Tell It To Me Sweet at NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden thru Nov. 14
The NOLA Project’s COVID- and hurricane-delayed Tell It To Me Sweet finally opened in NOMA’s Sculpture Garden on Halloween weekend. While characters do employ tricks in some of its playlets, for audiences, the show delivers an absolute treat.
Tell It To Me Sweet offers five brief works that playwright Brittany N. Williams has adapted from fairy tales and folk stories. Some come from the Brothers Grimm, some from African American literary traditions. For others, she’s combined various sources and turned them into the tastiest of gumbos.
A Big Bad Wolf makes an appearance, as do various evil mothers, both step- and natural. A decent, hardworking Mama defends her kids (which happen to be of the four-legged variety). And a ghost story of sorts shows that basic decency can be the path to riches. Each segment captivates, and, taken together, Tell It To Me Sweet wondrously celebrates the joys of storytelling.
Williams keeps her narratives short, all 15 minutes or less, but in their brief time frame she creates fully-rounded characters that are easy to empathize with or, in the case of the bad guys & gals, who you want to see get their comeuppance.
Each of these playlets is performed in a separate area of the new section of the Sculpture Garden. Divided into five manageably sized groups, the audience rotates clockwise at the end of each piece until the entire quintet has been viewed. I suspect getting the timing just right was a challenge but The NOLA Project folks are old pros at this (Adventures in Wonderland, EXT. POOL-NIGHT).
One might wish that these tales, at least some of them, ended with more of a zinger–they’re all pretty straightforward–but only The Spinner, a variation on Rumplestilskin, seems to promise a twist of some sort that never arrives. Regardless, I was fully entranced for the show’s 90-minute running time.
Much credit for that must go, in addition to Williams’ words, to Director Torey Hayward who has elicited pitch perfect performances from his cast of 15, a combination of new (to me) and familiar faces. Hayward wisely has chosen a Story Theatre style of presentation, not naturalistic, but grounded in heightened, honest emotions that connect characters, actors and viewers.
Among the NOLA Project veterans, Natalie Boyd is in top form as the proprietor of Rufus’ Rugs & Rattan Emporium in the ghostly Buried Treasure segment; with just the slightest intonation of a word, she insinuates volumes. Monica R. Harris co-stars with her and embodies three distinct characters, two greedy, one charmingly guileless; unlike her performance in The Comedy of Errors earlier this year which found humor via a wholly realistic approach, here she extracts laughs through stylized body language and facial expressions which never descend into mere mugging.
Keith Claverie plays that big, bad, and desperately hungry Wolf to sneering perfection, meticulously adjusting his voice as he aims to do no good. It’s a deliciously rococo performance.
As the entirely self-centered, but not at all self-aware, Queen Prudence in The Spinner, Mint Bryan (aka Velma Blair) has never been better; melding innate haughtiness with disdainful glares at those beneath her, Bryan’s Queen, wearing a make-up design from the Bianca Del Rio School of Cosmetology, is a wackily fabulous creation.
Among those I was seeing for the first time, Annie Phoenix, her voice booming as the avaricious step-mother in The Oak Tree, eschewed simple caricature to fashion a relentlessly domineering woman, one who might be seen in a chain restaurant or downscale department store.
Joining Claverie in The Wolf & the Seven Kids, Rebeckah Gordon-Kirk (Mama Goat) displays the proper admixture of maternal caring and determined fortitude while Jordan Bordenave and Jordan Joseph (as two of those seven kids) find just the right level of sibling rivalry and sisterly support. All three consistently make “M-m-m-m-mama” a m-m-m-m-multisyllabic word, not as easy as it may sound–try bleating that at home.
In The Little Devil, Randall MacKenzie Rosenberg ages twenty years in a second, losing not the impulsiveness of youth but gaining a quick-thinking wit. Rosenberg, whose charismatic esprit reminded me of a young Ben Vereen, mercifully does not “act” like a child in the playlet’s first half but rather with the mature confidence that such an assured kid would project.
Also adding to the fun are Kelci Lewis, Malakani Severson and Khaila J. Mickens as the triumphant family in The Oak Tree; The Little Devil’s Tharrison O. Boykin as a newly-trained but still somewhat naive devil; and Hannah Dougharty as The Spinner’s nerdy, would-be title character, and Chrissy Jacobs as both her malevolent mother and, ultimately, her stalwart savior.
Using coveralls as a base, Baylee Robertson and Sami Mihalik’s wonderfully detailed costumes imaginatively conjure up the aforementioned goats, wolf, devil, and that nasty queen as well as a benign ghost and an absolutely beautiful revenge-seeking bird.
The always spectacular Sculpture Garden becomes even more beguiling at night when all its works are dramatically lit up, seen to especially good effect in The Wolf & the Seven Kids and The Little Devil. Just don’t go to its main entrance where NOLA Project shows have usually been done (as I did in a Pavlovian manner) since admittance is through the new section’s gate. Though I didn’t mind my perambulation in search of the proper entry, better signage or someone posted there to point you in the right direction would’ve been appreciated.
Once I found the proper site, though, through the magic of theatrical alchemy, Tell It To Me Sweet’s script, direction, acting, costumes, make-up plus the setting itself, all united to leave me helplessly grinning from ear to ear by the final “…and they lived happily ever after.”
This triumphant return of The NOLA Project to live performances really should run all year long as a soul-enhancing tonic after the challenges of the past many months. I’ve been told, however, that “as of now, there are no plans to extend” in part because of Celebration in the Oaks soon starting up in City Park. There are four performances left. Unless you have a fairy godmother to provide tickets, you’d be wise to purchase them before they’re all gone.
For tickets and additional information, go to https://www.nolaproject.com/tell-it-to-me-sweet?mc_cid=6fb4759e6e&mc_eid=bd5a597568
New in New York
After its longest shutdown is history, Broadway has come back to life and, with proper COVID protocols in place, Phantoms, Mormons and Lions are singing and dancing again. During a recent visit to NYC, I was less interested in those long-running, tourist-friendly musicals than in new plays on Broadway and off.
After its pandemic shutdown, the New York Theatre Workshop production of Sanctuary City continued its run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. This was my first encounter with any of Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok’s works.
In it, two “brown-skinned teenagers” face the challenges that come with being undocumented, particularly financial ones. B (Jasai Chase-Owens) is afraid of what will happen if his mother goes back to their native country. G (Sharlene Cruz) doesn’t report the abuse she’s suffering at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend for fear of what the authorities might then do. It’s terribly sad that two sweet, clearly smart kids have to deal with this.
Taking place in the mid-’00s, Sanctuary City at first comes off as one of those better, award-worthy afterschool specials, sometimes programmatically so to make its points. After G returns from college, however, it moves into soap opera territory with a plot twist I could see coming from a mile away…and I’m usually pretty bad at such things. Only in its final moments did the play become truly dramatic as a character must face a future that offers only uncertainty.
Chase-Owens and Cruz, as well as Austin Smith in a smaller but pivotal role, gave accomplished performances, even if, despite their best efforts, the dialog didn’t always sound authentic coming from these two particular teenagers. Isabella Byrd’s sumptuous lighting that changed with precision as scenes shifted quickly, and Mikaal Sulaiman’s evocative sound design added immeasurably to the show’s theatricality, especially its first part.
In Pass Over, seen at the August Wilson Theatre, playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu drew on Waiting for Godot, the Book of Exodus and current (and not-so-current) headlines as two young black men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), in “the (future) present; but also 2021 CE; but also 1855 CE; but also 1440 BCE” pass time by “the river’s edge; but also a ghetto street; but also a plantation; but also a desert city built by slaves; (and also the new world to come ((worlds without end)).”
If I found parts of Moses’ and Kitch’s plight involving, there seemed to be a good deal of filler, like an extended riff on the song What a Wonderful World. Pass Over came most to life in the two passages when Gabriel Ebert came on, first in a surreal scene as a seemingly obliging white guy (emphasis on “seemingly”) who shares a large meal with Moses and Kitch, and then, later, as a vicious cop who then has a change of heart.
On Wilson Chin’s bleak, until the very end, set, Hill, Smallwood and, especially, Ebert, made the most of their challenging roles. If, like Sanctuary City, I didn’t find it a perfect evening of theater, it was still an interesting and worthy one that gives audiences lots to think and talk about after the curtain has come down.
The same cannot be said for Chicken & Biscuits (at the Circle in the Square Theatre through Jan. 2, 2022), a broad comedy about a Black family coming together for its patriarch’s funeral. That playwright Douglas Lyons employs stereotypes and preposterous plot developments is bad enough. That it’s just not funny ( I counted two genuine laughs in its 2 hours) makes you almost wish theaters had not reopened.
It’s almost painful to watch talented actors try to breathe life into this drek, none more so than the great bass baritone Norm Lewis whose magnificent voice gets to be heard fully only momentarily. Eventually, three siblings have an intelligent, even moving conversation but, till then, I identified deeply with that character who pled “Lord, help me keep my eyeballs rolled forward!”
Just for the record, I was similarly underwhelmed by two shows I saw before the pandemic shuttered theaters, the Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country (Belasco Theatre) and the British ghost story Woman in Black (The McKittrick Hotel through Jan. 30, 2022). The former, set in a Depression era boardinghouse in Duluth, I found dreary and manipulative with too many stories packed in while the latter comes off as a not very spooky mishigas. But who am I to criticize a Nobel Prize winner and a play that’s run for over 30 years in the West End?
Least you think I’m a complete Grinch, however, try not to miss Is This a Room. I saw it two years ago off-Broadway. It’s now on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre (thru Nov. 27) and, based on the rave reviews it’s recently gotten, what I wrote about it in 2019 still holds true.
One would think that a verbatim presentation of an FBI interview, with all the “um’s” and “er’s” left in, might be interesting but not necessarily very dramatic. Yet Is This a Room, a 70-minute play taken from just such an interrogation, proves to be fascinating AND more dramatic than anything else I saw in New York.
On June 3, 2017, 25-year-old Air Force linguist Reality Winner (her actual name!) was surprised at her home in Augusta, Georgia, by FBI agents. What begins as casual everyday conversation evolves into questions about potential espionage. Winner dodges them for a while but, ultimately, without ever having access to legal counsel, confesses to passing on evidence of Russian interference in U.S. elections. She was sent to jail with a record-breaking sentence, but this past June, was transferred to a transitional facility, leaving prison early as a result of “good behavior”.
Conceived and directed, brilliantly, by Tina Satter, Room, even if you know how things turn out, keeps you on the edge of your seat. The FBI agents may be threatening but they’re down-to-earth guys, doing their job in the most mundane manner. Winner cares as much about her pets being treated well and looked after as she does about her own well-being. The implications for how our government treats its citizens are harrowing.
As Winner, Emily Davis is simply extraordinary as she parcels out information with wary honesty. Pete Simpson, TL Thompson [who’s been replaced for the Broadway run by Will Cobbs], and Becca Blackwell, a transgender actor, all add an unsettling verisimilitude to the production.
Is This a Room was supposed to run till January but due to slow ticket sales, an early closing notice had been posted; because of a subsequent uptick in orders it’s been extended two weeks. If you can see it, the reality is you’ll be a winner.
Elsewhere, at the Metropolitan Museum, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion at The Costume Institute (thru Sept. 2022) displays approximately 100 men’s and women’s ensembles by a diverse range of designers from the 1940s to the present. Halston and Oscar de la Renta are represented but also young designers you probably haven’t heard of yet. Also included? Rihanna with an outfit from her Savage X Fenty line of sexy lingerie.
The wide scope of clothing, each ensemble seen individually in a scrimmed case, gives a bracing view of American fashion, not only in its stylishness, but in the broad range of materials, silhouettes and imagination that designers bring to bear when creating their collections. Ethereally elegant music by Julius Eastman accompanies the exhibition. You’ll want to sashay down a runway afterwards.
Downtown at the Whitney Museum, Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (thru Feb. 13, 2022) provides the most comprehensive retrospective ever devoted to Johns’s art. Well, half of it as the other half of the exhibit is appearing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I’m not a huge fan of Johns–I can only take so many flags and maps and arrays of numbers–but I enjoyed seeing some of the more figurative works he did in the 1980s as well as in the past decade when he was in his 80s. Regardless of what you think of the work itself, it’s an energizing view of an artist who has been constantly evolving, finding new forms of expression, and who shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his 90s.
While you’re at the Whitney, you may want to walk over to Pier 55 on the Hudson River to visit Little Island, Manhattan’s newest public park which opened in May of this year. It offers about three acres of green space, paid for by Barry Diller. Some might say it’s a dilly of a $260 million caprice but it offers great views and, coming next year, live performances in its amphitheater. Enjoy!