Song of I, Song of Us: Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey at California Shakespeare Theater

By Jerome Joseph Gentes

August 13, 2017
In my blood Lakota Sioux culture, we call chants of praise honor songs. This is an honor song for Marcus Gardley, and the CalShakes production of his new play black odyssey that opened last night. I want to state right out that I’m writing this on Sunday, August 13, the day after the murders and radical domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. I’m writing this under the cloud of the last few years of racial violence. I’m writing this under the shadow that the current Executive Branch of the Federal Government is casting over the land. I don’t want to pretend otherwise.

A soldier’s homecoming after war is never a simple story, never simply going from point A to B. Any traveler under any circumstance who gets lost and veers off course does not unravel a simple story. Combining those two tropes, and stirring in hefty doses of subplot by way of interference from gods, human nature, and nature itself, Homer (like others) added to a small but vital shelf of epic narratives for all times and all peoples. Small wonder that The Odyssey has inspired novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses and plays like Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks. It has also inspired Oakland’s Marcus Gardley, and with black odyssey he has achieved something extraordinary: a personal and public take on Homer’s poem that not only stands alongside the original–it reflects and expands the epic and the other great works it has inspired.

Directed by Artistic Director Eric Ting, the exceptional cast of nine includes J. Alphonse Nicholson as the hero, Ulysses Lincoln, Omozé Idehenre as his faith-tested wife, Nella Jerome Pell, and Michael Curry as grown Malachai, the son born during his absence. I’m naming these characters and actors first because Gardley, Ting, and company have foregrounded the human story of a husband who has wed a woman, but hasn’t had the chance to perform his husbandly role and responsibilities. A man who has fathered a child but hasn’t had a chance to occupy and perform the role of parent. Likewise, Nella is Ulysses’s wife, but has had to live–and love–for 16 years without him, while Malachai has grown up like too many boys do–mothered, but unfathered. Gardley’s script plumbs the breadths and depths of this broken dynamic in ways that make it fresh and vital, and Ting wisely puts all three actors front and center. Nicholson actually spends much of his time at the very edge of the stage, making music on upturned five-gallon buckets as point and counterpoint to the action. Gardley preserves the Homeric framing device of deities at play with mortal lives in a chess match with dire consequences for humanity between Great Grand Daddy Deus, played by the orotund Lamont Thompson and Great Grand Paw Sidin, the oracular Aldo Billingslea.

The rage and grief and despair that play out for Nella and Malachai alone are the height of drama. Fortunately for them, the play, and for the audience, the Athena character, Tina, who Gardley makes a distant great aunt, moves in to help Nella raise Malachai. As played by the wonderful Margo Hall, Tina transitions from Olympian divinity in her gorgeous Ashanti gown to house-bound helper in caftan and leopard leggings and back again.

A third family, the Sabines, plays a key part in Gardley’s (re-)imagining: Alsendra, Artez, and Benevolence Sabine, played respectively by Dawn L. Troupe, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Safiya Fredericks. Ulysses encounters them early on his attempted journey home, where they’re on a New Orleans rooftop to escape the rising tides. Tides of Hurricane Katrina, tides of racism, tides of history, and tides of memory. Benevolence joins Ulysses for much of his journey home, and the Odyssey episodes weave in and out of their own adventures as well as the hero’s storytelling. Two such episodes were particularly spectacular: the Sirens episode, which gives Thompson a chance to play a pimped-out Granddaddy Tiresias, Troupe to play Diana Ross, Hall to do Tina Turner, and Sullivan to tear up the trunktop of a gold Caddy convertible as James Brown. Even better (and “better” is a relative word amidst such strong ensemble performances) is Troupe’s performance as Calypso, who tempts Ulysses with a monologue about food that had the audience salivating as she caresses every sound and syllable.

Gardley’s script is as lyric as anything I’ve ever heard or read, and I have read and heard a lot of song and poetry. (I cannot wait to re-read it in print, so if you’re a publisher, hurry and snap up the rights–no, the privileges–to publish this play.) There’s rhyme and rhythm, music and musings, imagery and idea to spare that not only honor the original; they take the original and this, its variation, further into the realm of timelessness. And the production honors every word. The simple yet stunning set design by Michael Locher consists of a grid of white-gold square pillars of varying heights. Xavier Pierce’s illuminations, darknesses, and shadows and Carlis Roberts’s sounds and silences transform them from the realm of the gods to project hallways and from BART and police stations. And because Ulysses Lincoln mentions that he enlisted in the military post-9/11, I thought more than once of the ruins of the World Trade Center. At the climax of the play–a deeply moving encounter between Ulysses and one of his female ancestors that reminded me of a moment in the great Toni Morrison’s Beloved–one of the pillars pivots around to spectacular effect.

Gardley’s play sings a song of society and selfhood, but more importantly, it gathers up humanity, history, memory, and storytelling into one magnificent performance poem. I haven’t seen Parks’s version of the Homeric myth, so I can’t compare them, and I don’t think I’d have to. black odyssey is a collective and collected chorus that rings true and necessary for our moment, and for moments to come. We too have a long journey to make, a long homecoming path to trod to get to the America we seem to be on the verge of losing. black odyssey is an imaginative roadmap for the heroism we’ll need.

Directed by Eric Ting
Closes Sept. 3rd
Ticket and Program Information
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Black Lives Black Words Centers Black Women

Black Lives, Black Words is an artistic movement that began in Chicago but has since had events in two continents, three countries, and seven cities. Producer and playwright Reginald Edmund began this venture with Executive Producer Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway in 2015, prompting playwrights and spoken word artists to respond to the question “do black lives matter?”

The resounding response: not only do black lives matter but black art does too. As Edmund has said “There isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about what ‘Black Lives, Black Words’ is doing in and of itself, it’s the fact that we are doing what so many organizations and institutions that have scammed off of the diversity and inclusion discussion, and that have the resources should be doing or failing to do, which is what makes us a revolutionary theatrical endeavor. Giving artists of color actual control over their own narratives, and giving the community voice, access, and space to be heard, as well as bridging communities with a shared global dialogue.”

There are a few events to look out for if you’re trying to catch a BLBW event this August. Starting August 14th at 7:30pm they are partnering with Collaboraction to host the “Our America Party.” Part of a greater “Our America” series, this project asked local people of color, LGBTQ+ and female playwrights and directors to speak on the state American Dream. Artists featured include Arti Ishak, Rohina Malik (Yasmina’s Necklace can be seen at the Goodman later this year), Dana Lynn Formby, Tanuja Jagernauth, and many more.

On August 21st, Black Lives Black Words is hosting a TEDTalks inspired speaker series called THE ARTIST SPEAKS, where legends such as prominent director Ron OJ Parson, and Malik Gillani, Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, will speak to the history and state of the arts in America, and what lies in the future.

These events culminate in the third Black Lives, Black Words Event, this year to be held at Victory Gardens Theater August 22nd at 7:30pm. What’s different about this year? Every piece is written, produced, and directed by black women and femmes. Playwrights include Loy Webb, Nambi Kelly, Adia Alli, and directors include Nicole Michelle Haskins and BLBW’s Executive Director, Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway.

See what participating artists have to say about Black Lives Black Words this year:

“BLBW is an innovative, hard-hitting, internationally scoped project that focuses on the truth telling of the Black narrative in this country and beyond. I am so thrilled to have been asked to contribute a piece on something I am very passionate about, and to be able to witness the talents of all the other artists involved. I am particularly thrilled that all of the pieces in this installment are directed and written by women. Reggie Edmund is certainly doing his part to be a game-changer in the field of producing. I am humbled and grateful to be a part.” – Nambi Kelley (Playwright, Actor)

“I had the pleasure of covering BLBW’s for Newcity when it first started. It was a rough and raw idea at that point, finally coming to fruition. Since then it has turned into a refined movement that is touching lives both in the states and abroad. Seeing this movements growth first hand, shows the impact that artist truly committed to the community can have and you don’t need huge institutions behind you to be a force. And now that the movement is branching out giving women a voice, and addressing our current political climate, just shows that this movement that Reggie and Sim have helmed, isn’t just talking about change like most folks do. They are creating it from the ground up. And I am sincerely grateful and honored to lend my artistry to further their cause.” – Loy Webb (Playwright, Critic)

Tickets are an accessible $10-13 for events, check out http://www.blacklivesblackwords.org for more information!

 

 

The Comrades ‘In The Wake’ Examines Liberal Blind Spots Post 9/11

Lisa Kron’s 2010 play In the Wake, produced by The Comrades at the Greenhouse Theater, revisits the political events of 2000-2005 beginning with the Supreme Court decision in Bush vs. Gore. In the Wake is concerned with the ways American liberals, especially privileged white coastal liberals, develop blind spots that prevent them from fully understanding the life circumstances that might cause a person to cultivate a conservative viewpoint. This is a timely subject in the wake of Trump’s rise to power, although the play predates it. The play makes important points about the state of American political discourse though it is somewhat weighted down by an unwieldy structure.

The play centers around a twenty-something woman, Ellen (Rose Sengenberger), a liberal New Yorker distraught about the 2000 election. The play is populated by Ellen’s boyfriend Danny (Mike Newquist), his sister Laurie (Erin O’Brien), Laurie’s wife, Kayla (Adrienne Matzen) and their friend Judi (Kelli Walker). Ellen divides her time between non-profit work and traveling around the country making speeches about the unintended consequences of public policy. At an engagement at Harvard she reconnects with a childhood friend, Amy (Alison Plot), and they begin an affair.

Unwilling to leave her current relationship, Ellen asks Danny to accept her involvement with Amy, and perhaps in the wake of some guilt about his own long since confessed infidelity, he resigns himself to the fact his girlfriend is in a second relationship. Meanwhile Amy falls madly in love with Ellen and begs her to leave Danny. But Ellen is in denial about how much emotional damage she is inflicting on both her lovers. Meanwhile, Laurie and Kayla strongly disapprove and their relationship with Ellen is badly strained.

The best moments zeroed in on Ellen’s relationships. Alison Plot’s performance as Amy was a highlight. Plot does a nice job of portraying the agonizing experience of loving someone who is emotionally unavailable. The brief but touching love scene between Ellen and Amy is one of the most engaging moments of the play. And when Ellen makes things worse with empty platitudes about holding Amy in her heart, Amy’s pain feels very real. Kelli Walker’s performance as the world-weary Judi is also notable. Judi brings perspective about growing up poor in a small conservative town and then spending her career abroad working in refugee camps. Walker’s deadpan delivery also brings some much needed humor into an otherwise very serious play.

Ellen’s character mainly talks at her friends and family, this is by design. The point of the play is that Ellen sincerely believes if other people just had the same information they would always agree. Rose Sengenberger plays Ellen as passionate and earnest so we understand it is not malice on her part but rather an astounding lack of self awareness, which Kron uses to make a point about the way liberals have contributed to the bitter partisanship that is dividing our country.

Unfortunately Ellen’s long speeches have the impact of slowing down the pace. To compound this the action is broken up by news clips and direct address monologues giving this two hour and twenty minute show a choppy stop-and-start effect. The play relies heavily on historical footage to establish what’s happening in the outside world. But news clips alone, though they might have an emotional impact, are not inherently dramatic. Unfortunately, the current events in the play often feel like a backdrop, rarely integrated into the story in a way that impacts the lives of the individual characters.

What I was really missing from the play ultimately was a connection between the personal and the political. There are two plots but they don’t intersect or illuminate each other in more than an abstract way except for a very brief conversation about 911. For instance, in a surprising omission, although the play is set pre-marriage equality, little is said about the fact the fact Laurie and Kayla’s marriage isn’t legally recognized. The practical and emotional hardships this situation created go unmentioned. This is one example of a place where the play could’ve connected the dots between its character’s hopes and dreams and the political landscape of the country at that time.

In spite of these structural and story challenges, the cast brings a lot of heart to their performances and the play makes an important point. That Americans of all political persuasions could do better job of listening to opposing viewpoints.

About Face Youth Ensemble’s ‘Brave Like Them’: Explosive, Feminist, and Unapologetically Queer

By Regina Victor

About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble’s Brave Like Them is an exciting and dynamic exploration of cultural movements and gender expression infused with feminist punk. The show is entirely devised and performed by the members of the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble and co-directed by About Face’s Education and Outreach Director Ali Hoefnagel and Education Coordinator Kieran Kredell. The script was well-written, and memorable, especially impressive because the age range for the ensemble that devised it is 13-23 years old. The play takes place in the Riot Grrl movement of the 1990s, an underground punk feminist movement that originated Washington state, credited with being the beginning of third wave feminism. Famous bands that came out of that era include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney. Brave Like Them takes us to Washington state in that era, and investigates both the successes of the movement but also the racial and class discrepancies – most of the voices of this movement were middle class, white cisgender women.

The set (designed by Scott Penner) is papered with posters from iconic punk acts like Joan Jett, and the young people roam the space at the top of the show, cleverly setting our place and time. A couple of the ensemble members were talking to an audience member, and pretended to be mystified and confused by his cell phone flashlight, much to everyone’s amusement. Complete with twinkling bulb lights and alley seating, it’s hard not to feel like you’re at a real punk show when the actors break into their energetic opening dance highlighted by multicolored club lights (lighting by Kaili Story).

Danni (Kyla Norton) and their best friend Jamie (Sandy Nguyen) are old friends reunited after Danni lived in racist Tacoma for six years. As they try to find their place in the punk movement, Danni wonders why more of their favorite punk bands don’t look like them. Danni’s old crush Sam (a charismatic and stylish Ophelia Ashley Murillo) conveniently comes waltzing back into Danni’s life, asking if they would like to hang out at a venue called The Crocodile. There, they meet femme superstar Hannah (Lilian McGrady)  who chants her feminist manifesto “Girls to the front!” over a thrumming bass to an adoring crowd. Danni’s friend Jamie gets all up in this movement and finds her sense of self, immediately changing her aesthetic to match what a Riot Grrl is “supposed” to look like, complete with leather jacket, red lips and fishnets, Nguyen does a wonderful job portraying both Jamie’s bravado and her emotional complexity as she struggles balance her new Riot Grrl friends with Danni.  The costume design by Jeanine Fry informs us where each character is in their lives and gender expressions effortlessly. Danni, still trying to find their identity, is in their school uniform for most of the play.

While Jamie is off with the Riot Grrls, Danni meets some new friends in the form of an energetic ensemble that hangs out and plays punk music in the school gym. Noa (Jude Gordon), Coe (Jimbo Pestano) and Chris (Ben Flores), are all punk rockers who used to roll with Hannah until her movement got too exclusionary. We see this demonstrated very clearly when one of Hannah’s shows includes the words “no dudes no dykes no douchebags.” Coe uses they/them pronouns, Noa ze/sir, and Chris he/him. Chris points out that he is often excluded from feminist dialogue like Hannah’s because of his male presentation, but that erases the portion of his life where he was perceived as female, and his ability to talk about those injustices. Chris poses an interesting question: how can he possibly convince other people his masculinity isn’t a threat? It’s a really interesting argument that I’ve heard socially but was refreshing to see onstage, and Ben Flores’ thoughtful portrayal of this character really shines.

Coe and Noa were equally amazing ensemble members, with Noa’s dry wit cutting across the dialogue and generating big laughs from the audience. Noa refers to Jamie as the girl who “suddenly has all the buttons.” As someone who’s worked in community organizing, I found this particularly hilarious – there is always one eager person who shows up with 80 buttons on their jacket even though they’ve been to two rallies. In order to describe Jimbo Pestano’s portrayal of Coe, I have to be colloquial: Coe was serving band frontperson intersectional realness in a crop top and a flannel blazer with shoulder pads and skinny jeans. Serving. All. Day. One particularly fantastic lyric voiced by Coe and Danni I will be singing to all of my cisgender friends was “Nice gender, did your mommy pick it out?!”

The entire ensemble was strong, but there were many other notable performances, including the hilariously spacey record store clerk (Sharon Pasia), who encourages Danni to be a part of the movement, and not a part of the crowd. Danni’s mother, played by Mia Vivens, gives an endearing performance as a mother who has to navigate a new relationship with her child. Fresh from a divorce and struggling financially, she is often anxious and sometimes angry (but only, as she rightfully points out, because she’s black and had to sell her business and live in Tacoma at her husband’s behest for six years – I feel you sis), but never gives up on loving her family fiercely.

Brave Like Them is about the power of friendship, the discovery of personal identity, and the multifaceted aspects a movement needs to have so that it can succeed. It examines our fear of breaking apart systems and movements when we have nothing to replace them with, even if the movement is imperfect. A movement needs to encompass all people, or it inevitably dies. However, Brave Like Them does not condemn these movements, but examines how even when they are fleeting, even when we find ourselves in opposition to them, they can help us find the most important parts of ourselves.

Brave Like Them closes August 6th: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Directors: Ali Hoefnagel & Kieran Kredell
Assistant Dir: Donny Acosta
Devised by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble

FEATURING
Ophelia Ashley Murillo
Charlie Blackburn
Melody Derogatis
Ben Flores
Jude Gordon
Liv Haman
Elliot Hobaugh
Lillian McGrady
Sandy Nguyen
Kyla Norton
Sharon Pasia
Jimbo Pestano
Jae Taylor

PRODUCTION
Production Manager: Melissa Hubbert
Music Director: Nicholas Davio
Choreographer: Erin Kilmurray
Asst. Choreographer: Gabrielle Wilson
Lighting Designer: Kaili Story
Sound Designer: Brandon Reed
Costume Designer: Jeanine Fry
Set Design: Scott Penner
Prop Design: Meghan Erxleben
Stage Manager: Kasey Trouba
Asst. Stage Manager: Serena Dully

Photo Credit: (left to right) Jude Gordon, Ben Flores, Kyla Norton and Jimbo Pestano in About Face Youth Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of Brave Like Them, co-directed by Ali Hoefnagel and Kieran Kredell. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

BIAS ALERT: I directed for the About Face Out Front 2017 Series, and identify as genderqueer.

Fisticuffs and Feminism in The Factory Theater’s ‘Fight City’

By Hallie Palladino

In a video interview on The Factory Theater website, Artistic Director Scott OKen says of the genesis of his latest play, Fight City, “I wanted to turn the current gender politics around… [and] I wanted to do an action play…that has a real kickass female police force that beat each other up with sticks.” This is exactly what Fight City delivers in the form of a clever comedy that satirizes standard sexist tropes within the action genre.

This sixteen actor ensemble piece, skillfully directed by Jill Oliver, is set in a dystopian 2077. The world order has collapsed. Yet in spite of the elimination of guns, society is violent and lawless. Women are an all powerful majority. Men are disenfranchised and organize for equal rights. The protagonist, Barb Davies (Jennifer Betancourt) is a skilled fighter with the Central City Police Department’s elite all-female fighting force, the ironically named Peace Keepers. Her fellow wisecracking PK compatriots are played with sharp-tongued swagger by Meredith Rae Lyons (White), Almanya Narula (Avory) and Ashley Yates (Argent). Together they fight criminals while delivering witty one liners.

A defining attribute of standard cops-versus-criminals action stories is an exaggerated performance of hyper-masculine stereotypes. Seeing a cast of women embody this style draws attention to it’s absurdity. Fight City humorously explores the performance of gender in a way similar to that of ATC’s production of Jaclyn Blackhaus’s Men on Boats, directed by Will Davis earlier this season. That show examined a spectrum of masculinities by casting an all female-identifying ensemble to play a variety of male archetypes. In different ways both plays explore how rituals of masculinity function to reinforce codes of behavior within male spaces.

OKen gets a lot of comedic mileage out of this gender role reversal. He has invented a parallel vocabulary of slang to fit the female-centric culture. Crude references to both male and female anatomy illuminates the role language plays in perpetuating gender stereotypes. Narula, as Barb’s salty partner, Avory, gleefully makes dirty jokes while slapping men’s behinds. Lt. Quaife (Jen Bosworth) rags on her husband. In some of the play’s best topical humor, Richards (Grace Odumosu), cheers on her activist boyfriend but still can’t help (wo)man spreading across an entire bench, and (wo)man-splaining to the guys about how oppressed they are, all while congratulating herself on being super woke.

In addition to the silliness, OKen offers up a scathing critique of the action genre’s normalization of rape culture. Showing men being treated the way women are typically treated in action plots reveals how reliant the genre is on jokes made at the expense of women, as well as how much of the drama in this genre is generated by women’s victimization and abuse. For instance in one scene, Erica (Kim Boler), in a sinister send-up of a stock bloodthirsty-villain, gets jacked-up on crack whiffits, kills people for fun, then celebrates by raping a man she’s lured into her hideaway. Later she callously brags about it.

The male characters in Fight City employ the usual range of strategies to cope with discrimination, harassment and abuse. Some of them try to brush it off and rise above, some employ subversive humor, others organize and fight back. Weatherfoot (Harrison Weger), the first male PK, patiently puts up with sexist jeers until he gets a chance to prove his moxie, following a classic arc usually assigned to female characters. Eric Frederkison’s performance as Verne, victim turned reluctant activist, reminds us of the serious stakes for men trapped in this system. And Relf, the much abused CCPD secretary, played sensitively by Josh Zagoren, highlights how debasing harassment is for those on the receiving end. It is also Relf, seeking relief from this abuse, and perhaps revenge, that leads him to turn informant for Erica who later rapes him. Oliver appropriately presents this as a frightening and serious moment.

As one might expect, the main attraction of Fight City is its stellar fight choreography. Fight Directors Maureen Yasko and Chris Smith offer up stage combat that’s intense, realistic and bloody. (If you sit in the front you may get splattered.) The fighting style unique to the PKs is also nicely integrated into the plot in a way that both forwards the story and enhances character development. The spectacle of all female fight sequences has potential to be overly sexualized, but Oliver steers clear of this. Her focus is showcasing what women’s bodies are capable of, presenting her characters as subject, not object. Carla McDowell’s costume design well-supports this choice managing to be tastefully futuristic without being fetishistic.

In a season of Chicago theater where the subject of police violence has taken center stage, it’s impossible not to register that, in spite of it’s escapist fun, Fight City is inescapably a play about a bunch of exceedingly violent cops. And while the play doesn’t get too philosophical about the problem of police brutality, it’s at least self-conscious of this fact. When Barb’s mother Margret Davies (Mandy Walsh), legendary for her fighting skills, drops by the department she asks, “Any good kills lately?” Under Margret’s tenure suspects were routinely taken “out back” to have their necks broken. Barb retorts, “We don’t have to do that anymore.” And, although Barb does a lot of head-bashing herself, the play hints she just might be able to restore at least a bit of due process to the system.

Fight City is an entertaining summer show with a strong feminist message and loads of exhilarating fight scenes!

Photos: Michael Courier

Directed by: Jill Oliver
Written by: Scott OKen
Runs from July 21st to August 26th
Fridays/Saturdays 8pm
Sundays 3pm

CAST

Barb Davies – Jennifer Betancourt
Margaret Davies – Mandy Walsh*
Avory – Almanya Narula
Weatherfoot – Harrison Weger
Argent – Ashley Yates
White – Meredith Rae Lyons
Lt. Quaife/Noone – Jen Bosworth
Erica Burdon – Kim Boler*
Valentine – Susan Wingerter
Chandler/Thug – Brittany Ellis
Price/Thug – Megan Schemmel
Verne/Steele – Eric Frederickson
Leo – Jae K. Renfrow
Terry – Linsey Falls*
Relf – Josh Zagoren
Richards – Grace Odumosu
Understudy (Leo/Terry/Verne) – Colin Milroy*
Understudy (Weatherfoot/Relf) – Josh Greiveldinger
Understudy (Steele) – Dan Krall
Understudy (Davies/Avory) – Kim Fukawa
Understudy (Argent/White/Richards) – Josephine Longo
Understudy (Margaret/Valentine) – Elizabeth MacDougald
Understudy (Erica/Lt. Quaife/Noone) – Sara Robinson
Understudy (Chandler/Price/Thugs 1 & 2)– Cory Griffith

CREW

Playwright – Scott OKen*
Director – Jill Oliver*
Assistant Director – Kevin Alves*
Stage Manager – Phil Claudnic*
Assistant Stage Manager – Jermaine Edward Thomas*
Production Manager – Manny Tamayo*
Assistant Production Manager – Greg Caldwell*
Fight Director – Maureen Yasko
Fight Director – Chris Smith
Set Design – Sarah Lewis
Technical Director – Amie Zimmerman
Lighting Design – Emma Deane
Master Electrician – C.W. Van Baale*
Sound Design – Ben Zeman
Costume Design – Carla McDowell
Props Design – Albert Gogetem
Graphic Design – Jason Moody*
Fight Captain  –Mandy Walsh*
Fight Captain – Meredith Rae Lyons
Consultant – Maggie Scrantom
All staged intimacy was professionally designed

*Factory Ensemble Member

BIAS ALERT: Both Brittany Ellis and Ashley Yates have acted in my work in the past and I think they’re both brilliant.

Remembering Romance Under The Setting Sun in ‘The Glass Menagerie’

The premise of the well-known American drama The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams centers around single mother Amanda Wingfield, her oldest son Tom, and his little sister Laura who have found themselves in a financial squeeze since only Tom is able to work. Out of desperation, Amanda decides to try and set Laura up with a “gentleman caller,” a man from Tom’s work named Jim. What differs in this production is the centering of people of color and women in the casting of the play, a point of artistic pride for director Lisa Portes. Amanda and Laura’s predicament doesn’t come across as the result of a debutante who doesn’t believe women should toil, but rather a societal limitation imposed by the times (the play is set in St. Louis in 1937). This increased my empathy for these characters ten-fold.

The  Glass Menagerie is a play I read and loved, but quickly shelved because I didn’t want to get too attached a play in which I’d never be cast. This is why Lisa Portes’ direction of The Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes is so essential for children of color to see, and within the first five minutes I was envious of all the young people and students who will see this play and never question their place in it.

Tom, played by Bay Area legend and Campo Santo Co-Founder Sean San José, is the first character we see. As narrator and character, he is the crux for most of the movement in the play, master of this dream universe, and guides the moving furniture around the space. These movements increase in difficulty and attention as the play moves forward, which creates the feeling that this memory play and this family is only held together by Tom’s sheer effort. This made me pay attention to Raquelle Baretto’s costume design – they have put together easy to wear and move in pieces for the artists that are elegant and often striking. The opening design and staging of the play is a wonderful duet between costumes and lighting (Xavier Pierce) that lives in a moment beyond time. Baretto makes use of Laura’s affectionate nickname “Blue Roses” by dressing Laura in a sweet patterned dress covered in blue roses.

Sean San José’s gentle depiction of Tom creates a generosity of spirit this character is usually denied. This pays off when Tom breaks the menagerie animal, he finally becomes frustrated and dangerous in his ability to hurt the family. At particular risk in this play is his differently abled sister Laura, played by New York based poet and activist Phoebe Fico. Fico makes a striking and elegant stage debut as Laura, and we empathize with her at every turn. Laura is a character that I’ve usually seen played with a debilitated spirit, but Fico’s Laura is full of endearing smiles and sweet quips that make her moments of devastation hurt even more. Phoebe Fico sparkles in her acting debut, and deftly works the broad Cal Shakes stage with an inherent grace. I could tell it was her debut – if only because everyone else onstage is so seasoned – yet I found myself completely forgiving the absence of technical training in exchange for the genuine light that exudes from Fico. I support Cal Shakes’ decision to debut a new actress on an equity stage. A tradition of the past, it is incredibly rare to do so now, but the risk paid off tremendously.

Karen Aldridge gives a hilarious and warm tour de force of a performance as Amanda. When attempting to get Tom to bring home a gentleman caller, she hollers at him from the front porch as he traverses through the audience to get to work, eventually eliciting applause from the audience at the end of this scene on opening night. A particularly slick bit of directing from Lisa Portes and Aldridge’s animated demeanor gives life to a typically dull scene: Tom describing Jim, the gentleman caller to Amanda. Tom and Amanda move together to construct the full parlor including hanging windows and arranging the dining table during this exchange, giving it buoyancy.

The set, designed by Annie Smart, is bare and simple but surprisingly flexible. One of the most difficult things about the Cal Shakes space is how to define it. Each designer and director has to decide where the limits are for their world and build something to illustrate that, and though you can’t cover the forest landscape you can decide how to utilize it. In this design, a huge frame gives us the context of the home, and it worked in pulling my focus to the center. As it got dark I don’t particularly recall seeing the forest and even when it was visible it felt more like looking through a window. Rolling and hanging furniture is slid into place during the play, and the worst thing I have to say about it is that I was so struck by its compositional beauty I thought it was all a bit too nice for the financially challenged Wingfields. However, it’s a memory play, and who complains about things being unbelievably pretty?

As the set comes together and time marches on, the gentleman caller advances, and his entrance is beautifully highlighted by Brendan Aanes’ haunting sound effects. When we are thrust into this romantic memory by the arrival of Jim, the effervescent Rafael Jordan, a truly magical feat in the field of lighting is delivered by Xavier Pierce. He gives us parlor candlelight, despite the fact that we are outside and it’s dusk. It’s gradual and does not try to pretend that we are not outside, which makes it feel even more real once the light cue settles. I gasped, and everyone outside the show was talking about that visually stunning moment.

The Glass Menagerie is a stunning memory play and a must-see experience at the Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater. It runs through July 30th!

Tom: Sean San José
Amanda: Karen Aldridge
Laura: Phoebe Fico
Jim: Rafael Jordan

Director: Lisa Portes
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Dramaturg: Philippa Kelly
Stage Manager: Cheryle Honerlah
Asst. Stage Manager: Laxmi Kumaran
Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce
Scenic Designer: Annie Smart
Costume Designer: Raquel Barreto
Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes
Casting Director: Clea Shapiro
Acting Coach: Margo Hall
Text, Vocal and Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer

Photos: Kevin Berne

BIAS ALERT: This writer worked for Cal Shakes in various capacities including understudying, ending in 2016.

Marin Theatre Company’s Sara Waugh on her Role as a Marketing Director and Navigating Press and Critic Relationships

Rescripted’s Staff sat down to talk with Marketing Director Sara Waugh about the role of a marketing director, their relationship to critics, and tactics for both good and ‘unfavorable’ press. 

Rescripted: How would you describe what you do?

Sara Waugh: I’m the Director of Marketing & Communications for Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, CA. I create all season-long & show/programming-specific marketing campaigns and outreach strategies employing multiple communications channels through what we call the “marketing mix”.  That’s a combination of direct mail campaigns, digital email campaigns, social media outreach, including sharing content organically, meaning, the level of engagement a post receives when you first post it, will affect how frequently and how many other people will see it, and sharing content that we promote with the help of our “digital presence” agency through Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc.  It also includes paid advertising both print & digital, “ earned” media  or features in the press that we don’t  pay for,  and sponsored media. Sponsored media is usually part of our paid advertising contract, though it doesn’t look like an ad, it looks like a feature story. I’m essentially creating a strategized “mix” of efforts—on a budget—in order to get us the biggest return in ticket sales for our efforts.

R: How much do “bad” reviews affect a show?

SW: “Bad” or “unfavorable” reviews are tricky, because sometimes they don’t affect the impact our show has on our community, which in turn does not affect ticket sales, and sometimes they do in such a way that we are unable to recover from the impact the review has had.

For example, when we produced Native Son back in January (2017), the reviewer for the SF Chronicle did not give us a favorable review, but coming off of the “high” our patrons were on, loving us after our holiday show, pre-sales, and name recognition for the play, which is based on a very famous novel, we were still able to fill houses and exceed our sales goal for that show. So in that case, audiences were more willing to take a chance on our show because of the strong word of mouth recommendations from other patrons,  and familiarity with the novel rather than go by the review alone.

Fast forward to April when we produced Guards at the Taj when we received another unfavorable review in the SF Chronicle, and unfortunately our patrons agreed with the rating of the review, if not the actual review itself. The review tore apart the text, while our patrons simply thought the production itself was far too gory. So oddly enough, though patrons were not enjoying the play for different reasons than the reviewer didn’t enjoy the play, the negative way in which it was received all around  inevitably  impacted our sales goal for the show.

Currently, we’re running a play called The Legend of Georgia McBride that our audiences are literally leaping out of their seats to sing, clap and dance along with the finale musical number and curtain call, though we again received a negative review in the SF Chronicle. Here, I’ll note that the Chronicle is the only publication that gave this show such a negative review; all other reviews we’ve garnered in the week since we opened have been glowing. So we’re now really feeling the impact that the review in “the big paper” is having on us, overshadowing not just patrons’ word of mouth, but also the positive sentiments coming from other reviewers. I have to add that patrons who are attending are absolutely loving it. So we can only think that the reason ticket sales aren’t being affected by positive word of mouth while seemingly moreso affected by this negative review, is that people are not even wanting to take the chance on coming because of the unfavorable review in combination with the last show’s negative review and possibly not having a good experience at the last show.

So all in all, ticket sales/attendance are going to be affected by a number of things, but the potential for a “bad” review to harm us is high, and that’s just something we’re always going to have to combat, especially when we see that the audiences who are  here, are enjoying the piece.

 

R: How do your marketing tactics change if a review is negative?

SW: Obviously we will promote all other good reviews, and patron comments in order to paint how the play’s being received in the best light possible. But that’s  always going to come with that an increased personal touch with every message, as if we’re reaching out to folks individually. For example, I might pull the list of attendees from the last play by the same playwright or or featuring the same beloved  actor and filter out anyone who’s already attended or bought a ticket, and then send them a “personal” (we call this microtargeting, because the language gets really specific) email communication to say “HEY—we know you loved that last play, so why not come give this one a shot?? Here’s a promo code for you and your friends to come have a great night at the theatre” or whatever the angle is we want to push.

How we change our tactics is always going to be specific to the show, because outreach efforts will vary based on what the  thing is that we’re trying to sell, but I am also not ashamed to write to people who’ve already attended to ask “HEY did you love this? Tell your friends!” because that personal ask can really work for us too.

 

R: Not every show is a great show, sometimes things fall apart or just don’t work as planned, does agreeing with a negative review affect how you approach your strategy?

SW: You know, going back to the Guards at the Taj fiasco, we started off trying to push the fact that it was an award-winning show and it had been received well regionally across the US, but then we decided we shouldn’t assume our patrons  here in Marin have the same feelings and want the same things from the plays they’re attending as folks in other parts of the country.

So by the last week we just tackled it head on and said “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this SF Chronicle review!!!” and encouraged folks to read both the Chronicle review AND the other, way more favorable reviews, and to attend the show and make up their minds for themselves. This did actually give us  a bump in sales, so we’re glad we didn’t try to just ignore it and push forward. We’re hoping that our patrons appreciated that fact, and truly encouraged the public to make up their own minds.

 

R: Can you give an example of a situation where you’ve had to employ creative tactics to get around a negative review?

SW: Well we can certainly talk about what we’re doing for our current show! We’ve been planting ourselves at way more community events to increase our presence. One of the first things I learned about advertising was that people have to see an ad  at least 10 times before the message will stick, and even more times to actually remind and motivate them to move  to the  purchase point. So we do what we can to get our advertising content out into the world without making people feel like we’re hitting them over the head . But I think pairing those advertising images with some talking heads from the theatre to really help fill out what the show is and what they can expect when they come to the theatre really helps drive that message home,  and hopefully to our website or to the phone or box office to buy tickets! Because it’s one thing to send emails, tweets, etc. but having a presence can make a huge impact. So we’ve had a presence at local events, like the Mill Valley Memorial Day Parade, we’re also attending several Bay Area PRIDE parades and festivals  we’re partnering with other local theatres to have a presence at their Summer of Love events, and we’re employing some guerilla marketing tactics like going to  the LGBTQI+ friendly neighborhoods to leave postcards on windshields, in mailboxes, at bars, etc. It does start to feel like a lot of extra legwork, but unfortunately, when you produce a play with an unrecognizable title that then gets slammed in the community’s biggest local publication, you’ve gotta roll up your sleeves and hit the town!

 

R: Do you think the critics who come to your shows reflect the preferences of your audience?

SW: Not necessarily… I can’t presume to know what our audiences prefer to see (outside of the occasional survey response asking us to re-mount show X that they loved 10 years ago), and I also know that many of our critics are seeing so many shows a week all over the Bay Area, unlike many of our patrons, so critics are automatically going to be the more experienced theatre goers of the patrons in any house. But for the most part we can count on the majority of our critics to write meaningful critiques of what they experienced in community with the rest of the audience the night they attended, which, if the experience was positive, that’s a good indication that more patrons will take their word for it and give our little show a chance.

It also starts to get weird if you try to break it down demographically. Especially because Marin County specifically is such an affluent, white collar, white community. So, yes, 99% of our reviewers are also white, and most of them are over forty; though our mostly white patrons are closer to the 65+ range. So my number one struggle is to get more, younger people of color in through the doors, to enjoy the shows we produce that are definitely geared towards that demographic. But do I focus my audience development efforts on more younger [white] people in Marin, or younger people of color who live outside of Marin?

When we produce August Wilson plays—or other plays by writers of color—we inherently see a more diverse audience in attendance: non-white, younger, and even more men.  Those folks are not necessarily interested in hanging out in Marin all the time and seeing all of our plays, but they can count on us being committed to producing these works—aka not an entire season of Neil Simon or Mamet—and they will make the effort to come to Marin because the stories we’re telling and the messages the playwrights want us to drive home are important.

But I digress…. Here’s my main struggle with aligning critics’ preferences with audience preferences in order to attract more, newer patrons: if we’ve got white people critiquing white plays, does that give them more license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was “authentic” representation of the white community because they’re also a member of that identifying community? Probably. But if we’ve got white people critiquing African American plays, or straight people critiquing plays with  LGBTQI+ themes, does that give them license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was authentic representation of that community even though they’re not a member of that identifying community? I don’t have the best answer here but it doesn’t feel appropriate. Because I don’t think African American people need white people to defend them just like I don’t think queer folks need straight folks defending them, but ultimately, I am not a theatre critic, so I can only react to what I think is or is not appropriate with what a critic is choosing to focus on in a review. But when anyone negatively criticizes a show for being “inauthentic”, with no prior knowledge of the content and experiences being depicted in the show, that review is only going to keep more people from said communit(ies) from attending—as we’re currently seeing—because at a glance, readers don’t know that the person writing doesn’t have that experience. They only know that the critic is the person who’s been hired to tell the world what is and is not a “worth seeing” piece of art. And making an assumption about a community/experience which you know absolutely nothing is so damaging to all of the artists involved, especially those who have lived the experiences being depicted on stage.

What I would LOVE to see more of are younger critics, critics of color, and critics that represent the LGBTQI+ community so that when we are producing non-white/affluent-centric plays (in this very white community) we’ll at least be receiving criticism (negative, constructive, and/or positive) from folks who have also lived similar experiences off-stage and who can themselves speak authentically to our company’s depiction of those experiences.

But for the time being, I will still, always, gladly take the positive reviews from the majority [old] white reviewers we have currently attending who, despite not necessarily being members of the communities whose stories we’re telling, can still find the space to appropriately comment on the pluses and minuses of the actors, direction and production quality, vs. criticism from someone who has chosen an appropriated hill to die on.

 

R: What is the relationship like between marketing directors and the press? Is there anything you do to foster long running positive relationships with reviewers?

SW: In many organizations, Marketing Directors do not even deal directly with the press; the publicity department does. So other than promoting reviews/putting content together, such as production photo shoots, interviews with artists,  there’s no direct line of communication. However, published reviews affect my marketing efforts, so the relationship is tighter than you’d think, even if I wasn’t communicating with them directly.

Here at MTC, I double as the publicity rep and the Marketing Director, so I communicate with all the press, all the time. I 100% try to keep relations good with the reviewers because regardless of one person hating everything we produce, we still want them to come back to the next show because there’s always the potential for them to love it, print a great review, and blow our sales goals out of the water.

At this point, because the reviewer for our largest publication, the SF Chronicle, is so unpredictable, I will likely always try to keep the dialogue open with her regardless of her loving or hating a show we produce, because maybe—just maybe!—the longer she’s in her position the more I’ll be able to pseudo-predict how she’s going to review a play. this is not to say that theatres should only choose programming they think reviewers will like. That’s not how this should work at all. Critics are not going to love your theatre 100% of the time. But if you can help the theatre stand out for whatever its mission is, and then stick to that mission, hopefully, all critics (and patrons too!) will recognize your organization for always being on mission, even if individual productions aren’t always top notch, and that’s what’s most important with branding in general. Say who you are. Be that thing. And hope that you’ve got enough tricks/creativity flowing through your team mates at all times so whenever a reviewer slams you, you’ve got extra ammunition in your back pocket to pull out and use to keep those patrons coming in!

‘Pass Over’ and the Chicago Theatre Aesthetic


By Monty Cole

Let me set the scene.

A couple of weeks ago, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over opened at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and rocked the city –  folks are still holding on to anything sturdy. Nwandu’s Beckettian take on the plight of the American Black man drops Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) on a lifted cement street corner in an unnamed city. A street light hangs over them like Waiting for Godot’s infamous tree, and beyond that lies a black void.

The play isn’t easy. Antoinette Nwandu has written fiercely brilliant dialogue saturated with ebonics and “niggas” spun into its vernacular. The word is used so much that the one white character in the play points out his discomfort with the frequency of the word. Now might be a good time to mention that I’m a Black Chicago-based director. Hi.

Pass Over is like nothing Steppenwolf has produced before. The cast includes only one ensemble member: the young, Black and electric Jon Michael Hill. If most of the work by Black playwrights produced at Steppenwolf sounds like Miles Davis or even Frank Ocean, Pass Over has the potential to sometimes sound like Young Thug or Migos (and if you don’t know who those artists are, my point exactly). The play’s story is nebulous and has definite surrealist undertones, the likes of which infrequently occur on Steppenwolf’s stage, and are relatively foreign to Chicago Theatre audiences in general.

The Chicago Theatre criticism roster consists of Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune), Hedy Weiss (Chicago Sun-Times), Kris Vire (TimeOut Chicago), Tony Adler (Chicago Reader) and many, many blogs. I’ve been reading Chris Jones for the Chicago Tribune since I was a freshman in high school almost fifteen years ago. Before I went to school, I’d eat Pop Tarts and read the TEMPO section in the Trib. My parents didn’t get the Chicago Sun-Times.

Hedy Weiss has been the Theater and Dance Critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1984 according to the Sun-Times’ website. At this point, her reviews read like Trump tweets — simplistic, unbelievably insensitive, factually wrong, and mostly useless. For many years, the Chicago Theatre community has tried to get her off the job. We’ve tried writing to the editor, but America is more likely to impeach Trump than the Sun-Times is likely to fire Hedy Weiss for a racist review. The difference between the two is while Trump has been saying horribly offensive statements in his job as president for 6 months, Weiss has been doing the same thing for over two decades with no repercussions. Here’s an excerpt from her review of Pass Over.

To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s  largely white “liberal” audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.

Her work oozes with an ironic ignorance for a woman that writes at a liberal newspaper where I’m sure there are plenty of resources for her to dig a little deeper. (It’s especially ironic because that final monologue she’s referring to is actually aimed at conservative white audiences, but that went over Weiss’ head.) She has a history of reviews like this that are either ignorant or unintelligent and often both. The New York Times covered one of Hedy Weiss’ controversies in an article almost 11 years ago and compiled quotes from various esteemed artists who spoke out against Weiss. This includes Tony Kushner, who she infamously referred to as a “self hating Jew” in her review of his Tony Award winning musical Caroline, or Change. Yeah. That’s one of our top two critics. And the issue is never whether or not artists can tolerate a bad review. Artists receive bad reviews all the time. After reading a Hedy Weiss review I find myself wondering if we even saw the same play. It seems like she willfully ignores how a play is structured and the story it’s trying to tell.

Her work is unbelievably offensive, it spreads negativity about positive work being done in the theatre community, and it affects the artists who work on these new play processes. I keep finding myself wanting to shield the actors on stage at Pass Over. I can’t imagine performing this play every night, exposing parts of yourself, and being met with the negativity and false information spewing from critics like Weiss. By continuing to invite her and use her pull quotes, theatre companies are sending a message that they are complacent to her bigotry. What’s worse (okay maybe not worse) is she doesn’t even sell tickets. Before moving into directing, I was the Communications Manager at Next Theatre Company. I was in charge of marketing, audience services, and graphic design. In my experience, including a Hedy Weiss review on our poster, postcard, web ad, or lobby display did nearly nothing for ticket sales. Her words are not only damaging to artists, but also the audiences who are misguided by her wrongheaded reviews.

The Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition was formed in response to Weiss’ Pass Over review. Enough was enough. The coalition is organizing artists and producers from all across the city to contact Chicago theater companies, asking them to join the cause and promise they will no longer provide Hedy Weiss with free tickets to their shows. They send out daily tasks to their group members to dismantle a failing system in a peaceful and controlled manner. Weiss is welcome to attend any show she wants to review – so long as she purchases a ticket.  Over 3500 people have signed the petition and over sixty theatre companies have signed. You can find the full petition by clicking here. I can’t stress this enough – my beliefs written here are not at all indicative of this pleasant, honest, and peaceful group.

The Chicago Reader, The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board, and The Chicago Sun-Times have all come out in support of Weiss. The articles that the media have released thus far omit facts and Weiss’ precedence for offensive reviews to almost shocking degrees. The Sun-Times wrote that they “may have room to grow when it comes to covering the diverse communities we serve, including in the arts. Our promise every day is to continue to do better. We do that, always, in the best of faith.” There’s been no evidence of the Sun-Times making any attempt to “do better” in the past.

For a lot of artists in Chicago, the issue ends here: keep Hedy from receiving free tickets. I’m also in favor of focusing our efforts here. But Hedy’s overt racism is not the full story behind Chicago’s troubled relationship with criticism. Most theatre companies in Chicago have one primary marketing strategy: get a 4-star Chris Jones review. The difference between a 3-star and a 4-star Chris Jones review is the difference between average and packed crowds. Notice I didn’t say a Chicago Tribune review, but specifically a Chris Jones review.

Jones’ review of Pass Over was, I’d say, mostly a rave.

“a very potent and promising play”

“Pass Over works … it lays out in stark and poetic fashion a quotidian urban, American reality that Beckett utterly failed to imagine.”

“Much of the language in the work is thrilling, poetical. Very. So is much of director Danya Taymor’s dynamic staging, which makes exceptional use of the width of the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, sending genuinely disturbing attacks on the psyche across horizontal lines before packing a climactic punch in the vertical. All three of the performances are excellent, a complex trifecta of race, power and authority. To her great credit, Taymor really takes you there, whether or not you care to go.”

The review is one of Jones’ more comprehensive reviews. He identifies specific strengths of the work and displays an understanding of the playwright’s intentions. I would even argue that Chris Jones accurately analyzes the complex race issues that are stirring in the play.

As a critic,  Jones has a set of values and priorities that result in an aesthetic preference. I can not pretend that I know Chris Jones. What I have surmised about Jones from reading him since I was 14, is that he values an honest performance and honestly written characters . He prioritizes stories that are deeply cathartic and filled with pathos. He wants text that feels real to him. And realness must be subtle. It must have verisimilitude. It must be authentic, or at least feel authentic to Chris Jones. These priorities and values are often the backbone of his reviews resulting in a specific aesthetic preference. Steppenwolf’s previous work and a lot of work created by ensembles in the city fall under this aesthetic. Pass Over does not.

In the final paragraph of Jones’ review, he writes:

“I’d argue that this early version of this hugely promising play loses its way in the last third as it layers on so much symbolism that you somehow lose both the work’s crucial, real-time tension and the rich humanity of Moses and Kitch; their initial individuation becomes subsumed…But Nwandu paints these young men with such initially vivid humanity that you miss it when it exits, as you do the hope inherent in characters who know they must leave this place of waiting, this way of being, this life.”

Symbolism is not Chris Jones’ bag. Heavy handedness is not Chris Jones’ preference either. Nwandu’s finale sports both symbolism and heavy handedness with grace. Jones doesn’t like the ending so much so what star rating does the play get? 3 out of 4 stars. Though Jones can see why Nwandu made the choices she made, it wasn’t his preference and so it affected the play’s rating. Jones felt the ending extinguished the humanity in the play’s characters. When I left the theater after Opening Night, I remember saying to my wife that it’s interesting to me that artists of color tend to write and create in a world that doesn’t sit comfortably in realism. I can watch a magical or surrealist moment and it will ring more true than if the moment was played “realistically”. Because what’s “real”? What’s “true”? Is Chris Jones’ truth more important than my truth? I don’t need a critic to tell me how they would tell my story. I’d rather they try to empathize with the way I’m trying to tell it.

Flash back to a year and a couple of months ago when Steppenwolf was producing the world premiere of a new Tracy Letts play titled Mary Page Marlowe. Besides his adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, this would be Letts’ first full length play since his double whammy of August: Osage County and Superior Donuts (both went to Broadway). The play depicts the life of an intentionally unremarkable woman named Mary Page Marlowe. In his review, Jones wrote:

The end of “Mary Page Marlowe” is deeply frustrating.

So much so, in fact, I wondered about the four stars. But my internal debate — as unremarkable as the life of the protagonist — ended when I thought again about the emotional weight of a piece of theater so imbued with love and concern.

And so this relatively realistic play was awarded a 4-star review and here lies the problem.

We hear a question asked again and again when a play like Pass Over drops: how can we make room for people of color in theatre criticism? This is true, valid, and needed, but the issue might be broader than that. Chicago Theatre has a very specific aesthetic: intimate, realistic, honest, ensemble-based, text and performance-based theatre. And although these are values and priorities close to Chris Jones, this is an aesthetic that goes back to when Steppenwolf Theatre operated out of a church basement. This aesthetic reaches back to Gregory Mosher’s early productions of David Mamet at the Goodman Theatre in the 1970s. It’s a proud tradition, but it’s also a trap.

We create plays that we think will attract a Chicago Theatre audience, whatever that means. We think we know what they can handle and what they can’t. We produce plays that we think Chris Jones will enjoy. We say “chicago audiences” in artistic and marketing meetings but we’re really saying Chris Jones. We are inspired by Chicago productions before us and artists working with us and we don’t look outside of the city that much. Our work is intimate, small and intentionally claustrophobic. We produce plays that are socially relevant. These plays are allowed to ask a question, but never venture to give an answer. If you give an answer, you’re being preachy and not subtle which are the two worst things you could be. Instead, you better have 5 characters in a room that all have different perspectives that are equally valid trying to answer one question. Argument escalates, climax, denouement. We tell Chicago stories. We lead with our actors and playwrights. We shy away from devised theatre. Experimental Theatre? What’s that? We stay here, we keep our heads down, and we do the work. When something adventurous comes into town, we get inspired, maybe we steal something small, and we go back to our aesthetic again. I am comfortable saying that as a white man, Chris Jones cannot have the same priorities that I do as to how Pass Over’s story is told. In a broader sense, Chris Jones is a realist, and therefore doesn’t have the same priorities that I do as to how Pass Over’s story is told. He can forgive a realistic play’s frustrating ending, but won’t penetrate a surrealist play’s ending. Your perspective is built upon what you’re willing to forgive. This isn’t a petty complaint over a single star. I’m asking the question: are we letting our critics dictate the type of stories we tell and how we tell them? Do we keep our adventurous ideas away from Chicago audiences and our intelligent ideas from Chicago bloggers?

As evidenced by Weiss and Jones’ reviews, who’s allowed to have a successful production in Chicago isn’t necessarily only an alleged race problem, it involves anyone that wants to try something risky on stage as Nwandu has done here. Believe me, I’ve been deeply offended by overt and “well meaning” racism across Chicago theatre criticism. Critics and media companies almost never apologize for it. It’s easy to point out and it affects the work that is programmed. I’ve also seen strange play after play fail in Chicago and succeed elsewhere. At this point, Chicago audiences really might not be trained for experimental work because of how ill-equipped our critics are at covering that material. Though I wouldn’t call it “experimental”, Pass Over was a risk for Steppenwolf. Chris’ review broke my heart more than Weiss’. I expect a racist review from Weiss. I saw it from a mile away. This isn’t nearly the first time I’ve been disappointed with how Jones has watched a play. I’ve read that review in response to that type of work too many times to not notice a pattern – and I’m not the only one. I’ve talked to directors outside of the city who direct wonderfully successful productions elsewhere and won’t step foot in Chicago for this exact reason. As a producer, I’ve worked for companies that are too intimidated by Jones’ preferences to produce adventurous work. I actually think Jones is still an excellent writer, one of the best in the country. I think he writes from an honest and authentic place. He writes from his truth. But I wish he would display an ability to appreciate work outside of his preferred aesthetic and see someone else’s truth. I think it’s hurting our city.

Here’s the thing: I think part of Chris Jones knows all of this. Even today, he wrote up a defensive editorial responding to a lecture he had heard recently from Steven Tepper, dean of the Arizona State University Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The article explains how young artists and audiences expect different responsibilities from their critics. The piece reports upon the recent trend of holding artists, producers and critics accountable for their words and actions. Jones comments that he took his 12 year old son to see Pass Over who immediately told his father that he needs to watch what he says in his review. Jones writes, “…what my 12-year-old immediately grasped that I did not, and what the events that played out later suggests, is that reviews now are different kinds of battlefields. Who is writing them is just as important – perhaps more important – than what is being reviewed. The old agreement, that the critic should de-emphasize self in deference to the artwork and a presumed diversity of readership, has fallen apart.” He understands the problem, but maybe what his 12 year old and the younger generations understand is… there is no de-emphasizing the self. Jones can’t help but write his reviews through the lens of his experiences. What he believes is honesty, truth, and authenticity will always be present in his work no matter how much he feels it is “de-emphasized.”

I don’t like articles that simply state the problem and don’t provide solutions so here’s some thoughts. The responsibility to evolve the work that Chicago produces and to widen the Chicago Theatre aesthetic is in our hands.

  1. Don’t invite Hedy Weiss to your opening nights. Plain and simple. Don’t do it. There’s no reason to be complicit in her bigotry.
  2. The Chicago Tribune hires a few critics to write their reviews. In the print newspaper and on their website, they include a section called Chris Jones Recommends showing the highest rated plays in Chicago. This omits any 3-4 star reviews from Kerry Reid and Nina Metz who cover the more adventurous theatre in Chicago. This section should change to the Theater Loop Recommends to include all of the excellent theatre in Chicago and not just the work Jones covers. Based on the current structure of the Tribune website, it seems as though the two female critics’ opinions are considered not to hold the same weight as Jones’ recommendations.
  3. At the very least, the Chicago Tribune needs to provide more freelance opportunities to fill out the diversity holes in their writing staff.
  4. Support Rescripted, a diverse and “artist-led interactive commentary on the state of the arts, including reviews, dialogues, and essays.” Invite them to your shows and use their reviews for your pull quotes.
  5. Make the theatre that inspires you. Make the passion project that feels out of this world. Produce theatre that feels bigger than Chicago’s critics. Produce theatre that feels so ambitious that it has the potential to go viral. And don’t settle. Excitement is contagious. There are so many types of theatre that don’t exist in Chicago. Produce for a reason.

When I was in college, I used to gush about Chicago theatre. I would say the best theatre in the country was in Chicago. I would say there was a great variety of theatre in Chicago. I would say if there was going to be a theatre revolution in America it would be in Chicago. When I got back here, I realized that this great variety that I spoke about was based on a select few companies in this city (still around) that provide something truly unique. I started to read Jones’ work because my parents took me to Chicago Theatre when I was 13. Sometimes when I see work in our beautiful city it feels like I’m traveling back in time. Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed — and not in a good way. Sometimes it feels like we’ve passed the same toolbox down from generation to generation and therefore our work looks exactly the same as it did then. I still believe Chicago can have that variety and that we can have a diversity of voices and styles on our stage. We have to dare to evolve — despite our critics.

 

(Production Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow)

Gil Scott-Heron’s “Grandeur” is Eclipsed by Addiction

Grandeur, a play by Han Ong produced by Magic Theatre in San Francisco, is an intimate play about a larger than life performer, Gil Scott-Heron.  A black writer, poet, performer and political activist, Scott- Heron is famous for being the “Godfather of Rap”. His words and his songs have been sampled over and over, by Salt-N-Pepa, Kanye, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Rihanna and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. His influence on rap and hip hop as as artforms and as tools of political expression cannot be overstated. This play takes place in a single afternoon after his final album release I’m New Here, 40 years after his heyday, and many years into a crippling crack addiction. Grandeur is playwright Han Ong’s return to the stage after a sixteen-year absence. One of youngest recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grant,his talent shines through in this nimble and absorbing play. It’s a tour de force for Carl Lumbly who plays Gil Scott-Heron with a sharpness and a humor that stings and entertains. And yet, fourteen months ago when I was a member of the Magic Theatre Literary committee, I read the play and had strong reservations.

Sitting the audience, I was prepared to have my mind changed, and in many ways it was. Dialogue that had fallen flat to me on the page crackled onstage with the direction of Magic’s Artistic Director Loretta Greco. The underwriting of Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), the aspiring New York Review of Books journalist interviewing Gil Scott-Heron, seemed more of a deliberate choice to make him an everyman rather than a lack of interest by Ong in anyone who wasn’t Gil Scott-Heron. But the question that had caused me to reject the play in my initial reading still filled the back of my mind: Why tell this Gil Scott-Heron story?

Grandeur is a good play. It has on a refreshingly straight forward, non moralistic attitude towards drug addiction. Scott-Heron is affected by his crack use, but he’s not a groveling, pathetic lesson. He’s an ornery, expressive old man with a gift for one liners, little patience, and a knack for getting people to give him what he wants. The single flashback that portrays him completely and uncontrollably high as the train rushes onward, and tweets about his career and downfall flash by is one of the most inventive and visually interesting scenes in the entire play. Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks), his honorary niece and caretaker is a sharp reminder of all the women who keep the careers of famous men afloat without receiving any of the credit. Jordan’s acting talent shines in the second act as his anger at Scott-Heron for losing his heroic luster bursts through, and it becomes clear that Scott-Heron represents Barron’s deepest ambitions and his greatest fears as a black man and writer.

There is only so much space on the stage. Every theater company, every year wades through hundreds of options to decide what four, six, eight stories are worthy of being told that season on their stage, and even in the most progressive of theaters there is a comfort in familiarity. We produce and watch the same shocking and “edgy” stories over and over again until they become part of our consciousness. Lesbians die, women are madonnas and whores, and black men are felled by drugs. On stages across the country, smart, accomplished playwrights examined these tropes, they investigate them, they burst them open, they show their flaws and why these stereotypes are harmful. Yyet the logical next step of writing plays that don’t include these stereotypes, that don’t rely on exploiting the pain of minorities or have women who are people and not metaphors seems ever evasive.
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Grandeur is a play about a man who’s most famous work is “The Revolution will not be Televised”, but this Gil Scott-Heron story is entirely non-threatening for white consumption. It’s is a safe story, centered around his crack addiction, and with very little about his music and almost nothing about his politics. It’s a play about a writer’s last hurrah long after his drive for success has dried up. A story that Ong, who’s spoken publically about falling out of love with dramatic writing after staggering initial success may have felt a strong kinship with.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to explore stories about forgotten icons after the world has moved on without them, and telling stories about addiction without moralizing is an impulse I applaud. But every theater makes choices. Staging a play about a black man famous for his anger at the treatment of black Americans and his revolutionary music that expressed it, and stripping all of that away to make a story about addiction that ends with Scott-Heron taunting his interviewer saying “don’t you wanna look away?” as he lights up, the glow of the crack pipe in the dark theater as the final image the audience sees, is a choice. Similar choices are made in theaters across America everyday, and it says something about the stories that we’re comfortable telling, and what we see as worthy of our time, money, and stages.

Grandeur runs through June 25th. find more information here

Cast

Gil Scott-Heron: Carl Lumbly

Steve Barron: Rafael Jordan

Miss Julie: Safiya Fredericks

Creative Team

Set & Projection Design: Hana S. Kim

Costume Design: Alex Jaeger

Lighting Design: Ray Oppenheimer

Sound Design: Sara Huddleston

Stage Manager: Kevin Johnson

Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez

Director of Production: Sara Huddleston

Props Design: Jacquelyn Scott

Local Casting Sonia Fernandez

Press Photos: Jennifer Reiley

Love and Talent Burn Fiercely in ‘Bright Half Life’

(Photo Copyright: Michael Brosilow)

By Regina Victor

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre directed by Kiera Fromm is an elegant exploration of queer love and the quirks of relationships. A two-person play penned by Tanya Barfield, Bright Half Life centers around the intertwined lives of two women, Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) and Vicky (Patrese D. McClain). The play jumps back and forth through time to tell us the story of Vicky and Erica’s decades long love affair, from their first encounter at the job where Vicky is the only black female supervisor, to the marriages of their children. Fromm’s direction and Barfield’s sequence of events made it clear from the beginning that this love would be complicated and messy, that it would end and perhaps begin again. But whether or not they see a happy ending almost doesn’t matter. Bright Half Life  believes that it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

The play is non-linear, and often returns to moments from previous scenes, letting the audience discover new meanings and subtext to previously seen conversations as the new information about Vicky and Erica’s relationship comes to light. This could have been very confusing, but the design world gave the audience a clear roadmap to understanding the timelines. As they hurdled through time and space on William Boles’ angular and precise set, they only used two chairs and their bodies to set each scene, letting Christopher Kriz’s sound design guide the audience. This guidance is surprisingly subtle, you barely register the change of sound but rather sense the change of feeling. Kriz takes us from a Ferris wheel, to a hospital, to a conventional workplace, and more with a delicate clarity.

The lighting, designed by Christine Binder, consisted of ethereal side light, tight spot lights, beautiful overhead panels, and was used to tighten the focus of time and space. One particularly effective device was the use of a tight spot on a single actor’s face as she said something that at first seemed jarringly out of place in the scene. Then, as she would turn to her girlfriend and continue with her thought, it became clear that those moments in the light represented the actor’s internal monologue. This action informed the rest of the scene fabulously, utilizing an age old theatrical device in a fresh new way: letting an audience in on a juicy secret that only they know.  

What I truly loved about this show was the simplicity of the theatrical devices used, to an ingenious extent. Melissa Ng’s costume design was effortlessly able to scale 20+ years of a lifetime without either character leaving the stage. The secret? Layering. It is easy to muddy up a production like this trying to be cool or fancy, dazzling an audience with all the tricks available in 21st century theater,  but here the simplicity of the design and direction allowed these two stunning actors to shine.

 Actor Elizabeth Ledo as Erica comes out of the gate with such an infectious warmth that it makes you wonder how Vicky could possibly resist. Plaid-rocking Ledo is a crowd pleaser, and manages to infuse even Erica’s most infuriating moments with a helpless charm, invoking a beautifully tragic lesbian Hamlet. Patrese D. McLain has a tough job playing the  graceful but reserved Vicky, but when the walls come down and we do finally see her loving tendencies, the payoff is emotionally stunning and surprisingly playful.

The play focuses on the intimate dynamics that are found in many relationships. Certain arguments will feel painfully familiar, depending on your own lived experiences. After the show, each person I spoke to could point to a different moment in the play and say “my partner does that!”  It’s filled with the moments that build a relationship and slowly chip it away, the overarching question occurring over and over: would you do it again?      

On a personal note, I must discuss the social relevance of this play for me as a queer person of color and theatre artist. The play alludes to various time periods and stretches over decades as I previously mentioned, but the reference that caught my ear was to queer life in the early 2000s. Whenever marriage is discussed it is accompanied by a necessary trip to Massachussetts (gay marriage law was passed there in 2004), which struck an important chord for me.

I  felt incredibly inspired seeing a woman onstage who looked like me, playing a lesbian in an interracial relationship with children, discussing the hard truths about the difficulties of understanding cultural bridges. At one point, Vicky is discussing her own racial history and having been called an “oreo” in her past – a disrespectful term intended to imply one is black on the outside, and white on the inside. Erica has to stop and realize that though she lacks privilege as a white gay woman, she doesn’t in fact understand everything about Vicky’s identity as a black woman, and asks to be taught about her whiteness. It’s a touching moment of connection onstage in a world that feels so divided.

A timeless and compelling script, I recommend Bright Half Life for anyone wanting to see progressive LGBTQ+ theatre written by a black queer femme. About Face is one of the only companies where I can see queer, happy, healthy relationships portrayed without ever being the punchline or tragic figures. It is important that we get to see ourselves as the heroes and lovers, and About Face’s mission of portraying LGBTQ theatre is both necessary and commendable.

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Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre runs through July 1st, find more information here: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Erica: Elizabeth Ledo

Vicky: Patrese D. McClain

Understudy for Erica: Pamela Mae Davis

Understudy for Vicky: Demetria Thomas

Playwright: Tanya Barfield

Director: Kiera Fromm

Set Designer: William Boles

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz

Costume Designer: Melissa Ng

Props Designer: Vivian Knouse

Stage Manager: Helen Colleen Lattyak

Associate Lighting Designer: Bailey Rosa

Asst. Stage Manager: Gabriella Welsh

Asst. Director: Lauren Katz

Casting: Kiera Fromm & Alex Weisman

Production Manager: Alex Rhyan

Tech Director: Andrew Glasenhart

Master Electrician: Kristof Janezic

Scenic Painter: Jessica Howe