SONGS FROM THE SOUL: The Story of Black Music in America from Slavery to Hip Hop

SONGS FROM THE SOUL: The Story Black Music in America

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

By: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn

At: 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: February 2-25, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

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

William Dye wrote and directed Songs from the Soul, a foot-tapping musical revue that traces the history of black music in America from slavery to the present. Aimed at theater-goers aged 7 and up, the show runs for a delightful one hour with no intermission.

On Sunday afternoon the three-actor ensemble of William Anderson, Anthony Cosby, and Nicole Pearson took a diverse audience (age, race, gender) that nearly filled the house on a musical journey from Negro spirituals and slave songs through contemporary hip hop and rap. Young and old, black and white calmly patted their feet or clapped along to the music for the first few minutes until Anthony Cosby, who appears to be the baby of the group, came out in a permed wig and sparkly jacket and threw his leg up on the piano during his spirited rendition of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” That seemed to loosen up the audience considerably.

While Anderson, Cosby, and Pearson maintained a lively and fictitious rivalry, it was Cosby who repeatedly sought to engage the audience, at one point involving the three sections (east, west, and south) in a three-part chant of “Whoomp, There It Is!” Anderson and Cosby donned fluffy retro Afro wigs for the “Soul Medley” (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Respect/Think”) the trio moved some to tears with a “Civil Rights Medley” including excerpts of “Precious Lord,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “We Shall Overcome,” complete with a portrait of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And was it just me, or did Pearson’s coat, head scarf, and grocery bag remind anyone else of Rosa Parks?

The “Rap Medley” began with the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which is usually held to be the original herald of hip hop and included the all-too familiar lyrics to “The Breaks” and “Whoomp, There It Is” as well Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” and Eric B and Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” This medley sparked an interactive conversation at Sunday afternoon’s Act of Faith talkback. One local pastor in the audience had questions about rap, hip hop, and Christian values, while Virginia Rep’s Founding Producer Bruce Miller, who moderated the Talkback, shared some amusing anecdotes from the point of view of a “liberal white guy.”

The long and the short of it is that music can be a universal, unifying force that brings people together. As an example, Writer/Director William Dye expressed pleasant surprise that white members of the audience stood for the closing song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamund Johnson, it was first performed February 12, 1900 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and has since become known as the Negro or Black National Anthem. As such, it is traditional for black people to stand in respect, as for any national anthem, when sung in churches and for community programs.

Songs from the Soul includes an historical narrative that manages never to get bogged down – even when addressing such weighty subjects as slavery and civil rights. That’s what happens when you have a theatrical professional who is also a teacher in charge of the production. (The term “edutainment” which accurately describes this merging of entertainment and educational content was coined in the 1970s by former Harvard professor Robert Heyman.)

Simple additions to basic costumes – a wig, a jacket, a dashiki – create atmosphere, identify the time period, and indicate identity. Sue Griffin’s costuming, Skyler Broughman’s lighting, and Terrie Powers’ set design are all simple and unobtrusive, keeping the music centerstage. A fourth cast member, Michaela Nicole, serves as the swing or understudy, but we did not have the pleasure of her presence on Sunday.

My trusted and experienced consultant for all children’s shows, my 9-year-old grandson, Kingston, gave Songs from the Soul two thumbs up, but did not add any details.  To my surprise, he did participate in the talkback, asking the cast members about their favorite types of music.  While there was a wide range of preferences, nearly all, including Director Dye, showed a preference for Christian and Gospel music, and Cosby confessed to a strong preference for jazz and big and sounds. Sounds from the Soul offers everyone a chance to enlarge their musical vocabulary.

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

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Aaron Sutten

 

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FREE MAN OF COLOR: The Story of One Man’s Search for the True Meaning of Freedom

FREE MAN OF COLOR: The Story of One Man’s Search for the True Meaning of Freedom

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Rd, Richmond, VA 23227

Performances: February 8th, 9th, 10th, 15th, 16th, 17th @8:00pm; February 10th, 17th @4:00pm; February 14th @10:00am

Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com; http://theheritageensemble.wixsite.com/thetc

“Your people will never live in harmony with white people in America.” These words might have been taken from the latest news coverage of white supremacists in the local news. But on stage at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, they were spoken by Reverend Robert Wilson, President of Ohio University in the 1820s, acting, as he believed, under direct orders from God.

Robert Wilson, played by actor Ken Moretti, is one of three characters in Charles Smith’s very literate and very relevant play about John Newton Templeton (Jamar Jones), the first African American to graduate from Ohio University – 35 years before slavery was officially abolished in the USA. Free Man of Color, first published and produced in 2004) is not just a recounting of yet another African American first – it is a thought provoking look at an American figure most of us have never heard of, an examination of the institution of slavery from an entirely different perspective, a revelation of the conflict and contradictions that complicate the conjunction of black freedom and women’s rights, and – to paraphrase director Toney Q. Cobb’s notes – it seeks the meaning of freedom, rather than the definition.

Most would think John is privileged to be brought into the home of Wilson, a university president, and his wife Jane (Mara Barrett) to work as a student servant while studying for a liberal arts degree. But wait, not so fast. John is immediately met with hostility from Jane, who appears to have a deep disdain for John and is not averse to calling him stupid or even a nigger. “I hated that woman,” John tells the audience in a narrative aside.  “Every time I looked at her, I could visualize my fingers wrapped around her throat.” Many in the audience at Saturday’s matinee felt the same way, and I felt a great respect for Barrett who executed a flawless performance of her hateful role in front of an all-black audience.

There is more to Jane’s character than we see at first glance. As the story unfolds, we learn that she is not allowed to ride her beloved horse, because ladies are not allowed to straddle a horse, but may only ride sidesaddle – an inefficient if not impossible proposition in rough terrain. Furthermore, Jane, the wife of the president of the university, cannot set foot into a classroom or lecture hall at the university in 1824, again, because she is a woman. Yet here is John, a freedman, an ex-slave, living in her home, enrolled in the university, and riding her horse.

Jones, who appeared in last year’s Richmond Triangle Players production of Choir Boy and spends his days portraying enslaved and free black people in Colonial Williamsburg, initially appears to portray John as the perfect negro – polite, docile, compliant. But that is only one side of this multi-faceted character. As he learns the difference between training and education, Jones’ character shows his benefactor, Rev. Wilson, and the audience that while one may be trained and manipulated to follow, he has been educated to reason for himself. The decisions he makes may not please his mentor, but he is adamant that “if I don’t look after my soul, no one else will.” Jones is fully committed to this role, and entirely believable.

Moretti also gives a fully fleshed, nuanced performance. As Rev. Wilson, Moretti renders a heart-felt rendition of “Amazing Grace” that is marred only by the realization that his character is using the song to justify white supremacy. All three actors are well cast in their roles.

Free Man of Color is an important work that addresses serious issues and raises important questions. Free Man of Color addresses the issues of slavery and women’s rights, but also brings up the treatment of native Americans and indigenous people in Liberia, which was home to a settlement of expatriated black Americans and it examines the motives of the American Colonization Society. A group created in 1816, purportedly to assist free blacks and former slaves emigrate to Liberia, to our contemporary eyes, it bears a striking resemblance to white supremacist organizations and ideologies.

In two acts, performed over approximately 2 hours and twenty minutes, including one intermission, we are taken on a journey that leaves us stunned, angry, outraged, and hopeful – sometimes all at once. Jones, Moretti, and Barrett work well as an ensemble, with only a few stumbles, and Cobb’s subtle yet intentional direction keeps the audience engaged. Free Man of Color is excellent theater and marks a new high for the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company and for Toney Q. Cobb as director.

The Pine Camp venue offers challenges any theater company’s technical crew. One is that all sets must be free standing, and here Artistic Director Margarete Joyner has done an amazing job in creating the Wilson’s home office. She is listed on the program not only as Artistic Director and Costume Designer – a job she does with the eye of a fashion designer – but also as Set Designer and Master Carpenter! The lights were designed by Geno Brantley and the sound (including subtle and perfectly placed touches of period music, the sounds of a horse galloping, and more) was designed by Pamela Archer Shaw.

  • FYI: Here is a link to the actual commencement speech delivered in 1828 by the real John Newton Templeton. “The Claims of Liberia” is mentioned several times in the play, but Jones/John never actually delivers it.

http://www.seorf.ohiou.edu/xx057/john_newton_templeton.htm

  • NOTE & SPOILER ALERT: While John was offered an important position in the colony of Liberia, a bit of research indicates that the Edward Roye mentioned at the end of the play was actually the fifth president of Liberia, not the governor. It seems that Charles Smith may have taken some artistic license with the historical facts, but there is plenty of substance – not “fake news.”

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

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Photo Credits:

Photos & Posters Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

 

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BRAVE NEW WORLD: an uneven adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel

BRAVE NEW WORLD: David Rogers’ adaptation from the novel by Aldous Huxley

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Quill Theatre at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Rd., Glen Allen, VA 23060

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $28 Regular; $15 for Students (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 261-ARTS or quilltheatre.org

It’s no surprise that Quill Theatre would consider Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World as appropriate source material for the current season. After all, as Production Manager James Ricks pointed out at Sunday afternoon’s audience talkback, there is a resurgence of a national discourse, of talking points about truth and fact (what we now call “fake news”), scientific truth (the CDC was recently issued a list of forbidden words), emotional truth (can there be any compromise between white supremacists and all those whose existence they would deny). The question was asked, why is this an Acts of Faith Festival offering? That’s self-explanatory. Our beliefs, what we value, our gods or lack thereof, our idols (in this case, Ford, which forges links with technology and conveniently rhymes with Lord) provide logical points of departure for discussions of faith. Brave New World offers an entry point for comparative discourse on the hard topics that should be discussed.

Another albeit more lightweight reason this is a choice for Quill is that one of the main characters, John (Caleb Wade), communicates largely through Shakespearean quotations. Ironically, John is considered a savage in Huxley’s dystopian world, where babies are genetically manufactured, workers are cloned in factories, hypnopedia or sleep-training is the preferred method of socialization, and the government distributes happy pills to every citizen.

The problem with this production (well, actually, there is more than one) is that David Rogers’ 1970 adaptation o Huxley’s novel and the Quill staging, directed by Maggie Roop, whose work I admire tremendously, works better as a book than it does on stage. As fascinating and as timeless as the story may be, and as strong as the cast may be, both individually and collectively, the first act drags, and I found it difficult to fully engage.

Quill is adept at placing actors in multiple roles. They have, after all, successfully staged the complete works of William Shakespeare with just two actors. Brave New World, the play, was written for 19 men, 13 women, and three children, or 14 men and 9 women with some in multiple roles. Quill staged the production with a cast of 11, composed of six men and five women. The result of this paring down was that at times it was difficult to tell who was playing which character when, and it didn’t help that the entire cast wore uniforms: silver-gray pants and shirts or burgundy dresses, both topped by awkward little epaulet capelets.

On the positive side, I appreciated the gender-neutral casting of Lucretia Anderson as Mustapha, the Resident World Controller. Michael Oppenheimer initially held out a promise of change in this totalitarian society as the rebellious Alpha+ male Bernard, but when given a taste of power, he caved in.  Alex Wiles as the beautiful Lenina remained steadfastly committed to the program and the emotion deadening effects of the government supplied narcotic, soma. Caleb Wade brought a welcome intrusion into this world as the so-called savage, John, with his curiosity and literary worldview, and his shirtless second act was the highlight of the show for some. The cast also included Joseph Bromfield, Axle Burtness, Christopher Dunn, Rachel Hindman, Jacqueline Jones, Jimmy Mello, and Nicole Morris-Anastasi.

Mary Sader’s austere faux stone set was simple and attractive, but during the first act I was distracted by my view of an unpainted support that was clearly visible from my seat on the far left of the auditorium. At the start of the second act, a member of the stage crew pulled the curtains to meet the edges of the set, solving the problem. James Ricks’ sound design included an electronic effect that sounded a lot like an Australian didgeridoo, which was simultaneously evocative and unfortunately hegemonic for the scenes involving John and the residents of the compound where New World residents would occasionally vacation in order to experience the primitive past.

Rogers adapted Huxley’s novel, and Quill made a few more adaptions. Originally set in futuristic 26th century London, the production was free of English accents or any geographical references. When Bernard decided to vacation in New Mexico, there was no indication how far it might be from where he started, or even if it was in another country. The production chose to call the undeveloped areas compounds rather than reservations and also downplayed Huxley’s emphasis on sexuality and required participation in orgies, while adding a snake-handling scene near the end.

I suspect that the theatrical experience might be quite different for those who read and remember the novel, those who read it decades ago in high school (if it was allowed), and those who never read it at all. This is a production that the cast seemed to enjoy immensely. Axle Burtness indicated during the talkback that it was exciting to be immersed in Brave New World because of the lack of realism. Unfortunately, as an audience member, I was not able to attain that level of immersion and felt a bit left out. In a Brave New World, I would probably be a candidate for exile to an island. Thank Ford!

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 Credit:

Quill Theatre promotional photos

BNW-Slider-1
Lucretia Andlerson, Axle Burtness, Rachel Hindman, Nicole Morris-Anastasi, Michael Oppenheimer

BNW-Slider-2Acts of Faith

I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD: When prayer is a curse

I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD: by Halley Feiffer

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $35 – VIP Seating, $30 – General Admission, $20 – Senior / RVA Theatre Alliance, $10 – Student (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 505-0558 or theatrelabrva.org

Like many of the Acts of Faith Festival offerings, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is not intended for mere entertainment. It left Saturday night’s TheatreLAB at The Basement audience mentally battered and bruised and most in the audience sat in utter silence collecting themselves for more than a full minute at the end.

This provocative two-character play deals with the toxic father-daughter relationship of David (Alan Sader), a renowned playwright and his daughter Ella (Liz Earnest) and aspiring actress who alternately basks and languishes in her famous father’s success. The second installment of Artistic Director Deejay Gray’s “Taking Sides” project, Gray has staged the play in David’s living room that appears to have been snatched from New York and dropped into the middle of The Basement, with audience members sitting on two sides peering through the torn away walls. At some point we became unwilling voyeurs, sort of like having noisy neighbors in an apartment building. This feeling is reinforced by the opportunity to watch the viewers on the other side of the stage watching the action – and you. One woman even gasped aloud at a particularly egregious action by David. The intimacy of the setting amplifies whatever you might be feeling as you watch this story unfold.

There is no doubt that Ella loves her father. The way she kneels submissively before him with his refilled wine glass in her outstretched hands is profoundly disturbing, as is her constant need to apologize. David obviously has deep feelings for his only daughter, but it is a love tainted by a narcissistic and perhaps even psychopathic personality.

Gray decided to stage this 90-minutes without interruption play as a two-act play with an intermission after about an hour in. In the first act, Sader commands the stage and monopolizes the conversation with his daughter. He reminisces about his character’s early life, throws shade on well-known playwrights (“Arthur Miller was a hack”), and rants relentlessly about theater critics. (I thought long and hard before I put the actors’ names in parentheses after the names of their characters – apparently one of Davis’s pet peeves.) David is the kind of self-centered father who calls his fawning daughter ugly and then says it’s a joke. He takes off his shoes and thrusts his feet into Ella’s lap for a foot rub but callously pushes her away when she puts her feet in his lap, so he can return the favor. Sader maintains a deceptively calm exterior through many of these exchanges, speaking with a marked softness that makes his increasingly frequent explosions all the more harrowing.

Davis is not likely to win any awards for father of the year. Not only does he exploit Ella’s insecurities, he fuels them with wine, hits from a bong, and lines of cocaine. But if the first part of the show belongs to Sader, the shorter second act presents Earnest as a greatly transformed Ella.  No longer fawning and seeking the approval of her father – who appears only as a sort of ghost-of-the-past figure – she has, instead, become her father. As the now confident, successful, and beautiful Ella, Earnest is beautifully put together in a chic top, slim high waited pants, and thick heels that command respect – no slutty stilettoes for her. But, it’s all just acting, and it’s a role she cannot maintain.

Given that playwright Halley Feiffer is the daughter of prolific cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer (currently 89, he married his third wife in 2016), one cannot help but wonder how much of I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is autobiographical. Nonetheless, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard (a line and a lesson taken from David’s mentor) offers an intriguing look into the home life of an award-winning, if fictional, playwright as well as two coveted roles of the type both characters debate in their alcohol fueled family night.

David Melton’s set is beautifully detailed and also utilitarian; it takes a beating before the evening is over. Ella sits and lounges on the coffee table, jumps in the sofa, and soaks the carpet with wine more than once. A mirror does double duty as a tray for cocaine, and a trash basket plays a featured role in a bloody accident. I did wonder, however, about one wall that featured a window and a single-panel door that appeared to be an apartment style door. It was not clear whether this door opened onto a corridor – in which case, why the window? – or onto the street. Michael Jarett’s lighting is subtle and takes a dramatic turn during key moments in the dialogue. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design was equally subtle, at times almost imperceptible, as when the strains of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” supported Sader’s humming of the tune.

I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is gritty, meaty, and oh so worth your time, and David and Ella are two characters you’ll not soon forget.

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 Credit:

Tom Topinka

THE DIVINERS: acts of faith vs crises of faith

THE DIVINERS: by Jim Leonard, Jr.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: CAT (Chamberlayne Actors Theatre), 319 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $13, $18, $23

Info: ​​ (804) 262-9760 or cattheatre.com

 

For the first time in all the years I’ve gone to CAT, the space was totally reconfigured. Director Zachary Owen reversed the positions of the audience and the stage to build a raked thrust platform with the audience seated intimately on three sides of the stage for the current production of Jim Leonard, Jr.’s depression-era drama, The Diviners.

Set in the tiny fictitious town of Zion, Indiana, the story revolves around Buddy Layman, a fourteen-year-old boy with developmental challenges and a paralyzing fear of water. It appears that he has not taken a bath since his mother died – and we never find out exactly how long ago that was but suffice it to say that it’s been long enough that Buddy is encrusted with dirt and infected with ringworms to the point that he can no longer sleep. Stone Casey, a high school freshman, handles this role with the confidence of a seasoned professional. (He has been performing in school for five years, and apparently, he’s been paying attention.) Casey may be on his way to finding his purpose in life; the role of Buddy is emotional and nuanced, and he navigated it like a true professional.

Buddy is, nonetheless, a charismatic child, prone to speaking of himself in the third person, and gifted with the ability to find well or to divine water. In fact, the first act finds him searching for a new well for local farmer Basil Bennett (Charles A. Wax) who also doubles as the town doctor, albeit without benefit of medical school – which was not uncommon in bygone decades. Basil’s wife, Luella (Sandra Clayton) is skeptical of Buddy’s divining abilities and urges her husband to hire some contractors with well-digging machinery.

The town is so small they have been without a church or a preacher since their one church burned down, but the local dry-goods proprietor, Norma Henshaw (Crystal Oakley) has stepped up to the plate. Toting her bible and singing hymns, she is determined to pray up a preacher. Her skills may be at least partially commended, as the town is soon visited by one C.C. Showers (Arik Cullen), a preacher in the flesh. The only problem is that the tall, handsome, well-spoken C.C. has given up preaching. He is so adamant about this that when the local diner owner, Goldie Short (Ann Davis) asks his to pray a blessing over a donut he rudely refuses.

Baggage or no – and there’s a who ‘nother story about his luggage – a single man and a preacher are hot commodities in a small town like Zion and catches the attention of several women and girls – including pretty teen, Jennie Mae Layman (Rachel Mae Dilliplane). Unfortunately, Jennie Mae is not only the sister of young Buddy, but also the daughter of C.C.’s new landlord and employer, Ferris Layman (Cary Nothnagel), who is the local mechanic.

I found out from the program that The Diviners is Nothnagel’s favorite play – one he teaches every spring to his high school students. He performed the role of C.C. as a high school student himself (a historical fact that was not lost on one audience member who recognized him from that earlier production). When Nothnagel heard that CAT was producing The Diviners, he made sure he would be included in the cast.

It would not be a spoiler to tell you that Buddy has died when the play starts, and the body of the production is his story neatly bookended by his family and friends telling of his recent death. The 11-member cast, which also includes Annie McElroy as Norma’s niece Darlene, and Chris Craig and Patrick Siegmund as local yokels Melvin Wilder and Dewey Maples, works seamlessly together and in close proximity to the audience – sometimes resulting in awkward angles with their backs to a one section or the other, but they were always audible.

Wilder and Maples added some necessary humor throughout, as the clueless Melvin instructed the naïve Dewey in the ways of the world – chiefly in how to get a date with the dangerously lovely and bored Darlene.

An Acts of Faith festival entry, The Diviners deals with C.C.’s crisis of faith as well as Norma’s fanaticism. The combination of the two leads to misunderstanding and propel the ultimate tragedy at the end. But other characters have issues of faith as well. Ferris has been lost since his wife died and has left his children to fend for themselves like feral cats. C.C.’s unexpected friendship is a godsend for the Layman family (no pun intended). Goldie is waiting for a revival of faith to bring a revival of business to her diner; her best business was on Sundays when church-goers traditionally go out for brunch or dinner. Buddy’s problems stem as much from any congenital challenges he may have had as from his mother’s death and his subsequent inability to comprehend where she has gone. We, the audience, are left with a bunch of questions at the end of Act One. Why is Buddy so afraid of water? What happened to his mother? What is C.C. running away from—and what is his full name, anyway? Two of these three questions are answered in Act Two.

Playwright Leonard’s choice of character names is also interesting. Layman, for instance, is another word for nonordained church workers. C.C.’s last name is Showers, and rain is a recurring theme; in fact, it seems that is has not rained in a very long time until he shows up. In the Urban Dictionary¸ Henshaw is defined as a substitute for a common expletive, or a vulgar term for female genitals.

The Diviners is a thought provoking play; not one you would say you enjoyed as much as it is one that draws you in and that will linger with you afterwards. Director Owen has done a masterful job pulling his audience in. Sheila Russ’s costumes are a little corny; Jennie Mae and Dewey wear overalls, and Darlene wears stereotypically shapeless dresses.  Bill Miller’s lighting design is quite effective, especially during the tragic accident scene, and Nicholas Ray Creery does a good job with the sound design, which includes rain and a storm. Zachary Owen and Ellie Wilder designed the simple, somewhat dreary, but functional set, consisting of a couple of boxes and some brown mottled flooring. It is, after all, the 1930s, and we, the audience, are experts as suspending belief.

Take note that the title is “diviners,” plural. Yes, Buddy is a diviner in the sense of one who finds water, but the other characters – and even the audience – are diviners in the sense of foretelling or prophesying what is to come.

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 Credit:

Daryll Morgan

CORPUS CHRISTI: The New Testament told in a radically new way

CORPUS CHRISTI: by Terrence McNally

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players performing at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, Richmond, VA 23230 [Part of the Acts of Faith theater festival]

Performances: January 31 – February 24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $10-$30

Info: ​​ (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

Humor me for a minute – this really is going somewhere. In a post in the “tcgcircle” (Theatre Communications Group, 2014) blog, Kevin Brown generated a list of “The Top Ten Reasons Why Theatre is Still Important in the Twenty-First Century.” In short, from #10 to #1 (the most important reason), David Letterman style, they are:

10. Human beings

9. Self-Expression

8. Self-Knowledge

7. History

6. The Body

5. Globalization

4. Self-Empowerment

3. Social Change

2. Education

1. Creativity

Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s passion play about a gay Jesus, hits all ten of these reasons in significant ways – but don’t worry, I won’t go into detail on all ten of them. My point is that when this play was first staged in New York in 1998 – and at many subsequent productions and attempted productions – Corpus Christi was condemned as blasphemous and worse.  It was the target of protests and threats of violence. It was condemned by The Catholic League and others, often sight unseen. Even when invited to come into the theater to see the show and engage in dialogue, many protesters refused.  The playwright even received death threats. Perhaps this is why a police officer was stationed outside the theater on opening night – an uncommon sight at a Richmond theater. Check the list – I think the events surrounding the production as well as the content of the play itself covers all ten items, except perhaps Globalization.

As staged by Richmond Triangle Players, a cast of 13 men portray the New Testament commonly known as The Passion of Christ, from birth through crucifixion. Dexter Ramey directed in a brilliantly unobtrusive way that allowed the familiar story to unfold with several unusual twists, well-placed and generous doses of humor, an earnest and overwhelmingly successful attempt to get to the heart of the matter, and simple staging consisting of a few benches, a large crucifix, and a trunk of props (e.g., a crown of thorns, a crucible, a flask of vinegar, large nails, a hammer, a flagrum – the type of whip used to scourge Jesus).

In the tradition of a medieval morality play, there is little or no scenery. There is no suspense; the audience already knows how the story ends.  The purpose is to open dialogue, to use the familiarity of ritual and repetition to make us think in new ways about things we already know. “This is how we pray – arms open, heads up.” Joshua teaches his disciples not to bow their heads in fear. This is something we can all relate to but may hold special significance to the LGBTQ community.

At the start of the play, the actors change into white shirts and khakis and each member of the cast is identified by name and baptized by John (Matt Bloch) who gives each his biblical name. The play freely blends New Testament theology with modern-day anachronisms; there are Roman centurions and crucifixions, and there are also twentieth-century clothes and occupations.  Andrew (Andrew Etheredge, who quite by chance gets to keep his real name) is a masseur, Matthew (Tim Goad) is a lawyer, and Judas Iscariot (Chandler Hubbard) is a restaurateur.  Other disciples include John (Matt Bloch) a writer, James (Eddie Webster) a teacher, Peter (Bartley Mullin) a fisherman, Philip (Stevie Rice) a hustler, Bartholomew (Trevor Worden) a doctor, Thomas (Lucian Restivo) a doctor, James the Less (Cooper Sved) an architect, Simon (TeDarryl) a singer, and Thaddeus (Ethan Williams, a senior at The Steward School who, at age 18 is the youngest cast member) a hairdresser.

Corpus Christi is set in the 1950s in the south Texas city of the same name. There Jesus – named Joshua because Jesus sounds “too Mexican” is born in a cheesy motel.  A couple can be heard having loud, vocal sex in the next room.  Little baby Jesus is a rather large rag doll with long blonde pigtails. The Virgin Mary, as are all the other characters, is played by a male. Adam Turck, who plays Joshua/Jesus, gives voice to the baby Jesus and transitions seamlessly into the role as the Messiah grows into a child, and later a troubled and friendless teen who struggles with his sexual identify and leaves home as soon as he can to begin his role as The Son of God.

A true ensemble, each actor, except Turck, I think, plays multiple roles, both biblical and modern. Turck and Hubbard have the most intense and intimate situations – but Joshua makes it clear that though people can touch his body, they can’t touch Him.  I am sure this would not assuage the protesters — if they took the time to hear it. Some situations that arise are less controversial than others.  For instance, what would it have been like for The Son of Man to attend a Catholic School or a public high school in Texas? What was it like for Mary to take care of Him? In Corpus Christi, she makes an attempt to bring normalcy to His life by enrolling Him in Boy Scouts, ballroom dancing lessons, and drama class – all of which, it seems, fail to help him fit in.

McNally, in the preface to his play, wrote, “it would be naïve of me to think I could write a play about a young gay man who would come to be identified as a Christ figure without stirring up a protest.”  What an understatement. It probably doesn’t help that much of the dialogue in the second half of the play (about 110 minutes long without intermission) is read or quoted directly from the Bible.  In one scene Joshua officiates a same-sex marriage between James and Bartholomew. There are sexual situations and lots of foul language. The line between church and theater is often blurred.

Controversies aside, Corpus Christi opens up a dialogue about the role of gay men in the contemporary Christian church. It is a dialogue many do not want to address.  In a documentary about a production of the play staged at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA, McNally is quoted as saying, “I’m as made in God’s image as the next person.”  In the final analysis, Corpus Christi does much of what theater is intended to do, and some of what the church thinks it does. McNally’s closing words stand for themselves: “If we have offended you, then so be it. He loved everybody.”

Note: A documentary about a production of the play at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA can be found on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Corpus-Christi-Terrence-McNally/dp/B00NK9J4OQ/ref=tmm_aiv_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-2&qid=1412626097

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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CorpusChristi-imagePhoto Credit:

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Acts of Faith

ALL MY SONS: a family drama of greed and guilt by Arthur Miller

ALL MY SONS: by Arthur Miller

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 19 – February 24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $38 (Theater only); $55 (Buffet & Theater)

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

Arthur Miller’s tragic family drama, All My Sons, is based on a true story of events involving the Ohio-based Wright Aeronautical Corporation. During WWII the company knowingly shipped defective engines for use in military aircraft. Miller adapted the story into a multi-layered tragedy of moral conflict that addresses the question, is family everything?

At the heart of the play is Joe Keller (portrayed as a longsuffering cynic by Barry Pruitt). It is gradually revealed that Keller and his former business partner, who is still in prison, were convicted of supplying the defective engine cylinder heads, putting profit above the lives of US servicemen, and possibly contributing to the deaths of at least 20 young men. Keller, much to the dismay of many of his neighbors, was exonerated and released.

The play opens as Keller enjoys a Sunday morning in the backyard of his home, along with his son Chris (a returned veteran, played by George Dippold) and neighbors Jim Bayliss (a physician simmering in a mixture of disillusion and idealism, played by Adrian Grantz) and Frank Lubey (just a regular guy, played by Frank Creasy). The Keller men share the morning paper, with the younger telling his father he reads the book reviews but never reads the books, because, “I like to keep abreast of my ignorance.” The elder Keller’s relentlessly boisterous repartee is obviously covering up something, but the depth of the devastation isn’t revealed until the second act.

Meanwhile, there are many odd and interwoven interactions and conversations. Kate Keller (played with appropriate hysteria by Jacqueline O’Connor) refuses to accept that her son Larry, who has been MIA for more than three years, is dead and won’t be coming back. His room is ready for his return, right down to freshly polished shoes. How do we know this? Well, Larry’s girlfriend, Ann Deever (Maggie McGurn), who grew up next door to the Kellers, is staying in his room. No, she hasn’t been there waiting patiently for three years. She moved to New York after her father, Joe’s business partner, was imprisoned, but has returned for a visit so that Chris can break the news to his father and emotionally unstable mother that he plans to marry his brother’s girl.

Bayliss’ wife, Sue (Louise Mason) turns out to be a pretty shrew who delivers a devastating ultimatum to Ann while Frank’s wife, Lydia (Tara Callahan Carroll) is a bubbly housewife known mostly for laughing too much. A cute neighborhood kid, Bert (played on Saturday by Jude Yaktin, who alternates in the role with Aidan Montefusco) has been deputized by Joe as a sort of neighborhood watch, but the jokes about Joe having a jail in his basement turn out not to be so funny in the end. Matt Hackman makes a brief, game-changing appearance as Ann’s brother George, a New York lawyer by description but not in his frenetic demeanor.

It’s hard to believe that all this action takes place over the course of a single day, as lives and even generations are adversely affected by the words and actions shared. All My Sons is one of those theater experiences that left me sitting in stunned and contemplative silence as many around me rose to their feet applauding.  I understand that it is customary to applaud the work of the actors, but the dark side of human selfishness and greed that had just been revealed seemed to merit something other than applause.

Given the depth and scope of the story, I was somewhat disappointed in the delivery, which was overall too broad and too affected. Something seemed off kilter, not just in the characters’ moral development but in the actors’ execution. Some staging and body placement – especially as things became heated – even distracted me from the dialogue. Director Width, in a rare occurrence, seemed to miss the mark of recreating for me the magic that marked All My Sons as one of his favorite plays in the late 1960s when he designed the set for a community theater production. Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes are appropriate for 1947, and Tom Width’s house exterior with its back porch showing a glimpse into the home’s hallway and part of a backyard is generically inviting. It’s not until you get to know the Kellers that you realize that first impressions are not always correct.

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

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Photo Credits:

Robyn O’Neill