New Good Old Days

Version 9Reviewed by Bob Greene

Andrew Harper stepped out of Lincoln Center to the 13th Street Repertory Theatre with his brainchild, SONG & DANCE, an homage to the questionably glory-days of Vaudeville and Burlesque. Through exquisite choreography, fascinating music, and some really powerful singing, Harper gives us early 20th century entertainment at its… most real.

We meet a group of vaudevillians in a time then, now, always, or never, setting up for another night on stage. Harper brilliantly opened the entire theatre to the production, utilizing not only the aisles and the people in them but the wings and the dressing rooms. This was truly powerful when Carolina Villararaos dances to a silent audience (forced into it by direction cards) then runs into her dressing room to get drunk.

image3 (1)Shelby Finnie, Paige Grimard, and Adran Hoffman presented Harper’s choreography with real strength and conviction. They were obviously trained well in their art but also in depicting the pathos mixed with obsession that all performers of that era must have inhabited. In short, their bodies moved beautifully, their expressions moved us. Standouts were the aforementioned Ms. Villaraos and Taylor Kelley as a ventriloquist dummy who – toward the end of the production – comes to life and dances in silhouette to a modern tune (“New York, New York”) to be precise. Ms. Kelley’s interpretation of Mr. Harper’s choreography coupled with the ironic tune reminded us of Tim Robbin’s filming of “Cradle Will Rock” and his surprise commentary ending. Peppering this dish was Ryan Pater, whose stunning voice, filled many a section with not-oft-done-in-a-dance-production live music. His ultra powerful higher register seemed perfect for the surrealism presented to us (in the middle of this 1920s exploration, cellphones and pulsating music were seen and heard).

Mr. Harper himself is an excellent dancer, acute executor of mime, and what appears to be a strong actor. As a choreographer and ultimately a director, Mr. Harper deftly transported us to this often misunderstood era of entertainment and supplied us with subtle (and not-so) connections to the world artists live in today.

Clever set pieces provided by Paul Harper and the wild, intricate costumes were by Bliss von Haven. Nice use of shadows within Ansel Hollis’ plot also added to the fun. The landmark 13th Street proved an excellent background for his production, with its wooden rafters and old brick walls.

Any faults that were evident – and there were some in the sense of continuity and scene changes –  would obviously be eradicated with more money, support and time, Something an artist like Harper richly deserves.

Power to the Players!

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BLACK PANTHER WOMEN Presented by Women of Color Productions.
Written and directed by Jacqueline Wade.
Reviewed by C.J. EHRLICH

At the 13 Street Repertory Theatre, 50 West 13th Street, NYC, run extended to August 7th.

Theatre magic is alive and well (and black and proud) in a little theatre on 13th Street

For my money, good theatre offers not only entertainment and novelty; it takes us to places we’ve never been. Better theatre does it in ways we don’t expect. And the most magical theatre invites audiences to be full partners on the journey. Playwright-director Jacqueline Wade brings this kind of sorcery to the 13th Street Rep with Black Panther Women. Onto a tiny black box stage she’s conjured up a sweeping history of a radical movement in a turbulent era, using virtually no sets or props, just an ebullient cast of thirteen women and the audiences’ imaginations.

Black Panther Women is as much performance art as a play, and while Wade is listed as playwright and director in the program, she should probably be credited as choreographer as well. The gritty, sometimes violent, show weaves fact and fiction, linear and nonlinear narrative, movement, dialogue, and sound to take audiences back to the seeds of Black activism in the 1960s. Wade paints moving stage pictures of the era in a series of short scenes, vignettes, music and dance. Her, for the most part, succinct dialogue reveals worlds and shapes characters. This is not quite a play with music; it’s not quite a play with dance; it’s an experience.

Black Panther Women is a show about the women who were involved in the  creation, struggles and eventual destruction of the Black Panther Party, a militant black nationalist and Marxist-socialist group founded in the tumultuous 1960s.

Today’s activists may not be aware of this social movement, political party, cultural influence, and distant relative of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Founders of what was originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense openly toted shotguns through the streets of Oakland CA to challenge police brutality (kids – please don’t try this at home). The BPP went national, attracting hundreds of young men and women of color fed up with what they saw as the unmet promises of the Civil Rights Act. At its best, the movement ran grassroots community social programs, like their free breakfasts program (inspiring the government program that now feeds millions of children). At its worst the BPP became identified with violent crimes and armed standoffs. Under intense FBI scrutiny and looming incarcerations, members went into exile. The west coast chapters broke with the east coast. The party imploded in the late 1970s amidst bitter infighting, notably between leaders Huey Newton, Bobbie Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. And the Party’s rigid machismo made abuse and even beatings of Panther women almost institutional, resulting in defections of some of its hardest working, brightest members.

BPP women were instructed not to bother with hair or make-up; they were told to use their sexuality to seduce the enemy; they were told not to try to claim a man, just to cook for him and bed him. Putting just as much energy into the cause as the men, they were second class citizens in a war for equality. Wade puts the personal into this political stew of radicalism, idealism and sexism.

I knew we were in for something special when the lights in the darkened theatre went up and we were confronted by thirteen black women poised for battle and resistance, like an army of Charlie’s Angels in black fatigues, some with the emblematic Panther beret, hair big and natural. In that moment, and many others, Wade uses the small stage to its best advantage, crowding it with movement and energy, making us feel like the world is ready to explode out of the theatre and into the streets. At one point a character on the run did in fact exit the theatre through the audience. She was cheered on by an older woman completely caught up in the action: “You go, girl!”

BPW2The play is full of lushly evocative moments created by the ensemble of multi-talented women. There’s a chaotic siege, a gang attack, riots in the streets, violent tests of loyalty, and a jubilant dance party scored to 70s pop. “Four hundred years of rage” pour out into a melee that truly evokes the chaos and anger following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The cast shimmy and shake and stride their way through a montage underscored by 1960s rock, sweeping us up in a whirlwind of Black consciousness-raising. We are introduced to several characters whose journeys will take them to key roles in the BPP. Elaine Brown (Billie Wyatt) is an adorable little girl who wants to grow up to be Shirley Temple. Her mama quickly disabuses her of this plan and scrapes to get her out of the ‘hood and into a tony private school. Elaine finds herself living in two worlds and will clearly have to choose one. Joana Byron, aka Assata Shakur (LaTisha Davis) dreams of being Grace Kelley in a poodle skirt; she falls in love with Elvis, until he ruins it by telling her that “the only thing a black girl can do for me is shine my blue suede shoes.” Assata and Elaine will have their triumphs and tragedies, but to go into any more detail would spoil a show that is well worth experiencing for oneself.

Other story strands follow Kathleen Neal Cleaver (Sunny Shen), and Alice Faye Williams (Deirdre Monique Benton), aka Afeni Shakur, aka Tupac’s mom.

In the men’s camp, Panther leaders Huey Newton (J Christina L Williams), Eldridge Cleaver (LaTisha Davis), and Bobbie Seale (Joya Richmond) are all played with such manly gravitas and sexuality that we can see why the Panther women stayed with them despite the Party’s raging sexism.

And in what almost seems like comic relief in this hard-hitting piece, Deborah Winefield plays a paranoid, scheming J Edgar Hoover, barking orders at  Agent Mellon (Jada Lynn Gaskins), a sidekick who seems more terrified of his boss than the Panthers.

One pitfall of many history and herstory plays of large scope is the challenge of keeping up with all the balls that have been tossed aloft. The second act is the weaker of the two. Wade changes storytelling style and ladles out exposition to account for complex philosophical shifts within Party leadership and global travels, with more wind than sails. The show loses some momentum and the weaker performances become a bit more prominent; the act could stand tightening. But the action picks up again, and scenes depicting the women’s dawning resistance to male cruelty are riveting.

The Oakland Museum is currently running the “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” exhibition. Assata Shakur resides in exile in Cuba. And in a real life magic moment, after the show, the playwright herself introduced our audience to a special talk-back guest, a former NY lady Panther.

She gave the show one fist, and two claws, up.