The Scottsboro Boys

20863574_10155638855594464_1555720063175253618_oAs we began to write The Scottsboro Boys, it was immediately apparent why it was so important to tell their story.  Behind the headlines, the spectacle, the ongoing trials, the histrionics of politicians and lawyers was the story of nine young African American boys, determined to prove that they mattered…

–Composer, John Kander

Black lives matter.  Let’s consider also that the immensity of any individual life has to be looked at directly to show how and why—to enable a life to sing.  Pittsburgh Playhouse’s production of The Scottsboro Boys traps you into looking with its first breath, it opens on the silent chorus: an African-American woman, beginning to hyperventilate.

From the start, this is a violent twist of emotions.  It rings with the insanity of a culture whose proud integrity has been entirely and hypocritically forsaken.  It brings us to face nine individuals who are smacked suddenly with the fake virtue of a fiction called Justice and the humor of nonsense as horror.

The bitter irony of displaying this trial as a minstrel mimics the level of absurdity existent in Alabama’s justice system in 1931—Everything is a righteous farce.  Everybody is a clown.

Ivy Fox as The lady
Ivy Fox as The lady

We get to see this reflected in the eyes of that silent muse; the one woman chorus, Ivy Fox’s Lady.  Her silent acting does something for this show that manages it, conducts it.  It’s a powerful and strange tool, to have an emoting chorus who says almost nothing and yet says absolutely everything with her emanating presence.

Welcome to this world, a psychotic other dimension led by superstar showmen Billy Mason and Jr Whittington as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  These hosts are exceptionally powerful guides through the odyssey.  They fill ironic roles: the minstrelsy, fools.  Mason’s side-eye as he performs the tasks of Sheriff WhiteMan or Whittington’s haphazardness in his role as lawyer Johnny Walker; they are a strew of characters, diving into a critically injured American psyche that is in denial until satire can see it.  And they both lead sensationally.

Susan Stroman, the original Director and choreographer, remarks,

Typically minstrelsy uses white actors to portray African Americans in ways that are negative and disrespectful.  But we asked ourselves, ‘What if it were a group of African Americans playing white people?’  It would allow these nine actors to play white women, white prison guards, white sheriffs, white judges: it would allow them to play parts they would otherwise never play.

21457457_10155695876934464_8669559662130794580_oThis power gives credence to a performance like Joseph Fedore’s Eugene Williams, a 13-year-old boy who was sentenced to death for a crime he doesn’t even understand; tap dancing a song about the electric chair as he suffers the terror of having persistent nightmares about it.  The twisted and beautiful take on a holocaust moment where a terrified teenage boy and two corpses (Steven Etienne and Scott Kelly) can suddenly breakout into truly whimsical movement reflects a splendid, musical softness within such a deep, destitute lostness:

Hey little boy

look over there

that’s what they call

an eleca-tric chair

Or perhaps the same minstrelsy is reflected in performances like Jared Smith and Lamont Walker II’s as two Alabama ladies who accuse the Scottsboro Nine of a false rape.  So there are two of the Scottsboro Nine, then also playing their villainous false victims: what a quandary.  This preys upon the mercy for rape victims and satisfies the salvation of one at the expense of the many others who, with this false testimony, did not matter.  How to perform this on stage and yet still execute the joke of the substance, the sickness?

It’s done camp, with panache and with diva flare.  Charles Weems plays the hoot of his Victoria Price, the hammed up damsel in distress, playing on the rich cream of a woman’s successful acting causing nine men to be imprisoned and tortured for nothing.  The haunt of her success story is the catastrophe of these innocent men.  Or Walker II’s Ruby Bates, who within her song “Never Too Late” attempts to retract her testimony only to be met with a justice system who refuses her repentance.  Oh, how Lamont Walker II plays this woman up!  He brings her fully fledged, over-the-top to a place which takes the drag of it to a new level: he divas this woman, this false, redemptive victim into her breach into the mythology of the story: women are victims too.  It’s society that’s not real, that allows for this breach of trust.  And it’s a sorrowful farce, that rape culture can immediate the dramatic purging of nine black men, but the reality is we live in a cruel world with no clear answers and no promise of true justice.  So what do you do?  You sing.

21367051_10155695876799464_1080342176479291535_oThe entire ensemble carries so much precision and talent.  This show truly empowers in a creepy, disturbing way.  It irks to the point of inspiration.  It compels by getting under your skin.  Director and Choreographer Tomé Cousin leaves not a second of this two-hour show untapped for its active involvement with the audience.  It is so well-played, well-cast and harrowing.

I give special credence to Lighting Designer Andrew David Ostrowski whose seamless touchings of the characters provides a wealth of world within the limited stage frame.  The set was absolutely stunning within its minimal capacity, in that with almost nothing it does nothing but provide.  The brilliance of the chair set pieces, which construct and deconstruct so many levels of staging, show the capacity for a musical to be simple and so contained.  I loved those damn chairs.

This was an amazing, aggravating, horrifying and explosively powerful show.  I just wish it didn’t feel so relevant too.  I’ve never seen a tragedy so comedically charged, ironic and desperate; and so beautiful and horrifying as this.

The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland through September 24. For tickets and more information click here

Photos by John Altdorfer.

The Christians

KINETIC CHRISTIANS LARGE SQUAREKinetic Theater’s production of  Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is a terrific drama, but it’s heavily philosophical and thus necessitates a commitment towards an open, curious mind.

At first, I was locked into my seat thinking that I had been tricked into a sermon.  There’s a giant, looming cross suspended over the platform.  A choir comes out to sing.  A bunch of clean-cut church-leader types infiltrate the audience, begin shaking hands…then David Whalen’s Pastor Paul begins talking.

There’s that infinite vagueness of religious verse:

Because you have rejected this message,
relied on oppression
and depended on deceit,
this sin will become for you
like a high wall, cracked and bulging,
that collapses suddenly, in an instant.

That’s Isaiah 30, 12:13.  It’s imperative to theme of this play.  At first, not so clear.  You’re stewing in the sermon, not realizing the moral is marinating.  A religious question is but the scent for a main course which centers around the flawed humanity of conviction.

Director Andrew Paul describes where the motivation of this play originates:

“Hnath [the writer]’s goal was to write a play that opened with a sermon that a non-Christian could listen to and think, “well, maybe this preacher’s got a point.” ….He just wanted to get a decent number of audience members past certain assumptions about Christianity and hear what the characters are trying to communicate.”

David Whalen (center) and company
David Whalen (center) and company

So, this play dives into a difficulty of religion: its questions.  Whalen’s Pastor very much holds the kind, familiar but invariably patriarchal and commanding figure of a charming, friendly pulpit-monger: the storyteller, the guide, the man with a crystal connection to the Almighty in his heart. The part is Oxfords and khakis, with an always-smile and a discomfiting familiarity to the microphone always being two inches from his wise and prattling mouth.  Whalen carries this main character through the flight of his struggle.  It’s a blossoming affirmation.  We get to see the benevolent arrogance of a man blossom, then begin to torture itself to death.  He carries the tone of a man bred to lead led to the natural test of a religion’s vanity: the taboo of its inevitable doubts.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that this play centers around this pastor deciding that “hell” is a misinterpretation of the Bible.  The fear of hell, as postulated in the play, is an invention.  The reality Pastor Paul concedes is that god’s blessing bestows security onto and into everyone.  What a gip for the true-blue practicing Christians, eh?

What we then see is the unwinding of this man’s foundation.  His congregation splits and it’s kinda like the movie High Noon, but at the altar.  The man who conceives of a radical, new and challenging truth is shunned until he’s facing his doom completely alone.

Joshua Elijah Reese, David Whalen, & choi
Joshua Elijah Reese, David Whalen, & choir

The emotional power of this cast is outrageous.  Let’s start with Joshua Elijah Reese’s Associate Pastor Joshua.  A tightly-wound, normally restrained character who with his first lines begins to crack into a too-impassioned zealot.  We see the edges break, and Reese’s ability to show the exaggeration of this animated, emotionally vigorous man become begrudgingly distrustful.  We see a birth of his fundamentalism on stage, and it’s scary.  His conviction becomes a barb in a collection of facial tics:  reaction to the incredulous.  It’s awkward and it’s hairy.  But it’s real.  The emotion comes from a place of truth.  That’s what you end up watching—how disturbed this actor can make this character.

Same goes Robert Haley’s Church Elder Jay.  A man so self-possessed and clean-cut for life he boxes up with confrontation.  A hard-shelled animal encasing a soft-hearted man who knows better than to rock the boat.  I loved seeing the subtlety in this actor’s reactions.  He bites into silence with a clean, soundless gulp.  His nervousness has animation and it fed this character so much grave understanding and easily inferred meanings.

A realness too exists in Gayle Pazerski’s congregant Jenny.  Jenny comes alive with each question she asks, popping a new aspect of her character’s fortitude out with a terribly defensive logic.  Her curiosity is masochistic, because it dissolves one truth for another and thus her foundation quakes.   She becomes more emotionally wracked but stronger with each painful discovery and Pazerski trembles the level that a rational damning would do to her conviction.  She betrays some kind of human trust for dogma, but in so doing loses chunk by chunk bits of her trust in humanity.  Watching Pazerski’s portrayal of a harrowed woman come out of her troubles only to find existential doubt waiting in the road is pathetic. But somehow, she fiercely overcomes (sorry, spoiler).

David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead
David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead

What’s scary about this play is how innocuous the setting seems.  A church appeals as a refuge, particularly to the Christians.  But it comes with a contract: one that demands a certain tableau of assignations; such as, you accept Jesus.  But what if…that’s an option?  The whole system of consequence crumbles.

What is the weight of sin without consequence?

Mindy Woodhead’s Elizabeth is the Pastor’s Wife.  This part kills.  Man, she covers so much emotional ground.  So much power swept into the affirmative, once again, conviction of this self-strong woman disabling a broken skeptic with her righteous will.

I focus on the actors because that’s what this play delivers.  Woodhead’s performance brings up a staggering swell of emotional and self-righteous appeal.  This is a play about doubt and conviction.  But sometimes that it includes the conviction of doubt.

Besides the content and besides the subject matter, this play delves into a greatly human inquiry as to what drives us and how unrelenting is that need for absolute trust.  And with a 2000-year-old text filled with seeming metaphors that may or may not be literal, the fight ends up being two dogmas fighting it out in a ring.

The emotional fall-out should be illegal.  It’s the kind of grudge-making that begins wars.

Watch that match burn.  Watch serious people begin to fall apart and begin to become their true destined selves.

The Christians by Kinetic Theatre plays at the New Hazlett Theater through July 2nd. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Special thanks to Kinetic Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Rocky Raco.  

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Thom Pain12 Peers Theater’s production of Thom Pain (based on nothing) is prefaced by this note from director Vince Ventura:

When I first read Thom Pain, I was struck by the density of the language, the specificity of the images, and the raw emotion of the character.  While I had not experienced the exact circumstances that Thom had, this play had a way of cutting to the core of the “loss of innocence” experience.  For me, this play is a meditation on the universal experience of loss, maturing, and realizing exactly how little time we all have on this earth.

This play can be painful.  I believe Thom is trying to mythologize his own pain, with you, to help you find a way to process your own.  Thom will ask you to confront your deepest, darkest, most painful experiences; to define fear for yourself.  To see, at the end, that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first place.

This is your guide.  This, I believe, you should know going in: look for catharsis.  It’s here within the folds of this man’s narcissism.

Because it’s hard to watch a man talk about himself for an hour.  Thom Pain seems to want to investigate his past with the audience as spectator, having an impressive dedication to his own self-importance.  Does this make the show hard to watch?  Yes.  Does Ventura, then, suggest that you occupy this task as a challenge rather than a burden?  I believe so.

Thom Pain begs the challenge of the audience: Don’t say you were out watching someone be clever, a smartmouth nobody working himself into a frenzy.  Rather, say you were watching somebody trying.

18815115_1832532426760611_6123170761970490382_oMatt Henderson‘s performance as the solo man on stage grates in just the right way.  A bit of Woody Allen and a bit of Artaud.  I like the way he smiles throughout the show.  Eyes squinted and lips pulling, cheeks twined—smirking.  A madman assumes you don’t understand.  His talent in the character is that you never quite know where he’s coming from, as if his origin doesn’t even make sense to himself.  He’s lost, so you get lost with him.  But he’s a very sensible man!  He speaks in lofty phrases and riddles, allowing for laughter where it’s evident his jokes are a defense mechanism.

Henderson should be praised for holding the line between comedy and tragedy, a veritable marionettist lingering over the audience the vanity of his self-subject matter.  You are forced into the zone of his pain and his mind, which processes absurdity with the same lust for hope.  You are put into a room where a man yells at a wall.  You’re the fly on the wall.  Occasionally he’ll pluck an audience member to be his insinuation of another person.  You are also a figment of his memory, then.  So he toys with plucking your wings.

I’s more than the limp vaudeville of a sad man telling jokes.  As has been stated: it’s an investigation.  A man’s existential plight into the madness of his memory through anecdote and metaphor, cute helplessness and rage.  And it’s all about the man.  There’s very little staging.  Very little prop work.  That’s alright, though.  Feel like a psychologist for an hour.  Be silent.  Listen.  Try.

For a one man show, it implores you to be uncomfortable, to push past the boredom to feel restless.

Though, understand that this is a clever show.  It’s lovely with it’s word-play and it’s sprawl of stories and jokes.  It’s filled with distinct, classic one-liners:

I’m someone you might not hear from for a long time, then ‘Boom!’ you never hear from me again.

“you’ve changed.” she said on the night we met.

She wasn’t from here, so I had to talk to her with the international language of love: English. 

But I think it’s also important to understand this isn’t a typical theatre experience meant merely for entertainment.  It asks to invoke.  To journey.  Henderson’s animated characterization begs a question of the past and he does a great job of towing the line between charming and scary.

Of course, one-man shows are a bit of a trap of captivity for the audience.  When they’re painful, it’s as if you step into the broken elevator and the true reward is the relief that comes with finally making it out.  After all, at the end of this show your reminder is that all is ephemeral, but life moves on.

I do believe we have to understand pain better.  Everyone’s pain has value.  And to see it bleed a bit. To see a stand-up tragedian self-flagellate for the sake of expressing a question in the most charming way possible; I’d say: check it out.  Henderson’s brilliant.  He’s very much in the role.  It’s a bit of a downer, but there’s a lesson inside.

Special thanks to 12 Peers Theater for complimentary press tickets. Thom Pain (based on nothing) runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning through June 18. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photo courtesy of 12 Peers.

Between Riverside and Crazy

RIVER2830

Here’s the thing about this review: it’s loaded. Overall, the play was great because the acting and directing were well executed. Although, it tackles some issues with race that are compromising the sugary concept of a cut-and-dry satisfactory resolution by having all the principal characters be involved in some shady activities. To boot, they are all minorities, but what irks me even more is that the play eventually shines a redemptive light on these characters in a shallow, flash-in-the-pan type ending. Nothing is really resolved, but you’re left feeling as if something was. The play is contradictory, and therefore a real challenge.

Between Riverside and Crazy has very well written, spunky dialogue that is contemporary and full of a punchy imagery that acknowledges every side of New York City’s facets. The characters are introduced with a well-intact identity that almost immediately belies their truth and complexity. Three of these characters are black, two of them Latino, and two of them white. They all speak in a familiar way which outlines the brashness and confidence of New York City dwellers. There’s a relativity towards how New Yorkers approach the subject of health: “fit and diesel” or “ring dings and baloney”; or how they approach well-being: “You got emotionalisms, you know. Emotionalism is real.” It’s here that we see either truth or stereotype. Relatable characters relating an essence of what it is to be a New York identity, full of worldly knowledge, assertive confidence and wit.

Eugene Lee and Alejandro Hernandez
Eugene Lee and Alejandro Hernandez

The staging is brilliant and director Pamela Berlin deserves great praise for utilizing the full scope of body language and keeping the motivations subtle. When the arguments happen, the reasoning, the dissonance, the anger are all well practiced and presented to be natural. The body movement and activity of the actors is constantly engaged and makes the stage active and alive; especially Eugene Lee’s palpable drunkenness as Pops. It would be a disservice not to highlight Eugene Lee’s “Pops” whose every gesture, every phrase emanates the character with bold interpretation. He has animated eyes that speak mannerism fiercely making it a pleasure to watch this man in the lead.

The characters are introduced with a well-intact identity that almost immediately belies their truth and complexity. Alejandro Hernandez’s Oswaldo really works his drawn Bronx dialect and enthusiastic punchiness within the character and Christina Nieves’ coy, Puerto-Rican Lulu swims in her character’s giddy freedom and youthful impetuousness. All these New Yorkers speak in a familiar way which outlines the brashness and confidence of the New York City: the fastest city in America and its underserved, self-assured citizens.

Some of the best acting of this show was performed by Dawn Mcgee’s Detective Audrey O’Connor. Her talent for staging provided so much emotional understanding of the character. She guards herself behind a chair, she defends herself with her arms crossed, she crosses the stage to make a point. It was true to life and yet so charismatically dramatic.

This story focuses heavily on identity; particularly black identity. The crux of the drama regards whether the main character “Pops” Washington was the victim of a clumsy trigger-finger or a hate crime. Throughout the play audiences come to understand the mixed motivations of characters. This play circles the idea of identity and what it means to be a minority in New York City. All of the four minority characters involve themselves in either criminal activity or scandalous lies.

Dawn McGee, Drew Stone and Eugene Lee
Dawn McGee, Drew Stone and Eugene Lee

This play is centrally about gentrification and the cultural appropriation that comes along with it. The setting provides weight to the theme; the rent-controlled apartment is a fortress built up around a gentrifying neighborhood. It is the owner’s garrison; his battle for ownership in a changing world as well as a hold-out for another time. The play seeks to identify the main character’s complex struggle that is the aging and underserved class feuding with the evolution of New York’s gentrification. The Public gives a great identity to this place: both claustrophobic and cozy. The rotating stage was central, adding intimacy with each rotation as it allows characters to be given one last action as they exit. This was a particularly striking theatrical effect, it gives the illusion of the heaviness of a moment, as if setting the action up for its place in the historical importance of each scene.

The play is full of rich Black and Puerto Rican humor and performance, but it’s an uncomfortable situation to take eyes away from the stage and see an almost entirely white audience and wonder with what understanding is this joke making people laugh. The idea of racism as an institutional concept would infer certain assumptions about why people do the things they do. I am left to contemplate: how is this story of African-Americans and Latinos trying to get by with a liberated concept of entitlement playing on this audience? At this performance of Between Riverside and Crazy, the mostly white audience finds humor in the strange depictions of minorities that are probably built upon dedicated truths of New York individuals, but it still creates a weird mythology particularly because only the minority characters in the play were involved in some kind of illegal activity or lying game. Is the audience laughing with the characters or at them? Importantly, the white characters are cops. But they too beguile and manipulate in a way meant to orchestrate some concept of justice that sits apart from a greater truth: to be a black cop is to be an agent disliked by all parts of society.

Christina Nieves and Bryant Bentley
Christina Nieves and Bryant Bentley

I left this play’s first act feeling it was a brilliant, modernist diatribe and exactly what to expect from Pittsburgh Public: Realism!, i.e. the nitty-gritty Arthur Miller-esque truth of mundane, regular life. These stereotypes are prevalent for a reason; people do grandstand in New York and they do make jokes throughout conversation in a way that this play captures truly. It’s after the play’s conclusion and the sharp contradictions lain within the reliability of the protagonists, that I left thinking this play was either half-baked or brilliantly modeled to make you fiercely work towards understanding why anyone was a worthwhile character in this story.

By the end of the play I felt both dissatisfied and overwhelmed trying to figure out why it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015. A lot of the conflicts are written off and the epilogue-type ending seems to ruin the arcs of drama that compelled the plot. It’s all hung up on a talisman which is very hard to give gravity to. There are a lot of are big questions of the play and I don’t feel a satisfactory answer is laid out easily for any one of them.Everyone is essentially a criminal, and I think it’s an important task to come to understand why. Looking at in that context, perhaps the less-redeeming qualities of some of the criminally-acting characters in this play can actually be seen as redemptive in certain light. Perhaps that’s the key to the play; the truth of the world is that life is shit and you have to just run with it.

The Pulitzer Prize committee must have thought so. Because in depth, this play searches for a truth amongst what we as a society, as a justice-wielding throng of onlookers, have decreed as criminal. Overall, it is well-told, full of kinetic performance, as well as rich character development and dialogue

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for complimentary press tickets. Between Riverside and Crazy runs through December 11th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Public Theater.