Fringe Review: Night of the Living N Word

Barbra is a mother with a mission in Kevin R. Free’s cartoonish, cleverly convoluted and uncomfortable comedy, “Night of the Living N Word.” A daughter of the Confederacy who grew up on an island plantation off the coast of Georgia, Barbra refuses to allow her 17-year-old mixed-race son Channing to use the racial epithet, the N word. She also forbids it for her black servants and for her African-American husband Ben; indeed, on her urging, Ben quit a TV series in which he starred because the scripts included the word, and he hasn’t worked much since. Barbra wants to bury the N-word once and for all. “Bad things happen when you say the N-Word,” Barbra says. But she seems to be the one to make the bad things happen on the particular day in which “The Night of the Living N Word” takes place; she has brought her family for the first time to the old plantation mansion where she grew up, in order to celebrate Channing’s 17th birthday.

Playwright Kevin R. Free also has a mission – actually, three missions. Free wants to make us laugh. In this he succeeds, helped along by a production, directed by Nicole A. Watson, that brings out the humor in actor and inanimate object alike (i.e. Joshua Coakley’s cartoon-like cardboard cutout props and sets.)

Free also wants to keep us surprised. For this, the show employs a spot-on six-member cast (including Free himself in the role of Ben) to take us for a dizzying 90-minute ride full of unexpected swerves and reversals. The vertigo is induced not just because of the play’s over-the-top plot but because of its switches in tone – from sketch comedy to campy horror movie spoof to black comedy (in two senses of that phrase.)

Finally, Free wants to make a serious statement about the complex and contradictory attitudes about race in America. He in effect asks us to consider why black and white Americans view that one word so differently. (It’s a word that is uttered dozens of times in the play, but which I do not feel comfortable repeating here.) He also seems to be asking why white people find racist language more troublesome than racist action. If that were not enough, thanks to several of his plot twists, he also questions our attitudes towards LGBT people.

It is a tall order for any entertainment, especially such a giddy one, to place these contentious matters before us.

Such pointed commentary amid the comic mayhem is sure to register more clearly and convincingly with some audience members than with others. What, for example, do you make of this exchange involving 17-year-old biracial Channing, his father Ben, and Clayton, who is Ben’s father and Channing’s grandfather, about Barbra’s ban on the N-word?

Channing: Why do you let her control you? You’re black. WE are black. She’s white. We can say whatever we want.
Ben: No YOU
 can’t. I can. But I won’t.
Clayton: Because he’s scared. We should all be scared.
Ben: There is nothing scarier than a white woman bent on saving a race.

How do you take that last line? It got a laugh, in part I suspect because of the delivery. But is this just a cheap laugh at the character’s expense, with sexist overtones? Or is this meant to show up white hypocrisy? How is Barbra a hypocrite? Is it because her plantation-owner parents were racist? But she’s rejected her parents’ values. Is it because she can’t help but be a hypocrite in a white-privileged society? Is her behavior another example of the patronizing attitude of even well-meaning white people towards people of color — the liberal version of white supremacy?

Now, is it possible your attitude towards this line depends on your race, gender, generation or sexual orientation?  Is it indelicate even to ask such a question? That I AM asking – that “Night of the Living N Word” has inspired such questions – is proof of the show’s effectiveness as something more than silly entertainment, even for those who have qualms about it.

Night of the Living N Word

Players Theater

Remaining show time

FRI 26 @ 4:30

Fringe Review: Black and Blue, NYPD vs. Black Lives Matter

Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins used to refer to the city as a gorgeous mosaic. That phrase came to mind for a couple of reasons while I watched “Black and Blue,” an ultimately compelling, up-to-the-minute play about the current tensions between African-Americans and police officers.
“Black and Blue” itself seems pieced together like something of a makeshift mosaic, initially. The 90-minute play begins with sirens and a woman officer sitting on the ground stunned; she has just shot a black man. Passersby, circling the cop in a theatrical way, react with contradictory accounts ( “He didn’t do nothin’”/”He was about to attack that cop”)
The shooting is the catalyst for much of the first half of the play, with scenes of police investigation, public reaction, and a TV reporter’s continuing reports on developments.  The scenes are interspersed with Katherine George’s spoken-word poetry recited by individual members of the nine-member cast — 13 poems in all, with titles like “Black IN Blue” (recited by a police officer), “A Panthers Commandments” (recited by a Black Panther),“Black Vs. Blue in 140 Characters or Less,” in which the battle of social media posts by ensemble members holding up picture frames culminates in a cacophony of hectoring voices.
Kevin Demoan Edwards’ script eventually more or less drops the shooting to focus in on two couples. Kristen (Emma Tracy Moore) and Maya (Mildred Victoria) work together as nurses and have become good friends. They would like to bring their husbands together into the friendship. But Kristen’s husband Mike (Chase Burnett) is a (white) cop. Maya’s husband Mark (Ty Gailloux) has joined the Black Lives Matter movement; it was his cousin who was shot dead by the woman police officer. The second half of the play revolves around the wariness of the two men, their evolving relationship, and their complex and contentious interaction with each other’s circle of acquaintances.
Their friendship has its ups and downs. At one point they confront one another, Mike the cop telling Mark that he puts himself in danger every day that he works. “I’m sorry your cousin’s dead. But that officer thought her life was in danger so she pulled the trigger, plain and simple. Now we all have targets on our backs.”
Mark replies: “I was born with a target on my back…At the end of the day, you get to come home and take (your uniform) off….I have no choice whether or not I want to deal with the consequences of being black in white America.”
The story takes a melodramatic turn that comes out of nowhere and feels imposed by the authors. Then they tack on a hopeful ending – which is the second way that this play recalls the “gorgeous mosaic”; some felt the positive implication of the slogan was wishful thinking during a time of violence and racial tension.
Still, “Black and Blue” has two strengths that make it worthwhile. First, there is a real effort to give voice to the various, conflicting points of view. The police aren’t stick figures. Second, the four principal actors, under the direction of Arielle Sosland, make their characters credible. There is a terrific scene filled with awkward silences when the wives leave the two men alone for the first time. At another point, after Maya tells Kristen that she’s pregnant, showing her the pregnancy stick, Kristen takes a picture of it with her cell phone. There is more than one way that “Black and Blue” effectively captures current events.

“Black and Blue”
The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre

Remaining show time

 

Final Fringe Binge. Harry Potter and Hamilton vs. Ticket Resellers. Week in New York Theater

“The Sound of Music” told from the point of view of a gay Nazi; biographies of three African-American men — W.E.B. Du Bois, Stokely Carmichael, and Richard Pryor. These are among the most intriguing shows I’ve seen at the Fringe, which runs for one more week, until Sunday, August 28th.

The Week in New York Theater Reviews

RadicalizationofRolfe2_DixieSheridan

The Radicalization of Rolfe

Cabtivist

Cabtivist

Honour 2a

Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan

W.E.B. Du Bois: A Man For All Times

W.E.B. Du Bois: A Man For All Times

Meshaun Labrone as Stokely Carmichael

Meshaun Labrone as Stokely Carmichael

Power! Stokely Carmichael

PryorTruth1_RebeccaBrillhart

Pryor Truth

Murielreviewingcollage

If a five-year-old can review plays, why not a 95-year-old? On her 95th birthday, Muriel Mandell reviews Hamilton etc.

The Week in New York Theater News

ComefromAway

“Come From Away,” a musical about planes landing in a small town in Newfoundland during September 11, 2001, is set to open on Broadway on March 12, 2017.

turturro-shalhoub-hecht

John Turturro, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht will star in the Roundabout’s revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price, February 16-May 7 2017

Groundhog Day the musical in UK

Flush from good reviews for Groundhog Day, the musical in UK created by the Matilda team (composer Tim Minchin, director Matthew Warchus) and starring Andy Karl (Rocky), its producers re-announce plans to transfer to Broadway, though they don’t say when.

 

Fall 2016 Irish Rep:

Melissa Errico  in Finians Rainbow

Afterplay by Brian Friel

Pigeon in the Taj Majal by Laoisa Sexton

Ex-theater agent Roland Scahill is charged with raising $165,000 for fake Broadway play  (Shades of The Producer?)

Second Stage Theatre has less than two years to repay a $16.5 million mortgage on its new Broadway home.

laura benanti

Laura Benanti is writing a book of essays entitled “I Stole Your Boyfriend, and Other Monster Acts on My Way to Becoming a Human Woman,” aiming for publication in 2017.

30-second Hairspray Live promotional video

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory turns the Big Apple into the Big Candy Apple

 
The arts are missing from the political debate

Tickets for the Harry Potter play are fetching as much as $6,400 for ticket resellers; the New York resellers have gotten as much as $8,000 for “Hamilton.”  The producers of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and “Hamilton” are battling these ticket resellers in very different ways.

“The secondary-ticket market is an industry-wide plague,” Harry Potter producer Sonia Friedman says, “and one which we as producers take very seriously.”

Reviewing Hamilton on her 95th birthday

On her 95th birthday, Muriel Mandell reviews Hamilton and other Broadway shows.

“I understand a five-year-old has been reviewing theater, and so I thought, well, why can’t I?”

Reviewed in the video:
Familiar
The Golden Bride
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City

Fiddler on the Roof

Hamilton

Fringe Review: Pryor Truth

In his solo show about comedian Richard Pryor,  Khalil Muhammad has figured out a novel way both of presenting the man’s life and giving a taste of his comic approach. Muhammad doesn’t portray Pryor, but rather one of Pryor’s best-known characters, Mudbone, a drunken native of Tupelo, Mississippi. In the first half of the 90-minute show, Mudbone tells an elaborate tall tale (that includes a bawdy encounter with fiery abolitionist John Brown) that is supposed to be about how he moved to Peoria, Illinois, which is where Pryor was born. Mudbone speaks in the style of mid-period Pryor – full of explicit sexual humor and profanity. “If the words fuck, shit, pussy, n….r or bitch offends you in any kind of way, just get up and go ‘cause there’s gonna be a whole lot of that tonight…”

Eventually, Mudbone starts talking about Pryor, whom he says he first met when Pryor was a child hanging out in his father’s pool hall in Peoria. Without dropping his wino character, he offers a Cook’s tour of Pryor’s life and career – how he dropped out of school at 14, got kicked out of the army for stabbing a white officer who had called him a racist epithet, began his stand-up career as a family-friendly comic in the Bill Cosby mode, But then…

“Richard booked his biggest gig yet, headlining in Las Vegas. Folks, the who’s who of Hollywood, who’s who of Shit flew into Sin City just to see him perform. They filled the room to capacity, the boy got on stage and just minutes into his act the motherfucker stands there in a daze, blurts “what the fuck am I doing here?” and walks off the stage.”

He spent the next two years in Berkeley, California and emerged “in tuned with the real Richard Pryor.”

The “real”, raw Richard Pryor was an immense success, but after a trip to Africa, he changed again. “From that moment he vowed not to call another black person a N…r ever again.”

“Pryor Truth” doesn’t end with the comedian’s death (he died in 2005 at age 65), but it makes clear his self-destruction. The frame of the piece is that we are in Peoria waiting for him to perform, but he’s a no-show, so Mudbone steps in.

Khalil Muhammad’s impersonation of a Richard Pryor character as performed by Richard Pryor is uncanny, sure to appeal to prior Pryor fans. But the choice to focus in this way, while justifiable, does not make us feel the full force of Pryor’s comic gifts and his charisma. Maybe that wouldn’t be possible. It says something that the most compelling moment in “Pryor Truth” for me was the video of the actual Richard Pryor singing the blues song “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out.” It’s not even funny.

 

Pryor Truth

Under St. Marks

Remaining show times

  MON 22 @ 4:45  ||  THU 25 @ 4:45  || SAT 27 @ 8

 

Fringe Review: Cabtivist

John McDonagh calls his solo show “Cabtivist” because he’s been driving a New York City taxicab for 35 years, and because he’s been a political activist for almost as long. Maybe he’s named it as well after a more recent vocation of his, which one might label a celebritist – a pursuer of celebrity.
McDonagh is an amusing storyteller, and he’s in prime form at the beginning of his hour-long monologue when he explains how after military service, he thought he would become a cabbie for at most five years until he figured out what else to do with his life. He then projects his hack licenses over the years, showing how the heavily bearded Irish-American youth from Queens turned bit by bit into the clean-shaven, pleasantly jowly family man in front of us (at one point introducing his wife and daughter seated at the nearest table.) He goes into a comic riff explaining how much worse off cabdrivers are than the “unionized horses” in Central Park; muses on how absurd the gentrifiers’ habit of renaming neighborhoods has become when he recalls a passenger asking to be taken to “SoBro” (which turned out to be the South Bronx); and recounts how he dealt with a homeless woman who refused to leave his cab.
Then we are off to the activist stories, and there are a couple of funny ones, such as the time during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York he offered a free cab ride to the airport to any delegate who wanted to fly to Iraq to join the fighting. He projects a video of his making the offer on a Cable TV news show.
The activist stories tend to share this kind of publicity component, but the two longest stories by far in “Cabtivist” leave the activism behind and launch fully into his experiences as an almost-celebrity – when he brought Stephen Fry to a Queens clubhouse full of Goodfellas for a segment on British television; and how he almost became a contestant on “The Amazing Race.”
McDonagh has a gift for finding the humor in any experience he’s had, but I would have preferred that “Cabtivist”  tell us more about his life as a cabbie, which is far less humdrum than the would-be celebrities we hear from every day.

Cabtivist
The Huron Club

Remaining show times

 

Fringe Review: W.E.B. DU BOIS: A Man For All Times

There are few Americans who made a greater contribution to the nation’s cultural, civic and intellectual life in the 20th century than William Edward Berghardt DuBois, who lived an extraordinary life, as well as a long one: A black man born just five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, he lived long enough to die in self-imposed exile in Ghana, Africa, on the eve of the March on Washington, and one year before the passage of the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“W.E.B. DU BOIS: A Man For All Times” has a title that sounds as if it’s for children, and indeed it’s one of the accomplishment of this solo show written and directed by Alexa Kelly and starring Brian Richardson that it makes accessible both the man himself and some of his ideas. The creative team works to make the pioneering scholar and uncompromising activist come off as somebody you might want to have a drink with (a soda) — without sanding smooth the edges of his anger or his intellect.
And so Richardson as DuBois tells us he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. But the Massachusetts-born DuBois also describes his efforts before that to get a teaching job at a public school in Tennessee (where he had studied at Fisk University) with a mix of naïveté, levity, and shock at the brutal racism he had never before experienced. We hear explanations of his dissertation, of his concept of the double-consciousness of the Negro in America, and of how his “educate and agitate” ethos caused a public dispute with Booker T. Washington. But we also see DuBois donning a silly costume to make fun of the pompous Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement. We get snippets of his important speeches – some academic, some protests — but we also hear about personal tragedies in Du Bois’s life (information I somehow doubt this sophisticated intellectual shared easily in real life.)
It’s hard to pack 95 years into 75 minutes, especially for a man who co-founded the N.A.A.C.P.; celebrated and helped promote the Harlem Renaissance through his writing as well as his editing of The Crisis magazine; was an early and influential proponent of Pan-Africanism, fighting to free African nations from colonialism; was indicted (and eventually acquitted) during the Red Scare of the 1950s. But “W.E.B. DuBois: A Man For All Times” manages to get at the highlights, and Brian Richardson’s protean performance helps us get at the man.WEBDUBOISAManForAllTimes16-4227

W.E.B. DuBois: A Man for All Times
64E4 Underground

Remaining show times
FRI 19 @ 3 || MON 22 @ 4:45 || WED 24 @ 9:30

Fringe Review: Honour Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan

Her daughter Rani has turned 16, and so Chameli is haggling with a customer over the price of what she calls Rani’s “first sale” – the first time she will work as a prostitute.
“This her honour we talking about,” she tells him.
Such ironies abound in “Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan,” a solo show written and performed by Dipti Mehta, who portrays more than a half dozen characters, among them the mother, the daughter, a customer, a priest (who’s also a customer), a pimp, and a princess.
“Honour” looks at the real-life brothels of the Indian city of Mumbai, a world turned upside down. A hjira (transgender) friend of the family can tell Rani that she will be special: “you will not be a whore. You will be a courtesan”….maybe, if she’s lucky, even a mistress.
To the play’s credit, it presents an oppressive system without depicting anybody in it as outright villainous (except perhaps the priest.) Chameli, Rani’s mother, was herself sold into prostitution at age 13 by parents who felt they had to sacrifice her to take care of their other children. Even the pimp, Shyam, is the son of Chameli’s original pimp and, now an orphan, is as much Chameli’s son as Rani’s future flesh-peddler.
“I have known since I was 8,” Rani says,”that one day I will be sold too. It’s not like I have a choice. I wanted to go to medical school, like that was going to ever happen.”
Dipti Mehta, whose day job is as a PhD researcher in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Sloan Kettering, has put together a well-structured and authentic-feeling tale that is witty, graceful and pointed.
But I’m afraid my reaction to “Honour” became much more positive after getting hold of the script. I found much of the play difficult to follow as a stage show. The characters liberally sprinkle their Indian-accented broken English with Hindi words and whole sentences, and, as wonderful a performer as Mehta is, her mimicry is not her strongest skill, making it difficult at times to figure out which character she is playing, much less what exactly they’re saying.  The periodic intrusion of the mythic tale of Draupadi, the love-deprived princess (taken from the Hindu epic, “Mahabharata”), told in a voice-over that seemed to have been recorded using the New York City subway sound system, might have proved one confusion too many, were it not that Mehti dances throughout each interlude – and she is a terrific dancer.

Honour

WOW Cafe

  FRI 19 @ 7:45  ||  MON 22 @ 7  ||  FRI 26 @ 2  || SAT 27 @ 5

 

 

 

Fringe Review: Power! Stokely Carmichael

One can count it as a missed opportunity that a show with the title “Power! Stokely Carmichael” tells us so little about the life of Stokely Carmichael, who was the activist credited with popularizing the phrases “Black Power” and “institutional racism.”

It is an intriguing life. Carmichael immigrated from South America to New York at age 11, went from honor student to young civil rights leader associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to self-declared revolutionary, first as “prime minister” of the Black Panther Party then as founder of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. He (briefly) married the great African singer Miriam Makeba, changed his name to Kwame Ture, and emigrated to Africa, where he died from cancer at age 57.

Writer and performer Meshaune Labrone tells us virtually none of this in “Power! Stokely Carmichael.” Instead, Labrone —  much praised for a previous solo show called “A Right to Remain,” about the life of Tupac Shakur —  focuses in “Power! Stokely Carmichael’ on a speech Carmichael gives to demonstrators before the March on Fear in Mississippi in 1966. “If you are out here for an exciting time, you need to go to the movies…There will be blood.” The chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has come to see King’s main strategy as ineffective, and a sizeable chunk of Labrone’s speechifying is Carmichael’s inveighing against non-violence: “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience.” Labrone energetically captures Carmichael’s polemical flourishes – “Power is learning. Power is loving. Power is moving, which is why we start with the vote.” Some will find some of Carmichael’s 50-year-old remarks shockingly relevant to the era of Black Lives Matter.

Labrone intersperses Carmichael’s words with those of anonymous characters, presumably fellow marchers, including an old sharecropper who tells a gruesome tale of a long-ago lynching. He also dances like James Brown, mocks upper-class black people, and, in the most baffling moment, brings a member of the audience on stage with him to share an imaginary bottle of champagne.

That moment crystallizes what’s both most impressive and most exasperating about “Power!” Labrone is a technically adept performer: He doesn’t just open the invisible bottle and pour the wine with precision; he also makes the exact pop sound to accompany the bottle opening. But, in a 70-minute play about Stokely Carmichael, shouldn’t there be less bubbly (fewer anonymous characters and extraneous entertainment) and more …Stokely Carmichael – the breadth and evolution of his thought, the details of his life?

 

Power! Stokely Carmichael

Kraine Theater

Remaining show times

 FRI 19 @ 6:15  || SUN 21 @ 9:15

Fringe Review: The Radicalization of Rolfe. A gay Nazi’s version of The Sound of Music.

After all those sequels and prequels and back stories based on “The Wizard of Oz” and “Peter Pan,“ isn’t it time somebody did the same for “The Sound of Music”?

Playwright Andrew Bergh reminds us who Rolfe is in the very first scene of “The Radicalization of Rolfe,” when the Nazi Lieutenant Zeller asks Rolfe how old he is.

“I am seventeen, going on eighteen,” he replies.

Ah yes, Rolf Gruber is the blond-haired baritone and telegram delivery boy in “The Sound of Music” who sings a love duet with Liesl, the eldest Von Trapp daughter, but turns into a Nazi.

The new play adds an e to Rolf’s name for some reason, and makes him gay. We see (discreet) post-coital scenes with Johan, who is in effect his boyfriend, though Rolfe is not happy about it.

Rolfe: I’m making changes. I’ve decided I’m going to be someone. And so obviously, this has to stop. I mean, you can’t be someone, someone of purpose, of importance, with this going on… Are you listening to me?
Johan: Barely.
Rolfe: So… We stop. Ok?
Johan: Ok. We stop. Finished.

Rolfe: You don’t believe me.
Johan: Not for a minute.

When Rolfe tells Lieutenant Zeller his age, it gets a big laugh. But there are only a handful of laughs in the play after that…intentionally so. “The Radicalization of Rolfe” is not a campy spoof. It is also not a musical, although Rolfe does sing a couple of songs a cappella. The plot, demonstrating that the Nazis were evil and corrupting, is not exactly full of original insights, nor self-evidently rooted in extensive research.

I suppose these are good reasons why Bergh’s play shouldn’t work. But it did for me, in part because it’s a fascinating exercise to re-view “The Sound of Music” from the oblique perspective of some of its minor characters. (While the main characters of “The Sound of Music” never appear, the “Rolfe “characters recount what’s happening to the Captain and Maria and the children in nearly every scene.) Director Abigail Zealey Bess takes the material seriously and ratchets up the tension, aided by the fine acting of its five-member cast – Jay Patterson as the outwardly obsequious and inwardly scheming Von Trapp butler Franz who is spying on the von Trapps for the Nazis; Polly Adams as the intelligent and well-meaning Von Trapp housekeeper Frau Schmidt; Alex J. Gould as her nephew and Rolfe’s irresistible love interest Johan; Dominic Comperatore as Lieutenant Zeller, a no-nonsense Nazi who is neither a clownish Klink (from Hogan’s Heroes) nor a psychotically sadistic Standartenführer Hans Landa (from Inglourious Basterds.) Zeller is of course evil, but in a coolly practical way. “The country needs young men like you,” he tells Rolfe, recruiting him to seduce Liesl and spy on her father. Above all, Logan Sutherland makes for a believable Rolfe, who starts off easily manipulated because of his naïveté and ambition, then hardens while in his  youthful arrogance he believes that he has everything under control — until he learns, brutally, that he can control nothing. For all the inevitability of the ending, it is no less chilling.

 

The Radicalization of Rolfe

Players Theater

 

Remaining show times

FRI 19 @ 7  ||  SUN 21 @ NOON  || WED 24 @ 4:30

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