Life is a Team Sport

by China Young

As a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe is currently one of the hottest plays making the circuit right now. With a story that is modern and fiercely female, it is no surprise that Arizona Repertory Theatre at the University of Arizona added it to its 2019/20 Season, and produced it with a team made, predominantly, of women. 

The wolves

The cast of The Wolves. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

The Wolves follows a soccer team of nine teenage girls through six consecutive weeks of soccer pre-game warm-ups. Within these weekly snapshots the audience is not spoon-fed the plot, but instead must listen to the characters and watch them interact to follow the story being told. The young women often talk in multiple smaller conversations that overlap one another, sometimes briefly merging into a group conversation before branching off again. They talk about the stereotypical teenage girl things like college and sex, but they also discuss world events, politics, abortion, and many other topics that some might consider “too adult” for the generation being portrayed. I find this consideration especially important at a time when the youth of the world are screaming at the top of lungs for adults to take them seriously about their concerns for their future, and when women are fighting just as hard as ever to not be silenced or scoffed at. 

Breaking several identity molds, The Wolves is not a typical coming of age story, yet it is still incredibly identifiable. At its core, this story amplifies the importance of being on a team. Whether in sports, theatre, or any other aspect of life, being on a team teaches us how to navigate group dynamics, become more mindful of those around us, learn to lead, and learn to follow. Teamwork also helps us find our chosen tribes, with teammates often becoming the people we celebrate our joy with and who hold us together when we experience loss.

Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production, expertly directed by Claire Mannle, portrays the familial dynamic of this particular team, channeling the love these young women have for one another into the Tornabene Theatre. Mannle puts this cast through the wringer – every scene contains physical exercises that ensure the cast will be in good shape for months after this show. She “coaches” the cast’s execution of the rhythms in the script, especially in moments when we must shift from multi-faceted chaos to attention on one particular character, Mannle guides our attention seamlessly.

The rest of the creative team’s designs further enhance the rawness of the script. Ally Frieders’ scenic design is simple and smart – replicating a corner of an indoor soccer square with turf on the ground and a netted backdrop on two of the four sides, helping to keep the action tight, and the balls on stage. The lighting by Mack Woods and sound design by Hunter Sweetser are also simple but sophisticated and do their part to generate the world of the production.  Sierra Adamo’s costume design is perfect. The characters are dressed in the same soccer uniform throughout, however Adamo compliments each character’s personality through their accessories.I fully appreciated what each hairstyle, headband, jacket and backpack said about each individual. That level of attention to detail can only be the result of true collaborative teamwork with Mannle and the cast.

Paige Mills (#14), Lauren Vialva (#11), Sophia Goodin (#2), Vuane Suitt (#00), Eavan Clare Brunswick (#8), Elana Rose Richardson (#13). Scenic Design by Ally Frieders

Paige Mills (#14), Lauren Vialva (#11), Sophia Goodin (#2), Vuane Suitt (#00), Eavan Clare Brunswick (#8), Elana Rose Richardson (#13). Scenic Design by Ally Frieders. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

The actors are women from various backgrounds, though most of them are students in the UA School of Theatre, Film, and Television. The characters are listed by their jersey number, enhancing the show’s “Everyman” status. #25 (Lotus Rogers) is the team Captain and peacemaker. Rogers brought an air of leadership and responsibility that suited the character perfectly. #00 (Vaune Suite) played the mostly speechless goalie.  Though silent, Suite commanded our attention through her own focus. #46 (Maggie McNeil) is the new girl who just joined the team. She’s a bit odd and struggles to be accepted into the group, but after learning she is a world traveler the rest of the team starts to accept her awkwardness for worldliness. I found McNeil’s comedic timing and embodiment of her character to be truly inspired. #07 (Reagan Kennedy) and #14 (Paige Mills) are “BFFs FOREVER”. They have a bond unlike any of the other ladies on the team and the chemistry generated by Kennedy and Mills make it clear that they will always be the first to defend and protect the other when it comes to the rest of the group, even if they can’t protect themselves from each other. #02 (Sophia Goodin), is the most conservative character who we learn was raised very religiously and with no television. We’ve all known those kids, or have been those kids, and I am still finding humor in how fantastically Goodin portrayed the personality of someone who grew up under those circumstances. Not because it’s actually funny, but because it was just – so – perfect. #13 (Elana Rose Richardson) is a tomboy/Sporty Spice character with an older drug-dealing brother that has influenced some of her own habits, and Richardson brought many nuanced layers to the role. Both her personality and her physique reminded me of someone I went to high school with that played all the sports, making her another character I felt like I knew. #11 (Lauren Vialva) brought a nice balance of intensity and sincerity to a character that is a passionate activist, eager to tell everyone about all the injustices in the world and then out on their “isms.” #08 (Eaven Clare Brunswick) was the most childlike and stereotypically “girly” of all the characters. She was quick to be excitable or over-dramatic about the smallest issues. Though she was almost a caricature, Brunswick managed to find found the honesty in her ridiculousness. In the final scene we meet one other character that is not on the team, Soccer Mom (Callie Hutchinson). This character doesn’t stop talking once she appears, and is only present for about five to ten minutes, but Hutchinson does a fine job channeling the energy of the emotional chaos that the character is living in.

I could go on for days dissecting all the themes and issues that The Wolves explores, but suggest you just go see this contemporary, female-driven production instead. Don’t let your UA Theatre team down – those 90 minutes are worth it.

The Wolves is playing at the Tornabene Theatre on the UA campus from February 8-23, tickets available at theatre.arizona.edu or (520) 621-1162.

The Royale is a Knockout Filled with Heart

by Lena Quach

The Royale, written by Marco Ramirez, is loosely based on the life of African American boxer, Jack Johnson, who was famous in the early 1900s for being the first black boxer who dared to step into the ring to challenge white boxer, James J. Jefferies. Jack Johnson wanted to prove he was the Heavyweight Champion of the World despite his color of skin. With no fear, he challenged a racist world and fought for change during the Jim Crow era where lynching and being killed were very real everyday fears for many African Americans. 

Erica Chamblee as Nina and Bechir Sylvain as Jay "The Sport" Jackson. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Erica Chamblee as Nina and Bechir Sylvain as Jay “The Sport” Jackson. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Marco Ramirez’s profoundly moving, beautifully written, and rhythmic play captured my attention and my heart by the end of the first action-packed scene. The direction, by Michael John Garcés, was very real, yet graceful, and many of the scenes reminded me of a carefully choreographed dance. It was hypnotizing to see the story unfold as the characters progressed and grew in front of my eyes. Of course, this play is more than just a play about boxing. This play is about the thirst for change and equality in a world of hate and racism. Being a Latina in 2019, I thirst for this change but that overwhelming sense of fear is all too real and relatable. I never thought I could relate to a play about boxing, but the drive and the need for diversity in an industry that is primarily white reminded me of my days as a professional ballerina where people of color are few and far between.

Jay “The Sport” Jackson, the tall, strong, and driven heavyweight champion played by Bechir Sylvain, was truly a master of acting. My eyes never left Sylvain as he embodied every side of Jay’s character from the cocky know-it-all in the ring to the pained and hurt brother who wants to make everything better for his beloved sister. I was truly moved and inspired by Sylvain’s performance. 

Roberto Antonio Martin played the young boxer, Fish. Martin’s physical acting and movement quality were thrilling to watch. Especially in the first scene when both Jay and Fish are in the ring but facing the audience. The way Martin responded physically was really a sight to see. The way Fish develops throughout the play was alluring. Fish is soft-hearted and willing to do whatever he can to protect those he cares about. Martin was a great presence and addition to the already insanely talented cast. 

Wynton was played by the seasoned actor Edwin Lee Gibson. Gibson’s performance of Wynton was stoic, deep, and sometimes filled with resentment. I was extremely moved by the completely silent scene where Wynton is going through a journey of deep, despondent, fear-filled emotions. Gibson’s eyes glistened and swelled up with tears as he looked out into the audience and then slowly moved across the stage. I felt for the characters as I followed his silent journey. It was utterly heartbreaking yet beautiful to watch. 

Erica Chamblee, who played Nina, was mesmerizing and haunting. Silent for the majority of the play, her face spoke a thousand words as she slowly moved around the stage and the other characters as a reminder of Jay’s thirst for equality. Chamblee’s performance had my heart jumping out of my chest and surprised me more than once. 

The role of Max was played by Peter Howard. Howard did a magnificent job of portraying Jay’s somewhat nervous and easily frustrated business partner and manager. Howard almost acts like a narrator at certain points an, at times, like a slew of reporters that question Jay throughout the play. He was a joy to watch. 

The cast of the Royale. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The cast of the Royale. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Along with the amazingly talented cast came the beautiful scenic design by Misha Kachman. It was minimal but highlighted when needed. Especially when the stage itself transforms into a boxing ring at the end of the show. It was truly part of the show and used with grace. The lighting design by Allen Willner was absolutely gorgeous- the lighting created a perfect picture frame for the story being told. The sound design by Brian Jerome Peterson made the audience feel like they were really present and part of the scene. The use of a crowd cheering in the background to the sound of a picture being taken during the interview scenes were tastefully done. 

Overall, The Royale, even though based in the past, felt contemporary and called to mind current affairs in the United States. The struggle for change and equality and the rage and fear that is– all too real. The love and pride for someone you love. Grief, resentment, and the need to succeed are all emotions you discover and ponder on even after you leave the theater after seeing this truly stunning production. This play brought tears to my eyes and I found myself being the first of many to give this amazing production, and cast, the standing ovation they deserve. 

You can see this knockout performance now thru September 28th at the Temple of Music and Art ( 330 S Scott Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701) and you can buy tickets at www.arizonatheatre.org or (520) 628-9129.

The Deeper Meaning of Sports

by China Young

 

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Spoiler Alert: My Life in Sports, a one man show written and performed by English professor Bill Epstein and performed at Scoundrel & Scamp, is not actually about sports. Well, not entirely. I felt as though sports served more as a loom and thread. A tapestry of life experiences is woven before our very eyes. The structure of the story-telling takes on various shapes and patterns as Epstein connects memories through time, using anecdotes and metaphors that often circle back to where they started.

The simplicity of the direction and production design by Bryan Rafael Falcón and the sincerity of Epstein’s delivery of the dialogue drew me in with a comfortable warmth that felt like I was 8 years old being told a folk tale by my grandfather and hanging on every word. Now that I think of it, the play starts when Epstein is 8 years old, so perhaps that was the intention all along. I found it to be a very effective way to draw people in, although at times I did find myself drifting simply from the soothing tones of the narration. Still, I was very impressed with the production and how the concept of sports, whether literal or metaphorical, took me on a journey that touched me profoundly.  

The thing I appreciated the most was Epstein’s reflections on the relationship between sports and the “construct of masculinity.” We all know that there seems to be this unspoken “romance” between men and sports. Not all men experience this of course, and not all people that experience this are men, but somehow society has created this construct of “boys play sports” that this production explores a little more deeply and with a self-awareness that is appreciated in a time where constant social examination and re-evaluation is needed. Epstein does a fantastic job capturing the essence of the time in which he was raised, amplifying the understood gender norms, racial inequality, and his privilege of being not only a white male, but also his father’s son. He discusses, at times, how sports, or sport-like behavior, was how boys established their pecking order. In his Author’s Notes he states “Virtually the only live and unrehearsed programming still on network television, the subject being discussed, endlessly, on twenty-four-hour talk-radio stations across the country, the section of the newspaper most men turn to first, sports are a powerful and influential narrative formation, one of the crucial ways that American men construct identity.”

We all saw this truth during the NFL “taking a knee” controversy, which, as you’ve noticed, has disappeared as quickly as began (maybe because it’s off-season, or maybe because those that were “offended” by it have moved on to other asinine battles… but I digress). My biggest fear is that sports is to America what the games of the Colosseum were to Rome, a tactic to distract the poor from their poverty in the hopes that they would not revolt. I don’t dislike sports, and played them for many years (before theatre took complete reign of my life), but I believe they have the power to keep the masses complacent just as they have the power to fuel the “masculinity complex.” Although he used some derogatory language on occasion, and I hate giving him the “product of his time” pass, I wasn’t terribly bothered by it because it was made clear that that was in fact the past, and not the present, and I believe and embrace the social evolution of which we are all capable. If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t possibly accurately assess where we are.  

There were several other lovely elements of the production. The space is lightly littered with a baseball bat and glove, eventually a coat rack with a jacket to signify Epstein’s scholarly career choice, and even a pair of ballet shoes to represent Epstein’s late wife, but to also remind us that dance is another sport that significantly impacted his life. The use of projections offered environmental settings, magnification of text, and the creation of emotional atmospheres. The subtle sound effects enhanced those atmospheres, as did the simplicity of the lighting. Epstein includes references to Tennessee Williams in his Author’s Note, describing memory as “dimly lighted” and “poetic” and “seems to happen to music.” The design team, comprised of Bryan Rafael Falcón, Josh Hemmo (Projection design), Connor Greene (Production Design Associate), Brian Graham (Lighting Designer), and Tyler Berg (Sound Design), manage to capture that description of memory within the intimate performance area with skill and artistry.  

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Though I could call out this production for is male-heavy team (Stage Manager Marguerite Saxon being the only female name listed) and focus on the voice of yet another white man, the content of the work gives me faith that these men understand the privileged patriarchal patterns society perpetuates. Besides, if they are engaging in the creation of theatre, they have likely broken from the “construction of masculinity” imbedded in a “life in sports.”

My Life in Sports plays at Scoundrel & Scamp Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. For tickets call 448-3300 or visit scoundrelandscamp.org.