Review: Tuskegee Airmen take flight again in ‘Black Eagles’

'Black Eagles":Luchan Baker, Ron Chapman, Donald Antoine, Brandon Callender, Devin Cunningham, and Joseph Pendleton. Photo by L. Peter Callender

ONSTAGE Black Eagles (through March 31 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre), now being staged by the African-American Shakespeare Company and directed by L. Peter Callender, illuminates a pivotal moment in US history.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black combat pilots, is often obscured or marginalized in the thick annals of US involvement in World War II. Yet their accomplishments were astonishing: They flew 200 successful bombing escort missions and 15,000 combat sorties, destroying hundreds of Nazi aircraft and land vehicles and even sinking a destroyer.  

“I have always wanted to do this play ever since I became Artistic Director of AASC,” Callender told the audience before the curtain went up. “With the recent passing of Willie Rogers [the last surviving member of the original Tuskegee Airmen who died at 101 in 2016), I felt in my bones it was time to bring their story to San Francisco and keep the memory of these great American heroes alive and strong.”

Callender had another reason for wanting to stage playwright Leslie Lee’s historic drama. He was in the original cast of the play at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York in 1991. 

Lee effectively uses scenes in memory and in real time to present this important story from different perspectives. The play opens with a 1989 reunion of three of the veterans Leon (Thomas Robert Simpson), Clarkie (Gift Harris) and Nolan (Todd Risby) reminiscing about their war years at a Washington, DC ceremony commemorating their service and lauding the elevation of Colin Powell, the first African American Chief of Staff. 

Brandon Callender, Joseph Pendleton, Devin Cunningham, Luchan Baker III in ‘Black Eagles.’ Photo by Joseph Giammarco

They recall the drama of fierce dog fights as well as the “white-knuckle” day First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to the base and flew with one of the pilots. “Swore that colored man was going to make Franklin Delano Roosevelt a widower,” says elder Leon. 

When elder Nolan gives a long dramatic rendition of attacking an enemy plane, Leon exclaims, “It takes us half an hour longer each year to shoot the Jerrys down!” But, Nolan says, we did it “by the grace of God,” to which Leon responds, “That and being 22!”

It’s a perfect segue to 1944 when the men are 22, in a barracks in Italy raring to fly bombing missions. But the US military is segregated, and the Army Air Corps has relegated these experienced pilots to fly escort for white fighter pilots, with strict instructions not to go after any Germans, even in range. This frustrates the young men who are anxious to attack the fascist air force and to “get their kills.” 

Most of the play takes place in those barracks, which the Eagles dub the “colored officers club,” in contrast to the off-limits white officers club. Set designer Kate Boyd uses cots, army blankets, and arching walls to evoke a simple Quonset hut; the plain wooden chairs double effectively as seats in the fighter jets when the airmen swoop and dive.

The camaraderie and pride among the airmen is palpable, especially during the Jitterbug Drill, an exuberant tap dance/march choreographed by Kendra Kimbrough Barnes. 

Donald Antoine and Margherita Ventura in ‘Black Eagles.’ Photo by Joseph Giammarco

Yet confined to segregated barracks and frustrated in their attempts to fly bombing missions, conflicts arise. Fights brew over discipline and the lack of it, charges of cowardice and grandstanding and breaking rules. Anger at the racism of the Army and the white officers, spills over into anger at each other, often for petty reasons. Lee’s nuanced dialogue and Callender’s tight direction brings you right into the close quarters of the barracks, and the full range of emotion at play, intensified by the immediate perils of wartime.

When young Nolan (Brandon Callender) breaks ranks to go after a German plane, he considers himself a hero. The others are dubious and criticize him for leaving a gaping hole in the formation. “Do you really think they are going to let any of us pickaninnies ride down Broadway in New York City after this war, with confetti floating down, bands playing, folks screaming and hollering, and white chicks blowing us kisses! It’ll be a cold-assed day in hell before they let that happen,” Leon (Devin A. Cunningham) says bitterly. 

But as the battle over Italy heats up, the military reassigns the unit to fly bombing missions. As they celebrate their successes, they meet with another shock: The heroes who shot down 13 Germans are sent to the stockade, because they wouldn’t sign an oath swearing not to enter a whites-only facility.

Though the acting is sometimes uneven, the ensemble generally works well. Brandon Callender as young Nolan, is especially engaging: his energy and body language capture the character of a callow youth on a mission. He’s proud to be part of the Black Eagles, yet can’t resist breaking formation to get into the real fray.

The most convincing pair are those who play the poetic Leon, as a youth by Cunningham and his elder counterpart by Simpson, founder and artistic director of AfroSolo. They match each other’s sensibilities. There is a tender moment when the veterans seem to walk (unseen) through the barracks.  The elder Clarkie admonishes the elder Leon to leave the young Leon alone to write his poetry, and the veteran replies, “I am that boy, he just doesn’t have my arthritis yet.”

Thomas Robert Simpson, Gift Harris, and Todd Risby in ‘Black Eagles.’. Photo by Joseph Giammarco

One of the more listless scenes takes place off base, in the room of Pia (Margherita Ventura) the love interest of the romantic Buddy (Daniel Ray Antoine). The chemistry between the two pales in comparison to the strong, though sometimes volatile, ties of comradeship between the men. 

Sound designer Everett Elton Bradman uses music creatively in the vigorous dance formation scene in the barracks, the transcendent voices of Lena Horne and Bessie Smith on the record player and the pilots’ melancholic rendition of Wild Blue Yonder after the group has been punished for being unwilling to go along with a racist regulation. 

Playwright Lee, who died in 2014, wrote more than two dozen plays, most of which were performed at the Negro Ensemble Company in New York. Like August Wilson, his dramas portray the many facets of the African American experience in the United States through different decades. In “Ground People,” he wrote of black sharecroppers in the 1920s, “War Party” reveals conflicts in the civil rights organizations in the 1960s, and “Blues in a Broken Tongue” tells the story of a little known phenomenon—African-Americans who moved to the Soviet Union to escape racism in the US. His “Colored People’s Time” is a series of vignettes illustrating black life in America from the Civil War to the civil rights era.

The courage and principled stand of the Tuskegee Airmen eventually led to the desegregation of the US military—something they fought for in the air and on the ground. A standing ovation is due—and was given on opening night—to L. Peter Callender and the African American Shakespeare Company for amplifying their voices through Lee’s powerful Black Eagles. 

Tracking the human condition through a Nigerian family epic

Playwright Mfoniso Udofia

ONSTAGE While writing the nine plays of the Ufot Family Cycle, which follows several generations of a family of Nigerians in America, Mfoniso Udofia has done a lot of research. She’s looked into the decolonization of Nigeria, the migration of the country’s people, and the places they landed in Britain and the United States. She’s read about coups in Nigeria, and what happens in families who come to the US when some members become more Western. Then when she sits down to write, she tries to forget it all. 

“I take a deep academic dive into how things and people work, but it’s in the background,” she said. “I’m more interested in the human condition.” Now, parts four and five of the cycle are coming to San Francisco, with “Her Portmanteau” at ACT’s Strand Theater through March 31and “In Old Age” starting at the Magic Theatre on March 27.

Playwright Mfoniso Udofia

This extensive research feels natural to Udofia—it’s something she did a lot of at Wellesley College, where she studied political science and planned to become a lawyer. But Udofia might not have written these plays and others without the intercession of a dean who saw she wasn’t happy preparing to be a lawyer. 

When she was a kid in Houston, Udofia says she was pretty loud at home, leading her parents to decide she should be an attorney. She went along with that. But something didn’t feel quite right, and the dean told her she needed to pick some extracurricular activities that had nothing to do with politics or law—and that would bring her joy. Udofia, who had played the trombone and sung before, started studying opera, which led to acting. She applied to a summer program at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, got in, came out here, loved it, and has been doing theater ever since. 

Udofia did not set out to write a cycle of nine plays. “First I wrote ‘The Grove’ with the central question being when you come from collective culture how and when do you self-identify, and how do you know if that’s right,” she said. “I was writing ‘The Grove’ for myself and once the narcissistic part of myself has been assuaged, I got excited about the parents of this kid asking these existential questions. Then I started looking at how Nigerians got here in the first place. That took me to three, and then five, and then nine plays, and then I made the executive decision that that’s enough.” 

And Udofia is sticking to that in spite of her mother’s encouragement to write 11 – one more than August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburg Cycle.

Udofia says she’s glad to have her plays back in the Bay Area, which she calls her “quasi-home.”  When she was at ACT, she and the actress and writer Jahmeela Biggs, a fellow student at the time, started the Nia Project, doing Shakespeare with students in the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood.  

Udofia is happy that “In Old Age” is coming to the Magic, which produced both “Sojourners,” the origin story of the cycle and “runboyrun,” part three in 2016. She appreciates the support of the Magic’s artistic director Loretta Greco.

“It was the start of what has been a lovely, lovely relationship,” she said. “And they don’t go for the easy ones. They choose the plays where it’s like, ‘There needs to be an upstairs and a downstairs, and there needs to be a tree growing out of the ground.’ I really appreciate it because if they do it, it makes it easier for other theaters to do it. I’m forever in love with the Magic Theatre and Loretta Greco is a phenomenal director.”

March 27- April 21
Magic Theatre, San Francisco

Tickets and more info here 

In ‘La Ronde,’ a merry-go-round of trysts—with a twist

Jeunée Simon and Ella Ruth Francis in 'La Ronde' at Cutting Ball Theatre.

ONSTAGE La Ronde, a turn of the century play by Arthur Schnitzler, has 10 scenes for 10 actors. In the Cutting Ball Theater’s upcoming production (March 14-April 14), two women, Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunée Simon, will play all the roles. 

That’s just one of the challenges to putting on this play, says the Cutting Ball’s artistic director, Ariel Craft, who directs this production. But she says that they tried doing it different ways and no matter how great the men doing the roles were…it just didn’t work. 

“In a 100-year -old play about sex, some misogyny is, of course, going to arise,” Craft said. “When we had men with archaic misogyny in their mouths, it just sounded wrong. We thought if we put women in the roles, we can deconstruct that misogyny, and that’s exactly what’s happening.” 

Each of the play’s character is in two of the 10 scenes, structured around sexual trysts. For example, the first scene is a sex worker and a soldier, then the next has the soldier and a parlor maid, etc. so one character cycles out. 

Francis and Simon are on stage throughout. “They have to create characters together,” Craft said. “So we have two very different actors with different bodies and instincts and voices, and they have to decide on who this character is.”

Craft has been involved with Cutting Ball since high school, when Rob Melrose, the founder of the theater along with Paige Rogers, was her drama teacher. This is her first season as artistic director at the theater, which focuses on experimental plays and re-envisioned classics, and she says her interest is in “de-problematize the canon.”

Craft calls La Ronde “the meat and potatoes” of what the Cutting Ball does. 

“It’s something that we have always done and will continue to do with increased fervor, I hope: address classics with a revisionist approach,” she said. “We have old source text and our modern, progressive approach, and we want to observe the tension between those two.”

Ariel Craft

The play has an intimacy coordinator, Maya Herbsman, who is also the Cutting Ball’s associate Artistic Director. This is an emerging field, Craft says, and important for creating a positive working environment. 

“I would never as a director deign to think that I can single-handedly choreograph a sword fight,” Craft said. “This is the same thing, but more about emotional safety.”

Doing theater, actors can get comfortable touching without asking, Craft says. Often Herbsman has been brought in just to stage a kiss or one scene, but with so much sex, it seemed key for La Ronde to have an expert.

“I’m very much involved with staging of scenes,” Craft said. “But how do we create sex on stage that’s not just exciting to watch, but safe and consensual?”

Craft says she’s enjoying having conversations every day about intimacy and sex—the technical along with the emotional—which is not something she gets to do in her daily life. 

“We’re given a platform to do that in an interesting and safe way,” she said. “I’m  looking forward to inviting an audience into that.”

March 14- April 14
The Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco
Tickets and more information here 

Exploring consent—and its conversations—in ‘Actually’

Michael A. Curry

ONSTAGE In the first grade, Michael A. Curry had a role in “The Wiz.” He loved being on stage, and he never really considered another career.

“When I was in high school getting ready for college, I thought about it, and I realized I don’t see myself in any other profession,” the young actor said. “Since being out of school, I’ve pursued that, and it’s been humbling and rewarding. It’s truly something I want to do, and I don’t know what else I could do—and be happy anyway.” 

Curry studied theater at Morehouse College in Atlanta. After graduation, the Pittsburg native came to the Bay Area for a fellowship at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. His one-year stay has extended into three, and he’s appeared in the critically acclaimed “Black Odyssey” at the California Shakespeare Theater last year and was nominated for a Theatre Bay Area award for his work in Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of “Topdog/Underdog.” 

Now Curry, along with Ella Dershowitz, stars in Anna Ziegler’s “Actually,” opening at the Aurora Theatre Company on March 14. The show, about two Princeton freshmen named Tom and Amber who get drunk, have sex, and then wind up testifying at a sexual misconduct hearing, has already been extended. 

The play deals with conversations we are having personally and as a society, Curry says. 

“It’s an exploration of what exactly is consent,” he said. “The play explores the grey area we live in and how we decide what is true.”

Curry said he wanted to be part of the production due to the topic and because of Ziegler’s writing. 

“First off, I was interested in the structure of the play,” he said. “It’s very presentational when you’re reading it, and I was interested in how the director would activate it. I really like what Tracy Ward, the director, is doing and how she’s utilizing the space and not falling into a pattern of ‘Hey, we’re going to sit and talk to you about what happened.’”

Ella Dershowitz and Michael A. Curry in Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Tracy Ward. Photo by David Allen

Curry says he’s been part of a lot of conversations about consent, particularly when he was in college a few years ago. Morehouse, an all male school, is next to Spelman, an all female school, and the college set up discussions and taught students about the subject.  

Curry appreciates the characters’ backstories.

“My character, Tom, is going through being a Black man in an Ivy League school and there’s all this societal pressure from coming out of maybe an underserved community and now the pressure is on him to do all these great things, and he’s standing on the shoulders of people who brought him here, and at the same time he just kind of wants to be a kid,” Curry said. “Amber is trying to find out what she stands for outside of what she thinks she should stand for because people are telling her to.”

“Actually” doesn’t spell out for people what happened, Curry says. He hopes audiences will think about the play and keep the discussion going afterwards. 

“We hope people will let us know the what their thoughts are and how they feel,” he said. “We want to hear what they think happened.”

Through May 5
Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley

Tickets and more info here

In ‘Yoga Play,’ Dipika Guha twists commerce into comedy

Dipika Guha

ONSTAGE When Dipika Guha got her Bachelor’s degree in English from University College London, she wasn’t thinking of being a playwright. She’d just moved with her family from Russia, and before that she’d been living in India, so mostly she was concentrating on just adapting to the environment. And she didn’t consider writing plays as a viable job. 

“I was sort of unaware new plays were being written,” she said. “We read some Chekhov and Ibsen, and after I graduated I worked at BBC Radio Drama, and that was the first time I became aware that new writing was happening.” 

Dipika Guha

After that Guha went on to a young writers program at the Royal Court in London, joining in the “great and wonderful and unhappy plight of writers in rooms everywhere,” as she tells it .

Guha’s most recent work, Yoga Play, opens at the San Francisco Playhouse on March 16. The play is a comedy, in which “yoga apparel giant Jojomon is hit with a terrible scandal that sends them into freefall. Desperate to recover their earnings and reputation, newly hired CEO Joan stakes everything on an unlikely plan.”

Guha says she owes Yoga Play, and pretty much every play she has written, to the Pulitzer Prize winning- playwright Paula Vogel. After Guha wrote her first play, she sent it to Vogel, who was teaching at Brown University at the time. 

“She called me a couple months later and said, ‘I’ve got very bad news for you. I think you’re a playwright, and I think you should come to Brown and study playwriting with me.’ So she is responsible, for better or worse, for my career.”

When Vogel moved to Yale, Guha went with her, getting her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama. Her plays include The Art of Gaman, Unreliable, and Azaan. She also writes for TV, currently working on Rainy Day People for AMC, about a family-run wellness clinic to treat addiction. 

CEO Joan (Susi Damilano*, center), prepares for a meeting with executives Fred (Ryan Morales) and Raj (Bobak Bakhtiari). Photo by Ken Levin

Guha considers herself lucky to be doing what she’s doing. 

“I didn’t just like theater—I loved it right from when I was a child,” she said. “I had a visceral reaction when I was onstage. When I was seeing theater and doing it myself, I was so unspeakably happy just somewhere really deep. It took a long time to realize I could be brave enough to do it. I didn’t know how to make a living at it. There were no artists in my family. I took a long time to decide I loved it enough to throw myself at it.”

Yoga Play came about when South Coast Repertory commissioned Guha to write a play having to do with Orange County. She had come to California with her husband, who is studying at the University of California, Berkeley, and was thinking about the state, and what it means in people’s imaginations. Guha thought of California as a place to come to reinvent yourself. For her, it symbolized the peace movement, and she also thought of it as a place people come to make money. She saw the desire for money and peace intersecting in yoga and commercialism. (According to its notes, “Yoga Play is a journey towards enlightenment in a world determined to sell it.”)

Romola (Ayelet Firstenberg*, center), teaches mindfulness to executives Fred (Ryan Morales) and Raj (Bobak Bakhtiari). Photo by Ken Levin

Guha hadn’t gone to yoga classes in India, but she started to in Berkley and Orange County for research. She had an experience in class (which she didn’t want to reveal so as not to give away too much) that crystallized the turning point in the play. 

“I will say I was the only person of color in that room and the teacher thought I was supposed to know about something because I was Indian,” she said. 

Writing comedy is unusual for Guha, but it was something she enjoyed, working with a group of playwrights at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and then attending a retreat and doing workshops at South Coast. 

“It was so fun,” she said. “I loved the process of writing this play—it was very joyful.”

March 12- April 20
San Francisco Playhouse

Tickets and more info here 

Review: Carrying the weight of diaspora in ‘Her Portmanteau’

Iniabasi (Eunice Woods) in Mfoniso Udofia’s 'Her Portmanteau.' Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE A young woman frantically shouts into a graffiti-scrawled pay phone in a shabby airline terminal. She clutches a green handbag and tries to keep an eye on her red valise, while attempting to get a message across to someone on the other end of the line.

She is speaking in a language many of us don’t understand to someone we cannot identify, and yet her voice is so anxious, her body language so tense that we immediately understand what she is going through. She is stranded, she does not know where to go, and—over static and a bad connection—she is desperately trying to communicate with that distant person.

This is Iniabasi (Eunice Woods), a stranger in a strange land.

So we sigh with relief when a young woman approaches her, telling her that she is her sister Adiaha (Aneisa Hicks) and she has come to take her home to her apartment.

Sisters maybe, but even their clothing underscores their differences. Iniabasi, coming from some very warm climate, is wearing only a light windbreaker and flats. Adiaha is in a winter parka and boots, with a scarf wrapped so high on her face that you can only see her eyes.

Iniabasi is reluctant to go with her, but figures it’s a better option than waiting at the airport. When she arrives at the apartment, she is hesitant to take off her jacket and keeps close watch over her bag and valise—her portmanteau.

Adiaha (Aneisa Hicks), Iniabasi (Eunice Woods) and Abasiama (Kimberly Scott, left) in Mfoniso Udofia’s ‘Her Portmanteau.’ Photo by Kevin Berne.

Her Portmanteau (through March 31 at ACT’s Strand Theatre) is part of the Ufot Family cycle, a series of nine plays by Mfoniso Udofia exploring the history of Nigerian immigration to America through the eyes of three women in one family. “I want to illuminate that intersection. I am Nigerian. I am American. I will not choose,” Udofia states in the program notes.

The playwright is a first-generation Nigerian American with a strong connection to Bay Area theater. A graduate of ACT’s MFA program, her two earlier plays in the cycle, Sojourners and runboyrun, were produced at the Magic Theatre; ACT has commissioned Udofia to write another installment of the cycle.

Concurrently with Her Portmanteau, the Magic is staging another play in the Ufot Family drama, In Old Age. Both are directed by Victor Malana Maog, named one of American Theater magazine’s “People to Watch.” The two have collaborated closely in the past. “As a person born in the Philippines and raised in America, I’m interested in stories that wrestle with otherness,” Maog explained in an interview in the program. “On a deep personal level, I know what it means to be in another country, to be ripped from your parents, and the childish hope—even the adult hope—of reconnecting.”

Playwright Udofia uses language brilliantly to underscore alienation and confusion as well as family ties that run deep. There are over 520 languages in Nigeria, and, she explains, “You can’t write a truly authentic Nigerian play without using different languages.”

In Her Portmanteau, the characters have varying degrees of ease within one of those languages, Ibibio. Iniabasi assumes her half-sister, born and raised in the US, does not know her language, and she makes barbed comments in front of her. She’s taken aback when Adiaha, like many children of immigrants, actually does understand—and responds in kind.

Woods’ portrayal of Iniabasi is mesmerizing: her cold and aloof manner thinly veils the deep pain inside. She recoils when her mother Abasiama (Kimberly Scott)—whom she hasn’t seen for decades—tries to greet her with a hug. She rebuffs her sister’s efforts to welcome her with home cooking, mocking her use of Jiffy muffin mix instead of yams to accompany a traditional Nigerian stew.

She casts a disparaging eye on four garish psychedelic paintings on the wall of her sister’s apartment. When Adiaha tells her that a friend painted them and gave them to her, Iniabasi declares, “He hates you!”

In return, Adiaha bristles when Iniabasi informs her that she has no right to be called by the honorific “Elder Sister,” even though she is the oldest in the family that she grew up with in America. When Iniabasi pulls the elder sister card and tells Adiaha, “You are very disrespectful,” the calm, accommodating Abasiama, has finally had enough. “And you are a delight!” she responds, her once encouraging voice dripping with sarcasm.

As secrets and truths are revealed, the sisters begin to realize they do not understand each other’s lives, sorrows, or aspirations. Iniabasi assumes she is soon going to be bringing her young son to join her “in a big house in Massachusetts.” Adiaha and their mother know that is not in the plan.

Scott plays Abasiama with warmth and restrained dignity, trying every way she can think of to please both her daughters and make peace between them. But despite her efforts, Iniabasi’s sharpest anger is directed to her mother. She accuses her of abandoning her so that she could continue her studies, leaving her to be raised in Nigeria by her father. “You are the absolute winner of losing,” she spews.

Abasiama (Kimberly Scott) in Mfoniso Udofia’s ‘Her Portmanteau.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Alone and filled with sorrow, Abasiama recognizes that Iniabasi’s red portmanteau seems to be the very one that she used on her journey to America, three decades earlier. She cannot resist opening the suitcase to make sure…and then the deepest secrets are revealed. It is like opening a Pandora’s Box when she discovers what’s inside.

There are moments of real tenderness between the women as they desperately attempt to both justify their own lives and actions, and make room for each other somehow. They are tightly bound by family ties, and torn apart by circumstances: Their relationships both nurturing and suffocating.

The conflicts Udofia, Maog, and the excellent cast wrestle with reach the very soul of mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships, battered by issues of abandonment, regret, and the harsh reality of immigrant life. Unfortunately, the resolution seems quite tepid in comparison to the rest of the play.

Perhaps more complex solutions await in the rest of Udofia’s Ufot Family cycle. They are definitely worth waiting for.


Through March 31
ACT Strand Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here

Review: ‘Fiorello!’ sets the LaGuardia legend to rousing music

Colin Thomson as Fiorello LaGuardia with the Ensemble in 'Fiorello!' Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

ONSTAGE For those unfamiliar with Fiorello LaGuardia, the friend-of-the-working class Republican who fought Tammany Hall to become the 99th Mayor of New York City, the revival of the musical Fiorello! will be a revelation. (The 42nd Street Moon production plays at the Gateway Theatre through March 17.)

Who knew that a Republican would make his political chops supporting striking women sweatshop workers, representing the poor pro bono and fighting for immigrants?

Who can imagine a politician refusing to be corrupted in the one of the most corrupt political eras, campaigning in Italian, Yiddish and Croatian?

And for those who do know of LaGuardia, it is a delight to see the ardent social reformer, populist member of Congress, and WWI flying ace celebrated in this clever, rough-and-tumble musical now in production by 42 Street Moon at the Gateway Theater.

We are introduced to the paradox of Fiorello by his beleaguered legal assistants, Morris Cohen (Matt Hammons) and Neil (Sean Fenton), who open the show with a revealing duet, “On the Side of the Angels.” Neil belts out a joyful paean about how wonderful it is to work for this boss. “What a man, what a job! All these people who look to us for justice, trust us! My life will be selfless and pure—like Upton Sinclair!”

Morris on the other hand, laments how hard it is to work for the crusading attorney for long hours and low pay. “The line of poor and friendless – endless! The bench stays crowded, it’s a regular Wailing Wall. Penniless and helpless, he collects them all.”

Still another dimension to Fiorello is provided by a third co-worker, Marie (Katrina Lauren McGraw), the snappy, efficient legal secretary who is secretly in love with her squat, tough-talking and volatile boss.

Colin Thomson as Fiorello LaGuardia. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

Like many of 42ndStreet Moon’s productions, Fiorello! is a revival of a Tony and Pulitzer Award-winning show that ran for two years on Broadway. The book is by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott; the music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the duo who went on to compose Fiddler on the Roof.) This production is directed by Karen Altree Piemme with musical direction by Daniel Thomas.

The legendary Fiorello (Colin Thomson) shows up to support the Waistmakers Union when one of the union leaders, Thea (Amanda Johnson) is arrested. The strikers are harassed by union thugs, told to “move along” by a Tammany-paid cop, and even jailed—but still they persist. They sing on the picket line: “Must we sew and sew simply to survive—So some low so-and-so can thrive?”

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, party boss Ben Marino (Chris Vettel) and his henchman are in a smoke-filled backroom playing cards and deciding who will be the next Republican candidate on the ballot “who’s willing to lose” against the Tammany machine. “Politics and poker, shuffle up the cards and find the joker!”

Some of the best scenes are of Fiorello campaigning throughout his precinct with his theme song, “The Name’s LaGuardia,” appealing to garment workers, then to Italian immigrants (Amici!) vowing to end the Austrian occupation of Trieste (who knew that would be a vital campaign platform in New York in 1915) and in Yiddish on Delancey Street, (Tammany es nicht kosher!) where he is cheered on with a joyful freylach. Here the choreography by Jayne Zaban really shines.

“A Little Tin Box” depicts the depths of corruption from Tammany Hall, from the judges and the garbage company to the police officer on the beat. Under questioning from the district attorney, the Tammany politicians claim they could afford their Rolls Royce and yachts by giving up smoking, forgoing lunch and putting the pennies in “A little tin box, that a little tin key unlocks. There is nothing unorthodox, about a little tin box!”

Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

As you can probably tell, the best thing about this show is Sheldon Harnick’s brilliant lyrics, especially when sung by McGraw, Johnson, Hammons, and other strong voices in the company. They capture the era better than the projections of newspaper headlines on the back wall of the stage, some of which seem completely irrelevant to the political issues at hand.

And though the action is lively and the energy high, the pacing of the show is cumbersome and slowed down by the constant change of scenery (and some costumes). The stage at Gateway Theater is not large, but there are ways—and 42ndStreet Moon has accomplished this well in other productions—of moving quickly through many scenes without rearranging the furniture every time. Sometimes even the actors seemed impatient with the scene and costume changes.

Fiorello! is a show worth reviving. When a new crop of Congresswomen and men follow in his footsteps and proudly reflect both America’s diverse communities and a commitment to social justice, the pioneering Fiorello definitely deserves a place in the spotlight.

Through March 17

Golden Gate Theatre, SF. 
More info here

Review: The gleaming, steaming ‘Hamilton’ machine

Cast of 'Hamilton.' Photo by Joan Marcus, SHN.

ONSTAGE OK, Thomas Jefferson as Slick Rick got me.

Dazzlingly embodied by actor Simon Longnight in the latest touring production of Hamilton to hit SF (through September 8 at SHN Orpheum Theatre), Jefferson is written as an effete elite, a plantation-owning coward who hid out in Paris during the Revolutionary War. Like everyone else in the play, his lines tumble forth in a barrage of hip-hop cadences: The choice to have Jefferson sound like one of rap’s original long-form fabulists, with a dose of Shock G’s classic East Bay comedic alter ego Humpty Hump thrown in, is pretty genius, especially given Rick’s foreign origins and Hump’s hilariously pompous self-inflation. (Longnight, who also plays the earthier dandy Marquis de Lafayette, is in possession of the play’s biggest special effect: His hair flips from braids to fade in a matter of moments.)

References like this pour forth like the characters’ cleverly woven streams of dialogue in this retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life story: a Mariah Carey trill here, some Public Enemy bluster there. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any musical marker past the mid-90s heyday of Wu-Tang Clan, though, so we’re firmly in comforting “uncle jams” territory: You won’t need a degree in hip-hopology (or a taste for Lil Peep) to bop along.

Longnight is joined by a fabulous cast, including Julius Thomas III as the hunky Hamilton, Donald Webber, Jr. as Hamilton’s fatal nemesis Aaron Burr, and Julia K Harriman as generous-hearted wife Eliza Hamilton. The production is a wonder, full of on-a-dime twists, dynamic choreography, and some truly marvelous bits of stage magic—a scene where time is rewound like a record on the actual rotating set is heart-stopping. Hamilton sweeps us from Alexander’s roots as a Caribbean “bastard” immigrant through the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, a New York law career, marriage, children, scandal, loss, and death-by-duel (hardly a spoiler). It’s all counterpointed by Burr’s own story, the ambitions, talents, friendship, and eventual jealous enmity of both men intertwined like a thorny bromance. Then comes a sweet twist at the end that shifts the whole perspective of the play, and the tears jump out.

And it remains a stunning thrill to see a stage full of faces of color. Beyond its effectiveness as a theatrical experience, Hamilton‘s famous trick of casting Black and Brown people as the Founding Fathers (and  some Mothers) guarantees a welcome break from the sea of white parts the San Francisco theater season usually offers.

So Hamilton lives up to the hype. And yet, at this point in American political history, it’s fair to ask: to what end?

Originally staged on Broadway in 2015 (and germinated in Obama’s White House in 2009), writer/actor Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a critic-proof juggernaut, thanks in part to an ecstatic young fanbase (bless them!) of the kind pioneered by Rent. Hamilton, Inc. is a gleaming, steaming machine that manages to be both the hottest bourgeois ticket in town and an Ur-symbol of #resistance. When it debuted, the play was heralded as a crowning moment of the Obama Era—here was a rousing theatrical experience in which people of all colors could see themselves reflected in the birth of United States history, where Black and Brown art forms were finally placed in the firmament of the Great White Way, where the promises of opportunity for all once again ring from the proscenium flagstones.

That seems ridiculously naive right about now, a more radical moment, when tearing down the myths of America, especially its capitalist and racial ones, is far more attractive than pumping them full of multicultural rah-rah. The politics of the play just feel off. Opportunities for retelling American history through a POC lens are squandered. (Contrast Hamilton with Suzan-Lori Parks’ searing Father Comes Home From the Wars, which unspools the Civil War through the story of a Black soldier forced to fight for the Confederacy.) Despite the casting, we are still watching a white man’s story here—literally, since Miranda was inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton.

And Miranda manages to bury Black concerns deep. Slavery itself is barely mentioned, but implied in weirdly “cutesy” ways throughout. (Would the audience rise up in rage if a white person was shown in chains?) The Three-Fifths Compromise, the original sin of this country enshrined in its founding document, which Hamilton supported, is completely elided. Instead, a major plot point becomes another compromise, the Compromise of 1790, which resolved Hamilton’s fight for what would become a national bank with Jefferson’s desire for the capitol to be established in the South. This somewhat dramatically overburdened moment is treated to a raunchy burlesque number called “The Room Where It Happened”—Marxist critics can have a field day deconstructing Hamilton‘s eroticization of the site where America embraced central banking.

Just as Obama was said to fulfill the dreams of the 1960s, Hamilton seems like the perfect culmination of a certain dream of the ’90s. I can’t tell you how many smoke-filled Detroit dorm rooms and run-down houses I sat around in with friends back then, plotting how hip-hop could take over the art world. What if we set Shakespeare to rap rhymes? (Hamilton gets a cheeky reference in to Gilbert and Sullivan, its main influence.) What if the Fly Girls where choreographed by Fosse? What if we wrote a whole hip-hopera? What if George Washington were Black? Miranda made all this happen on the grandest scale through sheer talent and will, and now that’s been done. Unfortunately, Hamilton brings along some ’90s gender and sexual stereotypes with it. Women are approvingly cat-called and sparse; villains are high-voiced, fey men; and King George is basically a somehow gayer Elton John.

Hamilton‘s strange transformation from revolutionary Broadway musical to problematic symbol of neo-liberal imperialism is fascinating. But as an airtight production that whisks you along for two breathless hours, it, like the immigrants it famously lauds (and simplifies), “gets the job done.”

Through September 8
SHN Orpheum Theatre
Tickets and more info here

Man vs Tammany in classic musical ‘Fiorello!’

ONSTAGE Here’s something you may not know: There’s a 60-year-old musical about Fiorello La Guardia, who went from being a lawyer to a congressman to running New York City. Appealingly titled Fiorello! (through March 17 at Gateway Theater), it is one of just 10 musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—other winners include Rent and Hamilton—and the score is by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who went on to write the score for Fiddler on the Roof. Tom Bosley, best known for playing Howard Cunningham on Happy Days, originated the role of the mayor in 1959, and he won a Tony for it. 

Colin Thomson is playing the title role, and even he hadn’t heard of the musical before auditioning. He’s enjoying playing a historical figure and says LaGuardia, the son of immigrants from Trieste, was a fascinating man. “He was a Republican, but not one anyone would recognize today,” Thomson says. “He fought for relatively progressive causes most of his political life.”

Among those causes were fighting corruption in the Tammany Hall machine and supporting unions: In the first act of the musical, he promises to represent the striking workers after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that killed 146 young immigrant women when their bosses locked the doors at the factory. 

LaGuardia, who was mayor during the Depression and World War II, was nicknamed “Little Flower”— definitely not for his shrinking personality but because of his 5’ 2” height. Thomson says he didn’t know much about LaGuardia before working on this musical, other than there’s an airport named after him, but the mayor’s beliefs were in tune with his. 

“He supported labor, and I’m a member of two unions for performers,” Thomson said. “He was the son of immigrants and supported immigrants’ rights, and he was not shy about working in a bipartisan way.”

Thomson says LaGuardia was a quirky man, but he didn’t let anything dissuade him from pursuing causes important to him. Thomson has been watching old clips of the mayor, and wants to do justice to LaGuardia’s style of speaking, not merely perform an impersonation. 

Colin Thomson

“There are plenty of things you could do with you body and voice to reproduce what you’re seeing in those newsreels as precisely as possible,” he says. “It is both so different from the way we express ourselves now and so unique to him, and nobody wants to watch me do some mimicry.”

There are some people around who still remember LaGuardia’s unique style, says Thomson. One of his neighbors distinctly remembers lying on the Persian rug in front of a big radio listening to LaGuardia read the funnies, which he did during a newspaper strike. A clip of him asking, “What does it all mean?” is of the most widely used non-musical samples in hip-hop.  

Doing a musical (songs include “On the Side of the Angels” and “Politics and Poker”) about a Republican politician who stopped for nothing and supported immigrants, unions, women’s suffrage is interesting in the political climate, Thomson says. 

“In some ways his personality will be reminiscent of the current president and sort of give you an idea of what he would be like if he were pursuing other things entirely,” he said. “The musical gives audiences an example of people pursuing their political and personal goals despite systemic and personal obstacles.”

Through March 17
Gateway Theatre, SF

Tickets and more info here. 

Detailing the splashy brilliance of Berkeley Rep’s ‘Metamorphoses’

From Berkeley Rep's 'Metamorphoses,' photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE When actor Benjamin Ismail was in high school, he loved Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. “They’re so primal and ancient and yet so immediate and honest,” he said about the classic stories. “I love when something ancient has such a connection to now. That’s why I’m attracted to Shakespeare and Molière – there’s something so honest and true that endures. People haven’t changed all that much.”

Now Ismail gets to act out some of those stories—including Midas wishing to turn everything he touches to gold, Orpheus trying to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead, and Narcissus falling in love with his reflection– in acclaimed director Mary Zimmerman’s Tony Award-winning production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 

Ismail, who plays Hermes, Eros, and others, says the myth of Myrrh who burns with passion for her father is an example of an ancient story that feels relevant to him. 

“Not that I’ve ever been in love with my father obviously,” he said. “But it has so many parallels to coming out and having a forbidden love and wanting God to change you.”

Ismail loves getting to work with Zimmerman, a beloved, lauded opera and theater director. When people talk about her work, they start throwing around adjectives like “mesmerizing,” “compelling,” and “breathtaking.” Zimmerman has won a MacArthur Fellowship, known as a genius grant, along with her Tony, and she has done nine productions with Berkeley Rep, including Metamorphoses in the 1999-2000 season. 

“Mary Zimmerman’s reputation is a huge and she has such a rich, respected history at the Berkeley Rep,” Ismail said. “I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t want to be a part of it. I love her style.  It’s always so beautiful.”

Watching Zimmerman work is like a master class, says Ismail, a director as well as an actor.

“She has such a brilliant Comp Lit kind of brain, and the way she talks about the structure of storytelling is great,” he said. “She always says she’s an adapter not a writer, but she’s a brilliant writer.”

Rodney Gardiner and Benjamin Ismail in ‘Metamorphoses’ at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne

Her brilliance shows itself with the stage in Metamorphoses, the centerpiece of which is a large pool of water. 

“Water is symbolic of change,” she writes in the program. “To be baptized, to cross a river—these are moments of import and transformation—into eternal life, or into death.”

Ismail appreciates the drama and symbolism of the set, although he says it makes the play one of the most physically challenging he’s done. The actors spend a lot of the 90 minutes onstage in the water—making it difficult to walk without slipping, their wet clothes encumbering movement. (Often during the production, the actors lift one another.) 

Along with getting to work with Zimmerman, Ismail loves being back at Berkeley Rep (he played Louis in last season’s Angels in America.) “I was here for so long the people that work here are just as much a part of my theater family as the cast,” he said. “I love seeing people again and just kicking it with the literary manager. It’s such a beautiful community.”

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Extended till March 24
More info here