Turn Me Loose ~ A Play About Comic Genius Dick Gregory ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 17, 2018

Playwright Gretchen Law’s political, darkly comic drama is a starkly drawn love letter to comedian activist, Dick Gregory.  It reminds us of Gregory’s take-no-prisoners battle against racism and America’s dark past and its current treatment of indigent African-Americans.  I use the term ‘African-American’ though you won’t hear Gregory use it.  It was not yet in fashion in Gregory’s day, folks were still saying ‘Negro’ or the newly coined term, ‘Black’.  In this monologue, Gregory liberally slings what we now refer to as the ‘N’ word.  It’s sickening to hear it used today – though rappers frequently do.  The audience squirms.  It’s exactly what Law wants us to feel.  We know it’s a word for Blacks’ usage only.  Gregory used the word to shock and to defuse its dehumanizing effect.  If you’re White, don’t even think about using it. You are not that cool and probably never will be.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director John Gould Rubin puts Gregory (played compellingly by Edwin Lee Gibson) center stage in Christopher Barreca’s simple set design, to focus on Gregory’s impact on and dedication to the Civil Rights movement.  Using humor to promote change, Gregory endeavored to heighten awareness of such issues as income disparity, corporate greed, capitalism, consumerism, drug companies and Wall Street.

Growing up in poverty in St. Louis, he was acutely aware of its demonic grip.  “Poverty is what threatens Democracy,” he foretold. And comedy was his salvation.  As a young man he started out performing standup in small local nightclubs catching the eye of Playboy magazine publisher, Hugh Hefner, who invited him to perform a one-night only gig at the Mansion where Gregory quickly offended a congress of rednecks.  As the first black comedian on the nightclub scene, his popularity led to gigs in Vegas and national TV appearances.  Soon after he became close friends with Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans and began performing for the NAACP.  To say he was a hero to the movement, is an understatement.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The play toggles between the 60’s when Gregory became radicalized - even running for President during the Nixon-era - and the 2017 post-Obama era when he was able to witness a modicum of change.  John Carlin reprises his roles as Stand-up Comic/Emcee/Interviewer/Heckler and Cabbie in this riveting presentation.

Gregory died last summer after more than half a century of activism and before witnessing the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the nation’s conflicted response to pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee to draw attention to young men killed in record numbers by police. In later years, Gregory made DC his home.  You have to wonder what he would say if he were still here.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Highly recommended.

In association with John Legend, Get Lifted Film Company and the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.  Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Stephen Strawbridge and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.

Through October 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Macbeth ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 13, 2018

Scotland has a new king in Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes)
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet

Don’t you just love it when the wicked get their comeuppance? I find it deeply satisfying to witness how greed and unbridled ambition must pay the devil their due.  We need more of this.  Huzzah, MacDuff! Huzzah, Malcolm!  Hey there, Feason!  You nailed the bastard and his scheming bride with the not inconsequential assistance of a 10,000-man English army.  That’s not meant to be a spoiler.  You already knew the ending.  As Shakespeare once famously wrote, “The play’s the thing,” and this thing is delicious! And ghoulish… with a zombie ex-king, Duncan, who stalks his murderers with regal aplomb.

Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes, center) explains to the honorable Macduff (Chris Genebach) why he slew Duncan’s chambermen. Witches (Rachael Montgomery and Emily Noël) look on.
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Director Robert Richmond has re-imagined this classic from Sir William Davenant’s adaption from the mid-17th century.  It is also reminiscent of the tradition of le ‘Grand Guignol’, the 19th century Parisian theatre of horror plays.  “Oh, horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive or name thee,” warns Macduff.  Set in London’s notorious chamber of horrors, Bedlam Hospital, and performed against a background of delightful Restoration-era music by the Folger Consort, this Macbeth includes lilting operatic ditties, Enya-esque ballads and the haunting sounds of distant Scottish bagpipes. 

King Duncan (Louis Butelli, second from left) in performance with the wayward sisters (l to r: Emily Noël, Rachael Montgomery, Ethan Watermeier) in Folger Theatre’s Restoration-era production of Macbeth.
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

It opens with the inmates rehearsing for a performance for the King in the insane asylum.  This play-within-a-play is a clever device for setting up the equivalent madness that follows.  Most beguiling, are the Three Sisters (one who is in drag for a soupçon of levity) who conspire to terrorize Macbeth and his wife at every gory turn to the bizarrely antithetical tune of classical Elizabethan music.  Their danse macabre in the double, double toil and trouble scene will be etched in my brain forever.  Never have prophesies and spells been such glorious, gory fun!  Sound Designer Matt Otto heightens the atmosphere with shrieking crows, hooting owls and subtle reverb to mimic the echoing that would be heard within the walls of a cavernous castle lit by lanterns and candles and the cauldron’s flame.  Was that the aroma of frankincense I detected?

The witches (Ethan Watermeier and Rachael Montgomery) and Hecate, possessing the body of young Fleance (Owen Peakes) in Folger Theatre's Macbeth.
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

With Helen Hayes Award winners, the glorious Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth and Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, Louis Butelli as Duncan, Chris Genebach as Macduff, Rafael Sebastian as Malcolm, Karen Peakes as Lady Macduff, Rachael Montgomery, Ethan Watermeier and Emily Noël as the Witches, Jeff Keogh as Seyton, Andhy Mendez as Banquo, Owen Peakes as Fleance, John Floyd as Donalbain and Jaysen Wright as Lennox.  

Music Direction by Robert Eisenstein, Scenic Design by Tony Cisek, period Costume Design by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, Lighting Design by Andrew F. Griffin and Fight Choreography by Cliff Williams III.

Macduff (Chris Genebach) places the crown of Scotland on Malcolm (Rafael Sebastian), with Donalbain (John Floyd, far right) and company looking on.
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Highly recommended.  If you’re not ready for Guy Fawkes Night or All Hallow’s Eve after seeing this, you never will be. 

Through September 23rd at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.  For tickets and
information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.

 You can listen to a specially playlist curated on Spotify.

Playlist of English Restoration music

August: Osage County ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
September 9, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times

In the time-tested tradition of portraying dysfunctional families as a device, playwright Tracy Letts gifts us with a slyly engrossing gem about the Weston family – their children and their spouses.  Set in a country home in Osage County, Oklahoma, Violet Weston holds her extended family emotionally hostage… and it’s riveting.  I mean, who doesn’t want to witness another family’s meltdowns?  It’s the stuff Shakespeare (and soap operas!) are made of.  Schadenfreude – the perfect prescription for diminishing our own problems.

Katarina Frustaci as Johnna Monevata, Fred C. Lash as Beverly Weston
Photographer: Matt Liptak

Beverly Weston is a man of letters – published, pedantic and alcoholic – the poet patriarch of his large family.  When he goes missing and family members arrive to help in the search, Violet is free to wreak havoc.  Armed with a battery of opioids and anti-depressants, this pill-popping drama queen gleefully bullies and guilts her three daughters into disinheriting themselves.  Divorce is a popular theme too.  Within a mere three acts Letts throws every accusation and guilt trip on one and all.  Expect a delectable bouillabaisse of toxicity in every caustic remark.

Gratefully, a superb cast subsumes our angst at their hair-raising conflicts delivering some of the funniest lines ever.  I wanted desperately to memorize a few of these snarky barbs.  You will too.  They might come in handy at your next family gathering.  In one particularly funny/crazy/menacing scene at the supper table, as all the members are gathered around bemoaning Beverly’s fate, Violet toys with her knife, twisting it gleefully while alternately threatening and accusing each one in turn.  Think Nurse Ratched, Virginia Wolfe and Miss Hannigan rolled into one tyrannical villainess.  Fun, right?

Frustaci as Johnna Monevata, Eric Kennedy as Steve Heidebrecht, Elizabeth Keith as Karen Weston, Gayle Nichols-Grimes as Mattie Fae Aiken, Michael Fisher as Bill Fordham, Diane Sams as Violet Weston, Tom Flatt as Charlie Aiken, Carlotta Capuano as Ivy Weston, Camille Neumann as Jean Fordham ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Balancing out the madness is Johnna Monevata (Katarina Frustaci), a soft-spoken Cheyenne girl, Beverly hired as housekeeper before he disappeared, and who proves to be the heroine of the whole psychologically damaged lot.

Director Susan Devine is skillful at extracting a wide range of conflicting emotions from her cast as their respective characters veer wildly out of control from love to hate to sympathy. 

Carlotta Capuano as Ivy Weston, Nicky McDonnell as Barbara Fordham, Elizabeth Keith as Karen Weston ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Notable performances from Diane Sams as Violet, Gayle Nichols-Grimes as her bossy sister-in-law Mattie Fae Aiken, Tom Flatt as Charlie Aiken, Mattie’s browbeaten husband, and Nicky McDonnell as Barbara Fordham, one of Violet’s three daughters and a central character in the conflicts.

With Fred C. Lash as Beverly Weston, Carlotta Capuano as Ivy Weston, Michael Fisher as Bill Fordham, Camille Neumann as Jean Fordham, Paul Donahoe as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, Elizabeth Keith as Karen Weston, Eric Kennedy as Steve Heidebrecht and Greg Wilczynski as Little Charlie Aiken.

Set Design by Dan Remmers, Lighting Design by Franklin Coleman, Sound Design by Alan Wray and Costume Design by Beverley Benda.

Highly recommended – especially for those with perfectly behaved families.

Through September 23rd at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street.  For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 3, 2019

The ghost of Nelson Mandela hovers over MetroStage with the area premiere of Athol Fugard’s most recent play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver CreekThis compelling drama set during South Africa’s apartheid period places us amid the racially-charged détente that existed between white Afrikaner farmers and black Africans.  It was this lopsided political domination of the natives by a tiny percentage of Dutch and German settlers that resulted in the loss of property, enslavement and, ultimately, unspeakable violence.  Fugard based his drama on the true story of a farm laborer, Nukain Mabuza, famed for his vivid paintings on boulders and stones of the region.

Nukain, called “Tata” by the orphan boy, Bokkie, has toiled in servitude to a bible-toting Christian, Elmarie Kleynhans, a Dutch farmer and her husband.  Tata has walked the land of his ancestors looking for odd jobs and digging for gold for the white man for a scrap of bread and a place to lay his head. Eventually, he finds work as a handyman for Elmarie. While there, he gifts the child with the knowledge of the old ways – African chants and dances to strengthen his spirit.  To strengthen his own spirit, he paints rocks with flowers and aboriginal memories and recounts tales of the land that once belonged to his ancestors.

Doug Brown
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Act One is set in the small koppie on the farm at Vredewater.  It is 1981 in the Revolver Creek area of the Mpumalanga Province outside of Johannesburg and the old man is agonizing over what to paint on the biggest rock in the garden.  Elmarie orders him to paint large flower for her expected guests, but Tata wants to paint his life story in symbols.  Bokkie gets angry that Tata won’t tell her his intentions. Cautioning the boy not to voice his opinions to the masters, he warns, “They have eyes, but they do not see us.”

Lighting Designer Alexander Keen and Set and projection Designer Patrick W. Lord, create an atmospheric backdrop in hues of red, blue, gold and green to evoke the dramatic South African landscape and the shifting moods of the characters.

Jeremy Keith Hunter ~Marni Penning
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Act Two is set in 2003, after Mandela has been released from prison and the country has been liberated as the New South Africa.  Now an educated man, Bokkie returns as Jonathan Sejake to face Elmarie and restore Tata's legacy.

Director Thomas W. Jones has put together a powerful cast to bring to life this deeply transformative tale that reverberates with emotion as it guides us through the appalling legacy of racism in South Africa and, in the second act, the soul-lifting deliverance of redemption. 

Jeremy Keith Hunter
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Highly recommended.  With outstanding performances by Doug Brown as Nukain (Tata), Jeremiah Hasty as the young Bokkie, Marni Penning as Elmarie Kleynhans, and Jeremy Keith Hunter as Jonathan Sejake (Please somebody cast this brilliant actor as Hamlet!).  Sound Design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith with costumes by Michael Sharp.

Through September 30th at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Marie and Rosetta ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC ~ At The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
August 28, 2018

Celebrating the start of their fourth season under the artistic direction of Ari Roth, Mosaic Theatre gifts us with a standout DC premiere of Marie and Rosetta, the story of a unique collaboration between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her younger protégée, Marie Knight. 

Ayana Reed (Marie) and Roz White (Rosetta) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

The drama and hilarity focus on a period when Rosetta’s meteoric Gospel career had gone off track.  After years of pioneering a Gospel sound with a strong back beat, she fell from the church’s good graces, and that of her fans, for straying outside the strict lines of Black Gospel music.  Her hope is that Marie, a younger, prettier singer, can revive her earlier successes and challenge her rival, Mahalia Jackson, another Gospel singer of enormous fame. 

Director Sandra L. Holloway brings out the extraordinary relationship between the two women which later developed into an abiding love.  And Set Designer, Andrew R. Cohen places the scene in Mississippi amidst satin-lined coffins in the reception area of a funeral home – an incongruous place where many African Americans were forced to sleep and eat in the racially-divided Jim Crow South where Rosetta was often compelled to perform in front of a plantation backdrop in black face.  Yes, shockingly, Blacks were often made to wear blackface too.

Marie is a prudish, preacher-raised girl who won’t abide by no hip-shakin’ or blasphemy.   Raised to sing with a church quartet she is reluctant to be a featured performer with the likes of a woman who performs in warehouses and barns and sings with her whole body and soul rattling the rafters. “When they clamped down on my hips, they’d be stopping my metronome,” Rosetta admits.  It takes all of Rosetta’s sly manipulations to loosen up Marie’s parochial notions, but when she does the duo tear the house down.  “God don’t want the devil to have all the music!” she exults.

From left: Ayana Reed (Marie), Ronnette F. Harrison (Piano), Roz White (Rosetta), and Barbara Roy Gaskins (Guitar) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Roz White, a hugely successful and mesmerizing actor with a formidable, soul-shaking voice, plays Rosetta.  White has been featured in numerous MetroStage productions Cool Papa’s Party, Ella Fitzgerald – First Lady of Song, Blackberry Daze, Gee’s Bend (Helen Hayes Award), Josephine Tonight and more.  And if you’ve been following these reviews we have raved about her fierce talent for years.  We discovered the joys of Ayana Reed (Marie) in the aforementioned Blackberry Daze and Master Class, both at MetroStage, as well as in The Gospel at Colonus at WSC Avant Bard.

Legendary singer and guitarist, Barbara Roy Gaskins, fills in for Rosetta’s guitar playing as it moves from Gospel into Rock and Roll – a genre Tharpe is credited with creating and which was later copied by Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.  The multi award-winning Blues and Gospel artist, Ronnette F. Harrison, plays the piano – and shows it a thing or two about a hip-shakin’ back beat.

Roz White (Rosetta) and Ayana Reed (Marie) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Filled with the sounds of Blues, Gospel, Boogie-woogie and Swing, with a little funky chicken thrown in for good measure (Rosetta worked with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club), playwright George Brant’s feel-good, musical journey is a panacea for the soul as well as the spirit with unforgettable performances by both White and Reed. 

Highly recommended.

Musical Direction by e’Marcus Harper-Short, Lighting Design by Jonathan Alexander, and Costume Design by Michael A. Murray.

Through September 30th at The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and information call 202 399-7993 ext. 2 or visit www.MosaicTheater.org.