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.

———-

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

Purchase books by Julinda on through Amazon & Kindle Direct Publishing:

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.

THIS BITTER EARTH

A Bittersweet Play on Interracial Dating

A Theater Review by Makai Walker

Play by: Harrison David Rivers

Directed by: Brandon Rashad Butts

At: Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave, Richmond, VA 23230

Performances: Onstage Jan 28 – Feb 20, 2021, On-Demand beginning Feb 13, 2021

[NOTE 1: This production was made Covid conscious with the show at a reduced 20 seat capacity and following CDC guidelines]

[NOTE 2: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and a few poorly timed ice storms, I conceded my in-person tickets for a video-on-demand version of the play. It didn’t make too much difference in the viewing experience, though I was afforded the luxury of pausing the show for a restroom break or two.]

This Bitter Earth: a Bittersweet Play on Interracial Dating

To make an analogy, This Bitter Earth was a 90-minute waterslide with a long line to the top, an exciting trip down, and an unfortunate splash into the shallow end, leaving you longing for the slide you just shot out of. It tells the story of Jesse (played by Andrew “Rou” Reid), a black playwright whose apathy towards the Black Lives Matter Movement is called into question by his white boyfriend Neil (played by Evan Nasteff). The story starts on a slower note. I found myself checking the time stamp every few minutes to see how far along I was. However, it does start on an interesting note; Jesse begins with a monologue spoken directly to the audience. Neil appears, interrupts Jesse, and they segue into a vignette where the two engage in a drunken, oddly sweet conversation, interrupted by a loud crash. This scene is repeated, beat by beat, at least three or four times throughout the play, each time offering the audience a bit more context. This device serves the dual purpose of defining their relationship and developing intrigue.

The pacing feels off the entire play. I believe this has to do with its structure, as the whole play is a series of vignettes strung together with no thought to chronological order. However, this is never made clear. The appeal of This Bitter Earth ignites in the middle. That is when the vignettes start to spark thought-provoking questions about what it means to be passive towards the BLM movement as a black person, the white guilt/white savior complex, or what baggage comes with being someone’s first black partner. Though fascinating, I wish the topics were expanded on, as these issues are not seen often in entertainment media, and I commend writer Harrison David Rivers for nailing this exploration.

Despite these harmonious notes, the ending of this play made me want to stop the play entirely. It felt clunky, rushed, and overall let me down from such an amazing middle portion. Neil betrays Jesse in a mind-boggling way that leaves the viewer utterly stupefied about Neil’s motives. This is underscored by the fact that Jesse, completely broken, forgives Neil, who appears to have moved on, and begs him to come back into his life. For the final nail in the coffin, the story closes with an ending pulled straight out of Rent, Falsettos, Brokeback Mountain, or most any other queer-focused property. The ending is outdated, out of place, and outright cliched to death. It doesn’t evoke sympathy from the viewer considering the magnitude of Neil’s betrayal and its placement in the narrative.

Plot-wise, This Bitter Earth left much to be desired, though the play’s appeal comes less from the story and more from the characters and their thematic purpose. Andrew Rou Reid hits a homerun with his portrayal of Jesse. The way he balances Jesse’s apathy towards the BLM movement is no less than fascinating. Many of the complex thoughts Jesse/Andrew worked through on-stage made his character sympathetic, relatable, and charming. In my favorite scene, Jesse recounts a dream and wholly and utterly sums up this character’s entire being in a monologue executed directly downstage. Neil I found harder and harder to like as the story continued. Unfortunately, about forty-five percent of Neil/Evan’s dialogue consisted of the word “fuck.” I have no aversion to the word nor any naive ideals about adult language, but the repetitive usage had me drawing comparisons to the plays in high school where the characters would swear just because they could get away with it.

I also felt that Evan’s portrayal of Neil had little contrast in terms of energy. There were too many high-energy moments and too few subdued ones. As his character was written, what repelled me from Neil was his reaction to Jesse’s feelings on the racial issues he was facing. I think the play wanted to pitch these characters as two sides of the same coin, but, in light of recent BLM activities, that choice seems quickly outdated in assessing Jesse’s attitude to the BLM movement.

Overall, the themes the story explored were more intriguing and deserved more attention than the arc of Jesse and Neil’s relationship. Jesse and Neil were in so much conflict throughout the piece you’re left wondering why they were together in the first place. In every other vignette, they were at odds, and had the story focused on the nuances of interracial dating, as opposed to the false dichotomy of apathetic black person and white “super ally,” the narrative would have been more cohesive. Harrison goes as far as having Jesse say “All Lives Matter,” which in the current context is an excruciating thing to hear out of a black person’s mouth. Despite these feelings, Jesse is a conscious enough black person when calling Neil out on his white-centric behaviors, causing the entire dichotomy to fall flat and call the story’s crux into question.

I would like to say I was blown away, but I just wasn’t. This Bitter Earth felt more like a study in race and queer theory than a play about a relationship – a relationship that, upon deeper inspection, just doesn’t make sense and plays out as a theatrical exploration into interracial dating.

WELCOME MAKAI WALKER

Makai Walker (pronouns they/them) is a sophomore Theatre Performance major at VCU. They are part of the first class of interns with the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle – informally known as AMP – and my mentee. This is Makai’s first review for RVArt Review. Look for their work to appear more frequently as our theaters begin to venture out into the post-pandemic word. Makai will be offering a fresh, new perspective, one that may often differ substantially from mine! After all, I have been writing about theater more than twice as long as they’ve been alive. – Julinda D. Lewis, Editor/Publisher of RVArt Review.

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

THE SANTA CLOSET: The Door is Open and Santa’s Coming Out

The Santa Closet: Where Theatrical Journalism & Non-Binary Humor Meet

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

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

Performances: November 18-December 19, 2020. Live & Streaming options.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 & $35; $10 for Students. Streaming Edition: $25; $10 for Students. Choice of Eddie Webster or Levi Meerovich.

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

Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic we can depend on the Richmond Triangle Players to give us a unique, memorable, and satisfyingly humorous holiday show. This year’s one-man production of Jeffrey Solomon’s The Santa Closet fulfills all those requirements and does not disappoint!

Originally titled Santa Claus is Coming Out when it premiered some ten years ago, starring the author, the title was changed to indicate the play is not just a silly, vapid little play about coming out. The Santa Closet, on the other hand, implies all the depth and layers and “stuff” that are in that closet – and that make this play such a delightful journey.

It all starts with a young child’s letter to Santa. We first meet little Gary when he writes a letter asking Santa for a “Sparkle Ann” doll – a Barbie look-alike. Gary’s best friend, a feisty little girl named Cheyenne, defends him every step of the way. She, after all, is the recipient of Gary’s creative skills in designing doll clothes and hair styles. But his mother, Trish, is floundering on the edge of tolerance while his father, Frank, is lovingly homophobic (yes, it’s possible to be both of those things).

But Santa disappoints little Gary, who receives a truck instead. The following year, Gary tries again, asking for a Dream Date Norm (if you’re with me, you’ve already figured out that’s similar to a Ken doll). Once again, Santa doesn’t deliver, and Gary’s faith begins to wane.

Cut to the big guy himself. We find a conflicted Santa first having drinks in a gay bar in Manhattan, and then being reluctantly drawn into participating in the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969. (For those not familiar with the history, this was a series of what the LGBT community of the time referred to as demonstrations and the police and city administration referred to as riots. The movement was sparked by a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in NYC’s Greenwich Village.)

Eddie Webster stars in the Richmond production, with Levi Meerovich performing a limited number of performances. I had the pleasure of watching Meerovich performing on Saturday night. Wearing the familiar COVID uniform of pajamas and robe, Meerovich used a variety of accents and mannerisms – and the occasional hat or glowing red nose – to smoothly transform into about a dozen distinct characters.

Besides young Gary, his mother Trish, and his father Frank, the actor must portray Santa; Santa’s agent Sidney; Pete the head Elf; Rudolph the head reindeer (pronouns he, him, his); Gary’s BFF Cheyenne; Santa’s Italian lover Giovanni (a great-great-great-great-great grandson of Pinocchio), the family’s pastor, a waning actress, Beatrice Pond (known for her one-woman portrayal of The Cherry Orchard) who is hired to portray Mrs. Clause; Santa’s gay friend Jose; and Mary Ellen Banford who is the leader of the local branch of Families Against the Gay Agenda, or FAGA for short.

The Santa Closet establishes a delicate balance of humor and tenderness. Solomon wrote the play as if each of the characters is being interviewed and there are “Breaking News” interruptions several times as the drama unfolds. Damage control is required after the Stonewall incident, and reflecting the original title, Santa and Giovanni go missing, never to be seen again. Of necessity, most of the gay characters are over the top. With Meerovich portraying so many different characters in rapid succession, that helps the audience keep up. It also makes the moments all the more sensitive when Gary accepts being different, or when his parents join a support group to help them along their journey to accept their now-adolescent child.

Director Nora Ogunleye has directed with a gentle but steady hand that left Meerovich plenty of room to do what he does so well, while expressing the nuances Solomon wrote into the play. Richmond Triangle artistic director Lucien Restivo kept the costume and set simple (pajamas and slippers, three arched openings, an angled platform, a stool, some holiday lights, a couple of Christmas trees that appear to be fashioned from children’s letters to Santa). This provides a pleasant and seasonal backdrop but allows the audience to focus on the actor and the many characters he portrays. Anything else would have been far too busy and distracting.

Two small wall-mounted screens contain relevant projections, but perhaps I should have said “too-small wall-mounted screens. Even from my fairly close seat in the second or third row from the stage, it was difficult to see the detail on some of the projections. This size may have been a well-reasoned choice, but I am sure that many others with “mature eyes” may also feel they are missing some of the visuals.

Speaking of the audience, the already-intimate theater has been further limited to a maximum of 27 patrons for live performances. Seats are socially distanced in pods of 1, 2, or 4. Masks are required, there is no intermission, drinks may be ordered and paid for online, everyone’s temperature is taken on entry, and programs are fully digital (a pandemic adaptation that many theaters will likely continue when this is all over).

Other members of the creative team – yes, it takes as many people to produce a one-person show as it does to produce a show with a larger cast – include Joey Luck, sound; Deryn Gabor, lighting; Yara Birykova, projections; Sheamus Coleman, technical direction; and Erica Hughes for some really fun dialects.

There are live performances Thursdays through Sundays, with one Wednesday performance. Check the theater’s website for details and to order tickets or purchase the link to purchase one or both of the streaming editions (one features Eddie Webster and the other Levi Meerovich). [I haven’t yet seen Webster’s portrayal, which I expect may be quite different and I will add an addendum to this post after I’ve seen him in the streamed version.] In the meantime, if you’re looking for a little holiday cheer (with a bit of an edge, due to the history), this should fit the playbill. The Santa Closet is highly recommended (for those over age 15).

Photos: Richmond Triangle Facebook page.

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Books make great holiday gifts. All 4 of my books are available on Amazon.com: