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D.C.’s spring theater scene feels like the before times

A renewed sense of excitement and embarrassment of stage riches

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Playwright Benjamin Benne; ‘In His Hands’ opens at Mosaic Theater Company in June. (Photo courtesy Mosaic)

With such a broad selection of live theater on offer this spring, it almost feels like the before times. Well, almost. Masks and proof of vaccination are still required at DMV venues, but there’s also a renewed feeling that productions will complete their runs. Here’s a smattering of some plays and musicals blossoming around town. 

Through March 27, Washington Stage Guild presents George Bernard Shaw’s classic “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the story of a mother and daughter who sharply disagree on aspects of morality and business. When Shaw’s play premiered in 1905, it was considered scandalous for its candid discussion of the hypocrisy surrounding prostitution. Michael Rothhaar directs. Stageguild.org 

Arena Stage brings a little con-artistry to its campus this spring with “Catch Me If You Can” (through April 17). First a book, then a Leonardo DiCaprio film, and lastly a Broadway musical with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and libretto by Terrence McNally, the late great out playwright who died from COVID-19 early in the pandemic, the show is about Abagnale Jr. who “posed as an airline pilot, a lawyer and a doctor — and then escaped police custody, all before he turned 22.” Arena’s out artistic director Molly Smith directs. Arenastage.org

In Arlington, Signature Theatre presents “She Loves Me” (through April 24), a romantic musical comedy by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the creators of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Set in a 1930s perfumery, it’s the story of quarrelsome co-workers who don’t realize each is the other’s besotted secret pen pal. 

Helmed by Signature’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner, the promising production brings together musical director Jon Kalbfleisch, choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise, set designer Lee Savage, and a terrific cast that includes, among many others, Helen Hayes Award-winning actors Bobby Smith and Maria Rizzo. Sig-theatre.org

Ford’s Theatre dives into spring with “Grace” (March 19-May 14). A world premiere musical by D.C. composer Nolan Williams, Jr., “Grace” celebrates African-American tradition as experienced through a day in the life of a Philadelphia family who come together to mourn the loss of their matriarch and deal with the future of their family restaurant in a changing neighborhood. Staged by out director and choreography Robert Barry Fleming. Fords.org 

Celebrated non-binary actor and queer activist Temídayo Amay plays opposite New York actor Eric Berryman in Mona Pirnot’s play “Private” (March 23 – April 17) at Mosaic Theater Company. What once might be deemed a far-fetched plot now sounds more than feasible: “Set in the not-too-distant future, Corbin has just been offered his dream job at an industry leading technology company. But there’s a catch. The terms of his employment stipulate that Corbin and his wife Georgia must both agree to round-the-clock monitoring and audio surveillance by Corbin’s potential employer.” Knud Adams directs.  

Also upcoming at Mosaic, it’s young playwright Benjamin Benne’s queer romantic comedy “In His Hands” (June 22 – July 17). Directed by out director José Carrasquillo, it’s the story of video game wizard and aspiring Lutheran pastor Daniel (Michael J. Mainwariing), who develops feelings for Christian (Josh Adams), but as the pair explore relationship possibilities, voices from Christian’s past threaten to put the kibosh on shared feelings. Mosaictheater.org

Keegan Theatre presents the regional premiere of Dipika Guha’s “Yoga Play” (March 26-April 23), a sharp comedy in which fat shaming, enlightenment, and commerce collide. Keegan’s dynamic artistic director Susan Marie Rhea directs. Keegantheatre.com

At Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arin Arbus is directing a modern-dress take on “The Merchant of Venice” (March 22-April 17). The Bard’s exploration of prejudice and mercy features renowned African-American actor John Douglas Thompson making his STC debut as Shylock, the eponymous moneylender. 

Following “Merchant,” it’s gay playwright Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece “Our Town” (May 12 – June 11), a poignant portrayal of shared human experience set in turn-of-the-century smalltown Grover’s Corners, N.H. Staged by out director Alan Paul, the production –rescheduled from February to May due to COVID – features a truly stunning array of local talent including out actors Sarah Marshall, Tom Story, and Holly Twyford. Shakespearetheatre.org

In April, Round House Theatre launches the National Capital New Play Festival, an annual event celebrating new work by some of the country’s leading playwrights and newer voices. Included among the premieres is playwright Charly Evon Simpson’s “it’s not a trip it’s a journey” (April 5-May 8). Four exceedingly disparate girlfriends leave behind New York City and their cell phones for an eye-opening road trip to the Grand Canyon. Nicole A. Watson directs.

Another festival offering is Tim J. Lord’s “We declare you a terrorist…” (April 7-May 8), a taut thriller inspired by Moscow’s real life 2002 Dubrovka Theater crisis in which Chechen rebels took hundreds hostage with deadly results. Ryan Rilett and Jared Mezzocchi co-direct. Roundhousetheatre.org 

In Tysons, 1st Stage presents Lisa B. Thompson’s “The Mamalogues” (April 21-May 8), a satirical comedy about three friends who share the joys, challenges, and anxieties of being middle class single Black mothers in predominantly white suburbs. Angelisa Gillyard directs. 1ststage.org

Olney Theatre presents “Black Parade: A Drag Show Tribute to the Black Icons in Music” (April 29). For one night only, queens of color take the stage for some “fabulous strutting, lip-synching and dancing.” 

In May, Olney presents “The Joy That Carries You” (May 11-June 12), a drama about an interracial couple in crisis by local playwriting team Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller Olney’s out artistic director Jason Loewith and Kevin McAllister co-direct.

And in June, Olney’s mainstage goes to River City with Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” (June 17-July 24), the Broadway hit about a con-artist whose best scam involves posing as a boys’ band organizer in smalltown America. Olney’s revolutionary production is performed in American Sign Language and English is staged by Michael Baron and Sandra Mae Frank and features terrific actor James Caverly who is deaf as confidence man, Professor Harold Hill. Olneytheatre.org 

Studio Theatre turns the witchy history of Salem Village on its ear with the world premiere of Kimberly Belflower’s “John Proctor Is the Villain” (April 17-June 6). In present day rural Georgia, high schoolers are reading “The Crucible.” But the assignment becomes all too relevant when scandal rocks their town. Marti Lyons directs. Studiotheatre.org 

At Theater J, spring brings “Nathan the Wise” (March 16-April 10). Here’s the gist of the play: In 12th century Jerusalem, Jews, Christians, and Muslims live side by side in peace. But when tensions inevitably rise, the ruling sultan asks which religion is most beloved by God. Jewish merchant Nathan attempts to answer the question. Adapted by Michael Bloom, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 18th century fable is filled with mistaken identities, foiled romances, and relationships across cultural and religious divides. Theater J’s out artistic director Adam Immerwahr directs. 

And next up, it’s “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities” (June 9–July 3). Conceived, written, and originally performed remarkably by Anna Deavere Smith, the documentary play time travels back to August 1991 when Brooklyn’s racially divided Crown Heights neighborhood erupted into riots after a Black child was killed by a car in a prominent Orthodox rabbi’s motorcade and a white Jewish scholar was killed in retaliation. The work uses verbatim testimony from individuals throughout the diverse community. January LaVoy is the sole actor (she plays 25+ characters) and she is co-directing with Adam Immerwahr. Theaterj.org

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

Theatergoers asked to play audience of Nigerian chat show

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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
$55-$78
Roundhousetheatre.org

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

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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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Queer rom-com ‘In His Hands’ combines sexuality, laughs

A world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company

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Playwright Benjamin Benne (center) with actors Michael J. Mainwaring (left) and Josh Adams (right). (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘In His Hands’
June 22 through July 17
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$20-68
Mosaictheater.org

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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