Stage and Screen: The White Snake, John Cusack, God of Carnage and More

THROUGH SUNDAY, MAY 19

The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery
The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery promises to give you “Zanni bellhops, femme fatales, hidden clues, mustachioed detectives and more!” In the tradition of classic mysteries from Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Clue, this entertaining whodunnit ends Faction of Fools Theatre Company’s monumental 10th anniversary season. Various dates and times. Tickets $22. Faction of Fools Theatre Company: 800 Florida Ave. NE, DC; www.factionoffools.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, MAY 26

The White Snake
Inspired by an ancient Chinese fable, The White Snake tells the story of animal spirit White Snake, who transforms into a beautiful woman to experience the human world. When White Snake falls in love with a pharmacist’s assistant, their illicit romance draws the ire of a villainous monk who sets out to destroy their relationship. Various dates and times. Tickets $19-$45. Constellation Theatre Company: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; www.constellationtheatre.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, JUNE 2

The Oresteia
Adapted from the Greek tragedy trilogy, Ellen McLaughlin’s The Oresteia is coming to the Shakespeare Theatre Company. On the surface, it’s an epic story about love, betrayal, murder and revenge. But at its core, The Oresteia is a critique of human civilization. McLaughlin condenses the trilogy into one dynamic show with expert finesse. Various dates and times. Tickets $44-$118. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, JUNE 9

Love’s Labor’s Lost
In this early Shakespeare comedy, a young king and his three companions swear off women in order to focus on their studies and fasting. However, when a princess and her female companions arrive, the young men find it increasingly difficult to deny their lustful desires. Directed by Vivienne Benesch, Love’s Labor’s Lost is a delightfully witty, amusing and timeless tale. Various dates and times. Tickets $42-$79. Folger Theatre: 201 E. Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1 – SUNDAY, JUNE 2

The Children
The protagonists of The Children, a couple of retired physicists, live in a remote cottage on the British coast. They live a simple, modest life in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, carefully conserving their resources to get by. But a surprise visit from a former colleague upends the couple’s lives, revealing old secrets with catastrophic consequences. The Children is loosely based on the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Various dates and times. Tickets $52-$65. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

SATURDAY, MAY 4 – SATURDAY, MAY 25

God of Carnage
The 2009 Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage was originally a French tale but has been translated due to popular demand. The play centers around a feuding set of parents who meet after their children clash in a playground altercation. What begins as a civil conversation devolves into a jarring confrontation between the parents and ultimately their own partners. Various dates and times. Tickets $50. Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

TUESDAY, MAY 7 – THURSDAY, MAY 9

The Chibok Girls: Our Story
Few girls have captured the world’s attention like the Chibok Girls. In 2014, 273 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from a school in the town of Chibok, stirring international outrage and widespread protests in Nigeria. In a predictable fashion, the world seemed to forget about the kidnapped girls just as quickly as they’d learned about their disappearance. Renegade Theatre’s The Chibok Girls: Our Story is a reminder in the form of testimonial theatre. The event also features Nobel Prize-winning playwright and author Wole Soyinka and is part of CrossCurrents, a “citywide biennial festival that highlights innovative artists from around the world who are harnessing the power of performance to humanize global politics.” Begins at 7:30 p.m. each night. Tickets are $20. Davis Performing Arts Center: 37th and O Streets NW, DC; www.georgetown.edu

THURSDAY, MAY 16

John Cusack, Plus a Screening of High Infidelity
John Cusack is recognizable from a ton of movie roles, but perhaps none are as iconic and memorable as Rob Gordon, a music connoisseur and record shop owner searching for love in the classic rom-com High Fidelity. Throughout the film, Gordon muses on his past relationships and the sobering realities of love and companionship. Cusack himself will discuss the film in person and take questions from the audience following the screening at the Warner Theatre. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Show at 7:30. Tickets $49-$150. Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC;www.warnertheatredc.com

Photo: Thom Goertel

Black Pearl Sings! Touches on Harsh, Comical Realities

DC theatergoers have rare access to what playwright Frank Higgins would consider an “authentic doorway into the past.” The Alliance for New Music Theatre has brought Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings! to life at Spooky Action Theater, exploding with songs and narratives that delicately address timely social issues while exposing the harsh, yet comical, realities of the past.  

Based on the relationships between legendary folk and blues musician Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Library of Congress folklorists John and Alan Lomax, Black Pearl Sings! begins in Texas during The Great Depression, where the protagonist Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Roz White) has spent the previous 10 years in prison for pulling a Lorena Bobbitt on an abusive suitor.

The contemporary play opens with Pearl donning prison stripes and a metal ball at her feet. While working in a chain gang, Pearl wrestles with the idea of her daughter out on her own since her incarceration.

Playing opposite to Pearl is Susannah (Susan Galbraith), an ambitious Library of Congress musicologist on a prison tour collecting indigenous folk and African American slave music in the South. Entering stage left, Susannah hears Pearl singing an unfamiliar, spirit-stirring tune and requests the singer’s company.

“When people die, history is lost,” Susannah says, simplistically stating the significance and relevance of Black Pearl Sings!

After sharing their truths, the two join forces – one vowing to reconnect with her daughter and the other vowing to find the perfect song collection.

This upbeat show relies solely on the talents of these phenomenal women. Battling the whole way, the two passionately dance on couches while confronting issues of race, social narratives and perspective.

“We have treasures of which we aren’t even aware,” White, a trained musical theatre actress, explains.  “It’s important to know your worth, your history and what you have to contribute.”

White and Galbraith are one of the most dynamic duos to take the stage. The seemingly genuine quips and banter deployed onstage perfectly showcase their comedic talents and chemistry, promising to leave audiences laughing uncontrollably.   

Though the storyline dips into deeper pools of social consciousness, a light-hearted mood prevails throughout the play. The simple choreographies paired with jovial tunes make this thoughtful production a winner. It shocks and calms when appropriate and features an easy, crowd-pleasing sing-a-long.

The modest décor of Spooky Action Theater is impeccably on-brand. Notes of sawdust fill the theatre, reminiscent of industrial and rural settings.

Fortunately, this production is not modest at all. With support from the Library of Congress and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Thomas W. Jones II applies more than 30 years of professional experience to engage audiences, using multimedia imagery to reinforce the performance.

The journeys of Pearl and Susannah are inspirational and uplifting. If you’re searching for an evening of heart-wrenching confessions, heartwarming songs and spiritual connectedness, look no further than Black Pearl Sings!

The Alliance for New Music-Theatre production of Black Pearl Sings! is showing through May 4 at the Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church. Tickets are $25-$40 and can be purchased here.

Universalist National Memorial Church: 1810 16th St. NW, DC;www.spookyaction.org

Correction: A previous version of this article did not clarify that The Alliance for New Music-Theatre produced Black Pearl Sings!

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: Francisco Campos-Lopez

A Q&A With Washington Performing Art’s Jenny Bilfield On The Portals Of Art and More

Jenny Bilfield was once told to work as a receptionist and luckily for the DC area, she ignored this request. Instead, the President and CEO of Washington Performing Arts listened to the impactful women in her life telling her to be ambitious, develop a powerful work ethic and to channel her experiences along the way.

At the helm of the local art organization, Bilfield has steered toward community and education programs, ensuring people receive the same inspiration and motivation as she did in her formative years. We talked to Bilfield about her love for all things art, her trials and tribulations in the professional world and why it’s important for young people.

On Tap: How did you get your start in the arts?
Jenny Bilfield: I started playing the piano by ear when I was three, and composing when I was 10. I was the only person in my family with artistic ability, but my mother loved the arts, especially contemporary art, music, theater and so we attended everything. I’m sure my very early exposure and encouragement conditioned me to be open to a variety of art forms, sounds [and] environments.

OT: Why is art important to you and when did you know you wanted to have a career in the field?
JB: For me, the arts provide portals to history, emotion, experience, human understanding; they enlighten, engage, inspire [and] educate. I have learned so much through the work of great artists. Artists have an arsenal of tools to synthesize and express the complexity and beauty of our world in ways that engage the heart and mind, afresh. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts from the time I was pretty young – I decided when I was around 17 or 18, that I preferred making music happen (promoting and programming it) more than I liked the solitary confinement of a practice room. An internship coordinating a Beethoven Festival on Long Island one summer, clinched it for me.

OT: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
JB: I started working in 1985 in New York City – 20 years old, right out of college. I encountered a number of challenges early on: the assumption, from prospective employers (male) that I was going to work only until I met a man and got married. In addition, I was told I needed to choose a path, marketing, fundraising, PR, programming, etc., and that my desire to lead or run an organization was both unrealistic and hasty; organizational leadership wasn’t a track, they insisted. It took me a few years to actually run an organization, but I did have very interesting roles before I got to that point: coordinating special projects and programs for Merkin Concert Hall, working as Philip Glass’s assistant, etc. Several organizations I worked for early on weren’t especially large or stable, but I learned by doing and took some pretty important risks in order to develop my leadership chops and operational capacity across all areas of management and programming. I also developed a strong stomach for the organizational volatility that comes with working for a small institution.

OT: What are you most proud of achieving in your career? How do you set goals, and what are some that you’re working on now?
JB: A great question and opportunity to walk down memory lane! I am proud of the expansive work I’ve done on behalf of living composers – founding the New Music Orchestral Project and bringing 40 new works to life through performances and reading sessions; my leadership role at Boosey & Hawkes during, which I developed composer-focused initiatives and catalog acquisitions, partnerships that measurably grew our composers’ profiles, work and opportunities globally (and our overall catalog) while generating new revenue for the company to currently at Washington Performing Arts, developing programs (connecting mainstage, community-engagement and educational) that have provided artists with transformative platforms for their most special projects and facilitated deeper connections with audiences. I do this alongside a great team and with strong board support, and find it incredibly powerful to curate programs in DC, drawing upon the cultural resources and partnerships in this city. Those partnerships have enabled us to shine a spotlight on key themes and moments in American history – something we are aiming to do more of.

OT: What advice would you give to women pursuing careers in the arts?
JB: Personal advice: as you consider a life partner, be sure that the person you’re with is fully invested in your career and your success [because] this field requires a high level of work, life integration and if you’re on a leadership path there will be many demands placed upon your time. Professional advice: develop quantitative skills and be comfortable with data and numbers, even if you don’t expect to be a CFO or Marketing/Development Director. If invited to join a board, join the finance or governance committee; if you have experience in this area, you will be steps ahead of your peers whether you oversee programming, education or operations.

OT: Did you get any advice from someone when you were first beginning your journey?
JB: From two men – advice to work as a receptionist at an organization for several years and then apply for another entry level job within the organization; I did not take this advice. From several women: be ambitious, prepared, develop a good work ethic and use my experience.  This advice, I did take. I had quite a number of anti-role models, and quite a number of true role models. It’s important to meet and speak with a lot of people to see, hear what resonates.

OT: How is Washington Performing Arts working to empower women in the workplace and on the stage?  
JB: Our leadership team is 50 percent women (we have many on the wider staff, in fact), with a similar proportion on our board and junior board. We have a dynamic women’s committee too – and some of the most well-established, respected women in our field got their early start on the staff of Washington Performing Arts. On stage, we seek to foreground talent across many musical genres and styles and have found ample opportunities to highlight women – as performers, curators, composers, artists in residence.

OT: Why do you think arts education is important in schools?
JB: First and foremost, because I think arts exposure and participation enables us to access what is ambiguous, personal and very human in ourselves. The reason it’s important to have arts education within the schools (versus only as an extracurricular) is that when it’s included during the school day – as part of the curriculum – it becomes an educational priority, on par with other subjects. Whether its value is measured by social and emotional development of our children or by improvement in behavior or math skills, the arts can have a powerful impact.

OT: What excites you most in the DC arts scene right now?
JB: I really like my colleagues who are leading peer institutions and have found an abundance of creative, collaborative opportunities. Many of our institutions are committed to new work, arts education, and to forging meaningful relationships with community-based artists and organizations – social responsibility alongside a commitment to artistic excellence. So, it’s an interesting time to be in Washington as both artist and audience member.

For more information about Bilfield or Washington Performing Arts, visit www.washingtonperformingarts.com.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.