Tag Archives: Robyn Warfield

My Wonderful Birthday Suit Is a Rainbow-Bright Celebration of Diversity With Impressive Depth

Review: My Wonderful Birthday Suit @ ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Racism and xenophobia: pretty heavy subjects for a children’s play aimed at ages four-and-up, you might say. Yet if you recall “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the racist’s confession from South Pacific sung by a U.S. Army lieutenant, the haters don’t wait to school their children in bigotry until they’re six, seven, or eight. In that grim light, Gloria Bond Clunie’s My Wonderful Birthday Suit, now in live performances at ImaginOn in an eye-popping Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production, comes right on time in teaching love and acceptance. Clunie’s play, directed by the playwright herself, is a rainbow-bright celebration of diversity.

Or perhaps a magical mystery tour, since the friends we first encounter in this magical place called Moonbeam are Oobladee and Oobladah. Clunie likes to keep things vague, so kids can decide for themselves whether Moonbeam is a city, country, hemisphere, or a lavishly developed rainbow. Oobladee is our hostess, greeting us before her best friend Oobladah arrives. Dee, like Clunie, relishes surprises – and maybe confounding expectations along the way. Rising above the balcony level, where Oobladee has her front door, there’s an 18-foot-tall Thinking Tree, a great place for contemplation and attitude adjustment that will summon you with a deep hum, decorated with lights and inhabited by a huge yellow bird named Bobo. Logically enough, Bobo will most often peep out of his knothole to dispense… bows.

With gift-wrapped presents strewn all across the McColl Family Theatre stage, bows are a handy commodity for Oobladee, for as she explains to us – and Oobladah when he arrives – she is planning a surprise birthday party for her best friend on the other side of the rainbow, city, country, or solar system. Her longtime friend Shebopshebe will be visiting Oobladee for the first time on this side, and there will be lights, music, presents, more presents, and cake!! A big cake. The wary, less upbeat Oobladah is not a big fan of surprises or waiting or sharing. He is uncomfortable with all of this.

Oobladah has never had a surprise party nor anywhere near this number of gifts for his birthday. He has never heard of Shebopshebe, and he cannot wrap his head around the idea that somebody else can be Oobladee’s best friend when he is. He wants to eat the cake and see what the presents are now. The monochromatic giftwraps in a wide spectrum of shiny hues are actually upstaged by the rainbow colors of Sydney Lynne Thomas’s set design and Kahei Shum McRae’s rainbow-crazed costumes for both Ooblas. Yet when Clunie wishes to rivet our attention on the gifts, she knows the way, for the smallest gift of all is the heaviest – and Oobladah actually groans when the director has him carry it over to stage right. Further confounding expectations, the biggest of the presents by far, gleaming in sparkly blue, is the lightest, and Clunie conspires with lighting designer Robyn Warfield and sound designer G. Clausen to make this huge cube (topped by a Bobo bow) an irresistible object of wonder for Oobladee and Oobladah. This teasing no doubt also enflamed the curiosities of the kiddies in the theater.

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To divert Oobladah – and educate both him and the anklebiters in the audience on what a surprise party actually is – Oobladee oversees a rehearsal of the triggering and greeting routine, cuing her lights with handclaps. Lights are dimmed as Shebopshebe appears silhouetted behind the rainbow doorway, and the surprise comes off perfectly as she enters and leans over the balcony. But the path toward opening the presents and sharing the humongous cake isn’t smooth. Shebopshebe was dressed in a coordinated outfit of light and dark purples, Oobladah’s favorite color, rather than the rainbow splendor of both Ooblas. No, that wasn’t the big problem, and it was heartwarming that the kids and parents in the house were as surprised as I was.

It went further – and deeper – than the two-besties thing. “You’re brown!” Oobladah said, pointing at Shebopshebe. Each time he repeated it, the simple description became meaner, nastier, angrier, and uglier. Really cringeworthy, as kids can be when they’re candid, and unmistakably hurtful. Obviously, the previous “respect” lesson up in the Thinking Tree hasn’t stuck with Oobladah, and one or two more climbs up its limbs would be necessary before we were done. As Clunie reached the didactic section of her hour-long drama, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the playwright found a way to teach lessons to all three players – and to briefly explore the roots of Oobladah’s racism – all with admirable tact.

You see, Oobladah has been told that brown people, people from there, people like Shebopshebe are… The sentence is never completed. Children and their parents can fill in the blanks with their imaginations, but Clunie refuses to poison the air with misinformation. We’re simply reminded that the haters, knowingly or unknowingly, really do start teaching hate to kids at a very tender age. Somewhat predictably, after the hurt he has inflicted, Oobladah must learn that he was wrong, and he must learn to apologize. Nor does Clunie gloss over the need for Shebopshebe to learn how to forgive.

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That is no small challenge for Renee Welsh-Noel as Shebopshebe after Will Burton-Edwards has been so forceful in delivering Oobladah’s odious mix of racism and xenophobia. Last to arrive on the scene, Welsh-Noel emerged as the strongest character onstage, for she also gave the sunshiney, conciliating Oobladee an earful. No, Shebopshebe isn’t a great fan of the blithe “I don’t see color” crowd. She not only knows she’s brown, she revels in being brown. She wants people to see her color, and she rejects the misguided charity of those who are willing to ignore it. If you have found Courtney Reasoner just a little spacey and peace-loving as Oobladee, you will find your qualms and her intentions validated when she draws Shebopshebe’s rebuke. Or you might see yourself fingered as an antique Flower Power peacenik and go “Ouch!”

Yet as Clunie begins to wrap up, we realize that she isn’t merely about how we shouldn’t act and feel. Turns out that it’s not at all accidental that each of the giftwraps is a single distinct color as she fancifully ties her positive message together. My Wonderful Birthday Suit is more than a title. It’s part and parcel of Clunie’s meaningful and rewarding outlook.

“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.2021~Tropical Secrets-37

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.”2021~Tropical Secrets-65

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.2021~Tropical Secrets-28

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.”2021~Tropical Secrets-79

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 accepts 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.