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

An appetizer of new works-in-progress from Young Playwrights' Theater, The Rose Theatre Co., MetroStage, Huemanati Artist Collective, Briar Road Productions, One Off Productions, Company Lambe-Lambe, Mosaic Theater Company of DC, and Rainbow Theatre Project.

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 Monday, September 2. (For our reports on Page to Stage Saturday, August 31, 2019 click here.)

Young Playwrights’ Theater: No Hood Story

Written by Tyrese Rowe
Directed by Farah Lawal Harris

Lawrence: Justin Weaks
Maurice / Peter: Jay Sun
Boy/Greg / Mr. Rivers: Louis E. Davis
Woman / Geneva / Naima: Heather Gibson

Tyrese Rowe’s No Hood Story is a stirringly poetic and personal coming-age-story about a young writer named Lawrence. He’s a captivating character, and we get to know as a sensitive child and through his teens finally as a university student owning his authentic voice. Playwright Rowe is a sophomore at UDC, and his is the second full-length play to be developed for production by YPT—the first was Josie Walyus’s touching family-and-friends drama Three Cheers to Grace. No Hood Play is slated to be staged at Anacostia Playhouse in April directed by Eric Ruffin. A 90-minute workshop reading Labor Day morning gave a very promising preview.

Pictured: Playwright Tyrese Rowe.

No Hood Story is largely autobiographical, said the author during the talkback; and one can sense his genuine immersion in the text at every turn. The part of Lawrence was read by Justin Weaks with an emotional acumen preternaturally commensurate with Rowe’s words. For much of the play, Lawrence addresses the audience directly. He has many long monologues interspersed with brief scenes with supporting characters in Lawrence’s life (among them his beloved grandmother Geneva, his older brother Maurice, his older cousin Greg, his writing teacher and revered mentor Mr. Rivers, his love interest Naima). Many of these characters have long speeches to the audience as well.

Heather Gibson, Justin Weaks, Jay Sun, and Louis E. Davis reading ‘No Hood Play’ in The Kennedy Center Family Theater.

Dramaturgically, this is a nervy choice: It means that the main character’s through-line action is mostly narrated first-person by the main character. So our connection to the play depends almost entirely on our connection to Lawrence. As the workshop reading suggested, the reason that’s likely to work in full production is that the language Rowe has given his characters is so astonishingly beautiful and compelling. There’s really no way to convey what it is that Rowe has accomplished here but to quote a passage at length.

Lawrence: I was born July 3rd, but the next day was no Independence Day for me. Same way it wasn’t for the slaves working in the field.The day I claimed freedom was the day I understood our communities do not define me and understood my responsibility to define it. Too many seek to portray themselves through the image society paints. I rely on my instinct. Not the words of others who know nothing of what I carry. The eyes are crafted from experience. Look at the person next to you. I want you to stare at that person’s skin and ask yourself, “What is beauty?” Now look inside of his or her eyes. If you can hold it long enough, you’ll see that you truly know nothing of what that person carries, which is why we are incapable of comprehending love. We all see it differently. The first step to loving another is to understand why that person carries what they do so dearly. How do I know? I was forced my entire life to study neighborhoods and the people in it, to escape the accusations society accuses me of. For the other side doesn’t care to study us. But they don’t hold power—I do. I write, and my teacher, Mr. Rivers taught me, “the job of a writer is to make the terrible beautiful, so that the terror falls away and the beauty is a light in the darkness.” He also taught me that, “the goal of all art is freedom.” Not the image society displays. All you have to do is learn to trust your gut. I once wished that I could escape the fact that I was a failure, until I discovered I exist within a failed system. I learned to overcome shame by embracing that failure, asserting independence, and claiming freedom. However, I am no accomplished man unless I help others recognize what I have.

Hearing Rowe’s long speeches is like listening to pearls of wisdom that seem to have come unstrung but somehow follow and flow propelled by a passionate heart.

Besides Lawrence growing older in successive scenes, there isn’t much “engine” to the play. One thing happens after another, and there’s no apparent ongoing conflict or obstacle or problem to be resolved. Except that there is, and it’s subtle. Early on Lawrence relates an incident that touches him and haunts him. A mysterious middle-aged woman approached him on the street, placed her hand on his forehead, and said to him: “The gods have blessed you.”

Is that true? Could that be true? The quest of this gifted young writer to find out—and to find the light inside him—becomes a profound meditation on the meaning of life. —John Stoltenberg

There will be a free staged reading of No Hood Story (retitled Rewrite) at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Sydney Harman Hall Thursday, November 14, at 6:30 pm. Tickets are available online. A full production will run at Anacostia Playhouse April 9 to 30, 2020. Tickets will be on sale in the fall.

The Rose Theatre Co.: The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

It was a stylish, handsome way to be whisked away from current events as a companion with Agatha Christie’s whip-smart Inspector Hercule Poirot. How? Well at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival with The Rose Theatre Company and Leslie Kobylinksi’s charming, finely-tuned, radio-style adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1923 best-seller The Murder on the Links.

Vocal artist Christopher Lane

Paring down the many original characters to perhaps a dozen or so, Then in a tasting of a full production to come, Kobylinski directed well-known vocal artist and Helen Hayes award-winner Christopher Lane in a one-actor gala. Lane was an entertaining blast, a delicious imaginative storyteller taking on the Christie detective caper about greed and death on a golf course. Throughout the one hour reading, his voice made each character come alive with a distinct personality. Whether the dignified Poirot or his talkative companion Arthur Hastings, whether a mysterious man with a past named Paul Renauld or a gaggle of snippy French speakers, plus a number of “I know nothing” anxious or skittish female and male servants, or a wife perhaps under suspicion of murder or a cryptic “other” women, Lane gave the audience an enjoyable lesson in using inflection, accents, expressive head movements, and other dramatic touches to give a clear sense of each character. Did he lay out who did it and why? Nope, I will not give that away.

A free, full-cast concert-style reading of The Murder on the Links will be produced on October 22 at the Arts Club of Washington and October 23 at 1st Stage in Tysons. At the Page-to-Stage event, Kobylinksi announced that The Rose Theatre Company aims to provide audiences with new experiences when its new season opens. The company will be developing podcasts for its readings as well as pop culture in general. —David Siegel

MetroStage: Cousin Bella, the Whore of Minsk

Rick Foucheux as Sherman
Adrienne Nelson as Bella

Adapted by Carolyn Griffin from Cousin Bella: the Whore of Minsk by Sherman Yellen
Directed by Carolyn Griffin
Stage Manager: Josh Stout 

The Kennedy Center’s Russian Lounge was packed—with a line snaking all the way down to the Millennium Stage—when Cousin Bella, the Whore of Minsk had its first public airing at the Page to Stage Festival last weekend.

The show, based on Broadway lyricist Sherman Yellen’s memoir of his immigrant cousin-once-removed, was as good as the word-of-mouth had predicted. 

The story of Cousin Bella’s adventures, both hair-raising and hilarious, was brought to glorious life by two veterans of the stage, multiple Helen Hayes Award winner Rick Foucheux and Adrienne Nelson, a performer known for her Russian dialect and the eloquence of her shrugs. 

Cousin Bella, in fact, is so funny—and so full of wildly improbable twists and turns—that it’s hard to believe it isn’t fiction. Yet the author, now 87, says he checked out chapter and verse.   

“If Bella’s story reads like a melodrama,” he wrote, that’s because “melodrama was the way of life for many of the East European Jews.”  

Bella’s story begins when she is 15, living just outside Minsk in the late 1880s in Czarist Russia. When her father dies, her stepmother—who is as mean and wicked as most stepmothers were in 19th-century tales—sells her to the local Jewish brothel. 

“You’re so ugly,” she says, to justify the sale. “Your mother died at the sight of you.”

At the whorehouse, Bella is given a new name—Svetlana—and a red wig to make it more convincing. Happily, she is soon rescued by her father’s sister, Aunt Sarah, who storms into the brothel, knocks over all the expensive chotchkes, and threatens to set fire to the house of prostitution and incinerate all inside it if Bella is not immediately released.

The threat works, and Bella is quickly returned to her family, where a place is found for her in her uncle’s upholstery shop. 

(Both the stepmother and the madam, by strange coincidence, die ultimately in fires, presumably set by the ghost of Bella’s father.) 

Bella soon meets Max, her husband-to-be, in the upholstery shop, and they join the flood of immigrants flowing into America. They settle on the Lower East Side, run a furniture business, and take in boarders.

And that’s where the real trouble begins. In America, Bella embarks on a life that is filled with blessings and misfortunes, much like those that filled the stages of the Yiddish theaters that dotted the Lower East Side at the time. But Bella doesn’t weep. She acts.

In The Kennedy Center Russian Lounge: Rick Foucheux as Sherman and Adrienne Nelson as Bella in ‘Cousin Bella, the Whore of Minsk.’

Faced with calamities that might have daunted Job, she deals with the problems that arise, such as kidnapping, forgery and incest. She creates birth and death certificates and buys a gravestone in order to dispose of a child who is not actually dead. 

Despite all of this, she survives. And she lives to tell the tale, at age 80, to her fairly skeptical  40-year-old cousin, whose musical, The Rothschilds, is a hit on Broadway.  

As Yellen points out, in the book and in the play, no one profited from her misdeeds, nor was anyone really harmed. 

In the discussion following the show, someone in the audience remarked that Cousin Bella—as harrowing as it is—is a reminder that all immigrants lead difficult lives. “This is the story of all newcomers, including those today,” the speaker added. 

Cousin Bella is clearly a winner and ready for a full-scale production. Unfortunately, its producer, Metro Stage, is currently—though temporarily—homeless. 

The company, founded by Carolyn Griffin 35 years ago, has lost its site to a developer. And although it will be moving into a new theatre nearby in a few years, right now it’s on the loose. 

Maybe Theater J, or Sixth and I, will offer this wandering show a stage of its own. Who knows? My fingers are crossed. —Ravelle Brickman


Huemanati Artist Collective: Day Dream

Written and directed by Barry Moton

The Huemanati Artist Collective, devoted to celebrating the lives and achievements of black same-gender-loving men, hit an especially sweet and poignant spot with their show dedicated to the life and works of Billy Strayhorn. Inspired by David Hadju’s biography of Strayhorn, Lush Life, Barry Moton collaborated with an impressive squad of artists and musicians to bring this complex, immensely talented artist to life. Day Dream has tremendous promise as a musical for future production.

Strayhorn is remembered for being Duke Ellington’s chief collaborator during the latter’s heyday as a bandleader; from his hard-scrabble Pittsburgh roots, Strayhorn built an impressive portfolio of major hits, “Take the A Train” being perhaps one of the most memorable (and, as this show makes clear, nearly left in the circular file). Moton weaves snatches from his childhood, through his early forays in the New York music scene, to his relationship with his longtime lover. As the scenes shift back and forth in time, we also find a young man today, working in a senior facility but with musical talents of his own, who enters a competition held in Strayhorn’s honor. The ensemble, and the playwright, did the composer proud. —Andrew Walker White

Briar Road Productions: Conference Room A

One of the splendid features of the annual Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage festival is its openness to presenting new voices, emerging playwrights, and smaller-in-budget theater companies to a wider public. Briar Road Productions is a newly formed company with a mission “to develop new work that is all at once honest, transformative and magical.” The theater company also aims to present classic works that have been reset with “thoughtful non-traditional casting.”

Briar Road made its presence known with a reading of Conference Room A written and directed by Jennifer Williams. Conference Room A was an intriguing drama-fantasy. It was about a mom named Max (Pooja Chawla) who passes away 30 years after her teenage daughter (Yvonne Paretsky) committed suicide. In their afterlife, the two are brought together by Ari, a Heavenly guide (Cristen Stephansky). Then the hard work begins. The two openly and honestly discuss their lives, their trials and tribulations, their joys and tough times. With support from Ari, the two must decide what next on their journey in the afterlife. Playwright Williams provided a slipperiness as the play moved to its conclusion that added a nice complexity for the audience to ponder.

The Conference Room A cast also included Bryanda Minix as another Heavenly advisor with Micah Power providing stage directions. The cast provided a fine reading about difficult topics such as suicide, abuse, and the aftereffects of personal choices made. The Conference Room A reading was 30 minutes. It was recommended for Adults Only.  —David Siegel

One Off Productions: Company K

Written by Lisa Hodsoll, adapted from the novel by William March
Directed by Lisa Hodsoll

With the release of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary, They Shall Never Grow Old, 2018 was a year to reflect on the centenary of the end of what was once called (in a fit of epic naïveté) “The War to End All Wars.” What has burned this conflict, and all its senseless slaughter, into our consciousness, is the eloquence with which its soldiers documented its horrors, in minute detail. William March’s 1933 novel, Company K, remains one of the most highly regarded works inspired by the conflict.

Lisa Hodsoll has skillfully adapted March’s novel for the stage, with dialogue that is as sharp as it is (often) laconic. It begins raunchily enough with the cast singing a notorious song about the brothels behind the lines, “Mademoiselle d’Armentieres,” (how she managed to find a verse that wasn’t complete filth is beyond me). Then, one by one, the soldiers come forward with their memories of service in the trenches. The descriptions are gut-wrenching, made all the more so by the fact that these are young men—too young.  The assembled cast was more than up to the task of representing these men and their challenges, and there should be a venue for important plays like this. We must never forget. —Andrew Walker White

Company Lambe-Lambe: Son Títre

Written and directed by Cecilia Cackley and Francizco Benavides

One of the gems of this year’s Page-to-Stage festival was found housed in a pair of small, colorful, papier-maché boxes in the Hall of Nations, where brief vignettes were performed, to musical accompaniment, viewed only through a peep-hole no bigger than a quarter.

This form of miniature theatre, Caja Lambe-Lambe, has become popular throughout Brazil and Latin America, and Cecilia Cackley and Francizco Benavides of Company Lambe-Lambe brought this rare and beautiful art form to Washington for an afternoon of performances.

The cast of ‘Son Titere’: Francisco Benavides, Sandra Tapia, Nicole Magliari, Cecilia Cackley.

The experience is fascinating, all the more so because it is a completely different mode of viewing; you have to squint to look through a tiny hole—forget the peripherals, this is an intimate, one-on-one spectacle. And the fact that you’re focusing so intently changes the nature of what you see in curious ways. Caja Lambe-Lambe is the kind of thing you can set up anywhere on the street, at the Metro, but it also requires a deft artist’s touch and a reverence for this minuscule medium. The results can be mind-blowing, so the next time you see a box with a puppeteer, take three to four minutes out of your day to sit down and watch, while the music plays on your headphones, as a little world unfolds itself. —Andrew Walker White

Mosaic Theater Company of DC: Inherit the Windbag

Written by Alexandra Petri
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
Stage managed by Ro Harris

John Lescault as William F. Buckley Jr.
Paul Morella as Gore Vidal
Stephen Kime as Howard Demon, Truman Capote, Bobby Kennedy, and others
Chinna Palmer as Pat Demon, Ayn Rand, and Gore Vidal’s mother
David Byron Jackson and Tamieka Chavis as narrators and bystanders

Like many of the productions at Page to Stage, Alexandra Petri’s script for Inherit the Windbag is a work-in-progress. The play—based on a season of debates between William F. Buckley Jr., a conservative of rare eloquence, and Gore Vidal, a wickedly incisive liberal—had its first public airing last weekend.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal

Insults were the order of the day as John Lescault—playing the suave Buckley—battled Paul Morella, a wickedly sardonic Vidal. A packed audience followed the verbal volleys as the two fought a pitched battle in a place that appeared to be hell but that could also have been the Richard Nixon Library.

Petri—who is an accomplished playwright, humorist, and Washington Post columnist—culled the dialog from the well-known political debates conducted in the summer of 1968.

Some of the liveliest ripostes had to do with things like peanut butter, harpsichords, and the Kinsey Report on Human Sexuality. Ronald Reagan was referred to as a “sick elephant”—or sycophant—while Buckley was branded (by Vidal) as “the Marie Antoinette of the Republican Party.” Both pronounced the word “nuclear” correctly.

On a more serious level, the two protagonists argued the merits of open housing, the right to assemble, war in Vietnam, and homosexuality.

Stephen Kime and Chinna Palmer both played a number of bit parts, changing hats—literally—to shift from Bobby Kennedy to Truman Capote and from Ayn Rand to Vidal’s alcoholic mother.

Inherit the Windbag is scheduled for production at Mosaic Theater in March of 2020. —Ravelle Brickman

Rainbow Theatre Project: Blue Camp

Written by Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna
Directed by Christoper Janson

Cast (with excerpts from character breakdown):
Reginald Richard: THEUS McCUTCHEN (Straight solder accused of murder)
Moses Bossenbroek: BILLY WHEELER (Fierce and flamboyant gay soldier and drag entertainer)
Rocky Nunzio: BARRY HOWARD (Straight soldier who frequently goes AWOL)
Daniel Riker: ARNOLD MALLOY (New Yorker, expert on gays in art and literature)
Jared Swain: JANTZEN HILL (Outed by an informant, passion for cars and men)
Ivan Carlo: ALVIN BAILEY (Straight solder with passion for stealing cars)
Lansing O’Leary: GARY PETERSON (Raised fundamentalist Christian, confused about his sexuality)
Jared Graham:  SERGEANT SWANGER (Ambitious, in charge of soldiers being processed out)
Noah Beye:  STEVE DUGGER (Alcoholic corporal, up for trying things)
Craig Houk: COLONEL (Crusty WWII vet, anxious for a Vietnam ground war)

Blue Camp takes us back to 1964, just as LBJ was ordering American ground troops into Vietnam. Based approximately on history, the play is set at an Army camp where soldiers are awaiting disciplinary action: there’s a “blue” barracks for homosexuals and a “green” barracks for criminals.

Playwrights Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna have created a vivid cast of characters, crafted crackling comic dialog, and told a fascinating story. The two-hour-with-intermission reading Monday was a tantalizing preview of the show’s full production in the fall.

It must be said that there is enough sexual-innuendo humor and fabulousness in Blue Camp to earn the adjective blue and the noun camp with distinction. Especially at the beginning, the jokey banter among the gay characters and their wicked rejoinders to the straight characters’ taunts played like a queer comedy in camo.

But the authors were clearly up to something far more substantial, and ultimately quite moving. It takes hold as we learn characters’ backstories, what they’re in for and why, and what punitive consequences they face. It unfolds in entertaining incidents such as Billy’s performance in drag at the officers club, and the green and blue teams’ face-off in a baseball game (both true stories). And the momentum builds with inter-scene news-flash announcements that track the Tonkin Bay attack and subsequent escalations in the administration’s warmongering. The mounting far-off military calamity and the intimate character storylines in Blue Camp intersect at the end with a lump in the throat and a punch in the gut. —John Stoltenberg

Blue Camp will play October 31 to November 24, 2019, in the Thurgood Marshall Gallery at Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 555 Water Street SW, Washington, DC 20024.


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