Friday, April 28, 2017

Bette Midler sparkles in 'Hello, Dolly!' revival

     Even the costumes receive applause in director Jerry Zaks spectacular revival of Hello, Dolly!, starring Bette Midler, who more than lives up to her reputation as The Divine One.  This Dolly certainly was looking swell, and so was every element of this production at the Shubert Theatre. It’s so glitteringly joy-filled it’s almost overwhelming.

     Midler is definitely back where she belongs, dancing, singing and vamping her way through the roll of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a resourceful widow scraping out a living as a matchmaker and any other occupation for which she encounters a need in 19th century New York.  All of this talent went unused in Midler’s last Broadway turn in the 2013 play I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. Playing that high-powered Hollywood agent, she spent the time propped up on a sofa eating, drinking, smoking pot and talking about her celebrity cliental. The character was an unlikeable bore and a waste of Midler’s pizzazz. 

     But she’s in her glory now, giving us a show we need more than ever.  Some great cosmic scheduler must have foreseen the 2016 election results. This spring has brought us especially uplifting shows that include Come From Away, the inspiring true story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who welcomed nearly 7,000 strangers from around the world when their planes were diverted there following the 2001 terrorist attacks, and Groundhog Day: The Musical with its message that we don’t have to get stuck in our lives because we have the power to do something new everyday. 

     In contrast to Midler’s exuberant Dolly is David Hyde Pierce’s comically dour Horace Vandergelder, the “half-millionaire” cheapskate widower who hires Dolly to find him a new wife.  Dolly has someone in mind — herself — but she distracts him from her scheming with other possibilities, one of whom is Irene Molloy, a widowed hat maker play by the charming Kate Baldwin, who is underused in this minor role. Gavin Creel is winning as Cornelius Hackl, a clerk in Vandergelder’s Yonker’s hay and feed store who become Mrs. Molloy’s unexpected love interest. 

     With a cast of more than two dozen, Jerry Herman’s wonderful songs ring out, combining smoothly with Michael Stewart’s book, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. 

  Warren Carlyle’s choreography pays tribute to Gower Champion’s original choreography and direction and fills the stage with high spirit, enhanced by Santo Loquasto’s sets and his costumes in vivid Easter egg colors.  

     Song, dance and costume — vibrant red for Dolly — ignite a show-stopping standing ovation for that most famous number, “Hello, Dolly!” when Dolly returns to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant.  Midler is in her glory ascending from the top of a flight of stairs to dance with a chorus of waiters.  This is traditional musical theatre at its best. Director Zaks has won four Tony Awards.  Number five could well be on the way.

     For some reason, this is the first new production of this classic show since it opened on Broadway more than 50 years ago.  That’s probably why I had never seen it.  I read the play in high school but never even saw the movie.  What a great introduction to Dolly I had last night.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Church and State' play aims to stir up conversation about guns

     The U.S. Senator from North Carolina is an unquestioning supporter of all things red, especially in relationship to God and guns.  His convictions are challenged, though, after a shooting at his sons’ elementary school leaves 29 dead. Following the funeral for one of the victims, he admits in response to a blogger’s question that the killings are enough to make him doubt God’s existence.

     He is running for a third term and his comments go viral.  Three days before the election.  

   Jason Odell Williams, 42, was inspired to write his latest play, Church and State, after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but he had been thinking about gun violence since at least 2007 with the mass killings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, a football rival of his alma mater, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

   “I watched the news and saw a candlelight vigil in Charlottesville and it struck a cord with me,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  “I had been a student there not that long before.  It really shook me.”

  That incident had been followed by the shooting outside a Tucson supermarket in which Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 16 others were shot, six of them fatally.  

     “I thought, ‘What if it had been a man and he had been a Republican,” Williams said. “That’s a really dark and twisted thought, but when tragedy strikes, our thoughts become dark and twisted.”

     Sandy Hook’s tragedy prompted him to put his thoughts on paper. His first draft of Church and State was “like a well-written Facebook rant with a very one-sided liberal New Yorker view.”

    He sent it to Ralph Meranto, artistic director of JCC CenterStage in Rochester, NY, who had produced his first play, Handle With Care.  Meranto “asked smart questions” and offered suggestions to make the characters — the Senator; his wife, a conservative Christian; and his campaign manager, a liberal Jew from New York — more three dimensional and to present the issue of gun control more even-handedly.  He also thought it would be fun to have the Senator’s remarks be tweeted to spread quicker.  Meranto didn’t know his 2014 suggestion would be so timely in 2017 with the election of America’s Tweeter in Chief.

     The show had a successful run in Rochester before moving to Los Angeles where the Huffington Post called it “powerful, humorous and highly contemporary,” naming it one of the Top Ten L.A. Theatre Productions of 2016. It is now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, with tickets on sale through July 2.

     Talkbacks have been a part of Church and State’s runs.  In New York they were held after three performances in April featuring representatives from Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Fund; Everytown For Gun Safety, with an appearance by actress Julianne Moore; and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. During the Virginia Tech event, a woman identifying herself as a Donald Trump voter said she thought the play had done a good job of presenting both sides and later told Williams in the lobby that she hopes the play will be presented in red states.  That would be fine with him.

     “My goal was to get it to New York and then across the country.  I’d love to see it in all the purple states.  That’s my ultimate goal.”

     He is in talks with theatre producers in North Carolina, rural Virginia, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Alaska about possible productions there.

     “I want to stir up some controversy and start conversations.”

  He sees areas for compromises, such as universal background checks. He created an open-ended finish to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.

     “We’re so divided now.  Maybe the rubber band will break and we’ll all come back to the middle.”

   Williams is adamant that he does not want his play to be thought of as disrespectful to people of faith or Southerners, and makes it clear he doesn't see conservative Christians as the enemy in gun control talks.  He saves his wrath for one target alone.

     “To me it’s the NRA.  They’re only thinking about profit.  Nothing about their agenda is reasonable.  Living without fear is more important than somebody’s gun collection.”

     Although he has had no personal experience with the issue, he thinks “we’re all less than six degrees of separation now from gun violence.”

     “There’s stuff in the newspapers everyday,” he said.

  Just then, Williams, in almost unbelievable timing, was interrupted by a text from Rob Nagle, the actor playing the Senator. The text informed him about a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school that had just left two adults and one child dead, with another child injured. 

     “It’s crazy.  It just keeps happening.  People are afraid to go to the mall, the movies, church, places that are supposed to be safe.” 

     Williams, who was nominated for an Emmy Award as a writer for National Geographic Channel’s TV series “Brain Games,” has never worked in politics and says the only thing that could lure him into it is that in the unlikely event Nagle would run for office, Williams would like to be his speechwriter. 

     He also is not a person of faith although his mother is Catholic and father Protestant and he was baptized but not confirmed.  And his first two Off-Broadway plays centered around God and faith.

     “I don’t know where I stand, which is why I keep writing about it,” he said, adding that his wife grew up Orthodox Jewish in Israel and turned from her religion when she moved to America.  After the birth of their daughter, Imogen, now 11, they began worshipping at a synagogue and sending her to Hebrew school.  He has no plans to convert.

     “It’s nice to have a sense of community, of coming together,” he said.  “I’m always examining what it is and what it means.” 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Come From Away

     On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 7,000 strangers were sidetracked to a tiny town on the coast of Newfoundland, nearly doubling the population in a matter of hours.  For the next five days the people of Gander fed, housed and befriended these refugees of the terrorist attacks in an inspiring example of hospitality.  Their stories are now being told in Come From Away, the new Broadway musical that has left audiences in tears and critics singing its praise. 

     “You couldn’t make it up.  No one would believe it,” said Irene Sankoff who, with her husband, David Hein, wrote the music, lyrics and book for the show, which takes its name from a Gander term for people who come from elsewhere.

   It was a normal day in Gander, a former refueling stop for international flights before aviation improvements made these pit stops unnecessary, but shortly after the devastation of the four hijacked jets was known, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended all air travel.  Gander residents who were going about their morning routines learned that 38 planes bearing 6,579 frightened and angry passengers  from around the world were coming to town. For how long, no one knew.  

     The couple emphasize this in not a Sept. 11 story — it’s a Sept. 12 story, of passengers from a multitude of countries, cultures, religions and languages who were welcomed by people living “on an island in between there and here.” The terrorist attacks aren’t even in the show.

     “It’s not necessary to further traumatize anyone,” Sankoff said, adding that even young people who weren’t born or conscious of the events at the time know what happened. “Everyone’s seen the images.  They don’t need to see it.  It’s part of our history.  It wouldn’t have helped the storytelling.”

     The lesser known stories are those of the townspeople who from the beginning began anticipating every need — pharmacies were ready to fill prescriptions, storeowners emptied their shelves to donate supplies, landlines were set up in that era before mass cell phone usage, sidelined air traffic controllers made vats of chili, striking school bus drivers transported passengers to schools, halls and all the shelters that were being readied as quickly as possible.  And the SPCA representative didn’t forget that animals were likely to be onboard some of the planes. She rescued and then cared for eight dogs, nine cats and two rare Bonobo chimpanzees, one of which was pregnant, while they were in quarantine in an airport hangar. 

     “We’ve been working on it for nearly seven years and it’s still amazing to me everyday,” Sankoff said. 

     Sankoff and Hein spoke about their journey to Broadway by phone from an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, their temporary residence.  Toronto is their home, although they haven’t seen a lot of it in recent years.  Their involvement with the Gander experience began in 2011 when Canadian producer Michael Rubinoff invited them out for a drink to discuss making a musical of the events that had happened a decade before.  Rubinoff had seen the couple’s only previous musical theatre production, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. He had pursued several more experienced songwriting teams and been turned down.  

     As Canadians, Sankoff and Hein “knew through osmosis” of the Gander story.  They said yes to Rubinoff, began researching and found out a 10th anniversary commemoration of the experience was being planned for September. With the help of a grant from the Canadian government, they spent a month in the town interviewing  residents and the passengers who returned.  They relied on Skype to reach others internationally.

     The modest Gander folk thought this was all much ado about nothing. One said to the couple, “You’re going to make a musical about people making sandwiches?  Good luck with that.”

     But the residents had a different opinion this past October when the entire cast and crew of the Broadway-bound Come From Away flew into town to present two benefit concert versions of the show to raise money for local charities. The Gander Hockey Arena was transformed as many people experienced their first Broadway musical, one that just happened to be about them.

     “It was a life-changing experience for all of us,” Hein said.  “Almost all of Gander came to see the show.  We watched 5,000 people’s expressions as they watched themselves, feeling honored and celebrated.  Ten minutes before the Finale they all stood up and kept applauding through the last 10 minutes.  We were all sobbing.”

     Sankoff and Hein were grateful for that stamp of approval.  They had worked hard since their previous trip to Gander when they had done “tons and tons and tons of interviews” and heard so many stories that their first draft of the show was five hours long. From that they edited and refined, ferreting out stories that worked all the way through, as well as unique ones, and making composites of characters.  The show now runs about 100 minutes and features 12 actors playing multiple parts and singing more than a dozen original songs. 

     The heroism of the townspeople is portrayed, as is the fear and anxiety of the “plane people,” who hadn't heard about the terrorist attacks and had no idea why they were grounded to such a remote place.  Some had been onboard for 28 hours. Because of concern about bombs, authorities would not allow the passengers to claim their luggage.  All they could take were their carry-ons.  In a short time, they had all become refugees.

     Because these people were so traumatized, the library stayed open, offering a quiet place for people of all faiths to pray.  

    In one particularly moving scene, a bus filled with Africans pulls up to a Salvation Army camp. Seeing the people in uniforms, the passengers are filled with fear of soldiers and militia and, unable to understand English, they refuse to get off the bus. Then the driver, spotting a Bible in a woman’s hand, imagines a key to connect. He finds Philippians 4:6 and points to the words he can't read but doesn't need to — “Be anxious for nothing.  Be anxious for nothing.”  The people leave peacefully.

   “They used the Bible text written in a different language to communicate with each other,” Hein said. “That’s amazing.” 

     Another important element of the show is the music.  Hein had grown up listening to Newfoundland music, which has Celtic roots from Ireland and England. The eight members of the band play multiple instruments as a way of “layering on” the different musical traditions of the foreigners and townspeople.

     “We’re greater together than apart,” Hein said.  “The passengers came from all over the world and they changed Newfoundland and were changed themselves.”

     The music has audience members on their feet, clapping along at the end.

     “That happens every time,” Hein said, explaining with a laugh that he had planned the ending music as a way to transition people out of the theatre.  “No one leaves.  It’s the worst exit music ever.”

   The stories and music have had this effect wherever the show has run. Following sold-out, record-breaking, critically acclaimed engagements at La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, Come From Away landed on the “Best Theater of the Year” lists in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and papers around the country and in Canada.  

  Writing about the Gander stories has been a profound experience for Sankoff and Hein, who have turned over the keys to their Toronto home and car to 10 people, friends or friends of friends, over these last years while they traveled with the show’s development.  All they asked was that the people feed the two cats and give them love, and shovel the snow if necessary.

    “Our whole lives have been changed,” Hein said. “It makes us look at our lives and want to be better people, open to stories from around the world, and to be more open to reaching out to people.”

     Asked if this is an especially important time to tell a story about when many Americans were in the unfamiliar position of being refugees, Hein said it would be important any time.

     “We have our politics but the show bridges that.  It’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Sally Field stars in latest Broadway revival of 'The Glass Menagerie'

     The new Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie should come with a prohibition: no one unfamiliar with this 1944 Tennessee Williams classic will be allowed in. Director Sam Gold’s unconventional staging should not be anyone’s first experience of this moving, lyrical story of a broken family and its desperate attempts to carry on.

   For someone like me who has loved the play since first reading it as a sophomore in high school, it was good to be at the Belasco Theatre to experience it again. This is the third Broadway production I’ve seen, as well as at least one other, at Baltimore’s CenterStage.  In all of those I never saw Amanda as fully realized as she is portrayed by Sally Field, who takes that aging Southern belle turned abandoned wife and nagging mother into vulnerable human being who I liked and cared about. 

     What I didn’t like, and which is why I don’t think this should be anyone’s introduction to the play, is the casting of a seriously disabled actress, Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, as Laura, the painfully shy daughter who was the center of the play for me when I first read it. Ferris’ physical disability is so pronounced it is distracting.  Her wheelchair had to be taken up and down stairs a couple of times either by Field or Joe Mantello, who plays her brother, Tom.  This takes time away from the story, as does Gold’s odd decision to have her placed on the kitchen table on her stomach at one point while Tom exercises her legs.

     I don’t understand why Laura would be so re-envisioned.  Her disability is emotional. She is paralyzed by her self-consciousness, not her legs. If she had been physically vulnerable as well it would be understandable why at that time, Depression-era American, she would want to keep to herself and live in her world of little glass figures, her menagerie. Her physical disability is that one leg is slightly shorter than the other, for which she wears a brace.  As Williams wrote, “This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage.” Laura, though, is overly embarrassed about it. “Laura’s separation increases until she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf,” Williams wrote.

   Laura feels different from others at school, and yet they hardly notice her limp. But everyone would notice this Laura of the wheelchair. With all of this Laura’s difficulty in getting around it seems downright sadistic when Amanda sends her out for a stick of butter. As written, Laura’s fragility is far more psychological than physical. That is lost in this production, because of the added physical disability but also because Ferris portrays Laura as self-contained in a positive way.  She seems comfortable with herself and not overly emotionally weak. 

     Another character who feels altered is Jim (Finn Wittrock), the Gentleman Caller, who comes off like an idiot much of the time. I don’t remember that before.  That certainly wasn’t the case in the 2013 Broadway revival when he was portrayed likably by Brian J. Smith. 

    Something else I didn’t remember was this much demonstrated affection between the Wingfields, with Tom at one point pulling Amanda onto his lap as they sit around the kitchen table.  I liked that. 

     As for the staging, it took a bit of time for me to get used to the decision to have the play unfold on the full stage, bare except for a kitchen table on one side and a Victrola and records on the other, with the black brick wall of the theatre as backdrop. (Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman). Since the family is supposed to be living in strained financial conditions in a cramped St. Louis tenement, giving them vast space in which to roam around is strange. It’s like watching a rehearsal.

     The house lights also remain on well into the play, which I didn’t get since the set is supposed to be dimly lit. (Lighting design by Adam Silverman.)

     One element that I did love, and don’t want to give away too much of, is Amanda’s switch from disappointed middle-aged woman to shining Cotillion girl in the flash of an eye.  (Costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic.) Field’s face is radiant as she is transformed to her happy young self, or at least her imagined grandeur of the past. It’s a moment of color and joy in an otherwise sad play.

     But this is not a play about joy, and its sadness is made more pronounced in the way Gold has refigured the “blow out your candles, Laura” ending. The candles symbolize Laura’s soul and Williams has her blowing them out in the last scene. But in this version, Tom rather violently extinguishes them before he too abandons the family.  

     The final change is the last image, a switch from Amanda being seen comforting Laura to the haunting image of Laura sitting at the table with Amanda’s head in her lap, while she comforts her mother.  A bleak ending made even bleaker with both choices. 

     Williams called The Glass Menagerie a “memory play,” and framed it with Tom talking to the audience about the family’s circumstances.  Much of it is autobiographical as the playwright, like Tom, worked in a shoe factory and wrote when he could.  Williams also had a domineering mother and a fragile sister whom he loved.  Both families had moved from southern gentility to St. Louis to try to squeeze out a living. Williams’ father was a traveling salesman, Tom’s “a telephone man who feel in love with long distances.”

     So many good lines in this play, my favorite being “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.”  I also love “the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” and “Time is the longest distance between two places.”

   Menagerie was Williams’ first successful play, gaining immediate acclaim when it opened on Broadway in 1945.  Later classics include A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.   

Monday, April 3, 2017

Becoming Lewis

     A woman in her early 20s came up to Max McLean after a performance of his latest one-man play, C.S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, and said she couldn’t possibly be a Christian.  Sensing her anxiety, McLean told her, “God has you in his net and he’s not going to let you go.”  Her response surprised him.  “What should I do,” she asked.  He told her to read John’s gospel, gave her his card and they arranged a time to talk.

    Such is the intensity of the story McLean has written and is portraying at Off-Broadway’s Acorn Theatre through May 21.  “People have associations that get in the way and they can’t get past them.  Theatre and art have a way of breaking through stigmas,” he said, quoting Lewis’ notion of “stealing past the watchful dragons.”

     “His conversion is a roadmap for people who have given up.”

     Lewis has been important to McLean’s life since he too was in his early 20s.  He grew up Roman Catholic in a military family.  First Communion and Confirmation were meaningful to him, but in his teens he stopped going to church and “fell into atheism, more by anger than anything else.”  He experimented with Eastern religions in college, in keeping with the trend of the 1970s. Then he met the woman who would become his wife. A Christian, she took him to church and introduced him to other Christians, one of whom described Jesus as having been a historical person just like George Washington. This triggered in McLean a sense that Jesus was something more than the “fairy tale” character he had grown up imagining.  

     The first thing he did was read John’s gospel.  His second choice for Christian reading was Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which he described as “over my head,” followed by Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which he “got immediately.”

     McLean continues to respect the way Lewis opens his readers to the supernatural world, something he thinks the modern church, in its desire to simplify and demystify, is missing.

     “Lewis is my spiritual guide,” McLean said during a telephone interview in late February.  “He helps me understand reality in a way I wouldn’t see or understand. He believed so strongly in how the supernatural world interacts with ours.  He triggers my imagination in a way almost no other writer does.”

    Deciding to portray that spiritual guide onstage was a natural progression for the actor/writer.  He had adapted and performed The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce for the stage.  In doing so, he read extensively works by and about Lewis.  

     “In 2011 the idea came to me to attempt to tell his own story.”  He spent two or thee months working on a first draft, then put it away until a year and a half ago when he began working on it through “a hefty development process” that included labs and workshops before the show premiered in Washington, D.C. last April.  It then played Chicago and had a little midwestern tour before the current New York premiere. About 90 percent of the 80-minute script is Lewis’ words.

     “I’m not as smart as he was,” McLean says.  “My confidence comes from knowing what an extraordinary writer he was.”

     The play, which is performed without an intermission, takes place in Lewis’ Study in Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1950 and tells the story of Lewis’ life from the time of his mother’s death from cancer when he was 10, through his estranged relationship with his father, his World War I experience, his avowed atheism and his conversion.  

     “Conversion stories are inherently dramatic,” McLean says. “It’s something you fight against. The tension is almost like an invasion.  In Christian language, we’re all rebels. The Incarnation is a kind of invasion, taking back enemy territory.”

     He said the play’s title helps attract more than just Lewis fans because it’s intriguing. “A convert means to change and reluctant means to avoid.  That was the guiding principle to the piece.”  He said he needed to set up why Lewis was an atheist — his mother’s death, his relationship with his father and fighting and being wounded in the war.

     “That gave him an extremely pessimistic view of reality.  To turn from that was very challenging.”  McLean identified the fulcrum of the play as the tension between atheism and theism.  “Once I knew how I wanted to go, I knew what to take out and what to put in.”

     With the help of a three-piece suit, pipe and wig of thinning, combed-back hair, McLean transforms into Lewis and tells his story to the audience.  In preparation for the “forest of words to navigate,” he listened to three audio clips he found online.  In one, Lewis sounds “almost Alfred Hitchcockish.”  In the others he is more relaxed.  “He was Irish but he took on an Oxford Don pronunciation that was very erudite and educated.”

     In preparing for and portraying Lewis, McLean says the “Number One thing” he has learned was about Lewis’ “generosity of spirit.

     “He was a strange mixture of being incredibly self-reflective and not taking himself too seriously.  He had self-deprecating humor.  His basic nature was to be very proud and arrogant and he buried that.

     “I feel like I know him.  I feel like he’s my buddy.  With so many writers you get to the bottom of them quickly.  You don’t get to the bottom of Lewis.”

     McLean attributes this to deep insight.

     “He read everything from the Greeks to the moderns and he could remember everything.  He was a chronicler of literature who was able to see how the Christian view of the world best absorbed all the world views he read.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

Discomfiting theatre

    More than a decade ago, Bruce Graham read a newspaper feature about a transit bus whose destination was Rikers Island, a prison complex in New York City.  The playwright in him started thinking about the people who rode buses like that to the remote areas where prisons tend to be located. A self-proclaimed liberal, the 60-year-old South Philadelphia native was also pondering ideas about white privilege and “the slavery card,” topics he thinks other writers often avoid for fear of being politically incorrect. Out of his musings was born White Guy on the Bus, which will be produced by Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters through April 16.

   “I usually start with stuff that gets me angry,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in South Philly. “That keeps me out of therapy.”

    White Guy had its premiere two years ago in Chicago and has since had successful runs in Oakland and Trenton. It is possibly more timely than ever, though, with the blatant racism that was expressed around Donald Trump’s campaign and election. Discussions of race have also been emphasized in Episcopal parishes around the country in the last couple of years, following incidents of police shootings of unarmed black men and the murder of nine black church members in Charleston, SC, by a white supremest.  

   “I’m sad and angry that it’s topical,” Graham said, adding that the timeliness is merely coincidental.  “I think about things for years and then write the play in a matter of weeks.  I’m a fast writer and slow thinker.”

    The play also was produced in January [of this year] in Los Angeles and is being published.  Set in the present, times and locations shift, as do the worlds of the five characters: Ray, a wealthy advertising man; his wife, Roz, an inner-city public school teacher, both of whom are white and in their 50s; Christopher, the young man for whom Ray has been a father figure as well as mentor at work; Molly, Christopher’s wife, both white; and Shatique, a 26-year-old struggling black single mother and nursing school student who works in an assisted living facility.  Their lives intersect in startling ways as the play unfolds. 

     When White Guy had its premiere in Chicago two years ago, the actress playing Shatique helped Graham develop the dialect and conversation. His students at Drexell University, an inner-city Philadelphia school where he teaches playwriting, were a sounding board who offered suggestions and rephrasing to make the play authentic.  

     When questioned about the appropriateness of giving the character such a black-sounding name, Graham had a question of his own: “What am I going to call her, Linda?” He said there were no black Lindas in his classes at Drexell and that the name is actually that of a former student.  Still, “no one in Philly would touch it.”

     “The things I think about aren’t said in the theatre.  Theatre has gotten so politically correct.  It’s boring. I work in the two most politically correct environments — academia and the theatre.  I go out of my way to shake people up.  I like to offend people.”

     Graham doesn’t see White Guy as a play about race, but rather about revenge, which is one of the play’s unexpected plot twists.  

     Before the feedback he received from cast and students, Graham  had worked to authenticate the play by riding the bus to Rikers and found himself to be the only white person and one of only two men.   All the other riders were women and children of color.  He went into the prison to get the experience of what is was like to be a visitor placed in a circle and having guard dogs sniffing him.  He wanted the smells, sounds and procedures of prison life. “Everything that’s in there I saw it.”

     Graham grew up in a blue color family in the segregated world of the 1960s in South Philadelphia, a city with a history of racial strife.  It was the place where Jackie Robinson received his most hated reception. “I saw it everywhere growing up,” he said, adding that without the internet, children of his era didn’t have the exposure that his daughter was brought up with. “Diversity when it happens organically is great.”

     Graham allows his characters to voice ideas some people may find difficult. Ray admits that if he has three equally qualified job candidates — a white man, black man and a woman — he wants to play it safe and hire the white man so he won’t be charged with racism or sexism if he has to fire the person. Molly expresses her belief that people prefer to be with their own. “We’re more comfortable on a gut level.”
   “I want to hold a mirror up there to make them (the audience) uncomfortable,” Graham says. "I love to go to the theatre and be surprised.”

    What he most hopes, though, is that his audiences will be entertained.  “I’m first and foremost a song and dance man,” he said.  “I don’t want to be preaching.  I want to tell a good story.”

Friday, March 10, 2017

Poem for a snowy day

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.
~ Ikkyu ~

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Your footsteps are the road

Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.

Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.

Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.

Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.

~ Antonio Machado ~

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Primary Wonder

Primary Wonder
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
~ Denise Levertov ~

Thursday, February 16, 2017

One-woman play uses biblical Mary's life to tell story of black mothers, sons

      Angela Polite had little awareness of the Blessed Mother when she was growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition in South Carolina.  Now, though, some three decades later, she is about to open Off-Broadway in Mary Speaks, a world premiere one-woman play inspired by Holy Mary that she has been developing over the last decade. 

     “We were not exactly in love with Mary as our Catholic brothers and sisters are,” Polite said during a telephone interview last week. “I knew she was a young girl and pretty special.  As I began to think of Mary more as a mother and modernize her voice, I started to fall in love with her.”

     Having Mary for inspiration isn’t the only unexpected element in Polite’s journey to Theatre for the New City in New York’s East Village, where Mary Speaks runs from Feb. 16 through 26. The “very proud native of Charleston and descendant of Gullah people” was a TV producer in Washington, D.C. She had been part of the drama club at school, played clarinet and sung in choirs but had never performed professionally until she took a sabbatical to study acting in England in 2004, which led to some television commercials and a part on “The Wire.”  Three years later she decided to “take the big leap”  —   quit her job, sell her car and moved to New York to pursue acting. 

     Newly arrived in the city, she joined the First AME Bethel Church in Harlem.  When the pastor, the Rev. Henry A. Belin III, learned she was an actress he remembered seeing her on “The Wire” and asked her to take part in the annual combined parishes Advent program, Caring and Sharing, for about 200 people. Even though she had never written a show and had little perception of Holy Mary, she decided to modernize the Mother of God as the prototype of all mothers who had struggled to keep their sons alive when their very existence was deemed a threat to society.  

     “I saw her as a regular mother.”

     Although she has no children of her own, Polite kept that image of Mary in mind as she appeared in several Off-Broadway plays, one of which had her as the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1941 for reportedly flirting with a white woman. At that time, 2012, controversy was swirling over the death of another African-American teen, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old youth fatally shot by the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community in Florida. Parallels were repeatedly made during audience talkbacks and Polite started thinking about how she wanted to respond as a performer.  She pulled out her old work from the Advent program and began fashioning her play.

     “It’s been a big journey, a very big journey,” she says.

   In addition to her Off-Broadway engagement, Polite has been invited to perform Mary Speaks on March 4 as part of the International Human Rights Arts Festival at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. 

  Polite set her “passion play” in Charleston so she could write authentically. It begins in the early 1900s when her Mary, an African-American of Gullah descent, is 13 and conceives and gives birth to a son after a spiritual encounter in the wilderness one night. It continues through the Jim Crow South until Mary is 46.

     “I wanted to look at a timeline of African-American women and their sons.”

    While her Mary is post-slavery, the girl’s grandma remembers those days well. Polite sees a connection between her character and the mother of Jesus, who was a Jewish girl and part of a special people, a group set aside. Through narrative, monologues, music and dance she uses the life of the biblical Mary to creates characters, black and white, to tell a story of black mothers and sons. Polite wrote the play’s final song after the 2014 death of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old African-American man who died on Staten Island after a New York City Police Department officer placed him in a chokehold while arresting him.  Her lyrics span the sorrows of the centuries:

     “A Saviour on a cross
     “A Man swinging on a tree
     “A Dead boy on the street.

    She wrote several songs as she developed the play.  “Telling a story in the African-American tradition, it would be unnatural not to have some music in it.”

     The first reflects Mary’s Magnificat:

     “I didn’t choose this fate.  I was picked from among the girls
      “Not yet touched and not yet opened to the bruises of this world.”

     Polite relates to that openness to God.

     “She was a young, innocent girl with the level of faith to say ‘let it be unto me as you will.’  My life is guided by God in the things I do.” 

     As she worked on the show, which runs 65 minutes, she sought advice from one of her ministers, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary who offered a “womanist perspective,” and her pastor who counseled her on scriptural references.

     “It was very important to me to keep the story along the timeline of Mary and for the writing to come from scripture,” she says.  “Mary only speaks four times in the Bible.  I wanted to make sure I stayed true.”

     The final scene ties all grieving black mothers together with Holy Mary. 

    “It’s quite overwhelming to me,” she said, adding that pain and mourning are universal.

    “I hope mothers grieving in South Africa, India, China and any race can feel the same pain as Mary felt.  We connect it to the cross, to connect to the pain of others.  I hope people understand that that’s what we need to get back to.

     “In the last year, politically and socially, there’s been a danger that we stop looking at each other as human. It’s been Republican, Democrat, black, white, millennials, baby boomers.

     “I hope the audience will come away with the idea of remembering the humanity of us all and remembering we are one and should be one.  We are here to witness the pain of others and to be open to it and have more peace in the world.”

Saturday, February 11, 2017

National Black Theatre reaches spiritual self

     Transformation begins even before the curtain rises at the National Black Theatre. Incense and the sound of a waterfall greet audience members as they walk through the door of the building on Fifth Avenue at 125th Street in Harlem.  African art in the lobby and the stairwells leads up to the third-floor performance space, where a dramaturgical lobby exhibit tied to the current play helps visitors enter the world they are about to experience.

     “We present the magic of black theatre.  We’ll see you on the other side of the journey,” a recorded message announced before the start of an autumn performance of Sweet.  

     Magic and journey are two key words to describe the work and the evolution of this nearly half-century-old off-Broadway theatre complex, begun in 1968 by Barbara Ann Teer, a black actress disgusted by the roles being offered to people of color.  

   “My mother was always interested in the liberation of her people and community,” says Sade Lythcott, Teer’s daughter who is NBT’s chief executive officer. “She knew and knows that our highest self is our spiritual self.  We work very, very hard to create an environment that evokes a certain kind of peace and stillness.”

     Although Lythcott sometimes uses the present tense when talking about her mother, Teer died unexpectedly in 2008 at the age of 71. Lythcott gave up her career as a fashion stylist to carry on her mother’s legacy.

    “One of our founding principles was holistic producing,” Lythcott said, explaining that NBT’s plays and the related lobby exhibits focus on “something the community is wrestling with.”  Performances are always followed by a talkback so audience members can share their thoughts on what they have seen. Before they leave the theatre, they are encouraged to close their eyes and join in a unifying breath.  
   “Great art is meant to be discoursed and digested,” said Lythcott who shared her comments by speaker phone with Jonathan McCrory, director of the Theatre Arts Program, who sat at a table in the theatre’s crowded office space. “People are hungry for dialogue. Our aim with every show is to build community.  When you set that context, people want to stay.  It’s not academic.  It’s shared human experience.” 

    For the fall performance of Harrison David Rivers’ Sweet, a coming of age story about two sisters in an all-black town in western Kansas in the late 1960s, director Raelle Myrick-Hodges’ staging had clotheslines with laundry extended down the aisle to the entrance of the theatre space so audience members could immerse themselves in the characters’ world.

    McCrory said the intention is to dismantle the separation between audiences and the art they are experiencing.

     “People want to absorb as much as possible,” he said. 

     They are offered plenty to absorb at NBT.  Besides producing plays for its MainStage that tell “authentic stories of black lifestyle,” the company offers two opportunities for script development: the I Am Soul Playwright Residency Program and Keep Soul Alive Mondays, a reading series for black playwrights to showcase new work every second and fourth Monday.  

     NBT’s Entrepreneurial Arts Program provides small theatre companies, organizations and more than 300 individual artists affordable subsidized space to cultivate and develop their audiences and production skills. The Communication Arts Program offers educational opportunities in numerous ways. 

     So the performing arts are well represented at NBT, but so are the visual arts.  With the help of a Ford Foundation fellowship, Teer took her first trip to Africa and ended up commissioning and bringing back to Harlem seven traditional and contemporary Nigerian artists from the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove to carve interior and exterior artwork using tools and methods spanning seven generations. This art collection is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere and is open free for all to view during the theatre’s operating hours.  It is popular with New York school groups and tourists as well.

    All of these efforts are maintained by city, state and foundational support and individual donors. Teer bought the property in 1983, helping to secure the theatre's future.

  Over the years the theatre’s demographic has shifted significantly from its original nearly 100 percent black audiences to the current level of between 50 and 60 percent black. This has occurred partly because the neighborhood has been gentrifying and also, Lythcott says, because the theatre’s shows are consistently reviewed by the New York Times, which is a major way to be singled out among the many, many off-Broadway companies in the city.

     Because of all its hard work and creativity, NBT’s recognition extends beyond New York City. Curators of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture visited the organization’s archives for information to include in the new institution. 

     When NBT began in the late 1960s, it was one of maybe a thousand black theatre communities around the country.  Now it is one of the few left. McCrory attributes this in large part to the security provided by owning their own space.

     “It was our founder’s vision,” he said.  “She understood that if we own our land, we can weather whatever comes.  We attract loyalty from the community with our unique pedagogy.  People find out who we are.”

     Lythcott said people have taken “spiritual ownership” of the organization. 

     “We look at ourselves as a service organization,” she says.  “It’s a reciprocal flowing benefit to all parties on either side.  That’s where the healing starts.  We are for the community first.  There’s spiritual energy and healing in everything we do. Our space is like a church. Audiences feel like they matter.”

     Looking ahead to NBT’s 50th anniversary next year, Lythcott expects that exciting new works lie ahead, even in what she calls “the scariest of times now for our generation.” She compares the racism surrounding Donald Trump’s candidacy and election to that of the Civil Rights era in the 1960s.

     “I’m super hopeful now.  This time feels so dark, but I know the response from artists will shift into a new consciousness.  We’re always pushing the envelope about what black culture looks like.”

     McCrory said people in the black community aren’t at all surprised by the hatred being expressed.

     “It’s not bad or worse.  The veil is gone, the protective veil.  Now we’re having to reckon with the muck.  It’s been like that ever since our people came to this country.  Now the chickens are coming home to roast.  We, as an institution, meditate on freedom inside oppressed systems.”

     Lythcott sees an enhanced opportunity to respond to the community’s needs.

     “After the election happened everybody was reacting.  Our instinct was to be quiet and listen.  Now more than ever theatre can be a safe haven for all that is possible. We can be a sanctuary for artists to express themselves within that friction.”