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A Free Man of Color – Review

A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center is closing very soon and it seems a shame.  Yet, the play itself seems somewhat a shame as well.  Written by John Guare and directed by George C. Wolfe, this production lingers and is lovely and in the end, falls flat.  It is breathtakingly stage with an enormous cast of seasoned solid actors, but it is simply a flawed play.

Set in the very early 1800s, A Free Man of Color is in essence the story of the Louisiana Purchase.  Interestingly enough, this narrative is not as dry as you would imagine.  In fact, it is probably the most solid aspect of the work.  Where the play falls flat is in the lack of dramatic tension and emotional connection.  While the play is saturated in texture and tale, it left me emotionally cold.  I was never pulled onto that stage, I was merely a spectator.  Perhaps there were smaller issues at hand; the periodic (incongruous) rhyming, the smattering of sophomoric humor, and the genital storyline did feel self conscious to me.  However, I doubt I would have noticed as much had I been rooting or caring for someone on that stage.

The empty emotional space is certainly not the fault of the actors.  They are fabulous and include Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def (I know!) as the leads.  I can’t even believe I am stating that Mr. Def was the most poignant portrayal of the evening.  I briefly considered putting my arm around him and giving him a “there there.”  His interpretation of his character (the slave) was tight, small and dead-on.

The use of the stage was awe inspiring.  I’ve no doubt the Lincoln Center board blanched at the set design (David Rockwell) but it was money well spent.  The appearance of a simple white screen in Act II evoked a gasp.  The use of (very subtle) puppetry to depict slaves was stirring.  Musicians on the stage worked splendidly and reminded a bit of Ruined.  Quite simply, there was so much to love in this production.  The play had been cut (and is now a formidable 2 1/2 hours) and workshopped, but not enough in my estimation.   It is frustrating to sit in a theatre and watch intelligence and care unfold, and know that it really should close.  Adding to my sadness is that I have no doubt that the hundreds of empty seats would have been filled if the cast was comprised of movie or talent show stars.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Brokeology – Review

There are two elements that prevent Brokeology (at Lincoln Center) from being great theatre; the direction and the play.  The play, by Nathan Louis Jackson is the story of a small family (African American) in Kansas City.  It is a very straightforward tale of a father (Wendell Pierce) in failing health, and his grown sons (Alano Miller and Francois Battiste) fumbling to plan his long term care.  This probably could be an interesting conceit had the characters been written with more depth and the family dynamics better exposed.  There are very large holes in the story which make it difficult to care for the family and its journey.  Why does the younger son have a Masters Degree from UConn and the older son is a fry cook and unwed father still living in his hometown?  Why is the father whose religion is his marriage to his deceased wife, so blase about his eldest not marrying the mother of his grandchild?
Some of these holes could have been offset with better direction.  Thomas Kail (In The Heights) is probably more suited for a musical stage.  There are no attempts to connect the actors to each other on the stage.  The pacing is so deadened as to weaken any momentum and hence dramatic tension that might be eeked out from the script.  Mr. Pierce (a very enjoyable actor) is not directed in any way that alludes to the progression of his disease.  Were it not for some special effects, we might never be aware of his deterioration.  This is a problem for a plot device that hinges on the sons making a decision about their father by summer’s end.  Mr. Miller is a fine actor with a lovely stage presence, who as the younger high achieving son is given little assistance from the script or director.  He is placid and never conveys any inner conflict about his “should I stay, or should I go” decision.  There is a hint in the script that he is to be the softer more communicative son of the two, but the direction did nothing to illuminate that fact.  Crystal Dickinson is delightful as the often dead mother of the family.  She need only show up from time to time to remind us of the guiding light that she was for this family.  The real stand-out of this ensemble, and the reason to see this play is Francois Battiste.  He is a mutlilayered heartbreaking dynamo, that claws his way out of the stagnation of this production.  It will remain a mystery as to why he, and only he, comes across as a fully formed character.  I know exactly what makes him tick, even with a rather contrived plot line.  There were moments throughout the production that made me wonder if the director really understood the play.  The first Act opens with the (alive) wife surprising her husband with homemade T-shirts.  Even though they were pre-set on the curtainless stage, I had difficulty making out what they were supposed to spell out and what their point was.  It is only later in the script where we learn that the wife had great artistic aspirations and had dropped out of college.  There is nothing in her character that would have us believe that she was delusional about her talents.  Why not have the costumer or set designer make those t-shirts fabulous?  The woman wanted to paint murals rife with political statements, and the shirts were at best monotonous.  Counter to this was the perfect set and lighting of this play.  The working class Kansas City home had its outer edges exposed in the thrust theatre.  Fragments of insulation and patchy lawn were slightly visible.  It was a lovely subtle touch.  The costuming was not as subtle as the elder son was dressed as “gangster lite” and the younger as “prep school holiday.”
This production continues to baffle me in many ways.  I don’t entirely understand how it made it to Lincoln Center nor do I understand the full (but odd) house on Saturday night.  I have never been to a production that had 50% Caucasians over age 75 and 50% African Americans (of various ages) as its audience.  I believe that composite actually explains a great deal about this production’s journey.  This play was clearly marketed to this particular audience.  I don’t know where or how (as I am not a member of either group.)  Clearly the firm mandated with this task should be lauded.  The audience showed (some 20-30 minutes late) and stayed.  They did not respond or seem terribly interested, but of course they gave the performers a standing ovation.  It was during this ovation that the tears flowed down my face.  Wendell Pierce stood on the apron of that stage, free of script and direction, his body and face were never more expressive and he broke my heart.  As the lump rose higher and higher in my throat, I ached for what could have been, with such a talented cast.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Zing Zing Zing Went My Heartstrings

I certainly have extolled the splendors of New York in the summer before.  However, I’ve shopped before too.

The weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day are just glorious.  The vibrancy of the city stays intact but the extraneous noise that affects our fine city’s livability seems to ebb rather dramatically.  Restaurants are available during peak time; at the last minute.  The streets are quieter and more manageable.The frantic sense of having to shore and gear up to navigate any external activity seems to fade as well.  What’s left is all the deliciousness that the city has to offer, presented in an appealing and manageable manner.

I watched the thinned workday crowd come up from the subway (another less than hundred people coming off of the train) on Friday morning.  I did this while sipping my cappuccino (from a real cup) and picking at an apple gateau in the atrium of Alice Tully Hall.  The weight of my demitasse and the taste of the caramelized apple transported me instantly to Paris.  (This is not an affront to my city, as we all know, Paris is really just New York in french.)  I was loathe to leave, but there were two tickets in my name at the Walter Reade.  Singing In The Rain was not going to watch itself.  Do you remember when movies were fabulous and filled with talent and movie theatres were lovely and special and going to the concession stand did not remind you of a bad night in prison?  Come to the Walter Reade (but not all at once, I like it partially empty.)  The theatre is immaculate and designed for viewing pleasure.  Imagine that!  The espresso(!) was $2 and the popcorn $4.  You know; what it’s actually worth!  I was tickled to see children in the theatre (there’s a sentence that should never be quoted out of this context!)  It speaks volumes about Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds that nary a peep uttered from these very small children.  See what actual entertainment (vs. dummed down corporate product placement) can do for a child.  The audience burst in spontaneous applause several times.  Seeing Mr. O’Connor scale the walls in Make “Em Laugh (on the big screen) was thrilling.

How does one top a morning like that?  By having lunch at Alice’s Tea Cup, that’s how.  Usually sheer madness at lunch when school is out, the wait was all of 5 minutes on this holiday weekend.  A pumpkin scone, a salad and a pot of tea.  Is there anything more wonderful?  Unless it’s the two EXTRA helpings of jam I insisted upon.

The next day was equally splendid and started with a walk/run along the Hudson at Riverside Park.  The breeze and beauty of the morning could only be topped by Judy and Vincent’s first movie.  The close ups of Miss Garland on the large screen are enough to warm even the coldest heart.  Sitting in the Walter Reade (thank you Lincoln Center 50th anniversary musical weekend celebration) and hearing the laughter around me, I was warmed all over.  MGM was magic to me as a child, but magic that I always experienced alone, on a black and white portable television.  How fabulous to discover that I am not alone.

On my way to lunch (in the West Village) I witnessed the shoring up of the West Side of my city.  The Macy’s fireworks were coming to the Hudson (Happy 400th Hudson!) and boy was it gonna draw the masses like salt leeching liquid.  By the time I traipsed back downtown for dinner at Balthazar (no waiting, no attitude, no kidding) with our dear friends, the throngs had started to descend.  At 8:30 (on our way to our own rooftop to view the fireworks) the streets were filled.  Lawn chairs and coolers littered the sidewalks.  Every cement surface held a human.  Looking down on the westside highway (from 39 flights above) I took in the sight of a blanket of humans.  It was a glorious show.  From our vantage point we could see New Jersey’s fireworks as well as all 6 barges on the Hudson.  Magic.

However no holiday that celebrates patriotism or dead war veterans would be complete without a picnic.  An empty Riverside Park, a couple of blankies, a basket full of Fairway and a Yankee Game on a genuine transistor radio!

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – Review

On the heels of the 2008 Tony Awards, I bring you a review of a play devoid of pop composers, celebrity casting and green monsters. I saw August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone this weekend (missing the President and Mrs. Obama by a scant week) at the Belasco Theatre. This Lincoln Center Theatre production (no doubt at the Belasco due to Lincoln Center construction) has created much buzz surrounding its direction. Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, Light in the Piazza) was given permission by Mr. Wilson’s widow to direct Joe Turner. Much has been made of Mr. Wilson’s outspokenness and wishes regarding African American directors working on African American plays, and the hiring of the non-African American Mr. Sher. While I cannot speak to the back story of this brouhaha or the motivation of the widow Turner, I can attest to the fact that this was not a gimmick. Mr. Sher does a lush and lovely job with this great American play. There is musical theatre in Mr. Sher’s bones and it shows. The direction is fluid and musical and modulates in tempo, resulting in three hours that actually flies by.

The play is set in 1911 Pittsburgh (the second part of the Wilson Pittsburgh trilogy) in a boarding house. The boarders all present tales of searching and yearning for people and love in various forms. The most permanent boarder is Bynum (Roger Robisnon; TONY,) a mystic of sorts. The (white) traveling salesman Rutherford Selig (Arliss Howard,) creates a rich political and social context. While the individual tales are compelling and dramatically poignant, the real story is post slavery society. Each of the charactersrepresents different stages of acclimation, not unlike non-slaved but subjugated immigrant populations. The owner of the house, Seth Holly (Ernie Husdon,) represents the consummate free man. He has no truck with African customs or mysticism. He owns his own business and has plans to develop a second business that will train and employ other men of color. His wife Bertha (Latanya Richardson Jackson,) except for her salt throwing habit, has embraced the life of the northern experience as well. One boarder, Jeremy, represents the other end of the freedom spectrum. His relationship with his work and his personal life has all the earmarks of a man who does not own his destiny. All of the other characters fall within these opposites.

The cast is flawless, except from an awkward child actor, attesting to the rarity of lack of self-consciousness in pre-pubescent boys. Ernie Hudson (OZ) is mesmerizing. He is a powerful and large actor that does not shy from nuance. Ms. Jackson is a perfect match to Mr. Hudson, and provides a wonderful softness to the tale. It is however, Mr. Robinson that steals this show. His body and cadence curl into a Yoda/Professor Marvel creation. His creation of Bynum is so three dimensional I wanted to have lunch with Bynum.

Like most great American plays, the characters and their stories linger and tell a tale that resonates for all. With absolutely no disrespect intended, Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, is a story that transcends one group of people.

The very end of the play might be considered trite and sentimental by some. Color me a reformed cynic; I loved it. You will be very happy having seen this beautiful production.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Theatre

 

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