Sunday, November 12, 2017

Could it happen again?

     When Jeanne Sakata saw a documentary about a Japanese-American college student in World War II who fought against the mass incarceration of his people all the way to the Supreme Court, she wanted to know more about this civil rights champion.  Much more.

     “It was shocking to me that I had never heard about Gordon’s story,” she said, referring to Gordon Hirabayashi.  “I come from a Japanese-American family in northern California.  There was a lot of pride in our community at being Japanese-American.”

   Hirabayashi’s story also had personal resonance for her.  Sakata’s father, Tommy, and her aunts and uncles, all born in America to Japanese immigrant parents, had been imprisoned when he was in high school as part of the United States government’s forced removal and mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.

  “I was enthralled,” she said. “I felt like I had discovered a treasure, a great American saga.”

     As an actress, she envisioned this American story being told on an American stage. Saying she became “obsessed” with it in 1997 as she thought about the documentary, she researched all she could find about Hirabayashi’s gradual awakening as a University of Washington student to the racial injustice, leading to  his bold defiance of curfew and exclusion orders, which landed him in jail before he took his cause to the Supreme Court in 1943, where the court ruled against him. Forty years later Hirabayashi v. United States was reopened and he was victorious.

     “The story took over my life,” she said.  “I went to bed thinking about it and I woke up thinking about it.  I have a deep personal, psychic connection to it.  Writing the play was very redemptive for me.”

    Just as this ugly chapter in American history had shaped Hirabayashi’s life — and Sakata’s father’s family’s — it also began to transform Sakata’s. Over the course of a decade, her obsession led her from actress to playwright.  The work that was born, Hold These Truths, has played around the country since its world premiere in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles, under its original title, Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi. 

     The one-man play will have its first post-presidential election production at New York’s Sheen Center for Thought & Culture from Dec. 3 to 20 under the direction of Lisa Rothe. Different productions will play at Lyric Stage Company of Boston from Dec. 1 through 31 and at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in the spring.

     Sakata spoke about her journey with this work from her car while parked in a shady residential block of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. She had been helping her husband, a psychotherapist, move his office.  Worried that one piece of wall art would be damaged in the moving truck, she took it in her car and stopped for a 90-minute phone interview.

     Hold These Truths’s Off-Broadway run is a revival of the show that had its New York premiere in 2012 starring Joel de la Fuente, who won a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance and who will reprise the role at the Sheen Center.  Even though it was seen in the city just five years ago, Sakata  and de la Fuente think the play has a message that should be heard again.

     “We really do need to see an American story about what it is to be an American and what the Constitution is,” de la Fuente said during a telephone interview from his home in the New York suburbs.  “It’s a profound and living document but only if we fight for it.  If we don’t, it’s only a piece of paper.  So many people like Gordon show it can be more than that, but there’s a price.  You have to not only have faith, but stand up for that faith.”

  De la Fuente, whose parents emigrated from the Philippines, has performed the show more than a half dozen times and is encouraged by responses the show receives during audience talkbacks.

     “Gordon was the kind of person Americans revere,” he said.  “He has strong faith and a code of beliefs and he stands by those beliefs in a climate of tremendous unrest and fear.  When people become afraid and feel threatened, all kinds of crazy things happen. There’s a rush to surrender human rights.  After 9/11 people were even volunteering to surrender those hard fought for and hard won rights we have that make our country what it is.”

     Rothe has been with the project since being asked to direct a reading of it in 2009.  

     “I’m not changing anything at all,” she said during a telephone interview from a diner in midtown Manhattan. “It speaks even louder to what is happening now.  In the cycle of life, we think, ‘Oh, this could happen again.’”

     As she has in the past, Rothe is keeping the staging simple.

     “In a one-person show, portraying 36 different characters, the focus is on the actor less than on the set.  It’s three chairs, one suitcase, some books and Joel and that’s it.”

     De la Fuente transforms the chairs into a courtroom, a car, or whatever the scene calls for. 

     The play opens and closes with Hirabayashi as a retired professor in his mid-60s and goes back in time for him to tell his story.  The political and social forces operating in the 1940s are brought out through Hirabayashi’s conversations with the other characters in his life.  Sakata drew heavily from Hirabayashi’s letters to a friend, which are on file at the University of Washington.  The friend had saved all of them.

     “I don’t know if I could have written the play without them,” Sakata says.  “They gave me the voice of the younger Gordon.  When I met him he was a retired professor in his 70s, of a different time and voice.  In the letters he’s just a young idealistic college student dealing with this travesty. I saw the force of his personality shining through.”

     And she got to experience that force in her two interviews with Hirabayashi, first at his brother’s house in the Bay area of San Francisco and later at his home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where he was a retired sociology professor from the University of Alberta.

     “Gordon was a natural storyteller,” she said.  “He loved people. One of the things that was essential to Gordon was his curiosity.  He never stopped learning.”

   In writing about the World War II racism, Sakata purposefully avoided using the term internment camp, substituting instead mass incarceration or imprisoned. 

     “It’s not really descriptive of what the experience was really like, American citizens incarcerated behind barbed wire.  I use the term mass incarceration because it was a mass incarceration of a whole population of people.”

     Sakata’s father died 20 years ago and so never saw her play.  He rarely spoke about his time of imprisonment, and then only in hushed tones, but she believes the play would have touched him. 

     Hirabayashi, who died in 2012 at 93, also never got to see it.   Sakata had lost touch with him for a couple of years when she was particularly busy with acting. When she got back to working on the play she called Hirabayashi and learned from his wife, Susan, that he had Alzheimer’s Disease. 

     “I think it would have meant a lot to Gordon,” she said.  “He saw his battle as representing all Americans at any point who might have their Constitutional rights threatened.”

     Hirabayashi’s awakening to those rights is a turning point in the play.  One night when he is running across the University of Washington campus to get to his room before the curfew imposed by the government on people of Japanese ancestry, he notices an American flag and stops.

     “Why am I running,” he asks himself.  “I was born here.  Raised here.  I am an American citizen.”  He returns to the library and his civil rights stand begins.

    President Barack Obama awarded Hirabayashi the Presidential Medal of Freedom three months after his death.

     “It’s really a cautionary tale,” Sakata said.  “It seems like daily there are assaults on our freedom.  Gordon’s story is more timely than ever.  I used to be optimist and think that it could never happen again but now I’m not so sure.  It all depends on whether the white supremacists can be stopped.  For some of us, the election of Trump was a shock.  If that could happen, what else could happen?  I’m very uncertain about the future of our country.”     

     Hold These Truths offers hope.  In all the writings of and about Hirabayashi, it was words of his own that Sakata knew should end the play, and so they do:

    “I am somewhat aware of what was, and is.
     I have a glimpse of what ought to be.

     I seek to live as though the ought to be, is.”

Friday, November 10, 2017

Babette's Feast

     Actress Abigail Killeen first heard of the 1988 Danish film “Babette’s Feast” in a sermon at a church in lower Manhattan in the 1990s.  Curious, she watched the movie, which had won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and enjoyed it, but “as a young woman in my 20s at the time I thought it was beautiful but it didn’t pierce my heart the way age does for us.”

     Fast forward to 2007 when the movie was the subject of a sermon at a different Manhattan church. This time Killeen learned that the film was based on a short story by Danish author Isak Dinesen. She read the story and it was then she grasped the message of “overwhelming and scandalous grace.”  And it changed her life.

    For the last decade she has devoted herself to adapting the story for the stage. That mission will be fulfilled in January when the theatrical production of “Babette’s Feast” has its world premiere at Portland Stage Company, Maine’s leading professional theatre.

     “I believe it’s bigger than I and it’s a call that is strong,” she says.  “It’s been my full-time, uncompensated job.  My husband jokes that our third child is named Babette.”

     It hasn’t really been her full-time job for the last decade.   Killeen, 42, spoke about her experience as the play’s conceiver and developer one morning in midtown Manhattan while in the city for the show’s casting. She was on sabbatical from her position as an associate theatre professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.

    “The story hit me in such a different way than the film.  It’s such a work of beauty.  I thought there’s more to mine with Babette being a political refugee.  That could really get teased out.  The film was so focused on the food and the preparation.  We can’t do that onstage so we’re free to examine the effects of the feast.” 

     In the story and film, Babette is a refugee from 19th century revolutionary Paris. She has seen her husband and son killed, and she herself has participated in the uprisings.  A friend writes to two spinster sisters he knew years ago on the northern most edge of Norway and asks them to take Babette in. They do, and she becomes their housekeeper, living in the cold and dreary town with its austere religious residents.

     After many years, Babette learns she has won a large  sum of money from a lottery a friend had enrolled her in.  Rather than return to Paris and live a comfortable life for the rest of her days, she spends the entire sum on importing rich foods and wines for a grand feast she spends days preparing for the townsfolk, who have spent their lives dining on salted cod and bread and ale soup.  

     In reading the story when she did, Killeen discerned a different focus from the movie she had seen years before. She collaborated with Rose Courtney, a theatre colleague, to develop the script, which incorporates much of the language of Dinesen’s story. Courtney penned the final script.  The play is being helmed by Karin Coonrod, a New York-based experimental director.

     The script has had a thorough development process, including a sold-out workshop production in New York and the support of New York Theatre Workshop, a major developer of new theatrical work in the United States.

     “We’re in a different culture than when the film came out 30 years ago,” Killeen says.  “We’re in the middle of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.  This is a timely story.  It’s classic, but the themes are vital for today.”

     With that in mind, Killeen thought it was important to premiere the show in Portland, which is a refugee resettlement city.   It also influenced her decision to cast a woman of color to play Babette. [This part has not been cast now but if you check with me before going to print I should have a name for you.]  

     “It’s part of paying attention to the moment,” Killeen said.  “This is what a refugee looks like. Our casting has to reflect that.  It’s not a statement but an honest way to tell the truth.”

   The two other major roles will be the sisters, one of whom Killeen will play and the other will be played by Juliana Francis Kelly.  They will be joined by six ensemble members. The show runs under 90 minutes with no intermission.

     Because staging a play eight times a week with a vast amount of food would be not only difficult, but extremely expensive, Killeen has reimagined Babette’s offering.

     “We’ll be communicating in movement and music,” she said.  “There’s no food.”

     Killeen quoted director Coonrod as saying that if people walk away thinking the feast was about food, the production will have failed.

   “The feast is a banquet in a metaphorical sense,”  Killeen said.  “It’s a feast of equality.  The diners don’t understand what they’re eating.  Babette gives them an hour of the millennium, tasting the divine.  God asks us to taste him and see that it is good.  What comes upon them, they can only taste a fraction of and yet it keeps coming.  The grace is that they don’t have to understand.  They don’t have the words, but it’s showered on them in great abundance. That’s what we’re trying to get at with the feast.”

   Gina Leishman has composed original music and Aretha Aoki is the dance consultant. The production will be minimally staged to reflect the ferocity of the rocky Norwegian landscape above the Arctic Circle.  Two-time Tony winner Christopher Akerlind will be scenic and lighting designer.

     “The experience of the triune God happens in this tiny, isolated town through Babette, a complex figure, a mysterious stranger who actively participated in a violent uprising.  She’s a woman who encompasses light and dark and God uses her.”

     And she is a refugee, and her story is being told in a city with a large population of African refugees. The production team, working with Portland’s Catholic Charities and Lindsay Sterling’s Immigrant Kitchens, will offer cooking classes in which the city’s refugees will teach the locals to cook dishes from their country. Over three hours, they will prepare and eat the meals together.

    “Theatre provides a communal experience,” Killeen says.  “It is as close to a feast as any translated art form could be.  Cooking is an artistic act and so is theatre.  Fellowship in a meal is like a memory of a theatrical experience.”

     Killeen’s hope is that the show will have an immediate transfer to Off-Broadway’s Theatre at St. Clement’s after it closes in Maine on Feb. 18.  Julia Beardsley O’Brien is her producing partner in New York.

   Longterm, she dreams of taking the show to the Vatican.  That idea was planted in her by the Rev. Evan Pillbury, the rector of her Anglican church, Light of Christ, who told her the movie was a favorite of Pope Francis.  She wrote two letters to Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley asking him to inform the pontiff of her production but she received no reply.  A call by this reporter to the Cardinal’s office was unreturned. 

   By now Killeen has had her share of rejection connected to the project.  Many people told her she was crazy to pursue it, and still tell her that, just as they told the film’s director, Gabriel Axel, who fought for his ultimately Oscar-winning project long before he found acceptance. 

     “Even as people said no it was always gracious and with great respect,”  Killeen said.  “It renewed my thought that we had something.  I could let it reveal its path to me.  I had to keep shepherding it.”

Thursday, October 5, 2017

When your brain won’t cooperate, you have to get creative

Rhonda Badonda wants to function normally… Her brain has other ideas.

Dive into the shape-shifting landscape of the mind as Rhonda unscrambles a hidden medical mystery and encounters the truth of her baffling and bewildering world.

When your brain won’t cooperate, you have to get creative.

Rhonda Badonda:
The Adventures of a Girl with a Pain in Her Brain
Written & Performed by Rhonda S. Musak & Directed by Gareth Hendee
2 Performances: October 23 & 24

Presented as part of Theaterlab’s TLabShares Program, Rhonda Badonda: The Adventures of a Girl with a Pain in Her Brain (solo show) at Theaterlab, 357 W. 36th Street, 3rd FL (between 8 & 9 Avenues) for 2 performances Monday, October 23, 7:30 PM & Tuesday, October 24, 7:30 PM. Each performance will be followed by a short talkback. Tickets are $21 and can be purchased at

From the time she was a child and far into adulthood, Rhonda was squeaking by. Is she dumb? Or is it something else that is holding her back and making life so challenging? Why does she need so many self-help books and even a dating coach? At the heart of Rhonda Badonda are themes of determination and persistence tied together with a medical mystery. It is an often-hilarious autobiographical story of one woman's journey dealing with the learning disabilities that impact every area of her life—learning disabilities that had gone undiscovered.

Audiences will venture with Rhonda inside her brain, a bizarro-world terrain that shape-shifts continually leaving her lost, confused and ultimately more and more determined to get to the bottom of what's wrong with her.

"Beautiful…a credit to the solo show format. Rhonda Musak…fills the stage with motion and personality. She slips into her many characters with ease…lovingly crafted and portrayed…a story she tells with glowing wit and humor. Rhonda Badonda shines in its expression of the beauty and strangeness of the mind." Plank Magazine

Written & Performed by Rhonda S. Musak (title role of Ondine, voted one of “The Year’s Best” Gay City News), The artistic team includes: Gareth Hendee, Director (Dirty Blond – San Diego, co-directed with James Lapine; Sunday in the Park with George – Chicago, 4 Jeff Citation Awards including Best Director & Best Production of a Musical); Joan Evans, Movement Director (Stella Adler Studio); Michael Growler, Costume Design (Sunday in the Park with George – Chicago, Jeff Citation Award, Best Costume Design); Catherine Mardis, Sound Design (Associate Sound Designer for Gigi, and the Kennedy Center’s production of Little Dancer).

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Pilgrim's Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams

     The comfort of House Beautiful. The Arming of Pilgrim. The sheer terror of war and battle. Temptations of riches, lust, and power. Denial. Hope. Struggle. Victory. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece, The Pilgrims Progress, delivers them all.

     Gloriæ Dei Cantores and Elements Theatre Company will present The Pilgrim’s Progress fully staged for the first time in 12 years since they presented the New England premiere of the work in 2005. The opera will draw audience members from across the country and abroad into a timeless story portraying the universal journey of humanity’s search for spiritual redemption.

     The opera was written as the culmination of 45 years of Vaughan Williams’s musical journey. It’s the ultimate expression of the wide variety of his musical style, exhibiting fabulous transparency of orchestration and a luminous sound.

     Set at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA, this rarely performed opera will come to life amid frescoes, mosaics, bronze, glasswork, and stone carvings depicting the story of salvation from Genesis to Revelation.

     The opera requires a 40-person main cast, a 60-person chorus, and a full orchestra — nearly a 1 to 1 ratio with the audience seating. It features almost 300 original costumes and thousands of rehearsal hours. 

     The statistics alone are staggering,” Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe said

    The opera is set against abstract projections -- cutting-edge theatre technology designed by Michael Counts, Inc. The main cast features highly acclaimed artists including Richard K. Pugsley, Andrew Nolen, Paul Scholten, Eleni Calenos, Martha Guth, Kathryn Leemhuis, Aaron Sheehan and John Orduña.

     The Pilgrim’s Progress is the featured event of an international symposium on Arts and Ecumenism commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Sponsored in part by the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust of London, it will be the first fully staged performance of the opera worldwide since it was performed in London in 2012.

     The Pilgrim’s Progress will be performed at the Church of the Transfiguration, Cape Cod, MA, on Oct. 27 and 28, and Nov. 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. Call 508-240-2400 for reservations. Ticket availability is limited. Learn more at

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Broadway Blessing -- 20th Anniversary Celebration

    Two decades ago I had a dream of creating an event that would bring the theatre community together every September to ask God’s blessing on the new season.  With the help of many people that dream became Broadway Blessing, an interfaith service of song, dance, and story that will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.  I produced it for the first 16 years and now am happy to turn that role over to Kathryn Fisher who has put together an exciting program.  

     Please join us at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at St. Malachy’s/The Actors’ Chapel (49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) for an evening that will include David Beach (Something Rotten, Mama Mia, Urinetown) and Catherine Russell, who is in Guinness World Records for most performances in the same show. She's been in The Perfect Crime Off-Broadway for 30 years.

   Project Dance, a beloved part of Broadway Blessing for the last decade, will perform and the Rev. George Drance, S.J., artistic director of Magis Theatre Company, will offer a short piece from his play *mark and serve as emcee. 

     As in the past, the service will feature its popular candle lighting ceremony and the Broadway Blessing Choir, under the direction of Stephen Fraser, will sing show tunes and lead the audience in a sing-a-long of a Broadway song at the end.  The program will be followed by a reception in the church’s West Chapel.  

     Reservations are not need. The event, which is free but contributions are welcome, is sponsored by St. Malachy’s and will feature area clergy and congregations, including from The Actors’ Temple.  

      Broadway Blessing began in 1997 after I interviewed Msgr. Michael C. Crimmins and the Rev. Joseph A. Kelly, S.J., priests at St. Malachy’s, for a profile for a Catholic magazine and they mentioned similar congregations representing Episcopal (St. Clement’s), Lutheran (St. Luke’s) and Jewish (The Actors’ Temple) members.  As a freelance writer, I saw potential for more features and ended up doing profiles of those congregations for several publications.

  In the weeks that followed I began thinking about their similarities -- especially congregants who face much rejection and therefore need to find acceptance and approval. I started envisioning a service that would bring them all together to offer comfort and strengthen faith.  I pictured it on a Monday night, when theatres are dark, that it would be free, there wouldn’t be any reserved seats for special people -- everyone would be together -- and that performers from Broadway would take part. 

     I wrote to the clergy of the four congregations and told them my idea.  Very quickly my phone began ringing and they one after the other excitedly told me how much they loved the idea. “No one’s ever thought of this,” Crimmins said.  But no one else was in the position I was in -- a journalist who goes from person to person and because of that can see connections others can’t.  

   That first Blessing attracted nearly 200 people and thanks to  Kelly, who talked up the event and was given a donation, we had a nice reception.  What touched me the most was a young woman who came up to me in tears at the end and said she was an actress and couldn’t get work and had been so down that evening she was thinking of quitting the business and going home. She told me she now felt so uplifted she would keep going. I have thought of her many times over the years when the producing got tough.  

     Broadway Blessing has been presented at St. Malachy’s, St. Luke’s, St. Clement’s, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration. We’ve featured Lynn Redgrave talking about the importance of theatre in her life, four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines reading a speech by Althol Fugard, Marian Seldes and Frances Sternhagen reading from Tennessee Williams and others, and Edward Herrmann doing a dramatic reading of the final scene of Our Town, taking on all the parts.

   Among others who have participated are Melissa Errico, Christiane Noll, James Barbour, Three Mo’ Tenors, Billy Porter, KT Sullivan, Anna Manahan, Tituss Burgess, Adam Jacobs, J. Mark McVey, Carol Hall, Ken Prymus, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Richard Maltby Jr, Natalie Toro, Kathleen Chalfant and Broadway Inspirational Voices.

     We’ve also been blessed with original songs composed for past anniversaries by Bob Ost for our fifth, Elizabeth Swados for our 10th and Phil Hall for our 15th.

       I like to think the participants enjoy taking part as much as we love having them.  Seldes and Prymus appeared three times. This is what the late Ed Herrmann had to say before making his second Broadway Blessing appearance: 

     “It’s reassuring to know there are so many people out there you know that believe in God and want to take that part of their life and dedicate it to the theatre because theatre is a very spiritual endeavor. 

     “They come from every conceivable denomination, which I kind of like. It’s like a study in architecture of all these different buildings. They come from all kinds of disciplines and it’s just great to be among them. It’s an annual event, like with spring comes the first buds, now it’s fall and we’re here to bless our endeavors for the rest of the year and maybe some luck will come out of it, whether that’s internal or external.”

Monday, September 4, 2017

Song of the Builders

Song of the Builders
On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God -
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.
~ Mary Oliver ~
(Why I Wake Early)

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Peculiar Patriot

     When Liza Jessie Peterson tried to get her play The Peculiar Patriot produced in 2003, she met with rejection from every Off, Off-Broadway theatre she approached. No one would touch it. Her frustration became so great it eventually landed her in jail, where she found a captive audience. 

     She remained in the criminal justice system until last October.  In those 14 years much changed and now her play is having its world premiere at Harlem’s National Black Theatre

    Peterson wasn’t an inmate all those years.  She was an actress  and poet working, as she had since 1998, as a teacher and counselor at Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail that is ranked one of the 10 worst in the country according to a 2013 report by Mother Jones. From those experiences she shaped her one-woman, 90-minute play, which is being co-produced by HI-ARTS (formerly known as the Hip-Hop Festival). It runs through Oct. 1.  

     “No one back then was talking about prisons the way they are now,” Peterson says.  “It wasn’t a subject that interested people.  It might have been a little too edgy.  The term mass incarceration was not in the language.”

    So when the New York theatre community wouldn’t receive her, she knew one that would.

    “That was the reason why I took it on the prison tour.  I took the script and took it to audiences that appreciated it.  They received me and I am grateful.  They saw me and I saw them.”

    The play is set in the waiting room of an upstate New York prison where Betsy is visiting her best friend, Joann, filling her in on the neighborhood gossip and launching into scathing indictments, laced with humor, against racism in the criminal justice system. 

    Peterson, who is in her 40s, talked about her work in the quiet black box theatre at HI-ARTS, which is one of many arts groups sharing space in a creatively converted former public school in East Harlem. Wearing a black I AM THE TEMPLE T-shirt, black jeans, large gold hoop earrings with an additional longer feathered one in her right ear, several rings of varying sizes and with her brown hair piled on her head, Peterson is a commanding figure at 6’ 1”.  Even at the end of the third day of “intense” rehearsals with director Talvin Wilks, she is eloquent and passionate about her subject, which she calls slavery revisited.

   “Our country is rooted in the system of slavery.  The 13th Amendment declares slavery is illegal except for the punishment of a crime.  Prisoners are allowed to be slaves.  They’re not protected by the abolition of slavery.”

     The play’s title comes from a “sanitized” term used during the time of slavery, The Peculiar Institution. Peterson, who calls herself an artivist, says mass incarceration is peculiar, and anyone who supports the war against racism and poverty is a patriot.

   Among her acting roles, Peterson appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The 13th.”  And she was a consultant to Billy Moyers for his documentary “RIKERS: An American Jail.”  It was at Rikers, a seven-jail complex in the East River, that Peterson began touring her play, eventually appearing in 33 facilities around the country.

     Over time the zeitgeist changed, she said, citing especially the 2012 publication of Michelle Alexander and Cornel West’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which “opened up the narrative.” Her play has changed structurally over the years with the help of performance residencies and a dramaturg.  She’s added current information and multi-media features to make it more theatrical.

    “I believe everything happens for a reason,” Peterson says.  “When I first wrote it, society wasn’t ready to receive it. I wanted to do it in a theatre but I disappeared into the rabbit hole of prison. It was divine timing. I didn’t plan or orchestrate it. All the frustration and creation lined things up for now.  I couldn’t have planned any better.  It was nothing short of orchestrated by God.”

     The format she chose, one character, worked well through all of that touring and will do so again now that she has signed with a touring agent.  She used a black woman “because our voices are rarely heard.”

     Betsy, whose real name is LaQuanda, makes her voice heard during the play.  She was given her nickname years before in juvie by a counselor because her last name is Ross and she was making a quilt.  Just get her going on the racism of the system, especially the profit motivation.

    “Soon as you hear the handcuffs go ka-klink, you hear the cash register go cha-ching,” she says. “We straight cash money crops.”

     And the beneficiaries, Betsy explains, are the rural white towns where prisons are built, bringing jobs in construction and eventually at the facility, not to mention the spinoff enrichment of the manufacturers of jumpsuits and other prison wares, the commissary, the phone company, diners, rest stops, strip malls and the bus companies that transport loved ones.

     “The whole community gets a facelift,” Betsy says.  “Yes, crime does pay, for certain people and certain communities.” 

     Peterson says the privatization of prisons creates the financial drive and motivation for profit.  

     “There’s a financial reward for increasing the number of people behind bars.  Are they being incarcerated for crimes or to maintain profit margins? It’s slavery created for profit. It’s the same dynamic with the racial disparity, with those predominantly black and brown working literally on plantations for corporations.

     “It’s white supremacy, about an economic and socio-economic system created to maintain the power of a specific group through the exploitation of another group.  It’s about looking at dismantling white supremacy if you really want to get at the root of it.”

   Prisons are built largely in white rural areas that have lost industries because they bring salaries, benefits and pensions, Peterson says. 

   “Why wouldn’t they want a job there, but why is prison the only solution?  We need to reimagine a society that doesn’t need to rely on prisons for economic sustenance. If we’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world, why do rural white communities have only prisons to rely on to feed their families?”

     Peterson says black and brown youths are much more likely to be incarcerated for minor crimes like selling firecrackers or fighting in school than white youths. 

   “The numbers tell it.  I’ve worked there 18 years and I could count on one hand the number of white kids and have fingers left over.”

   From her work with adolescents at Rikers, and from her experience being in a relationship with someone who was incarcerated, she knows the toll it takes on everyone.  For those on the outside, it could mean up to five hours travel one way for a couple hours of visiting with a loved one they often can’t even touch.

     “It’s a financial, emotional and psychological strain,” she says.  “That person is not there.  You can’t pick up the phone and call them.  Everything is regulated and monitored.  It takes a toll on the spirit.  You’re worried when you leave but there’s nothing you can do.  You can’t pop up and visit when you want.”

   Peterson left Rikers in October to promote first book, All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island.  She said it was difficult to turn off what she heard and experienced there.  

   “As a human being and an artist I’m wired to be compassionate.  It’s hard to witness suffering and hear people’s traumas and not carry that with you, the multiple stories from multiple children created a floodgate.”

    And she carries with her the reactions her play drew during talkbacks from those at Rikers and the other prisons where she performed.

    “They always asked me, they implored me, to take it to the outside world so they will know we’re here.  I thought it was so powerful and touching. They wanted to make sure people get the message outside so they won’t remain forgotten, to make their voice visible and heard, to put a human face on a statistic.”

Monday, August 7, 2017

Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical

   Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical is a collection of aspirational songs in search of a plot.  And character development. This New York Musical Festival offering is a far too safe telling of such an important chapter in American history.

     In an effort to break the segregation of interstate buses in the South in the 1960s, groups of blacks and whites rode together to force the issue. In Freedom Riders the brutality these people experienced is more suggested than portrayed.  The performance I attended Friday at the Acorn Theatre had several rows of middle schoolers, who were mostly African-American.  Before the show started I worried that such young theatergoers would be loud, but the opposite was true.  There wasn’t a peep out of them.  Had the subject been more forcefully presented, they would have been gasping and calling out about the injustice. Young people are usually unrestrained in expressing their feelings in the theater.   

     Richard Allen’s book needs more depth and the music and lyrics he wrote with Taran Gray need more variety.  I also wonder how clear it was to those young people in the audience that the show was portraying historical characters. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard) I certainly hope they recognized, but I don’t know that they would have learned much about John Lewis (Anthony Chatmon II, right in photo) or Diane Nash (Brynn Williams). 

     The two-hour show features 16 songs, some of which are reprised, giving a feeling of song after song strung together by a bit of narration, especially in the first act.  And the songs more or less sound alike because they follow that I-will-succeed genre of American musical theatre, the ones where people belt out about climbing every mountain, finding their corners of the sky, and trusting that tomorrow is only a day away. One of those songs in a show is rousing, but a whole show of them is too much.  I began questioning if I hadn’t already heard that song each time a new one began.  We go from having lives that collide but finding hope inside, to not letting anybody hold you down, to keeping your head up to be first in line when your time comes, to getting there step by step with stars in your eyes after dreams take flight, and on and on. Under Whitney White’s direction, nobody seems to get discouraged no matter whether they are beaten or thrown in jail.  

     Nonviolence was always a part of the mission, but I would like to see the struggle the riders faced in keeping to this pledge.  When asked if it was hard to resist the blows delivered by racist white man at a bus terminal (Michael Nigro, photo left) Lewis replies, “It was actually easier than I thought.”

     While the riders at times discuss whether to continue, I never felt much of a sense of the terror I’ve read about from the real life civil rights workers in the South.  In one scene in a church some apprehension is expressed but I was shocked when I learned a mob of 3,000 was surrounding it.  I didn’t feel any of the fear that should have provoked.  It was supposedly such a tense situation because King was inside that the National Guard had to be called in.

    When Freedom Riders was presented last summer at NYMF as a workshop it earned a Beta Award. This year’s offering is considered a full production but it still resembles a workshop offering.  The cast members all have strong voices but the book is in need of much development.

     And the generic songs should be more representative of the era.  Musically the 60s was a rich time as what was considered “race” music crossed over thanks to Motown and we had some of the best written and performed music ever.  Give these songs some soul.  Make them sound like black music of the 60s. 

    I hope the creators of this show will work hard on it.  The subject is ripe for a powerful musical.  And it’s certainly possible now that it’s had this developmental experience. New York Musical Festival was created to nurture new musicals by giving them an affordable platform to test their work among theatre professionals.  Now in its 14th year, NYMF has launched more than 90 shows into productions Off-Broadway, in regional theatres in all 50 states and 24 countries worldwide.  Alumni have won many awards, including a Tony and Pulitzer. My organization, Drama Desk, gave it an award in 2013 for its work “creating and nurturing new musical theatre, ensuring the future of this essential art form.”

   I will be watching for future performances of a reworked Freedom Riders.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tina Howe's new play, 'Singing Beach,' is a delight

   The deteriorating effects of climate change on the environment and the deteriorating effects of aging on the body are the subjects of Tina Howe’s new play, Singing Beach, which had its world premiere opening Sunday at HERE Mainstage in SoHo. In characteristic Howe fashion, these heavy topics are presented, and then transformed into a vision of hope.  I loved it.

     Under the direction of Ari Laura Kreith, the cast of seven glide easily from reality to fantasy in the July of a not-too-distant future in Manchester, MA. A family of four — parents Merrie (Erin Beirnard) and Owen (John P. Keller) and their children, 10-year-old Piper (Elodie Lucinda Morss) and 12-year-old Tyler (Jackson Demott Hill) — are faced with two decisions, whether to evacuate their beachside town as Hurricane Cassandra approaches with 150-mile-an-hour winds and whether to commit Merrie’s father, Ashton Sleeper (Tuck Milligan), to a nursing home now that a stroke has left him unable to care for himself. He had been a famous poet but now is without words.

     Piper is the focal point of the play and Morss portrays her to perfection.  This little girl must overcome the torments of her big brother, who annoyingly calls her Sniper instead of Piper, and her feelings of inadequacy.  “I’m just a narrow person in a quiet room,” she says, borrowing from the title of one of her mother’s successful novels. 

   But the life force is strong in Piper and she envisions a brighter world for herself and her grandfather that features escaping on a luxury liner and ice skating on the ocean in mid-July.  These flights of fancy are a hallmark of Howe’s plays, as are her shimmering endings.  

     Howe loves extravagance, which often makes staging her work challenging — and expensive.  The Broadway production of Coastal Disturbance, another seaside play, featured six tons of sand that had to be doused with 20 gallons of water before each performance.  It was a joy to walk into Circle in the Square on a cold winter night and have a beach experience, with the lighting conveying the warmth of a day at the seashore.

    That kind of staging is impossible for a small Off-Broadway company like Theatre 167 at HERE, but it doesn’t matter.  Scenic designer Jen Price Fick has created a multi-leveled stage of pale wood on which the beach, ship, sick room and everything else play out, with a minimum of props.  Matthew J. Fick’s lighting enhances the bleached out, colorless feeling of beachside quiet before the storm.  With the good script, good direction and good cast, which includes Naren Weiss and Devin Haqq, we have all we need for a transporting experience, with characters lying on the deck of an imaginary ship making angels in the imaginary July snow and skating without skates on an imaginary frozen ocean. 

   Piper reminded me of another of my favorite Tina Howe characters, Pony from 1989’s Approaching Zanzibar.  Pony also feels inferior in her family and must relate to an elderly character, her great aunt Olivia who is dying of cancer.  She’s fearful at first but she also has the imagination and high spirit to transform her world.  And both girls have their moment to fly, one of the many lovely visual treats Howe gives us in both plays.

     Another Howe play I was reminded of was Chasing Manet, her 2009 work that brought together two elderly women in a nursing home who plot their escape to Paris on the QEII.  

     And I thought of Painting Churches, Howe’s breakout play from 1983, in which an elderly couple must sell their large Boston townhouse for a move to a cottage on Cape Cod.  Gardner Church had been a famous writer, just as Ashton Sleeper in Singing Beach was, but dementia and incontinence leave him as a mere remembrance of his old self.  Both plays present painful scenes of going though a lifetime of belongs with the task of deciding what to take and what to give away. These are sad experiences, ones that I went through with my mother.  I never leave a Tina Howe play sad, though.  I leave with a sense of joy because of her playful plot twists and those resurrection endings she creates.

     When I first interviewed her, in 1990 for my second Master’s thesis that was on her work, I asked her about her mastery of dynamic closings. They are a major focus of her work and, she said, usually surprise her as much as her audiences.

     “The ending is everything to me,” she said. “To me the whole point of writing a play is to sculpt that shock, that visual shock. I think that’s my strongest suit in a way. Often the ending is what comes last, but I just know it has to be an epiphany. I do struggle long and hard to try to come up with something strong.”

     She has done it again.  You will be won over by Piper and the delicious world she creates, the one created for her by Tina Howe, a playwright of epiphanies.