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CurtainUp's DC Report
November 1997, Part 2

November DC Report Topics
NOTE:      Our November DC Report has been split into two parts. If you found your way here, you probably know about Part 1 already. If not, a link at the bottom of this page will take you there.

Splash Hatch on the E Going Down, by Kia Corthron
Othello, by William Shakespeare
House Arrest First Edition, by Anna Deveare Smith
Web pages mentioned in this report
Links to topics covered in prior DC Reports and to DC Theater Guides

Review: Splash Hatch on the E Going Down
Center Stage should be commended for bringing Kia Corthron's newest work to its audience. She writes in a voice that is both fresh in style and refreshingly smart in content. There is little doubt she is a force to be reckoned with.

When I reviewed Corthron's play, Seeking The Genesis, at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club last summer (the review is linked below), I said:
At their best, plays that tackle difficult and controversial topics foster understanding by making the audience feel the emotions that prompt the debate. At their worst, they sermonize.
This time, the balance falls heavily on the sermonizing side.

Like Seeking the Genesis, Splash Hatch on the E Going Down is set in the inner city -- in this case, Harlem -- and gives attention to a laundry list of contemporary social issues: teen pregnancy, global warming, natural childbirth, access to health care and, most of all, environmental racism. The latter is the systematic phenomenon by which poor people and minorities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. A few facts and statistics -- listed in a single column in this production's excellent playbill -- persuasively demonstrate the existence and nature of the offense. It's the obvious but unfair result of NIMBY ("not-in-my-back-yard") politics: those with the least clout end up with the most toxins.

Instead of what I would have expected, a compelling if politically charged portrait of how forces conspire against, and affect, the family at the center of the play, Kia Corthron's thrust is a rather cold, two-hour science lesson. We never develop much feeling for the characters; we are too busy absorbing a litany of technical facts.  What makes this most disappointing is that Corthron is enormously capable of moving people with her words. In Splash Hatch, she seems oddly reluctant to trust her considerable skills to touch rather than merely to teach.

Corthron writes in a style and with a rhythm -- a poetry -- that is both original and honest. We hear urban voices, and they are not stereotypes. Her characters possess a vital and intelligent sense of humor. She understands how to use imagery. But she obscures these abilities in an avalanche of data. Her language is marshaled in aid of a lecture; her characters are only rarely permitted to break out of the two-dimensional hyperbolas she has created for them; her beautiful images manifest themselves only fleetingly.

In his program notes, director Marion McClinton compares the distinctiveness of Corthron's language to David Mamet's, and I agree with him. But there is a major difference and it highlights the difficulty I have with this play: Mamet uses his language to tell compelling stories; he doesn't preach.
Splash Hatch concerns a year in the life of Thyme (Margaret Kemp), a very bright, inquisitive, determined and talkative girl who is obsessed with conservation and the environment.  As we first see her, she is 15 and nearing the end of the first trimester of a pregnancy. The expectant father -- Erry (Akili Prince), an older teen high school dropout who works for a demolition contractor -- is not an absentee; indeed, he and Thyme are very involved, as are (promisingly) her exceptional parents, Marjorie (Ami Brabson) and Ollie (David Toney). Thyme also has a good friend, Shaneequa (Cherita A. Armstrong), already a mother and again pregnant.

As the play's central character, and the playwright's fact-spewer-in-chief, Thyme is at the core of the coldness I find so disconcerting. Her obsession with the environment is abstract. When she addresses it on an interpersonal level, it is more likely to be in jest than serious. (She resists Erry's sexual advances on the grounds that washing the sheets will be bad for the environment; she's bringing a baby into the world, but her environmentalism is untethered to what's at stake for the child.) Her passion and her anger seem incongruous without a believable human dimension.

The supporting characters experience emotions and consequences, but they are more illustrations than actors. Akiri Prince's Erry, suffering the effects of lead poisoning, exhibits genuine paternal love, eager for the baby to know him as a parent and anxious to watch his child grow in the world. He speaks charmingly of a "smile without the happy to back it up" and poignantly asks Thyme to listen to his own happy if unhealthy heart. While this nourishes Erry's personal tragedy, it is little more than a lunch recess from Thyme's pedantry. The same can be said for the wonderful portrayals of the parents by Brabson and Toney, the latter bringing some much-needed energy to the stage. Shaneequa, who in many ways speaks in counterpoint to Thyme, finally grabs our attention briefly in a playground; this provides a glimpse of the type of emotional connection that this script otherwise fails to deliver.

The final scene in the play is a beautiful coda. It abundantly displays the characteristics of Ms. Corthron's language, and the way she can employ metaphors in support of richly refined ideas. As resonant as it is in its own right, this scene is so jarringly distinct from, and unrelated to, the preceding scenes that it just underscores what might have been.

Mention must also be made of Michael Yeargan's practical and artistic two-level set design, inspired by David Hockney's Swimming Pool paintings. Seamlessly shifting from surreal to specific and between at least a half dozen locations, the set is easily exploited to maximum advantage by Marion McClinton's nicely-styled direction.
by Kia Corthron 
with Margaret Kemp, Akili Prince, Ami Brabson, Cherita A. Armstrong and David Toney 
Directed by Marion McClinton 
Center Stage Head Theater, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore (410) 332-0033 
Web page address is shown below 
November 13, 1997 - January 4, 1998

Review: Othello
Once it had attracted attention by casting a race-reversed Othello with Patrick Stewart in the title role, The Shakespeare Theatre did what it does best: it surprised everyone by doing the unexpected. Minds raced in anticipation of the "statement" this production would make. Performing Shakespeare's great play about racial otherness with a white Othello in the racially-charged environment of DC, where a majority of residents are African-American, could shed new light on the universality of Shakespeare's message. Articles and interviews assaying the brilliance and silliness of this idea duly appeared. Having fomented the debate thus, director Jude Kelly's production nods its head and proceeds to ignore its own question. Then she modulates many of our other most basic assumptions about this classic.

To get a few likely curiosities out of the way first: None of Shakespeare's lines regarding race are altered in any way. (Stewart is "".) In addition to Stewart, there are a few other Caucasian faces in evidence: the servants in the house of Brabantio, as well as Cassio's suitably named courtesan, Bianca. The Cypriotes are light-skinned, but not white.

Patrick Stewart is a small, quiet Othello. His physicality is in the nature of one schooled in martial arts -- not the stereotypically towering force of a soldier. His love for Desdemona is not lustful but heartfelt. Similarly, when he rages and bellows, the sound comes from his heart, not his lungs. He reasons more than he rants. The effect of this portrayal is to make his torment all the more excruciating, and his acts those of manipulated rationality rather than of jealous or impulsive rage. Patrice Johnson's Desdemona is as fragile and innocent as any I have ever seen. They are a beautifully matched pair, both performances gaining power from elegance and subtlety.

Iago (Ron Canada) is equally unusual here, if perhaps not as satisfying. A stocky man, Canada physically eclipses Stewart, but Jude Kelly rarely lets him control the play as one would expect of Iago. He appears more a corrupt version of Sancho Panza than a cunning betrayer. Had the whole scheme blown up in his face, it wouldn't have been a terrible surprise. What makes this even more the case is his wife, Emilia (Franchelle Stewart Dorn). Dorn's remarkably expressive performance is so commanding that it alters much of our focus along a path we thought we knew well. A beaten-down woman, her captivating tentativeness (if that seems a hard notion to understand, imagine playing it) becomes a fulcrum for all that transpires.

Of the remaining principal roles, Cassio (Teagle F. Bougere) remains the most unscathed and Roderigo (Jimonn Cole) is certainly the most controversially transformed. Bourgere is spirited and earnest, never reaching for irony or sympathy in his fated circumstances. Desdemona's putative suitor Roderigo has been marginalized into a comedy bit as an unimaginable, whimpering dandy. I might add that Cole performs what is asked of him perfectly and, after a bit of reflection, the intent here is not as base as it at first seems. Still, it's not a point that needs to be made this strongly, and it has a disconcerting effect that seems to do more harm than good. This is especially true since it manifests itself at the beginning of the already startling concept (see below) of the opening scene of the play.)

The design elements are, with one exception noted below, terrific as well as harmonious. Jude Kelly's scrupulous attention to detail and nuance is matched by Robert Innes Hopkins' costumes and sets. The play opens with a shock: a Venetian rain storm (think Singing in the Rain and, yes, with real water); it ends in a thunderstorm that makes its own unspoken comment. When we first see Othello, his bride is showering him with rose petals; in their last scene together, Desdemona again showers him in petals. These images add immeasurably to the Bard's words.

The basic set is lovely and appropriate; it magically (and cleverly) transforms itself from a street in Venice to a bomb-strafed fortress in Cyprus, serving as an apt backdrop for interior scenes as well. The costumes are colorful and exceptionally well-suited to the characters they clothe. Michael Ward's original music likewise sets the mood exceedingly well. In general, Frances Aronson's lighting is fine although several scenes in the second act leave actors (realistically perhaps) in the dark. I find the gain in realsim is outweighed by the effect.

It's wonderful when a production can set out with this much attention, and ambition, and not steer off course. It is said that Patrick Stewart has been stalking this role since age 14. Reaching his goal, he has enriched Jude Kelly's thought-provoking production as it has enriched his goal.
by William Shakespeare 
starring Patrick Stewart, Ron Canada, Patrice Johnson and Franchelle Stewart Dorn 
Directed by Jude Kelly 
The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th Street NW (202) 393-2700 
Web page address is shown below 
November 11, 1997 - January 4, 1998

Brand New from Anna Deveare Smith: House Arrest First Edition
When Arena Stage included a then-unnamed new play by Anna Deveare Smith in its 1997-98 season, it seemed a likely candidate for a CurtainUp DC review. House Arrest First Edition, as the play is now known, opened on November 19, but only for reviews by the "local" press. That doesn't include CurtainUp. Although this seemed odd at first, the more we learned about the show, the more understandable it became. (For the record, I haven't seen the production yet, and I'll resist the temptation to quote from the reviews of those of the local press who have.)

The advance "buzz" on this show was sketchy. It was said to be about the American presidency, but little more was known. Instead of Smith's trademark solo performances (Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), this production would have a cast, and she would not be in it. The size of the cast seemed to grow each time further information was made available. (It now has a cast of 14.) Production costs are said to be reaching the stratospheric range -- about $2 million.

Although Arena Stage is best known for producing faits accomplis, this production is very much of a work-in-progress. It provides audiences with a potentially exciting opportunity: to view a part of the creative process, rather than an already-polished performance. As Ms. Smith noted in a recent interview in the Washington Post, the research and interviews that support the production will continue after this "first edition" completes its run. (Additional editions are planned for production in Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.)

Performances run through January 4, 1998, at Arena's Kreeger Theater, 6th Street and Maine Avenue SW. Information is available by phone at (202) 488-3300. Information is also available at the website, linked below.

Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
CurtainUp review of Seeking the Genesis
Center Stage website:
Shakespeare Theatre website:
Arena Stage website:

©November 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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