The stats and the realities have been out there for years – before a racist took up residence in the White House. Racial profiling by people with badges, guns, and gavels had already been documented with actuarial precision. The disproportionate number of black men stopped and ticketed for broken tail lights, frisked at checkpoints, picked up on ticky-tack drug violations, incarcerated for maximum sentences on trumped -up evidence, and gunned down or choked to death by police without cause or provocation? All of it had been calculated over and over.
When Ferguson happened in 2014, triggering an oft-repeated American awakening, Michael Brown lay in the streets for hours after he was murdered. Police brutality seemed to be hidden in the shadows under the cover of darkness during those primordial days. Our iPhones and mandated police bodycams have opened our eyes since then. Now in 2020, after the brutal suffocation of George Floyd in broad daylight, the essence of the Black Lives Matter grievance is no longer the abstract result of a statistical calculation. It is vivid and visceral for millions of us here and around the globe.
And maybe, just maybe, the worldwide unrest has made a dent in policemen’s brazenness, in police chiefs’ and unions’ defiance, in mayors’ aloofness, and in legislators’ indifference. Normally, black and guerilla theatre companies might be expected to help sustain momentum for change, but in a time of pandemic, norms themselves have changed. So it’s welcome that Three Bone Theatre has returned to the Charlotte scene at this moment focusing on an issue that seems lately to be waning among our priorities – distantly behind ejecting a noxious clown from the Oval Office.
Following up on commissioning a set of 10-minute plays sparked by the murder of Trayvon Martin the previous year, the New Black Fest commissioned HANDS UP: Six Playwrights, Six Testaments. An early reading stage version preserved on YouTube was recorded in November 2014, just three months after the Michael Brown shooting. That six-pack retained its original formulation when the piece was formally premiered in Philadelphia on June 10, 2015, in a Flashpoint Theatre Company production directed by Joanna Settle.
One might infer that Settle influenced the subsequent trajectory of the piece, for its subtitle is now 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments, and smack in the middle of the previously all-male lineup of playwrights and protagonists, we now have “Dead of Night… The Execution Of…” by Nambi E. Kelley, in a stunning performance by LeShea Nicole that any production, past or future, would benefit from.
Mainly, the black men keep asking how they need to act to shield themselves from racial profiling, police paranoia, and the hail of bullets fired at them without impunity. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the slogan that quickly cropped up during the Ferguson protests of 2014, has sadly retained its currency alongside “I can’t breathe” and “Get your knee off our necks.” That slogan gets a riveting workout in the concluding playlet, “How I Feel” by Dennis A. Allen II. The fact that Sultan Omar El-Amin didn’t have an audience in the house to interact with at Duke Energy Theater hardly detracted from the power of the grim communal ritual he led.
Added to the intrinsic power of the 7 Testaments, the current Three Bone production forcefully reminds us that nothing has changed since HANDS UPhad its first reading six years ago. Quentin Talley’s stage direction helps us grasp all that is still true about the difficulties blacks face in navigating everyday life in America – and all that was prescient in these seven scripts about what would be so graphically demonstrated on TV and social media. As a society we aren’t merely discovering the systemic racism thriving in our midst the systemic racism thriving in our midst. We’re taking our blinders off.
Talley’s audio setup at Spirit Square frequently let him and the other performers down as this compelling livestream unfolded. The dropouts pretty much ruined Mason Parker’s rendering of “They Shootin! Or I Ain’t Neva Scared…” by Idris Goodwin and intermittently – but annoyingly – cut the argumentative thread of “Abortion” by NSangou Njikam as Gerard Hazelton engagingly prowled the stage. “Walking Next to Michael Brown” by Eric Micha Holmes fared slightly better, dramatically delivered by Laurence Maher.
My hypothesis was that microphone placement was nearly as much responsible for the dropouts as the wayward streaming signal. Talley had these guys moving around more in his blocking than Nicole, whose audio was comparatively solid. When Talley himself opened the show, performing “Superiority Fantasy” by Nathan James, his voice tended to fade when he distanced himself from centerstage. That’s probably why the full force of James’s distinction between whites and Caucasians didn’t quite register as it should. It was a distinction that, for millions of people of good will, would have come in handy decades ago.
Members of the audience who have waited in vain for spokespersons from Antifa or the Deep State to share their views could hear more pointed and realistic testimonies about how it feels to wake up every morning and walk America’s streets in a black skin. Talley’s character described it as constantly walking on eggshells even when he wore his carefully crafted non-threatening smile. Jay Ward, performing Nathan Yungerburg’s “Holes in My Identity,” recalls the cringeworthy moment in grade school when a classmate mispronounced the River Niger and all the other white students turned towards him.
Perhaps the most poignant evocation was in El-Amin’s testimony when he overheard his mother remembering how, when she was pregnant, she had wished that her child would not be a boy. We’ve seen enough tearful moms on the evening news to know why. El-Amin went on to describe how radically blacks and whites would need to change before Mom could discard those fears. Even then, he wasn’t betting that systemic racism would be on the ropes.
So he finally lowered his hands and simply vented: “Fuck you! And fuck this shit!”
The concluding Allen ceremony and rant justifiably gave the New Black Fest collection its title, surely the most stirring piece in this Three Bone production. But the Yungerburg monologue struck me as the most nuanced and sneakily persuasive. The main “hole” in this speaker’s identity as a black person was that he had reached the age of 43 without ever having been stopped, frisked, interrogated, or beaten for no reason. It’s not an initiation you seek out, of course, but it’s a condition that drives Ward’s character to a therapist.
Eventually, he pierces to the core of why the hurts fester in the hearts of police victims, no matter how trivial – or even paranoid – the victimization might be. “Dismissal steps quietly,” he says, because we’re not always aware that we’re doing it while the victim feels it keenly. At a certain point, Ward’s uncannily untouched character, during a walk in the park with a black partner, discovers that he himself has dismissed his friend’s fears as a silly phobia.
And he takes the opportunity, then and there, to apologize. It’s at that pivotal moment that Yungerburg and Allen are empathizing with us, grasping that we often don’t know how to cope with an unbridgeable divide – and showing us the way.
Review: CP Theatre’s webcast of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, and CP’s other online production of Terry Gabbard’s Our Place.
By Perry Tannenbaum
If you sign up for CP Theatre’s webcast of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, you may wind up noticing that it has more than a couple of common features with CP’s other online production of Terry Gabbard’s Our Place. Both shows are comprised of multiple vignettes, both feature some of the same actors, and both share the same stage and elements of the same Kenton Jones set design. Both are also situated in places that tie together their varied vignettes, the sort of place we might think seriously about escaping to during a pandemic – particularly in the toxic twilight of Mr. Tangerine Man’s bizarre presidency.
The pandemic, however, follows both productions, Cariani’s suite directed by Ron Chisholm and Gabbard’s by James Duke, out into their forlorn wildernesses. These escapes, as a result, glow with an extra sheen of poignancy, for all the players – dating, breaking up, carousing at a bar, or bickering on a family outing – are doing the right thing, the CDC thing, and the Governor’s executive order thing: they are wearing masks.
It’s a curious collision. Wild pristine places you might dream of escaping to, away from the constraints of our COVID-infested civilization, are strangely populated with people who are devoutly wearing their mandated masks – as if they hadn’t escaped at all.
Cariani and Gabbard surely penned their blackout sketches without envisioning that someday they would be performed by acting troupes wearing surgical masks. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if their granting of licensing rights to CPCC Theatre hinged on the condition that everybody onstage would be masking up.
After a dopey prologue, a native explains to a visitor that Almost comes by its name naturally, since there aren’t quite enough people, facilities, or initiative for the place to earn a spot on the map with Maine’s more substantial towns. It “doesn’t quite exist,” according to Cariani’s script. And the unreality of the place manifests itself fairly quickly, for the pilgrim who is hoping to glimpse the Northern Lights, Glory, is carrying her broken heart in her backpack, while her lovestruck host, East, is not particularly interested in debunking her wild story.
CP presented the Charlotte premiere of Almost in 2011, a little more than a year after Davidson Community Players brought their production to Spirit Square. Seeing it now during the Trump twilight, I find the goofball flavor altered somewhat. In “Her Heart,” the scene with the Northern Lights, I couldn’t escape the notion that I was watching extraterrestrial aliens becoming intimate. In “Seeing the Thing,” where Dave finds himself at Rhonda’s front door for the umpteenth time after a fun evening together – without being invited inside – their progress toward a long-delayed first kiss seems a bit like a Peanuts special when framed by a small screen.
Daniel Keith and Corina Childs deliver the comedy endearingly, quickening the pace awkwardly and adorably when they begin peeling off their clothes after their first kisses, but their brightly colored outerwear and all the garish underthings they tug off each other only heightened my impression that I was watching a cartoon. Garish jackets, woolly ski caps, and artsy masks push us toward the realms of Homer Simpson and Planet of the Apes. Add a couple of floppy ear flaps, and I sensed a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving right around the corner.
Can you literally return all the love your boyfriend has given you? In Almost, you can, as Gayle, infused with extravagant irrationality by Hannah Snyder, demonstrates by lugging suitcase after suitcase filled with it into a hapless Lendall’s living room. Responding to Hannah’s imperious demand that he return all her love, Andrew Blackwell as Lendall returns with a wee little red pouch – without faulting his beloved for the disparity. You can’t help feeling for the flummoxed lad.
East, a repairman, can have a go at fixing Glory’s broken heart in Almost. Two men in “They Fell,” Chad and Randy, can overcome their rustic inhibitions there and literally fall in love, with Griffin Digsby and Jacob Feldpausch executing an orgy of pratfalls. Chisholm, costume designer Beth Levine Chaitman, and the cast are ultimately on-target in their efforts to broaden the comedy. My smart TV isn’t quite as big as life, so this whimsical Maine can stand a modicum of upsizing.
Aside from the prologue and epilogue, there are eight vignettes in this cozy comedy. Cariani wrote it with four actors in mind, including himself, but Chisholm spreads the precious stage exposure to 16 people, including some you may have met back in September in CP’s Virtual Whodunnit.
Childs and Keith come the closest to tying all these vignettes together in “Seeing the Thing,” when Dave begins to enumerate all the Almost folk who have told him that he and Rhonda should be together. That rollcall ought to compound the happy ending when Dave finally gets to cross his beloved’s threshold, but Chisholm has pushed this scene up one slot and saved the sadder “Story of Hope” for last.
That puts Tony Cudic and Quincy Stanford in a bittersweet finale as the title character returns to answer her high school sweetheart’s marriage proposal after many years of absence – long enough ago that Hope doesn’t recognize her Danny. Two dividends from transposing the last two vignettes: we’re not closing with a scene that mandates the two masked kisses we see in “Seeing the Thing,” and in “The Story of Hope,” we now have an additional reason to believe that a woman who has traveled 163 miles by taxi to say yes to a marriage proposal might not recognize that man at the front door of his house.
He’s wearing a mask to greet a stranger!
The bittersweet ending of CP’s Almost, Maine also meshes well with the more dramatic tone and consequential events of Our Place. Utilizing 14 players, half of whom also double as Almost citizens, Our Place is especially well-named a for local production. Gabbard’s play actually premiered here in Charlotte at the 2014 North Carolina Theatre Conference, performed by students of Ardrey Kell High School and directed by the playwright with Brian Seagroves.
Although projection designer Jeff Childs pushes the envelope a little, all five scenes – and a collective epilogue – occur at the same place. A weathered dock stretches across the upstage and extends a couple of arms toward us along the wings. The aura of a special, secret, and secluded place is somewhat contradicted by this dock and the wide canoe nestled against it in the water (imagination needed here), but that myth is exploded in the opening scene.
Hoping to impress his new girlfriend, Jake tells Holly that he is responsible for fixing up this hideaway, forgotten since real estate developers purchased it decades ago. Jake is in the middle of laying a “love blanket” on Holly – along with additional BS about their special place – when his former girlfriend Anne arrives with her new boyfriend, introducing him to their special place.
In the fracas that erupts, Gracie Page as Anne has the more serious grievances, so if you find yourself liking Brandon Scott as Jake, it will be more for his elaborate rascality than for his counterclaims or penitence. Three of the remaining four scenes are more obviously two-handers. In “Flick of the Wrist,” Corina Childs plays a daughter trying to connect with Tony Cudic as her widowed dad. “Tuna Fish” exposes the fissure between Yazmin Battee as Liberty, a woman so worried about her future that she cannot enjoy the moment, and Jacob Feldpausch as Corey, too smug in his rut to change course or see what’s coming.
“Stay With You” was easily the most haunting of Gabbard’s two-handers, with Andrew Blackwell as a moody, rebellious teen and Avery Ruse as his pesky six-year-old sister who pursues him to his secret retreat. Hoping to heal the rift between Stanley and his family, little Sidney achieves the exact opposite.
Midway through Our Place, “Famtime” is the scene that has the most affinity with Cariani’s comedy. J. Michael Beech as gung-ho dad Al drags the rest of the Gilbert household to their place because dammit, they’re going to have some fun together as a family. Michael Fargas as the disaffected son and Summer Schroter as the ditzy daughter aren’t close to sharing Dad’s enthusiastic pep, and Shelby Armstrong as the put-upon mom seems strapped in until Al’s whim runs its course.
So it’s midway through Gabbard’s one-act that the canoe comes into play. As a plot device, the wallop of a canoe has roughly the same decisive effect as an ironing board has in Cariani’s “This Hurts,” where Emma Joles wields the weapon against Scott. For once, this event at Our Place isn’t as consequential as the wallop is in Almost. Or even almost.
Review: Ziad Jazz Quartet’s Tribute to Hank Mobley
By Perry Tannenbaum
Introducing the honoree at the latest Jazz at the Bechtler concert, Ziad Rabie cited fellow saxophonist Hank Mobley as a foundational member of the hardbop stable of musicians on the Blue Note record label during the 1950s. Mobley, he further asserted, was also one of the most prolific hardbop composers of that era, at one time releasing eight albums within the space of 16 months. So there was plenty for Rabie to pick from for the Ziad Jazz Quartet’s hourlong tribute. My own collection merely includes seven albums with Mobley as the leader and stints as a sideman with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver, so of the six tunes on the Ziad set list, I had only heard four before, including two title tunes from Blue Note albums of the ‘60s.
We started out with drummer Al Sergel’s cool preamble to “High and Flighty,” an uptempo gem from 1958 that I acquired in the 2008 reissue of Peckin’ Time while I was catching up with Mobley’s work five decades later. While some of the Blue Note flavor was missing when Rabie roared through the melody without a trumpeter alongside him on the bandstand matching him note for note, Rabie’s pace and energy were as compelling as the master take on the Mobley album when he launched into his solo, faster than the alternate take from Mobley and trumpeter Lee Morgan added on the reissue.
Without an intervening trumpet solo in the Ziad arrangement, pianist Sean Higgins entered the fray sooner – with an effervescent spirit that chimed well with Wynton Kelly’s work on the original session, along with some filigree that Herbie Hancock might recognize. Since there wasn’t a trumpeter in sight to join with Rabie in firing four-bar volleys back and forth with Sergel – as Morgan had alternated with Mobley in the original – Higgins replaced the trumpet in bringing the piece to a rousing climax, before Rabie played the outchorus.
Sergel didn’t quite let go at the end of “High and Flighty,” thrashing away mostly on his cymbals as he transitioned to “The Morning After,” a tumultuous 3/4 composition that appeared on Mobley’s A Caddy for Daddy in 1965. With Higgins adopting a McCoy Tyner manner as he layered on, dropping power chords in his left hand that were a hallmark of John Coltrane’s quartet recordings of 1961-65, the rhythm section sounded very much like the sound Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones pioneered on those classic sessions on Impulse.
Rabie certainly picked up on the sound, for Tyner turned out to be a key ingredient on Caddy for Daddy when I tracked it down, and the tenor saxophonist’s solo had a few licks that echoed Coltrane’s Crescent from 1964, abandoning Mobley’s less fiery style. When Higgins followed Rabie’s incendiary exploits, he let loose with more bombs in his left hand and a Tyner-like flurry in the treble. Nor was this powerful rhythm section done here, for Sergel was still thrashing when the leader returned to reprise the melody on sax, and he took over for a second drum solo afterwards with wailing support from Higgins underneath.
This was a perfect moment for Rabie to repeat jazz critic Leonard Feather’s judgment that Mobley was “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” for his quartet was about to turn down the heat for “Madeline,” an original recorded in Mobley’s pre-Blue Note days. Sergel switched to brushes behind his drumkit and, after lyrical solos by Rabie and Higgins, Ron Brendle finally had an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, better captured in his bass solo than in any of the previous Bechtler webcasts from The Playroom – double kudos for the sound and the music. Higgins was more distinctively his own man in his solo, maybe weaving in wisps of Hancock and Red Garland, while Rabie came closest on this tune to replicating Mobley’s smoky sound on tenor before giving way to Higgins. After the pianist took his solo, Rabie’s blowing had more of a Coltrane tang as Sergel unobtrusively switched to mallets, and the breathiness at the end of the tenor coda injected a faint hint of Ben Webster.Rabie’s final three selections were his most predictable, culled from two of Mobley’s most acclaimed Blue Note recordings, Soul Station (1960) and Workout (1961). “This I Dig of You,” from the earlier album, bopped more than “High and Flighty,” but the creativity flowed richly from the quartet as all the players had a chance to solo. Sergel took up his sticks to launch the merriment, pounding on his rims as well as his toms, and Rabie handed things over quickly to Higgins, who swung his first chorus on the keyboard and offered fresh new angles on each ensuing variation. Rabie was deceptively tame at first, almost cool with his bopping triplets, before he whipped up a harder sound up in the treble, getting a second wind. Brendle had a crisp, swinging take on the tune before Sergel crafted a hybrid solo at the drums, beginning with brushes in Brendle’s wake and then turning the heat back up with his drumsticks.
Weighing in at a middleweight 16 bars, “Soul Station” is as groovy and infectious a blues as you’ll hear, arguably Mobley’s signature composition, and the Ziad Quartet made sure they didn’t mess up the pulse or the tempo, leaning into its medium-paced quietude with its arrangement and obviously having fun. Rabie scorched it without rushing it, and Higgins tossed a bit “Night Train” into his flame (a 12-bar blues that can be traced back to Ellington). Brendle proved that he had been listening closely, popping a bar or two of the same train into his solo.
Inevitably, Rabie chose the title tune of Workout as part of his Mobley tribute, for Feather’s memorable pronouncement on the tenor sax great was the first sentence of his liner notes for that worthy album. Now it sounded like it was Rabie who was refusing to let go, thundering into each new improvised chorus, with Sergel in an orgiastic mode behind him. Higgins was no less dazzling, he and the drummer spurring each other on the pianist’s solo until Sergel pounced on his solo. The liquid intensity of guitarist Grant Green’s solo spot on the Blue Note recording was expunged from the Ziad arrangement, nor did Sergel gradually build to primitive ferocity as Philly Joe Jones had in the March 26, 1961, studio session. He was still roaring while Rabie reprised the Mobley melody one last time. Listening to this rousing closer, I heard more champion than middleweight in this “Workout.”
Rounding into November, I would ordinarily check the weather forecast before venturing out to Boone, NC, to review a theatre production. Not in 2020. All of the Schaefer Center’s events on the campus of Appalachian State University are listed as online. Weather, ticket availability, and travel are no longer in the equation, all obviated by the new norms of computerized streaming. Virtuality would be a straightforward compromise if it only involved translating music, dance, and theatre from three dimensions to two. Mandated social distancing for professional actors and dancers, concerns over spreading airborne particles by singers and horn players, and stricter limits on the number of people who can gather in public places have added more constraints.
So it was refreshing to see how effortlessly all of these new restrictions were handled in the North Carolina Black Repertory Company’s production of The Resurrection of Alice, the latest Schaefer Center presentation. Better yet, the NC Black Rep production team disdained the annoyances that have plagued performing arts webcasts during the pandemic – dumbed-down content, abbreviated runtimes, and screens carved up ZOOM-style into tic-tack-toe boxes.
Though she would have to be 88 years old to actually stand before us as the protagonist in this drama, the script and the one-woman performance by Perri Gaffney had the detail – and superabundance of characters – of an autobiographical narrative. Sure enough, Gaffney’s play of 2013 resurrected a novel that she had self-published in 2004, so the 2020 version, shot with multiple cameras on the Schaefer stage, brought us an actress/playwright/novelist who had lived with the multiple roles she was taking on for nearly two decades.
The actress wasted no time in reaching peak energy, for Alice begins her tale in 1939 as a raucous, upbeat 7-year-old in the fictional backwater of Smedley, South Cackalacky – she doesn’t break down and let on that it’s South Carolina until much later. As the eldest child in her humble household, Alice must set a “zample” for her siblings, which drains some of the fun out of her childhood; and as the prettiest, she must marry Mr. Luthern Tucker, the family benefactor, which robs the teenager and the grownup of her budding love life with Isaac Freeman – and deprives her of the college scholarship she is so excited to win.
Alice’s “best birthday” is her 13th, when she meets Isaac at her party and savors her first peppermint-flavored kiss during a game of spin-the-bottle – until that kiss is cruelly interrupted by her elders. The other bright light in Alice’s life is her schoolteacher, Miss Johnson, who recognizes her gifts and encourages her college ambitions. Although the shadow of Mr. Tucker had hung over Alice from an early age, her parents kept their betrothal agreement a secret until the moment she joyfully received news of her fully-paid tuition scholarship in the mail.
Gaffney crafted the lead-up to this catastrophe and performed its impact upon Alice in a manner that delivered both the shock and the inevitability of her disappointment. Although Alice elicited a promise from Miss Johnson to intercede at the wedding ceremony, an unfortunate miscommunication ensued – along with another shock. Alice found herself imprisoned in wedlock at Mr. Tucker’s luxurious home, expected to do her part in birthing a male heir.
Balancing Alice’s rusticity and intellect, Gaffney’s narrative leans a little more than necessary towards her backwoods naivete in the early episodes, forcing Alice’s interest in Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poetry to do the heavy lifting in conveying her academic potential. It was intriguing to hear two of Dunbar’s most oft-quoted works, presumably giving voice to a Black man’s struggles in White America, so provocatively repurposed. For here, “We Wear the Mask” and “Sympathy” (with its famous “I know why the caged bird sings”) are the outcries of an African American woman who is subjugated by a man of her own race. When Alice finds her own voice, two or three children later, I was more convinced that a resurrection was possible, although Gaffney’s script makes her protagonist’s reawakening and rehab too precipitous to be fully satisfying.
Gaffney’s exploits as an actress offered ample compensation. Inspiring resurrection or not, Gaffney bridged the gap between narrating Alice’s story and inhabiting her personality so seamlessly that I felt that I was watching her grow and mature before my eyes while the narrative unfolded. Portrayals of the men in Alice’s life, prudently brief and nicely differentiated, added richness wherever they popped up, particularly when we glimpsed Isaac, Mr. Tucker, and Rev. Pritchard. If I were director Jackie Alexander, I would try to prevail upon Gaffney to fill out her portrayals of the key women in her tale. Alice’s mamma was too cartoonish for what she had to say, and Mrs. Johnson was too colorless.
Alexander occasionally took advantage of the cinematic medium by blacking out between scenes, though he never implemented any costume changes. Scenic projections on the upstage curtain were hit-and-miss in terms of registering well on video and a bit slow in playing an integral role in the production. Each time Alice voiced the anger that was welling up inside her but, as it turned out, didn’t actually say out loud at the time, lighting designer underscored the motif by flooding the stage with lurid red light. A bit heavy-handed and Rocky Horror, perhaps, but the crude device paid dividends when Alice finally flipped the script and discarded her inhibitions.
While the lapses in Gaffney’s artistry lend a certain rough-hewn authenticity to her narrative, they also deprive us of seeing more of the actress at work. It would make more sense – and give us a fuller grasp of her maturation as a woman – if Alice’s experience as a mother of her three children (or at least of her two eldest) were part of her growth. And Alice’s younger daughter, Ola, “came out” so abruptly near the end that you could easily have missed it. If these loose ends happen to be tied up in Gaffney’s 2004 novel, a simple import would suffice in 2020 and beyond.
Review: Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown
By Perry Tannenbaum
My last memories of the NoDa district of Charlotte, when theatre still thrived there and gentrification was still in progress, are vividly stamped by the obstruction that bisected 36th Street about a block west of North Davidson Street. This was the ongoing construction of light rail, envisioned as salvation for theatre companies producing in NoDa until Carolina Actors Studio Theatre was shut down in 2014 by its less-than-visionary board of directors.
Fringe theatre companies are more comfortable these days in Plaza Midwood, but a new online JazzArts Charlotte series is supplying me with fresh incentive to revisit NoDa once we’re all clear of current pandemic restrictions. Presenters Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown, that has an intimate clubby feel, devoid of the glitzy studio vibe of The Playroom, where Bechtler Museum is streaming its jazz series, and more to the liking of cellar dwellers.
Crown Station, as its name implies, will be accessible for its indoor events by motor and light-rail transit once Governor Cooper sounds the all-clear. Meanwhile, my first exposure to the Crown via the David Lail Quintet put me in mind of the Village Vanguard with its unassuming ambiance. Three cameras were deployed for the Facebook Live webcast, none of which changed position or zoomed in when musicians soloed. Combined with Chromecast, the stream produced fairly sharp video, particularly when pianist Phillip Howe soloed.
On the audio feed (pumped into Boston Acoustic speakers via Bluetooth and a Yamaha receiver), Lail on tenor sax, Matt Postle playing trumpet, and Ocie Davis behind the drumkit were the best served. Howe could have benefited from a smidge more amplification at his open-front upright, and bassist Vince Rivers was woefully undermiked on his first solo, but evidence of on-the-fly audio engineering could be detected during Rivers’ subsequent solo, and he was a satisfying part of the mix afterwards. On a couple of occasions, Lail’s hand mic didn’t seem to be switched on during his introductions, but this problem seemed to have been remedied in post-production when I watched the set a second time.
After Davis’s welcoming remarks, Lail’s program emerged as an homage to his tenor sax heroes – Wayne Shorter, Joe Farrell, Stan Getz, and Joe Henderson. Discriminating listeners may have descried John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon among the leader’s unmentioned influences. The emphasis for the first three selections was on Shorter, Coltrane’s successor in the Miles Davis Quintet, in compositions written during the 1960s – before Shorter became a foundational member of Weather Report and better known for his work on soprano sax.
“Armageddon,” the opening tune, was first recorded on Shorter’s Night Dreamer album, his 1964 debut on the legendary Blue Note label. This composition surely has the hard-bop flavor that Blue Note is famous for, but Lail’s solo, like Shorter’s before him, was marked by the surge and wail of Coltrane and Gordon. Postle proved to an effective counterpart, cooler and less frenetic in his trumpet solo. Howe was even cooler, soft enough for us to savor the support from Davis more keenly before Rivers had his muffled spot. Davis took over briefly and effectively before the horns reprised the melody.
“Night Dreamer” brought forth an even more blazing solo from Lail, with Postle and Howe sounding comparatively meek in his wake, but it was reassuring to hear the swing from Rivers’ bass as his solo gathered steam. Once again, the tenor and the trumpet returned with the outchorus, but this time, Lail reserved a slice of the replay for himself.
My strongest misgivings of the evening assailed me when Lail announced “Nefertiti” as his next number, a Shorter composition that first appeared as the title tune on a Miles Davis release in 1968. On both the Davis album and Herbie Hancock’s subsequent V.S.O.P. recording, the arrangement became a tedious repetition of the same slow-paced riff played by the horns, with all the excitement passed down to the piano and drums’ accompaniment. Lail and Postle both triumphantly proved that you can improvise on this composition without compromising its lazy, luxurious pace, and despite being granted scant time in this arrangement, Howe also distinguished himself with his thoughtful work.
There are certainly more obvious launchpads for a tribute to Joe Farrell than “500 Miles High,” a Chick Corea tune that first appeared on Return to Forever’s Light as a Feather album in 1973, where Farrell appeared as a guest artist playing flute, soprano sax, and tenor. The texture of that cut – with a Flora Purim vocal, Corea playing electric piano, and no trumpet at all – was very different from the sound that the Lail Qunitet brought to the Crown. Maybe that’s why the performances on “500 Miles High” were even more impressive than those on “Nefertiti.”
Postle opened the soloing, more brash and confident than he had been when comparisons might be made with trumpeters Lee Morgan or Miles on the original recordings. Lail had a more individual sound here as well when he followed – and a well-defined story to tell, building his solo beautifully and not entirely discarding his Trane-like wail. Not at all obligated to sound like an electronic Corea, Howe sounded more like Hancock or early McCoy Tyner as he worked up a lather.
Tyner is the common denominator who bridged Lail’s early segment of Shorter compositions with the final two paying tribute to Henderson, for Tyner was a sideman on Shorter’s Night Dreamer and on Henderson’s Inner Urge. After those stellar 1964 albums, Henderson guested on another Blue Note gem in 1967, The Real McCoy, from which Lail covered one of Tyner’s most celebrated compositions, “Passion Dance.” Once again, Postle took the first solo, still frisky and brash but now punching in a style that might bring Dizzy Gillespie to mind. Lail roared again in his Coltrane comfort zone, but it was Howe who surprised most. Inevitably, he must have been thinking of Tyner’s rich and heavy left hand, but the chords he played were different and his right-hand treble was funkier, reminding me more of Dave McKenna’s hard-driving swing. In a foretaste of fireworks yet to come, Davis asserted himself in a fine bashing solo.
Before a snippet of Shorter’s “Footprints” faded us out, the closer was a Henderson original, “Isotope.” It would have been interesting to hear Lail and Howe hook up on the melody as Henderson and Tyner did on Inner Urge, but instead Lail remained formulaic, introducing the catchy tune in unison with Postle. The trumpeter began the soloing again, poised and authoritative, and the leader was nearly as inspired as he had been in “500 Miles,” clearly having fun and dropping a snatch of Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues” as he signed off.
Howe was also in a frolicsome mood as he soloed, and the camera caught Davis acknowledging that he was up next. Here Lail’s arrangement was more in line with Henderson’s when the tenor sax traded four-bar volleys with Davis, but Lail also admitted Postle and Howe to his trading-fours party. Two rounds of Davis pounding his answers to trumpet, tenor, and piano led us back to Henderson’s genial melody. Taking up his microphone and thanking us for virtually being there, Davis had plenty to be pleased with.
Nobody has quite opened their doors for business as the 2020-21 theatre season begins, but a couple of companies were inching in that direction last week. Theatre Charlotte staged their season opener for a limited, socially-distanced audience out on Queens Road in their parking lot. The broader public and citizens of the world will be able to stream What I Did Last Summer after they bring the show indoors and record a better-lit, better-miked version on their stage.
Meanwhile, CPCC Theatre used our computer and TV monitors as their stage with A Virtual Whodunnit by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus, a lighthearted made-for-ZOOM romp that deployed nine digitally-distanced actors on a layout that, decades ago, would have been identified as Hollywood Squares. Very much attuned to this COVID-19 moment, the storyline of this murder mystery manages to keep the murder victim, seven suspects, and a retro hat-sporting shamus homebound – or office-bound – throughout a fast-paced sequence of scenes.
Kobler and Marcus package an antagonistic meeting of the victim and our suspects, an onscreen killing, an investigation that includes interviews with all possible culprits, and – after viewers message their votes on who is guilty – the final reveal. All in about one hour, a proper chunk of time for a family entertainment.
James Duke picks up the reins as director in the first CP show since the retirement of Tom Hollis as department chair. Duke’s imprint is also evident on the lighting, sound design, and virtual scenery of this production. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Duke’s work is his matchless cast: not one of their names matches a search of my voluminous computer files over the past 27 years.
I’m not quite sure any of Duke’s choices is that old – Tony Cudic as Detective Rockford Sloan seems to be – or if all of them have reached legal voting age. This cradle raid proves curiously apt for a layout that is so miniaturized and claustrophobic, where the hand-to-hand violence of conventional police procedurals would be frowned upon by the CDC and the Governor’s office.
Hard-bitten realism is not the artistic aim here, though it figures as the satirical target when Detective Sloan is on the prowl. We convene at the bidding of software mogul Augustus Sterling, whose overbearing bluster and over-the-top cruelty occasionally reminds us of our Orange Incumbent. It’s really a bravura debut for Brennan Sawyer, who loudly fills his screen and seems destined to eat it. Nobody comes close to rivaling Sawyer’s scenery chewing, but we find numerous tasty clichés to savor in his circle.
The frustrated brain of the family is Sterling’s son, Bullion, a perpetually seething Daniel Keith, whom Dukes places nearly as close to his screen as his dad. Keeping poor Bullion at a near boil is the family princess, Juniper, as spoiled and pampered as her brother is oppressed and ignored. Corina Childs doesn’t quite play Her Highness’s cluelessness to the hilt, but she has a firm enough grasp on her patrician privilege. The third sib, Macy, is the anti-capitalist tree-hugging wildcard of the family, providing Dukes an opportunity to play with colorful lighting and giving costumer Ramsey Lyric a go at hippy garb.
Florina is the interloping stepmother, stymied by a pre-nup and resented by all her stepchildren. Jeanine Diaz plays this brazen opportunist in fine dragon-lady style – you may detect a wisp of Melania foreignness in her accent – blatantly bidding for audience votes. Can she wriggle out of her legal bind with the help of Barry Schwartz, the corporate attorney who is redrafting her husband’s will? Played close-to-the-vest by Jacob Feldpausch, Schwartz could have company secrets to leverage and his own fish to fry. He’s also the only suspect who must know the reason for his boss’s meeting.
Encountering the VP of technology, Haley Hawkins, we find that the Sterlings’ corporate intrigue goes deeper. A software developer who has been instrumental to her company’s success, the underappreciated Haley is sympathetic toward Bullion’s vision of the firm’s potential. Of course, the Haley-Bullion alliance may be more than cerebral after office hours, but Shelby Armstrong mostly plays the overlooked VP as wide-eyed and principled, without nearly the same level of resentment as her confidante.
Amid these raging and suppressed malcontents, Andrew Blackwell stands apart as Eugene Everton, the downtrodden CFO at Sterling Software and the imperious Juniper’s puppy-dog husband. I was so tempted to vote for this soft-spoken nerd as the culprit. Blackwell makes him so quietly forgotten at work and so uncomplainingly hen-pecked at home, each of his tantalizingly brief statements barely above a whisper, that I longed to see Blackwell break loose and become unhinged. Or simply move with a trace of energy.
With his wide-brimmed hat, Cudic presides over this mystery and infuses it with its noire flavor. Heaven knows why he doesn’t go all the way and pile on a Bogart lisp for the old-timers in the audience, but Cudic’s head is always turned maybe 15 degrees askance of his camera, assuring us that he isn’t corporate, hippy, dictatorial, or sexually brash. Everyone on this cheesy tic-tac-toe layout stays in his or her lane.
If you’ve never experienced the difference before, there’s a certain campy quality that comes with a ZOOM theatrical – beyond the compartmentalized miniaturization – when pitted against our nostalgic memories of live, in-person productions. Every person has his or her name inscribed in the corner of their cubicle, and the frames of these cubicles will light up for each person as she or he speaks. When characters leave the scene, Duke keeps their places reserved, their names inscribed over humble icons, as if they were inert apps on your iPad.
What makes Sawyer’s cameo so treasurable for me is that he rages against his confinement and the dopey simplicity of the format. August not only fills the screen in his final moments of life, he dies into his webcam when he is killed, claiming a good chunk of his wee screen with the top of his head. On the other hand, Blackwell remains precious because he succumbs so totally to his belittling plight, sometimes scrunching up as if he isn’t sufficiently confined.
Priced at five bucks, this webcast is clearly worth it, especially if you’re spreading the suspense, the plot twists, and the laughs among multiple generations in your household. Every cellphone, computer, and tablet can have a vote on the outcome. Hopefully, you emerge after this merry hourlong escape remembering how important it is to vote in real life.
Review: Virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet
By Perry Tannenbaum
Aside from the color blue, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue have a few things in common. Both were recorded in the late fifties, Coltrane’s album for Blue Note in 1957 and Davis’s for Columbia in 1959, both featured sextets, both were dominated by compositions written by their leaders, and both were fueled by tenor saxophonist Coltrane at his fiery peak, one of the many reasons why both albums are regarded as jazz classics. As the title implies, Blue Train is the more hard-driving of the two albums, and in the second virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to this beloved recording, roaring as perhaps they’ve never roared before. Pumping up the volume for this special event, and helping tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie to replicate Trane’s original instrumentation, were guest artists Lynn Grissett playing trumpet and Rick Simerly ably sliding a trombone. Bassist Ron Brendle and percussionist Rick Dior returned in their backup roles, while Lovell Bradford took over Noël Freidline’s bench at the keyboard.
The two brass players made social distancing a bit more strained than last month’s Quartet tribute to Jimmy Heath, but space was adequate and both guests sported pandemically-correct masks with cunning mouth flaps designed for wind players, the first time I had seen these. Nor was there any delay in seeing these masks in action, for one of the most memorable aspects of the title tune that opens the Blue Train album is the roar of the saxophone, the trumpet, and the trombone all playing at once. Even watching a 23-inch monitor and listening through a pair of Boston Acoustic speakers via a Bluetooth hookup to my Yamaha receiver, I was surprised by how emotional I became listening to the familiar sound. It’s the trombone that makes the blend so distinctive, and maybe that’s why I found myself getting choked-up. Rabie certainly didn’t let me recover as he launched his solo, wasting no time in reaching peak form – perhaps the most majestic playing I’ve heard from him. Adding extra coal to the engine of this “Train,” as each of the horns nears the end of his solo, the other two horns back him up with a repeated riff, challenging the soloist to rise above them.
Rabie was pretty much at full throttle beginning his solo, so he needed to flare up to white heat with the brass behind him, yet Grissett came in softly with his trumpet solo, reminding us after Rabie’s fury that “Blue Train” is actually a midtempo tune. He and Simerly, who would follow, gradually came to a boil in their brass solos, and the other two horns would enter when the soloist had shifted into cruising gear – and the backup would prod them into redlining. It’s a wonderful arrangement, very much in the hard-bop tradition perfected at Blue Note records, so it came as no surprise when Rabie later stated that the musicians on the original recording had been given two days to rehearse. At the keyboard, Bradford was up to the challenge of having three horns behind him as his solo climaxed, beginning quietly and tightening the tension with each chorus. The quieted episodes of the performance enabled us to savor Brendle’s bass, heard to better advantage than at last month’s session, while Dior also made his presence known as the soloists reached maximum ferocity, most noticeably when crashing his cymbals in the transition between Simerly and Bradford. To be absolutely precise about the arrangement of the melody, repeated at the end, it was Rabie and Simerly who began, with Grissett’s entry on trumpet perfecting the blend.
Named by trombonist Curtis Fuller because of how the tune was sprung on him at the Blue Train recording session, “Moment’s Notice” has always been one of my favorite Coltrane compositions, notably covered by flutist Hubert Laws on his In the Beginning album. Once again, the three horn players combined in introducing the melody – until the final eight bars, which Ziad used as a runway to launch his solo. Rabie seemed to share my affection for this composition, for he worked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” – a tune that Coltrane made a jazz standard – into his blazing solo. Simerly reached peak form in his solo, saluted again with a bomb from Dior as he made way for Grissett, cooling things down before gradually turning his solo up to high heat. Bradford’s allusions to the Scottish “Comin’ Through the Rye” in his solo were less Coltrane-connected than Rabie’s had been, but they made amusing musical sense.
The sextet played “Locomotion,” aptly described by Rabie as “a blues with a bridge,” at a noticeably slower tempo than you will hear on the Blue Train album (a newer release, The Ultimate Blue Train, adds two alternate takes to the original album). I have to say – heretically, I know – that Rabie has found the better groove. It’s another glorious arrangement, three horns again playing the melody until the final eight bars and Rabie once again launching into his solo after already seizing the spotlight. A similar falling away occurred in this arrangement when Simerly and Grissett began their solos, the rhythm section suddenly silenced as the brass players entered acapella. When the rhythm section returned, Dior on drums especially raucous, it was like giving each of these solos a fresh kickstart. Grissett was consistently wonderful through this entire set – maybe his evocation of Lee Morgan, the original Blue Train trumpeter, explains the unexpected emotional impact I felt with each of his solos. The rhythm section kept going when Bradford took his turn, building to a two-fisted apex before handing things over to Dior for a well-earned, well-bashed solo.
Rabie introduced Todd Smith, who informed us that he was in his fourth day as the Bechtler’s new executive director. Better yet, he said the Museum would be reopening in a couple of weeks with free admission to start. This little respite was followed by a change in mood as the sextet played “I’m Old Fashioned,” the only non-Coltrane composition on the album and the only ballad. Rabie played the melody, this time without the brass at all, beginning with the lovely ending to the Jerome Kern melody and then recapping as the full rhythm section entered so that the end the melody got an extra hearing before he set off into his solo. Simerly followed in a more solemn ballad mode, with enough space in the arrangement for Brendle to shine briefly before Bradford’s entry. The pianist didn’t hurry the tempo, but he certainly crammed more notes into it, reminding me of how Art Tatum and Red Garland treated the blues. Grissett’s solo, weaving bits of “My Funny Valentine” into the fabric, was another gem, Dior sensitively plying his brushes in accompaniment. A short coda from Grissett was backed by the other winds.
Grissett continued in the lead for the final piece, “Lazy Bird,” only sparingly accompanied by the other horns before swooping into his solo. Simerly played in a lighter vein, pointing up the melody’s anthemic jollity, while Rabie upstaged him slightly, pulling out his horn-player’s mask for the first time and trying it on. Perhaps he had been worried that taking the mask off for his emceeing chores would dislodge his eyeglasses or his earpieces. Whatever caused the hesitation, the mask was no impediment as Rabie’s tenor solo evoked Trane’s most joyous vein. Bradford continued the celebratory mood, giving way to Dior, who regained his customary ebullience with his sticks before Grissett led the outchorus.
Production of the latest livestream improved incrementally on its predecessor. The opening montage by Wonderland still rocks, and Playroom was still populated by four video cameras that never budged or zoomed. Positioning was slightly changed. The better-miked Brendle gave up his dedicated camera to Simerly, while Bradford shared his with Grissett. A third camera occasionally peeped in on Dior from the rear of the stage, and there was an establishing shot from front-and-center. Song titles were discreetly scrawled at the bottom of the screen, perhaps too briefly but a nice new touch. Only the rhythm section seemed to have gotten the blue memo about the dress code, while Rabie and Grissett veered off into olive green. Simerly was the outlier in a peach-and-tan outfit, but he blended best with the special burnt-orange COVID masks. Best of all, the set didn’t abruptly end at the hour mark, continuing at least ten minutes longer until the complete Blue Train tribute was done. Well done.
At a time when marquee classical artists of international stature are sidelined, unable to draw the fees and crowds they normally command, it’s been rather gratifying to watch the professionals in our own communities, while similarly sidelined, step forward and show their mettle in more intimate virtual settings. With the Durham-based Mallarmé Chamber Players, founded in 1984 but newly taking to streaming their concerts, it’s nothing new for musicians from local orchestras to stand forth and shine, but with our big orchestras and concert halls silenced, it may be new for some of our music lovers to take notice. Though Mallarmé may be new to the virtual concert game, their choice of Bösendorfer Hall at Ruggero Piano in Raleigh shows they’re savvy, for the acoustics proved to be of studio quality in the latest episode of their Ode to Joy series. An all-Beethoven concert is an inevitable part of such a series, particularly when we continue to celebrate Maestro Ludwig’s 250th birthday, pandemic or no.
Wearing matching black masks, aglitter with reflective beads, violinist Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky and pianist Danielle DeSwert Hahn performed a nice variety of seldom-heard pieces representing Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods. Wolborsky is principal second violin of the North Carolina Symphony, and Hahn, a former principal pianist of the Baltimore Opera Company, currently heads the music programs at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Both players are prominent in the Living Art Collective Ensemble (LACE), which Wolborsky co-founded, so I expected to find an excellent rapport between the two.
The concert began with the Rondo for Violin and Piano in G, likely written during one of Beethoven’s early sojourns in Vienna around 1794. Hahn led into the piece at a brisk and lively pace, reveling in the ebullience of the piece and clearly at ease at the Bösendorfer as she sketched the recurring theme. That disadvantaged Wolborsky as the violinist floated in above Hahn’s playing, for she was not as well miked as the pianist (if miked at all), and she tended to mistake simple passages for insignificant ones, disinclined to seize the lead or to sustain it. I was fond of the pace that Hahn had chosen, more akin to the leisurely ramble of Wilhelm Kempff with Yehudi Menuhin than the feverish gallop of James Ehnes with Andrew Armstrong, and I liked how she guided us back and forth from the playful main theme to the alternate themes, engaging detours into graver depths or fantasy mists.
What lay before us was a fascinating pairing of final Beethoven statements, beginning with his final composition for solo piano and concluding the evening with his last violin sonata. The six Bagatelles for Piano were published in 1824 and challenge the musician to navigate a kaleidoscope of different colors and moods, with no lack of hairpin turns along the way. Of the many versions you can sample on Spotify, I prefer the Paul Lewis and Alfred Brendel versions to those by Sviatoslav Richter and Piotr Anderszewski. Glenn Gould is also a contender, but only if we ignore his perversely slow account of the middle Presto. Hahn seemed less confident in this suite, either because the spotlight fell solely on her or because of the treacherous terrain. The opening Andante con moto in G Major could have used sharper dynamic contrasts, yet the Allegro, still in G, was markedly improved in its sculpting and built to high drama. Hahn captured the lyricism at the start of the Andante in E-flat and the poignancy of its ending. She did not deny the Presto in B Major of its speed, and when the music possessed her, she found the flow. Though the triple meter rhythm of the Quasi allegretto in G slipped from her grasp, Hahn excitingly captured the flow and the argument of the concluding Presto in E-flat, delivering her most sensitive playing in the extended Andante amabile a con moto section that dominates the piece.
Written in 1812, at the very end of Beethoven’s middle period, the Sonata in G for Piano and Violin doesn’t get nearly as much attention, in concert halls or recording studios, as the Violin Sonata No. 9 that preceded it, the famed “Kreutzer Sonata” celebrated by Janacek and immortalized by Tolstoy. My favorite recordings of Violin Sonata No. 10 differ in their balance, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Itzhak Perlman achieving exquisite equilibrium while Lev Oborin allows the scales to tip slightly toward violinist David Oistrakh. So it was a bit startling at first to hear Wolborsky yielding dominance to Hahn in the opening two movements of the piece. The charm of the two musicians playing in unison through the most exquisite passages of the opening Allegro moderato disappeared with hardly a trace, and in the ensuing Adagio espressivo, Hahn’s echoes upstaged Wolborsky’s statements with their soulfulness.
Fortunately, Wolborsky rose to the occasion for the final two movement of the sonata, some of the most rousing music of the evening. There was plenty of spirit from the violinist pouncing on the penultimate Scherzo, which seemed to buoy Hahn to greater flights of bravura, and – with a page-turner appearing out of nowhere to help Hahn keep up the pace – the pianist had a wonderful lilt in introducing the melodies of the concluding Poco allegretto, while Wolborsky seemed equally transported. The headlong transition to allegro was the most thrilling moment of the concert, inevitably followed by a diversionary Beethoven cool-down. Hahn handled her cadenzas beautifully, and Wolborsky produced her finest sounds in her soulful responses. We seemed headed to the heated finishing strokes when Beethoven applied the brakes at what seemed to be the last note. Jollity triumphed at the end as both Hahn and Wolborsky relished regrouping and romping to the finish line.
The QC’s Arts Groups Face Up to Adversity and Diversity
By Perry Tannenbaum
Performing arts in Charlotte have been hit hard, halted, and placed on hold by a COVID-19 invasion that’s still going strong. Chip Decker, longtime artistic director at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, has taken this sort of punch before. Twice in the past five years, he has seen new venues for his company swept out from under his feet.
And now this.
“Seeing the thing you have sacrificed so much for be on the brink of disappearing, despite all of your best efforts, really quite sucks,” Decker observes. “Our business is dependent on lots of people gathering in small spaces. Not the best operating model during a pandemic.”
Nor is gathering lots of people in big spaces. Charlotte Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty at Knight Theater and a three-day Women in Jazz fest at the Stage Door were among the first events to be cancelled in March. Charlotte Symphony’s concert at Belk Theater and the Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park quickly followed.
Audiences have never seen the sets for Theatre Charlotte’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Children’s Theatre’s Dragons Love Tacos. They were deserted onstage at their Queens Road and ImaginOn locations. CPCC Summer Theatre never got off its feet this year, and when we checked in with Blumenthal Performing Arts last month, president Tom Gabbard told us that over 300 events had already been cancelled.
Even the teeny Warehouse Performing Arts Center up in Cornelius has seen its storefront operation come to a halt.
“A good portion of our mission and aesthetic was bound up in the intimacy of the venue, the ability for small audiences to engage very closely with the dramatic world immediately before them,” says WPAC prez Marla Brown. “We can’t do that. Social distancing at WPAC would mean one audience member watching a monologue.”
Unlike Brown, who suspended efforts to stage live performances, Decker has raged against the dying of the spotlights. Actor’s Theatre lost three productions from its 31st season and now expects to lose all of Season 32. They’ve had to postpone their nuVoices new play festival and the follow-up to last summer’s Midsummer Nights @ Queens, presumably a Shakespearean comedy.
An outdoor revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fell through, compounding Decker’s woes, along with outdoor events planned at Freedom Park and a nearby Dilworth vacant lot at the intersection of Scott Avenue and East Boulevard. Charlotte Symphony was no less elaborate in its planning, seeing a three-week festival of concerts scheduled this month at Queens University, Knight Theater, Belk Theater, and Triple C Brewing Company dribble down the drain.
“It takes months of planning to get a show up, and one 30-second COVID announcement to derail it,” says Decker, “and to the layperson, that can come off as nothing has been done.”
Without any income from tickets and subscriptions to nourish them, hibernation is a more viable strategy at WPAC.
“The ironic ‘good news’ is that no artists made their living at WPAC, so the company is not seriously damaged economically,” Brown reports. “We have always been poor, relying on MacGyver Theatre tactics and the wonderful talent pool of Metrolina to make solid shows on a dime. We will be back.”
One size does not fit all when it comes to financial impact. The image of poor ragtag artists doesn’t fit Blumenthal Performing Arts operations, nor do Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina, Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, Charlotte Ballet, or Actor’s Theatre fit the same WPAC storefront template.
All of these companies have salaried employees. All applied – and received – PPP funding from the Small Business Administration, totaling upwards of $3 million.
“We received a PPP loan from SBA which covered staff salaries through June,” says Ron Law, who was slated to retire on June 30, but has signed on for another season as Theatre Charlotte’s executive director at the request of the board. “We have used up our cash reserves, but we have been able to generate revenue from an online web-a-thon and other asks. Many of those holding tickets for the two canceled main stage productions made their ticket purchases a donation to TC.”
Under COVID conditions, Theatre Charlotte has been able to achieve the improbable. Weather permitting, they’ve presented Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday Nights. Their audiences, capped at 25, are socially distanced – and so are their singers.
You bring your own snacks, beverages, and chairs – no reservations – and the suggested donation is $10. Each of the two vocalists gets his or her own mic, and there are no duets.
So far, thanks to lucrative TV contracts, professional sports leagues have returned with their superstar athletes to empty stadiums and coliseums. Unfortunately, that business model hasn’t worked for Blumenthal Performing Arts’ big three venues – Belk, Ovens, and the Knight. We can expect them to be shut down until at least December.
In the meantime, performing arts around the globe have migrated online. Charlotte Ballet was among the first to adapt. Within two weeks of cancelling the March 13 premiere of their “fairy-tailored” Sleeping Beauty – at the last minute – Ballet had dipped into their digital vaults and streamed Dispersal, their first free digital event.
Nor was it merely a rehash of the choreographies presented at Innovative Works 2019, when Charlotte Ballet collaborated with the Mint Museum, the Studio Drift duo, and choreographer Christopher Stuart. Intercut with the Innovative performance videos was behind-the-scenes footage that transformed the evening into a documentary, reaching an audience of more than 13,000.
Enter Zoom for a brand-new collaboration. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir couldn’t help noticing that the web was becoming supersaturated with dance.
“We took a step back to regroup and to explore other means of engagement,” Muir reveals, “and I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers. Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for Part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.” (Airing on September 3 on Charlotte Ballet’s Facebook page.)
No less audacious, Muir has sidelined Nutcracker, Ballet’s traditional Yuletide cash cow, for the 2020-21 season. Fingers crossed, she’s replacing the beloved Russian ballet at Belk Theater this December with another Tchaikovsky masterwork, the previously abandoned Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic.
The reawakened Sleeping Beauty is the first live event to be planted on the 2020-21 calendar, but Theatre Charlotte has hatched – or is it hedged? – some hybrids. After purchasing video equipment, the Queens Road barn can now pivot to streaming.
Twelve Angry Men, originally scheduled for October, has been ditched because Theatre Charlotte couldn’t obtain streaming rights. Instead, the company will showcase A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer for three nights in September and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer for three dates in October. Both productions will feature socially distanced casts – performing on the same Cat on a Hot Tin Roof set that has been waiting for action on Theatre Charlotte’s stage since March.
These shows will be ticketed, streamed behind a paywall. Law hopes that audiences will be able to attend the traditional holiday production of A Christmas Carol on Queens Road. But he isn’t taking chances. He had Chris Timmons shorten his own adaptation to 90 minutes so that it can be performed without intermission, utilizing a small cast and a narrator.
“If we can perform it live in TC by that time, we will,” Law declares. “We will also put it on video and stream it for those who don’t feel safe coming to the theatre or can’t be accommodated due to limited seating capacity.”
Three Bone Theatre has a four-person leadership team, the same number as Theatre Charlotte’s full-time staff – except that Three Bone executive director Becky Schultz serves on a volunteer basis. Because of their non-traditional staffing, the company wasn’t eligible to apply for PPP funding. Because they don’t control their own space, they can’t rehearse or perform as freely as Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, and Charlotte Ballet.
“When we do go back into production,” Schultz confides, “we are facing smaller house sizes and artists and patrons who are concerned about safety. We will need to prioritize shows with smaller casts and production costs, limiting the stories we can tell. It’s impossible to say when audiences will return to pre-COVID levels but we expect it will take a long time. We have lost the forward momentum that we’ve spent the last eight years developing, and dipping into our reserves delays our ability to finally add staff.”
It’s been over six months since Three Bone’s last production shut down. Revenue from their last two shows, Dada Woof Papa Hot scheduled for May and This Is Modern Art for July, was largely lost, representing 40 percent of their 2019-20 season. During the shutdown, Three Bone staffers have dealt with loss of jobs, taking on the rigors of homeschooling, experiencing the stresses of quarantine, and watching family members battle the virus.
Like other performing arts companies across Charlotte – we sent out questionnaires to 17 of them – Schultz and her Three Bone team are heeding the crosswinds of social unrest sweeping across the country. The Black Lives Matter reckoning is spilling onto our streets amid the pandemic, troubling consciences and challenging longstanding norms. Planning how to come back from COVID, arts leaders agree that it’s not just about making the smart business decisions necessary to cope with new realities. It’s about being better.
Schultz admits that Three Bone is re-evaluating 2020-21 programming.
“We believe that Black Lives Matter and Black theatre matters,” Schultz states, “and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are deliberately supporting that with our programming, both on stage and behind the scenes. We are taking this opportunity to further educate ourselves as individuals and as an organization. We are listening to BIPOC artists, engaging in difficult conversations and reflecting on how we can do more to be an anti-racist company.”
Black theatre has been part of Actor’s Theatre programming for every season since 2008-09, most recently with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – with Crowns on tap for their upcoming season – yet Decker is among the arts leaders of Charlotte unanimously proclaiming that they are rededicating themselves to BLM.
“ATC is working hard on recognizing and dismantling our own systemic racist culture,” Decker responds, “and we are in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement and having room at the table for BIPOC.”
Nor is Actor’s Theatre an exception. Inclusive programming is admirably pervasive across the spectrum of Charlotte’s performing arts scene. Opera Carolina was close to presenting I Dream for a second time – in a newly revised version – when the pandemic hit. Charlotte Ballet has a long history of showcasing African American dancers onstage and forging sturdy relationships with Black choreographers behind the scenes.
Up in Cornelius, WPAC was in mid-rehearsal of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning Sweat when COVID shut things down. Ron McClelland was directing a diverse cast that included Shar Marlin, Brian Daye, and Dominic Weaver. That show might pivot to a streaming format when the production team meets to decide.
Theatre Charlotte, with Ain’t Misbehavin’ in February 2019 and Dreamgirls missing-in-action back in May, certainly hasn’t been caught off-guard by pleas for Black programming. CPCC Theatre has presented multiple dramas by August Wilson, their Summer Theatre offered Beehive in 2019, and the college recently announced the onboarding of a new chief diversity officer.
Aside from the Johnson C. Smith theatre department and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, there are two Black theatre companies based in Charlotte, On Q Performing Arts and Brand New Sheriff. We have hosted – and won – the National Poetry Slam, we have an annual jazz festival closely aligned with Jazz @ Lincoln Center, and we were the first American city to host Breakin’ Convention, with admirable outreach to urban youth.
Up in Winston-Salem, the National Black Theatre Festival has convened for a week in odd-numbered years since 1989, most recently in 2019 when they hosted more than 40 African American celebs, 30-odd Black theatre productions from across the nation, and the American Theatre Critics Association. So Charlotte and North Carolina have nothing to hang their heads about if you’re making comparisons about Black culture and programming.
Dig beneath Charlotte’s shiny surfaces and you do notice the structural, systemic problems that are drawing fire. Sixteen of the 17 questionnaires we sent out – to companies who had already found a spot on our 2020 calendars before COVID – were earmarked for Caucasians.
No arts organization in the Metrolina region presents a more diverse array of educational and onstage programming – or serves a more diverse audience – than Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. When they halted the hip-hop run of Grimmz Fairy Tales and shelved Dragons Love Tacos, staff at ImaginOn did not leave students enrolled in their 20-week School of Theatre Training program in the lurch.
Adroitly, they pivoted, so that two OnStage plays and two musicals were moved to virtual format. Summer camps began online, not skipping a beat, morphing to a hybrid program – your choice of online or in-person – when CDC, state, and federal guidelines could be met. Collaborating with 37 children’s theatres across the country, Children’s posted a new adaptation of A Kids Book About Racism as a virtual performance early this month, and they’re continuing work on their commission of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba as part of The Kindness Project.
Yet executive director Adam Burke is among the good guys who are still doing some soul-searching.
“This is an incredibly important moment in the world, but also here in Charlotte, both socially and culturally,” Burke asserts. “Black Lives Matter is at the center of this moment. It is our responsibility to be checking to ensure that we are doing this in a way that is equitable and inclusive. What I, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, can do is work to acknowledge and eliminate unconscious bias through active education as well as examination of current practices and policies, and that is what we are doing.”
Systemically, the most obvious places to be on the lookout for change is on the roster of performing arts vacancies around town. Burke reports that his director of advancement position has been vacant since November and that managing director Linda Reynolds is retiring at the end of this month. Law isn’t the only leader who needs to be replaced once he’s allowed to retire – CP’s Tom Hollis ended his long tenure as department chair on August 1.
Our performing arts companies can address adversity and diversity at the same time, but we can also help with our interest, encouragement, and support. We can also look at ourselves and check our citizenship.
Decker probably says it best: “Tell your crazy uncle to put on his damn mask!”
Located on the west side of town, The Playroom bills itself as Charlotte’s oldest music production facility, offering rehearsal space and recording/mixing services. Lately, Playroom has changed its tune, becoming the site for the newest Jazz at the Bechtler webcast as the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to the music of Jimmy Heath, the composer and saxophonist who passed away back in January at the age of 93. As social distancing and severely restricted public gatherings become pandemic norms, the Bechtler-Playroom partnership makes beautiful sense from a musical standpoint. Technically, the museum can expect the studio to deliver optimum sound from expertly deployed state-of-the-art equipment, and if Ziad Rabie and his jazz quartet are to perform concerts without the vibe of a live audience, it would be hard to imagine a more comfortable place for them to play than the studio of their choice.
The risky element of this business had to be the video, for livestreams are not on Playroom’s pricing schedule. Any misgivings about this end of the Bechtler-Playroom collaboration were quickly dispelled when the program opened with an adroitly edited montage of Charlotte night scenes, including the city’s light rail and its iconic “Firebird” sculpture in front of the museum. Music from the quartet was already playing under the movie cuts, and aside from a voiceover “5-4-3-2” countdown, the Ziad Quartet’s set began without any formalities – or an emcee until Rabie himself spoke after the third selection.
Rabie gave his downbeat for the first Heath original of the evening, “Togetherness,” behind a second retro test pattern, but our first glimpse of The Playroom was not at all old-timey. Pinpoint lightbulbs studded a black backdrop, dispelling any worries of a rehearsal room ambiance. Lighting was otherwise ample, giving a nightclub feel to a venue that presumably offers limited seating. All four cameras came into play with nifty screen wipes as we transitioned from one view to another and pianist Noël Freidline soloed between two Ziad improvisations. An unobtrusive “Live from The Playroom” logo took up permanent residence at the upper righthand corner of our screens, no matter which camera view we saw. Occasionally, promo messages for donations and the Bechtler’s Facebook and Twitter hangouts swept across the lower lefthand corner. The cosmopolitan polish of the introductory montage was definitely sustained.
Freidline, drummer Rick Dior, and bassist Ron Brendle all wore masks – and all were admirably socially-distanced behind Rabie in a diamond-shaped configuration as Rabie blew on his tenor sax. Sitting upstage behind a plexiglass enclosure and wearing headphones as he wielded his drumsticks, Dior was the most conspicuous reminder that we were in a studio, but his bandmates were also wearing earbuds of some kind. Rabie would turn around between tunes as Dior launched “Gemini” and then “C.T.A.” in the opening cluster of Heath compositions, so they played with hardly a pause.
“Gemini” was most famously covered by Cannonball Adderley, a slower, bluesier title than “Togetherness” that settled comfortably into a waltzing 3/4 groove. Freidline had the first solo after Rabie played the melody, and then the leader returned with a rougher sax sound than we had heard earlier, not at all shy about revealing that he had listened to more John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins than to Heath in forming his style. Brendle soloed tastefully afterwards, though I wished his bass were potted up more at the soundboard, before Ziad then took the outchorus.
Another oldie, recorded by both Miles Davis and Lee Morgan when they vied for trumpet supremacy back in the ‘50s, “C.T.A.” returned us to uptempo. Rabie was already in bebop mode when he introduced the melody, bouncing when he laid out the melody, and he didn’t let go until he had wailed an extended improvisatory rant. Freidline took over authoritatively at the keyboard, swinging hard and comping aggressively when he handed the reins over to Brendle. Dior excelled in his first spotlight of the evening, trading four-bar thrusts with both Freidline and Ziad before the leader circled back to the theme.
Featuring all the members of the quartet, “C.T.A.” was the sort of arrangement that scales a summit that concerts should close with. So it was the right moment for Rabie to pause and speak to us, introducing his band and speaking briefly about Heath, his music, and his career. It was also the right moment to change the mood. Musically, Radie did the job beautifully with Heath’s “The Voice of the Saxophone” after an impressionistic and unaccompanied intro from Freidline. If you’ve heard Coltrane’s Ballads album, you can imagine the aching, romantic region that Rabie steered us toward after the full stop that preceded his solo. It was only here that it became apparent that we might be watching The Playroom’s maiden voyage into video. Lights didn’t dim for Rabie’s most lyrical moments of the evening, nor did we zoom closer to either of the soloists in “The Voice of the Saxophone,” laying bare the fact that both the lights and cameras were unmanned.
While the tech crew for this production didn’t sustain the nightclub vibe here, they were tasteful enough to refrain from marring the seriousness of Ziad’s balladeering with any promotional wipes on the video. Rabie also had a sure sense of drama, following his tenderest selection with his wildest so far. The percussive two-note phrase that is so salient in the melody of “The Thumper” probably gave this Heath piece its name – and it definitely stamps its hard-bop flavor. Ziad embraced its bounce from the beginning, with wilder, higher and screechier playing on tenor than ever, doubling back to the melody before handing soloing chores over to Freidline, who sprinkled broad hints of Charlie Parker and Gershwin into his launch, almost tipping his chair over with his gusto. Brendle also seemed to be keyed-up by this tune’s exuberance in his brief spot, his most impressive playing so far.
During an interval when Bechtler’s director of programming and public engagement, Daniel Ferrulli, punctuated his descriptions of the museum’s upcoming programming with pleas for financial support (rather than the other way around), one of the camera positions was altered, moving closer to Freidline and blocking off the leader from his rhythm section. “A Sound for Sore Ears” had the most irregular pacing of the night as Rabie unveiled the melody, Dior’s emphasis on his cymbals adding a Latin tinge. Freidline had no difficulty at all navigating the jagged terrain as he initiated the soloing, wailing and banging away as he riffed. Rabie answered with a majestic rant of his own before handing things over to Dior for his most extended soloing yet, and the saxophonist added extra trimmings when he returned with his outchorus.
The Ziad Quartet arrangement of “Gingerbread Boy,” by far Heath’s most recorded composition, emphasized its funkiness, effectively splitting the melody between Rabie and Freidline, who only needed to alter his introductory vamp slightly to make it mesh with the sax portion. First recorded in 1961 on Milt Jackson’s Statements album, where Heath played tenor sax in the vibraphonist’s quintet (with pianist Tommy Flanagan anchoring the rhythm section), “Gingerbread Boy” has attracted a sufficient number of proponents, from Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon back in day to more recent covers by Kendrick Scott and Kurt Elling, for it to be considered a jazz standard. Both Rabie and Freidline seemed to be having fun with their own slant on the tune, the saxophonist squonking merrily in his glee and the pianist shuffling through a variety of jazz styles in their solos. Rabie returned just briefly, supplying a launching pad for Dior’s firecracker rampage on the drums. Completing the admirable symmetry of this arrangement, the rhythm section led by Freidline chugged it out.
In effect, “Gingerbread” was the closer. Although the combo moved onto “Far Away Lands,” a tune that has been covered by saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Art Farmer, the webcast cut off abruptly about 30 seconds past the one-hour mark, just as Freidline was beginning to work up a lather in his solo. Rabie had given us a fine account before relinquishing the reins, leaning into the speedy piece with Coltrane-like intensity in his valedictory solo. No doubt when the Bechtler Museum and The Playroom look back on their first collaboration they will be very pleased, but they will also doubtless be thinking of adding a webcast sign-off that’s as slick and urbane as their intro.