Two Trains Running ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 6, 2018 

Victor Vazquez and Kaitlin McIntyre have assembled a cast so perfect that the actors wear their roles like a second skin.  Spend two hours in Memphis Lee’s diner with Wolf, a hustler and numbers runner (Reginald André Jackson); Risa, an emotionally bereft waitress (Nicole Lewis); Holloway, a philosophical realist (David Emerson Toney in a scene stealing performance); West, an opportunistic undertaker (William Hall, Jr.); Hambone, a man denied his fair compensation (another exceptional performance from local actor Frank Riley III); and Sterling, an optimistic, lovesick ex-con (the very impressive Carlton Byrd), and you will come to know them well.

(L to R) David Emerson Toney (Holloway), William Hall, Jr. (West) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright August Wilson’s Two Trains Running affords a fly-on-the-wall view of a period and place in African American history, when the trains were moving but not everyone could board.

It was a time of frustration and economic disparity when arguments might be settled at the muzzle end of a gun.  But lest you imagine the story is moralistic or depressing, it’s far from it.  It’s actually hilarious with most of the setups provided by Holloway who also has one of the play’s most prophetic lines, “You got love and you got death.  Death will find you.  It’s up to you to find love.”  So is there room for love here?  There is.  Sterling works his charm on Risa and the group shows concern and affection for Hambone.

(L to R) Nicole Lewis (Risa), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

For this superb production, Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has partnered with Seattle Repertory Theatre and its Artistic Director Braden Abraham, bringing in Director Juliette Carrillo who marshals the ensemble into giving some of the finest and most synchronistic performances we’ve seen in a long time.

(L to R) Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Eugene Lee, a veteran actor most recently at Arena in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, breathes fire and ice into the role of Memphis, a man toggling between hope and despair.  Lee gives an outstanding multi-dimensional and nuanced portrait of the brash dreamer seeking redemption.  In fact, the theme that most resonates throughout, is redemption – even if the path steers believers to the home of a 322-year-old psychic Aunt Esther (unseen) or a local charlatan who goes by the name of the Prophet Samuel (also unseen).

Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Here religion and the occult are given their due in equal measure.  It takes a limitless leap of faith to see through the fog of disappointment and despair, but they are clearly up to the challenge.

Set Designer, Misha Kachman, has scored August Wilson’s personal 1955 Rock-Ola jukebox to complete the chrome-and-naugahyde luncheonette look to go with Costume Designer Ivania Stack’s outfitting of the cast in 50’s clothing, most notably Holloway’s array of street-slick polyester shirts.

With Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani and Music/Sound by David R. Molina.

Superb and highly recommended.

Through April 29th 2018 in the Fichandler at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Hold These Truths ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
March 5, 2018 

If you thought the Declaration of Independence was etched in stone, think again.  Remember the part about “Hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”?  In Jeanne Sakata’s drama, We Hold These Truths offers up a civics lesson in how that document didn’t apply to the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths. ~ Photo by Patrick Weishampel for Portland Center Stage.

After long interviews with Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee and religious pacifist Gordon Hirabayashi, Sakata used her imagination to bring to life the dramatic story of his struggles against the U. S. Government.   From his Seattle childhood to his college days at the University of Washington in the 1940’s and into his later years, the play take us through his refusal to sign the document that would have sent him to one of the camps.  He fought for his rights in a case that went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court.  There is so much more to the story of the camps and the negligence and the secrecy of the government that most of us never knew.  Did you know Japanese-American citizens had to sign a letter agreeing to relocation?  Did you know their Issei parents and grandparents did too?  Why would they?  Did you know their homes and businesses were destroyed?  Did you think this couldn’t happen to American citizens?  Think again.  It did.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths. ~ Photo by Chris Bennion for ACT-A Contemporary Theatre.

Gordon “Gordy” Hirabayashi, was an All-American college kid and Nisei (a person of Japanese descent born in the U. S.).  An A student who worked after school at the YMCA and attended a Quaker Meeting House on Sundays.  Gordy and his pals were as American as apple pie.  Until…they weren’t.

Directed by Jessica Kubzansky, Ryun Yu plays Gordy with power and humor, his lithe frame using all the real estate on and off the stage as he morphs into the many characters from the social activist’s fascinatingly fraught life.  Yu assumes the personalities and dialects of all the other characters, from Boston to Brooklyn and drawl to twang to the sing-song cadences of his Japanese parents.

A difficult subject, there is a great deal of humor and sweetness too as Gordy finds both freedom and true love through persistence and self-sacrifice while standing up for his rights and yours too.

Recommended for everyone you know.

Through April 8th 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

The Great Society ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 12, 2018 

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Susan Rome (Lady Bird Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s 2016 sequel to his Tony Award-winning All the Way based on Lyndon Johnson’s early presidency and the Civil Rights movement, the playwright continues with the final years of LBJ’s administration between January 1965 till December 1968.  Those of us who lived through these turbulent times will remember how desperately divided the country was during the Vietnam War and the bloody struggle to achieve the Voting Rights Act for African Americans.  I couldn’t help but reflect on our current state – voting machines compromised, Russians interfering with our elections, gerrymandering and trumped-up demands for personal identity keeping legitimate voters from the polls.  The fight continues…

(L to R) Tom Wiggin (Robert McNamara and others) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

This second term portrays a president who fell under the deceitful influence of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and F. B. I. Director J. Edgar Hoover.  At the same time, Johnson was sacrificing American lives in the war, he was also pushing a raft of social programs including Medicaid, Medicare and the expansion of immigration.  He was a complicated man during difficult times.

(L to R) Deonna Bouye (Coretta Scott King and others) and Bowman Wright (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Icons in the Civil Rights movement feature prominently – Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses and others whose relationships with Johnson were often stymied by Johnson’s need to pacify his Southern base.  “There’s no issue of state’s rights.  It’s only human rights,” Johnson insists.

There are plenty of dramatic moments depicted here, including a brutal attack on African American marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in George Wallace’s Alabama and another that reflects the savage tactics against the nation’s anti-war protesters.

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Cameron Folmar (Governor George Wallace and others) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Directed by Kyle Donnelly, the play moves back and forth between the escalation of the Vietnam war and the accompanying anti-war protests to Johnson’s tireless efforts to achieve real social change while arm-twisting members of his own party.  A powerful and compelling drama, it reveals much of the rough-and-tumble backroom dealings that later came to light.  LBJ made it his business to exploit his adversaries and capitalize on their weaknesses, even if it took threats to achieve his ends.  Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ, strident, bullying, foul-mouthed and oftimes terrifying, yet an indelibly effective, larger-than-life politician armed with buckets of Southern colloquialisms.

(L to R) Lawrence Redmond (Vice President Hubert Humphrey) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Many of the original actors from All the Way return in this tour de force including Jack Willis as LBJ, Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy, Tom Wiggin as McNamara, Bowman Wright as Dr. King, Jaben Early as Stokely Carmichael, John Scherer as Bobby Kennedy, Stephen F. Schmidt as Senator Dirksen, Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson, and Cameron Folmar as Governor George Wallace.  Lawrence Redmond returns in a different role, this time as Hubert Humphrey. Set Designer Kate Edmunds adds rising flames to a rotating presidential seal to remind us of the riots in Watts.

Highly recommended.  Be sure to bring your teens.

Through March 11th, 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sovereignty ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 30, 2018 

Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has always taken risks.  With the staging of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play on the fraught history of the Cherokee Nation, she has gone where no other major theater has gone before.  Smith’s direction of Sovereignty adds to her series of innovative “Power Plays” and is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. 

Nagle, an activist lawyer and direct descendant of John Ridge and Major Ridge, plunges headlong into the genesis of Indian country’s deepest divide exploring both her ancestors, the Ridge family, as well as Chief John Ross who were instrumental in forming the early agreements that determined the future of the Cherokee nation.  But which bore the responsibility for allowing President Andrew Jackson to set in motion the Trail of Tears?  Who had the blood on their hands of the thousands who perished on that forced march to Oklahoma in the dead of winter?  Who capitulated to Jackson’s demands and why?  Nagle addresses these and other questions with eyes wide open and starts in a casino in modern-day Indian country.

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sarah Polson (Kyla García) is a young Yale graduated attorney determined to reverse a 1978 Supreme Court decision that strips native communities of their right to prosecute non-Indians on their reservations, a decision that violates tribal sovereignty.  She is feisty and whip smart and along with another lawyer, Jim Ross, takes on the case.  Sarah is a Ridge descendant, but keeps her ancestral past well hidden from Jim.  Though their ancestors were well-intentioned tribal leaders, both the Ridges and the Rosses have been accused of poor decisions, greed in the case of the Rosses, and worse, capitulation.  To this day each family still blames the other for mistakes made.  It is up to Sarah and Jim to right the wrongs of the past.

(L to R) Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie), Michael Glenn (Samuel Worcester/Mitch) and Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

At the casino in Oklahoma Sarah meets Ben, a non-Indian SVU cop and friend of Mitch (Michael Glenn who also plays Samuel Wooster), Sarah’s brother.  Ben intervenes in a bar fight when Watie, Sarah’s current boyfriend gets rough with Sarah and the two hit it off.

The action swings back and forth between the 1830s to modern day as it grapples with the past through the years of U. S. Government policies of expansionism, Cherokee removal, broken treaties, intermarriage, and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA Section 904) to allow for the prosecution of whites committing crimes against women on Indian lands.  After being abused by her lover Ben, Sarah’s goal is to change that.

(L to R) Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben), Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) and Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

How Nagle manages to include as many instrumental players in this historical drama is more than clever.  Because the play toggles between 19th and 21st centuries, this fine cast plays multiple roles with ease and authenticity.  There is Flora, a Ridge cousin (Dorea Smith), Andrew Jackson and Ben (Joseph Carson in dual roles), John Ross and his son Jim both played by Jake Waid, Major Ridge and Roger Ridge Poison (both played by Andrew Roa), and Elias Boudinot (Jake Hart who also plays Watie).

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

To enhance the authenticity and period details, both Ken Macdonald’s set and Linda Cho’s costumes incorporate design elements of Cherokee culture. 

If you aren’t up on the history of the Cherokee people, I’d suggest Steve Inskeep’s brilliant book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab.

Powerful, informative and important.

Through February 18th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

For more info on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival visit online.

Nina Simone: Four Women ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 18, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There’s no getting around one of the darkest moments in American history, when four African-American girls were murdered by white supremacists in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963.  There’s also no getting around that it continues unabated in present day America.  Playwright Christina Ham’s deeply emotional and highly relevant play, Nina Simone: Four Women, directed by Timothy Douglas, gets to the heart of this tragedy by focusing on Nina Simone, the jazz singer whose bluesy songs made her popular in in both white and black America.  For Simone (Harriett D. Foy), this horrific event in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, galvanized her into speaking out through her music.  Inspired, Simone sets about writing “Mississippi Goddam”, her iconic civil rights anthem about the slaughter of the little girls.  “I want that song to cut folks like a razor,” Simone proclaims.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

While she works on her composition, she encounters three women also hiding within the confines of the church.  Each speak of this devastating tragedy through different eyes.  Auntie Sarah (Theresa Cunningham), a longtime church member, is a matronly, black woman (she would say ‘colored’), who has lived her life respectably – dutiful to her white employers and a strong believer in the power of religion.  Sephronia (Toni L. Martin), is an activist, a girl of mixed race (she would say ‘high yellow’).  She takes inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the protest movement.  Lastly, Sweet Thing (Felicia Curry) is a street hooker, a rough-and-ready ghetto girl with a switchblade and a heap of anger.  Each woman brings a unique perspective to what it means to be black in America.  Each one has her own truth.

We see Simone as the consummate artist, a woman of conscience who has been radicalized by the inequality and injustice she has faced throughout her career.  She tells the others, despite her success she has doubts and self-loathing, “Every day I have to conjure myself into a queen.”

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With music directed and arranged by Darius Smith, who also accompanies the women on piano, their lush harmonies and deliberate delivery ensure that no one will miss hearing the lyrics nor their fierce intent as this fine cast scrolls through gospel hymns, jazz tunes and protest songs including Simone’s “Sinnerman”, Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby”, Simone’s co-written anthem, “Young, Gifted and Black”, and of course its eponymous song, “Four Women”.  Choreography by Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi captures the spirit of African dance and old-time church revivals.

A powerful, brilliantly crafted, musical tribute to a woman and a movement.

Recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.