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2016 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Awards


“Mother Emanuel,” a celebration of the lives of the nine gunned down in a South Carolina church, and “The Radicalization of Rolfe,” which looks at the  Sound of Music from the point of view of a gay Nazi, were two of the winners of the 2016 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Awards.

Complete list:

Overall Play:
Pucker Up and Blow
The Radicalization of Rolfe
Black Magic

Overall Musical:
Mother Emanuel

Direction:
Kristin Skye Hoffmann – Dream Ticket
Leslie Kincaid Burby – Zamboni
Jessi D. Hill – Brewed

Ensemble:
The Gorges Motel
Colorblind’d
The Further Adventures of…
ChipandGus

Solo Performance:
The Box Show
Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan
At The Flash
Pryor Truth
Rent Control

Playwrighting:
Kevin R. Free – Night of the Living N-Word!!
Dahn Hiuni – Murmurs & Incantations
Meghan Gambling – Bonnie’s Future Sisters
Louis Aquiler & Chris D’Amato – Dementia Americana

Acting:
Taylor Turner – The Illusory Adventures of a Dreamer
Nadia Brown – Hysterical!
Meg Kelly – Kerrmoor
Dave Droxler – Walken on Sunshine

Choreography:
Tom Gold – Joey Variations

Scenic Design:
Jason Lee Courson – Cyrano: a love letter to a friendship

Music/Lyrics:
Aaron Michael Krueger – Super!

Music Composition:
Matthew Lowy – Fallen Skies
Ben Singer – At the Crossroads: Music for Faust

TheaterMania Audience Favorite:
Walken on Sunshine

The winners were selected by an independent panel of more than 30 theater professionals

 

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Fringe Review: Mother Emanuel

 

Mother Emanuel“Mother Emanuel” is an earnest, lively play filled with rousing music that celebrates the lives of the nine people who were shot dead at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. It is a sad story but it’s told in a deeply entertaining way, with the four supremely talented members of the cast singing some dozen gospel songs well enough to explain why so many people still get up on Sunday mornings.

Each of the four actors portrays several characters – not just the members of the Bible study group on the day they were gunned down, but also their family and friends, their students and co-workers, in flashbacks that go back as far as 40 years earlier.

We see Christian Lee Branch — who co-wrote the play with director and choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and Adam Mace – as 74-year-old Daniel L. Simmons, telling an Army buddy after serving in Vietnam, and getting a Purple Heart, that he was going to become a preacher (“the family business.”) We also see him as 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who was planning on graduate school and aiming to open up a barber shop.

Mother Emanuel 9

Mother Emanuel 9

We see Lauren Shaye as 59-year-old Myra Thompson in her classroom, teaching James Baldwin to her fidgety students. “Poets like Mr. Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Nicki Giovanni, and Amiri Baraka used their words not only to express themselves but to speak truths about our society…(about) things that needed to change in our world.” (Langston Hughes is quoted as much as the Bible in “Mother Emanuel.”) Shaye also portrays 87-year-old singer Susie Jackson and 45-year-old Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who was a pastor, speech therapist and track coach. Shaye’s pipes bring down the house.

Nicole Stacie plays six characters, including three of the professional women (49-year-old pastor and college admissions coordinator Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 54-year-old librarian Cynthia Hurd, 70-year-old sexton Ethel Lee Lance) killed that day. With an impressively pliable face, she provides much of the humor in the play.

Marquis D. Gibson portrays the 41-year-old Clementa Pinckey, the pastor of Mother Emanuel and a South Carolina State Senator. Gibson is also President Obama delivering the moving eulogy for the nine.

That such a show as “Mother Emanuel” could hold its own in a festival known for campy hits with silly titles is a testament not just to the power of the show, but to the growing maturity of the New York International Fringe Festival on its 20th anniversary.

“Mother Emanuel”

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

 

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