Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 39
Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer
Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.
VOLUME 20 | VOLUME 21 | VOLUME 22 | VOLUME 23 | VOLUME 24 | VOLUME 25 | VOLUME 26 | VOLUME 27 | VOLUME 26 | VOLUME 28 | VOLUME 29 | VOLUME 30 | VOLUME 31 | VOLUME 32 | VOLUME 33 | VOLUME 34 | VOLUME 35 | VOLUME 36 | VOLUME 37 | VOLUME 38
VOLUME 39 (FEBRUARY 24, 2021): REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST
“I have no history,” insists The Man in one of the exhibits on display in The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s landmark play (see pick one below).
“I have no past,” The Man continues, as he hurls pieces of his younger Black self – from a Jackson Five album to his first dashiki – into a trash bin. “I can’t. It’s too much. It’s much too much . . . Being Black is too emotionally taxing. Therefore I will be Black only on weekends and holidays.”
As Wolfe demonstrates in exhibit after exhibit in The Colored Museum, erasing one’s past is never that simple; history may indeed be a nightmare, but that doesn’t mean it goes away when one awakes. “The past is never dead,” Faulkner once wrote. “It’s not even past.”
Wolfe is right to worry about how the past’s traumas become commodified objects, fostering trauma porn in an endlessly repeating horror loop. But can America afford to forget what it was if we’re ever going to make it something better? If we don’t learn from history, aren’t we sure to repeat it?
“In our current moment of division,” writes playwright Anna Deavere Smith in a just-published essay in The Atlantic exploring her own past, “we cannot afford to go forward without looking back. We must excavate history to assess how we learned to restore human dignity that had been ripped away by plunder and slavery. How did we get this far?”
Writing shortly before the Nazis swallowed France – prompting his death at the Spanish border after he’d tried to flee – German philosopher Walter Benjamin struck a similar chord in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. We can’t move forward without gazing backward, Benjamin insisted, adding that “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”
Each of this week’s picks wrestles with questions of how we re-member the past in trying to imagine the future. How and what might we learn from the past without being imprisoned by it – revising it rather than reliving it? What can the past teach us? And what might we teach the past, through the stories we tell about the world we’ve made even as it continually remakes us?
How would you answer such questions? And what do your answers suggest about the stories you want to see on stage, at Forward and elsewhere? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at email@example.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.
First, here’s the trailer for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s just-announced 2021 season, a combination of online and (hopefully) live, in-person offerings that includes archival films of past productions, an ambitious project involving Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and a world premiere from Dominque Morisseau: WATCH
Second, courtesy of Karamu House and the Musical Theater Project, here’s a first-rate hybrid program – part concert, part documentary – showcasing Shuffle Along, the groundbreaking 1921 musical with an all-Black creative team that would become the decade’s second most successful musical; Langston Hughes credited Shuffle Along as a major influence on the Harlem Renaissance. In this new production, rare footage featuring creators Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle is supplemented by B-roll from George C. Wolfe’s 2016 adaptation as well as numerous stills and solid singing. Free through the end of February with registration, this one is a must-see for all musical theater fans that simultaneously underscores my focus in this week’s column on the never-ending dialogue between past and present: WATCH
Third, the future is now with 5x15, offering you the chance to sample 15 minutes from each of the 5 winning world premiere musicals chosen in a competition run by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and staged in a collaboration between Ohio’s Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University. This year’s winners cover the waterfront, from a gay send-up of the American western to a sci-fi retrospective on our pandemic year (one of my two faves, along with a through-sung musical remembering the shining lives of those doomed young women working for the United States Radium Corporation in the 1920’s). For $20 through March 7, you can be among the first to watch tomorrow being made today. Here’s the trailer and ticket information:
Fourth and finally: Speaking of new musicals, it’s high time for an update regarding what I first brought to your attention in Volume 14 last summer: Jeannette the Musical, the work in progress revolving around Jeannette Rankin (the first woman to serve in Congress), with music and lyrics by Ari Afsar and a book by the one and only Lauren Gunderson. For $10, you can watch the recording of a late-January theater lab conducted before a small, socially distanced audience in Rankin’s home state of Montana. It features excerpts from the show, new orchestrations, singing by Afsar, narration by Gunderson, and live performances from five actors test driving movement, staging, and early design. The technology is occasionally wonky – did I mention that this is a theater lab? But this musical’s promise still comes through, giving us a taste of what awaits on the other side of our year-long isolation: TICKETS
Selections for Volume 39 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Living History Museum (The Colored Museum; Crossroads Theatre Company):
More than three decades on, George C. Wolfe’s masterpiece remains the theatrical equivalent of Toni Morrison’s epic (and recently republished) The Black Book: A kaleidoscopic chronicle of the conflicts and contradictions informing Black life in America, aptly summed up by a character named Topsy Washington in Wolfe’s concluding sketch: “While I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain, I can’t live without it.” Even as Topsy insists she contains multitudes (“I’m all of that and then some”), she simultaneously makes clear she can’t be contained. Or played.
Woe to earnest, virtue-signaling white wokesters – or to restrictive theatrical conventions – which fail to acknowledge this basic truth, delivered by a woman who could be summing up this entire show when warning against efforts to define her and her necessarily fluid relationship with history, identity, and their representation. None of the “exhibits” in Wolfe’s museum stay still; the stories they tell of Black life exist betwixt and between, informed by a past these characters can’t outrun while moving toward a future they can’t (or won’t) name.
Which, incidentally, is why I refuse to try and pin Wolfe’s play down in what I write; I urge you instead to (re)watch The Colored Museum yourself, which you can do for free through Sunday thanks to Crossroads Theatre Company, the acclaimed Black-run theater in New Brunswick where The Colored Museum began in 1986. Using 10 of Wolfe’s 11 sketches (all but the send-up of Josephine Baker) and featuring the core of the original 1986 cast, the 1991 Great Performances filming that’s now available channels the thrillingly subversive energy coursing through Wolfe’s play. As does the work of so many contemporary Black playwrights, re-membering a fractured past much as Wolfe continues remaking them and us.
2. Let Them In (Where Did We Sit on the Bus?; Actors Theatre of Louisville):
When Brian Quijada was in the third grade in suburban Chicago, he raised his hand during a civil rights lesson on the Montgomery Bus Boycott to ask his teacher where people like him would have sat. The flustered teacher’s response to this son of Salvadoran immigrants? “They weren’t around.”
Cue the beatbox for this hip-hop hybrid of looped rhythms and raps, in which Quijada explores his heritage while reflecting on the lessons he hopes to pass on someday to his own children. In a panel discussion with Actors Theatre of Louisville on how it staged this piece during a pandemic, Quijada refers to Where Did We Sit on the Bus? (which also includes some pretty great spoken-word poetry) as “a theatrical mixtape of my life.”
That mixtape is an uplifting homage to the diverse influences and experiences shaping Quijada’s understanding of himself. They include his parents’ harrowing underground journeys to America; his abiding love for Michael Jackson; his Jewish friends from middle school and high school; and all those theater artists who’ve played such an integral role in his own growth as an actor and writer. Without ducking any of the tough conversations about race and identity that we all need to be having right now, Quijada’s positive spin is that there should be room for everyone at the table. With President Biden having just proposed a sweeping overhaul of this country’s criminally stupid immigration policy, it’s a welcome and timely message.
That message is delivered in the polished Actors Theatre of Louisville production (streaming through May 31 for $20) by Chicago-based actor Satya Chávez, in a collaboration initiated by Quijada’s own wish to gender bend his piece, thereby further expanding the reach of its loving embrace. The result is 80 minutes of pure joy, accompanied by the fervently espoused hope that our past might be prologue to a different and better future.
3. No Man is an Island (The Island; Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):
One of my theater highlights from this past week? Receiving press photos from Milwaukee Chamber Theatre featuring actors (and Forward alums) DiMonte Henning and Sherrick Robinson on an actual stage during rehearsal for Chamber’s upcoming virtual production of The Island, a 1972 play by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The Chamber production will be available for streaming from this coming Monday through March 28 (you’ll be able to purchase individual tickets for $35 beginning on Monday; you can currently purchase a season subscription for four shows, including The Island, for $132).
Fugard, Kani and Ntshona’s title suggests the notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, and to which John (Robinson) and Winston (Henning) have been sent for daring to insist that Black lives matter.
But the plot suggests that no island can imprison the imagination, which the two men harness to envision freedom – while collaborating on a prison production of Antigone (as it happens, a top-notch National Theatre production of Sophocles’ play has just been made available for streaming). Both men wrestle with the dilemma that defines Sophocles’ great heroine: How much should one sacrifice in standing for principle and against oppression?
That question has taken on even greater urgency since I reviewed the fine American Players Theatre production of The Island six years ago. That review invoked Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston; a 2021 production necessarily lives in the shadow of all that’s gone down since, culminating in the many reminders from this past year that we’re living through two pandemics, not one.
But by raising the ghost of Antigone, The Island also suggests what Fugard has spent his life trying to prove: theater can play an integral role in our collective struggle to be free. How wonderful that a Wisconsin theater company which has staged so many Fugard plays (thank you, Michael Wright!) is marking its long-awaited return to the stage by sharing this one.
4. Love is Love is Love (25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love; New York Theatre Workshop):
Shortly before his death 25 years ago this winter, Jonathan Larson wrote the following, found after he died on his computer and eerily prophetic of what we’ve been through this past year: “In these dangerous times, where it seems that the world is ripping apart at the seams, we all can learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day, and we should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life.”
That philosophy of love in the face of death drives Rent – entering previews when Larson unexpectedly died at 35, with no idea that Rent would become iconic while going on to one of the longest runs in Broadway history. This coming Tuesday, Rent is coming home to the New York Theatre Workshop, the place where it began life as a lab in 1993 and where it originally opened in 1996 before its Broadway transfer.
In a gala that will unite original cast members with a veritable who’s who of current Broadway stars, NYTW will celebrate with performances of Larson songs, stories of how Rent came to be, and reflections on what Larson and Rent meant and mean for American musical theater. The live stream gets under way at 7:00 CST; you can watch a recording through 7:00 CST on March 6. Tickets are $25 and benefit NYTW.
5. The Sow That Eats Her Farrow (Continuity; Finborough Theatre):
Nearly a quarter century after the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland, a splinter group calling itself the Continuity IRA fights on, while claiming that its members are the true descendants of the martyrs who died following the Easter Uprising in 1916. But in Irish playwright Gerry Moynihan’s Continuity, that alleged continuity with the past means discontinuity and disconnect with life and love in the present.
Son of an IRA father killed by the British, Pádraig Devlin reminds me of some of the people one meets in reading Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s terrific 2019 book about the long shadow cast by Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Like too many of those who lived through those tumultuous years, Pádraig and his mates in the Continuity IRA double down because they fear a future which seemingly devalues their sacrifices on behalf of a cause that’s not only lost, but also increasingly irrelevant. Pádraig’s isolation is underscored by the monologue form that actor Paul Kennedy (excellent) uses to tell Pádraig’s 75-minute tale.
Enter Gorka, a woman from Spain on a temporary work visa; when Pádraig falls hard for her, he begins to see his commitment to “the cause” in a new and less flattering light (her name suggests Spanish poet Federico Garćia Lorca, another embodiment of love living in a world riven by hate). Will Pádraig choose to move on from the world he’s always known? And even if he wants to leave the past behind, will his comrades ever let him go?
You’ll need to watch to find out; Finborough is making the archival recording from its world premiere 2017 production available for free through the end of 2021. There’s occasional sound and lighting issues with this footage; available subtitles take care of the sound, and the film’s crepuscular lighting matches the show’s profile of a man lost in the gloaming.
Incidentally, the title of this pick comes from Joyce; it’s how Stephen Dedalus describes Ireland in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s novel was published in the same year as the Easter Uprising. Which was also the same year that Jeannette Rankin was first elected to Congress.
References (in order of mention):
* Anna Deavere Smith, We Were the Last of the Nice Negro Girls. Atlantic Monthly, March 2021.
* Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Hannah Arendt, ed.). Schocken Books, 1969.
* Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2021 Season Announcement (trailer):
* Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle (as adapted by Bill Rudman and Tony F. Sias), The Impact of Shuffle Along (Karamu House and Musical Theater Project)
* 5x15: Five World Premiere Fifteen-Minute Musicals (Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University; trailer):
* 5x15: Five World Premiere Fifteen-Minute Musicals (Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University; tickets):
* Ari Afsar and Lauren Gunderson, Jeannette the Musical (Warren Miller Performing Arts Center):
* George C. Wolfe, The Colored Museum (Crossroads Theatre Company):
* Toni Morrison and Middleton A. Harris, The Black Book. Random House, 1974; reprinted 2019.
* Brian Quijada, Where Did We Sit on the Bus? (Actors Theatre of Louisville):
* Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, The Island (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):
* Sophocles, Antigone (National Theatre trailer):
* 25 Years of Rent: Measured in Love (New York Theatre Workshop gala):
* Gerry Moynihan, Continuity (Finborough Theatre):
* Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (Doubleday, 2019).
* James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; rept. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2016).