August Wilson’s Fences ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 3, 2019

Hard on the heels of Arena Stage’s ongoing production of Jitney comes Fences, another August Wilson drama and the sixth play in Wilson’s ten-part series the American Century Cycle that chronicles 100 years of the African American experience.  (Jitney, Wilson’s first play in the series, was reviewed here earlier this week.)  It’s clear Wilson has further honed his vision to encapsulate pockets of Black culture with another deeply moving story reflecting both humor and pathos.  Fences depicts the struggles and complex interpersonal relations of the Maxsons, an American family living in a racist society.

Doug Brown, Jefferson A. Russell, Erika Rose and Craig Wallace – Photo by Scott Suchman.

In a family dominated by Troy Maxson, an emotionally detached father who blames his sons for his personal failures and cuckolds his devoted wife, each member is forced to carve out their own truth.  Both sons and wife Rose try to escape his unpredictable moods, but it’s his inability to express love that eventually takes its toll on everyone – including Troy, who lacks both education and basic human understanding.

Justin Weaks and Craig Wallace. Photo by Scott Suchman

Troy’s fifteen-year incarceration for murder took away his promising baseball career in the Negro Leagues and he is still bitter.  Forfeiting his future, he takes a menial sanitation job with the city of Pittsburgh to provide for his family and becomes resentful when his son Cory is offered a football college scholarship. As a result, his jealousy and arrogance fracture their relationship. “I’m the boss around here,” he warns the boy, insisting he doesn’t have to like him and that his only responsibility is to provide for his son’s basic needs.  When Troy refuses to sign a permission slip allowing Cory to accept the college scholarship, Cory tells his father, “You just scared I’m gonna be better than you.”

Erika Rose, Doug Brown, Justin Weaks and Craig Wallace. Photo by Scott Suchman

This is where I struggled to comprehend the sense of this father-son battle.  I wondered, if the father is so resentful of supporting his son, then why doesn’t he allow him to take the scholarship so he can be absolved of further financial responsibility?  How this could be?  As luck would have it, during intermission I had a discussion with an African American acquaintance who told me that he had grown up in a family with twelve children and Troy reminded him of his own father.  When I asked why that was, he told me his father was functionally illiterate like Troy and had no understanding of college.  Shockingly, his father believed it would be a place where his daughters would become prostitutes, and, as for the sons, he claimed their only choice was to learn a manual skill.  I thanked my friend for this insight and can only imagine that it reflects a time within a certain struggling African American community who believed they shouldn’t overstep their bounds.  The play is set in 1957 and opportunities were slow in coming.

Craig Wallace – Photo credit Scott Suchman

Rose is Troy’s long-suffering wife who cleans and cooks and stands by her man despite his drinking and womanizing.  Erika Rose (the actress shares the character’s name) proves to be the perfect counterpart to Craig Wallace’s Troy Maxson, not only in sheer emotionality, but also in fiery intensity.  And Doug Brown as Jim Bono, Troy’s former prison mate and best friend, grants us a character who tempers Troy’s hardheadedness with humor and country wit.

Erika Rose, Janiyah Lucas and Justin Weaks in the Ford’s Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Fences,. Photo by Scott Suchman

Eventually, Troy comes to need Rose in ways he never imagined, and they develop a marital détente.  It is at this point in their already strained relationship that Troy begins to find the words to describe his loneliness and fears of inadequacy, and finally comes to terms with the error of his ways. Troy’s tragedy is lack of compassion, the inability to see outside of himself, and jealousy of his own son’s success.  The result is that it eats him alive and, as we all know, a wooden fence can’t keep out death or the devil.

Highly recommended for a superb cast and Timothy Douglas’ splendid direction.

Additional cast members: KenYatta Rogers as Lyons Maxson, Jefferson A. Russell as Gabriel Maxson, Justin Weaks as Cory Maxson and Janiyah Lucas/Mecca Rogers as Raynell Maxson.

Scenic Design by Lauren Helpern, Costume Design by Helen Huang, Lighting Design by Andrew R. Cissna, Hair and Makeup by Danna Rosedahl, and Sound Design by Nick Hernandez.

Through October 27th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets call 888.616.0270 or visit www.Fords.org.

 

Twelve Angry Men ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 24, 2019 

(L-R) Eric Hissom (Juror One), Michael Russotto (Juror Three) and Erik King (Juror Eight). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Playwright Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men had its initial stage debut in 1955.  Better known as a writer for television (The Defenders, The Twilight Zone), Rose was inspired to write this, the best known of his plays, after serving as a juror on a murder trial.  “It was such an impressive, solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom, with a silver-haired judge, it knocked me out.  I was overwhelmed.  I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room.  I was writing one-hour dramas for Studio One in Hollywood, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a setting for a drama!’”

(R- L): Lawrence Redmond (Juror Seven) and Bueka Uwemedimo (Juror Eleven) with (background) Eric Hissom (Juror One), Bru Ajueyitsi (Juror Five), Sean Maurice Lynch (Juror Two) and Michael Russotto (Juror Three) Photo by Scott Suchman

In mid-century America generalizations about race and juries’ penchant for assumed guilt were being re-examined.  Guilty verdicts for people of color revealed a predisposition to convict, regardless of whether the defendant was innocent or guilty.  Countless TV dramas and several films have been made of Rose’s drama, and it is said that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor chose to pursue her law degree after seeing Sidney Lumet’s 1957 movie of it.  Twelve Angry Men will never go out of date.  Its relevance is undeniable.  We see injustice in courtrooms every day all over the world.

Erik King (Juror Eight, standing) and the cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of Twelve Angry Men. Photo by Scott Suchman

Though the universal search for justice and truth is a primary tenet in civilized societies, we see its failures and foibles on a daily basis.  While some defendants are found guilty, others are found innocent of the same crimes, even if based on a similar series of facts.  We ask ourselves, ‘If the defendant was white would the verdict have been different?’  If he or she had more skilled representation, would they have gotten off.  The Innocence Project tells us that prejudice and the convictions of those who are poorly represented, is far too often the case.

Cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of Twelve Angry Men. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The play’s characters are listed by number – First Juror/Foreman through twelve – and set in the deliberating room where the personalities and backgrounds of each man becomes relevant.  In a particularly cruel generalization, one juror declares, “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them.”  Director Sheldon Epps’ deliberate choice to cast six black and six white actors as jurors gives us license to look for signs of prejudice in both camps.  We do, and there it is.  We never meet the orphaned teen or his father, whom he is accused of killing, instead we hear fear-mongering and an ever-shifting set of supposedly incontrovertible facts which become suggestions, or worse, suppositions, based on the prejudices of each juror.  During their deliberations, certainties become doubts as clues prove to be mere red herrings and the testimony of sure-fire witnesses proves faulty.

Highly recommended.  A cast of exceptional veteran actors keeps the tension palpable.

With Eric Hissom as First Juror/Foreman; Sean-Maurice Lynch as Second Juror; Michael Russotto as Third Juror; Christopher Bloch as Fourth Juror; Bru Ajueyitsi as Fifth Juror; Jason B. McIntosh as Sixth Juror; Lawrence Redmond as Seventh Juror; Erik King as Eighth Juror; Craig Wallace as Ninth Juror; Elan Zafir as Tenth Juror; Bueka Uwemedimo as Eleventh Juror; and Brandon McCoy as Twelfth Juror.

Scenic Design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, Costume Design by Wade Laboissonniere, Lighting Design by Dan Covey and Sound Design by John Gromada.

Through February 17th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets call 888 616.0270 or visit www.Fords.org.

Born Yesterday ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 27, 2018

“The whole damn history of the world is the struggle between the selfish and the unselfish,” pronounces Ed Devery, Harry Brock’s outlier attorney.  It was this line from Born Yesterday that put playwright Garson Kanin square in the sights of Senator Joe McCarthy during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.  Described by the Roman Catholic Press as “Marxist satire’,  Kanin wrote it as a frothy comedy with a powerful message.  One as relevant today as it was 68 years ago.

Cody Nickell (as Paul Verrall), Kimberly Gilbert (as Billie Dawn) and Edward Gero (as Harry Brock). Photo by Carol Rosegg

Under the astute direction of Aaron Posner, Kanin’s witty comedy enjoyed a sensational and timely revival last night.  How could it miss with Edward Gero in the leading role as Harry Brock, the crooked, vote-buying, junkyard magnate?  When I wondered how Gero could segué so seamlessly from his recent award-winning role as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalistto a low-life conman from the other side of the law, he reminded me, “They are both from New Jersey.”  Ah well, so are the best tomatoes.  Both plays are set in Washington, DC with plenty of references to bribery and corruption, making it delightfully engaging for Beltway insiders.

Well-drawn characters are what give this comedy its undeniable spark.  There’s Brock’s cousin, Eddie (Evan Casey) who is Ed Norton to Brock’s Jackie Gleason (if you remember that slapstick duo); Billie Dawn (Kimberly Gilbert), Brock’s gal, the intellectually-challenged ex-chorus girl who wises up with the help of Paul Verrall (Cody Nickell) the Reporter, Billie’s mentor and savior; and Ed Devery (Eric Hissom), Brock’s alcoholic lawyer and enforcer.  Senator Norval Hedges (Todd Scofield) is Brock’s patsy.

Todd Scofield (as Senator Norval Hedges), Naomi Jacobson (as Mrs. Hedges) and Edward Gero (as Harry Brock) . Photo by Carol Rosegg

Gero does a formidable job of being the tough guy, strong arming and buying his way to the top, but it’s Gilbert’s lightness and seamless twist from dumb blonde to smart cookie that command the most attention. The minions pinballing in and out of Brock’s orbit provide additional humor to this lively farce.

Casting Director, Patrick Pearson, has done a bang-up job of pairing of Gero with Gilbert who are hilarious in a gin game scene that has Billie squealing with delight as she picks up all Harry’s discards, beating him handily and showing she’s pretty good at keeping score, a fast learner, and even better at pegging Harry for setting her up. 

Edward Gero (as Harry Brock) and Cody Nickell (as Paul Verrall) . Photo by Carol Rosegg

Recommended for Beltway newshounds looking for an evening of political comic redemption.

With Matt Dewberry as A Bellhop/A Barber; Naomi Jacobsen as Mrs. Hedges/Helen/A Manicurist; and Jamie Smithson as The Assistant Manager/A Bootblack/ A Waiter.

Spectacular Set Design of a two-story, swank hotel suite by Daniel Lee Conway; Costume Design by Kelsey Hunt, Lighting Design by Nancy Schertler; Sound Design and Original Music by John Gromada.

The cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday,”
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Through October 21st at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets call 888 616.0270 or visit www.Fords.org.

Jefferson’s Garden ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
F
ebruary 1, 2018 

It’s a curious thing that American Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker is more famous in Great Britain where she is the Resident Writer at the Royal Court Theatre and has lately been awarded a commission to write a new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  That’s heady stuff.

Christopher Dinolfo as Christan and Felica Curry as Susannah. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In Jefferson’s Garden, part of the exciting Women’s Voices Theater Festival,  Wertenbaker’s focus is on the American Revolution and how we got there, revealing the contradictions between our founding father’s ideals and both the realities and precarious nature of freedom.  It reminds us the it was considered either a revolution or an insurgency depending on who was doing the talking.

Director Nataki Garrett opens the drama on a boat sailing from England to America, where Carl (Michael Halling), a bourgeois German aristocrat, meets a Quaker family who promise to take him to their farm if he learns practical skills.  He does.  Though the family are pacifists, their young son Christian (Christopher Dinolfo) defies his family to go to war, ultimately breaking a promise to his sister Louisa (Maggie Wilder) that he will never fight.

The Company of Timberlake Wertenbaker. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Nine actors, in different roles through dizzying wardrobe changes, introduce us to many of the founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Ben Franklin, George Washington – as well as the soldiers affected by the cost of war on their lives and loved ones.  The character of the freed slave Susannah (Felicia Curry) and her love story with a white man lend insight into the struggles both sides faced.

It is not until Act Two, that we come to Jefferson’s noted Monticello garden where the men have come to hash out the Bill of Rights and express their considered opinions.  There under a gazebo, we meet bossy Southern belle, Nelly Rose, played hilariously to the hilt by Kimberly Gilbert.

It is a high gear everything-but-the-kitchen-sink telling of the American Revolution – at times funny, at others emotional or flat-out educational.  Who knew there were four million Americans and only 160,000 Brits at the time of the revolution?  And who knew the King offered freedom to slaves who fought for England?  Okay, you did.  Seems I’d better brush up on my American history!Thoroughly enjoyable.

Additional cast members – Christopher Bloch, Thomas Keegan, Michael Kevin Darnall and Kathryn Tkel.

Through February 8th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 888 616-0270 or visit online.

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

Ragtime ~ The Musical ~ A Box Office Bonanza ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 16, 2017

Cast of the musical “Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Cast of the musical “Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Ford’s Theatre Society delivers a heart-meltingly tender Ragtime by gifting the audience with twenty-seven extraordinarily talented performers in this portrait of intersecting American lives.  Taken from E. L. Doctorow’s eponymous novel we become willingly immersed in a sweeping 20th century saga of three distinct elements of American society – Black America, on the rise as a strong middle class in Northern cities; middle and upper class White Americans; and Jewish and Irish immigrants bent on hard work and rapid assimilation in their new found country.  Director Peter Flynn masterfully takes the reins of this award-winning Broadway lollapalooza that pairs Terrence McNally’s book with Lynn Ahrens’ emotionally stirring lyrics and Stephen Flaherty’s indelible music.  A drop dead amazing cast takes us the rest of the way.

In this period of America’s rapid advance, the country was forced to confront the underlying causes of racism and an unprecedented influx of immigrants.  Ragtime brings us face to face with the headliners of the day – Emma Goldman (Rayanne Gonzales) an early labor reformer and union organizer; financier J.P. Morgan (Christopher Bloch); Harry Houdini (Christopher Mueller) the Jewish immigrant who became the world’s most famous magician; and Evelyn Nesbitt, the great beauty who carved out her vaudeville career on a velvet swing while paramour to millionaire architect Stanford White (Elan Zafir).  It also introduces us to the fictional character of Tateh (Jonathan Atkinson), a first-generation Jewish immigrant and silhouette maker and his little girl (Dulcie Pham).

DulciePham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

DulciePham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It harkens back to a period that both blossomed and suffered under the rapidly changing landscape of industrialization and growing civil unrest, when Ragtime music was sweeping the country and Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Kevin McAllister), a fictional version of Scott Joplin, was creating a new sound that crossed over into White high society.  Booker T. Washington (Jefferson A. Russell) the great African-American orator and Presidential advisor guided and inspired Black Americans and Henry Ford (John Leslie Wolfe) hired them.  In Doctorow’s sweeping saga ordinary people become extraordinary people as their lives intersect and their humanity is tested.

A very proper Victorian family of Father (James Konicek) and Mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera) live with their Little Boy (Henry Baratz).  While Father is off on a polar expedition Mother discovers a Black newborn abandoned in her garden and goes about finding the boy’s mother.  “I never thought they had lives besides our lives,” she confesses while searching for the baby’s mother.  When at last she finds Sarah (Nova Y. Payton), she offers her the comfort of their home – allowing her humanity to overtake her Victorian rigidity.

Tracy Lynn Olivera, Henry Baratz, Dulcie Pham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Tracy Lynn Olivera, Henry Baratz, Dulcie Pham and Jonathan Atkinson in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon gives us three levels of verdigris wrought iron staircases on which the cast can be highlighted for their separate numbers while on stage throughout the show.  The orchestra remains in full view on the central level, remaining an integral part of every scene.  The blending of the human form on stage comes from Choreographer Michael Bobbit.  In one particular scene the characters perform a ragtime dance, until they realize they are dancing with someone of another race and promptly change partners.

Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Ragtime,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Twenty-eight songs come at you with such passion and such emotion, I had goosebumps more times than I could count as the ensemble acted out a poignant story of hope, redemption, human rights and justice.

Highly recommended.  Grab your tickets now!

Through May 20th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.fords.org or call 202 347-4833.