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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