FIRES IN THE MIRROR: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

“American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places.” – Anna Deavere Smith

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review – and some rambling thoughts – by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: March 26 – April 25, 2021, live and streamed

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 live & streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, drink orders, and more.

August 19, 1991. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. It had been a clear day, with temperatures in the 80s. The air resonated with the rhythms of Gil Scott Heron (BTW, he was wrong, the revolution WAS televised) and James Brown, occasionally punctuated by traditional Jewish melodies. LL Cool J’s mama advised him to knock somebody out and Public Enemy was fighting the powers that be. The aromas of Kosher kitchens and Caribbean cooking may have wafted in the air, reflecting the diverse heritage of the neighborhood. At about 8:30 PM, seven-year-old Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela, same age, same last name, were taking turns on Gavin’s bike, under the watchful eye of Gavin’s Guyanese-born father, when a car, part of a three-car motorcade escorting Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson home from a visit to his late wife’s grave, struck the children, killing Gavin and injuring Angela. Within hours a visiting Hassidic scholar from Australia was attacked and killed by a group of young black men, and just like that, the community was embroiled in a series of race riots that rocked the city for three days. David Dinkins, the city’s first – and only – black mayor, had taken office in 1990. The Reverend Al Sharpton was prominent in calling for justice. There were allegations of racism and favoritism. There were allegations that outside agitators were coming into the already tense community to fan the flames of discord. The evening news reports and the daily news commentary would resonate with familiarity to the pandemic-stricken populace some thirty years later.

In the aftermath of the incident that came to be known as the Crown Heights Riots, playwright, actor, and professor Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than 100 people. Some, like an anonymous Lubavitcher woman, a rabbi, activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Crown Heights resident Henry Rice, and Carmel Cato, father of Gavin, were directly involved in or impacted by the events. Others, like playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, activist and scholar Dr. Angela Davis, MIT physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, and New York Shakespeare Festival director George C. Wolfe offered social, political, and even poetic perspectives. From these 100 or so interviews, Smith culled 29 monologues by 26 people (the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebrin, and Norman Rosenbaum, brother of the young Australian scholar who was murdered that fateful night each speak twice).

All the dialogue is in the words of those interviewed. The play – a totally inadequate word to describe this form of presentation – encompasses several themes. The first act includes the themes of Identity, Mirrors, Hair, Race, Rhythm, and Seven Verses (referring to seven biblical verses that seal the Old Covenant of the Chosen People). The second act focuses on the people and events of August 1991.

Smith conceived of this as a one-person play and performed all the roles herself in the workshop and original production. Onstage at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre, Jamar Jones fills Smith’s metaphorical shoes – there aren’t many real ones, as most of the characters are portrayed in bare feet – under the more than capable direction of Katrinah Carol Lewis. Lewis, some may remember, starred in another of Smith’s one-person, verbatim plays, TheatreLAB’s 2017 production of Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, based on the Rodney King incident. For about two and a half hours, including the intermission, Jones held us spellbound to this all-too-familiar yet at the same time overlooked take on America’s troubled racial and religious history.  

The space is sparsely furnished with a few black tables, a chair, a stool. Prominent in the space are two clothing racks topped with wig forms holding a variety of hairstyles and headwear. Kudos to Production Designer Todd Labelle and Costume Designer Margarette Joyner. This production even required a Wig Maintenance position, skillfully filled by Delaney Theisz. A quick change of wig, headgear, shirt, jacket, or accessories, and Jones was fully transformed into another character. Jones, who has proven his skill and agility again and again in diverse roles in many different productions including, but by no means limited to, Passing Strange (Firehouse), Fences (Virginia Rep), An Octoroon and Topdog/Underdog (both at the newly named Conciliation Lab) danced his way through numerous costume changes. A headwrap, oversized hoop earrings, and bangle bracelets for Ntozake Shange, a majestic black and white African print jacket with matching headwear to capture LA rapper Monique “Big Mo” Matthews, a kippah and prayer shawl for a Lubavitcher resident, a full beard and wide-brimmed hat for the rabbi, different wigs and styles to define a black teenager and a Hassidic mother. Each character had its own costume as well as mannerisms and sometimes props. Prof. Angela Davis’ tangled tango with a corded phone inspired a verbal metaphor as well as some welcome laughter.

More humor was provided by Rev. Al Sharpton, explaining how his signature hairstyle was inspired by his mentor, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. This was before Rev. Al lost weight, so Jones paired the good reverend’s signature gold chain with a wide-legged stance, leaning back and walking with a waddle. Jones and Lewis nailed the familiar characters, Prof. Davis, Rev. Al, activist Sonny Carson, Ntozake Shange, with a few accessories and physical attributes. For the less familiar, a hair toss, a speech pattern, the length of a skirt, or an accent or turn of phrase centered the character in Crown Heights, Brooklyn – not far from where I was living in Fort Green-Clinton Hill at the time these incidents took place.

Jones also applied mannerisms to each character. A Lubavitcher woman folded her laundry as she spoke. A man – it might have been George C. Wolfe – had an annoying habit of loudly tapping his sugar packets and vigorously stirring his tea. Some voices were soft, hesitant, while others were angry, sharp, caustic. The most memorable voices were those of Norman Rosenbaum and Carmel Cato, the two men who lost their son and brother respectively as a result of an accident and a retaliatory reaction that forever changed their lives and left a dark skidmark on American history. Jones delectably and respectfully embodied each of these people. These were not just characters but real lives he was entrusted with, and the weight of this responsibility was not light. Like them or not, likable or not, each speaker was given a stage, unrushed and without judgment. Oh, we, the audience, may have judged or taken a position, but Smith, and by extension Jones and Lewis, presented this cast of characters as honestly as possible, leaving us to ponder at our leisure. There was and is no final resolution, no closure that satisfies any of the affected parties. Charges may have been pressed, accusations may have been made, cases may have been given due process, but none of that addresses the humanity of why. Why did this happen? Why do we react the way we do? Why is there still racism and oppression? Why can’t we all get along? How did we get here, and when will it end?

In the end, Jones sheds the final costume. The clothing rack stands empty, relieved of its colorful burden. He heaves a huge sigh, releasing the weight of the characters he has inhabited for the past two hours, then symbolically turns the mirror he used for his transformations slowly, reflecting the audience. There was soft weeping behind me. No one moved right away.

Fires in the Mirror is not light entertainment. It is the sort of theater that stays with you long after the final curtain, long after the players have gone home. See it. Live or streamed. You must see it.

“These are the things I never dream about.” – Carmel Cato

—–

ADDENDUM: I am not one to follow conspiracy theories but I have to share this bizarre incident that occurred while I was watching Fires in the Mirror. One of the characters in the first half was Prof. Leonard Jeffries, then a professor of Black Studies at City College of New York. I do not know Prof. Jeffries (not then or now) and was not familiar with him or his work. During the intermission, I decided to check my messages and happened to look at my Facebook page, only to find Prof. Jeffries as a friend suggestion. He was wearing a dashiki and matching kufi (cap) similar to those Jones had worn only minutes before. Hmmm. . .

WHAT THEY DID FOR US

Stories of Black Women Who Paved the Way

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

Who: Heritage Ensemble Theatre

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1200 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: February 25 – March 6, 2021; eight COVID-conscious in-person performances

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $25 General; $10 for Students. Contact the company to inquire about a streaming version of the production.

Info: (804) 937-7104 or theheritageensemble.org.

As much as I love to point out that February is not the only month in which we can celebrate African American accomplishments, it does seem strange not to have the usual selection of productions that at least give a nod to Black History Month. So, the last weekend of February found me sitting at a table for one at the Richmond Triangle Players theatre with a tear or two sliding into my mask as I chanted, along with the rest of the pandemic-restricted audience of twenty or so: My doctors said I would never walk. My mother said I would. I believed my mother.

Written by Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s Founder and Executive Director Margarette Joyner and directed by Joyner and Sharalyn Garrard, WHAT THEY DID FOR US consists of a quartet of expanded monologues that pay homage to four exemplary Black women: Queen Nzingha, Phillis Wheatley, Cathay Williams, and Wilma Rudolph.

Dancing onto the stage with bejeweled ankles and wrists and wielding an ax, Marjie Southerland (Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre) embodies the politically savvy military strategist who successfully fought against the Portuguese colonization of parts of what is now Angola. While taking a stand against the slave trade, Queen Nzinga (1583-1663), also known as Ana de Sousa Nzingha Mbande, racked up accomplishments far beyond anything expected of any woman – or African – of her day (the 17th century).

Many of us have heard of the poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), but like me, many may not have known much about her life. The first African American author to have a book of poetry published, Wheatley, played with gentle strength by Rickaya Sikes (VCU Theatre major). Wheatley was born in West Africa, sold at age 7 or 8 to a family named Wheatley, and given the name Phillis for the name of the ship that brought her to America. She published her first poem at age 13. By 20, she had acquired international acclaim, yet she died impoverished at the age of 31.

Cathay Williams (1844-1893) was the only female Buffalo Soldier. She served in the US Army by pretending to be a man, William Cathay. Apparently, physical exams were not very thorough in the 19th century because it was years before her secret was discovered. Dejamone’ Jones portrays Williams with dignity and humor as she recalls her years as a cook and laundress. Although Williams received an honorable discharge, she was denied a pension.

But it was Shalandis Wheeler Smith’s portrayal of Olympian Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) that wrenched that tear from my eye. Smith (an actor who is also the company’s Production Manager) employed a call and response technique in her inspirational message that got the audience involved and made her segment stand out above the others. While her story was more familiar than the others – the childhood polio, the three gold medals, the designation as the fastest woman in the world – l never knew that Rudolph grew up with 21 brothers and sisters.

Tying these monologues together was Jeremy V. Morris (Oedipus, Passing Strange, An Octoroon) as Everyman. Morris changed costumes between each monologue, from African robes and a drum to waistcoat, wig and came, from straw hat (the least imaginative) to tracksuit as he provided narration, often in poetic verse. And I was impressed with his drumming in the first scene.

Set against a simple background that included a rocking chair, a low throne-like chair for the narrator, a podium, WHAT THEY DID FOR US has a linear quality. The actors do not interact with one another, and each monologue could stand alone in, perhaps, a school setting. In a different day and time, this production – more of a storytelling event than a traditional play – might find the theater packed with school-aged children for a matinee, or it might be presented in school auditoriums.

There were only a limited number of performances left at the time I wrote this review, but there’s always next year…

Photos from Heritage Theatre Facebook page.

KRAPP’S LAST TAPE:

“Perhaps my best years are gone.”

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

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: February 4-20, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 in person; $25 live-streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, drink orders, and more.

Two days, two plays. I would describe both as the type of play meant to make you think, more than just entertain you. (What a treat to even be able to see two live productions in a single week during a pandemic: THIS BITTER EARTH at Richmond Triangle Players and KRAPP’S LAST TAPE a little more than a mile away at The Firehouse.) And both were well done. But now, to get to the play at hand.

Alan Sader is Krapp. (I just had to say that!) But seriously, veteran actor Alan Sader steps into the role of Krapp, a 69-year-old man contemplating his life, as if he had been born for this role. I know Alan Sader, and watching this one-person one-act play, I didn’t see an actor I knew in a role; I saw Krapp.

Written by Samuel Beckett, known for his absurdist style, and directed by James Ricks, Artistic Director for Quill Theatre, KRAPP’S LAST TAPE is a perfect play for a pandemic. Solitary. Isolated. Defeated. The play takes place on Krapp’s 69th birthday. I don’t think he has a first name. To celebrate, for lack of a more appropriate word, Krapp rummages through the archives of tapes he’s made over the years, chronicling his life.

The setting is important – it takes on the aspect of another character. There is a wall of file cabinets, stacked one atop another and interspersed with odds and ends and brick-a-brack. A reel-to-reel tape machine and a portable staircase are supporting actors.

There is an introductory struggle with the ancient tape player – a heavy monstrosity of a machine that nearly gets the best of the old man before he places it precariously on an old rickety desk that seems barely able to support its weight. But that’s not the end of it. Oh, no. The tape machine’s electrical cord falls short of reaching the wall outlet, necessitating not one but two duets with the staircase. Old age and misery are not without their moments of humor.

To access the 30-year-old reel-to-reel tape he needs, Krapp consults a ledger for the carefully cataloged location of the specific tape he needs.  He then has to interact in a comedic duet with a moveable staircase to get to the right file cabinet where the electrical cords are stored. Sader makes climbing the steps a full-on drama, complete with grimaces and groans. In fact, it is quite a few minutes into the play before Sader actually speaks a legible word. The opening is entirely physical – sort of a combination of comedic actor Charlie Chaplin and mime Marcel Marceau.

Speaking of old age, I had to remind myself that this play premiered in 1958 when age 69 might have been considered ancient. Today, 69 is rarely seen as the end of life – except perhaps to people younger than 25. But I digress.

Before finally settling in to reminisce about his younger self, Krapp has one more trick to execute: an orgasmic experience with a banana – which he temporarily stores in his pocket – and an obligatory slipping on the banana peel. Oh, and let’s not forget the delight he takes in saying the word “spool,” drawing it out and repeating it several times.

Once Krapp has settled in, we hear his younger voice on tape (kudos to director James Ricks for his superb sound design), and Sader spends long periods in palpable silence. He hears the optimism of his younger self, aged 39, and doesn’t seem to react much but saves his regret for lost love. The people who passed through his life are ephemeral, but these recorded memories are his reality now.

Like most Beckett plays I’ve seen, this work is not for everyone – certainly not for those who crave action and movement and verbal sparring – but it seems to be the perfect vehicle for this trio: Beckett, Sader, and Ricks. I don’t know how Beckett would have felt about this production, but Sader and Ricks must certainly feel immense satisfaction in their flawless execution of KRAPP’S LAST TAPE.

The live performance, limited to no more than 10 in the audience, was preceded by a live performance by Ryan Phillips on solo acoustic bass – a perfect introduction to KRAPP’S LAST TAPE. The live program runs through February 20 (if there are any tickets left).

Photos by James Ricks:

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

THROUGH THEIR EYES: Raymond Goode Walks a Mile in Their Shoes

Ripped From the Headlines, From the Page to the Stage: An Evening of Monologues, Music, and Art

Some Observations on a COVID-Conscious Theater Experience by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The ARTS Community Center, 10179 Hull Street Rd., Midlothian, VA 23112

Performances: December 5, 2020, at 6PM, 7PM, 8PM & 9PM

Ticket Prices: $25

Info: rd.goode@yahoo.com

Some theater is meant to entertain, to make you laugh, or to be a diversion from your everyday life. And some theater is meant to move you, to educate you, to stir you to action or make you uncomfortable. Raymond Goode’s THROUGH THEIR EYES falls squarely into the latter category. In his book of the same title (which I promise I will read as soon as I clear my schedule of over-due assignments), Goode crafts short stories from the real-life situations he has culled from the headlines or in some cases from history. In each story, Goode has placed himself in the shoes of the protagonist (I try to avoid using the word “victim”), and the result is a series of moving, sometimes raw monologues.

With minimal set (a podium, a veteran’s flag encased in the traditional triangular frame) and live musicians (David Thompson on saxophone, Eugene Harris on keyboards, and Orisegun Olimidun on drum), there were few distractions from the gravity of the words. Conceived as a series of monologues, the work is fluid, with each of the four performances having a different line-upof monologues and entre’actes. The program, in its current form, has more of the feel of a staged reading or an open mic night, as one viewer told me. Goode is both author and director, and future iterations might benefit from the vision of another pair of eyes in the directorial chair.

My introduction to the Goode experience began with Benny Blonkoe Perry’s retelling of “Step in the Name of Love.” It is the story of a man remembering how, as a little boy, his father took him on a rare trip to McDonald’s, only to be shot to death in front of his son, for the paltry contents of his wallet. “That night haunts me to this day,” the now adult son remembers. “I was the last person to see my father alive.” The R Kelly hit tune “Step in the Name of Love” was playing on the radio and forms the haunting background to this memory.

In the second set, Katrina Robinson, who also performed as vocalist, stepped into the painful shoes of a mother who learned to come to terms with her son’s coming out, only to have him die from AIDS shortly after graduating from Morehouse College. “He Was My Son” should come with a warning to bring tissues or a handkerchief – and I think Robinson’s tears were genuine as she stumbled off the stage.

Royal Coakley stirred hearts and rage as she told the story of an enslaved woman who was raped in front of her husband, who sat helplessly and watched the violation unfold. When Coakley stormed offstage to find Harriet Tubman and get a ticket on the underground railroad at the end of “Still He Was,” the audience was ready to follow her.

Other stories brought to life included “Trayvon Martin” performed by Tandylyn Cooke, “Treatment Facility,” with Ken Moretti in the role of the broken veteran, “Homicide,” and “Goodies” with Goode in the role of the desperate father and fallen addict, respectively. Other performers included vocalists Lakesha Walker and TC, Dana Terry with dance interpretation, and my personal favorite, “Krumpologist” Casey Kingversastylez Inneigh who mesmerized the audience with his mind-bending, shape-changing movement to “Black Mothers’ Rules” and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.”

The few spaces that have stepped back into the world of live performances have done so under the guidance of strict pandemic regulations and guidelines that include temperature checks, scanned tickets, and digital programs. They require masks (a major ballet company even has the performers wear masks), and have greatly reduced the seating capacity. Given that ticket prices cover only a portion of the expenses involved in a production, reducing seating capacity from 250 to 75 or from 100 to 25 certainly doesn’t make economic sense, but instead speaks volumes to the dedication of performers to put on a live show. These are desperate times.

All that to say, with a socially-distanced capacity of 25 (in a space that could easily seat more than 100), it was heart-breaking to see only two other couples in attendance at the two shows I attended. One couple arrived late (for a 45-minute show) and one couple left early from each show. I would love to know if they left because the material was so intense they couldn’t bear to relive it, or because they were not satisfied with the quality, or if they just had other plans for the rest of their evening.

Even in it’s rough-edged state, in an open space without benefit of theatrical lighting or other accoutrements, with the restraints of social-distancing and all that entails, THROUGH THEIR EYES has the power to move. It’s dynamic. It isn’t perfect, but neither are we. And that makes it worth a look – or two or three.

Click here to visit Raymond Goode’s website: https://www.raymondgoode.com/about

Check out Raymond Goode’s social media pages to find out more about his books: Through Their Eyes, The Road to Oprah, 350 Goals of a Leader, and more.

For a promo clip of Goode’s work on WTVR News6: https://www.wtvr.com/news/local-news/through-their-eyes-author-brings-short-stories-to-the-stage-with-live-performances

Visit Amazon.com to purchase copies of Julinda’s publications:

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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The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt

Stories in the Soil by The Conciliation Project

Observations on a Research-based Performance by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pre-recorded at the VCU’s ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art) and on location in Richmond; live-streamed on YouTube

Performance: Sunday, November 15, 2020 at 3:00 PM; available for a limited time thereafter (see link below)

Ticket Prices: free

Info: https://youtu.be/yrbIGTA0WYg

There is no getting around the fact that 2020 has been a most unusual year. It has brought unprecedented challenges to our arts. Yet, as history confirms, art always prevails. Theater and dance has found new ways to exist and mined new ways to create.

The Conciliation Project is a Richmond-based social justice theater company under the direction of Dr. Tawyna Pettiford-Wates (Professor of Graduate Pedagogy in Acting and Directing at Virginia Commonwealth University) and Dr. Ram Bhagat (educator, peace-builder, community healer, and co-founder of Drums No Guns). With heavyweights like these at the helm, it should come as no surprise that The Conciliation Project offers research-based programming that reveals, examines, and demands a response to racial stereotypes and racial injustice.

The script for “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” was developed from conversations with Richmonders, with a focus on the history-defining events of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial (in-)justice protests that resounded around the world in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd.

“The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” is not a play in the traditional sense. It is reminiscent of Ntzoke Shange’s self-described “choreo-poems” or the eye-opening work I saw as a teen-ager at what was then the mecca of Brooklyn’s Black culture, The East. (For a description of The East, look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_East_(Brooklyn) and http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/320). In other words, this is work that exists to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain.

Conciliation: The process of winning over from a state of hostility or to gain the goodwill of. The building of bridges to connect two points that are distant, and/or disconnected from one another.

Among the topics presented by the voices in “The Common wealth & The Common debt” are the definition of the word “commonwealth,” diverse perspectives on the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia (the middle passage, slave markets, Jim Crow and other racial injustices), the value of Richmond monuments, the Civil War, racism, power, segregation, urban farming, and more. In one moving scene, Keaton Hillman has a conversation with an ancestor, Callie, a woman sold into slavery and later freed. “Help break the cage for someone else,” she says before returning to the ancestral plain. The next scene shows a group of protesters marching in cadence to “no justice, no peace.”

Against the backdrop of a chain link fence and passing traffic, masked performers sing, “We Wear the Mask.” Contemporary voices blend with traditional fables, history, and storytelling in a non-linear way that the modern western mind might struggle to comprehend. Experiencing “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” is a bit like being inside the production while watching it; similar to the way one might dream and awaken to wonder where the dream state ends and reality begins.

“I think we could definitely do a better job at creating monuments that glorify actual heroes instead of being used as an intimidation tactic, which is what they were originally put there for.”

The creative team organized a solid ensemble consisting of Calie Bain, Juliana Caycedo, Keaton O’Neal Hillman, Zakiyyah Jackson, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Todd Patterson, and Mariea Terrell. The acting ensemble is supported by Drummers lead by Ram Bhagat and dancer Alfumega Enock. In a live post-performance discussion, we learned that the stories and interviews were collected by the Graduate Applied Theatre Class at VCU as well as members of the Ensemble, with support from the ICA. “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” should be accessible for the remainder of the week of November 15. Catch it, if you can.

GRIEF, GUILT, AND PARANOIA: The Madness of Poe

Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: Poe in October, How Perfect!

A Live Theatrical Experience Reviewed by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Hanover Arts and Activities Center, 500 S. Center Street, Ashland, VA 23005

Performances: October 16, 23 & 30, 2020 @5:00PM [Recommended for ages 13+]

Ticket Prices: Pay-What-You-Can

Info: http://www.WhistleStopTheatre.weebly.com or (804) 798-2728 (Venue)

On Friday evening (October 16) the rain let up just in time for a live “pandemic appropriate” performance of Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: The Madness of Poe, staged under a wide-spreading tree on the spacious lawn of the Hanover Arts and Activities Center. It was a cool 55 degrees and cloudy, but not uncomfortable. Attendees are required to bring and wear a mask as well as a lawn chair or blanket to sit on. (I would also advise a blanket for the cool weather.) About a dozen people claimed socially distanced in squares marked off in the grass as a pre-show playlist of Poe-inspired songs filled the air. (Three trains passed on the nearby tracks during the 45-minute show, but the program was so riveting the interruption was negligible.)

I don’t like to know too much about a show before I see it, so as not to be unduly prejudiced before I get there, so Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: The Madness of Poe was a total surprise. Whistle Stop Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Louise Keeton conceived of Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia as a multi-faceted work that includes multiple historical and artistic influences. It takes place, for instance, not far from a home once occupied by Poe’s childhood sweetheart (and later fiancee) Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton. Created in partnership with the Ashland Museum, the work includes three voice artists representing the different “voices” of Poe (also represented by three different masks created by Keeton).

Those familiar with the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe and those who are not may relate differently to this work that uses Poe’s own poetry, original music by Paul Loman, and choreography by Katherine S. Wright. Wright, who eerily embodies Poe (wearing theatrical masks and a long-coated suit), doesn’t ever speak, but rather uses pantomime and dance in a riveting and passionate display of non-verbal communication while Poe’s words are voiced by Lucretia Marie, Barbara Keeton, and Craig Keeton. Sophia Manuguerra is the vocalist, and all the voices and music were created and recorded virtually.

The artistic choices – including Keeton’s masks and artwork by local artists that is all being auctioned off – are diverse and unconventional, making them all the more appropriate for the subject at hand. In addition to honoring and appreciating the poetry of Poe, Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia is about missing the people we love and the ways in which that can drive us mad – an obvious reference to the current pandemic and our similar and diverse reactions to it.

Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia digs into love and loss, life and death, verbally and visually mining the depths of “Annabell Lee,” “Elenora,” “The Premature Burial,””The Telltale Heart,” and of course, “The Raven.” The Hanover Arts and Activities Center had already constructed a small stage under a tree, and Keeton and company added three black cubes with hinged lids that provided all the set, the furniture, and the props needed for this production.

There are two remaining performances of Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: The Madness of Poe on October 23 and 30. To view and bid on the art work visit the Whistle Stop Theatre Company’s website: whistlestoptheatre.weebly.com. Opening bids start at $10 for the masks and prints, and $5 for artwork delivered via high res digital files. All bids are due before October 29, 2020.

Edgar Allan Poe Trivia

The Baltimore Ravens NFL team is named for Poe’s poem, “The Raven” and the team mascot is named Poe.

Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm when she was 13 and he was 27.

To this day, the cause of Poe’s death remains unknown. In 1849 he “went missing” for five days and was found, delirious, in Baltimore. He died in a Baltimore hospital and was buried two days later, without an autopsy.

Photos: From the Whistle Stop Theatre Company website. Katherine S. Wright as Poe.

A slideshow of auction items follows.

JACQUELINE JONES IS “ANN”: One Woman Show at the Firehouse Theatre

Jacqueline Jones Lends Her Voice to the Story of Ann Richards, Fearless & Feisty Female Democratic Governor of Texas

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220 [live and streamed options available; live performances have a limited capacity of 2, 4, 6, or 8]

Performances: September 16 – October 25, 2020

Ticket Prices: $30 suggested donation; pay what you will

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

Wearing a blue suit, accessorized with a double strand of pearls and bronze metallic pumps with a matching bottomless tote bag, Jacqueline Jones looks – dare I say it? – presidential as she portrays Ann Richards, the first female Democratic governor of the great state of Texas.

I did not want my tombstone to read, ‘She kept a really clean house.’ I think I’d like them to remember me by saying, ‘She opened government to everyone.’

And in case you were wondering, as I was, who holds the honor of being the first female governor of Texas, it was Miriam Amanda Wallace Ferguson, known as “Ma” Ferguson who served two terms as Governor of Texas, from 1925-1927 and again from 1933 to 1935. And somebody please correct me, if necessary, but my cursory research shows that “Ma” Ferguson, who basically took over after her husband was impeached, was a Democrat, so unless I’m missing something that would make Ann Richards the SECOND female Democratic governor of Texas…but I digress.

I get a lot of cracks about my hair, mostly from men who don’t have any.

I may or may not have heard of Ann Richards (born 1933, served as Governor 1991-1995, died of esophageal cancer in 2006), but Jones brought Richards to life in a way that made me feel as if I might have known her, and would definitely have liked her if our paths had crossed. The humor, the perfect delivery of Richard’s famous one-liners, even a naughty joke, all worked together to create a sense of intimacy that was entirely captivating.

“I suppose I owe you an apology. Well, you ain’t gonna get one. ‘Bye!”

Due to COVID-19, Ann was an ideal choice as a one-woman show, and The Firehouse Theatre restricted live performances to 2, 4, 6, or a maximum of 8 patrons. Scattered as we were, for social distancing, it felt as if Jones/Richards was speaking directly to each of us. Part of this may be due to the extensive research and care that playwright Holland Taylor put into Ann. Taylor, herself an Emmy winning actor, portrayed the legendary Governor on Broadway – as well as in Texas.

Hate the evil and love the good, and establish justice in the court. – Amos 5:15

During his customary pre-show curtain talk, Firehouse Producing Artistic Director Joel Bassin asked audience members to share their experiences and memories of Governor Richardson. Comments ranged from graceful, humorous, and forceful to “wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Jones gave us all of that. The play starts with Richards giving a commencement speech as the University of Texas, and ends with her commenting about her own funeral. In the space between, we are gifted with 100 minutes of compelling storytelling, wit, history, and inspiration.

“I have always had the feeling I could do anything and my dad told me I could. I was in college before I found out he might be wrong.”

We learn of her ground-breaking accomplishments, her commitment to service, her concern for civil rights and social justice. But we also see her as a wife, a mother, a real person with real challenges – she had to check herself into rehab for alcoholism. I came away with a picture of a woman who understood being Governor was more about others than her own personal interests, someone who worked for unity in diversity, which I found surprising for her time and her state. And to bring things into perspective, if you yearn for relevance, or like to make things connect: Ann Richards’ granddaughter, Lisa Adams, worked as an aide for Hilary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign and was director of communications for Senator Kamala Harris during her presidential bid.

“Bad things happen when they don’t vote.”

One thing that is quite remarkable is the way Jones kept up her energy and the connection with the audience, given the limited number of people and less of feedback. But this play, with this actor, and this director – Billy Christopher Maupin, who starred in the Firehouse’s first pandemic-style contactless show the past summer – did more than just make do. They made beautiful theater.

The government is not “they,” the government is us!

Kudos to costumer Ruth Hedberg for the presidential suit and the Ann Richards wig. (See the photos below of Richards and Jones with the Richards wig. The photos, by the way, do not do justice to Jones, who looked radiant throughout this production.) While it was a one actor show, Erica Hughes lent her voice as Nancy Kohler, Richard’s secretary (as well as the show’s vocal coach) and Partricia Alli was the voice of the College President.

“Men are great fighters, women have the power to bring consensus.”

Performed with one ten-minute intermission, “Ann” is among the first of the live theatrical experiences to return to Richmond theater venues. Joel Bassin and the Firehouse staff have gone above and beyond to make the audience feel comfortable and safe. Masks are required of all patrons and staff. (Jones does not wear a mask on stage for her solo performance.) A staff member meets and greets you at the door with a contact-less thermometer. Everyone is assigned a seat number and even a designated bathroom. You are asked to wash your hands before taking your seat, during intermission, and before leaving. There is no lingering or fraternizing in the lobby. Unlike some other venues, The Firehouse is still providing printed programs (no need for tickets for 2, 4, 6, or 8 people) and the programs are placed in a taped off, numbered space as you check in. The bar is closed, but drinks may be pre-ordered (beer, wine, soda) and magically appear on the bar in a taped off space -identified by your number. Email confirmations are sent out with detailed instructions (it’s a lot to remember).

“Call ’em out!”

If you’re ready to venture outside of your quarantine quarters, this show, running though October 25, is a good place to start your journey.

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SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: At the Edge of the Ocean

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: A Play Without Words

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: March 7-29 (with previews March 5 & 6), 2020

Ticket Prices: $37

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

It isn’t often that someone writes a play that requires the actors to take a vow of silence. But that is exactly what happens in Beth Wohl’s play, Small Mouth Sounds (premiered in 2015), when six people in search of themselves – or something or someone other than their themselves – arrive at an upstate New York center for a silent retreat. Small Mouth Sounds was inspired by the author’s own retreat experience.

Naturally, things do not unfold smoothly as each character reveals their special brand of quirkiness or unveils their personal demons. Judy and Joan are a couple – two middle-aged  women who are struggling to shoulder the burden of Judy’s cancer diagnosis. Alicia is a young woman who apparently just broke up with someone named Fred; she keeps dialing his number and is constantly distracted by her forbidden cell phone. She is perturbed to discover that she has been assigned a male roommate.

Ned and Rodney are two of the most interesting members of this unlikely collection of people. Ned has had an unimaginable string of bad luck: he fell off a mountain and broke his skull; his wife started sleeping with his younger brother; he started drinking and joined AA only to have his sponsor commit suicide, and his dog got run over by a car. That’s just a small sampling of all that he’s been through. Rodney is a passive aggressive yoga instructor who smugly and silently snubs everyone else, shows off his yoga skills, removes his wedding ring as soon as he arrives, and is the first to strip down for the clothing optional lakeside activities.

Oh yes, there is a bit of nudity – full frontal – and some “herbal tobacco” and Palo Santo wood gets burned onstage. This play is recommended for viewers 18 years and older. But, to get back to the cast, one of the greatest surprises comes in the final scene from the mild-mannered Jan.

This group of seekers comes under the care and watchful eye of a gruff-voiced guru, an unseen and nameless Teacher who coughs and sneezes into her microphone and appears o the verge of a breakdown. The audience never sees the Teacher, Marisa Guida, until she comes out to take her bow at the end. Guida is the only character allowed to speak throughout the play.

The marvelous cast consists of Lauren Leinhaas-Cook as Judy (the one with cancer); Jenny Hundley as her partner Joan (the bubbly one who always seems to have a small wrapped candy); Maura Mazurowski as Alicia (the young one with all the bags and baggage – and snacks); Jim Morgan as Ned (the one who has all the bad luck); Adam Valentine as Rodney (the passive-aggressive yoga instructor); and Larry Cook as Jan (the one whose secret I will not reveal here, but about whom I will post a nagging question at the end of this review). What makes them all so marvelous is that, except for a rather long monologue by Ned, and a brief but sharp exchange between Joan and Judy, we learn all we know about these characters through facial expressions, gestures, and a few grunts. In order to successfully carry off a play in which the main characters are all required to take a vow of silence, these actors had to act their butts off!

Running 70 minutes with no intermission, Small Mouth Sounds is set in a yurt-shaped structure with large open windows and chakra symbols painted on the walls. The only furniture is a few backless wooden stools (which Judy emphatically complains about) and some floor pillows. At night, the campers make do with their yoga mats as they fight mosquitos and shiver at the sounds of growling bears and other unknown animals. Actors enter down the center aisle, sometimes rather noisily, and the top of the set extends over the audience making us feel that we are inside the experience – or experiment, which I believe is the word used in the opening seconds – perhaps even in the position of the Teacher.

Joey Luck designed the sound – a variety of ambient sounds including insects and birds and a bear or two, assorted snorts and grunts, and a torrential rainstorm. Rusty Wilson, Irene Ziegler and the cast members contributed voice-overs and other vocals sounds. Sarah Grady’s costumes helped define the characters. This entire delightful production was directed by Laine Satterfield with a balance of structure and freedom that allowed humor to emerge quite naturally. The pacing was unhurried, yet never lagged, and the scenes perfectly captured the juxtaposition of the meditative environment with the characters’ personalities and problems. In her Director’s Note, Satterfield describes how, during their first week of rehearsal, the cast members lived key moments of their characters’ lives and even worked out timelines and bios.

Small Mouth Sounds runs through March 29 in the intimate Theatre Gym at the Virginia Rep Center on West Broad Street. A part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, the play runs in tandem with a series of wellness workshops, Centered Stage, including topics such as meditation and feng shui. The series takes place after the shows on March 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, and 26.

 

**********

SPOILER ALERT

Now, for that question regarding Jan and his secret. . .Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know before you go. . .

So, in the final scene, it is revealed that Jan does not speak English. My question is, how was he able to read his information packet and follow the instructions of the Teacher? Hmm???

**********

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Jason Collins

Small Mouth Sounds
Adam Valentine, Jenny Hundley , Lauren Leinhaas-Cook, Maura Mazurowski, Jim Morgan, Larry Cook. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

August Wilson's Fences
Marisa Guida. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

Small Mouth Sounds
Maura Mazurowski, Jim Morgan. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

Small Mouth Sounds
Adam Valentine, Jenny Hundley, Lauren Leinhaas-Cook. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

Small Mouth Sounds
Jim Morgan and Maura Mazurkowski. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

 

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