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FALL ARTS PREVIEW 2017: Vastly queer D.C. theater personnel pushing new envelopes this fall

From an ‘Act of God’ to ‘The Devil’s Music’

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Fall Theater season, Chris Lane, gay news, Washington Blade

Chris Lane in ‘Word Becomes Flesh’ at Alliance Theater. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

The fall theater season promises an especially diverse mix of classics, innovative new works and some exciting instances of non-traditional casting. And as always, the productions are fueled in large part by LGBT talent and energy.

Mosaic Theater Company (mosaictheater.org) presents “The Devil’s Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith” through Sept. 24. This bawdy, bluesy one-woman piece on the life of a unapologetically bisexual singing legend features an extraordinarily drawn performance by Miche Braden.

At GALA Hispanic Theatre (galatheatre.org) out director Jose Carrasquillo is staging “Don Juan Tenorio, the Infamous Seducer of All Times” (through Oct. 1) by out playwright Nando López (author of GALA’s Helen Hayes Award-winning “Yerma”). It’s a new, high-voltage adaptation of the legendary lover’s tale. The cast includes Iker Lastra, Luz Nicolás and out actor Carlos Castillo.

Factory 449: a theater collective (factory449.org) presents the hotly anticipated production of Cordelia Lynn’s “Lela & Co.” (through Oct. 1). Based on a true story, the play follows 14-year-old Lela (celebrated local actor Felicia Curry) as she marries and is relocated to an unnamed war-torn country where she finds herself isolated, locked up and eventually enslaved. Out actor/director Rick Hammerly directs.

Signature Theatre’s (sigtheatre.org) is kicking the season off with an exquisite production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (though Oct. 8). It’s a skillfully performed farce with a gorgeously sung score. The cast features out actors Holly Twyford, Bobby Smith and Will Gartshore. Signature’s out artistic director Eric Schaeffer directs.

Baltimore’s excellent Everyman Theatre (everymantheatre.org) is presenting David Henry Hwang’s intriguing “M. Butterfly” (through Oct. 8) featuring out actor Bruce Nelson as closeted French diplomat Rene Gallimard who falls in love with opera diva Song Liling (out actor Vichet Chum) who’s in fact a man masquerading as a woman. The Tony Award-winning play first opened on Broadway in 1988 and is now undergoing a revival there.

Studio Theatre (studiotheatre.org) presents Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” (through Oct. 8). The action focuses on a tight-knit group of workers at one of the last auto-stamping plants in Detroit who are forced to consider an uncertain future. Patricia McGregor directs.

Theater Alliance (theateralliance.com) is remounting its acclaimed Helen Hayes Award-winning production of “Word Becomes Flesh” (through Oct. 8). Using spoken word, stylized movement, tableau and music, an ensemble delivers a series of letters from a man to his unborn son, documenting his range of emotions, fears and expectations. The cast features out actors Chris Lane, Clayton Pelham, Jr. and Justin Weaks.

Woolly Mammoth opens its season with Alistair Beaton’s translation of Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s comedic reflection on fascism and communism “The Arsonists” (through Oct. 8). Directed by Michael John Garcés, the production features Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz in a return to the stage and company members including Kimberly Gilbert and Emily Townley.

Olney Theatre Center (olneytheatre.org) and Round House Theatre (roundhousetheatre.org) are co-producing “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical, “In the Heights” (through Oct. 15). Set to hip hop, rap and salsa, it’s the inspiring story of immigrants striving to make it in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The cast features out actor Robin de Jesús (an original Broadway cast member). Marcos Santana directs and choreographs.

Constellation Theatre Company (constellationtheatre.org) opens its season with Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party” (Sept. 21-Oct. 29). Set in Prohibition-era Manhattan, this tale of passion, flappers and romance features an exciting score including jazz, vaudeville and gospel numbers. Constellation’s artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman directs.

Ford’s Theatre (fords.org) presents Arthur Miller’s classic play “Death of a Salesman” (Sept. 22-Oct. 22). Esteemed actor Craig Wallace, who’s black, stars as the beleaguered Willy Loman, a part typically played by white actors. Kimberly Schraf plays Willy’s wife Linda and Danny Gavigan and Thomas Keegan are sons Happy and Biff, respectively. Out actor Michael Russotto plays Willy’s friend Charley. Stephen Rayne directs.

At Shakespeare Theatre Company (shakespearetheatre.org) out artistic director Michael Kahn returns to the work of Harold Pinter with a to direct a double bill of short plays, “The Collection” and “The Lover” (Sept. 26-Oct. 29). STC writes: “In Pinter’s darkly comic world of revealing silences and pregnant pauses, the characters and audience never know quite where they stand, embracing reality and fantasy with equal conviction.”

At Forum Theatre (forum-theatre.org) in Silver Spring, Michael Dove is directing the great Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” (Sept. 28-Oct. 21).

Also at Signature (sigtheatre.org) out actor Tom Story plays the title role in the D.C.-area premiere of David Javerbaum’s irreverent comedy “An Act of God” (Oct. 3-Nov. 26). Longtime head writer for TV’s “The Daily Show,” Javerbaum riffs on Biblical passages and divine intervention.

Olney Theatre (olneytheatre.org) is also presenting “Our Town” (Oct. 4-Nov. 12). Penned by the late Thornton Wilder who was gay, the American classic focuses on young couple George and Emily and their typical yet profound life experiences in small town Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. This promising production, directed by Aaron Posner, incorporates traditional Japanese Bunraku-style puppets into the cast. Out actor Jon Odom plays Stage Manager, the play’s narrator.

For two nights only, the Kennedy Center (kennedy-center.org) presents “Wilderness” (Oct 12-15), a new multimedia documentary theater work. It’s derived from the real-life stories of six families exploring issues of mental health, addiction and gender and sexual identity and features an evocative folk-rock score, video projections and emotionally charged movement.

And for a substantially longer stay, the Kennedy Center hosts the latest tour of “The Book of Mormon” (Oct. 24-Nov. 19). Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Tony Award-winning musical follows the adventures of a mismatched pair of missionaries, sent far from home to spread the Good Word.

At Arena Stage (arenastage.org) out director Alan Paul is staging American musical theater classic “The Pajama Game” (Oct. 27-Dec. 24). A strike at the pajama factory sets off a battle of the sexes. The score includes hot favorites “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.” The cast includes Edward Gero and the making her Arena debut Broadway’s Donna McKechnie who created the part of Cassie in “A Chorus Line.”

At National Theatre (nationaldc.org), Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” (Oct. 31-Dec. 3) makes its world premiere before heading to Broadway. The new musical is based on Fey’s screenplay for the same-titled hit film.

Out director Steven Scott Mazzola and Reenie Codelka are co-directing “Jaques Brel: Songs From His World” (Nov. 4-19) starring Byron Jones for the In Series (inseries.org). The cabaret features the legendary Belgian singer/songwriter’s personal yet political works from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

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New Philly production explores AIDS through three characters

Ain Gordon’s ‘These Don’t Easily Scatter’ more than a static memorial

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Ain Gordon (Photo by Paula Court)

These Don’t Easily Scatter
May 20-22
William Way LGBT Community Center
1315 Spruce St, Philadelphia 19107
$20
Waygay.org

Plaques fail. And a memorial doesn’t need to be an immoveable piece of stone.

It’s this line of thought that formulated “Remembrance,” an alternative multidisciplinary memorial to Philadelphia’s AIDS crisis and its under-mourned deaths, made up of activities throughout May and June in the City of Brotherly Love.

Included is Ain Gordon’s new play “These Don’t Easily Scatter” to be performed in the William Way LGBT Community Center’s freshly renovated ballroom for just four performances (May 20-22). Both written and directed by the three-time Obie Award winning playwright, the work takes inspiration from interviews and stories gathered from individuals affected by HIV/AIDS and follows three imagined characters navigating the early days of the AIDS epidemic in Philadelphia.

Gordon, who is gay, has woven aspects of AIDS into previous plays (“217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous,” “Radicals in Miniature”), but this time he’s focused closely on the crisis. Set during 1982-1987, the play covers five intense years remembered vividly by the playwright, a lifelong New Yorker who was young, sexually active, and on the scene at the time.

Through interviews, he’s unearthed stories of Philadelphia-area community members who passed unnoticed with very little support. Gordon also chronicles accounts of those who selflessly assisted including a Philadelphia funeral director who offered proper burials to the dead when others were too frightened.

“The process was difficult because all interviewing had to be remote, and that’s the antithesis of what I like to do,” he explains. “I prefer to go to the place and talk in person. When you’re on site, meandering can happen and you find out things you hadn’t planned to ask. But it was the reality, so I dealt with it.”

With so many theatrical and film works surrounding HIV/AIDS and the ‘80s, Gordon sought a unique angle. His interviews included faith leaders and family, but he zeroed in on health care workers who administered to early AIDS patients, primarily nurses. Their stories were both illuminating and timely in context of the current pandemic.

He says, “Infectious disease doctors who were mostly men were the stars of the show. I’m often interested in the supporting players who stand behind the stars and those were the nurses.”

But how do interviews become a cast of characters?

“To be brutally frank, the budget allowed for three actors,” Gordon explains. “Didn’t know who those characters were for a long time. But I knew that I had a collection of things that needed to get in and I needed to find a container that could hold them.”

An especially revelatory interview with a nurse resulted in a character. An early interview with a faith leader who mentioned a woman who’d been in the choir and volunteered to sing at funerals when no one else would, conjured another. The third was a gay man, because gay men featured predominantly in all of the interviews.

“At that point,” he says, “you stop talking, get rid of your notes, and start writing. And hopefully it all comes together.”

Gordon is grateful to have assembled an A-list cast including Cherene Snow as the nurse, out actor Bill Kux is the gay guy, and the brilliant Kathleen Chalfant best known on Broadway for her part in the original production of Tony Kushner’s seminal “Angels in America,” plays the chorister.

The work’s conceit is monologues resembling interviews. The unnamed gay character, a young man finding his way sexually and having a great time, brings the names he wants to remember – mostly casual sex partners. Some stories are short: He recalls a guy he had sex with in a train station bathroom. He’d forgotten all about him until he saw his obituary photo in the paper.

For the playwright, “These Don’t Easily Scatter” is more than a static memorial.

“I’m interested in how history tends to be promoted in physically inactive objects. I think it can come in other forms and if they’re more fluid history can actively live on.”

A lot of his work is place-based plays – typically he gets a commission to travel to a location and write something specific to the place. And that’s what he’s done in Philadelphia.

“It’s important that the work is freestanding enough so it can be presented as a piece of theater someplace else where nobody knows about the story,” he adds. “It’s also important to give something back to the generous people involved in the process, and to commemorate those who have died, if not by name, then by remembrance.”

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‘John Proctor is the Villain’ draws cannily from American lit

An enthralling work replete with pitch-perfect performances

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Jordan Slattery, Miranda Rizzolo, and Deidre Staples in ‘John Proctor is the Villain.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman)

John Proctor is the Villain
Through June 5
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$50 – $95
Studiotheatre.org

There’s a lot going on in Carter Smith’s junior English class at Helen County High in rural Georgia.  

Not only are they tackling Arthur Miller’s colonial Salem-set play “The Crucible,” but budget cuts require that he open each class with 10 minutes of sex-ed over six weeks. To complicate matters further, there are unsavory rumors surrounding two of Smith’s female students – one whose father has been accused of sexual misconduct and another who’s absconded to Atlanta under a cloud of scandal. 

Playwright Kimberly Belflower’s terrific new work, “John Proctor is the Villain,” a world premiere now running at Studio Theatre, draws cannily from American literature, examining the meaning of witch hunt in Miller’s red scare allegory compared to what’s happening in her play’s one stop light (soon-to-be two) town in 2018. 

Filled with pop-culture references – lots of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Lizzo, Lorde, and even fashion guru Tim Gunn’s catch phrase “make it work,” the play’s two hours with a fifteen-minute intermission moves quickly as action unfolds in many scenes scattered throughout a semester. 

At a time when #MeToo was changing from allegations about individuals to something bigger, the smart girls in Smith’s class want to form a feminism club. A well-meaning young counselor, Ms. Gallagher (Lida Maria Benson) thinks maybe it’s not the right time, but with the help of Smith as moderator, it happens.  

Dave Register’s Carter Smith is a handsome, young teacher with a charming slight Georgia accent. The girls in his honors class admire him for different reasons including – in no particular order – his picture-perfect marriage and Christian faith, his sensitivity, and the bulge in his sweat pants.

Led by overachieving yet self-effacing Beth (Miranda Rizzolo), the feminist club shifts focus from timely topics to interpersonal relationships and spicy gossip. Other members include the local Baptist preacher’s daughter Raelynn (Jordan Slattery), adamant Ivy (Resa Mishina) with the handsy father, and outgoing Nell (Deidre Staples), a big city transplant new to a school where friendships date back to first grade. 

Eventually two boys join the group – Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) a regular dude in need of extra credit who proves surprisingly progressive, and Lee (Zachary Keller) a strapping guy who wants to be near to his ex-girlfriend.  

Midsemester, volatile Shelby (Juliana Sass), a troubled girl with a secret, returns to Smith’s class with her own significant take on Miller’s honorable adulterer John Proctor and what makes a witch hunt.  

While it’s definitely an ensemble piece, Raelynn’s coming of age arc is the most interesting. With a blank countenance similar to Jenelle from “Teen Mom” (my pop culture reference), Slattery plumbs her church girl part for laughs and meaning. By play’s end, she’s engaging in a defiant dance not unlike the Crucible girls who danced naked in the forest. 

Despite taking inspiration from Miller’s intense drama, the playwright slips in a sweet scene of bashful young love straight from the pages of Thornton Wilder. It’s an endearing moment, seamlessly worked into the story.  

Luciana Stecconi’s brightly lit, pale blue-walled set is pure verité: standard issue desks and chairs, clutter, a white board adhered to an old blackboard, and a bulletin board dedicated to Georgia’s women writers with Flannery O’Connell featured dead center. Sound designer Kathy Ruvuna further revs up the teen energy with blasts of familiar-sounding pop music. 

But mostly, it’s veteran director Marti Lyon who brings to life an enthralling work replete with hope, rage, and pitch-perfect performances. In 2018, Lyons had great success at Studio with “The Wolves,” a candid glimpse into the lives of adolescent girls who play soccer. And now with Studio’s current offering, she again makes audiences privy to an otherwise mostly closed world.

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Out actor embraces role in audacious, healing production

‘There’s Always the Hudson’ confronts painful wounds head on

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‘Playing T is one of greatest honors of my career,’ says actor Justin Weaks.

‘There’s Always the Hudson’
May 9-June 5
641 D St., N.W.
$29-$64
Woollymammoth.net

Healing can be messy, says out actor Justin Weaks. And in “There’s Always the Hudson,” playwright/actor Paola Lázaro’s audacious and unapologetically healing new work, actors can’t cower and audiences are compelled to experience a little discomfort along with the entertainment.

Lázaro and Weaks play best friends Lola and T (short for Toussaint) who met in a sexual abuse survivors support group three years previously. At some point, the pair made a pact that if things failed to improve, they’d kill themselves. When Lola says today’s the day to die, they agree to first settle scores with some of those who’ve hurt them. The night is about them taking New York City by storm and confronting their wounds head-on.

T is Black, gay, a Haitian immigrant, and a survivor of sexual abuse and trauma – identities that can heavily stigmatize in our culture. Throughout the course of the play, the audience watches as T increasingly find his voice.

Weaks, 31, says, “Lola and T have a lot to say and world has told them they’re not interested in hearing from people like them. But this is the night they say the shit that needs to be said.”
And without hesitation, he adds, “Playing T is one of greatest honors of my career, a dream come true.”

The piece is different from anything else he’s done, and for the playwright and star to agree to take this ride with him, he feels, is extraordinary: “You’ve never seen people talk like this on stage, I promise. It’s radical.”

A lean and mean intermission-less 80 minutes, the play covers some heavy terrain but it’s also “funny as hell – and might leave you with a little bit of whiplash,” he says. Its director, Jess McLeod, whom Weaks charmingly describes as “a fiery general with an enormous heart, the perfect person for the job,” keeps the five-person cast on task.

While Weaks has been a part of new works in the past, this time feels unique. It wasn’t until a little over a month ago that T, a character conceived by the playwright four years ago, was rewritten as gay.

“The play worked with T straight, but now that he’s gay it’s hitting on so many cylinders,” he says. “I’m not sure that change could have happened if someone else was in the role. I like to think my presence in the process maybe informed that in some way and deepened the work.”
In November 2021, Weaks left D.C. for New York. “It was time, and ‘There’s Always the Hudson’ is the perfect punctuation mark for the end of my time in Washington.”

Just three weeks after coming to D.C. from North Carolina in 2016, the gifted actor was diagnosed with HIV: “I didn’t know anybody yet. Didn’t have community yet. I had come to work, for a year, maybe two. Never foresaw being embraced by the community in the way that I’ve been.

“I understand what it feels like to have an identity that is stigmatized. Part of why I feel connected to T., through playing him, I get to feel. By stepping into his journey, I get to heal a lot of stuff.”

During Weaks’ time in the DMV, he earned multiple Helen Hayes Award nods winning in 2017 for his supporting turn in Theater Alliance’s “Word Becomes Flesh.” Other performances of note, among many, include “BLKS” and “Gloria” (Woolly Mammoth) “G of the Ocean” (Round House) “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” (Theater Alliance) and “Curve of Departure” and “Pipeline.” (Studio).

“There’s Always the Hudson” was two weeks into rehearsal in March 2020 when production was shut down due to COVID. Everyone involved felt then it was an important and affecting work, and they still feel that way, he says. Now the original cast and creative team have reconvened to deliver on the play’s promise.

“It’s a thrill to create a role that will forever be a part of the American theater canon. When I graduated from college 10 years ago there were no parts like T. I’m excited that he’ll be inhabited by many actors after me, but I’ll always feel protective of Toussaint.”

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