Tag Archives: August Wilson

Theatre: Entertainment or art? Can it be both and still be challenging and relevant?

zelda-fichandler

Zelda Fichandler (1924-2016)

by Howard Shalwitz

The loss of my friend and colleague Zelda Fichandler, the legendary founder of Arena Stage, has got me thinking about the role of theatre in our society.

Over the past decade, I had a few cherished opportunities to compare notes with Zelda about the founding of our respective theatres. As different as Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth are, there’s one word that always came up for both of us: art. Here’s a quote from Bob Levey’s obituary of Zelda in the Washington Post:

“From the start, Mrs. Fichandler wanted… to reverse what she called, with characteristic dramatic flourish, ‘the contraction and imminent death of the art of the theater.”

And here’s a quote from Woolly Mammoth’s founding manifesto that I wrote with Roger Brady in 1978:

“Among all the art forms, theatre is the one which is least often taken seriously as a form of art… [and] it should be so taken. That is the long and short of what we propose.”

What do we mean when we proclaim that theatre is “art” rather than “entertainment?” We certainly don’t mean that theatre shouldn’t entertain, shouldn’t captivate audiences with diversion and delight and amazement. The survival of our theatres depends on this. The difference lies in what we ask our audiences to do when they’re in our theatres.

When we set out to entertain, we ask our audiences to sit back, relax, and enjoy themselves on terms they already understand. When we set out to make art, we ask our audiences to sit forward, to encounter something different, and to meet the artists halfway in figuring out how it works and what it means. Entertainment nestles us comfortably inside the lives we already lead. Art challenges us to stand outside our own experience and look at our lives and our world in new ways.

Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Every play, every production, has elements of both. But in our conversations, Zelda was concerned that theatres across America were tipping too far toward entertainment and away from art. Some of the reasons are obvious: competition for ticket sales, pressure from new forms of diversion, loss of arts education in our schools, shrinking government support.

However, Zelda saw a potentially deeper problem. A couple of years ago, she asked a question I’ll never forget: “What’s happened to the arrogance of the artist in our country?” She talked about path-breaking playwrights like Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill, and August Wilson, who boldly expanded the stylistic framework and political range of our theatre, and European stage directors like Liviu Ciulei and Lucien Pintilie, whose experimental approaches completely changed the way we look at classic works.

The forward motion of theatre as an art form depends on playwrights, directors, designers, and actors with the arrogance, the chutzpah, to try things that are different. It also depends on audiences who have the confidence to meet them with openness, empathy, and a spirit of inquiry. When we wrestle with the play itself, then we’re led to wrestle with what the play is about, what it’s saying, why it matters. This is what gives the art form of theatre its relevance in relation to the pressing questions our society is facing.

Howard Shalwitz is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. 

Diarra Kilpatrick is a natural as a force of nature

los-angeles-times-logo

Diarra Kilpatrick

The actress has been called ‘superb’ in her role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘In the Red and Brown Water,’ a play that exists in two conceptual dimensions.

by Reed Johnson

Before Diarra Kilpatrick was cast in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” at age 12, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life: anything but acting.

So when her hometown Detroit newspaper interviewed her about the production at a suburban theater, Kilpatrick told the reporter she wanted to be a lawyer or maybe the president of a public relations firm. But definitely not “a struggling actor,” she said.

Recounting that anecdote recently at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where she’s playing the lead role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mytho-poetic drama “In the Red and Brown Water,” Kilpatrick laughed at the memory of her precocious pre-adolescent self.

Because by the time the article went to press, Kilpatrick knew what she absolutely had to do with her life: Be an actor.

“It was the quality of the actors that I got a chance to work with and see them up close,” she said, explaining her overnight career conversion during “The Piano Lesson.” “And the production, the material — it was August Wilson.”

Startling transformations are the stuff of theatrical magic, and they’re central to McCraney’s play, which opened at the Fountain in October and has been extended through Feb. 24. “In the Red and Brown Water” is the first of McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays,” produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2009.

Set during the “distant present” at a mythical housing project in a make-believe Louisiana bayou town, “In the Red and Brown Water” exists simultaneously in two conceptual dimensions.

There’s the 21st century world of Oya (Kilpatrick), a high school track star torn between her college ambitions and the need to care for her ailing Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow) and between her affection for the stammering, sweetly devoted Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum) and the dangerous erotic heat she feels whenever Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown) comes around her door.

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn brown in "In the Red and Brown Water"

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn Brown in “In the Red and Brown Water”

But in another dimension — parallel, yet inseparable — the play is a spiritual struggle that draws on the stories, cosmologies and archetypal gods of the Yoruba people of West Africa, whose legends were transported by slaves to the New World. Virtually all of the play’s 10 characters are named for traditional Yoruba orishas, or spirits: Elegba, the shape-shifting trickster; Shango, god of fire and lightning; Ogun, the deity of iron-working and war.

And Oya, goddess of the Niger River, wind, storms and, as Kilpatrick puts it, “revolutionary transformation.”

“It’s not like ‘Let’s redecorate the house,’ it’s like ‘Let’s tear this [stuff] down! Let’s knock the walls out!'” Kilpatrick explained. “So when Oya comes into your life, people fear her because it means your life is about to change.”

For Kilpatrick, the task was to simultaneously, plausibly portray Oya as a contemporary young woman as well as a force of nature. “This is a girl who listens to Nicki Minaj and Rihanna,” Kilpatrick said. “This is the texture of right now. But yeah, we also carry in our DNA these stories from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”

In his review, Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the Fountain’s production, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, as “sensational” and Kilpatrick as “superb.”

Growing up in Detroit, Kilpatrick was taken regularly by her mother to plays, art exhibitions and other cultural events. “Let me just say, if there was a play that was done in Detroit I probably saw it, particularly if it was a black play, and let’s say 95% of them are black plays in Detroit.”

Between ages 12 and 16, Kilpatrick took part in Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre, one of the country’s most accomplished youth theater programs. She also acted at her private college prep school, Detroit Country Day, before moving to the theater program at New York University, where she performed in plays like Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood” and Stephen Adly Guirgis,’ “Our Lady of 121st Street.”

“I was one of the only black girls who had made it that far who could cuss and make it sound real,” Kilpatrick said, laughing. NYU instructors strongly encouraged her to lose the vestigial Southern accent she’d picked up from her South Carolina-migrant forebears.

Given the realities of casting for African American actors, Kilpatrick said, it’s important to be able to switch accents and speech styles depending on the role. “You don’t want the private school to eat up all the richness of … your flavor. Because no matter what that flavor is, that’s going to be your calling card at the end of the day.”

Kilpatrick came to Los Angeles in 2007. She has appeared in the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s version of “Three Sisters,” set in Trinidad, and a half-black, half-Mexican transgender male in the Bootleg Theater’s production of Gary Lennon’s “The Interlopers” last year, among other roles.

But getting to play a role like Oya “is a blessing,” especially with this cast and “Shirley Jo at the helm,” she said.

“There aren’t parts like this for black women very often. It’s like Hamlet, it’s like King Lear, it’s Medea. It’s an opportunity to really go in there.”

In the Red and Brown Water  Extended to Feb 24  (323) 663-1525 More

Award-Winning Director Shirley Jo Finney Guides Los Angeles Premiere of ‘In The Red and Brown Water’

by Charlzetta Driver

Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve. ~Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

Promoting In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre, the riveting play written by award-winning African American playwright, Tarell Alvin Mc Craney would be simple enough. Well known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, the first play of this set In the Red and Brown Water has already been well received in each of it’s venues since the first premiere. Further, Tarell’s talents are highly sought as he is considered by many theatrical leaders as the best young writer around.

However, once combining the desired works of this proven playwright with the style and perspective of director, the eloquent, Shirley Jo Finney, anticipation and excitement of experiencing this enticing play reaches boiling point!

Less than two weeks before the Los Angeles premiere of In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theatre,  in an exclusive interview I had the unique opportunity to experience first hand the reasons Shirley Jo is an award winning actress and director. Within less than an hour, I was virtually moved through the history of theater, Africans in America, church, and the modern day classroom. Her passion and expertise is palpable in conversation as she effortlessly creates visions of slaves on the plantation, Sunday afternoons singing and dancing for their masters. As the folk watched from their porches, thoroughly absorbed and entertained, they were often oblivious to the sarcasm that shadowed the mimicry of their chattel’s exceptional performances.

Fast forwarding some years, I virtually viewed the descendants of the old masters in black face erroneously mimicking Black people. I traveled under her spell to the Black community of theater where portrayals in the history of African American churches were common. Shirley Jo instantly broke into character invoking the “Call and Response” style of the good reverend after which she explained:

That’s the call and response. It’s what I like to call “edu-ma-tainment,” creating ritual, engaging in the stories of, like the bible. Living, laughing, and dying – as a ritual.

Tarell McCraney

I asked Shirley Jo some specific questions about Tarell’s style of writing, here are some of those questions and answers:

Me: Is Tarell’s style like Tyler Perry’s?

Shirley Jo: No. Two different styles. If you want to co-explore, go see the works of August Wilson and Suzy-Lori Parks that show African Americans incarcerated by the institution of slavery. He (Tarell) incorporates those elements which makes the difference.

Me: Okay. Spike Lee said some negative things to say about Tyler Perry’s portrayal of African Americans. What is your opinion on this subject?

Shirley Jo: The beauty is the diversity! Everybody has a market and a point of view. Tyler makes what’s called “cottage films.” No judgement. I love that about where we are. We are no longer stuck in Blaxploitation, allow everyone their voice regardless if you like that person or not, we have a choice.

Me: Shirley Jo, what do you believe the theater’s job is?

Shirley Jo: Theater should remind us of our own lives. Remember the story that we see is how we can transform, change, and evolve.

Tarell Alvin McCraney does just that in In the Red and Brown Water. The main character Oya, struggles to maintain her dreams. She runs track and sees it as her way of breaking free from the impoverished community she grew up in. After losing her mother she encounters a number of obstacles and sacrifices her dream. Oya means goddess of wind. Red represents our life blood, life force or passion. Brown represents the environment as the plays setting is in Louisiana. Water represents cleansing or new beginnings.

Entering adulthood just after the Civil Rights Movement shifted in to high gear, Shirley Jo had already experienced a lifetime of firsts. First integrated neighborhood, first Black student in the school, and she was the first African American student in the MFA program for Theater at UCLA. Shirley Jo was in the midst of an amazing acting career when she first delved into the role of director. Best known for her portrayal of Wilma in “Wilma” the true story of one of America’s greatest Olympic athletes; her resume includes many well known works including several episodes of “Moesha” and “Remember Me?”

Just prior to preparation for In the Red and Brown Water, Shirley Jo returned from Africa where she’d just completed “Winne The Opera,” the operatic story of Winnie Mandela.

Video: Winnie – The Opera

In The Red and Brown Water  Oct 20 – Dec 16 (323) 663-1525  More 

Charlzetta Driver is a freelance writer for Examiner.com

Fountain Member Spotlight: Ejike and Victoria Ndefo

Victoria and I have been residents of Los Feliz for more than 25 years. We love theatre and we fell in love with The Fountain Theatre the first time we saw a play there about ten years ago. We immediately became subscribers even though we subscribe to other theatres in the greater Los Angeles area. We are continually impressed by the originality and quality of the plays at the Fountain, as well as the intimate environment. As such, The Fountain is a great place to see the plays of great writers like August Wilson and Athol Fugard; and we have seen them all, – Gem of the Ocean, The Train Driver, Coming Home, Exits and Entrances, and the most recent classic, The Blue Iris. We will be remiss if we do not mention the professionalism and friendliness of The Fountain staff. They have always been gracious in accommodating us since our business requires frequent travel out of town. 

– Dr. and Mrs. Ejike Mdefo

 

Guilty Verdict in Ben Bradley Murder Trial

Fountain Reacts with Gratitude and Sad Relief: “Justice is Done”.

The Fountain Theatre announced last week that a guilty verdict has been reached in the trial of the man accused of murdering longtime Fountain director/producer Ben Bradley.

The defendant was found guilty of second-degree felony murder on November 23 in the Los Angeles Superior Court Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles, following a three-week trial that began on November 3. Closing arguments took place on November 21, with the jury deliberating for about a day and half before reaching the verdict. Present in the courtroom when the verdict was read were Bradley’s brother, Michael Hill, a resident of Virginia; Fountain Producing Director Simon Levy; and Fountain Co-Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor. The verdict carries a sentence of 16 years to life. Sentencing is scheduled for January 3.

“All of us in the Fountain family are pleased and relieved by the verdict and grateful that the trial phase of this horrific nightmare is over,” wrote Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs in a statement. “We thank Los Angeles District Attorney Mario Haidar and the team of detectives, led by Matthew Gares, who did such an excellent job on this case. Justice is done. But no matter the verdict or severity of the sentence, justice does not wield the power to bring Ben back to us. With that truth, comes the painful reality that justice can never be fully served in our hearts.”

Prior to his death on January 1, 2010, Ben had been with the Fountain Theatre for over seventeen years as a producer, director, and the Director of Audience Development.  Ben was in rehearsal for The Ballad of Emmett Till when he was murdered. Prior to that, Ben had directed the Fountain’s critically acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean (LADCC Awards for Production of the Year and Best Director). He received the 2006 OVATION Award and the 2007 NAACP Award for his direction of the Fountain’s critically acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.  Other directorial credits at the Fountain includeLady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (winner of the NAACP Award for Best Actress) and Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys(winner of Best Ensemble, L.A. Weekly Award, and Best Ensemble, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award).  Ben produced the Fountain’s acclaimed productions of Photograph 51YellowmanMaster Class and Central Avenue, and coproduced the Fountain’sThe Darker Face of the Earth, I Am A Manand Four by Tennessee.  Before joining the Fountain Theatre family, Ben worked at the Los Angeles Theatre Center as Lobby Subscription Manager.  Ben was born in Wilkes County, Georgia, but his family moved to Baltimore, MD when he was very young.  He was a graduate of Carroll College in Wisconsin, where he majored in theater.

Read the blog post about trial verdict in the  Los Angeles Times.

The Fountain Theatre has established The Ben Bradley Memorial Fund to develop new plays at the Fountain.  For more information, go to http://fountaintheatre.com/BenBradleyMemorialPage.htm or call Diana at (323) 663-1098.

Spotlight: Adolphus Ward, award-winning Fountain actor and novelist, knows a good story

Adolphus Ward is well-known to Fountain audiences for his mesmerizing and award-winning work as an actor in such acclaimed productions as Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Coming Home, and The Train Driver. What you may not know is that he is also a writer: a published novelist.

Adolphus has been honored with acting awards from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and the LA Weekly. He also holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and has received writing awards from the Wisconsin Arts Board, Playwrights’ Fellowship, and the National Endowment For The Arts.

Ward has written an African-American trilogy chronicling the Tallman family: Harvest the Dust, Milk the Iron Cow, and Stand Upside Down. Harvest the Dust introduces the sharecropper’s family during  the 1930’s Great Depression. Milk the Iron Cow explores how Milwaukee factories changed in the 1940’s from making autos and washing machines to building warplanes and bombs,  as the Tallmans find themselves embroiled in labor struggles and the start of the civil rights movement. Stand Upside Down rests on grandson Calvin Tallman’s shoulders, which evoke white corporate shivers behind unfair policies for Black workers in the 1980’s

Adolphus in the Fountain cafe with playwright Athol Fugard.

How long have you been writing novels?

I am a writer of African-American Family Fiction.  I’ve completed three novels following the lives of three successive generations of the same family.  I began work on the trilogy September 1984 — I was learning to write fiction while working on the first novel: Harvest the Dust.

What lead you to write this trilogy?

My story grew to be much too involved for one story.

How does writing compare to acting for you, in terms of artistic expression?

The aim of acting and writing is, I think, much the same.  Both actor and writer works to have the audience completely involved in the story.  They are different in that one works on the stage and the other on the page.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a one-man show bringing elements of the trilogy to the stage.  Also, doing preliminary work on a fourth novel.

Adolphus Ward in "The Train Driver".

Describe your relationship with the Fountain Theatre.

I’ve lived long enough to know that people are the most important element in the quality of my life experiences.  I feel that way about family, friends, and the places I hold membership.  From the start the Fountain Family has been like blood-family-members to me.  Ben Bradley introduced me to the rest of the staff, some patrons, and it was — and still is — like I’ve known them for years.  I love the Fountain Theatre.

Of the Fountain productions you’ve appeared in, which is your favorite?

Were I working in a production my favorite would be that one — my next production at the Fountain will be my favorite.

Any specific acting moment on stage at the Fountain stand out as particularly memorable?

Going to the City of Bones in Gem of the Ocean. Thanks August, it was a damn good trip.

Adolphus Ward and Jeris Poindexter in August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean".

Which of These Plays Have You Seen? Will You See?


Alfred Molina in "Red"

What will be the most-produced plays in regional theatres across the United States in the coming season?

Topping the list is John Logan’s “Red“, a play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and his urgent, fevered relationship with his art and canvas.

Hmmmm … sound familiar?

Maybe next season, we hope to see a play on The List about a certain art expert who visits a certain woman in a trailer park to authenticate a canvas by an abstract expressionist painter who had an urgent, fevered relationship with his art and canvas …

In the meantime, as printed in American Theatre Magazine‘s annual Season Preview issue in October, listing each play and the number of planned productions:

2011-12

Red (23)
by John Logan

God of Carnage (23)
by Yasmina Reza

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (13)
by Sarah Ruhl

The 39 Steps (11)
adapted by Patrick Barlow from Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock

Time Stands Still (11)
by Donald Margulies

Next Fall (11)
by Geoffrey Nauffts

To Kill a Mockingbird (8)
adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee

Spring Awakening (7)
by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music), adapted from Frank Wedekind

Race (7)
by David Mamet

August: Osage County (7)
by Tracy Letts

 2010-11

The 39 Steps (23)
adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock

Circle Mirror Transformation (15)
by Annie Baker

Superior Donuts (10)
by Tracy Letts

Ruined (10)
by Lynn Nottage

August: Osage County (9)
by Tracy Letts

God of Carnage (8)
by Yasmina Reza

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (8)
by Sarah Ruhl

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (8)
by Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics)

To Kill a Mockingbird (7)
adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (7)
by August Wilson