Moments with MommaJ: #2

MOMENTS WITH MOMMAJ: March 29, 2022

March has been very adventurous for me.

During the VCU Spring Break (March 6-13) I got to spend a few days in North Myrtle Beach/Myrtle Beach, SC mostly relaxing, and getting some work done. The weather did not know it was Spring Break; it was cold and windy, and the day we headed back home to Richmond, VA we fled a rain and windstorm and drove straight into a minor snowstorm.

I was home for a few days – long enough to unpack, do my laundry, and repack for the next adventure. On March 15 I left for Hopkinsville, KY for a residence with MKArts, the first of several for a new project that is scheduled to debut in Spring of 2023. This was my first time flying since the pandemic, and I was pleasantly surprised that there were no inconveniences or incidents (you know, people refusing to keep on their masks on the plane or assaulting flight attendants). It was also my first time staying at an Airbnb – a four-bedroom, two bath duplex not far from the Community College that was sponsoring us. Even though I didn’t have to cook, and the rest of the team is “mostly” vegan/vegetarian, I overate WAY too much, and I’m still paying for it. Who knew that a small town in KY had such great vegan soups and awesome tacos?

The biggest part of the adventure, however, occurred on the way home. My first flight got delayed not once, not twice, but three times due to weather conditions in Florida, where the flight originated. (To get to Hopkinsville, KY, one flies into Nashville, TN). So. . .instead of having an hour to catch my connecting flight to Richmond, I had 20 minutes. The plane from Nashville landed in Charlotte’s Terminal E, and my flight to Richmond was leaving from Terminal C. I dashed through that airport like O.J. Simpson in that old commercial some of you may be old enough to remember – only to miss the flight by less than two minutes. There were three of us trying to make that connection: me, a portly gentleman, and a lady in a wheelchair. The gentleman and I arrived at the gate huffing and puffing. The gate attendant tried to get permission for us to board – but no. Once the doors are closed, they won’t open them again. After getting rebooked for a 6:15 AM flight, I asked for my options. The gentleman opted to find a hotel. I didn’t want to spend more than $100 for a hotel room where I would have time to sleep only 3 to 3.5 hours, before returning to the airport, going through security, etc., etc., As for the lady in the wheelchair, I don’t know what sort of accommodation was made for her. Since the problem was weather related and not the fault of the airline, the airline had no responsibility to help. And that is how I got to spend my first night in an airport.

I was surprised to find so many people spend the night in an airport. There was a young woman who came prepared with a can of Lysol to spray down the seats. How did she get a full-sized can of Lysol through security?!?!?! Two young Jamaican guys came and sat near us, but something about them reminded me of Nigerian scammers, so I decided to go to the Concourse I’d be leaving from in a few hours. There I found several airport employees gathered near my gate, and lots of traffic – people cleaning, moving supplies, and the like. There were a couple of other single women nearby. Then a young nerdy guy came and sat two seats away. Two. Seats. Away. He was chatty. I decided he was a serial killer, so I took a trip to the ladies’ room to plan my escape, but when I got back he had moved on to another victim (I mean gate). I staked out my territory and got as comfortable as I was going to get. I dozed off and napped for about an hour or 90 minutes during the night. I had layers of clothes to keep me warm. Regulars had come prepared with blankets, pillows, and even sleeping bags. Later that morning, taking a walk, I found an area near the food court that had banquets where I could have stretched out a bit. I’ll keep that in mind should there be a next time.

Well, “anywho,” after performing in Hopkinsville on Thursday evening and helping facilitate a PD at the Community College on Friday morning, I was scheduled to teach and the Virginia Black Dance Festival on Saturday morning and to perform on Saturday evening. My flight landed at 8:30 AM and I had plenty of time to go home, shower, and arrived at Dogtown Dance Theatre about 9:35 AM – in plenty of time for my 10:00 AM class. The session after mine was facilitated by MK Abadoo, who was still in KY. I was able to assist live while she led the workshop virtually. After class and a workshop panel or two, I picked up some food and coffee, ate in the car as I drove home, took a nice nap, and returned to Dogtown for the evening. The Virginia Black Dance Festival, directed by LaWanda Raines, was well attended and I had a marvelous time. I am so glad I was able to participate.

During the following days, I needed to catch up with theatre events here in RVA, so I attended How I Learned to Drive at the Conciliation Lab/The Basement on Sunday, March 20, followed by the Richmond Ballet’s Studio 3 performance on Tuesday, March 22, VaRep’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Hanover Tavern on Thursday, March 24, Greater Tuna at Swift Creek Mill on Friday, March 25, and Quill Theatre’s An Iliad at Dominion Energy Center’s Gottwald Playhouse on Saturday, March 26.

Sunday, March 27 I had the honor of sitting in on a rehearsal of Starr Foster Dance. Foster will be premiering a new work, The Apology, at The Basement (300 E. Broad St.) on Thursday, April 7. The program, that also includes a re-working of her humorous quartet, The Bridge, will run for four performances, April 7-9. Starr Foster Dance will also revise Crave – a work that takes place on two sides of a wall and requires the audience to switch sides midway through – for four performances April 1 – 3. For more information and to get tickets, contact Staff Foster Dance at http://www.starrfosterdance.org

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

Moments with MommaJ: #1

Moments With MommaJ – Thoughts But No Reviews: February 24, 2022

Since January 18, 2018, I have published 240 reviews in this blog space. (I wrote 238 and 2 of them were written by a young mentee.) That averages about 60 reviews each year, or 5 per month. And BTW, I welcome the comments and reviews of others. (There’s no pay, right now, but you get the satisfaction of seeing your words in print – or disagreeing with me.)

I started this venture – a safe space I call RVArt Review, a home for dance and theater – when the newspaper for which I had been writing dance and theater reviews for more than a decade suddenly and without explanation, decided they no longer had the space or funds to publish reviews. (There had been three of us writing about local theater productions and I was the first to be ghosted. And yes, I did ask for an explanation, some closure, something, but never got it.)

I have been writing about dance and theater since shortly after I started grad school in 1978. (I earned a BS in Dance and Dance Education from New York University in 1977 and returned in 1978 to begin work on my MA I the same department.) I took a course on writing dance criticism with Ernestine Stodelle. Ms. Stodelle had been a member of the pioneering modern Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company and later became a writer. She encouraged me to continue writing, and I have been writing ever since, first for a local publication in Brooklyn, then for The Black American weekly, occasionally for The Village Voice¸ nearly twenty years for Dance Magazine, and many free-lance assignments for newspapers, periodicals, academic journals, followed. After moving to Richmond in 1996, I wrote for The Richmond Free Press and The Richmond Times Dispatch. Just as I had to continue dancing after having two total knee replacements and a spinal fusion (in the same year), I had to continue writing, even as “professional” outlets began to disappear, because that is what I do. Since about age three I knew that I was called to dance, teach, and write.

Times change. The landscape of reviewing the arts must change, too. You may have noticed that I prefer the term “reviewing” over “criticism.” The former is a better fit for the conversational tone and sometimes rambling writing practice that suits me, while the latter sounds to me as if the writer sets out to find fault. I know, these are not the standard definitions, but hey, this is my space, so I get to make the rules. When you read what I have written, my hope is that you feel as if we are sitting down having a conversation. So yes, responses are appreciated.

I write about dance and theater because I love dance and theater. My first paid job was in a summer youth program in NYC where we did community service (cleaning parks, painting the yellow lines in front of fire hydrants) and put on full-scale theatrical productions. During my three wonderful summers in that program (approximately ages 13-15), I played the roles of Maria in West Side Story, Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof,  and a character whose name I cannot remember in a western, a “pioneer drama” called The Chips Are Down.

———-

You may be surprised to learn that even though I average 50+ reviews per year, I do not write reviews about everything I see. The standard for arts organizations  and publications I have been associated with has been to review only “professional” productions or those that meet a certain standard for number of performances, paid staff, and the like. But this is a new space, my space, and so I’m going to make some new rules, my rules. Sometimes, I want to talk a bit about people, places, and theater-making that might not meet the traditional standards for reviewing, whether it is a student or community theater production or a reading or just some interesting bit of history or a noteworthy nugget. So, here we are. Several paragraphs into this rambling rabbit hole of a journey, welcome to the first Moment With MommaJ – a space where I will occasionally share some thoughts on whatever I feel like, just because.

Here we are at the final weekend of February, and I’ve posted four reviews this month: A Doll’s House, Part 2, A Hotel on Marvin Gardens, Stonewallin’, and the ballet Romeo & Juliet. This month I also saw a few things I did not review, and I’m just gonna take a moment (a Moment with MommaJ) to write a few words about them before I sign off for the month.

On February 17 I attended a Pre-Assessment Concert for middle school and high school bands hosted by the Clover Hill Band Program in Chesterfield County. I was there to support my eldest grandchild, Kingston Marley Holmes, who plays percussion for the Manchester Middle School Advanced Band under the direction of Mrs. Elizabeth McHatton. Of course I was impressed to see Kingston confidently moving from tambourine to timpani as the percussionists are multi-instrumentalists (if that’s a word). My heart swells with pride and my eyes get a bit leaky whenever I see young people doing positive things and doing them well.

The Manchester Middle School Advanced Band, the Swift Creek Middle School Combined Band (directed by Mr. Jim Neiner) and Clover Hill High School’s Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble (both directed by Mrs. Brianna Gatch) each offered three selections and it was a most satisfying evening. I am in no way qualified to evaluate or assess band music, but I can tell you that the level of skill, talent, dedication, commitment, and confidence I observed in these young people will take them far, whether they continue to study and play music or not. Bravo, young people. Bravo.

Then on February 19, I attended a performance of Intimate Apparel at VCU’s W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts. A production of  the VCUarts Theatre Department, Intimate Apparel is directed by none other than Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T). Written by Lynn Nottage, the play premiered at Center Stage in Baltimore, MD in February 2003 and opened Off-Broadway the following year. Set in New York City in 1905, the plot revolves around Esther, an African-American seamstress in her mid-thirties who lives in a boarding house and earns a decent living sewing intimate apparel. Her clients include a wealthy white woman, Mrs. Van Buren, and Mayme, a lady of the night with a heart of gold who happens to be a classically trained musician, who appears to be the conservative Esther’s best friend.

Esther longingly observes the other women who live in the boarding house, owned and managed by a dignified widow, Mrs. Dickson, get married and move away. She becomes impatient with biding her time, slowly saving to buy her own beauty parlor and hoping to meet a nice man to marry. Things start to look up when she begins to correspond with George. Introduced by  a mutual connection, they seem to have a lot in common. Like Esther, George has moved far from his home in Barbados to work on building  the Panama Canal. Like Ether, George, too, is lonely, and looking for a wife and a chance to own his own business. But things are not what they appear to be, and Esther ends up loosing both her man and her money – but not her mind. Bowed but unbroken, she returns to the boarding house and starts over. There is more, much more, but this is not a review and I don’t want to give away all the nuanced and multi-layered details, because I want you to see – or at least read – this one for yourself.

You know how some of us – many of us? – are just learning about some ignoble events in American history? You know…things like the bombing and burning of Black Wall Street or the flooding of African-American communities to build parks? Well, this is kinda the literary and theatrical version of that on an individual, social, economic scale.

Under the direction of Dr. T, Amaiya Howard (Esther), and Jonel Jones (George) bring this story to life, revealing bits of history while exploring human nature and traversing largely hidden, forgotten, or otherwise unfamiliar territory by way of a poetic and sensual Africanist storytelling aesthetic.

They are ably supported by Tatjana Shields (whose Mrs. Dickson reminds me of Claire Huxtable), Caroline Mae Woodson as the ingenuously innocent “white lady” is all too familiar, and Nia Simone as Mayme, a humorously bawdy prostitute. Hands-down, my favorite supporting role was that of Mr. Marks, the Hasidic owner of the tiny fabric store where Esther found her special fabric deals. Elijah Williams was so genuine in this role, he brought back memories of shop owners I encountered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

My only issue with Intimate Apparel is that, even with two intermissions, these old bones have a hard time sitting through an approximately three-hour production!

Finally, as I sit and write this Moment with MommaJ, I have just arrived home from a staged reading – the second in a series of four – presented by the new kid on the block, The New Theatre (TNT), with Nathaniel Shaw as Artistic Director and Vida Williams as Executive Director. Red Bike by Caridad Svich is a poetic duet of a play, simultaneously humorous and solemn. Amber Marie Martinez and Raven Lorraine Wilkes read the roles of two pre-teens growing up in small town America and claiming – not seeking, but claiming – their place in the world. It’s sometimes loud and unpredictable, and the viewer sometimes feels as if they are riding the handlebars as the actors’ virtual bikes speed downhill towards certain disaster. The author and text of Red Bike appear to be aligned with the mission of vision of The New Theatre, which has not yet begun turning out full productions.

TNT’s Mission is “to challenge and expand art and industry through innovation in project development, presentation, and community participation,” and their Vision is to become “an innovative American Theatre where we are all seen, where we are all welcome, where we are all inspired.” Visit their website to learn more about the new kid in town: thenewtheatreva.org.

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

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