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Daarel Burnette

Comedy delivers a punch in ‘Monumental Travesties’ at Mosaic Theater

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

What should we do with all the cultural vestiges of America’s racist past?

Today, the clothing, language, and statues that were created to assemble and glue together a system that subjugated Black people litter our day-to-day lives in sometimes embarrassing ways.

Do we ignore these cultural vestiges, hold onto them as a haunting reminder of our past, or expunge them as a way to combat contemporary forms of racism?

Monumental Travesties, written by Psalmayene 24 and directed by Reginald L. Douglas, now being shown by Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center, aptly tackles this provocative question in a tightly wound comedic plot.

The world-premiere play is delivered with a punch by Louis E. Davis, Jonathan Feuer, and Renee Elizabeth Wilson, standout stars who at times left their majority white spectators visibly squirming.

Louis E. Davis as Chance, Jonathan Feuer as Adam, and Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Brenda in ‘Monumental Travesties.’ Photo by Chris Banks.

Psalmayene 24 centers his plot around Thomas Ball’s Emancipation Memorial, a statue that has been controversial since freed slaves raised money to erect it in 1876.

The statue depicts a larger-than-life Lincoln standing over and “freeing” a mostly naked and kneeling Black man, whose feet are wrapped with a ball and chain.

We learn at the beginning of Monumental Travesties that Chance, played by Davis, has climbed the statue in the middle of the night, sawed off Lincoln’s head, and, being chased by the cops, dumped it in the garden of his white next-door neighbor Adam, played by Feuer.

In most plays about racism, playwrights require their Black characters to grapple with the many ways racism knocks at their confidence, warps their perceptions, tangles up their family lives. White characters are tasked with being a bit less racist.

But in Monumental Travesties, Psalmayene 24 flips this model on its head.

Adam is having a full-blown identity crisis, wracked by what he sees as whiteness destroying the world and feeling compelled to shed his white identity. A recent bout with COVID has apparently depleted his memory.

Chance and Brenda, played by Wilson, are confident with their Black identity, as is evident in the set, designed by Andrew Cohen, which features African print, furniture, and pottery, and Jean-Michel Basquiat art. But their marriage has recently been sexless. Brenda is underemployed and Chance has decided to quit his job to be a full-time radical performance artist. They somehow are able to afford a gentrified home in DC.

In this wonder of a script, Psalmayene 24 gives his characters lines that are poetic and biting and knee-slapping funny. He punches up at the sometimes surprising reactions white people had to George Floyd’s murder and their insistence that we scrub our society of language that looks and feels racist — the same white folks who were then less bullish when it came to changing racist policies.

Davis, Feuer, and Wilson deliver their lines with comedic perfection. They throw their entire bodies into their characters, play off the audience’s shock.

Feuer especially is unafraid to delve into the darker aspects of white identity and delivers some of the play’s most piercing lines.

Costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka found some of the most interesting and appropriate outfits for Chance and Adam. Outfits that scream, “I’m not a racist.” And outfits that scream, “Black people don’t belong here.”

I have a few quibbles: the head of the Lincoln statue was at times treated as if it was heavy; at other times, as if it was light. Davis, whose hair is dyed neon green, performs at a level 10 for most of the play, when sometimes it requires his character to be at a level six. And some of the characters’ time off stage to grab one or two items seemed excessive. Nothing that can’t be ironed out.

At the beginning of the production I attended, Douglas, who serves as Mosaic’s artistic director, said he wants Mosaic to be a “catalyst for change and community building.”

With Monumental Travesties, Mosaic hit the bullseye.

Poignant and packed ‘Monsters of the American Cinema’ at Prologue Theatre

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

Actor Fletcher Lowe makes a mean monster. He sprawls his limbs, curls his fingers, and makes a guttural noise so freakish I squirmed.

It’s too bad that the plot of Monsters of the American Cinema — presented by Prologue Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center through August 6 — fails to make much sense of his character Pup’s monstrous tendencies. There are moments throughout this 90-minute play, directed by Jason Tamborini, co-starring Gerrad Alex Taylor as Remy Washington, that were intimate, frightening, funny, and sad. But the dots are never connected for me to make sense of it all. The stakes are never raised enough for me to care.

Playwright Christian St. Croix stuffs a kaleidoscope of identities with fraught pasts into two characters, parsing out their backstories in a series of monologues. 

Remy is a Black gay man who fled his abusive family and the racist South to work in San Diego, where he meets and falls in love and marries Pup’s father, who soon dies of a heroin overdose and leaves Remy his drive-in movie theater and straight, white teenage son, beset with recurring nightmares, to look after.

Pup and Remy bond over their love and deep knowledge of 1930s horror films, clips of which are projected on two giant screens that border the stage.

Scenic designer Nadir Bey assembled an elaborate set, giving us a glance at Pup’s messy room, walled off from a neat living room and kitchen. Two-thirds of the way through, the characters move to the roof of the set, which doubles as the drive-in.

The set is enhanced by designer Helen Garcia-Alton’s lighting, which flashes from the ground and the sky and the sides of the stage, and sound designer Dan Deiter, who projects pounding noises that make the seats shake.

Pup and Remy crisscross the set, entering and exiting, pausing to give long monologues before interacting with each other. This can be hard to follow for the average theatergoer who can handle only so much information and subplots at once. Are we supposed to pay attention to Pup’s growing racism and homophobia? Or his nightmares? Or Remy’s struggles to take care of Pup and the drive-in? All three?

Taylor lands some funny jokes through his characterization of Remy.

And the bonding and intimacy displayed between Pup and Remy is poignant and convincing. Remy’s arms are tangled up with Pup’s as they wrestle over a cell phone. Remy bounces on Pup’s bed as he plays Candy Crush.

But I wasn’t convinced, honestly speaking, by Remy’s reaction to the moments Pup used the F and N words, a lazy way to indicate that Pup loves his stepfather but is disgusted by his identity (being called a slur, while hurtful, is not the most typical or potent form of racism and homophobia for Black gay people).

The highlight of this show is Lowe’s acting, who would shine in a play about monsters that made more sense.

2023 Capital Fringe Review: ‘#Charlottesville’ by Priyanka Shetty

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

I love theater for its potential to synthesize and succinctly reflect back to us traumatic moments in history, and serve as a healing device.

The 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the senseless death of Heather Heyer when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors is a wound that’s still fresh.

Priyanka Shetty doesn’t flinch in her dynamic production of #Charlottesville, playing during this week’s Capital Fringe festival presented by Voices Festival Productions. In 75 minutes, she muscles through the leadup, clash, and fallout of a day most Americans would rather forget.

Her research is comprehensive. Her acting is poignant. Her stamina is stunning.

It’s exceedingly difficult to tell recent nonfiction stories about race. Our identities, politics, and chaotic modes of news consumption pollute our memories. And mainstream American culture has inconveniently deemed day-to-day conversations on race as taboo.

Priyanka, under the direction of A. Lorraine Robinson, exploits the tools of theater to walk audiences through the many ways residents, UVA students, activists, and politicians perceived the taking down of the Confederate statues, the election of President Donald Trump, and that fateful day when it all came to a head.

Dressed in khaki pants and a black turtleneck, Priyanka does a spot-on characterization of multiple witnesses, sensitively respecting their perspectives while also upholding the truth of what did and did not happen.

Effective use of lighting, sound, and stage direction keeps the narration succinct. What results is a salve that deserves recognition beyond DC.

2023 Capital Fringe Review: ‘A Bro’s Tale’ by Majdy Fares

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

Majdy Fares has all the markings of a standout comic: He’s confident, perceptive, and has great comedic timing. But he fails in his one-hour standup A Bro’s Tale, playing during this week’s Capital Fringe, to deliver a cohesive story with clear takeaways.

He sets himself up for a great punchline. On a simple comic’s stage, complete with a mic stand, table, and bottle of water, he begins his act by describing an intimate love story in a seemingly foreign land, Dearborn, Michigan.

The son of Palestinian immigrants, Majdy is pressured at an early age to both assimilate into American cultural norms and uphold his parents’ Palestinian traditions. It’s here where Majdy is at his best, giving us lessons on how to actually pronounce his name (it’s Mahj-DEE), poetic descriptions of Dearborn (its own planet, covered in clouds of cologne, populated with hookah-bros), and punching up at Americans’ bizarre stereotypes and hangups with race (his description of his father’s bafflement after leaving the war-torn Middle East to arrive in the middle of Detroit’s 1967 race riots is hilarious).

When Majdy falls in love with an aspiring investigative journalist, he tailspins into an identity crisis. It’s here where he loses the thread of his story. By the time he finishes jokes about a cross-country road trip, apple shopping, and the obligatory (and exhausting) rant about free speech, he has little time to flesh out important plot points and central characters including his now-wife.A Bro’s Tale and Majdy have potential. A healthy edit will sharpen this necessary voice.

A rousing coming-of-age musical is right on time in ‘Fun Home’ at Studio Theatre

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

What binds together the LGBTQ community most is what’s commonly known as the coming out process: grappling to find language to describe an incoherent feeling that’s deemed unnatural, revving up the courage to say those words out loud, and then waiting to see who will accept or reject this realized version of you.

The distinguished cast of Fun Home, now playing at Studio Theatre under the commanding direction of David Muse, manages to pack what for many of us is a years-long, awkward, and sometimes tortuous experience into a 90-minute, rousing coming-of-age musical.

Actors Bobby Smith (who plays the father who’s coming to terms with his own sexuality) and Andrea Prestinario, Maya Jacobson, and Quinn Titcomb (who play different ages of daughter Alison, who’s also coming to terms with her own sexuality) deliver standout performances, climbing up and down the wide range of emotions experienced by those who have come out the closet.

There’s a reason Studio’s concession stand is selling packs of tissues. Buy two.

Fun Home is based on the 2006 graphic memoir written by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori adapted it into a musical, and after its 2015 Broadway debut, it became one of the first mainstream musicals on Broadway to feature a lesbian. It’s won plenty of awards.

In the meta-musical, a modern-day version of Alison sketches a graphic memoir of her life, in the process reflecting on growing up under the watchful eye of a closeted father, Bruce, who also happens to be a perfectionist. Her mother, Helen (played by Rebecca Pitcher), grapples with whether to keep secret Bruce’s growing proclivities, especially when his relationship with a young man named Roy (played by Adante Carter) turns inappropriate, and then again when he runs afoul of the law.

Siblings Christian (played by August Scot McFeaters) and John (played by Teddy Schechter) offer a lilt to this at-times dark tragedy.

There’s pitch-perfect, harmonious singing, and lots of disco dancing.

Because the plot is nonlinear and jumps back and forth between, among other things, Alison’s studio, a funeral home, a highway, a living room, and a college dormitory, creating a tidy set that makes sense is a bit of a puzzle. But set designer Debra Booth was helped tremendously by lighting designer Brian Tovar, who, for example, flickered bright lights on Small Alison’s face to indicate she’s watching the television, or flashed up and down the aisles passing headlights to let the audience know they were now on the highway.

Costume designer Sarah Cubbage serves the ultimate alley-oop, though, by picking the most perfect, blast-from-the-past outfits: lots of plaids and stripes, too-thick ties, browns matched with pinks, and starched collars and glittery platform heels.

Actors pantomimed their ways through other parts to keep the necessary props to a minimum. This can be confusing. Sometimes Alison draws with a pencil. Other times, she draws with an imaginary pencil. Actors face the audience, hands to their side, to indicate they’re on the phone with other actors on stage. And no driver’s hand ever touches an imagined or real steering wheel.

But this quirk at times frees actors to display their superb acting skills, which will resonate with LGBTQ and straight audiences alike.

Bruce and Roy longingly and disturbingly stare at each other. Alison, John, and Christian tussle for their father’s approval. Helen is enraged by her husband’s behavior, before experiencing bouts of embarrassment and grief.

Watch especially Bobby Smith’s version of Bruce: the way he erupts at the slightest imperfection that could bring embarrassment to himself and his family, the way his secret physically bears down on him through the decades, the way his hand quivers when trying to describe his fears. (Bruce’s “Edges of the World” is performed in a way that will stick with me for a very long time.)

Watch Maya Jacobson’s version of Medium Alison, after she for the first time experiences sex with college classmate Joan, played by Thani Brant. Alison’s “Changing My Major” is a comical song of self-discovery and heartfelt romance, rarely provided to queer characters on stage.

And please, please, please watch Quinn Titcomb, whose stellar performance of Small Alison conveys some of the most complicated, at times conflicting emotions of LGBTQ youth: the way she pauses for an extra beat when her father demands that she wear a dress, the look of confusion expressed in “Ring of Keys” when struggling to find the way to describe the familiarity she felt when she first met a gender-nonconforming woman, and her longing wish to one day fly away.

Subtle but piercing.

Coming out en masse was a linchpin of the LGBTQ movement in the 1980s and ’90s and why its activists managed to gain so many allies at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Studio has a long tradition of exploring the nuances of LGBTQ lives. So much, in fact, that a coming-of-age musical about a lesbian grappling with her sexuality may seem retro and even basic for a DC theater that was draped in pride flags just last week.

What more is there to know?

Today, the internet provides young trans people with both community and language that have blossomed into a new coming-out movement. That, in turn, has frightened a large swath of Americans, and the government in response has turned to muting the teachers and artists who shape their coming out experience.Fun Home’s return to the stage is right on time.

‘Radio Golf’ plays a round below par at Round House

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

August Wilson gifted American theater with some of its most dynamic and animating Black characters whose wisecracks, soaring speeches, and knockdown fights deepened our collective understanding of the many ways racism wrecks Black communities.

So it was unsettling to watch the mismatched cast under the direction of Reginald L. Douglas work their way through Wilson’s Radio Golf, playing this month at Round House Theatre in Bethesda.

Roosevelt Hicks, masterfully played by Ro Boddie, jabbed.

Mame Wilks, passionately played by Renee Elizabeth Wilson, prodded.

Sterling Johnson, convincingly played by Kevin Mambo, hustled.

And Elder Joseph Barlow, wittily played by Craig Wallace, griped.

But in each scene, to each antic, Harmond Wilks, an aspiring politician and real estate developer played by Jaben Early, seemed numb to just about every stimulus tossed his way.

That made Radio Golf a bit of a letdown.

Radio Golf is the last play Wilson wrote before his unexpected death in 2005.

It’s also the least produced and one of the more complicated works in his ten-play American Century Cycle, which explored the lives of Black residents in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. But while the business dealings in Radio Golf can sometimes be hard to follow, its overall theme still resonates today when so many Black neighborhoods undergo rapid change.

Radio Golf centers on Harmond Wilks’ decision to run for office while also trying to secure a federal grant to redevelop a blighted block in the Hill District. But he and Roosevelt, his development partner, run into trouble when he learns that one of the houses on the property was seized by the city in an underhanded way.

The play explores themes of access and opportunity and who benefits and suffers from Black capitalism.

And it’s clear the majority of the cast have a deep understanding of their character, their convictions, and what exactly would spark rage and passion.

Ro Boddie, who plays Roosevelt, has a vocal range and kinetic energy that leaps from the stage and (somehow) manages to build as the plot thickens and the stakes for his livelihood are raised. Kevin Mambo delivers a memorable version of Sterling that humanizes often stereotyped poor Black men trying to make a living. And Craig Wallace steals the show with his version of Elder Joseph Barlow. His nonsensical rants, pauses, side-eyes, and limped entrances and exits are perfectly timed and laugh-out-loud funny.

I appreciate the detailed and realistic set, designed by Meghan Raham: The early-era Mac on the desk, the scattered momento-filled boxes, the CD-tape player (where’d they find that?), the backdrop of the Pittsburgh skyline, and the rusty tin ceiling with the faded motif.

And costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka plucked the sort of flashy three-piece suits it’s easy to imagine Black businessmen would wear in the mid-1990s.

But other choices made by the creative team kept jolting me in and out of 1995 Pittsburgh and 2023 Bethesda. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the characters read from, the crumpled deeds slapped on Harmond’s desk, and the Crayola-colored files yanked out of the filing cabinets didn’t at all look authentic. Sometimes the characters looked lost on stage, disengaged from the dialogue, picking actions that confused rather than clarified their motivations.

And then there’s Harmond. Early, who plays Harmond, exudes the look of young Black politicians who were elected in the mid-’90s and early 2000s to become some of America’s first Black mayors. He’s tall, muscular and has a charming smile that’s hard to look away from. But looks can only get you so far in an August Wilson play, which taps into so many emotions that you become suspicious of anyone on stage who’s not in some way reacting.

For an aspiring politician who’s launching a multi-million-dollar project, Harmond’s monotone verses, stiff actions, and frequent hands-on-hips stance doesn’t make any sense. Does he really care?

He leans back and stares blankly when Elder Joseph Barlow details his relationship with the American flag or when Sterling shoots off a series of ideas on how to fix the traffic and improve the policing. And when Roosevelt yelps and does a praise dance to a landed business deal, Harmond can’t match his energy.

Because Harmond almost never leaves the stage and he narrates so many of the pivotal parts of this play, his lack of stimulus can be confusing for those trying to grasp the direction of the play, which, in some parts, is bogged down with lots of legalese.

There’s a reason August Wilson’s work has been replicated thousands and thousands of times. His plots are engrossing. His characters are relatable. His dialogue is masterful. Round House’s attempt at Radio Golf is an admirable one that has room to improve.

Mosaic’s unabashed ‘one in two’ lifts stigma of HIV+ Black male bodies

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

What’s so engrossing about Mosaic Theater Company’s one in two, playing this month at Atlas Performing Arts Center, is the way its Black male actors fling their bodies into each scene.

It’s the way Justin Weaks curls up his 6-foot, 140-pound frame on a plastic folding chair, or Ryan Jamaal Swain rolls and twists his half-nude body while vacuuming dirt off the stage, or Michael Kevin Darnall cradles the bare knees of his partner as he details an especially painful experience. Or when all three, playing their unhindered childhood selves, chase each other across the stage in an exuberant game of duck, duck, goose.

Since its inception, American theater has fetishized, dehumanized, and exploited Black men’s bodies. But here, Director Raymond O. Caldwell forces us to stare at and engage with the physical and emotional contours of three Black male bodies and poses a provocative and still-relevant question: how will you react if you learn one of those bodies is now diagnosed with HIV?

Almost half of all Black American gay or bisexual men are expected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, according to an ominous 2016 CDC prediction. Playwright Donja R. Love explores in this humorous, incisive play how the ongoing stigma of HIV has distorted the relationships Black gay men have with each other, their families, and themselves.

What’s most impressive about this play is the stunt Darnall, Swain, and Weaks pull off at the beginning of the show. As part of an effort to explain what one calls the play’s “amorphous…non-existent ass plot,” they break the fourth wall and ask the audience to vote, through a round of applause, on which actor they want to take the lead role, Donté — recently diagnosed with HIV and tasked through a series of scenes to walk through the many ways his community responds to the revelation of his status. The other two actors decide, through a game of rock paper scissors, who will play which supporting roles.

Considering this unusual stunt, it’s very possible that your experience inside Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theatre will vary drastically from mine depending on who’s voted to play the lead and supporting roles.

But the show’s overall message is a worthwhile one for Washington, DC-ers to grapple with (more than 11,000 people in the District, the majority of them Black and gay, have been diagnosed with HIV).

The astronomical rate of HIV within the Black gay community has been explained away in past decades as indicative of their promiscuous behavior, their refusal to wear condoms or seek medical care, God’s punishment, and a “medical mystery.”

 We now know that it’s the result of a confluence of factors that include their disproportionate lack of access to healthcare and insurance, their doctors’ unwillingness to ask them about their sexual activities, the prison and military industries’ sloppy handling of HIV diagnoses, the insular nature of Black gay communities, and, yes, culture.

When Black gay men are diagnosed, the rampant stigma associated with the disease — immoral, cursed, dirty, infectious — shames them into refusing to tell their sexual partners, families, and friends, compounding the crisis.

Playwright Love, who was diagnosed with HIV on December 13, 2008, found himself a decade later in a depressive and suicidal state, and decided to type out on his phone as a form of therapy a play about the “ugly, dark moments” HIV and its stigma has caused.  A run-in with another alcoholic, HIV-positive Black gay man who refused to take his medication led him to decide to get his sketch of a play produced.

“I would love it if I could be able to give this to my community, to help heal,” he said in a 2019 interview before a New York City run of the play.

What a courageous decision.

The stage, designed by Nadir Bay, is first presented as a hospital waiting room with three wardrobes, but throughout the 90-minute production it transforms into a playground sandbox, a gay bar, a bedroom, a bathroom, a hospital room. There are dozens and dozens of props (Deb Thomas, designer) that spring from backstage, behind set pieces, and underneath the floor.

Lighting designed by John D. Alexander and projections designed by Deja Collins provide crucial subtext, helping the stage transform between time and place and dictating to the audience a series of stats (some of which are eventually explained and some of which are not).

In the performance I saw, Darnall played Actor #1 (Donté), Weaks played Actor #2 (Mom, Banjii Cunt, Trade, Person at Bar), and Swain played Actor #3 (Bartender, Nurse, Kinda Ex-Boyfriend, Married Man). That they each managed to remember their lines, change into the appropriate costumes (designed by Brandee Mathies), and pick up the right prop through the intermission-less show is jaw-dropping.

The acting is conversational, fast-paced, at times improvisational. The code-switching —  something Black gay men, who straddle femininity and masculinity, white, and Black have long had a knack for doing — is convincing.  And the conviction the actors deliver is the type that only real-life experience could bring to the stage.

Weaks throughout toys with the audience’s emotions in a masterful way, exaggerating movements, drawing laughter, slipping into and out of sagging jeans and frilly pink hats.

It’s here that I should stop and point out the exceptional work of Sierra Young, the show’s fight and intimacy director.

Darnall, Swain, and Weaks are visibly aware of the space they take up and unabashedly use their bodies to tell their stories. A sex scene is at once believably intimate and then immediately cold. The hand-holding, kisses, fist bumps, and a moment when “Trade” blows smoke from his blunt into Dante’s mouth convey the respect and dignity that Black male bodies on stage are so often deprived of.