New York City — Several weeks ago, about 60 theater critics from around the country met up for the American Theatre Critics Association 2019 New York mini-conference, using the home base of the MCC theater for events and fascinating panels on a range of diversity and representation topics, and discussions with producers, playwrights and representatives from labels that produce cast recordings. Of course, we all love the NYC conference because there’s a huge range of plays and musicals to choose from in a theater-lover's ultimate playground.
I only saw three shows and desperately wished I’d had time for more. Sadly, I couldn’t get to Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights Horizons, the latest work from Dallas expat Will Arbery (Plano), a Kenyon grad with family ties to the University of Dallas and its "great books" curriculum. Arbery's father, Glenn, was a theater critic for D Magazine in the 1990s. Heroes is an intense, extended conversation among intellectual (and conservative) Catholic college friends after a party — making a splash not only for the quality of the writing, but because these aren’t voices normally heard on the New York stage.
I wish I’d snagged tickets to Ross Golan’s musical The Wrong Man at MCC and Jeremy O. Harris’ blazing Slave Play, but others saw those. (See reviews below.) I'd hoped to catch Soft Power, playwright David Henry Hwang’s wild America/China musical at The Public Theater. (Hwang was on a panel discussion our first day.) And award-winning producer Tom Kirdahy (interviewed at another ATCA session) sold me on the need to see Matthew Lopez’s epic The Inheritance, already a hit in London and done as a two-parter like Angels — and like it, on themes of gay history. Maybe another trip is necessary, and soon.
Two Southern-raised writers, Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner, bookended my own theater weekend—with the quiet, contained Midwestern-born playwright Richard Nelson caught somewhat incongruously between them. (A video interview with actor Jay O. Sanders and playwright Richard Nelson is above.)
Indianapolis-based writer Lou Harry — who heads ATCA's Steinberg New Play Award committee — also saw a number of shows on and off-Broadway, as did TJ editor and ATCA membership co-chair Mark Lowry. Our short takes on the shows we saw are below.
— Jan Farrington
The Rose Tattoo
By Tennessee Williams
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre
Through Dec. 8
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo stars Marisa Tomei as Serafina Delle Rose in an earthy, hip-swiveling role that fits her like a sexy satin slip. Tomei’s timeless beauty is as full of rich notes as dark chocolate, whether she’s crumpled in agony mourning her handsome dead bum of a husband, or endearingly comic as the bed-head widow, shocked and surprised to find herself coming alive again for a truck-driving fellow Sicilian (Emun Elliott) with, as she says, “the body of my husband and the face of a clown.”
It’s a joy to meet up again with this rare Williams heroine — the gal that gets away, literally coming up roses (in tattoo form) with a new guy in her bed and a smile on her face. Sure, there’s heartfelt tragedy to muddle through, but in the end no doom, no gloom, no carryout to the asylum. (Sorry, Blanche.) One would like to know what brand of happy juice the playwright was drinking as the 1950s began — though who he was drinking with was certainly more to the point.
Director Trip Cullman lets a fine cast careen along the wavery line between comedy and camp — but if and when Williams’ plot goes over the top, the outbursts of lust, joy, and sheer goofiness feel well-earned. Both Fitz Patton and Jason Michael Webb are credited with original music, including songs of love and loss beautifully sung by the black-clad Sicilian immigrant women who surround Serafina — friends, judges, supports — in the small Mississippi coastal town where she lives. And designer Mark Wendland’s set (making strange sense out of a sliver of beach, a herd of flamingoes and a super-sized votive altar) is wonderfully enlivened by Lucy Mackinnon’s projections of a Gulf Coast seascape that wraps these humans and their quick, passionate woes in its timeless embrace. Love is life — and like the sea, who can hold it back?
— Jan Farrington
By Richard Nelson
The Public Theater
Through Dec. 1
I chose Richard Nelson’s new play The Michaels at The Public Theater because in the year 2000 I fell hard for that season’s smallest Broadway musical, the Tony-nominated James Joyce’s The Dead, a delicate and clear-eyed piece Nelson created with Northern Irish composer Shaun Davey from Joyce’s short story. It starred Blair Brown and Christopher Walken, and that didn’t hurt a bit. This Chicago-born playwright (Two Shakespearean Actors, Goodnight Children Everywhere, Some Americans Abroad) spent a chunk of his career in London but seems recently to have settled down at The Public, writing cycles of plays about families in the up-river town of Rhinebeck, New York. The question I had was: if one (meaning me) had a theatrical thing for the intricate talkfests of Horton Foote and Doctor Chekhov, would Nelson create a similar magic?
For the most part, yes. Nelson’s new family story — of a gathering at the Rhinebeck home of famous choreographer Rose Michael, a Twyla-like figure still on her feet though dying of ovarian cancer—is set in the right-here-and-now and subtitled Conversations in Difficult Times. The joke is, politics barely come up in the play—but isn’t that how we all get through Thanksgiving dinner these days? The president’s name is mentioned in one terse sentence, and the play’s energy spent on the personal and practical, namely: 1) getting the next meal on the table, and 2) working on dances (Rose’s daughter, niece and dance colleagues are all involved) that re-create Rose’s best for an upcoming tribute program—hoping she’s still alive to see it. The larger world and its mayhem roll on outside this kitchen, but oncoming death (ahem) trumps everything.
The illusion of real-time, real-life conversation among the characters feels masterfully intimate, layered, and true. If the outer world is present at all, it’s in a tickling sense that Nelson also asks us to consider the role of art—creation and performance—as a unifying force that might, just might, carry us through these difficult times, both macro and micro. And so, as Rose’s daughter Lucy and niece May (Charlotte Bydwell and Matilda Sakamoto) turn her kitchen into an improv performance space, we watch the faces of the older adults around them, filling with pride, a glint of tears, a hope for the future.
Nelson himself directs The Michaels, and the cast (which includes several actors from his earlier Rhinebeck stories) is brilliantly low-key. Burly, rumbly-voiced Jay O. Sanders is Rose’s genial ex-husband Dave; Brenda Wehle plays Rose, pared to the bone but still a working artist and fighter; and Maryann Plunkett is Kate, Rose’s late-in-life partner and domestic goddess, though surprisingly conflicted about that rooted role. Two former dancers from Rose’s company add to the play’s sense of long acquaintance—Haviland Morris as Irenie, and Rita Wolf as Sally, Dave’s current wife.
The Michaels is a quiet, gently paced work that won’t be everyone’s cup of cocoa—but it richly repays careful attention. And thereby hangs an issue, one I found mentioned and joked about in several earlier reviews of the play. Nelson’s stylistic choice, to pitch the conversation at a remarkably low volume (and take up the slack with a cluster of suspended small microphones) does not work well in a theater set up for four sides of bleacher-style seating. At any given time, actors’ faces are turned away from half or more of the audience, and both volume and facial clues lost because of it.
In a play where the tiniest details of an exchange are important, this is a barrier to understanding. Speaking at “carrying” volume while preserving the sense of intimacy is a challenge for actors…but it can be done.
— Jan Farrington
A Bright Room Called Day
By Tony Kushner
The Public Theater
Through Dec. 15
Tony Kushner is back at The Public Theater with politics — our very republic, in fact — on his mind. Kushner wrote the chaotic and compelling A Bright Room Called Day in 1985, when he was still at NYU. The Public’s future artistic director Oskar Eustis saw it then, and by the time he directed the play’s first professional run (San Francisco, 1987) he and Kushner were friends, and Eustis had commissioned the work that would become Angels in America.
Why revisit this story of waffling German artists, activists, and actors in the months before Hitler came to power in 1933? The answer is obvious. In short sentences projected on the wall, Kushner gives us a history lesson in how to dismantle a democracy. It sounds eerily familiar, and terrifying. We, like these mostly young characters, must decide whether — and how — to resist, and how much we are willing to risk. Survive, accommodate, protest, leave the country? In this play, Hitler is first seen (literally) as an amusing little puppet danced across a desk. Within months, he will rule their lives.
No real surprise, then, when the Devil himself (Mark Margolis) blasts through the doors to laugh himself silly at their puny human flailings. Or that film industry bit player Agnes (Nikki M. James) has a ghost (Estelle Parsons) haunting her apartment — or perhaps Die Alte, as she’s called, is just the ever-hungrier lady next door? Among this sit-com-but-serious group of Friends is Grace Gummer as Paulinka, a rising film actress; Michael Urie as “Baz,” whose homosexuality in heretofore tolerant Berlin will put his life in danger under the Nazis; passionate filmmaker Husz (Michael Esper) and in-it-for-the-long-haul Communists Annabella (Linda Emond), Rosa (Nadine Malouf), and Emil (Max Woertendyke), gobsmacked to find that winning a national election gets the Left exactly…nothing.
In the original Bright Room, Kushner added a character — a woman of the Reagan years called Zillah —who (from outside the main action) draws parallels between that time and hers, and tries desperately to find some way to leap into the earlier play to offer advice and warnings. Portrayed with energy and righteous rage in this production by Crystal Lucas-Perry, Zillah is most deeply invested in the fate of dreamy Agnes, who despite friends making moves all around her is immobilized, stuck in the lovely apartment she calls home even as the roof (again, literally) begins to come down on her.
But of course, Kushner’s “radical rethink” of the play (I saw a preview performance, which makes this more commentary than review; Kushner undoubtedly added, subtracted, and tweaked before the opening on Nov. 19) can’t make do with just one framework/meta character to comment on the action. New to the play is a split-off persona called Xillah (Jonathan Hadary), a clear stand-in for the playwright himself, who breaks into the dialogue at will, argues with Zillah about giving her more “agency” in the outcome, re-writes endlessly, and raises his voice, arms, whole body to the audience, urging us to stop just sitting here, to “get out of this room — and act!” It stops the heart; it makes us ashamed of all we aren’t doing; it sends us out the door in a half-crazed state, amazed to discover there isn’t a riot in Astor Square tonight. I’m still sitting here, hundreds of miles away, judging myself…and not coming off well.
One can pick more than a few quarrels with Kushner’s script, but it still adds up to much more than the sum of its oddly assorted parts. If this is agitprop theater, it’s agitprop on a high, important, and desperate level. And if this is an instance of theatrical Trump Derangement Syndrome, there’s no one else I’d rather hear on the subject than Kushner. Let ‘er rip, Tony.
— Jan Farrington
The Height of the Storm
By Florian Zeller / Translated by Christopher Hampton
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
Closed Nov. 24
A jigsaw puzzle rewards diligence with a complete picture. In a satisfying crossword puzzle, clues once impossible to decipher soften and yield as more information is gathered around them. Theatrical puzzles can function in much the same way, with “what’s going on here?” transforming, in a satisfying way, into “ah ha!”
Theater history is filled with such puzzle plays. Little seen on Broadway these days, the once-popular genres of mysteries and thrillers still get steady regional play thanks to the box-office pull of Agatha Christie titles and Sherlock Holmes adaptations and originals. What those types of plays commonly share is their triviality. The game is the thing.
Penned by Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton, The Height of the Storm is a different kind of puzzle play.
The domestic drama revolves around a married couple, Andre (Jonathan Pryce) and Madeleine (Eileen Atkins), and their two daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Lisa O’Hare). That much we know.
What Zeller and Hampton tease out is what happened to one of the parents. Or both. Or none.
At times, it seems like Madeleine is being mourned. At others, it seems to be Andre. Are some of these conversations in his head? In hers? Are they memories or flashbacks? Whose perspective are we seeing and hearing? How reliable is what we are witnessing? And who is that woman who shows up? There are a couple of options, but I would need another viewing to try to sort them out.
I’m not convinced it would be worth the effort.
Sometimes, fog is a great theatrical effect. Sometimes it just gets in the way. In the case of The Height of the Storm, the twists and turns and obfuscation of the puzzle shines too bright a light on the puzzle maker.
The intensity of its ensemble acting (including two theater legends, both offering nuanced work), the care in its powerful scenic and lighting design (kudos to Anthony Ward and Hugh Vanstone), and the weight of its subject matter seem trivialized by the game Zeller and Hampton are playing.
I found myself wanting the writers to get out of the way and let the rest of the creative team shine. In The Height of the Storm, the light is there, but with little to illuminate.
— Lou Harry
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek; Book by Robert Horn
Through Jan. 5
There are screen-to-stage musicals that seem to spring from passion — witness The Band’s Visit and Once. And there are screen-to-stage musicals that seem to spring from producers trying to milk a hot (or once-hot) property. See Pretty Woman, Saturday Night Fever, et. al.
The former doesn’t guarantee artistic success — which I can say with confidence having suffered through a musical adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God. And the latter doesn’t automatically mean a compromised product. I’ll readily defend Catch Me If You Can and took pleasure in Groundhog Day.
What a high-profile property does do is encourage greater advance sales. And face a steeper climb as it tries to satisfy memories of the original film while carving out a unique theatrical place for itself.
Which brings us to Tootsie, the Broadway musical by David Yazbek and Robert Horn based on the 1982 movie.
A hit when it was released, both commercially and with critics, Tootsie hasn’t quite had the legacy of such other comedies of its era. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in their 20s or 30s who has seen it — even among those well versed in Ghostbusters and the John Hughes oeuvre.
The musical’s production team seems well aware of that fact. Unlike many other adaptations of hits, they’ve taken major liberties with the original material. What was once the story of a difficult actor who cross-dresses in order to land a part in a soap opera and, in the process, learns how to be a better person, the musicalized Tootsie concerns a difficult actor who cross-dresses in order to land a part in a Broadway musical and, in the process, learns how to be a better person.
But as anyone even remotely in touch with the entertainment world knows, the grind of a soap opera is a lot different than the army required to produce a Broadway musical under an intense media spotlight. New York Post critic Michael Riedel would have called out Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels before the first table read.
Credibility is stretched even further by updating the material to the present day, where five minutes on Google would have unraveled the whole scheme. And what about his Equity membership?
Okay, so even classic musicals have plot holes. But I can’t think of any that had to contort itself this much in an effort to not come across as sexist. The film version has the excuse of being released in a less-enlightened time when it actually was hailed as progressive. With the times having caught up and passed it, Tootsie has been reworked in a too-obvious effort to not send the message that a man can learn all about being a woman by spending a few weeks in heels and a wig.
The movie gave Dustin Hoffman and company a real world to play in. On the one hand, the stage version aims to create more contemporary, contemplative relationships. On the other hand, it parks the characters in impossible-to-buy circumstances.
Yes, it has some big laughs (especially from Andy Grotelueschen in the Bill Murray roommate role) and serviceable songs. And Santino Fontana, who picked up a Tony for the part, is up to the dual role-ish challenge.
But I was never rooting for Michael. Or Dorothy for that matter. And it’s tough to be satisfied when you have no reason to care.
— Lou Harry
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
By Ntozake Shange
Through Dec. 15
Four off-Broadway plays. Four productions where individuals try to find strength while caught up in brutal circumstances. Four satisfying theater experiences. A few caveats.
Let’s start with The Public Theater’s revival of its landmark 1976 hit for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. Ntozake Shange's choreopoem feels as much like a religious revival as it does a theatrical one, embracing its surrounding audience while inviting and welcoming it into the lives and spirits of its ensemble.
The structure is simple. The open-hearted characters — identified only by the color of their garments (which, here, have been movingly printed with images of their female relatives) — each share their stories/poems, mixing text and dance, song and movement. The segments come across as testimonials not to a specific god but to our shared humanity as the gentle, open-hearted give-and-take between the actresses/characters accentuate that sense of commonality. Affirmation of and by others, ‘for colored girls” seems to say, is the road to salvation.
Each member of the expert cast--Sasha Allen, Celia Chevalier, Danaya Esperanza, Jayme Lawson, Adrienne C. Moore, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Alexandria Wailes--has moments to shine. And each one pops as an individual. While the world is harsh, Shange presents a force to counter it--an empowering, healing warmth.
In spite of not having a traditional dramatic structure, “for colored girls…” nonetheless builds emotionally. The final disturbing, powerful monologue would, in the hands of many a playwright, leave us parked in its pit of despair. But Shange’s isn’t interested in taking us to the bottom and leaving us there. While she doesn’t mitigate the agony, she never severs the lifeline. "i found god in myself / & i loved her / I loved her fiercely," she tells us, repeating it so that we hear it. The result is rapturously hopeful without ever trivializing the pain.
— Lou Harry
Music and additional lyrics by Ted Shen; Book by Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers
Transport Group, at the Duke on 42nd
Closed Nov. 23
I cannot say much about Broadbend, Arkansas, the quieter new musical by Ted Shen with libretto by Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers. Staged by Transport Group in association with The Public Theater, it was still in previews on my visit which means I have to keep my opinion to myself.
A two-hander primed for an afterlife in regional theaters, it’s a multi-generational tale of the search for strength. Act one turns the stage over to Benny (Justin Cunningham), an orderly in a senior home managing a battle between a resident and an administrator while being drawn to the Freedom Riders and the civil rights movement. The second takes a leap to 1988 when Benny’s daughter Ruby (Danyel Fulton) faces a new set of personal challenges.
— Lou Harry
By Conor McPherson
Irish Repertory Theatre
Closed Nov. 10
The challenges are great for John (Jeffrey Bean), the alcoholic undertaker in Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol, who has long since hit bottom. There have been temporary bounce-backs but the bottle is always there, offering temporary solace and long-term destruction. Working at a funeral home--one rather pathetically decorated for the holidays — John has nowhere to go, literally and figuratively, this Christmas eve. He holds the ear of co-worker Mark (Cillian Hegarty) for as long as he can but we know that will only last so far into the evening.
A surprise visitor fills the void--at least temporarily: John’s grown daughter Mary (Sarah Street), from whom he’s been estranged for a decade, has a request for her father, a difficult one. And I’ll avoid spoilers by stopping there.
In the intimate Irish Rep space, there’s not much room for false steps and the trio of actors here make none. Street’s Mary shows both the terrible disappointment and permanent scars left in her father’s wake but makes them inseparable from the hope and love she feels. Hagerty finds both the empathy and the need for self-preservation in Mark, a sympathetic young man who knows he can’t get too close. And Bean paints a man filled with self-loathing and perpetually punished by memory but also struggling against a disease he feels unable to conquer.
Without such rich, deeply human work, the final moments of the play could be maudlin and obvious. Instead, in a silent sequence channeled by director Ciaran O’Reilly and accented by set designer Charlie Corcoran, Dublin Carol transcends the specific lives of its three characters to capture something of the soul of all who face this fight and manage to make it to the next day. It left me shaken.
— Lou Harry
The Wrong Man
Book, music and lyrics by Ross Golan
Closed Nov. 24
MCC Theater’s production of The Wrong Man should have left me in a similar state.
It didn’t quite take me there, although much of this new musical proved fresh and engrossing. Bonus: A star performance packed with heft and heart and powerful pipes. I’m talking about Joshua Henry, a killer Aaron Burr in Hamilton (among many other credits) now playing Duran, a man accused of murders he didn’t commit.
Ross Golan’s score is relentless — mostly in a good way — and one I look forward to hearing again. I’ll confess ignorance about the songs he’s written for pop stars Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, and others, but his style refreshingly suits the stage, even when his lyrics lack anchoring details. Once the crime is committed, The Wrong Man takes a singular path, disrupted only by the occasional visit from the real villain, played by Ryan Vasquez in a performance that comes dangerously close to moustache-twirling while also proving a narrative dead end. Golan’s music never runs out of energy, but his book runs out of story.
While those problems contributed to the ending’s lack of punch, the problems are mitigated by inventive direction from Thomas Kail, pulse-pumping choreography by Travis Wall performed by an excellent supporting cast of dancers, an onstage band pulling out the stops, and Henry’s performance. If you are going to leave big gaps in your script, it’s a gift to have a performer such as he to make those gaps (nearly) disappear. As demonstrated in previous performances and in his cabaret act, Henry’s star power comes in part from his ability to reveal the weaknesses and contradictory thoughts in his characters while never sacrificing vocal power. His control is remarkable as he seems to be discovering the words as he sings them. Henry is clearly the right man for The Wrong Man, a star vehicle almost worthy of his talents.
— Lou Harry
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Circle in the Square Theatre
Through Jan. 19, 2020
The brilliance of Rodgers and Hammerstein is their uncanny ability to fill their Big Five hit musicals with lighthearted musical comedy songs about clambakes, fringed surreys, box socials, learning musical notes, and hoop-skirted ballroom dancing — and still infuse them with powerful messages about racism and prejudice (South Pacific, The King and I), the dangers of fascism (The Sound of Music), and other dark impulses, as in Carousel and their first collaboration, 1943’s Oklahoma!
That musical was groundbreaking for songs that move the characters’ narratives forward, and for using dance and music as conduits for psychological depth. Daniel Fish’s much buzzed-about version, which rightfully won the 2019 Tony for Best Musical Revival, goes all in on the darkness. But it’s a darkness that might be best described, notably with the character Jud Fry, as having an emo bent. It’s an especially introverted angst.
Fish’s vision has the music re-orchestrated to fit a smaller band with instruments befitting a Western Swing band: acoustic guitars, mandolin, pedal steel, banjo, upright bass, violin (or fiddle), accordion, drums, plus cello. (Nathan Koci is conductor and drummer; the orchestrations, arrangements and musical direction are by Daniel Kluger.)
Often, these versions — such as a stripped-down “People Will Say We’re in Love” between Curley (Damon Daunno) and Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) — are revelatory. Many of them retain the impact of the original, notably the Tony-winning Ali Stoker as Ado-Annie belting an overly twangy “I Cain’t Say No.” Katie Thompson is Aunt Eller and James Davis is Will Parker; all of the leading players are terrific.
Although the original story remains intact, there are changes; in addition to the musical arrangements, the way Emo Jud (Patrick Vaill) dies and innovative use of live, close-up video projections (designed by Joshua Thorson) — especially between Curley and Jud in “Pore Jud is Daid” gives us a little more sympathy for the loner Jud.
The biggest change, though, is the dream ballet, which now opens the second act rather than ending the first — probably because it would have caused audiences to leave at intermission. It’s a contemporary solo choreographed by John Heginbotham, and danced by Gabrielle Hamilton — not billed as Dream Laurey, but rather as “Lead Dancer.” She wears a sparkly oversized T-shirt that reads “Dream Baby Dream,” delivering modern dance tumbles and leg extensions to the Dream Ballet music, which has been given a hard rock tune-up. There are times when she’s a darker reflection of Laurey, but she also embodies the themes of the work. Purists — such as many fellow critics I talked to — hate it. But this is what a radical interpretation of an iconic work does. It provokes and challenges.
The casting in this show — actors of multiple races and physical abilities, and not just relegated to supporting or chorus roles — is exactly what I want to see more of in theater. Even the peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill) doesn’t have the stereotypical Persian accent we usually see in this role. It’s theater that looks like the community it should be serving; a snapshot of America in one of the most American of American musicals.
In the end, the only aspect I hated was the godawful chili served, complimentary, at intermission. It’s like watered-down catsup with multiple beans, wheatberries and kale (it’s a vegetarian chili) — and no spice. But that’s coming from a Texan. I suspect Oklahomans would feel the same way. The accompanying cornbread is not bad, though.
— Mark Lowry
By Jeremy O. Harris
Through Jan. 19, 2020
Life’s too short for mediocre theater — and lord knows there’s plenty of that going around. In my book, the best theater is the kind that elicits strong reactions on either side. Love it or hate it, when the work screams “you’ll be talking about me for a long time!” — that’s a reason to get excited.
Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play fits the bill. His scorching commentary on sex and race and the power dynamics that come with both, which he argues are forever entwined, has been the year’s most discussed new play, sparking essays from black writers about the problematic nature of having black characters willingly portray slaves, even in a BDSM context. An essay in the Playbill, called “A Note on Your Discomfort,” should give you a clue that this play is not letting anyone off the hook.
Performed in an intermissionless two hours and directed by Robert O’Hara (whose own works, including Bootycandy, are provocative), Slave Play is broken into three sections. In the first, “Work” (Rihanna’s song of the same title is prominent throughout), we meet three interracial couples, each playing out sexual, antebellum fantasies that immediately induce the aforementioned discomfort — not because of the sex, but because of the Civil War-era costumes (by Dede Ayite) and language ("yes massa").
Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) plays a slave beholden to her “master,” the whip-wielding Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan). Phillip (Sullivan Jones) is a violin-playing slave serving the wishes of his house mistress, Alana (Annie McNamara). And Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) are playing the roles of a field slave and a white indentured servant. In the second act, the frequently funny “Process,” the three couples are in modern dress and unpacking issues of race and trauma and pain and being in an interracial relationship, via an open therapy session moderated by psychologists Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), who are doing their best to listen while testing out a new tactic. In the final act, “Exorcise,” one couple’s intimate working out of the issues discussed in “Process” is one of the more harrowing, intense scenes you’re likely to see in any work of theater.
Thoughtful performances from the cast and Clint Ramos’ mirror-heavy scenic design — it forces us to look at ourselves in deep, searching, and yes, uncomfortable ways — are just two reasons to see Slave Play. More than that, it signals a major new talent to watch in Harris. He wrote this play while an undergrad.
Walking out when it was over, I heard multiple conversations around me. Some were enthralled, others were outraged. But everybody was talking about what they had just seen. That likely carried over to the next day. And the next. And the next…
— Mark Lowry
Fires in the Mirror
By Anna Deavere Smith
Through Dec. 22
You can’t talk about the history of American solo performance or documentary theater without a section on Anna Deavere Smith. Her two best known works, Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993), are seminal works in both genres.
The former deals with the 1991 riots between the Hasidic Jew and African American communities in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, after a black boy was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew; the latter with the 1992 L.A. riots sparked by the police beating of Rodney King. For each show, she interviewed hundreds of people, including rioters, bystanders, community leaders, religious figures, politicians and police. She then culled through the interviews to tell the verbatim stories of these events and to probe more deeply into the issues of race, policy, discrimination, reconciliation, and more — and she performed every role in each.
Smith has also written multiple-actor plays, has a long résumé as a theater and film actor — best known for television roles on The West Wing and Nurse Jackie — and is an educator and lecturer. Fires and Twilight (the former was a Pulitzer Prize finalist; the latter moved to Broadway and was filmed for PBS) might be her biggest legacy.
I’ve seen a local production of Fires, when it was produced at Fort Worth's Stage West in the early 2000s, featuring the fantastic actress Be Boyd. In this Signature Theatre production, directed by Saheem Ali, the roles are played by Michael Benjamin Washington, and it’s a tour-de-force of shifting characters, accents, ages, and deliveries of characters ranging from an Orthodox Jewish woman to Al Sharpton to a young black girl.
In the interviews chosen for the play, Smith looks at all sides of the issue without editorializing, giving the audience plenty of room for a larger picture — just as a top-notch journalist writing a long-form feature would do. In his performance, Washington does the same. It’s a performance to be studied; and the play a work of art that has solidified its status as a groundbreaking work of theater.
Smith is part of Signature's season; Twilight: Los Angeles will be produced there in April 2020.
— Mark Lowry