Melisa Tien’s SWELL to Premiere Online at HERE

Created by 26 artist-collaborators, Swell weaves together ten original, new music compositions by ten composers.

Melisa Tien

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.

Read the full article from Broadway World here.

‘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.

Psalmayene 24 Featured in Studio Theatre’s Virtual ‘Salons’ – Offering a Cultural Gathering Place During the Pandemic

Before he began hosting Psalm’s Salons for Studio Theatre, playwright and director Psalmayene 24 didn’t yearn to interview fellow artists in public — with or without his preferred soft drink (ginger beer) in hand.

“I had zero desire to do this,” the busy local theater-maker confesses, recalling his path to emceeing the monthly virtual event, which he describes as “a cultural space that celebrates excellence, unity and the spirit of joy through an unapologetically Black lens.” The latest installment streams Sept. 18 at 5 p.m. with a trio of high-profile guests: Will Power, Danny Hoch, and Jonzi D, pioneers of hip-hop theater.

If Psalm (as he’s known to colleagues) acquired his new gig by default — answering “an opportunity and a need,” he says — he has come to relish it, and has arguably reinvented the online theater-chat format along the way. Free, and streamed live on Studio’s Facebook and YouTube pages, the salons have featured such guests as playwright James Ijames, actors Natalie Graves Tucker and Justin Weaks, and playwright-performer Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. Conversations cover substantive and urgent issues — from the interviewees’ artistic processes and philosophies; to systemic racism in America; ongoing activism for social justice; the death of Rep. John Lewis; and recent calls for the American theater field to acknowledge and rectify its own racism.AD

But while the discussions tend overall toward seriousness, the salons often boast an upbeat, even celebratory vibe. D.C.-based DJ Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez spins original live music. Participants regularly exchange toasts during a “Mental Health Drink Break,” allowing Psalmayene 24 to indulge in the aforementioned ginger beer, and everyone else to swig beverages of choice. Shout-outs to Black-owned restaurants — host, DJ and guests dish about dishes they have ordered that day — add a sense of community, even as participants zoom in from shelter-in-place locations.

Speaking by phone from Silver Spring — “Piscataway land,” he stresses, acknowledging the Indigenous residents — Psalmayene 24 says there’s no contradiction between the salons’ buoyancy and intense content. The episodes mirror life, he observes, “where you have comedy and tragedy. It’s like the iconic mask of theater.” He adds, “Black people in this country — we have dealt with a lot of pain.” But to find meaning in life, he notes, “You have to find joy. You have to find laughter.” Indeed, he says, “Joy is part of how we fight.”

Psalm’s Salons launched in June, three months after covid-19 forced Studio to suspend performances of Antoinette Nwandu’s play “Pass Over,” which Psalmayene 24 had directed. The pandemic also affected a planned outreach series, aimed at deepening Studio’s connections with Black millennial audiences. On board as host, Psalmayene 24 envisaged conversations fused with music, with touches of dance party.

When the series had to move online, he drew inspiration from the popular “Verzuz” Instagram musical battles launched early in the pandemic by superproducers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. “Two hip-hop artists who are re-creating how people commune — I thought that was fascinating,” Psalmayene 24 says. He’s a hip-hop-theater eminence himself; he even wove hip-hop touches into “Les Deux Noirs,” his play about Richard Wright and James Baldwin, staged last year by Mosaic Theater Company. The “Top Five” feature in Psalm’s Salons, in which guests name favorite theater works, nods to a hip-hop tradition of ranking rappers, he says.

For tunes, he turned to Hernandez — a frequent collaborator, who had designed sound for Theater Alliance’s “Word Becomes Flesh,” winner of five 2017 Helen Hayes Awards, including for Psalmayene 24’s direction. Mixing his own material with audio from the Library of Congress’s Citizen DJ tool, Hernandez creates the salons’ introductory and incidental music, catchy enough that participants can be seen nodding to the beat.AD

The music adds palpable energy and a sense of “exciting connection,” notes Studio associate artistic director Reginald L. Douglas. “Having Nick is such a boon,” he says.

Hernandez also creates a Spotify playlist for each episode. There’s space for uplift, even alongside weighty talk about societal issues, he thinks, especially because the current moment of national reckoning could lead to a better future. “A lot of times people associate change with being in turmoil, where it should be more about a blooming process,” Hernandez says.

When it comes to guests, Psalmayene 24 says the aim is to recruit people who can speak “eloquently about their art, but also can speak to the times.” (At next month’s salon, on Oct. 22 at 5 p.m., Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Steven Sapp, of the Universes theater company, will fit that bill. The salons will run at least through November.) The key to interviewing, Psalmayene 24 has found, is not only the preparatory research he loves to do, but a willingness — as with good acting — to listen and “relax in the moment, love the moment.”AD

So, while the covid-19 era finds the 47-year-old busier than ever — among other projects, he has contributed to Arena Stage’s in-house film series and Round House Theatre’s Web series “Homebound” — he has time for the “high wire” of hosting.

Salons are, in their way, an artistic genre. “To experiment and explore form as an artist — that’s something deeply important to me,” Psalmayene 24 says.

Where to watch

Psalm’s Salons

Studio Theatre’s Facebook and YouTube pages: facebook.com/the.studio.theatre and youtube.com/studiotheatredc.

Dates: Friday at 5 p.m.

Admission: Free.

Read the full article by Celia Wren from the Washington Post here.

BWW Review: Ifa Bayeza’s THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

Original cast of the Fountain’s 2010 award-winning production reunites for online reading on 65th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

In August, 1955, energetic 14-year-old Chicago resident Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was a cashier at a grocery store. Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, beat him and shot him in the head. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. Till’s murder and open casket funeral, a wish from his mother to let the world see “what was done to him,” galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement. So much so that three months later, Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus – and said she was ‘thinking of Emmett Till.’

Ifa Bayeza

It was not until 2017 that Bryant recanted her story, admitting that the court testimony she gave more than six decades prior was false and stating “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” And that was seven years after Ifa Bayeza‘s THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL had its multiple award-winning West Coast premiere at The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. So riveting is the storyline, I’d like to think its impact influenced Bryant to take the action she did.

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre
Image of the original 2010 cast

But not much has changed in the way of racism in our country right now, with the Black Lives Matter movement inspiring people in the middle of a global pandemic to take to the streets to protest the lack of equal justice for people of color. “As America is now being challenged to face its racist history, I can think of no project more worthy,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs, “to present this play in an online format for people around the world to experience. And in addition to being the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder, Aug. 28 also marks the 57th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963, and a 2020 March on Washington this year.”

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

Part history, part mystery and part ghost story, Bayeza’s lyrical integration of past, present, fact and legend turns Emmett’s story into a soaring work of music, poetic language and riveting theatricality, transformed into an online format that breaks the notion of what a virtual performance can be. With the actors seen as cut-outs inserted into backdrops to fit each scene, characters move about each other in cars, on a living room couch, or while riding on a Ferris Wheel as if they really are in the scene together at the same time.

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

The new virtual production offers a brilliantly remarkable piece of online editing and direction by the play’s original cast and director Shirley Jo Finney, who stepped in to direct THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL after director Ben Bradley was found murdered in his home just a month prior to the show’s original 2010 opening in February 2010. “Because Ben loved the play and the project so much, we were determined to go forward,” explains Sachs, both to honor his and Emmett Till’s memory. No doubt Ben would have been as awestruck as I was when viewing the original cast in the current virtual production.

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, describes the production as “a fast, immensely theatrical, 90-minute version with a cast of five that celebrates a young man who lived, not an icon who died.” In fact, we do get introduced to Emmett as a young teen living in Chicago who describes what his life is like living in the streets of a vibrant city where he does not feel held back by the color of his skin or his burgeoning interest in girls. When he persuades his mother to allow him to visit relatives is the Deep South, it is very apparent this outspoken young man who overcomes his shuttering by whistling, will be in for trouble since he does not realize how the social mores of this so-different society will place roadblocks to his natural need to speak his mind without regard to the consequences of his actions.

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

Every aspect of Emmett Till’s personality is shared with stunning realism by Lorenz Arnell, from Till’s youthful exuberance to the sheer terror he faced at the end of his life. Each of the other four actors, Rico E. Anderson, Adenrele Ojo, Bernard K. Addison, and Karen Malina White, fully inhabit each of the play’s other characters from Till’s mother and grandmother to other family relatives and Till’s youthful companions. By the end of the play, which is often brutal as well as entirely entertaining to watch, you will feel as if you have stepped inside the lives of real people living in extraordinary circumstances often out of their own control.

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

“Everybody thinks of Emmett Till’s story as a tragedy,” says Finney. “This play is a joyous look at a life lived. Emmett was a hero and a martyr, not a victim. He had overcome polio, replacing his limp with a swagger. A stutterer when he was young, he became a wordsmith. He had a zest for living and a sense of humor; he was fearless and he was defiant. Those white men had just set out to ‘teach him a lesson’ – they murdered him because he was a ‘smart mouth.’ It was the spirit of his being that sparked the civil rights movement, his defiance and his refusal to bow down and be broken. And it was his mother who laid that foundation in him and who refused to hide any more by keeping that casket open. Emmett was the voice of a new generation.”

BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL at Fountain Theatre

Finney and original cast members of The Fountain Theatre’s 2010 West Coast premiere reunited to present a live-streamed reading of the play onFriday, Aug. 28, which will be available for viewing online through Dec. 31 at www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020 with tickets at $20 per viewing location. And there is no better way to honor Till’s memory and the spirit of human rights than to tune in to THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL before the end of this most unusual and profound year.

Original staged production photos by Ed Krieger

Online production photos by Shari Barrett

Read the full article by Shari Barrett for Broadway World here.

Regina Taylor’s VOTE! (THE BLACK ALBUM). featured in “Review: It’s Just You and Me and the Modem in ‘Here We Are’” from the New York Times

She’s looking at you: Regina Taylor in her “Vote! (the black album).”
She’s looking at you: Regina Taylor in her “Vote! (the black album).”
Photo Credit…Cherie B. Tay

After my first experience of Theater for One — back in pre-pandemic days, when it meant sharing a small booth with an actor who performed a short play for you — I imagined it as what speed dating would be if you fell in love with everyone you met. Sitting that close to an actor’s face, hearing a story I could not avoid being part of because no one else was there to hear it, I was instantly drawn into the uncanny, enraptured collaboration of theater, with its roots in campfire tales and community bonding and a parent’s hushed voice at bedtime.

So when I learned that Theater for One was returning for six Thursdays this summer, in socially distanced form online, I worried that its contract with the audience would be broken. I’d attended enough Zoom meetings to know that “eye contact” had become metaphorical, a digital illusion mediated in both directions by the computer’s camera. How often I’d tried to wink or wave at a colleague, only to realize I was signaling 40 people indiscriminately — and reaching none.

But Theater for One, the brainchild of the scenic designer Christine Jones, turns out to be more adaptable than I thought. In “Here We Are,” its first online project, it has found workarounds for some of Zoom’s most alienating aspects, in the process creating not just a substitute version of the earlier experience but, in some ways, a moving improvement on it.

Its theatrical core is unchanged. Just as in Times Square or Zuccotti Park or any other location where T41 (as it is abbreviated) used to perform in person, you begin by getting in line — only now the line is virtual. Prompts like “What space are you creating in your heart today?” open conversations among anonymous theatergoers in the queue, who type answers that show up and disappear like fireflies on the screen. (Those answers are far more revealing than they would be in real life.) After a while, when a slot opens, you are whisked into a private space, not knowing whom or what you will see there; the assignations are random.

I caught four of the eight “microplays,” averaging about seven minutes each, that T41 commissioned for “Here We Are.” (The other four include works by Lynn Nottage and Carmelita Tropicana.) In honor of the centennial of ratification of the 19th Amendment, and in support of Black Lives Matter, all were written, directed, designed and performed by people of color, most of them women. The monologues are variously witty, worshipful, angry and determined as they take on subjects as widespread as writer’s block, political action, foster care and suffrage itself.

If no single theme unites them, they do share, as the omnibus title suggests, an intense feeling of the immediate present. In Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Thank You Letter,” a South Asian woman played by Mahira Kakkar writes to Representative John Lewis shortly after his death in July, in gratitude for his lesser-known work on immigration. And in Regina Taylor’s “Vote! (the black album),” Taylor plays a Black woman planning to honor her forebears, who dressed in their Sunday best to cast their ballots, by putting on a mask to mail hers.

The pandemic is a given in all the plays but generally takes second place to other concerns. In Lydia R. Diamond’s “whiterly negotiations,” directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, a “crazy-ish Black woman writer” played by Nikkole Salter vents on Zoom about a white editor’s microaggressions. But neither her dudgeon nor the Zoom itself turn out to be what they first seem; in a code-switching coda, Diamond suggests just how confusing our world’s new terrain can be.

Part of the cleverness — and effectiveness — of “whiterly negotiations” comes from not knowing who you, the viewer, alone in a virtual space with Salter, are meant to be in the story. If you are white, as I am, you might wonder whether you are standing in for the white editor, which is uncomfortable but eye-opening. If you are Black you might think you are a friend listening for the umpteenth time to the character’s spiel. One thing you can’t ever feel, because Salter looks right at you, is that you are a disinterested bystander.

That dynamic more or less informs all four plays I saw. In “Vote!” I felt like both a generalized ear and, because Taylor is such a compelling actor, the specific recipient of her intended message. (She is beautifully directed by Taylor Reynolds.) In “Thank You Letter,” Kakkar’s character immediately enlists you in her story by thanking you for listening. “Hi I don’t know you but I’m going to talk if it’s okay?!” she says. “I come from a long line of nontalkers.”More to See OnlineTheater to Stream: A World of Fringe and More ApplesAug. 26, 2020

The conflict I have often felt between being an observer and a participant in the stories I go to the theater to see is intensified and finally obviated by T41’s approach. You have to be both, at least in part so as not to seem rude to the actor, who is being both for you. I felt this most acutely in Stacey Rose’s “Thank You for Coming. Take Care,” directed (like “Thank You Letter”) by Candis C. Jones. Patrice Bell plays a woman serving a long sentence in prison; I played, and you will too if you see it, a foster parent who has been raising the woman’s daughter for two years and now hopes to adopt her.

“You don’t look anything like I expected,” Bell’s character says at the start. “Like your hair, I thought it’d be” — and here the script instructs her to describe a kind of hair that’s “opposite to” whatever yours is. “I thought it’d be blond” is what she said to me.

“Thank You for Coming,” so specific and evenhanded, would have been a heartbreaker in any format. But especially now, in moments like that, enhanced by terrific acting, you feel seen in a way that has been too often absent these six months — and maybe longer. Intimacy in the live theater is always touch-and-go. On display alone in our homes, we are much more seen than usual.

Seen and sometimes implicated. After all, everyone is part of everyone else’s story. In our isolation, it can be hard to remember that. From its title on, “Here We Are” is not about to let us forget.

By Jesse Green for the New York Times. Read the full article here.