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Despite financial hardship, Joy of Motion Dance Center marches forward with new board of directors

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published March 2, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Summer 2020 ignited change for the Joy of Motion Dance Center, a DC-based nonprofit. Financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of two of the center’s studios. The organization’s reckoning with racist experiences faced by staff and dancers of color led to an overhaul of Joy of Motion’s board of directors last fall.

A change.org petition with almost 5,000 signatures called for leadership changes at Joy of Motion. Started in June, the petition cited multiple instances in which leaders had allegedly body-shamed dancers and unfairly discriminated against Black instructors. The previous board of directors stepped down on Oct. 16.

Carol Foster is now chair of Joy of Motion’s board of directors and the first Black woman to hold the position. Foster has also worked on projects with the National Endowment for the Arts and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She currently serves on the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus, which organizes events that mostly take place at the center’s REACH campus.

“People have to trust that there is change afoot at Joy of Motion,” Foster said in an interview with The DC Line. “It’s really critical right now for Joy of Motion, because of the pandemic, because of all of the racial issues that came out, that … you have to be accountable through action.”

Foster said she wasn’t surprised to see the petition or the incidents cited in it, and she doesn’t believe anyone in the Black community at Joy of Motion was surprised by it either. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests of the killing of Black people by police officers following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade were a catalyst for the petition, Foster said.

“What Black Lives Matter did was give [Black] people a way to be comfortable to say what’s on our mind. People need to be called out,” Foster said.

Krystal Odom, who has worked at Joy of Motion for 15 years, is the organization’s new interim executive director. She is the first Black woman in the position.

Odom said the petition was “necessary” for the organization to improve. Odom has taught ballet and hip-hop with Joy of Motion Dance Center, and she wants to include more instruction in dance history in the group’s classes and programming. After having eliminated two locations, Joy of Motion continues to operate a partner studio at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, as it has since 2005. Joy of Motion’s virtual programming for youth and adults includes drop-in classes, multi-week courses and on-demand recordings. The organization will be scheduling events such as webinars, film screenings and guest artist classes, and it recently held a busy slate of President’s Day Weekend workshops

“It’s important for students who come into our virtual space, our physical space to relearn where dance styles originate from. … It helps them to be able to look at [other dancers] in ways they didn’t before,” Odom said.

Since taking over, the new leadership at Joy of Motion has done anti-racism professional development training and created procedures for faculty, staff and students to report “concerns regarding equity, discrimination, and safety,” according to a press release from the organization. Concerns will be addressed using a “restorative justice” model, the press release said.

Odom said conversations about anti-racism, discrimination and privilege hadn’t taken place in the past at Joy of Motion. She’s hopeful that these continuing, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions will improve leadership and studio practices.

Coinciding with the leadership shakeup, Joy of Motion also announced the closure of two of its three centers. 

The Friendship Heights studio and theater, which had been open for more than 30 years at 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, closed in September after the landlord decided not to renew the organization’s lease, Foster said. Odom added that Joy of Motion had experienced a difficult relationship with its landlord in recent years.

The Bethesda studio space at 7315 Wisconsin Ave. closed at the end of November due to financial constraints.

Odom said that the demise of these studios will unfortunately distance the organization from many of its participants. The Friendship Heights studio served Joy of Motion’s largest adult population, while the Bethesda studio hosted three conservatory-style programs for youth dancers.

With only one open studio and pandemic restrictions on in-person classes still in place, Joy of Motion now serves — virtually for now — about 113 students weekly, compared to over 1,200 students before the pandemic began, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The pandemic has hit small businesses and nonprofits particularly hard, Foster said. Joy of Motion has received financial support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But the racial issues at Joy of Motion and the financial strain of the pandemic have negatively impacted donations, she added.

“No matter what, you try to keep your doors open,” Foster said. 

In a Dec. 1 post on the Joy of Motion website, the organization reported that “tuition from enrollment, grants, and individual donations have significantly decreased leaving a monthly shortfall of approximately $100,000.” Joy of Motion received only about $500 in individual contributions in September, October and November. The organization didn’t respond to requests for an update about how fundraising has gone since then, but a mid-December appeal on Joy of Motion’s Facebook page said that despite reduced expenditures “our organization is still in desperate need of an infusion of financial support in order to maintain operations.”

It hasn’t been easy making so many changes under such financially stressed, racially charged and socially distanced circumstances, both Odom and Foster said. But the organization is eager to keep rebuilding while incorporating conscious changes that better the community and ensure that “dance is for everyone,” Foster said.

“We don’t want to dwell on what has happened,” Odom said, “but we don’t want to forget.”

4615 Theatre creates a museum of the future for museum 2040

A headshot of Jordan Friend.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published March 3, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Starting this week, Washington, DC is getting a new museum, and a different kind of immersive theatrical experience.

4615 Theatre’s upcoming production, Museum 2040, written by Renee Calarco and currently in its last few days of development by the cast and crew team at 4615, is set in a museum curated to highlight a domestic terror event that occurs in Washington, DC’s future, with exhibitions that detail the political atmosphere of the era.

Repurposing the northwest DC space Dance Loft on 14 to create The National Museum of American Reconciliation, the team behind 2040 is designing an entire museum wing, with audio-visual exhibitions, historical anecdotes, and TED-level talks being filmed, produced, and set up for display as part of the production.

Helming the project, 4615 Artistic Director Jordan Friend looks to the extraordinary future Calarco predicts: “It was the kernel for something extraordinary, but we knew history would be hot on our tail. We’ve spent the past year expanding it into something even more sprawling, terrifying and thrilling than before.”

Which means? The production team is trying to stay ahead of current events while extending out to the year 2040. In the midst of their rehearsal process script lines, exhibitions, and props are being altered based on what frenetic news as it hits. One example described by 4615’s production manager Jade Brooks-Bartlett, is how she thought about the exhibitions and props during the impeachment hearings and acquittal of President Donald Trump.

“Anything Trump related can be expected to change the day before or midway through the production,” Brooks-Bartlett says. A display may be removed or updated, news clips are constantly being added. “It’s a lot of designing as we go.”

The team behind the development of this museum of the future is still focused on creating a traditional immersive presentation of sorts, which they describe as ” providing dynamic historical interpretation of past events.” Their promotional strategy, however, is anything but traditional.

In the weeks leading up to opening, Friend has engaged in an acute marketing strategy, aiming to blend a little of the immersive experience that audiences can expect when they attend this performance. Social media has become their strongest asset. A website for The National Museum of American Reconciliation is up and running. They are offering walking tours of the National Mall of 2030 and other special events. A performance by Sean Harrison (Sean Chyun performing in character) was held at the Harp and Fiddle on February 20th.

Not content to stop there, the production invited small groups of audience members and individuals into their rehearsal process for a number of sessions they’ve dubbed as ‘Beta Testing.’ Picture a preview rehearsal weeks in advance, where actors get to practice their roles, improvising when necessary, among a live audience while they tour the exhibitions. Friend and the production team have been gathering feedback from the groups to continue to make changes.

Friend tells us what they learned from the Beta Testing:

“We had a lot of asks from the audience about what else exists in this [2040] world … For example, we had somebody ask “I wish I knew what happened to the Green New Deal?” and rather than go ‘Oh, we really should add something about this,’we instead go, ‘Ok, lets leave just a few more breadcrumbs about the climate, and then let people construct in their minds what that might imply’. That way, we aren’t just spoon feeding them with world-building, but we’re also identifying the place where people just need a little more of a lead.”

Going one step further, the 2040 team created the short film “I Am Simmons” which drops hints  while leaving breadcrumbs for the audiences.

For Calarco, a founding member of The Welders Playwrights Collective, this work is intended to be “unproducible,” impossible, and experimental” in any one specific iteration. When she first developed the piece in 2015, it was already clear that the news cycle would outpace the vision for for the future.

“By June 2016, Donald Trump declared his candidacy, and by January 20, 2017, it was clear that whatever scary fiction I’d invented might be exceeded by reality,” Calarco says.

“Another event is more recent,” Calarco says. “The emergence of the Coronavirus. There’s no mention of it in the play at the moment. As I’m answering this question, we’re five days from opening, so there’s theoretically time to add something.” “Stay tuned,” is a comment Friend and Calarco say often.

[Museum 2040] is a reckoning, not just with what is happening now, but with how we will choose to remember ourselves,” Friend says.

Dancing into Yuletide: a Nutcracker with video projections, another with American historical figures

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Thanksgiving isn’t the only sign this week that the Christmas season is upon us, with the curtain rising on two incarnations of The Nutcracker ballet at DC theaters. An evergreen holiday tradition that originated in Russia in 1892, the traditional two-act ballet follows a young girl’s adventures through a fantastical land after her magical toy nutcracker comes to life. 

For those who haven’t seen The Nutcracker, imagine if someone were to cross the story of The Wizard of Oz with Dancing With the Stars. Even those who have never attended a dance performance are probably familiar with the music: Portions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite are seemingly a ubiquitous soundtrack of the holiday season.

Locally, the Washington Ballet — which premiered its current version, with an American history twist, in 2004 — opened Nutcracker season with performances last weekend at Ward 8’s Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) in preparation for a monthlong run that starts Saturday at the Warner Theatre. For those looking for something less familiar, the Atlanta Ballet brings its new production of The Nutcracker to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday for a five-day visit.

The Washington Ballet at the Warner Theatre: Nov. 30 to Dec. 29

Now in its 16th year of performance, Septime Webre’s The Nutcracker takes place during an 1882 Christmas Eve celebration at a Georgetown mansion. George Washington is the Nutcracker here, and when he battles “the Rat King,” it’s King George III. Other historical figures including Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross also appear, as does iconic DC scenery — the famous “Waltz of the Flowers,” for example, is renamed here the “Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms.”

“It’s become a family favorite, certainly a holiday tradition,” said Barbara Berti, public relations manager for the ballet company. “People come with their grandchildren and their parents, and it’s still very appealing to all ages. Everybody loves it.”

DC Theatre Scene wrote in 2017 that Webre’s DC-inspired Nutcracker is “like no other, but familiar enough not to be too jarring to traditionalists.” In a 2015 review, The Washington Post’s Sarah L. Kaufman noted that the production “at times feels too hectic for [the company’s members] to shine.” Instead, it rests upon “the cleverness and adorability of its least-experienced and littlest dancers.” 

Once again this year, the performance schedule began with several shows at THEARC, where the Washington School of Ballet opened its Southeast DC campus in 2005 — complete with a 400-seat theater that’s large enough to accommodate the annual Nutcracker performances.

The schedule at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW, continues almost through New Year’s Day, and that’s intentional. Berti said the post-Christmas shows allow family members visiting from out of town to see the production after the Christmas festivities are over. 

“Our version is just so beloved and enjoyed by so many — and it does kind of take up the whole month of December,” Berti said.

As for the November dates, the company added six extra performances last year — an effort to boost revenue in light of a $3 million debt, The Washington Post reported. The timing continues this year, although Berti declined to comment on revenue projections or needs.

Three performances will be accompanied by special events: Family Day (Dec. 1), Military Appreciation Night (Dec. 4) and the Nutcracker Tea Party (Dec. 8). 

Family Day features pre-performance activities for children, like coloring and ornament making, as well as opportunities to watch a rehearsal and take photos with dancers. On Military Appreciation Night, cast members and military dignitaries greet audience members prior to a rehearsal of The Nutcracker’s “Soldiers Marching” dance.

The Nutcracker Tea Party, which audiences can attend at the Willard InterContinental Hotel either before or after the day’s 1 p.m. performance, treats guests to refreshments like tea sandwiches and scones (plus mimosas for adults). Party guests can also take photos with the Sugar Plum Fairy and other dancers.

The Atlanta Ballet at The Kennedy Center: Nov. 27 to Dec. 1

The Atlanta Ballet’s first appearance in recent memory at the Kennedy Center features the company’s new production of The Nutcracker, which premiered last year. The production closely follows the traditional storyline from E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — the predecessor to the 1892 ballet — but adds a modern spin with video projection technology.

The production’s choreographer is Yuri Possokhov, who after 12 years dancing with the San Francisco Ballet is now that company’s choreographer-in-residence. Possokhov first delved into integrating video projection and ballet when he choreographed Swimmerfor the Bay Area company in 2015. 

Possokhov’s works have been performed at companies nationwide such as Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, as well as internationally at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and the Georgia State Ballet.

The production’s video projections are designed by Finn Ross, who won a Tony Award for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the rest of the team is no less stellar — dance-world luminaries Tom Pye, Sandra Woodall and David Finn designed the production’s sets, costumes and lighting, respectively.

This Nutcracker is the Atlanta Ballet’s first major commissioned production by Gennadi Nedvigin, who became artistic director in 2016. Like choreographer Possokhov, Nedvigin is also a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer. 

In an interview with The DC Line, Nedvigin said the holiday production simultaneously appeals to older generations with its traditional storyline and the younger “video gamer” generation with its digital projections.The latter, he said, “kind of serve as a glue between the real world and imaginary world, and it really fits this story perfectly.”

Possokhov’s Nutcracker’spremiere last year brought more ticket sales than any of the Atlanta Ballet’s prior productions of the holiday classic, and this Kennedy Center run marks the company’s first performances outside of Atlanta in some time. 

Nedvigin said he hopes the performance will spark audience members’ interest in the Atlanta Ballet’s work. He added that he is “super thrilled” to be in DC, having previously danced at the Kennedy Center on several occasions.

“Every time I’m coming back, it’s almost like I’m coming back home,” he said. “It brings a lot of memories from my performing days, and to be able to bring my own company to the same stage is meaning … a lot to me, and I just want to share it with everyone.”

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s warning about fascism at Scena Theatre

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their website here.

Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (trans. George Tabori) presents us with a familiar story: a churlish Chicago mobster slashes and wheedles his way to the top. This time, it’s the top of the city’s cauliflower game. In case that doesn’t ring a bell, Scena Theatre’s production offers up Brecht’s suggested projections, orienting us within the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.

Each scene and its players has a direct parallel to historical events and people, and the play has an anti-fascist message to hammer home. The show is high-energy, builds a cinematic gangster world, and has moments of resonance, even if the parable lacks a nuanced consideration of fascism’s horrors.

Brecht wrote this play in 1941 after going into exile from Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power. He envisioned it for an American audience, but its first staging would actually be a posthumous one in 1958 Berlin.

It opens with a vaudevillian summary in which the ensemble lays out the plot, its major players, and establishes the play’s breakneck dialogic speed. We then meet Ui, Brecht’s Hitler analog, played by Robert Sheire as equal parts glory-hungry and insecure. He whines about his reputation, sports an ill-fitting get-up, and needs his henchmen to explain how corruption works, and yet he shrewdly pinpoints his opponents’ weaknesses and evinces a ruthless pragmatism: “When guns are silent,” he proclaims, “so’s the press!”

Ui and his gang wrest control of the Cauliflower Trust from Dogsborough (Joe Palka), a well-respected local politician tied up in some embezzlement schemes. Palka gives a mournful, conflicted performance of a man whose ethics never quite win out over self-interest. Looking out the window of his country house, he muses, “The lake looks just like silver before it’s been beaten into a dollar piece.” Dogsborough is just the first in a long line of people and institutions Ui bulldozes through on his way to power, including the justice system, despite the protests of an astounded defense attorney (Caroline Johnson).

No one seems especially drawn to Ui, other than his loyal friend Roma (Lee Ordeman); his rise is best explained by a critical mass of people choosing the path of least resistance.

This is in part a satire, and the show mostly strikes a good balance between its dark subject matter and sardonic tone. It plays up the absurdity of Ui’s insistence that grocers are in great danger (a danger he has independently and intentionally generated), and the dissonance between his self-righteous grandeur and his apparent petulance is a frequent punchline. A highlight of the show is the scene in which Ui solicits elocution coaching from a classical Shakespearian actor (director Robert McNamara). He learns to strut, gesture, and orate with excess pomp. Sheire exaggerates the awkwardness to comedic effect as his Ui gains confidence.

This moment is punctuated by an intermission and an overall tonal shift in a darker direction; sound designer Denise Rose fills the pause with an eerie mix of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” In the second act, Ui edges closer to a Richard III archetype; he is decreasingly funny, more paranoid, and quicker to kill. A sort of emotional climax to the play is his decision to have Roma executed on wrongful suspicion of disloyalty. In one of the most effective scenes, his ghost visits Ui’s dreams. Lighting designer Johnathan Alexander bathes the stage in hellish red as Ordeman tumbles, contorts, and torments the sleeping dictator.

The play is sometimes a little heavy-handed in its moralism (see the projection over a courtroom scene that reads, “Mockery of Justice”), and sometimes not hard-hitting enough. Since Brecht was writing about the ascent of Hitler more than his rule, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is absent the extremities of fascist violence. Ui’s avarice is dark, but doesn’t plumb the hatred that allows a genocide to take place, and there is no treatment of either complicity or resistance beyond a blanket assumption of human cowardice.

At a time when we are arguing over what to term the concentration camps popping up along the southern U.S. border and the real-life parallels to historical atrocities proliferate, it can feel counter-productive to toy with fatalism.

The few who make an effort to stand up to Ui are minor characters and almost immediately bend or are dispensed with. The apathetic grocers, stand-ins for the working people writ large, see through him but don’t think about organizing against him beyond throwing up their hands (literally) and imagining themselves defenseless in the face of his gang’s guns. The final tableau, Ui with one arm raised in a heil, surrounded by tentative grocers imitating the motion, strikes a chilling note. Breaking from the group, Sheire delivers Brecht’s famous concluding warning about the fascist regimes brewing as we speak. What are we going to do about it? If Ui’s rise is indeed “resistible,” it’s up to the audience to figure out how that might be.

Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho from Taffety Punk

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their site here.

“How to translate [Antigone]?”, Anne Carson self-reflexes in her translator’s note to the Sophokles classic. “I take inspiration from John Cage who, when asked / how he composed 4’33”, answered / ‘I built it up gradually out of many small pieces of silence.’” I begin with the translator because Taffety Punk’s double feature of Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho is very much a Carson showcase, replete with her stark lyricism and weird maneuverings among epochs and tones to shape an otherworld of her own.

The two texts both center defiantly femme energies and ancient Greek authors born a century or two apart. To move from Sappho to Antigonick is to move from motifs of silence to those of silencings. In dance, music, and language, these productions explore capacious absences, fashioning from them an always provocative space.

First up is The Fragments of Sappho, a hybrid performance of poetry through dance, music, and recitation, the brainchild of choreographer Katie C. Sopoci Drake and director Marcus Kyd. Sappho was a Greek lyric poet born in the 6th century BCE whose influence has loomed large across time. Only one poem survives in full—it kickstarts the show—and the rest in degrees of fragmentation, printed on weathered papyrus scrolls without line breaks. In Carson’s If Not, Winter, the inspiration text for this piece, she presents the complete remnants of Sappho’s work, including stand-alone words, and uses single brackets to denote missing or illegible text.

In Sopoci Drake’s choreography, a troupe of dancers arch into parentheses and bend into brackets, leaping and contorting around what’s left unsaid. One of the piece’s greatest contributions is its embodiment of translation’s labor, so often rendered invisible. As the dancers lift and carry one another across the stage, we see the work of arranging, supplanting, and conveying language—from thought to page and from one language to another—made manifest. Using only drums, a bass, and a singer’s voice, the original music composed by Dan Crane, Marcus Kyd, and Kelsey Mesa echoes the simultaneous spareness and throbbing fullness of the fragments.

In exploring absence, space, and process, the piece is deft and beautiful. In portraying the poetry’s content, it is somewhat less nuanced. Sappho is most famous for her love poems, often written to other women. All femme-presenting, the dancers’ movements portray the longing and sensuousness of the poems with outstretched limbs and fleeting intertwinings. Sappho’s desire is present, but the intimacy and gratification much of her poetry manifests is missing; the dancers never make eye contact, and the recitations tend to affect a mournful tone. While effective on the terms of this choice, there is a missed opportunity for celebration and queer joy.

Antigonick, too, is interested in excavating its own creation process. This production begins when Antigone (Lilian Oben) steps out from behind a translucent red curtain as she responds to a voiceover of Carson’s translator’s note. Silently, she struts, scoffs, and eyerolls at the interpretations her translator catalogues, aware from the beginning that her signification is historical and up for debate. While the play is an update to the classic, its goal is not modernization or accessibility so much as it is a marrow-ward winnowing; its primary concern is in embodying the experience of grief, loss, and power relations.

The narrative bones are all in place in this retelling. Antigone and her sister, Ismene, are mourning the loss of their two brothers, killed in a battle against each other over legitimate rule of the kingdom. Kreon, their uncle, has just assumed the throne and decreed that the body of Polyneikes, the brother he blames for the bloodshed, will be left to decay in the desert without burial rites. Declaring that justice must supercede the law, Antigone buries her brother anyway and is caught. Kreon, enraged at her defiance of his newly minted authority, orders her buried alive, and tragedy begets tragedy as Kreon’s son and wife unravel, their suicides leaving him alone to suffer the consequences of his folly.

In Carson’s raw translation, the wounds of the play open up. The Chorus (comprising Danny Puente Cackley, Louis E. Davis, Rachel Felstein, and Teresa Spencer, and led by Esther Williamson) sings out, “[ruin] comes rolling the black night salt up from the ocean floor / and all your thrashed coasts groan.” The poetry is reason enough to see the play. But far from locked into one note, the production teases out comedy, too. Dan Crane plays Kreon as an absurdist, grandiose and pedantic. He announces his own entrance on stage and, when Antigone requests an expedited punishment, retorts, “no let’s split hairs a while longer.” Eurydike (Teresa Spencer), who delivers a show-stopping monologue conspicuously absent from Sophokles’ original, is at once madcap and tragic as she relates her niece’s troubled youth: “try to unclench / we said to her / she never did / we got her the bike / we got a therapist…”

Lilian Oben’s Antigone is complex and wildly compelling, mad with grief and yet grounded in a logic of love and justice on her own terms. Oben allows Antigone to be young, vulnerable, and afraid without wavering in her strength and conviction. Her casting as one of only two black actors in the production forefronts the unequal distribution of punishment in the play. Ismene (Teresa Spencer) also confesses to Antigone’s crime in supposed solidarity, but goes free; Kreon is concerned only with silencing “the loud one” between the two sisters.

And then there’s Nick (Katie Murphy), who never leaves the stage and, in accordance with the text’s only stage directions for the character, “measures things.” Without spoiling the surprising effects of this presence, suffice it to say that Murphy’s realization of the ambiguous figure is smart and evocative, and reminds us always that AntigonickAntigone, and Antigone exist within a function of time—however we may define or experience it.

The Fragments of Sappho and Antigonick both study silence and all its possibilities. They lead us elsewhere, toward a voice, but what it says is ultimately up to us; we’re the latest in a centuries-long line of audiences interpreting these women. Taffety Punk is doing us a service in inviting us into these beautifully (re)imagined translations to inhabit and reshape the spaces they create.

Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die From FlyinG V

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

When asked about how she comes up with ideas for her plays (which, let me tell you from personal experience, is every writer’s favorite interview question), playwright, director, and filmmaker Young Jean Lee has said that she focuses in on what scares her the most to write about at that particular moment in her life and then dives in head-first. Sometimes this results in a show that’s about a very specific topic—privilege, for example, in the case of her hit play Straight White Men, which made history by being the first work by an Asian-American woman playwright produced on Broadway… in 2018.

But in the aptly named We’re Gonna Die, Lee tackles what is perhaps the most universally frightening subject of all—our own mortality—through an irreverent combination of storytelling and song. In a new production ably directed by Josh Sobel and featuring the captivating Farrell Parker, Flying V has created what is easily one of the most hilarious, harrowing, and exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had in a Washington theater.

Review: Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die from Flying V

May 28, 2019 by John Bavoso Leave a Comment

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When asked about how she comes up with ideas for her plays (which, let me tell you from personal experience, is every writer’s favorite interview question), playwright, director, and filmmaker Young Jean Lee has said that she focuses in on what scares her the most to write about at that particular moment in her life and then dives in head-first. Sometimes this results in a show that’s about a very specific topic—privilege, for example, in the case of her hit play Straight White Men, which made history by being the first work by an Asian-American woman playwright produced on Broadway… in 2018.

Young Jean Lee and Future Wife performing We’re Gonna Die, 2011. (Screenshot from video, Young Jean Lee.org)

But in the aptly named We’re Gonna Die, Lee tackles what is perhaps the most universally frightening subject of all—our own mortality—through an irreverent combination of storytelling and song. In a new production ably directed by Josh Sobel and featuring the captivating Farrell Parker, Flying V has created what is easily one of the most hilarious, harrowing, and exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had in a Washington theater.

Before I get too far, a warning of sorts: this is a review that I’ve been both excited and terrified to write. Excited, frankly, because it’s an easy rave for a show I think everyone should see. But also terrifying, because in order to explain why I found We’re Gonna Die so profoundly moving, I have to get a little personal—and in doing so, reveal why Lee’s writing and Parker’s performance are so universally relevant. It’s a bit of vulnerability that I hope you’ll indulge me in.

But before we get to the show itself, we should start with the opening act. Flying V has enlisted local artists to go on before each performance. In the case of the first weekend of the run, Zia Hassan, a local singer-songwriter, kicked us off. With just an acoustic guitar and a voice that, to me, is akin to the bands that remind me of my college years—Dashboard Confessional and Jack’s Mannequin come to mind—I was instantly transported to a simpler, more innocent time in my life.

Many of the songs Hassan performed were about the recent birth of his son, which provided a poignant counterpoint to the examination of death and deterioration to follow. I don’t know if this pairing of subject matter was intentional on Flying V’s part, but it created a beautiful full-circle experience. I can’t vouch for the acts preceding the rest of the performances, but I hope they’re as appropriate and heartfelt as Hassan’s.

Following a brief, pre-show intermission, it was time to get downright rock ‘n’ roll existential! Lee developed and staged We’re Gonna Die with the since-dissolved self-producing playwrights’ collective 13 Playwrights Inc., a company not unlike DC’s own The Welders. The show featured Lee herself in the 2011 premiere at Joe’s Pub in New York, singing and speaking about her own (presumably heightened-just-a-touch) life experiences.

Parker, a Flying V company member, takes on the potentially daunting task of relaying a set of deeply personal moments that do not belong to her and making the audience forget that fact. She not only accomplishes this, but does so with a belting swagger and enthralling plaintiveness. From the moment she steps on stage, the audience is firmly in her tough-yet-tender grasp, thanks in no small part to a killer backing band comprised of Alex Green on guitar, David Hutchins on drums, Jason Wilson on bass, and Marika Countouris (who also provided musical direction) on the keyboard.

From her position on stage, Parker leads the audience through stories from her character’s life—from her sad, isolated Uncle John, to her first romance and breakup, and finally through the heart-rending death of her father. Interspersed between these tales are rollicking rock songs and soulful ballads. Early on, she clarifies that the purpose of the evening is not merely to wallow in emotional torture porn: “I have always wished that there was some sort of comfort available to us so that when we’re in that isolated place of pain, there would be something to make us feel better and not so alone.”

The contrast between the emotionally lacerating stories, darkly comic banter, and up-tempo ditties keeps the audience on the edge of its seats and a little off-kilter—which is one of the hallmarks of a Young Jean Lee show. These painful moments are offered not as a form of self-flagellation but as a source of comfort in the universality of human suffering and a celebration that, in fact, we’re all going to die one day and our suffering will end.

A good bit of the enjoyment of attending We’re Gonna Die comes from watching your fellow audience members watching what’s happening on stage. Every single person brings a different perspective and frame of reference into the theater and these clearly inform their processing of the material. My guest saw the original production years ago and, for him, one of the most profound parts of seeing it again was how differently it washed over him now that he has a bit more life experience—and, frankly, trauma—under his belt. (By the way, said guest made the bold pronouncement that Flying V’s production is better than the Joe’s Pub version.)

At certain moments, the direct parallels to the past year of my own life and what was happening on stage took my breath away. Within the span of less than a year my older sister died suddenly and without warning, my father had a heart attack and emergency double coronary bypass (while I was home for Thanksgiving), and my family endured a number of other health scares and small sorrows. So, when Parker relayed the story of her father, with a breathing tube down his throat, awakening panicked and confused several times the night before he died of lung cancer, I felt a small moan escape my lips in recognition of what my own father experienced coming out of the anesthesia following his surgery. (And, let me assure you, I am not a person who involuntarily makes noises during a show.)

When our protagonist’s friend Beth writes her a letter imparting wisdom gained from her own personal struggles and says, “Horrible things, they happen all the time. What makes you so special that you should go unscathed?” I was brought back to so many moments during the past year when I genuinely wondered whether my family had been cursed—and in addition to feeling sorrow, I felt seen.

And yet, that experience wasn’t necessarily shared equally by all. You could feel palpable discomfort in the ranks as the show swung from a tear-filled monologue into the final number in which the audience is encouraged to exuberantly chant “we’re gonna die!” while beach balls and bubbles bounce overheard. The enthusiasm with which my fellow audience members fist pumped along to lyrics like “I’m gonna die, gonna die some day… and I will be okay!” varied tremendously. We were all in our own individual worlds reflecting on our personal losses, but we were also bonded together in celebration in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible a mere two hours before. Afterward, my guest referred to We’re Gonna Die as a “contemporary requiem” and we both agreed that it would make a fitting memorial service when we do eventually shuffle off this mortal coil.

The term “catharsis” gets tossed around a lot when it comes to art, but I can honestly say that I’ve never stood in front of a painting and felt so ripped open and then put back together again as when leaving We’re Gonna Die. I not only would enthusiastically attend this show again, but I’d want to bring everyone I know with me—and that’s about the best compliment as I can pay Parker, Sobel, and the entire Flying V team.

God of Carnage at Keegan Theatre

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

“In the end, we’re all just taller children,” croons Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Elizabeth Ziman on her band, Elizabeth & The Catapult’s, aptly title 2009 song, “Taller Children.” This is the lyric that immediately sprang to mind as I watched Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage unspool in front of me at the Keegan Theatre—a finely designed and executed production about the failings of human nature that is occasionally hampered by a somewhat stilted translation of the original text.

Originally written in Reza’s native French, Christopher Hampton’s English translation of God of Carnage was first produced in London in 2008 and on Broadway in 2009, earning the play critical acclaim and Laurence Olivier and Tony awards in the process.

Typical of Reza’s biting humor at the expense of the middle class, God of Carnage centers on two couples (in the original version, they’re Parisians; here, they’ve become Brooklynites) who have come together to make peace after a violent incident between their children on a playground in Cobble Hill Park. What begins as an agreeable enough detente over apple-pear clafoutis and espresso quickly devolves into something much nastier, as you may have guessed from the ominous title of the play. As one character wistfully asks early on in a moment of foreshadowing, “How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?”

The meeting has been convened by Veronica Novak (Lolita Marie), a social justice warrior and writer who is finishing up a book on the genocide in Darfur, and her husband, Michael Novak (DeJeannette Horne), who owns a home goods wholesale business. They’re joined by Annette Raleigh (Susan Marie Rhea), who works in the nonspecific “wealth management” field, and her husband, Alan Raleigh (Vishwas), a high-powered lawyer currently representing a shady pharmaceutical company who’s physically incapable of separating himself from his cell phone.

The topic of their tête-à-tête is a recent playground incident during which the Raleighs’ son hit the Novak’s son in the face with a tree branch, knocking out two of his teeth. Things start out with an air of civility, but as the evening goes on and the Raleighs are unable to extricate themselves from the apartment, human nature, power, and marital dynamics all get called into question.

Director Shirley Serotsky has a deft hand with keeping her actors moving around the space in a way that feels natural and often hilarious. She also does an excellent job building tension and then releasing it—with such a high-pitched, mannered comedy, the tendency to go too big too soon can be tempting, but Serotsky employs the right amount of restraint to allow the show-stopping moments to truly land. The shifting allegiances laid out in the text are made delightfully physical by the actors’ movements around the set.

Similarly, the actors get high marks for how well they embody their characters. Particularly of note is Rhea, whose physicality telegraphs a woman who’s barely containing all the stress and frustration inside her before she even says a word, so that by the time her explosive relief comes, it’s nearly as welcome as it is off-putting. Vishwas plays Alan in the opposite way—he’s cool as a cucumber and a snakelike charmer who gleefully refers to his own son as a savage and lists Spartacus as his role model. Marie, as the high-strung, woke Veronica excellently portrays a woman who’s been holding onto a mask of serenity and politeness and may be ready to tear it all down in spectacular fashion.

Unfortunately, the one thing working against the performances and the direction is the text itself. Hampton—a British playwright, screenwriter, translator and film director—initially translated Reza’s dialog for the West End production and then further tweaked it for American audiences, and was no doubt true to the original. Still, for a casual evening between two couples in a Brooklyn apartment, the language is distractingly heightened. The idea that Michael would refer to himself as a “fucking Neanderthal” just after going on at length about toilet parts to undercut Alan’s snootiness, and then, in the very next breath, refer to his treatment as “intolerable,” “incomprehensible,” and “detestable” strains the audience’s credibility. The audience can easily be taken out of the action as we watch the actors wrestle with making the language sound natural.

To return to a high note, all this madness takes place on a gorgeous set designed by Matthew J. Keenan. What could have been a typical, bland living room set is made more interesting by setting things off at odd angles and not making them match up perfectly—the setting prepares the audience for a schism and plays with multiple perspectives before a single character even enters the space. Liz Gossens Eide’s costumes complement the characters perfectly and offer the director and cast opportunities to create moments of comedy around the taking off and putting on of overcoats and briefcases. Niusha Nawab’s sound design and Katie McCreary’s lighting design are subtle but provide the perfect realistic backdrop upon which some over-the-top bad behavior can unfold.

Even though the play was written more than a decade ago in another country, God of Carnage proves to be a timely and relevant piece of dark comedy that speaks expertly to the present American moment, and Keegan Theatre should be applauded for its thoughtfulness in programming it into this season. When Annette exclaims toward the of the play, “To my mind, there are wrongs on both sides. That’s it. Wrongs on both sides,” and Veronica lectures the room on polite society and the need for vigilance, it’s hard not to draw parallels to our present attempts to live in an increasingly fractured world. God of Carnage may not offer any answers as to how to better coexist as human beings, but it does give us an opportunity to laugh at outsized versions of ourselves… even if it’s mostly to keep ourselves from crying.