From April twenty-first through May tenth the Shiva house of The Public Theater transformed into the pre-riot jail cells of 1971’s Attica prison complete with bars, bunks and commissary stashes for Lemon Andersen’s Toast. Upon entrance you are transported into the world of the larger-than-life, folklore heroes whose stories are the thing of myth and legend. In these walls you meet the revolutionary Hard Rock (Hill Harper) and the patriarch Dolomite (Keith David), the men whose adverse itineraries set the stage for the uprising they are both frightened of and begging for. We watch these men search for brotherhood, respect, and a future outside their bars (both mental and physical) all while grappling with the personal flaws that landed them there.
Handcrafted and delivered flawlessly, Toast opens with Hard Rock asking the audience “Have you ever heard a prisoner crying out for peace?” a line which successfully sets his agenda and eases us into the play. We then transition into a card game played amongst inmates Stackolee (John Earl Jelks), Hobo Ben (Jonathan Earl Peck), Annabelle Jones (Phillip James Brannon) and newcomer Jesse James (Armando Riesco.) It is during this scene the groundwork is laid and we see the true strength of Toast– the use of language to distinguish each character. Smooth talkers and men of few words overlap and blend together to create one extended love poem to the thoughts (Forty cents for a tank of gas?!) and slang (and that’s no jive) to the men of the seventies. It is through these moments that we follow the men from games and battles of wits to rec, work detail and fights- ending with a final battle that will change the face of the prison system forever.
Intertwined with great moments of ensemble energy are quiet moments where the poetry turns personal and our prisoners become human. One of these stand out moments and performances is delivered by Phillip James Brannon in his toast to “Annie” Jones. He flirts and sways his way through a monologue that speaks to the power of a “he-she” playing by his own rules, controlling his own money until “another ghetto story” is locked away. The audience is enraptured until the spell is broken- and the same can be said for all of these moments, especially when the epic toasts “Shine” and “The Signifying Monkey” are delivered. Lemon Andersen managed to let each character have a moment of escape from the ever-present jail cell and return seamlessly to the mounting restlessness of life in Attica without missing a beat.
Toast was originally presented as part of The Public Theater’s Public Lab, a program designed to:
“provide audiences with access to Shakespeare and new work with tickets starting at $20. Emerging and established artists gain a platform to further develop their work on stage and in performances with scaled-down productions that allow audiences and artists to engage with one another in the process of making theater.”
Andersen used this platform perfectly, engaging audiences and actors in an epic journey of language, character and life- development of which has only just begun. Audiences should expect to experience Toast in it’s next iteration very soon- for just as legends like Dolomite, Stackolee and Shine will not die, neither will Toast.
Top 5 Works To See at Under The Radar Festival!
Over the last 15 years, The Public Theater’s UNDER THE RADAR FESTIVAL has presented over 229 companies from 42 countries. This festival is an outlet that allows new works the opportunity to catch their breath and breathe. The Public’s mission for providing a high-visibility platform to support artists from diverse backgrounds who are redefining the act of making theater is what this festival is all about.
There is a lot to see but listed here are the top 5 to get you started. Be sure to click on the dates and times above each trailer for all of the details including location, ticket prices, detailed show dates and starting times.
The Illustrious Blacks have arrived to save the world one beat at a time! Once upon a time in a galaxy not far away, there lived two kings. Each was the ruler of his own deliciously glorious planet. The first king, Manchildblack, was well known throughout the cosmos for his ethereal vocals, celestial sonics, and earthy musical messages. The other king, Monstah Black, was a star in the solar system for his gravity-defying performances, gender-bending fashions, and spacey disposition. One magical night, an inexplicable ultra-magnetic pull forced the two planets to collide. A technicolored explosion occurred, turning night into day, with a feast of aural and visual delights. It was then that the universe was changed forever. Manchildblack and Monstah Black united and became The Illustrious Blacks!
2. HEAR WORD! NAIJA WOMAN TALK TRUE
Inspired by multi-generational stories of inequality and transformation. Staged by director and writer Ifeoma Fafunwa, the show grapples with the issues affecting the lives of women across Nigeria, and the factors that limit their potential for independence, leadership, and meaningful contribution in society. Combining song and dance with intimate portraits of resilience and resistance, the show celebrates women who have broken the culture of silence, challenged the status quo, and moved beyond barriers to achieving solutions.
Featuring a cast of leading Nigerian actresses (Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Joke Silva, Elvina Ibru, Omonor, Ufuoma McDermott, Zara Udofia-Ejoh, Rita Edward, Debbie Ohiri, Odenike, and Oluchi Odii) as well as percussionists Emeka Anokwuru and Blessing Idireri.
3. INK: A Piece For Museums
INK is an art lecture, live personal essay, and electronic music concert all in one. With stunning visuals by media designer Shawn Duan, musician-storyteller duo James Harrison Monaco and Jerome Ellis perform a lush live score as they lovingly analyze works from around the world, exploring the traditional art lecture into a unique theatrical experience—one that’s at once playful, intellectual, and spiritual. Together, they guide us through a meditation on calligraphy and illuminated manuscripts, on music and silence, and on Jerome’s intimate relationship to the spoken and written word, in this first-ever collaboration between Under the Radar and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Now, the last two works are part of INCOMING! A festival within a festival. Rapid Response. Controlled Chaos. New Work.
Incoming! features works-in-process from The Public Theater’s Devised Theater Working Group. The DTWG is an artist resource program, offering workshops in critical and professional skills-building, as well as opportunities for creative collaboration. Reciprocally, this Working Group also advises for the Devised Theater Initiative, helping to shape a more inclusive and equitable field.
4. MACBETH IN STRIDE
Whitney White‘s live concert and theatrical event excavate the underbelly of female ambition. With throbbing orchestrations of vintage rock, White traces the fatalistic arc of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth while exorcizing demons of her own. One in a five-part series on Shakespeare’s women, this concert play is a battle cry for black female power and desire.
Sean Dononvan‘s new work is the reconstruction of a memory—the story of a queer couple who move from Brooklyn to a cabin in upstate New York, and of the violence that befalls them. Through monologue, film, dance, and music by Heather Christian, CABIN surveys the lines between myth and memoir, the complexity of intimacy, and the magnitude of loss.
We Were There: Experience Deja Vu With Groundhog Day
What if you had to relive the same day over and over and over AND over again? Would you try something new every time to get a different outcome? Would you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to stop it? Now a two-time Olivier Award-winning new musical, Groundhog Day takes us on a whirlwind of adventure and misery through the eyes of a jaded weatherman forced to relive the same day, every day.
Funny enough, Groundhog Day is actually based on a film with the same title, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, and co-written by the show’s book writer Danny Rubin, about a weatherman caught in time and forced to relive the same day over and over and over again.
The concept seemingly feels like dangerous ground for a musical or a play, for that matter, as it forces the audience to watch the same moments over and over AND over again. Yet, somehow Groundhog Day manages to make what could be dangerous territory and turn it into a brilliant masterpiece of a musical. Largely in part to the catchy, fun music of the brilliant Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day makes deja vu seem kinda… cool.
Like the 1993 film, we meet our snarky protagonist Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual prediction of spring, as predicted by “Phil the Groundhog.” Naturally, Phil feels nothing but disdain for the ritual, Punxsutawney, and everyone who celebrates it, including his producer Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss), who he tries to woo while acting like a complete prick to her.
As the Groundhog Day version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Connors needs to deal with the consequences of his terrible, often hilarious, actions. Cue the deja vu, where he must relive the same day over and over.
While he initially spends his days in self-loathing, also encountering a massive groundhog mascot that hilariously hits him on the head as he passes by every day (and he totally deserves it too), he eventually comes to his senses and looks to turning over a new leaf as he tries to win Rita over.
But not before indulging in his share of booze, women, and crime. Repeatedly, of course.
Karl’s charm really comes to play here, as we can easily grow to hate Phil Connors. After all, he’s literally the worst. Yet somehow, watching him suffer this forever purgatory, you can’t help but both root for his liberation and also hope he’s stuck there for all eternity. Karl’s performance in the West End run of the show earned him an Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical last week.
It helps that Broadway newcomer Barrett Doss is an excellent match for Karl, their chemistry undeniable, like her talent. The role (and some of the songs) hint that she’s more than the boring, hard-working producer that we’re led to believe (largely in part to her interactions with Connors), but, underneath the surface, a quirkier soul searching for love. Doss plays that side of Rita with enormous heart and playful charm and wit.
The show also offers a few solos of other Punxsutawney citizens, who express their own joys, worries, and troubles of life in the small town.
Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, Rob Howell (set design), Hugh Vanstone (light design), Paul Kieve (illusions), and Peter Darling (choreography) prove that when the creative team shares the same vision, magic can happen, as evident in the first act’s amazing car-chase number with Phil, two idiot bar patrons, and the Punxsutawney police — one of the most fun sequences I’ve seen on Broadway since … everything in Matilda, which featured the same creative team behind this musical.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Groundhog Day, and, honestly, wouldn’t mind being stuck in a suburban purgatory with Phil and company again… and again.
Groundhog Day plays at the August Wilson Theatre.
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