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“Safe House” Breaks for Freedom, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

“Safe House” Breaks for Freedom, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

Millennial Notes

Black Lives, White Rules

by Benjamin K. Sloan

Before the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were living in the South as “free” people—a status that constituted a misnomer, and still does.  Aurora Theatre tells us the horrifying story of pre-Civil War “free” Black people in “Safe House” (2014) by Keith Josef Adkins.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore

Director L. Peter Callender snakes us through the treacherous Kentucky countryside in 1843, where the law is only a suggestion, and the white man plays King of the Hill. We find ourselves in the cabin of the Pedigrews, a family of a free Black people, made up of two opposed brothers: Addison (a talented David Everett Moore) and Frank (the engaging Lance Gardner).  Between them stands their Aunt Dorcas (the motherly Dawn L. Troupe), who tries to keep the battling brothers from self-destruction in the dangerous South.

referf-3Aurora’s intimate staging, with the audience on three sides, arena style, puts us up close to the Pedigrew family. As we look at their worn wood floors, battered pots and pans, and worn-down furniture, we can feel their lives and their oppression.

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The Pedigrews are led by the older, authoritarian brother, Addison, who can barely keep the family afloat by over-working as an artisan cobbler and salesman of his expertly-made shoes. Addison is constantly trying to corral his younger brother, Frank, whose boisterous and rebellious behavior puts the safety and tranquility of the whole family at risk. Aunt Dorcas tries to act as the intermediary between the clashing personalities of Addison and Frank. But we sense that she has other, bigger interests.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore

The strain between Addison and Frank takes center stage, as we note their clash of ideologies in their dress and demeanour. Addison, the older brother, suits up conventionally with scarf, buttoned-up vest, and a smokin’ pair of sharp boots. Contrarily, Frank comes off as rugged, primal, and sexy, with hair popping out of his loose shirt and suspenders pressing tightly against his chest. They are a study in contrasts–reminding us of the later great debates between two leading Black thinkers: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois argued for independence, while Washington stood for subservience.

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Lance Gardner, Dawn L. Troupe, Jamella Cross, David Everett Moore

Frank and Addison debate what it means to be “free,” disagreeing on the very concept of “equality.”  Addison has conceded to the idea of “white superiority,” telling himself: “This is a white man’s world, ya gotta fit in when you can get in.” He wears his hair so that it looks like the wig of a white American politician, very George Washington-esque. He is obsessed with “getting equal” to the white man through his own merit, by succeeding as a businessman.  With success, he thinks he will reach the level of the oppressive white power structure. However, his strategy merely sets him up to be devoured by the traps of “institutionalized racism” in pre-Civil War Kentucky.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Cassidy Brown

On the other hand, Frank, the “free” spirit, gets furious with the white people in town who are, in fact, controlling them. He sees right through the veil of “freedom” that the whites have set up. The Sheriff sends his henchman, Bracken (the dynamic Cassidy Brown) to keep “an eye” on the rural and potentially rebellious Black folk.

Technically “free,” the Pedigrews have been put on a two year ‘probation’ for trying to help a slave escape from his master and cross to free territory in Ohio.  Two years before, that runaway slave was caught and tortured to death. The Sheriff controls Addison, through the power of  that probationary period. The Sheriff imposes his own version of “civilized” slavery, a new, illegal slavery, enforced by Southern custom and terror.

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Jamella Cross, Lance Gardner

Just as the Pedigrews are emerging from their “probation,” an escaped slave (the riveting Jamella Cross) will test their fortitude and ethics, profoundly. The production will have you at the edge of your seat, wondering if the Pedigrews can  survive the trials of the threatening and brutal world “free” Blacks in the slave-holding South.

“Safe House” becomes even more relevant when we realize that Adkins’ script offers parallels to today’s  America. What happens to the Pedigrews, still happens today. The patriarchal hierarchy still  sets up ideal expectations for African Americans and other immigrant groups to pursue.  Do we still dictate conformity to conventional culture to make success remote? Do we put high price-tags on colleges in order to bar the door to the “Other”? Adkins’ play and the powerful cast are asking us: Are we treating the the “Other” like children or worse? Have we changed our ways?

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Jamella Cross and Dawn L. Troupe

“Safe House” by Keith Josef Adkins, directed by L. Peter Callender, at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, California, through Sunday, December 4, 2016. Info: auroratheatre.org

Cast:

Cassidy Brown, Jamella Cross, Lance Gardner, David Everett Moore, Dezi Soley, and Dawn L. Troupe.

 

 

“Heart of Spain”–Hidden History at U.C., Berkeley

“Heart of Spain”–Hidden History at U.C., Berkeley

Millennial Notes

Heroes of Spanish Civil War Celebrated in Song

by Tyler Jeffreys

Seriously, there should be a soundtrack of “Heart of Spain: A Musical of the Spanish Civil War” on sale right now! The moving voices of Fernando, the poet (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) and Alice, the journalist (Claire Noelle Pearson), give the audience goosebumps. Thanks to Malcolm Ruhl’s vocal and instrumental arrangements and the musical direction by Mark Sumner, a medley of traditional Spanish guitar and classical western compositions fill Zellerbach Playhouse, at CAL, Berkeley, in a premiere production by U.C.’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies.

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Claire Noelle Pearson as Alice

“Heart of Spain,” co-written by U.C. faculty member Peter Glazer, with music by Eric Bain Peltoniemi, introduces an original story set during La Guerra Civil Española (The  Spanish Civil War). Glazer brings to life a snippet from his own family history. A story about camaraderie and the selflessness of human compassion, “Heart of Spain” brings 30s history to life, and it’s about time: this is the war that led to WWII, with Hitler on the side of Spain’s fascist military upstart, Francisco Franco.

Glazer’s writing makes it easy to keep up with the history and timeline of events leading up to the war. “Heart of Spain” takes place in 1936, during the bitter struggle between fascism and democracy in Spain. The musical relives the tale of an international volunteer battalion loaded with reporters, nurses, poets and soldiers. They come to the aid of the Spanish people from all over the world–in a stunning display of social conscience. The story is told from the perspective of the U.S. workers workers who volunteered to defend Spain. They became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, among them Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and e.e. cummings. During the Great Depression, a diverse group of Americans crossed the ocean, leaving their families and offering their services to democratic forces in Spain.

Eric Hamilton, Yohana Ansari-Thomas
Eric Hamilton, Yohana Ansari-Thomas

The stirring anthem “Arriba, Mis Companeros!  highlights the sense of adventure as the volunteers take up arms against the takeover by Franco, a military general turned dictator—aided by Hitler. Our hearts melt when the U.S heroes are joined by English, Germans, Italians, and Cubans who form the International Brigade.

True to history, the ensemble serves as the main character in “Heart of Spain” in a poignant homage to the Brigade’s comradeship.We love the classical Spanish ballads like Vientos del Pueblo (Winds of the People) that bring up silent tears as we begin to understand the grievances of war.  Never forced, the characters’ motivations slowly unfold. One of the American soldiers, Arthur (Harry Fahn), brings us into his world before the war in his memorable monologue to his comrades. Along the way, we develop distinct relationships with each volunteer.

The sparse set makes a statement of its own, with a large white Constitution-like parchment backed by a wall slathered with blood. The bloody Constitution represents the struggle of people devoting their lives to democracy for Spain, not even their own country. The actors themselves adorn the setting as scenes evolve; their movements contributing to the stage pictures.  During a scene where the actors travel through Europe, they sit and sway to the motion of a train, taking us with them on an historic journey.

Thanks to playwright and director Peter Glazer for sharing and dramatizing an intimate part of his own heritage. Glazer, who sits on the board of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Educational Foundation, is obviously inspired by the men and women who fought. The world shrinks everyday as people connect and realize we are not so different from each other.

We must step outside our national bubble at times to fight for what we believe. Everyone can save lives. Heroism is giving, acting, educating, and simply knowing right from wrong. We cannot do it alone. As we go forth and vote, let “Heart of Spain” remind us of the bigger picture as does the International Brigade.

TDPS’s Heart of Spain brings this important moment in history to life through song. Photo: Alessandra Mello
TDPS’s “Heart of Spain” brings history to life through song. Photos: Alessandra Mello

“Heart of Spain,” written and adapted by Peter Glazer, music by Eric Bain Peltoniemi, directed by Peter Glazer, at Theatre, Dance, & Performance Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley, California, through Sunday October 30,2016. Info: tdps.berkeley.edu

 

“The Hard Problem” Bangs Heads at A.C.T. in S.F.

“The Hard Problem” Bangs Heads at A.C.T. in S.F.

Millennial Notes

Tom Stoppard’s Battle Royale: Faith vs. Science

by Benjamin K. Sloan

Many millennials have a tendency to  assert  their “truth,” impatiently, like angsty preachers who get silenced by other soapbox orators. Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” in its West Coast Premiere at the American Conservatory Theater, proves to be a delight for youthful questioning minds. The playwright forces us to analyze both sides of the conflict between religion and science. Director Carey Perloff offers us Stoppard’s educated alternative to mere dogmatism.  “The Hard Problem” relies heavily on serious dramatic debate, while also taking us on a scientist’s emotional journey.

We follow the career of Hilary (a spirited Brenda Meaney), from undergraduate dreamer to researcher in psychology, who expresses her belief in God. The play begins with her talking with her psychology tutor, a bad boy evolutionist called Spike (a witty, seductive Dan Clegg). He is coaching her for an interview at the Khrol Institute for Brain Science. Hilary expresses her optimism about the existence of God and about the human capability for altruism. She believes that genuine selflessness on behalf of other people exists in the world.

Dan Clegg as Spike and Brenda Meaney as Hilary, at A.C.T.
Dan Clegg as Spike and Brenda Meaney as Hilary, at A.C.T.

Her belief nearly short circuits Spike, brewing division between them.  They debate whether faith and science can mingle in modern times. They debate basic questions: Is there a separation of body and mind? Can humans be purely “good,” or are we just in pursuit of the best way to pass on our genes?

Despite their difference of opinion, they continue to enjoy sex. Their stark contradictions lead to opportunities for tongue-in-cheek humor, Stoppard style. Overflowing with sly sexual references to natural selection, we have to ask ourselves: Does Hillary really want to sleep with Spike out of sexual attraction, or is she trying to move our species forward?

In a post-coital scene, as Hillary prepares for bed, Spike discovers her on her knees praying to God. The moment changes everything between them because we finally realize that she practices her faith by actually praying! He is shocked.

Brenda Meaney as Hilary and Narea Kang as Bo, at A.C.T.

Hilary refuses to back down to her male counterparts. Her beautiful red hair and statuesque physique embody her optimism. Spike, a handsome know-it-all insists on being right and shoving forth his pretentious ideas. But, she fights them with vigor. She becomes a strong-willed female scientist who refuses to give in to her overbearing male counterparts. Although they intellectually argue, Spike genuinely cares about Hilary. Beside the fact that he staunchly opposes the validity of altruism, he is also living proof that altruism can exist.

“The Hard Problem” seems to have an emotion problem. Hilary’s relation to Spike hardly draws us into feeling any sympathy for either of them. Her closest emotional tie rests with two abstract concepts: God and altruism. Hilary also avoids romantic overtures from her academic advisor, Leo (a stoic Anthony Fusco). Nor do we relate to the manic billionaire owner of the Krohl Institute, Jerry Khrol (a dominating Mike Ryan).

Stoppard writes striking, witty dialogue, but these heady characters can slip away from us. The play offers us complex fast-talking collegiate banter. I felt as if I was still trying comprehend the last jest or loaded statement, while Hilary or Spike rattle off another brilliant quip. Stoppard includes edgy jokes about sexual selection, and elaborate metaphors for the brain’s grey matter, comparing the brain to the London subway system. 

Brenda Meaney as Hilary and Vandit Bhatt as Amal, at A.C.T.

 In “The Hard Problem,” Stoppard  discusses the Bank Crash of 2008, the greed of the financial industry, and our cruelty to animals. The once overzealous graduate student turned hedge fund manager, Amal (a boisterous Vandit Blatt), serves as Stoppard’s spokesman to expose these issues. At one point, Amal explains his support for animal testing because “they don’t sue.” He is a narcissistic social climber who adds controversy and flare to the production. His obsession with personal gain serves as the clear counter example for Hillary’s altruistic optimism.

The play’s intellectual platform offers a unique experience. “The Hard Problem” may not be a nail-biter, but it keeps your brow furrowed. I walked away with a very busy brain, wondering if these ideas could be realities.

Safiya Fredericks and Brenda Meaney, at A.C.T.
Safiya Fredericks and Brenda Meaney, at A.C.T.

“The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, directed by Carey Perloff, at American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, November 13, 2016. Info: act-sf.org

Cast: Dan Clegg, Brenda Meaney, Vandit Bhatt, Anthony Fusco, Safiya Fredericks, Stacy Ross, Mike Ryan, Carmen Steel, Narea Kang, Julie Adamo.

 

 

“The Brothers Size”: Mythological Masterpiece at Theatre Rhinoceros

“The Brothers Size”: Mythological Masterpiece at Theatre Rhinoceros

Millennial Notes

McCraney’s Brothers Battle “Big Brother”

by Tyler Jeffreys

The Theatre Rhinoceros’ production of “The Brothers Size” presents a hot-blooded, choreographed drama, lyrically directed by Darryl V. Jones.  Set deep down in Louisiana’s Bayou country, three men are connected through trial and betrayal. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney reveals the story in the “distant present,” connecting Black roots from the U.S. south to the Motherland of Africa.

McCraney tells his story in African folklore style, with the classic “trickster” as hero and child who needs to be taught a lesson. In this case, it is a lesson of freedom and responsibility for one’s choices. But what to do when you cannot attain freedom, what about freedom denied? How is oppression enforced in the most subtle of ways? We watch as Ogun Size and Oshoosi Size confront their angst and their oppression.

Gabriel Christian as Oshoosi, LaKeidrick S. Wimberly as Ogun

The cantankerous older brother, Ogun Size (the smartly disciplined LaKeidrick.S Wimberly) owns a mechanic’s shop, works hard, and is proud of it. But Ogun finds himself, once again burdened with his zealous younger  brother Oshoosi Size (the bright, breezy Gabriel Christian). Fresh out of prison, the naive Oshoosi longs for adventure and pleasure—the exact opposite of his older brother.

No soon does Oshoosi begin to accept his older brother Ogun’s strict rules, but  in slides Oshoosi’s former prison-mate, Elegba (the sultry Julian Green). Elegba reminds his prison-brother of the temptations of the world and flesh. The older brother and the prison lover engage in a subterranean battle for the younger brother’s love. Lust and brotherhood tear Oshoosi between adventure and duty.

Laura Elaine Ellis’ choreography vividly illustrates the physical struggle, holding onto Black culture with fearless movements and Ebonics. The men break down the fourth wall, with their remarks and their verbalized stage directions.

The diverse music selection, also directed by Darryl V. Jones, unveils the story: slave hymns, southern blues, African drums, and even some R&B. Each has its own poetic place inside the large silver link chain circle on the stage, which represents the entrapment of all three characters. They dance their hopes and fears inside that Dream Circle. We witness their inner world, fighting and loving in dream-like movement. As they dance to African drums, we feel their longing, and the slave hymns make us feel their pain.

“The Brothers Size” exhibits Black lives from a secret place. Here in California, we can forget about lives down at the Bayou.

Julian Green, LaKeidrick S. Wimberly, Gabriel Christian
Julian Green, LaKeidrick S. Wimberly, Gabriel Christian

McCraney reminds us that Black oppression in the United States is real, no matter where you are or what news channel you watch. The play reminds us to both fight for our freedom and then use it wisely.

With its African mythological background, this fable-like story can be told over and over again—done as well and as gracefully and sensually as this Rhino version.  Bravo to actors and director. I would sure enough go see the Rhino production of “The Brothers Size,” again.

“The Brothers Size” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Darryl V. Jones, by Theatre Rhinoceros, at Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco 94111, through Saturday, October 15, 2016. Information: therhino.org

Cast:

Ogun Size: LaKeidrick S. Wimberly.  Oshoosi Size: Gabriel Christian.  Elegba:Julian Green.