Wednesday, March 13, 2019

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka

First, behold the title: If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, sparkling with energy. Next, the structure: playwright Tori Sampson's dynamic, emotional play riffs on folklore, African music and dance, pop culture, teen competitiveness, overparenting, and African and Western ideas of beauty and its value, with a nod to Beyoncé (but, of course). While parts of it are familiar to anyone who has ever worried about her looks, the play is also something new, in turns thrilling, touching, and funny. This show is Sampson's New York professional debut, but we will hear from her again. (And again, and again, I hope.)

Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Leland Fowler
Photo: Joan Marcus
The story is simple. Seventeen-year-old Akim is held by popular opinion to be the prettiest girl in Affreakah-Amirrorikah. Her father is insanely protective of her. She has few friends. When she manages to gain a sliver of freedom she discovers that sexy, confident Kasim has a crush on her--and she is ready and eager to crush right back. Just one problem: Kasim is held by popular opinion (not including his) to "belong" to Massassi. Massassi and her friends Adama and Kaya "befriend" Akim in an attempt to get Kasim back for Massassi. 

The presentation is not simple: It is narrated by Akim's cell phone (humanized as a charming, silly young man wearing bejeweled specs). Magic plays a big role. And a truly wonderful, exciting dance (choreography by Raja Feather Kelly) makes the afterlife seem extremely attractive and a great deal of fun. [spoiler] Everyone in the afterlife wears the same plain mask, freeing them all from the tyranny of looks and looksism. [end of spoiler]

Maechi Aharanwa, Phumzile Sitole (behind Maechi),
Jason Bowen, Níkẹ Uche Kadri,
Rotimi Agbabiaka, Leland Fowler
Photo: Joan Marcus

For all of Sampson's playfulness and creativity, her sense of the cost of beauty and the lack thereof is deadly serious. Akim's father is a possessive idiot, but he is also correct about the dangers threatening his daughter (although his possessiveness actually makes her more vulnerable rather than less). Each of the teenaged girls knows exactly her worth on the awful, artificial, yet painfully real scale of perceived attractiveness. And the sheer exhaustion of being a young female is vividly etched throughout.

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka brought to mind the often mis-quoted line "money is the root of all evil." The actual quote, as found in the King James Bible, is "the love of money is the root of all evil." Similarly, neither "pretty" nor "ugly" needs to hurt. It is the exaltation of beauty--good-looking people making more money, being more popular, being perceived as better people--that causes the pain, particularly to the nonbeautiful. 


In all the discussions of parity in theatre, with percentages of women and people of color getting work, etc., the emphasis tends to be on giving talented people a fair chance. What is also important is giving audiences new voices, different points of view, new forms of art. As an old-ish white woman who has seen thousands of shows, I am thrilled to be challenged and entertained and broadened by writers such as Sampson and directors such as Leah C. Gardiner and performers such as Rotimi Agbabiaka, Maechi Aharanwa, Jason Bowen, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Leland Fowler, Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, and Carla R. Stewart, all of whom contribute mightily to the many strengths of If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. We all benefit when more and different people are heard.

Wendy Caster
(8th row orchestra; press ticket)
Show-Score: 90

Boesman and Lena

It often occurs to me, especially lately, just how much the trajectory of any life comes down to dumb luck. Sure, people can work hard to change their lot in life, or screw up enough to piss everything away, but ultimately, it's a dizzyingly random combination of birthright, time, place, and culture that results in the access--or lack thereof--to food, water, education, safety from persecution, or parents who will buy your entry into Yale. The three characters in Boesman and Lena, Athol Fugard's 1969 masterwork currently running in a truly humbling revival at Signature Theater, are utterly devoid of luck, dumb or otherwise. Written in response to South Africa's apartheid laws, the play has only become more powerful and sad since apartheid ended. There's just so much need in the world.

Joan Marcus
Living in a place and time that has hierarchized its citizens according to how they look and to whom they've been born, the title characters have in many respects not only numbly accepted but also thoroughly internalized the sick logic that has conscripted their unrelentingly difficult lives. Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah, typically excellent) is brittle and angry and hard, and he regularly takes his powerlessness and frustrations out by beating his partner, Lena (Zainab Jah, remarkable). Lena's trauma manifests itself less violently than Boesman's, but it roils nonetheless: in early monologues, she takes careful count of her bruises and lists all the places she and Boesman have been forced from as a means of reminding herself of her own existence and remaining sanity. Both characters have to work awfully hard not to sink into despair, to give up, to destroy themselves or one another. When an old African man in his death throes (Thomas Silcott) arrives at their campsite, the tension between the couple spikes ever higher. 
This is a deeply unsettling and moving piece of immersive theater that's not easy to sit through and that you should nevertheless try your damnedest to see. I haven't stopped thinking about how painful and dignified it is, how beautifully performed, how shattering. At curtain call of the performance I saw, an old man in the front row stood and repeatedly thanked the actors, who didn't break character as they stood for applause. I was too stunned to chant along with him, but he spoke for me just the same. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Operating Systems

I've had a challenging and satisfying few hours chewing on the ideas and questions posed by Gus Schulenburg's new play Operating Systems, which I saw this afternoon. The description of the piece on the Flux Theatre Ensemble's web page includes this:
Operating Systems wrestles with how internalized oppression often makes us reinforce oppressive systems even as we work toward justice. In a tokenizing system that often positions oppressed peoples against each other, can the relationships at the heart of the play survive? Is it better to leverage the resources of these systems in service of justice, or to burn the whole thing down? 
These are fascinating and important questions that couldn't be more timely. (In fact, while walking to the theatre, my niece and I chatted about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with my niece ready to have AOC "burn the whole thing down" and me hoping that AOC will work more within the system.)

Morgan McGuire, Lori Elizabeth Parquet
Photo: Justin Hoch
In Operating Systems, Code Breakers is a not-for-profit organization (with an emphasis on not, per its CEO Benita) that teaches code to high school girls of color. Originated by dot-com whiz Stephen (think Bill-Stephen-Gates-Jobs with a drinking problem), Code Breakers fights the good fight. But when alumn Bel returns there to teach, ugly secrets are revealed.

Friday, March 01, 2019

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

What a difference a director makes.

When By the Way, Meet Vera Stark was done at the Second Stage, directed by Jo Bonney, it was hysterically funny, yet hard-hitting and even heart-breaking. (Review here.) In its current incarnation at the Signature Theatre, directed by Kamilah Forbes, it is obvious, overdone, and totally lacking in emotional texture. And the second act is tedious.

The New York Times make it a critics' pick. I have no idea why.

Wendy Caster
($35 ticket; second row center)

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

League of Professional Theatre Women

It's easy to discuss the lack of gender parity in theatre, but what can be done about it? The League of Professional Theatre Women exists to answer that question and to make things happen, through oral history interviews, Women Count reports, meetings, awards, and generally advocating for women in theatre.

The oral history interviews are open to the public when they happen and then available through the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. (The League plans to make the interviews available via streaming.)

In the most recent instance, theatre journalist Elisabeth Vincentelli interviewed brilliant playwright Lynn Nottage. It was everything you could want in an interview. Vincentelli asked smart and brief questions, leaving plenty of space for Nottage's thoughtful, often fascinating, frequently funny answers. Nottage spoke at length about her process, including the astonishing fact that she works on a comedy and a serious drama at the same time. (She said that she turns to the comedies when she doesn't feel like crying.) She also spoke about her activism and her private life. I could have listened to her for hours.

Lynn Nottage
Photo: Ashley Garrett
The League has interviewed an amazing who's who of theatre women. Here is an edited list:
Jane Alexander, Elizabeth Ashley, Zoe Caldwell, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Marge Champion, Betty Comden, Betty Corwin, Jean Dalrymple, Tyne Daly, Carmen De Lavallade, Christine Ebersole, Madeline Gilford, Uta Hagen, Susan Hilferty, Judy Kaye, Linda Lavin, Baayork Lee, Rosetta LeNoire, Judith Light, Laura Linney,  Judith Malina, Elizabeth McCann, Frances McDormand, Julia Miles, Charlotte Moore, Donna Murphy, Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera, Mary Rodgers, Ann Roth, Daryl Roth, Mercedes Ruehl, Carole Shelley, Frances Sternhagen, Elaine Stritch, Kathleen Turner, and Paula Vogel.
The next Oral History will take place on May 6th.

The League's Women Count reports focus on Off-Broadway and provide numerical proof of how far we have to go to achieve parity. Stage managers and costume designers are majority women. However, in no other category do women hit 50% and in far too many categories, they don't get anywhere near 50%. This is important information to have.

For those of us who wonder what we can do to support women in theatre, the League provides these useful ten steps:
How can we, individually and collectively, use our personal and professional networks to advance the cause of visibility and opportunity for women in the theatre?
1.  Talk about plays you’ve enjoyed that are by and about women.
2.  Subscribe to a theatre company that produces work by women (such as the Women’s Project, Three Graces, New Georges. Google to find others.)
3.  Use your theatre-going dollars to support women artists. Join the Meet-up Group Works-by-Women.  Join other women at the theatre on a group rate discount to see professional work by women writers, directors, and designers.
4. Advocate for Blind Submissions of playwrights’ work.  Most major orchestras conduct blind auditions. Why not choose plays for prizes, grants, even productions, without regard to gender? Spread the word.
5.  If called upon to subscribe to a theatre ask, “How many women will be directing/designing/writing/performing in plays for you this season?” Tell them you prefer to support theatres that are working toward gender parity.
6.  Subscribe to NYTE to support its pledge to give parity to women in its coverage of theatre work. (It’s free!)
7. Join the DGA Women’s Initiative, New York Coalition of Professional Women in the Arts & Media, the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Advocacy Committee or 50/50 in 2020.
8. When you receive a brochure from a theatre company, count the women artists listed. Call the theatre to praise or critique them based on how close they are to parity.
9. Talk about non-traditional casting i.e. Judith Ivey as the Stage Manager in Our Town. Kathleen Chalfant as Mrs. Scrooge, Cate Blanchett as Hamlet, Fiona Shaw as Lear and Viola Davis as Gloucester. Talk, blog  and use social networks to suggest plays you’d like to see in which a woman plays the lead, or in which women play the majority of the roles.
10. Amplify these actions by passing these tips to others.
For more information on the League and what they offer, click here.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Price of Thomas Scott

The invaluable Mint Theater Company has found another underappreciated playwright from early in the last century. Elizabeth Baker grew up in an extremely religious household and didn't see her first play until she was 30--theatre was considered immoral in her home.

Donald Corren and Tracy Sallows
Photo: Todd Cerveris
In Baker's The Price of Thomas Scott, Thomas Scott, very much the head of his household, is deeply religious and deeply conservative, keeping a tight leash on his children. No theatre, no dancing, no fancy clothing. The family has a millinery shop that is barely getting by. The son would like to go to a good school; the daughter would love to go to Paris to learn more about hats; and the wife would love to retire. An almost miraculous solution to their situation appears when a company offers a fortune to buy their home and shop. Only one problem: that company will turn the space into a dance hall.

The Price of Thomas Scott is a thin play in some ways; it would have been an excellent short piece. Even at only 90 minutes, it is repetitive and slow. Nevertheless, it is also quite involving. I found myself rooting against my own beliefs because Baker does such an excellent job at showing the roots and honor of other people's beliefs.

As always, the Mint production is top-notch and well-directed, although there are two dance numbers that are just wrong. They feel like winks at the audience: "We're not as backward as these characters," director Jonathan Bank seems to be saying.

Also as always, the production values are wonderful and evocative. The set is by Vicki R. Davis; the costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski; the lighting by Christian DeAngelis; and the sound and musical arrangements by Jane Shaw.

For a third "as always," the cast ranges from solid to outstanding. They are Donald Corren, Andrew Fallaize, Emma Geer, Josh Goulding, Mitchell Greenberg, Nick LaMedica, Jay Russell, Tracy Sallows, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, Ayana Workman, and Arielle Yoder.

The Mint plans to produce two more full productions of Baker's plays, as well as readings of some of her one acts. I'm looking forward to all of them!

Wendy Caster
(5th row; press ticket)
Show-Score: 88

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Cher Show

In lots of ways, The Cher Show is remarkably similar to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Both are big, shiny, spectacular jukebox musicals about iconic female superstars, created by overwhelmingly male creative and production teams. Both feature three actresses playing different versions of the star in question at various points in her life. And for whatever reason, both use a great deal of blue lighting and trapdoor lifts, though Summer's excessive reliance on the latter ultimately kicks The Cher Show's measly, single-trap ass. In every other way, though, The Cher Show is the superior production.

Joan Marcus
Don't misunderstand me: The Cher Show is not Brilliant Art. It's silly and breezy and light, so skip it if the idea of a fun if slightly flimsy couple of hours in the theater offends you. This is the kind of jukebox musical that elicits gleeful applause at the opening notes of a pop standard, or when an actor manages a passable impersonation of a beloved celebrity (that's quite the groovy Sonny Bono voice you've nailed down, Jerrod Spector!). Still, it works in ways that Summer, which was weirdly tentative and frustratingly convoluted in execution, did not.

In the first place, Cher has a concept, however basic, that it doesn't veer from. It knows what makes its subject simultaneously larger than life and appealingly vulnerable. It recognizes that Cher has had thrilling highs and devastating lows, and it plays to them. It wisely lingers on the stuff that is most dramatically viable: her discovery by and relationship with Bono, her shifting personae, her diverse career, her relationship with her wise, tough mother--without dwelling for too long on any one thing, or attempting to dig too deep. It also knows how to make fun of itself from the outset. Having the three Chers greet the audience at the top of the first act by calling us all bitches before immediately confronting how bizarre it is, even to them, that there are three Chers hanging around onstage pretty much establishes the tone. In fact, this tactic won me over immediately, even as I remain uncertain as to why the hell there were three Chers up there, or what they were all supposed to be representing. But then, seriously now, who the hell cares? I certainly don't plan to lose sleep over the question, and I'm sure none of the three Chers give a shit, either--truly, I feel pretty secure in the notion that they all just want the spectators to enjoy looking at the shiny Bob Mackie costumes, some of which got their very own huge and elaborate production number. Reader, enjoy them I did.

Another enormously important thing The Cher Show gets right is its audience, which is largely if not entirely gay and/or female. The creative team might be just as male as Summer's was, but at least this show doesn't pander or condescend. There was something decidedly off-putting, for example, about how Summer tried to present itself as inclusive and empowering, even as as it quickly swept its heroine's infamous born-again-influenced homophobia under the rug with a few glib platitudes.

The Cher Show is hardly deep: you won't get much about Cher's life here that you couldn't learn from a glance at her Wikipedia page; probably the Wiki would tell you more. A sister is mentioned only once and in passing. Cher's relationships with her children are almost entirely off-limits. Her romances are all surfaces: they form, peak, and wither. Sonny remains an important force in her life after their divorce, but how, why, and in what ways aren't plumbed; nor is anything about Bono save that he was ambitious, business-minded, and extraordinarily controlling. Only Cher's mom (played by a fine Emily Skinner) has some depth; anyway, she seems like she was a consistent, positive force in Cher's life, whether that's true or not. Still, the show's constant nod to the importance of women doing shit for themselves--or, whatever, for their daughters, especially when their daughters turn out to be Cher--speaks volumes. So do the costumes, the huge wigs, and the autotune.

In short, this is a fluffy bauble that knows exactly what it is and exactly how to entertain. Kind of like its title character. Have fun, bitches, or stay home.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Choir Boy

Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, just extended at the Friedman, is poignant, moving, and lovely. A coming-of-age drama set in an exclusive all-male, all-black boarding school, the swift 100-minute show focuses on Pharus Jonathan Young, a queer high-school senior whose greatest pride and source of comfort is his role as leader and star tenor of the school choir. Played by a truly exceptional Jeremy Pope, Pharus is deeply nuanced and often highly contradictory: smart, headstrong and self-possessed; unsure of who he is and where he belongs in the world.

Matthew Murphy

Much like McCraney's MoonlightChoir Boy places focus on the personal development of a single gay, black, male character over time; whereas Moonlight followed Chiron from youth to adulthood, Choir Boy covers events that take place in the course of a single year. Scenes are frequently punctuated by choreographed choral arrangements of gospel chestnuts, many of which touch on the character's situations or emotional highs and lows. Some of the choral arrangements are more sophisticated than others, but the concept works consistently, and some of the numbers are particularly effective.

The general consensus among critics about Choir Boy is that Pharus is far better developed than the characters who surround him, and who alternately make high school life less or more difficult for him. But I don't care, even a little bit, about the fact that the supporting characters don't have the depth or nuance of Pharus. They're engaging enough; the company is well-cast and talented to a man. And anyway, this is Pharus's story, and his very real ups and downs are well worth the audience's attention. How many times, after all, have characters like Pharus been made secondary, flimsy, shoved off to the side, reduced to two dimensions and a couple of stereotypical gestures designed to amuse spectators?