Where the Suga Still Sweet (thru May 21) and The Defiance of Dandelions (thru June 17) at the André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts
It’s rare to go to a performance of a new play in New Orleans or even New York or, for that matter, just about anywhere these days, and find yourself on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what will happen next. Rarer still, when the playwright is young and relatively inexperienced.
Which is why Where the Suga Still Sweet demands attention. Part of No Dream Deferred’s We Will Dream New Works Festival (WDD Fest) of plays by Black playwrights, Suga was written by Brian Eglund. Part teenage coming-of-age tale, part searing indictment of the Black Baptist church and small town closed-mindedness, and part Stephen King-ish horror story, Eglund masterfully juggles each of these components while mixing in bits of formal invention. What he does most importantly, however, is, from the get-go, tell a good story in dramatic fashion. Sounds easy, perhaps. but proves to be a lot more difficult in reality.
The story Eglund tells hinges on just one word: “homosexual”. Something traumatic has happened leaving the teenage Runna (Donyae Asante) mute. Runna lives with his aunt, Nanny-Mae (Gwendolyn Foxworth), a pillar of the local church, in a small southwest Louisiana town; she is determined to have the charismatic Reverend Vern-Mayor (Justin William Davis) baptize her nephew in order to get the “homosexual demon” out of him. From that basic set-up, as I wrote in a note, we want to know “where is it going and how it will end”, no small accomplishment.
Though every bit of Suga feels authentic, from its sermons to its rural atmosphere, it is, thankfully, not a realistic work. Characters come back from the dead, others speak directly to the audience. But Eglund’s talents are such that nothing feels forced; even a character who exists mostly as a narrative device is imbued by the playwright with enough individuality to make a charming counterbalance to the self-righteous forces whom she confronts.
Lauren Turner Hines directs smoothly like an expert conductor who knows how to get the best out of her orchestra; moving beyond the proscenium, she well-knows how to incorporate moments of immersive theatrical staging to enhance, but never overwhelm, the production.
Augmenting Hines’ enthralling production are Jasmine Williams’ precise and evocative lighting, and Adachi Pimentel’s simple but well-done set which flexes into various locales.
Asante keeps us guessing, as per the script, as to Runna’s situation–is he on the spectrum? being playful? being persnickety?–until its exact nature is revealed, while also slipping in and out of the young man’s inner monologs during which he addresses the audience directly. In this passionate and compassionate portrayal, Asante artfully conveys Runna’s desperation, confusion, and inchoate feelings of love.
Davis vividly captures the performative aspects of preaching. In Eglund’s view, Vern-Mayor may be evil, but he doesn’t realize it, and Davis humanizes him as much as possible.
In yet another wonderful performance, Foxworth projects both Nanny-Mae’s well-intentioned care for her nephew and her narrow worldview with its deleterious results. As she has demonstrated before, Foxworth can convey more in one word than most actors get across in a whole monolog.
In the small but pivotal role of Sondelo, Runna’s crush, Atlantis Clay confirms the outstanding talent he displayed in last year’s Yellowman at Dillard University; I look forward to seeing him in even more challenging roles to come. Xel Simone balances just the right amounts of innocence, naivete, and strength as Incwadi, a newcomer to the town who is replacing the recently deceased local librarian.
Despite all these important contributions, however, Where the Suga Still Sweet is Eglund’s achievement. Building dramatic tension through well-crafted dialog and characterizations; bringing out themes of family and cultural inheritance; sprinkling in dashes of wit, all expertly blended into the service of a terribly sad and moving tale, Suga marks the arrival of a playwright to watch out for.
WDD Fest’s third full production, The Defiance of Dandelions by Philana Imade Omorotionmwan, explores in a metaphorical way the creativity and resilience of Black females, and the oppressive educational system teenagers, particularly Black girls, are too often forced to deal with.
Director Nicole Brewer’s production is very much attuned to the spirit of the play, a 70-minute choreopoem with movement and music, and lets it flourish; full of joyful energy, there’s not a misstep in it.
Similarly, the fine cast (Allyson Lee Brown, Eleanor Humphrey, Aria Jackson, Erin King, Tithakia Lockett, Xel Simone, Constance Thompson) all give assured performances perfectly in sync with the script’s expressions of celebration, frustration, and, yes, defiance.
Omorotionmwan certainly knows how to write; any section of Dandelions demonstrates her lyrical way with words. Yet too often, with characters named “The Strongness”, “The Thickness,” The Boisterousness”, etc., a generic quality emerges. Sure, Ntozake Shange’s landmark For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf had characters designated “Lady in Red” and “Lady in Purple”, but each of their poems was rendered with utter specificity.
In Dandelions, as each cast member relates the challenges her “-ess” has faced, a certain sameness to the storytelling sets in; it’s a grim view of life told in a too consistent, almost predictable manner.
Omorotionmwan was inspired to write Dandelions, in part, by a 2016 report that noted that “in the 2011-12 school year, Black girls across the United States faced suspension at rates 6 times higher than that of white girls.” This is unquestionably a disturbing figure. One wonders if that year was an anomaly; sadly, probably not.
That said, however, to bash the country’s entire educational system because of this does a disservice to the many hardworking teachers and other school personnel who are doing their utmost, often under challenging conditions, to educate and protect our youth.
Omorotionmwan has an unseen “Teacher Lady” supervising the girls who have wound up in the suspension room who keeps falling asleep, a symbol of the system’s ineptitude. The playwright doesn’t explore the possibility, however, that Teacher Lady may be falling asleep because she’s exhausted from working a second job since her measly pay doesn’t provide a sufficiently decent standard of living.
While one can’t expect one play to cover everything, in its attempt to be universal, Dandelions neglects to include “The Smartness” among its characters. Where is someone to represent such women as Zaila Avant-garde, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Shirley Chisholm, etc., etc.?
The Defiance of Dandelions opens with a beguiling folk tale, the kind a parent might tell a child, before segueing into its parallel story that focuses on the suspended girls and the interrelationships among them. Dandelions’ themes and concerns are important ones, but in Omorotionmwan’s telling, I’m not sure if they take root as firmly as they ought to.
Regardless of how I feel about Where the Suga Still Sweet or The Defiance of Dandelions, however, just by existing and fulfilling its mission, the We Will Dream New Works Festival must be considered a success. That it (including its many auxiliary programs) has done so with such magnificence of spirit augurs well for No Dream Deferred in its new home.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://www.nodreamdeferrednola.com/wwd-festival-home]
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in NOMA’s Sculpture Garden thru May 28
They say lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. When it comes to the wild’n’crazy occurrences in Shakespeare, however, anything is possible. Apparently, that applies to productions of Shakespeare as well, as The NOLA Project is currently demonstrating in NOMA’s Sculpture Garden.
That was the setting in 2011 for The NOLA Project’s unforgettable Dream directed by Andrew Larimer, its first production in the Sculpture Garden. I described it at the time as “one of the best Shakespeare productions New Orleans has seen in over twenty years.”
This new production, directed by Brittany N. Williams, could be described as not only one of the best Shakespeare productions New Orleans has seen in the past twelve years, but one of the best productions New Orleans has seen in the past twelve years, period.
That is because while Williams has done nothing radical to or with it, she has helmed a meticulously well-thought-out version in which the entire cast speaks the Bard’s lines trippingly, precisely understanding each word’s meaning, and conveys that meaning pellucidly to the audience. In addition, her well-tempoed pacing allows for not a draggy moment, her staging makes full and imaginative use of the Garden’s verdant Oak Grove, and she’s wisely given her cast free rein to interject some knowing ad libs. After all, this is a comedy, not King Lear.
Perhaps most important of all, Williams has ensured that her entire company occupies the same stylistic universe, something more easily said than done, especially in a work that has 4 disparate, though overlapping, plots.
And what a company it is!
In the usually throwaway role of Egeus, father of Hermia, here rendered as Egea and Hermia’s mother, Ashley Ricord Santos, making a welcome return to the stage, excavates, with natural ease, the full subtextual significance of what is often tossed off as mere exposition. When Egea returns in Act Two, Santos plays her as soused creating as vivid a portrait of a secondary character as one could hope for.
Santos also doubles as one of the Rude Mechanicals who are planning to put on a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Led by A.J. Allegra (a cute in-joke as he’s directed many, many plays including the upcoming Twelfth Night at Tulane Shakespeare Festival), they delightfully overdo their shtik while always remaining true to character.
Chief among the Mechanicals is Bottom. James Bartelle brings bravado and fabulous pomposity to this weaver with an outsized ego. Transformed by the fairy king Oberon, Bartelle makes a great ass, braying with abandon. Lean and handsome, Bartelle may not be a typical Bottom who’s often (tho not always) portrayed by a paunchy, character actor, but he’s a superlative one.
The other Mechanicals also play Titania’s four fairy servants, something I’ve not seen before and which works very well especially with this bodaciously talented group of thespians (Natalie Boyd, Keith Claverie, Megan Whittle and Allegra). This quartet imbues the fairies with a zinginess that’s usually missing when younger actors (and often mere apprentices in whatever company that’s putting on the show) portray them.
While each of the Fairies/Mechanicals gets their moment to shine, Claverie’s nuanced singing of the Fairy Song is among this production’s many highlights as are Kaci Thomassie and Bridget Ann Boyle’s grand outfits for all the Fairies.
(The costumes for the Athenians, however, struck me as a bit wan, Hippolyta’s lovely white wedding dress with its climbing flowers being an exception. I suspect this was intentional as a way to contrast the two realms, but they don’t quite give the added value that is the hallmark of Thomassie’s typical designs.)
Hardly anyone is better at hurling insults than Shakespeare and, based on his deliciously stinging words, this is the first time I’ve realized how important it is to have a Helena who’s significantly taller than Hermia; for this alone, J’aila Price (Helena) and Alexandria Miles (Hermia) are perfectly cast. But that ain’t the only reason.
Price, with her gazelle-like legs, captures Helena’s bewilderment and wounded pride when, due to fairyland magic, she unexpectedly becomes the object of both Demetrius and Lysander’s affections. Hermia is often overshadowed by Helena’s tribulations, but not here as Miles finds the underlying comedy in Hermia’s serious situation (marry the guy she doesn’t love or get thee to a nunnery!), balancing the two expertly.
With her commanding voice and presence, Monica R. Harris’ Hippolyta is wholly convincing as the Queen of the Amazons in a way not all actresses playing the role achieve. Doubling, as is often done, as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, Harris brings a light-fingered delicacy to her boudoir scenes with the ass-headed Bottom; she may be the butt of Oberon’s joke but Harris/Titania maintains her dignity and, thankfully, things never turn cringey.
In the less showy male roles, Matthew Thompson (Theseus/Oberon), Khiry Armstead (Lysander), and Matthew Raetz (Demetrius) are all fine, bringing the requisite swagger and, in the case of the two Athenian suitors, romantic confusion to their parts.
Mention must also be made of Reid Williams and Tessa Dufrene as Fairy attendants to Oberon who, performing on stilts, wear fabulous contraptions of their own devising. Towering over the staging area and regularly extending their enormous wings, they add an element of playful menace and captivating wonder that makes this Dream dreamier than most
And then there’s the Puck of Alex Wallace. This mischievous sprite is often, tho not always, played by a young’un; a 14-year-old Mickey Rooney, already a movie star, memorably played Puck in the star-studded 1935 film version.
Wallace, one of The NOLA Project’s founding members, doesn’t give us a traditional Puck. His Puck is approaching middle age; when he gets back from his whizzing journeys around the globe, he’s visibly out of breath. Unlike many Pucks who feverishly rush their lines, however, Wallace takes his time, enabling them to delectably sink in for the audience. So fresh is his performance that it seems as tho he’s making the words up, brilliantly, as he goes along. As Wallace renders it, a simple sentence like “I remember” becomes unforgettable.
Wallace also enacts Philostrate, seen toward the finale, who helps coordinate Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. It’s a small part but he’s equally terrific in it.
Quibbles? Only a few.
As marvelous as Santos is as Egea, I’m not sure it’s wise to turn this fusty father into a mother. Shakespeare is knowingly sending up male stubbornness and obtuseness; I think women are better than that.
Speaking of women, though Egea is referred to using female pronouns, shouldn’t the same go for the Mechanicals played by Boyd, Santos and Whittle? Surely, the message is not that there’s no such thing as, respectively, a female tinker, tailor and joiner. It’s a teensy confusing.
And as divine as this Dream is, I did miss the royals making their final entrance on a barge in the Sculpture Garden’s lagoon as was the case in 2011. Can’t have everything, I guess.
What I can have is a most favorite moment among many. That was when Claverie, as the bellows-mender Francis Flute played Thisbe in the Mechanicals’ “most lamentable comedy and most cruel death” of Pyramus and Thisbe; for an instant he transformed, thru the alchemical magic of theater, into an “actress” equal to the most sublime Juliet. Briefly, the show’s entire tone changed and the audience quieted noticeably to listen even more intently as this Dream cast its spell.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs only through May 28. You’d be a foolish mortal to miss it.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://www.nolaproject.com/midsummer]
The Komenka Ethnic Dance and Music Ensemble’s 41st Spring Concert will be held Saturday, May 27, at 7:30pm and Sunday, May 28, 2:00pm at Loyola University’s Louis J. Roussel Performance Hall (6301 St. Charles Ave.).
The show is an “around the world” 2-hour tour through ethnic dance and music, and features presentations representing Azerbaijan, Croatia, Greece, Mexico, the Middle East, Moldavia, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Tibet, the Ukraine, and the United States. Tickets range from $8 to $15 and may be purchased online at www.tickettailor.com/events/komenka