Fabulation Or, The Re-Education of Undine ~ Mosaic Theater Company

Jordan Wright
August 27, 2019 

Mosaic’s fifth season opens with two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s play Fabulation Or, The Re-Education of Undine.  Nottage draws from the notion of “Sankofa”, a West African concept that touches on a number of relatable themes – poverty, success, loss, love and hope.  Its central premise is revisiting the past to find what has been lost, in order to connect with the future.  Heady stuff that refutes the notion that you can never go home.

William Newman Jr and Felicia Curry – Photo credit Christopher Banks

Undine Barnes is arrogant and self-assured – a veritable bitch on wheels.  A queen boss who graduated Dartmouth and became a successful public relations entrepreneur.  In the process she ditched her hard-working, middle-class family living in the projects in Brooklyn (she tells everyone they died in a fire) and found her niche by marrying, Hervé, a suave Argentinian with oodles of unctuous cachet.  Unfortunately, the slick mountebank quickly obliterates her celebrity-centric business by running off with all her dough.

Felicia Curry and Carlos Saldaña – Photo credit Christopher Banks

At 37-years old and pregnant, Undine (née Shorona) must now find a way to start over.  Leaving her luxe Manhattan lifestyle, but not her bougie Vuitton handbag, she is forced to move back home.  Along the way ancient spirits parade the stage with drums and ancient calls and she meets a Harvard-educated, Yoruba priest, who works for cash and booze in exchange for advice.

Roz White, Felicia Curry, and Lauryn Simone – Photo credit Christopher Banks

They all weave in and out of Undine’s misadventures as she becomes reborn.  It is these ancient ceremonial interstices that ground the story and make it more profound than light comedy.  Because, though it would be classified as a comedy, it is more like Alice in Wonderland crossed with Cookie Lyon of Empire and anchored by ancient African mythology.

Aakhu TuahNera Freeman and Felicia Curry – Photo credit Christopher Banks

Nottage crafts unforgettable characters – a heroin-addicted granny, street-smart welfare mommas, a group therapy circle of ex-junkies, and a brother whose rap poetry centers on the “double-voiced” trickster figure of B’rer Rabbit from The Tales of Uncle Remus.  Thus, the “fabulation”.

Felicia Curry – Photo credit Christopher Banks

Famed actor Felicia Curry stars as Undine and she is positively incandescent.  It’s a tough role to go from angry black woman on top of the world to humbled and hopeful, educated woman navigating the mean streets.  But, once you see how seamlessly she handles that difficult transition, you can’t imagine any other woman in the lead.  Under the expert direction of Eric Ruffin, the cast not only thrives but carves out an ensemble that meshes beautifully.

Highly recommended.

With Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Grandma/Doctor/Inmate, William Newman Jr. as Father/Yoruba Priest, Carlos Saldaña as Hervé/Guy, Lauryn Simone as Stephie/Counselor/Devora, Kevin E. Thorne II as Flow/Agent Duva, James Whelan as Accountant Richard and Roz White as Mother/Allison/Rosa.

Assistant Director Jared Smith, Set Design by Andrew Cohen, Lighting Design by John D. Alexander, Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka, and Sound Design by Cresent R. Haynes.

Through September 22nd at The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and information call 202 399-7993 ext. 2 or visit www.MosaicTheater.org.

Twisted Melodies ~ Mosaic Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 27, 2019 

Twisted Melodies, a dramatic interpretation of the last day of Donny Hathaway’s life, touches us on so many levels.  As a consummate songwriter and performing artist, Hathaway was one of the most enduring talents during the height of the 1970’s R&B scene.  An accomplished pianist, soul, blues and jazz singer, and collaborator with Roberta Flack (The Closer I Get To You), he borrowed from his gospel roots reinterpreting his melodic memories into one of the most recognizably appealing sounds of the decade.  For area audiences it’s a special treat to experience this powerful production and revisit some of his music, as Hathaway was well known in DC circles where he attended Howard University during the Civil Rights era.

Twisted Melodies at Baltimore Center Stage, in associa- Pictured: Kelvin Roston, Jr. © Richard Anderson

Making its DC premiere at Mosaic Theatre in association with New York’s famed The Apollo Theater, its writer, star, and musical director, Kelvin Roston, Jr., presents an indelible foray into Hathaway’s psychological turmoil.  Roston’s skill at becoming Hathaway’s doppëlganger captures the artist in his most fragile period after he had been hospitalized several times with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and was living on a dangerous cocktail of medications that served only to increase his fears and insecurities.

Twisted Melodies at Baltimore Center Stage, in association with Congo Square Theatre Company Pictured: Kelvin Roston, Jr. © Richard Anderson

Set in a New York hotel room where Hathaway is surrounded by his demons – a ghost named Duke, disembodied voices and fears of his room being bugged – the terrified singer fights to keep it together on the eve of his comeback.  “I gotta focus!  Twist it into melodies.  Everybody is depending on me.”  Interspersed with songs by Hathaway and other artists – Leon Russell, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder – played on an electric piano, Roston dramatizes Hathaway’s decline as both an artist and father.

Twisted Melodies at Baltimore Center Stage, in association with Congo Square Theatre Company Pictured: Kelvin Roston, Jr. © Richard Anderson

Roston’s tour de force portrayal of a tormented soul in full-blown crisis mode is skillful beyond imagining.  Not only is his beautifully written script filled with passion and raw emotion, but more incredibly, he takes on Hathaway’s entire persona in what would be a physically and emotionally draining role for any actor.  Along the way, he reaches out to the audience, as though we are a part of his rehabilitation.  As his “angels” and “muses”, he calls out to us for support, acknowledging our presence as he strives to transform his anger and weakness into beauty.

Highly recommended.

Directed by the award-winning Derrick Sanders, Set Design by Courtney O’Neill, Costumes by Dede Ayite, Lights by Alan C. Edwards, Sound by Christopher M. LaPorte, and Projections by Mike Tutaj.  Presented in co-production with Baltimore Center Stage and The Apollo Theater.

Through July 21st at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts in the Theresa and Jane Lang Theatre – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

Les Deux Noirs ~ Notes on Notes of a Native Son ~ Mosaic Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 19, 2019 

When two famous writers – one heterosexual, one homosexual, both controversial – square off in a Paris café there are bound to be fireworks.  Set in the intellectual cosmos that was Paris in 1953, Les Deux Noirs is playwright Psalmayene 24’s imagined conversation between notable novelist, Richard Wright of Native Son fame, and writer and activist James Baldwin, known for his semi-autographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (or whatever your favorite one is).

(l-r) Musa Gurnis as (Ludivine) and Jeremy Hunter as (James Baldwin) ~ Photo Stan Barough

It opens with their meeting at Les Deux Magots after provocateur and enfant terrible Baldwin had written a scathing review of Native Son, calling Wright a racist.  Wright demands the younger writer recant his critiques in a public forum.  “You’ve insulted my legacy,” Wright rages.  “Sociology is not literature,” Baldwin counters.  It doesn’t go well.  They verbally spar.  Then it gets physical.  Thrust and parry.  Rinse and repeat.

(l) James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) (c) RJ Pavel as Jean-Claude (r) Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

Interwoven with rap and rhyme, Psalmayene 24 gifts us with a spellbinding interpretation of their relationship by creating imagined exchanges laced with political diatribes and withering barbs.  But there are plenty of funny bits too, as when Baldwin flirts with Jean-Claude the waiter star struck by the literary luminaries who frequent the legendary café, and Wright who charms Ludivine, a pretty waitress who falls for him.  For Baldwin, who is broke, it’s a chance at a free meal, though Wright refuses to pick up the tab.  For Wright, it’s a chance to disparage the young upstart and redeem himself.

(l-r) Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) and James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

Wright had his own problems.  He’d come out as a Communist – it was very au courant among intellectuals of the period – and he feared his movements were being monitored.  Nonetheless they both felt that by living in Paris they were safe from persecution.  “Paris is freedom.  America is prison.”  They both agreed on that.

(l-r) James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

James J. Johnson who plays Wright and Jeremy Hunter who plays Baldwin are well-matched and prove exceptionally appealing in these challenging roles.  I am more familiar with Hunter, a chameleon of a performer I recently reviewed in Top Dog/Underdog from Avant Bard, who is superb.  It was mind-boggling to see him morph from a tough guy grifter to a sashaying, pinky-out, ascot-sporting intellectual.  He is extraordinarily versatile.

(l-r) James J. Johnson (Richard Wright) and Jeremy Hunter (James Baldwin) ~ Photo by Stan Barough

Director Raymond O. Caldwell (Artistic Director of Theatre Alliance) finds the perfect pitch to highlight the men’s differences, ratcheting up their machismo by perching them on chairs and tabletops where they can eloquently rap out their sociological viewpoints while cruising the local talent.

With RJ Pavel as Jean-Claude and Musa Gurnis as Ludivine.  Isaiah M. Wooden, Dramaturg; Amy MacDonald, Costume Design; Brandi Martin, Projections; Tiffany Quinn, Choreographer.

Electrifying, imaginative and compelling.

Originally part of Mosaic’s Season Four Workshop Reading Series, Les Deux Noirs has become a fully developed, world premiere production that is currently being performed in repertory with Native Son through April 27th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  (Parking lot at 1360 H Street, NE.)

Native Son ~ Mosaic Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 31, 2019 

Written in the early 1940’s, Richard Wright’s novel became a play only a year after its literary success.  Native Son, is grim reminder of a nation at a crossroads during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations and the communist scare.  Its theme of a country in conflict shares equal space with the issues of race in America.  It reminds us how generations of poverty and the lack of education and decent employment can lead young men into crime.  It introduces us to the central character, Bigger, a young man with a flimsy conscience, who destroy both himself and those around him when both his love life and employment crumble overnight.

Clayton Pelham and Vaughn Ryan Midder ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

W. E. B. Du Bois defines it as “[A] peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Fine words, but is Bigger really a good-guy-with-a-soul whose sociological condition takes him on a murderous path? That’s not really the whole of it.  Wright would have us accept that anyone with a life fraught with poverty and racism cannot overcome their condition.  We know that is not true and yet this play is based on a two-time murderer and man-without-a-soul.  It is intriguing to consider how Bigger’s condition could affect his choices, even though it’s not necessarily so that one’s lack of opportunity follows their poor choices.  Remember.

Clayton Pelham, Jr. and Madeline Joey Rose ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Much has changed since this was penned nearly 80 years ago during the days of Malcolm X’s brand of Black Nationalism.  Though we’ve had an African American President, dozens of African Americans in Congress and several in the Senate, a culture of racism exists worldwide.  We still jail African Americans in far greater proportion to whites, and underserved neighborhoods still suffer disadvantages both in education and opportunity.  So, is this drama still relevant? It certainly is a grim reminder that some things do not change.

Nevertheless, I found it hard to sympathize with a character who, notwithstanding the obstacles in his life, violently murders two people he professes to care about and threatens to kill another, Buddy, who is his closest friend.  In any case, it affords us the opportunity to see how situations can overtake one’s judgement and to remind us that the treatment of people of color by prosecutors and police remains an ever-constant fear.

Native Son Cast ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s adaption along with Psalmayene 24’s direction plays out in a sort of Greek chorus of characters who remain on stage, sometimes changing roles and swirling around Bigger like limpet mines on a drowning man.  Whether young Mary and Mary’s mother, the well-heeled Mrs. Dalton who proudly donates to the NAACP, and Mary’s communist boyfriend, Jan, sympathize with the plight of the Black man, or not, the conflict still exists as to how to prove it without being patronizing.  P. S. They appear to try.  She hires Bigger as her chauffeur though he has a record as a thief, but the gap is too great to bridge.

Clayton Pelham, Jr., Vaughn Ryan Midder, and Tendo Nsubuguga ~ PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAN BAROUH

Kelley invents The Black Rat – an onstage character who follows Bigger around like a shadow, sometimes whispering better options to counter his violent temper, other times urging him to be more manly.  It’s unsettling to witness how easily a man can ignore his better self and choose a more destructive path.  As The Rat explains, referring to how blacks can respond differently, “We all got two minds.  How we see them seeing us, and how we see ourselves.”

Well-acted all around by Clayton Pelham, Jr. as Bigger; Vaughan Ryan Midder as Black Rat; Madeline Joey Rose as Mary; Melissa Flaim as Mrs. Dalton; Lolita Marie as Bigger’s mother, Hannah; Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Vera and Bessie; Tendo Nsubuga as Bigger’s young friend, Buddy; Drew Kopas as Jan; and Stephen F. Schmidt as Detective Britten.

With violence and adult themes. 

Sets by Ethan Sinnott, Lighting by William K. D’Eugenio, Costumes by Katie Touart, and Projections by Dylan Uremovich.

Native Son will run in repertory with Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son starring Jeremy Keith Hunter as James Baldwin and James J. Johnson as Richard Wright.  It opens April 7th and runs through April 27th.

Through April 28th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

Oh, God ~ A Divine Comedy ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC

Jordan Wright
December 20, 2018 

Kimberly Schraf (left) and Mitchell Hebert (right) – Photo credit Stan Barouh

When God arrives to your office dressed as Orson Welles, you had better take him seriously.  In Anat Gov’s comedic tale God takes on the persona of a distressed patient seeking advice from Ella, a Jewish psychologist with an autistic son, Lior.  Ella has only 60 minutes to set God straight before he destroys the world and she’s already fed up with his overactive ego.  As part of the company’s 18th annual Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, this is the first comedy Artistic Director Ari Roth has produced and it’s sharp, witty and searingly funny.

Ella finds God at his wit’s end with humankind, wishing he’d stopped creating the heaven and earth on the fifth day before Adam and Eve’s apple mishap which started all the earthly miseries.  I was grateful that some of my rudimentary religious training stuck since the questions Ella poses to God are plucked straight from the chapters of the bible.

Mitchell Hebert (left) and Kimberly Schraf (right) – Photo credit Stan Barouh

Ella, suspicious that God would come to her with his problems, tries to put him off, “I’m non-secular.  I eat shrimp wrapped in bacon.”  When he persists in his claim to be the all-powerful, she reminds him, “You didn’t have a mother, so who can we blame for everything you’ve done?”

Their back-and-forth banter is clever and incisive.  What would God really say?  How would he explain why he did such terrible things? Why did he turn his back on Job?  She suggests he has been looking for love even though he gets it more than anyone else. And when she brings up the first commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, she claims that it came from his fear of abandonment.

(l to r) Sean McCoy, Kimberly Schraf, and Mitchel Hebert ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Ella is a tough inquisitor posing questions that have gone unexplained for millennia.  We are just as curious as she is to hear his answers, but he bobs and weaves around the truth causing Ella to diagnose him as abusive and infantile.  By the time they come to some sort of détente – when God accepts his diagnosis and Ella returns to her faith – we have melted into pools of laughter.

(l to r) Sean MCoy and Kimberly Schraf – Photo credit Stan Barouh

Recommended for those that are searching for God sunny side up.  A seasoned cast captures the funny bone from the get-go.

With Kimberly Schraf as Ella, Mitchell Hébert as God and Cameron Sean McCoy as Lior.

Translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Margalit Rodgers and directed by Michael Bloom with set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson and lighting design by Brittany Shemuga.

Through January 13th at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets info on post show discussions, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.