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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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Theater

Tony Thomas brings ‘Tempestuous Elements’ to DC

Ann Julia Cooper play will be at Arena Stage through March 17

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Tony Thomas (Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas)

‘Tempestuous Elements’
Through March 17
Arena Stage 
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$56-$95
Arenastage.org

Tony Thomas isn’t shy about his talent. The accomplished choreographer says, “With every show I work on, the artists continue to grow. They leave wanting to keep moving and to expand that part of their artistry.”

Over the years, he’s successfully carved out a niche as a choreographer of plays with music and/or movement. For many of these “playsicals” as he whimsically dubs them, his creative credit reads “choreography consultant.”

Once an actor who danced a lot, he’s now passionate about helping other actors do the same. Currently, he’s serving as choreographer and associate director for the world premiere production of “Tempestuous Elements,” at Arena Stage’s in the round Fichandler space. Penned by Kia Corthron and staged by Psalmayene 24, it’s the true-life story of Ann Julia Cooper (played by Gina Daniels), a Black principal at D.C.’s historic M Street School who, against all odds, fights for her students’ rights to an advanced curriculum. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Is this a D.C. story?

TONY THOMAS: In part. It’s more a story of its time. Anna understood she was poised to be somebody, but still feel the pushback. Superintendent white doesn’t approve of the classic curriculum she’s created for Black students. Hers is a turn of 20th century Black middle-class life with high tea and much finery. More importantly, Black people are being seen as human beings. It’s an opportunity to really be someone, but the fight isn’t over. People are boxed in another systemic way.

BLADE: And how does choreography work within a play?

THOMAS: With plays, I need to demonstrate the choreography. The actors want to see it. It’s not like with dancers when we speak the same vocabulary. 

I realize energy is one of my selling points. I’ll be 45 in April and apparently my turns and jumps are still on point.

BLADE Is there a difference between beautiful movement and not just actor movement?

THOMAS: There’s a difference. With “Tempestuous Elements,” I taught them a little ballet, warmed them up and imbued them with the dignity needed for the story they’re about to tell. Some of the cast already move like dancers while others understand tempo. When choreographing plays with movement, you have to trust the actors. 

BLADE: Is that tough for a trained dancer?

THOMAS: No, not really. I have a concert dance background — ballet, modern, jazz — and have studied with Debbie Allen, Shawn Cosby and Mike Malone. I don’t expect that level of training from actors. I like the freedom to move and put their characters into it. They’re not like ten concert dancers who need to look like one person. They are moving as characters — students, different adults.

BLADE: For a decade, you stepped away from showbiz? 

THOMAS: I stopped in my mid-20s. I turned Ailey down twice. Then I went to art school and pursued a degree in interior architecture at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. 

BLADE: And you returned theater? 

THOMAS: Now I do both theater and interior architecture, but in 2012 friends dared me to come along on an audition for the Broadway “West Side Story.” Well, I did and I booked a national tour. That got me back in the business. Not long after, I played Richie in “A Chorus Line” at Olney Theatre. And around 2015, I did “The Shipment” with Psalm, and ever since I’ve done all of the choreography and movement for his plays.

            BLADE: Tell me how you connect with “Tempestuous Elements”?

THOMAS: Who was your first teacher? We asked the actors to come to this production with that in mind, and to let that warm their hearts as we developed this original piece.

I grew up as a child actor doing TV, film and theater shuttling back and forth from D.C. to New York, and I took that from my mom who was an actor, singer, and dancer. I watched her teach, dress as a clown and put on parties for kids, and there were all sorts of performance-related things that I learned from her.

BLADE: And does that continue? 

THOMAS: Oh yeah. Increasingly, I enjoy being the process. I’ve grown past the point of just coming in and doing my job. I feel more invested. More and more, I want to be part of the creation process.

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Theater

Deaf, gay actor on gripping, funny ‘Private Jones’

Musical makes premiere at Signature with Obie winner Dickie Drew Hearts

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Dickie Drew Hearts (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

‘Private Jones’
Through March 10
Signature Theatre 
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Virginia 22206
$40-$99 
Sigtheatre.org

Set against the harsh vicissitudes of the Great War, “Private Jones” a new musical written and directed by Marshall Pailet, is currently making its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington. 

Touted as gripping, unexpectedly funny, and purportedly true, it’s the story of Gomer Jones, a young Deaf Welshman who after wriggling his way into military service becomes a celebrated sniper only to learn there might be more to life. 

The production features a cast of hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing actors including Dickie Drew Hearts, the Deaf, gay, and affable actor who recently won an Obie Award for “Dark Disabled Stories” at the Public in New York, and is probably best known for his performance of Mateo in Netflix’s “Tales of the City” (2019 miniseries).

Gathered around the end of a long conference table in the Sondheim Multipurpose Room at Signature Theatre, Hearts and I along with two top notch interpreters (one to sign my questions and another to voice the actor’s replies) dive into conversation. 

Hearts plays Henry, a Deaf munitions factory worker whose sister Gwenolyn (Leanne Antonio) becomes the love interest of Gomer (played by hard-of-hearing actor Johnny Link). It’s Henry who teaches Gomer sign language and essentially introduces him to Deaf culture, which isn’t unusual, says Hearts. It’s often through other Deaf people that the Deaf themselves get introduced to the Deaf community and signing world.

When the actors met in 2018, says Hearts, “Johnny [Link] was just learning sign language. I assured him that those who are hard-of-hearing are automatically very welcome members of the deaf community. Point blank. There are no qualifications.”

And now, six years later, Hearts is thrilled to be working with Link. “It’s amazing to see Johnny again, and to be having full conversations with him in sign language both on and off stage.” 

Not only is “Private Jones” a physically demanding show, but because it’s performed in spoken English as well as some American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) it presents some extra difficulties.

To play Henry, Hearts – a native ASL user since childhood – has had to learn BSL, tantamount to doing the show in an entirely new and different language. Hearts says, “I hope people recognize that. And signing along musically in BSL adds a layer of challenge beyond signing BSL dialogue.” 

Of course, he remains undaunted. It’s about the job and getting the character right. And for the thirtysomething actor that means going deep.  

“I would like to think Henry is a closeted gay man. Henry has ‘a roommate,’ is how I thought of his backstory.”

Hearts adds, “I know that queer people have always been here and I like to infuse that into the characters I play whether or not it’s stated. I look for those moments of where it might be hinting at sexuality, and ask what was it like at the time, was it safe to be out?”

Born Deaf in Queens, New York, into a hearing family who’d recently immigrated from formerly British Guyana in South America, Hearts grew up in Newport News, Va. 

A childhood spent watching captioned TV shows taught him both English and how to impersonate characters, an obsession that he took out into the neighborhood. “Eventually, somebody said there’s a thing for what I do. It’s called theater,” he signs with a grin. 

While attending Gallaudet University here in D.C., Hearts focused on film until his senior year when he randomly auditioned for the musical comedy “Urinetown” and landed the lead role of dashing Bobby Strong. A love for acting resurfaced and took hold. 

After graduating, Hearts came out and promptly moved to L.A. where he spent the next six years skirmishing over a dearth of Deaf parts. When a gig led him to New York in 2018, his luck changed. 

“Being a Deaf, gay, BIPOC actor was amazing for finding stage and film work in New York. But just when a lot of doors were opening for me, the pandemic hit and everything stopped.” 

Slowly things picked up. And in 2021 he became part of a new project. He was soon reporting to a nondescript high rise in midtown Manhattan workshopping what would become “Private Jones.” 

Now at Signature, Hearts is busy bringing Henry to life. “It’s been an amazing journey and I’m really fortunate to have witnessed its evolution from the beginning. It’s become grander, more elevated, and the characters more complex. It’s a wonderful thing” 

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Theater

‘Next to Normal’ a heartrending rock musical about mental illness

Impact on patient, family, and beyond expressed through song

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Lucas Hinds Babcock (Gabe) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Next to Normal’
Through March 3
Round House Theatre 
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD  20814
$46-$88 
Roundhousetheatre.org

They’ve made a deal. Dan goes to work and does the shopping, while Diana stays home and keeps house. It’s safer that way. But when Diana starts making sandwiches on the floor, something’s not right. So, it’s back to the doctor. 

And that’s the kickoff to “Next to Normal,” Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s masterful alt-rock musical, now enjoying a revival at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Strikingly helmed by out director Alan Paul, the production features an exciting mix of both new and familiar faces. 

It’s the suburban mother’s sixteenth year into a bipolar disorder diagnosis and Diana Goodman, played brilliantly by Tracy Lynn Olivera, is understandably a bit battle weary. Yet despite years of periodic episodes, med adjustments, and interminable flat days filled with robotically performed household chores including sex with her husband, she still maintains a wry sense of humor peppered with sarcastic asides, all skillfully landed by Olivera. 

And while Diana is the eye of the domestic storm, the rest of the family play their parts too. There’s Dan (Kevin S. McAllister), the exhausted architect, doing his best to keep home life as normal as possible, supporting a wife while missing the young vibrant woman she once was; teenage daughter Natalie (Sophia Early) a peevish grade-grubber who’s prime for emotional escape; and an elusive son, Gabe (Lucas Hinds Babcock), being his mother’s ally. 

Also on hand is Henry (Ben Clark), the kind, stoner new boyfriend who Natalie reluctantly introduces to her parents.  

With “Who’s Crazy?”/ “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” we musically follow Diana through her current med adjustment. After almost two months of uncomfortable tweaking, Diana says she feels nothing and treatment is deemed a success. 

Feeling nothing is painful. Through her plaintive solo “I Miss the Mountains,” she explains the exhilarating highs she longs to relive. Unsurprisingly, the patient soon goes off her meds and what follows is a manic episode of nonstop cleaning, cooking, rearranging, and lots of decoupage.

Next up is more treatment including ECT therapy. Versatile local actor Calvin McCullough plays both Fine and Madden, Diana’s sincere but not wholly successful doctors. 

“Next to Normal” premiered to acclaim in 2008, scooping up awards with names like Tony and Pulitzer. A rock musical with a hard charging score and a libretto about mental illness that’s at once heartrending and funny felt new and was hugely well received. 

Similarly, the mostly sung through musical is a hit at Round House (with an extended run through March 3) thanks largely to the revival’s inventive staging, fresh musical direction by Chris Youstra, and an uber talented cast of six.  

Here, the powerful effects of mental illness on the patient, family, and beyond are expressed not through dialogue but songs feelingly sung – sometimes softly, sometimes loudly. 

Each of the cast have their moments, including Lucas Hinds Babcock as Gabe who zooms lithely around the set singing “I’m Alive.” It’s – to me – a fantastic introduction to Babcock’s talent.

Smartly, Eamon Foley provides some fun but mostly fittingly understated choreography, and Helen Q. Huang’s thoughtful costuming adds to the atmosphere, accentuating burgeoning Natalie’s changing means of sartorial expression and Diana’s patient versus civilian attire. 

Director Paul, along with celebrated designers Wilson Chin (scenic) and Nicholas Hussong (projections), have created an immense industrial expanse that serves as home, hospital, and recital hall, and cleverly supplies a surface for outsized projections of the actors’ faces and, most unforgettably, a tight shot of Olivera’s blinking blue eyes. 

These projections – both recorded and in real-time – get up close and personal with the cast’s performances, creating an intimacy and intensity that works especially well, making a satisfying experience even better.  

“Next to Normal” is a co-production with Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company where Alan Paul is artistic director. Before landing in the Berkshires in 2023, he was associate artistic director at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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