Join the reading of MOUNTAIN MAMAS by Daryl Lisa Fazio presented by the Barter Theatre beginning January 26, 2021.
Synopsis: Patsy Armstrong is a coal miner. Just like her daddy, Earl. And just like her mother, Wanda, who was one of the first women ever hired underground in a union mine and, at 60 years old, is still there. As of this week, Patsy’s back in her mother and daddy’s house, after a mining accident that left her with no ability to move or communicate. Her bright 18-year old daughter, Livvy, now lives there too. In a home that’s full of humor and generosity and rowdiness and grit. But a home—not to mention a whole dang planet—that’s under more pressure than maybe it’s ever been. When the family gets news about the settlement from Patsy’s accident, Livvy jumps into the fray. And Patsy, now forced to listen and observe more than she ever did as a healthy person, is plagued by nightmares and revelations she’s able to share only with us. It doesn’t take long for her to realize she has to learn a new way of being if she’s gonna save her entire world.
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.
Q: Has each of you always seen yourself as a leader?
Khalia Davis: I have not always seen myself in a leadership position in the theater industry. I started out as a kid actor, from 6 years old. I thought I was going to be an actress for the screen. It was not until I was in high school and I booked TheatreWorks Silicon Valley that I thought, “Oh, you can make money being a theater artist.” But the problem was that I was not seeing myself reflected in spaces of leadership. (As my career progressed), I was recognizing that I have a lot of opinions about the theater for a young audience (TYA) industry. I was recognizing that I’m not seeing myself in these spaces, and that I’m not hearing particular things being voiced. That probably means that I need to be that person.
Q: Each of you is so new in your organizations that maybe this isn’t a fair question, but is there something you’ve already done — even if it’s something small or tough to quantify, that you wouldn’t necessarily put on a resume — that you’re proud of?
Davis: Something that I love that we’ve all adopted is this access check-in before all of our meetings, where we focus everybody on: What does everyone need? That could be as simple as, “My Wi-Fi’s spotty today,” to, during some of our darkest times in the last few months, I have been very honest and open about where my head was at, how it was hard for me to think when community members are being gunned down in the streets. I appreciated us having the space every single day before we got into the work to just say, “As a human, how are you?”
Q: What does Kamala Harris as VP mean to each of you?
Davis: It’s so refreshing and gratifying to witness someone who has continually owned both parts of herself in her identity throughout her whole life and who has done the work to learn more about that history so she can speak to those members of the community in a more educated, grounded, respectful way. I also think it’s great to see someone who appreciates and celebrates life. There is a joy that she brought. We have not seen that in four years.
Read the full interview by Lily Janiak from Datebook here.
Reserve a FREE ticket here. Video event runs October 26th – October 31st.
At Mosaic Theater, a playwright asks: How do you mourn a man you barely knew?
On Oct. 26, when audiences get a first look at “Dear Mapel,” Psalmayene 24’s new one-man show about his relationship with his deceased father — currently in development at Mosaic Theater — the occasion will be no typical workshop.
For one, the familiar workshopping process — in which a scaled-down version of a play is staged and critiqued — has been set aside by Mosaic in favor of a virtual, multimedia-enhanced presentation because of the pandemic.
But Psalmayene 24 also says that this play is a particularly flexible work in progress because he’s still processing its inciting event: the 2014 death of his estranged father, Mapel. As writing the script has bred catharsis, that catharsis has engendered rewrites — with the cycle repeating indefinitely.
“There was just incredible grief, as you can imagine,” the 47-year-old writer-performer says of his father’s death, which he didn’t learn about until 2017. “So this play was created with the spirit of trying to get some sort of closure in that relationship. How can we alter and heal those relationships, even when a parent is deceased? I mean, that’s fascinating to me. I’m still in that process, and I’ve experienced a transformation of my relationship with my father through the making of this piece.”
Psalmayene 24 promptly identified “Dear Mapel” as the first project of that collaboration. When the pandemic brought on the widespread closing of theaters, he found that the sense of isolation only heightened his desire to complete a project about the thirst for human connection.
Read the full article by Thomas Floyd from The Washington Posthere.