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Arena Stage’s “Jubilee” Provides Musical Portrait of HBCUs

Jubilee, showing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, takes a necessary step to illustrate the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, also known as HBCUs. Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, a transcendent experience is facilitated with the help of choral singing, witty dialogue and a cast worthy of praise.

Quite like most uplifting minority stories not considered for mass population, Jubilee centers around a narrative, though familiar to few, resonates with the masses. Thompson’s original piece, inspired by a public television documentary, tells of the plight of a courageous group of college students – some teenagers – who advocated for what was considered a trivial, lofty pursuit back in the mid-1800s.

Thompson’s eye-opening portrayal carefully leads theatregoers down a road of resiliency, where thirteen hopefuls endure the wrath of the south.

In 1871, Fisk University, overcome with financial hardships and on the verge of foreclosure, organized an a cappella group to fundraise for the institution. Hoping to fundraise their education, which they designated as their opportunity for survival, the group encountered all that could be imagined while traveling the Bible Belt, post American Civil War.

Most of Thompson’s theatrical ideation leans on the traditional spirituals sung throughout the Underground Railroad. Selections include “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “There’s a Balm in Gilead,” “Come Down Moses” and the list goes on.

Each of these historical songs, still sung in churches today, encouraged and carried these idealistic yet realistic youth through extreme hardships that were synonymous with bigotry.

Thompson takes this surreal tale and imbeds humor to keep the inspirational a cappella tribute in fact inspirational. You will have the opportunity to deeply bond with these heroes, as they share the truth behind being part of the African Diaspora. The tale recounts childhood, love formed, painful memories that are beautifully expressed in song and spoken word throughout the performance.

Be prepared to be mesmerized by the varying genres of music naturally harmonized onstage. Each cast member has the responsibility of being pitch perfect, and they all rise to the occasion. The surprising part about the vocal talents for this performance was the four roles played by understudies. I can only imagine the heartfelt soul shaking vibrato that would have lifted us further from our seat, if those primarily cast had been in attendance.

Again, each singer is able to carry their own, and they were undeniably put to the test as each were presented with opportune solos. Thompson, evidently, has a knack for pairing singers and selections. While the vocals varied and tunes were broad, the curation was heavenly. The diversity of complexions (organically referenced in throughout the play) paralleled the diversity in tone, makes this spectacle a true sight to see.

Viewers who enjoy opera styled sopranos will feel at home. Those who favor raspy jazz riffs will be most delighted. Those craving soft melodies will croon. And those desiring a deep full bass will fall out of their seats. It was a dream come alive.

Jubilee runs at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater through June 9th. Various times and ticket prices. For more information, visit
www.arenastage.org/tickets/season-landing/jubilee/.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-554-9066; www.arenastage.org

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

Photo © Tony Powell. Arena Stage "Anything Goes." October 5, 2018

Anything Goes: Arena Stage Breathes New Life into Golden Age Classic

For a con man on a mission to stop the woman he loves from engaging in a romantic relationship with some Joe Schmoe from another world, anything goes. At least that’s what Arena Stage’s retelling of the classic play entails, with stowaway Billy Crocker on a mission to get to his beloved Hope Harcourt aboard a luxurious cruise ship using every ounce of his street knowhow.

Anything Goes runs from November 2 to December 23 on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, with the theatre’s artistic director Molly Smith at the helm of the production. During the SS American’s journey from NYC to London, Crocker must use various disguises and the help of his friends to win back his love.

“There’s the romance and the love,” says High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu, who plays Crocker. “What’s fascinating about this piece is the differences in class. Billy’s had to fight his way to the position he’s at in the world. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth at all and this woman was, but [she’s] had it shoved in her mouth and [doesn’t] want her mother having a hand in everything.”

The musical is set in the 1930s, which local actress Maria Rizzo says is one of her favorite eras.

“It’s a vibrant time to sing music,” she says of the decade. “That’s what’s going to draw our audiences to the show, because there are so many songs people will recognize.”

Rizzo plays tough-talking Erma, balancing the character’s strength and independence with her playful demeanor.

“I feel comfortable playing characters who are big and exciting. I think it’s easy to slip into a stupid or flaky version of her, but I refuse to play a woman who’s dumb. There are so many women written well, like Erma. She’s street smart, even if she doesn’t talk like the classiest of broads.”

To get into character, Rizzo changed her accent by mimicking folks who say “New Joisey” instead of New Jersey. The actress says she shares a lot in common with Erma – namely her resilience and fascination with the here and now – although her character does love attention from the boys.

“So that and [her] voice were the two opposite qualities.”

For Bleu, navigating his role was more difficult because he is playing a character who is playing characters. Each of Crocker’s disguises requires its own mannerisms and voices.

“I know I am a hopeless romantic, and there is that aspect of Billy. He’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to win this woman’s heart, even after being continually denied. There’s several different accents and disguises, and while doing that you have to make sure it stays Billy.”

Bleu and Rizzo are both fawning over the choices Smith has made throughout pre-production, culminating in the new look and feel she’s bringing to this 1934 musical.

“What I love so much about Molly’s shows is that she typically casts cross-culturally, and it’s really reflective of what America looks like today,” Rizzo says. “Even though this show is from the 1930s, and the original cast would have been all white actors, that’s not the show you’ll see because that’s not the world we see right now. It gives the piece a more powerful voice.”

Smith also encourages performers to dig deeper, including the development of character backstories and experiences.

“We had to find ways to make [the script] justified, and we even brought backstories not in the text,” Bleu says. “We all had to come up with our own improvisations of our characters, [and what] the biggest turning point of your character’s life was. It was really, really interesting. I’ve never been part of a production where that process was so open to everyone.”

With fresh faces breathing life into beloved characters, this version of Anything Goes will undoubtedly emotionally engage audiences who span generations.

Anything Goes has a lot of potential for a lot more depth than most Golden Age musicals,” Bleu continues. “You have an incredibly talented ensemble and the choreography is going to be incredible, so there will be that excitement of having seen a great performance.”

Catch Anything Goes on Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage from November 2 to December 23. Tickets are $92. For more information on the play, visit www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Artwork: Courtesy of Arena Stage

Arena Stage Presents World Premiere of Dave

The heartwarming movie Dave was released 25 years ago, and the Kevin Kline/Sigourney Weaver political comedy became one of the most popular movies of 1993. The film follows a high school teacher named Dave Kovic – who also happens to be a dead ringer for the President of the United States – as he’s thrust into stand-in mode to help the country avoid a national scandal when the real commander in chief gets ill.

A world-premiere musical based on the movie makes its debut at Arena Stage from July 13 to August 19. The show is written by a trio of heavyweights – three-time Tony Award-winner Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray, The Producers), Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls, Legally Blonde) and Pulitzer Prize and two-time Tony Award-winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then) – and directed by Tina Landau. Drew Gehling, who originated the role of Dr. Pomatter on Broadway in Waitress, plays the demanding dual role of Dave and President Bill Mitchell, while First Lady Ellen Mitchell is portrayed by Broadway vet Mamie Parris.

“I love the film and was really excited to audition for this project,” Parris says. “It’s always interesting to hear when someone is inspired by something or adapting something and looking at a piece [to see] whether it sings. When I first saw this material, I knew the story really sang because it’s a fairytale about what a man can become. That really lends itself to being musicalized.”

Parris recently starred in the Cats revival as Grizabella, belting out “Memory” eight times a week. Other Broadway credits include School of Rock, Ragtime and The Drowsy Chaperone. One of the things she likes about getting to play the First Lady is not only is it a fun love story, but she also gets to play a powerful female character.

“It’s always thrilling to be asked to portray a strong, thoughtful, confident, independent, assertive woman because a lot of those roles aren’t written,” she says. “This is really a very human, multidimensional  and complex woman.”

Fans of the movie won’t be disappointed as many of their favorite scenes are represented in one way or another, but one doesn’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy it.

“It’s a wonderful film and incredibly funny, but at the same time, if you get a little too precious with that material, it may not translate quite as well for a stage production – especially one done 25 years after it was original written,” Parris says. “All the charm and story from the original is there, but there’s a new facet that really breathes new life into it.”

The musical also includes Broadway favorites Douglas Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and Jonathan Rayson (Little Shop of Horrors), as well as a collection of talented regional and New York-based actors. Vishal Vaidya, a Burtonsville, Maryland native and American University graduate, is part of the ensemble and thrilled to be part of a new work so close to home.

“It’s always nice to be here,” Vaidya says. “The theatre community in DC is so strong, and so much great theatre is happening here. Personally, it’s been nice to come back and reflect on how I’ve changed as a person and also get to see how the DC theatre [scene] has evolved and changed.”

Vaidya made his Broadway debut last April in Groundhog Day, and local credits include Ford’s Theatre’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as Barfee and Adventure Theater’s Frog and Toad as Frog, earning a Helen Hayes nomination. He was drawn to Dave because of the subject matter and people working on the show.

“I wanted to work with Tina [Landau] for a really long time,” he says. “She is such a great visionary. She wants everyone to be involved and on the same page. Tom Kitt and I have done a bunch of work in development together and I think his work is incredible. They were the main draw for me.”

Plus, the story is one that he believes is perfect for today’s political atmosphere.

“The moral of Dave is that it’s about how we can all make changes or do our part for the greater good,” he says. “Even if we think we are just a normal citizen, which is what Dave is in the beginning, we think we can’t make a difference – but he has to. He may not have the experience or connections, but he has to take action and he learns to do that.”

Parris adds that one of the things the script does particularly well is reflect a modern storyline while also standing completely apart from the current political climate.

“I’m impressed by that because I think that’s hard to do,” she says. “Dave is remarkably apolitical and I think it can be appreciated by both sides of the aisle, which the writers deserve a lot of credit for.”

Dave runs from July 13 to August 19 in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater. Tickets start at $96. Learn more about the production and ticket discounts and deals at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Photo: Courtesy of Arena Stage

Lights, Camera, Eco-Friendly Action: Arena Stage’s Solar Rooftop

For almost 70 years, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater has impacted countless lives with diverse and groundbreaking work from great artists around the country. They’ve held programs, classes and events to inspire creativity and expression, reaching over 10,000 students every year through community engagement. And in February, they decided to show their love for the community by installing 1,145 solar panels on their expansive rooftop.

To Arena Stage Executive Director Edgar Dobie, being eco-friendly is one of the best ways the theater can serve their network of artists and theatergoers.

“We feel that we need to respect our relationship with our community and our environment,” says Dobie, who has been with Arena Stage for nine years. “We tell stories on our stage, and as an institution, we have stories to tell as well. One of those stories is that we want to be as efficient and respectful as possible to the resources – whether they’re environmental or financial – that are given to us.”

As part of Arena’s renovations from 2007 to 2010, the Southwest Waterfront-based space hired the late Vancouver architect Bing Thom to design a massive glass enclosure that would surround both historical theaters. He even fit a new, third theater in the enormous 200,000-square-foot design. Thom’s idea for using glass came from his environmentally conscious roots. A huge glass wall means lots of sunlight entering the space, and a natural thermal system to save energy. Dobie is certain that Thom would be thrilled with the solar panel design if he were alive today.

With their new 452.3 kW solar system, Arena Stage’s move toward a renewable energy resource is the equivalent to saving 45,231 gallons of gas annually, or taking 85 cars off the road. And to achieve their goal of producing 20 percent of their power supply purely from solar energy, Arena Stage teamed up with EnterSolar, a leading provider of commercial marketplace solar energy options in New York. Dobie says their reputable portfolio isn’t the only reason he’s thrilled to work with them.

“EnterSolar is doing great things, and we are proud to partner with them on this project,” he says. “On top of it all, I love their name. It’s like a stage direction!”

Dobie says that because they’re eventually going to save money with this new energy source, Arena Stage will most likely hire more actors and teachers in the future. Thanks to their initiative and forward thinking, this theater will not only help to save the environment but also step up their mission to bring people together through the arts.

Learn more about Arena Stage at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Illustration: Courtesy of Arena Stage

Actor Carlton Byrd on Two Trains Running

In 1992, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running premiered on Broadway. It was, at the time, the latest in his The Pittsburgh Cycle – his take on documenting and portraying Black American life, decade after decade. Two Trains Running explores the 1960s in the rapidly changing neighborhood of the Hill District, a historically black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; more specifically, in Memphis Lee’s diner – a place soon to be wiped out thanks to something we now know as gentrification. Now, the play comes to the Arena Stage on March 30 amidst a political and social backdrop nearly 50 years after the events of the story. And yet, the events still echo the tumultuous time outside the doors of Memphis Lee’s diner.

Carlton Byrd makes his Arena Stage debut as Sterling, a man recently released from the state penitentiary and in search of work who arrives at the diner eager to ask Risa, the one female character in the play, out on a date. On Tap got a chance to speak with Byrd ahead of his DC performance about the legacy of August Wilson’s work, returning to the DC theater scene and how Two Trains Running still rings true.

On Tap: What’s it like being back in DC’s theatre scene?
Carlton Byrd: It’s great. [The] first time I was in DC was for Woolly Mammoth’s production of Antebellum the day before Obama’s inauguration, so there was a certain energy to the city then. I’m excited for another chance to perform in DC, this time doing my first August Wilson. 

OT: What drew you to Two Trains Running? Are there any similarities between you and Sterling, the character who you’re portraying? Do you know people like Risa and the other characters in real life?
CB: I was drawn to Two Trains because it’s a great play with great characters done by a great playwright. August Wilson writes in a way that is authentic to the African-American experience in this country. I know dozens of people who are similar to the characters in this play; some of them are in my family. As for myself and Sterling, I find similarities between myself and every character I portray. The work then becomes finding how we are different. That’s where the acting begins. 

OT: Seattle is a very different environment from DC. Does the environment that you’re performing in affect your approach to the performance? How will the DC production be different or similar to the Seattle Repertory production?
CB: I approach every performance the same [way]. It doesn’t matter where I’m performing, within what medium or in front of what group of people. [It] doesn’t matter if my mother is in the audience, some celebrity or a total stranger – the work and my work ethic are the same. Our DC run will be different because we have had time to settle deeper into our characters and learn from each other during our Seattle run. Also, the performance will now be restaged for the round. That’s a big difference.

OT:  How is this play still relevant to today, specifically to a place like DC that’s undergoing massive gentrification? And in the background, we have events like what happened in Charlottesville and the Parkland, Florida school shooting – events also tinged with racial violence and tension. 
CB: The play takes place in May of 1969 in the days leading up to Malcolm X’s birthday. I feel that most Americans like to gloss over Malcolm X’s contributions to empowering black people and providing in many ways the precursor for the Black Power Movement, which has been unfairly demonized through the rewriting of American history. Malcolm’s ideals and the Black Power Movement take center stage throughout the play with the character of Sterling. The play still rings true because many of the same issues are happening today. When the play speaks to specific instances of police brutality, gentrification, racism and the disenfranchisement of black people, it feels like they are speaking about 2018. The play speaks of people in transition; people at a crossroads in their lives. Since the election of 2016, I think our country is in a similar place of transition. And just like our characters, many Americans are tired of simply giving in to various forms of mistreatment – to put it mildly – and writing it off as the status quo. Our characters want to be treated with respect, among many other things. They also want the injustices that have become commonplace in their communities to change as well. I think that sentiment is shared today with the millions pushing for gun reform and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements. Like our characters, people are expressing their need for change. As was true in the 60s, those in need of change in 2018 are willing to fight, picket and protest to obtain it. 

OT: What is it about August Wilson’s work that still resonates with modern audiences? 
CB: He was a poet and a historian. Great poetry is timeless, and history tends to repeat itself. Thus, by very nature, his plays will continue to be relevant as long as the themes in his plays continue to be present around the world.  

OT: What are you most excited about in bringing this production to DC? What do you want audiences to take away from this performance? 
CB: I’m always excited to perform. That is a blessing in itself. I look forward to doing my best to tell my portion of the story. Hopefully in doing that with the help of my amazing cast, the audience will get what August wants them to get from the performance. I’m simply at service to the work and his words.

OT: Finally, to end on a lighter note: what is your favorite place or hidden gem in DC?
CB: I’m looking forward to attending the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It will be my first time.

Two Trains Running runs on Arena Stages Fichandler Stage from March 30 to April 29. Ticket are available here.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org