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In-person, virtual, and outdoor theater options abound

Your favorite D.C. stages are busy this season

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Theater Alliance's producing artistic director Raymond O.Caldwell directs ‘The Blackest Battle.’

In the before times, summer at the Kennedy Center meant a big Broadway musical national tour or two. Slipping into the unmistakable box’s cool, darkened red Opera House for a show during the dog days of summer is a treat I’ve enjoyed since I was kid. 

But because of the pandemic, this summer the landmark’s indoor spaces remain dark. But there’s still a lot happening. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has moved outdoors to the Reach, a collection of pavilions and open areas adjacent to the original building. In this striking, open-air, riverside plaza, you’ll find loads of free entertainment ranging from live music and film screenings to dance lessons, yoga sessions, and arts markets. 

While it’s too late to enjoy early June’s “The Wig Party: A Capitol Drag Festival,” there’s still much to see in-person and via livestream. Here are a few selections from the Millennium Stage program.

The DMV’s authentic Afro-Latinx experience “Adobo Gigante” (July 22-24) returns with a midsummer weekend of programming. There’s “Raga at the REACH” (Aug. 5-7), a three-day festival focused on presenting the vibrant culture and heritage of India through live music, dance, film, and local arts vendors. And in late August, it’s “On Deck: Women Shedding Through Boundaries” (Aug. 26-28), an all-inclusive festival featuring women in action sports and music like skateboarding and jazz. Visit kennedy-center.org for more information.

Elsewhere around town, companies and artists are presenting heaps of new, original work, featuring both familiar and less familiar faces. 

Local out playwright George Purefoy Tilson’s new one act “Holler” premieres virtually on Sunday July 18 at 7 p.m.

Set in the hills of coal country, it’s the story of four siblings who cling to fading memories while wrestling with a haunting secret. The virtual production is directed by talented Evan Casey who is also included in the five-person cast along with Bernadette Arvidson, Emilie Zelle Holmstock, Larry Levinson, and Timothy Sayles. 

“Holler’s” opening is a fundraiser for CCI Health & Wellness Services, an organization that supports the most vulnerable in local communities. For more information visit bit.ly/hollerpremiere. Subsequent streaming opportunities will soon be made available via link on the “Holler” Facebook page.

For summer of 2021, Spooky Action Theatre presents “Happy, Beyond…Happy,” a short play virtual reading series inspired by a list of “happiness words” that do not directly translate into English. 

Through July 18, the two readings are playwrights Marie-Claude St-Laurent and Marie-Ève Milothelmed’s “Collect Call,” the story of sisters and their rocky relationship; and Emma Gibson’s “Adam + Rose,” a play about separation and love. Both readings are directed by esteemed gay director José Zayes. Spookyaction.org 

Through July 25, Studio Theatre is streaming award-winning playwright George Brant’s “Tender Age.” 

Directed by Henry Godinez, the one-person play stars New York actor Bobby Moreno as Martín, a young father who faces a moral reckoning after going to work as a security guard at a local Walmart-turned-detention center for children separated from their families at the nearby Texas border. Studio-theatre.org

Theater Alliance ends its digital season with playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle” (July 31 – August 29), a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. 

Set on the Fourth of July in the not-too-distant future, it portrays a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

“The Blackest Battle” is directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell, and features a seven-person cast including talented out actor Jade Jones as Bonita. Theateralliance.com

Tyson’s 1st Stage is presenting its annual Logan Festival of Solo Performance, only this year it’s happening outdoors at busy Boro Park (8350 Broad Street, Tysons, Va.).

The festival opener is “Opera Soup” (Aug. 21 -29), a family-friendly amalgam of music and lively storytelling written and performed by accomplished opera singer Lori Brown Mirabel.

And for just two special performances (also at Boro Park), Mirabel performs an autobiographical solo piece “Charmed Life” (Aug. 27-28) in which she tells not only her own story, but also pays homage to famous opera artists who have gone before, and specifically to the Black women opera singers of the past. 1ststage.org

At Olney Theatre Center (OTC), the shady campus with its open-air amphitheater, the Root Family Stage, is ideal for safer, in-person offerings. 

Beginning in late July through the end of August, OTC presents the weekly Friday night Andrew A. Isen Cabaret Series pairing some of the D.C. area’s best musical talent. 

The duos include Awa Sal Secka and out actor Bobby Smith (July 23); Ines Nassara and Tracy Lynn Olivera (July 30); Donna Migliaccio, and Nova Payton (Aug. 6); Rayanne Gonzales and local gay performer Rayshun Lamarr who appeared as a contestant on TV’s “The Voice” (Aug. 13); Greg Maheu and Vishal Vaidya (Aug. 20); and finally, Malinda Kathleen Reese and Alan Wiggins (Aug. 27). 

On two consecutive free admission Wednesday nights in August, OTC presents “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences are asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.” The first show (Aug. 18) features Brooklyn Heights, Betty O’Hellno, Ariel Von Quinn, Evon Michelle. 

The second show (Aug. 25) includes Kristina Kelly, Vagenesis, Tiara Missou (David Singleton who appeared in “Elf the Musical” at OTC), and Echinacea Monroe (terrific out actor Solomon Parker). Olneytheatre.org  

If keeping kids entertained figures into your summer in the city, why not add some in-person youth theater to the mix?  

Bethesda’s Imagination Stage is borrowing Olney Theatre’s outdoor space to reprise “Paper Dreams” (July 31 – Aug. 15), a dance-based performance about friends who live inside a wastepaper basket. A collaboration with Mons Dansa Dance Company (Barcelona, Spain), it’s directed by Claudia Moreso and remounted by Imagination Stage’s Kathryn Chase Bryer.  Admission is free. Imaginationstage.org  

Glen Echo Park’s Adventure Theatre is presenting “Fairytales in the Sun,” two original works performed in-person on the park’s outdoor campus. 

Running through Sept. 6, “Fairy Tales in the Sun” features two one-act plays: Lara Yang’s “The Flood in the Future,” the tale of a young girl who learns some vital life lessons about sacrifice and cooperation; and Michelle Lynch’s “From Cinders to Ella,” a play about forging your own happily ever after. Both are directed by Stan Kang. Adventuretheatre-mtc.org

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‘Flight,’ an astonishing tale told using diorama and figures

Afghan brothers embark on arduous journey to U.K.

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‘Flight’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mihaila Bodlovic)

‘Flight’
Through March 6
Studio Theatre’s Stage 4
1501 14th St., N.W.
$42-$52
studiotheatre.org

I wish I could fly. It’s a little boy’s dream, and certainly one that would be helpful to young Kabir who along with his older brother Aryan is traversing thousands of miles escaping their battered homeland Afghanistan in search of a future in the U.K.

Their arduous journey is titled “Flight,” an astonishingly moving tale told using diorama, tiny modeled figures, and voiceover. With neither live actors nor a traditional set, the Vox Matus (an innovative Glasgow-based theater company) production isn’t Studio Theatre’s typical offering, yet it serves as a compelling reopening lure after a long closure.

Despite seeming an ideal fit for the times, “Flight” wasn’t crafted with pandemic in mind (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017). The hybrid theater/installation is a reassuringly distanced theater experience.

After ascending to Studio’s third floor atrium, you’re handed a boarding pass and in small groups beckoned up to Stage 4 where you’re led to individual viewing booths. Then, seated comfortably and wearing head phones, you focus on over 200 small, brilliantly made dioramas, successively lit as they slowly pass by on a revolving carousel.

“Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London.” The green-eyed orphaned brothers repeat their direct route to a better life with unyielding determination. And the more it’s said, the more possible it seems. But minors traveling alone without passports is a perilous journey fraught with risk and miseries.

We meet Aryan and Kabir (voiced by Farshid Rokey and Nalini Chetty, receptively) just as they reach the Turkish coast and set sail to the E.U. in a rubber raft. Here, we’re also introduced to the first of many faceless profiteers – ruthless but necessary to the journey – who gain from human desperation.

Soon the boys land in Greece and are forced into farm labor at meager wages. When the harvest ends, the brothers hop a truck to Athens. As they move onward, their longing to attend school in the West, London to be specific, grows more intense.

Throughout what becomes a two-year odyssey, they wear out multiple pairs of trainers, encounter harsh weather, exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and the occasional random act of kindness. As kids, they take time for a game of soccer and a plunge in the sea at Nice. But inevitably, such moments are cut short by officials depicted as menacing, uniformed seagulls.

“Flight’s” heavy themes and remarkable images blend well. The tiny tableaus chronicling the boys’ flight fittingly range from extraordinarily realistic to fantastical, alternately portraying the vastness and claustrophobic aspects of their ordeal. The intricately made models’ expressive faces, sometimes tear-streaked or bordering on joy, draw us to the likeable, intelligent brothers.

While Vox Motus’ co-artistic directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds conceive, direct and design the company’s innovative productions, collaboration with other artists is key to their success.

“Flight” is ably adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ 2012 novel “Hinterland.” Enhancing the work’s intimate storytelling are Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design and composer and sound design by Mark Melville.

Each year more than 300,000 displaced children journey on their own. Behind that hideous number are individual stories; “Flight” effectively relays the personal story of two young Afghans, making them something other than a statistic.

After 45 minutes, the story ends. Slowly, you recede from the brothers’ reality in which you’ve been deeply immersed. A silent, black clad usher gently taps you on the shoulder and leads you out of Stage 4. For past productions, the vast versatile space has credibly passed as a nightclub and a church basement, among other things. This time it’s a window into an alternate world where a duly stamped official document means everything, sometimes including the difference between life and death.

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Theater

‘Nine Night’ explores Jamaican custom of mourning

‘Equally moving and hilarious in many parts’

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Timothy Douglas (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘Nine Night’
Through Jan. 30
(Begins streaming on demand Jan. 20)
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$41-$56, and $32.50 (virtual)
roundhousetheatre.org

When Round House Theatre began making plans for the U.S. premiere of Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” they asked out director Timothy Douglas to interview with the playwright about helming the production. “It’s like we were separated at birth,” says Douglas. “It felt right from the first moment we met on Zoom, and I when I learned Natasha wanted to work with me, I made it work.”

A big success in London, “Nine Night” is a dramedy centered on the death of a family matriarch followed by the prescribed Jamaican tradition of exuberant mourning. 

The end-of-life custom entails nine consecutive nights of serious partying to celebrate the life of the departed, but there’s also a spiritual component. On the ninth night, it’s believed that the spirit returns to its earthly dwelling. By celebrating and rearranging furniture, the revelers discombobulate the deceased so they don’t want to stay, ensuring the spirit crosses over.

“In traditional Jamaican culture, nine night is a serious thing,” explains Douglas. “And while I didn’t set out to direct a dramedy. I found it equally moving and hilarious in many parts.”

Gordon, the London-born playwright of Jamaican descent, possessed only a casual knowledge of nine night growing up. But when her grandmother died, her mother became overwhelmed with a devotion to cultural specificity, and the ritual was thrust on the family. 

“From the playwright’s perspective what happened was chaos,” adds Douglas. “And going through that inspired her to write the play.”  

The work’s central character draws from the Gordons’ life experience straddling two different cultures. And while it was the play itself that really grabbed Douglas, he relates to that aspect too. 

“It connected a lot of dots for me,” says Douglas, 60. “Elders in my family are from the Caribbean and share similar ways of celebrating life and in particular the deceased. There was an immediate familiarity on a feeling level for me. And with every bit of specific research, it’s unlocked things within in me rather than being introduced to me cold.”

Douglas caught the theater bug in grade school, and it grew from there. When he attended Marymount Manhattan College it was transitioning from all women to coeducational, and though he was studying technical theater and not acting, he landed all the male leads in the college’s plays. 

It was a part during his last year at Marymount (“Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ of all things,” adds Douglas with a chuckle) that seemingly solidified his desire to be an actor. He went on to train at Yale followed by five or six years of acting professionally. 

But then something changed. The director ardently explains, “I’m grateful to acting. It gave me focus, a way to communicate and navigate complicated life experiences. It saved my life.” But after therapy and spiritual growth coupled with an epiphany experienced while acting in a play in West Hollywood, he knew it wasn’t for him. He needed to direct. 

While “Nine Night” has no LGBTQ characters as identified in the play, Douglas’ upcoming project is a different story. 

In spring, Douglas makes his first foray into staging opera with Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” at Boston Lyric Opera. It’s based on the life of queer boxer Emile Griffith, the talented welterweight who regained the world championship in 1962 when gay sex was still classified as a crime in developed countries. 

And to Douglas’ astonishment, internationally famous mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is cast to play a supporting role in “Champion.” He’s both excited and terrified: “I’m incredibly lucky that she’s a part of the production. But any hope of flying under the radar with my first opera is over.” 

At 18, Douglas made a beeline from Long Island to Manhattan. For many years he called New York home. Now he’s in Boston where he is the distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. But over the years, he’s maintained a special relationship with the DMV. In addition to being sort of a staple at Round House, he’s directed to much acclaim at Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Theater Alliance to name a few. 

In fact, his professional directorial career kickstarted at D.C.’s Folger with “Richard III” in 1995. 

“I was a complete unknown to them. I had no track record yet. But the Folger was at a point where they could take risks. They needed to replace a director, and on the recommendation of a costume designer who’d heard of me, Michael Tolaydo who played the production’s titular role, agreed to take me on. That really changed things for me.”

“Being pretty much a gun for hire, every time D.C. asks me back, I always say yes.”

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Theater

A look back at the best in 2021 D.C. theater

Stages sprung back to life after shutdowns

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Shakespeare Theatre Company reopened in 2021 with ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

When everything was closed, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) took a chance by reopening in the spring of 2021. 

Theater lovers longed for something, and after a year of unquestionably defensible darkness, (STC) opened the doors of the Harman with Donmar Warehouse’s gripping production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones. 

D.C.’s first return to indoor theater involved masks and social distancing, as well as a stage without live actors and an audience seated onstage. It was a resounding success. 

But “Blindness” was a blip on the early summer radar. Most of the year was awash with streamed productions, particularly one-person shows. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre, out actor Ryan J. Haddad doesn’t hold back. In his refreshingly direct autographical one-man play “Hi, Are you Single?” 

In a January interview with the Blade, Haddad said, “The show begins with my shorts around my ankles and I’m rubbing the crotch of my boxer briefs, the audience sees my walker,” Haddad explains matter-of-factly. “I’m telling you from the start that these are the terms here. If you can’t get on board with me being disabled and horny AF then you’ll have a hard time with this play.” 

Other especially memorable streamed productions included Theater Alliance’s production of busy playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle,” a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. Ingeniously directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. 

The innovative work imagines a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

Throughout the summer months, Olney Theatre Center offered myriad, well -attended outdoor performances, including admission-free nights in August titled “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences were asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.”

But the big story of latter 2021 was the citywide reopening of indoor performance venues brought about in large part by vaccinations and audience’s willingness to don masks and present proof of vaccination at the door. In addition to audiences, working theaters have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for performers and theater staff. More theaters are expected to follow suit as they resume operation. 

When autumn rolled around, curtains went up. Arena Stage opened with “Toni Stone” (through Oct. 3). Written by Lydia R. Diamon, it’s the remarkable story of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, also making her the first woman to play professionally in a men’s league in the 1950s. Signature Theatre reopened with a newly reimagined interpretation of “Rent” directed by Signature’s Matthew Gardiner. 

And in no time, national tours of big Broadway musicals busted into town with movies to musicals “Tootsie” and “Pretty Woman” (through Jan. 2) at the National and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Kennedy Center.  

While many beloved holiday shows returned to familiar stages in December, some new works have arrived, too, including Studio Theatre’s “Flight” (through February), an immersive installation created by Scottish innovators Vox Motus and designed by Jamie Harrison. It’s described as “an invitation to bear witness to the personal stories of two of the 300,000 displaced children who make unaccompanied journeys every year,” “Flight” is the story orphaned brothers who set off on an arduous journey across Europe in search of freedom and safety. 

There are no live actors in this production. Audience members experience the play from individual booths wearing headphones and viewing a handcrafted diorama in which the story unfolds in intimate miniature. 

Despite herculean efforts, things aren’t entirely back to normal – far from it. Currently in New York, newly reopened Broadway shows are cancelling performances citing backstage outbreaks of coronavirus and variants as the culprit. How things play out in our town in the coming year, remains to be seen.

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