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Posts Tagged ‘the black rep’

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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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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Crowns
by Regina Taylor
Adadpted from the Book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry
Directed by Linda Kennedy
The Black Rep
September 15, 2018

Cast of Crowns
Photo by Dunsi Dai
The Black Rep

The first thing that catches my notice in the Black Rep’s production of Crowns by Regina Taylor is a giant hat on the stage. That’s fitting, because hats are front and center in this musical collection of stories, a celebration of hats in African American culture, and particularly among black women. It’s a fascinating subject, showcasing some exceptional talent and the superb voices of its cast while highlighting some compelling stories of several generations of women and men in the American South.

There is a connecting story here, but it’s more of a loose framework that provides a means of exploring the show’s theme. The framing device involves Yolanda, a Brooklyn teenager whose brother is killed in a shooting. Taking his red baseball cap with her to remember him, Yolanda is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Anita Jackson). Yolanda’s story is revisited several times throughout the show, serving as the introduction to various themes focusing on church services, including regular Sunday service, as well as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. The rest of the characters use these segments to tell their own stories, centering on hats and what they mean in various contexts, from African traditions to church culture, to family relationships, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. All of these stories are punctuated by songs, mostly gospel songs and hymns, showcasing the superb voices of the always excellent Jackson and the rest of the cast. It’s an occasion for thought, reflection, remembrance for those familiar with the cultural traditions portrayed here, and learning for those who aren’t.

The setting is established well, with that giant hat as the centerpiece of Dunsi Dai’s memorable scenic design, framed by stained glass windows. There’s also excellent use of lighting, designed by Joe Clapper, to set the mood throughout the production. The costume design is also particularly strong, with a variety of detailed outfits of various periods, and of course a succession of hats of many shapes and sizes, from simple to more ornate. The staging is dynamic and full of movement, as well, with Kirven Douthit-Bird’s choreography utilizing the stage setup well, as the ensemble sings and dances around the giant hat that serves as both a centerpiece and a pedestal.

The music is also a star here, with excellent songs and singing from the whole cast, and particularly Jackson, whose stage presence and vocal power are obvious, as also Amber Rose as Velma, whose solo on ‘HIs Eye is On the Sparrow” is a highlight of the production. White as Yolanda is also excellent, both vocally and in terms of acting, conveying her character’s journey well. The whole ensemble is strong, as well. In addition to Jackson, Rose, and White, Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams as Wanda, Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette, and Myke Andrews in various male roles (including the pastor of the church) give excellent perfornances, relating their stories and singing their songs with energy and feeling.

This is a celebration of hats and culture, but also of music. It’s an outstanding showcase for great voices and fascinating stories, with humor, drama, and a strong sense of community, tradition, and shared experience. Crowns is a great start to a new season from the Black Rep.

Cast of Crowns
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Crowns at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 23, 2018

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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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Fences
by August Wilson
Directed by Lorna Littleway
The Black Rep
January 6, 2017

Ron Himes, Richard Agnew
Photo by Joe Clapper
The Black Rep

The latest production at the Black Rep is a well-known modern classic. A Pulitzer Prize winner recently made into an award-winning film, Fences is a poignant, incisive play by August Wilson. With its casting requirements and powerful script, this is a challenging play, and the Black Rep has presented it with poignance, power, and precision.

The story follows a family in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, focusing on a character whose life has been profoundly affected by the systemic and societal racism of the times. Troy Maxson (Ron Himes) was once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but after spending a long time in prison for petty offences, missed out on his chance to play in the Major Leagues because of his age. Troy, who now works for a sanitation company, lives with his wife, Rose (Linda Kennedy) and their teenage son, Cory (Brian McKinley), who has shown promise as a football player, although the embittered Troy refuses to let him talk to a college recruiter. The trials and events of Troy’s and Rose’s lives also involve Troy’s friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Robert Alan Mitchell), who questions some of Troy’s personal choices; Troy’s son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Steven Maurice), a musician who lives in the hope of gaining his father’s approval; and Troy’s brother Gabriel (Richard Agnew), who hasn’t been the same since he was injured in the war and who used to live with Troy, and who now wanders the streets during the day seeming to believe himself to be the Angel Gabriel, ready to blow his trumpet to signal the opening of the gates of Heaven.  Through the course of the play, Troy is forced to confront his own past and his disappointment with the way his life has turned out, as well as his goals for the present and the future, and his own thinly veiled resentment for his own son, whose hopes for advancement are viewed as something of a threat.  The play deals with a variety of issues, including personal and family responsibility; the effects of societal racism on individuals, families, and communities; parent-child relationships, and more. It’s a powerful character study as well as a thought-provoking portrait of a time and place in history, with themes that resonate still today.

This is a long, talky play, marked by Wilson’s insightful dialogue and richly-drawn characters, including a deeply flawed central character. Troy is a difficult role, as bitter, manipulative and self-focused as he can be, but there’s also an inherent sympathy in his situation, and it takes a strong actor to convincingly play all the many layers of this character. Himes is simply superb in the role, bringing his strong stage presence to the role and conveying with authenticity all the complexities of this character. He’s well-paired with the truly excellent Kennedy as the determined, longsuffering Rose, whose love for and exasperation with Troy are in full evidence, as is her devotion to her family.  There are also strong performances from Mitchell as Troy’s loyal but increasingly disillusioned (with Troy) friend, Bono; and by Agnew in a standout performance as the unstable, single-minded Gabriel. Maurice as Lyons and McKinley as Cory are also convincing, for the most part, although their stage presence isn’t quite at the same level as the rest of the powerhouse cast. For the most part, this is a strong, cohesive ensemble, supporting the first-rate performances of Himes and Kennedy who are real anchors of this production, thoughtfully and dynamically staged by director Lorna Littleway.

Technically, this show is also impressive, as is usual for the Black Rep. The stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre has been transformed into the Maxson’s backyard by means of  Jim Burwinkel’s comprehensive, detailed set. There’s also excellent character-specific costume design by Marissa Perry. Joseph W. Clapper’s striking lighting, Kareem Deanes’s clear, effective sound design, and Kate Slovinkski’s props also contribute to the overall dramatic impact of this play.

The Black Rep is known for its remarkable work, including previous productions of August Wilson’s works. This latest production of Fences is yet another example of this company’s commitment to excellence and its position as a showcase for superb acting. It’s a riveting, personal, highly affecting drama, especially highlighting the performances of some of St. Louis’s more celebrated performers. It’s well worth seeing.

Robert Alan Mitchell, Ron Himes, Linda Kennedy
Photo: Joe Clapper, Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Fences at the Edison Theatre until January 21, 2017

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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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Seven Guitars
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
March 31, 2017

Reginald Pierre, Kingsley Leggs, Phillip Dixon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a compelling drama from one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, August Wilson. An installment in his cycle of plays chronicling the experience of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century, Seven Guitars is a thoughtful, extremely well characterized play that presents the plight of various characters and their hopes and dreams in 1948 Pittsburgh. The Black Rep’s production is highlighted by thoughtful staging and a top-notch cast.

This is one of those plays that tells us its end at the very beginning. From the start, we know that one of the play’s central characters, blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kingsley Leggs) has died, and various of his friends are gathered in a backyard after his funeral. What it doesn’t tell us right away, is how Floyd died and what events led up to the gathering in the first scene, and that’s the focus of the story.  Most of the play takes place before the initial scene, and we see how Floyd, recently released from prison, tries to re-establish his relationship with girlfriend Vera (Linda Kennedy), and reconnect with fellow musicians Canewell (Phillip Dixon) and Red Carter (Reginald Pierre) and journey to Chicago for a recording session at the record company for which he recorded a previous song that has become a surprise hit. He’s staying with Vera, but Vera’s not so sure she wants Floyd back, since he had previously left her for another woman. Also in the picture are Vera’s neighbors,  Louise (Cathy Simpson) and King Hedley (Ron Himes). Hedley, who makes a living selling homemade chicken sandwiches and eggs from the chickens he raises and is treated by the others as something of an eccentric, is full of dreams, regrets, and strong opinions about how black men are treated and oppressed by the white establishment.  Louise is waiting for the arrival of her niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) from out of town, and when Ruby finally arrives she carries with her some secrets of her own.

This is a long, complex play with extremely well-drawn characters and unfolding situations that build gradually and, eventually, explosively. The direction is deliberate and the cast is ideally chosen, led by Leggs in a compelling performance as the ambitious Floyd. He’s also got a great voice and performs well on the guitar during the show’s musical moments. Himes is also extremely strong as the determined, complex Hedley, as is Kennedy as the conflicted Vera. The whole cast is strong, and the musical performances featuring Leggs, Pierre, and Dixon are memorable as well. It’s a cohesive cast, bringing a lot of energy and weight to Wilson’s excellent script.

The technical aspects of the production are well-presented in Tim Case’s detailed set and Michael Alan Stein’s excellent period-specific costumes. Jim Burwinkel’s lighting adds a lot to the mood of the production, as does Maril Whitehead’s sound, particularly in the musical moments of the show.

Seven Guitars is a long play, but Wilson’s superb dialogue and story pacing, along with the excellent performances of the cast, makes every minute count. This is a gripping story that provides a great deal to think about in terms of how things used to be, as well as how they still are a lot of the time. It’s a memorable production from  the Black Rep.

Lakesha Glover, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Seven Guitars at Harris-Stowe University’s Emerson Performance Center until April 23, 2017.

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