In looking back at the year in Dallas-Fort Worth theater, two intersectional themes stand out: representation for voices from diverse and underrepresented communities, and the growth of women’s voices. Neither is a new discussion, but in 2018 we saw bigger strides than we have before. Unfortunately, it’s a situation of two stage-crosses forward, one stage-cross back.
There is still much work to be done.
Women in charge is not new—not in a region that boasts trailblazing theater leaders like Margo Jones, Norma Young, Robyn Flatt, Cora Cardona, Katherine Owens, Marian Eastman, Rose Pearson, Patty Granville, Diane Simons, Deborah Jung, and Pam Myers-Morgan, to name a few. Additionally, the list of women running or co-running notable organizations includes Teresa Wash, Tina Parker, Dana Schultes, Guinea Bennett Price, Tonya Davis-Holloway, Anyika McMillan-Herod, Kathleen Culebro, Susan Sargeant, Terri Ferguson, Merri Brewer, Regina Washington, Shanon Dickinson, Ashley H. White, Carla Parker, DeeAnn Blair, Noelle Chesney, Mara Richards Bim, Carla Parker, Sorany Gutiérrez, Sara Cardona, Ariana Cook, Lauren Morgan, Carol Rice, Jill Lord, Rosaura Cruz, Janielle Kastner, Denise Lee and, until this year, Joanie Schultz. (Yes, I know that list can go on and on.)
The expansion of women directors this year was encouraging. Of my Top 10 shows of the year (listed later in this story), seven were directed by women; and of another 20 that I loved too much to ignore, 14 were directed (or co-directed) by women. I could easily list another 20 women-directed shows that stuck with me. Joanie Schultz, who resigned from WaterTower Theatre in November, just shy of her two years here, did something that has never happened in North Texas: The leader of a professional theater that has a mainstage season of four or more shows, assigned all five productions in the 2018-2019 season to women directors, two of them women of color; all the shows are also women-driven in character and story. (Schultz was to direct The Ballad of Little Jo, and WTT hasn’t announced who is replacing her, so we’ll see if this holds true.)
Of those 30 shows I mention later in the lists, 12 were written by women or had women collaborators, composers or adapters; two were created by collective ensembles, each with multiple women involved; and one was written by a gender-nonconforming playwright.
I don’t want to call this explosion of women’s voices a trend, because it’s not merely that; nor do I want to suggest that it is strictly a reaction to the national misogyny that greeted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, or to #metoo and #timesup, which made news headlines starting in the summer of 2017 and hit the local theater scene later that year. It’s more about choosing who tells whose stories, and which stories are told. Considering women make up a majority of theater audiences, as shown in several surveys, the question is: What took us so long to get here?
Among the notable entries and themes in what I suspect is the start of something that is much more than a collection of hashtags:
• Brick Road Theatre co-produced the first Women in Theatre Festival, which didn’t come without controversy, but is something that I hope continues, expands, and evolves.
• Women behaving badly—sometimes defiantly and hilariously so—as told by women writers in such works as Jen Silverman’s The Moors (Theatre Three), Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Second Thought Theatre), Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists (Imprint Theatreworks), and Danielle Georgiou Dance Group’s Just Girly Things.
• Women of color addressing race, colorism, and colonization in such works as Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman (Soul Rep Theatre Company; and this group's best production since its comeback a few years ago); Ariana Cook, Edyka Chilomé, and Vanessa Mercado-Taylor’s Where Earth Meets the Sky (Cara Mía Theatre Company), and two plays about Nina Simone (produced at Bishop Arts Theatre Center and Jubilee Theatre).
• Women telling their personal stories, or the biographical stories of women, as in Jessica Cavanagh’s Self-Injurious Behavior at Theatre Three; Anyika McMillan-Herod’s The Monarch, a co-production between Soul Rep Theatre Company and Echo Theatre; and Ana Hagedorn writing and starring in a play about the great Margo Jones, Let Me Talk My Dreams, performed at the Margo Jones Theatre.
• Teen women taking on controversy in Cry Havoc Theater Company’s collaboratively created gun-violence play Babel and a workshop of Sex Ed (to get a full production in 2019), and the fascinating Censorship Cabaret at Bishop Arts Theatre Center (which was co-produced with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Dallas native Doug Wright). Related: Some of the area’s best actresses in a benefit reading of Jeff Swearingen’s Daffodil Girls, originally produced with teen women and girls for Fun House Theatre and Film.
I should also note that although I didn’t see as much dance in 2018 as I typically do (changing that for 2019), two of my favorites were created by women of color: Camille A. Brown’s Black Girl: linguistic play (presented by TITAS); and Indique Dance Company’s SvaBhava (presented in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project).
Now to the topic of representation for people of color (POC) and LGBTQIA, notably transgender and gender-nonconforming people, a topic that TheaterJones plans to address on a regular basis in 2019 and beyond.
For POCs, there is still an uphill road to get producers and directors to realize that diversity, equity and inclusion has to go beyond colorblind (which often on paper more than it is a reality) and color-conscious casting. Yes, there are fantastic culturally specific theaters here, but heaven knows we need even more—given the size and diversity of the population in North Texas, there’s no reason we can’t have culturally specific theaters for Asian/Pacific Islander people and Native Americans, and more Latinx and black groups.
But that does not mean that POC artists should be siloed in culturally specific theaters; nor does it not mean that professional, semi-pro and community theaters can get away with tokenism. Tokenism is NOT diversity. Tokenism is NOT equity. Tokenism is NOT inclusion. (More on that soon in another TJ essay.)
There’s also a big conversation to have about the lack of funding for smaller, culturally specific theaters who have always been doing the work, when a larger, professional theater suddenly gets all the funds for the proposed diversity of a certain show. That’s something that will change, in Dallas at least, with the new Office of Cultural Affairs Cultural Plan. (I hope.)
Under Kevin Moriarty’s leadership, the Dallas Theater Center has been a model for DEI in casting and beind-the-scenes. Ten years ago, having black actors in the white Loman family in Death of a Salesman raised some eyebrows (I’ll admit it was a challenge, and in retrospect, it was foolish to think so), and I’m sure there were some audience complaints when they cast a black man and then a woman Scrooge (next year, how about Liz Mikel as Scrooge?). But for me, having a multi-racial cast in Steel Magnolias was the only reason to see that play again. Also, the celebration of cultures and performance styles in the Public Works Dallas shows is to be treasured. This year’s The Winter’s Tale was a highlight.
At WaterTower Theatre, Joanie Schultz had no problem in casting a black man as Torvald in A Doll’s House, or—gasp!—programming more than one play by a person of color in the same season, rather than just including a token POC playwright in a season with four or more shows. Stage West has been doing a commendable job in this department, too. Years ago, our professional theaters moved beyond the need to program A Raisin in the Sun or Driving Miss Daisy in February, or an LGBTQIA show in June. But it’s time to move into the present.
Two of the biggest complaints I hear from long-running arts organizations are “how do we get more diverse audiences?” and “how do we find more diverse board/staff members?”
To which I respond: Are the stories you put on your stages diverse all season long?
As for trans and non-binary inclusion, if 2017 was a noticeable step forward, then 2018 took several big leaps beyond that.
Two plays at Stage West—which is one of our longest running professional theaters, with an annual budget approaching $1 million—had transgender and gender non-conforming characters as major parts of the narrative: the world premiere of Erik Forrest Jackson’s Like a Billion Likes and Taylor Mac’s Hir; as did the young, LGBTQIA group Flexible Grey Theatre Company, with Bridges LGBT+ and Space Girl. Two theaters, Circle Theatre and Onstage in Bedford, did Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats, a play with male characters that cannot be played by cisgender men (Onstage used all cisgender women; Circle had several trans/non-binary performers). To boot, transgender/non-binary characters and/or performers were used in Uptown Players’ Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Theatre of North Texas’ A Streetcar Named Desire (which also had a predominantly POC cast), and Artstillery’s company-created immigrant/refugee play, Dirty Turk. Let’s continue to leap forward in this area, DFW.
Other news about the DFW theater scene in 2018: Imprint Theatreworks, The Classics Theatre Project and Flexible Grey Theatre Company were among the new groups on the scene; and the all-women group Lily & Joan announced its first season for 2019.
We also suffered a major loss: Fort Worth’s Trinity Shakespeare Festival, when Texas Christian University decided not to continue funding it after its 10th season this summer. Not only was TSF a highlight of each year, but it was an Actor’s Equity Association Small Professional Theatre, so that means theater artists have lost paying work—and it was a Shakespeare company, so that means a lot of actors, designers and tech folks.
Leadership changes at DFW theaters included: Matthew Gray was announced as the artistic director at Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre; Wambui Richardson was named artistic director at Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre; and Steven A. Morris was just announced as the new executive director at Theatre Arlington. And as previously mentioned, Joanie Schultz resigned as artistic director at WaterTower, so look for news about that theater’s leadership to continue in 2019.
Other news: Dallas Summer Musicals and AT&T Performing Arts Center announced a four-week partnership in the touring musicals game for 2019; Doug Curtis left as CEO of ATTPAC; and tickets for Hamilton, which comes to DSM in April, went on sale.
In 2018, I saw 131 performing arts events (most of them full productions, but also readings, cabaret performances, a few lectures/panels and two Tony-winning Broadway divas). Ten of those productions were in New York, Chicago and Milwaukee; and eight were music, opera, or dance. So, we’ll say about 100 fully staged plays and musicals in North Texas. That’s a little more than I saw in 2017, which was the first time in two decades that I didn’t see 150 or more (it has typically been around 175, which I hope to get back to in 2019).
I didn’t see many tours this year, but my favorites were 600 Highwaymen’s The Fever in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off-Broadway on Flora series (which sadly has ended because there wasn’t enough audience support, which is frustrating); The Humans at ATTPAC; and The Color Purple at DSM.
Unforgettable moments on stage included the opening scene of Jessica Cavanagh’s Self Injurious Behavior; the design (especially make-up), vision and message in Where Earth Meets the Sky at Cara Mía Theatre Company; the visual metaphors of Regina Taylor’s Bread at WaterTower Theatre; the final scene in Joanie Schultz’s adaptation of A Doll’s House at WaterTower; and the brilliance of Bob Lavallee’s set for An Octoroon at Stage West.
There was a lot of excellent clown work this year, including: David Lozano and Frida Espinosa Muller in Gog & Magog: Two Clowns Trapped in Hell from Cara Mía Theatre Company; Rafael Tamayo and Omar Padilla in BrUNO & lOUIe from Prism Movement Theater; Steph Garrett and Dennis Raveneau in Pompeii!! at Kitchen Dog Theater; Isaac Young in The Last One-Nighter on the Death Trail at Theatre Three; and Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley in Where Do I Sit? from Laughter League.
I missed a few one-person shows this year, notably Stephan Wolfert’s Cry Havoc! at Amphibian Stage Productions and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey at Uptown Players, and two of the six shows at Dallas Solo Fest; but I caught several other memorable one-person shows. My three favorites were WET: A DACAmented Journey, co-produced by Cara Mía Theatre Company; Let Me Talk My Dreams, Ana Hagedorn’s piece about Margo Jones; and Pichanga, from Chilean company La Criatura at the Fort Worth Fringe Fest.
Shows I regret not seeing: Yana Wana’s Legend of the Bluebonnet at Dallas Children’s Theater, Guys and Dolls at Lyric Stage, Stick Fly at Jubilee Theatre, The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare Dallas, The Cherry Orchard from The Classics Theatre Project; and Dangerous Liaisons at Theatre Three.
I also missed Don’t Dress for Dinner at Stage West, although by all accounts it was nicely done. Going to Stage West was consistently a pleasure in 2018. Like a Billion Likes was my least favorite, but I still enjoyed it; it had promise and the subject matter was refreshing. Four other shows there—Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, Taylor Mac’s Hir, Halley Feiffer’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, and Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 were among my favorites in DFW. Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody, which opened in the final days of 2018 and runs through January, is also high up (see it while you can).
Stage West is now in its 40th season, and I’ve been seeing shows there since the mid-1990s, first as a subscriber and then as a writer for the Star-Telegram. 2018 was easily one of its best, if not THE best. That’s a credit to Dana Schultes, who had been groomed to run the theater and took over after founder Jerry Russell’s death. She has made Stage West her own with challenging, provocative and entertaining selections.
Stage West is easily the theater of the year.
WaterTower Theatre, Cara Mía Theatre Company, Kitchen Dog Theater, Second Thought Theatre, and Undermain Theatre also had strong years.
As for performers, there was a lot of good work, but I have to single out Shannon McGrann as performer of the year. She was great in a secondary role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at Stage West, and brilliant as Nora in A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Stage West. But her work as the mom in Hand to God at WaterTower Theatre was mind-blowingly fabulous.
In 2019, I vow to get back to theaters I missed too much of in 2018 (Circle Theatre, Jubilee Theatre, Shakespeare Dallas, Dallas Children’s Theater, Ochre House, Firehouse Theatre), and explore groups whose work I haven’t seen yet, or haven’t seen in too many years.
Let’s wrap this up.
My Top 10 for 2018:
1 An Octoroon
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Stage West, Fort Worth
Directed by Akín Babatundé
It’s no wonder the New York Times named this play the second greatest play in the 25 years since Angels in America. In riffing on a popular 19th century play about American slavery from an Irish playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins upturned conceits about race, stereotypes and representation. The women slaves in An Octoroon were given agency they didn’t have in the original, and the metatheatrical concept was made even more brilliant by Bob Lavallee’s set design, in which the ropes that raise the scenery for the play-within-a-play doubled as nooses. Haunting, provocative work.
By Taylor Mac
Stage West, Fort Worth
Directed by Garret Storms
Gender-bending drag artist Taylor Mac, who uses the pronoun judy, played with conventions of the American well-made family drama, taking on notions of gender nonconformity, mental illness and military PTSD. Fantastic ensemble, and a crazy-good performance from local stalwart Bob Hess (who also had an amazing year, with great work in Amphibian’s King Liz and Artist Descending a Staircase).
3 Hand to God
By Robert Askins
WaterTower Theatre, Addison
Directed by Joanie Schultz
Dude. So much to say here. And now you can’t mention this production without thinking of it being a catalyst for the reason Schultz decided to resign. It offended people (bravo, I say!). Fantastic immersive design, damn good performances from the aforementioned McGrann, and also Parker Gray and his character’s puppet Tyrone, and Garret Storms as a horny teenager. Love what the playwright—a Texas native who made a splash on Broadway with this show—has to say about we process grief and the narratives we create about the notion of something, somewhere out there, that’s bigger than us.
4 Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika
By Tony Kushner
Uptown Players at Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas
Directed by Cheryl Denson
Uptown’s production of Part 1, Millennium Approaches, was my number 1 pick in 2016 (but that year wasn’t as strong, overall, as 2018), and the second part of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece was even more breathtaking—mostly because Part 2 is where the meat of the play comes in. Fantastic ensemble performances, but standout work by Garret Storms and Marianne Galloway.
5 Fetch Clay, Make Man
By Will Power
Dallas Theater Center at A&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre, Sixth Floor Studio Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Nataki Garrett
Former Dallas resident Will Power’s dramatization of what might happened in the real-life friendship of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and controversial black actor Steppin Fetchit ingeniously explores what it meant to be black in 1960s America from the lens of two very different men of whom certain things were expected from their white fans. Gorgeously acted production.
By Cry Havoc Theater Company
Cry Havoc Theater Company at AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House, Hamon Hall, Dallas
Directed by Mara Richards Bim
Cry Havoc has been one of my favorite new theaters for several years. Babel was notable for how the show—which takes on gun violence in America—was created. The ensemble of high schoolers traveled the country interviewing people, Washington, D.C. to Sandy Hook, and closed it with attending the NRA convention in Dallas, from which they were eventually kicked out. As we witnessed in Florida this year, Babel proved that teenagers can be smart enough to intelligently discuss a controversial, divisive subject. The numbers don’t lie, though. Bart McGeehon’s set design, which involved thousands of pairs of shoes to represent the people killed by guns in 2018, is an image that will always stick with me.
7 The Royale
By Marco Ramirez
Kitchen Dog Theater at Trinity River Arts Center, Dallas
Directed by Christopher Carlos
Two plays about famous black boxers (see Fetch Clay, Make Man) in one year? Not only HELL YES but I say bring on more. (Funny how no one minds the zillions of plays every season that feature middle-class white people chatting in a living room.) Jamal Sterling gave one of the year’s great performances as Jack Johnson in this poetic look at race and society in Jim Crow America.
8 Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
By Alice Birch
Second Thought Theatre at Bryant Hall, Dallas
Directed by Christie Vela
Birch’s series of scenes about women defying, challenging, and rejecting the patriarchy was blistering, funny, fierce and thought-provoking. I might say it was everything, but these women probably want to tell this list to go fuck itself. Noted. This show also had my favorite photos of the year, of course by Evan Michael Woods, whose work appears often in this list.
9 How Is It That We Live, or Shakey Jake + Alice
By Len Jenkin
Undermain Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Katherine Owens
It’s weird that Undermain Theatre and avant-garde playwright Len Jenkin had one of the more conventional structures of the plays in my Top 10, but there was no denying the love and history explored in this time-jumping exploration of two people who will always be connected. Gorgeous and moving in every way.
10 Dirty Turk
Created by Artstillery
Artstillery, in a West Dallas warehouse
Directed by Ilknur Ozgur
One of the shows I can’t stop thinking about. Artstillery is a newish group, started by folks who have worked with Thomas Riccio’s Dead White Zombies and inspired by other makers of devised theater. The group spent more than a year interviewing refugees and immigrants, from various countries around the world, about their experiences, and came up with this immersive piece that used multimedia, several kinds of puppetry, movement and promenade theater to tell the story of Turkish immigrants in post-9/11 America.
20 MORE TO LOVE
(in alphabetical order)
Artist Descending a Staircase by Tom Stoppard | Directed by Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers | Amphibian Stage Productions, Fort Worth (October)
Bread by Regina Taylor | Directed by Leah C. Gardiner | WaterTower Theatre, Addison (April)
A Chorus Line by Marvin Hamlisch (music), Edward Kleban (lyrics), James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante (book) | Directed by Jeremy Dumont | Uptown Players at Moody Performance Hall, Dallas (February)
The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein (music, lyrics and book) | Directed by Diana Sheehan | Brick Road Theatre | Cox Building Playhouse, Plano (March)
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Joanie Schultz | Directed by Joanie Schultz | WaterTower Theatre, Addison (October)
A Doll's House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath | Directed by Clare Shaffer | Stage West, Fort Worth (November)
Eliot, a Soldier's Fugue, by Quiara Alegría Hudes | Directed by David Lozano | WaterTower Theatre, Addison (January)
Empathitrax, by Ana Nogueira | Directed by Carson McCain | Second Thought Theatre at Bryant Hall, Dallas (April)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, by Halley Feiffer | Directed by Dana Schultes | Stage West, Fort Worth (March)
Men on Boats, by Jaclyn Backhaus | Directed by Noah Putterman | Circle Theatre
On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning, by Eric Overmyer | Directed by Susan Sargeant | WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas (October)
Once, by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (music and lyrics) and Enda Walsh (book) | Directed by Marianne Galloway | Theatre Three, Dallas (September)
The Moors, by Jen Silverman | Directed by Garret Storms | Theatre Three, Dallas (October)
Pompeii!!, by Cameron Cobb, Michael Federico and Max Hartman (music, lyrics and book) | Directed by Cameron Cobb | Kitchen Dog Theater at Trinity River Arts Center, Dallas (April)
The Revolutionists, by Lauren Gunderson | Directed by Ashley H. White | Imprint Theatreworks at Margo Jones Theater, Dallas (July)
Tina’s Journey, by Berta Hiriart | Directed by Alicia Martínez Álvarez Cara Mía Theatre Co. and Laboratio de la Máscara at the Latino Cultural Center, Dallas (November)
Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov | Directed by Katherine Owens | Undermain Theatre, Dallas (February)
WET: A DACA-mented Journey, by Alex Alpharaoh | Directed by Brisa Areli Muñoz | Cara Mía Theatre Company | Theatre Three’s Theatre Too!, Dallas (September)
Where Earth Meets the Sky, by Ariana Cook, Edyka Chilomé, and Vanessa Mercado-Taylor | Directed by Vanessa Mercado-Taylor | Cara Mía Theatre Company at Latino Cultural Center, Dallas (April)
Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith | Directed by Anyika Herod-McMillan | Soul Rep Theatre Company at South Dallas Cultural Center (February)
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW
Friday, December 28
- The Year in Comedy by Chief Comedy Critic Kevin Beane
- Danielle Georgiou's Sixth Position: A Year of Movement
Saturday, December 29
- The Year in Dance by Chief Dance Critic Cheryl Callon
- The Year in New Dance Works by Katie Dravenstott
- The Year in Dance by Emily Sese
Sunday, December 30
- The Year in Music and Opera by Chief Music and Opera Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
- The Year in Music and Opera by J. Robin Coffelt
- The Year in Music and Opera by Wayne Lee Gay
Monday, December 31
- The Year in Performing Arts Books by Cathy Ritchie
- The Year in Classical Music Recordings by Andrew Anderson
Tuesday, January 1
Wednesday, January 2
- The Year in Theater by Martha Heimberg
- The Year in Theater by Jan Farrington
- The Year in Theater by Janice L. Franklin
- The Year in Theater by Frank Garrett
- The Year in Theater by Jill Sweeney
- The Year in Latinx Theater by Teresa Marrero
Friday, January 4
- The Year in Theater by Mark Lowry
Saturday, January 5
- A challenge for our readers
- The Year in Performing Arts News by Mark Lowry
Sunday, January 6
- Looking ahead to 2019