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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COLLECTIVE RAGE: A Play in 5 Betties

. . .Imagine the Arctic as a Pussy; It’s Sort of Like That

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 8 – July 2, 2022

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

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

In Essence, A Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School And You Read About Shackleton And How He Explored The Antarctic?:

Imagine The Antarctic As a Pussy And It’s Sort Of Like That

There are 5 characters in COLLECTIVE RAGE and they are all named Betty. Betty #1, Lenaya Van Driesen) is married to a man of wealth who has no time for her; Betty #2, Nora Ogunleye, is in a sexless marriage; Betty #3, Zoe Cotzias, is a celebrity lesbian who works at Sephora; Betty #4, August Hundley, is a sensitive queer woman with a truck and a crush on Betty #3; and Betty #5, with Rachel Garmon-Williams subbing for Kasey Brett is a non-binary male presenting female who runs a boxing gym – and owns a truck.

After Betties #2 and #3 attend a boring dinner party given by Betty #1, Betty #3 throws her own dinner party, where she gives the shy and friendless Betty #2 a hand mirror and invites her to use it to look at her pussy. This act opens up a whole new world for Betty #2 who spends the rest of the play on a journey of self-exploration and empowerment.

Betty #3 attends a play with a friend, becomes enamored of the “thea-tah” and decides to devise a play of her own. Betty’s play involves a prologue, a wall, a lion, and moonshine; it borrows blindly and liberally from the mechanicals’ play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – whose title Betty repeatedly butchers.

When they all get together to rehearse for “the thea-tah,” the ensuing chaos both defines and defies their collective rage. Set in New York in the present  and first performed in 2016, COLLECTIVE RAGE is described as a “lesbian/bi-curious/genderqueer/Shakespearean comedy for everyone.” COLLECTIVE RAGE feels like a fusion of satire, cabaret, and improv. It’s hilarious and touching at the same time. There’s a cheating husband, a contrast between femme and butch, stereotypes of lesbians with trucks, and all the elements are used to explore growth, individual and collective, in multiples areas of life.

Directed seamlessly by Chelsea Burke, COLLECTIVE RAGE is more than just a niche production; it’s relatable across economic, ethnic, and gender boundaries. Van Driesen is sharp and dangerously edgy, both in her verbal delivery and her physical presentation. Ogunleye is endearing in her eurotophobia (yes, there is a word that means fear of one’s vagina or female genitalia). Cotzias aptly and appealingly encapsulates every video of a vacuous influencer I’ve ever seen. Hundley nailed their portrayal of a caring but insecure character, while Garmon-Williams uses body language and physicality on equal footing with words. COLLECTIVE RAGE offers the viewer options: you can enjoy it as a comedy, as social commentary, or both.

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

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COLLECTICE RAGE: A Play in 5 Betties

Written by Jen Silverman

Directed by Chelsea Burke

CAST:

Betty #1 …………………………………….  Lanaya Van Driesen

Betty #2 …………………………………….  Nora Ogunleye

Betty #3 …………………………………….  Zoe Cotzias

Betty #4 …………………………………….  August Hundley

Betty #5 …………………………………….  Kasey Britt

Understudies

For Betty #1 ……………………………………. Amanda Spellman

For Betties #2 & #3………………………….. Leanna Hicks

For Betties #4 & #5 …………………………. Rachel-Garmon-Williams

CREATIVE TEAM:

Costume, Hair & Make-Up Design      – Dasia Gregg

Costume, Hair and Make-up Design   – Carolann Corcoran

Lighting Design                                   – Deryn Gabor

Sound Design                                      – Candace Hudert

Intimacy Choreographer                    – Stephanie Tippi Hart

Properties Design                               – Tim Moehring

Assistant Director                               – Katie Fitzgerald

Technical Director                              – Tom Holt

Production Stage Manager                – Lauren Langston

Sound Design                                      – Candace Hudert

Intimacy Choreographer                    – Stephanie Tippi Hart

Properties Design                               – Tim Moehring

Photo Credits: No production photos available at the time of publication

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STARR FOSTER DANCE PRESENTS:

18th Annual Mid-Atlantic Choreographers Showcase: Celebrating Pride

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: June 4 & 5, 2022

Ticket Prices: $15

Info: www.starrfosterdance.org, www.facebook.com/starrfosterdance, Instagram/starrfosterdance

2022 CHOREOGRAPHERS

AB Contemporary Dance / Alyah Baker; Raleigh, NC

Ankita; Brooklyn, NY

Luisa Innisfree Martinez; Richmond, VA

Megan Mazarick; Philadelphia, PA

Next Reflex Dance Collective / Roxann Morgan Rowley; Fairfax, VA

Starr Foster Dance/Starrene Foster; Richmond, VA

Wow. From first to last, the 2022 Mid-Atlantic Choreographers was riveting. The six works by six choreographers from Brooklyn, NY to Raleigh, NC each embraced LGTBQIA+ themes or concepts related to gender or sexuality. Each was performed in the round – actually, in a defined square, with the audience intimately situated on all sides. For those old enough to know what I’m talking about, it reminded me of my undergraduate days watching dance at NYC’s Judson Church. (If you’re not of a certain age, I don’t know, maybe a cypher or a rave might describe the vibe.)

One of the most striking pieces was Fools+Kings, a premiere choreographed and performed by Alyah Baker in collaboration with Lee Edwards and Kahlila Brown. Accompanied by smooth jazz performed by Nat King Cole and Orchestra and CeeLo Green, the trio graced us with liquid combinations of movement and incredibly soft landings. Sometimes the arresting choreography consisted of just a gaze, a burning stare. Dressed in black vests and pants, with three low stools as mobile props, the dancers kept the movement simple, yet their virtuosity was undeniable.

Inspired by the life and legacy of composer Billy Strayhorn, Fools+Kings was escribed in the program as an exploration of “themes of connection and heartbreak through the lens of Black Queer aesthetics and embodiment.” I was particularly struck by Lee Edwards who – I swear – reminded me of a compact, femme version of Bill T. Jones. Anyone who knows me knows that Bill T. Jones is one of my favorite dancers of all time, so I do not say this lightly. Fools+Kings built up a complex structure balanced on hot and cool jazz and Afro beats and then, BAM! – without warning or preparation, it ended with a full stop. Wow. I cannot wait to see more from this group.

Backtracking to the opening, the program began with a solo, old swan, by Megan Mazarick. Dressed in a tailored suit, Mazarick delivered portions of a deconstructed lecture while executing a fusion of post-modern, classic break-dance type moves, the robot, and even a bit of disco in a humor-infused cycle of melting and resurrecting. This is the work that took me back to Judson Church. I take notes in the dark, and for this piece my page was inscribed with a large heart. While old swan may be a reference to ballet classics like Swan Lake and all the fairy tale magic that goes along with the romantic era, it may also be a sly play on the symbolism of swans representing grace, love, trust, beauty, and loyalty. The final scene of the swan “coming home to roost” reminded me of that old saying about chickens coming home to roost – meaning that the evil things you do will come back to bite you in the butt (i.e., karma). Of course, Mazarick may not have intended any of these concepts, but I felt free – even invited – to explore all of them in this wonderful solo.

Another work that resonated was an excerpt from a dance called Penumbra, choreographed by Ankita Sharma and performed by Sharma and Darryl Filmore. Penumbra is dark, very dark. I have sometimes teased Starr Foster, saying that her works are so dark, but I was referring to the lighting. Penumbra  is psychologically dark, and that’s an even more terrifying kind of dark. By definition, a penumbra is a region of shadow or partial illumination, resulting from an obstruction or partial obstruction.

This section of the artist’s evening-length work is called “Aftercare,” and the work explores the question, “What does it feel like to say the dark things that remain inside out loud?” Based on the dancers’ shared experiences with trauma, the two begin on opposite sides of a small table, somehow, remarkably, performing similar movements with strikingly different dynamics. The force and counterforce reminds me of the life and death encounters being negotiated by the old men convened around Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table but her it takes only two, not a dozen, to create this howling, apocalyptic effect!

When they arise from the floor, the gentler of the two seems to transform into the dominate, or abusive partner, and the sharper mover becomes fearful and guarded. A shift to demonic red lighting carries them away. Notably, this was the only group that did not take a bow – to do so would have broken the spell and diminished the power of this work.

I was glad I tarried long enough to see Sharma and Filmore emerge from backstage to greet their friends and audience members with smiles. It was relief to see they were able to drop the heavy personas they had adopted and leave them on the stage.

The program also included Circular, a duet by Roxanne Morgan Rowley, performed by Rowley and Sara Goldman, that explores the circularity of relationships between two women; and Luisa Innisfree Martinez’s hilarious Trope in a Box. Performed in, on, and under an open sided crate, Martinez’ solo uses comedy and strong, acrobatic movement phrases to examine and deconstruct themes and tropes of femininity. The program concluded with Starr Foster’s new work, Stripped, a trio that explores identity. The three women become entangled, connect, collapse, support one another, and finally seem to reach a place of calm, peace, and acceptance.

Foster has produced the Mid-Atlantic Choreographers Showcase for 18 years, and hasn’t run out of ideas yet. This was, by far, the best Showcase yet: powerful new work, a diverse collection of choreographers and dancers, a relevant theme, and a variety of perspectives. Thank you, all of you, for a wonderful experience.

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: See individual photo captions

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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.

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

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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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STONEWALLIN’

STONEWALLIN’

A Coming Out Story with Stonewall Jackson, Witch’s Spells, and a Bobolink

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 9-March 5, 2022.

Ticket Prices: $30-35; $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.

The best comedy is relatable comedy. It often takes something from life – and it can be something bad – and pokes fun at it. By this standard, Kari Barclay’s new play – winner of Richmond Triangle Player’s So.Queer Playwriting Festival – is outrageously funny. It’s outrageous, period. The humor is a bonus.

STONEWALLIN’ features a “missing” statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (explaining the rabbit ears around “missing” would be a great big spoiler), a budding bi-sexual romance between a queer woman and a queer man, a friendship between a young Black man and an older white grandmother who spend some of their free time as Civil War re-enactors and some of their time together drinking whiskey and gossiping, and let’s not leave out a spell cast by a self-taught witch that has major unintended consequences. Surprisingly, it all fits together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

STONEWALLIN’ is set in the author’s hometown of Lexington, VA, home of Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute. Other points of interest include the gravesites of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as well as the residence of Jackson, a Confederate general. More recent notoriety include the Red Hen Incident; in 2014 then White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckaby Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant because of her role in the Trump Administration. All of this – and more — finds a home in STONEWALLIN’.

What also makes its way into STONEWALLIN’ is a stellar cast, consisting of Levi Meerovich as Tommy Jackson (a direct descendant of Stonewall Jackson), Nora Ogunleye as Marsha Lyons (a transplant from Berkeley, CA who is staying temporarily with her brother while reconnecting with her family roots), Jacqueline Jones as Mamaw Jackson (grandmother of Tommy and a staunch proponent of “heritage, not hate”), Trevor Lawson as Elijah Lyons (brother of Marsha and apparently the proprietor of an unnamed small business), and Chandler Hubbard as General Stonewall Jackson.

While Meerovich and Ogunleye rightfully take the leading roles as the unlikely young couple and share a relationship that is at once endearingly awkward and reluctantly intimate, it is Jacqueline Jones who steals my heart – and the show – as the sassy and sometimes deliberately daft Mamaw. She’s a rebel with or without a cause, just for the hell of it. She argues with her friend Elijah as they return from one of their Civil War re-enactment engagements, yet promises to rally her (Confederate) Flagger friends to support his housing project. She cannot fathom the emerging gender identity of her grandson – grandchild — Tommy, whose preferred attire is some variation of a black dress and earrings, and finds it more acceptable that he would have a relationship with a Black woman than that he could be gay. What a perfect example of the dilemmas posed by the state of affairs in which we currently exist.

Want further proof of how close to home this show hits? Barclay’s world premiere opened the same month that the bases of confederate statues right here in Richmond were being removed. (For those readers not familiar with what’s going on here in Richmond, the recently removed Confederate statues from Monument Avenue and other areas of the city are slated to be given to the local Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.) As for Elijah, he walks a delicate line between liberal political activist and moderate citizen of a small southern town. Lawson emanates the right demeanor – a balance of impassioned persuasion and moderate reason – to carry this off with authenticity. [Lawson recently appeared in VaRep’s Barefoot in the Park, December 2021https://jdldancesrva.com/2021/12/18/barefoot-in-the-park/and Pipeline,October 2021 https://jdldancesrva.com/2021/10/16/pipeline/]

Chandler Hubbard eases all too comfortably into the role of a southern gentleman who all too easily says things that would have been perfectly acceptable in his day but are seen as searingly offensive and racist in 2022. STONEWALLIN’ is a whole hoot and a holler of a show. Barclay has found the key to talking about difficult subjects, not only making them palatable, but mining] the humanity and liberally seasoning them with humor.

Raja Benz, who also directed Pink Unicorn at RTP [July- August 2021 https://jdldancesrva.com/2021/07/31/the-pink-unicorn/], directed this new work with insight and a big pinch of irreverence. Credit Frank Foster with the scenic design – a Stonewall Jackson pedestal that can be disassembled to create whatever minimal set pieces might be needed for any given scene – and Michael Jarett with the lighting design. Kudos to Candace Hudert for an appropriate and interesting sound design. All the elements – including rearranging the audience seating so that some were actually seated onstage – worked together to create an energized, intimate, and welcoming atmosphere. The ending is left somewhat inconclusive, leaving open the possibility for more to come.

STONEWALLIN’ runs through March 5, so there’s still time to go and find out about that “missing” statue.


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


STONEWALLIN’ – A World Premiere

Written by Kari Barclay, winner of RTP’s Inaugural So.Queer Playwriting Festival

Directed by Raja Benz

CAST:

Tommy Jackson………………………  Levi Meerovich

Marsha Lyons ………………………..   Nora Ogunleye

Mamaw Jackson …………………….  Jacqueline Jones

Elijah Lyons ……………………….….  Trevor Lawson

Stonewall Jackson ………………….. Chandler Hubbard

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by Frank Foster

Costume Design by Claire Bronchick

Lighting Design by Michael Jarett

Sound Design by Candace Hudert

Hair and Make Up Design by Carolan Corcoran

Properties Design by Tim Moehring

Dramaturg Katharine Given

Intimacy Choreographer Kirsten Baity

Dialect Coach Louise Casini Hollis

Assistant Director Kendall Walker

Assistant Intimacy Choreographer Kevin Kemler

Technical Director Rebecka Russo

Assistant Stage Manager Dwight Merritt

Production State Manager Kasey Britt

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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CHANTEUSE: A Survival Musical

A New One-Person Show That Explores the Question: What Does Survival Mean to You?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 13 – 23, 2022

Ticket Prices: $10 – $40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org.

Have you ever been to a production where you clapped at the end, not because of the content of what you had just experienced, but because you could think of no other way to acknowledge the artist’s performance? That’s what the audience collectively experienced on Thursday night after Alan Palmer uttered the final words of Chanteuse: A Survival Musical.

Palmer wrote the script and lyrics and stars in this moving one-person musical, set in Berlin in 1933. The music is by David Legg and for this limited Richmond run the inimitable Kim Fox performed the roles of musical director and conductor.

Walking into the space, the audience was immediately drawn into the scene. Small tables with lamps lit by flickering tea candles that suggested the intimacy of a Berlin club were distributed throughout the house. The stage itself was darkly lit, suggesting something ominous was about to happen. There was a mannequin with a dark gown or robe topped by a dark wig, and there were several set pieces covered in black fabric. The darkness, however, was not just a physical effect of the lighting, and stage properties, but there was also a palpable emotional element that lingered heavily, a portent of things to come.

The back wall was mostly brick but accented with a center arch that served as a projection screen and two sections of rough-hewn wooden pallet on either end. The horizontal slats of the pallet sections suggested some sort of confinement, while allowing a glimpse of the band stage left. That’s how I was able to see that the instrument that was churning out soul-tearing melodies was actually a bass, although Jonathan Wheelock magically and skillfully made it sound like a cello.

Palmer entered into this space and immediately captivated the audience with the horrific story of one queer man’s tale of life and survival in Nazi Germany, where being queer, a cross-dresser, Jewish, or mentally or cognitively challenged were sufficient cause for being detained, brutalized, and ultimately killed.

But all was not doom and gloom. The first half of the one-hour solo musical, performed without intermission, had several moments that allowed Palmer, an actor, dancer, and real-life Power Ranger (he played Corcus on The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series, 1993-1996) to dance, strut, change clothes, tease, titillate, and morph from a gay male performer to living life full-time as a female chanteuse in a supper club in Berlin.

A raid on Club Silhouette sends his life (do we ever really learn his name? he is telling his own story, so we never hear anyone call him by name) into a tailspin. Now, if you plan to see this show, you might want to skip the next paragraph, but since this is a limited run, by the time you read these words the show will likely have closed, therefore what follows is technically not a spoiler – I am alerting you out of courtesy so that you know that I am a civilized and cultured person. So…on that note…

The sudden death of his long-time landlord turns out to be a blessing in disguise. You see, they had become friends, and even looked somewhat alike, so it seemed like the best way to honor his friend’s memory (there are untold secrets involved) and simultaneously assure his own safety from the homophobic Nazi’s was to assume the identity of the late Frau Friederick. On the positive side, this transformation led him to find true love. Ironically, our protagonist transformed from a gay male into a woman in order to protect himself from the Nazi’s only to discover – too late – that Frau Friederick had been hiding the fact that she was Jewish.

Chanteuse begins in the decadence, freedom, and sometimes glamor of the Berlin club scene and ends, not with a bang but a whimper, in the soul-killing Sachsenhausen concentration camp – a labor camp for prisoners and training ground for SS officers that housed separate sections for political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet POWs, Poles, Jews, Homosexuals, and Freemasons. While there, he reunites, briefly with his partner, Yakob, to whom he was illegally yet lawfully married (using Frau Friederick’s ID). Is it any wonder this leads him to begin to pray in Hebrew? “Baruch ata Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, sh’hecheyanu, v’kiyemanu, V’higianu, lazman, hazeh.” (Praised are You, the Eternal One our God, Ruler of the Cosmos, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.)

And here we have the point of the plot. Survival. In this moment. And suddenly the past is united with the present and the future. A moment in time telescopes into another moment in time. Past becomes present, and we have to ask ourselves, what have we learned? Indeed, what have we done?

So you see, it was necessary to explain the applause. The applause was not for the experience we had all just shared. The applause was not for the message we were processing. The applause was for the messenger, and the brilliant and unpretentious way he delivered that harsh message.

Chanteuse: A Survival Musical is/was here in RVA for only eight performances, and Palmer has plans to open in London sometime later this year. I haven’t yet been to London, but I always keep my passport up-to-date. Now I know that flying off to London to see a show may not be realistic for most of us; my point is that this intelligently and beautifully produced musical needs to be seen.

Kudos to director Dorothy Danner for keeping Palmer’s pacing and blocking flowing organically and breathing a breath of life into these words that Palmer then exhaled over us all. David Legg’s music was dynamically connected to Palmer’s words, and Kim Fox’s musical direction guided us along the right paths of emotion.

Chanteuse: A Survival Musical

Created by and Starring Alan Palmer

Director – Dorothy Danner

Music – David Legg

Book and Lyrics – Alan Palmer

Lighting Design – Joe Doran

Audio Engineer – Brandon Duncan

Technical Direction – Vinnie Gonzalez

Production Stage Manager – Crimson Piazza

Musical Director and Conductor – Kim Fox

The Band – Kim Fox (Conductor and keyboards), Chris Sclafai (saxophone), Joe Lubman (percussion), Jonathan Wheelock (bass)

Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre in association with Palmer Productions

Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre has returned to full-capacity seating and requires proof of vaccines or recent PCR rest results for entry. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.

Photos: from Alan Palmer’s website and Google.com

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STRAIGHT WHITE MEN:

What the fuck are we gonna do about Straight White Men? – Kelsey Cordrey, Director

A Theater Review (kinda, I think) by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

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

Performances: December 3-18, 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.

Walking down the steep staircase to The Basement for opening night of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN we were greeted by blasting music (yes, that was CardiB’s “WAP”), flashing colored lights (the disco kind, not the Christmas tree kind), and a sign that told us to wait until the house opened in the least welcoming terms imaginable. A pre-show curtain talk by the People in Charge, Lucretia Marie and Malakai Lee, confirmed that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN makes no allowances for comfort zones. Just as Marie and Lee reached the end of their curtain speech, four straight white men (Adam Turck, Axle Burtness, Patrick Rooney, and Christopher Dunn) stumbled noisily into the theatre, setting themselves up for a humorous reversal of the CPT (colored people time) stereotype.

I think we can agree that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a strange title for a play produced by the Conciliation Lab – a company dedicated to social justice. Marie (a seasoned performer, activist, and anti-racism coach) and Lee (a student activist inside and outside of school at Henrico High School, Center for the Arts) making his professional debut in this show) both joke about this too, noting that neither of them is a straight white man, and one even remarked that a friend asked, “Did they see you?” before they hired you for the show. And anyway, why should we, much less the Conciliation Lab, be concerned about straight white men, with all the privilege they represent?

Having seen the VaRep production of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE the previous evening, I couldn’t help but make a comparison. Both are Christmas shows. Both center around a depressed straight white man whose crisis comes to a head on Christmas Eve. Both are about love and family relationships. Both are also directed by talented women. Given all these similarities, the two plays could not be more different. Where IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFEis a holiday classic, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a different style of theatre intended to be confrontational, to make the complacent feel uncomfortable and upset the expected and accepted order. (And as if literary confrontation was not enough, I was seated in the front row on the sold out opening night, barely three feet from the edge of the stage, a position I highly recommend for this production.)

Written in 2014, the opening of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2018, made history as the first play by an Asian American woman to be produced on Broadway. The author’s notes specify that the pre-show is to include loud rap music with sexually explicit lyrics performed by female rappers and that the Persons in Charge “should be played by gender-nonconforming performers (preferably of color).” The intent is to create the sense that the show is under the control of people who are NOT straight white men – a role reversal, if you will; a case of turn about is fair play, a sort of theatrical reparations, if you will. And while Marie and Lee seemed to be joking when they said audience members would be removed at the actors’ request, this, too, was in the author’s notes.

Kelsey Cordrey, in her solo directorial debut, kept everything moving at a rapid pace, marked by hilarity. The cast of four white men did her proud, keeping up the pace with an abundance of high impact physical activity while still allowing time to explore the psychological twists, turns, and nuances of this family.

The plot, you see, involves a family of three sons, two of whom (Drew, a writer and Jake, a successful but recently divorced banker) have returned home for Christmas where their widowed father, Ed, has recently been enjoying the company – and domestic skills – of his eldest son, Matt, an unemployed Harvard graduate. The problem is that in spite of the brothers’ good-natured rough-housing and reminiscing about childhood indiscretions, Matt is harboring and unsuccessfully hiding, some serious issues. It all comes out when he suddenly breaks down crying over Christmas Eve dinner.

Adam Turck is the caring insightful sibling, Drew. Axle Burtness plays Jake, the impatient sibling who wants to fix his older brother, regardless of what Matt actually wants. And Matt, played by Patrick Rooney, a newcomer to the Richmond stage, appears to be a caring, lovable man who, despite his Harvard education, seems barely able to articulate his own feelings. An Ed? Well, Ed is from another generation. He helps his neighbors, even when it isn’t convenient, like on Christmas Eve. Christopher Dunn’s character lovingly hangs Christmas stockings on the mantle, and gently pauses when he comes to the fifth – the one that belongs to his late wife – retuning it to the Person in Charge. Who can’t relate to the loneliness of an old widower celebrating his first Christmas without his beloved wife? And therein – herein? – lies the problem. Why should we, the audience, care about the feelings or problems of privileged straight white men?

It seems that every time there is a chance we might begin to sympathize with Matt or his family, a Person in Charge appears and adjusts the emotional thermostat. In addition to the scene with the Christmas stockings, one memorable intervention involves Marie and sharing shots with a frustrated brother at the kitchen counter after a family quarrel.

In her Director’s Note, Cordrey writes:

When all we seem to see on the news are Straight White Men murdering Black and Brown and queer and trans people, and sexually assaulting women – and always getting away with it – it is extremely difficult to find any compassion and care for the entire group as a construct. But what about the straight white men in our day to day lives? Our fathers, brothers, neighbors, friends?

Are you ready to consider the perspective of straight white men with empathy and compassion? To put yourself in their shoes – even if you are not one of them? Is it time for the privileged to re-examine and re-define their own personal identity? Can any of us make any progress, any real change, if they don’t? What will it take for everyone to treat others the way they want to be treated – and to do it without expecting to earn a badge of recognition for doing it? Does STRAIGHT WHITE MEN answer any of these questions? I’ll leave that up to you do decide.

Cordrey directed with her foot on the pedal and created the sound design as well. Michael Jarrett returned to the Basement to light his first show for the Conciliation Lab, with the excellence we have come to expect of him. Nia Safarr Banks brought her skills to the table as costume designer, complete with holiday pajamas and slippers. Chris Foote constructed the warmly lived-in midwestern den and kitchen designed by artistic director Deejay Gray. (My friend and I admired the large stainless steel refrigerator that I later found out is the actual refrigerator used by the Conciliation Lab staff.)

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is not your traditional Christmas show, and it isn’t what you might expect from the Conciliation Lab – and those are just two good reasons to go see it. The cast of four white men  – that’s two more reasons. And Marie and Lee, who execute the author’s and director’s instructions and make you think it’s their own ideas, all while wearing matching light-up shades and coordinating neckties – well that’s at least another two good reasons that make this production of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN worth your time and money.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Kelsey Cordrey
December 3-18 at The Basement

THE CAST
Drew …………….……………….. Adam Turck
Jake …….…………..…….……. Axle Burtness
Matt ………….……..…….…. Patrick Rooney
Ed …………………………. Christopher Dunn
Person in Charge #1 …… Lucretia Marie
Person in Charge #2 ………. Malakai Lee

THE TEAM
Direction: Kelsey Cordrey
Scenic Design: Deejay Gray
Lighting Design: Michael Jarett
Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey
Costume Design: Nia Safarr Banks
Props Design: Margaret Dodson
Set Construction: Chris Foote
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza
Assistant Stage Management: Demarco Lumpkin
Associate Direction: Juliana Caycedo
Dramaturgy: Shinji Oh

THE SCHEDULE
* Friday, December 3 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, December 4 at 8pm – Opening Night Tuesday, December 7 at 8pm
Thursday, December 9 at 8pm
Friday, December 10 at 8pm
Saturday, December 11 at 8pm
Sunday, December 12 at 3pm – Matinee
Tuesday, December 14 at 8pm
Thursday, December 16 at 8pm
Friday, December 17 at 8pm
Saturday, December 18 at 8pm – Closing Night
THE TICKETS
$30 – General Admission
$20 – Senior (65+) / Industry
$10 – Teachers & Students

NOTE: 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 helping to keep our community safe!
  The Basement is located at 300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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VINCENT RIVER

Shattering the Safety of Home

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 23 – October 10, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $30-35; $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.

VINCENT RIVER, a two-character play by Philip Ridley, is both stunningly simple and amazingly convoluted. Jill Bari Steinberg and Keaton Hillman keep the audience enthralled for an hour and 45 minutes – with no intermission – as the story unfolds. It’s almost a theatrical form of clickbait. You couldn’t turn away even if you wanted to because you have to find out how the story ends and once you do you almost wish you had never stumbled across the announcement or whatever it was that drew you into this dark and sticky web of events. Yes, it’s that intense. For some, this story will bring back memories – or flashbacks – of The Laramie Project, produced by RTP in September 2018.

For starters, it’s prerequisite to read the advertisement or teasers for VINCENT RIVER or you might start out at a disadvantage. By intent, not much is revealed in the first scenes. The entire play takes place in the shabby apartment (well, they call it a flat, since the story takes place in East London) of Anita, a woman of apparently modest means with a long and troubled past. Her only child, Vincent River, was recently found murdered in an abandoned rail station and the newspapers had a field day composing sensational and scandalous headlines like, “Vincent River, Homosexual Victim.” Things got so bad Anita had to move from the flat she had shared with her son.

One rainy day there is a knock at Anita’s door and in stumbles Davey, a young man (I thought he initially said he was 17, but later announced he was 16) with an astonishing and painful story to tell – if only he could bring himself to speak. We know something is up because Davey has been stalking Anita for some time, and when he finally gets up the nerve to approach her, he appears reluctant to talk. It seems that Davey was the one who found Vincent’s body. But, of course, there’s more.

After much fiery deliberation the two strangers, Vincent’s mother Anita and young Davey, make a pact to tell each other all they know about Davey, in an attempt to fill in the gaps surrounding his mysterious murder. Given the seedy location and the gory details, it’s pretty obvious this was a homophobic hate crime, but why, exactly is Davey here, and what does Vincent’s death matter to him – those are the burning questions. The answers elicit shock, anger, grief, anger, disbelief, and anger. But you’ll have to go see the play to find out all the details.

At one point in his retelling, Davey tells a story about riding on a roller coaster with his mother as a youth. The roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the way this this dramatic narrative unfolds, just as the lost innocence of youth implants suggestions that make it possible to feel empathy for Davey even as we condemn his actions. Initially, I found Davey’s demeanor and reluctance to talk annoying and I thought some of facial expressions were overly exaggerated, but as the story unfolds he settled into a rhythm that seduced his audience and carried us along with him to the dark and tangled end.

Gradually, the balance of power shifts from Anita to Davey. It’s fascinating to follow this transfer, that is aided and abetted by a variety of addictive agents, including booze, pills, marijuana, sex, and even reflexology, but mainly by Davey’s words. Much of the story is told as a lengthy and emotional monologue by Davey (something Hillman has proven himself adept at in more than one show) as Anita sits quietly, allowing every imaginable emotion to pass over her face and through her posture. The two actors must be physically and emotionally exhausted after each performance of VINCENT RIVER.

All of this – the story, the emotions – is supported by Candace Hudert’s sound design which includes subtle undertones of music so soft they are mere suggestions, and a soundscape of rain that is every bit as affective in guiding the audience’s emotions as the musical cues in classic horror films,

Director Vinnie Gonzalez has done his job with transparency and gentleness even though much of the language is explosive, the actions harsh, and the consequences disastrous. Moments of humor – as when Anita raises the wide blinds to expose a tiny window – take the edge off and give the audience a chance to breathe. Gonzalez’s set, built with angled walls and recessed a bit deeper than most sets at RTP, is filled with shabby furniture, peeling paint, unintentionally exposed brick, and dangling crown molding. A floor made of salvaged wooden boards provides a surprisingly sturdy foundation for the chaos that inhabits the room. Cigarette and marijuana smoke (theatrical, of course) waft through the air and there’s also plenty of booze and pills – even though the flat’s water has been shut off.

Costume designer Margarette Joyner has arrayed Steinberg in a jumble of bright colors, including disparately patterned socks and shoes and animal print bell bottoms while Hillman wears a conservative suit, dress shoes, a white button down shirt and tie. Both characters are given colorful language as well. Speaking of language, kudos to dialect designer Erica Hughes for coaching Steinberg and Hillman in what sounded to my ear like authentic British accents. VINCENT RIVER reminds us to be careful what we ask for.

VINCENT RIVER

Written by Philip Ridley

Directed by Vinnie Gonzalez

CAST:

Jill Bari Steinberg as Anita

Keaton Hillman as Davey

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by Vinnie Gonzalez

Costume Design by Margarette Joyner

Lighting Design by Austin Harber

Sound Design by Candace Hudert

Intimacy Direction by Raja Benz

Dialect Design by Erica Hughes

Hair and Make Up Design by Luke Newsome

Properties Design by Tom Moehring

Projection Design by Aisthesis Productions and Undefined Media LLC

Production Stage Manager: Lauren Langston

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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THE PINK UNICORN

Activists Come in Many Guises

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: On Stage and On Demand, July 28 – August 15, 2021. On Demand: check at rtriangle.org

Ticket Prices: $30-35; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: check at rtriangle.org

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.

Every now and then a play comes along that takes you completely by surprise and just sweeps you off your feet. The Pink Unicorn is one such play. I was not familiar with Elise Forier Edie’s award-winning story, independently published in 2018. In brief, it is about how the life of a young widow who lives in a conservative Texas town where “everyone” goes to church on Sundays is turned upside-down when her teen-aged daughter announces she is genderqueer. That blow is accompanied by the knock-out punch that she also plans to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at their local high school. I didn’t really have any idea what to expect when I went to Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre for the opening night of the play. Once there, I laughed a lot, cried a little, and went through a plethora of emotions including outrage, anger, frustration, admiration, compassion, and love. The Pink Unicorn, a one-person show, does all the things theater is supposed to do and it does them all well.

Maria Lucas plays the role of the mother, Trisha Lee. Lucas, a VCU Theatre Department graduate, has recently returned to RVA after a decade or so working in Chicago, and what a phenomenal return this is.  The play runs about 75 minutes without intermission and Lucas never once lost my full attention. Those sitting around me in the nearly full theater laughed out loud a lot and I am sure I saw more than one other theater goes wipe away an escaping tear.

“I’m genderqueer,” Jo announces, followed by a snarky, “Maybe you should look it up.” But Trish, apparently an equal match for her teen’s sharp repartee responds without missing a beat, “I’m not in the habit of looking things up.” I’m not entirely what a conservative Christian Texas accent sounds like, but I’m pretty sure Lucas nailed it. From her comic reaction every time she mentions her child’s pet tarantula to her hilarious characterizations of “the lesbian underground railroad” and “consorting on the phone with demons,” the latter in reference to a conversation with the ACLU, delivers a non-stop, well-paced stream of consciousness story that is simply perfect. And informative. And relevant.

Wearing dusty brown coveralls, bare feet, pigtails, and a toolbelt of multi-colored chalk sticks, she performs on a bare stage against a backdrop of chalkboard painted walls on which she draws an ever-changing mural while telling her story. Under the direction of Raja Benz (described in the program as a trans, Filipina-American theatre maker, intimacy educator, and cultural theorist, who uses the pronouns she/her/siyá*), Lucas transforms a few pre-drawn rectangles and a generic head into her child, her child’s friends, her child’s pet tarantula, Beetlejuice, a telephone, a school, a church, a name tag, and whatever else will help her story to move forward. The interactive mural was apparently not part of Edie’s script, but the brainchild of Benz and Lucas. After my initial skepticism, I was completely sold on the chalk drawings and couldn’t wait to see what Lucas would create next. Candace Hudert’s sound design is seamlessly woven into the script and Austin Harber’s lighting adds depth and atmosphere without being intrusive.

The Pink Unicorn, a reference to a little girl’s imaginary comforting friend, is also a nod to a parody religion used by atheists to illustrate the arbitrariness of religious faith, but you can look it up if you want to know more about that.  This play is not just about laughs. It addresses transphobia, homophobia, Christian fundamentalism, family schism, and other real-life issues that are currently affecting families, schools, communities, and our legal system. And yes, you should go see it.

*If you’re reading my blog, I know you ARE in the habit of looking things up, but here’s one for free: In the Tagalog language the word siyá is a pronoun that means both he and she; it is commonly pronounced “shah”

THE PINK UNICORN

Written by Elise Forier Edie

Directed by Raja Benz

CAST:

Marie Lucas as Trisha Lee

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by Dasia Gregg & Michael Riley

Costume Design by Claire Bronchick

Lighting Design by Austin Harber

Sound Design by Candace Hudert

Properties Design and Technical Direction by Lucian Restivo

Dialect Design by Louise Casini Hollis

Hair and Make Up Design by Luke Newsome

Assistant Director: Kathrine Moore

Production State Manager: Dwight Merritt

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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4000 DAYS

Soap-Opera Style Amnesia-Themed Play is Both Witty & Worrisome

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: On Stage and On Demand, April 29 – May 22, 2021. On Demand beginning May 8.

Ticket Prices: $35; $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.

Michael wakes up in the hospital to find his mother sitting patiently by his side. “What happened to you?” he queries. “You’re so old.” We soon find out the reason for this odd exchange. Michael landed in the hospital as the result of a sudden and unexpected blood clot in his brain that left him in a coma for three weeks. When he wakes up, he has lost the last 11 years (4000 days) of his life – years that included a decade with his lover Paul, who is now a stranger to him.

The familiar plot is straight off the pages of the popular soap operas my grandmother used to watch. She called them “stories.” The plot came to prolific British playwright Peter Quilter in a dream and evolved into a three-person play that explores the themes of amnesia, the relationship between gay men and their mothers, and conflicts between lovers. The Richmond Triangle Players production stars Carlen Kernish as Michael, Jacqueline Jones as his mother Carol, and Todd Patterson as his lover Paul.

Kernish is suitably foggy and somewhat fluffy (like a life-sized teddy bear) throughout the two-act play. Jones digs in to her role as the cantankerous mother who doesn’t like her son’s partner. Making sure he knows that is one of her chief pleasures. After three failed marriages (some ended by divorce, some by widowhood), she has no other focus in life than her adult son. And Patterson shows a range of emotion as he navigates the complicated revelation that, as far as Michael is concerned, he never existed.

There is some witty dialogue that draws laughs at appropriate times, but on the first Friday night of the run, the trio of thespians had not yet reached that place where their characters seemed to be fully and organically at ease with one another. Additionally, they drifted in and out of British accents, which was mildly distracting. I don’t think any of the problems originated with the actors or the direction, however. Lucian Restivo kept the play moving along at a comfortable pace, but the script didn’t seem to flow effortlessly.

Other distractions came from the set. 4000 Days is supposed to be set in a private room in a British hospital, but the room’s proportions seemed off, and the perspective seemed forced. The room was too large. A window stage left was a focal point in several scenes but could not be seen by anyone sitting on the right side of the audience. The headboard or wall behind Michael’s bed seemed oddly out of place, and the door to the room, set dead center, was constructed with an asymmetrical crossbeam – or whatever you call the top of a door jamb. Anyone with the slightest OCD tendencies will find that door very distracting. (Okay, I looked it up. The horizontal beam at the top of the door frame is called the “head.” Only this head wasn’t truly horizontal.) I wasn’t sure if the design was accidentally off-center or intended to have a cartoon-like effect.

Given that the play, which premiered in 2016, takes place in current times, Michael thinks it is 2010 when he wakes up. In an attempt to jog his memory, Paul brings him stacks of newspapers. Then the audience is treated to two video montages that capture the highs and lows of the past 11 years. The flood of memories winds down with images of Megan Markle, the Coronavirus vaccine, and LGBTQ and BLM activity. Oddly, when Michael takes up the painting he abandoned to please Paul, he starts a mural on the wall of his hospital room. The resulting haphazard splashes of vibrant color may offer some insight into why Paul discouraged his partner’s painting.

On the creative team, Dasia Gregg is responsible for the production’s satisfying projections and the troubling scenic design. Restivo created an excellent sound design, and Nia Safaar Banks’ costumes added style and color. I wondered if some of Jones’ stylish asymmetrical peplum tops were taken from her personal wardrobe. Michael Jarett provided the lighting. Amanda Durst was the dialect coach (for the accents the actors sometimes forgot to use). Most curiously, Tippi Hart was the intimacy director. The need for an intimacy director was curious because, unlike the Triangle Player’s recent production of This Bitter Earth, there weren’t any genuinely intimate scenes in 4000 Days.

I left 4000 Days feeling as if some of the questions I had might resolve after another week or two of production. While it wasn’t one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen, I did enjoy myself, and it was good to be out among people who aren’t confined to tiny rectangles on a screen. There is a 27 seat maximum per performance. All audience members wore masks.  (Oh, on an amusing note, the stagehand wore scrubs and a hospital mask or clear plastic face shield each time he emerged to modify the set or change the props.) Everyone I spoke to made sure to announce to their friends that they had been fully vaccinated, so a few cautious hugs were exchanged. Al-in-all it was a good evening – if I could only shake the image of that crooked doorway.