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

Round House Theatre Delivers Intimate Spring Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playwright Octavio Solis Expands American Narrative With Mother Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Liz Lauren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Teresa Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford’s Theatre Explores Leavitt Sisters In Silent Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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

Kittie Glitter and Elvis Presley // Photo: Studio Vision

Elvis Presley Cracks Jokes While Celebs Throw Punches (Sort Of)

On January 3 and 4, Astro Pop Events celebrated Elvis Presley’s legacy with their 10th Annual Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club at the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, is the kind of the star of the show, but people also enjoyed fights, improv and burlesque performances.

The first rule of fight club is to not talk about fight club. This review will slightly break the rule. While Elvis is the main attraction, the event loosely celebrates him. Before the show begins, patrons will hear his music and can grab merchandise. A man in the audience even wore a cape similar to ones Presley wore. Other members of the audience donned glasses that portrayed them with Presley’s iconic sideburns. His image was in the center of the stage, between two wooden cages where fighters would soon enter and exit. A woman in a sparkly dress, Kittie Glitter, joined a Presley impersonator at a table on to the side of the stage. Together they would emcee the show.

The performance stands out because it encourages some audience participation. During the middle of a skit, a member of the audience shouted out to the performers and rather than ignoring it, a member of the cast made a quick remark. The show does more than entertain the audience, but recognizes how important they are and actively engages with them. 

In the beginning, you meet Commodious, Presley’s toilet. Commodious is one of the few reoccurring characters. Commodious serves two purposes. His first purpose is to welcome the audience and begin the show. His second is to hold the traditional quaalaise toss. Audience members can purchase foam pills (noted as quaalaise), and their goal is to throw it into Commodious’ bowl. The cast held a raffle based on what got inside the bowl with the winner receiving a painting of Elvis Presley. 

The show was fun with the unique characters interacting with each other, and fan favorites returning for a royal rumble at the end. The diverse cast was brought to life with colorful costumes, and included real and fictional beings. For example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter made an appearance. Dr. Phil also walked through the cage to fight, with the actor who portrayed the TV personality doing an incredible job.

Fights typically had themes. For example, one theme was about different doctors squaring up and throwing punches. There were jokes and even monologues on top of the simulated tussles. 

The show is unique and a break from traditional comedy, best viewed with a drink. The cast drags you out of your comfort zone and makes you laugh at goofy slapstick battles, complete with snarky comments. The performance can be compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both of which have their own cult following. The cast of Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club recognized this and eagerly handed out a thank you prize and an awards card to returning patrons.

You can catch the performance in Baltimore, Maryland  at Creative Alliance on January 17-18. For more information about that show, click here. For more information about Astro Pop Events, click here.