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‘FELA!’ Afrobeats from Broadway to F Street

Gay choreographer Bill T. Jones on his Tony-winning musical

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FELA!, Shakespeare Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade

‘FELA!’
Through Feb. 10
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street, NW
$45-$100
202-547-1122
shakespeare-theatre.org

Fela!, Shakespeare Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade

(Image courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre)

Famed choreographer Bill T. Jones first crossed paths with the legendary Nigerian singer and political activist Fela Kuti at dance class. It was Binghamton, N.Y., in the ‘70s and while Fela wasn’t exactly there in person, his music was and it made a big impression.

“At the time I was very involved in contemporary, experimental dance,” remembers Jones, who’s gay. “And one of my colleagues [Lois Welk, founder of American Dance Asylum] discovered an album by Fela at the public library. It wasn’t the usual kind of African dance music I’d heard in class at the university. It was Afrobeat [Kuti’s trademark blend of jazz, traditional African sounds and funk] — an entirely different thing and it hit us in the eye.”

Fast forward several decades and Jones — now the world renowned co-founder of the Harlem-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company — is asked by producer Stephen Hendel to direct, choreograph and help write a Broadway bound musical exploring the intense, decadent and high-flying life of Fela who died from AIDS in 1997. Jones agrees. The project is held up by lawyers for two years, but eventually makes it to Broadway. Backed by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, among others, the show is a commercial and critical hit winning three Tony Awards (including best choreography for Jones).

On Inauguration Day, Jones was in Chapel Hill, N.C., opening a new project celebrating the centennial of gay dancer Nijinsky’s seminal and controversial ballet “Rite of Spring,” and feeling meditative about Obama’s second term.

“He’s a man of great intelligence and integrity but he’s been thrown into the quagmire that is our political system,” Jones says, “so he’s making incremental movements and sometimes that can be disappointing for those who want fast change.” But he was happy to talk about himself, and Fela, both the man and the show which is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company with Adesola Osakalumi and Duain Richmond alternating the title role and Destiny’s Child star Michelle Williams as Sandra Isadore, one of Fela’s many women.

For Jones, the idea of Fela took a little getting used to. “Initially I fell under the sway of his story if not his charisma,” he says. “But once I could see him as a rock star of the African nationalist variety who also happened to be a political firebrand and Yoruba priest, I thought ‘Wow, this is a character who no one could have written.’ What other rock star had the distinction of being arrested 200 times and had his bones broken and hands crushed by the government in retaliation for the music they performed? Fela earned the world’s respect.”

When trying to nail scope of show, Jones says, he was faced with the challenge of introducing Fela to an audience that didn’t know him. “Most Broadway audiences don’t listen to world music, but Fela was a showman in tight pants, sexy, who played great music and that’s something everyone knows. My companion Bjorn Amelin suggested I bring a poster version of him to the stage. He was right.”

“I like that he had such an immense sexual appetite and stuck his thumb in the eye of polite society,” Jones says. “But Fela definitely wasn’t cuddly. The more I read I’m glad I’m glad that I got to know him from a distance. The same could be said of Elvis or Michael Jackson, any superstar. Josephine Baker’s son once said that the big stars like Baker belongs in the firmament, because if you get too close you get burned.”

In his searing and poetic memoir “Last Night on Earth,” Jones writes about dance, his humble beginnings, Manhattan’s gay baths, being HIV positive since 1985, and his late partner Arnie Zane’s death from AIDS. Near the end of his life, Zane encouraged Jones to find a new partner, saying he wouldn’t do well alone.  “Of course he was right,” Jones says. “I’m a couple kind of person, and I’ve been a lucky S.O.B. I met Arnie when I was 19. And now I’ve been with Bjorn for many years. I hope this is the train that’s going to take me to the end of the line.”

Commercially speaking, “Fela!” has raised Jones to a higher stratum. There aren’t a lot of African Americans who’ve helmed big budget, hugely successful Broadway shows. “Broadway was a new demographic for me and the stakes were high. I come from the avant-garde where there’s a different sensibility. But in many respects, all projects are the same: It means finding a language, the world and the motor of whatever it is that you’re working on. That part never changes.”

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Theater

‘Portraits’ offers thoughtful storytelling told through art, music, dance

Kennedy Center world premiere on June 16 features lesbian artist Joan Cox

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‘Night Hunger,’ a painting by Joan Cox

‘Portraits’
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington
Sunday, June 16, 5 p.m.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F St., N.W. 
$25–$80
Gmcw.org

Right on time for Pride, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. (GMCW), presents “Portraits,” a one night only, not to be missed, world premiere concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. 

Without the camp found in some of GMCW’s terrific holiday programming, “Portraits” is 90 minutes of thoughtful storytelling told through visual art, music, and dance. Several years in the making, the uniquely collaborative effort covers a lively spectrum of sexual, gender, racial, ethnic, and cultural identities in a nine-movement oratorio commission, combining the stunning work of nine visual artists, nine composers, and nine choreographers, sung by the Chorus and featuring 17th Street Dance.

“For Us,” one of the nine musical pieces, is anchored by “Night Hunger,” a striking oil painting by Baltimore-based lesbian artist Joan Cox. Selected through open competition, her compelling piece is a double portrait featuring the artist and her wife Mare at home reclining on a couch in their lived in home. With her canvas, Cox simultaneously achieves a sense of strength and profound yet casual intimacy. 

“It’s a big painting (50 x 60 inches). Really big, featuring partners on a sofa perfect to hang over a sofa,” she says with a chuckle. “For ‘Portraits,’ the idea is my painting and the other exciting works will be projected onstage at the Kennedy Center with music and dance sort of like mini-musicals.”

Completed in 2012, while Cox was part of a Massachusetts College of Art and Design residency program in Provincetown, “Night Hunger” proved a seminal moment for the artist both personally and professionally. “I’d been closeted for a long time, and this work helped me to deal with outness and where I wanted to go as an artist,” she says. 

With its figures’ recumbent poses and direct engagement with the viewer, the work harks back to the Odalisque, a genre traditionally painted by and for men. But not so here. Cox says, “You can come into this intimate space, but not too far.”

The musical element of the collaboration comes compliments of Richard Clawson, a longtime singing member and commissioned composer for Atlanta’s OurSong, an LGBTQ choral group with a rich history and a strong commitment to promoting acceptance, diversity, and social justice through music. 

After hearing Cox reflect on her painting, about it not being geared toward the male gaze, Clawson had an increasingly clearer vision as to what her vibrant painting was all about. Admittedly, he is guided more by words than images. He says, “words tell me where I’m going.”

Not comfortable as a lyricist, Clawson tapped friend Caroline Peacock, an amateur lesbian poet and fellow chorister at OurSong, to provide the words. She was happy to oblige.

When neither writing nor singing, Peacock is an Episcopal priest and chaplain educator who directs the Spiritual Health program at Emory Winship Cancer Institute. She says the lesbian connection with a work isn’t its only strength. It must be celebrated for its kindness and tenderness too. 

The final bit of magic sprinkled upon the collaboration is choreography. With “For Us,” it’s James Ellzy, a family physician at the Defense Health Agency by day, and choreographer/dancer/chorister the rest of the time, who brings it together. 

“By the time it gets to me, the painter, composer, and lyricist are done. But for the choreographer, it’s just starting,” Ellzy says. “My job is to explore the back story and bring it to life. For this piece, I’m using two blankets from the original painting and bringing them out to something new.”

A lyric from “For Us” reads “not for the gaze of men” The choreographed piece includes a female couple and dance corps who are purposely not looking at the two women at times, especially when the “gaze of men” is sung. 

Ellzy’s connection with GMCW began as a guest artist in 2010 and then joining in 2011. He’s a baritone in the Chorus as well as a board member, and describes the interdisciplinary “Portraits” as extremely unusual but possibly comparable to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday at the Park with George” in which the painting comes to life. 

All the “For Us’” artists are honored to have been selected to participate, and are looking forward to their respective efforts being shown/sung/heard at the Kennedy Center, especially during Pride month. It’s not an everyday occurrence, they agree.

Cox is thrilled how the collaborative team has been absorbed by the artistic and personal details involving her 23-year long love story. She’s delighted by the experience, saying the work validates her journey as an artist and an LGBTQ advocate.

And Peacock, speaking for the group, sums it up: “It’s incredibly gratifying to do things that bring us joy, and when those things have a place in our world, it’s a great gift.”

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Theater

‘Problems Between Sisters’ a solid introduction to an exciting project

ALTAS cycle covers works by Mamet, Albee, Miller, and more

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Stephanie Janssen, Maya Jackson, and Annie Fox in 'Problems Between Sisters.' (Photo by Margo Schulman)

‘Problems Between Sisters’
Though June 16
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$40-$95
Studiotheatre.org 

It’s summer time in the Vermont woods, and two very pregnant sisters are holed up in their absent aunt’s remote cabin. One is a visual artist working to meet a show deadline, and the other is a con artist sensing an opportunity for easy money. 

“Problems Between Sisters” — currently making its world premiere at Studio Theatre — is part of playwright Julia May Jonas’s ambitious five-play ALTAS cycle (“All Long True American Stories”), a reimagining of classic 20th century works by and about men reworked as mostly female-centric stories. 

Jonas’s play is a response to Sam Shepherd’s acclaimed 1980 hit “True West,” arguably Shepherd’s best work. His play follows the scary and unceasing sibling rivalry of brothers who’ve reconnected in their mother’s California house. 

“Problems Between Sisters” explores similar psychodrama/comedy terrain. Both include extreme sibling difficulties set in a relation’s home. While Shepherd’s very different brothers’ battle involves screenwriting, Jonas’s disparate women look toward the New York art scene in their clash over creativity. 

When we meet the sisters, Jess (Stephanie Janssen) is alone and working. Her solitude is soon interrupted by estranged younger sister Rory (Annie Fox) who arrives on the scene both unexpected and uninvited.  

Loud, unwashed, she doesn’t appear to be the ideal person to share space with, but when she rudely brings her filthy foot to her mouth to bite off a toenail (drawing a collective groan from the full house in attendance at Studio’s Mead Theatre) it says everything — almost. 

Jess, 40-ish and no nonsense is well educated and an accomplished artist and uncomfortably prenatal. She and her husband live a middle class life whereas younger sister Rory barely gets by on deceit. Her current confidence game involves door-to-door fundraising for green and good causes. 

To Rory, art doesn’t look too tough and there’s potential for a big payoff. Why not give that a shot? She can’t do worse than her recent Oklahoma City circumstances — squatting with a guy named Tornado, possibly her baby’s father. 

Directed by Sivan Battat, the well-acted and smartly designed production creates a palatable place in which the playwright’s quirky narrative can unfold. Niceties come and go; violence erupts quickly and is just as quickly forgiven. Rory makes demands; Jess shares family stories plumbed from their less than functional upbringing (here, a tale about a party trick involving a doorknob with little payoff other than a lesson in not repeating the same mistakes).   

Curiously compelling scene transitions include a flash of fluorescent white light (compliments of Colin K. Bills) framing set designer Emmie Finckel’s homey, almost sepia toned cabin, creating loads of anticipation. 

Anita (Maya Jackson), Jess’s lesbian gallery owner from the city, pays a visit to the cabin. Sporting a graffiti print duster over a white summer romper (fashioned by Broadway’s Helen Q. Huang), she’s weekending nearby at a posh lake house belonging to her partner’s parents. In less than 48 hours, Anita is charmed by Rory’s rough charm and finds her raw barnyard art saleable. The contrast to Jess’s death inspired project is striking. Anita exits with a perceptibly self-promoting “Everyone loves sisters!” 

An increasingly messy situation is momentarily ended by the return of Aunt Barb played by Studio stalwart Nancy Robinette. She’s calm and collected, a soothing presence who unexpectedly takes centerstage as she delivers the myriad ingredients needed for a witchy cleaning potion. It’s a sublime moment in a play sprinkled with moments. 

In addition to Shepherd’s “True West,’ Jonas’s ALTAS cycle covers works by David Mamet, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill. Heady stuff. 

Toying with the canon is tricky; still, Jonas’s vision is clear. “Problems Between Sisters” serves as a solid introduction to an exciting project. 

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Theater

‘Evita’s Return’ offers different take on Argentinian icon

Posthumous look at mummified first lady’s travels is not fiction

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Fran Tapia (front) Back L-R Facundo Agustin, Luis Obed Velazquez, Tsaitami Duchicela (back) Oscar A.Rodriguez, Rodolfo Santamarina, and Sofia Grosso. ( Photo by Stan Weinstein)

“Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return”
Through June 9
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., N.W.
$50
Galatheatre.org

Whether alive or dead, Eva Perón wielded her own brand of political power. After her death in 1952, Eva’s cult of mostly poor and working-class followers remained devoted to their Santa Evita. Her husband, Argentina’s president Juan Perón, fostered adulation by having her wasted body painstakingly embalmed, and displaying the waxen corpse like the incorruptible bodies of sainted Roman Catholic luminaries. But when the anti-Peronistas took power, they had other ideas; storing her away far from sight seemed a better idea.

Typically works about Argentina’s first lady focus on her unbridled ambition and ascent from anonymity to fame, but the strikingly original “Momia en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return” — now at GALA Hispanic Theatre — is different. The collaboration of GALA’s producing artistic director Gustavo Ott (book and lyrics) and Mariano Vales (music and lyrics) spotlights the events following Eva’s death from cervical cancer at just 33.  

At the center of this entertaining madness is winning out actor Fran Tapia as Eva, a corpse sporting a ball gown and the trademark platinum blonde chignon, standing stiffly in a closet, more a mobile cabinet actually. In death, she realizes a silent dignity with flashes of an unyielding passion for social justice. 

The Chilean award-winning Tapia possesses a stunningly emotive voice, quickly evidenced in the show’s first number “Evita, Evita,” when near death Eva bravely addresses the needy crowd whom she endearingly calls her descamisados (the very poor). Simultaneously, the smug anti-Peronists — bourgeoisie and military types — sing “cancer is homeland,” “cancer is love.” They relish the idea of her dying and are counting the minutes to her imminent demise. 

So, the scene is set. Eva’s shabby posthumous story unfolds – performed in Spanish with eloquent English surtitles. Sprinkled with humor and poignant bits, it’s a dramedy, reflective of then and today. 

Unlike Eva’s “Rainbow Tour” of 1947 when Argentina’s newly minted first lady was introduced to Europe with mixed results, her death journey is an obscure low-rent, outing. She finds herself in a Milanese cemetery with some particularly pesky souls, each who apparently strode the earth in different centuries (all cleverly costumed by Becca Janney). 

For a time, she lands with an increasingly cynical Perón (stentorian-voiced Martín Ruiz) in Spanish exile. With him are new wife Isabel (Camila Taleisnik), portrayed as a reluctant and inept replacement for Evita, and scheming political cum spiritual adviser López (Diego Mariani).

As crazy as it sounds, GALA’s current offering isn’t a work of fiction. At the top of the show, it’s made perfectly clear that any resemblance to the truth is factual. Director Mariano Caligaris’ inventive, fearless staging along with Valeria Cossu’s exhilarating choreography, make for exciting storytelling. 

Music inspired by Latin rhythms of samba, reggae, bachata, tango, tarantella, and waltz (by way of Bavaria) is directed by Walter “Bobby” McCoy and performed live by a fabulous unseen seven-person orchestra. 

Grisele Gonzales’s serviceable, multi-tiered set design affords the various prerequisite balconies and perches. An upstage scrim is perfect for the projections (Hailey Laroe) of grimy actual footage from Eva’s funeral and subsequent violent skirmishes involving fascists against the people. 

The cast is uniformly terrific. They sing, dance, and act with equal skill, and whether playing protesters, clerical staff, or handsome Argentinian soldiers, they look the part. Most are required to interact with the cadaver in differing ways from timidly to less than respectfully. 

Making his GALA debut, wonderfully able Rodrigo Pedreira shows off his versatility as Dr. Ara, the man tasked with making the dead woman presentable for public consumption, as well as a general whose butch exterior is belied by the occasional mincing walk and longing looks directed at his cute aide-de-camp (Luis Obed Velázquez).

As she travels, mummified Eva says “And once again the moving begins. They move me through offices, basements, garages. They cover me, package me, label me, and off I go traveling again! We come from fascism and toward fascism we go.”

Alive or dead, Eva was never able to successfully crack Buenos Aires’ famously tough high society, but she found fans elsewhere. 

Over about 14 years as a displaced dead body and beyond, Tapia’s Eva embodies the spirit of Argentina’s millions, the common people. They return the dedication: Candles are lit. Prayers are offered. Intercession is sought. Life goes on, but Eva isn’t easily forgotten.

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