Hometown: Chicago (Ravenswood)
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: The lenses that make up my perspective as a writer are that I’m a woman, feminist, editor, and dramaturg. I have a background in performance (music, theatre, dance, some orchestra), but nowadays focus on studying, critiquing and writing for or about theatre.
What is the purpose of arts criticism?: I think the purpose of arts criticism is constantly shifting. We’re in a period currently stuck between its past purpose versus its present demands. There’s a tug of war between the cisgender, white, male critics and the emerging, newer, diverse voices who’ve not been afforded a chance to build such an audience. Similarly to needing representation regarding racial and gender parity in all artistic disciplines, it’s important to see this shift especially in criticism. It cannot be emulated through writers, actors, or directors alone. This needs to sweep across all areas of artistic positions and leadership for such momentum to occur. It’s not just about who’s doing the work, but who’s reviewing it to influence audiences to see it or not.
Reviews (Most Recent First)
Raven Theatre’s Hoodoo Love comes in with a bang, literally. Deep, pulsating noises of the South (sound design by Jeffrey Levin) and Hoodoo tricks turn a Great Depression era Memphis upside down and four souls are forever changed. Lost, hardworking Toulou (Martasia Jones) yearns for movement and is swayed by the rhythms of womanizing crooner, Ace of Spades (Matthew James Elam). Their relationship begins at a climax and despite a stormy, steamy time in the sack, it’s anything, but easy lovin’.
Katori Hall pens a devastating tale where locking down love has deadly consequences. Wardell Julius Clark provides illuminating direction in magnifying this musical tragedy to practically claustrophobic heights. It’s difficult to remember to breathe when witnessing this doomed chain of events. Clark attentively fills in the details that Hall left out, making for a more cohesive narrative. There’s an impressive build orchestrated across its nearly two and a half-hour run, a difficult task for any play to sustain tension. Its length is necessary as jamming this expansive, evenly distributed tale among its four players into ninety minutes would be a disservice.
Act I initially perks us up with exciting characters. Toulou and Ace have lust in their lungs and lyrics in their bones as they stroke each other’s egos and eventually strike up a band. Elam can SING delivering raspy, toe tapping blues. While Jones doesn’t blow the roof off the place, she instead offers a softer, tender voice that glimmers now and then. Toulou’s neighbor, Candylady (Shariba Rivers), serves as a grandmother-like figure watching over her, dispensing wisdom as spirited as the wind. She enlightens Toulou on her mojo bag “with all her mens” achieving icon status in “making men into memories”. Her firecracker nature overpowers Jib (Christopher Wayland Jones), Toulou’s insufferable brother, who blows in like bad news. Pretentiously speaking in Psalms and physically uncomfortable sexual innuendos, he demonstrates a clash in morals and money, flashing deep pockets that weigh as heavy as his guilt.
The cards start out stacked in Ace’s favor, but Toulou quickly proves two can play this game. Instead of letting their spark fade out (which would be in her best interest), she, with assistance from Candylady, casts a spell for him to fall deeper into her charms. Sitting through this ritual is transfixing and crescendos into horror, feeling like the first of several nails in a coffin as Act I concludes. Coming back for Act II feels like an obligation having been left on a note of unforgivable violence. Months have passed and when it’s revealed what Toulou must now overcome, a collective sigh emotes from the audience neither surprised nor impressed with this development. The rest of the play predictably pans out and witnessing the rampant hypocrisy run through all these characters makes for a harsh watch. This house of cards comes crumbling down, but Hall deprives us of any investment that would make the wreckage worth mustering through – why put the pieces of a broken home back together?
Clark provides a strikingly, visual production that’s supported by its design. Rachel Flesher does an impressive job with intimacy and violence design where both feel alarmingly realistic. Sydney Lynne Thomas’ scenic design sneaks in a railroad track as Toulou’s walkway to her home stressing a need for mobility and escape. How the set transforms toward the conclusion of the second act is jaw dropping. The Ricky Harris provides insightful music direction where music produces harmony or dissonance in the characters’ relationships.
In Hoodoo Love, Toulou and Candylady’s scenes bring the most magic to the world of the play as they commiserate on men and making names for themselves. Ace and Jib’s card games offer a well-matched verbal strip down where neither walks away a winner. Strong performances and bits of dialogue guide this show with a mesmerizing, overwhelming intensity. Hoodoo Love delivers the best version of this play there can be, but overall it leaves me uneasy questioning why we must endure such suffering.
Multimedia: A Star is Born, a Tale as Old as Four Times
A tale as old as four times, watching all versions of A Star is Born is no easy task. It requires more commitment than your average Netflix binge, clocking in at around ten hours. On the verge of a journey a year in the making to see Lady Gaga perform her prestigious Enigma residency on Halloween, I decided now was the perfect occasion to view them all. Gaga made her film debut in the 2018 incarnation of A Star is Born about two talented albeit tragic lovers; but Gaga’s luminary career in music, fashion, and social justice borrows breadcrumbs from this story that are equally enriching and of course, dramatic.
Gaga proves a sensation isn’t born overnight. In her concert, she proudly lists off all the jobs she had while pursuing music, often holding them all at once. From go-go dancer, to bartender, to waitress, her admission shoots down the shame that’s often associated with these less glamorous positions. Like her character Ally and her counterparts, these hardworking, hopeful women weren’t waiting for a white knight, but a leg up in the entertainment industry. If Working Girl is the Wall Street Cinderella story, A Star is Born is its west coast twin. In A Star is Born (1937), Esther (Janet Gaynor), moves to Hollywood and struggles to get work even as an extra in films. In subsequent versions, all are singers playing favorite to clubs. Judy Garland’s Esther in the 1954 version even has a minor tour lined up before Norman Maine (Fredric March) drops in.
The prestige of fame comes with years of hard work, battling demons of insecurity, and in Maine’s case, addiction, and feeding the beast of public perception. Media relation specialists and stylists pour in with edits, nips, and tucks before new talent can even introduce themselves. Across all versions, Esther’s name and looks require adjustment in order to make her more marketable to audiences. In A Star is Born (1976), Barbra Streisand’s Esther stands out as the only one to refuse to give up her name asking annoyed, “Why would I do that?” Gaynor, Garland, Streisand and Gaga’s noses are uncomfortably criticized by a group of nameless, yet powerful men. Citing how her nose was a reason for rejection by music labels, this detail is implemented into Ally’s struggles in the 2018 version. By her beautiful nose and a chosen name, Gaga has shown she’s gotten far by fighting for the image she’s always envisioned for her career.
What often makes these films suffer, and that still echoes as an industry problem today, is when we’re only offered a glimpse of these actresses’ talent. In the 1937 A Star is Born; Gaynor is coquettishly charming as she delivers old Hollywood starlet impressions and rehearses several versions of the same line. However, we’re expected to bend our perception of reality that her talents lend themselves as strongly on screen as they do off from this brief preview. We don’t see Gaynor or Garland’s screen tests, but the Garland version more than makes up for it. She sings, dances, and acts enveloping you in her signature, warm vibrato and enrapturing melodies for hours. Her pronunciation of the word vacuum is your next ASMR fix and “The Man That Got Away” clenches a win as the performance of her lifetime (and that’s not even fifteen minutes in).
Gaga and Streisand’s respectable reputations as musicians warrant more obligation on this expectation, and these later remakes further illuminate this issue in the framing of this story. The title would lead you to believe these films are about its rising female star yet most, if not all, of the plot is marked by the downfall of its leading man. The 1937 original feels like the only iteration that is Esther’s. That significant character arc for Esther gets lost in each new version. March and Garland demonstrate nearly equal screen time and stakes in the 1954 film. In 1976 and 2018, it’s John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) shown in the opening shots. Kristofferson isn’t offered any redemption as the film progresses causing abundant disinterest, whereas Cooper provides conflicted feelings of empathy and anger for his actions. Cooper makes Maine the most likeable and complicated he’s been, yet his story inconveniently overshadows Ally’s and by extension his co-star, Gaga.
Learning the backstory of an artist is enjoyable in conjunction with their art but isn’t always offered to us at the same time. When it’s given to us, what makes A Star is Born and Gaga’s residency appealing is the sweetly struck balance of process and performance and how they complement one another as music does its lyrics. A refreshing, sentimental moment in the evening comes from Gaga strutting on the ivories like a balm with her repetitive, soothing ballad, “A Million Reasons”. While perched next to a fan plucked from the crowd on the bench and nonchalantly delivering heavenly, hymnal like lyrics, she periodically stops the song in an abrupt, almost comedic manner; like an actor who’s three fourths through their climatic monologue and has forgotten their lines. Gaga’s improvisations slowly and tenderly reveal her struggles with PTSD leading to a confession of how most days when at home she can’t bring herself to get off her back porch. As the momentum of the song builds and is encouraged by the crowd, the lyrics, “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away but baby, I just need one good one to stay,” take on a different meaning. A song about a fading romance is reimagined into one about struggling to love yourself.
Being a part of the legacy of a beloved film remake like A Star of Born holds similar weight as a Vegas residency when it comes to a landmark career achievement. Just like she glowingly followed in the footsteps of Gaynor, Garland, and Streisand, Gaga marks another milestone performing at the Park Theater, an honor previously granted to artists including Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears. Opening the evening with her claim to fame hit, “Just Dance”, and closing with an encore of “Shallow” from A Star is Born marks a timeline of her artistic journey. While it could be argued she’s currently at the height of her career, she sets such a common assessment ablaze with each new era she creates. Mother monster, scene stealer, enigma, Gaga is a star that continues to be reborn in a narrative that belongs only to her.
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
The kids aren’t alright in Teatro Vista’s Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy, and the adults aren’t faring much better. Playing at The Den Theatre as part of Chicago’s Destinos festival, artistic director Ricardo Gutiérrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce helm a layered tale centering on the woes and wants of the Morales family in 1961 Phoenix, AZ. Evelina Fernández weaves many threads in crafting this family tapestry that loosens even as it struggles to sustain its fabric.
Spanning just under two hours, Hope offers a grave glimpse into the 1960s’. John F. Kennedy was the great white hope, gender stereotypes were our bread and butter in modeling adulthood and domestic abuse was a part of the marriage and parenting manual. The threat of nuclear war required children to practice ducking and covering in classrooms, not dissimilar to how students now participate in active shooter drills. Living was in a time of absolutes where the institutions and instincts we trusted were shaken, but not yet transformed.
Fernández spins these stewing personal revolutions across a variety of characters, yet her efforts are spread too thin in their presentation. We’re thrown a bone or two, only to result in more famine than feast. Unable to liberate herself from her marriage, Elena finds comfort in family friend, Enrique, played by the boyishly earnest Victor Maraña. When proposing to deepen their relationship, “Will you kiss me, please?”, understudy Antonia Arcely demonstrates the perfect amount of subtlety yet devastation. Their heart fluttering affair is afforded complexity, weighing financial and personal obligations. Enrique’s depressed, nervous wife, Mari (Andrea Cañizares-Fernandez), makes an appearance, but isn’t given enough room to breathe, a passive agent in this love triangle.
Elena’s daughters are in their own crises. Ayssette Muñoz as Gina provides a captivating, heartfelt performance. Bringing a Mila Kunis energy of preppiness and pettiness that resembles Jackie from That 70s’ Show rather than Jackie O, her know it all demeanor is often cruel, but never wrong. She blossoms into a new relationship with the saccharine Rudy (Tommy Rivera-Vega), but the resolution of their story had me screaming #JusticeforGina. Janyce Caraballo’s Betty is at first sweet, then gratingly naive as she finds herself having phone calls with JFK (and later Fidel Castro) which produced a hilarious and dynamic, yet drastic, break in form. Offering some of the play’s best jokes and intriguing commentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis, this jarring shift never clarifies why she’s having these fantastical, clandestine conversations.
Musical asides are integrated into the text, yet don’t feel integral to the show. These dropped in moments of singing various sixties hits doesn’t add much substance advance the plot. Notes hang in the air like decorative and unfulfilled set dressing. Sound design by Giselle Castro assists in providing a manageable mix illuminated with cuts of archival footage of television/radio ads and news items. Joe Burke’s projections design cleverly makes up the roof of the home.
Evelina Fernández brings beautifully complicated conflict to common issues, but its potential gets lost in its sprawling structure. Some of the best dialogue is oddly given to Charlie (delivered flawlessly by the always talented Eddie Martinez), the most detestable, abusive character in the show. Brothers Johnny (Nick Mayes) and Bobby (Joaquin Rodarte) take an understandable backseat, but don’t feel fully utilized. With so many stories, the events of Hope would seem more consumable over the course of a series, whereas Fernández’s trilogy decides to focus on other characters. As a standalone play, it doesn’t get a chance to explore these characters’ relationships in their complexities and instead packs them all in tight resulting in a work that continually wanders.
‘The Brothers Size’ finds a sweet dream wrapped within a beautiful nightmare
There’s an inherent holy quality to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size embodied in Steppenwolf Theater’s space from the play’s first opening chords. Rapt drumming, mesmerizing movement, and the grace of a talented trio immediately entice with an underlying eeriness. Without speaking any dialogue and only raising their voices through haunting melodies, this striking dynamic causes a rippling distortion. Three men start in solidarity with a bond that defies personal differences, but it’s clear they will not end this journey together.
Opening Steppenwolf’s programming for young adults, McCraney’s play is an apt choice. Drawing from Yoruba cosmology (pg. 20-21), McCraney connects cosmic elements to the grounded reality of modern, young black men. The second play in his The Brother/Sister Plays triptych, we follow the story of estranged brothers Ogun (Manny Buckley) and Oshoosi (Patrick Agada) and the tide that threatens to knock them over altogether, Elegba (Rashaad Hall), Oshoosi’s confidant. The result is a fourth wall shattering explosion of masculinity, models of care and desire, which much like that pesky streetcar, lingers on the horizon waiting to be fulfilled.
Eighty minutes don’t necessarily fly by, but allow audiences to float in troubling, at times deceiving waters with Oshoosi. Will he find a place to rest ashore with Ogun, Elegba, or a path on his own? Materialized in his home and nightmares, he can’t seem to find relief as he readjusts to life now on parole. The amount of heavy labor with little reward, constant risk for imprisonment and limited opportunities to escape poverty make the invisible chains that weigh down on black men visible and unable to ignore. A longing for freedom is emulated by captivating movement from Breon Arzell, with a foot trapped in the world and the other liberated in fantasy.
The Brothers Size is an intimate play that like any family keeps its secrets under lock and key until they cannot contain themselves any longer. It thrives from that closeness and director Monty Cole achieves a tight, precise setting from the grandiose space Steppenwolf offers. Yu Shibagaki’s scenic design scatters the ground in scraps of car tires and erects a looming mountain that’s breathtaking both up close and from a distance. Its physical stakes mirror its internal conflict with the intensity of a Greek tragedy, but with bellows of humor and an ending that’s both a win and a loss.
Using the setting to its fullest potential allows this acting trifecta to demonstrate characterization by how they take up space. Buckley carries Ogun’s power in height and vocal timber, not needing to emote much to express himself as he glides with moving brevity. Agada proves Oshoosi’s delightful charms come from his vivid storytelling capabilities, providing jokes on the fly with his long winded, yet crisp commentary. Hall as Elegba smoothly floats in and out sprinkling morsels of observation or amusement, yet greatly accelerates time and plot. His presence remains even when unseen leaving behind a complicated, ultimately devastating fortitude. Each is keen on the role they play in the others’ lives and they use that perception to fluster or surprise, at times harmless and others unforgivable.
McCraney’s work invites us to engage with these three men and their actions, but not to pass discernment. The world does plenty of that as is. Instead, there’s a great deal of empathy felt for the choices each makes to protect one another. However misguided or hazy their intentions are, it’s a strong example of how families, chosen or biological, love and survive within their complications. What pains us often sustains us.