With Its Pointed Take on Miss Julie, the Black Rep Begins Its Season with a Bang 

click to enlargeJohn (Eric J. Conners) and Clarissa (Alicia Revé Like) dread another visit from Miss Julie.

PHILLIP HAMER

 

Clarissa and John lead stable lives on the Hodge Tobacco Plantation. Both are free black people in Reconstruction-era Virginia, employees of a never-seen white man who is dying. They are skilled (he as a foreman, she as a traditional healer and all-purpose caregiver) and intelligent, certainly able to roll with whatever changes come after the death of Captain Hodge.

Except for Miss Julie. Neither of them are prepared for what Miss Julie is about to do to their world.

Playwright Mark Clayton Southers' Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a rewritten version of August Strindberg's drama Miss Julie, which is about the dangerous flirtation between upper-class Miss Julie and the servant John. Southers moves the action from class-conscious Sweden to a supposedly class-free America in which all participants are free and equal. This allows him to play with issues of race, power and wealth inequality — and Southers doesn't play nice. The Black Rep's current production of the play, directed by Andrea Frye, is prickly and pointed, with a tendency to direct those points into our most tender area — the conscience. It's a play that uses family secrets, American history and the very tense present to leave a lasting mark.Eric J. Conners and Alicia Revé Like are very good as John and Clarissa. They are nominally a couple, but both still long for former lovers. Conners plays John as a man who faces all potential conflicts with confidence. Like's Clarissa is depressed, a woman emotionally broken by the unexplained disappearance of her mother. John, who loves a good time, complains at one point that Clarissa can't escape the slave mentality; she denies herself any enjoyment and knows only work and sorrow.

 

Laurie McConnell's Julie is a monster, plain and simple. The daughter of Captain Hodge, she's the smartest, the prettiest and the most important person in the room — in her own stated estimation. She also believes she's the best friend John and Clarissa could ever want. This despite Julie's habit of dismissing Clarissa as an inferior, refusing to believe her black "friends" could have dreams or desires outside of the plantation and her liberal use of racial slurs. If Facebook were around in 1888, Miss Julie would start a lot of posts with "I'm not racist, but..."

Miss Julie has set her sights on sleeping with John, and she's not shy about letting him know (and in front of Clarissa as well). She caresses, she touches inappropriately and even throws herself in John's path. This, despite knowing it's a death sentence for John. But John is undeniably attracted to her despite (or perhaps because of) the danger. Frye paces this deadly courtship as a series of interrupted trysts that draw Julie and John inexorably closer.

By the time it's all over the balance of power has swung to Clarissa. Her kindness and her ability to play the game — the game being control — see her through. Like delivers her final speech not entirely as a valedictory; she hones the razor edge of Southers' play to its sharpest point: This game we're playing destroys the winners as well as the losers. Maybe it's time to change the rules.;

 

Ron Himes, Founder and Producing Director of The Black Rep has been added to the Better Family Life Art project that seeks to beautify blighted buildings with paintings of prominent black St. Louisan

Ron Himes, Founder and Producing Director of The Black Rep has been added to the list of prominent black St. Louis politicians, entrepreneurs and entertainers that have been selected to have their portraits decorating boarded-up doors and windows of blighted buildings in St. Louis.

Colorful paintings of local figures such as activist Jamala Rogersand former state Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks adorn doorways and windows of vacant homes along Page Boulevard between Kingshighway and Union Boulevards. St. Louis nonprofit Better Family Life commissioned local artist Christopher Green to paint the portraits for the organization's Beyond the Walls project, which began in 2011.

"Through the Beyond the Walls mural program, we have looked at different individuals who have contributed to the advancement of the community," said James Clark, vice president of community outreach at Better Family Life.

In addition to honoring community heroes, Clark said the paintings are intended to beautify the neighborhood and "raise the esteem and deliver hope to individuals and families whose lives have been marginalized."

Clark said the nonprofit plans to expand the project to more vacant properties on North Skinker Parkway.

For one resident, the neighborhood needs more than paintings to restore properties in the community.

"The murals are better than the ugly boarded up houses, but to be honest, I would much prefer the city to tear them all down and build better housing or rehab them and sell them to members of the same community," Kim Boyd said.

 But she said the paintings have sparked conversation with her teenage daughter who asked her about Larry Hughes, a subject of one of the artworks.

"That part is good because it helps to bring awareness to those people, which in turn can help to inspire the next generation," Boyd told the Post-Dispatch.

Clark, of Better Family Life, said the project is "lighting a spark" that could eventually create more development and attract potential investors to the community that could "increase property value, lower insurance rates and start a renaissance."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Black Rep closes its 39th season with Twisted Melodies, a moving exploration of the connection between genius and madness, expertly conveyed in an evocatively personal performance by actor Kelvin Roston, Jr, who also researched and wrote the script. The one man show with music delves into the mind and mental illness of singer songwriter Donnie Hathaway in an affecting, heartbreaking portrayal that's filled with songs, reverence and genuine anguish.

St. Louis native and Vashon High graduate Donnie Hathaway was an extremely talented, rising star in R&B music during the 70s whose career was cut short by his untimely death. A prodigious pianist, Hathaway grew up under his grandmother's roof and tutelage. A strict, Bible-quoting woman with a commanding will, she taught him to play piano and sing gospel. Her insistence that he constantly practice piano seems both an acknowledgement of talent and of her grandson's mental illness. You see, Hathaway was also diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. His illness eventually consumed him.

As with many artists, Hathaway found that the medicine he took stifled his creativity and ability to compose music even more than it helped control his symptoms. Though his grandmother did her best to prepare him by providing a grounding point and focus in music, it was not enough to sufficiently shield him, and as he matured, his episodes became increasingly intense and disruptive.

Twisted Melodies takes place in a single day, opening at a studio recording session then quickly moving to Hathaway's small, dingy room in a boarding hotel. The place seems a bit cramped and closed up, perhaps mirroring Hathaway's attempts to keep schizophrenic episodes at bay through rigid order and control. In the course of an evening, we watch and listen as Hathaway tells us of his life and love in between episodes filled with genuine terror and confusion. He frequently speaks to someone in the room that we cannot see, and he seems to see the audience, viewing us as an ensemble of guardian angels sent to help.

An inventive bit of writing, this recognition accentuates Hathaway's loosening grip on reality and is enhanced by the ominous, sometimes angry sound design created by Rick Sims. Having helped developTwisted Melodies as part of The Black Reps programs to nurture and support artists and original work, Ron Himes directs with certainty and a deep understanding of the story. Roston's performance is gripping -- at times the audience is moved to sing along, at other times they are left to gasp, astonished at Hathaway's complete breakdown and how easily the walls of reality crumble.

The story occasionally gets lost in the performance, and it's not always easy to understand Roston's character transitions. Some work to clarify the exposition would add a strong through line to the show, helping to increase tension and drive to the tragic denouement. Additionally, I found it incredibly disconcerting that the now-deceased character Hathaway returns to the stage for an encore song after the story's end. Roston fully commits to his character and performance, however, and largely succeeds in taking the audience inside the artist's troubled mind. He deftly embodies both the genius and madness, using his voice, slight ticks, and changes in posture to transition as his mind grapples with lucidity. At times inspired, at times violently paranoid, and sometimes frightening, we see the ugly and overwhelming power mental illness can hold over a person.

Thankfully, there are moments of genuine beauty between the madness as we get stirring, passionate versions of Hathaway's most popular hits, as well as some gospel and a touch of Roberta Flack. Roston delivers strong renditions and has his curation of music suits the theme and emotional tenor of the show. His voice is evocative and reminiscent of Hathaway, and he fills the theater with emotion and presence.

Talent brought Hathaway a bit of fame and fortune, but it was not enough to overcome his mental illness. His story is artfully and respectfully detailed by The Black Rep in Twisted Melodies, running through May 1 in Washington University's Edison Theater.

A night at ‘The Colored Museum’ makes for a magical evening

  • By Kenya Vaughn
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Seating was beyond capacity.

Those who could not find a seat were forced to stand and look down from the balcony as the Black Rep revisited George C. Wolfe’s African-American theatre staple, “The Colored Museum,” at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis last Monday.

By the start of the show, the balcony was also full.

In fact, there was barely a piece of wall to lean against anywhere within CAM that offered the slightest vantage point of the performance.

The original plan was to rotate the 11 skits about the black experience that comprise the play throughout the museum, but the size of the crowd required a shift in logistics.

The company of performers would have to stay put in the lecture area, but the show went on – and it was glorious.

The Black Rep presented the free staged reading of the play on June 20 as part of the 6th Annual Project 1VOICE/1PLAY/1DAY – an event presented in association with a variety of other theater companies, museums, and institutions throughout the U.S. and abroad as a fundraiser for programming and activities.

This showing wasn’t the norm for The Black Rep. Aside from the venue, the cast featured stage veterans paired with local celebrities – most of them popular media personalities.

Debra Bass of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bonita Cornute of KTVI-TV, Carol Daniel of KMOX Radio, Art Holliday of KSDK-TV, Gary Gunter of Radio One St. Louis and The American’s own Wiley Price were among them.

Each performer seemed to relish their time in the spotlight. The veterans coached and directed the unlikely actors, and the result was something bucket lists are made of.

“The Photo Session” exhibit featured Bass, who is fashion editor for thePost, and Price, The American’s veteran photojournalist, pretending to be on the other side of the camera.

They posed and pony-walked across an imaginary runway, personifying Wolfe’s skit that brings Ebony Magazine print models to life.

Price elicited howling laughter as he strutted across the stage, relying on the years of what he’s seen while snapping photos from the end of the runway. Bass was as smug and pretentious as any stereotypical supermodel as she embodied a runway diva.

Even though 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of “The Colored Museum,” the themes resonated profoundly with the audience – and the performers.

Mama Carol on the couch

“The Colored Museum” was created nearly 10 years before Tyler Perry caught on with audiences as an urban stage producer/writer/director/star, but Daniel’s performance as the church-going mother who takes no mess from her adult wayward son seemed to be plucked from any given “Madea” production.

For “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” CAM echoed with laughter as Daniel delivered a powerful backhand to her son for “using the Lord’s name in vain.”

The skit pokes fun at the formulas of drama found in African-American film, television and urban theatre. It also featured Holliday as a classically-trained theatre announcer who presented on-site awards for their most outlandish performances.

Daniel’s spot-on portrayal of the stereotypical urban stage matriarch continued as she plopped her entire body across the couch – which is a standard of the set – and crawled across the floor in the name of “her baby” in order to secure her statue. This bit caused even her fellow cast members to erupt with laughter in the middle of the performance.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t quit my day job,” Holliday joked after being greeted with a high five following his performance.

He was actually quite good. They all were. 

Other crowd favorites included “Cooking with Aunt Ethel,” “The Gospel According to Miss Roj,” “Soldier with a Secret” and “Lala’s Opening.”

But the undisputed champion of laughter for the evening was “The Hair Piece,” featuring Cornute.

The exhibit features two wigs fighting for the attention of their owner – and demanding to be worn on her next date. CAM erupted when the wigs went after each other like catty “frenemies” to persuade Cornute’s character.

“I played one of the wigs in college,” Lula Gladden said with pride as she waited for the particular skit to be played. “It was so much fun.” 

 

BWW Review: Harrowing TWISTED MELODIES at The Black Rep  

By Chris Gibson

Donny Hathaway is the very definition of "tortured genius", a singer/songwriter with velvety pipes, and melodies that were both memorable and timeless. Just listen to the gritty truths he expresses on his breakthrough tune, "The Ghetto (pt. 1)", or his collaborations with Roberta Flack, particularly "The Closer I Get to You" or "Where is the Love?", and try and not fall right into the mood that each song creates. The tragedy of the whole thing is that Hathaway suffered from schizophrenia, often hearing voices in his head that ultimately led to his terribly untimely demise. This is by no means your typical revue or jukebox musical, but an internal exploration of the demons that haunted Hathaway, and from which he ultimately could not escape.

While some of his lighter and happier times are explored by creator/performer extraordinaire Kelvin Rolston, Jr., the bulk of this piece titled TWISTED MELODIES, is tied into his depiction of the way the thoughts in his head affected his life and work. It's harrowing at times, delving deeply into the troubled soul of a man capable of so much. But, it's honest as well, and at brief moments, absolutely joyful. And, Rolston more than holds his own vocally, and on keyboard. It's truly schizophrenic in its own way, and it deserves your time and attention. Catch The Black Rep's outstanding and compelling ride through musical madness at the Edison Theater through May 1, 2016.