Page to Stage Festival 2019: Tastings from a Buffet (Part One)

An appetizer of new works-in-progress from Monumental Theatre, Spooky Action Theatre, NuSass Productions, Scena Theatre, Factory 449, Brave Soul Collective, Unknown Penguin, African-American Collective Theater (ACT), Tonic Theater, and The Washington Rogues.

Kennedy Center’s annual Page to Stage Festival is always chock full of tempting offerings, and the challenge of deciding what to see is daunting. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet…except you really can’t. The best you can do is pick and choose a tasting menu. So here’s what caught our eye on Saturday, August 31. (For our reports on Page to Stage Monday, September 2, 2019, click here.)

Monumental Theatre Company: Montgomery

Music, Book, and Lyrics by Britt Bonney
Direction by Kevin McAllister
Musical direction by Cedric D. Lyles

JO ANN ROBINSON: Kelli Blackwell
ROSA PARKS: Shayla Lowe
Q.P. COLVIN: Wendell Jordan
E.D. NIXON: Ian Anthony Coleman
FRED GRAY: Ricardo Blagrove
MAYOR GAYLE: Brent Stone
OFFICER WARD: Brice Guerriere
ENSEMBLE: Megan Bunn
ENSEMBLE: Ashley K. Nicholas

BASS: Jason Wilson
GUITAR: Beth Cannon
DRUMS: Tarek Mohamed
KEYBOARD: Cedric D. Lyles

Act One of this new musical totally bowled me over last year at Page to Stage. Set in 1955 in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, it tells the true story of a 15-year-old African American girl named Claudette Colvin whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman prompted the Montgomery bus boycott and preceded the similar, more well-known refusal by Rosa Parks. As we come to learn, young Claudette’s act of resistance was even nervier. This year, 12 extraordinary singer/actors and four musicians read, sang, and played a one-hour 20-minute condensed version of both Acts One and Two. The book, lyrics, and blues/gospel/rock score of Montgomery are all by Britt Bonney, who now has convinced me will one day be a major figure in American musical theater.

The show began with the stirring “(Let It) Roll On By,” which—counterintuitively for a story about civil rights activism—is about not making waves, about putting up with injustice: “Wear the mask that grins and lies,” the ensemble sings. The next big musical number is Claudette’s “(You Gotta) Make a Move,” in which she states unequivocally there won’t be any change until the oppressed rise up en masse. The two songs one after the other establish a profound thematic tension that courses through the show: the urgency for social-justice activism versus the play-it-safe impulse to maintain the status quo. What activist cannot relate?

After Claudette’s refusal, officers kick and jail her. In alarm Margaret, her childhood friend,  sings “Girl in Trouble.” Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women’s Political Council (and another figure hidden from history who is given a spotlight in Montgomery), urges that a bus boycott begin immediately in “Bring the Rain” (“What are we waiting for?”). A civic official voices the status quo: “The only law is Jim Crow law; the rest don’t matter.” But Claudette knows better; she knows that according to the Equal Protection Clause there can’t be different laws for different people. In “Rebellion On My Mind” (a phrase the real Claudette Colvin shared with Bonney in an interview), we see Claudette’s grit and determination. She soon gets legal assistance from the NAACP and a young lawyer named Fred Gray. “Did she break the law or did the law break her?” Fred asks. There is a telling scene when Fred, in “The Trial (You Do You),”  coaches Claudette on her trial testimony. “Don’t quote the Constitution,” he says. Meaning, don’t seem too smart. Meanwhile Jo Ann sings “Don’t Ride the Bus,” a rousing power ballad urging on the boycott.

Claudette, it turns out, is deemed “a poor test case: she’s too poor, too dark”—and she has become pregnant. Rosa Parks, who was active in the NAACP and was older and lighter skinned, is recruited for the role in “Good Christian Woman.” Parks is arrested for the same thing Claudette was. Parks became the face that launched the protest and entered history. But Montgomery gives the real rebellion girl Claudette her due.

I counted at least a half dozen musical numbers so powerful and moving they could become breakout hits on their own. The finale for instance: “Long Road Behind (Long Road Ahead)” reflects such deep and emotional understanding of how political change happens that I can imagine it becoming a social-justice anthem with impact akin to “We Shall Overcome.” —John Stoltenberg

Spooky Action Theater: Bread

A cute confection that did not take itself too seriously; that was Spooky Action Theatre’s Bread. A little bon-bon given a lively staged reading at Page-to-Stage. Written by Jaclyn Enchin, the script is a mixture of a comic, eye-rolling detective story with a madcap love story as its main fuel.

Set in France during 1940, Bread is the story of a young apprentice named “Appy” (Brandon McCoy joyfully anxious throughout) working in a bakery (hence the name Bread). He has been given an unexpected gift painting by Jill (delightful comically sharp Megan Graves). Is she a kleptomaniac? Is she his girlfriend? And the gift, is it the Mona Lisa? What happens next includes Appy trying to avoid the consequences of having the painting. Along the way Appy meets an Inspecteur (Michael Crutchfield Walker) who finds himself needing a talking mime to solve the crime (Tro Shaw sparkles) along with a woman with some vast secrets of her own (Maya Jackson).

Shanara Gabrielle directs a ten-member ensemble who are up the game afoot. Playwright Echin has an interesting touch in bringing iconic artistic names to the fore including the movie Casablanca with a nod to Les Miz. With Christopher Crutchfield Walker, Jonathan Holmes, Katie McDonald (provides stage direction), Matthew McGee, Michael Russotto, and Joseph Delguste. ​A work-in-progress that should be a hoot in a full production. —David Siegel


Scena Theatre: Sea

Written by Jon Fosse
Directed by Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara’s Scena Theatre has specialized for decades in bringing high-quality European drama to the Washington, D.C. area. And with the recent push to publish the collected works of Norwegian author Jon Fosse, and McNamara’s passion for his work, we are finally coming into contact with a powerful, if sometimes quizzical, theatrical voice.

Playwright Jon Fosse

Fosse’s short one-act, Sea, is highly abstract – with dialogue that seems two parts Beckett, and one part Ionesco – seeking to achieve with words what is normally left to painters or classical composers. The dialogue, like waves, rises and falls, gently lapping upon the shore of an empty, undefined space where each character struggles to maintain their identity, their sense of place, even their sense of relationships with others. As Fosse himself says, “I always try to write as simply and, I hope, as deeply as I possibly can.” For this reading, McNamara assembled a cast of familiar local talent, and it is clear that Fosse’s work (which Scena has produced before, but I alas haven’t seen) has tremendous potential. Like with Beckett and Ionesco, Fosse’s work seems to require a precision of delivery, pacing and cadence, in order to receive its due. —Andrew Walker White


Factory 449: Thank You, Dad

What can I say in a few words in response to Factory 449’s awe-inspiring, chilling Page-to-Stage reading of Thank You, Dad? How about this? The staged reading held me tightly to it in rapt attention, as if connected with a drop of powerful superglue. 

Written by Aladrian C. Wetzel, Thank You Dad is a drama about The Reverend Jim Jones and his startling effect on others. For those of a certain age, the name Jim Jones will quickly conjure events at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. For others, Thank You Dad may be more a dusty Wiki entry about mass deaths in the long ago. But, my word, with Michael Kevin Darnal reading as Reverend Jones, it was a mesmerizing 90 minutes enveloped in a world many of us likely don’t know in our real lives. In what might be called a script constructed upon three sermon like scenes. Darnall had a cadence, a musical tone, an ability to be both loving and caring, authoritarian and bellicose that carried me so into a jungle and willingness to drink the Kool-Aid. I could not turn away from how Wetzel constructed her script as she depicts Jones move from a “door-to-door” preacher in the 1950s to a warrior pastor for social justice in the 1960s, to his sense of himself as a God-like presence. 

Billie Krishawn and Jonathan Miot added to the reading’s punch with their call-and-responses to The Reverent Jones. In their roles as Jones’ children, they also give the title its name. Applause to Factory 449 Producing Artistic Director, Rick Hammerly for bringing this work to DC’s attention. If this becomes a full production, do take it in.* It is rated for Mature Audiences. Not suitable for children. Contains violence and explicit language. David Siegel

*Thank You, Dad was commissioned, and staged earlier this year, by Rapid Lemon Productions.

Unknown Penguin: What She Said

Co-written by Patrick Flynn and Michelle Polera
Featuring Michelle Polera as “SHE”
Stage Directions read by Kari Ginsburg
Direction by Patrick Flynn

Full disclosure, I interviewed playwrights Patrick Flynn and Michelle Polera for the Original Cast podcast earlier this month (listen here), so I had read the script of their new play What She Said before seeing it. I knew it was a one-character show about a woman preparing a Ted Talk-style presentation on finding the perfect romantic partner. I knew that the show’s sole character was, shall we say, zealous and unorthodox in her methods for finding love. I knew that on paper, the show was funny and relatable.

Michelle Polera

What I didn’t know was how the script would translate onstage. Polera, an actress who has never written a play before, co-wrote the script with Flynn, an accomplished playwright. She also performed the 60-minute show (Kari Ginsburg read the stage directions) while Flynn (who also directed) controlled the Powerpoint display that turned out to be a delightful supporting character, streaming hilarious dating tips (Cargo pants don’t need to be a deal-breaker) and profiles of men our character (known only as “SHE” in the play) has dated in her quest to find her forever partner.

I can now report that What She Said worked even better on stage than it did on paper. The audience was with Polera every step of the way, ready to join her quixotic quest for the perfect mate, wishing they could take notes on her “adapt, adopt, improve” method, even as it slowly dawned on them that she might not be the fearless leader you would want to follow into the trenches of love. As relatable as it is funny, What She Said had us laughing from start to finish and blushing at the realization that we’ve probably all crossed a line or two in the pursuit of love (you know you’ve googled that cute guy from your office). Someone give this play a production, stat. Nicole Hertvik

Brave Soul Collective: #BlackGayRage

Conceived & Produced by Monte J. Wolfe

In a two-hour anthology of short monologues and two-handers, Monte J. Wolfe  created what was definitely, as he told the Washington Blade, “an emotional roller coaster.” The theme was the rage that comes from “lives lived as the other.” The purpose, as he said in his introduction, was “to unpack what lies beneath our collective rage.”

The cast of ‘#BlackGayRage’ (clockwise, from top right): Monte J. Wolfe, Josette Marina Murray, Michael Saine-Andress, Damión Perkins, Rodderick Sheppard, Reginald Richard.

There were heavy, painfully personal motifs: The murder of transwomen, including by police, in “See Her” (“Black transwomen’s lives matter too!”). The anger of a man attacked by another black man who wants to stand up for himself and be violent back, in “These Hands” (“Who am I when I’m not fighting?”). The struggle of a man who wants to disappear because he does not conform, in “Unpacking.” The self-hatred of a woman derided for her “fat ass” who turns around and derides another’s, in “Aye Yo!” The agony of a man whose longing for intimacy with a man is haunted by the father who did not love him (“Fuck man, what is wrong with me?”), in “Fuck.” The torment of a man on “The Down Low” (“Maybe someday I’ll be gay but not today”). An excruciating howl of hurt against white people, against straight black people, against other gay black men, in “Wishful Thinking.” A deeply wounded young man contemplating falling to his death, in “Put on a Happy Face.” A young gay man in bed alone with a bottle of wine contemplating and craving normality, in “Normal.” A lyrical and fond memory of transwoman, in “Coco’s Song.”

There were also minidramas into which shone the human humor of recognized truth: A married woman seeking advice from her gay male friend because her husband, though straight, wants her to peg him, in “Switch Hit.” Two gay brothers grieving very differently over their lost mother (“We’re gonna get through this together”), in “You Are My Friend.”  A mother who’s comically in denial consulting her gay hairdresser about her son (“My son is not gay!”), in “Let’s Talk Shop.”

Two short works stood out for me. One was a deeply moving monologue, “Nursing an Ally,” a true story told by a woman who, during the 1980s HIV/AIDs crisis, learned from her mother what it means to be an ally. Her mother, a nurse, would faithfully and selflessly visit black gay men with AIDs. Though she never used the word ally, “I was learning from my mother that #LGBTQallyrage is real.”

The other standout, “Revelations,” had the makings of a riveting one-act tragicomedy. It was a confrontation between a homophobic cleric and his lesbian daughter, who is broke and needs a place to stay. Their exchange is bitter and bitingly funny. The mind-boggling revelations about their backstory—including the father’s repression of a gay affair—keep piling on, and the complexity of these characters keeps surprising us in the satisfying way the best plays do. It left me wanting more. —John Stoltenberg

#BlackGayRage was an anthology of the following 16 works by 10 writers, performed by a cast of 6 (see photo above):

Act I

Written & Performed by Michael Sainte-Andress & Monte J Wolfe

“See Her”
Performed by Josette Marina Murray & Damión Perkins
Written by Thembi Duncan
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“These Hands”
Performed by Reginald Richard & Rodderick Sheppard
Written by Anthony Green
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

Written & Performed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Aye Yo!”
Performed by Josette Marina Murray
Written by Red Summer
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

Performed by Rodderick Sheppard
Written by Mario Gray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“The Down Low”
Performed by Reginald Richard

Written by Kevin Carswell
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Switch Hit”
Performed by Damión Perkins & Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Zukeh Freeman
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

Act II

“You Are My Friend”
Performed by Rodderick Sheppard & Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Rodderick Sheppard
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe & Alan Sharpe

“Coco’s Song”
Performed by Damión Perkins
Written by Red Summer
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Let’s Talk Shop”
Performed by Rodderick Sheppard & Josette Marina Murray
Written by Zukeh Freeman
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

Performed by Reginald Richard
Written by Mario Gray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Nursing an Ally”
Written & Performed by Josette Marina Murray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

“Put On Your Happy Face”
Performed by Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Mario Gray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe

Performed by Michael Sainte-Andress & Josette Marina Murray
Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe

“Wishful Thinking”
Written & Performed by Monte J. Wolfe


African-American Collective Theater (ACT): Come To Find Out

Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe

I do not know of another local playwright who is as prolific, polished, and precise in their craft, as attuned to nuances of diverse characters, as quick with a laugh line, as captivating in plotting, as loyal to their community, and as breathtaking in insight as Alan Sharpe. The Center for Black Equity and DC Black Pride named an award after him, and gave it to him, in recognition of his contributions to the LGBT+ community. He has been invited to participate in the 2019 “Playwrights’ Arena” program at Arena Stage. If you have never seen Sharpe’s work, you likely have no idea what you’ve been missing. His compilation of new short plays for this year’s Page to Stage was a terrific introduction—and the reaction from the audience could not have been more exultant. —John Stoltenberg

Neal and Simone, who’ve been together for three years, are getting married and planning to have a baby. But he’s had bro jobs and unprotected sex with a stripper a month ago and Simone finds out. Uh oh.
Clockwise, from top left: Zuke Freeman (Quincy), Erika Jones (Simone), Monte J. Wolfe (Neal), Keanna Faircloth Ursula), Darnell Morris (Mario)

A mini-drama about gay DV. Horny boyfriends Jermaine and Skip get interrupted by a visit from their friend Morris, who has just been beaten again by his boyfriend. Morris goes into their bathroom to sob, then comes out resolved to return home because the man who batters him is the man he loves.
Antwain Cook (Jermaine), Donald Burch II (Morris), Maurice T. Olden (Skip)

“House Special”
Gideon, a sweet coffee shop waiter, is smitten with Gloria, a regular customer who’s trans and has her guard up. Gideon assures her he knows and it’s cool.
Ameirah Neal (Gloria), Justin Greene (Gideon)


“The OTHER One”
At a private school, Marlon and Jeremy are not only both gay but the only black students. So why doesn’t Jeremy want to be friends? The high cost of assimilation.
Jordan Brown (Marlon), Davon Harris (Jeremy)


“Permission Slip”
Jo-d, who is nonbinary, needs their girlfriend Kat to tell their truth to Kat’s mother—who believes Jo-d is a boy—but Kat is reluctant. Kat’s and Jo-d’s mothers visit. A wise and witty vignette about GNC erasure.
Clockwise, from top left: Tyasia Velines (Jo-d),  Abbey Asare-Bediako (Kat), Wilma Lynn Horton (Willette), Josette Marina Murray (Summer)

Set in the back of a dark Greenwich Village bar during Stonewall, an edgy confrontation between a hostile but maybe aroused uniformed Cop and the T-Girl Suspect he may be arresting or harassing or molesting.
Tristan Phillip Hewitt (Cop), Ameirah Neal (Suspect)


“It Is What It Is”
Ron rhapsodizes about being muscled and having hot naked sex with Tyson Beckford. Turns out it’s a dream, and it’s interrupted by his wife (and mother of his kids) who is calling for him from off stage. “I’m coming,” he yells back.
Juan Raheem (Ron)


“Night Train”
An elegiac look back at four Pullman porters in the 1940s, two of whom are retiring…maybe to spend their sunset years together.
Clockwise, from top left: Charles Harris, Jr.(Zeke),  Darrell Evans, Darrell Johnson, August Bullock



Tonic Theater Company: Places

Written by Romy Nordlinger
Directed by Cailin Heffernan.

If you have never heard of Alla Nazimova, don’t blame yourself too much; her heyday as a Broadway and Hollywood star was upwards of a century ago. But as playwright/performer Romy Nordlinger argues forcefully in her multi-media show, Places, her story is as compelling as any you will come across. Rising from an abused childhood in Crimea to join the Moscow Art Theatre company, Nazimova moved to America and quickly took the stage by storm. Once in America, she discovered her Jewish identity was no longer as much of an obstacle. But her lesbianism, especially in the 1920s, soon led to a horrific backlash and played a role in her financial ruin.

The piece attempts to coordinate a live performer (Nordlinger), with period projections and sound on a widescreen upstage. This is an early-days effort, and could be further tightened in terms of writing and visuals, but it has already gotten the attention of film preservators who are working to save Nazimova’s film legacy; if you get word of a double-bill of classic silent movies and Places, check it out. 

The material is at its strongest when we see Nazimova’s painful autobiography of rags-to-riches-to-rags, but there is also a wealth of material to be mined as she talks about her artistic triumphs.  For my money, I’d love to hear more about her work as a stage and film director – actors we see all the time, but to hear a woman of the Silent era talk about her vision for cinema would be breathtaking. —Andrew Walker White


The Washington Rogues: Reasons for Leaving

Cast and Creative Team:
Jennifer Lane, Playwright
Ryan S. Taylor, Director/Producer
Lisa K. Blythe, Stage Manager
Emily Crockett, June
Fabiolla da Silva, Miranda
Derek Hills, Benjamin
Kayode Kendall, Uncle Agony
Nina Marti, Rowan
Diana Cameron McQueen, Aunt Agony
Faith Potts, Virginia

Juniper was 16 when she found herself pregnant. At her mom’s insistence, she kept the baby, married boyfriend Ben, and settled for life in the bleak Arizona trailer park where she had grown up. Fast-forward 16 years and Juniper is a divorced single mom. Her baby is now a sixteen-year-old girl named Rowan who is…pregnant.

Jennifer Lane’s Reasons for Leaving is a straightforward story of a family dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. The play gets a quirky twist in the form of a radio show that Juniper listens to day after day.  Ask Aunt Agony Show is the radio equivalent of an advice column. The two DJs read letters from listeners and—this is the quirky part—speak directly to Juniper through the radio.

Director Ryan S. Taylor (Washington Rogues’ founding artistic director) shared with the audience that this was the first-ever reading of this work-in-progress. The strongest elements of the script were the beautiful letters that Juniper and another character composed for The Ask Aunt Agony Show. Indeed, it would be fun to see Juniper interact with these radio “psychologists” even more. As an ensemble, the characters—there were seven of them—were all very human and relatable in their struggles.

However, as the show progressed, I was unclear whose story was being told. Whose emotional arc was I meant to be connecting with? Although Rowan is the teen facing the difficult decision in this show, I think it’s really Juniper’s story. Making that clear from the beginning would tighten the emotional impact of this show and give us a hero to root for as we watch the family struggle with the messy business of life. —Nicole Hertvik


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