Saturday, January 29, 2022

Review of "Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous"

Art can be provocative.  Art can inspire.  In Pearl Cleage’s genial comedy, Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous, a performance art piece takes center stage as a vehicle to ruminate on the life-changing nature of the spoken word (accompanied by full nudity), relationships, and the passing of the torch from an older, more revered figure to a new generation.  The show is at Hartford Stage through February 6th.


The plot centers on Anna Campbell (Terry Burrell), a performer whose signature piece, Naked Wilson, was a cause celebre that forced the actress and her companion Betty (Marva Hicks) to relocate to Europe for 30 years (In the piece she recited the speeches of male characters from August Wilson plays in the buff).  Now, lured back to the states in the twilight of her career, she aims to perform the work one more time before she criss-crosses the United States with a different one-woman show.  Or she thinks.  Kate (Cynthia D. Barker), a young producer and former student of Betty’s at Spelman College, only wants to honor Anna, not have her perform at a local arts festival.  Instead, she has hired a young, ahem, actress, Precious “Pete” Watson (Shakirah Demesier) to perform Anna’s decades old work.  Sparks fly among the characters as miscommunications produce hard feelings, recriminations and, finally, a coming together for a satisfying and gratifying ending.


The playwright Pearl Cleage has crafted an uncomplicated, overall upbeat play that is easy to watch and digest.  The characters are fleshed out just enough to provide an ample dollop of reflections and musings in which to propel the show forward.  The main themes of female empowerment and the higher purpose of art can be somewhat loquacious but, overall, are interjected with a soft sell combativeness.  


The four person ensemble dutifully banters and argues about art and life.  The cast is led by Terry Burrell’s as Anna.  She can be overly effusive at times, but the actress gives a feisty and thoughtful performance.  Marva Hicks provides a composed, serene portrayal as Anna’s friend and confidante, Betty.  She is the poised Ying to Anna’s more fiery and out-spoken Yang.  As the producer Kate, Cynthia D. Barker, is believably harried as she troubleshoots on the fly, putting out one fire after another.  The standout actress in the play is Shakirah Demesier as the demonstrative and outspoken adult performer “Pete.”  Ms. Demesier is full of spunk and sass as she speaks her mind and forges her own identity.


Susan V. Booth’s direction is conventional and nondescripl, moving characters about the stage as they deliberate and pontificate. The spacious, finely appointed hotel suite designed by Collette Pollards is under utilized as all the action takes place in the amply sized living room positioned down stage.


Angry, Raucous & Shamelessly Gorgeous, an upbeat and agreeable comedy playing at Hartford Stage through February 6.


Thursday, January 27, 2022

Review of "Fires in the Mirror"


Can a play that puts the spotlight on the Crown Heights riots of 1991 be relevant today?  Sadly, the answer is a disheartening yes.


Playwright Anna Deavere Smith interviewed over 100 people, many who were residents of the area, but also included notable commentators such as Angela Davis, the Reverend Al Sharpton and playwright Ntozake Shange, to create the one-person show, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.  Using 29 of her recorded transcripts, she shaped the play into a series of monologues that honestly and brutally examine the underpinnings of the riots and its aftermath.  The show is at Long Wharf Theater through February 6, 2020.


The explosive event involved the Jewish and African-American communities in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.  A simmering distrust sparked by an ill-fated, deadly automobile accident and subsequent retaliation, caused days of personal injuries, considerable property damage, and a community and city questioning how to move forward.


The actress Cloteal L. Horne embodies each character, ranging from an anonymous Lubavitcher woman to a high school African-American teenager to New York City officials, activists and clergy.  Ms. Horne is confident and self-assured as she conveys personal stories, reflections and eye-witness accounts.  The performer assumes the various identities with a quick change of costume or by simply donning a pair of glasses, a jacket or head covering.  Assorted accents and mannerisms also help with the varied transformations.  Her overall performance is fine, but a more dynamic portrayal would have elevated the production.


The show, which at just about 2 ½ hours, is a trifle long, is divided into two Acts.  The first part of the show consists of a series of monologues that provide more of a slice of life in the Jewish and African-American community of Crown Heights. The focus is on everyday people, how they live their lives within their own neighborhoods.  These stories, along with contributions from well-known personalities, are at times protracted and circuitous.  They do, however, provide background and set-up for the more riveting Act II.


The second Act centers on the events leading up to the riots, the protests and turbulence itself, and its after-effects.  Characters present differing perspectives of what unfolded.  Questions of accountability and culpability pervade each character’s recollections.  The resulting stories are both powerful and compelling.  You can almost feel the rage that took place those 30 years ago. 


Director Nicole Brewer is at her best when focusing on Ms. Horne and the stories she brings to life.  The pacing for the play is good when the monologues are short and more personal.  The production becomes somewhat tedious during the longer, more rambling addresses, especially when Ms. Horne is required to roam around the very large set.  A more intimate presentation would have better balanced the production.  In the original staging of the show, Ms. Deavere Smith performed her work on a bare stage with minimal props.  Here, the set by Scenic Designer Diggle, engulfs the entirety of the Long Wharf space.  There is a circular platform of sand with another round section filled with dirt on top.  In the background is water and a fallen tree.  Overlooking it all is a large projection screen which provides some context to the spoken words, but is more a distraction.


In a better world, a production of Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities would be an historic footnote.  But with race relations around the country still at a flashpoint, the play still remains a very important and relevant reminder that dialogue, self-examination, and action is the only way we as a country can move forward together.


Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, playing at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven through February 6, 2022.  Masks and proof of vaccination required.