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'Pipeline' at Studio Theatre – Brilliant, Riveting, Important

January 21, 2020

Pipeline is a brilliant play by Dominique Morisseau superbly directed at Studio Theatre by Awoye Timpo.  It is the story about the school to prison pipeline that impacts so many children in high poverty areas but it is so much more than that. 

Andrea Harris Smith (Photo by: Courtesy of Studio Theatre by C. Stanley Photography) Andrea Harris Smith

The play revolves around Nya, a single African American mom who teaches in a high poverty school and is very conflicted about how to bring up her teenage son Omari. She is divorced from his dad and wants to give Omari every opportunity she sees many of her students don’t now and may never have. His dad is paying for the private school and thinks it is better to have Omari in a boarding school than staying in the neighborhood school in which his mom teaches. When Omari ends up in an altercation with one of his teachers which could not only get him kicked out of school but have a long term impact on his future we see her terrified as she tries to understand him, and the rage within him, which led to his fighting with the teacher. She doesn’t know how to help him. 

David Muse, Artistic Director of Studio says "Dominique Morisseau writes from a place of deep understanding and familiarity, both with the subject matter and people at the center of her plays. Though it isn’t set in a specific city, it feels close. There is no doubt that our audiences will see DC reflected to some degree in Pipeline, which will make their reactions to it all the more interesting. It’s a play that brings both clear-eyed analysis about the damage systemic racism does and deep recognition of literature’s power to reflect and transform lives."

According to Morisseau’s biography “for Pipeline she draws on her and her mother’s combined six decades of experience as educators. She was also inspired by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an explosive examination of how the American criminal justice system targets Black men, and heavily biased press coverage following the murder of Michael Brown.”

I will never fully understand what Nya, Omari and Xavier (Omari’s father) are feeling or going through. I watched this show from the perspective of how I was born and lived my life; a cis white man of privilege born in Harlem who taught school in Harlem. I never taught a Caucasian student and Omari reminded me of some of the students I taught as a substitute teacher one semester in a Junior High School. As the play ended my first thoughts were I wish I had seen this play before my short teaching career began. Every teacher should see this play because even if you don’t fully understand all of it you will gain a perspective you might not have had before. It will make you a better teacher and maybe a better and more understanding person.

Andrea Harris Smith and Justin Weaks (Photo by: Courtesy of Studio Theatre by C. Stanley Photography) Andrea Harris Smith and Justin Weaks

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya is brilliant and you feel her pain and her love for her son every moment she is on stage. Justin Weaks is riveting portraying the rage Omari feels and he brings a new dimension to his character and to his relationship with his family in every scene. Even in the few scenes he has with his father Xavier (Bjorn DuPaty) you feel his pain as he himself struggles with the rage within him and where to direct it. Pilar Witherspoon is wonderful as Laurie the long-time teacher struggling to do good but not quite sure how in today’s world of education and Ro Boddie as Dun the security guard who also wants to do good by the teachers and students in the school but feels hamstrung by circumstances. It is impossible not to get involved with them as you watch their interactions on stage. Arnulfo Maldonado (set designer) has designed a perfect yet simple set and Jesse Belsky (lightening designer) has complemented each scene with great effects. 

I left the theater after the play thinking I understood a little more about Nya and Omari’s life but quickly realized again I could never fully understand what makes those whose experiences in life are so different from mine tick. I understood a little more about institutional and systemic racism and felt I had a better understanding than ever before about where the rage in an incredibly smart kid like Omari could come from. It was eye opening.  I have spent what I thought of as a lifetime fighting inequality and racism yet walking out of that play realized again how far those fights are from being won.  

No one should miss seeing Pipeline which will be at the Studio Theatre through February 16th.

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'Jersey Boys' a Blockbuster Musical

December 19, 2019

Jersey Boys first opened in New York on November 6, 2005 and by the time it closed over 11 years later on January 15, 2017, it was the 12th longest running show in Broadway history.  No matter how many times you see it, I have seen it five times in different venues from Broadway to on a ship going through the Panama Canal, if the voices are good it’s a great night in the theater and this production at the National is a blockbuster. 

Jersey Boys is the behind-the-music story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. It is said about them “they were just four guys from Jersey, until they sang their very first note. They had a sound nobody had ever heard… and the radio just couldn’t get enough of.” The show features all their mega hits including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Oh What A Night,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and “Working My Way Back To You.” Those of a certain age will remember hearing them for the first time and those younger will enjoy them for the first time. They are songs to move too and clap your hands too and you will leave the theater singing them. The songs were written by Bob Gaudio who was not only a founding member of The Four Seasons but has written songs for many others and is a world class producer having worked with Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye among many others.  Frankie Valli is still touring today though not with the original Four Seasons. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. 

This production is directed by two-time Tony® Award-winner Des McAnuff and his whole team does their work really well. In this play which is really all about the music the fact that you even notice their work is a high compliment to them. They include Klara Zieglerova (Scenic Design), Jess Goldstein (Costume Design), Howell Binkley (lighting design) Steve Canyon Kennedy (Sound Design) and Ron Melrose (Music Supervision, Vocal/Dance Arrangements & Incidental Music). 

Then what makes this production so great is the cast who are uniformly good. Each of their voices strong and they capture the audience from beginning to end. The cast is led by John Hacker (Frankie Valli) who has an amazing voice and great stage presence. Then add Eric Chambliss (Bob Gaudio), Corey Greenan (Tommy DeVito), and Michael Milton (Nick Massi) and you have the dynamic The Four Seasons. The ensemble includes Andrés Acosta, Justin Albinder, Ashley Bruce, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, Katie Goffman, Connor Lyon, Kevin Patrick Martin, Sean McGee, Hamilton Moore, Bruno Vida, and Amy Weaver. Each one of them easily holds their own on the stage.

Jersey Boys will be at the National Theatre through January 5, 2020. For a great time in the theater don’t miss this production. Get your tickets today. 

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'Peter Pan and Wendy,' A Must-See for the Holidays!

December 11, 2019

Peter Pan and Wendy is a reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s classic work by Lauren Gunderson and its world premiere is now onstage now at Sidney Harman Hall through January 12, 2020. My suggestion is run, don’t walk to see this brilliant and happy production of a classic story. It is fun for children and adults because who can’t enjoy seeing Peter, Wendy and her brothers fly thought the air after Tinkerbell spreads her fairy dust on them. 

Gunderson has kept her promise when she said “We want to let the original and all its fantasy shine because, why would I ever touch that? That stuff is great. That’s why I love that story.” She does that with the help of one of the most brilliant and creative directors in the theater, Alan Paul. 

Justin Mark (Photo by: Scott Suchman)) Justin Mark

Paul said “At its core, Peter Pan is about imagination.” He makes it easy for the  audience to suspend reality for a couple of hours and let their imagination fly along with Peter to enjoy the sumptuous sets, a mischievous and magical Tinkerbell, an enormous crocodile, and even a real dog playing Nana. The sets are some of the most incredible I have ever seen at the Shakespeare thanks to the enormously talented Jason Sherwood. Then there are the wonderful costumes imagined by Loren Shaw. 

From the opening scene which takes place in the children’s bedroom of the Darling home you get caught up in the play and simply sit back and enjoy. The music by composer Jenny Giering is perfect as is the lighting by Isabella Byrd. The flying sequences choreographed by Paul Rubin let you easily suspend reality.

The there are the actors. Paul has put together an impressive cast with some extremely talented STC regulars like Derek Smith who plays both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling; and Jenni Barber who also plays two roles, Mrs. Darling in Edwardian England and then puts on her wings as Tinkerbell in Neverland and makes you love her in both. The ever delightful multi-talented and wonderfully funny Tom Story plays Hook’s right hand man Smee; and then the talented Gregory Wooddell and Michael Glenn play pirates.  

Sinclair Daniel and Justin Mark (Photo by: Teresa Castracane) Sinclair Daniel and Justin Mark

What makes this production a little different and very current is Gunderson has focused on the stories and portrayal of three women characters and the respect that Peter has for them by the end of the play. Two of the women and Peter are played by newcomers to STC but each is one you will hope to see over and over again. First is Justin Mark as Peter Pan. He is brilliant and vulnerable and fun to watch from the first scene to the last. Sinclair Daniel as Wendy Darling is strong and captivating and Isabella Star LaBlanc as Tiger Lily is perfect. In this adaption Tiger Lily has been written with sensitivity and a sense of history, as an activist, a smart and capable girl who defends her home and becomes an inspiration for Wendy. Rounding out the leads are Chauncey Chestnut funny and charming as Michael Darling and Christopher Flaim as John Darling, Together with the lost boys including Joriah Kwame, Tendo Nsubuga and all the others they bring to life Gunderson and Paul’s vision to make Peter Pan relevant today. They focus and explore how young men and women begin to shape their own identifies. 

This Peter Pan and Wendy is a must see for the holidays. Take yourself and bring your children, nieces and nephews. You will all enjoy a delightful time in the theater. Tickets will go fast to Peter Pan and Wendy so order yours today.

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