Hometown: Chicago (Hyde Park)
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: I am second-generation immigrant, somewhat white-passing, biracial Asian-American woman, who was raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i. On my mother’s side, I was raised in a close-knit lively, extended Filipino family filled with strong women and few men. However, my father’s side is American, Midwestern, conservative, and white. I was raised devoutly Catholic, but have since grown agnostic. At the University of Chicago, I study colonial history and creative writing. I am a performer, a director, and a literature lover.
What, in your opinion, is the purpose of arts criticism?: The word “criticism” belies what I believe to be the true purpose of arts criticism. The art critic’s job is not to point out the failures in a work of art, nor to judge the “value” or “quality” of the art on an objective scale. Instead, the art critic should seek to parse out the concept and vision of the production team and engage in a dialogue with the performance on its own terms. Namely, the critic should applaud choices which work effectively towards the stated or perceived performance vision while questioning choices which distract from, confuse, or undercut the stated or perceived vision. Secondarily, the critic is also responsible for rewarding daring or timely production concepts by commending them to audiences. This both encourages directorial experimentation and demystifies the work of the director and production team to the audience. The critic should a medium thorough which the audience and the director can communicate thoughtfully and openly.
Reviews (Most Recent First)
Hoodoo Love, directed by Wardell Julius Clark at Raven Theatre, adds a bit of extra enchantment to Katori Hall’s debut script, a cocktail of blues singing, conjure, and inevitable tragedy.
Set in Memphis, Katori Hall’s play follows Toulou an aspiring singer, played with spirit and tenderness by Martasia Jones. The young country girl turns to the supernatural help of her friendly, grandmotherly neighbor and hoodoo practitioner Candylady (played by the audience favourite, Shariba Rivers) to hold down her lover Ace (Matthew James Elam), a restless blues artist. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of Toulou’s older brother Jib (Christopher Wayland Jones), a preacher with a wolfish eye and an appetite for unholy, distilled spirits.
The production’s design seamlessly weaves both the real and the supernatural elements of the play together. Toulou and Candylady’s adjacent pallet-wood shacks are complete with screen doors, a clothesline, and realistic sparse furniture. However, along the back wall, Sydney Lynne Thomas’s otherwise naturalistic set gives in to impressionism: carefully arranged fabric hints at distant mountains, and helter-skelter train tracks remind the viewer of the ever-present promise of escape. Simean Carpenter’s lighting further adds subtle, otherworldly elements to the design: a yellow spotlight sun, the warm, bright light that streams out of Toulou’s stove as she prepares her love potion, and a well timed flash of lightning during the show’s climax.
Although the show is centered around the blues, the scattered musical sequences were hardly as enthralling or musical as the rapid, rhythmic exchanges of Katori Hall’s characters. Hall’s script plays with all the devices that theatre has available, from dramatic irony to plot-twisting reveals—the mark of a nascent writer spreading her wings. These acrobatic feats are played out successfully, mostly thanks to the fact that Hall never loses sight of her characters and their desires. For better or for worse, Hall’s script resembles the Mississippi river against which it is set: unabating, replete with twists and turns, yet all the same heading towards a singular, inevitable conclusion. Where Hall’s script falters—for example, by providing little context on events that happen between scenes—Wardell Julius Clark’s capable directing compensates. Indeed, the most memorable moment of Act 1, the conjure sequence, is entirely of Clark’s invention: his increasingly feverish combination of choreography, chanting, jewel-toned lights, and ambient “horror-gospel” sounds is, in one word, spellbinding.
That being said, through the course of the second act, the otherwise gripping and promising play grows so dramatic to the point that it is difficult to watch, especially because the script’s melodrama seems gratuitous: drama for the sake of drama, replete with shock value but seemingly devoid of a message. Indeed, amidst the rising action, the most promising threads of the script—Toulou’s arc of maturation or Hall’s celebration of black femininity—become less central to the show than Ace, Jib, or even a certain swanky bottle of jack.
In watching Hoodoo Love, audiences may want to prepare themselves for a play whose ending can leave you uneasy, unanswered, and unsatisfied. Yet thanks to its well-realized design, talented cast, and skillful direction, Hoodoo Love remains a masterfully executed piece of theatre well worth your time.
Multimedia: The Joffrey Ballet’s Jane Eyre
The Joffery Ballet’s Jane Eyre is a masterful and empowering reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved gothic novel. Choreographer Cathy Marston successfully pares the introspective drama down to its most universal elements, creating a moving and engrossing adaptation with a distinctly contemporary feel.
The ballet follows Jane, a fortune-less orphan, who suffers a bleak and loveless childhood. Jane matures from a defiant and emotional child (Yumi Kanazawa) to a young woman (Anis Bueno, at my performance) capable of navigating her precarious situation with patience, grace, and self-control. Soon, she finds a job as a governess at Thornfield, a wealthy estate governed by Rochester, a temperamental and Byronic bachelor (Dylan Gutierrez, at my performance). Although he initially sneers at his young governess, Rochester soon realizes that she is more than capable of matching him in strength of will. Jane’s mettle is put to the test as their relationship cautiously evolves into a romance against the increasingly sinister backdrop of Thornfield.
Marston’s choreography rose to the challenge of depicting the largely introspective novel through motion alone. Each character has their own physical vocabulary of avant-garde movements to convey their thoughts and emotions. To further convey Jane’s inner life, Marston intersperses scenes with violent dance sequences between Jane and the D-men, an ensemble of men who represent her external situation and internal demons. Through the course of these sequences, we see Jane mature from a young girl who gracelessly and desperately resists these men to a mature woman who can not only evade them but even dance with them, creating beauty from their violence.
It is no accident that Jane’s inner demons are male. The bold choice to include the D-men is one of the many ways in which Marston, one of the few female ballet choreographers, explores the fraught gendered elements of Bronte’s story. Indeed, the production plays with the unsettling power-dynamic of Rochester and Jane’s relationship: Rochester enters and dances with members of the male ensemble with ease and playfulness, showing that he is not only a beneficiary but an active member of the same system that constrains Jane. Indeed, the ballet becomes almost as much about his transformation from a self-indulgent tyrant to a person with the capacity to defer to Jane. Nevertheless, the story is undoubtedly Jane’s: it is she whose strength and grace shines throughout the plot and performance, it is she who leads Rochester in their final pas de deux, and it is she who stands alone on the stage as the final curtain drops.
This tense story of love and transformation takes place against a dusky stage designed by Brad Fields (lighting) and Patrick Kinmonth (set and costume). The neutral costumes of the characters both emulate the production’s spare, yet period-appropriate aesthetic and while still showcasing the powerful bodies of the dancers. Carefully placed lights work with the set to render the large proscenium of the Auditorium Theatre either as cramped as Jane’s headspace or as hollow as the deserted Thornfield mansion. Completing the aesthetic experience, is Philip Feeney’s piano-dominant score which creates a beguiling, eerie musical canvas onto which the action is laid. In yet another nod to powerful women of the time, the score samples from Bronte’s contemporary, Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn’s talented yet largely unknown sister.
Although the cast is led by Jane and Rochester, the performances of the secondary soloists were no less memorable and moving. In particular, Yumi Kanazawa shone as a defiant, expressive, and passionate Young Jane who shares all of older Jane’s fire and none of her restraint. She effectively established Jane’s tempestuous inner life, setting the stage for the unfolding psychological drama. Crowd-favorite, Cara Marie Gary dances the role of Adele, Rochester’s young ward, with infectious playfulness and delight. Other stand-out performances include Jeraldine Mendoza as a tempting and artful Blanche Ingram. Nichole Ciapponi dances the role of Berthe Mason, Rochester’s crazed wife, with feverish intensity. The production also deserves praise for its diverse casting, which not only included many people of color but cast them in both featured and lead roles.
With the assistance of a powerful ensemble, choreographer Marston manages the unthinkable: staging Charlotte Bronte’s gothic masterpiece without sacrificing its deep emotional nuance. The Joffery Ballet’s Jane Eyre shines as a contemporary feminist tale of a determined and defiant heroine who struggles against and triumphs over her situational constraints with strength and grace.
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy by at Teatro Vista (dir. Ricardo Gutiérrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce) celebrates the resilience and love of the Morales family in the face of domestic and political hardship. The cast gave strong performances throughout, though Hope’s overambitious book led to moments that often lacked clarity, sometimes muddling the promise of this log-line.
Evelina Fernández’s script centers around the women of the family: Elena (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), the patient mother of the family, Gina (Ayssette Muñoz ), the willful eldest child, and Betty (Janyce Caraball), the baby of the family, still under the thrall of both her father and the handsome new president John F. Kennedy. It is clear within minutes of the play that this is their story—a fact apparent firstly in scenic designer Jose Manuel Diaz’s choice to give the audience windows only into the bedrooms of Gina, Betty, and Elena. All three women rose to the challenge of centrality with grace, especially Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel who brought a quiet strength to Elena, which never failed her even during her more tender moments.
The stories of Elena and her children stand in stark contrast to an increasingly ominous backdrop of an unfaithful father and Kennedy-era Cold War politics. Commenting on the damage that unchecked masculinity can wreak on both families and nations, Fernández draws a direct comparison between Charlie Morales (Eddie Martinez) and John F. Kennedy; both are idolized by Betty, both share the title of president—one of the nation the other of the Mexican-American social club—both are confident, both are handsome, and neither are to be trusted. As Cold War tensions increase, so do Charlie’s absent spells, forcing the family to rally together and realize their own independence.
Fernández’s ambitious script strove to capture the entirety of Morales’s family’s experience. The play shone in the moments which assembled the entire family onstage to capture the familiar, playful bickering of the four siblings. However, outside of those group scenes, Fernández’s script rushed to detail both Kennedy-era politics and the individual stories of each of the six family members. In that, it did not give each story the attention it deserved. For example, a suicide attempt and its emotional aftermath was all but forgotten two scenes later.
The production attempts to address an overabundance of ideas. The pop ballads which were sung throughout the play were campy and era-appropriate, but neither furthered the plot nor revealed any new character insight. Projections of American political propaganda during scene changes served to set the political atmosphere, however, the use of projections during scenes was often distracting.
The daughters in the play, Betty and Gina share a single onstage conversation with their mother. As a result, relationships between the women are not cultivated in the script. Fernández reveals the plot-points in Elena, Gina, and Betty’s stories through their conversations with their respective male counterparts: Enrique (Victor Maraña), Rudy (Tommy Rivera-Vega), and John F. Kennedy, who appears in Betty’s daydreams—indeed, some of the best dialogue is given to philandering Charlie. In the final moments of the play, the formerly independent Gina, suddenly and happily renounces her dreams of college to become the wife of a man she openly does not love.
These undercurrents, together with the surfeit of action and design, lessened the impact of this empowering and heartwarming family drama.
The Brothers Size
When do our closest relationships become chains? Monty Cole’s masterful, heartfelt rendition of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size at the Steppenwolf may have an answer.
Ogun Size, hardworking and serious, has poured his life into his successful auto-repair business. He struggles to shepherd his younger brother, the recently paroled Oshoosi Size, into his way of life: steady, dedicated, and industrious. Oshoosi, restless and care-free, chafes under Ogun’s constant criticism and strict expectations. He longs to use his newfound freedom to explore Africa, Madagascar—really anywhere but home. Ogun is confined to home by choice, Oshoosi by necessity.
Enter Elegba, Oshoosi’s close friend from prison who—to Ogun’s frustration—shares an unmistakable bond of brotherhood with Oshoosi and nurtures the younger brother in his pursuit of adventure. While Oshoosi struggles with both his confinement and sexuality throughout the play, Ogun seeks to get through to his younger brother. All this takes place against the backdrop of a law system which assumes that all three men are guilty until proven innocent.
Manny Buckley’s strict, terse Ogun an excellent foil to Patrick Agada’s show-stealing Oshoosi—less of a troublemaker than a mischievous boy, sick and tired of waiting. Despite their constant warring, the actors never fail to capture the deep love and tenderness which the brothers share. This feat is aided by McCraney’s script, which vocalizes much of the stage direction—perhaps in order to render the brothers’ silent language of gesture transparent. Rashaad Hall’s loyal Elegba shines with sincerity, but who he is as a character—other than a complication in the Size brothers’ relationship—remains an unsettling mystery throughout the play. Perhaps this question is deliberately unanswered in this portion of the trilogy—Elegba’s namesake, after all, is the Yoruba trickster god (read more here, pages 20-21).
The most remarkable feat of this production is that it tells a remarkably specific, timely, and personal story without losing its universality. It plays effectively in which McCraney refers to as “the distant present”: somewhere now, but not here nor anywhere else in particular.
Most of the credit for this feat lies in Yu Shibagaki’s (scenic) and Claire Chrzan’s (lighting) creative use of design elements. The sparse set—a bare, curtainless theatre covered in a thick layer of shredded car tires and minimal props—makes it easy to imagine this play taking place anywhere. The stark, unearthly lighting aids this effect. The soft yellow light that pervades the stage seems to come from everywhere but from above—through trapdoors, floodlights placed by the actors, or a lamp hanging above Oshoosi’s bed.
The most memorable directorial moments occur during McCraney’s dream sequences. While the actors play out these scenes, their larger-than life images are projected in watery layers onto the back wall of the Steppenwolf. The dual presentation of the actors as both in the scene and above it manages to render these scenes specific yet emblematic.
It is worth noting that there is a learning curve to this play. Especially in the beginning, it was difficult for me to acclimate to McCraney’s poetry sequences and the spoken stage directions. Certain monologues seemed meandering and unmotivated. However, as the play gained traction and I grew accustomed to the language of the play, these barriers disappeared. These early, minuscule shortcomings do not and cannot distract from an otherwise heartfelt and engrossing drama.
Overall, Cole has breathed life into McCraney’s poetry in a production that feels timely and personal but nevertheless universal and enduring.