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Jitney ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 22, 2019 

As the play opens, Turnbo pulls out a set of checkers from a purple felt Crown Royal whiskey sack and the mood is set.  It’s a 1977 snapshot of Pittsburgh’s Hill district in the office of a rundown gypsy cab station.  August Wilson’s period play focuses on eight African American jitney drivers of varying ages, and one young woman, Rena, girlfriend to Youngblood.  The scene tracks like the world of painter Thomas Hart Benton’s African American subjects, thanks in large part to the atmospheric set design by David Gallo.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood) and Nija Okoro (Rena) in Jitney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wilson hails from Pittsburgh and his life, and the unregulated jitney services his community used, was the basis for this play.  It is the first of ten plays in his American Century Cycle.  This gem of a play gifts us with an unfiltered view of the harsh, often times funny, life in a part of the black community when the Civil Rights movement was strengthening while, at the same time, black neighborhoods were being torn down and gentrified.  Program notes reveal that the Ellis Hotel, mentioned in the play, was a safe haven for African American travelers and that the actual Westbrook Station was the inspiration for Becker’s Station in Jitney.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Turnbo, a big gossip, has his nose up in everybody’s business, “I just talk what I know,” he claims, but it doesn’t sit right with the other men and he soon becomes a pariah when he stiffs Youngblood over a cup of coffee he’s sent him out for.  Youngblood, trying to overcome his Vietnam War experiences, still has anger issues and the men fight when Turnbo accuses him of running around with Rena’s sister.  Sheely is a colorfully clad, pimp daddy numbers runner who uses the business as his office and Fielding is another driver whose affinity for the bottle is destroying his life.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Francois Battiste (Booster). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Becker, a straight up guy and owner of the jitney service, learns his son Booster is getting out of prison after a twenty-year sentence for murder.  Tension explodes when the son confronts his father, each feeling the other is a disappointment and the cause of the untimely death of Booster’s mother.  And then there’s, Doub, a Korean war veteran who bonds with the other men in swapping war stories and serves as a counterbalance to the hostilities.

(R to L) Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Called the “Shakespeare of American playwrights”, Wilson’s wry drama is a particularly optimum choice for the opening of Arena’s season-long Festival celebrating the playwright’s work.  Jitney is directed by the brilliant Ruben Santiago-Hudson who won the 2017 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play” for his Broadway production of the play.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood), Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Brian D. Coats (Philmore). Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s a gem of a opener with a phenomenal cast.  Highly recommended.

Francois Battiste (Broadway’s Bronx Bomber, Prelude to a Kiss) as Booster; Harvey Blanks (Broadway’s Jitney) as Shealy; Amari Cheatom (Django Unchained, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) as Youngblood; Anthony Chisholm (Broadway’s Jitney); Brian D. Coats (Broadway’s Jitney) as Philmore; Steven Anthony Jones (longtime veteran of August Wilson’s plays) as Becker; Nija Okoro as Rena; Keith Randolph Smith (Broadway’s Jitney, King Hedley II) as Doub; and Ray Anthony Thomas (Broadway’s Jitney, The Crucible). 

Scenic Designer David Gallo; Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer Jane Cox; Original Music composed by Bill Sims, Jr.

Through October 20th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Cats ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
September 21, 2019 

Cats!  Lots of cats!  Twenty-six, in fact.  Most especially Jellicle cats – the ones T. S. Elliot told of in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic blockbuster is in town for a short run, and this is the musical to see.  Full stop.

As the music’s eerily and compelling orchestration plays the intro, and just as you’re adjusting your eyes to pitch darkness, the cats slink down the aisles, their tails twitching and laser-eyes blinking, leaping and posing and creating the electrifying moments you won’t soon forget.  A silvery moon hangs high over a darkened alley as the cats prepare for the annual Jellicle Ball – a magical occasion whereby one cat is chosen to be reborn.  Keeping up with so many cats takes a bit of doing since they have three names: fanciful names, sensible names and naturally, as befits a cat of stature, an elegant name.  As explained in “The Naming of Cats”, “the cat himself knows his name, but will never confess.”

The North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The sheer athleticism of the show is jaw-dropping – leaps, backover flips, cartwheels, tap dancing!!!, jazzy bits and ballet bits – all frenetically energetic and fiercely feline.  Some of the most spectacular choreography ever includes thigh-to-ear kicks that would make the Rockettes jealous.  I had to wonder how these actors/dancers/singers do it all, and all at the same time, in costume, with cat faces and long tails.

Brandon Michael Nase as ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and the North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Old Deuteronomy appears in a massive fur suit, and the roly-poly tuxedo cat, Bustopher Jones, sports a fur suit of black tie when he’s out cattin’ around.  Well, of course, he’s from the posh side of St. James.

McGee Maddox as ‘Rum Tum Tugger’ and the North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

McCavity, “The Mystery Cat” is a ginger cat and a monster of depravity, only outdone by the fabulous Rum Tum Tugger, played in spectacular fashion by 10-foot tall, legs-for-days (ah, well, it seems like it) McGee Maddox.  You are sure to pick your favorites, based on the particular quirks and quibbles of cats you have known.  But everyone will agree on the appeal of Grizabella, the tattered old tabby who is on her last paws.  Played by the amazing Keri René Fuller, whose sublimely soaring rendering of “Memory” will send goosebumps up your spine, it is transcendent.

Keri René Fuller as Grizabella in the North American Tour of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber & David Cullen with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Cats Orchestra.  With original scenic and costume design by John Napier (Les Misérables), all-new lighting design by Natasha Katz (Aladdin), all-new sound design by Mick Potter, new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne (The Phantom of the Opera), and direction by Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables), make this production of Cats the perfect show for a new generation.

With Phillip Deceus as Alonso, Emma Hearn as Bombalurina, Mariah Reives as Cassandra, Maurice Dawkins as Coricopat, Alexa Racioppi as Demeter, Kaitlyn Davidson as Jellylorum, Emily Jeanne Phillips as Jennyanydots, PJ DiGaetano as Mistoffelees, Tony d’Alelio as Mungojerrie, Dan Hoy as Munkustrap, Timothy Gulan as Peter/Bustopher Jones/Asparagus, Tyler John Logan as Plato/Macavity, Brett Michael Lockley as Pouncival, Rose Iannaccone as Rumpelteazer, Ahren Victory as Sillabub, Ethan Saviet as Skimbleshanks, Laura Katherine Kaufman as Tantomile, Devin Neilson as Tumblebrutus, Brandon Michael Nase as Victor/Deuteronomy, Caitlin Bond as Victoria, and Maria Failla, Adam Richardson, Zachary Tallman and Tricia Tanguy as The Cats Chorus.

Highly recommended.  It’s the cat’s meow and more!

Through October 6th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Doubt: A Parable ~ Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 12, 2019 

Doubt may be a parable, but it’s also a conundrum.  Playwright, John Patrick Shanley, does his best to keep us guessing if an unspeakable act was committed against a 14-year old student of St. Nicholas parochial school by a priest, or if it simply never happened.  Set in 1964 in the Bronx, New York, this moral drama leaves us in the dark as to who is the truth-teller, and who is stirring up trouble as a result of a vivid imagination.  Sister Aloysius Beauvier is the hard-hearted administrator and iron-fisted overlord at the middle school.  Plotting to accuse the priest, the aged nun tries to convince Sister James, a naïve novitiate that he is guilty.  This takes some doing since Sister James caring approach towards her students is antithetical to Sister Aloysius’s suspicious mind.

Sarah Marshall and Amelia Pedlow in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood

Suspecting Father Flynn has committed a sexual crime involving the school’s first and only  African American student whom he has been mentoring, she cajoles Sister James into becoming her ally, convincing her that he is guilty of using his time with the boy to take advantage of him.

Shanley knows of what he writes as the setting and his experiences in a Catholic School inform his play.  He refers to it as “… a pathway to his real subject: America’s collective resistance to uncertainty.”  That manifestation of society’s doubt about certainty is evidenced in the play’s complex theme.  Shades of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals color the plot, and even the viewer struggles to detect truth from fiction – subterfuge from innocence.

Christian Conn and Sarah Marshall in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood

The 1960’s was a difficult time for the Catholic Church.  While nuns and priests were leaving in droves, the Church aimed to right itself by declaring a kinder, more liberal approach to both its teachings and its services.  Yet, in this seesaw of emotions and intense pressure to change, Shanley aims to throw us back on our heels with the accusations hurled against Father Flynn, keeping us in the dark as to who is being truthful and who might be bent on the destruction of three lives – the boy, Flynn and Sister James.  “The most innocent acts can seem sinister to a poisoned mind,” Father Flynn warns Sister Aloysius.

Scenes toggle between Father Flynn’s sermons to the congregants, mirroring in metaphors his ongoing crisis with Sister Aloysius, and provocative confrontations in her office where she eventually interviews the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, played memorably by Tiffany M. Thompson.  Of particular note is Flynn’s sermon on the parable of feathers whose wind-borne dispersal is likened to the dangerous spreading of vicious gossip.

Sarah Marshall and Tiffany M. Thompson in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood.

As an audience we hope that Flynn’s kindness and Sister James’ support win out.  Yet, Shanley forces us to wonder if the old curmudgeon could be onto something.  Don’t expect to come away with an easy or satisfying resolution.  The surprise ending will have you reevaluating everything you thought you knew about the truth.

Sarah Marshall and Christian Conn in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood.

Starring Sarah Marshall as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, Christian Conn as Father Brendan Flynn and Amelia Pedlow as Sister James.

Directed by Matt Torney with Set Design by Daniel Conway, Costume Design by Wade Laboissonniere, Lighting Design by Dawn Chiang, and Sound Design by Victoria Deiorio.

Through October 6th at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information visit www.StudioTheatre.org or call 202.232.3300.

What the Constitution Means to Me ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2019 

I spoke with playwright and lead actor Heidi Schreck during her performance of What the Constitution Means to Me.  Though I did it silently, I wanted to jump out of my seat with fist raised and yell, “Right on, Sister!”  The audience seemed share the intensity of that emotion.  Schreck has tapped into a universal frustration with the American Constitution, its articles on immigration, slavery, legislating women’s bodies, the scourge of violence against women and, most especially, decisions made by the predominantly male members of the Supreme Court.

Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

The play opens with Schreck as a teenager and prize-winning debater of the Constitution’s intricate clauses and articles.  She puts forth her cogent and well-researched arguments about how this document was written – in a different day and age and by men who refused to give women, blacks and Native Americans the right to vote.  She tells of the women in her family who bore their husbands many children and who, under the laws of the day, were not granted any form of protection against the ongoing domestic violence they suffered.  By acting out these scenarios, sometimes hilariously, sometimes with a dead eye, she gives the history of how these inequities were allowed to flourish to protect men from being held responsible.  It’s a valuable history lesson for both sexes.

Heidi Schreck and Mike Iveson in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

Switching to her adult self, she chooses the word “penumbra” to put forth the argument that the constitution is stuck in a sort of limbo between darkness and light.  Citing Dred Scott v. Sanford, wherein African Americans could not become American citizens, she teases out the origins of these failed policies, and challenges the early notion of female “melancholia”, the diagnosis given to women with postpartum depression that saw them locked up in mental institutions by husbands who wanted to get rid of them.  This was before women had any legal protection whatsoever from their spouses, and, even so, it rarely takes into account the battered woman syndrome.

Using her own experience as a young woman facing an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Schreck demonstrates how Roe v. Wade changed women’s lives freeing them up to make independent choices without the burden of unwanted pregnancies, and she examines the church-fueled history and current battles against this Supreme Court decision, explaining that at the time of its ratification, its basis was to sterilize black and Indian women so that white women could have more white babies.

Schreck vacillates between forthrightness and sheer, unadulterated charm by explaining, “I was raised to be psychotically polite.”  Women can heartily relate to this and men cannot help but acknowledge its truth.

Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson and Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

In defending her position, she offers up unassailable historical facts and cites important legal cases to bolster her debate to an audience who responds with resounding cheers.  It’s no wonder this show was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Informative, funny and highly relatable.  Highly recommended.

Schreck appears with the original Broadway cast of Mike Iveson as The Moderator; Ben Beckley understudy; and Rosdely Ciprian as the young debater whose poise as a fierce debater proves to be a worthy competitor to Schreck’s skills as comedian and constitution ally.

Directed by Oliver Butler with Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Jen Schiever; and Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar.

Through September 22nd at the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

1 Henry IV ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 10, 2019

With season opener 1 Henry IV, director Rosa Joshi makes her Folger Theatre directorial debut.  As expected it is a departure from the classic interpretation to an edgier contemporary dynamic.  As Joshi describes it, “I Henry IV is filled with intrigue, humor, action and suspense – messy people doing messy things under messy circumstances.”  And that suits the context, both in defining our current politics as well as society in general.

Falstaff (Edward Gero) holds court at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 3 – October 13, 2019. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

As an exercise in sub rosa dastardly doings, mad scenes of revelry, and the royals’ intractable determination to use the church as their backup plan, it’s rollicking good fun.  Scenes of drunken nights at the pub interspersed with first-class plotting and the clickety-clack of swordplay serve as backdrop as Prince Hal tries to get back into the good graces of his authoritarian papa, King Henry IV, and at the same time trying to keep the lid on Falstaff, a dyspeptic thief and party animal who turns tail at the thought of a fight, while puffing up his image to anyone who’ll lend an ear.  He’s the epitome of a self-dealing scoundrel with some of the best throw down lines ever written.

Poins (Jazmine Stewart) puts a scare into her partner-in-crime Falstaff (Edward Gero), as Prince Hal (Avery Whitted) looks to ease the tension. C. Stanley Photography

Ed Gero plays Falstaff, a far cry from his award-winning role as the conservative Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, in The Originalist and, perhaps, even farther from his role as King Henry half a decade ago in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Henry IV.  Here Gero takes on the role of the loveable scallywag and crusty rogue interested in women and ale more than any rule of law that might reduce his formidable swagger.

King Henry IV (Peter Crook, right) shows great displeasure with his son, Prince Hal (Avery Whitted) in Shakespeare’s coming-of-age-tale 1 Henry IV. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 3 – October 13, 2019. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

No matter.  Young Hal adores his cantankerous Falstaff.  “That huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox,” Hal affectionately calls his surrogate father.  To prepare Hal for a visit with the king wherein Hal plans to reclaim his princely duties and pledge support in the king’s looming battle against the rebels, Falstaff pretends to be Hal’s father.  It’s here where Gero has the audience well in hand with his sendup of the king greeting his son.  Garbed in a red velvet pillow for a hat and swathed in a tablecloth for a robe, he is a marvelous and commanding comedic presence.

Mistress Quickly (Kate Eastwood Norris, right) sees to her patrons at the Boar’s Head Tavern (left to right: Todd Scofield as Bardolph, Sam Midwood as Peto, Edward Gero as Falstaff). C. Stanley Photography

Gero plunges expertly into the role of the hapless ne’er-do-well, as you might expect from this seasoned actor, yet it is Avery Whitted as Hal who brings balance, pace and a sharp sense of comedic timing to his character, and, more importantly, to the play itself.  I found myself drifting off into Shakespeare’s cadences, and the predictability of the script, until Whitted was in a scene.  Something about his buoyancy, craftsmanship, athleticism and ability to instantly anchor everyone around him, made him immensely entertaining to watch.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s 1 Henry IV (Peter Crook as King Henry IV at center). C. Stanley Photography

Also, notable and pleasurable to watch are three-time Helen Hayes Award winning actor Naomi Jackson as Worcester, Peter Crook as King Henry IV, and the delightful Kate Eastwood Norris in dual roles as Mistress Quickly and Vernon.

Scenic Design by Sara Ryung Clement; Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; with Original Music and Sound Design by Palmer Heffernan.

Through October 13th at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or order online.  And be sure to follow the free new podcast, “Will & Our World” featuring talks on Shakespeare, his world, and talks with contemporary artists, authors and scholars of Shakespeare.