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1st Stage offering virtual roundtable discussions

‘Theater will exist always in some form’

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José Carrasquillo recently received a Helen Hayes Award for directing 1st Stage’s production of ‘The Brothers Size.’ (Photo by Paulo Andrés Montenegro)

For show-starved theatergoers, nothing beats a live performance. Even so, much of the pandemic-fueled online offerings coming from local companies continue to prove entertaining and informative.

At 1st Stage, the Tysons, Va.-based acclaimed company, artistic and managing director Alex Levy and associate artistic director Deidra LaWan Starnes, have introduced a series of six free Virtual Round Table Discussions with new segments added weekly through mid-November. Using Zoom, the forum pairs two theater professionals, many with insights into marginalized populations, in hour-long, unmoderated discussions on wildly different aspects of the industry.

“We were trying to figure out a way to continue engaging with audience and artists during the pandemic,” says Starnes. “We have done community conversations as part of productions, and we were looking for something similar but with a different feel. We like the idea of getting artists together virtually to have conversations among themselves.”

Of the half dozen discussions, Starnes names two as closest to her heart: “Redefining the Classics” and “Theatre and Parenting.”

“I’m at a point in life where I’m interested in how classic theater or the concept of classic theater is evolving,” says Starnes who is also an accomplished working actor. “We’re entering a new era that places other plays into the classical theater realm. I’m interested to hear what artists who have worked in that arena have to say.”

As the mother of two children, 20 and 16, who have been a part of her theater career since they were born, Starnes made sure to bring raising theater babies into the conversation.

Parenting round table participant Thembi Duncan, a longtime theater professional, on the boards and behind the scenes, and mother to a 22-year-old aspiring actor, says “I’m excited to talk about the ways theater practitioner parents can make it work for themselves and their families. My daughter benefited from being exposed to my profession, and has ended up going into that profession with no pressure from me. Daily, she was exposed to the joy of self-expression and the way that self-expression can impact the world in a positive way.”

After many years in D.C., Duncan and her wife, now live in Buffalo, N.Y., where Duncan is director of arts engagement and education at Shea’s Performing Arts Center. She advises younger parents pursuing careers in theater to put something reliable in place to support the family. “Theater will be here; it will exist always in some form. If you want to be in theater, you can stay in theater, and it doesn’t have to be on stage — for every actor there are 15 people behind the scenes from administration to production.”

Another upcoming conversation “Waiting for Life to Begin,” a discussion of post-pandemic life, features out director and Ford’s Theatre’s director of artistic programming José Carrasquillo. He recently received a Helen Hayes Award for directing 1st Stage’s production of gay playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size.”

Via phone from a borrowed bungalow in the wilds of New York state where he’s riding out the pandemic, Carrasquillo shares how he’ll approach the round table: “Not only do we have the pandemic but various reckonings, particularly the racial reckoning, so for me, I’m interested in discussing what kind of theater and work we want to do after we come back.

“We can’t go back to the way things were before for various reasons. But specifically, we need to focus on the stories that we tell and how we as curators of the art that gets put onstage, dismantle racism and creates an industry where equality rules.”

With regard to return, Carrasquillo says that’s an individual decision, adding, “My metric will be whether I as a 59-year-old Latin person will feel safe going into a space. I think the space will have to reassure me that none of my actors or designers will get sick and the staff will not get sick and that audiences will feel safe. I don’t see that happening for myself until the fall of 2021.”

In the meantime, he’s open to further discussion and happy to support 1st Stage in any way he can.

For details go to 1ststagetysons.org.

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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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