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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

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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.
$50-$64
Mosaictheater.org

“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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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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