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2 brothers share passion for family, music in ‘Bars and Measures’

Mosaic production based on powerful true story

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Brothers Eric (Joel Ashur) and Bilal (Louis E. Davis) meet in the visitation room of a correctional facility while Bilal awaits trial. Guard Wes (Afsheen Misaghi) stands in the background.  (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘Bars and Measures’
Through Feb. 26
Mosaic Theater Company
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E. 
$29 – $64
Mosaictheater.org

In playwright and breakbeat poet Idris Goodwin’s “Bars and Measures” (now at Mosaic Theater), two brothers share family history and a passion for music. Still, their relationship remains a rocky one, shook by temperament, approach, and choices. Each of the pair’s actions and notions of loyalty, leave audiences splitting their sympathy between the two men. 

Based on a true story, the action kicks off with Eric (Joel Ashur) visiting his older brother Bilal (Louis E. Davis) in a correctional facility where he’s awaiting trial on a terror related charge. Bilal, who was Darryl before converting to Islam, assures his younger sibling that it’s a case of profiling and will soon go away, however snowballing evidence indicates otherwise.  

While both men are accomplished musicians — Eric on classical piano and Bilal on double bass — the elder pressures the younger to follow his lead into jazz, the only authentic way a Black man can musically tell his story, he says. They engage in some stinging banter surrounding the usefulness of a Juilliard education, and then return to the way they communicate best — music. 

Without instruments, they opt for scatting (as in wordless jazz vocalization) Bilal’s latest music he’s composed in his mind. Close by watching is Wes (Afsheen Misaghi), an occasionally agreeable guard who’s unknowingly receiving a master class in something altogether different from his usual fare of Ted Nugent. 

Between visits, Bilal remains confined while Eric is teaching music to rich kids, warming up to jazz, and clicking professionally and personally with classical vocalist Sylvia (Lynette Rathnam), an appealing nonobservant Muslim woman. 

This keenly staged production marks out theater maker Reginald L. Douglas’ directorial debut as Mosaic’s new artistic director. Over a swift and affecting 80 minutes, Douglas heartily embraces the work’s intrinsic musicality and humor along its darker moments, all the while making great use of the intimate Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center. 

Scenic designer Paige Hathaway’s set is both beautiful and serviceable. Versatile space is backed by what looks like an unsettling sculptural installation with blue light streaming through four small barred windows cut into a concrete wall. Bilal’s beloved double bass stands on an upstage center platform. John D. Alexander’s lighting emphasizes emotional import and intent.

Time passes and Bilal’s court date draws nearer. Words like entrapment, unlawful, draconian, biased, and show trial are increasingly spoken. The system’s filling penitentiaries with Brown and Black bodies is mentioned, as is Bilal’s concern for the wellbeing of his mosque and justice for the Muslims, and those perceived as Muslim, who’ve been victims of hate crimes. 

Using direct address, Eric provides some back story. He describes a stable, music-filled, vaguely Christian household not averse to celebrating heroic Muslims like Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali; a dependable, longtime civil servant father who escaped a mundane life through jazz and bebop; and a sometimes-wild older brother who excelled at music and marital arts. 

Handsome Ashur risks giving a one-note, good guy performance as Eric, but that changes when his character unexpectedly reveals a vengeful, crueler side. Davis’ portrayal of angry yet vulnerable Bilal, is more nuanced throughout.

Celebrated musician Kris Funn has written an original score expressly for Mosaic’s production. As an added bonus, pre-show live jazz is presented in partnership with the DC Jazz Festival. At a recent press matinee, it was Funn himself elegantly plucking a jazz tune from his double bass on an alluringly lit stage.

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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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Theater

A busy Billie Krishawn focuses on ‘Sea Mink-ettes’ at Woolly Mammoth

Queer actor juggles theater with philanthropic work

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Billie Krishawn (Photo by DJ Corey Photography)

‘The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes’
Through March 3
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.
$25-$82
Woollymammoth.net 

Striving to be perfect isn’t alien to actor Billie Krishawn. And that’s not unhelpful in playing Shanteé, an intense competitor on the HBUC dance scene in Vivian J.O. Barnes “The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes,” now making its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Directed by Taylor Reynolds, the dramedy puts the spotlight on an HBCU six-woman dance team as they prepare for their high-stakes homecoming performance. The strain to get it right is tremendous as they deal with team dynamics, choreography, their outside lives and some unusual circumstances. 

Never having attended an HBCU college, Krishawn wasn’t familiar with dance teams. But that’s all changed now. “What they do appears effortless; everything is sharp and crisp, perfectly done. I love that energy,” she says.

“I also love playing my character’s many relatable aspects,” adds Krishawn who identifies queer/pansexual. “Shanteé is team captain, and one of two alfa girls in the group, the one who takes herself seriously. 

“She’s very put together on the outside and works very hard to get it right. There’s something beautiful about that effort, but there are also the dangerous bits. It can be hard to be that guarded; to only show up as the perfect version of yourself is unsustainable.” 

“Sea Mink-ettes” marks Krishawn’s debut with Woolly Mammoth. It’s also her introduction to the play’s Virginia born author. She recalls a moment in the audition process when the room was filled with about 60 Black women. “It was a wonderful, empowering moment. It continues to be like that. I’m grateful.” 

The graceful actor has always been drawn to the arts: “Visual arts were my first love, followed by music — violin and choir — and then poetry in middle school.” 

For high school, Krishawn’s mother pushed her to apply to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts something she’d wanted for herself, but it hadn’t worked out. The rising freshman agreed provided she study singing, but her mother demurred, “you’re very dramatic, you need to do theater.” Fortunately for local audiences, mother prevailed. 

At Duke Ellington, Krishawn found her theatrical bearings, and continued to pursue theater at Drew University, a small liberal arts college in Madison, N.J. A busy professional career ensued. 

The two-time Helen Hayes Award winner (“The Till Trilogy” at Mosaic Theatre Company, “Blood at the Root” at Theatre Alliance) is also a passionate activist. 

As a kid, she obsessively rented two favorite films from Blockbuster: “Ruby Bridges” and “Selma, Lord, Selma,” both about the civil rights movement. Later she extensively documented BLM protests with her camera, and more recently, has become focused on community care activism.

As founder of the DC Theatre Community Care page, Krishawn had created a mutual aid page run with the understanding that, “we will all give when we can and take when we need.” The group centers specifically around Washington’s theater community. 

“Life shouldn’t have to be so hard. Especially during times when we’re all trying to keep our heads above water.”

In 2020, she launched The SoSu Series, a safe space to highlight the work of Black, Indigenous women (cis and trans) and non-binary people of color working in the D.C. theater scene through a sequence of video interviews. The artists interviewed talk about their personal artistic ventures while also engaging in conversations around the untold struggles of being a woman or non-binary in an often-unwelcoming atmosphere. 

She’s partnered with Woolly Mammoth to do a clothing swap and is now working with Studio Theatre to offer free workshops surrounding dance, navigating intimacy in life and art, and even a tax preparation. 

Krishawn gets a lot done, but for the moment, she’s focusing on the show. 

“There’s so much about ‘Sea Mink-ettes’ that appeals to everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality. Perfection can be beautiful, but holding ourselves to those unrealistic levels keeps us from having human moments. We are just as fierce in all the moments.

“You gotta be that boss bitch, but you need rest at times too,” she adds. 

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