PASSING STRANGE: If It Were Any More REAL, It’d Be Fiction!

PASSING STRANGE: A Rock Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: September 4 –6 previews; opening September 7 – October 18, 2019

Ticket Prices: $20/student; $25-30/military & RVATA; $30-45/general admission

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

All musicals are not created equal. Passing Strange, billed as “a new rock musical” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man’s search for his identity – “the real.” Nothing out of the ordinary in that but Passing Strange is written by Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, musicians with the band The Negro Problem.

The upbeat and energetic score is made up of rock and roll infused with gospel, blues, jazz, and punk rock. A four-piece band led by musical director Leilani Fenick is placed prominently on a platform upstage center, and occasionally gets drawn into the onstage action. Jeremy V. Morris, the narrator, hypes up the audience, introduces the band, narrates the story, and occasionally merges into the story. It soon becomes clear that the Narrator is an older version of the lead character, an unnamed Youth played by Keaton Hillman in what I believe is his first leading role.

The Youth’s search for identify takes us from a middle class home in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s to a communal family of young artists in free-spirited Amsterdam to a collective of revolutionary performance artists in Berlin. Ironically, it is the German anarchists who teach him the value of family – but not before it is too late.

The tightly knit ensemble – Patricia Alli, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, and Jeremy V. Morris – has no weak links, with each of these performers giving their all throughout the two-act musical that runs about 110 minutes, with one intermission. They act, dance, sing, and set the stage, moving large black packing crates, sometimes discretely wiping their streaming faces with conveniently stashed towels as they pass one another.

Ahh, passing – now there’s a word packed with symbolism. The actors pass one another on stage. The Youth passes through the spaces and stages of his life. Time passes from Youth to Narrator. Blacks passed for white in order to get better jobs. The Youth passes as a poor young man from the ghetto to achieve artistic recognition. Black actors pass themselves off as white Europeans. And Stew, who played the role of Narrator in the original production, was inspired, in passing, by none other than Shakespeare whose Othello, the Moore of Venice uttered the phrase “passing strange” in Act 1, Scene 3.

Passing Strange is directed by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T.), and it seems that her projects (e.g., last season’s An Octoroon at TheatreLAB The Basement) often deserve at least a second viewing and a talk-back, if not an entire seminar. Dr. T.’s staging, along with dynamically interwoven choreography by Christine Wyatt, a recent graduate of the VCU Dance program, keeps everyone moving at a swift pace that frequently contains hints of the minstrel show. The show is largely comedic until the final two scenes, but even the humor is rich in historic, racial, ethnic, sexual, regional, and cultural references. Some may be familiar, some may pass over the heads of many, and others fly by so fast that even the knowledgeable might miss them while savoring a previous nugget.

While this is clearly an ensemble masterpiece, there were standout moments and roles. I’ve seen Keaton Hillman perform in supporting roles in VaRep’s 1776, and  The Wiz, and Richmond Triangle Players’ A Chorus Line, handle puppets in the Children’s Theatre’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and portray a snake in The Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s

The Dreamseller and the Forest Dweller and deliver a tear-jerking monologue in Oedipus: A Gospel Myth at The Firehouse, but this is his first leading role. He nailed it. He was silly and frustrating, frustrated and innocent. Sometimes you wanted to shake him, and other times you wanted to hug him.

Jeremy V. Morris was part hype man, part mentor as the Narrator, sometimes watching, sometimes guiding, sometimes participating. We, the audience, didn’t know what to expect, but what he gave was just what was needed. Jamar Jones, who often shares a stage with Morris, used his malleable expressions to create a host of characters, from an LA youth to bible thumping preacher, from a gender fluid artist to a macho ex-boyfriend. The versatile and highly skillful Katrinah Carol Lewis also played several characters, but the one that made the strongest impact on me was Desi, the revolutionary artist who believed that the only thing that really matters is love. Keydron Dunn’s repertoire of characters included Mr. Franklin, the closeted gay son of the Baptist preacher. He initiated his newest choir member with a weed-smoking session in his car and introduced his youthful proteges to more than just harmonies and hymns. That made The Youth’s rejection of him all the more painful and poignant. Patricia Alli portrayed the mother with empathy and realism, all while maintaining a high level of first humor and later drama. Last but not least was Dylan Jones, making her Richmond debut, delightfully portraying three characters that ranged from teen-aged seductress to pornographic performance artist.

Chris Raintree’s simple set of a raised platform for the band and moveable boxes and chairs to create the environments through which the Youth passes was enhanced by lighting by Bill Miller, including some colorful LED lights on the walls. Alex Valentin’s costumes were appropriate but largely unremarkable – until the Mother’s final scene in which she appeared in the beautiful rose-colored gown she had dreamed of in Act One. September and October are busy months for theater and dance in Richmond, but I hope to squeeze in one more performance of Passing Strange before it closes October 18, and I highly suggest you get there as soon as you can. I wouldn’t be surprised if tickets become scarce after words get out about this one.

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

Passing Strange - Patricia Alli, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Patricia Alli
Passing Strange - Keydron Dunn, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keydron Dunn
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, Dylan Jones, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, and Dylan Jones
Passing Strange - Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, and Katrinah Carol Lewis

 

Alvin Ailey
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THE WIZ: Ease on Down the Road

THE WIZ: Everybody Rejoice!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: June 21 – August 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

 

OMG! I can’t think of a better time than the night I spent at Virginia Rep’s production of The Wiz!

The Wiz is a familiar story, based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The all-black version is familiar to many, from the 1975 Broadway show, starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy (with book by William F. Brown, lyrics by Charlie Smalls, and choreography by my former teacher, George Faison) or from the 1978 film version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.
Virginia Rep, under the direction of Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw and Director/Choreographer Kikau Alvaro uses the Brown/Smalls script, but with re-imagined staging, using scenery by Kimberly V. Powers and costumes by Jeanne Nugent that were inspired by Afrofuturism and visual artists of the African American diaspora (e.g., Romare Beardon and Lina Iris Viktor). In layman’s terms, think Wakanda, and you have a pretty good idea: African prints meet modern technology and run into urban swag. It may not have lived up to the verbal description, but the colors and styles really popped and worked well with Alvaro’s dynamic choreography.

The movement ranged from ballet to urban to tap. I sat up and took notice of the tornado, created by the dancing ensemble and the orchestra and my respect for the choreography and dancing remained at an all-time high throughout the first act. I recognized the dance expertise of Ira White – a member of the Richmond Ballet – before I could even see his face, and other ensemble dancers, including Michelle Mercedes and Rachel Seeholzer brought the ensemble up a notch or two from the usual ho-hum musical theater dancing. When D. Jerome Wells, the Tin Man, broke out into a smooth tap dance, my heart melted – for about the fourth time, and it was only the first act!

My heart started melting with the orchestra’s Overture, under the able musical direction of Anthony Smith. The entire score – which gave equal weight to the instrumental and the vocals throughout the production – was absolute perfection. The sound quality was very good, and vocals were clear, even when spoken off stage. My heart melted yet again when Toto ran across the stage at the beginning of Act One, and for the third time when Desirée Roots, as Aunt Em (one of THREE roles she plays) serenaded Dorothy with “The Feeling We Once Had.”

I know people were smitten with Brandon LaReau’s Lion, and rightfully so, as he owned that role and played it for every laugh and tender moment he could wring out of the very willing audience, but I quickly developed a soft spot for Dylan T. Jackson’s Scarecrow, whose insightful comments throughout belied his lack of a brain. When the Tin Man described how, as a flesh-and-blood woodcutter, he had cut of first one leg and then the other, Scarecrow asks why he didn’t think that, perhaps, he needed to get rid of the cursed ax. And speaking of the Tin Man, not only did Wells win me over with his tap dancing, but he closed out Act One with a soulful rendition of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” that was worthy of an R&B concert date night.

By the end of the first act, my face hurt from smiling and laughing, my eyes were leaking from laughing and an overload of joy, and my heart was a puddle on the floor at my feet. But this show wasn’t done with me yet. It wasn’t enough that Desirée Roots melted my heart with her ballad to Dorothy, she then killed it with an over-the-top performance as the good witch Addaperle. Her wand didn’t work, she couldn’t make herself disappear, and she carried her magic paraphernalia in a gigantic glittery handbag. She was like a magical, bedazzled version of everybody’s favorite, slightly inebriated aunt at the family cookout. Then in the second act she threw down as a punk-rock styled Evillene in black lace, a bustier, and thigh-high boots. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” was never sung better.

Jessi Johnson didn’t appear until midway through the second act, as Glinda, a good witch. Dressed regally, with a torch-carrying entourage, she graced us with her powerful and sensuous voice in “A Rested Body” and a reprise of “Believe in Yourself” before making a diva-worthy exit.

I didn’t forget Dorothy. Mariah Lyttle, a recent graduate of Ithaca College, has a voice to be reckoned with. While she was strong and clear in “Soon As I Get Home” and other songs with the ensemble and her motley entourage, she was really able to shine in the heartfelt Finale, “Home.”

Jerold E. Solomon also did double duty, as Uncle Henry in the first act and as The Wiz in the second. Solomon more than met the challenge of “Ya’ll Got It” after revving up, so to speak, from the mild-mannered misfit who became The Wiz to a hyped-up revivalist-style preacher who poured a heavy dose of self-empowerment on the citizens of Oz before disappearing in his magically restored hot air balloon.

There may be no such thing as perfect, but I couldn’t find a single thing I didn’t like – no, love – about this production of The Wiz. There are a few, shall we say, strong words or innuendos, but this is, overall, a family-friendly production. The couple sitting next to us was a grandmother on a date with her pre-teen grandson. There were lots of children in the audience, which was more diverse, overall, than one usually finds in the November Theatre. With all that’s going on – the scene changes, the sparkling lighting effects, the music, the songs, the dancing that moves off the stage and into the aisles – the entire production runs just slightly over two magical hours. I hope I have time to see this beautiful show again before it closes on August 4. It’s pure happiness on a stage.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer (who was once a poppy in a scene from The Wiz), teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

The Wiz
D. Jerome Wells (Tin Man) and Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and Jerold E. Solomon (The Wiz). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Desirée Roots (Evillene). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Wiz.1
Desirée Roots as Aunt Em, Addaperle, and Evillene.

 

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AN OCTOROON: We Need to Talk

AN OCTOROON: The Point is to Make You Feel Something

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 16 – June 1, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; $25 seniors & industry/RVATA; $15 students and teachers with ID

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

When is it okay to laugh at racist stereotypes?

When a smart award-winning playwright named Branden Jacobs-Jenkins writes a play called An Octoroon and incorporates racist stereotypes and historical images that are guaranteed to make every member of the audience feel uncomfortable at some point, even while laughing – especially while laughing. Every. Single. Member. Not you, you say? We’ll see about that.

There is a plantation. In Louisiana. The kind with slaves. There is a cast system with field slaves and house slaves. The title character is a slave who is the daughter of the recently deceased master. The old master’s wife – who is never seen, because she spends the entire play on her deathbed – has an affection for her late husband’s love child. A neighboring overseer plots to buy the failing plantation and have his way with his former rival’s illegitimate daughter, the octoroon. There is a black man wearing blackface with huge red lips, a black man wearing white face with a blond wig, and a white man wearing red face and a feather headdress. There is a lot of shucking and jiving — or dancing elaborately for the entertainment of the white man. There is lying, cheating, stealing, and classism, sexism, and age-ism. There is a noose. And there is a creepy rabbit. An Octoroon is an equal opportunity oppressor.

I think people who attended opening night could be divided into three types. The majority loved it. A few hated it. And a large portion were not sure what to think. And this is one play where race does matter! Everyone’s reaction was tempered not only by aesthetic preferences, but by the viewer’s race as well. Black viewers may have felt freer to laugh but may also have identified more closely with the characters and the historical and social time period. White viewers, on the other hand, may have hesitated to laugh for fear of seeming insensitive, or being accused of appropriating black culture. These dilemmas may have been heightened by recent news stories of politicians, teachers, and prom-posers wearing blackface, and of possible lynchings – even though the last officially documented lynching in America occurred in 1981 (Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama).

So, what could there possibly be to laugh about?

An Octoroon is a classic melodrama that is anything but standard. It deconstructs not only the genre but the whole idea of what theater should be, how the performers should interact, and how the audience should perceive it.

Jacobs-Jenkins won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014 for An Octoroon as well as for his play Appropriate (produced here in Richmond by Cadence Theatre last fall). An Octoroon is an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s similarly-titled play The Octoroon, written in 1859. An Irishman wrote a play about slavery in America, and now a black American playwright has revamped it. Using the original characters and plot,  (BTW, an octoroon is a person who is one-eighth black, invoking the “one drop” rule that was used to legally classify people of mixed race as black) Jacobs-Jenkins has included contemporary language (e.g., women referring to one another as “girl,” and the use of the word “ghetto” as an adjective) and modern-day references (e.g., contemporary dances, a boom box, some R-rated rap music, and a cell phone).

Director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates recognizes, in her director’s note, that this melodrama is challenging for both the audience and the actors. Participating in the experience of An Octoroon, one might even begin to question the role of the director! But Pettiford-Wates raises some questions of her own. “How did we arrive at the place where race, class, and identity are what determines who succeeds and who does not?” she asks. And further, “And more importantly, where do we go from here?”

An Octoroon opens with a lengthy prologue that introduces us to BJJ, a black playwright working through an identity crisis with his therapist. BJJ is played by Jamar Jones, a young black male actor whose recent roles in Red Velvet, Free Man of Color, and Choir Boy have shown him to be a highly talented and versatile actor who is rapidly rising to the top of his game. Here Jones plays the characters of BJJ as well as the two white slave masters, George and M’Closky. At one point he appears in a vest with different patterns on each half and wears half a mustache, as he has to portray both characters onstage in the same scene.

The prologue also introduces us to Playwright, a character based on Dion Boucicault, the author of the original The Octoroon. Cole Metz also plays the roles of Wahnotee, a Native American and Lafouche, an auctioneer who has come to help dispose of the Terrebone Plantation, including its slaves. Each of Metz’ characters has an affectation that makes him either endearing or unbearable. Playwright is pompous, entitled, and bitter. Wahnotee speaks in broken, Pidgeon English and some version of patois. He walks with a lumbering gait and makes that stereotypical open-palmed “how” hand sign. Lafouche walks with a little catch step and keeps scratching the reddened side of his face. Metz can make his normally innocent, rosy-cheeked baby face turn pouty and whiny or menacing in the blink of an eye. He uses physical humor with restraint and allows his face to express his every thought.

The Playwright’s Assistant is played by Jeremy V. Morris, who is silent and seemingly resentful in his service to the Playwright, but overly enthusiastic in his later portrayal of two of the plantation’s slaves, the elderly Pete who manages the household, and the young Paul who is allowed to run freely with Wahnotee, and has been given few if any chores. Like the octoroon, he is also a favored child, but his circumstances are much lower down the social scale – even in the slave hierarchy.

Minnie and Dido (Asjah Janece and Khadijah Franks) are two house slaves who are friends. Dido has recently arrived from another plantation, and Minnie was born and raised on the Terrebonne Plantation. She believes there is nothing beyond the swamps, but by the end of the play both are looking forward with hope and fear to life beyond the plantation. Realizing they are not ready for freedom, they determine that working on a steam ship is the next best step.

Trinitee Pearson has the role of Grace, a pregnant field slave who shows attitude whenever she is in the presence of Minnie and Dido. Pearson also has the role of Br’er Rabbit, who serves as a sort of cautionary mascot for An Octoroon. Br’er Rabbit is a reminder of the trickster who lives by his wits, a sort of Anansi figure with both African and Cherokee roots. I personally found the Br’er Rabbit character somewhat creepy. Perhaps it was because rabbits are usually not the size of a petite woman, or maybe it was the mime-like half-mask Pearson wore and the limp-wristed, hovering stance she adopts.

Maggie Roop plays Dora, a wealthy white heiress who has her eye on George, even though she knows his only interest in her would be because of her ability to save the family plantation from a short sale. Roop is deliciously over the top in her stylized interpretation of the delicate southern belle, dressed in a bell-shaped white dress with crinolines and hoops, and enough pink bows and frills to stock a small emporium. In her first scene, she demands that Minnie fan her. Even though she is a socialite, it seems Dora’s only friend is Zoe, the Octoroon.

The octoroon is played by Juliana Caycedo, who I have only ever seen before in Cadence Theatre’s production of Between Riverside and Crazy. Caycedo looks the part of the beautiful octoroon with her olive skin, long curly hair, and huge, innocent eyes.  She happily joins in with Roop in prancing and flouncing around the stage, twirling in her green dress, also supported by crinolines as she and her friend and so to be rival, Dora, feign fainting spells and swoon at the drop of a hat. It is obvious these are ladies who never sweat but merely “dew.” Caught between two worlds, Zoe belongs to neither.

Also in the cast, is Liam Joseph Finn, holding down the small but significant roll of Ratts, a tall, handsome ship’s captain who comes to the auction to buy slaves. Dasia Gregg’s scenic design is deliberately rustic and dusty looking. She has lined the walls with jagged boards and littered the floor with crates and overturned chairs. This setting suggests a sense of impermanence, decay, and danger. Erin Barclay’s lighting maintains the dark and dreary theme, making it all the more startling and effective with the space lights up with the flash of George’s old-fashioned camera – the kind with a black curtain on a tripod. Projections by Gregg and Kelsey Cordrey keep the audience informed of the progress of the five acts, written in an elaborate old-fashioned font, and occasionally draw interest with animated flames, or the photograph of an actual modern day lynching. The latter is so disturbing that even BJJ asks to have it removed.

Breaking with all sorts of tradition, instead of performing the fourth act or the “sensation” act of the melodrama, BJJ, Playwright, and Assistant tell us about it, using a few props, and even rewinding to back up when BJJ loses his train of thought.

An Octoroon raises so many questions. This is the sort of play that cries out for a talk-back. (Dr. Pettiford-Wates indicated three are scheduled for later in the run.) There is more here than meets the eye. As one actor says at the end of Act Four, “the point of this whole thing was to make you feel something.” Having tapped into those feelings, they need to be discussed, examined, analyzed, and shared with others. This is not theater designed to merely entertain. Few would leave saying, “I liked it,” or “I enjoyed it.” More likely, others, as I did, left saying, “we need to talk about this!”

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: Tom Topinka

An Octoroon 3
Jamar Jones
An Octoroon 2
Maggie Roop as Dora in An Octoroon
An Octoroon 1
Jamar Jones as playwright BJJ in An Octoroon

 

 

WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: A Warm Memoir

WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: Pretty Fire

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 27, March 31, April 6,  April 12, April 17, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 general admission; $20 for RAPT card holders; $15 for students

Info: (804) 359-2003 or 5thwalltheatre.org

5th Wall Theatre (Carol Piersol) and TheatreLAB (Deejay Gray) have joined forces once again, this time to co-produce the Women’s Theatre Festival, featuring 4 shows in 4 weeks by 4 companies. The festival opened Wednesday, March 27, with 5th Wall Theatre’s production of Charlayne Woodard’s 1995 autobiographical work, Pretty Fire, directed by Piersol starring Haliya Roberts.

I first remember seeing Haliya Roberts last fall in the Heritage Ensemble production of Living in the Key of B Unnatural. Then she caught my attention again with a strong performance as the assistant producer of a radio show, Linda MacArthur, in the 5th Wall Theatre production, Talk Radio earlier this year. Roberts has raised the bar and moved to a whole new level with her stellar performance in Pretty Fire.

Woodard’s one-woman play is a warm and familiar memoir of a black woman who, wonder of wonders, grew up in a strong, loving family just outside of Albany, NY – with both parents and two sets of grandparents. The story begins with Charlayne’s premature birth in the family’s bathroom on a snowy winter night. For those who are not familiar with upstate New York, Albany is quite rural. The baby weighed less than two pounds and the doctors had little hope that she would survive the night. She was “blue black and fuzzy” and her fingers were still webbed but her paternal grandfather found the hospital chaplain, went to the chapel, and prayed with confidence and conviction.

Roberts takes ownership of this character so that, as one friend said after the opening, it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing this role. Piersol has staged this show very simply, with just a bench and some lights (credit Erin Barclay) and some very effective and well-placed sound effects (Kelsey Cordrey is the Festival sound designer). I don’t know what Piersol told Roberts, or how much guidance she provided, but whatever it was, it was just right.

Roberts mastered the little girl’s voice, the grandmother’s testimonials and hallelujahs and the mother’s sometimes unconventional and unexpected words of wisdom. She also captured the history and anecdotes with authenticity and accuracy. Her recounting of taking a bath with her younger sister in a large tin tub in her maternal grandmother’s home in Georgia brought back memories of my own childhood, taking baths in a similar tub in my great-aunt’s house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The water had to be obtained from a spigot (or in my case, from the backyard pump) and then heated on top of the kitchen stove before being poured lovingly into the tub set on the kitchen or dining room floor.

The revelation of her secret – being bullied and molested by a neighbor who lived between her house and the local grocery store – brought me to the edge of my seat, ready to seek revenge on her behalf. But Pretty Fire isn’t about abuse or defeat; it is positive, uplifting, life-affirming – and there are only four more chances to see it!

BTW, playwright Charlayne Woodard, may be familiar to some as an actress who appeared in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Ain’t Misbehavin’ and on television in the recurring roles of Janice on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sister Peg, the nun with a mission for prostitutes and junkies, on Law and Order: SVU (2002-2011).

 

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: 

 

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OEDIPUS: Greek Tragedy in a Black Southern Church

OEDIPUS:A GOSPEL MYTH

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: February 1-23, 2019; 7:30 PM evenings and 4:00 PM Sunday matinees; Acts of Faith Talkbacks on February 10 & 17

Ticket Prices: $15 – $35

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

Pride. Fate. Abuse of power. Patricide. Incest. Here’s a good one: hamartia (the fatal flaw that leads to the downfall of the tragic hero). Make no mistake about it; Oedipus: A Gospel Myth is a classic Greek tragedy with all the elements and accoutrements. It’s just set in a black church in the south in the 1920s.

Instead of a Greek chorus, there’s a soulful gospel trio (Shantell Dunnaville, Shalimar Hickman Fields, and Shalandis Wheeler Smith – whose names all just happen to start with the same letter). Instead of choir robes, they wore a version of a simple Greek tunic or chiton over bedazzled golden shirts. In addition to traditional music, including a beautiful rendition of the new-to-me “Rusty Old Halo,” sung by Fields, the trio provided ongoing silent reactions to the tragedy. One could just imagine them gossiping about what they had seen and heard after the service. Michael Jones accompanied them on piano, behind their pew that occupies the left side of the stage and provided the soundscape as well. Billy Dye was the music consultant – his first time working on a Firehouse Theatre production – and he and Gonzalez drew maximum creative power from these three singers and single musician.

For those not familiar with the story of Oedipus (maybe you slept through it in high school), it might help to review a brief synopsis prior to seeing the show. Even with the change of setting and an all-black cast, the integrity of the story remains. Oedipus, our tragic hero, was born to the king and queen of Thebes, but a prophecy warned that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart the prophecy, infant Oedipus was bound and left on a mountain to die. Of course, he didn’t die there, or there would be no story. And, of course, one can see parallels with biblical characters and stories.

This version of Oedipus: A Gospel Myth may be the brainchild of director/set designer Vinnie Gonzalez and his stellar cast, including dl Hopkins as Oedipus, Jeremy V. Morris as the Preacher, Toney Q. Cobb as Teiresias/the Messenger, and Patricia Alli as Jocasta, but the author is still listed as Sophocles. If you have a hard time imagining a black southern congregation relating to the language and mythology of ancient Greece, just remember that they have already been steeped in the language and parables of the King James Bible.

It’s not entirely clear that the congregation, with input from the audience, is performing Sophocles’ play in a dramatic sermon that juxtaposes the flawed nature of humankind with mankind’s role in destiny, that attempts to reconcile the contradictions between God’s grace and human suffering. At times it seems that there are two stories running parallel, with occasional intersection.

Morris begins his role early, greeting audience members in his preacher’s robe as we file into the theater. One might expect a collection plate to be passed.  Morris presides from his pulpit, on the right. Centerstage is Oedipus’ throne, set on a raised platform with seven intimidating posts that made me think of The Emperor Jones.  Hopkins is dressed in trousers and a double-breasted vest, and uses a cane which, along with his slight limp, are significant factors.

Both give intense performances, with extended sermons and soliloquies. R.O. Crews, as Jocasta’s brother, Kreon, gave a strong, more subtle performance. His role provided background information as well as took the edge off the otherwise unrelenting tragedy. There were few light moments, but in Act One there was a reference to “making Thebes great again.” Keaton Hillman was a silent servant throughout the first act but was charged with delivering the most devastating news of the entire drama in Act Two. This is quite graphic, but if you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to go see it for yourself.

The cast also includes J. Ron Fleming, Jr. as the Shepherd, Miles Hopkins as a Servant Boy, and Akilah Matthews and Rayden Tyler as Oedipus’ young daughters. Steven Koehler’s lighting is subtle, sometimes shining through the horizontal slats that make up the rear walls. Gonzalez has taken the floor boards and extended them part of the way the rear walls, which have intermittent patches of what could be broken bits of plaster.

Oedipus: A Gospel Myth has a running time of about 120 minutes, with one intermission, but the first act does seem to drag a bit, while the second act races along to the shocking revelations. Even with no prior knowledge of the story, or of the genre of Greek tragedy in general, my theater partner found this to be a moving and powerful drama that touched on very human issues.

And if any of this sounds vaguely familiar, there was an all-black musical, The Gospel at Colonus, that premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983. It was based on the second work in Sophocles’ trilogy of Theban tragedies (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) and the cast included gospel singers and church choirs.

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

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Keaton Hillman, dl Hopkins and Toney Q. Cobb
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dl Hopkins
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dl Hopkins, rehearsal photo

 

 

LIVIN’ FAT: Living Large

LIVIN’ FAT: The Return of Good Times

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, RVA 23227

Performances: November 8-17, 2018 with performances at 8:00 pm November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 & 17; 10:00 am November 14 and 4:00 pm November 17.

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

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com or https://livinfat.brownpapertickets.com/

If Livin’ Fat, the current production by the Heritage Ensemble Theatre at the Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center has the look and feel of a 1970s era sitcom, there is a good reason. It was written by Judi Ann Mason, whose work includes Good Times, Sanford and Son, and A Different World, as well as the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Director dl Hopkins remained true to the sitcom genre, using snappy pacing and staging that made the audience feel as if we were, at times, peering into the Carter family’s living room through an invisible screen. Characters even approached the edge of the stage to look out the window, and often crossed one another precariously close to the edge of the stage.

What’s even more remarkable about Livin’ Fat is that Mason (1955-2009) wrote it when she was a 19-year-old drama student at Grambling State University and it earned her the Norman Lear Award for comedy writing. Given that distinguished history – and the strong cast – I’m upset that I did not, could not love this production.

Livin’ Fat takes place in the “front room” of the Carter family home in the Black Quarter of an unnamed southern town. Yes, that’s what my grandmother called our living room, too. The room is spotless but shabby, and on the wall behind the sofa is the obligatory triptych: Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. Big Mama (Sharalyn Garrard) is a disillusioned widow, given to snappy comebacks. She also has a surprising affinity for the young people in her life and often sides with her grandchildren much to the chagrin of her daughter. Mama (Andrea Shantell Dunnaville) has a direct line to God and can quote scripture for any situation. She is equally yoked to husband Calvin (Arthur Muhammad), who works two jobs to support his family and is a stalwart deacon at their church. The parents’ faith and the family’s future are tested when their son, David, comes into an unexpected windfall.

David (Akiel Baldwin) is a college graduate who, upon returning home, could find no other work than as a janitor at a bank. A fate would have it, one day while working at the bank, the bank gets robbed and no one noticed that a bundle of money was dropped on the floor where it found its way into David’s dust rag. Later references to the “dust” in his pocket, therefore, have two meanings – the “dust” from his cleaning rag and an old slang term for being so poor there is “nothing but dust” in your pockets.

Garrard is consistently funny, tossing off sarcasm like breathing, waving her wig in the air, referring to her television set as if it were her lover, eating ex-lax chocolate laxatives like candy to soothe her unnamed “condition,” and being contrary just for sport. Dunnaville takes broad comedy to extremes, often to the point of making her character a caricature. On the positive side, her projection and diction are excellent, and we never have any trouble understanding her, even when her daughter Candy (Imani Banks) is blasting music from her bedroom. Muhammad’s portrayal of the father is the most moderate, contained, and realistic of any of the play’s six characters. He is, therefore, a positive role-model and a model black father. Candy is the least developed of the characters in the family, yet Banks takes advantage of every moment on stage. She is the cute but annoying little sister, given to exaggeration, and does not know the meaning of giving up. When sent to her room, she silently reappears in the background, listening to what the grown-ups don’t want her to hear.

As David, Baldwin must walk a delicate line. College educated – and probably the first in his family to attend college – he is expected to do better than his parents’ generation yet must show respect while living in their home. He does not complain about his menial job, but he talks of his dreams with his best friend. For the most part, Baldwin achieves this balance with aplomb, with the assistance of his side-kick Boo (Marsalis McKeever). Boo, who has not gone to college and seems to have no plan at all for his life, is David’s ride-or-die friend who stands out for two characteristics: when he comes into some money, he spends it all on loud clothes; and he speaks out of the side of his mouth, as if he has marbles in his mouth, making it difficult to clearly hear anything he says.

As appealing as these characters are, and as much as they made me laugh, I found the overall production uneven and underwhelming. The juxtaposition of Dunnaville’s broad sitcom comedy with Muhammad’s more conservative portrayal, Dunnaville’s over-enunciation in contrast to McKeever’s muffled utterances, the frequent (and utterly accurate) use of the word “nigger,” (I hate the euphemism, “n-word”), and author Mason and director Hopkins’ adherence to the sitcom genre just didn’t connect for me. After the show, my constant companion and theater date suggested that (a) I wasn’t really black and (b) Livin’ Large would really, really appeal to older black churchgoers (except, perhaps for that word I mentioned above) and potential black theatergoers who don’t go to the theater because they don’t see enough representations of themselves and their lives onstage.

There is, after all a moral dilemma – a foundational element of good storytelling: should David be allowed to keep the “found” money or should he return it? Has he, in fact, committed a crime? Calvin, the head of the household, takes the question to God, and after a period of prayer, the family abides by his decision. To find out what he decided, and how the play ends, I suggest you go see Livin’ Fat for yourself. (Dates and times are listed above.)

Livin’ Fat: written by Judi Ann Mason; directed by dl Hopkins; with lighting by Geno Brantley; sound by dl Hopkins (a nice 70s playlist); costumes (character and period appropriate) by LaWanda Raines; set by Margarette Joyner; carpentry by Vinnie Gonzalez; photography by Pamela Archer-Shaw; and videography by Dewey Collins.

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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Link to WRIC interview with director dl Hopkins and Sharalyn Garrard (Big Mama): https://www.wric.com/community/-livin-fat-hits-the-stage-in-rva/1576260858

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

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BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: Location, Location, Location

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: The Family We Choose Sometimes Chooses Us

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

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

Performances: October 13 – November 4, with previews on October 11 & 12 and talkbacks October 21 & 28

Ticket Prices: $10-35

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

 

Written in 2014, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s multiple-award winning play, Between Riverside and Crazy, could have been ripped directly from current headlines about police shootings of black men in America, but it was actually inspired by the shooting of a black undercover officer by an off-duty white officer on a New York City subway train in 1994.

Add to a controversial shooting the additional components of illegal activities, drug and alcohol addiction, strained relationships, faltering faith, and unresolved grief, and you have the makings of a compelling drama. Walter “Pops” Washington, the cantankerous patriarch, is played by David Emerson Toney, an experienced actor who is an Assistant professor of Acting and Directing at VCU, but new to the Richmond stage.

Toney’s portrayal of Pops is a delicate balancing act of rage, hurt feelings, loss, love, and longing. At any given time, the audience is not sure which emotion is going to come bubbling up and erupt over Rich Mason’s set – the kitchen and living room (later bedroom) of what is described as a “pre-war apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City.” It’s important to know that this is an unusually spacious apartment, in a highly desirable neighborhood, that it is protected by long-standing rent control laws that prevent the landlord from pricing the coveted units out of the reach of (mostly elderly) residents. Pops starts drinking early in the morning and is so fond of the word m—–f—– that it appears that it’s even the preferred name for his dog.

After the death of his wife, Pops opened his home to his son Junior (Jerold E. Solomon) who shares more than a name with his father. It was interesting to see Solomon, who is often cast in the role of the father figure, placed in the position of prodigal son. The chemistry and conversations between father and son provided some of the most fascinating and revelatory moments in the entire play.

In addition to father and son, the household includes Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Juliana Caycedo) and Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Thony Mena). Lulu is a somewhat mysterious figure, simultaneously portrayed as a good girl and a “working girl.” She is genuinely caring, but there is something off about her, which is never really explained. Oswaldo is presented as a strong, sympathetic figure – a set-up for one of two completely shocking events in this two-act play. Individually both Lulu and Oswaldo share a special relationship with their host, and both call Pops “Dad.” I loved everything about both Mena and Caycedo, right down to her skin tight clothing and his Nuyorican accent.

Supporting characters included Bianca Bryan as Pop’s former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor and Larry Cook as her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro.  They take turns playing good cop/bad cop and frequently confuse the difference between caring and coercion. I found the dynamic between Bryan and Cook interesting, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe Bryan’s tears when her character tried to play the victim; she just seemed too strong for that. Last but not least there was Maria Hendricks as the Church Lady, an almost mythic creature who appearance, long after we had been told to expect her, was a startling contrast to what I had been led – or lulled – to expect. Hendricks provided the second big shock of the evening, in a most delightful and humorous way, blending sex and spirituality with an unexpected cultural twist.

Between Riverside and Crazy reminds me of those commercials that point out that families are what we make them. There is nothing standard about this family, but there is something unsettlingly familiar about each member and the family unit they have created. The final scene raises more questions than it answers. “Does it have a happy ending?” asked the woman I met and chatted with pleasantly throughout the evening. “That depends,” I responded. It depends on what constitutes happiness for you. It depends on which questions are important to you, what you need answers for, and how much ambiguity you can live with. What is important to you, and what can you live without?

Rich Mason’s set manages to achieve an elaborate sense of spaciousness, but the aged and drab furnishings contrasted oddly, to my eye, with the tall elegant windows, and the kitchen appeared outdated, even though the exact time-frame was never clear. And maybe it was just me, but the family’s entrances and exits from both an upstage door and a downstage corner and their sudden appearances on the rooftop sometimes seemed to defy the laws of physics. Jesse Senechal included some subtle and appropriate effects in the sound design while Sarah Grady’s costuming was appropriate and consistent for each character – although I did wonder, if is it common for police officers to come to dinner in uniform.

Tawnya Pettiford-Wates has directed Between Riverside and Crazy with sensitivity and perception. The cast has responded with authenticity that defies perfection. The resulting experience makes for unforgettable, must-see theatre.

NOTE: Between Riverside and Crazy contains adult language and is recommended for viewers ages 16+.

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 Collins Photography

 

 

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Jerold E. Solomon, Juliana Caycedo, Bianca Bryan, and David Emerson Toney
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Bianca Bryan, Larry Cook, and David Emerson Bryan
Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
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Jerold E. Solomon and Juliana Caycedo

 

Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney and Maria Hendricks. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
Between Riverside and Crazy
Thony Mena and David Emerson Toney