Category Archives: African-American theater

Wastwater at Steep Theatre: What’s that about still waters?

On WDCB on Sunday, we discuss the US premiere of Simon Stephens’ play at Steep, and then K. recommends the two plays she saw at American Players Theatre up in Spring Green, WI.

 

The North Pool at Interrobang: Questions and Exclamation Points Indeed!

We differ over Interrobang’s The North Pool, the Midwest premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s play (I’m right, of course, and Jonathan is wrong).  Then J. recommends Tug of War: Foreign Fire, Chicago Shakespeare’s mashup of several history plays, while K. picks Michael Bradford’s Migration at eta Creative Arts, another history play with music, this one about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to Chicago.

Feral at MPAACT: Beyond “Ripped from the headlines”

We review the world premiere of Shepsu Aakhu’s newest play Feral, about police shootings and the media circus which follows them, and then K. recommends The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum.

New York In Brief: 2 hits, 1 error, 1 man left on

K. sez:

The Hits

Call me parochial: the best thing I saw in New York, at the off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre, was directed by one Chicagoan and co-starred another.  (And next up at Barrow Street are two more Chicago boys: The T.J. and Dave Show runs June 4-7).  The theater itself looks like something out of our own theater scene, located as it is in a still-working settlement house with the ladies’ room in the basement, to get to which you have to walk past a washer-dryer combo whose sign sternly instructs audience members not to use the machines without permission.  I guess New York audiences find free laundry irresistible, even if it means stripping down at intermission.

But on with the show: Lucy Prebble’s The Effect follows the fortunes of a man and woman testing an experimental drug which makes them feel like they’re in love.  So, are they, or is it just the drug, and does it make any difference?  Meanwhile, the two doctors supervising the experiment are themselves ex-lovers, and the play involves teasing out the various definitions of love as well as conventional and unconventional attitudes toward depression.  Under David Cromer’s direction, the play is sexy and funny and fast and loud, and also incredibly touching.  Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson are utterly believable as the young couple whose emotions are getting the better of them, and Kati Brazda and Steve Key (a member of the American Blues ensemble) gracefully portray the more complicated relationship of their middle-aged keepers.  Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections give us an extra shot of intimacy in the bedroom scenes without interfering with stage acting of the very highest quality.  Bravo!  Through September 4.

Equally exciting was Ivo Van Hove’s version of The Crucible by Arthur Miller.  Van Hove, who won raves for his production of Miller’s A View from the Bridge earlier this year (and who has been Tony-nominated for both), has abandoned the conventional reading of the play as a parable of the 1950s witch-hunt for Communists and directed it as a straightforward account of religious fanaticism and the damage it can do in a community struggling with scarcity.  Where there’s not enough to go around, the director seems to say, people turn on one another.  Without over-stressing the matter, he makes clear this is a reading of contemporary society: costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic dresses the actors in a sort of suspended-period modern dress, with the accusing young girls in knee socks and kilts a la Catholic schoolgirls and the adults in shapeless sweaters and slacks.  And yet somehow this makes the play feel more like it’s taking place in 18th-Century Salem than any amount of bustles and knee-breeches.

Jan Verswyveld’s set and lighting and Philip Glass’s music combine to make the production eerie rather than didactic: we don’t exactly know what’s going on.  We understand the girls are lying but we also see that they’ve somehow unloosed forces beyond their, or our, control.  Ben Whishaw (as John Proctor) and Saoirse Ronan (as his schoolgirl lover and the accuser of his wife) produce suitable sexual heat, but the play really belongs to Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth, whose wifely virtues of loyalty and honesty are twined around her neck to destroy her.  She’s the kind of quiet that’s more penetrating than the showiest yell, and you can’t take your eyes off her.  Ciaran Hinds continues his streak of charismatic evil-doers as the willfully blind Deputy Governor who allows the entire situation to spin out of control.

I wonder if the Dutch Van Hove was able to see the play so clearly because the insane religiosity portrayed is so similar to that of the Dutch Reform church—from which, as it happens, Puritans borrowed much of their absolutist thinking.  Whatever the source of his insight, he’s taken a great play and made it a great new play.  Open run.

The Error

I am sorry to report that Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, is a waste of an enormous amount of talent.  Apparently director and book-writer George C. Wolfe could not make himself comfortable with presenting the racist jokes and stereotypes of the original show, even at a remove of 100 years, and so instead of a musical he offers us a sort of living slide show about the struggles of black performers in early years of the 20th Century.  Despite having plenty of dramatic potential in the stories of two pairs of partners who achieved success together and then double-crossed each other, Wolfe wrote not a play but a textbook, and even Brian Stokes Mitchell’s plummy voice can’t conceal the fact.  Likewise, Wolfe glances at a subplot concerning the ingenue’s gunning for the diva’s position but makes nothing of it.  The moral of the story is: if you’re embarrassed by what you’re presenting, don’t present it; don’t (you should pardon the expression) whitewash it, or blackface it, or turn it into an historical pageant.

Before I saw the show, I was irate that Audra McDonald had not been nominated for a Tony; once I saw it, I could see why: she’s perfectly adequate as the self-regarding diva, and of course her voice is glorious, but the side-by-side comparison with ingenue Adrienne Warren was a little too close to life for comfort.  And Warren did receive a well-deserved Tony nomination: she’s tiny and has a magnificent voice and can dance up a storm and is going to be a huge star.  Billy Porter (of Kinky Boots fame) is charming as producer Aubrey Lyles, but Mitchell’s over-earnest portrayal of co-producer F.E. Miller gives him nothing to play against. Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle have more rapport, but their partnership peters out instead of being ripped apart.  That may be true to life, but it makes for lousy theater.

Listen: anybody should be able to write a backstage show; take 42nd Street or All About Eve as your model, and Bob’s your uncle.  But if at the same time you feel constrained to stick to the facts, and/or you’re afraid that presenting accurate history will require sacrificing the hard-won dignity of your performers, then you can’t do the job.

Savion Glover’s choreography is okay, and the dancing is the best part of the show; but here, mistakenly, is where the show’s creators chose to be true to history.  Percussive dancing has come a long way since 1921, and I was looking for something more innovative.  The dancers are good (McDonald gamely tapping with the rest, though she’s pregnant) but the result is leaden.

Now: will somebody please take all these gifted people and write a show for them?  Open run.

One Man Left On

Frank Langella is nominated for a Tony for his performance in The Father, a play by the Frenchman Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Doug Hughes, and he deserves the accolade.  Often a shameless over-the-top ham, here Langella restrains himself and presents a painfully honest portrait of a man struggling with dementia.  (Kathryn Erbe of the Steppenwolf ensemble does the best she can with the thankless role of the daughter who cares for him even though he doesn’t care for her.)  But the play is unrelievedly dark, and the playwright doesn’t bother to tie up ends he’s deliberately loosened in earlier scenes.  During leaps back and forth in time,  Erbe tells her father that she’s moving to London and then asks why he keeps mentioning London but later seems actually to have gone to London; so who’s confused here, and to what purpose?  The device of using multiple actors to portray the same characters (to evoke Langella’s character’s confusion) is somewhat more successful but it’s not enough to sustain interest.  And, after a near-perfect portrayal of his character’s deterioration, in the final scene Langella wails “I want my mommy!”—which feels gratuitous, inauthentic, a bridge too far.  But for the most part Langella is at his very considerable best, and he’s the only reason to see The Father.  Tickets currently on sale through June 12; presumably the show will extend if Langella wins the Tony.

The Mirror Has Seven Faces: Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts at Steppenwolf

We grapple with this world premiere; plus K. picks The Book Club Play at 16th Street Theatre and J. picks Carlyle at the Goodman.

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In brief: Adapt Theatre’s Pride & Prejudice at the side project; Butler at Northlight

Elizabeth Bennett, The Girl and Mr. Darcy in Adapt Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice.

K. sez:

Pride and Prejudice at Adapt Theatre is a delight. even at 3-+ hours.  Using the framing device of an awkward teenage girl (Laila Sauer) who resists reading the book, adapter Lane Flores and director Amanda Lautermilch create a version faithful to the original but with a youthful and contemporary feel.  Aja Wiltshire is a lovely Elizabeth, with just the right balance of snark and sweetness, and Andrew Thorp makes persuasive Darcy’s transformation from pompous asshole to gentleman lover.  And of course any shy young girl obsessed with music would find herself turning into Georgiana!  Cassandra Laine and Melissa Reeves uphold the honor of the older generation as Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine, each appalling in her own way, and Connor Konz takes a part that’s been done by A-listers like Alan Cumming and makes it his own: he could hardly be smarmier or more self-satisfied or more ludicrous.  Some of the choices are a little strange—why is Mary wearing headgear and combat boots, again?—but others are terrific, like the weird instrument Mary insists on playing to Lizzy’s humiliation and the disapprobation of all.

If these names mean nothing to you, it’s time to get acquainted with Pride & Prejudice, and Adapt Theatre provides the close-to-ideal introduction.  And if you know exactly who I’m talking about, prepare to spend an afternoon or evening smiling as you hear dialogue directly from the book spoken by people who clearly love Jane Austen as much as you do.  And at $20 ($15 for students and seniors), you can’t beat the price!  At the (tiny) side project in Rogers Park through April 10, unless we get lucky and they extend it.

Butler (which, come to think of it, could be called “Pride & Prejudice” itself!) is about as likely as a unicorn: a comedy about slavery and the Civil War.  But a very smart script by Richard Strand, impeccable direction by Stuart Carden and especially the comic chops of the four-man company make both moving and hilarious this fictional re-telling of a real incident which helped turn the tide against the Fugitive Slave Act. Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (the outstanding —no, astonishing!—Greg Vinkler) has just taken command of Fort Monroe, a Union outpost in Virginia, when escaped slave Shepard Mallory (Tosin Morohunfola, whom I’ve somehow never seen before but can’t wait to see again) shows up demanding sanctuary.  Their battle of wits,    interspersed with commentary by Nate Burger as the General’s adjutant and high Confederate swanning by Tim Monsion as the officer sent to retrieve Mallory, is funny and profound and touching all at the same time.  The most intense pleasure of the evening arises from Strand’s observation that these two apparent opposites—the black slave and the white general—are    actually exactly alike.  Northlight’s production runs through April 17 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Far From Heaven at Porchlight Theatre—& hell on the radio! We nearly come to blows

We disagree violently over Porchlight’s Far From Heaven, the musical adaptation of the Todd Haynes film in turn adapted from a women’s weepie of the early 60s.  Then K. recommends Refuge Theatre Project’s High Fidelity, the musical adaptation of the John Cusack film in turn adapted from a book in the early 90s.  Doesn’t anyone do anything original anymore?

Raves for The Hairy Ape at Oracle & a pick for Steep’s Posh

Two productions showcasing up-and-coming actors occupy our attention this week: The Hairy Ape at Oracle Theatre (which we both love) and Steep Theatre’s Posh (which K. recommends).

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In brief: Body/Courage at Rivendell

K. sez:

Danielle Pinnock takes up the mantle of Anna Deavere Smith in this world premiere piece, produced by Rivendell in association with Waltzing Mechanics.  This one-woman show actually features dozens of people, first interviewed and now expertly portrayed by Pinnock under the direction of Megan Carney.  We follow her search for answers to questions about body image, media ideals and the connection between food maladies, on the one hand, and self-hatred and sexual abuse, on the other.  Pinnock is pitch-perfect in her renditions, particularly of her Jamaican grandmothers but also of men both gay and straight, women both cis- and transgender and people of every level of education and income.  If there’s a woman in the world who can’t identify with Pinnock’s struggles, I have yet to meet her.  Highly recommended.  It only runs through the end of the month and Rivendell is not huge, so get your tickets ASAP.

What I Learned in Paris 5

In brief: Court’s Satchmo…, Congo Square’s What I Learned… and The Gilded Age at City Lit

K. sez:

Satchmo at the Waldorf, Court Theatre, through February 7: Terry Teachout’s look at the life of Louis Armstrong, told as the reminiscences of the entertainer himself, is both funny and sweet-sad. In this Midwest premiere, the show rests entirely on the shoulders of Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays not only Armstrong but his manager Joe Glaser and his nemesis Miles Davis. On opening night, Henley had a few stumbles with the text, but his Armstrong is pitch-perfect, literally: as soon as you hear his voice you know you’re in good hands. He’s also outrageously good as Davis, portrayed here as a clueless stoner whose naysaying about Armstrong’s persona meant he just didn’t get what was going on. The only weakness in the performance is Henley’s version of Glaser, Armstrong’s friend and ultimate betrayer: what’s supposed to be Chicago-New York-Jewish-gangster patois sounds more like Middle American Generic White Man. And don’t go expecting music: a few moments of scratchy recording are all we hear. But the show, under Charles Newell’s direction, is still a delight.

What I Learned in Paris, Congo Square Theatre, through February 7: In this show—part rom-com, part door-slamming farce—Pearl Cleage pays homage to Noel Coward’s Private Lives by bringing together an ex-husband and ex-wife on the eve of his wedding to Wife #2. The setting, though, is quite different: it’s Atlanta in 1973, and Maynard Jackson has just been elected the city’s first African-American mayor. As J.P. Madison jockeys for position in the new administration and struggles for an impossible level of respectability, in walks ex-wife Evie, who is anything but respectable. Shanesia Davis is spectacular as the convention-defying, loving-but-scheming, feminist-but-man-keeping Evie, and the rest of the cast plays up to her level. Darren Jones is particularly fine as J.P., who imagines he’s leading and is actually being led—by the nose. And I’d like costume designer Marci Rodgers to come home with me and make all my clothes so I look like Evie. A feminist romp among the African-American elites—it could hardly be more fun. Thanks to director Daniel Bryant for coming home from New York long enough to knock this one out of the park.

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, City Lit Theater, through February 21: I’d hoped this adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel would feel more like a critique of today’s Gilded Age; but it was hard to remember that when Jacquelyne Jones was on the stage, which is virtually the entire time. Jones plays Laura Hawkins, an impoverished Southern belle who sets out to conquer 1870s Washington and succeeds until she encounters the man who loved and ruined her in 1860s Tennessee. Disaster, needless to say, ensues. Paul Edwards’s adaptation is superb in clarifying and maintaining the momentum of a complex story, and Jones’s performance is so rich that we mostly don’t care what happens as long as she’s still there to be watched. This is a going-to-be-a-big-star performance. The rest of the company, under Adam Goldstein’s direction, is fine in the classic City Lit manner, playing numerous roles and conveying shifts of time and location with ease. If you don’t carry in with you the notion—or, perhaps, the hope—that Twain somehow skewered today’s Congress, you won’t be disappointed. And, to be fair, the portrait of a Congress for sale and at the mercy of lobbyists rings true and contemporary; it’s just not ugly enough to seem to be a real critique. That’s what happens when life outstrips art, or truth is stranger than fiction.