Jubilee ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 21, 2019 

Jubilee harkens back to the American Reconstruction era when White audiences were beginning to listen to Negro spirituals in concert settings.  Songs sung on plantations, in Black churches and on chain gangs – spiritual songs, work songs, songs of the underground railroad and traditional folk tunes – became more widely heard.  These were not minstrel shows.  They were African American choirs who sang the songs that told of escape, redemption, struggle, and faith, and that later became the foundation for American Jazz, R&B and Blues.

(L to R) Simone Paulwell (America Robinson), V. Savoy McIlwain (Thomas Rutling), Sean-Maurice Lynch (Frederick Loudin), Jaysen Wright (Edmund Watkins), Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard) and Greg Watkins (Benjamin Holmes) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In the hands of veteran director and playwright, Tazewell Thompson, that period comes alive with the musical strains of a thirteen-person a capella choir, like the one that had its origins at a historically Black college.  The story of Fisk University (HBCU), founded in Nashville, Tennessee for the education of freemen and women after the Civil War, could be the story of many Black universities that have struggled financially, except in its early years Fisk formed a student choir with the sole purpose of raising funds to keep the school from financial disaster.  Led by a stern choir director, the group of young former farmworkers was able to achieve international recognition with their widely sought-after performances.

(L to R) Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard), Jaysen Wright (Edmund Watkins), Katherine Alexis Thomas (Minnie Tate), Zonya Love (Georgia Gordon), Greg Watkins (Benjamin Holmes) and Shaleah Adkisson (Mabel Lewis) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Soaring operatic solos by Lisa Arrindell in multiple roles including Ella Sheppard, one of the students, coloratura soprano, Zonya Love as Georgia Gordon, and Aundi Marie Moore as diva Maggie Porter will give you goosebumps.  Evoking visions of the 19th-century rural revival camp meetings of The First Great Awakening, male baritones, tenors and basses seem to blend effortlessly on popular spirituals like “Dem Bones (Gonna Rise Again)”.   Costume Designer Merrily Murray-Walsh dresses the singers in beautiful Victorian-era fashions – the ladies in elegant wide-skirted silk dresses, the gentlemen in frock coats and cutaways – all in shades of black and grey.

(L to R) Shaleah Adkisson (Mabel Lewis), Joy Jones (Jennie Jackson), Katherine Alexis Thomas (Minnie Tate), Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard), Bueka Uwemedimo (Greene Evans), Travis Pratt (Isaac Dickerson) and Aundi Marie Moore (Maggie Porter) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jubilee is a beautiful story of perseverance and self-determination – of surviving racism, both internal and external, violence, and poverty – told in exquisite harmonies.  Soul-stirring, traditional songs – “Wade in the Water” (sung in Gregorian unison), “Thou Art Great”, “Go Down Moses”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and “There Is A Balm in Gilead”lend meaning and gravitas to this stellar production that weaves thirty-six mellifluous songs into this inspiring musical.

(L to R) V. Savoy McIlwain (Thomas Rutling), Sean-Maurice Lynch (Frederick Loudin), Simone Paulwell (America Robinson), Aundi Marie Moore (Maggie Porter) and Joy Jones (Jennie Jackson) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Gorgeously sung and deeply inspirational.

Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson with Vocal Direction and Music Direction by Dianna Adams McDowell, Set Design by Donald Eastman, Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel and Sound Design by Fabian Obispo.

The cast of Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Shaleah Adkisson as Mabel Lewis, Joy Jones as Jennie Jackson, Sean-Maurice Lynch as Frederick Loudin, V. Savoy McIlwain as Thomas Rutling, Aundi Marie Moore as Maggie Porter, Simone Paulwell as America Robinson, Travis Pratt as Isaac Dickerson, Katherine Alexis Thomas as Minnie Tate, Bueka Uwemedimo as Greene Evans/Fight Captain, Greg Watkins as Benjamin Holmes and Jaysen Wright as Edmund Watkins.

Through June 9th at Arena Stage 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

For further study of Fisk University and its distinguished alumni who include Congressman John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, NAACP co-founder W.E. B. Du Bois, Poet Nikki Giovanni, Educator and Presidential advisor Booker T. Washington, and Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells, visit www.Fisk.edu

Junk ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 16, 2019 

If you didn’t live through the junk bond scandal of the mid-80’s you may need a primer before seeing Junk.  Though much unfolds through the plot, it’s still a bit complex as to how they committed such monumental financial chicanery in plain sight.  The drama centers around the period when hostile corporate takeovers by young high-flying Wall Street players gamed the system to turn debt into dollars in order to line their pockets.  They made some people money, but ultimately it was a Ponzi scheme that took down our financial system, robbed tens of thousands of workers out of their jobs and retirement benefits, and pretty much destroyed American manufacturing.  The story mirrors the rise and fall of Michael Milkin the junk bond king.

(L to R) Edward Gero (Thomas Everson Jr.), Thomas Keegan (Robert Merkin) and Jonathan David Martin (Israel Peterman). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

A lot of these guys got caught up in insider trading, selling secrets used to manipulate stock prices – raising a stock to make it look appealing to investors, then lowering it and turning it into debt when they wanted to force the owners out.  It’s complicated.  In fact, so complicated that it was over the heads of most people which is how they got away with it for so long until the Feds and the SEC eventually caught on.  As the young reporter, Judy Chen, puts it, “The age of speaking truth to power was coming to an end.”

Nancy Sun (Judy Chen). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Pulitzer-winning playwright, Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced) draws us into this sleazy, greedy, nether world of characters with warning lights flashing while investors reaped untold millions through mergers and acquisitions as companies tanked.  It’s fascinating and revealing, all at once – a cautionary tale of greed and deception.

(L to R) Edward Gero (Thomas Everson Jr.) and Thomas Keegan (Robert Merkin) in Junk. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Thomas Keegan plays Robert “Bob” Merkin, a. k. a. “the White Whale”, who Time Magazine named “America’s Alchemist”.  Keegan is riveting as the kingpin of the bond market and the titan who everyone fears and obeys.  His plan is to take over a three-generation-owned American steel manufacturer run by Tom Everson, Jr.  However, there are subplots that lurk beneath the surface.  Judy Chen is writing a book on the Merkin phenomenon and switches sides, Murray is an investor whose wife is suspicious of Merkin’s shady deals, Boris Pronsky works behind the scenes as an unscrupulous trader in debt to Bob, and Israel Peterman is Bob’s front man.  Oh, and there’s a mole.  I won’t say who.  That ought to get you started.

(L to R) Michael Glenn (Mark O’Hare), Elan Zafir (Boris Pronsky) and JaBen Early (Kevin Walsh/Curt) in Junk. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.


For Bob who thinks “debt signifies new beginnings,” he believes, “the law belongs to those who break the rules.” When he finally gets his comeuppance for a host of felonies laced with triple damages, and everyone starts ratting each other out, we begin to see the inkling of an idea forming in Bob’s mind for his next racket – the mortgage crisis that sent the country into a tailspin.  But there are lots more twists and turns to keep you guessing who will come out on top.

(L to R) David Andrew Macdonald (Leo Tresler) and Nicholas Baroudi (Giuseppe Addesso) in Junk. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clever, intense and a forewarning.  Highly recommended.

Starring Thomas Keegan as Robert Merkin; Nancy Sun as Judy Chen; Edward Gero as Thomas Everson, Jr.; Jonathan David Martin as Israel Peterman; David Andrew Macdonald as Leo Tresler; Shanara Gabrielle as Amy Merkin; Michael Russotto as Murray Lefkowitz/Maître d’/Counsel; Elan Zafir as Boris Pronsky; Amanda Forstrom as Charlene Stewart/Lawyer; Jaben Early as Kevin Walsh; Kashayna Johnson as Jacqueline Blount; Lise Bruneau as Maximilien Cizik; Perry Young as Raúl Rivera; Michael Glenn as Mark O’Hare/Curt; Dylan Jackson as Devon Atkins/Waiter; Nicholas Baroudi as Giuseppe Addesso; and Elliott Bales as Union Rep/Corrigan Wiley/Fight Captain.

Directed by Jackie Maxwell; Set Design by Misha Kachman; Costume Design by Judith Bowden.

Through May 5th at Arena Stage in the Fichandler Theater – 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300.

JQA ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
March 19, 2019 

In the vein of Hamilton along comes JQA.   It is not a musical, though there is occasional contemporary music with a back beat that lightens the pace, but it is an historical piece based on the life of John Quincy Adams.  Its playwright and director, Aaron Posner, writes that it is “not to be taken as accurate in any way”, though Adam’s achievements and rise to power, as well as his astonishing career in American politics are well known.  Think of it as a fictionalized version of the room(s) where it happened.

(l-R) Eric Hissom and Joshua David Robinson ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

Naturally, we don’t know what was actually said in conversations between Adams and his mother, Abigail, his wife, Louisa, or George Washington, but Posner imagines his verbal fencing with two racist Southerners, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, plus his meeting with Abraham Lincoln and the forthright abolitionist Frederick Douglass – all of whom are characters in this play and with whom we know Adams had interactions.  And although we cannot be privy to his thinking on both national and international affairs, we do know his influence on the American political landscape.  Posner advises, “This play is not to be trusted as accurate in any way.”

(L-r) Joshua David Robinson, Jacqueline Correa, Phyllis Kay and Eric Hissom ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

The play opens with a scene between John Adams, his illustrious father and second American President asking the child, “What is government?”  When young John cannot answer such a broad question, Adams, Sr. tells him that it’s about self-management.  “Individuals require government.  Civilizations need laws and codes to keep us safe.”  Thus, begins the boy’s political education.

(l-r) Phyllis Kay and Eric Hissom ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

Through vignettes, we follow Adams’ fraught marriage in 1797 to Louisa, a foreigner, and his early diplomatic career as Minister to the Netherlands and Prussia, followed by his election as Massachusetts State Senator, Minister to Russia and the UK, Secretary of State under Monroe, nine terms as Congressman, up till his single term as the 6th POTUS.  Chunks of his life are highlighted in different settings in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, where his philosophies are explored and challenged according to his history in government legislation and his relations with his family and political peers.

The script is written in modern-day vernacular and the parallels to our country’s current polarization are stunning, such as when Clay advises him, “Give the people something to fear.  Then you can take away their liberties.”  Adams’ answer, “I will provide hope.”  We are still fighting this battle of fearmongering as a tactic to control the citizenry as opposed to governing by hope and inspiration.  JQA is part of Arena Stage’s “Power Plays” initiative.

(l – R) Joshua David Robinson and Phyllis Kay ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

The staging is brilliant.  Characters weave in and out of Adams’ fascinating life portrayed by two male and two female actors who assume all the roles with each actor taking a turn as JQA.  I particularly enjoyed Posner’s clever choice of casting African American actor Joshua David Robinson to portray both Frederick Douglas and Andrew Jackson.  Touché!

With Jacqueline Correa as JQA/Louisa Adams/Abraham Lincoln; Eric Hissom as JQA/John Adams/Henry Clay; Phyllis Kay as JQA/George Washington/Abigail Adams/Louisa Adams and Joshua David Robinson as JQA/Andrew Jackson/Frederick Douglass.

Set Design by Meghan Raham; Costume Design by Helen Huang; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky and Sound Design by Karin Graybash Jocelyn Clarke, Dramaturg.

Through April 14th at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The Heiress ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 18, 2019 

Fans of Henry James will cotton to this period piece that debuted on Broadway in 1947.

(L-R) Laura C. Harris (Catherine Sloper) and Jonathan David Martin (Morris Townsend) in The Heiress. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Set in the Victorian era, it is based on James’ novella, Washington SquareThe Heiress takes place in the parlor of the prominent Doctor Sloper’s home in New York City circa 1850’s – a time when proper ladies and gentlemen of a certain class comported themselves with the utmost dignity.  But minding your P’s and Q’s at a time when a family’s reputation could be destroyed at the drop of a lace handkerchief, took serious adherence to well-circumscribed proprieties.

For the painfully shy doctor’s daughter, who struggles to live up to her late mother’s image in her father’s eyes, every social interaction is torturous.  Every slight from her father’s lips remands her deeper into her silent world of embroidery until his sister, Lavinia, encourages Catherine to climb out of her self-imposed shell and reject his autocratic demands.

(L to R) Janet Hayatshahi (Elizabeth Almond) and James Whalen (Dr. Austin Sloper) in The Heiress. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When a cousin brings Morris, an attentive young suitor, to dinner Catherine begins to see how the attentions of an adoring young man can empower her to speak out.  Naturally, her father disapproves as Morris is penniless, but Catherine finds her inner strength and, with the backing of her aunt, rebels against his social constraints.

Relatives provide disparaging gossip about Morris that he is a mere mountebank after Catherine’s fortune and the money her father has promised to leave her in his will.  It’s easy to imagine how fraught these issues must have been when young women bowed to the demands of their fathers and society’s pressures to conform to the highest standards of conduct were unassailable.

(L-R) Jonathan David Martin (Morris Townsend) and Nancy Robinette (Lavinia Penniman) in The Heiress. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The great character actress Nancy Robinette as Aunt Lavinia is marvelous, as is Laura Harris as Catherine and Jonathan David Martin as the suspiciously-motivated Morris.  It’s a well-balanced cast all around with an all-women creative team that includes Deputy Artistic Director Seema Sueko.  Together they produce the precise ambiance to frame this classic period piece which draws upon women’s struggles to supersede their societal constraints.

Fans of period dramas such as Downton Abbey will swoon.

By Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz; Directed by Seema Sueko; Set Design by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani; Sound Design and Original Music by Emma M. Wilk; and Wig Design by Anne Nesmith.

With Lise Bruneau as Mrs. Montgomery; Lorene Chesley as Marian Almond; Laura C. Harris as Catherine Sloper; Janet Hayatshahi as Elizabeth Almond; Joanathan David Martin as Morris Townsend; Nanacy Robinette as Lavinia Penniman; Kimberly Schraf as Maria; James Whelan as Dr. Austin Sloper; and Nathan Whitmer as Arthur Townsend.

Through March 10th at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Kleptocracy ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 31, 2019 

Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Much of what you’ll see in Kenneth Lin’s Kleptocracy is based on historic events – from Vladimir Putin’s rise from a low-level KGB agent to his position as the second president of the Russian Federation. Putin was plucked from spy agency obscurity by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Jewish billionaire owner of the enormous Russian oil company Yukos.  He expected the young Putin to do his bidding.  Unfortunately, Khodorkovsky underestimated Putin’s avarice, unbridled ego and his penchant for revenge.

The story opens in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union with a young, impoverished Socialist, Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke), who woos and wins his future wife, Inna, promising her he will find success through the American-instituted system of vouchers for cash.  Together with business partner Platon Lebedev (Alex Piper) the men gain total domination of the Russian economy.  Lin, an award-winning playwright and TV series writer who wrote several seasons of House of Cards, keeps the intrigue and suspense running at full tilt.

(L to R) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) and Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Christopher Geary, as the villainous Putin, told me he read up on Putin to research his role and then “tossed it all aside” when deciding how to play him.  His Putin is quirky, fond of quoting Russian Absurdism, duplicitous, cryptic, ruthless, egotistical and Machiavellian, and yet Geary does a masterful job of creating a schizoid man who is believably human and oddly inhuman.  No mean feat.

The story harkens back to the 1990’s and the rise of Yeltsin, who transformed Russia’s socialist economy into a capitalist one.  Those were heady days when private industry, formerly state-owned, was possible and unimaginable fortunes went to the oligarchs.  Everything was sunny days till the price of oil tanked and the economy went into freefall.  Putin  appropriated the companies, or killed the owners, and jailed Khodorkovsky.  “I can’t free him.  I can’t kill him.  He’s my Mary Queen of Scots,” Putin ponders aloud.

(Front) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin). (Back L-R) Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Tony Manna (Boris Berezovsky/Yuri Schmidt/Ensemble), John Austin (Valentine/Ensemble), Alex Piper (Platon Lebedev/Roman/Ensemble), Joseph Carlson (Leonid Nevzlin/Interpreter/Kuchma/Ensemble/Fight Captain) and Elliott Bales (Petukhov/Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With murders and disappearances ordered by Putin, the story intensifies when the American oil company, Chevron, attempts to buy Yukos through a White House Official (Candy Buckley in an exceptionally outstanding portrayal) who meets with Putin to seal the deal.  Buckley’s character, in what reads as a composite of Conde Rice/Georgette Mosbacher, is as tough as they come yet is no match for the mercurial Putin. “Your president will be my dog,” he threatens.  Hmmm.  Prescient?  (And lest we forget.  The U. S. currently shares a particularly fraught law with Russia – that no politician can be charged with a crime while he’s in office.) Checkmate.

Highly recommended.  A suspenseful thriller from beginning to end.

Directed by Jackson Gay; Set Design by Misha Kachman; Costume Design by Jessica Ford; Lighting Design by Masha Tsimring; Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Nicholas Hussong.

With John Austin as Valentin and others; Elliott Bales as Petukhov and others; Joseph Carlson as Leonid Nevzlin, Interpreter, Kuchma, and others; Bronté England-Nelson as Inna Khodorkovsky; and Tony Manna as Boris Berezovsky, Yuri Schmidt, and others.

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