BOOTYCANDY:

It Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: TheatreLAB

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

Performances: June 9-18, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20 General Admission; $10 Teachers & Students

Info: (804) 349-7616 or https://tlab-internet.choicecrm.net/templates/TLAB/#/events

Robert O’Hara’s BOOTYCANDY is a “semi-biographical subversive comedy” performed as a series of non-linear vignettes. The central character is Sutter and the central premise is Sutter’s journey growing up black and gay. It is hilarious, it is touching, it is relatable across genders, generations, and sexual orientations, and it is an exemplar of contemporary Africanist story-telling. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite shows of the season – and I see my fair share of shows.

Todd Patterson shines in the lead role as Sutter. The five actors are identified only as Actor One, Actor Two, etc., and all but Patterson take on a number of different roles in Sutter’s life. Patterson dances between each scene – indeed, his “grandmother” and other relatives request that he “do that step Michael Jackson liked to do.” The playwright, O’Hara, has specified that Jackson’s music be used throughout, and the music of Michael Jackson, Prince, and perhaps a few others energizes the space from the moment you walk through The Basement doors.

Patterson strips for us, and dances with a manic energy that reflects his character’s inner landscape. But as much as I was impressed by Patterson’s performance, this is truly an ensemble production – starting with the symbiotic directing team of Deejay Gray and Katrinah Carol Lewis. I’ve seen each of these actors in several productions, and this one cast them each in a new light and presented them with new challenges.

Dylan Jones and Zakiyyah Jackson hold down most of the female roles in Sutter’s life. Both play his mother, at different ages, as well as aunties, friends, a sister, and church ladies. In one scene they portray a quartet of women gossiping on the telephone, highlighted by rapid costume changes but my favorite is their second act “non-committal ceremony,” a nasty same-sex divorce officiated by a Zen-like Cashwell. This scene is the embodiment of the adage, “same sex, same problems!”

Durron Marquis Tyre transforms into several characters, but my favorites are the right reverend who comes out in a sermon delivered to his outraged congregation. Instead of coming out of the closet, he emerges from behind his pulpit to reveal fishnet stockings, blinged out silver slingback heels, a wig, and finally a clingy little red dress and matching lipstick. This is where Jones and Jackson begin their magic as they subtly change from gossip-mongers to staunch supporters.

In the second act, Tyre portrays Sutter’s grandmother who offers him comfort in a time of need as she slyly extracts some cash to tuck into her bosom and a delivery of forbidden soul food. For a moment, I thought Tyre had been speaking with my own late grandmother to develop this character because his mannerisms and speech brought back memories directly from my own past. And that is part of the beauty of this play: it is relatable. In a post-show talkback the day I saw it, everyone who spoke found some point of connection. The scene where Sutter realizes he is under stress is a turning point – he stops the show, has a verbal interaction with the Stage Manager, Crimson Piazza, and the tone and tenor of the play shifts. This is , undoubtedly, one of the author’s genuine auto-biographical moments. Its poignancy highlights the humorous aspects of the previous scenes, and reminds us that often laughter is the only things that helps us make it through the tough or uncertain times.

And of course I cannot forget Dixon Cashwell – the only white guy in the cast. He plays several characters, but my favorites are his portrayal of a clueless conference facilitator for the scene that closes the first act. Cashwell’s character strolls obliviously into a minefield of micro-aggressions that elicit yelps of incredulity from the cast as well as at least one audience member. In other scenes, Cashwell becomes a gay-curious male sharing an uncomfortable relationship with his brother-in-law, and has a spellbinding turn as an intoxicated man at a lonely bus stop at 3:00 AM who amazingly talks himself out of being mugged.

There are a number of little things that make BOOTYCANDY as close to perfect as it can possibly get. The subject of the women’s telephone scene is the name one young mother has chosen for her baby girl: Genitalia! It is a spoof of the unique names and exotic naming conventions of Black American families and a nod to the sort of urban legends many of us educators have passed down through the decades: the little boy named Shi-Thead, the little girls named Vagina, Clitoris, and Female (pronounced Fah-MA-ley), or the twins named Orangejello and Lemonjello (pronounced a-RON-zhello and le-MON-zhello).

By the time you read this, BOOTYCANDY may have ended its all-too-brief run, but just in case, consider this a SPOILER ALERT: BOOTYCANDY does not refer to a sexually attractive booty or a hot gay guy. Quite innocently – and oddly – it is the word the young Sutter’s mother uses to refer to his penis, and an excellent advertisement for teaching children the real words for their body parts.

I haven’t laughed so hard or so often I the theater in recent memory. In the words of one viewer, BOOTYCANDY is no entry-level theater, meaning it is not linear or predictable, and there is no happily-ever-after fairytale conclusion. In the mind of this reviewer, that is what makes it so special.

THE CAST

Actor One ………………………….        Dylan Jones

Actor Two ……………………….…        Todd Patterson

Actor Three …………..…………..       Zakiyyah Jackson

Actor Four ………………………….       Durron Marquis Tyre

Actor Five ………………………….       Dixon Cashwell

THE TEAM

Direction: Deejay Gray & Katrinah Carol Lewis

Scenic Design: Deejay Gray

Projection Design: Dasia Gregg

Lighting Design: Michael Jarett

Costume Design: Nia Safarr Banks

Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey

Properties Design: Kathy O’Kane Kreutzer

Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza

THE SCHEDULE

Thursday, June 9 at 7:30 [Preview Performance]

Friday, June 10 at 7:30 [Opening Night]

Saturday, June 11 at 7:30 [Post-Show Dialogue]

Sunday, June 12 at 7:30

Wednesday, June 15 at 7:30 [ADDED SHOW]

Thursday, June 16 at 7:30

Friday, June 17 at 7:30

Saturday, June 18 at 7:30 [Closing Night]

NOTE: All performances are at 7:30pm at The Basement:

300 East Broad Street, Richmond VA 23219

THE TICKETS

$20 – General Admission

$10 – Teachers & Students

LINK: https://tlab-internet.choicecrm.net/templates/TLAB/#/events

*PROOF OF VACCINATION / A NEGATIVE COVID TEST REQUIRED* The Basement is a fully vaccinated venue. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (within 48 hours of the performance) are required upon entry. For the safety of our artists and audiences, masks must be worn while at the theatre. Thank you for keeping our community safe!

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

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Photo Credits: Photos by Tom Topinka

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LEAH GLENN DANCE THEATRE

An Homage to the Little Rock Nine & Eight Other Dances

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, Richmond, VA 23224

Performances: June 4, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20

Info: (804) 230-8780 LGDTdance.com

In June 2021 I attended “The Making of Nine” at Dogtown Dance Theatre. An artist’s talk with choreographer Leah Glenn, visual artist Steve Prince, poet Dr. Hermine Pinson, and historian Dr. Jamel Donner, “The Making of Nine” offered a fascinating insight into the creative process and historical background of a multi-media work-in-progress that celebrates the nine African-American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.

Nine was co-commissioned by the Carver Community Cultural Center in San Antonio, TX, in partnership with Xavier University and the National Performance Network’s Creation and Development Fund and the show premiered Saturday, May 28 at the Carver. When I learned that the finished work – or at least the latest iteration of this dynamic and developing work – would be presented for only one performance at Dogtown on June 4 I rearranged my schedule to make sure I did not miss it. The previous year’s artists’ talk had impressed me that this was a work that needed to be seen.

The closing work on a program of nine works, Nine is a fusion of dance, poetry, music, visual arts (in set design, costumes, props, and associated prints), and history that reflects on the institutions of racism, education, and American society.

Nine begins with a humming, a moan, a procession of nine dancers and eight larger-than-life sized banners (the ninth banner appears after a significant solo) each featuring a stylized portrait of one of the nine. The dancers are clad in Prince’s beautiful black and white costumes (apparently hand-painted), each marked somewhere with the letters AOG on a small shield, and some are adorned with adinkra symbols. The AOG is a reference to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, a reminder to put on the whole Armor of God – something that was necessary to protect the nine young scholars in their hostile educational and social environment. The adinkra symbols include the bird that faces forward while looking back – a reminder to “go back and get it” or learn from the past. The symbols are a visual representation of ancestral wisdom and traditional proverbs. In contrast, the costumes of the dancers representing the white students bear anti-black slogans (two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate) and anti-Semitic symbols (swastikas).

The movement begins with the cadence of a work song, also an appropriate historical reference, as is the hand-clapping and thigh-slapping that serves as both accompaniment and choreography – a reference to the hambone or patting juba that developed during a time when drums were confiscated from African people in the Americans to prevent them from communicating with one another. Wow – all of this, and the dance has barely started. Nine is rich in historic references, and the integration of the multi-media elements is so multi-layered it cannot be comprehended in a single viewing. Nine is, in a way, a compact mini-series of the history of this specific group of young people at a specific point in time (1957) in a specific geographic location (Little Rock, AR).

Video footage from The History Makers archive provides some important historical background, but this is a work that I believe needs extensive program notes, or better yet, a pre-show introduction followed by a post-show discussion. It’s far too important to be treated as simply a dance, and far to complex to be denied the formality of community.

The program also included the urban Aloft, in which dancers run and balance to a background of traffic sounds and a rapid-fire Spanish-language speaker, sometimes assuming protective postures and other times appearing to teeter on a tightrope. There was the percussive and ritualistic Fault Lines, a jazz trio set to the music of Trombone Shorty called From the Corners of the Room, and Claiming Race, an encounter between two briefcase carrying men wearing suits and ties. Hush, which I believe was inspired by Glenn’s son, is a powerfully intense work that features a mourner’s bench and the soulful music of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Letter to the Editor, is based on an actual event in which Glenn’s father, head of one of the few Black families in the town where he resided, wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper in response to the locality’s resistance to integration. I am not sure what Glenn was thinking of when she created Furious Flowers but what I saw was a form of death that was in reality a planting, followed by a rebirth representing growth and hope, and I wish I had a bit of background for the duet Perceived Threat. The melancholy music, water sounds, and whispering, and the sudden and mysterious appearance of the male dancer’s partner from behind (or inside?) the box he was sitting on made me wonder exactly what – or who – the threat was.

The entire program offered plenty of food for thought. The closing image, of nine school desks lined up, the writing arms covered with portraits of the actual Little Rock students – was a stark reminder that we are still connected to the past, and hiding or re-writing history does not make it go away.

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

———-

Photo Credits: LGDT Website & Instagram page; Photos Courtesy of Skip Rowland .

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SUGAR IN OUR WOUNDS

A Tale of Queer Love and Ancestral Voices

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: April 20-May 14, 2022.

Ticket Prices: $30-35; $18 for Preview nights; $10 for Students.

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating and requires proof of vaccine or recent negative PCR test results for entry. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.

Just as every now and then someone says, does, or creates something so wonderful that I enviously wish I had done it. Similarly, every now and then someone creates a play, poem, or story that is so unique or so wonderful that I wonder why I never thought of or heard of the idea before. Sugar in Our Wounds by Philadelphia-based Afro-Queer playwright, poet, and filmmaker Donja R. Love is a prime example of this type of work. Rescheduled from 2020, you know, when that little thing called The Pandemic stopped by, Sugar in Our Wounds was well worth the wait. Set on a plantation in the summer of 1862, during the Civil War, “somewhere down South, by a tall, tall tree,” Sugar in Our Wounds examines the intersection of freedom and love.

“Ain’t no roamin’ the world, for a weak nigger. – Henry

STRANGE FRUIT

An elder, Aunt Mama, and her makeshift family, James and Mattie, occupy a cabin on a plantation that has a striking feature – a mystical whispering tree so tall no one can see the top. Generations of enslaved people have been hung from this tree, but James is determined this particular generational curse will stop with him. James is smart. He keeps his head down – both literally and figuratively – and follows the rules – except for one. The master’s daughter, Isabel, sneaks down to the cabin periodically to teach James how to read.  She’s bored, because her husband is away fighting the war, and predictably, at some point, like Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament, she begins to take a dangerous interest in the only available men around, but that’s not the real story here.

The real story is about love, across time and generations, and involves a young stranger who arrives and is accepted by Aunt Mama and her little family. Mattie, who also happens to be the master’s daughter, is in a precarious position, trusted by no one. Although we never see or hear from other enslaved people on the plantation, we know there are others, but only Aunt Mama and James feel safe in the company of Mattie, who like many others in her situation, is not welcome in either of the worlds she straddles. So of course, Mattie is attracted to this able-bodied stranger, Henry, but we soon find out that Henry, while he does not entirely rebuff Mattie, is far more interested in James than he is in Mattie.

“The darker you is, the more questions you got.” – also Henry

HISTORY LESSONS

There are so many significant details in Sugar in Our Wounds that it would be nearly impossible to notice them all on just one viewing. The show opens with projections of legs and feet, photos on the rocks and trees, the “strange fruit” many of us were first introduced to by Billie Holiday’s recording of the mournful song of the same name. The tree hums and whispers, and James and Aunt Mama can hear it and communicate with it, with the ancestral spirits who reside in or around it and who use it to teach and warn their descendants. One notices a fancy chair that seems out of place in the little cabin, that is sparsely furnished with a tiny communal bed, shared by the three occupants, an all-purpose that serves as a seat or a table, and a bucket whose aroma Isabel finds offensive.  The chair, of course, belongs to Isabel. Aunt Mama refuses to keep the bucket (aka chamber pot) outside because it is a precious commodity and might be stolen by nearby residents – another way we know this little family is not alone on this plantation. At one point there is an authentic feeling ring shout for the upcoming freedom. But there were also a few moments that seemed out of time and place. Sometimes the men are barefoot, and sometimes they wear shoes – and socks. Would enslaved young men have owned socks? During one visit to teach James to read the bible Isabel says the slop bucket smells “funky” and moments later she to James, “you blow me away.” The Oxford dictionary says the word “funky” originated in the late 17th century, so maybe it would have been used, and idiomorigins.org says “blow me away” phrases date back to the 16th century.  Later, James says, “Don’t act new!” It seems people were saying something similar back in the day – as far back as the 1560s. Shakespeare even had a variation, “fire-new.” Both “brand new” and “fire-new” meant fresh from the fire. Who knew?

THE SPIRIT OF LOVE

The cast, the story, the execution of this production more than just a play, more than a love story. It felt like a work of love that was more than just acting, but more like a spiritual offering. Dorothy Dee D. Miller inhabited the persona of Aunt Mama like an act of faith, as if she did not just choose to act this role, but as if she HAD to share this role. Jónel Jones, whom I had recently seen as a scammer in a TheatreVCU production of Intimate Apparel took on a quite different role here as the hero, giving a strong yet gentle, nuanced performance that lingered some time after the final bows. Duron Marquis Tyre as Henry, the mysterious new-comer similarly maintained a balance of mystery, danger, and tenderness. Tyra Huckaby maintained a relatively low-key supporting role until the end, when the seed she was carrying elevated her to a place of prominence as the last remaining hope for the future, while Charlotte Grace Smith was a necessary but negligible presence – not because she wasn’t good enough but because Sugar in Our Wounds wasn’t about her.

Director Lucretia Marie did an excellent job, creating, maintaining, and drawing the audience into this mystical world in a way that educated, entertained, and enlightened all at once. The pacing, the acting, the setting, the atmosphere, all worked together to create that magic that every show aims for but few actually achieve. Sugar in Our Wounds is one of the most memorable and moving shows I’ve seen in recent memory, and I hope to have a chance to see it again in the future to see if it hits the same.

———-

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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SUGAR IN OUR WOUNDS

Written by Donja R. Love

Directed by Lucretia Marie

CAST:

James …………………………………….          Jónel Jones

Aunt Mama ……………………………          Dorothy “Dee D.” Miller

Isabel …………………………………….          Charlotte Grace Smith

Mattie …………………………………..           Tyra Huckaby

Henry ……………………………………           Durron Marquis Tyre

Understudies

For Isabel – Juliette Aaslestad

For Aunt Mama – Sharalyn Bailey

For Mattie – Ayana Flowers

For Henry – Calvin Graves

For James – Makai Walker

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by William Luther

Costume, Hair & Make-Up Design by Margarette Joyner

Lighting Design by Steven Koehler

Sound Design and Original Music by Kyle Epps

Projections Design by Dasia Gregg

Props Design by Tim Moehring

Intimacy Choreographer – Kirsten Baity

Violence/Asst Intimacy Choreographer – Stephanie Tippi Hart

Assistant to the Properties Designer – Nicole Pisaniello

Dialect Coach – Evamarii Johnson

Dramaturg – Shinji Elspeth Oh

Assistant Director – David Powell

Original Scenic Concept – Mercedes Schaum

Technical Director – Rebecka Russo

Assistant Stage Manager – Dwight Merritt

Production State Manager – Shawanna Hall

Photo Credits: John MacClellan

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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

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