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Posts Tagged ‘the black rep’

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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Fireflies
by Donja R. Love
Directed by Andrea Frye
The Black Rep
February 12, 2022

Zahria Moore, Eric Conners
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

Fireflies, the latest production from the Black Rep, is a relatively short play, but a lot happens in its 90-minute running time. It’s an insightful character study as well as a look at an important and volatile time in history from a personal perspective. There’s a lot covered in terms of subject matter, as we look at this two character play that centers on a married couple in the midst of their times and various personal revelations. On stage at Wash U’s Hotchner Studio Theatre and featuring two stellar performances, it may only be one act, but it’s an intense one.

The action is confined to Dunsi Dai’s impressively detailed unit set and illuminated by Sean Savoie’s outstanding lighting that gives the play an almost otherworldly effect at times, although the action is grounded in its sense of authenticity. The characters here are a married couple involved in the Civil Rights movement, and the program describes the setting as “somewhere down South, where the sky is on fire”. That fire is both literal and figurative, as Olivia (Zahria Moore) worries about the real threats and violence that consumes the American South, most recently represented by the well-known church bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young Black girls. Olivia’s husband Charles (Eric Conners) is an activist and preacher who has been speaking at the site, and returns home to find Olivia unsettled. Olivia, who is increasingly and understandably upset by the growing tension and violence, sees and hears visions of bombs in her head, which cause her pain and add to her general sense of doom and fear about the state of the world around her. She’s pregnant, which makes Charles happy, but Olivia is increasingly reluctant to bring a child into the world as it is, considering the racially motivated hatred, discrimination, and violence in the world, which also are a particular threat to Charles considering his high-profile role in the movement and his frequent traveling to speaking engagements. Over the course of the play, we learn more about these two people, as Olivia’s sense of foreboding, and thinly-veiled distrust of Charles as a husband, become more apparent, as do Charles’s controlling tendencies and the general state of their relationship. Both partners have secrets that will be revealed to one another and to the audience, as both their personal lives and the outside world grow more and more uncertain. 

I’m not going to go into much detail about what happens, because the experience of the play and the unfolding of the events are what drive the drama. I will say, though, that it’s  a highly personal story as well as one that reflects a brutal reality of living in uncertain and violent times driven by hatred, racism, and fear. Personal issues of distrust, betrayal, gender roles, and questioning of identity in various ways are dealt with along with the larger, world-impacting issues of the day. Also, even though this play is set in 1963, many of its issues are just as applicable today. It’s a well-realized story with well-drawn characters, brought to life in a the stunning production values that also include detailed costumes by Ellen Minch, and well-paced direction by Andrea Frye. 

The characters make the story here, and they are not only well-written, but are brought to life with vivid intensity by two excellent performers. Moore is impressive in portraying such a complex, multi-layered character as Olivia, who has one kind of life on the surface, but so much inside that she’s tried not to reveal. Moore’s portrayal of this strong but conflicted character packs a lot of emotional power, and her interactions with the also excellent Conners as the demanding but charismatic Charles are intensely charged and meaningful. Both performers rise to the challenge of this heavy, sometimes volatile story as the characters embody so much of the tension and meaning.

Fireflies is another example of dramatic excellence from a consistently first-rate theatre company. The Black Rep is continuing their season with a thought-provoking, highly emotional work that’s sure to have audiences thinking. It’s vividly realized, unsettling at times, confrontational and emotionally challenging, and ultimately well worth seeing. 

Eric Conners, Zahria Moore
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Fireflies at Washington University’s A. E. Hotchner Studio Theatre until March 6, 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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Two Trains Running
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
January 18, 2020

James A. Williams, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has a reputation for excellence, and it consistently lives up to that reputation. It’s latest production, Two Trains Running, is a prime example of this excellence, with a vividly realized world put on stage for the audience to experience. With stunning production values and a superb cast, this is a profoundly affecting production that deserves all the praise it can get.

This company is no stranger to August Wilson’s plays, having produced many of his works several times. This latest production emphasizes again the strength of Wilson’s work, and the vivid way he portrays life in an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh throughout the 20th Century. Two Trains Running, a part of this cycle, brings us to Lee’s Restaurant in 1969, in the midst of economic struggles, “urban renewal”, and the influences of the Civil Rights movement. The owner, Memphis (James A. Williams), is hoping to sell his restaurant, which is declining in business as is much of the rest of the neighborhood. He wants to set his own price, though, and the white powers-that-be in the city government are giving him a hard time. The regulars in the restaurant hang out there daily, with the retired Holloway (Ron Himes) occupying his usual table and commenting on the neighborhood goings-on, while Wolf (Carl Overly, Jr.) uses the restaurant’s phone in his numbers running racket, to Memphis’s irritation. Memphis’s only employee is Risa (Sharisa Whatley), who waits tables and cooks, being taken for granted by her boss while catching the eye of newcomer Sterling (Jason J. Little), who is looking for a job after having spent five years in prison. Sterling is also increasingly involved in political activities that also irritate Memphis, although he quickly becomes a part of the group of regulars at the restaurant, building a rapport with Hambone (Travis Banks), who doesn’t talk much except about a ham that was promised to him a long time ago by a local grocery owner for a painting job. That promise hasn’t been fulfilled, and Hambone won’t let anyone forget that. There’s also West (Samuel J. Davis), who in contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, has made an ample income as the director of the local funeral home, which is currently busy with mourners filing in to pay their respects to a recently deceased religious leader and neighborhood icon, Prophet Samuel. At first the story plays out as something of a “slice of life” vignette, as we observe the characters interacting, but the story arcs develop gradually and surely, as bonds develop between characters, injustices are revealed and reiterated, hopes and dreams are expressed and sometimes realized, and the passage of time is made clear. It’s a fairly long play, but it moves so well and the characters and situations are so well defined, that even when the play ends, I find myself wishing I could find out more about what happens.

Such a brilliant script and well-drawn characters demand a first-rate cast, and this production certainly delivers in that respect. From Williams’s curmudgeonly Memphis, to Himes’s ever-present, world-wise Holloway, to Davis’s determined, confident West, to the entire cohesive ensemble, this production goes from strength to strength, without a weak link. Also strong are Little in a convincing performance as the activist Sterling and Whatley as the wary Risa, and the bond these two eventually form is marked by credible chemistry. There’s also a believable bond between Little and the also excellent Banks as the single-minded Hambone. Also excellent is Overly as the swaggering, enterprising Wolf. All of the players work together to form a convincing group chemistry that drives this story and gives it its palpable emotional weight.

The set here is especially worth noting, as designers Margery and Peter Spack have brought such a finely detailed representation of a restaurant that looks and feels so real, it’s easy to imagine sitting at one of the tables and ordering lunch. There are also excellent well-suited costumes by Daryl Harris that reflect the characters’ personalities especially well. Jim Burkwinkel’s atmospheric lighting and Kareem Deanes’s proficient sound design also work well in establishing and maintaining the world of these characters and their stories.

Two Trains Running might just be the best production I’ve ever seen at the Black Rep, and considering the consistency of excellence from this company, that’s saying something. It’s a powerful, profoundly affecting story, with superb performances and a vividly realized setting. It’s certainly a must-see.

Sharisa Whatley, Jason J. Little, Travis Banks, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Two Trains Running at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 26, 2020

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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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Milk Like Sugar
by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Nicole Brewer
The Black Rep
February 15, 2019

The Black Rep’s reputation for insightful, thought-provoking theatre continues this month with their latest production, Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar. A challenging piece centering on a group of black teenagers in what could be essentially any state in America, this play shines light on the legacy of systemic racism and the challenges and roadblocks that exist for African-American youth in today’s society. It’s not a long play, but it has a lot to say.

Running at approximately 90 minutes with no intermission, Milk Like Sugar takes the audience into the world of Annie (Brandi Threatts) and her friends as Annie prepares to celebrate her 16th birthday. The program lists the time frame as 2004/2005, and the place as “any urban city”, and the Director’s Note in the program highlights the themes of the play and the ubiquity of the situations presented here. Annie and her two best friends, Talisha or “T” (Tyler White) and Margie (Camille Sharp) wait in a tattoo parlor as the play begins, trying to decide on a tattoo for Annie’s birthday and a way to symbolize an agreement they’ve made to all become mothers at the same time. Margie is already expecting, and as she envisions a joint baby shower for the three friends, the girls talk about how Annie, who doesn’t have a boyfriend, can fulfill her part in the pact. There’s a boy, Malik (Dwayne McCowan), who seems to like Annie, and her friends are encouraging her to make a move. Still, Annie isn’t sure, about Malik or about the agreement, even though she allows herself to get caught up in her friends’ dreaming at first, and talk of older men (like Talisha’s unseen boyfriend), cell phones as status symbols, designer diaper bags, and more. As the play continues, we see that Annie’s home life is hectic, as her mother Myrna (Michelle Dillard) works in a demanding, unfulfilling job and dreams of becoming a writer, all while she discourages Annie from spending too much focus on school. Meanwhile, she meets a new girl at school, Keera (Jillian Franks) who is always talking about church and an idealized family life; the astronomy-minded Malik tries to interest Annie in the stars, while his own home life is also complicated; and tattooist Antwoine (Brian McKinley) tells of his own artistic pursuits. The authority figures here–parents and teachers–seem to be either absent, self-absorbed, or transient, and as Annie tries to figure out her own place in the world, she often finds confusion and conflict. It’s a challenging, compelling look at life amid a system of ingrained racism and a cycle of poverty.

There are some strong performances here, particularly from Threatts, who embodies a mixture of cynicism and hope as the conflicted Annie, and from Franks as the quirky, devout Keera, whose life is more complicated than it may first appear, as well as Sharp and White as Margie and Talisha, and McCowan as the stargazing Malik. McKinley, as Antwoine and Dillard as Myrna are also excellent in their roles, and the energy and chemistry among the friends is especially strong. The production values are also memorable, with scenic designer Rama’s symbolic, all-white set (except for Malik’s telescope), atmospheric lighting by Sean Savoie, realistic character-appropriate costumes by Marissa Perry, and excellent sound by Kareem Deanes.

The world of Annie and her friends is immediate and credible, with characters whose humanity and need for love and support shines through even in harshness of some of the situations. This is a stark, challenging play that’s sure to provoke thought and necessary conversation. It’s another memorable production from the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Milk Like Sugar at Washington University’s A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre until March 3, 2019

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