JOHN & JEN: A Musical of Second Chances

JOHN & JEN: A Story of Second Chances

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA 23238

Performances: March 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Students, Military w/ID; $12 RVATA Card Holders; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

Info: (804) 343-6364 or hattheatre.org

Any excuse to spend an evening with Georgia Rogers Farmer (Jen) and Chris Hester (John) is an evening well spent. In this two-person chamber musical that fits perfectly in the intimate black box that is HATTheatre, Farmer and Hester do not disappoint.

For those who don’t like spoilers, do not read any further until after you have seen this show. There is no way to write about this show without giving away a key component that some might consider a spoiler.

John & Jen spans some forty years, from about l950 or 1952 until 1990 in the life of Jen and the two Johns in her life. In Act 1, Jen welcomes her little brother into a world that proves to be filled with both love and chaos.  Interestingly, the same father that Jen considers to be a source of chaos is a source of stability and love for John. Perspective matters from start to finish in this intriguing and intimate work, written by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa, with music by Lippa and lyrics by Greenwald.

In his director’s note, Doug Schneider indicates that he did not like the first version he heard of this show, which was first performed Off-Broadway in 1995, but became hooked on this newer version, a 2015 revival, which included some new songs and arrangements and dropped some of the original songs. I’m curious about the original version, as I found the current songs and music somewhat uneven.

In Act 1, Hester was quite funny in the sister-teasing “Trouble with Men” and the duo was rough and intense in the scene-closing “Run & Hide.” Likewise, in Act 2, Hester got a chance to shine with boyish exuberance in “Bye Room,” and the two had a touching closing number with “Every Good-Bye is Hello.” Throughout both acts there were touchingly sweet moments that allowed Farmer’s epic voice and presence to soar, but the material she had to work with just didn’t seem to be. . .well. . .big enough. I want to find a phrase that is the opposite of “sung-through musical”; that would be a musical in which some lyrics are spoken to music rather than sung. While that makes it easy to follow the story, it seems to be something less than musical. While I enjoyed the performers and their portrayals of their characters, this is not the kind of musical that makes you want to run out and buy the soundtrack.

The four-piece chamber orchestra, under the musical direction of Joshua Wortham was quite good, with Wortham on keyboard, Michael Knowles on cello, Marissa Resmini on violin, and Nick Oyler on percussion.  But again, at times the score was stunningly beautiful while often it disappeared into the background – not what one expects in a musical.

One of the most interesting aspects of John & Jen is that Jen is the same character for both acts, whereas John is Jen’s little brother in Act 1 and her son in Act 2. So, Hester has to, in effect, play two different roles with different personalities, growing up in different decades, opposite the same mother figure, while answering to the same name, John. Jen, the sister, promises to always be there for her little brother, but then he goes off to Vietnam and they never see each other again. Knowing the backstory of Act 1 gives the audience inside knowledge that helps us understand Jen’s overprotective parenting of her son.

The nature and familiarity of these relationships is what makes this an Acts of Faith production. Jen wants to replace her missing brother with her son, and it takes a “Talk Show” scene to expose her fears and a “Graduation” to open the door to a resolution. The device of using a talk show format, which almost but not quite involved the audience, to air one’s dirty laundry was a much-needed tension reliver and weirdly amusing break from the intensity of the relationships. Christmas traditions, feuding parents, Little League, rebellious children, first dates, leaving for college, differing political views, hippies, draft dodging (do today’s young people even know what the draft was?) are all familiar to most families, which may be why a few scenes may be misted not by the lighting designer but by the viewer’s own eyes.

Michael Jarrett has designed some lovely projections that carry us through the decades and life events of Jen and her two Johns, while Erin Barclay designed the lights, Frank Foster created the scenic elements that consisted of two straight-backed chairs on opposite sides of the stage with a storage bench stage center, and Linda Shepard designed the simple wardrobe that allowed Hester and Farmer to make subtle but key changes – a Christmas sweater, a blanket, a tie-dyed skirt –  right on stage.

John & Jen is a tightly-woven, intense, and intimate musical and Hester and Farmer bring far more for it than it gives to them.

 

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Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Jason Eib Photography

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WINGS: A brilliant stroke of a musical

WINGS THE MUSICAL:

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: February 15 – March 10, 2018; Post-performance talkbacks March 1 & 8

Ticket Prices: $20-35

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

Bianca Bryan is brilliant as Emily Stilson, a former wing walker (a daredevil who performs acrobatics or stunts on the wings of a moving plane) navigating through the darkness and struggling to recover her memories and her words after suffering a stroke. Jeffrey Lunden’s Wings: The Musical is a not a musical in the traditional sense. Described in the Firehouse Theatre’s press release as a chamber musical because of its small cast of five and trio of musicians, Bryan’s role is written with a sometimes-operatic musicality that represents the depth and scope of Emily’s reach for her former self.

The focus is almost entirely on Emily, and Bryan remains on stage for the entire 80 minutes. Her mastery of the garbled speech patterns of a stroke patient are all too familiar and make the clarity of her singing even more dazzling.  As is so often the case this season, there is no intermission. Lauren Elens has a strong supporting role as Emily’s discerning therapist and friend, Amy, and Landon Nagel has a shining moment as a fellow patient in Emily’s rehabilitation center as, Billy. A former baker or chef, Billy has trouble remembering his signature recipes, but finds putting his thoughts into song during a music therapy session helpful. The result is a fabulous song about cheesecake.

Andrew Colletti and Lucinda McDermott round out the cast, playing dual roles, first as Emily’s somewhat stern and distant doctor and nurse and later as fellow patients and group members Mr. Brambilla and Mrs. Timmins. Bryan sings most of her lines; the rest of the cast speaks most of theirs.

On a raised platform, Music Director Kim Fox plays keyboard, with Maddie Erskine on cello and Taylor Bendus on Flute. (Even with the raised platform, the petite Fox was invisible behind her music stand, but her signature musical style and direction were unmistakable.) The music is quite good and combined with the sound design and lights Wings is a small musical that carries a big impact.

Vinnie Gonzalez designed a clean and spare set, populated with a couple of movable benches, a serving art, and a wheeled chair – not a wheelchair – for Emily. Two platforms adorned with wires added depth and there were subtle touches like the protective griffin symbols painted on the blue walls and the double winged ceiling fan over the stage. Bill Miller’s lighting was at times breathtakingly beautiful, especially at the end, and Jason Blue Herbert’s sound design added depth and texture, peppered with realistic roaring engines. All of this was beautifully woven together by Kerrigan Sullivan’s sensitive direction, bringing a gentle and empathetic perspective to a difficult and seldom explored subject.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Bill Sigafoos — Bianca Bryan, Lauren Elens, Landon Nagel, Lucinda McDermott, Andrew Colletti, Maddie Erskine, Kim Fox, Taylor Bendus

 

BRIGHT HALF LIFE: A Beautiful Mess

BRIGHT HALF LIFE: a part of The Cellar Series: This Beautiful Mess

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 17-24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $20

Info: (804) 505-0558 or theatrelabrva.org

I would try to explain what this Cellar Series is about, but TheatreLAB Associate Artistic Director Katrinah Carol Lewis has already stated it so well: “This series takes the traditional love story – we meet, we fall, we fight, we figure it out, or we flee – and turns it inside out and upside down. These explorations of romantic relationship ask us to abandon our notions of time, space and reality to expose the true essence of our connections to each other. It’s beautiful and it’s messy and it’s ours: this beautiful mess.”

Bright Half Life, written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Melissa Rayford, is the first of three works in this series. A two-woman play performed without benefit of set or props (it uses the stripped bare apartment set of the space’s previous show, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard) adorned simply with 9 black boxes that I’m sure I’ve seen on other stages in other productions.

Kylie M.J. Clark plays Erica and Amber Marie Martinez plays Vicky, two women involved in a decades-long relationship. It’s helpful to know this before the play starts, because once it begins, the actors and audience abandon all sense of linear time. This relationship unfolds emotionally, not chronologically. Lines and scenes are repeated, from different places and perspectives, and in the repetition, layers are peeled back, and lives revealed based on what has occurred since the last time we heard those words and phrases. In a way it is radical and messy, but on the other hand, it is a strangely accurate reflection of how many of us think.

The audience is seated on both sides of the set and limited seating brings the audience up close and right in the faces of the two characters. This allows us to see the fear on the face of Erica as she sits, white-knuckled, in the gondola of a ferris wheel or attempts sky-diving, all to please the more adventurous Vicky. Clark’s face is open and while sometimes we can read her like a book, it is a book with secret and untranslatable passages. Martinez brings authenticity to her role: while Vicky is obviously more adventurous than her partner, she is also more uptight. Years go by before she actually comes out to her Latino family; they refer to Erica as her “special friend” and helpfully pretend that she is a roommate helping Vicky care for their daughters.

There are several running themes, the most memorable being the sky diving scenes and the alphabet game the two women have developed. Sometimes it’s funny and other times it turns inward and cruel, as games sometimes do. A bell or other sound signals the rapid changes of time and scene and it is indeed fascinating to witness the clarity and speed with which both Clark and Martinez switch back and forth in time.

Dressed simply in contemporary casual clothing – although Erica’s shirt is a little more “butch” – there is nothing other than the dialogue to indicate time, place, or age, so we must rely on the skill of the actors. Both are successful because by the time we have followed their journey from first date to first and second marriage proposal to childbirth and divorce, the marriage of their daughter, and reconnection as an older, more traditional Vicky comes to terms with failing health, they have completely captured their audience, and their final leap was met with joy, relief, and perhaps not entirely dry eyes.

Rayford’s direction is seamless and natural with the able assistance of Michael Jarett’s lighting and Lucian Restivo’s sound design. What is less than satisfying is the probably intentional vagueness about exactly what kind of company the women work for, what Erica’s vocation is prior to starting her teaching career, and – to a much lesser extent – the nature of Vicky’s illness. Vicky’s Latino heritage is significant for her character, but I noticed that off-Broadway in New York the two women were black and white, rather than Latino and white, and I wonder if the script adjusts for these differences. Could one character be Asian and the other white – or some other ethnic combination – and how would that change the dynamics?

Bright Half Life – named for the scientific concept of the time it takes for a property, in this case love, to decrease by half – is part of the 2018 Acts of Faith Fringe Festival. The Fringe Festival is a category for productions that do not meet all the criteria for the Acts of Faith Festival, perhaps because of a short run or a community rather than professional production company. At the time of this writing, only two performances remain (Friday and Saturday) and this is one heart-warming production you will not regret seeing.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credit:

Louise Ricks

Bright Half Life
Amber Marie Martinez, facing front & Kylie M.J. Clark facing away
Bright Half Life2
Amber Marie Martinez

Acts of Faith

A RAISIN IN THE SUN: What happens to a dream deferred?

A RAISIN IN THE SUN: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Some Thoughts & A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

By: Virginia Repertory Theatre

At: The November Theatre at Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: February 16 – March 11, 2018; Previews February 14 & 15; Pre-Show Discussion Sunday, February 25; Post-Show Talk Backs Thursday February 22 & March 1

Ticket Prices: $30-50; $15 for students with ID

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

When A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959, it marked the first time the work of an African American woman was produced on the Great White Way. Who knew, when Broadway was given that nickname in 1902, how ironic it would later become. The Great White Way did not refer to racial segregation, but rather referred to the mile or so of the New York City theater district that was illuminated with Brush arc lamps, making it one of the first streets in the USA to be illuminated with electric lights.

A Raisin in the Sun is considered the seminal work of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, although it was initially considered a risky investment, with its focus on black life and there was concern as to whether African American life issues could be considered universal. Fast forward 59 years. The Richmond opening of the VaRep production of A Raisin in the Sun coincides with the opening of the Disney movie, Black Panther, and there is considerable Internet chatter as to whether white audiences can relate to an African superhero. Coincidence or serendipity; the more things change, the more they remain the same.

A domestic drama that offers sharp insights into black American life, A Raisin in the Sun has the occasional moment of humor that helps us navigate through the day-to-day setbacks and life-changing tragedies of life. Interestingly, during intermission, one friend remarked that during the previous night’s preview, the audience laughed as if they thought the play was a comedy. After the opening night show, while retrieving our car from the parking lot, another theater-goer remarked to me how much she appreciated the humor. This second encounter and comment gave me pause, and I wondered whether this play reads differently to different audiences, based on race and generation. For me, it was and is a very realistic play and the character of Lena or Mama, especially as played by Trezana Beverley, reminds me of my own grandmother, who was born in 1913 and was 46 in 1959, placing her in roughly the same generation as the elder Mrs. Younger character. The cadence of their speech, their very posture was the same; these women were matriarchs whose word was law. One look from their laser eyes could stop a word that was halfway out of your mouth and send it ricocheting back into your throat where it would lodge and choke you back into the realization of who was really in charge in this house.

Whether you approach it from the emic perspective of one who sees a reflection of their own family or the etic perspective of one who is looking into the window of black life, A Raisin in the Sun can be a powerful and intense theatrical experience. Running nearly three hours with one intermission, it takes its time developing, allowing the intricacies of the characters and situations to sink in, to marinate, and it does so without seeming to drag or get weighed down. This I credit to Hansberry’s writing, the intimate direction of Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Waites, and the cast, led by Tony Award winning actress Trezana Beverley as Lena “Mama” Younger, Jerold E. Solomon as Walter Lee Younger, and Katrinah Carol Lewis as Ruth Younger.  (Beverley was the first African American actress to receive the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, for the 1977 production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.)

Walter Lee has dreams. Having spent most of his life as a chauffeur, he is at a crisis. Now 35 years old, he and his wife live with his mother and his sister in a one-bedroom tenement apartment. His 10-year-old son, Travis, sleeps on the living room sofa, and the family shares a bathroom in the hall with the other families on the same floor of their apartment building. The recent death of Walter Lee’s father has the family anxiously anticipating the delivery of a $10,000 insurance policy check – the most money any of them has ever seen.  What’s to be done with this money? The family could use a house of their own. Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha needs tuition money to attend medical school. Walter Lee needs capital to invest in a liquor store business venture and has two partners waiting in the wings – Bobo, played by Joseph Marshall, and the unseen and unscrupulous Willy.

Beverley, who has played this role before, is authentic, strong, and steady as Mama Younger. She thoroughly embodies the strong but loving Christian matriarch, who wears her housedresses like royal robes and doesn’t leave home without a proper hat. When she does raise her voice, or lift her hand to strike, the audience sits at attention and sucks in its collective breath.

Solomon gave a strong performance on opening night but seemed to still be feeling his way as Walter Lee. His transitions from desperately seeking entrepreneur to loving husband to playful brother to intentional father were not always even or believable. Perhaps, internally, the struggle was all too real.

Lewis, who seems to become every character she plays, was visibly controlled as Walter Lee’s wife.  It was as if she was a bomb squad technician expertly trained to defuse bombs – only her assignment was a human time bomb, Walter Lee. The interaction between Lewis and Beverley was easy and unaffected, as if they had developed a secret and silent communication out of the necessity of navigating a safe path around Walter Lee.

Jasmine Eileen Coles had one of the most interesting of supporting roles. Beneatha is not just a supporting role, but a pivotal plot point, illustrating the balancing act black Americans must negotiate between assimilating into white American culture or seeking identity in African culture. Her two love interests further reinforce these opposing options. George Murchison, the rich black American, played by Kevin Minor, is smug and secure in his assurance that he has learned to play the game.  The purpose of going to college, he assures Beneatha, is not to learn to think, but to get the degree. Walter Lee doesn’t realize how deeply he has really offended George when he teases his about his clothes and his proper speech. Then there is Beneatha’s Nigerian beau, Joseph Asagai, played by Bru Ajueyitsi, whose name and resume suggest that his Nigerian accent is not fake but inherited.  Asagai not only reminds Beneatha of her roots, but offers a different perspective of the American dream, seen through the eyes of one whose colonial experience has been, perhaps, somewhat less oppressive or more liberating than the American slave experience and its residual effects. Ajueyitsi delivers his character’s wisdom with warmth and freshness that helps shed light on this family’s darkness.

Matthias Williams, a middle school student, played Travis Younger with sass and assurance. He rotates in the role with Caleb Brown McWhite. Doug Blackburn is the sole white character, Karl Lindner, a representative from the white neighborhood association sent to dissuade the Younger family from becoming the first colored family to move into an all-white neighborhood. As such, he is politely rude and dismissive, issuing a constant stream of what we now call micro-aggressions, such as referring to the Youngers as “you people.”

On the production side, Katherine Field has designed a comfortably shabby 1950s apartment. Lynne Hartman’s lights often yield creative patterns, and Derek Dumais’ sound design includes such details as the sound of the upstairs neighbor’s vacuum cleaner.  Emily Tappan’s costumes are era appropriate and include some lovely poufy dresses for Lewis and Coles.

As with past year’s productions such as The Color Purple and Dream Girls, A Raisin in the Sun drew a more racially diverse than one usually sees on a typical night at the November Theatre – or any Richmond-area theater, for that matter. There is no shortage of quality theater in Richmond, but, as the play shows us, and as Karl Lindner suggests, people seem to feel more comfortable staying separate, with their own kind, and maybe it’s long past time for a change.

A Raisin in the Sun is, unfortunately, still as relevant for as it was in 1959, and that a talking point right there. The production runs through March 11, and there are free discussions scheduled before the show on Sunday, February 25 and after the show on Thursday, February 22 and March 1. For those who have seen A Raisin in the Sun years ago, it’s time for another look. For those who’ve never seen it, now is the time.

Historical Note:

When A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, not only was it the first Broadway play written by a black woman, it was also the first Broadway play featuring a black director, Lloyd Richards. The original cast included Sidney Poitier (Walter Lee Younger),  Claudia McNeil (his mother, Lena Younger), Ruby Dee (Walter’s wife, Ruth Younger), Diana Sands (Walter’s sister, Beneatha Younger), Ivan Dixon (Joseph Asagai, Beneatha’s Nigerian love interest), Louis Gossett (George Murchison, Beneatha’s wealthy African American love interest), Glynn Turman (Travis Younger, Walter and Ruth’s son), Lonne Elder, III (Bobo, one of Walter’s business partners), Douglas Turner and Ed Hall as the moving men, and John Fiedler as Karl Lindner, the play’s only white character. Ossie Davis later took over the role of Walter, opposite his real-life wife, Ruby Dee. Many of these names are familiar and the play launched the careers of some of these stellar actors.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Jason Collins Photography

 

A Raisin in the Sun
Front: Matthias Williams, Trezana Beverley, and Jasmine Eileen Coles. Back: Katrinah Carol Lewis and Jerold Solomon. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
A Raisin in the Sun
Trezana Beverley. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
A Raisin in the Sun
Jerold Solomon. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun
Matthias Williams. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

A Raisin in the Sunshow_raisin_in_hansberry2 - CopyActs of Faith

THE CHRISTIANS: Trouble in Paradise

THE CHRISTIANS: Trouble in Paradise

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym at Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: February 10-March 4, 2018 (Previews February 8 & 9) Talk Back Sundays February 18 & 25 after the 2:00pm matinee

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

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There is no doubt why Lucas Hnath’s tightly knit tense drama is a part of the Acts of Faith Festival. Running an hour and a half with no intermission, The Christians chronicles the demise of a mega church while tackling issues of personal faith as well as the foundational doctrine of Pastor Paul and his unnamed mega church. A genuine church bulletin enclosed in the theater program welcomed us to Community Chapel and included all the information one might expect to find in a church bulletin other than, perhaps, an address and telephone number.

The day before attending Thursday evening’s performance, a friend told me that The Christians was just like going to church. He could not have been more right, and while it did not remind me of my church, or any specific church I have ever visited or worshipped in, the spirited band under the direction of John Winn, with vocals led by none other than Jessi Johnson, and Daniel Burgess’ detailed set with its stained-glass windows and gigantic cross would have made any evangelical feel right at home. The first minutes are interactive, with the audience encouraged to stand and clap along or even sing along as the lyrics are projected onto two large screens. (BTW – from whose church did they steal – I mean borrow – those high-backed pulpit chairs? They look familiar…)

Rousing music aside, The Christians tackles real and relevant issues that raise questions without providing any answers when Pastor Paul preaches a relatively short sermon that has long-reaching effects. He begins with the question, “Where Are We Today?” and concludes by suggesting “A Radical Change” that rocks the very foundation of his church, the individual congregants, and even his marriage. What happens when a senior pastor single-handedly decides to change the church’s creed? What is the role of a first lady, and where does being a pastor stop and being a husband begin? What, exactly is the responsibility of a pastor to his flock? How does a congregation know when God is speaking or when their pastor – a mere man – is speaking? And finally, is there/where is hell?

Bostin Christopher perfectly fits the bill as Pastor Paul, with his reassuring voice and modest demeanor. But his wife’s teasing mention of his magnificence gives us a hint of a possibly darker side, which Christopher occasionally allows to peek out from his puppy dog eyes. Brandon Carter as Associate Pastor Joshua, who dares to publicly question Pastor Paul’s sudden epiphany, is, in contrast, tightly contained and barely able to restrain his obvious passion.  Both men are well cast and believable. Even their physical differences support their characters’ theologically opposite positions.

Addie Barnhart as Elizabeth, the Pastor’s Wife, sits silently for roughly the first half of the play, but if you glance her way during Pastor Paul’s sermon and subsequent debate, you can see that Barnhart isn’t dozing in her comfy chair, but allows her face to show that she is valiantly hiding a teaming sea of feelings. When she finally speaks, in a private pillow talk with Pastor Paul, she politely but firmly delivers one of the play’s most devastating blows. Barnhart’s makeup and church lady suit are also spot on. Bev Appleton is similarly conservative of demeanor while delivering precisely targeted shards of dialogue to Pastor Paul. Sanam Hashemi has a supporting role as a soft-spoken and hesitant congregant, Sister Jenny, who, despite her small role, is the first to ask the hard questions.

What is most remarkable about Rusty Wilson’s direction is its unobtrusiveness, although one sometimes wishes it might get things moving along a bit faster. The power of silence, however, was perfectly executed during Pastor Paul’s long pause after Sister Jenny questions him. The one thing that really irritated me – and which is probably written into the script – was the use of the hand-held mic. It wasn’t a problem during Pastor Joshua’s prayer or Pastor Paul’s sermon, but during the one-on-one discussions, and the pastor’s pillow talk with his wife, those mics were downright intrusive.

This production is physically and structurally beautiful, thanks in no small part to John Winn’s musical direction, Sarah Grady’s costuming, Rich Mason’s scenic design, Derek Dumais’ sound design, and Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting.

The Christians raises valid questions and stirs up controversy that requires introspection, discussion, and debate. And those things are so refreshing in these times when violence seems to be the norm.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Jason Collins

SONGS FROM THE SOUL: The Story of Black Music in America from Slavery to Hip Hop

SONGS FROM THE SOUL: The Story Black Music in America

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

By: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn

At: 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: February 2-25, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

William Dye wrote and directed Songs from the Soul, a foot-tapping musical revue that traces the history of black music in America from slavery to the present. Aimed at theater-goers aged 7 and up, the show runs for a delightful one hour with no intermission.

On Sunday afternoon the three-actor ensemble of William Anderson, Anthony Cosby, and Nicole Pearson took a diverse audience (age, race, gender) that nearly filled the house on a musical journey from Negro spirituals and slave songs through contemporary hip hop and rap. Young and old, black and white calmly patted their feet or clapped along to the music for the first few minutes until Anthony Cosby, who appears to be the baby of the group, came out in a permed wig and sparkly jacket and threw his leg up on the piano during his spirited rendition of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” That seemed to loosen up the audience considerably.

While Anderson, Cosby, and Pearson maintained a lively and fictitious rivalry, it was Cosby who repeatedly sought to engage the audience, at one point involving the three sections (east, west, and south) in a three-part chant of “Whoomp, There It Is!” Anderson and Cosby donned fluffy retro Afro wigs for the “Soul Medley” (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Respect/Think”) the trio moved some to tears with a “Civil Rights Medley” including excerpts of “Precious Lord,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “We Shall Overcome,” complete with a portrait of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And was it just me, or did Pearson’s coat, head scarf, and grocery bag remind anyone else of Rosa Parks?

The “Rap Medley” began with the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which is usually held to be the original herald of hip hop and included the all-too familiar lyrics to “The Breaks” and “Whoomp, There It Is” as well Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” and Eric B and Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” This medley sparked an interactive conversation at Sunday afternoon’s Act of Faith talkback. One local pastor in the audience had questions about rap, hip hop, and Christian values, while Virginia Rep’s Founding Producer Bruce Miller, who moderated the Talkback, shared some amusing anecdotes from the point of view of a “liberal white guy.”

The long and the short of it is that music can be a universal, unifying force that brings people together. As an example, Writer/Director William Dye expressed pleasant surprise that white members of the audience stood for the closing song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamund Johnson, it was first performed February 12, 1900 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and has since become known as the Negro or Black National Anthem. As such, it is traditional for black people to stand in respect, as for any national anthem, when sung in churches and for community programs.

Songs from the Soul includes an historical narrative that manages never to get bogged down – even when addressing such weighty subjects as slavery and civil rights. That’s what happens when you have a theatrical professional who is also a teacher in charge of the production. (The term “edutainment” which accurately describes this merging of entertainment and educational content was coined in the 1970s by former Harvard professor Robert Heyman.)

Simple additions to basic costumes – a wig, a jacket, a dashiki – create atmosphere, identify the time period, and indicate identity. Sue Griffin’s costuming, Skyler Broughman’s lighting, and Terrie Powers’ set design are all simple and unobtrusive, keeping the music centerstage. A fourth cast member, Michaela Nicole, serves as the swing or understudy, but we did not have the pleasure of her presence on Sunday.

My trusted and experienced consultant for all children’s shows, my 9-year-old grandson, Kingston, gave Songs from the Soul two thumbs up, but did not add any details.  To my surprise, he did participate in the talkback, asking the cast members about their favorite types of music.  While there was a wide range of preferences, nearly all, including Director Dye, showed a preference for Christian and Gospel music, and Cosby confessed to a strong preference for jazz and big and sounds. Sounds from the Soul offers everyone a chance to enlarge their musical vocabulary.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Aaron Sutten

 

FREE MAN OF COLOR: The Story of One Man’s Search for the True Meaning of Freedom

FREE MAN OF COLOR: The Story of One Man’s Search for the True Meaning of Freedom

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Rd, Richmond, VA 23227

Performances: February 8th, 9th, 10th, 15th, 16th, 17th @8:00pm; February 10th, 17th @4:00pm; February 14th @10:00am

Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com; http://theheritageensemble.wixsite.com/thetc

“Your people will never live in harmony with white people in America.” These words might have been taken from the latest news coverage of white supremacists in the local news. But on stage at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, they were spoken by Reverend Robert Wilson, President of Ohio University in the 1820s, acting, as he believed, under direct orders from God.

Robert Wilson, played by actor Ken Moretti, is one of three characters in Charles Smith’s very literate and very relevant play about John Newton Templeton (Jamar Jones), the first African American to graduate from Ohio University – 35 years before slavery was officially abolished in the USA. Free Man of Color, first published and produced in 2004) is not just a recounting of yet another African American first – it is a thought provoking look at an American figure most of us have never heard of, an examination of the institution of slavery from an entirely different perspective, a revelation of the conflict and contradictions that complicate the conjunction of black freedom and women’s rights, and – to paraphrase director Toney Q. Cobb’s notes – it seeks the meaning of freedom, rather than the definition.

Most would think John is privileged to be brought into the home of Wilson, a university president, and his wife Jane (Mara Barrett) to work as a student servant while studying for a liberal arts degree. But wait, not so fast. John is immediately met with hostility from Jane, who appears to have a deep disdain for John and is not averse to calling him stupid or even a nigger. “I hated that woman,” John tells the audience in a narrative aside.  “Every time I looked at her, I could visualize my fingers wrapped around her throat.” Many in the audience at Saturday’s matinee felt the same way, and I felt a great respect for Barrett who executed a flawless performance of her hateful role in front of an all-black audience.

There is more to Jane’s character than we see at first glance. As the story unfolds, we learn that she is not allowed to ride her beloved horse, because ladies are not allowed to straddle a horse, but may only ride sidesaddle – an inefficient if not impossible proposition in rough terrain. Furthermore, Jane, the wife of the president of the university, cannot set foot into a classroom or lecture hall at the university in 1824, again, because she is a woman. Yet here is John, a freedman, an ex-slave, living in her home, enrolled in the university, and riding her horse.

Jones, who appeared in last year’s Richmond Triangle Players production of Choir Boy and spends his days portraying enslaved and free black people in Colonial Williamsburg, initially appears to portray John as the perfect negro – polite, docile, compliant. But that is only one side of this multi-faceted character. As he learns the difference between training and education, Jones’ character shows his benefactor, Rev. Wilson, and the audience that while one may be trained and manipulated to follow, he has been educated to reason for himself. The decisions he makes may not please his mentor, but he is adamant that “if I don’t look after my soul, no one else will.” Jones is fully committed to this role, and entirely believable.

Moretti also gives a fully fleshed, nuanced performance. As Rev. Wilson, Moretti renders a heart-felt rendition of “Amazing Grace” that is marred only by the realization that his character is using the song to justify white supremacy. All three actors are well cast in their roles.

Free Man of Color is an important work that addresses serious issues and raises important questions. Free Man of Color addresses the issues of slavery and women’s rights, but also brings up the treatment of native Americans and indigenous people in Liberia, which was home to a settlement of expatriated black Americans and it examines the motives of the American Colonization Society. A group created in 1816, purportedly to assist free blacks and former slaves emigrate to Liberia, to our contemporary eyes, it bears a striking resemblance to white supremacist organizations and ideologies.

In two acts, performed over approximately 2 hours and twenty minutes, including one intermission, we are taken on a journey that leaves us stunned, angry, outraged, and hopeful – sometimes all at once. Jones, Moretti, and Barrett work well as an ensemble, with only a few stumbles, and Cobb’s subtle yet intentional direction keeps the audience engaged. Free Man of Color is excellent theater and marks a new high for the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company and for Toney Q. Cobb as director.

The Pine Camp venue offers challenges any theater company’s technical crew. One is that all sets must be free standing, and here Artistic Director Margarete Joyner has done an amazing job in creating the Wilson’s home office. She is listed on the program not only as Artistic Director and Costume Designer – a job she does with the eye of a fashion designer – but also as Set Designer and Master Carpenter! The lights were designed by Geno Brantley and the sound (including subtle and perfectly placed touches of period music, the sounds of a horse galloping, and more) was designed by Pamela Archer Shaw.

  • FYI: Here is a link to the actual commencement speech delivered in 1828 by the real John Newton Templeton. “The Claims of Liberia” is mentioned several times in the play, but Jones/John never actually delivers it.

http://www.seorf.ohiou.edu/xx057/john_newton_templeton.htm

  • NOTE & SPOILER ALERT: While John was offered an important position in the colony of Liberia, a bit of research indicates that the Edward Roye mentioned at the end of the play was actually the fifth president of Liberia, not the governor. It seems that Charles Smith may have taken some artistic license with the historical facts, but there is plenty of substance – not “fake news.”

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos & Posters Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

 

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