‘The Half-Life of Marie Curie’ directed by Dawn Monique Williams Review: Fallout of an Affair

NASMM in Wall Street Journal 08.10.14 - the National ...
Arkansas’s TheatreSqaured offers a well-performed webcast of a play about the Nobel Laureate’s persecution by the French press for her relationship with a married man.
Rebecca Harris as Marie Curie and
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Hertha Ayrton

In spite of all the theater-related traveling I did in the years before the pandemic struck, there are still plenty of drama companies of consequence that I have yet to see. I’ve been hearing good things about Arkansas’s TheatreSquared for some time now, and it was long my plan to see a play there after paying a visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is just 30 miles away and which I also have yet to see. But life kept getting in the way, and the coming of Covid-19 finished the job: I haven’t seen a play in a theater, in or out of New York, since March. So when TheatreSquared announced that it  would be webcasting a production of Lauren Gunderson’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” taped in an  empty theater, I immediately put it on my schedule. 

Ms. Gunderson’s work is rarely staged in New York, but she was the most frequently produced playwright in America (not counting Shakespeare) in 2017 and 2019, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does she specialize in feminist-angled plots whose protagonists are women, but she makes a special point of writing eminently practical plays that are carefully tailored to the specific needs of theater companies. Like all prolific artists, Ms. Gunderson’s work is uneven—she can be earnest to a fault when she has a political point to make— but at her best, she is a fine craftsman whose shows are always solidly made and on occasion inspired. 

“The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” a two-hander first performed off Broadway in 2019, falls somewhere  in between the extremes of over-earnestness and inspiration. It’s a bioplay that tells how Mme. Curie (Rebecca Harris)—the Polish-French physicist who discovered radium, coined the word “radioactive”  and won two Nobel Prizes, in 1903 and 1911—was persecuted by France’s press when it became known  that she was having a passionate affair with a married man. Hertha Ayrton (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), a British colleague and part-time suffragette, comes to France to look after her old friend as the action gets under way. Alas, much of the dialogue that ensues amounts to little more than undramatized  pulpit-pounding and ill-digested biographical data (“I’m sorry—you won another Nobel Prize?”) with a  few glaring anachronisms thrown in for good measure (I cannot imagine that a Brit with so well-bred  an accent would have used the word “bullshit” in casual conversation in 1911). Nevertheless, the situation portrayed by Ms. Gunderson has the advantage of being inherently dramatic, and “The Half-Life  of Marie Curie” is the kind of story that can easily take wing so long as the two actors are first-rate. 

Rebecca Harris as Marie Curie

This brings us to Ms. Harris and Ms. Mbele Mbong, both of whom (as theater people like to say) really know how to deliver the mail.  Not only does Ms. Harris bear a striking resemblance to Mme. Curie, but her binational accent is impeccable and her performance is both compelling and entirely believable. So fully does she embody her role that it hardly seems as if she’s acting at all. (Newsreel footage of Mme. Curie exists, and I’d be surprised if Ms. Harris hadn’t screened it while preparing for this show.) 

Ms. Mbele-Mbong is no less convincing, and the production, whose skeletal sets are by Ashleigh Burns and whose sound design is by Michael Prie to, is spare but exceedingly handsome. Dawn Monique Williams, the director, is the associate artistic  director of Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Her work is new to me, but if this beautifully staged  show is representative, then I’ll definitely seek it out in the future. 

I also plan to keep an eye on TheatreSquared, which is clearly worthy of its fine reputation. I can’t wait  for the pandemic to subside so that I can resume seeking out first-class theater all over America—especially from outstanding drama companies like TheatreSquared. 

Review by Terry Teachout for the Wall Street Journal.

Black Girl — and Nonbinary — Magic at Helm of Bay Area Theaters, featuring Khalia Davis

Director Khalia Davis works with cast members during a rehearsal for a production of “She Persisted, the Musical” at the Bay Area Children’s Theatre Osher Studio in Berkeley.

Bay Area theater saw the promotion of three new Black female or femme-identified nonbinary leaders in rapid succession this year.

In August, Khalia Davis became the artistic director of Bay Area Children’s Theatre, with Nina Meehan changing titles from executive artistic director to CEO.

Q: Has each of you always seen yourself as a leader?

Khalia Davis: I have not always seen myself in a leadership position in the theater industry. I started out as a kid actor, from 6 years old. I thought I was going to be an actress for the screen. It was not until I was in high school and I booked TheatreWorks Silicon Valley that I thought, “Oh, you can make money being a theater artist.” But the problem was that I was not seeing myself reflected in spaces of leadership. (As my career progressed), I was recognizing that I have a lot of opinions about the theater for a young audience (TYA) industry. I was recognizing that I’m not seeing myself in these spaces, and that I’m not hearing particular things being voiced. That probably means that I need to be that person.

Q: Each of you is so new in your organizations that maybe this isn’t a fair question, but is there something you’ve already done — even if it’s something small or tough to quantify, that you wouldn’t necessarily put on a resume — that you’re proud of?

Davis: Something that I love that we’ve all adopted is this access check-in before all of our meetings, where we focus everybody on: What does everyone need? That could be as simple as, “My Wi-Fi’s spotty today,” to, during some of our darkest times in the last few months, I have been very honest and open about where my head was at, how it was hard for me to think when community members are being gunned down in the streets. I appreciated us having the space every single day before we got into the work to just say, “As a human, how are you?”

Q: What does Kamala Harris as VP mean to each of you?

Davis: It’s so refreshing and gratifying to witness someone who has continually owned both parts of herself in her identity throughout her whole life and who has done the work to learn more about that history so she can speak to those members of the community in a more educated, grounded, respectful way. I also think it’s great to see someone who appreciates and celebrates life. There is a joy that she brought. We have not seen that in four years.

Read the full interview by Lily Janiak from Datebook here.

EllaRose Chary Featured on Broadway on Demand

EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn are an award-winning writing team specializing in stories that take a fresh look at the queer community with cutting-edge music. They’ve been commissioned and produced by The Civilians/Encores! Off-Center at City Center, The Tank, Prospect Theater, 54 Below, Theatre C, All For One Theatre, NY Theatre Barn. They’ve been in residence at Ars Nova, Rhinebeck Writers Retreat/Triple R Residency, The O’Neill Theatre Center, Catwalk Institute, and The Polyphone Festival at UArts. They’ve been awarded grants from NAMT and Anna Sosenko Trust. As Dramatists Guild Fellows, they’ve been featured many times by the Guild and The Dramatists Guild Foundation, including in The Dramatist Magazine. Ella’s work has also been recognized as a Kleban Award Finalist, NYFA Fellowship Finalist, Kernodle New Play Award Finalist, and with Weston and BOH Cameronian Arts Awards. Brandon has been a Richard Rodgers Award Finalist, celebrated piano bar entertainer, LiveNation touring artist, and is also known for his work as a music producer. He produced and performed on the albums TWO BIRDS & ONE STONE by Trixie Mattel (Winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Allstars 3), which debuted at #1 on the iTunes Top Albums chart and Billboard Heatseekers.

www.brandonandella.com
BroadwayOnDemand

Psalmayene 24 Receives Mellon Foundation Award for 3 Year Residency at Mosaic Theater

Just announced – Psalmayene 24 will join Mosaic Theater’s Senior Artistic Staff where, over the next three years, the DC playwright and director will create new works, participate in Mosaic’s community outreach programs and audience interactions and initiate a new Directors/Playwrights Cohort. This is being made possible by an award from The National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in collaboration with HowlRound Theatre Commons. The program provides salary and benefits for three years. The residency begins July 1, 2020.

Playwright/director Psalmayene 24, new resident artist at Mosaic Theater Company of DC (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Psalmayene 24, responding to the announcement: “In many respects, I am a native son of the community that Mosaic Theater serves. Having grown up in Brooklyn, New York, and now having lived in the Washington, DC area for more than half of my life—over 25 years—I proudly call DC my home. I came of age, as a man and an artist, in DC. I wrote my first play in DC. I met my wife in DC. So, as my adopted hometown, I feel a strong connection to many of the theaters in the DC area—especially Mosaic. True to its name, Mosaic is a theater with a wonderfully diverse audience. As someone who grew up in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn during a time when it was a beacon of multiculturalism, I feel most at home in communities where diversity reigns supreme. (And when I say diversity, I mean diversity of all types: race, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) As an artist who sees myself as an integral member of the community that Mosaic serves, it is my belief that I am well qualified to represent authentic creative impulses that reflect the spirit of this community.

“My intention is to impact this community through the National Playwright Residency Program by creating plays that act as a reflective prism meant to reveal and illuminate the soul of the community. There is a validation that occurs when people see a play that speaks to their particular experience. Plays have the ability to feed parts of the human spirit that we didn’t know were malnourished. When plays voice the humanity of a specific community, these plays have the potential to sing in harmony with universal yearnings that connect us all.”

Mosaic Theater describes the proposed projects on the drawing boards : “Mosaic is excited to help develop a new project already in the drafting stage, written and to be performed by the author himself, entitled Dear Mapel, based on the Psalmayene 24’s letters (actual and imagined) to the deceased father he hardly knew, sharing a coming-of-age story within a coming-to-terms hole in his heart. Additional projects include a hip-hop theatrical portrait of DC’s controversial “Mayor For Life,” Marion Barry. Just as provocative and dynamic is The Street Corridor Initiative, a showcasing of proud DC voices culled from interviews of residents along H Street where Mosaic performs, focusing on two public transport vessels bringing residents up and down the corridor; the infamous X-2 bus and the newer, suspiciously regarded play-toy of gentrification, the DC Streetcar.

“Another proposed work, Freedom Strike, tells the story of a Black performance artist who cuts off the head of Abraham Lincoln from the Emancipation Statue—a controversial DC statue of a freed Black man and Abraham Lincoln. The play will investigate the cost of freedom on the Black body. Additionally, Psalmayene 24 will return to the work that initiated his literary relationship with Mosaic, Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son, a reimagining of the meeting between author Richard Wright and essayist James Baldwin, originally commissioned as a response piece to Nambi  Kelley’s adaptation of Native Son, which Psalm directed as part of Mosaic’s “Native Son Rep.” Entertaining and vital, a streamlined text and staging of Les Deux Noirs will be fashioned to make the production more wieldy for touring through our “Mosaic on the Move” initiative, and for future productions to come.”

Article by Lorraine Treanor for DCTheatreScene.com.

The Kilroys’ 2019 List Name Audrey Cefaly and Jacqueline Goldfinger, While Others Make Honorable Mentions

Audrey Cefaly‘s ALABASTER, and Jacqueline Goldfinger’s BABEL make the Kilroy’s 2019 List of un- and underproduced plays  un- and underproduced new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary authors per our survey results. Each play received between 5 and 19 nominations. .

ALABASTER: A darkly comic southern drama about love, art, and the power of women. This heart-wrenching story of a reclusive Alabama folk artist won the David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize. After a tornado barrels through town leaving nothing but death and destruction, only June and her pet goat Weezy live to tell the tale. When a prominent photographer visits to take pictures of June’s scars, both are forced to reconcile the pain of loss and recovery. This all-female drama explores the meaning and purpose of art and the struggle of the lost and tortured souls that seek to create it.

BABEL: What would you do if you had the power to build your own baby? In this version of a near future society, prospective parents learn within the first weeks of conception which genetic traits their child will have, and what behaviors they are likely to exhibit. Based on these test results, the parent(s) are either issued a PRE certification which legally guarantees the baby will be a “good” person or not. Without the certification, the child will be limited in what it is allowed to do. Two couples collide over what to do with their PRE certification test results. With rapid advances in reproductive technology, modern eugenics is science’s Wild West. What will we do to “civilize” it and ourselves? How far will we go when playing God? If you like Booker’s “Black Mirror,” Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” or Haley’s “The Nether,” then this play is for you.

Honorable Mentions include:
FRANCE-LUCE BENSON – Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution
PATRICIA COTTER – The Daughters
JACQUELINE GOLDFINGER – Click
TIRA PALMQUIST – The Way North