Tag Archives: Sidney Horton

Playwright Imposter Goes Off-Script in “The Submission”

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Review: The Submission

By Perry Tannenbaum

A gay white playwright and a black actress walk into a bar… Not a promising lead-in to a joke, because nothing funny or violent should happen. Writers who pen scripts about racists or homophobes for theatre, film, and TV usually draw a free pass when we ask ourselves if they might be harboring prejudices of their own. Same with the actors who appear in such productions. Surely they are as progressive and tolerant as the authors who create their roles.

Maybe more progressive and tolerant than we are.

In Jeff Talbott’s The Submission, currently at Spirit Square in a Three Bone Theatre presentation, we can trash those presumptions – under circumstances that would ordinarily strengthen them. Talbott’s protagonist, white gay playwright Danny Larsen, has written a drama about a black alcoholic mom, her cardsharping son, and their struggles to escape the projects. Takes some empathy to do that, right?

Danny has never had a play of his produced before, but he thinks this one might be special. His best friend Trevor agrees, so Danny submits his street saga to the prestigious Humana Festival, hoping that he will be among the elite few whose work will be premiered at the annual New Play Festival in Louisville. But to make sure his whiteness doesn’t become an obstacle in recognizing the merits of a play with black leads, he invents the African name of Shaleeha G’ntamobi to become its author.

When Humana phones to tell Danny that his script has been selected for the New Play Festival, he could own up to his subterfuge right then. But – reasonably or not – Danny is afraid that the prize will be withdrawn of he comes clean. So he temporizes, saying the playwright isn’t at home, and hurries out to hire an actress to impersonate Shaleeha.

It takes a few moments before the chosen actress, Emilie, can grasp Danny’s intentions – and for Danny to convince her that there’s no kinkiness involved. Wile Danny has demonstrated considerable empathy toward black people, Emilie is honestly impressed with the play, despite the playwright’s fears that he has trespassed onto forbidden territory. Plenty of goodwill on both sides.

Yet things go badly after the first meeting. Danny has a number of personal insecurities, more than a little buyer’s remorse, but worst of all, casual prejudices against black artists that he hasn’t faced up to. They begin to pour out during a second meeting – at a coffee shop, not a bar – when Danny refers to black actors as “blactors” and the awards they win as “blawards.” The unsavoriness of that viewpoint is compounded for me by the signals I get from Danny that feels entitled to speak his mind so brusquely because he’s Emilie’s employer.

Emilie doesn’t listen to these slurs passively – unless you construe a response like “You’re so full of shit your eyes are brown” as deferential. What began as a mutually beneficial relationship has already degraded into an uneasy détente. As the pre-production process unfolds in Louisville, with Danny missing out on all the little perks of close contact and communication with the big-name artists converging on the festival, Danny’s resentments and jealousies heat up and his attitude toward Emilie becomes more toxic. Dropping the director’s nickname can set him off.

No doubt about it, the balance of my sympathies went out to Emilie as she kept drawing Danny’s scorn for merely doing what he hired her for. Even when some of Emilie’s anti-gay attitudes surfaced, things didn’t even out for me, because some rational thought verifiable observation was actually mixed in with her resentment – and because Danny goes nuclear in their final verbal faceoff.

If you can see this explosion coming, the venomous crossfire may feel a wee bit overlong, and I was not very convinced by the way Talbott has Danny handling the aftermath of his festival acclaim. But director Sidney Horton keeps the action as taut as possible, and Scott A. Miller keeps us fascinated with each new slimy twist of Danny’s personality. We can believe that the same insecurities inside Danny that produce such aberrant attitudes might also produce great art.

On the other hand, Talbott has incorporated some entertaining – and dramatic – complexities into Emilie. In her Charlotte debut, Lechetze D. Lewis captures all that’s engaging and spontaneous about Emilie and all that’s strong. Not only does she deliver a groupie’s euphoria while she’s mingling with theatre royalty, she adds an extra dollop of giddiness as romance blossoms between her and Trevor. You don’t really marvel that a free spirit like this would go off-script when she’s supposed to read Danny’s acceptance speech.

But is she more cunning and All-About-Eve than she first appears? That’s a big question Talbott keeps nicely float, helped by Lewis’s pugnacity.

Trevor is caught in the middle of the crossfire as he becomes more seriously involved with Emilie. He’s somebody who readily grasps Danny’s blind spots, and Daniel Henry perfectly calibrates his weakness as a right-minded peacemaker – so I completely bought his allowing himself to be told to shut up while the main battle raged.

I’m not sure that Talbott didn’t intend Pete, Danny’s CPA-like partner, to be more of a clueless hunk. Yet Horton’s somewhat outré casting choice, Dan Grogan, keeps things very real during the marital infighting. Though Pete remains a needless appendage in the plot, he’s a stuffy outsider who makes our badly behaving protagonists seem more palatable. There’s an intentional poetic justice when Grogan’s best moment happens while he’s offstage. He’s that untheatrical.

Talbott is appealing with his self-regarding cleverness, particularly when Danny’s play mirrors his own. But more often, he seems intent on wearing the David Mamet mantle for faithfully transcribing Generation X. Sentences from these 28-year-olds repeatedly proceed after multiple false starts and loose fragments, often getting tangled in multiple detours before reaching a period – particularly when Miller deftly navigates as Danny. Every person onstage, especially the artists, seems compelled to drop at least two f-bombs with every breath.

Peppered with fucks and the occasional shit, the dialogue at Duke Energy Theatre doesn’t shock me so much as irritate me as The Submission barrels along. If this tedium and annoying effect are the crux of Talbott’s point, he’s making it too obliquely. And if he’s trying to assert that effing Gen-Xers really effing talk this way, I do not effing agree.

But selfies of a hot actress’s boobs messaged to her boyfriend? In the age of Anthony Weiner (and Snapchat), I wouldn’t be shocked to learn it’s happening right now.

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A Farce That Turns Fierce

Preview :  Three Bone Theatre’s The Submission

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’re right to be suspicious of leaders who loudly spout their righteous certitudes. Thoughtful people know that moral rectitude, ethnic traditions, civil liberties, and political correctness can often crisscross into bewildering tangles and conundrums.

Sidney Horton, who is directing Three Bone Theatre’s The Submission, puts it more bluntly: “We all are clumsy when we deal with race and sexual orientation.”

Opening at Spirit Square this Thursday, Jeff Talbott’s comedy drama goes one better than holding up a mirror to our clumsiness. The playwright turns his mirror back around from his audience and shows that the same clumsiness – and assorted prejudices – also afflict theatre artists.

Talbott’s protagonist, Danny Larsen, has written a play about an African American mother and her cardsharping son striving to escape the projects to build a better life. Trouble is, Danny is white, which could seriously hurt his chances of getting produced at the prestigious Humana Theatre Festival, where he submits his manuscript. At an ill-advised moment, Danny decides to overcome this liability by submitting his playscript under the very African name of Shaleeha G’ntamobi.

Getting selected for the festival compounds Danny’s woes, because he can’t come clean about his true race and gender. Instead, he decides to hire a black actress to bring Shaleeha to life. But Danny is in for a lot more blowback than he bargains for: Emilie isn’t buying Danny’s premise that, just because he’s gay, he can understand the challenges of growing up black in America.

Horton’s choice to play Danny isn’t exactly surprising. Tackling Talbott’s playwright, Scott Miller is playing his second writer in the past four months after his role as Trigorin in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, an Anton Chekhov knockoff staged by Actor’s Theatre. It’s also déjà vu for Miller with Three Bone at Duke Energy Theater, where he was Martin, the most promising writing student in the acerbic Seminar last August.

“Trigorin in Stupid F@#%ing Bird was a joy to play because he’s one of those characters that knows how sleazy he is and revels in it,” Miller says. “Danny is the most troubling to play, and the most challenging in many regards. He justifies his prejudices and thinks his self-appointed victimhood gives him license to do more-or-less whatever he wants.”

Standing up to such insidious entitlement is a formidable task, and Horton has made a bold choice in casting his Emilie. After returning to the Carolinas from Emerson College in Boston, where she earned a graduate degree in publishing, Lechetze D. Lewis has circled the QC in three previous outings – two in Concord, one in Mooresville – but her role in The Submission will mark her Charlotte debut.

“Lechetze had a fire about her in auditions,” Horton recalls. “I knew I had to have someone strong that could more than hold her own against Scott. I took a chance with Lechetze, and boy did it pay off.”

Needing to ensure that all four of his cast members felt comfortable with one another at rehearsals, Horton made sure there was plenty of discussion about the issues that Talbott’s script addresses. Yes, there were disagreements as the cast talked things out, but professionalism has prevailed.

“The play deals with LGBT rights, racism, discrimination, affirmative action, non-traditional casting and who has the right to say or do things when it comes to someone else’s identity or culture,” Horton declares. “All of these issues are pretty hot right now in America – we are more divided now that we have been in recent years. The thing that strikes me most, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do this play, is it deals with these issues in the arts community. We as artists like to think of ourselves as being all-accepting and non-judgmental. Are we really?”

With such questions floating in the air, rehearsals can be stressful. In the heat of the moment, hurtful comments hurled in your face by a fellow actor addressing your fictional character can still hurt. Identifying with Emilie as a black artist, as Lewis must, she can hardly be invulnerable when the conflict with Danny has so much relevance to her daily life and self-image.

“Something that really gets to me is his idea that black actors who win awards don’t deserve to win what was created for whites,” Lewis says. “As an artist, I hope that any awards I receive will be acknowledged as something that my hard work has earned… but Danny doesn’t see it that way. Scott is an amazing actor to work with and he definitely doesn’t hold these views, but he’s talented enough to make those words sting. I am so lucky to be working with an actor who takes the time to check in on how we’re both feeling and if we’re okay to move forward.”

Horton has also been helpful for Lewis, frequently reminding her that she does win in the end. Conversations with Miller and the other two cast members, Dan Grogan and Daniel Henry, about how the script has affected them personally have been doubly beneficial for Lewis – not only soothing her emotions but helping her to shape her performance.

Of course, Emilie also dishes out a harsh word or two.

“I will admit to having a bit of fear regarding how she’ll be perceived,” Lewis confides, “because so much of what she says is hypocritical. But it doesn’t mean that, in some aspects, she’s completely wrong.”

Horton has another succinct comment about the intensity of the crossfire in The Submission: “Thank God for the comedy in this show – it makes it palatable.”

Talbott doesn’t turn on the heat immediately. There’s a certain point, says Miller, when the tone begins to change. Even then, there’s a gradual crescendo leading up to the inevitable fireworks between Danny and Emilie. Along the way, we realize that Talbott’s farcical plotline isn’t going to play out strictly for laughs.

At the same time, the playwright is turning his telltale mirror toward us. There will likely be a recoil factor when we recognize ourselves.

“While watching The Submission,” Miller cautions, “many people will agree with some of the controversial things the characters say. I predict several lines will get a chuckle before the audience realizes the inappropriateness of the character’s comment. The play is not out to condemn or chastise anyone in the audience. But I think – or hope – it will make many think about their implicit and explicit biases.”

 

Ebony and Odyssey at the Civil War

Theatre Review: Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

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By  Perry Tannenbaum

Sometimes it’s the winner who adds prestige to the prize. Despite its princely $100,000 payout from Columbia University, you probably never heard of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. The importance of the prize is likely to grow now that Lin-Manuel Miranda has snagged the fourth annual award for his megahit musical, Hamilton.

Last Monday’s announcement came just a wee bit too late for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte to bask in the newborn Kennedy afterglow in their pre-publicity for Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which opened last Wednesday. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the 100 grand for Father last year, before the Kennedy Prize was important enough to be noticed by The New York Times.

As the first African American woman to take the Pulitzer Prize (for Topdog/Underdog), Parks isn’t exactly vaulting from obscurity with her latest win. Nor is she exactly rising from poverty with the cash, though the 2002 Pulitzer chipped in $10,000, also from Columbia. After Parks won the $300,000 Gish Prize last October, the LA Times reported that Parks had banked over $1,000,000 in arts awards during her career, including the genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

So what did Parks bring our way during the waning days of Black History Month? Notwithstanding the trilogy connotations of the title, amply fulfilled by the three-hour running time (including two 10-minute intermissions), Father Comes Home is actually the first installment in a longer nine-part project. Until subsequent installments are unveiled, Wars remains a misnomer, for the only war anyone goes off to — or returns from — is the Civil War.

Although our protagonist, Hero, appears in all three parts, it wasn’t until he returned in Part 3 that I began to feel we were watching something greater than the sum of three one-act plays. It also became clearer that Parks has her own take on deconstructing history.

On the one hand, she formalizes it much in the same way Aeschylus did when he added to the Homeric legends of the Trojan War in the Oresteia 2500 years ago, inaugurating the art of theatre on the Greek stage. Three slaves who work alongside Hero in the opening act of Father Comes Home, as he weighs the pros and cons of squiring his master in the Confederate Army, will disappear by the time he returns a year-and-a-half later. They’re replaced by three Runaways, hiding by day at the slave cabin until they can further their escape under the cover of darkness.

The Runaways talk to the only holdovers at the Confederate Colonel’s plantation, Hero’s wife Penny and Homer, but they also begin talking to us more and more, like members of a Greek chorus. It’s when Hero’s long-lost dog returns from the war that we begin to see the modernistic aspect of Parks’ treatment. When we learn that Hero has changed his name to Ulysses, we realize that Penny is his Penelope — and that the Greek hero is serving as a thin mythic template over Parks’s story, much as he did in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

But Parks also tosses a light sprinkling of absurdist anachronisms into the spectacle. A couple of these appear before intermission as one slave nurses a drink in a Starbuck’s cup and Hero takes off a set of headphones as he makes his decision. Relatively subtle touches that one theatergoer sitting with us in the front row could decry as a mistake.

These time-warp incongruities multiply when we return to Texas. One Runaway sports a doo-rag and twirls a yoyo, another wears a Blank Panther beret and reads Ebony, and the third wears a vinyl vest and totes a peacenik handbag. I’m guessing this is Parks reminding us that when we journey back to yesteryear, we bring today’s eyes to watch what happened.

No fewer than four slaves kick off the evening, speculating on whether Hero will go to war, evidently unaware of the title of the show. Two other slaves, Homer and the Oldest Man, are noncommittal in the general wagering, but both are generous with their input. We might equate Hero’s vacillation with the preening of undecided voters, loving the attention of the media who inflate their importance. But perhaps the thing to perceive here is the fact that any big choice given to a lifelong slave is a breath of freedom.

Homer’s reluctance to counsel Hero is linked to an ancient grudge. When Homer made his run for freedom years ago, it was Hero who ratted him out and delivered the master’s harsh punishment. Such episodes of Uncle-Tom loyalty are a big part of the reason that the Colonel is offering Hero the opportunity to accompany him onto the battlefield — and promising Hero his freedom if he survives.

But what are the chances that Hero will survive or that the Captain will keep his promise? Fear piles upon fear when Hero realizes that he will undoubtedly face the lash if he disappoints his master and refuses to go. Another layer is heaped on when the slaves realize that only a serious injury will serve as a sufficient excuse for Hero’s dereliction, for Hero must now suffer the same indignity he inflicted on Homer.

Father 5[11]It’s at this point in Part 1, when hero has made up his mind in Penny’s favor, where Sidney Horton’s otherwise flawless direction falters. The knife hovers so long and threateningly over Hero that the tension breaks before the episode is really over. My surprise over this lapse only increased during Part 2, in the heat of battle, when the Colonel parleys with a wounded Union soldier that he has captured and locked in a wooden cage. Action here made me wince, leaving no doubt of the Captain’s cruelty.

In a meticulously crafted performance, Jonavan Adams brilliantly fuses the three parts together as Hero. As robust and broad-shouldered as he is, Adams is supremely wishy-washy, so his Ulysses-like cunning and soulfulness can change to arrogance or cravenness in the blink of an eye. Looking up to him with love and yearning in her eyes — and maybe a sliver of seduction — April Jones is aptly coupled with Hero in Part 1. But the worm turns dramatically in Part 3, where it’s Penny’s turn to make a suspenseful choice, and the grit that Jones plants within her comes to the fore.

After making so much of so many mellow and insouciant roles before, it’s refreshing to see how deeply Jeremy DeCarlos sinks his teeth into the waspish resentfulness of Homer, who turns out to be the truest Penelope in the drama after limping around so long. If you’ve had your fill of American courtesy and courtliness between Civil War combatants on stage and screen, you’ll love the fierce in-your-face animosity between Craig Spradley as the Colonel and Stephen Seay as his captive, Smith.

Among the other slaves, Bobby Tyson distinguishes himself when he transforms into Hero’s long-lost dog Odyssey in Part 3, silencing Homer himself as he chronicles Ulysses’ battlefield adventures. The pooch’s life story had only 38 lines in the Homeric epic, but here Parks gives him two lengthy monologues, and Tyson makes a comical meal out of each one. The wooly jacket designed for him by costumer Carrie Cranford clinches his eclat.

Photos Courtesy of George Hendricks Photography