A Phenomenal and Heartbreaking ‘Lela & Co.’ Extends at Steep

By Hallie Palladino

Steep Theatre has just extended its devastating and urgently important play, Lela & Co. I wanted to take a moment to recommend this production and encourage people to see it now that it has been extended through September 16th.

I feel so fortunate to have seen Cruz Gonzales-Cadel play Lela in this heartbreaking two-hander opposite Chris Chmelik. Gonzales-Cadel has phenomenal range. We immediately fall in love with Lela as she disarms us with her charm and draws us into her story.We start in Lela’s childhood home with a loving mother and a father who alternates between indulgent and abusive. The limited abilities of women to shield each other from harm is a theme established early. As the dangers around her multiply, we watch Lela transform from an innocent child into a determined and courageous woman. For his part, Chmelik plays a host of villains, each fully fleshed out, each differently evil. Written by the British playwright Cordelia Lynn when she was just twenty-six, Lela is original in every way. Lynn speaks the unspeakable and holds us all accountable.

I won’t describe or summarize the story because much of its dramatic value is in its surprises. We never know what’s about to happen and, like Lela, we feel powerless to stop the cascade of horrors that unfold as she recounts her story. I’ve never felt so much real fear, rage and despair in the theater. A big part of it was knowing, more than a play, what happens to Lela is happening to to girls and women around the world every day.

Lela examines the way women become casualties of war showing how their stories are coopted, their voices silenced and their abuse marginalized. The narrative style creates the experience of being inside the head of a women who has internalized the narrative of her abusers along side the truth of her lived experience. This gives the audience an opportunity to experience the cognitive dissonance that results from trauma. The tone of Robin Witt’s direction creates jarring juxtapositions between the events that happen to Lela and the way she describes them. Lela uses a range of coping techniques from detachment, to rationalization, to minimizing, to self-blame. All the time as her underlying grief, rage and pain are straining to be let out. By the time Lela hits its crescendo and the playwright allows her character to enact a desperately longed for moment of confrontation all the air goes out of the room.

The space has been transformed into an intimate café with limited cabaret style seating and the actors perform on raised platforms above our heads. The action happens around the audience so we’re immersed and therefore implicated in Lela’s predicament. All the design elements seamlessly support this atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia.

I must end with a really big trigger warning here. There is graphic sexual violence both portrayed and discussed. This play deals plainly with some of the darkest subject matter I’ve ever heard onstage. Lela explicates the economic and political circumstances of war and how they enable the exploitation of women. Lynn’s story also reveals the tragic irony of how third party “liberating” and “peacekeeping” forces in conflict zones participate in crimes against women. No, Cordelia Lynn’s play isn’t easy to watch, but it is essential.

BIAS ALERT: Cruz and I know each other from Something Marvelous and have bonded over having children around the same age. Likewise, I know Peter Moore, Steep’s Artistic Director, because our kids were in the same class and I’ve submitted my work to his literary department. All this just means I was already a fan of the theater and of Cruz before I went to see this play.

Extended through September 16th!

CAST:
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel
Chris Chmelik

PRODUCTION TEAM:
Director – Robin Witt*
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Design – Joe Schermoly
Lighting Design – Brandon Wardell**
Sound Design – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Design  – Jessica Kuehnau Wardell
Prop Design – Maria DeFabo**
Fight Choreography – Christina Gorman
Dramaturg – Carina Abbaticchio
Assistant Directors – Michael Rogerson & Isabel Perry
Production Manager – Julia Siple*

*Denotes Steep Company Member
**Denotes Steep Artistic Associate

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

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.

‘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