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Actress/playwright Ellen McLaughlin relishes working with Michael Kahn

‘Angels in America’ actress says Greeks have lessons for modern life



Ellen McLaughlin review, gay news, Washington Blade
Ellen McLaughlin says after two initial stipulations, STC Founder Michael Kahn gave her freedom for their collaboration ‘The Oresteia.’ (Photo courtesy STC)

‘The Oresteia’ 

Through June 2 

Shakespeare Theatre Company

Sidney Harman Hall 

610 F St., N.W.



When Michael Kahn asks you to do something, you do it. It’s that simple. 

And so, playwright/actor Ellen McLaughlin explains the genesis of her latest work, “The Oresteia” — not a translation of Aeschylus’ trilogy about revenge, murder and justice, but rather a new version freely adapted from the Greek classic. 

In the spring of 2016, Kahn and McLaughlin met for coffee in Manhattan. The out director confided that he planned to end his long and illustrious tenure as artistic director of D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company by directing a play based on the original and he wanted McLaughlin to write it. 

“The offer came with just two stipulations: First, Aeschylus’ three plays must be performable in one evening,” McLaughlin says. “And secondly, the primordial, vengeful goddesses found in ‘The Eumenides,’ the final piece of the trilogy, needed to be really scary without costuming the actors as monsters. I accepted his challenging offer on the spot.”

Aeschylus is the first of the great Greek dramatists. He actually came up with the dramatic form. In “The Oresteia,” the first and second tragedies of the trilogy include Agamemnon’s murder by his wife and her lover and his wife and lover’s murder by Agamemnon’s son Orestes. The third play is about justice. The ancient Greeks did not take matricide lightly. 

There’s a hugeness and majesty to what Aeschylus does, so the project was daunting, she recalls. But McLaughlin had successfully adapted the Greeks before, so she knew what to do. Since she doesn’t read Greek, McLaughlin relies on extant translations. After much reading, she pushes the translations away and gets down to writing wherever she might be (jobs take her far and wide), but mostly in her orderly, light-filled study in Nyack, N.Y., a quiet town on the Hudson River. 

Working with Kahn has exceeded her expectations. 

“What Michael has done is completely unprecedented in my experience as a writer,” she says. “He gave me complete freedom. He advised me to move away from the source and not worry about him or Aeschylus, but rather to find my own solution to the problem. And that is one of the greatest gifts a writer could ever get.”

What’s more, throughout the rehearsal process, Kahn was generous in allowing McLaughlin to speak directly to the actors. 

“That’s very unusual for a director. But at this point in his career he has enough confidence in himself that he doesn’t have to protect his position in the room. He’s the top of the food chain. It’s remarkable and testament to his experience and how easily that experience rides on him.”

From the start, McLaughlin’s career has been two-pronged. She’s a playwright whose works have received numerous national and international productions, and an actor who has worked on and Off Broadway as well as extensively in regional theater. On the acting track, she is best known for originating the role of the Angel in out playwright Tony Kushner’s seminal work “Angels in America.” 

“There’s nothing quite like working on Broadway,” she says. “And doing a profoundly important piece that meant so much to so many made the experiences that much more. We were creating a central cultural event that would resonate in so many ways out into American and world culture; it would change the way people think.”

McLaughlin says “Angels” worked largely because of its lead character, Prior. 

“The momentous thing Tony did was to have Prior, the American everyman at the middle of this long and complicated saga, be a flamboyantly gay man with AIDS. That was revolutionary. And because he used humor, people were defenseless against it. You have to love Prior. You can’t deny that he’s profoundly brave. He’s a hero.”

She recalls a post-matinee talk back with a group of young Mormons. Mclaughlin and Stephen Spinella (the out actor who played defiant Prior Walter) were seated on the lip of the stage. A pretty, blonde girl raised her hand, stood and directed her comment to Spinella. 

“Everyone and everything in my life has taught me to hate you, and still, I love you.” 

They embraced and cried. 

“If that’s the only thing we accomplished,” Mclaughlin says, “It was all worth it.” 

Growing up in Chevy Chase, Md.., McLaughlin developed an interest in the arts early on. At Sidwell Friends School, she was exposed to Quaker pacifism, acted in plays, and also learned to paint scenery, a skill that got her through some lean years after graduating from Yale. 

Meeting Michael Kahn in the late ‘80s was a bright spot in her early career. At the time, Kahn was teaching acting at the Julliard School in New York while also helming STC in Washington (testament to his legendary energy), and McLaughlin was hired as playwright in residence at Julliard. 

“I got paid to hang around. I wasn’t required to write anything. I had access to everything except for Michael’s acting classes, those are private. I understood but was still curious.”

McLaughlin looks to the Greeks for guidance in today’s world. 

And unfortunately, “The Oresteia” which explores the contrast between violent revenge and true justice along with the transition from personal vendetta to organized litigation, remains all too relevant. She describes the current atmosphere in America as a cycle of violence in which the right is trying to take back the ground, they feel they’ve lost. And in turn, the left feels a desire for retribution. 

“It’s a kind of politics and way of living that’s brutal and doesn’t bring out the best in any of us,” she says. 

The Greeks brought all of their big issues — how to treat each other, how to treat the gods, what’s a good life, what’s an ethical life — to the theater, and consequently that’s why everyone gathered to see these beautiful yet disturbing plays filled with difficult images.

“They tell the most difficult stories and ask, but never answer, the hardest questions. That’s why I keep coming back to the Greeks,” McLaughlin says.  

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Queer actor on new role: ‘Playing villains is a blast’

Jaye Ayres-Brown returns as a contemptible Londoner in ‘Red Velvet’



Jaye Ayres-Brown in ‘Red Velvet’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

‘Red Velvet’
Through July 17
Shakespeare Theatre Company 
Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, 450 7th St., N.W.

After a five-year absence from the stage, actor Jaye Ayres-Brown (queer, gender fluid, non-binary, and trans-femme) returns to the boards as a contemptible cisgender Londoner in playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet” at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre.

Possessed of presence and genuine warmth, Ayres-Brown, 27, is playing Charles Kean, the smug and dubiously talented son of legendary English actor Edmund Kean. Charles is also the essential antagonist in Chakrabarti’s exploration of the life and career of renowned early 19th century African-American Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge (Amari Cheatom).  

When Aldridge is tapped to play Othello on the London stage, Charles, who’s slated to act opposite the star as evil Iago, quits the show. It’s 1833 and Charles is deeply opposed to a Black actor playing a Black lead character, and he’s even less pleased that his real-life fiancée Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest) is assaying Othello’s romantic obsession Desdemona in the production.  

Offstage, Ayres-Brown is Aldridge’s biggest fan: “He was way ahead of his time. A hundred years before Stanislavsky, Aldridge was introducing a proto naturalist approach to acting. In retrospect, it’s hard to disentangle the public’s reaction to him. He was something so different. But were white audiences reacting to his innovative acting style or were they showing their racial bias?” 

“In the play, I’m that bias,” says the New York-based actor. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Joan Crawford famously said, “I love playing bitches. There’s a lot of bitch in every woman — a lot in every man.” 

JAYE AYRES-BROWN: Oh yeah, playing villains is a blast. Ira Aldridge was such a spectacularly heroic person, an amazingly gifted and resourceful artist, he deserves a good villain to push against, a meaningful villain who makes us admire the hero even more. And Amari [Cheatom], the actor who plays Aldridge, is a great artist who deserves a strong antagonist too. 

BLADE: Are you enjoying your stay in London 1833? 

AYRES-BROWN: No, I hate it!  But my character loves it. Charles enjoys tremendous privilege – racial and professionally. He’s a cisgender white supremacist committed to the patriarchal power structure of the time. But me, Jaye as a person, is less than charmed by it.

BLADE: But aesthetically, it’s quite fine? 

AYRES-BROWN: Yes, You-Shin Chen’s sets are impeccable, and the period costumes are beautifully rendered by Rodrigo Muñoz. Sometimes, I do feel a little bit like a drag king in Charles’ attire. It’s a performance of masculinity. 

I have an expansive experience of gender in which I include masculinity and I think I have something interesting to say and a unique perspective. Language about gender nonconforming identity didn’t exist in 1833, but the people existed, getting by the best way they could. Everyone was either a man or a woman. Who knows today how any of these characters would identify? 

My objective is to cram as much humanity in the character as I can. The play is deeply considered with questions about who gets to play what roles. And I try to bring as much of myself to each role regardless of their gender.

BLADE: Charles is very far from who you are?

AYRES-BROWN: For me, the work of playing a character like this is derived largely from the racist lessons all Americans learn. The stereotypes are things that I’ve been exposed to as someone who grew up white in America. There’s the initial desire to distance and highlight contrasts, but ultimately you must mine your own experience even if it’s uncomfortable.

BLADE: How is it to be working in live theater again?

AYRES-BROWN: Like Christmas morning! It’s my first play in five years, and still my training kicks in. I re-balance on my bike and it’s like I’ve never stopped riding. But mostly, I’m trying to have as much fun as I can. 

BLADE: And how was working with young director Jade King Carroll? 

AYRES-BROWN: Wonderful! The play deals with some difficult moments, harmful language and ideas.  Jade created a space in our rehearsal room where people could be playful while engaging with that. Dealing with concepts of history requires the seriousness it demands, but there’s also a need for humor and lightness, and Jade made that possible.

BLADE:  Any thoughts on “Red Velvet” being stuck in time? 

AYRES-BORWN: No, I think this play is a shockingly contemporary telling of a lost history that feels overwhelmingly resonant as it’s related to identity politics and the push for representation. I hope the audience sees a period but appreciates the present-day dynamics, discussions, and language. It’s also surprisingly human and very entertaining. To me it’s a very funny show. Anyone interested in laughing at posh British folks being stupid might agree.

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Be prepared to clap for ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House

Theatergoers asked to play audience of Nigerian chat show



Joel Ashur (Wale Owusu) and Jacqueline Youm (Adenikeh) in ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Nollywood Dreams’
Through July 3
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814

If you see “Nollywood Dreams” at Round House Theatre, be prepared to clap a lot, whether you like it or not.  For almost a third of Jocelyn Bioh’s 100-minute-long comedy, theatergoers are asked to play the audience of an Oprahesque Nigerian chat show with a big personality host and large projected words (cheer, applause) prompting the house to make lots of noise. It’s tough not to comply. 

Set in ‘90s Nigeria, it’s all about Nollywood, the nickname for the Lagos-based film industry that ranks above Hollywood and second only to India’s Bollywood in the number of films produced annually. 

Decked out in fabulous traditional attire, the spirited finger-snapping TV host Adenikeh (Jacqueline Youm) leads with niceties before going in for the kill. Her big-name guests prove central to the story:  director Gbenga Ezie (Yao Dogbe) recently returned home from America and looking to make a Nollywood hit; gorgeous veteran star Fayola (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu), who’s counting on a comeback to revive a slipping career; and Wale Owusu, Nigeria’s “Sexiest Man Born,” played by the faultlessly cast Joel Ashur. 

Glued to the TV in the office of the family travel business, sisters Dede and Ayamma Okafor (played by Renea S. Brown and Ernaisja Curry, respectively) faithfully watch Adenikeh’s eponymous program, breathlessly taking in every Nollywood scoop and subsequent development. While elder sister Dede is content to swoon over male pulchritude, Ayamma has aspirations to be more than a fan, she wants to act. When director Gbenga holds an open casting call to find a fresh face for his new love triangle romance, “The Comfort Zone,” she grasps at the chance. 

A broad comedy broadly acted by an appealing cast, Bioh’s storyline is predictable, a Cinderella story without surprise. It’s a loud world seemingly inhabited by stock characters – the heartthrob, a shady film auteur, an aging film actress, squabbling sisters – but despite all, they aren’t without nuance. The characters prove dimensional and worthy of some investment.  

Also, along with the over-the-top comedy, Bioh’s work refreshingly shows an Africa that isn’t always presented on stage. People’s dreams, desires, and relationships are set against a bustling urban sprawl culturally glued together by the cult of celebrity.

The action plays out on Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s terrific revolving (sometimes dizzyingly so) set made up of three locales — the travel office, daytime TV set, and Gbenga’s well-appointed Nollywood Dreams Studio (with the outsized signage to prove it). It’s an energizing and memorable design. 

Brandee Mathies’s costumes are almost a show in themselves. Exuberantly colorful, they cleverly bring together traditional garb and western silhouettes with joyful flourishes of Nigerian flare. The showbiz folks are costumed, well, showier. It’s short skirts and glittery stilettos for fan favorite Fayola, long touted for her Tina Turner legs.

A Ghanian-American writer, playwright and actor, Bioh grew up on Nollywood flicks. In fact, “Beyonce: The President’s Daughter” (2006), one of her favorites, was an inspiration for “Nollywood Dreams.” Her debut work “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” an entertaining tale of teenage trials and tribulations set at a boarding school in provincial ‘80s Ghana was a great success for Round House in 2019.

And at the helm of Round House’s current offering is Theater Alliance’s producing artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. As gay, Black, and Asian, Caldwell sometimes refers to himself as third culture. In this instance, the Helen Hayes-winning director has heartily plunged into Bioh’s vision and with relish and created a piece rife with fun and feeling.

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‘Atemporal’ explores intersection of misdiagnosis, identity

Sianna Joslin to star in D.C.’s latest one-person show



At age 16, Sianna Joslin learned they had a disability. They were diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder associated with seizures caused by the excessive release of electrical signals from some of the brain’s nerve cells. It would not be until a decade later they found out that, from the beginning, they had been misdiagnosed.

This unexpected discovery spurred a period of deep self-reflection, Joslin explained. When coming to terms with her initial diagnosis, she created a 20-minute standup show entitled “Temporal,” discussing disability and sexuality. This July, she plans to circle back to her first performance with a new, autobiographical one-person show: “Atemporal,” which explores misdiagnosis, disability, trans identity and grief.

“I just naturally gravitated towards the idea of having another show about it,” she explained. “It’s kind of a requiem for the version of myself that I had built out of this trellis of having a disability.”

The show delves into their experience navigating relationships with both disability and gender identity, following Joslin’s discovery that they were non-binary in the years following their diagnosis.

“When I got off my epilepsy meds, I realized that I was experiencing some form of gender dysphoria,” they said. With “my brain kind of resetting, I viewed myself in an entirely different way. There’s so many different intersections between disability, sexuality (and) gender identity.”

In the performance, Joslin also looks at the experience of losing her father, and the grief that came from the experience. She never came out to him before his death, which complicates her experiences with memory and identity. The show also opens and closes with musical performances, tapping into Joslin’s lifelong passion for music.

“Having done a similar show before, I know that it’s emotionally draining,” Joslin noted. “But it’s so worth it at the end to be able to share something that’s so personal.”

Joslin hopes that those who do not hold identities examined in the performance — be they cisgender, straight or able-bodied — will be able to learn about experiences that differ from their own. And, perhaps more personally, they want those who relate to experiences outlined in the show to know that they are seen.

“Having been diagnosed with epilepsy for a decade is not something that happens every day,” she said. “The individual experiences that I’ve had going to a club and not being able to look at the strobe lights or going to a concert and having to wear sunglasses, that impacts a lot of people with epilepsy.”

“This is something that a lot of people experience,” Joslin added, “and we can get through it together.”

“Atemporal” will be performed in 3 Stars at 3270 M St. NW, Washington, D.C., on July 15 at 9:30 p.m., July 16 at 2:15 p.m., July 17 at 7 p.m., July 23 at 5 p.m. and July 24 at 6:30 p.m.

The show takes part in the 2022 Capital Fringe Festival, a series of shows hosted by local arts nonprofit Capital Fringe. Tickets can be purchased for $15, and more information can be found at the Capital Fringe Festival website or the show’s webpage.

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