Hudson Oznowicz

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

O Brave New World!

Review of as U like it, Yale School of Drama

Shakespeare’s As You Like It abounds in binaries: good brother, bad brother; daughter of duke in power, daughter of duke in exile; woman dressed as a woman, woman dressed as a man; and the most formative: the court where Duke Frederick holds sway, and the open spaces of the forest of Arden. Adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, as U like it, a thesis show at Yale School of Drama, directed by Weinstein, takes the idea of Arden and runs with it toward utopia. There might be a future imaginable that would redeem all that is unbearable in our current world, beginning with the binaries that govern our sexual identity, our politics, our way of being in the world.

As the playbill states, quoting Oscar Wilde: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth glancing at.” Breslin, the production’s dramaturg, comments: “the word and the concept of utopia contains a paradoxical challenge: Can the perfect place ever exist? Perhaps not. But if it could, how would you draw it up?” For Weinstein and Breslin, the perfect place follows the thinking of Tavio Nyong’o and Jack Halberstam (as quoted in the playbill), foregoing “the idealizations of straight utopian thought for the wilder speculations of queer utopia.” In its panoply of mash-ups that tease at the edges of libidinal freedom, as U like it is born of such speculations.

But first, that court. Its status as a prison-culture is underlined on every front. The audience sits regimented in seats as if waiting their turn at Motor Vehicle Services. The closed-circuit television randomly scans the crowd and puts our faces onscreen, behind all-capital declarations like on SNL. The loud drum loop is a call to martial glory, a downer deadening to any chipper bonhomie. Eventually Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese) arrives, a preening coxcomb of a leader. He wants answers, he wants results, he wants to browbeat everyone, including his somewhat vaporish daughter Celia (Eli Pauley) and her scrappier bosom buddy Rosalind (Amandla Jahava). (You’ll be forgiven for thinking of Cher and Dion.)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind becomes enamored of Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz), a Leo-like hero who reacts to her interest as if he just got tickets to a sold-out show. And that’s after he has defeated the Duke’s champion Charles (Brandon E. Burton, playing up sports-star narcissism with the help of Danielle Chaves’ hilariously fawning and preemptory News Anchor). This part of the show, with its fascistic trappings—such as name-tags each audience member is given that ask questions about gender, marital status, virility, and sexual preference—is blessedly short, but long enough to give us a clear glimpse of a future we’ve feared at least since 1984.

Rosalind, glad to be banished from this total bummer, invites—nay, exhorts—us to go with her, now dubbed Ganymede, and her sidekick Celia, now called Aliena. And we do, traveling down a short hallway to a new world unfurled. Here there are bowers and closets of to-die-for accoutrements, there are strolling players inviting us to paint our faces, tattoo our bodies, and get to know one another NSA. On a catwalk, Chaves has metamorphosed into Hymen, a glam queen à la Aladdin Sane, a mistress of ceremonies who teaches us a dance and holds forth in song, punctuated with the kind of salacious patter made famous by the MC of Cabaret.

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

If you might expect the story we’re following to begin to fall apart, have no fear. Weinstein’s cast keeps its discipline in the midst of the freely moving audience and it’s quite impressive to see. Putting on the show means moving props and that sectional catwalk to places as needed, and it also means the principles have to be on spot in the different regions of Arden to deliver their additions to the new plot, which is—of course—all about eros. There’s a hint of Sleep No More in the way, as a visitor of Arden, you might find yourself caught up by some of the displays courtesy of scenic designer Elsa GibsonBraden, with Emma Deane’s bower-like lighting design and ambient sound (Liam Bellman-Sharpe) and projections (Brittany Bland) creating a total environment. Observably impressive too is the way the “radical faeries”—Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Tarek Ziad—take care of business, making sure things happen when and where they should, and standing in as ancillary figures to start a progress, swell a scene or two.

The thinker of this utopia is Dyke Senior (Kineta Kunutu), dressed like a kind of psychedelic revolutionary, spouting—as revolutionaries will—earnest slogans from texts meant to liberate as they berate. She dwells in her Lesbian Colony where patriarchy is the source of all woe and sex-by-penetration an act of violence. Meanwhile, over in Silvius’s Poetry Glade, poor lovelorn Silvius (Burton again, now a challenged-by-fashion nerd) earnestly seeks the smiles of Phebe (Evans again, a lad on the make in a skimpy tie-dye sleeveless T). And don’t neglect Jacques’s Out-of-the-Closet corner where Jacques (Erron Crawford), the Prince-like cynic of Arden—“fuck children, fuck the future” is his mantra—gets an airing, letting us know that self-actualization is the order of the day. Later, his “seven ages” speech stresses how much our “ages” are roles we play, or maybe it’s just that we let others cast us in those parts.

Phebe, a professed top, finds himself entertaining notions of bottoming in abandon for Ganymede, a butch Rosalind in leather and hose and attractive facial hair. Poor Celia/Aliena flounces about in drapery and wishes Rosalind would drop the hetero hang-ups and embrace omnisexuality. But alas, though Orlando might don foppish attire and let Ganymede give him one on the lips, it’s still a story of girl meets boy and boy meets girl. Orlando loves Rosalind and vice versa, and Jahava enacts the aggressive damsel well, full of androgynous machismo. Who might be equal to Celia’s pining? Who should arrive but Duke Frederick’s sister Olivia (Zoe Mann, a bit like Janet at Dr. Frankenfurter’s), alienated from her macho brother and maybe ready for reeducation.

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

The play, in the midst of all the diverting busyness, goes off much as you’d expect while being vastly entertaining and wonderfully apt in its re-conceptions. An added treat is seeing the shows collaborating creators, Weinstein and Breslin, inhabiting Arden with the rest of us, duly tickled or moved by what goes on there—such as, for hilarity, Phebe’s show-stopping take-off on Mommie Dearest, and, for lyrical beauty, the passage in Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa contemplates Sally Seton, recited by the ever-eroticized Celia.

The attentive will catch an array of allusions, quotations, borrowings and such throughout. The whole punctuated by Chaves’ strutting and asiding and singing and making a show of being on show. And don’t forget the songs by Julian Hornik, my favorite probably the one sung by Jacques, a paean to how animal we all are when the accessories come off. The play ends not merely with the marriage of three couples—male/female, female/female, male/male—but our subversive MC orders us all to find a partner—dosey-doe—and get hitched along with the characters. As Groucho might say, “Bigamy? Of course it’s big o’ me. It’s big o’ you too. Let’s all be big for a change.” Eros, after all, is the life force. Til death do us part.

A fantasy, a celebration, a provocation, as U like it is also a lesson in how to rise and risk against a repressive status quo for the sake of joy and fun. If you don’t like it, I fear for U.

 

William Shakespeare’s
as U like it
adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin
with original music by Julian Hornik
directed by Emma Weinstein

Choreographers: Michael Breslin, Erron Crawford; Music Director, Arranger, Composer, Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projection and Video Designer: Brittany Bland; Tent Installation Designer: Itai Almor; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Technical Director: Kirk Keen; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, Danielle Chaves, Erron Crawford, Amandla Jahava, Chad Kinsman, Kineta Kunutu, Zoe Mann, Hudson Oznowicz, Eli Pauley, John Evans Reese, Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Oliver Shoulson, Camille Umoff, Tarek Zlad

Musicians: Margaret Douglas, bass; Thomas Hagen, drums; Jeremy Weiss, piano; Jonathan Weiss, guitar

Yale School of Drama
October 23-27, 2018

When in Rome

Review of Antony + Cleopatra, Yale Summer Cabaret

According to historical accounts, the Battle of Actium in 31 BC was a decisive contest at sea between the fleets of Octavian Caesar, representing the interests of the Roman Republic, and those of Marc Antony and his paramour and partner in political maneuvering, Cleopatra of Egypt. In Rory Pelsue’s raucous and energetically entertaining adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, the battle is staged as a dance routine. And that should tell you a lot about the conceptual liberties on view at the Yale Summer Cabaret through June 11.

Choreographed by Michael Breslin, the dance routine is not only theatrically appealing; in many ways it’s the culmination of the show’s drag club aesthetic, given full sway throughout the play by Cole McCarty’s genius for costumes. The dance routine is both martial and emotive, a kinetic emblem of the two sides at war, not only in the play, but in the “battle of the sexes” as an element of erotic identity. Though here the battle is in the dancers, collectively. One second, butch, the next, femme, and, we might say, the tragedy here is that the butch side keeps winning.

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Pelsue’s Antony + Cleopatra seizes on the central conceit of Shakespeare’s play—that the Romans are all about organization and power and probity and the Egyptians all about their own pleasures, which power abets with a sense of grandeur—and notches it up into a series of visual arias on the status of “straight” and “gay.” In this world it’s a given that masculinity is a kind of drag performance. So the Romans, in their tennis shorts with knotted sweaters or tighty-whities or sailor and navy officer regalia or football gear, are not only “butch” but also straight-men—in the comic sense—to Cleopatra’s hand-maids, who strut and emote with a vengeance in hot pants and fish-nets and heels and bare mid-drifts. All the actors here are male—including the lovely, lithe and every inch a lady, Erron Crawford as Cleopatra. His is a performance, at one point in gold lame shorts, that maintains the elegance of both ideals of “queen”—a self-absorbed female ruler, a self-styled performance of femininity.

At the heart of the show is the question of performativity itself. Hudson Oznowicz is a very boyish Antony, as if the influence of drag-court Egypt is sapping his manliness. But then, Shakespeare’s play does put its main dramatic stress on the consul’s emotions. As a Roman, he should do what suits the Republic; as an ambitious man, he’s vying for power against Octavius; and (which interests the playwright) as a lover he is having to adapt to the whims of his fascinating and insecure femme fatale. Add Pelsue’s gendered dynamic into the mix, and this Antony is beguiled by his willingness to walk on the Wilde side, so to speak. It will be his undoing, ultimately, in a scene that shows him to be the biggest drama queen here.

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Abetting such transformations in Egypt—and stealing as many scenes and masticating as much scenery as possible—are Cleo’s handmaids, Charmian (Arturo Soria), often spouting her lines in Spanish, and Iras (Jakeem Powell), the more stately of the two. They are nothing short of full-time provocations. Soria, often with a lollipop and in pigtails, also sports a moustache (that helps with his macho swagger as Agrippa, back in Rome). There’s never a dull moment with these two. And to demonstrate ancient superstition, there’s Steven Lee Johnson, in elaborate headgear, as a somewhat truculent soothsayer.

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Among the Romans, Johnson plays Octavius in a kind of deliberative pique. Johnson has a way with characters at least somewhat sociopathic, and his Octavius never seems so dangerous as when he is trying to seem likeable. At times, he and Antony, with their clean-cut sheen, look and act like two jocks competing to become captain of the team. As Enobarbus, Ben Anderson registers disbelief at Antony’s changed nature, while as Octavia, sister to Octavius and wife to Antony, he’s a hilariously skittish patrician dame.

Six actors play eleven named parts. With the many switches of location and costume, it can be a little tough at times to follow the intricacies of the plot, but the emotional registers come across loud and clear. Sometimes major speeches are delivered as songs, mike in hand. Actors leap atop a table, sit at tables shared by audience members, sprawl on divans, deliver orations at a mike-stand, and in general cavort with a reckless abandon that, to a heady and liberating extent, makes the Bard its bitch.

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Riw Rakkulchon’s set decks the walls with gay subculture posters that seem to date from the heyday of pre-AIDS promiscuity and includes, of course, a movie poster of Liz Taylor as Cleopatra. The grand dames of Hollywood have long since become the stuff of drag, so it’s only fitting that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra gets the treatment. Crawford’s queen exudes seductive charm but she might also have a knack for wielding power that the Romans just don’t get, Antony included.

There are subtleties galore in Pelsue’s vision of the play, and several exposures might be required before one gets the full effect. “It’s a crash course for the ravers.”

 

Antony + Cleopatra
By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Rory Pelsue

Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Choreographer: Michael Breslin; Scenic Design: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Fight Director: Shadi Ghaheri; Spanish Translations: Arturo Soria

Cast: Ben Anderson; Erron Crawford; Hudson Oznowicz; Steven Lee Johnson; Jakeem Powell; Arturo Soria

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 2-11, 2017