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Jordan Ealey

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.

Black Theatre: Jennifer L Nelson reflects on African Continuum Theatre Company

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published December 9, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

In his 1996 speech, “The Ground On Which I Stand,” acclaimed playwright August Wilson charged the American theatre industry to take seriously the funding and producing of Black theatre. This includes not casting Black actors in roles originally written for white actors (condemning “colorblind” casting), but rather to program plays by Black playwrights, hire Black directors and designers, and even include Black employees at the administrative and leadership levels. Larger, better funded regional theatre has had a long history of exclusion, as pointed out by Wilson and other theatre artists of color.

While the last few years have seen the appointments of more diverse artistic directors and administrators at the helm of several LORT theatres (such as Hana S. Sharif at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Nataki Garrett at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, among others), Washington D.C.’s rich history of Black theatre can often be overlooked and underexplored.

Alongside its intriguing history of African American culture, Black theatre in D.C. has always been vibrant. The African Continuum Theatre Company, once one of D.C.’s premiere companies dedicated to Black theatre, has contributed to this exciting, but underexplored legacy.

Founded in 1989 by John L. Moore III, who served as its Executive Director, the African Continuum Theatre Company sought out to provide a space for people of the African diaspora to produce, perform in, and create theatre. African Continuum joined the ranks of D.C. Black Repertory Company, founded by actor-director-producer Robert Hooks, a fellow theatre company dedicated to a similar goal.

African Continuum became a full producing theatre company in 1995, which led to numerous productions of African American plays. Some of its highlights ranged from an early production of George C. Wolfe’s Spunk (which he adapted from the short fiction of Zora Neale Hurston) in 1993 to staging the D.C. premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel in 2008. The latter production was helmed by Jennifer Nelson. I had a chance to talk with about her experience with the African Continuum Theatre Company.

Nelson grew up in a family of artists. Her father was an employee in the U.S. Army, but he was also, in Nelson’s words, “an incredible poet.” He installed in her and her sister – also a poet, and living in New Jersey – an appreciation of, and hunger for, the power of words. She became an actor and director in her native California, until an offer from Living Stage—a multiracial, community engaged theatre for social change founded by Robert A. Alexander in 1966—for an acting role brought her to Washington. A transplant from California, Nelson came to the company to take over as its first artistic director after it fully transitioned into a full producing theatre. Nelson recalls having grown tired of working at Living Stage (saying that “it’s a long story.”).

She longed for other theatrical opportunities. While working with Living Stage, she found herself attending productions at D.C. Black Rep, getting to know others in DC’s black theatre community, and eventually was introduced to Moore. Notably, one of the people Nelson was introduced to was Kenneth Daugherty, an actor and director who worked for D.C. Black Rep and one of the founding members of the African Continuum. She mentions that she “kind of stumbled into [the African Continuum],” but that serendipitous encounter led to an exciting new career direction.

Having developed an interest in producing non-traditional theatre from working with  Living Stage, Nelson wanted to produce theatre that “impacted on people’s lives—not only on the actors, but the people that came to see us.” That kind of ethic pushed her to pursue opportunities beyond Living Stage, leading to her position at African Continuum, where she remained for more than a decade. After Moore’s departure from the company, Nelson says they were looking for someone to lead the company and she was that person. “It was me! I could work at a place where there was no money,” she recalls, with her incredibly infectious laugh.

Nelson notes that one of the biggest challenges of African Continuum was space and that there was often a difficulty in securing enough of it to serve their production and rehearsal needs. She remembers the building where the African Continuum Theatre Company was housed, which was located in Northeast DC near Catholic University. The former space for African Continuum was too small for what they needed, but was ultimately what they could afford. One of the greatest challenges of running a black theatre company comes down to being underfunded—a problem that was not only endemic to ACTCo, but continues to be a problem around the country, Nelson said.

Nelson emphasized the importance of connection to both her time moving to D.C. to while she was leading African Continuum. She talked about the younger and emerging artists she worked with continuing to introduce her to new theatre artists and new works. But one of her biggest lessons she learned as an artistic director was the importance of networking and leveraging connections to acquire and share resources. She cited an example was asking Zelda Fichandler, one of the co-founders and first artistic director of Arena Stage Theatre Company, if she could use one of Arena’s spaces for rehearsal. “I didn’t know I could just ask the Queen of Arena [Fichandler] that question!” Nelson exclaimed, bursting into laughter. She was adamant about how those kinds of connections were important to fulfilling the needs of African Continuum and in her career after she left the company. Learning to ask for help was a part of running a Black theatre company and “going out on a limb” helped her during her time doing so.

I asked Nelson about the ways that her life and travels affected her artistry. She spoke about her wanderlust and the many places she has been able to travel. She described having a bowl of soup and adding new ingredients to increase its flavor and appeal, searching for “the things that are interesting to you, are delicious, and make you want to have more or go to the other place where this is made.” From growing up all over due to her father’s military career to a study abroad experience during her college years in France to travels in Africa with her sister, Nelson is still not satisfied, mentioning that sometimes she feels she hasn’t been enough places. Nevertheless, she is still grateful for where she has been. “I feel blessed that I was able to make all of these moves […] and to have the spunk to go places I have never been before,” says Nelson. The D.C. theatre community is blessed as well that one of those places was here.

In a time where the precarity of theatre-making has been emphasized due to the pandemic, it is doubly important to sustain the lifeblood of smaller and underfunded theatres, especially Black theatres. Though the African Continuum Theatre Company is no longer producing theatre, its influence and history is continued to be felt throughout the DMV-area. As DC Theatre Scene is in its final month of publishing, it is important to look back in order to look forward.  Celebrating the history of Black theatre companies is essential to preserving the future of Black theatre.

Award-winning playwright Adrienne Kennedy debuts new play in upcoming festival

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published November 2, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

When I first encountered Adrienne Kennedy, through her Obie award winning 1964 play Funnyhouse of a Negro as a student in graduate school, I was surprised I had never heard of her. After all, I had studied Theatre and English literature as an undergraduate, attended a woman’s college, and completed a great deal of coursework featuring female playwrights. Yet here was this Black woman writing experimental, challenging theatrical work in the 1960s, and I was not familiar with her.

While the Black Arts Movement is known primarily for names such as Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and Sonia Sanchez, Kennedy is rarely included in this esteemed list. Despite her numerous career achievements in theatre, her creative collaboration with theatre giants such as Edward Albee, and the inclusion of her work in university classrooms, one would be hard-pressed to find her plays receiving full productions in regional theatres. Even though I have read her plays and written on them for courses, I have never even heard Kennedy’s words out loud, let alone experienced a full production.

Knowing that there were many people out there who also had never even heard of Adrienne Kennedy, let alone ever read or seen her work, Nicole A. Watson, former associate artistic director of Round House Theatre and incoming associate artistic director at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, sought to change that. Two years prior, Watson directed a staged reading of Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber at Shakespeare Theatre Company for its ReDiscovery Series, a program designed to introduce audiences to lesser-known playwrights. “It got me thinking,” Watson recalls, “Why wasn’t I directing her work? Or anybody?” An audience member during the talkback also asked the same question, further clarifying that this was a dearth that needed to be rectified.

And then, in March, the theatres shut down. In a discussion with another black woman about the state of theatre, Watson remembered saying, “We’re not bound by the things that go into a season selection.” The unprecedented amount of uncertainty accompanying the impact of the pandemic on the global theatre industry is certainly enough to be anxiety-inducing for theatre artists and professionals everywhere. But Watson considers that there is “a freedom in this moment to rethink” and that freedom led her to proposing the idea of a way to celebrate and produce Adrienne Kennedy’s work. Noting that her plays are “real, visual, and poetic,” Watson recognized that it could be interesting to produce Kennedy in the virtual platforms as they lend themselves to the form well.

Thus, “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence” was born. A partnership between Round House Theatre Company and McCarter Theatre Center, the virtual festival features four of Kennedy’s plays: He Brought Her Heart in a Box, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Ohio State Murders, and Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side. Directors include Raymond O. Caldwell, Valerie Curtis-Newton, Timothy Douglas, and Watson herself.

Watson was drawn to He Brought Her Heart in a Box because of its timeliness for our current political and social moment. “In a time where we’re really being asked to examine our thinking and the way in which our thinking (or someone else’s historical thinking) has influenced racist institutions and white supremacy, to have [Kennedy] render that theatrically in such a direct way, I was so struck by it,” Watson remarked, also noting how Kennedy’s work is forward-thinking. One of the plays, Etta and Ella, marks the world premiere for the 89-year old playwright. Watson emphasized the decision was made to highlight this new work and its lyrical and incisive language, a trademark of Kennedy’s plays.

Another of the plays, Sleep Deprivation Chamber—which Kennedy co-wrote with her son, Adam Kennedy—has a timely and painful geographic relevance: the play details Adam’s personal experience with police brutality at the hands of the Arlington Police Department. Watson believes that this play had to be included, especially since Round House is located in a part of the DMV theatre community.

Watson sees it as the perfect bridge between her closing chapter at Round House and her new position at McCarter, which is funded by a BOLD grant for female-identifying leaders. But the partnership also has benefits for both theaters, which includes the reach to a wider audience, leading to more people being exposed to Kennedy’s life and work. Noting that it “allows for a different kind of access,” this is an opportunity to really demonstrate the importance of Adrienne Kennedy in the theatrical world. “For me, it feels like a huge gift,” Watson says.