June 15, 2024

My Nostalgic Trip Back to "Home"

It can be hard to recapture the magic of the first time you saw a show.  And the first times I saw Samm-Art Williams’ Home were nearly perfect. The Negro Ensemble Company was in its heyday when it debuted this fable about a black southerner named Cephus Miles who loses the woman he loves, the land he loves and seemingly his very soul. It ran for 78 performances at the St. Mark’s Playhouse and then moved to Broadway's Cort Theatre a few months later, where it ran for another 287 performances and picked up a Tony nomination for the Best Play of 1980.  

One of my best friends worked for the NEC back then and so I saw the play in both venues and was enchanted each time by the way it spoke so directly to what I and my friends were thinking and feeling in those confusing years following the previous decade’s highs (the passage of the Civil Rights acts) and lows (the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.). And so as I watched the revival that is now playing at the Roundabout Theatre’s Todd Haimes Theatre, I couldn’t help wondering whether it was possible—to paraphrasie the words of the old saying—to go Home again. 

This new production, directed by Kenny Leon, echoes much of what I first loved, from the simplicity of the set, centered around a rocking chair on a raised platform; to the casting of a first-rate trio of actors to play Cephus and the other people who flow through his life (this time out they’re wonderfully realized by Tory Kittles as Cephus {click here to read a little more about him} and Stori Ayers and Brittany Inge as everyone else). 

And of course the play still has the simultaneously down-home and highly poetic dialog that Williams based on the language of the people he knew growing up in Burgaw, North Carolina, where his mother taught English and drama in the small town’s segregated high school for black students.

The tales Cephus tells about his friends and neighbors in direct address to the audience don’t really advance the plot but they were for me the most delightful part of the show and its true heart, a tribute to all the good things my grandparents left behind when they, like legions of others, fled the South to escape the evils of Jim Crow. And so I was really disappointed by Leon’s decision to have Kittles’ Cephus fast talk his way through those parts of the play.  

I wanted to savor that dialog and those stories. But, although it pains me to say it, Leon may have been right because several of the reviewers expressed an impatience with those early sections and a decided preference for the later parts that detail Cephus’ time in prison and his descent into drug addiction and homelessness when he goes north.

All of that now strikes me as a bit melodramatic. And similarly, Cephus’ belief that returning to the south is the way to solve the problems that black people face now seems naïve as southern states pass all kinds of legislation that will make life more difficult for their black residents. 

And yet, by the time Home’s ending rolled around, I had succumbed once again to the old-fashioned pleasures of the play—and to its defiant optimism. I just wish that Williams, who died at the age of 78 back home in Burgaw a few days before the first preview, had been able to savor its return too. 

Still I’m grateful all over again that the NEC was around back in the day to nurture playwrights like Williams and Charles Fuller, author of the prizewinning A Soldier’s Play (click here to listen to more about that one on my podcast about Pulitzer Prize-winners) and allowing them to tell the stories they wanted to tell instead of the ones that others might think they should have told.

 


June 8, 2024

Following a Paper Trail to this Year's Tonys


We’re in the homestretch now, with just a week to go before next Sunday’s Tony Awards. And it's a particularly exciting time because there are virtually no sure winners this year and even the so-called frontrunners can feel the competition breathing down their necks. 

And so, from the day the nominations were announced on April 30, the contenders have been campaigning like crazy, popping up on the morning shows and the late night shows, doing podcasts and TikTok videos. Attending precursor awards events. And giving interviews for a zillion stories, including for some publications that don’t usually pay much attention to Broadway. 

It's hard to keep up with all of it but below are some of the pieces about the shows in the leading categories that I've been enjoying while counting down the days to the big event and that I hope some of you might enjoy too:

 

BEST NEW PLAY

Jaja’s African Hair Braiding:'You Can Bank on Black Stories': Director Whitney White on the Success of Jaja's African Hair Braiding” Playbill 

Mary Jane: “Rachel McAdams on starring in Mary Jane and her favorite Broadway tradition” TimeOut

Mother Play: “Paula Vogel, Tina Landau, and the Room That Made ‘Mother Play’” American Theatre magazine

Prayer for the French Republic: “How Broadway's 'Late Bloomer', Betsy Aidem, Became a Tony Nominee” Broadway World

Stereophonic: "The Cast of Broadway Hit Stereophonic Are Having the Ride of Their Lives” Vanity Fair


BEST NEW MUSICAL

Hell’s Kitchen: “Alicia Keys Talks 'Cathartic' Experience of Watching Her Life Story in Broadway’s Hell’s Kitchen” People magazine 

Illinoise: “How Broadway’s ‘Illinoise’ Used Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 Album to Create a ‘Silent Film’ Told Through Dance” Variety

The Outsiders: ‘"The Outsiders’: anatomy of a rumble” Broadway News

Suffs: “In 'Suffs,' Shaina Taub Fights For Women's Rights. On Broadway, She's Smashing Barriers” Huffington Post 

Water for Elephants: “Jessica Stone Brings The Big Top To Broadway In ‘Water For Elephants’” Forbes


BEST PLAY REVIVAL

Appropriate: "Sarah Paulson Dares to Play the People You Love to Hate” The New York Times

Purlie Victorious: "Plays still matter to the health of Broadway’: Leslie Odom Jr. on ‘Purlie Victorious’” The Los Angeles Times


BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Cabaret: "How ‘Cabaret’ became Broadway’s hottest ticket — and most divisive show” The Washington Post

Merrily We Roll Along: "Jonathan Groff Rolls Merrily Back” The New Yorker

The Who’s Tommy: "Q&A: Director Des McAnuff Talks ‘The Who’s Tommy on Broadway’ Revival and the Power of the Message" RockCellar

 And if you want even more Tony-related stories, check out my Flipboard magazine "Tony Talk," which you can find here.