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Theater Returns

Theater Returns

Jordan Wright
May 2022
Special to The Zebra

Dim the house lights. Cue the orchestra. Places, people. Break a leg! Would these words ever again be uttered in theaters gone dark for over two years? Well, yes!

“The experience of being back at the Kennedy Center with in-person audiences this fall was nothing short of thrilling. Seeing the excitement in the halls, hearing the chatter of patrons, listening to artists warming up behind the scenes—I was crying before I even sat down in my seat. The innovation that artists and administrators showed throughout the pandemic creating virtual and distanced experiences has been fabulous, and I am genuinely excited to follow the future of performing arts in the digital space; however, at the same time, the return to in-person performances proved that there is nothing like that collective feeling where hundreds of people around you all have a tingle up their spine at the same time that says, “we are witnessing something incredible.”  –  – Brendan Padgett, Director of Public Relations, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

At long last we have come full circle – back to joining friends and family and the joys of experiencing live theater. The anticipation has been nail-biting. Throughout the long dark period we teared up imagining huge, empty performance venues like Kennedy Center with its hundreds of seats, restaurants and grand halls completely devoid of life. Smaller theaters suffered mightily too ending their long-planned seasons with an unceremonious thud. Yet slowly, with heightened safety protocols in place, theaters have been returning to pre-pandemic strength and we theater mavens are madly rejoicing. So, too are the thousands of performers and crew members around the world who are emerging from their Covid cocoons to a joyful return to the stage.

Photo/Matthew Murphy

There’s no denying that the shared experience of enjoying a live performance surrounded by like-minded people engenders an incomparable energy. You could say the same for sports events and concerts. It’s electrifying. Gets the juices flowing. Look! Everyone is enjoying this as much as I am. To the point, I’ve never seen more standing ovations for the talents of musicians and actors. In a way, the hiatus has allowed directors more time to tweak and fine tune their production and longer rehearsal time has afforded singers and actors the ability to develop their roles. Productions in general are more polished than ever.

This eagerly anticipated return of theater is the existential medicine we have all craved. Though some theaters have seen their audiences grow through the magic of streaming, many had to shutter, cancel seasons planned years in advance, and what’s worse, lay off everyone from the front of the house to the back of the house. The struggle has been real.

So how did they manage it? London’s West End theaters started the ball rolling with strict guidelines for theatergoers. Days later Broadway followed their lead and shortly thereafter Washington-based theaters took up the challenge. It all happened within a matter of weeks. Pivoting was the name of the game and new protocols gave rise to a safe theater experience.

File Photo

In the beginning, as theaters struggled to figure out how to mount a production while keeping audiences safe, I saw creative solutions of how to space people six feet apart. At Alexandria’s The Little Theatre I sat beside colorful, cardboard heads of cats and people ensuring nearby seats would not be occupied. Checking vaccination cards at the door and insisting on masking once inside the theater became standard operating procedure for every theater. Announcements were made before the start of the performance telling patrons to keep their masks on at all times and ushers strolled the aisles with signs gently reminding masks be worn over the nose as well. Some theaters eliminated intermission to keep people seated to lessen the risk of mingling in close quarters in their lobby. Revenue from refreshment stands dried up. Yet some theaters sent patrons home with homemade cookies or boxed desserts. Others provided paper masks and hand-sanitizing stations were everywhere. Audiences felt more at ease. It seemed everyone was willing to comply and the experience of being together for the shared experience of enjoying a performance was not diminished by the new normal.

Since then, 6-feet apart spacing is not generally employed, but most other protocols are still in place. What will change and what will remain of these safety protocols is yet to be seen, but from a recent poll by Theatre Washington, 80% of audiences want to keep them in place.

My takeaway – I haven’t heard coughing, sneezing, nose-blowing, etc. since these rules were employed and most of us have happily enjoyed a flu- and cold-free season like never before.

Update: Thirty theaters in the DMV have extended strict COVID protocols. Nonetheless, before purchasing seats, ticket buyers should check each theater’s protocols posted on their websites.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, curtain up!

Marys Seacole

Marys Seacole

Mosaic Theater
Jordan Wright
May 10, 2022
Special to The Zebra 

Tina Fabrique as Duppy Mary and Kim Bey as Mary (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Born in Jamaica to a Scottish seafaring father and Jamaican mother, Mary considered herself Creole but above all a daughter and defender of the British Empire. From a tradition of Jamaican nurses and caregivers, she was inspired by her mother a practitioner in the ancient healing arts of the Caribbean. Not commonly known is the extraordinary legacy of this Black female pioneer in the field of medicine. In a spellbinding tale, Pulitzer Prize and Obie-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury has cast a fierce eye on Seacole’s evolution as an inspirational figure in the history of Jamaican nurses and their struggle to be accepted in an age when racism was normative.

As the central character, Mary opens by delivering her narrative center stage. Played by Kim Bey in a tour de force performance, Mary is joined by a revolving group of representational female figures whose personal stories – some contemporary, some from the past – dovetail seamlessly into the tale Drury weaves. These women sometimes appear as muses, sometimes they present like The Furies, but they are wholly crafted to be believable. It is an important story that Drury draws from, one that we have been deprived of for far too long.

Born in 19th century Jamaica during a plague, Mary studied nursing. Driven by a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a keen sense of adventure, young Mary “yearned for medical knowledge” and traveled to Crimea during the war to minister to the sick and dying as a tropical disease specialist. She was rebuffed initially, by Florence Nightingale herself, yet her ambition has her opening a hotel for White elites who stuck up their noses at her yet found they could not live without her kind and knowledgeable ministrations. As grim as those scenes of war are represented here, Drury finds a way to insert plenty of comedic relief. Especially hilarious is a scene wherein Mary offers shots of rum to the patrons of her fancy hotel claiming it will keep the cholera away. Drunkenness ensues.

Tina Fabrique as Duppy Mary and Kim Bey as Mary

Mary’s mother (Tina Fabrique) appears frequently as a phantom in elaborate Victorian dress urging Mary to respect the dark arts of traditional Jamaican healing. She is a specter from Mary’s past, a woman who abused Mary yet inspired her too. Other actors play a dizzying array of roles – each cleverly crafted and brilliantly performed. Mary’s daughter (Amanda Morris Hunt) also appears speaking in strong Jamaican patois, her performance is whip-smart. Another stellar performance is by Megan Graves playing a rebellious daughter anxiously awaiting her mother’s demise. In a later incarnation she plays a patient who throws herself on Mary’s not inconsiderable mercy. Drury is brilliant at creating multi-dimensional characters she imbues with both fire and ice.

Several dialects taught by Teisha Duncan and Jen Rabbitt Ring – from Irish and Scottish to Jamaican and British – are all quite effective in setting the mood for a production so cleverly devised, featuring a raised circular stage, a series of evocative video projections by Mona Kasra and enhanced with dramatic lighting by John D. Alexander.

Amanda Morris Hunt, Tonya Beckman, Kim Bey, Claire
Schoonover, Megan Graves (Photo/Margot/Schulman)

In this haunting and compelling drama, Drury has gifted us with powerfully relatable and deeply vulnerable characters. Speaking on the importance of healthcare workers, Mosaic’s Managing Director Serge Seiden said, “It became more urgent for us to present this play because of COVID.”

Highly recommended.

Imaginatively directed by Eric Ruffin, it includes terrific performances by Tonya Beckman as May; Tina Fabrique as Duppy Mary; Megan Graves as Miriam; Amanda Morris Hunt as Mamie; and Claire Schoonover as Merry.

Scenic Design by Emily Lotz; Costume and Wig Design by Moyenda Kulemeka; Sound Design by Cresent Haynes; Dramaturg Teisha Duncan.

Through May 29th at The Atlas Performing Arts Center 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets and information visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202 399-7993 from Monday – Friday 11am – 5pm. For COVID protocols visit the website. For further study read the autobiographical “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands”.

 

John Proctor is the Villain

John Proctor is the Villain

Studio Theatre
Jordan Wright
May 5, 2022
Special to TheZebra.org

Mr. Smith’s classroom. Dave Register (center, standing) leads a lesson for students at Helen County High. Photo: Margot Schulman.

Drawing on Arthur Miller’s iconic American play, “The Crucible”, Playwright Kimberly Belflower returns to her Appalachian roots to reimagine this classic through the lens of teenagers trying to navigate the angsty world of Helen County High. Plenty of drama there. In the process these classmates are revealed as superficial, funny, vulnerable, sometimes unkind, yet loyal, and questioning, always questioning. Belflower’s intent is to reveal how fragile and easily influenced these young minds are and how telling truth to power can have serious consequences. Her story sees parallels in the #MeToo movement and the struggle between powerful males vis à vis powerless females.

Welcome to “Teen World”. Warning: If you don’t know who Lizzo, Beyoncé, Mos Def, Lourdes and Taylor Swift are, you might want to do a little googling to know what drives teenagers today. It’s far from sappy lyrics of love and loss. Today’s music speaks of romance, but also of self-empowerment.

Jordan Slattery, Miranda Rizzolo, and Deidre Staples. Photo: Margot Schulman.

These highschool girls want to embrace that sense of personal strength and form The Feminism Club, but they are told in no uncertain terms by school counselor Bailey Gallagher (Lida Maria Benson) that to get their club approved and avoid pushback from their provincial little town, they must include male classmates. One is Rae Lynn’s former boyfriend, Lee (Zachary Keller) who has cheated on her with her best friend Shelby (Juliana Sass), the other is Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio). Rae Lynn (Jordan Slattery) is firm with Lee about not wanting to renew their relationship after he has breached her trust. When he manhandles her with a stolen kiss, she tells him it is sexual abuse. You go, girl!

Students start a Feminism Club. Jordan Slattery, Beth Rizzolo, Deidre Staples, and Resa Mishina. Photo: Margot Schulman.

Beth (Miranda Rizzolo) is the brainiac and teacher’s pet whose idea it is to start the club and they are super pumped when their Sex Ed teacher Carter Smith (Dave Register) agrees to be their sponsor. The girls find him dreamy and fantasize about what it would be like to have sex with him. They discuss the Purity Pledge, a concept involving a promise not to engage in sex before marriage. New girl Nell (Deirdre Staples) is the cool girl, watching dramas unfold among the clique and offering her not inconsiderable insight. “We teach girls to make themselves smaller” she tells them quoting a Beyoncé lyric. Amid all that insecurity it’s discovered young Ivy’s mother has been exposed as having an affair embarrassing Ivy (Resa Mishina) and forcing her to retreat in shame. Ultimately, the girls bond over Pop music and their stressful experiences with parents and boys. Pressure on these teens comes not only from with their need to be accepted among their peers, but from outside their group – from male adults who are equally as flawed yet in a position to take advantage of their weaknesses.

Juliana Sass and Jordan Slattery. Photo: Margot Schulman.

Belflower sees their struggles as the perfect storm – one in which an adult can prey on the most vulnerable and where adults can lie and those lies can destroy a child forever. Her reinvention of The Crucible shows us how readily the term “witch hunt” can be used by powerful men to discredit their female accusers and how we still see this in modern society.

Thoughtfully directed by Marti Lyons who gets terrific, thoughtful and energetic performances out of this very young, very brave cast. With Set Design by Luciana Stecconi; Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; Sound Design and Composer Kathy Ruvana; Intimacy and Fight Choreographer Chelsea Pace; Dramaturg Adrian-Alice Hansel.

Through June 5th at Studio Theatre in the Mead Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets and information visit www.StudioTheatre.org or call the box office at 202 332-3300. Be sure to check out the website for Covid protocols.

“The Servant of Two Masters” is a Master Class in Pantomime

“The Servant of Two Masters” is a Master Class in Pantomime

Synetic Theater
Jordan Wright
April 9, 2022
Special to The Alexandria Times

Vato Tsikurishvili as Truffaldino and Maryam Najafzada as Smeraldina in Synetic’s The Servant
of Two Masters. Photo by Johnny Shryock Photography

In a triumphant post-Covid return to the stage, Director Vato Tsikurishvili presents The Servant of Two Masters, a commedia del’arte farce designed to poke, prod and tickle our funny bone. Designed to play up to Synetic’s singular skills in mime and physical comedy, the characters are silent – their superior physicality backgrounded by Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s edgy cool electronica sounds mixed with the strains of Edith Piaf period French accordion music. I even detected a tack piano in one of the love scenes.

It’s easy to fall into the fantasy of the lovers and the fools and root for their desire to be together come hell or high water. The vagabond Truffaldino (Vato Tsikurishvili) and his lady Smeraldina (Maryam Najafzada) and the female to male and back again role-shifting Beatrice (Nutsa Tediashvili) and her lover Florindo (Jacob Thompson). A third couple complicates the antics further with the pouty teenager Clarice (Irene Hamilton) and her adoring swain, Silvio (Pablo Guillen).  The three couples face challenges and interruptions to their love but manage against all odds to triumph. Well, of course, there’s a happy ending – after everyone is put through the proverbial wringer.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Truffaldino and Maryam Najafzada as Smeraldina in Synetic’s The Servant
of Two Masters. Photo by Johnny Shryock Photography

In the inimitable style of Charlie Chaplin with a dash of the Keystone Kops and the legendary Buster Keaton, the director’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century farce, is filled with electrifying chases spliced with tangos, waltzes and a soupçon of ballet. But what’s even more unforgettable are the hilarious love scenes. In one, Truffaldino and Smeraldina cement their love over a clothesline. Here they slip their arms into garments hanging on the line and dance together entwining each other in a playfully romantic danse à deux that includes a sexy slurping scene. In another the lovers playfully stretch dough into crazy shapes while working in a hotel kitchen overseen by Pantalone (Philip Fletcher) as Truffaldino races madly back and forth across the stage in order serve the outrageous demands of his two masters, Beatrice and Florindo.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Truffaldino and Maryam Najafzada as Smeraldina in Synetic’s The Servant
of Two Masters. Photo by Johnny Shryock Photography

Surprises abound and a clever moving stage unfolds and whirls around to reveal a bed for romantic entanglements, double stairways, hidden cubicles and more, all cleverly designed by Phil Charlwood. The dizzying love story has many moving parts and you’ll need to be on your toes between the death-defying acrobatics, leaps and pratfalls and the beautifully executed dance sequences. Through it all there is the sensuality of the lovers and those determined to foil their love played out in a true master class of pantomime. Watch for our hero Truffaldino’s incomparable physical skills combined with his singular ability to convey both angst and adoration in a vast array of facial expressions. He is well complemented by his love interest, the adorable and delicate gamine Maryam Najafzada whose comedic style is utterly enchanting. The entire cast shines from beginning to end.

Highly recommended.

With Guillen in the dual roles of Silvio and Federigo and Delbis Cardona as both Cop and Chef.

Choreographed by Maryam Najafzada, harlequinesque Costumes by Aleksandr Shiriaev; Lighting Design by Brian Allard; Sound Design by Yaritza Pacheco; Props by Emily Carbone.

Through May 1st at Synetic Theater at Crystal City, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA 22202.  For tickets and information visit www.SyneticTheater.org or call the box office at 703 824-8060 ext.117. Strict Covid protocols remain in place.

Note: On April 29th Synetic will stage a benefit performance for United Help Ukraine, Inc. featuring excerpts from Lyrica Classic’s Prayer for Peace and a full performance of The Servant of Two Masters. All proceeds will go to UnitedHelpUkraine.org.

Grace

Grace

Ford’s Theatre
Jordan Wright
March 30, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Photo/André Chung

In one of the most exciting new productions of the season, eight members of the Philadelphia Minton family are preparing a memorial supper to send their Gran’Me off in style. “Here We Go Making Preparations” sets the tone for the catered supper. The setting is Minton Place the restaurant that’s been in their family for 100 years carrying on the tradition of Southern soul food. Its current proprietor and granddaughter, Ruthie, has fallen on hard times and is struggling to keep the restaurant afloat.

Photo/André Chung

Grace is a rich tapestry of the African American experience with a wonderful score that grabs you by the collar and holds you in its Southern sway. Co-book Writer, Composer, Lyricist, Music Director and DC native, Nolan Williams, Jr., has crafted a small miracle – inviting us to experience African American culinary traditions while gently reminding us of the perils of gentrification in established Black neighborhoods. What I found along with the joyfulness and hilarity of this musical is the far deeper message that defines the heart and soul of Black culture. Some of the numbers are reminiscent of Sondheim’s pace and storytelling style, while others are flat-out soulful R&B or traditional New Orleans jazz. Some ballads feel like lullabies while others are downright funky. Haley’s roof-raising tune, “This Holy Bird”, a hilariously irreverent paean to the glories of the chicken wing, had the audience in stitches watching the family flap their arms to the “Funky Chicken”.

Meet the Mintons

Photo/André Chung

Matriarch Miss Minnie rules the roost with love, understanding and no-nonsense military precision. She embodies the roots of the family tree. In the tender ballad “Three Okra Seeds” Minnie tells the story of her ancestor who left slavery behind with only a scant few seeds in her hand – a tradition dating back to the early days of slavery.

Joshua, an adorable, hyper-energetic, hip-hop kid who plans to DJ the event, much to everyone’s dismay, video-tweets the family’s activities. “Yo fam!” he addresses his Twitter followers and squabbles fade away with his upbeat vibe.

Stylish Jacqui, “I’m not bougie. I’m Afro chic,” is the media-savvy fashion maven, the perfect counterpoint to Haley, who is miffed her name’s been left off the restaurant’s historic plaque.

Paul, the PhD nephew charged with coordinating the memorial program, schools the family in historic African American chefs who are painted on the set’s backdrop. And then there’s E.J., a finance guy, whose father kept him from the Mintons claiming they weren’t classy enough. “Dady’ Used to Say”, he croons realizing that distance kept him from their love.

Twenty-two numbers show off the cast’s crazy amazing vocal chops, but as anyone in the DMV knows, no one can be bested by the amazing Nova Y. Payton, who will rip your heart out with her killer, honeyed voice and extraordinary range. My fur stands on end every time I hear her sing and, as evidenced by the numerous standing ovations she received, so did everyone else’s.

Jarran Muse and Rayshun LaMarr. (Photo/André Chung)

This feel-good musical coupled with an extraordinary cast wrap us in their warmest embrace and we, the audience, return the spirit in kind with all the grace we can muster.

Starring Nova Y. Payton as Ruthie; Virginia Ann Woodruff as Miss Minnie; Rayshun LaMarr as Joshua; Arica Jackson as Haley; Raquel Jennings as Jacqui; David Hughey as Paul; Jarran Muse as E. J.; and Solomon Parker III as Lawrence.

Directed and Choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming; Co-Book by Nikkole Salter; Conducted by Paul Byssainthe, Jr. with Orchestrations by Joseph Joubert; Scenic Design by Jason Ardizzone-West; Costume Design by Dominique Fawn Hill; Lighting Design by Xavier Pierce.

Highly recommended!

Through May 14th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.Fords.org or call the box office at 202 347-4833.

America’s Requiem – A Knee on The Neck

America’s Requiem A Knee on The Neck

Capital One Hall
Jordan Wright
March 30, 2022

The world premiere of composer Adolphus Hailstork and librettist Herbert Martin’s Requiem Cantata in memory of George Floyd

Soprano Janai Brugger, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, Music Director Piotr Gajewski, tenor Norman Shankle, baritone Kenneth Overton, the National Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorale, and members of The Washington Chorus and The Howard University Chorale

On March 28th the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, in partnership with The Washington Chorus and The Howard University Chorale presented the world premiere of Composer Adolphus Hailstork and Librettist Herbert Martin’s A Knee on The Neck alongside Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem. Written as a tribute to George Floyd, their work marks almost two years since Floyd’s untimely death providing a time for remembrance and reflection.

National Philharmonic Conductor and Music Director Piotr Gajewski said, “We are tremendously grateful and so humbled to have the opportunity to present the world premiere of A Knee on The Neck as part of this program. It’s an important moment in time to share such a relevant piece of music. While society’s struggle continues today, we hope our audience can engage with this work, learn from it, and carry hope and something positive as they leave the hall.”

Photo/Elman Studio

Written in honor of George Floyd, A Knee on The Neck is a Requiem Cantata. Moved by Mr. Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020 and by the nationwide outcry for justice that followed, the duo came together in grief to create an artistic response that commemorates his life and tragic loss. The result is a powerful piece of music that speaks to the challenges which Black Americans have endured engaging listeners to share in that painful journey.

Martin developed the poetry within one week of George Floyd’s murder and then invited Hailstork to create the musical setting. To fulfill this challenging and critical undertaking, Hailstork looked to one of his previous compositions for inspiration (Hercules, 2014). In the 18 months since the genesis of their collaboration, A Knee on The Neck has evolved into a massive choral-orchestral piece where the music is deeply informed by the text and is filled with beautiful imagery and metaphors incorporating both African drumming and African American spirituals. The music and text also reference Black Americans, Emmett Till and Breonna Taylor, victims of unjustifiable violence due to racism and discrimination.

Scored for an orchestra, a large chorus and three soloists, A Knee on The Neck is a collaborative effort between the DC area institutions led by Artistic Director of The Washington Chorus and Chorus Master, Dr. Eugene Rogers to include The Howard University Chorale. These ensembles are joined onstage by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, tenor Norman Shankle, soprano Janai Brugger and baritone Kenneth Overton.

Photo/Elman Studio

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor comprises the other half of the program. Commissioned in 1791, it is thought Mozart wrote the work with the intention of having it played at his own funeral. While the piece was left unfinished at the time of his death, Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr completed it a year later in 1792.

About Herbert Martin – Librettist

Herbert Woodward Martin, born in 1933, served as professor of English and poet-in-residence at the University of Dayton for more than three decades where he taught creative writing and African American literature. He has devoted decades to editing and giving performances of the works of the poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). He is also the editor of four books as well as the author of nine volumes of poetry.

About Adolphus Hailstork – Composer

Adolphus Hailstork, born in 1941, received his doctorate in composition from Michigan State University, where he was a student of H. Owen Reed. He had previously studied at the Manhattan School of Music, under Vittorio Giannini and David Diamond; at the American Institute at Fontainebleau with Nadia Boulanger; and at Howard University with Mark Fax.

Dr. Hailstork has written numerous works for chorus, solo voice, piano, organ, various chamber ensembles, band, and orchestra. Recent commissions include Rise For Freedom, an opera about the Underground Railroad, premiered in the fall of 2007 by the Cincinnati Opera Company; Set Me On A Rock (re: Hurricane Katrina), for chorus and orchestra, commissioned by the Houston Choral Society (2008); and the choral ballet, The Gift Of The Magi, for treble chorus and orchestra (2009). In the fall of 2011, Zora, We’re Calling You, a work for speaker and orchestra was premiered by the Orlando Symphony. I Speak Of Peace, commissioned by the Bismarck Symphony (Beverly Everett, conductor) in honor of (and featuring the words of) President John F. Kennedy was premiered in November of 2013. His newest works include The World Called (based on Rita Dove’s poem “Testimonial”), a work for soprano, chorus, and orchestra commissioned by the Oratorio Society of Virginia (premiered in May 2018); and Still Holding On (February 2019), an orchestra work commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

At Capital One Hall, 7750 Capital One Tower Road, Tysons Corner, VA 222102.  For tickets and information for other performances visit capitalonehall.com. To learn more about the symphony visit National Philharmonic. To learn more about the 160-voice three-time nominated and two-time Grammy Award-winner Washington Chorus, visit Washington Chorus.