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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



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. 

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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D.C. theaters offer something for every holiday taste

From ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ to plenty of Scrooge productions



The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presents ‘The Holiday Show.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For many Washington area theatergoers, it wouldn’t be the holidays without seeing an old chestnut or two. At the same time, newer productions are rapidly becoming yuletide traditions in their own right, and with every unfolding holiday season, the DMV scene is additionally gifted with fresh and exciting works. 

It’s a lot. Here’s a sampling. 

National Theatre presents “A Magical Cirque Christmas” (Dec. 16-18), an evening of varied performers and spectacular double-jointed cirque artists accompanied by your favorite holiday music performed live. Mistress of Magic Lucy Darling hosts this exciting and enchanting holiday entertainment for the entire family (well, almost, children under four are strictly verboten).

At Synetic Theater in Crystal City, it’s “Snow Maiden” (Dec. 1 – 23) based on a 19th century folk tale about a lonely man who creates a woman out of snow and created by Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer and Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili. 

In Falls Church, Creative Cauldron is conjuring magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 2-18). Married collaborators Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith’s musical is based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown about a lonely woman who finds happiness through a box of old toys.

The season now upon us offers myriad opportunities to experience Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the redemptive tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps the most celebrated Christmas character after Santa, Rudolph, and the baby Jesus.

Historic Ford’s Theatre version of “A Christmas Carol” (through Dec. 31) has been a popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years. The beautifully produced and consistently well-acted take on the Dickens’ classic (originally conceived by Michael Baron), features Craig Wallace reprising Scrooge, who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. 

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello lovingly revisits his celebrated take on the “A Christmas Carol” (through Jan. 1). In his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story (created and performed by Morello), he brings to life more than 40 different characters including Scrooge, the entire Cratchit family, the specters, and numerous celebrants.

Olney is also reviving its holiday musical success “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 1, and reprising roles in the tale as old time terrific are out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero as the Beast. Out actor Bobby Smith plays Lumiere. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs.

In various books and interviews, movie star Bette Davis recounts how as a young girl, she most looked forward to finding theater tickets under the tree (a Davis family Christmas tradition). Perhaps you know a youth or adult, who’d like receive tickets this holiday season? The Kennedy Center Opera House is tempting audiences with a traveling production of the Broadway blockbuster “Wicked” (Dec. 8-Jan. 22), the much-loved prequel of the “Wizard of Oz.” 

Signature Theatre adds to the holiday fun with “Into the Woods” (through Jan. 29), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s unique musical spin on treasured fairytales and “happily-ever-after.” The large, uber-talented cast features — among other big names — Nova Y. Payton, out actor David Merino, and Maria Rizzo. Matthew Gardiner directs.

Then there’s always “The Nutcracker.” Here are four from scores of local productions. 

The Washington Ballet presents its charming version at the gilded Warner Theatre through Dec. 30. With Tchaikovsky’s timeless music and splendid choreography by Septime Weber, this 1882 Georgetown-set production features historical figures including George Washington and King George III, along with the usual suspects like children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather.

Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore presents “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 19-22), Tchaikovsky’s classic re-imagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”).  

And Kansas City Ballet’s celebrated seasonal tradition, “The Nutcracker,” is at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 27, so you’ll need to move fast. 

The beloved Puppet Co. located within Glen Echo Park presents its 34th annual “The Nutcracker” through Jan. 1. The delightful puppet show includes Tchaikovsky’s familiar music and the story of Clara and her prince, with some Puppet Co. nursery rhyme spin. (Recommended for ages 4+. Run time approximately 50 minutes.)

Running nearly concurrently at the Puppet Co. is “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” (Dec. 1-30). “Hershel just wants to celebrate Hanukkah with the community, but the Queen and King of the Goblins have forbidden the lighting of the candles. Can Hershel save the day and lift the curse for this shtetl (village)?” (Recommended ages 5+. Run time approximately 60 minutes.) 

And for those who might find themselves all Nutcracker-ed out, Ballet Hispánico returns to the Kennedy Center with internationally renowned choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Doña Perón” (Nov. 30-Dec. 3), a truly exciting portrait of Eva “Evita” Perón. 

And for something festive, edifying, and relaxed, try the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Ugly Sweater Holiday Concert” at The Anthem on Dec. 6. Go ahead, why not don something hideous and enjoy your favorite holiday songs? 

Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is back with “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 3-11), an annual extravaganza that promises sparkly snow, tap dancers, and over-the-top costumes at their usual venue, the historic Lincoln Theatre in the U Street Corridor. Slated for the program are songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “Underneath the Tree,” “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Hard Candy Christmas” performed by the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. 

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Poignant ‘Sanctuary City’ depicts two immigrants struggling to get ahead in America

Undocumented friends navigate post-9/11 New Jersey



Hernán Angulo and María Victoria Martínez in Sanctuary City at Arena Stage.  (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘Sanctuary City’
Through Nov. 27
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W. 

As a kid growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, María Victoria Martínez was obsessed with musicals, Broadway shows like “West Side Story” and Disney movies were on nonstop rotation. She knew the scores by heart and longed to play not the ingenues or princesses, but rather character roles like “The Little Mermaid’s” villainous Ursula and Miss Hannigan, the comically bitter lush in “Annie.”

“Imitating the singers is how I learned English,” says Martínez, 30. It also ignited a passion for theater that ultimately lured her into show biz (though she doesn’t do musicals).

 After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico followed by a master’s degree from A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University), she kicked off a career as a multifaceted actor. Martínez follows the work, but splits most her time between San Juan and New York City: “It’s my idea of a bicoastal existence,” she says. 

Currently Martínez, who identifies as queer, is at Arena Stage starring in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” an Arena/Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production directed by David Mendizábal with associate direction and transfer direction by Cara Hinh.

Set in Newark, N.J., not long after 9/11, a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise, the new work is a timely and poignant piece. Martínez and out actor Hernán Angulo play longtime undocumented friends (simply called G and B, respectively), struggling to get ahead in America, the only home they’ve ever known. 

Without giving too much away, adds Martínez, G’s position in the U.S. is more stable than B’s. Still, she’s willing to fight to help secure his fate. He is arguably her only friend. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Would you describe your character, G, as the fierier of the two? 

MARĺA VICTORIA MARTĺNEZ: Yes. As I read the play, I definitely saw this ardent fire in G. When she feels safe the fire burns but she feels in danger, her fire is combustible and liable to burn everything down. G is the engine that tries to keep B going, to uplift him, to find ways for him to stay in the country. 

They share moments when they seem like brother and sister, sometimes friends, and even lovers. It’s left open for audience to interpret as they watch the play. It’s messy. And that’s what makes it good.

BLADE: Was it tough moving the production across country?

MARTĺNEZ: Transferring theaters was tricky – they’re very different spaces. In Berkeley we were in a black box almost in full round. Arena’s Kreeger Theater is proscenium, so we’ve had to flatten out our blocking. But in doing so we found new moments in the show. 

Audiences are different in every city. In California, there were certain moments in the show where audiences were really cracking up and here, we don’t hear a peep. But after all, theater is a living organism and moving gives new and different life.

BLADE: In “Sanctuary City,” you and Hernán Angulo play such incredibly close friends. How is that relationship offstage? 

MARTĺNEZ: We were so fortunate to have been cast together. We got along right off the bat and now we’re very close. I identify as queer and he identifies as a gay man. But it’s really our Latinidad (Latinness) that brought us together. And we both love to laugh a lot. When apart we Facetime and share Tik Toks and serious articles too. 

I’m Puerto Rican and he’s Mexican American from the Bay Area. I’m interested in Mexican culture. Spanish is my first language; and Hernán speaks Spanish, so there’s that too. 

BLADE: Have you witnessed the courage and pain of undocumented people firsthand?

MARTĺNEZ: In Puerto Rico most of the immigrants are Dominicans. We’re generally welcoming to them. But I have seen some bad things, and when I witness that aggression, it doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t understand blocking someone from seeking refuge. 

BLADE: Anything directed at you personally?

MARTĺNEZ: Yes, I experienced some unsettling xenophobia when Trump was first elected. I was still at A.R.T. and traveling home to San Juan. At the airport, I was speaking Spanish and a lady purposely bumped into me and told me to go back to my country. I hold a U.S. passport, so you can only imagine what happens to people who are more vulnerable. 

These things are really important to talk about. And I’m happy and proud to be doing the show in D.C. I think it gives it even more meaning. 

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‘Ballad of Emmett Till’ recounts last two weeks of a life cut short

A deftly staged and well-acted look at seminal American tragedy



Stars of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ (l-r): Jaysen Wright, Antonio Michael Woodard as Till, and Vaughn Ryan Midder. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

‘The Till Trilogy: The Ballad of Emmett Till’
Through Nov. 20
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.

“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the first part of playwright Ifa Bayeza’s “The Till Trilogy” (now playing at Mosaic Theater Company), recounts the last two weeks of the title character’s short life.

There are bursts of joy and laughter during those days, but always lurking is the knowledge that the Black 14-year-old’s infectious vitality will soon be horrifically snuffed out for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The piece, deftly staged by Talvin Wilks, opens with the cast gathering on a dimly lit stage, hauntingly chanting the boy’s name, a sound that’s both foreboding and alluring, an invitation to hear his story, a seminal tragedy that drew the attention of a nation.

It’s the summer of 1955 and young Emmett, affectionately nicknamed Bobo, convinces his protective mother to grant him a little independence. Wearing a summer suit, new bucks, and that jaunty straw hat (made so familiar from the real life Till’s iconic photograph), he boards a train headed from Chicago to Money, Miss., where he’ll spend time with family in the Jim Crow South.

The road from the rural station to the humble home of Emmett’s Great Uncle Mose, a tenant farmer and lay preacher, narrows from two lanes to one to a dirt lane. It’s a happy place where everyone is expected to work. And despite being warned to defer to racist whites without question, Emmett and his cousin experience a freedom they don’t know on Chicago’s Southside. In the South, the city boys are free to drive and party at the boozy juke joint on Saturday nights. And while Emmett doesn’t take to picking the cotton or wringing a chicken’s neck, he adapts to other aspects of country life like fishing and going barefoot.

Antonio Michael Woodard nails Emmett as an energetic, smart-alecky, endearing youth, a child on the threshold of young manhood.

The stellar cast’s remaining five members play multiple roles: Billie Krishawn plays Emmett’s mother Mary Till-Bradley whose brave decision to display her son’s grossly disfigured corpse in an open casket for the world to see is credited with helping to spark the civil rights movement, as well as young boy cousin and Caroline Bryant, the white woman who set off the chain of events that led to Emmett’s death; out actors Jaysen Wright and Vaughn Ryan Midder convincingly double as both Emmett’s pals and the vicious white men who killed him; and the stalwartly versatile Jason Bowen plays Mose and other various Mississippians important to the story.

As the piece’s two older women, Rolanda Watts (of TV talk show fame) is excellent, instantly delineating between the two with a slight intonation or change of posture. She exudes warmth as Emmett’s great aunt, a kind woman who knew nothing about cotton but followed her heart and ended up the wife of a poor planter.

Bayeza sets the story in the past and present. At times, Emmett tells his own story, insisting he isn’t going to die, that he’s the chatty Chicago kid who will never stop talking, he’ll always be heard. The piece is also laced with sympathetic songs, ranging from hummable doowop to plaintive ballad, sung unaccompanied by some of the cast.

With roughly hewn planks and beams, set designer Andrew Cohen creates a barnlike atmosphere, evoking the scene of the crime. Sound designer Kwamina “Binnie” Biney adds atmosphere with the sounds of wild water fowls, and chickens clucking in the coop.

The playwright did her homework. In addition to describing his love for nice clothes and budding interest in girls, Bayeza details Emmett’s stammer and the bout with polio that left him with a withered leg. She touches on Mary’s jobs, relationships, intelligence, and ambition.
After a long, drawn-out death scene, the story’s painful ending is delivered as implicitly assured, but not without some promise of hope.

Running concurrently through Nov. 20 are the other parts of the trilogy: “That Summer in Sumner” and “Benevolence.”

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