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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

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

Photo: courtesy of Step Afrika!

A Step Above the Rest: Step Afrika! Returns To Strathmore

Step Afrika! was created in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, who wanted to honor the African American ritual of stepping – a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument – and preserve, expand and promote the art form. 

“We were the first professional company in the world dedicated to the tradition of stepping,” says Williams, the group’s founder and executive director. “It’s a custom dance form first created by African American fraternities and sororities as a way of expressing pride in their organizations.”

Today, the Step Afrika! troupe is comprised of 14 full-time artists. For the past 25 years, the DC-based organization has regularly engaged 30,000 college students across the nation, taught teamwork and discipline to 200 kids as part of the Summer Steps with Step Afrika! summer camp and expanded culture-based arts education for more than 20,000 DC, Maryland and Virginia school students.

The group has also appeared on Broadway and will be returning to the Great White Way in 2020, offering the latest in lightning-fast footwork, percussive chants and incredible synchronicity.

“We take the art form to the next level and put it right up there with ballet, modern and tap,” Williams says. “Our showcase is one of the best ways to get introduced to stepping for those who have never seen it.”

On January 12, Step Afrika! will return to the Strathmore to preview its latest production, Drumfolk. The performance, which was commissioned by Strathmore, traces the roots of step back to the African American percussive traditions of patting juba, hambone, ring shout and tap. 

Drumfolk reflects on the harsh realities of the American South and celebrates the fortitude of enslaved Africans who practiced these transcendent musical forms,” Williams says. “We’re going to be taking this show on a 10-city tour throughout 2020. To have Strathmore get behind us and help us with this work has been super important for us.”

He explains that Drumfolk is based on very little known events in American history that Step Afrika! feels have had a tremendous impact on the country.

“There was a revolt in 1739 called the Stono Rebellion, which was led by Africans against the system of slavery,” Williams says. “These were some of the first activists before the country even formed. Even though it was not successful in overthrowing slavery, it led to the Negro Act of 1740 where Africans lost the right to use their drums. We started to see African Americans using their bodies as the drums, and so many of our art forms can find their origins in his historical moment.”

The Strathmore program will also include Step Xplosion, a showcase of the region’s finest step squads. 

“We’re going to hit the stage at the Strathmore for one of our biggest performances of the year,” Williams says. “This show is where we invite step teams from across the country to share the stage with us and demonstrate the different styles of stepping that can be found across the U.S. This is a uniquely American art form and this show gives audiences a bigger look at the form.”

Among the featured step teams will be Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s Dem Raider Boyz Step Squad; Howard University’s Cook Hall Step Team; Paint Branch High School’s The Eclectic Steppers; the Hype Queens from North Carolina; and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

A DJ will play music in between the performances and Williams describes the atmosphere as going to be like “a college step show on steroids!” 

“These teams aren’t competing for money, they are just having fun and exhibiting their abilities, style and forms,” Williams says. “The shows are fun. They are interactive and there really is no fourth wall between the audience and the artists. We encourage audiences of all ages to come out, make noise and connect with our performers.”

Prior to the show, Williams will hold a conversation in the Music Center Education Room 402 to discuss the creative process behind Step Afrika!’s Drumfolk program. The talk is free, but registration is required as space is limited.

“I think more people should see and learn about this art form because it is a uniquely American art form and one of the few indigenous dance forms created in the last 100 years,” Williams says. “If you’ve never seen Step Afrika!, it’s a DMV experience that everyone should see at least once. We are DC’s most celebrated dance company and no one else in the word has a company like us.”

Step Afrika! performs at the Strathmore at 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 12. Tickets $35-$75. For more information, visit www.strathmore.org.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Harrison Bryan as Christopher // Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Round House Theatre’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time” Highlights Neurodiversity

The expression is “walk a mile in someone’s shoes,” but wouldn’t it be easier to just to take a peek inside of their mind? That’s what Round House Theatre seeks in their production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Based on the best selling book of the same name, the play allows audiences to see inside the mind of Christopher Boone. This coming of age story about a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum comes to life with stunning visuals and graphics.

Christopher is extremely smart and enjoys math (or maths as they say in England, where the play takes place,) video games, his pet rat Toby and being a detective. He doesn’t like figures of speech, being touched or strangers. When accused of killing his next-door neighbor’s dog, his curious nature comes in handy. Despite his father telling him to stop snooping, Christopher discovers that this case is much bigger than he thought. 

Christopher’s story is not one that’s often portrayed on stage. Representing the neurodiverse community was not a responsibility that Ryan Rilette took lightly. As Round House Theatre’s artistic director and co-director of the play, he wanted to portray Christopher as an accurate depiction of a person on the spectrum but also show that Christopher’s story is only one of many. 

“As we started to work on it, and with every play that we do, we try to figure out what is the community surrounding that play?” he says. “What is the right audience for the play? And more importantly, who do we need in the rehearsal room to help us tell the story? In this case, it was very important to us to make sure we had teens, as well as adults on the spectrum who could give us their feedback on the play.” 

“Throughout the whole building, one of the things you’ll see is that we’ve said over and over again the phrase ‘If you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.’ So, we have art by other people on the spectrum that is upstairs, as part of a partnership with Visarts, and clings in the windows downstairs.”

Round House’s production of the play is unique from the Broadway or West End shows in the way that media is used. While known for its projections and high sensory lights, videos and sounds, Rilette and co-director Jared Mezzocchi didn’t want to overwhelm the audience as the original production attempted to do. 

Christopher is highly sensitive to touch and sounds. To address Christopher’s sensory processing disorder, something all people on the spectrum suffer from, Rilette used red scribbles or what he calls “billows” projected on the stage to visualize what it would look like if Christopher were to be yelled at or touched. 

The characters love of computer games is also used to visualize aspects of the script. At one point the giant clear screen, serving as the background for most of the projections, becomes a game of “Tetris.” A scene where Christopher is recounting his day could be seen as mundane but is transformed into a hilarious monologue in which Christopher is a Mario-like video game character. 

“We started to go, well he’s also a gamer. There’s a scene where he’s playing ‘Tetris’ and talks about computer games and his dad says ‘you like those.’ So we thought, given that he’s a computer gamer, what if we used first-person video games as a way to show some of these ideas. What if it’s just like he’s in his own video game inside his head, which can also help with the way in which the play jumps around in time.” 

Under the direction of Rilette and Mezzocchi, actor Harrison Bryan adapted the way in which he portrayed Christopher. He focused more on who the character is as a person. Playing Christopher the second time around at the regional level, Bryan’s portrayal was humorous, passionate and showed the many multitudes of Christopher’s personality. 

The Curious Incident may not  be typically thought of as a holiday show. There is no Santa or Christmas magic. However, the play’s ability to create empathy for its characters and appeal to audience members of all ages and abilities makes it a must-see show this season. Not only does it inspire the encouragement of others but also belief in your own abilities. At the end of his journey, Christopher asks: “Does that mean I can do anything?”       

“Some people who are neurotypical, who have not dealt with neurodiverse people before, can look at them like they’re damaged. They see the disability and not the ability. I feel like the beautiful thing about what we’ve done is we’ve shown how incredibly creative and rich Christopher’s inner life is.” Rilette says. “So, I would hope that [ the audience] would go away and look at other people who are not neurotypical like they are and see them in a different way. I hope neurodiverse audiences come in and can enjoy the show and say “That’s not exactly me because everyone is different, but I believe that this is a neurodiverse person. This is an interesting person that I see parts of myself in.”   

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs until December 22. For tickets or more information, visit here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240.644.1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Photo: Little Fang Photography

Machine Dazzle Puts Artistic Twist On Holiday Sauce Costumes

Being the decorator of a bonafide genius isn’t for the faint at heart. At least that’s what I imagine when considering the dynamics between Machine Dazzle and MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the Genius Grant, recipient Taylor Mac, known for his genre-bending drag performances. 

Just weeks before their Holiday Sauce performance at the Kennedy Center on December 12, I spoke with Dazzle, Matthew Flower, responsible for envisioning award-winning masterpieces and costumes worn by Mac onstage, and by Diane von Fürstenberg and Cara Delevingne at the 2019 Met Gala.  

The holiday-themed performance is set to feature Mac upending traditional Christmas expectations with Dazzle, music director Matt Ray, a band of eight and NPR’s Ari Shapiro.

In the lead up to this week’s show, Machine Dazzle is the definition of booked and busy.

“I don’t have time to have goals because I’m already busy,” he says laughing.

Between shows at the Guggenheim and on tour with Taylor Mac, and a host of other engagements, time for him is truly a priceless commodity.    

Fortunately, while on location at Harvard University, co-directing and creating costumes for a queer cabaret show featuring six students who provide commentary on Harvard politics, I’m given time to hear of the artist’s thoughts on the holidays, why Holiday Sauce is a must-see and how Dazzle’s design style distinguishes from contemporaries. 

On Tap: How do you select your projects?
Machine Dazzle: Any opportunity to exercise the brain is good. I appreciate a challenge and I love meeting all these interesting people along the way and doing a project like this at Harvard allows me to do all those things. I am a yes person; I will always say yes. Unless I’ve worked with someone before and it just wasn’t great. I love new adventures and new people, but the job must be interesting and challenging. I need to be able to do what I want to do. I can’t have anyone who’s too precious about anything. There needs to be room for a layer of art, that may or may not necessarily exist in the script. 

OT: What’s novel or special about your contribution to the production on which you collaborate?
MD: I’m an artist in the realm of costume designers. What designers don’t really have is an agenda, they don’t necessarily have a story to tell. They are visual; they are engineers. An artist takes it further and tells a story and makes some social commentary. In other words, no one can tell me how to do my art. You can tell someone to make something for Bob’s character, but I bring a layer of art to the production.

OT: How do you explain the success behind your partnership with Taylor Mac?
MD: Taylor lets me do whatever I want. Never once has he told me what to do. He trusts me to bring something interesting to the table. A lot of people really love his costumes and that’s thanks to me, and thanks to him for letting me make my work. 

OT: What did Taylor Mac say when bringing Holiday Sauce to you?
MD: The first year, Taylor Mac came to me and said we’re doing a holiday show and we need two costumes. I knew that I wanted to distinguish these costumes from other costumes I’d made for [Mac] in other productions. I definitely wanted them to have a holiday flare, or my take on holiday. So, the first thing I thought of when thinking of the holiday was naughty and nice. I made one costume that was very naughty, and I made one that was kind of nice. DC’s show is different from the past two years, though, because he’s wearing four costumes this time. In addition to the other looks, I thought of two faces of the kitchen, one where you’re in the kitchen baking cookies, the other outside in a winter wonderland. 

OT: Are the holidays a special time for you?
MD: My birthday is during the holidays, it’s December 30.  People would always say, “Oh, no! You got cheated!” But they had it all wrong. When I was a child maybe it felt like that, but the truth is it’s the best time of year to have a birthday because everybody is in celebration mode. It’s a beautiful time of year to do anything. I’m not a religious person, I don’t believe in God. I believe the god is the self, the highest self-possible. We have the universe we have each other, we have microcosm and we have macrocosm. I believe in the winter solstice. I believe in the changing seasons. In the darkest day of the year, which lends itself to the season of giving, when people are in need. That’s what I think about during the holidays. [However] I love certain rituals and traditions. I love the decorated tree, I love leaves, I love lights, I love caroling, I love the onslaught of winter and preparing for the next year. It’s a really great time of year to have a party!

OT: What’s makes Holiday Sauce different from other seasonal productions?
Machine Dazzle: We keep building the show, every time we tour, we make it bigger and better. Plus, we’re bringing it to cities that we’ve never been to before. No one in DC has seen it before. There’s a choir in it and we want the choir to get bigger. I want the scenic elements to get bigger. The costumes are going to change and get bigger and better. It’s going to be more of an extravaganza. 

OT: What’s the secret sauce that has your audience or following growing with each additional year?
Machine Dazzle: You just have to keep coming back to see. It’s like the people who go to see the [Radio City] Rockettes show every year. It’s not that different every year. But you still go. They do it every year and people live for it. And if you can go and look at that every f**king year you can go to our show which is actually changing and getting better. 

Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce is showing at the Kennedy Center in the Opera House on December 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$129 and here.

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

The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour // Photo: credit Amy Boyle 2019.

RENT Brings Memorable Music, Moments to National Theatre This Week

“How do you leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?”

This lyric from the titular song seems fitting when talking about the 20th-anniversary tour of RENT. Since its opening in 1996, RENT has found its way into people’s hearts with  themes of love and acceptance. A pioneer for contemporary musicals, the show continues to resonate with theatre audiences more than two decades later.

RENT‘s narrative follows a group of struggling artists living in New York City under the 1990s AIDS epidemic. The show deals with social issues such as addiction and homophobia. Over the course of one year the character Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, records his friends as they experience fear, loss, hope and love.

Adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical has undergone countless adaptions over the years. Amid the show’s 12-year Broadway run, even a feature film starring several members of the original cast was released. After closing in 2008, the show eventually returned to Broadway in 2011. Currently, RENT is enjoying another national tour including this week’s run at DC’s National Theatre from November 12-17.

One of the actors touring with the production is Samantha Mbolekwa who plays the role of Joanne Jefferson. Joanne is a high strung lawyer who struggles with the flirtatious behavior of her performance artist girlfriend, Maureen.

“What I love about Joanne is what she really wants to be able to do is show on the outside what she can’t necessarily [show] because of her job and the way she was brought up, she can through hanging out with these really great artistic people,” Mbolekwa says of her character.

Mboleskwa’s favorite song to perform is “Take Me or Leave Me.” The flippant track comes at a pivotal point in Joanne and Maureen’s relationship.

“It’s iconic,” she says. “Me and Kelsey [Sweigard], who is my Maureen, have so much fun doing it together. I think we both keep each other on our toes. Every time that song rolls around, I just really look forward to it.”

It’s difficult to take note of RENT‘s tracklist without mentioning “Seasons of Love.” The tune has gone on to create a legacy of its own outside of the musical. The song asks “How do you measure a year?” and ultimately decide that life should be measured in love. On the song’s popularity, Mboleskwa believes it’s due to the big question the song is asking.

“How do you measure a year? In the song, you’re offered so many ways. I think that’s a question that sometimes people don’t even think about and then to hear it – it kinda puts you in your spot and makes you think. It has such a positive message.”

“Seasons of Love” also serves as a tribute song to RENT’s creator Jonathan Larson, who unexpectedly passed away the morning of the show’s first preview performance. The story of his life was chronicled in a documentary entitled No Day But Today: The Story of RENT. His work lives on in The Jonathan Larson Collection at The Library of Congress.

In addition to cementing Larson’s legacy as a great playwright, RENT also started the trend of rush tickets. Still used by popular plays and musicals, such as Hamilton, fans known as Rent-heads could receive discounted tickets to see the show.

According to Mboleskwa, this is a tradition the national tour still follows today,

“There are rush tickets for RENT, a lot of people don’t know that if you show up to the theatre two hours before, you can get front row tickets for $25. It all started when it was originally created in the 90s, it was such a hot commodity that people were camping outside of the theatre.”

In RENT’s 20-plus years on the stage, much of it remains true to the show’s original vision. The costumes, set and music are all taken from the original production. Mboleskwa explains that this is because the original creative team behind the show is still working to make it as memorable as ever.

“I think RENT is still relevant 20 years later because there are still reoccurring problems that the story had back then that are still happening,” she says. “People will always want to feel accepted and loved, and the show is all about acceptance and love.”

The 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT is at the National Theatre from November 12- 17. Showtimes vary. Tickets $54-$114. For more information about the run, click here.

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

Anchuli Felicia King // Photo: Benita de Wit

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl Explores Intra-Asian Racism

2019 has been a big year for playwright Anchuli Felicia King. The 25-year-old Thai-Australian will make her professional playwrighting debut not once, not twice, but three times this year with White Pearl. The corporate satire about the beauty industry is premiering in England and Australia before making its American debut at Studio Theatre this November.

To launch a professional career nearly simultaneously on three continents would be unusual for most playwrights, but for King, who grew up between Thailand, the Philippines and Australia and now divides her time between New York, London and Sydney, globalism is the name of the game.

“I’m basically a global citizen,” King told me last week.

We chatted by Skype as King rode a train to the Sydney Theatre Company, where the Australian production of her new play was in rehearsals.

White Pearl, which launched King’s international career, is set in the cultural melting pot of Singapore and features six characters of different Asian backgrounds who work for the fictional beauty startup Clearday. When someone leaks an ad for their skin-whitening cream, the Internet pounces, pronouncing the ad racist and prompting finger pointing among the six very different – but all Asian – women who lead the company. Someone’s getting fired, but who?

King started writing the play in 2016 while she was pursuing an MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University.

“Ads started coming up on my newsfeed for skin-whitening products that were deemed to be racially insensitive,” she said. “Products like this were ubiquitous when I was growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, so it was fascinating to me that suddenly they were being held accountable to a global discourse around race.”

King asked her friends in Columbia’s Women of Color Collective about their experiences with whitening cream and discovered that the topic hit a nerve with women from all different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter what country you come from. You are being sold an idea of what beauty looks like that is so entrenched in your cultural ideology.”

In crafting a dark comedy about the beauty industry, King found the perfect backdrop in corporations – particularly millennial startup culture and the disconnect between the glossy, utopian ideals and the reality of the practices and what they are selling.

“There is this disjunct between surface and substance,” she said of startup companies. “Cosmetics companies specifically prey on and monetize women’s shame and insecurity.”

White Pearl brings the issue to life through six characters: all of them Asian women, but each from very distinct backgrounds and cultures. The Clearday CEO is a British Indian woman, while the other characters have roots in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore.

“My goal with that was to poke holes at the idea that Asia is a monoculture and to explore the specificity of different places in Asia,” King said. “But the play also explores the ongoing cultural traumas and legacies that lead to tension between different Asian cultures and the racism that still happens in Asia.”

In choosing a director for this production, Studio tapped Desdemona Chiang. Born in Taiwan and raised in L.A., Chiang known for taking on projects that illuminate marginalized populations and challenge perceptions of the status quo.

“When I first read the script, it hit me really hard – especially when it discussed the racism of East Asian people,” Chiang told me in a recent conversation. “That hit a very raw spot for me because it was something I recognize sometimes within myself and sometimes in where I come from. I found that really discomforting so I said, ‘Great, that means I have to do this play.’”

I asked Chiang how she thought White Pearl would be perceived by American audiences – Asian and non-Asian – who are geographically and often psychologically further away from Singapore than a London or Sydney audience.

“What’s interesting about this story is that it deals with the same issues we have in America but through a different lens,” she explained. “We talk about racism, classism, beauty standards and implicit bias here, but usually through a black/white lens. To tackle the same issues through a different perspective is interesting.”

King agrees: “It’s fascinating to see how this play resonates differently with different audiences and specifically, different Asian communities in different countries.”

King hopes that the exploration of intra-Asian racism will be eye-opening for non-Asian audiences in America.

“There are also things in the play that are so true of the time we are living in and so universal that will resonate with any audience. At its heart, it’s an old-school black comedy and a satire so I hope the audience laughs a lot and through that, interrogates why they are laughing.”

White Pearl runs from November 6 to December 8 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre. Tickets start at $20. Learn more at www.studiotheatre.org.

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

Photo: Darian Volkova, courtesy of State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

Review: Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita at the Kennedy Center

A young girl and her father are sitting across from me on the shuttle bus to the Kennedy Center. She’s wearing colorful dinosaur tights. I look down at my own tights – black with a small tear threatening to become a hole. The other people on the shuttle are dressed in crisp suits and elegant dresses. We’re all on our way to see the Mariinsky Ballet perform Paquita

I worry that once I step inside the building, I’ll feel even more out of place. The stereotype of the stuffy ballet attendee doesn’t coincide with my thrift store dress or the fast food I ate for dinner. Am I couth enough to see a ballet? Am I couth enough to use the word couth?

I’m not sure how ballet took on this reputation, but Paquita was far from stuffy; it was whimsical, exciting and heartfelt. A storybook narrative that came to life with every twirl of a cape or swish of a skirt. The picturesque painted sets and hanging props served as a beautiful backdrop for the romantic tale of Paquita and Andres.

As a ballet beginner, the playbill proved a great companion. The clear synopsis quelled my fears of confusion. While normally spoilers are unwanted, they were helpful in knowing what’s happening while still being able to focus on the dancers. It also provided history about the production and the Mariinsky Ballet. You don’t have to know the difference between a pirouette and a plie to understand the storyline or appreciate the talent involved. 

Maria Khoreva was stunning as the spirited, strong-willed Paquita. Stolen from nobility at birth, Paquita now lives as a street dancer with a traveling group. She has many adoring suitors, but it is Andres who she asks to prove his love. Andres joins the travelers but finds troubles when the group is accused of theft. The third and final act ends in a grand pas wedding that features lead performers and soloists.   

I found myself being caught off guard by the moments of humor. I genuinely didn’t know that ballet could be so funny. One scene featured two men dancing, perfectly in sync, beneath a horse costume. A third man proceeded to try and ride said horse. The audience was audibly amused. Several times throughout the performance awes and exclamations could be heard throughout the arena. It felt like we were all watching a sporting event together and our team was doing really well. 

Outside of the opera house is a glass case featuring the costumes worn in the show. Every handsewn bead is a reminder of the work put into the show. Every tutu was perfectly fluffed. Every note of the orchestra, lead by Gavriel Heine, was at the exact right moment. The amount of syncretization that goes into the production is unfathomable to me – I can’t even get all of my friends to show up for lunch at the same time. Yuri Smekalov managed to create a nearly three-hour dance routine that never became dull or tedious.   

You can wear an expensive suit or dinosaur tights and it doesn’t matter because ballet is a form of escapism. Who doesn’t want to enter a world where all conflict is fought through dance and everything ends with a big wedding? There is a reason why the Mariinsky Ballet has been putting on performances since the 18th century, and it has nothing to do with the disposition of the audience. It’s the combination of beauty, passion and skill that makes going to the ballet a timeless event. 

The Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita is being performed at the Kennedy Center through October 13. For information on tickets and showtimes, visit here.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F Street, NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org 

The Tempest at Synetic Theater

Stage and Screen: October 2019

THROUGH SUNDAY, OCTOBER 20

The Tempest
Originally premiering in 2013, Synetic is bringing back its unique take on The Tempest. Join the sorceress Prospera, played by Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili, as she creates a sea storm that gets out of hand. As a part of their Wordless Shakespeare series, The Tempest is brought to life through movement and a 1,200-square-foot pool flooding the stage. Water is a powerful element in this magical play of enemies, deception and vengeance. Tickets are available in the “splash zone” with ponchos provided. Various dates and times. Tickets $19-$60. Synetic Theater: 1800 S Bell St. Arlington VA
www.synetictheater.org

THOUGH SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27

Pride and Prejudice
Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation brings a fresh take to the beloved story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Bennet wants her five daughters married, including the headstrong Elizabeth. When rich, handsome, but standoffish Mr. Darcy moves in, Elizabeth and the Bennet family are forever changed. In a time where class rules society, can Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy ever see eye to eye? Various dates and times. Tickets $35-$50. Next Stop Theatre Company: 269 Sunset Park Dr. Herndon, VA; www.nextstoptheatre.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 3

Escaped Alone
Making her Signature Theatre debut, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone is not what it seems. DC actress Holly Twyford directs this tale of three old friends and a neighbor having afternoon tea in the garden. Through their mundane conversation, it becomes clear there is a horror that lives in each of these women. The frightening undertones allow for cutting humor as well as an eerie sense of doom. Various dates and times. Tickets $40-$90. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington,VA; www.sigtheatre.org

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 9 – MONDAY, OCTOBER 14

Broadway Center Stage: Footloose
Based on the popular film starring Kevin Bacon, Footloose is dancing its way to the Kennedy Center. This musical is about a small town that outlaws music and dancing, and the teen who fights these unfair changes. Musical numbers include hits such as “Holding Out for a Hero,” “Let’s Hear it for the Boys” and, of course, “Footloose.” The show has a star-studded cast including three-time Tony Award nominee Rebecca Lu and four-time Tony Award nominee Judy Kuhn. Various dates and times. Tickets $59-$175. Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 11

Rocky Horror Picture Show
Let’s do the Time Warp again! Join the Sonic Transducers, DC’s one and only Rocky Horror shadow cast, as they lip sync and act alongside the cult film. This midnight showing is an interactive movie experience. Purchase a $1 prop bag filled with rice, confetti, hot dogs and other items to throw. Other ways to get involved include yelling call backs at the screen and dressing up in costume. 11:59 p.m. Tickets $10. Landmark’s E Street Cinema: 555 11th St. NW, DC;
www.landmarktheatres.com

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17

The NoSleep Podcast: Live for Halloween
“The NoSleep Podcast” began in 2011 and has been scaring listeners ever since. Beginning with people sharing their frightening tales on the forum website Reddit, “NoSleep” is once again hitting the road and bringing the horror with them. Coming to DC just in time for Halloween, “NoSleep” will share stories never heard on the podcast, accompanied by a live score performed by Brandon Boone. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $20. The Miracle Theatre: 535 8th St. SE, DC; www.themiracletheatre.com

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17

Little Shop of Horrors
In this musical comedy written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken, Seymour discovers a strange plant that soon becomes famous. He names the plant after his crush and coworker, Audrey. Just when everything seems to be going right, Seymour discovers that Audrey II can talk and is craving blood. Human blood. Come to Skid Row to see the six-foot plant puppet that is Audrey II. Various dates and times. Tickets $25-$55. Constellation Theatre Company: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; www.constellationtheatre.org

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 18 – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 19

Mystery Science Theater 3000
Named as one of Time Magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME” in 2007, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is coming live to a theater near you. Currently on the Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour, creator and original host Joel Hodgson and his robots will be riffing some of the best, worst cheesy movies. This is Hodgson’s final tour, so don’t miss the chance to see the hit Netflix show in person. Various dates and times. Tickets $59-$99. National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. DC; www.thenationaldc.com

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27

RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE: Werq the World Tour 2019
Get ready to werq! After taking DC by storm last year, The Werq the World is back again. Join your favorite queens from the VH1 series Rupaul’s Drag Race, including Aquaria, Detox and Valentina, who will be pulling out all of the stops in the biggest drag production ever produced. With stunning queens, dancing, lights and projections. This is live drag like you’ve never seen it before. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $52-$162. The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.theanthemdc.com

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 30 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 10

What to Send Up When it Goes Down
Coming to four stages in the DMV before it’s Woolly Mammoth run, What to Send Up When it Goes Down is sure to provide several conversation-provoking performances throughout October. Written by the author of Is God Is, Aleshea Harris, this play, pageant, ritual is “first and foremost for black people, but non-black folx are welcome if they are prepared to honor this.” As a response to racialized violence, this story of black empowerment is told through colorful vignettes. Using theatre, music and dance, actors and audience members will come together to reflect, cleanse and heal. Various dates and times. Tickets $20-$29. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St.
NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net