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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

‘one in two’ lets audience choose which parts actors must play

‘Pose’ actor Ryan Jamaal Swain says approach ‘keeps you on your toes’

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Ryan Jamaal Swain (Photo by Matt Doyle)

‘one in two’ 
June 1-25 
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$29-$64
Mosaictheatre.org

Out actor Ryan Jamaal Swain is best known for having played homeless dancer Damon, on FX’s “Pose,” the popular queer series revolving around ball culture in late 1980s New York. Along with television, Swain has a great love for theater. And now in a homecoming of sorts, the Howard University graduate is at Mosaic Theater for the area premiere of “one in two,” playwright Donja R. Love’s play inspired by his own HIV diagnosis and the resilience of the LGBTQ community. 

In addition to Swain, 29, the cast features queer actors Justin Weaks and Michael Kevin Darnall (both of whom recently a finished Arena’s production of “Angels in America”). Raymond O. Caldwell directs. 

The audience is invited to choose which of three parts each actor must play for each performance. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: A different part every night! That’s a lot. 

SWAIN: Yes, honey. But learning three tracks keeps you on your toes. It’s one of those things. When I first sawthe world premiere in New York, I thought it was a gimmick but it’s not. For me, I’m always looking for the next challenge. What will expand my prowess. With “one in two,” the work kept coming across my desk so when the opportunity came up to come back to D.C. [Swain’s currently based in New York] with a director I knew, I took it. 

BLADE: Where and when does “one in two” take place?

SWAIN: Different places: bar, home, doctor’s waiting room. Time wise, it’s set in “now/until.” The central character is a gay man who anchors the play and the others are various characters he finds on his hero journey. I won’t tell you who they are, you’ll need to come to the show to learn that. 

BLADE: With “Pose,” the time and place were very specific. 

SWAIN: Yes, the end of the ‘80s in New York.With any type of queer stories, especially when you want to tell them with love and integrity there’s a lot of conversation when you acknowledge a generation of unsung heroes. I stand on their shoulders to be able to do what I do. 

BLADE: After graduating from Howard, your journey out of D.C. was swift. 

SWAIN:  Yes, it was. I left D.C. immediately following my graduation from Howard. I graduated May 7, 2016, went back home to Birmingham, Ala., exhausted my graduation money, and decided to make my own hero’s journey and moved to New York. After three or four months, “Pose” came knocking on my door. I booked it and pretty much got started. 

BLADE Did TV change your life? 

SWAIN TV and film ask you to juggle more than just being a good actor. Publicity, image, etc. There are so many more eyes on you. 

BLADE: And how did you handle it? 

SWAIN: I come from a family that’s not afraid to show when you’ve made a mistake. I was brought up to look at failures as lessons. It was a lot. I was just 22 at that time. Taught me a lot about who I am and who I will become. How to focus and work under duress.

I like TV and film but I will always make space for theater in my career. Makes me anchor back into self. 

BLADE:  When did you come out?

SWAIN:  I came out to a friend at Howard. I sat her down in the cafeteria and invited her into my life. I don’t believe in coming out per se. I think it’s your right to fully welcome people into your life. She already knew, of course. 

Also, while studying acting in Britain, I did a one-man show about queer poet Langston Hughes. Moving through his journey gave me the strength to have my own voice. Finding other queer folks gave me the strength to live my own story. 

BLADE: How has your experience at Mosaic been?

SWAIN: Great. When deciding to do the part I had deep conversation with Reginald Douglas and Serge Seiden [Mosaic’s artistic and managing directors, respectively]. I’m hungry about communication, collaboration and community. Mosaic does that. And they do it wrapped up in integrity and love. 

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Theater

A preview of this year’s Helen Hayes Awards

Strong queer representation among diverse nominees

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Fran Tapia (center) in ‘On Your Feet!’ (Photo by Daniel Martinez)

2023 Helen Hayes Awards
May 22, 2023
For tickets go to theatrewashington.org

After three years of varying and virtual approaches, this year’s Helen Hayes Awards will be more familiar with the honors being doled out live and in person on Monday night at the Anthem. 

Integral in making the 37th awards both fun and sufficiently formal is delightful actor/director Holly Twyford who’s been tapped to both co-host and co-direct the annual ceremony. “For me, it’s not as hard as it sounds,” she explains modestly. “Will Gartshore [co-director and celebrated Washington actor] has done the lion’s share of the work. He’d already written an entire script by the time I stepped in. He’s really smart and knows music.”

Undeniably, Twyford brings a lot of experience to the gig. She’s been attending the awards since the early ‘90s, and remembers meeting the late “first lady of American theater” for whom the Awards are named, and shaking her hand. She’s also the recipient of multiple Helen Hayes Awards and so many nominations it’s been written into Monday night’s show. And while Twyford understands the show’s inherent excitement and spontaneity, she’s also aware of the challenges involved in creating a successful evening. 

“I was just saying to my wife, these kinds of things are not easy to orchestrate,” Twyford continues. “It’s great and amazing to celebrate our community and its artistry, but it’s tricky to have everyone heard and appreciated. It’s a lot to do in one night, but we have to remember it’s more than giving out awards, it’s an opportunity to stop and look at the community.

“For instance, we have non-gendered acting categories. When you divide between men and women, some members of the theater community are left out. It’s that simple.” 

This year, the music-filled awards ceremony is divided into two parts. Twyford shares hosting duties with local favorites Naomi Jacobson, Erika Rose, and Christopher Michael Richardson. Also on board in a guest spot is Broadway star Michael Urie who’s currently finishing up a run of “Spamalot” at the Kennedy Center. Urie enjoys a long connection to Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company where he played the title prince in Michael Kahn’s 2018 “Hamlet,” and last summer co-starred with husband Ryan Spahn in Talene Monahon’s wonderful plague-set comedy “Jane Anger.”

The awards selection process is arduous. Recognizing work from 131 eligible productions presented in the 2022 calendar year, nominations were made in 41 categories and grouped in “Helen” or “Hayes” cohorts, depending on the number of Equity members involved in the production with Hayes counting more. 

Nominations are the result of 40 carefully vetted judges considering 2,146 individual pieces of work, such as design, direction, choreography, performances, and more. Productions under consideration in 2022 included 39 musicals, 97 plays, and 38 world premieres.

Many of this year’s sensational nominees (actors, designers, directors, writers, etc.) come from the queer community. Here’s a sampling. 

Rising director Henery Wyand is nominated for Outstanding Direction in a Play for Perisphere Theater’s production of Tanya Barfield’s “Blue Door,” the striking tale of a contemporary black professional who comes face to face with 19th century ancestors.  In addition to directing, Wyand also designed the lighting, set, and costumes.  

After graduating from Vassar, he came to D.C. for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s prestigious fellowship program.  About directing, Wyand says, “there aren’t a lot of specifically young queer Black directors out there. It gives me a sense of urgency to make sure underrepresented stories are shared. And if I don’t do that who will?” 

And regarding his nomination, his sentiment is sweet: “Awards are a way to give flowers to people who are creating things. Living artists don’t always receive appreciation for their work.”

When Emily Sucher learned she’d been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award (Outstanding Choreography in a Play) for “To Fall in Love” with Nu Sass Productions, she seriously thought she was being punked. 

“I got the news in a text from an unfamiliar number. I didn’t believe it at first,” she says. As an intimacy choreographer, Sucher is called on to stage stories with content of an intimate nature, and she just wasn’t sure it was something that Helen Hayes’ judges were looking to recognize. Clearly, they were. 

Sucher adds, “Being queer shapes who I am as an intimacy choreographer and fuels my passion to tell all kinds of stories, and to show what sex and intimacy can look like. It’s not always the same.”

Out Chilean actor Fran Tapia is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Musical for her work in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s world premiere Spanish-language production of “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan en Español” (the production leads the nominee pack with fifteen nods including Outstanding Ensemble for a Musical). 

As Gloria Fajardo, pop star Gloria Estefan’s embittered mother, Tapia garnered rave reviews.  

“Singing my character’s song — ‘If I Never Got to Tell You — breaks my heart, and that it was translated into Spanish by Gloria Estefan and her daughter Emily Estefan who is gay makes it ever more significant to me. I had the honor of introducing this version of the song to the world.”  

Tapia left her native Santiago, Chile, for Washington when her wife was posted at the Chilean Embassy.  It was in the thick of the pandemic, and there weren’t a lot of theater opportunities, so she thew herself into Divino Tesoro, a podcast where children and adolescents can discuss gender identity, and she also worked as director of GALA’s youth program. It was the GALA job that led to an audition to play Gloria.

She’s currently touring as Gloria Fajardo in the original English version of “On Your Feet!” During its June and July break, she’ll appear in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and then in August it’s back to playing Gloria at the pretty seaside Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. 

Despite her intense work schedule, Tapia isn’t missing Monday’s event: ““I’m honored to be nominated, yes. But I definitely want to win!” 

Talented local actor Michael Kevin Darnall is vying for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play for his memorable comic turn as wonderfully flamboyant Isom in Studio Theatre’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Hot Wing King,” a layered dramedy about Black men loving Black men, and yes, a hot wing competition. 

This is Darnall’s seventh Helen Hayes Award nomination prompting him to dub himself the DMV’s Susan Lucci, (after the soap star who was nominated 19 times before finally winning an Emmy). Typically cast as the brooding young man, the biracial and bisexual actor fought hard to play Isom. “There’s a lot of my mom in the character,” he says, “so in part, all of this is a tribute to her.”

The first time Darnall read for a Black role was five or six years into his professional career: “Playing Black men has been few and far between for me, so to play Isom as part of a cast of Black men whose skin tone ran the spectrum was very reaffirming, and those other actors became my brothers.” 

The cast became a tight-knit group on and offstage, collectively spending a lot of money at Le Diplomate, a trendy bistro a few blocks from Studio, where they indulged in escargot and gimlets. That close camaraderie and sense of fun was reflected in the work. They’re now nominated for Outstanding Ensemble Performance in a Play. 

Good luck to all the nominees. 

A full list of award recipients will be available @theatrewashington.org on Tuesday, May 23. 

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Theater

Actors radiate chemistry in Constellation’s delightful ‘School for Lies’

Reinvigorating a revered work with lots of new laughs

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Drew Kopas and Natalie Cutcher (Photo by DJ Corey Photography)

‘The School for Lies’
Through May 28
Constellation Theatre Company in residence at Source
1835 14th St., N.W.
$20 – 55
Constellationtheatre.org

A lot can happen in a Parisian drawing room. 

With David Ives’ “The School for Lies” (now at Constellation Theatre Company), 100 minutes of nonstop amusement unfold solely in the busy salon of popular young society widow Célimène archly assayed by Natalie Cutcher.

Ives’s play is a “translaptation” (transaction + adaptation) of Molière’s 1666 “The Misanthrope,” a classic comedy of manners in verse. And while at the top of the show, the playwright credits Molière with having mixed “the batter for tonight’s soufflé,” he’s crammed his play with his own elegantly constructed, often funny, and sometimes raunchy verse, reinvigorating a revered work with lots of new laughs and contemporary references. 

Now back to Célimène’s crib. Rife with fops and frenemies, the widow’s posh playpen is ordinarily a whirlwind of gossip, fashion, and sometimes scandal, but on this day it’s a little different. 

Today, Frank (Constellation vet Drew Kopas), a dourly dressed Frenchman returning from England, finds his way to the party. And as his name suggests, Frank (all other characters retain the names that Molière originally gave them) is a stickler for candor and truth. Unlike le tout Paris, he’s averse to frivolous talk, bad poetry, and the vicissitudes of the demimonde. 

For kicks, Frank’s pal and crossdressing scenester Philinte (Dylan Arredondo) puts out a spicy rumor about Frank and Célimène involving romance and social status. Alas, even sharp-witted Frank, not immune to the prospect of true love, is taken in (as evidenced by a new dreamy demeanor and sartorial switch from bland duds to something infinitely snazzier). 

Others in the house, including the comely widow’s ragtag suitors: the aptly named Clitander (Jamil Joseph); Oronte (Jacob Yeh), a litigious poet; and Acaste, a leopard-print wearing, most contentedly self-involved aristo played by Ryan Sellers. Also darting about are Éliante (Ría Simpkins), Célimène’s cordial relation who’s both naïve and amorous, and Arsinoё (Gwen Grastorf), a hypocritical scold eager to assist in her friend’s ruin. 

And memorably, there’s Dubois (Matthew Pauli), Célimène’s poker-faced footman who’s assigned the thankless job of serving canapés to his boss’ bumptious and clumsy guests. Pauli doubles as Frank’s uncouth valet. 

Director Allison Arkell Stockman delivers a fast-paced, well-timed and delectably camp entertainment.  At times, the cast is at odds – while some actors are chewing the scenery, others allow Ives’ astonishing dialogue to do the heavy lifting. 

The best scenes are those featuring Cutcher and Kopas as Célimène and Frank. They are a well-matched pair seemingly equal in both barbs and curiosity. What’s more, the actors radiate chemistry. 

While Ives’ play might be set in the time of Louis XIV, Constellation’s delightfully designed production isn’t moored to an era.  The widow’s showy digs compliments of Sarah Reed are salmon-colored, festooned with outsized flying cranes and lit by a pink feathered fixture, simultaneously reading both Harlow than DuBarry. The minimal seating includes a purple chaise and big pink pouf. There are upstage nooks for the requisite vanity and bunches of floral tributes. Frank Labovitz’s wildly colorful, pitch perfect costumes give a nod to a period, but just a nod.

With its dizzying onslaught of clever rhyming couplets, Ives’ script is a marvel. (And it’s worth noting, the matinee I attended, the admirable cast didn’t flub a single line.) It makes you wonder about the writing process. Did the playwright wrack his brain in pursuit of the next smart rhyme or in a state of artistic fecundity, did the words readily flow? Whatever the case, it’s a good time. And it’s here to be enjoyed. 

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