Truly Beautiful INTIMATE APPAREL

PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened a deeply satisfying production in the Paul Green Theater. Beautifully directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Intimate Apparel offers the kind of intimate sharing of lives that is one of theatre’s most wondrous aspects. Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play was written nearly a century after it is set, and it is particular in its attention to the New York of 1905 that shapes its action and characters, but it is timeless in its delicate revelations of the souls of the women and men who people it. The basics of the story are not unusual, yet Nottage inserts at least three instances in which circumstances or behavior are such that they draw vocal response from the audience. During Sunday’s matinee (very well attended, and not just by old people) one moaning gasp in unison from the crowd nearly stopped the action on stage.

In other words, Intimate Apparel engages us at a deep emotional level. Certainly it concerns social questions, but it lets them radiate from the lived core. It doesn’t beat us over the head with its intellectual concepts; it never breaks the fourth wall. After all these years, I still find it miraculous that a play, with fragments, can let you look at a distant world complete–and tilt that distant world into a mirror of oneself and one’s own time.

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Rasool Jahan (left) as Esther, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Mrs. Dickson, in PlayMakers’ production of Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Intimate Apparel centers on Esther, a black woman who made her way out of the South by picking berries and selling them along the trek from North Carolina. She lives in a boarding house, and from her little room has made a career as a fine seamstress, sewing fancy corsets and lingerie. She loves her work, but she’s 35 and lonesome, but also proud and particular and chaste. Esther is embodied by Rasool Jahan, who never fails to make the actress invisible–only the character is present on stage. Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who plays Esther’s landlady, the widowed Mrs. Dickson, has the same quality as an actress, which makes the scenes between the two women particularly fine.

One of Esther’s clients is an unhappily married rich white woman, Mrs. Van Buren, played by the lovely third year graduate student Allison Altman. Altman’s always a pleasure to watch, although she has not yet reached the point where she can subsume herself completely in the character. Nottage uses Mrs. Van Buren to highlight social and racial stratification, and to promote the plot, but she’s not unsympathetic to the woman–she’s somewhat irksome, but not two-dimensional.

To find the gorgeous fabrics and laces for her rich ladies’ underclothes, Esther frequents the shop of one Mr. Marks, a lonesome Romanian Jew who has long been awaiting the accomplishment of an arranged marriage to a woman still in Romania. Benjamin Curns, another third year student in the Professional Acting Program, gives the most fully realized performance of his time at Carolina as Mr. Marks. He and Esther share a deep love of fabric–and maybe they could share more, but it cannot be. The scenes between them pierced my heart.

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Esther (Rasool Jahan) and the cloth merchant Mr. Marks (Benjamin Curns) in PlayMakers’ Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

But it is handsome George who upends Esther’s life, with the help of her girlfriend, Mayme. Myles Bullock, another third year MFA student, is believable, touching and infuriating as George, the Barbadian laborer and pen pal admirer Esther marries. Poor George, thrust into the cauldron of Jim Crow New York, is not man enough to withstand the pressures and offenses and the destruction of his dreams, and even though one would like to get up and punch him, he is pitiable, and Bullock makes us feel George’s frustration to the degree that we can almost have sympathy for his profligacy.

Mayme, played with relish and a fine physicality by first year graduate student Shanelle Nicole Leonard, is the foil to the self-contained, working-for-the-future Esther. Mayme is a bawdy prostitute, living only in the now, the sensuous now. Yet she and Esther are good friends. Until. You know what will happen. But you don’t know what it will unleash in Esther. There are so few plots in life and in theatre, but so many twists.

Some plays don’t need much in the way of design, but this one is well-served by high production values. Bobbi Owen’s costumes are great–each perfect for its character. The scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee is rich and detailed, providing on the thrust stage several settings for the various locations so that the story is not interrupted by the moving of furniture. Her design is completed by the wonderful projections by Dominic Abbenante, and lighting designer Xavier Pierce has done a very interesting thing: the lighting is unusually soft, with fewer lumens overall, and this gives us the feeling of entering one of the old photographs used so effectively in the projections.

This fine production continues at PlayMakers through Feb. 12.

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Esther (Rasool Jahan) and George (Myles Bullock) on their wedding day, in PlayMakers’ production of Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

 

 

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“One Woman Plus a Typewriter Equals a Movement:” Pauli Murray Still Inspires

Pauli Murray’s immortal spirit is reembodied in TO BUY THE SUN, a remarkably dramatic piece of documentary theatre that played in Chapel Hill and Durham in late 2016, in a new and improved version of the original 2010 production. Six weeks later, I’m still thinking about the performance I saw at the Lyon Park Community Center, in Pauli Murray’s old Durham neighborhood (where her childhood home was recently named a National Historic Landmark; it also received a National Park Service grant for interior renovations). I see a lot of plays and generally mull them over for a week or two, but this one insinuated itself more deeply. In the tradition of the very best biographies, it throws light, but not heat, on a wide swath of history through the telling of an individual life.

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Rasool Jahan as Pauli Murray in TO BUY THE SUN, December, 2016. Photo courtesy of The Pauli Murray Project and Hidden Voices.

 

Commissioned by the Pauli Murray Project (led by Barbara Lau, as part of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute) from Hidden Voices, with support from the City of Durham and the Episcopal Church, TO BUY THE SUN was written by Hidden Voices founder Lynden Harris, in collaboration with her parter in progressive action, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who directed both the original and the recent production.

Their brief was simple, if nearly impossible: make a play of a reasonable length that will appeal to a broad range of viewers, about Pauli Murray’s whole life. 1910-1985. Her ancestry was a tangle of pride and shame; her early life was crosshatched with sorrows; her adult life was filled with struggles and accomplishments so gargantuan that they almost obscure the woman. Rejected by the University of North Carolina for her race, and by Columbia University for her sex, Murray attended Hunter College, then Howard University Law School, where she graduated first in her class. Harvard rejected her application for master’s work on the basis of her sex, so she took that degree at UC-Berkeley, and joined the Bar in California, where she soon became the state’s first African-American deputy attorney general (breaking the path for California’s new junior Senator, Kamala Harris). Murray went on become the first African-American to earn a doctorate of law from Yale and later, the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Along in there she became a friend and advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, and a co-founder of the National Organization of Women. Although she did pioneering work against sex discrimination, she did not live long enough to marry any of the women she loved.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Murray herself told some of her story in her autobiographical book Proud Shoes, and the posthumously published Song in a Weary Throat (Wikipedia has an excellent, well-notated overview of Murray’s life; for a detailed look at one of the slave-owning, slave-raping branches of her family, see Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, by H.G. Jones and David Southern, McFarland & Company, 2015) but clearly there was more behind those books, the extant poetry, and Murray’s sermons.

Script writer Lynden Harris went to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where Murray had placed her archives, and read up all her journals and papers. But Murray had often used initials instead of names, and had later excised portions, so it was often difficult to know what Murray had been writing about. So Harris then went to the archives of the Black press of the time, where she found much, much more–more information, and a viable design scheme for a bare-bones theater production. The team would go on to use a tapestry of collages and projections of the news articles and photographs as an ever-changing backdrop for the complex story.

TO BUY THE SUN takes place on the night of February 12, 1977, in the old family home at 906 Carroll Street in Durham’s West End, as Pauli Murray prepares for her first service of the Holy Eucharist as priest. She will raise high the bread and wine in the very chapel–The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill–where her own enslaved grandmother was baptized. The ghosts are all around her. As she works on her sermon, they speak, from every stage of her life journey, and as always, Pauli speaks back. Not always fearlessly, but through the fears, distilling a life of pain and activist struggle into her great message: Peace, love, respect for everybody (as the revered Dr. Chuck Davis has also taught us to say). It is quite a writerly feat by Lynden Harris to keep Pauli Murray the woman alive in this nexus of history and struggle, and to always keep the audience seeing her life from her point of view–yet at the same time allow us to see her a symbol of the possible.

The original production of TO BUY THE SUN used only two actors for the many roles, and that was a bit awkward–the stage dynamics were too limited. “A couple of years ago,” Lynden Harris told me, “Kathy [Kathryn Hunter-Williams] said, ‘when we do this again, I want to have three people, I want a guy up there.’ And I said, that would be fine with me as long they didn’t play to gender and race. They had to play across that.”

This meant some arduous re-writing by Harris, for which no one was paying, but the result is brilliant and highly dynamic. And extremely informative, distressingly poignant, and powerfully motivating. The script is excellent and the direction acute, but the blazing success of the production in a flat-floored, former elementary school auditorium with almost no technical facilities was partly due to the casting of three of the area’s highly talented actors.

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A woman plus a typewriter. Rasool Jahan as Pauli Murray, and Jade Arnold, center, with Meredith Sause, as all the other characters alive in Murray’s memory, in TO BUY THE SUN, by Lynden Harris. Photo courtesy The Pauli Murray Project and Hidden Voices.

 

Rasool Jahan played Pauli Murray so thoroughly that it was difficult to remember that it was not Murray herself who spoke, while Meredith Sause and Jade Arnold played everyone else, making each character so specific that there was never confusion about who was speaking–including the ghosts. Having a mixed-race cast work through all the explosive racial content, and a mixed-sex cast portray the difficulties of variant sexualities worked very well. Joseph Amodei’s projections were wonderful–but very hard to see because the room could neither be darkened entirely not lit as it should have been.  If ever there was a history play that deserves to be given a fully supported production, this is it. Everything Pauli Murray lived and fought for is in jeopardy: We need this story told again and again. Harris tells me that there is considerable interest in touring and/or restaging TO BUY THE SUN from theaters and institutions around the state and the southeast. If it pops up near you, do not miss it.


Another piece of extraordinary documentary work, this one in film, is beginning to make the rounds. Cassilhaus recently had a special showing of OLYMPIC PRIDE-AMERICAN PREJUDICE. Researched, written and directed by Deborah Riley Draper, with executive production by Chatham County’s Amy Tiemann of Spark Productions, the film tells the story of ALL EIGHTEEN of the African-American athletes who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Whoa! Who knew Jesse Owens was not the only one?

A staggering amount of research was required for this film, and the trove of materials found makes it visually rich, in the key of irony. Much of the archival film was shot by Hitler’s gal Leni Riefenstahl and her team to help prove Aryan supremacy–but the cameras caught the athletic achievements that won medal after medal for the Black members of Team USA. But the film’s greatness lies in its probing not only of the before and during, but also what happened after the Olympics. Some of it is heartbreaking; altogether it is a salutary reminder that we must continually assert our knowledge of history that we may always deny the veracity of “alternate facts.”

Look for this film –I think it will start appearing in local non-theatrical venues soon. The makers also have a Facebook presence, and you can go to tugg.com to explore single-screening rentals or educational licensing.

 

American Meltdown: A Timely Reprise of THE CRUCIBLE, at PlayMakers Rep

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Who’s lying now? The Ensemble in Court in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. October 19-November 6, 2016. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

PlayMakers Repertory Company could not have made a more apt choice for this #nastywoman voting season than Arthur Miller’s great play, The Crucible. Miller wrote it during the superheated “Red scare” days of the early 1950s, when the demagogue run amok was Joseph McCarthy, holding his “witch trials” in the House Un-American Activities Committee, but Miller cannily placed his story of fear and honor, manipulation and control, in the Salem, Massachusetts of 1692, demonstrating that mass hysteria and the totalitarian requirement to conform have been part of American life since its earliest years. Miller makes distinct parallels between the HUAC hearings, which ruined many lives, and the deadly witch trials of rigidly Puritan Salem, during which neighbor turned on neighbor, and dozens, mostly women, were sentenced to hang. False witness was taken as the truth. Yes, “Hang the bitch!” echoes all the way back to the 17th century: this play speaks as well to this moment in America as it did to the America of 1953, when it was first produced.

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The Ensemble a few minutes later in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Lies breed chaos: Chaos is the enemy of Justice, although the Law made feed on it.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Miller also, brilliantly, changed focus repeatedly throughout the play, moving back and forth from the larger social picture to the intimacy of a marriage, and examining the damage done in both by rigid social expectations, lies and betrayals–and, with an even sharper pen, probing the actualities of honor, loyalty and freedom. With each new angle, and each turn of the screw, The Crucible becomes more soul-chilling.

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SARITA OCÓN as Elizabeth Proctor in PRC’s 2016 production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Guest director Desdemona Chiang has this complex four-act with its huge cast well in hand, and keeps it moving at a pace that ensures an ever-heightening sense of danger. To emphasize the heated crucible (or cauldron?) in which the story swirls, she has placed the audience on all four sides of the stage, rather than using the U-shaped thrust configuration of the Paul Green Theater. Visually and emotionally this works very well; however, that change changed the acoustics of the room, and made mush out of some of the dialogue, especially in the first two acts. After intermission, at the beginning of the third act, the wooden ceiling which has been hovering oppressively over the stage is lowered, slowly, with much creaking and clanking to become the floor of the courtroom. I found this a little self-consciously theatrical, and its symbology a little too broad-brush, but the sound quality in the room was much better after the ceiling came down.

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CHRISTINE MIRZAYAN as Mary Warren and ALEX GIVENS as Marshal Herrick in PRC’s production of The Crucible. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

If you had to reduce the message of this play to one phrase, it would be to “choose death before dishonor.” But Miller, Chiang and the cast all have sympathy for the hard truth that our very cells cry out to live, and few souls can remain pure when their bodies fear for their lives. Kathryn Hunter-Williams of PRC gives an extraordinary performance as Rebecca Nurse, the only one of the community who doesn’t even consider condemning her immortal soul by a false “confession” that would save her mortal body from the gallows. First year MFA student Christine Mirzayan does a fine job with the young woman Mary Warren, whose moral core is undeveloped, and who keeps changing her testimony in a desperate attempt to save herself and her friends, fueling the very evil she seeks to evade.

It is a great pleasure to see so many of PRC’s members on stage together, all doing excellent work. Along with Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Ray Dooley, as the pugnacious Giles Corey; David Adamson as the bewildered Francis Nurse; Julia Gibson in two roles; and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Deputy Governor Danforth, all render powerful, vivid characterizations. This is one of Cornell’s best performances. They are joined by students ranging from undergraduates to third year MFA candidates in the Professional Actor Training Program, of whom Allison Altman, as the vengeful, trouble-causing Abigail Williams, and Schuyler Scott Mastain, as the ineffectual Rev. John Hale, stand out.

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ARIEL SHAFIR as John Proctor and SARITA OCÓN as Elizabeth Proctor in PRC’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

But guest artists Ariel Shafir and Sarita Ocón as John and Elizabeth Proctor put the fire under this crucible. John broke the Commandment on adultery and his marriage vows, betraying his wife (sick for so long after the last baby) with the beautiful, self-serving Abigail, but although he recognizes the error of his ways, neither woman can quite believe him. Abigail thinks a roll in the hay was a promise to her; Elizabeth inspects his every utterance for traces of new lies. But when the forces of the state and church together attempt to turn John and Elizabeth on each other, they will not be turned, except back toward each other, for precious moments. John almost chooses life with Elizabeth, but cannot bring himself to break the Commandment against bearing false witness, which would dishonor the name his sons carry forward. Elizabeth cannot dishonor his honorableness or her own as a “covenanted Christian woman” with a lie that could save them. Shafir and Ocón make all this pain and struggle piercingly believable. This is very fine acting, subtle, well-vocalized, and free of histrionics, and their intimate battle and detente, as the Proctors, bring the meaning of the larger story into terrifying focus. The Proctors’ sacrifice of their lives, as Miller makes clear, is not only for their own honor, but for the life and honor of their community and country.

The Crucible continues at PlayMakers Repertory Company through Nov. 6. Tickets at playmakersrep.org or 919-962-7529.

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ARIEL SHAFIR as John Proctor and SCHUYLER SCOTT MASTAIN as Reverend Hale in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. October 19-November 6, 2016. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

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