Category Archives: Theater News, NYC
Theater for the New City,
with the Support of Suite 524,
the World Premiere of NOT ABOUT ME
Not About Me is written & directed by Eduardo Machado (Havana is Waiting, “Hung,” “Magic City”)
The Limited Off-Broadway Engagement Begins Friday, January 13th
Theater for the New City (Crystal Field, Executive Artistic Director), the Pulitzer Prize winning community cultural center that produces over thirty premieres of new American plays each year, is pleased to announce the world premiere of Not About Me, written and directed by acclaimed playwright Eduardo Machado.
Not About Me will begin previews Friday, January 13th with Opening Night set for Wednesday, January 18th (8pm), at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets). This limited Off-Broadway engagement will continue through Sunday, February 5th only.
The cast features Mateo d’Amato, Michael Domitrovich, Crystal Field, Ellis Charles Hoffmeister, Charles Manning, Drew Valins, and Heather Velazquez.
The creative team for Not About Me includes Mark Marcante (scenic design), Sean Ryan (production design), Alex Bartenieff (lighting design), Kelsey Charter (costume design), Bird Rogers (projection design), Emily Irvine (puppet designer/maker), and David Margolin Lawson (sound design). Not About Me will feature original music by Michael Domitrovich.
Not About Me is a memory play that takes audiences on a haunting journey through the mind of a playwright during COVID-19 lock downs. Long buried memories of friends lost to a mysterious “gay” disease come crashing into the present, and he is compelled to examine his artistic and political life in the theater. This play is a bittersweet reflection on how tragedy can unearth pain and laughter and bring back to life the treasures buried in the past.
“During the first summer of the lock down one of my best and dearest friends died of COVID. For the next three years all I could think about was all my friends that died of AIDS when I was in my twenties. COVID-19 brought the end of a certain way of life, as did AIDS in the 1980s. What had been a time of freedom and joy, a time when anything could happen, came crashing to a close, as our own sexuality became our illness. Queer people of a certain age know what this is like. Now, in 2022, the whole world has gotten a taste. We must speak out so the world can change to something better once again,” said Machado.
Eduardo Machado was born in Cuba and came to the United States when he was eight and grew up in Los Angeles. He is the author of over fifty plays, including The Floating Island Plays, Once Removed, Stevie Wants To Play The Blues, A Burning Beach, Havana Is Waiting, The Cook, Mariquitas, Worship, and Celia & Fidel. They have been produced at many major regional theaters, as well as in Europe, South America and Off-Broadway including, among others, The Actors Theater of Louisville, Mark Taper Forum, Seattle Rep, Goodman Theatre, Hartford Stage, Theatre for the New City, Long Wharf Theater, Williamstown Theater Festival, Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Cherry Lane Theater, INTAR, Ensemble Studio Theatre, American Place Theater, and Hampstead Theatre in London.
Mr. Machado’s television credits include Executive Story Editor on Season 2 of the drama “Magic City” (Starz) and two seasons on the HBO’s “Hung.” He has written pilots for Starz, Amazon, and AMC. He wrote and directed the film Exiles in New York, which played at the A.F.I Film Festival, South by Southwest, Santa Barbara Film Festival and Latin American International Film Festival in Havana, Cuba. He has directed numerous plays, including his own works and those of emerging writers. As a director his work has appeared in numerous regional theaters including INTAR, Theater for a New City, EST, Mark Taper Forum, Culture Project, Playwrights Collective, The Company Theater, Cherry Lane Alternative, Flea Theater, Group Theater and the Inner City Cultural Center.
Mr. Machado has taught playwriting at Columbia University (Head of Playwriting 1997 to 2007), NYU Tisch (Head of Playwriting 2007 to 2018), and HB studios since 2020. He also taught at the Public Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Sarah Lawrence College and the Playwrights Center. He has served as an Artistic Associate at The Public, the Flea Theatre/Bat Theatre Company, and The Cherry Lane Alternative. He was playwright-in-residence at The Mark Taper Forum. From 2004 to 2010 he was the Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s INTAR Theatre.
He is the recipient of the Raúl Juliá HOLA Founders Award and the Berrilla Kerr Grant for contribution to American Theater. Other grants and awards include: AT&T: Onstage Grant; National Endowment for the Arts and Theater Communications Group Playwrights In Residence Fellowship at Theater For the New City; Bernice and Barry Stavis Playwright Award from the National Theatre Conference; two Dramalogue Awards, Best Play; three LA Weekly Awards; Theater Communications Group and Pew Charitable Trusts National Theater Artists Residency Playwright In Residence, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, CA; Viva Los Artistas Award from the city of Los Angeles; Ford Foundation Grant; Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Award; three National Endowment For the Arts Playwriting Grants; and National Endowment for the Humanities Youth Grant.
He is a member of the Actors Studio, Ensemble Studio Theater, and an alumnus of New Dramatists. He has served on the boards of TCG, New Dramatists and Theater for the New City.
Two collections of Mr. Machado’s work, The Floating Island Plays and Havana is Waiting and Other Plays, are published by the Theatre Communications Group. His plays are also published by Samuel French. Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home, a food memoir by Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich, was released by Gotham Press.
Not About Me will be presented at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets) from January 13th through February 5th. Performances will be Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees Sundays at 3pm. Opening night is set for January 18th. Tickets are $18, student tickets $10 and may be purchased by calling 212-254-1109 or online at https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/not-about-me/
Sometimes the only hope alive during crises or the trauma of war are romantic dreams which disappear in the light of day. Young love, illusion, rueful regret and irony thread two lines of action, one .in the past in Chartres, France, 1944, the other in an opaque and timeless present. The threads are like parallel tracks that coexist simultaneously without touching until the conclusion of This Beautiful Future where they do briefly coalesce. The production directed by Jack Serio and written by Rita Kalnejais is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre until October 30th.
The playing space downstage front represents an abandoned house once occupied by Jews, rousted out by the Nazis. The setting is Chartres France, 1944 at the end of WWII. Upstage, behind a plastic window partition in the present are observers of the action, two wise, world-savvy seniors (Angelina Fiordellisi) and (Austin Pendleton), playing themselves. These venerables serenade us with ironic songs that provide an exclamation point to the the troubling conversations, cognitive dissonance and contradictions that abide between love-mates, a canny French teenager Elodie (Francesca Carpanini) and Otto (Uly Schlesinger). Otto is a Nazi youth, old enough to shoot Frenchmen for his idol Hitler, but too naive and ignorant to understand the heinousness of his actions.
Though the conflict is understated, Elodie has fallen in love with Otto despite his mission to kill, and he is entranced with her, possibly using her to ignore the rude reality that the war is over and he is on the wrong side and facing certain death as American forces are a day, then minutes away.
The play combines monologue and interactive dialogue. The time is non linear and moves into flashbacks which alternate from Elodie’s and Otto’s magical and sweet interludes in the bedroom of the abandoned house their last evening together, to the following day when in monologue they unremorsefully describe the consequences of their love’s fool-heartiness. Another flashback skips to the time when they first discovered their interest in each other at the lake. Then the next scene jumps to Otto’s monologue describing his last moments on earth and Elodie’s monologue describing her public shaming and harassment for making love to a Nazi.
Elodie’s and Otto’s separate monologues delivered to the audience are reveries without emotion. As they discuss the consequence of their brief love relationship the following day after their night together in the house, we are surprised by the contrast with the previous scenes when their interactions are joyous, magical, uplifting. During their pillow fight, their throwing water and teasing each other, we forget that this is wartime. As they are compelled to escape to each other, we are relieved to focus on the silliness of their youthful innocence. Yes, even a killer Nazi has elements in his spirit that are silly and sensitive. Importantly, Kalnejais never steps too far away from Otto’s humanity to make him a stereotype.
In the final section the morning before they both leave the house, an egg which Elodie has stolen from a nearby chicken coop hatches and the loud chick proclaims it is alive. Of course the irony is that as the two of them leave, the chick will have to fend for itself and most probably die. This irony is heaped on another irony, because in the first scene they discuss their future after the war; they will raise this chick and have more chickens. This is the “beautiful future” of Otto and Elodie, wayward dreamers who at this point in their lives do not regret what they have experienced together. Theirs is a respite in the horrors of death and chaos. Of course they must dream of the beautiful future because it will never come to pass.
Interestingly, toward the end of the play after the wise observers of these events sing songs whose lyrics are loaded with irony, Angelina and Austin come down from their perch “on high” and hug and comfort Otto and Elodie because of what they are going through. One wonders; if the observers could intervene would they encourage Otto to leave Elodie before morning so he doesn’t fall into the hands of the Americans and die? And if Angelina could counsel Elodie, might she have left Otto and the house before her countrywomen catch her and deem her a traitor? Elodie is punished for sleeping with a Nazi, she shares in a monologue. They publicly shame, harass her and shave her head.
Most probably even if Angelina and Austin attempted to stop Elodie and Otto, they would have rebuked their interference so they could continue to believe in their dreams and “beautiful future.” They prefer being swept up by the annihilation of romantic love’s curse. Evidence of this abides throughout.
Otto is like the QAnon MAGAS in our nation who revel in the fantasies of their own making. Like them he is convinced of his rightness in bringing about Hitler’s “perfect” Master Race and the ideas of the Third Reich. Staunchly oblivious, he refers to news reports of Germany’s loss that Elodie shares with him from the BBC as banned propaganda. He even suggests he could arrest her for listening to enemy radio. Otto cannot be dissuaded from his beliefs that his troop is going to invade England the next day. Most probably his commanders have told them these lies to bolster their flagging moral. It is a wartime trick. One is reminded of Putin’s commanders lying to the Russian youth to get them to fight his losing war against Ukraine.
From war to war throughout the ages up until today, no sane individual wants to kill other human beings. They have to be brainwashed with lies, scapegoating “the enemy other” to do so. Of course, the final lie is that the war is being waged to bring about “the beautiful future.” Things will be better once “the other” is wiped out, cleansed from the face of existence. That Elodie “loves” someone who believes this is an interesting phenomenon. Thus, the songs that Angelina and Austin sing are supremely ironic as they heighten the obliviousness of Elodie and Otto, who we somehow find ourselves engaged with, precisely because they are youthful and off-the-charts irresponsible and blind.
Elodie is like the MAGA wife who supports her husband going to radical, conservative, right-wing Donald Trump rallies, though it is counter to their lives to give money to a grifter, defrauder and proven liar. Elodie ignores the truth that Otto is a killer, a brainwashed Nazi who has most probably killed her brother’s friend and others in her acquaintance. Indeed, the Nazis have killed friends, neighbors and family. Yet, she is able to live with the cognitive dissonance and “love” him.
For his part Otto puffs himself up riding on Hitler’s coattails. He imagines Hitler’s greatness when he started out from nothing to become the near ruler of all of Europe. Otto is tremendously enamored of the adventures he’s had fighting for Hitler and the respect he garners because he wears a uniform. During Elodie’s and Otto’s monologues and interactions, the songs which Angelina and Austin sing are laughably sardonic. That they sing with sweetness punctuates the dark irony all the more.
This Beautiful Future is not for everyone. From the rosy, pink set appointments evoking the concept of seeing life through “rose colored glasses” (Frank J. Oliva-scenic design), to the contrast of action and singing in a divided stage (Lacey Ebb-production design), by undefined observers, one may be confounded with a cursory viewing. The play necessitates one goes deeper for it is thought provoking and extremely current. It is well acted and finely directed. The scenes between Carpanini’s Elodie and Uly’s Otto have striking moments of whimsy, beauty and poignancy. However, playwright Rita Kalnejais always makes sure that the romantic fantasy is momentary and that leering reality lurks around the corner ready to pop up and set Elodie’s and Otto’s tranquility spinning into fear.
This Beautiful Future runs 80 minutes with no intermission at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and times go to their website: https://thisbeautifulfuture.com/
A crowd of friends, Wynn’s daughters Laura, and Liza Handman, close friend, filmmaker, acting teacher Billy Lyons, former Mayor Bill DeBlasio and City Councilman Keith Powers gathered together around 11 AM on the corner of 7th Avenue and 56th Street, September 12, 2022. They were there to celebrate the recognition of Wynn Handman’s prodigious contributions to American theater, American society and New York City with the renaming of 56th St. between 6th and 7th Avenue as “Wynn Handman Way.” This recognition is a long time coming and well deserved, though many may not be familiar with the name Wynn Handman.
Wynn flew under the radar unlike other acting teachers. Reading about Wynn’s life, seeing him in talkbacks, one in 2018 at Tribeca Film Festival after the showing of Billy Lyon’s film on Wynn, It Takes a Lunatic, (a Tribeca review is at this link https://caroleditosti.com/tag/wynn-handman/), one immediately has the sense that Wynn was all about the work. Perhaps the last thing he was interested in was promoting himself or advertising his acting classes. He never did. Yet, somehow, actors who studied with him and later became giants in film and on stage (i.e. Olympia Dukakis, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere), found out about Wynn and studied with him, realizing it’s all about the work, the authenticity, the humanity of the characters they portrayed.
To study acting with Wynn, one picked up information about him by word of mouth. He was down-to-earth, authentic, loving. At the Wynn Handman Street Sign Dedication, those who knew and loved him best, his daughters Liza and Laura and his friend and filmmaker biographer of Wynn, Billy Lyons, spoke fondly about Wynn. What a boon to study acting with him and be in his presence and in the presence of others studying with him. Just to be a fly on the wall would have been enough. However, if you were accepted after you auditioned, you worked, and worked hard.
Wynn Handman was the Artistic Director of The American Place Theatre, which he co-founded with Sidney Lanier and Michael Tolan in 1963. Going against the grain and a maverick for his time, Wynn engaged with Lanier and Tolan because they understood the vitality of theater to change lives and improve cultural understanding and awareness, making us more humane and empathetic. With these goals in mind and many more, Wynn and the others intended to encourage, train, and present new and exciting writing and acting talent and to develop and produce new plays by living American playwrights and writers.
As a change agent, The American Place Theatre was one of the first not-for-profit theaters in NYC. Unlike the current mission of non profits which sometimes appears to serve the CEOs and not the actors, creatives and playwrights, The American Place Theatre was dedicated solely to the development of new American playwrights and writers. Writers whose work was developed and produced there included Robert Lowell, Maria Irene Fornes, William Alfred, Ron Milner, C Frank Chin, Sam Shepard, Ron Tavel, Joyce Carol Oates, Clare Coss, William Hauptman, Jeff Wanshel, and solo performers Bill Irwin, Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo and Aasif Mandvi, to name a few.
The American Place Theatre moved to a custom-built basement complex in 1970. The complex at 111 West 46th Street, operated until 2002. The organization received several dozen Village Voice Obie Awards and AUDELCO Awards for excellence in Black Theater.
Always at the forefront of innovation with the intent to impact the New York City community, in 1994 friends and members, led by Wynn under the auspices of The American Place Theatre, created a Literature to Life program. The program adapted significant works of American literature to encourage literacy. Performed by solo actors, productions were offered to middle schools and high schools. Wynn Handman directed a number of projects. Also, Elise Thoron directed other projects; currently she heads up the program. To continue with the vital importance of literacy and theater’s place in revitalizing young people’s interest in reading, Project 451, a funding initiative of Literature to Life came into being during the 2008/2009 season. The mission is to ensure that reading, writing, and the arts remain a primary component of the education of young American citizens.
In the videos above City Councilman Keith Powers and former Mayor Bill DeBlasio underscore the great contributions Wynn Handman made to the New York City community and American theater. Funding, which has become problematic with skyrocketing city rents and the focus on purely commercial shows, has modified the impact of innovation, risk-taking and genius in the theater arts, and other processes and attributes that Wynn Handman prized.
In his remarks Billy Lyons stated that Wynn told him not to fret or worry about American theater and the direction in which it appeared to be going. He said in effect, “Don’t be a “Miniver Cheevy.” Wynn’s reference to the Edwin Arlington Robinson poetic portrait of “Miniver Cheevy,” a man who mourned the glories of the past and drowned himself in drink, is apt. How comfortable it would be for theater to rest on the laurels of past great American playwrights, and quail at producing those who exemplify the unique, original, current and “off the charts” shows. How facile to put away the maverick and the daring for the sake of commercial success. Don’t fail has become the unspoken meme wafting through the psyches of those in the theater arts.
Indeed, the innovations in American theater have been occluded by rapacious Philistines quick to produce a Jukebox Musical, easy to finance a show adapted from a film that has a “sure-fire,” lucrative track record. There is nothing wrong with that. And yet, there is everything wrong with that. Is balance possible beyond Off Broadway and non-profits which overly reward the institution and give short shrift to the creatives?
To be forward thinking, as Wynn would have theater artists and producers be, then failure is something not to be feared. Above all the “critics” must understand the necessity of “Dynamic Theater,” which dares to fail to reemerge with new insights and new genius. Perhaps, in many respects, American theater over the past decades has been failing abysmally, though the box office looks good. There are plenty of anecdotes about shows whose audiences needed to catch up to their brilliance, doing better the second and third time around, when the time was “right and ripe.” Perhaps formulaic success is not an option, except in small doses. Isn’t a modicum of realignment necessary? After the ravages of COVID, it might be as good a time as any to innovate and take risks (i.e. Daryl Roth’s Kinky Boots reboot with reasonable ticket prices).
What to do in this shifting financial climate? We must rely on the generosity of those who have the abundant resources to share (private and government), so that they might bring ticket prices down, bring rentals down and establish more foundations to help subsidize the artists (actors, technicians, creatives), who live and work in New York City and justify its renown as the “#2 theater capital of the world.” If Wynn Handman has been a guiding light toward theater’s evolution, his “lunacy” must continue in theater’s bravest of hearts (producers, directors, actors, creatives), and all those willing to dedicate themselves to forge anew American theater’s next chapters.
Lynn Nottage’s superb play Intimate Apparel won an Outer Critic’s Circle Award and New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award. It is a play about women circa the turn of the century, the parallels and disparities between race and class, black and white, wealthy and struggling. For the women, gender is the equalizer. This is especially so in Intimate Apparel the opera presented at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse until the 6th of March. As such this new work is dramatic, taut with undercurrents and themes propelled by Ricky Ian Gordon’s thrilling music and Nottage’s memorable libretto.
Nottage has streamlined her poetic work for Gordon whose music is stylized and hybrid, born out of Nottage’s characterizations to elucidate profound themes that resonate with the audience. Gordon and Nottage are a pairing made in heaven. The production, well thought out by director Bartlett Sher, is all that one might want in raw emotional grace, generated by Gordon’s luscious notes, conveyed by the beautiful, heartfelt voices of the leads and their chorus counterparts.
Sher’s staging features stylized economy and nuance, unencumbered by the extraneous to allow the themes and characterizations to strike with impact. The action takes place on Michael Yeargan’s revolving turntable stage as the world of these characters is circular. The props are efficiently rolled out. Highly specific to the story, they are inconsequential once their purpose has been fulfilled and they dissipate into memory, supplanted by another scene and other props. All reflects an impermanence and hint of symbolic meaning, the tip of the iceberg, like the photographs that appear at the end of each act that Nottage has moved from play to libretto. It is a smashing touch that adheres thematically when we see the floor to ceiling size pictures of the characters “unidentified,” though we have been privileged to have their lives unfold during the opera.
The characters, like us, are subject to their time and place and though they appear to move forward, they remain static, even going backward psychically (George Armstrong, Mayme, Mrs. Van Buran). Forward movement and progress is an illusion, especially for unmarried Negro seamstress, Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown). Nottage effectively draws her arc of development so that Esther is fated to return back to the same setting by the opera’s conclusion. It is in the boarding house of Mrs. Dickson (the superb Adrienne Danrich), when we first meet Brown’s unhappy Esther.
Nottage’s message is clear. Throughout Esther has been through an emotional cataclysm as many black women experienced at the time, marching without notice through history, bearing up against what the society dealt out. Yet, Esther comes through it. And though she ends up in the same place, she is strengthened, stoic, heroic, independent and dignified. Indeed, Esther lands on her feet, perhaps wearily, but she will continue. And it is this delineation of character that Nottage, Sher and Gordon understand in their bones, so that they translate her characterization magnificently into this heartfelt operatic presentation.
From the outset we recognize that Esther is unlike the other women in the boarding house where Corinna Mae’s wedding ceremony is being held. Esther supports herself and is alone, working continually to make her way, not distracted by friends or entertainments which she cannot afford. Thus, she isn’t tempted by the ragtime music that we hear “downstairs.” Throughout, she avoids Mrs. Dickson’s encouragement to meet with one man or another to settle down. Ironically, when she should take Mrs. Dickson’s advice, she doesn’t and pays the price for it.
As the opera opens Esther, annoyed and jealous at Corinna Mae’s marriage, admits to Mrs. Dickson she doesn’t feel she will be loved. Nottage’s libretto melds with Gordon’s party ragtime, as it flows into refrains, “I hate her laughter,” “I hate her happiness.” The libretto throughout is lyrical and grounded in emotional realism as Gordon’s recitative rises to meet the character’s desires and feelings. In this case, Esther yearns to be loved, but feels it is hopeless. But by the end of the scene, she receives a letter given to her from Mrs. Dickson. Perhaps, it will satisfy her longings. Brown’s voice and acting targets our emotions and draws us in to her hopes and concerns. She is wonderful.
The letter is from laborer George Armstrong (Jorell Williams on Sunday matinee when I saw it). From Barbados, working on the Panama Canal, George Armstrong is an acquaintance friend of someone she knows in her church. The letter becomes the driving force of the action in the opera as it is in Nottage’s titular play. Esther, who can’t read or write, solicits help from two of her clients who are literate. Both women, opposite sides of the same coin, make their living from men, unlike Esther. One is the white elite society woman, the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren (the fine Naomi Louisa O’Connell), whose husband supports her in style but who is disassociated from his life emotionally, psychically and physically. The other is Mayme (Tesia Kwarteng on Sunday matinee when I saw it), who sells her sexual favors and takes beatings from the men who pay her for her services, one of which is to abuse her. She, too, is removed from the men to whom she plies her trade in an incredible irony of intimacy.
As Esther sews the same beautifully made “intimate apparel” (calling forth what true intimacy might mean), so they can attract the males in their lives, both help her write the letters to George. Mrs. Van Buren supplies the technical expertise and Mayme supplies the romantic allurements and sugar. During the process Esther becomes their confidante and she becomes theirs. The relationships are enlightening and Nottage reveals the parallels among the women, who the men dominate and abuse emotionally, psychically and physically. Thus, there is no difference between Mrs. Van Buren or Mayme; though the disparities in economic and financial well-being and respect based on race and class are galaxies apart. The women’s scenes with Brown’s Esther and her clients portrayed by O’Connell and Kwarteng are well drawn and ironic, as they move the action forward.
Both “kept women” ply their sexual trade, and though there is the appearance of a vast difference, certainly prompted by women elitists, the women, who are representative of their classes are oppressed. Esther is less so because of her independence and dominant attitude not to embrace the values that keep women enslaved to men. However, Esther, too falls from that grace, and the opera is an affirmation that she must learn that what she has achieved is indomitable and superior to the other women at this time and place.
Ironically, Mrs. Van Buren asks Esther if she is a suffragette when she makes a remark that sounds like women’s empowerment. Esther, in spite of herself, encourages Mrs. Van Buren not to “let him do you that way.” For her part Mrs. Van Buren is stuck in the psyche of her “feminine” class stature. She must fit into the stereotypical cut-outs of elite women. She will be the last to realize the vitality of empowering gender identity and women’s rights. She is her husband’s chattel, dependent on him for support, choosing not to work or seek out a skill which is beneath her. Mayme, like Mrs. Van Buren, is oppressed by the men who pay her. Without a skill to support themselves, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren are sisters born of the same mother of servitude, soul demeaned without independence.
Esther’s scenes with O’Connell’s Mrs. Van Buren and Kwarteng’s Mayme resonate powerfully. During these scenes especially we understand how the women lure Brown’s Esther (though she has asked for it). Stirred by Mrs. Dickson’s values of a woman’s world defined by a man who keeps her, she and Mayme encourage Esther to “fall in love” with George who is a figment of all their imaginations. This is rendered beautifully in the aria when Mayme and Esther sing about the discovered George who has been with both women. It is then Esther tells Mayme not to let him in the door (symbolizing the door of her heart). “Let him go. He’s an unanswered letter, a feather on the wind, you’ll be chasing him forever.” Brown’s emotional highs and lows tear at our hearts; Nottage’s libretto is poetically striking.
To Mrs. Van Buren Esther represents a freedom and openness she craves in her life. However, the three women sing “I fear I love someone,” a melodic song signifying the love is a symbolic, forbidden creation of their hears and minds. For Esther her forbidden love is Mr. Marks (the wonderfully authentic Arnold Livingston Geis). Marks is the orthodox fabric seller on Orchard Street with whom Brown’s Esther forms a spiritual attachment. For Mrs. Van Buren it is the allure of the forbidden (spoiler alert), Esther who makes her feel accepted and loved for herself. For Mayme it is George’s razzle dazzle manly male, who flashes his money (actually Esther’s money), so they can enjoy themselves. His manipulations have convinced Mayme that he is her “Songbird,” though he is married to Esther.
The love Esther, Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme sing of cannot be purchased; it remains outside of their reach. They are confined by folkways and unable to cross those lines in 1905. Love remains that which is a financial and business arrangement pragmatically as Mrs. Dickson suggests happened in her life. Or it is a fantasy that little girls are taught to dream of to anticipate marriage, which in reality is a bondage, they cannot easily escape after marriage.
Esther’s relationship with Mr. Marks is vibrantly drawn by Nottage’s libretto and sonorously, poignantly brought to life by Brown and Geis. Sensitively, the actors delineate their mystical union, which is limited by folkways. The fabrics Mr. Marks saves for her carry great meaning and sensuality. Their closeness is beyond professional as their glances and smiles reveal they yearn for each other. Just a casual touch is significant. After Esther is married she tells Mr. Marks she can’t see him anymore and her answer when he asks, “Why not?” carries the weight of the world, “I think you know why.”
However, their last meeting occurs when Brown’s Esther gives Geis’ Mr. Marks the smoking jacket that she gave to George, that George gave to Mayme and that Esther took back from Mayme. It is then that we know the value of “intimate apparel,” and how the symbol has final closure. Intimacy isn’t necessarily in a physical acquaintance, it is soulful and spiritual. Esther, who made the jacket on his recommendation tells him, “It was made for you.” His wearing it will have symbolic meaning for him and for her of a love that was never consummated, but a transcendent love that prospers, regardless of nullifying strictures, prejudices and folkways. What a poignant, memorable satisfying moment, superlatively performed by Brown and Geis. Just smashing!
The finely wrought and beautifully designed costumes by Catherine Zuber are characters unto themselves, measuring out the symbolism, conflicts and themes of class, gender and relationships. From lighting (Jennifer Tipton), to sound (Marc Salzberg), to projections (59 Productions), the technical effects are right on, enhancing this exceptional production. Placing the pianos on platforms above the playing area is enlightened, as the music and musicians are integral to the action, driving it, supporting it. Their visibility is dynamic. Kudos to Steven Osgood’s music direction and Dianne McIntyre’s choreography.
Intimate Apparel closes on March 6th unless it is extended which it should be. Though the audience was packed, more individuals need to see this production which hits it out of the ballpark. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.lct.org/shows/intimate-apparel/
Phylicia Rashad, Brandon J. Dirden in ‘Skeleton Crew,’ Workers vs. Corporates, a Worthy Fight at Manhattan Theatre Club
From the symbolic and representative opening salvos of gyrating piston Adesola Osakalumi, whose break dancing suggests the automation which is rendering the human scaling at the auto-stamping factory obsolete, to the well-hewn set by Michael Carnahan (the dusty, run-down, cold, shabby staff room where employees enjoy down-time) we understand that the four person skeleton crew in the Detroit plant will be ghosted as soon as budgetary financial reckonings are made by upper management. This is 2008 Detroit, US during the economic mortgage mess when investment bank Bear Stearns collapses and is bought over by JPMorgan Chase and Lehman’s a 150-year old booming institution goes belly up. People are losing their homes and living in their cars and cheesy motels in Florida. And, it is worse in Detroit whose booming success of the 1960s is a bust by the 1990s and there’s one plant left that is barely churning out product.
Skeleton Crew directed by the superb Tony Award® winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, currently in revival at Manhattan Theatre Club after its intimate presentation Off Broadway at the Atlantic six years ago, hints at the tour de force Dominique Morisseau meant the last segment of her Detroit Project to be. The trilogy (The Detroit Project) is about Detroit’s life and times before and after the Reagan outsourcing debacle toppled the city from its glory as the country’s industrial fountain of youth. It includes Detroit-’67, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew.
The play has been given a glossy uplift using video projections of the robotic machinery of the assembly line etc. (excellent design by Nicholas Hussong). Coupled with the music (Rob Kaplowitz’s original music & sound design, and Jimmy Keys’ original music & lyrics) at the beginning and between salient scenes, we note the encroaching modernized doom that hammers the employee work force into unrecognizable bits, hyper-downsized from its greatness when Detroit was in its manufacturing heyday. The digital video projections supplant proscenium curtains which would normally frame the stage. As such, the plant’s relentless, driving automation is the outer frame of the stage and encapsulates the action and interactions in the staff room where workers take their breaks from the repetitive and monotonous production line.
The contrast Morisseau’s dualism creates is trenchantly thematic. The defined “wasted, decrepit humans” are pitted against inevitable “progress” which especially grinds down the people whose loyalty and dedication to the industry have been turned against them. These management diminished unfortunates, like Faye (Tony Award® winner Phylicia Rashad) whose once magnificent efforts are discounted as “unprofitable,” didn’t see the “handwriting on the wall” to prepare for another career after working for the company 29 years in the hope of getting a “great” retirement package. Faye and others trusted the corporates to have their best interests and welfare at heart.
As Morisseau indicates in her characterization of Faye, stand-up employees projected their worthiness, values and integrity on their slimy directors and CEOs, mistakenly assuming they would be rewarded for hard work and effort. Ironically, it is the elite corporates who are the unworthy, lazy, greedy, un-Americans who made America “un-great” through Reagan’s tax laws that allowed them to outsource profits by closing plants and establishing factories anywhere but the United States.
In view of the current debacle with supply chain issues, inflation and absence or overpricing of medical product needed to fight the ongoing health disaster (COVID-2022) which incompetent, do-nothing Republicans have fueled as a political stratagem, Skeleton Crew‘s themes are profound and incredibly current. The problems fourteen years later from the setting (2008, Detroit) are even worse with expanding economic inequality, oppression of the workforce, whether white or blue-collar, by oligarchic elites herding the intellectually infirm white supremacists with misdirection against the democratic institutions that could save them. The seeds of the current destructive forces are evidenced in Morisseau’s setting with the ghosting of Detroit’s last automotive plant where supervisor Reggie (the wonderful Brandon J. Dirden) Union Representative Faye (Phylicia Rashad) the energetic Dez (Joshua Boone) and the pregnant Shanita (the excellent Chanté Adams) work and stress out with each other in unity.
Within this framework we follow the devolution and evolution of these four who signify Morisseau’s special individuals who are the backbone of the nation. It is these who the elites would erase. Their ability to hope and thrive is sorely tested against the annihilating backdrop of demeaning corporate abuse which demands personal strength and communal support to over-leap it. With Morisseau it’s the people vs. “the corporate machine,” and as Morisseau spins the conflicts caused by the plant closure, personal self-destruction or revitalization are the direction for Faye, Dez, Shanita and Reggie, who prove to be likeable working class heroes with huge cracks and flaws that we recognize in ourselves.
Reggie who has been practically raised by Faye as family-she got him the position where he rose to management-is pressured and strained. He’s forced to walk a fine line, knowing what his bosses plan to do. Yet he must not tip their hand which would panic the workforce to strike or leave before the current contracted work is completed. Oppressed to enforce nit-picking rules, Reggie argues with Dez who may or may not be stealing and who sees him as a cold-hearted puppet of corporate.
Likewise Reggie emotionally wrestles with Faye who must protect her union workers and herself deciding whether to retire early, which would mean an income loss after retirement. Shanita is pressured emotionally after she is dumped by her baby’s father. She faces being the sole support of her child. She enjoys working at the plant, though she’s a cog in the wheel, but she feels proud for her contribution to making product. Nevertheless, she is strained working and bearing up with her pregnancy, making doctor’s appointments and saving up money before and after she takes time off from the job she loves.
Morisseau excavates each of their struggles with authentic dialogue that is at times humorous, and powerful/poetic as the characters present their positions. Importantly, the playwright extends the reality of what it is to hold a decent job with benefits that is being pulled out from under the worker because the owners’ obscene profits aren’t big enough and government isn’t holding them to account. Thus, as the play progresses and we understand each of the characters’ dreams, we credit Dez for attempting to start his own business with friends, and we hope for Shanita’s child, in light of the nightmares she’s having over the uncertainty of her future. Additionally, we understand Reggie’s position though we expect him to stop his haranguing of the others and stand up to his bosses. We are thrilled when he finally does.
Interestingly, Faye, who appears to be the most solid and reliable is confronting her own devastation in addition to the cancer remission she is going through. Morisseau gradually unfolds each of the characters’ issues and at the end of Act I brings Dez and Reggie’s relationship to a turning point where Dez is about to be fired. When Faye steps in and counsels Reggie to stand up for Dez and the other workers, we question whether Reggie has the guts to or whether he will be a sell-out. The irony is Faye is great at negotiating and encouraging others, but she is lousy at taking care of herself. The revelation of this is poignant, and Morisseau opts to make every audience member put themselves in Faye’s shoes as she, too, “walks the line” between wanting to live or just throw in the towel and give up.
This is a strong ensemble piece and the acting is finely wrought. Unfortunately, some of the humor was lost on me because the actors weren’t always projecting in the cavernous space of the theater. Please actors, project and enunciate! Nevertheless, the passion and presence of Phylicia Rashad along with her counterpoint Brandon J. Dirden was heartfelt. The relationship they create reveals bonds that run deep into love and sacrifice. And the surprising relationship that blossoms between Boone’s Dez and Adams Shanita is beautifully effected by their graded, nuanced performances.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson understands Morisseau’s themes down to his soul’s bone marrow. The play’s visual elements represent the most vital of her themes and the characters are ourselves. We cannot help but be concerned for the conflicts the play presents which seem everpresent and unchanging. The current administration’s hope to “Build Back Better” during this time would appear to rectify the external circumstances of such characters who jump off the stage at us and populate our society. But the same corporate structure that Reggie fights is so entrenched, that soul progress is for the little people, these who are Morisseau’s besties. Perhaps that is the consolation. As for the corporate elites? As Reggie and Dez intimate, they are they’re own soul destruction. And that too is its own tragic consolation.
Kudos to the technical team mentioned above and Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Rui Rita’s lighting design, Adesola Osakalumi’s choreography and Cookie Jordan’s hair and wig design.
Morisseau’s play is dynamite in the hands of Hudson the artistic/technical team and these superb actors. This is a must-see. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/skeleton-crew/
It is not often that one meets an individual who is ambitious, talented and pursues the arts after mastering a Ph.D. in another language as Kae Fujisawa has done. Indeed, academia didn’t satisfy Kae. She went on to pursue a dramatic arts career in New York City, which many hesitate to do once they discover the difficulties. Kae Fujisawa, who was born in Hokkaido, Japan, is Japanese. She speaks English with an ever-so -slight charming accent which nearly has disappeared since I met her in 2017 at HB Studio. And I can say unequivocally that she is a “Triple Threat.”
I have seen Kae’s excellent directing work at HB Studio in 2018 and 2019. At HB she took classes and workshops with some of the finest teachers in New York City. The first production I saw her direct was a scene from a full-length play The Rules of Unspoken Words. The scene was included in a collection of scenes from longer plays presented by the HB Studio Playwriting and Directing Division. At the HB Studio’s Playrights Theater, I enjoyed her excellent direction of the full-length comedy 7 Shitty Hombres by Ellen DeLisle. The humorous play, the actors and Kae’s direction received plaudits from the packed house as well as from her peers and teachers.
Kae’s talents directing live theater were made known to me with one of her earliest directing gambits she initiated, which she also produced via her unregistered company Theatre Borderless at the Jefferson Market Library Auditorium in 2018. The short one-act play by Anton Chekov, Swan Song, featured two actors who she shepherded so beautifully through the difficult piece, that I was impressed. I am a Drama Desk reviewer and have been an entertainment journalist for over a decade. Kae’s work struck me because Chekov can be difficult; the language is archaic. But this wasn’t a problem for her or for the actors. As a result of her direction, one of the actors gained the confidence to try out for more classical theater and after her guidance landed Shakespearean roles.
Other live theater she directed I was able to see before COVID-19 shut down New York City for almost two years. These included a Greenhouse Ensemble play that won its entry into the Greenhouse Play Festival. The playwright John Patrick Bray’s Fix was chosen for Kae to direct. With ingenuity, she was able to convey the snowy setting which amazed me. And the actors once again delivered fine performances because of her diligence and efforts.
Kae believes in doing a lot of rehearsals if the actors’ schedules permit this. Importantly, they always are willing to accommodate the rigorous rehearsal schedule because of her easy manner, subtle discipline and high standards. Though she works very hard, she has the personality to gently guide her actors toward excellent results with great good humor and grace. I have seen this with other live productions, Therapy by Susan Jane McDonald and Lullaby by Nicole Gut. Both plays were presented at the New Short Play Festival in the John Cullum Theater. In a span of over one year Kae accomplished a tremendous amount of work and then the pandemic hit.
That did not stop Kae. She has been even more industrious in creating opportunities for herself streaming live films and performing and directing Zoom Theatre and film. I saw her virtual streaming live productions of Falling Awake by Matthew Davis which she self-produced, Prime Real Estate by Joseph Cox for Greenhouse Ensemble and Sketches of Happiness which she wrote, cast, directed and presented for Crossways Theatre. Each of these productions revealed the same level of diligence and perceptive teasing out of the skills of the actors with delightful and profound results.
Because she had directed Lullaby the film, based on the play version, she easily negotiated presenting other productions on Zoom which is a smaller screen, but a screen nevertheless.
Oftentimes, it is more difficult, because you are not always assured that the actors in their own residences have the same WiFi receptivity. So when there is live streaming, one must give attention to additional technical aspects like sound and connectivity, as well as editing, and shot composition.
Kae’s enthusiasm to work in any medium allowed her to get into directing film. In film she brought the same diligence and prodigious effort that she brings to whatever artistic endeavor she accomplishes. I have never seen her efforts not pay off. The film Lullaby was nominated for a number of awards and won an award for Best Short Suspense Film at Culver City Film Festival. She also won a Best Director award for her Zoom film production of Manifesto for Manhattan Rep’s Short Film Festival.
In fact the production won Best Zoom Theatre Film, Best Actress, and Best Ensemble Awards in addition to the Best Director Award. Kae also edited the film, doing a yeoman’s job.
When Kae is not busy directing or writing, she is acting. Most recently she appeared in The Program (Falconworks Theatre), a play, and the movie Mid Autumn (director Rraine Hanson, post production). I have not been able to see her performances except for Sketches of Happiness which she wrote and directed. She was wonderful. Her performance showed nuance, sensitivity and balance.
What continually amazes me about Kae is her energy and her love of all things performance, theater, music, opera, film. The only time she was not herself occurred after she took her Moderna vaccine. In fact it was her acute description of how she felt after the vaccines that largely directed me to take the Pfizer shots for COVID. Otherwise, that is the only time I have seen Kae redirected away from her ebullience and love of the dramatic arts and film.
Currently, Kae is working on a few projects. One of them is to direct scenes from The Berglarian, a full length comedic play which I have written inspired by true events. If things eventually settle down with the pandemic, Kae, I and the exceptional actors will continue to workshop it, do readings and perhaps pitch it to producers.
I am expecting great things from Kae Fujisawa during COVID and after. She is continually originating work and creating opportunities with others in the entertainment arts. A tremendous asset to the theater arts and film community in New York City and beyond, she will continue to be a “triple threat!”
The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops currently at Theater for the New City is the renowned 94-year-old English playwright’s most recent work. The play uplifts the importance of family with themes of unity, love, encouragement, light and hope against the all-encroaching darkness that would turn family members against each other and destroy them. Kops’ lyrical play had a staged reading at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2020. It is a great irony that The Dark Outside presciently foreshadowed the tenor of the times as the pandemic broke out and upended global society and culture right after the reading.
Through the COVID-19 chaos and upheaval, which bred uncertainty, want and fear, oftentimes, family provided the bulwark of steadfastness against psychic and physical infirmities and death. Disastrously, in the United States the divisiveness over how to handle COVID-19 became a political football which, to this day, divides families and ends friendships. Most importantly, Kops’ The Dark Outside reminds us of the moral, sociological and personal imperative of the family unit to sustain its members. Though the inevitable tribulations of life will come, they can be withstood through love’s immutable power.
In this premiere at Theater for the New City, director Jack Serio and the creative team deliver the beauty and sanctity of the play’s themes with a fascinating production that is incredibly timely. Serio highlights the British dramatist’s poetic sensibilities and notes Kops’ homage to archetypal character types through the production’s staging and overall design elements.
To achieve Kops’ ethereality, Serio selects minimalism. The production strips away material clutter and simplifies, using the bareness of space. In the atmosphere created, the superb acting ensemble conjures up the symbolic mulberry tree, the garden behind the house, the dinner, and more. All are in the service of Kops’ revelations about this family’s unity, inspired by the beautiful and loving mother and wife, Helen, portrayed with precision by Katharine Cullison and supported by the wounded, sensitive, poetic father and husband Paul, played by the impeccable Austin Pendleton.
At the outset, Kops introduces us to Paul (Pendleton) the father/husband, a former East London tailor who faces a life crisis after he loses the use of his arm in an accident. To inspire and encourage Paul, wife/mother Helen (Cullison) gathers their children, Penny (Kathleen Simmonds) Ben (Jesse McCormick) and Sophie (Brenna Donahue) to unify the family at the important occasion of celebrating Paul’s birthday.
As the play progresses, we discover that each of the children confronts conflicts and traumas in their own lives. Thus, the chaos that is outside on the streets and in the neighborhoods that Paul often refers to threatens to disturb and destroy each of the family members unless they are able to work through their problems, seeking the comfort of each other to tide them over to face another day.
Kops uses the majestic mulberry tree in the family’s garden to reveal the issues of the characters. For strength and peace, family members confess their angst and deep secrets to the tree whose life force listens and, in its silence, allows the characters to gain an inner solace and calm. Additionally, sisters Sophie and Penny share confidences. Sophie relates a horrific experience that caused her to leave college and spiral downward into emotional devastation and near destruction.
Sophie’s salvation is in coming home where she finds love, acceptance and redemption. Revitalized, Ben and Sophie receive great comfort in the arms and soul strength of Helen, who soothes and reassures both as she helps them overcome their inner hell. Paul’s great appreciation of his amazing wife is his continual blessing. Cullison and Pendleton are authentic and believable in the relationship they build of the loving couple. Thus, it follows that the children, despite their heart-rending troubles, have rightly come home to heal, as they receive encouragement and love from their parents.
Of the joys in this production are the poems and songs that are wide-ranging and eclectic. These, the family sings together or recites individually as expressions of emotion that are difficult to articulate. The songs resonate and recapture the play’s themes. They indicate how the family copes when a member needs help and uplifting. This is especially so in the poignant conclusion when Helen sweetly sings Paul to sleep with soothing grace. The moment is mythic in its power, and it is obvious that love’s sanctity is a balm which never falls short or fails. Thus, by the conclusion, joy returns to the household. The “darkness” has been thwarted with regard to Ben and Sophie who return to the family to complete the circle of love.
The only one who does not join them and leaves for New York City with her husband is Penny. In her move it is intimated that the wholeness of the family may remain incomplete for a season. But we have seen the strength of the archetypal mother who unites her children and husband. Regardless of whether the external darkness is in London or in New York City, Helen will continue to be the binding force that holds the family together with grace.
Jack Serio, the cast and the creative team have delivered the essence of Kops’ work and made it memorable. With the music and sound (Nick T. Moore) scenic design (Walt Spangler’s leaves are a lovely addition) the modulations of the darkness and light symbolism through Keith Parham’s lighting design, the production’s heightened moments are felt acutely. This is one that should be seen because of its cast and the symbolic iteration of one of Kops most heart-felt works.
The production runs at Theater for the New City until November 28th when Bernard Kops turns 95-years old. It is a feat for one of Europe’s best-known and most admired playwrights who the Queen awarded a Civil List pension for his services to literature. It is an award garnered by a very select few, namely Lord Byron, Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. For tickets and times go to the website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-dark-outside/
The musical Trevor with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis manages to run an emotional continuum from delightful, funny and whimsical to poignant, profound and heart-breakingly current. Based on the 1994 titular short film which inspired a suicide prevention organization, The Trevor Project, the musical comedy delivers without being a hokey, silly-serious “message” play. This is principally due to the vibrant direction by Marc Bruni, the fine cast lead by the impish Holden William Hagelberger, the energetic musical direction by Matt Deitchman and the ebullient choreography by Josh Prince.
As a result, the musical comedy soars just high enough in the first act without burning itself up in the second, which takes a dark turn but remains ironic and soulfully empathetic. Its subject matter remains human and will touch even the most hard-hearted bigots who were never “cool” or “awesomely popular” in school. Above all Trevor touches upon the human need to be inspired by secret goals and dreams, which keep us enthusiasts of life and young at heart.
The original story by Celeste Lecesne generated the Academy Award-winning short film “Trevor” directed by Peggy Raiski and produced by Randy Stone. The film serves as an excellent foundation for the stage adaptation because it resonates with the familiar and never stands on sanctimony. Unfortunately, the all too probable “real life” situation provides the key conflict in the musical. What Trevor faces happens every day in a school in every school system in the nation to kids who are brave enough not to fit in despite the pain and bullying miscreants who will punish them for it out of cowardice and fear.
The musical in its New York premiere highlights the enthusiastic teen, Diana Ross fan and wanna be singer and performer Trevor, who is coming into his gay identity which he accepts and reconciles by the end of the production. Trevor lives in a suburb in 1981 before LGBTQ was “a thing” and at the outset of the AIDS crisis before it was “identified” as such. Neither of those factor into the arc of Trevor’s discovery and affirmation of himself which is a huge plus. Indeed, we are only caught up in the dramadey of this coming of age story without the angst or preachy assertions about gender identity. Trevor is and because he is, he is unequivocally acceptable and adorable in the human family.
Trevor’s uptight Catholic parents (Sally Wilfert, Jarrod Zimmerman) are clueless. Their fearful refusal to acknowledge that Trevor might be “gay” is humorous (thanks to Wilfert and Zimmerman). Their lack of understanding provides one of the conflicts in the production when they deliver Trevor to Father Joe, a Catholic priest for counseling. He is as helpful as a rock and Trevor’s reaction and the situation provides irony and humor. Importantly, Trevor must work out his own “redemption” for himself with the help of his friends, however difficult that is. Nevertheless, it is his talent and his dreams and interests that see him through the dark times.
Holden William Hagelberger is a likable and cheerful Trevor who is involved in his own world with his school friends, the funny geek Walter (Aryan Simhadri) and the awkward, humorous Cathy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) with glasses and rubber bands on her braces. Trevor is considered weird by the other kids in school, but fate throws him in with Pinky (the fine Sammy Dell) one of the most popular kids. Pinky is kind to Trevor who gives him help to hook up with Frannie (Isabel Medina).
As Pinky and Trevor become friendly, Trevor finds himself “falling for” Pinky, having his first crush on a guy. Unfortunately, the friendship turns sour when someone steals Trevor’s notebook which has entries that indicate how much Pinky means to him. When Trevor’s classmates treat him as an “invisible” to punish him for his “crush” on Pinky, Trevor is devastated and takes it out on himself.
The turning point in the play with the number “Your Life is Over,” is campy and staged well (as are most of the musical numbers). The serious subject of suicide (Trevor tries to OD on Aspirin) is dealt with as a Diva’s comedic irony, skirting the edge of darkness successfully. Yet, the seriousness of what occurs is noted with concern and reverence.
How Trevor comes out of his morass of emotions with the help of his friends, and specifically his trust in the magically realistic Diana Ross (Yasmeen Sulieman) who appears and disappears when he needs her, encourages and enlightens. Indeed, Diana Ross is an extension of Trevor’s talent and wisdom. In his reliance on this inner ethos, we are released into an uplifting resolution in Act II.
Trevor does not wear political correctness on its sleeve. Nor does it beat its breast with finger-pointing. In remaining real and human, the creators hit this production out of the ballpark with its humor, music and the ensemble’s energy. Its appeal is wide-ranging. Who would not uplift being decent and kind? Who would disavow the Golden Rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us? These values are cross-cultural, cross-national, cross-global. In its message, the production is not self-aggrandizing nor pushing any political stance. How refreshing! As such, that is Trevor’s strength and why it should be performed in schools across the nation.
Kudos to the creative team, to the director’s apt shepherding of the ensemble who does a bang up job led by Diana Ross (Yasmeen Sulieman) Trevor (Holden William Hagelberger) and Pinky (Sammy Dell). For tickets and times to see this must-see musical go to their website. https://www.trevorthemusical.com/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA-K2MBhC-ARIsAMtLKRsWL0YelVs_Hh9DC-KAOX76sPUOKMSwC-3EmKmF0YoUMHsHeY_bhQEaAtPGEALw_wcB
Once upon a time when Buffalo, Lackawanna, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburg and other cities in the North were humming with industry, jobs, hope and prosperity, blacks migrated northward from the Jim Crow oppressions, danger and poverty of the South. Their industry, hard work and efforts contributed to a thriving black middle class which eventually petitioned and protested against the government for Civil Rights reform. In his one-man musical Lackawanna Blues, currently at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Ruben Santiago-Hudson weaves together a beautiful elegy to the people of Lackawanna, New York, who grew him up and impacted the course of his life.
Santiago-Hudson writes, directs, performs-sings, blows a mean harmonica and dances his joy and revelations about Lackawanna, whose current population statistics indicate is growing out of its period of decline during previous decades. Accompanied by the superb Junior Mack on guitar, Santiago-Hudson transforms himself into more than twenty distinctive and unique characters that peopled his formative years, when his beloved Ms. Rachel Crosby raised him. He, and most of the people who knew her, lovingly called her Nanny.
Nanny is at the center of his remembrance, the star of the production, the good and faithful servant on earth, who, laid to rest, brings on God’s greatest praise, “Well done.” Santiago-Hudson’s reflections on Nanny, through her interactions with others, indicate why God praises her so. The acute characterizations melded together and heightened by Mack’s guitar riffs and Santiago-Hudson’s jazz/blues harmonica and songs, reveal a woman we’d all love to be protected by. The picture is glorious. It is of individuals in need, beaten down by human cruelty being helped back up by a compassionate, loving, generous woman, more dignified than the government. Santiago-Hudson brings us into the cloud of witnesses to behold Nanny’s Christianity
Not to be understated is the underlying theme. We discover through humor and pathos, a migrating black culture settling in the middle of a white culture which wasn’t loving. As a result, Nanny “stood in the gap” with grace and a pure heart. Through the men and women that the prodigious Santiago-Hudson effects with his amazing performance skills, we come to know Ol’ Po’ Carl, Lottie, Ricky, Mr. Lemuel Taylor, Numb Finger Pete, Norma, Norma’s Mother, Bill, Dick Johnson, Sweet Tooth Sam and others who Nanny feeds, clothes, boards, chides, scolds and threatens in her way like a rod of Godly justice. Heck! You know they had it coming and invariably, they listen to her like chastened children in a kindergarten class.
What makes Lackawanna Blues so remarkable, apart from the music, is how Santiago-Hudson inhabits the characters with incredible details of speech, phrasing, word choice, stance, voice, behavior and walk, and in the twinkling of an eye switches from individual to individual without taking a noticeable breath. This is his understanding of these individuals’ souls and spirits, fictionalized with the sheen of memory. Interestingly, the result is in the revelation of this humanity, we become humanized with new knowledge of the time, place and culture. The effect is that we empathize and are fascinated to learn of each individual, to learn how Nanny attempts to bring them to wholeness. Though we may never have had a wonderful Nanny in our lives who demonstrated forgiveness and kindness, nor may we never have experienced some of the rough types that she took into her boarding houses and provided a meal, a bed and comforting words of hope to, we understand and experience her through Santiago-Hudson’s gifts of transference.
Each of Santiago-Hudson’s portraits of humanity are heart-felt. In some instances, they are so authentic you believe Pauline is standing before you, though Santiago-Hudson is wearing his shirt and pants throughout. Thematically, male or female, whether whole or in pieces as some of the characters are who have lost a limb or fingers, all have dignity and are respected regardless of their foolishness and hijinks. Through Nanny’s love, they are worthy of that respect and dignity. She elevates them from their low-down and fearful view of themselves.
,The writing and acting is breathtaking. Elegiac is the nearest word that comes to mind. However, that, too, is limited because there is great breadth of cultural humor and irony that allows the audience to laugh at themselves as much as they laugh at the situations the characters get into helped by Nanny’s wise responses which give them a way of escape.
The suggestive blues club lighting (Jen Schriever) and minimalistic stage design (Michael Carnahan) convey the blues/sadness of each story. Karen Perry’s costume design reminds us that Santiago-Hudson doesn’t need costume tricks to become characters. He can effuse them with a smile, tilt of the head, protruding tongue or swagger. I loved the brick wall backdrop, majestic door, lighted window suggesting one of Nanny’s boarding houses, like whisps lifted from memory, that in turn lift us into timeless space and the ethers of imagination. The minimalism encourages a unified realm of audience consciousness thrilled to see and feel and experience live performance. Additional kudos for Darron L West’s sound design.
Santiago-Hudson states in the program that the musical is dedicated to the memory of Bill Sims Jr. who wrote the original music for Lackawanna Blues. In spirit Bill Sims Jr. and Nanny are the force that assists Santiago-Hudson in his dynamite portrayals, in his expressive joy and poignancy, and in his paean to a past that brought him to where he is today, on a Broadway stage.
This is one that you don’t want to miss for the humor, writing, Junior Mack’s guitar and the easy way Bill Sims Jr.’s music tonally breezes the themes of goodness overpowering cruelty and hatred, love answering wrath and anger. Lackawanna Blues is uplifting and unifying in this time of division. It reminds us that we all crave love, forgiveness and care, all of us. That goodness lasts a lifetime and beyond. It stops the trajectory of destruction and converts sorrow and hurt to wholeness. And it brings spiritual life and love. Nanny is one for the ages. Hudson-Santiago’s portrayal is beyond triumphant. For tickets and times go to the website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/lackawanna-blues/