INDIGO: The Color of Power

Review by Ramona Pula

“Indigo” – Sunday, 7-26-15, MITF 16

105200

Writer: Cassandra Powell
Director: Herman Spearman
Starring: Tunisia S. North, Stephen Bauder, Jarryn Bingham, Asante Williams, Cassandra Powell, Tanya Freeman, Justin Smith and Danee’ta Shine

Davenport Theatre, Black Box, 354 W. 45th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues)
16th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival
Running Time: 90 minutes

“Indigo” takes place in the 1970s, a time of political and social unrest in America. The Black Panther Party (BBP) of Southside of Chicago is under fire after its prominent leader, Khalid, is charged with robbery and murder. The core members of the group, convinced of Khalid’s innocence, try to help him by contacting witnesses and otherwise working to get to the truth. The case turns in a mysterious direction, and Indigo (played by Tunisia Samaritan North) must choose between love and the movement.

Written by Cassandra Powell, the story told in this important work has many parallels to our current societal situation. As Nasir, Khalid’s lawyer and also in charge while the jailed leader awaits trial, states, “The system is not our ally.” The Chicago chapter BBP members echo him, saying, “The American system is not our ally.”

Nasir further declares, “This system was never created to protect us.” Since many modern police forces had their origins in “slave patrols” and “night watches” whose purpose was to control minorities, one could argue further that the system was created to hurt them.

There was another person involved in the crime, but the police don’t care to find out who it was. Khalid is the most prominent Black Panther in their jurisdiction, so they want him behind bars no matter what. This has a specific parallel to history, and we read about similar maneuvers worldwide, past and present. When smart people get together and threaten the status quo, authorities go after them.

After noting some people complain that Black Panthers are racist, Nasir asks “When did the quest for freedom become a racist act?… Our #1 mission is to empower our community.” Before the FBI infiltrated them, the BBP’s primary focus was developing community support programs including feeding breakfast to children. They did not advocate violence, however they vowed to protect their own if attacked.

This history repeats itself today. Self-defense is seen as aggressive, even when in response to police brutality and the current epidemic of racist murders against black men, women, and children. The rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” is called exclusionary instead of a demand to be included, a human call for equal protection and respect in one’s own country. Sheila talks later in the play about how the media represents each side with bias. We see the same kind of bias in today’s mainstream news.

The costumes in this production were period for the most part, including Afro hairstyles. Nasir wears a dashiki, which one sees today but was especially popular at the time. Some of the cast looked solidly 1970s, while others looked like they could fit in either then or now. The glaring exception was Blakely (Steve Bauder), whose style was 2015.

Period music plays between and sometimes briefly during scenes. At the beginning, as well as later in the play, some spoken word is played, and I wondered who it was. Lyrically, it reminded me of Public Enemy but PE wasn’t around in the ‘70s (nor was “rap” as we currently understand it as a music genre, at least not on the radio – “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979). Most of the other songs I recognized as popular songs from the day.

The lighting design is on point. However, the execution of the cues during the performance I saw was sloppy in several places.

Director Herman Spearman has effectively staged this production and guided characterizations. The cast is engaging. Some are stronger actors than others. I guessed this to be due to differing levels of training since everyone in the ensemble seemed to be equally talented. Basic things bothered me, like when someone’s projection was appropriate for film more than for stage. The few times when someone did not have lines down cold, connection with character was dropped momentarily.

My favorite performances in the ensemble were those of Cassandra Powell as Sheila (played with pathos), Asante Williams as Jamal, Jarryn M. Bingham as Nasir, and Justin Smith as Ron. That said, everyone onstage was committed, connected with each other, and were believable in their roles.

Indigo has a romantic nature and there is a love story here – more than one actually, including by extension that of Romeo and Juliet. Indigo has been practicing scenes from the Shakespearean tragedy with a white classmate, Blakely. They’re in love and, as we find out later, have had a dream of performing the first interracial Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. Through their relationship, the play explores the question of freedom, and how access to that can be different for blacks than it is for whites.
Blakely’s father is Jewish, and he and Indigo have a “Holocaust versus Slavery/Jim Crow” discussion. Comparing oppressions is defeating to those oppressed in various camps. We do better when we cooperate against existing oppressors, rather than compete in the “Oppression Olympics.” At one point I was aghast when Indigo said “Don’t cry to me about a few thousand Jews being killed when entire generations of blacks have been destroyed” – a few thousand? Try several million! In addition to 3 million gentile Poles killed, and gypsies (Sinti and Roma), gays, et al. “The blood shed unites us.”

The play also explores the nature of infighting in an organization, this one being no different than any other in that regard. Petty jealousies and ego can divide people and break up a movement. At one point, Indigo says to Nasir and Jamal “You promised you wouldn’t fight… can’t you see what you’re doing? When you fight each other, you hurt all of us.”

Disrespect for women is problematic in any movement. At one point, Ron implies that Vera (Tanya Freeman) is a whore, saying, “You’ve been around.” Nasir defends her, saying to Ron “respect our sisters.” In a later scene, a witness to the robbery and murder, Bertha (Danee’ta Shine), says to Sheila “be strong” – Sheila says back to her “be strong” – they hug and we can see their strength. We need to stick together.

The events of this story are heartbreaking. There is a tragic twist near the end and we in the audience stayed with it until the end.

Violence versus non-violence in activism is a central theme in “Indigo.” After some struggle back and forth, physically and philosophically, five Panthers each take a gun into the streets. The play ends ominously as we hear five gunshots offstage.

At least 10 minutes could be cut from this play, and it did run over its official 90-minute run by that amount of time. “Indigo” is riveting theatre and would be even more so trimmed down a little.

The personal is political. Power to the People!

Always Leave ‘Em Wanting More

Always Leave ‘Em Wanting More
A Review of
A Minor Midcareer Retrospective
Davenport Theatre Black Box
7/22, 7/24, 7/25
by Isaac Scranton

11755864_922566927805725_1812780638270472051_n

As Mama Rose famously said, the first rule of theatre is to always leave ‘em wanting more. James Judd in A Minor Midcareer Retrospective clearly took that advice to heart.

Judd is charming, charismatic and clearly a master at getting the audience on his side. He electrified with whacky tales running the gamut from Patti LuPone avoiding him with a ladies’ room full of deaf drag queens to his trials and tribulations against psychotic geese and defendants alike as a Public Defender in New Hampshire. In the audience, we laughed, we cried and were with him all the way.

And then, without warning, fanfare or even an acknowledgement that his allotted time was over, he bowed and disappeared off the stage. The stage lights dimmed. A few moments later the house lights brightened. We, the audience, didn’t know whether this was some sort of intermission, a clever Kaufmann-esque gag or if the show was really and truly over so soon.

It may be a good theatrical rule of thumb to always leave ‘em wanting more – ostensibly so that they’ll keep coming back – but when that rule is taken so literally, it can often undercut what otherwise would have been a most fabulous evening.

The Gospel According to Lucy Blood

Review by Ramona Pula

“Biblically Speaking” opening night 7-20-15, MITF 16

Writer, Composer: Lucy Blood
Director, Make-Up: Kate Gilbert
Stage Manager, Lights, Sound: Deborah Lane
Starring: The Reverend Lucy Blood

Davenport Theatre, Black Box, 354 W. 45th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues)
16th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival
Remaining Performances: Sat 7/25, 1:30 pm; Sun 7/26, 2:30 pm
Running Time: 60 minutes
11742974_790465017738646_6987463941144983085_n
______________________________________________________

“Biblically Speaking” is a campy one-woman show that presents five biblical women: Eve, Ena, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Mary Magdalene. Women underrepresented in the Bible come forward to speak to us, and for themselves.

The show’s producer is the Reverend Lucy Blood, who is also the writer, composer and performer. She plays a version of herself – named simply “Preacher” – and speaks as herself, recounting events from her life.

Preacher provides the framework within which the biblical characters appear. Entering to a funky beat and wearing a scarf the colors of a rainbow, Preacher holds her Bible up to the heavens. She then places the “Big Book” on a pulpit, where there is also a tea light candle, Preacher’s school notebook from seminary, and a red apple.

As Ms. Blood raps, “I speak to you today about women’s equality”, she wonders what the women in the Bible would say.

Director Kate Gilbert does an efficient job with staging. The space is used well whether the Rev. Lucy Blood is portraying Preacher or one of the other women. Deborah Lane does fine with lights and sound, and there were no glitches, which can be unusual for a show’s opening night at a theatre festival where there is limited technical rehearsal time.

The simplicity of the set-up for this show is effective. Using a black-draped container upstage center for costume pieces and props allows the small changes between characters to go smoothly. While the actor changes to another character, verses from the Bible related to that character are heard via voiceover. Ms. Blood uses the rainbow-colored scarf in various ways for each woman and sometimes wears multi-colored sparkly glasses of various styles or a colorful head covering. Rainbow colors are also featured in magic tricks sprinkled throughout the action.

The first Bible verse recording played is from Genesis, and the first woman is, of course, Eve, who speaks with a Southern accent.

Eve lets us hear Ms. Blood’s penchant for corny, sometimes “off-color”, jokes, that remind you of jokes your dad or your fun-loving lesbian aunt would make. They’re usually groan-worthy, although many times you can’t help but smile.

Eve comes across as comical, but then gets serious when talking about losing her son Abel to murder at the hands of her other son. “I am the first mother to outlive her child. That should never happen.” (The transition from comical to serious is repeated with others too, like Ena, Noah’s wife, when she touches on the horror of the flood.)

The pattern for the show is thus established. Preacher, Bible verse voiceover while the actor changes, biblical character, music while actor changes back to Preacher, and so on. The structure is straightforward and works well.

During the sections when Preacher raps, much of it based on her notes from seminary classes, it sounds like the Rev. Ms. Blood stuck to her actual notes without adapting anything to a true rap structure. She’ll say a few lines to a simple beat, and then often abandons the rhythm. I say go all out and really make these as hip-hop as possible (along the lines of Queen Latifah or Public Enemy, rather than gangsta or T&A.) The worst that could happen is that it would be hilarious!

Each biblical character has a distinct accent and vocal quality, and some work better than others. Eve’s Southern accent is fine. Ena’s raspy voice works. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, sounds convincingly like a socialite. Then we get to Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife and John the Baptist’s mother, who sounds like she’s partly from the Middle East and partly from West Virginia coal mining country. If that’s a real accent, I want to know from where.

Mary Magdalene sounds somewhat like she’s from Brooklyn, although by the hippyish way she dresses, while watching I wished she could also sound more like a stoner love child. At one point Mary’s voice slipped into Ena’s raspy one, and then the actor started coughing, so I think she needed water. And really, it might be helpful to keep some onstage, in a chalice perhaps, because talking and singing for an hour straight without water can’t be easy.

When Mary Magdalene first appears she says “Not what you expected, eh? Many people get me mixed up with the other Mary, you know, the good one… they say I’m a prostitute, a whore. There was supposed to be a whole book about me in the Bible, but somehow it got lost.” She says she was with Jesus at the beginning of his ministry and was with his mother Mary at his crucifixion when he said “it is finished.”

The Rev. Ms. Blood is clearly saying that Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. My understanding is that Mary was never a prostitute, and the lost book referred to is actually the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene.

“The theory is that certain early-church historians… couldn’t abide that Jesus had chosen a woman (Mary Magdalene) as one of his first and leading disciples. So, they mixed her story up with other stories of biblical women (such as the unnamed woman who sensuously anointed Jesus’ feet using her long hair and the unnamed woman caught in adultery), inventing the fiction that she was a reformed prostitute. Apparently – then as now – small-minded people aren’t willing to let go of certain salacious sins, even after a person has repented of them, and they knew that this false label would permanently besmirch Mary’s reputation. The Bible doesn’t say she was a prostitute. It says Jesus healed her of “seven demons.” She could have been bipolar or schizophrenic, or maybe just afflicted with multiple physical illnesses, but there’s no indication that she was immoral.” The Rev. Dr. Carlos Wilton

“It’s pretty clear that from the second century on Mary Magdelene was conflated with the other two stories, which happen pretty close to her brief introduction in Luke 8. It was a concerted smear campaign which Renaissance painters were all too happy to accept!” The Rev. Ms. Claire Pula

I would have preferred if the Rev. Blood went further to clarify this for the audience, especially because Preacher drops some truth earlier about how the Bible was written not by individuals, but by groups of men.

Every biblical woman tells corny jokes and each one is campy in her own way. Each tells us a truth about women, and thus people, and thus life. For example, Elizabeth says “It is fear that makes us kill each other.”

Although she doesn’t have an extensive theatre background, the Rev. Blood has been a preaching minister for many years, which is itself a type of performance art. She uses the space to advantage and is well grounded, and she has a quirky, oddly charismatic stage presence. Her rapping needs work, however her singing voice is decent, and at times soulful. She is also a talented composer.

In the Preacher sections, we hear several instances of gender discrimination experienced by Ms. Blood, for example, shortly after she was ordained. As an associate pastor, she discovered that the previous male associate pastor was paid $2,000 more than her per year (equivalent to nearly $10,000 today) with equal experience. When pressed for a reason, the pastor told her “You must understand, he had a wife and child to support.” When the Rev. Blood then quit, the pastor’s reaction was pretty much “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”

As the show closes, Ms. Blood says “so here I am, some 40 years later, an ordained minister, B.S. and Masters in Education, Masters in Divinity…” What is her final analysis? “Such a fuss over different plumbing.”

The Rev. Lucy Blood, Preacher, lights a candle and directs that the house lights be brought up, saying “look at each other” and then sings “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” On opening night, the audience joined in the singing and clapped along.

Rainbows are a constant image in this show and central to its theme of a gay woman preacher breaking through to speak to us, and for herself. Ms. Blood’s final act is to turn a black scarf into a rainbow scarf as she dances offstage with the closing line “Let it shine!”

The Rev. Ms. Lucy Blood is endearingly kooky. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

“Biblically Speaking” has two more performances, this weekend on Saturday at 1:30 pm, and Sunday at 2:30 pm. If you see it either day, you can skip church this week.

11755140_788666457918502_113942110429412367_n

Un-Realism

REVIEWED BY ISAAC SCRANTON

Un-Realism
6 ACTORS IN SEARCH OF A CHARACTER
Written and Directed by Edward Eriksson
Starring
Nolan Charles, Katrina Clairvoyant, Sean Dowling, Sean Koslorowski, Estrella Mundos, and Krisbel Brenes Sandi.

Performance Dates: Fri 7/17, 8:00pm; Sat 7/18, 4:30pm;
Sun 7/19, 2:00pm; Tue 7/21, 7:00pm; Mon 7/27 7:00pm.
Running time: 75 minutes
Davenport Theatre, Black Box, 354 W. 45th Street,
between 8th and 9th Avenues.

Six-actors

One has to tip one’s hat to the effort of the students and faculty of Suffolk County Community College’s Theatre Program for a solid attempt at originality in MITF’s Next Generation Series.

An unabashedly self-conscious meta-theatrical farce exploring the concept of Realism vs Illusion, 6 Actors in Search of a Character is a veritable Acting 101 class that goes through all the familiar tropes of theatrical tradition.

In a series of vignettes, the cast presents us with a play-within-a-play-within-a-play, mixing styles like paint as the actors-playing-actors-playing-stage-techs-playing-audience-members attempt to create a work that’s more performance art than traditional narrative. They break the fourth wall with impunity, relying on old stage tricks, well-placed audience plants, deliberately-mistaken identities, a recitation of Shakespeare’s Prospero in Korean and even a disembodied-then-re-embodied angelic deus-ex-machina to disrupt the narrative of each scene until the audience is unsure whether they’re watching a full play or a spontaneous collection of improv exercises. They even at one point echo the Living Theatre’s classic Paradise Now by inviting the audience to join them on stage. One wonders what they would have done had any of the audience had the courage to do so.

As they leave their initial premise of a last-minute preview of a new Streetcar-esque piece about a turned-table semi-monogamous S&M relationship, the stressed-out cast and crew devolve into murderous love-triangles culminating in the actors turning into non-verbal beasts. The question of where to draw the line of suspension of disbelief is deliberately turned into a major centerpiece of the experience.
Ironically – or perhaps, not so ironically – the most truthful moment of the play occurs when Tiffany (played by project veteran Katrina Clairvoyant) comes out as the Director-Actor Dante’s (Nick Zale) “perfect” actress in a full Eyes Wide Shut expressionless face mask and is presented as a living doll to play out whatever whims the Playwright and Director can conceive.

Actual project Writer-Director Ed Eriksson, playing an actor playing Playwright Ed Eriksson, is clearly working with some big ideas and does his best to keep the action on stage coherent enough for the audience to follow. With a proverbial wink – and a very jaunty beret — he peels away layer upon layer of theatrical conceit with some masterful monologues, only to remind us that all of this is, of course, pretend. I found myself wishing that his youthful company would have taken things a bit more seriously in order to really sell the comedy. As it was, they came across as what they truly were: students loyally learning the ropes at the feet of their teacher, but not yet standing on their own.

The program note asks us, “Who isn’t an actor?” With a bit more seasoning, I’m confident that this cast will all make fine ones.

The M Center provides one singular sensation with its musical theater tribute

NOW THAT’S A FAMILIAR [SHOW]TUNE!

Review by Evan Meena

The American musical theater is a religion of sorts. Remembering who sang what and where; knowing the history behind each work and composer; and of course, the eternal recitation of the great tunes themselves are all holy obligations to those who worship at the Temple built by Ziegfeld, Hart, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Styne, Coleman, Bernstein, Webber and (all rise) Sondheim.

The M Center, Genesis Repertory’s award-winning performing arts training ground utilizing new age methods of drawing talent out of its students, turned in a joyous night at 440 Studios – right across from another theater temple, The Public Theater.

The rousing night featured Mary Elizabeth Micari’s musical master class students presenting familiar ditties as old as Rodgers & Hart and as new as Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater. Micari – a Broadway professional herself – coached her charges into a cohesive chorus of Broadway babes. Mason Griffin’s deft piano stylings provided power-packed backup to the bunch.

11698916_1457078354608048_1237420513779098320_n

11698384_1457076897941527_4885024506059107245_n

11693838_1457077611274789_1000881495303018407_n

11666216_1457076337941583_7541855378849978756_n

11659429_1457078151274735_3925271007530620522_n

11403472_1457076281274922_1411370143478700024_n

11403101_1457077491274801_2100790153536058831_n

11143479_10205964630207687_7757235250376156975_n

11052013_1457077344608149_6459360448783422638_n

11012612_1457076421274908_4880815846856169082_n

11008544_1457076744608209_6776366104832525961_n

10407627_1457076704608213_3682636224418444533_n

1379495_1457077584608125_8761912412159411015_n

19998_1457077954608088_7808752856057366078_n

11709847_1457078114608072_6481378597884456064_n

11707514_1457077227941494_8636687521782329997_n

11700814_1457077544608129_2761761885848202737_n

The plot of the program was a “Babes in Arms” style, revolving around the crew of a fundraiser basically forced into performing the show itself when the stars neglect to arrive. This simple formula opened the door for easy transition from song to song and even genre to genre – depending on the demographic of the crew in question.

An usher (Ashley Chico) opened the show with a open-hearted version of “Nothing” from A Chorus Line. Ashley gave us a more modern interpretation of the 70s classic with more real feeling and a more cultured and trained tone. Her happy day face and quirky moves made for a more sympathetic character. She was followed by the lithe form of Isabella Sirota who gave us a dramatic “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. She was followed by Martin Richards in a stand-out performance of “Stars” from Les Miserables.

Continuing the Lez Miz vibe was familiar face to Genesis and the M Center, Mario Claudio. He entered the stage with a burst of great energy for a marvelous rendition of “Who Am I” from Les Miserables. Mario is a book not to be judged by the cover. The bear-ish man in size and scope holds a soft tone and engaging demeanor. He was followed by character actress, Christine Conway. Christine – usually swathed in boisterous dowager style roles — weighed in with “Losing My Mind” from Follies. Playing the memory both in voice and stature she gave us a tender rendition.

Proving it’s never too … early … we meet Alinna and Andrew Gonzalez in a number from Charlie Brown. Well, that’s their current incarnations… these pre-teens had the demeanor and delivery of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Alinna’s powerhouse voice and dancing face brought many smiles from the crowd and her brother, Andrew, was the prefect straight man, packing hilarious double-takes and stage bits.

Emmy Pai, showed her versatility with a song from recently closed The Visit. She made us laugh with broad ribald humor as a patron angry over having to listen to the “crew” sing and then joins them in a deeply moving and emotional piece.

On to the stage then came a six-foot tall model type. Nicole Anne Rapp accompanied her statuesque presence with an innocent portrayal of a stage manager with stage fright. She then sang a beautiful version of “I’ll Know” from Guys & Dolls.

After a bout of serious and sincere, Jeffrey Ng led the cast in a version of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Spamalot. Jeff gave possibly the most realistic performance of the night leaving the audience to wonder if his naive low-comedy style was all an act or not. He grins and grimaced around the lunacy of Mario Claudio as the King and a whistling Martin Richards.

The act came to close with the most rousing of numbers … Christine Conway and Emmy Pai, were joined on stage by Mary Elizabeth Micari. The three presented one of the funniest versions of “Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy I’ve ever seen. Pai, donning a red kimono, did a fan dance; Conway, attached Christmas lights to private part and lit up like a Christmas tree … pardon the pun. But it was Micari who started the craziness brilliantly. In her evening dress and heels she added a Trojan soldier helmet and a REAL trumpet – which she proceeded to play for an hilarious and boffo Miss Mazeppa.

The second act brought on the book writer and stage director of the piece, Jay Michaels. Michaels, according to his bio was a hoofer back-in-the-day. This was proven by his ease at the “Fugue for Tinhorns” with Jeff and Mario followed by a top-notch “There is a sucker born every minute” from the little known musical, Barnum, ending with a duet of him and the aforementioned Andrew Gonzalez. The elder and the junior sang “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago as if Michaels was turning over the flim flam reigns to the next generation. Andrew was – in a word – brilliant, displaying a stage charm again far beyond his years. One could almost see the extra smiles on the faces of the chorus watching him wield his cane.

After this focused section, the crew – now the cast – returned with a medley of favorites from decades gone by: Isabella Sirota gave a sincere “Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening; Emmy Pai proved that she is an obvious choice for Bloody Mary with a touching “Bali Hai”; Martin Richards hopped on a ladder for an Addams Family serenade (“The Moon and Me”).

Suddenly from the crowd a white haired man meekly expresses his desire to be part of things and – after a guitar magically appeared (hey, this IS musical theater) he sang a number from the musical, Once. This unknown fellow, furthering the plot illusion of the crew running the show, was Martin’s father, David Richards. Richards, Sr., is a former standup comedian and song writer. After his excellent and meaningful performance, maybe we won’t be a “former” any longer.

Mario Claudio continued his swashbuckler tribute with “This is the Moment” form Jekyll and Hyde (what, no Scarlet Pimpernel?); Christine, utilizing this new style of character she started in act one brought tears to all our eyes by making the familiar “Memory” from Cats, fresh. Ashley came back in a velvet doublet and solicited great guffaws with “Shy” from Once Upon a Mattress; and little Alinna Gonzalez stepped up and blew the speakers out of the place with a “Johnny One Note” that left so many of us breathless.

What’s a musical without an 11:00 number … that’s quote from their script. And suddenly an 11:00 number appeared. The title song from Phantom of the Opera. Now here is where the Genesis Repertory magic appeared. First, Mario and Nicole as the phantom and his paramour were enchanting – loving and scary at the same time – both understanding the relish of a musical theater piece – even a creepy one. Next came an amazing use of flashlights and darkness. A grass-roots concert like this will not have boats and chandeliers so instead it had a versatile chorus; each manipulating a a flashlight – serving as the shine from the water, the flicker of candlelight, even the piercing reflection of the Phantom on his pipe organ. Really clever … and very effective.

But this was jot the true eleven o’clock number, that came a moment later. The cast rallying to make sure their fearless leader, Mary Micari gets her own spotlight (or flashlight), they deflect Patty Lupone from arriving to sing the finale and hand it to Mary – who then hit one right out of the park with “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy.

Manipulating her classically trained voice to accompany the belts, growls, and meltdowns the song requires, Mary took us on the journey the song is famous for. She brought about laughter, shock, and great sadness. She tore into us with the same off-the-cuff vocality in “Gimmick” and then stabbed us in the heart with perfectly trained sounds. By the time the final “for me” was uttered from her, the audience was already on its feet in applause.

The company – according to its latest release – is moving. They will retain a new space in Brooklyn and also have a space in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, which is great. The heart and soul of this company and its players remind us why we look at musical theater with such dreamy eyes.

“The Dinner” is a most satisfying meal.

Review by Ramona Pula
Photo supplied by company

“The Dinner” opening night 7-15-15, Davenport Theatre Black Box (MITF 16)
Writer, Director: Darryl Reuben Hall
Casting: Gayle Samuels
Musical Director: Ken Crutchfield
Production Manager: Roumel Reaux
Stage Manager: Joyce Pena
Lighting & Sound: Harlan Penn
Choreographer: Christopher Liddell
Costume Coordinator: Jennifer Montague

11698567_10153077062074702_9214233006331890175_n
_____________________________________________________________

“The Dinner” by Darryl Reuben Hall, currently running at the Davenport Theatre as part of the 16th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival, is a must-see show that walks a tightrope between harsh reality and comforting hope as it concerns racism in the United States of America.

Gayle Samuels has done a terrific job as casting director, which is an art in itself. The creative team includes production manager Roumel Reaux, stage manager Joyce Pena, and choreographer Christopher Liddell. The lighting and sound by Harlan Penn is top-notch. Music direction by Ken Crutchfield is also excellent. The costumes as coordinated by Jennifer Montague are wonderful and period-specific. The scenery by necessity is minimal, given the limited time for load-in and load-out and little on site storage in the venue. The changing of scenery, done by the ensemble, is sometimes clunky as a result. A change that works well is when Booker T. Washington, as he remembers his mother feeding her children chicken in the middle of the night, sets a table which is used in some later scenes.

Presented as a series of vignettes, the play deals specifically with the relationship between Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt, and the furor expressed by white southerners, some blacks, politicians, and the press after Roosevelt hosted Washington as his dinner guest at the White House in October 1901.

The show opens with a black man in blackface reading a newspaper. He breaks into a minstrel song and dance routine that drops the “n” word, a lot. An audience member walked out of the show after this number, and it could only have been because he was uncomfortable facing historical reality, since the routine was well-performed.

The man playing the minstrel then introduces himself as Booker T. Washington, as he begins to wipe black makeup off his face with a handkerchief. Washington is played expertly throughout by the author of this piece, Darryl Reuben Hall. The cast in general is solid and professional.

Nicholas Tucci primarily plays Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina, and Darrel Blackburn primarily plays Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, although both actors play other roles as well. At times it was easy to tell who they were playing, via accent change and slight costume variations, however at other times it was not completely clear to me.

Senator Tillman and Senator Vardaman, vocal and prominent white supremacist politicians of the time, quote from newspapers responding to Roosevelt’s and Washington’s dinner, and they also speak for themselves, ending with a dance and spoken word duet.

The vitriol and racial hatred that the pair spew can seem shocking, especially to a modern New Yorker. In fact, more than halfway through the piece, two more audience members walked out after a section featuring these two.

These things are hard for us to hear. That said, it’s important for us to know our history. It helps us understand our current societal situation, shows us how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go. The fact that some currently in power would like to “whitewash” the history of U.S. slavery and the Jim Crow-era South (hello, Texas State Board of Education!) highlights the need for us to remember. It is only in fully knowing our past that we as an entire American population can understand the current epidemic of racism that still exists here.

Tucci, as Tillman, is believable. That said, he wouldn’t always look at the audience while he was talking, and much of the time looked down, which took away from the character and what he was saying. Blackburn, as Vardaman, did look at the audience, and he was scarier because of this direct, matter-of-fact engagement.

Robert Sivers plays Whitefield McKinlay and Bryant Wingfield plays Emmett J. Scott, Booker T. Washington’s chief aide of many years. Both actors also play other characters, although as with the ensemble members previously mentioned, it was hard sometimes to tell exactly who they were.

There is also some non-chronological time-jumping between vignettes, although only within a few years, back or forth, which caused no confusion. Wingfield is excellent. Sivers’ performance is a bit rougher, however he also does well overall.

Mark Montague is perfectly cast as Theodore Roosevelt. There were a (very) few times when the actor paused a little too long while giving a speech, which made me wonder if he needs to drill his lines more, and caused him to disconnect briefly from what the character was saying. Like Washington and others, he’s trying to convince the audience as if they are an audience of over a century ago. Connection and fully being in the moment is especially important here. That said, for the most part Montague’s performance is terrific.

In a segment alternating between Washington speaking at the Atlanta Georgia Exposition in 1895, as a guest of Governor Rufus Brown Bullock, and Roosevelt speaking in a different location (and possibly at different times), we hear much of each man’s racial philosophy. Although these men were progressive for their time, they were also somewhat conservative by modern standards. It’s interesting to hear them in the context of history. I believed both actors as orators, especially Darryl Reuben Hall, whose voice becomes especially sonorous when the speaker is impassioned.

The use of lighting and actors freezing in place was used well here to differentiate the speakers as they spoke alternately, however whenever Washington spoke, the light bled a little too much on Roosevelt. That might be a limitation of the festival lighting plot that the designer had to deal with. Darryl Reuben Hall’s pacing through his speeches were on point, whereas Mark Montague faltered slightly in places.

These vignettes were engaging, however they went back and forth between the characters too many times. There were six sections for Washington and five for Roosevelt. Mr. Hall may want to consider condensing this section or consolidating the speeches into fewer vignettes.

We could have used more reaction to Washington’s speech from the Georgia Exposition audience. Robert Sivers reacted enthusiastically and more than the others. The speech builds, however the crowd’s reactions do not. When Washington finishes they suddenly erupt with applause (helped by sound design), and the increase in their enthusiasm seems too sudden without having had at least some crescendo.

The show ends in a satisfying and hopeful way, with Washington and Roosevelt sitting down to the dinner table and raising their glasses to each other, smiling. At curtain call, the ensemble performs an uplifting song written by Ken Crutchfield. Booker T. Washington and Teddy Roosevelt can sing! All the cast members have excellent singing voices. I liked the back line harmonies and they could have come in even earlier. More movement and choreography would also be nice.

Some in the ensemble looked more engaged with the song than others, and at first blush I thought the song might turn out corny. However, I quickly got enthused and I stood up with the rest of the audience as I clapped and danced. It was a feel-good, healing moment for many in the theater.

Glynn Borders in a tour de Enforcer

“The Enforcer” opening night 7-13-15, MITF 16, Running Time 30 minutes
Writer, Producer, Performer: Glynn Borders
Directors: Glynn Borders and Herbie Quinones
Venue: Davenport Theatre Black Box, 354 W. 45th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues
_____________________________________________________________

ENFORCER

Review by Ramona Pula

photo credit: Jonathan M. Smith
Many of us have been bullied in our lives, including me as both a child and an adult. You’ve probably been bullied. Or perhaps you have been – or are – a bully yourself?

“The Enforcer” is a one-man show written and performed by Glynn Borders, running at the 16th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival (“MITF”). The play explores changing identities as it pertains to relational power dynamics among three characters: student Lonnie Pierson; his bully, Joseph Smith; and their teacher, Mr. Moorehouse. Part autobiography and part disturbing fantasy, this play also touches on shifting meanings of the word “enforcer” itself.

Glynn Borders is a fine writer and charismatic performer. He has a good voice, and projects at an appropriate level for the Davenport Theatre Black Box. He has expressive eyes that are a window to his pain, when he lets us see it, and at times his stare is intense. Comic moments and characterizations are peppered throughout the story that Mr. Borders weaves for the audience, who laughed easily several times.

Overall this is a solid production, albeit a bit rough in places. The show simply needs a little polish.

I found Lonnie’s southern accent to be a tad inconsistent, and there could be more differentiation between the characters’ voices.

The staging is perhaps too static. Mr. Borders spent most of tonight’s show sitting in a chair. When he finally stood up well into the play, the increase in energy was palpable and welcome.

Glynn Borders and Herbert Quinones are listed as co-directors of this production.

I personally think it’s difficult to direct oneself, and according to the press this is Mr. Quinones’ “first venture as a director”. Perhaps in a future incarnation, this already excellent production will get even better with director and actor finding more movement in the material. This would also help with setting apart locations as the story goes from place to place.

The lighting design is basic and serves for general illumination more than to establish mood or atmosphere. I did notice a couple of lighting changes that were meant to do just that, however in a production with so few cues they stuck out and were not subtle. Making the fades slower might help in this case. There was a technical glitch at curtain during which the blackout stretched out too long as the audience applauded, however applaud they did, enthusiastically.

The music recordings played are lovely, and integral to the story that Mr. Borders presents.

The story is the strength of this production, along with its teller’s performance. As Mr. Borders describes a humiliation he endures at the hand of his erstwhile savior turned new bully, one that is psychologically devastating to him, we see clearly his pain and deep embarrassment. We feel his shame and anger.

As the story continues to unfold, we learn a few truths. People change, some for better and some for worse. Sometimes we forgive, however we do not necessarily forget. Time writes and rewrites our stories.

Several twists at the end of this tale keep us engaged until the end.

It reminds us that “Thangs ain’t always as they seem.”