Tag Archives: LeShea Nicole

New Sheriff Greenlights a Complete Cycle

Preview: Two Trains Running

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Rory Sheriff, the founder and producer at Brand New Sheriff Productions – and the author of two works staged at Spirit Square, Be a Lion and Boys to Baghdad – has a special affinity with the work of August Wilson. After presenting Wilson’s Jitney at Duke Energy Theater in 2017, BNS is back this Thursday with Two Trains Running, another drama from Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle.

The special appeal of America’s pre-eminent black playwright for Sheriff is twofold – as a writer and as a Pennsylvanian.

“As a playwright myself,” Sheriff explains, “I am fascinated with August Wilson’s style of writing, more so the characters he writes about. Growing up in Reading PA, I can relate to every last character, situation and location he speaks about in Two Trains Running. The beautiful thing is I can now see and understand these people from an adult point of view. They are my dad, his friends, my uncles, my neighbors. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m reliving my childhood through the works of Mr. Wilson.”

Each of the plays in Wilson’s Cycle is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and all of them are set Pittsburgh’s Hill District, except for one Chicago excursion representing the 1920s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The only play that predates Ma Rainey was the one Sheriff first plunged into, Jitney, which premiered in 1982 and represents the 1940s. By the time Two Trains, representing the 1960s, premiered in 1990, Wilson had already finished six of the plays in his Cycle.

So Sheriff has honed in on decades that his dad and uncles would recognize, but as he takes us back to the days of Malcolm X and the rise of the Black Panthers, Sheriff is promising that Two Trains won’t be his last stop.

“Yes,” he proclaims, “BNS Productions is committed to producing all ten of Mr. Wilson’s works. We will produce at least one of his works every season. Here’s an exclusive: We will be ending this season with Jitney, and next season we will be doing Radio Golf.”

This extraordinary announcement comes during an extraordinary launch of Black History Month, with three theatrical productions featuring black performers opening in the same week – making some unprecedented Charlotte history. While Theatre Charlotte is waiting until the first of the month on Friday to open Ain’t Misbehavin’, Actor’s Theatre is jumping the gun, officially opening Nina Simone: Four Women on Wednesday.

None of these productions is miniscule, testifying to the depth of black acting and musical talent across the Queen City. So the time is ripe for Brand New Sheriff to be making bolder, more confident and ambitious plans.

Sheriff is definitely packing some high-powered ammunition onstage for Two Trains.

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“All of the actors in Two Trains Running have been in at least one Wilson play,” says Corlis Hayes, who will direct. Hayes is no slouch herself. Combined with the four she has directed at CPCC, where she teaches in the drama program, Hayes has now directed six of the 10 Pittsburgh plays, including the two Pulitzer Prize winners, Fences and The Piano Lesson.

Like Jitney, the action in Two Trains Running takes place in a building slated for acquisition and demolition by City of Pittsburgh. The wrongheaded concept of urban renewal evidently had a cancerous grip on black community life for a long time. Here it’s a restaurant rather than a gypsy cab company facing its doom, and the restaurant owner, Memphis, is our protagonist. He’s holding out for a fair price on his property – against the lowball bids of both the city and the ghoulish, rapacious West, who owns West’s Funeral Parlor across the street.

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Memphis also has some unfinished business back in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, where he was driven off his land many years earlier and not paid a dime. He’s typical of the black men in Wilson’s plays, struggling against a system that white society has rigged against them. Echoing that reality – or responding to it – men in both Jitney and Two Trains Running play the numbers, hoping that luck will supply the boost that honest work doesn’t.

Recently discharged from prison, another recurring Wilson motif, Sterling is trying to interest Memphis and his male customers in attending an upcoming Black Power rally. Jonovan Adams, who has performed in all the Wilson plays that Hayes staged at CP, will portray the restless, volatile Sterling. Activism isn’t his only pursuit: he asks everybody he speaks with for a job or at least a lead, and he’s persistently trying to make headway with Risa, Memphis’s troubled waitress.

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Estranged from his wife, Memphis seems to have a blind spot when it comes to women. Debating with Holloway, one of his older customers, about why Risa has mutilated herself, Memphis labels her dangerous while Holloway sees her as searching for someone who will love her true inner self.

“I feel both of these men hit on some truths about Risa,” says actress LeShea Nicole, whose previous venture into Wilson’s world was as Vera in the On Q Performing Arts production of Seven Guitars in 2015.

“Dangerous is definitely not a word I would use to describe Risa, because she never resorts to violence or threats, but I believe she feels ruined from some form or forms of abuse that she encountered in her past that has caused her to shut down socially/emotionally and even distort her appearance. Risa may feel ruined, but not beyond repair. She seeks guidance and solace from Prophet Samuel, which, in my eyes, equals hope.”

Working on her second Wilson drama, Nicole is switching companies and directors. The legendary Lou Bellamy, founder of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, worked directly with Wilson on multiple occasions. Bellamy not only directed Nicole for On Q, he also directed her as an understudy for the Blumenthal Performing Arts production of The Mountaintop that played at Booth Playhouse in 2014.

In their first-ever collaboration, Nicole says that Hayes measures up.

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“I am extremely pleased and energized with her process of directing,” Nicole says. “She’s well versed and makes it her mission to stay true to Wilson’s vision. Dr. Hayes allows actors to explore, find depth in our characters and tap into our creative freedom without jeopardizing the integrity of the production. It is a tricky balancing act that she masters effortlessly. Hayes’ extensive acting career truly makes her an ‘actor’s director’ which is wonderful.”

Whether it’s Prophet Samuel, who lies in state at West’s funeral parlor, or it’s hitting the numbers; whether it’s promoting a Black Power rally or gleaning wisdom from the mysterious Aunt Ester, a 322-year-old soothsayer; the people of Two Trains Running are seekers. The emphasis on ritual especially sets this play apart from other plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, according to Hayes, but there’s still a common thread.

“Always with Wilson,” Hayes observes, “reunion and reconciliation with the past heals the wounds of the present, bridges gaps between loved ones, and clears the path for a promising future.”

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“Daffodil Girls” Vie Viciously for Survival – and a Pony

Review: The Daffodil Girls

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Down in Dallas, Fun House Theatre producer Bren Rapp and her co-founder, artistic director Jeff Swearingen, don’t do children’s theatre the usual way. The children at Fun House are the actors onstage and not necessarily the target audience. So when Rapp looked for an inspiration to challenge her students, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross wasn’t too far of a stretch. To translate the Darwinian struggles of real estate salesmen embroiled in a monthly sales contest into terms her actors could identify with – an annual Girl Scout Cookie drive – Rapp leaned upon Swearingen’s play writing skills.

The result in 2013 was a Dallas-Fort Worth theatre legend: The Daffodil Girls. In a further mutation five years later, Three Bone Theatre is currently premiering the first all-adult production of Swearingen’s script at Spirit Square.

Make no mistake, this is thoroughly Swearingen’s play, not just a servile rechanneling of Mamet’s testosterone-driven, potty-mouthed arguments through the lips of innocent preteens. Plot and dialogue only faintly echo Glengarry most of the time, language is relatively cleansed, and beware: complete sentences lie ahead. Another way to view the difference is to note that Swearingen lets plenty of air into the relatively claustrophobic world of Glengarry. Mamet only gave us three two-handed scenes before intermission. Swearingen admits more characters – and more of the world outside of the Daffodils’ treehouse.

According to Willa, who parallels Mamet’s Williamson, the entire Daffodil chapter has been endangered by their slumping cookie sales, not just the low person on the totem pole. Even before Shelly’s quest for hotter leads, in a humiliating confrontation with the officious Willa, we find Swearingen modernizing the story and infusing fresh air into the competition. Shelly is outdoors as the lights go up, on her cellphone first with her mom and then her dad, pleading with them to help boost her numbers.

Opening up his story, Swearingen doesn’t ease up on the stress that Mamet plunged us into, but he does manage to instantly wrap that stress into a more juvenile mindset. Parents at the Duke Energy Theater can only sigh. The Daffodils’ cookie quotas merely weaponize our children’s pre-existing propensity toward clinging, dependent querulousness, and cellphones help it go nuclear.

When she isn’t consulting her rules and charts – or obsequiously receiving Blayne, the regional Daffodil emissary with the motivational charms of a drill sergeant – Willa seems to live next door to the troop’s treehouse. All we see at stage right is Willa’s housefront, enough for her to peep out of and defer to parents lurking within. Flanking the treehouse interior in Ryan Maloney’s set design, a Peanuts-gone-to-seed affair, is that pillar of preteen commerce, a lemonade stand (with a crayon rental side hustle). There we will find Raimi, the top-selling Daffodil, closing in on a high-gross sale to hapless, sickly Jenny Link, who may be allergic to every ingredient in those cookies.

Raimi is modeled on Mamet’s sales ace, Roma, who circles his prey, Lingk, ever so circumspectly in the last Chinese restaurant scene of Glengarry prior to intermission. The real bridge to Act 2 in both dramas is the discussion about ransacking the sales office, ostensibly for cash and receipts, but really so the desperate accomplices can get their hands on those hot sales leads that are guarded so closely. In Glengarry, the conspirators were Dave Moss and George Aaronow, with Moss as the intimidator. Here the crooked bullying malcontent is Dana, bullying a kindergarten neophyte, Georgina.

Casting the women who will regress into girlhood in daffodil-colored uniforms, Three Bone director Amanda Liles leans on size in her casting when we need to differentiate between their purported ages. Layla Sutton as Dana towers over Kitty Janvrin as Georgina, conjuring up a Trunchbull-Matilda contrast more readily than any relationship Mamet set down. You’ll notice a similar disparity between the imposing Iris DeWitt as Blayne, the regional enforcer, and the comparatively petite Iesha Nyree as the deferential Willa.

Rather than playing down these contrasts, Liles encourages her actresses to play them up. Among them, Nyree gets the best opportunity to surprise, for Willa may be a worm and a suck-up, but she’s a cunning one, and her moment will come. In proving that crime doesn’t pay, Nyree gets to unleash a volcano of pent-up emotion that is quite consonant with Willa’s customary sliminess, but she only briefly wrests our primary attention away from the girls at the opposite ends of sales totem pole.

Kerstin VanHuss as the pathetic Shelly and LeShea Nicole as the regal Raimi give the performances you’ll remember longest. If Shelly would sweeten up, stop acting so spoiled, and show a little more initiative, she might shape up as the sort of underdog you could root for, like the chubby Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Yet in her pluckier moments, Van Huss succeeds in making this mopey, self-pitying Shelly more appealing than any of Mamet’s predators, so I did find myself rooting for her late in the action despite my better judgment.

Raimi oozes all the self-confidence, superiority, and staunch entitlement that Shelly lacks, and Nicole makes her so very slick, patient, and condescending as she sets about fleecing poor Jenny for over 20+ boxes of toxic cookies. The fruits of Raimi’s finesse make her a victorious queen when she finally deigns to return to the ransacked treehouse. Nobody is taking away her damn pony party, the prize that goes to the troop’s top seller, and you can hear Nicole playing the race card as she proclaims this – slapping that card down on the table with gusto, absolutely shameless. As in previous Nicole stage exploits, she’s intensely eccentric and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes without even saying a word.

Of course, Nicole’s imperious cruelty is greatly augmented by the immense frailty of Valerie Thames as Jenny – though it must be said those breathing tubes sprouting from her nostrils give her a head start. To a lesser extent than Nyree as Willa, Thames will acquire the beginnings of a backbone in the Act 2 denouement when Jenny finally gets a word in edgewise.

Similarly, it isn’t just Willa who nudges us toward empathizing with Shelly. After her cameo as Blayne, DeWitt returns to belittle Shelly, her cookies and her Daffodils uniform as Lisa, a preppy girl who acts like giving Shelly the time of day is more than sufficient charity. Rounding out the cast is Tiffany Bryant Jackson as Cora. Mostly quiet as she runs the lemonade stand before intermission, Cora turns out to have quite a bossy streak in the heat of the great burglary investigation.

Maybe the biggest surprise in Swearingen’s fun-filled riff on Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross was how much plot and action the Dallas playwright squeezed into a script whose running time didn’t quite reach 80 minutes. Amazing what you can do with short speeches and complete sentences.