“The Tempest” is a beautiful, exciting, and fitting production to conclude the festival’s thirty-four-year tenure at Boscobel. (The company is decamping to a nearby, equally glorious setting along the Hudson next season.) Under the incisive direction of Ryan Quinn, and with thrilling choreography by Susannah Millonzi, the play, Shakespeare’s last, opens with the titular storm expressionistically illustrated with the help of a Nina Simone recording—she’ll make another dramatic contribution later—and the energy and artistry never flag. Three key roles are superbly filled. Britney Simpson’s Ariel is a marvel of physical sprightliness and musical and emotional heft. The same could be said of Jason O’Connell’s Caliban, a damaged monster with a poetic soul and a voice that ranges from beastly growl to soaring song. And Howard W. Overshown powerfully embodies the complex Prospero, struggling within himself between violence and mercy, revenge and forgiveness. Shakespeare’s ruminations on the evanescence of experience are magically given life on this fantastic island.
Psalmayene 24’s latest production is “The Blackest Battle,” a parable set to a love story set in the near future where America has gone through a second civil war after reparations were finally made to Black people. Black people live in a territory called Chief County where they fight against the cascading effects of slavery — Black-on-Black gun violence, rivalries, and a drug called Hope, which is psychologically addictive (it’s some combination of technology and plant-based which seems to take hold through music).
Go to the Theatre Alliance website and buy a ticket. Psalmayene 24 has given us entrée into a world we need to see and hear and feel — now.
Psalmayene 24 has built his story on the bones of “Romeo & Juliet,” with a hearty nod to “West Side Story.” At one point, even under the hip-hop background, I could hear echoes of “Gee Officer Krupe” in the dialogue. It is a clever homage.
Only in Chief County, our two rival gangs are two rival music entrepreneurs, vying for top billing and away out of gun dealing, and more. In this stripped-down, fast-paced version, the action coalesces when Dream (Imami Branch) meets Bliss (Gary Perkins) and he persuades her to spend a couple of hours with him while he shows her the underpass and introduces her to Hope.
The one thing her posse won’t allow is using Hope — the leader of their group’s mother died from it. But when Dream tries it with Bliss, she sees a world of possibility for Black people to move forward and unleash their creativity, minds, and souls.
Unfortunately, life isn’t that kind. While Bliss and Dream sit under the Underpass (Branch and Perkins have a delectable chemistry together), they see a wall of names painted in little white-rimmed rectangles — the names of everyone dead by gun violence for that year. The names are actually of those who have died by gun violence in Washington, DC this past year, and it’s a harsh, unescapable reality. In “The Blackest Battle,” someone will die of gun violence between the rival groups, but it won’t be Bliss or Dream. It will be basically a bystander, an innocent who came upon them and offered some advice.
Tightly directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, the production team does a masterful job of blending the graphic art (Wesley Clark, Camilla King and Maliah Stokes), background art (Rodney “Buck” Herring), props (Amy Kellett), lighting (Dylan Uremovich), sound (Matthew M. Nielson), and photography (Kelly Colburn, who also did the video editing). Animation by Jeremy Bennett, Deja Collins, Dylan Uremovich, and Visual FX artists Kelly Colburn, Deja Collins, Jonathan Dahm Robertson, and Dylan Uremovich bring visual verve and punch to the music, dance, and dialogue.
But it’s not cartoonish, in the sense of being cute or at a safe remove. This is a visceral show that demands the audience acknowledge and think about the deleterious and on-going effects of centuries of abuse, cruelty, and dehumanization that have led to names on an underpass. The show makes these points with force and vigor because these people have basically died in a war, but where is the memorial honoring their sacrifices?
Go to the Theatre Alliance website and buy a ticket. Psalmayene 24 has given us entrée into a world we need to see and hear and feel — now.
This is an ambitious show, and I’m sorry I didn’t see the original conception when it was presented at the Kennedy Center’s “Page to Stage.”
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes without intermission.
Advisory: Adult language and drug use. For mature teens and older.
“The Blackest Battle” streams through the end of August 2021 from Theatre Alliance, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.
Read the full article by Mary Ann Johnson from MD Theatre Guide here.
Sit back relax and put ya programs away … If ya ignant You gon learn today
—The Ring Master in The Blackest Battle
Raymond O. Caldwell’s realization of Psalmayene 24’s The Blackest Battle — a graphic novel come to life as a hip-hop musical — is a feast of virtuosity. Whereas some have been frustrated with not having access to live theater, Theater Alliance has taken this opportunity to offer something that some of us might not sit still for in the usual sanctum sanctorum of live theater. In fact, the point of this production is kind of to make us not be able to (or want to) sit still or sit back. The Blackest Battle presents theater that more fully engages the potential of hip-hop than is often possible in “legit” stages where traditional audiences may come with curated expectations and sometimes merely tolerate the hip-hop form and keep its power at a distance.
This production, though onscreen, is an immersive experience. Whereas much theater keeps technology in the background, so as not to disturb the illusion it is intending to produce, this production puts technology center stage, using it to reflect the way we use technology in our daily lives. It is delightful and enticing in its form and it is harrowing in its emotional impact. It’s a monumental accomplishment. And it is not to be missed.
Many people experience Shakespeare as someone literally on a pedestal to be worshipped and his works memorized. However, some people have been able to experience him as an innovator of language and form. That innovation of language and form seems to be something that this show resonates with, treating Shakespeare more like a warrior on the same battlefield with some of the same goals, whose work is to be relied upon, appreciated, and inspired by rather than someone out of reach. When a segment of Romeo and Juliet is read by Dream (Imani Branch), a member of the rap crew Key Enterprises, it doesn’t even seem out of place with the hip-hop universe. Take a look.
From Romeo and Juliet:
For beauty starved with her severity Cuts beauty off from all posterity. She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair, To merit bliss by making me despair: She hath forsworn to love and in that vow Do I live dead, that live to tell it now.
Bonita, from The Blackest Battle:
The reality is that I was born with my sexuality And I refuse to be a casualty of your brutality I know that I’m charged up now like a new battery But that’s cause the situation’s rotten like a cavity I’m talkin’ bout the judgment and discrimination Cuzz I’ll never have husband some folks stay hatin’
Battle uses Romeo and Juliet for its plot structure. Through that structure the show addresses the ongoing struggle of African Americans to survive the pressures put on them by this country.
In a future, described by our narrator, The Ring Master (portrayed with sensual confidence by Kelsey Delemar), as being “distant enough to feel remote, but close enough to be familiar,” the United States has experienced a second Civil War and reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans have been made. It is well known that in Chief County, a reparations settlement that is run and controlled by Black folks, Black people in this enclave often kill each other.
The Capulets and the Montagues in Chief County are the two rap crews Lock Music and Key Enterprises. Do or Die (a formidable and wily Louis Davis), the leader of Key Enterprises, insists that his group’s music remind its audience of the situations they are living in so that they can organize themselves to address those situations. He is fiercely opposed to his group members using Hope, the drug of choice in Chief County. He fires group member Bonita (the indomitable Jade Jones), who has reneged on her promise to stop using it. Dream (Imani Branch, living up to her character’s name) is Do or Die’s cousin and a member of the group. She defends Bonita, pointing out that they need someone to supply beats for this evening’s Fourth of July rent party.
On the other side of town, Sgt. Pepper (an eager, trigger-happy party animal, Bayou Elom), the leader of Lock Music, is determined to provide joy for his audiences, relief from the pressures they are living under. Group member Bliss (Gary Perkins, living up to his character’s name) is the soft-spoken, innovative poet, and Ty (a forceful and trustworthy Emmanuel Kyei-baffour) is the group’s dress-wearing DJ, who needs to upgrade his skills in order for the group to move to the next level and meet the challenge of opening for the top-rated group in the county.
At the set-up for the rent party, Bliss and Dream make eye contact across a crowded room and fall in love at first sight. They slip away to watch the fireworks from the pier. The pier — which is the dividing line between East and West Chief County, a place where the soothing presence of a body of water can be experienced, and the place where, in the past, cargoes of enslaved Africans were delivered — has become an unofficial safe zone.
It starts to rain and Dream and Bliss take shelter under The Bridge, the underside of which is covered with the names of people who have been killed in Chief County. They are joined there by the Ringmaster who affirms the rightness of their efforts to be open to loving each other. Shortly thereafter the other members of Lock Music and Key Enterprises show up, having decided to settle their rivalry “the Darwinian way.” They demand that Bliss and Dream separate from each other and rejoin their respective teams. Gunshots are fired and the Ring Master is killed. The remaining people leave the scene while the Ringmaster speaks a posthumous plea:
The Ring Master:
Spittin to you from the other side You just caught a glimpse of the way that I died … Hush sweet darlin’ don’t you cry This is just fiction, a slum village lullaby But it’s also an alarm clock Meant to wake you up like a five a.m. gunshot It’s just a function of the play’s plot … A last-ditch effort, what the hell and the blood claat Maybe we should burn down all the gun shops Cuz come the fire or the flood, the violence it must stop It must stop, it must stop, it must stop
This production reminded me of the technological achievements of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse: there is more here than you can possibly take in on a single viewing. Visually we are, from the beginning, in more than one place at once. We are in this present pandemic and in this future calamity. We are in a hyperpoetic theater space, a graphic novel space, but also in a naturalistic film space and an animated space.
But where Spiderman was clearly a movie, with a fourth wall, Battle still feels like theater (with a kind of Dr. Who-ish flavor). In The Blackest Battle the sets are colored backdrops or projections that shift shape and formation the way a frame does in a graphic novel or comic strip. Characters’ phone controls light up on their fingers (thanks to finger-cap touchscreen technology developed by Preston Bezos, illegitimate son of Jeff Bezos, “a real microchip off the old block”) and the text or video of conversations is projected on screens that the audience can see through and read, if they’re fast enough. It’s an environment that the audience gets to imagine living in and that it discovers along with the cast.
This multi-visual, technologically overcharged world onstage reflects the world we all live in offstage — a highly surrealistic world — made so largely by the contradictory dictates of white supremacy upon our lives. A world in which the words that come out of your mouth and the plot turns that your life takes can sound like a “corny movie from the 1980s or some sappy Elizabethan play.”
In Battle, Psalmayene 24 wrestles with inherited, dictated, and curated forms of theater the way Jacob wrestled with the angel in the Hebrew scriptures. The Blackest Battle is definitely a musical. I’m 70 years old, raised in mid-20th-century COGIC culture. I used to be concerned about not being able to relate to hip-hop. But experiencing The Blackest Battle, I found I no more needed to understand hip-hop to be lifted and carried away by the integrity and earnest and steadfast warriorship it offers than I need to understand Viennese operetta to be engaged with Showboat.
What can you say about the love story? It’s delightful. Surely no one has ever been this young, zestful, and beautiful. Which is why they are named Dream and Bliss, I guess: and why the main lyrics to their love song are “Da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da.” Imani Branch and Gary Perkins invest a sincerity and a disciplined craftsperson’s respect for and faith in their material. They neither short-change nor rush anything. Wow, does that investment ever pay off!
Two scenes were notably thought-provoking for me: the interruption of the love scene The Ringmaster makes in order to ensure that we understand what the drug Hope is, and the animated, historical accounting of African American mistreatment that Dream and Bliss experience while under the influence of the drug Hope.
The Ring Master presents us with a corporate-slick promotional announcement for Hope in which all the researchers, clients, and manufacturers shown in clean, well-lighted rooms are white. And they look suspiciously like professional actors hired to do an industrial film. While whenever Hope is being actively used by consumers, or sold in shadowy street locations, it is in the bodies and hands of Black folks. The presentation of Hope as a drug and the suggestion that Black folks could be addicted to it is disturbing (remember the quick announcement of forgiveness for Dylan Roof?). How does one live without it? What does one put in its place?
The Blackest Battle is a thrilling experience that is guaranteed to entertain, challenge, and inspire its audience.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes.
The Blackest Battlepremiered July 31, 2021, and will be available for scheduled online streams through the month of August. Tickets (General Admission, $25 – $30; Seniors/Students/Military, $20 – $25; Radical Neighboring, $15) are available onlineor by calling 202-241-2539.
Read the full article by Gregory Ford for DC Metro Theater Arts here.
Created by 26 artist-collaborators, Swell weaves together ten original, new music compositions by ten composers.
Playwright, lyricist, and librettist Melisa Tien is the creator and producer of the upcoming live, online song cycle Swell, presented by HERE from March 17-21, 2021. This contemporary work about immigrants and children of immigrants, written by immigrants and children of immigrants, is directed by Elena Araoz with music direction by Tian Hui Ng.
“Right now, the U.S. feels like it’s on the brink of so many things – politically, economically, socially. Immigrant stories, especially ones that humanize the people they’re about, help highlight those who are often left behind when, for example, a medical disaster happens. Swell reminds us these are real people, simply trying to make their way, like everyone else,” Melisa said of the piece’s subject and timeliness.
Swell features the work of composers and lyricists Joshua Cerdenia, Carolyn Chen, Justine F. Chen, Or Matias, Tamar Muskal, Polina Nazaykinskaya, Leyna Marika Papach, Izzi Ramkisson, Kamala Sankaram, Jorge Sosa, Stavit Allweis, Konstantin Soukhovetski, and Melisa Tien, who draw from their personal histories and cultures. Hailing from Mexico, India, Israel, Japan, Trinidad, the Philippines, Russia, and Taiwan, the composers’ unique, surprising, and deeply human stories are expressed through voice, piano, cello, and violin.
Performers include mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, soprano Mimi Hilaire, tenor Alok Kumar, and baritone Ricardo Rivera. Instrumentalists include members of the Victory Players Nathan Ben-Yehuda, Clare Monfredo, and Elly Toyoda. Additional collaborators are Video Designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Audio Engineer Jon Robertson, Video Engineer Kris Kirkwood, Production Stage Manager Neelam Vaswani, and Assistant Stage Manager Alyssa K. Howard.
As an online presentation, Swell is building upon the wealth of knowledge that has accumulated over the past year in live, online productions. It will feature singers singing together remotely, and aims to incorporate accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, through captioning, an interpreter, and a new application that conveys music in a dynamic visual format.
Melisa summarizes the origins of the piece: “The seed for Swell started when I attended a new music festival a few years ago and was struck by a piece of Nathalie Joachim’s. It was tied to her home country of Haiti and I recall being so moved by it, partly because it put me in mind of Taiwan, where my own family is from. I started to wonder where the other U.S.-based new music writers were, who came from outside the U.S. I couldn’t think of any, yet I was convinced there had to be new music writers out there who identified as immigrants, or children of immigrants, who had stories to tell, and I wanted to hear them.”
Half of the program will be presented on Wednesday, March 17 at 8pm ET, and the second half will be presented on Thursday, March 18 at 8pm ET. The full program will stream on Friday and Saturday, March 19-20, at 8pm ET, and on Sunday, March 21 at 6pm ET. Audiences can purchase a sliding-scale ticket ($5-50) and will receive details for a password-protected video on HERE’s website.
Melisa Tien is a playwright, lyricist, librettist, producer, and educator. She is the author of the plays Untitled Landscape, Best Life, The Boyd Show, Yellow Card Red Card, and Familium Vulgare, co-author of the music-theater works Swell, Daylight Saving, and Mary, and co-producer of the audio experience/podcast Active Listening. A New Dramatists resident playwright, Melisa is a recipient of a grant from the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music, and Theatre, a commissionee of the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan Project, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting. She teaches experimental theatrical writing at Sarah Lawrence College. BA, UCLA; MFA, Columbia University. www.melisatien.com.
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.
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.