Standing on the Rails

by guest reviewer Richard Thompson

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

With righteous fury and inconsolable indignation buried down in his eyes, a nigga stood on stage. And where the world heard a question tear out this man’s mouth, my eyes welled and I cried deep from the combustible power before me, because I knew then what playwright August Wilson is trying to tell the audience from the very beginning, with the most magically absurd testament to the importance of acknowledging the needs, expectations, and humanity of a person: “Where’s my ham?”

Two Trains Running, masterfully directed by Lou Bellamy at Arizona Theater Company, is the kind of story that you hear from your pops when he wants to remind you how bad he used to be way back when, or how Aunt Lulu May wouldn’t take no excuse to acting a fool, especially ’cause you living with her now ’cause mom stopped coming home. It is a story of invisible peoples’ struggles and triumphs, of life. Just life. Two Trains Running barrels down the narrow tunnel from the past on to the future, and the audience is standing right on the rails. Yet, Wilson nurtured a luminosity in this play by allowing the audience to see life from the eyes of a nigga. When it comes to the inherent and critical necessity of owning one’s own identity – of knowing who you are and where you come from – it’s vital to know that a nigga isn’t what you think it is.

I promise, it’s all good. It’s good because this is a story about niggas, niggahs, niggas, nyaggas, and NI-GGAHHS. Did that sentence make you uncomfortable? It’s all good, there wasn’t one bad word in that sentence; you’re confusing it with another, completely different word – the one we all undeniably know, so for the sake of this discussion – and to make sure you all feel cool and chill despite being unsure on proper cultural protocol, I give you permission to mentally say the above term for as long as it takes you to read this article – it’s okay, I made sure it cool at the last meeting. But only for this article.

Set during a time of civil unrest, social awakening, and reclamation of identity, Wilson introduces us to men and women who could easily slip right into our shoes and we wouldn’t know the difference. Men and women who struggle all day to be seen as who they are, especially when the terms that identify them are only arbitrarily scary or undefinable to others who are afraid to see the beauty in it. Men and women who proudly identify as niggas in such a simply dignified manner, that today’s audience before them, filled with hues ranging from apricot to midnight, understood exactly what was being said: brother, sister, baby, muthafuka, fam. And no one had to explain why.
August Wilson gave the audience even more than they would recognize. A word now infused with such fluidity; and power; and comradery; and inherent understanding. This is a word that transcends time now. It is the original “I am Spartacus” (or for the cool kids: “I am Groot”). The undeniable affirmation of worth that a people considered disposable can take a word that was borne from the putrid places rooted in fear and remold, remake, and reinstitute that phrase; instead claiming it completely – history and all – owning who we are and who we can be.

His work, so relevant today as it was 60 years ago, places front and center the cold realities that one’s own definition is always being defined by others and – as Sterling, played effortlessly by Cedric Mays, so exuberantly expressed while resting easy on the bar bench waiting for a particular waitress – that the notion ‘Black is Beautiful’ is not only a reminder that we are in fact here; but we are in fact good. And if black can be beautiful, then why can’t being a nigga be a good thing?

It’s the Hill District, Pittsburgh, 1969. This is where niggas live. Jim Crow didn’t die once he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line; instead his overt influence shifted to a more covert and insidious existence in cities up north such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland. He found easy sanctuary in building contracts, imminent domain claims, and employment repudiations, where important rules can be written without much notice, where racism and segregation were just as baked into the system, just not as publicly. It’s during this time of civil-unrest and social awakening, in a once vibrant neighborhood, that we watch the slow whisper of time descend on a small diner where the former problem of having too few chairs for patrons has now become the problem of having too many empty chairs.

Alan Bomar Jones, Dennis Spears, and James Craven. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Alan Bomar Jones as Holloway, Dennis Spears as West, and James Craven as Memphis. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Memphis, the single-minded restaurateur at the center of the play, is performed with a deliberate determination by James Craven, and he has a way of speaking that when his voice cracks from feeling violated, you almost forget what an insufferable son-of-a-bitch he can be.

Risa, owned by Erika LaVonn, brings a quiet omnipotence in her performance. With few words, her eyes command respect and forethought that no other character emphasizes throughout. Her masterful trick is fooling the world into thinking it is silencing her, when the reality is she has decided not to speak. She watches and knows the clockworks of the world, even if it is only placing a cap on hat rack everyday.

Ahanti Young, Cedric Mays, and Erika LaVonn. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling and Erika LaVonn as Risa. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Lester Purry wields a grin like a weapon and I have no doubt, many have fallen from it. Mr. Purry plays Wolf, a man who knows the hustle, with such a realistic ferocity that every phone call, gait, laugh, and scribble on his bookie pad seems like ATC just went to Silverlake and 22nd and asked for a corner-boy to play an actor for a night.

Which brings us to the rest of these standout actors that turned the stage into a smudged glass window so we could peer inside and watch a moment in time that seems eerily like today; Holloway (Alan Bomar Jones) and West (Dennis W. Spears) were characters who provided an emotional stabilizer for the rest of the cast. Not necessarily understated, their roles were subdued proficiently by Bellamy, so that when Holloway asks, “Which is better, the fields or the streets?” the audience doesn’t need further explanation.

And lastly we have Sterling and Hambone, played unparalleled by Ahanti Young. Whereas all the other characters railed, cursed, embraced, or shrugged off how the world saw them, these two did not. Hambone, ultimately impotent but completely justified in his need to be given what was his, but not knowing how to say it, and Sterling, knowing exactly what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to, but still trying to find his own voice.

And when Sterling did find his voice, it was in the form a three worded question: “Where’s my ham?”

Scenic Designer Vicki Smith continues her dazzling ability, as she had done in Low Down Dirty Blues, to construct pieces that resonate with the time and feeling of an era without inundating the audience with unnecessary flamboyant novelties. Choosing to stick with very earthen colors for the structural elements of the diner, she weaves in history through old Dad’s Rootbeer placards that rust above the kitchen, carefully placed jackets that subtly tip-toed greys and greens on the wall, and the most deceptively resonant stage props: shining, cerulean blue barstools. The cushions are a slice of blue so vibrant, yet unassuming, they became inanimate reaffirmations of the individuals that inhabited the same space.

Arizona Theatre Company’s Resident Sound Designer, Brian Jerome Peterson, delivered intermixed a smoke compilation of jazz and blues, electric and folk, and even soul, so that we are not tied to a day from a song-list, we are connected to entire generations through song. This harmonic gateway started the only way it was could have as far as I’m concerned: On the Trail from the Miles Davis album Grand Canyon Suite. As slow, nightscape scales, pips, and bursts drip down, the flats and sharps rest easy on every piece of fabric that touches the ensemble cast as if the notes were woven into the thread before the show.

Lighting Designer Don Darnutzer enhanced the raw feelings expressed throughout the production by highlighting the stage with ethereal god-ray type lighting, in both moments of blossoming love to disdainful reflection, reminding me that heavenly moments can be found when the world is falling apart. Even if the world may not be falling apart completely, it’s certainly following that predictable ebb and flow we can’t ever seem to escape. There is an inevitable rock in the stream marking where our history and our future intersect in the present, and how the lessons learned before now seem to go forgotten, only to be relearned later in the hopes that this time they will take hold.
So where are tracks taking us now? We know what happens to Hill district by the end of Act III, but it’s now that we have the opportunity to actually get somewhere. As important to remember the Memphis, Risas, and Sterlings of the past it is just as important also recognizing the Kapernicks, Castiles, Gardeners, Rices, and Martins of today. They were all niggas and that doesn’t make them bad. But it defines them.

And isn’t that the point? How we define ourselves. The businesses we build. The individuality we ascribe. The knowledge we collect. The bodies we bury. The scars we collect. Or, as Wolf so eloquently embodied for us with the grace of gold-plated peacock, “the amount of money in yo’ pocket.” These aspects of worth are what is being taken and thrust upon the characters as they find time to be distracted by neighborhood myths and invisible thieves. Yet, the silence was undeniable when the most important question wasn’t being asked anymore: “Where’s my Ham?” Because it was never a question. It was never a plea. It was a demand for an answer. The owed answer to the historic and perpetuated denial of one’s own right to their own very existence as a person. The denial of the fact that I am, in fact, right here.

So where’s my ham, nigga!?

Watch Two Trains Running at the Temple of Music and Art through February 9th. Showtimes and tickets are available at arizonatheatre.org.

 

About the guest reviewer:
Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson (Actor) was born in Kokomo, Indiana. He has no relevant education from any formal institution in theater or film. His writing career comprises of columnist work for The Arizona Daily Star, editor for Persona Magazine, content creator of Looking Back manuscript for P.C.C., Sandscript Magazine contributor, and editor and columnist for Gourmet News for which he received a James Beard nomination for his article, “Holy See-Food”. He is also a Hearst Poet and a published IEEE author (2018-2019), as well as a technical writer whose proposals, grants and speeches have totaled in over $250k in gained between 2016 to now. Since 2017, The Community Players produced his stage play, Last Call, followed by performances in No Admittance (Bill Bowen) and One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief), numerous Radio Theater shows, backstage crew for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) as well as multiple roles in musical shows. In 2018, he worked under Eugenia Wood in Hark, with Ron Athey, Cassils, and Arshia Fatima in Cyclic, and produced his original manuscript The GRANDest Pageant. Films include Rise, The Righteous Twelve, and The GRANDest Pageant. In 2019, he founded Graveyard Production Company (www.gyproco.com) and will perform Exist.

The Music Man: Trouble With A Capital T

by Gretchen Wirges

The Music Man

Bill English as Harold Hill and cast of The Music Man. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The Music Man opened for the first time in 1957. It went on to Broadway, critical acclaim, and nearly 1400 performances. Arizona Theater Company has taken on the task of staging this nostalgic musical as part of it’s 2018-19 season. The show is larger than life and has a history to match.

Let me start by saying that I grew up loving this musical. I loved the stage version and I loved the 1962 film adaption. When I sat down to view ATC’s production, I was excited, giddy even, to recapture the joy I remembered feeling from watching this show. So let’s dig into the good, the bad, and the “trouble” with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for confused.

Let’s start with the good–the ensemble was incredible. The dancers were talented, the townsfolk were animated and lovely fun to watch. Among those I enjoyed most were the ladies ensemble which included the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Shinn, played by Leslie Alexander, the character of Ethel Toffelmier played by Kara Mikula, Mrs. Squires played by Chanel Bragg, and Alma Hix played by Brenda Jean Foley. The scenes that included these actors were filled with joy and humor and memorable vignettes. Mikula’s hilarious facial expressions and deft physical comedy made me smile throughout the show.

Another good note about this show is the diverse representation in the casting. Bravo to directors who cast people of color in roles that have traditionally gone exclusively to white actors. Every step toward diversity is important. As many contemporary shows have shown us, taking bolder steps toward diversity by casting the leading roles with such awareness is a win for everyone. I hope ATC moves further in that direction. We want to see ourselves on stage. The stories will support it and so will the audiences.

Okay, the bad. While the sets are beautiful and expansive, they are also numerous to a fault. It may sound counter intuitive, but I think the over-abundance of sets moving in and out was distracting. It took away from the magic and the burden of the material and the performance to create the world we’re watching. I think that the show relied too much on this aspect of the production, and not enough on the performances itself.  As a whole, the show felt lacking in joy and energy for me.

Harold Hill, the lead character, is arguably one of the most charismatic and over-the-top musical characters of all time. Hill, played by Bill English, was played way too flat for my tastes. The charisma and power just wasn’t there. And honestly I don’t fault English, I fault the director. Many of the songs, led by English, were choreographed in a subtle way that didn’t capture the joy and excitement of the script. 76 Trombones, one of my favorite Broadway songs EVER, felt like more of a throw-away number than a showstopper. The Wells Fargo Wagon song was almost boring, save the fantastic bright spot of Winthrop’s solo by local Nathaniel Wiley. There needed to be more fun, more joy, more reckless abandon in this show. As whole, it was just a buttoned up version that needed to break loose.

The Music Man

The cast of The Music Man. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

And finally, the “trouble with a capital T” of this show really is the story and the script, which of course is no fault of the these particular performers in this particular staging. I think this is a show that needs to be retired. Frankly, it is incredibly misogynistic, to the point where more than a few people in the audience audibly gasped at many of the horrifically offensive lines. Much like the recent debate over the holiday song Baby, It’s Cold Outside, I’m sure the show wasn’t written with this sensitivity, but we know better now. And when we know better, we need to do better.

The Music Man

Manna Nichols as Marian. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

In the anvil salesman scene, the character makes several leering, disgusting, predatory comments to Marian. Her response to this is to seduce him in order to keep him from chasing after her lying, cheating love interest, Harold Hill. Hill himself  basically stalks her throughout the majority of the show trying to win her over so he could distract her from his illegal pursuits. She says no, many many times, and he continues to follow her.

Many of us have watched movies that we once saw as kids, only now realizing the “adult” jokes that we didn’t understand at the time. This was my experience with listening to these songs 20 years later than the last time I’d seen it.  “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” was especially cringe worthy:

A girl who trades on all that purity
Merely wants to trade my independence for her security.
The only affirmative she will file
Refers to marching down the aisle.
No golden, glorious, gleaming pristine goddess–

I snarl, I hiss: How can ignorance be compared to bliss?
I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is.
I cheer, I rave for the virtue I’m too late to save
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.
No bright-eyed, blushing, breathless baby-doll baby
That kinda child ties knots no sailor ever knew.
I prefer to take a chance on a more adult romance.
No dewy young miss
Who keeps resisting all the time she keeps insisting!
No wide-eyed, wholesome innocent female.

The song Shipoopi includes the following lyrics:

Now a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy
And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out is anything but fussy

Walk her once just to raise the curtain
Walk around twice and you’ve made for certain

Squeeze her once when she isn’t lookin’
If you get a squeeze back, that’s fancy cookin’
Once more for a pepper-upper
She will never get [mad] on her way to supper

To have a man sing these lyrics in 2018 is a bit mind-boggling. To be honest, it was mind-boggling for 1957 as well, but that sort of inappropriate behavior was accepted, even applauded. However, I’ll say it  again, now that we know better, we should do better. This show is antiquated and does not hold up to modern awareness. Let’s put it to rest and find new stories to tell.

The Music Man plays at Arizona Theater Company through December 30th. Tickets can be purchased through arizonatheatre.org or by calling the box office at (520) 622-2823.

“Love in every line” of ATC’s Erma Bombeck

by Betsy Labiner

Erma Bombeck Poster

Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End. Image courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End at the Arizona Theatre Company is a celebration of women and women’s work at both the personal and national scale, from the unsung to the celebrated. Fittingly, the one-woman play comes to audiences thanks in large part to women. Erma Bombeck is written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, is directed by Casey Stangl, has scenic design by Jo Winiarski, costume design by Kish Finnegan, lighting design by Jaymi Lee Smith, and Rachel Berney Needleman as dramaturg. The play is a triumph of their work alongside that of Erma Bombeck.

Erma Bombeck was a humor columnist whose work focused on her life as a suburban housewife; her column was immensely popular and was eventually syndicated in 900 newspapers. In addition, she wrote 15 books, appeared on Good Morning America, and served on the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women.  

Jeanne Paulsen is absolutely brilliant as Bombeck. Her comedic timing is impeccable, as she delivers one-liner after one-liner with wry smiles and knowing nods. She formed an immediate rapport with the audience, leaning in to the moments of sustained laughter and creating an emotionally charged space in which the audience hung eagerly on her every word. Paulsen’s physical comedy brought laughs as well, as she engages with every aspect of the set’s – a nostalgia-charged 1960s home, complete with laundry on the bed and children’s art on the refrigerator – domestic space. Paulsen is alone onstage for the entirety of the play, but her interactions with invisible family members and disembodied voices create the feel of a happily crowded home. Paul James Prendergast’s sound design bolsters Paulsen’s work by creating effects such as children talking over one another and shouting down a hallway.

“You don’t mind if I do two things at once, do you?” Paulsen asks as she begins working on chores, one of many moments underscoring the duality of Bombeck’s work as a mother and as a writer. Bombeck’s writing is simultaneously in competition with and dependent on her role as a housewife; this is perhaps best embodied by the moment in which she moves laundry aside and sets up her typewriter on the ironing board.

The play is generally lighthearted, but also delves into bittersweet and sad musings. Paulsen navigates these emotional turns well, drawing the audience into shared contemplation on frustration and heartbreak before breaking the tension with a quip. “If you can laugh at it,” she assures the audience, “you can live with it.” Some of the themes – marriage, parenthood, loss – are timeless. Other themes – feminism, social change, and activism – feel altogether timely. Bombeck’s work to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, reminds us that change remains an uphill battle, and that the fight for equality is still not over. (Note: the ERA is still unratified; Arizona is among the states that has not ratified it.)

This play is equally for fans of Bombeck and those unfamiliar with her work. Bombeck’s humor delights whether this is one’s first experience with it or not, and the play offers insights into her background and life that amplify and nuance the comedy. The play also appeals to audiences across ages and genders, though I suspect that women with children will find themselves connecting with it particularly strongly.

Erma Bombeck is a night of comedy theatre that you won’t want to miss.  

Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End runs through November 10th at the Arizona Theatre Company. Tickets may be purchased at https://arizonatheatre.org/.