It was tough this year, selecting but a few shows to highlight from 2019. As I created my list, two themes emerged: fearlessness and kick-ass women. They're listed in no particular order.
Sometimes a work is not optioned because no one is quite sure what to do with it. Finding the right director can be easier said than done. And casting? That can be a sticky wicket as well. The uncertainty might be the subject matter and whether it is either too touchy or controversial at the moment. To be perfectly candid this sometimes means concern over whether staging the work will tick off the wrong people.
Other times it might be a practical or logistical matter of whether technically, given the production company’s available resources, the work can be built. Fearlessness for me is daring to go forth anyway because the importance of doing the work outweighs the challenges it presents.
Cara Mía Theatre Co.’s production of Emilio Rodriguez’ Swimming While Drowning (directed by Jorge B. Merced) brought to the fore a situation either overlooked, ignored, or discounted — that of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. It is a problem, not just in other places, but here in Dallas. This is a necessary play at this time about a community which does not always feel the love.
The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse thrusts a spear into the United States’ chosen story about itself and its beginnings. That spear, labeled truth, forces an internal conversation about who we are and why this country persists with the Thanksgiving Day fable. It is no surprise at all that Undermain Theatre produced this piece, nor that Bruce DuBose directed it so beautifully.
Say the word “immigration” and people start to scatter, wanting to avoid the contentious conversation that will undoubtedly follow, especially in Texas, and especially during campaign season. But Cry Havoc Theater Company did that thing they do. They touched the third rail of immigration by going down and interviewing the children being detained at what the national media is describing as “our southern border.” Partnering with Kitchen Dog Theater, and co-directed by Mara Richards Bim and Tim Johnson, the teens of Cry Havoc brought to us Crossing the Line.
What is fearless about Jonathan Norton’s A Love Offering which was produced by Kitchen Dog Theater, directed by Tina Parker? It isn’t Alzheimer’s or the struggle within families to manage care. It is the tensions between the caretakers and the patient’s family. When the facility caretakers are people of color, and the dearly beloved’s children are not, interactions sometimes come to a boil. Caretakers are not necessarily seen as individuals with their own lives and struggles. Norton wrote about race and class within an environment that is not talked about openly.
Theatre Three artistic director Jeff Schmidt figured out and designed a way to take a play that could not possibly work in the round because of the set demands, and make it work in T3’s space. He knew it would be a problem but decided to jump off that cliff anyway and produce Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni. That production deserves recognition for the set design, and for the set change by the crew. It is actually the set change which fascinated me the most. Schmidt understands the importance of facility. The set needs to look good and meet the demands of the script, but as importantly it needs to be manageable with the crew one has. That was the smartest set I recall from all of the productions I saw this year.
Sometimes we discover our fearlessness through the elusiveness of choice. That’s what happened with the women in Colman Domingo’s play, Dot, directed by Anyika McMillan-Herod for Soul Rep Theatre Company. Neither Dot, Shelly, Jackie or Averie chose to be in their predicaments. It would have been totally understandable if each character had crumbled under the weight of what they carried. When faced with the situation where choice had been removed, they each trudged forward without a clear plan of what was ahead. They just persisted in that way women have learned to do across generations. The Soul Rep production team was all too familiar with the situations of these characters. Catherine Whiteman, Rene Miche’al, Jaqui Wade and Brandy McClendon Kae protected their characters’ stories by honoring their authenticity.
2019 in DFW brought us kick-ass female characters brought to life by unforgettable performances, and plays directed and produced by women.
I really loved The Armor Plays: Cinched and Strapped by Selina Fillinger and directed by Leslie Swackhamer for Theatre Three. I loved it so much I stopped Ann Hagedorn (whom I do not know) in a store to go on and on about her performance in that play. I rarely do anything like that. She, Christie Vela, Sophie Neff and Ania Lyons brought fire to their characters.
Lizzie by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt and produced by Imprint Theatreworks is as strong in my memory now as it was when I saw it. Devin Berg, Laura Lites, Aubrey Ferguson and Theresa Keller actualized director Ashley H. White and musical director Rebecca Lowrey’s vision of what this musical could be. Those women were fierce.
There is a fearlessness about Christie Vela and that is a part of her kick-assedness. What she, Jenny Ledell, Lydia Mackay, and Jessica D. Turner brought to us in Blake Hackler’s What We Were — a co-production between Second Thought Theatre and Circle Theatre —was like an emotional debriding. In the wrong director’s hands this could have been a disaster. Christie not only knew what to do with this new play, she knew with whom she could collaborate, with which actors she could partner to tell that difficult story.
My final play is not final in my thoughts. It’s listed last here because it doesn’t fit neatly into my fearlessness/kick-ass women theme pattern. But it is one of the most important pieces of 2019. The play, penny candy by Jonathan Norton, commissioned by Dallas Theater Center and directed by Derrick Sanders, does have one kick-ass female character (Rose) who was fearless in a Wakanda general kind of way. I think it is an important story for the same reasons as our masterworks by Hansberry and Wilson. A Raisin in the Sun looked inside what integration meant for a black family seeking middle class housing outside of the inner city. Fences scratched at black working-class domestic life in the heart of a big city. penny candy busts (which is very different from bursts) into the lower black middle-class reality for people living within view but not reach of the buildings which kiss the downtown sky. Norton gave us a drug dealer we could like (even if we didn’t want to) and a tough girl with a gentle heart.
I’m looking forward to 2020 because I think DFW is just warming up in terms of its willingness to do what no one thinks it either will or can do. I think Jeff Schmidt said what a lot of area producers and directors are thinking in an interview about Noises Off: “If you tell me I cannot do something, I’m going to immediately figure out how I’m going to get it done.”
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