FENCES: “Who the hell say I got to like you?”

FENCES: “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.”

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: February 7 – March 1, 2020 (Previews February 5 & 6)

Ticket Prices: $36-54

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

One of the better known plays of African-American playwright August Wilson, and one in his Pittsburgh Series of ten plays, each set in a different decade, Fences (1985) is set in the 1950s and explores family, racism, identity, generational curses, honor, salvation, and ultimately love through the eyes of the Maxson family. There is so much rich material packed into this one play it is no wonder it runs nearly three hours but playwright Wilson and director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T) seem to share a vision and are committed to letting the story unfold in its own time. Dr. T. appears to confirm this in her director’s note, where she writes:

August Wilson is a poet/storyteller and the script for Fences is like jazz, blues

And gospel music in spoken language. Fences captures in the text and in a

Variety of voices the polyphonic multisyllabic rhythms of Black culture almost

As if it were a musical score played by a classic jazz quartet.

Troy Maxson, the family patriarch, was once a stellar Negro Leagues baseball player but the play finds him supporting his family as a trash collector and agitating the segregated sanitation department that allows only white workers to drive, leaving the dirtier work and heavy lifting to the Negro workers. James Craven wears the mantle of Troy Mason with authority. He brings a fierce but broken power to the role that is carefully nuanced. We see the passion and defeat, the sense of responsibility and loss that drives this man. Like people we know, he is flawed, but still worthy of respect; we begin to understand him but cannot bring ourselves to like him.

For some, it may be impossible to understand the kind of love his wife, Rose, holds – a love that holds on even at the cost of giving up her own hopes and dreams? ***SPOILER ALERT*** Could you, would you be able to humble yourself yet at the same time empower yourself to be able to not only raise but also to genuinely love the child of your husband’s deceased lover? Lisa Strum steps into Roses shoes with a quiet dignity that many of us can only strive for, but most will never achieve. When she finally lashes out, I found myself exhaling a breath I was not aware I had been holding.

Both Craven and Strum are making their VaRep debuts in Fences. Both were well-chosen for their roles.

The cast also includes the versatile Jamar Jones as Cory, the teen-aged son of Rose and Troy. Cory’s dreams of becoming a football player are dashed by his father, still bitter at not being able to move from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. Rose tries to intercede in the rift this causes in the father-son relationship, but it takes years, during which Cory leaves home only to return for his father’s funeral, before healing can begin.

Joe Marshall plays Lyons, Troy’s eldest son from a previous marriage or relationship. When we first meet Lyons, he is trying to borrow money from his father, who belittles him for trying to make a living as a musician instead of taking on a steady job. As the plot unfolds, we begin to see other sides of Lyons. In addition to providing some comic relief to the thick tension, he also acts as a buffer between the family members who share Troy’s household. Home ownership is a source of pride for Troy, who doesn’t have much else to be proud of, aside from his wife and children.

Troy’s best friend and coworker Bono, played by J. Ron Fleming, Jr., has known Troy longer than anyone else in his life at this point, and tries, futilely, to keep him on track. Bono is a supporting role that provides key information to the advancement of the story – and to the audience’s understanding of Troy’s motives. Bono is as much family as anyone related by blood.

My favorite supporting character is, hands down, Gabriel. Troy’s brother returned from military service having sustained a head injury that left him with a metal plate in his head and the belief – or ability – to talk to St. Peter and communicate with the unseen. He gets arrested for disturbing the peace, but he says he was chasing the hellhounds that seem to plague him. There are some possibly shady dealings concerning how Troy has handled Gabriel’s modest settlement from the government, which makes us love Gabriel even more, while casting even more shade on Troy. But the final moments of the play belong to Gabriel, who arrives for his brother’s funeral with his battered trumpet and tries desperately to blow a note, perhaps a reveille, so St. Peter will open the gates. But he can barely force a tiny bleat from the battle weary instrument and raises his hand in the air and begins to sing in a warm voice that forced an unwilling tear from my eye.

Finally, a word of encouragement for little Milani Hopkins who plays Raynell, the little sister of Cory and Lyons. Hopkins shares a sweet duet, dancing and singing with her big brother Cory who left soon after she was born. Their connection is immediate and authentic, and Little Miss Hopkins even gets a brief solo.

I don’t usually notice sound design, but Nicholas Seaver has created a beautifully organic sound design that includes a train and barking dogs that possibly embody the imaginary hellhounds that Gabriel hears in his head. Nia Safarr Banks’ costumes are period appropriate and in line with the financial status of the family. But Josafath Reynoso’s set deserves special recognition. The play takes place in the backyard and alley of the Maxson home, and Reynoso has designed the rear of the Maxson’s modest brick home – a home that has seen better days. There is a porch that is shallow and sadly lacking in railings, a clothesline, a row of trash cans, and the fence of the title. The fence is only partially built at the beginning of the play, but it is complete by the end – another physical embodiment of one of the plays allegorical themes. And then there is the tree – a real, full-sized tree, perhaps 15-20 feet high, standing downstage right (the audience’s left). Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting creates changes of day and season, with one powerful effect when Troy stands frozen under that huge tree, baseball bat raised, and again at the end when rays of light seem to break through unseen clouds and shine rays of sunshine and spiritual enlightenment on the family gathered to pay homage to Troy.

Fences is a story told by a master storyteller (and that word “storyteller” includes the playwright, the director, and the cast). It skillfully guides the audience through a plethora of emotions, but I never felt manipulated, and it shines a revelatory light onto the lives of black families in a particular time and place in America. One couldn’t ask for anything more. Of course, Fences  is a part of the Acts of Faith theatre festival.

Here’s a link to the Fences Study Guide: https://va-rep.org/show_fences_study_guide.pdf

And here’s a link to a short video preview with the director, Dr. T.: https://youtu.be/EM3bFoLaynY

 

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 not available at the time this review was written. Photos will be added as they are made available.

 

DADDY LONG LEGS: A Period Gem

DADDY LONG LEGS: Life, Longing & Love at the Turn of the 20th Century

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: January 25 – February 22, 2020

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $35 Seniors, Military & Students; $18 Dinner

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

Daddy Long Legs is a sweetly unconventional musical and love story, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre) and book by John Caird (Jane Eyre, Les Misérables). As a musical Daddy Long Legs is unusual in that it has only two characters and the songs are not catchy show tunes but rather poignant ballads, solos that carry the narrative, and harmonious duets that allow the two characters to interact. Further, for most of the two-act play the story is moved forward through the epistolary device of alternately having Jerusha read from letters she writes to her benefactor, “Mr. Smith,” and “Mr. Smith” reading the letters in the privacy of his posh centerstage study.

Rachel Marrs (who recently appeared in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Bright Star at the Mill) plays Jerusha Abbott, the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home. Jerusha is skilled at writing essays and catches the attention of one of the asylum’s trustees, Jervis Pendleton. Under the pseudonym of Mr. John Smith, Jervis, makes Jerusha an offer she can’t refuse; he offers to send her to college for four years, room, board, and a monthly allowance, on the condition that she write him a monthly letter providing details of her progress. Jervis is played by Matt Polson (Sweeney Todd/TheatreLAB, River Ditty/VARep). He is given the nickname Daddy Long Legs, the name of the 1912 novel on which this 2009 musical is based, because his elongated shadow, that Jerusha sees outside the window of the orphanage, reminds her of a spider.

Marrs’ voice is sweet and nuanced. Over the course of the four years of the play we not only hear her development in words both spoken and sung, but we see it visually in Maura Lynch Cravey’s lovely period appropriate costumes that range from a simple work pinafore to neat skirts with high necked white blouses to sleek business suits with ruffled blouses. Jerusha’s hairstyles also reflect the passage of time. Marrs is vulnerable yet fiery, making some ahead-of-the-times statements in support of women’s rights and offering an unconventional, fresh perspective on everything from life to love to literature.

Polson’s character is a tougher nut to crack. He’s the lead character and the play bears his name. But he is jealous and manipulative and deceitful. While he means well, after all, it isn’t everyday someone sends a stranger to college, all expenses paid, no strings attached. But Jervis is led to examine his own character and motives mid-way through the second act in the song “Charity,” where he questions the effects of charity on the giver and the recipient. Symbolically, Cravey has Polson strapped into an unforgiving three-piece suit – the vest of which looks more like a straight jacket than any suit I’ve ever seen. Jervis is harder to like than Jerusha, adding depth to the character and tension to the play.

The music and lyrics are sometimes gentle, sometimes warm and fuzzy, and sometimes soaring. The three-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Paul Deiss, is partially hidden behind a scrim stage right (the audience’s left), so their presence is palpable but not intrusive. Artistic director Tom Width has invited guest director Steve Perigard to delicately guide this duo through their passionate yet halting journey. Guest designer Mercedes Schaum has designed a delightfully satisfying period set, with Jervis’s study commanding centerstage. There’s a sturdy desk, well-stocked bookcases, a solid classic typewriter, a classic candlestick telephone, and a beautifully ornate desk chair with what appears to be a woven wicker back. Other areas, from the orphanage to Jerusha’s dorm room, a rural mountain and the farm where Jerusha spends summers with her college roommates, are defined by a few large trunks, a small table and chairs, and one multi-purpose piece of storage furniture that holds props and Jerusha’s ballgown and provides a place to sit or stand as the action requires. Joe Doran’s mostly subtle lighting enhances the early 20th century ambience with soft illumination and welcoming shadows.

There were a few minutes, mostly in the first act, that seemed to drag a bit, but Marrs and Polson made these moments tolerable. (I think the slow moments were due to the script, rather than Marrs, Polson, or director Perigard.) Polson also manages to avoid the very real possibility of coming across as a predator – after all, he’s a wealthy man with a lot of money and Jerusha lives during an era when women did not have the right to vote and some considered a college education wasted on a woman. Yet these two manage to all in love because of her intellect and wit, rather than in spite of it. This along makes Daddy Long Legs remarkable. With its multi-dimensional characters, pleasant music, beautiful vocals, and visual appeal, Daddy Long Legs is quite a delightful evening. Even my most frequent theater companion, Albert, who rarely has much to say about the many shows we see together, enthusiastically declared Daddy Long Legs one of the best and most enjoyable shows he’s ever seen at The Mill.

BTW: I was curious, and you might be, too. The name Jerusha is a Hebrew name that means “her husband’s possession.”

 

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: Robyn O’Neill Photography

 

STUPID KID: It’s Not What You Think

STUPID KID: An Unwelcome Homecoming

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: January 23 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Military & RVATA; $15 Students

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

I often choose not to learn too much about a new play prior to seeing it. I want to enter the space unbiased; I like to be surprised. Well, no amount of preparation would have fully prepared me for Sharr White’s Stupid Kid. The two-act play, making it’s east coast debut at The Firehouse Theatre, is populated with strong characters, filled with twists and turns, and offers a surprise ending that leaves as many questions unanswered as it resolves. Kudos to the cast and director Alison Devereaux for a physically demanding performance that made us laugh, gasp, cheer, and even boo.

From the start we know something isn’t quite right – there are secrets and things are not what they appear to be. When Chick Ford (Adam Valentine) arrives home a day early after being in prison for 14 years, his parents are not pleased. His father Eddie, played by Andrew Firda, pretends not to know him and his mother Jeanette or Gigi (Boomie Pedersen) greets him with an expletive. Well, most of her comments are bookended by expletives, so it may not be entirely personal.

The plot thickens when we learn that Chick was sentenced to life for murder, that his parents lives were shattered by the fallout, and his father has become disabled with back pain and has become dependent on painkillers. The details come slowly with the aid and sometimes despite the active interference of nosy neighbor Franny Hawker (Jeannie Goodyear) and Gigi’s brother Mike (Arik Cullen).

This may be the world’s most dysfunctional family, but White’s characters are mostly familiar, believable, and multi-dimensional. Eddie and Gigi seem to be constantly bickering but scattered among the expletives are pet names and hints of true concern and genuine love. Whenever Chick tries to talk about the crime he confessed to, he gets shut down, and no one believes there is any possibility he could be innocent – despite the fact he was released based on new DNA evidence. Uncle Mike is the story’s obvious villain. Vain, narcissistic, and sadistic, he was once the sheriff of the small unnamed Colorado town where the story takes place – and rather than trying to hide evidence of his prior and current corruption, he rubs everyone’s nose in it. I can’t say much more without giving away important and juicy plot elements.

So many of the cast members stand out. Both Boomie Pederson and Andrew Firda seem to land strong, often quirky, and interesting roles. Pedersen gives a satisfying and delightful performance in Stupid Kid, projecting sarcasm when needed but switching to a well-hidden tenderness that makes Gigi seem more authentic. Andrew Firda spends much of the play in a bathrobe and socks, bent over with back pain, yet still manages to display the strength and humanity of Eddie; Eddie has real problems, but there is something solid and dependable underneath it all. Firda never allows Eddie to become a figure of pity.

Adam Valentine portrays Chick as a young man whose life has been controlled by others – his parents, the prison system, his Uncle Mike – but has somehow managed to hold onto a sense of self. And then there’s Arik Cullen, who played Uncle Mike as a straight up bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Some in the audience booed when he came out for his bow. Let’s not forget about Uncle Mike’s young ward, Hazel, played by Lorin Hope Turner.

A casebook study of child abuse, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and more, Hazel’s mistreatment at the hands of Uncle Mike culminates in a shocking display featuring the show’s most violent and physically challenging scene. Jeannie Goodyear, as the nosy neighbor Franny watched all this, often with a bag of chips or some other snack at hand, as if it was a soap opera. Goodyear added a sense of the absurd and was a perfect counterpoint to the melodrama unfolding around her, even reporting the latest news concerning the town’s outrage over Chick’s early release.

There’s so much going on in Stupid Kid, but one thing is for sure; these people may lack what we think of as formal education, but they are certainly not stupid. There is much worthy of discussion, making this an appropriate choice as an Acts of Faith offering.

Alan Williamson designed an appropriately drab set that reflects the financial and emotional status of the Ford family. There is a large patch of duct tape on the living room chair and an impressive complete set change during intermission, from interior to exterior.  If anything, the outside of the house looks a little less shabby than the inside. Emily Laurelle Tappan designed the costumes to look like discount sticker day specials from the local thrift store.

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: Bill Sigafoos

 

 

 

HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Captivating Children’s Theatre

HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: “It’s Like History Class, With Music”

This production is part of the 2020 Acts of Faith theater season.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis, in collaboration with Kingston Marley Holmes (age 11) and Emmitt Christian Holmes (age 5)

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230

Performances: January 24 – March 1, 2020

Ticket Prices: $21; contact the theater for discounted group rates or to apply for a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations.

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Virginia Rep opened its 2019-2020 Children’s Theatre season with a magical musical, Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s children’s novel about a family that finds immortality in the waters of a remote spring in the New Hampshire countryside and the grieving young girl who befriends them. The second production of the season is Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, a spirit-filled production with book and lyrics by Douglas Jones (who was in the audience opening night), music by Ron Barnett, direction by Katrinah Carol Lewis, and an energetic, tightly-knit ensemble of six who made the hour-long production speed by. “It felt like just ten minutes!” was Kingston’s estimate.

The content of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad seems to be targeted primarily towards the older kids, say ages 9 and up, but even Emmitt was alert and committed – especially when he realized the audience was encouraged to snap, clap, and sing along. For parents, teachers, scout leaders, and other adult types, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is enjoyable, entertaining, and informative. The author, Jones, and director, Lewis, do not talk down to the younger audience members, and at the same time they avoid the trap of some children’s shows of including double entendre’d jokes and language designed to appeal to the adults. Well done.

I described the production as “spirit-filled,” and I intentionally meant that in two ways. The production includes several well-known African-American spirituals, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “ Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Most include or encourage audience participation, and the text weaves in detailed but uncomplicated explanations of the hidden meanings of the words of these songs. The program, which doubles as a poster, includes a QR code that links to a 2-page PDF resource on Spirituals.

There is also a lovely 6-page PDF study guide with a brief bio of Harriet Tubman, a glossary of terms, critical thinking questions and conversation starters, interesting facts, activities, and a page about theater cues. You can find and print the guide here: https://va-rep.org/tour/guides.html

In a second sense, the program was spirit-filled with the ensemble’s acting and energy. Marjie Southerland (whose most recent local credit seems to be as Angela in the workshop productions of Warm, at The Firehouse Theatre last August) has the title role of Harriet Tubman while Elisabeth Ashby, Dan Cimo, Dorothy Dee-D. Miller, Gregory Morton, and Durron Marquis Tyre take on all the other roles: Tubman’s father, brothers, abolitionists, book publisher, passengers on the underground railroad. Southerland holds down the lead with confidence and sometimes a little well-placed humor, but this is truly an ensemble effort with everyone carrying their weight as well as a tune.

And finally, the program was spirit-filled through the words and memories of Harriet Tubman. And that is why, in spite of the lively music, and Emily Hake Massie’s simple, rustic, and serviceable set design, and Anthony Smith’s foot-tapping musical direction, and Sara Grady’s attractive period costumes (Kingston was particularly taken with Durron Tyre’s top hat) I found my eyes leaking from time to time. Tubman’s own words, spoken by Southerland, read from the text of Sarah H. Bradford’s biography about her, and resurrected in song, maintain the power to change the world, one life at a time. That is something the youngest audience members might not yet understand, but it was, for me, the singular purpose of this work, and in that it succeeded.

As far as the target audience was concerned, Emmitt declared Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, “Good! It was awesome because of the actors.” And Kingston said, “It was like history class but fun, with music!” Walking to my car afterwards, Kingston and Emmitt debated the pros and cons of live theater versus television and movies. Live theater, Kingston concluded, “is more captivating.”

Mic Drop

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Check the Virginia Rep website for additional information on:

Sensory Friendly Performances suitable for patrons with Autism and other sensory or social disabilities. For these performances, changes will be made in lighting, sound, seating arrangements, and length of performance to create a more welcoming environment. A Sensory Friendly performance will be offered at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, February 22. See the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Audio Described Performances in collaboration with Virginia Voice, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. Patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 26, 2020. Refer to the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

Virginia Rep also offers a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations who have a demonstrated need for complimentary tickets;  groups must fill out a short application that can be found at: bit.ly/CommunityTix

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays, check the website for dates

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays, check the website for dates

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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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Photo Credits: Photos were not yet available at the time of this publication.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE: A Memory Play

THE GLASS MENAGERIE: A Fragile Classic

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

5th Wall Theatre

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St. RVA 23219

Performances: January 17 – February 8, 2020

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 RVATA Cardholders; $20 Students

Info: (804) 359-2003 or 5thwalltheatre.org

5th Wall Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie, is a tender rendering of the Tennessee Williams classic, described as a “memory play” about a dysfunctional family. Told by a narrator who is also one of the four actors in this five-character play, the story of an aging southern belle and her attempts to marry off her shy and mentally fragile daughter and to direct her restless son into adulthood holds both universal truths and uniquely American appeal. Keep reading for a few more comments on this perspective.

I don’t recall reading The Glass Menagerie in high school (many decades ago) but I do remember seeing the 2013 production by the Sycamore Rouge Theatre (a great loss to Petersburg and the Richmond theater community). Where kb saine took the unusual route of having two men play the role of the narrator and the younger Tom Wingfield, Carol Piersol chose the more traditional route of using a single actor. Matt Bloch, who played both the older Tom, who is the author narrator and the younger Tom, was the gentleman caller in that earlier production. And I do believe I saw Dean Knight, who shared the role of Tom Wingfield in that earlier production with Deejay Gray (who is now the artistic director of TheatreLAB The Basement) sitting unobtrusively in the audience at The Basement watching the show. But enough small world reminiscing – the memory play was not meant to remind me of previous productions.

Morrie Piersol’s direction made Williams’ characters seem very believable, and even slightly humorous – and that’s no small feat when you’ve got a mother (Lian-Marie Holmes) who vacillates between longing for the past (i.e., the “Old South” of debutantes and gentleman callers being served lemonade by vast numbers of servants) and screeching at her adult children to make something of themselves and save them all from destitution. But this was the 1940s and today I’m sure someone would recommend therapy and perhaps a prescription for her. Lian-Marie Holmes, who I first remember seeing in 5th Wall’s recent production of Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods is once again playing someone’s mother, but this role is meatier and juicier and has more dimension. And Holmes, who appears to be quite petite in stature, has an enormous presence that commands the stage, even when she is speaking quietly.

Louise Keeton, in the role of the daughter, Laura, seems to try to physically transform herself in the opposite direction. You see, Laura, if she could, would not just make herself appear smaller, but would try to disappear entirely. Lost in her own world of glass animal figurines and scratchy Victrola recordings left by the father who abandoned them (the fifth character who appears as a gigantic portrait on one wall of the family’s shabby apartment), Laura nearly succeeds in disappearing. Her mother refuses to acknowledge her physical or mental challenges – a limp resulting from a childhood illness and low self-esteem resulting in part from overestimating the impact of the limp. Laura walks with her head down, avoids eye contact, speaks softly, and seems to shrink before our very eyes. The sadness on her face is heart-breaking.

Matt Bloch navigates a delicate balancing act: Tom is a poet, stuck in a monotonous warehouse job; he’s a single guy saddled with the responsibility of caring for a family; he’s been raised as a southern gentleman, but longs for adventure; he bears both the burden and the legacy of his father who is euphemistically described as a telephone man who “fell in love with long distance.” I think Piersol has guided Bloch well; his character could so easily go over the edge and seem selfish and uncaring or wimpy and brow-beaten, but there is clearly humanity in all the members of this family.

In the second act, we get to meet Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, played by Cooper Sved. Sved is lively and energetic and the only one who seems to really see Laura. But I just didn’t find him trustworthy. Perhaps it was because Tom made such a point of telling us about Jim’s public speaking classes, maybe that made him seem, perhaps, just a bit fake. Or maybe it was the way he brought Laura out of her shell, only to drop the bomb that he was already engaged to someone else. Was he, really? Or was this part of his smooth-talking persona? Good acting, Sved – you made me not like you (no small feat after Girlfriend, Huck and Tom, and Atlantis).

I said I would address those universal truths. So, The Glass Menagerie speaks longingly of the “Old South,” and Amanda is a card-carrying member of the DAR. who speaks warmly, if somewhat vaguely, of a youth filled with servants and “planters” and sons of planters, and acres of land and – well, you get the picture. So why doesn’t that bother me? Because those questions have already been addressed by the Howard University Players who performed the play as early as 1947 and even further by the legendary actress Ruby Dee, who played Amanda in 1989.  Dee replaced membership in the DAR with membership in DST sorority and updated the play’s historical perspective on several fronts.

Back to the present. . .

Tennessee Dixon designed the set and projections. The set, quite shabby throughout the first act – I was particularly repulsed by the bare mattress or cushion of the sofa – got spruced up for the Gentleman Caller in the second act with cushions and curtains, a tablecloth, a new lamp, and a cover for that awful sofa! The projections, which are part of the script, include pictures such as blue roses when Laura’s high school nickname is explained, as well as words and phrases, some from songs or poems, some taken from the character’s own words. I found the pictorial projections pretty, interesting, and helpful, but some of the verbal ones were distracting. I wanted to translate the French and when the words appeared before the characters spoke them, I temporarily lost the flow of the dialogue. Ryan Dygert’s sound design was mostly subtle and soothing, a panacea for Laura’s internal stress and Michael Jarett’s lighting was dark and moody. I’m not sure if the candlelight counts as lighting or direction or both, but when Laura blew out that final candle, we were sure this story had no happy ending. But, as promised in 5th Wall’s mission, it does provide us insight into the human condition.

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: Tom Topinka

 

LATIN BALLET: Legend of the Poinsettia 2020

‘THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2020

A Dance Review and Seasonal Observations by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

Performance Were: January 9-12, 2020

Ticket Prices: $10 – $20

Info: (804) 356-3876 or http://www.latinballet.com

The Legend of the Poinsettia is, for many, a local holiday tradition, much as The Nutcracker ballet has become in communities across the USA. This year I attended a Thursday morning production. Because it is designed for school field trips, the program has been truncated and lasts only one hour. I am familiar with the full-length two-act version and was impressed that the field trip edition is seamless, and if you didn’t know what was omitted, it didn’t feel as if anything was missing.

I noted that the indomitable Miss Frances Wessells, who normally dances the role of Abuelita, the grandmother, was absent. I understand that she is saving her appearance for the final performance on Sunday at 3:00pm, and at age 100 (yes, she officially became a centenarian last August!), she can choose to dance whenever and wherever she wants!

There was no soloist, singing “Ave Maria” as well as several other selections. Also, the life-sized nativity, where the Virgin Mary usually takes up residence for most of the second act, remained empty.

Other differences were not cast related. This year’s production has done away with the traditional, and sometimes bulky, set and replaced it with stunningly beautiful projections of background scenes, buildings, window boxes, the night sky, whatever is needed to enhance and promote the storyline. The program doesn’t list a credit for the projections, but Antonio hidalgo Paz is credited for lighting design and technical direction with Steve Kohler as technical assistant.

Dominion Energy sponsored the program as well as some of the schools present. But while the weather was sunny in Richmond and Glen Allen, some schools from Fredericksburg were forced to cancel due to snowy conditions just a little father north of the Glen Allen venue. Those present ooh’d and ahh’d when the curtain went up, and again when the company’s men – Jay Williams, Nicolas Betancourt Sotolongo, and Glen Lewis, performed flips and handsprings across the stage. But this is Latin Ballet, and I felt that the young attendees’ responses were subdued – either because this was their first time attending the theater experience or because their teachers and chaperones had cautioned them to be on their best behavior. And they were – on their best behavior, that is.

At the end, company member Jay Williams invited audience members onstage for a mini-hiphop class, which offered many aspiring performers the opportunity to show off their best moves. The young audience members seemed to enjoy meeting the cast, taking pictures, and getting autographs nearly as much as the performance itself.

            The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (with Sydney Smith and Kaia Davis-Martin, who performed on Thursday morning, alternating in the role).  After the sudden death of her mother, who was teaching her how to weave a colorful blanket, Maria finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day on January 6. Epiphany or Three King’s Day (Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos) celebrates the 12th day of Christmas and the legend of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. This provides a great excuse for those who did not take down their Christmas trees on January 1 to just say you were waiting to celebrate Epiphany.

The narration, given in English and Spanish, also emphasizes that this is also the story of “the true spirit of giving.” Not only is there entertainment and a moral, but there is also history, as the program explains how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas after Joel Roberts Poinsett, first ambassador from the US to Mexico in 1825, imported clippings and cultivated the plants that came to bear

As I have written previously, The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly, multi-cultural, multi-generational festival featuring dances, music, and colorful costumes from Columbia, Mexico, and Spain. There are cultural offerings from Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant), Colombia (King’s birthplace, which also celebrates the nine nights before Christmas with las novenas including songs, prayers, and nativity scenes), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs that blend the Spanish and African cultures), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), Puerto Rico (home of the Christmas parrandas or musical festivities) and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas). A blend of solemn candle lighting and prayers with festive singing and dancing is the common thread that ties together the many cultures and traditions, concluding with the miracle of the poinsettia plant, represented by dancers in red and green. The Spirit of the Poinsettia, floating around the perimeter of the stage in a voluminous read gown from which individual poinsettia “plants” emerge, may remind some of the Mother Ginger figure in The Nutcracker who hides a dozen small children under her huge gown.

Tickets are still available for a weekend of family-friendly shows

 

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 from Latin Ballet website; photos of Jay Williams working with the children by Julinda.

 

 

21st ANNUAL YES! DANCE FESTIVAL: Presented by K Dance

K DANCE PRESENTS: 21st Annual Yes! Dance Festival

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St, RVA 23220

Performances: December 20 & 21, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 general; $15 for RVATA & Students

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

This isn’t the first time K Dance has presented the Yes! Dance Festival at the Firehouse Theatre, but it is the first time as the venue’s resident dance company.

This year, the 21st annual Yes! Dance Festival presented a compact and somewhat mysterious collection of works by four companies – not including Kaye Weinstein Gary’s own K Dance – from across the USA. The festival is a great chance for those who don’t have the time or money to travel the nation to sample what’s happening in other parts of the country. Some of the artists are nationally and internationally known, with credits including Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch list.

Catherine Messina (Atlanta, GA) performed her solo, “gamesetmatch,” which did not appear to have anything to do with tennis. Messina entered from the aisle, coming down the steep steps from the tech booth, and walked onto the stage where she sat and removed her boots and socks. Then she danced for a brief interlude, sinewy, winding phrases, interspersed with intense moments of silence in which she stared at the audience. Then, quite matter of factly, she sat, put her socks and boots on, and exited the same way she came. In a blog for Dance Canvas, Messina wrote that her work “centers around the intersection of strangers [sic] lives” and while she was not speaking specifically of this solo, “gamesetmatch” is steeped in a certain randomness that challenges the viewer to choose to engage or remain aloof. https://dancecanvas.wordpress.com/2019/12/19/catherinemessina/

Li Chiao-Ping Dance (Madison, WI) presented two works, the premiere of “here n o w here” and “moi non plus.” The first, a duet performed by Alfonso Cervera and piper Morgan Hayes, included the narrative by the dancers, variations of “barely there, bodily here.” The dancers dressed themselves from a scattered collection of clothes placed on the floor (matching gray sweaters and plaid leggings), moved through a compelling selection of intertwining movement phrases that bore the kiss of contact improvisation. Soloist Lauren Johns, dressed in a cutaway white dress with bustier top moved through “moi non plus” with an air of mystery mixed with boldness; I wondered later if the work was a direct response to the song and later the erotic film that share the same title. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Je_t%27aime…_moi_non_plus

slowdanger (Pittsburgh, PA) is the creative partnership of anna thompson and taylor knight. They performed their duet, “memory 6,” in layers of clothes topped wit ski masks. Their look and sometimes sustained movement reminded me of the noh drama-inspired works of Eiko and Koma, The two slowly built up to a level of transcendence and just when it seemed we were about to be lifted to another plane with them, thompson broke the spell with a single loud clap, and the duo removed their ski masks are returned to earth. The company’s website describes “memory 6” as the seventh installment of a series, in which, “while traversing a purgatory of their own fragmented memories, two bodies combine to build a new form through movement and sound.” http://www.slowdangerslowdanger.com/memory-6.html

MamLuft & Co. Dance (Cincinnati, OH) also presented two works. “You Are Mine!,” choreographed b Hannah Williamson, proved to be darkly dramatic. It was performed by 4 women and 1 male dancer, all dressed in black. One commandeered a throne-like, high-backed chair, and seemed alternately to be in charge and to be the object of the other’s attention. Susan Honer’s “Solos for Woman,” dancer Claire Dieringer shed layers of black to reveal a rainbow striped unitard. The company normally specializes in evening-length dance theater works and their works often examine socially relevant subject matter such as shifts of power, aging, and memory loss. https://www.mamluftcodance.org/about

K Dance closed the program with “Leaf on the Wind,” a dance based on Cynthia Uhrich and Jen Tuder’s five-minute play of the same name, directed by Jacqueline Jones and choreographed by Kaye Weinstein Gary. Two green leaves (Jessica Rawls and Andrew Etheredge) shared a tree with an orange leaf (Gary). A fourth character, a Garden Gnome (Courtney Hans) seemed to have a bit more to do than in the original script as she subtly rotated on a stool in a downstage corner, indicating, I assume, the passage of time (although she moved counterclock-wise). The play started off humorously enough, but it soon became evident that Green Leaf 1 (Rawls) was a bit of a bully bend on discriminating against the Orange Leaf, while her branch-mate, Green Leaf 2 (Etheridge) was intent on keeping the peace. As the work progressed from humor to melodrama, the play evolved into choreography that reflected and eventually resolved the conflict.

A signature of Gary’s Dance Festivals is the Re-Cap that features dancers from all the companies in a brief finale. The works seemed to feature a common thread of some sort of conflict or confrontation, although there was no specified theme. All of this took place in the space of ninety minutes, which was just the right amount of dance in just the right amount of time. For those who did not get to opening night, there are performances at 3pm and 8pm Saturday, and the Saturday evening performance will be followed by a talk with the performers.

 

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: Sarah Ferguson & The Firehouse Web Page

 

Alvin Ailey
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1093389303/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=rvartreview-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=1093389303&linkId=c39a9d5181692735b3b75883d732cd03
Whistlin Women
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