Monday, November 28, 2016

Ethiopian Lives Matter

Let me be the first to admit it. I'm conflicted. On one hand, conservatives rail against political correctness; on the other hand liberals are increasingly outraged by acts of cultural appropriation. Both factions are irate about what they perceive as extreme wrongdoing on the cultural battlefield. But where opera is concerned, the arguments get especially confusing.

With Asian American groups hot under the collar about Hollywood's preference for casting Caucasian actors to play Asian characters in yellowface -- and chastising small opera companies for scheduling productions of Gilbert & Sullivan's 1885 comic opera, The Mikado -- it's important to remember that in the opera world, voice trumps skin color. If you can't sing the music the way the conductor wants it to be heard, you don't get the job.

In 2015, the Metropolitan Opera announced that, for the first time since the company presented Otello in 1891, the tenor singing the title role would not use blackface in its new production of Verdi's opera. The Met's statement read as follows:
"Although the central character in Otello is a Moor from North Africa, the Met is committed to color-blind casting which allows the best singers possible to perform any role, regardless of their racial background. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is among a small handful of international dramatic tenors who can meet the considerable musical challenges of the role of Otello, one of the most demanding in the entire operatic canon, when sung without amplification on the stage of the world's largest opera house. In recent seasons, Antonenko has sung the role to acclaim at the Royal Opera in London, at the Paris Opera, and with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and we look forward to his first performances of the role at the Met in
Bartlett Sher's season-opening new production. Antonenko will not wear dark makeup in the Met's production."

On November 6, 2016, the Los Angeles Opera's opening night performance of Akhnaten starred countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (who had recently enjoyed a tremendous artistic success in the English National Opera's production of Philip Glass's 1984 opera about the pharaoh from the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt). Originally named Amenhotep IV, Akhnaten's main claim to fame was moving away from polytheism toward a religion whose sun god stood above the other ancient Egyptian gods. Although Akhnaten was occasionally depicted as a somewhat androgynous figure, his royal wife was Queen Nefertiti. He is presumed to be the father of King Tutankhamun.

A bust of Akhnaten

On opening night, about 25 protesters carrying signs that read “Our Black History Matters” and "Akhenaton Was a Black Pharaoh” demonstrated in front of the Los Angeles Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. As Catherine Womack reported in the Los Angeles Times, the protest had been organized by Legrand H. Clegg II, the West Coast President of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations which organized the “Black History Matters” demonstration in collaboration with the Black American Political Association of California. Citing Akhnaten’s significance as a black historical figure, Clegg likened the portrayal of the pharaoh by a white singer in Akhnaten to any production that would cast a white man as Martin Luther King Jr.
"We’re here to very peacefully inform people about our great history. The American public is unaware of the greatness of people of African descent because the academic, scientific and media establishments, through conspiracy, have suppressed, distorted or ignored the contributions of black people. Akhnaten and Nefertiti are icons in our community, and our children deserve to have heroes. It’s an insult. We are tired of it and we are demanding that the truth be told.”

As is often the case, none of the protesters had given much thought to how many countertenors are available who are capable of singing Glass's score. A statement subsequently released by the Los Angeles Opera read:
"While we strive for overall diversity in our casting, we have a long-standing policy of ignoring age, race and other physical characteristics when it comes to casting particular roles. Part of this is due to the complexity of casting for opera. In addition to acting ability, vocal beauty, tone and type, opera performers sing unamplified over a full symphony orchestra -- an Olympian-level feat that is a combination of rare talent and years of dedication and training.

The title role of Akhnaten is particularly difficult to cast, especially in this production. It requires a very rare voice type, called a countertenor, in addition to outstanding stamina and agility -- vocally and physically. Anthony Roth Costanzo was one of only two singers we found to have the skills and ability to perform the role of Akhnaten in this case, plus he comes to L.A. Opera having recently learned and performed it for English National Opera. Ethnicity was not a factor in our decision. While we do not cast roles according to race, we have a number of people of color in Akhnaten, including in the role of Nefertiti, the queen, and another singer of Egyptian descent, among others.

We fully agree that the historical contributions of people of color have long been distorted or ignored. Not only do we wholeheartedly support all peaceful efforts to right these wrongs, we hope that in our own way we can be part of the solution. We are working toward a world where people of all backgrounds experience, as artists and audience members, the transformative power of opera."

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When asked for an example of grand opera, most people will immediately point to Verdi's Aida. Famed for its exotic setting (ancient Egypt), Aida's world premiere took place at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo on December 24, 1871. Long associated with the spectacle of its Triumphal March, the opera has been staged in front of the pyramids of Giza and has often been performed in some of Italy's outdoor arenas (the Verona Arena, the Baths of Caracalla, etc.).

A horse-drawn chariot in the Triumphal Scene from Aida

A camel is led across the stage during a performance of Aida

In a recent post on Parterre Box entitled The Elephant in the Room, columnist "Dawn Fatale" wrote:
"At the election-eve Jenufa at the Met, Trumpism made an unexpected, if timely appearance.  Before the show, a patron was holding court in the Lounge, bemoaning how Peter Gelb had ruined Aida by removing the elephants from the Triumphal Scene. This was, he said, waving his hands for emphasis, an unconscionable thing to do to a 'great Zeffirelli production.' His companions tried to convince him there were never any elephants, but he was adamant that his cherished production had been violated. They never fact-checked his assertion that Zeffirelli directed the Met’s current production."
Tenor Roy Cornelius Smith made his Act II entrance astride Kamba
the Elephant in Opera Birmingham's 2005 production of Aida

Previous stagings of Aida have used horses, donkeys, and goats in the Triumphal Scene. In October 1991, the Connecticut Opera staged a mammoth production in the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum starring Natalia Rom and Bruno Beccaria. In his review for the Hartford Courant, Steve Metcalf noted that:
"In the triumphal sequence, the animals comported themselves like veterans of the operatic stage, the amateur extras showed an almost Rockette-like precision, the dancing was strenuous, bordering on the lewd. The biggest burst of applause, however, was accorded the half-dozen belly dancers, each of whom gamely worked holding a large live snake above her head. The tableau was so grand that it seemed entirely forgivable that one of the young choristers could be seen sporting a point-and-shoot 35mm camera on a cord around her arm."
Tiki the Elephant appeared during the Triumphal Scene
in the Portland Opera's 1999 production of Aida

During a half century of operagoing, I've witnessed some pretty cockamamie productions. Two performances of Aida are forever etched in my memory. In the late 1960s, when I saw Marguerite Ruffino’s tiny opera company perform a stripped-down version of Aida on an op-art set for The Boys in the Band at Matunuck, Rhode Island’s 200-seat Theatre-By-The-Sea, I thought I had had my rock-bottom operatic experience. I didn’t imagine that anything could be worse than the sight of Amonasro clad in a leopard-skin bathrobe while attempting to hide behind a plastic palm in Michael’s bedroom.

But I was wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong!

In 1988, while in London, I caught a performance of Pocket Opera of Nurnberg’s execrable interpretation of Aida. With Manfred Blosser’s unit set (a mockup of a computer's circuit board) and Andrea Riedel’s outrageous costumes, the company hawked its dramatic concept as a war between the rival systems of modern, digital sound and old, analog recordings. Instead of ancient Egypt, the production reflected the struggle between the numbers 1 and 0 (which form the basis of digital computing).

Thus, the Ethiopians were costumed to represent fiercely nostalgic followers of the 33-1/3 rpm cult while the more sophisticated Egyptians represented the kingdom of the shiny compact disc.
  • Aida’s slave necklace was connected to a circular disc nearly four feet in diameter onto which numerous vinyl LPs had been glued. 
  • Amonasro’s cape was covered with old LPs that were smashed to bits during a bizarre confrontation with Amneris following the shattered musical remnants of Verdi’s Triumphal Scene as the Egyptian princess wielded her royal sceptre (a piece of military equipment resembling a giant phonograph arm).  
  • Amneris’s jewelry included earrings made of compact discs. 
  • The Egyptian princess dutifully doffed her royal headdress whenever the need for a female chorus arose. 
  • Meanwhile, a man dressed in black tights, a codpiece that he could never have hoped to fill, and a Darth Vader helmet (he was supposed to double as Ramfis and the male chorus) kept sashaying back and forth across an elevated plank while performing mock Egyptian poses. 
Neither the singers nor the composer were helped much by the fact that Pocket Opera of Nurnberg's backstage orchestra consisted of a piano, synthesizer, celeste, harp, and vibraphone. Although I pitied the leads for having to participate in such pretentious bullshit, I left the performance feeling that, with some kind of perversely divine justice, God oppresses those who oppress themselves.

* * * * * * * * *
There can be no denying the ugly fact that the 2016 election results represented a vociferous pushback against political correctness. However, when push comes to shove, Aida is essentially a story about forbidden love between a military hero and someone who clearly represents "the other."
  • Radames is a light-skinned Egyptian warrior in love with a dark-skinned woman.
  • Although by birth she is an Ethiopian princess, ever since her capture Aida has been a servant to Amneris, the daughter of Egypt's ruling Pharaoh.
While nobody ever questioned the tradition of Caucasian opera singers donning blackface to sing the role of Aida, Leontyne Price startled the opera world when she began to portray Aida in major opera houses. On several occasions, the makeup artists simply did not know what kind of makeup to use on her skin. As she explained:
"Let's start with the obvious, or what seems like the obvious. Aida is a black woman and, in the world of opera, black artists don't have many opportunities to play black characters. That's it on a very simplistic level. But it goes far beyond that. I was always totally at ease when I sang the immortal phrases composed by that great master, Giuseppe Verdi, for his enslaved princess."
"I used to joke that when a theatre cast me as Aida they could always expect to save on makeup. (It's not that I didn't wear any makeup as Aida; every artist wears makeup on stage. But, as Aida, I can assure you, I could get away with less than just about any of my colleagues!) It was a joke, but there was a serious statement lurking behind my attempt at humor: When I performed Aida, the color of my skin became my costume and that gave me an incredible freedom no other role could provide. My skin was my costume -- all I had to do was drape something over it."
The San Francisco Opera recently unveiled a new look for Aida when it debuted a co-production with the Seattle Opera, the Minnesota Opera, and the Washington National Opera. The director, Francesca Zambello, was inspired by the work of Los Angeles-based graffiti artist, RETNA (whose hieroglypic-like symbols feature strongly in Michael Yeargan's sets). The poster art for the new production held great promise.

Poster art for the San Francisco Opera's new production of Aida

However, on the night I attended, one person sitting near me would occasionally let out whoops of laughter at some of the more ridiculous pieces of stage business (which roundly deserve to be shitcanned). While I felt that much of the production looked cheap and tacky (Amneris must have found her wardrobe at the Cairo branch of WalMart), I was genuinely shocked to witness a thorough whitewashing of Antonio Ghislanzoni's libretto which effectively eliminated "the other" from Aida. Other than choristers C. Michael Belle and Alexander Taite, those were the whitest goddamn Ethiopians I'd ever seen!

Leah Crocetto as Aida (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

In most productions, the characters of Aida, Amonasro, and the chorus of captured Ethiopians wear a combination of makeup, body paint, and bodystockings to darken the color of their skin. I don't think the cost of such items has soared as dramatically as the price of an Epipen (or that they would represent a major line item in the budget for the production). In fact, many years ago when he was the General Director of the Tulsa Opera, Ed Purrington told me how he had once been forced to explain to a board member why doing a concert version of Aida (as a means of saving on production costs) would not go over well with their audience.

I have no doubt that Zambello (who is the General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, and has a long history with the San Francisco Opera) is well aware of the Black Lives Matter movement, the increase in racial tensions within the United States, and the lack of diversity within the opera world. When queried by The New York Times about the Met's decision regarding its 2015 production of Otello, Zambello (who had cast the African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens as Macbeth for the Glimmerglass Festival) suggested that a white tenor cast as Otello could deliver a compelling and “true” performance onstage.
“If I were casting ‘Otello’ I would work hard to find a black man who is vocally and dramatically appropriate for the role. But if I could not, I certainly would not present another singer ‘blacked up.’ The great stories and characters fascinate us because we recognize something of ourselves -- for better or for worse -- in them, and not because of the color of their skin.”
I beg to differ. As one watches these clips from Zambello's interview about her new production of Aida, it doesn't sound as if the racial component of the story was much of a consideration.

As people reacted to the shock of 2016's election results, many started to wonder how pollsters and pundits could have been so painfully off the mark in predicting who would become the 45th President of the United States. Their astonishment reminded me of numerous stage productions I've seen that were so misguided that one couldn't help but ask "Didn't anyone have the guts to tell them it wasn't working?"

Part of the problem is that sometimes an artistic vision looks great on paper, receives the kind of buy-in from the the creative team that borders on unconditional love for the visionary artist and yet, when put on stage, doesn't live up to its promise. Some may remember a 1989 production of Il Trovatore that was shared by the Seattle Opera and Houston Grand Opera. One of John Conklin's sets featured a huge wall whose textured surface was achieved by stapling crumpled-up, dark plastic garbage bags onto flats. Close, but no cigar.

Some of the design choices for San Francisco Opera's new Aida were mind-boggling.
  • Michael Yeargan's drab setting for the opening scene and the Judgment Scene looked like a decrepit, abandoned train station that had been taken over by military troops. 
  • I found RETNA's much-touted graffiti art surprisingly underwhelming. Because of its steep vertical orientation, it added a strangely Asian influence to the production design that was further enhanced by the King's bright red throne in the Triumphal Scene. 
  • The final drop for the Tomb Scene looked incredibly tacky and could easily be used for numerous operas. 
  • For me, the most effective scenic element was Yeargan's backdrop for the Nile Scene.

Anita Yavich's costumes ranged from the unfortunate to the bizarre.
  • Dressed in uniforms resembling those worn by Soviet-era military, the Egyptian soldiers in Act I looked as if like they had been left behind by a bus-and-truck touring production of Carmen
  • The floral caftans worn by the women in Amneris's chamber looked like someone had raided Peggy Lee's end-of-career wardrobe. 
  • The design for the priest outfits in the Judgment Scene (which consisted of starched see-through black peignoirs draped over the male chorus's military uniforms) was downright laughable. 
  • Unless one was close enough to the stage to see the military stripes on Amonasro's shirt, the captured King of Ethiopia looked like a garage mechanic. There was no sense at all that the Egyptians belonged to a richer and more sophisticated society than the primitive Ethiopians.
With all the glory of ancient Egypt available to the creative team, the modernization and increased militarization of the costume design had an unexpected side effect by tilting the dramatic power away from the women (Aida, Amneris) and handing it over to the men. Some of this was also due to the casting.
  • While Leah Crocetto is a local favorite with a young and powerful voice that shows great potential, she is far from what anyone would call a stage animal. Left alone center stage for the set change between Amneris's chambers and the Triumphal Scene, she looked less like a terrified servant than a promising young artist unsure of her exit cue.
  • Although Ekaterina Semenchuk's portrayal of Amneris showed vocal fire during the Judgement Scene, her authority as a favored princess was undercut by costumes that looked ridiculously cheap and stage direction that diminished her sense of power and privilege.

The men, however, gave magnificent, fully committed performances. Making his role debut as Radames, Brian Jagde offered a splendid vocal and layered dramatic portrait of the conflicted military hero. As Amonasro, George Gagnidze sang with thrilling conviction. Raymond Aceto's Ramfis and Anthony Reed's King of Egypt had greater resonance and were more richly sung than one usually hears.

Whereas the choreography in most productions of Aida is focused primarily on the women, Jessica Lang's questionable contributions gave most of the dancing to the men. In Act I, Scene II, young boys and teenagers were seen showing off in military costumes before their proud mothers. The Triumphal Scene featured what can best be described as a rowdy and ridiculous rape ballet in which various soldiers mimed the brutalization and submission of a woman after which she merrily jumped up and (as if to thank them for violating her) paid ardent tribute to their aggression.

Brian Jagde as Radames in Aida (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Even more than theatre, opera is a peculiar art form because, in spite of any one production's massive artistic failure, the music will survive intact. Although Zambello has done some marvelous work over the years, I thought her staging of the Judgment Scene was simply ludicrous.

Just as political consultants are quick to warn their clients about the necessity of considering the optics of any moment, that advice is equally applicable to opera. Which is the better choice? To put the chorus and two principals in dark makeup? Or to leave the audience wondering if the aim of this production was to see how well ethnic cleansing works on Ethiopians?

Image courtesy of Parterre Box

Credit is due to Mark McCullough for his lighting design. I was extremely grateful to maestro Nicola Luisotti and chorus director Ian Robertson for keeping all of the luster and passion in Verdi's music despite what was happening onstage. Here's the company's trailer for the production.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gays Of Our Lives

The last six weeks of the year are notorious for adding emotional stress to many lives. Between strained family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and unrelenting media pressure to buy all kinds of crap one may not need (or be able to afford), keeping up appearances exacts a heavy toll on one's wallet and soul.

This is also a time when more people are vulnerable to suicidal ideation, domestic violence, and increased substance abuse. While some people fantasize about their New Year's resolutions, others wonder if they can find the strength to break free from abusive and/or codependent relationships.

For every listicle devoted to the ten best movies, moments, memes, or mugshots, there are equally cynical pieces of advice. Following a tense and bitter election, many people are struggling to put on a happy face as they watch the parade of incompetent political appointments being made by President-elect Fuckface von Clownstick. When it comes to handy post-apocalyptic tips for homemakers, Lewis Dartnell's recent article on the BBC's website entitled How To Cope With The End of the World is a must-read survivor's manual that picks up where Martha Stewart left off.

Different personalities cope with disaster in different ways. Some people panic and need to be calmed down; others become paralyzed with fear and need to be coaxed out of their terror. As I learned during the years I spent working at a YMCA summer camp, there is a third type of personality which organizes people, directs traffic, and gives individuals small, easily achievable tasks which they can perform.

Words of wisdom can come from the most unlikely sources. During one of my most dispiriting periods, a gym buddy told me not to worry, reassuring me that when one door closes another will open. As trite as that might sound, his words helped me to be alert for an opportunity that might not be clearly visible at the moment, but that might point to a forgotten door from my past that I could walk through. When I recognized that opening, not only did it return me to the field of medical transcription, it helped me work my way through $70,000 in credit card debt, start writing a professional column for a trade publication, and publish an online manual entitled Dictation Therapy for Doctors.

One of my favorite pieces of advice is Tevye's warning that "Good news will wait and bad news will refuse to leave." A friend from Australia recently posted this meme on his Facebook page.

Coping with bad news isn't always easy. Nor is it necessarily a romp and a frolic. But if a person can avoid wallowing in self pity, there are helping hands that might reach out to help someone get back up on their feet and, if they are lucky, devote some time to meditation and introspection.

* * * * * * * * *
When things go wrong, it's tempting to look for people to blame for one's misfortune. During its recent presentation of six short plays under the umbrella title of "Left Coast News," San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company staged Tommy Jamerson's rollicking catfight entitled Rags to Bitches. Having previously written such children's plays as The Big Bad Bullysaurus, Charlie the No-Good, Really-Rotten, Cheat-a-saurus Rex, Princess Pigface, and From Hair to Eternity: The Un-be-weave-able Adventures of Rapunzel, Jamerson was ready to tackle bigger game.

Directed by Chris Maltby, this comic playlet takes place in a slovenly backstage dressing room as two fierce and furious egos hope to make "herstory" at the U.S. Open Legs Drag Pageant.
  • Poppy (Neil Higgins) is the older, fleshier contestant -- someone who has been around the block, demands respect from the younger talent nipping at her heels, and is more than ready to put Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and all those old school bitches back in the chorus where they belong. Imagine the bastard love child of Justin Sayre and Tallulah Bankhead.
  • Dynasty (Connor Fatch) is a more modern creature, a skinny contestant whose ensemble and attitude speak to a younger generation that has grown up watching RuPaul's drag competitions on television in the comfort of their own homes.
Dynasty (Connor Fatch) and Poppy (Neil Higgins) intimidate Eugene
(Sabrina De Mio) in Rags to Bitches (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Caught between the two is Eugene (Sabrina De Mio), the starry-eyed stagehand who is trying to resolve a technical glitch while Poppy and Dynasty bare their fangs, trade insults, and reveal the evil ways each has tried to sabotage the other's costume in order to clinch the title. However, once Eugene's crisis is resolved, it's time to kiss and make up before heading onstage.

Rags to Bitches proved to be an acid-tinged showdown that allowed Higgins and Fatch to throw caution to the wind and have themselves a grand old time as two mean girls who know how to conserve their energy until showtime.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the benefits of living in a city that is home to several gay theatre companies is that audiences get used to seeing plays in which gay characters deal with the same kinds of shit happening in their daily lives as straight characters. It's not necessary for a protagonist to be a suicidal, self-loathing closet case or a gay man dying of HIV/AIDS.

Unlike some gay playwrights from previous generations (Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee), today's LGBT dramatists find plenty of material with which to create complex, interesting characters forced to cope with challenges that range from outlandish to overwhelming. From Charles Busch, John Fisher, Charles Ludlam, and Harvey Fierstein to Paul Rudnick, JC Lee, and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, their work has been embraced by a wide range of audiences who laugh and cry at the humanity they've been able to put onstage. As Stephen Karam (whose play, The Humans, won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play) explains:
"I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of brave writers who blazed a trail, like Larry KramerTerrence McNally, Tony Kushner, and Craig Lucas. Three Sisters is one of my favorite plays, but I have never once read it and thought, you know, if these were three lesbians, I’d have more of an 'in' to their thinking and be sucked into the story. If I write a story with predominantly gay men, well, we’ve been connecting to stories with straight people for a long time. I don’t think of plays with straight people as heterosexual plays. I don’t walk away from Death of a Salesman thinking of it as a straight play."
"I just think the reality of our generation is that we all know someone who is 'post-gay,' who came out by just bringing their boyfriends home in middle school. I’m in my early thirties, and I know there are people who came out at 18, 19, 20. It’s a conscious choice to not shy away from what I know. It’s also not to think about it too much. There are organizations like Exodus, but we’ve come so far that we have kids who come out and it’s a non-issue."
Joseph (Eric Kerr) is a former college athlete struggling with
an undiagnosed illness in Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the regional premiere of Karam's exquisitely-written drama entitled Sons of the Prophet. Originally commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the work premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston in the spring of 2011 and was a finalist in the 2012 competition for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Although the story is filled with physical and emotional pain, it glows with the playwright's keen sense of humor and generous compassion. Unlike many other plays, Karam's script leaves the audience with a rare sense of emotional fulfillment, as if witnessing others struggling to cope with personal setbacks has helped them to put their own suffering in perspective.

Touchingly directed by Ben Randle on a unit set designed by Devin Kasper( with costumes by Jorge R. Hernandez and lighting by Victoria Herbert), Karam's play begins as the audience sees the silhouette of a male deer caught in the headlights of an approaching car. There is the sound of a crash before the lights come up in the office of Gloria (Cheryl Smith), a self-absorbed and newly widowed book packager who has returned to her late husband's home town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania following a spectacular fall from grace under the intense spotlight of New York's publishing industry.

Gloria's new assistant, Joseph Douaihy (Eric Kerr), is struggling to get her to sign off on his healthcare insurance even though he is only working for her on a part-time basis. A former competitive runner, at 29 he is a shadow of his college self who is now forced to wear braces in order to cope with the pain radiating from his knees (perhaps due to a hypoplastic femoral trochlea).

As Joseph reminds his boss that he needs to leave the office early so he can visit his father (who was recently hospitalized following an automobile accident), Gloria is much more interested in her discovery that Joseph's family is distantly related to the beloved Lebanese-American writer, Khalil Ghibran. A woman with precious little talent of her own, she is eagerly visualizing how Joseph's ethnic roots and family heritage could lead to a lucrative deal for a potential bestseller that could get her back into publishing circles (Gloria was shunned after publishing a fraudulent memoir whose author claimed to have met his wife while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp).

Gloria is also the kind of New Yorker who can talk for hours without listening to what anyone else has to say. Although she is quick to interrupt Joseph in mid-sentence, as soon as he starts to bore her with the painful details of his life, she reaches for her smartphone and pretends to be taking a very important call (even though he just told her that the phone's battery is dead).

Gloria (Cheryl Smith) is a woman who wallows in
self-pity in Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Two weeks later, the Douaihy family is thrown into chaos after Joseph's father succumbs to a heart attack. Because their mother died several years ago of cancer, Joseph and his 18-year-old brother, Charles (Stephen Kanaski), must cope with the realization that they are now adult orphans. Meanwhile, their uncle Bill (Donald Currie), a devout curmudgeon in failing health who insists that the family continue to worship Saint Rafqa, insists on moving in with his nephews so that he can look after them when, in truth, he's the one who needs looking after.

One of the issues the family must deal with is the fate of Vin (Marcus Drew Steele), the local football hero who, on a dare, placed the fake stag that is the team mascot for "The Mighty Bucks" on the highway as a prank. A talented African American athlete who grew up in foster care, Vin is genuinely remorseful about the results of his prank. He is also terrified by the possibility of losing his football scholarship if he is benched as a result of Mr. Douaihy's death.

The obvious question is whether the Douaihys can bring themselves to forgive Vin for his fatal prank. Joseph is adamant about not wanting to meet him. Uncle Bill is eager to confront the young man and make sure he understands the depth and ramifications of the family's loss. To their surprise, Charles happily announces that he's already been chatting with Vin online and thinks they should meet him.

Marcus Drew Steele, Eric Kerr, Donald Currie, and Stephen Kanaski
in a scene from Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Of the three surviving Douaihys, Charles is easily the most interesting. Born deaf in one ear as a result of a birth defect, he underwent plastic surgery which made his ear appear normal. Unlike his older brother (whom he accuses of being cheap and dressing like a lesbian lumberjack), Charles has a quick wit, strong social skills, a fashion sense befitting a budding queen, and some cheeky observational skills. A geography nerd who learned how to identify various states and nations by their shapes, he welcomes social challenges with open arms.

After Vin arrives at the Douaihys' home, the confrontation is interrupted when a self-absorbed Gloria (who has no understanding of personal boundaries) enters at a most unfortunate moment. With Joseph simultaneously forced to deal with Gloria's neediness and Bill's bathroom issues, Charles can barely contain his delight when it becomes obvious that he can have Vin all to himself.

As if coping with his deeply needy and narcissistic boss who wants Joseph to consent to a book package about his family history, a sassy young gay brother who is quick to criticize Joseph for his faults, and an incontinent bigoted uncle were not enough, as the new head of the family Joseph must also cope with a doctor who wants him to undergo a spinal tap and a handsome reporter from Harrisburg who has come snooping around for a scoop about the accident which led to the elder Douaihy's death.

Loralee Windsor, JD Scalzo, and Eric Kerr in a
scene from Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

When first Joseph encounters Timothy (JD Scalzo) at the local bus station, the two men strike up a nervous conversation which is easily recognizable to most gay men as a clumsy attempt at cruising. Timothy has traveled the world, can speak some Arabic, and challenges Joseph to think beyond the limited horizons of a fading steel town in the heart of Pennsylvania's rust belt. After an unexpected hookup, Timothy pushes too hard in order to get his story. Joseph retaliates by calling him a closet case with a small dick.

While some people are surprised by Karam's "boldness" in writing a play about a family in which there are two gay brothers, the playwright sees things quite differently.
"I’m a gay writer and I wrote a play with three gay characters in it. If you think that’s a gay play, then there’s a part of me that goes 'Yeah, that’s a gay play.' If people want to call it a gay play, that’s fine. But what I’m excited about is that I don't think you get on the ride with some marketing angle (come to see Sons of the Prophet and you’ll get some lovemaking in a Hampton Inn). That’s not the reason to see this play."
It most certainly is not. The reason to see Sons of the Prophet is that it is a tenderhearted, magnificently written dramedy, beautifully directed by Ben Randle, that can easily stand on its own against numerous classics of the American theatre. Karam's writing is so masterful that, whether listening to Gloria's aggressive interruptions or self-absorbed monologue, the audience can't help but be moved by the sheer vulnerability of Karam's characters. This New Conservatory Theatre Center production features exceptional performances by Cheryl Smith as Gloria, Donald Currie as Uncle Bill, and Stephen Kanaski as Charles. Eric Kerr's Joseph and JD Scalzo's Tim are both struggling with recognizable pressures, while Nancy French has some nice moments as a hospital nurse and the President of the local school board.

Nancy French and Loralee Windsor portray two members of the
local school board in Sons of the Prophet (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Loralee Windsor draws comic gold from her portrayals of the bus station's manager and a school board member who clucks about how Charles has had to deal with being "hearing impaired and gay." Yet, at the end of the play, she makes a glowing appearance as Joseph's elementary school teacher, Mrs. McAndrew, who also attends physical therapy sessions. She lovingly tells her former student that it will help if he thinks of his pain as a kind of quicksand which he must rise above.

Sons of the Prophet is written from the heart with great craft and remarkable levels of compassion. I look forward to an opportunity to see it again soon. Performances continue through December 18 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Mexican Magical Mystery Tour

Just in time for the end-of-year holiday season, Cirque du Soleil has returned to the San Francisco Bay area with the U.S. premiere of its latest spectacle. Billed as a journey through an imaginary, poetic vision of Mexico "like the awakening from a dream where light quenches the spirit and rain soothes the soul," the company's 38th production in 32 years, Luzia, hints at a new direction for Cirque shows in which the artistic vision weaves a more cohesive web between individual acts.

The visions of Mexican culture proffered by the creative team for Luzia are in sharp contrast to what many Americans may think of a country which has constantly been denigrated by our taco bowl-loving President-elect. Instead, they evoke a rich cultural heritage much older -- and often more beautiful -- than our own. With a cast of 44 artists from 15 different countries, Luzia (some of whose set and costumes designs are inspired by contemporary Mexican artists) will easily become a cultural ambassador for a nation bursting with history and art. With an anticipated seven-year-tour planned, the Mexican government will get plenty of bang for the $47.7 million bucks it put into this production.

Luzia offers up dreamy images of a tropical climate filled with lush vegetation, tropical rainforests. and Cirque's trademark wit. Upon entering Le Grand Chapiteau, audiences see a stage filled with nearly 5,000 cempasuchil flowers (the main element of Day of the Dead altars). Although the use of the Aztec marigold dates back to the pre-Columbian era, during the pre-show activities, these flowers are tended to by cute little robots whose heads are made from watering cans.

As the show begins, a group of gymnasts dressed as hummingbirds starts performing a hoop routine atop two industrial treadmills resting on a turntable. The effect woos the audience into accepting a much different fluidity of movement than seen in past Cirque shows -- a sure sign that the company's visionaries are making full use of old technologies while fusing traditional acrobatics with state-of-the-art stage machinery.

Although the acrobats may be jumping through hoops that are barely 30 inches in diameter, they must do so while wearing headdresses that resemble a hummingbird's beak and costumes that reflect the brilliant colors of a hummingbird's wings.

The brilliant colors of one of Giovanna Buzzi's hummingbird
costumes for Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

As more acrobat/animal figures come onstage, the audience sees everything from a running woman (Shelli Epstein) costumed as a butterfly to life-sized jaguar and horse puppets -- similar to the ones used in War Horse. Of note, Epstein's butterfly wings are each approximately 20 feet long and require more than 130 feet of silk (the costume pays tribute to the annual migration of monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico).

An acrobat dressed as a butterfly lands atop a giant horse puppet
in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 

A horse puppet and butterfly dancer pass before the giant disk
in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

With animation aimed at the giant disk symbolizing a Mayan calendar that is a focal point of the production, Cirque's increased use of such technology allows it to project hungry sharks circling the water for food as a clown (Eric Fool Koller) descends from the top of the tent wearing scuba gear and bright yellow flippers.

The statistics attached to any Cirque du Soleil show always fascinate me. Mounted on a cylinder, the red Papel picado (perforated paper) curtain which is lowered during intermission stands 36 feet high by 98 feet wide. Its images (hand-drawn by Mexican artist Javier Martinez Pedro) were created by punching more than 13,000 holes into the surface of the curtain.

The Papel Picado curtain in Luzia
(Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 
Some of the animal costumes (cockroach and armadillo) that were
designed for Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 

One area in which Cirque du Soleil's creative teams have always excelled is being able to take new technology in new directions. Those who have attended a performance of O (one of the company's resident shows in Las Vegas) have been astounded by its use of water as a performance medium. Those who saw Amaluna (which was directed by Diane Paulus in 2012) remember the water bowl which became a centerpiece for key contortionist and balancing acts (as well as its "womb with a view" love scene).

If you thought that that prop -- which stood  5’5” tall, measured 7’3” in diameter, and weighed 5,500 lbs when filled with water -- was something, you ain't seen nothing yet! Luzia's stage floor is divided into three concentric sections.
  • The core resembles a cenote (a naturally-occurring sinkhole or cistern which ancient Mayans believed was a sacred gateway to the afterlife). A symbol of Mexican folklore and geology, this part of the stage floor has 94,657 holes through which water be drained into a 925-gallon basin hidden beneath the stage. 
  • The inner ring allows two precisely positioned industrial treadmills to rotate as acrobats perform tricks in the middle of a field of fake flowers. 
  • The outer ring contains a series of holes which allow quick installation of fake trees or vertical "stripper" poles as it rotates (the ring can easily spin while accommodating the weight of acrobats performing tricks on vertical poles).
  • High above the stage floor is a truss through which water travels to create a movable rain curtain. Because the motorized truss can be rotated 360 degrees (and various holes in the water pipe can be opened or closed to create special effects), a computerized lighting program can project electronically-generated Otomi patterns, rain drops, and flowers as well as animal figures resembling the whimsical creatures of Mexican painter Francisco Toledo onto the falling water while acrobats working with large hoops or doing aerial tricks can feel the water cascading onto their heads and shoulders.
Angelica Bongiovonni and Rachel Salzman spin around the stage in
Cyr wheels as Emily Tucker flies overhead on a single point trapeze
in a scene from Luzia (Photo by: Laurence Labat)

Aerial straps performer Benjamin Courtenay interacts with a jaguar
puppet in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) 

Cirque performers appear to be caught in a tropical rainforest
in a scene from Luzia (Photo by: Laurence Labat)

The rain curtain in Luzia was inspired by architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez’s circular fountain in Mexico City (which honors Tlaloc, the Aztec god of fertility and water). Early in the show, Angelica Bongiovonni and Rachel Salzman can be seen spinning around the stage using Cyr wheels while Emily Tucker flies above them on a single point trapeze. Whereas the contortionist in Amaluna did not become airborne, in Luzia the hunky, long-haired Benjamin Courtenay performs on aerial straps while being lowered into and flown out of the water in the stage pool. In the following clip, Marshall Spratt explains the logistics behind Luzia's rain curtain.

Luzia features a variety of specialty acts ranging from Rudolf Janecek's phenomenal high-speed juggling to Abou Traore (who break dances and does mad tricks with a soccer ball) and Aleksei Goloborodko's jaw-dropping performance as a contortionist. As a group of bored male beachgoers steadfastly ignore his presence, Ugo Laffolay mischievously flexes his bulging biceps and pillowy pecs during his balancing act while shamelessly flirting with the audience.

Ugo Laffolay performs his beef-tease balancing act in a
scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko is one of the star
attractions in Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Ugo Laffolay provides the answer to "Where's the Beef?'
in a scene from Luzia (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Originally conceived by Daniele Finzi PascaLuzia's script was crafted by Julie Hamelin Finzi. The show is gorgeously lit by Martin Labrecque with sound design by Jacques Boucher. Backed by guitarist Rodrigo de la Mora, Majo Cornejo is the lead singer for the show. However, the stunning sets and props designed by Eugenio Caballero as well as the puppets designed by Max Humphries are among the true highlights of the performance. From guitarists wearing crocodile heads to a dancing saguaro cactus sporting an prickly erection, Giovanna Buzzi's costumes are filled with imagination.

Performances of Luzia continue under Le Grand Chapiteau through January 29 near AT&T Park in San Francisco (click here for tickets). The show then moves to San Jose near the Taylor Street Bridge, where Luzia will be performed from February 9 through March 19 (click here for tickets). In the meantime, enjoy Simon Carpentier's robust musical score -- easily one of the best in recent memory to be created for a Cirque show.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Slaves Just Want To Be Free

Famed for her work with the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman once stated that “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” In today's world, a globalized economy based on human trafficking has forced many people into indentured servitude or sexual slavery. Other than submissives who are heavily into BDSM, very few people truly wish to be slaves.

From the Ferguson riots to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, from increased extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement officers to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the past two years have been a period in which roiling racial tensions forced Americans to take a sober look at what they call American exceptionalism. Is it any wonder that, during a tense post-election moment, environmental activist and political pundit Van Jones erupted on camera, stating:
"You tell your kids don't be a bully, you tell your kids don't be a bigot... and then you have this outcome. You have people putting children to bed tonight and they are afraid of breakfast. They're afraid of 'How do I explain this to my children?' This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was whitelash against a black president in part -- and that's the part where the pain comes."
Environmental activist and political pundit Van Jones

While all this was going on, two Bay area theatres were reminding audiences of America's troubled history with regard to slavery. One referenced a classic American novel written by an ardent abolitionist; the other exposed audiences to the little known history of "free people of color" and how capriciously that status could be revoked by law enforcement officials.

* * * * * * * * *
Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband had seven children. They also welcomed several fugitive slaves into their Cincinnati home and provided them with temporary shelter. In 1850, when Mr. Stowe was teaching at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the Fugitive Slave Law (which prohibited any kind of assistance to fugitives and went so far as to strengthen sanctions in free states as well as the South) was passed by Congress. That same year, Mrs. Stowe wrote to the editor of the National Journal, stating "I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak. I hope every woman who can write will not be silent."

Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among The Lowly first appeared in serialized form in June 1851 in The National Era. According to Wikipedia, following its 1852 publication in book form, nearly 300 infants born in Boston were named Eva (there is no mention of any children being named Topsy).

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Nearly a century later, when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were working on a new musical based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, Hammerstein was inspired by Landon's description of how a slave living in the palace of King Mongkut (Rama IV) had written about Abraham Lincoln. In the novel, Lady Tuptim's platonic relationship was with a priest (although both were tortured and burned at the stake). In the musical, Tuptim is introduced to the audience as a slave presented to the King of Siam as a gift from the King of Burma (a gesture which horrifies the priggish Anna). Nevertheless, the story of Lady Tuptim inspired Jerome Robbins to create a narrative ballet reflecting the anguish of an unhappy slave who loves someone other than the King. Based on Stowe's novel, the ballet became known as The Small House of Uncle Thomas and is often performed using his original choreography. As Stephanie Prugh noted in Ballet-Dance Magazine:
“Robbins’s success in The King and I wasn’t found in authenticity, but in the fusion of where the East and West danced through cultures. It is important to remember that, as a choreographer, it is best to be grounded in our foundation and technique but, through research and understanding of how to fuse the complicated movements of different dance styles, a new and timeless creation can arise. Evidence of his research is seen in different aspects of the production, such as costumes (which were inspired by photos of Khmer dancing girls) and the use of symbolic props and stage assistants shrouded in black (a convention of Japanese Kabuki theatre). Staying true to two very important aspects of Cambodian classical dance – the highly stylized movements intended solely for the Siamese court and the all-female dance ensemble – Robbins created a fusion that defied the standards of choreography found in Broadway productions of the time: a fusion of Broadway spectacle and authentic replication neatly married to universal foundation.”

The woman upon whom Landon based her novel (Anna Leonowens) had spent several years during the 1860s teaching the children at the royal court of Siam. When Leonowens took a six-month leave of absence to visit her daughter in 1867, she ended up altering her travel plans. As a result, she was not present when Mongkut died late in the following year.

Siam's King Mongkut with his son, Crown Prince Chulalongkorn
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Although Leonowens maintained her correspondence with the new King Chulalongkorn (her former pupil), she never returned to Siam. She did, however, publish two books -- The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872) -- which reflected some of her experiences in Bangkok.

Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in 1951's
original Broadway cast of The King and I

While the score for The King and I includes such popular songs as "I Whistle A Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting To Know You," and "Shall We Dance?" audiences are often surprised by the political implications of the King's Act I solo ("A Puzzlement") and the opening song in Act II ("Western People Funny"). The following clip contains Anna's furious feminist and anti-slavery rant ("Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?") as performed by the show's original star, Gertrude Lawrence.

The King and I opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951. Like many people, my first experience with The King and I was the 1956 film version starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, with Rita Moreno as Tuptim and Marni Nixon dubbing Kerr's musical numbers.

I first saw the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical at the New York City Center in June of 1963, with a cast headed by Eileen Brennan and Manolo Fabregas. When Richard Rodgers was named head of the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center, the first show he produced at the New York State Theatre was The King and I with a cast headed by Rise Stevens and Darren McGavin. In May of 1968, City Center revived The King and I with Constance Towers and Michael Kermoyan in the leads.

Ricardo Montalban and Sally Ann Howes in
the 1974 West Coast tour of The King and I

After moving to San Francisco in 1972, I saw Sally Ann Howes and Ricardo Montalban at the Curran Theatre starring in 1974's production by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Some 15 years later, I saw The King and I at the Orpheum with a cast headed by Rudolf Nureyev and Liz Robertson.

In 1998, Marie Osmond starred as Anna Leonowens in a touring production that performed at the Golden Gate Theatre. Some interesting bits of trivia about The King and I include the following:
  • Although Gertrude Lawrence received great acclaim for her portrayal of Anna in the original Broadway cast, she died of liver cancer on September 6, 1952. On the day of her funeral, the previously-scheduled performance of The King and I was cancelled and the lights of theatre marquees on Broadway (as well as in London's West End) were dimmed in her honor. Lawrence was buried in the ball gown designed for her by Irene Sharaff for Act II's "Shall We Dance?"
  • One of the young actors in the original Broadway production began his career as an extra, went on to become the understudy for one of the younger princes, and subsequently understudied and became a replacement for the role of Crown Prince Chulalongkorn. His name? Sal Mineo.
  • Jose Llana (who played Lun Tha in the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I), took over the role of the King in the 2015 revival and is now performing onstage in San Francisco.
Jose Llana stars in The King and I (Photo by: Paul Kolnik)

With sets designed by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, the national touring version of Lincoln Center's recent revival of The King and I touched down at the Golden Gate Theater. Directed by Bartlett Sher with choreography by Christopher Gatelli (based on the original dances by Jerome Robbins), this production features the glorious original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, richly supported by Scott Lehrer's sound design. The show's overture was always one of my favorite selections while listening to LPs during my adolescence.

As the young Burmese couple whose forbidden love could only cause them trouble, Manna Nichols brought a beautiful, classically trained voice to the role of Tuptim while Kavin Panmeechao's Lun Tha tended to become strangely nasal during "We Kiss In A Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed."

Manna Nichols (Tuptim) and Kavin Panmeechao (Lun Tha) in
a scene from The King and I (Photo by: Matthew Murphy) 

Among the featured performers were Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, Anthony Chan as Prince Chulalongkorn, Graham Montgomery as Louis Leonowens, and Brian Rivera as the Kralahome. Baylen Thomas did double duty as Captain Orton and Sir Edward Ramsay.

Needless to say, much of the show's appeal rests on the shoulders of its two principals. As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly offered a strong portrait of a woman willing to stand up for her legal rights and face down a foreign ruler with barbaric tendencies. Jose Llana's portrayal of the King revealed a curious yet stubborn man who was aware of his power but insecure about the amount of knowledge he suspected he did not know.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana star in the national
tour of The Kong and I (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

More than a half century after I first saw the show onstage, I still find myself in awe of Hammerstein's craft as a playwright and lyricist. While the four hit songs mentioned above have become American standards, some of the other numbers composed by Richard Rodgers ("My Lord and Master," "I Have Dreamed," "The March of the Siamese Children,"  and "Something Wonderful") now seem like lost and forgotten treasures.

Performances of The King and I continue through December 11 at the Golden Gate Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company is presenting the West Coast premiere of Safe House, a play by Keith Josef Adkins that takes on an even greater sense of racial injustice in light of the current political climate. Set in 1842 in Kentucky, Safe House (which premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 2014) has been directed by L. Peter Callender with great care given to help portray a long-forgotten part of American history. As the playwright notes:
"I am a storyteller committed to authenticity, truth, and complexity. I am also incredibly interested and invested in the stories, voices, and complexities of people whose experiences have been historically marginalized, silenced, subjugated, yet courageously sustained. As cliche as it may sound, I believe every voice deserves bearing witness to life and my mission is to bear witness to the voices that speak to me personally, politically and, without question, passionately."

Orcas (Dawn L. Troupe), Frank (Lance Gardner), and Addison (David Everett Moore)
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

There are only six characters onstage in Safe House, although the fate of another plays a key role in the lives of those standing before the audience. Working on a unit set designed by Kate Boyd with costumes by Callie Floor and lighting by Jon Tracy (with sound design and original music composed by Chris Houston), Callender lets the clues about the play's title unfold one by one until the audience starts to realize that something is dangerously amiss.

The audience first sees Addison Pedigrew (David Everett Moore) introducing himself to a prospective client as a talented cobbler who is more than happy to show his certificate proving him to be a "free person of color." Full of ambition, Addison hopes to build a free business as a shoemaker whose work is so well known that white people will come to his cabin for fittings (instead of Addison having to travel around the area). His dreams, however,  do not garner the same level of enthusiasm from his aunt Orcas (Dawn L. Troupe) and his younger brother, Frank (Lance Gardner).

Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas), Lance Gardner (Frank), and David Everett
Moore (Addison) in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

While Addison is full of bravado, they each have good reason to suspect his motives. Although Addison has been granted enough leeway by the sheriff to pursue his trade in the county, Clarissa and Frank are nearing the end of their two-year probation as punishment for helping some fugitive slaves find their way to freedom. Orcas recently found a letter from her sister hidden in Addison's pocket stating that, with help from The American Colonization Society, she had arrived safely in Liberia and was enjoying her newly-found freedom. As Aurora's Literary Manager & Artistic Associate, Josh Costello, explains:
"More than 15,000 black Americans settled in Liberia between 1822 and the onset of the Civil War, declaring independence in 1847 as the first African republic and winning recognition from the United States in 1862. Liberia's first president was a free-born black American from Virginia. Before the Civil War, nine out of every 10 black people in the United States were enslaved. Slavery was almost entirely restricted to the South by the middle of the 19th century, so most black Americans living in the North were free. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there were more free African-Americans living in the South than in the North. According to the 1860 census, there were 261,918 free blacks living in the South and 226,152 living in the North. Some, like Keith's ancestors, were the children of white mothers and black fathers. Others were slaves that had been manumitted (set free), and their children."
David Everett Moore (Addison), Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) and
Lance Gardner (Frank) in a scene from Safe House
(Photo by: David Allen)
"Free People of Color in the antebellum South lived under much harsher discriminatory policies than their counterparts in the North. Despite their severely limited abilities to travel or assemble, Keith's ancestors ran businesses, founded churches, and helped escaped slaves reach freedom on the Underground Railroad. He took particular inspiration from a branch of his family that worked as shoemakers. Keith crafted a story of two brothers who approach their situation in very different ways. One is determined to get ahead within the white world, and believes strongly in the virtue of hard work. The other chafes under society's rules and his brother's expectations. By exploring this family and their community with such insight and imagination, Keith lays bare universal themes of sacrifice and betrayal, and brings a little-known period of history to life."
Jamella Cross (Roxie) and Lance Gardner (Frank)
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

Reports that a fugitive has been sighted in the neighborhood (combined with Frank's recent foray down to the local creek) pose a severe threat to Addison's plan to invite the sheriff over to inspect the premises where he makes shoes. To make matters worse, the tone-deaf Addison has informed Clarissa (Dezi Solèy) of his intention to marry her without having the slightest awareness that she is in love with his brother.

After the shocking reveal at the end of Act I, the focus shifts from Addison's tunnel vision to what moves must be taken in order to help a terrified young girl -- who has never met a "free person of color" -- make it to her next stop on the Underground Railroad ("The name on everybody's lips is gonna be Roxie....").

The awkward predicament of Roxie (Jamella Cross) and Frank's curiosity about what had been done to her becomes a full-fledged crisis when Addison discovers that the scared and angry young girl has been hiding under his roof. Panicking about what the sheriff might do to destroy his shoemaking business (and not very clear on the concept of how he has betrayed his brother), Addison can only think about putting potential profits over the distress of real people. As the play hurtles toward its conclusion -- which gives new meaning to the age-old question "Am I my brother's keeper?" --  the sheriff's white henchman, Bracken (Cassidy Brown), is confronted by Orcas, who reminds him of the love that grew out of their childhood friendship.

Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) and Cassidy Brown (Bracken)
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

The playwright's skill as a storyteller and dramatist (Adkins is also the artistic director and co-founder of The New Black Fest) is most impressive. Under Callender's direction, Aurora's ensemble does a powerful job of bringing the characters in Safe House to life. Although David Everett Moore's portrayal of Addison is highly animated, his character is such an asshole that I often found it difficult to feel much sympathy for him. Jamella Cross (Roxie) and Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) shone in moments of extreme poignancy.

In smaller roles, Cassidy Brown appeared as Bracken and Dezi Solèy as Clarissa. It was especially gratifying to see Lance Gardner finally get a chance to sink his teeth into a complex character filled with conflicting emotions.

Jamella Cross (Roxie) and Dawn L. Troupe (Orcas) in a scene
from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of Safe House continue through December 4 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here for tickets).