Review: “Mlima’s Tale” (Griffin Theatre Company)

Review: “Mlima’s Tale” (Griffin Theatre Company)

David Goodloe and ensemble/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Lynn Nottage has tackled a variety of injustices, from factory layoffs harming a dedicated community of Pennsylvania workers in “Sweat” to the mutilation and dehumanization of women in the war-torn Democractic Republic of Congo in “Ruined.” Her work has always been political in dimension and personal in scope, with characters we care about claiming their pain and occasional triumph. The same is true of “Mlima’s Tale,” a Midwest premiere now being produced by Griffin Theatre — even when the play’s tragedy is that some characters do not care enough.

Though Mlima (David Goodloe) is a “big tusker” elephant, rather than a human being, he tells us about his life, his grandmother, his children, and his partner whom he loves. We identify with this creature who has a life independent of those who wish to harm him. We see him for who he is, a proud fighter and loving family figurehead. He lives on the Serengeti in Kenya, and while he is nominally protected by understaffed park rangers, poachers murder Mlima in the opening minutes of the play. This is a spoiler, but revealing such brutality to you is only part of Nottage’s project. Mlima’s body is buried, but his tusks are removed and sent into the city, where the chief of police (Lewon Johns) and shady businessmen (Michael Turrentine and Ben Chang) work to send the ivory out of the country and to an international buyer (Sarah Lo), ensnaring a conflicted ship captain (Collin McShane) and sneaky ivory dealer (Christopher Thomas Pow) along the way. As parts of Mlima travel to Malaysia and Vietnam, his spirit travels alongside all those who choose to ferry him. Mlima’s tusks are prized for their perfect symmetry, but that is all anyone sees of the ghost literally haunting them onstage; Mlima watches and waits and marks each transgressor with white chalk dust, announcing their sins to the audience.

David Goodloe, Christopher Thomas Pow, and Lewon Johns/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Director Jerrell L. Henderson and movement designer Jacinda Ratcliffe do remarkable work with Goodloe. His death scene is horrifying to watch; he twitches, with one arm reaching out in warning to the elephants far ahead of him. He takes up space in quiet ways, always ready to claim his poachers — moving not quite as an elephant, and not quite as a man. He is mesmerizing in the role, and the connection between the destruction (and deconstruction) that happens to an elephant and the destruction that happens to men of color around the world is deeply apparent in Henderson’s staging. Every character involved handles Mlima’s tusks, but none of them see him standing right there.

As Mlima travels farther from home, his steps become less and less certain; he, too, is covered in white chalk and paint, and he slurs his words, unable to be who he is, dissected and taken violently from his life and home. It is a haunting sight. Even when the actors onstage all move together as one collective elephant, there is no release. Because there is no safety in numbers, only separation and advantage taken by others.

Nottage is the best living playwright in America, and her intelligent stagecraft is on full display here. With each two-handed scene — between poachers, between a park ranger and the chief of police, between a customs agent and the ship captain, between a buyer and seller — the stakes actually decrease. We want the park ranger to obtain Mlima’s tusks, but he is marked when he accepts selling the press a lie; he is marked despite his good intentions and desires for his country. When the ship captain accepts paying a bribe to get out of his smuggling operation, Mlima marks him; but his choice is less involved with Mlima, less connected to where he has traveled from. The farther Mlima gets from home, the easier it becomes for people to make ignorant, even willfully immoral decisions. This is how the world works, Nottage shows us. The less we see, the less we care about the world around us. And the less we care, the less willing we are to do the right thing. Which is why Mlima haunts us, and stays with us long after the play ends.

Sarah Lo and David Goodloe/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

The ensemble is wonderful. Turrentine and Johns play poachers, relatives, and business acquaintances all with specificity and bite. Each relationship they create is distinct, and each relationship is tainted by power, experience, and opportunity. Pow is a delight as the less than honest moneymaker, who believes in beauty to the point that he cares little where Mlima’s tusks came from; and Chang is solid as a businessman, customs agent, and artist who don’t ask questions. When the ensemble becomes elephants, they are far more peaceful and purposeful than when they are humans. And when they become psychic tormentors to Mlima, their indifference is affecting.

Scenic designer Joy Ahn works with simple elements: ropes that can bind objects and cloths that can cover what isn’t meant to be seen. Jared Gooding’s lighting is simple and elegant, highlighting the lush difference between the plains and where Mlima ends up. L.J. Luthringer’s sound brings not only pounding urgency but jarring whispers from Mlima’s past life.

This production tells a complete and chilling tale about what is lost when we forget there are lives beyond our lives, and creatures and people that deserve protection beyond ourselves.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An elephant’s tusks are poached, but his ghost haunts us.

Show: “Mlima’s Tale”

Company: Griffin Theatre Company

Venue: Raven Theatre Chicago ( 6157 N Clark St)

Review: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Review: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Eric Gerard, Garrett Young, and Tevion Devin Lanier/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

“P.Y.G or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” has a lot to say about appropriation and authenticity, alongside covering a metric ton of other subjects and theatrical styles. Beyond acting as a reality show satire, an adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and a dramatic exercise in dunking on Justin Bieber, the play explores much about the way we interact across races and cultures. Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s script, combined with Lili-Anne Brown’s direction makes for a winning combination in a story that stops being nice and, slightly dulling to its impact in the end, starts getting real

Alexand Da Great (Tevion Devin Lanier) and Blacky Blackerson (Eric Gerard) are two Chicago — actually, Black is from Naperville, Xand reminds him — rappers on the cusp of major fame. They agree to star in a reality show with, as well as live with Canadian pop star Dorian Belle (Garrett Young), in an effort to gain more exposure with a larger (read: white) audience, and to make “white people bread.” Dorian wants to make music with them, having recently fallen in love with hip hop. But in order for this white artist to make authentic music, Xand and Black must school him in the ways of their art form. What starts as a series of lessons in history, and putting rocks in Dorian’s mouth to give him a growlier sound, quickly morphs into an unwanted transformation, where Xand and Black must examine whether or not they are losing their own authenticity and sense of self during the project. 

Chisholm’s script covers a lot of ground, but does so with a ton of invention and humor. Characters not only hold Real World-style confessionals, they also speak their deepest thoughts off the cuff directly to the audience, and at one point, literally mark their territory. Xand and Black question what it means to hold the spotlight as black men, something Dorian cannot possibly understand. Digs are made at polished music, such as “Hamilton” and boy band-style pop, with real world violence and injustice creeping in at the corners of every dialogue the men share. The inventiveness compliments Chisholm’s theatricality, which embraces the over-the-top nature of reality TV performances, while allowing character foibles to outstrip even the curated presentations they make of themselves. The scene work borders on the absurd at times, and if the playwright cannot sustain such an energetic dramatic build all the way through the play’s conclusion, that may partly be the point. The questions Alexand Da Great, Blacky Blackerson, and Dorian Belle tackle are not easily answered, so providing any clear answer at all to their conflict might tarnish the progress they have made together.

Eric Gerard, Garrett Young, and Tevion Devin Lanier/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

Brown continues to be one of the most dynamic directors in Chicago. She encourages actors to make physical choices, and it pays off well in “P.Y.G.,” with Gerard darting from place to place with smoothness and presence, and Young putting on a hip hop artist air that is at once awkward and endearing. Stuck between the two is Lanier, whose quiet, no-nonsense demeanor marks him the most practical and clear-eyed of the trio. The friction between the men is never less than surprising, and sparks of joy are given their full moment, so that tension bubbling under the surface never drowns out the characters’ sincere appreciation for one another.

Interstitial, absurd commercials for products such as “De-Woke Spray” and “Soundtrax” (a product that allows white people to coolly enter a room to music made and performed by black artists) abound throughout the production. They are cleverly constructed, as they were clearly shot with Jackalope members and friends, and filmed throughout or near familiar Chicago haunts. This homemade, kitschy feel makes the content of the commercials land even harder, as the separate standards held for white people and people of color mount over and over in a ridiculous world that is, sadly, an all-too-recognizable one.

Ultimately, it is hard to encapsulate how good this production is, how big it goes; it hits hard and fast, contains all manner of delightful performances, and speaks to now in a way that can be rare for new plays. Check it out if you’re a fan of electric, thoughtful theatre.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Rap, reality, and absurdity combine in this electric comedy-drama.

Show: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle”

Company: Jackalope Theatre Company

Venue: The Broadway Armory (5917 N Broadway)

Review: “The Great Leap” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Review: “The Great Leap” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Glenn Obrero/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

“The Great Leap” begins with a cool beam of light outlining a basketball court. It ends with a flash that implies destruction and sacrifice. To understand all the events that lead from that first image to the last, one must witness how cultural clashes and expectations complicate seemingly simple choices, like when to take a shot during a basketball game. Lauren Yee’s propulsive script, now playing upstairs at the Steppenwolf Theatre, invites discussion not just about who gets to excel in sports, but who gets to excel in our interconnected, globalized society.

The 1989-set story is narrated by Wen Chang (James Seol), though he patiently waits to appear until the second scene of the play, following his interpretation that on the court everyone takes turns. He coaches for the University of Beijing basketball team, where he has worked hard to recruit “tall trees” to play for him. He never wanted the job or the spotlight that ensured the government is always watching his successes and failures. But he was handed the gig from Saul (Keith Kupferer), a San Francisco university coach who taught him the game during a diplomatic visit to China in 1971. Of course, being an American, Saul also felt the need to impart wisdom about trash talk, flirting, and chasing what you want without thinking of the consequences. Though he believes “a Chinese team will never beat an American team,” Saul is in dire straits circa 1989. He needs a win to keep his coaching job, and he’s willing to host a friendly rematch with Beijing in order to make that happen. Enter Manford (Glenn Obrero), a relentless teenage phenom who wants to be the best point guard around, not just the most impressive baller in Chinatown. These three characters are set on a collision course as East meets West, with surprising revelations in store.

Yee’s work always feels personal, even as she admits in a program interview that this story is not her basketball player father’s, but a story reminiscent of her father’s. Basketball serves as a placeholder for political tension between the United States and China here, but we also see the game’s practical outcomes in each character’s story. After all, the people obsessed with and beguiled by the game are playing for much higher stakes than points. Yet the American characters don’t understand that. “It’s always your turn,” Saul tells Wen Chang. He has no idea what a bold statement that is to make when students are demanding more from their government, only to be greeted with tanks. He only sees himself as a personal and professional guide, as a friend offering friendly advice. For Wen Chang, because of where he comes from, friendly advice cannot be refused. And his inability to communicate that to anyone but the audience is what may doom him in the rematch. Though Yee’s conclusion doesn’t quite justify the heights it reaches, the journey to Wen Chang’s “turn” is engrossing and heartbreaking.

James Seol and Keith Kupferer/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Director Jessica Prudencio cleverly finds a way to make bring basketball into this world through Obrero’s physicality. Obrero is not only an insistent and effortless motor mouth as Manford, he whirls his way around Justin Humphres’ impressive courtside set with lightning speed. One notices upon entering the space that there are no basketball hoops present in the paint. But there is no need for such realism in this cross-continental play. Obrero’s free throws are poetic oopsie daisies that involve him catching the ball as he throws it. He doesn’t even need a basketball to show us how well he moves across the court, passing an invisible ball between his legs to mystify unseen opponents. In “The Great Leap,” basketball becomes a competition against one’s self, a battle between who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Seol’s stillness brands him as quietly desperate, proper in all things because that is what his government demands of him. We sympathize, even as we yearn for the electric charge brought by those who refuse to stand still.

While Humphres’ alley style set makes us spectators at a game, Keith Parham’s lights and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design transport us somewhere more personal, into the minds and hearts of each person holding the court at any given moment. Cool projection beams map out where Manford is going to travel. What is a simple path for a young man’s future is much more complex when it comes to his coach and his opponent. Parham’s harsh lights shrink down or flood the stage in the 1971 sequences, shining so bright at times, it is even impossible for the audience to see what’s coming.

And that’s fitting for a show about unintended and unforeseen consequences. Basketball may be a poetic game with clear rules, but its power comes from how players move the ball forward. In Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” taking steps may be easy or it may be hard, but it is never less than a thrilling leap into the unknown.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Basketball means cultural clashes and introspection in this thrilling drama.

Show: “The Great Leap”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: The Upstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted)

Review: “Head Over Heels” (Kokandy Productions)

Review: “Head Over Heels” (Kokandy Productions)

It’s a rare thing to find a musical that wrangles fun, simplicity and emotional depth from as much source material as Kokandy Productions’ “Head Over Heels” does. Authors Jeff Whitty and James Magruder’s book, paired with crowd-pleasing songs from The Go-Go’s manages to be sweet, without losing its bite. It’s also smart, without getting bogged down by an overwhelming amount of story, and has a very present moral center of acceptance, fit for a souped-up fairy tale.

Based on “The Arcadia” by Sir Phillip Sidney — it’s a 16th century pastoral romance; don’t worry, it won’t be on the quiz — we follow the royal family of a prospering fictional nation, made glorious by “the beat.” Whatever it is, they’ve got it. But all is not perfect; the king Basilius’ (Frankie Leo Bennett) daughter Pamela (Bridget Adams-King), a prized beauty, keeps refusing every male suitor, and her sister Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza) has found true love with a shepherd, Musidorous (Jeremiah Alsop), who the king has refused. 

To make matters worse, a prophetic non-binary oracle, Pythio (Parker Guidry), predicts a series of changes coming to Arcadia which sound grim and devastating to Basilius. There will be socially inappropriate matches for his daughters, he will become an adulterer with his wife, Gynecia (Liz Norton); then his kingdom will get a new ruler. Basilius decides to keep the predictions to himself and closest confidant Dametas (Shane Roberie), and just … grab his family and run away! But as with many fables, not every grim prediction is what it appears, and sometimes trying to prevent a future that scares you can unintentionally squash beautiful things and valid people. Will Pamela’s attendant Mopsa (Deanalis Resto) be able to confess her true feelings? Will the entire royal court fall for the mysterious amazon Cleophila (also Jeremiah Alsop)? Will Arcadia be able to sustain “the beat?” Only time will tell. 

Directing team Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson make the work of wrangling dozens of performers on a very tight playing space seem effortless. Choreographer Breon Arzell injects whimsy, fun, and inclusiveness into every stage picture. Music director Kyra Leigh ensures audience enthusiasm never wanes; each Go-Go’s song can inspire warmth and nostalgia on it’s own, but when paired with the perfectly engineered stage moment, they catapult things forward. Most songs featured in “Head Over Heels” manage to avoid the trappings of jukebox musicals, just by mirroring a character want, or a community mindset. Not every song’s a winner, however. “Vacation” is a seminal Go-Go’s song, but felt shoe-horned in for the sake of including a favorite. But this musical does such efficient storytelling in the assignment of other hits,  I can’t hold anything against it. 

This may be the hardest working cast of 2019 so far, with the bracing amount of energy they exude. It’s not hard to get invested, and I dare anyone to refrain from hooting and hollering for them. Not only are we getting phenomenal performances, we are observing too-often neglected characters (and performers) that are queer, non-binary and gender fluid individuals, fully seen and fully embraced. 

Bridget Adams-King as Pamela and Deanalis Resto as her attendant Mopsa are both a joy to watch as they navigate their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and learn how to be brave and open about their love. It doesn’t hurt that they both have resonating voices that truly compliment each other. Liz Norton as an understanding queen Gynecia plays magically off of Frankie Leo Bennett’s willful and petulant king, Basilius. The joy comes from how musically and physically different they are; Norton booms in a powerful lower register and Bennett brings a sprightly falsetto. 

This ensemble is freakishly talented, with everyone bringing their own artistic specialty to each role. Caitlyn Cerza as Philoclea ups the ante for inspiring ingenues everywhere by treating us to a magical operatic range. Parker Guidry as Pythio owns the room with the smallest gesture of their hand, along with a rotating line up of sparkling, gauzy lingerie — something new for every entrance, of course. And you can’t take your eyes off Jeremiah Alsop as Musidorous or as the armor-clad Amazon Cleophila. As Musidorous adds complexity to their gender identity, Alsop is a genuine, endearing vocal presence to observe. “Head Over Heels” is  a sterling example of how we should regard self-discovery in the real world: with open arms.   

DICE RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This glam-rock fairy tale and gender non-conforming dance party has EVERYTHING.

Show: “Head Over Heels”

Company: Kokandy Productions

Venue: Theatre Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)

Review: “Othello” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Brianna Buckley and Sarah Liz Bell/Photo:
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Babes with Blades’ entirely female/ non-binary cast “Othello” is swift on its feet, quietly ferocious, and knits in a deeper examination of male privilege than any traditional production, just by nature of not featuring any men. Part of being a man of great prominence in Shakespeare’s Venice is maintaining a spotless reputation. Building fine, upstanding man credentials takes ages of work, performed by a dedicated wife, staff and social circle. All it can take is one word to cast doubt and bring his house of cards tumbling down. So, when an outsider steps in with a reputation audacious enough to be comparable to white men, those threatened men start work immediately to wipe him out.

For any new-comers, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is the story of military machinations, jealousy and racism that arise when a Moorish general rises in the ranks of the Venetian army over Caucasian men who find his very presence an affront to their assumed superiority. When Othello (Brianna Buckley) promotes Cassio (Meredith Ernst) to Lieutenant instead of Iago (Kathrynne Wolf), the jilted ensign puts an intricate plot in motion to ensure Othello’s downfall. At Iago and Roderigo’s (Rachel Mock) prompting, Othello suspects his new wife Desdemona (Sarah Liz Bell) of cheating on him with Cassio. The lies compound, Othello’s suspicions and rage grow, and every shred of “evidence” Iago can produce brings the general closer to his own murderous implosion.

There’s a poignance that comes from having women convey the bile that pursues Othello no matter what he does. They also enact the violence directed at women whose insistent truths fly in the faces of what supposedly honorable men have said. Director Mignon McPherson Stewart and fight director Samantha Kaufman have kept their staging stark, simple and sparse. The sword and dagger work are swift punctuations, and while a stage angle may obstruct you from the action in a moment, there’s painstaking work to make sure every seat sees some interplay. What then has room to flourish are some of the more stunning performances featured on any Chicago stage.

For exceptional takes on male characters, I tip my hat to Rachel Mock as the sullen, lovelorn and malleable Roderigo, stewing in constant regret. And, as Cassio, Meredith Ernst treats us to both a bit of definitely-NOT-drunk buffoonery, and violently shaking tremors of panic when Cassio’s good name is brought to question.

Sarah Liz Bell gives us a forthright and fearless Desdemona who is left with no voice in her marriage, or ground to stand on as her husband lashes out at her every action. Ashley Fox shines as refreshingly animated and angry Aemilia, who is beyond embittered to discover she has also been her husband Iago’s pawn.

Kim Fukawa, Kimberly Logan, and Kathrynne Wolf/Photo:
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux .

There are no two better matched for their theatrical title bout than Brianna Buckley’s Othello and Kathrynne Wolf’s Iago. Wolf’s performance trades any villainous mustache-twirling for a presence that is quiet and insidious. I was disturbed at how understanding I was of his deepening levels of personal treachery. Buckley’s Othello is a  powerful joy and despair conduit in response to both encompassing happiness, and the wrenching betrayal of everyone he holds highest in esteem. I was disturbed at how ill-at-ease even the prospect of Othello taking his loved ones’ lives made me. This “Othello” is exceptionally good at forcing you to look at your own biases in the context of what happens onstage. Babes with Blades is asking you to look inward, and that is at the heart of truly compelling theater.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Shakespeare gets a much needed transfusion of bombastic feminine energy.

Show: Othello

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue:  Factory Theater (1623 Howard St.)


Review: “The Total Bent” (Haven Theatre, with About Face Theatre)

Review: “The Total Bent” (Haven Theatre, with About Face Theatre)

Pictured is Robert Cornelius singing into a microphone before a neon-lit cross blinking "Jesus Saves"

Robert Cornelius/Photo: Austin D. Oie.

You know what you’re getting into as soon as you sit down to watch “The Total Bent.” You see the full band warming up in a 1960’s-set recording studio and you vibrate with anticipation. But you’re not really ready for what the next two hours have to offer, starting with a damning gospel tune about white people can never be as good as Jesus, and ending with an emotional reckoning that is unlike anything I have seen onstage this year.
Haven and About Face’s joint production is a master class in theatricality and energy-driven performance. Lili-Anne Brown’s powerful, no holds barred direction may not solve playwright Stew and fellow composer/lyricist Heidi Rodewald’s problem establishing time and place at times, but the electric emotional current she establishes under every scene and every song ran like lightning through the audience on opening night.

Papa Joe Roy (Robert Cornelius) and his son Marty Roy (Gilbert Domally) are both talented musicians, but they are polar opposites in every other respect. Joe is a TV-sponsored preacher who questions the upright nature of the Civil Rights movement and the Montgomery bus boycott. Marty is an idealist, who wants to use gospel music to make political statements. Once the two reach an impasse, British producer, and eventual lover to Marty, Byron Blackwell  (Eric Lindahl) steps in, and encourages Marty’s questioning of God and religion. Marty soon discovers a much more ironic and self-sustaining musical voice, though Blackwell is given all the credit for his work. Meanwhile, Joe and Marty are separated by not only their beliefs and points of view; Joe fails to understand or accept his son’s sexuality, while Marty grapples with living up to his father’s expectation.

To a member, this cast is entrancing to watch onstage. Cornelius harnesses a confident coolness and forthrightness onstage, even as he swindles everyone around him. Domally as Marty transforms from a sheepish imitator to a terrific performer. And the actors in the band! Frederick Harris delights as Deacon Dennis, who calls back to each performer, and Jermaine Hill as Deacon Charlie is steady in a complicated world that rejects his intense loyalty to Joe and Marty. Brown encourages everybody in the ensemble to approach their performance full-throttle, leaving nothing left out, and so you get Breon Arzell’s impressive take on his own evocative and action-packed choreography.

The Total Bent is something special. While Domally’s movement from place to place and scene to scene via dialogue could use some clarification in the script’s studio set, the honest conflict between the men at the play’s center never fails to be gripping. Add to that, Jermaine Hill’s music direction of songs that scream subtext, and you will not find a more engaging, theatrical experience in Chicago right now.

DIE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: You are not ready for what is being sung/said.

Show: “The Total Bent”

Company: Haven Theatre, in association with About Face Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Review: “HeLa” (Sideshow Theatre)

Review: “HeLa” (Sideshow Theatre)

Deanna Reed-Foster/Photo: Jonathan L. Green.

Sideshow Theatre’s world premiere of “HeLa” is so perfectly imperfect, simple and complex, insignificant and vast, I feel like I could watch it on a loop to relive every drop of fascination, grief, shame, worry and want over and over. Author J. Nicole Brooks crafts shifting characters and relationships that resonate no matter where they land, and director Jonathan L. Green has an excellent radar for things like institutional bigotry and bodily distress that will make you uncomfortable enough to squirm. To make the ultimate PBS-flavored space opera, there’s little more you need than a shy kid with a wild imagination and a tiny, portable TV.

Nicole Michelle Haskins and Ayah Sol Masai Hall/Photo: Jonathan L. Green.

“HeLa” sheds bits of story like a comet shedding meteorites onto the surface of Earth. Exact dates and times get lost, but we follow three women tracing from sterile hospitals in 1951, to a cozy basement in the early ‘80s, to a child’s imagined future in the cold depths of space. A Little Girl (Ayah Sol Masai Hall) is left in Bird’s (Nicole Michelle Haskins) care, after an invasive illness that has wreaked havoc on the women in their family continues its destructive streak.

Henrietta Lacks and her infamous tumor cells, still multiplying and used without consent today are what bring the stories together. The same cancerous HeLa cells that immortalized Lacks and took her life are simultaneously destroying a family, inspiring a girl to go into STEM research, and becoming sentient as Jata (Deanna Reed-Foster) in the cold depths of space. The support of family (David Lawrence Hamilton and Carolyn Nelson) can’t curb it, and decades of doctors (Ann James and Matt Fletcher) are content to just watch and help it wreak havoc.

“HeLa” highlights the world of scientific curiosity and obsession, built on the backs of disenfranchised women of color, and how the Little Girl we follow fuses the two worlds together in hopes of mending decades of misdeeds. The production does this while also being uproariously funny, and deeply devastating, or sometimes just ordinary, like skipping school to go to the planetarium.

Ann James and Nicole Michelle Haskins/Photo: Jonathan L. Green.

The bastions of largely white institutions, Ann James and Matt Fletcher, are ominous and unfeeling as a collection of nurses and doctors, whose bedside manner is so unwittingly cruel you understand what would drive Black women to never return. Meanwhile,  Ayah Sol Masai Hall is a fidgeting, arm-swinging sponge of the world’s knowledge as Little Girl. She is the keeper of so many interstellar factoids, her uncle and aunt call her Dr. Youngblood.

At its heart, the show is an amazing showcase for two truly gifted performers; there’s Deanna Reed-Foster as Jata, an imaginary spacewoman, or maybe the thoughts of sentient multiplying HeLa cells blasted to space. She is all at once alone and homesick, but even with prospect of an interstellar companion, Jata prefers her own company and her own, rich never-ending stories. There’s also Nicole Michelle Haskins, brilliant and blistering as Auntie Bird, a grown up Little Girl and Henrietta Lacks herself. Her vulnerability and vitality in every facet really hammers home how little of their lives these women were allotted. We see the richness of her life, as doctors litter her medical chart with character judgments and decide she is not worthy of the breath it would take to explain her conditions or treatments. And they wonder why on earth she’d miss so many of her follow up appointments.

Jonathan L. Green has crafted a truly wonderful stage experience, and honors J. Nicole Brooks’ complex narrative, making a cohesive story from source material that is beautiful in its messiness. It’s lasting, effective, and one-of-a-kind.  

DICE RATING: d20– “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: What happens when Black Girl Magic meets Black Girl Science.

Show: “HeLa”

Company: Sideshow Theatre

Venue:  Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave.)

Review: “Small Mouth Sounds” (A Red Orchid Theatre)

Review: “Small Mouth Sounds” (A Red Orchid Theatre)

Levi Holloway, Heather Chrisler, Lawrence Grimm, Travis A. Knight, Cynthia Hines, Jennifer Engstrom/Photo: Mike Hari.

There is something unsettling about six people sitting in silence and staring out at the audience. It’s not a comforting opening stage image in A Red Orchid’s “Small Mouth Sounds.” I witnessed a good amount of people shifting in their seats at the performance I attended last Friday, and I have since wondered what inspired such nervousness. Perhaps silence onstage is interminable to people who have paid to take in dialogue, well-rehearsed and cleverly written. After all, it used to be said that audiences came to “hear” a play, not “see” it. A darker option is this: sitting in our own silence is the last thing we want to do. Little is spoken in “Small Mouth Sounds,” but a great deal of truth is communicated, whether we are ready to hear it or not.

To a person, the characters in this production are dealing with a great amount of pain. They may not speak it, but they express it in every gesture and connection they share with one another. Each has arrived at a wooded silent retreat hosted by an elusive Teacher (Meighan Gerachis), whose disembodied voice encourages them to let go of their baggage, and in fact, teach her how to live. Jan (Lawrence Grimm) is beset by troublesome flies, and can find no relief. Rodney (Travis A. Knight) seems to be a yogi whose comfort with his own surroundings irks Ned (Levi Holloway), a man so uncomfortable in his mind and spirit that he cannot find his way to asking an actual question at a Q & A session. Joan (Jennifer Engstrom) and Judy (Cynthia Hines) are struggling with health and marital issues, while Alicia (Heather Chrisler) arrives late, troubled by what seems to be a break-up. She seeks solace in focusing on the Teacher’s words, while also snacking endlessly on junk food in her cabin.

Bess Wohl’s script focuses on action in the purest sense. From time to time, characters break their vow of silence, but often, they must find ways to communicate without words. When Ned wants to tell Alicia she is beautiful, he must do so through gesture, and we as an audience must interpret what he is expressing. The audience is given no outs. Attention is required in all moments, big and small. That is no easy task, but it is an incredibly rewarding one. It is as if we in the audience are on a silent retreat with the characters, examining our own circumstances and surroundings right alongside them. While music is not a key part of the experience, in many ways watching this play felt like spending an evening at the symphony. One’s mind wanders while focusing on the rain and thunder of Jeffrey Levin’s sound design, and one connects dots about one’s own lived experiences while watching performers struggle to express their deep anguish and loss. By the time two characters are standing together, simply breathing in rhythm, the play has washed over you, taken you out of your head in order to place you back there in reinvigorated form once the lights dim. Only music — or the music of silence — can accomplish that.

Director Shade Murray ups the ante by staging moment of profound connection simultaneously with moments of humor and loneliness. The rhythm of this piece never slogs because he allows each actor to live in their current state without shortchanging what might be happening in another cabin on the opposite side of the stage. He encourages moments of humor and humanity that might be missed by a more impatient artist.

Listening is one of the hardest things to do onstage, and this ensemble must not only focus on their scene partners, but on what occurs elsewhere onstage. They do a wonderful job building an entire world of tension, and the small mouth sounds they do make only reveal more of their crises. Hines and Grimm share a particularly lovely moment bonding over the unfairness of living, while Engstrom excels at expressing possibly undue reverence for their Teacher. Chrisler’s flashes of anger and stubbornness resonate, while Knight makes the most of a moment of truth where he simply puts on a piece of jewelry. Holloway perhaps spends the most time alone, and ends up serving as the audience surrogate, confused by his surroundings, and just trying to figure out the bigger picture. Gerachis does a fine job vacillating between empty profundities and personal overshares that mark her a suspect guide for this journey.

At one point, the Teacher tells her retreaters that they may be in pain, but that they are not alone. Whether in joy or grief, struggle or triumph, they are not alone. Wohl and Murray and the performers might as well be talking to the audience in that moment. Instead, the performers look out at us, and look at each other. And rather than being unnerving, the moment provides comfort. They are not alone because we are sitting with them. We are not alone because they are looking at us. If there is a lovelier statement to be made about why we should go see a play, rather than hear one, I can’t think of it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A symphony of silence asks us to examine our lives.

DIE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Show: “Small Mouth Sounds”

Venue: A Red Orchid Theatre (1531 N Wells St)

Review: “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” (Raven Theatre Company)

Review: “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” (Raven Theatre Company)

Terence Sims, Brandi Jiminez Lee, Chanell Bell and Brianna Buckley/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Ernestine Crump’s family is in dire straits. She and her sister have lost their mother to illness, and their father to grief. He has moved the family from down South to 1950’s New York City in order to be closer to Father Devine, a religious leader whose strictures involve abstinence from romance and liquor, along with changing of all their given names. The family lives in a cramped Brooklyn basement apartment, and they are surrounded by white people who snicker and stare at them during the school day, at work, and at rest in the local park.

This situation doesn’t seem like the recipe for a delightful evening of theatre, but Raven’s production of “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” is just that, an accumulation of hard-won joy. As seen through the memories and fantasies of Ernestine, the Crumps are vibrant, optimistic, and determined — even as they struggle with inequity, despair, and indifference in the greater world.

The Crumps have settled into their strict and strange existence when Lily Anne Green (Brianna Buckley) breezes in to shake them out of their stupor. She openly discusses politics, dresses smart, drinks heavily, and has her eye set on Godfrey (Terence Sims). Ernestine (Chanell Bell) adores her big ideas and big adventures, though the teenager has yet to travel outside her new home. Her younger sister Ermina (Brandi Jiminez Lee) is more interested in dating than she is, and quicker to engage strangers and life’s possibilities. Though on the cusp of graduating from high school, Ernestine struggles to find her place in life, using Lily Anne and her eventual new white step-mother Gerte (Emily Tate) as two examples of how she might walk through the world as a woman.

Playwright Lynn Nottage is a national treasure, and the fact that she is not a household name frustrates me to no end. The woman has two Pulitzers, for God’s sake! No other woman has ever won two Pulitzers! And more importantly, no other living American playwright so deftly and lightly unfolds humanity and conflicting perspectives for her audience. She slowly teases out Godfrey and Lily’s frustrations, so that you understand how they wound up so frustrated and searching. And she even has sympathy for the white Gerte, who cannot help but unwisely compare her World War II deprivations to the systemic racism endured by Godfrey and Lily daily in this country. But Gerte also cares deeply about her new husband and his children, and desperately works to help them accept their grief. Throw in several remarkably fun fantasy sequences that Ernestine cribs from the Hollywood melodramas she devours at the neighborhood cinema, and you have a deeply humane, deeply entertaining look at one African American family experience in the 1950’s.

Emily Tate, Terence Sims and Brandi Jiminez Lee/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“Crumbs From the Table of Joy” is one of Nottage’s earlier works, and it shows. It’s a little long. Ernestine’s passivity means she makes few onstage choices that affect others. But the direction by Tyrone Phillips saves that small weakness, because he allows the characters the space they need to express themselves, often in surprising ways. These people are all desire, and their feelings run to the bone. Bell’s quiet wish for a friend at play’s end was so aching, I almost ran onstage and hugged her. Sims is all explosive, understandable rage at moments. Sometimes all you need is a cookie to calm your nerves, and Tate’s simply and hilariously communicates the comfort of that. Jiminez Lee’s vivacious spirit sends her spinning all over the stage. And Buckley is mesmerizing as the unstoppable, marvelous Lily. She takes over the apartment with ease, dripping with suggestion and spark every single moment she holds the floor. Her performance is as effortless as Lily’s wardrobe and cheerful attitude are effort-full. And it is her decline that marks the rise and fall of conflict in the play. Phillips is wise to focus so much attention on Lily in his staging, and Buckley is wise to let the audience see through the cracks, because Lily’s endurance would not be so uplifting, if we did not see how determined she is not to show others her vulnerability.

The men, women, and girls of “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” are survivors, and survival is not a losing proposition, Nottage seems to tell us. Survival is hard-won, no matter how long it lasts, and it deserves celebration. Such triumph is demonstrated in every scrap of happiness we can pull together. And out of those scraps, we build our path into the world.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A humane and heartfelt memory play that features marvelous acting.

DIE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Show: “Crumbs From the Table of Joy”

Venue: Raven Theatre Company (6157 N Clark St)

Review: “Tilikum” (Sideshow Theatre)

Review: “Tilikum” (Sideshow Theatre)

Gregory Geffrard/Photo: Jonathan L. Green.

Sideshow Theatre has rendered a profound and  gorgeous world premiere production with “Tilikum” that will move you and provoke you in the best way. Author Kristiana Rae Colon and director Lili-Anne Brown have assembled a majority female/non-binary artistic team to bring an aural and visual seascape to life, and tell this story through poetry, movement and pulsing drums.

Matt Fletcher and Gregory Geffrard/Photo: Jonathan L. Green.

“Tilikum” is a glimpse into the true story of the capture and captivity of a 12,000 pound male orca whale (Gregory Geffard), and his struggles with other captive whales (Coco Elysses, Melissa F. DuPrey and Joyce Lisa Rasa Lindsey), human trainers like Dawn (Sigrid Sutter), and the isolation his captors put him in to maintain the status quo. The park owner (Matt Fletcher) ultimately has an investment to protect, and goes to great lengths to muzzle Tilikum and downplay the injuries and deaths that have come from this increasingly hostile arrangement.

Return to the wild is never on the table; as Tilikum puts it, “fins that know walls can’t know waves again.” Now, replace that whale you’re imagining with a black man in a hoodie and know that in a very profound way, “Tilikum” is not about sea life. It’s about mass incarceration, the effects of trauma and enslavement on humans, and the injustices being dealt to incarcerated men, women, and children of color as we speak.

Though Tilikum is prone to outbursts, Dawn and the park owner would be greatly inconvenienced to lose their star performer, so they tell themselves little lies to keep their consciences clear. Lies like: these creatures are safer in captivity, they’re stage hams who perform for us because they really want to, they are our friends and would miss us. Again, this is not about whales.

Gregory Geffard is a fantastic open heart and open book as Tilikum. He holds depths of sadness, anger and joy in a world that only understands his obedience and punishes disobedience. He is in crisis to see his pod and the woman of his dreams again, but he knows he is forgotten. Music director Coco Elysses joins musicians Melissa F. DuPrey and Joyce Lisa Rasa Lindsey in portraying other female captive whales with the sounds of congo, barilles and doumbek drums. They are aloof, sinister and powerful, that is, until Tilikum begins to understand their sounds.

Gregory Geffrard and Sigrid Sutter/Photo: Jonathan L. Green.

As Dawn, Sigrid Sutter has the affectation of a perfect, carefree, 1986 Virginia Slims commercial star. She knows her part in this ocean park facade but doesn’t have the bravery to break the cycle. Matt Fletcher is an unnamed park owner filled to the brim with toxic male venom; he leers at his female job applicants and is blanket-dismissive of the real problems staring him in the face. The owner can read a little over the top and one-dimensional, but there’s something so fitting about white male stereotyping for a change.

For as rich as this production is, it doesn’t shy away from evoking the mass spectacle of orca shows, and inviting the audience to make their voices heard, too. It’s brazen, funny, and spirit-lifting above all else, and I couldn’t give “Tilikum” a higher recommendation.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Wait a minute — this isn’t strictly about whales, is it?

Show: Tilikum

Company: Sideshow Theatre

Venue:  Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave.)