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Posts Tagged ‘ron himes’

The African Company Presents Richard III
by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 9, 2022

Alex Jay, Coda Boyce, Olajuwon Davis, Cameron Jamarr Davis, Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened their new season with an intriguing period drama based on true events. The African Company Presents Richard III is going to be a history lesson for a lot of viewers, since while its subject is important, it’s not as widely known as it probably should be. At the Black Rep, the production continues the company’s usual tradition of excellence, in acting, staging, and production values. 

As mentioned, this is something of an educational play, in the sense that it tells about a particular set of events that actually happened and people who really existed, although I imagine there has been a degree of dramatic license, like all dramatizations of historical people and events.  The focus here is on a Black-operated theatre company in 1820s New York City, called the African company and founded by William Henry Brown (Olajuwon Davis), who goes by “Billy” to his friends. Billy and his company have been staging a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at their small venue, but they have been drawing relatively large crowds and receiving notices in the newspaper. The show, geared for Black audiences, has been drawing more white patrons lately, as well, and this attention has raised the ire of Steven Price (Eric Dean White), who manages the nearby Park Theatre, which is about to host its own production of Richard III starring noted white English actor Junius Brutus Booth. Price is concerned that the African Company will be drawing attention away from his production, and is determined to shut them down, with the help of the local police constable listed in the program as “The Contable-Man” (Dustin Petrillo). Meanwhile, the African Company is dealing with some internal drama of their own, as leading actor James Hewlett (Cameron Jamarr Davis), known as “Jimmy”, tries to keep the increasingly dissatisfied Ann “Annie” Johnson (Coda Boyce)–who plays Lady Anne–from leaving the show. Also in the company are seamstress/actress Sarah (Alex Jay), who works as a maid for a wealthy white woman who becomes a somewhat surprising unseen ally; and the drum-playing, storytelling Papa Shakespeare (Wali Jamal Abdullah), who acts in the play as well as adding his rhythmic soundtrack to the proceedings. 

This is a fascinating show that shines a light on a particular moment in history during a time when Black people–even in Northern cities like New York–are treated with suspicion and hostility even without institutionalized slavery. There are still expectations, and lines they are not supposed to cross, and the African Company and their members risked a lot–their lives, their jobs, and more–in challenging these boundaries. We also get to see moments of their Richard III rehearsals and performance, which provides a look into the making of theatre in the 19th Century. It’s got humor, drama, suspense, and a real sense of the historic, as well as shining a light on the sheer pervasiveness of systemic oppression.

There’s a great cast here, with excellent performances all around, from Olajuwon Davis’s ambitious, earnest Billy to Cameron Jamarr Davis’s charismatic, determined Jimmy; to Boyce’s conflicted Annie, who has great scenes with Jimmy and with the also excellent Jay as Sarah. Abdullah is full of engaging presence in a scene-stealing performance as Papa Shakespeare, and his drumming skills are impressive. There are also memorable villainous turns from White as the scheming Price and Petrillo as the somewhat sycophantic Contable-Man. There’s vibrant ensemble chemistry, especially among the members of the African Company, and the action is well-paced and compelling. 

Technically, the production has ably transported the stage at the Edison Theatre into 1820s New York, with an authentically detailed set by Jamie Bullins and excellent costumes by Andre Harrington. There’s also superb work from lighting designer Jasmine Williams, sound designer Kareem Deans, and props designer Emily Kennebeck. Nobody alive now will have been able to attend an actual 19th Century theatrical performance, but as staged here, we’re given as close an approximation as could be expected. 

Overall, this is a thoroughly well-staged and riveting production. It’s thoughtful, challenging, and historical but with important, timeless themes. If you’re familiar with the Shakespearean source and/or the historical background, or if you are not, this is a play that’s not to be missed. It’s a profound and remarkable theatrical experience.

Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting The African Company Presents Richard III at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 25, 2022

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Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
by Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
July 8, 2022

Lakesha Glover, Christian Kitchens, Claire McClannan, Mekhi Mitchell, Lucia Graff
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is taking audiences on a vivid, emotional journey in its latest production. Something of visual poem as well as a quest story, Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea features lavish production values, strong performances, and a mixture of drama, music, and dance to tell its engaging story.  It’s a rich, intriguing portrayal of a young man’s exploration into the past, the future, and the vast unknown of the sea.

The basic story follows Dontrell Jones III (Christian Kitchens), an 18-year-old from Baltimore who is already seen as somewhat unconventional in his family, although he has a lot of promise. He makes journal entries addressed to “future generations” on his microcassette recorder, and, although he is a bright student who has been given a full Scholarship to Johns Hopkins, his mother (Lakesha Glover) is concerned that he might not go, as he is now determined to follow the direction of a dream he’s had, involving a long-lost ancestor who was apparently lost at sea while being transported on a slave ship from Africa. Despite his family’s concern, Dontrell is single-minded in his goal to get to the ocean to somehow communicate with his ancestor. In the course of the story, we also learn about Dontrell’s more recent ancestors, including his somewhat secretive father Dontrell, Jr. (Olajuwon Davis), and his grandfather, the original Dontrell, who apparently had been committed to a mental asylum. In his quest to get to the sea, Dontrell seeks help from his cousin Shea (Brannon Evans), who works at the aquarium, asking her for diving gear. To the bewilderment and confusion of his family and friends, including his sister Danelle (Lucia Graff) and childhood best friend Robby (Mekhi Mitchell), Dontrell persists in his efforts. He eventually meets Erika (Claire McClannon), a lifeguard at the local pool, when she rescues him from drowning after he jumps into the deep end, even though he hasn’t learned to swim. Dontrell and Erika form an instant bond, as well as a romantic connection, and she supports him on his quest. Will he finally achieve his goal and get to the sea? If he does, will he find his long-lost ancestor? And what will he learn if and when he does reach his goal? That’s what you will find out as you follow this compelling story full of emotion, history, symbolism, and heart.

I have to admit that I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on as the story played out in more and more fantastical ways, but for the most part, it appears to be a coming of age story with the idea that each individual has to make their own way, and figure out their own goals in life–with connection to the past and hope for the future. There’s a good deal about reckoning with secrets and injustices in this past, as well, but this story mostly plunges forward even as Dontrell seeks to find a connection with those who have gone before him. He’s an explorer in a real sense, and witnessing his journey is a dazzling spectacle as portrayed at the Black Rep, with truly stunning visual effects, with a vivid, nautically-inspired set by Emma Hoffbrauer, dynamic projections by Margery and Peter Spack, dazzling lighting by Jasmine Williams, and superb sound design by Jackie Sharp. There are also richly appointed costumes by Daryl Harris and fluid, lyrical choreography by Heather Beal, as the stylized blends with the more realistic in the unfolding of this grand, evocative journey.

The stellar cast is led by a supremely likable, determined Kitchens as the the quirky, somewhat nerdy, single-minded Dontrell. He’s an amiable hero of this quest, and he’s well supported by the rest of the strong ensemble. Davis and Glover are excellent as Dontrell’s parents, both having several memorable moments, and McClannon is also strong as the supportive Erika, who has dealt with some family drama of her own. Evans, Graff, and Mitchell lend their support with strong performances of their own, and the whole cast works together well in the more stylized, movement-centered moments. 

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is a unique theatrical experience. It’s also highly thoughtful, thought-provoking, and emotional, with well-paced staging and a first-rate cast. It’s another example of true excellence from the Black Rep.

Cast of Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until July 24, 2022

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Jitney
by August Wilson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
May 13, 2022

Kevin Brown, Phillip Dixon
Photo: The Black Rep

August Wilson is one of the great American playwrights of the 20th and early 21st Centuries.  His Pittsburgh Cycle (also called the “Century Cycle”) is a celebrated series of works, mostly centering on Pittsburgh’s Hill District, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th Century and focusing on the life experiences of various characters in this historically Black neighborhood. The Black Rep here in St. Louis has been duly lauded for its well-regarded productions of Wilson’s plays, with its latest production, Jitney, continuing this tradition of excellence.

Taking place in the 1970s, Jitney is named for its setting–a “Jitney” or unlicensed cab station, which were popular because the “official” cabs often refused to serve the neighborhood– in an area of the Hill District that’s being rapidly redeveloped. A variety of well-drawn characters inhabit the space–mostly drivers and occasional customers and relatives. It’s a time when a lot of change is in the air, and much of it is driven by outside interests that are more interested in making money than retaining the character of the neighborhood, or caring for its Black residents. Change is also in the air for the Jitney drivers, as the youngest driver, Darnell AKA “Youngblood” (Olajuwan Davis), hopes to buy a house to better provide for his girlfriend, Rena (Alex Jay), and their young son, Jesse. Youngblood is full of hopes and dreams, but these are threatened by a misunderstanding and the gossip of resident busybody Turnbo (Ron Himes), an older driver who seems to resent Youngblood because of his youth. The station’s owner, Becker (Kevin Brown) deals with a variety of changes and challenges, as his long-estranged son, Clarence AKA “Booster” (Phillip Dixon), has recently returned to town after having spent 20 years in prison, and Becker isn’t so sure he wants to renew their relationship. There are also the pressures of running the station in the midst of the uncertainty concerning its future, as well as the pressures of managing his crew of drivers and their personal issues and conflicts–including the clashes between Turnbo and Youngblood, as well as longtime driver Fielding’s (J. Samuel Davis) ongoing issues with drinking. Fellow driver Doub (Edward L. Hill) attempts to keep the peace between his squabbling coworkers but is frequently exasperated in the process, and numbers runner Shealy (Robert A. Mitchell) is a continued source of stress for Becker as he insists on running his operation from the payphone in the station, and also asks Becker to use his influence at the local mill to get a job for a young relative.

The ups and downs of life in this small area of the country serves as a picture of the times, as well as a study of Wilson’s well-realized characters and their relationships. One of Wilson’s great strengths as a playwright is his ability with authentic, idiosyncratic dialogue and well-drawn characters that present credible “every day” situations in this specific setting while also exploring broader themes of what was happening in the wider world at the time, especially in the lives of Black Americans. Wilson’s plays are vivid and specific, as well as being both timely and timeless, and Jitney  continues this trend. At the Black Rep, Wilson’s vision is fully realized through means of excellent casting and production values, as director Himes gets the tone and pacing just right, as usual. There’s also an impressive, detailed set by Harlan D. Penn that brings the Jitney station to life, as well as excellent costumes by Jamie Bullins that reflect the characters’ personalities and the time period especially well. Joseph W. Clapper’s lighting and Justin Schmitz’s sound design also work well to establish and maintain the period, tone, and mood of the play, with lighting effects especially used well to punctuate dramatic moments in the story. 

On top of its first-rate production values, the biggest strength of the Black Rep’s Jitney is its cast. All of the players here fit ideally into their roles, led by Brown as the older and world-weary Becker and Olajuwan Davis as the young, determined Youngblood. These two anchor a cast that has no weak links, with standouts being Himes as the belligerent busybody Turnbo, J. Samuel Davis as the amiable, frequently inebriated Fielding, and Hill as the increasingly exasperated Doub. There’s also a strong turn by Richard Harris in a smaller role as frequent Jitney customer Philmore. The chemistry between Olajuwan Davis’s Youngblood and Jay’s Rena is also excellent and credible. It’s a superb cast all around, bringing life to Wilson’s excellent script and keeping the energy going in the midst of the varied pace of the story. 

The Black Rep is a company with a reputation for excellence in all its productions, but I particularly look forward to their August Wilson productions because they are always especially strong. Jitney is worth the anticipation. It’s a vivid, sometimes humorous, sometimes intense look at life for its characters at a specific time and place in history, but although it takes place in the 1970s, it has a lot to say to contemporary audiences as well. It’s a must-see performance.

Cast of Jitney
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Jitney at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 29, 2022

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Behind the Sheet
by Charly Evon Simpson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 18, 2022

Jeff Cummings, Chinna Palmer
Photo: The Black Rep

Behind the Sheet is an intense drama about an aspect of history that has been often overlooked over the years. While much has been written about the horrors and brutality of slavery, the role of enslaved people as subjects of medical experimentation isn’t as known as it could be. Playwright Charly Evon Simpson’s play is a fictional story, but it’s inspired by actual events, and embellished in a way that sheds further light on the reality of the experience of slavery in America from the point of view of the enslaved women themselves, as they serve as test subjects for an ambitious white surgeon who views them more as a means to an end than as actual human beings. In fact, it’s the human experience of these women, even in the midst of the brutality, that shines through most of all in this play, compellingly staged by the Black Rep at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre.

The story, based on the work of Alabama surgeon J. Marion Sims in 19th Century Alabama, focuses on a group of enslaved Black women who are suffering from fistula, which is a painful and chronic complication of long labors in childbirth. As the play begins, a new patient, Dinah (Patience Davis) arrives from another plantation, and the doctor in charge, George (Jeff Cummings) buys her from the plantation owner so that he can keep her at his own plantation and work on trying to develop a surgical procedure for repairing the fistula. Dinah joins the established patients Sally (Christina Yancy) and Mary (Taijha Silas), who have already endured several surgeries each, as the increasingly obsessed George works to discover the proper procedure, meanwhile not giving them any pain relief during surgery despite learning about the use of ether as anesthesia, and requiring fellow enslaved women Philomenia (Chinna Palmer) and Betty (Alex Johnson) to assist in holding them down while he operates. All the while, George seems most concerned with his own discovery process and building his reputation, as well as the potential to help the white plantation owners’ wives once he has perfected the process, despite the fact that he seems to find working on women’s bodies repulsive. He also is particularly interested in Philomenia, who assists him in his practice and is initially looked on with suspicion by the patients. Soon, however, Philomenia, who is expecting, will learn even more about the brutality of the situation in which the patients live, as she also deals with George’s whims and obsession, as well as suspicion and contempt from the lady of the house, George’s wife Josephine (Alison Kertz), who Philomenia has known all her life, being born into servitude to Josephine’s family.

This is a play that doesn’t shy away from the truly horrific elements of the situation, while also focusing on the problematic ethical situation involved, as George does seek to cure these women of a condition that causes enduring pain, but holds them captive so they have no choice about what he does and how he goes about his efforts. It also serves to highlight the brutality of slavery in terms of everyday realities for these women, who live at the whim of their plantation owners and are often separated from their loved ones, and are sometimes forced into personal situations that they are not allowed to refuse. The women still form friendships and rivalries, and struggle to find hope in the midst of their bleak situation, finding purpose and bonding in small but essential tasks like using flowers to make perfume to disguise the smell caused by their condition. There’s also an attraction and tentative courtship that develops between Philomenia and Lewis (Brian McKinley), a young enslaved man who works in the fields at the plantation, even though neither is free to truly pursue a relationship. 

There are a lot of issues covered in this play, and it’s told in a sometimes stylized, sometimes bluntly realistic manner, with a well-paced script and a first-rate cast. The central figure in the story is Philomenia, who goes through quite an intense journey as the story develops, and Palmer gives a compelling, truly remarkable performance as a woman who deals with trial after trial, and shows her strength and resilience in the midst of it all. There are also excellent performance from Davis, Yancy, and Silas, who display strong ensemble chemistry as the women bond in the midst of their shared trials. Kertz is also memorable as the entitled, suspicious, demanding Josephine, and excellent support from Johnson as Betty, as well as McKinley in two roles and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in a dual role as a haughty plantation owner and a young doctor who assists George. 

The story is also given added poignancy and power by means of the technical production, through use of Margery and Peter Spack’s versatile and evocative set.  Joe Clapper’s remarkable lighting is also memorable, especially in moments when surgery takes places behind a sheet that drapes from the ceiling, making the figures loom larger and the situation seem all the more horrific and ominous. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Andre Harrington in providing detailed period clothing, as well as sound designer Lamar Harris.

Behind the Sheet is a truly remarkable, as well as harrowing and intense theatrical experience. It showcases the brutality of slavery while also highlighting a problematic medical situation and shedding light on the figures whose stories have not been emphasized much until recently–these women who survived the horrors not only of slavery, but of unethical and often brutal medical treatment. This is not an easy show to watch in many moments, but it’s an important story to tell, and the Black Rep has presented it with remarkable effect. 

Taijha Silas, Christina Yancy, Chinna Palmer, Patience Davis
Photo: The Black Rep

 

The Black Rep is presenting Behind the Sheet at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until April 3rd, 2022

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Sweat
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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Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant
Conceived by Vinnette Caroll
Original Production Music Direction and Arrangements by Danny Holgate
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd
The Black Rep
September 7, 2019

Cast of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is beginning their new season with another memorable musical production. Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope is a revue that ran on Broadway in the early 1970s, and this production presents it as both of its time and timeless. With a strong cast, great vocals, and remarkable dancing, this is a show that both entertains and challenges.

As I’ve written before, I’m not usually particularly keen on revues, since most of them come across more as staged concerts designed to showcase hit songs rather than fully conceived theatrical experiences.. Fortunately, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope isn’t a usual revue. It’s not a “jukebox” show, for one thing, with an entirely original score by Micki Grant, including some especially memorable melodies. It also as a cohesive theme, so even without much dialogue it tells a convincing story–or rather, several convincing stories. Focusing on various aspects of the African-American experience, and particularly life in the city, this show is remarkable for its specificity as well as its overall humanity, as well as its variety of musical styles, from rock, pop and jazz to blues, soul, gospel and more. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1972, addresses themes that were particular for its day but also are especially timeless. There are songs about life in various neighborhoods, as well as about dance, music, relationships, church, and resisting oppression, and overall about the experience of life with trials and tribulations, but ultimately with a sense of determination and hope for progress. Although most of the cultural references are from the early 70s, there have been occasional modern references added. The musical arrangements reflect the 70s origins of the piece, but are also accessible for today’s audiences, and the focus on storytelling through song and dance is especially effective in the hands of this excellent cast–Drummond “Drum” Crenshaw, Robert Crenshaw, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Sieglinda Fox, Herman Gordon, Amber Rose, Camille “Cee” Sharp, Denise Thimes, Keith Tyrone, Alison Brandon-Watkins, and Tyler White.

What stands out about this piece for me is, of course, the great cast, but also the sheer sense of musicality about it, in singing and dancing, in the accompaniment provided by the first-rate band led by the Black Rep’s veteran musical director, Charles Creath and through the vibrant choreography of Kirven Douthit-Boyd. The featured dancers (Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Brandon-Watkins, Robert Crenshaw, Tyrone, and White) are especially strong, from poignant and evocative ballet, to energetic tap, and more. Although the whole cast is strong, Thimes, White, and Fox have particularly outstanding vocal moments.

The atmosphere and emotion is maintained and augmented in the technical aspects of the show, as well, from  Margery and Peter Spack’s evocative unit set, to the stunning use of projections throughout the various performances, to Joe Clapper’s atmospheric lighting and Andre Harrington’s costumes that reflect a 70s influence, like the show itself. This is a revue, but with memorable original music and a unified theme and message. It’s a stirring, effective work that showcases the excellent theatrical and musical tradition of the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 22, 2019

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Nina Simone: Four Women
by Christina Ham
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
May 25, 2019

Denise Thimes, Leah Stewart, Camille Sharp, Alex Jay
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out its 42nd season with a powerful musical document, Nina Simone: Four Women, showcasing the life and music of the legendary jazz singer and civil rights activist, compared and contrasted with other black women set amidst the race-based violence in 1960s Alabama, the show highlights events and issues in a historical context as well as pointing out their universal importance. It’s also a remarkable showcase for some truly stellar performances and production values.

The time is September, 1963. The place, the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church following the bombings that killed four young black girls. The play opens with a recital by the renowned singer Nina Simone (Leah Stewart), which is interrupted by a jarring explosion. Then, we see Simone in the ruins of the church, rehearsing at the piano and working on a new song, her first protest song “Mississippi Goddam’. Amid the violence outside (as police turn water hoses on protesters and black passersby), Simone is introduced to three women from different walks of life. First there is Sarah (Denise Thimes), who works as a maid for a white family and is referred to in the program as “The Strongest Black Woman in the World”. Eventually, they are joined by young activist Sephronia (Alex Jay), who the program describes as “The Mulatto That Lives Between Two Worlds”, and another young woman identified as Sweet Thing (Camille Sharp), described as “The Sweetest Hips Money Can Buy”, and who has an adversarial connection with Sephronia that is revealed in more detail as the story plays out. The story is told in conversations, and in memorable music mostly in the jazz and gospel genres, including “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again”, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”, “To Be Young Gifted and Black”, the aforementioned “Mississippi Goddam”, and the memorable closing number “Four Women” in which the four main characters each get a chance to shine. It’s essentially a character study and an examination of the impact of systemic racism on people–and particularly women–who all experience the impact of racism even as they themselves differ in terms of class, background, education, philosophies of protest, and attitudes toward one another. Also, while the four adult main characters are the focus, the presence of the young girls who were killed in the bombings is constantly referenced, emphasizing the great tragedy of the bombings and the desire–and need–for change.

The performances here are nothing short of stellar, with rich portrayals and powerhouse voices all around. The contrasting personalities are portrayed with profound energy and strong ensemble chemistry, as these women tell their stories and get to know one another. It’s difficult to single out one standout, as all four are equally excellent, with strong acting and even stronger singing from Stewart as the determined Simone, Thimes as the world-weary Sarah, Jay as the determined Sephronia, and Sharp as the brash, confrontational Sweet Thing. This is a tour-de-force from all four performers, with standout musical performances individually as well as impressive harmonies on the group numbers.

The production values are always excellent at the Black Rep, but they especially impress here, with a remarkably detailed and evocative set by Tim Jones that suggest the time and place with a striking credibility. There are also excellent period costumes by Nikki Glaros, strong choreography by Heather Beal, and superb musical direction by Charles Creath. As great as everything is technically, special note needs to go to the lighting and sound in this production, as lighting designer Sean Savoie and sound designer Justin Schmitz especially evoke time, place, and mood and contribute to the profoundly affecting atmosphere of the production, and its context.

Nina Simone: Four Women is, simply speaking, a must-see, and a must-hear. Conveying its profound message through character and song, it sheds light on an important period in history, as well as a legendary musical figure and an always important message of agency and rising against oppression. It’s a truly remarkable production from the Black Rep.

Leah Stewart, Denise Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Nina Simone: Four Women at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until June 2, 2019

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Canfield Drive
by Kristen Adele Calhoun and Michael Thomas Walker
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
January 16, 2019

Christopher Hickey, Kristen Adele
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is, as far as I have seen, the second major local theatre company to produce an original full-length play based on the devastating events in Ferguson in 2014. The Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath, along with the aftermaths of other police-involved shootings and the issue of ingrained systemic racism in St. Louis and around the country, is an important topic that will most likely inspire many theatrical productions. The Black Rep’s latest, Canfield Drive, is a four-person, many character play that starts with Ferguson but covers a multitude of issues stemming from that incident, and taking a much more direct, personal approach than the previous major local Ferguson play.

Unlike that previous play, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s thoughtful Until the Flood, The Black Rep’s Canfield Drive has more of a straightforward dramatic structure instead of being essentially a collection of monologues. Like the previous work, though, this show covers a variety of perspectives and is the result of a series of interviews with locals concerning the events. This show, though, makes the story more personal by centering it around specific lead characters, particularly Imani (Kristen Adele) and Brad (Christopher Hickey), who are commentators on a news program called Battleground, which covers the Ferguson events from the beginning, from the shooting itself to the protests and controversy that followed. Imani, who is black, and Brad, who is white, have decidedly different takes on the issues from the beginning, but we don’t just get to see their on-air debates. We get to see how the events affect their relationship as colleagues and how the events and the atmosphere that results effect them personally. The focus is slightly more on Imani, who has personal issues beyond Ferguson to deal with as well, and it’s her journey that provides the emotional heart of this story, although the initially obtuse Brad also gets a credible arc. In addition to these two characters, there is Marcus (Eric Conners), the host of the television show, and Rebecca (Amy Loui), a production assistant, although all four actors play multiple roles in addition to their primary ones. Through the course of the show, which takes place over a number of months, we see the perspective of the Battleground participants as well as an array of other voices, from Ferguson and St. Louis locals to national figures in the world of politics and academia. While the tone is mostly dramatic, there are also moments of biting satire, such as segments based on the television shows America’s Funniest Home Videos and Barney and Friends. This is a show that isn’t afraid to challenge its viewers, which is especially effective considering the importance of the subject matter.

The show has a brisk pace, transitioning seamlessly between the main setting and the various other perspectives presented, aided by the excellent, somewhat abstract multi-level set and striking video design and production by Peter and Margery Spack. There’s also impressive lighting design by Jim Burwinkel, detailed costumes by Marissa Perry, and strong sound design Kareem Deanes. The production, directed by the Black Rep’s artistic director Ron Himes, has an incisive, thought-provoking air and a focused approach that presents its subject with an appropriate tone of urgency.

The cast here is great, as well, led by one of the playwrights, Kristen Adele, in the central role of Imani. In this role and a few others, she commands the stage with a strong presence and range of emotions from anger, weariness, sadness, and also hope. Hickey, as Brad and others, is also excellent, taking his character on a believable arc, especially as Brad relates to Imani and learns to see the world around him from a different perspective. Conners and Loui are also strong in a variety of roles, shifting from one persona to another with credibility and seeming ease. It’s a cohesive ensemble, supporting the production and personalizing it for the audience well.

Canfield Drive is a world premiere that is important to be seen. The house was packed at the performance I attended, and the audience was especially responsive. This is a play that, even though it’s not directly interactive, seems interactive because of how confrontational and personal it is. The issues raised by the Ferguson events weren’t new then, but they were brought to the forefront and still resonate today. The continuing problem of systemic racism and injustice is still more apparent than ever, and shows like this serve as a reminder that there’s still a lot of thinking and talking to do, and especially, a lot of work to be done. The Black Rep has brought an especially moving production to the stage. Understandably, it’s not the last word we’re going to hear about Ferguson, but it’s an important one.

The Black Rep is presenting Canfield Drive at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until March 3, 2019

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Torn Asunder
by Nikkole Salter
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 25, 2018

Myke Andrews, Brandi Threatt, Alan Knoll, LaShunda Gardner
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a world premiere production. Torn Asunder tells the story of a married couple separated by slavery, and its title comes from a common biblical phrase often used in marriage vows. This is about more than a marriage being split up, however. This heartbreaking, heartrending, memorable play focuses on a few characters–with excellent production values and a first-rate cast–but it also vividly portrays how much of American society was torn apart by the injustice and brutality of slavery.

The story begins on a Maryland plantation in 1859 and takes place over eleven years in the lives of the characters. Hannah Louise Ballard (LaShunda Gardner), who grew up as a slave on the plantation, is married to Moses (Myke Andrews) in the first scene, as Master James (Alan Knoll, who plays various roles) performs the ceremony emphasizing the fact that slave marriages weren’t considered permanent by the slaveholders. In fact, the very marriage vows ask them to accept this idea. That’s just the beginning of the story. Soon Master James becomes ill and dies, promising “provisions” for  Hannah in his will that give her cause to hope that she and Moses will be able to stay together, but that hope doesn’t last long. Hannah is soon bequeathed to Master James’s daughter and son-in-law and taken to Virginia, along with her baby son, Elijah, but without Moses. Her new “Master” is the ambitious, insecure shopkeeper John Allen (Graham Emmons), who forbids Hannah from contacting Moses. Also joining Hannah in her new situation is Malinda (Brandi Threatt), whose relationship with Allen is complicated, but who ultimately learns what he really thinks of her as she and Hannah are both sold and sent to Georgia. A few years pass, and as Moses makes his way to Canada, never giving up on his quest to find and reunite with Hannah, Hannah and Malinda are working in a cotton field with Henry (Carl Overly, Jr.), who is interested in Hannah although Hannah still holds to the hope of finding Moses. As the war ends and slavery is abolished, Hannah, Malinda, and Henry eventually make their way North, but then things get even more complicated. Basically, this play depicts not only the sheer brutality of slavery, but also the aftermath of this brutality for individuals, couples, families, and society itself.

The cast here is exceptional, with strong performances all around, led by Gardner’s determined Hannah, who has strong chemistry with both Andrews’s earnest, focused Moses and Overly’s devoted, optimistic Henry. Threatt as the conflicted Malinda, Emmons as the deluded unstable Allen, and Knoll in a variety of roles are also impressive, and the casting brings energy and life to Salter’s thoughtful script.  The production values are also truly stunning. with dynamic staging by director Ron Himes, and brilliant and evocative scenic design by Dunsi Dai that makes excellent use of Geordy van Es’s vivid projections. Kathy A. Perkins’s lighting also adds much to the drama of the production, as do Daryl Harris’s detailed costumes.

This is a remarkable new work. Although the show runs a little long and there are elements that could be better explained, Torn Asunder is a challenging, thought-provoking, heartbreaking play, and  The Black Rep’s production is excellent, with first-rate production values and a brilliant cast. I hope this isn’t the only production, though. I hope there will be more performances of this remarkable work in the future.

Carl Overly, Jr., LaShunda Gardner, Brandi Threatt
Photo: The Black Rep

 

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Dot
by Colman Domingo
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 9, 2017

Cast of Dot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened their 41st season with Colman Domingo’s Dot. Centered around the family of a woman with Alzheimer’s, the tone is more comic than one might first expect. With fascinating characters, a well-crafted script and a top-notch cast, this play is at once entertaining and thought-provoking.

The play’s story revolves around an often used theme–a family gathers to celebrate a holiday, and the various personality clashes and unexpected revelations serve to fuel the comedy, and the drama. Here, Dotty (Thomasina Clarke) is excited about Christmas, and getting a real tree to decorate, but her daughter Shelly (Jacqueline Thompson) is feeling increasingly weary since her mother’s memory loss is getting more and more apparent, and Shelly is shouldering most of the responsibility for caring for Dotty herself. Shelly outlines her frustrations to old friend Jackie (Courtney Elaine Brown), who has recently returned to town after several years for her own soon-to-be-disclosed reasons. Also coming to join the family for the holidays is Shelly’s younger brother Donnie (Chauncy Thomas), who is having difficulties in his once-blissful relationship with his health-conscious husband, Adam (Paul Edwards). And then there’s outgoing youngest sister Averie (Heather Beal), who lives in Shelly’s basement, and who Shelly views as irresponsible. As the group gathers, the various conflicts become more obvious, as Dotty’s memory issues become more apparent, and Shelly is concerned that Dotty and her hired caregiver Fidel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) are planning something drastic.  As Christmas morning approaches, the characters are forced to confront their own issues, in terms of Dotty’s situation as well as their own past relationships and present realities.

It’s a well-rounded script that starts out in something of a sitcom format but takes its time to develop the characters and situations. Director Ron Himes has staged the show with a measured energy, with some brisk physicality as well as times for reflection. The cast is impeccable, led by Clarke in a winning, complex performance as Dotty, an enthusiastic matriarch who strives to maintain her family’s traditions and legacy in the midst of her struggle to remember. There’s also excellent support from Thompson as the increasingly concerned and exasperated Shelly, and by Thomas and Beal as the world-weary Donnie and unpredictable Averie. Brown has some hilarious moments as the occasionally frantic Jackie, who used to date Donnie in high school, as well, and Edwards is also excellent as Donnie’s occasionally controlling husband, Adam. Lawson-Maeske, as the devoted Fidel, an immigrant from Kazakhstan who provides an emotional support for Dotty, is also superb, and the chemistry of the entire ensemble is excellent.

The production values are also first-rate. Dunsi Dai’s set is richly detailed and well-appointed, and Gregory J. Horton’s costumes suit the characters well. There’s also strong lighting by Joseph W. Clapper and clear sound design by Kareem Deanes. There’s also an excellent use of Christmas music to set the mood before and during the show.

This production makes the most of the stage at the Edison Theatre, bringing the script and these memorable characters to life. From its central theme of Dotty’s struggles to various issues that many families deal with–from cultural differences to differing life goals to the desire and need to preserve family history and traditions–this play covers a lot of ground. It’s a fascinating, poignant, and often humorous look at a woman’s relationships with her family and with her own personal history as she strives to maintain some measure of control as she slowly but inevitably loses her memory. It’s a strong start for a new season from the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Dot at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 24, 2017.

 

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