Posts Tagged ‘lynn nottage’

by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 11, 2021

Poster Image: The Black Rep

The Black Rep has returned to live performance with the thought-provoking, Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by celebrated playwright Lynn Nottage.  It’s a dynamic return for a theatre company that has been known for its excellence. The Black Rep maintains that reputation with a well-cast, impeccably paced production that focuses on issues of economic, class and racial tensions that were relevant in the time period in which the play is set, and that still resonate today. 

The story is told in flashback, starting out in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Don McClendon) is taking turns to interview two young men who have just been released after serving several years in prison. Jason (Franklin Killian) and Chris (Brian McKinley) both allude to something “bad” that they did that led to their conviction, but they are vague. It’s also clear that the two used to be close friends, but they are awkward now about having accidentally run into one another in town. The setting then shifts to eight years earlier, in early 2000, at a bar in the Reading, Pennsylvania area, frequented by workers from a local factory. Three friends and factory co-workers, Cynthia (Velma Austin), Tracey (Amy Loui), and Jessie (Kelly Howe), celebrate Tracey’s birthday and banter with the bartender, Stan (Blake Anthony Edwards), and in a series of subsequent scenes we get to know the characters and their situations, including the younger Jason and Chris, who also work  at the factory.  Gradually and deliberately, a story emerges from these vignettes, as the factory management looks for ways to cut costs, the workers feel the stress of wondering about job security, and Cynthia and Tracey both apply for the same management position at the factory.

We see the expected worker-management suspicion, as well as racial tensions come to the surface threatening the friendships among the characters. Tracey and Jessie, as well as Tracey’s son Jason, are white, along with Stan, who tries to be the mediator and peacemaker in the various situations. Cynthia and her  estranged husband Brucie (A.C. Smith), along with their son Chris, are Black, and are starting to see some resentment from their longtime friends, and especially Tracey. There’s also Oscar (Gregory Almanza), the Colombian-American bar assistant who shows Tracey a Spanish-language job poster from the factory looking to hire workers at a lower rate, which had been posted at the Latin Community Center and leads to further tensions among the characters, as hostility rises against Oscar, who has  been seen as an outsider even though he was born and raised in the area, as well. We also see some of the effects of the management’s treatment of its workers, as well as that of other factories with similar issues, on its workers, as both Brucie and Jessie deal with addiction in their own ways, and others indulge in dreams of “getting out” while some try to hold onto past family traditions and the way things had been for many years. In the midst of this, we see the foreshadowing and increasing buildup to the incident that Jason and Chris allude to in the introductory scenes–and when the moment arrives, it’s shocking in both its brutality and its sheer sense of realism. 

The play is well-constructed, as is expected for playwright Nottage, whose thoughtful, thought-provoking plays are duly celebrated. There’s also a good use of period newscasts and topical references to help set the events in their time as well as suggest a climate of tension across the country that’s not only being felt in this one town. The staging is dynamic and well-paced by director Ron Himes, and the atmosphere is well-maintained with a detailed, realistic set by Tim Jones, evocative lighting by John D. Alexander, clear sound by Kareem Deanes, and excellent costume design by Hali Liles. This setting seems like a real bar that anyone could just walk into and order a drink, and these characters and situations are immediate and believable.

The credibility of the characters is due to the combination of the strong script and the superb performances of the well-chosen cast at the Black Rep. As central figures Cynthia and Tracey, both Austin and Loui convey the complexity of their characters especially well, with a strong sense of history between the characters, and Loui especially manages to keep Tracey interesting even as her character becomes more difficult to like. There’s also a strong, anchoring performance from Edwards as the affable, world-weary bartender Stan. Killian and McKinley are also outstanding playing Jason and Chris as both their younger, more idealistic characters and the characters they become later. Almanza is effective as the determined Oscar, as well, as are Smith as the needy Brucie, Howe as the occasionally snarky Jessie, and McClendon in a small but memorable role as parole officer Evan. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry that helps to drive the drama and relatability of the play. 

Sweat is a play that succeeds on many levels, as is fitting for a Pulitzer Prize winner. At the Black Rep, the company has staged a profoundly provocative show that is sure to make audiences think, which is important in a world in which issues such as these are increasingly timely. It’s a first-rate, remarkable production. 

The Black Rep is presenting SWEAT at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 26, 2021

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Mlima’s Tale
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
June 6, 2021

Kambi Gathesha, Joe Ngo
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last show I saw indoors before the lockdown was at the Rep (The Cake, in March 2020), so it’s fitting that the first indoor show I see, over a year later, is also a Rep production, although the venue is different. Staged at COCA’s new Berges Theatre, Mlima’s Tale is a small-cast production about a big subject, in more ways than one. In terms of the production, it’s about the Rep’s excellent cast and truly stunning production values, and it all begins with an elephant.

Mlima (Kambi Gathesha) means “Mountain” in Kenyan-Kiswahili, according to Director Shariffa Chelimo Ali’s note in the program. And Mlima is a mountain of an elephant, embodying all the grandeur and majesty suggested by the name. It’s a stunning performance by Gathesha, who doesn’t have to dress like an elephant to portray this character. Gathesha is simply attired, but his movements and body language suggest the towering Mlima, including his ears, his trunk, and his deliberate, measured gait. Mlima narrates his own story throughout most of the play, which focuses on the international ivory trade and the insidious power of avarice that can be more pervasive than people are willing to admit. The “Tale” leads the audience from a wildlife preserve in Kenya across the ocean to Vietnam and China, with many stops along the way as the spirit of Mlima “haunts” the various players involved as corruption, ignorance, compromise, and conflicting ideals drive their actions.

As presented by the Rep, the ultimate result of this storytelling is a fascinating, impeccably staged and acted production, anchored by Gathesha’s mesmerizing performance as Mlima. The rest of the ensemble is also superb, as three performers (Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann, and Joe Ngo) portray a variety of roles, from poachers, to government officials, to smugglers, to artists and business people, playing out the story in vivid detail as the mournful and haunting tone develops and grows, underscoring every moment. The staging is deft and lyrical, with excellent work from choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, composer and sound designer Avi Amon, dialect coaches Julie Foh and Barbara Rubin, costume designer Helen Q. Huang, and lighting designer Jasmine Lesane, as the tale is crafted on the stage in a truly engaging and challenging way.

While this is a specific story about elephants and the ivory trade, it also carries a relatable message that applies to many situations of our times, and how systemic issues are much more pervasive than we often realize. In this play, though, the elephant is front and center, and never truly leaves the story even though he is killed at the very beginning (as is mentioned in promotional materials for the show, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Mlima’s presence looms throughout every moment, and the hope is that his story will linger in the minds of audience members. It’s a truly compelling tale, and the Rep’s company tells it with intense emotion and power.

Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mlima’s Tale in the Berges Theatre at COCA until July 11, 2021

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Intimate Apparel
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
New Jewish Theatre
January 26, 2017

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

A corset is an interesting garment. Its function is to be shaping, constraining, but it can also be seen as a thing of beauty and a vessel for self-expression. In Lynn Nottage’s insightful Intimate Apparel,  the playwright explores the ideas of social restriction as well as the desire for self-expression in early 1900’s New York City. Currently on stage at New Jewish Theatre, this play is a well-cast, fascinating exploration.

The play’s central figure is Esther (Jacqueline Thompson), a 35-year-old single African-American woman who lives in a boarding house run by the gossipy but well-meaning Mrs. Dickson (Linda Kennedy) and makes a living sewing “intimate garments” for ladies. Esther can’t read or write, but she is a gifted seamstress with dreams of opening a beauty parlor someday, and who stashes away her earnings in a quilt that she has made. The play is structured in segments that are mostly named after articles of clothing that Esther makes or fabrics that she uses. She purchases the fabrics from Mr. Marks (Jim Butz), a kind Jewish shopkeeper with whom she shares a friendship that, in another time, might blossom into something more. Her main clients that we see are Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Layton), a rich white society woman who’s trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who is increasingly disappointed in her inability to produce children; and her longtime friend Mayme (Andrea Purnell), who works as a prostitute in a nearby saloon and who serves as a contrast to “good girl” Esther, who has played by the rules in hopes of achieving her dream of a good life. There’s also George (Chauncy Thomas), a laborer from Barbados who works on the construction of the Panama Canal, with whom Esther exchanges letters–with the help of Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme, who write them for her–with the increasing promise of marriage. But what happens when George arrives in New York? Will he be the same kind, charming man of his letters or will he be something different? And what of Esther’s dreams, and those of her friends and those around her?

This is an extremely well-structured play with richly developed characters, incisively examining the strict social confines of the society it depicts, and also casting some light on the expectations of women in society even today. Racial, class, and gender differences and expectations are all explored, as well as the ideas of dreams vs. reality and personal agency vs. social pressure. The cast is uniformly strong, led by Thompson in a sensitive, courageous portrayal of the hopeful but conflicted Esther. Her scenes with Butz as the kind Mr. Marks are a highlight, as are her scenes with Purnell’s vivacious but somewhat self-deluded Mayme. There are also strong performances from Kennedy as the nosy but caring Mrs. Dickson, Layton as the refined, confined and curious Mrs. Van Buren, and Thomas in an impressive portrayal of two versions of George–the idealized form in the letters, and the much more complex George of reality.  It’s an extremely cohesive ensemble with no weak links, and all the performers display excellent presence and chemistry in their scenes together.

As is usual for NJT, the technical aspects of this production are truly excellent. The troupe’s black box theatre has been arranged in a more traditional proscenium set-up reflecting its early 20th Century setting, and Peter and Margery Spack’s set is impeccably detailed and period accurate. It’s like being transported to a different time and place, and the well demarcated performance areas also reflect the show’s theme of social restrictions and “boxes” into which its characters are expected to fit, although the staging allows the performers to wander into the other areas of the set as they explore and sometimes test the boundaries into which they are confined. There’s also excellent, meticulously accurate costume design by Michele Friedman Siler and intense, atmospheric lighting by Sean Savoie. This is a play set in very specific time and place, well-represented here and augmented by Amanda Werre’s sound design and era-specific ragtime music.

Intimate Apparel is a play that veers from optimistic to heartbreaking to stubbornly hopeful, and all those aspects are well-portrayed in NJT’s first-rate production. As I’ve come to expect from this ambitious company, excellence is on display here. It’s a journey to the past richly portrayed but also an exploration of some issues that are still very much in the present. It’s an exquisitely constructed theatrical experience.

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Intimate Apparel  at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 12, 2017.

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