Monday, March 9, 2020

ASF: "Ruby: The Story of Ruby Bridges"

Teaching moment for today: "Racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it." --Ruby Bridges

In 1960, the then unwitting six-year-old Ruby Bridges was thrust into the international limelight when she was the first African American to integrate a public school in New Orleans -- an experience that prompted her to become a Civil Rights activist, a role she continues to today.

Her story is being staged at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in playwright Christina Ham's Ruby: the Story of Ruby Bridges, a one-hour re-telling of those early days of the Cicil Rights Movement in which Ruby -- bewildered by the attention she received and the import of her celebrity  -- comes to grips with the significance of her actions.

Narrated and performed by Younger Ruby [Camryn Dillard] and Older Ruby [Faith Gatson], who offer differing perspectives on these events, they are complemented by Ruby's mother Lucille [Lasherekia Hampton], whose faith in God gives her the stamina to continue to support and guide her daughter through the labyrinth of racial onslaught, while holding her family together when they are impacted by Ruby's admittance into a white school.

Taunted incessantly, and  famously escorted by U. S. Marshalls every day for a year, she doesn't understand the vicious slurs, and is emotionally shattered when she realizes that it is all because of the color of her skin. -- All she wanted was to learn, and to play jacks and jump rope with her white peers in a new school.

Mrs. Barbara Henry [Adrian Lee Borden] is the only white teacher who agreed to teach the child, at first in an isolated classroom with no opportunity to mix with white children, and it is she who provides compassionate care of her young charge and offers guidance when she tells Ruby that "it takes time to heal a lot of things" and that "differences make us unique but not better or worse than others."

Director Sarah Walker Thornton guides her principal actors and a large ensemble of Montgomery school students through Ms. Ham's episodic script that is infused with a lot of singing and dancing, exhibiting the strong singing voices of the principals [the Musical Director is Darrian Stovall] and the dexterity of their dancing choreographed by Lindsay Renea Benton. -- This is a talented group whose words are sometimes obscured by their energetic stage movement, screaming epithets, and loud musical accompaniment.

Regardless, the messages of Ruby come through loud and clear for today's youth and adults. Though laws initiated integrated schools, and the play ends on a hopeful note, it is still abundantly clear that too many among us hold on to their prejudices against "otherness" of any sort, and spew racial hatred that teaches young Americans that these beliefs and behaviors are acceptable.

Ms. Ham's main teaching moment is to pay attention, and teach our children that such behavior is intolerable.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

ASF: "Alabama Story"

Seven years after it debuted as a staged reading in the "Southern Writers Project", Kenneth Jones's provocative Alabama Story has -- at last -- come home to the Octagon Theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in a smart-often humorous-insightful-serious-and ultimately hopeful production directed by ASF's Artistic Director, Rick Dildine. -- The play has had successful runs at regional theatres around the country, though judging by audience responses to the opening night's performance, it is back at home where it belongs.

Based on factual events in 1959 Montgomery, AL when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining strength, the plot revolves around a self-proclaimed nomadic librarian Emily Wheelock Reed [Greta Lambert], whose choice of ordering a children's book in which a Black and a White rabbit get married, provokes the thinly disguised bigotry of Senator Higgins [Christopher Gerson], and his insistence that the book's content does not conform to "our conservative Christian values" (sound familiar?), and does everything in his power to get Ms. Reed to comply with his wish to ban the book, or else. -- It was a very public national cause celebre in its time, but a reluctant Ms. Reed becomes more than a match for him; her adversarial strength supported by logic, facts, a passion for books and "the free flow of information", and a respect for other cultures and differences of opinion. She is aided by Montgomery native Thomas Franklin [Billy Hutto], a library employee who becomes her advisor and protector. [Would that today we all had such a man to speak the language of the local patriarchy in their own terms].

The events are narrated by Garth Williams [Alan Knoll, who also plays a number of other characters in the play]; he is the "author" of the book, who insinuates himself into the action and punctuates it with humor and sardonic remarks about the prejudices of the Old South mentality seen in the Senator and in the devastatingly intimate subplot involving an entitled white woman Lily Whitfield [Madeleine Lambert] and her childhood African-American friend Joshua Moore [Terrell Donnell Sledge], whose chance meeting in 1959 builds throughout the play as a demonstration of the selective memory of her class regarding prejudice in her family against the boy she dared to like at a time when her affection for him  resulted in violence and lasting harm to him and his family.

Under Mr. Dildine's sensitive direction, the six-member ensemble demonstrate what is best in theatre: full commitment to naturalistic storytelling and character development, and unflinching support for one another in scenes that test one's tolerance of hateful behavior. -- Mr. Knoll makes each of his characters distinct, and infuses each with humor and comfort. Mr. Hutto's unassuming demeanor disguises his character's fortitude in doing what is right and against the odds. Ms. Madeline Lambert and Mr. Sledge are a fine counterpoint to the main plot, and create some breathtakingly tragic tropes of misunderstanding that are quietly devastating. Mr. Gerson's Senator is a character we love to hate, and when matched with Ms. Greta Lambert, each one's in-the-moment discovery of the other's flaws surprises us with their clarity. -- Ms. Greta Lambert disappears into her character with apparent ease that makes her every gesture, every subtle tilt of the head, every bit of timing seem effortless and true...another master class in acting that transports us all.

The themes of Jones's script resonate all too strongly in 2020. Despite advancements in addressing racial prejudices and inequalities in America, the evidence blaring from both traditional and social media makes it abundantly clear that people with loud and persistent voices spewing hate, suspicion, and intolerance of anyone perceived as "other" are paving the way to regressive policies. -- We need such plays as Alabama Story to make us think again about the direction we are heading.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Millbrook: "Always a Bridesmaid"

Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten have a virtual cottage industry of comedies they've co-written about eccentric Southern women and their exploits that challenge long-term friendships; one of them -- Always a Bridesmaid -- is now at Millbrook, directed by Stephanie McGuire, who clearly understands the mischief the characters get into.

The premise is simple: four "women of a certain age" when we meet them had long ago promised one another when none of them had prom dates, to be in all their wedding parties "no matter what" -- and that's a big test, since much has changed in the intervening years.

A young bride Kari [Hannah Moore], getting progressively more tipsy from champagne, narrates the story of her Mother's and Godmothers' fulfilling their promise. -- In several flashbacks, her Mother Libby Ruth [Tracy Quates], along with the frequently-married Monette [Donna Young], salt-of-the-earth Charlie [Carol Majors], and successful lawyer Deedra [Karla McGhee], don a series of outrageous bridesmaid dresses as they meet every few years at weddings fraught with misunderstandings, arguments, physical injuries, ex-husbands, reluctant lovers, and shifting allegiances, all under the watchful eye of Sedalia [Vicki Moses], the proprietress of a wedding venue called Laurelton Oaks.

This solid ensemble of veteran actresses render each of their character's stereotypical oddities with a comic conviction that delighted the opening night audience. -- And yes, we know these women; they're our neighbors, friends, and even family!

There were a few opening night jitters that impacted the timing of the script's often witty dialogue, but once they settle in, this should disappear. -- And the message comes through loud and clear when they re-affirm at Kari's wedding that a long-lasting friendship is one of the most important things to treasure.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Theatre AUM: "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

Before he came into prominence with award-winning productions of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj, playwright Rajiv Joseph had penned a lesser-known two-hander. Another unexpected treat from Theatre AUM, Gruesome Playground Injuries runs a little over an hour, but delves deeply into the lives of two damaged people whose co-dependency goes unrecognized.

Director Val Winkelman stages the play on an open area minimalist set by Emily Aveldanez, with evocative lighting by Cheyenne Singleton, and choreographs her "deck crew" [Ashley Allen and Tabitha Neyerlin] to shift the simple furniture pieces and assist the actors as they change into Faith Roberts's effective costumes in full view of the audience, thus serving as visual stimuli to what to expect in each successive scene.

Over the course of some thirty years, from age 8 to 38, and told backwards and forwards in time, Kayleen [Jacquelyn Vaughn] and Doug [Josh Williams] sidestep every chance they have of meaningful contact. -- Oh, they talk and argue a lot, and curse a lot, and accuse one another of not caring, dismiss many regrettable choices they have made, and reject physical and emotional intimacy, yet somehow these two actors make audiences care about them and their fraught relationship. Ms. Vaughn and Mr. Williams have a comfortable stage chemistry; as they adjust their voices and postures to accommodate the age differences per scene, they carry us along their calamitous journey.

When we first meet them at age eight, it is clear they they are already damaged goods: Kayleen complains of stomach ache, and Doug has just ridden his bicycle off a roof. Curious whether their injuries hurt, and admitting it does "a little", this becomes a constant refrain, though it often refers to emotional or psychological pain rather than the series of accidental or self-inflicted injuries each one experiences. -- Kayleen "cuts" herself, and the risk-taking Doug is responsible for several and sometimes life-threatening accidents.

They come into each other's lives infrequently over the years, but seem to always know about one another. So they show up unexpectedly, only to be confronted with accusations of not caring.

The gap between them grows so wide that in the last scene they talk to each other across the expanse of the playing area, neither one of them capable of crossing the void they have created. -- And audiences are challenged to re-valuate how we see ourselves in relation to others, to recognize that damage is not always visible, and that compassion and honesty towards people in need can go a long way to make relationships meaningful.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time"

To inaugurate their 9th Season -- "Seeing Through Different Eyes" --  the Cloverdale Playhouse has chosen the multi-award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a remarkable stage adaptation by Simon Stephens of Mark Hadddon's novel. Opening night sold out performance of this not to be missed production provided ample evidence of the increasingly high quality productions at the Playhouse.

Staged as a kind of play-within-a-play, The Curious Incident...  is narrated by Siobhan [Kacey Walton], a teacher/mentor using the voice of the central character Christopher Boone [Piper Doyle], a self-described "mathematician with some behavioral difficulties" [read: Asperger's, high functioning autism, etc.]; he comes from a broken home, always tells the truth, can't abide being touched, does not comprehend metaphors, has few if any social skills, counts using prime numbers, and goes nowhere without adult supervision.

The play invites audiences to "see the world as Christopher does" when he discovers a neighbor's dog killed with a pitchfork and determines to investigate on his own to find the culprit.  -- As Christopher puzzles his way, he also unearths many secrets in his family and neighborhood, learns how to maneuver in the larger world around him, is taught that one's actions have consequences, and realizes that love is often made meaningful through sacrifices and compromise.

Mr. Stephens's script shows how incomprehensible Christopher is to many people. The  solid performances by ensemble actors playing multiple roles: strangers who find him intriguing or frightening keep their distance, neighbors try to help but don't know how, and parents [Christopher Roquemore and Sarah Worley] whose frustrations with each other and with him cause outbursts that threaten their well-being -- all challenge audiences to put themselves in their places: to "see through different eyes".

Ms. Doyle carries the show on her most capable shoulders; she is hardly ever off-stage, and is the center of virtually all the action. Her commitment never falters; her mannerisms and vocal interpretations adeptly reflect Christopher's psychological condition; her generosity with actors she shares the stage with is admirable. It is a mesmerizing and professionally nuanced performance that signals future success in theatre.

Yet, the Playhouse production would not be as successful as it is without another "star": the brilliant design elements that reflect Christopher's state of mind and manipulate every moment. -- Director-technical director-set designer J. Scott Grinstead, along with lighting by Mike Winkelman, sound by James Treadway, and videos and projections by a team including Clyde Hancock, Christopher Roquemore, and Kodi Robertson, collaborate on the sophisticated production elements that dazzle the eye and ear as they punctuate the action with ever-increasing inventiveness and intensity, and let us "see more clearly through different eyes". This is theatricality at its best, a seamlessly integral component of a challenging play.

There are minor articulation issues and inconsistent English dialects, and actors sometimes step out of the light so their faces are obscured, but these should be remedied as the company settles into the run of the show.

Laudably, the Playhouse has connected with "Easterseals" to advocate for education and intervention for people in need of autism services, and with the "Montgomery Humane Society" [there is an adoptable live puppy on-stage for each performance].

With its mixture of humor and pathos, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time challenges all of us to "see through different eyes".

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

ASF Acting Fellows: "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank"

A common thread resonates among the offerings at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival this season: warnings of the danger of history repeating itself if we ignore our past errors can be found throughout -- in Pipeline [common school to prison pipeline for too many African American youth]; in All is Calm [the irony of the "war to end all wars"]; in The Agitators [unequal rights for women and Blacks]; and now in And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank [a powerful one-hour exploration of the Holocaust: the dehumanizing and slaughter of millions of Jews] -- each one a call-to-action with a collective willingness to stamp out bigotry and work for equal justice.

A post-show forum after Sunday afternoon's performance [one of only two public performances] pointed out the appalling truth that there are countless Americans ignorant of the facts about the Holocaust, as well as far too many Holocaust-deniers. So, a question posed at the beginning of the play regarding the Holocaust -- "That could never happen again, could it?" -- is an ominous projection to our own times. In polarized times such as ours, it is disheartening to see so many examples of anti-Semitism and attacks on synagogues that have forced Jewish congregations to enhance security with armed guards to protect them during services.

Played by the ASF Acting Fellows Company on the Festival Stage, this multi-media production by James Still features filmed interviews with Holocaust-survivors Eva Schloss and Ed Silverberg projected onto television screens while the acting company portray them and others from 1938-1945 in episodes that track the plight of European Jews from the rise of Naziism, to the carnage in the concentration camps, to the aftermath following the Russians' liberation of Auschwitz.

We hear a lot about Nazi butchery from the stage, though Mr. Still is more intent on highlighting the impact on Jewish people before and after their time in concentration camps. -- The eight member acting ensemble go beyond the documentary approach of the script to infuse their characters with a sincerity and commitment  that garner audience sympathy at the horrors inflicted upon them.

Teenaged Anne Frank's Diary is one of the most famous depictions of the conditions facing Jews during World War II. Published by her father in 1947, and made into a play in 1955 and a film in 1959, her often quoted assessment of human nature -- "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart" -- sets a standard we ought to achieve. People are "carefully taught", and whether it is to be divisive and mistrustful of anyone perceived to be "other", or to be willing to be inclusive and welcoming, our own history should point the way to actively resolving differences.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Wetumpka Depot: "Big River"

Despite Mark Twain's pronouncement hat there are no moral lessons in Huckleberry Finn, one would be hard-pressed not to discover them in Big River, Roger Miller's and William Hauptman's rousing and award-winning musical adaptation of his seminal work now playing at the Wetumpka Depot.

To start the Depot's 40th Anniversary Season,  director Kristy Meanor, matched with masterful musical direction by Randy Foster, gives audiences a lot of lessons to consider, both as reflections of pre-Civil War America, and commentaries on the racial prejudices evident at many levels of society in 2020.

Well-known from Twain's novel, the crux of the relationship between an adolescent white boy Huck [Chase McMichen] and a runaway slave Jim [Tony Davison] is expressed in the sensitive duet  "Worlds Apart" where they show how people view the world through two distinct lenses, each one yearning for freedom: Jim from the bonds of slavery, and Huck from the constraints of the Widow Douglas [Cheryl Jones] and Miss Watson [Kim Mason] who want to civilize him with education and the Bible. -- The on-stage chemistry between Mr. McMichen and Mr. Davison is so very truthful, no doubt due in part to their many years sharing the stage at Faulkner University, so audiences are quickly caught up in their characters' lives.

During their many escapades on the Mississippi River, their bond is tested by outside sources and by Huck's dilemma: his natural goodness challenged to overcome society's dictates regarding slavery. Jim has become a surrogate father, his honorable qualities a direct contrast to Huck's persistently drunk and abusive Pap [Scott Page], causing the boy to re-think the teachings of virtually all his authority figures.

Though they try hard to avoid conflicts with bounty hunters, they do meet up with two comical snake-oil con-men who pretend to be a King [Hunter Smith] and a Duke [Jeff Langham], and try to bilk them of Huck's inheritance and "found money".

Further complications arise from Tom Sawyer [Mr. Smith again], whose naively unrepentant exaggerated schemes for adventure jeopardize Jim's life. -- And the hint of a possible youthful romance occurs when Huck restores an inheritance to Mary Jane Wilkes [Stanton Yarboroughs].

Twain's story is enhanced by the musical score of Big River, a compilation of a variety of musical genres, from novelty numbers ["The Royal Nonesuch" and "Hand for the Hog"], to energetic group songs ["The Boys" and "Arkansas"], to spirituals ["The Crossing" and "Free at Last" -- with heart-rendering vocals by Tara Fenn and Taylor Finch], to laments ["You Oughta be Here with Me" and "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go"], to Pap's drunken tirade against the "Guv'ment" [a tour de force by Mr. Page that ensures his brief stage time will be remembered, both for his delivery and for the similar complaints so many people have today].

The ensemble cast have significant vocal talents, and follow Mr. Foster's interpretations to enhance the plot and their individual characters. -- And the focus of most of the score is left to the expressive, sensitive, and high-quality singing of Mr. McMichen and Mr. Davison: "River in the Rain", "Muddy Waters", and the aforementioned "Worlds Apart" are highlights both of their abilities as singers and actors in powerful roles that make this production of Big River a memorable evening of theatre.