Tag Archives: Ron McClelland

Warehouse PAC’s SWEAT Deploys Stellar Cast on Stellar Script

Review: Sweat at Spirit Square

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Not at all liberal or intellectual, nor with aspirations toward witty stylishness or trendiness, Lynn Nottage’s SWEAT is a brutal and humbling lesson in empathy. Very humbling for clueless liberals and intellectuals who never got why blue collar and union workers jumped out of the pockets of the Democratic Party at the turn of the 21st century – turning our history and politics into a train wreck.

Premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, before opening at The Public Theatre in November 2016 and transferring to Broadway the following March, Nottage’s working-class drama, which won a second Pulitzer Prize for the playwright in 2017, seemed to break out when it would resonate loudest with 2016 presidential politics and issues. By that time, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), ratified more than two decades earlier in 1993, was swept into a whirlwind of xenophobic issues that included illegal immigrants, Mexican gang rapists, manufacturing jobs shipped overseas, immigration reform, and a border wall.

Nottage mostly takes us back to 2000, when the reality of NAFTA was impacting on steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania. The authenticity of her lunch-pail portrayals comes by dint of personal interviews that Nottage conducted in Reading with Kate Whoriskey, who would ultimately direct the Oregon premiere, over a two-year period beginning in 2011. Subjects of these interviews included many factory workers who had been locked out of a steel tubing manufacturing plant for 93 weeks.

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Two such plants figure in Nottage’s portrait of Reading. One of them has previously crushed Brucie and his fellow union members, so he’s already a pitiful druggie when the action begins. Another plant, where his son Chris and his estranged wife Cynthia still work, will soon follow suit, further dividing Brucie’s family and the other regulars who gather at a rundown bar where Stan serves up drinks and downtrodden Oscar mops up.

Directing the Warehouse Performing Arts Center production at Duke Energy Theater in Spirit Square, a month after its debut run in Cornelius, Michael Connor deftly contextualizes the action. Where Nottage’s script calls for “News of the day” sound montages, we’re repeatedly reminded – amid mentions of Allen Iverson, the Philly 76ers, and troublemaking Iraq – that this is the election year of the pivotal Bush-Gore showdown.

Yet Nottage isn’t exclusively focused on the fallout from NAFTA, nor is Brucie the only foreshadowing of how her story will develop. The preamble to the explosive action of 2000 is the opening scene, where Chris and his friend Jason meet separately in 2008 with Evan, their parole officer. As we gradually become aware that the fallout from NAFTA will deal yet another blow to Reading, we also realize that the chums will do something violent to earn their serious prison time.

We also learn in the preamble how different and antagonistic Jason and Chris have become, for Jason sports white supremacist tattoos on his face from his prison years while Chris grasps a bible in his left hand. Jason is the powder keg we keep our eyes on in the unfolding flashback scenes, but it isn’t too long before we realize that his emerging racism is a family hand-me-down from Tracey, his mom.

The rifts between these black and white families develop along separate tracks. When Olstead’s posts a notice that they have an opening for a new supervisor, Tracey’s kneejerk reaction is to spurn the idea of crossing over to management, but Cynthia tells Stan that she intends to apply, feeling that she has earned a promotion by virtue of all the years of hard work she has put on the floor.

Tracey certainly vies with her son Jason as the most toxic person in town. When she loses out to Cynthia on the promotion after she also applies, she attributes her friend’s success to affirmative action and the tax breaks she presumes Olstead’s receives for hiring a minority. She also refuses to help Oscar come on board at the company, viewing him as a foreigner. Of Puerto Rican ancestry but born in Reading, Oscar eventually signs on as a scab when Olstead’s locks Tracey, Jason, Chris, and their union out. They send Cynthia out to post the lockout notice, further roiling tensions around the plant – and at the bar.

So the ills of Reading aren’t confined to corporate greed. Xenophobia and racism are also on the scene, bringing latent Trumpism into bloom. The balance of Nottage’s analysis extends to the depth and pluminess of the parts she doles out. Warehouse artistic director Marla Brown only slightly dilutes Tracey’s toxicity, leaving room for a hint of mid-America wholesomeness and nicely gauging Nottage’s rounded assessment. For the arc of her disintegration starts at a merry, drunken celebration of her 45th birthday in the first flashback scene.

Tanya McClellan, off my radar for far too long, shows everyone what she can do with the opportunity to branch out from comedy roles into drama, for she does more than her share to flavor the friendship – and later, the complex antagonism – between Cynthia and Tracey. Before serving as a barometer for Tracey’s disintegration, there’s a marital confrontation with Brucie where Cynthia fills out our picture of how far he has fallen. McClellan’s mix of vulnerability and dignity is just right in both situations.

Never on an even keel like the other characters here, Brucie is as challenging as Tracey, for he’d flatten to two dimensions in the hands of an actor who couldn’t deliver several levels of desperation. In his scattered scenes, including one with a majestic monologue and another where he proves not to be the sponge we thought he was, Dominic Weaver is so very real and unforgettable.

Matt Webster as Stan and Justin Thomas as Oscar seem equally detached from the main plotlines – until they aren’t. While still on the periphery, both have eloquent moments. Webster excels when Stan describes life in a company as successive generations of the same family toiling at the same plant for successive lifetimes, with no solid hopes of advancement, no real appreciation from management, and instantly disposable. After about an hourlong immersion in that dreary reality, Thomas gets to shock us a little by telling us what it’s like as a Hispanic to live a lifetime as the hydrant of all these self-pitying underdogs, even if you’re born in the US like Oscar.

If you’ve already gathered that there are no weak links in this Warehouse production, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was impressed by both our protagonists, Maxwell Greger as Jason and Drue Allen as Chris, though Nottage shunts her leads to the wings for long stretches while plant politics take center stage. From the black eye we see on Greger in the preamble, augmenting the three tats on the other side of his face, we know quickly that that Jason is always coiled for action. Even when those markers disappear in the flashback scenes, Greger has a chiseled James Dean intentness in the set of his jaw, an unfocused discontent that portends trouble.

Allen, in his portrayal of Chris, underscores what irks Jason and his mom most deeply: like Cynthia, who craves a promotion, Chris wants to better himself by going to college. There’s a relatively calm purposefulness to his demeanor, firm but without rigid righteousness, as he deals with his broken dad and his beggary. And we come to see through Allen’s eyes that when a broken justice system unjustly incarcerates you because of your color, taking up the bible isn’t the worst way to cope.

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As Evan, Ron McClelland has that seen-it-all confidence of a parole officer who knows the ploys and dodges of hardened criminals, yet beneath his tough exterior, this copper seems earnestly engaged with even Jason’s rehabilitation. Becca Worthington rounds out the cast as Jessie, a third musketeer with Cynthia and Tracey at the outset when they’re still chums. Arguably, she serves as a white counterpart to Brucie: no matter how sloshed she gets hanging out at the bar until last call, she cleans up and punctually punches in at the plant at 6:00 or 7:00 the next morning.

The presence of McClelland and Worthington in such minor roles is just another earmark of this high-quality Warehouse PAC production. It also testifies to the attractions of working with such a stellar cast on such a stellar and timely script.

nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte staged their nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

BWW Review: nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been over three years since Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte actually staged their previous nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL, but it may not seem like that long to fans of the company and fans of the festival. For one thing ATC commits to presenting the winner of the festival – as selected by audiences and/or a panel of judges who attend staged readings of the plays – in a full-length production the following season. ATC was unusually generous toward the four playwrights whose plays were read in 2016, for two of their works were presented two years later at Queens University in 2018, Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People in January and David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour last May.

Although nuVOICES languished for the next two seasons, ATC remained productive, managing to stage four shows during the 2016-17 season while landlords, landowners, and city inspectors screwed over them. Queens University opened their arms to the wanderers in the spring of 2017 as they searched for a new home, and by the start of 2017-18, the 30-year-old ATC became the university’s resident theatre company. Stability! For ATC’s fans, seeing the resumption of nuVOICES has taken a backseat to the satisfaction of their survival.

Well, in one respect, nuVOICES was not only back but better than ever, for the fifth edition of the festival won a sizable grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The influx of NEA support seemed to raise the technical polish of the staged readings somewhat, for the handiwork of sound designer Kathryn Harding and lighting designer Evan Kinsley occasionally came into play.

Although seven of the 13 festival script readers were men, all four of the chosen scripts at nuVOICES 5 were by women. Yet there was plentiful ethnic diversity among the characters the playwrights presented onstage – and among the playwrights themselves.

First up was Nora Leahy’s Girl with Gun, a one-woman show starring Caroline Renfro as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. We caught up with Squeaky on Christmas Eve 1987 shortly after her escape from a prison in West Virginia. When apprehended, she had been on her way to rendezvous with Charles Manson, imprisoned (and seriously ailing) across the country in the California State Pen. Now as she speaks, occasionally to an unseen guard but usually to nobody in particular, she’s being detained at a ranger station, awaiting transport to Fort Worth.

We learned a few things about Squeaky that I hadn’t known, including her appearance as a kid on the Lawrence Welk Show, how she got her weird nickname, and that her bad behavior in prison also included bludgeoning a fellow inmate with a hammer. In the talkback after the show, conducted as a video call with a big-screen monitor, the playwright revealed that her play had been commissioned as a historical portrait and that she is thinking about adding 20 minutes to its current 55-minute length.

In their staged reading of Themba by Amy da Luz with Kamilah Bush, nuVoices broke with precedent by not having any talkback at all. Both the playwright and dramaturg were in town, making themselves available for a pre-show interchange with festival director Martin Kettling. A bad idea for numerous reasons. People who hadn’t already seen Girl with Gun at 6pm would not have gotten word that the customary playwright powwow was happening before the 9pm performance of Themba and not after. This likely deprived them of actually seeing the pre-show before Themba and definitely robbed them of their chance to have their questions answered afterwards. Or simply voicing their reactions.

Of course, the Bush-da Luz team also missed out on getting feedback from this Thursday night performance, though they would get a second opportunity at the twilight performance on Saturday. Really, the process should be uniform for everyone involved – audience, performers, and playwrights. If you’ve written a play that gets a nuVOICES reading, you should be able to commit to appearing in person at talkbacks.

Da Luz changed the title of her play after ATC announced their final four, so her team clearly viewed their time in Charlotte as part of a developmental process. Like Leahy’s study, Themba was a docudrama, oozing with personal stories and intensive research. At the unseen vortex of the story was Lola, a young African girl who is the beneficiary – and/or victim – of a missionary adoption in war-torn Uganda, which may not have been legal. That question comes up in a roundabout way after the adoptive father has died and his two sisters, evangelical Mary and theatre director Sarah, wrangle over who should get custody.

Ah, but the story doesn’t remain centered solely on the white adoptive family. To fortify her claim, Sarah brings her partner Fran, a Black playwright, into the fray. Fran sees that she’s being used, wonders how the father was approved, and begins to probe into the process, asking the Black adoption official Jelani some pointed questions. The probe widens, becomes a formal government investigation, and the four young women who have been lurking in the wings – until now detached from the main action but intermittently interrupting it to tell their stories – suddenly become factors in the main plot.

The four are certainly not a homogeneous group. Recognizing that they were likely rescued from poverty, slaughter, or disease, they are not universally comfortable with Christianity or the USA. Some of them are as antagonistic towards Jelani as Fran was – and the young women vented considerable animus toward each other. We had a lot to think about after Themba. In the nine-person cast directed by Heidi Breeden, Stephanie Gardner as Sarah, Lisa Hatt as Mary, Valerie Thames as Fran, and Angela Shannon as Jelani drew the juiciest roles. Nonye Obichere as an adoptee and Dennis Delamar as the sibs’ preacher dad delivered the tastiest cameos.

Friday night’s schedule went off without any further rule-breaking, beginning with Mingus, a two-hander by Tyler English-Beckwith. The basic structure reminded me fairly quickly of David Mamet’s Oleanna, with newcomer Amberlin McCormick portraying B Coleman, a college student who comes to the office of Harrison Jones, a distinguished professor of black studies portrayed by Ron McClelland. B hopes to get a letter of recommendation from Harrison and an assessment of an essay she’s planning to submit for a prestigious award.

Harrison’s acceptance is conditional. He’ll write the letter if, with his help, she sufficiently improves her essay. Thanks to Rory Sheriff’s crafty direction, we had to go very deep into this play trying to figure out who was exploiting whom, maybe misreading signals about who’s in love with whom and how that will ultimately affect their relationship. In Mingus, Harrison’s past is referenced in the title, for he aspired to play the bass like his jazz idol, Charlie Mingus, before joining the Black Panthers and being forced to alter his dreams. It may also serve as a marker for the spot where he allows his professional relationship to become personal. As in Oleanna, the student takes formal action against her mentor, but for most of us, I suspect the reason was a surprise. Final score: #MeToo 1, Patriarchy 0.

Last up was the most bizarre and comical of the nuVOICES 5 plays, Diana Burbano’s Ghosts of Bogota. Reunion plays are certainly not a rarity, and the friction between the two sisters, Lola and Sandy, was very much in the cosmopolitan-vs.-judgmental vein we had seen the night before from Sarah and Mary – with a generous sprinkling of Latinx spice. Only here the reunion is transcontinental, the Spanish-speaking sisters returning to their parents’ hometown in Colombia with their younger nightlife-loving, sleep-averse brother, who knows very little Spanish at all.

Ancient history bubbles up in Bogota as they prepare for the funeral of their grandfather. The old man, Lucho, was not beloved by any of the siblings, and he repeatedly abused Sandy. She needs to see the predator buried physically and spiritually, facing off with his ghost. Meanwhile Lola is upset because she feels she should have known what was going on and should have protected her younger sister. The ghost she needs to exorcise is her grandmother Teresa, the knowing enabler. Lucho may not be a nuanced pervert, mostly snarling when he appears, but Teresa, a product of her upbringing, is a different story.

Aside from the petty squabbles between drama queen Lola and prissy resentful Sandy, what tips this drama toward comedy is the living-the-dream insouciance of Bruno, who registers such hardships as Internet deprivation, and the scene-stealing exploits of a very lifelike head in a jar. Nothing can go terribly wrong with Creepy Jesus on the case. Kudos to Adyana De La Torre-Brucker as Lola, Glynnis O’Donoghue as Sandy, and newcomers Neifert Enrique as Bruno and Grant Cunningham as Jesus. Director Adrian Calabrese also made an auspicious debut.

nuVOICES 5 was presented at Queens University as a pay-what-you-can event, and by Friday Evening, Hadley Theatre was teeming with festival enthusiasts. An outdoor Midsummer Night’s Dream will run on the campus quad beginning on August 12, and ATC’s 31st season will begin with Silence! The Musical on August 15. The talent onstage at Hadley last week and the technical artistry behind the readings served as compelling inducements to check out those upcoming productions.

Three Nights of Resounding Sermons Hit Spirit Square

Preview:  God’s Trombones

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By Perry Tannenbaum

OnQ doesn’t usually perform at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square, but when it does, it’s big, big, big. So shall it be, brothers and sisters, when God’s Trombonessounds big, doesn’t it? – comes wailing, praising, shouting, and testifying into town next week for a three-night run, beginning next Tuesday. Capping OnQ’s “Redemption Song” season 11, the cast is among the company’s biggest ever, with around 25 actors, singers, dancers, and musicians performing onstage.

And if you’ve ever attended an event at McGlohon, or you know its recent history as the home of Pastor Stephen Furtick’s Elevation Church – or Spirit Square’s origins as the First Baptist Church – you’ll realize that OnQ has chosen the right place for James Weldon Johnson’s “Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” McGlohon retains its stained glass, Sunday church vibe to this day.

Johnson was a seminal figure in African-American literature as a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, anthologist, songwriter, and collector of spirituals. Oh yeah, he also served as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua under Teddy Roosevelt and as executive secretary of the NAACP. He is best remembered for writing the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, his novel, and for his most anthologized poem, “The Creation,” from God’s Trombones, first published in 1927.

OnQ artistic director Quentin Talley hasn’t wanted to present this classic for quite that long, but he has loved the piece since he was around 12 years old. That’s when his youth choir participated in a production presented by an association of black Baptist churches in his hometown of Greenwood, SC. It was one of Talley’s formative theatre experiences, and by the time he reached college age, it was foundational.

“I even ended up doing the ‘The Crucifixion’ as my dramatic monologue audition piece for Winthrop [University] and received a First Night Scholarship.”

In his original preface, Johnson said that he’d prefer his verse sermons to be spoken aloud – or “intoned” – so it’s natural that singing and dancing should be added to the package. Costuming will remind us where we are, a mix of pastoral robes, choir robes, and Sunday best.

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“We begin like we are in a church service,” says Talley, “and once the sermons build, we take on various locations and time periods. Our choir is absolutely amazing, and the audience will probably want to stand up, sit down and say amen. All are encouraged to do so, but it’s not mandatory.”

Leading the choir in his first stint with OnQ is Dennis Reed Jr., whose GAP singers have worked with such notables as Fantasia, Bebe Winans, New Kids on the Block, and Shania Twain. On this gig, Reed is also auditioning the singers, picking the songs, and penning the arrangements. So does Reed fire up his newly-formed choir with righteous gospel music played on a hallowed Hammond B3 organ?

“Hahahahaha!” Reed responds. “That’s correct! You’ll hear the B3, piano, bass, and live drums. Much of the black church tradition is rooted in live music. What’s really cool is that we are taking a little liberty with song choice. We will fuse traditional hymns, Negro spirituals, and even new elements of music such as hiphop loops! As far as choreography goes, we’ll see a lot of it come together in practice and much of it happens organically.”

Though he’s never worked with Talley before, Reed is a fan of his work. A proud grad of NW School of the Arts, Reed has numerous musician and singer friends who have collaborated with Talley and OnQ – and his ties to Charlotte are not at all tenuous. He founded Inspire the Fire here more than 15 years ago, when he was 17, to bring the arts to young people between the ages of 10 and 21, earning Community Leader of the Year honors at the 2015 Queen City Awards.

GAP stands for God’s Appointed People, so gospel music and God’s Trombones should as much up Reed’s alley as Talley’s.

Johnson pieced his sermon suite together using “vague memories” of sermons he had heard or collected, and their subjects are familiar church staples. The typical old-time Negro preacher, Johnson recalled, “preached a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure-enough heaven and a red-hot hell. His imagination was bold and unfettered. He had the power to sweep his hearers before him; and so himself was often swept away.”

Aside from “The Creation,” the poet hearkens back to the Old Testament in sermons on Noah and Moses. Christian themes include the Prodigal Son, the Crucifixion, Judgment Day, and a non-scriptural funeral sermon.

“Each sermon will have a different approach,” Talley promises. “Most are recited, some acted out or sung, some are poetry slam form, but all have down-home preaching undertones.”

A mix of OnQ ensemble regulars – and authentic preachers – will deliver the sermons. Familiar OnQ faces will include Omar El-Amin for the Prodigal and Ron McClelland for the Crucifixion. Slam poet extraordinaire Bluz leads us aboard Noah’s Ark and Q himself orates “The Creation.” Preacher Yolanda Bynum launches the show with Johnson’s “Listen Lord” prayer, and Rev. Madeline Salder leans into “Let My People Go.”

Johnson intended us to hear trombones when his verse was read aloud – if they authentically replicated the preachers he heard in his youth. Listening to the trombone, Johnson heard expressive capabilities beyond any other instrument, approximating “the varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice – and with greater amplitude.”

Of course, it’s fascinating that Talley, in reviving this Johnson gem, is hearkening back to his own youth, positioning himself to capture some extra flavors of its spirit.

“This show has been on our list for years,” Talley affirms, “but never really fitted with themes we’ve had in the past couple of years. With this season’s theme being ‘Redemption Song,’ it fit perfectly. As artistic director after 11 years of producing ups and downs, this show is a reminder to keep the faith. Running an arts org is taxing physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually, and sometimes you need a reason from a higher power to keep going, especially at the end of a season.”

Sometimes we also need to check out a worthy writer like Johnson who has unjustly fallen from his loftiest esteem, perhaps because he led the NAACP or perhaps because of the folksy, down-home flavor of God’s Trombones. Or perhaps because we prefer to say black or African-American instead of Negro. All these trivial reasons evaporate when you delve into Johnson with any depth.

You could start with The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, or you might begin with Johnson’s actual autobiography, Along This Way. Here is something trenchant that he observes there:

“On occasions, I have been amazed and amused watching white people dancing to a Negro band in a Harlem cabaret; attempting to throw off the crusts and layers of inhibitions laid on by sophisticated civilization; striving to yield to the feel and experience of abandon; seeking to recapture a taste of primitive joy in life and living; trying to work their way back into that jungle which was the original Garden of Eden; in a word, doing their best to pass as colored.”

Now that’s not folksy at all, but it is the keen intelligence embedded in God’s Trombones. More than 20 years ahead of Norman Mailer’s The White Negro and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”