Sovereignty ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 30, 2018 

Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has always taken risks.  With the staging of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play on the fraught history of the Cherokee Nation, she has gone where no other major theater has gone before.  Smith’s direction of Sovereignty adds to her series of innovative “Power Plays” and is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. 

Nagle, an activist lawyer and direct descendant of John Ridge and Major Ridge, plunges headlong into the genesis of Indian country’s deepest divide exploring both her ancestors, the Ridge family, as well as Chief John Ross who were instrumental in forming the early agreements that determined the future of the Cherokee nation.  But which bore the responsibility for allowing President Andrew Jackson to set in motion the Trail of Tears?  Who had the blood on their hands of the thousands who perished on that forced march to Oklahoma in the dead of winter?  Who capitulated to Jackson’s demands and why?  Nagle addresses these and other questions with eyes wide open and starts in a casino in modern-day Indian country.

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sarah Polson (Kyla García) is a young Yale graduated attorney determined to reverse a 1978 Supreme Court decision that strips native communities of their right to prosecute non-Indians on their reservations, a decision that violates tribal sovereignty.  She is feisty and whip smart and along with another lawyer, Jim Ross, takes on the case.  Sarah is a Ridge descendant, but keeps her ancestral past well hidden from Jim.  Though their ancestors were well-intentioned tribal leaders, both the Ridges and the Rosses have been accused of poor decisions, greed in the case of the Rosses, and worse, capitulation.  To this day each family still blames the other for mistakes made.  It is up to Sarah and Jim to right the wrongs of the past.

(L to R) Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie), Michael Glenn (Samuel Worcester/Mitch) and Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

At the casino in Oklahoma Sarah meets Ben, a non-Indian SVU cop and friend of Mitch (Michael Glenn who also plays Samuel Wooster), Sarah’s brother.  Ben intervenes in a bar fight when Watie, Sarah’s current boyfriend gets rough with Sarah and the two hit it off.

The action swings back and forth between the 1830s to modern day as it grapples with the past through the years of U. S. Government policies of expansionism, Cherokee removal, broken treaties, intermarriage, and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA Section 904) to allow for the prosecution of whites committing crimes against women on Indian lands.  After being abused by her lover Ben, Sarah’s goal is to change that.

(L to R) Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben), Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) and Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

How Nagle manages to include as many instrumental players in this historical drama is more than clever.  Because the play toggles between 19th and 21st centuries, this fine cast plays multiple roles with ease and authenticity.  There is Flora, a Ridge cousin (Dorea Smith), Andrew Jackson and Ben (Joseph Carson in dual roles), John Ross and his son Jim both played by Jake Waid, Major Ridge and Roger Ridge Poison (both played by Andrew Roa), and Elias Boudinot (Jake Hart who also plays Watie).

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

To enhance the authenticity and period details, both Ken Macdonald’s set and Linda Cho’s costumes incorporate design elements of Cherokee culture. 

If you aren’t up on the history of the Cherokee people, I’d suggest Steve Inskeep’s brilliant book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab.

Powerful, informative and important.

Through February 18th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

For more info on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival visit online.

Nina Simone: Four Women ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 18, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone) in Nina Simone: Four Women, Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There’s no getting around one of the darkest moments in American history, when four African-American girls were murdered by white supremacists in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963.  There’s also no getting around that it continues unabated in present day America.  Playwright Christina Ham’s deeply emotional and highly relevant play, Nina Simone: Four Women, directed by Timothy Douglas, gets to the heart of this tragedy by focusing on Nina Simone, the jazz singer whose bluesy songs made her popular in in both white and black America.  For Simone (Harriett D. Foy), this horrific event in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, galvanized her into speaking out through her music.  Inspired, Simone sets about writing “Mississippi Goddam”, her iconic civil rights anthem about the slaughter of the little girls.  “I want that song to cut folks like a razor,” Simone proclaims.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Harriett D. Foy (Nina Simone), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

While she works on her composition, she encounters three women also hiding within the confines of the church.  Each speak of this devastating tragedy through different eyes.  Auntie Sarah (Theresa Cunningham), a longtime church member, is a matronly, black woman (she would say ‘colored’), who has lived her life respectably – dutiful to her white employers and a strong believer in the power of religion.  Sephronia (Toni L. Martin), is an activist, a girl of mixed race (she would say ‘high yellow’).  She takes inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the protest movement.  Lastly, Sweet Thing (Felicia Curry) is a street hooker, a rough-and-ready ghetto girl with a switchblade and a heap of anger.  Each woman brings a unique perspective to what it means to be black in America.  Each one has her own truth.

We see Simone as the consummate artist, a woman of conscience who has been radicalized by the inequality and injustice she has faced throughout her career.  She tells the others, despite her success she has doubts and self-loathing, “Every day I have to conjure myself into a queen.”

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Toni L. Martin (Sephronia), Felicia Curry (Sweet Thing) and Theresa Cunningham (Sarah) in Nina Simone: Four Women. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With music directed and arranged by Darius Smith, who also accompanies the women on piano, their lush harmonies and deliberate delivery ensure that no one will miss hearing the lyrics nor their fierce intent as this fine cast scrolls through gospel hymns, jazz tunes and protest songs including Simone’s “Sinnerman”, Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby”, Simone’s co-written anthem, “Young, Gifted and Black”, and of course its eponymous song, “Four Women”.  Choreography by Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi captures the spirit of African dance and old-time church revivals.

A powerful, brilliantly crafted, musical tribute to a woman and a movement.

Recommended.

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

The Pajama Game ~ Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) Tim Rogan (Sid Sorokin) and Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Tim Rogan (Sid Sorokin) and Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A freshly minted production of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s musical, The Pajama Game, now on the Fichandler Stage, lightens the country’s mood considerably.  This is not your grandmother’s version of the original 1954 classic.  Director Alan Paul has condensed it for modern day audiences, but it is as fresh and applicable today as it was then.  The story centers on two main characters, Babe Williams (the beautiful and talented Britney Coleman) and Sid Sorokin (Tim Rogan, a matinee idol-caliber, leading man if ever there was one).  Their aims are different, their love story is not.  Babe heads up the Union Grievance Committee at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory and Sid is the new superintendent in charge of maintaining order at the factory.  Though they are operating at cross purposes under a curmudgeonly boss, Fred Hasler (played by the inimitable Ed Gero), that doesn’t put a stop to their love connection.  Well, maybe a few near insurmountable crimps.

(L-R) Paul Scanlan (Salesman), Edward Gero (Hasler) and Eddie Korbich (Hines) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Paul Scanlan (Salesman), Edward Gero (Hasler) and Eddie Korbich (Hines) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In two sensational hours featuring some of the most memorable show tunes, Choreographer Parker Esse packs in a ton of dance on this reconfigured theater-in-the-round stage.  It begins with an electrifying opening number, “Hurry Up”, that reflects the seamstresses’ battle for a seven-and-a-half cents’ raise and the pressure they’re under to stitch up pajamas at breakneck speed.  Set Designer James Noone’s use of vintage sewing machine stations on wheels is an effective opening.  Later his use of an old Coke machine, 50’s typewriters, avocado green office phones, a classic juke box and a sunshine yellow dinette set, contribute mightily to a sense of time and place.

(L-R) Bridget Riley (Doris), Casey Wenger-Schulman (Carmen), Alexandra Frohlinger (Sandra), Nancy Anderson (Gladys), Gabi Stapula (Mae) and Heidi Kershaw Quick (Virginia) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Bridget Riley (Doris), Casey Wenger-Schulman (Carmen), Alexandra Frohlinger (Sandra), Nancy Anderson (Gladys), Gabi Stapula (Mae) and Heidi Kershaw Quick (Virginia) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Expect to hear favorite tunes like “There Once Was a Man”, “Slow Down” – a dance that alternates between slow motion and fast forward, cleverly performed with flying bolts of cloth and tape measures, “Hey There” – sung by Sid using an office playback machine, and “Hernando’s Hideaway” – a castanets plus jitterbug dance between Sid and the hilariously drunken Gladys (Nancy Anderson).  Notable too is a duet with skirt chaser Prez (the captivatingly comic Blakely Slaybaugh) and the company’s bookkeeper Mae (the delicious Gabi Stapula) in a reprise of “Her Is”, and the factory timekeeper, Vernon Hines’ (Eddie Korbich) tap dance in “Think of the Time I Save” performed with the factory girls’ ensemble.

(L-R) Eddie Korbich (Hines) and Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman

(L-R) Eddie Korbich (Hines) and Donna McKechnie (Mabel) in The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman

The outstanding 21-member cast includes Tony Award-winning actress, Donna McKechnie as Mabel, the boss’ secretary.  Musical Director and Conductor, James Cunningham’s 12-piece orchestra, hidden beneath the stage, doubles and triples on a total of 24 instruments to give this memorable production the full complement of sound it deserves.

Blakely Slaybaugh (Prez), Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) and cast of The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Blakely Slaybaugh (Prez), Britney Coleman (Babe Williams) and cast of The Pajama Game. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A big, fat, all-American hit!  Highly recommended.

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

The Price ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

For Arena Stage’s 20th Anniversary season, Artistic Director Molly Smith has placed her bets on Hal Linden, an actor’s actor whose comedic timing is a veritable master class.  Linden plays the part of Gregory Solomon, a Russian Jew and antique dealer in Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Price.  It’s sheer pleasure to watch Linden ply his lines and experience his instinctively smooth delivery and Old Country accent – with a hearty dose of shtick added for good measure.  Playing off an exceptional performance of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz, a frustrated cop who failed to realize his potential, this production, artfully directed by Seema Sueko, is a well-cast delight that brings both searing drama and mood-lightening humor to the American stage.

Victor and his wife, Esther (Pearl Sun) are liquidating the estate of his late, formerly wealthy father, a failed businessman that pitted his two sons against each other.  Walter (Rafael Untalan), a successful surgeon who hasn’t spoken to his brother in 16 years, encourages Victor and his wife to keep the proceeds.  Clearly, he feels some compunction that he hasn’t returned Victor’s calls.  And though Esther encourages them to patch up their relationship, Victor is stuck in past resentments, unable to decide on his retirement date and his plans for their future.

(L to R) Pearl Sun as Esther Franz, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Rafael Untalan as Walter Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Pearl Sun as Esther Franz, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Rafael Untalan as Walter Franz. Photo by Colin Hovde.

As Gregory tries to convince Victor how worthless the antiques are, it becomes a parlor game between the two, with the old man using his considerable bargaining skills and Victor feeling taken.  Every time Victor feels as though he’s struck a deal, the street savvy Gregory turns the tables, stalling for time.  In a particularly hilarious scene, the sly swindler plops down on a chair and peels a hard cooked egg, toying with Victor like a lion with its prey.

As the brothers attempt to smooth out their acrimony, with Esther as cheerleader, they relegate Gregory to a back room from where he pops out to renegotiate at the most inopportune moments to great comic relief.  Against the backdrop of his comedic interruptions, the brothers’ long-simmering jealousies surface and the self-righteous Victor destroys any hope of reconciliation.

(L to R) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon. Photo by Colin Hovde.

(L to R) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Victor Franz and Hal Linden as Gregory Solomon. Photo by Colin Hovde.

The action takes place in the late 60’s in the attic of their father’s former shop where Set Designer Wilson Chin piles period antiques to the rafters evoking memories of the brothers’ past and a lifetime of disappointments.

Highly recommended.

Through November 12th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Native Gardens ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 20, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle, Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle, Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

Playwright Karen Zacarías’s Native Gardens directed by Blake Robison is hugely hilarious.  I had to stop myself from typing “bigly”.  You know how things are these days.  Everything is viewed through a partisan political filter, no matter which side on the aisle you may seat yourself.  And that’s where we find ourselves in this flat-out entertaining dark comedy that pits two widely divergent couples against each other.

The very prescient Zacarías, founder of DC’s Young Playwrights’ Theater and first ever Playwright-in-Residence at Arena Theatre, crafts this social construct of two couples of different ethnic backgrounds whose hearts are in the right place but whose politics and cultural views are worlds apart.

(L to R) Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle and Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

(L to R) Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle and Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

Set in Georgetown, an aristocratic, young lawyer, Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues) and his pregnant wife Tania (Jacqueline Correa), buy a brownstone next door to an older couple.  Pablo is trying to make partner while Tania is studying for her PhD.  They are young, Hispanic, open-minded intellectuals, unafraid to speak their minds.

Unfortunately, their formerly abandoned backyard borders the Butleys.  Frank Butley (Steve Hendrickson), a retiree devoted to his well-manicured garden, and his wife, Virginia (Sally Wingert), a former executive who clawed her way to the top in a male-dominated industry.  Virginia is savvy, sophisticated and sarcastic.  Frank is henpecked and self-entitled.  Notwithstanding the couples’ differences, they are eager to get along.  “Old neighborhood, new neighbors,” Frank says cheerfully.

(L to R) Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

(L to R) Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

In the beginning all goes well, as the couples sip wine and swap stories about themselves and their gardening philosophies.  Tania is eco-conscious and leans towards insect-attracting native plants, while Frank tends his exotic annuals with pesticides and fertilizers. You can smell trouble brewing.

Within days of their moving in, Pablo shocks Tania with the news that he has committed to a party for his entire law firm.  They decide it must be outdoors since the house is in dire need of restoration.  They hire a team of workmen to beautify their weed-infested garden, remove a ratty chain link fence dividing the properties, and replace it with a spiffy new wooden one.

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

(L to R) Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle and Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

At first the Butley’s are overjoyed to have a lovely new backdrop for Frank’s formal garden, mere days before the Potomac Horticultural Society is to give out their “Best Garden” awards.  But the couples soon hit a snafu when legal eagle Pablo, who has had his property’s boundaries surveyed by the city, tells Frank his beloved roses and hydrangeas are encroaching on their property.

Racist insults fly from both sides of the fence as the couples reveal their prejudices.  “They must be Democrats,” Virginia claims while Tania flings Spanish curses and shows her solidarity with the Hispanic workmen.  Meanwhile the Butleys bicker amongst themselves, plotting to invoke squatters’ rights.  It becomes all-out war with a rapid-fire pace when Pablo accuses Frank’s plants of being “Colonialists”.

Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

Dan Domingues as Pablo Del Valle, Steve Hendrickson as Frank Butley and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley. Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater.

The surprising set by Joseph Tilford of an enormous tree flanked by the backyards of the two brownstones – one shabby, one straight out of House and Garden – is a standout.  You’ve probably passed homes in Georgetown just like this, though you won’t find any fixer-uppers left.

Highly recommended for multiple viewings.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

Through October 22nd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.