The theater season is off and running! Here’s my take on three productions that kicked the Fall into high gear!
The newly renovated Huntington Theatre has returned to its physical home on Huntington Ave and its artistic home with August Wilson’s JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, the first of his plays produced by the Huntington and the beginning of a 19-year collaboration with the playwright. This is a masterful production by a master, brilliantly directed by Lili-Anne Brown, full-hearted, supremely acted and staged– a production for the ages.
Set in a boarding house in Pittsburgh 1911, the play takes its name from a real Tennessee prison official named Joe Turney who executed a new way to enslave a recently “freed” people: through convict leasing, where Black men jailed for false or minor offenses were leased out for labor by prison officials who received payment. In the play, Herold Loomis (hauntingly played by James Milord) was captured by “Joe Turner” and served seven years before being released to wander the earth with his daughter Zonia (Alana Ross) in search of his wife Martha (Patrese D. McClain). Herald and Zonia arrive at Bertha and Seth Holly’s (Shannon Lamb and Maurice Emmanuel Parent are a glorious duo) boarding house who welcome them to their table. Everyone passing through will sit around that table, partake and be nourished not only by the warm family fare Bertha serves up, but by the shared humanity gathered in communion. Folks of all ages and circumstances turn up seeking shelter, solace, healing, and sustenance in this temporary home before moving on.
The two-story set is a beauty (scenic design Arnel Sancianco) intimate and sprawling with multiple points of entry and exit for the wandering world to pass through. In the course of the play, stories will be told, laughter will erupt–mostly in reaction to the practical and ambitious Seth’s unbridled assessments of the characters under his roof. Maurice Emmanuel Parent has never been better; his character’s down to earth perspective leavens the texture of the myth unfolding before us. Loose ends will be bound up, history will be reclaimed, voices will be raised, ancestors will be summoned, wounds will be opened, and souls will be restored. That table becomes an altar on which the sacrifices of a brutalized people will be grieved, consecrated, and revived, led by the group’s elder Bynum Walker (a stirring Robert Cornelius) a de facto high priest who helps heal the broken among us. The final scene is extraordinary — both a terrifying exorcism and triumph of the spirit which left me uplifted and grounded in the humanity of us all. This is an absolute MUST SEE. JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE at The Huntington through November 13!
ENGLISH making its Boston Premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company is a revelation. Written by Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi, and directed by Iranian-American theater artist Melory Mirashrafi, it’s set in a classroom in Iran where Marjan (Deniz Khateri) is teaching to the “TOEFL” test: Test of English as a ForeignLanguage. Within the first five minutes, the play took me by surprise, opened my eyes, and moved me.
As the play begins, the teacher is already there as four students enter the classroom one by one: a young woman named Goli (Lily Gilan James) enters shyly; another young woman Elham (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) seems defensive and downcast as she takes her seat. Enter Roya (Leyla Modirzadeh) an elegant older woman who looks nervous; Omid (Zaven Ovian) the only man in the class walks in confidently, clearly excited to be there. I’m already forming opinions about who these people are. In this class they are required to abandon their native Farsi and speak only English, and there are varying degrees of proficiency among them. Most speak haltingly in heavily accented, rudimentary English phrases.
Suddenly, usually Elham– gets frustrated and starts speaking English flawlessly! What? They spoke expressively, colloquially, with irony, or insinuation; they were funny! I didn’t get it– until I did. We were to understand that the character in question had defaulted to their native Farsi and all at once it was if a tap had been opened and who they were flowed out. The play had turned English on its head to let us hear how a non-native English speaker communicates in the fullness of their own native language–an ingenious device and a little mind blowing. I understood immediately how tightly these characters had been holding themselves and how much gets lost in translation. I didn’t see them whole until then.
The play opened up and took off for me from there, each of these characters revealing who they were, why they were there, what’s in a name? How much history is buried in a language? How sounds shape personalities and empires, and literally how hard it is to be oneself when at a distance from one’s own voice in the world. How difficult to channel who we are through sounds that do not form easily on our lips, or sit comfortably in our bodies, when our ideas cannot be captured by limited vocabulary and syntax. How easily biases and assumptions creep in to fill that void; how stunted the experience all around.
Toossi’s play is a small gem, poignant, funny and eye-opening within the confines of a single classroom, and in the hands of a vivid, able cast of five who help us see what real connection takes. As one character who watches English-speaking movies to help learn the language says, “Sometimes it takes two people to understand Hugh Grant.” Indeed– it takes a village and Toossi’s play helps us see some of the roadblocks to connection experienced by anyone attempting to make a home away from home in this increasingly turbulent world. See ENGLISH at SPEAKEASY STAGE through November 19!
Finally and just in time for Halloween, head to the GREATER BOSTON STAGE COMPANY in Stoneham to see one of my favorite actor’s first-ever solo performance in a role he was born to play: Ichabod Crane in THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW! Adapted by John Minigan from Washington Irving’s tale about a headless horsemen haunting the humble hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, the production is directed by Weylin Symes with Melendy playing all the parts–and all his parts are involved. He’s the oddly angular, pompous and venal Dutch schoolmaster, as well as assorted other inhabitants of the Sleepy Hollow. Melendy deftly maneuvers his loose and limber frame like a greased contortionist. He’s not only a bumbling lover to the wealthy object of his affections, but he’s also the object of those affections: the dainty and diffident Katrina Van Tassel. His falsetto then ricochets to bass playing his rival for Katrina’s affections, hunky hooligan “Brom Bones” Van Brunt!
Melendy is uniquely suited to playing this entire cast of characters, so mobile are his features and pliant are his limbs, so nimble his voice and imagination, coupled with a knack for impeccable comic timing. The set, sound, and lighting all create an atmosphere somewhere between fact and fiction, homespun intrigue and wacky tales from beyond… perfect for our times and the spooky times upon us. See THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW at Greater Boston Stage Company through November 6! Boo.
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