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Kirsten Childs on the American-beauty myth in “Bella: An American Tall Tale”

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Consider for a moment the image of the “All-American dream girl”. With her long hair, nice shape; beautiful, confident, flirty… BLACK?  Kirsten Childs’ newest musical Bella: An American Tall Tale currently running Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, explores this enchanting concept; The idea that the quintessential All-American woman could be Black.

Set in the Wild West, “Tall Tale” follows the story of Bella, a “gorgeous full-figured big booty black woman” played by Ashley D. Kelley, and her travels across the open country on a journey of self-discovery with her magical booty. You read that correctly. Her magical booty. Along the way she meets several historical persons of color which include Tommy Haw, a Chinese rancher  Paolo Montalban); The Exodusters, Black frontiersmen; as well as the Buffalo Soldiers*.

Childs shares, “part of my mission in writing this musical is to subvert some of the narrative that you normally expect to hear when you’re talking about westerns. First of all, you don’t hear about cowboys of color. You don’t hear about gorgeous African-American imaginative wonderful young women who have agency.”  She continues, “there’s just no talk of the contributions that people of color have given to this country during that time period and so I want to turn that on its ear.”

Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons

As a dancer and actress turned playwright, Childs’ musicals feature Black female characters and/or characters of color like herself. Childs’ basis for this is how “It’s important to have strong complicated Black women roles written by strong complicated black women.”

But how did Childs’ counter-cultural Wild West narrative develop? In a note-from-the-playwright, Childs’ shared that the character of Bella was born out of an epiphany she had one afternoon on her way home. She happened to be walking behind a Black couple and noticed that every single man that passed them by turned around to stare at the woman’s butt.

Afterwards, Childs said she realized, “That zaftig little woman was an American dream girl, as sensual and iconic as Marilyn Monroe. But in white America, her larger-than-life appeal has all too often been dismissed, disparaged, or appropriated.”

Ashley D. Kelley & Brandon Gill Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons

In the Western canon, the American Frontier typically features stories of fictional and historical white characters. “I wanted to flip that script,” Childs says, “to create a new myth celebrating the power and beauty of the black female body, with all the joy, fun, silliness and sorrow, heartbreak and triumph of the Black woman’s experience in America. And what better way to frame such a uniquely larger-than-life figure than in that uniquely American form, the tall tale?”

Bella: An American Talle Tale was commissioned by the Playwrights Horizons Musicals with book, music and lyrics by Kirsten Childs, direction by Robert O’Hara, and choreography by Camille A. Brown. “Bella” will conclude its run at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater on July 2, 2017.

*Buffalo Soldiers – Black soldiers of the US Army that the government organized to fight Native Americans

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Off Broadway

Patricia Ione Lloyd’s Eve’s Song Opens Off-Broadway

Andrew Shade

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Kadijah Raquel and Ashley D. Kelley in the world premiere of Eve’s Song, written by Patricia Ione Lloyd | Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Kadijah Raquel and Ashley D. Kelley in the world premiere of Eve’s Song, written by Patricia Ione Lloyd | Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Beginning previews October 21st, The Public Theater celebrates the official opening of Eve’s Song by Patricia Ione Lloyd on November 7th.

Eve’s Song follows the haunting of a Black family. Deborah (De’Adre Aziza) is dealing with a messy divorce and coming to terms with her daughter, Lauren (Kadijah Raquel), coming out as queer, all while trying to keep things “normal” at home. The play takes a look at our present racial climate through an everyday family, addressing family dynamics, politics at work, and the spirit world, using dark humor and suspense.

The cast includes Karl Green as Mark, Ashley D. Kelley as Upendo, Vernice Miller as Spirit WomanRachel Watson-Jih as Spirit Woman, and Tamara M. Williams as Spirit Woman.

The production extended on Oct 9th before previews even began and will run through December 9 as is directed by Jo Bonney.

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Off Broadway

We Were There: Pipeline at Lincoln Center Theater

Jerrica White

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Namir Smallwood & Karen Pittman in Pipeline @ LCT Photo: Jeremy Daniel

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

 

 

In 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks’ haunting crescendo from innocence to downfall, “We Real Cool,” was published by Harpers.  In 2017 Dominique Morisseau humanizes and harmonizes with the Youth experience by following a similarly eerie trajectory, in her newest play “Pipeline.”

Walking into the Mitzie E. Newhouse theater and being met with the familiarity of harsh fluorescent lights and institutional cement block walls, will humble you.  For 90 minutes of your life, you’re back in a classroom and the choice is yours on who is going to be your instructor.  Enter Nya (a sharp and haunting Karen Pittman), an inner-city public school teacher and mother.  Enter Omari (a brilliantly magnetic, Namir Smallwood) a private school attendee and son.  Both professors in their own right, they quarter 90 minutes across the war zone of a mother whose every move is to protect her son and a son who’s fighting to deflect the de-humanizing compartmentalization of his surroundings.  The title of the play, “Pipeline,” is a direct reference to the national trend where students are funneled through a pipeline from school to prison due to zero tolerance policies which criminalize over minor infractions.

If Morisseau wasn’t already on your radar, look now.  Where there could have been didactic language, there’s deep dialogue. Where we’d normally see over-explanation to compensate for a lack of understanding the Black experience, we see compassion.  Morisseau lays a genuine and raw foundation for the voices of her characters to sing from. She fleshes out everyday heroes—mothers, fathers, teachers (Brava, Tasha Lawrence! A standout.), students, and security guards (a charming Jaime Lincoln Smith) –who are all just trying to do the right thing.

Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction and staging is the microphone that amplifies the tight harmonies and arrangements between this stunning 6-member cast.  Within this composition, the duets resonate the loudest. That is the poetic, song-like exchanges that Morisseau has penned in the sweeping, full-range of emotion and complication that makes up the key of humanity, that we confuse as dialogue.

Father + Son

Mother + Son

Mother + Father

 

We are reminded that life isn’t easy, family isn’t perfect, and resolution isn’t promised. We’re reminded that life isn’t promised.

The interactions between Omari and his girlfriend Jasmine (a passionate and wise, Heather Velazquez) move me the most.  Too often we dismiss the validity of feelings such as love or fear, based on age and experience.  Morisseau gives the voice of our youth bass and credibility.

If this play was a thesis, I gather it postulates, why do we not see people for the entire human being they are?  Why do we not take the time to understand the factors behind circumstance?

Omari’s classroom violence.  Xavier (Morocco Omari) and Nya’s failed marriage.  Nya’s crippling anxiety.  Xavier’s absentee fatherhood. Nya’s infidelity.  None of these events stand alone. The question now is: do we take this story as a mere page out of a textbook, or a reminder on how to live life through a lens of radical empathy?

Pipeline doesn’t seek to answer large questions for us, rather it invites us into the classroom to be part of this eloquent and intelligent debate.

Pipeline

Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set design by Matt Saunders, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design by Justin Ellington.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Pipeline will run through August 27, 2017

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Off Broadway

We Were There: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Beauty in Summer Love

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There are several reasons that summer love is so enticing. Whether it be the prospect of having an electric attraction with someone or the short lived nature of a fling, summer love is sure to encompass good times at a fast, flirty pace. All that and more is what you should expect from The Public Theater’s, Shakespeare in the Park A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A midsummer tale of love gone right after going wrong and the beauty in both, because love can be tricky like that.

Phylicia Rashad as Titania and Benjamin Ye as Changeling Boy – Photo courtesy of The Public Theater

When Puck (Kristine Nielson), the meddling sprite whose not all there and a little too interested in having a good time accidentally drugs the wrong young Athenian male, “fair ladies” battle it out sumo style. Titania, the fairy queen (played by Broadway Black legend Phylicia Rashad) falls in love with a literal ass (Danny Burstein), and everyone in between is spellbound throughout. At first you think Lysander (Kyle Beltran) only has eyes for Hermia (Shalita Grant)- poor Helena (Annaleigh Ashford)! But then he falls for Helena, poor Hermia! But then Demetrius falls for Helena as well- poor Hermia, again! Poor every courtier whose fallen victim to Puck’s magical negligence. It’s all so rivetingly confusing and captivatingly annoying that Puck had one job and couldn’t get it right. Equal parts touching and humorous as any romantic comedy should be, yet you can’t help but think that it’s all so beautiful. Literally, it is breathtaking to watch Helena and Hermia fight over the men they love in yellow and orange crop tops and blue and teal puffy skirts under a canopy of trees adorned in fairy lights.

De’Adre Aziz as Hippolyta and Bhavesh Patel as Theseus – Photo courtesy of The Public Theater

Praise for an overwhelmingly colorful show! I mean that in more ways than one, from the costumes designed by Clint Ramos (In Transit)- Hippolyta’s (De’Adre Aziza) wedding dress will remind you of a certain modern day goddess- to the scenic design by David Rockwell (She Loves Me). Original music and orchestrations by Justin Levine (Love’s Labour’s Lost) complimented by the enchanting Marcelle Davies-Lashley, down to the casting which is extremely pertinent given recent events surrounding the casting of Black actors. The announcement of Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan’s (Hamilton) departure from The Great Comet after a two week run, where it would appear the producers were ill prepared to handle more than one Black lead at a time. The Public Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream reaffirms that Black and Brown people are more than adequate storytellers. In terms of racial representation, The Public Theatre continues to show us what theatre can and should be. Inclusive not divisive or dismissive; or as Oskar Eustis says in the pre-show announcements theatre is “where art and culture meet.”

Under the direction of Lear deBessonet, current resident director and founder of Public Works,  A Midsummer seduces you like a determined lover hellbent on winning your heart. You’ll hear planes flying low overhead and the frequent cop car or ambulance wailing outside the park but you’ll be as spellbound as Lysander and Demetrius were with Helena. Phylicia Rashad saunters onto the stage through light smog after ascending a short flight of stairs in a glittering silver gown to address her fairy companions. Marcelle Davies-Lashley croons “Wake me up when summers here,” and you’re hooked.

Shalita Grant as Hermia and Alex Hernandez as Demetrius – Photo courtesy of The Public Theater

You’ll forget you’re listening to a play in verse, thanks to a company of actors with impeccable comedic timing. As the Bard’s work did in his day, A Midsummer reflects modern love even in iambic pentameter. In one scene, Hermia has had enough of a pestering Demetrius and regales him with a lofty Shakespearean “leave me alone” but when he persists she lets out a “Boy if you don’t…” and storms off stage to roaring laughter. Here, as evidenced throughout the entire show, the folly of romance is timeless.

“The course of true love never did run smooth” Lysander tells Hermia, but it doesn’t have to when everyone’s falling head over heels in lust on a beautiful stage in lavish costumes under a clear night sky.  So, like all summer romances that have to end, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will only be in the park for two weeks, opening Monday July 31 and running through August 13, 2017. Don’t miss your chance to see Phylicia Rashad and experience this enthralling production!

For more information on how to get your free tickets visit ThePublicTheater.org

Location: The Delacorte Theatre in Central Park

Creative: Direction by the Public’s Resident Director and Founder of the Public Works program, Lear deBessonet with choreography by Chase Brock.

Cast: Featuring Phylicia Rashad (Titania), De’Adre Aziza (Hippolyta), Patrena Murray (Snout), Shalita Grant (Hermia) and Kyle Beltran (Lysander); as well as Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom); Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom); Justin Cunningham (Philostrate); Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer); Austin Durant (Snug); Keith Hart (Third Fairy); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute); Robert Joy (Peter Quince); Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy); David Manis (Egeus, Cobweb); Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy); Kristine Nielsen (Puck); Bhavesh Patel (Theseus); Richard Poe (Oberon); Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling); Judith Wagner (Mote); Warren Wyss (Mustardseed); Benjamin Ye (Changeling Boy).

Running Time: 2 and a half hours, including a 20 minute intermission

Through August 13, 2017

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Off Broadway

We Were There: The Three Musketeers

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At the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, tucked between a baseball diamond and a playground, the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s fast-paced swashbuckling retelling of The Three Musketeer’sbrings a little Paris to Harlem, but not without taking a little Harlem to Paris.

As the sun sets in the trees somewhere behind the stage, you’ll take in a dabbing Porthos (Reynaldo Piniella), an ensemble of dancers from the Elisa Monte company, and Shayshahn “PhearNone” MacPherson on the Aurora violin, leaving one to wonder “Are we in Harlem or in France?”

In Catherine Bush’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic under Jenny Bennett’s direction, a female D’Artagnan (Miriam Hyman; The Piano Lesson ) moves from the country in hopes of joining the King’s musketeers. Before doing so of course, she must first sword-fight with almost everyone, fall in love with her landlord’s daughter (Ava McCoy), and figure out what it means to be “all for one and one for all.” It’s a tale about the three musketeers that’s less about the classic trio, and more about D’Artagnan the musketeer wannabe who can’t seem to catch a break.

Miriam Hyman – Photo by Jill Jones

Amidst a simple yet impressive set, Hyman shows us a D’Artagnan as we’ve never seen her before, simply because we haven’t seen her before. As Bennett imagined it, D’Artagnan doesn’t need to man up to be a musketeer but woman up, and woman up Hyman does. With her dred-loc bob and braid clips Hyman bounds around the stage with her sword at the ready as if she were already in the King’s service. “If I wanted to kill you,” she nonchalantly tells an injured Athos (Emmanuel Brown; Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark)  “I’d use my sword.” Hyman’s understated confidence and surety ensure that you haven’t any doubt somebody’s dying at her hand before the 90 minutes is up.

The 90 minutes goes by very fast. So fast that if you paused to swat at the many flies that were also trying to enjoy the show, you might miss a connection between a flashback scene happening on the balcony stage left or when they cut  to the present to reenact a story-within-a-story center stage. Even so, in a scene cut too short- literally stopped by a 5 second blackout- the three musketeers get into a bar brawl with flying mugs and chairs… in slow motion! Arguably the most visually arresting (albeit random) scene in the whole show.

Concerning design, when the sun finally disappeared and the front lighting hit the stage just right, the park faded into nonexistence and you could fully bask in CTH’s colorful production. Costume designer Rachel Dozier-Ezell’s mix of bold and bright patterns added a layer of captivation to the dancers dresses, the Queen of France’s (Afia Abusham) ball gown, and of course the musketeers. Consider this, could Athos, Porthos and Aramis (Brandon Carter) have made better entrances without velvet capes and striped pantalons paired with floral chemisiers, paisley vests and cheetah print boots? I think not!

If Paris, France represents a little respite amidst the chaos of a troubled world, with sword fights and cautionary tales of love gone wrong, then yes, CTH’s The Three Musketeers definitely brought a little France to Harlem.

Courtesy of The Classical Theatre of Harlem

Location: Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, Marcus Garvey Park. Free and open to the public.

Creative: By Catherine Bush, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Directed by Jenny Bennett. Choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Fight Choreography by Emmanuel Brown.

Cast: Starring Miriam Hyman, Emmanuel Brown, Brandon Carter, Reynaldo Piniella, Michael Early, R.J. Foster, Anthony Merchant and Piera Van de Weil. Featuring Afia Abusham, Jeffrey Alkins, Jamar Brathwaite, Avon Haughton, Ava McCoy, Nedra Snipes, Jorge Sanchez, Jak Watson and The Elisa Monte Dance Company.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Through July 30

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Leads & Legends

Phylicia Rashad Joins Shakespeare in the Park’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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A true titan of the theatre will take the stage with an exceptional cast for Shakespeare in the Park’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tony winner Phylicia Rashad (A Raisin in the Sun) plays Titania, Queen of the Fairies in one of the bard’s most twisting comedies. Youth, love potions, deep forests, magic and a stumbling acting troupe collide for a night of summer mischief and hilarity that can’t be missed.

 

Delacorte Theater’s resident Director Lear deBessonet’s vision for Shakespeare’s most produced play on Earth will be a sight to behold. The cast features De’Adre Aziza (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Passing Strange), Kyle Beltran (In The Heights), Vinie Burrows (Samara), Austin Durant (War), Shalita Grant (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike), Patrena Murray (The Death of The Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World), Bhavesh Patel (Present Laughter) Richard Poe (All The Way), Danny Burstein (Fiddler on the Roof), Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots), and more.

 

Fifty years after interracial marriage was legalized in the United States, it’s a joy to see so much diversity reflected in every on-stage pairing, each of which is multiracial. Representation matters and when it comes to casting, Helena says it best in this play: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind.”

 

With any luck, this play won’t be disrupted like the last Shakespeare offering from the same theater, and we’ll bow to Queen Phylicia any day.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is offered at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park July 11 – August 13, 2017.

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Cast Recording

Off-Broadway Hamilton Spoof Spamilton Cast Recording Out Now

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Spamilton, the off-Broadway parody of the musical phenomenon Hamilton, released a cast album on DRG Records last week.

The cast recording features original Spamilton cast members Dan Rosales, Nicholas Edwards, Juwan Crawley, Chris Anthony Giles, Nora Schell, with special guest stars Christine Pedi and Glenn Bassett, and Music Director Fred Barton on piano.

The show, created by Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandini, celebrates and roasts Broadways golden musical, but also features outrageous references to Gypsy, Chicago, The King And I, Assassins, Camelot and Sweeney Todd.

Not only are the stars of the original cast of Hamilton comically roasted, but they are joined by “caricatures of living Broadway legends the likes of: Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters and many more beloved icons”, even Beyonce.

Spamilton began previews at The Triad (158 West 72nd Street) on Tuesday, July 19, 2016 and opened on September 8 to rave reviews. The show most recently celebrated its 200th performance on February 19, 2017, and it was announced a second Spamilton company began a sit-down production at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre this month.

The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon. Tickets for the show can be purchased here.

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