Tag Archives: Will Jenkins

“Crowns, Kinks and Curls” Highlights Afro Hair

Review: The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls at The Arts Factory

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you weren’t aware that Black women have a special relationship with their hair, Keli Goff’s THE GLORIOUS WORLD OF CROWNS, KINKS AND CURLS, now premiering at The Arts Factory, will set you straight. Although a streamed three-woman version of the show produced by Baltimore Center Stage aired in 2021, Three Bone Theatre is currently performing the first live production – with a six-woman cast.

Doubling the cast turns out to be a wise decision by director Tina Kelly, enabling costume designer Toi A. Reynolds Johnson and hair designer Blue Edmonds to show off more of their work, while allowing the sextet of actors to concentrate on their performances instead of how to manage frenetic backstage changes. With 20 different monologues, sketches, and rhymed rants along the way, there’s still plenty of material to go around.

Maybe Kelly and her artistic team decided to add players during the rehearsal process, for the distribution of acting chores certainly isn’t even – and the script came into their hands without the logistics of staging the show having ever been worked out in live performance. The impact of a larger cast performing for a live audience might also be a revelation for Goff when she comes down to the Queen City this coming weekend to witness Three Bone’s handiwork.2023~Crowns Kinks-02

More heads of hair onstage seemed to add weight – maybe even universality – to their cumulative testimony, and the audience reaction layered on at the Sunday matinee I saw made their words gospel. Short of outright amens, there were a variety of audible affirmations.

Anxiety over black women’s hair seems to crop up most impactfully in the workplace, where long-ingrained attitudes and prejudices can affect hiring, performance evaluations, and advancement. Ashleigh Gilliam seems to get off to a wobbly start as she welcomes the audience to an experience beyond theatre, where we can hope to encounter humorous and engaging therapists, feel like we’ve met up with old friends, or maybe make new ones.

But there’s a finely calibrated stage fright in Gilliam’s delivery that had me worrying, until Goff had Gilliam flipping the script with a bit of sleight-of-hand. It turned out that her character was auditioning for her role. Then an unseen casting director makes it quite clear that the role will not be going Gilliam’s way – unless she does something with her hair to make it more “ladylike.”

While I knew that racism was ubiquitous, centuries old, and ongoing, it was revelatory for me to learn that all Black women – no matter what kind of hair they have or how much, whether they are rich or poor – have a story to tell about their “crown and glory.” Even more stunning, as three specific stories began the cavalcade of testimonies, all three women before us had stories of people who had the nerve to reach out, without permission, to touch their hair.

At work. On a date. On a yacht.

Recalling the horror, they reached out toward us in unison: “The hand!” “The hand!” “The hand!” The lady executive, the hip-hop producer, and the plutocrat yachtswoman were all the same. Rude, insensitive, and invasive.

“Don’t ever touch a black woman’s hair without her permission,” they finish in unison. By leaving out seven exclamation points and over 140 capital letters from Goff’s playscript, I don’t think I’m exaggerating her emphasis. But to the Sunday matinee crowd’s credit, there was a healthy amount of laughter mixed in with the affirmations as these horror stories climaxed and the lights went out.

The slights don’t all come from white people. In the ensuing monologue, “Dear God, It’s Me, Amaya,” the little girl has been told by a Black classmate that her hair is nappy. She prays for pretty hair for her eighth birthday. Dressed in purest white for her wedding, it’s Gabrielle in the next sketch who is still hearing her mom’s outrage and weeping – because she has opted for short hair – as she tells us her story.

Aside from cataloging the slings, slights, and chemicals that have assailed Black women’s hair over the years, Goff also creates an arc of progress and a hopeful outlook, fortified by her humor. Here we can fault Kelly and projection designer Will Jenkins for not including the date markers that the script calls for, blurring Goff’s somewhat faint timeline. Nor are Kelly and Gilliam quite helpful enough in cementing the full connection between Goff’s first scene and her last.2023~Crowns Kinks-04

But there are also detours in between, like the prerecorded segment that informs us that Black moms often experience post-partum hair loss. An extended scene at a DC beauty parlor, “The Ball.” goes slack and loses its comical edge long before Goff attempts to rescue it with a notable historical context that grounds us in 2009. These are missteps that a playwright will notice more readily when she watches her work alongside a live audience. Goff’s visit may very well provide her with the first opportunity she’s had to remediate CROWNS, KINKS AND CURLS with that kind of precious feedback.

She will definitely enjoy the Three Bone ensemble. Only Vanessa Robinson has performed at The Arts Factory before as the down-to-earth social worker in Three Bones’ Andy and the Orphans back in February. Here she delivers impressively as a rape victim preparing to testify in “Chantal’s Fierce Magic.” Among various roles, Michelle Washington shines most memorably as Amaya in her debut, while Cailin Harrison is alternately poignant and adorable as Gabrielle, the conflicted bride.2023~Crowns Kinks-07

Dior Scott had one of the juiciest monologues in her debut, resplendently dressed for “Adaora and Her Little Princess,” perhaps Goff’s best segment. Yet Scott was a force to be reckoned with in multiple ensemble pieces, such as the “Don’t Touch!” freak-out and her confrontation with Washington in “Office Politics.” Ka’Shara Hall was stateliest as the Congresswoman in the “Pauline on When Hair Gets Political” monologue, but her give-and-take with Scott on “It’s Just Hair” crackled with vivacity, making Goff’s rhyming easier to swallow.

Goff plans to linger after the next Sunday matinee for a talkback. It will be interesting to hear her reactions to the live performance – and maybe find out if she’s having second thoughts about Adaora’s adoration of Meghan Markle.

Cernyak-Spatz’s Memoir Gets Better, More Urgent, With Age – and Video

Review: Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you missed the 2018 staged reading of Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042, Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir – or Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere production in 2019 – fate has been kind to you in 2021 with another reprise. Cernyak-Spatz, freed from the Birkenau and Auschwitz concentration camps at the age of 22 in 1945, lived long enough to see her story dramatized onstage. Already ailing, she lived only two weeks after attending the performance at Spirit Square on the opening weekend of the run.

Half whimsically and half seriously, she told the stage director Dennis Delamar to take the show on the road before she died at age 97. Founder of the UNC-Charlotte’s Holocaust Studies program and a professor of German language and literature, Dr. Cernyak-Spatz had seen plenty in her long life, but she couldn’t foresee the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on theatre and the arts around the globe, particularly how streaming would become de rigueur. Instead of on the road, Protective Custody is now online, free for the asking on your computer monitor or on your television screen.2021~Prisoner 34042-15

Of course, Cernyak-Spatz’s deathbed wishes weren’t about vanity, for the UNCC professor had lectured widely on the Holocaust and her personal survival, holding a passionate belief that we forget this horrific history at our own peril. What you may find disarming about Susan’s staged account, once again performed by Leslie Giles with the aid of Paula Baldwin as her dresser-mother-dancing beau-Nazi guard-fellow prisoner-rapist-Nazi accordionist-American rescuer, is how dispassionate her tone often is, punctuated by eruptions of bitter irony, cynicism, and rage. She tells us she lost her modesty long ago in the concentration camps, how animalistic she needed to become to survive them, implicitly conceding that the Nazis were at least partially victorious in dehumanizing her.

They surely hardened her, maybe the greatest irony of all. “I was strangely detached from the incredibility of what I heard,” she tells us after a Nazi guard has welcomed her to Birkenau by explaining – and describing – the extermination that is happening to newcomers who aren’t as lucky as she. Those younger than 16 and older than 35 rode immediately to “the gas.” We have all heard about the fiendish efficiency of the Nazis’ extermination systems and apparatus, but Susan repeatedly calls our attention to how the Nazis systematically humiliated and dehumanized their prisoners, squeezing as much work out of them as possible with the smallest expenditure. Cruelty is constant, even as the Third Reich faces defeat. Ordering the death march out of the camps as the avenging Russian Red Army approaches, the guard barks, “A bullet in the head for those who cannot walk!”

2021~Prisoner 34042-10Detachment and inhumanity are inevitable results of the plum jobs Susan is able to land at Auschwitz. The cushiest requires nothing more of her than drawing a line through the names of fellow prisoners, thousands of them, who have passed through “the gas” and the crematoriums. Another requires her to sort through the clothes and possessions of those who haven’t been as lucky as she has been – she can even scavenge some choice articles of clothing. No doubt this aspect of the story fascinated LaBorde as he adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s sprawling memoir for the stage. Thinking of changes in wardrobe as the organizing principle of Susan’s narrative is his idea, not hers. Magda Guichard’s wide range of costume designs help LaBorde depict Susan’s precipitous fall from her upper middle-class status in Vienna to her total degradation at the Birkenau death camp. Delamar spares Giles from the fullest indignities that the script allows, letting his star wear a flesh-colored leotard when Susan is ordered to strip for a delousing shower and allowing her to retain her own disheveled hair when she is shaven bald. A sleekly coiffed wig is removed to suggest the transition.

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PRISONER 34042 remains a potent brew in spite of these discreet alterations, with language, lurid descriptions, and a vaguely simulated rape scene that might give today’s helicopter parents some pause. Perhaps the sponsorship of this filming by Culture Blocks, which partners with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, was the inspiration for addressing such qualms with a more benign Student Edition of the film. (Unabridged, as far as I could determine.) Filmed at McGlohon Theatre by SimplisticPhobia Productions, the three-person camera crew helmed by Will Jenkins helps to dramatize the action with angled close-ups, from stage right or stage left, that nearly fill our screens with the two players. These give way to centered long shots that remind us that we’re in a theatre, especially when Giles perches over the lip of the McGlohon stage and, after the Nazi accordionist plays the verse, sings the first eight bars of “Stardust.”

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Somehow all of the spot-on lighting changes by production designer Ryan Maloney stand out in better relief now than they did at Duke Energy Theatre 17 months ago, and photographs of Susan and her parents are far better showcased when shown in split-screen. Maloney also shines in sound design, whether bringing us that charming accordion, the sound of the cattle cars rumbling to the deathcamps with their human cargo, or the air-raid sirens when liberation is near. Decking his actors out in body mics that offer very crisp reproduction on the video, Maloney also provided pragmatic reasons for Giles to keep her hair and don a leotard.

Calmly helping Giles through all her costume changes and repeatedly partnering with her at key moments, Baldwin’s surrogate work seemed far more awesome as I re-watched her alternately stony and empathetic portrayals. Fearsome and melting like an iceberg, how much scurrying was Baldwin doing behind the scene, transforming from Mom to debonair boyfriend or from prisoner to Nazi oppressor, and how much of stage manager Callie Richards’ work was devoted to making Baldwin’s metamorphoses look effortless? She will likely be undervalued by many who see her because she has so few lines, but Delamar and LaBorde have given Baldwin a new epilogue to deliver after Giles is gone, and her perfection continues. A final elegant touch happened when she hung up one last article of clothing, surely the only costume Guichard didn’t design, for we see it on film immediately afterwards – with the real Dr. Cernyak-Spatz wearing it.

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Giles’ performance would be cleaner and bobble-free if cuts had been decreed during the filming rather than entirely in post-production. Yet after all the immaculate multi-take perfection that I’ve seen for months in screening films and TV series at home, it was wonderful to experience the arc and energy and stamina of a true live performance, warts and nerves – with lapses in Austrian accent – and all. Giles’true professionalism emerges in adversity, and like the performance at Spirit Square that I attended in 2019, accent and performance grew stronger as her story progressed, as we witnessed Susan’s perils and desperate hopes gripping her more and more.

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The little coda that LaBorde added to Cernyak-Spatz’s 2005 memoir, taking aim at emboldened White Supremacists and Anti-Semites as well as hate-spewing demagogues in the halls of Congress and the White House, sounded more potent and relevant on Easter Sunday than they did in late 2019 when Donald Trump was still our President. Maybe Delamar and Giles were simply more insistent on emphasizing LaBorde’s message. Or maybe the impact was greater for me now because, as these Holocaust echoes recede into the past, it’s more important than ever to remember them, remember how they recently grew more virulent and threatened our republic – and to call them out where they are still lurking.