Drapetomania: A Negro Carol at the André Cailloux Center through April 30
No Dream Deferred (NDD) is a community-anchored theater production company, founded in 2016. It presented its first show, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red & Brown Water, at the Beaubourg Theatre in the CBD in the fall of 2019. Its second presentation was to have been Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy; of all the local productions lost to Covid, I was most disappointed by this one’s demise as I had seen it off-Broadway in New York and loved it.
Now NDD is ensconced on Bayou Road in the André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice, the former St. Rose de Lima Church. It recently kicked off its We Will Dream New Works Festival (WDD Fest) which will feature cultural events, workshops, an HBCU Theatre summit, and talks by playwrights James (Fat Ham) Ijames (April 20) and Erika (cullud wattah) Dickerson-Despenza (May 19).
The Festival’s centerpiece, though, is productions of three new plays by Black playwrights plus a staged reading of a fourth, an ambitious undertaking. As Festival co-producer Tiffany Vega-Gibson recently stated at the WDD Fest’s kick-off party, “We were told maybe we should do less plays, but we said “No, we’re going to do four.” We were told maybe we should just do staged readings of all the plays, but we said “No, we’re going to do productions of three.” And they have. Bravo!
The first of these plays is Drapetomania: A Negro Carol by M.D. Schaffer. Drapetomania is a term that describes “a supposed mental illness that, in 1851, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright hypothesized as the cause of enslaved Africans fleeing captivity; the hypothesis centered around the belief that slavery was such an improvement upon the lives of slaves that only those suffering from some form of mental illness would wish to escape.” I kid you not.
(Though taken as gospel in the 19th century South, Cartwright’s article was widely mocked and satirized in the northern U.S. Natch.)
In Drapetomania, Schaffer uses some historical figures (LD. Barkley (1950-1971), a 21-year-old man who was one of the leaders of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising; Dr. Anna Cooper (1858-1964), whose A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, is widely considered the first book about Black feminist theory; and abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859)) to, a la Dickens’ Christmas Carol, change a man’s outlook on life.
In this case, it’s Wayne, a young Black man who has recently become a father. He just wants to live his life and take care of his child, while the three ghosts want to recruit him to become a modern day civil rights leader.
All well and good, but Schaffer has more up his sleeve as Drapetomania, in its final moments, moves into Pirandellian territory with a seeming nod to Ijames’ White, recently seen at NOMA in a NOLA Project production. That Schaffer might borrow from Pulitzer Prize winner Ijames is not surprising as, in one passage, he acknowledges such other contemporary Black playwrights as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Michael R. Jackson, and, in the play’s funniest line, Jeremy O. Harris.
Drapetomania is clearly the work of a young playwright. The information spooled out in the 45-minute first act could have been conveyed in about 10 minutes. Characters have quick, seemingly unmotivated changes of heart. The dialog is fairly simple and repetitive; we wish Wayne would become a more complex character. As it is, nothing about Wayne indicates why the three spirits chose him (“Been waiting for you. You’re the one to help us solve this mess.”) for this potentially earth-shattering role; he seems like an average, if certainly nice, guy.
(That said, a friend of mine who went to high school with Barack Obama has told me that nothing about him back then would’ve made her think he’d be a future President. Still, we look to works of art to reveal such things to us.)
Director David Koté’s staging may, at times, be somewhat static, but he does the best he can with this talky, occasionally didactic script, endowing it with a brisk pacing and guiding his entire cast to give compelling, fully realized performances.
Jay Dorsey plays Wayne who feels the walls are closing in on him. JC Domangue makes Maggie, Wayne’s white partner, a grounding presence. Jonas Chartock sparks the stage as John Brown, while Justin William Davis embodies Barkley. Donyae Asante does double duty as the villainous Cartwright and as a stand-in for the playwright.
Best of all, as is often the case, is Gwendolyn Foxworth as Dr. Anna. Foxworth invests every word she utters with intentionality, excavating subtext and adding extra dimensions to her character. I hope the younger thespians who share the stage with her appreciate the acting lesson she gives them at each performance.
I suspect Drapetomania: A Negro Carol is a play, with its wholly valid message and accompanying portrait of a playwright as a frazzled young man, Schaffer felt a need to write. As such, it launches the We Will Dream Festival with abundant passion. I look forward to seeing the Festival’s next two offerings Where the Suga Still Sweet (April 8-May 21) and The Defiance of Dandelions (April 28-June 17).
[For tickets and more info, go to https://www.nodreamdeferrednola.com/wwd-festival-home]
Exit, Pursued by a Bear at the Fortress of Lushington through April 7
Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear is described as a “revenge comedy” which sounds mildly oxymoronic as “revenge drama” or “revenge tragedy” tend to be the usual order of things.
Yet “revenge comedy” turns out to be entirely apt for this singular play by the prolific Gunderson. “Revenge dramedy” might be even more precise, but why split hairs?
Presented by The Radical Buffoons at the Fortress of Lushington, Lindsay Rowinski’s detailed set puts us in the garage of Nan (Natalie Boyd) and Kyle (Jon Greene), somewhere in the backroads of Georgia. It looks to be Kyle’s man cave, but as the lights come up, we find him duct taped to a rolling chair, a ball gag in his mouth.
Turns out, he’s been verbally and physically abusive to his wife, and Nan has had enough. She’s worked out an escape plan involving her new bff, the actress/stripper Sweetheart (Angie Z) and her old bff Simon (Mint Blair), who turns up in a cheerleader outfit; they had gone to their “prom together in a slightly ironic way.” Bears, honey and a deer carcass also come into play.
Gunderson provides an interesting theatrical format as she tears down the fourth wall and has characters address the audience directly, reciting stage directions out loud. She doesn’t always have the ability, however, to keep her plot moving steadily forward. Sometimes the wheels just seem to be spinning and even at a brisk 80 minutes, Exit could probably be a bit tighter.
Still, Gunderson has created four distinct, intriguing characters and sprinkles her script with enough wickedly fine lines (“Revenge is a core American value.” “Even when he doesn’t hurt me, it hurts.” And describing a certain type of show as “theater with an ‘re.’”) that we enjoy the wild ride even the bumpier aspects of it.
Directed by Torey Hayward (co-director, with Greene, of Radical Buffoons’ 2019 Barbecue) and Tenaj Jackson (School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play), I’m not sure who did what, but, together, they fully realized the script, kept the pacing as tight as possible, and provided a rollickingly entertaining and thought-provoking evening.
It’s always wonderful to see Natalie Boyd on stage, even better in a lead role. As the “broke, stuck and scared” Nan, Boyd well conveys the character’s sadness while still finding humor in the role. Boyd digs deep to exhibit real pain in a detailed, emotional performance. Still, I can imagine other interpretations of Nan as Boyd radiates an innate toughness that I don’t think is part of Nan’s DNA. Not that tough women can’t wind up in abusive relationships, but I kinda felt Boyd’s Nan would probably have left Kyle long ago.
As Kyle, the ultimate piece of white trash, Greene apoplectically, and splendidly, delivers a monolog with the aforementioned ball gag in his mouth. As he pleads to be set free, Greene, an eminently likable performer, tries to humanize Kyle as much as possible, playing his stupidity with flair.
In the play’s least well-defined role, Blair does well as Simon, passionately and compassionately fulfilling all of the archetypal best friend’s contours.
And Angie Z is a comic find, tossing off Sweetheart’s lines with aplomb and expertly seeming to be “amateurish”. Would someone please mount a production of Born Yesterday so she could play Billie Dawn?
Exit, Pursued by a Bear has just two more performances this holiday weekend. If you want something to celebrate, go see it.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://www.radicalbuffoons.com/exit-pursued-by-a-bear]
The 2023 Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival
Breaking with tradition, this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival kicked off with the annual Stella Shouting Contest instead of leaving it for the finale. It was a wise move, allowing for an additional promotional opportunity for the Festival. And, as a nod to the Kowalskis’ domestic violence that engenders that famous scream, this year’s contest helped to raise awareness and funds for the New Orleans Family Justice Center, a partnership of agencies dedicated to ending domestic violence. Bravo!
Taking place on the perimeter of Jackson Square, I had a blast judging the contest for the first time along with fellow jurors Peggy Scott Laborde, Tom Cianfichi and the Fest’s Executive Director Paul Willis. We all took it very seriously and, I think, adjudicated a fair and appropriate winning order of shouters.
This year’s festival also featured Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Le Petit and The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company’s Night of the Iguana at Loyola, both of which I reviewed in my previous column. New this year was The Last Bohemia Fringe Festival which occurred over three nights at the AllWays Lounge’s Twilight Room.
I was able to attend one of the BoFri Fest’s headlining performances Prisontown, Lee Osorio’s one-man show that examines his return to his hometown of Lumpkin, Georgia, where one of our nation’s largest federal immigration detention centers is located. The first 70 minutes or so of this 90-minute monolog were absolutely brilliant and riveting as Osorio conveyed with precise detail and a dollop of self-deprecating humor what precipitated his visit, and his reactions and insights as the queer son of Latino immigrants. Alas, the tale’s focus became diffused in its last 20 minutes vitiating the narrative’s power that Osorio had so successfully been building up until that point. Still, it was a most worthy evening of theatrical storytelling.
The Festival also showcased its usual line-up of presentations, readings, walking tours, panel discussions, etc., etc. Yet I miss the days when it also had boldface names (Shirley Knight, Zoe Caldwell, Richard Chamberlain, Dick Cavett, Robert Wagner, Diane Ladd, etc.) reminiscing about working with Williams. Sadly, while there’s still mendacity in the world, some of the magic has dimmed.