4 ghosts, 2 acts, A Christmas Carol, this was our nostalgic Friday evening at the Rep, which is celebrating its 50th season. Our favorite and the hardest working actor in Saint Louis, Joneal Joplin, had his 100th Rep performance with this venue. It has been 35 years since the Rep last did A Christmas Carol, which predates our tenure with this company. Still, they did once do Carol, a delightful spoof of the original play and small theater in general. It was funny, new and original, which A Christmas Carol was not. Not that this retelling of Dickens classic Yuletide morality tale was without its charms. The production values were top-notch as always. I enjoyed the excellent sets and costumes. The first act dragged a bit and Anne even got a coffee at intermission, but the drumbeat of traditional carols must have worked its magic. Because by the end of the play, I had found my Christmas spirit again. So, a Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
Ferguson, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, two years after these names were first in the news, they still sting the ears. Until the Flood just finished its run at the Saint Louis Repertory Theater. Written by and starring Dael Orlandersmith, this one-woman, one-act play is both short and intense. Ms. Orlandersmith portrays a host of Saint Louisans, black and white, young and old, male and female. Each new voice adds another viewpoint to the events of two summers ago, when long simmering problems came to a boil and thrust Saint Louis into the unwanted glare of the national spotlight. In the intervening two years some good has come out of that summer’s tragedy, the Black Lives Matter movement was born and has gone national, federally mandated local municipal reform has corrected some of the most egregious inequities that helped to precipitate the troubles in Ferguson and this play that reminds us once again, less we forget, of our community’s feelings of both outrage and shame about the events in Ferguson.
Another day, another play, well really another evening, this time it was at the Rep and the evening’s show was the Stephen Sondheim musical, Follies. This offering is the Rep’s season opener in what is director Steve Woolf and his company’s 50th anniversary season. A hearty job well done is in order for everyone involved. Anne and I have been going to the Rep through most this fifty year run and have enjoyed almost all of their offerings. This particular play is quite the extravaganza, befitting its rather prestigious role. It boasts a large cast, a beautiful set and many stunning costumes. Another special shoutout is in order for Joneal Joplin, the hardest working actor in Saint Louis. The play’s story is:
The story concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre, scheduled for demolition, of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies”, a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies), that played in that theatre between the world wars. It focuses on two couples, Buddy & Sally and Benjamin & Phyllis, who are attending the reunion. Sally and Phyllis were showgirls in the Follies. Both couples are deeply unhappy with their marriages. Buddy, a traveling salesman, is having an affair with a girl on the road; Sally is still as much in love with Ben as she was years ago; and Ben is so self-absorbed that Phyllis feels emotionally abandoned. Several of the former showgirls perform their old numbers, sometimes accompanied by the ghosts of their former selves.
“I don’t like baseball. I like Cardinal baseball”, is how Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro League Baseball Museum opened his talk this morning. Mr. Doswell was born and raised in the Saint Louis area, before moving to Kansas City, so it is natural that he should feel this way. He does root for the Royals, when they are not playing the Cardinals, but for many years that was a tough thing to do. He and the rest of Kansas City endured many bleak years, while their team remained lost in the wilderness. That’s change now and with the team’s renaissance fan support has grown too. Before moving on, Doswell referred to the Royals fans as the nouveau rich and us Cardinal fans as old money.
Doswell was speaking at the Rep, because the current play there is “Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing”. We saw it last night. This play was created by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Kahn, the creators of “Fly”, their story about the Tuskegee Airmen. The setting is 1947, in a KC boarding house, after a thunderstorm had called the afternoon’s ballgame. Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, stars of the Negro League are feeling eclipsed, ever since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Doswell spoke about Paige, O’Neil and the KC Monarchs. Since he was speaking from a theater’s stage, most of this talk dealt with the Negro League’s treatment in theater, film and on TV.
Baseball began again this last week. It was a rocky start for the old Redbirds, but their home opener is on Monday. Fountains around town are bubbling red and a long season of baseball lies ahead of us. While, not as long as baseball’s storied history, this season, this next chapter lies spread out ahead of us. Let’s play some ball and root for the home team, root for the Cardinals!
Another day, another play and after this one I’ll be all caught up on the theater. This last Friday, we attended the world opening of a locally produced play, “Molly’s Hammer”, a play by Tammy Ryan, but this is not the first time that we’ve “seen” the play. Last year at this time, we attended a reading of the play as part of the Rep’s Ignite festival. I wrote about that experience and you can read it again here. This is the second play that we’ve seen from that festival to make it into production this year; the other play was “Georama”. Here are that production’s reading and performance blog posts.
Nancy Bell reprises her role as Molly Rush, anti-war protester and Pittsburgh housewife and mother. Last year’s reading was in the Opera Theater rehearsal hall and took place in the afternoon, where it was all airiness and light. The premiere occurred in the Studio Theater, which is a subterranean venue deep within the bowels of the Loretto-Hilton, where it was dark and claustrophobic. We sat in the front row, on the aisle and had to mind the placement of our legs, less we become part of the production, by tripping one of the actors in the dark.
Unlike “Georama”, “Molly’s Hammer” seemed little changed from last year. I think that speaks of the material’s strength, just like only drawing one card instead of three tells of a better poker hand. Having the same actress in the principal role also added to a sense of continuity. Reviewing what I wrote last year, I’d have to say that the biggest difference is in what was left out. The reading had an awful lot of trial strategizing that was shortened for the performance. The dialog seemed crisper too. Maybe it was because this was my second exposure to the material or maybe it was because the play’s politics are now a bit dated, but I was more interested in the story’s family dynamics than in any political message.
It has been over a week since we saw the play at the Rep, but I still haven’t written about it. I guess, I’ve been having trouble understanding it and have been procrastinating because of that. I’m speaking about Ayad Akhtar’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Disgraced”. Set in contemporary New York City, the play is the tale of the tragic fate of Amir, a Wall Street lawyer of South Asian descent, who seemingly has it all, but as this short, ninety-minute story tells, he has nothing and will soon lose everything. He has denied his heritage and himself, to reach the pinnacle of his success: a tony Manhattan address, a partnership in the offing and a lovely American wife. In the opening scene Amir is seen posing before his artist wife for his portrait, where he stands rampant in suit and tie, but without pants. Costuming that telegraphs the message that the emperor has no clothes. His sitting is interrupted, when his nephew arrives and asks him just to meet with a Muslim cleric being held on terrorism charges. At the combined urgings of his wife and nephew and against his better judgement, he meets with the cleric and so begins his downfall. In the end, he left homeless, unemployed and estranged. He has been disgraced.
In classical literature, Amir has committed the greatest sin that a protagonist can commit, denial of self. That may be true in literature, but this is America, the land of the free, where anyone can make of themselves what they want. Amir has seemingly made a good life for himself, but it all turns out to be a lie. Is it really Amir’s lie though or is it more ours. He had bought into the American dream, but when his past was revealed that dream turned on him and crushed him. His sin was simply to hide the accident of his birth, which was forced upon him to succeed. In Amir’s downfall, I see America as the one disgraced. It is America that is living the lie, the lie that here all men are created equal and that this really is the land of the free.
We saw the play “Georama” last night at the Rep. Last year we attended a reading of this same play at the Rep’s series, Ignite! It is a musical. In the mid-1800s, American artist John Banvard created the first georama, a 3,000 foot long scrolling painting celebrating the beauty of the Mississippi River, arguably the first ‘motion picture’. I missed the exhibit of his georama at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a couple of years ago. I think that that exhibit inspired this play. Barvard’s georama was a great success then and once paired with P.T. Barnum became an international one too, but Barvard and Barnum had a love-hate relationship that provided most of the tension in this play. John’s wife Elizabeth and their relationship acted as a counterbalancing influence. It was interesting to see how this play had evolved. For example, in the reading Elizabeth played the viola. In last night’s play the viola had been reduced to just a prop.