http://artsincolor.com Celebrate.Inform.Inspire Sun, 20 Nov 2016 20:50:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.2 THOUGHTS: The Last Tiger in Haiti at Berkeley Rep http://artsincolor.com/2016/11/last-tiger-haiti-berkeley-rep/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/11/last-tiger-haiti-berkeley-rep/#respond Thu, 17 Nov 2016 06:38:16 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13839 What is a story? What is its purpose? A story can entertain or educate. It can comfort or unsettle. It can foster divisions or forge connections. A good story can do many of these things at once. The Last Tiger in Haiti is a very good story. The characters in this play are restaveks: impoverished [...]

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Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) tells a tale to Joseph (Reggie D White), Emmanuel (Clinton Roane), and Rose (Brittany Bellizeare). / Photo: Jim Carmody

Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) tells a tale to Joseph (Reggie D White), Emmanuel (Clinton Roane), and Rose (Brittany Bellizeare).  Photo Credit: Jim Carmody

What is a story? What is its purpose? A story can entertain or educate. It can comfort or unsettle. It can foster divisions or forge connections. A good story can do many of these things at once. The Last Tiger in Haiti is a very good story.

The characters in this play are restaveks: impoverished or orphaned children taken in by families of slightly greater means and used as domestic slave labor until they are 18. This is not a fictionalization and this play is not set in the past: the non-profit Restavek Freedom estimates that currently, more than 300,000 children in Haiti are restaveks. The play indulges in a degree of slightly clunky (but necessary) exposition to give this background in the first few minutes of the play. The life of a restavek often involves physical and sexual abuse in addition to unpaid labor. In spite of the hopes some parents might have had that giving up their children would at least provide them with food, shelter and education in exchange for household labor, the reality is that most restaveks work throughout their childhood and are then released back into poverty and homelessness at age 18 with no schooling and no money.

Joseph (Reggie D. White) mocks their master while Emmanuel (Clinton Roane), Rose (Brittany Bellizeare), Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) and Max (Andy Lucien) look on. Photo Credit: Jim Carmody

Joseph (Reggie D. White) mocks their master while Emmanuel (Clinton Roane), Rose (Brittany Bellizeare), Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) and Max (Andy Lucien) look on. Photo Credit: Jim Carmody

The first act of The Last Tiger in Haiti takes place one night during Carnival. Five young restaveks who work for the same family are celebrating the impending freedom of the eldest, Max (Andy Lucien), who has just turned 18. They gather in the ramshackle lean-to with a roof of worn, colorful bolts of cloth that serves as their shared bedroom, partake of stolen booze, and entertain, educate, comfort, unsettle, altercate, and bond as they take turns sharing stories that are partly grounded in Haitian folklore and partly in their own experiences. Shadow play and song serve to animate some of the stories, and the actors do an excellent job with the challenge of keeping the children’s tales engaging while also portraying that some of the youth are better and more experienced storytellers than others. The heightened world of the stories, together with the undercurrent of fear and desperation in the storytellers, lends an ominous tone to the first act, making the shocking turn of events at the end of the act feel earned. The play could have easily ended at this point, as a one-act illumination of a human rights abuse in a particular cultural context told through the frame of stories. The fact that it does not, fundamentally transforms the story this play is telling.

The second half of The Last Tiger in Haiti takes us to the future of Rose (Brittany Bellizeare), the youngest and most innocent of the five children we met in the first act. We are told she was adopted by Americans and has, as an adult, become a successful memoirist by telling her story of her past as a restavek. The simple set of the first act is replaced with an expensive replication of a Miami apartment with wall to wall windows, sleek modern furniture, and a cabinet of expensive liquors, reflecting how Rose’s world of subsistence has changed into a world of plenty. But when one of the other resteveks unexpectedly finds her, puncturing a hole in her glossy new life, the thematic terrain of The Last Tiger in Haiti suddenly shifts. The play blooms into an intellectual unpacking of power dynamics: the power dynamic of slavery, the power dynamic of appropriating stories, the power dynamics involved in how we define and present stories to an audience and for what purpose, the power dynamics involved in how we see ourselves, how others see us, and what our actions reveal us to be.

I always like to listen to what the audience is saying as they walk out of the theatre, and the universal praise of The Last Tiger in Haiti suggests that this play left audience both moved and intellectually challenged. You should see this play because it is a very good story, but you should also see it because it is an important story. The sharing of stories can be incredibly powerful and this play both reminds us and warns us of that.

Reasons to Go:

  • This is an excellent and engaging play that spotlights what is perhaps the oppressed group most in need of having their story shared: child slaves.
  • #DiversityOnStage. This play, primarily set in Haiti, features actors of color in every role. The solid cast believably portrays both the youth of the characters they play and the various complex undertones of their interactions with one another. Andy Lucien as Max is a particular stand-out, anchoring the play with his moving performance.
  • #DiversityOnPage. In his interview in the playbill, Playwright Jeff Augustin discusses being inspired by the storytelling of his Haitian mother. This highlights how producing the works of diverse writers can lead to more diverse stories on stage. At the same time, Augustin is himself American, and perhaps this liminal position made him particularly self-reflexive in this play about the ethical complexities of telling someone else’s story of oppression.

Who should go: Everyone

Tips:

  • The playbill has important background information on the history of the restaveks in Haiti (and information the historical role the US played in Haiti’s current impoverished state) and you should read it.
  • I did feel like the interview with the author clued me in on a couple major twists of the play. Consider saving that part of the playbill to read until after the play.
  • The Berkeley Rep has put some interesting facts related to the play and/or Haiti behind the bathroom stall doors. Yes, I do kind of wish they’d put copies of this info the lobby so I wasn’t engaging in a bathroom scavenger hunt (that I got side-eyed for by people actually trying to use the bathroom), but I appreciate the effort to share the dramaturgical research.
  • See it soon! The play only runs until late November.
  • This one is important: bring cash. The Berkeley rep is collecting cash donations for two great charities: Restavek Freedom and The Lambi Fund of Haiti after each performance.

Themes: child slavery, slavery, storytelling, Haiti, folklore, memoir, truth, oppression, narrative appropriation

Warnings: Allusions to violence and sexual assault.

Show information: The Last Tiger in Haiti is playing at Berkeley Rep until November 27. Check the linked calendar for performances with pre- or post- show docent-led discussions.

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THOUGHTS: It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Rep http://artsincolor.com/2016/10/thoughts-cant-happen/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/10/thoughts-cant-happen/#respond Wed, 12 Oct 2016 17:54:19 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13764 It Can’t Happen Here was written in a United States still reeling from the Great Depression. Fascism was on the rise in Europe, and there were fears that it would cross the Atlantic. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana had broken with his party– as well as President Roosevelt– over the New Deal, and he was poised to [...]

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ICHH ensemble

Cast members in the world premiere of It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Rep. Seated: Anna Ishida and Tom Nelis. Standing, left to right: Gerardo Rodriguez, Gabriel Montoya, William Thomas Hodgson, Deidrie Henry, Scott Coopwood, Will Rogers, Alexander Lydon, Carolina Sanchez, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, and Sharon Lockwood.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

It Can’t Happen Here was written in a United States still reeling from the Great Depression. Fascism was on the rise in Europe, and there were fears that it would cross the Atlantic.

Senator Huey Long of Louisiana had broken with his party– as well as President Roosevelt– over the New Deal, and he was poised to run as a third party candidate with the support of a fiery, anti-Semitic radio personality, Father Charles Coughlin. Author Sinclair Lewis and his wife Dorothy Thompson, a political reporter, were among those concerned about a possible dictatorship should Roosevelt lose. And thus was born the book that was then adapted into a play.

The parallels to the current political climate are evident in this adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen: a loud-mouthed bigot gains popularity (and eventually the election) seemingly inexplicably. In fact, some lines seem to be taken straight from Donald Trump’s speeches, which, I assume, is deliberate. For the first third of the play, the audience at the performance I attended laughed at those moments in recognition. But the laughter stopped as the play took a darker turn after the election of Buzz Windrup. It was a reminder of one possible 2016 election outcome.

Buzz Windrip

David Kelly (Buzz Windrip) in the world premiere of It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Rep.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The production itself is a lovely piece of ensemble work. Everyone is involved in all aspects of bringing the story to life, from the characters that could be shallow stereotypes but are fully-fleshed out instead– the liberal newspaper editor (Tom Nelis); the resentful handyman (Shad Ledue); the headstrong daughter (Carolina Sanchez); the demagogue (David Kelly)– to the actors moving props and furniture on and off the stage as the scenes shift. It all coalesces into a smooth performance.

Of course, having been adapted from a book, in addition to dialogue, the play relies a lot on narration in the form of actors giving descriptions of the action. And with all the prose, the play feels long. But those are more the limitations of the text than of the production itself.

It should also be noted that I wouldn’t even be writing about this production for Arts in Color if it weren’t for the creative team’s deliberate decision to have a cast that reflected today’s America. In 1935 the actors would have been all-white, and technically (especially being set in Vermont), the characters are all white. But Berkeley Rep’s cast is a mixture of ethnicities which makes the parallels to today all the more powerful.

Reasons to Go:

  • Humorous and not-so-humorous parallels to current politics
  • #DiversityOnStage: deliberate multi-racial casting
  • The actors break the fourth wall, and there is some audience participation
  • Ensemble is wonderful

Who should go: Adults and teens

Tips:

  • Pre-show docent talks most Tuesdays and Thursdays
  • Post-show discussions October 13, 18, and 28
  • Page to Stage discussion October 10
  • Parking is more limited due to parking garage construction

Themes: Politics, fascism, bigotry

Show information: Through November 6 at Berkeley Rep

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THOUGHTS: ‘all of what you love and none of what you hate’ at San Francisco Playhouse http://artsincolor.com/2016/09/thoughts-love-none-hate/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/09/thoughts-love-none-hate/#respond Fri, 23 Sep 2016 17:11:26 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13733 Scholars call the era we live in now “the information age.” The digital revolution gave rise to a way of life that involves near constant immersion in a mediated world and its associated messaging. It is a world in which we can ask a question and get thousands of answers in seconds, but still have [...]

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Teen and baby

Girl A (Britney Frazier) cares for a newborn baby
Photo Credit: Kevin Levin

Scholars call the era we live in now “the information age.” The digital revolution gave rise to a way of life that involves near constant immersion in a mediated world and its associated messaging. It is a world in which we can ask a question and get thousands of answers in seconds, but still have no real sense of which of those answers is correct. It’s a world in which self-presentation and social communication are tied to soundbyte advertising profiles. All of what you love and none of what you hate is very much a product of the information age. Characters introduce themselves through their Internet dating site profile answers or a laundry list of their Facebook likes. Friends appear on stage together yet only communicate though cellphones. Google searches are projected on large screens. At the same time, the play is pure theatre, exploring human experience and human emotion through physical movement and face-to-face interpersonal interaction as it tells the story of a 15-year old girl navigating the first few hours after seeing a blue plus appear on a home pregnancy test.

From the moment she first appears onstage, slumped over, hoodie up, elbows on knees, and arms covering her face in a classic pose of teenage grief and self-protection, lead actress Britney Frazier demonstrates her skill at relaying inner life through her facial expression and physicality. Although the supporting characters of her mother, boyfriend, and best friend are lively and engaging, it is Frazier’s character’s eyes, ears, and mind that filters the world of the play—to the point that the others begin to say “blah, blah, blah” as she tunes them out. In that sense, the theatre-in-the-round staging of the play was somewhat limiting: I wanted to experience the play through Frazier’s reactions, but my view of her was often blocked. In other ways, the theatre-in-the-round staging supported some of the elements of storytelling that are unique to theatre as a medium and are used particularly well in this play. A nouveau Greek Chorus circles around the stage dressed in black hoodies, sometimes physical and auditory manifestations of the main characters fears and sometimes gossiping, judging, social commentators. A mere two rows of seats on each side of the stage created an intimacy that allowed the chorus to come close to the audience and make eye contact, or even hand us abstinence-only propaganda.

The play is an innovative and boundary pushing in form—but becomes increasingly

Teenage dilemmas

Girl A (Britney Frazier) considers taking drastic action.
Photo credit: Ken Levin

abstract as it progresses, and several people left the theatre commenting that they liked it but felt that they didn’t really “get it.” I sometimes felt I was being asked to cognitively engage with it so heavily it was at the expense of emotional engagement.

Too, cognitively engaging instead of emotionally engaging meant that I sometimes questioned plot points. I didn’t understand why the main character never confided in her mother—even though it seemed clear that a 31-year-old with a 15-year-old daughter must have experienced teen pregnancy in her own past. I didn’t fully believe that Googling ‘abortion’ would only lead to anti-choice scare sites (I tested it after the play and Planned Parenthood’s website came up near the top). That said, in an era where there are political factions on a systematic mission to dismantle information about and access to reproductive services the play makes a strong point about the dangers of this.

All of what you love and none of what you hate is a layered, semi-immersive abstract journey into the complex experience of a girl at a critical, emotional turning point in her life, and as such it is an experience that you can’t get anywhere but inside a theatre. I would love to see this play taken on by Educational Theatre programs—it is a piece that I think speaks to a teen audience and one that is artistically and thematically rich in a way that would compliment the unpacking and exploration such programs provide.

Reasons to go:

  • DiversityOnStage with all four roles played by actors of color.
  • DiversityOnPage: support innovative, up-and-coming writer of color Philip Howze
  • It is rare to see a play that takes such advantage of theatre as a unique medium that you can’t image seeing the story told any other way
  • Although San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series is meant as low-budget way to provide a platform for new playwrights, the production quality of the play was high. I never once felt like I was seeing anything less than a fully formed production. I particularly liked how the upside-down bedroom hanging from the ceiling mirrored the chaotic inner world and ruptured childhood of the main character.

Who should go:

  • Teens and adults—and I would particularly love to see schools at this play. This does not at all mean that I think only teens should see it, it is a sophisticated play aimed at a general audience, but my take on the composition of the audience was that young people were not seeing it and that is a shame.

Tips:

  • They play starts a little late but make sure you arrive on time, there is no late seating.
  • The Strand has a café in the waiting room so it doesn’t hurt to arrive a little early!
  • Don’t stay home because you feel like you don’t have time to go. With a running time of 70 minutes with no intermission it is easy to fit it into your day.
  • Go soon: this is the last weekend of the play!

Themes: Teen pregnancy

Advisory: Representation of sex on stage (fully clothed).

Show information: all of what you love and none of what you hate is Playing The Rueff at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street.

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THOUGHTS: John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons http://artsincolor.com/2016/07/thoughts-latin-history-morons/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/07/thoughts-latin-history-morons/#respond Fri, 22 Jul 2016 02:29:13 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13614 John Leguizamo opens his new one-man show with a bit about his son getting bullied at his middle school. The bully comes from a long line of cops and veterans, or, as he puts it, “heroes.” To boost his son’s spirits and maybe his social standing, and because, as it turns out, his son actually [...]

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Latin History blackboard

Award-winning playwright, actor, and performer John Leguizamo in the world premiere of Latin History for Morons at Berkeley Rep.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

John Leguizamo opens his new one-man show with a bit about his son getting bullied at his middle school. The bully comes from a long line of cops and veterans, or, as he puts it, “heroes.” To boost his son’s spirits and maybe his social standing, and because, as it turns out, his son actually has to write a paper about the subject to graduate 8th grade, Leguizamo decides to find a Latin American hero for his son to be proud of.

In Latin History for Morons Leguizamo is operating under the assumption that we, the audience, didn’t learn Latin American history in school. Equipped with a blackboard, chalk, and stacks of books, he sets out of teach us everything we don’t know about Latin America, beginning in 2000 BC. It’s a lot of history to cover in 90 minutes, so as you can imagine, Leguizamo goes broad: the Aztecs, the Incas, the Tainos, and various US Native American tribes. For the most part, we, the audience, have hopefully heard about these civilizations that got subsumed by the Spanish Conquistadors. But as he gets farther into the present, he comes up with historical figures we haven’t heard of, including Loreta Velázquez, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War.

Leguizamo riffing

Award-winning playwright, actor, and performer John Leguizamo in the world premiere of Latin History for Morons at Berkeley Rep.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The history is interspersed with the recent past. Leguizamo takes on the characters of his kids, his wife, and even his therapist. In these scenes we see a father who is trying to relate to his teenage kids and who comes to terms with the fact that there is so much he wasn’t taught about his ancestry. What person of color in the United States hasn’t felt that?

Under Tony Taccone’s direction, Latin History for Morons is the most fun I’ve had at the theater in a long time. What John Leguizamo’s show lacks in depth, it makes up for in sheer energy and hilarious one-liners. But it also reminds us that it’s important to know all of our history, and it’s important for our children’s education and our own education to include non-European heroes.

Reasons to Go:

  • John Leguizamo is a joy to watch.
  • The show features some politically-relevant humor.
  • You’ll want to go dig up your own history!

Who should go: Adults and teens

Tips:

  • There is no intermission.
  • There is an option for “Head of the Class” seating. These seats are two rows at the foot of the stage, and you will probably be incorporated into the show.
  • John Leguizamo will be signing copies of his graphic novel Ghetto Klown for 30 minutes after each performance (but only if you purchase the book on site).

Themes: Latin America, bullying, history, education

Advisory: Adult language, allusions to sex

Show information: Playing through August 14 at Berkeley Rep 

 

 

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TALKS: Actor Robby Ramos on HYSTERICAL at T. Schreiber Theatre http://artsincolor.com/2016/07/talks-actor-robby-ramos-hysterical-t-schreiber-studio-theatre/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/07/talks-actor-robby-ramos-hysterical-t-schreiber-studio-theatre/#respond Wed, 20 Jul 2016 14:20:09 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13627 Currently running at T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre is a world premiere of a new play written by Emmy nominated Disney Executive Jim Geoghan entitled, HYSTERICAL directed by Crystal Edn. A workshop production, this dark comedy finds an ideal venue in T. Schreiber’s intimate black box where the focus is on the fine actors telling the stories through complex [...]

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13557736_10157221449440601_2994830954315080431_nCurrently running at T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre is a world premiere of a new play written by Emmy nominated Disney Executive Jim Geoghan entitled, HYSTERICAL directed by Crystal Edn. A workshop production, this dark comedy finds an ideal venue in T. Schreiber’s intimate black box where the focus is on the fine actors telling the stories through complex character relationships in the setting of a Las Vegas mental hospital. One of the play’s most intriguing characters is Monroe, played by Robby Ramos, the hospital’s resident schizophrenic drug dealer. Robby Ramos is utterly captivating in this role, both hysterically funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Ramos is a standout in this production and Arts in Color had the pleasure of interviewing him!

AIC: Where are you from? When did you decide to become an actor?

Robby: I’m from Miami, Florida. I decided to pursue acting shortly after high school. I’d played baseball since I was five years old. I had dreams of becoming a Major League baseball player but some of the behavior I was indulging in during my teen years didn’t exactly help my chances of reaching my full potential as an athlete. So I switched gears and took a chance with this acting thing. 
 
AIC: Tell us about the role of Monroe in Hysterical. What are the biggest similarities and differences between you and your character Monroe?
 

Robby: We all want friendship. We all want to feel connected. Loved. And I think thats what is at the core of Monroe. The mental health issues are something I’ve never had to deal with. Although, yo, sometimes I hear voices too. Just saying. Thats normal, right?

Mike Blum and Robby Ramos. Photo credit: Ryan Camarano

Mike Blum and Robby Ramos. Photo credit: Ryan Camarena

AIC: What was the casting process like?
 

Robby: You ever jumped off a plane? I haven’t. But I imagine at some point you have to say (bleep) it and jump.

 
AIC: How did you prepare for the rehearsal process?
 
Robby: I spent a week living inside an insane asylum. I’m method. Shout out to DDL. Nah, in all honesty, I have to say that Crystal, our director, really set the tone early and established a safe environment where I was able to play freely and take chances. And for the record, I’m not throwing shade at the method. I love Daniel Day Lewis. Just in case, you know, he reads this or whatever. 
 
AIC: What has it been like to work on a World Premiere and what has surprised you most about this process ?
 
Robby: I think I rediscovered how much fun acting can be. I’ve been having a blast on stage. And the fact that its a world premiere gives me the free rein to take the character wherever I’d like since its never been done before. 
13626619_10157263803425601_4183171603375757572_n
AIC: Our site is called “Arts in Color.” What does it mean to you to be an artist of color?
 
Robby: I take pride in that. And I salute all the artists who came before me for opening the doors.
 
AIC: What advice do you have for aspiring actors, particularly artists of color?
 
Robby: MAKE YOUR OWN WORK. MAKE YOUR OWN WORK. MAKE YOUR OWN WORK.
 
AIC: What is next for Robby? How can our readers stay up to date with you?
 
Robby: I wrote my first play, ‘ALPHA 66’ and its premiering at the Theatre for the New City’s ‘Dream Up Festival’ in September. If you search ALPHA 66 on indiegogo it’ll pop up. We need dinero. For reals. HELP! Add me as a friend on Facebook or instagram/twitter @robeeramos. 
________
HYSTERICAL runs until July 23rd at T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre
Wednesday July 20-Saturday July 23 at 8pm
Featuring: Gavin Bazalar, Zulla Berha, Mike Blum*, Niles Gunning, Linda Hill, Lauren Leland, Robby Ramos, Dan Sturges, Emma Traubert, Diane Tyler*, Noelle P. Wilson*
For more information visit: TSchreiber.org/Hysterical
Run time: 2hrs
Note: Contains adult language and brief partial nudity
Credit: Ryan Camarena, Vick Krishna

Credit: Ryan Camarena, Vick Krishna

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THOUGHTS: Red Velvet at the San Francisco Playhouse http://artsincolor.com/2016/06/red-velvet-san-francisco-playhouse/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/06/red-velvet-san-francisco-playhouse/#respond Tue, 21 Jun 2016 03:00:59 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13576 It is difficult to adequately portray in words the magnitude of the moment African-American actor Ira Aldridge appeared on stage at Covent Garden in the title role of Othello in 1833 London. Aldridge took over the role over from a dying Edmund Kean (who played Othello in brownface), an actor considered at the time to [...]

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Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly*) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano*) perform as Othello and Desdemona at the Covent Garden theatre.

Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano) perform as Othello and Desdemona at the Covent Garden theatre. Photo Credit: Ken Levin

It is difficult to adequately portray in words the magnitude of the moment African-American actor Ira Aldridge appeared on stage at Covent Garden in the title role of Othello in 1833 London. Aldridge took over the role over from a dying Edmund Kean (who played Othello in brownface), an actor considered at the time to be the greatest interpreter of Shakespearean tragedy on the British stage. While Aldridge had already made a name for himself in smaller theatres and regional theatre, an actor of African descent on the most noted stage of early 19th century London, playing a dramatic lead role, moreover a romantic lead role opposite a famous white actress, was groundbreaking.

To put it into historical context, Aldridge was born to free parents in New York at a time when slavery was still being “phased out” in the state, and it would be another 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War would end slavery in the US in all states. He emigrated to Europe for the greater opportunities afforded to black actors there, but this by no means meant equal opportunity. The slave trade had just been abolished in the British Empire in 1807, the year Aldridge was born. At the time of his 1833 Othello performance, there was rioting in the London streets in opposition of the Slavery Abolition Act, which would end slavery in the British colonies. In spite of the immense talent and skill that gained him praise from many critics and peers, including Edmund Kean himself,  Aldridge still battled gross racism as a performer in 19th century London. One reviewer claimed that it was physically impossible for his African mouth  to properly pronounce Shakespearean dialogue. Indeed, upon being cast to replace Kean as Othello, Aldridge faced published threats to  “drive him from the stage he has dishonoured, and force him to find in the capacity of footman or streetsweeper, that level for which is colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.”  Arguably, Aldridge risked both his professional reputation and his personal safety to take on the high-profile role of Othello at Covent Garden in the political charged climate of early 19th century London.

Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly*, right) discusses his opening night performance with a servant, Connie (Britney Frazier*)

Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) discusses his opening night performance with a servant, Connie (Britney Frazier). Photo Credit: Ken Levin

While the magnitude of Aldridge’s achievement may be difficult to portray in words, theatre itself is the perfect medium to do so, and British playwright Lolita Chakrabatri has done a service in bringing his remarkable story to the stage. The chance to see this seminal historic moment recreated is reason enough to go see Red Velvet at the San Francisco Playhouse. A second reason is that Carl Lumbly is outstanding in the lead role. It is a pleasure both to watch him bring Aldridge to life, and to watch him play Othello as Aldridge. The latter is no mean feat. It requires portraying the magnetism, presence, and skill Aldridge would have to have had to have the success he did. It also requires interpreting a famous Shakespearean role as Aldridge would have done in the style he would have performed it in 1833, while modulating when and whether he would temper the performance as Aldridge had been asked to do by those who feared a realistic performance of an interracial onstage romance. It is a testament to Lumbly’s skill as an actor that I would have gladly watched an entire play-within-a-play of Lumbly playing Aldridge performing Othello. Lumbly was aided by a solid supporting cast. Particularly notable was the subtle but important performance of Britney Frazier as Connie. Connie, a maid, is the only other person of color in the room when Aldridge is interacting with his white castmates, and she serves as silent commentator throughout many of the scenes through body language and facial expression.

Playwright Chakrabarti is a RADA trained actress, and you can see the actor’s point of view in the story she chose to tell, from her interpretation of the force of personality it would take to gain the respect Aldridge had in international theatre, to her portrayal of Aldridge as an acting-style barrier breaker, whose realistic approach intersected with the racial backlash he faced in performing opposite white, 19th British theatre sweetheart Ellen Tree. I wish there had been more exploration of the political milieu of the time (Aldridge was historically was known to give anti-slavery speeches at the end of his performances) but I understand the argument that his rich life story gave the playwright enough material for several plays and choices had to be made.

The play is at its best when Aldridge/Lumbly is on the stage, and this is perhaps why the opening scene of the play, featuring a Polish journalist getting flirty with the stagehand who snuck her into Aldridge’s dressing room  seemed to run a little long. That’s a minor quibble–while sometimes exposition heavy, the conceit of the time-jump interview that bookends the story of Aldridge’s Covent Garden debut  pays off in the final scene of the play where we get to see an older Aldridge perform what would be his last Shakespearean lead role, King Lear, in whiteface.

Red Velvet is a moving and engaging look at a piece of history rarely portrayed on the stage and well worth going out of your way to catch in its final week of performance.

Reasons to go:

#DiversityOnStage . This is a fascinating play highlighting barrier-breaker Ira Aldridge and featuring a stellar performance in the lead role by Carl Lumbly.

#DiversityOnPage. Interviews clearly indicate this play was a passion project for British born actress-playwright of Bengali descent Lolita Chakrabarti, and she fought to get this story told.

#DiversityBehindTheScenes. Director of color Margo Hall takes on the challenging task of directing a contemporary play while also directing scenes with a play as they would have been acted in 1833. I also particularly noticed her elegant and interesting transitions between scenes—which is always a hallmark of thoughtful and creative theatrical direction.

Who should go: Everyone. This is a poignant and powerful play appropriate for all ages. And if you love Shakespeare and theatre history you are especially in for a treat.

Tips:

  • The theatre is right off of Union Square. It’s a quick walk to the Powell St. Bart (or numerous buses) if you don’t want to park in the city.
  • Grab a drink or some food before or after the show at the theatre bar. You can also order something ahead of time for intermission.
  • The San Francisco Playhouse theatre space is lovely and very intimate. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house.
  • The theatre is on the 2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel. If you’re coming from further away you can treat yourself to a night in the city and you won’t even need to exit the building to see a fabulous piece of professional theatre.
  • There is some construction in front of the theatre—keep an eye out for signs and enter through the hotel.

Themes: theatre history, black theatre history, British theatre history, racism, diversity on stage

Show information:  Red Velvet is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse until June 25th.

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THOUGHTS: runboyrun at the Magic Theatre http://artsincolor.com/2016/05/thoughts-runboyrun-magic-theatre/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/05/thoughts-runboyrun-magic-theatre/#respond Fri, 13 May 2016 23:05:49 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13523 We are introduced to the story of runboyrun through ghosts, although we do not yet know that that is what they are. At the beginning of the play they are just two characters from a different time and place: Sister (Katherine Turner) and Boy (Rotimi Agbabiaka). The meat of the action begins with Disciple (Adrian [...]

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Disciple - runboyrun

Disciple (Adrian Roberts*) returns home from work on a cold Massachusetts evening.
(Photo credit Jennifer Reiley)

We are introduced to the story of runboyrun through ghosts, although we do not yet know that that is what they are. At the beginning of the play they are just two characters from a different time and place: Sister (Katherine Turner) and Boy (Rotimi Agbabiaka).

The meat of the action begins with Disciple (Adrian Roberts) returning home to his wife, Abasiama (Omoze Idehenre), who is buried under blankets, trying to keep out the frigid New England winter. After a tense exchange, he descends into the basement where he strips off his outerwear and tries to write about Nigeria. It is there in the basement that the ghosts come to him. He doesn’t see them, but he senses their presence, as they inhabit the space, to the point of physically invading his.

The ghosts: Sister, Boy, Mother (Nancy Moricette), and Ben Gun (Rafael Jordan), are a point of contention between Disciple and Abasiama. He is convinced that they are her doing and is suspicious to the point where he thinks she might be poisoning him with her traditional, Nigerian, cooking. She has no idea what he’s talking about but senses that something is seriously wrong.

As we come to find out, it is not her at all, but his own memories of the Biafran War that are haunting him. Boy is Disciple fifty years earlier. The others are his family.

SIster and Boy

Sister (Katherine Renee Turner*) and boy (Rotimi Agbabiaka*) play a favorite game.
(Photo credit Jennifer Reiley)

Mfoniso Udofia has written a play that hits you hard and never lets up. The dialogue is peppered with vivid images of Nigeria during the war. You can’t help but feel for the characters, both in the past and the present, as they try to navigate their circumstances. The actors take Udofia’s text and make it their own right down to the Ibibo accents. Accents can sometimes feel stilted, even if they are technically correct, but that it not the case here.

Where the production falters is in the set. It is difficult to have two distinct spaces on a small stage so the delineation between the basement and the first floor gets muddled. Because of this, it is sometimes unclear whether the ghosts are haunting only Disciple, or Abasiama as well.

I also found the direction and pacing to be off. Overall this is a dark play with some moments of levity, but even with a dark, intense, play it is important to have an ebb and flow. Here, the action is constantly frenzied, and especially towards the second half there are few moments of calm. I would have liked Sean San Jose to find the quiet intensity in the story as well as the frenetic energy.

Overall, this play is well worth the trek out to Fort Mason. Udofia is a talented playwright and the cast is superb. It is not often that we get to see African or African immigrant stories on stage in this country, and it is important that those narratives get told.

Reasons to Go

  • Beautifully rendered story of an immigrant experience that is not often written about in the US
  • The acting is top notch
  • The storytelling includes a history lesson about Nigeria post-independence

Who should go: Adults and teens, although there are some moments that could be upsetting for a younger audience

Tips:

  • Fort Mason is off the beaten track for many San Franciscans and East Bay residents, so make a day of it and visit the rest of the site
  • Read AIC’s Sojourner’s review for a background about the characters

Themes: marriage, the immigrant experience, Nigerian history, Biafran war

Show information: runboyrun is playing at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, San Francisco until May 15. Tickets available on the Magic Theatre website.

 

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THOUGHTS: Sojourners at the Magic Theatre http://artsincolor.com/2016/05/thoughts-sojourners/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/05/thoughts-sojourners/#respond Fri, 06 May 2016 15:20:56 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13501 I admit that when I first read that Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners was part of a 9-play cycle of works about the same Nigerian immigrant family in Texas, my first reaction was wariness. Would this story feel complete or would I feel like I had merely seen a prologue to an unfinished longer tale? Would the characters [...]

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Abasiama (Katherine Turner) is surprised by Moxie (Jamella Cross) during the graveyard shift at work. (Photo Credit Jennifer Reiley)

I admit that when I first read that Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners was part of a 9-play cycle of works about the same Nigerian immigrant family in Texas, my first reaction was wariness. Would this story feel complete or would I feel like I had merely seen a prologue to an unfinished longer tale? Would the characters I was about to meet really be intriguing and complex enough that they’d warrant 8 more stories about them? I needn’t have been concerned. I left the Magic Theatre feeling very much that I had seen a play with a complete narrative arc, yet wanting to know more about the bright, ambitious Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner), balancing a late-term pregnancy with full-time studies on a Student Visa, her charming but woefully unreliable husband by arranged-marriage Ukpong (Jarrod Smith), the aptly nicknamed teen-prostitute Moxie (Jamella Cross) whom Abasiama befriends at the gas station where she works, and Abasiama’s devout, devoted admirer, the equally aptly named Disciple Ufot (Rotimi Agbabika). While it’s Abasiama’s journey that we follow in this play, all four characters are well realized– sometimes delightful, sometimes maddening, sometimes admirable, sometimes deeply flawed. It is a credit to both the writing and the skill of the actors that I cared about each character even when they were making choices I didn’t agree with. When the charming free-spirit Upkong vows to give up his multi-day benders and buckle down and study, ardently promising his wife “I’ll be the head and you’ll be the neck that turns me,” you want him to mean it as much as he seems to want to mean it. When the brash and unapologetic Moxie— all fierceness and flash— tries to pull off her unlikely dream of getting a job at the gas station convenience store where Abiasama works when she is functionally illiterate, you see her vulnerability and hope that sheer belief and the support of Abiasama is enough to help her achieve her goal. Abiasama herself is often put on a pedestal by other characters, but it is always clear that pedestal is more about what the other characters need her to be for them than who she is. Turner makes sure we see both Abiasama’s rigidity and softness, and in doing so, reveals her to be as infinitely human in her strengths and weaknesses as every other character in the play. Disciple Ufot is the biggest black box, although this is no fault of the actor. His character does not become part of the action until the second act, and the interludes with him in the first half are—for better or for worse— directed in such a way to suggest an otherworldliness. I want to know more about all of the characters in future plays, but his is perhaps the character who feels somewhat unfinished without the context of whatever we will learn in future plays.

Sojourners-Press-7

Disciple Ufot (Rotimi Agbabiaka) continues his thesis struggle. Haven’t we all wished we could cure writer’s block by magic or prayer? (Photo Credit Jennifer Reiley)

In this  production, music was used only occasionally to accent dramatic moments and the simple set—a vintage kitchen and living room and a convenience store light board with missing letters —adequately evoke time and place, albeit arguably not Texas specifically. Like any production with strong writing and acting though, Sojourners didn’t need an elaborate set or special effects, and director Ryan Guzzo Purcell was wise to keep the focus on the excellent performances.

This is a compelling story that stays with you after the play is over. I left the theatre deeply uncertain as to whether or not Abasiama had made the correct or even a good choice about the direction her own life would take at the end of the play, but equally uncertain as to what a correct or good choice would have been. If Sojourners is a sample of what Udofia has in store in her 9-play cycle, then she has succeeded in making me intrigued enough to want to see all 9 of them.

Reasons to Go:
•  Superb storytelling on every level.
•  #DiversityOnStage in both theme and casting. This is a play about Nigerian immigrants to the US and features actors of color in all four roles in the play.
•  Diversity behind the scenes: Sojourners was written by the talented up-and-coming Nigerian American playwright Mfoniso Udofia.

Who Should Go: Anyone and everyone, although the story may resonate best with teens and up.

Tips:
• This play is being run in repertory with Udofia’s runboyrun, which looks at the same family 30 years in the future. Either can be seen first, and both work as independent plays, but if you see Sojourners first, I would avoid reading the timeline in the program as it contains a bit of a spoiler.
• It was hard to tell how the blocking on the thrust stage would look from the seats at the sides, and I didn’t notice anyone craning their necks, but I was glad to be seated in the middle section and would recommend picking seats there if you can.
• The theatre is within Fort Mason so be prepared for expensive parking .
• The playwright will be doing a free talkback and reading from her cycle of plays on May 9th at 7pm. Check out the Magic Theatre website for more information!

Themes: the immigrant experience in America in the late 70s, Nigerian-American history, Nigerian history, Nigerian culture, marriage, friendship

Show information: Sojourners is currently playing Tuesday through Sunday in repertory with runboyrun, at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, San Francisco. Tickets available on the Magic Theatre website,

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THOUGHTS: aubergine at Berkeley Rep http://artsincolor.com/2016/03/thoughts-aubergine-berkeley-rep/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/03/thoughts-aubergine-berkeley-rep/#comments Tue, 22 Mar 2016 12:00:43 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13384 aubergine opens with a single character, Diane (Safiya Fredericks), on a bare stage. Her appearance, and her monologue, could represent the next two hours: lean, contemplative, and full of food and familial relationships. Ray (Tim Kang) is a chef whose relationship with his immigrant father (Sab Shimono) could be described as strained at best. But [...]

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Ray and Lucien

(l to r) Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lucien) and Tim Kang (Ray) in Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Rep.
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

aubergine opens with a single character, Diane (Safiya Fredericks), on a bare stage. Her appearance, and her monologue, could represent the next two hours: lean, contemplative, and full of food and familial relationships.

Ray (Tim Kang) is a chef whose relationship with his immigrant father (Sab Shimono) could be described as strained at best. But now his father is dying, and Ray is his primary caregiver.

Most comfortable in the loud, brash environment of a restaurant kitchen, Ray is out of his element sitting watch at the dining table in his father’s makeshift bedroom. The hospice nurse, Lucien (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), encourages him to cook, even giving him an aubergine to spark his creative juices.

It is also up to Ray to tell his uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) about his father’s illness, but his uncle lives in Korea and speaks no English. Ray convinces his ex-girlfriend Cornelia (Jennifer Lim), to act as a translator. She becomes a fixture in the house when Ray’s uncle shows up in Ray’s kitchen wanting to cook a symbolic meal.

Ray and his father

(l to r) Sab Shimono (Ray’s father) and Tim Kang (Ray) in Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Rep.
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Through a series of flashbacks and monologues, playwright Julia Cho, leads us through the characters’ relationships with each other, with memory, and with food. There are some beautiful moments within these tangential stories.

Cho has also chosen to write a significant chunk of this play in Korean. Most of the Korean is translated, but some is not. I thought this was a great choice. It was nice to see the characters interact in their own language, without feeling the need to stick to English. It made the play that much richer.

There are a couple of missteps. The biggest for me was with the character of Lucien. Cho’s development of Lucien veers dangerously close to the Magical Negro trope. He is a refugee from an unidentified country but his accent and fluent French suggest he is from Francophone Africa. I wanted more specificity: about his country, his refugee experience, and his journey to the States. Additionally, I wanted Diane to be more relevant to the action. We don’t see her again until the end of the show.

But ultimately, this is a smart, engaging play and well worth the trip to Berkeley.

Reasons to Go:

  1. Tim Kang’s engaging performance as Ray
  2. The memories of food
  3. The theater has been newly renovated and the sound system has been upgraded
  4. And illustration of the immigration experience.

Who Should Go: Teens through adults

Tips:

  1. Rush tickets ($10 off) are available one hour before the show for Students and Seniors
  2. Half-price tickets are available for anyone under 30
  3. Some performances have pre-show and/or post-show discussions

 Themes: Migration, family, food

Advisory: Swear words, depiction of death

Show Information: via Berkeley Rep’s website

 

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TALKS: Cheryl L Davis http://artsincolor.com/2016/03/talks-cheryl-l-davis/ http://artsincolor.com/2016/03/talks-cheryl-l-davis/#respond Sat, 05 Mar 2016 20:58:30 +0000 http://artsincolor.com/?p=13394 Arts in Color recently had the opportunity to interview multi-talented playwright, librettist, lyricist, and screenwriter Cheryl L Davis, who impressively balances her day job as a partner in a law firm with her award-winning writing career. In 2005, she won the prestigious Kleban Prize in Musical Theater for her work as a librettist. The same year, her musical [...]

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Cheryl L Davis backstage at Bridges. Photo by Paul Chinn provided by the Berkeley Playhouse

Cheryl L Davis backstage at Bridges. Photo by Paul Chinn, provided by the Berkeley Playhouse

Arts in Color recently had the opportunity to interview multi-talented playwright, librettist, lyricist, and screenwriter Cheryl L Davis, who impressively balances her day job as a partner in a law firm with her award-winning writing career. In 2005, she won the prestigious Kleban Prize in Musical Theater for her work as a librettist. The same year, her musical Barnstormer was recognized with a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Award via the The Lark Play Development Center. More recently, a 2014 production of her play Maid’s Door was recognized with 7 Vivian Robinson/AUDELCO “VIV” Recognition Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre, including Best Playwright and Dramatic Production of the Year.

Davis’ broad and multifaceted canon of work includes several plays focusing on the lives of artists or activists of color, including South African leader Nelson Mandela, singer Ma Rainey, poet Phyllis Wheatley, and director and film producer Oscar Micheaux. She generously took the time to answer some questions about herself, her work, and her new musical Bridges which is currently running at the Berkeley Playhouse in Berkeley, California.

Arts in Color: Could you tell our readers a little about yourself? What drew you to theatre and to writing?

Cheryl L Davis: By day, I’m a mild-mannered midtown Manhattan attorney. By night, I’m a writer. It seems that I’ve always been drawn to the theater, ever since seeing my first play in elementary school. I remember nagging my parents to take me to the theater as a child, and as soon I could, I started auditioning for school plays. My musical theater education really started when I started taking part in Scarsdale Summer Music Theater in my teens. It was there I fell in love with the collaboration of putting on musicals and performing them in front of live audiences.  But it was seeing the film An American in Paris that really sparked my desire to write.  There’s a moment after an exuberant and colorful series of dances with Leslie Caron when we see Gene Kelly standing alone, dressed in black, and the camera closes in on a rose in his hand.  It’s then that we realize that the world we had spent time in, been enthralled by – didn’t actually exist. This artist had created it from nothing. I realized then that I wanted to create worlds that enraptured people like that.

AIC: Can you tell our readers a little bit about Bridges?

CLD: To me, Bridges is a story about pursuing social justice and finding one’s identity, as told through the prism of a family.

AIC: What do you enjoy about writing musicals?

CLD: I love the way music is a hotline past the intellect and directly to emotion.  Just putting words to music automatically gives them greater emotional resonance and allows an actor to convey so much more than mere text can.

AIC: What has the process of developing a new production for the Berkeley Playhouse been like for you?

CLD: It has been wonderfully supportive, and exciting!  This is my first full-length musical written on commission, and a new and fascinating collaborative process for me.

AIC: What inspired you to set this play in 1965 and 2008?

CLD: The Founding Artistic Director of the Berkeley Playhouse wanted a musical dealing with the Selma March, but she also wanted it to relate to the Bay Area.  After some discussion on topics that were of importance to the area, Prop8 naturally came up, and we realized that we could draw a connection between the two civil rights movements.

AIC: Was setting the play in two very different musical eras challenging at all for you and your composer? What is your collaborative songwriting process?

CLD: “Challenging” doesn’t do it justice. Making two different time periods and story-lines both clear and entertaining was like working on a really complicated (but very cool) puzzle.  And it was definitely fun writing for the different musical eras and styles.

AIC: What do you enjoy most about writing historical plays?

CLD: I adore history. I think it’s a tremendous source of untold stories, especially about the African-American community.  One of my first musicals was about Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman flyer, and in fact, simultaneously with Bridges‘ premiere in Berkeley, my play Tuxedo Junction (about Erskine Hawkins, author of the famous song) is being performed in Birmingham, Alabama.

AIC: Are there things you discovered in your research for this musical that surprised or inspired you?

CLD: While I had some familiarity with the Selma March, it was only after my research that I learned that Jimmie Lee Jackson (whose death was one of the catalysts for the March) had died as the result of a police beating and gunshot wounds. It seemed to draw an unfortunate connection between how more recent police deaths had given rise to a more recent Black civil rights movement.

AIC: Can you tell us about some of the other plays and musicals you’ve written?

CLD: I have a website: www.cldplay.com

AIC: Are there particular themes or topics that have resonated with you as a writer?

CLD: History of all kinds (my first play was about Anne Boleyn & Henry VIII), but especially stories about African-American history.

AIC: Do you have any other upcoming productions you’d like to tell us about (including outside of the Bay Area)?

CLD: Other than Tuxedo Junction (see above), nothing else has yet been scheduled. Stay tuned!

AIC: What does it mean to you to be an artist of color? Do you have any advice for those of our readers who are aspiring playwrights of color?

CLD: I follow in the footsteps of so many wonderful artists that it intimidates me at times.  And I view it as one of my primary responsibilities to tell stories of people of color, and to give opportunities to performers of color. But I believe I can best do that by being the best artist I can, so I am always trying to hone and improve my craft – and that’s the advice I would give to other artists of color.

 

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