Uprising – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

As part of this fall’s ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival featuring over 50 world premiere productions of plays by female playwrights, MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin presents Uprising, a musical telling of the true story of noted abolitionist Osborne “Ossie” Perry Anderson.  Set against the backdrop of a free black community during Secession Era America, it reflects a time of grave uncertainty, even for freed African Americans, who remain in fear of being kidnapped for bounty, taken south and sold again.

(right to left) Cynthia D. Barker as Sal and Anthony Manough as Ossie - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(right to left) Cynthia D. Barker as Sal and Anthony Manough as Ossie – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Ossie (Anthony Manough), on the run as the lone black survivor of John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, encounters Sal (Cynthia D. Barker), a freed slave who picks cotton to support a child she has taken in.  Ossie begs Sal not to turn him in, but she has plans for the future and is conflicted.  Together they represent two diametrically opposing choices for African Americans of their day – – insurrection or keeping within the established racial system in an attempt to improve their lot.  Sal chooses to work for meager wages on the plantation in the hopes of building a school for her adopted son, Freddie (Jeremiah Hasty), while Ossie is determined to crush the backbone of slavery by convincing others to join his movement.

Little Freddie, played by Jeremiah Hasty - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Little Freddie, played by Jeremiah Hasty – Photo credit: Chris Banks

The musical opens with the melancholy strains of Tuneman’s blues guitar setting the tone for the conflicts to come.  Conditions are relatively good for the men and women on this plantation just north of the Mason-Dixon line and their paternalistic boss, Whistle (Peter Boyer), often rewards them with bonuses.

When Sal finds Ossie in the field hungry and cold, she rejects his advances, refusing to feed him or offer shelter, afraid to jeopardize her freedom.  But Ossie persists and Sal is fascinated by his surprising eloquence, his ability to read and his courtly manners.  “Words,” he tells her, “I’ve seen them heal a man.”  “Kill em too!” insists Sal who proves an equally verbal sparring partner to Ossie’s progressive views.

When Whistle learns of the insurrection and of Ossie’s escape, he becomes a cruel master, “I’m appalled at the lawlessness,” he barks, threatening them with reduced pay.  If they find the fugitive, they must turn him in.  When Ossie tries to convince the others to “Liberate your souls!” and join the movement, Bo-Jack (Djob Lyons), who’s hidden his love for Sal, and Ossie get into a brawl and all their lives become endangered.

(left to right) Cynthia D. Barker,Peter Boyer, Doug Brown, Cynthia D. Barker, Jeremiah Hasty, Anthony Manough, Enoch King - Photo credit Chris Banks

(left to right) Cynthia D. Barker,Peter Boyer, Doug Brown, Cynthia D. Barker, Jeremiah Hasty, Anthony Manough, Enoch King – Photo credit Chris Banks

Musical interstices composed by Theodis Ealey and directed by William Knowles, are soulful and uplifting, filled with the emotionally stirring strains of gospel, spirituals and plantation work chants and blended by this cast’s exquisite voices.

Brilliantly directed by Thomas W. Jones II who has cast an impressive ensemble to present this powerful tale – – Manough, Barker, Lyons, Doug Brown as Charlie, Naomi LaVette as Lottie; David Cole as Tuneman, the strolling minstrel, and the captivating Jeremiah Hasty making his stage debut as Sal’s boy, Freddie.  (Expect the inimitable Roz White to resume the roles of Lottie and Miss Ellen May, and Enoch King to return as Bo-Jack as they end their roles in a national touring company and rejoin the cast.)

Costume Designer, Janine Sunday, captures the period perfectly with subtle colors that blend seamlessly with Set/Projection Designer Robbie Hayes grainy-filtered backdrops of life in the Deep South.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through October 25th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

The Letters – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
May 17, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Michael Russotto, Susan Lynskey Photo credit Chris Banks

Michael Russotto, Susan Lynskey
Photo credit Chris Banks

In 1930’s Russia, privacy was a luxury afforded to no one.  Suspicion and accusation were the business of the ‘The State’ and its bureaucracy was vast and unyielding.  In The Letters, playwright John W. Lowell thrusts us headlong into the underbelly of the Soviet political machine in a two-person drama that focuses on the machinations of that pursuit.

Anna is an editor in a department investigating famed Soviet composer Tchaikovsky for his homosexual lifestyle, a crime against the State.  His personal cache of letters to an unnamed man, have been confiscated, and her department of three has been tasked with investigating and censoring them for homophonous references.  In this Orwellian world of interrogator-and-accused all perceived ‘illegal’ activities threaten the business of the State and those who breached these anti-intellectual statutes were tortured into confession or sentenced to a life in a remote gulag or death.  It is a cautionary tale, one which calls to mind the evil regimes of the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi era.

The Director is the apparatchik on whose stringent edicts all investigations turn.  When Anna is summoned into his office, a single room in which the play is set, it is to frighten her into implicating her fellow editors by accusing them of concealing copies of the letters.  The explanation as to why she would defend their honor, is left to the audience’s imagination.

Anna Borisovna, a widow whose late husband, a cellist, was also in the Arts.  Because of that she is seen to be sympathetic to Tchaikovsky’s fate, and in turn the fate of her two colleagues, the young Josef and the elder Pavel.  Offering her an advancement, the Director alternately flatters, “No person likes their efforts to be ignored,” and threatens, “You are already a dupe,” he insinuates, suggesting she is covering for her fellow editors.  “Are you also a traitor?”

As his seemingly innocent conversation of feigned familiarity unfolds we soon realize he is bent on entrapping her into revealing the location of the letters and admitting a conspiracy among her associates.  But Anna catches on to the cat-and-mouse game and turns the tables on the Director.  “In this office Truth is an annoyance, an embarrassment,” she asserts, hoping to dissuade his diabolical methods.

Susan Lynskey -  Photo credit: Chris Banks

Susan Lynskey –
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Susan Lynsky, whom we adored most recently in MetroStage’s production of “Ghost-Writer” in a role that earned her a Helen Hayes Awards nomination, is the consummate actor.  Her ability to inhabit the spirit and gravitas of Anna is a master class in character divination and the reason she is so highly regarded in her craft.  To watch her is to appreciate her finely tuned technique of actualizing her character by slow turns.  Here we see her ability to turn on a dime from shrinking violet to pouncing cat, and make it believable – – in spades.

Michael Russotto Photo credit: Chris Banks

Michael Russotto
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Michael Russotto plays the pugnacious and arrogant Ministry Director.  He is the perfect counterpoint to Lynsky’s controlled unfolding of Anna.  He struts and poses, gesticulates wildly, and terrifies convincingly, taking full use of the whole stage to inform and establish his character.  A skill few actors ever do well.

Giorgos Tsappas present us with a spare set – – a desk and a smattering of chairs – – all the better to focus on the performers.  Stage lighting, reminiscent of a 1930’s movie, is masterfully designed by Alexander Keen.

Taut, crisp and politically charged, it is highly recommended.

At MetroStage through June 14th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Bessie’s Blues – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
January 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell – Photo credit Chris Banks

“I heard it said the Blues was the Truth.” And Bessie Smith had an intravenous line along the Truth Trail and straight to the heart of the Blues.  Bessie’s Blues is a powerful homage to Smith.  Produced by Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin this is neither a tribute concert, nor a paean to the late great blues singer, but a full throttle musical interpretation of her life and times, both good and bad.  Bernadine Mitchell, Lori Williams and Roz White are among the cast of eight powerhouse singers.

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White - Photo credit Chris  Banks

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White – Photo credit Chris Banks

Thirty-three numbers, many co-written by the show’s writer, director and choreographer, Thomas W. Jones II, are belted, scatted, swung, jived, barbershopped and tenderly delivered by this exceptional ensemble rounded out by TC Carson, Stephawn P. Stephens, Djob Lyons, LC Harden, Jr. and Nia HarrisWilliam Knowles leads the five-piece band that throws out some serious joint-jumpin’ chops.

The storyline that strings it together with soulful sounds is the rise to fame and fortune of the woman known as the “Empress of the Blues”.  Smith’s life afforded plenty of raw material for Jones to work with – – her problems with men and managers, the Great Depression, racial discrimination, and her alcoholism.  As Bessie says, “Pain ain’t got no geography.”

Mitchell, who has played iconic singers before at MetroStageMahalia comes to mind – owns this role and she proves it without a shadow of a doubt by reaching deep within to reveal the glory of her rare and matchless voice.  Mitchell could rip the skin off a crocodile with her heart-wrenching vocals that display her breathtaking vocal range and high-wattage with the ability to scale back to lullaby level when it’s called for.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has adorned the women in Charleston era style with boas, feathers, fringe, red hot silk gowns and sexy lurex minis, while the men sport the plaid sharkskin suits of the Minstrel shows and the sequined vests of Vaudeville hoofers.  In an uptown party scene where Smith is disastrously presented to high society, they sashay around in black tie with bowlers and canes.

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens -   Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens –
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White plays “Rhythm” a tougher side of Smith that reveals her motivation to be successful.  “I could shake my bottom or pick cotton,” she declares which she does when she joins the Moses Stokes’ Traveling Show with Ma Rainey at St. Louis’s famed Ivory Theatre where the music speaks of “sweet steppin’ papas and hip shakin’ mamas”.

As “Passion” Lori Williams’s sweet voice adds a sexy, sultry element to the show.  On “Wet Match” (“You can’t light a fire with a wet match.”) she shows her way of sensuously carving out notes that is both alluring and assertive at the same time.

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens – Photo credit Chris Banks

Nia Harris is “The Dancer” – – a sort of alter ego to Bessie.  Wearing flapper dresses or flowing streams of chiffon, the sprite-like Harris weaves in and out of Smith’s journey, interpreting her travails through movement.  Harris, who has trained at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Alvin Ailey School, is sheer magic as she silently executes her sinuous movements in an exquisitely choreographed interplay.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through March 15th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Three Sistahs – At MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Three Sistahs-Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Three Sistahs-Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins – Photo credit: Chris Banks

I’m not sure why I’m writing a review of Three Sistahs, Thomas W. Jones II’s multi-award winning musical comedy-drama that opens MetroStage’s 30th season. Thrice presented by Producing Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin, it has become one of their most beloved productions. (I’m telling you this up front so you’ll call the box office for your tickets before it’s standing room only.)

Rarely do we see so magical a collaboration as this one between Writer/Director Thomas Jones, Composer William Hubbard and Music Director William Knowles with original story by Janet Pryce. Based on 19th C Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” it tells a tale of the Bradshaws – Olive, Marsha and Irene, three sisters in the post-Vietnam War era of Washington, DC who gather in the family’s home for the burial of their soldier brother, Anton.

Three Sistahs-Ashley Ware Jenkins, Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White - photo credit :Chris Banks

Three Sistahs-Ashley Ware Jenkins, Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White – photo credit : Chris Banks

Twenty-one musical numbers form a hypnotic web of stories as the women describe their childhoods, their growing up years and their dreams for the future. So closely does the dialogue weave itself into the music that the transitions between the two are nearly imperceptible.

The incomparable actresses Bernadine Mitchell (Olive) and Roz White (Marsha) reprise their roles from the original production. New to MetroStage is Ashley Ware Jenkins in the role of the feisty Black Power radical, Irene. Jenkins could be Angela Davis’ doppelganger, if you added a major adorableness factor.

Set to a score of Rhythm & Blues and Gospel, with a dollop of Motown, the trio begin to describe their alternate perceptions of life with an autocratic West Pointer for a father whose dream it was to see his only son follow in his military footsteps. The plot is simple but the emotions are not. Each woman brings to the table a different view of the man they feared and loved and we begin to see how their lives were formed. “Daddy believed in that uniform. [He was] a hard man born in a hard time, “ Olive explains to Irene whose anti-war stance is anathema to her sister.

Marsha who calls herself “the middle underprivileged” married early and wonders if there couldn’t be more to life than a husband and six children. Olive, who stayed behind to care for their ailing father and become a university professor, longs for a husband, and Irene who dropped out of college to pursue her political leanings, “Our anger is righteous!” she insists, is finding her footing in a city torn apart by riots and looting. To quash her sisters’ protests, she references Martin, Medger and Malcolm to make her point.

Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins – Photo credit: Chris Banks

The show evokes both laughter and tears. One audience member sobbed uncontrollably listening to the heart-wrenching song “Hold Me” in which Olive and Marsha comfort Irene. And there were many moments when I had to focus on taking notes to hold back the tears so powerfully evocative were the emotions of the performers (and audience members) and the memories of the Civil Rights struggles.

But just as quickly as the tears come so does the laughter. In a “Basement Kind of Love” Olive reminisces about her first boyfriend, Cadillac Johnson. After much simulated bumping and grinding, she admits to losing her virginity many times and still looking for it. Mitchell closes Act One to the old gospel tune, “There’s A Leak In This Old Building”, which shows off her gorgeously mellifluous voice to its finest advantage, pairing it to the electrifyingly precise harmonies of White and Jenkins.

Be prepared for a whopper of a show filled with heart and soul and some of the most intoxicatingly glorious voices you have ever heard.

Highly recommended.

Through November 2nd at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314. For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.

Under the Lintel – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 22, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel – Photo credit: Chris Banks

What is the impetus that drives us forward each day?  Is it hope?  How do we decide what holds meaning for us?  Is it faith, or just curiosity?  For a Dutch librarian, trapped in a humdrum job checking in books from the overnight repository and sending overdue notices to scofflaws, it is to confront the man who checked out a Baedeker Travel Guide some 113 years ago.  Outraged by the audacity of the borrower who waited so long to return the book, he determines to track him down. Apart from the borrower’s baffling initial, “A.”, and his confounding address, a small village in China, he has but one clue to go on.  Tucked between the yellowed pages is a receipt for a pair of trousers from a laundry in London.  This small clue becomes the catalyst to unlock the mysteries of life and to release him from a colorless life devoid of purpose.

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel – Photo credit: Chris Banks

James Kronzer’s set is a masterpiece of evocative scenic design that evokes the university quarters of Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a jumble of objects gathered by a man prospecting for answers.  Worn briefcases and suitcases and papers are strewn about.  Easel blackboards, an old globe and a long wooden table displaying a skull, surround him.  His quest will take him around the world on an emotional and metaphysical journey to find “A.” – – or is it his own enlightenment he seeks.

Dressed in a three-piece tweed suit the pedantic librarian is delivering a lecture on his travels.  His handmade sign reads, ‘Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences’.  “I have only one night for this, due to the extortionary rates of this auditorium,” he declares using historical slides from a carousel projector to aid in the telling.

Paul Morella - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Paul Morella stars in this one-man play that uses the parable of The Wandering Jew, a man cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming.  Playwright Glen Berger has co-opted the myth to explore the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany.  When the librarian finds a second clue leading him to Bonn and the discovery of an incident report of a “dirty Jew” thrown off a train, he sets out on a seemingly endless trail of conundrums, discovering an unrequited romance and a series of iconic moments in history.  Obscure arcana hidden in the clues reveal the librarian’s encyclopedic knowledge and inform his feverish expedition.  Parables from Aesculus, modern day graffiti and Hobson’s ultimatum theory all hint at the subject.  “The act of believing and the act of accepting are two very different things,” he posits to us.

Morella gives a riveting and commanding performance seamlessly reflecting the intensity of the character against the theme’s comedic irony.  Director John Vreeke succeeds mightily in orchestrating this fascinating and complex production.

Through May 25th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.