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Helen Hayes nominees announced

Winners for local theater to be announced April 25 in Washington

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The Helen Hayes Award nominees for regional theater were announced Monday. Winners will be announced at a ceremony April 25.

Outstanding Choreography, Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Diane Coburn Bruning, Improbable Frequency, Solas Nua
listBullet.jpg Ben Cunis, King Arthur, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Parker Esse, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Maurice Hines, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Irina Tsikurishvili, King Arthur, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Irina Tsikurishvili, Othello, Synetic Theater
Outstanding Costume Design, Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Mara Blumenfeld, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Murell Horton, The Liar, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg William Ivey Long, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Reggie Ray, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Anastasia Ryurikov Simes, Othello, Synetic Theater
Outstanding Director, Resident Musical
listBullet.jpg Toby Orenstein, Hairspray, Toby’s Dinner Theatre
listBullet.jpg Eric Schaeffer, Chess, Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg Molly Smith, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Molly Smith, The Light in the Piazza, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Mary Zimmerman, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Outstanding Director, Resident Play
listBullet.jpg Kasi Campbell, Travels With My Aunt, Rep Stage
listBullet.jpg Joseph Haj, Hamlet, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Robert Richmond, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Howard Shalwitz, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Paata Tsikurishvili, Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Paata Tsikurishvili, The Master and Margarita, Synetic Theater
Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Steel Burkhardt, Hair, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Brent Michael DiRoma, Avenue Q, The Broadway Musical, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Laurence Fishburne, Thurgood, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Gavin Lee, Mary Poppins, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg David Pittsinger, South Pacific, The Kennedy Center
Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Musical
listBullet.jpg Maurice Hines, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Marc Kudisch, Sycamore Trees, Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg Geoff Packard, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Nicholas Rodriguez, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Bobby Smith, Annie, Olney Theatre Center
listBullet.jpg Cody Williams, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
Outstanding Lead Actress, Non-Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Carmen Cusack, South Pacific, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Jaqueline Grabois, Avenue Q, The Broadway Musical, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Caroline Sheen, Mary Poppins, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Kacie Sheik, Hair, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Caren Lyn Tackett, Hair, The Kennedy Center
Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Musical
listBullet.jpg E. Faye Butler, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Eleasha Gamble, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Carrie A. Johnson, Annie, Olney Theatre Center
listBullet.jpg Lauren Molina, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Jill Paice, Chess, Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg Hollis Resnik, The Light in the Piazza, Arena Stage
Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Play
listBullet.jpg Lise Bruneau, Mikveh, Theater J
listBullet.jpg Naomi Jacobson, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Sarah Marshall, Mikveh, Theater J
listBullet.jpg Jennifer Mendenhall, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Erika Rose, In Darfur, Theater J
listBullet.jpg Holly Twyford, Orestes, A Tragic Romp, Folger Theatre
Outstanding Lighting Design, Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Colin K. Bills, Antony and Cleopatra, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Colin K. Bills, The Master and Margarita, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Dan Covey, On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning, Rep Stage
listBullet.jpg T.J. Gerckens, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Klyph Stanford, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Justin Townsend, Hamlet, Folger Theatre
Outstanding Musical Direction, Resident Production
listBullet.jpg George Fulginiti-Shakar, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Jon Kalbfleisch, Sunset Boulevard, Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg Fred Lassen, Sycamore Trees, Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg Konstantine Lortkipandze, Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Doug Peck, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Paul Sportelli, The Light in the Piazza, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg James Sugg, Orestes, A Tragic Romp, Folger Theatre
Outstanding Set Design, Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Tony Cisek, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Simon Higlett, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg James Kronzer, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Eugene Lee, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Derek McLane, The Lisbon Traviata, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Daniel Ostling, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Outstanding Sound Design, Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Anthony Cochrane, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Irakli Kavsadze, Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Konstantine Lortkipandze, Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Matthew M. Nielson, Hamlet, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Matt Otto, Johnny Meister and the Stitch, Solas Nua
listBullet.jpg Tom Teasley, The Ramayana, Constellation Theatre Company
Outstanding Supporting Actor, Resident Musical
listBullet.jpg Ed Dixon, Sunset Boulevard, Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg James Konicek, Annie, Olney Theatre Center
listBullet.jpg Jeremy Kushnier, Chess, Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg John Manzari, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Leo Manzari, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Jesse J. Perez, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Larry Yando, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Outstanding Supporting Actor, Resident Play
listBullet.jpg Louis Butelli, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Adam Green, The Liar, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Michael Tolaydo, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza, Theater J
listBullet.jpg Ted van Griethuysen, All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Paxton Whitehead, All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Outstanding Supporting Actress, Resident Musical
listBullet.jpg MaryLee Adams, Hairspray, Toby’s Dinner Theatre
listBullet.jpg Lauren ‘Coco’ Cohn, Glimpses of the Moon, MetroStage
listBullet.jpg Jesaira Glover, Hairspray, Toby’s Dinner Theatre
listBullet.jpg Marva Hicks, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Hollis Resnik, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Jenna Sokolowski, Annie, Olney Theatre Center
Outstanding Supporting Actress, Resident Play
listBullet.jpg Colleen Delany, Pirates! A Boy at Sea, Imagination Stage
listBullet.jpg Naomi Jacobson, Richard II, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg MacKenzie Meehan, Circle Mirror Transformation, The Studio Theatre
listBullet.jpg Phylicia Rashad, every tongue confess, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Dawn Ursula, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Outstanding Supporting Performer, Non-Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Ellen Harvey, Mary Poppins, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Jodi Kimura, South Pacific, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Marc Kudisch, Golden Age, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Josh Lamon, Hair, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Hoon Lee, Golden Age, The Kennedy Center
The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical
listBullet.jpg every tongue confess, Marcus Gardley Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Snow White, Rose Red (and Fred), music by, Zina Goldrich The Kennedy Center Family Theater
listBullet.jpg Sycamore Trees, book, music & lyrics by, Ricky Ian Gordon Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg Snow White, Rose Red (and Fred), book & lyrics by, Marcy Heisler The Kennedy Center Family Theater
listBullet.jpg The Liar, David Ives Shakespeare Theatre Company
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, musical arrangements by, Deborah Wicks La Puma The Kennedy Center Family Theater
listBullet.jpg Sycamore Trees, book by, Nina Mankin Signature Theatre
listBullet.jpg Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, music by, Michael Silversher The Kennedy Center Family Theater
listBullet.jpg Pirates! A Boy at Sea, Charles Way Imagination Stage
listBullet.jpg Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, script & lyrics by, Mo Willems The Kennedy Center Family Theater
The Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Play
listBullet.jpg Philip Fletcher, Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg John Glover, The Lisbon Traviata, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Graham Michael Hamilton, Hamlet, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Mitchell Hébert, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Bill Largess, The Foreigner, The Bay Theatre Company, Inc.
listBullet.jpg Alex Mills, Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Cody Nickell, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Johnny Ramey, Superior Donuts, The Studio Theatre
listBullet.jpg Alexander Strain, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza, Theater J
Outstanding Ensemble, Resident Musical
listBullet.jpg Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Hairspray, Toby’s Dinner Theatre
listBullet.jpg If You Give a Pig a Pancake, Adventure Theatre
listBullet.jpg Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Snow White, Rose Red (and Fred), The Kennedy Center Family Theater
listBullet.jpg Sycamore Trees, Signature Theatre
Outstanding Ensemble, Resident Play
listBullet.jpg American Buffalo, The Studio Theatre
listBullet.jpg Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Orestes, A Tragic Romp, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Travels With My Aunt, Rep Stage
Outstanding Non-Resident Production
listBullet.jpg Avenue Q, The Broadway Musical, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg The Last Cargo Cult, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Mary Poppins, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg South Pacific, The Kennedy Center
listBullet.jpg Thurgood, The Kennedy Center
Outstanding Production, Theatre for Young Audiences
listBullet.jpg If You Give a Pig a Pancake, Adventure Theatre
listBullet.jpg Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, The Kennedy Center Family Theater
listBullet.jpg The Nutcracker, The Puppet Co.
listBullet.jpg Pirates! A Boy at Sea, Imagination Stage
listBullet.jpg Snow White, Rose Red (and Fred), The Kennedy Center Family Theater
listBullet.jpg The Red Balloon, Adventure Theatre
Outstanding Resident Musical
listBullet.jpg Annie, Olney Theatre Center
listBullet.jpg Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Hairspray, Toby’s Dinner Theatre
listBullet.jpg The Light in the Piazza, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Little Shop of Horrors, Ford’s Theatre
listBullet.jpg Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
listBullet.jpg Sweeney Todd, Signature Theatre
Outstanding Resident Play
listBullet.jpg Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
listBullet.jpg Hamlet, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Henry VIII, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg The Master and Margarita, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza, Theater J
listBullet.jpg Orestes, A Tragic Romp, Folger Theatre
listBullet.jpg Othello, Synetic Theater
listBullet.jpg Superior Donuts, The Studio Theatre
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Theater

D.C. theaters offer something for every holiday taste

From ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ to plenty of Scrooge productions

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The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presents ‘The Holiday Show.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For many Washington area theatergoers, it wouldn’t be the holidays without seeing an old chestnut or two. At the same time, newer productions are rapidly becoming yuletide traditions in their own right, and with every unfolding holiday season, the DMV scene is additionally gifted with fresh and exciting works. 

It’s a lot. Here’s a sampling. 

National Theatre presents “A Magical Cirque Christmas” (Dec. 16-18), an evening of varied performers and spectacular double-jointed cirque artists accompanied by your favorite holiday music performed live. Mistress of Magic Lucy Darling hosts this exciting and enchanting holiday entertainment for the entire family (well, almost, children under four are strictly verboten). Broadwayatthenational.com

At Synetic Theater in Crystal City, it’s “Snow Maiden” (Dec. 1 – 23) based on a 19th century folk tale about a lonely man who creates a woman out of snow and created by Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer and Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili. Synetictheater.org 

In Falls Church, Creative Cauldron is conjuring magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 2-18). Married collaborators Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith’s musical is based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown about a lonely woman who finds happiness through a box of old toys. Creativecauldron.org

The season now upon us offers myriad opportunities to experience Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the redemptive tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps the most celebrated Christmas character after Santa, Rudolph, and the baby Jesus.

Historic Ford’s Theatre version of “A Christmas Carol” (through Dec. 31) has been a popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years. The beautifully produced and consistently well-acted take on the Dickens’ classic (originally conceived by Michael Baron), features Craig Wallace reprising Scrooge, who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org 

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello lovingly revisits his celebrated take on the “A Christmas Carol” (through Jan. 1). In his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story (created and performed by Morello), he brings to life more than 40 different characters including Scrooge, the entire Cratchit family, the specters, and numerous celebrants.

Olney is also reviving its holiday musical success “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 1, and reprising roles in the tale as old time terrific are out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero as the Beast. Out actor Bobby Smith plays Lumiere. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs. Olneytheatre.org

In various books and interviews, movie star Bette Davis recounts how as a young girl, she most looked forward to finding theater tickets under the tree (a Davis family Christmas tradition). Perhaps you know a youth or adult, who’d like receive tickets this holiday season? The Kennedy Center Opera House is tempting audiences with a traveling production of the Broadway blockbuster “Wicked” (Dec. 8-Jan. 22), the much-loved prequel of the “Wizard of Oz.” Kennedy-center.org 

Signature Theatre adds to the holiday fun with “Into the Woods” (through Jan. 29), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s unique musical spin on treasured fairytales and “happily-ever-after.” The large, uber-talented cast features — among other big names — Nova Y. Payton, out actor David Merino, and Maria Rizzo. Matthew Gardiner directs. Sig-theatre.org

Then there’s always “The Nutcracker.” Here are four from scores of local productions. 

The Washington Ballet presents its charming version at the gilded Warner Theatre through Dec. 30. With Tchaikovsky’s timeless music and splendid choreography by Septime Weber, this 1882 Georgetown-set production features historical figures including George Washington and King George III, along with the usual suspects like children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Washingtonballet.org

Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore presents “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 19-22), Tchaikovsky’s classic re-imagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). Strathmore.org  

And Kansas City Ballet’s celebrated seasonal tradition, “The Nutcracker,” is at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 27, so you’ll need to move fast. 

The beloved Puppet Co. located within Glen Echo Park presents its 34th annual “The Nutcracker” through Jan. 1. The delightful puppet show includes Tchaikovsky’s familiar music and the story of Clara and her prince, with some Puppet Co. nursery rhyme spin. (Recommended for ages 4+. Run time approximately 50 minutes.)

Running nearly concurrently at the Puppet Co. is “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” (Dec. 1-30). “Hershel just wants to celebrate Hanukkah with the community, but the Queen and King of the Goblins have forbidden the lighting of the candles. Can Hershel save the day and lift the curse for this shtetl (village)?” (Recommended ages 5+. Run time approximately 60 minutes.) Thepuppetco.org 

And for those who might find themselves all Nutcracker-ed out, Ballet Hispánico returns to the Kennedy Center with internationally renowned choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Doña Perón” (Nov. 30-Dec. 3), a truly exciting portrait of Eva “Evita” Perón. Kennedy-center.org 

And for something festive, edifying, and relaxed, try the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Ugly Sweater Holiday Concert” at The Anthem on Dec. 6. Go ahead, why not don something hideous and enjoy your favorite holiday songs? 

Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is back with “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 3-11), an annual extravaganza that promises sparkly snow, tap dancers, and over-the-top costumes at their usual venue, the historic Lincoln Theatre in the U Street Corridor. Slated for the program are songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “Underneath the Tree,” “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Hard Candy Christmas” performed by the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. Gmcw.org 

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Theater

Poignant ‘Sanctuary City’ depicts two immigrants struggling to get ahead in America

Undocumented friends navigate post-9/11 New Jersey

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Hernán Angulo and María Victoria Martínez in Sanctuary City at Arena Stage.  (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘Sanctuary City’
Through Nov. 27
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W. 
$41-$95
Arenastage.org

As a kid growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, María Victoria Martínez was obsessed with musicals, Broadway shows like “West Side Story” and Disney movies were on nonstop rotation. She knew the scores by heart and longed to play not the ingenues or princesses, but rather character roles like “The Little Mermaid’s” villainous Ursula and Miss Hannigan, the comically bitter lush in “Annie.”

“Imitating the singers is how I learned English,” says Martínez, 30. It also ignited a passion for theater that ultimately lured her into show biz (though she doesn’t do musicals).

 After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico followed by a master’s degree from A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University), she kicked off a career as a multifaceted actor. Martínez follows the work, but splits most her time between San Juan and New York City: “It’s my idea of a bicoastal existence,” she says. 

Currently Martínez, who identifies as queer, is at Arena Stage starring in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” an Arena/Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production directed by David Mendizábal with associate direction and transfer direction by Cara Hinh.

Set in Newark, N.J., not long after 9/11, a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise, the new work is a timely and poignant piece. Martínez and out actor Hernán Angulo play longtime undocumented friends (simply called G and B, respectively), struggling to get ahead in America, the only home they’ve ever known. 

Without giving too much away, adds Martínez, G’s position in the U.S. is more stable than B’s. Still, she’s willing to fight to help secure his fate. He is arguably her only friend. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Would you describe your character, G, as the fierier of the two? 

MARĺA VICTORIA MARTĺNEZ: Yes. As I read the play, I definitely saw this ardent fire in G. When she feels safe the fire burns but she feels in danger, her fire is combustible and liable to burn everything down. G is the engine that tries to keep B going, to uplift him, to find ways for him to stay in the country. 

They share moments when they seem like brother and sister, sometimes friends, and even lovers. It’s left open for audience to interpret as they watch the play. It’s messy. And that’s what makes it good.

BLADE: Was it tough moving the production across country?

MARTĺNEZ: Transferring theaters was tricky – they’re very different spaces. In Berkeley we were in a black box almost in full round. Arena’s Kreeger Theater is proscenium, so we’ve had to flatten out our blocking. But in doing so we found new moments in the show. 

Audiences are different in every city. In California, there were certain moments in the show where audiences were really cracking up and here, we don’t hear a peep. But after all, theater is a living organism and moving gives new and different life.

BLADE: In “Sanctuary City,” you and Hernán Angulo play such incredibly close friends. How is that relationship offstage? 

MARTĺNEZ: We were so fortunate to have been cast together. We got along right off the bat and now we’re very close. I identify as queer and he identifies as a gay man. But it’s really our Latinidad (Latinness) that brought us together. And we both love to laugh a lot. When apart we Facetime and share Tik Toks and serious articles too. 

I’m Puerto Rican and he’s Mexican American from the Bay Area. I’m interested in Mexican culture. Spanish is my first language; and Hernán speaks Spanish, so there’s that too. 

BLADE: Have you witnessed the courage and pain of undocumented people firsthand?

MARTĺNEZ: In Puerto Rico most of the immigrants are Dominicans. We’re generally welcoming to them. But I have seen some bad things, and when I witness that aggression, it doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t understand blocking someone from seeking refuge. 

BLADE: Anything directed at you personally?

MARTĺNEZ: Yes, I experienced some unsettling xenophobia when Trump was first elected. I was still at A.R.T. and traveling home to San Juan. At the airport, I was speaking Spanish and a lady purposely bumped into me and told me to go back to my country. I hold a U.S. passport, so you can only imagine what happens to people who are more vulnerable. 

These things are really important to talk about. And I’m happy and proud to be doing the show in D.C. I think it gives it even more meaning. 

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Theater

‘Ballad of Emmett Till’ recounts last two weeks of a life cut short

A deftly staged and well-acted look at seminal American tragedy

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Stars of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ (l-r): Jaysen Wright, Antonio Michael Woodard as Till, and Vaughn Ryan Midder. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

‘The Till Trilogy: The Ballad of Emmett Till’
Through Nov. 20
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$50-$64
Mosaictheater.org

“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the first part of playwright Ifa Bayeza’s “The Till Trilogy” (now playing at Mosaic Theater Company), recounts the last two weeks of the title character’s short life.

There are bursts of joy and laughter during those days, but always lurking is the knowledge that the Black 14-year-old’s infectious vitality will soon be horrifically snuffed out for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The piece, deftly staged by Talvin Wilks, opens with the cast gathering on a dimly lit stage, hauntingly chanting the boy’s name, a sound that’s both foreboding and alluring, an invitation to hear his story, a seminal tragedy that drew the attention of a nation.

It’s the summer of 1955 and young Emmett, affectionately nicknamed Bobo, convinces his protective mother to grant him a little independence. Wearing a summer suit, new bucks, and that jaunty straw hat (made so familiar from the real life Till’s iconic photograph), he boards a train headed from Chicago to Money, Miss., where he’ll spend time with family in the Jim Crow South.

The road from the rural station to the humble home of Emmett’s Great Uncle Mose, a tenant farmer and lay preacher, narrows from two lanes to one to a dirt lane. It’s a happy place where everyone is expected to work. And despite being warned to defer to racist whites without question, Emmett and his cousin experience a freedom they don’t know on Chicago’s Southside. In the South, the city boys are free to drive and party at the boozy juke joint on Saturday nights. And while Emmett doesn’t take to picking the cotton or wringing a chicken’s neck, he adapts to other aspects of country life like fishing and going barefoot.

Antonio Michael Woodard nails Emmett as an energetic, smart-alecky, endearing youth, a child on the threshold of young manhood.

The stellar cast’s remaining five members play multiple roles: Billie Krishawn plays Emmett’s mother Mary Till-Bradley whose brave decision to display her son’s grossly disfigured corpse in an open casket for the world to see is credited with helping to spark the civil rights movement, as well as young boy cousin and Caroline Bryant, the white woman who set off the chain of events that led to Emmett’s death; out actors Jaysen Wright and Vaughn Ryan Midder convincingly double as both Emmett’s pals and the vicious white men who killed him; and the stalwartly versatile Jason Bowen plays Mose and other various Mississippians important to the story.

As the piece’s two older women, Rolanda Watts (of TV talk show fame) is excellent, instantly delineating between the two with a slight intonation or change of posture. She exudes warmth as Emmett’s great aunt, a kind woman who knew nothing about cotton but followed her heart and ended up the wife of a poor planter.

Bayeza sets the story in the past and present. At times, Emmett tells his own story, insisting he isn’t going to die, that he’s the chatty Chicago kid who will never stop talking, he’ll always be heard. The piece is also laced with sympathetic songs, ranging from hummable doowop to plaintive ballad, sung unaccompanied by some of the cast.

With roughly hewn planks and beams, set designer Andrew Cohen creates a barnlike atmosphere, evoking the scene of the crime. Sound designer Kwamina “Binnie” Biney adds atmosphere with the sounds of wild water fowls, and chickens clucking in the coop.

The playwright did her homework. In addition to describing his love for nice clothes and budding interest in girls, Bayeza details Emmett’s stammer and the bout with polio that left him with a withered leg. She touches on Mary’s jobs, relationships, intelligence, and ambition.
After a long, drawn-out death scene, the story’s painful ending is delivered as implicitly assured, but not without some promise of hope.

Running concurrently through Nov. 20 are the other parts of the trilogy: “That Summer in Sumner” and “Benevolence.”

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