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Photo: Courtesy of atlasarts.org
Photo: Courtesy of atlasarts.org

An Iliad Brings Epic Poetry to the Modern Age

The Poet begins by reaching for something that might help him recall the details of the story of Achilles and his historic battle against Hector of Troy. He extends his arms, grasping toward the audience, to no avail. After a crestfallen sigh, he begins his invocation to the Muses, not unlike those epic poets of old. He asks them for their blessing in retelling this story, and seeks their inspiration to help him recall the details of this woeful tale of man’s rage. The Poet’s petition to the Muses must have brought on blessings in real life, considering the expertise with which this tale was so beautifully and carefully told.

Iason Togias, our Poet and only source of information, does a fantastic job of giving the epic tale context our modern society can easily relate to. His incredible range of expression helps illustrate the many emotions the characters in this play experience, from impatience, pride, heartbreak, victory, despondency and everything in between.

Matt Chilton was our Muse, who without a word, perfectly punctuated the poetic dialogue with tidbits from his double bass, coupled with wayward glances at the audience and a knowing exchange with the Poet here and there.

An Iliad was carried on words and gesture alone; a case in point being that the only scene in this play was a study setting, with a desk, a chair, a globe and some books strewn about. By the time the play is over, you hardly even noticed the backdrop because Togias’ arresting performance has given you a guided tour around the city of Troy.

Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare took on the arduous task of adapting a frequently studied work of classic literature and made it even more relatable than the best college lecturer could (and you can take my word for that, since my only experience with this story comes from that very setting).

Since the work was originally published and first performed five years ago, director Conor Bagley had to make some additions to give us the most current iteration of events. This particular version of the story even incorporated a reference to Flint, Michigan in regards to the composition of the Greek army. The idea behind it was to illustrate the various backgrounds of the soldiers in the army. As one of few people of color in the intimate black box theater setting, it took on added significance of asserting that there were, in fact, people like myself living, existing and participating in these environments (a fact that is often , unfortunately, glossed over in modern interpretations of works like these).

Another particularly captivating moment was when Togias recited every single war known to have taken place in the world (which must have been a real feat to memorize), just to prove a point about how widespread and, unfortunately, uncommon it is to feel the effects of war and to experience the profound rage and grief that Achilles and Hector both felt in their battle.

The play was especially relatable, even with my boyfriend and I’s limited experience with Homer’s original work, because the dialogue (or monologue if you don’t believe in breaking the fourth wall) appealed to a range of human emotion which is timeless in its potency. It had the air of a much-needed crash course in Greek mythology but still referenced lots of current events (like the conflict in Israel, for example).

Though the play will soon conclude its run, I would definitely keep my eyes peeled for future productions by any member of the cast and crew of this stunning performance.

An Iliad will be showing at Atlas Performing Arts Center the show until June 9. Tickets are $15-$25 and can be purchased here.

Atlas Performance Arts Center: 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002; www.atlasarts.org

Photo: Courtesy of Mosaic Theater
Photo: Courtesy of Mosaic Theater

Mosaic Theater’s ‘Charm’ Tackles the Complexities of the LGBT+ Community

Mosaic Theater’s Charm is not a play for everyone. But it’s a story everyone should see.

Based on the true life of the Chicago LGBT icon Mama Gloria, Charm tells the story of Mama Darlena, an older transgender woman of color, and the charm school she starts for gay and trans kids at an LGBT+ youth center in the Windy City.

B’ellana Duquesne is magnificent as the lead in Mosaic Theater’s production at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lang Theatre, directed by Natsu Onoda Power. She charms you instantly with her drawl and smile. She exudes warmth and humor, and you know that she’s going to build you up if you’re feeling down. She is that grandma that will tell you to suck it in and sit up straight, but will cover your face in kisses and feed you until the buttons on your jeans pop. You feel this especially at the end of the first act, in a climactic scene where Mama Darlena comforts Beta, one of her students, after he reveals that he’s been beat up by a local gang for being transgender.

The play explores the complexities of the LGBT+ community across class, gender identity and race – an important facet to include, especially when most of the viewing audience may only have academic knowledge of LGBT+ issues and ideas. In one scene, D, the gender-queer director of the LGBT center, corrects Mama Darlena’s pronouns, repeating over and over that D, is not “Miss D” or a her, but just D and a them. It’s a concept that Darlena has a difficult time grasping, insisting that when she was coming of age, being called a t- – – – – was the best thing one could be called. There’s an ongoing conflict with D and Mama about whether or not the gay and trans youth in the charm class should be learning etiquette based on strict, heteronormative gender roles, something which mama doesn’t have a problem with, but may make liberal audience members cringe.

The biggest difficulties in Charm come not so much from Mosaic’s production of the play, but rather the story behind it. Written by a white, cisgender (a term meaning that your gender identity corresponds with your birth gender) man, Charm deals primarily with the story of people who are trans, Latino, black and disabled. This is a concern given the erasure of trans women of color in the history of LGBT+ activism in the U.S. The scene when we’re first introduced to the youth center kids is a bit cringeworthy, as you try to figure out how much of these characters are based on stereotypes. Thankfully, as the play continues, more about each character is revealed, dispelling this concern.

While gender-queer Duquesne plays Mama, the majority of the trans characters are played by non-trans people. This has been a point of contention with DC’s trans community since the announcement of this production. Transgender people of color, especially women, are the biggest victims of hate crimes. According to the Human Rights Campaign, over 20 trans people were victims of violent crimes in 2016. Advocates say this is because of a fear rooted in the idea that trans women are not actually women, but rather men in dresses lying about who they are, and that fear can culminate in a violent death. Although Mosaic recently held a panel discussion with members of Casa Ruby, a local organization for trans people of color, some local trans activists and voices argue that not casting trans people to play trans roles feeds into this violent idea that trans women are men. This is why Charm may not be a play for everyone.

But, it’s a story that everyone should see, especially people who are not part of the LGBT+ community. Stories about trans people are not often seen in the media, unless they’re sensationalized or violent. Charm is an important first step in changing the narrative of trans people in the eyes of others.

Catch Charm at Atlas Performing Arts Center through January 29. Tickets start at $20.

Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; 202-399-7993; www.mosaictheater.org