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Jordan Ealey

An enthralling story of love in ‘Berta, Berta’ from Everyman Theatre

I could not help but root for these two lost and lonely souls to find solace in each other.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published June 10, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

Every 17 years, cicadas emerge from underground and swarm the earth, searching for their mates. Their long incubation leads to a relatively short — yet loud — existence aboveground. Though they are here only a short while, they make their presence known. In mythology, the cicada is known for themes such as immortality, resurrection, and ecstasy. As we attempt to heal from a pandemic that has shaken the global center, the cicadas are here to remind us of the inevitability of life and death, shouting a promise that no matter what, the world still turns.

This thematic underpinning undergirds Angelica Chéri’s Berta, Berta, currently running at Everyman Theatre. The play is a two-hander following the entangled lives of Leroy (portrayed by Gabriel D. Lawrence) and Berta (portrayed by Myxolydia Taylor) as they try to heal their broken selves through each other. After being estranged for three years, Leroy arrives at Berta’s door, bloodied and scared, having committed murder against someone claiming to have “had” Berta. What follows is a story of mysticism, passion, and love all over the backdrop of the early-20th-century American South.

Gabrielle D. Lawrence as Leroy and Myxolydia Tyler as Berta in ‘Berta, Berta.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

I first became acquainted with Chéri’s work through her and Ross Baum’s musical, Gun and Powder, which had its world premiere at Signature Theatre Company after enjoying development through the new-musical laboratory SigWorks. Like Gun and Powder, Berta Berta is a period drama — perhaps indicative of Chéri’s artistic oeuvre. Set in Mississippi in 1920, the play feels like an eternal flame; that is, the passion is palpable throughout the production. Both Lawrence and Taylor give tenacious, laborious performances, and by laborious, I mean it admirably. In their impassioned deliveries of Chéri’s poetically written script, one could literally feel the two actors working. Even streamed virtually, their chemistry is felt from the very first moment they are together on stage right until their very last moments holding each other.

Under Reginald L. Douglas’s careful direction, what could end up strained and forced was, instead, lyrical and heartfelt. Coming in at just over 80 minutes, Berta Berta is well-paced, stacked with just enough moments of humor and lightness to balance out its dark subject matter. Ironically, while viewing the play, I found myself both consciously and unconsciously reminded of August Wilson and his signature blend of realism and mythology — only to read an interview where Chéri cites The Piano Lesson as influencing this play, particularly in hearing the prison work song, “Berta Berta.” Chéri notes that this song currently has no known originary moments; despite its being a love song, no one knows who the man and woman were. “I had to write an origin story,” Chéri says.

As enthralling as the script, performances, and direction were, these choices were further framed gorgeously through light and sound. Where we were forced to step in and out of reality (sometimes in Berta’s head, other times in Leroy’s), the aesthetic devices supported it dramaturgically and helped to communicate these moments to the audience. The collaboration of Sarah Tunderman’s lighting design and Lawrence E. Moten’s set design staged the moments of mysticism in ways that differentiated them throughout. I was particularly drawn to the strategic and skillful employment of sound. Knowing that the play serves as an origin point for a song, it seems intentional from Chéri that sound would play an operative role in the production. Chéri contends that “sound has a reverberation,” and those reverberations rang throughout Berta, Berta. It wasn’t simply songs or music that provided the critical sonic moments, but the screams of the cicadas, the rustling of the trees, the banging of steel when Leroy would be reminded of his trauma from his crimes.

Gabrielle D. Lawrence as Leroy and Myxolydia Tyler as Berta in ‘Berta, Berta.’  Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Berta, Berta, ultimately, does an incredible job with a lot of heavy subject matter. Yet, in the hands of Chéri and Douglas, the narrative seems even. Though the tension begins and remains palpable throughout and the audience knows the inevitable is going to happen  (they can never be together), I still could not help but root for these two lost and lonely souls to find solace in each other. The play is yet another gorgeous entry into a genealogy of Black Southern gothic. The cicadas may be here for a short while, but after watching this production, I am looking forward to Berta, Berta’s long life.

A close look at ‘City in Transition,’ Theater Alliance’s love letter to DC

Artistic Director Raymond O. Caldwell and Playwright Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman share insider insights on the company’s exemplary community engagement.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published May 24, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

Transition as a noun means “the process or period of changing from one state to another.” As a verb it means “to undergo or cause to undergo a process or period of transition.” Both definitions, from the Oxford Dictionary, point to transition as a site of possibility—defined by its errant and unfinished nature but moving toward something, whether positive or negative.

This feeling is captured in Theater Alliance’s City in Transition: The Quadrant Series, a group of pieces that explore Washington, DC’s four quadrants — Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast — in order to stage the disparate and interconnected histories and ongoing stories of Black life in the District. Playwrights Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie, and Leslie Scott-Jones were commissioned to represent one quadrant of the DC area and generated four stories as diverse as the region itself.

Kelsey Delemar and Daniel Young in ‘Child’s Place’ (Northwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Child’s Place by Shalom Omo-Osagie, representing the Northwest quadrant, and tells the story of an intergenerational dilemma: a Black family quarreling over whether to transform its long-standing restaurant into a lounge. Besides conflict across generations, the play wrestles with gentrification and class politics. Avery Collins’s Big Fish, speaking to the Southwest quadrant, follows the journey of rapper Wizard Kelly and his untimely death. Incorporating music, the piece uses the tradition of hip hop theater. The Northeast quadrant play, Thirty-Seven by Leslie Scott-Jones, delves into interracial politics as it details the fraught relationship between a Black DC resident and a white census worker. The Southeast quadrant play, Khadijah Ali-Coleman’s Fundable, tells the story of a game show (which I’ll discuss later). Each play speaks to the others while diverging creatively to present a portrait of contemporary Black DC life.

Like Theater Alliance’s previous virtual production A Protest in 8, City in Transition employs film in creative ways. But rather than presenting a linear composition like its predecessor, City in Transition fragments the narratives and sutures scenes together out of order. What this creates is an abstract, experimental cinematic and theatrical style. I was fascinated by this generative blending of content and form. It forces the viewer to really pay attention to follow where each piece leads.

Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour, Morgan Charece, and Charles Franklin IV in ’Big Fish’ (Southwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

As a company Theater Alliance continues to be a leader in community-engaged work — tuned in to not only the artistic desires of leadership and staff but also a complex understanding of the inclusion of the surrounding neighborhood. This can be seen in initiatives such as Radical Neighboring — a group of tickets set aside for residents of Southeast DC, a program dating back to the previous artistic director, Colin Hovde  — and has continued with recent productions such as A Protest in 8, the company’s fall digital collection, which featured the original plays and nonprofit activist organizations of the playwrights’ choices. In a social and political climate heavily attuned to issues around equity and justice, Theater Alliance seems to be doing what they have always done: modeling the convergence of community engagement and artistic practice.

But something else has been intriguing to me with the work being done at Theater Alliance, especially by its artistic director, Raymond O. Caldwell. I find, as a Black theater artist, that Black theater — and Black art at large — is often discussed for its activist or political merit and not also for what it contributes artistically and creatively. I am annoyed when critics simply write about how “important” Black art is rather than also illuminating its innovations in style or form. It’s something I always look for when I watch any work of theater but especially productions with a Black creative team. Not to devalue the political contributions that are being made, but I want to honor the artistry involved.

Charles Franklin IV and Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour in ’Big Fish’ (Southwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Due to the stalling of in-person performances because of the pandemic, Theater Alliance, like theaters across the nation, turned to digital platforms to produce. While many people have questioned what this digital turn has done to the fundamental agreement of what theater is (a live form of performance that is based on a bodily exchange among both performers and audiences), Caldwell has instead embraced the affordances of the virtual landscape. This question — “What is theater?” — remained central to Caldwell’s artistic considerations with the creative team as they were putting together City in Transition, he told me; he was not interested in simply making a film. Caldwell defines theater as “seers and doers,” as he believes “theater happens everywhere.” One of his favorite pastimes is sitting in a coffee shop and observing all the theater occurring around him. He doesn’t discount what makes theater special — its liveness — but “we have to be together for that to happen.”

Raymond O. Caldwell

This relational component is at the center of Theater Alliance’s ethos of producing artistically challenging yet communally engaging work as Caldwell realized that connecting with other people and bodies in a shared space is crucial to theater. But there is a unique component to Caldwell’s artistic and directorial style, a creative signature that I recognize: His work often incorporates play and games, specifically the device of the game show. It’s clear from both the fall 2019 Day of Absence and the more recent A Protest in 8 that Caldwell is interested in what games do and can do for intense political conversations.

“I love games,” Caldwell told me; “I think gameplay draws out some of the ugliest in us in really evocative ways.” Admitting to being a competitive person himself, Caldwell noted that people often return to a sense of play because it’s “the first way we experienced the world.” In City in Transition, Khadijah Ali-Coleman’s Fundable, representing the Southeast quadrant, harnessed the narrative and aesthetic device of a game show whose winner gets funding for their nonprofit of choice. This not only presented ample opportunity for socially relevant commentary on gentrification and the toxic nonprofit world but also gave Ali-Coleman space to explore her humorous side.

Melissa Carter in ‘Fundable’ (Southeast) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Fundable originally had an entirely different tone, plot, and characters, Ali-Coleman told me. As the process of creating City in Transition was underway, Caldwell encouraged her to focus her play more. Retaining the character of Natasha and her desire to open a nonprofit, Ali-Coleman also told me that her tonal transition to Fundable was partly inspired by seeing Day of Absence at Theater Alliance. The theme of “games” was important to exploring the nonprofit industry because, as Ali-Coleman detailed, “it’s all a game.” As is displayed in the play — which features two Black contestants, a white contestant, and a Black host — it is revealed that the game show was rigged from the beginning. Referring to her experience working in DC’s nonprofit sector, Ali-Coleman remarked on how she observed what got funded, who got funded, and why they got funded: it was all a game.

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman

Confessing to being “very serious,” Ali-Coleman nonetheless welcomed the challenge to incorporate comedy into her work. “I think I’m funny, but if my purpose is to really say something, then I’m starting to realize that the comedy aspect makes it more digestible.” While she also went on to add that she found it sad that it takes shrouding something in a humorous tone for it to be legible to audiences, I was fascinated by her observation. Humor and comedy are certainly bridge-building tools for conscious coalition and solidarity, but they can also be a double-edged sword based on who is laughing and why.

Returning to the idea of transition was important in my conversations with both Caldwell and Ali-Coleman. Transition struck me as a peculiar word because it could be considered neutral and apolitical, as opposed to maybe City Gentrified or City Stolen, which all the pieces imply the project could have been called. So why transition? I asked them both what transition meant to them, especially in the context of City in Transition and DC writ large.

Kevin E. Thorne II and Molly Shayna Cohen in ’Thirty-Seven’ (Northeast) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Ali-Coleman — DC-born and -bred (like many of the quadrant playwrights) — told me that many of the communities, organizations, and even people who were around in the early 2000s are no longer there. This has affected DC’s political structure, as observed by Ali-Coleman, where even local governments and local activism have been transformed due to the transition. Ali-Coleman, however, does see DC’s youth being more active than ever, with campaigns such as #DontMuteDC — which protests white gentrifiers complaining about the consistent playing of gogo music — attempting to preserve what is left of DC’s Black social structure.

But Ali-Coleman also made a poignant observation about transition — its meaning as signifying death, the ultimate transition. “What’s left if there is no community to come back to? To give back to?” she questioned. Our interview also revealed the depth of Ali-Coleman’s personal ties to her hometown of DC and the pain that gentrification has intimately caused her. Being from Atlanta and seeing a similar thing beginning to happen there as has occurred in DC, I see that gentrification is no laughing matter. It makes Ali-Coleman’s ability to tell that story through humor, irony, and pastiche even more resonant.

Morgan Charece and Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour in ’Big Fish’ (Southwest) from ‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series.’ Photo courtesy of Theater Alliance.

Like me, Caldwell is a DC transplant from the South and, similar to me, he also heard stories prior to moving here of the famed “Chocolate City” — where Black people were said to be living and thriving unlike anywhere else in the world. However, when he arrived here thirteen years ago, “Chocolate City” was nowhere to be found. After reading Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove’s Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital at the top of the pandemic, Caldwell said he was led down a path of DC history.

“Black folks have been able to create community here in really dynamic and drastic ways. And that idea of community is constantly in transition,” Caldwell noted. Washington, DC’s Black history is truly rich — given how this city was a place of mobility for Black people, inasmuch as it was a place of subjugation. Caldwell is interested in (and simultaneously concerned about) “the aesthetics of Blackness” that is “on the rise” in DC, communicated visually and artistically through things such as murals and programmed Black artists. But rather than ending a conversation by claiming something like “gentrification” in the title, Caldwell recognized that Theater Alliance’s goal has always been to start conversation.

Ultimately, I find Caldwell’s, Ali-Coleman’s, and the creative team’s artistry to be inspired. Their Quadrant Series sparked what can be considered a love letter to Washington, DC, a city ever in transition.

The Reclamation Project holds space to heal past harm in theater

In a residence at Kennedy Center, the group takes a unique approach to centering and empowering marginalized artists.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published April 17, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

The convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the political uprisings resulting from the anti-Black violence that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade last year (as well as the historical violence and oppression experienced by Black people in this country) have sparked an unprecedented opportunity to re-examine multiple institutions. “Re” seems to be an important prefix for the multiple reckonings occurring at this time (with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s project Reset and Roundabout Theatre Company and Black Theatre United’s Refocus Project).

The Reclamation Project, a homegrown DMV collective, was one of those initiatives in response to the racial reckonings that began last summer. Dreamed up by DC actor Christopher Richardson, The Reclamation Project describes itself as aiming “to address past harm in theatrical institutions, give space for healing in this moment, and imagine a path forward by centering the voices and needs of Black artists, Indigenous artists, artists of color, LGBTQIA+ artists, and disabled artists.” Inspired by #WeSeeYouWAT, the Black DC theater roundtable, and the Gender Diverse Black Theatre Leadership roundtable, The Reclamation Project seeks to center marginalized artists and instill power back into them and their communities.

Tẹmídayọ Amay and Sam Sherman performing excerpts from an exercise about honoring the work of service. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

The project facilitates this goal through residencies at local theaters in the DC area. Thus far, they have had residencies at Olney Theatre Center, Source Theatre, Round House Theatre, and, most recently, The Kennedy Center. At the heart of their goals for healing is space: physical, textual, and corporeal space in theater institutions.

During their residency at Olney from August 19 through August 23, 2020, for example, Richardson and Reclamation Project artist and local dramaturg Dylan Arredondo took part in an exercise to explore space and harm. Richardson paced the Tallulah Bankhead House on Olney’s property while Arrendondo read the titles of what had been produced at Olney, stopping only when a play by a person of color was named. In this process, Richardson and the other artists noticed that among the “hundreds and hundreds of plays” that had been produced there, a very small percentage were by nonwhite artists. Of particular notice to Richardson that many of the same titles were repeated, perhaps suggesting that there were plays and playwrights that were tokenized in programming. 

Billie Krishawn stands in front of the group presenting her project proposal. Kara-Tamieka Watkins in the foreground. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

Another transformative experience during The Reclamation Project residency at Source Theatre was when a stage manager marked areas in the theater where they had experienced harm, whether a spot in the theater not accessible to plus-size people or disabled folks, an uncomfortable chair they were forced to sit in to call a show, or an area where the stage could not be seen when trying to do their job. These moments of healing and transformation are “based on the artists’ success and what they need,” Richardson said, because the program is most successful when artists are involved in the creation of the project.

At the top of each day, the full company sits together, taking time to land in the space, discuss discoveries from the day before, and do research for the days ahead. Kara-Tameika Watkins, Larry Lewis, Billie Krishawn, Sam Sherman, Temidayo Amay, Renea Brown, P. Vanessa Losada, and Christopher Michael Richardson. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

At the forefront of the Reclamation Project’s residency at The Kennedy Center, Richardson wanted a process centered on the needs, desires, and wants of the artists involved: Tẹmídayọ Amay, Dylan Arrendondo, Renea Brown, Billie Krishawn, Larry Lewis, P. Vanessa Losada, Sam Sherman, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Richardson. Each of the nine was tasked to present works and ideas they wanted to explore and challenge.

Richardson recalls saying to them, “You are all artists in your own right and I want you to figure out what is an ouchie for you.”

They spent the five-day residency, in Studio at The Reach March 22 to 26, responding to the works presented by each artist, ranging from an intense interrogation of the musical canon to challenging Our Town. There was a personal resonance that came with each piece. The goal was to give artists the time and resources they need to tap into their best creative selves, untethered to the capitalist demands of creating a product at the week’s end.

Part of Richardson’s own reclamation project was an exploration of the role of the servant in canonized American plays. This interest was sparked by Richardson’s personal experience playing a servant role in a production and—despite his discomfort with what the role demanded of him—being praised by white leaders in the theater. “It created an odd fissure in my being as an artist,” Richardson noted, “because I was like, ‘Well I know that I’m more than this, but there’s so much praise in this, and I don’t equate that to what I’m actually worth.” One of those works was Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Through performance Richardson critiqued the play’s treatment of the servants, especially in the scene where one of their cakes is destroyed. This was prompted by a dramaturgical question by Arrendondo: What would it be like to actually bake the cake?

Participants circle up to participate in a devising exercise. Clockwise from left to right: Larry Lewis, Florence Babatunde, P. Vanessa Losada, Renea Brown, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Sam Sherman. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

“My goal is context,” Richardson remarked, noting that the dramaturgical program note or lobby display is not enough; the context needs to be on the stage during the performance itself. It comes down, according to Richardson, to “the level of excavation” required of staging (and restaging) these classic and canonized works. (This especially excited me as a dramaturg, as this excavation work makes one question the dramaturgical, directorial, and design choices that go into this intense critical engagement.)

Alongside the internal work done with the artists as part of the process, The Reclamation Project also held two public Zooms at the beginning and end of the residencies. I attended both of those conversations, which opened up some very fascinating points of conversation from among the participants and the public. During the first public conversation, a ton of topics emerged as a way to begin the engagement that would inevitably shape the rest of the week. One came up in a discussion of audience versus community, with the difference being that one watches (audience) and another engages (community). This prompted the question “Is your audience your community?”

Another particularly evocative question asked was “What is the hierarchy of harm?” The artists then explored their different relationships to trauma and harm in the theater, as Arredondo brought up a piece written by Amissa Miller, a dramaturg and professor, that interrogates Jackie Sibblies Drury Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview, its relationship to Black precarity, and the problem of spectatorship. A lively discussion of the exclusionary process of canon-making engendered an insight by Renea Brown, who specializes in Shakespearean works, to really challenge her fellow artists to question exactly why certain plays need to be gotten rid of.

Friday’s conversation was mainly in response to all that the artists had experienced throughout the week. It seemed that a lot of the same topics were being explored, in addition to communal questioning and input about what might make American theater, especially in the DC area, better. Tẹmídayọ Amay explained that during the residency, the artists were “being transparent about their needs [and] diving into truth-telling exercises,” while Kara-Tameika Watkins noted that it was “a judgment-free zone” where they were free to explore safely and comfortably. In valuing process over product, it seemed to me, their presence in the space fostered community that resulted in transformative artistry.

Participants lie on the floor as Dylan Arredondo (center) leads them through a devising exercise. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

Of special importance, especially to Richardson, is centering community and care in theater spaces. Many of the folks (both in the room and in the Zoom chat) named specific instances of harm that came to them by way of working in regional theaters. There were discussions of producers not attending to their specific needs, directors who had no idea how to work with performers in ways that did not harm them, and particular works that needed to be left behind. All of the instances were directly tied to issues of inequity involving racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. The participants in the residency were focused on uplifting artists as autonomous collaborators and it showed in this conversation.

It seems important to note that the artists of The Reclamation Project are not interested in a total rejection of the theater. (I asked a question about the abolition of the role of the director, which initially engendered a lot of visceral physical responses.) Richardson, instead, pointed out that it is about “transfiguration of the role” and de-centering the cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male people who have come to define what the canon is and how theater has traditionally been done. This seems to be a goal of the collective in general: an investment in transforming and empowering marginalized artists and facilitating processes that are invested in the same. It is about redirecting resources rather than ridding it altogether. Billie Krishawn responded that producers should choose artists who are interested in collaboration, not only their own visions.

These responses challenged my own view of what anti-racist, anti-oppression work can look like in American theater. They showed me—a self-described “Black feminist killjoy—that community and care, rather than wholesale rejection, can be the true antidote to harm. Committing oneself to true change is actually much harder to do. I appreciate The Reclamation Project artists for their willingness to engage in that work.

Participants circle up to participate in a devising exercise. Clockwise from left to right: Larry Lewis, Florence Babatunde, P. Vanessa Losada, Renea Brown, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Sam Sherman. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

In her book Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity, cultural theorist and dramaturg Dorinne Kondo explores what she refers to as “reparative creativity,” which she describes as “the ways artists make, unmake, remake race in their creative processes, in acts of always partial integration and repair.” I see The Reclamation Project actively practicing artistic practice as a work of repair and healing and harnessing the transgressive possibilities of theater-making and creative collaboration. This also involves rethinking who is a part of the new possibilities of equity and justice.

Richardson pointed out, in our conversation, that when institutions think about racial equity and justice, they often leave out the janitorial and cleaning support staff. “Because they also work for you, they also should be a part of the conversation on equity and diversity. […] They are a part of your organization.” It’s these kinds of thought-provoking inquiries and observations that make The Reclamation Project’s approach to working toward and struggling for justice for underserved and marginalized communities in the theater industry a truly unique one. When I asked Richardson what he would like to see happen with The Reclamation Project long-term, he envisions full productions of the works created during the residency, long-term devising workshops, and even facilitations for theaters.

But their big goal for the project? To facilitate partnerships with community organizations for social justice advocacy. Richardson, in particular, dreams of a brick-and-mortar place that provides a safety net for impacted people. “I’m really interested in a space where folks can come and that is really neutral ground that can provide a lot of resources to the community.”

As a Black theater artist, I have been a part of (and even led) many discussions in the last year about “the future of American theater.” We are in an extraordinary moment where in-person performances and productions are at a halt and many people have referred to it as theater being shut down. But what The Reclamation Project demonstrates is that there are many people, especially from marginalized communities, who are doing meaningful creative work right now. Broadway and other large institutions may be closed, but theatrical work is still continuing. Even when I look at my own engagement in theater over the last year, I have worked more than I ever have. Theater work has become more accessible than ever and collectives like The Reclamation Project are not simply challenging the existing industry but actively (re)working the practice of theater itself.

My search for Black women’s unsung voices, or, Why theater needs a ‘Reset’

How an opportunity at Woolly Mammoth to create a “new canon” became a celebration of inclusion.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published March 17, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

Questions of “canon” have haunted me throughout my theatrical education and subsequent professional career. As a precocious young child obsessed with the performing arts, I searched and searched for Black girls’ and women’s presences in the theater I was being exposed to, always disappointed when I felt I could not find it. This constant search has followed me throughout my educational career in theater and performance, especially as I embarked on a search for Black woman–authored works in musical theater. Happening upon the work of Pauline Hopkins in scholar Daphne A. Brooks’s award-winning critical text, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910, was a crucial moment: I was exposed to Hopkins’s esteemed career not only as a writer, journalist, and archivist but as the first African American to have a musical produced in the United States. How, in all of my years of theater education, had I never heard of this brilliant and path-breaking woman? So when I had the opportunity to expose her historically significant work to the theatergoing public, I happily accepted the offer.

From ‘Reset’: Paige Hernandez and Natasha Ofili in Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.’ Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

The opportunity came from Maria Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, who sought to create a project that challenged and rethought public knowledge of particular artists. She had been struck by a collaboration that Woolly presented seasons ago with The Lab for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, which featured Woolly Company Members Jon Hudson Odom and Rick Foucheux portraying James Baldwin and Studs Turkel respectively in a scene that to Goyanes was “revelatory.” What particularly moved her, she wrote later, was “hearing Baldwin’s words embodied by a 21st century actor.” Inspired, Goyanes invited a group of theater artists to collaborate on a project that would rethink and reshape the concept of the “canon.” The project would be a “power-sharing model” in which both established and emerging theater artists would have an artistic voice in a large arts institution, buoyed by last summer’s We See You, White American Theater, a collective of theater artists of color that challenges the racial and ethnic exclusion within the American theater industry.

The group of invited curators — Nicole Brewer, Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Kristen Jackson, Leticia Ridley, Nikkole Salter, and myself — embarked on generating an equally conscious and complex artistic intervention: a “new canon.” Goyanes’s charge for us was to curate a collection of pieces to challenge perceptions of people that we do not know, that we think we know, and that we have yet to know. The project, now known as Reset, was to begin an enriching conversation on how we celebrate and engage a diverse repertoire of cultural, social, political, and artistic works across time, space, location, and identity.

The five other curators and I brainstormed for a while on people and works that impacted our lives in meaningful and distinctive ways, relying not solely on a shared category of “Black womanhood,” but rather on elevating our relationships to the people and communities who have helped shape us on our personal, creative, and scholarly trajectories. Some of my favorite moments working on this project were from those early meetings with the other curators, where we would ruminate on the people whom we have thought alongside. As Nikkole Salter proclaimed, Reset is “a deeply personal project,” culled together from women, both ancestral and still living, who touched us all. “As we move forward as a human species, it’s important to acknowledge that we are all a part of the story, and allowing our focus to shift to the voices of those who have willfully been excluded is necessary for the restoration of truth and the understanding of life itself.”

From ‘Reset’: Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Hattie McDaniel. Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Our selections spanned an extraordinary range of fields: playwrights and librettists Pauline Hopkins, Rita Dove, Zora Neale Hurston, and Vy Higginsen; director Dr. Barbara Ann Teer; poets Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde; actor Hattie McDaniel; activists Ida B. Wells and the Combahee River Collective; and lighting designer Kathy Perkins. Alongside videos of short selections from their work (either embodied by actors or in archival and documentary-style footage), the entire curatorial team also provided dramaturgical content about each of the women featured as well as recommendations for further exploration. We wanted the site to be not only a rigorous artistic project but also an educational tool.

From ‘Reset’: Shannon Dorsey in Rita Dove’s ‘The Darker Face of the Earth.’ Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

For instance, my research interests and passions are in excavating the history of Black women in musical theater and popular music history, so I knew that I wanted to include someone from that ongoing research in our new canon. I landed on Pauline Hopkins, a 19th- and early 20th-century novelist, journalist, and playwright. Many folks, particularly within the scholarly world, are familiar with Hopkins’s work as a novelist (she wrote romance novels and is speculated to have been one of the first to incorporate understandings around race into the genre) as well as her journalistic contributions (she was the longtime editor of Colored American Magazine), but she is rarely situated within theatrical contexts and certainly not known by the larger theatergoing public. It felt only right, then, to follow the impulse to reset public knowledge and history by featuring Hopkins’s musical comedy, Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad.

The musical follows a group of enslaved people as they plot to escape via The Underground Railroad to Canada to achieve their freedom. Collaborating with director Tyler Thomas, whose artistry and vision enriched this play in ways I could not have imagined, I selected an excerpt from the script where Sam, the titular character, and his comrades on their plantation are plotting their escape and eventually travel to their first “stop” on the Underground Railroad. As written, the excerpt also includes the song “Steal Away,” which is to be sung as they transition to their first stop. Knowing the limitations of synchronous singing on Zoom, Tyler and I devised a plan to incorporate the words “steal away” both in dialogue and to close the excerpt. The result is a creative interpretation of the song’s narrative function: an invitation to choose freedom.

From ‘Reset’: The Cast of Pauline Hopkins’s ’Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad.’ Photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Other curated pieces were inspired by our vastly different life experiences. Leticia Ridley, my creative collaborator on our podcast Daughters of Lorraine, selected Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” a poem dedicated to celebrating the strength and beauty of Black women. Leticia was inspired to include this piece by her love of “Black women talkin’ their shit.” Originally, she wanted to film actors Paige Hernandez and Natasha Ofili in a cypher-style video, like the ones originating in rap battles, but could not do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the work by Hernandez and Ofili is equal parts fun and poignant, featuring Giovanni’s unforgettable words and their fluid movement. One of Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s pieces is a diary entry from journalist-activist Ida B. Wells, who inspired Carpenter not simply because of Wells’s important work in bringing the anti-Black violence against African Americans to national attention, but also because of her position as a mother. Carpenter, a mother herself, looked up to Wells’s ability to juggle motherhood while also fighting for the Black community.

Anti-racist facilitator, professor, and performer Nicole Brewer’s curation of a monologue by Hattie McDaniel encourages audiences to rethink how we perceive the Oscar-winning actress, who portrayed “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. Kristen Jackson, Woolly’s director of connectivity, infused Black feminism into the collection through her curated piece, the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement,” delivered by actors Sisi Reid, Amiah McGinty, and Patience Sings. Reading and rereading that classic manifesto inspired me to claim Black feminism as my political, intellectual, and artistic ethos. Hearing its words aloud in Reset nearly brought me to tears and will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of Black feminists.

Nikkole Salter’s pieces — which include performances of both Phebe’s monologue (portrayed by DC-area actress Shannon Dorsey) from Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth and an excerpt from Vy Higginsen’s long-running off-Broadway musical, Mama, I Want to Sing (portrayed by Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson) — are also significant interlocutors in Black theater history. Her pieces on Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre, and Kathy Perkins, professional lighting designer and editor of the first anthology of Black women playwrights, are more like short documentaries on the two women’s significant contributions, which call for even more study, engagement, and celebration. Of the authors whose work Nikkole curated, she mused, “They are people who found a way to use what existed to make room for those people and perspectives that were being ignored and excluded.”

The Reset digital collection reminds us that there is always more work to be done to sing the voices that remain, to some, unsung. Working on this project has clarified my interest in history and maintaining an intimate yet critical distance to it. I wholeheartedly believe that Black women and their work are worthy of intense scholarly and artistic engagement. When rehearsing Peculiar Sam we discussed the fact this musical comedy needs to be fully staged. Why run from this history when playwrights such as Shakespeare and Molière are consistently programmed even to this day? I want Reset to spark those conversations and potentials for future theatrical programming.

Haunting last words from a Black cop on death row in Meshaun Labrone’s ‘Spook’

An incisive and visceral exploration of American race relations, policing, and the criminal justice system.

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published January 31, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

“It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.” This quote by musician Oscar Levant is what opens the film Spook. Based on a solo stage piece by the same name, written and performed by DC theater artist Meshaun Labrone, Spook follows the final hour in the life of Darryl “Spook” Spokane, a Black former police officer. He is awaiting lethal injection for committing what is described as one of the biggest mass shootings in American history. His story has attracted significant media attention. It is in this set-up that Spook explains what was behind his violent crimes, resulting in an incisive, haunting, and visceral exploration of American race relations, policing, and the criminal justice system.

Meshaun Labrone in ‘Spook.’ Photo courtesy of Justin Featherstone.

Unlike many plays that are transformed into films, Spook (produced by Flying Scoop Productions) enhances its theatrical qualities rather than attempting to diminish or get rid of them. For instance, a common device in scriptwriting is “raising the stakes” to infuse a narrative with tension. Labrone skillfully and cleverly accomplishes this with the countdown timer, ever looming in the upper left corner of the film. We, as the audience, get to experience this man’s life slowly ticking away, literally running out of time. The narrative frame additionally includes a live televising of the lethal injection, the first one to be done in American history. Though Spook himself never touches upon this fact explicitly, one cannot help but think about what it means to see a Black man die as a part of a live broadcast, what it means for this to be the first of its kind. There were many horrific murderers in history who were still granted privacy at their deaths. Though at the film’s beginning, we learn that there is a chance for him to be granted a pardon by the Governor, it becomes clear through Spook’s story that he is not going to receive one. Spook shows no regret for the crime that he has committed; like the Levant quote that opens the film, he only mourns what he could not and did not do.

Spook’s dubious and ambiguous morality is a part of what makes the film a strong one. There are moments throughout Spook where it is both easy and difficult to “root” for him, wondering whether he is an anti-hero or a villain. The film’s darkly comic moments come unexpectedly, such as Spook’s joke about 1-800-HEP-A-NIGA, a short interlude of a “commercial” for a fictional hotline to help incarcerated Black people. Another rootable moment comes when Spook discusses his heartbreaking reason for joining the police force: to help Black people due to the injustices he both experienced and witnessed. It seems that while he does not regret the crimes he committed, he regrets that he could not be the change he wanted to see in the police force.

Certainly, moving from a stage to a screen can present problems for many productions; however, Spook skillfully navigated the adaptation. A haunting, eerie image of Spook early in the film of his darkened face gradually becoming darkened so that only his eyes remained was striking. Direction by Nate Starck leaned into the script’s dark thematic moments, retaining its theatricality in its one-room setting with focus only on the character of Spook. Labrone’s performance as Spook was captivating; though he was the sole person on screen for most of the film, he infuses the narrative with such conviction that my attention was rapt the entire time. A particularly virtuosic moment where all of the production elements coalesced beautifully was where Spook was criticizing the Black church and an organ scored his speech. The original music by Devin Spear, which could faintly be heard through the duration of the film, enhanced the dark visuals and haunting themes.

Labrone’s past as a police officer in the Washington, DC, area undoubtedly seeped into his stunning indictment of American policing. John Stoltenberg notes a similar sentiment in his 2018 review of the stage version, which debuted and ran at the Capital Fringe Festival, linking the commentary of the play to Labrone’s own lived experiences. The narrative unfolds in a way that audiences will be constantly questioning their personal biases and baggage, forced to confront realities about race in this country. But it was exactly this question of “audience” that I sat with as I viewed the film: for whom and to whom is Spook speaking?

Lawrence Glover (Prison Officer), Meshaun Labrone (Spook) and Jennifer Knight (Reporter) in ‘Spook.’ Photo courtesy of Justin Featherstone.

I could not help but cringe when the film opened and a dead Black female body covered in pools of blood flooded my screen. I viscerally reacted when Spook discussed how hard “niggas” made his job as a police officer. Yet I appreciate the ways that Spook broaches some intracommunal issues. One of Spook’s victims, a Haitian immigrant, was blatantly discriminatory toward Black Americans. Often, online spaces such as Black Twitter discuss what is referred to as the “diaspora wars,” where Black communities outside of the United States will air their grievances with the so-called monopoly on Black culture held by Black Americans. As the U.S. is a colonial force with far-reaching control of countries in the Global South, it is easy to see where the disdain comes from. My discomfort, as a Black American viewer, comes from this sentiment from Spook as an “explanation” for his crime. Though Spook is ambiguous as to whether its central character is supposed to come off as a sympathetic protagonist, I do worry about the perpetuation of certain narratives in the film.But ultimately, I found Spook, even in its violence, to be compelling, well-done, and sharp. Perhaps its strength lies in its resistance to ease and comfort, in its place critique and challenge. It was difficult for me to believe that a Black man, who grew up surrounded by the effects of anti-Blackness, would place faith in this violent and anti-Black system, but that in and of itself could be Labrone’s own critique of Black neoliberals. At the film’s conclusion, after Spook’s execution, the screen was black for a long time. I stayed there, along with the blackened screen, deep in contemplation about what I had just witnessed. Spook is a whirlwind hour of complex and uncomfortable narratives around race in America, but it will leave you plenty of time to reflect.

The real Ma Rainey: will Netflix do her justice?

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published December 18, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Introducing the real Ma Rainey. Ahead of the premiere on December 18, 2020 of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it is important for audiences to realize that Ma Rainey is not a fictional character born of Wilson’s imagination, but rather a massively popular singer who crossed musical boundaries.

Wilson himself was influenced by what he referred to as “the four B’s”: novelist Jorge Luis Borges, playwright and poet Amiri Baraka, visual artist Romare Bearden, and the blues. Using the blues as inspiration offers an incredible opportunity to engage one of its most important contributors: Gertude “Ma” Rainey. In her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Black feminist scholar and activist Angela Y. Davis writes that Rainey was “the person responsible for shaping women’s blues for many generations of blues women.”

Born Gertrude Pridgett, there is a dispute among historians over exactly when and where she was born (she herself claimed April 27, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia while other historians have claimed September 1882 in Russell County, Alabama). Nonetheless, it seems to be confirmed that she was born some time in the late nineteenth century in the Deep South. Rainey began her performance career in minstrel shows and vaudeville, like many of her fellow Black performers were forced to, due to the limited opportunities. Rainey recorded her first song “Back Luck Blues” in 1923. Though there are no definitive answers as to how Rainey was exposed to the blues (she both claimed that she was introduced to the style by someone else and that she herself created the term), she clearly amassed a huge following and advanced the genre forward.

Through Rainey was not the first Black woman to be recorded (that designation belongs to Mamie Smith and her song, “Crazy Blues” in 1920), her success as a performer earned her the title of ‘Mother of the Blues.’ After being “discovered” by music executive J. Mayo Williams in Chicago, Rainey signed with Paramount Records and went on to record over 100 songs. This proliferation of recordings catapulted her into unparalleled financial and critical success. Ma Rainey also toured with the Theater Owners Booking Association (knicknamed by those who toured, TOBA – “tough on black asses”). As demand to see this ‘Mother of the Blues’ grew, she performed before integrated audiences.

The blues provided Black women with the space, not available in other music, to express themselves freely. One of the most important (and sometimes overlooked) facts about Rainey as well as many blues women singers of the early twentieth century is their unapologetic expressions of queerness and sexuality in general. A lot of the performers, Rainey included, did not try to hide their sexual expressions. In fact, Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me” has lyrics that underscore queer sexuality: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.”

Though Ma Rainey passed in 1939, her legacy remains. Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983 as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Her song, “See See Rider Blues” (1924) is in the National Recording Registry as well as the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Her life has also been dramatized in various cultural products; she has been portrayed by Academy Award-winning actresses such as Mo’Nique in HBO’s Bessie and now Viola Davis in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix on December 18, produced by Denzel Washington. Tony-Award winner George C. Wolfe directs an all-star cast, starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as a member of Rainey’s band.

Review: A Protest In 8: Strategize, Organize, Mobilize from Theater Alliance

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published December 16, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

A daughter confronts her police officer father. An absurdist game show tries to determine who is the most Black. A candidate for district attorney confronts her traumatic past. A sex worker encounters a magical restaurant. These are just a few of the snapshots from Theater Alliance’s virtual play festival, Strategize, Organize, Mobilize: A Protest In 8. The festival, presented in a film format and helmed by artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell, features eight new plays from Roney Jones, Alric Davis, Savina Barini, Emmanuel Key, Kayla Parker, Tehya Merritt, Naima Randolph, and Carmin Wong and an ensemble cast of talented actors.

The plays were all written to address systemic issues at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class (to name a few) such as prison abolition, decriminalizing sex work, ending cash bail, reparations, dropping charges against protestors, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Following each play, there is a short clip of an interview between the playwright and Caldwell on the topic that the particular play discussed along with resources to join the fight. The result is a powerful educational tool that is meant to challenge perceptions around controversial and complex issues, expanding viewpoints in the process.

Perhaps the play’s most effective artistic strategy comes in the playwrights’ choices to represent society’s most neglected, criminalized, and demonized figures. For example, Roney Jones’s The Obedient Mirage, the first play, represents a conversation among the Vaughn family, where River (Olivia Dorsey) questions her father—the police officer—Elliot’s (Deimoni Brewington), role in the death of a young, autistic Black man. The play underscores the importance of defunding the police as a way to protect society’s most vulnerable, and also highlights the intersection of blackness and disability.

An especially compelling performance by Brewington as Albert in Savina Barini’s What Happens There, which follows Maria (Imani Branch), young Black woman running for District Attorney and a prison abolitionist, revisiting her traumatic past. The story beautifully unfolds and reveals Albert’s violent crime, but handles it with care. Both Branch and Brewington approach the extremely complex narrative with understated yet powerful performances that infuse Barini’s script with passion and nuance and, ultimately, makes a case for reducing prison populations.

Caldwell’s skillful direction enhances this dynamic and robust production. His eye and talent particularly for whimsy, fantasy, and parody shine especially in the satirical plays, Alric Davis’s Reap the Reparations and Tehya Merritt’s It’s A New Age, Mammy! The direction underscores the absurdist narrative in Reparations, particularly in its retro 1980s aesthetic, reflected in Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design and Jeannette Christensen’s costumes. Reminiscent of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum with its humorous dialogue yet incisive critique, Caldwell is able to bring out the humor in these two different scripts, creating a wonderful balance with the heavy material.

Comedy can often be an incredible tool for broaching difficult topics, which is deftly illustrated here. The moments of comedy offered throughout the festival offered a welcome reprieve while also not letting up on the goal of educating and empowering audiences on this set of important issues. An example of this can be seen in Emmanuel Key’s Tiffany’s, where a group of Black femmes in an underground world help Neith (Branch), a sex worker, see her own value and self-worth. The fantasy of this piece accompanied by the camaraderie among the other characters (with gorgeous chemistry among Moses Princien, Janelle Odom, and Dorsey) balanced the piece’s tackling of a challenging topic with the power of black femme communities. Though the festival’s broad scope can feel overwhelming, Caldwell’s attention to detail and specificity grounds it.

Ultimately, A Protest In 8 demonstrates the power of theatre to stage important dialogues on challenging topics. In the short clip following their play, Jones remarks that “[i]magination and protest go hand-in-hand” and underscores that “imagination, joy, play ARE a part of protest.” These statements from Jones highlight how critical theatre is to imagining a world of liberation, especially for Black communities.

It is fitting that the festival’s concluding play is Carmin Wong’s Criminalize Me, which beautifully blends poetry and dance with dialogue in a critique of the school-to-prison pipeline. Wisdom (Branch), a teenager struggling with a traumatic moment, uses poetry as an escape. Wong’s poetic meditation (alongside Caldwell’s beautiful direction) provides a map for how to make use of art for both protest and healing. Developed in concert with national social justice organizations such as Black Lives Matter Houston, Project SAFE, and Southerners on the New Ground (SONG), the festival ensures that audiences are not simply enjoying the plays in a vacuum but also are connected to on-the-ground work that is occurring across the country. A Protest in 8, then, arms audiences with the tools not only to strategize, organize, and mobilize, but to dare to envision a better world.