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New Studio production imbues gritty realism with other-worldly magic

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Raushanah Simmons, left, and Yaegel T. Welch in ‘In the Red and Brown Water,’ a gay-penned, gay-helmed, though hetero-themed play at Studio Theatre that tells of Oya (Simmons), a young athlete who passes on her chance to escape poverty. (Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre)

She may run like the wind, but not even Oya, the central character in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” now at Studio Theatre, is fast enough to escape life’s pain.

The young, gay McCraney’s undeniably lyrical work begins with his tragic teenage heroine making a decision that will adversely affect the rest of her life. When offered a track scholarship, Oya (Raushanah Simmons) — despite knowing college is her ticket out of the Louisiana projects — declines, choosing instead to remain at home with her dying mother, Mama Moja (Denise Diggs). There’ll be other opportunities, Oya tells herself with tepid optimism.

There aren’t, so Oya turns her attention to men and making babies. She vacillates between two lovers: Ogun Size (Jahi A. Kearse), a stammering mechanic with family-man aspirations, and Shango (Yaegel T. Welch), a muscular, cocksure player-turned-soldier who’s uninterested in settling down. Despite her best efforts, Oya (named for a Yoruban nature goddess) is unable to conceive. Living in a world where teen pregnancies are celebrated, she feels particularly cheated and further alienated. This, combined with Shango impregnating a local girl, sends Oya into a spiral of despair.

“In the Red and Brown Water” is the newest of McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays,” a trilogy inspired by his own experiences. (“The Brothers Size,” another part of the trilogy, proved a hit for Studio in 2008). In creating his own uniquely charged theatrical world, the playwright draws on West African Yoruba myth, contemporary urban life, and classic drama — in this instance gay Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma,” a tragedy whose heroine is also infertile. The result is both woefully accessible and dreamily removed, poetic, but also gritty.

McCraney’s characters speak their own stage directions (Oya says, “Oya laughs at her crazy mother” — pause — “You crazy.”). These clever third-person observations, in addition to being funny and illuminating, elevate the characters and their actions. In conjunction with the references to mythology, they add an epic quality to the usually unheralded lives lived out in government housing.

McCraney, who grew up in the projects of South Miami, knows his characters well. He writes compassionately of their triumphs and their failings. Marking time on her front porch, Oya explains her desire to have babies to her mischievous, bisexual pal Elegba (Mark Hairston), already a father himself at 16: “What else have we got to do? Sit around and watch the world?”

Though tall and lean, Simmons doesn’t really look like a track star nor (as the script calls for) is she particularly dark skinned, but it doesn’t matter. As the story unfolds, she reveals the humor, feisty temper, sense of decency, strength, vulnerability and desperation that make up Oya. As the rivals for Oya’s heart (and other parts), Kearse and Welch are both excellent. Among the 10-member cast, Shannon Alexandria Lillie Dorsey supplies a jolt of realness as sassy Shun, Shango’s soon-to-be baby mama.

Staged in the round by gay director Serge Seiden, the play’s finest moments are those involving Oya and her men. Unlike some of the production’s other more unwieldy scenes (including a storekeeper chasing an underage candy bar thief and a party in the project), these smaller, more intimate instances are revealing and seem most at home on Luciana Stecconi’s elegant set — a circular, concrete-looking platform outlined by a thin water-filled moat. It’s during these exchanges that we’re best able to see into Oya’s wounded heart.

‘In the Red and Brown Water’
Through Feb. 14
Studio Theatre
1501 14th Street, N.W.
$35 to $63
202-332-1187
www.studiotheatre.org

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Theater

‘We’re Gonna Die’ includes themes of grief, death, depression

But don’t let that deter you from Round House production

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Regina Aquino as the singer in Young Jean Lee's ‘We're Gonna Die’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Harold F. Burgess II)

‘We’re Gonna Die’
Streaming through July 11
Round House Theatre
$30
Roundhousetheatre.org

Round House Theatre’s current filmed offering, “We’re Gonna Die,” could be described as sad words interrupted by upbeat melodies. But it’s not that simple.

Penned by Young Jean Lee, the hour-long solo show is based on real experiences but without details specific to place or year. Its monologues are the memories of a youngish woman (simply called the Singer in the program) who arrives at the harsh conclusion that horrible things happen all the time, and in the end, we die. But it’s not all gloom and doom. The playwright – who’s been called the queen of unease – peppers her work with the unexpected and the uncomfortable as well as some fun surprises and humor. And after every gloomy tale the singer shares, there’s a pop-sounding song with equally unsettling lyrics.

This kind of back and forth between the serious and the not so serious, makes the show interesting.

Director Paige Hernandez, who also provides the show’s happy, informal choreography, brings a fresh unpretentiousness to the piece that gels nicely with the available energy of Helen Hayes Award-winning Filipinx American actor Regina Aquino.

Sporting a knotted T-shirt and black leather pants, Aquino comes ready to work. She barrels through (in a good way) a litany of brutal memories with an inviting intensity while radiating an emotional suppleness that keeps you with her throughout the evening’s various twists and turns.

As the Singer, Aquino wastes no time in apprising the audience of the miseries of life. Childhood and tween years aren’t pleasant: she’s shunned by alleged best friends; learning to ride a bike is violently traumatic; and during a playful game of spy, she witnesses her weird Uncle John become reduced to a puddle of tears after reciting his nightly mantra: “I am shit. I am shit.” The singer learns early that life isn’t easy.

Romance proves illusive. There’s no dating in high school. College is a series of one-sided relationships with guys who drink too much. When she finally gets together with what seems the ideal man, he leaves her.

Things continue uncomfortably. At a family reunion she overhears her mother describing her as less lovable than her sister. But it’s her father’s seemingly unfair and tragic death from lung cancer that hits hardest. She knows then that despite what we may want to believe, we all die and rarely prettily.
It’s oddly comforting how she concludes that none of us are special; no one is immune to unhappiness, pain, disease, and the long dirt nap. We all have this in common.

Lee (the first Asian-American woman to have a play on Broadway with “Straight White Men”) wrote “We’re Gonna Die” not long after her father’s death. Perhaps that’s why the harrowing monologue describing the patriarch’s demise is the show’s most affecting. And it’s definitely where Aquino’s gifts for pathos and sensitivity come to the fore.

This is a solo show, indeed, but Aquino isn’t alone on stage. She’s joined by The Chance Club, a four-person rock band featuring Laura Van Duzer, Matthew Schleigh, Jason Wilson, and Manny Arciniega. Aquino and band’s interactions feel spontaneous and not over-rehearsed, infusing the show with the charm of a small live concert.

“We’re Gonna Die” comes with a content advisory: “This production includes themes of loss, grief, death, and depression.” But please, don’t let that deter you. It’s in fact peculiarly uplifting.

And by show’s end, you’ll be humming along to a catchy tune with the memorable chorus: “I’m gonna die / I’m gonna die someday / Then I’ll be gone / And it will be OK.”

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Theater

Local theaters come to life to celebrate Pride

Kennedy Center, GALA, Olney and more offer live and virtual events

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Solomon Parker is Echinacea Monroe in ‘Olney in Drag,’ coming to Olney Theatre Center in August. (Photo courtesy Parker)

With reopening comes opportunities to celebrate Pride with live performances.

For the first time in more than a year, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s Potomac Fever Ensemble will be performing together live. The small, close-knit harmony a cappella group is presenting a fun mix of contemporary pop, crowd favorites, and Broadway songs at National Christian City Church at 5 Thomas Circle, N.W., on Saturday, June 12 at 3 p.m. Admission is free. Gmcw.org

And if you move fast, there’s still time to catch an outdoor performance of Solas Nua’s production of “In the Middle of the Fields.” Penned by Deirdre Kinahan (“Wild Sky,” “The Frederick Douglass Project”), the new work “centers on Eithne, who is undergoing chemo-therapy for breast cancer. Stepping out of her house and into the nearby fields, she wonders what her life will be like on the other side of recovery from a deadly disease.”

Directed by Laley Lippard and featuring talented local actors Jessica Lefkow, Caroline Dubberly, and Ryan Sellers, the aptly titled play is staged outdoors at P Street Beach in Dupont Circle. Audiences are seated at a distance; blankets and chairs are available for seating options. Solasnua.org

GALA Hispanic Theatre continues its return to live performances with “Ella es tango” (“She is tango”) through the end of June. An original musical revue conceived by GALA artistic director Hugo Medrano with texts by Patricia Suárez and featuring artists from Argentina and the U.S., it highlights the contribution of women composers and singers to sexy but traditionally male dominated genre.

“Ella es tango” is performed indoors at GALA’s bijou space in Columbia Heights, and starting June 11, 2021, the theatre capacity increases and seats will be assigned three feet apart (every third seat) instead of six feet apart (every fifth seat). Galatheatre.org

The Olney Theatre Center (OTC) boasts an impressive lineup of summer offerings for its outdoor, open air amphitheater, the Root Family Stage.

Beginning late July through the end of August, OTC presents the weekly Friday night Andrew A. Isen Cabaret Series featuring some of the DMV’s top musical talents featured in some exciting combinations.

The pairs include Awa Sal Secka and out actor Bobby Smith (July 23); Ines Nassara and Tracy Lynn Olivera (July 30); Donna Migliaccio, and Nova Payton (August 6); Rayanne Gonzales and local gay performer Rayshun Lamarr who appeared as a contestant on TV’s “The Voice” (August 13); Greg Maheu and Vishal Vaidya (August 20); and finally, Malinda Kathleen Reese and Alan Wiggins (August 27).

And for two free performances on consecutive Wednesday nights in August, OTC presents “Olney in Drag” where audiences are asked to “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.” The first show (August 18) features Brooklyn Heights, Betty O’Hellno, Ariel Von Quinn, and Evon Michelle.

Queens taking the stage for the second show (August 25) include Kristina Kelly, Vagenesis, Tiara Missou (David Singleton who appeared in “Elf the Musical” at OTC), and Echinacea Monroe (terrific out actor Solomon Parker). Olneytheatre.org

Also this summer, the Kennedy Center has big outdoor plans for its wide-open, riverside REACH campus.

The Millennium Stage is scheduled to present free outdoor experiences ranging from live music and film screenings to dance lessons, yoga sessions, arts markets, and more.

Slated programming promises to celebrate varied cultures and styles, and work in partnership with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, National Theater for the Deaf, Smithsonian Asian American Center, Creative Nomads, SAMASAMA, D.C. Legendary Musicians, Step Afrika, and members of the Drag community, as well as internal collaborations with the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus. Kennedy-center.org

And while the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) isn’t venturing outdoors yet, they are continuing to present “Blindness,” a brilliant piece about pandemic and societal breakdown featuring the voice of Juliet Stevenson, at Sidney Harman Hall through July 3. The unforgettable experience remains an in-person theatrical installation with socially distanced seating; 40 audience members per event; and masks required indoors).

And “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain starring Patrick Page” continues to stream until July 28.

Looking forward to September, STC’s first full production will be a two-week limited engagement of gay writer James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” from Sept. 14-26 in Sidney Harman Hall, completing its glorious run that was cut short by COVID in March 2020. Shakespearetheatre.org

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Theater

‘Will Power’s Flow’ a hip-hop tour de force

Justin Weaks on playing multiple parts, theater scene after COVID

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Justin Weaks (foreground) and DJ Nick ‘Tha 1da’ Hernandez in ‘Flow.’ (Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre)

‘Will Power’s Flow’
Studio Theatre
Streaming through June 27
$37
Studiotheatre.org

Out actor Justin Weaks really digs hip-hop. So, when Studio Theatre asked him to take on the title role in a filmed remount of “Will Power’s Flow,” an early 2000s hip-hop theatrical piece about music and the storytelling of contemporary urban denizens in the West African griot tradition, it wasn’t an impossible stretch.

Growing up in Concord, N.C., a suburb outside of Charlotte, Weaks’ household was strictly into soul and R&B. But since living in D.C., he says, it feels like hip-hop music has deeply dug its claws into him.

In “Flow,” Weaks, 30, is backed by the hip-hop beats of DJ/composer/sound designer Nick “Tha 1da” Hernandez. “But you’ll hear me on some beats too. I have a good time with it.”

But the most challenging aspect of tackling “Flow” is playing multiple parts, he adds. In addition to his lead role as performer Will Power (the 7th storyteller), he plays six other storytellers, and about another dozen characters. But this sort of tour de force isn’t entirely new to the actor who triumphantly played multiple roles in “Long Way Down” at the Kennedy Center as well as in “Gloria” at Woolly Mammoth, the work that garnered him a Helen Hayes Award nomination.

The D.C.-based actor who describes himself as “happily single,” ranks as one of Washington’s most gifted talents.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Was it challenging to assay Will Power, a part so associated with a real-life artist?

JUSTIN WEAKS: Actually, this production was my introduction to Will Power. My friend and director Psalmayene 24 reached out to me – he said Studio wanted to remount “Flow” with a new actor, and asked if I was interested. I was blown away by the script. It’s a behemoth of a piece. Any yes, any time you’re dealing with a piece that was originally performed by its writer, there is an extra responsibility to the work and the words.

BLADE: And how was returning to the stage after a long absence?

WEAKS: The return to Studio felt right. I love the programming at Studio. Like how intimate their spaces are. As a performer you’re held by the audience.

BLADE: But because of COVID restrictions, this production was filmed over two days. How was that?

WEAKS: I’ve had very little film experience. This was my first major rodeo in front of the camera. Everything about it was new. I learned so much while doing it. It’s something that’s foreign. You have to think of it as a great opportunity to learn, to grow, and see what you need to work on.

I’ll admit that I feel incredibly vulnerable with this filmed play being out there. That’s new for me. I’ve experienced vulnerability in real time when I’m on stage but to have the work be done a month ago, edited, and out there, it makes me feel exposed in a way I’ve never felt.

BLADE: I’m sure you’ll get used to that.

WEAKS: After I’ve done a few feature films, I’ll probably feel differently.

BLADE: Was it difficult returning to work after such an odd year?

WEAKS: Returning to work as an artist isn’t easy. I consider our return process to be like boot camp. We’re different people now. My body sits differently. My voice and breath are different. After isolation and not working much, I had to relearn my instrument again.

BLADE: Is it different?

WEAKS: There is so much that is changing in terms of the industry — theater and film industry. How they hire and pay artists. So many of us made more on unemployment than when we were busy working full-time pre-COVID.

Theaters will be in for a surprise when they reopen doors and find that artists don’t want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. We’re in a different time now and we’ll rise to the new time rather than shrinking back into what was. Clearly it wasn’t serving many of us.

BLADE: And is there anything about Flow that’s especially appealing to LGBTQ audiences?

WEAKS: Oh, yes. If you’re someone who has struggled at all this past year, then this piece will interest you. If you’re figuring out what the future looks like, how to move on, how to cope, how to have faith, or hang on to something real, then this play is for you.

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