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Imani Nyame

‘’Good Bones’ At Studio Theatre Sheds Light On Gentrification’s Impact From a Fresh Perspective

By Imani Nyame

This article was originally published in DC Trending, here.

If homeownership is the last pitstop to fulfilling the American dream, then it makes sense that Black Americans are encouraged to stay woke. In a country where the vast majority of homeowners are White it can be a cause for celebration when a Black family can afford to dream. Buying a house is a step towards  Black intergenerational wealth. Yet, they may unknowingly contribute to the gentrification that plagues many urban communities experiencing rising property values. But what happens when the gentrifier isn’t an outsider? Or, if the perpetrator moves back to the very place they ran from? 

These questions are confronted in the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, James Ijame’s, Good Bones commissioned by Studio Theatre. Directed by frequent Studio Theatre collaborator, Psalmayene 24, this production is intimate. It features a thrust stage set in the kitchen of married, first time homeowners, Aisha (played by Cara Ricketts) and Travis (played by Joel Ashur) expecting their first born. As they employ the help of neighborhood contracter, Earl (played by Johnny Ramey) to help them finish their renovations in time for the birth of their baby, they connect with one another and to their neighborhood through candid conversation and some much needed life reality checks. 

The performance’s frank dialogue showcases each character’s undeniably strong sense of self. So it’s fitting that the majority of this play takes place in the midst of discourse. The common denominators are the headstrong and lively Aisha, and the passionate, yet hotheaded, Earl both of which are natives of the unnamed city meant to represent the many just like it. Aisha left her hometown and attained higher education to became a civil engineer; Whereas, Earl stayed. Earl is an intrinsic part of his community and is troubled  by the general disregard for its  rich history. Ramey’s “Earl” is provocative and his intensity toes the line that establishes his and Aisha’s professional relationship. Earl sees Aisha in ways that Travis cannot. Ultimately, their relatability nudges Aisha towards an impossible “what if,”  forced to reckon with who she would have become if she had stayed. 

Costume designer, Moyenda Kulemeka’s, amplifies the charcter’s archetypes and personal politics seamlessly through wardrobe. Travis, aloof, young and wealthy, sports muscle bearing polos matched with trendy shorts, and a signature high-top fade which likens him to a modern day, Carlton (The Fresh Prince). This is a stark contrast to Earls’ modest, earth-toned outfits, and splashes of color coming from what seems to be a vast collection of accessories including a kufi adorning his crown.

There’s a fifth character, outside of the  main characters, that plays a pivotal role in the story — the ghost of Aisha and Travis’ new home. Sound master Megumi Katayamaand lighting (by William D’eugenio) work together to create an ever present spirit. Random sounds, the laughter of children, and the dimness of the kitchen at different times of the day serve as a reminder that time doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

Earl says, to Aisha, “…the past isn’t the past…it’s here. Now.” 

Ultimately, Good Bones is nothing short of some good kitchen table talk. It’s a homespun, neighborly discussion about taking responsibility for one’s community by being conscious of and actively engaged in the structures that exist within it

The Black Theatre Coalition Takes on Les Misérables at the Kennedy Center

By Imani Nyame 

This article was originally published in DCTRENDING, here.

There are few things more thrilling than when Broadway leaves New York and lands right in your city. Touring productions provide people, from all over, the opportunity to engage with high commercial theater close to home. They also encourage accessibility which can only promote further equity and diversity in theater spaces. In a world where the majority of theatergoers are White – we need that.  But what about the people working behind the scenes? From directors to stage hands, head electricians to hair and wigs, the ratio of white vs nonwhite people working in high commercial theater is beyond disproportionate. This isn’t because we aren’t here and capable; we are and in high numbers. We simply don’t have access. 

The non-profit organization, Black Theatre Coalition, is working to change that. Through their emerging apprenticeship program, they’re creating paid opportunities for young black creatives to learn alongside industry production professionals working in their cities. The primary goal of BTC is to remove the “illusion of inclusion” from theater spaces. As liberal as theater may seem, in regards to its main purpose to mirror society and advocate for change, the reality is that most theater producers and  owners are white. Meaning, the majority of the plays being produced are not employing persons of color on, or backstage. I was fortunately provided the opportunity to participate in a program, this past April, working with the Les Misérables touring company at the John F. Kennedy Center where it made its US debut in 1986.

My initial introduction to ’Les Mis’ was through the 2012 film adaptation (though mention the film to director James Powell and he’ll likely scoff at its inferiority to the live version.) This being my first time seeing the esteemed musical live, I was excited that the apprenticeship offered backstage passes, too. Some other perks included getting to shadow resident director Richard Barth. Shadowing him, I observed how he tenderly passed out notes to the cast on things he noticed might need some work like lighting, acting choices or blocking. I worked with many other departments including automations, stage management, and hair and wigs. I observed the show with follow-spot operators (Bradley and Lauren), who have the best seats in the house at the top of the theater. I also sat in the pit with the orchestra for part of the show.

I’ve been doing theater for the majority of my life — from high school to college to regional theater. And all of these experiences have been invaluable. Working on a show of this caliber and bearing witness to the many moving parts of this well-oiled machine has enhanced my perspective on what it takes to produce this level of theater. From the intense schedules, to being estranged from the comfort of immediate friends and family.  All members of the ‘Les Mis’ company sacrifice their personal lives to keep the show going. They all have a role to play, be it the stagehand, props person, or Jean Valjean, himself. So many different positions and possibilities for employment exist in theater. It was interesting to learn that many key company members had not completed their education, but were mentored by people who believed in them and opened doors to opportunities.

As the Black Theatre Coalition continues to grow, it’s my hope that they allow me to grow alongside them. Through these types of opportunities, I hope to continue learning and developing the skills necessary to realize my own dreams as an artist and storyteller. And to promote diversity and equity in all the workspaces I inhabit. I encourage students and young theater lovers, alike, interested in developing a career in theater to look into the Black Theatre Coalition and what they have to offer.

‘Clyde’s’ at Studio Theatre plays it safe

By Imani Nyame

This article was originally published in The DC Line here.

Toting a bottle of beer, Clyde (Dee Dee Batteast) comes on stage clad in a busty denim dress, a synthetic wig from the local beauty supply and a little too much blush. With gusto that can only be earned from a hard-knock life, she comes to be the owner of a beat-up truck stop sandwich shop, home to a staff of formerly incarcerated men and women who have nowhere else to go. When veteran employee Montrellous (Lamont Thompson), connoisseur of sandwiches and second chances, urges her to try something new to expand the business, she is pessimistic and immovable. He coaxes, telling her to remember her mother’s cooking, to which she responds: “My mother never cooked anything. … That woman was like peanut brittle, sweet and salty, and I was never sure whether I actually liked her.” 

The same can be said for the current Studio Theatre production of Clyde’s, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and directed by Candis C. Jones. Notwithstanding the effectiveness of the script’s message and humor, I left the theater thinking that some parts lacked intention — a weakness exacerbated by uneven pacing as the result of direction that plays it safe. We witness a story stenciled in from the proverbial “when life gives you lemons” complex — but in this case it’s “when life gives you a criminal record, a ‘licensed dominatrix’ as an employer and a random box of swiss chard … get creative and make a sandwich.” 

With shabby concrete walls and red-and-once-white checkered tile flooring, Clyde’s kitchen, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, is a universally familiar hole in the wall where you can expect good grub aside from the occasional stomach ache. (The audience might as well be in the kitchen, transported by aromas, like chocolate in a climatic scene, pumped through the vents of the theater by sensory consultant Miriam Songster.) Questionable health and safety practices — such as wiping knives on the backs of dingy aprons or spraying disinfectant spray over an open container of fresh tomatoes — scream that Clyde’s is far from any Michelin recommendation. 

The staff of ex-convicts includes Letitia (Kashayna Johnson), a stylish young Black mom of a daughter with a rare genetic condition; Rafael (Brandon Ocasio), a classic example of Latin machismo; and Jason (Quinn M. Johnson), a reserved yet temperamental white male. Individually these characters are dynamic, but as an ensemble they fall flat. The caricatures, though written with an indelible urgency, need perhaps a bit more spontaneity from a cast that takes things a bit too seriously. Parts that are meant to be funny don’t always land, and parts made out to be serious don’t quite fit. Adequately entertained but not truly invested, I found myself wanting to find out more about who these people are and what led them all to Clyde’s. 

Nottage’s use of food as an agent of freedom brings her spunky, gritty script to life. It’s lighthearted and deep in perfect balance. The fatherly Montrellous provides a counterpoint to an imperious Clyde. Smooth and somewhat of a martyr, he is the glue that holds the spirit of the place intact. In platitudinous fashion, he encourages his co-workers to use the art of crafting a perfect sandwich as an extension of their realities. Mastering their ability to create perfect harmony with the ingredients at their disposal is how they will take control of their lives. (Are we still talking about sandwiches?) 

Clyde is not impressed, however. She dominates the place with a steel presence, intimidating her employees and belittling them with invasive insults. She knows they have nowhere else to go and revels in the fact. I was thrilled at the chance to witness a truly malicious female villain even if in the realm of an unappealing sandwich shop. 

But something about Batteast’s Clyde feels unsure, her prowess not quite earned. Perhaps it is that the tackily flashy costumes, designed by Danielle Preston, don’t hit quite the right note. Instead of showcasing a businesswoman who apparently has a little extra money to spend on behalf of a gambling problem, her clothes look cheap and ill-fitting. That’s a shame because — irrespective of Clyde’s discourteous disposition — something tells me she is a woman of immense style, a trait that could only bolster her confidence. Batteast’s Clyde is instigative, choosing to knock things over or out of her staff’s hands as punctuation to her outrageous rants, bringing to mind a high school bully who craves attention. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s hard to believe that a room full of people convicted of brazen crimes would stand for this. 

Despite such shortcomings, this production holds together well enough to keep the audience involved, if not convinced. Crafty transitions detail the fast-paced environment of a busy restaurant — the ring of madam Clyde’s call bell signifying there is yet another sandwich to be made. There is an undeniable charm to Clyde’s. If you are willing to take the ingredients this production provides and to experience the show for what it is, you too can improvise a refreshing glass of lemonade … or a satisfying sandwich.