Black Ops Probes for Elusive Truth in The Typographer’s Dream, at Manbites

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The Typographer’s Dream, by Adam Bock, plays at Manbites in a joint production with Black Ops, through Dec. 17, 2016. With Jessica Flemming as the Typographer (note type on her shirt), JoRose as the Geographer, and Lazarus Simmons as the Stenographer. Directed by JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

An interesting, quirky play by Adam Bock previewed Dec. 1 at Manbites Dog Theater, which is producing The Typographer’s Dream jointly with the cleverly named Black Ops Theatre. The 70-minute one-act is a thinking person’s pleasure.

From my review published on cvnc.org:

It has been a year of sad attrition in the local theatre world. We’ve lost Deep Dish in Chapel Hill; Common Ground in Durham will close in a few weeks; and for no apparent reason, the Carrboro ArtsCenter did away with its theater program, which Jeri Lynn Schulke had made better than ever. But always, art rises to refill the vacuum. The young company Black Ops Theatre, led by artistic director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, is seizing the moment. Holloway-Burrell is on a big mission to challenge “preconceived notions (conscious and otherwise) on what Black Theatre should look like.” She’s after “opportunity for Black artists,” but her clarion call will resonate in anyone who believes in art: “Black Ops… is theatre without boundaries; we adhere to no creative restrictions or expectations.” Her declarations hark back to bold days of Everyman Company and People’s Art Action in the 1970s. To the barricades, comrades—in this case, seats in your local art theatre.

In Durham, that’s Manbites Dog Theater, still kicking ass and taking names after 30 years….

Read the full review here. Get tickets here.

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JoRose as the Geographer, with Jessica Flemming and Lazarus Simmons.  Black Ops at Manbites, through Dec. 17. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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The Stenographer (Lazarus Simmons) explains the tools of his trade. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

 

 

 

 

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Enter THE NETHER, at Manbites Dog

I’ve been trying to figure out, for four days now, what to say about The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s 2012 exploration of the intersection of physical and virtual realities, on stage at Manbites Dog Theatre through April 23. What to say, that is, beyond “Go see this, if you like to think.”

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Doyle (Michael Foley) faces tough questions from detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) about his activities In the virtual reality world of the Nether. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The Nether takes place in the very near future, or possibly the present; the nether is a more highly realized version of what we now call the internet, and its seductively programmed fantasy realms are somewhat subject to regulation and control by a shadowy branch of government. The play’s concerns are moral and ethical quandaries associated with human desires, couched in a suspenseful police-procedural format. Detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) suspects Sims (Michael Brocki) of running a fancy child prostitution racket in his nostalgically detailed virtual realm, in which he is Papa. Visitors log on to the Nether, and once vetted, pay to enter Papa’s world and take up a role there. The attraction, besides comfort, anonymity and lush surroundings, is Iris, a very young girl (the remarkable Marleigh Purgar-McDonald). You can do anything to Iris—she’s virtual—and she’ll regenerate.

Detective Morris, however, believes real harm is being done, and she’s out to stop it. If she can’t crack Sims, she’ll go for a user, and make him her tool, dragging Doyle (Michael Foley) into her office again and again until he gives her enough information that she can send agent Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons) into Papa’s pretty world undercover.

Is harm done by the manipulation of images or by role playing online? (And delicious it is that a play should ask, especially in a production featuring one actor working under an alias, and another who’s previously been willing to take her clothes off on stage, but not to have her performance photograph put online.) If so, where is it done, and how? Could it be wrong to imagine oneself into a world that matches one’s interior vision of delight? You can see how these questions relate not only to child pornography, but many transgressive behaviors; and to any created “world,” whether online, in an art form, or even entirely within one’s head. Haley also worries at the question of whether there can be any satisfaction (for the real human) taken in performing (virtual) actions without consequence–and questions that lack of consequence. These are just the beginnings of the philosophic mazes into which the play leads.

Jules Odendahl-James directs with marvelous restraint, eschewing histrionics in favor of a cool clarity that makes the unfolding story, with its many twists, continually surprising. It would be easy to make this play too racy, or too earnest—either way, dismiss-able—but Odendahl-James makes the longings real, the logic inexorable, and the result profoundly moving. Each character’s point of view is so compelling, and the acting is so sympathy-inducing as the individual stories unfold, that one must constantly revise one’s response. Michael Foley as Doyle was particularly fine in the Sunday matinee performance. Marleigh Purgar-McDonald, a 7th grader, has to be seen to be believed. Hers is a delicate, difficult role as Iris, and her combination of innocence and sang-froid was quite unnerving.

The bifurcated world of the play is well expressed in Sonya Leigh Drum’s set, Austin F. Powers’ very good lighting, and Joseph Amodei’s sound design, and the characters are tellingly and interestingly dressed by Ashley Nicholl Owen. Altogether, this is a completely satisfying production. This is the kind of ambiguousness that all art should aspire to—not confusion, obfuscation or coyness, but an ambiguousness that allows for the difficulty of knowing or doing the “right” thing, and the uncertainty of all judgment in the face of the desire for love.

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In the virtual reality of the Nether, Iris (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald) teaches a new game to Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

You Don’t Know the Troubles I Seen: brownsville song (b-side for tray), at Manbites Dog Theater

Every one has troubles and sorrows, and generally it is difficult to find a perspective where your own don’t look like the biggest, worst ones. The current show at Manbites Dog may be able to help you with that. Kimber Lee‘s brownsville song (b-side for tray) takes place in a world of trouble, right here in the USA, a world you may know some facts about, but may not have considered with full empathy. Another black kid killed, two lines in the paper, let’s move on. Kimber Lee says, time to turn the record over, play the other side.

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After yet another murder, the rest of the family must cope, take strength from each other, and struggle to hold on. Front: Lena (Lakeisha Coffey), Dee (Gabrielle Scales). Rear: Merrell (Wanda B. Jin), Tray (Ron Lee McGill), Junior (Lazarus Simmons). in Manbites Dog Theater’s production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Directed by Jeff Storer. February 25 – March 12, 2016. Photo: Ed Hunt.

Of all the things theatre is good for, its ability to provoke empathy is the most important. When Theatre holds up its mirror, and you see yourself reflected, that’s good and necessary, but more piercing are the views when the mirror is tilted away from you, to show places, people and truths not accessible to you directly. brownsville song is a kind of protest art, and like all protest art, its first demand is that you open your heart to the pain of others. In a post-show conversation on opening night, actor Wanda B. Jin spoke of catharsis–another fundamental function of theatre–and certainly there occurs here a kind of purification through suffering. The viewer, however, may not feel cleansed of anything but complacency, although if the world depicted is your world, you might feel vindicated in your rage.

Yes, it is tough, but it is first-rate. In the hands of a lesser director than Jeff Storer, it could be too painful, or worse, two-dimensional. Storer, who first saw this work at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, brings his characters into full dimensionality, full humanity: they are not dismissible. They are lovable: Grandmother Lena, raising her dead son’s two children by different mothers; teenage Tray, who wants to escape the gangs and drugs and whose every day is a walk with danger; baby sister Dee, abandoned by her mother who went off in search of a fix; that same mother, trying to make a comeback; Junior, another young man almost lost–not factoids, but people, from whom the play, the director and the actors will not allow a turning away. You feel the tragedy of Tray’s death–outlined in the opening scene by Lena (Lakeisha Coffey, magisterial, and trembling with fury)–approaching like a freight train, and like the characters, you can’t avoid it. Even more powerful, though, is the characters’ delicate rapprochement with hope, just enough hope to allow endurance.

This is a remarkable piece of theatre, and such a cogent production requires the passionate involvement of many people. Derrick Ivey designed another of his emotionally resonant, bare bones sets, which designer Andrew Parks has enhanced with some very fine lighting (note especially the “cell block” shadows on the back wall, and the way Junior is made to nearly disappear). Shelby Hahn’s minimal sound design further adds to the sense of place. The script is written is a sort of free-form poetry, and director Storer and the actors had to find its rhythms, cadences and points of emphasis. Lakeisha Coffey’s sense of timing is already well known and admired, but she takes her craft to a new level in this production. Wanda B. Jin as Merrell, the bad mother, was a tiny bit stiff on opening night, but gradually settled into this scarifying role. Lazarus Simmons as Junior plays his crucial scene with nuance and control. Ron Lee McGill as Tray carries the show (although in places he was a bit hard to hear). He’s a teenager–but he’s the man of the house. His sense of responsibility never lets him get too far from the needs of his grandmother and sister, he is determined to hold on to the family, but you feel him surging against the restraints imposed by the world outside the family. The role requires a wide range of emotion and action, and McGill fills it well.

The ensemble is completed by 14-year-old Gabrielle Scales, a student (of Carl Martin’s, who was a student of Jeff Storer’s at Duke) at the Durham School of the Arts, in her first professional production. She was astonishing in her portrayal of Dee, staying right in the moment on stage, her face a continuously changing landscape of feeling. We can hope that this wrenching production does not quench her desire to act.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues at Manbites Dog Theater through March 12. Tickets here. On view in the lobby gallery are the striking paintings by Cosmo Whyte which were used to illustrate Renée Alexander Craft’s lovely children’s book, I Will Love You Everywhere Always (for sale at the desk) and the production’s program.

 

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Tray (Ron Lee McGill), a loving, responsible brother to his emotionally fragile sister Dee (Gabrielle Scales), in Manbites Dog’s production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

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