Aneesha Kudtarkar

Whitewash Backlash

Review of Trouble in Mind, Yale School of Drama

The third thesis show at the Yale School of Drama for the 2018-19 season is a powerful play not often produced. In 1957, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind made its author the first African American playwright to win an Obie, and she would have been the first African American author on Broadway until she balked at changes she was expected to make to the play. Consequently, the play is much less-known than it deserves to be. Aneesha Kudtarkar, a third-year director at YSD, performs a considerable public service in staging Childress’ play. One can’t help wondering why it hasn’t shown up on Connecticut stages before now, while hoping that it will soon. To say nothing of New York, where the play has yet to receive a mainstream production.

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s not surprising that the Off-Broadway version of the play would be seen as not commercially viable, in 1957. It’s an ensemble piece but the play’s heart and soul is an African American actress, Wiletta Mayer, played here by second-year actor Ciara Monique McMillian in a commanding, charismatic performance. The main white male role is a posturing and mostly unsympathetic director, Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), seconded by an even less prepossessing main actor, Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz). These are good roles—and Cefalu and Oz do great work showing us the dominant viewpoint as seen from a different perspective—but the parts might not attract actors who want to be liked. The rest of the cast are the actors, some of them rather fledgling, who have been gathered for a production of a liberal race play, “Chaos in Belleville,” and two other white men, one Manners’ put-upon assistant, Eddie Fenton (Devin White), and the other the theater’s factotum, a doting and doddering elderly Irish gent, Henry (John Evans Reese).

Why did I say “public service”? Perhaps I should amend that: a service for the white viewing-public, rather. Since white folks can’t be in a room without white folks in it, Trouble in Mind provides a rather striking view of what it’s like when we’re not around. Sure, there are many plays—not least A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play by an African American on Broadway—that show life among non-whites. But Childress’ play—quite often comically but always knowingly—shows us blacks who move back and forth between their normal manner and their manner when whites are present. Add to this mix how the play they are rehearsing makes them act—think Gone with the Wind—and you’ve got a play about race that is acute, astute and, now and then, revelatory.

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

The first act mainly provides the comic aspects of this situation: the dissembling, the false bonhomie, the earnest entreaty by Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), the white ingenue, that the cast come to her daddy’s house in Bridgeport for some barbeque, the pointed jousts between the two would-be theater divas, Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava) and Wiletta, and Wiletta’s advice to cub actor John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges) about how to succeed in a white man’s world. As the rehearsal goes on, we hit snags, whether Manners’ hissy fit over not getting Danish in the breakfast delivery, or Judy’s uncertainty about where exactly “downstage” is. The point is that the company is all on tenterhooks, with no one sure of how secure their careers are. So, regardless of provenance, all are in thrall to a monster we call “the theater.”

In the second act, the play being rehearsed becomes the problem: Wiletta cannot abide what she is called upon to perform. The play is supposed to–in Manners’ view—milk the white audience’s tears at the atrocity of the senseless killing of an innocent black youth, thus creating an awareness of injustice. And yet, in Wiletta’s view, that point could be made equally well or better by black characters who aren’t stereotypes and whose actions have the ring of truth. The passion behind her position becomes a major catalyst for dissatisfaction in the company.

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

It’s the question of what is most “true” (and what that has to do with a manifest fiction like theater) that eats away at the company’s resolve. At one point, Manners, trying to speak for everyone, asserts that none of them have ever seen a lynching, thank God. That’s when the elder of the company, Sheldon (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), has to speak up.

Up until that point, Sheldon has been willing to play a familiar stereotype, the genial, elder black man, able to speak frankly to white folk because capable of couching his views in a humorous presentation. It’s a wonderful portrayal by Kumasi, full of appropriate mannerism, but when called upon to tell what he saw, Sheldon becomes dramatically relevant to the play-within-the-play and a source of knowledge and of pain that outweighs anyone else in the room. After that, there’s no easy way to recover the balance of power that the process requires. What’s more, despite Manners’ diatribe, vividly delivered by Cefalu, about how brave “Chaos in Belleville” is, and how no one is ready to see blacks as they really are, the whites can only feel inadequate and the blacks feel even more pointedly the silliness of what the play asks of them. It’s not only a travesty of the story “Chaos” is supposed to be telling but a much more sobering travesty of events like those Sheldon witnessed.

Childress’ play, in Kudtarkar’s production, is sharp too in its eye for the other kinds of subservience on hand. A character who might be gay—Eddie—is often the target of Manners’ caustic ire, and Henry, in a conversation with Wiletta, reveals his own sense of the wrongs of history, the kinds of scars that genial “blarney” is meant to hide. Even Manners has his vulnerability—as a put-upon breadwinner paying alimony, and as the man answerable to the money backing this risky, well-meant, but ultimately vain endeavor. And speaking of vain, there’s Millie, a woman who, unlike the others, doesn’t really need the acting job, she just likes to show off (not least a diamond bracelet). Childress manages to play with types as comic material while interrogating how and why we all playact. It’s a bracing theatrical experience, and Kudtarkar’s cast handles well the moves between broad comedy, more subtle satire, and the serious confrontation of difficult truths.

Alexander McCargar’s scenic design makes the University Theater feel like the venerable space it is, filling the stage with the odds and ends of theatrical rehearsal and eventually removing a wall for a dramatic sense of the real people behind the play. Lighting, costumes and sound—including a recording of applause—all are topnotch and serve to create a sense of the real 1950s, and of the theater of that time. And downstairs during intermission and after the show, “For Your Consideration,” a film installation by Erin Sullivan, makes wry comment on the whole question of breakthrough African American artists in a field seen as normatively white: as years flash by, we see white woman after white woman gripping the Best Actress Oscar and emoting (soundlessly), until the sole nonwhite winner—Halle Berry—can be heard, thanking a history of all those who got passed over. It’s quite striking. After Berry, everyone who is shown seems part of a self-congratulatory “business as usual,” a cultural matrix that sustains itself by replicating itself, without apology. The film comments on Wiletta’s struggle—believing in the theater even as she must face how relentlessly it fails to deliver what it seems to promise.

 

Trouble in Mind
By Alice Childress
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Scenic Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projection Installation Designer: Erin Sullivan; Production Dramaturg: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Gregory Saint Georges, Amandla Jahava, Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi, Zoe Mann, Ciara Monique McMillian, Hudson Oz, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale School of Drama
February 2-8, 2019

Blood Will Have Blood

Review of The Purple Flower, Yale Cabaret

40406731_10156685636129626_5361622419666632704_o.jpg


The Yale Cabaret is back, opening its 51st season with The Purple Flower, a powerful and fairly obscure work by Marita Bonner. Bonner, an African American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though based in Chicago, published the play in W.E.B. DuBois’ Crisis magazine in 1928. It was given readings but no full production in her lifetime. Its themes, unfortunately, are still timely 90 years later.

At the Cabaret, the show’s proposer Mika H. Eubanks, director Aneesha Kudtarkar, and a talented team, many of them Cabaret associates this year, have devised a unique presentation of the play. Bonner’s script allows for over a dozen parts, but the Cabaret does it all with two mercurial actors, Ciara Monique McMillian (as the male characters of “the US’s”) and Adrienne Wells (as the female characters of “the US’s”). The brief non-speaking roles of “Sundry White Devil” are played, with masks and foppish manners and duds complete with tails, by Devin White and Patrick Young.

The text lends itself well to this streamlined approach, giving us a poetic play, amorphous in its characterizations. The action shows a collective of dark-skinned US’s pitting themselves against sundry white devils. The white devils hold the hilltop where the purple flower can be found. Their main intention is to keep the US’s from having access to it. Set on long planks surrounded by the detritus of what the text calls “the thin skin of civilization,” the play occurs in a mythic time that is both current and ancient (as is racism itself).

The play’s dialogue renders, at times almost telegraphically, the various views of the situation among the US’s. Some, like a lazy male who can’t be bothered, assume that sooner or later the situation will change; others, like an old woman who has slaved away for decades in hopes of improving her station, are becoming embittered. The tenor of the piece is to suggest—with a kind of light satire—the state of the US’s as they fool themselves into thinking that education (a bag of books) or wealth (a bag of gold) will gain them acceptance by the white devils. Bonner cannily alludes to the disappointments of such strategies, pointing, in the end, toward a more direct confrontation.

Describing the plot schematically is to rob the play of much of its poetry. Bonner’s text works like a parable. The language makes use of the prophetic mode found in the Bible and in works that derive from its sense of mysteries and portents. Much of the fascination is in trying to grasp the world portrayed and to see the world we know through its eyes.

The relation of one US to another is conveyed through dialogue, action, and movement, and McMillan and Wells are tellingly effective in rendering the different voices and mannerisms within the community. “Average,” for instance, a middle-aged, middle-class male, is brought to life by McMillian with a hat, a stoop, and a kind of laissez-faire patriarchy that’s all in the voice and body language. Sweet and Finest Blood represent the generation that may finally unseat the white devils. Sweet is girlish and lively, until molested by a white devil hiding in the bushes; her brother Finest Blood wants to avenge her honor.

An Old Woman, saying “it’s time!,” mixes, in a hard-iron pot, a handful of dust, the books, the gold, and, finally, blood, to produce “the New Man.” The refrain, “blood has been taken, blood must be given,” suggests one or both of two things: a mixing of blood—as in mating and intermarriage—or a shedding of blood, as in a fight to the finish. Finest Blood, as a figure associated deliberately with Isaac, whose father, Abraham, was called upon to sacrifice him in Genesis, might seem a possible victim, but he also emerges as a David against a Goliath, or a Christ before the Romans. The blood that must be given, in our day, might sound like a call for reparation of some kind for the social and political crimes committed against African Americans.

Bonner’s text is rich with the aesthetic tendency—a common practice among vanguard artists of the 1920s—to find new meaning in old myths and political significance in religious imagery. The play’s ultimate meaning, as with any parable, is ambiguous, but the show’s skillful presentation here makes for a thought-provoking and fascinating kick-off for the new season.

 

The Purple Flower
By Marita Bonner
Conceived by Mika H. Eubanks and Aneesha Kudtarkar
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme; Co-Dramaturgs: Christopher Audley Puglisi, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Movement Director: Leandro Zaneti; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath

Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Adrienne Wells, Devin White, Patrick Young

 

Yale Cabaret
September 14-15, 2018

The Yale Cabaret Returns

Preview of the Yale Cabaret’s 51st season opener

Yale Cabaret, the distinguished basement theater at 217 Park Street, celebrated 50 years of existence last season. A black box into which current students in the prestigious Yale School of Drama place their passion projects—favorite works, brand new collaborations, original plays, devised pieces, and theatrical provocations—the Yale Cabaret provides challenging and vibrant theatrical experiences.

Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

The team for Cabaret 51 consists of Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong, with Managing Director Armando Huipe, all third-years in the YSD program. FitzMaurice studies Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Gourzong is a student of Technical Design & Production, and Huipe of Theater Management. FitzMaurice directed last season’s closer, Camille, and has been a producer of at least five other shows at the Cab, in addition to dramaturgical work for the Yale Repertory Theatre (Native Son). Gourzong has worked on shows in YSD and the Yale Rep, and served as the Yale Cabaret Production Manager last fall. Among Huipe’s affiliations are the steering committee of the national Latinx Theatre Commons as a member of the Cultivation and Governance Committee, Yale’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and the YSD Latinx affinity space, El Colectivo. Huipe served last year as Assistant Managing Director for YSD and Yale Repertory Theatre.

The sixth decade gets underway this weekend with a production of Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower, conceived by Mika H. Eubanks, a third-year costume designer, and directed by third-year director Aneesha Kudtarkar. The play falls into the category of “overlooked masterpiece.” Originally published in 1928 and never produced in the lifetime of its author, The Purple Flower, is “credited as the first known experimental work” by an African American woman, mixing “biblical imagery and political allegory” to “disrupt the thin skin of civilization.” Bonner’s text, said FitzMaurice, who worked on the production, “has already proved a fertile meeting ground for our team of collaborators, and I cannot wait to share this vividly theatrical and still too-urgent revival with our audiences.” Gourzong praised the team’s “love, joy, and compassion that will inevitably explode through the work in truly beautiful ways.”

The show plays only two nights this weekend, Friday, September 14, and Saturday, September 15, with two shows each night, at 8 pm and 11 pm. Full dinner service begins at 6:30 pm before the 8 pm performances, and a late-night menu is offered beginning at 10 pm for the 11 pm performances. Beer and wine are available.

During the summer, Huipe announced the hiring of Dana Cesnik Doyle of Queen of Tarts Catering as Chef for the 2018-19 season. Though the Cab’s artistic and managing directors change each season, this marks the first change-over in the Cab kitchen in fourteen years. Huipe extended the team’s heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Chef Anna Belcher, who helmed the dining experience at the Yale Cabaret since 2004, for all her fine work with the students of the Drama School.

Queen of Tarts began in Ojai, California, in 2012, but Cesnik Doyle, originally from Chatham, New Jersey, moved back to Connecticut in 2016. She has catered events for the Yale Sustainable Food Program, as well as the Medical School, the Divinity School Library, and the Yale University Library Council. Cesnik Doyle’s cuisine is “influenced by her time in California,” and features ingredients from “local farms, farmers markets, and her garden in Hamden.”

“Dana’s food is delicious,” Huipe said, “she brings an ambitious energy to the kitchen that matches the talents and efforts of everyone working on the performances onstage. Our goal is to provide a full, cohesive, and continuous experience from dinner and drinks through the performance.” The team, said FitzMaurice, is “thrilled to partner with Dana for her inaugural season. Her food delights—with fresh ingredients, inventive flavors, elegant presentation, and a witty sense of fun that feels right at home in the Cabaret.” Gourzong added that “opening our doors, minds, and artistic selves to a new human at the Cab” adds excitement to the start of the season, as “Dana herself brings such joy to the kitchen,” and the opportunity to “create memories and share stories” with the Cabaret community.

This year’s team stresses the importance of its many supportive patrons in helping the Cabaret continue its mission in entertaining and thought-provoking theater. Patrons are encouraged to donate in whatever capacity suits their budget, from Season Sponsors, at $5,000, to Friends of the Cabaret at $50. Cab 51 continues the practice of allowing patrons to sponsor individual shows, at $500. An opportunity to put your money to good use, supporting talented artists early in their careers, such as the incredible roster of names who worked at the Cabaret as students, including Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Christopher Durang, Paul Giametti, Lynn Nottage, Sigourney Weaver, Lupita N’yong’o, Henry Winkler, Tony Shalhoub, and the Pulitzer-winning playwright of 2018, Martyna Majok.

image001.png


For information about tickets, dinner reservations, donations, and sponsorships, go to the Cabaret website at www.yalecabaret.org, or call (203) 432-1566 during regular box office hours (Tues.-Sat., 2:30 pm - 5:30 pm, and 90 minutes before performances). Tickets range from $12-$25.

Next up: Fade by Tanya Saracho, a Chicago playwright from México, who writes for HBO; directed by second-year director Kat Yen, September 20-22: “Two Latinos at a Hollywood studio: one writes; one cleans. Can they subvert the stereotypes of a whitewashed TV show? Tanya Saracho’s timely play explores race, class, and the politics of belonging within the Latinx community.”

 

Yale Cabaret 51, 2018-19 season

There Was an Old Woman Who...

Review of Mrs. Galveston, Yale Cabaret

The final play of the first half of Yale Cabaret’s 49th season is an entertaining look at the at- times fraught world of elder care. Mrs. Galveston, by third-year Yale School of Drama playwright Sarah B. Mantell, enjoys some easy laughs at misunderstandings between an old woman and the young people assigned to impose some kind of regimen on her stubborn existence, then develops more interesting narrative devices. These include a big white pop-up book that Mrs. Galveston treats like a precious heirloom and an array of Post-It Notes that a young man’s grandmother berates him with.

An interesting conflict in the play comes from a somewhat surprising correspondence. Jim (George Hampe) visits the elderly Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon) because a Mr. Sanford has requested she be looked after (though she doesn’t welcome the intrusion), while, at home, Jim is not doing such a good job of taking care of his grandmother, though also refusing any care-givers from the organization both he and his cousin Liz (Aneesha Kudtarkar) work for. The highest-rated caregiver is Mark (Edmund Donovan), but neither Mrs. Galveston nor Jim have any interest in accepting his services. The frustrations Mark faces are expressed comically, and that helps to keep things light. And the irony of Jim’s situation—he’s failing with his own grandmother but succeeding with Mrs. Galveston—opens up the implied theme that, sometimes, families do need professionals, that the familiarity of blood ties can cause more tensions than they ease. While Mrs. Galveston is never quite comfortable with having a stranger in the house, she eventually is pacified by Jim’s ability to concoct a story that goes with the pop-up images in her big white book.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Jim (George Hampe) (photo: Elizabeth Green)

The book, and the scenic design by Claire Marie DeLiso, add elements of charm and visual cohesion to the story. The living room Mrs. Galveston resides in is situated in a charming little house that echoes the paper house in her book. A step down and across a connecting space of paneled floor sits the table festooned with Post-Its where Jim attempts to meet his grandmother’s demands. Both spaces are united with framing posts that situate the action within a homey interior that expands to join both houses.

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

Mrs. Galveston (Sydney Lemmon), Mark (Edmund Donovan)

The play, directed by dramaturg Rachel Carpman, is particularly nimble in its transitions and in dialogues that find characters mostly having to feel their way. Mantell’s script registers the caregiver’s ups and downs and confusions, the good intentions that go awry, and, in its sweetly realized conclusion, the comfort of the familiar. Along the way, there are the tensions of dealing with elders as though they were children, of trying to anticipate concerns, of trying to make time in one’s prime of life for a life past its prime, and, in a speech Liz directs at Jim, the fact that, in most families, the care of parents is left to female family members. Mrs. Galveston provides a touching corrective to that perception when we finally meet the mysterious Mr. Sanford (Edmund Donovan).

The neat doubling of the situations means there’s potential for confusion about who Jim really cares for. Playing the role with a kind of nervous distraction, Hampe’s Jim wants all to go well but seems to wish he could be doing something else. Donovan’s Mark is a bit unctuous and we don’t really fault Mrs. Galveston for preferring Jim. Kudtarkar’s Liz seems mostly at a loss—her scene with Mrs. Galveston is the funniest of the attempts to fathom the big white book because the least patient. And, as the chair-hugging Mrs. Galveston, Lemmon plays the title role as a mistress of her detachment, a woman defiantly herself and with a child’s sense of entitlement in deciding what works and what doesn’t.

As a family dramedy, Mrs. Galveston seems well positioned in the season as a reminder of the bonds of home and the allegiance owed the elderly as the holiday visits begin.

 

Mrs. Galveston
By Sarah B. Mantell
Directed by Rachel Carpman

Co-Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Co-Dramaturg: Molly Fitzmaurice; Set Designer: Claire Marie DeLiso; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Samuel Chan Kwan Chi; Sound Designer: Ian Scot; Technical Director: Harry Beauregard; Production Manager: Scott Keith; Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Calling Stage Manager: Paula Clarkson; Co-Producer: Jaime Totti; Co-Producer: Adam J. Frank

Cast: Edmund Donovan; George Hampe; Aneesha Kudtarkar; Sydney Lemmon

Yale Cabaret
December 8-10, 2016