There it went. 2019. Did you feel the breeze as it whorled and then made a not-so-graceful exit, taking a parking-lot-carnival-ride of a decade with it?
Early in the year I challenged readers to keep tabs on their arts-going with the #TJ100Challenge (look for the results of that and a plan for 2020 coming soon), and I’m happy to see that a number of you participated. I clocked in at 129, some of which included shows in New York and other cities, as well as some classical music, opera, and dance. That’s well below the first seven years of the decade, when I averaged about 180 shows a year. (What can I say except I’m older and more tired?)
For local theater, 2019 wasn’t the best year of the decade, but it was far ahead of the two or three not-so-great. In 10 years, the DFW theater scene has seen tremendous growth, even if it feels like that momentum has slowed in the past two years (more on that in my forthcoming survey of the decade). Still, the final year of the decade had a lot going for it.
It was a banner year for Latinx theater from both culturally specific and non-Latinx groups (Teresa Marrero writes more about that here). To top it off, Cara Mía Theatre Company and Teatro Dallas were named resident companies of the Latino Cultural Center, the country’s only city-run Latin arts center.
In 2019 we could finally have a serious conversation about Asian-Pacific Islander representation, LGBTQIA+ people of color were seen on numerous stages. And yet, there’s a long way to go on both fronts — especially when talking about administrative positions, behind-the-scenes jobs, and boards of directors.
It was a year for revivals that had people of color in prominent roles, with Fool for Love at Classics Theatre Project, Noises Off at Theatre Three, and Lonely Planet at Amphibian Stage. So did Our Town at Circle Theatre, which also had a woman playing the Stage Manager — and it worked beautifully. Theatre Three’s Dracula had women as the famous vampire and Van Helsing. And perhaps taking a cue from Daniel Fish’s Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, Joel Ferrell took an emo, reduced-instrumentation take (with real and found instruments) on Sweeney Todd at Circle Theatre.
It was a year in which Summer and Smoke, the Tennessee Williams play that had its world premiere at Margo Jones’ Dallas theater in 1947, returned to that very same stage in a production from the Classics Theatre Project at the Margo Jones Theatre.
Speaking of Margo, that legendary champion of new work would be thrilled that 2019 was the busiest year for local playwrights, in a decade that finally saw our homegrown writers being produced on professional stages.
It was also a year of loss: Bill Newberry, co-founder of Circle Theatre; Buckley Sachs, longtime Stage West associate; and Kyle McLaren, formerly of Garland Civic Theatre and a local influence for decade.
But nothing could have prepared us for the death of a local giant, Katherine Owens, co-founder of Undermain Theatre, one of the country’s longstanding lovers of the avant-garde. Owens’ work at Undermain has consistently been among my favorite in the two decades that I’ve been writing about local theater; and no doubt her influence, her aesthetic, and her dedication to approaching the work through the literature first has helped shape the theater scene and its artists.
There were many changes in administration: Shane Peterman was named Producing Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre and Elizabeth Kensek became its Associate Producer — they’ve launched a campaign to help that financially struggling institution. Christie Vela was named Associate Artistic Director of Theatre Three. Alex Organ announced that he’s stepping down as artistic director of Second Thought Theatre. (He’ll help with the transition year in 2020.) Joel Ferrell also stepped down as associate artistic director of Dallas Theater Center. (He’ll freelance more.) Danielle Georgiou became Associate Artistic Director at Undermain Theatre. Jay Duffer joined Amphibian Stage as Managing Director. B.J. Cleveland became Director of Theater for Youth at the theater where his career started, Casa Mañana.
As for venues, Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas opened a new rehearsal and performance space in Irving — Amy Stevenson’s Mama’s Party is now there, almost weekly on Mondays; Ohlook Performing Arts in Grapevine expanded its space; and Stage West announced a new expansion that will add two more theaters to its complex that now includes the mainstage and a studio theater.
Let’s explore some of the aforementioned themes of 2019.
Asian-Pacific Islander Representation
Early in the 2000s, a freelance musical theater director from L.A. told me that when she casts a The King and I or Miss Saigon there, or when working from a national talent pool, she can fill the Asian roles with API (Asian-Pacific Islander) actors. At the time, it seemed like something that could never happen in North Texas. Thankfully, the national conversation has changed so much that even when Michael Jenkins was president and CEO of Dallas Summer Musicals, he realized that he'd been initially wrong in casting a white actor as the King in a DSM-produced mini-tour, and he recast it with an API actor.
But what about plays? It was exciting when Theatre Three did Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters (a play that doesn’t call for an entirely API cast) in 2018 and Circle Theatre added Julia Cho’s Office Hour, a two-hander with API actors to its 2019 season. Then came Imprint Theatreworks with Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, a play about a Japanese-American family in the Bluegrass State, requiring nine API actors, as well as other actors of color. As director Ashley H. White wrote in her Square One column for TheaterJones, API actors came out in droves for auditions. Folks who hadn’t auditioned before because they figured that, as in the past, they’d only be given lip service. I quite liked Kentucky, which involves a wedding and was set up as a wedding reception at the old church that is now Arts Mission Oak Cliff. Next year, Dallas Theater Center will stage the world premiere of Don X. Nguyen’s The Supreme Leader, and I’m hoping they use folks from the local API community, in addition to the national actors they’ll use. (Folks, that’s what LORT regional theaters do.)
But y’all. There are terrific plays waiting for us, from Winkler, Lauren Yee, Qui Nguyen (still waiting for a local theater to pick up Vietgone, which now has a sequel), Susan Soon He Stanton, Christopher Chen, A. Rey Pamatmat, and many other API writers. I can think of only a handful of plays by API writers that have been produced here in two decades, including works by Chay Yew, Diana Son, and Young Jean Lee. (Have we even done David Henry Hwang?) We have the artists, and more will emerge once theaters start doing API plays.
The major Latinx theaters, Teatro Dallas and Cara Mía Theatre Company, achieved something that’s rare for Latinx theaters: resident status at one of the city’s major arts centers, the Latino Cultural Center. They both did strong work in 2019. Teatro Dallas transitioned out founder Cora Cardona, and the University of North Texas has started an annual scholarship in her name for Latinx artist.
As for the immigration situation at the border: It was addressed via compelling works such as Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater’s Crossing the Line and Cara Mía’s Ursula, or let yourself go with the wind. And although Teatro Dallas’ Villa was about memorializing past atrocities, Sorany Gutiérrez’s staging with three actresses mostly confined to small boxes was a sobering image.
Kitchen Dog Theater, WaterTower Theatre, and Undermain Theatre were among the non-Latinx pro theaters doing work by Latinx writers this year (and that's not new for Kitchen Dog). Dallas Theater Center knocked it out of the park with Josefina Lopez’s Real Women Have Curves, a play I’ve seen three times before but never really felt until this production, directed by Christie Vela; and a thrill-a-minute revival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical, In the Heights (which came a few months after the tour of Miranda’s Hamilton).
A year like this should not be the exception.
Queer Artists of Color
In order to speak more to the LGBTQIA+ community, the stories beyond those of white cisgender gay men should be represented. In that regard, 2019 was a major step forward. Queer, transgender and nonbinary people of color were loud and proud in Very Good Dance Theatre’s First Annual Gay Show, Cara Mía’s Swimming While Drowning and Your Healing is Killing Me, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance’s Pete: A New Dance Musical, Giant Entertainment’s City Dionysia in the Elevator Project, Soul Rep Theatre’s Dot, Flexible Grey Theatre Company’s Bridges: Multiracial Connections and Sky’s the Limit, and Imprint Theatreworks’ Dirty Dirty Night Squirrel.
In 2020, pay attention to the Dallas Children’s Theater’s world premiere of Bruce R. Coleman’s Andi Boi, about a transgender child; Imprint’s Southern Comfort and Uptown Players’ Head Over Heels, to name a few.
But, as I said earlier, representation has to go beyond artists on stage and page to include administrators, boards of directors, staff, designers, directors.
Biggest year yet. Jonathan Norton was named Playwright-in-Residence at Dallas Theater Center in January, succeeding Will Power. Norton and three other dominant playwrights on the scene — Michael Federico, Blake Hackler, Matt Lyle — each had two mainstage productions this year. Hackler’s was one play, What We Were, but it was seen at Second Thought Theatre in Dallas and Circle Theatre in Fort Worth. Federico had The Manufactured Myth of Eveline Flynn (with Ian Ferguson) and Dracula at Theatre Three; Lyle had Raptured at Theatre Three (with Matt Coleman) and A 3-D Adventure at Circle Theatre; and Norton had a stellar year with penny candy at Dallas Theater Center and a love offering at Kitchen Dog Theater. In 2020, Janielle Kastner will join that club with two new plays, Playwrights in the Newsroom in AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project (with Brigham Mosley), and Sweetpea at Second Thought Theatre.
Jessica Cavanagh’s Self-Injurious Behavior, which workshopped at Theatre Three in 2018, played both off-Broadway and in L.A. this year, the latter bolstered by Ronnie Marmo and Joe Mantegna.
Isabella Russell-Ides had one of her best works, the Little Women-adjacent Jo & Luisa from WingSpan Theatre Company at the Festival of Independent Theatres; it was the best of a FIT heavily featuring local playwrights. We also had new work from Steven Young, Haley Nelson and Shane Strawbridge in Imprint’s First Impressions Festival, Scott Zenreich in the Elevator Project, Cora Cardona at Teatro Dallas, and new works in Soul Rep’s Shine Play Festival and, as usual, at the theaters where premieres by resident playwrights is expected, such as Ochre House, Pegasus Theatre, Hip Pocket Theatre, Cara Mía Theatre Company, Cry Havoc Theater Company, and Sundown Collaborative Theatre. To boot, there were world premieres by non-local writers at Amphibian Stage, Kitchen Dog Theater, Undermain Theatre, and Theatre Three (Selina Fillinger’s The Armor Plays was billed as a world premiere), and a workshop of the musical Oswald at Firehouse Theatre; and Amphibian’s Kathleen Culebro’s play La Llorona was revived at Bishop Arts Theatre Center.
Women in Solo Performance
I missed the Dallas Solo Fest this year (fingers crossed that it continues; founder Brad McEntire of Audacity Theatre Lab has hinted that it might have been the last year), but there were some outstanding one-person performances, and they came from women performers. My favorites, in chronological order:
- Kristin McCollum in High Dive at Echo Theatre (technically there were other performers because audience members were given parts to read; but McCollum was the one on stage).
- Rohina Malik in her own Unveiled at WaterTower Theatre
- Barrett Nash in Lucy Kirkwood and Ed Hime’s small hours from Leos Ensemble at Festival of Independent Theatres
- Florinda Bryant in Virginia Grise’s Your Healing is Killing Me at Cara Mía Theatre Co.
- Frida Espinosa-Müller in her own Ursula, or let yourself go with the wind at Cara Mía Theatre Co.
- Jennifer Kuenzer in Samuel Beckett’s Footfalls, and Susan Sargeant in Not I, in Two by Beckett at WingSpan Theatre Company
- Libby Villari in Holland Taylor’s Ann at Dallas Theater Center
The news here was all about the first national tour of Every Award-winning Hamilton, which sold out for five weeks at the 3,200-seat Music Hall at Fair Park, courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals. (It comes to Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall in June for two weeks.) Tours come with their own sound people, and Hamilton’s team was top-notch; the Music Hall sounded much better than anyone expected. I saw more people of color in the audience than usual. Here’s hoping it introduced new audiences to musical theater.
Also exciting on the touring front: Homegrown talent came home as leads. Fort Worth’s Betty Buckley starred in Hello, Dolly!, making that role her own. (It was my first time to see her performing in a musical.) Fort Worth’s Major Attaway and Arlington’s Clinton Greenspan played the Genie and Aladdin in the tour of Aladdin. (Attaway had been doing it on Broadway for two years prior, and is now back there; Greenspan has joined him on the Great White Way.)
Favorite tours of the year:
- Hamilton, Dallas Summer Musicals
- Once on This Island, AT&T Performing Arts Center
- Hello, Dolly!, Dallas Summer Musicals (RIP Jerry Herman)
- Aladdin, Dallas Summer Musicals
- Unveiled, WaterTower Theatre
Best of 2019
I saw more than 100 works of theater; could have seen twice that much and still would've missed a lot. In case you're wondering, my personal policy is to try to see every show at the professional theaters, plus work by new companies and artists, festivals, works of interest to me, and as much else as I can cram in. At this point, even if a big-budget community theater is doing a standard work of the canon, say Blithe Spirit, I'm less inclined to catch that than a new work by a local playwright from a shoestring-budget group (and I still miss some of those).
But, life happens. Among the shows I regrettably missed: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play at Imprint Theatreworks; Spring Awakening at Uptown Players; The Father and First Date at Stage West; Guadalupe in the Guest Room and Sister Act at WaterTower Theatre; Split Second and Sistas the Musical at Jubilee Theatre; Foxfire at Theatre Three; Twelfth Night at Dallas Theater Center; Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, and 3 at African American Repertory Theater; and Waiting for Godot and Terra Nova at Fort Worth Community Arts Center. In 2020, I hope to see more shows at theaters I haven’t been to, or at least not in a while, including Dallas Children’s Theater, Stolen Shakespeare Guild, Firehouse Theatre, Core Theatre, Outcry Theatre, and Tarrant Actors Regional Theater.
Kitchen Dog Theater, Second Thought Theatre and Circle Theatre had solid seasons, but for me, Dallas Theater Center had one of its best years of the decade. I’ve written before that DTC’s 2019-20 is their first full season in which, with the exception of A Christmas Carol, every title was written by a person of color and/or a woman. But if you look at the calendar year, which included titles from the 2018-19 season, and take out the obligatory Shakespeare, the same holds true: Lynn Nottage, Sarah DeLappe, Jonathan Norton, Josefina Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Holland Taylor. Now add the next four shows (part of the 19-20 season), and you have: Kate Hamill adapting Louisa May Alcott, José Cruz Gonzalez, Dominique Morisseau, and Don X. Nguyen. Don’t be upset, white dudes: your plays will return, I’m sure.
10 Drunk Enough to Say I Love You & Here We Go
By Caryl Churchill
Second Thought Theatre
Bryant Hall, Dallas
Directed by Alex Organ
There simply isn’t enough Caryl Churchill around here (and probably not many other places). She's one of those playwrights often studied in drama school but rarely produced, challenging for artists and, perhaps more significantly, for audiences. This pairing of two one-acts had Blake Hackler and Brandon Potter embroiled as lovers in Drunk, representing two superpowers (U.S.A. and Great Britain) written after 9/11. Telling in the current global conversation? Yes. Compelling? Definitely. And in Here We Go, funeral-goers assemble in this examination of mortality. In the final scene, Kieran Connolly will be remembered for a quiet, physical, and profound performance. Scenic design (by Organ and Drew Wall), with a thrust stage configured in Bryant Hall's black box, was gorgeous.
By Duncan MacMillan
Stage West, Fort Worth
Directed by Carson McCain
Sometimes simplicity stands out most. In MacMillan’s play about a thirtysomething married couple contemplating having a baby and how that will affect their lives, actors Ruben Carrazana and Dani Nelson turned in lovely performances, slowly revealing their characters’ arcs in an intimate and spectacle-free staging by McCain, a young director whose work I’ve liked in the past. Use her more, please.
By Guillermo Calderón
Latino Cultural Center, Dallas
Directed by Sorany Gutiérrez
Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón looks at the future of a site on which a detention center in Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship once stood. Through the words of three women, each named Alejandra, they consider how future generations will remember a place where thousands of people were raped, tortured and murdered. Should it be memorialized? Tough to think about, and tough to watch. Sorany Gutiérrez put three cubes of equal size on the stage, with the three actresses working inside and around them. A giant Jenga-like contraption, scrawled with words like “enough,” “forgive,” and “chains” was a jarring metaphor for the fragility of a situation with no easy answers. Under the inimitable leadership of Cora Cardona for more than 30 years, Teatro Dallas has never shied away from political messages, sometimes employing agitprop. It’s great to see that after Cora’s “retirement,” her daughter Sara Cardona, along with Gutiérrez, are keeping the mission.
7 In the Heights
Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Dallas Theater Center
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre, Potter Rose Performance Hall
Directed by James Vazquez; musical direction by Gary Adler
In a year that brought Dallas the tour of Hamilton, it made sense to program Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical, In the Heights. And it was one of DTC’s best musical productions of the decade, a joyous street party with first-rate vocal and acting performances and exuberant choreography by Rickey Tripp. In an interview with TheaterJones, DTC Brierley Resident Acting Company member Tiffany Solano DeSena reminds us that one of the great accomplishments of this musical is that, despite being told by potential backers that there needed to be a complication brought on by pregnancy or drugs, Miranda knew that for a Latinx person to make it out of the neighborhood and into college and beyond was struggle enough.
6 Babette’s Feast
By Rose Courtney; conceived and developed by Abigail Killeen
Amphibian Stage, Fort Worth
Directed by Jay Duffer
Maybe the biggest theatrical surprise for me this year. I know I can count on Amphibian for quality theater, and I do love the 1987 film based on Isak Dinesen's short story about a French immigrant, Babette, who takes her love for baking and cooking and shares it with the people of her Danish town. But I didn’t expect to be this moved or entertained. In this adaptation, Dinesen’s poetry remains intact, but scenic designer Rusty Jones, lighting designer Adam Chamberlin, and costume designer LaLonnie Lehman added the visual poetry. As the title character, Sarah Rutan gave one of my favorite performances of the year.
5 a love offering
By Jonathan Norton
Kitchen Dog Theater
Trinity River Arts Center, Dallas
Directed by Tina Parker
Dallas Theater Center Playwright-in-Residence Jonathan Norton’s second world premiere of 2019 was this play, which was developed in part at Undermain Theatre, and given a world premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater. Inspired by his mother and another woman who worked in nursing homes (Norton's mother was also represented in his autobiographical play penny candy; read further on this list for more), a love offering looks at the dynamic between these aides and the children of a rich white man in their care, and sensitively lays out some uncomfortable truths about assumptions and racism. Fantastic cast led by Whitney LaTrice Coulter and Rhonda Boutté.
By Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt
Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas
Directed by Ashley H. White; Musical Direction by Rebecca Lowrey
Imprint had two strong musical productions this year. I loved Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet when a tour of it came to Dallas several years back, and Imprint’s production reminded why it’s such a great show. With Lizzie, one of two musicals (that I know of) about famous alleged axe murderess Lizzie Borden, I expected fun and gore but didn’t expect to be blown away. An ensemble of four actresses performed the sung-through rock ’n’ roll score with hand-held mics, telling the story of Borden and the trial that acquitted her. But what made this show was the absolutely kickass band, made up of mostly women and nonbinary people, led by Rebecca Lowrey on keyboards. I’ve frequently been not-so-fond of the music in rock musicals because they, understandably, lean too heavily on the musical theater idiom. The band in Lizzie was the closest thing to a face-melt since my first experience with Hedwig and the Angry Inch in its off-Broadway premiere in 1998.
By Lynn Nottage
Dallas Theater Center
Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas
Directed by Tim Bond
I loved reading this play, which made Lynn Nottage the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, and Tim Bond’s production at Dallas Theater Center solidified it. Gripping performances from Brierley Resident Acting Company members Liz Mikel and Sally Nystuen Vahle as longtime friends working at a factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, and traversing economic downturn. As she did with her first Pulitzer play, Ruined, Nottage interviewed people for her research, but it never reads as documentary theater.
2 Crossing the Line
By Cry Havoc Theater Company Ensemble
Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater
Trinity River Arts Center, Dallas
Directed by Mara Richards Bim and Tim Johnson
Not that documentary theater is a bad thing. On the contrary. Cry Havoc Theater Company has been one of the most exciting new outfits of the decade, and it’s a group of high school performers, interviewers and writers, guided by a professional staff of administrators, directors, and designers. Cry Havoc started with a devised performance called Shut Up and Listen in 2016, and has done collaborative works about the Trump administration (The Great American Sideshow) and food culture (From the Table), but really shot to notoriety with its work about the aftermath of the downtown Dallas police shootings, called Shots Fired, in 2017. It has since taken on gun violence in Babel and sex education in Sex Ed. Crossing the Line, a co-production with Kitchen Dog Theater, is Cry Havoc’s most important work yet. Cry Havoc’s Mara Richards Bim and Kitchen Dog’s Tim Johnson traveled with the teens to the border, interviewing folks on both side of the Texas/Mexico line, including detention center employees, migrants, ICE agents, politicians, human rights workers, and then pored through hundreds of pages and hours of interviews to create an intelligent, insightful look into the crisis (read more about that here). As reviewer Teresa Marrero said, Crossing the Line is “a living historical document as well as a work of art. Its title not only alludes to the shifting U.S.-Mexico border, but to the ways in which we, as a nation, have crossed (and continue to cross) the line of human rights violations.”
1 penny candy
By Jonathan Norton
Dallas Theater Center
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre, Sixth Floor Studio Theatre
Directed by Derek Sanders
“Write what you know” is a trope about young playwrights, often leading to early misfires and rewrites heavy on autobiography. But right from the start, the first works that Dallas audiences saw from current DTC Playwright-in-Residence Jonathan Norton — on stages like Bishop Arts Theatre Center's one-act play competitions, South Dallas Cultural Center (first My Tidy List of Terrors and then Mississippi Goddamn), and the DeSoto Town Center Theater (homeschooled), roughly between the years 2010 and 2015 — already were tackling bigger issues, including the Atlanta child murders, the effect of Medgar Evars’ activism on his black neighbors, and the legacy of lynching as questioned by children in a homeschool situation with black Christian and Muslim parents. Norton was, in a sense, writing what he knew because the legacy of systemic racism is part of his lived experience as a black man in America. The autobiographical play that was always there, though, was penny candy, commissioned by the Dallas Theater Center in 2015. After years of workshops and development, we finally saw the world premiere in 2019. Norton’s previous work was good, if sometimes unrefined in dialogue and situation. Penny candy, based on his life of growing up as a kid in Pleasant Grove where his parents ran the “candy house” in their apartment complex, was his best yet. These characters were his family (he was represented as a kid by 10-year-old Esau Price) and neighbors, with an antagonist at first hated and then understood. Fantastic ensemble all around, and a terrific, detailed set with a working 80s-era TV set showing local news footage. Harrowing, funny, and brutally honest. (Read a conversation review from myself, Janice L. Franklin and Richard Oliver here.) In Kevin Moriarty's tenure, we've had premieres from locally based writers, but those were collaborations. This was the first written by a lone playwright who grew up right here, in the shadow of downtown.
20 More to Love, in alphabetical order:
The Armor Plays: Cinched and Strapped, Theatre Three | As You Like It, Dallas Theater Center/Public Works Dallas | Bless Me, Ultima, Cara Mía Theatre Co. | The Cake, Uptown Players | Disaster!, Uptown Players | Fool for Love, Classics Theatre Project | Jo & Louisa, WingSpan Theatre Company | Everything is Wonderful, WaterTower Theatre | Ghost Quartet, Imprint Theatreworks | High Dive, Echo Theatre | Incognito, Second Thought Theatre | Noises Off, Theatre Three | Obama-ology, Jubilee Theatre | Office Hour, Circle Theatre | Our Town, Circle Theatre | Real Women Have Curves, Dallas Theater Center | Reykjavík, Kitchen Dog Theater | so go the ghosts of méxico, part 3, Undermain Theatre | Two by Beckett: Footfalls & Not I, WingSpan Theatre Company | What We Were, Second Thought Theatre | The Wolves, Dallas Theater Center
» Looking for more on the year (2019) and decade (2010s) in the performing arts? Here's a guide to our special section.