PIPELINE

The Poetry of Oppression

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: October 15 – November 7, 2021

Ticket Prices: $36-$56. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

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

From the striking set, designed by Brian Barker, to the physical interpretation of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry by actor Trevor Lawson, to the stunning and sometimes prophetically pixilated projections by Dasia Gregg, the VaRep production of Dominique Morisseau’s PIPELINE grabs your attention and doesn’t give it back for the full 90 minutes that the play runs.

The playwright, Morisseau, the director, VaRep’s Katrinah Carol Lewis, and the indomitable cast, headed by Sasha Wakefield and Trevor Lawson, pack so much content and context into these 90 minutes it may be days, if not weeks, before the full effect is fully unpacked. The title, PIPELINE, refers to the “school to prison pipeline,” that convergence of zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies and law enforcement policies that work together to shuttle black boys into the criminal justice system. Harsh penalties, high rates of suspension and expulsion, and legal actions resulting in higher rates of incarceration for students of color – especially boys – have led to a rising American epidemic over the past two decades. Heavy stuff for a play that, somehow, manages to make us laugh at regular intervals.

Central to the story is Omari, a bright young man learning how to navigate life while containing the anger of generations of systemic racism compounded by immediate family dysfunction. His mother, Nya, a teacher in a public high school, is raising him with little direct help from her ex-husband, Xavier, a businessman. The only thing Omari’s parents seem to agree on is that he should attend an expensive private boarding school from which he is about to be expelled – and possibly worse – after an altercation with a teacher became physical.

That’s the short synopsis. There’s much more. Morisseau, Lewis, and this powerful cast gradually peel back and reveal the many and complex layers of each character and their relationships with one another. It’s not just the complex, loving, and very raw relationship between Omari and his mother Nya, although that is the primary relationship. There is also the explosive relationship between Omari and his father, Xavier – one that remains tantalizingly unresolved at the play’s end. In one scene, Nya has a confrontation with her son’s girlfriend, Jasmine, which resembles nothing less than a smoldering and potentially deadly tango. Then there are Nya’s relationships with her co-workers, Laurie, a fellow teacher (Laine Satterfield) and Dun, her school’s security guard (Todd Patterson). Lest I forget, kudos to Patterson and director Lewis for developing such a nuanced character for Patterson. Dun is an interesting guy, one of the “good guys,” and Patterson sinks his teeth into this role and doesn’t let go until he turns it into a supporting role worthy of attention. A brief scene with all three men – Shabazz, Lawson, and Patterson – explores a multitude of emotions and connections in just a few words.

Another supporting role of note is Jessie Jordan as the spunky girlfriend who respectfully goes toe-to-toe with the self-assured and rather intimidating Nya. Jessie/Jasmine has brains and beauty (frequently reminding all within earshot that she’s “cute”) and knows how to use both. She is also prone to misspeak common idioms, resulting in lines like, “There’s a lot of fish in the swimming pool.” Laine Satterfield plays Nya’s friend and co-worker as the comic sidekick, the sassy white chick. But lest we forget that scar on her forehead is a reminder of reconstructive surgery as the result of being assaulted by a student’s parents in their tough inner city school. Her heart is in the right place, but that doesn’t keep her from teetering on the brink of burnout.

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that Xavier, who is supposed to be a co-parent, doesn’t make a physical appearance until about halfway through the play. Iman Shabazz begins his portrayal of Xavier with dignity and grace, but we soon realize that he can barely control the same feelings of rage he wants his own son to control. Sasha Wakefield plays Omari’s mother with fragile confidence. It isn’t easy for Nya to give up her right to be right; it takes a major scare for her to consider alternatives.

So that leaves Omari. Trevor Lawson is called on to portray Omari through raw, brutal movement, using non-verbal language as much as he uses words. And the words he has been given are not just dialogue. Fueled by the words, works, and legacy of Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and most prominently Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, “We Real Cool,” Omari’s speech and movement reflect the cadence of poetry, the intensity of Wright’s Bigger Thomas character, and the philosophy of Ellison’s Invisible Man.Omari shows love and care for his mother, even though he knows of her flaws. While he hasn’t yet come to a place of maturity where he can make peace with his father, he strives to improve the relationship with his mother, creating a list of instructions for her to follow. “Like a list?” she asks. No, he says, “like scripture.” Omari also takes care to distance himself from Jasmine to keep her from experiencing the fallout of his own troubles. “I know why Bigger Thomas did what he did, and I hate that I know,” Omari says at one point.

Like Omari’s non-verbal monologues, Dasia Gregg’s multi-layered and sometimes chaotic projections fill in what words are inadequate or too clumsy to communicate, and Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design splendidly supports the emotional and ambient context. Brian Barker’s set is made of modules that roll in and out quickly – a classroom, a dorm room, a hospital waiting room, a teacher’s break room – further reinforcing the emotional landscape and offering temperature checks of the cultural environment.

Relevant, real, and raw, PIPELINE is a compelling look at life as some Americans know it that may seem foreign, even alien, to many. PIPELINE, for those who listen, explains why there are marches and protests, and debates on systemic racism, defunding the police, and Critical Race Theory. Perhaps some may be more receptive to this mode of learning about these difficult issues, but they must be talked about, one way or another. PIPELINE does not offer solutions, but it makes these issues real and personal, and that’s a start.

Pipeline

by Dominique Morisseau

Cast

Nya – Sasha Wakefield

Omari – Trevor Lawson

Jasmine – Jessie Jordan

Xavier – Iman Shabazz

Laurie – Laine Satterfield

Dun – Todd Patterson

Voiceover – Desirèe Dabney

Xavier Understudy – William Anderson

Jasmine Understudy – Khadijah Franks

Creative Team

Direction: Katrinah Carol Lewis

Scenic Design: Brian Barker

Costume Design: Nia S. Banks

Lighting Design: Steven Koehler

Projection Design: Dasia Gregg

Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey

Stage Management: Justin Janke

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

———-

Photo Credits: Jay Paul

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THE NICETIES

“Get over it! It did not happen to you!”

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: October 1-16, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $30 General Admission; $20 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $10 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 506-3533; 349-7616 or https://theconciliationlab.org/

NOTE: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office.

The title of Eleanor Burgess’ two-person play is deceptive, to say the least.

THE NICETIES.

n. pl. ni·ce·ties

1. The quality of showing or requiring careful, precise treatment: the nicety of a diplomatic exchange.

2. Delicacy of character or feeling; fastidiousness; scrupulousness.

3. A fine point, small detail, or subtle distinction: the niceties of etiquette.

4. An elegant or refined feature; an amenity: the niceties of civilized life.

(freedictionary.com)

Under the precise, insightful, and nuanced eye of director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, an encounter between Zoe, a black student at a liberal arts college in a prestigious university and her white history professor, Janine, a 1960s style feminist, turns into an explosive debate that leaves fallout on a nuclear scale.

The two disagree on a key tenet of Zoe’s paper, the impact of slavery on the outcome of the American Revolution. At first I was unclear who initiated this meeting. A synopsis of the play in the program indicates that Zoe is called into her professor’s office to discuss her paper, while Dr. T. and Zoe (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) hold the view that Zoe initiated the meeting to make sure she’s on the right track before submitting the final paper. It’s a small detail, but knowing how the actors see it provides some insight into the development of the play.

“It is easier to be pro-equality

when there is a subjugated minority in your midst.” – Zoe

Burgess apparently does not subscribe to the minimalist school. THE NICETIES is complex and wordy – and you will want to hold on to every word in this dense and razor sharp script. This is a version of the historical realism genre; it is intense and relevant, with mentions of President Obama, the election of Trump, and the possibility of a woman president. It is a play that made the audience talk back, bringing to mind the experience of attending a predominantly Black church or attending a movie in a Black neighborhood – until the final scene of Act One sent the entire theater into an uproar. No need for a spoiler alert, ’cause I’m not telling – I want you to see this for yourself.

“Evidence drives back ignorance.” – Janine

What started out as a seemingly simple discussion about the proper placement of commas, subject-verb agreement, and grammatical parallelism subtly escalates into a debate about history, politics, and racism. Debra Clinton plays the role of Professor Janine Bosco. I know Debra Clinton as an actress and director, but I did not see Clinton on stage at The Basement. Clinton inhabited the role of Janine and all I saw on stage was Janine. Thanks to Janine’s inability to listen, we learned a lot more about her that we – or Zoe – needed to know. Thanks to Janine’s inability to listen, we learned of Janine’s struggles to become a tenured woman professor in a previously all-male academic environment. This made it all the more difficult to see her as a monster, as indeed she is.

“Everyone is tired of hearing about racism.” – Janine

Zoe initially appears, in turn, distracted by her constantly buzzing cell phone and on the verge of exploding. She is smart, opinionated, and a deeply committed social activist (and I quickly identified Bartholomew as an academic and spiritual protégé of Dr. T). If she were white, especially a white male, she would be called confident, but she is Black and a woman, so she is most likely to be labelled as aggressive, angry, threatening. But Burgess and Dr. T. make sure we also see her as vulnerable and hurting. “What do you want?” Janine asks her at one point. To which Zoe responds, “I want this to be your problem!”

“Greatness does not come from a supportive environment.” – Janine

This is my first time seeing Bartholomew on stage, and I hope it won’t be the last. She gave a nuanced and intense performance as Zoe, making us empathize with her but without sugar-coating her flaws. Zoe wants, needs, and demands to be heard. She wants to be respected. She is tired of waiting and being “nice” so others will feel comfortable. The character of Zoe embodies if not personifies the mission of The Conciliation Lab: a social justice theater organization dedicated to the process of CONciliation, not REconciliation, because you cannot re-do something that has not been done before.

“In all my classes, I write down what I shouldn’t have to hear.” – Zoe

Act Two is one of the rawest and most revealing scenes I have ever witnessed in theater. A large portrait of George Washington on a horse has been removed from Janine’s office wall, but a copy of Kathleen Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help is prominently displayed on a table and Janine proudly pulls out a copy of a book by journalist Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, widely known for his work on African Americans and white supremacy. It’s the academic equivalent of saying, “but, I have Black friends!” Micro-aggressions in academia take many forms. But there’s more. Much more. The fallout from Act One also leads to some not-so-subtle consequences, from articles and blogs to marches and death threats. So how does it end? How is it all resolved? Well, that depends on which worldview you most relate to, and which experiences you bring to the table.

THE NICETIES is the kind of play that should have a discussion after each performance – especially when the audience is as diverse as it was for Saturday’s opening night performance. There was so much said, so much packed into Burgess’ many words, and so much that still needs to be unpacked. The beauty of the arts is that art can open the door to the hard conversations, and we need to take advantage of these opportunities when they are made available – especially in safe spaces. Note the dates, below, when post-show conversations will be available, when planning to buy your tickets.

Faith Carlson has created a professor’s office that is stereotypical and filled it with familiar props: books, pictures, a laptop. I especially liked her “fourth wall,” a super low bookcase that framed the space, with the audience (about 50 seats for this production) seated on three sides. Austin Harber’s lighting was subtle and washed the actors in a warm light that was often gentler than their words demanded, and Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design heavily favored hyped hip hop beats that fuel the train that Janine called a quest for freedom and Zoe described as an engine for racial oppression.

THE NICETIES

Written by Eleanor Burgess

Directed by Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates

CAST:

Mikayla LaSahae Bartholomew as Zoe

Debra Clinton as Janine

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design: Faith Carlson

Lighting Design: Austin Harber

Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey

Costume Design: Amber Martinez

Props Design: Faith Carlson

Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza

Assistant State Management: Emily Ellen

Associate Direction: Heather Falks

Photo Credits: Production photos by Tom Topinka.

Performance Schedule:

Friday, October 1 at 8pm – Preview

Saturday, October 2 at 8pm – Opening Night

Thursday, October 7 at 8pm – College Night with post-show discussion

Friday, October 8 at 8pm

Saturday, October 9 at 8pm

Sunday, October 10 at 3pm – Matinee with post-show discussion

Tuesday, October 12 at 8pm – Industry Night

Thursday, October 14 at 8pm

Friday, October 15 at 8pm

Saturday, October 16 at 8pm – Closing Night

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BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Who Knew History Could Be This Much Fun?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Heritage Gardens, 900 E. Broadway, Hopewell, VA 23860, August 7 & 8; Battersea Park, 1289 Upper Appomattox St., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 14 & 15; Children’s Home (Chesterfield), 6900 Hickory Rd., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 21 & 22.

Performances: August 7-22, Saturdays & Sundays, at 4:00 PM. All performances outdoors; bring your own chair. Tickets: $10 in advance only.

Info: theheritageensemble.org

As a young adult in Brooklyn, I used to listen to a black DJ who frequently used the term “edutainment.”[i] Whatever the source, that seems to be just the right word to describe Margarette Joyner’s production of BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS. A perfect vehicle for children, most of those in attendance at Battersea Park[ii] in Petersburg on Sunday afternoon were adults. Tellingly, we enjoyed ourselves as much as the little one who sat front and center.

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS follows much the same formula as Joyner’s What They Did For Us: Black Women Who Paved the Way, presented at Richmond Triangle Players Robert B. Moss Theatre in February and March of this year. But after I fought and won a battle with the mosquitos and came to a livable compromise with the heat and humidity, I found this wild west historical romp to be one of Joyner’s most enjoyable productions to date. The formula is roughly a series of monologues, performed by a lively cast, many of whom have experience as historical interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. In this casual outdoor setting, the wild west theme, with the actors walking around in cowboy boots with six-shooters strapped to their thighs while greeting the audience by tipping their hats and drawling “howdy, ma’am,” was just what was needed to draw the audience into this rowdy tale.

First up was Clara Brown. Born into slavery right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Clara Brown became Colorado’s first black settler and a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist. Then there was Willie Kennard, a sharp-shooting cowboy and arms instructor for the military who became a town marshal in Yankee Hills, Colorado, where he defeated the town bully. Moving on to more familiar names, we also heard from Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, who recorded many of his exploits in an autobiography, and Mary Fields, perhaps better known as Stagecoach Mary, the first African-American woman driver for the US Postal Service, as well as Bill Pickett, the cowboy and rodeo superstar credited with inventing the rodeo event known as “bull dogging.” This dangerous feat involves the cowboy dropping from his horse onto a steer then wrestling said steer to the ground by its horns. According to legend, Pickett added the sensational flourish of biting the bull’s lip after twisting his head. (Yes, it sounds cruel and gruesome, but this is a theater review, and I am simply reporting historical facts, so no comments, please.)

All these stories were told with great flourishes, lots of “oohs” and “aahhs” and exaggerated body language. The actors performed on and around the front porch of the historic Battersea estate, with the audience seated on folding chairs (“new-fangled contraptions”) or blankets on the grassy lawn. Much as I dislike mosquitos, this setting greatly enhanced the experience for me. The only thing that might possibly have made it better would have been seeing and smelling a plume of smoke rising from the kitchen and someone handing me a plate of BBQ, baked beans, and cornbread with a mason jar of sarsaparilla (root beer would suffice).

Kudos to the versatile and enthusiastic cast. (I haven’t matched names with roles, as there was no printed program, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. But it is an ensemble, so equal kudos to all. Well, okay, a little extra to Dorothy Dee-D Miller for her swagger – and her beard, but don’t tell the others) As of this writing, there are two more opportunities remaining to see BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS or this run. I hope it becomes a regular part of the Heritage Ensemble’s rotating repertoire. Yeehaw, ya’ll. Now git (out there and see the show).

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Written & Directed by Margarette Joyner

Produced by the Black Seed Grant

CAST (in alphabetical order):

Ray Bullock

Zakiyyah Jackson

Dorothy Dee-D Miller

Jeremy Morris

Chris Showalter

Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Michelle M. Washington

Willie Wright


[i] The term has been credited to The Walt Disney Company, but some sources trace it back to Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac).

[ii] Built in 1768 as the country estate of John Banister, Petersburg’s first mayor, Battersea is a Virginia Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is “one of the finest surviving examples of Palladian architecture in America.” batterseafound.org

FIRES IN THE MIRROR: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

“American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places.” – Anna Deavere Smith

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review – and some rambling thoughts – by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: March 26 – April 25, 2021, live and streamed

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 live & streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, drink orders, and more.

August 19, 1991. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. It had been a clear day, with temperatures in the 80s. The air resonated with the rhythms of Gil Scott Heron (BTW, he was wrong, the revolution WAS televised) and James Brown, occasionally punctuated by traditional Jewish melodies. LL Cool J’s mama advised him to knock somebody out and Public Enemy was fighting the powers that be. The aromas of Kosher kitchens and Caribbean cooking may have wafted in the air, reflecting the diverse heritage of the neighborhood. At about 8:30 PM, seven-year-old Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela, same age, same last name, were taking turns on Gavin’s bike, under the watchful eye of Gavin’s Guyanese-born father, when a car, part of a three-car motorcade escorting Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson home from a visit to his late wife’s grave, struck the children, killing Gavin and injuring Angela. Within hours a visiting Hassidic scholar from Australia was attacked and killed by a group of young black men, and just like that, the community was embroiled in a series of race riots that rocked the city for three days. David Dinkins, the city’s first – and only – black mayor, had taken office in 1990. The Reverend Al Sharpton was prominent in calling for justice. There were allegations of racism and favoritism. There were allegations that outside agitators were coming into the already tense community to fan the flames of discord. The evening news reports and the daily news commentary would resonate with familiarity to the pandemic-stricken populace some thirty years later.

In the aftermath of the incident that came to be known as the Crown Heights Riots, playwright, actor, and professor Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than 100 people. Some, like an anonymous Lubavitcher woman, a rabbi, activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Crown Heights resident Henry Rice, and Carmel Cato, father of Gavin, were directly involved in or impacted by the events. Others, like playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, activist and scholar Dr. Angela Davis, MIT physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, and New York Shakespeare Festival director George C. Wolfe offered social, political, and even poetic perspectives. From these 100 or so interviews, Smith culled 29 monologues by 26 people (the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebrin, and Norman Rosenbaum, brother of the young Australian scholar who was murdered that fateful night each speak twice).

All the dialogue is in the words of those interviewed. The play – a totally inadequate word to describe this form of presentation – encompasses several themes. The first act includes the themes of Identity, Mirrors, Hair, Race, Rhythm, and Seven Verses (referring to seven biblical verses that seal the Old Covenant of the Chosen People). The second act focuses on the people and events of August 1991.

Smith conceived of this as a one-person play and performed all the roles herself in the workshop and original production. Onstage at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre, Jamar Jones fills Smith’s metaphorical shoes – there aren’t many real ones, as most of the characters are portrayed in bare feet – under the more than capable direction of Katrinah Carol Lewis. Lewis, some may remember, starred in another of Smith’s one-person, verbatim plays, TheatreLAB’s 2017 production of Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, based on the Rodney King incident. For about two and a half hours, including the intermission, Jones held us spellbound to this all-too-familiar yet at the same time overlooked take on America’s troubled racial and religious history.  

The space is sparsely furnished with a few black tables, a chair, a stool. Prominent in the space are two clothing racks topped with wig forms holding a variety of hairstyles and headwear. Kudos to Production Designer Todd Labelle and Costume Designer Margarette Joyner. This production even required a Wig Maintenance position, skillfully filled by Delaney Theisz. A quick change of wig, headgear, shirt, jacket, or accessories, and Jones was fully transformed into another character. Jones, who has proven his skill and agility again and again in diverse roles in many different productions including, but by no means limited to, Passing Strange (Firehouse), Fences (Virginia Rep), An Octoroon and Topdog/Underdog (both at the newly named Conciliation Lab) danced his way through numerous costume changes. A headwrap, oversized hoop earrings, and bangle bracelets for Ntozake Shange, a majestic black and white African print jacket with matching headwear to capture LA rapper Monique “Big Mo” Matthews, a kippah and prayer shawl for a Lubavitcher resident, a full beard and wide-brimmed hat for the rabbi, different wigs and styles to define a black teenager and a Hassidic mother. Each character had its own costume as well as mannerisms and sometimes props. Prof. Angela Davis’ tangled tango with a corded phone inspired a verbal metaphor as well as some welcome laughter.

More humor was provided by Rev. Al Sharpton, explaining how his signature hairstyle was inspired by his mentor, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. This was before Rev. Al lost weight, so Jones paired the good reverend’s signature gold chain with a wide-legged stance, leaning back and walking with a waddle. Jones and Lewis nailed the familiar characters, Prof. Davis, Rev. Al, activist Sonny Carson, Ntozake Shange, with a few accessories and physical attributes. For the less familiar, a hair toss, a speech pattern, the length of a skirt, or an accent or turn of phrase centered the character in Crown Heights, Brooklyn – not far from where I was living in Fort Green-Clinton Hill at the time these incidents took place.

Jones also applied mannerisms to each character. A Lubavitcher woman folded her laundry as she spoke. A man – it might have been George C. Wolfe – had an annoying habit of loudly tapping his sugar packets and vigorously stirring his tea. Some voices were soft, hesitant, while others were angry, sharp, caustic. The most memorable voices were those of Norman Rosenbaum and Carmel Cato, the two men who lost their son and brother respectively as a result of an accident and a retaliatory reaction that forever changed their lives and left a dark skidmark on American history. Jones delectably and respectfully embodied each of these people. These were not just characters but real lives he was entrusted with, and the weight of this responsibility was not light. Like them or not, likable or not, each speaker was given a stage, unrushed and without judgment. Oh, we, the audience, may have judged or taken a position, but Smith, and by extension Jones and Lewis, presented this cast of characters as honestly as possible, leaving us to ponder at our leisure. There was and is no final resolution, no closure that satisfies any of the affected parties. Charges may have been pressed, accusations may have been made, cases may have been given due process, but none of that addresses the humanity of why. Why did this happen? Why do we react the way we do? Why is there still racism and oppression? Why can’t we all get along? How did we get here, and when will it end?

In the end, Jones sheds the final costume. The clothing rack stands empty, relieved of its colorful burden. He heaves a huge sigh, releasing the weight of the characters he has inhabited for the past two hours, then symbolically turns the mirror he used for his transformations slowly, reflecting the audience. There was soft weeping behind me. No one moved right away.

Fires in the Mirror is not light entertainment. It is the sort of theater that stays with you long after the final curtain, long after the players have gone home. See it. Live or streamed. You must see it.

“These are the things I never dream about.” – Carmel Cato

—–

ADDENDUM: I am not one to follow conspiracy theories but I have to share this bizarre incident that occurred while I was watching Fires in the Mirror. One of the characters in the first half was Prof. Leonard Jeffries, then a professor of Black Studies at City College of New York. I do not know Prof. Jeffries (not then or now) and was not familiar with him or his work. During the intermission, I decided to check my messages and happened to look at my Facebook page, only to find Prof. Jeffries as a friend suggestion. He was wearing a dashiki and matching kufi (cap) similar to those Jones had worn only minutes before. Hmmm. . .

WHAT THEY DID FOR US

Stories of Black Women Who Paved the Way

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Who: Heritage Ensemble Theatre

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1200 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: February 25 – March 6, 2021; eight COVID-conscious in-person performances

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $25 General; $10 for Students. Contact the company to inquire about a streaming version of the production.

Info: (804) 937-7104 or theheritageensemble.org.

As much as I love to point out that February is not the only month in which we can celebrate African American accomplishments, it does seem strange not to have the usual selection of productions that at least give a nod to Black History Month. So, the last weekend of February found me sitting at a table for one at the Richmond Triangle Players theatre with a tear or two sliding into my mask as I chanted, along with the rest of the pandemic-restricted audience of twenty or so: My doctors said I would never walk. My mother said I would. I believed my mother.

Written by Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s Founder and Executive Director Margarette Joyner and directed by Joyner and Sharalyn Garrard, WHAT THEY DID FOR US consists of a quartet of expanded monologues that pay homage to four exemplary Black women: Queen Nzingha, Phillis Wheatley, Cathay Williams, and Wilma Rudolph.

Dancing onto the stage with bejeweled ankles and wrists and wielding an ax, Marjie Southerland (Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre) embodies the politically savvy military strategist who successfully fought against the Portuguese colonization of parts of what is now Angola. While taking a stand against the slave trade, Queen Nzinga (1583-1663), also known as Ana de Sousa Nzingha Mbande, racked up accomplishments far beyond anything expected of any woman – or African – of her day (the 17th century).

Many of us have heard of the poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), but like me, many may not have known much about her life. The first African American author to have a book of poetry published, Wheatley, played with gentle strength by Rickaya Sikes (VCU Theatre major). Wheatley was born in West Africa, sold at age 7 or 8 to a family named Wheatley, and given the name Phillis for the name of the ship that brought her to America. She published her first poem at age 13. By 20, she had acquired international acclaim, yet she died impoverished at the age of 31.

Cathay Williams (1844-1893) was the only female Buffalo Soldier. She served in the US Army by pretending to be a man, William Cathay. Apparently, physical exams were not very thorough in the 19th century because it was years before her secret was discovered. Dejamone’ Jones portrays Williams with dignity and humor as she recalls her years as a cook and laundress. Although Williams received an honorable discharge, she was denied a pension.

But it was Shalandis Wheeler Smith’s portrayal of Olympian Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) that wrenched that tear from my eye. Smith (an actor who is also the company’s Production Manager) employed a call and response technique in her inspirational message that got the audience involved and made her segment stand out above the others. While her story was more familiar than the others – the childhood polio, the three gold medals, the designation as the fastest woman in the world – l never knew that Rudolph grew up with 21 brothers and sisters.

Tying these monologues together was Jeremy V. Morris (Oedipus, Passing Strange, An Octoroon) as Everyman. Morris changed costumes between each monologue, from African robes and a drum to waistcoat, wig and came, from straw hat (the least imaginative) to tracksuit as he provided narration, often in poetic verse. And I was impressed with his drumming in the first scene.

Set against a simple background that included a rocking chair, a low throne-like chair for the narrator, a podium, WHAT THEY DID FOR US has a linear quality. The actors do not interact with one another, and each monologue could stand alone in, perhaps, a school setting. In a different day and time, this production – more of a storytelling event than a traditional play – might find the theater packed with school-aged children for a matinee, or it might be presented in school auditoriums.

There were only a limited number of performances left at the time I wrote this review, but there’s always next year…

Photos from Heritage Theatre Facebook page.

THIS BITTER EARTH

Class, Race and Political Apathy. The Bottle, The Beer, The Blood

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1200 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: January 29 – February 13, 2021. Limited live performances, and ON DEMAND performances beginning February 5.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 & $30; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: $25; $10 for Students.

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, online drink orders, and more.

Harrison David Rivers’ two-man play, THIS BITTER EARTH, is at once contemporary, relevant, and ageless. Like most two-person plays, it has a certain intensity; it is nearly as impossible for the audience to distance from the characters as it is for Jesse and Neil to distance themselves from the roles they were created for.

Although not autobiographical, parts of THIS BITTER EARTH mirror the playwright’s own life. It is about a black Queer man in an interracial relationship. Andrew “Rou” Reid plays Jesse, the black half of this partnership, while Evan Nastaff is Neil. Jesse is a soft-spoken, introverted writer, while Neil is an extroverted BLM activist. The issues of class, race, and political apathy are addressed head-on, but not always in the way one might expect – and I don’t mean just the fact that the white partner is the social justice activist.

Jesse is an interesting case study. At first, I found his mild-mannered passive-aggressive personality endlessly annoying and “extra.” And then I remembered that I know one or two people who are very much like Jesse. Jesse appears to be apathetic, but he keeps quoting the late Queer black poet and activist Essex Hemphill. “Take care of your blessings,” Hemphill’s signature signoff, became Jesse’s moving benediction to the audience. There is more to Jesse than we see on the surface. His quiet demeanor is a protective armor that keeps him alive.

Neil has as hard a time understanding this as we, the audience. Unbelievably, Neil has to explain to Jesse why “all lives matter” is an offensive statement. Neil has his own burdens – he comes from a wealthy family and struggles to conceal the extent of his privilege.

The play is not without its moments of humor, as when Jesse, in one of his introspective monologues, pronounces a curse on middle school teachers or when the two men break out in dance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”  But such moments of levity are few and far between. Rivers has constructed THIS BITTER EARTH in a series of flashbacks, but he neglected to let us in on this little device, so sometimes it’s hard to know where or where we are in the storyline.

A recurring scene takes place outside a bar where the two had apparently indulged a bit too much. Each time it replays, we learn a bit more about what happened. It’s complicated. It’s complex. It’s nuanced. And in spite of all the makings of a stereotypical gay play, it cleverly sidesteps being stereotypical. In the end, it is thoughtful, and provocative, and sad. And that is why, when Jesse finally opens his mouth and SCREAMS, it feels so authentic.

This is the first time I remember seeing Reid and I hope to see more of him; he and Nasteff were well paired, and bounced off one another with the sharpness of a well-served tennis ball. Brandon Rashad Butts’ direction was so on point you weren’t aware of his presence most of the time. Running about 90 minutes, with no intermission, I was never aware of the passage of time.

The play is set in New York City and St. Paul, Minnesota, between 2012 and 2015, but like the flashbacks, it’s not crystal clear where or when what takes place. Lucien Restivo’s set includes a tiny apartment, with a bed, a small sofa, a home office behind the sofa, and a small modern table. There are tiny wall shelves with candles. It is sparse and eclectic but warmed with rich colors. Two screens serve as windows to the outside and as screens on which to project the inside of the two characters’ lives. Austin Harber’s creative and evocative lighting added texture.

Kudos to the entire creative team, including an Intimacy Director, Raja Benz, for designing a production that both addressed and avoided the pitfalls of stereotypes. At the time of this writing, the remaining live performances – limited to 20 people – are sold out, but the streaming option is still available. It is well worth you while.

Photos by John MacLellan

THROUGH THEIR EYES: Raymond Goode Walks a Mile in Their Shoes

Ripped From the Headlines, From the Page to the Stage: An Evening of Monologues, Music, and Art

Some Observations on a COVID-Conscious Theater Experience by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The ARTS Community Center, 10179 Hull Street Rd., Midlothian, VA 23112

Performances: December 5, 2020, at 6PM, 7PM, 8PM & 9PM

Ticket Prices: $25

Info: rd.goode@yahoo.com

Some theater is meant to entertain, to make you laugh, or to be a diversion from your everyday life. And some theater is meant to move you, to educate you, to stir you to action or make you uncomfortable. Raymond Goode’s THROUGH THEIR EYES falls squarely into the latter category. In his book of the same title (which I promise I will read as soon as I clear my schedule of over-due assignments), Goode crafts short stories from the real-life situations he has culled from the headlines or in some cases from history. In each story, Goode has placed himself in the shoes of the protagonist (I try to avoid using the word “victim”), and the result is a series of moving, sometimes raw monologues.

With minimal set (a podium, a veteran’s flag encased in the traditional triangular frame) and live musicians (David Thompson on saxophone, Eugene Harris on keyboards, and Orisegun Olimidun on drum), there were few distractions from the gravity of the words. Conceived as a series of monologues, the work is fluid, with each of the four performances having a different line-upof monologues and entre’actes. The program, in its current form, has more of the feel of a staged reading or an open mic night, as one viewer told me. Goode is both author and director, and future iterations might benefit from the vision of another pair of eyes in the directorial chair.

My introduction to the Goode experience began with Benny Blonkoe Perry’s retelling of “Step in the Name of Love.” It is the story of a man remembering how, as a little boy, his father took him on a rare trip to McDonald’s, only to be shot to death in front of his son, for the paltry contents of his wallet. “That night haunts me to this day,” the now adult son remembers. “I was the last person to see my father alive.” The R Kelly hit tune “Step in the Name of Love” was playing on the radio and forms the haunting background to this memory.

In the second set, Katrina Robinson, who also performed as vocalist, stepped into the painful shoes of a mother who learned to come to terms with her son’s coming out, only to have him die from AIDS shortly after graduating from Morehouse College. “He Was My Son” should come with a warning to bring tissues or a handkerchief – and I think Robinson’s tears were genuine as she stumbled off the stage.

Royal Coakley stirred hearts and rage as she told the story of an enslaved woman who was raped in front of her husband, who sat helplessly and watched the violation unfold. When Coakley stormed offstage to find Harriet Tubman and get a ticket on the underground railroad at the end of “Still He Was,” the audience was ready to follow her.

Other stories brought to life included “Trayvon Martin” performed by Tandylyn Cooke, “Treatment Facility,” with Ken Moretti in the role of the broken veteran, “Homicide,” and “Goodies” with Goode in the role of the desperate father and fallen addict, respectively. Other performers included vocalists Lakesha Walker and TC, Dana Terry with dance interpretation, and my personal favorite, “Krumpologist” Casey Kingversastylez Inneigh who mesmerized the audience with his mind-bending, shape-changing movement to “Black Mothers’ Rules” and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.”

The few spaces that have stepped back into the world of live performances have done so under the guidance of strict pandemic regulations and guidelines that include temperature checks, scanned tickets, and digital programs. They require masks (a major ballet company even has the performers wear masks), and have greatly reduced the seating capacity. Given that ticket prices cover only a portion of the expenses involved in a production, reducing seating capacity from 250 to 75 or from 100 to 25 certainly doesn’t make economic sense, but instead speaks volumes to the dedication of performers to put on a live show. These are desperate times.

All that to say, with a socially-distanced capacity of 25 (in a space that could easily seat more than 100), it was heart-breaking to see only two other couples in attendance at the two shows I attended. One couple arrived late (for a 45-minute show) and one couple left early from each show. I would love to know if they left because the material was so intense they couldn’t bear to relive it, or because they were not satisfied with the quality, or if they just had other plans for the rest of their evening.

Even in it’s rough-edged state, in an open space without benefit of theatrical lighting or other accoutrements, with the restraints of social-distancing and all that entails, THROUGH THEIR EYES has the power to move. It’s dynamic. It isn’t perfect, but neither are we. And that makes it worth a look – or two or three.

Click here to visit Raymond Goode’s website: https://www.raymondgoode.com/about

Check out Raymond Goode’s social media pages to find out more about his books: Through Their Eyes, The Road to Oprah, 350 Goals of a Leader, and more.

For a promo clip of Goode’s work on WTVR News6: https://www.wtvr.com/news/local-news/through-their-eyes-author-brings-short-stories-to-the-stage-with-live-performances

Visit Amazon.com to purchase copies of Julinda’s publications:

The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt

Stories in the Soil by The Conciliation Project

Observations on a Research-based Performance by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pre-recorded at the VCU’s ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art) and on location in Richmond; live-streamed on YouTube

Performance: Sunday, November 15, 2020 at 3:00 PM; available for a limited time thereafter (see link below)

Ticket Prices: free

Info: https://youtu.be/yrbIGTA0WYg

There is no getting around the fact that 2020 has been a most unusual year. It has brought unprecedented challenges to our arts. Yet, as history confirms, art always prevails. Theater and dance has found new ways to exist and mined new ways to create.

The Conciliation Project is a Richmond-based social justice theater company under the direction of Dr. Tawyna Pettiford-Wates (Professor of Graduate Pedagogy in Acting and Directing at Virginia Commonwealth University) and Dr. Ram Bhagat (educator, peace-builder, community healer, and co-founder of Drums No Guns). With heavyweights like these at the helm, it should come as no surprise that The Conciliation Project offers research-based programming that reveals, examines, and demands a response to racial stereotypes and racial injustice.

The script for “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” was developed from conversations with Richmonders, with a focus on the history-defining events of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial (in-)justice protests that resounded around the world in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd.

“The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” is not a play in the traditional sense. It is reminiscent of Ntzoke Shange’s self-described “choreo-poems” or the eye-opening work I saw as a teen-ager at what was then the mecca of Brooklyn’s Black culture, The East. (For a description of The East, look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_East_(Brooklyn) and http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/320). In other words, this is work that exists to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain.

Conciliation: The process of winning over from a state of hostility or to gain the goodwill of. The building of bridges to connect two points that are distant, and/or disconnected from one another.

Among the topics presented by the voices in “The Common wealth & The Common debt” are the definition of the word “commonwealth,” diverse perspectives on the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia (the middle passage, slave markets, Jim Crow and other racial injustices), the value of Richmond monuments, the Civil War, racism, power, segregation, urban farming, and more. In one moving scene, Keaton Hillman has a conversation with an ancestor, Callie, a woman sold into slavery and later freed. “Help break the cage for someone else,” she says before returning to the ancestral plain. The next scene shows a group of protesters marching in cadence to “no justice, no peace.”

Against the backdrop of a chain link fence and passing traffic, masked performers sing, “We Wear the Mask.” Contemporary voices blend with traditional fables, history, and storytelling in a non-linear way that the modern western mind might struggle to comprehend. Experiencing “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” is a bit like being inside the production while watching it; similar to the way one might dream and awaken to wonder where the dream state ends and reality begins.

“I think we could definitely do a better job at creating monuments that glorify actual heroes instead of being used as an intimidation tactic, which is what they were originally put there for.”

The creative team organized a solid ensemble consisting of Calie Bain, Juliana Caycedo, Keaton O’Neal Hillman, Zakiyyah Jackson, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Todd Patterson, and Mariea Terrell. The acting ensemble is supported by Drummers lead by Ram Bhagat and dancer Alfumega Enock. In a live post-performance discussion, we learned that the stories and interviews were collected by the Graduate Applied Theatre Class at VCU as well as members of the Ensemble, with support from the ICA. “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” should be accessible for the remainder of the week of November 15. Catch it, if you can.

FENCES: “Who the hell say I got to like you?”

FENCES: “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.”

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: February 7 – March 1, 2020 (Previews February 5 & 6)

Ticket Prices: $36-54

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

One of the better known plays of African-American playwright August Wilson, and one in his Pittsburgh Series of ten plays, each set in a different decade, Fences (1985) is set in the 1950s and explores family, racism, identity, generational curses, honor, salvation, and ultimately love through the eyes of the Maxson family. There is so much rich material packed into this one play it is no wonder it runs nearly three hours but playwright Wilson and director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T) seem to share a vision and are committed to letting the story unfold in its own time. Dr. T. appears to confirm this in her director’s note, where she writes:

August Wilson is a poet/storyteller and the script for Fences is like jazz, blues

And gospel music in spoken language. Fences captures in the text and in a

Variety of voices the polyphonic multisyllabic rhythms of Black culture almost

As if it were a musical score played by a classic jazz quartet.

Troy Maxson, the family patriarch, was once a stellar Negro Leagues baseball player but the play finds him supporting his family as a trash collector and agitating the segregated sanitation department that allows only white workers to drive, leaving the dirtier work and heavy lifting to the Negro workers. James Craven wears the mantle of Troy Mason with authority. He brings a fierce but broken power to the role that is carefully nuanced. We see the passion and defeat, the sense of responsibility and loss that drives this man. Like people we know, he is flawed, but still worthy of respect; we begin to understand him but cannot bring ourselves to like him.

For some, it may be impossible to understand the kind of love his wife, Rose, holds – a love that holds on even at the cost of giving up her own hopes and dreams? ***SPOILER ALERT*** Could you, would you be able to humble yourself yet at the same time empower yourself to be able to not only raise but also to genuinely love the child of your husband’s deceased lover? Lisa Strum steps into Roses shoes with a quiet dignity that many of us can only strive for, but most will never achieve. When she finally lashes out, I found myself exhaling a breath I was not aware I had been holding.

Both Craven and Strum are making their VaRep debuts in Fences. Both were well-chosen for their roles.

The cast also includes the versatile Jamar Jones as Cory, the teen-aged son of Rose and Troy. Cory’s dreams of becoming a football player are dashed by his father, still bitter at not being able to move from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. Rose tries to intercede in the rift this causes in the father-son relationship, but it takes years, during which Cory leaves home only to return for his father’s funeral, before healing can begin.

Joe Marshall plays Lyons, Troy’s eldest son from a previous marriage or relationship. When we first meet Lyons, he is trying to borrow money from his father, who belittles him for trying to make a living as a musician instead of taking on a steady job. As the plot unfolds, we begin to see other sides of Lyons. In addition to providing some comic relief to the thick tension, he also acts as a buffer between the family members who share Troy’s household. Home ownership is a source of pride for Troy, who doesn’t have much else to be proud of, aside from his wife and children.

Troy’s best friend and coworker Bono, played by J. Ron Fleming, Jr., has known Troy longer than anyone else in his life at this point, and tries, futilely, to keep him on track. Bono is a supporting role that provides key information to the advancement of the story – and to the audience’s understanding of Troy’s motives. Bono is as much family as anyone related by blood.

My favorite supporting character is, hands down, Gabriel. Troy’s brother returned from military service having sustained a head injury that left him with a metal plate in his head and the belief – or ability – to talk to St. Peter and communicate with the unseen. He gets arrested for disturbing the peace, but he says he was chasing the hellhounds that seem to plague him. There are some possibly shady dealings concerning how Troy has handled Gabriel’s modest settlement from the government, which makes us love Gabriel even more, while casting even more shade on Troy. But the final moments of the play belong to Gabriel, who arrives for his brother’s funeral with his battered trumpet and tries desperately to blow a note, perhaps a reveille, so St. Peter will open the gates. But he can barely force a tiny bleat from the battle weary instrument and raises his hand in the air and begins to sing in a warm voice that forced an unwilling tear from my eye.

Finally, a word of encouragement for little Milani Hopkins who plays Raynell, the little sister of Cory and Lyons. Hopkins shares a sweet duet, dancing and singing with her big brother Cory who left soon after she was born. Their connection is immediate and authentic, and Little Miss Hopkins even gets a brief solo.

I don’t usually notice sound design, but Nicholas Seaver has created a beautifully organic sound design that includes a train and barking dogs that possibly embody the imaginary hellhounds that Gabriel hears in his head. Nia Safarr Banks’ costumes are period appropriate and in line with the financial status of the family. But Josafath Reynoso’s set deserves special recognition. The play takes place in the backyard and alley of the Maxson home, and Reynoso has designed the rear of the Maxson’s modest brick home – a home that has seen better days. There is a porch that is shallow and sadly lacking in railings, a clothesline, a row of trash cans, and the fence of the title. The fence is only partially built at the beginning of the play, but it is complete by the end – another physical embodiment of one of the plays allegorical themes. And then there is the tree – a real, full-sized tree, perhaps 15-20 feet high, standing downstage right (the audience’s left). Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting creates changes of day and season, with one powerful effect when Troy stands frozen under that huge tree, baseball bat raised, and again at the end when rays of light seem to break through unseen clouds and shine rays of sunshine and spiritual enlightenment on the family gathered to pay homage to Troy.

Fences is a story told by a master storyteller (and that word “storyteller” includes the playwright, the director, and the cast). It skillfully guides the audience through a plethora of emotions, but I never felt manipulated, and it shines a revelatory light onto the lives of black families in a particular time and place in America. One couldn’t ask for anything more. Of course, Fences  is a part of the Acts of Faith theatre festival.

Here’s a link to the Fences Study Guide: https://va-rep.org/show_fences_study_guide.pdf

And here’s a link to a short video preview with the director, Dr. T.: https://youtu.be/EM3bFoLaynY

 

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 not available at the time this review was written. Photos will be added as they are made available.

 

HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Captivating Children’s Theatre

HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: “It’s Like History Class, With Music”

This production is part of the 2020 Acts of Faith theater season.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis, in collaboration with Kingston Marley Holmes (age 11) and Emmitt Christian Holmes (age 5)

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230

Performances: January 24 – March 1, 2020

Ticket Prices: $21; contact the theater for discounted group rates or to apply for a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations.

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

Virginia Rep opened its 2019-2020 Children’s Theatre season with a magical musical, Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s children’s novel about a family that finds immortality in the waters of a remote spring in the New Hampshire countryside and the grieving young girl who befriends them. The second production of the season is Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, a spirit-filled production with book and lyrics by Douglas Jones (who was in the audience opening night), music by Ron Barnett, direction by Katrinah Carol Lewis, and an energetic, tightly-knit ensemble of six who made the hour-long production speed by. “It felt like just ten minutes!” was Kingston’s estimate.

The content of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad seems to be targeted primarily towards the older kids, say ages 9 and up, but even Emmitt was alert and committed – especially when he realized the audience was encouraged to snap, clap, and sing along. For parents, teachers, scout leaders, and other adult types, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is enjoyable, entertaining, and informative. The author, Jones, and director, Lewis, do not talk down to the younger audience members, and at the same time they avoid the trap of some children’s shows of including double entendre’d jokes and language designed to appeal to the adults. Well done.

I described the production as “spirit-filled,” and I intentionally meant that in two ways. The production includes several well-known African-American spirituals, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “ Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Most include or encourage audience participation, and the text weaves in detailed but uncomplicated explanations of the hidden meanings of the words of these songs. The program, which doubles as a poster, includes a QR code that links to a 2-page PDF resource on Spirituals.

There is also a lovely 6-page PDF study guide with a brief bio of Harriet Tubman, a glossary of terms, critical thinking questions and conversation starters, interesting facts, activities, and a page about theater cues. You can find and print the guide here: https://va-rep.org/tour/guides.html

In a second sense, the program was spirit-filled with the ensemble’s acting and energy. Marjie Southerland (whose most recent local credit seems to be as Angela in the workshop productions of Warm, at The Firehouse Theatre last August) has the title role of Harriet Tubman while Elisabeth Ashby, Dan Cimo, Dorothy Dee-D. Miller, Gregory Morton, and Durron Marquis Tyre take on all the other roles: Tubman’s father, brothers, abolitionists, book publisher, passengers on the underground railroad. Southerland holds down the lead with confidence and sometimes a little well-placed humor, but this is truly an ensemble effort with everyone carrying their weight as well as a tune.

And finally, the program was spirit-filled through the words and memories of Harriet Tubman. And that is why, in spite of the lively music, and Emily Hake Massie’s simple, rustic, and serviceable set design, and Anthony Smith’s foot-tapping musical direction, and Sara Grady’s attractive period costumes (Kingston was particularly taken with Durron Tyre’s top hat) I found my eyes leaking from time to time. Tubman’s own words, spoken by Southerland, read from the text of Sarah H. Bradford’s biography about her, and resurrected in song, maintain the power to change the world, one life at a time. That is something the youngest audience members might not yet understand, but it was, for me, the singular purpose of this work, and in that it succeeded.

As far as the target audience was concerned, Emmitt declared Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, “Good! It was awesome because of the actors.” And Kingston said, “It was like history class but fun, with music!” Walking to my car afterwards, Kingston and Emmitt debated the pros and cons of live theater versus television and movies. Live theater, Kingston concluded, “is more captivating.”

Mic Drop

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Check the Virginia Rep website for additional information on:

Sensory Friendly Performances suitable for patrons with Autism and other sensory or social disabilities. For these performances, changes will be made in lighting, sound, seating arrangements, and length of performance to create a more welcoming environment. A Sensory Friendly performance will be offered at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, February 22. See the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Audio Described Performances in collaboration with Virginia Voice, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. Patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 26, 2020. Refer to the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

Virginia Rep also offers a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations who have a demonstrated need for complimentary tickets;  groups must fill out a short application that can be found at: bit.ly/CommunityTix

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays, check the website for dates

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays, check the website for dates

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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: Photos were not yet available at the time of this publication.