emmett grabbed her hand and was sexually crude to her—testimony that persuaded the all-white, all-male jurors to acquit Till’s killers—she was flat-out lying.

In this era of reckless disregard for truth and facts, driven often by ethnic animus, Ifa Bayeza’s The Till Trilogy stands as an essential theatrical call to our nation to reckon with its racist past.

And Mosaic Theater Company—which can be counted on to be a beacon of conscience—is to be commended for giving this full work a hearing. From the looks of Mosaic’s next season—collectively titled How Hope Happens—that beacon will be ablaze.

The Casts

Part 1: The Ballad of Emmett Till
Woman 1/ Miss Mamie/Simeon/ Caroline: Billie Krishawn
Woman 2/Mamoo/Heluise/Miss Lizabeth: Erica Chamblee
Emmett: Keith Royal Smith
Man 1/Uncle Mose/Johnny B./H.L.: Jason B. Mclntosh
Man 2/Wheeler/Bo II/ Roy Bryant: Thony Mena
Man 3/Bo III/Maurice/Ruthie May/Milam: Christian R. Gibbs

Part 2:  Benevolence
Woman 1: Caroline Bryant: Betsy Helmer
Man 1: Ray Bryant, Roy Bryant, Mr. Breeland, Dave Killingworth: Drew Kopas
Man 2: Clinton Melton, Medgar Evers: Christian R. Gibbs
Woman 2: Beulah “Bea” Melton, Mary Johnson, Delores Grisham: Mia Ellis

Part 3: That Summer in Sumner
Jimmy Hicks/Emmett Till/Judge Swango/Bl Mims: Keith Royal Smith
Mamie Till Bradley/Cloytde Murdock/Amanda Bradley/Ruby Hurley/Adline Loggins: Bianca Lipford
Dr. Howard/Mose Wright: Michael Anthony Williams
Ernest Withers/Willie Reed/Congressman Giggs/Butler: Christian R. Gibbs
Caroline Bryant/JJ Breeland/Bobby Hodges: Betsy Helmer
JW Milam/Sheriff Strider/ JW Kellum Featherstone/Chester Miller: Nick Torres
Roy Bryant/Special Prosecutor David Smith Porteous/ Bailiff: Drew Kopas
Stage Manager (for all three parts): Ronika S. Harris

The Till Trilogy was read onstage June 12 (Part 1: The Ballad of Emmett Till), June 18 (Part 2:  Benevolence), and June 23, 2018 (Part 3: That Summer in Sumner), at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002.

For information about Mosaic Theater Company’s 2018-2019 season, How Hope Happens, click here.

 

 

 

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The Emperor of Atlantis

The Emperor of Atlantis—an operatic takedown of autocracy—is relevant to our times in freaky and haunting ways. And its backstory is chilling.

Near the end of World War II, the Czech composer Victor Ullmann and poet Peter Kien were both incarcerated in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp set up by the Nazis as a propaganda ploy to showcase its purported cultural life. In 1943, shortly before Ullman and Kein were sent to death in Auschwitz, they created the one-act opera The Emperor of Atlantis. The Nazis censored the work; it was rehearsed but never performed. But the opera survived—and who could have predicted how aptly it would land in DC right now?

Andrew Thomas Pardini as The Emperor and Louisa Waycott as The Drum Major in The Emperor of Atlantis. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

As staged by The In Series in a cheeky, idiomatic translation by Nick Olcott (who also directs), The Emperor of Atlantis is a mesmerizing musical head-trip about dictatorship and its discontents. There is much that can be said about the music, the performances, the In Series production (see David Siegel’s review), but what knocked me out most was the acid wit and audacious irony in the narrative.

The libretto scathingly satirizes the megalomania of the titular Emperor. This, for instance, is a speech delivered on his behalf by his official emissary, The Drum Major:

Thou shalt have no other emperor before me because you love me.
The time has come to restore Atlantis to greatness!

Sound familiar? There’s more.

Civilians must work night and day to keep the foreign scum at bay!
Remember… If you are not with me you are against me.

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The Emperor of Atlantis Librettist Peter Kien. Photo from Ghetto Fighters’ House Archives.

The original librettist, who was young at the time (he died at 25), obviously wrote the part of the Emperor with Hitler in mind (“There is no truth but his”). Kien’s text minces no words about Der Führer’s maniacal obsession with Aryan supremacy:

Those who are dang’rous are standing beside you.
And they are: anyone who is diff’rent! Danger lies in diff’rence.
Danger lies in diff’rence. We must fight it!
Look your neighbors up and down.
If they don’t look like us, or worship our gods, they’re a threat to our values and culture!
We must rid our land of scum & filth, inferior races and the enemies of Atlantis, the Fatherland!

Andrew Adelsberger as Death, Samual Keeler as The Boy, Adam Caughey as Harlequin, and Randa Rouweyha as The Girl n Emperor of Atlantis. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

The opera’s subtitle is also its most audacious jest: Death Goes on Strike. The character Death, shrouded in black and carrying a grim reaper scythe, turns out to be a bit of a wise guy. He quits, says he won’t dole out death anymore, which strips the Emperor of his power. There’s a hilarious passage when soldiers in combat and people sentenced to hang simply don’t die because Death has refused to do his job. The refrain “Any moment now death is expected” becomes a running gag.

There’s something breathtaking about concentration camp inmates creating a comic fable about death literally losing its sting. I’m aware that The Emperor of Atlantis can legitimately be attended to in somber seriousness, because of the historical horror it references. But I found its dry survivor humor wickedly funny.

The storyline continues in a sardonic vein as the Emperor decides to take credit for ending death and lauds himself for discovering the secret to immortality, which he promises to share with his subjects if they believe in him.

The Emperor, to whom you owe eternal life demands that you believe in him!
Truth is what he says it is and no one else can speak the truth but him alone now!
They feed you fake news.
Trust in him, in him.
He owns the truth.

The contemporary correlations are downright scary.

In the show’s most optimistic twist, the subjects realize they were gulled and simply stop believing the Emperor—an act of conscience that disempowers the despot even more than did Death’s work stoppage.

We thought that wisdom would always triumph in a democracy.
We were so naïve.
We believed that truth could defeat hypocrisy.

The Emperor of Atlantis is an incredibly prescient parable about the vulnerability of truth. It plays only two more performances…and then time runs out.

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, including an enjoyable curtain raiser (The Soldier’s Tale with music by Igor Stravinsky) and one intermission.

The Emperor of Atlantis and The Soldier’s Tale presented by The In Series, plays Saturday, June 23, 2018, at 8 pm and Sunday, June 24 at 2:30 pm, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Switch

The gender-flip trope has been a staple on stage for much of theater history, and just when you thought it had been trotted out every which way imaginable, along comes a delightful surprise. Brett Ableman’s Switch has so many original things to say, it could well make one see sex in a whole new way.

Produced by The Welders playwrighting collective—one of DC’s premier incubators of innovative theatrical storytelling—Switch is rich with insights and clever bits about embodiment, identity, and what turns folks on. And under the discerning direction of Megan Behm, the show’s frisky cast mines Ableman’s astute script for all it’s worth.

Set Designer Brian Gillick’s location already makes a statement: a building with three windows bedecked in rainbow bunting and boas (as if a Pride parade might pass by) and what becomes a very multipurpose bed.

Lark (Tyasia Velines) shares hir excitement about the Capital Pride celebrations in Switch. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Our spirit guide to the proceedings is a genderqueer sprite named Lark, played by nonbinary actor Tyasia Velines with so much ebullience and impish charisma one can believe they could cast a charm on anyone—which is exactly what they do to an unsuspecting couple of single thirtysomethings, Leila (Mary Myers) and Doug (Anderson Wells).

Lark fixes Leila and Doug up on date and, it being Pride weekend, they decide to go to the parade as straight allies. A romance quickens between them, and all indications are they’re headed for bed, either at his place or hers.

But first Lark lets the audience in on a whispered secret: When Leila and Doug have sex, their bodies will switch. Leila will be in Doug’s and Doug will be in Leila’s. And voilà, Ableman’s cunning premise is off and running.

The script is far more than a gimmick, though, because Ableman has crafted in Doug and Leila two characters who are not only credibly compatible but also committed to equality in a relationship, however much achieving such equity might get awkward. This quality of aspirational erotic ethics is as rare between characters onstage as between lovers in real life, but it shines through the luminous performances of Myers and Wells, whose moment-to-moment inner emotions seem intuitively tethered to their own and each other’s truth.

New couple Leila (Mary Myers) and Doug (Anderson Wells) share a romantic moment in Switch. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The bedroom scene in which Doug’s and Leila’s lovemaking becomes a transmigration of souls is a stunner, and I surmise the contribution of Intimacy Consultant Emily Sucher is the reason it works so wonderfully. Here and throughout the play’s several sex scenes, Switch plays like a master class in how to artfully emulate eros—and Switch is a compelling argument for always having someone such as Sucher in any rehearsal room where it happens.

Leila-in-Doug (Anderson Wells) explores new desires with Ray (Matt Baughman) in Switch. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

A lot of the play is laugh-out-loud funny, as when, post-switch, Leila-in-Doug and Doug-in-Leila separately explore their new bodies’ genitalia.  Examining his new labia, Doug feels like “an explorer or a pastry chef.” Examining her new scrotum, Leila wonders why it has two balls and supposes it’s because one would be lonely. She then on a whim tries to find out how a blow to her testes would feel. Wham. She doubles over in agony. “Who put the self-destruct button on the outside?!” she moans. With such sweet naivete leading up to Leila’s and Doug’s newfound understanding of each other, Switch shreds binary gender preconceptions and tosses them into the air like confetti.

Chloe Mikala as Rora responds to Doug-In-Leila (Mary Myers) in Switch. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Leila-in-Doug and Doug-in-Leila separately do some experimental same-sex cruising, because of course Leila, in Doug’s body, is still heterosexual, and Doug, in Leila’s body, is still straight.  “Welcome to the rainbow side!” exclaims Lark, with genuine joy. Ensemble members Chloe Mikala and Matt Baughman do an engaging job as their gay hookups, including in some hilariously vivid homo-emulations of eros. Then, having had ostensibly same-sex experiences, Doug and Leila imagine separately what the same acts would feel like in ostensibly straight sex. “Imagine if I stuck my fingers in Doug’s ass,” Leila ponders. And Doug reflects that if he were with Leila as himself in Leila’s body, he would not have to “second-guess every move, because I’m not a guy in her eyes.” By this point, part of the fun of the play is just trying to keep from being confused about who’s in whose body with whose sexuality—which is slyly leading us to the point when Doug and Leila come to see each other in a brand new way.

Costume Designer Moyenda Kulemeka gives Lark shiny silver sneakers and an otherworldly tunic while keeping everyone else in realistically casual dating-scene attire—including when Doug and Leila simulate undressing. Lighting Designer Elizabeth Roth makes maximum use of minimal equipment to keep the unreal real. And Sound Designer Sam Cooper brings in playful pop music to set the multi-amorous moods.

While sharply observed in both text and acting, the show as a whole felt a little longer than it needed to be to be. With some judicious concision, it would play even better. But that’s a minor quibble on a formidable achievement: Because Brett Ableman’s Switch brings a fresh fun twist to what’s betwixt our ears and legs.

Midway through, Lark announces that Doug and Leila have till sunrise to orgasm again and revert to the bodies they were born in. Will they or won’t they? When you finally find out what they decide and why, you may well, as I did, get the feels.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, with no intermission, plus approximately 15-minute preshow entertainment by guest artists (June 15, 16: Moriamo Akubu; June 18: Mindi Mimosa; June 20, 21: Harvey Fitz; June 22, 23: TBA).

 

The Vagrant Trilogy

The vagrant of the title is a Palestinian scholar named Adham who, while on a trip to London as a grad student, must decide, when war breaks out in his homeland, whether to stay or go. Will he remain in London as an emigrant academic, or will he return to Lebanon as a refugee? In neither alternative will he ever again feel at home.

In the first part, Playwright Mona Mansour sets up Adham’s quandary, gives him compelling reasons to choose both alternatives, and leaves us at intermission in suspense about his choice. In the second part, we find out what happens if he remains; in the third part, what happens if he returns. This ingenious if/then structure plays out over three enthralling hours of heartfelt storytelling, touchingly funny and achingly poignant.

Dina Soltan as Abir and Hadi Tabbal as Adham in The Vagrant Trilogy. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Then there’s a part four. It plays out in the mind when the trilogy is over. Because afterward it dawns that the vagrant of the title has come to stand in for the millions of people in the world—refugees, asylum-seekers, others displaced by strife—for whom home is not an option. This astonishing synecdoche Mansour achieves with not a jot of rhetoric, and nary a note of moralizing (which may come as a surprise to anyone with preconceptions about how Mosiac might program a play about Palestinians). Instead, The Vagrant Trilogy is simply darn good drama: a thoroughly enjoyable and eye-filling production with vividly relatable characters. And the play does what all great theater does: it gives a human face to what we could not otherwise grasp.

Hadi Tabbal as Adham in The Vagrant Trilogy. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Adham, whose specialty is English Romantic poetry, is invited to London to present a paper about Wordsworth at a scholarly meeting. He is accompanied by his wife of three weeks, Abir, an engineer. The acting throughout is superb and especially so in the onstage chemistry between Adham (a charmingly brainy Hadi Tabbal) and Abir (a spiritedly assertive Dina Soltan), which pulls us immediately into the story. We’re engaged by their interactions with fellow academics George (Elan Zafir) and Theo (Shpend Xani) and George’s girlfriend Diana (a livewire Nora Achrati). We recognize Adham’s anxiety as he preps for his presentation. We grow fond of the honeymooners in their hotel room. We are amused by his anxiety about whether he’s mediocre. It’s all more familiar than foreign as when personal and political tensions get the better of two and Abir tells Adham she’s going back to Lebanon. He should too, she says, for the sake of his ailing mother and troubled brother, but if he doesn’t she’s going to pack up and leave without him.  And then boom, in an epic flare of lights and projections and a fusillade of combat sounds, the Six Day war begins. End of part one, with Adham on the horns of his dilemma.

The rest of the story (or stories, for there are two divergent ones) is best found out in person in performance. Mansour has a wonderful knack for revealing human interest details that enrich our sense that this could all be real life, without ever seeming sit-com-y. Tabbal continues as Adham, Soltan continues as Abir (and briefly as one of Adham’s students); and the other cast members, joined by Michael Kramer, appear variously as characters including Adham’s mother (Achrati), brother (Xana), son (Zafir), and daughter (Achrati).  There’s a lot of literary commentary, not only Adham’s heady riffs on Wordsworth but also his brother’s funny take on the motivational bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? And scenes are consistently played with brio as when Adham at a clinic is hilariously misunderstood by Ashrati playing an intake nurse.

Scene from part three of The Vagrant Trilogy with (clockwise from lower left) Shpend Xani as Adham’s son, Michael Kramer as Abir’s brother, Hadi Tabbal as Adham, Nora Achrati as Adham’s daughter, Dina Soltan as Abir, Elan Zafir as Adham’s brother. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Director Mark Wing-Davey stages scene after scene as if cinematically, with set pieces moving in and out on Set Designer Luciana Stecconi’s stark context of broken concrete pillars, lit in sharp relief by Lighting Designer Reza Behjat, a panoply of imagery by Projections Designer lending each onstage moment dimension. Costume Designer Ivania Stack takes characters credibly from trendy London in 1967 and 1982 to a cramped room in a refugee camp. And Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson creates a soundscape of period popular music, warfare, and more so vividly expressive it ought to win an award.

The three parts of The Vagrant Trilogy have never been performed together before, and Mosaic has produced the whole as part of the 2018 Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. Though the play touches on the routine derogation and intractable conflict endured by Palestinians, it requires no first-hand experience or expertise to follow and comprehend. Its characters, storylines, and emotions are so accessible, and it unfolds with such momentum, that it’s almost like watching a film. Which someday this remarkable dramatic material really ought to become.

Running Time: Three hours 30 minutes, including two intermissions.

The Vagrant Trilogy plays through July 1, 2018, at at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.

 

“The Queerest Role I’ve Played”: A Q&A with Jon Hudson Odom About ‘Botticelli in the Fire’

Jon Hudson Odom’s performance in Botticelli in the Fire just blew me away. And it wasn’t the first time that had happened. I’ve been following his work for several years, most recently in Nat Turner in Jerusalem at Forum Theatre, and I thought now would be a good time to ask him if I could get inside his head as an actor.  Little did I know when the interview began that he would have some surprising career news.

James Crichton as Leonardo Da Vinci and Jon Hudson Odom as Sandro Botticelli in Botticelli in the Fire. Photo by Scott Suchman.

You went from playing Nat Turner, a devout Christian preacher, to playing Sandro Botticelli, a notorious voluptuary. What was that shift like for you?

They actually match quite well. You go from the religious fanaticism of Nat Turner in Jerusalem into Botticelli in the Fire, where you have this very androgynous homosexual whose religion is his art. Nat talks about the divine as his calling from God. And Botticelli feels as though his art is his calling, that the connection that he has to the divine is through his work.

Tell me more about the character you’re playing in Botticelli in the Fire. Or Botticelli on fire, as I like to think of it.

Yes, there’s a point when I’m quite literally on fire. It’s been a blast, actually. It feels like one of those roles that I was kind of born to play. It’s actually my 30th show in D.C., and my last show before I move to Chicago, so it also hits home: this idea, in the scene with Savonarola, of him renouncing painting and burning his work. There’s this sense for me right now that it feels as though I’m starting over, starting fresh—not literally burning all of my work, but going to a city where no one knows my work and starting over.

Jon Hudson Odom

Have you talked publicly about that move?

Not yet in an interview, but this was decided this past winter. I’m originally from outside Chicago. That’s where my whole family is. It’s always been on the radar to move back to Chicago. I’m just trying to figure out the right time. But I will be back. Hopefully, often. In my dream world, I’ll spend half my time there and half my time here. Mostly in the winter, probably.

Did you use any historical or queer icons as inspiration when you were creating your Botticelli?

Absolutely. Rufus Wainwright, Prince, David Bowie, and then with this being a queer reimagining, RuPaul, who has taken androgyny and drag and the queer culture and put it to the frontlines again of popular culture.

Read Elizabeth Ballou’s review of Botticelli in the Fire

Is this the queerest role you’ve played on stage?

I would say so. Belize [in Angels in America] is a very close second. But the moment you commit sodomy on stage, that automatically makes it the queerest role I’ve played.

The character, as written, is egotism incarnate. He’s an artist above morals. He uses people. Yet for the play to work, we have to really like him, and we really do, a lot.

Good.

How did you make that happen? What choices were you making to make us just like you?

There’s something about people with confidence that I think most people are drawn to. There’s this sense of abandonment with Botticelli, which I find very freeing as an artist, and I think people find very captivating to watch on stage.

It’s something that I think a lot of people wish of themselves, that unbridled freedom he has in his queerness and in his art, along with just the pure sensuality and sexuality of who this person was and who specifically he is in this play, with the bisexuality and the fluid gender identity. There’s something very attractive about personalities that are larger than life. We’re more easily forgiving of them and their actions.

Jon Huson Odom as Sandro Botticelli in Botticelli in the Fire. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Your Botticelli is fearlessly large scale, as if going over the top would be all the more fun. He’s also, though, deeply intimate and tender in moments. How did you find that range during the rehearsal process and what direction did Marti Lyons gave you? Was there a “too far to go”?

I’m sure there is a too far. Sometimes for me as an actor, it’s about going to that extreme. To find the fullness of a moment, sometimes it’s about going to the absolute extreme to find the middle ground.

Marti so brilliantly reigned us all in, and had this beautiful way of working with us and our instincts, and allowing us to really find these characters and this story in ourselves. One of the challenges of bringing a new piece to life is “Does this work?” and “How does this work?” And there was a sense of creation. In the same sense that Leonardo and Botticelli share in the creation of The Birth of Venus, I think we, as a cast, shared in creating this show, of putting this piece together for the very first time, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

It’s inherent in Jordan’s writing, which is both farce and melodrama. You have these very comedic moments that are very quick and fast, a lot about who has the sharpest wit. You can see that in people like RuPaul and on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where you have these queens that are just extremely witty. And then toward the second half of the play you have these moments of just absolute, extreme sorrow where the stakes could not be higher. When it’s beginning, I don’t know if I’m going to end up in a hospital or have a breakdown by the time that the show closes.

The play really invites a reading as having political parallels to America now. And Woolly has certainly encouraged audiences to see and think about the play through that frame.

Yeah. As Mark Twain is said to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” You get that in this piece with the Medici and Savonarola, and religious fanaticism against passion and liberal ideals, brushing up against each other.

James Crichton as Leonardo Da Vinci and Jon Hudson Odom as Sandro Botticelli in Botticelli in the Fire. Photo by Scott Suchman.

For you personally and for the rest of the cast, how much of that political resonance came up in the rehearsal process? Was it talked about explicitly? And how did you navigate the contemporaneous in this historically queered play?

We did talk about it. There was a great sense of joy in the room about being able to laugh at it, but also to be able to take the breadth and depth of the moment of what this means. We’re watching things like the National Endowment for the Arts be taken away. And the recent news of the Supreme Court decision about the cake. When you have these extremes pop up again with liberalism and conservatism, the queer and minority and women are the first to be affected by that. I think that we, as a country, haven’t even begun to see the effects of what we did in the election of 2016. So this story serves as both a celebration and love story to the queer artist, but also as a warning—about being “on the precipice,” as the play says.

There was a lot of emphasis on telling this story. There’s not much known about Botticelli or Da Vinci, so there was a lot of digging into history and understanding the time period, and the Medici, and what it was to be a patron for the arts and for an individual artist, which we no longer have. But then, also, this idea of telling our story; of what it means to have a queer reimagining of this story.

Jon Huson Odom as Sandro Botticelli in Botticelli in the Fire. Photo by Scott Suchman.

For somebody who has never thought about queering history or queering anything, what’s your elevator speech about what that means?

It means a lot of glitter and boas and make-up. [Laughter.]

I think, very similar to a lot of the African American stories told now, when you have a voice in history that was restrained for so long and put on the back burners, there’s a lot of things to say, and a lot of ideas, and a lot of themes that now mean something different. After centuries of being in the closet, so to speak, when you have a queer reimagining or a black reimagining, it’s that idea of giving a voice to the voiceless from the past and letting them speak to the present.

You do a lot of talking directly to the audience in Botticelli, and you also did a lot of talking directly to the audience in An Octoroon. Looking at those roles side-by-side, you’re basically the audience’s entry point. You’re the front porch to the house that is the play. And you come into this one pistols blazing. When you enter and start talking to the audience in Botticelli, it’s just breathtaking. What’s going on then, between you and the audience, when you’re introducing a play’s edgy approach to race or sexuality, as in the case of An Octoroon and Botticelli?

It’s very interesting that you use that metaphor about the front porch. That was actually one of Marti’s big notions and big ideas for the opening of the play; this is your indication to invite the audience into the story, to invite them into this world.

Now with the run of the show, it happens very different every night. When you walk in, almost immediately, when I say that first line, you can feel the energy from the audience. Sometimes it takes them a little bit longer and sometimes they’re there with you immediately.

But I think that what it does, by removing the fourth wall, is that it makes this a shared experience for all of us: that the energy being passed actor to actor, actor to stage manager, actor to director in the rehearsal room is now being passed to the audience; that you are now players in this story as well. I think that’s the wonderful thing about theater. Sometimes when you walk into a room, you kind of forget that you’re sitting next to a bunch of strangers experiencing this thing together.

There’s a wonderful article about the idea that audiences’ hearts beat together when they’re watching a show. I think that that is just so incredibly beautiful and so incredibly profound, this idea that we come together, much like church or fellowship, to share in this story.

Both Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Jordan Tannahill have this way of, themselves, talking to an audience and inviting them to the story in such a brilliant way that we are able to take characters like Botticelli to the extreme and have them commit these horrible, heinous acts, and still, by the end of the story, we are rooting for him and loving him, because of that built relationship that you have right from the get-go of the play.

Jon Hudson Odom in (from left:) An Octoroon, Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Angels in America. Photos by Scott Suchman, Teresa Castracane Photography, Danisha Crosby.

It really is your performance that’s the engine of that relationship through the whole play. Your performance as Nat Turner was brilliantly charismatic, and I would say the same of your Botticelli.

Thank you. Thank you so much.

In the play another character says to Botticelli, “The only thing sacred for you is your cock and your genius, maybe,” and he answers, “You cannot be genius. Beauty can only work through you.” That is something that as an artist I’ve tried to open myself up to, to be a vessel to something that is beyond me; to God or to the divine, to a higher power, however people want to name it.

You do the work and you rehearse the show and you build this trust with the director and the ensemble, and then the beauty of the performance is letting all of that go and truly letting something bigger than yourself work through you in order to affect people. It’s not acting; it truly is being. With this extraordinary ensemble of actors, it was made very easy for me.

They give so much of themselves. This is truly one of the best and most loving artistic families that I’ve ever had, with the incredible, beautiful direction of Marti Lyons helming the ship.

I joked to her at one point that she was my Venus, that she was pushing me and inspiring me as an artist in ways that I didn’t know was possible. I think she did that for all of us.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission.

Botticelli in the Fire plays through June 24, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW, Washington, DC 20004. To purchase tickets, go online.

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence

Step Afrika!, the acclaimed African American dance company, launched this powerful multisensory dance-theater work eight years ago. Since then the spectacular show has toured the world and had a sold-out three-week run Off-Broadway. It has now returned home to DC for a limited run, after which, said Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams on opening night, the show will not be performed again.

If you have never seen Step Afrika! before, know that the experience will astound.

The Migration depicts the Great Migration of 1910–1930, when, driven by shifts in labor-market demand, African Americans from the rural South moved by the thousands to the industrial North, for jobs and the hope of a better life. In 1939, a painter named Jacob Lawrence, then only 23, memorialized that epic history in a series of 60 paintings called The Migration Project (30 of which can be seen in DC at the Phillips Collection and 30 of which are in New York at MoMa). Taking inspiration from those paintings, Step Afrika! set them to movement and music, hence the program’s subtitle, Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.

Step Afrika!’s The Migration. Photo by William Peregrine.

The backstory is the through line from capitalist economic forces to early twentieth-century disruption in the black family to a youthful painter’s tempera storyboard to a vivid reimagining and animation onstage. And as with all its work, Step Afrika! brings to the narrative its polish, precision, passion, and irrepressible rhythm.

At the beginning, the stage is set with a dozen drums. On either side are kente-cloth-like curtain legs, and on the back wall are five projection screens, mounted as if on oversize easels. Some show a black-and-white photograph of the painter; others, his self-portrait.

With “Drum Call,” the program starts in Africa as the ensemble in African-inspired costumes delivers a fusillade of drumming, in stunning unison and dextrous syncopation. An anthemic melody rumbles below. A solo djembe and flute join in. Step Afrika! dances typically feature stepping, loud staccato stomping with boots or other footwear, but the ensemble now are barefoot, their full-bodied choreography expressive of a shared origin story.

Step Afrika!’s The Migration. Photo by William Peregrine.

The narrative continues in America with “Go West” and the introduction of another signature Step Afrika! dance move, synchronized slapping and pounding one’s own body as if it’s a percussion instrument, all the while leaping, skipping, and strutting. The visual and aural effect is hypnotic. And we in the audience get to join in rhythmic clapping that becomes rousingly antiphonal.

Among the pivotal points in African American history recounted in “Drumfolk” is the retaliatory Negro Act of 1740, which forbade Africans to, among other things, use drums. “They took the drums away. But they could not stop the beat,” goes a refrain. Thereafter, communal memory and community invention create a culture combining African gumboot dancing, tap, stepping, and spirituals. And as rendered in The Migration, it is as if we are witnessing a history of musical and choreographic resistance that could be told no more spellbindingly than by this masterful troupe.

We get glimpses in projected paintings by Lawrence of everyday life. People packed together in waiting rooms. The bell on a steam locomotive signifying the trains that transported them. A saxophone wails. Suddenly a stark simple image appears: A lone figure grieving, a knot of rope hanging from a branch—and a heavy stillness falls.

Step Afrika! programs do not typically include singing but The Migration showcases some  magnificent soloists and choristers, as on a gorgeous “Wade in the Water.”

Step Afrika!’s The Migration. Photo by William Peregrine.

The caliber of the dancers is uniformly thrilling. As the story moves to cities in the North, the men wear spiffy vests and the women fluffy floor-length frocks. The men’s sturdy footwear would seem to be more made for stomping than are the women’s low-heeled shoes, and those long skirts might seem an encumbrance, but this is an ensemble with physical strength, vigor, agility, and grace in equal and ungendered measure—a solidarity I have observed in every Step Afrika! show I’ve seen.

This parity enriches the storytelling, as in a passage that features two trios, one of men and one of women. The three men, headed north, do an amazing tap number with luggage. The three women, temporarily left behind of economic necessity, do an equally amazing tap number. The “anything you can do I can do better” motif appears delightfully in other work by the company. But here—as a recording of “My Man’s Gone Now” is heard—we see the two trios in a tableau and they are not dueling; they are separated, apart, in unspoken sadness.

Despite the sorrow and hardship in the historical record and the colorful but sometimes bleak imagery in Lawrence’s paintings, Step Afrika! approaches the narrative with optimism and hope. At the end, when stage lights blaze brighter than they’ve ever been, the entire ensemble appears on stage as if suffused by joy. Apparently in the same spirit, the audience on opening night leaped to its feet in sustained applause.

Do not miss this last chance to catch a locally grown genuine masterpiece.

Program

DRUM CALL
Choreographed/Composed by Jakari Sherman and W.E. Smith
Original Recording of “African Villages” by W.E. Smith

The drum has always been essential to African culture everywhere and is critical to the rhythm of migration. Drum Call depicts an African village, the arrival of foreign ships, and the ensuing turmoil. 

GO WEST: circa 1730
Choreographed by Makeda Abraham with contributions from Mfoniso Akpan. Aseelah Shareef, and Delaunce Jackson
Djembe by Kofi Agyei
Flute by Lionel B Lyles II

When Africans arrived in America, their music and dance traditions were ingrained in the culture. Go West explores how West African dance and drum traditions spread and maintained their vitality in the New World. 

DRUMFOLK
Choreographed by David Pleasant

Drumfolk references the practice of early African American traditions of patting juba, hambone, and ring shout that would give birth to art forms like tap dance and stepping. The work also reflects on the harsh conditions in the South that motivated both escape and migration as well as the Negro Act of 1740 where Africans lost the right to assemble; read or write, and use their drums.

WADE SUITE

Wade shows the continuity in African and African-American percussive dance traditions by blending the South African Gumboot Dance, tap and stepping with the African American spiritual. 

Movement One: THE DEACON’S DANCE
Performed by Ronnique Murray
Lead Vocals by Brittny Smith

The African American spiritual played a significant role in lifting the spirit in troubled times. In The Deacon’s Dance, a deacon prepares for Sunday services.

Movement Two: WADE
Choreographed by Kirsten Ledford, LeeAnet Noble, and Paul Woodmff

After the abolition of slavery, the church remained a center of refuge and community building amidst the harsh conditions and served as a primary means of communication for industries recruiting labor during World War I. Wade highlights the importance of the church in helping African Americans survive the South, and its critical role in helping vulnerable migrants resettle in the North.

—INTERMISSION—

TRANE SUITE

Throughout the Great Migration, the train was an important means of transporting people to the North. The entire railroad industry recruited heavily in the South and thus, economically, became a primary means of African American’s “one-way ticket to a new life. 

Movement One: TRANE
Original Recording of “Trane” by W. E. Smith
Saxophone by Lionel B. Lyles II
Choreographed by Jakari Sherman
Creation of Trane made possible by the DC Jazz Festival.

The opening movement, Trane, establishes the connection between past and present: the rhythm of the train north; and the Alpha “train,” a time-honored element of stepping practiced by brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Movement Two: OFF THE TRAIN
Choreographed by Jakari Sherman

Three men arrive in the North, luggage in hand…thrilled about the possibilities.

Movement Three: MY MAN’S GONE NOW
Choreographed by Mfoniso Akpan, Aseelah Alien, Dionne Eleby, Kevin Marr and Jakari Sherman
Recording of “My Man’s Gone Now” by Nina Simone

During the migration, it was common for men to journey north without their wives or children because of the high cost of travel. This left many women at home in the South caring for children and struggling to find work. My Man’s Gone Now is the story of three women, each in a different phase of their transition to the North and ready to be reunited with their loved one. 

CHICAGO
Choreographed by Jakari Sherman

Between the 1910s and 1920. more than 400.000 African American migrants left the South for many Northern and Western cities, including Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago. By the end of the 1920s, that number exceeded 1.2 million.

Chicago finds the migrant’s new rhythm in everyday situations. It is a percussive symphony using body percussion and vocals to highlight the collective self-transformation of these brave men and women once they arrived “Up North.”

Credits

Directed by Jakari Sherman
Featuring: Mfoniso Akpan, Dionne Eleby, Matthew Evans, Kara Jenelle, Jabari Jones, Conrad Kelly, Vincent Montgomery, Joe Murchison, Ronnique Murray, Olabode “Buddie” Oladeinde, Anesia Sandifer, Jakari Sherman, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, Jerel L. Williams, Ta’quez Whitted
Vocalists: Ryan Collins, Roy Patton
With Special Guests Kofi Agyei, Lionel B. Lyles II
Scenic Design: Harlan Penn
Costume Design: Kenaan Quander
Lighting/Projection Design: John D. Alexander
Sound Design: Patrick Calhoun
Sound Engineer: Kevin Alexander
Production/Company Manager: John D. Alexander
Founder and Executive Director: C. Brian Williams

Running Time: Approximately one hour 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence plays through June 17, 2018, at Step Afrika! performing at The Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.

 

 

TransAmerica

At a historical moment when appalling new waves of gender fundamentalism sweep our nation, leaving bigotry and violence in their wake, it was beyond refreshing to hear the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC’s TransAmerica concert Saturday night at Lincoln Theater. Featuring a stage full of soaring, sonorous voices and an astute program of songs in celebration of authentic selfhood, it was, in a word, exhilarating.

Even before the music began, the program’s inclusionary spirit was proclaimed in four flags hanging from balconies astride the stage. The program identified them this way:

TransAmerica community flags

The significance of the sweeping scope of this concert cannot be overstated. The LGBT world has experienced its own internalized gender fundamentalism, for instance, the uncivil faction who want to “take the T out of LGBT.” Meanwhile, among the saner and kinder-hearted, letters keep being added to the acronym to embrace more and more whose gender identities have been marginalized and disparaged in defense of patriarchal power and privilege. (It’s up to, I think, LGBTQIA+.) Thus for the Gay Men’s Chorus to declare with this program its allyship with all for whom those four flags fly is a remarkable testament to what “pride” ought to mean.

GMCW_TA_Key_2

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington and the 17th Street Dance performing “I Love You”/”What a Wonderful World,” during the TransAmerica concert. Photo by Michael Key.

The opening number was a thrilling, full-throated performance by the 200-plus chorus of “Let the River Run,” interpreted by the 17th Street Dance troupe. Conductor Thea Kano, statuesque in black waistcoat and bejeweled shoes, commanded every emotion in the music with precision and passion. (The full program can be found below.)

The first of several speakers to give first-person testimony was Keygan Miller, who spoke of the pain of constantly being challenged by the question “What are you?” Miller then set the tone of courage for the evening: “I am done being anything but who I am.”

In another very personal statement, Morgan Dori said that the last election “changed my hope to fear.”

In this context, the Rock Creek Singers, a subset of the Gay Men’s Chorus, brought tender poignance to Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
GMCW_TA_Key_3

The GenOUT chorus, performing during the TransAmerica concert. Photo by Michael Key.

The GenOUT Chorus, a vocal ensemble begun by the Gay Men’s Chorus for LGBTQ youth and their allies, entered from the auditorium in smart black outfits and colorful ties. They went on to sing a stirring rendition of “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen, which has become the musical voice on Broadway of teenage outsiders—those who, in the words of one GenOUT member, “dare to create a better world” for themselves. The GenOUT Chorus’s simple gesture of taking each other’s hands, one by one, connecting everyone in the row, powerfully underscored “You are not alone.”

The moving words of Debi Jackson, the mother of a daughter named Avery who is trans, were read by Vanessa Ford. At four years old Avery told her mom, “You know I’m a girl, right?” Jackson’s family story became a beautiful emblem of acceptance and unconditional love.

Act One ended with pink paper blossoms strewn on the stage and nine dancers in white having exuberant fun in them as the chorus sang a medley of “I Love You” and “What a Wonderful World.”

Act Two got the audience roaring with a novelty number about bathroom bills, the chorus of which was “We just want to pee!”

But before long the mood was somber as the subject of suicide was broached in first-person testimony and song. One number, “Please Stay,” was especially touching:

Don’t let your worst day be your last.
Please stay
The GenOUT singers returned with a rousing version of “Truly Brave,” better known by words from its chorus:
I see your true colors
Shining through
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show

Headlining the concert was Breanna Sinclairé, whose awesome operatic soprano filled the house with feeling on “Somewhere” from West Side Story and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel.

At the end was an uplifting “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman featuring the entire company fronted by Sinclairé in a duet with JJ Vera. It was a specular finale that for the moment made keeping track of whose gender is what irrelevant.

In keeping with the program’s spirit of inclusivity, there was poem by Charles R. Butler, Neto, projected on screen during intermission. It read in part:

What do you see when you look at me?
Am I a boy or a girl?
Do I make you uncomfortable?
The rainbow from man to woman is not
A clear difference even inside.
Why not address me
As the person I choose.
Help me discover my soul.
Perhaps in my choosing,
You will find yourself new,
Recounting your journey within,
Help me to help you affirm who you are,
Comfortable in your own skin.

The concert put centerstage some of the individuals who are most hurt by society’s gender policing. But really, who isn’t? Lots of people go around obsessed with what is normal. People who presume themselves normal go around fearful of those they presume are not. In order to be what they think is normal, they put down those they think are not. Eventually everyone ends up somewhere on that put-down or be-put-down vicious circle.

TransAmerica was one of the most timely, important, and liberatory concerts the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC has yet produced. In each and every programming choice and performance, it celebrated the possibility of affirming one’s authentic selfhood without derogating anyone else’s. That is a radical notion still. The world would be better off if more people got it. This concert set it to music—and left one humming the tune.

ACT ONE

GMCW and 17TH STREET DANCE
“Let the River Run” by Carly Simon from Working Girl, arranged by Steven Milloy

Speaker: Keygan Miller

GMCW
“I Am Willing” by Holly Near, arranged by Steven Milloy
Soloist: Keygan Miller

Speaker: Morgan Don

“Everyday People” by Sylvester Stewart, arranged by Mark Brymer
Speaker: Alex Tyson

“Who Will Love Me As I Am?” by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell from Side Show
Soloists: Michael Dumlao and Ellery Rhodes

ROCK CREEK SINGERS
“Blackbird” by Paul McCartney, arranged by Steven Withers

GenOUT CHORUS
Speakers: Camilla Barillas and Becca Schaefer
“Caitlyn” by Anya Turner and Robert Grusecki
“You Will Be Found” by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul from Dear Evan Hansen, arranged by Mac Huff
Soloist: Daniella Zapata

GMCW
“At the Heart” by Gerard Gurss from “That’s Good Enough” by Debi Jackson, about her daughter Avery’s journey to be her authentic self
Narrator: Vanessa Ford

GMCW and 17TH STREET DANCE
“I Love You”/”What a Wonderful World” by Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, George Davie Weiss, and Bob Thiele, arranged by Craig Hella Johnson
Soloist: Michael McGovern

Onscreen poem during intermission: “Hidden Lives” by Charles. R. Butler, Neto

ACT TWO

GMCW
“Our Number One Problem” by Eric Lane Barnes
Bathroom Bill: Joe Burton

Speaker: JJ Vera

17TH STREET DANCE
“The Village” by Stephen Wrabel
Soloist: Stephen Crisp

Speaker: Fancy Butler

POTOMAC FEVER
“You Matter to Me” by Sara Bareilles from Waitress, arranged by Brad Stephenson
Soloists: Matt Holland and Kevin Thomason

GMCW
“For the Fallen” by Mike Sammes
Oboe: Alec Sherman

“Please Stay” by Jake Runestad
Soloist: Dana Nearing

Speaker: Sam Brinton

GMCW and GenOUT CHORUS
“Truly Brave” by Cynthia Lauper and Sara Bareilles, arranged by Mac Huff

BREANNA SINCLAIRÉ
“Somewhere” by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim from West Side Story

GMCW and BREANNA SINCLAIRÉ
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II from Carousel, arranged by Johnny Mann

GMCW, GenOUT CHORUS, 17TH STREET DANCE, and BREANNA SINCLAIRÉ
“This Is Me” by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul from The Greatest Showman, arranged by Dave Volpe
Soloists: JJ Vera and Breanna Sinclairé

____

Stage Direction by Frank D. Shutts, II
Conducted by Thea Kano
Choreographed by Craig Cipollini and James Ellzy

Musicians: Theodore Guerrant  (Piano), Shawn Alger (Bass), Don Jons (Drums)

Production Manager: Joe Vignali
Associate Production Managers: Chipper Dean, Betsy Libretta
Technical Director: Solomon HaileSelassie
GenOUT Director: C. Paul Heins
17th Street Dance Director: Craig Cipollini
Seasons of Love Directors: Marcus Brown, Calvin Robinson
Costume Design: Gary Turner
Lighting Design: Thea Kano, Frank Shutts

___

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

TransAmerica was presented by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC on Saturday, June 2, and Sunday, June 3, 2018, at the Lincoln Theatre – 1215 U Street, in Washington, DC. For future GMCW concerts and events go to their website.

LINKS:

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington Performs Durufle’s ‘Requiem’ with Soprano Breanna Sinclairé by Darby DeJarnette

Review: ‘And the Tony Goes to…’ at The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC by John Stoltenberg

 

The Scottsboro Boys

The musical The Scottsboro Boys tells a true story of heinous injustice driven by race hate, and the theatrical form is a minstrel show—bouyant upbeat dancing, rousing melodic singing, and buffoonish caricature, all ironically in service of a historical narrative that is utterly tragic: Nine young black men imprisoned for years, their lives ruined, because in 1931 in Alabama they were falsely accused of raping two young white women and then found guilty over and over again by white juries.

The cast members, all but one, are black. The show’s creators (John Kander and Fred Ebb, music and lyrics; David Thompson, book; Susan Stroman, original direction and choreography) are all white. Many other musicals have had black talent onstage and white creatives off—Porgy and Bess and Dreamgirls come to mind. But in the current context of heightened consciousness about whose stories get to be told on stage by whom, and given the politically charged source material, a question might fairly be asked: Were the creators of The Scottsboro Boys whitesplaining?

Read David Siegel’s DC Metro Theater Arts review

The collaborators did not set out to tell a #BlackLivesMatter story. They began in 2002 looking for a project to work on together and casting about for a famous American trial on which to base a musical. The case of the Scottsboro Boys had popped up in their research, and they went with it. Then they decided to tell the story as a minstrel show. It was an audacious choice because the minstrel-show form in Broadway musical theater had heretofore only perpetuated racist stereotypes. Book Writer Thompson explained the collaborators’ intention this way:

We are going to entertain you, and you are going to have fun, but at the same time we’re going to lead you to a place that is very dangerous and controversial, and what you take out of this, where you get, you’re going to have to sort out yourself, but in the meantime we’re going to entertain you.

The cast of The Scottsboro Boys. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

The show’s structure deliberately juxtaposes its “let us entertain you” musical numbers (which are plentiful and wonderful) with its dramatic focus on “the truth.” At the beginning, a white emcee called the Interlocutor (a genial Christopher Bloch) sets up a “Minstrel March” number featuring the company in a cartoony cakewalk:

Sit back now
Relax and get comf’table
Sad thoughts out of sight

Hey hey, say hello
To the minstrel men
Here to entertain you
Tonight!

The “you” in that lyric is presumptively white people; in fact, the whole opening number is a promise to white audiences that their comfort zone will be respected.

Lamont Walker II (Haywood) and the cast of The Scottsboro Boys. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

The Interlocutor then promises the singing and dancing minstrel men playing the Scottsboro Boys:

INTERLOCUTOR: We’re telling your story boys! Just like we always do!

But he is interrupted by Haywood Patterson (a charismatic Lamont Walker II):

HAYWOOD PATTERSON: Mr. Interlocutor, this time can we tell it like it really happened? This time can we tell the truth?

To which the Interlocutor says “of course!” then cracks a change-the-subject joke in cahoots with two stock characters from minstrel shows: Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (played with grinning exuberance by Stephen Scott Wormley and Chaz Alexander Coffin).

Thereafter the material—the book, lyrics, and music—continues to contrast the Scottsboro Boys’ calamitous story with the incongruous musical form in which their story is told.

The discrepancy between that story and that form sets up a singular tension that audiences can now experience for themselves at Signature Theatre. The show was designed to walk a fine line between enjoyable send-up and too-horrible-to-absorb history, and in this powerful, top-notch production it does. Director Joe Calarco, Choreographer Jared Grimes, and Musical Director Brian P. Whitted give every wrenching and diverting moment its due, to overwhelmingly moving effect.

Ultimately the musical subverts its minstrel show form and lets the Scottsboro Boys take it over. But the wheels of justice don’t just turn slowly, they grind the boys into the ground. In a later scene, the Interlocutor attempts to reassure them in song:

INTERLOCUTOR: IT’S GONNA TAKE TIME
WE’LL PUT THINGS TO RIGHT
BUT NOT OVERNIGHT

And Haywood interrupts again:

HAYWOOD:
Wait? How can I wait? I’ve done nothing but wait. Thinking this day, next day, something gonna change. Hoping. But what good is hoping when the same high minded people keep telling the same low minded lies.

Aramie Payton (Eugene Williams), Joseph Monroe Webb (Olen Montgomery), Darrell Purcell Jr (Clarence Norris), Lamont Walker II (Haywood Patterson), Malik Akil (Charles Weems), C.K. Edwards (Roy Wright), DeWitt Fleming, Jr. (Ozie Powell), and Jonathan Adriel (Andy Wright) in The Scottsboro Boys at Signature Theatre. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

Aramie Payton (Eugene Williams), Joseph Monroe Webb (Olen Montgomery), Darrell Purcell Jr (Clarence Norris), Lamont Walker II (Haywood Patterson), Malik Akil (Charles Weems), C.K. Edwards (Roy Wright), DeWitt Fleming, Jr. (Ozie Powell), and Jonathan Adriel (Andy Wright) in The Scottsboro Boys at Signature Theatre. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

As I watched the exceptional actor/singer/dancers onstage, I began to realize a layer even more profound than the material, something that transpires in the performers themselves: astounding moments of emotional truth that shine through when the musical interrupts its entertainment agenda and lets the characters have their say.

Felicia Curry (The Lady) in The Scottsboro Boys. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

The first clue one gets to this layer is The Lady. She appears in a prolog, opening up a miniature theater to reveal the minstrel show inside. From then on she is everpresent, sometimes seated in a front row watching, sometimes onstage expressing sympathy and support for the nine accused, always attentive to their story, never saying a word, never for a second responding to any of the entertainment being trotted out. As played by Felicia Curry, whose eloquence without lines is breathtaking, The Lady is our lens into what’s really going on.

Nine fine actors play the Scottsboro Boys—Jonathan Adriel (as Andy Wright), Malik Akil (Charles Weems), C.K. Edwards (Roy Wright), DeWitt Fleming Jr. (Ozie Powell),  Scean Aaron (understudying Andre Hinds as Willie Roberson at the performance I saw), Aramie Payton (Eugene Williams), Darrell Purcell Jr. (Clarence Norris), Lamont Walker II (Haywood Patterson), and Joseph Monroe Webb (Olen Montgomery). Each actor lets us see a distinct individual, one whose character arc ends unhappily, onstage as it did in life. Yet by the end of the show something exhilarating happens, something that transcends both the story and its form: One by one they each break free from the emotional dissonance that all their collective singing and dancing necessarily entailed, brilliant as it was. And in those moments of self-disclosure and self-affirmation, one can witness an ensemble so united there can be no acting award category for it—for it is the shared integrity of nine black men dropping their minstrel masks and finally not acting for the sake of white comfort.

In that color-coded sense, the extraordinary performances in The Scottsboro Boys now at Signature Theatre offer one of DC theater’s most riveting and revealing looks at what it means to be black in America—not only in the 1930s but right now.

And yes, I might have whitesplained that.

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

The Scottsboro Boys runs through July 1, 2018, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

VIDEOS:

 

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs

The mystery at the center of this adroit drama keeps getting mysteriouser and mysteriouser: What’s in the small room at the top of the stairs?

Playwright Carole Fréchette has crafted a cagey psychological suspense story, a modern retelling of a 300-year-old French folktale about a young woman who is told by her husband she can open all the doors in the castle except one.

So of course, just as we know a gun introduced in a play is going to go off, we know the door to this forbidden small room is going to be opened. And sure enough, it is.

Read David Siegel’s DC Metro Theater Arts review.

The young woman, a new bride named Grace, is kept like a privileged princess on a fairytale estate. Her adoring and superwealthy husband Henry has built a 28-room mansion, which he has bestowed upon her on one condition: that she leave that small room alone. Curiosity gets the best of Grace, she disobeys Henry, she sets foot into the small room, he finds out—at which point the real menace begins.

Cassie Platt as Grace in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Michael Kevin Darnall creates an indelibly creepy portrait of an oleaginous Henry. Cassie Platt makes Grace’s mettle credible as we watch afraid for where her foolhardy meddling will lead. So one might think this is a scary story about a beautiful princess finding out that her handsome prince charming has a hidden dark side and is actually out to harm her.

But no, that’s not where the playwright wants our minds to go. According to Fréchette, she intended this play to be about what drives Grace, not what drives Henry:

Certainly, we can see Grace as a woman oppressed by her domineering husband, but that is not all that interested me. What I was drawn to from the beginning is the “forbidden,” represented by the closed door, and the desire to enter it…. The conflict I wanted to explore was not so much about the conflict between Grace and her husband, but the more painful one, her own conflict. Grace is divided between desire to live in the comfort offered by the man she loves and her need to put herself in danger to confront a mystery and the truth.

Much as Fréchette might want this script to be more about Grace’s facing down her fear of the abstract unknown than about her relationship to a controlling man she has good reason to be afraid of, there is a palpable tension in the play between those two dramatic arcs. Whose story is being told? hers or his? I think it may be more his than hers. I say this not to dispute the playwright’s interpretation of her own work but to suggest that there is more far-reaching meaning going on in Fréchette play than she may have meant.

Cassie Platt as Grace and Michael Kevin Darnall as Henry in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. Photo by Tony Hitchcock..

There’s a subtext whispering through Small Room: the common notion that what a woman doesn’t know about her man won’t hurt her. If he keeps some dark part of his life cabined off from her, compartmentalized even from himself, so what? What harm is there? She never has to know. Only if she finds out his secret, only if she trespasses that mancave minefield in his mind, will his psyche be endangered and his anger aroused.

I think that’s what’s really going on in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs. It’s a profound parable about the sexual politics of secret keeping. And as such, it’s a brilliantly terrifying horror story, even more unsettling than Spooky Action has let on.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs plays through June 10, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.

 

Republic Undone

Going back to Ancient Greece, theater has functioned as a forum for informed public debate—about war, religion, politics, all the issues relevant to the citizenry of the day. The Greeks had a word for it: agon, a consequential debate, a contest of opposed wills with far-reaching fallout. That’s not much what live theater is about anymore. Theater that’s deemed too messagey gets snubbed. Action movies distract the populace with gosh-wow conflict in CGI. Meanwhile, MSNBC, Fox News, and the interwebs are where actual agon has gone.

Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation, based in Flint Hill, Virginia, has been on a mission to reclaim what’s gone missing onstage.

The brainchild of Playwright and Founding Producer John B. Henry, Stone Hill “supports theatrical productions addressing today’s most pressing issues.” Having now attended a trilogy of Henry’s plays written for that purpose, the most recent being Republic Undone, I can report that not only have I learned important stuff about America that other media pay no mind to; I have also enormously enjoyed the stimulating wit in the writing.

The central figure in Republic Undone is Woodrow Wilson, whose star in the firmament of best U.S. presidents has been fading. Not long ago, students at Princeton, where Wilson was president from 1902 to 1910, tried unsuccessfully to expunge his name from its school of public and international affairs because of his staunch support of racial segregation. During his years in the White House (1913 to 1921), Wilson also opposed women’s suffrage until the end of his second term and only then supported it as a war measure.

Dude was a piece of work.

The cast of Republic Undone taking curtain call after performance of Republic Undone at Keegan Theatre. Photo courtesy of Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation.

There’s a speech about Wilson in Republic Undone by Colonel House (Bill Nitze), his top foreign policy advisor, that sounds eerily familiar:

COLONEL HOUSE: I’ve mastered the mysteries of Woodrow’s personality. Everything’s personal. He insists on his own facts. He trusts only the worshipful. So I constantly put him on a pedestal and never contradict him. He has an insatiable craving for reassurance. He‘s an inveterate hater who exalts in making enemies. I’m a captive audience for his temper tantrums. Self-reflection unimaginable.

The passage got a big laugh when I saw the show at The Metropolitan Club but not because it was ha-ha funny; it was more like uh-oh, since by then the play had firmly established its theme of presidential power run amok.

“The President now exercises more unchecked power over American citizens than King George III did over American colonists, which provoked the American Revolution,” Henry said in an interview. “Indeed, we’ve concentrated more power in the hands of one individual than any government in history.”

On this Memorial Day 2018, it’s worth remembering that the Founding Fathers never intended for U.S. presidents to have the power to declare war. The Constitution says explicitly that war shall be declared only by an act of Congress, but for more than a century, presidents have been unconstitutionally initiating war on their own. This fact ought to incense us the citizenry but it never seems to, and media left and right keep mum about it. Meanwhile, Henry writes plays to dramatize how the country got into this mess.

In Henry’s previous play, Republic For Which We Stand, he dramatized the dispute among the Founding Fathers that led to the Constitution’s Declare War Clause. In Republic Undone, Henry traces the psychopathology and politics of our 28th president, who for two and a half years unconstitutionally made the U.S. into a co-belligerent with the Allied Powers against Germany without a congressional declaration.

If that sounds like a heavy slog of a play,  I assure you it’s not. The script is briskly comedic and epigrammatic, and it is performed in signature Stone Hill style by so-called citizen actors—people who have other professional lives but are doing Henry’s play because it matters. What crackles in the show is not just the script’s wit; there’s something captivating and refreshing about watching real people from a real polis acting out real people who shaped our nation’s history. As a theatrical technique, it casts all of us as “We the people.”

Hugh Hill as Woodrow Wilson and Faith Lewis as Ellen Axson Wilson in Republic Undone in rehearsal at The Metropolitan Club. Photo courtesy of Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation.

Among the script’s pleasures is its depiction of the women in Wilson’s life, including his mother, his wives, his mistress. The exchanges between Wilson and his feisty first wife Ellen Axson Wilson are especially choice (and Hugh Hill and Faith Lewis ripped into their roles and arguments with relish):

WOODROW: The United States must take the Monroe Doctrine global. We can only do that by replacing our separation of powers with British executive supremacy. Checks and balances are anachronistic. To be a world power, the President must dominate Congress and the judiciary.
ELLEN: The center of our universe is liberty and peace – not domination and war…. God gave you eloquence. God gave you brilliance. God gave you industry. But God sent me to give you judgment and wisdom.

Later, in an aside, Ellen says

Without me, he’d be a Captain Ahab.

As Ellen is strategizing Woodrow’s ascent to the White House, he has an affair with Mary Peck (Molly McCartney), a socialite he met in Bermuda. In a speech that Hillary could likely relate to (and maybe Melania too), Ellen says,

Now the White House is within our reach. And what do you do? You risk everything! I’m sick and tired of being the only adult in this marriage.

Founding Father James Madison was a firm proponent of keeping war power out of the hands of U.S. presidents, and in Henry’s clever conceit, the Ghost of Madison (Bruce Fein) perches amusingly in a tiny tomb and narrates Wilson’s wayward ways. Thus it is the Ghost of Madison who sets up the scenes in which we learn other cracks in Wilson’s character.

MADISON: Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the drum majors among the suffragists, infuriate Woodrow. They plant the National Women’s Party headquarters on the edge of Lafayette Park within shouting distance of the White House. The day before Woodrow’s inauguration, Alice and Lucy lead thousands of women in a protest march.

 

Pat Nicklin (left) with Suffragists in Republic Undone in rehearsal at The Metropolitan Club. Photo courtesy of Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation.

An ensemble of suffragists holds up signs as in a photograph documenting the historical event (which foreshadowed the January 2017 Women’s March). Then with stirring lead vocals by Pat Nicklin as Alice Paul, they sing an authentic song of the women’s suffrage movement, the chorus of which goes

Brothers we must share your freedom
Help us and we will

We learn from Republic Undone that Wilson’s administration was the first to jail suffragists, and in prison when they went on a hunger strike they were made guinea pigs for forced feeding, sensory deprivation, and other torture techniques still new in the U.S. arsenal of human rights abuses.

We also learn that Wilson hosted the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House.

MADISON: Woodrow endorsed the white supremacy of his era. He excluded coloreds at Princeton. He campaigned as a second Lincoln to attract colored support, but he governed with the racism of South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman to placate southern bigots. He re-segregated the federal workforce, fired colored officials in the South, and turned a deaf ear to lynchings.

Hugh Hill as Woodrow Wilson, Bruce Fein as Ghost of James Madison, Hermond Palmer as William Monroe Trotter in Republic Undone in rehearsal at The Metropolitan Club. Photo courtesy of Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation.

In a barbed exchange in the White House, William Monroe Trotter (Hermond Palmer), “Harvard’s first colored Phi Beta Kappa,” confronts the president:

WOODROW: Segregation is good for everybody. The Supreme Court blesses separate-but-equal.
TROTTER: They enforce the separate but ignore the equal. We’re the untouchables. White co-workers the Brahmans.
WOODROW: I’m all for progress. It’s just change I can’t stand. You must be patient. After all, it took us more than two centuries to abolish slavery.
TROTTER: The time is over for taking the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. The time has come to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Whereupon Wilson tells Trotter to leave.

As rumblings of war begin abroad, Henry now shows us how our nation was led into it by a man who has been established, despite his comic Dagwood Bumstead charms, as fundamentally white and male supremacist.

MADISON GHOST: Ellen presciently foresaw the Great War would beget European hecatombs and a spike in civilian deaths. Her spirit animates the women’s peace movement featuring parades in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. With the vote, women might have silenced the trumpets of war.

In the most moving scene of the show, Pat Nicklin and the ensemble of women return to sing a song from the period, the chorus of which is

There’d be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.”

Republic Undone next takes us into some complex international diplomacy issues, which I’ll not attempt to distill. But even when the history thickens, the central debate of the play, its agon, remains crystal clear, as in this jarring argument between Wilson and his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (John Lesinski) after Wilson unilaterally made America a co-belligerent:

BRYAN: Your oath is to defend the Constitution. Not Britain. Not humanity.
WOODROW: You don’t define American interests. I do. What’s good for me is good for America.
BRYAN: The Constitution defines American interests. Not you. And what’s bad for the Constitution is bad for America.

Later, just before Bryan resigns in disagreement with his boss, Wilson puts this kicker on the argument:

I’m the Commander-in-Chief! International law is whatever I say it is.

In a brilliant denoument—the conscience equivalent of a Greek deus ex machina—Henry closes Republic Undone with an imagined scene in the afterlife in which Wilson apologizes to all whom he hurt. He apologizes for blessing white supremacy, for opposing women’s suffrage and endorsing torture of suffragists, for spending more on war than the nation had spent in all the years before… His mea culpa goes on and on.

If only that part of this powerhouse political play were headline news and not a fantasy.

Production Program Credit
Director: Rick Davis; Associate Director: Howard Coon; Costume Directors: Deverell Pedersen, Dorothy McGhee; Drama Poo Bah: Richard Squires; Humorists: Richard Rymland, Travis Brown; Constitutionalist: Bruce Fein; Moral Philosopher: Tuck Grinnell; Scenic and Props Artist: Howard Coon; Photography & Video: Ray Boc; Social Media: Max Mohr

Performer Program Credits
Ghost of James Madison: Bruce Fein; Alice Paul, Hattie Woodrow, Citizen: Pat Nicklin; Woodrow Wilson: Hugh Hill; “Tommy” Wilson: Maeve Cuiba; Joseph Wilson: Howard Coon; Jesse Wilson: Deverell Pedersen; Ellen Axson Wilson: Faith Lewis; Lord Grey, Messenger, Policeman: Dante DeVito; Mary Peck, Suffragist: Molly McCartney; Colonel House, Andrew Carnegie: Bill Nitze; Lucy Burns, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Suffragist: Hali Jilani; William Monroe Trotter: Hermond Palmer; Joseph Tumulty, Judge, Doctor Cary Grayson, Speaker of the House: Peter Stenner; William Jennings Bryan: John Lesinski; Edith Galt Wilson, Suffragist: Gail Kitch; Lloyd George: Travis Brown; Kaiser Wilhelm II: John Schmitz; Kaiser’s Wife Augusta Victoria, Suffragist: Sandy Read; Ludendorff: Wolfgang Schaefer; Clemenceau: Colin Davies; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: Bob Randolph

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

Republic Undone played May 23, 2018, at Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation performing at The Metropolitan Club of the City of Washington, 1700 H Street, NW, Washington, D.C.; May 22, 2018, at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St NW, Washington, DC; and May 19, 2018, at Castleton Theater, 663 Castleton View Rd, Castleton, VA. For news of future performances, subscribe to Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation event updates.

LINKS to coverage of the first two plays in John B. Henry’s trilogy:

Magic Time!: ‘Republic For Which We Stand’ at United States Capitol Visitor Center

Magic Time! ‘Arguing with God’ at Woman’s National Democratic Club

VIDEO: Republic Undone as performed at Keegan Theatre May 22, 2018