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Category Archives: African American Theatre

‘Finding Home’ examines taboo subjects of depression in African-Americans

STAFF WRITER
SOUTH BERGENITE

Rutherford resident and playwright Keline Adams’ “Finding Home” focuses on physical and spiritual journeys, the stigma of depression in the African-American community, and how three generations of African American women living down South deal with it.

'Finding Home' was a labor or love for playwright Keline Adams. Pictured from left to right: Suzanne Darrell as 'Nattie,' Burnadair Lipscomb Hunt as 'Sylvia,' Azariah Gunn as 'Ella' and Brittany Erin as 'Sunny.' Ella and Sunny arrive in Clarelston and are greeted by Sylvia and Nattie. Characters share a much needed laugh, as Sunny and Sylvia begin to bond.Three female characters share a moment during the first night for Ella and Sunny at Sylvia's home.

PHOTOS/COURTESY OF HELEN L. COLLEN
‘Finding Home’ was a labor or love for playwright Keline Adams. Pictured from left to right: Suzanne Darrell as ‘Nattie,’ Burnadair Lipscomb Hunt as ‘Sylvia,’ Azariah Gunn as ‘Ella’ and Brittany Erin as ‘Sunny.’ Ella and Sunny arrive in Clarelston and are greeted by Sylvia and Nattie. Characters share a much needed laugh, as Sunny and Sylvia begin to bond.Three female characters share a moment during the first night for Ella and Sunny at Sylvia’s home.

The play is running at the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y., this month. Adams, a recipient of a playwriting fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, explains that “Finding Home” examines how not dealing with loss affects a family of African American women. “Writing ‘Finding Home,’ like most of my work, wasn’t really a choice. The story kind of found me and then just continued to grow,” Adams notes.

The synopsis: “With the walls of their Brooklyn apartment closing in on them, Ella and her daughter Sunny seek solace in a spur of the moment trip down South to visit Sylvia, the woman who raised Ella. But when buried truths began to surface, all hell breaks loose, and it quickly becomes clear that this dysfunctional family’s only hope for reaching a place of peace rests on their ability to face hard, painful realities, both past and present. Will this family sink or swim? Will these women have the courage to begin a journey toward truly finding home?”

The basic idea for the play formulated when Adams was on vacation in Charleston, S.C. in early 2000, lending a setting and some autobiographical issues that Adams related to the play, and laying down the groundwork.

“My parents had a summer home there and I completely fell in love with the area and I wanted to write something that took place in those surroundings,” Adams notes. “At the same time I was working on some issues with my relationship with my mom and also watching how my aunt battled with depression but no one was really talking about it. So all of those things sort of combined and the idea just grew from there. Then as the idea grew, the characters began to present themselves.”

The creative process was odd, Adams reveals. “I don’t have a regular, daily writing schedule like a lot of writers do,” Adams explains. “I kind of wish I had that sort of discipline, but I don’t. With ‘Finding Home,’ I would just jot down ideas whenever they came to me, whether it be at 2 a.m., or if I was out somewhere and just had an old receipt to write on. Then, usually, the idea or piece of dialog would eventually fit somewhere down the line. I also do a lot of talking out loud and pacing around my house when I’m in the middle of writing.”

After several years, Adams finished the first draft of ‘Finding Home’ in 2005. While the setting and conflicts somewhat mirrored Adams’ life, the characters spilled out onto the pages randomly. “My approach, as corny as it may sound, was I created the characters as they presented themselves to me,” Adams explains. One of the main characters is a combination of several women that I have known throughout my life…my mother, two of my great aunts,” Adams says. “I’ve done several drafts of the piece, lots of rewrites and probably about three readings and two staged readings. Even as I’m getting ready for this production I’m still making changes. I think probably it’s never really done. I can always see a way of strengthening the play, always working with my characters and their growth, trying to make sure their voice is clearly heard, their point of view is clear.”

Depression was a topic close to Adams’ heart, which is why the writer used her as an inspiration to open up a dialogue.

“My aunt was probably one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. But it was clear to me and others in my family that she struggled with depression. No one really ever talked about it, even in later years when people seeking therapeutic assistance became much more common,” Adams reveals.

Although depression is not as hush-hush an issue as it used to be, the stigma in the African-American community still exists, Adams explains. “I really wanted to explore that topic area along with taking a look at that delicate mother/daughter dynamic and why that relationship often times is so tricky. Culturally, depression in the African-American community has always been viewed as a sign of personal weakness, not a health problem. Oftentimes, it is minimized and so there is not a proactive approach to change the condition, and there is a stigma and judgment attached to seeking therapy.”

In terms of African American women, the depression rate is estimated to be 50 percent higher than that of Caucasian women, Adams explains. “Historically, there is a look for support from the community/family and the religious community in particular for African Americans and if mental health care is sought, oftentimes it tends to be later in life so, as a result, at later stages of illness. I think as more and more African-Americans in the public eye begin to talk openly about struggles with depression, the taboo is slowly beginning to lift,” Adams says.

After writing the play, Adams pitched for production. The Billie Holiday Theatre accepted. “Finding Home” was done as a staged reading at New Perspectives Theatre Company in New York City. Adams met playwright/director, Jackie Alexander, who contacted Adams and persisted that ‘Finding Home,’ which was done as a reading last year under his direction, become a full production he directs.

In a sense, Finding Home is somewhat symbolic of Adams’ personal journey. “Finding home to me means feeling really comfortable in your own skin…getting to that place where, even when these things do arise, you feel like you can move through them and come out okay on the other side, to me is moving toward finding home,” Adams explains, noting that she’s in that zone now, comfortable as a writer, playwright and mother. “I don’t have to be as intricately involved in the day to day of my children’s lives, and we are moving to a place of not just parent/child relationship but adult to adult friendship, which is so wonderful and freeing for me. I feel this shift within myself, as I’m confidently stepping into my own power, not so worried about other peoples’ opinions about who and what I am. The journey continues. Staying open and learning as you go is a lifelong gift if you choose view it that way. The journey for me toward finding home continues, hopefully forever.”

Finding Home runs March 2-31. For more information, visit http://www.thebillieholiday.org/current.html.

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‘Motown: The Musical’ Prepares To Take Over Broadway

This March 5, 2013 photo shows Berry Gordy posing for a portrait in front of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. For Berry Gordy, conquering Broadway is the next – and by his own admission, last – major milestone of a magical, musical career. The 83-year-old Motown Records founder is taking his story and that of his legendary label to the Great White Way. “Motown: The Musical,” opens for previews Monday. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

by The Associated Press

Detroit (AP) — For Berry Gordy, conquering Broadway is the next – and by his own admission, last – major milestone of a magical, musical career.

The 83-year-old Motown Records founder is taking his story and that of his legendary label to the Great White Way.

“Motown: The Musical,” which begins previews on Monday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, allows Gordy to relive the ups and downs of a career that launched him into the entertainment stratosphere and he’s confident will allow him to leave the stage on a high note.

“Most likely it will be my last major endeavor in a creative way,” he said in a telephone interview. “Of course everyone disagrees with me when I say that statement. This is probably the epitome of everything I’ve done – that I’ve wanted to do.”

For those under the impression that Gordy simply signed off on the musical, think again.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer not only sealed up a Broadway slot and agreed to co-produce the show, he also delivered its book and three original songs.

 

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Race, family and Down syndrome under the big lights

by Leroy Moore, Krip-Hop Nation

Krip-Hop Nation: This is the first time Krip-Hop Nation has had a chance to talk about a play on Down syndrome starring an all-Black cast. Tell us why do you think people need to see “Then You Stand”?

Yvonne Pierre: First, thank you for taking the time and interest to interview me about “Then You Stand.” I personally believe everyone will take something different away from this production whether they have a child with special needs or not. What I hope people walk away with is the feeling that no matter what they face in life, they can and will rise above it. There’s always a bigger plan and in the midst of that we must stand.

Yvonne Pierre and her son Zyon

Yvonne Pierre and her son Zyon

My youngest of two sons was diagnosed with Down syndrome. I’ve been advocating through projects for over seven years. Although it’s an all-Black cast, this is a production that anyone will be able to relate to.KHN: This is your first play. Tell us how you got into this field and will you do other plays in the future?

Yvonne Pierre: Several years ago, I met a woman named Glenifer Wade during a time when I was working on a documentary. Prior to meeting her, I studied script writing for several years. She had a local TV show called “Extraordinary People” here in Atlanta, Georgia. We became very close friends and would work on each other’s projects.

She was very passionate about her show, as well as poetry and stage plays. During that time, my passion and focus was on developing films and books. This was around 2006, and I was in the process of working on a production that included dance, singing and speakers on the topic of Down syndrome. I began to work with her on a stage play and helped her develop a working script.

She was impressed with my work and encouraged me to do my own play after we finished hers. As I began to help her produce and direct her production, the bug bit me. In March of 2011, while we were preparing to produce her play, Glenifer passed away. Several months after her death, the inspiration to do “Then You Stand” came to me and I immediately began to develop this vision and put it into motion. I loved it. Will I do more in the future? Although I don’t have anything planned right now, I absolutely plan to do more productions in the future.

What I hope people walk away with is the feeling that no matter what they face in life, they can and will rise above it. There’s always a bigger plan and in the midst of that we must stand.

KHN: “Then You Stand” has music in between scenes. Tell us the reason why you added live music and how did it fit with the story?

Yvonne Pierre: I love words, music and dance and find them to be the most powerful forms of expression. The intention was to have each performance extend the emotion of the scene. For example, in the first scene of “Then You Stand,” the main character, Mona, finds out that her unborn child has Down syndrome. The Master’s Mime then dances after the scene, performing to the Yolanda Adams song “Open My Heart.” The dance and music carries out the emotions expressed in each scene.

KHN: I know you are a mother of a son who has Down syndrome; however, did you work with people with Down syndrome in creating this play. If not, have you or will you work with people with disabilities on the stage?

Yvonne Pierre: The primary focus for “Then You Stand” is the parenting side of having a child with special needs. Over the years, I’ve spoken to many parents as well as read comments and posts by parents who are struggling to cope with having a child with special needs. Most of my work up until this point has been geared towards empowering parents. If a parent doesn’t believe in or has lost hope for their child or themselves, then they will not push to get the help needed for that child to reach their full potential. I believe that in order to reach the child, the parents must be empowered.

The last performance of the play features a couple children with Down syndrome, including my son Zyon. They all came out on stage with candles while an original song was being performed by Ayme Loren called “Silent Angels.” After that performance, self-advocate Jennifer Katz spoke to the audience.

'Then You Stand' play by Yvonne Pierre

Over the years, I’ve met so many VERY talented individuals with Down syndrome and other special needs. I will definitely work with talented individuals with disabilities in the future. Absolutely!

KHN: After I watched it, I have to say it was a fresh outlook on the father character for me because you usually have a strong Black mother who holds things together and usually alone. Were you trying to make a point that some Black men deal with disability in a family unit?

Yvonne Pierre: I agree, there are a lot of fathers who do walk away from their responsibility, whether the child has special needs or not. But there are men who love their children and are great fathers. Zyon’s dad is one of them. There are great fathers who are a part of their child’s life. They are not represented enough. We are always presenting women as strong, when not all women are and have a hard time holding it all together. Sometimes those who appear strong are really avoiding and not facing what’s going on.

There is also a stigma, silence and shame surrounding the special needs community. Often, we don’t reach out for help or participate in support groups. I must admit that initially, I felt the same way. I thought a support group was a bunch of parents sitting around pitying themselves. When Zyon began to transition from early intervention into public school, I realized the importance of networking with other parents.

If a parent doesn’t believe in or has lost hope for their child or themselves, then they will not push to get the help needed for that child to reach their full potential. I believe that in order to reach the child, the parents must be empowered.

Parents of special needs children can be very resourceful. A lot of things I learned were through other parents and many of the parents I’ve met online are often advocates too.

KHN: I know for me as a Black disabled man, it has been sad not to see myself in the entertainment field from plays to music in great numbers with diverse stories. Do you think your play can be one image in the mirror for Black families?

Yvonne Pierre: Definitely, but I also think it can be an image for families regardless of race. The issues surrounding the disabled community cross all color lines.

KHN: Would you have written a play dealing with Black disabled young men in our society?

Yvonne Pierre: As I mentioned, my primary focus has been parenting. However, I will definitely consider it in the future. All sides must be told. There are so many great stories surrounding the disabled community that need to be told and presented in film, TV and plays. Particularly, I’d like to see more positive images of individuals with disabilities. If there’s a story about someone with a disability, I’d like to see more producers and casting agencies hire skilled actors with disabilities, instead of hiring actors to “act” as if they are disabled.

KHN: How did you bring the ideal of “Then You Stand,” the play, to the theater community and what was their first reaction to it?

Yvonne Pierre: Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that if it’s your dream, your vision, then it’s in your hands. It’s up to you to make sure it happens. I’ve had so many doors closed in my face from other projects, some that don’t have to do with the special needs community.

So, out of habit, when I came up with the idea, I didn’t consider putting it into someone else’s hands. After I wrote the play, I spent long hours and sleepless nights researching, studying and preparing to make it happen. I searched for venues that rented out their stages and booked, directed and produced it myself.

KHN: I saw my mother face racism back in the ‘70s and ‘80s in advocating for my needs. What were your experiences with your son?

Yvonne Pierre: I think over the years a lot has changed, BUT there’s still a long way to go. Back in the ‘70s, for example, they were encouraging parents to institutionalize their children. They didn’t have as many resources such as early intervention, therapy and programs for children with special needs. It wasn’t that long ago that the disabled were given rights to an education.

There’s still a fight to get people to see that I’m not delusional or in denial when I say my son can learn. There is still a need for curriculums for teaching children with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities within the public school system.

In the healthcare system, a lot has changed as well, but there are still a lot of doctors that see Down syndrome in a negative light. For example, when Zyon was born and the genetics doctor gave us the results that Zyon tested positive for Down syndrome, we were told that if I were to become pregnant again, DS was grounds for abortion. My mouth dropped. I was more upset that the doctor would say this about a child, a human being. I was very disturbed by the reactions.

So the discrimination is still there, but I’m hopeful that it will continue to change. Thanks to the many, many AWESOME advocates – parents, loved ones, individuals with disabilities and supporters – who continue to push doors open.

Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that if it’s your dream, your vision, then it’s in your hands. It’s up to you to make sure it happens.

KHN: Your play can be used as an educational tool for new parents and others. What are your plans for the play?

Yvonne Pierre: The video for “Then You Stand” is available to view for free online via YouTube and onThenYouStand.com so that parents can view it on demand. Also, I encourage people to make a donation of any size, if they can, to Down syndrome research. That information is also available in the description area of the video on YouTube.

Right now, I’m focused on reaching out to as many parents as possible through social media. I also have a website, “Have Ya Heard” (www.hyhonline.com), where we feature stories of extraordinary people – parents, self-advocates, professionals, nonprofit owners and so on – sharing their experiences. These stories are inspirational and informative as well.

KHN: Has your son seen the play and did he enjoy it?

Yvonne Pierre: Well, actually on the day of the play, he didn’t. He was backstage the whole time with me, but he did see the final rehearsal and the video footage. He LOVES music and dance – he really enjoyed it, both my sons, Zyair, 19, and Zyon, 10.

KHN: Do you think the theater and entertainment industry are ready for stories like “Then You Stand”? And how can we push the theater community, especially the Black theater community, to have more plays with a disability theme?

Yvonne Pierre: When I decided to do this production, I didn’t give a second thought to if it was industry ready or not. As a parent and advocate, I felt like it was needed. I strongly believe that in order to have more productions surrounding the disabled community, we as parents, advocates and individuals with disabilities have to create it ourselves.

KHN: What are your next projects and how can people stay in contact with you?

Yvonne Pierre: My next project is a fictional book that I hope to release next year. This will be my second book, but first fictional work. My first book, “The Day My Soul Cried,” was released in 2010 and is about OVERCOMING some personal internal struggles from being molested, my father being murdered, my battles with reading and writing and the effect it had on me. It’s amazing how your biggest struggles can become your passion.

I can be reached via Facebook.com/ypierre01Twitter.com/ypierre or through my website YPierre.com.

Thank you so much for this interview. Great questions and I truly appreciate it. Blessings!

Krip-Hop Nation founder Leroy F. Moore Jr. can be reached at blackkrip@gmail.com.

 

 
 

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Jacqueline Lawton: Nathan Cummings Young Leader of Color Award Recipient

Jacqueline Lawton: Nathan Cummings Young Leader of Color Award Recipient

 Playwright, dramaturg and professor of theater at the University of the District of Columbia, Jacqueline E. Lawton is heralded as an accomplished playwright. Since moving to DC in 2006, Lawton has become a vital member of the DC theatre community and is quickly garnering national recognition for her work, achievement and commitment to the theatre.

In 2010, Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute listed her as one of the top 30 new African American playwrights in the country and earlier this year, she was nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and the Playwrights of New York (PONY) Fellowship. This year, she received the Theater Communications Group’s (TCG) Nathan Cummings Young Leaders of Color award, which was established in 2006 to bring young theatre professionals of color from around the US to the National Conference and engage them in a dialogue about the new generation of leadership.

Recently, Lawton spoke with me about attending the 22nd TCG National Conference held in Boston, Mass. The theme, “Model the Movement,” challenged theatre professionals on the proverbial questions of “what if” and “what next.” More than 1,000 theater professional gathered to discuss best practices and effective strategies for audience development, community out-reach programs, diversity, and networking tools.

MB: First, please tell us why you decided to get involved in theatre? Was there someone or a particular production that inspired you?

JEL: I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a part of the theatre. I was first introduced to it through my mother’s love of MGM movie musicals. Also, in my elementary school, the 5th Grade Class performed a play for the younger grades as part of their curriculum. I lived for these performances and could hardly wait until I was in 5th Grade to participate in them. Sadly, by the time I got to the 5th Grade the curriculum shifted and they weren’t doing them anymore. I can’t even explain the depth of my heartbreak and disappointment, but my passion was not deterred! I continued to write poetry, short stories, and plays. I performed in middle and high School through UIL Poetry Interpretation and One Act Play Competitions. After graduating high school, I studied theatre, playwriting, solo performance, performance studies and screenwriting in college and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. Since graduating in 2003, I’ve done all that I can to continue working in theater.

MB: What is unique about being an artist in the nation’s capitol?

JEL: D.C. is an important city. I live on Capitol Hill, which puts me in close proximity (only seven blocks!) to the U.S. Supreme Court and the nation’s capitol. I’m walking distance from the folks making or not making powerful decision that impact the nation and beyond. As a playwright, I have an opportunity to write about these important and powerful decisions and hold the folks accountable for their actions. As with most important cities, DC has a diverse, talented, vibrant, and passionate theater community! Yes, we struggle with sustaining funding for our artistic institutions. We struggle with presenting racial and gender parity on our stages. We struggle as local playwrights to see our plays staged on the boards. Yet, for all that, I’ve been working nonstop since moving here in 2006. It hasn’t always been easy, but I consider myself very fortunate.

MB: Thank you for speaking so candidly about your experience here. Now, can you tell us more about the “Nathan Cummings Young Leaders of Color” program?

JEL: Yes! TCG is awesome! As part of their mission and core values, TCG is committed to supporting and empowering the ambitions, visions, and challenges of the next generation of leadership. They want to encourage not-for-profit theatres to be more inclusive and to present and promote the work of artists of color. The Young Leaders of Color (YLC) program was a remarkable, inspiring, informative, empowering, and career-defining experience.

MB: Who nominated you to be a Nathan Cummings Young Leaders of Color Award Recipient?

JEL: Blake Robison, former Artistic Director of Round House Theatre/incoming Artistic Director of Cincinnati Playhouse.

MB: What excited you most about taking part in the conference and the program?

JEL: More than anything, I was excited to share space, thoughts, and questions with more than 1,000 theatre professionals from around the world! What I found amazing was that with all they had to manage and coordinate, the staff at TCG made time to introduce and connect artists with one another. They accomplished this through Conference 2.0, which allowed participants to create a profile, set up meetings and engage in discussions. They also gave all of the Young Leader of a mentor and introduced us to a professional in our field. This built such wonderful energy around what’s to come and strengthen the sense of community in a dynamic way.

MB: What does leadership mean to you?

JEL: This was one of the first questions we were asked in our Young Leaders of Color session. I believe that a leader is someone who has integrity, courage, humility, compassion, a strong work ethic and values excellence. Someone who gets out of their own way, checks their ego at the door, and remains accountable for their actions. Someone who is discerning, able to delegate, and listens to the needs of their community. Someone who understands that leadership is a privilege and with that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility. Someone willing to say they don’t know and that they were wrong. Someone willing to stand up for their core values, no matter how challenging that may be and even if no one is looking.

MB: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the conference?

JEL: Hands down, the most valuable lesson is one that motivational speaker, Paul Robison, taught us when he helped us define our core values. First, values are what matters to you; what you can’t live without; what defines you; what stimulates and inspires you; and what is central to who are you. Now, in order to be a core value, they have to be:

1. Chosen freely.

2. Chosen among alternatives.

3. Chosen after consideration of consequences.

4. Prized and cherished/bring you hope and joy.

5. Publicly affirmed and reflected in how you live.

6. Acted upon, even in the most challenging situations.

7. Part of a pattern of action.

So, you have to ask yourself how closely your behavior matches your core values. You have to be honest about this. If you’re not living your core values, then you either need to adjust them or adjust your life. Basically, if health and fitness are important to you, but you’ve never set foot in that gorgeous gym you pay a monthly membership to; well, you might want to reassess that value!

MB: Last year, conference attendees were asked “what if,” this year the question was “what next.” They were looking for ways not-for-profit theatre companies and theater artists could build on the momentum of the conference to breakthrough some of our most persistent challenges. What were some of those challenges and how do you think theatres can overcome them?

JEL: These are big, powerful and important meditations. Theatres struggle to build audiences, sustain funding, represent racial and gender diversity, and support new plays on the main stage:

In order to build and keep audiences, we need to value theatre’s essential contribution to our economy and society. We must infuse the ritual of theatre going as a part of our culture. It’s more than going to Broadway. It’s about being in the audience of your local and regional theaters. It’s about serving on boards, giving annual donations, and being an advocate for theatre. It starts in childhood, continues through middle and high school, and must be a part of the academic experience. Otherwise, as young adults, parents and empty nesters, we won’t know to make it part of our lives.

We must find sustainable models to create theater and support theatre artists. In what other industry are professionals asked to give of their talent, time, and expertise for free and just for the love of it? And, where else are they made to feel bad, a diva or not a member of the team, if they require payment? If another industry does this as well, then stop it! In addition to honoring the value of theatre, we must also respect the people creating and making theatre.

The issue of racial and gender diversity is bigger than the entity of theatre, but what better place to address it than on the stage? What other art form offers an intimate portrayal of the strange, beautiful, curious, brave and vulnerable human experience. On stage, we can see unfold the various ways in which we live and die; of how we behave towards one another in love and hate; of the immediate and residual impact of our decisions; of the damaging and devastating consequences of our neglect; and the joy and glory of our good deeds. In order to do this with as deep, rich, full and complete a picture as possible, we must rid our theatre offices, rehearsal halls and stages of race and gender discrimination. Enlighten yourself to this reality and do better. This has to stop.

As for producing new plays, we all accept they’re a risk. There’s no guaranteed outcome of success. But we must remember that at one point in time all of the much beloved, tried and tested classics were once new. Someone took a chance on them and allowed these plays to show us the world in a way that we had never seen before. Also, it’s never fair to compare the reception of one new play to that of another. It undermines the audience, the artists, and presenting theater.

 

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Theater Review: ‘Fela’ — 3.5 stars

Sahr Ngaujah and Paulette Ivory in scene from

Photo credit: Sahr Ngaujah and Paulette Ivory in scene from “Fela” (Tristram Kenton)

Fela
3.5 stars

Four years ago, Bill T. Jones’ audacious musical “Fela!,” a truly explosive tribute to Nigerian icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, opened Off-Broadway and immediately caught on with theatergoers, modern dance enthusiasts, political junkies and even some celebrities.

It eventually moved to Broadway, with Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith serving as above-the-title producers, where it had a decent yearlong run. Now in the midst of a national tour, the show has come back to town for a short encore.

Fela gained fame in the late 20th century as a Nigerian political rebel and bandleader. In addition to unsuccessfully running for president, Fela was notorious for having no less than 27 wives.

“Fela!” is imagined as a 1977 concert at his nightclub that is intended to be his farewell to Nigeria after the brutal attacks that he and his family suffered at the hands of government soldiers.

As the audience enters, the band is already playing. Soon enough, a tribe engages in free form dance followed by Fela, their leader.

It’s not hard to spot some differences between the original Broadway production – which featured countless screens that filled the walls of the theater – and the touring show, which is far less visually elaborate.

But these minor quibbles aside, the show remains an extremely vibrant celebration of Afrobeat, Fela’s style of music that mixed jazz, funk and African rhythms. Director-choreographer Jones provides full-bodied choreography that perfectly matches Kuti’s music.

Sahr Ngaujah, who alternates in the title role with Adesola Osakalumi, hardly ever leaves the stage. He displays an animalistic presence, along with the charisma to command a loyal army of followers.


 

If you go: “Fela!” plays at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre through Aug. 4. 302 W. 45th St., FelaBroadway.com, 212-239-6200.

 

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First Stage Theater Academy announces autism program

 RTWT THINKS THIS IS A GREAT IDEA

Next Steps classes to help autistic students experience drama, music and movement through life skills through stage skills philosophy

Milwaukee, WI – This summer First Stage Theater Academy launches its Next Steps program, classes specifically designed for students with autism.  Guided by the Academy’s philosophy of teaching life skills through stage skills, students will experience the joy of drama, music and movement each day with a team of specially-trained teaching artists and special education professionals.  Classes will be offered August 27-31, 2012 from 9:00 a.m. until 12:00 p.m. at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center located at 325 W. Walnut Street, Milwaukee.  Classes are open to students entering grades 6-12 in fall 2012.

The Next Steps program answers a need that existing Academy families with students with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome expressed an interest in.  “Parents were excited after seeing the confidence First Stage’s life skills through stage skills approach instilled in their children.  Some even noted their ability to interact socially with peers and adults had improved,” said Jennifer Adams, First Stage Academy program director.  “The program enables students with autism take their next steps as an artist and as a person,” continued Adams.

 

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‘Jitney’ is the Play to See at Pasadena Playhouse

jitney 

“The first act of Jitney is a perfect piece of theatrical carpentry that may well be the best thing Mr. Wilson ever wrote. 
Make every effort to see it”  -Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

*A telephone rings. A man jumps up from his circle of cronies, to pick up the ringing phone. “Cab Service. 125thand Lexington? Be there in 10 minutes. Blue car!” The cab driver makes his mark on the board, grabs his hat off the rack and walks out the door. He has just booked his cab. Seconds before he sat around the storefront with a crew of regulars who shoot the breeze, unapologetically meddle in other peoples’ lives and sometimes even find their bloody nose at the end of a fist. This is a day in the life of a jitney cab driver. “Jitney” is the term used in the African American community for a gypsy cab. Unlicensed, they drive the locals where traditional cab companies won’t go and set their own prices for the trip.

The South Coast Repertory production of “Jitney” begins its three-week stint at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, where a talented director and tight-knit ensemble of nine talented actors – all make their Pasadena Playhouse debut – and seem to effortlessly transport audiences to 1977 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the play is set. “Jitney” is the first of ten plays from the renowned “Pittsburgh Cycle” series by acclaimed playwright August Wilson. These plays document the African American experience in Wilson’s childhood neighborhood, decade by decade, over the course of the 20th century.

Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director, Sheldon Epps, who has been in this role since 1997, admits to the numerous components he has to juggle when determining his season of plays. “We are criticized by some press for our choices…I agree with that…You have to meet your yearly budget. You have to do what will sell tickets…The challenge is not to completely sell out and kowtow to the audience…You don’t compromise your beliefs,” he says.

“Jitney” wasn’t even scheduled to run at the Pasadena Playhouse. But due to circumstances it replaces the play originally set to run. Amazing how things happen. Audiences should definitely recognize this inclusion as a gift in disguise.

“I think it is one of August Wilson’s most hopeful and optimistic plays,” Epps offers.

“Every time you do it with different actors…you find something different,” says director Ron OJ Parson, a native New Yorker and accomplished performer and director who has directed or acted in 19 August Wilson plays. Though Parson admits there is nothing in particular he looks for in casting, and chooses each actor based on the “vibe” he gets and not what they do in audition, the final cut for “Jitney” wasn’t an easy one. “I went home and I thought about it….talked with my assistant…The voices you hear talking is exactly what it sounds like when you go into a jitney station,” he adds.

The performances are stellar indeed. The accomplished ensemble works well together and each actor admits to being drawn to the play for personal reasons.

“I get [to hear] my father’s voice. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to play this role,” says Charlie Robinson, who plays “Becker” — owner of the jitney station — with a beautifully quiet intensity and a solid sense of leadership. This is not Robinson’s first August Wilson play. He performed in “The Piano Lesson,” and even won aBest Actor in a Play Ovation Award for his portrayal of Troy in “Fences”. Ironically, Robinson’s father – who died at the age of 36 from alcoholism – was a jitney driver.

Audiences will get a real kick out of Ellis E. Williams’ “Turnbo”, who is really the “life of the party” at the jitney station. The most meddlesome of them all, Williams’ character keeps the play moving as ‘life happens’ to the various relationships exposed. Williams, who has an extensive Broadway repertoire, totally immerses himself in his role and, through his delivery, audiences will most likely find themselves groaning at times, laughing at other times and even cringing in some instances from his characters’ very colorful personality.

Montae Russell plays “Booster” — Becker’s recently released from prison son. From the moment he enters the room, audiences feel it. He is just that powerful a presence. The strained relationship between “Booster” and his father — revealed through dynamic scenes and great dialogue will definitely touch a nerve.

August Wilson once said, “When I first started writing plays I couldn’t write good dialogue…I thought that in order to make art out of their dialogue I had to change it, make it into something different. Once I learned to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them.”

This play confirms that.

Kristy Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate and former practicing attorney plays “Rena” – the distraught girlfriend (and baby-momma) of the youngest jitney driver. As the only female in the cast, Johnson’s “Rena” is thoroughly convincing and even likeable. In her scenes with Darnell especially, though understated, and possibly by the way she uses her voice, her character generally appears to be one iota away from a nervous breakdown; while the scene does not always appear to call for this. Johnson, who says her dressing room was the ‘party place’ for the rest of the cast, has also performed in other August Wilson plays.

David McKnight’s kind-hearted “Fielding” a sharp dresser who goes nowhere without his concealed bottle of courage; Larry Bates’ “Youngblood/Darnell” – the youngest of the cabbies, who will only take so much from a certain colleague, yet ‘cleans up well’; and James A. Watson, Jr. – a face audiences will find familiar from numerous television roles, who plays “Doub” confidante and loyal friend to “Becker” are all outstanding.

“Jitney” runs through July 15, 2012 at the Pasadena Playhouse located at 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena, California. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. For more information call 626-921-1161 or visitwww.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

DeBorah B. Pryor began her career in journalism in New York City more than 30 years ago. She has been a contributing writer for Lee Bailey’s EURweb since 2003. She is also the author of “Public Speaking for the Private Person” a communications seminar designed for professionals who are thrust into public speaking situations due to their work. She teaches her seminar at local universities and community colleges throughout Los Angeles County. Visit her website at http://www.dpryorpresents.com for more information.

 

 

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