Aug. 26, 2018, will forever break my heart. The president of AUDELCO, Grace L. Jones, died on that day at the age of 90, after being at the helm of the organization for many years. She was the AUDELCO theater mother and like a mother to me and so many others. She was a lady that walked with grace like the night and will be so truly missed. A lovely memorial service was held for her at her home church of 75 years, Abyssinian Baptist Church. A service was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, and so much of the theater community came to bid her a fond and beloved farewell. God bless you and keep you by his side always, Ms. Grace, or Ma as I liked to call her.
“Smokey Joe’s Café” was a “Smokin’ Sensation” at Stage 42! The songs of Leiber and Stoller are timeless classics that were absolutely amazing to hear again. The ensemble had some of the most phenomenal voices that you will experience. The musical featured more than 30 stupendous songs that definitely took you back, including “Dance With Me,” “Keep on Rollin’,” “Kansas City,” “Along Came Jones,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “On Broadway,” “Trouble,” “Pearl’s a Singer,” “I’m a Woman,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Love Potion #9,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me.” Kyle Taylor Parker, Jelani Remy, John Edwards and Dwayne Cooper masterfully handle several memorable group numbers. Max Sangerman sang in several songs with other cast members as he replaced Dan Domenech in the performance I saw, and he did a fine job. The ladies in the musical also held their own and included Alysha Umphress, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz and Emma Degerstedt. There was something for everyone in this splendid musical. It was brilliantly directed by Joshua Bergasse, who played the dual role as the musical’s choreographer. “Smokey Joe’s Café” had a predominantly African-American cast. It also has a long list of producers, two of whom were African-Americans, Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey.
September brought a production about segregation and the racism young Blacks faced even on the basketball court in Alabama in 1951 in “Separate and Equal,” which played at 59 East 59th Street. It was poignantly presented by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Metro NAACP and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The story was about a basketball game that took place in 1951 on a court in Birmingham, Ala. between three white teens and three Black teens, something that was illegal. Segregation was alive and well and the Black teens weren’t even allowed to be on the white teens’ basketball court. This production was inspired by testimonials from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. That’s right, there was testimony that a game actually happened. The presentation was done very creatively in Theater B. You wonder how will they accomplish playing basketball? Well, basketball hoops were projected on the screens, and when players played with an invisible basketball and took a shot, a ball was shown on the screen going in for the shot or missing. Playwright and director Seth Panitch definitely delivered a riveting story, as during the basketball game, we listened to the players say racially charged things to each other, but also in revealing back scenes, we saw what these characters’ backstories are. Some whites had racists parents; some Blacks had had family members killed by racist whites. Through the teens playing basketball and finding a common interest, the impossible began to happen. The barricades imposed by society seemed to decay, but that was short-lived. The cast was brilliant and had one mesmerized as they danced, played ball, worked up a real sweat and told a riveting story, and it included Adrian Baidoo, James Holloway, Edwin Brown III, Steven Bond Jr. Ross Birdsong and Dylan Guy Davis. The cast also included Will Badgett, Pamela Alexis, Barbra Wengerd, Jeremy Cox and Ted Barton. So many times when you watch actors in a show, you think that everything in their lives must be great. Here they are successful and starring in a Broadway show. You don’t think of them as having back lives and lives that might not be filled with happiness and acting classes. You don’t ever really know a person’s full story, unless they have the strength to choose to share it. That was the case with Chesney Snow. Snow, with Rebecca Arends, wrote “The Unwritten Law,” which is an honest, thought-provoking story on his life. It played at Dixon Place. Snow, known for his Beatbox sounds in his role of Boxman in “In Transit” on Broadway, now had a very personal, sad, difficult story to tell about his own real-life issues, issues that involved a lot of family separation, being raised by other family members, having a father who was incarcerated, a sister who was molested, a disabled cousin and struggling to find his avenue in the entertainment business. Snow told his story to the audience and as he talked about characters such as his mother, his father, his sister and his mother’s boyfriend, actors came out and did beautiful, poignant, interpretative dances to live music, representing these characters, and then took on the roles and spoke. In addition to Snow, the marvelous actors on the stage included Rebecca Arends, who actually had a quadruple role because she was the production director and choreographer as well. Other cast members included Lara Dadap, A. J. Khaw and Maleek Washington. Broadway saw the first Black transgender person to star in a show, when Peppermint took to the stage at the Hudson Theatre as Pythio, a character in the hilarious musical comedy “Head Over Heels,” featuring the music of the Go-Go’s, which is still playing now. The musical, based on “The Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney, with conception and original book by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder, tells the story of the people of Arcadia. The people are proud that Arcadia has “the beat,” and there is a fear that the kingdom will have events happen because of the King’s stubbornness that will lead to the people losing “the beat.” The cast is superb! It includes African-American Taylor Iman Jones, Bonnie Milligan, Andrew Durand, Jeremy Kushnier, Rachel York, Alexandra Socha and Tom Alan Robbins. The entire cast has some very marvelous and powerful vocal instruments. It was really enjoyable to watch this musical comedy unfold. It is performed with great humor and a slew of originality and fun. “Head Over Heels” is a hoot and something to thoroughly enjoy. It has fun choreography by Spencer Liff, great costumes by Arianne Phillips, enchanting scenic design by Julian Crouch, lighting by Kevin Adams, sound by Kai Harada, music direction/conducting by Kimberly Grigsby and flawless direction by Michael Mayer.
October was not only a time for tackling serious issues, but also for enjoying levity. The tremendously important play that focused on the issue of Alzheimer’s disease and how it is dealt with in the Black community—“Dot”—was powerfully mounted at the Billie Holiday Theatre at RestorationART, to start its 51st season. This beautiful play by Colman Domingo, with profound direction by Kenny Leon, looked at the world of Dotty, an elderly Black woman with Alzheimer’s. Domingo presented the illness from Dot’s perspective and the perspective of her daughter, who was her main caregiver, and her family and friends. Now, of course, the storyline is first-rate, but it must be acknowledged that this cast did a phenomenal job. The members were outstanding in their portrayals of these engrossing characters and were led by Denise Burse as Dotty. Others cast members included Tinasha Kajese-Bolden, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Lee Osorio, Amber A. Harris, Rhyn McLemore Saver and Benedetto Robinson. Have you ever gone to a play and couldn’t blink or cough? You only wanted to keep your eyes and senses focused on the actors. Have you ever experienced a gripping, moving storyline that had many unexpected twists and turns and made you think, “Where are they going with this?” but found yourself stunned by the power of the writer and speechless at the end of this engrossing work? Well that begins to describe what I felt while watching “Fireflies,” the new play presented at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street. This unique, brilliant, captivating and riveting drama told the story of the Rev. Charles Grace, a Black minister involved in the Civil Rights Movement, especially after the bombing of the church in 1963 in Alabama, where the four little girls lost their lives. The play talked about his strained relationship with his wife Olivia, who wrote his sermons, but had secrets she was keeping from him, secrets that involved a lesbian attraction and not wanting to have children. Playwright Donja R. Love gave the audience two characters who had many layers to them. This drama was moving! It touched the soul in a way that would bring you to tears. “Fireflies” featured amazing direction by Saheem Ali and starred the superb cast of Khris Davis and DeWanda Wise. Playwright Nzogi Anyanwu created “Good Grief,” which was performed at the Vineyard Theatre. This amazing play truly made one think about how we handle the death of someone we truly care about. What are some of the stages of grief that people go through? It was an emotional play to watch, but it touched the heart and soul. The audience was told about the friendship/relationship between Nkechi and MJ, two high school students in Bucks County, Pa. in 1992. We then see what happened once MJ was gone. The cast was perfect and made you feel everything they did. It was led by playwright Anyanwu and included Ian Quinlan, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Nnamdi Asomugha, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Hunter Parrish and Lisa Ramirez. It had moving direction by Awoye Timpo. Black Spectrum Theatre had the laughs in abundance with their offering of “Reunion in Bartersville” by Celeste Walker, with direction by Marjorie Moon. The play was a comedy mystery that happened during a high school reunion. It was a who-done-it about a murder that had happened decades before. The cast was delightful and included Fulton C. Hodges, Wendi Joy Franklin, Gha’il Rhodes Benjamin, Robert Siverls, Brian Anthony Simmons, Gil Tucker and
November saw the power and beauty of a new voice at the Public Theater as Patricia Ione Lloyd wrote “Eve’s Song,” a play that took you to the ancestors and shared the struggles that Black women face. She painted a picture that stated the first woman in existence was a Black woman named Eve and she was who all Black women descended from. Lloyd created a world where every Black woman had her own song, and when you die you get to hear your personal song as the ancestors come to take your soul to the next existence. Lloyd so beautifully showed all the complex sides that a Black woman has. There’s the caring mother, the frustrated woman, the mother who questions if she is doing the right thing by her children, the mother who is concerned that there are negative elements in the world that she can’t protect her children from and the mother who has to pretend that everything is good, everything is just great, to try and maintain a “happy” family home life. Lloyd paints a picture that shows how a mother feels while dealing with the fresh wounds of her husband walking out and leaving her alone to raise their two children. We saw a woman who had a high position at work, but as the Black executive was degraded. We saw a woman who knew firsthand what being sexually harassed at work looked like. Lloyd gives the audience a proud Black woman who bends over backward to try to have everything go well. Lloyd truly is bothered by the murders of Black men and the murders of Black women in society, as we all should be. The spirits of three Black women who were real and killed in real life speak of the situations that viciously took their lives, and it left the audience stunned. Lloyd provided a look at love from the prospective of a lesbian, a look that is filled with passion and desire. As serious as the subject matter of this play was, it was balanced at times with humor. This stupendous cast included De’Adre Aziza, Kadijah Raquel, Karl Green, Ashley D. Kelley, Vernice Miller, Rachel Watson-Jih and Tamara M. Williams. Riveting direction by Jo Bonney added to the brilliance of this piece. Proving that art is an imitation of life, Christopher Demos-Brown created the compelling, heart-wrenching story “American Son,” which is playing at the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. This play looks at how young Black males are targeted by the police and how it can become a fatal encounter. The story is told as we see a Black mother in a police precinct trying to find out what happened to her son. Where is Jamal? Once we see Kendra pacing, the story is off. The cast gives an A+ performance and will have you captivated and speechless as they had me. The only sound you will find yourself making is weeping. This play is a wake-up call to Black mothers, Black young men and everyone! The cast is splendid and includes Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Eugene Lee and Jeremy Jordan. There is spot-on direction by, yes, once again, the marvelously talented Kenny Leon. The month ended on a fun, positive note as entertainment legend, the beloved, Ben Vereen did his one-man show “Steppin’ Out With Ben Vereen” at the Cutting Room to a standing room crowd during Thanksgiving to give thanks for their loyalty. But it was all of us giving thanks to him for him sharing his life and tremendous talent.
December ended the year with Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh’s powerful, funny, touching story play, “School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” that was presented by the MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, located at 121 Christopher Street. Bioh gave us Aburi Girls Boarding School in Central Ghana and the students preparing for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant. The audience was introduced to the students and saw the dynamics happening with these girls—bullying, cruelty and jealousy. This play took a serious look at the issues that we have in the Black community with the envy and hatred that Blacks can have toward each other simply because of different skin colors. This play was a definite wake-up call about the self-hatred in the Black community and the racism that we as Black people face in a world where we simply don’t measure up to the standard for “true” beauty. This remarkable all-Black cast gave superb performances and consisted of MaameYaa Boafo as Paulina, Latoya Edwards as Ama, Paige Gilbert as Gifty, Joanna A. Jones as Ericka, Abena Mensah-Bonsu as Nana, Mirirai Sithole as Mercy, Myra Lucretia Taylor as Headmistress Francis and Zenzi Williams as Eloise. Director Rebecca Taichman masterfully handled this very dramatic, explosive and riveting, brilliant piece of theater. Sadly, Dec. 7, theater, television, movie icon and the artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company, Charles Weldon, died at Mt. Sinai Hospital. He was 78 years old. He was a charming, handsome, hardworking, kind man who will be
With 2019, you can look forward to seeing Blacks on Broadway in “Choir Boy,” writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Broadway debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street. This Manhattan Theatre Club production began performances Dec. 12 and features a mostly Black cast that consists of Jeremy Pope, Tony Award-winner Chuck Cooper, Nicholas L. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Caleb Eberhardt, John Clay III, Daniel Bellamy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, Marcus Gladney and Austin Pendleton, with stunning direction by Trip Cullman. I saw the show with the same cast when it was off-Broadway, and it was fantastic! Make plans to see it. Just be warned there is complete nudity included. The Signature Theatre will present two new Lynn Nottage plays, “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” directed by Kamilah Forbes. New York Theatre Workshop will be presenting work from Anna Deavere Smith. In 2019, make it your business to support Black theater companies and plays by Black artists because they are telling our stories as only we can. Try to go to Broadway to support our people in productions. For now, go see “American Son” and “Head Over Heels,” which will only play through Jan. 6, 2019.
Have a safe and healthy New Year!