Photo: Tony Powell

A Conversation with Edward Gero on Arena Stage’s “Junk”

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s play Junk is coming to Arena Stage on April 5. Inspired by the debt crisis of the 1980s, Junk explores the ruthless world of finance and its effects on American values. Acclaimed DC stage actor Edward Gero plays the role of Thomas Everson, the owner of a steel manufacturing company, who is confronted when junk bond giant Robert Merkin plots the hostile takeover of the family company. Gero talked to On Tap about Junk and his experience with the production so far.

On Tap: How did you learn about Junk and land your role in the play?
Edward Gero: Actually, [Artistic Director] Molly Smith asked me to come in and read for it. She knew Jackie Maxwell, who’s directing the play, was looking for somebody, and they asked me to come in and read. I put an audition on tape with Thomas Keegan, who’s playing the role of Merkin and sent that out, and I got cast. That was about a year ago. And of course, I heard about the play because it had a great run in New York in 2017–it’s been produced around the world—and the playwright Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Disgraced in 2013. He’s a playwright of some importance, so it was a project I was interested in doing. Plus, the subject matter too, it’s a really complicated play, an interesting play about the junk bond raiders of the 1980s.

OT: Why did you want to be a part of the production?
EG: I was really interested in the play. I had not worked with Jackie Maxwell before, and I was very excited about that. I also love working at Arena. And it’s a really terrific role. I play Thomas Everson, the owner of what’s called Everson Steel, which is sort of a stand-in for, let’s say, U.S. Steel—it’s a Dow Jones Industrial company. They become the target of a takeover, and he sort of holds down the old economic values. He was born into the company, 3rd generation in his family, he has commitment to the workers and he’s sort of overwhelmed by this takeover. So, it’s an interesting role to play in terms of facing the future. It becomes quite a shock to him.

OT: Was working with Ayad Akhtar a goal for you?
EG: Not particularly, but when I heard the play was going to be produced, I was interested in it right away because I knew it would be a very smart play. I’m interested in plays that are intellectually stimulating, and this certainly was that. It’s a language play too. It’s deep-in-the-weeds about blue economics. It moves at such a pace like a Shakespeare play, and Ayad had made the comparison. He’s been influenced by both David Mamet and Shakespeare, so it’s a very heavy language play. Yet you end up getting is into the relationships of these people. If you don’t follow all of the weeds and information about the new economics, you’d get really compelling relationships between these people.

OT: Can you describe your character Thomas Everson?
EG: Thomas Everson is a man of a certain age—he’s probably late 50s, early 60s. He’s inherited this role as a CEO. His father father had it before him, his grandfather started the company. They come out of the late 19th century industrial magnets. [He is] someone who makes steel to make money, where the characters of Merkin for example, are just out to make money by turning debt into assets and doing these raids and hostile takeovers. It’s something [Everson] didn’t necessarily want to, but felt obligated to take it over. His father is no longer with him, but the burden and responsibility of keeping the steel mill alive and keeping that legacy of his father alive drives him and actually becomes his downfall. Where the other characters are contemporary, young and aggressive, he’s trying to hold on to an older version of what America is. That’s really what the play is about. In guise of finance, it’s really about a generational change of what’s happened to America. Ayad said really brilliantly that the play was really about how Americans moved from being citizens to being consumers; Everson is sort of the last of that generation.

OT: Did you identify with him in any way? Is that important to you when you’re developing a character?
EG: Well, you try to find ways into the character. My dad was not a steel magnate. However, he was a president of a local United Auto Workers union for 25 years, so I grew up in a labor house. I can use that experience and I understand that mentality of wanting to do the best for the workers. But management now and management then are two different things. Of course, management is in the business of making money, but he also knows he’s got this whole community. The town where Everson lives in, there’s Everson High School, Everson Street, Everson Road, Eveson Park. He’s sort of the leading citizen of that whole area. So, I use my own experiences of growing up with my dad as an entryway, but then I have to go into the imagination of the character, which is different.   

OT: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role? Did you study the financial crisis of the 80s?
EG: For sure. I mean, I lived through it. It takes place in New York in the 80s. I was there then, and I had friends who worked on Wall Street. The New Years Eve party from 1979 to 1980 was an amazing party. A friend of mine from high school owned a loft. He had written the first arbitrage trading program for IBM and other friends of mine were working on the Street, so the whole culture of that period, I lived. I have that first-hand experience.

OT: You’re a prolific stage actor in DC. What do you think makes this play interesting to a DC audience?
EG: I think it’s very smart in a way that, let’s say, The Originalist was red meat for lawyers, this is certainly red meat for economists. The whole financial structure is sort of a nexus between economics and law, and that’s certainly policy making. It’s very relevant to this community, and I think audiences will come to this with a certain understanding. I’m sure the economists in the room will be saying, “Well, that might not be true,” the lawyers are saying, “That’s good, that’s right,” so there’s that kind of engagement. Washington has one of the smartest audiences, if not the smartest audience, in the United States because of the people who are here.

OT: You touched on this earlier, but as a Shakespearean actor do you see any parallels to this play?
EG: Oh, absolutely. I drew the connection to it directly with Henry IV, but there’s also the characters of Merkin and his wife that had a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kind of feel to them too—she’s a very strong advocate for Merkin and steals him all the time. This play is going to fly. I think it started on Broadway as a three-hour, three-act play. It’s now a two-hour, one-act play. There’s been extensive cuts, extensive re-writes and it flies. So, articulation, as it would be in Shakespeare, it has to drive, it’s a lot of information, but like Shakespeare, there’s really no subtext to it. It’s not people sitting and thinking and mulling things over and becoming external, it’s just always going forward and that’s very Shakespearean in terms of dealing with language.

OT:  Is there anything you want audiences to take away from the play?
EG: I think they’re going to have an experience that will make them question where we are going in terms of our economics and how we interact with each other, the sort of brutal capitalism of this play. Certainly in this upcoming election cycle, it’s going to be in issue. Looking at this administration, how ruthless are we willing to be in terms of selling our brand or making money and how do we balance that with the policy making and where’s the human element to it? So, I think people will come away probably not changing their points of view about politics or economics. It might strengthen the beliefs they already have. But it’s certainly going to take them on a ride. It’s a rollercoaster.

Junk opens at Arena Stage on April 5. The play runs through May 5. For more information and tickets, visit www.arenastage.org
Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-554-9066; www.arenastage.org

Shakespeare Theatre’s Young Prose Night: Vanity Fair

Shakespeare Theatre’s Young Prose Night for Vanity Fair featured a post-show reception with a complimentary drink from STC’s wine sponsor or Heineken. Photos: Julia Goldberg

Stage and Screen: April 2019

THROUGH SUNDAY APRIL 28

Mosaic Theater Company ‘s Native Son
The infamous streets of Southside Chicago set the scene in this dramatic, gripping production of Native Son. Adapted from Richard Wright’s legendary novel, Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas. When Bigger gets a well-paying job as a wealthy businessman’s driver, a series of unfortunate episodes lead to tragic consequences. With the original version set in the 1930s, this modern adaptation incidentally reveals the deep-rooted history of poverty in Chicago. Various dates and times. Tickets $20-$35. Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; www.atlasarts.org

THROUGH SATURDAY, APRIL 20

The Peculiar Patriot
Liza Jessie Peterson was a teacher at the notorious Rikers Island prisons for 18 years. Inspired by her experiences, Peterson brings her one-woman show to the stage, exploring the effects of incarceration on communities and a broken system that perpetuates inequality. Her character Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a self-proclaimed “peculiar patriot,” makes frequent trips to penitentiaries, visiting her imprisoned family and friends in this funny and fiercely provocative show. Various dates and times. Tickets $14-$29. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

SUNDAY, APRIL 7

The Sleeping Beauty
The famed Russian National Ballet is coming to the DMV, performing the timeless classic ballet The Sleeping Beauty. With choreography from ballet master Marius Petipa and compositions by the incomparable Tchaikovsky, this performance is sure to be a grand production. Founded in the late 1980s, the Russian National Ballet emerged in the Soviet transitional period of Perestroika. Ever since, the company has been dedicated to sharing its command of classic ballet with the world. Show starts at 2 p.m., tickets $34-$56. George Mason University Center for the Arts: 4373 Mason Pond Dr. Fairfax, VA; http://cfa.gmu.edu

TUESDAY, APRIL 9

Bob Saget
Few comedians have succeeded to crossover in the entertainment world as well as Bob Saget. Best known for his portrayal of Danny Tanner on ABC’s Full House, the versatile Saget has enjoyed an illustrious career. Nonetheless, he is and always was a comedian first. His stand-up is not what you would expect from America’s favorite dad – and with good reason: he’s not. Stepping out of the Full House shadow hasn’t been easy, but that’s exactly what Saget hopes to do in this not-so-family-friendly comedy performance. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets $45. Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW, DC; www.sixthandi.org

SATURDAY, APRIL 13

Chelsea Handler
Known for her hilariously blunt delivery and bold blue humor, Chelsea Handler is switching it up for her upcoming Sit-Down Comedy Tour. Handler kicks off her tour in April with the release of her new memoir Life Will Be the Death of Me. In a rare display of vulnerability, she writes introspectively about childhood trauma, therapy, activism and more. The show will feature true stories from her book in an honest, stripped-down conversation. But don’t worry – her emotional anecdotes will only accompany the deeply inappropriate jokes audiences know and love her for. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets $85-$145. Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; www.warnertheatredc.com

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24 – MONDAY, APRIL 29

The Who’s Tommy
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Who’s legendary debut album, The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage presents rock musical The Who’s Tommy. Starring Riverdale’s Casey Cott, Tony Award winner Christian Borle and Hamilton’s Mandy Gonzalez, the incredibly talented cast is not likely to disappoint. This semi-staged concert production boasts music and lyrics by The Who’s own Pete Townshend. Various dates and times. Tickets $69-$219. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

FRIDAY, APRIL 26 – THURSDAY, JUNE 2

Jubilee
From acclaimed playwright and director Tazewell Thompson comes an inspirational tribute performance based on the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. The renowned African American acapella group broke enormous racial barriers in the late 19th century, funding the education of newly freed slaves and performing across the globe. The performance includes popular spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Various dates and times. Tickets $76-$125. Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

TUESDAY, APRIL 30 – WEDNESDAY, JUNE 26

Spunk
Based on three short stories by Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston and adapted by Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe, Spunk combines elements of storytelling, music and dance. This lively production promises to entertain audiences with spirited characters and tales of love, jealousy and revenge. Set in the countryside, Spunk also depicts the African American experience in the early 20th century. Various dates and times. Tickets $40-$85. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: Clay McBride

Lewis Black is Still Pissed, and It’s Still Funny

I knew comedian Lewis Black would provide a conversation laced with passionate vulgarity aimed at folks manning positions in Congress and the White House, but even I was a tad unprepared for how little buildup he required. He went from zero to 100, as Drake would say. From pleasantries of, “Nice to speak with you, I’m in a car so the call may drop” to “All of you are pieces of sh-t, f–k you.”

“There [used to be] a level of civility,” Black says of elected officials. “Their job in Congress is to negotiate with each other, and they’re not. They haven’t for so long; it’s like, stop it already. As much as I’m into the future more than these people are, I want to get to a place of moderation.”

A ton of Black’s onstage material reflects the politics du jour. He shouts, he stammers, he stomps. Moments in his set resemble a child throwing a temper tantrum after not getting their way. However, the 70-year-old comedian isn’t begging his parents for a toy or game; he’s simply making observations about the world we all live in. And he’s not afraid to vocalize how seemingly everything – from a crappy vacation with poor service to a Chantix prescription – pisses him off.  

“I stumble onto stuff when I’m looking around for things,” he says about crafting material. “I’ll read something and go, ‘Oh, look at that.’ It starts from what makes me angry, and [I] want to know facts about it.”

The DMV native is slated to continue his unique brand of comedy in his former backyard with a stop at Strathmore on April 14, part of his The Joke’s on US tour.

“Yeah, it means a lot,” he says of performing in the DC area. “It’s always important because I get to see friends of mine. My roots are there.”

After almost 40 years in the business, Black is basically the angry elder statesman of comedy. He once said during a special that part of his job was to take the craziness of the world and exaggerate it onstage. This formula has seen him rewarded with success and accolades in abundance. But lately, reality is finally mirroring – or in some cases out-crazying – his satirical outbursts in terms of shock value.

“It’s consistently hard to find something that I can open with that nails it on a lot of levels and is funny and says what I want to say. It’s finding those moments. How do you do this? How do you make this funny? I don’t care what side people are on; they’re [all] anxiety-ridden.”

Finding things about life that piss him off has always been easy for Black. He’s held an overtly sarcastic, skeptical point of view since his teen years.

“Near the end of my junior year of high school, I was the sarcastic one. I’d be the guy telling people they were idiots.

Somebody once told me, ‘On your tombstone, it’s going to read, ‘I disagree.’”

Lately, he isn’t the only person ranting and raving over the news. In the past few years, Black has featured fan-submitted complaints as part of his “The Rant is Due” initiative. He encourages people of all viewpoints to submit their own complaints, whether politically aligned with him or in disagreement. Before reading selections onstage, he whittles down the entries to a handful, looking for funny, timely fits of rage.

“It’s remarkable and it’s evolved over time,” he says. “I’ll show up there to do the show, and by the time I’m there, there will be three or four rants about the county or questions they have, or even little biting sentences. It’s great; it’s a show that essentially, I’m kind of producing, but is really a product of the community. I’m just selecting, because I’m going to do the reading.”

Despite being eligible for social security checks, he still brings tremendous energy to the stage. His routine is probably not dissimilar from a guy operating a flamethrower at an ice sculpture exhibit – nothing is safe from his opinionated wrath. He cathartically lets his rage out and it’s entertaining, no matter what side of the fence you’re on. Like most comedians, he only has one rule in his own comedy and in fan rants.

“What it comes down to is: What’s funny?”

See Lewis Black at Strathmore on Sunday, April 14. Show starts at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $35-$89. For more information on the comedian, visit www.lewisblack.com.

Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Photo: www.studiotheatre.org

Queen of Basel’s Playwright Discusses Adaptation and Influences

Any time a contemporary artist decides to tackle and untangle a literary classic, the task is often monumental. However, when said artist then decides to mix and mold the already established characters into representations of the modern world, an adaptation is in the midst.

Critically acclaimed Hilary Bettis not only took hold of the characters and story from August Strindberg’s 1889 novel Miss Julie, but completely flipped it on itself. In an effort to provoke thoughts from diverse audiences, Bettis adapted the story from the troublesome Strindberg into the play Queen of Basel.

The play charges head first, focusing on societal aspects of power, race and class. Performances of the play are now in their last week at Studio Theatre, and before the Queen’s run ends, we spoke with the passionate Bettis about adapting the story, her process and the influences she draws from.

On Tap: How did you select Miami as the backdrop for this modern take on a classic play?
Hilary Bettis: Queen of Basel was originally commissioned by Michel Hausmann at Miami New Drama, with the goal of taking a familiar classic text and reimagining it specifically for a diverse Miami audience. So the backdrop was part of the assignment. Most of America likes to brush poverty under the rug – we don’t like to look at it. We live in gated communities or “gentrifying” neighborhoods, trying to separate ourselves as much as possible, but in Miami it’s so in your face. You literally have homeless encampments across the street from million-dollar condos. After spending time in the city, Miami felt like the perfect setting to explore a modern-day take on a play about wealth, class and power in 2019 America.

OT: What was most difficult when creating Queen of Basel?
HB: [August] Strindberg. Full stop. Aside from the original Miss Julie written as a total fever dream with messy internal logic and structure, which made trying to build a plot complicated, I fundamentally disagree with Strindberg’s view of humanity. He viewed women through the Madonna-whore lens. He believed “white” male sexuality is the epitome of strength. In his author’s preface Strindberg says, “Miss Julie is a modern character. Not that the man-hating half-woman has not existed in all ages but because now that she has been discovered, she has come out in the open to make herself heard.” And, “Jean is superior to Miss Julie because he is a man. Sexually, he is an aristocrat because of his masculine strength.” And, in his reference to Kristine (who he calls the “female slave”), “if my minor characters seem abstract, it is because ordinary people are abstract in their occupations.”

I believe ordinary people are unique, complicated and deserving of dignity. I believe sexuality female or male – doesn’t define the character or value of a human being. I believe men are capable of vulnerability and gentleness. I believe women are capable of strength and intellectual ideas. I believe people are equal in their flaws, their need for intimacy and love, their desire to be seen and valued. I believe choice comes out of circumstances. If we can understand the reality of a person’s life, we can find empathy – especially in the darkness.

OT: What will audiences discover or re-contemplate about race and power through Queen of Basel?
HB: The responses to the play have been utterly fascinating. People either love it or don’t know how to process it. The play really digs into the fluidity and messiness and ambiguity of privilege. All of these characters have power in some ways and are oppressed in other ways. They’re all victims and perpetrators. The play is designed to make an audience uncomfortable. My hope is that discomfort sparks conversation.

OT: Why the Latinx influence?
HB: I’m Latinx – my mother is Chicana – so everything I write tends to be through that lens. I was commissioned to write a bilingual adaptation for a Miami audience – so embracing Cuban, Venezuelan, Haitian [and] Colombian communities felt necessary. I also think America tends to think of Latinx as a monolithic culture; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Imperialism, slavery, Jewish people fleeing Hitler, genocide against natives, dictators, death squads funded by the U.S. and the empires built on that heritage – also plagues much of Latin America. I wanted an audience to see the nuance and diversity of communities within Latinidad.

OT: How did you and José Zayas get connected and how has it been working with him on this project?
HB: José is my theater soulmate. We’ve know of each other for a few years now, always wanting to work together, but the timing was never right. We finally got to work together at the Alley Theatre’s All New Festival last January on this play. We connected and got each other right away. He understands my voice and what I’m really after in my work and he challenges me to dig deeper, he never lets me settle. He’s really an actor’s director who knows how to make everyone feel empowered.

OT: What did you learn or discover during your creative process?
HB: So, so, so much, I was literally rewriting up until opening. This play is an actor’s play – three people in a room for 75 minutes bearing their souls and flaws and vulnerabilities – I really wanted the cast to have a point of view and a voice in our entire process. We had a lot of conversations about power, gender, race [and] how we navigate that onstage. How we portray these people with empathy, while remaining honest about their flaws.

But what’s fascinating is how Julie’s wealth sort of erases everything else about her. Audience’s are much more likely to forgive John and Christine than Julie, even though Julie is in just as much pain and turmoil.

OT: How has the current immigration conflict impacted your storytelling in Queen of Basel?HB: Immigration is something I write about in almost all of my work. The history of America is the history of immigration, and each generation has its immigrant story. Because I set out to write for a Miami audience, understanding the conflict in Venezuela, Castro’s Cuba and Baby Doc’s Haiti were vital to understanding the very fabric of Miami. Michel Hausmann, who commissioned this, is a Venezuelan ex-pat who fled the country after his theater was tear-gassed by [Hugo] Chavez. His family were Jewish refugees fleeing their homeland. The cycles of oppression, how we wield it in small and large ways, is the spine of this play.

OT: Aside from Strindberg, where else did you draw inspiration for this story?
HB: Certainly my own life. I’m mixed, white and Mexican, so I often struggle with where I fit in the world. All three characters are juggling multiple identities, so that part is very visceral and personal. And I’m a woman, so misogyny is personal. All of my collaborators have inspired me.

Queen of Basel is showing at the Studio Theatre through April 7.  Tickets are $20-$97, and available here.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo: Ryan Scherb

Amanda Gookin Discusses Forward Music Project

Classical music is not generally associated with political activism, but that’s what Amanda Gookin hopes to change with her Forward Music Project at the Dupont Underground. The project presented by National Sawdust Projects is a part of Kennedy Center’s ongoing DIRECT CURRENT programming celebrating contemporary music. Removing the stuffy connotations of classical music, Forward Music Project seeks to make the genre more accessible and use it as a force for good. Commissioning works from all-female composers, Gookin incorporates music, storytelling, chanting, staging effects and projection art to create a stimulating and immersive experience.

On Tap: Can you tell me about the Forward Music Project and how it came to be?
Amanda Gookin: At the end 2015, I started to incubate the idea of commissioning work by women for solo cello. Women are very sorely underrepresented in classical and contemporary programs, and I just wanted to do my part in helping to contribute [a] new repertoire that could get out there and be performed more often. I also started to ask myself the question of involving identity politics in music and why we don’t use classical music as a platform more often to speak out about human issues, social justice and political issues. I always felt that in music programing, we were conservative and not really taking those kinds of risks. So, as somebody who is very dedicated to social justice and women’s issues and gender issues, and those who might not fall into the binary, I wanted to give a platform for women to not only write music, but also to use it as an opportunity to share their personal story or to highlight an issue they thought was important to them.

OT: What can people expect to see at your performance at the Dupont Underground?
AG: At the Dupont Underground, I will be performing the first iteration of Forward Music Project. It’s a commission project that is ongoing. In the first year, I commissioned seven works and along with that is projection art created by Katy Tucker, who is my collaborator. I will be performing those seven pieces that were in the original show that premiered at National Sawdust in March 2017.

OT: Forward Music Project aims to use classical music as a means of political activism. What kinds of issues do you focus on on?
AG: I think the project is really centered around issues of women and girls, although it is expanding to those who engage with femininity. I would say the pieces, in one form or another, tackle issues of women or girls. Some of the women wrote stories that are very personal to them about their family heritage or being assaulted. Others shared stories that they did not relate to directly, but felt were very important to bring to the table such as sex trafficking and child marriage.

OT: In your TEDx Talk, you mentioned a lack of diversity and a sense of elitism that is present in classical music. Do you think that is changing?
AG: It’s slowly changing. I think the rate at which things are charging is very slow for where we would want to be at this point. A very low percentage of American orchestras are comprised of black and latino musicians. If we consider conductors, an even smaller percentage are people of color or women. So, it is still true that there is a very low representation of diversity in our orchestras. In my TEDx Talk, I was referring to your typical classical music audience. When you conjure an image like that, to me, I conjure an image that is primarily white and privileged. If you go to a great hall, the tickets in the front row are extremely expensive, and just by shear cost, it already signifies that only a certain type of person can sit in these rows.

OT: Your style is far from traditional. You chant, play cello, and incorporate digital elements into your performance. How did discover your unique approach?
AG: I think that was an organic process. I’d always been interested in the avante garde, and I’d always been interested in pushing boundaries. I grew up in a pretty conservative environment, and I was always considered the subversive one, even though I was wearing pearls, khaki and such. There was something edgy that needed to come out. As I started my professional career, I was lost in terms of what I wanted to do. I got into the Mannes School of Music, which is a really great conservatory in New York City. When you graduate from a conservatory, you feel like you have three tracks: you can be an orchestral musician, a teacher or a soloist. I felt like I was destined to do something really different and so I started to experiment a little bit. I saw an ad that was looking for a female violinist or a string player to compose and perform music for an all-female Romeo and Juliet production. So I responded to the ad and met with the director and they hired me. I had to figure out how to write music and how to improvise. That led to writing music for even more plays, and I just kept going. I had to create modern sounds and I was getting experimental with objects to create sounds and other percussion instruments so it wasn’t just me with the cello. I had a tambourine at my foot, a symbol next to me, I had bells, I had bottles that I would scrape.

OT: Have you ever received backlash from classical music purists about your style?
AG: Oh yeah, for sure. I really haven’t received any backlash about my style per se because there’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of contemporary music. I’ve seen some performances that are even way beyond what I’m doing. I think from a musical standpoint I haven’t received much backlash. I have mostly received backlash about content. Some people have pushed back against classical music or any sort of performance music art classical instrument being political – that we should just perform music for music’s sake, which I think is beautiful too. I don’t always perform music that is heavy handed in social justice, but when I’m very outspoken about it, that’s when some people start to get uncomfortable.

OT: What do you want your audience to take away from this project?
AG: Well, everyone is different and I feel like this conjures a wide range of emotional responses. It depends on how the person is entering into the performance. If it’s somebody who identifies with some of the content of the pieces, I hope that it’s a hand that reaches out and says, “I hear you and I’m here for you. You’re heard and understood. This is a safe space.” If it’s somebody who is super into feminist ideology, I hope they would feel even more empowered to go forward and do more good work. For somebody who may be skeptical, I would hope that they would at least have an open mind and hear the music and maybe begin to think about things they hadn’t considered before. I feel a lot of my project is about planting seeds. While I do receive a lot of great feedback in the moment, I do hope that it has a longer-lasting effect on the listeners.

Check out Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project at Dupont Underground on March 29 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available here. Learn more about Forward Music Project here.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Cir NW, DC; 202-846-1474; www.dupontunderground.org

Photo: Joan Marcus

A Bronx Tale: The Musical Brings Excitement of the 60s Doo-Wop Era to DC’s National Theatre

Washington DC is getting a taste of the Bronx in the 1960s, with doo-wop tunes, bursting choreography, tough guys and accents – A Bronx Tale: The Musical will be at DC’s National Theatre, March 26-31. Based on the story by Chazz Palminteri, this Robert De Niro and Jerry Zak’s directed musical follows the main character, Calogero Anello, who gets caught up in the mafia world while attempting to cling to the family values of his loyal, honest and hardworking father. De Niro also acted in the 1993 film as the role of Calogero’s morally sound father, playing opposite of Palmineri’s bad-guy, mob-leader character, Sonny, making it one of the most well-known and favorite gangster-type movies of all time.

The School At Jacobs Pillow alumnus and Baltimore-native Antonio Beverly is making his national tour and National Theatre debut, playing the role of Tyrone, the brother of Calogero’s love interest. We chatted with him about the cast chemistry, working with Robert De Niro, relating to his character and more about the musical.

On Tap: What was it like working with Robert De Niro to prepare for the national tour?
Antonio Beverly: I love Robert de Niro. He’s in so many movies, and is such a sweetheart, one of the nicest and shyest people that you’ll ever meet, which goes with the territory. He was very involved with keeping the authenticity of the show, whether it was someone placing their on hat correctly or they way they throw their cigarette out, or smoke it – he was very hands-on with that.

OT: Tell us about your character Tyrone. Do you relate to him at all?
AB: Tyrone is Jane’s brother, and Jane is Calogero’s love interest. He doesn’t like the relationship they have because of his time that he spent in their neighborhood, which you’ll see in the show he isn’t do anything wrong, and he gets jumped, which is a reference from the movie, and why all that craziness starts. I drew from experience with this role. Given the day and age that we’re in, and talking to my family about how they grew up in a rough neighborhood, I’m a black gay man living in America, and we still face some of the same things. It’s a tough part to do every night because of the premise of the show, but because I have such a loving cast, they really get me through it.

OT: With so many different cliques of characters in the show, how would you describe the cast chemistry?
AB:It’s otherworldly. I say that because even with creators and the cast, we’re working with bunch of seasoned veterans and a lot of people who have gone and done things I can’t even imagine, even though they’re our cast members, they’re also our teachers. If you weren’t in the show with these people and didn’t take anything away from them, then you’re not really getting the full experience.

OT: Why might young adults in DC enjoy this production?
AB:The story is coming from the eyes of a young adult – he goes through his story from when he was a child, and through all these hardships. A lot of the time, young people’s perspectives aren’t primarily shown, and it’s usually told from an adult’s perspective. He has such a supportive family and has people he didn’t even consider his family, and even though a lot of hardships were there, the love was never lost. It’s important for young people to know that there are so many people around you that are willing to give you everything if you don’t want to close out. I think they’ll really appreciate it. It’s a young, fun show.

OT: What are your thoughts on the music, how do you think it will resonate with viewers?
AB:I absolutely love the music, it’s very doo-wop. If you’ve ever seen Jersey Boys or West Side Story, it literally is that. Alan Menken did the music, as well as some of your favorite Disney movies like The Little Mermaid. I think DC viewers will also love it just because of the area that it’s in. The DMV and Baltimore areas used to be where all the jazz clubs are – they know live music when they hear it.

OT: Do you have a favorite song, scene or moment to perform in A Bronx Tale?
AB:My first favorite number is the first one, the choreography is lit and there are big tumbling passes, it’s kind of a montage that really tells how everything started. Then another favorite number of mine is the bows because the African-Americans in this show, we do more of a social dance – stepping in the show. We don’t get to do anything technical, and the end is the first time we all get to dance together as a cast. It’s our first interaction with the audience, throughout the show, we’re portraying people but when we bow we’re really breaking that fourth wall.

See A Bronx Tale: The Musical at the National Theatre from Tuesday, March 26 to Sunday, March 31. Tickets and showtimes available at www.thenationaldc.org.

The National Theatre: 321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC

Photo: https://keegantheatre.com

Hands On A Hardbody Depicts Struggle For Opportunity

Many catalysts that preclude the American Dream are found in education, employment or on a lottery ticket. In Keegan Theatre’s musical Hands on a Hardbody, 10 Texans vie for a cherry-red Nissan Hardbody, the physical manifestation of the dream and a chance to ascend America’s social and economic ladders.

The rural Longview, Texas provides a unique backdrop of this contemporary play as the 10 characters are forced to outlast one another by keeping a hand on the truck, with the last person standing receiving the coveted keys. Deriving from the 1998 documentary of the same name, co-directors Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea rise to the occasion, as their rendition of Doug Wright’s fictional story facilitates essential discourse on the American plight.

“Economical struggles don’t know race, necessarily. But they are impacted by race. It maybe doesn’t know ethnicity, but it is impacted by ethnicity. It doesn’t necessarily know gender or your relationship status, but it’s all affecting it,” Velasco suggests.

Most Americans have experienced the thrill and endorphin spikes associated with winning games or conquering competition. Perhaps you recall losing yourself in the midst of some effort to come out on top, to triumph. The phrase “every man for themselves” is a relatable American trope.

“Being able to rise and make a living wage, have a family and be valued as a citizen, all these things come out in this musical and the documentary,” she says.

As audiences explore a variety of conditions lived by those on the broad spectrum of American identity in the play, a diversity of themes are depicted. With each dance number and tune sung, a layer of understanding is creatively drawn, revealing cultural weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

“Mike is a Texan at heart, that’s where he grew up,” Velasco conveys, explaining the appeal in producing Hands on a Hardbody. “I wanted to see what Mike felt was compelling. I latched on to this notion that it was a representation of America. [At least] that’s how it was promoted by the original creative team, ‘An All American Musical.’”

In the original production by California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2012, the cast was predominately white.

“When I looked at it and I thought about some of the character descriptions, I recognized it as an opportunity to really reach in and try to represent what America is to me,” Velasco says. “[I wanted to] try to reach out and find the diversity that we have here and how there are many voices that aren’t necessarily represented in the original casting, but could be represented in this production.”

Capturing the diversity of America was fundamental to the relevancy factor in bringing this production to the DC.

“It needed to speak to a DC audience, as well as reflect what Texan roots are,” Velasco continues.“[Fortunately], what it means to be a Texan is reinforced in the songs.”

In the ballad, “If I Had This Truck,” the truck’s significance in Texas culture is outlined, but so is the overt reference to the importance of opportunity.

“When listening to the lyrics, outsiders wouldn’t know what this means, but a truck is access to things. It’s an opportunity to get a job, start a business. Driving behind that [truck] makes you more economically successful. When you start to examine what this [truck] means to a particular community, you almost realize that this [competition] is a voyeuristic act that exploits people who are quite desperate, and down on their luck.”

Having directed more than two dozen plays and musicals over 20 years, Velasco rebukes the notion of having perfected her craft.

“I hate to think that I’ve ever conquered a challenge because it would make me think that I’m done with my work and I don’t think I’m done yet.”

Hands on a Hardbody is showing at Keegan Theatre through April 6. Tickets $52-$62. To purchase tickets visit the Keegan Theatre ticket portal.

Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com

Shakespeare Young Prose Night: Richard The Third

Shakespeare Theatre’s Young Prose Night for Richard The Third featured a post-show reception with a complimentary wine or beer from Ballast Point. Photos: Trent Johnson

Photo: Gian Di Stefano

Kristin Chenoweth Brings Wicked Fun to Strathmore

They say good things come in small packages, and 4-foot-11 dynamo Kristin Chenoweth is a living example that the phrase applies to performers as well. Known for her incredible singing on Broadway, her quirky character roles in movies and on TV, and her oodles of charm in just about every performance she’s ever done, Chenoweth is beloved by people of all ages.

She won a Tony for her performance as Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1999, though she’s best-known for her renowned run as Glinda in the Broadway smash Wicked. Other memorable runs on the Great White Way include roles in The Apple Tree, On the Twentieth Century and Promises, Promises. And there’s no role she hasn’t made a lasting impression with on-screen, from West Wing to Trial & Error to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

“I’m very proud of the work I’ve done and have been blessed with some amazing roles,” Chenoweth says. “The critics have always enjoyed these choices and that makes me understand I am on the same planet as everyone else. I know what I think is tasteful and funny and good, and that always seems to line up with them and that makes me happy.”

A veteran of the concert stage, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress will perform at Strathmore on April 8 with a show any Broadway fan is sure to love.

“This concert is timed really well because my new album will be coming out around Mother’s Day, and I would like to start bringing some songs from that to my shows,” she says. “I don’t have a title yet, but I keep calling it For the Girls. It’s my way of giving myself permission to sing other women artists whose work has inspired me and changed my life musically.”

That means songs from performers like Dinah Washington, Judy Garland, Dolly Parton and Eva Cassidy.

“It’s really going to be a celebration of women. It’s important for me to recognize singer-songwriters like Chely Wright – who is a giant in the country music industry – and there’s an original song I wrote with her that I am excited to play for people.”

There’s a big part of Chenoweth, she says, that wants to be a mentor to younger audiences and teach them about some of these songs and singers who they may not be familiar with. It’s something she realized while doing an episode of Glee.

“Ryan Murphy had me sing ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret, and I just assumed everyone knew that song. But so many people reached out to me on social media asking where the song came from. I just died because these kids don’t know. I want to let them know who came before me and even some who may be younger than I. Just because you like one certain type of music doesn’t mean you can’t research and learn to appreciate others.”

Her concert will also include plenty of Broadway tunes, jazz standards, gospel songs and even opera, plus tunes from her previous release of American Songbook classics The Art of Elegance.

“Of course I’m going to sing ‘Popular’ and some songs that I will never not sing because it’s part of my DNA, but I want to make it a new show every time,” she says.

Another song that’s sure to be on the set list is “Taylor, the Latte Boy” written by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, which tells the humorous tale of a woman who falls for her barista at Starbucks.

“I was a young Kristin Chenoweth doing Steel Pier at the time [in 1997] and there was a performance honoring Kander and Ebb [a famous songwriting team], and someone handed me this music. Marcy and Zina told me they had been writing the song with me in mind. I was so nervous because the show was the next day and it’s not a short song. I spent the rest of the night learning it, and as I did, I realized this is totally me. I sang it that night and wow, did it go over.”

Soon after, she sang the song on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and it’s been a staple of her performances ever since.

“As artists, we have to recognize and understand that when we don’t sing songs like this, it’s a let down to the audience. I know that because I once saw Barbra Streisand live and she didn’t sing ‘People.’ I learned a lot there.”

The singer is very familiar with Strathmore, having starred in the Music Center’s groundbreaking I am Anne Hutchinson/I am Harvey Milk production in 2016. Currently, she doesn’t have any concrete plans to go back on Broadway. But last October, Chenoweth and her original Wicked costar Idina Menzel reunited for the NBC special A Very Wicked Halloween, and the duo’s magic was reignited on an astounding version of the show’s “For Good.” She has a few things in the fire for 2019 and is looking forward to touring at concert venues around the country when not filming any TV projects.

“Currently, I’m in development season and there are three ideas I have that three different writers have put a treatment to. I’ve fallen in love with all of them, so I do believe I will be doing something new on television soon. I’d rather do something that is me and my taste. I’m always going to choose and do something a little offbeat. That’s who I am.”

A lesson she says she’s been learning over and over in the past year is not being so serious and just enjoying the moment. Last fall, she traveled to Italy and sang a duet with Andrea Bocelli to a pretty famous audience and screwed up a song. She stopped and started over and then just messed up again and decided to cut to the end.

“People were loving it. It reminds you that life isn’t always perfect and in some ways that was my favorite moment of the trip. I am a perfectionist and I can get myself wound up pretty high. I had to laugh, and I did. Sometimes that happens in concerts and I may forget a word and I’ll point it out. I like using those moments to show I am not a robot. I am not autotuned. I am an artist who is real and authentic.”

She promises that people who don’t know who she is when they come in the door at Strathmore will know who she is when they leave.

“I want people to come to this show and be in the moment and enjoy themselves. It’s a treat you give yourself when you do that. We think we’re doing the right thing when we’re worrying about something, but I want people to put all that aside and just go with me on this journey. It will be an extraordinary, fun night.”

Kristin Chenoweth will perform at Strathmore on Monday, April 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $78 and are available at www.strathmore.org.

Learn more about Chenoweth at www.officialkristinchenoweth.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kchenoweth.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5200; www.strathmore.org