The seventh annual Berkshire Theatre Critics Association Awards, known as the Berkies took place this week, where a total of 27 awards in 22 categories were presented for shows that were produced between Oct. 1, 2022 and Sept. 30, 2023 at theaters in and around the Berkshires.
The Sally and Robert Sugarman Award for a world premiere of a new play or musical was presented to playwright Mark St. Germain for The Happiest Man on Earth, produced by Barrington Stage Company. Kenneth Tigar’s performance in St. Germain’s play as concentration camp survivor Eddie Jaku earned him the award for outstanding solo performance.
Winners were announced Monday, Nov. 13, in ceremonies at Zion Lutheran Church on First Street, hosted by BTCA president J. Peter Bergman and Macey Levin.
NEW YORK CITY, October 3, 2023 — The Fled Collective will present its second developmental workshop of its 2023 Season this month. Step Kids is written by Tyrone L Robinson with additional music by Postell Pringle and directed by Raz Golden. Tickets are available for performances on October 26th, 27th and 28th at 7:00 PM at The Flea Theater. The performance on October 27 is Black Theater Night followed by a talk-back with the cast and creative team.
Tickets are $15 and will be available through Eventbrite.
ABOUT: Step Kids is a one act hip hop musical that tells the story of a group of college students auditioning for the elite and competitive step dance team, The All Stars. Competition is tough and no mis-step goes unnoticed by “The Voice of God” (Erin Cherry). After much scrutiny and questioning, our heroine, Yessica (Kamiah Vickers) shares her love of Step. In her explanation, she goes into the history of Step Dancing in America and its African Roots, leading her to find her own voice.
The audience gets a beautifully recounted history lesson on the history of Step in America along with a High energy show full of music and dance. In an effort to bring step to communities across NYC, this past spring, The Fled Collective hosted a Step workshop at Kings Elementary School in Brownsville, NY, where scholars ages 5-10 were given firsthand the opportunity to learn the vocabulary of basic Step routines ahead of their graduating recital, Stepping Up! The goal of this workshop was to teach the students about the history of Step and the significant role it played throughout Black History and how it evolved into the artform it is today. Following a brief presentation of the history of Step (which you can view HERE), the students were taught some basic stepping phrases and ultimately the workshop will end with the students having learned a short routine.
Book, Music & Lyrics by Tyrone L. Robinson Additional Music & Lyrics by Postell Pringle Choreography by James Alonzo White
What says ally-ship quite like a White man with Black Lives Matter emblazoned on his tighty whities? It’s a question you’ve probably never thought of asking. But playwright Psalmayene 24 nevertheless seeks to answer it — er, cheekily — in “Monumental Travesties,” the entertainingly transgressive comedy getting a world premiere by D.C.’s Mosaic Theater Company.
Psalmayene 24 (nee Gregory Morrison) has written an absurdist three-character satire poking fun at all the pieties about race, especially as espoused by White liberals looking for absolution from their Black friends and associates. The subject is as ripe for ribbing today as was sending up Archie Bunker’s bigotry on “All in the Family” in the 1970s. Some of Psalmayene’s plot contrivances, in fact, reflect the blatantly cringe-making pivots of vintage sitcoms.
But the conventions of bygone TV comedy provide a surprisingly safe space for a subject around which thoughtful people still tread lightly (even if Psalmayene and Reginald L. Douglas, his skillful director at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, might rethink the 90-minute play’s ending, which lands with a confusing thud).
“I grew up in a house that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad!” protests Jonathan Feuer’s Adam, the overbearing White neighbor desperate to establish his worthiness to the Black couple (Louis E. Davis and Renee Elizabeth Wilson) next door. It is in the becoming D.C. home of Davis’s Chance and Wilson’s Brenda — brightly rendered by set designer Andrew R. Cohen — that “Monumental Travesties” takes place. And that’s where the story begins when Chance, a local activist/performance artist, bursts in the front door, bearing the head of Abraham Lincoln.
A real-life controversy inspires the mechanics of “Monumental Travesties”: Chance has severed Lincoln’s head from the Emancipation Statue in D.C.’s Lincoln Park, a monument dedicated in 1876 that in recent years has been decried as a humiliating depiction of White savior mentality. (Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate in Congress, has introduced legislation to have it removed.) The statue features a godlike Lincoln astride a kneeling, formerly enslaved man in a loincloth — his servile gratitude could not be more apparent.
The giant head, by props designer Deb Thomas, sits on Chance and Brenda’s coffee table like an emblem of history’s ossified portrait of slavery from a White perspective; Chance’s vandalism is part of his campaign to “deconstruct symbols of White supremacy.” At one point, he enlists the compliant Adam in reversing the postures of the statue, having Adam prostrate himself before Chance in his living room. “So this is what it feels like, huh,” Chance remarks, “being White in America?”
The sharpest junctures of “Monumental Travesties” involve Chance and Brenda bearing witness to Adam’s outrageously self-serving platitudes. He’s so evolved, he insists, that he considers himself “un-White,” whatever that means, and so attuned to the injustices against people of color that he can recite from memory testaments to the indigenous Anacostan people on whose land his pricey townhouse sits. Chance and Brenda are not, for their part, above using Black victimhood to gain social and economic advantage: Brenda, for instance, concocts for Adam a shameful lie about a relative’s murder to explain the money she got to buy the house. (The truth, Psalmayene 24 implies, would be harder for a White person to believe.)
What’s also implicit in “Monumental Travesties” is the notion that conscientious people both Black and White still have to “act” for each other, that what they say in each other’s presence is a varnished version of what they really think. (Although the dramatist also points out that Brenda and Chance harbor problems and secrets, too, that they’re not willing to confront.) Chance’s absconding with Lincoln’s detached head is, in a sense, a cut to the chase about race: Talk isn’t good enough, he’s declaring, not even about the father of emancipation. Only action matters.
Davis, Wilson and Feuer demonstrate their acumen concerning broad comedy; their roles are archetypes, somewhat short of three dimensions, much the way sitcom characters are defined by a single trait recycled in one episode after another. Costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka gives pleasing pizazz to Brenda’s outfits, particularly the historic garb devised for the play’s final movement, when Brenda introduces another factual detail that complicates Chance’s facile rationale for his crime.
Under Douglas’s guidance, the actors amiably navigate the plot turns, which become ever crazier. The dramatist packs in so many curveballs that some are inevitably going to be wild pitches. (“Monumental Travesties” has to be the first play to use the brain fog resulting from long covid as a pivotal narrative point.) But even with some bumps, Psalmayene has paved a way for comedy to be another dramatic tool for understanding.
Monumental Travesties, by Psalmayene 24. Directed by Reginald L. Douglas. Set, Andrew R. Cohen; lighting, Alberto Segarra; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; sound Nick “the 1da” Hernandez. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 8 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. mosaictheater.org.
The new play “Monumental Travesties” is a comedy, but the perception that sparked it was no laughing matter.
“The seeds of it started with my disdain for the monument,” says playwright Psalmayene 24, speaking just yards from the controversial Emancipation Memorial in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park. In his opinion and that of others, the sculpture, dedicated in 1876, demeans the Black man it portrays as kneeling at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, who is holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the monument was commissioned and paid for by African Americans, including people who had been enslaved, an all-White committee oversaw the design. Some detractors — including protesters during the social justice activism of 2020 — have called for the monument’s removal.
Psalmayene 24, who goes by Psalm, says he wanted to “alchemize” his contempt for the memorial into something positive. The result is the first comedy the local writer, director and actor has written. A tale of a protester’s irreverent caper, which offs the Lincoln statue’s head, “Monumental Travesties” runs through Oct. 1, mounted by Mosaic Theater Company, where Psalm is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation playwright-in-residence. The show is performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, about a mile from the memorial.
Mosaic Artistic Director Reginald L. Douglas, who is staging the play, says he wanted to open the company’s season with a work that was joyful, if substantive. “Psalm uses laughter to allow audiences to lean in, which is one of the best gifts of theater,” he says. “We’re all sharing a joke about something quite serious: Conversations around race. Around local and national history. Who gets the opportunity to see themselves represented in monuments, and who does not? And how do we, as neighbors of different races and political affiliations, come together in a dialogue about where we go next?”
Debuting one play that touches on race and history is a notable milestone; Psalmayene 24 is premiering two this month. Running at Joe’s Movement Emporium through Sept. 24 is his interview-based play “Out of the Vineyard,” about legal actions filed against enslavers by enslaved people. Tony Thomas directs and choreographs.
Psalm, age 50 — “the same age as hip-hop,” he jokes — discussed both new works while sitting on a bench near the memorial one mild morning.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When did you first become aware of the Emancipation Memorial?
A: When I came to Howard University. I don’t remember the exact moment I saw it, but it troubled me ever since.
Q: What about it do you disdain?
A: This is a piece of art, and all art is subjective. But to me, it’s pretty unambiguous in terms of the demeaning representation of the Black man. You can see him kneeling in front of Lincoln, and he’s practically nude — he’s only wearing a loincloth — and Lincoln is in this paternalistic superior pose above him. This monument is supposed to be in honor of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, but I think the artist got it wrong. The Black man kneeling is supposed to be free, but he doesn’t look free. This is a prime example of the type of representation that my work aims to dismantle. My work is all about elevating and uplifting representations of Black people.
Q: Tell me about deciding to write a comedy.
A: I feel it has to be a comedy, because the subject matter is so heavy and can be so polarizing. With the pandemic hopefully in our rearview mirror, I think audiences really want to laugh and want joy. Comedy is a form that I hadn’t written, so this was a formal challenge to myself. I’m making fun of people on both sides of the “woke” aisle. I’m on a certain side of that aisle, too, but I think we’re all ridiculous and absurd.
Q: You have a strong reaction to the statue. Was it difficult to present the other side of the issue?
A: No, because within the boundaries of a comedy, everyone is fair game. No matter what you think should be done with the statue — if you think it should be melted down and poured into the Potomac, if you think it needs to stay up or go to a museum — there is humor that can be mined from that.
Q: Did you do research for “Monumental Travesties”?
A: I did. But a lot of my research actually consisted of coming to this park and observing people. Like right now, there’s a woman walking by. She happens to be looking at the monument. A lot of people don’t even look up at it.
Q: “Out of the Vineyard” is another play that touches on American history.
A: That play is in conversation with “Monumental Travesties.” Brooke Kidd [executive director at Joe’s Movement Emporium] approached me about adapting a book called “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery From the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War” [by William G. Thomas III]. I did not want to do a period piece. So I interviewed people who in some way are connected to the history of freedom suits: lawsuits, basically, that enslaved people waged pre-Emancipation Proclamation. Many were waged by families in Prince George’s County. Knowing about this history really emphasizes the fact that enslaved peoples were always fighting for their freedom. Which brings me back to the representation [in the Emancipation Memorial]. The statue, for me, represents a fallacy. “Out of the Vineyard” aims to correct that fallacy and bring light to a hidden chapter in America’s history.
Q: The fallacy being that freedom came from the White savior bestowing it.
A: Exactly. Freedom, as I understand it, is not something that comes from another human being giving it. It is a right that you are born with.
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993, ext. 501. mosaictheater.org.
The grandiosity of opera culture—the stars, the spectacle, the stage machinery—often obscures the form itself, which depends on the fine details of things like harmony, dynamics, and individual performances to succeed.
The great value in small opera companies like On Site Opera is in their smaller scale, and how chamber sized productions are all about intimate details and nuances. With On Site Opera, those all take on a greater significance because the company’s purpose is not to bring audiences into an opera house, but to bring opera to people, wherever they might be able to stage a performance.
On Site got their new season started early Friday afternoon in just such a fashion: their latest production, the world premiere of Lisa DeSpain’s Song of the Nightingale, debuted in the outdoor public courtyard at Brooklyn Commons, the first in a series of free performances open to the public (and the elements). The opera was commissioned and produced by On Site Opera and Brookfield Properties Arts & Culture.
The results were impressive all around. DeSpain’s opera is a graceful, elegantly crafted piece for a cast of five singers, a modern fairy tale about the collision between contemporary materialism and nature. It bears no relation to Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignol other than sharing the songbird as a subject and being full of melodies. Outdoor performances are already difficult, so the energy, concentration, and skill of the singers when it was 89º (with dense humidity), and the five-piece ensemble conducted by Geoffrey McDonald was near unbelievable.
The opera, with a libretto by Melisa Tien, opens with The Collector (mezzo Chrystal E. Williams) and The Curator (tenor Bernard Holcomb), discussing her desires. She relies on him for taste, he relies on her for money—the sweetness of the music belies their toxic codependency. The music is highly lyrical throughout, so even when the Williams sang lines like “Everything wants to be gathered,” the sound of it makes her nearly sympathetic.
But this is a fairy tale, after all. The two head out to the woods in search of a “famous performer,” enchanted by the sounds of nature. They run into the Frog (soprano Nicole Haslett, in costume designer Kara Harmon’s smart outfit of green hiking vest and backpack canteen) and the Cow (bass-baritone Eliam Ramos), and eventually find The Nightingale (soprano Hannah Cho). They convince the Nightingale to come to the Collector’s home as a featured performer. As beautifully as she sings—and Cho was ringing and expressive in the character’s two enchanting arias—the city is not for her.
She is rescued by Frog and Cow, the former disguising herself as a mechanical, singing statue, who with the press of a button delivers “I sing for you / I sing for me / I sing this tune / For all eternity.” This ditty is one of the subtle strengths of the opera, it’s pretty but it eventually, and convincingly, grows jejune for the Collector, who realizes the emptiness of her pursuit (the Curator himself leaves the city for the woods, and happiness).
DeSpain’s new opera hit all the marks with a fine shape and pace, and a chorus at the end that wrapped it all up in satisfying fashion. Performing in the round, all the singers were terrific, projecting through the elements via Beth Lake’s fine sound design, with excellent articulation and an unflagging feeling of fun and joy. This all happens at close quarters, and director Katherine M. Carter had the cast moving fluidly about and around the crushed gravel circle and the central tree (McDonald himself was peeking around the trees to throw cues to the singers).
This was a winning combination of a score that was a pleasure because of its modesty and direct communication, a skillful cast that brought out every last bit of feeling and loveliness in the music, and On Site Opera’s intelligence, flexibility, and commitment to engage the public.
Song of the Nightingale will be repeated 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Brooklyn Commons; September 21-23 at Manhattan West; and September 28-30 at Brookfield Place. brookfieldproperties.com