Mika H. Eubanks

Incendiary Situations

Review of Fireflies, Yale Cabaret

“Behind every great man,” the saying goes, “there is a woman.” Donja R. Love’s Fireflies—at Yale Cabaret, directed by Christopher D. Betts, for two more shows tonight—might be said to alter that adage: “in front of every great woman is a man.” Love shows us a couple where the man, Charles (Manu Kumasi in a Cabaret debut), is an analog for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the woman, Olivia (Ciara Monique McMillian), his long-suffering wife.

Olivia cooks her husband’s food and waits patiently—or not so patiently—at home while he, “the face of the [Civil Rights] movement,” is on the road preaching and uplifting spirits. She’s also carrying his child, and, in fulsome reminiscence, he says he knew she would bear his child from way back when they were children themselves working in tobacco fields. When did she know? When she realized she was pregnant. Olivia rarely plays into her husband’s efforts to script her responses.

In the not-so-distant background of the difficulties faced by Olivia and Charles is the bombing of a church in Alabama that took innocent lives. Charles has been called upon to deliver a eulogy. Olivia is plagued by the sound of bombs—a premonition of some disaster still to come?

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On his return home, Charles is flirty and horny, using techniques that likely work with other women; he is met by a range of emotions from Olivia who, though not playing hard to get, is hard for her husband to understand. Ciara Monique McMillian’s Olivia is a delight, even in the portrayal’s darker moods and rousing speeches. McMillian gets out all the nuance there is in this strong role. Charles is far from one note as well, and Kumasi lets us see many sides of the man, not least as a minor tyrant trying to dictate how his wife should feel and the kind of life they should lead. Love writes their interactions well and Betts gets fully engaged performances from his actors.

Eventually we learn that Olivia not only writes the speeches that have earned Charles such a following, she also coaches his delivery of her words. And that’s not all. Olivia, we discover through letters she wrote and never sent, has a sweetheart: a woman named Ruby. This emerges after the FBI thoughtfully sends Olivia a package containing a tape recording, complete with tape player, of Charles getting it on with one of his women of the road. Charles, whom Olivia accuses of always playing tit for tat, uses the letters as a way of worming out of guilt about his infidelities. The story of her attachment to Ruby, plaintive as it may be, gives Olivia the backbone to assert her decision to leave Charles. The upshot is that Olivia—who resented being pregnant—is now determined to terminate the pregnancy.

As Claudius might say, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” Love’s technique is to pile on racial injustice, spousal mistreatment, a sleazy doctor, dramatic foreboding, and not one but two speeches addressed to God as, seemingly, the author of the couple’s plight. There are also snatches of Charles’ way with Olivia’s speeches, and, in the end, a moving sermon by Olivia that brings into play the notion of fireflies as the spirits of the slain finding their way to heaven. The play could be said to pack a few too many complications into its 90 minute running time, so that the ultimate fate of Charles seems yet another dramatic shift.

At the Cabaret, the set by Anna Grigo packs verisimilitude aplenty, from the GE icebox to the Formica table to the range and sink, a true “kitchen-sink” style presentation. Mika H. Eubanks’ costumes—as ever—strike becoming and appropriate notes, greatly aided by Earon Nealey’s hair. Both actors look so much their parts we feel transported to another era at once. The straight-forward set is magically enhanced by Nicole E. Lang’s projection design, which combines the smoke of explosions with fleecy clouds in a blue sky and fire-streaked clouds that creep at times across the entire set. Riva Fairhall’s lighting helps cue us to the play’s many mood changes, not least the fireflies effect at the end, and the sound design by Kathy Ruvuna makes Olivia’s imaginary bombs viscerally real.

With Yale students and residents taking to the streets this past week to protest police shooting at two local African Americans charged with no crime, the lines in Fireflies that speak to the social straight-jacket imposed on nonwhite lives in America resonate, as intended, from the Jim Crow era of the play, set in 1963, to today. The conviction of the Yale Cabaret production is formidable and its skilled presentation convincingly apropos.

 

Fireflies
By Donja R. Love
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Producer: Dani Barlow; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Projection Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Technical Directors: Chimmy Anne Gunn & Frnacesca DeCicco; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Fight Choreographer: Michael Rossmy; Hair: Earon Nealey

Cast: Manu Kumasi, Ciara Monique McMillian


Yale Cabaret
April 18-20, 2019

Blood Will Have Blood

Review of The Purple Flower, Yale Cabaret

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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.

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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

Life-Saving Stories

Review of Death of Yazdgerd, Yale School of Drama

A corpse lies in state in a ruin of a mill in a desert town of the Sasanian empire. Discovered by troops in pursuit of their king, Shah Yazdgerd III, the body, arrayed in the habiliments of the shah, including his gleaming face-mask, with a bag of treasures nearby, has clearly been murdered. The miller (James Udom), his wife (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), and their teenage daughter (Sohina Sidhu) are accused of the shah’s assassination by a commander (Sean Boyce Johnson), a captain (Curtis Williams), and a priest (Setareki Wainiqolo). The three commoners plead for their lives, asserting their innocence, and regale their captors with numerous variations on a tale of how the man died. Meanwhile, a soldier (José Espinosa) prepares a gibbet upon which to hang the guilty miller.

Death of Yazdgerd by Bahram Beyzai, translated from Persian by Manuchehr Anvar, has been given a stunning thesis production by Shadi Ghaheri in the Yale School of Drama. The play is cunning in both its drama and its humor, involving the viewer in an exfoliating story that seems to have no end. By acting out stories, the miller and his family keep their punishment at bay while leading their questioners through a thicket of doubts and revelations.

The cast of Death of Yazdgerd (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of Death of Yazdgerd (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The production uses a variety of techniques to transport viewers into an ancient world that is full of portents and suggestion. Muralist Iman Raad has created, as backdrop, a tapestry-like drawing that depicts all the main events of the story, and projection designer Yaara Bar uses animation and projection and lighting to make elements of the mural come alive in response to narrative details. The effect, often ghostly or magical, conjures the ancient Iranian storytelling method in which a Naqqal (or storyteller) would act out his story in front of a tapestry, pointing to the relevant visuals as he went along.

Significant as well to the production’s aura is the way music accompanies much of the narrated drama. Live musicians Yahya Alkhasana and composer Mohsen Namjoo create textures of sound that enhance and punctuate the text and add an eerie overlay that makes the entire play feel mythic, even ritualistic.

And that’s key, too. We are watching a trial, at times, but we are also watching a funerary rite as the priest prays over the body, and we are watching oneiromancy, as the woman at one point enacts a dream of the shah’s that the priest is eager to interpret. At another point, the girl raises the shah from the dead by giving his corpse a voice. And all the while, as the stories become more and more revealing of the tensions among the miller’s family, and of issues such as whether or not the miller tried to protect his daughter’s chastity and whether the shah seduced the woman, the soldier keeps breaking in with updates on gibbet-building and prisoner-interrogating, and the three inquirers find themselves more and more befuddled.

They are unable to arrive at a clear story—as the play goes on, the miller, woman and girl move from denying they knew that the man, dressed as a beggar, was the shah, to nearly convincing their interrogators that the body is in fact not the shah, but the miller. Which gives the miller the role of being the shah in hiding. The switching of identity has to do not only with the fact that no one has dared to look upon the shah up close, but also with Beyzai’s insistence that class differences cannot be used to adjudicate truth in these matters. The miller and his family are so skilled in storytelling that they can make their listeners believe almost anything. Confusion among the family seems to flow from their own failure to decide what they believe and to stick to it. They enact a fascinating and theatrical sort of stream-of-consciousness where any interpretation immediately gains a voice and presentation.

The ensemble’s work with the play’s stylized speech and grand manners is thoroughly enthralling. Sean Boyce Johnson gives us a sober commander who knows too well his own failings of judgment and so wants to be fair. Setareki Wainiqolo’s priest is the most learned, but also the one most willing to accept, or even to expect, uncanny elements to play a part in the death of the shah. As a sort of foil, Curtis Williams is the captain who discovered the body and who wants to defer to the other two, if only their judgment makes sense. All three look their parts well thanks to Mika Eubank’s glorious costumes.

James Udom as the miller as shah

James Udom as the miller as shah

All three actors playing the miller’s family are superlative. Their roles call for quick-changes in voice, demeanor and emotional tone, sometimes even interrupting a key moment in the narrating monologue with an aside out of character to one of the others. Sohina Sidhu plays the girl as, initially, giddy and childlike, but as the play goes on she becomes a strong force, accusing her mother and mourning her father. James Udom’s miller has the sturdy gravitas of a man facing a death sentence and trying to be convincing. He is able to enact his murder of the shah and deny it in the next breath. It’s in many ways an unfathomable role and Udom masters it.

Then there’s Francesca Fernandez McKenzie as the woman, a role that comes to dominate, not only because the woman is fierce in upbraiding her husband and daughter and the interrogators, but because she enacts a kind of sorcery of storytelling. McKenzie’s intensity is unflagging as she turns the tables several times, speaking with the authority of mercurial emotions, and, during one particularly balletic enactment, behind the shah’s gold mask.

the woman (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) and the girl (Sohina Sidhu)

the woman (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) and the girl (Sohina Sidhu)

Aided by John Bondi-Ernoehazy’s impressive circular set, with atmospheric lighting effects by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan, director Ghaheri has created a memorable production of an enigmatic play—both gripping and entertaining—that might be considered an elaborate shaggy dog story about an era-changing historical event. We get any number of possibilities about how the dead man met his fate, and a few possibilities about his identity. In a sense, the entire play is only a diversion to delay or defeat the verdict of death for the miller and his family: an exercise in storytelling as a matter of life and death. In the end, the enemy army—which Yazdgerd was apparently fleeing—overruns the shah’s troops, and to the victors go the spoils.

 

Death of Yazdgerd
By Bahram Beyzai
Translated by Manuchehr Anvar
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Music Director and Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Composer: Mohsen Namjoo; Scenic Designer: John Bondi-Ernoehazy; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Samuel Kwan Chi Chan; Projection Designer: Yaara Bar; Visual Artist and Muralist: Iman Raad; Production Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher; Stage Manager: John Carlin

Cast: José Espinosa, Sean Boyce Johnson, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Sohina Sidhu, James Udom, Setareki Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams

Musicians: Yahya Alkhasana, Mohsen Namjoo

Yale School of Drama
December 5-9, 2017