February 26, 2022

"English" Has Some Valuable Things to Say

There have been so many voices absent from the American stage that sometimes we don’t even know what we’ve been missing until we suddenly hear it. English, the deceptively simple play by Sanaz Toossi that opened at the Atlantic Theater this week, perked up my ears in all kinds of ways.  

The play is set in 2008 in an English-language school in the Iranian city of Karaj. For the sake of the play's narrative, each of the four students in the class has a conveniently different reason for wanting to speak English.

Teenage Goli is just fascinated by it. While middle-aged Roya is being forced to learn it because her grown son living in Canada won't allow her to see his children until she can speak to them in English rather than Farsi.

And, of course, each student has a different facility for learning English. Omid, the only male in the class, is almost totally fluent with only the mere trace of an accent but has his own reasons for taking the class. Elham, who has been admitted to medical school in Australia, is frustrated that she can’t seem to master the language despite her obvious smarts. 

Their teacher Marjan, a former émigré who has returned to Iran after living in England for nine years, insists that only English be spoken in class, even as her own comfort with the language is starting to fray. The interactions between her and her students unspool in a series of brief scenes that represent their class sessions over the course of a semester. 

All of their struggles with English become a stand-in for the ways in which the languages we speak shape our sense of who we are in the world, how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Toossi, the California-born daughter of Iranian immigrants; and her director Knud Adams, who spent his first 15 years living in Europe, have smartly constructed the play so that the characters speak haltingly and with accents when they’re supposed to be talking in English but speak fluent and totally accent-free English when the script calls for them to lapse into their native Farsi.  

The entire cast—all seemingly of Middle Eastern descent—is excellent. However what got to me is the play’s reminder that the way so many newcomers in this country speak English often gives such a false sense of who they truly are. 

But the part that really got me was the way Toossi crafted both her story and her dialog to upend stereotypes about Muslims, particularly Muslim women. 

Her female characters are devout and irreverent. They smoke and flirt and cuss up a storm when they’re speaking in their native tongue. In short, they’re just human beings instead of symbols. 

And it’s so refreshing to have their stories told without the overhang of terrorism or the other devastations that tend to pop up in plays and films about people from their part of the world. To have these different tales told by someone who has an insider's sense of that experience—and without having it fractured through the gaze of what outsiders think it to be—is a joy in itself.  

Focusing on the personal stories amidst political events is already a trademark for the 30-year-old Toossi who only completed her M.F.A from NYU four years ago (click here to read more about her). 

Another of Toossi's plays Wish You Were Here (which is scheduled to open at Playwrights Horizons in April) was inspired by her mother’s experiences and centers around a group of female friends who live through the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath. 

Here again, the usual tropes about women being forced to change their dress and give up their jobs or their studies are moved into the background, while the play’s main narrative—which includes four weddings and an almost funeral— deals with the friendships between the women. It debuted two years ago as part of the Williamstown Festival’s audio season that you can still listen to on Audible.com by clicking here.

Neither of Toossi’s plays is perfect.  She’s still a young writer.  But she is clearly a talented one who is adding an important voice to the American theatrical conversation. And now having heard it, I’m eager to hear more of what she has to say. 

February 19, 2022

"Black No More" is a Little Too Pallid

Even before it opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Tuesday, some people were calling the musical Black No More “the new Hamilton.” And it’s easy to see why. 

The score, much of which is credited to Tariq Trotter—who is also known as Black Thought, the co-founder of the famed hip-hop band The Roots—is a grab bag of hip-hop, blues, R&B, gospel and Broadway showtunes, similar to the mix Lin-Manuel Miranda put together for his musical. 

The choreography by Bill T. Jones keeps dancers vigorously whirling around the stage as though paying kinetic homage to the animating movements Andy Blankenbueler brought to Hamilton. Even Derek McLane’s scenery, what little there is of it, evokes the erector-set aesthetic that David Korins constructed for Miranda’s award-wining hit.  

But Black No More is likely to be a much tougher sell.

Its story is based on a 1931 novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer George S. Schuyler that was controversial even in its day. A satire on American racial relations, it pivots around a machine that can turn black people into white people. 

The first person to undergo the process is a young guy named Max Disher who wants (1) to live without the restrictions that his skin color imposes on him and (2) to hook up with a white woman named Helen that he met at a Harlem night club (don't get me started on how problematic the latter is).  

The transformation starts out smoothly but soon so many black people are signing up for the treatment and abandoning their former identities that the black culture of Harlem is threatened. And so is Max’s future when it turns out that Helen is the daughter of a white supremacist, who, believing Max to be white, drafts him into his hate group and encourages him to marry Helen. 

This understandably creates problems for Max who now has to protect his true identity by persecuting others and to worry that his secret will be revealed when Helen becomes pregnant because their baby’s skin color may reflect its father’s original one.  

Schuyler’s novel skewered everyone from the KKK to the NAACP, arguing that people on both sides of the color line profit from the country’s racial divisions. The book got decent reviews but some black readers took umbrage at its treatment of thinly disguised stand-ins for such figures as W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. 

I was turned off by the book’s bitter cynicism when I discovered it as a freshman in college and I found it to be just as sour when I re-read it after seeing the show. I suppose I also still haven’t forgiven Schuyler for lobbying against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

The musical’s book writer John Ridley, an Oscar winner for his screenplay for the movie “!2 Years a Slave,” knows that such beliefs won’t play today.  So he has softened the gibes against black leaders and instituted other changes designed to make the story more palatable to today's more progressive audiences. 

Some of his fixes work (he amps up the pride some black characters feel about their race, which gives more space to a Langston Hughes-like figure who barely exists in the book but is nicely played by Ephraim Sykes).  Others don’t (he can’t figure out what to do with a character based on the black beauty entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, which leaves poor Lillias White with very little to do until the score calls for her to belt out a couple of numbers). 

And still other fixes could have used more adjustments (the n-word is tossed around so much that I began feeling sorry for the actors—especially Howard McGillin and Theo Stockman in their roles as the show's villains—who had to repeatedly utter it).

However the biggest change is that Max’s best friend is no longer a guy named Bunny but a woman named Buni who, at least as played by Tamika Sonja Lawrence, is so appealing that it makes Max look bad for not hooking up with her instead of lusting after Helen no matter how well Jennifer Damiano tries to play Max's white object of desire.  

Still, no one assembles a powerhouse cast like this one (the always appealing Brandon Victor Dixon plays Max-click here to read more about him) or spends such big bucks (the costumes look to cost more than the entire budget for most productions by the show’s presenter The New Group) unless they’re aiming for Broadway. 

But I doubt that Black No More will have the same universal appeal as its Hamilton role model. Singing and dancing in a feel-good musical about the patriotic ideals that bind us together is one thing. Singing and dancing in a less-uplifting one about the immoralities we continue to wrestle with is another.

February 15, 2022

A Really Special 15th Anniversary for B&Me

I can hardly believe it but I published the first Broadway & Me post 15 years ago on Valentine’s Day. So this post should have gone up yesterday. However I was so busy celebrating V-Day with my beloved husband K that I forgot to mark this very special anniversary here. Then I got a special present today: the news aggregator site Flipboard notified me that it had chosen to feature Broadway & Me alongside Playbill and Deadline under the rubric “All the World’s a Stage” to showcase stories for theater buffs (click here to see it). 

I am, of course, thrilled by that honor.  But I’m also excited about the fact that after two very long years, the pandemic seems to be receding. So—triple vaxxed and often double masked—I’ve been inching out to see a few shows and I’ve been making plans to see even more and to once again share my thoughts about them with you here, which is something else to celebrate. 

That celebrating will continue this Sunday when I’m scheduled to join my friends James Marino, Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere on Broadway Radio’s “This Week on Broadway” podcast to talk about some of the things we’ve already seen.

I’ve also continued producing my podcast "All the Drama" about the plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The latest episode is on the 1998 winner How I Learned to Drive, which is being revived on Broadway this spring with its original stars Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse. I had the great honor of discussing the show with its playwright—and one of my theatrical heroes—Paula Vogel (you can listen to it by clicking here).  

So many blessings!  And as always—but even more so this year—my heartfelt thanks to those of you who have subscribed to this blog over the past decade and a half, followed me on Twitter, befriended me on Facebook, read my Flipboard magazine or who have just stumbled onto this post for the first time. Thank you for helping to make the past 15 years so special. I hope both you, I and B&Me will be around for many more years of theatergoing.  Cheers,  jan

February 8, 2022

The Too Familiar Tale of "Tambo & Bones"

It’s not easy to write about Tambo & Bones, the new play that opened at Playwrights Horizons this week. And I'm pretty sure its playwright Dave Harris intended it to be difficult. 

The title is drawn from the clownish minstrel characters who tickled audiences in the early 19th and 20th centuries and who appear in the first scene of Harris’ time-hopping triptych about the relationship between black performers and the white audiences who view their work. The second scene moves to the contemporary hip-hop era and the third to a dystopian future in which the power balance between the races has been ruthlessly reversed. 

All three scenes engage in a kind of post-modern double consciousness in which there is no fourth wall and the actors W. Tré Davis and Tyler Fauntleroy (both excellent by the way) interact directly with the audience, sometimes leaving the stage to make one-on-one appeals for the approval of audience members, all the while slyly acknowledging that most of the people watching their show will be white. 

This, of course, is where the discomfort comes in. The actors don’t wear blackface in the first scene as black minstrel actors did but they engage in the same kind of humor that people thoughtlessly laughed at for decades and that helped create the Stepin Fetchit-style stereotypes that portrayed black folks as shiftless and prone to lying.  So is it O.K. to laugh at those antics now?

The hip-hop scene suggests that those performances might be another form of minstrelsy. But its message is undermined by director Taylor Reynolds’ failure to slow down the flow of the rap so that it’s easier to hear and take in lyrics like “Cuz we started from the cotton now we here/ Buying back four hundred years/ Never knew a nigga wit no fear/ Never catch a nigga shedding tears.” 

Still, the actors are pretty entertaining rappers. So is it O.K. to groove to their beats?  And what to make of the fact that they toss around the n-word as though it were confetti?

And finally, what to make of the final scene which ends with an act of violence that is meant to disturb? As Davis explains in the author’s note he wrote for the program, he’s trying to figure out how to truthfully deal with the pain he and other black people have experienced at the same time that he doesn’t want to exploit that pain as entertainment, particularly when he knows it’s likely to be viewed by people who don’t look like him. But should those people be expected to cheer their own subjugation? (Click here to read about the response one of them had).

Davis isn’t the only playwright to deal with the distress black artists feel about having to craft their work to suit what the novelist Toni Morrison called the white gaze (click here to read more about that). Jackie Sibblies Drury won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2019 for her play Fairview, which confronted many of the same questions that Tambo & Bones poses.  

And in the wake of the racial reckoning spawned by the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent We See You White American Theatre movement, theaters are scrambling to schedule similar shows to the point that they’re almost becoming a genre unto themselves. Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which actually excludes white theatergoers from parts of its performance, had a run at BAM last spring and then another at Playwrights Horizons in the fall.

All of this has created a been-there-seen-that hurdle for Tambo & Bones to clear. It doesn’t quite make it. But that doesn’t mean it—or more importantly, the issues it’s raising—should be dismissed. The challenge now is to figure out where to go from here.