Blue at Slidell Little Theatre through February 13
If you want to see a young actress who, though she’s just making her stage debut, sparkles with a talent many with far more experience can only aspire to, then head to Slidell Little Theatre (SLT) this weekend for its production of Blue. And be ready when Asia Sylvas enters the stage.
Sylvas plays LaTonya Dinkins, a high school senior and girlfriend to the Clark Family’s oldest son. At the start, LaTonya exudes typical teenage attitude though, as Blue takes place in a small South Carolina city, here she’s described as “country.” After Peggy, the haughty Clark materfamilias, takes her on as a “project”, LaTonya transforms into an Eliza Doolittle, ready, almost, for the ball. By play’s end, after various twists and turns, she’s become an x-ray technician, down-to-earth but ready to fight for what’s right and fair.
Full of spice and perfect comic timing, Sylvas negotiates each shift with ease, always remaining true to LaTonya’s core personality yet believably effecting these variations with poise and a piquant charm. I look forward to seeing more performances by Sylvas.
As for Blue, when the Roundabout Theatre Company presented Charles Randolph-Wright’s 2000 dramedy, it was one of the first portrayals of an upper-class Black family (their wealth comes from an expanding chain of funeral parlors) on a major stage in New York. It was supposed to return to NYC in a high-profile production directed by Phylicia Rashad, but Covid derailed those plans.
Randolph-Wright’s script is, alternately, sit com-y and soap opera-y, and I could’ve done without the older self of one character talking to his younger self (and vice versa), but, overall, Blue holds your attention with well-drawn characters and provides entertainment with a secrets-waiting-to-be-spilled plot. That such notable actresses as Diahann Carroll and Leslie Uggams, as well as Rashad who starred in the original production, have appeared in it signifies Blue’s worthiness.
Kaula Johnson directs with a sure hand, guiding her cast, with one exception, to polished, believable performances. If, at times, the staging veered too much to the static, Johnson did the best she could with Blue’s ofttimes talky script. Still, transitions could’ve been smoother on Adam Landry’s functional set; the audience spends a little too much time looking at a bare stage at the beginning and end of scenes as crew members adjust furniture and various set pieces.
Along with Sylvas, Jennifer Baptiste, who did a marvelous job directing Once on This Island for SLT last year, is wonderful as Grandma Tillie Clark. Baptiste astutely knows how to play anger for laughs, and, after Tillie has had a few drinks, expertly makes her tipsy without going overboard. Baptiste’s Tillie is the kind of grandmother everyone wants to have.
Playing Tillie’s son and head of the mortuary business, Tirrel Sylvus (real life father to Asia) comes off a little stiff (pun not intended) but not inappropriately so for a man of his profession. If at first I questioned the pairing of the restrained Sam and the more demonstrative Peggy, I then recalled similar couples, gay and straight, whom I know of the “opposites attract” variety.
If Rayson Brown as Sam III, Sam’s elder son, is good as a would-be teenage ladies’ man, his best moment comes when no one else is around and he exuberantly dances to The Commodores’ Brick House as though he’s on Soul Train. After Blue fast forwards about 20 years, Daniel Hartley may appear a little too youthful for a 30something, but he’s otherwise fine as the adult Sam III, poised to take over parts of the family business.
Like his (stage) father, Aviel Johnson Jr. seems a bit stiff as Sam’s younger son Reuben, but for a different yet equally valid reason–he’s playing a sullen tween. He also has possibly the funniest bio (and explanation for said stiffness) I’ve ever seen in a program: “Aviel Johnson Jr. isn’t as excited as most of the cast members are because he asked his mom [director Kaula] if he could spend the night somewhere and she said yes, if you play young Reuben, so here he is. Aviel is just here to be a man of his word.”
Reuben’s dourness evaporates after he’s grown up and Sean Beard incarnates him as a decent, likeable budding music producer who, even after moving far away from South Carolina, still has mommy issues.
Sam Hartley certainly looks the role of the suave eponymous jazz/R&B singer Blue Williams; you can understand why Peggy is infatuated with him. His numbers, penned by Labelle vocalist Nona Hendryx, however, seem to be inserted more to allow for costume changes than for dramatic effect. And there may be a reason for Johnson’s decision to have Hartley lip-sync Blue’s songs, but it’s a questionable one.
So who keeps this cast from scoring a 10? Director Johnson who has cast herself as Peggy Clark. She’s not bad, but whereas she’s steered her castmates into giving flesh-and-blood characterizations, her own portrayal borders on the caricature; as this privileged, pretentious woman looks down her nose at others and, later, acts inexcusably, you can almost sense Johnson’s Peggy twirling her (metaphorical) moustache.
It might’ve made more sense for Johnson to take a softer approach and play against Peggy’s harshness; I’ve known a few women like Peggy and their snobbery reveals itself in much more subtle ways. I suspect Phylicia Rashad employed a more nuanced approach and, had someone else been directing, Johnson probably would’ve done so too. While Johnson does offer some lovely heartfelt moments towards the play’s end, otherwise her performance aptly demonstrates why one should think twice before directing oneself in a major role.
That caveat aside, a visit to Slidell Little Theatre this weekend will provide ample theatrical rewards and should chase those pesky wintertime blues away.
[For tickets and further information, go to https://www.slidelllittletheatre.org/html?PageId=167631 SLT’s season continues with Moon Over Buffalo (Mar. 11-20) and Mamma Mia! (Apr. 15-May 1).]
Fly at Jefferson Performing Arts Center through February 13
When you arrive at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, you’re greeted in the foyer by “Souls of Valor — A Photographic Tribute to the African American Heroes of WWII”. This exhibition, produced by photographer Jim Thorns and previously seen at the WWII Museum, features photos of Louisiana men and women, some now centenarians, from all branches of the military who served our country in their youth.
Accompanying biographical information gives thumbnail portraits of these people, but, for some, wall cards detail their heroic service as well as the racism they encountered. For example, not only was a trophy that Top Gun Pilot Haydel Joseph White Sr. won in a gunnery competition mysteriously “lost” until it turned up in a storage room of the U.S. Air Force Museum in 2004, but he was part of the Freeman Field Mutiny in Indiana when 162 Black officers defied their commanders and entered the “whites-only” officers club rather than the rundown facility that had been set aside for them.
Such accounts, as well as a vintage sign showing separate showers for “White Officers” and “Colored Officers” (there’s a similar one for “EM” [enlisted men]), are shameful, appalling and, sadly, not surprising given the times.
“Souls of Valor” thus serves as an appropriate introduction to the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s regional premiere of Fly, Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s 2009 play about the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed group of African American military pilots and other Air Force personnel who fought in World War II.
It is an epic and fascinating topic that has already served as the basis of a variety of films, plays, novels and TV shows. Ellis and Khan, by necessity, pare down the story to give us a group of diverse young men who come together and grow in cohesion as they undergo training and eventual deployment. In this case, however, they are up against not only the enemy but their racist superiors. After reading the Wikipedia account of the Tuskegee Airmen, one suspects the playwrights toned down the despicability of the commanding officers to make things more believable. Yes, they were that bad.
Thus we have W. Willis (Michael C. Forest), a self-described ladies’ man from Chicago; Oscar Hollingsworth (Donald Jones, Jr.), a “race man” from Iowa whose motto is “Anything for our people”; J. Allen Braithwaite (Atlantis Clay), originally from the Caribbean; and Chet Simpkins (Jimez Alexander), the most grounded of the bunch and, initially, the most experienced, who’s nicknamed “125″ as he’s from Harlem.
Ellis & Khan’s script never ceases to be interesting, but too often is schematic and drama-free, especially in the first act, as it follows the structure of other wartime dramas. In addition, of necessity, the opportunity for conflict is tamped down because the group of Black airmen-in-training knows that the slightest hint of insubordination, however justified, would lead to immediate discharge. (Half of the class, according to Fly, was “washed out”, some just for looking the wrong way at one of their prejudiced officers.)
Things take off in the second act, three months after the first, when the story has relocated to Europe and the airmen are escorting bombers on perilous missions. A good deal of the act takes place in the air, and Sound & Video Designer Marcus Roberts creates a veritable feeling of flight with rear screen projections. That said, I couldn’t help imaging how such scenes might look in a movie as editing would quickly cut among long shots, medium shots, and close-ups of the men’s faces to create an even greater tension than that which the stage can afford for such depictions.
If Fly sometimes comes off as a history lesson, it could be, in part, because its four airmen (and by extension, all whom they represent) were already who they needed to be–mostly college educated, certainly smart–and their WWII experiences merely enabled them to come into their own, to soar as it were. The characters develop, but only in a very subtle way.
In contrast, the most involving scene comes late in the play when two white bomber pilots (Roberts and Sean Malley) approach two of the Black airmen and, as they ask them to escort them on an extremely dangerous mission to Berlin, only slowly do they realize just how accomplished their comrades are. It’s a small moment in which script, acting and direction beautifully combine to show organic personal growth.
That direction comes from Tommye Myrick and, as usual, she leads her entire cast to give skillfully drawn, finely detailed performances. Most notably, she avoids turning the white characters into two dimensional villains. This is especially true with Roberts and Malley, average young men who seemingly exhibit a smidgen of sympathy for their Black colleagues, but even with Michael John Smith as an Air Force Captain; sure, he’s racist, but layered in with dishonorable actions is, not only an eventual grudging respect for his trainees, but a subconscious acknowledgment that if at least a small portion of them don’t do well, it will reflect badly on him.
Jones also serves as choreographer and a step dance he does with his three fellow airmen after a Saturday night out simultaneously offers a joyous expression of self and a vital opportunity to blow off steam. Less compelling are his efforts for the “Tap Griot” a character that Ellis & Khan use to “express emotions that the represented men would have to hide”; with such accomplished acting and direction, I found such expression redundant. Nevertheless, LG Williams II danced the role with flair and passion.
At the end of Fly, the audience gets a heavy dose of shmaltzy patriotism; whether this is in the script or a flourish on Myrick’s part, I can’t say. Either way, it’s unnecessary. For, by then, our admiration for the incredibly brave and tenacious Tuskegee Airmen is boundless, even as we acknowledge our country’s historic shortcomings that tried and failed to clip their wings.
[For tickets and further information, go to https://www.jpas.org/ JPAS’s season continues at the JPAC with Shrek the Musical (Mar. 11-20) and Cinderella (Apr. 8-10 & 22-24).]