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Posts Tagged ‘the black rep’

Miss Julie, Clarissa and John
By Mark Clayton Southers
Directed by Andrea Frye
The Black Rep
September 10, 2016

Alicia Reve' Like, Laurie McConnell Photo by Philip Hamer The Black Rep

Alicia Reve’ Like, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Black Rep

Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is the opener for the newest season at the Black Rep. It’s playwright Mark Clayton Southers’s re-imagining of August Strindberg’s classic play Miss Julie, changing the setting to the Southern United States during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. As portrayed in this intense, extremely well-cast production at the Black Rep, tensions are high between servants at a plantation and the owner’s daughter. It’s a sharp, richly characterized portrayal of racial and class tensions as well as personal dynamics between the characters.

On a large Virginia plantation in the 1880s, Clarissa (Alicia Reve’ Like) is a cook for the plantation’s owner. She lives with her fiance’, fellow servant and former slave John (Eric J. Conners). They have an uneasy relationship with the owner’s daughter, Miss Julie (Laurie McConnell), who has lived an entitled existence but struggles to live up to the expectations of her family and society. That uneasiness doesn’t stop her from exerting her considerable influence on John, with whom she engages in a manipulative flirtation. In the midst of this stands Clarissa, who is haunted by her own traumatic upbringing and the disappearance of her beloved mother, who had been a slave at the plantation as well. The mystery of what happened to Clarissa’s mother and the connection between this situation and Miss Julie herself is a key element of the plot, leading to much of the intense drama that builds gradually throughout the play and then explodes in Act 2.

The casting here is key, and all three players are excellent. Like, as Clarissa, is a particular standout as she portrays all the aspects of the character’s emotional journey with raw and intense honesty. Her search for answers regarding her mother, and her wariness of Miss Julie and real but reserved affection for John are all clearly on display here in Like’s richly complex performance. McConnell, as Miss Julie, tackles the difficult role with a great deal of depth, as well. As someone who has learned to exploit her position to get ahead, she could easily be a cardboard villain, but although she’s not particularly sympathetic most of the time, McConnell does an excellent job of conveying Miss Julie’s own complicated history and struggle with emotions of jealousy and the conflicting issues of powerlessness and need to exert power over both Clarissa and John in different ways. As John, Conners ably portrays his attachment and loyalty to Clarissa as well as his combined suspicion of and fascination with Miss Julie. The interactions between all three performers are intensely charged.

The time, place, and tone are well realized in Jim Burwinkel’s authentically detailed set and Jennifer (J. C.) Krajicek’s meticulously detailed costumes. The lighting, designed by Kathy Perkins, effectively augments the drama as well. The Edison Theatre can be a difficult venue in terms of sound, but this production is very clear and audible, and the staging is crisp and energetic.

There are a lot of issues in this play, some overarching and most highly personal. With all three characters having their own particular struggles, as well as the struggle to live in the highly restrictive and oppressive society in which they were born, Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a highly emotional, at times disturbingly intense production that is sure to make audiences think. It’s an excellent showcase for this superb cast, and a memorable start to what promises to be an exciting season at the Black Rep.

Eric J Conners, Alicia Reve' Like Photo by Phillip Hamer The Black Rep

Eric J Conners, Alicia Reve’ Like
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 25, 2016.

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Twisted Melodies
by Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 23, 2016

Kelvin Roston, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

A biographical one-person show, written by the show’s star, is an ideal way for a talented writer and performer to showcase his talents while also paying tribute to a notable person. The latest production from the Black Rep, Twisted Melodies, is an excellent example of this kind of show. Featuring the remarkable performance of writer/star Kelvin Roston, Jr., the play tells the story of legendary R&B singer Donny Hathaway by taking the audience on an immersive trip into Hathaway’s life and mind.

The play introduces the audience to Hathaway (Roston) on a pivotal day in his life in 1979. After a troubling recording session, he’s back in his room at the Essex House Hotel in New York. Plagued by hallucinations attributed to paranoid schizophrenia, Hathaway recounts the story of his life and music, engaging the audience as if we are a benevolent hallucination, unlike the more hostile voices and visions that haunt him. He tells the story of his childhood in St. Louis and his upbringing in the home of his strict but loving and devout grandmother, who insisted that Hathaway spend hours practicing piano and developing his musical gifts. The story continues into Hathaway’s adolescence and young adulthood, where he attended Howard University in Washington, DC and eventually began his musical career. He tells of his marriage, his musical collaborations with Roberta Flack and others, and his experience with mental illness that grew to dominate his adult life. The play is structured so that we don’t just hear the story, though. We are put into Hathaway’s head, hearing what he hears and seeing what he sees, with the troubling, confusing and terrifying sounds and sights realized by means of Rick Sims’s superb sound design, Sean Savoie’s stunning lighting, and Mark Wilson’s vividly realized projections.  All the while, Hathaway’s music is used to tell his story, expertly played and sung by Roston.

Roston didn’t just write this show–he is the show. The first-rate technical aspects of this play, including the excellent set by Jim Burwinkel, serve as the backdrop for this first-rate performance. The amiable, personable Roston presents a Donny Hathaway whose talent is clearly at the forefront, as are his struggles. His battle with paranoid schizophrenia and his reluctance to take the drugs to treat it–since their side effects can be extreme–is portrayed with clarity and intensity. Roston’s musicality is also on clear display, with his smooth, soulful voice and impressive keyboard skills presenting Hathaway’s music remarkably. He does a great job of sounding like Hathaway as well, with strong performances of songs such as “The Ghetto”, “She Is My Lady” “Giving Up”, “A Song For You”, and perhaps most impressively, singing both parts of his duet with Flack, “The Closer I Get to You”. Hathaway’s joy in his music is made clear, as is his fear, desperation, and search for hope. As Hathaway’s journey takes him back and forth from hope to despair, Roston powerfully portrays every aspect of that journey.

Twisted Melodies is a tour-de-force performance and a superbly crafted theatrical piece, with lighting that contributes to Hathaway’s feelings of isolation and fear, inventive use of projections, and excellent sound that incorporates recorded music that blends seamlessly with Roston’s live performance. It’s a compelling and sometimes disturbing look into the mind of a brilliant but troubled musician, and it’s not to be missed.

Kelvin Roston, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Twisted Melodies at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 1, 2016.

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Once On This Island
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams
The Black Rep
April 24, 2015

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out their 2014-2015 season with Ahrens and Flaherty’s one-act musical Once On This Island.  While the show itself makes an effort at being inspirational, I find its message to be somewhat problematic. Still, with its vibrant staging, fine performances and dynamic choreography, this is a production that has a lot to offer.

When the show opens, the cast is gathered around to tell a story. A young girl (Daryiah Ja’Nnay Ford) is the focus, as the adults around her begin to tell a much-repeated tale, which is then acted out as the various villagers take the roles in the story. They tell of young Ti Moune (Ford), who as a child is carried away by a storm and left in a tree in a peasant village on a tropical island. There she is found by Mama Euralie (Linda Kennedy) and TonTon Julian (Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.), an older couple who raise the child as their own. Watched over by her adopted parents and the villagers, Ti Moune grows into a young woman (Ashley Ware Jenkins) who is eager to find her life’s purpose. She prays to the local gods Erzulie (Scheronda Gregory), Agwe (Billy Flood), Asaka (Jennifer Kelley) for help, and eventually finds her mission. This comes in the form of Daniel (Timmy Howard), the son of a wealthy hotel-owning family from the other side of the island, despite the sharp institutionalized divide between Daniel’s people, the grandes hommes (who are descended from French colonists), and Ti Moune’s people, who live as peasants separated from the benefits that the upper class grandes hommes share. When Daniel’s car crashes near Ti Moune’s village, Ti Moune takes it upon herself to care for him despite the objections and fears of her fellow villagers, even making a deal with the conniving death god Papa Ge (J. Samuel Davis) in order to keep Daniel safe. These events lead to a long-avoided confrontation between the peasants and the grandes hommes, with the results turning out not exactly as one might expect.

Without giving too much away, I need to say that I have serious issues with the message of this play, or at least one of its messages. The idea of needing something (or someone) to unite the divided people and confront the systemic injustice is good and important, but I had some problems with the portrayal of Ti Moune as a young woman who basically makes a man her cause, and particularly a man who doesn’t seem to really care that much about her. As dedicated as Ti Moune is to Daniel, I never got the idea that Daniel thinks of her as anything more than a curiosity. Although the show tries to portray a good outcome to all this in the finale (“Why We Tell the Story”), I’m not entirely sure I buy it.

There is some excellent music here, along with some very strong ensemble dancing choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams, and some wonderful lead performances. Jenkins, especially, is a marvel, with incredible stage presence and a striking air of utmost determination. She’s also a fantastic dancer and a strong singer. Kennedy and McNichols as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents are also memorable and immensely likable. The island gods and supernatural figures are given strong portrayals as well, with Davis’s scheming Papa Ge a particular standout. Young Ford as Little Ti Moune also gives a vibrant performance. There are also some memorable songs and production numbers such as Jenkins’s “Waiting For Life”, Kelley’s “Mama Will Provide”, Gregory’s “The Human Heart” and the energetic finale.

Technically, this production is a visual wonder, although the sound quality leaves something to be desired. The band set-up at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, with the small band off to one side of the stage, makes it very easy for the music to drown out the singers on stage. Still, Tim Case’s atmospheric set, Luqman Salim’s colorful and detailed costumes, and Sean Savoie’s striking lighting all lend an evocative air to the production, adding to the overall fairy-tale like mood of the show.

I had never seen Once On This Island before, and as a show, I’m still not sure what I think of it. Overall, I would call this an excellent effort and a worthwhile production. Although I do have some issues with one of the show’s messages, the Black Rep’s fine cast and production values make this a memorable event.

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s production of Once On This Island is on stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 3rd, 2015.

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Paul Robeson
by Phillip Hayes Dean
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 15, 2015

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Paul Robeson was something of a Renaissance Man. A star athlete, a scholar, a lawyer, an activist, he was probably most well-known as a world-class singer and actor in stage and films.  His life and career spanned two-thirds of the 20th century, so perhaps it’s fitting that a play about him should have a three hour running time.  Throughout those three hours, only two men are on stage in the Black Rep’s latest production, and they hold the attention of the audience well. A vivid and thorough depiction of a famous and sometimes controversial figure, Paul Robeson especially serves well as a showcase for its headlining actor.

The play is essentially a one-man show with a piano player. While Charles Creath, as Robeson’s accompanist Lawrence Brown, is on stage for the whole show, and does at one point late in the play come out from behind the piano to appear as another character in the drama, most of the attention in this show is focused on Robeson himself, played with a great deal of charisma and boundless energy by Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. The story follows Robeson from his early days growing up in New Jersey to his education at Rutgers and his All-American football career, then to law school and Harlem in the 1920s, where he was discovered as a singer and actor. From there, Robeson’s career took him across the country touring, and eventually overseas, where he starred in the London premiere of Show Boat. The show goes on to depict Robeson’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, his travels to the Soviet Union and his general opposition to fascism, and his subsequent interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It’s all staged as a kind of recital in which Robeson tells his stories while Brown plays the piano, and Robeson occasionally sings in his deep, rich voice, from classic traditional songs to iconic theatrical standards like “Ol’ Man River”.

Without much of a set (it’s a piano and a few chairs), the whole show here is mostly McNichols’ dynamic performance, with able support by Creath as Brown and, briefly, as the HUAC questioner. The show is about Robeson, though, and it’s a very demanding role to which McNichols more than does justice. He manages to hold the stage for the show’s entire running time while maintaining his vitality and strong stage presence throughout. With a rich, deep,resonating voice, he also ably delivers the  musical selections in the production, conveying the sense of Robeson’s remarkable talent.  McNichol’s also ably portrays Robeson’s growth of maturity and worldliness as he grows up, goes to college, graduates, becomes involved in show business and politics, and sees more and more of the world. Important figures in his life, such as his father, brothers and wife, are represented as well in McNichols’s vividly recounted stories. It’s a very strong, tour-de-force type of performance.

Although this is a very long play, it’s a fascinating portrayal of an important figure in recent history–as an artist, and activist, and a complex and intriguing man. Robeson is perhaps not as well-known now as he used to be, which is a shame because he’s well worth remembering. Anchored by McNichols’s memorable and engaging performance, this play is a fitting tribute to this multi-talented and memorable cultural icon.

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

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Stick Fly
by Lydia Diamond
Directed by Lorna Littleway
The Black Rep
February 7, 2015

Photo: The Black Rep

Photo: The Black Rep

Stick Fly, the latest production in the Black Rep’s 2014-2015 season, is an exploration of the various interpersonal dynamics that occur within a family.  It’s playwright Lydia Diamond’s look at relationships that almost seems like two plays.  The Black Rep, with its very strong cast and production values, presents this somewhat complicated and disjointed play with wit, intelligence and honesty.

The story revolves around the Levays, a wealthy African-American family who have owned a home on Martha’s Vineyard for generations.  Through the course of a weekend get-together, we meet newly engaged Kent (Chauncy Thomas), or “Spoon” as his fiancee Taylor (Sharisa Whatley) calls him.  The highly educated academic Kent has come to the house this weekend to introduce Taylor to his family. Taylor, who is from a more middle-class background and grew up estranged from her father, a famous educator, doesn’t know exactly what to expect. Eventually, we meet the rest of the family, including Kent’s older brother Flip, who also has a new woman in his life that he’s anxious about introducing to the family–his girlfriend Kimber (Meghan Maguire), who is white.  There’s also Cheryl (Rhyan Robinson) the teenager daughter of the family’s longtime maid, who is following in her mother’s footsteps; and the patriarch of the family, Joe Levay (Erik Kilpatrick), who has shown up this weekend without his wife, to the confusion of his sons.  As these various characters meet and interact, tensions arise based on many different factors, including wealth and social status, race, and family expectations, as well as what it means to be a father and a “real man”.

This is an oddly structured play, in that the second act is significantly stronger than the first, with the first act setting up situations and introducing characters in a somewhat rambling way, until the action finally starts really moving in the second.  The cast performances reflect this disjointedness, as well, displaying considerably more energy and ensemble chemistry in the second act. As far as I’m concerned, the second act could be the whole play, because that’s where a mildly interesting play becomes a truly fascinating one. So many compelling issues are explored, from Kent’s desire to be an honorable man in the midst of pressures to be otherwise,; to Flip’s continual resistance to “settling down”; to Taylor’s insecurities about her relationships with men, including her famous, deceased father; to Joe’s weariness at dealing with years of racism despite his affluence, as well as his dilemmas concerning parental responsibility. There’s also Kimber’s having to deal with being an outsider in this group, as well as her own desire for a commitment from Flip, who may not be able to give that.  And then there’s Cheryl, whose story is perhaps the most compelling of all, as she deals with issues of identity, expectation, and what bearing some long-kept secrets will have on her future.

The acting here is remarkable. Aside from the general lack of energy in the first act–which can be attributed to both opening night and the fact that Act One is largely unnecessary–the cast really brings out all the energy, wit and drama especially in Act Two.  As Kent, Thomas is charming and sympathetic, projecting a real sense of honesty, reliability and genuine warmth as a man who may feel like an outsider in his family, but in many ways is the one who most has his act together.  Pierre, as Flip, expertly manages to project an air of carefree irresponsibility while, at the same time, showing that somewhere inside, there is conflict and genuine concern.  Whatley plays the conflicted Taylor with gutsy bravado one minute, and guarded vulnerability the next, and her scenes with both Thomas and Pierre are highlights.  There’s also excellent work from Maguire as Kimber, who obviously loves Flip but is just as obviously trying not to get too attached; and Kilpatrick as the weary but still formidable Joe.  Robinson, as Cheryl, is also outstanding as a young woman on a personal quest to come to terms with a revelation she didn’t ask for.

The technical aspects of this production are top-notch all around, for the most part. The gorgeous set, designed by Colt Frank, is meticulously appointed and luxurious, effectively reflecting the elegant style of a Martha’s Vineyard retreat. Ali Turns’s costumes are also particularly appropriate, with some fun little touches like Kent’s orangey-red cropped pants.  Jim Burwinkel’s lighting illuminates the scenes well. In terms of the sound, designed by Robin Weatherall, there were a few volume issues in the first act, although everything ran (and sounded) much more smoothly in the second.

Stick Fly is a strange play in one regard, in that the bulk of the meaning, action and force of this story is told in the second act. Still, it’s a truly marvelous second act.  Especially in that second act, The Black Rep and director Lorna Littleway have presented a show that deals with many issues with a near-seamless blend of comedy and drama, with a virtuoso cast. Even though this really is half of a great play, it’s well worth seeing because that half is truly remarkable.

 

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Purlie

Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell

Music by Gary Geld, Lyrics by Peter Udell

Based on the play Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis

Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Heather Beal

The Black Rep

September 14, 2014

purlie1

I love being able to discover “new” shows that aren’t really new. Purlie first opened on Broadway in 1970 and won several awards, and although I had heard of it before and saw a clip of an old Tony Awards performance on YouTube, I didn’t know much else about the show. Now, thanks the the delightful new production at the Black Rep, it’s almost like I’ve stumbled across a brand new musical.  With a tuneful score, vibrant staging and a strong cast, Purlie is a sure crowd-pleaser with a memorable story and an important message.

The story, that seems to be set sometime in the early 1960s, follows Purlie Victorious Judson (Kelvin Ralston, Jr.), a preacher who returns from Alabama to his Georgia home on a mission: he’s going to buy back Big Bethel Church for the community by means of a $500 inheritance that’s owed by the tyrannical plantation owner Ol Cap’n Cotchipee (Jim Anthony) to Purlie’s cousin.  Purlie has brought home Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Alicia Reve’), who bears a resemblance to the long-lost Cousin Bea, in order to fool the Ol’ Cap’n into paying out the inheritance.  With the assistance of Purlie’s brother Gitlow (J. Samuel Davis) and Gitlow’s wife Missy (Kimmie Kidd), Purlie hopes to  revive the church and give hope to the African-American cotton pickers  (including Gitlow) on Cotchipee’s plantation who have been kept in debt and oppressed by the Ol’ Cap’n for years. Cotchipee’s hippie-ish son, Charlie (Greg Matzker) stands against his father’s racist policies and only wants to sing folk music and try to change the world, or at least his part of it. Meanwhile, confirmed bachelor Purlie is faced with the decision of what to do about his relationship with Lutiebelle, who is in love with him.  The story is told in flashback, so we know how it ends before it begins, but that actually helps add to the suspense, making us wonder exactly how the story arrives at its inevitable and celebratory conclusion.

The score for this show, by Gary Geld and Peter Udell, is simply wonderful, with memorable songs like the Gospel-styled “Walk Him Up the Stais”, upbeat numbers like “New Fangled Preacher Man”, “The Harder They Fall”, and Lutiebelle’s energetic “I Got Love”. With dynamic choreography by Heather Beal and great singing all around, this production makes the most of the excellent score, although the otherwise great-sounding band is a little bit too loud, drowning out some of the singers especially earlier in the show.  With one or two slower songs like the lovely “He Can Do It”, it’s mostly an upbeat score that has the sound of its time (the early 1970’s), although is a lot less dated that some other scores from that era, and very well presented here.  There’s also a colorful, multi-unit movable set designed by Dunsi Dai that sets the scene of the crumbling old Southern plantation and surrounding buildings, and colorful costumes by Jennifer (J. C.) Krajicek.

Casting-wise, director Ron Himes has assembled a strong group of performers, with the standouts being the vivacious Reve’ as Lutiebelle and the comically gifted Davis as Gitlow. Both of these performers have such strong stage presence, commanding every scene they are in, Reve’ with youthful energy and Davis with mischievous charm.  In the central role of Purlie, Roston is also excellent, especially in his scenes with Reve’ and in a hilarious monologue late in the show in which he spins a somewhat fantastical tale.  There are also great performances from Kidd as the tough but supportive Missy–who has a fun little dance moment with Lutiebelle during the song “Purlie” in the first act–and Linda Kennedy as Idella, the elderly maid who practically raised Charlie.  Anthony is an effective villain, giving the character a veneer of Southern politeness that doesn’t the least bit conceal his self-centered, racist attitudes.  As for Charlie, Matzker does an amiable job with some good comic moments,  and he sings well on the upbeat, folky “The World Is Coming to a Start”, although he comes across as quite a bit older than the character is meant to be, which is something of a distraction from the otherwise highly entertaining show.

Overall, Purlie is an uplifting, memorable musical with an impressive score and an encouraging message of hope and reconciliation.  The Black Rep has brought together an extremely talented cast and a vibrantly presented production that should appeal to all ages.  I don’t want to sound too cliched, but I really was humming the score on the way out of the theatre. Even despite a few minor flaws, this production is a real delight.

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