By Pat Launer
Hey, Ain’t You Heard what’s goin’ down?
Edith Head and Mac Wellman were in town.
DEEP LIKE THE RIVERS
THE SHOW: Ain’t You Heard ?, a tribute to Langston Hughes, created and directed by Charmen Jackson
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: Langston Hughes ( 1902 – 1967 ) was a novelist , playwright , short story writer and newspaper columnist, but he’s best known for his poetry of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance . In fact, Hughes was dubbed the “Poet Laureate of Harlem.” He and his contemporaries (including Zora Neale Hurston, a not-too-distant relative of local arts supporter Osborn Hurston) were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class — especially the three considered the ‘midwives’ of the Harlem Renaissance: W.E.B. Du Bois , Jessie Redmon Fauset , and Alain Locke . Hughes et al. criticized these leaders for accommodating and assimilating Eurocentric values and culture. The primary focus of the internecine conflict were the depictions of the “low-life,” that is, the blacks in the lower social-economic strata. Hughes’ poetry and fiction centered on the working class lives of blacks in America , lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Permeating his work is pride in the African American identity and its diverse culture; he may be the first to have said ‘Black is beautiful.”
“My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all humankind,” he wrote. In his work, he confronted racial stereotypes , protested social conditions, and expanded African America’s image of itself. He was a “people’s poet” who sought to re-educate America about the real lives of the oppressed and the poor. This brought him considerable criticism, because of his use of dialect, slanguage and street talk, and exposing the underbelly of poverty. At the same time, his poetry announced to the world that the streets of black America contained a culture rich and vibrant and fiercely poetic. His rhythms came directly from the heartbeat of blues and jazz.
Hughes briefly attended Columbia University (but later graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania ); in 1935, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship . Over the next few years, he established the Harlem Suitcase Theater in New York , the New Negro Theater in Los Angeles , and the Skyloft Players in Chicago . In 1943, writing for the black publication Chicago Defender , Hughes first created Jesse B. Semple, often referred to by his friends as “ Simple ,” the everyday, lower-class denizen of Harlem who offered philosophical musings, often humorous, on issues of greatest concern to an African American working-class Harlem resident – including booze, women, indigence, numbers-running and racism. Several years after his death from cancer at age 65 (1967), Hughes’ residence in Harlem was given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission; in 1969, the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center opened.
In a short poem, Hughes foretold his own future:
stand up and talk about me
and write about me
black and beautiful
and sing about me
and put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Yes, it’ll be me.
Well, yes and no. The Ira Aldridge Repertory Players have also taken up the challenge. Artistic director Calvin Manson had written a one-act based on the writings of Hughes. Then he passed the project along to one of his frequent featured actor/singers, talented Charmen Jackson who, though she didn’t know anything about Hughes when she started, obviously did her homework and research. She has created and directed an appealing pastiche of 13 short scenes that capture the essence of life in Harlem , expressed through jokes, jibes and teasing or tense interactions.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: The production values are minimal, but the players make the piece come alive. Leonard Patton is delightful as Jesse, a funny, irresponsible, philandering, fun-loving, hard-living, thoroughly likable but frustrating guy. That’s how he’s viewed by his fiancée, Joyce (knockout Andrea Purnell, also sexy as The Lady in Red). She has to contend with Jesse’s not-yet-ex second wife and his late-night attraction to the seductive barfly, Zarita (Ida Rhem, also formidable as Old Lady and the uppity Mrs. Sadie Maxwell-Reeves). Jesse’s companions and compatriots are young, gullible Darby (sincere and ingenuous Patrick Kelly) and stable, worldly-wise Sonny (excellent Laurence Brown). The poems are admirably intertwined with the prose, and with their blues/jazz rhythms and beats, they readily lend themselves to delightful a capella singing. Production high points come from the poems “When Sue Wears Red,” “Blue Monday,” “Lament Over Love” and “The Weary Blues,” which tells of a piano player’s “ebony hands on each ivory key… Sweet blues comin’ from a black man’s soul.” With his uncomplicated language and unalloyed interactions, Hughes (and Jackson) reveal a great deal of humanity and reality. This is a charming introduction or re-introduction to the work of a beloved groundbreaker and cultural role model.
THE LOCATION: Ira Aldridge Repertory Players at Express Stage in Acoustic Expressions, North Park , through October 15
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
HEAD OF THE CLASS
THE SHOW: A Conversation with Edith Head, was inspired by a TV bio about the renowned costume designer that was seen by actor/producer/director Susan Claassen, managing artistic director of the Invisible Theatre in Tucson . She recognized her remarkable resemblance to Head (diminutive height and all) and was fascinated enough to create this solo piece, co-written with Head biographer Paddy Calistro
THE STORY/THE PLAYER: Edith Head (1897-1981) was the most famous, most celebrated costume designer in movie history. She worked on over 1100 films won 8 Academy Awards (an unprecedented 35 nominations), and she dressed just about anyone who was/is anyone in Hollywood – from Grace Kelly (“Rear Window”) and Liz Taylor (several times, including that crazy peacock-feather cape C.B. DeMille insisted on for “Samson and Delilah”) to Paul Newman and Robert Redford (“The Sting”). The play is set in 1981, in the last months of Head’s life. At 84, she’s getting a little crotchety and forgetful, though she still has that outré look she created young and stuck with forever: those severe bangs and oversized dark glasses (a kind of female Adam Ant). Even in her 80s, her hair was jet black (with assistance, one presumes). The structure of the piece is intriguing. Calistro is the (stiff) introducer and facilitator, moving the evening along and periodically reading questions from theatergoers (elicited earlier in the evening). And there’s a ‘theater historian’ in the audience (James Blair, also of the Invisible Theatre) who keeps Head ‘honest’ and provides all the dates and details when she can’t come up with a word (she cleverly uses the audience for word support as well: “It’s so much easier being remembered than trying to remember!”). Blair’s character is annoying at times, but it’s an interesting conceit. Chatting with Claassen and Blair after the performance (we were all invited up to view the sketches, models, costumes and signed photos from the stars — well, copies of the originals, anyway), revealed that the actor has innumerable anecdotes at her command, and depending on what comes up (in her mind or in the audience), that’s where she goes during any given performance. She’s done the show in six or seven cities, and she seems steeped in the details and extremely comfortable putting on the persona.
It’s an enjoyable evening spent with this influential woman who broke down many barriers. But I would’ve liked to hear less Hollywood dish and more about how she made her “magic” (“We were doing makeovers long before they coined the term”) , creating clothes that camouflaged body flaws and re-configured contours. “There really isn’t anyone I can’t make over,” she brags, but only really describes what she did for Barbara Stanwyck that “changed both our lives…. I gave her glamorous looks and she gave me my smile” (Stanwyck reportedly dragged Head to the dentist to get her teeth fixed so she could smile every once in a while). Claassen (and Head) are delightful company; her interactions with the audience were particularly amusing, as when she lit into one man for wearing a baseball cap and shorts to the theater (“Where did you think you were going, a tennis match?”) and threatened another (“I will make a voodoo doll out of you – and boy, do I have pins!”) She doesn’t think there are any glamorous stars any more (or, she didn’t in 1981, but it’s safe to say she wouldn’t today, either). And as for her fashion recommendations, they still apply, too: “To influence style you really have to hit upon something that is timeless… Sacrifice style to find a look that is attractive to you and suits your chassis.” She strongly suggests that you put a paper bag over your head, and peer out through eye-holes to view yourself objectively in the mirror. Sound advice.
The acclaimed, iconoclastic playwright Mac Wellman made a visit to San Diego this week, courtesy of Ruff Yeager’s Vox Nova Theatre Company, an ambitious undertaking dedicated to new work by well-known and lesser-known playwrights. First there was “A Conversation with Mac Wellman,” an informal chat, reading and Q&A at New World Stage. The next night, there were staged readings of two of Mac’s plays, Three Americanisms and Psychology, or Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood. The events were provocative, inspiring and well worth seeing, but attendance was embarrassing on both evenings, a very meager showing for San Diego theater artists. Those who were present were rapt and fascinated; the questions were thought-provoking and the exchanges were excellent and informative.
Mac, who started out as a poet, has written some 70 plays (“far too many,” he mused, with his twisted smile). He’s won three Off Broadway Obie Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award (2003). During his visit and audience interactions, he repeatedly exhibited his dry, wry wit and love of language. On the first night, he did a brief reading from his latest work, Bitter Bierce, culled from “The Devils Dictionary,” the deliciously nasty comment on our culture by satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914). Wellman took his title from the nickname Bierce earned for his dark, sardonic views and vehemence as a critic. That was an era, the playwright asserted, “ when journalists were not afraid and spoke their mind.” Wellman is also undaunted by the truth; it’s what drives him, personally and professionally, as a writer, teacher (formerly at Yale, currently at Brooklyn College ) and provocateur. Bierce’s “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of felony” could easily have come from Wellman’s acid-dipped pen. It was also interesting (but not surprising) to learn that another creative language-user and language-lover, Liz Duffy Adams (Dog Act and the upcoming Wet, both brought to us by Moxie Theatre) was a former student of his.
Wellman’s older play, Three Americanisms (1993), a neck-snapping riff on cliché and paranoia, written at about the same time as Terminal Hip, was rife with the kind of lush, inventive waterfall of words that Wellman is famous for, at least around these parts (Sincerity Forever, 7 Blowjobs and Terminal Hip have been done by Sledgehammer Theatre). The language was especially well handled by Yeager, whose crisp articulatory precision and ability to make perfect sense of the jumble of images and neologisms, was breathtaking. Rachael van Wormer and Jim Chovick also did an excellent job going with the flow of words and coming out (kind of like throwing yourself over Niagara in a barrel) intact.
Yeager directed Psychology, a snidely funny riff on modern American life (“callous and spiritually empty”), featuring a fez-wearing dwarf, a couple of sock puppets, an anthropomorphic car and several brutally funny descriptions of theater with its “unconvincing exchanges” and “random and pointless acts” and scene changes. The energetic and energizing performances of Van Wormer and Chovick were augmented by fine comic turns by Jaysen Waller and John Martin. You just have to relax and let go with Wellman’s work; let the language wash over you, and revel in the nasty little nuggets of truth and insight you pick out from the torrent. He’s fighting against what he calls “ geezer theater ,” and encouraging his students and protégés to do the same, to create something new, relevant, exciting and inspiring to the next generation of theatermakers and theatergoers.
NEWS AND VIEWS
…Don’t miss the boat, er, trolley… Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater’s Trolley Dances, an exciting annual event that continues through the weekend. Tour guides escort you into some of San Diego ’s most diverse neighborhoods, along the Orange Line, beginning at the Euclid Ave. trolley stop near the Market Creek Plaza . This year’s choreographers include New York ’s Monica Bill Barnes (making a third return visit), Ben Levy of San Francisco ’s Levy Dance, SDDT dancer Bradley Lundberg, and three new works by Jean Isaacs. Tours begin every 45 min from 10am to 3:15 on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. For info: www.sandiegodancetheater.org .
…Bring your mom, grandma, aunt, sisters, friends… and all the men who love them…. to The Far Side of Fifty, words of wisdom and humor from 14 women, age 58-88 (my mother and sister are in the cast, along with June Gottleib and Trina Kaplan). This weekend, September 30 at 2pm, at the Avo Playhouse in Vista . 760-724-2110 or vistixonline.com
… Also this weekend, Black Rabbit Theatre Company’s star-studded fundraiser: Love Letters, performed by four different casts, at the Scripps Performing Arts Center, 9920 Scripps Lake Dr., Suite 104 ; SD 92131. Here’s the lineup: Sept. 29, 8pm: Rosina Reynolds & Jonathan McMurtry; Sept. 30 8pm, Priscilla Allen & Jack Montgomery; Oct. 1 at 2pm: Michelle Burkhart & Daniel Hall; Oct. 1 at 8pm: D. Candis Paule & Doren Elias. For info: email@example.com
… Have you ever been to a Fall Harvest Moon Festival? Now’s your chance. San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre invites you to a benefit banquet to celebrate its 10th anniversary and a traditional Chinese holiday. Authentic Cantonese cuisine, silent auction, music by Bridget Brigittte and Illa — and theater. In support of the world premiere of her House of Chaos (coming to New World Theatre in Spring 2007), internationally renowned playwright Velina Hasu Houston will be present. And there’ll be a special tribute to Dr. Marianne McDonald. Tix at 888-568-2278.
… Twins are so connected. In News from the North, Randall Hickman and Douglas Davis, owners of Vista ’s Broadway Theatre, are mounting a production of the juicy, offbeat musical, Side Show, loosely based on the story of a pair of conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, and their roller-coaster ride from the side show to the vaudeville stage. And guess what? They found a pair of identical twins, Shelly Hart Breneman and Shauna Hart Ostrom (of the Actors Alliance) to assay the roles. Michael Grant Hall serves as musical director and Starlight’s Shirley Johnston choreographs. These guys don’t shy away from the tough stuff (they even did the Women). Five performances only, Oct. 11-20. Vistix: 760-724-2110.
…Got a call from Richard Baird, who’s about to finish his exciting (if humbling) stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Before he leaves, he just couldn’t help himself and had to get his hand back into producing. So he mounted a little production of The Changeling ( Thomas Middleton and William Rowley , 1622) , in the Festival’s Experimental Theatre. And he’s accepted a gig at the Southwest Shakespeare Company, playing Cyrano de Bergerac (“It’s a bigger role than Hamlet!” Richard swears). He’ll get his Equity card during that spring production (3/29-4/14 in Mesa AZ – it’s not that far!). Between gigs, he’ll be back in San Diego , and anxious to get back on the local boards. Any takers? We sure haven’t seen Cyrano around these parts for a long time. And we’ve missed the passion of a Baird performance these last months.
Special performers, special performances:
…Hershey Felder, the creator/writer/star of George Gershwin Alone, will transform himself into Frédéric Chopin for the West coast premiere of another third of his Composer Sonata trilogy: Monsieur Chopin, at the Old Globe. So, you liked Gershwin? Come to a private piano lesson that actually took place on March 4, 1848 in the Parisian salon of the legendary Polish maestro. October 26-31, eight performances only. 619-23-GLOBE; www.theoldglobe.org
… Broadway and film star and two-time Tony winner (Chicago, City of Angels) James Naughton brings his solo show, Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night to the La Jolla Playhouse, for one night only, October 23. The cabaret performance features musical stylings ranging from pop to jazz, composed by the likes of Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Tom Waits and Randy Newman. If you can swing it, there’s a VIP pre-show Martini Party and a Post-show dessert/cocktail reception. Limited tix available: 858-550-1020 X 132 or www.lajollplayhouse.com.
… While we’re on the subject of one-(wo )man shows, how about this one, a coup for North Coast Rep… Life and Loves of Dinah Washington, starring Yvette Freeman. She became Someone to Watch (and listen to) when she took over the role from Nell Carter and won an Obie Award Off Broadway in Dinah Was, The Dinah Washington Musical. TV audiences know her as a series regular on “ER” (Nurse Haleh Adams) She’s a long-time friend of David Ellenstein and agreed to come down to San Diego for two performances only: October 24 and 25. Dinah Washington was the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Blues,” making waves with songs like “What a Difference a Day Makes” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” In the role, the New York Times called Freeman “a whirlwind lustily sucking up huge gulps of life.” Judging from the response to Ella, Gershwin and Edith Head, you’d better get your tickets soon. 858-481-1055; northcoastrep.org.
AND IN OTHER PERFORMING ARTS NEWS…
.. Catch the premiere of Gabriel Masson Dance at the SDSU School of Music and Dance. The choreographer’s 2004 work, “Museum Piece,” for Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theatre, was named by the U-T as one of the Top 10 dance events of the year. Try something different: an evening of dance. Performances are October 6 & 7 in the Studio Theater (ENS 200) on the campus. Tix: 619-594-1696. Directions and parking info: 619-594-6824.
…and on the subject of dance, don’t miss the reprise of Movin’ Out – songs of Billy Joel, choreography by Twyla Tharp — brought to us by Broadway San Diego, with some of the ab-fab dancers (and the same terrific singer) as the touring company that came through in 2004. Oct. 10-15. Tix through the Civic Theatre (619-570-1100) or Ticketmaster (619-220-TIXS; www.ticketmaster.com)
… More dance? Fleet-footed tapmaster Savion Glover is at Copley Symphony Hall on Oct. 6 at 8pm, as part of UCSD’s ArtPower! Tix through ticketmaster.com
.. and while we’re mentioning ‘60s icons, how ‘bout Paul Simon at Viejas Bayside Concerts? Oct. 3 at 7:30 at the Embarcadero Marina Park South. Tix at ticketmaster.com
… Kids do the darndest things… The San Diego Youth Symphony is having a 60th anniversary celebration on Oct. 1 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido . The fundraiser will help promote and support young classical musicians. Twenty year-old Cellist Tina Guo and 17 year-old violinist Michael Viscardi are the featured performers. Reservations and information: 800-988-4253 or 760-839-6312.
…The end of Mozart…Mainly Mozart wraps up its year-long celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday with the San Diego premiere of the world-famous Salzburg Marionette Theatre, performing The Magic Flute on Nov. 4 at the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre. There’s an hour-long children’s matinee at 2pm and a full length performance at 7pm. Grab a kid and go. 619-239-0100, or www.mainlymozart.org.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Ain’t You Heard? , a funny, poignant tribute to Langston Hughes, “the Poet Laureate of Harlem,” based on the stories, poems and characters he created to shine a light on everyday African American life
Ira Aldridge Repertory Players at Express Stage in North Park , through October 7
George Gershwin Alone – a rhapsody of melodies, fantastically played (and you find out a few things about George, too, by George!)
At the Old Globe, through October 22.
Ella – some great singing and playing; wonderful performance, excellent band
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 15
Leading Ladies – incredibly silly, but inescapably funny (especially in the second act)
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through October 8
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – hilarious spoofs, now featuring an all-San Diego cast (all alums of the SDSU MFA program in musical theatre). Get ‘em while they’re hot!
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!” It’s inventive and terrific
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
It’s a new season and a new year (5767 in Jewish years — not to be confused with Dog Years). So do something new … see more theater.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.