May 27, 2023

Delicious Diversity with "Monsoon Wedding," "Bernarda's Daughters" and "Bees & Honey"

Diversity is sometimes thought of as the vegetable of theatrical offerings: something that we theater lovers should include in the diet of things we consume because it’s "good" for us. But maybe we should be thinking of it as the spice that can bring some zest to the theatrical mix. At least that’s what I’ve been thinking after seeing three recent shows that have found new flavors in familiar tropes by unabashedly rooting themselves in the customs and language of cultures whose stories we’re only now beginning to see onstage.  

Monsoon Wedding. This musical adaptation of Mira Nair’s 2001 film that is now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse through June 25 puts Indian culture in the spotlight. Its book by Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan sticks close to Nair’s original story about the complications surrounding an arranged marriage between a wealthy New Delhi girl and the American-reared son of an Indian family who live in the U.S. Maybe too close (click here to read more about the adaptation). 

It might have worked better if Mukherjee and Dhawan had gotten rid of some of the film’s ancillary relatives and their storylines and instead, focused on the main couple, who are here charmingly played by Salena Qureshi and Deven Kolluri. And the score, with music by Vishal Bhardwaj and lyrics by Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead, is only so-so, a motley mix of show tunes and Bollywood-style bangers that, with the exception of a ballad or two, drift in one ear and out the other.

But Nair, who conceived and directed the show, understands that at its heart Monsoon Wedding is a riff on a Shakespearean comedy, complete with high and low humor and multiple marriages at its end. She makes it her own by leaning into the details that make up modern Indian life, be it the lingering respect for familial ties, the colloquial Hindi that's sprinkled throughout the script or the splashy production numbers reminiscent of those in Bollywood films. 

In the end, it’s fun to see a cast of some two dozen Indian actors filling the stage and having such a good time doing so. And it was just as gratifying to see so many South Asian people in the audience with big smiles on their faces.

Bernarda’s Daughters. Five Haitian-American sisters in contemporary Flatbush anchor Diane Exavier’s retelling of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia-Lorca’s classic drama The House of Bernarda Alba that is being given a joint production by National Black Theatre and The New Group at the Signature Center through June 4. 

Exavier peppers her version of this story of frustrated women held back by societal restraints with bits of French and Creole and with references to Brooklyn landmarks and lore. All of it clearly hit home with many members of the audience the night I saw the show. But I have to confess that it didn’t work as well for me. 

The show’s set is basically empty, save for some boxes and floor pillows, and so oddly constructed that at times important scenes can only be seen by some portions of the audience. Dominique Rider’s direction was just as poorly focused and the actors came across as though they were performing in different plays, although Pascale Armand and Tamara Tunie do manage to bring some gravitas to the roles of the eldest sister and the girls’ grandmother. 

But again, the people sitting around me seemed to delight in the show’s insider jokes, its politics (anti-gentrification) and just in the fact that so many black women were sharing a stage together. It wasn’t just the larger than usual number of black people in the audience enjoying it either. The young white guy sitting in front of me was one of the first to jump up at the end to show his appreciation with a standing ovation.

Bees & Honey. It’s usually a put-down when you say that a show resembles a romcom but Guadalís Del Carmen’s two-hander about the relationship between a Dominican couple in Washington Heights playing at MCC through June 11 is an endearing delight. 

That’s partly because guided by Melissa Crespo’s deft direction, there’s such terrific chemistry between the actors Maribel Martinez and Xavier Pacheco. But the show also works because, Del Carmen has her couple Jahaira and Manuel sidestep the usual stereotypes by making them specific and relatable people. 

There's no gangbanging. Or immigration angst. Jahaira is a lawyer rising through the ranks at the D.A.’s office; Manuel owns an auto-repair shop and is successful enough that he’s planning to expand to other boroughs. She reads bell hooks; he relaxes with videogames. They both love eating sancocho and dancing bachata. Each lapses into Spanish when feeling agitated or amorous. 

This time, the larger than usual number of audience members at my performance were Latino and they clearly identified with the characters, laughing heartily at jokes the rest of us knew to be funny, even if we weren’t entirely sure why. 

But none of these shows made me feel shut out, even when the characters spoke a few words in languages I don’t know. Rather, I felt as though I were being given a chance to share in an experience I hadn’t seen onstage before. 

These aren’t perfect shows. I particularly disliked the serious issues—child sexual abuse in Monsoon Wedding, police shootings of young black men in Bernarda’s Daughters, the legal system’s inadequate response to rape victims in Bees & Honey—that seemed shoehorned into each show, perhaps in misguided attempts to make them relevant to wider audiences. 

We don’t need that kind of pandering. We just need more chances like these to see new stories, or even old ones, reflected through a refreshingly new gaze.

May 20, 2023

Celebrating The 50th Anniversary of TOFT

No review posting today but I’m thrilled to be able to share the news that Patrick Hoffman, the director and curator of The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at New York's Library for the Performing Arts (TOFT), has invited me to interview him about the archive’s 50th anniversary and the wonderful exhibit that Patrick and his colleagues have put together to celebrate it.  This free event will take place on June 1 at 6 p.m. in the library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. You can register to join us by clicking here.

May 16, 2023

"The Cotillion" Looks at the Very Complex Demands Put on Middle-Class Black Women

Regular readers will know that I usually post my reviews on Saturdays but I’m changing things up this week because the show I want to talk about has a short run and the performance I recently saw wasn’t as well-attended as I think it should have been so I want to get the word out about it. That show is The Cotillion, which New Georges and the Movement Theater Company are jointly presenting at A.R.T./New York only through May 27.

The show, whose full official title is The Harriet Holland Social Club Presents the 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel, first drew my attention when I learned that it was centered around the seldom-discussed debutante balls in which young African-American women are introduced into society. 

Such ceremonies are usually associated with wealthy, white women in Regency-era novels, which makes sense because the first-ever debutante ball is believed to have been thrown in 1780 by King George III in honor of his wife Charlotte’s birthday (fans of the Netflix series “Bridgerton” can make of that what you will). But black folks here in the U.S. have been conducting similar events since 1895 (click here to read more about that).  

For their champions, these lavish affairs are demonstrations that prove young black women can be as poised and polished as any other girls. For their detractors, these events are a shameful display of class, caste and colorism within the black community. 

Now, here’s where I have to admit that I was a debutante—albeit a reluctant one—in my teens and I still have ambivalent feelings about cotillions. But they offer the kind of story about the black community that still rarely gets told onstage and so I was curious to see what this play would do with the subject.  

I’m happy to report that Colette Robert, who both wrote and directed The Cotillion, not only deals fairly with both sides of the debate but has come up with a simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking way to present it. 

The 100-minute play unfolds in 14 scenes that are supposed to represent the sequence of events in a cotillion hosted by the fictional Harriet Holland Social Club, whose members are drawn from the most affluent and successful black people in the local community of a major metropolitan city. 

We in the audience, arrayed around three-quarters of the playing area, have been assigned the role of stand-ins for the family, friends and other supporters attending the affair. As we enter the theater, a terrific female quartet, accompanied by a swinging three-piece combo, is singing Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a taxonomy of the different kinds of stereotypes to which black women have been subjected over the centuries (click here for more on that).

A few more upbeat tunes follow and then there are welcome speeches from two of the social club’s officers. It’s clear from the start that these women, deliciously played by Jehan O. Young and Akyiaa Wilson, don’t see eye to eye but that both are dedicated to the mission of celebrating the accomplishments of the debutantes, giving them that rare moment to feel special and crowning the one who best represents the image they want the rest of the world to appreciate about black women.

The six contestants are introduced and, as one might expect, each represents some aspect of the black middle and upper class. Among them are the legacy who’s afraid she can’t live up to the standards set by her high-achieving family, the daughter of strivers who's determined to succeed but doesn’t have as much financial or social currency as the others and the young lesbian who is trying to honor the traditions of the evening without compromising herself. 

There isn't enough time to dig into any of their stories but it's fun to watch as the girls go through the rituals of fixing their hair and stuffing themselves into flouncy white dresses (kudos to hair & wig wrangler Nikiya Mathis and costume designer Mika Eubanks) and as they perform elaborate curtseys, stumble through the steps of antiquated quadrilles and join their dads in the requisite father-daughter dance (none of the men are shown; instead the actresses mime partnering with them). 

But as the evening proceeds, Robert broadens her canvas and deepens her sense of purpose to consider how such rituals echo the ways that black women were treated on the auction block during slavery, by the 19th  century quadroon balls in which wealthy white men selected mixed-race women to be their concubines or in the modern-day settings in which black women are required to look and behave in a prescribed way in order to be deemed acceptable (the Crown Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of hairstyle and hair texture such as braids and afros, has only been adapted by 18 of the 50 states).  

Robert doesn’t issue a final verdict on cotillions. Or on the broader issue of respectability politics. But, as she says on the play’s website, The Cotillion reflects “the messy, beautiful, ugly complications of living in this country.” (Click here to read more of what she had to say.)  

I still don’t know how I feel about cotillions but in the final moment of this play I found myself sighing in deep and uncomfortable recognition of the conundrum they raise. 



May 6, 2023

Reveling in the 2022-23 Awards Season

And so it’s begun. The last show of Broadway’s 2022-23 season—a revival of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 meditation on white allyship—opened on April 27. And that's set off a flood of awards nominations, including the ones this week for the Tonys.

The Drama League got things going with its nominations for both on and off-Broadway productions (click here to see its choices) and will announce its winners on May 19.  

The Outer Critics Circle, for whom I serve as a nominator, announced our slate of on and off-Broadway nominees a couple of days later (click here to read them); we’ll announce our winners on May 15 and celebrate them in an awards ceremony at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on May 25. 

Then the Drama Desk (I’m a voting member of that one) announced its candidates for the season’s best productions on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway (click here for those) and it will hand out its prizes on June 6.

The rules and even the eligibility dates vary from group to group but a consensus does seem to have formed around which were the best Broadway shows. Each of the groups put Tom Stoppard’s Holocaust drama Leopoldstadt on their lists and all three nominated the musicals & Juliet, a jukebox musical riff on Shakespeare set to pop songs by Max Martin; Shucked, a comedy about corn with a joke-stoked book by Robert Horn and music by country songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally; and Some Like It Hot, Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s updating of that classic movie comedy with a score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. 

In the revival categories, the awards groups agreed on Ohio State Murders, Adrienne Kennedy’s seldom seen meditation on toxic racism, for best play; and Parade, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s rendering of an antisemitic lynching, as the best musical.  And now the Tonys have confirmed those choices, while adding others—including a few surprises.

Joining the already Olivier-honored Leopoldstadt for the Tony honor of best play are three Pulitzer Prize winners that have only now made it to Broadway: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living and James Ijames’ Fat Ham, each of which also snagged nominations for actors in their casts. 

Rounding out the best play category is Ain’t No Mo’, a satire about a government program that addresses the race problem by giving every black person in the U.S. a one-way ticket to Africa. 

Ain’t No Mo's spot on the list is a bit of a surprise since the show ran for just 23 performances in December but it’s racked up six nominations, including one for its director and a featured acting nod for its 26-year-old playwright Jordan E. Cooper who also appeared in the play as a no-nonsense flight attendant named Peaches.

For best musical, Some Like It Hot, Shucked and & Juliet were joined by New York, New York, a paean to the city built around numbers from the songbook of 96-year-old John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; and Kimberly Akimbo, the musical that Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire adapted from his play about a 16-year-old girl with a rare genetic condition that prematurely ages her. 

That same production of Kimberly Akimbo won the top prize from all the other critics’ groups (including the New York Drama Critics Circle) when it played off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater in the 2021-22 season and it’s been a frontrunner for the Tony since it opened on Broadway last November. But it now looks as though it may have to beat back competition from Some Like It Hot, which earned 13 Tony nominations, more than any other show this year.

But the hottest races may be in the revival categories. Ohio State Murders didn’t make the cut for the Tonys (although its star Audra McDonald did get a nomination—her 10th—for her performance). Instead, the best play revival contest is between August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (both Pulitzer winners; are you detecting a trend?) and playwright Amy Herzog's new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic feminist drama A Doll’s House

And the showdown is even more intense in the revived musicals category with Parade facing off against two beloved Stephen Sondheim shows, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd: The Demond Barber of Fleet Street; and a new version of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot, updated by Aaron Sorkin (you can check out all the Tony nominations here). 

As you might imagine, I’ve spent the last few days doing almost nothing but thinking and talking about these awards. I’m delighted to be able to say that I tied for second place on the Gold Derby awards site’s list of theater “experts” who predicted which shows, actors and other creatives would get Tony nominations (click here to see more about that). 

I also spent an hour on Tuesday afternoon talking about the Tony choices with a panel of folks convened by the Theatre Development Fund (you can listen to that by clicking here). And two days after that, I again joined Adam Feldman of Time Out New York and Helen Shaw of The New Yorker to record an episode on the Tonys for my pal Patrick Pacheco’s show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts,” which will air later this month.  

I’m a little talked out right now. But that won’t last long. The one big takeaway I’ve had this week is that the 2022-23 season was a damn good one and I don’t think I’m done with it yet, especially since this year’s Pulitzer awards are scheduled to be announced next week. Plus, believe it or not, I’ve already begun lining up shows to see for the 2023-24 season. So I hope you’ll come back here and join me for all of it.