For much of Michael Jackson’s life, there was controversy. Extraordinary genius is not often reverenced by those who attempt to control it, exploit it or covet it as theirs. Sometimes it is least understood by the person who possesses such talent, until it is too late, and there are only a few years left to try to get it all down.
One-of-a-kind greatness is as ineffable and mighty as what we imagine divinity is. But divinity streams in a multitude of directions. In spirit and light it is incapable of being contained. A bit of that was Michael Jackson’s talent, genius, divinity that he emblazoned on our planet for too brief a time. It is a bit of that Michael Jackson which Myles Frost so lovingly portrays with precision, excellence and prodigious beauty in MJ, with the book by the sterling Lynn Nottage that currently runs on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre. This production is an unforgettable, blinding amazement, full of wonder.
Unlike other shows that have been dubbed jukebox musicals, MJ cannot be categorized as such and defies pat, convenient labels. First, though Michael Jackson’s music is featured throughout, the music threads who he is albeit “through a glass darkly,” if we can ever know another individual. The production soars because, as Myles’ MJ tells MTV documentarian Rachel (Whitney Bashor), if we “listen” to his music, it “answers questions” we might have. Thus, if we really intend to know who Michael Jackson is, we must examine his music. MJ does this by presenting riffs of his treasured, award-winning songs in two acts, though not in completeness because the breadth of his work would require days to display in full.
Wisely, Nottage focuses on a period in Michael’s life which manifests a turning point right before he travels globally on his Dangerous tour. It is 1992 in a L.A. rehearsal studio. Through flashback and flashing forward, framed by the present in the studio, Nottage provides richness and depth, crystallizing vital themes and conflicts MJ confronted externally and internally. These include: 1) the media’s rapacious hunger to exploit scandal and create MJ’s twisted identity that it hypocritically blamed him for; 2)his struggles with his father in going solo and breaking from his family to obtain his own autonomy as a person and artist; 3)his struggles to evolve his music beyond his industry producers and labels represented by his father Joseph (Antoine L. Smith), Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson), and Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine).
Additionally, Nottage examines his work ethic and quest to be perfect, a recurrent theme in MJ. For example after rehearsing various numbers for the Dangerous tour to the breaking point, MJ asks, “But is it perfect?” It is a refrain he’s internalized from his childhood when his father pushed the Jackson 5 to the brink and didn’t allow them to “be children.” Finally, MJ is representational as a black every man striving against the color bar everywhere. Thus, we see his father, his family and his life struggles against institutional racism in the music industry and culture.
Complexly encapsulated throughout, Nottage reveals his personal struggles to manifest love, and overthrow the cruel abuse he received as a child, teen and adult (in the media and entertainment industry). He must do this to spread the love in his music and not transfer the culture’s hatred which is so easy to internalize. This is most probably the most difficult ask of himself that Michael pushes himself toward. This is the thing which is impossible, not the incredible nature of his tours or finding the money his financial manager Dave (Joey Sorge), requires, using his Neverland Ranch as collateral to fund the Dangerous tour. Importantly, Nottage notes his personal struggle to understand and forgive himself reflected in the incredible performance of “Man in the Mirror.” However, does he achieve self-love finally, the bane of all human existence? Ah, well…
Interwoven to spotlight these themes and conflicts is Michael Jackson’s fabulous music featured with the dancers in later songs during the rehearsal period for the Dangerous tour and in memory vignettes. Also, we enjoy featured songs in MJ’s discussion of his work with Rachel which includes numbers from his albums Off the Wall and Thriller.
From his childhood Little Michael’s ( the superbly talented Walter Russell and Christian Wilson alternate) incredible voice shines with his brothers portrayed by performers who also take on different roles. In the segments when Myles’ MJ in the present reflects about correlating events in his childhood, we note his father’s gruff, abusive prodding as a taskmaster (portrayed by Antoine L. Smith the night I saw the production). And we appreciate his loving mother’s comfort as a counterbalance who MJ relies on. Katherine Jackson’s incredible voice is poignant and lovely as she sings with Little Michael, i.e. “I’ll Be There.” When MJ comes back from his thoughts about the past, answering questions from the documentarian at times and other times just letting memories emerge, Myles as the adult MJ sings with Little Michael and they encapsulate the convergence of the past with the present. Perhaps this is a healing, self-revelatory moment.
Likewise, the same occurs with teenage Michael, portrayed by Tavon Olds-Sample as Nottage explores the height of the Jackson’s fame with their appearance on Soul Train performing “Dancing Machine.” Especially when MJ steps back into the past, songs in the vignettes explore his emotions at the time. Then MJ comes back to the present into the rehearsal studio where the dancers are singing the same number. The past turmoil is concurrent with the turmoil he goes through in the present with his managers and directors telling him what he wants isn’t possible. It is a refrain he received his entire life and must overcome continually. The transitions from flashback to forward present are beautifully effective as rendered in songs.
Wisely, the structure and organization of MJ is complexly framed by the present and is driven by a confluence of emotional and personal issues which erupt throughout the production. These issues, Nottage intimates were the ones to spiral out of control later in Jackson’s life. The issues explored in flashbacks reveal that MJ is a fluid memory piece and musical. It is as if Jackson, given over to his own talent and unconscious, becomes haunted by the past which intrudes upon the present to generate the direction of his art and personal life. It is that past from which “he runs” (a superficial assessment by the media). Regardless, it is that chaos and emotional angst from the past which infuses and creates the greatness of his being and work, Nottage suggests throughout. It is even reflected in the words of Barry Gordy who claims that Little Michael sings with the pain of an adult’s experience.
Though I wasn’t a Michael Jackson fan, after seeing MJ, I have become one, learning of some the facets of his talent and genius which he attempted to perfect and which anyone who looks deeper into his life with understanding recognizes what he accomplished as one of the most significant global cultural icons of the twentieth century. Importantly, MJ is a celebration of Michael Jackson’s goodness, graciousness, gentleness and love, revealed in his spectacular ability to compose, sing, dance, produce and innovate new music styles and initiate forward trends in all these listed, including fashion.
MJ is also a memorial to Michael Jackson’s work given that through great pain comes art which is timeless. Though some would quibble that “his” type of music isn’t art, Nottage’s book and this production rises above that inanity in its affirmation that what Michael Jackson accomplished must be reviewed seriously apart from scurrilous tabloid journalism or even an attempt at documentary. Though he was Known as the “King of Pop,” the Broadway production reveals that “handle” was a superficial, limiting meme.
He was a phenomenon that we will not see again, a sensitive maverick “music man” who morphed into mythic beings and as easily shapeshifted out of them into new personas. As he evolved, he swiftly left history and the media in the dust, something which the media appears to refuse to understand. One has only to view his vast body of awards and global recognition, his millions of record sales the dollar amounts, the presidential awards, global awards, the breaking of 39 Guinness World records to begin to “get this.” Indeed, he is the most awarded individual music artist in history.
MJ the Musical begins in an L.A. rehearsal studio in 1992 as dancers and the soft-spoken Michael (the shining Myles Frost) suggests ways to improve “Beat It,” the number the dancers work on. Sequestered in a corner, a two-person MTV documentary film crew records until the overexcited camera man, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), loses his cool in the presence of this living myth and MJ “yells” about the how and why of cameras in the studio. Rachel (Whitney Bashor) steps in and saves the day assuring Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Michael they are “unobtrusively” there to record MJ’s process of putting together his Dangerous World Tour. Frost’s Jackson quietly explains that the tour to promote his album Dangerous will travel four continents excluding the U.S. and Canada in the hope of raising $100 million for his newly established charity Heal the World Foundation to help children and the environment.
Immediately, the strains and pressures of conflict between the media’s mission to raise dirt, versus the sensitive artist and the private individual who yearn to be understood are manifest. Behind MJ’s back Rachel affirms to Alejandro that she wants to delve into his personal struggles, blowing by his art. It is the reason why they insinuated themselves into the rehearsal studios with the guise of filming his tour preparations. Once again, MJ is trusting and allows her to stay to publicize the tour.
Intriguingly, Nottage points out that the documentarian attempts cinema veritae. However, by the end of MJ we see this is a blind. Rachel gets “what she wants.” She has overheard a conversation by MJ’s close associates Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Nick (Ramone Nelson) about his taking too many painkillers because of the accident filming a Pepsi commercial. Instead of concentrating on his music, though she says she will be fair, we understand “fair” means not necessarily giving MJ the benefit of the doubt. It is “The Price of Fame” that he learns from his father and without which he couldn’t perform. Regardless, it is a cul de sac in which “You Can’t Win,” sung by Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson) and teenage Michael (Tavon Olds-Sample).
By the conclusion of MJ, we discover that “facts,” too can be twisted into untruths, and what is called for and never pursued by the media is understanding and empathy. Thus, as a theme media exploitation manifests three minutes into MJ, revealing what dogged him and grew to an insanity by the end of his life. The media’s rapacious commercialism to get “the exclusive” scandal to tear down the myth it grudgingly helped to create is integral to MJ. The constant struggle with the media later strengthened him to transcend every barrier institutional racism put up to thwart him in exploitative cruelty that Jackson later excoriated and exposed, using his songs as a weapon to beat back injustice, planet devastation, global child trafficking and more.
In a perfect meld of music and dance numbers, Nottage’s book is the skeleton upon which the creative team of Jason Michael Webb (music direction, orchestrations, arrangements), David Holcenberg (music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements), and Christopher Wheeldon (director, choreographer) sculpt the greatness of Michael Jackson’s artistry in his humanity. Songs represented are from all of his albums; in alphabetical order they include (ABC, Bad, Beat it, Billie Jean, Black or White, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Keep the Faith, Rock With You, Smooth Criminal, The Way You Make Me Feel, Wanna Be Startin’ Something) to name only a few. With Thriller (look at how his father in costume moves off stage into the nightmare world which emerges from his imagination) how the song is incorporated with his living, awake nightmares in his own life at this point in time is just fantastic.
The set design (Derek McLane) exemplifies MJ’s inner and outer conflicts magnificently, in vibrant colors for the dynamic award winning numbers. They even get the opening propulsion up from the trap under the stage for a huge WOW! It signifies MJ successfully got his crew to do this for his Dangerous tour. See the production MJ for this rush of excitement, and explosive fun surprise. Or look it up on YouTube if you are not coming to NYC.
For the “smaller” intimate moments in the Jackson family home, the design is simpler, but functional and appropriate to the time. The retro look continued for the Soul Train vignette is heartwarming as the introductory music opens, reminding us of our youth and the time in the nation where black entertainers like Michael rarely crossed over. They had to appear on Soul Train for publicity. The lighting (Natasha Katz), complementing the set design for the maximum striking “fantastical,” especially with the “Thriller” number that just kills it are all other-worldly, as Paul Tazewell’s costumes provide the fearful/graveyard monster touch. The costumes of course are so varied, but all are MJ. Importantly, Gareth Owen’s sound design is spot on so the lyrics are clear, the music strongly wonderful.
Peter Negrini’s production design, Charles LaPointe’s wig and hair design, Joe Dulude II’s make-up design all thrust the actors and especially Myles Frost into glory and provide the unity of spectacle this production so fabulously renders. Enough cannot be said about Myles Frost’s portrayal that is emotionally devastating because he is Michael Jackson’s beating heart and so gratefully appreciated for his amazing talents and will to become MJ for each of the nights of the week. Shepherded by Christopher Wheeldon’s masterful direction and thrilling, hot choreography, they are MJ‘s lifeblood along with the cast who entertain us to their last nerve. All are nonpareil.
We see that in the songs in his later life, MJ attempts to overthrow the forces that exemplify the worst manifestations of greed, pernicious exploitation, hypocrisy, falsehood and hatred in the culture and in his personal life. What he went through first with the media which built him up to destroy him, we have witnessed these past years in the propaganda used to destroy in the service of furthering others’ hidden agendas, regardless of the facts in this heightened time of political power plays.
As the last individual walks away from the Neil Simon Theatre, after seeing MJ, they should leave with the knowledge that what Michael Jackson represented to fans, foes, colleagues and those nearest and dearest to him is incalculable. Whether one scorned, predatorized, idolized, exploited, manipulated, in short any action word you might use to exemplify how people related to him, Michael Jackson impacted all of us through his music, his humanity and his tragedy. Lynn Nottage, the actors and the creative team have done a sensational and dazzling job of assisting Myles Frost in bringing the legend to life.
Finally, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. With regard to Michael Jackson and the production’s greatness, this scripture seems appropriate to leave you with.
For tickets and times go to the MJ website: https://mjthemusical.com/
The World Premiere of The Secret Life of Bees (Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) spins Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel into “A River of Melting Sun,” a metaphor for love, sweetness and redemption that is established in the opening lyrical musical number. Sung by the ensemble who elicit the audience to join them on a mythic and personal a journey they might wish to take, the song reinforces primary themes. These ripple throughout the story of Rosaleen (a sensational Saycon Sengbloh) and the troubled heart-broken Lily (Elizabeth Teeter’s lyrical voice is perfect for the role) both of whom must reconcile the wounds from their motherless childhood that threaten to destroy them.
The production directed by Sam Gold (Fun Home) is uniquely metaphysical. The director has chosen to keep the staging and set design (Mimi Lien) illustratively spiritual, functionally minimalistic and suggestive. The characters. pull out the props from the back wall use them to reflect and evoke events as they conduct the action organically. The book melds together the music and lyrics with characterizations. Sheik’s music with Birkenhead’s lyrics are sensitively drawn and vibrantly anointed in a mix of styles (gospel, blues, ballads, rock and pop pieces). This musical inspires and thrills.
Ultimately, the healing power of many of the melodies, infused by the gorgeously, heady voices of the inimitable LaChanze (August Boatwright) Saycon Sengbloh (Rosaleen) Elizabeth Teeter (Lily) Eisa Davis (June) and Anastacia McCleskey (June) become the golden threads that provoke us to understanding that we too can share in “The Secret Life of Bees” and be purveyors of the honey of joy, moving down our own byways of life impacting others positively within our own sphere of influence.
The symbolism in the “A River of Melting Sun” has a myriad of layers as evocative as the messages in this adaptation enhanced with the emotionalism of Sheik’s score and veteran Birkenhead’s stirring lyrics. On one level the melting sun represents the golden honey that expert beekeeper August Boatwright (LaChanze) draws from hundreds of bee hives which is processed into the pure, amber sweetness from which she and her sisters, the broken-hearted May, and the hypercritical, austere June make their living in the county around Tiburon, South Carolina.
The melting sun also alludes to the mysterious power of sunlight that impacts the bees before and after they gather the pollen from the flowers whose plants, require the radiant rays’ energy to blossom and lure their pollinators to complete the vital rhythmic cycle of propagation that has persisted for thousands of years.
As the bees follow the rhythms of nature, so do the characters. The bee puppets shimmering in the expert lighting against the dark backdrop are effective, especially accompanied with the lyrical, flowing “bee theme.” In this musical as in the novel, both bees and humans are symbolic counterparts. Both focus on and require support from (their bee queen, the Black Madonna, Mother Mary). The honey, the bees produce for themselves and their queen; the honey represents the strength and love as well as the product central to August’s business. Importantly, the honey is the “sunlight” theme of the underlying love, unity, equanimity and community that sustains life. Without these elements, human beings will wither and die from displacement, isolation, disunity and emotional malnutrition. The same applies for the bee colonies.
Rosaleen and Lily are amazed and learn from the community of healing love from which the praying, spiritual Daughters of Mary find sustenance in, despite an oppressive, bigoted, hateful culture. Without their unity and faith there would be a return to misery, torment and depression, the likes of which May experiences and must continually be lifted away from. The metaphor of melting sun also alludes to the heat/warmth/enlightenment/encouragement/hope/faith extended by August and the Daughters of Mary to the broader community. This symbolic “melting sun” is received by Rosaleen and Lily after the runaways allow faith to transform their souls and heal their brokenness through love and peace.
Nottage’s book serves to frame the arc of development, elucidate the characterizations and manifest the themes. Cleverly, she employs a delicate, slim, suggestive rendering. She quickly establishes the setting as 1964, South Carolina. For those unfamiliar with the history, we learn through radio announcements salient news details; these news events are tied to the action. Those familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, will recall the year was a time of roiling fury for Southern white supremacists who opposed the passage of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act and retaliated with bombings and killings to spread fear and stop blacks from registering to vote.
This social and cultural backdrop magnifies the conflicts for Lily, the confused white teenager who sings “The Girl Who Killed Her Mother” and Rosaleen who works for Lily’s father T-Ray and who intends to vote (“Sign My Name.”) challenging racist bullies who have maintained their oppressive, genocidal power structure since Plessy v. Ferguson in a Jim Crow South. During the musical, we learn that Rosaleen and Lily have been abandoned by their mothers and suffer from emotional and spiritual traumas that destroy their confidence and wholeness so they cannot progress.
Escalating conflicts force Lily and Rosaleen to take the risk of running away together. Tired of her father’s physical and emotional abuse, and in her quest for the truth about her mother who has died, Lily solicits Rosaleen’s companionship and they leave Sylvan without T-Ray’s permission. Manoel Felciano as T-Ray aptly delivers the brutish, hurtful father convincingly.
They follow the only clue Lily has about her mother’s past, a paper honey label stamped with a Black Madonna with the printed location of Tiburon, South Carolina. Though tired and worn, they believe and hope in their future (“Better Than This”). For feisty Rosaleen who spit on a red-neck’s shoe when he prevented her from registering to vote after she brings down the house with “Sign My Name,” escape may lead to power. For Lily escape means the freedom to seek her mother’s identity away from the gnawing terrors of a childhood event that is too traumatic to remember. Her lack of memory is why T-Ray opaquely tortures her about it without being entirely truthful.
Rosaleen’s and Lily’s travels lead them to the mysterious, striking, holy scene, a ritualized church service of dance and song that is a powerful prayer to Mother Mary (a Black Madonna carved in driftwood). The Black Madonna is a contact point of faith, enlightenment and love. The anointed song “Tek A Hol A My Soul” is rhythmic and profound. It thrums with the pulsation of sweeping currents that uplift and energize the Daughters of Mary (ensemble and the sisters) and Neil (a heartfelt, humorous, sensitive portrayal by Nathaniel Stampley). Neil is a like-minded “brother”who prays and sings with them; he is also the principal of the school where June teaches. The song is a soul shaker, just fabulous in providing the dramatic focus from which the action centralizes.
When the singers (August, June, May, Neil, Queenie, Sugar Girl, Violet, Neil) see Rosaleen and Lily are enthralled, August (she represents the Queen Mother, the educated entrepreneur whose encouragement and wisdom undergirds the community of educated black women) invites them to work for room and board. The ensemble sings “The Secret Life of Bees,” the thematic mantra which represents the unity of all things through love, hope and decency, and all that is life affirming and purposeful, if one has the eyes to see and the ears to hear the secrets/mysteries to obtain the honey goodness.
Rosaleen and Lily gratefully accept the invitation and in exchange for lodging, they assist with the housework and beekeeping. As they gradually become a part of the family, they confront their troubles and embrace peace and self-love through August’s nurturing. This becomes problematic for Lily because of June’s skepticism about taking in a white girl who obviously will bring trouble into their sanctuary. Lily must overcome June’s negative attitude with the help/love of August and her own soul searching and prayers to Mother Mary. She grows in empathy toward the broken-hearted May (the golden voiced Anastacia Mcleskey) who also has gone through a terrorizing, event. In the lovely “Frogs and Fireflies” and they encourage one another
Rosaleen’s and Lily’s arrival at the farm is a major turning point in which the interactions between and among May, June and August entertain and teach us about the women’s industry, resourcefulness and determination to strive in a culture that would otherwise annihilate their souls and identities. LaChance’s August (accent on the second syllable means sage) is spot-on brilliant. She delivers a nuanced performance that drips with wisdom, steadfastness, inner mystical knowledge and power through inner peace. Her portrayal is transcendent. She sets the tone for the metaphysical underpinnings, revelations and healings which might not be gleaned if one is “scientifically,” empirically-minded. Her singing is absolutely grand.
Saycon Sengbloh is a whirlwind, likable, effusive and joyful as Rosaleen, a true overcomer. Her chiding Lily’s selfishness into true friendship in “All about You,” is superbly, forcefully delivered. Her other solo “Who Knew?” as she receives grace and heals her sorrows is another highpoint of the production in its development of her character that makes crystalline sense.
Her white counterpart in “becoming,” Lily, is her equal in redemption after Zachary (the adorable Brett Gray and Lily’s potential love interest) has been found alive. When he and Lily are pulled over and officers brutalize Zachary and arrest him for nothing, he nearly loses his life, but for the help of a white client of August, who wields power in the county. The currency of this scene is painful to watch considering how many times such unjust violence spilled from the past into today and it is ongoing. Many times the outcome is not as it is in the play; the victim is tortured, abused and murdered with impunity. The Daughters of Mary understand what is at stake and do all they can to free the innocent Zachary.
That Lily importunes Mother Mary and has a conversion experience praying for Zachary is an indication of her growth away from selfishness toward healing and self-love. In this powerful scene, she activates the substance of her own faith as it joins with the Daughters of Mary who also pray for Zachary’s return. However, any hope she may have to be with Zachary will never be realized as long as the atmosphere of hatred and injustice is an entrenched, “legal” social more.
Brett Gray’s Zachary “rocks it” with Lily in two musical numbers which show their bonds: “Fifty-Five Fairlane,” and “What Do You Love?” Their exuberance in the first and their sweetness in the second provide a side story of budding love which avoids the syrupy and remains authentic. The second love story, between Neil (Nathaniel Stampley) and June (Eisa Davis) is LOL hysterical as Neil persists in wooing June and she rejects him a whopping number of times out of fear of being hurt again as she was before. “Marry Me” is just fabulous. The men in the play empathize with Neil and chortled around me at the humor and were tense at June’s answers. This is no spoiler alert; you will have to see the musical to find out if June and Neil join forces. And you will have to see it to discover what happens when T-Ray shows up to confront Lily about her mother’s death to take her back home.
The Secret Life of Bees is an ethereal, spiritual adaptation with little spectacle of the type that “dazzles” and then is easily forgotten. It is an evocative and suggestive view of a time that is near timeless as it reflects the same horrific events that are happening today (voter suppression, police brutality, racial abuse, women’s oppression). But the adaptation carefully elicits the substance of faith and its power evidenced in a mystical group of educated, “sisters” and a “brother” who have found a way to negotiate the hellish genocidal racists and best them beyond “religiosity” and a form of godliness that has no power. Nottage’s selection of events in the style she’s chosen is right on as is Sheik’s music and Birkenhead’s lyrics, aptly shepherded by Sam Gold.
Kudos to the company, and to the creative artists Chris Walker (choreography) Dede Ayite (costumes) Jane Cox (lights) Dan Moses Schreier (sound) AchesonWalsh Studios (puppets) Jason Hart (music director) Antoine Silverman (music contractor) Duncan Sheik & John Clancy (orchestrations) Jason Hart (vocal arrangements) Cookie Jordan (hair, makeup & special effects) UnkleDave’s Fight House (fight director).
This must see musical production runs with one intermission at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (West 20th Street) until 21 July. It should be extended or another venue found. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center is a comical/tragic study in black Hollywood’s greats that few recognize because the racism and oppression in the nation was also reflected in Hollywood institutions. Nottage follows the career of black actress Vera Stark across seven decades and examines how she fared while the roles for black women remained static as maids, servants, slaves and menials. The setting is Hollywood, but the time shifts from 1933 (film studio and apartment) to 1973 on Brad Donovan’s Hollywood TV show and 2003 during a Hollywood film colloquium.
We are first introduced to the incomparable Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) in the 1930s when she is young, beautiful, vibrant and naive about launching her career in the movies. Working as a maid for “America’s little sweetie pie” Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), Vera creates her own opportunities and lands the prized role as a maid in a picture starring two of her friends and Gloria Mitchell called The Belle of New Orleans.
Nottage’s characterization of Vera Stark reveals the actor’s assiduous work ethic, her dogged ambition and supreme cleverness at jiving the system and environment she is in. She negotiates helping Gloria Mitchell with everything from her image and wearing the right clothes, to reading lines with her for the audition that Gloria needs to get a plum part which will strengthen her career. It is this audition that Vera hopes to also parlay into a role for herself to eventually rise up the ladder of stardom.
Act I is filled with humor that indicates the sub rosa black culture’s fronting and milking the stereotypes whites have of them behind their backs. Joined by her friend Lottie McBride (the fine Heather Alicia Simms) who also has come to Hollywood and has eaten herself out of house and home to play a mammy slave part to no avail, their playfulness and criticism of their circumstances indicates they are survivors and will hang on until they achieve what they want, though the roles available to them are as slaves, maids and servants.
We meet another “high yellow” black actress Anna Mae Simpkins (the funny Carra Patterson) a quasi friend who is looking to advance herself by dating various directors and other filmmakers and passing herself off as a Brazilian. The interactions between the women and a foreign director are beyond hysterical, and Nottage has fun with turning assumptions about blacks on their head. When the director assumes that all blacks come from a slave background, Vera and Lottie act the parts of the oppressed for him with hysterical precision mugging the stereotypes, convincing the director to give them parts in his film.
Act I presents the backstory of these four women before they achieve artistic greatness in the film The Belle of New Orleans which all of them are cast in. The beauty of this production is how Nottage chronicles the development of Vera Stark. So we actually get to see the film in black and white. And all of the actresses are superb, placed into the film’s reality. On stage and in real life, these women, Lottie, Gloria, Anna Mae and Vera are “larger than life.” However, on film the actresses give the roles they play a resonance and authenticity. We understand why and how (based on the last moments of the film), the film is a great and iconic one in the annals of film history and often the subject of film colloquiums.
After the screening of The Belle of New Orleans, Herb Forrester (Warner Miller) steps out from the curtain and we realize that he has just shown the film at a colloquium in Hollywood. As Forrester proceeds, we hear a disposition about Vera Stark’s identity as a black actress and how she was able to make a life and career for herself despite the demeaning roles black men and women played as slaves, helpers, servants, chauffeurs, etc., reflecting the culture at large. Joined by Carmen Levy-Green (Heather Alicia Simms) and Afua Assata Ejobo (Carra Patterson) we are struck by the cultural ironies as these heady intellectuals play the elites while they dissect Vera Stark and cast her “blackness” in philosophical racial identities that Nottage turns into hysterical objectifications.
The humor as the two women argue about Vera Stark’s identity, gender and racial politics with Forrester, who appears to deal with them in all his glorious paternalism, is just great. Act II brings all the tropes together and the liveliness of the conflict between the black male and the two female guests is superbly done.
Even more superb is the flashback to a tape of the afternoon talk show (a la Merv Griffin style) that stars host Brad Donovan with guest, the great black actress Vera Stark. Forrester plays the taped interview with Vera Stark to reveal what happened to her after she had her Hollywood career that never advanced beyond the cultural stereotypes and roles that the white paternalistic studio heads created for her.
In this taped session which we see live, Jessica Frances Dukes appears more like a version of every starlet who faded irretrievably into old age and alcoholism and speaks with a wobbly voice rather like Katherine Hepburn’s. Every moment of the taping, the diva, Vera Stark is “on.” She sings a bit and entertains with humor another guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Manoel Felciano). All goes swimmingly as Vera gets drunker and drunker until surprise! Donovan trots out Gloria Mitchell so the women have a reunion to discuss The Belle of New Orleans. The difference between how Vera Stark has aged and how Gloria Mitchell has aged is striking and revelatory. Gloria Mitchell who had a career, and the substantial money to take care of her body looks the same. Vera Stark, who has allowed the excesses of alcohol and demeaning parts to overtake her soul, has aged and appears to be a tragic figure.
This is a subtle devastation which the host doesn’t appear to “get,” but which Vera Stark finally does. And in an epiphany she relates that she is still enslaved to a role she played decades ago. Now, once again, she must confront Gloria Mitchell and the role of Tilly, though she has gone on to do other parts during her career she perceived she made for herself. Only with this final confrontation, Vera realizes she has allowed the culture to dupe her. And she vows, it is for the last time. Dukes’ Vera is fabulous in this section and the ensemble fields her beautifully.
How Nottage concludes the third segment with Forrester, Levy Green and Ejobo continuing to disagree with each other’s dialectic about Vera Stark is both humorous and sardonic. For they have completely missed the point which we clearly have seen in the segments. Vera Stark was morphed by the circumstances of Hollywood. The rumors of how she ended her life are even more ironic as we listen to the elites discuss a woman they knew very little about. Then Nottage in the last few minutes configures another fabulous revelation that is poignant and beautiful. You will just have to see this wonderful production to appreciate it for yourself.
By the way, Meet Vera Stark runs with one intermission until 10th of March at the Pershing Square Signature Center. You can pick up tickets by CLICKING HERE.
Artistic Creatives: Clint Ramos (Scenic Design) Dede M. Ayite (Costume Design) Matt Frey (Lighting Design) Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Design) KAtherine Freer (Projetion Design) Daniel Kluger (Composer) Mia Neal (Hair and Wig Design)
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
First, Lynn Nottage is a master story teller. Secondly, she is a master playwright, an avid spinner of profound characterizations and themes. With an antic zeal for weaving humor throughout organic dialogue that establishes her unique characters, Nottage continually lays bare the most exasperating and trenchant aspects of the human condition. If one is color blind, which Nottage mightily encourages, you see yourself in the arc of her characters’ inevitable development. For growth is the sum total of where we all are going, is it not?
FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE, wonderfully directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, is typical Nottage in its maverick brilliance and marvelous exploration of the complexities of black culture and identity. Essentially, with sardonic humor and LOL comedic fun, Nottage spirals out the larger-than life evolution, devolution and reaffirmation of the fabulous Undine. This hybrid genre two-act play (satire, “narrative of the life,” comedy-with threads of the macabre fantastic) strikes with irony and hyperbolic authenticity, turning every stereotype on its head to arrive at a satisfying resolution.
Currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center, the production is a must-see for its LMAO wit and profound revelations about class and culture. And tucked carefully away between the guffaws and belly laughs is this universal wisdom. When pursuing wealth and status, sidestep the alluring predations and pitfalls by remaining real. One way or another during your life’s journey, you’re going to get to the end of yourself. So you might as well avoid all the heartache and space shuttle gyrations and keep it soul local! Hyper money and status don’t bring truth unless you pivot, plummet and fall. When you reach bottom, if you’re still alive, you “get it,” and will then appreciate what you’ve learned.
Importantly, in FABULATION, OR THE-RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE, Nottage’s protagonist bounces off the most reprehensible and meretricious elements of the nouveau riche who “seduce” the black bourgeoisie into internalizing their corrupted values. Chief among these include the canard that money and celebrity bring personal power and satisfaction. Undine comes across this truth through a divergent, fantastic, incredulous sequence of events that can only be likened to divine comedy. As we follow her on the ride, if our eyes are open, our mouths eventually breathe out a sigh of relief for it will be well for her. But at various twists and egregious turns downward, we believe Undine to be heading to hell with no one to pull her back except Nottage’s deft story telling.
At the outset of the play, we identify an apparently successful Undine. Portrayed with a piquant and vibrant drama queen personality, Cherise Boothe continually astonishes with engaging humor and likability. Her Undine hits all the emotional high notes of comedy with a range of authenticity that keeps the audience laughing. Yet intriguingly we are aware of the seriousness of her wise commentary beneath all of the humorous riot.
From her demeanor and treatment of underlings, we note that Undine’s rabid and rapacious ambition and power has steered her to the top of her game. We discover she owns and manages a PR firm catering to the needs of the black bourgeoisie. Humorously, we learn this after her accountant and an FBI agent inform her she’s “got some issues to deal with.” Ironically, her success and the lifestyle it precipitates ends up placing her in a situation that she is ill equipped to handle. This noxious situation moves in the form of Hervé (the smooth Ian Lassiter), a slick Argentinian whose fabulous tango moves, hot kisses and an ingenious sleight of hand where her bank account is concerned sweep her up into a two-year marriage. When Hervé absconds with her money and life’s work, this ending initiates Undine’s journey and the dynamic momentum of the play.
Shepherded by the adept directing skills of Blain-Cruz, we watch Undine who Nottage moves from the interaction of this opening scene to an Undine “confidential. Upon the arrival of Agent Duva, Undine breaks the fourth wall and elicits our confidence to explain how she became “Undine.” Eschewing her Brooklyn ways, Undine confabulated herself. Undine is her new identity which she created when she bravely struck out on her own, as many of her race did before she moved “up from slavery.”
Of course since the play takes place in the present, this metaphor of identity and race improvement stretches to a wonderful and sardonic breadth and length that only Nottage can evoke with clever dialogue and allusions. It seems Undine at thirteen left home on scholarship and morphed herself by attending an Ivy League school. Transformed into a player, Undine internalized upper crust values and negotiated/networked with the upper classes to become an entrepreneur. She achieved success externally.
However, Undine has not done the work internally. And it is this which snares her in the Hervé trap and sets her on a downward momentum externally and inner enlightenment. As life/fate/consciousness would have it, this all begins when Undine comes to a pivot with a mild physical breakdown at the critical moment. The FBI agent tells her Undine shows up on no records; they cannot find out who Undine is. (The irony is wonderful.)
With us as her confidantes, Undine shepherds us through her story that evolves with flashback scenes. From hospital to moving out of her office, the scenes quickly pace as Undine steps from the realm of the fantastic Undine “fabulation” closer to the authenticity of self. Ironically, the fantastic follows her and apparently is an integral part of who she is. She seeks a Yoruba priest who tells her she must placate the spirits who are angry with her. To ameliorate their ire it will take a bottle of rum and the last of Undine’s money. The priest informs her there is something she must do to straighten out her life. Of course it is the last thing Undine wants to hear. As if that weren’t extraordinary enough, Undine’s journey takes her to additional and amazing adventures in the “real.”
Nottage shifts the dynamism alternating the action between Undine’s ironic story telling breaks to flashbacks of illustrative scenes relating her journey back to the fantastic real of Brooklyn. The director beautifully shepherds this ebb and flow and maintains the pace of comedy. We connect with Undine’s ironic comments and eagerly follow the rhythms of development in Undine’s “re-education” to discover who she is. For extreme fun, as fate and the spirits would have it, Undine is forced to confront every situation of Brooklyn street life she attempted to avoid when she ran away to her Ivy League education and “Undine” identity and lifestyle. Nottage’s sardonic situational humor is precious.
FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE is just great for its comedy, complexity, questions about identity and culture, examination of issues about growth, and themes which all of us can take to heart. The superb ensemble who portray various roles in conveying Undine’s journey include Mayaa Boateng, Dashiell Eaves, Heather Alicia Simms, Ian Lassiter, Nikiya Mathis, J. Bernard Calloway, Marcus Callender.
The director deserves much credit with the actors for breathing life into this enjoyable and shimmering comedy. The staging is excellent, the pacing never drops the humor. Look for the little stereotypic bits which I dare not reveal for fear of spoiling the surprises.
Final kudos go to Adam Rigg (Scenic Design), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Design), Yi Zhao (Lighting Design), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design), Cookie Jordan (Hair and Wig Design).