Magic Time!: ‘Off the Leash: A Journey Into Reality One Black Life at a Time’ at Woolly Mammoth Rehearsal Hall

After I watched eleven B.F.A. candidates in Howard University’s Class of 2017 perform a program of self-scripted audition pieces—character-rich monodramas, actually—I had one overwhelming urge: I wanted to see every next play these actors get cast in after they graduate. Because they each knocked my socks off.

The cast of Off the Leash: A Journey Into Reality One Black Life at a Time.

Off the Leash: A Journey Into Reality One Black Life at a Time was a one-night-only co-production of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Howard University. The evening was introduced by Woolly’s Connectivity Director Kristen Jackson and was presented in connection with Pike St., whose creator and performer, Nilaja Sun, was in the house. As Sun described the evening to me afterward, Off the Leash was “a brilliant example of what young artists can do when they are invited to tell their stories knowing that there will be witnesses to hear them.”

As a teacher Sun first worked with these students when they were freshmen, and clearly they have been inspired by her ever since. So much so that I sensed—having been absorbed by Sun’s artistry in Pike St.—that they each in their own way were channeling her performing essence.

Nilaja Sun in Pike St. Credit: Teresa Castracane.

In my review of Pike St., I attempted to describe that essence:

To watch Sun channel her characters in her own body, switching from one to another (more swiftly than a dancer, more seamless than a cinematic special effect) is to behold what seems a brand-new human faculty—a sense beyond sight, touch, hearing taste, and smell—the capacity to honor selves other than one’s own by allowing them in.

I watched each of these Howard acting students do something very similar. Even when being autobiographical, they created vivid characters that seemed to come through them. But Sun claims no credit for showing them how:

It’s interesting that you mentioned their “channeling my performance essence,” because honestly one of the reasons why I keep coming back to Howard U. every year in some capacity is that I see myself so clearly in all of the students. Their energy, their attack, their chutzpah. Their hunger to drive a story makes for a compelling solo performer. And yet, this is nothing I taught them. I recognized this strength on day one and worked with them on honing and specifying each moment, each character. I also worked with them on highlighting the humor as well as the ultimate sadness of each moment.

Those moments came alive in each student’s expressive and theatricalized storytelling, all based on lived material from their twenty-one or so years. Common themes were dating, heartbreak, and college life along with deeper currents of self-acceptance and healing and incidents both painful and joyful. The cumulative effect was an extraordinary anthology of life events, longings, disappointments, and hopes, some so intensely felt they burst into dance and song.

Eric Ruffin, their acting and directing teacher at Howard (whom Sun called “their North Star”), has worked with these students for a year to polish their writing. And while as scripts the pieces varied in dramaturgical coherence, the point was not to shape a bill of short plays; it was to show off each actor’s passion, technique, and range. And in that respect each actor’s monologue played like blazes…not unlike their Sun’s.

Special events programmed by theaters to coincide with current productions do not typically take the form of productions unto themselves, fully satisfying evenings of terrific theater that stand on their own. But that’s what Off the Leash turned out to be.

This did not happen on a whim or overnight. The partnership between Woolly and Howard goes back, and it has had substantial support from astute funders. As Bryan Braunlich, Woolly’s Marketing and Communications Manager, explained,

Nilaja Sun first worked with the students from Howard University in 2013, while working with us as a Connectivity Artist-in-Residence as part of a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation, around Building Demand for the Arts, Through a series of participatory workshops led by Nilaja, who is a highly accomplished teaching artist, students were encouraged to find their own artistic voice and envision a world where they can create and tell their own stories—to truly become American theater makers. They were also able to form a relationship with Woolly Mammoth, and look to this theater as a site for exploring issues that are pertinent to their lives.

The story gets even better. This year with support from the Weissberg Foundation, Woolly brought Sun back together with this 2017 class of seniors, who were now joined by current freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.

In this way, Off the Leash represented the impact of multi-year relationships, which resulted in the opportunity to see the seed Nilaja planted so many years ago finally come to life. Partnerships like this can’t happen without the genuine love and generosity that Nilaja extends, the steadfastness and leadership that Eric Ruffin provides, and the efforts of our nationally recognized Connectivity Department to deepen the conversation around the plays we produce.

So much for the backstory. Now for all the casting directors in town who missed the show, here are the headshots and bios of the amazing talents I got to see.

You’re welcome.

Kristen Armour

Kristen Armour is a distinguished and esteemed budding actress from Atlanta, Georgia. A prestigious graduating senior majoring in Theatre at Howard University, she is excited to move into the next chapter of her professional career. Her past works include the musical Sarafina! as Sarafina; A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Helena; and The Children’s Hour as Karen Wright. She is highly enthused to debut her own material on the Woolly Mammoth stage.

Jabari Denson

Jabari Denson is an aspiring artist for social change who comes from Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to acting, he writes, sings, draws, and plays guitar. He believes wholeheartedly that the gifts that have been bestowed upon him are for the purpose of doing God’s work.

Taylor Olivia Burrell

Taylor Olivia Burrell is a former Musical Theatre major turned Acting major from Los Angeles, California. She was inspired to attend Howard University by her mentor and Howard University Alumna, Wendy Raquel Robinson, whom she trained with for eight years at Amazing Grace Conservatory in inner-city Los Angeles. Upon graduation Taylor has plans of pursuing a career in film and television, traveling across the globe as she makes her mark. One of Taylor’s favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will always remember how you make them feel.”

Deidre Staples

Deidre Staples is a senior Acting major from Memphis, Tennessee. Recently she was in Eclipsed (The Girl) and A Midsummer’s Night Dream (Flute). This is her writing debut! She is excited for life post-graduation.

Domonique Gay

Domonique Gay is blessed to be a part of this wonderful production, and would like to thank God, her ancestors, her parents, Alric Davis, her classmates, Eric Ruffin, and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company for their contributions towards Phoenix and ultimately, Off the Leash.

Devonne Bowman

Devonne Bowman is a graduating Acting major from Los Angeles, California. She dedicates this performance to the girl that started her B.F.A. training, and welcomes the woman who now completes her training. She would like to thank her cohort, her professors, and department for their continued support. Most importantly, she would like to thank God for continuously making all things possible. And yes, she does intend to play Juliet one day.

Danielle King

Danielle King is a graduating senior Theatre Arts Major with a concentration in Acting from Houston, Texas. This is her first time performing at Woolly Mammoth, and she is excited to share a piece of herself with you all! Her previous credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sarafina, and The Children’s Hour. Be on the lookout for her because the best is yet to come!

Charmaign L. Davis

Charmaign L. Davis is a senior Acting major from Brighton, Tennessee. She is the only senior in her class without any theater experience prior to enrolling in Howard University’s Acting Department. However, she never viewed it as a disadvantage, but rather an opportunity to become the actress she was destined to be. Her credits include: Radio Golf, Not About Nightingales, The Cherry Orchard, and more. Her motivation continues to come from her family and God.

Grae King

Grae King is a graduating senior Theatre Arts major with a concentration in Acting from Los Angeles, California. Since arriving at Howard University she has had the opportunity to perform in African Americans and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Hermia. She is excited to share the stage with her fearless and incomparable friends as they share their truths. She would like to thank God and Eric Ruffin for forever stressing the importance of “creat[ing] the work yourself.”

Palesa Pryor

Palesa Pryor is a graduating senior at Howard University majoring in Theatre Arts, with a concentration in Acting. Throughout her time at Howard she starred in a workshopped performance of Euripides’ Trojan Women and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Last summer she graduated from the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford program.  Palesa aspires to transition into acting for film and television after she receives her B.F.A.

Kevin Thorne II

Kevin Thorne II is a senior Acting major from North Carolina. He has been in many productions including Sarafina! (Cosmas/Head Policeman), Evoke (Principal Dancer) and Not About Nightingales (Swifty). In addition to dancing, singing, and acting, Kevin practices puppetry, ventriloquism, and music (drum-set/percussion). Kevin would like to thank his mentors, professors, fellow students, family, and the love of his life for being there and providing continuous love and support.

Running Time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Off the Leash: A Journey Into Reality One Black Life at a Time was performed April 10, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre  Company‘s Rehearsal Hall – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC.

Off the Leash was presented in association with Woolly Mammoth’s production of Pike St. by Nilaja Sun, playing through April 23, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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