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.

Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY, by Stephen Sachs, Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

The multi-award-winning Fountain Theatre in Hollywood creates, develops and produces new plays and re-imagined classics expressing the diverse social issues and cultures of Los Angeles and the nation, giving artistic voice to the voiceless. Now presenting the world premiere of HUMAN INTEREST STORY, a timely new play written and directed by Stephen Sachs (Arrival & Departure, Citizen: An American Lyric, Bakersfield Mist), centering on homelessness, celebrity worship and truth in American journalism which reminds us that the line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much thinner than you think. And like city traffic congestion, the homeless population in Los Angeles has grown to epic proportions and will only get worse, with even more tents and campers lining streets in every neighborhood to house those with nowhere else to live and no financial means to change their circumstances. But for those who want out, shouldn’t there always be a way to do so by just taking a chance when the opportunity arises?

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

According to Sachs, the play is about how contrary and opposing impulses can hide in the same human being, and was initially inspired by the 1941 Frank Capra classic film Meet John Doe, in which Gary Cooper plays a homeless man (then called a “hobo”), who is hired by newspaper writer Barbara Stanwick and transformed into a national celebrity she names John Doe. “What if the story were told today in the fast-moving world of social media with homelessness, fake news, and political corruption in our daily news feeds, when “a newspaper columnist, in the course of writing a human interest story on another individual, is forced to confront truths about himself?” he explains.

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

HUMAN INTEREST STORY is about more than homelessness, taking us beyond the circumstances of those on the streets and allowing us to remember how truth – in our press, in ourselves and the world – sets us free. Set in the fast-moving world of news media, with locations bought to life through video projections brilliantly created by and incorporated into Matthew G. Hill’s scenic design, the play chronicles the journey of newspaper columnist Andy Kramer (Rob Nagle), who, after being suddenly laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes The City Chronicle, which is suffering the fate of most print publications, struggling for readers and ad revenue to stay afloat in our changing times.

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

Realizing he is one step away from losing his livelihood as well as his home, Andy fabricates a letter to run as his last column in retaliation for the layoff, hoping to garner the recognition he has longed to achieve while exposing the lies and corruption which forced his hand. The letter he creates from an imaginary homeless woman he names “Jane Doe” announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world, and soon goes viral. Andy then finds himself forced to hire a homeless woman in the park (Tanya Alexander) to stand-in as the fictitious Jane.

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

But this Jane Doe is a former teacher and writer, wise beyond her current living circumstances which were forced upon her due to teacher layoffs and her own poor financial planning. When “her” letter is published, Jane becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited when she speaks up for homeless women on the streets everywhere.

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

But what happens when she begins to speak her real truth rather than spout the words forced upon her by the new newspaper publisher Harold Cain (James Harper), who sees in Jane a way to raise funds to support his run for mayor? It’s an examination of social media power in an era of ever-present fake news and the overwhelming need of the public to create celebrities to follow.

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

Richard Azurdia, Aleisha Force, Matt Kirkwood, and Tarina Pouney authentically portray many supporting characters including TV new reporters and event interviewers who twist Jane’s story to gain more viewers or to support their own causes. And when media investigators discover Jane Doe’s real identity, her popularity drops and the media attacks begin, forcing Jane back into the woods as she awaits the upcoming and fateful 4th of July. Will she take her own life for an identity she assumed to protect Andy Kramer’s lie, or is it possible to turn your life around simply by telling the truth?

BWW Review: Timely New Play HUMAN INTEREST STORY Focuses on Homelessness, Celebrity Worship and Truth in American Journalism

Along with the cast, the incredibly insight playwright/director Stephen Sachs, scenic and video designer Matthew G. Hill, and costume designer Shon LeBlanc, kudos go to the rest of the impressive creative team including lighting designer Jennifer Edwards; composer and sound designer Peter Bayne; video hair and makeup designer Diahann McCrary; prop master Michael Allen Angel; production stage manager is Emily Lehrer, and the assistant stage manager is Nura Ferdowsi. Simon Levy, James Bennett and Deborah Culver produce for The Fountain Theatre, with executive producer Karen Kondazian.

HUMAN INTEREST STORY runs through April 5, 2020 with performances on Fridaysat8 p.m.; Saturdaysat 2 p.m.and8 p.m.; Sundaysat2 p.m.; and Mondaysat8 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$45; Pay-What-You-Want seating is available every Monday night in addition to regular seating (subject to availability). The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue(at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. For reservations and information, call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

Read the full article from Broadway World LA by Shari Barrett here.