Moments with MommaJ: #1

Moments With MommaJ – Thoughts But No Reviews: February 24, 2022

Since January 18, 2018, I have published 240 reviews in this blog space. (I wrote 238 and 2 of them were written by a young mentee.) That averages about 60 reviews each year, or 5 per month. And BTW, I welcome the comments and reviews of others. (There’s no pay, right now, but you get the satisfaction of seeing your words in print – or disagreeing with me.)

I started this venture – a safe space I call RVArt Review, a home for dance and theater – when the newspaper for which I had been writing dance and theater reviews for more than a decade suddenly and without explanation, decided they no longer had the space or funds to publish reviews. (There had been three of us writing about local theater productions and I was the first to be ghosted. And yes, I did ask for an explanation, some closure, something, but never got it.)

I have been writing about dance and theater since shortly after I started grad school in 1978. (I earned a BS in Dance and Dance Education from New York University in 1977 and returned in 1978 to begin work on my MA I the same department.) I took a course on writing dance criticism with Ernestine Stodelle. Ms. Stodelle had been a member of the pioneering modern Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company and later became a writer. She encouraged me to continue writing, and I have been writing ever since, first for a local publication in Brooklyn, then for The Black American weekly, occasionally for The Village Voice¸ nearly twenty years for Dance Magazine, and many free-lance assignments for newspapers, periodicals, academic journals, followed. After moving to Richmond in 1996, I wrote for The Richmond Free Press and The Richmond Times Dispatch. Just as I had to continue dancing after having two total knee replacements and a spinal fusion (in the same year), I had to continue writing, even as “professional” outlets began to disappear, because that is what I do. Since about age three I knew that I was called to dance, teach, and write.

Times change. The landscape of reviewing the arts must change, too. You may have noticed that I prefer the term “reviewing” over “criticism.” The former is a better fit for the conversational tone and sometimes rambling writing practice that suits me, while the latter sounds to me as if the writer sets out to find fault. I know, these are not the standard definitions, but hey, this is my space, so I get to make the rules. When you read what I have written, my hope is that you feel as if we are sitting down having a conversation. So yes, responses are appreciated.

I write about dance and theater because I love dance and theater. My first paid job was in a summer youth program in NYC where we did community service (cleaning parks, painting the yellow lines in front of fire hydrants) and put on full-scale theatrical productions. During my three wonderful summers in that program (approximately ages 13-15), I played the roles of Maria in West Side Story, Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof,  and a character whose name I cannot remember in a western, a “pioneer drama” called The Chips Are Down.

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You may be surprised to learn that even though I average 50+ reviews per year, I do not write reviews about everything I see. The standard for arts organizations  and publications I have been associated with has been to review only “professional” productions or those that meet a certain standard for number of performances, paid staff, and the like. But this is a new space, my space, and so I’m going to make some new rules, my rules. Sometimes, I want to talk a bit about people, places, and theater-making that might not meet the traditional standards for reviewing, whether it is a student or community theater production or a reading or just some interesting bit of history or a noteworthy nugget. So, here we are. Several paragraphs into this rambling rabbit hole of a journey, welcome to the first Moment With MommaJ – a space where I will occasionally share some thoughts on whatever I feel like, just because.

Here we are at the final weekend of February, and I’ve posted four reviews this month: A Doll’s House, Part 2, A Hotel on Marvin Gardens, Stonewallin’, and the ballet Romeo & Juliet. This month I also saw a few things I did not review, and I’m just gonna take a moment (a Moment with MommaJ) to write a few words about them before I sign off for the month.

On February 17 I attended a Pre-Assessment Concert for middle school and high school bands hosted by the Clover Hill Band Program in Chesterfield County. I was there to support my eldest grandchild, Kingston Marley Holmes, who plays percussion for the Manchester Middle School Advanced Band under the direction of Mrs. Elizabeth McHatton. Of course I was impressed to see Kingston confidently moving from tambourine to timpani as the percussionists are multi-instrumentalists (if that’s a word). My heart swells with pride and my eyes get a bit leaky whenever I see young people doing positive things and doing them well.

The Manchester Middle School Advanced Band, the Swift Creek Middle School Combined Band (directed by Mr. Jim Neiner) and Clover Hill High School’s Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble (both directed by Mrs. Brianna Gatch) each offered three selections and it was a most satisfying evening. I am in no way qualified to evaluate or assess band music, but I can tell you that the level of skill, talent, dedication, commitment, and confidence I observed in these young people will take them far, whether they continue to study and play music or not. Bravo, young people. Bravo.

Then on February 19, I attended a performance of Intimate Apparel at VCU’s W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts. A production of  the VCUarts Theatre Department, Intimate Apparel is directed by none other than Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T). Written by Lynn Nottage, the play premiered at Center Stage in Baltimore, MD in February 2003 and opened Off-Broadway the following year. Set in New York City in 1905, the plot revolves around Esther, an African-American seamstress in her mid-thirties who lives in a boarding house and earns a decent living sewing intimate apparel. Her clients include a wealthy white woman, Mrs. Van Buren, and Mayme, a lady of the night with a heart of gold who happens to be a classically trained musician, who appears to be the conservative Esther’s best friend.

Esther longingly observes the other women who live in the boarding house, owned and managed by a dignified widow, Mrs. Dickson, get married and move away. She becomes impatient with biding her time, slowly saving to buy her own beauty parlor and hoping to meet a nice man to marry. Things start to look up when she begins to correspond with George. Introduced by  a mutual connection, they seem to have a lot in common. Like Esther, George has moved far from his home in Barbados to work on building  the Panama Canal. Like Ether, George, too, is lonely, and looking for a wife and a chance to own his own business. But things are not what they appear to be, and Esther ends up loosing both her man and her money – but not her mind. Bowed but unbroken, she returns to the boarding house and starts over. There is more, much more, but this is not a review and I don’t want to give away all the nuanced and multi-layered details, because I want you to see – or at least read – this one for yourself.

You know how some of us – many of us? – are just learning about some ignoble events in American history? You know…things like the bombing and burning of Black Wall Street or the flooding of African-American communities to build parks? Well, this is kinda the literary and theatrical version of that on an individual, social, economic scale.

Under the direction of Dr. T, Amaiya Howard (Esther), and Jonel Jones (George) bring this story to life, revealing bits of history while exploring human nature and traversing largely hidden, forgotten, or otherwise unfamiliar territory by way of a poetic and sensual Africanist storytelling aesthetic.

They are ably supported by Tatjana Shields (whose Mrs. Dickson reminds me of Claire Huxtable), Caroline Mae Woodson as the ingenuously innocent “white lady” is all too familiar, and Nia Simone as Mayme, a humorously bawdy prostitute. Hands-down, my favorite supporting role was that of Mr. Marks, the Hasidic owner of the tiny fabric store where Esther found her special fabric deals. Elijah Williams was so genuine in this role, he brought back memories of shop owners I encountered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

My only issue with Intimate Apparel is that, even with two intermissions, these old bones have a hard time sitting through an approximately three-hour production!

Finally, as I sit and write this Moment with MommaJ, I have just arrived home from a staged reading – the second in a series of four – presented by the new kid on the block, The New Theatre (TNT), with Nathaniel Shaw as Artistic Director and Vida Williams as Executive Director. Red Bike by Caridad Svich is a poetic duet of a play, simultaneously humorous and solemn. Amber Marie Martinez and Raven Lorraine Wilkes read the roles of two pre-teens growing up in small town America and claiming – not seeking, but claiming – their place in the world. It’s sometimes loud and unpredictable, and the viewer sometimes feels as if they are riding the handlebars as the actors’ virtual bikes speed downhill towards certain disaster. The author and text of Red Bike appear to be aligned with the mission of vision of The New Theatre, which has not yet begun turning out full productions.

TNT’s Mission is “to challenge and expand art and industry through innovation in project development, presentation, and community participation,” and their Vision is to become “an innovative American Theatre where we are all seen, where we are all welcome, where we are all inspired.” Visit their website to learn more about the new kid in town: thenewtheatreva.org.

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

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INDIAN INK THEATRE COMPANY: Mrs. Krishnan is Throwing a Party!

INDIAN INK THEATRE COMPANY: You’re Invited to Mrs. Krishnan’s Party!

A Brief Preview of an Immersive Theatrical Experience by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Alice Jepson Theatre, Modlin Center for the Arts at University of Richmond, 453 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173

Performance: January 25, 2020 at 7:30pm & January 26, 2020 at 3:00pm

Ticket Prices: $40 General Admission; $32 Subscribers; $20 Students / SOLD OUT!

Info: (804) 289-8980 or modlin.richmond.edu

One of the problems, well, actually, the only problem, actually, with the Modlin Center for the Arts – which is a lovely space for dance, which is what I usually see when I go there – is that their productions are usually scheduled for just one or two performances or one or two evenings. So, as much as I want to tell you about Mrs. Krishnan’s Party, which is coming in January, I am sorry to have to start off by informing you that both shows are already sold out! (I asked if there is any possibility of additional shows being added, and I am awaiting a response.)

The Indian Ink Theatre Company, based in New Zealand, was touring in Seattle, WA when I spoke with Kalyani Nagarajan who plays the role of Mrs. Krishnan in this two-handed comedy. Mrs. Krishnan’s Party was “in the works” for seven years and now tours the world attempting to bring happiness –  and Indian culture – to audiences of all ages, genders, and ethnicities.

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party is a story about a “Mom and Pop” type store whose owner is looking to sell it. The story takes place in real time, “everything happens live” is the way Nagarajan explained it. There are two actors, Nagarajan and Justin Rogers. Nagarajan was very enthusiastic in describing the colorful nature of the play, not just in the costumes and set, but also in the culture, and even in the intergenerational characters: one is in her mid-50s, the other in his early 20’s. The “third character” is the audience.

As the story unfolds, secrets are revealed, and the audience becomes immersed in the action. Nagarajan was very specific in rejecting the word “interactive,” believing it might push some people away, but seemed comfortable with the idea of a cultural and theatrical immersion.  It’s about people going through familiar things. Set in the back room of Mrs. Krishnan’s store, the audience is invited to the party where they will “interact and talk with people you might never have talked with.” At the end of the show, Nagarajan wants the people dancing, singing, and laughing together. And eating! There is live cooking done onstage, and at the end the audience – excuse me, the invited guests – get to sample the meal. 

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party builds community, and the audience is urged to come ready to be surprised. “Come with an open heart,” Nagarajan urges, “and don’t eat too much dinner before-hand.”

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party, written by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, combines acting, dancing, singing, music, cooking, and laughter. No two performances are the same. Even the ticketing for the show is varied. The Indian Ink Theatre Company’s website described five levels of tickets: (1) the Top Table or VIP seat at the table in the center of the room with first class treatment; (2) the Inner Circle, which is still close; (3) the Wall Flower, up high with a perfect view; (4) the Cheeky Seat, close but not too close; and (5) the Party Animal, which is no seat at all, but spot that allows you to move and dance. I hope to be able to report back detail if it’s as awesome as it sounds!

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: Nimmy Santhosh & the Indian Ink Theatre Company website

 

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ANANYA DANCE THEATRE: People Powered Dances of Transformation

ANANYA DANCE THEATRE: How Do We Show Up For Each Other?

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Commonwealth University School Grace Street Theater, 934 West Grace Street, RVA 23220

Performances: October 26 & 27, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students

Info: (804) 828-2020 or http://arts.vcu.edu/dance/

 

Ananya Dance Theatre, under the artistic direction of Ananya Chatterjea, presents dance within a social, feminist/womanist, human context. Entertaining is only a part of what they do. There were no spectators in the Grace Street Theater on Saturday night when I attended Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds. Oh, there were plenty of people in the audience, but Chatterjea and her troupe of seven powerful women did not allow us to sit and be entertained.

Several times the house lights came up and those who may have been under the impression they had come to see a show were asked to take a stand, to raise a fist, to clap and stomp our feet. We participated in an invocation of breath and watching a dance performance may never be the same. Stand up (one woman did). Raise your first (most did). Clap your hands. Stomp your feet. Chant: Public fury; public joy; public love; public dance!

Shaatranga, which means “seven colors” in Bānglā, is the culmination of a quintet of works exploring work women do. The dance was created in four movements and runs 95 minutes with no intermission and is based on research, history, and cultural connections. The two main themes are ancient Indian Ocean trade routes that connected Asia, Africa, and South America, and the shared practices of indigo-dyeing. Visually, an abstract navigation star represents the compass that “enables us to remain on the path of a complexly woven notion of justice.” At the beginning of the work, the navigation star is broken but by the end it has been healed. The sections of the dance bear names like “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Desolation.” There are “Rituals of Mourning” and “Dancing to Heal.”

Chatterjea’s movement vocabulary uses classical Indian dance as a foundation and there are layers contemporary dance woven throughout. There is yoga, martial arts, rage and joy. The movement that stood out most to me is a spiral that starts from deep inside the core then winds its way up and out. There is also spoken word, ritual, and sound: grunts, screams, the sound of helicopter rotors as the women’s hands reach up, the sound of feet slapping and stomping, the sound of drums, and even, I think, the faint sound of birds and monkeys chattering.

At the beginning, there was a curtain hung asymmetrically so that it reminded me simultaneously of a simple curtain or covering, a woman’s veil, and a ship’s sail. Later, the black curtains opened just a bit to reveal a portion of white wall bathed in red light with Chatterjea splattered on the wall, feet up, arms splayed out on the floor. There is beauty, hunger, pain, distortion, and there is power.

Projections and simple design elements created an all-encompassing world that kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the evening. There were rolling waves and animated billows of indigo that morphed into hands, and there were ceiling-to-floor ribbons of indigo, interwoven like the lives of the women represented, remembered, and honored. Throughout, the women wore loose-fitting dark blue pants (a knee-length Indian salwar, similar to Victorian knickers or bloomers) but changed their tops for each movement (peplum tunics, athletic leotards, high necked tops) in shades of blue, sometimes with splashed of color, but always indigo. Musical composition, vocals, sound design, poetry, costume, lighting, scenic design, animations and projections all united in a seamless manifestation of Chatterjea’s concept.

Often, a program is unnecessary, except to identify the names of the dances. In this case, the program was an essential guide to the work, filled with background, history, poetry, definitions, and questions: How do we show up for each other? This company, this work must be seen. Writing about it does not do it justice.

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:

Company photos and photos from the company website.

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THE WOLVES: Game On

THE WOLVES: Girls with Goals

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Cadence Theatre Company in partnership with TheatreVCU

At: Raymond Hodges Theatre at the W.E. Singleton Performing Arts Center, 922 Park Avenue, RVA 23220

Performances: September 27 – October 7, 2018

Ticket Prices: $5.00 – $19.99

Info: (804) 828-6026 or VCUtheatre.showclix.com

An unexpected collaboration of Cadence Theatre Company and TheatreVCU + an unusual play about teen-aged girls by Sarah DeLappe = an intriguing production of sometimes intense situations that portray the multiple dimensions of young women on their way to adulthood.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, each scene in The Wolves shows the nine-member female high-school indoor soccer team preparing for their weekly game. The Wolves, by the way, is the name of the team. Initially they talk over one another, with multiple conversations occurring at once.  School work, boyfriends, the weekend, and menstruation are popular topics. US immigration policies are discussed in depth (the play premiered in 2016), as well as a lengthy dialogue on Cambodia and genocide. In addition to the usual teen-aged squabbles, there are accidents and injuries, hints of eating disorder and a possible same-sex relationship, and genuine, life-altering tragedy. We get to meet the girls as they warm up and prepare to meet their weekly opponents.

The author, interestingly, has chosen to identify the girls by their jersey numbers, rather than by name, although they do address one another by name. #25, Havy Nguyen, is the team captain but she might as well be the coach. #25 leads the warm-ups and they require genuine dedication to the running, jumping jacks, high knees, butt kicks, ball passing, and more. We learn, in bits and pieces, that the unseen coach apparently has a drinking problem, and at any rate, he is not nearly as popular as a previous coach who left to care for his ailing mother. I immediately wondered why Nguyen was wearing an ugly wig but the answer to that is revealed in the closing scenes.

#7, Jocelyn Honoré, is the team’s leading striker, but she has anger problems and a tendency to make poor decisions in life. #13, Anna Katogiritis, is the team clown, but has a bit of a mean streak and her humor always turns sarcastic.  #46, Emma Olson, is the new girl; home-schooled and well-traveled, she lives in a yurt with her mother, and struggles to fit in. The team goalkeeper, #00, Amari Cummings, is something of a prodigy: she plays the saxophone, chairs several academic teams, and has an astronomically high GPA. She also refuses to talk and has to throw up before every game.

Other team members include Katy Feldhahn (#14), Lydia Hynes (#8), Katelyn Shinn (#11), and Celeste Taica (#2). There are friendships and cliques and gossiping, but as the season passes, the girls become closer, and the audience begins to learn their personalities and quirks. Much like a Peanuts comic strip, the adults are largely unseen and unheard, with the exception of the Soccer Mom (Karen Kopryanski) who appears in the final scene, heart-rending scene. The girls are all TheatreVCU students, and Kopryanski is an assistant professor.

The Wolves is directed by Sharon Ott, Chair of the Department of Theatre at VCU with great energy and stimulating pacing that varies from frenzied action to well-placed silence. All the action takes place in an AstroTurf covered indoor arena; the floor curves upward into the ceiling. There are suggestions of actions taking place offstage, and one kick sends a soccer ball flying into the audience where it was bandied about for a bit before being returned to the playing field (as we were directed to do at the start of the show). Credit Dasia Gregg with the scenic design, Theo Dubois with the costumes, Christian DeAngelis with the lighting and Nicholas Seaver with the sound. In topic and tone, The Wolves strives to – and largely succeeds – in standing out from the pack.

NOTE1: I sat on the right side in the front row, and had no problem hearing everything, but a friend who sat in a middle row in the middle section said the sound quality was problematic.

NOTE2: A smile to #4 and #9; the stagehands who came out in uniform to set a scene!

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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