West Side Story and Latinx Artists

As I sat at my computer, doing anything but write up my review of Ordway’s production of West Side Story, I realized that I simply couldn’t write the review. I opted to focus on choreography as a way to discuss the layers of feelings I had about the production. But I couldn’t write. I had local actor Ricardo Vazquez’s words, who spoke about the show at a birthday part I attended last fall, of “This is not a show about Latinos that needs to be done anymore” ringing in my head.

This morning I came across a post from ALMA, the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists, on Facebook in response to this article from the Star Tribune. Instead of writing my own post, I am instead sharing their words from their original post which can be found on their Facebook page. I hope that by sharing their post and their words that more people will be aware of the issues in place of this production and wider problems in our theater community.

‘We are the Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA). Below is our statement in response to the unfortunate words printed in the Star Tribune on April 6th, 2017 in regards to our local Latinx community of artists.

This letter is in response to the article To stage ‘West Side Story,’ Ordway Center decided to grow Latino talents by Rohan Preston published in the Star Tribune on Thursday, April 6, 2017. The article implies our local Latinx artist community is lacking the necessary ability to appear on the Ordway stage in a musical. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco states, “There are not a whole lot of Latino musical theater artists in town…” More than one year ago our local Latinx community was promised a strong commitment by James Rocco and the Ordway to partner with Teatro del Pueblo to ensure our representation on stage. The only catch was we would need to be trained through weeks of workshops, classes, and seminars in order to be ready for the first round of standard auditions.

Suddenly, Latinx artists ranging in experience from professional union actors with over 30 years of credits to recent BFA graduates were asked to attend the workshops, but told by Teatro del Pueblo that the Ordway was accustomed to a certain standard of excellence. We were told our local Latinx community needed to prove its own value for the wonderful opportunity to play gang members in a 60-year-old musical written by two white men that ends with one of our people shooting the romantic lead and being placed in handcuffs.

In the end, this “commitment to growth” by the Ordway yielded only two local Latinx artists cast, while more than 10 additional roles were filled with out of town actors, clearly stating through action that the Ordway was embarrassed of our local Latinx talent. This was supported by Rohan Preston’s unverified assertion, “There’s a wealth of musical theater artists among African-Americans in the Twin Cities, and to a lesser degree, Asian-Americans. But Latinos? Not so much.”

We are the Latinx actors, directors, producers, dancers, singers, playwrights, educators, and theater artists that seem to be non-existent in the eyes of Mr. Preston, The Ordway Center and, unfortunately, even Teatro del Pueblo.

We are professional artists. We are not in need of charity, workshops or instructions on the fundamentals, but rather regular and consistent opportunities. It is a fact that our presence on stage is not as visible as in other major theater towns, though not due to the lack of talent or unwillingness, but because opportunities to play roles are infrequent and inconsistent. We will not tolerate organizations who feel they have the right to label an entire community as unworthy to be represented on stage.

While we are pleased that the Ordway is helping new actors learn how to become professionals, we are not all new at this. Just because the Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo, for very different reasons, do not see us work, it does not mean that we are all amateurs in need of fundamental skill development. This community of Latinx theater artists ranges from members of Actors Equity to more recent graduates of excellent conservatories and training programs including our own University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA.

We would also like to speak about the Ordway’s partnership with Teatro del Pueblo. The onus of finding local talent was solely placed on Teatro-a smaller less-resourced organization. This assumes that only Latinx organizations can know Latinx talent and if they are unable to provide a roster, then it is Teatro’s fault and not the Ordway’s. In addition, no one organization such as Teatro del Pueblo represents the Latinx community nor should any individual such as Al Justiniano ever feel the right to speak for an entire community of people.

The Ordway has a track record of contentious relationships with local communities of color. The 2013 production of Miss Saigon drew widespread condemnation from members of the Asian American community and eventually elicited an apology from then President and CEO Patricia Mitchell: “I want to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt that presenting this work has caused.” The Ordway’s ethics have been called into question more recently by organizations such as Mu Performing Arts (this was covered by Marianne Combs in her article Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide.) If the Ordway is truly trying to reach our communities, it is time to listen to us about how these issues can be addressed and eliminated.

We wish the cast of West Side Story a successful run. Moving forward, we hope the Ordway, Teatro del Pueblo, and Star Tribune recognize and embrace the incredible wealth of talent of our Twin Cities Latinx community. We also hope James Rocco, Al Justiniano, and Rohan Preston continue to discuss this article with us because the only way to true community empowerment is by working together through conflict and disagreement. We invite all of you to join us in a panel discussion on Monday June 5th to expand on this letter (more details to follow). We look forward to the opportunity to develop real partnerships, exhibit our talents, bring authenticity to the stage, and help institutions like the Ordway be proud to showcase local talent in order to combat the larger issue of systematic exclusion.

In this together,

The Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA)
AllianceofmnLatinxartists@gmail.com

#RULooking?’

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White Christmas

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Source: ordway.org

I find it important to be honest in my reviews, even if I risk being unpopular. While most everything I’ve read about the Ordway’s White Christmas is full of positivity, remarking on its charm and holiday cheer, I had a far different experience with this show. I feel almost embarrassed, like the Grinch about to run off with Whoville’s Christmas decorations. But I believe overlooking the issues I have will do more harm than good and I believe it important to our theater community to consider the issues I have with this production, even if I end up being the only one who sees them.

Don’t get me wrong. This theatrical elements of this production are incredible. The costuming, set construction, lighting and effects are wonderful. The cast is fantastic, with some of the Twin Cities best – Brian Sostek, Dieter Bierbrauer, Ann Michels, Jenny Piersol, James Detmar, Gary Briggle, and Thomasina Petrus. But I’m not happy about the story told. I know it takes place in the 1950s and that “times were different.” I know that the source is a movie that can only be updates so much without completely leaving the story that so many know and love behind. Yet I’m still astonished how sexist the show was. From Phil Davis’ comments and smug flirting with Judy, to the portrayal of the twins Rita and Rhoda as unintelligent sex objects, to the moment a girl stretching at the piano freezes with her leg up in the air as General Waverly enters during rehearsal and ogles at her leg, making her body the punch line of a joke – all of this added up to make a very uncomfortable experience for me and my friend who accompanied me.

I really wanted to enjoy this show. I desperately wanted a moment of escapism for  just a few hours to leave behind this rough year we’ve had, to embrace the holiday cheer that is meant to be at the heart of this story. Instead, I felt like I was walloped in the face by the very things that I struggle with every day – women being objectified, harmful jealousies caused by women seeing the men they want to possess in the company of other women, believing that women have to force a  man to “settle down,” and benevolent sexism in its many forms. Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum and when current issues appear in a script, they’re amplified by the cultural moment I find them in. Maybe it’s bad luck that White Christmas happened to be staged in a year when sexism is at the forefront of many people’s minds. But it’s also important to me what decision were made in this staging and I’m disappointed that these concerns didn’t seem to be at the top of mind. Perhaps the actors and artistic team dealt with these experiences internally during rehearsals (and I hope for the sake of the actresses onstage that they did) but I certainly didn’t get the feeling that they had from the performance I saw. Instead, I felt uncomfortable for them, for myself, and for the other women in the audience.

I’m sure that 90% of people who see this show will enjoy it and I’m sure that people will day I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But representation matters. I’m one of the few people who had a negative experience with this show and I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t. I’m not going to write what I think people want to hear or shy away from criticism. I don’t want to overshadow the good work the Ordway does based off of one production, but I am disappointed by this show and expect better in a theater community that is usually very sensitive to issues such as these. I hope that by recognizing these issues in theater we can have better discussions about how to work around or change these issues in productions and recognize them, rather than ignoring them.

White Christmas is written by Irving Berlin, Dave Ives, and Paul Blake and is directed by Jame A. Rocco. It is playing now through December 31st at the Ordway. Ticket and show information can be found on the Ordway’s website.

Review: A Night With Janis Joplin

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Source: Ordway.org

A crossover between tribute concert and musical theater, A Night with Janis Joplin at the Ordway is a unique, mesmerizing performance. Using the concert format as a source to tell Joplin’s story, this show uses conversations to the audience between songs (some of my favorite parts of concerts) and Joplin’s music and music of those who influenced her to convey her presence as an artist. Mary Bridget Davies makes a stunning Janis and blows the audience away with her vocals. Hitting the robust growl perfectly, her voice is a perfect impression of Joplin’s skill and timbre.

Also taking stage are various actresses playing the parts of Joplin’s influencers – Bessie Smith and Odetta (Cicily Daniels), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Q. Smith), and a woman known as Blues Singer (Jennifer Leigh Warren). In what feels like a dream concert inside Janis’ mind, she interacts with the women who made music one of the most important parts of her life and taught her about the blues. The concert itself is an exploration of what the blues is and what it means to Janis.

Adding incredible solos and support to this work is the band, who not only personify the era by their dress and physicality, but also switch between genres to express the mood of the blues and personality of Joplin’s influencers. The band, directed by Mark Berman, acts as much as they perform the music and provide more than just accompaniment. The lighting design of the show is also brilliant, creating the mood of the 60s in a concert environment along with projections behind the stage to add to Joplin’s story.

Though the show is more concert than musical theater story, there were moments I wish the piece had stayed in longer – Joplin’s grappling with a world that kills blues artists (in this instance, Bessie Smith, who I had just happened to read about before seeing the show and learned she died after a car accident because the hospital she was taken to refused to treat her due to her race), Joplin’s wanting to be like Zelda Fitzgerald but to not end up with her fate, her struggles with how being with a man has never been as good as the feeling she gets being front of an audience, and her conflict between wanting to be in a relationship but not wanting to put her musical ambition and her life on the road aside for it. The show poignantly touches on all of these, but I would have loved more thoughts from Janis on them, to hold to those conflicts a little longer. However, much of the music does that work as well, and we do experience those moments throughout her powerful, bluesy songs.

Though Joplin’s death is hinted at, it never is mentioned in the show. Instead, it focus on her life and her legacy and gives a possible answer, as the Ordway’s website asks, “what might have been” had Joplin lived beyond age 27. It works with how we remember people and how we tell their story and, instead of making it about Janis’ death, it makes it about her life. I’ve never seen a show get standing ovations throughout the show, but this one got them several times. It’s a lot of fun and a great tribute to an incredible artist.

A Night with Janis Joplin is written and directed by Randy Johnson. It is playing now through  April 3rd at the Ordway Center of Performing Arts in St. Paul. Ticket information and prices can be found on the Ordway’s website.

Review: A Chorus Line

 

a-chorus-line-photo-by-phil-martin

Source: Ordway.com

A Chorus Line has had a certain allure to me since my grandmother complained about seeing a local production of it in her hometown. She hated it, deploring the foul language and sexual subject matter. Naturally I assumed it was right up my alley.

I was thrilled to see that the Ordway would be including it in their season this year and I’ve been looking forward it for quite some time. This show does something I haven’t seen onstage before – creating a love story focused on those who are usually overlooked in a performance, those who are not cast as leads but in the chorus. Through the stories of these performers, A Chorus Line weaves a stunning, touching tale of what people do for their work and their love of art, specifically dance.

Set in the midst of an audition to find four male and four female dancers, twenty-four hopeful dances dancers – cut down to seventeen at the top of the show – share their stories of finding dance as they are called upon by the director, Zach (Tom Berklund). Focusing on what called people to dance, whether it’s escaping a poor family life and yearning to have beautiful (“At the Ballet”) or because their family danced and they enjoyed it (“I Can Do That”), the characters are literally fleshed out through their physicality and movement.

There are moments of utter frankness in language and body that are apparently still shocking to some people (including the very uncomfortable couple sitting next to me that left early). But this show is so much more than its language or portrayal of sexuality, though that is central to the story lines of several of the characters. It is, however, focused on the body and the physical aspects of performance as well as the mental aspects. It’s easy to forget how much theater physically demands of its performers and this show reminds of it at every moment. It especially highlights the more superficial aspects and how they hurt their performers through typecasting and focusing on what a dancer looks like. In “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” Val (Maria Briggs) humorously and bitingly explains how she couldn’t get cast in any show until she had plastic surgery. Her flaunting of her new body and her attempts to convince how easy it is to obtain – “just go out in buy it” stand in stark contrast to the stories of those who use dance to feel better about their bodies, especially Paul (Omar Garibay) who’s story of using dance to come to terms with his sexuality is touching and powerful.

In the end, the story of Cassie (Molly Tynes), a lead dancer who went to Hollywood only to find she couldn’t get any work and has returned to audition for chorus, is one of the most powerful. Questioned by Zach how she could possibly return to the chorus, Cassie responds that she would be proud and honored to be in the chorus. Zach is confused and asks “Don’t you want to be special?” To which Cassie retorts that each and every person in the chorus is special. They all have their own story and their own style and, while they come together and dance the same, they all have their own unique character. By the end of the audition, with each character struggling to figure out what they will do when they can no longer dance, they in some ways decided it doesn’t matter – what does matter is that they had this opportunity to do “what they did for love,” for the love of dance, and that they don’t regret it.

There are aspects of the show that feel a bit dated and some of the characters sound a bit cliched, but by the end, an array of complexity and the uniqueness that Cassie cherishes is realized. In some ways, this show is now a period piece, providing a look at what it was like working Broadway in the 1970s. In other ways – the anxiety around auditioning, the desperate need to get work, the worries of what Broadway theater are becoming – are timely.

The Ordway’s staging is clever and somewhat immersive, stationing Zach at an audition table in the front of the mezzanine section of the theater (the upper level of the main orchestra area). As he goes back and forth between the stage and the table, it’s almost as if the audience isn’t there and an actual audition is taking place. Taken into this staging is a way of showing love to other unsung voices in theater who are overlooked just as much as the chorus. The lighting in this show is incredible and the costuming manages to capture each character’s personality while still keeping inside the bounds of dance audition gear. The orchestrations are gorgeous and the pit, led by Raymond Berg, sound phenomenal. And while there isn’t much of a set, the set pieces of mirrors that are used add a wonderful compliment and glamour to the performance. And of course there’s choreography – something that even I am guilty of overlooking in performances. This show makes you pay attention to choreography as it’s all about it – the dance, how the body moves, and how people can be characterized by movement.

What’s best about this show is that you don’t have to be a member of the theater community to love and understand what it’s about. It it especially easy for artists to relate to but even those who took dance in their childhood, have ever interviewed for their dream job, struggled to understand their bodies in their teenage years, or had issues with a teacher in a field they loved will appreciated this show. And if you did take dance in your youth, it’ll make you wish you’d never stopped.

 

A Chorus Line is playing now through February 28 at the Ordway Theater. Ticket information and the show schedule can be found on the Ordway’s website.