TWELFTH NIGHT: Shakespeare on the Back Lawn

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: July 8 – August 14, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

For their first show at Agecroft Hall after “the plague that shall remain nameless” the Quill Theatre chose Shakespeare’s zany romantic comedy, Twelfth Night. The play takes its name from the Twelfth Night as it was created as holiday entertainment marking the Epiphany, or the end of the Christmas season. In addition to the shipwreck, unrequited love, deception, revenge, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, androgyny, and numerous other elements that Shakespeare wrote into the plot, Quill Theatre updated the play with colorful and whimsical costuming (e.g., Feste’s flower child ensemble, Malvolio’s bell bottoms and yellow stockings) and a sound score that featured 1960s pop hits (think the Beatles, the Monkees, and Elvis).

Meerovich, who plays the fool Feste as well as serves as musical director, opens the show with a lively serenade that sets the tone for the evening and Lucretia Marie who plays the minor but nonetheless important role of the sea captain, Antonio, who saves the shipwrecked Sebastian, reads the evening’s announcements. Before you know it, the play has begun, with some major characters popping up from amidst the audience from time to time. The show runs about 2.5 hours, with one intermission, but director Jan Powell established an easy, organic pace that complemented the casual layout, with the audience spread out over the back lawn under a clear sky, accentuated by a lovely sunset, a pastoral setting, and welcome breezes from the nearby river – as well as the occasional passing train.

For those who need a refresher – or an introduction – Twelfth Night recounts the tale of noble-born twins Viola and Sebastian who are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, a region of the Balkan Peninsula. The twins are separated, each thinking the other has drowned. Sebastian is rescued by Antonio, a sea captain, and the two remain peripheral for much of the play while Viola, after being saved by an unnamed rescuer, disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Cesario, and becomes a servant to Duke Orsino, who is in love with the fair Olivia, who is mourning her deceased brother. To complicate matters, Viola/Cesario falls in love with Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario who has come to plead the case of Orsino. While all this is going on, Olivia’s maid Maria, Olivia’s rowdy uncle Toby and his friend Sir Andrew conspire to convince Olivia’s household steward Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. Feste, a court jester and roving musician, weaves between all the characters, collecting tips and keeping the audience entertained with musical divertissements.

Emily Berry and Mitchell Ashe played the shipwrecked twins, each believing the other had drowned until the final scene. Dressed identically, with Berry disguised as a boy, both become involved in relationships that bend and blend gender boundaries. Berry’s character is in a triangle with Olivia and Orsino while Ashe’s character inadvertently risks breaking the bonds of trust established with the sea captain who helped him at great personal risk. Both ultimately end up in conventional male-female couplings. Berry has a lot more stage time than Ashe, increasing the audience’s anticipation of their ultimate reunion – which drew cheers on Thursday night.

Michael Blackwood and Lucretia Marie, as the benefactors of the twins, provided solid dramatic counterpoint to the constant hilarity delivered by Cole Metz, Levi Meerovich, Foster Solomon, and Kurt Benjamin Smith, much of which was instigated by Erica Hughes’ character. Thanks to their unrelenting and often physical humor, it was easy to keep up with the flow of the action even when the sound system failed us. Sometimes, it seems depending on where the actors were standing, words and lines got lost, and for awhile there was a bit of static coming from some of the speakers. But this was a new configuration for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and I trust that these issues will be worked out during the run of the show.

A modest set (no credit given on the PDF version of the digital program I have) consisting of a simple wooden fence with a few green vines and some lovely rainbow colored lighting by BJ Wilkerson provided atmosphere without overwhelming the backdrop – Agecroft Hall, a Tudor mansion that, we were reminded, stood in England while Shakespeare was still alive. The audience saw scattered across the spacious lawn on lawn chairs and blankets, in clusters as close to others as you chose to be. I don’t recall seeing any masks, but you could certainly wear one if you want to. All in all, Twelfth Night delivered a delightful night of theater, and its utter nonsense provided a welcome sense of normalcy.

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Viola – Emily Berry

Olivia – Michelle Greensmith

Orsino – Michael Blackwood

Malvolio – Cole Metz

Feste – Levi Meerovich

Toby Belch – Foster Solomon

Andrew Aguecheek – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Maria – Erica Hughes

Sebastian – Mitchell Ashe

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Direction & Design

Director:  Dr. Jan Powell

Assistant Director: Melissa Rayford

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Anna Bialkowski

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Intimacy Director: Lucinda Piro

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

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: Dave Parrish Photography & Quill Theatre Facebook page

 

ELLA AND HER FELLA FRANK:

A Match Made in Heaven

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: July 9 – September 12, 2021 (Preview July 8)

Ticket Prices: $58. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

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

The theme for opening night was “Richmond theater is back!” The occasion was festive, with a classic Rolls Royce convertible parked in front of the November Theatre, a ribbon cutting, and after the show, a ceremonial darkening of the lights in honor of the late Randy Strawderman, who first conceived of this heavenly duo.

The word heavenly is not thrown around lightly, as the premise of this show – more a concert than a play or even a musical – is a reunion in heaven of these two real-life friends and musical collaborators. The result is a nostalgic concert of classics and favorites.

Highlights of the evening (not counting being out at a live theater event) included Desirée Roots’ skillful and confident demonstration of Fitzgerald’s signature scatting technique on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and Scott Wichmann’s nuanced and intimately articulated delivery of “One For My Baby and One More For the Road.” There was even a good-spirited vocal battle set off when Wichmann tried to sing Sinatra’s signature “New York, New York.” Roots threw every city or geographically related song she could think of at him before allowing him the pleasure of completing the song: “I Love Paris,” Girl From Ipanema,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago),” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Tale the A Train,” and more.

Roots is no stranger to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, having written and starred in a 2017 tribute, Ella at 100 (since renamed Forever Ella). Roots was both amusing and elegant, portraying “The First Lady of Song” in three elegant gowns – a blinding gold metallic number, a lime green satin ensemble, and an angelic white finale creation adorned with feathers and glitter – each with matching shoes and a color-coordinated handkerchief. Kudos to Sue Griffin and Keith Walker for the costume design. Wichmann was a natural choice for the popular singer nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” Between the two of them, Fitzgerald and Sinatra earned 25 Grammy awards (13 for her and 11 for him), and sold somewhere in the vicinity of 200 million albums.

Seeing these two musical icons portrayed by two familiar theater stars would have been a treat at any time, but it was especially heart-warming as the inaugural show of the great re-opening. Too bad Friday night’s performance was marred by a wonky sound system. Both singer’s voices were under-amplified and at times distorted while singing, and much of their light banter was completely lost. (I understand this was not the case during the previous night’s Preview performance, and I hope it doesn’t affect any other shows.)

A live 7-piece orchestra was placed onstage – socially distanced – in a simple and elegant setting of white balloon-like globes that at times reflected different colored lights. The beautifully subtle lighting was designed by BJ Wilkinson. As at any good concert, the musicians got a chance to solo, and even the Overture (Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump) and the Encore (Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a Strong”) drew enthusiastic applause. Larri Branch, the Music Director, was also the pianist – who had a single line, a long-drawn out “yep!” in response to questions like, “Are they (meaning us, the audience) real? There was even a bit of audience participation – some planned and some that I think was spontaneous.


Katrinah Carol Lewis’ direction was unobtrusive and organic – except when the two vocalists briefly paced around one another like caged cats. Their initial attempts to hug one another were hilariously rebuffed by an invisible force shield that prevented them from touching – another nod to COVID-19 conventions, yet highly unlikely to happen in heaven.

Written by Richmond-based playwright Bo Wilson and featuring nearly 30 songs, Ella and Her Fella Frank runs about 80 minutes, with no intermission. In accordance with Actors’ Equity Association COVID-19 Guidelines, face masks are required to be worn by all patrons while in the building and no food or drinks are being served at this time.

In honor of Randy Strawderman, who conceived of the original concept of this show, a moving tribute was held after the show, with Debra Wagoner singing from the balcony above the theater’s restored original entrance and a ceremonial darkening of the theater lights. A detailed tribute is available in the digital program – another COVID-19 theater convention that is likely to be around for awhile.

Ella and Her Fella Frank

by Bo Wilson

Based on an original concept by Randy Strawderman

Cast

Desirée Roots as Ella Fitzgerald

Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra

Direction & Design

Direction: Katrinah Carol Lewis

Scenic Design: Josafath Reynoso

Costume Design: Sue Griffin and Keith Walker

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Music Direction Larri Branch

Stage Management: Jocelyn A. Thompson

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: Aaron Sutten

Find these books by Julinda on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/bookshelf

ALL NEW RDF21: WEEKEND TWO!

DOGTOWN DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2021 RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL LIVE AND IN-PERSON

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 West 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: Week One: June 11-12, 2021. Week Two: June 18-19. Live and streamed on Dogtown STREAM.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20 General; $10 Students. Virtual Access $39.99 annually (Free Trial currently in effect. https://www.dogtowndancetheatre.com/dogtownstream)

Info: (804) 230-8780 or dogtowndancetheatre.com

WEEK 2 REPERTORY:

Perceived Threat by Leah Glenn Dance Theatre (Williamsburg, VA). Choreography: Leah Glenn. Music: Max Richter.

Marathon by Trybe Dance Collective (a safe space for emerging artists). Choreography: Danielle Lyndsay. Asst. Jaedyn Cameron, Daneya Celestin, Kendall Parker, Chloe Ruffin, Mia Watkins. Music: “Marathon (In Roses)” by Gem Club.

Equinox a film by Jonah Haber

Vacancy by Baran Dance (Charlotte, NC). Choreography: Audrey Baran. Music: Nicholas Jaar.

Kalika Stuthi by Sri Sai Dance Academy. Choreography: Sarada Jammi. Music: Satyagopal Tumuluri.

A Mother’s Soliloquy a film by Cameron Kostopoulos. Directed & written by Cameron Kostopoulos. Music: Prateek Rajagopal.

One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow by Jenna Beardsley (Richmond, VA). Choreography: Jenna Beardsley. Videography: Taylor Bonadies. Music: “Flora” by Elysia Crampton ft. Jeremy Rojas & “When I Rule the World” by Liz

desasosiego. by Aina Lanas (Spain). Direction, Choreography & Writing: Aina Lanas.

Retentions by CLAVES UNIDOS (Richmond, VA). Choreography: Kevin LaMarr Jones with Alyssa Frye, Diamond Hudson & the performers.

Salad Days by Sara Hook. Choreography by Sara Hook. Music: “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast Verzagan (At First I Almost Despaired)” by Robert Schumann

Canis Major an award-winning film by Charli Brissey. Direction, Choreography & Animation: Charli Brissey.

CURRENT by Company | E (Washington, D.C.). Choreography: Maddie Hanson. Music: “Midnight” by Kyle Preston, “Behind Every Decision” by Yehezkel Raz, “Dark Tension: by Kyle Preston & “Hibernation” by Pete James Johnson.

The Richmond Dance Festival came back for a second week with all-new programming. Like the first week, the program consisted of a mix of live performances and dances created on and for video. There were some truly outstanding performances, but this time there seemed to be some unevenness in genres, execution, and programming.

Leah Glenn set the bar high with the opening work, Perceived Threat. Jamal Story started standing on one leg, with the other suspended in the air somewhere in the region of his ear while he turned. It brought to mind images of Fred Benjamin and Eleo Pomare, two icons of American modern dance for those of a certain age. The work itself, a duet Story performed with partner Kylie LeWallen, is contentious and gravity-defying, and marked by some of the strongest technique I’ve seen in quite some time.

Another highlight of the program was Sara Hook’s zany and breathless duet Salad Days. The title is taken from a Shakespearean reference to the “salad days” or heyday of youth. Throughout most of the dance, Rachel Rizzuto counted aloud from 1-10, varying the tempo and accent and sometimes counting to 12. Occasionally her voice waned, her partner wearied of the pace, only to rally and rejoin the game. For some reason, at one point, Rizzuto takes off her shirt and stands topless while her partner politely averts his eyes, but humor doesn’t always have to make sense to make us laugh. The program included six more live dances and four dance films.

The Trybe Dance Collective’s group work, Marathon, featured a troop of young dancers with tight buns and purple leotards.  Though it is constructed of basic studio moves – bridges, contractions hinges – it brought to mind Balanchine’s “Serenade,” as it, too, was created as a showcase for young dancers and an introduction to the choreographer’s technique for the audience.

In Audrey Baran’s Vacancy ritual, repetition, and meditative poses were set against a soundscape of words, music, conversation, and children’s voices. A program note included the question, “How do we navigate or occupy the space and time left behind after a loss, and should we?” I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the riveting motion.

Ameya King performed the classical Indian piece, Kalika Stuthi, on Saturday (Manaswi Gonela danced the role on Friday), and I found it interesting that the song sounded familiar as it was written by the choreographer’s father, Satyagopal Tumuluri. (It reminded me of a song I heard on a segment of Rhoda Grauer’s 1993 Dancing video series, but I couldn’t find any music credits for the series.) King’s long bejeweled braid and ankle bells helped accentuate the polyrhythms as each and every part of her body danced: eyes, fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, torso, hips, legs, feet – each subdued to the discipline of her craft. It was possible for one unfamiliar with the genre to follow parts of the story, even if we had no knowledge of the demands of the technique.

The second half of the program began with Jenna Beardsley’s solo, One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow, featuring the specter-like figure of a gauze-covered dancer on stage and a grainy black and white film on the screen behind her.  The work ends with a bizarre juxtaposition of the waif-like figure – is it human or human-like; is it living or no longer living – moving to the empowering anthem “When I Rule the World.” The unusual title comes from a line in Scottish singer SOPHIE’s song, “Is It Cold in the Water?” – the same artist who produced “When I Rule the World” – and the work is dedicated to the mysterious artist who identified as a trans woman and tragically died after a fall from a balcony earlier this year.

Kevin LaMarr Jones’ Retentions featured a multi-generational cast of women and a toddler girl dancing to music fired with the passion of Spanish guitar. The little one tentatively ventured from her mother’s arms to explore the striding steps of the other women and took a few test strides of her own. One woman moved alone, slowly traversing the back of the space, emphasizing a sense of being along but together. Like much of Jones’ work, Retentions speaks of history and geography and cultural diffusion.

The program closed with Company | E’s CURRENT, a complex work that is at once overly long, ambiguous, and committed. A section that dealt with the acquisition of an air fryer was hilarious while hammering home its point about unnecessary consumption. But I will be covering this company more in-depth next week when they return for an entire evening of works from their WARMER series.

By far, my favorite of the films was Aina Lanas’ desasosiego (Restless). Lanas, described in the program as a “reference for urban/contemporary dance in Spain,” provided an immensely entertaining film featuring four women in deconstructed suits entertaining themselves – and their audience – by playing with and tasting lemons. At some point, their jackets and pants fall away, and there is even a moment of flamenco, of course. [https://vimeo.com/486618048]

Jonah Haber’s film, EQUINOX, featured a woman wearing a black dress walking in a geodesic dome. The work is filled with many structures and has a sci-fi feel. Cameron Kostopoulos’ film, A MOTHER’S SOLILOQUY, was a depressing tale of addiction. A crumbling room of mirrors and broken glass reflected a woman’s rapid deterioration, and I was outraged that this film closed out the first half of the program. Near the end of the second act, Charli Brissey’s award-winning animated film, CANIS MAJOR, explored a writer navigating through a severe case of writer’s block with the help of their dog. The writer contemplates the relationship between dancing and surviving the end of the world. [https://www.charlibrisseyisananimal.com/canis-major-2019]

All-in-all, Weekend Two was marked by diversity and variety, yet it lacked the visceral and artistic impact, the “wow” factor of Weekend One. 

RDF21:

DOGTOWN DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2021 RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL LIVE AND IN PERSON

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 West 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: Week One: June 11-12, 2021. Week Two: June 18-19. Live and streamed on Dogtown STREAM.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20 General; $10 Students. Virtual Access $39.99 annually (Free Trial currently in effect. https://www.dogtowndancetheatre.com/dogtownstream)

Info: (804) 230-8780 or dogtowndancetheatre.com

WEEK 1 REPERTORY:

Affected | Karar Dance Company | Choreography by Kara Robertson | Music: Original Score by Ryan Davis | Costumes: Damian Bond

En el Vació (In the Vacuum) | Choreography by Eric Rivera | Music: “Una Palabra” by Carlos Varela and “Contrastes” (La Periferia feat. Renzo Baltyzzi) by Damian Verdun | Costume: Johan Stegmeir

when you are looking, what do you see? (FILM) | Dogwood Dance Company | Choreography by Joanna Chocklett with collaboration from performers | Music: “Epilogue” by Olafur Arnaulds

Collective Fortitude | RADAR | Choreography by Megan Rivero | Music: “Outro” by M83

Fiscal Relations (2018) | Choreography by Julianna Raimondo | Music: “Between Water and Wind” by Colin Stetson

Exhale (FILM) | Directed by Moniek van der Kallen

Tribal (Improvisational Belly Dance) | Ajna Tribal Belly Dance Troupe | Choreography & Performance by Stephanie Wagner, Missy Moore, Lois Milone, Alicia Hagy | Music: “Land Back” by A Tribe called Red, “Trøllabundin” by Eiver, “Pow Wow” by A Tribe Called Red

Personal Tea Ceremony | Human Landscape Dance | Choreography by Malcolm Shute | Music: “Meditation” by Jules Massenet

DRY ONE’S EYES (FILM) | Directed by Botis Seva & Ben Williams

Two’s Too Much | Choreography & Performance by Luisa Innisfree Martinez & Kayla Xavier | Music: “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” by Paul Anka & “Little Story” by Janusz Wojtarowicz, Motion Trio

Ulrichs 1867 (FILM) | Directed by Sven Niemeyer

Malong Dance and Fan Dance | Sayaw! Diversity | Choreography by Dhol Tuason | Music: Kapa Malong-Malong & Philippine tribal music dance

The Richmond Dance Festival is back, and the dance community has obviously been starving for live dance. Dogtown Dance Theatre welcomed a full house (that’s about 80-ish people), and masks are optional if you are fully vaccinated. People seemed comfortable with the mix of social distancing accented with elbow bumps and a few actual hugs. The joy of being back in the theater for a live performance enhanced a dynamic and diverse program consisting of 8 dances and 4 films. (There will be an entirely new program for the second week. See below for details.)

Highlights of the program included Ajna Tribal Belly Dance and Sayaw!, Eric Rivera’s solo, and the film by Seva and Williams.

It’s hard to believe that the smoothly synchronized poly-rhythmic movements of Ajna Tribal are improvised. The quartet of women mesmerized with heads, shoulders, hips, and hands all moving to different rhythms simultaneously. Two of them even did this while balancing curved swords (scimitars?) atop their heads. The finger cymbals, colorful costumes, and music used in this American Tribal Style belly dance seemed to represent a fusion of cultures: Middle Eastern, Asian, African, and more.  What a way to end the first act!

The final work, Malong Dance and Fan Dance, was no less impressive. Dhol Tuason presented two traditional Philippine dances. “Pagapir,” performed with glittering fans is a royal court dance of the Maranao people and from the Lake Lanao area, features elegant movements of the large fans while the women’s feet take tiny steps emphasizing their prominent family background and good manners. “Malong” is the name of the gorgeous tubes of fabric worn by the dancers and gracefully manipulated from skirt to shawl to mantle, alternately covering and revealing. As beautiful as the fans and fabric were the women who represented a wide range of ages from youth to elders, a gentle reminder that dance is for everyone.

Eric Rivera’s intense solo, En el Vació,was performed by Alisha Agrawal, in a fiery red dress that boldly reflected a flamenco influence. The work, which in English translates to In the Vacuum, incorporated horizontal rolls on a wide bench. It is described as an exploration of the sense of urgency surrounding the return to normalcy – something that has been on our minds recently. Do we cling to the past, or move ahead into an uncertain future? En el Vació does not answer these questions, but it certainly makes contemplating them more interesting. Rivera is a prolific choreographer, having spent 13 seasons with Ballet Hispanico of New York where he created or helped to create more than 20 original works.  He has also performed with Minnesota Ballet, Ballet Teatro Municipal de San Juan, P.R., and in the European tour of West Side Story.

The beautiful brown bodies and clear eyes of the women and girls in the film Dry One’s Eyes seem to be on a journey in search of identity. Close-ups of faces beautifully devoid of makeup, and one inexplicably masked in white powder (does it represent oppression or tradition?) are arranged in stark contrast to tortured and sometimes invasive movements and situations (as when gloved hands roughly explore one’s teeth) and the presence of a black Barbie doll is at once innocent and ominous. This is the sort of art that relies equally on the movement and the film – a delicately balanced and perfect marriage of mediums. Dance artist Botis Seva often uses hip hop and autobiographical experiences to propel his narratives and the results are compelling and cutting-edge.

While these were my personal favorites of the evening’s dozen offerings, the rest of the program was outstanding.

The program opened with Karar Dance Company’s duet, Affected. The work has extraordinary use of energy, from sustained and to lyrical to robotic and ritualistic. Karar presented their first evening length work, Circadian, and at Dogtown in 2019 – in the “before” times – and has presented work, including Affected in Philadelphia in collaboration with the NYC’s Vanessa Long Dance Company. Karar Dance Company is definitely a company to watch.

RADAR’s Collective Fortitude, first presented in 2016 as part of the company’s evening length work, beingHUMAN, employs majestic music and tense movement in an exploration of human connection and relating to others. Washington, D.C.-based Human Landscape Dance is contemporary company whose work often focuses on human struggle and relationships and each of their dances is framed by some sort of container (such as a box or an egg) or employs foundational props. Julianna Raimondo’s Fiscal Relations is populated with monstrous possessions, poses from classic hip hop album covers, and dancers wearing jackets, irregularly buttoned shirts, and lots of noise! Raimondo’s work reflects an eclectic background, having worked with DanceWorks Chicago, Matt Pardo, and Urban Bush Women, among others,

Personal Tea Ceremony, a beautifully intimate and gentle work performed by Alexander Short and Malcolm Shute, is an exploration of an experience Shute had while traveling in Japan. “I encountered a Japanese man who spoke as little English as I speak Japanese,” he said in a Dogtown spotlight, “and offered me a ride to a remote location. After I took my photos, he led me to a temple for a tea ceremony. The event forged a bond between us, despite our differences.” The leaves and petals on the floor and on the dancers’ shirts could represent tea leaves or the flora of the remote location where the tea ceremony took place.

Two’s Too Much, choreographed and performed by Luisa Innisfree Martinez and Kayla Xavier, was by far the most amusing work on the program. The piece involved two women, a rug, and a bottle of wine, and carries the brief but poignant descriptor, “What’s mine isn’t yours…” Like Personal Tea Ceremony, the work makes use of props and explores relationships, and delightfully displays Martinez’ focus on women’s characteristics and mannerisms and using tangible objects to disrupt space.

Other films shown included Dogwood Dance’s when you are looking, what do you see? – a mostly black and white interlude set in a wide field, it addresses the ways in which we categorize and compare, how we take in the world. Do we really look? Do we really see? It is a beautiful first film by Joanna Chocklett, a Richmond native and graduate of the JMU dance program.

Hailing from the Netherlands, Moniek van der Kallen’s Exhale is another emotionally impactful film that seems to be about drowning and rebirth – or some sort of resurrection. It is beautifully filmed, in and under water. Last, but certainly not least, was German dancer and filmmaker Sven Niemeyer’s documentary-like film, Ulrichs 1867. Raw and heart-wrenching, it deals with violence against the LGBTQ community.

A dozen pieces is a lot. I normally would call it overkill, but in this case Dogtown artistic director Jess Burgess outdid herself in selecting works that all stand out in their own right and that worked together to create a festive atmosphere for this first RDF21 program. But wait, there’s more. June 18 and 19, Weekend Two will have a whole new repertory:

Perceived Threat by Leah Glenn Dance Theatre (Williamsburg, VA)

Marathon by Trybe Dance Collective (a safe space for emerging artists)

Equinox a film by Jonah Haber

Vacancy by Baran Dance (Charlotte, NC)

Kalika Stuthi by Sri Sai Dance Academy

A Mother’s Soliloquy a film by Cameron Kostopoulos

One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow by Jenna Beardsley (Richmond, VA)

desasosiego. by Aina Lanas (Spain)

Retentions by CLAVES UNIDOS (Richmond, VA)

Salad Days by Sara Hook

Canis Major an award-winning film by Charli Brissey

CURRENT by Company | E (Washington, D.C.)

My only complaint: Since re-opening, the risers have not been set up, so if you’re sitting beyond the second row, it’s hard to see. Several people chose to stand at the back of the theater to see better.

WALLED IN WITH WALDEN

a new play by Andrew Gall with material adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

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

Performances: May 27-June 26, 2021, live and streamed. May 27-29, previews. June 3 Premiere. June 18-20 live & live stream.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 in person & live stream

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

What is more appropriate as we emerge from more than a year of pandemic restrictions than a play based on the experiences of a man in prison (Andrew Gall’s fictional Lester Franklin) reading a book about a man who spent two years living in isolation in the woods (the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau)? Andrew Gall’s new play, Walled In, is, indeed, a play on Thoreau’s Walden, and while Gall liberally utilizes Thoreau’s words, his character, a MAGA-hat wearing Republican corporate lawyer who is in jail “taking one for the team” and wondering what happened to his promised pardon is very much a man of the twenty-first century. White, privileged, on the far side of middle age, Franklin is an angry, foul-mouthed, entitled creature whose own wife and daughter seem eager to sanitize their hands of his particular brand of filth. Whew. If that seems wordy, it’s just a hint of what to expect when you see Walled In.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…” – Henry David Thoreau

The exact details of how Franklin landed in prison are not necessary. We first meet him having a hissy fit after being assigned to clean the prison toilets. It doesn’t take long for him to be assigned to a prison education program where his class is assigned to read and journal about Thoreau’s two-year social-spiritual experiment, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a far shorter sentence than what our friend Franklin might expect.

Doug Blackburn plays the role of Franklin in this one-person play (although two other actors lend their voices as the unseen Instructor (Todd Labelle, who is also the Production Designer) and Hicks, a prisoner in an adjacent cell (Rudy Mitchell). I could say Blackburn is a strong presence, but the playwright doesn’t really give him any other option. Franklin is an angry man. He strings together lines of expletives as if he were training for an Olympic competition in obscenities. (The program includes the “WARNING: This play contains very strong language that some may find offensive.”) It comes as no surprise when Act One ends with Franklin collapsing on the floor after yet another round of screaming into the wall phone – a phone to which he apparently has unlimited access. But there are also beautiful if rare poetic interludes, as in the description of an old unwashed coat that smells of Old Spice and bonfires.

Act Two begins with Franklin lounging on his cot reading. Hicks, the closest thing he has to a friend, refers to him endearingly as Heart Attack, and the bean plant he had tossed into the toilet is inexplicably flourishing on his nightstand. Yes, Hicks says he replanted it, but how did he retrieve it from the toilet and get it onto Franklin’s nightstand? Hmm? I do not consider it a SPOILER to tell you that Franklin’s journey of self-discovery while reading Thoreau does not result in a magical transformation. It does not make him any more likable. In the end, he is not redeemed but instead released on house arrest after Hicks dies of COVID-19, which Franklin refers to as the “China virus.” The point is not the destination but the journey. There is a lot of kicking and screaming; the two hours (with an intermission at the 80-minute mark) must be exhausting for Blackburn. It certainly is not an easy ride for the audience. Still, it is timely and raw and for some, seeing the character Franklin, who represents so much of what we hate about politics and privilege, in prison and no longer able to call the shots, is smugly satisfying. In a recent interview with Jerry Williams on the “Curtain Call” podcast, Gall described Lester Franklin as “a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge,” yet I doubt Franklin achieved any real redemption. Lester Franklin is an awful person; Doug Blackburn is a wonderful actor (assuming he is nothing like Franklin).

Gall relocated to RVA from North Carolina during the pandemic, and this is his first offering as part of the local theater community. Gall wrote and directed Walled In. Blackburn has been seen previously in the Firehouse production of Wrong Chopped. The lights, projections, and sound score for Walled In are fabulous. Production Designer Todd Labelle and Composer/Sound Designer Mark Messing have created a simple set (a wall phone, a cell featuring a toilet, night table, and cot, and a single wooden school desk) that is beautifully enhanced with a soundscape featuring train whistles and bullfrogs, owls and whippoorwills and other sounds. Lights and projections effectively transform the bare walls into the woods surrounding Walden Pond, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise flat space.

Walled In is not the kind of play you leave smiling and telling everyone how much you liked it. It is a play that makes you angry. It makes you think. And you leave feeling that things have got to change. Redemption isn’t just for individuals; it’s for systems.

Production Team:

Written and directed by Andrew Gall

Performed by Doug Blackburn

Featuring the voices of Todd Labelle and Rudy Mitchell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Costume Designer – Colin Lowrey II

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Assistant Director – Grace Brown

Production Associate – Claire Bronchick

Stage Manager – Kasey Britt

Performance Schedule:

Thu, May 27 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Fri, May 28 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Sat, May 29@ 7:30pm / invited preview

Thu, June 3 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 4 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 5 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 6 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 10 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 11 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 12 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 13 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 17 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 18 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sat, June 19 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sun, June 20 @ 3:00pm (live + live stream)

Thu, June 24 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 25 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 26, 7:30pm

Tickets:

$33 live and live stream 

4000 DAYS

Soap-Opera Style Amnesia-Themed Play is Both Witty & Worrisome

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

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

Performances: On Stage and On Demand, April 29 – May 22, 2021. On Demand beginning May 8.

Ticket Prices: $35; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: $25; $10 for Students.

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

Michael wakes up in the hospital to find his mother sitting patiently by his side. “What happened to you?” he queries. “You’re so old.” We soon find out the reason for this odd exchange. Michael landed in the hospital as the result of a sudden and unexpected blood clot in his brain that left him in a coma for three weeks. When he wakes up, he has lost the last 11 years (4000 days) of his life – years that included a decade with his lover Paul, who is now a stranger to him.

The familiar plot is straight off the pages of the popular soap operas my grandmother used to watch. She called them “stories.” The plot came to prolific British playwright Peter Quilter in a dream and evolved into a three-person play that explores the themes of amnesia, the relationship between gay men and their mothers, and conflicts between lovers. The Richmond Triangle Players production stars Carlen Kernish as Michael, Jacqueline Jones as his mother Carol, and Todd Patterson as his lover Paul.

Kernish is suitably foggy and somewhat fluffy (like a life-sized teddy bear) throughout the two-act play. Jones digs in to her role as the cantankerous mother who doesn’t like her son’s partner. Making sure he knows that is one of her chief pleasures. After three failed marriages (some ended by divorce, some by widowhood), she has no other focus in life than her adult son. And Patterson shows a range of emotion as he navigates the complicated revelation that, as far as Michael is concerned, he never existed.

There is some witty dialogue that draws laughs at appropriate times, but on the first Friday night of the run, the trio of thespians had not yet reached that place where their characters seemed to be fully and organically at ease with one another. Additionally, they drifted in and out of British accents, which was mildly distracting. I don’t think any of the problems originated with the actors or the direction, however. Lucian Restivo kept the play moving along at a comfortable pace, but the script didn’t seem to flow effortlessly.

Other distractions came from the set. 4000 Days is supposed to be set in a private room in a British hospital, but the room’s proportions seemed off, and the perspective seemed forced. The room was too large. A window stage left was a focal point in several scenes but could not be seen by anyone sitting on the right side of the audience. The headboard or wall behind Michael’s bed seemed oddly out of place, and the door to the room, set dead center, was constructed with an asymmetrical crossbeam – or whatever you call the top of a door jamb. Anyone with the slightest OCD tendencies will find that door very distracting. (Okay, I looked it up. The horizontal beam at the top of the door frame is called the “head.” Only this head wasn’t truly horizontal.) I wasn’t sure if the design was accidentally off-center or intended to have a cartoon-like effect.

Given that the play, which premiered in 2016, takes place in current times, Michael thinks it is 2010 when he wakes up. In an attempt to jog his memory, Paul brings him stacks of newspapers. Then the audience is treated to two video montages that capture the highs and lows of the past 11 years. The flood of memories winds down with images of Megan Markle, the Coronavirus vaccine, and LGBTQ and BLM activity. Oddly, when Michael takes up the painting he abandoned to please Paul, he starts a mural on the wall of his hospital room. The resulting haphazard splashes of vibrant color may offer some insight into why Paul discouraged his partner’s painting.

On the creative team, Dasia Gregg is responsible for the production’s satisfying projections and the troubling scenic design. Restivo created an excellent sound design, and Nia Safaar Banks’ costumes added style and color. I wondered if some of Jones’ stylish asymmetrical peplum tops were taken from her personal wardrobe. Michael Jarett provided the lighting. Amanda Durst was the dialect coach (for the accents the actors sometimes forgot to use). Most curiously, Tippi Hart was the intimacy director. The need for an intimacy director was curious because, unlike the Triangle Player’s recent production of This Bitter Earth, there weren’t any genuinely intimate scenes in 4000 Days.

I left 4000 Days feeling as if some of the questions I had might resolve after another week or two of production. While it wasn’t one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen, I did enjoy myself, and it was good to be out among people who aren’t confined to tiny rectangles on a screen. There is a 27 seat maximum per performance. All audience members wore masks.  (Oh, on an amusing note, the stagehand wore scrubs and a hospital mask or clear plastic face shield each time he emerged to modify the set or change the props.) Everyone I spoke to made sure to announce to their friends that they had been fully vaccinated, so a few cautious hugs were exchanged. Al-in-all it was a good evening – if I could only shake the image of that crooked doorway.

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

A Tightrope Take on a Tragic Accident

A Theater Review by Makai Walker

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

Performances: March 26 – Sun April 25, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 live and streamed

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

[NOTE: This production was made Covid conscious with a severely limited seating capacity of a maximum of 10 audience members at each performance, as well as other safety protocols that can be found on The Firehouse Theatre website.]

Fires in the Mirrorfelt like a 2-hour stroll through 90s New York and considering the premise of the show I’d call that a good thing. The one-person play by Anna Deavere Smith is a series of monologues collected from Smith’s interviews with real people and directed by Katrinah Carol Lewis who stared in another of Smith’s one-person plays (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at TheatreLab in 2017.

Fires in the Mirror tells the story of the Crown Heights Race Riots of 1991, the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, and the car crash that started it all. It consists of 29 performed monologues taken verbatim from interviews with 26 subjects, some of whom were near or directly involved with the accident. In the first half of the play, we’re given context to the racial tensions roiling between the black and Hasidic residents of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. This, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the play. Actor Jamar Jones puts his best efforts towards spinning an engaging and emotional story, but he is significantly hindered by the first act’s lack of focus and direction.

Act One involves various Black and Jewish people discussing the matter of identity. As a separate component, Act One is a highly informative and intriguing take on culture, but in the context of a play sparked by a specific event, Act One feels like an hour-long non sequitur.

As the second act begins, we take a deep dive into the fatal collision that claimed Gavin Cato’s life and the retaliatory murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. Unlike its precursor, Act Two is much more engaging. As the story unfolds, we peer into the perspectives of the people closely involved with the incident. The final two monologues, those of Rosenbaum’s brother and Cato’s father, are the highlight of the evening.

Jamar Jones evokes a playful and committed approach to the characters                that never feels too distasteful and is truly lived in. His embodiment of the interviewees is breathtaking and thrilling to watch.               In terms of themes, Fires in the Mirroris very open-ended about what it wants you to take away. As the play progresses, it hammers home the idea of an incongruous truth or the sense that no one knows what really happened. At times one feels an underlying rhythm of monologues that alternately dip into each “side” of the story. There is the Black side, the Jewish side, and then there are the elements of the crash that are added, embellished, or omitted. While watching, I kept getting flashes of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which four people take turns telling subjective or self-serving alternatives of the same story.

Anna Deavere Smith does a fantastic tightrope walk across the conflict and brings light to some of the more deep-seated racial issues in Crown Heights. The questions I kept asking myself was, “What is this play trying to say?” and “Who was right, who was wrong?” I agree with director Katrinah Carol Lewis; there is no winner or loser. This was a tragic accident and regardless of the fallout two lives were lost. That’s the “why” that needs examination.

THIS BITTER EARTH

A Bittersweet Play on Interracial Dating

A Theater Review by Makai Walker

Play by: Harrison David Rivers

Directed by: Brandon Rashad Butts

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

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

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

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

This Bitter Earth: a Bittersweet Play on Interracial Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WELCOME MAKAI WALKER

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

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.