Tag Archives: Dee Abdullah

A Disfigured War Vet Struggles to Find – and See – Herself

Review: Ugly Lies the Bone

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When Jess returns to her Florida hometown from her third deployment in Afghanistan, there are multiple obstacles littering her path to reintegrating into family and community life. Mentally, she’s suffering from PTSD. Physically, she’s tormented by the aftereffects of injuries inflicted by an exploding IED: she gets around – slowly – with help from a walker, her face is disfigured by burns and skin grafts, and she’s constantly in excruciating pain from burns and grafts all over her body.

That’s just the beginning in Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone, now at Spirit Square in a Three Bone Theatre production. There’s a certain amount of friction between Jess and her sunny sister, Kacie, that reads like ingratitude for all the help and care Kacie is trying to give her. Jess also reflexively despises Kacie’s vulgar, tactless, and boisterous boyfriend, Kelvin, and she doesn’t express that feeling daintily. Nor does it help that Jess’s former boyfriend, Stevie, didn’t religiously wait for her to come back home. Instead, he went on with his life and got married.

Located near Cape Kennedy, Jess’s hometown of Titusville offers additional challenges. Not only do the sands on the nearby beaches trigger Jess’s PTSD, so will the earthshaking tremors from rocket launches at the Kennedy Space Center. True, NASA’s space shuttle program is about to end, minimizing the obstacles posed by future launch events. But layoffs have already struck the Space Center, reducing job opportunities in the citywide. Stevie was one of the impacted NASA workers, and Jess finds him behind the counter at a local gas station, making change, selling lottery cards, and wearing a dopey space beanie.

But wait a second. Jess had to run and conquer obstacle courses just to earn the dubious privilege of being deployed to Afghanistan in the first place, right? This nasty, bitter, and disfigured woman has grit. We also get hints from both Kacie and Stevie that, once upon a time, Jess had vitality and appeal. And notwithstanding all her current pain, disability, and orneriness, Ugly Jess gets meaningful help.

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The most intriguing – and theatrical – form of help is a form of VR therapy that Ferrentino tells us, in a program note, was actually the inspiration for her play. You can google “Snow World” therapy and find that its use with severely injured soldiers dates back to 2008, though it seemed pretty cutting-edge to me. Each time Andrea King as Jess puts on her VR goggles and immerses herself in a fabricated 3D snow-world, the Duke Energy Theater fills with dreamy projection designs by Ryan Maloney – so we’re fairly immersed as well.

Since the theory of the therapy is as much sensory bombardment as fantastical escape, the second ingredient of the treatments is music. Jess gets to choose between patriotic soldiering music and Paul Simon. The treatment is curiously impersonal: we never see Jess’s therapist; we only hear her voice. Amid the sensory overload, Jess’s sufferings subside sufficiently for the therapist to prompt her to move her legs through the snowdrifts and lift her arms – movements that would normally exacerbate her terrible pain by stretching her newly grafted skin.

For us as well as for Jess, these dreamy cinematic episodes are oases of calm that punctuate the stresses and occasional comedy of her readjustment to civilian life. She momentarily abandons her walker as she grabs the videogame controls, almost straightens up, and we find ourselves relaxing with her in the dimmed light.

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Perverse as it was, I enjoyed the oafishness of Peter Finnegan as Kelvin and the nerdiness of Scott Tynes-Miller as Stevie. Anyone who saw Finnegan last summer as he feasted on the role of Bottom in the outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Queens University will need no further incentive to behold his Kelvin, which is nearly that far south of normal. And who better for director Dee Abdullah to turn to than Tynes-Miller for the wishy-washy, conflicted, and adorably humbled Stevie? We’ve watched his auditions for years.

Abdullah can allow both Finnegan and Tynes-Miller to go slightly overboard in making asses out of Kelvin and Stevie because Ferrentino eventually brings them back to conscience and virtue. Becky Schultz as Jess’s sister Kacie may seem too wholesome at first to go the distance with Kelvin. With only a trace of trashiness from Schultz, Finnegan’s loutishness startles us all the more, so we tend to empathize with Jess a little bit when she explodes on him early – and later on when she harbors darker suspicions.

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Before singing King’s praises as Jess, I’d be remiss if I didn’t insert some prefatory kudos to makeup designer Gregory Hewett and makeup artist Natasha Kay, unsparing in showing us what Jess is dealing with. You don’t need to imagine much of the pain when King slowly makes her first entrance with her walker. The pain really does seem to permeate every inch of her as she struggles to move and the endure the ocean of ache. When King declares that three operations were necessary to restore one eyelid, you believe it. Vulnerability, bitterness, anger, need, and an all-powerful doggedness course through her, slackened only when Jess dons those transporting goggles, or when she joins Stevie – again in relative darkness – for their climactic rooftop rendezvous.

We get to know Debbie Swanson as the voice of the therapist strictly from her performance up in the Duke’s soundbooth, so it’s gratifying to see her at last when she doubles as Jess and Kacie’s mom as the drama concludes. Swanson’s disembodied voice isn’t tough love so much as clinical care for Jess at the VR sessions. Sometimes soothingly, she patiently counsels Jess to move forward instead of looking back, following procedures with firm military precision.

Eventually, the voice from the booth warms up to Jess just enough to bend the rules. All this time, even before she appears, mom is adding to Jess’s stress and our suspense. Suffering from dementia, Mom may not recognize her own daughter anymore, another devastating blow for Jess. Or she might recognize Jess and freak out, which would hurt them both.

For Jess, avoidance of that confrontation brings little relief. Looking into the mirror, Jess is struggling to recognize herself.

BNS “Lion” Keeps Roaring and Romancing

Review: Be A Lion

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Without much fanfare or marketing knowhow, Rory Sheriff and his Be A Lion arrived on the local scene in 2014. The musical sequel to The Wiz has been produced here five more times since then, has drawn 12 nominations for excellence from the Metrolina Theatre Association at their recently revived annual awards, and was successfully produced at the 2019 Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, where Sheriff was honored with the Best Director prize. So the time was ripe for me to catch up with this triumphant production. Something must have clicked for Brand New Sheriff Productions for Be a Lion to have been reprised so frequently and lauded so widely.

Sure enough, I found plenty to enthusiastically recommend at Spirit Square last Friday Night. Music and lyrics by Sheriff and five others are clearly ready for prime time, costume design by Dee Abdullah and Shacana Kimble is an absolute joy, and choreography by Toi Phoenix Reynolds consistently hits the sweet spot. Perhaps most exceptional among the show’s technical and design attractions is Gbale Allen’s makeup creations, a category that isn’t adjudicated in Metrolina or Atlanta – or even on Broadway. Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Damneesha – the hellspawn of wicked witch Evilline – are merely highlights in the gallery of Allen’s splendid handiwork.

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Yet overall, I was underwhelmed. Aspects of Lion were surprisingly rudimentary for a company staple that has been so extensively developed and presumably rethought, particularly Jennifer O’Kelly’s scenic design and Sheriff’s book.

Without the blandishments of fade-dissolves, the scenery is a series of projections on a massive sheet that doesn’t stay still. Nor am I awed by the graphics, which never come close to matching Sheriff’s Broadway aspirations. When you can count the bricks on the famed Yellow Brick Road – and it twists more than a couple of times before terminating at approximately shoulder level – you aren’t seeing much of a road.

More disheartening are the lingering weaknesses in Sheriff’s script, which testify to a lack of tough, honest criticism more than to a lack of talent. Action throughout Act 1 simply drags, relieved only by the splashy costumes and the bravura singing. Really, it’s like nobody has suggested a rewrite in five years across the six-plus BNS productions here and elsewhere. As Lion rounds up the old gang with drop-ins on Tin Man and Scarecrow, encouraged by Miss One (formerly Glinda) to travel to Emerald City and claim his rightful kingdom, Sheriff fails to establish any dramatic urgency for his mission.efd8703eb37b1c8e19b483746e1d6515.jpeg[8]

The hybrid offspring of Evilline and a Flying Monkey, Damneesha knocks off her daddy and summons an army of Flying Crabs to muster behind her evil intent. The upshot of this fiendish mobilization? Who knows. We dally instead at a carnival where Tin Man presides, henpecked by wife Teenie, and at a school established by Scarecrow, where she teaches. These are the respective humdrum outcomes of being granted a heart and a brain. Not exactly dramatic substitutes for cutaways to Emerald City, where citizens could be cowering under Damneesha’s tyrannical rule and Gotham City-like chaos could break out as the oppressed masses cry out for a hero.

Not only isn’t there urgency to Lion’s quest, there’s too little drama for Sheriff to build to a big finish and emphatically announce the break. Instead, a prerecorded PA announcement tells us it’s intermission. Axiomatically, that means trouble.1c0906c97b0deab102cd3ec5f253f8c4.jpeg[8]

Somehow, Sheriff mostly finds himself in Act 2 – and we find that the writer-director-producer can also sprinkle plenty of comedy and wit in his script while revving up the drama. Damneesha and her Flying Crabs finally do get aggressive, good ole Dorothy is transported – from Harlem in a cute yellow taxi – to Oz and becomes one of the witch’s kidnap victims, and Lion comes up with a clever stratagem to save the day. Oh yeah, there’s definite evidence that Act 2 has been manicured. The Emerald City masses remain out of the picture, and Dorothy doesn’t have much to contribute, but there’s hope here that Be a Lion could evolve into a truly marketable property.

Although I can trace complete turnover in the cast since the last time Queen City Nerve editor Ryan Pitkin covered BNS in a previous life, the talent onstage now at Duke Energy Theater is exemplary, beginning with Melody Williams as the ultra-wicked Damneesha and Frank “Facheaux” Crawford as Cheetah, her hapless dad. Nikki Dunn could pass for a female impersonator as Miss One, she’s so over-the-top and outrageously dressed; and Danius Jones as Miles, Lion’s obsequious mouse servant, has a bit of weasel mixed into has DNA – and a newfound worship of Michele Obama.DSC05462[4]

At the center of Sheriff’s story, for better or worse, are Tim Bradley as Lion and K. Alana Jones as Ladawn, with the producer (and choreographer) dipping perilously deep into The Lion King in crafting their romance. Lion and Ladawn are a mushy, overlong detour from the cataclysm shaking the Oz kingdom, but the chemistry between Bradley and Jones, fueled by how well she sings and how lithely she moves, keeps them watchable. Bradley never reverts to the big cowardly clown we remember before his audience with The Wizard, but every so often, slight lapses in courage and fortitude add to his texture.

Yet I’m so glad when Lion and Ladawn quarrel and break up, allowing the Oz story to breathe.3c5332bf0b172f337626fc5c9d4f4064.jpeg

While they aren’t as cleverly integrated into Sheriff’s denouement as they were in the classic 1939 Wizard film, you will still enjoy Tin Man and Scarecrow heartily. Graham Williams as Tin Man and Jessika Johnson as Scarecrow not only get the benefits of smashing costumes and makeup, they’re both accessorized with new characters they associate with. For Williams, it’s Shar Marlin playing the termagant ball-and-chain wife Teenie to the hilt. Even better, Johnson gets two Crows to teach, Trinity Muse as Leroy Crow and Cecilia Mitchell as Walter Crow, detonating the Act 2 comedy.

Muse and Mitchell moonlight as minions of the evil Damneesha, Flying Crab #1 and Flying Crab #2. Together, they are her whole army!

 

 

Straddling Broadway, Black Panther and Black Diamond

Preview: Eclipsed

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few writers who have brought a script to the Broadway stage have also had a major acting role in a major Hollywood film. Mae West, Orson Welles, Sam Shepard, Mel Brooks, Maya Angelou, and Woody Allen have legit claims. Perhaps the stealthiest addition to this very short list happened this summer when Danai Gurira emerged in the Marvel universe as Okoye, the spear-wielding generalissimo of Wakanda in The Black Panther. You’ll look long and far for a review that reminds us that Gurira’s Eclipsed not only came to Broadway in 2016, it scooped up six Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Play.

Of course, the record was set straight when Panther became a megahit and Gurira, already a star of The Walking Dead series on AMC, rose even higher in the firmament. Feature stories about Gurira consistently cited Eclipsed among her accomplishments. Additional light reflected back on Eclipsed from Lupita Nyong’o, the glam spy of Panther. Nyong’o was nominated for a Tony as the leading lady in Gurira’s play after her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave.

Gurira’s rare achievement is definitely drawing the spotlight now that Eclipsed is making its rounds among regional theatres. Bringing Eclipsed to Spirit Square this week, Brand New Sheriff Productions certainly isn’t ignoring the playwright’s Walking Dead and Panther connections as it spreads the word.

You won’t find any zombies at Duke Energy Theater, but connections between Black Panther and Eclipsed are substantial. Both dramas are set in Africa. While Wakanda is a fantastical high-tech kingdom in Marvel geography, Gurira’s Liberia is quite real – but no less dramatic. After spending a good chunk of her childhood in Zimbabwe, Gujira returned to the continent on a grant from the prestigious Theatre Communications Group in 2007 and interviewed more than 30 women who had been victimized by Liberia’s civil war.

Among these women – some of whom were serially raped, others whose daughters had been kidnapped and turned into sex slaves – Gujira took four of their names for her characters. Three are wives of the unseen Commanding Officer, a brutal rebel leader against president Charles Taylor, and the other is a peace activist seeking to bring the war to an end.

The fifth woman, at the heart of this drama, is unnamed. “The Girl” is CO’s most recent captive, and two of his wives, Helena and Bessie, are hoping to shield her from him.

Yes, Eclipsed was the first play to hit Broadway with an all-black female cast. Just don’t get the idea that Gujira’s script is all about victimhood and peacemaking. CO’s other wife, Maima, is a freedom fighter with the Liberian rebels, and she returns from the battlefield with some serious weaponry strapped to her shoulder.

Maima is not only an action figure vaguely akin to Okoye in Black Panther, she’s modeled after Col. Black Diamond, a female Liberian freedom fighter. Guijira saw a picture of the warrior in a New York Times feature in 2003, the year that the Second Liberian Civil War ended. Black Diamond was the inspiration for Gujira’s mission to Liberia – and for Eclipsed. The way Maima sees it, men aren’t going to rape you if you’re toting an AK-47.

That’s where actress Tracie Frank comes in. A self-confessed blerd, she knew about Marvel and Black Panther long before she knew about Eclipsed, and she knew Gujira as Okoye before she realized that the film’s action hero was also playwright. She has done major roles around town in A Trip to Bountiful and the title role of Caroline, or Change. But nothing like Wife #2, Maima.

“Truthfully, I didn’t even see myself in that role when it did come along,” Frank admits. “As I read the script to prep for the audition, I decided to read for the two ‘motherly’ roles. I remember absently thinking, ‘wow, whoever plays Maima will have to be tough!’”

Director Dee Abdullah thought differently, handing Maima’s lines to Frank after her first reading.

“I was surprised,” Frank recalls, “but I went out and read her again – not as an impartial observer, but as a version of myself… and I knew it was right. I guess I feel like Wife #2 chose me.”

Well, so did Abdullah after a hiatus from directing of five full years. A co-founder of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre with Ed Gilweit, Abdullah was no longer at the core of CAST when the company folded in 2014, but she was devastated by the loss. Corlis Hayes shoved a life raft towards her when she directed August Wilson’s Jitney for BNS last summer, asking Abdullah to design the costumes.

That gig positioned her for Eclipsed. Another BNS blerd, Abdullah has been on board as a Black Panther fan before the film but only slightly acquainted with Eclipsed because of the Nyong’o connection. After researching the story, she knew this was the project to get her back into directing.

“As you might remember,” Abdullah says, “I am not one to shy away from difficult subject matter. This play gave me all the complications a human spirit could endure and still survive. It is about women and their courage to survive under the worst circumstances that life could hand them. It is also based on real stories of the Liberian civil wars, which made it more compelling for me.”

Away from the scene for five years, Abdullah had grown out of touch with the local talent that would show up for auditions. Three of her five choices – Toni Oliver as Helena, Racquel Ena Mae Nadhiri as Bessie, and Gbale Allen as The Girl – are new to the Charlotte scene. Aside from Frank, Ruby Edwards as Rita, the peace negotiator, will be the only familiar face.

“All of the women had a special quality about them that make me want to look at them on stage,” Abdullah recalls. “Tracie has a power that came across much more grounded than the others. Her character makes a choice that takes her on a much more difficult journey than the other women – I needed someone who could convey that energy while staying grounded in truth. The Girl is the only character that goes through a transformation during the course of the play. Gbale gave the innocence as well as the confident toughness that this character needed to pull this role.”

Getting the roles was just the beginning of this ensemble’s journey. Casting by Abdullah was done four months in advance, with rehearsals beginning in late April, so the performers could research the culture, learn the civil war history, bond with one another and learn a Liberian accent. Oh yeah, there’s also some footage online of Frank and Allen wielding their firearms.

“Dee has been quite unique,” Frank affirms, “and I can’t imagine anyone else directing this play. She’s intuitive and observant – she sees what’s under the surface – and that’s vital in a story like this one.”

Abdullah is pleased with the dedication her cast has put into their work, and Frank believes the results will show.

“There’s a natural rhythm to our interactions,” she explains, “one that comes from knowing each other, caring for each other, being annoyed by one another! We’ve formed a sisterhood that won’t end when the [show] closes on September 1st. We’ve learned and experienced so much over this spring and summer. It has been unforgettable.”