Evan Daves (Melchior) and Cristina Sastre (Wendla) // Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Round House Theatre Delivers Intimate Spring Awakening

Round House Theatre is in the midst of an ambitious run of Spring Awakening – the now revered Tony-winning musical adaptation of a once-shunned play turned cult classic – directed by Alan Paul.

When playwright Frank Wedekind introduced Spring’s Awakening, A Children’s Tragedy to Germany in 1891, he ignited scandal and censorship that carried through to 1917 when an English-language production in New York was shut down after only one run. 

Why? Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening called attention to the injustices inflicted on generations of youth at the hand of a draconian society, with open condemnation of sexual repression, physical and emotional abuse, and antiquated educational systems. 

Revived in 1999 as a musical with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, the new Spring’s Awakening was well-received by a relatively more “woke” audience, but one not unfamiliar with nor immune to the original play’s commentary and its characters’ struggles. 

In a book that is overloaded with every kind of struggle possible – incest, potential rape, suicide, teen pregnancy, abortion, death, ignorance, child abuse – it is a delicate balance that must be attained to ensure your audience isn’t simply overwhelmed. 

Paralleling the stubborn persistence of the play itself and its enduring themes, we lose sense of time during Paul’s production – not a flaw, but rather a nod to his successful creative direction. For example, the wayward bohemian Isla is skillfully handled such that we never know whether she ever really existed among the other children, or rather as one of those theatrical spectors meant to ferry us through the ephemera of time and space that is at once Victorian-era Germany, contemporary America, the stage, and our own real lives. The Roundhouse rendition runs through February 23. 

Tonya Beckman (Adult Women), too, functions as a touchstone. It is perhaps ironic that while Beckman’s character is meant to represent repression and/or willful ignorance, her familiar dynamism guides and balances the rest of the young cast’s green energy. 

There’s not a bad seat to be had in the newly renovated Round House. Updates to the stage including a mechanically rotating floor offer the players opportunities to effectively explore movement, choreography and attention, which is ultimately this production’s greatest strength.

There is value in playing a piece that illuminates eternal aspects of the human condition. But the mere fact of timelessness does not grant abdication from responsibility to progress. That doesn’t come in the form of a pop-punk score, Doc Martens and dyed hair. Instead, for the show, Paul brought on Lorraine Ressegger-Sloan as the team’s Intimacy Coordinator.

Ressegger-Sloan’s work is part of a growing trend seen in theaters across the country, wherein rather than being told to embody the physical and emotional state of a character, actors are being taught how to convey emotion through physicality in a way that protects them from potential trauma. 

Having worked for several years as a movement director, predominantly with women and female-identifying actors on work that was intimate in nature, Ressegger-Sloan says becoming a Theatrical Intimacy Educator was a natural progression and that her role is twofold. 

She serves as an asset to the choreography team, ensuring movements are repeatable, safe and specific, and that actors are consenting to the work – making important distinctions of work on stage as, for example, simulated sex scenes, not sex scenes. She also functions as a kind of HR for actors.

“I’m there to help them articulate and set boundaries, to be an advocate for them, to voice any issues that may arise for them to the production team. I’m holding the space and making it as safe as possible, knowing that it will never be completely safe, holding myself and everyone else accountable. In this way we build a ‘brave’ space so that we get to a place where people are comfortable being uncomfortable,” says Ressegger-Sloan. 

This work translates, too, to the audience’s experience of the performance. In considering the gaze, and expectations of performance, Ressegger-Sloan is able to help the performers navigate what it means to challenge the idea of consent, for example. Who is consenting to be seen, in what way, and when? 

“Break down the audience’s expectations is the most important part of getting the truth and allows the audience to also bask in the truth of that moment,” she says. To accomplish this she incorporates a lot of breathwork. “We use breath and expectation in a way so we can have the audience on the ride with us, but we’re [in control]. How can a physical movement convey an emotion?”

In this way, actors are freed from the intimidation of chemistry and considering how much of themselves they’ll have to give away – which can be especially important to a young cast experiencing scenes intimate in nature for the first time. 

In addition to Ms. Ressegger-Sloan’s work with the cast and crew, Round House is providing access and educational programming in conjunction with the show’s run, including free tickets for teens and college students, and events like a February 6 post-show discussion with SIECUS and Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington on the importance of consent-based sexual education and youth advocacy in 2020. 

Spring Awakening runs through February 23. For information about dates, times and tickets, visit here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 E W Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240-644-1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Mark Murphey (William Joad) and Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) // Photo: Margot Schulman

Playwright Octavio Solis Expands American Narrative With Mother Road

Mother Road, Octavio Solis’s play-form ‘sequel’ to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, begins several generations after protagonist Tom Joad’s journey from Oklahoma to California. William Joad, a direct descendant of Tom Joad, finds an unexpected heir to the family farm through Martín Jodes, a young Mexican American ex-migrant worker. Mother Road explores complicated themes surrounding immigration, family and survival, as Martín Jodes travels from a migrant farm in California to inherit familial land in Oklahoma.

Playwright Octavio Solis began creating his Grapes of Wrath continuation after traveling Old Route 66, the land that wielded suffering and hope for the original Joad family. Solis encountered an unexpected friend that eventually inspired him to tell the story of Mother Road. The play runs through March 8 at Arena Stage

“We went down the same path as the fictional Joad family, and I met someone, a young man, at a migrant workers camp near Bakersville, and he was a spoken word artist. He told me, ‘I am the new Tom Joad, and we, the Mexicans, are the new Okies.’ And I said, ‘I have to tell that story.’”

Stereotypes and racism infiltrate Mother Road as William Joad struggles to accept his heir, Martín. Despite it being a hard story to tell, Solis expands the narrative of The Grapes of Wrath to include migrant workers and redefines the concept of American survival and resilience.

“The message I’m trying to put forth with this play is that there’s room for us at the table, not that we’re trying to take the table over. The time has come for some people to move aside so that we can have a seat at the table. And that requires generosity, understanding and empathy on everybody’s part.”

Solis hopes Mother Road will help audience members understand the value of Mexican Americans in society, and emphasized that “[Mexicans] add to the mosaic of the American experience in such a vital, powerful way.”

As a migrant worker, Martín’s story emphasizes inclusion by reshaping the American narrative. Solis crafts a stunning storyline that showcases the goodness of humanity while confronting current American issues.

“I felt like I had Steinbeck there with me in the room. I felt like I had his permission, and I felt a big responsibility to continue the legacy of humanism that Steinbeck brings into his work.”

While chatting with Solis, I asked him what the legendary American author would think of Mother Road. Solis answered without much hesitation.

“I think he would I appreciate that I’m continuing the legacy of pointing out things that are wrong with our society while at the same time pointing out things that make us all one people.”

Solis does more than analyze American and Mexican culture; he makes it his responsibility to include “the lives of the downtrodden, the poor and the under-represented,” and helps their voices gain strength, which he believes Steinbeck would respect.

Mother Road reinvents a modern-day Joad family, but the story is consistent with Steinbeck’s original structure. Characters make the inverse journey from California to Oklahoma, acquiring new members and, unfortunately, losing some along the way.

“In The Grapes of Wrath an entire clan of Joads piles into one vehicle and as soon as they set out, bad things start to happen. [In the end], Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn and it’s the final blow to this family. Even the future dies at the end of the book.”

However, Solis does not let the story terminate here. Many generations down the road, when Martín begins the journey of his ancestors, the story gains traction and hope.

“In [Mother Road], the story starts with one person, and then two. They head East in the opposite direction, and they start building a family. They even bring back the bones of the dead with them. They build a new family, a family that is different from The Grapes of Wrath. And I think this is the thing Steinbeck would appreciate the most.”

Mother Road enjoys its first East Coast run at Arena Stage through March 8. Tickets are $115. For more information, click here.

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

Photo: Liz Lauren

The Leading Ladies Of The King’s Speech At National Theatre On Relationships, Power And Class

Here to fuel our generation’s obsession with British royalty, National Theatre is bringing British-American playwright David Seidler’s The King’s Speech to DC from February 11-16. If you’ve seen the 2010 Oscar-winning film, and not the play it was based on, you know the story of a shy, speech-stuttering King George VI (Bertie) who becomes a leader of a nation on the brink of the World War after his father passes and his older brother is abdicated.

While the film has a heavy focus on the relationship between Bertie and his unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue, the play is sure to shine a light on the power of the three main female characters who we don’t see enough of in the movie. We chatted with Maggie Lacey (Elizabeth, Duchess of York), Elizabeth Ledo (Myrtle Logue) and Tiffany Scott (Wallis Simpson) about their characters’ strong presence in the play, and their take on the importance of the relationships that unfold in The King’s Speech at DC’s National Theatre.

OT: Tell us about some general differences between the 2010 film directed by Tom Hooper and David Seidler’s theater version of The King’s Speech.
Elizabeth Ledo: The play is very different than the film in many ways, one being some of the characters in the film are either more or less flushed out than in the play. I think it’s two different experiences for audiences, which is thrilling. If you’re more of a history buff, the play is a little more exciting. 
Tiffany Scott: The screenwriter David [Seidler] made some changes to the script [more recently] than what you would have seen in the film version. He’s still actively involved in the process, and we’re kind of focusing on the human side and love scene between Wallis and Edward. She shows up quite a bit as a powerful player in the story of the constitutional crisis that led to the abdication. They’re working on flushing her out more. She shows up every now and then to cause some trouble.

OT: That’s great that you still get to actively engage with the original playwright. Any fun facts or tidbits that you’ve learned from him?
EL: When we worked on this in Chicago, he spent a couple days with us. He wrote Myrtle very differently than what was historically accurate. She was happy to be in London. She enjoyed some of the perks that came [with] Lionel’s profession. She had some fun. He needed to create dramatic tension and create this idea that she desperately wanted to go back to Australia. It’s not historically real, and we’re tweaking the story for dramatic effect. 

OT: How do the characters of  Elizabeth, Myrtle and Wallis differ from each other and how are they the same?
Maggie Lacey: All three have different backstories, regardless of rank or country of origin. They’re all in love with a man who is challenging for them to support, but who also supports their desires in the relationship. 
EL: The audience gets a little surprise from how much they end up meeting these threads in the play, too. The relationship between Lionel and Bertie is so fabulous to watch and rewarding, and I think that David has given a voice to these three women in a way that’s kind of a surprise to the audience. They’re going to find the importance that the women play. Maggie and I have a quick uncomfortable moment together between Myrtle and Elizabeth, then Wallis and Elizabeth have this equally awkward fascinating exchange in the top of that queue. 

OT: Has it been a learning experience to interact with such a large number of important roles in the play?
ML: It’s been helpful for me to look at the other women’s journeys in the play and learn more about the queen’s. Myrtle for instance, her and the queen are obviously of a different class. It’s a really rich dichotomy there. Wallis, when you [Tiffany] spoke in the rehearsal hall the other day, it was so exciting to hear because it was an American voice coming through. I like the women’s stories and they may not be at the forefront of the play at first glance, but these other actresses have helped me understand my own job. 

OT: What do you love most about your characters and what do you wish they did more of or had more of?
TS: I’m really digging the fiery energy that Americans bring into this world, as Maggie mentions, she’s [Wallis is] the one American voice, so I’m trying to find ways she might move around stage differently than everyone else and have her own voice, which is what this play is about.
EL: Myrtle has a heart of gold, she’s kind of salt-of-the-earth. A grounded woman. Lionel and Myrtle’s scenes are fast, generally a page long, and we’re trying to get a lot accomplished in them, so the the challenge of that is a good challenge and I embrace it, though there’s a couple scenes where I’d want them just a little more flushed out. 
ML: There’s something about the character [Elizabeth] that I feel is specifically British and wry that I am really interested in. It’s not in our blood as Americans to be loyal, so I’m trying to explore the culture and be as authentic as I can. The conciseness of the language seems to support the concise sort of way that they have of talking and collecting their thoughts and at times is wry and right to the point, which I like a lot. 

OT: What are some of the themes in the play that you think are relevant to today’s modern world?
ML: Michael Wilson, our director, talked about the people in this play acting not just for themselves, acting for people connected to them and society as a whole, and that is relevant today. There’s these moments in the play where you’ll know the time is very volatile and we’re on the cusp of the second world war. Hitler is rising to power and fascism, and all this political unrest is happening. These individuals in the U.K. are trying to stay on the right side of history; and that’s all around us right now. History’s never too far from the present.

OT: What are your thoughts on the score behind the play? How big of an impact does the music have on moving the story along?
ML: It’s very cinematic, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling. The actors are fully encapsulated by the score. I think the set design elements are cinematic in many ways. So you really feel like right away you get drawn in. There’s no way you don’t know that you’re on something that’s a bit epic because it’s just so operatic. It feels like being on a film set at times, and it moves so fast. You go on this wonderful ride as the audience. The design elements on this play are top, top, top notch. He put together quite an incredible group of artists.

OT: Is there anything special that the audience should be on the lookout for?
ML: I wish I had more time in costume, which may sound superficial but it’s not. The costumes are done by David Ward, and he’s a genius. I have all these beautiful dresses that I get to wear for maybe 30 seconds each, so I wish I could show off the clothes for a little bit longer. If you come to see the play, look quickly. Pure artistry is on display.

See The King’s Speech runs at National Theatre from February 11-16. Visit www.thenationaldc.com for times and ticket prices.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com

Mirian Katrib and Joseph Kamal // Photo:: Margot Schulman

Arena Stage’s A Thousand Splendid Suns Depicts Family Dynamics Under Normalized Violence

To commemorate their 70th season, Arena Stage has pledged to “[lead] the way in gender equity and racial diversity by reflecting those values both on and off the stage.” In keeping with this commitment, A Thousand Splendid Suns, based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hossein, premiered in the Mead Center for American Theater on January 17, shedding light on gender oppression in the Middle East. 

Adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by Carey Perloff, A Thousand Splendid Suns recounts the journey of an unlikely friendship between two Afghan women in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The play runs through March 1. 

The scene is set with pedestrians crossing a desert configured by a flamboyant orange backdrop, exquisite silhouette cutouts forming mountains and clouds fashioned out of metal wiring. Perfectly designed by Ken MacDonald, the set artistically speaks to the country’s landlocked mountainous landscape. 

As a boy runs on stage with a kite (a nod to the novelist’s first piece of fiction, The Kite Runner), the story commences with beautiful traditional Islamic music comprised of horns and echoing chants, filling the space with an air of sincerity.

Dawning a long voyage as the sun peaks, a family is found on what could be easily mistaken for a picnic but is soon realized to be a pile of items to be sorted and discarded in preparation for their migration.

The family’s forthcoming voyage is quickly halted as a bomb erupts with blinding lights shining on stage. In complete disarray, chaos ensues as villagers frantically move around the stage. 

Lying unconscious amidst the rubble, the protagonist is “rescued” by her male neighbor. Upon awakening, she discovers she is orphaned and is swiftly tricked into marrying a married man, who promises a sanctuary in a land unfavorable to women.

Covering the span of approximately two decades, where regimes and cultures shift in a war-torn city, A Thousand Splendid Suns nestles comfortably in a normalized violence-absorbed community. As tensions grow due to continuous bombing, lessening resources and looting induced upheaval, family dynamics are severely tested.

Elevating the authenticity of this narrative is the dynamic performance of the family. Comprised of actors who identify as Middle Eastern,  including, Iranian-American, Afghan-American and Indian-American, as Perloff explained, the emotions emoted resonate immensely, strengthening the much-needed messaging. 

Mirian Katrib (Laila) offers a sublime performance as a naively optimistic adolescent girl turned radical mother, courageously opposing the oppression of her husband. As she matures and recedes to adolescent years, reinforced by shifting lighting effects, Katrib distinctly embodies the character with each scene. 

Supporting the character of Laila is the stoic Mariam, played by Hend Ayoub. Initially disapproving of their nuptials, fearing the second-class status she will assume, Mariam grows tolerant and even loving as she and Laila raise Laila’s children. 

Playing opposite of Laila and Mariam is the boisterous Rasheed, played by Haysa Kadri. Kadri successfully personifies the stereotypical oppressor, using gaslighting techniques to manipulate and control his wives. Unable to cope with his dilapidating surroundings, he insights fear with each manic episode, creating a contentious environment where only brotherhood and servitude can survive. 

What Perloff has done is successfully facilitate a space to unpack social-norms of the Middle East. Aware of the potential risk of teetering towards or perpetuating a message of Islamophobia, A Thousand Splendid Suns cares to offer balance, introducing multiple male figures who encourage the educational development of their female counterparts and offspring. 

Filled with unfathomable realities, needing to be depicted more frequently, A Thousand Splendid Suns is an extraordinary account of perseverance and joy in a time of darkness and hopelessness. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns is showing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater until March 1. Tickets are $41-$95 and can be purchased online here.

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

Photo: Teresa Wood

The National Ballet Of Canada Brings Timeless Sleeping Beauty To Kennedy Center

The National Ballet of Canada is on tour in the District for a whirlwind week of performances at the Kennedy Center, including the classic The Sleeping Beauty (January 28-February 2) and Works by Forsythe, Kylian, and Ratmansky (January 28 and January 29), the latter comprising a mixed bill of seven modern shorts.

The intent behind the eclectic pairing of productions was to showcase the strength and diversity of the company’s talent, offering multiple rolls for many young and up-and-coming dancers to take the stage alongside seasoned principals. 

The Thursday, January 30 Opera House performance of The Sleeping Beauty in was indeed an ensemble piece – and perhaps fittingly so, as it was this staging, choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa, and revised by Artistic Director Karen Kain in 2006, that put the then-young Canadian company on the map in 1972.

Set to an equally famous score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty is an epitomic full-length work known both for exaggerated spectacle of costume and design, and its technical demand.

Principal dancer Jillian Vanstone, who performs the lead role Aurora for the January 31 and February 2 performances (and also danced the Petite Mort in the contemporary shorts), has been with the company since 1999.

Sleeping Beauty is always a little intimidating – it’s classic, long and requires stamina. I really love it but at the beginning [of a run] it’s always a little mentally daunting,” she says. 

But what does it mean to perform The Sleeping Beauty in 2020, in DC? Timelessness aside, is this “romantic” tale of a helpless princess cursed to 100 years of slumber by an evil witch, and whose only hope for survival is the kiss of a prince truly important or even appropriate to perform here and now?

“It is a challenge to update [a work like this] or make it relevant for this century, and I think there’s room here for that,” Vanstone says. “What I do think is a little interesting about our version is from what I understand, the director wanted more of a strong character as Aurora, not just this demure pretty thing. Someone regal and strong. She has, especially in the third act, this regal authoritative feel about her and so I try to bring that out.”

Thursday evening’s packed Opera House indicates that while perhaps not thematically on point for today, lovers of the ballet still flock to this work for a reason. The pageantry was transformative: Ornate costumes, dreamlike scenery, Tanya Howard’s floating Lilac Fairy and, of course, a live orchestra playing Tchaikovsky took the beltway audience to a land far and away – which may have been just the remedy to reality some sought. 

One unfortunate aspect of the pageantry was that costumes often obstructed the dancing – though by no fault of the dancers themselves, who nevertheless seemed to navigate the heavy fabrics, feathers and props with as much grace as possible. 

And despite the reimagining of Aurora’s character as more than a demure damsel, taken as a whole, the male dancers of the company outperformed their female counterparts during this performance, particularly in demonstrations of strength. Especially notable talents were Naoya Ebe as Bluebird and principal dancer Harrison James’s Prince Florimund. 

James, who joined the company in 2013 as a member of the Corps de Ballet, was promoted to principal dancer in 2016 and won the Rolex Dancers First Award for his performance as Alexei Vronsky in Anna Karenina, Oberon in The Dream and the title role in Apollo

In contrast to “hammering home the excitement and energy” of Forsythe, or a piece like the Petite Mort, which James describes as “so innately musical and human,” the young dancer says The Sleeping Beauty is, “a monolith – everything you want and expect to see from classical pure ballet, which of course makes it a little more challenging to take on.”

The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Sleeping Beauty continues at The Kennedy Center through Sunday, February 2. Tickets are $29-$149. 

The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Next To Normal Anything But Normal At Kennedy Center

DC theatergoers are in for a real treat as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, Next to Normal, visited the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, bringing a tale of how mental illness takes a toll on a suburban family.

With the original Broadway director, Michael Greif, taking the helm in this inspiring and informative tear-jerking production, onlookers are sure to feel admonished at the deadly cycle of depression.

Leading the all-star six-person ensemble is Emmy and Tony Award nominee Brandon Victor Dixon (Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, Shuffle Along) as Dan and Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winner Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen) as Diana.

Dixon personifies a grief-stricken father whose avoidance tactics prove detrimental to his family. However, as the all-American Dad, he uses his broad register to capture audiences in a musical spell.

Jones delivers an illustrious vocal performance most comparable to Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in Grease mixed with Stevie Nicks, showcasing a dynamic range from whimsical ballads to heartfelt songs during her character’s spurts of mania.  

Dan and Diana have been married for more than 16 years and have battled varying degrees of mental illness within their family. Though their time together is riddled with trauma, their love nearly trounces every setback.

The couple is an eccentric and quirky pair that uses coarse language that proves refreshingly candor. Continuous sexual innuendos, some quite literal, are expressed creating a necessitated comedic cloud of relief.

Set to contemporary music, Next to Normal is fresh, daring and required viewing. Similar to that of the Broadway hit RENT (also directed by Greif), this performance splendidly uses ballads and rock music to hone the dark truths of psychosis.

Several elements are done right, beyond the perfectly executed score and vocal prowess. But I must say, the five-member band, optimally positioned behind the two-level scaffolding, will cause you to leave the theater exhausted from the excessive foot patting, body-rocking music that earned the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Filled with a multitude of timely social themes, Brian Yorkey’s masterpiece will have you questioning your stance on how to best treat patients coping with bipolar disorder and more.

Several avenues are considered to offset the symptoms brought on by trauma but at what cost? Big pharma, shock therapy and hypnotherapy are all referenced during the nearly 2 hour and 20 min production, all introducing another layer of complexity to an already crowded experience.

As Diana visit with her doctor, a cascade of pills is administered to counteract the constant cycle of depression and anxiety. To no surprise, this path to healing is quite turbulent, which marks a downward spiral leading to rock-bottom, where only enlightenment can be gained with hope for a better tomorrow.

To best prepare for the emotional journey that is Next to Normal, pack some tissue. Between the music, artistic emoting and the general plot, sniffling will surely be uncontrollable during this viewing experience. 

Next to Normal is showing through Monday February 3 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets are $79-$189 and can be purchased here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; (202) 467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Holly Twyford as Williamina, Laura C. Harris as Henrietta and Nora Achrati as Annie // Photo: Scott Suchman

Ford’s Theatre Explores Leavitt Sisters In Silent Sky

Since January 24, Ford’s Theatre has carried the baton of diverse art with feminist American milestone Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson.

Illuminating and reversing the extensively egregious track record of marginalized people playing significant roles in scientific discoveries (as well as many other disciplines), while receiving little credit nor accolade is a well-fitted practice in this historic theatrical space. 

Set just a decade after the turn of the 20th century, as women successfully demand to exercise their right to vote, Gunderson explores the sisterhood of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt and musician Margaret Leavitt; where the dichotomy of science and religion, and science and art conflict and agree, building the foundation for this partially fictional, yet historical tale.

Seema Sueko is taxed with coxswaining this drama mere months after directing, The Right to be Forgotten at Arena Stage. Sueko debuts at Ford’s Theatre with source material The San Francisco Chronicle deems, “sheer magic.”

“I grew up on the Hawaiian Islands,” Sueko shares in a Ford’s Theatre blog post, recalling her connection to this project and her motivation to tell an authentic story. “From a young age, I learned about Polynesians looking to the stars to navigate the oceans.”

This fact is widely unknown to most Americans, similar to that of the work and impact of Henrietta. However, while unfamiliar, the added knowledge is quite invaluable when considering how it enhances our understanding of the cosmos. So much, that to raise awareness of Henrietta’s work and to inspire future women scientists, former president Barrack Obama, during his last term, released a short video praising the astronomer.

For knowledge sake, Henrietta’s work in the Harvard Observatory was nothing short of groundbreaking. After discovering 2,400 new variable stars, “Leavitt’s Law” was formed, enabling future scientists to measure the distance between galaxies and map the Milky Way and so much more.

Silent Sky effortlessly transcends time, Sueko explains, “all plays exist in the period they’re set, in the time it was written, as well as in the time we produce it, and that’s fantastic.”

Though a fictional account, Gunderson’s work considers the various encounters most plausible for the period, giving new breath to an old world. 

“What Gunderson is able to do in the play is take us back to a period over 100 years ago, but from a modern point of view. It feels very accessible,” says Laura C. Harris, who plays Henrietta in the forthcoming play.

Plagued by a patriarchal misogynistic society, Henrietta’s road to discovery was littered with countless obstacles. Nevertheless, her determination to learn and work prevailed.

Gunderson has conceived a narrative where theatergoers can attest to the gender inequities lived by Henrietta, and subconsciously see  how prevalent they are today.

In an interview with the Austin Playhouse in Austin, Texas, Gunderson expressed, “We are still in the unfortunate rut of under-opportunity and under-representation for women in the sciences and tech. Women aren’t asking for special treatment, we are showing how special we already are and always have been. We’re not asking anyone to let us participate, we are exclaiming that we have participated in discoveries, breakthroughs and wild achievement all along.”

The religious difficulties faced by Henrietta were sourced from her sister, Margaret, played by Emily Kester. Sueko explains, “The two sisters looked up to the heavens, and see two completely different things. For Henrietta, she wants to understand the science of all the sky, and Margaret sees the pearly gates and God. [Henrietta] is risking the heaven that her sister believes in, to find the heaven she wants to study.”

One of America’s most prominent playwrights, Gunderson has made a name for herself, as she maintains an aptitude for innovating intricate stories that encompass romance, science and history, and with Silent Sky, she pushes the envelope further.

“When someone comes to see this play, they will leave having a rich understanding of what [Henreitta] and her colleagues did,” Harris exclaims. 

Silent Sky is showing at Ford Theatre until February 23. Tickets range from $22-$72 and can be purchased online at here.  

Ford Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org

Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Citizen K Delivers Captivating History Lesson On Former Oligarch

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K documentary is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch now exiled in London after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky’s own words drive this enthralling narrative about post-communist Russia. Gibney, whose previous work includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, is no stranger to tackling complexity and contradiction. The talking heads in this film are few – mostly people in the immediate Khodorkovsky business and legal circle, and longtime BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and The Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer. That, perhaps, is one reason why the film’s efforts to explain Moscow politics at times come up against the (Berlin) Wall of Western analysis.

Citizen K begins in 1991, during Boris Yeltsin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation. The Union has come undone, and the economic order of the day is capitalism. Khodorkovsky, whose parents were both engineers, grew up poor – under communism, engineering was not one of the well-remunerated professions. Earning his first paycheck at 14, building a chemistry lab in his house, and with a self-professed love of “things that explode,” the young Khodorkovsky is ready to bank on the rise of capitalism. He starts Russia’s first commercial bank, his sole entrepreneurial “guide” in the form of a book called Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries. So, how did he get the seed money for it? Enter vouchers. Fashioned after Western economic boost programs, these vouchers were “sold as golden tickets to escape the dead end of communism.” Add in some pop-propelled propaganda flair, including a song whose refrain goes, “Vou vou voucher: friend of privatization measures,” and these vouchers, worth $40, could be traded, exchanged for cash or used to buy shares in newly-privatized state enterprise. Khodorkovsky bought a lot of those vouchers from everyday folks, ones Derk Sauer rather derisively calls “naive,” who sold them for less than their worth. Sauer remarks little on the fact that the economic crisis at the time was fertile ground for this exploitation and speculation.

Khodorkovsky acquired dinosaur-age-equipped, mammoth-sized oil company YUKOS next, modernized it and became Russia’s richest man, in a pantheon of seven other oligarchs who combined owned more than 50 percent of Russia’s wealth. Citizen K makes the argument that these oligarchs were instrumental in putting Putin in charge, but they were unable to predict his ambitions would lead away from privatization and toward re-entrenchment of state ownership instead. And while the other oligarchs left Russia when it became apparent that they would be arrested on whatever charges were expedient, Khodorkovsky, defying the counsel of everyone around him, insisted on staying: “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”

Charged with tax evasion on hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian oil in his first trial, and with stealing the very same oil he didn’t pay taxes on (the absurdity will not escape you), Khodorkovsky is sent to prison. In 2013, coinciding with the Sochi Olympics, Putin pardoned and released him, after a 10 year sentence. 

The strength of Citizen K lies in its portrait of a complicated man who lived (and ruled) through the Wild Wild West stage of Russia’s post-communist years. Whether “gangster capitalism,” as Gibney describes it, is still du jour is questionable, but there is little doubt about Khodorkovsky’s unique worldview as a “reformed” oligarch interested in ideals and willing to put his life (in prison, he went on two hunger strikes to advocate for others) behind his principles. Gibney tackles showing what “transition” looked like for all of the former communist countries with great aplomb and delivers a thoroughly engrossing history lesson.

Want to watch Citizen K? The film is being screened at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. For more information on the film, showtimes and tickets, visit here.

E Street Cinema: 555 11th St. NW, DC; 202-783-9494; www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c/e-street-cinema

Photo: John Hogg

Gregory Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Theatre Creates International Empathy At The Kennedy Center

As dancing bodies twist and move across stages, cultures intertwine and churn to create bitter-sweet pieces of art. While speaking with Nhlanhla Mahlangu, musical director for Gregory Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Theatre in South Africa, Mahlangu commented on the complicity of speaking through a colonized culture.

“We are constantly evolving every day. My big thing at the moment is [that] I’m interested in the music that started as our colonial response but became our heritage.” 

South Africa has a long and troubled history with Dutch and British colonial forces, and creating art through a tampered history is undoubtedly challenging. However, the Vuyani Dance Theatre has beautifully crafted Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro, a poetic performance that will soon be shared with DC audiences at the Kennedy Center on January 24-25

Mahlangu concerns himself with the potentially problematic art of building upon this culture as he questions whether South African music communicates the cultural tragedy of colonization or reaffirms the practice by preserving protest songs. 

“I’m not sure,” he says. “They are beautiful, and they have given birth to a lot of sounds that I use today, but I’m more interested in interrogating them.”

Regardless of origin, the performers of the Vuyani Dance Theatre share beautiful interpretations of a culture that continues to evolve with grace. And although audience members might not understand the deeper messages hidden in the South African lyrics, Mahlangu believes, “It’s much better if you can’t get the words.”

“We do want the audience to evoke their own personal stories and histories and the words for me… They kill the imagination of the audience,” he says. “So I’m even happier when the audience can hear the music.”

Although the Vuyani Dance Theatre is based in South Africa and the localized subject matter, Mahlangu is a firm believer that citizens of the world are interconnected.

“The world has become very much smaller. We’re in the same ball rotating and revolving and floating in the middle of nowhere. We are all trying to figure out this life thing the same way.”

When stated in such simple terms, South Africa doesn’t seem so far away, nor do its politics and current issues. Some issues hit closer to home than DC audience members might expect. For example, Mahlangu drew inspiration for upcoming performances of Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro from South African author Zakes Mda’s novel, Cion

“Zakes Mda, who spent a lot of time in America, writes Cion. You see it all the time – he draws the parallel between American slavery and South African apartheid.”

The Vuyani Dance Theatre’s upcoming performances at the Kennedy Center will be the first time Mahlangu’s compositions have been shared in the nation’s capital, which he views as a thrilling opportunity. Audience members can expect a riveting and original show meant to connect their personal lives to a larger global story.

“The story of Cion is very important. I think it belongs to the world. It belongs to global audiences.” 

 Mahlangu’s favorite aspect of his group of performers is their generosity in bringing their own backgrounds to the stage.

“They have been generous in bringing forth their personal stories into the narrative of the work,” he says. “For me, a performance that is only about return is empty.”

His knowledge and passion for the art he creates echoed through our phone conversation from South Africa to the United States. Viewers of Gregory Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Theatre will participate in a global event that relates stories transcontinentally. Not only does the Vuyani Dance Theatre attempt to encourage international empathy, but they succeed in making it entertaining. 

Gregory Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Theatre will perform Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro on January 24 and 25 at the Kennedy Center. Both performances start at 8 p.m. Tickets can be found here

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in "Pipeline" // Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Studio Theatre’s Pipeline Depicts Correlation Between Struggles Past And Present

In one poignant scene in Dominique Morisseau’s play Pipeline, Nya, a black mom who teaches in a resource-strapped city school, shares the poem We Real Cool with her students. The Gwendolyn Books poem used to be a favorite of hers. But now its message hits a little too close to home.  

On another part of the stage, shrouded in darkness, Nya’s son Omari acts out the lines of the poem: “We skip school. We real cool… We jazz June. We die soon.”  

It’s the last line that chokes Nya up.  

When it was time to send her son to school, Nya chose a predominantly white college prep school, thinking this would give him a brighter future than the decaying urban alternative where she has taught for decades. But now Omari is in trouble. He hit a teacher and ran away. Suddenly, Nya fears she has made the wrong decisions for her son. Or worse: That regardless of her choices as a parent, her son will be caught up in a system that has led generations of black boys to live in America’s shadows.   

Pipeline’s title refers to the school-to-prison pipeline many young men of color face in America and the broken education system that feeds into itMorisseau was inspired to write Pipeline after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which traces racism in America with a direct line from slavery to today’s education inequality and high rates of incarceration for people of color.  The play runs through February 16 at Studio’s Mead Theatre. 

“Dominique is such a master at taking very big societal issues and harnessing them into characters’ lives, desires, dreams, and truths,” Awoye Timpo says

Timpo is directing Pipeline at Studio Theatre this month. This is her third time directing a Dominique Morisseau play and it’s this ability to personalize big societal problems through the lens of individual characters that keeps drawing her back to the material 

What makes Pipeline a great, great play, is that it asks some very big questions about who we are, where we come from, what we aspire to be and what stands in the way of us achieving those things,” Timpo says 

And it does so through the lens of a mother and son whose problems are instantly relatable. In Pipeline, we catch the characters in a deep moment of crisis

“From the moment we meet Nya, we are watching her try to figure out if her son’s actions are a result of her own personal failure as a mother,” Timpo says. And the weight of that question is enormous. 

Actor Justin Weaks weighs in on Omari’s struggle.

“This is a young man trying not to be anything but himself, but it’s hard. It’s hard to navigate when you’re operating as a token and feel that from the students, the faculty, everyone. It’s hard to discover who you are when you have so many people telling you what you are or what you should become.” 

As Nya and Omari struggle to connect over the course of the play, Morisseau encourages audiences to reconsider the legacy of America’s past.

If you are trying to save someone, how do you contend with how we got here as you think about how to move forward?” Timpo asks. 

“I think what we have to understand when it comes to educating young people,” Weaks adds, “is that these are complicated human beings who have come to be educated. They are dealing with things at home that we may not know about, things that are very specific to that human. Difficult behavior doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has a source and it’s important to understand where these kids are coming from in order to give them the education they need.” 

Morisseau is known for incorporating the works of African American artists of previous generations into her plays. Gwendolyn Brook’s We Real Cool is a huge presence in Pipeline, as is Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, the story of a young black man whose crimes are portrayed as the inevitable outcome of a society that treats black men as criminals. Through these nods to writers of the past, Morisseau weaves their work into her own writing, creating a sense of legacy and reminding us that the struggles of the past are the struggles of the present.

It’s like she is saying that we have these ancestral spirits who are lurking inside us. The way she lets those writers vibrate in her work is really exciting,” Timpo says.  

“We as black artists now are standing on the shoulders of so many generations of artist who have come before us,” she continues. “The beautiful thing about Pipeline is that Dominique is capturing the sights and sounds of this moment in time even as we can feel the presence of other writers inside her work.”  

Pipeline runs through February 16 at Studio Theatre. Times and tickets vary by date. For more information abut the play, visit Studio’s website.

Studio Theatre: 1501 1rth St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org