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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

WHAT THEY DID FOR US

Stories of Black Women Who Paved the Way

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

Who: Heritage Ensemble Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos from Heritage Theatre Facebook page.

KRAPP’S LAST TAPE:

“Perhaps my best years are gone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by James Ricks:

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

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

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

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

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

Ticket Prices: $25

Info: rd.goode@yahoo.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SANTA CLOSET: The Door is Open and Santa’s Coming Out

The Santa Closet: Where Theatrical Journalism & Non-Binary Humor Meet

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

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: November 18-December 19, 2020. Live & Streaming options.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 & $35; $10 for Students. Streaming Edition: $25; $10 for Students. Choice of Eddie Webster or Levi Meerovich.

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

Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic we can depend on the Richmond Triangle Players to give us a unique, memorable, and satisfyingly humorous holiday show. This year’s one-man production of Jeffrey Solomon’s The Santa Closet fulfills all those requirements and does not disappoint!

Originally titled Santa Claus is Coming Out when it premiered some ten years ago, starring the author, the title was changed to indicate the play is not just a silly, vapid little play about coming out. The Santa Closet, on the other hand, implies all the depth and layers and “stuff” that are in that closet – and that make this play such a delightful journey.

It all starts with a young child’s letter to Santa. We first meet little Gary when he writes a letter asking Santa for a “Sparkle Ann” doll – a Barbie look-alike. Gary’s best friend, a feisty little girl named Cheyenne, defends him every step of the way. She, after all, is the recipient of Gary’s creative skills in designing doll clothes and hair styles. But his mother, Trish, is floundering on the edge of tolerance while his father, Frank, is lovingly homophobic (yes, it’s possible to be both of those things).

But Santa disappoints little Gary, who receives a truck instead. The following year, Gary tries again, asking for a Dream Date Norm (if you’re with me, you’ve already figured out that’s similar to a Ken doll). Once again, Santa doesn’t deliver, and Gary’s faith begins to wane.

Cut to the big guy himself. We find a conflicted Santa first having drinks in a gay bar in Manhattan, and then being reluctantly drawn into participating in the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969. (For those not familiar with the history, this was a series of what the LGBT community of the time referred to as demonstrations and the police and city administration referred to as riots. The movement was sparked by a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in NYC’s Greenwich Village.)

Eddie Webster stars in the Richmond production, with Levi Meerovich performing a limited number of performances. I had the pleasure of watching Meerovich performing on Saturday night. Wearing the familiar COVID uniform of pajamas and robe, Meerovich used a variety of accents and mannerisms – and the occasional hat or glowing red nose – to smoothly transform into about a dozen distinct characters.

Besides young Gary, his mother Trish, and his father Frank, the actor must portray Santa; Santa’s agent Sidney; Pete the head Elf; Rudolph the head reindeer (pronouns he, him, his); Gary’s BFF Cheyenne; Santa’s Italian lover Giovanni (a great-great-great-great-great grandson of Pinocchio), the family’s pastor, a waning actress, Beatrice Pond (known for her one-woman portrayal of The Cherry Orchard) who is hired to portray Mrs. Clause; Santa’s gay friend Jose; and Mary Ellen Banford who is the leader of the local branch of Families Against the Gay Agenda, or FAGA for short.

The Santa Closet establishes a delicate balance of humor and tenderness. Solomon wrote the play as if each of the characters is being interviewed and there are “Breaking News” interruptions several times as the drama unfolds. Damage control is required after the Stonewall incident, and reflecting the original title, Santa and Giovanni go missing, never to be seen again. Of necessity, most of the gay characters are over the top. With Meerovich portraying so many different characters in rapid succession, that helps the audience keep up. It also makes the moments all the more sensitive when Gary accepts being different, or when his parents join a support group to help them along their journey to accept their now-adolescent child.

Director Nora Ogunleye has directed with a gentle but steady hand that left Meerovich plenty of room to do what he does so well, while expressing the nuances Solomon wrote into the play. Richmond Triangle artistic director Lucien Restivo kept the costume and set simple (pajamas and slippers, three arched openings, an angled platform, a stool, some holiday lights, a couple of Christmas trees that appear to be fashioned from children’s letters to Santa). This provides a pleasant and seasonal backdrop but allows the audience to focus on the actor and the many characters he portrays. Anything else would have been far too busy and distracting.

Two small wall-mounted screens contain relevant projections, but perhaps I should have said “too-small wall-mounted screens. Even from my fairly close seat in the second or third row from the stage, it was difficult to see the detail on some of the projections. This size may have been a well-reasoned choice, but I am sure that many others with “mature eyes” may also feel they are missing some of the visuals.

Speaking of the audience, the already-intimate theater has been further limited to a maximum of 27 patrons for live performances. Seats are socially distanced in pods of 1, 2, or 4. Masks are required, there is no intermission, drinks may be ordered and paid for online, everyone’s temperature is taken on entry, and programs are fully digital (a pandemic adaptation that many theaters will likely continue when this is all over).

Other members of the creative team – yes, it takes as many people to produce a one-person show as it does to produce a show with a larger cast – include Joey Luck, sound; Deryn Gabor, lighting; Yara Birykova, projections; Sheamus Coleman, technical direction; and Erica Hughes for some really fun dialects.

There are live performances Thursdays through Sundays, with one Wednesday performance. Check the theater’s website for details and to order tickets or purchase the link to purchase one or both of the streaming editions (one features Eddie Webster and the other Levi Meerovich). [I haven’t yet seen Webster’s portrayal, which I expect may be quite different and I will add an addendum to this post after I’ve seen him in the streamed version.] In the meantime, if you’re looking for a little holiday cheer (with a bit of an edge, due to the history), this should fit the playbill. The Santa Closet is highly recommended (for those over age 15).

Photos: Richmond Triangle Facebook page.

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The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt

Stories in the Soil by The Conciliation Project

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

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

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

Ticket Prices: free

Info: https://youtu.be/yrbIGTA0WYg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRIEF, GUILT, AND PARANOIA: The Madness of Poe

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

A Live Theatrical Experience Reviewed by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: Pay-What-You-Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edgar Allan Poe Trivia

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

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

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

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

A slideshow of auction items follows.

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 16 – October 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call ’em out!”

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

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RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/SEPTEMBER

THE RICHMOND BALLET OPENS THE 2020-2021 SEASON: Studio Series with Precautions

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet’s Canal Street Studios, 407 E. Canal Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Performances: September 15-27, 2020

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $25-$101; Virtual Tickets: $20/One-week access to recorded performance, only one ticket required per household

Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com

For decades I have attended live performances of dance and theater multiple times a week – occasionally squeezing in two shows in one day. But it has been six months since I have attended a live show, six months since the COVID-19 Pandemic turned our world upside down, six months since COVID-19 made us rethink everything in our lives – including our life-giving arts. In July I forayed out to a socially-distanced exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and in September I received an email from the Richmond Ballet asking if I wanted to attend a live performance of their Studio Series.

The Richmond Ballet is one of the first – if not the first – major dance companies in the US to return to live performances. To be sure, even if they are not the first, all eyes will be on them to see how this turns out. So, before I even address the actual performance, let me tell you how Richmond Ballet has addressed COVID-19.

First, Richmond Ballet is in the unique position of having a studio theater in their own space. That means they have control over the space, who enters, and how many. Seating capacity has been reduced from 250 to 70.Seats are blocked off with large, easy-to-read signs; and if you don’t see the sign, there’s a large metal hook over the seat holding it in place that’s sure to get your attention if you accidentally lean back against it. (No, I didn’t do that, just conjecturing.) The seats are reconfigured for each show, and Brett Bonda, the company’s Managing Director, says it takes 45 minutes to complete each set-up. If you come with friends or family, you will be seated together, but apart from other attendees.

The tickets have been digitized for touch-less entry; just scan your phone at the kiosk in the lobby. The programs have also been digitized; I advise you to read them on a tablet rather than a phone if you are over age 35. But there’s more. Ticket holders receive an email with the House Notes for their performance. Arrival times are staggered by row and seat number. Other precautions are also included in the email, and are shown on a large screen before the start of the show. Masks must be worn at all times; even the dancers perform in masks. The bar is closed, and there is no intermission. That reduces contact with other people even further. At the conclusion of the program, the audience is asked to remain seated until the row in front of you has left. There was even a can of hospital-grade disinfectant spray in the women’s restroom.

Nothing has been overlooked. The Richmond Ballet has been very, very thorough in their efforts to make people feel comfortable, safe, and welcome.

Studio performances have generally followed a formula. There is most often a classic work, a contemporary work, and a new work. This program differs somewhat. There were six works, ranging from a brief 3 or 4 minutes to 20 minutes in length. The entire program, without intermission, ran just under an hour, yet it did not feel rushed. Also, the number of dancers was limited to just eight, performing in solos, duets, trios, and quartets.

The program, overall, was a triumphant tribute to the power and joy of dance, beginning with excerpts from Dennis Spaight’s “Gloria.” Abi Goldstein, Izabella Tokev, Lauren Archer, and Matthew Frain performed the “Laudamus Te,””Domine Deus,” “Qui Sedes,” “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” “Domine Fill Unigenite,” and “Cum Cancto Spiritu” sections of Antonio Vivaldi’s lush music. Craig Wolf’s original lighting and a few simple projections created a cathedral-like atmosphere. The women, dressed in claret-colored and purple dresses that swirled around their legs, appeared to move spontaneously and reverently, embodying Spaight’s musicality in this beautifully complex yet simple work that pays homage to the choreographer’s mother’s faith.

On Wednesday I saw Thel Moore, III dance Matthew Frain’s “To This Day,” one of two new works by current company members. Dressed in jeans and a black tank and using an umbrella as a prop, Moore began this contemporary work by throwing a handful of light against the backdrop. This beautiful solo is a contrast of light and darkness, and builds up in mood and intensity along with the dramatic music by Shy, Low. At one point Moore sits in a golden circle of light, reaching up. “To This Day” could be about loss, or making a decision, or life changes, or a pandemic. . .It lasts only 5 or 6 minutes, but “To This Day” may become one of my favorite contemporaty works by this company, and I applaud artistic director Stoner Winslett for supporting new works from inside the organization. Moore alternates in the role with Ira White and I would love to have a chance to see if White brings different nuances to this solo.

Izabella Tokev and Khaiyom Khojaev performed “Alone, Beside Me,” a work by Associate Artistic Director Ma Cong, one of my long-time favorite choreographers whose work I first saw performed by The Richmond Ballet. Pianist Douglas-Jayd Burn played the Franz Shubert score that accompanied the duet. Shirtless and wearing black pants, Khojaev contrasted with Tokev’s negligee-like white dress, but the major contrast was between the soft piano chords and the often angular and sometime harsh movements of the dancers. The contract and release, clinging and lifting, and the physical and emotional tension were palpable and riveting. And as for social distancing, Tokev and Khojaev are married to each other in real life.

The company’s artistic directors were deliberate in their choreographic choices and in keeping the program socially distant, physically safe, and relevant, there were several subtly humorous moments incorporated in the evening. For the “Drum Trio” from Val Caniparoli’s “Street Songs,” Thel Moore III, Abi Goldstein, and Mate Szentes came loping out, each claiming an individual circle (more social distancing). For 3-4 minutes they performed a series of movements that, with the drum accompaniment, reminded me of classic modern dance classes from the 1940s.

In contrast to the tribal delights of “Drum Trio, “Salvatore Aiello’s “Solas,” performed by Elena Bello, was a stark lament with all the drama, but not the sound, of a classic flamenco solo. Bello entered in darkness, treading the path of a stream of light, shrouded in a dark fringed shawl over a dark dress. She sat on a chair and rocked back and forth to the wordless lament of a woman’s voice in the music by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Bello looks back, mourning an un-named loss that seems to pull her back to the past. When a light appears that seems to draw her into the future, she moves towards it, stretched beyond her physical limits, but circles back, knocks over the chair, crawls back to it, and pulls her shawl back over her head, keening as the lights go out. She leaves us to wonder, is she mourning the loss of a loved one, or of something bigger…

The evening ended with “Waltzes Once Forgotten,” an exuberant new work by company member Mate Szentes. The dancers, seen in silhouette, move forward as if emerging from the pages of a long forgotten photo album. Their ivory-colored costumes have a vintage feel, with one of the women wearing a little hat and one of the men wearing a newsboy cap and short pants. There is a little humor a little rivalry, a little nostalgia. Szentes was inspired by the Spanish Flu of 1918, which introduced masks and social distancing to a world reeling under the effects of a pandemic much like we are today.

Without saying a word, The Richmond Ballet reminded us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we are resilient, and we survive.

The September Studio Series runs through September 27, with a total of 16 performances. The October Studio Series will be October 13-25, and the November Studio Series will run November 10-22. For the first time since 1980, the company will not be performing the traditional holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” It simply requires too many people, too many rehearsals, and too much of everything we have to put on hold for now.

Left: Ira White and Thel Moore III in rehearsal with Matthew Frain. Right: Cody Beaton and Sabrina Holland in rehearsal. Photos by Sarah Ferguson.