February 15, 2021

Black History Portrayed in Civil Rights Plays


We’re in the middle of African American History Month, a commemoration made all the more urgent by the events of last summer that were prompted by the police murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, which prompted a growing recognition not only that Black Lives Matter but that such concerns must translate into restorative action if this country is ever to live up to its ideals. 

The theater community has its own work to do in this area—we need more Black and Brown writers, directors, designers, stage manager, board members—but over the years, playwrights, both Black and white, have attempted to wrestle with some of the issues centered around race, particularly through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement.  Below is a list of some of those shows (with late entries highlighted in red) and I’d welcome any additional Movement-centered titles you might have:

All the Way by Robert Schenkkan
This 2014 Tony winner chronicles Lyndon Johnson’s campaign to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and win the presidency in his own right following JFK’s assassination.
 
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin
Loosely based on the murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of the white racists who killed him, this drama focuses on the reactions of both the white and Black resident in a small southern town in which a white man has twice killed black men.

Broadbend, Arkansas book and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, Harrison David Rivers and music by Ted Shen
A working class father’s struggle to balance the needs of his family and his desire to join the Civil Rights Movement is at the heart of this chamber musical about two generations of a southern family.

Caroline, or Change book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori
The lives of a southern Jewish family, their Black maid and her teenage daughter who is drawn to the activism of the Movement rub against one another in this ambitious musical.

Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morriseau
The hot summers of racial unrest in northern cities provide the backdrop for Morriseau’s drama about the owners of an underground nightclub who are brought into the struggles when a white woman seeks refuge in their place from angry demonstrators.
  
Fireflies by Donja R. Love
Set in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four young girls, this two-hander charts the personal toll that the struggle for equality takes on the lives of a charismatic young civil rights leader and his wife.

Freedom Riders by Richard Allen and Taran Gray
This musical account of the seven-month campaign to desegregate interstate buses in the south centers around Movement leaders John Lewis and Diane Nash and John Seigenthaler, the white Kennedy administration official who led the negotiations with the recalcitrant southern governors.

From the Mississippi Delta by Endesha Ida Mae Holland
Based on Holland’s memoir of the same name, this play tells the story of a young woman who by the age of 16 is a former inmate and an unwed mother but finds salvation through SNCC, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which recruited young people for civil rights campaigns.

The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson
Three civil rights leaders battle local segregationists, the FBI and their own personal demons as they offer competing strategies for how to protest the case of a young mother arrested for taking her 4-year-old into a whites-only bathroom when the “colored” bathroom was out of order.

Hairspray with book and lyrics by Mark O’Donnell  and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
In this adaptation of the John Waters cult film, a chubby white teen finds love and purpose when she gains a spot on a popular TV show after a Black classmate teachers her how to dance and she then leads a campaign to integrate the show. 

Hallelujah, Baby! with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
A talented and ambitious singer is torn between two men: a white guy who can open doors for her and a Black civil rights worker who challenges her priorities.

Little Rock by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
The travails of the nine Black students who integrated the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas are recounted in this docudrama that also mixes in the music that helped to hearten those courageous young pioneers, who, as the play reminds us, were just kids.

The Man in Room 306 by Craig Alan Edwards
Set on the eve of Martin Luther King’s death, this one-man show attempts to reveal the man behind the icon as King meditates on his life from his relationship with his father to his troubles with the FBI and muses about other roads he might have taken.

The Meeting by Jeff Stetson
This two-hander imagines a meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shortly before Malcolm’s real-life assassination in which the two leaders debate the best way to advance the rights of Black people.

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall
Here MLK engages in a conversation with a mysterious woman he finds in his Memphis motel room. He thinks their back-and-forth may result in a romantic interlude but she turns out to be the angel of death with whom he must confront his legacy.
 
The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years by Pearl Cleage
On the surface a romantic comedy centered around a cotillion for wealthy Black families, Cleage’s play takes a serious look at the class divisions within the Black community at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
 
Party People by UNIVERSES
The Black Power movement takes centerstage as this docudrama chronicles the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in the ‘60s.
 
Too Heavy for Your Pocket by Jireh Brion Holder
A poor country boy who has dreamed of a better life is faced with the choice of how best to achieve it: accepting a full scholarship to Fisk University or becoming a Freedom Rider.

Waiting to be Invited by S.M. Shephard-Massat
Four middle-aged female factory workers try to work up the courage to test their newly acquired right to eat at a previously "whites only" restaurant inside an Atlanta department store.



February 13, 2021

B&Me's Happy—and Sad—14th Anniversary

This is a bittersweet anniversary for me: I published the first Broadway & Me post 14 years ago on Valentine’s Day but it’s now been nearly a year since I’ve seen a show in person.  And of course that’s not the worst part of the pandemic that has shut down theaters, putting out of work thousands of people who make their living in the theater and killing scores of others, from the theater icon Terrence McNally to my friend Patti Bosworth, a writer, one-time actress and lifelong theater fan.

Like I suspect many of you, I’ve grieved all those losses and tried to find some solace in the varied productions that have sprung up on Zoom, YouTube, Audible and other digital platforms. Just this past week, I was knocked out by Playing Burton, a solo audio play in which Matthew Rhys brilliantly portrays Richard Burton (you can listen to it by clicking here); and All the Devils Are Here, Patrick Page’s magnificent deconstruction of some of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains (you can see it by clicking here).

They’ve scratched the itch familiar to all of us theater junkies and given some theater folks a way to make a few bucks to tide them over. But, of course, they’re no substitute for being in a theater, breathing, without fear, the same air as the performers and creating together that uniquely symbiotic experience that is live theater.

It’s still too soon to tell when “normalcy” will return and we can all gather together again safely but I feel blessed that my husband K and I have so far remained healthy (my theatergoing buddy Bill too) and grateful to those of you who continue to check in here. I'm also mindful that theater returned stronger than ever after the plague emptied stages during Shakespeare’s time. I’m hopeful that it will be the same for ours. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.

January 29, 2021

In Memoriam: Cicely Tyson

 


Deeply mourning the death of the great Cicely Tyson, a trailblazer and role model in so many ways.

January 2, 2021

Raves for "Ratatouille: The Tik Tok Musical"

I had planned to write a review of Ratatouille: the Tik Tok Musical, the delicious online presentation that began as a 15-second video created by a fan of the Disney animated film about a rat who dreams of becoming a French chef and grew into a 60-minute show performed by a cast of Broadway regulars led by Titus Burgess and Andrew Barth Feldman that will be available online through the end of this holiday weekend.  But then I read my blogger pal Jonathan Mandell's review of the show and it said literally everything I intended to say so instead of trying to find new ways to express that, I'm going to (1) urge you to read Jonathan's review, which you can do by clicking here and (2) to see the show, which is also serving as a fundraiser for The Actors Fund, which you can do by clicking here.  Both are great ways to start off what we're all hoping will be a happy new year.

December 26, 2020

10 Spots of Theatrical Joy in a Dire Year


This is the time of year when people like me create lists that tout the best things we’ve experienced in the areas of interest we followed over the last 12 months. But it’s hard to put the word best in the same sentence with anything connected with this year so defined by illness, death, social isolation, racial reckoning and an election that’s left the country as polarized as ever (USA Today just reported that 78% of Republicans still don’t believe that Joe Biden was legally elected president). So shows I saw before the pandemic closed all theaters here in New York now seem as though they existed in a different world. But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.  

The challenges of this year could force producers and artistic directors to adapt in ways that will make theater better once the quarantine ends.  Like maybe some of the online productions that sprouted up will continue, allowing theater to be more accessible to those who can’t get to a theater easily or who can’t afford to go or who haven’t felt comfortable once there.  And maybe theaters will learn to be truly inclusive, telling all kinds of stories that showcase a multiplicity of experiences and that are told by an array of voices.

In the meantime though, there have been some things that have given me theatrical joy even in this distressing year and I want to celebrate and thank them. So on this list are five shows I saw in a theater at the beginning of the year and five I saw on my computer or TV screen later on.  They are, in the order of my seeing them:

AMERICAN UTOPIA: I actually saw David Byrne’s exhilarating staged concert twice: once when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to one of its final performances at the Hudson Theatre before its scheduled close in February and then again when a filmed version started streaming on HBO in late summer. It’s kind of hard to explain why watching a dozen people of different colors and genders clad in matching gray suits play their instruments and dance around a stage could be so invigorating but each viewing made me feel so very good to be alive. An encore live production has already been scheduled for next fall but if you're an HBO subscriber, you can see the film now by clicking here.

DARLING GRENADINE: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Daniel Zaitchik’s chamber musical about a man struggling to overcome alcoholism and the woman who loves him struggling not to be an enabler might not have muscled out bigger musicals if they’d had a chance to open but its charming performances and imaginative staging left me with a smile on my face that lingered for days.

HAMLET AT ST. ANN'S WAREHOUSE:  Worn down by seeing one so-so production after another, I’d sworn off Shakespeare for a while—and especially off seeing Hamlet. But my curiosity about the notion of the British actress Ruth Negga playing the role without regard for gender drew me to St. Ann’s where Ireland’s Gate Theatre production ran through March 6. And my reward for going was being able to witness how Negga’s intelligent and unsentimental performance turned what is too often an old war-horse into the thoroughbred that the Bard meant it to be.

THE HEADLANDS: Christopher Chen’s noirish murder mystery at LCT3 was both a meditation on assimilation, identity and the stories that define all of us and a showcase for its all-Asian cast to show off the full and impressive range of their talent.  And its inventive video projections not only provided the sets for the scene but established the mood of the entire piece.

THE HOT WING KING: Definitions of black masculinity were viewed through the experiences of a loving gay couple and their extended family and friends as they all prepared for a culinary competition in this deliciously funny but deeply affecting play by Katori Hall whose run at Signature Theatre was cut too short when all the city’s theaters closed March 12.

TAKE ME TO THE WORLD: A SONDHEIM 90TH CELEBRATION: The lockdown came 10 days before Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, which was supposed to be celebrated with the opening of avant-garde director Ivo van Hove’s reinterpretation of Sondheim’s first Broadway show, West Side Story. So, led by Raúl Esparza, a group of the composer’s friends—AKA everyone who is anyone on Broadway—threw him a virtual party instead and filled it with heartfelt encomiums and one-of-a-kind performances of selections from his singular songbook. It’s the kind of event that I would have been unlikely to attend in person and so felt grateful that technology allowed me to revel in it, which you can do too by clicking here.

BILL IRWIN'S IN ZOOM: In the time-honored spirit of the show must go on, theater folks began performing online within days of the theater lockdown. Among the best of that early crop was an original 10-minute piece that Irwin put together with the help of San Diego’s The Old Globe. He and fellow funny man Christopher Fitzgerald explored and expanded the boundaries of the then-novel Zoom, demonstrating that theater no longer had to be restricted by geographical location and that even a safely-distanced production could offer up some great physical comedy.  You can check it out by clicking here.   

IN CAMERA: London’s The Old Vic presented this series of small-cast plays that were performed live in its empty theater for viewers who bought hefty-priced tickets that allowed them to see a specific performance on their computers at home. So far I’ve seen Three Kings, Stephen Beresford’s one-man show in which Andrew Scott gave a brilliant performance as a man coming to terms with the estranged father whose love he’s always craved, and Faith Healer, a revival of Brian Friel’s three-hander about an itinerant con man who travels around Ireland pretending—to his audiences, his long-suffering wife, devoted manager and to himself—that he can heal the afflicted. The performances by Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall left me gob smacked. You can see for yourself why if you purchase (the much cheaper) tickets for recorded encore presentations of those productions, which you can find here.

RUSSIAN TROLL FARM:  This comedy, created specifically to be seen online, has been my favorite virtual theater experience so far. Working with TheaterWorks Hartford, TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the Brooklyn-based Civilians, playwright Sarah Gancher imagines the lives of the Russian hackers who spread false information on social media leading up to the 2016 presidential election that put Donald Trump in the White House.  Like so many digital workers, hers are driven to get as many clicks as they can and the hilarity stems from watching how they—a terrific cast, by the way—do it. The show’s limited run has been extended through Jan. 14 and you can buy $20 tickets here.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM: Part of Denzel Washington’s effort to film all 10 of the plays in August Wilson’s "American Cycle," this Netflix production about a day in the life of the legendary blues singer was in the works way before most of us had even heard of the coronavirus or of George Floyd, whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop gives poignant relevance to this rumination on how Black people have been treated in this country. Reuben Santiago-Hudson massaged the script for the screen, squeezing it down to 90 minutes and adding an effective coda. George C. Wolfe directed and Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman lead an excellent cast as Rainey and Levee, the young trumpet player in her band who wants to make a different kind of music. If you have a Netflix account you can treat yourself to it by clicking here.




December 25, 2020

Wishing You As Merry a Christmas...

...as is safely possible this year:



 

December 5, 2020

A Solo "Christmas Carol" for A Solitary Time

Christmas as we know it—the tree, the cards, the carol singing—began during the early Victorian age and perhaps no one popularized those now-familiar traditions more than did Charles Dickens with his 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol.” It famously tells the tale of the miserable and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited and reformed on Christmas Eve by three ghostly spirits. The book was an instant hit and staged adaptations immediately followed; by the next year there were at least eight different productions running in London. 

Over the decades, zillions more versions have followed on both stage and screen, with Scrooge being portrayed by such diverse performers as Alastair Sim, George C. Scott,  Robert Guillaume, Jim Carrey, Susan Lucci, Vanessa Williams and the cartoon characters Donald Duck and Mr. Magoo. 

Last year, Broadway hosted a production led by Campbell Scott in a British panto-style version of the play originally adapted by Jack Thorne and directed by Matthew Warchus for London’s The Old Vic Theatre, which is presenting a fully-staged streamed version this year, starting Dec. 12 (click here to read more about it). 

The story of Scrooge, his poorly treated clerk Bob Cratchit and Bob’s crippled but generous-hearted son Tiny Tim is now a Christmas season perennial at both big and little theaters throughout the U.S. and the U.K. (click here to read how some theater companies are currently tweaking their versions in these pandemic times.)  

But from the very start when Dickens himself performed staged readings of the story, some of the most popular productions have been one-person shows in which a sole actor performs the more than 50 characters in the narrative. 

It’s hard to think of a contemporary actor more suited to that task than Jefferson Mays, a Tony Award winner for his performances in the one-man show I Am My Own Wife, in which he took on some 40 characters, and for the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, in which he played 10 members of a highly eccentric (and hilarious) family.

And Mays is again wonderful in the streamed production of A Christmas Carol directed by Michael Arden, adapted by Arden, Mays and Mays’ wife Susan Lyons and filmed under Covid precautions in an empty theater in Upper Manhattan in October

While they’ve hewed close to the original narrative and prose, the trio has leaned into the psychology and sociology of the piece, highlighting the correlation between the way a child is treated and the man he becomes and emphasizing the ways in which the poor can be permanently crippled by the disregard of those who have money and are intent only on having more. It’s a take that Dickens, himself a progressive reformer, would have appreciated. 

A master showman himself, Dickens would also have applauded Mays' performance. Ever nimble, the actor morphs easily from one character to the next with just the twitch of an eyebrow or a change in the pitch of his voice. He hits all the poignant notes of the morality tale as Scrooge acknowledges his sins but he’s a particular delight in lighter scenes such as Scrooge’s memory of a party he attended in his youth that allow the actor to kick up his heels a bit and indulge the more antic side of his wit. The jig he does with himself as both Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig is a treat in every way.

I just wish the rest of the production around him had been as dexterous. Too many of the choices distract from rather than enhance the presentation. I get that the low lighting helps set the slightly spooky mood that the story calls for but in this case, it also makes it hard to see what’s going on. Similarly, manipulating the sound of the ghosts’ voices made it hard to understand what they were saying. 

And there was absolutely no need for the fuzzy video projections that play behind Mays at the party scene; his performance had already elegantly established the time and place. Meanwhile, the emo music by the pop-rock musician Sujfan Stevens not only seems anachronistic for the period but downright gloomy, even at the—177 year-old spoiler coming—happy ending.

Still, it’s hard to ruin A Christmas Carol and its moral of redemption through giving to and caring for others shines through. Tickets for this version of the tale, which will run online through Jan. 3, cost a hefty $50, plus fees that tack on another $7 (click here to get them) but the show can be viewed multiple times and part of the money will go to some 50 regional and community theaters across the country that are struggling because of the pandemic.  

If that’s still too dear for your pocketbook, there are many other options, including an updated musical version called Estrella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With A Twist produced by Abingdon Theatre Company, with tickets starting at $29.99 (click here for more information) and a streamed Primary Stages benefit reading of the Dickens' tale, directed by Theresa Rebeck and starring Raúl Esparza as Scrooge that will cost $100 for the live Dec. 16 performance but will be available for free from Dec. 17-20 (find out more about that by clicking here).

As Tiny Tim might say, God bless them everyone.