Category Archives: Theater News, NYC
Games the multi-award winning play by Henry Naylor directed by Darren Lee Cole codifies a time in history that resonates with us today. The play exposes the noxious practices of discrimination, racism, injustice and inequity during the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Olympics held in Germany.
At that time Hitler was in power and was establishing his Aryan race laws against Jews who were being discriminated against in every aspect of society and government, from civil service positions to university jobs and private businesses. Hitler’s destructive social policies led to untold misery and horrific genocide. The ultimate tragedy was in the loss of human talent, brilliance and genius that most probably would have added to music, culture, the arts, sports and scientific advancements for the betterment of the world.
To explore how the initial race laws could impact a particular arena, Naylor highlights the world of sports and the Third Reich in the early stages of Hitler’s rise before the conceptualization of the Final Solution (the organized conspiracy to exterminate “undesirables,” specifically Jews, Gypsies, communists, etc.). Naylor indicates how the race laws destroyed the careers of two Jewish women who were incredible athletes and deserved the glory they should have gotten if not for Hitler’s wickedness.
The play, currently running at the Soho Playhouse, explores the true story about world class athletes, one in fencing, Helene Mayer, and the other in the high jump, Gretel Bergmann. The fascinating production, through interchanging direct address narratives, familiarizes the audience with another example of how Nazism not only harmed others but nearly annihilated the once venerable German culture and society.
The minimalistic production briefly chronicles the exceptionalism of Mayer and Bergmann and reveals how they worked with assiduous effort to achieve a greatness in their chosen sports. Mayer portrayed by Lindsay Ryan and Bergmann depicted by Renita Lewis take turns sharing their stories engaging the audience as their confidantes. Each woman discusses how she endeavored to become the best. Both share salient details about their struggles to excel at a level not achieved before by women in their respective fields.
Helene Mayer, a German Jew was a phenomenon at 10-years-old. She sparred with male fencing partners after she sneaked into an all-male fencing class and convinced the teacher that she could best whomever she went up against. Encouraged by her father who was a doctor, Mayer achieved such a mastery in her skills that she won awards in competitions across Germany. Eventually, she won an Olympic gold medal at 17 at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, representing Germany. She won 18 bouts and lost only 2, bringing glory to Germany and receiving accolades from President Hindenburg.
Mayer’s story dovetails with Bergmann’s who was younger and who looked up to Mayer as her hero and inspiration. Indeed, she had a Mayer doll and was overwhelmed when she had the opportunity to meet with Mayer at her school where Mayer encouraged her to continue to excel as a track and field athlete.
During her segments of the play, Mayer discusses how she is ready to secure the Olympic gold medal a second time. However, when she receives disturbing news, her dedication and focus blows up and she doesn’t fulfill get the Gold. Sadly, by the time she worked to compete in the 1936 Olympics, she was banned from being on the German team because she was Jewish. The only team the Third Reich allowed her to be on was the equivalent Jewish team. She could not mingle with the “Christian” team, though she was well liked and spoke to everyone.
During the Bergmann exchange in the production, we discover that the same happened with Bergmann. Encouraged by her parents, as Bergmann, Lewis declaims enthusiastically that she eventually went to London and studied at London Polytechnic, where she became the British high jump champion. She also discusses how she was brought back to Germany to compete in the Olympics and save face with the Western World who received condemnation for discriminating against Jews. It is when she was preparing for the 1936 Olympics that the climax of the production occurs, Bergmann meets Ryan once more. They hadn’t seen each other since Bergmann’s high school years and Mayer’s visit.
At the last minute, in fact two weeks before the Olympics, Bergmann was prevented from competing because of her religion, though it was given out that she had physical ailments that prevented her from competing. The irony is that the Third Reich was so rabid in its annihilating policies, the Nazi party gave up the advantage of a good chance to win a medal only in order not to have to accept a Jew onto their team. For the Third Reich, it would have been more of a disgrace to have a “Jew” be recognized as a great star athlete, a fact that would have disproved the Nazi FALSE FACT that Jews were an “inferior race.”
Things fared differently for Mayer. As a token gesture to mollify the United States, German authorities allowed the half-Jewish fencer to represent Germany in Berlin primarily because she was on record as having won an Olympic medal in 1928 and was venerated nationally. She had been studying at Mills College in California and returned for the games. No other athletes of Jewish ancestry competed for Germany, except Mayer who was forced to compromise and give the Nazi salute as did the other athletes. Interestingly, in the play, Naylor has Mayer affirm that she is apolitical and cannot be branded. Above all she swears that she is a fencer not supporting or working against Hitler. However, fact checking reveals that she was used by Hitler and that is why she saluted, a compromise for her to compete in her love of fencing.
Games is largely expositional with character actions of fencing moves and graceful running moves threaded in by the very fit actors. It may also be viewed as two largely solo performances for there is little interaction between Mayer and Bergmann which is why their meet up in Bergmann’s high school and at the Olympics preparation was dynamic. Ryan and Lewis do a fine job in relaying the angst that Mayer and Bergmann went through in their emotional trials to shore up their determination against the Third Reich and in their struggle to compete and be the best.
The themes are exceptional. And Naylor rings out a siren call for us today in regard to holding on to the following tenets so as not to fall into the abyss that Germany fell into under Hitler’s Third Reich. We must strongly affirm our democratic values by upholding a free press, and upholding what makes our government strong- checks and balances. This is especially so against a current failing White House executive that smells of fascist-type dictatorship and one-man rule of the nightmare that led to Germany’s downfall, and can lead to the dissolution of our nation if allowed to go unchecked. Finally, Naylor decries that ultimately the discrimination meant to hurt the group discriminated against, ultimately destroys the discriminators.
Kudos goes to the actors, director and writer for capturing history for us and translating it into a vital remembrance that resonates for us today. Kudos also goes to the creative team of Jared Kirby (fight choreographer) Carter Ford (lighting design) Hayley Procacci (sound design) that helped bring Mayer’s and Bergmann’s stories into the present.
Games is a must-see if you enjoy learning about incredible world class athletes largely unknown today, but who should be recognized for their pluck, drive and accomplishments. Games runs at the Soho Playhouse (15 Van Dam Street) with no intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Each year, actors, directors, musicians, composers, producers, parishioners, singers, clergy and others gather for an evening in September in one accord. Their purpose is to bless, to anoint the entire theater community from producers and actors to critics and technicians to transmit the energy of joy and peace that will be felt by patrons from around the world who walk into a New York City theater looking to be stirred, engaged and enthralled with the wisdom and verve of live performance. Theater has its origins in religion. Social mavens in ancient Greece conceived that theatergoers/religious adherents, as receptors of the energy that flowed back and forth from live actors to audience members would walk away revitalized from playwrights’ tragedies and comedies.
According to Kathryn Fisher, co-producer of Broadway Blessing 2019, “Broadway Blessing started in 1997 as an evening of song, dance and story to celebrate and ask for blessings on the new Broadway season. For many years it rotated among churches – St. Malachy’s, St. Clements, St. Luke’s, St. John the Divine, and the Little Church Around the Corner – finally returning to St. Malachy’s in 2017, where it has been since.”
The celebration has burgeoned. New York City’s theater community has at its heart this finer impulse and in addition to seeking to make a profit, it follows the same high calling to enrich and redeem theatergoers from themselves, their work lives and the drudgery of daily routines. Indeed, theater’s mission seems more vital than ever in our divisive and stressful political climate. Broadway Blessing 2019, now in its 22nd year, is a reckoning to be thankful for the riches of the upcoming year of theater in renewal and refreshment.
Broadway Blessing 2019 on Monday 16 September was produced by Kathryn Fisher and Co-Produced by Pat Addiss, with musical direction by Stephen Fraser and stage management by Mary Fran Loftus. Special thanks go to Retta Blaney, Founder, Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s Church-The Actors’ Chapel, Fr. George Drance, SJ, Rabbi Jill Hausman, Congregation Ezrath Israel-Actors’ Temple with clergy from the theater district. The evening included Broadway and Off-Broadway performers, the Broadway Blessing Choir and Instrumentalists. Emceed by Fr. George Drance, SJ, who introduced the musical performers and guest presenters, Fr. George Drance, SJ’s pointed, informational commentary helped to make the evening flow seamlessly.
Musical numbers included songs from award-winning shows Oklahoma! Gypsy, West Side Story, Desperate Measures, The Music Man, Hair, The Lion King, Fiddler on the Roof, and La Cage aux Folles. Soloists included Mae Roney, Paul T. Ryan, Nancy Simpson, Katharine Heaton, Conor Ryan, Alex Fraser, Jill O’Hara, Liseli Lugo, Stephen Carlile, Sidney Meyer and Adam Shapiro.
Chita Rivera presented a lovely encomium about Hal Price who died on July 31, 2019. Chita Rivera is an incredible performer (actress, singer, dancer). It is fitting that Ms. Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner with five Tony Award nominations and a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theater should recall to our remembrance Hal Prince’s indelible contributions to theater in the twentieth and twenty-first century. She worked with him in award winning shows he either produced or directed. The most recent collaboration was Kiss of The Spider Women (music by John Kander and Fred Ebb with book by Terrence McNally) in which she starred and he directed, shepherding her toward TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle wins for her performance. Ms. Rivera emphasized Prince’s exceptionalism which will probably never be equaled. She highlighted with a significant pause so we could “get it” (I still can’t) that he won 21 Tony Awards which she saw with lined up on his desk.
In another segment of the program two-time Emmy Award winner and popular theater critic Roma Torre briefly interviewed Stephanie J. Block who won a TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance in The Cher Show. Stephanie Block shared a humorous story of how she finally realized the speaking voice of Cher on vacation whitening her teeth with Oral B and Crest Whitening Strips. While she was using the strips she happened to speak to her husband who noted the transformation into Cher’s speaking voice. Stephanie J. Block’s teeth are stunning and the story of how she found Cher and received a TONY for it is priceless.
As a coda, Roma Torre is still with NY1, and the lawsuit continues encouraged by her fans and supporters, both men and women. They enjoy her experienced commentary and cogent reviews. Hopefully, her on air time will increase. It is completely understandable why Ms. Torre and five other female anchors are litigating against channel operator Charter Communications in an age- and gender-discrimination lawsuit. You may read the article about Roma Torre’s intrepid fight with her colleagues to stand up to gender/age discrimination by CLICKING HERE.
David Friedman is an award-winning composer of Desperate Measures (music David Friedman, book and lyrics Peter Kellogg). Through the years Friedman composed, conducted and arranged numerous songs, movies and Broadways shows. For Broadway Blessing 2019 he contributed his talent accompanying Sidney Myer in a special song Friedman composed via a request by Pat Addiss (co-producer of Desperate Measures with Mary Cossett).
However, before Sidney Myer sang, David Friedman discussed the song’s backstory. Pat Addiss had asked him to write a song about abuse of the type that one may have experienced as a child. The nature of the abuse she referenced was so egregious that the individual blocked it from memory. However, suppressed events from childhood impact the evolution of an individual into adulthood. Sometimes, upon hearing of another’s similar abuse, individuals have reactions and have even fainted because, as can happen with physical pain, their psyche shuts down because the trigger is too intense. Pat Addiss encouraged David Friedman to create a song about such abuse and he did entitling it, “Something Happened.” The profound song which Sidney Meyer performed with great feeling is about one’s inner cry to confront suppressed truths and bring them to the light to heal. It’s an incredible work and in keeping with an evening of blessings.
Broadway Blessing 2019 culminated with “The Broadway Blessing” by Rabbi Jill Hausman and The Actors’ Temple of the Clergy of the Theater District. During the “Candle Lighting Ceremony,” Adam Shapiro (who portrays the Rabbi from the current production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish) sang “The Sabbath Prayer” in Yiddish and the Broadway Blessing Choir sang it in English. After the candles were lit, the Broadway Blessing Choir sang “Sisi Ni Moja-We Are One” (music & lyrics by Jacob Naverud). As the evening closed those in attendance joined the choir to sing the rousing “The Best of Times” from La Cage aux Folles (music & lyrics by Jerry Herman).
The Broadway/Off Broadway/Off Off Broadway year has begun in earnest. There is much to look forward to. Be blessed when you come to New York City to enjoy the fruitfulness of what the theater community offers in their amazing musicals, dramas, hybrid shows, festivals and innovative theater offerings.
Jim Steinman’s Bat out of Hell the Musical is first and foremost a clangorous, booming Hard Rock/Pop Concert on a small stage with operatic, bespectacled overtones. In other words, the production is an amazing hybrid not easily categorized. Replete with strobes, underground caves and fiery doomsday projections, intimate video hand-held captures which codify emotional moments and the blaring fantasmagoria of myriad-colored flashing lights with haze and fog, the musical numbers are loud and shattering and the unusual choreography evokes the strangeness of the futuristic setting. These are characters not of our time, but with emotional resonances we can feel and glory with.
Based on bestselling Meat Loaf albums, Steinman wrote the book, music and lyrics. He has been working on this magnum opus for years and has managed to garner awards during his production tours which began in 2017 up to and after the London West End Tour which beamed its startrails to Off Broadway at the New York City Center where it ends on 8 September. Five days ago, Meatloaf showed up on stage to celebrate this vibrant, blasting out of the park musical production directed by Jay Scheib. With the cast he celebrated songs he made famous from the 1970s through his Grammy Award win in 1994 and beyond.
Bat out of Hell’s sketchy story coheres to its slim plot points. These gyrate the action into a “world’s end” scenario that casts as enemies the haves like the Falcos, well placed elites with a pedigree living high above in the neo-gothish “Falco Towers” (slamming Trump Towers) and the have nots (The Lost Boys/Girls). The latter clan are Oliver Twist urchin-orphans, who live a hard scrabble existence in abandoned subway tunnels underground, making wild music, partying and ferreting out their existence with above ground raids. Their keyword is freedom and the innocence and wildness of reveling in being what the mainstream culture refers them to as “lost.” Indeed, it is the other way around. With their power and money, Sloane and Falco have become lost to what they once were and what they once enjoyed. The theme, sometimes you need to launch off and take a break from your own imprisoning fears and corrupted values (which Falco and Sloane eventually do) you can restore the passion and vitality of youth which is spiritual and never “lost.”
As perpetual teens (it’s a Peter Panish spin as their metabolic physical processes never age past 18-years-old), Strat and his band also attempt to stay one step ahead of cudgelings by autocratic Falco’s security forces who intend to eradicate them like the “vermin” they are. However, this street gang is poetic; their “vermin-state” is romantic as Strat proves to Raven (the sylph-like, melodically voiced Christina Bennington). Ignoring her parents’ dictum to stay away from the miscreants, she is lured by the sonorous, powerful Strat (Andrew Polec is mesmerizingly fabulous; you cannot take your eyes off him), attracted to his energy, resourcefulness and ever abundant enthusiasm. Like a super-hyped engine, he charges Raven’s curiosity, daring and love. Eventually, her boredom with privilege and oppression by her father lead her Juliet-like (there is even a balcony scene) to Strat’s emotional, heart-throbbing Romeo.
The character developments are primarily revealed through the dynamism of Steinman’s songs and the superb acting, dance-movements and singing talents of Andrew Polec (Strat) Bradley Dean (Falco) and Lena Hall (Sloane). Interestingly, unlike the others whose movements and actions remain purposeful, especially when delivering an intense, revved up song, Raven’s movements during the time she is influenced by her parents are like those of a jelly-fish with no backbone. Only after she leaves home for one night with Strat, does she gain strength and resolve and her movements become more directed.
During the course of the two act musical, we witness how wife Sloane (Lena Hall’s voice is unparalleled) resists Falco’s love and motivates him to change with her anger and remembrances of their love from the past (the fabulous “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). Bradley Dean, like Andrew Polec, delivers his songs with incredible verve and realism (“What Part of My Body Hurts the Most,” “Who Needs the Young,” etc.) He is mesmerizing. The Dean and Hall duets are highpoints; balance, strength, power encapsulate their emotional potency in a unified whole. Wow!
Thankfully, all turns on love restored between Falco and Sloane. However, the poignance that Strat will never move past 18-years-old while Raven reaches her late forties is a reality not easily traversed. The ideal that love is the answer, if not the reality is one of the finest moments for the entire ensemble with solos by the protagonists in “I’d Do anything for Love (But I won’t Do That).” And somehow we let pass the hard distinctions of youthfulness and old age that Raven hits Strat with; this trope is easily forgotten and passed over by the rousing, gobsmacking finale.
Outstanding cast members who belt out their souls are the couple Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones) and Zahara (Danielle Steers). Like Sloane and Falco, this would-be couple remains apart until the end. And their performance together is nothing short of stunning as it melds with the other couples’ renditions into the iconic “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I won’t Do That).” Additionally, Avionce Hoyles’ (Tink, a Tinkerbell allusion to Peter Pan) and Andrew Polec’s number which both sing while Tink is dying is heartfelt and gut-wrenching. Polec and Hoyles are one’s to watch for their inherent star power.
Kudos go to the following creatives: Ryan Cantwell (musical director) Howard Joines (music coordinator) Edward Pierce Studio (design supervision) Steve Sidwell (orchestrator) Jon Bausor (set and costume designer) Meentje Nielsen (original costume designer) Finn Ross (video designer) Patrick Woodroffe (lighting designer) Gareth Owen (sound designer) Xena Gusthart (choreography adaptor) Michael Reed (musial supervisor and additional arrangements).
Presented at New York City Center, Bat out of Hell the Musical is at the end of its run, closing on 8 September unless it is extended which it should be. It is that phenomenal. It runs in two acts. You can purchase tickets online if you CLICK HERE.
Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s apotheosis about a war monger who fires up for battle and yawns with boredom when he must live peaceably in the community brings to mind a ravaged soldier whose PTSD has so overcome him that he prefers living on the edge of death to energize himself to life. If he must choose between bloodshed, battle and calm, give Coriolanus carnage that he delivers, the gorier the better.
What does one do with such a Roman in a time of scarce resources on a planet ravaged by the doomsday scenario of global warming? Make him a politician to organize and straighten out issues in a time of great unrest in the most dire of conditions? Indeed, then watch him self destruct. For politicians must schmooze, flatter, promise, swallow crow, apologize and act with humanity and forbearance. Coriolanus is fit for battle, not for compromise, leader of his own personal autocracy which cannot be countermanded. Politics requires equanimity or the appearance of it. Of this he is incapable.
Shakespeare’s protagonist has a bit of the hero of The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 award winning film) without Jeremy Renner’s heartfelt agony and recognition of the mammoth loss of his former self before he signed up for war. Indeed, Coriolanus as portrayed by Jonathan Cake has much of the robotic machine killer with whom one has a devil of a time empathizing, especially as he rants and raves against those not born to a privileged background, from no fault of their own. Cake’s Coriolanus lacks interest, love or concern for others, except his wife (Nneka Okafor) son (Emeka Guindo) and mother (the wonderful Kate Burton). For his patrician friends he shows equal measure and latitude, for example Menenius Agrippa (Teagle F. Bougere) Cominius (Tom Nelis) and Titus Lartius (Chris Ghaffari) who advise him and fight with him. For his marvelously bellicose foes like Tullus Aufidius (Louis Canelmi) he bestows his complete veneration and worship.
As for the hurting, starving crowds clamoring for grain while the patricians’ storehouses flow with plenty? Let them eat each other in a zombie apocalypse. Coriolanus will none of it. Indeed, at the outset of the production, director Daniel Sullivan has placed a locked up barrel holding water downstage which the plebeians attempt to break into. But only Coriolanus holds the key to the lock and only he has access as he gives water to his son and denies his thirsty underlings. Charity stops first and last with self and family in a time of crisis such as that which confronts this deteriorating Rome, evocatively represented with a Mad Max scenic design by Beowulf Boritt of scattershot, burned out piles of garbage, remnants of the past, rather like Bob Ewell’s (To Kill a Mockingbird) scrummy playland hovel next to a massive town dump.
Because the rabble are deprived, there is civil unrest against the elites which if not quelled will threaten the security of the state, making it vulnerable to Rome’s enemies. However, Coriolanus answers the plebeians’ complaints with epithet and insult (they are curs and scabs) and argues that if he had the opportunity, he would slaughter them and create a mountain with their carcasses.
Some explanation is given for his wrath against the fickle, unreliable lower classes. His is an elitist patrician nature roiled by his aggressive, assertive mother. When he was a child she encouraged him to abusive dominance exemplified when he attacked the most beautiful and delicate of nature’s creatures by chomping off the wings of butterflies. Being so schooled against softness and generosity, he has no tolerance for the lazy, cowardly plebeians whose unmeritorious behaviors deserve no handouts. He states this to their faces in the opening scenes and we divine that his rancor is most grievous when he rails that he has provided the security of Rome while these poor and unfit do nothing to help him, but quailing in fear, flee even the thought of battle.
The situation is certainly egregious with the Volsces who come to attack. To get the corn they need to stem Rome’s hunger and murmurings, Coriolanus like a Titan hero single-handedly in “Incredible Hulk” fashion goes against these foes and delivers the goods without the help of the commons who slow him down. He emerges victorious from Beowulf Boritt’s ramshackle tin gates set, bloody and triumphant, but arrogant to the point of caricature!
Was ever there such a raging hero hewn from the trials of confronting daily doom as the populace struggles against diminishing resources in Sullivan’s fascinating, ominously foreboding vision? Never. And Shakespeare forges from his hyperbolic character the tragic flaw that caves in Coriolanus’ life, legacy and career: his overweening pride, and his fearsomeness in not being shy to express his superiority to those lowlife “deplorables” who hate him.
Coriolanus certainly is reminiscent of other leaders we know whose arrogance and inability to apologize runs before them. However, Coriolanus is intrepid, mighty and uber skilled in battle. In this he is admirable. The current arrogant and boastful who lead are 100% image and 0% substance, bullying, cowardly and shallow like those whom they represent. That both Coriolanus and the resident of the White House are unfit for politics is their only similarity. Coriolanus’ pride is based in fact and follows an important logic that is downright Puritan in a time of destitution. If one doesn’t contribute to the good of the society, then one is not worthy of the grain that others have supplied. Freeloaders are not welcome!
Shakespeare’s tragedy revolves around his protagonist being lured into the political sphere which he hates for he is not social. He is too “in your face” real to grovel in flowery phrases, alluring promises and imaginative disingenuousness to please the masses. He is direct, frank and authentic and cannot apologize or “fake it” to front those he despises.
However, he suppresses his best judgment and accepts a position which is offered to him. The conspiracy against him blows up when the Tribunes who despise him Sicinius (the excellent Jonathan Hadary) and Junius Brutus (the equal of the pair Enid Graham) incite the plebeians to revoke the offer of the position. This is upon condition that Coriolanus does not “bow” to the voice of the people. This untenable situation requires Coriolanus to be humble and compromising; this is an impossibility which results in his banishment by the Tribunes. Coriolanus counters with the statement that he banishes Rome from his presence and stature. With solemnity, he suggests that there is a place for him, away from Rome.
But there is not. Though he joins Rome’s former enemy Tullus Aufidius of the Volsces intending to avenge his disgrace and dishonor of banishment by destroying Rome, it is a rush to judgment. The momentous decision means that he will destroy his mother, wife, son and friends who have not joined the Volsces. In the most insightful and powerful scene in the production (thanks to Kate Burton and Jonathan Cake’s whining “but mother” which reveals his enslavement to her dominance) Voluminia persuades him to betray Aufidius and fight for Rome not Volsces. It is Coriolanus’ act of sacrificial, stoic death. Aufidius will certainly kill him for his betrayal. That Voluminia has raised her son to war so that he can ultimately die to save her is unnatural and wicked for a mother. Doesn’t Voluminia and his family have other options? But their relationship as Cake and Burton portray it is fraught with issues of power dominance and abuse as the brute Coriolanus is reduced to a mewling weakling by his mother. He accedes to her wishes.
The production’s emphasis works at times and at other times is spotty. The rag-tag Costume Design by Kaye Voyce, Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt, the Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman (strongest at the conclusion) the Soudd Design by Jessica Paz, the Composer Dan Moses Schreier’s music all convey Sullivan’s vision and themes soundly to resonate for us today. What happens to the haves and have nots when the law of diminishing returns lets loose annihilation because of the willful negligence and stupifying greed of previous generations’ corporate elites? Sullivan’s answering backdrop for the play is acute and frightening.
On the other hand, the empathy that we could feel for the plight of Coriolanus struggling against his own character wobbles perhaps because his character portrayal is one-note, at times cartoonish and lacking in depth. In the scenes with Burton’s Voluminia the depth of Cake’s Coriolanus shines, however. Shakespeare’s characterization reveals a character caught by his own ego between a rock and a hard place. He is betrayed by the Tribunes (his mother’s rant in their faces is largely ineffective) who capitalize on his arrogant weak character, lure him then back him into a humble pie corner from which he implodes.
And when he decides to punish Rome by depriving the society of the one way he has greatly benefited it by delivering death to its door? Once again he is thwarted, this time by his mother. And yet, there is no solace, nor sorrow nor identification at the conclusion that one might feel with Cake’s portrayal of a man who has undone himself. This is a weakness of the production which in all else especially Sullivan’s vision of the future is pointed.
Coriolanus is enjoying its last presentation today, 11 August. Performances have been sold out. However, there may be seats released if you are lucky and able to get to the Delacorte Theater well before curtain time at 8:00 pm.
Addicted to your phone, via Instagram? Text? Candy Crush? Reddit? 4Chan? World of Warcraft? In Octet by Dave Malloy directed by Annie Tippe, eight individuals who drop in to no-show Saul’s rehab in a homely church basement, find another hosting the weekly session. Thankfully, group leader Paula (the singer, songwriter Starr Busby) is nurturing and responsive to their cavernous disabling confessions. There, in a harmonious, ever fluid, richly sonorous song circle, they discuss their digital urges and expurgate them via the occult, each governed by a Tarot card designed for them and them alone. And sometimes the chorus joins in inspired by a soul hymn, encouraging the beauty of sharing in a non-judgmental like-mindedness.
What are they sharing? That which is maligned, misunderstood and apotheoiszed, the intimate, digital, hand-held which opens up their personal world like a hallucinogen and entraps them with their own emotional frailties. By the end of their epiphany-yielding, tonal and atonal harmonies (sung a capella and sometimes performed with pitch pipes, batons and other make-shift percussion items) they are lifted spiritually out of this world and “out of themselves.” They’ve achieved a healing peace in the community of others and the audience responds with a standing ovation for they, too, have been enlivened and awakened, having stayed off their phones for almost two hours.
Dave Malloy, the progenitor of this innovative, exceptional and robust musical has created a masterwork with little theatrical spectacle, certainly nowhere near the breadth of Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, his signature work. In Octet for which Malloy has deftly created the music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements, he takes a complex and intricate subject of great currency and couches it within a simplistic, minimalistic structure so that the powerful message of community and our need for live interaction resonates. With the seating in the “round,” and featuring a one-walled back set which reveals community bulletins, community ads, a coffee pot, announcements, etc., we get the sense we are in a basement which by the end infuses the sanctity of each of us which must not be underestimated. Above all Octet is like a soul injection to promote our awareness of each other’s value and worth more than an $1000 phone.
Into the choir circle of healing comes various debilitated, physically whole, but spiritually wounded internet adherents. When all are gathered, they begin the refreshment and comfort of unity so that they eventually will be released to express their hearts in solo song. The “Hymn: The Forest” reflects The Moon Tarot card which represents “Intuition.” Indeed, each of the individuals are misaligned spiritually and need to be “made upright” especially with firing up and being guided by their own wisdom and not the addictive distractions of the world.
In the first solo, we learn that Jessica in “Refresh” has put herself out there on “YouTube” and has gotten a huge response for it by those who comment. Though controversy gets clicks and likes and dislikes, it is also obsessive and must be followed by more “rants,” which Margo Seibert’s Jessica is addicted to creating for the comments. Henry (Alex Gibson) sings about his addiction to video games, and Paula (Starr Busby) sings about her distraction from her marriage and her losing her interest or attentiveness to making it work.
Distraction, dislocation from the most important relationships in one’s life is one theme of this production. Of course, viewing a screen is easy. Relationships take time, effort, pain and suffering along with the joy and good times. To stay dynamically involved with friends and spouses, one often must work through the underlying reasons and foundations for why one chooses the particular individuals one does to populate one’s life. It’s much easier to click on one’s phone and be taken away from problems by video games and escape introspection with “rants” which Jessica, Henry and Paula seek to do.
In the representative songs of what being “plugged in” digitally means to these individuals, we understand that in the “Hymn: Monster” which everyone sings, they project their inner “devil” outward and ascribe that the internet is their addiction. “Being connected online” has become the monster that has destroyed and eaten up their lives. Of course the irony is that the monster was always there within, waiting to manifest. But the way to get rid of it which will have to be a continual process, first is the realization that they have a “devil” within, and second that it is a devourer.
Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (the deep-voiced Adam Bashian) sing “Solo” about love and hunger for love. Ed is an Incel, a nonconformist. He riffs about Stacys and Chads (which is funny/drop dead serious Incelspeak) and they both sing about internet porn and online sexual addiction and the narcissism of having a ton of males (Karly) on her apps. In “Actually,” sung by Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) whose Tarot card is The Magician, we note how far one must go to achieve one’s destiny, arriving at their potential. Toby has been waylaid in any pursuit of fulfillment.
In Marvin’s “Little God,” there is an intersection of spirituality and science which I found engaging in the tensions posited. J.D. Mollison is humorous in his visualizing that God is an 11-year-old dressed or looking like a Mermaid. In this song Malloy throws in ideas from Alan Watts’ The Book, and moves with gyrations into Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and concepts from wherever. This he does throughout this intriguing, rich musical referencing games, podcasts, film, theater and books which he lists in the show’s Playbill insert.
However, as a cleanse from the confusion of the myriad voices that try to persuade, convince and entrap us online, Paula conducts a wonderful ceremonial tea (“Tower Tea Ceremony”). It is then all sit, savor, become present, become located within themselves and prosper in their souls with the help of a drug that takes them deep within, but only for a few minutes. The ceremony yields humorous and beautiful moments. As a justification that there is something good about the online delusion that has swept their souls from beyond their easy grasp of themselves, it takes a song circle and tea ceremony to bring them back to a healing.
It is after the tea ceremony that Velma (Kucho Verma) courageously sings of her angst. It is she who brings an interesting justification of the global reach of the internet. In all the world, online,she has found someone to love who loves her back and makes her feel accepted and not such an ugly freak. The song “Beautiful,” governed by the Tarot card of The Fool, magnetizes all the concepts that have gone before and represents “new beginnings” and faith. This, Velma encourages and with moderation, as with everything, we understand that the “monster” can be conquered.
The evening comes to a close with “Hymn: The Field,” which the ensemble sings. Aligned through restoration and staying off their phones for almost two hours, the “chamber choir” has melded into an illustrious community. They have displayed their sterling singing gifts with measured ease, enthusiasm and a lovely grace which the audience finds absolutely delicious.
Octet’s superb director is Annie Tippe. Or Matias brings the majesty of Dave Malloy’s music to life through his adroit music supervision and music direction. Octet has been extended a number of times and is scheduled to close on 30 June. However, it may extend again. It runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd St. between 9th and 10th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
‘Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer’ (a LPTW, NYPL for the Performing Arts Oral History Event)
Monday evening, 6 May the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women presented Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer. The event produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma was held at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center.
Linda Winer was chief theater critic and arts columnist of Newsday (1987-2017). She has taught critical writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts since 1992 and hosted the “Women in Theatre” series on CUNY-TV from 2002-2007. Recently (2018) she was given a special award from the League of Professional Theatre Women for her contributions to women and theater.
Tovah Feldshuh’s illustrious career spans decades. She is a six-time Emmy and Tony nominee. She has been awarded three honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters. Her prodigious career in theater has garnered her four Drama Desks, four Outer Critics Circle awards, three Dramalogues, the Obie, the Theatre World and the Helen Hayes and Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Actress. Noted Broadway performances include Yentl, Cyrano, Rodgers & Hart, Dreyfus in Rehearsal, Saraval, Lend Me a Tenor, Golda’s Balcony, Irena’s Vow and Pippin (the show stopping trapeze artist, Berthe).
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation Linda Winer held with Tovah Feldshuh who entertained the audience throughout the conversation by performing the role of her grandmother and her mother and others with heavy Bronx or European accents, while discussing her life and career. The piece has been generally edited to remove infelicities in grammar.
Linda Winer: So you’re a serious actress, with a life-time career, a cabaret star, wife, mother of two. You climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, you hung from a trapeze without a net in Pippin. You appeared in a lot of my favorite Law and Order Episodes. You’ve appeared in Walking Dead and in lots of TV and movies. You’ve said your career reflects your personality. Which one? (audience laughter)
The greatest advantage about growing older is the wisdom and perspective it gives you about life. And it’s taken me into my 60s to recognize and deal with the general existential fear of death…or dwelling on the idea that one day I won’t be here. The most important word in a successful career is the word “yes.” So when people ask me if I can do it? If it interests me, I say, “yes.”
I’m much pickier than I used to be because time has shortened. My mother lived until over 103. I’m in the last third of my life. But nonetheless, I’m clearer about what I want to do. I see it and I grab it when it comes my way. And if it doesn’t come my way, I’ve learned from my betters to create it. Dustin Hoffman didn’t just get Tootsie, he produced Tootsie. Jane Fonda didn’t just do her workouts she couldn’t get hired because she was considered a traitor by the U.S. congress and she created the workout program because she was physically fit. I did the pregnancy workout and was most grateful that I worked out up to the day that I delivered.
That is the explanation for a lot of the work you do?
I write and collaborate with various individuals. (An example of this would be her one-woman show Tovah is LEONA!) I went into one-woman show business for a reason, not only to fulfill my dreams. One of my children didn’t learn to read and I was so involved with my career, I didn’t catch it. My beloved sister-in-law said, “This child is not reading.” My sister-in-law is a reading therapist. I said, “What are you talking about, of course this child is reading.” “No!
she said. “This child is memorizing the sounds. He’s not coding right.”
Don’t worry. The child went to Harvard. So when I didn’t catch it, I stopped doing Broadway for 13 years. When one child went to Switzerland, and the other was accepted to the college of his choice, then I went back. There’s no free lunch here. People came up to me and would say, “How are you? Where’ve you been?” There’s no understudy for a parent. Here we’re supposed to be talking about theater. But when you bring human life onto the planet, it’s your responsibility to nurture those lives.
You like great titles. I have these scribbled down and they all have your name. You were smart about branding before it became the thing.
Well people had to know what they were coming to see.
A Touch of Tovah, Tovah Out of her Mind. Tovah Crossovah! Aging is Optional.
The roles I choose, particularly the one-woman shows I construct, I love playing multiple characters. And even when I don’t write the piece, for example, William Gibson wrote Golda’s Balcony, there was still the decision to work on it. The playwright gave us permission to put in all the verbs in the present tense, so we could retain the reportage which it was and turn it into an experience which it is. And that’s why the piece has persevered. The version of the piece that we do is not published.
I’m doing The Prompter now by Wade Dooley directed by Scott Schwartz (May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor). When I was in my 50s I was cast as Golda who was 80. I’m in my 60s now, I am playing Irene Young in The Prompter who is 90. So if I keep going when I’m 80 or 85 I’ll probably play Methuselah.
How about your grandmother? Was she in shows.
Grandma Ada. She’s the jewel in my crown. Ada is actually a compendium of my family. It was my father who said, “Reach for the stars, you may land onto the roof. If you reach for the roof, you’ll never get off the ground.” My grandmother wanted to be an actress and she had this career in the Music Hall in London. So when she tried out, they said “Ada, show us your ankles.” She showed them her ankles. They asked, “Ada show us your knees.” She said, “Nobody sees my knees except Grandpa, and then not so often. (Tovah Feldshuh lays on a thick accent as she says these lines.)
So it’s a compilation of all my beloved forebears. They came across the waters from England in 1902. They came from England, Russia Germany Austria. I’m a real American mutt. Relating to Austria and Germany, if you say Feldshuh, it’s as familiar as Smith. When you were in Napoleonic times before we had last names, you were “Samuel, son of David.” But they needed last names for taxes. If you paid, you were Montifiore, “Mountain of Roses.” If you didn’t pay, you were named Feldshuh, “field boots.” That’s my proud name.
You were Terri Sue.
So I fell in love with a boy who was not of my tribe, not of my religion. He encouraged me to change my name. And he said what kind of a name is “Terri Sue?” You’re from the North. What else were you called? I said I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” Actually, it was Hebrew School. I used to say “Sunday School” to fit in. I was embarrassed to say Hebrew School. By the way in Hebrew School, they give you a prayer book, it’s exhaustive, like Suzuki Judaism. In this prayer book, you can pray wherever you are in the world.
I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” This was the 1950s. Jews were assimilating. There were no Mercedes in Scarsdale. To assimilate Jewish men men were going to Brooks Brothers to get their blazers and beige pants. These were the boys that made it, the GIs that came home from the war. They were Jewish. To get back to how I changed the assimilation name to Tovah, it was because of Michael Fairchild. May he go down for the ages. He became a photographer for National Geographic. On his encouragement, I changed my name from Terri Sue to Tovah. And I didn’t know the entire state of Israel would fall on my head. I had no sense of what would happen.
So what was the consequence?
It changed the whole landscape of my life. Juliet says what’s in a name. A rose by any other name is as sweet. Not necessarily so. A name characterizes. “Tovah” characterized me. Bobby De Niro is immediately characterized as Italian. Dustin Hoffman is something else. So a Tovah Feldshuh is a Danish name. So in Minneapolis when I worked at the Guthrie, they thought I was Danish (she imitates a Danish/Swedish accent). That was the one place in Europe that saved the Jewish community. So when I got to New York, my name, Austrian Jew, from Vienna? They said to me, “It’s a ridiculous name! You must change your name! (heavy accent). And 18 months later my name Tovah Feldshuh was on the marquee (applause).
Your parents in Scarsdale sent you to Sarah Lawrence. You were a philosophy major. You studied languages…and were/are a pianist. Did your parents think that changing your name to Tovah and becoming an actress was a mistake?
They thought being an actress was a mistake. When I told my mother I wanted to go to Julliard, my mother said, “You’re not going to a trade school.” (laughter) My older brother who is an MD, Ph.D. Dr. Dr. David Feldshuh, my mother called him Doc. My older brother went into the theater first. He went to Dartmouth and was a Reynolds scholar and was a McKnight Fellow at the Guthrie. He was the one who said, “Don’t go to law school. Why don’t you apply for a McKnight Fellowship in Acting?”
So I applied to law school, got on the wait list, got the McKnight Fellowship and went to study at Guthrie. And again, this changed my life. Sarah Lawrence was fabulous. My mother came to see Renard the Fox by Stravinsky. I think I had green hair and purple feet. She took one look at me and said, “Why didn’t you go to Vassar?” (Tovah Feldshuh imitates her mother with an accent) I applied and got in to Vassar but was encouraged to go to Sarah Lawrence by my mother. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Taconic Parkway had the highest mortality rate for car accidents. The road to Poughkeepsie was a long, dangerous road and she was preserving and protecting her young. I guess she wanted me near home. Then they sent me abroad. When I went abroad, I finally did my own laundry, otherwise I brought my laundry home to Scarsdale.
I was sent to Paris. At 13, I was sent to the Cote d’Azur. My father’s client was in Lyon. All their children spoke French and they had a summer home in the South of France. My brother and I were sent to the South of France for the summer. My mother said, “She’s not going.” My father said, “She’s getting on the plane, Lillian.” I had one parent who spoke like he was always in a courtroom. He dressed with the winged tipped shoes and the whole nine yards with the Paul Stewart suit. So I would ask, “Dad, was this the way you spoke when you were a baby?” (laughter) On the other hand, my mother was born in the Bronx on the dining room table, 1534 Charlotte Street (Tovah Feldshuh imitates where and how her mother was born). She had elocution lessons. The immigrants gave their children elocution lessons.
I had elocution lessons and it didn’t do me a bit of good. How is it that, not to use a cliche, how is it you have it all? I was at a women’s journalism luncheon. Barbara Walters said, “Women, you can’t have it all. You can have two of the three.” It’s very unusual to have three. You can have children or a husband or a career, but you can’t have all three. The thought she conveyed was if you try to “do it all,”you will suffer.
That must have been her experience. And I’m sorry it was. I never think of having it all. There are people in this audience who know darn well there are two sides to every coin. I have a great mate. Andrew Harris Levy who did originate Tovah Out of Her Mind. He’s very clever and he’s clean and I don’t just mean in the shower. I got the right mate. His mother was a concert level pianist who gave up her ultimate dream to marry Arnold Levy. She became a piano teacher. I was a classical pianist because my mother was shy and quiet and a classical pianist. And I wanted to be near my mommy. So I took piano; interesting we never did a four-handed piece. That was a bit of a heartbreak for me.
You were going to be a concert pianist.
I couldn’t do the concertos. I could only get to the Finals. I even played for Van Cliburn. It was very hard for me. “Mozart in D Minor,” “Rhapsody in Blue.” And I thought to myself, “You’re going to be an also ran. You better try out for something else.” So I did plays with music and I was immediately cast as Cousin Hebe in H.M.S Pinafore. I thought then…there are three girls singing in this operetta, and I am one of them. So that gave me hope. The next year I got Little Mary Sunshine in Little Mary Sunshine. And I thought to myself, hey maybe this might be something that I can do really well.
But the man I married and I were brought up on the exact same music, the same love of opera. (Tovah imitates her mother.) “If you’re gonna marry someone, marry someone of your race, your religion and your social class. You wanna fight? Fight at the opera.” The woman’s speech patterns that were fancy, devolved as she got older.
I have a certain sized bosom. You really can’t see it because there isn’t a breast pad left in Manhattan that isn’t in this bra. Anyway, I have a very small chest. My mother and my beloved daughter have a very ample chest. My mother looks at my daughter and looks at me and she says, “Well, I guess it skips a generation.” (laughter)
So why do I have it all? I had great parents, but I had the great luck of choosing a man who didn’t begrudge me my work. And his love for me had to do with him not stopping me. We’ve been married 40 years and it’s taken me decades to realize that. There’s times he comes in and he’s working on his law. He’s a fantastic lawyer, the head of a department of huge law firm and now he’s an accountant for the biggest law firm in the world. I will not let him retire. I do not believe in retiring, so I can go to Florida and do my nightclub act. Tovah Feldshuh segues to a joke. So I’m down there and I tell them. I’ll change the opening. I’ll change the closing. And they say to me, “Ms. Feldshuh, you don’t have to change anything. They’re all dead.” About retirement? No. In my experience you have to live for a purpose that is beyond yourself. Children are usually the easiest solution to that.
So I had these good parents. I loved my father deeply. He was a Harvard lawyer. I married a Harvard lawyer. My father-in-law was a Harvard Lawyer. My mother-in-law was a classical pianist. My mother was a classical pianist. I was a classical pianist. So we had enough synchronistic coincidences, that had nothing to do with each other until will met each other. That made vast areas of the marriage easy. And that’s why it was possible in my life, to “have it all.”
Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer was a delightful presentation. Though I didn’t include all of the lengthy conversation here, you may find it is at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. Tovah Feldshuh, did mention that she wanted to get this “on the record.” She has not had any plastic surgery!
I would credit her youthful appearance to her peace inside, her brilliance, cleverness and her luck in choosing the right partner, and of course, her obvious joie de vivre!
You can see Tovah Feldshuh in The Prompter May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tovah is LEONA! is on its way to San Francisco’s Feinstein’s at the Nikko from September 20-21. You can find her on https://www.tovahfeldshuh.com/
The Price of Thomas Scott, currently at Theatre Row is an interesting period piece which has at its core central issues about conscience, upholding the values one professes to believe in and sacrificing material well being for spiritual health and soul wholeness. Written by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) the playwright who hailed from a religious family wrote in the early last century about London’s working classes, shop girls, clerks and the ambitiously upwardly mobile.
In focusing a spotlight on their dreams, foibles and mores, Baker entertains with an eye to unraveling key theses about the human condition. Despite fashion and social folkways, if you transplant her characters in a modern prototypical setting, the results would initially appear vastly different, but the similarities in the characters’ issues would be stark and familiar. The reason why is because the moral, ethical and personal questions her characters confront, are issues we also confront at one time or another, if we have a conscience. There’s the rub!
The setting is the back parlor of Thomas Scott’s Draper’s shop (cloth wholesaler, haberdasher) where daughter Annie Scott (the delightful and winning Emma Geer) and son Leonard (the vibrant Nick LaMedica) discuss their ambitions and dreams, all of which require a large amount of money that their father does not have. The Scotts are part of the declining middle class and the children are strivers. However, Thomas Scott’s business is not doing well because his competitors drive down the prices, and the costs, as always, seem to eat into any profits. In short, Scott wishes to sell his business, retire and go to a beautiful place in Wales, something his wife has been longing for as she is tired of city living.
One factor that we note immediately is that this is a religious family and Mr. Scott (Donald Corren’s portrayal is modulated and has none of the self-righteous tone of the “religious”) upholds his beliefs and encourages his family to attend church and eschew all the latest fads and fashions, even attending theater performances. Though he doesn’t view theater as sinful, actually, he characterizes it as immoral (this gets a laugh from the audience). He suggests he can read the about it and that time and money could be spent better with other pursuits.
After a scene where lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize) and his friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) waltz with Annie and her friend May (Ayana Workman), as brother Leonard plays for them, we understand that the young people wish to break away from the repressed culture in which they live. A waltz seems harmless enough. But we realize from the paranoid and hurried way that they rearrange the furniture which they moved to dance, that Mr. Scott would not be pleased to see them carrying on. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of dancing either. The focal point of his life seems to be church, praying, Bible study and singing religious hymns and he encourages his family to follow his upright example which they do to his face with a few lapses behind his back.
The conflict slowly develops. Mr. Scott fears running down his business to bankruptcy. And the only way out for his and his children’s dreams to come true would be to sell. However, no one is interested. And because of the other sales of neighbors’ business it appears he will not get a particularly good price for his shop. The quandray stresses him and his family who understand the stakes and the potential doom if there is no buyer.
When a buyer appears as a recommendation from elsewhere, Mr. Scott is thrilled as is the family. Following the adjurations of his friend to ask for an excellent price, he holds out for a price which would answer all of the desires of the family. Indeed, money answers all things, a Biblical scripture the play does not allude to. The 500 pound settlement would allow him to retire to Wales with his wife, set his son on a fine career path and pay for his daughter’s dream to go to Paris to learn the latest styles and return to London to employ her craft.
However, there is a fly in the ointment which may prevent their dreams from ever being realized. And the huge fly is Mr. Scott’s values and conscience. He is not enamored of the buyer or his trade.
His wife Ellen (the fine Tracy Sallows) respects him as do his children. However, if he allows his conscience to rule over their happiness, then their dreams and his own will turn to ashes. Unless a buyer shows up that he approves of, he may go bankrupt and have to close the shop without any money to forestall their downward economic decline. He is a religious man. He will have to turn to His God and his conscience for his final decision and after that the outcome which will be “good” or “ill.” When in trouble, rely on miracles!
Mr. Scott’s choices and decisions mirror those conundrums faced by every world leader, every businessman, every head of the household who has control of others’ economic well being. If one is ethical and moral, the choices are actually harder. If one is amoral and believes that it is all right to wipe all competitors and settle for an “I win you lose” result, then there is no problem making the decision, but a huge problem with the result especially if the rule of law is in force. On the other hand morality, ethics and conscience create immense problems and crises. Living by one’s own standards stolidly without hypocrisy is the problem especially if there are temptations. And it is especially the problem if one expects others to live by one’s own standards though theirs may be different. Of course if the standards are high moral ones then it should be clear and the individual should be respected for living up to them. But relativity creeps in depending upon the situation and definition of “high moral standards.”
For example racists believe their discrimination is for the common good and a “high moral standard.” Conservative religious individuals believe the LBGTQ crowd are twisted and sick and should be rejected until they are turned to normal heterosexuality. A head of the household believes he must live by his values though it will impoverish his family and take food out of their mouths. These individuals, if they stick to their beliefs unequivocally, are not hypocrites selling their souls to be accepted by others. They have defined their actions as belief and conviction, though their actions would be described in the culture at large as discriminatory and loathsome. In the case of the head of the household, money and family are less important than his/her conscience. Some might argue that this man should not even have a family if he does not properly take care of them. Questions of ethics, morality and following one’s conscience are invariably complex, as playwright Baker intriguingly points out.
Above all the play is fascinating in the questions it asks. The Mr. Scotts of the world who follow conscience to the exclusion of other reasonable considerations are as extreme as the amoralists whose greed and self-dealing may cause death, misery and devastation. Applying Baker’s questions to a current problem today, might be as follows. To fight against corporate hegemony and abuse of other cultures must one eschew all technology because of its inherent slave footprint to not be a hypocrite or amoralist as well? Can one completely eliminate one’s slave footprint and abide in First World country status knowing that other cultures do without allowing us to “do with?” Thus, living in social modernity carried to this absurd conclusion means living as a hypocrite unlike Mr. Thomas or living as a self-dealing amoralist who ignores the ramifications of his behavior.
The Price of Thomas Scott brings to life the ethics and morality of “modern” living in exposing the human condition which is as ancient as “Adam and Eve in the “Garden.” And though the play concludes on an upward note with the next generation “resolving” the issues in a lighthearted way, what they do is “in your face” ironic and rebellious by the standards of Mr. Scott. In that rebellion lays the foundation of a greater crisis of the culture which in a decade or so moves into the excesses of “The Roaring Twenties,” eventual crash and great Depression which was effected as a partial response to the reactionary time of prohibition, religious revivalism and strict morality that Mr. Scott embraces. For every action there is a reaction, especially when ethics, morality, hypocrisy and soul selling are at issue.
The production by The Mint Theater Company gives precise attention to the spectacle of theatrical performance and time period which is as always a pleasure to see from the props to the staging. Kudos to Vicki R. Davis (Sets) Hunter Kaczorowski (Costumes) Christian Deangelis (Lights) Jane Shaw Sound & Musical Arrangements) and others which helped to make this a beautifully rendered production. The hats are magnificent and made me wish for a time beyond weddings and funerals when such hats were in vogue. (not really…just the hats)
Special kudos to the director Jonathan Banks and the cast who deliver a measured and authentic view into the past of how individuals like Mr. Scott and his family made hard decisions and stuck by them without taint of hypocrisy or corruption of their own consciences. Would that current day politicos were more like Mr. Scott who quails at selling his soul for Mammon. (The question in the play is, is that what he really is doing or that he believes he is doing?) In light of our president and the actors who surround him in the administration and influencers in foreign lands, Mr. Scott’s problem with (X) appears quaint. So much more the irony of this play being produced now when the problems of selling one’s soul for betraying a nation and its democratic processes are paramount. Bravo, Mint Theater Company!
The Classic Shakespeare Company is presenting two 19th century plays by August Strindberg in Repertory. The Dance of Death (see my review by “clicking here” in a new version by the award winning Conor McPherson) and Mies Julie in an adaptation by the award winning South African director and playwright Yaël Farber.
Farber has given Strindberg’s Miss Julie a renovation in texture, location, structure and dynamic by intensifying the conflict and shortening the arc of the play’s development. Inherent in this production directed by Shariffa Ali is the force and power to further elucidate the themes about classism, chauvinism, oppression, economic injustice, racism, white supremacy and cyclical revenge with the backdrop of a new setting, South Africa, 2012. Additionally. she has changed the characterization of Christine from Jean’s fiancee to John’s mother, and worldly servant Jean to Xhosa farm worker John, intriguingly characterizing him as one who grew up with Mies Julie on the farm that Julie’s father owns.
Christine has raised Mies Julie alongside her own son when Julie’s mother abandoned her daughter suffering from severe depression. The mother, alienated and isolated from the strangeness of the colonial women with whom she never could feel comfortable, the difficulty of the farming life and her own inner regrets caved in her soul. Without any sense of purpose or the obligation of duty to take care of her own child, she shoots herself and little Julie finds the disastrous ruin of the woman. Mies Julie thinks she is responsible for her mother’s death, but is nurtured by Christine’s love to eventually recover.
Nevertheless, Mies Julie bears the scars of the trauma. And during the course of the play we intuit that her rebellious behavior and impulsiveness suppresses an inner pain as she careens through her life. If not for Christiane’s love and an emotional attachment to Christine’s son John, who protects her and secretly, hopelessly loves her, Mies Julie might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The character of Mies Julie is most similar to Strindberg’s Miss Julie in ethos, however, the fascinating twists of transformation of setting reshape all of her actions and give them additional resonance and thematic richness.
Farber’s adaptation opens in a farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape, Karoo, South Africa on Freedom Day, 27 of April 2012, almost 20 years after all South Africans were give the right to vote in 1994. The day is a vital symbol integral to the complex themes of this adaptation. For the blacks of South Africa, the price of freedom was purchased by blood and suffering. The black culture’s redemption and return to the land of their ancestors will also be paid for by blood and suffering in a twisted karmic resolution in Farber’s Mies Julie.
Indeed, ancestors in the form of a ghostly grandmother seek revenge as she haunts the house which was built upon ancestral graves. Although this is not effected in the set design, Christine refers to the great tree which was cut down to make way for the house, but whose roots retained life and now break through the tiles of the floor of the kitchen and continue to grow in defiance of the white, man-made structure. The symbolism of the tree as representational of the Xhosa family which belongs on the land and whose culture can never be erased is a focal point. Unfortunately, without evidence of the tree breaking through the floor (due to the repertory’s need for minimalism) an important theme of Farber’s work is diminished, opaquely realized through Christine’s dialogue which becomes too easily lost in the hum of action.
Farber presents the underlying conflict when the workers on the farm and some squatters who have returned to the land that their ancestors lived on before the colonials came, have been celebrating and dancing on Freedom Day. Mies Julie dances with the workers a bold and inappropriate act. Because her father is away, she rebelliously revels in these liberties which lower her stature and respect in the workers’ eyes. When John attempts to admonish her, we see the emotional tensions between them and realize that the relationship they have developed in many ways runs past master/servant and portends elements of love or sado-masochism or both.
During the course of the production we discover that the South African’s hope is to one day take back the land from the colonials like Julie’s father. They consider this an act of restitution for the terrible bloodshed and misery caused in the years of usurpation which brought about cultural devastation. The economic struggles continue in the present day for the workers like John and Christine must still submit to servitude to survive. Decades of economic injustice and inequality have delayed their accumulation of enough capital to purchase the land that their ancestors lived on centuries ago.
Though John has educated himself and wants the freedom to be able to prosper beyond his “class and race,” he is not the urbane, world traveler of the Jean of Strindberg’s work. And though he has had women, he has loved Mies Julie from childhood. It is this night that erupts in a culmination of many subterranean wants and desires for both Mies Julie and for John. And of course it is this night of freedom that lifts up Mies Julie’s “Afrikaaner race” out from under the degradation and debasement of oppressing the Xhosa.
John and Julie are representative of their race and class. On one level Mies Julie becomes the sacrifice to expiate the “sins” of her forefathers when she chooses to become equal and unite in a physical consummation of love with John. Likewise for John, it is a night where he asserts his privilege to repossess the land (symbolized by Mies Julie’s body) and achieve a lifelong dream to be restored to his true sense of self-worth, identity and power.
The beauty and tragedy of portraying their relationship as Farber does in layer upon layer of intricate psychological and social texture is that we understand before the characters do that perhaps decades need to pass before the destructive social MATRIX in which both live and have their being disintegrates. John comes to this realization sooner than Mies Julie, who is impaled on the immediacy and unreality of wanting an idyllic life with John away from the farm. She intends to run away with him and use her father’s money that she’s stolen from the safe. John cannot trust Mies Julie enough to leave his mother and the stultifying but familiar identity that has oppressed him his entire life. The two are trapped and their end appears to be an inevitability. The time is surely “out of joint.” And only a few options remain for them to take before Julie’s father returns the next day and stasis consumes their lives once more.
In this adaption, Farber presents some of Strindberg’s themes front and center and then embellishes and expands them. Farber suggests the following. In order for the injustices between and among economic classes to ever be resolved, the classes themselves must be dissolved. For all human beings, the trials overcoming the miseries of childhood and the nullifying stricture of social mores, are uneasily won. For outsiders who are economically challenged, the trials are even greater. Only gradually through the passing of the generations will there ever be economic and social parity between and among disparate races and ethnic groups.
Christine knows this. She treasures her job and is willing to abide in her faith believing that for her son’s generation it will be better, but for her generation, it is finished. John wants change immediately and by fathering Mies Julie’s child he will overthrow the status quo, though he risks her father’s wrath. They must leave, for if a baby comes, her father will kill them both.
The harder he and Julie attempt to extricate themselves from the binding circumstances, the more they become mired in fear. It is a truism that they must leave or die. They cannot forge new identities in the same place where old hatreds and resentments float like ghosts above the blood-soaked land. Mies Julie wisely commands that they run away from her father and the farm’s oppression and migrate to a new identity and new existence in the city. But John is stuck. Christine adjures that she will never leave the farm. John must choose. Either he abandons his mother and goes with Mies Julie to freedom, or he remains with Christine in servitude. If there is a baby, all three will die.
Farber’s adaptation presented by the CSC and directed by Shariffa Ali enthralls with strong, emotional performances by James Udon as John, Elise Kibler as Mies Julie and Patrice Johnson-Chavannes as Christine. And when the ghost of the grandmother walks the kitchen, Vinnie Burrows is uncanny and foreboding. Because of her presence, we understand that a fearful retribution is coming, but it remains unclear until the play’s conclusion.
The production runs like a bullet train on a collusion course toward destruction especially in the scenes where Kibler and Udon spar, seek to dominate and control, then relent, succumbing to their tenuous love for each other. Kibler is effective in her smoldering, wild longing. Udon is sensitive and caring as the “fool” for love, then angry and rebellious in believing he is Mies Julie’s plaything. These emotions provide a field for incredible contrasts. On the one hand Julie and John collide with their fear of abandonment and betrayal. Then they fly to each other then fly to reinforce a love perches on the edge of desperation. These tensions and the heightened interplay between Kibler’s Mies Julie and Udon’s John is wrought with ferocious zeal.
A note of warning. Some of the dialect and the accents are muffled and strained. I found that swaths of dialogue were garbled because of an overemphasis to “get the accents right.” I am not referring to the words of Afrikaans or Indigenous words in Xhosa, but the heavily accented English. The accents are vital for they introduce the setting. However, the use remained problematic. When the emotion was presented organically, the dialogue followed and the actors were easily understood.
Finally, the set design was spare and adequate as it should be in this repertory Strindberg cycle. However, the incredible symbolism of the tree should be included as an important thematic thread of the play. The music, the effects, make-up and costumes are apt. When the ghostly presence enters and leaves, all these design elements effect the supernatural wonderfully.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death alternate in repertory at CSC (13th Street between 3rd and 4th) until 10 March. Mies Julie is a spare 75 minutes with no intermission. You can pick up tickets at their website.
This is a continuation of the conversation that took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center as presented in collaboration by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Sophia Romma. For Part I Click this LINK.
Elisabeth Vincentelli: Could you talk about Mlima’s Tale. It was another different approach you took.
Lynn Nottage: It was commissioned by film director Katherine Bigelow (award winning director of Hurt Locker). And we were developing it together. She has incredible passion about elephants. Mlima’s Tale is told from the point of view of an elephant that’s been poached. And the play tracks the elephant’s tusks from the hands of the people who poach him to the hands of the people in China who buy his tusks. It’s a very stylized piece. Jo Bonny came in. And we decided that we wanted to make the piece very differently. It was based on my working with designers that was very collaborative. We decided that we wanted to work with designers from beginning to end which almost never happens. Usually what happens is that designers speak to the director during the first draft of the script and then they come back into the process during tech week. We thought we don’t want to make it that way. We want designers to be there very single day which is why I think the piece is more holistic and integrated on all levels. We were talking to each other and making creative decisions in the moment which was very exciting.
It was very imaginative with the lighting, music and movement.
We worked with a composer who had never done theater before. The equipment was all set up. During the first preview, a musician felt very deeply and he didn’t know he couldn’t just spontaneously sing. We had to say “Wait, you can’t do that.” (laughter)
What are the new musicals you are working on?
The first one is The Secret Life of Bees which is an adaptation of the book by Sue Monk with composer Duncan Sheik who did the music for Spring Awakening and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead who did Jelly’s Last Jam. Sam Gold is directing it and it will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in the Spring. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it’s very beautiful.
Then you’re working on another musical of Intimate Apparel.
Well, it’s not exactly a musical. It’s an opera which is a co-commission between the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s been interesting developing something which is kind of a hybrid and having Peter Gelb from the Met giving notes and Andre Bishop from the theater. Both of them have very different needs. (laughter) And Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, is doing a brilliant job.
The third one which has been announced is?
The Michael Jackson musical. I’m writing the book on the Michael Jackson Musical. Michael Jackson’s written the music. (laughter)
What are the challenges for working on the book of a musical or opera,
The opera which is an adaptation of working on my own play Intimate Apparel? The challenge was in figuring out how to write a libretto from material I was so attached to. I didn’t want to let go of anything. And working with Ricky, the first time I handed him my libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play.’ The second time I handed him the libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play, again.’ And I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘You’re not trusting your collaborator. You have to understand in musical theater and opera, the music does 50% of the work. It is what makes it expansive. Trust that I’m going to allow people to feel and teach people to feel through my music.’ And once I trusted him, I was able to make some of those cuts and get rid of the exposition. I had to let him be the collaborator that he is, and allow him to do some of the heavy lifting. I had to let him do the story telling. He does beautiful story telling which allowed me to step away.
What about with Sue Monk’s Secret Life of Bees? How was it writing book for a work that was not yours?
Well Sue Monk gave us the license to do whatever we wanted. She was like ‘I’ve written the book.’ We made it clear that we made some massive changes and that we were not doing a strict adaptation of the book. We told her that we’re creating a piece that is inspired by the book that honors all her characters without making replicas of those characters.
How do you approach the writing of the book?
From my position of writing the book? I’m the architect of the narrative. It is my job to make sure that all the pieces come together. So I’m kind of like the contractor. I am there to make sure that everything is exactly as we want it.
How did you feel writing book for that musical?
It’s incredible and liberating as a book writer. So if get to a difficult point, I can turn to Susan (lyricist) and say, “You got this right?” (laughter) It’s the lyricist that’s doing a lot of the important story telling. I throw her the ball and she does the “slam dunk.”
You said you learned at Yale what “to do as a playwright and what not to do.” Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. When I arrived at Yale I had just gone from college to graduate school. So my assumptions when I was there was that they had a blueprint about how to be a good playwright. I learned a lot about structure, but I also think I also became imprisoned by a lot of what I learned because I didn’t realize I had the freedom to make my own decisions. I think that is what I meant.
Writing the play into a libretto are you turning it into prose or are you turning it into poetry?
I think it’s both. Some of it is definitely prose and some of it is definitely poetry. It’s a combination.
From the perspective of film how does that approach differ? What is the difference between a word and an image and what is special about each one?
The way in which film and theater function differently is clear. In theater we do a lot of problem solving through language. In film a lot of the problem solving is done through images. I think particularly in film there is the short cut you can take that you don’t have the luxury of doing onstage in the theater. You can quickly convey something by taking a character somewhere else in film, but because of the limitations of the stage, we have to use language sometimes to describe the visuals.
You were raised to appreciate the arts. What are you doing to advocate for young people in the arts?
I’ve been a professor for 17 years. I’m a teacher. And I think that’s the primary way to nurture young artists, because when I was young artist I didn’t feel that there were a lot of people to nurture young African American artists. I feel it’s essential to nurture the next generation and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping directors and playwrights who are up and coming and emerging.
Which characters do you use to get their stories told?
I use the characters that assert themselves. The characters that come back and demand to be represented on the stage are ultimately the ones who win out.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you are writing for?
I like to think that I’m writing for an audience who are friends. My friends are a very diverse group of people. So those are the friends I write for. But Intimate Apparel was very specific. It was for my mother. I don’t think I’ve written anything else with that kind of intention. I did this adaptation for this film director Lars Von Trier. (laughter) He would talk to me on the phone, but he would never direct any comments or questions to me. He wanted to speak to me through his producer. And this was on the telephone. The three of us would be on the phone and he would say, “Tell Lynn. . .” And I would respond, “I can hear you.” (laughter) The film was Manderlay.
Did you have any influencers?
I did have influencers. I had my parents who took me to theater. As a professional playwright, I didn’t have mentors who helped me nurture this career.
Now you’ve reached a certain point in your career, is there another medium you would like to work in?
Because of the past year or two that I’ve become so overwhelmed and busy, I don’t feel that I have the time to nurture my self. I haven’t had the time to read books and to ruminate. I have to endeavor, in the next couple of years, just to make time to think and think about what it is I want to do.
Did you have a sense that those two pieces that won your Pulitzers would stand out in some way.
The Pultizer came as a complete and total surprise. Technically, the Pulitzer is supposed to be a play that deals with American culture. And Ruined is set in the Congo. So when I got that phone call it was an absolute surprise. For Sweat I never thought that lightening was going to strike twice. So that was a total surprise as well.
Could you still comment on the lack of production opportunities for women in theater. We’re still below 20% and women of color are really at the bottom.
I think you put it very well. (laughter) It is a fact there is work to be done. And very recently there was another survey about theater and women. I can’t speak to the specifics of this in all the other areas, but for women playwrights they found that for white women throughout the country, there’s been an increase to almost parity. But for women of color and men of color, the numbers are still staggeringly low.
How can we change the dynamics of theater pricing?
I think there is a way to make theater more affordable and more accessible, as we did in Sweat. I teach a course called American Spectacle about how to evolve beyond the proscenium. And I teach it because of my incredible frustration with we as playwrights and directors and artists. We craft our productions very specifically for the stage and proscenium of Off Broadway Theaters that are limited in space and also limited in the audience that they reach. The audience that I want to reach doesn’t necessarily relate to the audience that I look and see is watching my play.
One of the things I realized is that I don’t have to be locked into that problem. We can be incredibly flexible. We can take theater to the people. And that’s what we discovered with the mobile unit. We can break out of the proscenium and bring theater into a gym and if there’s an audience for it, we’ve broken away from that limitation. The very first production that we did in Pennsylvania, people showed up with their kids. They had not been to theater. They didn’t know they were going to sit for two and 1/2 hours and so Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of the mobile unit, and I ended up holding people’s babies while people watched theater (laughter).
And I thought, ‘This is great. Why can’t we do this in Off Broadway theaters.’ The other establishing fact was we realized that most of those folks had never been to theater before. Not a single cell phone rang. People sat rapt. And I thought ‘…there’s something about that audience that’s different from New York audiences because they want to be there and not because they bought a subscription and have to meet the quota of plays’ (laughter). They are there because they want this entire experience. I think that in some way we have to re-educate the audiences that see theater in New York. I think that there are really bad habits that are being nurtured and we have to change that. (applause)
I’m here from a class at NYU and I want to know if you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. And she was very outspoken on women’s rights and so I’ve been a feminist since the time I can remember.
Are you inspired by to write about what is going on in current politics and what is going on at the border and the lies that we’re hearing.
Yes. I’d like to write about it. At the very end of the mobile unit tour, we ended at a Native American reservation and one of the elders stood up and said something incredibly moving. He said, “I don’t understand what this border wall is. There are no borders in America. These fences that they’ve erected where they arrest people if they cross over mean nothing.” He and others understand that these obstructions shouldn’t mean anything because this is land that has no boundaries. That’s how I feel. And there’s part of me that wants to do a Walkabout and walk the length of the border and talk to people and collect their stories but it would probably take a very long time. (applause and cheering)
You can see Lynn Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Irene Diamond Stage. For a schedule of where Lynn’s plays are being produced and to learn more about Lynn, go to her website: CLICK HERE.
For more about The League of Professional Theatre Women or to become a member CLICK HERE.
Monday evening at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the New York Library for the Performing Arts and The League of Professional Theatre Women presented another Oral History event celebrating renowned women in theater. Produced by Ludovia Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma, those in attendance enjoyed Elisabeth Vincentelli’s interview of award-winning, globally renowned playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage. Elisabeth Vincentelli writes about the arts and theater for various publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal to name a few of her many writing accomplishments. She also co-hosts the “Three on the Aisle” podcast with Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal) The following interview has been lightly edited. Look for Part II next week.
Elisabeth: You are the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize twice (applause) You have such a rich career. I wanted to anchor it by having you talk about where you grew up. It was right here in New York.
Lynn: I was very fortunate to grow up in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was a community defined by people moving through it to get to other communities. It was a very marginal neighborhood at the time. My block was dominated by boarding houses. It was very multicultural. It was a neighborhood where people who were pushed out of other neighborhoods found refuge. And as an aspiring writer, I feel like it was the best place to grow up because it was so diverse and accepting and nurturing. It was a true community. Next door to me, for example, in one of the boarding houses, there was a woman who by day wore a full Burqa, a Hijab. She was completely covered up. Her husband was a taxi driver. At night when he would leave, she would actually take it off and put on a Kaftan. That was the type of community it was.
So I think it was inevitable that I would end up as a writer having lived there. As a matter of fact on the same block, if anyone knows the novelist Jonathan Lethem, he memorialized the block in the Fortress of Solitude. And the yard in back where everyone played was the yard where I grew up. Our house was the nexus point for the block. I started my first stories when I was five-years-old. I wanted to capture things that I heard. And the aspect of the place was very rich in texture. I knew there was something very special about that moment in time and about the people who congregated in that neighborhood.
Where did you go to college?
Before college, I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. I was an aspiring musician. And when I got there, I discovered that I was not as good as the other aspiring musicians. (laughter) I decided to do something else. I went to Brown University as a Pre-med student with the assumption that I was going to be a doctor, not that I ever wanted to be a doctor. However, because I was very good in math and science, they decided to give me a scholarship and I got into Brown.
Even before I went to Brown I was writing plays and when I went to Brown I continued to write these little dramas that I managed to produce myself. When I was there I met two professors who were quite influential. One of them was Paula Vogel the first female playwright I had ever met. Up to then, there were only two other female playwrights that I had read. One of them was Lorraine Hansberry, the other was Ntozake Shange. At the time Lorraine Hanesberry had passed away and Ntozake Shange was not very prolific. I was under the assumption that playwriting was really a hobby for women and that it was something that I was never going to be able to make a living doing. Then I met Paula Vogel. She was the first woman who said, “You know, you can do this. And there’s strength in numbers.” There was another professor whose name was George Bass who was the executor of the Langston Hughes estate. He really taught me about the joys and the ritual of creating theater. Theater was not just about putting people on stage. But it was a place where healing could occur and where one could deal with community.
So at that point you’re still grappling with what you wanted to do.
I thought I was going to be a journalist. That summer I was working for a newspaper called The Villager. There were only four of us and we wrote the entire newspaper. For a very brief period of time I was the Arts Editor. And the only reason why I did it was because I could go to the Openings and drink wine. The Villager was located on East Fourth Street.
Did it compete with The Village Voice?
At some point it did. When I was there it did not. (audience laughter)
When did you decide to focus on writing?
I think my decision to focus on writing came when I was deciding what to do after college. I applied to Columbia Journalism School to be a journalist. And on a whim I applied to Yale School of Drama assuming I would never get in. I did. And I spent four very difficult, fraught years in Yale School of Drama where I learned how to be a playwright and then how not to be a playwright at the same time.
Did you go to the theater?
Not so much, then. I went to the theater a lot when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in New York City. At the time there were a lot of rising African American Theater Companies. There was the New Federal Theater. There was The Negro Ensemble. There was the Billie Holiday Theatre. My parents, who were great lovers of art, made sure that not every weekend, but certainly a few times a year we saw plays. So I encountered the work of Charles Fuller. I remember when I was in High School going to see Giancarlo Esposito. I was with my girlfriends and we were so excited. The performance was electric. At that time theater was affordable. We could go as teenagers.
What about the Billie Holiday Theatre?
They did a renovation and it is thriving. There are wonderful artists that are working there and they are doing representative work emphasizing being inclusive.
You mentioned that you dropped out of playwriting?
The time I was in graduate school coincided with the time that was a crucial moment in American Social History. It was the AIDS Crisis and the Crack Epidemic. So in school we were losing students, we were losing professors. It was really hard to make art in that environment. It felt like there were many more urgent things that needed to be attended to. After I graduated from Yale School of Drama, I felt that I wanted to do something with impact. I sold my computer, if you could call it that. It was sort of like a word processor, and I went to work for Amnesty International, which at the time was the largest human rights organization in the world. I was a press officer and I spent four, intense really concentrated years doing human rights work. In many ways the time I spent with Amnesty International became my second graduate school. It really shaped me not only as an artist but as a person. By the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an artist which I didn’t know prior to that time.
Did you feel that playwriting could convey what you wanted to say?
I did. I will tell you a story. It was the moment that I decided to go back to playwriting. A woman named Donna Ferrato, who is a quite famous photographer came to our office. She’d taken these beautiful and disturbing photographs of women arriving at a battered women’s shelter. I saw these images of women who were in a moment of absolute crisis, but there was a look of relief on their faces as well. I was incredibly moved by the photographs.
During that time at Amnesty International, we were struggling with the notion that women’s rights should be separated out from human rights. The organization wasn’t doing enough to address specific human rights abuses. I saw these photographs and I knew that there was nothing that we as an organization could do. But as a human being I felt that I needed to respond to those images. So I closed my office door and I wrote a play. It was the first time I had done that in four years. The play was Poof. Poof is a short play about a woman who’s abused. She tells her husband to go to hell. He spontaneously combusts and turns into a pile of ash. (laughter) She calls her best friend on the phone and she comes down and they have a discussion about what to do with this pile of ash. Finally, they decide to sweep it under the rug. (laughter)
I had returned to playwriting and it felt really good. I arrived at a total synthesis of the “human rights” brain and the “writing” brain. I thought, I can do both things. I don’t know why I have to compartmentalize. For me that was incredibly liberating.
Was Poof your first professional production?
Yes. It was my first professional production. I submitted it to it the Humana Festival. It won the Heideman Award. And Seret Scott who was a fantastic director became my first professional director and my first professional mentor who guided me through the process.
You had three plays in quick succession in the 1990s being produced around the country: Crumbs From the Table of Joy; Mud, River, Stone; and Por’Knockers. Could you speak about each?
Crumbs from the Table of Joy was my very first professional commission. It was commissioned by Second Stage which was still uptown in a 97-seat theater. The play was specifically commissioned for young audiences. I wrote this play assuming it would never get produced. They decided to do it.
It’s really interesting because it was directed by Joe Morton. People know him as “Papa Pope.” At the time he had a very robust acting career and in the middle of directing it he got a job and he was drawn away. So the previews went on for a really long time. As a result the play began to build an audience. By the time he came back, it actually was a success even before it opened. Word of mouth sold it. It starred Ella Joyce and she had just come off of a very popular series. And she used to go to the Beacon Theater which, at the time, was a venue for The Chitlin Circuit. And she would hand out flyers. She would say, “You think this is good, just walk down a few blocks.” People recognized her because she was on the series (Roc) and they followed her advice. She was really responsible for this robust audience that we had.
Mud, River, Stone was commissioned by The Acting Company. We actually developed it on the road before we brought it into New York. When it came to New York, we did a short performance at Playwrights Horizons and then were invited back to do a larger production. I never felt that I finished that play. Before we went into rehearsal at Playwrights Horizons, I had my first child. I was nursing and at rehearsal. Every time she cried, I’d sneak out. The day of the first preview, my mother died. So I had all of these major life events occur during that play. As a result, I felt that I never really had the opportunity to properly tend to that play. That was my great frustration with it.
My other play which was Por’Knockers began at New York Theater Workshop. It came out of this multicultural group that I was in. We presented a short evening of plays. The Vineyard Theater came to see the play which is about a group of terrorists who blow up an FBI building and inadvertently kill some children. They have to decide over the course of the evening whether to take responsibility for their actions or not. They each get their turn to go to the phone to inform others about the explosion. Each one has to figure out what is the price they are willing to pay for their beliefs. At the end, none of them are able to make the phone call. The play was enormously successful at NY Theater Workshop. Then we did it at the Vineyard Theater. But the world had changed. Six months before we did it at the Vineyard, Oklahoma City Bombing happened. The FBI building was blown up. And the day we opened at the Vineyard Theater was the Million Man March. So the play that was a social satire suddenly became very different and much more intense. As a result people just didn’t respond to it.
Now, we’ll move on to Las Meninas which is an outlier, but every one of your plays is an outlier. That’s beautiful. I love that. Could you speak about Las Meninas
Sure. Las Meninas was actually a play that I wrote in graduate school. The play is based on a tiny slip of history that I read about. It was the relationship between Queen Maria Theresa of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and her African servant, Nabo who was a dwarf. When I read about this, I thought this is fascinating. Why don’t we know more? I ended up doing years and years of research. True story. I found a book in the New York Public Library, the main branch. I think I was the first person to ever read this book. It was written in 1710 and it was a translation of one of the memoirs written by a mistress. In this memoir the mistress detailed this relationship. I wrote a little bit about this and became an almost expert. I was getting calls from historians asking “How did you find this?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m a playwright.” Because the play is so whimsical and is a costume drama, it doesn’t get done that often. But it is one of my favorite plays because it is so delightful and it’s a true story told from the point of view of their daughter.
Now we move on to a key play in your career, Intimate Apparel directed by Kate Whoriskey. Was that your first collaboration?
Yes. I describe our meeting as a theater blind date. Someone said ‘Oh you and Kate should meet.’ I remember that we met at New Dramatist, in their library which was very cold. We both talked to each other shivering. We decided to work together. I was excited to work with her. Intimate Apparel was a commission by Center Stage. And it was the first play that I had written after my mother died. My mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and I spent a lot of time caring for her. During that period, I didn’t have time to write. Also, I had a child. I was having to figure out, how do I make all of these pieces work. When my mother died, suddenly I became the main caregiver of my grandmother. My mother was just an only child. It was just my mother and my grandmother. My grandfather was there, but that’s a different story.
I was going through my grandmother’s things and literally, she would put photographs in the middle of magazines for some unknown reason. I found a photograph and it was the first time I had seen a photo of my great grandmother, my grandmother and her sister. And I was struck by the fact that my grandmother who had dementia, couldn’t answer questions about this woman in the photograph. I couldn’t ask my mother who was dead. And it really broke my heart. So I wanted to reconstruct her life. I went to the New York Public Library. I wanted to figure out who was this African American woman who came to New York at the turn of the century, by herself. Who was this seamstress? How did she survive? How did she make a living that enabled her to build a family and that led to me being on this stage today? So Intimate Apparel became an examination into my own ancestry.
You wrote this at the same time…you say that you work on a number of plays at the same time. While you were working on Intimate Apparel, you were working on Fabulation?
Yes, Fabulation is a social satire. I was imagining Esther who is the central character in Intimate Apparel. Esther is an African American seamstress who falls in love with a Romanian Jewish man and she’s corresponding with a Caribbean man. It’s this little love triangle. I was imagining who might Esther be one hundred years later, if she had gone through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement and felt fully empowered. So Undine of Fabulation is Esther 100-years later. Also, I wanted an outlet. Intimate Apparel was a play I wrote for my mother. I imagined what play might my mother want to see? Fabulation became my escape…the place that I went, when I didn’t want to cry.
You were working on poems at the same time, also. But how do you handle the juggling act of writing two plays at the same time?
I have two screens. (laughter) Literally, when I would get stuck on one play, rather than step away from my computer and do something else, I can literally switch the screen and write something else. The plays are so different and use completely different muscles, I can enter in both worlds without feeling burdened by the other.
You have discussed that your plays are thoroughly researched. Then you transmogrify the information into drama.
I found in my writing process, that procrastination is a form of creative exploration. (laughter) When I’m not writing and beating up on myself, I just continue to investigate. When I was working on Sweat, for instance, I spent two-and-one-half years exploring. But I felt that I needed that time to explore. I needed that time to know my characters. Rather than to rush into writing, I felt I needed that time to know a completely different world and immerse myself. I did the same thing for Ruined. I spent three years of immersion with Ruined, going to and from East Africa trying to find a story that I wanted to tell. And I thought it was a very productive way to spend my time.
Ruined was a run-away success. It was extended numerous times. I remember one time I was seeing it with a school group in the audience, and I thought, “Oh, my God.” But they completely adored the story.
When you wrote Sweat, it was a fascinating project that you spent time researching, but you had a companion project with it.
It was a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that specifically invited playwrights to write plays about an “American Revolution.” The revolution that I wanted to write about was the Industrial Revolution in America. By the time I finished, I thought it would be history and it would be living history.
I went to Reading, PA, and spent a lot of time. I began forging these very deep, complicated relationships with people in the community. But I didn’t want to be a carpetbagger. I didn’t want to write this play that goes to Oregon, and travels to various theaters then comes to New York. I didn’t want to forget the play’s origins. I wanted to create something, a play that was still very connected to the people who were in Reading, PA and make use of these hundreds of hours of interviews that I didn’t use and didn’t filter into the play.
So after I did Sweat, the following year, I decided to build this massive performance installation that would be set in Reading, PA. We decided we wanted to re-animate the Reading Railroad that everyone knows from Monopoly. It had been abandoned since 1981. When it was closed down, it effectively shut Reading off from the rest of the country. Suddenly, people who used to get to Philadelphia in 55 minutes could no longer get there easily. They had to take a bus to Allentown and then go to Reading.
When I got to Reading, PA it was the poorest city of that size in America. When you walked around, you felt the sadness and the frustration and you felt all the things you experienced in a place that once had been an industrial powerhouse. It was literally withering on the vine. We thought, how do we revitalize this downtown area? The railroad station became symbolic. It was one of the few places that everyone had a connection to. At some point in time, everyone had passed through it.
We thought it was going to be difficult to get keys to the station. But the guy who had the keys said, ‘Yeah.” He tossed us the keys, and said “Here, just leave it in the same condition you found it.’ And we then went about building this installation that charted Reading from the moment the station closed down to the present. We wanted to create a space, like we said in our mission statement: “To create a space where a homeless person and the mayor could sit down together and recognize that they shared the same narrative,” and that they could sit side by side together. It’s not hyperbole to say that we achieved that. We didn’t get the present Mayor of Reading, PA. For various complicated reasons he was our antagonist. However, we did get two former Mayors who came and sat there and wept along with a lot of homeless folks. So it was successful and really gratifying to know that you could make theater outside of the proscenium that had resonance.
In 2017 Sweat was on Broadway. Then there was another stage in the Sweat saga with the Public Theater. (See This is Reading on Lynn Nottage’s website)
When we first produced Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we raised a grand to bring Sweat back to Reading, PA with the same cast. So the day we closed Sweat at the Public Theater, the next day we got up at 7:30 am and drove down to Reading and performed Sweat for 250 people in the Reading community. When we drove down there we were terrified about how the community would react to the production. However, we were overwhelmed by the response. We had a Q and A and people testified and told their stories and didn’t want to leave. We recognized that there was a real necessity for people who were going through the same predicaments as the characters in the play…for them to have an outlet for them to talk about their own struggles.
Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, was overwhelmed by the response. He said, “I’d like to do this on a larger scale.” The Public Theater has their Mobile Unit which moves around New York City, but never does that nationally. We spent a year to try and identify places to go. We decided to do a mobile tour of the Rust Belt. We selected five swing cities that first voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. We didn’t want to go to just places that were Red or Blue. We wanted to go to places where you would have a real dialogue and where you could bring people into a space where people would listen to each other. We did that in the fall of 2018. It was not just spaces, it was union halls, small colleges, we went to churches, we went to school gymnasiums. These were stripped down, bare bones productions. It was quite powerful. End of Part I