Arts Spotlight: 444
The Amen Corner
Through June 17
Guthrie Theater, 818 So. 2nd St., Mpls.
It’s uncanny that the classic play, The Amen Corner by James Baldwin (1924-1987), opened at the Guthrie the same week that President Obama announced his support for same sex marriage, which was swiftly followed by angry, even virulent protestations from African American Christians disgusted by what they term as ‘the sin of homosexuality’. Though Baldwin’s 1954 play does not deal with homosexuality, and it was widely known and still is widely known within the African American community that he was gay, it addresses sexual hypocrisy with complexity, theological depth, and righteous anger in a way that only a brilliant gay writer can. It reinforces the notion of the gay man as a broad interpreter of sexuality in general in the way that playwright Tennessee Williams was and sex columnist Dan Savage is.
Director Lou Bellamy’s terrific Penumbra Theatre cast, which plays on the Guthrie’s thrust stage, mines the ferocious puritanism that Harlem churchgoers unveil when they find that their minister, Sister Margaret (Greta Oglesby), had left her jazz musician husband, Luke (Hannibal Lokumbe), years before. Remember that it wasn’t until the 1960s that the taboo on divorce began to lift. Also, consider how uncommon it was for women to be ministers in the 1950s.
Fatefully, Luke returns to Margaret, racked with illness, and being the true Christian that she is, she gives him a roof over his head. But this also quickly damages her relationship with their son, David (Eric Berryman), who himself is a paragon in her church, who understandably wants to find out details about why their marriage collapsed, and who wants to get to know his father. Moreover, this means that David’s increasing interest in jazz as opposed to church music threatens Margaret’s smothering control over him. Luke is now David’s gatekeeper for the world at large, not his mother with her idealizing Christianity. For Margaret, as with many African Americans at that time, gospel music is divine. Jazz, sinful. 10 years later, Baldwin would write another major play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, which indicts murderous racism from a black v. white viewpoint. But, with The Amen Corner, the spotlight is turned unflinchingly on his own race.
This powerhouse production has an epic feel to it. Even Vicki M. Smith’s set of an underfunded church facility has a gritty magnificence about it out of which bursts the big emotions and ideas that Baldwin puts forth. Even small roles of congregants played transformationally by Sha Cage and Faye M. Price are exquisitely observed natural gems in themselves. I’ve covered Cage and Price for years, and I honestly did not recognize it was them beneath their characters’ personae until into the second act.
Lerea Carter amazes in a small role as Ida, a woman facing loss and domestic cruelty, and for whom church platitudes are only salt in her wounds. Thomasina Petrus’s Sister Boxer is a chilling evocation of puritanical self-righteousness––perhaps the best performance of her career.
The Tony-caliber Oglesby is marvelous but is hampered by Lokumbe’s lack of acting chops. He is a world renown musician, and looks the part, but he doesn’t emotionally connect with her. Also, Lokumbe’s big scene with David midway through the play drags.
Berryman is superb and captures the very essence of youth just about to expand into the larger world. He brings to mind Tom, suffocated by parochial home life, in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. The only white character in the show is a non-speaking role by Benjamin Mandelbaum, whose well-scrubbed look matches Berryman’s nicely. They seem to exude a slight sense of gay puppy love. Baldwin would have been pleased, dare I say.
Sanford Moore’s musical direction of gospel sung by Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church is, on the one hand, splendid. But on the other hand, overly festive musical selections intrude far too much into the bleaker, more existential moments of the play, undermining Baldwin’s intent. More somber selections or none at all in such moments would have been appropriate. In sum, despite some flaws, this is a big, beautiful production that merits a transfer to Broadway. The Tony Awards would surely nominate, if not award it, for Best Revival.
Two years after this play, Baldwin wrote the short novel, Giovanni’s Room, a landmark in gay and African American literature. See this play and get that book!
Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays
Through June 16
New Century Theatre, City Center, 615 Hennepin Av., Mpls.
Don’t miss some of the Twin Cities’ finest actors in this ultra-professional staged reading of 10 short works by playwrights of note. As the gay marriage controversy rages statewide and nationwide, this is the sort of theater art that will anchor and deepen your arguments for gay marriage and tickle your funny bone.
The bulk of what’s offered is madcap comedy. Highlights include Wendy McLeod’s The Flight Tonight which centers on a California lesbian couple about to board a plane to get married in Iowa. Paul Rudnick’s The Gay Agenda hilariously reveals through Freudian slips a conservative woman’s subconscious discomfort with her two gay neighbors. Doug Wright’s On Facebook is drawn from actual online arguments about gay marriage.
Other plays include ideas around marriage vows and the how physical attraction can affect pairing up. The most moving work is Moises Kaufman’s London Moquitoes which muses on a couple who first bonded when JFK was assassinated and then had a primary relationship that outlasted many, if not most of the heterosexual relationships, of their generation.
Tectonic Theater Project, which created the Matthew Shepard play, The Laramie Project, and of which Kaufman is Artistic Director, assembled these marriage plays last year for an international simulcast reading. Our local production was directed by Wendy Knox who has also directed this incarnation. This year’s actors: Shawn Hamilton, Mark Rhein, Jim Lichtscheidl, Laura Adams, Aimee K. Bryant, and Shanan Custer.
Blue Man Group
Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av., Mpls
Those three bald blue characters who have taken the world by storm are on tour with their multimedia smash. Consumerism, computerized gadget obsessions, and gumballs are given a kinetic commentary by these agile performers and a dazzling production concept. No dialogue, but an array of tribal rhythms make for a sense-driven experience that will make you see the world differently than when you walked in.
Trio member Kalen Allmandinger points out “this show is more character-driven. The Blue Man navigates his way through the evening, interacting with audience and technology in search of what it means to connect, and of how best to do so. Along the way he finds himself in the middle of a varied landscape, full of both wild extravagance and quiet simplicity.”
The Boys in the Band
June 7 – 23
Lowry Lab, 350 St. Peter St., St. Paul
In 1968, Mart Crowley’s Off-Broadway comedy was such a hot ticket that major figures in show biz and politics flocked to Theater Four where it ran for over 1,000 performances. Film star Natalie Wood, who starred in the landmark hetero sex comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice the following year, was one of its financial backers, and when you put The Boys in the Band in context with plays and films about gay men created up to this point, it’s nothing short of earth-shattering. However, many people who are gay and progressive wrongly assert that the play is dated, negative, and (though they may not use the term) ‘politically incorrect’. This is nonsense because Crowley’s vision of a flamboyantly gay birthday party ‘intruded’ on by a man who may be latently homosexual is one of the most penetrating examinations of internalized self-loathing in theater history. Timeless.
As Mark Hooker, director of Brazen Theatre’s revival, reminds us, it “still echoes themes present with the community today: dealing with unfair treatment in society, and also how we can sometimes be cruel to ourselves within the LGBT community. The Boys in the Band is funny and frightening in the same way that Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is frightening. And in the end, it reflects our past and present while pointing to hope in the future.”
Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997) looms as one of modern history’s prime exemplars of how art can actually catalyze shifts of political consciousness. His resistance to Nigerian dictatorships spirited forth Afrobeat, a musical genre that blends jazz, funk, and African rhythms. Olivier and Tony-nominee Sahr Ngaujah stars in the bio-musical FELA!, now on its national tour, which plays at the Ordway. Iconic gay rights pioneer, Bill T. Jones, nabbed one of the show’s three Tony wins.
Paulette Ivory, who played Nala in the London production of The Lion King, co-stars as Sandra Izsadore, the Black Panther activist who profoundly influenced Kuti’s sensibility. Ivory describes how when “I started listening to the lyrics, I thought, wait a minute, this man is actually singing out a political message in the middle of the song that I didn’t expect to hear. People would be having a good time but then they would stop and listen and go yeah, this is not right what the government is doing. Yeah, we are led by a military regime that is suppressing us and not helping us, that is making themselves richer while we are getting poorer. We are suffering immensely, and Nigeria is falling apart. What can we do about it? (Kuti’s music) is what we can do about it.”
This awareness spurred by the lyrics is where the consciousness shift then kicks in. As Ivory points out, the next step was for people to consider “how we would let the world know that Nigeria is being controlled in this way. So that’s what’s revolutionary about it––the way he got his message out there. What a brilliant approach to go; music is the weapon. Music which is for everybody, old, young, black, white. Music will touch everybody and then we get our message out there.”
The Naked I: Wide Open Remount for Pride Season
Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
When I saw this eclectic assemblage of short trans-oriented vignettes and dramas last February, I was struck with its angry mixed messages about the down side of labeling and then on the other side, the idea that we should all be up to the minute with whatever new terminology GLBT academics and powers elite should be putting forth. And you must be phobic if you don’t get it! Such mixed messages still haunt the GLBT world and are serious flaws that we are not supposed to acknowledge. It’s straight society that’s our bogey man, right? Certainly not ourselves. Worst of all, this mixed messaging keeps potential allies walking on eggshells because they fear they may have used the wrong term or pronouns, hence some gay guy or transgender person will ridicule them for simply trying to understand. We get too caught up in our egocentric games of ‘gotcha’ with people who are genuinely interested and curious about our realms at the expense of friendship. This is a game where we emulate the sorry manipulations of other equality movements.
That said, there were two exceptional pieces that merit being shaped into longer plays. The Story of Bob was as in-your-face as any of the others, but it excelled because playwright Ben Resman reveals the grim details of a botched gender re-assignment surgery. Per the ‘Naked’ in the evening’s title, Resman says “there is no question that the topic of Surgeries Gone Awry makes people uncomfortable. However, this is a show about being ‘Naked’. For me, being Naked meant telling my own story–a story about what happened to me in a failed surgery.” Abel Knochel gives a strong lead performance directed by Megan Lembke.
At the opposite emotional extreme is the lovely little play, Pink and Blue: A (short) Love Story. Katie Starks has directed two sweet performances by Erica Fields and Zealot Hamm. Playwright Andrea Jenkins calls it “a vignette about a transgender woman who is enamored with a cis-gender, straight woman. Though at the time, the transgender woman had no idea of her love interest’s sexual identity. It recognizes that societal influences and bias might deter the average cis-gendered person from taking a chance on love with a transgender person. It is ultimately a universal story of love relationships, because they all have challenges that complicate matters which is why the refrain of ‘She loves me, She loves me not’ is prevalent throughout the piece.” (Cis-gender refers to the alignment of gender identity with the physical body you inhabit.)