‘This Is Who I Am’
Through Jan. 3, 2021
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
“Queer, Middle Eastern, American, immigrant, and theater artist: Fortunately, all those identities live together and work for me,” says Evren Odcikin, associate artistic director at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
Best known for staging new works, Odcikin, 40, directs playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “This Is Who I Am,” a world premiere two-hander newly commissioned by D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (streaming live at woollymammoth.net through Jan. 3).
Performed live in real time via Zoom, “This Is Who I Am” explores the generational and physical distance between an estranged father (Ramsey Faragallah) and son (Yousof Sultani). Connected by video chat from their respective kitchens in Ramallah, West Bank, and New York City, they discuss with equal parts humor, frustration, and sadness their past and present relationship while simultaneously baking (yes, actually) a beloved family recipe.
Born in Turkey, Odcikin came to the U.S. to attend Princeton University on full scholarship, majoring in computer science with a minor in theater. He then headed west to San Francisco where he became involved with Golden Thread Productions, a company dedicated to exploring Middle Eastern culture and identity worldwide. Founded by a queer Middle Eastern immigrant, it was a place where Odcikin could learn and grow comfortably. “I was welcomed and didn’t have to fight my identities to make a space for myself in the American theater,” he says.
He now lives close to OSF in Ashland, Ore., with his husband, an artmaker who does drag, and their dog Weasel.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How did you become a part of “This Is Who I Am”?
EVREN ODCIKIN: I’d met the playwright at Golden Thread, and I knew Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes. So, with this small, 70-minute-long play with two actors, we were going to figure out live theater making in a digital setting. It was a magic moment.
Ultimately, original producers PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth were joined by American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, the Guthrie Theater, and OSF. A beautiful play by a Palestinian writer got a national platform with some of the leading theaters in the country
BLADE: Is that unusual for a play like this?
ODCIKIN: Typically, with Palestinian works in the U.S., a lot of politics is imposed on the plays. Here, the occupation is the context, and the play specifically speaks to what it means to live and grow up in an occupied state, but does it from a lived experience rather than rhetoric.
If we can give a sense of what it’s like for Palestinians to live under those conditions first hand, that’s what theater can do better than other mediums.
BLADE: How does being queer factor into your work?
ODCIKIN: I’d say that for me, it’s in the style. While you won’t see it in this play, I’m obsessed with camp and gender bending, and interested in queer aesthetic that uses comedy and surprise as a political tool.
Any work that shakes up our heteronormative, cis-normative expectation as an audience to wake us up to politics of our given moment – and to me, the best drag does that – that’s what I’m really interested in.
BLADE: And how was your experience with virtual directing?
ODCIKIN: Wasn’t too sure when I started. Said yes to it as an experiment. No one is really doing this truly live, every night performance. We were the first out of the gate.
I soon discovered Zoom fatigue is real. The actors never met in person. We met the stage manager only virtually. But as an artist, I felt like I was making a play.
And while I won’t say there’s been a silver lining – pandemic is too awful – there were some positive things. I’m a bit of an optimist — you have to be in the job I have. My theater community has expanded to D.C. and internationally. And it’s the first time in 20 years that my family in Turkey will see a play I’ve directed.
BLADE: And your thoughts on reopening?
ODCIKIN: At OSF, we’ve faced a lot head on- pandemic, environmental crisis fires that went through Ashland. And the racial reckoning that came to a head after George Floyd’s death.
Change making is a central tenant of how to survive and thrive and not just withstand crisis. It’s exciting to focus on questioning our structure and figuring out how we’ll make excellent work when we get to the other side of this. I feel lucky and honored to be one of the folks who gets play a part.
Be prepared to clap for ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House
Theatergoers asked to play audience of Nigerian chat show
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.
‘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.
Queer rom-com ‘In His Hands’ combines sexuality, laughs
A world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company
‘In His Hands’
June 22 through July 17
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
Sexuality, spirituality, and laughs – all three coincide in rising playwright Benjamin Benne’s “In His Hands,” a queer rom-com making its world premiere this week at Mosaic Theater Company.
Here’s the plot: Daniel (Michael J. Mainwaring), a video game wizard and aspiring Lutheran pastor, is falling for Christian (Josh Adams), but as the pair explore the potential of their new relationship, voices from Christian’s past threaten to derail what’s developing.
Benne, 34, says, “The story I’m exploring is about two men who form a relationship that starts to feel really deep and rich and begins to tread into romantic territory. Because it’s accessible as a rom-com, I like to talk about it that way. But also, it asks more difficult questions about the often-fraught territory between Christianity and being gay. That was true for me growing up in Southern California.”
With the play’s themes and team involved (José Carrasquillo directs), the production is ideally suited for Pride month. And it’s been great for Benne timing wise too: Just hours after his recent graduation ceremony from grad school at Yale in Connecticut, he hopped a train to D.C. and started rehearsals the following morning. “It’s been an exhausting but wonderful couple of weeks,” he says.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Are you covering familiar terrain with “In His Hands”?
BENJAMIN BENNE: I knew from a very young age that I was queer in many definitions of the word – attracted to men, feeling at odds in terms of how I fit into culture, being a lot more feminine than I think a lot of people were comfortable with, and that most of my interests could label feminine culturally.
BLADE: And with Christianity?
BENNE: Very much, I was raised in a fundamentalist conservative Christian household and still identify as Christian but my understanding of God and sexuality has become more expansive since leaving those institutions at 20.
BLADE: Are you quite involved with the premiere?
BENNE: I sure am. I’m really fussy when it comes to word choice and dialogue. For instance, I’d been working on my last project “Alma” [a recently produced riposte to Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric] for seven years. And while there was value to what the 27-year-old playwright was trying to accomplish, as a 34-year-old, I had to elevate the writing.
This time, it’s been a little easier. I started writing “In His Hands in 2016,” so it feels more in line with where I’m at as a writer now.
BLADE: Is the work political?
BENNE: “In His Hands” is a political play and a story about lives. I try to make sure the characters’ ideas about God and sex are part of the fabric of their stories and not just ideas.
BLADE: What inspired you?
BENNE: I wrote from a place of someone turning 30 and how do I return to my relationship with faith. It felt broken. Today, I’m not actively seeking a relationship with a religious institution, but I am with seeking that with God.
Increasingly, I find those around me in progressive circles are asking questions about relationships to spirituality — not sure why. Maybe because we’re on the verge of climate collapse or mass extinction? Is humanity about to face the fate of the dinosaurs? Whatever, people are asking, Why am I here? Am I connected to something bigger than myself?
BLADE: When did you become a playwright?
BENNE: I got very serious about it two to three years after undergrad at Cal State Fullerton. My father had passed away, and I felt that if I wanted to pursue writing I needed to take it seriously. I grinded real hard in Seattle for three years taking playwrighting classes, joining writers’ groups, writing every second outside of my day jobs. Something about my father passing made me feel freer to write, and no longer beholden to expectations.
BLADE: When did you know it could work?
BENNE: I prayed if I’m supposed to keep writing I need a bone thrown my way and that’s when I got the fellowship at Many Voices in Minneapolis. I took it as a sign. I was able to work on writing and professional development – how to turn playwrighting into a living, which pushed me into grad school at Yale.
BLADE: Do you mind pitching the show?
BENNE: Oh, not at all. It’s a lot of fun. And if you’re into humor and a really sensual story that’s helpful in terms of this elusive connection between spirituality and sexuality, it’s worth your time for sure.
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