Wednesday, February 23, 2022

NVA’s “Desert Rock Garden” Another Look Behind the Scenes of Our Sorted Past In An Uplifting Memory Play.

While New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad is undergoing a re-model in a big way, Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner, ‘the show must go on’ is launching a brand new play, Roy Sejigahama’s  “Desert Rock Garden”. Sekigahama’s parents were interned in one of the camps.

Some might remember the lavish musical production “Allegiance” at The Old Globe theatre in 2012 inspired by George Takei and his family’s experiences when he was a child in a Japanese internment camp during World War II and Jeanne Sakata's play “Hold These Truths” the one-man show about Gordon Hirabayashi, his resistance against Japanese American internment during World War II and his long legal battle for his constitutional rights as a U.S. citizen. I’m sure there are more stories like this out there that I’ve not seen, but a brand new one is at New Village Arts through March, 13th.

Executive Order, 9066 stated that all West coast citizens of Japanese ancestry be sent to off to internment camps as declared by President Roosevelt after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1942. It mattered not that that they were citizens of this country. Their civil rights, property, jobs and businesses were confiscated and like it or not, families were hauled away and sent to internment camps. James Hatsuaki Wakasa was one of those individuals. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1903. 

Playwright Roy Sekigahama developed “Desert Rock Garden” in a Playwrights Project Workshop followed by a reading at N.V.A. His play, dedicated to Wakasa, is a ‘fictionalized story about a dubious friendship that develops in Camp Topaz in Utah between a young orphaned girl, Penny (Chloris Li) and another intern she calls “Fuzzy’ (Lane Nishikawa).  

When the play opens it’s 1964 and Penny is a grown woman who traces the story back to when she arrived at the camp at age 12. Now as an adult she at 33 she is successful and well adjusted. According to the playwright, he wanted to tell this story from a different set of eyes to bring some optimism through a rather unlikely friendship that develops over the course of the 70 or so intermission less play. It all takes place at The Topaz War Relocation Center in Delta, Utah in front of the bachelor’s barracks. It was nicknamed the “Jewel of the Desert,’ or the ‘Cesspool of the Desert’ depending on who you asked”

Chloris Li as Penny and Lane Nishikawa as Fuzzy


72 year old Fuzzy had lived in America over 50 years. He is a man of few words but Penny makes up the difference with her non-stop chatter about school. She was dismissed from school because she made fun of her teacher and was proud of it, but ‘Fuzzy’ tries to convince her that getting an education is very important. While the conversation continues, mostly with ‘Fuzzy’ being the surrogate teacher in everything from good manners to improving her language skills, to acting like a proper Japanese young lady to her pushing back on most of what he has to say, a desert rock (or Japanese Rock Garden) garden begins to take shape. 

The set, by Reiko Huffman is a stone pebble space with varying sized rocks, some dead fallen tree stumps and a barbed wire fence with an American flag in the background. It is here that ‘Fuzzy’ brings in both rocks and some greens and places them across the stage like putting a puzzle together, all the while trying to school Penny. Penny finally gets the ides that she might want to help in the building of this garden. 

As the friendship grows slowly, as is the pacing of the show, (Yari Cervas directs) ideas and attitudes change and so does the landscape of the garden. ‘Fuzzy’ convinces Penny that all gardens are not always flower gardens, some are evergreen that prosper in the desert. He also urges her the leave the camp and become adopted by a family that can help her. 

Lane Nishikawa and Chloris Li

Both actors do credible work (thanks to Japanese Language Consultant Yoko Kurima and Cultural Consultant Michael Kurima) convincing the audience that each one, in contrast comes to the same conclusion that theirs is a special friendship and both will take that friendship with them forever as when Penny returns, at play’s end, and pays homage to her friend and mentor, Fuzzy still carrying one of the topaz stones he had given her. It is both touching and heart warming.

Living behind barbed wire

 As this is the upshot of the play, the playwright has accomplished his goal of telling an uplifting story in the most difficult of situations. For this reviewer, I came away from the production with a bitter-sweet feeling. 

Hats off the New Village Arts and Roy Sekigahama for bringing a sorted time in our history to the fore.

 Hopefully we will learn.

Original music and sound design: Mark Akiyama and Reiko Huffman. Lighting design: Annelise Raquel Salazar. 

Costume: Jojo Siu.

Dramaturgy: Shirley Fishman 

When: Runs through March 13. 

Showtimes, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Some additional performances on weekdays.

Where: New Village Arts, 2787 State St., Carlsbad

Tickets: $23 and up

Phone: (760) 433-3245

Photo: Daren Scott


COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required or negative test result from a COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of showtime. Masks are required at all times.


Friday, February 18, 2022

San Diego Opera Couldn’t Have Chosen a Better, Lighthearted Classic Than To Open The Season With Than Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”

Samantha Hankey, Konu Kim, John Brancy and Sara Tucker

For the past two years the San Diego Opera was dark. The pandemic made sure of that. Now, two long years of waiting finally paid off with Mozart’s final comic opera “Così fan tutte” or “Women are like that”. It’s fun, light, charming, sort of out of date, well really very out of date but that was then. The the time of our opera is the 1950's.The voices are glorious, the cartoon like sets (Tim Wallace) are innovative as is the direction (Timothy Nelson) and the lighting design and back screen close ups (Abigail Hoke-Brady). 

As for the costumes, some more innovated than others, created by Ingrid Helton. They are are a both a kick and hoot. The orchestra with many from the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Bruce Stasyna, provided strong support for the on and back stage singers.  

Of Mozart’s collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (“The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”) this libretto should be the first one to get the prize for not believing in the powers of a woman.

In this rendering the plot is hatched in a men’s locker room rather than a café as originally set. Two officers Guglielmo (Baritone John Brancy) and Ferrando (Tenor Konu Kim) wager the cynical Don Alfonso (Baritone Reginald Smith) that their lovers Dorabella (Mezzo-Soprano Samantha Hankey) and Fiordiligi (Soprano Sarah Tucker) will remain faithful to them even in their absence.  Don Alfonso says otherwise. 

At a meeting with the two women, Don Alfonso tells the two that their lovers are being sent away to military training and the dam breaks lose. Tears flow and the women are inconsolable. 

Konu Ki, John Branct and Alisa Jordheim

Included in this little fools’ tale is Despina (Soprano Alisa Jordheim) a maid and The Don’s partner in crime. Her other disguises are characters vaguely resembling those in ‘The Marriage of Figaro”.  

Furthering the ‘plot’ the men come back disguised as Albanian soldiers. Unfortunately, they fail to woo each other’s lady and pretend to take poison. Despina, disguised as a doctor magnetizes them to life, and the folly resumes as the men come back disguised as cowboys, and not very convincing ones at that.

Costume Designer Ingrid Helton whom I’m assuming is responsible for the diaper wearing, depressed and hapless Cupid whose name never appears in the program and who never utters a word, must have thought hard and long for his look. Theatre goers will recognize him as Jack Missett even though he might have a hard time recognizing himself. 

 Helton has a field day with her costume/non costume of skivvies and T shirt 1950’s look for the men (in the program notes, as Time and Place: “Between the cusp of youth and the precipice of adulthood”). and bloomers and petticoats for the women (most of the time). Why, I’ll never know. In the colorful opening scenes, the women are wearing almost look-a-like colorful flowered dresses. One might assume that the rest of the costumes would follow similarly, but not so much.  Before we know it, both couples are reduced to their undergarments. As for Don Alfonso, since he staged this little farce, he’s dressed and acts as the director 

But the evening really belongs to Mozart’s gorgeous music. The six luminaries who soar during their solos and duets enhanced by the small back stage chorus. 

Tenor Konu Kim’s, Ferrando is small in stature but has a big tenor voice especially when he’s singing his love song to Dorabella or when he’s chiding her for flirting with John Brancy’s Guglielmo, now in disguise.

Jack Missett and Reginald Smith

In contrast, John Brancy’s baritone blends well with Kim’s but he and Smith have fewer solos to perform.  Smith on the other hand teams up with Soprano Alisa Jordheim’s Despina to provide most of the laughs. When he does sing, his Baritone voice is smooth and most powerful.       

Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey’s "Smanie implacabili" was a stand -still moment and highlight of her performance. Soprano Sara Tucker as Fiordiligi in her "Come scoglio." shows off the depths of her range and her vocal prowess.  So, an A+ for overall consistency in both music, performances and technology.

Cast of Così fan tutte

There is so much more going on that to list it chapter and verse would take away from the overall enjoyment of watching how silly both sexes are acting toward one another by trying to convince themselves that true love is forever and in the eye of the beholder. One doesn’t have to be convinced by trickery, to prove it to be true. But… that’s the name of this little farce “All women do it” or “All women are like that”, so enjoy it while you can and relish the music and gorgeous voices while rolling your eyes at the story.

Bravo to director Tim Wallace: Company debuts by Reginald Smith Jr. as Don Alfonso, Samantha Hankey as Dorabella, and Konu Kim as Ferrand and the return of Soprano Alisa Jordheim as Despina and Sarah Tucker as Fiordiligi. 


When: 7:30 Friday. 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: San Diego Opera at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego.
Tickets: $35 and up
Photo: Karli Cadel
 Phone: (619) 533-7000
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test within 48 hours of showtime. Face masks required for all indoors.



Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Globe’s “Trouble in Mind” Proves Most White’s Still Don’t Get It!

 “Trouble In Mind” was slated for a Broadway opening in 1957 but the all -white producers were a bit jittery about the way it ended. They wanted it to end happily and didn’t like the title. At the time playwright Alice Childress would have been the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Childress, true to herself, couldn’t bring herself to make the changes. Her play was put on the back burner for half a decade.  Loraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun” took its place.

Cast of "Trouble in Mind
Now in the production’s original, uncut, as Childress would have it, The Old Globe Theater under the deft direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg “Trouble in Mind” is getting its just due.

‘Mind’ is a play within a play called “Chaos in Belleville”, a melodrama/satire/comedy about anti-lynching (say that with tongue in cheek). The action takes place backstage in the rehearsal space of a Broadway Theatre in New York. Aptly decorated and designed by Lawrence E. Moten III and lit by Sherrice Mojgani to look like the backstage of a theatre with all colors and sorts of lights, a few scattered chairs and stage door, the space for the actors comes alive when they begin reading through the script.  

This is a big day for Wiletta Mayer who enters the stage wearing one of Nicole Jescinth Smiths stunning costumes. She has finally landed a leading role in this new play that was to begin rehearsals for a Broadway opening. Some of her former black coworkers are also on the scene. They too are anxious to be in this ‘new’ play but are less inclined to stir things up by voicing their opinions to the director, but not Wiletta.

Ramona Keller and Kevin Isola 

“White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes chides Wiletta, so laugh”, she instructs the newbie’s like Michael Zachery Tunstill as John a recent college graduate, but don’t tell Al. “White’s don’t like Blacks to be too smart” she schools. 

In the past Wiletta (a strong, extremely talented singer and actor, Ramona Keller) was of the mindset of pleasing her white director Al Manners (Kevin Isola), a total Dick, by using an upside down psychology that he has bought into. For the most part, eyes rolled, but they went along to get along.

 Wiletta also played all the stereotypical black housekeeper roles she was handed and is ready to move forward. She played the game. As things shape up now though it appears she is still slated to doing laundry and singing spirituals. Now she is playing a sharecropper’s wife whose son John is being hunted down to supposedly be put in jail for protection. His crime:  he wanted to voted in the local election.

Ramona Keller, Michael Zachary Tunstill and Victor Morris

 Let’s call it what it is, he’s being ‘lynched’ and she’s supposed to be OK with that according to the script. How she and Manners interpret her role becomes the center of conflict while the give and take of her fellow actors take turns one would not expect. 

The mostly all Black cast includes Victor Morris as Sheldon Forrester. He’s played opposite Wiletta many times. In ‘Chaos’ he’s her husband and is reduced to nothing but whittling pointlessly on a stick and nodding “Yes sir. And Thank you, sir”, but when Forrester tells the cast that he actually saw a lynching when he was a boy, silence fell on the house and cast members. 

Others in the cast include Millie Davis (Bibi Mama) Wiletta’s oft time rival for the same parts, Judy Sears (Maggie Walters-Old Globe and U. San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatere Program) a young google eyed white actress from Connecticut who is to play the sharecroppers daughter. 

An almost unrecognizable  Mike Sears is Bill O’Wray a so uptight actor that he won’t even go to lunch with the Black cast. Other white actors include Jake Millgard who plays the stage manager Eddie, Tom Bloom plays Henry the electrician turned doorman and gofer. He and Wiletta go way back. 

Ramona Keller, Michael Zachary Tunstill, Mike Sears and Bibi Mama

Yes, there is humor, bantering, friendly give and take between Wiletta and Millie that I must confess oft escaped me because of sound irregularities (Luqman Brown) and my not being able to catch every word.  However, the contrast between friendly banter between  director and star turns ugly and biting. By just watching their body language and the many standoff’s, especially toward the end of the rehearsals, no love is lost. 

It’s Keller’s Wiletta and Isola’s Al that the show really belongs to. The fact that Al is such a racist just by way of his directing methods, interruptions from Wiletta and the fact that he is distracted by calls from his ex that he explodes in anger revealing his true racist feelings. With that (and no spoiler) Wiletta answers in kind. It’s not pretty but if we’re keeping score …

Maggie Walters, Ramona Keller, Bibi Mama and Michael Zachery Tunstill

The play gives us another point of view of the ‘Negro experience’ as witnessed by African-American actors wanting to play more than the stereotypical housekeeper, maids, whittling yes’m, males and or runaway young men slated for a lynching or being called Magnolia, Chrysanthemum, Crystal, Pearl or Opal. 

What we do have is more satire and just plain stupidity by the white writers that makes one’s blood boil. The play is about the lynching of a young man in the south who angers the ‘white folk’ because he decides to vote in the local elections. Sound familiar? 

We’re not talking 1957 (Civil Rights Act enacted in 1957) when Ms. Childress, whose play won an Obie Award off Broadway, positions her play. We are talking 2022. “Trouble in Mind” is even more timely now than it was in 2018 when Moxie Theatre was led by Sonnenberg who directed it then as well. It was powerful then, but packs a KO today. 

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”…George Santayana

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 13.

Where: Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

Tickets: $29 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623


Photo: Rich Soublet II)

COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required or negative test result from a COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of showtime. Masks are required at all times.

Monday, February 7, 2022

OnStage Playhouse’s “Admissions” Right Up There in High Quality Acting and Truths We Dare Not Admit.

Playwright Joshua Harmon best known to yours truly as the one who got it all wrong in his play “Bad Jews” seen some years back at Cygnet Theatre. Just the title alone sent chills up my spine. How does one define bad Jew?  And whose job is it to decide? The play didn’t sit right with me then and in retrospect it still not one of my best theatrical experiences.  But what do I know? It was a smash hit and remains the best- selling play in Studio history- called ‘wickedly funny’. 

But he got it right and hit the nail on the head with the current offering at OnStage Playhouse’s 2018 play  “Admissions” deftly directed by artistic director James P. Darvas. and starring an overall excellent cast with Wendy Waddell (Sherri) and Tom Steward (Bill) as the as husband and wife team acting as headmaster and dean of admissions at a small, nearly all white college at Hillcrest, a mid-tier New Hampshire prep school. This time Harmon zero’s in on race, you know, the word Whoopi Goldberg has a hard time defining!

Anna Sandor and Wendy Waddell

Exquisitely mounted on the small stage at OnStage (Filipe Ramirez), the play opens in Sherri’s office with quick tempered Sherri questioning, or more like admonishing her administrator Roberta (Anna Sandor) for not including more students of color on the school’s latest brochure. “Equality”, Diversity” and Inclusion” (E.D.I.) she rants have always been my goal. According to Sherri, for fifteen years she has taken the school from 4%students of color to 18%. Both she and her liberal minded husband, Bill have always fought for E.D.I. that is especially where the school is concerned. 

Outside the walls of Sherri’s office, and in their living quarters, their son Charlie (Devin Wade) is expecting to get into Yale. He and his best buddy, lifelong friends, both filled out applications for admittance to Yale (the big important Ivy League school). Grades aside, his BFF Perry is of mixed race and everyone, (Sherri, Bill and Charlie) is convinced that Perry checked off the box that said Black. Their conclusion: Perry got accepted because he pulled the black card and Charlie was put on the back burner. 

What? What?

Moving on to world war three, Sherri and Perry’s mother Ginnie (Holly Stephenson), best of friends for years get into a kerfuffle that that puts their friendship at risk and the true feelings Sherri harbors. Their friendship ended right before our eyes. But not before Charlie went into a ten minute tirade as to why he should have been selected, even going so far as to bring affirmative action, diversity and the Holocaust for reasons he did not get accepted.  After some dubious denials, both Sherri and Bill, contrary to their liberal cloth, seem to agree with their son.

Tom Steward and Devin Wade

Hypocrites all, each character gets to say his or her true feelings when the you -know what- hits the fan. Waddell, who always brings a strong performance to all of her works, succeeds in convincing us that as the pendulum swings back and forth, what she says as opposed to what she thinks she thinks are at odds with themselves. And if that sounds confusing, you can imagine how Sandor’s Roberta felt after she was raked over the coals for not showing enough black faces in her quest to even out the pictures in the admissions catalogue.  “Do you care if the school is diverse?”

Tom Steward gives a masterful offering when trying to talk his son out of his turn about on what his future plans are (no spoiler) calling him “an overprivileged brat” and Devon Wade’s performance as Charlie, the slighted and rejected teenager has to be one of the most passionate pleas I’ve heard on why he’s right about his right to be accepted into Yale. Both Holly Stephenson and Anna Sandor add to the overall depth of the 75 minute show. 

The cast is all white and one must wonder how many seeing the show when it first premiered in NY in 2018 at Lincoln Center were multi- racial or was it before so much emphasis was put on racial balance in school ‘admissions.

My white friends, he’s talking to the liberal white in all of us.

Ginnie Stephenson and Wendy Waddell

“Whiteness: white privilege, white power, white anxiety, white guilt all of it...this play is trying to hold up a mirror to white liberalism, while remaining very conscious of the fact that this is just one narrow slice of a much larger conversation.”   * Studio Theatre.

Credits: Lighting design to Kevin”Blax” Burroughs, sound to Estefania Ricalde, costume design to Pam Stompoly- Erikson, Estefania Ricalde stage manager and photo credit to Ana Carolina Chiminazzo.

You won’t want to miss this production to see where you stand, on a scale of 1 to 10, on the racial equality conundrum and of course the fine production. 

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 27.

Where: OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave., Chula Vista

Tickets: $22-$25.

Phone: (619) 422-7787


COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccine required or negative result from COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of showtime. Masks required indoors.