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‘Blackest Battle’ an innovative hip-hop musical

Replacing feuding Montagues and Capulets with rival rap groups

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Out actor Jade Jones in Theater Alliance’s ‘The Blackest Battle.’ (Photo courtesy Theater Alliance)

‘The Blackest Battle’
Streaming through Aug. 29
Theater Alliance
$30
Theateralliance.com

Young rapper Dream carries a dog-eared paperback copy of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” She’s an idealist and like the Bard’s star-crossed lovers, she’s willing to risk it all for true love. 

“The Blackest Battle,” the final offering of Theater Alliance’s digital season, is a love story set against a gritty urban landscape. Penned by talented D.C. artist Psalmayene24 with music by nick tha 1da, the innovative hip-hop musical explores romance and grudges in a new way. Rather than the feuding Montagues and the Capulets in Renaissance Italy, playwright Psalmayene24 serves up rival rap groups set in a future New York City.  

The layered production is helmed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell who with the assistance of digital producer Kelly Colburn, deftly brings together the work of designers, graphic illustrators, animators, and an appealing cast of actors. The results are raw, witty, and affecting.

The action is set in Chief County, an imagined all-Black enclave in New York City, where the N word has been replaced with Negus, the Ethiopian word for royalty. Unfortunately, a lot of what is bad today — gun violence and crime — remains the same. 

At the top of the show, we’re caught up on what’s in store for America. We can expect a lot of white nationalist terror and civil war followed by a neo-Reconstruction period with reparations for African Americans. 

Led by the Ringmaster (a vibrant Kelsey Delemar), we’re introduced to the future, Chief County, and some of its more musical residents. The storyline follows the fortunes of two warring rap factions, focusing on young lovers Bliss and Dream, played respectively by Gary Perkins and Imani Branch. 

The rap groups are Lock Crew whose hot new song “Raris and PCP” is garnering some attention, and the more message-driven Key Enterprises. 

Lock Crew’s members include gun-slinging Sergeant Pepper (Bayou Elom), front man Ty (Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour) who wears a frumpy dress, and Bliss, the most sensible and goodhearted member of the trio.                                   

Enterprises is headed by straight edge leader Do Or Die (Louis Davis). He’s supported on stage by his younger sister, the appropriately named Dream, and D.J., Bonita, a lesbian with a drug habit played by out actor Jade Jones. Bonita’s high of choice is called “hope,” a mind opening amalgam of technological advancement and botanical evolution that’s taken aurally. Its dangers and benefits are debatable. 

Major beef develops when due to spotty Wi-Fi both groups are mistakenly booked to open for headliner Jay Adonis at the same big show at Zoom Arena. Rather than correct the problem himself, Adonis suggests the dueling artists fight it out. 

Dream and Bliss first meet at a rent party on the Fourth of July, a noisy and often violent holiday in Chief County. Despite being from enemy camps, the pair are drawn together instantly. The chemistry is palpable. Soon after meeting, they slip out to watch the fireworks at the pier, a significant spot with a history that harks back to the slave trade.

The Ringmaster comments that humans are hardwired to fall in love at first sight. But it can’t be with just anyone. Referencing ‘70s sitcoms, she amusingly says George must find his Weezy, and Florida her James. 

Later that night Dream and Bliss seek refuge from the rain beneath a bridge poignantly graffitied with numerous names of victims of gun violence – it’s the same spot where their groups have chosen to rumble. This is also where the show’s sad but unsatisfying and abrupt ending plays out. 

Streaming through the end of August, “The Blackest Battle” screams plus ça change, the immutability of human nature, and does it in an entirely fresh and entertaining way.

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Leaving modern NYC for 1950s cult experiment

Couple ditches rat race for old way of living in ‘Maple and Vine’

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Jacob Yeh and Em Whitworth in Spooky Action Theater's ‘Maple and Vine.’ (Photo by DJ Corey Photography)

‘Maple and Vine’
Through Oct. 23
Spooky Action Theater
1810 16th St., N.W. 
$30-$40
Spookyaction.org

As theatergoers file into Spooky Action Theater’s intimate performance space to see Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine,” they’ll find two young actors in bed on a dimly lit, sparsely set stage. While the man sleeps soundly on his side, the woman tosses and turns. She can’t rest, her weary face is visible from the glow of her smartphone (an all too familiar scene for many). 

Soon we learn that Katha (Em Whitworth), an editor at Random House, is — for reasons personal and professional — burned out. Increasingly, she experiences sleepless nights and every morning it becomes harder to go to work. Her supportive husband Ryu (Jacob Yeh), a busy plastic surgeon, seems OK, but when he heads out for another day of facelifts and breast enhancements, he nearly collapses in despair. Clearly, there’s a problem they share. 

Katha makes a bold move. She quits her job to the delight of snarky underlings. Later, seated in a park, she by chance meets Dean (Nick DePinto), a curious stranger outfitted in sharp mid-1950s street clothes. Is his getup the latest downtown trend? He assures her it’s not. 

Breaking the fourth wall, Dean addresses the audience directly, explaining how the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence is the antidote to the alienating present (“Maple and Vine” premiered in 2011). Prior to giving up a life of cell phones and social media and embracing the past, he often spent half the day without in-person interactions. But no more, now Dean is on chatty terms with his neighbors, the baker, butcher, and fishmonger. 

Dean’s wife Ellen (Amanda Tudor) joins in delivering the peppy pitch that makes “Father Knows Best” sound downbeat. Even in scenes alone at the kitchen table, the pair keeps up surface, energetic exchanges. It’s exhausting. 

The new old way of living is in fact a gated community in the Midwest where it’s forever 1955. Freshly arrived residents are given a dossier that scripts their new identities. While the plan has room for a few beatniks and a couple comparatively progressive intellectuals, most recruits are assigned to take on traditional roles of the era. 

That two smart people with options would sign on for a minimum six-month stint with a creepy cult is a bit of a stretch, but the out playwright asks us to follow, so we do.

After intermission, the couple has left their modern New York City apartment for a cookie cutter yellow post-war house on the corner of Maple and Vine in a new town. Because they’re now officially categorized as a mixed-race marriage, a red flag for Japanese American Ryu, the couple is placed on the less racist north side of the community. 

Upon arrival, Ryu is assigned a job assembling cardboard boxes at a factory. Katha, renamed Kathy, is mostly homemaking but does some volunteer work. She proves a natural for a post on the ladies’ authenticity committee, a group that strives to make the experience as real as possible, warts and all. The darker side of the fabulous fifties is part of the deal. 

Director Stevie Zimmerman smoothly helms a team that serves up all sorts of delights like Alison Samantha Johnson’s costumes (men’s blue serge suits, spectator shoes, and fedoras; and the women’s wasp-waisted swing skirt dresses in floral and checkered patterns, and complicated foundation garments), and set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s contrasting locales. 

Harrison, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Drama for “Marjorie Prime,” doesn’t overlook the problems encountered by closeted gay men in 1950s America, not by a longshot. Out actor Stephen Russell Murray plays two of the play’s three gay men with great versatility – to say anything more would be a spoiler.

With its references to prescribed guilt-free smoking, Sanka coffee, and Salisbury steak TV dinners, the script is a hoot. But what’s most interesting aren’t the lifestyle changes per se, but the issues that prompt them. 

When Tudor as Ellen lets down her mask and reveals her truth, it’s chilling. Rather than finding a solution, it seems – not surprisingly – that the characters might have traded one of set of problems for another. 

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Theater

‘Hamilton’ star boosting Afro-Latinx, queer representation

Gonzalez and partner launch DominiRican Productions

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Pierre Jean Gonzalez (Photo courtesy Ambe J. Photography)

‘Hamilton’
Through Oct. 9
The Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F St., N.W.
$59–$399
Kennedy-center.org

For gay Latinx actor Pierre Jean Gonzalez, playing the title Founding Father in the national tour of “Hamilton” isn’t just another part.

“It’s a powerful thing,” says Gonzalez, recognizing the enormity of the job. “We all learned history in school. We know who’s who when we look at a textbook; but when people who look like you are telling the story, it shifts.”

Currently moored to the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 9, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seminal 2015 sung-and-rapped through musical presents early American history in a novel and inclusive way, focusing on the life experience of one man. With 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the show continues to be the hottest draw in town wherever it pitches its tent. 

“When I step on stage as Hamilton, I’m continually amazed by the pandemonium in the audience, especially the younger fans. If we miss a single lyric, the children know,” he says. 

“It’s a drama, a soap, and an action movie. An ambitious immigrant, Hamilton pushes through obstacles, creates his own narrative, and doesn’t throw away a shot. Audiences like that.”

Reared in a housing project in the Bronx as the only boy in a Dominican/Puerto Rican family it wasn’t cool to be queer, says Gonzalez, 34. So, he played it straight until his second year at Rutgers University when a comfortably out friend inspired him to follow suit. Back at home, the family wasn’t all that surprised, he adds with a chuckle.

Navigating through life as his authentic self gives Gonzalez a leg up. He explains, “I think feeling more connected and open makes me a better actor.”

As a drama student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Gonzalez spent a life-altering junior year studying Shakespeare at the Globe in London: “For me the metronome, cadence, the words and music in ‘Hamilton’ are very much connected to Shakespeare, and that’s why I’m here now.”

After school, despite finding an agent and auditioning, those first four years weren’t good. “For a Latinx actor with my look there were three roles: thug #3, a dishwasher, or hitman.”

He was dismayed. Despite possessing training, talent, energy, and good looks, casting agents didn’t see him as a leading man. But with “Hamilton,” the industry changed and so did Gonzalez’s self-perception: “Finally, I knew I was the right choice to play a leading man.”

In total, Gonzalez has toured with “Hamilton” for five years counting 18 months of “pandemic nothingness,” he says. Before being promoted to playing Alexander Hamilton in August of 2021, he was standby, covering Hamilton, Burr (the villain) and Britain’s King George. At a moment’s notice he might have been called on to play one of three tracks. “It was turning me on artistically,” he says. “One of the last crazy days before the pandemic, I was Hamilton for a Saturday matinee and that same evening I was Burr. Not a lot of actors can say that.”

During the early days of the pandemic and before, Gonzalez and his fiancé Cedric Leiba Jr., an Afro-Latino actor, had many conversations surrounding career frustrations. They discussed the challenges faced by actors of color, and how those challenges can be compounded when said actors are also queer.

In 2020, the couple founded DominiRican Productions, an award-winning film production company whose mission is to ramp up Afro-Latinx and queer representation both behind and in front of the camera.

“It kind of happened as a protest,” he explains. “George Floyd had just been killed and the country was starting to look at itself and ask why are Black and Brown bodies treated this way?”

Success has ensued with two collaborative, celebrated shorts — “Release” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get Who?” — both directed by Gonzalez. 

While working with your partner can sometimes be a lot, it also has its advantages, says Gonzalez. He appreciates the pair ultimately always have one another’s back. Also, they’re different in complementary ways. “Cedric is more type A, really gets things done,” says Gonzalez “He keeps me tethered to the ground.” 

For the moment, the affianced actors have put nuptials on the back burner, preferring to invest their time and money in the company. Gonzalez says, “We don’t have kids or a mortgage, the company is our child; it’s what drives us.” 

And what about “Hamilton”? “Another year, maybe longer? Whatever happens, I’m taking it one day at a time and feeling a lot of gratitude,” he says. 

Pierre Jean Gonzalez as Hamilton. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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Theater

A diverse fall theater season underway in D.C.

Exploring the American workplace, Moms Mabley, abortion access, and more

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Bobby Smith in ‘No Place to Go’ at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

At Signature Theatre in Arlington, the fall season has already kicked off with Ethan Lipton’s “No Place to Go” (through Oct. 16), a commentary on the sad state of working in America starring Bobby Smith backed by a cool trio of musicians. In a stunning performance, Smith plays George, a writer/musician juggling artistic pursuits and a day job as an information refiner. When the unfeeling company decides to streamline, George must decide whether to remain in the city that never sleeps or follow his “permanent part-time job” to Mars.

Smartly staged by Signature’s artistic director Matthew Gardiner, the show runs a brisk, effective, and entertaining 90 minutes. With the feel of a nightclub act squeezed into an office, George, the band’s front man, stands mostly center stage, bookended by a standard issue desk and a large copy machine. “No Place to Go” proves a wonderful vehicle for Smith, allowing the out actor to demonstrate his sensational singing range, comedic gifts, and depth as an actor. Sigtheatre.org

GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights presents “Revoltosa”/ “The Troublemaker” (through Oct. 2) helmed by out director José Luis Arellano. Alternating between song and Spanish spoken word (with English subtitles), this popular zarzuela is at its heart “a story about an outspoken woman who upturns traditions with her neighbors and delights in exposing social hypocrisies.” Galatheatre.org

At Anacostia Arts Center, award-winning performer Charisma Wooten is reprising her celebrated comedy cabaret, “A Night with Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley” (Sept. 23 – Oct. 9), presented by Essential Theatre. For decades Mabley killed it playing man-hungry Moms, shuffling around stages in a housecoat and slippers. Offstage, often outfitted in silk shirts and trousers with a showgirl on her arm, the famed groundbreaking Black comedian was out to friends and colleagues. Theessentialtheatre.org

North Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center boasts a fall lineup including, among many offerings, music collective Sweet Honey in the Rock (Sept. 16), famed Bossa Nova phenom Sergio Mendes (September 29), and “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Nov. 20-22). Strathmore.org

At Ford’s Theatre, esteemed out director Michael Wilson is staging Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” (Sept. 23 – Oct. 16), an American classic about going home. The much-anticipated (by me for sure) production features D.C. great Nancy Robinette as Carrie Watts, an elderly woman determined to return to her rural hometown. The cast also includes Joe Mallon as Carrie’s overly protective son Ludie, and Kimberly Gilbert as his selfish wife Jessie Mae. Fordstheatre.org

Shakespeare Theatre Company opens its season with Tony-winning Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonarda da Vinci” (Sept. 29 – Oct. 23). Composed entirely of words from da Vinci’s notebooks, the piece brings his glorious genius to vivid life. Shakespearetheatre.org

Spooky Action Theatre’s autumn offering is gay playwright Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine” (Sept. 29 – Oct. 23) a play about a disillusioned urban couple who in pursuit of happiness forsake contemporary trappings for a more 1950s lifestyle. Spookyaction.org

Mosaic Theater Company opens its fall season with playwright Ifa Bayeza’s “The Till Trilogy” (Oct. 4 – Nov. 20). The three plays (“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” “Benevolence,” and the world premiere “That Summer in Sumner”) reflect on the life, death, and legacy of young Emmett Till, whose senseless murder in 1955 Jim Crow South remains a pivotal moment in American history. The long-awaited production directed by Talvin Wilks, features ten actors performing in rotating repertory. Included in the cast are talented out actors Vaughn Ryan Midder and Jaysen Wright.

Arena Stage opens the fall season with “Holiday” (Oct. 7 – Nov. 6), a sparkling romantic comedy penned by Philip Barry, followed by retiring artistic director Molly Smith’s directorial adieu “My Body No Choice” (Oct. 20 through Nov. 6), some of America’s leading female playwrights share what choice means to them, through the telling of fiction and non-fiction stories rooted in personal experience. Arenastage.org

The DMV fall season is more than peppered with plays by Lynn Nottage, the African-American Pulitzer Prize winner whose work frequently highlights the struggles of working class and marginalized people. Below are two.

At 1st Stage in Tysons, out director Jose Carrasquillo is staging Nottage’s “Mlima’s Tale” (through Oct. 2), a story about an elderly poached elephant whose magnificent ivory tusks embark on a journey across the world, introducing characters connected to the ivory trade. 1ststage.org

Theatre J has tapped talented Paige Hernandez to direct Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” (Oct. 19 – Nov. 13). Set on New York’s Lower East Side circa 1905, it’s the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress, who while sewing lingerie yearns for romance, particularly with one Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant. Theaterj.org

With “Judy” (October 22), the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates the music of the incomparable legend Judy Garland. Fourteen soloists plucked from the Chorus will share stories and sing her tunes, including favorites like “Over the Rainbow,” “The Trolley Song,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Man That Got Away,” and “Happy Days are Here Again.” Gmcw.org

At Olney Theatre, Clare Barron’s off-Broadway hit “Dance Nation” (Sept. 28 – Oct. 30) follows a tween-age dance team from Liverpool, Ohio, as they compete for the top prize at the Boogie Down Grand Prix. Actors of varied ages — including excellent out actor MaryBeth Wise — portray the girls (and one boy) as adolescents and their future adult selves. Not for kids.

And for theatergoers who missed it last season, Olney Theatre is remounting its terrific production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” (Nov. 9 through Jan. 1, 2023). And fortunately for audiences, out actor Jade Jones, a self-described queer, plus-sized Black woman, is reprising her star turn as Belle. Olneytheatre.org

Finally, Theatre Washington has announced the return of Theatre Week, a three-week celebration of the launch of the 2022-2023 theater season in D.C. Theatre Week will be held Sept. 22-Oct. 9, and will offer shows at discounted prices, a Kickoff Fest and Concert on the Southwest waterfront, and other community events. 

The 2022 Theatre Week Kickoff Fest and Concert will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24 on the Waterfront in Southwest. The Fest from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at Arena Stage (1101 Sixth St. SW), will feature performances, workshops, conversations, free locally made food & drinks, giveaways, and more. The Kickoff Concert will follow on the floating stage (Transit Pier) on the Wharf, and will feature performances from D.C.-area theater luminaries. Both events are free with registration through Goldstar, the official ticketing partner of Theatre Week.

Throughout Theatre Week, more than 20 area productions will offer discounted tickets at $22, $33, $44 through Goldstar. More information on Theatre Week shows, events, and registration is available at theatreweek.org.

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