June 25, 2022

Broadway—Many Kinds of Media—& Me

For the second time this month, there will be no regular post here. It’s not because there haven’t been shows to see and talk about: although it will be weeks before anything new opens on Broadway, a steady stream of comedies, dramas and musicals have been opening off-Broadway. And I’ve been fortunate enough to see a good number of them. But I’ve been busy in other ways too and so instead of posting a review as I usually do, I’m going to share some of that other stuff with you.

The Monday after the Tony Awards ceremony, my friend Patrick Pacheco invited me to record an episode of his TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts” to talk about the Tonys and the future of Broadway. I was in great company because also on the panel were Helen Shaw, the theater critic for New York magazine; and Adam Feldman, the theater editor for Time Out New York and the longtime president of the New York Drama Critics Circle. We all had a lot to say and we discovered that each of us was a card-carrying member of the fan club for the incredible Deirdre O’Connell, who delighted us all when she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Dana H., Lucas Hnath’s play about his mother’s kidnapping by a white supremacist. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

A couple of days before that, BroadwayRadio released the latest installment of “All the Drama,” my podcast about plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over the years. This recent episode focuses on the 1995 winner, Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta. I was lucky enough to get Ben Brantley, the former New York Times theater critic and a longtime Foote fan, to talk with me about Foote and his play.  You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.

Meanwhile, I was so taken with one of those new shows I saw, Queen, a drama about two female scientists whose careers and friendship are jeopardized when one finds an error in their research, that I knew I wanted to talk more about the show with its playwright Madhuri Shekar. So I restarted "Stagecraft," my old podcast in which I regularly talked with playwrights and musical book writers but that I had to put on hiatus when Covid shut down theaters in the city. I was delighted—but not at all surprised—to find that Shekar is just as smart and lively as her play is.  You can check out what she had to say by clicking here.  

Finally, James Marino, the head of BroadwayRadio, has invited me to join him and regular commentators Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere on this Sunday’s episode of “This Week on Broadway” to talk about some of the shows we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks and you’ll be able to listen to that by clicking here.




June 11, 2022

"Exception to the Rule" and "soft" Offer Laments on the Tragedy of Being, Young, Poor and Black or Brown in Today's America

The settings and the circumstances are the same in two new off-Broadway shows that portray the plight of the young Black and Brown people who are so often trapped in systems that view them—and force them to see themselves—as failures who have no real future ahead of them.

Both open in sterile classrooms that have seen better days. And each is populated by a half dozen or so teens who are paying penance for wrongdoings. Audiences are seated on either side of both playing areas, creating an intimacy that ultimately makes viewers complicit in each story’s outcome.

The students in Dave Harris’ Exception to the Rule, now playing in the Roundabout Theatre’s Black Box through June 26, have been assigned to detention on the Friday before a holiday week-end. Most of them are no strangers to this purgatory. 

They’ve done penance before for talking back to teachers, violating the school’s dress code, getting into fights and otherwise failing to follow the rules. But the regulars are shocked when they’re joined by Erika, a straight-A student with a rep for doing the right things.

As they wait for the detention-room teacher to show up and sign the pass slips that will allow them to leave, the others flirt and bicker with one another and try to guess why Erica is among them. Director Miranda Haymon has her game young cast playing much of this for laughs and the audience at the matinee I attended eagerly lapped up all the antics.

But then, as announcements over the school’s faulty public address system became more difficult to decipher and more ominous, the students became more frantic, started revealing troubling details about their lives and began to worry about what would happen if the teacher never came and they were never allowed to leave.  

Only two dare to even attempt leaving on their own. And by the end, the room—actors and audience members—was left silent. 

The teacher is very present in Donja R. Love’s soft, which just opened in MCC Theater’s Frankel Theater this week. But the dedication of that teacher, Mr. Isaiah as his students call him, doesn’t seem to make that much difference in the fates of the students at the residential juvenile detention facility where he teaches English. 

At first, things seem more upbeat as the play opens with Mr. Isaiah complimenting his students on their compositions about Othello and encouraging them to write their own poetry. He’s taught them enough about poetic forms that they proudly distinguish between choosing to do cinquains, haikus and sonnets. And he even allows them to freestyle their results to the accompaniment of his beat-boxing (Warning: audience members who aren’t regular hip-hop listeners may have some trouble keeping up with the rapid flow).

These youngsters seem older than the kids in Exception to the Rule, the dysfunctions they’ve experienced are more apparent and the crimes they’ve committed are generally more serious. But both Love and Mr. Isaiah recognize that there is value in these boy-men if only the conditions can be created that will allow it to blossom. 

Instead, Mr. Isaiah is forced to use dilapidated textbooks because there isn’t money for new ones in the institution’s budget, societal norms about black masculinity force the boys to hide any softness within them and the suicide of the most talented and charismatic of the group pushes them all to the breaking point. 

Under the visceral direction of Whitney White and the fight choreography of UnkleDave's Fight-House, their outbursts were so raw and realistic that I found myself worrying for the safety of the actors. Isaiah’s desperation to connect with his students and his sense of guilt when he’d let them down also rang true.

And yet, I didn’t find myself as moved by soft as I had been by Exception to the Rule.

Maybe that’s because the young men in soft were given so many hardships—sexual abuse, parental neglect, homelessness, homophobia, drugs, AIDS—that it seemed to me as though boxes were being checked off as the play leaned into the expected stereotypes without challenging or, at least, deepening them. 

Or maybe it was because having the most fem gay character provide most of the humor also struck me as a tired trope. Or because although the ending—which I won’t spoil—seemed to soothe a good part of the audience at my performance, it annoyed me for wanting to have it both ways.

Still I think what both of these plays are trying to say is that most of the young people in these situations have limited choices. So both plays are worthy of being seen by serious theatergoers but it’s the real-life tragedies they depict to which attention should be paid.



June 4, 2022

"Dreaming Zenzile" Gets Lost in Its Reveries

Dreaming Zenzile, the musical that opened at New York Theatre Workshop this week, began as a tribute concert.  And it probably should have stayed one.  

The show, a co-production with the National Black Theatre, is now a musical biography that its writer and star Somi Kakoma created to honor her idol, the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba. 

Kakoma has a lush, velvety voice, shares some of Makeba’s winning charisma and she looks terrific in the magnificent gowns that costume designer Mimi Plange created for her. But Kakoma’s dramaturgical chops are disastrously weak.

Dreaming Zenzile (the show takes its title from Makeba’s name in her native Xhosa language) opens at the 2008 concert during which Makeba suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 76. As Kakoma's Makeba tries to resist four white-clad angels of death who have come to carry her away, significant moments in the singer's life flash before her eyes and ours.  

It’s not a bad conceit for a show but there are several problems with the way it unfolds here. For starters, Makeba’s life story isn’t as familiar to most theatergoers as, say, Tina Turner’s is. So the fever-dream-style references to names and incidents just swirl by. And it doesn’t help that director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her actors speaking in over-emphasized African accents that make it difficult to understand what they’re saying.  

There are stops for re-enactments of some of the more dramatic events but they tend to deal with now-tired tropes: the abusive husband, the racism that eats at the singer, the guilt of being an absentee parent. 

There’s no doubt that these things happened to Makeba but similar things happened to Dinah Washington in the 1998 musical Dinah Was, to Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (for which Audra McDonald won her sixth Tony) to Nina Simone in Little Girl Blue which just completed a three-month off-Broadway run and to Tina Turner in her current namesake Broadway musical. So just saying that bad things happen to good and talented women is no longer enough.

With the exception of Tina all these woe-was-her shows tend to be modest affairs, performed with small casts on minimally designed stages.  Dreaming Zenzile hews to type here too. 

There’s a four-piece band onstage and a four-member ensemble who play everything from the angels of death to Makeba’s family, friends and fans over the decades. The actors are talented but they’re called on to morph so quickly from one character to another that I gave up trying to figure out who was who. 

Of course most people come to these shows for the music, to hear the songs that evoke memories for them. Dreaming Zenzile is at a disadvantage here too. Makeba had some hits in the ‘60s, including “The Click Song” and “Pata Pata” but few are remembered today. And although she’s credited with helping to introduce Afro-pop to the the rest of the world, Makeba's songs, at least as presented here, don’t have the exuberance that so animated the hit 2009 musical Fela!  

Some of the songs in Dreaming Zenzile are originals by Kakoma.  But they didn’t jump out for me either. In fact, I found the Afro-pop recordings that played before the show and during the intermission more enjoyable than the tunes in Zenzile.

Lots of people left at intermission during the performance I attended. A few black people in the audience, including the two women sitting in front of me tried to create some supportive energy by swaying their shoulders and bopping their heads to the music but even they eventually ran out of steam.

As for me, I sat there thinking how much more we all might have enjoyed the show if Kakoma, who occasionally seemed to be out of breath after performing Marjani Forté-Saunders’ spirited choreography, had simply followed her first instinct and honored Makeba with the fine tribute concert that she certainly deserves.