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Arab-American playwright delves into queer themes in ‘Unseen’

Mosaic production entwined with heartbreak and humor

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Mona Mansour at first rehearsal for Mosaic's production of ‘Unseen.’ (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘Unseen’ 
Through April 23
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$50-$64
Mosaictheater.org

New York playwright Mona Mansour is best known for exploring her Arab-American identity, but with her most recent work “Unseen,” now playing at Mosaic Theater, she delves into queer themes, shining a light on her own sexuality. 

“Doing a gay-themed play had been nagging at me for a while,” explains Mansour via phone from a cozy coastal town in Connecticut where she’s taking a short break from the city with her girlfriend, a children’s book author. “So, when I started writing about a woman with a camera, it just seemed to fit.” 

Entwined with heartbreak and humor, “Unseen” focuses on Mia, an American conflict photographer who wakes up in her off-and-on girlfriend Derya’s apartment in Istanbul with no idea of how she got there. In a cross-cultural, time-shifting journey, Mia, neither sanctimonious nor self-congratulatory about her work, wends through Istanbul, Gaza, Syria, and an art gallery in Philadelphia, confronting personal and professional challenges. 

At turns, the women’s relationship can be described as estranged, fiery, adversarial, sexy, and romantic. 

“With each rewrite I increasingly stacked the deck in Mia and Derya’s favor,” says Mansour “Early on, one might have said, ‘boy, I don’t know about these two.’ But now, there’s love along with the contentiousness.”

But will the women make it as a couple? Mansour suggests an after-play thing where the audience makes bets. 

“What’s clear is that Mia can’t keep going on as she has been, and though the play doesn’t take us to this, what I think personally is that we as a country can’t keep going in the way we have either. Those are things I think are around the play, but for me as writing, putting those ideas into a play into a character’s mouth, I feel like I shut down. It’s tricky. 

“Theater is a tough business and kicks your ass but there’s a reason we all do it,” she continues. “I’m a cynical person in a lot of ways, but I’m definitely not interested in writing plays that when the lights come up, the first thing people say is ‘where are we going for cocktails?’. Those are fine too, and I’ve done silly plays in the past, but just not now.”

Mansour likes a Washington audience. Her play “The Vagrant Trilogy,” a stunning piece about a displaced Palestinian family in exile, debuted at Mosaic in 2018 before moving to New York’s Public Theater last year. She credits the play with her having recently received the prestigious Arts and Letters Award in Literature from one of the country’s foremost cultural bodies, The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Growing up in a Southern California suburb, the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant father and an American mother from Seattle, Mansour was obsessed with Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and battles of World War II. She says, “We weren’t the rich family who took off for a week in Tahoe, though sometimes I would have liked that. We had a stream of cousins coming to stay with us during the Lebanese Civil War.”

For Mansour, coming out to her parents shortly after meeting her first girlfriend in the mid-90s was a mixed bag: “It was a thing for my ‘moderny’ Lebanese dad,” she says. “But my mother accepted it instantly.” She recalls a gay friend at the time saying “I’m gay for 14 years and haven’t told my mom. You’ve been gay for five minutes and have already come told your mom and hugged it out.” 

Before writing, Mansour acted, including a stint studying at Second City Chicago and improvising with the Groundlings Sunday Company: “I was good enough to know when I wasn’t good. I write way above what my own punching ability was, but I always feel like someone else can do it.”  And with “Unseen,” she has written three meaty tracks for three women, here played by Katie Kleiger, Dina Soltan, and Emily Townley. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut.

“As the bringer of images, Mia is part of a system, a system that I, Mona, think about all the time. But you can’t address a system of endless wars in 90 minutes,” she says. 

Without spelling it out, Mansour’s work makes audiences think about the big questions. “That’s my hope,” she adds. “I want them to come to that same psychic space without literally leading them there and plopping them down in a chair. You know, even when I agree with someone, I don’t like to be lectured.”

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Celebrating the 2024 Helen Hayes Awards nominees

38th annual event returns next week ‘building on last year’s success’

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Justin Weaks as Belize and Nick Westrate as Prior in ‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

2024 Helen Hayes Award
May 20, 2024
For tickets go to theatrewashington.org

It’s that time of year again when the DMV’s theater pros and those who love them getdolled up and show up to celebrate the best of last year’s work. 

On Monday (May 20), Theatre Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards marks its 38th year with a splashy ceremony at The Anthem on the District Wharf. With two parts, a non-rushed intermission, and a lively after party, the program is long but the format allows time to celebrate award recipients, enjoy the entertainment, and talk about some serious issues without racing to the end.

Co-directed by Will Gartshore and Raymond O. Caldwell, the show features four terrific hosts — out actor Tom Story, Felicia Curry, Maria Rizzo, and Rayanne Gonzales along with an ensemble of five singer/dancers (dubbed the Fab Five) peppering the show with some fun numbers. 

“We’re building on last year’s success,” says Amy Austin, Theatre Washington’s out president and CEO. “Again, dinner will be served during the show à la Golden Globes on the first floor for mostly nominees and their guests, and the second floor offers lots more affordable stadium seating.” 

Austin’s approach harks back to the sumptuous Helen Hayes Awards of yesteryear, which she cleverly remembers as the “ice sculpture age.” Ultimately, the goal is to create something fun, memorable, and meaningful: “It’s such a collaborative community and that’s why the Helen Hayes Awards are special; it’s a reunion of people who’ve worked together.” 

Still, the doling out of awards remains the focus of the long evening. And that leaves a lot of nominees waiting on tenterhooks to see just who will go home with prizes named for the legendary first lady of American theater, Miss Helen Hayes. 

The awards selection process is no simple task, she adds. Recognizing work from 151 eligible productions presented in the 2023 calendar year, nominations were made in 41 categories and grouped in “Helen” or “Hayes” cohorts, depending on the number of Equity members involved in the production with Hayes counting more. 

The nods are the result of 49 carefully vetted judges considering 2005 individual pieces of work, such as design, direction, choreography, performances, and more. Productions under consideration in 2023 included 44 musicals, 107 plays, and 36 world premieres.

As one of this year’s nominees, out actor Justin Weaks says he isn’t about beating the competition. He concedes it may sound cliché, but it’s a privilege simply to be nominated, especially with all the work done in the DMV. And certainly, with three wins and multiple nominations under his belt, he’s in a position to know. 

And now, he’s nominated for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play, for his notable turn as Belize/Mr. Lies in Arena Stage’s production of Tony Kushner’s seminal masterwork “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.”

For Weaks, a longtime D.C. actor who relocated to New York in 2021, the “Angels” experience was singular: “It’s one of those great, very American plays that remains relevant, and that it’s centered on the gay experience and HIV/ AIDS makes it especially impactful for the queer community.”

Often noted for creating roles in new plays, Weaks enjoyed being part of a piece that so many hands have touched since its premiere more than 30 years ago. He was thrilled to work with the production’s Hungarian director János Szász who, Weak says, approached the piece as a new work, treating it like fresh text.

And does Weaks have a speech prepared? 

“The morning of the awards, I’ll journal about my experience with ‘Angels,’ and if my name is called, I’ll get up and give an abbreviated version of what I wrote. But mostly for me, it’s a reunion, a chance to be cute, get dressed up and celebrate the work.” 

In the Outstanding Lighting Design category, Brooklyn-based Venus Gulbranson is nominated for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company & The Wilma Theater’s “My Mama and the Full-scale Invasion”. It’s the proud and out Filipino designer’s second nomination (last year she received a nod for Monumental Theatre’s “tick, tick… BOOM!”). 

“Lighting design is underrated in the eye of theatergoers,” explains Gulbranson who earned her lighting stripes as an Arena Stage fellow. “Scenic and costume design are somehow more tangible to them; they don’t often realize that it’s lighting designers who navigate the mood of the story. 

“It’s a very empathetic skill, and a good designer can take you there emotionally.  When you’re tearing up watching a scene, the lighting has a lot to do with it. We also spend a lot of time making scenes transition smoothly,” she adds. 

“We half-jokingly say ‘a compliment to set design is a compliment to us.’ We are the reason there are beautiful colors on stage. Scenery is our canvas.” 

Other queer nominees include Bobby Smith (Studio Theatre’s “Fun House”), Billie Krishawn (Arena’s “Angels in America”), Miss Kitty (Spooky Action Theatre’s “Agreste”), Michael Urie (The Kennedy Center’s “Monty Python’s Spamalot”), costume designer Frank Labovitz (Constellation Theatre Company’s “The School for Lies”), director Jason Loewith and set designer Tony Cisek (Round House Theatre & Olney Theatre Center’s “Ink”), and most likely more.  

Both the Helen Hayes Awards’ choreographer and a nominee, David Singleton is up for Outstanding Choreography in a Musical for NextStop Theatre Company’s “Ride the Cyclone,” a wildly entertaining dark comedy.

“The show’s score is eclectic, so I could do a little bit of everything. I had to find anchor points for each number where I draw most inspiration, and go with it. I have a strong jazz background, both street and musical theater jazz, but I’m also really into tap and some ballet.”  

Singleton began performing professionally in “Dreamgirls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in 2017, but he hit his stride with “really fierce” choreography post pandemic. 

A dancer first, Singleton says his energies are divided into thirds: performer, choreographer, and drag queen (Tiara Missou, an “incredibly vain but kind queen” who’s regularly featured at D.C. bars Pitchers and Shakers). When Singleton was 18, he volunteered to work the Helen Hayes Awards. He recalls thinking “I’ll be part of this one day, for what exactly I’m not sure” and now he says, “I’m here and I feel honored.”  

And what about a prepared speech? “Oh, definitely. I’m a rambler.”  

Break legs nominees! 

A full list of award recipients will be available at theatrewashington.org on Tuesday, May 23.

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Miss Kitty tackles classical mythology in ‘Metamorphoses’

Folger production seen through the lens of the African diaspora

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Miss Kitty (Photo by Sarah Laughland Photography)

‘Metamorphoses’
May 7-June 16
Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol St., S.E.
$20-$84
Folger.edu

Miss Kitty’s words are thoughtful and measured, occasionally punctuated by flamboyant flourishes and uplifting proclamations. Her tried and tested tagline is “live in fierce not fear.” 

She describes herself as “AMAB (assigned male at birth), nonbinary, genderqueer, transfemme” as well as “chanteuse, noble blacktress, and dancer.” 

Currently, Miss Kitty is testing her talents in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” at Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill. 

At 90 minutes, “Metamorphoses,” is made up of interwoven vignettes from classical mythology including the tales of Midas and his daughter, Alcyone and Ceyx, and Eros and Psyche. 

“It’s all stories that relate to the human condition: the follies, the happiness, the love, the loss,” Miss Kitty explains. “And a thorough knowledge of mythology isn’t a requirement for enjoyment.” 

The language is contemporary and with its 11-person ensemble cast – comprised exclusively of Black or indigenous people of color – they’re adding their own spin to its present-day feel, she adds. 

In Zimmerman’s famously staged premiere production, the actors performed in and around a pool of water. At Folger, director Psalmayene 24 has ditched actual aquatics; instead, he suggests the element by introducing Water Nymph, a new character constructed around Miss Kitty. 

Water Nymph doesn’t speak, but she’s very visible from the opening number and throughout the play on stage and popping up in unexpected places around the venue. 

“It’s a lot of dancing; I haven’t danced the way Tony Thomas is choreographing me in a very long time. At 40, can she still make theater with just my body as her instrument?

The name “Miss Kitty” was born over a decade ago. 

Miss Kitty recalls, “She was still presenting as male and going by her dead name. Someone commented that with the wig she was wearing for a part, she looked like Eartha Kitt whom she deeply admires.”

Her penchant for illeism (referring to oneself in third person) isn’t without good reason. She explains, “It’s to reiterate that however she might look, she’s always there; and if you misgender, she will let you know.”

Initially, the moniker was a drag persona at Capital Pride or the occasional fabulous cabaret performance at a nightclub.

But as time passed, she realized that Miss Kitty was something she couldn’t take off. She had always been a part of her. 

“She’s helped me to grow and flourish; she’s given me the strength that I never would have had before. I’m so proud of myself for realizing that before it was too late.” 

Bringing Miss Kitty into her theatrical career presented some concerns. Would theater folks be open to the new her, especially those she’d worked with before? 

Not always, but she’s found new companies who’ve welcomed Miss Kitty with open arms including Avant Bard, Spooky Action Theater, and now Folger. 

Last fall, Miss Kitty appeared in Spooky Action’s Agreste (Drylands), a stunning queer story penned by gay Brazilian playwright Newton Moreno. 

After being invited to audition and reading the script, Miss Kitty was determined to be a part of the production. 

A work dealing with love and being trans, and transphobia, and how people can turn on a dime once they learn the truth about someone, resonated deeply with the actor. 

“The play speaks to the idea that if people just let people be who they are and love who they want to love we’d all be a lot happier,” she says. 

For her sublime efforts, Miss Kitty nabbed a Helen Hayes Award nomination in the Outstanding Lead Performer category (winner to be determined on Monday, May 20 during a ceremony at The Anthem). 

It’s her first time nominated and first time attending. She’s thrilled. 

Miss Kitty grew up in Oxen Hill, Md., and now lives near Washington Harbor. Her entry into performance was through music followed by high school plays. She graduated from Catholic University with a degree in music/concentration in musical theater, and from there dove directly into showbiz. 

Looking back, Miss Kitty says, “being a person of color AND queer can be a double whammy of difficulty. You have to live in light and do the things you’re afraid to do. That’s the game changer.” 

Presenting “Metamorphoses” through the lens of the African diaspora (the cast also includes Jon Hudson Odom and Billie Krishawn, among others) helps us to realize that every story can be universal, especially for marginalized people — South Asian, Native American, or fully queer perspectives, she says.  

“Having an all-Black ensemble opens all new worlds for everyone.”

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Round House explores serious issues related to privilege

‘A Jumping-Off Point’ is absorbing, timely, and funny

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Cristina Pitter (Miriam) and Nikkole Salter (Leslie) in ‘A Jumping-Off Point’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘A Jumping-Off Point’
Through May 5
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$46-$83
Roundhousetheatre.org

In Inda Craig-Galván’s new play “A Jumping-Off Point,” protagonist Leslie Wallace, a rising Black dramatist, believes strongly in writing about what you know. Clearly, Craig-Galván, a real-life successful Black playwright and television writer, adheres to the same maxim. Whether further details from the play are drawn from her life, is up for speculation.

Absorbing, timely, and often funny, the current Round House Theatre offering explores some serious issues surrounding privilege and who gets to write about what. Nimbly staged and acted by a pitch perfect cast, the play moves swiftly across what feels like familiar territory without being the least bit predictable. 

After a tense wait, Leslie (Nikkole Salter) learns she’s been hired to be showrunner and head writer for a new HBO MAX prestige series. What ought to be a heady time for the ambitious young woman quickly goes sour when a white man bearing accusations shows up at her door. 

The uninvited visitor is Andrew (Danny Gavigan), a fellow student from Leslie’s graduate playwriting program. The pair were never friends. In fact, he pressed all of her buttons without even trying. She views him as a lazy, advantaged guy destined to fail up, and finds his choosing to dramatize the African American Mississippi Delta experience especially annoying. 

Since grad school, Leslie has had a play successfully produced in New York and now she’s on the cusp of making it big in Los Angeles while Andrew is bagging groceries at Ralph’s. (In fact, we’ll discover that he’s a held a series of wide-ranging temporary jobs, picking up a lot of information from each, a habit that will serve him later on, but I digress.) 

Their conversation is awkward as Andrew’s demeanor shifts back and forth from stiltedly polite to borderline threatening. Eventually, he makes his point: Andrew claims that Leslie’s current success is entirely built on her having plagiarized his script. 

This increasingly uncomfortable set-to is interrupted by Leslie’s wisecracking best friend and roommate Miriam who has a knack for making things worse before making them better. Deliciously played by Cristina Pitter (whose program bio describes them as “a queer multi-spirit Afro-indigenous artist, abolitionist, and alchemist”), Miriam is the perfect third character in Craig-Galván’s deftly balanced three-hander. 

Cast members’ performances are layered. Salter’s Leslie is all charm, practicality, and controlled ambition, and Gavigan’s Andrew is an organic amalgam of vulnerable, goofy, and menacing. He’s terrific. 

The 90-minute dramedy isn’t without some improbable narrative turns, but fortunately they lead to some interesting places where provoking questions are representation, entitlement, what constitutes plagiarism, etc. It’s all discussion-worthy topics, here pleasingly tempered with humor. 

New York-based director Jade King Carroll skillfully helms the production. Scenes transition smoothly in large part due to a top-notch design team. Scenic designer Meghan Raham’s revolving set seamlessly goes from Leslie’s attractive apartment to smart cafes to an HBO writers’ room with the requisite long table and essential white board. Adding to the graceful storytelling are sound and lighting design by Michael Keck and Amith Chandrashaker, respectively. 

The passage of time and circumstances are perceptively reflected in costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka’s sartorial choices: heels rise higher, baseball caps are doffed and jackets donned.

“A Jumping-Off Point” is the centerpiece of the third National Capital New Play Festival, an annual event celebrating new work by some of the country’s leading playwrights and newer voices. 

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