Thursday, January 30, 2020

Back At The Old Globe “Jitney” is Finally Home.

Any day you have the opportunity to see an August Wilson play, is a good day.

The two -time Pulitzer Prize winner and playwright is most noted for his American Century Cycle (“The Pittsburg Cycle”) of 10 plays each representing a different decade in this century, from 1986 to 2007.
Amari Cheatom and Ray Anthony Thomas
Chronicling the African American experience was his goal. In play after play audiences are able to have an eye opening glimps, through Wilson’s eyes, of the Black experience in America over time. It wasn’t always pretty and it is still not.

His association with the Old Globe dates back to the early 90’s with his then director Lloyd Richards, who directed his plays for years, and whose name was linked to Wilson’s. From my count Richards directed at least six of the ten.

Those of us lucky enough to have been around then with his “Two Trains Running”, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Piano Lesson”, opening his pre Broadway productions, and with man himself in the audience along with Richards, could barely contain ourselves. 

Amari Cheatom, Harvy Blanks and Brian Coats as Philmore
“Jitney”, written first in 1982, was the first of the cycle plays written by Wilson, but was pushed back on the shelves (it now comes somewhere in the middle of the cycle) for some time before going to Broadway, while others rose in popularity. It is currently getting its due.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson brought it to Broadway (after some rewrites) where it finally won the 2017 Tony Award for best revival. In association with The Manhattan Theatre Club, it is now on national tour stopping at The Old Globe and running through Feb.28th

“Jitney” takes place in the late seventies and explores the effects of urban redevelopment in the ‘District’ and how it impacts the lives of the men who drive unlicensed (jitney’s or gypsy cabs) taxies for a living. White taxies owners would not drive into the District and Black business men could not get official permits, ergo jitney’s. 

The setting is the worn down jitney office/garage belonging to Jim Becker (a steady as he goes-Steven Anthony Jones) who owns/manages the garage.  It’s the local hangout where hopes and dreams are made and shattered.
Ray Anthony Thomas (seated), Amari Cheatom, Stephen Anthony Jones and Keith Randolph Smith as Doub
Those who find the garage their home away from home, tell their stories and try to figure out, if and when their incomes are cut off when the city urbanizes their neighborhood, what they will do next.

Conflicts come and go; small stuff like who plays the better game of checkers? Who will finance Feilding’s  (Anthony Chisholm) next drink?  

And why was Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), who recently returned from Vietnam and trying to better himself, so secretive around his girlfriend Rena (Nija Okoro) who accuses him of having an affair? Could it be because of Turnbo (an excellent Ray Anthony Thomas), a chronic troublemaker who can’t seem to stop himself from spreading gossiping?

Shealy (Harvy Blanks) is your friendly, flamboyant (Oy those Leisure Suits are a sight) Bookie who uses the shop’s business phone to call in his bets. His character is more ‘caricature’ than character.
Amri Cheatom and Nija Okoro
The activity plays out as the men come and go, shoot the breeze …and take calls from customers wanting a pickup and to be taken here and there. There is more than meets the eye in this busy but less frantic in pace, in this over two plus hours of high and low drama’s, most of which deals with life as they know it in a community they grew up in and live, all the while cementing long- term friendships.

The tide turns when Becker’s son Booster (an excellent Francois Battiste) comes on the scene. Just released from jail after a twenty -five year sentence for murder, the two have an encounter that rocks us to the rafters and reaches deep into the souls of both men shocking us out of a reverie that floats over us when least expected.

It’s a father and son encounter the likes of which I could never imagine. But life goes on, as we will find out at show’s end. No spoilers here except to say that both men, standing eye to eye rose to the solemn moment that defined how pent up hostilities can eat away at us from the inside out.
Stephen Anthony Jones and Amari Cheatom

From the outset the banter, the talk has a rhythm and pace of its own as only those understanding every word will attest. Yours truly had some difficulty picking up on some of the dialogue especially Anthony Chisholm’s Fielding. His cadences, as the alcholic looking for four dollars for his next drink, seemed overreaching and exaggerated, as was the speed talk coming from Harvey Blank’s Shealy who was more of a ‘caricature’ than character.

The play opens to a long and original jazz number (Bill Sims, Jr.) that does go on seemingly without end. When the lights come up the garage and outside businesses, the creative work of David Gallo show the shabby and used furniture set against a wall with names and turns of drivers, a telephone, a well worn couch, a chair or two and Becker’s desk, refrigerator and magazines; all accessories needed for a business office.  Outside the dusty windows a few cars needing work are parked and telephone wires stretch across the horizon and that is lined with tenement buildings.  

Jane Cox designed the lighting to coincide with the weather and times of day, and Darron L. West and Charles Coes created the sound design with Toni-Leslie James period correct costumes. 
Stephen Anthony Jones and Francois Battiste
Wilson’s works gives us a different lens (as in white) to see the world through someone else’s eyes (as in non white). Taking us out of ourselves is a necessary step toward understanding the ‘other’. Wilson knew this.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge our own 'King' Antonio TJ Johnson who in his past and present life presented all the Wilson Cycle  plays on stage some years ago.

Now is the chance to see the Broadway revival of a Wilson work that will be placed firmly in the cycle along with the others.

It’s a good day!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 28th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619-234-5623
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

“Babette’s Feast”: One Fit For Royalty

On the top level of set designer Mike Buckley’s multi level set stands a long table filled with pots and pans, jars and condiments, cooking utensils and room for supplies for the famous feast that Babette of  “Babette’s Feast” will be preparing.

Yolanda Marie Franklin
It is at this savory feast filled with abundance and humility for all humanity, as written by Karen Dinesen, that will long be remembered by those in attendance years after the foods are digested, and those who indulged will resume their simple and pious ways of being. 

Danish author Karen Blixen, who goes under the pen name Isak Dinesen (The movie “Out of Africa”, was based on her notes when she lived there), penned her short story, “Babette’s Feast” in 1958.

It’s a tale about a tightly knit Protestant family, head of household Patriarch (Jason Heil) and daughters Philippa and Martine living in a remote Norwegian coastal town (“the very edge of the world”) where the sun rises and sets on the routines of heir daily tasks. 

Lamb’s Players Theatre under the knowing direction of Robert Smyth who notes this current adaptation by Rose Courtney is based on the short story version, not the film version.  It was conceived and developed by Abigail Killeen.

Also as noted by director Smyth, the presentation recently seen uses a ‘presentational story-theatre style with an ensemble company’. Nobody does ensemble like Lamb’s. This West Coast premiere will be running through Feb. 16th.  

French refugee, Babette (Yolanda Marie Franklin), a former chef at the celebrated Café Anglais in Paris fled her homeland during the outbreak of civil strife in 1871 for fear of her life

She goes undercover in Norway, and some thirty- five years after we meet Philippa and Martine (and with a letter from famous French Opera star and noted baritone, Achille Papin explaining her dire circumstances), Babette finds herself in the village of Berlevaag, accepting work as a maid for the now middle -aged sisters Philippa and Martine.

Kerry Meads, Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Yolanda Marie Franklin
Long after their deceased and strong willed father put the cow-bosh on both of their suitors and quite unaware of Babette’s cooking prowesses, they give the French Woman carte blanche to do her magic in the kitchen and keep the household running.

Not knowing anything of her past, and in particular of those who helped her to become this famous chef, she quietly builds relationships with the town’s devout community as well as the trust of the sisters. The two even more pious now, find themselves old maids left to carry on the teachings of their father who was the spiritual leader of the ascetic Protestant sect. 

Lamb’s production shifts back and forth over a period of 49 years. In a series vignettes and in changing ensemble voices and groupings, sometimes in song, tell us their story.  
(LtoR) Rick Meads, Ross Hellwig, Rachael VanWormer, Jason Heil, Omri Schein, and Charles Evans, Jr.
We catch glimpses of the sisters Caitie Grady and Rachael VanWormer as their younger somewhat engaging selves, and Kerry Meads and Deborah Gilmour Smyth as the now older and settled spinsters. (All four also also play multiple roles, show the depth of this highly regarded ensemble.)

Smyth’s casting, using many of Lamb’s Company Member’s, is as good as it gets with characters young and old alike as Ross Hellwig the young and rogue cavalry officer Lorens Lowenheilm in pursuit of young Martine (Rachael VanWormer) only to be turned away by her father. He is a charming devil. Later he will return much wiser (Rick Meads) and gentler when he comes face to face with the older more introverted Martine (Kerry Meads).

Young Philippa (Caitie Grady) is courted by Papin (Charles Evans Jr.), a young opera star who hears her singing and wants to give her lessons. Together in a series of voice and singing lesson’s she takes from the vacationing singer, the real husband and wife team soar in gorgeous arias from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” as their voices reach new heights. He wants more of their romance and she is not inclined to leave her father’s house.

Fast forward, and in a turn of good fortune Babette wins the local French lottery and offers to make a true French meal for the entire township.
Yolanda Marie Franklin, Rachael VanWormer, Kerry Meads and Deborah Gilmour Smyth
With money she recently won from said lottery, she asks the sisters permission if she can entertain as she did in the past by preparing a banquet in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the birthday of the sister’s father.

After they give the OK she spends every last coins to get what is needed for the feast. She first begins by sending her assistants off to gather the ingredients for turtle soup, stuffed quail, Campaign and caviar.

She invites the entire community to celebrate, a custom most are not used to according to their religious modesty. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, they participate and are amazed at how much fun they can have with a little bubbly under their belts.

That brings me back to Mike Buckley’s set design.  It is now set into motion by talented Yolanda Marie Franklin as the quiet and spiritual center Babette, the world famous Chef who begins preparing an exquisite and sensory meal by going through the motions and making every fine tuned hand gesture and facial expression to tell the story of how blessed she is without uttering a word.   

Not having a drop of food in front of her, and with only utensils, pots and pans she stands above the rest (who setting the table for the feast), and is able to convey to the audience just how the renouned chef, to the last sprinkling of seasonings, works her magic. It also says volumes about the actor as well. 
The Ensemble
The ensemble, including those mentioned, Omri Schein (for some comic relief he does so well), Ross Hellwig, Rick Meads (returning after a long hiatus) Kerry Meads, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Rachael VanWormer, Jason Heil, Caitie Grady and Charles Evens, Jr. do double, triple duty changing roles as easily as slipping into a jacket or taking a hat off, or stomping feet to create atmosphere of love strength and dignity.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Cellist Diana Elledge playing the oft times haunting and original music written by Ms. Smyth.
Charles Evans, Jr and Caitie Grady
Completing the credits are Patrick Duffy’s sound design, Nathan Pierson’s lighting design, Jemima Dutra’s costumes, (team member Jim Chovik for making the mock turtle soup served after the show) and not to be overlooked, as this is the year of the Stage Manager, a round of applause goes to Maria Mangiavellano who has been with Lamb’s for as long as I can remember. They all contribute to making this charmed first production of the season worthy of a look-see. 

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 16th
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619-437-6000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1142 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA
Ticket Range: $28.00 to $78.00
Photo Credit: Ken Jacques

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The World According To Eleven Year Old’s In Moxie’s “Red Bike”

Just recently I spent the day with my eleven -year old stuffy nosed grandson while his mother’s were at work. Our conversations ranged from building a program for one of his Internet ‘games’ to what he was currently reading to “How old was I when I got married/ had his mother/ lived in my house, and was Donald Trump responsible for the way they treat the Blacks in the South”?

He’s studying the Civil War in History at school and is old enough to know about our current president.

Hey, I’m just his octogenarian grandmother.  But it gave me some insight to the mind of an eleven year old and what matters to him.  And what matters to him. he who is acutely aware of the social injustices in the world and the haves and have not’s of the world that he has drawings and essays on the walls in his home about just that.
Nancy Ross and Timothy L. Cabal
So it wasn’t surprising that some of the ‘stuff’ that character’s ‘A’ -Timothy L. Cabal and ‘M’ - Nancy Ross, the adults playing an eleven-year old in Playwright, Obie Winner, songwriter/lyricist, Caridad Svich’s San Diego West Coast Premiere “Red Bike” at Moxie Theatre through Feb. 16th.  , that brought me back to an old TV Show -“Kids Say The Darndest Things.”

But this kid is not saying the darndest things. Looking at the world and the decaying community/low wage -earning parents, the old bus driver who will one-day die on the job, this youngster is looking through a different lens than those who are living the American Dream.

The eleven year old in Svich’s play is encouraged by  parents to ‘go out and ride  bikes.  Wiser than most adults, see their American Dream passing by. Before during and in between the fifty or so frames or chapters that ‘shift …in the plays universe’ do we we get a glimpse into the parent’s thinking as told by their offspring.
Timothy L. Cabal and Nancy Ross
They talk about their bills, the world, the town, the water supply, the ‘invisible things like stocks and derivatives and securities and big money buying up property, destroying farm land and covering it in cement for more building, what they eat for breakfast and moving all the boxes in the big warehouse the father works in.

Most of these conversations are repeated in refrain traveling the byways and back country roads on an exciting and exhilarating bike ride that pulls us into the conversations from the moment the first image of a bike is drawn on the ground with colored chalk.

The production, a ninety minute coming of age drama, while not interactive had me feeling as though I was right in the moment with ‘A’ and ‘M’ riding up and over the hilly byways and ramps, sliding down poles, mading animal characters out of wrapping paper and bikes out of expandable poles. (Aldondra Velez.)  

Imagining a down hill plunge with horror, and the right amount of angst, vulnerability can be seen with wide eyed fear for almost losing control of of the bike; a bike that came speeding by us going “thirty billion seconds a minute.” 

A metaphor for life as seen through the eyes of youngsters?
Timothy L. Cabal and Nancy Ross
The reality of things out of control is a reoccurring theme; loss of community, a growing divide in the have’s and have-not’s, envy, out of touch parents and the dying population that will eventually create a ghost town in this the first of seven play-cycle called “American Psalm.”

Teacher, professor, director Lisa Berger ((“The Car Plays” as part of the WOW Festival, Paula Vogel’s “The Long Christmas Ride Home” at Diversionary) brings with her her speciality, that of being creative and daring. We  ride the highways, hills and valley's with her along with the pending danger as seen through her two, bordering on adolescence, eleven year olds; excellent actors they, who shall remain ageless in the mind of yours truly wishing (she) could move half as well.   

Both Burger and Movement Consultant Jeffery Ingman give credit that ‘85% of’ the movement…was developed by the actors themselves through improvisation.’ Once again, no small fete, as the movement in the moment might take off in different directions at any performance.

Cabal and Ross are splendid in creating a character with dreams and desires, imagination and finally ready to move on. 

“Even though I know I’m just a kid

And by the time I’m twelve
 My dreams are hella gonna change

And by the time I’m the same age as Ol’ Guy
If I get there
 I’ll have seen so much of the world

I’ll wonder how it is one can hold all of that inside 

Without making some serious NOISE."
Special shout out to costume designer Brooke Kesler, lighting designer Ashley Bietz, sound Matt Lescauld-Woodand and the entire creative team and of course the entire Moxie's  for bringing “Red Bike”, an uplifting commentary on the world according an eleven-year old going on twelve, to San Diego.

Be a part of the magic and enjoy the ride!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 16th
Organization: Moxie Theatre
Phone: 858-598-7620
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 6663 El Cajon Blvd. Suite N, San Diego, CA 92115
Ticket Prices: Stare at $33.00
Photo Credit: Daren Scott