Baltimore is Burning

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Source: facebook.com/theatreforunderdogs

This is the show you need to see in post-election America. A show like Underdog Theatre’s Baltimore is Burning is always important, especially given current issues of police brutality. But in an environment as heated and strained as the one we currently find ourself in, a performance like this can only double in magnitude.

On the day Freddie Gray disappears after being violently apprehended by police, Baltimore’s CPAA, who seek justice and the protection of civil rights, are attending a scheduled meeting where their president is mysteriously absent. Trying to continue on despite absent leadership, the group is divided on issues that affect the future of their organization and how they react to the event around them. Anxiously hovering on the agenda is Freddie’s disappearance and what the CPAA will do when they discover what really happened to him.

This performance is a tour d’force, with a powerhouse cast of Brianna M. Daniels, Pedro Jaun Fonseca, Anna Hickey, JuCoby Johnson, Joann Oudekerk, Siddeeqah Shabazz, Dana Lee Thompson, and Andrew Erskine Wheeler. In a story that shows and inside look at how a civic organization functions, ideas advocacy are complicated – should the CPAA advocate rioting over peaceful protests? Can an organization run effectively when their president makes public appearances but won’t attend private meetings? What does “we just want to help” really mean? Each character is multi-dimensional, especially in terms of the police, represented by a season lieutenant with corruption coloring his career and a young officer who struggles to see past her privilege and need for respect in order to communicate with the CPAA members. Featured between scenes is real footage of Freddie Gray’s arrest. This footage, as well as the climax of the play, are difficult to watch. But they’re scenes we see more and more often, due to filming from eyewitnesses and cameras worn by the police capturing the issues of police brutality that run rampant in law enforcement.

At the end of the show, I found myself wondering if I’d breathed at all during the performance. It is an intense ride with tension arriving from the very beginning. This play excels in many ways but what it does best is taking us into a situation quite a few of us – especially us white allies – may never be in: throwing us into the meeting of a civil rights organization about to speak with the police. Quickly, we learn where each CPAA member stands and what they’re advocating. It becomes clear how impossible it is to remain calm when terrible things happen and when justice is occluded by the phrase “I was just doing my job.” Theater is especially powerful when it’s writing about a current cultural moment, and Baltimore is Burning does so wonderfully.Words cannot fully capture the power and impact of this show, so I can only beg you to see it – don’t miss this one, Twin Cities. You need to see it.

Baltimore is Burning is written by Kory LaQuess Pullam and directed by Jamil Jude. It is playing now through December 4th at Savage Umbrella’s SPACE. All shows are pay what you can and tickets can be purchased in advance from Brown Paper Tickets.

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A Raisin in the Sun

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Source: parksquaretheatre.org

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

 

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” inspired the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. A story that focuses greatly on dreams that are pushed aside, returned to, and changed for the characters of Hansberry’s play, Park Square’s current production shines new light into the Younger family. I find this poem relevant not just too the production but also to the current social and political situation I woke up to Wednesday morning. I feel many dreams are deferred now in the wake of an unstable climate and progress we have made feels as if it has suddenly slipped away. I’ve struggled to write my review of this show because of this and, while I don’t want to make this post political, theater is political and I can’t ignore how it feels to see a production of Hansberry’s play occurring now.

If you’d like a more traditional review, please check out those of my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. Warren Bowles superb direction in the Andy Boss space as well as the stellar performances of Aimee Bryant, Darius Dotch, Am’Ber Montgomery, Greta Ogelsby, and Andre G. Miles as the Youngers (as well as Theo Langason, Cage Sebastian Pierre, Robert Gardner, Neal R. Hazard, and Kevin Sanders Nelson, who comprise the rest of the cast) certainly deserve recognition. But unfortunately, this blogger’s mind is too caught in motions of fear and disbelief of current events to accurately describe to you the more theatrical elements of this production. However, I would like to focus on the talkback that I participated in along with fellow blogger Becki Iverson who blogs at Compendium. We were invited to have a discussion with the audience after a performance and I greatly enjoyed this conversation about Hansberry, family drama, and racism throughout the United States, including Minnesota. Audience engagement is a passion of mine and with a show like A Raisin in the Sun, having a moment to consider the importance of the issues at hand along with others who have just watched the performance is really wonderful as an audience member, blogger, and playwright.

Right now, as a white ally (and also a bi woman with mental illness) who feels as if she has failed to do enough, is yearning to do more, and is also afraid of what might lie ahead, I can only hope that people can walk out of a show like A Raisin in the Sun having learned something or understanding something new or seeing a powerful story that makes them reconsider their own worldview. There’s a line that really struck me in the production, delivered by Robert Gardner who plays Lindner, who arrives to discourage the Youngers from moving into a currently all-white neighborhood. “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son,” he says. This line has stuck with me as I consider the power that I hope theater does to do just that – change hearts. Not forcibly – you can’t force anyone to change – but to encourage, to give voice to different stories, different perspective, to tales that would otherwise go unheard and shine a light on what people aren’t currently seeing. Right now there’s a clamoring and perceived victory for a voice that is not one that represents the US I know, the US I want to see, and the US I want to love. The utter disconnect that I see between those that share my opinion and those who disagree with us baffles me and I struggle to find the words to describe to others what I see and what I believe. I look to the arts to help me express that, to find a way to communicate where other forms of discussion have failed me. I am grateful for A Raisin in the Sun for providing such a form of communication, from the first time I read it in high school to the discussion last Sunday after the show. It encourages me to keep talking and to keep working and I hope that it encourages others as well.

A Raisin in the Sun is written by directed by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by Warren C. Bowles. It is playing now through November 20th. Tickets and show information can be found on Park Square’s website.

“Harlem” by Langston’s Hughes is taken from Poetry Foundation.org.

105 Proof

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Source: Transatlantic Love Affair

If you love a good gangster story, and one that treats the gangster as folk-like figure, a tall-tale exaggerated symbol that’s claimed American mythology in its thrall and created new territory for the antihero to emerge in full force, then Transatlantic Love Affair’s 105 Proof, or: the Killing of Mack “the Silencer” Klein is right up your alley. Blending their physical theater style, minimal costumes, and haunting music, this play focuses on a family in Versailles, Illinois who gets involved with the Chicago mob after the grandfather begins making moonshine and the oldest son starts selling it for him. Full of suspense, humor, grief, and intrigue (and possibly even a cannoli reference?), this story will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Comprised of a stellar cast including Amber Bjork, Heather Bunch, Emily Dussault, Eric Marinus, Derek Lee Miller, Nick Saxton, Allison Witham, and Nick Wolf, this production loads on multiple casting, scenery building, and sound effects all performed by the actors. A soundtrack of music (as well as gunshots) is created throughout the show by Dustin Tessler and Adam J Patterson and several songs are sung in the performance, performed by the marvelous Emily Dussault and the ensemble.

I missed this show at Fringe when it was performed in 2015 and I’m delighted to see it now. As an Italian-American who grew up with the pseudo-mythology of the mob, I’m fascinated and terrified by this world of crime – and even more fascinated with America’s interest in it. After recently seeing Brecht, it’s striking to see what someone will do to make their way in the world and how they change for their work. 105 Proof includes all of this, providing a realistic feeling rural town and crime-filled city office all produced with the actor’s actions, body language, and movement. This performance feels like a whirlwind, and one I’m still thinking about days after seeing it. If you missed this at Fringe, don’t miss it now – it’s spectacular.

105 Proof is conceived and directed by Diogo Lopes. It is playing now through November 20th at the Illusion Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Illusion’s website or TLA’s website.

The Oldest Boy

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Source: Jungle Theater

The Jungle Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is an incredibly breathtaking and mesmerizing performance. Mother (Christina Baldwin) is a woman who has given up on her PhD program after the death of her teacher. She cares for her son, Tenzien (Mansanari Kawahara) and, while home with him one day, is greeted by a Buddhist lama and monk (Eric “Pogi” Sumangil and Tsering Dorjee Bawa) who appear to visit her husband (Randy Reyes). However, when they meet Tenzin, they believe him to be the reincarnation of a lama and one of their teachers. Mother is terrified of losing him but, after being tested, Tenzin correctly chooses the objects belonging to the former lama and shows knowledge of being the former lama. Mother is encouraged to let him travel to India, where he will be taught and trained. Dealing with her own loss and struggling to understand her own spirituality as well as what it means to be a mother, Mother as wella s Father journey to India to find Tenzin’s new home.

This show is really beautiful. Tenzin is portrayed as a puppet (designed and constructed by Mansanari Kawahara) in order to show the shift between child self and reincarnated self, which makes for some poignant shifts onstage. The world that is created through the lighting (designed by Karin Olson, set (by Mina Kinukawa), sound (by Sean Healey), and costuming (by Sonya Berlovitz) is absolutely incredible and provides a powerful environment. Because this story deals with spirituality and ideas of reincarnation, there’s a very reverent, almost holy feeling created in some of the scenes, aided by traditional dancing and music performed onstage by actors (including Yeshi Samdup). Sarah Ruhl is known for her magical realism in her writing and this play perfectly captures that, both in the breaking down of the forth wall with the audience (seen at the beginning during Mother’s meditation and during Mother and Father’s dialogue about how they met), in the use of silence, the use of puppetry, and the topic itself. I wasn’t sure how a non-Buddhist would approach the subject of reincarnation but it feels very elegant in Ruhl’s hand and even more so in this superb production which strives to integrate the local Tibetan community.

I really enjoyed this play with its focus on meditation and mindfulness. It feels wonderful to step back and breathe (especially at the end of a stressful election year) and remember different ways of living that are more calm and focused. This play also captures a certain mystery about children – how they seem to know things that they seem too young to have learned – and plays with the idea that maybe there’s a more spiritual reason for this.

The Oldest Boy is written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Sarah Rasmussen. It is playing now through December 18th at Jungle Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Jungle’s website.

Good Person of Setzuan – Frank Theatre

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Source: facebook.com/FrankTheatreMpls

I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like Frank Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Setzuan. Part site-specific experience in the vacant space of the former Rainbow Foods on Lake Street, part found object set and installation project, it’s an incredible production that immerses the audience from the very moment they arrive.

Using Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Brecht’s work, this adaptation follows the arrival of three gods (Katherine Ferrand, Janis Hardy, and Ellen Apel) in the poverty-ridden town of Setzuan. The water-seller (Patrick Bailey) anticipates their arrival and meets them, promising to help them find a place to spend the night. However, each person he asks turns them away, causing the gods to wonder if there’s a single good person left in this town. Finally, the Water Seller comes to the residence of Shen Te (Emily Grodzik), a prostitute who agrees to allow the gods to stay with her. Proclaiming her a good person, the gods give her a gift of money to help her pay her rent. But due to the need of the people around her and Shen Te’s generous heart, she tries to help others in the poor town, leading to trouble and the feeling that she is being used. In order to cope and survive, Shen Te literally splits herself in half, creating an alter ego of her cousin, Shui Ta, the help negotiate and run the tobacco shop she has bought with the gods’ gift. When Shen Te realizes that marrying would help her financially, she plans to marry someone with money – but instead falls for the out of work pilot, Yang Sun (John Middleton). Deciding to love Sun no matter what the cost (both literally and figuratively), she chooses to marry him, even if he doesn’t love her. However, things don’t go the way Shen Te plans and she becomes Shui Ta again, opening a factory and changing Sun into a harsh, workaholic foreman.

Brecht is known for being dense, blunt, and focusing on the message and the medium of theater. He doesn’t write a piece that allows you to escape – he makes you constantly aware that you are watching a play and causes you to connect it to the world around you. Some might find this heavy-handed, but Frank’s production presents this with such power and grace that it doesn’t feel heavy or contrived but rather thoughtfully constructed.

A lot of this is due to the powerhouse cast. Aside from the talent mentioned above, there’s an incredible ensemble that performs an array of characters and constantly change and shift the set. Highlights include Kirby Bennett as Mrs. Shin, a former tenant of the space who looks to Shen Te for help and is the only person who knows her secret; Adam Varela as the barber Shu Fu, who falls in love with Shen Te and gives some wonderfully melodramatic monologues; and Kate Beahen and Joseph Miller as the Wife and Husband, troublemaking tobacco store owners sans a store who camp out in Shen Te’s shop and push her towards needing the alter ego of her cousin (who ultimately takes advantage of their tobacco supplies for Shui Ta’s own gain).

This is also a play with music, composed by Dan Dukich, combining dissonant Kurt Weill styles with more modern (almost 80s pop?) sounds, which lends itself wonderfully to mood and atmosphere already in place. In one powerful scene, we see Shen Te transform into Shui Ta, all while singing “Song of the Defenselessness of the Good and the Gods,”about how the good can not remain in a society like this and that the gods are no help. “The Song of Smoke” is also wonderfully eerie and full of some great solos.

Combining wonderful lighting design by Mike Wangen, various lush and tattered costumes by Kathy Kohl, a clever set by Joe Stanley, and fantastic props by Kellie Larson (who also designed the lobby display), there’s a really rich world that’s created inside the vacant store. And because it is an old grocery store, there’s remnants of its former usage everywhere – which further hits home the issues of the play. The loading dock, which has become the stage, provides the perfect sort of decaying mechanistic feel for the show. And, incredibly, it has wonderful acoustics.

Though this show is three hours long, it doesn’t feel longer or ponderous. Instead, it draws the audience in and raises important questions: how does capitalism make us act like different people from the ones we’d like to be? How does labor change who we are? Can we be good when everything is expensive and so much of our lives are about money? How can we change the world? As someone who’s worked in retail and customer service since college, I’m elated to see this production (especially right before election day) that considers economic issues (and if you take the light rail to the show as I did, you’ll find it impossible to overlook how relevant it is to issues of poverty in Minneapolis, given the number of people who have made the space under the overpass of Hiawatha home). If you want to dig in deeper to the play, check out the research guides available for purchase. Or, bring a friend, grab a drink afterwards, and dig into the deep issues of post-modern capitalism raised in this brilliant show.

Good Person of Setzuan is written by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tony Kushner, and directed by Wendy Knox. It is playing now through November 20th at the former Rainbow Foods location on Lake Street. Show and ticket information can be found on Frank Theatre’s website.