The Agitators ~ Mosaic Theater Company

Jordan Wright
October 30, 2018 

People may forget who America’s early activists were, but in their day, women’s rights suffragist and Quaker, Susan B. Anthony, and African American abolitionist, Frederik Douglass, changed the course of history in this nation.  What do we know of their personal lives, their 45-year friendship, or their struggles to assure the freedom to vote for all Americans regardless of race or gender?  Through the lens of Mat Smart’s historically topical play I learned of the constant threats to their lives, the beatings, the shootings and the riots that ensued when they spoke about social justice and equality.  They were The Agitators and speaking out about injustice was their inspiration.  To this day, we hear the echoes of their struggle for justice.

Marni Penning as Susan B Anthony and Ro Boddie as Frederik Douglass - Photo credit Mosaics Stock.

Smart follows their friendship as they crisscross the country, often speaking at lecture halls on the same program.  Anthony, who fought fiercely for women’s rights to vote, and Douglass, who emerged from a life of slavery as one of the nation’s foremost abolitionists securing the right to vote for African-Americans.  Today, with the closure of numerous polling places in predominantly African-American districts and the discounting of their votes in Georgia and other states, it is clear that the fight for equality at the voting booth is far from over.

The play opens in 1849 at the Anthony family farm in Rochester, NY where the Anthony family welcomes Douglass into their sphere of influence.  The farm was a haven for abolitionists to share ideas and strategies for the movement and it’s where Douglass and Anthony solidified their friendship and their goals and where their collegial competition begins.  Over the decades they shared ideas and strategies, but the play’s drama is in the who will get to the finish line first.  Will it be Douglass in his struggle to end slavery and get Blacks the vote? Or Anthony, working with other suffragists to secure the vote for women?  Despite their victories, we are still fighting these same issues.

Marni Penning as Anthony and Ro Boddie as Douglass ~ Adanna Paul and Josh Adams ~ Photo credit Mosaic Stock

Director KenYatta Rogers takes us on their fraught journey with moments of raw tension juxtaposed with the power of faith guided by the ghosts of past injustices.  But it is the outstanding performances by Marni Penning as Anthony and Ro Boddie as Douglass as both allies and agitators that carry us borne aloft through a half-century of friendship based on mutual admiration and respect.

Costume Designer, Amy MacDonald, dresses Anthony in her signature red shawl (See the original at the National Museum of American History) with her iconic alligator handbag, and Douglass in his top hat is seen not far from his precious violin which gave him solace.  These important historical elements employed in both props and costumes are crucial emblems lending gravitas to every scene.

Timely and highly recommended.

With ensemble members Adanna Paul and Josh Adams.

Lighting by Alberto Segarra, Sound Design by David Lamont Wilson, Projections Design by James Morrison and Property Design by Emily Boisseau.

Through November 25th 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.

Marie and Rosetta ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC ~ At The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
August 28, 2018

Celebrating the start of their fourth season under the artistic direction of Ari Roth, Mosaic Theatre gifts us with a standout DC premiere of Marie and Rosetta, the story of a unique collaboration between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her younger protégée, Marie Knight. 

Ayana Reed (Marie) and Roz White (Rosetta) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

The drama and hilarity focus on a period when Rosetta’s meteoric Gospel career had gone off track.  After years of pioneering a Gospel sound with a strong back beat, she fell from the church’s good graces, and that of her fans, for straying outside the strict lines of Black Gospel music.  Her hope is that Marie, a younger, prettier singer, can revive her earlier successes and challenge her rival, Mahalia Jackson, another Gospel singer of enormous fame. 

Director Sandra L. Holloway brings out the extraordinary relationship between the two women which later developed into an abiding love.  And Set Designer, Andrew R. Cohen places the scene in Mississippi amidst satin-lined coffins in the reception area of a funeral home – an incongruous place where many African Americans were forced to sleep and eat in the racially-divided Jim Crow South where Rosetta was often compelled to perform in front of a plantation backdrop in black face.  Yes, shockingly, Blacks were often made to wear blackface too.

Marie is a prudish, preacher-raised girl who won’t abide by no hip-shakin’ or blasphemy.   Raised to sing with a church quartet she is reluctant to be a featured performer with the likes of a woman who performs in warehouses and barns and sings with her whole body and soul rattling the rafters. “When they clamped down on my hips, they’d be stopping my metronome,” Rosetta admits.  It takes all of Rosetta’s sly manipulations to loosen up Marie’s parochial notions, but when she does the duo tear the house down.  “God don’t want the devil to have all the music!” she exults.

From left: Ayana Reed (Marie), Ronnette F. Harrison (Piano), Roz White (Rosetta), and Barbara Roy Gaskins (Guitar) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Roz White, a hugely successful and mesmerizing actor with a formidable, soul-shaking voice, plays Rosetta.  White has been featured in numerous MetroStage productions Cool Papa’s Party, Ella Fitzgerald – First Lady of Song, Blackberry Daze, Gee’s Bend (Helen Hayes Award), Josephine Tonight and more.  And if you’ve been following these reviews we have raved about her fierce talent for years.  We discovered the joys of Ayana Reed (Marie) in the aforementioned Blackberry Daze and Master Class, both at MetroStage, as well as in The Gospel at Colonus at WSC Avant Bard.

Legendary singer and guitarist, Barbara Roy Gaskins, fills in for Rosetta’s guitar playing as it moves from Gospel into Rock and Roll – a genre Tharpe is credited with creating and which was later copied by Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.  The multi award-winning Blues and Gospel artist, Ronnette F. Harrison, plays the piano – and shows it a thing or two about a hip-shakin’ back beat.

Roz White (Rosetta) and Ayana Reed (Marie) in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Filled with the sounds of Blues, Gospel, Boogie-woogie and Swing, with a little funky chicken thrown in for good measure (Rosetta worked with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club), playwright George Brant’s feel-good, musical journey is a panacea for the soul as well as the spirit with unforgettable performances by both White and Reed. 

Highly recommended.

Musical Direction by e’Marcus Harper-Short, Lighting Design by Jonathan Alexander, and Costume Design by Michael A. Murray.

Through September 30th 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.

Paper Dolls ~ A Play with Songs ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC

Jordan Wright
April 4, 2018 

Are you ready to plunge headlong down a rabbit hole with a cross-cultural mash-up led by five Filipino “lady boys” aka drag queens called the Paper Dolls?  No, it’s not part of the far-out Fringe Festival, but it is edgy, hilarious, mind-bending and heartwarming.  It’s a caution and a small miracle alive and kicking with hope, kindness and transformation.

Lise Bruneau, Chris Bloch, and Ariel Felix ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

First, suspend reality.  Start by allowing yourself to forgo the day-to-day grind of American politics and pop culture, then travel, vicariously that is, to Israel – the land of Yiddish, the Shabbat dinner, daily bombings and tradition with a capital ‘T’.  There’s not much milk and honey for the temporary Filipino workers whose jobs are caring for elderly Jews.  It’s their off-hours that provide the story with its humor.

Set in 2004 after the second intifada, and faced with the problem of caring for its aging population, Israel brought in 30,000 foreign workers from the Philippines.  Some of these were home health aides.  Hired through recruitment agencies to care for elderly Orthodox and Chasidic men, the workers were forced to work until they could pay off their unreasonably high agency fees.

L to R: Evan D'Angeles, Kevin Shen, Rafael Sebastian ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Many of these were gay men looking to send money back home to their own aging parents.  Some formed strong, familial bonds with kindly employers.  Others were badly treated and fled, or were arrested and deported.  Think this isn’t happening today?  Think again.  In some Asian and Middle Eastern countries foreign workers are kidnapped or trafficked and forced to work in life-threatening conditions with no chance of escape.

Playwright Philip Himberg, who adapted the play from the 2006 documentary film by Israeli-born Tomer Heymann, weaves these wildly disparate elements into an engaging comic drama driven by the relationship between Chaim (Christopher Bloch in a standout performance as a rheumy, wheelchair-bound Jew) and Sally, short for Salvador, a Paper Doll charged with his care.

Ariel Felix (Sally) and Chris Bloch (Chaim) ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

Ariel Felix’s Sally gives an exceptionally tender portrayal of a someone who learns the culture and cuisine of his/her adopted country in order to show respect and kindness to her employer who adores and accepts Sally for what she is.

Beneath the surface of the glitz and glamour of the quintet’s drag act, are the everyday challenges they face living in Israel – homophobia, racism and exploitation – in a culture as foreign to them as to a fish on land.  Paper Dolls is about pride, fantasy as survival, activism, unexpected human connections and personal sacrifice.  It’s a hilarious stick-in-the-eye against social and religious conventions – not exactly what you might expect from a play-with-music, though the music portion ranges from what you’d expect to hear from a Tel Aviv DJ at a Miss Philippines-Israel Beauty Pageant (Yes, this happens!) to traditional Israeli songs and pop music.

Bold, entertaining and timely.

Additional cast members – Evan D’Angeles, Jon Norman Schneider, Rafael Sebastian, Kevin Shen, John Bambery, Lise Bruneau, Chris Daileader, Brice Guerriere, Dallas Milholland, and Elan Zafir.

Directed by Mark Brokaw, choreography by J. M. Rebudal, musical direction by William Knowles, vocal arrangements by Howard Breitbart, set design by James Kronzer, lighting by Brittany Shemuga, costumes by Frank Labovitz, sound by David Lamont Wilson and projections by Sarah Tundermann.

Through April 29th in the Theresa and Jane Lang Theatre 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 MosaicTheater Online or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.  Valet parking at 1360 H Street, NE.

On Floor: John Bambery ~ L to R: Jon Norman Schneider, Evan D'Angeles, Ariel Felix, Rafael Sebastian, Kevin Shen ~ Photo credit Stan Barouh

The Real Americans ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC Atlas Performing Arts Center

Jordan Wright
November 27, 2017 

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

If you saw Vicuña and the American Experience (through December 3rd at Mosaic) and you’re still itching to understand Trump voters, then journey with award-winning impressionist and playwright Dan Hoyle throughout America’s Heartland where Hoyle met some of these mindless flag-wavers.  Adopting the accents and gestures from mall rats and military vets to hipsters, techies and Christian fundamentalist right wingers, Hoyle is the man of a thousand voices.  In his search for folksy wisdom under the woodpile of America, this talented physical comic dons their personas in a one-man whirlwind of impressions.

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

That Hoyle actually undertook his courageous, 100-day voyage in a van with the idealism of Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”, as opposed to say, hipster Jack Kerouac, is what sets it apart from your typical wise guy comedian.  He conceived his plan with a deep need to make sense of the direction of our nation’s political landscape.  His sincerity is palpable and raw.

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

Traveling through bayous and hollers and Midwestern farms to urban outposts, Hoyle comes across redneck pride, thick with ignorance and anger.  He interviews wacky conspiracy theorists and tries to make sense of Ramon, the street-wise Dominican.  These “real Americans” are also ordinary Americans whose isolationism circumscribes their views.  Logic, reason and science are frighteningly absent in their approach to politics and their choice of candidates.  Hoyle suggests the formation of an “anti-ignorance task force” requiring citizens to read at least three books per year.

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

He actualizes his experiences through on-the-road phoners and meetups with his liberal, latte-drinking New York City peers who have an equally zero-tolerant, isolated view of the world beyond city limits.  Directed by and developed with Charlie Varon and performed in black box format, it was first produced in 2015.  Since then Doyle has updated the piece to reflect our post-presidential election malaise, touching on the opioid addiction crisis and the effects of Trump world.

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

Dan Hoyle ~ Photo credit Mosaic Press

Funny and poignant.  Recommended.

Through December 22nd, 2017 in Lab II 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.

Vicuña and the American Experience ~ Mosaic Theater Company of DC at The Atlas Performing Arts Center

Jordan Wright
November 7, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Presidential wannabe Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie) ~Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Presidential wannabe Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie) ~Photo by C. Stanley Photography

A timely, re-engineered version of Jon Robin Baitz’s brilliantly acerbic, Trump-inspired, politically explosive, outrageously hilarious play, Vicuña and the American Experience, had audiences cheering wildly last at The Atlas.  For this latest incarnation of the play, Baitz has added a dystopian ending “intended as a warning”.  It imagines the country’s political landscape after a presidency built on lies and obfuscations.  The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and noted TV writer has crafted a timely play that tracks both the pre- and post- election rise of a candidate for U. S. President.  As he describes it, “It’s social, political and anarchical.” And, what’s more, satisfyingly hilarious!  Just what’s needed right now.

Brian George plays Anselm Kassar, the elderly and elegant Jewish tailor -apprentice, Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman) ~ Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Brian George plays Anselm Kassar - Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie) -  Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman) ~ Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Several story lines weave together to present a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the near-farcical making of a blindly egotistical Republican candidate whose chicanery and buffoonery parallel our daily news feeds.  Presidential wannabe Kurt Seaman (John de Lancie), whose smarmy campaign slogan is, “Women love Seamen.  Seaman [semen] Loves Women”, is a man preparing for his final debate against a female Democratic candidate.  To clinch the vote, he has pressured a bespoke New York tailor with a celebrity clientele to hastily stitch up a vicuña suit.  Brian George plays Anselm Kassar, the elderly and elegant Jewish tailor.  His young apprentice, Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman), is an Iranian Muslim and Harvard educated student.  The two are connected through their families’ struggles in Iran during the Shah’s persecution of political dissidents. The outspoken Amir has gotten expelled from university as a result of his attacks against the U. S. government and though he is a naturalized American citizen, his parents’ immigration status is unsure – something that the fear-mongering Seaman uses to threaten him. “If you can’t make it in your own country, what kind of people are we taking in? I call them losers,” he claims calling Muslims radical Islamist terrorists.

Laura C. Hayes plays Srilanka ~Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Laura C. Hayes plays Srilanka, the candidate’s smartly dressed, socialite daughter and campaign manager who is working feverishly on her father’s behalf to secure the women’s vote.  Srilanka is brainy and driven – here depicted as a sympathetic character attempting to reign in her father’s verbal excesses, race-baiting and flip-flopping on issues.  Ring a bell?

At Seaman’s insistence, Anselm promises to make a suit for him, one that is cut and fit so expertly that he will be assured a successful debate performance.  Think “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  But though the suit’s imaginary powers take on near mythical proportions, Amir warns Seaman that, “the suit can’t stand in for principles.”  Ah, principles, morals and truth – in such short supply today.

Amir Massoud (Haaz Sleiman) - Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Kimberly Schraf) ~ Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Act Two introduces Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Kimberly Schraf), the fiercely principled, Old Guard conservative, chair of the Republican National Committee.  Kitty tells Seaman the RNC considers him “stark, raving mad” and is willing to buy him off at any cost.

Under DC native Robert Egan’s exquisite direction, we have a cast with purpose, passion and pace.  Original Music and sound design by Karl Lundeberg.

A brilliantly acerbic, politically explosive, outrageously hilarious piece of theater.  Highly recommended.  

Through December 3rd at the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets, special rates and discounts visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202.399.7993 ext. 2.