Tag Archives: Graham Williams

Sports Seasons and Generations Clash in Brand New Sheriff’s “Fences”

Review: August Wilson’s Fences

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sports fans quickly get a feel for what time of year it is in August Wilson’s Fences, set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Baseball seems to be supreme as you walk in to Brand New Sheriff’s production at Spirit Square. James Duke’s impressive set design doles out the left side of the Duke Energy Theater stage to a ramshackle two-story house. But a shabby yard dominates the right side, where a baseball dangles on a rope from an old gray tree. Pick up a bat, this is Troy Maxson’s place.

Maxson, an ex-baseball great, talks about the icons of the game, past and present, mostly contemptuous toward the white men who dominate the scene, while his friend Jim Bono rates Troy only below Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson as the best who have ever played. Since Gibson played in the Negro Leagues for the Homestead Grays, based in a mill town adjacent to Pittsburgh, it’s likely that he’s seen Josh far more often on the field than the Babe – especially since he introduced Troy to the sport during a prison stretch.

By the time Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, Troy was already 43, just missing the boat to national fame and power-hitting glory. Instead, he’s a garbage collector when we first see him on a Friday Night, as he and Jim observe their weekly ritual of getting drunk in Troy’s yard. We’ll hear mentions of Pittsburgh Pirates players, Dick Scofield and the under-utilized Roberto Clemente, who seems promising to Troy’s keen eye, so baseball is always in the air.

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We begin to zero in on the time of year it is when Troy’s son Cory first appears, trying to get dad’s permission for a visit from a college scout wanting to offer the kid a football scholarship. Troy doesn’t want Cory to give up his job to start his final season with his high school team, and in subsequent scenes, we’ll see his football jersey and shoulder pads, further assuring us that we’ve reached that point in the year when baseball and football seasons overlap. We hear about the Milwaukee Braves leading the National League pennant race, their wicked pitching duo of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, and their young slugger, Henry Aaron.

Hank, we hear, has hit 43 homers in a year he finished with 44, so it must be late September. Within a few weeks, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants will play their last home games in New York City before moving out to California, and Aaron – destined to surpass the Babe on the all-time home run list – will lead the Braves to victory over the Yankees in the World Series.

As Troy’s pal Bono and his wife Rose keep telling him, times are changing. A Goliath among ballplayers, accustomed to idol worship, Troy doesn’t easily change his thinking, so it’s interesting to watch how Bono and Rose make headway on those rare occasions when they do. Cory really doesn’t stand a chance against Troy’s tyrannical whims unless Rose intercedes on his behalf. Maybe he should have chosen baseball over football?

The father-son relationship is complicated by jealousy and resentment on both sides. Troy is ambivalent about seeing his son succeed in a way that he couldn’t, and Cory is wary of comparisons with his legendary dad, perhaps seeking to sidestep his shadow by turning to a different sport.

Wilson doesn’t downplay the Troy legend. On the contrary, he delightfully magnifies his mythic dimensions. Troy tells us how he has stared down the Devil, tells us how he wrestled with Death for three days, and he shouts his defiance toward the Grim Reaper before our eyes. So Troy’s practical advice toward his son clashes with his own swollen self-regard – and with his disregard for social norms. On the job, his strength and pugnacity will enable him to become the first black garbage truck driver in town, but at home, his unchecked infidelity will cost him.

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Part baseball legend, part Greek epic hero, and – as Bono observes – part “Uncle Remus,” Troy is the powerhouse that makes Fences among the most produced and anthologized of Wilson’s plays. Of the four productions I’ve seen in Charlotte, beginning in 1991 when Charlotte Repertory Theatre presented the local premiere, Brand New Sheriff’s best demonstrates how a strong overall cast elevates the script to the stratosphere of a classic.

And we’re seeing the best Troy we’ve had here in Jonavan Adams, who combines Ed Bernard’s physical presence from the Rep production of 1991 with the corrosive meanness and fiery defiance of Wayne DeHart at Theatre Charlotte in 1996. Snarling, cajoling, roaring, and willing us to see his distorted vision of the world, Adams is more outsized and supernatural than we’ve seen him before.

It likely helps that he and director Corlis Hayes are on their second go-round with Fences. The 2013 version at CPCC, where Adams played Lyons, Troy’s jazzy musician son, wasn’t the best of the previous versions, to be honest. But the current BNS production sure does demonstrate the benefits of taking a second shot at a work you revere. Cumulative experience with the playwright helps, too, for Adams builds upon what he learned in other parts of Wilson’s century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle, with roles in The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

With BNS committed to presenting all of Wilson’s Cycle, others who have appeared with the company and in plays by this playwright are also shining lights here, most conspicuously Tim Bradley as Bono and LeShea Nicole as Rose. Audience members who hopped aboard the Pittsburgh train in 2017 with Jitney are certainly enjoying the ride the most. Bradley has been onstage at Duke Energy at every stop so far, and his Bono is a worthy – and compatible – longtime companion for Troy, not quite as righteous and upstanding as Memphis from Two Trains but strong and honorable when Troy could use a reality check.

DSC06918[6]Nicole was paired with Adams last year in Two Trains, so their rich and nuanced chemistry as Rose and Troy shouldn’t be a surprise. Rose is a stronger woman here, so when she holds out her hand on Friday nights, she isn’t merely asking for Troy’s pay envelope. Rose is Troy’s equal, and then some – the family nucleus. Everybody but Troy seems to get that until her climactic utterances deep in Act 2.

Still a junior at UNC Charlotte, Dylan Ireland is no stranger to BNS, having starred as Huey in Rory Sheriff’s Boys to Baghdad. As Cory, Ireland stands up to his dad without strapping on his shoulder pads. Eventually, he even disrespects Troy when he’s drunk and blocking the front door.

It’s a complex role for Ireland, who must forcefully declare that he doesn’t fear his father while imperfectly hiding that he does. He’s the reluctant, resentful free labor that Troy enlists to help build a fence around his property. So Ireland’s confrontations with Adams – along with Troy’s run-ins with Death – will come to mind when you contemplate the meaning of Wilson’s title.DSC07475

Graham Williams, lately the Tin Man in BNS’s Be A Lion, has the cool-cat swagger you expect to see from Lyons. Though he does scrupulously pay Dad back on his loans, Lyons does not prosper as a musician, and Williams gives us a poignant picture of his decline. Seven-year-old Raynell appears late in the show, a bit of a consolation for the misfortunes that befall the other Maxsons, and Lauren Vinson plays her sweetly, only slightly difficult to manage.DSC07936

Seven years younger than his brother Troy, Gabriel is a World War 2 vet who came back from the battlefield delusional, with a metal plate in his head. Troy may have seen Death and the Devil, but Gabriel believes that he has seen St. Peter and that he is the archangel Gabriel, destined the blow his junky trumpet on Judgment Day. James Lee Walker II plays this extravagant simpleton, the only cast member from the 2013 CPCC production to return in the same role.

More than ever, I must lament that I missed Walker when I reviewed the Sunday matinee of the 2013 production, when he was replaced by an understudy. Walker’s crazed, sunshiney energy this time around is a constant joy, and the ending, botched by the understudy or Hayes’ stage direction back then, was absolute perfection when I saw it on Saturday night. The glow of that ending may convince many that Fences is Wilson’s finest drama, and there’s plenty of firepower from the rest of the cast to fuel that feeling.

 

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!

 

 

Trying an Offramp on the Highway to Prison

Review: Pipeline by Three Bone Theatre

By Perry Tannenbaum

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One of 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” last year, playwright Dominique Morisseau has begun, somewhat belatedly, a stealth invasion of the Queen City. How stealthy? UNC Charlotte and Three Bone Theatre, the first two outfits to present Morisseau works here, both latched onto the same acclaimed Detroit ‘67 for productions that would have opened a little more than a month apart.

That mutual unawareness was mercifully cleared up. Instead of two competing productions of the same 2013 script, we’re introduced to Morisseau by Three Bone with a newer work, Pipeline, that premiered at Lincoln Center two summers ago. ’67 matriculates on September 27 at the Robinson Hall Black Box.

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With a detached black dad checking his smartphone instead of making quality time for his teen-aged son, Pipeline feels 50 years more contemporary than Detroit must be. Yet the tide that high school English teacher Nya desperately resists, the progression of young black men’s lives from school to prison, comes at her with the lethal force of an eternal verity. Like mythic Greek royals seeking to avoid a sure fate pronounced by a Delphic oracle, Nya and her ex-husband Xavier have sent their son Omari off to a private boarding school to avoid the inner-city trail to incarceration.

It isn’t working. Although he isn’t dealing drugs, isn’t in a gang, and has a girlfriend who values him, Omari is volatile. In a classroom discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son, the teacher has zeroed in on him to explain why Bigger Thomas explodes with such anger and violence – presumably because he, as the black kid the class, was best qualified to understand.

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The questioning escalated in a confrontation and then a physical action from Omari that seems open to dispute. Push, shove, assault, or a simple attempt to leave the room? Whatever happened – we never see the video that went viral – Omari not only faces possible expulsion but the teacher might press charges. Jail may already be on the horizon.

Nobody takes this unexpected defeat harder than Nya. She hasn’t merely been fighting against this tide of imprisonment and doom in her family. Every day in her classroom, she fights the good fight with wave after wave of young men, period after period, year after year. Teaching Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” written in 1959, Nya doesn’t merely wish her students to understand what the dropout pool players are saying in their semi-literate three-word sentences, she wants them to avoid living it.

So as Nya melts down in front of her students, Omari’s fate and her defeat acquire an Arthur Miller All My Sons moral weight, for she is angered and tinged with guilt at the same time. She is dangerous and out of control as she barges into Jasmine’s dorm room, demanding to know where her son has run off to.

Here is probably the best entry point into Morisseau’s subtext, for Nya gets a free pass on losing her cool and overstepping where Omari doesn’t. Just don’t get so caught up in Nya’s trespasses that you sleep on those of her colleague, Laurie, a white teacher. My first impulses were to see her as an empathizing sounding board for Nya’s anguished feelings and, together with security guard Dun, as a co-worker who underscores the sense of working in a terrifying, corrupting jungle teeming with at-risk youth.

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Ah, but keep your eye on what happens after Laurie snaps, striking one of her students – to break up a fight! Criticism gets hurled at Laurie by Nya and Dun, and surely there will be consequences from New York City school administration. But nobody onstage, not even Nya, believes that Laurie might be fired (in effect, expelled) and nobody, including me, entertains the notion that she might be brought up on assault charges.

These assumptions are the exact opposite of what we take for granted as applying to the Omaris, the Trayvons, and their black brethren striving to reach adulthood in America without being jailed or shot down in cold blood. We’ve all been numbed by this norm that is so hard-wired into American life.

While scene changes at Duke Energy Theater are a bit plodding in this Three Bone production, Ryan Maloney’s set design takes us where we need to go, and his projections add liveliness to the action, especially the poetry demo. Directing this meaty, turbulent, and layered script, Sidney Horton keeps the heat at about medium-high, so the playwright’s light shines through and we don’t suffer exhaustion.

And my goodness, the high-grade performances we get from LeShea Nicole as Nya and Susan Stein as Laurie make Horton look like the genius. Nicole discards all the irony we’ve seen from her in the past and gives us an earnestness and a heart-on-my-sleeve openness that marks an artistic breakthrough. When Nya teaches the last sentence of the Brooks poem, “We Die soon,” we get the full impact of what she feels is at stake.

Yet Nicole doesn’t get the luxury of delivering full-bore anger and toughness all the time as Stein does. Nya has a tender maternal side that peeps through even in the confrontation with Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend. Stein offers us the sort of scrappy New Yorker whom I remember seeing and hearing so often when I was growing up. Yeah, her Laurie is back on the job after having her face put back together, but don’t you dare pity her.

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All of Nya’s fire and fury would be for naught if Morisseau hadn’t endowed Omari with enough complexity, strength and nuance for her to care about. Deandre Sanders takes a beautiful approach, playing Omari as a troubled young man rather than an immature teen. Nor does Sanders mute Omari’s big blind spot, his perpetually seething anger toward his dad. Omari’s scenes with Jasmine, his mom, and his dad are all multifaceted, Sanders projecting a manly grace and style that only partly veil the powder keg. Omari and his dad arguably draw the most noteworthy of Davita Galloway’s costume designs. That never hurts.

Slick, cold, and distant as he may be, Graham Williams as Xavier lets us know with only a trace of bitterness that he has taken the bullet for the breakup of his marriage to Nya. She slammed the door on him, now wants him back, and all this while has been peddling the myth that he abandoned his family – stoking Omari’s anger and partiality with the deception. So the guilt that afflicts Nya is not at all numinous.

Morisseau and Horton don’t neglect the smallest roles. While somewhat annoying in his pursuit of Nya, Marcus Fitzpatrick as Dun ably makes his point that the English teacher might be doing some income group profiling in undervaluing the school security guard. Meanwhile Alexis Jones gets to spray Jasmine with a few immature traits, letting us know there are some smarts mixed in with the coed’s insecurities and, in her showdown with Nya, that there is true worth behind her petulance.