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.
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
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 EYESfalls 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Photos were not yet available at the time of this publication.
CAMILLE A. BROWN & DANCERS: Celebrating Black Identity in the Arts
Reflections on a Performance Art Experience by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Alice Jepson Theatre, Modlin Center for the Arts at University of Richmond, 453 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173
Performance: September 27, 2019 at 7:30pm
Ticket Prices: $40 General Admission; $32 Subscribers; $20 Students
Info: (804) 289-8980 or modlin.richmond.edu
When Camille A. Brown & Dancers (CABD) comes to town (from NYC) it’s worth rearranging your schedule to make sure you see them. It’s been five years since Richmond was last graced by CABD and the dynamic company’s recent visit to the River City culminated in one-night of performances at the Modlin Center for the Arts. One night is not enough.
The program consisted of a trilogy of CABD’s work on black identity: Act I of the evening-length work “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” (2012); an excerpt of “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” (2105); and excerpts of “ink” (2017). “Mr. TOL E RAncE” was performed in its entirety when the company performed at VCU’s Grace Street Theater in 2014, and if memory serves correctly, it has changed and evolved since then. (A link to my review of that 2014 performance is attached, below.)
“Mr. TOL E RAncE” is a complete theatrical event all on its own. In the beginning, CABD highjacks the usual pre-show housekeeping message, using the performers’ voices to remind people to turn off their cell phones and pointing out the locations of the exit doors. Animation by Isabela Dos Santos provides a humorous and historic homage to black entertainers and artists from the early days of minstrelsy to recent television shows featuring black actors – mostly sit coms. There a projection of a red theater curtain as animated figures with over-sized heads of the likenesses of Dave Chapelle, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson, Amos and Andy, Whoopie Goldberg, Sherman Helmsley, Richard Pryor, and many more usher the audience into the world CABD has created for us.
And what a world it is, full of color, and rhythm, resonating with sound and movement and history. The piece moves in the vocabulary of minstrelsy, tap, soft shoe, jazz, even children’s games. We catch glimpses of JJ Walker and the Carlton Dance. On at least two occasions the dancers break out into song, jamming to the themes of “The Jeffersons” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” And in case you had forgotten – or never knew – there was also “Living Single,” “The Cosby Show” and more before “Black-ish” or “Insecure” ever hit the small screen. Mr. TOLE E RAnCE is both commentary on the stereotypes of minstrelsy and a celebration of the resilience of black artists.
“BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play,” performed by Catherine Foster and Camille A. Brown, is a celebration of Black Girl Magic, filled with hand-clapping games, rhythmic sassiness, double dutch, stepping, and tap. And there are distinct, if fleeting, glimpses into the African roots of it all.
Finally, “Ink” began with a similar perspective of Black Boy Joy, as two of the men from the company performed a duet that carried us from the carefree days of childhood to the complexities of discovering you are a Black man in America. The rapid interplay of rhythm in collaboration with live musicians brings new life to old rituals and moves into the Afro-futurism of superheroes with superpowers. The exercising of superpowers, we realize with a jolt, is the normative operating mode for black people in America.
Brown and her dancers – most of whom are also choreographers and many of whom are conversant in visual and spoken arts as well – are not just dancers. They are actors. They are musicians. They are consummate artists whose work is not just a reflection of their lives, but whose work is a mirror that reveals our own lives. Artistically, Brown’s work most reminds me of the work of Dianne McIntyre and her former group, Sounds in Motion. (If you are not familiar with the work of this phenomenal artist, then look her up!) The music is such an integral part of the work, with Kwinton Gray remaining onstage the entire evening, playing the piano that sometimes provides a resting place – or a hiding place – for the dancers. There is no separating the movement, the music, the word, the costumes, the lighting, the animation. This work is restorative. It is refreshing. It is healing. It is exhausting. It is art.
Here’s a link to my review of Camille A. Brown & Dancers in Richmond in 2014:
Observations on a Performance Art Experience by Julinda D. Lewis
At: ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art), 601 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: September 20 & 21, 2019 at 4:00pm
Ticket Prices: FREE
Info: (804) 828-2823 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Stepping off the spacious and artistically designed elevator at the ICA into the soaring space of the third floor True Farr Luck Gallery on Friday afternoon was a transformative experience. The open airy space is filled with Rashid Johnson’s installation – a modern yet historically and culturally evocative structure ironically titled Monument. Constructed of steel, it is simultaneously modern architecture and ancient temple. It invites the viewer/participant to sit in quiet contemplation or to walk around and through its structure and absorb the rhythms of long-forgotten memories.
Both calming and energizing, it is provocative, and on this occasion, the space was being activated by an Africanist dance ensemble led by choreographer Christine Wyatt. A libation was poured, and ancestors acknowledged. Some of the participant/observers joined in, others were shy or unfamiliar with the custom. Six dancers and three musicians – although these are both artificial and arbitrary labels, as the musicians move through the space and the dancers sing and speak – then began to move around Johnson’s structure, first walking in silence, gradually adding gentle movements that hinted of ritual and blood memories.
One woman activated our heartstrings, pulling a bow across her violin. Soon, the space was activated with childhood stories of constructing and playing Chinese jump-rope, the soul-stirring strains of spirituals, and the wordless and universal communication of scat. At one point, the energy rose, the dancers moved faster, slicing through space and time. Some of us rose from our seats to follow their movement while others remained seated in quiet contemplation, as wave after wave of movement was birthed. Both responses were correct and necessary. At one point, the dancing women removed their royal blue dashiki-patterned caftans, stripped down to white tank tops and black leggings. They built a pyramid – that echoed the Johnson’s structure – only to collapse in laughter. The gathered in a circle on a rug – sharing a moment of unity, sharing this time of contemplation and collaboration. Their final act was to gather quietly in the center of the space and just. . .breathe.
Provocations offers a new/old way of experiencing art. It is not visual art or sculpture or music or dance. All the elements, sight, sound, movement – even smell, as I was taken back in time by the aroma of Florida water from the libation – united to create a life-affirming experience. “Affirmative Reactions” is a much-needed reminder to breathe, to take time to remember who and where we come from, to recognize and honor our ancestors and each other. It connects the past, the present, and the future.
It is a liberating experience and if you have the time and ability to get to the ICA on Saturday, please go. “Affirmative Reactions” starts promptly at 4:00pm and runs for about 30 minutes.
ADDENDUM: The cast of “Affirmative Reactions” includes Amena Durant, Lani Corey, MiKayla Young, Mary Manzari, Christina Collins, Jaylin Brown, Kenneka Cook, Reyna Pannell, and Christine Wyatt.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Julinda D. Lewis & additional photos courtesy Christine Wyatt
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.
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.
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.