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Iconic leading ladies

Mary Todd Lincoln and Bessie Smith remembered in current productions

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Mary Todd Lincoln, gay news, Washington Blade

Bernardine Mitchell as Bessie Smith. (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘Bessie’s Blues’

 

Through March 15

 

MetroStage

 

1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria

 

$55-60

 

703-548-9044

 

 

‘The Widow Lincoln’

 

Through Feb. 22

 

Ford’s Theater

 

511 Tenth Street, NW

 

$15-62

 

800-982-2787

 

Mary Todd Lincoln was not a popular first lady. And from out playwright James Still’s “The Widow Lincoln,” it’s easy to see why.

Especially commissioned by Ford’s Theatre to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, Still’s play covers the weeks following the president’s death in April 1965. During those dismal days, the first lady was understandably frozen with indecision, but what decisions she did make — like opting not to attend her husband’s funeral and her refusal to vacate the White House — did not help endear her to an already unfriendly populace.

Born into the wealthy Kentucky Todd clan, she was exposed to culture and educated more than most girls of her era. Marrying an Illinois lawyer was considered a step down socially. In “Washington City” as the capital was then called, she was eyed with suspicion by unionists and confederates alike. She was criticized for profligate spending and a moody disposition. In the years preceding Lincoln’s assassination, two of the couple’s four sons died in childhood. Hers wasn’t an altogether easy life.

Much of the first act is a rant — mostly against Secretary of War Stanton who takes charge of arranging the president’s funeral, and Vice President Andrew Johnson, whom the first lady perceives as a disloyal opportunist and drunkard. But mercifully, Still surrounds Mrs. Lincoln (Mary Bacon) with supportive characters, real and imagined. There’s the sensible Elizabeth Keckly (the excellent Caroline Clay). A former slave and dressmaker to Washington society, Keckly patiently yet firmly guides “Madame” to do the right thing.

Kimberly Schraf steps out of the ever present Greek chorus of mourning widows to portray Laura Keene, the grand thespian who played in “Our American Cousin,” the night Lincoln was shot. And as professional widow Queen Victoria, out actor Sarah Marshall emerges from an out-sized trunk to kindly commiserate with America’s first widow. Also on hand is tenderhearted guard Samuel Flood (Melissa Graves), an army private with a very private secret.

Elegantly staged by Stephen Rayne, “The Widow Lincoln” is a visually affective production. Wade Laboissonniere’s period costumes are spot on and emotive. Mrs. Lincoln sheds a mournful black duster to reveal a blood-splattered gown, the dress she was wearing that fateful spring night. Out designer Tony Cisek’s somber set is decorated with dark curtains and hanging lamps. A mountain of steamer trunks portends the widow’s uncertain future.

Across the Potomac at MetroStage in Alexandria, Bernardine Mitchell is reprising a part she played at D.C.’s Studio Theatre 20 years ago: bisexual singer Bessie Smith in Thomas W. Jones II’s “Bessie’s Blues.” Her current take on the part is rich and textured. She approaches Smith as an accomplished but unpretentious woman who knows life, portraying her exquisite pain and let-the-good-times-roll attitude with equal authenticity. And Mitchell’s voice is superb. Effortlessly (or so it seems), she performs the lion’s share of the show’s lengthy score, a combination of original melodic, sometimes hard-driving works as well as tunes that Smith made popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s like “A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” and “Gimme a Pigfoot.”

Written, directed and choreographed by Jones, the biographic work hopscotches through the career and personal life of blues great Smith (1894-1937), spanning from her humble Chattanooga origins to recording artist stardom. He covers her unsuccessful marriage and rather obliquely addresses her many romantic liaisons with both men and women. Jones describes the affairs as Bessie searching for herself in the eyes of each new partner.

Jones’ script cuts back and forth in time with Mitchell playing Bern, a contemporary nightclub singer, and Smith. In linking these two black women he reveals the continuing story of blues in music history. Mitchell is surrounded by an appealing seven person ensemble cast. Roz White who also appeared in the 1995 Studio version doubles as Rhythm and as Ma Rainey, the hard-living lesbian blues pioneer who plucked Smith from obscurity. And baritone TC Carson probably best known for playing Kyle on TV’s “Living Single” is terrific as Lover and Smith’s oily husband Jack Gee. Nia Harris plays the specter of a young, joyful Bessie dressed in flapper gear. The cast also includes Stephawn P. Stephens, Djob Lyons, LC Harden, Jr. and Lori Williams.

Robbie Hayes’ sleek set makes an impact (eight foot illuminated letters spelling out BLUES), but its four steep steps occasionally prove hard to climb for ladies in heels. The show’s superb five-person band led by musical director William Knowles is nestled off to the side. With the exception of two numbers using male mannequins, Jones’ staging is inspired.

This is a musical bubbling with wisecracks and great tunes. But a theme of longing also runs through it, a slightly sorrow-tinged hunger manifested in Smith’s hunt for fame, fun, drink and love.  She wasn’t any one thing. And “Bessie’s Blues” celebrates just that.

 

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Theater

Tony Thomas brings ‘Tempestuous Elements’ to DC

Ann Julia Cooper play will be at Arena Stage through March 17

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Tony Thomas (Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas)

‘Tempestuous Elements’
Through March 17
Arena Stage 
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$56-$95
Arenastage.org

Tony Thomas isn’t shy about his talent. The accomplished choreographer says, “With every show I work on, the artists continue to grow. They leave wanting to keep moving and to expand that part of their artistry.”

Over the years, he’s successfully carved out a niche as a choreographer of plays with music and/or movement. For many of these “playsicals” as he whimsically dubs them, his creative credit reads “choreography consultant.”

Once an actor who danced a lot, he’s now passionate about helping other actors do the same. Currently, he’s serving as choreographer and associate director for the world premiere production of “Tempestuous Elements,” at Arena Stage’s in the round Fichandler space. Penned by Kia Corthron and staged by Psalmayene 24, it’s the true-life story of Ann Julia Cooper (played by Gina Daniels), a Black principal at D.C.’s historic M Street School who, against all odds, fights for her students’ rights to an advanced curriculum. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Is this a D.C. story?

TONY THOMAS: In part. It’s more a story of its time. Anna understood she was poised to be somebody, but still feel the pushback. Superintendent white doesn’t approve of the classic curriculum she’s created for Black students. Hers is a turn of 20th century Black middle-class life with high tea and much finery. More importantly, Black people are being seen as human beings. It’s an opportunity to really be someone, but the fight isn’t over. People are boxed in another systemic way.

BLADE: And how does choreography work within a play?

THOMAS: With plays, I need to demonstrate the choreography. The actors want to see it. It’s not like with dancers when we speak the same vocabulary. 

I realize energy is one of my selling points. I’ll be 45 in April and apparently my turns and jumps are still on point.

BLADE Is there a difference between beautiful movement and not just actor movement?

THOMAS: There’s a difference. With “Tempestuous Elements,” I taught them a little ballet, warmed them up and imbued them with the dignity needed for the story they’re about to tell. Some of the cast already move like dancers while others understand tempo. When choreographing plays with movement, you have to trust the actors. 

BLADE: Is that tough for a trained dancer?

THOMAS: No, not really. I have a concert dance background — ballet, modern, jazz — and have studied with Debbie Allen, Shawn Cosby and Mike Malone. I don’t expect that level of training from actors. I like the freedom to move and put their characters into it. They’re not like ten concert dancers who need to look like one person. They are moving as characters — students, different adults.

BLADE: For a decade, you stepped away from showbiz? 

THOMAS: I stopped in my mid-20s. I turned Ailey down twice. Then I went to art school and pursued a degree in interior architecture at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. 

BLADE: And you returned theater? 

THOMAS: Now I do both theater and interior architecture, but in 2012 friends dared me to come along on an audition for the Broadway “West Side Story.” Well, I did and I booked a national tour. That got me back in the business. Not long after, I played Richie in “A Chorus Line” at Olney Theatre. And around 2015, I did “The Shipment” with Psalm, and ever since I’ve done all of the choreography and movement for his plays.

            BLADE: Tell me how you connect with “Tempestuous Elements”?

THOMAS: Who was your first teacher? We asked the actors to come to this production with that in mind, and to let that warm their hearts as we developed this original piece.

I grew up as a child actor doing TV, film and theater shuttling back and forth from D.C. to New York, and I took that from my mom who was an actor, singer, and dancer. I watched her teach, dress as a clown and put on parties for kids, and there were all sorts of performance-related things that I learned from her.

BLADE: And does that continue? 

THOMAS: Oh yeah. Increasingly, I enjoy being the process. I’ve grown past the point of just coming in and doing my job. I feel more invested. More and more, I want to be part of the creation process.

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Theater

Deaf, gay actor on gripping, funny ‘Private Jones’

Musical makes premiere at Signature with Obie winner Dickie Drew Hearts

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Dickie Drew Hearts (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

‘Private Jones’
Through March 10
Signature Theatre 
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Virginia 22206
$40-$99 
Sigtheatre.org

Set against the harsh vicissitudes of the Great War, “Private Jones” a new musical written and directed by Marshall Pailet, is currently making its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington. 

Touted as gripping, unexpectedly funny, and purportedly true, it’s the story of Gomer Jones, a young Deaf Welshman who after wriggling his way into military service becomes a celebrated sniper only to learn there might be more to life. 

The production features a cast of hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing actors including Dickie Drew Hearts, the Deaf, gay, and affable actor who recently won an Obie Award for “Dark Disabled Stories” at the Public in New York, and is probably best known for his performance of Mateo in Netflix’s “Tales of the City” (2019 miniseries).

Gathered around the end of a long conference table in the Sondheim Multipurpose Room at Signature Theatre, Hearts and I along with two top notch interpreters (one to sign my questions and another to voice the actor’s replies) dive into conversation. 

Hearts plays Henry, a Deaf munitions factory worker whose sister Gwenolyn (Leanne Antonio) becomes the love interest of Gomer (played by hard-of-hearing actor Johnny Link). It’s Henry who teaches Gomer sign language and essentially introduces him to Deaf culture, which isn’t unusual, says Hearts. It’s often through other Deaf people that the Deaf themselves get introduced to the Deaf community and signing world.

When the actors met in 2018, says Hearts, “Johnny [Link] was just learning sign language. I assured him that those who are hard-of-hearing are automatically very welcome members of the deaf community. Point blank. There are no qualifications.”

And now, six years later, Hearts is thrilled to be working with Link. “It’s amazing to see Johnny again, and to be having full conversations with him in sign language both on and off stage.” 

Not only is “Private Jones” a physically demanding show, but because it’s performed in spoken English as well as some American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) it presents some extra difficulties.

To play Henry, Hearts – a native ASL user since childhood – has had to learn BSL, tantamount to doing the show in an entirely new and different language. Hearts says, “I hope people recognize that. And signing along musically in BSL adds a layer of challenge beyond signing BSL dialogue.” 

Of course, he remains undaunted. It’s about the job and getting the character right. And for the thirtysomething actor that means going deep.  

“I would like to think Henry is a closeted gay man. Henry has ‘a roommate,’ is how I thought of his backstory.”

Hearts adds, “I know that queer people have always been here and I like to infuse that into the characters I play whether or not it’s stated. I look for those moments of where it might be hinting at sexuality, and ask what was it like at the time, was it safe to be out?”

Born Deaf in Queens, New York, into a hearing family who’d recently immigrated from formerly British Guyana in South America, Hearts grew up in Newport News, Va. 

A childhood spent watching captioned TV shows taught him both English and how to impersonate characters, an obsession that he took out into the neighborhood. “Eventually, somebody said there’s a thing for what I do. It’s called theater,” he signs with a grin. 

While attending Gallaudet University here in D.C., Hearts focused on film until his senior year when he randomly auditioned for the musical comedy “Urinetown” and landed the lead role of dashing Bobby Strong. A love for acting resurfaced and took hold. 

After graduating, Hearts came out and promptly moved to L.A. where he spent the next six years skirmishing over a dearth of Deaf parts. When a gig led him to New York in 2018, his luck changed. 

“Being a Deaf, gay, BIPOC actor was amazing for finding stage and film work in New York. But just when a lot of doors were opening for me, the pandemic hit and everything stopped.” 

Slowly things picked up. And in 2021 he became part of a new project. He was soon reporting to a nondescript high rise in midtown Manhattan workshopping what would become “Private Jones.” 

Now at Signature, Hearts is busy bringing Henry to life. “It’s been an amazing journey and I’m really fortunate to have witnessed its evolution from the beginning. It’s become grander, more elevated, and the characters more complex. It’s a wonderful thing” 

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Theater

‘Next to Normal’ a heartrending rock musical about mental illness

Impact on patient, family, and beyond expressed through song

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Lucas Hinds Babcock (Gabe) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Next to Normal’
Through March 3
Round House Theatre 
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD  20814
$46-$88 
Roundhousetheatre.org

They’ve made a deal. Dan goes to work and does the shopping, while Diana stays home and keeps house. It’s safer that way. But when Diana starts making sandwiches on the floor, something’s not right. So, it’s back to the doctor. 

And that’s the kickoff to “Next to Normal,” Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s masterful alt-rock musical, now enjoying a revival at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Strikingly helmed by out director Alan Paul, the production features an exciting mix of both new and familiar faces. 

It’s the suburban mother’s sixteenth year into a bipolar disorder diagnosis and Diana Goodman, played brilliantly by Tracy Lynn Olivera, is understandably a bit battle weary. Yet despite years of periodic episodes, med adjustments, and interminable flat days filled with robotically performed household chores including sex with her husband, she still maintains a wry sense of humor peppered with sarcastic asides, all skillfully landed by Olivera. 

And while Diana is the eye of the domestic storm, the rest of the family play their parts too. There’s Dan (Kevin S. McAllister), the exhausted architect, doing his best to keep home life as normal as possible, supporting a wife while missing the young vibrant woman she once was; teenage daughter Natalie (Sophia Early) a peevish grade-grubber who’s prime for emotional escape; and an elusive son, Gabe (Lucas Hinds Babcock), being his mother’s ally. 

Also on hand is Henry (Ben Clark), the kind, stoner new boyfriend who Natalie reluctantly introduces to her parents.  

With “Who’s Crazy?”/ “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” we musically follow Diana through her current med adjustment. After almost two months of uncomfortable tweaking, Diana says she feels nothing and treatment is deemed a success. 

Feeling nothing is painful. Through her plaintive solo “I Miss the Mountains,” she explains the exhilarating highs she longs to relive. Unsurprisingly, the patient soon goes off her meds and what follows is a manic episode of nonstop cleaning, cooking, rearranging, and lots of decoupage.

Next up is more treatment including ECT therapy. Versatile local actor Calvin McCullough plays both Fine and Madden, Diana’s sincere but not wholly successful doctors. 

“Next to Normal” premiered to acclaim in 2008, scooping up awards with names like Tony and Pulitzer. A rock musical with a hard charging score and a libretto about mental illness that’s at once heartrending and funny felt new and was hugely well received. 

Similarly, the mostly sung through musical is a hit at Round House (with an extended run through March 3) thanks largely to the revival’s inventive staging, fresh musical direction by Chris Youstra, and an uber talented cast of six.  

Here, the powerful effects of mental illness on the patient, family, and beyond are expressed not through dialogue but songs feelingly sung – sometimes softly, sometimes loudly. 

Each of the cast have their moments, including Lucas Hinds Babcock as Gabe who zooms lithely around the set singing “I’m Alive.” It’s – to me – a fantastic introduction to Babcock’s talent.

Smartly, Eamon Foley provides some fun but mostly fittingly understated choreography, and Helen Q. Huang’s thoughtful costuming adds to the atmosphere, accentuating burgeoning Natalie’s changing means of sartorial expression and Diana’s patient versus civilian attire. 

Director Paul, along with celebrated designers Wilson Chin (scenic) and Nicholas Hussong (projections), have created an immense industrial expanse that serves as home, hospital, and recital hall, and cleverly supplies a surface for outsized projections of the actors’ faces and, most unforgettably, a tight shot of Olivera’s blinking blue eyes. 

These projections – both recorded and in real-time – get up close and personal with the cast’s performances, creating an intimacy and intensity that works especially well, making a satisfying experience even better.  

“Next to Normal” is a co-production with Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company where Alan Paul is artistic director. Before landing in the Berkshires in 2023, he was associate artistic director at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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