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Jeffrey: Paul Rudnick’s comedy of love in the time of AIDS

by John Bavoso

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

There’s no such thing as love without risk. Risk of rejection. Risk of your partner finding someone else. But for gay men in the ‘80s and ‘90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, love and sex carried more than just emotional risk—there was physical, mortal danger to be dealt with as well.

And so, at the top of Rainbow Theater Project’s production of Paul Rudnick’s play, Jeffrey, the titular character decides that dealing with sex and love cheapened by the kind of paranoia and fear induced by the virus isn’t worth the hassle, and swears them both off. Hijinks, of course, ensue. Yes, I said hijinks. Yes, in New York City during the height of the plague.

In an impassioned pre-show speech, Artistic Producing Director H. Lee Gable spoke specifically to the gay men of a certain age in the audience, of which there were many, about what it was like to be a gay man during that era, his voice cracking with emotion. He also pointed out that out of that time came what are widely considered to be the two great AIDS plays—Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and the less widely produced Jeffrey. The latter, he noted, helped mark the shift from “dying of AIDS” to “living with AIDS.”

The disparity between the success and acknowledgement of the two works (although, it should be noted, it took much longer than it should have for The Normal Heart to get its due) was no fluke; it came down to the two playwrights’ difference in approaching a heavy subject. In 1992, when Rudnick was trying to find an Off-Broadway home for Jeffrey, he had many a door slammed in his face, not simply because his play was about AIDS, but specifically because it was a comedy about AIDS. Once it did find it a home, thankfully, it was a hit, and served as Rudnick’s breakthrough play.

The plot is relatively simple: Jeffrey (Rinaldo Martinez), is a Midwestern transplant living in Manhattan, making his living primarily as a cater waiter while trying to land acting gigs. He decides that negotiating sex while the specter of the virus looms large is too much of a downer and quits it cold turkey—no small feat for an avowed sexual compulsive. Of course, the moment he commits to celibacy, he meets Steven (Reginald Richard) at the gym and they both feel an immediate attraction. There’s only one problem—Steven is HIV positive, and in a world punctuated by memorials for otherwise-healthy men in their 20s, Jeffrey isn’t sure he can handle the pain of falling for someone just to watch him die.

Rainbow Theatre Project’s production is directed by Robert Mintz, who also directed Rainbow Theatre’s reading of the play in 2016. Mintz does a superb job of preventing the script’s swings in tone from giving the audience emotional whiplash; after all, no matter how many quips you sprinkle into a play about the AIDS crisis, it’s still a play about the AIDS crisis. (My favorite example of this juxtaposition occurs when a gay basher, mid-hate crime, asks Jeffrey what kind of weapon he’s carrying and he replies, “Adjectives? Irony?”)

Honestly, I approached this play with slight trepidation, as stories about the AIDS crisis are my kryptonite—nothing turns my tear ducts from merely decorative to functional quite like them. But Mintz and his cast keep the tone as buoyant as a balloon, while still allowing the more serious moments to make an impact.

Martinez is the engine driving the show, and he does a masterful job of imbuing Jeffrey with an earnestness and authenticity that belies his jokes about his own promiscuity. He’s the audience’s cypher, but in Martinez’s capable hands, he’s hardly a blank slate. Richard exudes charisma and charm as Steven, negotiating with nuance a character who’s drawn to Jeffrey but also disgusted by his retrograde attitudes toward dating an HIV positive man. In fact, Rudnick’s script doesn’t go a long way toward making a solid case as to why Steven is so willing to not only overlook his mistreatment at the hands of Jeffrey, but is, in fact, so enthralled by him that he’s willing to chase him for months—so it’s a credit to Martinez and Richard that they’re able to sell the mutual connection as convincingly as they are.

Jeffrey and Steven’s journey is aided by their mutual friends, Sterling (Matthew Pauli), an older, style-obsessed interior decorator, and his young lover, Darius (Randyn Fullard), a whimsical Cats dancer with an 8th-grade education. While these characters, as written, could easily veer into caricature, Pauli and Fullard keep them grounded and infuse both with real emotion—especially in a pivotal scene toward the end of the play.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by a talented ensemble consisting of Craig Houk, Emily Levey, Joshua Street, and Rick Westerkamp, who expertly transform themselves into a variety of comedic characters, from a lascivious Catholic priest to a game show host to patrons of the Lower Manhattan Gentlemen’s Masturbation Society. Levey, the cast’s lone female member, in particular shines as the host of a Hoedown for AIDS fundraiser and as Debra, a postmodern televangelist self-help guru.

The flamboyance of the subject matter is reflected in PJ Carbonell’s candy-colored confection of a set that allows for maximum versatility. The clever use of projections also assists in seamlessly transforming the small black box at the DC Arts Center into a dozen different locations. Hannah Katherine Herold’s costume designs don’t always scream early ‘90s New York fashion to me, but she also had a huge number of different characters to clothe, and I was hardly pulled out of the moment by it.

To that point, Jeffrey is essentially s a time capsule of a very specific time—a recent period piece of sorts. And, to that end, some of references and jokes are made even funnier by our modern context (Rudy Giuliani being called out as wearing chaps at the Hoedown for AIDS, for example, elicited quite a few chuckles), while others certainly land differently than they did at the time, (like when, early in the show, Jeffrey declares that “sex was never meant to be safe or negotiated… or fatal,” which felt slightly uncomfortable to my #MeToo era ear).

And yet, Jeffrey asks questions that are both timeless and universal: What subjects are appropriate fodder for comedy? Is falling in love with another person, fully knowing that every relationship has a built-in expiration date, still worth the risk? Rudnick’s script can be a little preachy at times in providing the answer to that second question, but his characters have the right idea: “Life sucks, it always will, so why not make the most of it?”

Comedian Judy Gold Comes to City Winery

This article was first published by TAGG and can be read on their site here.

Comedian Judy Gold has been in the comedy scene for years, watched the industry expand and become a better representation for what the world looks like today. With 36 years as a stand-up comedian under her belt, Gold is a veteran, yet still finds new ways to remain creative and connect deeply with audiences.

“I started [stand-up] in college,” says Gold. “Someone dared me to do it and I got this high I had never gotten from anything else I had ever done.”

Her deep-seated passion for comedy translated into a career where she’s gained a lot of knowledge into the comedy industry. “The time I spend on stage is my favorite,” Gold explains. “I’ve seen a lot of great things happen and a lot of horrible things. Especially as a female comic to go from seeing people not hiring any women and now seeing women run networks and write shows. But there’s still a long way to go.”

Gold is an active member of the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, the intersections of her identities coloring her work, especially in later years.

“You can’t be a comic unless you’re honest about who you are,” says Gold. “Comedy is only funny when it’s the truth.” Gold emphasized how she’s never been shy about talking about being Jewish and her sexual orientation, especially after she became a parent.

After Gold’s first child was born, she naturally wanted to talk about being a parent and having a family onstage, which marked her coming out on stage. “[But] I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a lesbian comic,” she says. “I just wanted to be a comic who was a lesbian. Everyone talks about their families on stage, so of course I’m going to talk about mine. What kind of message are you giving your kid if you don’t talk about your family?”

Gold incorporates stories about her partner and family into her work, feeling a responsibility to be out and proud about being gay and a comic.

“I definitely feel an obligation,” she says. “I’m gay, I’m in a gay relationship, I have children, and I’m doing what I love. I want every LGBTQ kid to know that you can do that too. You can have a family, a job that you love, and enjoy your life. There’s no reason not to have those dreams.”

In the 80s, when Gold was just starting out, there were very little comedians, much less lesbian comedians that were out. Homophobia was at “an all-time high” and Gold rarely saw LGBTQ representation within the industry.

“I know comics who won’t come out of fear,” she says. “It’s hurtful because there are so many kids out there who need to see themselves represented.”

Beyond being a comic, Gold has been spearheading her own podcast for a few years entitled “Kill Me Now,” which she calls “a labor of love.”

“I just love interviewing people and finding out what makes them tick,” says Gold. “It’s not a typical comedy podcast. I talk a lot about growing up. Those things those experiences that teach you and make you a different person and make you who you are – that’s the kinds of things I find fascinating. Everyone has a story.”

On her enduring role as a comic, Gold simply said: “It’s what I do. It’s who I am.”

Judy Gold will be at the City Winery on December 24, 2018. For more information or to purchase tickets click here.

Washington Revels celebrate Yuletide

by Athena Naylor

This article was first published in The DC Line.

The Washington Revels’ annual holiday production returns to Lisner Auditorium this weekend to welcome Yule with a romping production of Elizabethan music and dance that celebrates the group’s 35 years in the District.

The latest version of The Christmas Revels invites viewers to Elizabethan England to follow the exploits of professional fool Will Kemp, a comic actor who historically served in Shakespeare’s theater company and famously Morris danced from London to Norwich in a nine-day publicity stunt. The 2018 production, which debuted last weekend, imagines a scenario in which Kemp (played by Mark Jaster) arrives in Norwich at the same time as her majesty Queen Elizabeth I (played by Katrina Van Duyn), who has come to enjoy rustic entertainment and celebrate Christmas away from the trappings of court.

The Christmas Revels is a yearly seasonal celebration showcasing traditional folk dances, the art of pantomime, music and participatory theater for all ages. Revels Inc., under which Revels groups across the country are affiliated, was founded in 1971 in Boston, but the phenomenon soon spread — first to New Hampshire in 1975, and most recently to Santa Barbara, Calif., its 10th location, in 2007. DC’s production group launched in the early 1980s and annually hosts a variety of participatory events such as Community Singssummer paradesMay Revels and, of course, its largest event — The Christmas Revels, which each year focuses on a different time period and folk tradition.

As a historical variety show, the 2018 production excels. Upon entering the theater, each audience member receives a program that not only provides sheet music for the eight singalongs included in the production, but also features a veritable history lesson on English folk culture. The program offers a concise but thorough explanation of the cultural origin and purpose of each song and dance performed on stage.

Within the show, musical performances are heightened by the accompaniment of Piffaro: The Renaissance Band, which imbues the production with sounds of the time, showcasing beautiful medieval and Elizabethan instruments, from horns and recorders to giant lutes.

The size and spectacle of The Christmas Revels is part of its public appeal, and the production company boasts an extensive cast that includes players from “age 8 to 88.” Accolades must go to artistic director Roberta Gasbarre and the Revels costume shop for making period costumes for a cast of nearly 100 people. The large and varied cast is indeed a feat and a highlight of the show. The children players are particularly charming in their period-specific song and pantomime numbers.

However, occasionally the sheer size of the Revels cast works against the production’s visual definition. The large folk dances, in particular, lose focus due to the significant number of performers cluttering the Lisner stage. The number of players in the production works best in one of the comedic highlights of the show, when each villager of Norwich, in an attempt at theatrical acting, cries out a line of a Shakespearean tragedy before dramatically perishing, resulting in the absurd and hilarious staged mass death.

When the production provides space for less crowded scenes, individual players within the production are allowed to shine. A purple-lit nighttime scene in the beginning of Act 2 opens with the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, an ancient ritual whose meaning has been forgotten but whose impact remains engaging and mysterious. Dancers adorned with antlers and accompanied by a traditional recorder weave around the stage, creating a dreamlike atmosphere that serves as a respite to the more raucous rustic entertainment that fills the rest of the show.

Soon, Kemp — adorned with a donkey’s head from his rehearsals with the village players for their Yule play — encounters Queen Elizabeth sleeping outdoors in her nightgown. With his identity disguised, Kemp promenades with the queen in a comedic scene that makes full use of Jaster’s training in pantomime.

The sequence pays homage to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the Shakespearean motif of strange and fantastical encounters occurring at night in the woods. When Kemp and the queen recognize each other the next morning in the village, both visibly decide to say nothing of the experience. What happens in the woods stays in the woods.

The Christmas Revels delivers what it sells as a revival and celebration of Elizabethan and Yuletide cultural traditions. If there is any reservation attached to the show, it would be toward how well these traditions translate to the current day. For example, in the second act of the show Queen Elizabeth delivers a monologue about the joy of the holiday season with the promise that “the gloom of the world is just a shadow.” This speech fits the historical purpose of  Yule as a solstice celebration that marked the end of days growing shorter and the beginning of increasing daylight. However, the reaction to this line, which was clearly meant to engender hope, was rather subdued at the Saturday matinee on Dec. 8. Perhaps having a monarch assure the poorer working class that their struggles are “just a shadow” falls a little flat after a rather tumultuous year, especially for a politically minded Washington audience.

The crowd reserved its cheers and applause for other moments, such as when the all-female troupe of the Rock Creek Morris Women gave Kemp a run for his money in a Morris dance duel. Raucous laughter also followed jokes about Canadian and American health care during the amusing play-within-a-play sequence in Act 2. It is 2018, after all, and there is benefit to focusing on the “expansion” aspect of the Revels’ mission to “revive, sustain, expand, and celebrate cultural traditions.”

Any recommendation to see The Christmas Revels should come with a caveat — you must enjoy participatory theater and be receptive to singing along with large groups. To say the experience is for everyone would be presumptuous. But for those looking for a family-friendly alternative to more standard holiday outings such as The Nutcracker or A Christmas CarolThe Christmas Revelsis a festive way not only to welcome Yule, but also to learn about unique historical traditions and gain a better appreciation for DC’s local performers and varied, thriving community ensembles.

To purchase tickets for The Christmas Revels: An Elizabethan Celebration of the Winter Solstice, visit the Washington Revels website. Performances are Friday at 7:30 p.m. (Family Friday); Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets cost $18 to $60 for adults and $12 to $40 for ages 18 and younger. George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium is located at 730 21st St. NW.

BETTY Comes Home to D.C. Better Than Ever

This article was first published in TAGG and can be read on their site here.

It has been two years since the iconic three-woman band BETTY has graced their hometown of Washington D.C. with a concert. Comprised of Alyson Palmer and sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, the band has reached people beyond the scope of music and in the realms of social activism, humanitarian work, and more.

BETTY’s presence has been felt since the 1980s, when the band originated at the 9:30 Club. With a focus on not just making genre-bending music, BETTY has always been rooted in their efforts in social change.

“Musically, we’ve always had different influences and styles,” says band member Elizabeth Ziff. “What kept us together [all these years] was our politics.”

The band’s dedication to making their shows inclusive and tinged with their personal beliefs from the very beginning of their career drew skepticism. Ziff said that they were told this would “destroy their careers,” but has instead become a major touchstone for the band’s perception. And though the band has never been signed to a major label or had a manager, they’ve cultivated a wide-reaching, diverse, and devoted fan base.

“We have an incredibly loyal following,” says Ziff, emphasizing how some fans have shown up again and again over the decades. “We tour not in the way people make millions of dollars, but in a way where we can make friends everywhere. We are able to stay longer in places when we tour. We see things and are a part of a great cultural and political exchange.”

The band’s passion for equality and empowerment on a political and social level is unsurprising given their origins in Reagan-era D.C. Ziff recalls times where concerts had to be carried out with discretion, specifically playing at Pride in the 1980s on P Street beach.

“We have to be vigilant,” Ziff explains. “Our country has never been equal. But I feel encouraged right now. Activism has always been an art – you just have to look in to the corners for it.”

They’ve carried that passion and dedication into the 21st century, connecting with new and old audiences across the country in the midst of a tumultuous political climate.

“We really believe in connecting with the audience,” says Ziff. “We are especially conscious of being a feminist group and seeing our similarities rather than differences.” The band’s own intergroup diversity (Ziff identifies as a lesbian and Palmer is African-American) has spurred on their activist efforts. Their concerts act as safe spaces for the LGBTQ community and other marginalized identities, but still place a large emphasis on just having fun being around people like you.

“There’s a time you want to be on your own and that’s valid,” says Ziff. “But there’s a time in art and music that you want to be around other people and you’re dancing and laughing and singing the same song.” It’s this sentiment that has followed BETTY’s career for years and continues to be something the band is defined by.

BETTY’s Holiday Show takes place Sunday, December 2 at City Winery in Washington, D.C. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.

In This Hope: A Pericles Project

by John Bavoso

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

In fraught times, where do you go to find hope? Assuming the answer is not “within yourself,” might I suggest the basement of a church where, seated in a circle with a group of strangers, you recount personal stories and cherished memories? If it sounds like I’m pointing you in the direction of a support group, well, I am, sort of—in the form of Hannah Hessel Ratner’s In This Hope: A Pericles Project, being produced now by The Welders at Spooky Action Theater.

Using Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre as a starting point, an ensemble of four actors tell the tale of not only the Greek hero, but also their own personal and family histories, and coax the audience to do the same. In doing so, they transform the classic tale into something more modern and personal, updating some (generally the sexist) parts and finding relevance in contemporary life in the process. And in doing so, the cast of In This Hope stitches together an evening filled with memory, storytelling, and community.

Upon entering the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street, audience members are led downstairs and through the kitchen to a big, open space filled with a circle of wooden chairs. On the walls surrounding this circle is a map of the ancient world with the cities of Tyre and Antioch and the like marked off. Above the space hangs several ropes or cords crisscrossed, like a tapestry waiting to be woven.

Our guides and our bridge between the ancient source text, the Jacobian retelling, and the present interpretation are four talented and versatile actors— Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, Raghad Makhlouf, and Lori Pitts. Under Anna Brenner’s deft direction and using little more than a few infinity scarves and a crown made of forks, these four assume a variety of roles from Pericles, but also play themselves, sharing bits of memory and personal anecdotes from the Ukraine (Benson), the Phillipines (Frisco), Lebanon (Makhlouf), and here in DC (Pitts).

In This Hope is billed as a ritual as well as a performance, and the audience is encouraged to not only participate, but help to create the piece from the ground up—this play literally could not exist on a proscenium behind a fourth wall. Given that Hessel Ratner’s primary vocation is that of a dramaturg rather than a playwright, it’s no surprise that deep excavation and group work are main features of the piece. From sharing a memory with a neighbor to inviting an audience member to play a role in the original tale, but with a choose-your-own-adventure twist, the audience is welcomed in and made to feel a part of the story in a genuine, non-threatening way.

The interwoven nature of the past and present, of myth and memory, is interesting and thought-provoking, but at times can lead to a somewhat muddled experience. For example, the death of Pericles’ wife, Thaisa, as she gives birth to the couple’s daughter, Marina, is used as a touchpoint for discussing how the maternal mortality rate in DC is more than twice the national average, especially among African American women.

While this aligns with the idea of blending the past and present, and literature and reality, it doesn’t seem to fit as neatly with either the world of the Pericles story or the personal lives of the actors—it’s important information, but it feels slightly out of place. Similarly, there are other moments when the drama of Pericles or the stories of the actors or the memories of the audience is reaching its height, only to be cut off by another narrative. When the intermingling of these different threads works seamlessly, it casts a spell; when it doesn’t, it can be jarring for the audience.

“What world is this?” This line, written by William Shakespeare and repeated several times by In This Hope’s cast, is not one that is easily or happily answered by many people these days. But the team behind In This Hope: A Pericles Project is creating its own world from scratch, in which strangers are vulnerable and open and stories are shared without judgement—and that’s a space I wouldn’t mind inhabiting for more than 2 hours at a time.

In This Hope: A Pericles Project by Hannah Hessel Ratner. Directed by Anna Brenner. Associate Director Jess Phillips . Featuring Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, Raghad Makhlouf, and Lori Pitts. Environmental designer: Colin K. Bills. Costume designer: Pei Lee. Sound designer: Roc Lee. Design assistant: Cody Whitfield. Artistic consultant: Isaiah Matthew Wooden. Stage manager: Emma Heck. Assistant stage manager: JJ Hersh. Production manager: KayCee Tucker. Produced by The Welders.

Sing to Me Now (Overworked muse seeks intern)

by John Bavoso

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

In the promotional materials for their production of Iris Dauterman’s Sing To Me Now, Rorschach Theatre has been highlighting one particular quote from the script: “Every second you hesitate, every moment you’re not writing, furiously writing, or dancing, or singing, things are getting worse. So hurry. Up.”

While the creative types among us might hear a call to action (or a call to curl up into the fetal position and hide under our covers), in the context of the play, it’s more like an epithet hurled by a beleaguered muse at her Pollyanna human intern in order to intimidate and provoke her. And in the world that Dauterman’s skillfully crafted script and Rorschach’s team of theatrical sorcerers have created, that all makes perfect sense.

As director Jenny McConnell Frederick noted before the opening night performance, Rorschach fell in love with the script for Sing To Me Now as they helped to develop it through the company’s inaugural MAGIC IN ROUGH SPACES PLAY LAB earlier this year. Many of the actors from that initial workshop transferred to this full production, which is evident in the passion they bring to their roles and the lived-in, authentic performances that McConnell Frederick has elicited from them.

For Sing To Me Now, Rorschach has transformed the intimate Lab II black box at the Atlas Performing Arts Center into a land of dreams and myth. It is here that we meet Calliope (or Callie to her friends), nearly drowning in paperwork and angst. Chloe Mikala masterfully embodies the jaded muse of epic poetry, all hard edges gained from working too hard for too little recognition (no one looking for inspiration for their novel, or next song, or cheesecake recipe even addresses her by her real name!).

Callie’s workload is so overwhelming due to the fact that, owing to a set of circumstances that I will not spoil for you, she is the only one of the muses left to provide inspiration to the ungrateful humans below. Her best friend, Mo (short for Morpheus, and played with both snark and awkward vulnerability by Erik Harrison), the god of dreams, keeps her company and tries to convince her to sleep. But when she sleeps, she dreams of her sisters, and that’s something she’s definitely trying to avoid.

Her only other companions are her mother, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory (a warm and funny Cam Magee), who exhibits dementia-like symptoms caused by having, of all things, too many memories in her head, and Hades (played with the perfect combination of pomposity and self-pity by Ian Armstrong), who enters and exits via an old-timey elevator to the underworld. “He’s my sister’s asshole ex-boyfriend and also my asshole uncle…. because that’s how we roll,” Callie quips.

But Callie hasn’t resigned herself to wallowing—in fact, she’s put out a Help Wanted call to the universe; our muse, you see, is looking for an intern. And she gets one, much to her chagrin, in the form of Claire, who Callie insists on calling Yankee, a wide-eyed, naïve college graduate who’s having trouble finding a “real” job. Tori Boutin imbues Yankee with the right amount of self-awareness and chutzpah to keep her from being too cloying or irritating, but also with enough youthful optimism and exuberance to rub Callie the wrong way… at least at first. Soon enough, the two become what must be among the most unlikely work-friend pairings in history.

The cast is rounded out by Desiree Chappelle and Jonathan Del Palmer, who show great range as everything from aquatic ballet dancers to muses to Marcel Duchamp. Their cameos often serve to inject some levity into some otherwise fraught situations.

McConnell Frederick does an excellent job of using every inch of the small space and filling it with action in a way that feels purposeful and natural. Under her deft direction, the performances are rooted in realistic, relatable emotion, despite the fact that most of her actors are playing supernatural beings. In combination with Dauterman’s nuanced writing, she helps to bring mythic events down to a human scale in the best way possible—even when the stakes are the literal survival of the human race and art itself.

And it wouldn’t be a Rorschach show without some seriously nifty design work. A fair bit of the action involves the characters fishing ideas and dreams from a river, made possible thanks to Swedian Lei’s ingenious set design. Similarly, Rachael Knoblauch’s props design, Sarah Tundermann’s lighting design, and Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s sound design come together for an effect that transforms mundane objects into pure magic.

At its heart, Sing To Me Now grapples with a lot of weighty topics, including what the role of art is in a cruel, chaotic world; whether the human race is even worth fighting for; and how we cope with unimaginable grief. And like the best of art, what it offers is not so much clear answers as the hope we need to keep going, keep fighting, even after we leave the theater.

Sing To Me Now by Iris Dauterman. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick. Featuring: Ian Armstrong, Tori Boutin, Desiree Chappelle, Erik Harrison, Cam Magee, Chloe Mikala, and Jonathan Del Palmer. Costume designer: Debra Kim Sivigny. Set designer: Swedian Lie. Properties designer: Rachael Knoblauch. Sound designer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Lighting designer: Sarah Tundermann. Production manager: Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Stage manager: Rebecca Talisman. Produced by Randy Baker, Jenny McConnell Frederick, and Jonelle Walker.

The Fall Remembers A Student uprising in Cape Town

by John Bavoso

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

Imagine a large group of college students, surrounded by the international media, anxiously awaiting the moment when a statue depicting a key figure from their country’s racist past is toppled and removed from its place of prominence on their campus. While this scenario has played out recently at the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, it also unfolded in 2015 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa—and you can see a vibrant and engrossing retelling of the events in some of the participants’ own words much closer to home in The Fall at Studio Theatre as part of the Studio X program.

When Studio’s Artistic Director, David Muse, saw a production of The Fall—an ensemble piece created and performed by students at UCT’s Baxter Theatre Center under the guidance of drama professor Clare Stopford—at the Edinburgh Fringe, he knew he wanted to bring it to DC. The Fall is deeply personal, rooted in the performers and country that created it, and universally recognizable to Americans of any age and political affiliation.

The inciting incident, as it were, for the events portrayed in The Fall is the moment on March 9, 2015, when UCT student Chumani Maxwele threw a bucket of human excrement onto a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in the late 1800s and early architect of South Africa’s apartheid system. The statue, despite years of petitions from black students, still stood more than 24 years after the end of apartheid, literally looking down on the UCT campus. Maxwele’s actions helped to inspire the birth of a movement, #RhodesMustFall, and transformed a group of otherwise unrelated students into activists determined to begin the work on decolonizing their campus.

Among those students were Ameera Conrad, Sihle Mnqwazana, Oarabile Ditsele, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Cleo Raatus, Tankiso Mamabolo, and Zandile-Izandi Madliwa, who fill the small stage at Studio with song, dance, spoken word poetry, and accounts of the kind of mistreatment and microaggressions they’ve endured as black students at their university. Driven by the earnestness of young revolutionaries, the ensemble powerfully—and often quite humorously—offers a behind-the-scenes look at the dawning of a movement.

Even united around the singular purpose of tearing down the statue of Rhodes, conflict and divisions within the movement begin to make themselves apparent. Once the statue does fall, the news is filled with images of the male students jumping on the plinth and whipping the statue—much to the chagrin of the radical black feminists in the group, who are sick of being pushed off camera by their hyper-masculine counterparts. And the group’s sole non-binary member has to constantly remind the rest of the characters about the erasure of contributions of queer and transgender individuals to the movement.

The internal debates and dynamics inherent in the early stages of the development of a group of activists is fascinating, but The Fallnever feels like a lecture or reading from a text book. The cast makes the most of the spare space and three plain desks, punctuating their discussions with choreography, beautiful vocals, and live footage from the protests. I began the show scribbling notes in a small notebook, and realized after I had the left the theater that I had quickly given up on my transcription, having become enthralled by a group of truly engaging storytellers.

For those of us past our early 20s, or who have just been paying too much attention to the daily news cycle leading up to the Midterm Elections, the cast’s sense of optimism and utter surety that they can change the world may seem laughably Pollyanna-esque. But if you are willing to really listen and pay attention to how much these young student-activists have already achieved—both personally and politically—you may instead find yourself reenergized and even a little more optimistic about the state of the world and its future after seeing The Fall.

The Fall co-created by Thando Mangcu, Kgomotos Khunoane, Clare Stopford, Ameera Conrad, Sihle Mnqwazana, Oarabile Ditsele, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Cleo Raatus, and Tankiso Mamabolo. Featuring Ameera Conrad, Sihle Mnqwazana, Oarabile Ditsele, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Cleo Raatus, Tankiso Mamabolo, and Zandile-Izandi Madliwa. Stage manager: Puleng B. Mabuya. AEA stage manager: Kelsey Sapp. Lighting designer: Michael Maxwell. Costume designer: Marisa Steenkamp. Scenic designer: Patrick Curtis. Produced by Studio Theatre.