5/31/2023 From the Bookshelf: DPS Broadway Book Club: May The Fourth Be With You
FOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE
Less than a month after offering thumbnails on DPS Book Club Package # 3, I am ready (if not prepared) to share my thoughts on the DPS Book Club Package # 4. Reading can be such sweet release and the release of these scripts for local productions are, once again devoutly to be wished. In all honesty, some of these plays have seen local productions and I will be linking to my original reviews of some of them.
So, let’s talk scripts!
This quarter’s package was curated by playwright Jocelyn Bioh, whose School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play was a recent (2020) hit for Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, and whose Shakespeare adaption, Merry Wives, was produced by New York’s Public Theatre and broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances. Five of her six selections are Black-Themed, and the sixth (Pinter’s Betrayal) has been performed with an all-BIPOC cast. The strength of these selections is in their wide range of subject matter, style, and effect, all of which are accessible (and compellingly enjoyable) to Boomer non-BIPOC readers such as myself.
So, forthwith are my thoughts on the fourth seven-script set. Once again, it didn’t take me long to read them all.
FABULATION OR, THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE
By Lynn Nottage
Originally Produced by Playwright’s Horizon New York City June 2004
Also produced by the Signature Theatre Company November 2018
The only full comedy in this collection (Bioh’s own Merry Wives excepted), Fabulation follows a successful and wealthy black PR Firm Diva, who in the space of a single day, loses her husband, her business, and is under investigation for fraud. She must re-invent herself, ironic since Undine herself was a re-invention of a poor kid from the projects. Will the family she rejected welcome her back until she gets her life back in order? They are NOT happy or forgiving people! Another winning script from the immensely talented Lynn Nottage (Mlima’s Tale, Sweat, Intimate Apparel)!
By Harold Pinter
Originally Produced by the National Theatre, London November 1978
First Broadway Production at the Trafalgar Theatre, New York City, January 1980
Most Recently produced in Atlanta by the Aurora Theatre (Lawrenceville) October 2012
I agree with Ms. Bioh 100% in that this is my favorite Pinter play. I was even set to direct a production a few decades back, until we were betrayed (during TECH WEEK (!!) by a producer who cancelled the show because he didn’t want to pay the rent to the venue’s landlord. Bitterness aside, this is an innovative script told in mostly reverse chronology between a literary agent and his best friend’s wife. We start two years after the end of the affair and gradually back up to the start of the passion at a drunken party. Like all of Pinter, what is left unsaid is infinitely more important than what is actually said, and the reverse chronology lets him reveal all the lies from the previous scenes. Always a tour-de-force to see, always a pleasure to read.
IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Originally Produced by the Public Theatre New York City November 2009
Produced in Atlanta by Alliance Theatre February 2008
The First of McCraney’s Brother/Sister Trilogy (which includes Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet and The Brothers Size, both of which have seen Atlanta Productions at Actor’s Express), this one takes figures from Yoruba mythology and uses them in a story set in a poverty-bound Louisiana town. Back in 2008, I was a tad skeptical about some of the African archetypes “fitting” contemporary characters, but I was totally won over by McCraney’s lyrically poetic dialogue and by his stylized “outside-the-box” structure, a fondness that was more than confirmed by the subsequent plays of the trilogy. Re-reading it now, so many years later, the dreamlike nature of the script totally overturned my previous criticisms. This play was a joy to read, and I hope that some time soon, an Atlanta venue will make the brave choice to produce all three plays in rotating repertory.
OUR LADY OF KIBEHO
By Katori Hall
Originally Produced by Signature Theatre Company New York City November 2014
Based on a true story, a young Catholic School Girl in Rwanda in the early eighties has a vision of the Virgin Mary. The visions soon spread to two of her “Mean Girl” classmates and the rural community is soon awash in pilgrims and skeptics and emissaries from the Vatican. Underlying it all is the imminent genocide that will cost millions of lives. This, I think, is the best and most compelling script in this group and I REALLY hope to see a local production. The play is very smart about showing how tribalism can undercut faith, about how dogmatic and cruel the Church’s “vetting” process can be, and, especially, how innocence and kindness are true miracles in a polarized ethnic ethos. Yes, I researched the actual events – we know from the script the fate (the final vision is of the genocide itself) of one of the girls but can only assume the worse for the other characters as Kibeho was the site of a school-centered massacre during the genocide. Reading the head nun’s saying that the girl MUST be lying – why would Our Mother appear to a Tutsi peasant? – is positively chilling. For the record, this would be a challenging production requiring “Miracle” effects, spontaneous eruptions of flora, and floating girls.
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Originally Produced by the Public Theatre New York City March 1996
Another stylized look at history through an African lens, Venus is centered on “The Hottentot Venus,” an early 18th century British side show performer, and how she was exploited and sexualized by her “keeper” and the doctor who loved her. Maybe loved is too kind a word for his obsessive lusts. Another mannered script by Ms. Parks (whose The America Play was part of the last batch of DPS scripts), this piece is filled with music and spectacle and humor, but also with clinical detail from Venus’ autopsy, and subtext about sexualization of Black Women by both black and white men. After reading this spectacularly poignant piece (Venus’ cause of death is especially cruel), you will never hear the lyric “I like big butts and I cannot lie” without feeling a bit unclean, even cringey.
THE COLORED MUSEUM
By George C. Wolfe
Originally Produced Crossroads Theatre (New Brunswick NJ) March 1986
Produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival November 1986
Produced in Atlanta by True Colors Theatre March 2011
Welcome to The Colored Museum, a collection of eleven “exhibits” exploring life in Black America. By turns dramatic and hilarious, these vignettes offer exaggerations crosscut with moments of deadly seriousness. We first see a perky Flight Attendant welcoming her charges to a trans-Atlantic journey into bondage (“The captain has turned on the ‘Fasten Your Shackles” sign!”), and we see a soldier’s statue giving a deadly account of how he saved his friends from PTSD. We see a FABULOUS drag star at odds with their family and their contemporaries. We see a sit-com ready “family” that exploits all the cliches of black Hollywood stereotypes but also includes a kick-ass Broadway Production Number (“Nobody dies in Black Musicals”). These truly need to be seen, or at least read. (I’m going a little crazy trying to track down a recording of the PBS 1991 Great Performances Broadcast, and also a little crazy kicking myself for having missed the 2011 True Colors production.) This confirms Mr. Wolfe’s already legendary status as a genius of the American Theatre.
By William Shakespeare, adapted by Jocelyn Bioh
Originally Produced by the Public Theatre, New York City July 2021
Ms. Bioh has taken Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and moved it to contemporary Harlem. She has given the characters Afro-centric first names and “countries of origin” and has retained most of Shakespeare’s original text and plotting. Okay, some characters are gone (only Pistol remains of Falstaff’s minions), and some have changed genders giving some sweet and simple same-sex couplings. But the essence of Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece remains and comes alive. The original production was recently broadcast by PBS Great Performances and it is safely ensconced on my DVR. Once I watch it, I will have a full review for you. In the meantime, I encourage you to check it out on PBS Passport.
I hope you get a chance to check out any (or all) of these plays and hope you find them as satisfying to read as I did. Better yet, I hope they create a desire to see them live on stage!
In the meantime, here is a link to set up your own subscription:
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #DramatistsPlayService #JocelynBioh)