Monthly Archives: July 2022

Common Thread Presents an Uncommonly Well-Constructed Racial Comedy

Review: Barbecue at Davidson College

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Common Thread Theatre Collective - Barbecue

July 15, 2022, Davidson, NC – There are plenty of questions to ask in Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue as two O’Mallery families – one white and one black – gather at the same park, both of them staging fake outdoor parties for the same kindly but devious purpose. These questions explode upon us as soon as the white O’Mallerys are replaced by the black O’Mallerys after the first blackout, wearing the same exact outfits we have just seen moments earlier, drinking the same beverages, and popping the same pills. Even their names are the same. Both Lillie Anns are prodding their reluctant kinfolk – husband James T. and sisters Adlean and Marie – to drape the same pavilion at the park in party decorations, to feign a joyous family celebration, and to confront family renegade Barbara and get her into a therapy program that Lillie Ann has specially chosen for her in faraway Alaska.

Mercifully, we gather that both of O’Hara’s O’Mallery families are on the same track because their scenes deftly overlap rather than tediously repeating. The checkerboard structure of the playwright’s comedy was a perfect vehicle for the new hybrid company that was presenting it at Barber Theatre on the Davidson College campus. Common Thread Theatre Collective is a joint venture between North Carolina A&T State University theatre faculty members and Davidson’s Department of Theatre. Established 131 years ago in Greensboro, A&T is the nation’s largest historically black university, with a student body that is currently less than 80% African American. Domestic students of color, according to Davidson’s website, are currently at 28% of the matriculated population – and an influx of 8% international students enhances the College’s diversity.Common Thread Theatre Collective - Barbecue

Predictably enough, the two O’Mallery families appear to be blissfully unaware of one another – until intermission. Directing the show, Donna Baldwin encourages skin color to make a difference in how James T’s Pabst-Blue-Ribbon trashiness, Adlean’s chain-smoking vulgarity, and Marie’s besotted Jack Daniel’s elegance play out onstage. Maybe I’m biased, but the trashiness, vulgarity, and besottedness of the white folk seemed more outsized to me than their counterparts’, which chimed well with O’Hara’s overall design. The two Lillie Anns were woefully lacking in vices as they masterminded their schemes and manipulated their interventions, but both were more controlling than they strictly needed to be, relishing their dominion. Here again, Joanna Gerdy gets to be just a little bit bossier, trashier, and more crotchety than Willa Bost, her black clone, even though she was basing her master scheme on some cliched TV series.

We began to understand what was going on with the abrupt break in the action that brought us to intermission. If that sudden jolt hadn’t made it all obvious, O’Hara double underlined his answer in a manner almost as surprising as his intermission reveal. For the first time, a black person and a white person spoke to one another – and it was the two Barbaras, Ava McAllister Smith and Jade Parker, who clarified the mysteries we had seen, two characters who had hardly spoken 10 words between them until now. Suddenly, what seemed to be a satirical dive into the crassness of American life, with subtle distinctions between the races, acquired new meta textures as the two Barbaras met at the park and negotiated. How this story should be told, who should tell it, and how much it should cost were all up for grabs as the Barbaras jousted over making a deal and setting a price.Common Thread Theatre Collective - Barbecue

Taking it all in, from the unseen moment when Lillie Ann was inspired by primetime TV to hatch her scheme, moving along to how one Barbara reshaped her rehab memoir before her counterpart Movie Star Barbara bought the rights, I came away with the following message from O’Hara: fueled by drugs, alcohol, and toxic righteousness, truth is what gets most thoroughly slaughtered and barbecued in American life. On the way home, another pleasant thought hit me. Thanks to an artful gap between scenes in Act 2, rehab Barbara may have actually lowballed the amount of money she was promised earlier from Movie Barbara when she confronted the other O’ Mallerys with Hollywood’s offer.

The presence of two Actors Equity performers, more than we see in most touring shows nowadays, testified to the professional-grade theatre that Common Thread has delivered, for neither of them stuck out uncomfortably among their local and intern castmates. Parker and Smith were nicely matched in the comedy’s one interracial faceoff, taking turns in holding the upper hand and smoldering nicely when they didn’t. As the only men we see before intermission, Shawn Halliday and Tyler Madden get to pop and stomp plenty of beer cans as the JT’s, taking heavy fire from the Lillie Anns all the while, but Halliday is the seedier of the two while Madden has the edge in timidity. La’Tonya R. Wiley was a formidable presence as Adlean no matter how many cigs she fired up or how many pills she gulped down, while Lane Morris made her Adlean more strung-out than anybody.

Gregory J. Horton has designed a set of costumes that likely inspired Baldwin-Bradby and her cast nearly as much as O’Hara’s canny script. At the opposite end of the spectrum from JT’s splashy mashup of baseball, soccer, and tennis outfits is the eye-popping elegance of the lemon dresses worn by our Maries. These citrus dresses are accessorized with high heels that are just as inappropriate for an outdoor barbecue, along with jugs of Jack Daniel’s large enough to sport handles for easy chugging and pouring. Of the two Maries, it was hard to say whether I most enjoyed the arc of Shawna Pledger taking Marie from swilling to passing out, or whether Xulee-Vanecia J subsequently surpassed her in Marie’s decorous revival.

Questions about Barbecue continued to assail me on the drive home. Foremost among these was how anyone could imagine a homespun, humdrum story like this winning an award. Sure enough, O’Hara had embedded an answer. You can bet it had nothing to do with honesty and everything to do with America.

Downsizing “Sister Act” Pays Big Dividends at Matthews Playhouse

Review: Sister Act at Matthews Playhouse

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Sister Act-11

A full flowering of onstage success has somehow scurried away from Iris DeWitt in recent years. Just last April, pandemic restrictions and a wretched recording rig trapped her inside a masked, malodorous production of Sense and Sensibility at Central Piedmont Community College. Patchy intelligibility also wrecked DeWitt’s previous outing in the badly-miked production of Chess in 2020. Until 2022 rolled in, you’d have to go back to 2019 if you wanted to claim to have seen DeWitt anywhere near her imposing potential, when she played prominent roles in Beehive and Little Shop of Horrors.

Neither of those CPCC Summer Theatre productions obliged DeWitt to show us much of her acting or dancing skills. Beehive was totally bereft of plot, and while Iris’s undeniable vocal power was manifest in Little Shop, no full flowering was evident there, either. We had to settle for the most memorable who-did-she-play performance in recent Charlotte history, for DeWitt was a flower in that musical, hidden in the cavernous depths of Audrey 2 in Little Shop.

This year, the script is flipping and momentum building as DeWitt has figured prominently in Ghosts of Bogota, when Actor’s Theatre returned to Queens University, and Love, Loss and What I Wore in the recent Theatre Charlotte production at Camp North End. Paula Baldwin, who directed that sloppily streamed S&S adaptation of Jane Austen last year, clearly retained enough confidence in DeWitt to see her as Deloris Van Cartier, the lead role in Sister Act. Ron Chisholm, choreographer for this Matthews Playhouse extravaganza at The Fullwood Theatre, probably also saw some potential waiting to blossom in DeWitt’s previously untested dancing feet.2022~Sister Act-10

We’re not so sure when we first see Deloris and her backup singers onstage. The vocals are sufficiently electric but not full voltage, while the doo-wop moves are nowhere near Supreme. I’m guessing that Baldwin and Chisholm have asked DeWitt to cool her jets on “Take Me to Heaven” because Deloris is nervous about auditioning for her paramour, Curtis, an intimidating mobster, at his club. But why on earth should Curtis, a man of highly questionable character, be even a little justified in thinking that Deloris and her crew aren’t ready for a recording contract and the bright lights?

Apparently, writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner thought that their protagonist needed a crisis of confidence in the early stages of her spiritual journey, one that Paul Rudnick found unnecessary in his original screenplay for the 1982 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. There, Deloris and crew had all the polish of the Supremes from the start, singing a doo-wop medley in the bowels of a Las Vegas casino owned by her mobster boyfriend, drawing two claps and a stare from a late-night audience of gamblers.

Now they’re in some undisclosed Philadelphia dive, where the only audience is Curtis, his three henchmen, and us. Curiously enough, the transfer from the glitz of Vegas to the dumps of Philly makes Sister Act more at home in a community theatre setting than on the big stages of London’s West End, Broadway, or at Ovens Auditorium – not to forget Halton Theater, where it was staged in yet another CP production back in January 2013.

As soon as Deloris and her crew began to regroup in “Fabulous, Baby!” we had our first glimpses of all that DeWitt can be onstage. My own realizations, beyond her trusty vocal powers, were split between her ability to dance – gliding disco or righteous gospel – around the stage she commanded and the thoroughly professional depth of her acting. Watch DeWitt’s reactions for a while and you eventually find it difficult to take your eyes off her until she makes an exit.

And don’t fret about any missed opportunity with “Take Me to Heaven”: DeWitt and most of the ensemble get a grand do-over at the end of Act 1.

After the additional indignity of being gifted with a garish hand-me-down fur coat previously owned by Curtis’s wife, Deloris has the misfortune of witnessing the club owner brutally gunning down a snitching henchman in cold blood. On the run from her ex, Deloris leaves Curtis in the lurch for the better part of the night as the saloon singer is placed in a witness protection program and sequestered in a midtown convent. That calls for a new counterweight for Deloris to provide the plot with some fresh friction, a call sternly answered by the convent’s Mother Superior, the role played by Maggie Smith opposite Goldberg in the film.2022~Sister Act-04

Oh, and by the way, Baldwin herself played that Maggie Smith role at CP in 2013, so she’s directing a show that she knows intimately from the inside. Maybe she already envisioned what I had yet to perceive in a smaller venue, that what the Steinkellners sought most earnestly in their adaptation of the movie was to make the story more character-driven and less of an action comedy. Building upon Mother Superior’s most familiar film epigram, “God sent you here for a reason – take the hint,” the Steinkellners, along with songwriter Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, team up to give greater voice to her spiritual crisis.

Both of Menken’s ballads for Mother Superior, “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” sit nicely in Carol Weiner’s vocal range and sternness is Weiner’s prime onstage métier, so she eclipses anything we’ve seen from her before, including her starchy turns in Big River, Bonnie and Clyde, and Oliver! There’s more than a hint of Menken’s “Beauty and the Beast” lurking inside of “Within These Walls,” and Weiner allows its warmth to radiate through Mother Superior’s gradual softening toward Deloris.2022~Sister Act-09

More personal crises are layered over the thinner movie scenario. Young apprentice nun Sister Marie Robert, beguiled in the film by the bar where Deloris finds refuge from the convent’s cheerless monotony, now questions whether she should be leaving the real world for a convent – netting Melissa Lozada two cracks at the novice’s power ballad, “The Life I Never Led.” The dreamboat cop who whisked Deloris out of town in the movie, not even letting his colleagues know where she was, is now the hesitant, self-doubting Sweaty Eddie, relegated to a desk job when he wouldn’t fire his gun out on the beat.Photo1 @ Tom Henderson Photography

Saddled with a lingering crush on Deloris that goes back to high school, Eddie draws “I Could Be That Guy” to cry out his anguish, slightly more comical than Lozada’s plaints but hardly less of a showstopper for Griffin Digsby, who swoops down into Barry White territory in voicing his romantic aspirations. Also going there, surprisingly enough, is Mike Carroll as Monsignor O’Hara, who presides over Sunday services and surprisingly turns out to be a Deloris groupie when she revamps the convent’s choir.

Baldwin and Chisholm not only draw strong players down in Matthews, but they also get strong design and technical backup. Debbie Scheu’s designs for the nuns’ habits grow more spangled and outré as the convent choir grows in prestige and popularity. The glossy, reflective dress Deloris wears in her Van Cartier persona complements the stained-glass backdrop that scenic designer Marty Wolff has provided for the church. Four sets of translucent arches that inch closer together as we move upstage change colors during the glitzier scenes climaxing the action, as Jeffrey Childs’ lighting design adds excitement to Chisholm’s choreography.

Amazingly, the only scene where downsizing doesn’t work at Fullwood Theatre is the squalid bar scene. The room is simply too small for Curtis’s henchmen not to notice three nuns when they enter – or for Deloris to overlook these motley thugs for more than five seconds. Then again, Menken had worked at least three Disney musicals before attempting SISTER ACT in 2011, so he hadn’t yet mastered the Harvey Keitel gravitas we might expect from real dons and heavies (A Bronx Tale would come more than five years later).Photo2 @ Tom Henderson Photography

Jamaas Britton, Ra’Saun Elliott, and Neifert Enrique play these street urchins with all the menace of the Lion King hyenas. They get a spotlight – or a lava lamp – shortly after intermission, when they spar over the best way to romance a Sister in “Lady With the Long Black Dress,” Elliott explicitly espousing the Barry White approach. Edgier than his goons, Kristopher Loretz as Curtis gets to riff sardonically, in “When I Find My Baby,” on the penitent reconciliation serenades that scamps have been wooing women with for ages, replacing the customary promises of hugs and kisses with vows of knives and guns.

All of these bottom feeders are portrayed with the same assurance as the principals, to the delight of the Sunday matinee audience, who loudly gave them all a standing O. It was likely exciting for the energized crowd to be back at Matthews Playhouse watching a musical – and maybe amazing for them to see production values as high, or perhaps higher, than ever.