Category Archives: Theatre

“Tropical Secrets” Presents a Bittersweet Wartime Escape from Genocide

Review: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Havana has never been the homeland of the Jewish people. Yet as we quickly learn in Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, now streaming from Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, it was often more hospitable to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression, terror and genocide than most other nations – including the USA. If that surprises you, imagine how 11-year-old Daniel felt when he made this discovery in 1940.

In the wake of the infamous Kristallnacht terror across Germany, Daniel’s parents rush him onto an ocean liner bound for New York, promising to meet him there. The ship isn’t allowed into the harbor. They sail north. Knowing there are Jews on board, the Canadians also turn them away. Young Daniel, who was holding his grandfather’s hand when rioters shot him down on Kristallnacht in the middle of the street, is learning some of the cruelest lessons of the world on his own, cast adrift from his family.

Interestingly enough, Margarita Engle’s story, adapted for the stage by L M Feldman, is almost equally about the 10-year-old Paloma, nee Maria Dolorosa. From the outset, her problems are paralleled with Daniel’s. Paloma’s mom abruptly decides to leave Cuba for Europe. Needing to become closer to her dad in the wake of Mom’s abandonment, Paloma finds herself turned away. Seems like an unfair comparison at first, but Engle constantly asks us throughout this new 75-minute drama to re-examine our perspectives and our sense of proportion.

Moral certitudes are questioned during the turmoil of World War II as we watch Daniel acclimate to Cuba while still holding out hope that his parents will find him – or that he will find a way to New York. A huge flip in sentiment and loyalty happens across Havana when news reaches the island that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. Instead of marking him as fodder for the horrific Nazi deathcamps, the Yellow Star that Daniel had been forced to pin on his shirt back in Munich now becomes the badge that prevents him from being arrested as a German spy.

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As with many children’s classics, kids perceive basic truths more readily than their elders. Paloma’s father, known across the island as El Gordo, is the decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. He tries to explain to little Paloma that he makes his decisions pragmatically rather than on principle. “The world runs on business!” he proclaims with conviction. Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and tells him, “The world runs on kindness!” Engle’s kids also have depth, as when Daniel informs Paloma, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”

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Adults here aren’t perfect role models chiefly because of their practical struggles to survive and thrive. With most of the world turning the Jews away, El Gordo naturally feels pressure not to open the floodgates. Yup, immigration issues! And though Daniel’s mentor, David, staunchly wears a brightly embroidered yarmulke with pride, he also bends to practicality, peddling his ice cream in his little pushcart on the Sabbath. When Jews are suddenly perceived as friends and Germans suddenly become loathsome, suspicious, and targeted for arrest, David abruptly veers to the other end of the spectrum, opposed to allowing any foreign ship to dock in Havana until the war is over – even if Daniel’s parents happen to be on board. El Gordo, on the other hand, stands fairly firm – except for raising the price of entry.

In the shifting mists of these patriarchs’ outlooks, blown by the winds of war, Engle’s Havana takes on some of the ambiguities of Casablanca. We aren’t on the same exalted levels of politics, decadence, or romance, but you may find yourself identifying more deeply with the everyday humanity of her people. You may also experience more keenly the anguish of survivors who are left in suspense for months and years about whether those dearest to them are still alive – and empathize more keenly with those who are wracked with memories of those who have died.

Most poignant, the kids rise to heroism in acting out their natural beliefs when, after the universe flips with Pearl Harbor, they encounter a Jewish mother on the run. Why would Miriam, a German Jew, be so terrified now? Because her only living relative, daughter-in-law Marta, is a Christian. For Daniel and Paloma, it is axiomatic that both are equally entitled to live in peace. Marta and Miriam, on the other hand, wrestle with the question of how fully they should describe to their rescuers the full details of the horrors they have left behind.

Thankfully for parents wondering whether Tropical Secrets might become to heavy for their youngest, Engle takes us to precipice without jumping over. There’s plenty for her to show us about kids conquering the language barrier and bonding, and there’s plenty for the kids and their elders to teach us about Judaism, Yiddish, and carnival. Helping Feldman transform Engle’s poetry into engrossing drama, stage director David Winitsky has made a welcome return to Charlotte after a year’s absence, having hosted the Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park for the previous three seasons.

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Two dramaturges, Carmen Pelaez and Wendy Bable, helped him and his cast get the history and the cultures across accurately. Anita J. Tripathi’s scenic design radiates hacienda elegance, but it was Robyn Warfield’s lighting that filled out the atmosphere and took us beyond the city when the story needed to travel, while Magda Guichard’s costumes deftly differentiated between the nationalities and the social classes.

Most gratifying after so many months of deprivation, isolation, and lockdown was watching such a professional all-adult cast captured so well in immaculately recorded audio and video. Because this world premiere was immediately headed for film, where kids are always kids, Adrian Thornburg and Isabel Gonzalez had the steepest obstacles to overcome as Daniel and Paloma. Thornburg’s path was to shrivel himself inwards with Daniel’s sullenness when we first see him, though Winitsky might have eased off a little on all our hero’s resentful turning away. Gonzalez’ regression moved in the opposite direction, outwards with an excess of energy and often with open arms. In less than a minute, I found myself returning to a familiar theatre world, where adults can pass as kids and be as tall – or taller than – their parents.

In Europe, on the ocean liner, and in Cuba, four other actors played multiple roles, at least one of them memorable for each player. Tom Scott as David had the dignity, tenacity, and flexibility of a time-tested Jewish survivalist, stretching himself more than usual to immerse himself in the ice cream peddler, while Frank Dominguez was stubbornly set in his ways as El Gordo, professionally urbane, gradually realizing how off-putting his pomposity has become. Paula Baldwin and Margaret Dalton complemented each other nicely as two different tandems, first as border guards who stole Daniel’s boots and broke his flute, later as the fugitives, Miriam and Marta. Baldwin as the suffering Miriam could be the most fearful, grieving, and overprotective, but Dalton as Marta delivered the best retort: “When things are ugly, you cannot help but speak it ugly.”

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Maybe the best secret in Feldman’s adaptation is the time taken to breath in the tropical air. Percussionist Raphael Torn and pianist Charlene Thomas bring the tang of rhythm and music to the street a couple of times When Paloma takes Daniel to the festival, when she takes him to the beach at night, and when she brings him back to music again and again, fresh air infuses our hero’s life as he accept the kindness of a friend. He tacitly acknowledges that after the bombs of world war and Kristallnacht, there is balm in Cuba – in the oranges, the coconuts, the drums, the Afro-Cuban beat, and in carnival.

“Hadleyburg High” Takes Streaming to School

Review: Hadleyburg High at Little Theatre of Winston-Salem

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 We’ve only had a year, at most, to acclimate to the restraints imposed upon theatre and performing artists by the pandemic – and to wrestle with the sensible precautions imposed on audiences. Even that slim amount of time becomes constricted when you consider the amount of time it takes for an artist to come to grips with COVID conditions and navigate what he or she can feasibly create.

Adjustments have been further constricted by the time required for a presenter to navigate the practicalities of production, schedule an event, shoot and edit and upload a livestream, and reconnect with an audience whose attention may have drifted away to Play Station and Roku. Still when something like Hadleyburg High from the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem comes along, getting so many things so right and making all of its answers to problems that have stumped so many other theatre companies seem so simple and obvious, I found myself wondering why it had taken so long.

Up until Hadleyburg High, streamed theatre productions I had reviewed existed in a binary universe. Companies either recorded their actors onstage wearing masks or they squeezed their actors onto a ZOOM grid, as many as eight wee rectangles cramped into one larger screen designed to hold 12 participants. The only escape from masking and ZOOMing has been a one-person monologue. But as Chad Edwards’ adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” amply proves, masking and ZOOMing aren’t the only paradigms available to a resourceful theatre artist.

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From the outset, Edwards expands the possibilities, presenting his vengeful mischief-making narrator, The Stranger, as a podcaster who can quite naturally fill our screens – and proceed as soon as we key in the proper passcode. Instead of her planned episode, “New York’s Five Most Haunted Places,” on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot, The Stranger plans to tell us of an exploit that she herself is somewhat surprised at pulling off, the hoodwinking of Hadleyburg High.

Sadly enough, The Stranger had not been able to fit in during her sojourn at the perfect school, where perfect students got perfect grades, lived perfect lives, and won every state championship worth winning. Everybody had known everybody else at Hadleyburg, but nobody troubled to welcome her or get to know her during the semester she spent there. She couldn’t wait to leave Hadleyburg when the semester ended, and she couldn’t wait to devise her vengeance – by exposing the pretense and corruption beneath the perfect students’ perfect veneer.

Now in Twain’s 1899 short story, telling a fable that happened “many years ago,” a whole proud and pretentious town, not a mere high school, was exposed by an offended stranger who had passed among the townspeople. Twain’s story was served up from an omniscient narrator rather than from a snarky, disaffected teenage girl. When Edwards, who also directed, plunges into his narrative, The Stranger disappears until we’re deep into the denouement. Without our narrator’s voice guiding us, point of view regained its original omniscient form, as Edwards adopted a split-screen format for the dialogues that ensued, simulating a series of video calls on the Hadleyburg High students’ laptops. A huge leap of the imagination wasn’t necessary as we switched gears from The Stranger’s first-person account.

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The Stranger’s locked box with a note attached – the famed “temptation” of Twain’s tale – is delivered to Casey, the Student Council president. Conferring with Tammy, her bestie, Casey makes it clear that she hopes to keep the locked box and the riches it contains a secret from the rest of the school, which would thwart The Stranger’s scheme. Tammy, however, is a relatively straight arrow, not the greedy politician that Casey is, so she’s leery of conspiring with her friend, though she prides herself on having the computer skills necessary to break the code that will unlock the box.

Denied by Tammy, Casey turns to Brent for help in getting out the word of The Stranger’s quest to discover the student who had offered the advice that had helped create the fortune contained in the locked box, a tempting $100,000. Each student who believed he or she had given this advice was to submit a form to Mrs. Calloway, the teacher that The Stranger trusted most, stating word-for-word what the exact advice was. Keyed into box, the exact words would unlock the cash prize.

Edwards isn’t shy about injecting some fresh comedy into his retelling, along with altering a plot twist or two. When Tammy changes her mind, getting a bit greedy, Brent turns out to be a bit of a screw-up when Casey tells him not to send out the announcement after all. And The Stranger’s affinity with Mrs. Calloway turns out to be justified by the teacher’s deep flaws. Another nice touch is Frances, reporting for “Hadleyburg Student News” about the amazing giveaway, as Edwards reverts to his podcast format.

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Reactions from various students to the bulletin, intercut with Frances’ report, helps to widen the roster of imposter Samaritans who will submit their entry forms and set the stage for the catastrophic reveal. All of the students at Hadleyburg know that they didn’t donate the $20 that seeded The Stranger’s fortune, but an email sent out by The Stranger explains why each of them deserves the prize. Edwards was able to preserve most of Twain’s original design in baiting this trap. Like Twain’s letter writer, Edwards’ email correspondent has just returned from Mexico.

The famous advice is also replicated – exactly. Edwards finally goes to ZOOM format when the trap is sprung. He added Calloway to preside over the reading of the students’ entries, a Mr. Banks to be caretaker for the digital lockbox, and a Mr. Caldwell as the school principal. What Edwards couldn’t do in a ZOOM format was to underscore the shame of the tempted hypocrites to a whole town, or even to a full high school student body and faculty. Only eight students, eventually including The Stranger, are crowded onto the ZOOM grid with the adults. After the podcasts and the video calls, this climactic scene did seem populated by a throng. Nor did Edwards disappoint me in dealing with the fallout from the public disgrace, resourcefully adjusting his plot.

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Performances weren’t professionally polished down to the smallest cameo, but you’ll find that Edwards’ design bends to such imperfections, particularly when Hadleyburg High students are reacting for a newscast. It was also interesting to watch how emphasis shifted from Casey as Council president to the morally ambivalent Tammy as the action proceeded. Playing the typical stuck-up high school queen bee that we know so well from teen comedy flicks, Adair Addison had most of the zingers in the early action as Casey, reveling in her smugness and sense of privilege. It’s a fun role to play. Tammy’s trials, however, more closely echoed the struggles that Twain’s most upstanding citizens had in his Hadleyburg, and as the webcast proceeded, I appreciated Sabrina Layman’s ambivalence and vacillation more and more, particularly after the ZOOM meeting took an unexpected turn.

Ella Kiser framed the production nicely as The Stranger, assuming an outsider’s sense of resentment from the moment she addressed her podcast audience as “deviants.” Unlike Olivia Samuels, who was so polished as Frances in her newscasts that she could pass for a TV anchor, Kiser retained a nerdy vibe and we could easily imagine her sitting alone, in front of her laptop, with her teen angst and defiance. Screw-up or not, Noah Goldstein was the coolest and most relaxed of the Hadleyburg students, squinting and bending toward us each time he was messaged or emailed, so we really did think of him as lounging in front of his laptop in his tacky bedroom. Addison was such a diva as Casey that we delighted when Goldstein and Layman pushed back in bargaining for their share of the undeserved cash.

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All of the adults were very fine, though only Bethany Schultz as Calloway ever garnered a substantial share of our screens. Schultz was a fascinating study, never surrendering her dignity to Tammy no matter how much Calloway was compromised, yet layering on a nervous, impulsive edge. Ken Ashford as Principal Caldwell and Mickey Hyland as Banks did most of the heavy lifting in reacting to the mass humiliation of Hadleyburg’s perfect students. As the principal, Ashford registered the steep descent from pride to shame – with plenty of surprise and outrage in between. Hyland remained the respectable adult in the room, mostly concerned with damage control as the school’s disgrace metastasized.

We could sense that Casey hadn’t received the comeuppance she truly deserved when the ZOOM meeting adjourned. This and other loose ends were neatly tied together with late-breaking podcasts from Tammy and Frances before The Stranger returned with a final update on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot. While Edwards decided to detour around Hadleyburg’s memorable temptation motto, the path he chose otherwise was almost perfect.

Wilde Gets a Manicure, Not a Makeover

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic at CPCC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Oscar Wilde fell on tough times after writing his comic masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895 – but whatever else he succumbed to, including humiliation and imprisonment that very same year, Wilde never faced the Spanish Flu, let alone COVID-19. Our supply of pandemic epigrams would have been unquestionably enriched if history had played out otherwise. So I did have hopes, when I signed up for CPCC Theatre’s webcast of The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic, that history would be redeemed.

Compounding pandemic and winter woes, a ransomware attack on CP plagued this production, delaying its opening by a full week and ratcheting up my eagerness. Subtitling his three-act romp “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Wilde could have had a field day opening a Pandora’s box of pandemic paradoxes. The new script by Don Zolidis, sad to say, performs little more than a manicure on Wilde’s popular script – nothing like the refresh or update a more ambitious and talented playwright might have attempted.

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Masks and social distancing are occasionally acknowledged during the CP webcast, ably directed and designed by James Duke. Since our comedy comes to us on the Zoom format, the formalities of signing in and out of the grid are observed – often with an odd doorbell ring that gets its own mini-screen among the human characters’. Pandemic or not, no other technology aside from those martialed by Zoom advances us past 1895.

Nobody specific seems to have died during the pandemic in London, where we meet at Algernon Moncrieff’s flat for Act 1. None of the proper folk he and his lazy manservant Lane receive – including the duplicitous “Jack” Worthing, his lady fair Gwendolyn Fairfax, and the imperious Lady Bracknell – seems to have suffered any grave losses. Bucolic serenity also seems to prevail when we adjourn to Jack’s country manor for Act 2, where we meet Worthing’s lovely ward, Cicely Cardew, who is pursued there by Algernon, posing as Jack’s invented brother.

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That’s odd, because Jack’s butler Merriman has disappeared during Zolidis’s tidying of the script. Couldn’t he have been in a susceptible age group or have been afflicted by a pre-existing condition before he was taken away from us so cruelly? As it is, we must skip over an accounting of Algy’s luggage when he arrives for his surprise visit – and poor Jack is left without a surrogate to quickly order a cab for the sly mischief maker.

Tidying is never really what happens here, for doling out a comedy onto an orderly Zoom grid messes it up irreparably. Two marriage proposals happen across multiple locations on paired screens, which oddly show Algy and Gwen and then Jack and Cicely facing us when they would normally be gazing exclusively and adoringly at each other. The screen kissing is an cute touch, I’ll admit. Pure pandemic. Later on, the simultaneous withholding of permission to marry from the ladies’ guardians crisscrosses our monitors on four separate mini-screens as seven of the eight cast members get involved in the climactic melee.

Anybody yearning for reruns of Hollywood Squares will be ecstatic during this flashy denouement.

It helps that Wilde provided us with two women who had already settled on the men they would marry before they proposed – in Cicely’s case, incontestably documented in her diary, before she had even met her Ernest. More than that, we are lucky to have both Algernon and Lady Bracknell on hand. Tatters in time and space mean nothing to these perfectly insouciant personalities. They each see the world around them with uniquely absurd viewpoints. Both are uniquely acclimated to absurdity.

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Andrew Blackwell is especially satisfying as Algernon, conducting himself with an equipoise that suggests that all is well with the world. Until it isn’t, when fretting and fussing must be immediately rejected as ways of fixing things. A cucumber sandwich or a good muffin seem as capable of bringing bliss to Blackwell as the hand of Miss Cardew. Sensible fellow.

At the other end of the spectrum, with even more certitude, is Lady Bracknell. Nothing is right with the world unless it has received her certification. Milady is one of the most celebrated creations of the British stage, a plum that leading actresses and actors have salivated over for more than a century. Brionna Knight isn’t merely confronting this heritage in tackling Lady Bracknell, she’s taking on the constraints of a cruelly decimated screen.

A small restricted screen, it turns out, is fully adequate for conveying the bliss of devouring a cucumber sandwich. Lick your fingers afterwards and nothing is lost. But ruling as a stern monarch over an empire? Lady B needs a stage, a big stage, and a larger-than-life portrayal. Crowding her computer monitor in front of a tastefully decorated green screen, Knight is rarely visible below her collarbones. A diva needs more, so we never find out whether Knight can be one.

Among the other players, only Miyoni Heard is comparably disadvantaged as Miss Prism, Cicely’s incompetent governess. Heard must content herself with a dull gray background each time she appears, along with a microphone that screams out for an upgrade. Nor does Duke illuminate his governess in a way that would prompt him to take credit for lighting design, settling for a dim silhouetted look that would suggest Miss Prism was in a witness protection program. Ironically, Prism becomes the key witness at the end of Act 3 as we unravel the mystery of Jack’s origins.

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Knight is at her best in launching Prism’s reckoning, but Jacob Feldpausch as Jack swoops in nicely at this point to help Heard prolong our suspense. Wilde himself contributes superb contrivance to sustaining the tension, one of those craftsy things that can emerge the seventh time you’ve enjoyed a great comedy. More than Jack’s exit to fetch an old handbag is involved as Wilde deftly pumps the brakes. Lady B must forget the name of a lost family member after 28 years, she must also have a clue, and Jack must own a copy of the Army Lists spanning the last 40 years to finally track it down.

Brilliant.

The remaining glitter in this production comes from the ladies who portray Wilde’s eccentric, cocksure bachelorettes. As befits a relation of Lady B, Mia Venuto as Gwendolyn can nonchalantly claim the adoration of all male Londoners as her birthright, never doubting her allure or her marriageability. On the other hand, Jeanine Diaz as Cecily is as adrift and insecure in her condition as Jack is on their country manor, equally given to doing the adoring.

Wilde finely calculates his romantic relationships, to be sure, but what elevates his comedy above the epigrams of Algy and Lady B, above how fate serves Jack up to Gwen on a silver platter, is how his complications set Gwen and Cicely against each other as mortal enemies, dueling with their diaries. When these betrothed ladies are most deceived and most misunderstanding of each other, Venuto and Diaz offer up their best work, carving a perfect circle out of their confusion and caprice.

Of course, this spitfire confrontation would be even more delectable if the women were face-to-face at CP’s Halton Theater and we were all sitting there, laughing at their raging befuddlement even as we understood it so well. On Zoom, it’s so easy for them to mind their manners and resist clawing each other’s eyes out! But what can we do? We’re all in this pandemic together.

Grace and Kindness Glow in Anna Deavere Smith’s Answers to Adversity

Review: A Deeper Dive Into Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy  – With a 2020 Refresh

By Perry Tannenbaum

 Winner of multiple Drama Desk Awards for her plays – and her solo performances in them – Anna Deavere Smith has forged a unique synthesis from her skills as a playwright, actress, journalist, and teacher. Her groundbreaking monologues, Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), were skillfully edited from hundreds of interviews that Smith taped with people involved in two distinctively American events, the Crown Heights race riots of 1991 and the Los Angeles rioting of 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King. After compacting the taped interviews into taut monologues, Smith channeled each of her characters in performances of carefully crafted mimicry. In artfully distilling the essence of her characters, Smith cumulatively distills us with her art in a fascinating, unique way.

On a webcast presented by The Schaeffer Center for Performing Arts at Appalachian State University, “An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith: Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity,” Smith came onscreen in a way that freshly meshed theatre, lecture, pedagogy, and discussion. Dr. Paulette Marty, theatre arts professor at App State, introduced Smith, instantly departing from normal theatre presentation. Marty and Smith joined in laying the groundwork for the evening’s theme, chosen so aptly in the face earth-shattering events that have rocked us all in the past year – for Smith had prologues of her own that preceded each of her three extended portraits. Of course, such a video conference would be a staid affair in 2021 without a stream of chatter rolling along the margin of our screens. Viewers of this free webstream had a chatroom for making comments – and afterwards, as Marty interviewed Smith, the professor lifted some of her questions from that chatline.

Apparently, a side benefit of all Smith’s researches is all the prime leftovers she can deliver from those hundreds of interviews. For her rendezvous with App State, to which she linked live from New York, Smith had distillations of interviews she had taped while researching Let Me Down Easy (2008). These dated back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and included sitdowns with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the late Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the famed 1965 Selma March.

Before these well-known figures, Smith introduced us to Kirsa Kurtzberg, a white physician who worked at a charity hospital in New Orleans in the midst of the Katrina disaster. Smith wove together two strands of the Kurtzberg interview in crafting her monologue, a description of the “worst asshole” she had run across in her hospital work, followed by recollections of her patients’ cynical stoicism during the Katrina ordeal. That worst person turned out to be a doctor who was her superior: he not only demonstrated absolute coldness and distaste toward his patients, but when Kurtzberg called him out on his poisonous attitude, declared that she would inevitably come to feel the same way in time.

When Katrina inundated New Orleans, Kurtzberg watched the city’s reaction unfold as private hospitals were evacuated and the charity hospital was abandoned. Worse, they opened the levees on that part of town in order to save the more valuable real estate. It was not only revelatory to Kurtzberg that her patients, overwhelming black, would be treated with such disregard and disdain, but also that these unfortunates were not at all surprised, telling her in advance that the unthinkable would happen.

If we thought that these were the darkest perceptions we would need to entertain, Smith’s portrait of Bryan Stevenson proved us wrong. Since founding the Equal Justice Initiative, Smith reminded us, Stevenson has opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, commemorating nearly 4400 victims of “racial terror lynchings” between 1877 and 1950. What Smith then concluded about America is piercing, damning, and true – more indelibly now since January 6: we are a post-genocidal society. Smith’s interview with Stevenson spotlighted a failed attempt to obtain a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row who was intellectually disabled. This is the kind of work Stevenson has dedicated his career to performing, as well as the famed case, exonerating a wrongly convicted murderer, that became the cornerstone of his memoir, Just Mercy, and the film derived from that book.

The question that Stevenson repeatedly asked in court with respect to the intellectually disabled, “Why do we kill broken people?” morphed into another question when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal at the eleventh hour. “Why do I do this?” His self-reflection yielded a brutally honest answer, “Because I’m broken, too.” This realization was illuminated by a childhood memory of the frustration, violence, and humiliation that broke out when he, his mother, and the black community stood in line – at the back of the line – waiting to be vaccinated for polio. Like his mom, Stevenson concluded, he was seeking a way not to be silent about this perennial brokenness.

The portrait of Congressman Lewis, eulogized just last summer by three former American presidents at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was the most hopeful and conciliatory in Smith’s trilogy. “Brother” also featured the most rewarding stretch of Smith’s acting skills as she adapted Lewis’s slow, distinctively accented drawl. He spoke of his yearly pilgrimage to Selma, a ritual that included stopovers in Birmingham and Montgomery, but unexpectedly, the moments of grace that he gleaned from this commemoration shone a spotlight on white people upstaging him. The first was the current Montgomery Police Chief, who publicly apologized for the beating that his department had inflicted upon him decades earlier. It was the first such apology that Lewis could remember.

What touched Lewis equally was that the Police Chief took off his badge and offered it to him. Then the moments of grace, for when Lewis answered, “I cannot accept your badge – I’m not worthy,” the chief insisted, saying. “I can get another.” An additional opportunity to forgive came to Lewis after an event that had happened even longer ago, on May 9, 1961, when the future Congressman was brutalized in Rock Hill. The son of one of those cops came to Lewis’s office to ask for forgiveness, and Lewis granted it immediately. They hugged, called each other brother, and by Lewis’s count, met 49 times afterwards.

While the post-performance discussion wasn’t my prime reason for attending, it provided a soft landing from the heights of Lewis’s moments of grace and a chance to hear some of Smith’s views head-on. Among the topics she tackled so ably, in response to Marty’s probing and pertinent questions, were the pathology of America’s police, the media’s addiction to big pharma and the auto industry, the plight of black artists, the need for a public health rethink, and the enduring need for theatre now and post-pandemic. She even dropped a suggestion on Marty, App State, and academia to deal with our times. “You might laugh,” she said, “but we need a department of kindness.” Out of nowhere, there was a religious distinction to be made. “Jesus wasn’t nice. He was kind.”

2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Luckily, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so friendly and jolly with his glowing torch, was more than 175 years removed from 2020 when he made his first oxymoronic appearance in print. Christmas of 1843 may not have been the best ever as it greeted Dickens’ original readers, but it had to be more festive than 2020, the gloomiest in centuries.

While it’s possible to retreat into the nostalgia of numerous movie and TV adaptations of the Yuletide classic, Charlotte is one of hundreds of cities where watching live theatrical adaptations has become a holiday tradition. So it’s fascinating, even revelatory to see how Theatre Charlotte is adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 in presenting its 14th annual production of A Christmas Carol.

It’s a remarkable chameleon, adapted by Julius Arthur Leonard and co-directed by Stuart Spencer and Chris Timmons. This is truly a to-be-or-not-to-be effort: Live and virtual, at Theatre Charlotte on Queens Road and not, set in Dickens’ London in the 19th century and unmistakably invaded by COVID-19 and the constraints of the pandemic. 2020 or not 2020.

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Watching the virtual version recorded at the Queens Road barn, I was surprised to find how Dickens’ characters, in period costumes designed by Chelsea Retalic, replicated daily life today. While Marley and the three famous Christmas Ghosts wore masks, others – including Scrooge, his nephew, and the Cratchits – did not. No wonder poor Tiny Tim is dying!

Live outdoor performances of Theatre Charlotte’s pandemic edition of Dickens premiered at Christ South’s Old Dairy Farm in Waxhaw on Reid Dairy Road, which may account for some of the anomalies we see when we tune in to the indoor version. Outdoors, winter is upon us, so Spencer and Timmons may not have wished their Scrooge to change into his jammies. Besides that, an outdoor shift in scene from the Scrooge & Marley counting house to Ebenezer’s bedroom may have been unwieldy out on the farm.

So all of the action, aside from the Ghosts’ travels, is confined to Scrooge’s office until he sallies forth on Christmas day. To achieve this economy and consistency, Spencer and Timmons alter the plot just a little, sending Scrooge outdoors for dinner and having him realize that he has forgotten his pocket watch at his office. That’s where Marley and the Ghosts will now do their haunting. Nor do our directors forget about Ebenezer’s watch or his watch chain, elegantly transforming it into a fresh plot point without changing any of the dialogue.

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The uncredited set design, likely by Timmons, is very spare, silhouettes of city and government buildings in the background, connected to the Scrooge & Marley firm by a stunted staircase and a front door. No walls or windows obscure our view of the sidewalk outside the office or the silhouetted figures that traverse it. Inside, we never need more at Scrooge’s HQ than desks for Ebenezer and his oppressed drone Bob Cratchit. Bedtime is never observed, so there’s no longer any need for a bed. When we visit the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as much as a cushioned chair and a wee table are necessary, so that Fred’s wife may have a glass of wine and a decanter nearby, but that is all.

Sound design by Timmons and Vito Abate only blunders with the opening and closing of Scrooge’s front door. Opening it lets in a hullabaloo of street sounds and closing it silences the noise – except we can clearly hear the footsteps of whoever departs on the sidewalk. Grander and more successful are the sounds heralding the supernatural entrances of Marley and the three Christmas Ghosts, while lighting by Rick Wiggins brashly suggests that all three of Scrooge’s guides have celestial origins.

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Hank West, mostly prized around town for his comedy exploits, is not a complete stranger to mean roles, having portrayed the Marquis de Sade in 2003. There’s nothing missing of Scrooge’s flinty cantankerousness in the opening scene. West’s rebuffs of a charitable solicitor (just one this year instead of two) and his nephew Fred are even more repellent than his tyranny and resentment toward Cratchit. It’s when we approach West’s comedic wheelhouse where we find him woefully hamstrung. Deprived of Scrooge’s bedclothes and his dopey nightcap – the lone accessories that make Ebenezer vulnerable or adorable through five-sixths of the story – West must accompany the Ghosts in business attire.

Worse than that, West must give us a Scrooge who dances with glee, realizing that he hasn’t missed Christmas morning, dressed up like an adult going to work rather than as a child waking from – and to – a fabulous holiday dream. Missing this parcel of Dickens’ visual genius, we can appreciate it more, for the nightcap and bedclothes are also as indispensable to the distinctive flavor of Scrooge’s supernatural journeys as the Ghosts’ personalities.

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West’s comedy isn’t totally eclipsed, peeping out in his retorts to Cratchit and the Solicitor, in his timing of remarks after visitors exit, and in his sunny sallies around town making his many amends. Of course, the final prank on Cratchit when he comes in late on the 26th is handsomely done, though I was a little surprised by West’s decision to underplay Scrooge’s mischievousness and glee as he did Ebenezer’s playacting.

More women than men are seen onstage here, with Andrea King tipping the balance as Bob Cratchit. At work, she is purely deferential toward Scrooge, and King’s entrance on the 26th has a stealth worthy of Chaplin or Lucille Ball. We probably notice that at home, King’s Cratchit as a husband and a father comes off as less of a patriarch than we’re accustomed to. Can’t say that I minded much – am I becoming too evolved?

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Seeing both Allen Andrews as Christmas Yet to Come and Josh Logsdon as Marley’s Ghost wearing masks hardly detracted from their portrayals. Logsdon’s mask had an orifice that seemed rimmed with teeth, he was bundled up with enough rags under his chains to look like a leper, and a huge gray wig affixed to his head with a shroud-like kerchief made him even more loathsome. Notwithstanding Scrooge’s doubts, when Logsdon bemoaned his fate and issued Marley’s warnings, there was far more grave than gravy in this ghost.

More noticeable were the alterations that masks imposed on the women Ghosts. Reprising her role as Christmas Past, Anna McCarty had a veiled look in her gleaming white gown, Arabian or ecclesiastical in its modesty. Yet when she needed to be strong and authoritative, McCarty didn’t disappoint, even though she seemed more socially-distanced than her castmates. Lechetze Lewis as Christmas Present was free to mingle more in her garrulous London tour. Her lively interaction with Fred and his wife, Andrews and Mary Lynn Bain, offered the most spectacular display of Retalic’s costume designs this side of Marley.

Andrews’ entreaties that Uncle Scrooge come dine with Fred were nearly as foundational in establishing the Christmas spirit on Queens Road as Cratchit’s sufferings and goodwill. Bain was also more impactful when she doubled as Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart in the flashback, particularly when she returns her engagement ring, releases Ebenezer from his obligations, and decries his worship of Mammon.

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Little moments like this, Cratchit applauding Fred’s advocacy of Christmas, and the perfect view we get of Cratchit sneaking in late after the holiday are among the many testaments we get to the work of Megan Shiflett and Nick Allison behind the cameras – delivering the best angles from the best distances. Theatre Charlotte may not have the resources that CPCC can boast in video gear, but they’re outstripping every live video I’ve seen from the college, because Spencer and Timmons are so deftly cuing their cameras where to be and when.

Amid the special hardships of 2020, local theatre companies are substantially sharpening their video techniques and their cinema savvy, good tidings that will pay dividends when COVID-19 is conquered.

With Jill Bloede executing the Narrator’s role in such a ceremonious British style, and with the likes of Tom Ollis and Rebecca Kirby as the Fezziwigs, quality runs deep in this cast – as deep as you’d expect with productions running twice the five performances this one is getting. There’s plenty of mileage left in the virtual version, which continues its on-demand run through January 2.

Three Bone Theatre Responds to this Moment with “Hands Up”

Review: Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments

By Perry Tannenbaum

Actor- Jay Ward

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.

Actor- LeShea Nicole

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 Up had 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.

Actor- Sultan Omar El-Amin

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.

“That’s where the healing begins.”

Return to Planet of the Masks

Reviews: CP Theatre’s Webcast of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine and Terry Gabbard’s Our Place.

By Perry Tannenbaum

Our Place, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 4th, 2020

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.

Almost Maine, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 3rd, 2020

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.

Almost Maine, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 3rd, 2020Can 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.

Almost Maine, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 3rd, 2020

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.

Our Place, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 4th, 2020

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.

Our Place, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 4th, 2020

“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.

Loose Ends and All, “The Resurrection of Alice” Still Offers a Fresh Viewpoint on Black Subjugation

Review: NC Black Rep’s The Resurrection of Alice

By Perry Tannenbaum

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.

ZOOMvestigating a Murder

Review: CPCC Theatre staged A Virtual Whodunnit

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Virtual Whodunnit-01

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.

Coping With COVID and BLM

The QC’s Arts Groups Face Up to Adversity and Diversity

By Perry Tannenbaum 

Sleeping Beauty_Choreography by Matthew Hart_Laszlo Berdo & Sarah Lapointe_Photo by Taylor Jones

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.

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With the onset of COVID-19, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte pivoted and presented four OnStage productions in a virtual format

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.

Cat Set Done
Theatre Charlotte’s set for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” unseen back in March, will be resurrected for two online productions this fall

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.”

March on Selma

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.

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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!”