A Poignant, Gritty and Powerful New Play at Arena Stage

A Poignant, Gritty and Powerful New Play at Arena Stage

The High Ground
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
February 24, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Nehassaiu deGannes (Victoria/Vicky/Vee/The Woman in Black) and Phillip James Brannon (Soldier) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

In recognition of America’s celebration of Black History Month, many area theaters have mounted plays which tell stories drawn from the American Black experience. At Arena Stage’s ongoing commitment of producing newly commissioned American “Power Plays” engages audiences by broadening their knowledge of American history by expressing the very human side of some of our country’s seminal events. To date Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has produced eight commissioned plays with 17 more to come, each story bearing witness to history and its effect on the human heart. The High Ground is the ninth in this great American experiment.

Written by award-winning playwright, Nathan Alan Davis, the play draws us in by expressing both tenderness and tragedy following the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre in the Spring of 1921. Known as the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, in two days it caused the destruction of what was known as Black Wall Street, saw 300 innocent demonstrators shot dead, burned hospitals, schools and churches, looted houses and displaced up to 10,000 Black Americans from their community of Greenwood. Falsely called a riot by local policemen who brought in heavy armor, machine guns and helicopters, the event gripped the entire nation for two days. When the dust cleared, it turned into a land grab for local Whites.

Nehassaiu deGannes and Phillip James Brannon (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Davis tells this vivid story through a young Black man (Phillip James Brannon) who was shot and killed during the onslaught and returns in spirit to find his community gone. In its place stands Oklahoma State University. The setting is the university’s tower, high upon Standpipe Hill. “Soldier”, as he calls his spirit self, shows signs of severe PTSD. He is reliving the horrific events of the massacre and searching for his wife, played by Nehassaiu deGannes in all the female roles. She first appears to him as Victoria, a former neighbor and student who begs him to leave and accompany her to a funeral; next as Vicky, a policewoman who tries to save his life from an approaching posse of armed police; and lastly as his wife Vee who pleads with him to abandon the hill and leave with her. Robed in a silken white gown, Vee, like the Greek prophetess Cassandra, bears witness to the tragedy and its aftermath, warning of its power to destroy future generations, yet knowing her prophesy will go unheeded.

Nehassaiu deGannes and Phillip James Brannon (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Brannon and deGannes are more than up for the task in this two-hander which has many moving parts and a wealth of deeply emotional dialogue. In transitioning between three separate roles – as college student, policewoman and wife – deGannes displays an impressive ability to inhabit three distinctly different characters and showcase her range. For Brannon, maintaining the combative persona of the anxiety-plagued soldier still capable of love, it is a brilliant achievement.

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian stages the play with great sensitivity leaning into the pathos and tension created between the characters, the unfolding tragedy and the legacy such violence leaves in its wake.

Highly recommended.

Set Design by Paige Hathaway; Costume Design by Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani; Original Music and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh; Dramaturgs Otis Ramsey-Zöe and Jocelyn Clarke.

Through April 2nd at Arena Stage in the Kogod Cradle, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call the box office at 202 488-3300.

Ride the Cyclone Is a Dizzying, Hilarious, Catchy, Super-fun, High-Energy Escapade

Ride the Cyclone Is a Dizzying, Hilarious, Catchy, Super-fun, High-Energy Escapade

Ride the Cyclone
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
January 23, 2023
Special to The Zebra

(l to r) Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), Ashlyn Maddox (Jane Doe), and Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

When the St. Cassian teen chamber choir falls to their deaths in a freak accident while riding a roller coaster at The Wonderville Traveling Fair, they enter the distant future and we do too. It is here they encounter The Amazing Karnak (Marc Geller), a “pre-cognition machine” who recalls the turban-crowned fortune tellers of yesteryear. Encased in his gilded booth, Karnak gives the five teens an ultimatum – plus a lot of shtick.  They must unanimously select the one among them who will be brought back to life. No small feat. He creates a contest with crazy prizes and in their zeal to present themselves as the most accomplished, or unfailingly sympathetic candidate, they each act out their personal stories with remarkable honesty hoping to be the chosen one. However, a mystery teen appears among them – a beautiful, anonymous girl who could not be identified due to her injuries. She is called Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox on the night I went – then Katie Mariko Murray) and she is as ethereal and haunting as a wraith.

Despite the six spinning through the air to their death, a grim premise indeed, the story quickly does a one-eighty becoming a captivating charmer with all the thrills and chills (and spills!) of a festive night at a carnival. We easily find ourselves transported to the future along with the teens as they weave their personal stories to win a second chance at life. Is it a game? Or is it just a ride? Fourteen cleverly written songs with lyrics that are easy to understand hold this wild ride together.

Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), and Marc Geller (The Amazing Karnak) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey) is an over-achiever (reminiscent of Elle in Legally Blonde) who presents herself as the perfect high school princess. Ocean’s bestie is Constance Blackwood (Gabrielle Dominique), a weight-challenged nerd, and self-proclaimed “nice girl” who appears to cave to Ocean’s bossiness… until she doesn’t.

Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez), who appears shy, then bursts out of his shell to reveal his secret life (Sorry, no spoilers here.). Suffice it to say there is a sultry tango, a personality change-up and a seedy French nightclub. Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer) is anything but shy. He is a Ukrainian hip-hopper and beat-box fan who’s in love with a peasant girl from the Old Country. He loves to sing, as long as he’s backed by Auto-Tune. And then there’s Ricky Potts (Matthew Boyd Snyder) who lives in an imaginary world of sexy space kittens and extra-terrestrials. They are all hilarious in their own individual ways.

Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski) and Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Set in a dilapidated warehouse in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, Canada, this quirky, captivating, hilarious, rock musical chock-a-block with vintage carnival artifacts has been making the cult circuit for 15 years. Premiering at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center, Ride the Cyclone is a dizzying, hilarious, catchy, super-fun, high-energy escapade.

Music, Book and Lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell; Directed by Sarah Rasmussen; Original Choreography by Jim Lichtscheidl with Additional Choreography by Tiger Brown; Set Design by Scott Davis; Costume Design by Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang; Sound Design by André Pluess.

Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), and Marc Geller (The Amazing Karnak) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Through February 19th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call the box office at 202 488-3300.    

Arena Stage Presents a Timely and Powerful Drama on Immigration

Area Stage Presents a Timely and Powerful Drama on Immigration

Sanctuary City
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
October 29, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Hernán Angulo (B) and María Victoria Martínez (G) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Dreamers. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Like two lovers planning a life together, like Chagall’s painting “Lovers and Sunflowers” of a couple embracing and swirling among the flowers beneath a full moon. This is not that. It is something entirely different. Sanctuary City tells a story of anguish, hopes dashed, fear of discovery, futures in jeopardy. It is the real real of illegal immigrants who have been subsisting on the fringes in America – many who have been working, raising children, going to school, paying taxes, buying homes – with hopes on hold buffeted about by the ever-changing political winds.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok knows this world. As a Polish immigrant, she became one of America’s leading drama writers and it’s no surprise that she is more than capable of turning her pen to this controversial issue. Here Majok focusses on two teenaged schoolmates who navigate their way through the intricacies of the American judicial system. Through school and menial jobs, through ever-constant fears of deportation, they try to make a life in America, but it’s a day-by-day struggle. Hopes and dreams are on hold. Incarceration and deportation loom large.

Kim Fischer (Henry) in the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City

B (Hernán Angulo) and G (María Victoria Martínez) have been in the country for 10 years. Everything they know is here, including the stress of discovery and living on expired visas. B finds himself in a dizzying dilemma when his mother returns to Mexico leaving him on his own. At the same time G’s mother finally becomes a naturalized citizen, which gives G American citizenship too.

Told in stop-action snapshots of their friendship we learn the toll it takes on their everyday lives. When G offers B a legal way out through marriage she discovers a part of B that she never knew. Before G goes off to college leaving B to his menial dishwasher job, they rehearse the interminable questions ICE will at a home visit ask to determine if theirs is a real marriage and if they are truly a couple. They know that getting caught in a lie or a false step means a quarter of million dollar fine plus five years in prison if they are caught trying to manipulate the system.

Hernán Angulo (B) and María Victoria Martínez (G) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Will they go through with it? Will they be believed? Will they succeed in becoming citizens? Green cards, and hopefully permanent citizenship for B, are straws in the wind, but only if they play it right. And can they show their fondness for each other when Henry (Kim Fischer) arrives to throw a wrench in their plans?

This timely drama features the two lead actors from the original cast from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre under the original direction by David Mendizábal. It is set in 2001 through 2006 in Newark, New Jersey and its environs where Majok grew up.

A powerful and important perspective on immigration that everyone should see.

Through November 27th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call the box office at 202 554-9066.

American Prophet – Frederick Douglass in His Own Words

American Prophet – Frederick Douglass in His Own Words

Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
Jordan Wright
August 1, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Cornelius Smith Jr. as Frederick Douglass (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Who could have imagined Frederick Douglass’s words set to music? Two men did. Director Charles Randolph-Wright (recipient of Arena’s 2022 American Artist Award) who co-wrote the book with lyricist and composer Marcus Hummon believed it could be done and to that end the two men have put forth a sweeping historical musical that will henceforth be a must-see tribute to the great orator’s legacy.

American Prophet – Frederick Douglass in His Own Words draws from Douglass’s powerful speeches and writings the very words that inspired men and women to rise up against slavery and fight for their freedom against the cruel yoke of racism. A former slave who was later manumitted, Frederick became lauded and revered in England and America. Along with the critical support of his beloved wife, Anna, he brought pressure upon the U. S. government to liberate the slaves. Douglass achieved so much notoriety and influence that he was ultimately granted an audience with President Lincoln to whom he presented his non-negotiable demands. Fact: Before freeing the slaves, Lincoln’s original plan was to “send the slaves back to Liberia – to their own native land.”

Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) and the cast of American Prophet (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Capturing Douglass’s power in song would seem insurmountable, but Hummon gifts us with sweeping orchestration, impassioned ballads filled with the sweet-sounding harmonies of a gospel choir and a few well-known spirituals. The story guides us sequentially through the horrific realities of the American slavery system and up to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Beautifully cast with 23 musical numbers, its message is delivered both emotionally and at times tenderly. Cornelius Smith, Jr. as Douglass gives a commanding performance with his riveting delivery and smooth baritone voice. Kristolyn Lloyd as Douglass’s wife, Anna Murray Douglass, is the perfect complement to Smith with her pitch-perfect voice as melodic and soothing as a lullaby.

Thomas Adrian Simpson (Abraham Lincoln / Garrison) and Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Other characters who appear throughout his life are Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and his wife Mary Todd (Erica Aubrey), John Brown (Chris Roberts), the noted firebrand of the failed Harper’s Ferry raid, and William Lloyd Garrison (also Thomas Adrian Simpson), Douglass’s first publisher and head of the Anti-Slavery Movement. It is entirely possible to envision a wide audience for this important era in our American history.

Randolph-Wright and Hummon worked with the Douglass family who were adamant about recognizing Anna’s not inconsequential contribution to the cause. In Anna’s early solo “Your Star” we are reminded in both words and song how she helped him escape the bonds of slavery. “Frederick’s ability to move to freedom was all her doing. I feel passionate about everything,” Hummon said, “but I feel intensely passionate about the Anna part of the experience.” Both men have expressed the relevancy of Douglass’s words in the face of the country’s recent events.

Kristolyn Lloyd (Anna Murray Douglass), Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass), and the cast of American Prophet(Photo by Margot Schulman)

With Kurt Boehm as Reverend Gore/Edward Covey/Sec. Seward/Ensemble; Cicily Daniels as Betsey Bailey/Elizabeth Keckley/Ensemble; Christopher B. Portley as Demby/Ensemble; Correy West as Bill/Garnett/Dance Captain; Curtis Wiley as Gabe/Ensemble; Kanysha Williams as Sally/Ensemble.

Assistant Director Allyson Tucker; Musical Director/Orchestrations/Conductor Joseph Joubert; beautifully choreographed by Lorna Ventura; Set Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Dramaturgs Jocelyn Clarke and Otis Ramsey-Zoë.

Exclusively in the Ensemble – Carolyn Agan, Zoë Bryant, Christopher Michael Richardson and Brendon Schaefer.

Powerful and inspiring. Highly recommended.

Through August 28th at Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call the box office at 202 488-3300.

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can

Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
March 20, 2022
Special to TheZebra.Org

Catch Me If You Can Soars with High Energy and a High-Flying True Story of the Infamous Conman

Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and the cast of Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

As it turns out, the real-life story of a precocious chameleon and 17-year-old conman, Frank Abagnale, Jr., makes for one helluva musical directed by Molly Smith with book by Terrence McNally especially with this stunner cast. From the very first number you’re in for the supersonic ride of your life.

The swinging 60’s when Pan Am was at the forefront of the commercial airline industry sets the tone for one of Frank’s big cons – that of an airline pilot. In that pre-politically correct luxury era of flying, flight attendants were called “stewardesses” and was considered the most glamorous job for women – dating the airline’s Clipper pilots was part of the allure. Naturally, Frank plays up his boyish charm to the hilt and the women unwittingly abet him in his quest to pose as one of the pilots.

Rhett Guter (Roger Strong/Agent Branton/Jack Barnes/Player), Nehal Joshi (Carl Hanratty) and Jody Reynard (Agent Dollar/Player) in Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Using an assortment of aliases, Frank, Jr. aka Frank Taylor and later the charismatic Doctor Frank Connors, manages to weasel his way past a team of FBI agents led by Carl Hanratty whose mission is to nail the imposter for $2M in forged checks. Along the way Carl “Here I Am to Save the Day” and Frank form a telephone friendship as Carl becomes the type of father figure Frank never had as Frank Sr. was a swaggering conman and merciless alcoholic with a cheating wife and the law on his tail who schooled his son well in conning the IRS while lying, cheating and stealing with great aplomb.

Choreographer Parker Esse increases the excitement with some of the greatest ever dance sequences on Arena’s Fichandler stage. Costume Designer Alejo Vietti picks up on the period outfitting the dancers in Mondrian mini dresses with Sassoon haircuts and white go-go boots, the men in their crisply-fitted flight uniforms all frenetically doing “The Frug” to the opening number, “Live in Living Color”.

The cast of Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Impressive performances by Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) who recently starred as Smokey Robinson/Damon Harris in Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud and supported by the incomparably suave Jeff McCarthy as Frank Abagnale, Sr.; Nehal Joshi as Carl Hanratty; Stephanie Pope Lofgren (with a sensuous Eartha Kitt-like voice) as wife Paula Abagnale; and Hayley Podschun as Frank’s love interest, Brenda Strong – all big-time Broadway stars.

The music is spot on with catchy lyrics by Scott Whitman and Composer Marc Shaiman.  You’ve got to love a line in “Butter Outta Cream” that rhymes with scheme, of which there are many. Sixteen numbers lay out the story, which (spoiler alert) has a real romance though it starts out as a story of a lonely teen enchanted by comic superheroes.

Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and Jeff McCarthy (Frank Abagnale, Sr.) in Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Terrific choreography designed by Parker Esse ratchets up the energy to include tap shoes that light up in “Don’t Break the Rules” and a bevy of dancers who seem to populate every square inch of the theater in the round. Props by Alessandra Shines and Grace Trudeau are eye-popping as is Alexander Dodge’s clever stage design which is tricked up to both rise from the center with fresh sets and disappear and features two stairways on either side that descend beneath the stage. Actors sometimes break the third wall acknowledging Conductor Laura Bergquist who can be seen by the audience.

Highly recommended! Catch it, now!

The cast includes Alexandra Frohlinger as Carol Strong; Brett-Marco Glauser as Agent Cod; Rhett Guter as Roger Strong/Agent Branton/Jack Barnes; Jody Reynard as Agent Dollar. Lighting Design by Nicole Pearce and Sound Design by Daniel Erdberg.

Through April 17th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Change Agent

Change Agent
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
February 6, 2022

Andrea Abello and Luis Vega in Change Agent at Arena Stage running January 21 – March 6, 2022. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Playwright Craig Lucas’s Change Agent follows John F. Kennedy’s meteoric rise to the presidency from his political evolution and inner circle coterie to his battles with CIA Director Allan Dulles. Along the way we learn of the backstabbing tactics of Washington Post journalist Joseph Alsop and his legendary salons where he peddled his influence amid the powerbrokers. Much of this was well-documented, but the darkest revelations didn’t surface until after Kennedy’s assassination in 1969. Change Agent pulls us back into that turbulent period, touching on the McCarthy HUAC hearings, Allen Dulles’s control of the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover’s influence on policy as a backdrop to Kennedy’s (Luis Vega) rise to power, and it hints broadly of their conspiracy to murder JFK for not adhering to their clandestine operations.

Luis Vega and Andrea Abello in Change Agent at Arena Stage running January 21 – March 6, 2022. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Framed by Kennedy’s strained relationship with Jackie and his rumored affair with socialite and artist Mary Pinchot Meyer (Andrea Abello), the drama captures the diabolical war-mongerers who undermined Kennedy’s desire to lead the country towards a more progressive, anti-racist climate. If you’re familiar with some of these full-blown theories, you know they can lead down a rabbit hole you may not want to travel.

Lucas also acts in the role of Director and some of his decisions make for a slog as the characters’ love lives, affairs and party-going seem less than necessary. As for this as a period piece, others of Arena’s Power Play series have been more focused, more dramatically staged and more indelibly acted as they should be given the weighty political subject matter. If you’ve followed the farrago of conspiracies surrounding the assassination of JFK, this lays it all out with a smidgen of this and a dab of that without once mentioning Jack Ruby or Lee Harvey Oswald.

Andrea Abello and Kathryn Tkel in Change Agent at Arena Stage running January 21 – March 6, 2022. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The story takes us from 1936 to 1965, America – from JFK’s boarding school days meeting the spitfire and liberal activist Mary Meyer (a curious mention is Mary’s studies under famed American artist Kenneth Nolan) to the Kennedy family tragedies, and through WWII into the tony watering holes of Provincetown and Georgetown leading up to Kennedy’s time in the White House. Tension hangs over Mary and Jack’s affair along with her marital difficulties with Cord (Jeffrey Omura) her McCarthy-loving, CIA husband. Mary calls it, “living with what we cannot bear.” In this telling, Jackie appears to condone their affair and she and Mary are the best of pals. Here everyone is deeply flawed, and everyone has a secret agenda. Welcome to Washington!

With Kathryn Tkel as Jackie and Regan Linton as Cicely.

Set Design by Wilson Chin; Costume Design by Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design by Cha See; Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Caite Hevner.

Through March 6th at Arena Stage in the Kogod Cradle – 1101 6th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org