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Photo: Cuisine Solutions

What Is Sous Vide? An Explainer On The French Cooking Method

You’ve probably heard the term “sous vide”. You’ve even most likely eaten food that was cooked “sous vide” without knowing it. In lead up to the International Sous Vide Day Celebration brunch at Conrad Washington DC on January 26, we put together an explainer with everything you need to know about sous vide.

What is it? 

Sous vide is French for “under vacuum,” which describes a cooking technique in which food is vacuum-sealed, then slow cooked in hot water. The International Sous Vide Day festivities coincide with the birthday sous vide’s greatest pioneer, Dr. Bruno Goussault. 

Why does it matter? 

The cooking method allows for food to cook at a precise temperature to enhance flavors and maintain moisture, consistency and nutrients that are often lost during conventional cooking techniques. Meats are extremely tender due to the slow cooking process and, since the food is vacuum sealed, there is minimal processing and preservatives needed to keep it fresh. Also, because the scientific technique is precise, the risk of overcooking or under cooking the food is almost zero. 

Cuisine Solutions, headquartered in Northern Virginia is the global authority on sous vide cooking – they have pioneered, perfected and popularized this innovative slow cooking technique that has been adopted by chefs from around the world. Big names such as Thomas Keller, Mark Miller and Daniel Boulud have worked with Cuisine Solutions in developing their own sous vide recipes. Even locally, a number of chefs offer up sous vide items on the menu.

The sous vide technique is also used in making cocktails – whether to infuse liquors with flavors or to use fruit, vegetable peels and seeds to make flavored syrups. For example: The peels and insides of a butternut squash or the trimming from a pumpkin, that would normally go unused, can be put through the sous vide technique to get an intensely flavored liquid used to enhance other dishes. 

Sous vide prepared items are gaining popularity worldwide and can be found in school programs, airlines and cruise ships, hotels, restaurants and retail locations, including major retailers such as Starbucks and Costco (look for the sous vide egg bites!). 

Where to try it? 

You’ll see sous vide items labeled on many restaurants across town, but you can also experience it at home by purchasing from My Cuisine Solutions. They offer a number of options – I especially love the 72-hour short rib, vegan chili, mushroom risotto and butter chicken. The coconut chai oatmeal is also delicious! 

You can also learn more about the French roots of this technique while enjoying innovative cuisine and craft cocktails prepared by Cuisine Solutions acclaimed chefs at the International Sous Vide Day celebration brunch on January 26 at the Conrad Washington DC Estuary restaurant. It’s going to be fantastic – special guest chef Kyle Connaughton of SingleThread Farm in California, which earned three Michelin Stars in 2018, is among the group of talented culinary innovators showcased at this brunch along with local chefs like Estuary’s Bryan Voltaggio, Unconventional Diner’s David Deshaies, DBGB Kitchen’s Nicholas Tang, Equinox’s Todd Gray and more.

The afternoon begins with a culinary experience featuring artful drinks, created by incorporating sous vide techniques, passed appetizers and concludes with brunch at Estuary, showcasing a number of food stations spotlighting signature sous vide proteins, as well as sous vide creations prepared by DC’s leading restaurants. 

International Sous Vide Day Celebration is on January 26 from 12:30-3:30 p.m. Tickets for this event are all-inclusive, priced at $125 per person and are available for purchase here. All proceeds from this event will benefit Careers through Culinary Arts Program

Conrad Washington DC: 950 New York Ave. NW, DC; 202-844-5900; www.eventbrite.com

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

Regina Aquino (left, as Mrs. Page) and Ami Brabson (Mrs. Ford) // Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Folger’s Merry Wives Bring 1970s Girl Power To Shakespeare Classic

When thinking of great feminist playwrights, William Shakespeare likely doesn’t come to mind. Despite this, his famed play The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy featuring smart and powerful women. The text was originally published in the 1600s, but the play’s strong heroines and themes of love, money and deception are so universal that it, like a number of Shakespeare’s other works, can be set in any time period. Need proof? For its final production of the 2019/2020 season, Folger Theatre is set to stage The Merry Wives of Windsor with a backdrop of the groovy 1970s. 

As part of his research, director Aaron Posner used his own memories from living in the decade, as well as listening to some of the top hits and revisiting family sitcoms like The Brandy Brunch. While the script easily lends itself to the comedic stylings of 70s sitcoms, it was actually Posner’s mother that inspired the vintage aesthetic.         

“[I was] talking about my mom who was a housewife in the 1970s as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are in the play [and] talking about her in relation to the play was one of the things that landed us on the 1970s,” he says. “We’re really enjoying steeping the whole thing in the energy of the 1970s, which really fits the play very well. These merry wives are stepping up into their own power and choosing to take matters into their own hands. It fits the rebellious and fresh spirit, where new things are possible.”

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page plot against the villainous Sir John Falstaff as he attempts to seduce them for their husband’s wealth.They prove they are not to be trifled with by hilariously thwarting Falstaff’s plan. All the while, Mistress Page’s daughter Anne Page, is being pursued by three suitors, wherein she shuts down two, while angling to marry her true love.

Shakespeare was far ahead of his time when writing females characters, despite the fact that women weren’t permitted to act on English stages until the 1660s. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are not one-dimensional characters who are written to advance a male character’s storyline. Rather, they have their own unique arcs. Part of what draws Posner to The Bard’s work is his ability to write deep and complex characters of both genders.

“In a number of his plays, the smartest, most aware, most clear-sighted people in the plays are the women,” Posner says. “I would say he’s a humanist more than a feminist, certainly because he will share the best and worst of all people. It does feel very contemporary in the way [the female characters] respond to what they take as an affront. They don’t withdraw, they don’t run to their husbands.” 

This is Posner’s 21st production with the company, but this play holds a special place in his heart as he portrayed Falstaff in his eighth-grade production. He notes that this production is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays.

“If I am evangelical about anything in the world, it’s that Shakespeare is accessible to everyone when done well. I try to make sure that while I hope Shakespeare scholars will enjoy the shows, I always feel that if a relatively intelligent 12-year-old can’t follow the play, moment for moment, then I haven’t done my job well. [The Merry Wives of Windsor] holds a lot of delight for anyone because it’s mostly in prose and not poetry, the language is rich but not dense. The plot is easy to follow. This is a perfect gateway drug to Shakespeare.” 

To go along with the show’s Girl Power theme, the theater is hosting Folger Friday: Hysterical Women on January 31. This program will feature DC female comedians, including Washington Improv Theater’s all-female identifying ensemble Hellcat, and performers Elahe Izadi and Kasha Patel. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor will be the final production staged in the historic Folger Theatre space before the Folger Shakespeare Library’s multi-year renovation. During the construction, Folger Theatre will be offsite at various DC theaters.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is on stage from January 14 through March 1. Tickets are available online

Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-544-7077; www.folger.edu     

Photo: courtesy of Drew Gibson

Virginia Native Drew Gibson Returns To Pearl Street

When Richmond native Drew Gibson released his debut album Letterbox in 2007, the singer/songwriter quickly developed a strong local following, with songs that harkened back to American days of country-blues and songwriters of yesteryear.  

By 2015, now living in Sterling, VA, Gibson came out with the critically acclaimed 1532, his third album, one that had a theme of family. Dedicated to his dad, who passed away a few years prior, the recording included tales of Gibson’s family beginning with its roots in Scotland.

After the success of his first concept album, Gibson returned to the format for his latest release, Shipbuilder, which came out in 2019, and carries a theme of water throughout.

“I felt that having a concept drew people in to my prior record, and it made it more special to have a theme,” he says. “As successful as that record was, I was really worried about how to follow that up because it was so personal. Over the course of time, I developed the theme about water metaphorically talking about the ups and downs of life.”

He considers Shipbuilder his best work to date and is happy his fans are enjoying it just as much as 1532

On January 5, Gibson will be performing a free show at Pearl Street Warehouse located on DC’s District Wharf, one of his favorite venues.

“It’s a full band show and we’ll be playing stuff across all four of my records,” Gibson says. “It will be a little less emphasis on just the new one, and really spanning equally among all four.”

Playing live is always an exciting time for the singer, and he’s happy to be kicking off the new year with this intimate show at a time when the band is at the best it’s ever been.

“Instrumentally, we can all breathe a little bit with expansion of solos and the night is going to be a lot of fun,” he says. “These are some of the best musicians in not only DC, but even on the entire coast.”

Gibson knew at a young age that he wanted to be a musician. Although he wasn’t a fan of his four years of piano lessons, once he found a guitar in his home, he taught himself how to play and started a band with friends. 

“As you start to feel good about something, it breathes your drive to do it,” he says. “I started writing songs and went out solo in college. Throughout my life, I had mini-successes that have kept me going, and I feel blessed that people are enjoying my albums and I get good reviews.”

Being heard wasn’t always easy. Although it was easy to get songs online, because so many others are doing that as well, attracting a following took some time. Gibson built that up by playing live shows mostly in the DMV at places like Jammin Java, the Birchmere and of course, Pearl Street. 

In 2020, Gibson hopes to release a live recording and will continue touring and playing throughout the area.

“Being on stage is one of the most enjoyable things I can do you just get that chill,” Gibson says. “I get it from feeding off of other guys in the band and hearing how they attack a solo. And I love communicating with an audience. I just enjoy sharing my music.”

Drew Gibson will perform at Pearl Street Warehouse at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 5. Admission is free. For more information about the artist, click here.

Pearl Street Warehouse: 33 Pearl St. SW, DC; 202-380-9620; www.pearlstreetwarehouse.com

"The Day" // Photo: Hayim Heron, courtesy of Jacobs Pillow

The Day Tackles Life, Death And All In Between At The Kennedy Center

The expiry of life is a shared experience. Yet, though our existence is riddled with these life-ending and life-altering moments, we tend to struggle with the acceptance or articulation of this obligatory unknowingly path-dependent terminus.

Fortunate for us, world-renowned cellist Maya Beiser has initiated a two-part collaborative effort, where audience members visiting the Kennedy Center December 6-7 will embark on a partially guided journey named The Day. Here, onlookers will grapple with their acceptance of life, death and everything in between, depending on your religious or ideological beliefs. 

The conception of World to Come, the sequel of The Day, began forming during September 11, 2001, while American composer David Lang and Beiser were commissioned by Carnegie Hall to produce an evening performance.

The two were living in New York during the attack on the World Trade Center, and inspiration sprung from the unfathomable event, wherein the title of their work even emulates the acronym, WTC.

“The piece just became informed by that event,” Beiser says. “In particular, by this incomprehensible idea that there were thousands of people who woke up that morning, took the train or car and went to work, and a few hours later they were all gone weeks afterward. People in Union Square were just walking around sort of dazed with signs of their loved ones they were still looking for. People were looking for those who just kind of disappeared…that became the subject of this piece.”

The Day, was imagined after its sister title World To Come.

“We wanted to create this piece that is really about life; it’s really about the sanctity of memory,” Beiser says. “For this particular case, there were two compositions that were relating to death and September 11, something personal but also universal. I think super personal things are also the things that resonate with all of us on some level. We all, of course, have this predicament. We are all born and we are all going to die someday.”

The Day will feature three significant artistic expressions: Music, composed by Lang and performed by Beiser; dance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs; and performed by Wendy Whelan. Finally, there will be poetic texts crowdsourced online to reinforce the importance of memory.

“Three-hundred different people are answering the question, ‘If I remember the day?’ and it’s all these different memories from things that we think are super profound or super mundane, but they are all being told in this matter of fact and without any judgment [space]”, Beiser explains.

The text illuminated onstage is without a narrative, yet, naturally conveys, “what’s important and not important to us, and what it is that makes our lives and our human experience a community.” 

Beiser will tell you firsthand that she is a visual musician, “You know, I’m a musician but I always see music, I don’t just hear it. Music has a very large sonic visual palette for me. When I play and when I perform, the visuals are always important to me.”

“As I was recording [The Day], I kept imagining a women dancer who danced with and who would communicate with me.”

In true Beiser fashion, she elicits the prowess of former New York City Ballet Company ballerina turned associate artistic director,  Wendy Whelan, whom she came to admire since their meeting in 2010. “I thought she would be the absolute perfect person for this idea.”

Whelan joined the illustrious team without hesitation,.

“We just clicked personality-wise”, Whelan reminiscing over her early encounters with Beiser.  

Whelan’s international dance career spans more than 30 years, so we wondered, how does her experience impact her movements concerning the illustration of life and death? 

“It’s been interesting,” she says. “Since I left the New York City Ballet [as a principle dancer] five years ago, I’ve lost maybe five very very close friends. They’ve died very young, and I have to say, these experiences in dealing with this kind of lost have very much affected how I look at this work and what I bring to the work.”

“There’s sort of simplicity to [The Day]. I don’t overthink, I just dive into the work and almost relax into it. Because of my experiences and my age, I let go in life. I’ve let go of the ballet. I’ve let go of friends. The power in letting go is everything. We all want to control and we want to push through and hang on. The realization is that this sort of letting go of different chapters in our life or different people, it gets you to the next place. It helps us evolve and land with new wisdom. I’ve sort of learned the beauty and power in that, and I try to let that experience come through in my being.”

The Day is showing at The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, December 6-7 at 8 p.m. on both days. Tickets are $25-$69 and can be purchased online here.

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

Jake Epstein // Photo: courtesy of Arena Stage

Jake Epstein Talks World Premiere of Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise

It can be a challenge for an actor to tap into a character, especially one from a different decade. But for Jake Epstein, playing a WWII soldier holds a special family connection. The former Degrassi star is portraying Jack Ludwig in Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise now through December 29. The play, based on the love story of playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents, is set in the middle of the war and told through the use of letters. We talked to Epstein to learn more about the world premiere of Dear Jack, Dear Louise, long-distance relationships and the DC theatre scene.

On Tap: What’s it like portraying a real-life figure? Especially the playwright’s father?
Jake Epstein: To be honest, I try to block out that I’m portraying the playwright’s father. Only because in the sense of the play, I have to think of it as a character I’m playing. I’m trying to approach it the way I would any play, but certainly, there’s a real responsibility to tell the story right and to make sure the playwright can feel good about it.

OT: How closely did you work with the playwright, Ken Ludwig?
JE: At the beginning, very closely. He’s an amazing and hilarious writer. He was around for all of our table reads where we did a lot of work talking about the history and going on the trip together. Once we got up on our feet and started working with the director [Jackie Maxwell], Ken said “I’m going to let you guys play.” So he kinda went away and he’s been in and out of the whole process.

OT: How did you tap into playing a WWII soldier? What does that era of history mean to you?
JE: When you’re playing somebody from history you try to gather as much information as you can. I’ve done a lot of research, listened to podcasts every day and tried to read what I can so that I feel I can be as authentic as possible. On a personal note, my mother [Kathy Kacer] is a pretty well-known writer and she writes mostly stories about the holocaust for young adults. Her parents, my grandparents, were both Holocaust survivors. My grandmother, I never knew and my grandfather, I only knew a little when I was young. But one of the amazing things about being an actor is that sometimes you’ll get to do a play that’s out of your own time and place, and in this case, getting to do a play during the second world war makes me feel connected to my grandparents.

OT: What books has your mother written about the holocaust?
JE: She’s written over 20 books. My favorite is The Secrets of Gabi’s Dresser, which is a story about my grandmother hiding from the Nazis. Since then, she’s written a lot of other books, one called Clara’s War. They actually use her books in Canada, and I believe they’re starting to in the states, when they’re teaching kids about the second world war in school. That time in history definitely means a lot to me and my family.

OT: Have you visited the Holocaust Museum since you arrived in DC?
JE: I’ve been twice before. I went when I was younger with my parents, and a few years ago when I was here with the national tour of Spring Awakening. I’ve been in intense rehearsal, so I haven’t gotten the chance to do too much in DC but I’m certainly hoping to.

OT: What do you think of the DC theatre scene? How do you like Arena Stage?
JE: I’ll admit that I haven’t seen very much other DC theatre, but I know that it certainly has a great reputation with really smart, savvy audiences. Getting to perform at the Kennedy Center [with the national tour of Spring Awakening] was one of the highlights of my life. It’s such a gorgeous building and it was one of those moments like “oh my god, I’m so lucky that I get to do this.” I mean Arena Stage has this reputation of being this amazing out of town try out. A lot of shows going to New York, Broadway got to try themselves out at Arena Stage. It’s got this real spirit of creativity and support that I’ve been really impressed with. The building is beautiful and its location, with being right on the Wharf, is really cool.

OT: The story revolves around your character Jack and a character named Louise in a long-distance relationship, do you have any experience with long-distance relationships?
JE: Yeah, I do. My wife and I were long distance for about five years before we got married. So I have a lot of experience dealing with long distance and the tragedy, frustration and comedy that goes into maintaining a relationship when you’re far apart from each other.

OT: In today’s world, do you think relationships via letters is still considered romantic or is texting much more practical?
JE: In today’s world, people date through social media and through online dating and texting. It’s a specific part of how people meet and interact. This play is just like the original texting, the original online dating. The difference is just that letters took over a week to get to each other but I love how the play has a sort of wink to where we are today,  but with the story of the real history of letters.

OT: Since the play is told through letters, does that change the way you interpret the script as an actor?
JE: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the characters are not speaking aloud what they’re saying. They’re expressing the letters that have been written out loud but at the same time, because it’s a play, because it’s a piece of theatre, we really thought to theatricalize the story and theatricalize the way letters can be used on stage. Our director has really encouraged us to make the letters spoken as realistically as possible.

OT: How is being in a world premiere play like Dear Jack, Dear Louise different from being in an established play or TV show, such as Spring Awakening or Degrassi?
JE: Definitely being in a world premiere is a different beat than being in something that is set in stone. The main thing being that the playwright is there so you can talk to him about moments that maybe aren’t working as well as they could. There’s the opportunity for the line tweaks or changes or discussion with what the intention was about certain lines with the person who wrote it. Whereas with a published play, that’s it. You have to make it work. On TV it’s actually similar to a world premiere, the writers are around and there are constant changes on TV. So if anything, being in the world premiere of a play is probably closer to doing a TV show.

OT: Speaking of Degrassi, my editor [Monica Alford] told me she had a big crush on your character. Do you often get recognized for that role?
JE: Tell her thank you very much! I do sometimes and I appreciate it. It makes me laugh every time.

OT: Why do you think Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a great love story? Why will audiences resonate with it?
JE: I definitely hope so. I hope audiences can relate to it. There’s a lot of truth in their love story, it’s a difficult love story. There’s a lot of banter, the two characters couldn’t be more different from each other. Jack is a shy, self-effacing, intelligent army medic who has zero experience with the ladies because he’s been in school his whole life. Louise is this outgoing, charismatic aspiring actress. They couldn’t be more different, yet somehow find each other and start to relate on this very deep personal level through letter writing. They actually have a lot in common and they start to need each other in a way they both didn’t expect. I think there’s a lot of truth in the love story and I certainly related to a lot of it in my own life. I hope audiences feel the same.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise opened November 21 and runs through December 29. Various times. Tickets begin at $41. For more information visit here.

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

Nova Payton in Newsies // Photo: Margot Schulman

Nova Payton Brings Power As Heroine in Arena Stage’s Newsies

Her name is Medda Larkin, and “she is in charge,” Nova Payton exclaims excitedly as she tells the joys of playing a brassy operatic and bluesy burlesque theater owner in Arena Stage’s production of Disney’s Newsies the musical.

Set in New York City in 1899, Newsies follows the adolescent newsboys who go on strike after newspaper owners Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, also known as the most powerful men in the country, raise the price for newspapers purchased by newsboys, who resale on the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Despite already being unable to earn a living wage, the newsboys are forced to pay double for an even now hard-to-sell newspaper.

Medda, the heroine of the tale, offers her theater as a safe haven for those youth struggling in the inner city.

“She is a powerhouse, who commands the room’s attention upon each entry,” Payton explains of the elaborate petticoats and headdresses she proudly wears to embody her character.

Medda requires the vocal prowess and tenacity of an actress with grit and worldly experiences, as she is based on the late Aida Overton Walker, a renowned musical theater performer, most known for her vaudeville performances and her marriage to George Walker.

Fortunately for director Molly Smith, Payton was available.

“I was called and asked about my availability, as here in DC, we audition a year in advance for each show,” she says. “So, they said they would like if I would sing in the show, and asked me to come in and sing with the music director Laura Bergquist, and here we are.”

From studying at the The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and touring the world as a backup singer for Roberta Flack to performing in 3 Mo’ Divas, seen on PBS, Payton was primed for this role.

“I grew up around performers all my life. From Mike Malone the co-founder of Duke Ellington [School of the Performing Arts] to Roberta Flack”, Payton shares. “It was wonderful being able to sit under these geniuses and be groomed.”

When asked about the significance of this play in today’s climate, and the connection it would have to older and younger audiences, Payton had plenty to say.

“When you think about the kids who are protesting about global warming and gun violence and gun control today, it’s the same thing the newsies were doing with the newspapers. It was a matter of life or death. If you raise the rates, what am I supposed to do? After I pay you all this money, what’s left for me? How am I supposed to survive and eat?”

Payton says the younger generations are responsible for a lot of powerful movements, whether back then or in today’s political climate.

“With gun control and global warming, it’s the same. Kids are afraid to go to school, children are dying. Back then as today, kids were the movement. They took the risks, the chances and didn’t worry about what would happen next.”

Newsies has been extended and will be showing at Arena Stage through December 29. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $45-$102 and can be purchased by visiting the Arena Stage Ticket portal.

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

Drew Valins on the right // Photo: Michael Yeshion Photography

Iconic Character Vaněk Unleashed In The Havel Project

When I think of underground theatre, I think of gritty, non-glamorous shows waiting to be found. However, Alliance for New Music-Theatre is set to take ‘underground’ to the next level with their upcoming performances of Václav Havel’s Protest and Susan Galbraith’s Vaněk Unleashed. Their venue of choice – Dupont Underground, an abandoned streetcar station beneath Dupont Circle.

The first play of this double bill criticizes the communist regime that blanketed Czechoslovakia in 1948. Vaněk Unleashed then further develops Vaněk, a character from Protest, by giving him a voice in this spin-off, “absurdist musical fantasy.”
Drew Valins will portray Vaněk, as he transforms from a silent presence in Protest to a fully formed being in Vaněk Unleashed.

“[He] barely speaks. He’s very shy, so he doesn’t really step on toes,” Valins says. “[Galbraith] created a way to unleash Vaněk.”

Both plays concern themselves with communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, but Valins believes these shows are relevant to American audiences.

“When we started back in 2013, we felt like we kind of had to stretch to understand what it might be like to live in a totalitarian regime because that’s what these plays deal with,” he says. Over time, though, Valins realized that Havel’s plays continue to relate to America’s political climate.

Valins thinks of America as a country of division.

“People are suspicious of one another,” he continues. “No one really knows where to go for answers and that’s exactly the kind of world that Havel was writing about.”

From talking to Valins, I imagine the DC audience might see glimpses of themselves in these performances that will resonate in unexpected ways.

These performances will stand side by side, but their cultural influences seem entirely different. Valins describes Vaněk Unleashed as an “American response” to Czech theatre. For instance, in Protest Vaněk is a more emotionally reserved character, but in the spin-off it mirrors American theatre’s ability to dig underneath the silent character’s reserved exterior.

Havel’s plays were originally performed as “apartment performances” to deflect attention from his communist-ruled country, and the Alliance for New Music-Theater will attempt to mimic those hideaway performances in the Dupont Underground.

“We love the fact that its underground because Havel’s plays had to go underground or under the radar,” Valins says.

By meshing two cultures and honoring the original stagings, the Alliance for New Music-Theater has committed to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and politically significant artists like Havel. Audiences will also witness a plethora of emotions onstage, in addition to various cultural influences, which is Valins’ favorite aspect of the production.

“I’m really excited about that fact that I get to sing. This character, Vaněk— the last thing you would expect him to do is sing. In Vaněk Unleashed, I get to go through every single human emotion. I get to go through joy, fear, anger. I break out in song. I dance. So it’s just a lot of joy. Ironically, that all happens while I’m in prison,” Valins says.

These performances deal with heavy issues, but as pieces of absurdist theatre, audience members are sure to be stunned by unexpected nuances.

If Valins could speak with Havel, he has a few things he would mention to the playwright. His message is poetic, meaningful, and quite fun, which I imagine is a precursor to his performance as Vaněk.

“Mr. Havel, you’re a terrible dancer, but thank you so much for your spirit. You’re a real inspiration in the way you hold yourself and enjoy life under pressure. And you’re just a cool person that I wish I could’ve known and rolled a cigarette with and had a smoke with. I wish you could see our stuff, and I think you would dig it.”

Valins’ passion for the upcoming performances makes me want to dive into the world of Havel that these actors will prepare for their audience – regardless of the playwright’s inability to dance.

“Havel wasn’t as concerned with artificial professionalism. He was concerned with enjoying the work, so [the cast and crew] puts in that spirit.”

New Music Theater will host performances of Protest and Vaněk Unleashed through November 17. All shows are presented by Alliance for New Music-Theatre in partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic. For more information on showtimes or ticket prices, visit here.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Cir. NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org

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

Still from Sell By // Photo: courtesy of Reel Affirmations

Reel Affirmations Provides Unique Perspectives Through Film

Prepare for a local film festival built on the stepping stones of inclusivity, diversity and acceptance.

This weekend brings the 26th annual Reel Affirmations Film Festival at the historic GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights. The festival is a nonprofit division of the The DC Center For The LGBT Community. This year’s rendition features 26 films from 11 countries on five continents, widening the scope of perspectives attendees will see. Films begin tonight and run through Sunday, October 27.

Films on the docket include: Treacle, Parking, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life and Seahhorse, to list a few.

Kimberley Bush, the Director of Arts and Cultural Program at the DC Center, says the festival is vital provide diverse films for an equally diverse community, “because seeing ourselves on screen can be very empowering, very uplifting and we as a community need that.”

This film festival represents DC Center’s mission to “uplift, empower, support and celebrate the LGBTQ community.” The film festival offers a variety of different experiences by featuring film directors, authors and contributors from all across the globe.

The lineup features unique narratives, short films, documentaries and more, including different perspectives and outlooks within the LGBTQ community.

In today’s climate, there is not enough representation, which is important for the industry. Bush explained that there isn’t enough inclusivity within other film festivals as their scope on the subject is limited, under representing this community.

“People in the community who may be dealing with identity [need these festivals],” she says. “To ourselves on screen, in a group setting, and maybe even talk to the director, writer, producer of that film brings them more opportunities and affirmation that could enhance them long term.”

Bush says the side effects of the film festival has created a lasting impact on the community surrounding it. Inviting people to enter and walk out of the festival, has created a positive place to see people in your community and an open atmosphere to talk about real and honest epidemics facing the community today.

“Everything changes when they walk into a film screening and when they walk out,” she says. “It’s a totally different light. I see firsthand [at] our community film screenings and art gallery openings, how it’s important and integral to share our stories and share our visions with the community.”

Passes for the festival start at $40, with general admission tickets available for $14. For more information about the festival or the films, visit here.

Gala Hispanic Theatre: 3333 14th St. NW, DC; 202-234-7174; en.galatheatre.org