Multi-media artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph noticed that there wasn’t a lot of overlap between the environmental movement and the people actually living in some of the most compromised environments in America. It got him to wondering why—and wondering if increased communication, exchange and cooperation between these populations were possible.
“Obviously, folks of color and folks in low-income communities have had survival practices for generations that have often gone unnoticed by the environmental movement—and unseen by ‘corporate green’,” noted colleague Hodari Davis, at a “Life is Living” festival in New York. Similar festivals over the past year in Chicago, Houston and Oakland, Calif. have attempted to redefine environmentalism in the context of hip hop culture—and have served as “field work” for a new performance piece that asks if art can facilitate community organizing and environmental change.
The name of the work in progress is “red black and GREEN: a blues.” And since it’s the latest participant in UNC’s “Process Series,” an audience in Chapel Hill sees an early version of two sections from the piece tonight.
“What we’re trying to do is create space on different levels for new work to be developed,” notes curator Joseph Megel.
This week, the three-year-old program for professional works in progress hasn’t just provided Joseph and collaborators Theaster Gates and documentary filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi with studio time.
“We’ve created the opportunity for them to talk to professors in urban planning and ecological sciences here, so there can be a deepening of the discussion with scholarship on ecology,” says Megel.
Who’s taking care of the children is a question that seems to become more pressing every day. Their mothers have never been the sole caregivers of the children, but taking care of their children did formerly constitute a respected job of work (if unpaid) for many women, along with the myriad other tasks that formed their contributions to the familial economic unit. Poorer women have always done other work for money, as well—including caring for richer women’s children.
But now, a couple of generations into the shifted social terrain formed by feminism (and workable family planning methods), more and more women find they can only have it all at once in the world if they have help at home. As in, a nanny. Like the cuckoo bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests for them to hatch and feed, these women leave their children for other women to nurture.
San Francisco theater artist Lisa Ramirez moved to New York to further her career and became a nanny the way others become waitresses and office temps. It was supposed to be a day job while she took classes and went to auditions, but in nanny-dom, she found a coil of stories that would spring her onto the stage as both writer and performer.
Ramirez has translated her experience into Exit Cuckoo (nanny in motherland), a remarkably thoughtful one-person show, which she performs through Sunday in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s second stage series, PRC2.
She deals deftly with some mighty large material—woman’s place in the world, what makes a mother, privilege and deprivation, self-involvement and self-sacrifice, the vicissitudes of class and color—tying interrelated story threads into a neat 85-minute package. (Readers of The Help will recognize these as the same issues that drove Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel.) While Ramirez can be dry and droll, and sometimes highly humorous in her social commentary, she is surprisingly gentle to even the most appalling of the “beige women” who expect a new kind of indentured servitude from their nannies—who “are just like part of the family” until summarily fired.
It is greatly to Ramirez’ credit that she has written and can present these characters with as much humanity as she gives to the beleaguered “United Nations of nannies.” The only character for whom she has no mercy is the leader of the therapy group she joins when the motherworld-nannyworld-artworld demands push her to the edge.
A one-person show depends mightily on the person’s ability to transform before our eyes into widely divergent characters. Ramirez excels here, with minimal help from clothing items, props and set, relying on wonderfully complete speech patterns and accents and highly communicative body language. The pattern is often that “our” nanny enters a situation, then the actress switches almost unnoticeably to the other woman in the scene—the nanny broker, the mother, her own mother, the other nannies, an irate grandmother, the speaker at a rally for domestic workers’ rights.
Right up until the final few sentences, the text is limpid, unsullied by easy sentiment or unneeded demagoguery. It is very difficult to bring something like this meditation to a close, and in the end, Ramirez slips into a bit of triteness. It is not enough to ruin the work; just enough to make you want to find out if she can avoid it in her next play, which you will definitely want to see after seeing this one.
Over the past decade, the region has come to admire Mike Wiley’s series of intensely researched—and brilliantly crafted—original one-person shows that have illuminated significant (but frequently neglected) events in America’s long and problematic racial history. Wiley's unerring ear for dialogue, acute editorial sense of scene, and significant gifts as an actor and a mimic have made solo works like DAR HE: THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL (partially captured in the film EMPTY SPACE, which took honors at last year’s Carrboro Film Festival) actually feel like an evening spent among an intense community of people, united at times and divided at others by a common dilemma.
But after his 2008 adaptation of Tim Tyson’s BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME (with a “cast” of over 20 characters, all which he performed) pointed to the possible limits of what anyone could accomplish with a one-man show, THE PARCHMAN HOUR, Wiley’s new work about the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement in 1961, marks his first script written for a company of actors, and his first time directing—or, at least, directing other performers on stage.
Thankfully, the news from its world premiere at UNC's Kenan Theater is good.
Beware, New York City: Ali is coming!
(At last: Now I know what Masaji Sieji must have felt like in the 1954 classic, Godzilla.)
As a character, this one-woman juggernaut is Margo Channing with a chainsaw, a drama school diva able to size up a room with a glance (well, a dorm room, anyway), and lay waste to its inhabitants with her invariably oversized gestures, her raw—or, at least, uncooked—sexuality, and a literally endless series of terribly witty putdowns. Though this baby barracuda steamrolls over all interpersonal borders, somehow the boys always come back for more. She’s insuperable, she’s insufferable, she’s…
…absolutely unbelievable. Or at least, the situation is. And that’s a major problem for playwright Michael Walker—and an even bigger dilemma for audiences awaiting his LETTER FROM ALGERIA. For after its world premiere last weekend, in a show by GroundUP Productions involving three UNC undergraduates—and actor, playwright and former Temple Theater artistic director Jerry Sipp—this work’s New York debut is slated for Oct. 29.
That’s not a lot of time to correct a first act as fundamentally unbalanced as the one we saw during Algeria’s out-of-town tryouts Sunday night.
5 STARS (highest recommendation)
Deep Dish Theater
Through May 22
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The tea lights gleamed like molten butter—the only source of light in the entire restaurant—as our host stooped to ignite the Cherries Junior Johnson. The sponge cake, soaked in moonshine, had just begun to flash-broil its little lake of rendered fruit and syrup as my companion leaned forward.
“You’ve had such success with your writing,” she said, as I looked (demurely, I hoped) off to one side.
“And you’re so high-functioning,” she marveled breathlessly, while the waiter’s hand-tossed mix of baking soda and confectioners’ sugar blanketed the flames, the table and our evening wear.
“Your eye contact? It’s been so strong tonight,” she purred. “And your social awkwardness: really, it’s no more than you’d expect of someone on their first date!”
I sat, slackjawed. “That’s because I thought I was,” I whined in disbelief.
Silly me. All those probing questions during dinner, that I thought just might be leading to a snuggle session later on? Not quite: She'd been building a medical profile instead.
Hm. Perhaps the metal clipboard should have tipped me off.
Her thesis—which was, ultimately, all she wanted to discuss with me—was that critics have to have at least a touch of Asperger’s syndrome. After all, what other job description involves a total lack of empathy? Plus that tell-tale compulsion to blurt out the most inappropriate and unwelcome truths, defying all social norms when it comes to polite behavior? Hmmm?
I resisted the diagnosis. I did, however, let her pick up the check.
Which put me, come to think of it, in a somewhat similar position to Jared, one of the riveting characters we meet at the start of BODY AWARENESS, the current production at Deep Dish Theater. Jared ‘s 21 years old, intensely interested in etymology—and working at McDonalds while still living at home with his mother. Also, he’s all but violently resistant to a diagnosis of Asperger’s, with a collection of tics, blunt observations and repetitive, limited motions and interests, and only the vaguest sense of social relationships or obligations.
But we meet Jared—and his mom, Joyce, her partner, Phyllis and their guest, Frank—during what psychology teacher Phyllis has unilaterally declared to be "Body Awareness Week" at the small Vermont college where she works.
It happens every so often in this business: A company just a little too desperate for praise distorts a critical review in its publicity for a show, by cherry-picking a positive word or phrase out of an article that's just a bit more…qualified in its endorsement.
But somehow, one expects Christian actors performing Christian drama to be...above that sort of thing. (Perhaps that has something to do with the penalties reserved for bearing false witness, lies or perjury—extreme examples of which are littered through Old and New Testaments.)
Still, dearly beloved, it seems that itinerant Christian actor Brad Sherrill, who performs his one-person show, The Gospel of John, on Good Friday in Chapel Hill, has succumbed...to temptation.
We first learned about the show from a playbill we picked up at PlayMakers Rep last week. The ad had a series of impressive critical endorsements: glowing quotes from the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But above these was this praise from the New York Times: “A famously compelling tale, lively and engaging. Mr. Sherrill is a poised performer with a subtle physical grace.” On the show’s Web site, the same quote appears—placed on top of a cross-like figure, no less—just above a photo of Sherrill.
Now, touring shows cite the New York Times so often that it's tempting to take them at face value. But, on a whim, we decided to research this one a little further.
As a result, we'll be doing so a bit more often in the future.
Brothers and sisters, it pains me to tell you: the New York Times review Sherrill quotes actually pans The Gospel of John.
Usually, determining a play’s subject is something of a preliminary task: one that leads us, more or less directly, into deeper critical waters. But within the past week, two productions—MoLoRa (Ash) at Duke and I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda at UNC—have stopped me at what is usually a fairly neutral border in my critical walk. In both cases, it wasn’t enough to ask what each work was about. I felt I had to ask what each should be about, as well—based upon the focus each work has ultimately chosen.
By coincidence, both plays deal, at least tangentially, with different atrocities that occurred upon the African continent. MoLoRa, performed by the touring South African company Farber Foundry, seeks to reframe the tragic Greek trilogy The Oresteia against the achievements of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1996-1998. A Remarkable Document concerns the Tutsi genocide of 1994 in Rwanda.
But both of these statements actually set the true trajectories of these dramas off by a few, crucial degrees.
Our complete review of the Deep Dish Theater production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross will run in next week’s Independent. But for a show deserving a five-star review—only the paper’s 11th since 2003—a little advance warning seems entirely in order. Our advice is get your tickets now: They might be a little harder to come by on Wednesday. Deep Dish’s box office phone number is 968-1515.
In the meantime, just a little reading material while you’re waiting on hold…
Here’s the picture—and it’s not a pretty one. In the U.S., unemployment is skyrocketing; its peak, at over 16 percent, represents the highest level since the Great Depression. Credit is tight and home sales are tanking. Over a year passes before the President uses the r-word—recession—and admits that the economy is in significant trouble.
But the year is 1982, not 2009. The president is Ronald Reagan. And in Chicago, David Mamet is writing a play about a quartet of desperate real estate salesmen facing a real squeeze play of a sales contest—one that will put two of them on the street at the end of the month.
First prize is a Cadillac. Second’s a set of steak knives.
Third prize? You’re fired.
Those are the stakes in Glengarry Glen Ross, a scuzzy, profane—and frequently hilarious—profile of office politics with the gloves decidedly off, in a time a bit too close to our own for comfort.
In this production at Deep Dish Theater, artistic director Paul Frellick leads a seasoned cast of regional veterans and a notable newcomer to the scene in a theatrical night out with the boys that is not to be missed. Director and cast navigate the choppy waters and jazzy counter-rhythms of Mamet’s text, which stands as a world-class primer in the less-than-delicate art of verbal self-defense. With actors David Ring, John Murphy, Harvey Sage and talented new arrival Joshua Purvis wielding invective with expert timing, Glengarry Glen Ross repeatedly suggests the verbal equivalent of a kung-fu film with all the non-fight scenes removed.
That’s right: just the good stuff remains.
Catch the rest of the review -- and the week's other theatrical news -- Wednesday in the Independent.