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Spring theater in D.C. offers something old and new

Celebrate Gloria Steinem, revisit ‘Angels in America’

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Noah Israel (left) and Carol Mazhuvancheril play boyfriends in ‘A Nice Indian Boy’ at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo by Sarah Straub)

Though recent blooms might suggest otherwise, spring doesn’t officially begin until late March. And with the upcoming season comes a showering of exciting theater, both new and some more familiar.

At Olney Theatre Center, out South Asian-American director, Zi Alikhan is staging Madhuri Shekar’s “A Nice Indian Boy” (through April 9). In the touching, surprise-filled, intercultural comedy, Naveen, a gay South Asian-American meets Keshav, the Hindu boy of his dreams. But what might seem almost acceptable to Naveen’s traditional parents is further complicated when they learn Keshav is a white boy adopted by Indian parents. Olneytheatre.org

Running through April 2 in Arlington is Synetic Theater’s movement-based fantasy “Beauty and the Beast.” Their version draws on the darkness and sensuality of the original French novel, “La Belle et la Bête,” and the 1946 Cocteau film of the same name. Co-directed by Ben Cunis & Vato Tsikurishvili and choreographed by the insanely imaginative Irina Tsikurishvili. Synetictheater.org

At Theater J, Susan Lynskey is Gloria Steinem in Emily Mann’s “Gloria: A Life” (through April 2), an exploration of the iconic feminist’s brilliant legacy and the women who inspired her. In the first act, she tells her story, and the second invites the audience to share their own. Out director/actor Holly Twyford directs. Theatrej.org

Studio Theatre is moving into spring with Lynn Nottage’s poignantly entertaining “Clyde’s” (through April 9). It’s the story of a small group of parolees working as line cooks who find redemption making sandwiches in a truck stop diner despite difficult circumstances and an abusive boss played by Dee Dee Batteast. The appealing workers are played by Quinn M. Johnson, Brandon Ocasio, Kashayna Johnson, and Lamont Thompson. Candis C. Jones directs. Studiotheatre.org

Signature Theatre in Arlington presents Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeous and rarely produced “Pacific Overtures” (through April 9). Set in mid-19th century Japan, it’s the compelling tale of an American expedition determined to open the then-isolated island to trade. Signature’s associate artistic director Ethan Heard directs a largely Asian cast including Jason Ma, Johnny Lee Jr., and Eymard Menenes Cabling. Sigtheatre.org

At Shakespeare Theatre Company, it’s artistic director Simon Godwin’s hot ticket production of “King Lear” (through April 16) starring Patrick Page as the once revered head of arguably the Bard’s most dysfunctional royal family (and that’s saying a lot). Shakespearetheatre.org

At Ford’s Theatre, Carrie Compere stars in “SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!” (March 15 – May 13). It’s the musical bio of trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), the guitar playing, queer black woman who pioneered rock-and-roll in the 1940s. Before Elvis and Little Richard, there was Rosetta. Fords.org.

Written and directed by Awa Ogawa, “The Nosebleed” (March 31- April 23) is poised to make its regional premiere at Woolly Mammoth. Through a series of absurd autobiographical vignettes, Ogawa “delves into the sh*t show of parenthood, as both a parent and a child – and what it takes to forgive.” Woollymammoth.net.

Over by the Wharf, Arena Stage presents Tony Kushner’s truly awesome “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” (March 21 – April 23). Talented out actor Nick Westrate plays prophetic protagonist Prior Walter, a smart gay New Yorker who contracts AIDS in the 1980s, before there was effective treatment. Other members of an exciting cast include Justin Weaks, Michael Kevin Darnall, and Susan Rome. Edward Gero plays the loathsome Roy Cohn. János Szász directs. Arenastage.org

Later this month, Round House Theatre brings back the National Capital New Play Festival, an annual event celebrating new work by some of the country’s leading playwrights and newer voices. One of its two fully staged premiere productions is Morgan Gould’s “Jennifer Who Is Leaving” (March 30 – May 7), a dark comedy inspired by both the playwright’s sassy gay grandfather and a world of women caretakers. Roundhousetheatre.org

And at GALA Hispanic Theatre, out director José Zayas is staging Spanish playwright Alfredo Sanzol’s “La “Valentía/ Valor” (April 20 – May 14). Performed in Spanish with English surtitles, this finely constructed comedy tells the story Trini and Guada, two sisters battling over whether to sell their beloved family summer home that sits next to a bustling highway. Galatheatre.org

For Broadway at the National Theatre, spring means more music. First up is “Jagged Little Pill” (March 14-26), a Tony Award winning play with music by Alanis Morissette and book by Diablo Cody. Then it’s Lincoln Center’s glorious production of Lerner & Loewe’s beloved classic “My Fair Lady” (April 6-9), an instructive tale centering on Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle who’s transformed into a proper posh lady by unfeeling linguistics professor Henry Higgins. The score includes standards like “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” and “On the Street Where You Live.” Broadwayatthenational.com

At Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, N.E., Mosaic Theater is premiering Mona Mansour’s “Unseen” (March 30 – April 23), the story of an American conflict photographer who wakes up in her ex-girlfriend’s Istanbul apartment with no idea of how she got there. Kate Kleiger, Dina Soltan, and Emily Townley comprise the three-woman cast. Johanna Gruenhut directs. Mosaictheater.org

For two nights only, the Strathmore in North Bethesda presents “A Simple Space” (April 26 and 27). Here’s the promo: “Witness seven acrobats pushed to their physical limits without reserve in a disarmingly intimate setting. Propelled by the driving sound of live percussion, this performance is simultaneously raw, frantic, and delicate.” Strathmore.org

This spring at Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. pays tribute to two divas. First with “Whitney” (March 11 and12), a concert celebrating the best of Miss Houston’s music. Songs include “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “How Will I Know,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “The Greatest Love of All.” And then it’s “Dolly” (June 3 and 4), a salute to the music of living legend Dolly Parton, featuring an exciting selection of hits including “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream,” “Jolene,” and “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” Gmcw.org

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Theater

‘Nancy,’ soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, is ‘queer AF’

Mosaic production led by out director Ken-Matt Martin

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Ken-Matt Martin (Photo courtesy Martin)

‘Nancy’ 
Through April 21
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$53-$70
Mosaictheater.org

Set in 1985, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan years, Rhiana Yazzie’s “Nancy” is totally soaked in nostalgia: shoulder pads, high hair, Van Halen, etc. For some theatergoers, it jogs the memory and for others serves as an introduction to an alien era.

Out director Ken-Matt Martin describes the production (now at Mosaic Theater) as “queer AF.” He continues, “But that’s true with everything I touch. My aesthetics and interests are unapologetically queer. When you first walk into theater, you see a big ass picture of Nancy’s face. The whole play is kind of set on her face.”

Martin, who puts his age as “somewhere over 30,” gives a brief rundown via telephone: “‘Nancy’ places two women on parallel tracks and we get to watch them on a collision course. Esmeralda [Anaseini Katoa], a Navajo mother and advocate determined to improve the condition of her family and reservation. Her story is juxtaposed to that of Nancy Reagan [Lynn Hawley] who’s busy at the White House consulting with society astrologer Joan Quigley to help guide Reagan [Michael Kevin Darnall] and his administration. The women’s worlds come together over Nancy’s direct ancestral connection to Pocahontas.” 

The busy storyline also includes a moment surrounding Rock Hudson’s final days, a moment when well-coiffed, clothes-crazy Nancy was presented with the opportunity to make a difference but chose not to. 

“And the work doesn’t let Nancy off the hook,” adds Martin. “It’s a full meal of a play.”

Produced in partnership with New Native Theatre based in the Twin Cities, Mosaic’s epic offering, a very D.C. play about ancestry and ambition, almost looks at Ron and Nancy as cartoon characters but isn’t without empathy.  

Martin and Yazzie both love satire and absurdity; they enjoy comedy and things that are funny until they’re not. So, the evening shifts in tone as it moves into more serious areas, particularly an exploration of how the ‘80s and Reagan’s failed trickle-down agenda set the stage for many of today’s problems.  

The director’s way into theater was as a child actor. After successfully begging his mother to drive him from their native Little Rock, Ark., to a regional Atlanta audition, he booked an appearance on Nickelodeon’s landmark series “All That” and snagged an agent in the process. He continued to act for a time before becoming interested in other facets of showbiz. 

After graduating with an MFA in directing from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, Martin embarked on a terrifically busy schedule. In addition to freelance directing, he has helmed and helms various prestigious companies as artistic director and managing producer (Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, IA, Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, and was recently appointed Interim Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage and Arkansas Repertory Theatre.)

Currently an itinerant professional (Martin gave up his place in Chicago and hops from job to job where they house him), he says, “It can get a little old, but overall, not bad at all.” 

Next up, Martin is directing Olney Theatre’s production “Long Way Down,” the adaptation of a Young Adult novel by DMV native Jason Reynolds. “It’s a big regional tryout that after a limited engagement in Olney leaves for the Apollo Theatre in New York. I’m excited.” 

Martin is at home with plays that are tricky to stage, making him a good fit for “Nancy” with its multiple locations, scope, and scale. He’s enjoyed the challenge of the work’s collapsing time lines and the playwright’s tough, complicated, smart, and fast-moving language. 

“Perhaps most importantly,” he adds. “Rhiana has entrusted me with the opportunity to tell this very unique story, a story that can resonate with Native people and Native audiences. This part is very new to me as a director.”

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Talented pair of local queer actors tackles ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

Ford’s production features terrific score

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Chani Wereley (Audrey) and Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) in the 2024 Ford’s Theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ 
Through May 18
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th St., N.W.
$33-$95
Fords.org 

Ever since premiering off-Broadway in 1982, “Little Shop of Horrors” has drawn a devoted following of avid audiences as well as performers eager to act in the show. Now playing at Ford’s Theatre, the doo-wop, dark comedy features a terrific cast including a wildly talented pair of local queer actors who’ve longed to appear in the show since they were kids. 

Set in the urban 1960s, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s hit show with a terrific score follows the wacky rise of Seymour, a nebbishy florist in a Skid Row shop who changes his fortunes by unintentionally marketing an exotic, human eating plant.  

Chani Wereley, 28, who plays Seymour’s love interest Audrey, a hyper femme downtowner with an edge, has had her on eye the role for years. Wereley says, “Audrey’s been around the block more than once, but I approach her as a person who moves through the world with love and hope.”

The queer D.C. native adds, “On long trips to visit family in Canada or Florida, the first thing we’d do is pop a ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ video [film version] into the car’s VHS player. I’ve watched is so many times, I could quote the whole movie to you.”

After auditioning to play Audrey in director Kevin S. McAllister’s production at Ford’s, Wereley never thought she’d book the part, and when they said she got it, she cried.  

Similarly, Tobias A. Young, 34, the pansexual actor who voices the part of the bloodthirsty plant affectionately dubbed Audrey II, explains his intense interest in the work: “I started watching the film in ’86. Growing up as a little gay boy in Calvert County, Md., I wanted to be blonde Audrey [played by Ellen Green in the movie]. I didn’t know much about musicals at the time, but I was absorbed.” 

When asked by Ford’s to play the voracious plant Audrey II without auditioning, his reply was an unhesitant “yes.” 

Voicing a role requires Young to sing from backstage in a black box rigged with monitors and a mixing board. He says, “people ask if I’m singing from inside of the ever-growing, scary plant. No, I’m not, and that’s fine. But let’s face it, actors love to be seen on stage, but I don’t feel entirely unseen as Audrey II.”

He’s worked hard and successfully with formidable puppeteers Ryan Sellers and Jay Frisby to bring parts of himself to the carnivorous plant — his sassiness, own movements, and even a tilt of his head; their efforts have drawn the actual Young into the show. 

Both Wereley and Young possess gorgeous, emotive voices as evidenced by Wereley’s striking rendition of Audrey’s “Suddenly Seymour,” and Young’s soulful “Feed Me (Git It).” Additionally, both actors are also big on queer representation in theater. 

When her young pals were listening to Britney Spears, Wereley was dancing to retro tunes like “Mashed Potato Time,” and her favorite song to this day, the Shirelle’s girl group anthem “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” As Audrey, Wereley eschews the character’s usual platinum hair for a bouncy brunette, cherry-streaked wig, tight pencil skirts, swing coats, and her very own half-sleeve tattoo. 

“It’s important for people to see themselves on stage,” she says. “Seeing me or someone like me is inherently interesting. Being that person on Instagram or with the institution, cast, or audiences is meaningful. It’s important.”

In 2011, a couple years after finishing high school, Young landed a part in “Dream Girls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and he’s been working professionally ever since. Growing up, he didn’t see a lot of himself – Black and queer – on social media. He now wants to be open and honest for those out there who might not feel seen, he says

An introvert who lets everything loose on the stage, Young says, “theater is a safe space for queer people. That’s the first place we feel safe, particularly in school. And this is why we need theaters in schools, now more than ever.”

He adds, “What’s great about Ford’s is its surprises, especially when they switch up casting. It’s meaningful to see the shows you love, but why not see them with a twist? Using unexpected actors and incorporating queer people just makes it that much better.”

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Woman crashes ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a man in new play

Nonbinary playwright Bryna Turner brings ‘At the Wedding’ to Studio

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Playwright Bryna Turner (Photo by Lila Barth)

‘At the Wedding’
Through April 21
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$45-$99
Studiotheatre.org

For nonbinary playwright Bryna Turner, the way to theater was first as an actor. But as gender non-conforming, they couldn’t really see a future in it, so they decided to write their own plays.

“At the Wedding,” Turner’s play about a woman named Carlo who crashes her ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a man, is currently making its area debut at Studio Theatre with a production staged by out director Tom Story.  The comedy made its world premiere at LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater and was featured in the New York Times Best of 2022 “Unforgettable Theatrical Moments” category. 

Brooklyn-based Turner, 33, is inspired by experience, storytelling, and language. With “At the Wedding,” they humorously explore loneliness, estrangement, and a love for living.

WASHINGTON BLADE:  How do we meet Carlo? 

BRYNA TURNER: In the opening monologue, Carlo is at the kids table at a wedding reception telling them not to make her mistake. You’ll fall in love but that will only break your heart. That kicks the show off and this is who we’re dealing with.  

BLADE: How was falling in love for you? 

TURNER: My experience when I fell in love was that I was joining the human race. But then comes heartbreak…. that other thing everyone was always talking about. Poems and music took on new meaning. 

BLADE: But you can find a laugh in pain? 

TURNER: Comedic tone is important to me because that’s how I view the world. I like to have a laugh when things are hard or sad. 

Also, I feel like it’s a way to bring people in. You relate to a character who makes you laugh. Two of my plays begin with a lesbian yelling at the audience. It’s almost like crowd work.

BLADE: Were you ever hesitant about writing queer plays? 

TURNER: I was lucky at Holyoke [Mount Holyoke College where Turner was an undergrad]. Director Brooke O’Hara was teaching there when I attended and she brought in some queer plays; she showed me there was a canon to join and that was exciting.

BLADE: When did you first identify as nonbinary? 

TURNER: In 2022. I’d been butch-presenting for over a decade. Then during the pandemic, I began spending more time alone. When alone, you grant yourself more permission to think. 

For me, I’d always wanted to be independent and not ask for anything, to be butch on my own. As nonbinary, suddenly I had to ask people to use my pronouns. Also, it granted the opportunity to allow people to surprise me in mostly positive ways.

BLADE: Was becoming a produced playwright tough?

TURNER: I wanted to be a playwright at 21 and I had a play produced when I was 27. Now, looking back, I can see it happened pretty quickly, but at the time it felt like forever.  

While doing my MFA in playwriting at Rutgers University, I was working in the box office at the Public Theater in New York where I managed to see things like “Fun Home” and “Hamilton.” 

If I wasn’t working, I was commuting to Rutgers in New Jersey, and I was always writing. I had to be diligent. I’m a perfectionist, but I got things done. I wrote scenes in between waiting for customers at the box office or on the train. It took a lot of energy; drive pushes you. 

BLADE: A while before “At the Wedding,” you wrote “Phases of the Moon” about lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop. What sparked that interest? 

TURNER: It’s about her time at Vassar College when she fell in love with a woman. It’s set in the 1930s but it’s bit anachronistic. There’s a scene with a Tegan and Sara song. 

Bishop identified as a socialist vegetarian while at one of the most expensive women’s colleges during the height of the Great Depression. I thought to myself, ‘I know that girl, too.’ I love how we can know this person across nearly 100 years.

BLADE: Can you describe your formative years? 

TURNER: I grew up the youngest of four in a small coastal town surrounded by redwoods. It was pretty rural but included an enclave of hippies. Despite being a shy kid, I developed an interest in theater. My parents were relieved. I had tried a lot of things and quickly lost interest: soccer, ballet, Tee-Ball. I remember striking out and all my family laughing. I threw down the bat and that was it. 

BLADE: Do you think about who you’re writing for? 

TURNER: I do. I’m thinking of a queer audience, and writing things that I want to see. In doing that, I’ve been happily surprised that straight people want to come along too.

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