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.

Ann ~ Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Association with Dallas Theater Center

Jordan Wright
July 19, 2019 

History, or shall we say “herstory”, will remember Ann Richards as one of the most colorful lawmakers in Texas politics… and that’s truly saying something about a state that has had its share of unusually quirky politicians.  As a mother of four who never planned to dive into the political arena, she had one of the most notable careers in politics – one made especially memorable by her powerful keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.  As a housewife and member of the Waco Women’s Club, she thought she’d always be a stay-at-home mom.  But when her civil rights attorney husband turned down a run for the position of County Commissioner, and friends suggested she run, Richards threw her hat into the proverbial ring and trounced a Republican incumbent.  Later this savvy lady parlayed her way into becoming the Texas State Treasurer, and later the governorship by being part cajoler, part charmer, and all business.  It didn’t hurt that she had the gift of Southern gab, was warm-hearted and tossed out quotable one-liners to rival any standup comedian.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann” running July 11 through August 11, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

After a rocky start due to her love affair with the bottle, she experienced a family intervention, went to rehab, and never looked back.  It didn’t hurt that as a girl and daughter of a good old boy who weaned her on bawdy jokes, the family moved to San Diego where she attended her first integrated school.  There she developed what she refers to as “a passion for simple fairness” that was to define her life’s work as an advocate for racial justice, women’s rights, and the protection and advancement of social security.  “Life isn’t fair, but government should be,” she insisted.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann” running July 11 through August 11, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ann, the one-woman, two-acter starring Broadway and TV actor, Jayne Atkinson, crystallizes the political life and bon mots of this feisty force of nature and home-grown feminist.  Holland Taylor, a multi-award- winning Broadway, TV and film star who wrote and starred in the original Broadway production, begins Richard’s story before and after her loss of a second gubernatorial term to George W. Bush.  The first act focuses on her address to a graduating high school class peppered with recollections of her career and hilarious, yet sage, advice.   But it’s in Act Two, set in the governor’s private office, where the play really takes off and her humor ratchets up to warp speed as she fields incoming calls from her disjointed family as well as from her pal, President Clinton, and other influential politicos, while trying to plan a family holiday, a parade appearance, and other routine duties.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards in “Ann” running July 11 through August 11, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven, Set Design by Juliana Von Haubrich, Costume Design by Jess Goldstein, Lighting Design by Andi Lyons, Sound Design by M. L. Dogg.

Highly recommended.

Through August 11th in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

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.