Category Archives: Theatre

A.C.T.’s ‘Every 28 Hours’ Black Arts Festival

Yesterday I took a friend to the first annual Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, located across the street from San Francisco’s Civic Center. We arrived to find the lobby set up with a helpful welcome table and vendors selling tee shirts, art, jewelry and other handicrafts. The festival made use of the two performance spaces (The Rueff and the Rembe Theater) as well as the lobby. Events were scheduled from 3 to 10pm, and I was impressed by how well the organizers kept to the timetable.

3pm Moving The Movement: An inter-generational workshop exploring hip-hop dance as an act of social justice, led by Sarah Crowell and Rashidi Omari

4:15pm Panel Discussion: Empower Your Platform: How can black artists, activists and innovators use our platforms to heal and uplift each other in our struggle for social change? Moderated by Chip McNeal

5:15pm Meditation Workshop: A healing workshop inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

6:15pm Musical & Movement Performances by Nyree Young, Dezi Soléy, and the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company

6:45pm Musical Performance by Jessica Lá Rel

7pm a selection of plays from Every 28 Hours directed by Elizabeth Carter

8:30pm Group Discussions facilitated by Cheri Miller, Vanessa Ramos, Radhika Rao, Jasmin Hoo, and SK Kerastas

9:15pm Drum Circle with Nyree Young

9:30pm Closing Reception with food, drinks and a raffle

I learned about the festival by following A.C.T. on twitter. It was free, but I’m glad we registered online because the evening events were fully reserved by the time we arrived. We participated in all the events except for the meditation workshop. We were very sorry to miss that one, but we needed a dinner break!

The movement workshop in The Rueff was an excellent ice-breaker. Sarah Crowell and Rashidi Omari of Destiny Arts Center got us out of our chairs and into a large circle. We started with warm up exercises with breathing, clapping games, and introducing ourselves with our names paired with a movement. Then we teamed up with someone we didn’t know for silent role-playing exercises: have a conversation with movement only; act out a teacher and a student; role-play a police officer conversing with a young black man. I got a great partner, who I later found out is a middle grade teacher here in San Francisco. Next, we got into groups of four. Each person took a turn ‘sculpting’ the others into a tableau expressing racism, discrimination, healing and community. We added movements to link them together. Some groups chose to use sounds as well movement for the transitions. Once we had a bit of practice, we performed our creations for the rest of workshop. Finally, Sarah and Rashidi taught us a hip-hop dance sequence to some upbeat music. I tried a few steps but with my two left feet, I soon sat down and enjoyed the dancing from the back.

Freestyle hip-hop dancing from the back of the workshop

Moving The Movement Workshop

After a short break to rearrange The Rueff space, Chip McNeal led a panel discussion with Sarah Crowell, Regina Evans (Regina’s Door), Skyler Cooper, and Jack Bryson. McNeal acknowledged that they could only begin the conversation about healing and uplifting each other (Empower Your Platform). The hour went fast, but McNeal made sure all four panelists had a chance to speak about their work and their activism in the community. Sarah Crowell discussed working in collaboration with young people, striking a balance between letting them be creative while setting boundaries. Regina Evans talked about working with, and learning from, survivors of sex trafficking. Actor, filmmaker and activist Skyler Cooper described how being transgender means he’s experienced life as both a black woman and a black man. Jack Bryson became a community organizer because two of his sons were with Oscar Grant when he was killed by police. He said that the friends of Grant who witnessed his shooting were forgotten and wounded in their own way, as are many older folks from Bryson’s generation. He mentioned the many incarcerated adults who are now being released into a very different world. There wasn’t time for questions from the audience, but the discussion gave us plenty to think about.

We got Mexican food down the street for dinner, then returned to the lobby so we wouldn’t miss the dance and spoken word performances by Destiny Arts. Nyree Young played drum while Dezi Soléy danced down the stairs and around the lobby, interacting with the crowd. Then the talented Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company performed a spoken word piece on racism.

We all moved into the Rembe Theater for Alternative Soul singer Jessica Lá Rel. Her selections included Work Song (famously recorded by Nina Simone) as well as some new, unreleased material. She was supported by a keyboardist and three backup singers. Lá Rel has a beautiful voice. We very much enjoyed her performance.

Next up was the selection of 2 dozen one-minute plays from Every 28 Hours. From the program notes:

In April 2013, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reported in Operation Ghetto Storm that during the previous year, 313 unarmed Black people were killed in the United States by police, security guards, and vigilantes. This occurred at a rate of one person of color approximately every 28 hours…

In 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the One-Minute Play Festival created a project and partnership entitled Every 28 Hours, inviting American theater artists from across the country to gather in St. Louis to address the current movement for civil rights and racial justice. Participants created a compilation of 72 one-minute plays, which they cast, rehearsed, and performed as a rapid response to what was learned, heard, and experienced at the conference, with the intention of inspiring public discourse and social action.

Since that time, the Every 28 Hours plays have been presented at dozens of theaters, universities, and community spaces across the country, including A.C.T.”

The plays began with an introduction by producer Stephanie Wilborn and director Elizabeth Carter. There were about 3 dozen actors who sat at the back of the stage in two rows of chairs. They moved forward to perform, either on or in front of two platforms. The theme/title of each segment was projected onto the backdrop: Introduction, Race, Police, Community, Protest, History, Mothers, Youth, and Finale. I found many of the actors listed in the program on the current MFA student list. One of them was Micah Peoples, who we saw last weekend at A.C.T.’s play reading of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Another actor I recognized was Kavi Subramanyan from the Young Conservatory production of Homefront last summer. All the pieces were powerful. I was especially moved by Dinosaurs and Hooded Tears. For the Final Piece, the actors took turns reading the names of those killed by police in recent years, including Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner. The actors had a printed sheet of white paper for each name, which they raised over their heads and then dropped onto the stage.

Jasmin Hoo and the actors after the Every 28 Hours plays

After the performance, we broke up into three discussion groups. The black actors and audience members stayed in the Rembe Theater, people of color who weren’t black gathered in the lobby, and everybody else went upstairs to The Rueff. My friend was part of the lobby group, and I was in The Rueff, where facilitators Jasmin Hoo and SK Kerastas led us in a discussion on how to be effective allies. In small groups, we talked about our reactions to the Every 28 Hours plays and what we planned to do after the festival to stay involved. We were given a handout with a list of local ally organizations including surjbayarea.org and Asians4BlackLives.

We went back to the Rembe Theater for a drum circle with Nyree Young. There weren’t as many of us, but those who stayed were energized by Nyree’s music. She started on guitar with This Little Light of Mine, and when she moved to her drum, many of the performers danced in the aisles. It was awesome!

 

The closing reception was in the lobby. We had some wine and chatted briefly with Jessica Lá Rel. We didn’t stay long, but it was fun to mingle with the performers and organizers.

It was a wonderful festival, and we’re already looking forward to next year. Thank you, A.C.T. and everyone involved!

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Michael Lee Brown: Way It Used To Be (Music EP)

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of both Dear Evan Hansen and Matthew James Thomas. It’s no surprise that I’m enjoying the new EP of 3 original songs from Michael Lee Brown, currently the alternate Evan Hansen on Broadway. Matthew James Thomas is the producer, and he’s been tweeting about the project. The EP was released today, so I purchased the download from Amazon after listening to it on Soundcloud. (You can also get it at CDBaby, since it’s nice to support the independents.) Brown’s songs are acoustic and unabashedly optimistic. Give them a listen!

(Be sure to leave a review like I did!)

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My Year End Wrap Up 2017

Normally I approach my Year End Wrap Up with enthusiasm, but 2017 has been a very tough year. Most mornings I wake up with a sense of dread, almost afraid to open up the laptop to see what real-world horrors will dominate my morning news feed. The Stuff That Entertains Me is now more likely to be The Stuff That Keeps Me From Total Despair. Until recently, I used to ignore the news as much as possible; now I probably give it too much of my attention. I’m grateful that I can still turn to books, movies, TV and music to raise my spirits.

I began 2017 watching foreign soaps and making Chad Lowe collages. The year has ended with more reading, less television, and a bunch of new actors on my watch list. I started blogging again, although not as regularly as I’d hoped. There have been plenty of entertainment surprises along the way.

Best Books

The year started out slow, but then I finally got reading glasses! The two best non-fiction books I read this year were The Lost City of The Monkey God by Douglas Preston and Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean. My summer LGBT reading project was fun, and the books from that post that have stayed with me the longest are Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin and Spy Stuff by Matthew J. Metzger. The best guilty pleasures this year were the Midnight Texas trilogy by Charlaine Harris and The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan. My ambitious Dorothy Dunnett project— reading all 14 Lymond Chronicle/House of Niccolo books—has been a great escape for the last three months. I’m finally in the homestretch! (Whew.)

Best Movies

I had a good year for seeing movies in the cinema. I saw more than usual and there weren’t any duds. Some of them may have been less spectacular than I hoped, but nothing was truly disappointing. The loudest was Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX; I enjoyed the performances from the young cast but the scale of the evacuation seemed anemic. Their Finest was a lovely film and a good companion to Dunkirk. In the superhero category, I enjoyed Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok pretty much equally. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was less memorable, but I enjoyed Baby Groot and the music. I went into Baby Driver thinking, I don’t really care about car chases; I came out thinking, more car chases, please! Beauty and The Beast and The Greatest Showman were visually rich and very entertaining.  Older movies included Summer Magic at the Walt Disney Family Museum and Adventures in Babysitting at the Castro Theatre. The cast of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was fantastic, but I had some issues with the movie itself. I’m glad I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi before spoilers, and I love Rose, but her name bothers me. (It’s very…earthy?) Call Me By Your Name was gorgeous, and I’m now a big fan of Timothée Chalamet. I want him to be nominated for all the big awards, but I worry that winning too soon won’t be good for his career.

Best Television

This year, I was more likely to watch TV shows on DVD sets from the library. Except for Saturday Night Live, I’ve only watched one hour of network television since September. I haven’t been able to stomach the NBC Chicago Fire/PD/Med shows since they did the Ghost Ship Fire episodes without warning Bay Area folks before the broadcast. I’m still waiting for Code Black to return (what’s up with that, CBS??).

2017 was the year I finally joined the Game of Thrones craze, binge-watching the first six seasons on DVD in early summer.  I also FINALLY watched My So-called Life. The Borgias was fun, and I also enjoyed Unit One (Rejseholdet) from Denmark.

Finally, seeing the miniseries When We Rise in the cinema, with the cast, creative team, and real-life activists, was one of my best experiences of 2017.

Best DVDs

The DVD movie that had the deepest impression on me this year was The Impossible (2012). I avoided it because I don’t usually like natural disaster films, but Tom Holland was amazing. Older films I enjoyed included As It Is In Heaven (Så som i himmelen) and Saint Ralph (both from 2004). Bob Roberts (1992) is a must-see for predicting many of Trump’s campaign tactics. I ugly-cried through most of The Shack. Megan Leavey and Tanna were happy surprises. The Bronze (2016) had my favorite sex scene, and Tiffany Haddish owned Girls Trip.

Best YouTube

I’ve enjoyed the crosswalk musicals from James Corden, especially Beauty and The Beast and Hair. Broadway bootlegs have become a guilty pleasure, particularly anything with Ben Platt. Little Alfie was adorable in his brother Oliver’s coming out video.

As for my own YouTube videos, the Ed Sheeran one has gone over 1 million views. I wish I’d given it a cleaner ending, but I’m still learning to use Shotcut.

Best Tweets

My most popular tweets of 2017 were a #DuvetKnowItsChristmas photo and my Academy Award tweet about the White Helmets.

Swear Trek has given me the most belly laughs this year.

Twitter has made me angry, made me cry, made me think. I used to ‘like’ tweets to save the best ones. These days I ‘like’ tweets to show support for political opinions and causes, which means I don’t have time to go back over the whole year to find the gems. Here are some standouts from the end of the year:

Best Theatre

I went to the theatre only twice this year, to see Homefront and The Prince of Egypt. I followed Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, and Matthew James Thomas from afar, and I also started reading daily newsletters from Playbill. I may not see many shows, but at least I’m better informed.

Best Music

I started listening to Ed Sheeran this year, and I also added a lot of Broadway cast albums—Kinky Boots, Matilda, Anastasia, The Band’s Visit, Bandstand, etc—to my playlist. I also listened to lots of Matthew James Thomas tracks from Britannia High and Pippin.

Biggest Time-Sucker-Upper

I’ve spent a lot of 2017 reading email news briefs from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the LA Times, and The Guardian. I’m better informed than ever before. I’m also more bitter and angry. Hopefully. 2018 will bring more activism and better ways of coping.

Entertainer of the Year

This year I was more successful than usual at keeping my interests broad and wide-ranging. I didn’t obsess too much over any one actor or entertainer. That makes it harder to choose just one Entertainer of the Year. Some of the honorable mentions: the cast of Game of Thrones, Francois Arnaud, Matthew James Thomas, Ben Platt, Jack Lowden, Sebastian Stan, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Holland, Wilson Cruz, Timothée Chalamet, Swear Trek, and Ed Sheeran. For sheer number of hours spent reading (over 6000 pages), I’m going to have to choose Dorothy Dunnett as my 2017 Entertainer of the Year. (Finally, a woman!)

Dorothy Dunnett (1923-2001)

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A Dear Evan Hansen Halloween

I haven’t done a Halloween costume since my Bend It Like Beckham costume a dozen years ago, when I was disappointment that nobody noticed my dyed black hair. This year I put in a lot of effort (and bad sewing) to do Dear Evan Hansen, this year’s Tony Award winning Broadway musical. I’ve been told by my roommate that it’s too obscure. We’ll see. If even a few folks at my Street Fair get it, I’ll be happy.

I made my “cast” out of soft white fur, so I can bend my wrist and use my hand. That’s especially important because I’m a lefty. Since the song Waving Through A Window is performed before Connor signs Evan’s cast, I left off his name. The only striped polo shirt I could find was a men’s XXL, so I took in the sides and shortened it. I wish the stripes were closer to the one Ben Platt wears in the musical. I photoshopped the map together (“Navigating Adolescence: A Map For Parents” for the song Anybody Have A Map) and cut the window out of cardboard.

Sincerely, me.

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Time and The Conways & Matthew James Thomas

As a fan of Matthew James Thomas, I’ve been following his Broadway play Time and The Conways. Following how? Through google alerts, rehearsal photos, press photos, reviews, Broadway sites, YouTube videos, and tweets from cast and audience members. Since I’m in San Francisco, I won’t get to see the play.

Matthew James Thomas did an “Ask Me Anything” interview for BroadwayRadio last week. The first two questions interviewer Kaitlin Milligan asked him were ones that I submitted. Milligan guessed that I’m a he— that’s okay, though! My second question about going back in time and changing things wasn’t specifically about Pippin, but I’m always happy to hear more about that production. I agree with Milligan (at the 25 minute mark) that the internet allows fans like me to connect with Matthew James Thomas from afar. Thank you, Kaitlin Milligan, BroadwayRadio, and Mr. Thomas!

 

Photo credits: Rehearsal photos by Jenny Anderson. Production photos by Jeremy Daniel.

More interesting questions and answers: https://www.broadwaybox.com/daily-scoop/five-burning-questions-with-matthew-james-thomas/

For other posts here about Matthew James Thomas, click on his name in the tags below. (I’m quite proud of my screen capture collection!)

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World Premiere: The Prince of Egypt

Yesterday, my friend and I went to see the new stage musical The Prince of Egypt at the Mountain View Center for The Performing Arts. It’s a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production in collaboration with Fredericia Teater in Denmark, where it will be staged in April with a Danish cast and the same actor playing Moses. The musical is directed by Scott Schwartz, son of the composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the songs for the film and additional numbers for this stage version.

The drive down to Mountain View from San Francisco, where we live, is a lot longer than I realized. I don’t have a car, so I don’t get out of the city often enough. We got there early, and parking was easy.

When we went got inside the theatre, I asked the young woman at the information desk for the location of the stage door. She looked somewhat alarmed and asked me why I wanted to know. Wow, really? I always like to visit the stage door after a show to meet to some of the actors. She explained that she wasn’t allowed to take people backstage, but that’s not what I was asking. Anyway, she pointed out the door, not at the side or back of the theatre, but in the lobby far too close to a women’s restroom. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our seats were in the second row of the balcony on an aisle in the center section. There was very little leg room, but the sight lines were fine and the raked seating allowed me see over the folks in front. Unfortunately, the family in front of us had a small boy, about 7 years old, and when seated, he couldn’t see over the solid balcony wall. His mother told me they asked for a booster seat, but the theatre doesn’t have them. I think the Center staff should accommodate small children better, and they should warn folks with kids about that first balcony row. There were quite a few children in the audience, being a matinee for a musical based on a popular animated film.

It became immediately clear during the opening song that the balcony acoustics are very poor. The sound was muddy, especially during solos. It also wasn’t loud enough. I don’t know if the problem is with the mics or the theatre acoustics or both, but it was disappointing.

The set design for The Prince of Egypt utilized a roughly diagonal platform with irregular curved edges, raked at the back. The background was a flat scrim with a wide solid piece, well above the stage, used for various projections—palm trees, arches, hieroglyphics, stars, mountains, etc. The dancers/ensemble moved an assortment of lightly-colored “stones” to create walls, barges, seats, and thrones throughout the show. When Moses was enjoying the hospitality of the Midianites in the desert, patterned rugs and colored tent walls were used instead of the stones. The set was enhanced by the lighting design, especially the lighting projections, including ones suggesting sand dunes and reflections on moving water. The balcony was a good place to view and appreciate these effects.

The dancers and the choreography by Sean Cheesman were excellent. Whether playing river waves, chariots and horses, the burning bush, or actual people, the dancing ensemble was the best aspect of the production. Jason Gotay as Ramses and Diluckshan Jeyaratnam as Moses were both winning and energetic as young princes. Jeyaratnam is perhaps not mature enough for the authority required in the second act. All of the actresses were consistently good and had beautiful voices, including child actor Natalie Schroeder as young Miriam and young Leah. David Crane’s Aaron was the easiest soloist to understand from my balcony seat, so I especially appreciated his performance.

Back to the stage door. There was a long line for the women’s bathroom after the show. The women were facing the bathroom with their backs to the stage door a few feet away. I watched a number of performers open the stage door and hit the women. Definitely a design flaw, and another issue that the theatre staff could easily address. Several of the ensemble came out to the lobby, and I got to say a quick hello to Alison Mixon, Dominic Dagdagan, and Ramone Owens.

I have not seen the original animated film, so I had no preconceived ideas about The Prince of Egypt. I have seen the DVD of the 2004 stage musical The Ten Commandments with Val Kilmer as Moses. (And Kilmer voices Moses in The Prince of Egypt film.) I tried not to compare the two, but I was very curious to see if baby Moses floating in the river was handled better. I’m happy to report that dancers playing water waves carrying the basket along to Pharaoh’s wife was much more effective.

Wait, Pharaoh’s wife?  In the Bible, it’s Pharaoh’s daughter that adopts baby Moses. I re-read some of Exodus today, and it’s short on details but it does specify this. The names of the Pharaohs, the relationship between young Moses and young Ramses—these are not in Exodus. A lot of the story we’re familiar with comes from Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments, especially the 1956 version. Still, I found it jarring when The Prince of Egypt strayed from the familiar, especially at the end.

There’s a reason this musical is called The Prince of Egypt, and not Moses or Let My People Go. In fact, it might be more accurate to call it The Princes of Egypt. Moses and Ramses are both central characters, with the primary focus on their relationship, to each other and to the other members of the royal family. The anguish that Moses expresses at the deaths of the Egyptian first-borns (the song For The Rest of My Life) seems more heartfelt than what he expresses for the suffering of his people. Ramses tells Moses that he changed his mind about releasing the Hebrew slaves because Moses betrayed him and the family. Moses comes back with “It’s not about YOU!” Ramses’ fervent reply, “It’s always about ME!” got the strongest reaction from the audience.

Driving home from the show, my friend and I tried to pinpoint what was missing from The Prince of Egypt. Not all the songs are memorable, with only When You Believe moving enough to inspire a strong emotional response. It’s obviously a challenge to bring freshness to a well-known story, but the dancing helped a lot. I waited to read reviews until I had the chance to judge for myself. I have to agree with Lily Janiak who writes about the secularization of the story. Except for the brief but effective burning bush, it’s not really clear that the God of the Hebrews is guiding Moses. The Egyptian religion gets a longer introduction in the song Ma’at. Even the song When You Believe (“Who knows what miracles you can achieve, when you believe, somehow you will, you will when you believe”) is open to interpretation. Is it God performing miracles through you, or is it believing enough in something? Anything? Yourself?

Is The Prince of Egypt ready for Broadway? I don’t think so. Am I glad we made the effort to see it? Definitely. Especially when followed by a dinner of Indian food. There’s nothing like plagues and parting the Red Sea to work up an appetite!

Photo credits: The Prince of Egypt stage photos are by Kevin Berne for TheatreWorks. The theatre photo is my own.

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Zachary Quinto at the Castro Theatre

Last night I went to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre to see Zachary Quinto “in conversation.” It was part of the California Independent Film Festival.

I was one of the first arrive in the non–VIP line outside the theatre. Once inside, I got a seat in the fourth row. A young Chinese woman sat next to me, and she could barely contain her excitement. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I told her I’d only seen Zachary Quinto in the Star Trek movies and Snowden. She’d seen more of his work, but neither of us watched Heroes.

Quinto was interviewed by Derek Zemrak and another fellow whose name I missed. They sat in comfy chairs on one side of the Castro Theatre’s shallow stage. When Quinto first sat down, his chair reclined back la-Z-boy style, which got a laugh. The rest of the hour-long interview he was thoughtful and serious, but he seemed very much at ease.

Quinto discussed his television and movie roles, particularly Heroes, American Horror Story, and So Notorious. He loves doing theatre, and he talked about his roles in Angels in America and The Glass Menagerie. When the conversation turned to Star Trek, he described his audition process and his relationships with the other cast members and Leonard Nimoy. He also shared his reasons for coming out and the LGBT+ organizations he works with, especially the Trevor Project and the Hetrick-Martin Institute. Then the discussion moved into some of the projects he’s involved with as a producer.

I met Tab Hunter a couple of years ago with his partner Alan Glaser at a screening of the documentary Tab Hunter: Confidential. It was interesting to find out that Quinto is working with Hunter and Glaser on a movie about Tab’s relationship with Anthony Perkins. It’s still in the early writing stages.

Quinto answered some questions from the audience, and then Zemrak presented him with the festival’s Maverick Award. We applauded and the interview was done. I waited with Leah, my new enthusiastic friend, in the foyer afterwards. Quinto signed a few autographs and posed for some photos. I took a photo of Leah and Quinto, then we went outside for a quick photo of him with his award. We watched him get into an SUV and drive away. I said goodbye to Leah with the promise of keeping her informed about other fun events in the city.

Now I need to finally watch Heroes!

Leah & Zachary Quinto

Derek Zemrak & Zachary Quinto with Maverick Award

 

(I would have taken more videos, but I forgot to charge my camera battery!)

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