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February 2014 In Theatre News

Racially educational theatre, gay shorts and a theatre re-opening in Frogtown lead national theatre news.

Lift Every Voice

"Sunday in the Park with George" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, at Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh, N.C., through May 3. Pictured: Ian Finley, Bailey Jenkins, Diana Cameron McQueen and Fred Corlett. (Photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
“Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, at Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh, N.C., through May 3. Pictured: Ian Finley, Bailey Jenkins, Diana Cameron McQueen and Fred Corlett. (Photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

RALEIGH, N.C.: Good things can happen when arts organizations collaborate. Case in point: Civil Rights Through Song: A Choral History of Raleigh Through the Civil Rights Era, which brings together Burning Coal Theatre Company and the Raleigh Boychoir. The production, funded in part by a City of Raleigh Arts Commission (CORAC) collaboration grant and running March 13–23, features three choral music sections along with dance and interwoven dramatic narrative.

As the title suggests, music tells the story. The first two portions of the program, featuring songs from the 1950s and ’60s, pointedly segregate the choir among its white and African-American members, just as they would have been in that era. A final piece features contemporary music, performed by students in the desegregated Wake County School System, including not only boys from the Raleigh Boychoir but girls of the same age group. Progress, it seems, proceeds along more than one track.

Performances will take place at Burning Coal’s Murphey School Auditorium. The location itself can count as a resonant player in the drama: Murphey was Raleigh’s first integrated school. Visit www.burningcoal.org.

 

Total Douglass

NEW BEDFORD, MASS.: It was while researching his first historical one-man play, Robert E. Lee—Shades of Gray, that the playwright Tom Dugan kept coming across the concurrent story of Frederick Douglass. The result was Dugan’s Frederick Douglass—In the Shadow of Slavery, which brings the pioneering African-American’s rags-to-riches story to life. The latter show played last month at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, a location of special significance: The town was Douglass’s first home after he escaped from slavery in Maryland. In the Shadow of Slavery premiered in 2008, but the recent performance marked the first time the show had played in New Bedford.

Though born a slave, Douglass went on to become an adviser to seven different U.S. presidents. “He was the most famous black man in the world—stories don’t get any better than that,” says Dugan.

Mel Johnson Jr., who plays Douglass, has worked with Dugan in the past, including as director of the Lee bio-play on tour. “I figured he would do a great job playing Douglass,” says Dugan, citing Johnson’s more than half-dozen Broadway credits and years of regional theatre experience—and, more crucially, his “starring role with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. I knew he could handle the tough assignment of doing a one-man play,” says the playwright. Can a Frederick Douglass action figure be far behind? Go to ticketing.zeiterion.org/public/.

 

Globally Speaking in D.C.

Washington, D.C.: Twenty-two theatrical offerings from 19 countries converge for the Kennedy Center’s “WORLD STAGES: International Theater Festival,” running March 10–30. Thirteen fully staged productions bow alongside four
theatre-themed installations, three readings of new work and two forums.

“WORLD STAGES is the Center’s first theatre-focused international festival,” notes festival curator Alicia Adams. “Over the span of three weeks, audiences will have the unique opportunity to experience works by some of the very best theatre companies from across the globe, all under one roof at the Kennedy Center.”

Countries with work represented include Canada, Chile, England, France, Iceland, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, Pakistan, Palestine, Scotland, South Africa, Sudan, Syria and the United States. Highlights include Green Snake by the National Theatre of China, making its U.S. bow in a production directed by a renowned female director, Tian Qinxin. Rupert, by the well-respected Australian playwright David Williamson, takes on a certain media mogul in a production by the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Forums include “Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees and Theatre,” in partnership with the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown, which will include participants that hail from the U.S., Syria, Sudan, Pakistan and Palestine, while Director Forums is a moderated open dialogue about the festival productions led by Adina Tal (Not by Bread Alone) and Didier Bezace (Savannah Boy).

 

Jokes, Snacks, Fires

LOS ANGELES: “A lot of folks have mentioned to me, ‘You probably have to make up your mind if your play is a comedy or a drama,’” says Vickie Ramirez, whose Stand-Off at HWY #37 runs through March 16 at Native Voices at the Autry. In the midst of the show’s sobering central story—in which a Tuscarora man abandons his National Guard post to join protests against a planned highway through Native land in upstate New York—there are jokes about snacking and other light moments. That juxtaposition “seems really Indian-y to me—there’s a strong thread of gallows humor in our shows,” says Ramirez, who is of Tuscarora heritage herself. “It’s completely natural for us to be joking, catching up, snacking, while someone is knocking over an electrical pole onto the railroad tracks to set them on fire.”

Ramirez says she feels a growing momentum from Native playwrights, including Larissa Fasthorse, William S. Yellowrobe Jr. and Rhiana Yazzie. “I think our stories are getting a little more appealing to the public at large, because they can draw a correlation between something we have to deal with and now we all have to deal with.”

In the case of HWY #37, that “something” is environmental degradation. One underreported aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy, Ramirez notes as an example, has been the opposition of Native Americans to Trans-Canada’s drilling plans, which have reawakened concerns about Indian burial sites and heritage, even in areas not officially designated as tribal land. It’s a struggle, Ramirez says, that goes back to “the original, for lack of a better expression, invasion. I honestly don’t know if there’s a way out of it, because culturally our perception of what land is is so different—is it a commodity to be sold, or something sacred to be protected?”

The best she can hope for, she says, is an “amicable détente” between the U.S. and descendants of its Native peoples. A few snacks and jokes couldn’t hurt. Visit http://theautry.org/whats-here/about-native-voices.

 

Leaps in Frogtown

ST. PAUL, MINN., and LOS ANGELES: The Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul is clawing its way back from an era of dilapidation and foreclosures, and among the bright spots is a plan to reopen the historic, long-abandoned Victoria Theater. Built in 1915, the Victoria ran a typical 20th-century course of silent movie house, nightclub and retail repurposing (it housed a light-fixture business for decades) before shuttering in the ’90s. After surviving both blight and plans to tear it down for a parking lot, the Victoria is the centerpiece of the Victoria Theater Arts Initiative, a consortium of local organizations, including the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, Historic Saint Paul, Dangerous Productions and the New Victoria Theater Project. The consortium has 18 months to take ownership of the building, in a deal brokered by Twin Cities Community Land Bank with the previous owners.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles’s Atwater Village—located on the edge of a riverfront neighborhood also popularly known as Frogtown—the long-itinerant Echo Theater Company has put down roots at the Atwater Village Theatre, already the joint home of Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA and Circle X Theatre. After producing 48 productions over 16 years, as well as running the Ojai Playwrights Conference, artistic director Chris Fields says it was time to settle down in “the ideal theatre in a wonderful neighborhood.” The Echo’s first production, currently running, is Tommy Smith’s unsettling Firemen (through March 16). Next up is Mickey Birnbaum’s Backyard and Jessica Goldberg’s Better, with the holiday offering Stories of the Season by Robert Alan Beuth and Robert George Harrison closing the year. Go to saintpaulhistorical.com/items/show/171 and to

www.echotheatercompany.com.

 

Gay Shorts Suite

ST. LOUIS: In a Victorian version of the gay-hookup app Grindr, men in handlebar moustaches and tophats exchange politely steamy notes via an elaborate system of pulleys; a lesbian mom surprises herself, and her wife, when she’s upset that their daughter may be gay, too; a curvy local pole-dancer plies her twisty trade.

These are just a few of the offerings onstage at this year’s Briefs, a festival of 10-minute plays on LGBT themes produced by Uppity Theatre Company and its media partner, Vital Voice, a magazine for St. Louis’s LGBT community. The fest runs March 21–23 at La Perla, a private event space in downtown St. Louis. The brainchild of Uppity artistic director Joan Lipkin and Vital Voice publisher Darin Slyman, Briefs is in its third season. And Lipkin wants to stress that every initial in LGBT is represented—a relative rarity on one program. “It’s rare to see the work of lesbian and transgendered writers sharing the stage with plays about the gay male experience,” says Lipkin, the author of the popular Are You Married? and The Big, Fat LGBT Everything You Need to Know Show of Shows!

This year’s slate includes the aforementioned Buggery by Brigham Mosley and In the Water by Tabia Lau, as well as Lipkin’s own Ready, Donna Hoke’s Sharp Corners, DesirÄ Declyne’s Not My Father’s Son, Theresa Masters’s Lucky, Rich Espey’s Messages Deleted, and Donald Miller’s Strange Bedfellows. The pole-dancer? She’s not part of a play per se, but Michelle Mynx, a St. Louis–based burlesque star, kicks off each evening of Briefs—um, literally. Go to www.uppityco.com.

 

Learning the Ropes

BISCAYNE BAY, FLA.: When a sleek new 130,000-square-foot rehearsal production and center opens next January on the campus of Florida International University, any comparisons to a land-locked cruise ship will be entirely apropos. That’s because the $20-million facility, featuring three-story studios, a 300-seat theatre, and vast spaces for costume making and set storage, is being bankrolled by Royal Caribbean Cruises, which will use the space to develop and rehearse its work.

And what does FIU, which is providing the land, get out of it? Students of its College of Architecture + The Arts (CARTA) will get access to the space for their own work, as well as classes and curriculum jointly designed by FIU faculty and Royal Caribbean pros. The cruise entertainment company will also offer 20 paid internships to CARTA students, as well as fellowships and scholarships. Said CARTA dean Brian Schriner, this “public education/corporate collaboration” represents “the future of successful community engagement and corporate philanthropy.” Dramamine not included. Go to cartanews.fiu.edu/.

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