Oh! Little REDBIRD: Bright New Plays at ArtsCenter Stage

Most of the REDBIRD gang. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Most of the collaborating troupe that’s making REDBIRD sing. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

The Carrboro ArtsCenter has generally been a key player in the local theatre scene since its founding in 1974, and has been fortunate in its leaders, from Mary Ruth through Derrick Ivey and Emily Ranii. But Jeri Lynn Schulke, current artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, has particularly championed–and commissioned–new work for the stage since taking that position. March 13 saw the first blossoming of her most strenuous effort yet, made in collaboration with, and major support from, Dorrie Casey. Casey is one of those protean artists who explore every aspect–she’s acted, sung, written, directed, designed and criticized–and now dreamed up and co-produced a festival of new one-act plays by North Carolinians. The Schulke-Casey team commissioned the plays and put together a dream team of about 30 theatre artists to present five works in two programs. This is community theatre, but not volunteer. Every one working on this is getting paid. “Not a living wage, said Casey, “but a respectful amount of money.” The first three of these new works debuted on the 13th; the second two will premiere tonight.

The Triangle is rich in theatre. Both the university-based and the independent theaters do amazing work year in, year out. But the REDBIRD festival strikes me as marking a significant step forward in our cultural growth. The world has long praised North Carolina writers, and this (first?) festival capitalizes on the well-known names of some of them–four of the five plays are adaptations from other forms. On opening night, all the authors and playwrights were in the house, if not on the stage.

Jane Holding in Saints Have Mothers. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Jane Holding in Saints Have Mothers. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

First up on Program One is Jane Holding’s adaptation of Allan Gurganus’ Saints Have Mothers, from his novella collection Local Souls, performed by her with her customary entrancing blend of bold and bashful. Her intoxicating speaking voice, cultivated by reading aloud since childhood, glides from character to character as Holding tells a complicated story of a thwarted poet’s love for her daughter and the predicaments in which it lands her. Nothing can take the Southern out of that voice, though it knows many variants. Like most of Gurganus’ characters, Jean is eccentric, wacky with energies seeking outlets, and very very talkative, but never “derange-o” as some kids in the mall call her. After a deeply traumatic and ridiculous series of events (don’t want to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t read the story), Jean’s on the ferry to Ocracoke, having been instructed to “gather” herself and get out of everyone’s hair. Director Tamara Kissane (mother of a daughter herself) has created a pleasing amount of action for this extended monologue. She has Jean bump and struggle up the steps to the ferry’s upper deck with much luggage, where she takes over two benches in the sun, pulling things out of her many totes and shopping bags to illustrate her tale, and makes the story close with the ferry’s arrival in harbor, so that Jean clatters and bumps her awkward way offstage into the next chapter. She’s lightened her load by an item or two. Very smart.

Gurganus’ grand, wry style, both embroidered and cut to the quick, gets to its destinations via many diversionary paths and lacunae, but never loses sight of the operatic human feelings that inform it. Holding “made many passes” over the story, successfully condensing it to its most telling and dramatic elements for the stage, without altering the tempo so important to Gurganus’ storytelling. Both the original and the adaptation make you hoot with laughter, cringe sometimes, and sometimes cry–but the in stage version, Jean’s pain, anger, relief and mystification are more directly communicated and felt.

Tom Marriott and Lenore Field in Linnaeus Forgets. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Tom Marriott and Lenore Field in Linnaeus Forgets. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

The program’s second work, Linnaeus Forgets, was adapted from a Fred Chappell short story of the same title by Marianne Gingher and Debby Seabrooke, and is absolutely delightful. It takes quite a few liberties with the original, but Chappell laughed and nodded and shook his head in amazement from the front row during the performance. Gingher and Seabrooke have made some of the story into songs (some original music by Sam Gingher), wonderfully sung by Greg Hohn in period costume and wig, and made other parts into puppetry, and substituted a fabulous claymation video sequence for description of what Linnaeus sees through his magnifying glass.  The two beautifully caught Chappell’s blend of erudition and simplicity; his love for the fantastical and the ordinary (sex and love fall into both categories), and his deep sympathy for his characters. They even made up rhymes that sound like Fred Chappell rhymes–“no, no,” Chappell said afterwards, chuckling, “those weren’t mine, those were all Marianne’s.”

Greg Hohn also directs, and he keeps the pace zesty and the laughs coming. Jimmy Magoo operates and speaks for a marvelous puppet, and he might speak a little more loudly, but that was the only problem. Tom Marriott is completely wonderful as the aged, dreaming scientist, and most charming waltzing with his wife (Lenore Field), still a coquette after all the years. Special kudos to the costume designer, Marissa Erickson.

Tom Marriott also directs the program’s final work, perhaps its most difficult and ambitious. Michael A. Smith has made a first-rate adaptation of Nancy Peacock’s 1996 novel, Life Without Water, set in 1969-1975, mostly in a Chatham County that time has nearly erased. It’s a good moment to revisit this story. Maybe if we look back carefully enough on the Vietnam war, we might find someway out of the morass of war we’re sinking in now. Life Without Water is a small book that contains an outsized story, and I didn’t see how it could be squeezed into a one-act play with a small number of characters.

But Smith, with, I believe, some ideas from director Marriott, conceived a simple set-up in which daughter Cedar (Jane Allen Wilson, kinetic and commanding) tells her story, with her mother Sara (Marcia Edmundson, softly aged, still baffled by the buffeting events) there to agree, augment, argue and echo. Marcia Edmundson can evoke big emotions with the most economical of gestures, and her little shiftings and turnings away at difficult moments had me stifling sobs at times. The house so crucial to the story, Two Moons, is present in an excellent changing photo/video backdrop made by photographer Catharine Carter and video designer Joseph Amodei. That this is Cedar’s story, and Sara’s in it, is made clear by Cedar controlling the laptop on stage that controls the images. Brilliant. There’s also great period-appropriate sound design by Tom Guild, and again, Erickson’s costuming is strong: she’s put mother and daughter both in the dark red of placental blood. It was very hard to keep in mind that they weren’t actually mother and daughter, so natural–free and easy–with each other are the actors, and so well-timed is the direction.

Marcia Edmundson, Two Moons, and Jane Allen Wilson in Life Without Water. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Marcia Edmundson as Sara, Two Moons, and Jane Allen Wilson as Cedar, in Life Without Water. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

That three quite different plays could appear smoothly on the same stage during the same evening, in a modest theater with minimum backstage facilities and a tiny control booth, speaks of the high levels of skill and organization that have gone into making this festival. There were no delays; there were no technical problems. Just three hours of exhilarating, artful theatre. Made in North Carolina, on view in the Paris of the Piedmont.

For the remaining schedule and to purchase tickets, go here.

Redbird_image_less_text

Oh, little red bird come to my window sill
Been so lonesome, shaking that morning chill
Oh, little red bird open your mouth and say
Been so lonesome, just about flown away

So long now I’ve been out
In the rain and snow
But winter’s come and gone
A little bird told me so

From “Winter’s Come and Gone”  by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

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FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. All Aboard!

 

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

 

StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance premiered Howard L. Craft‘s new play on January 9 in Swain Hall on the UNC campus. Nine days into the new year and I have to tell you that the production is likely at the end of the year to be on the short list of year’s best, such is its momentum. This train carries FREIGHT until January 24. Catch it or kick yourself into next year. You can remember that hyperbolic sentence when the play sends up theatrical reviews in one of its many comic moments: “A Five Star Review!!”

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green uses trains to provide transportation for Abel through physical space, but also as a metaphor for travel through time. Playwright Craft, who lives in Durham, has already demonstrated interest in the episodic nature of life, the fluid properties of time, and in heroes and super-heroes, but in this script he commands his ideas and stories with a greatly increased level of sophistication and confidence. Starting with his character’s name–the first man murdered, and by his brother–he makes artistic choices that hit like a blunt instrument or slice like a razor. In FREIGHT, one actor portrays five men named Abel Green who live at different periods over a hundred-year span in the US. Each of these black men tells his dramatic story in a 20-minute segment which glides seamlessly into the next, with echoes from the past sounding in future after future. The script would be fascinating even if it were not loaded with highly quotable lines, and part of what’s fascinating is the way Craft is able to say some very tough things so that even white people can hear them.

“All Negroes are actors by necessity.” So says Abel the Minstrel, who we meet as he hops a freight car circa 1910 to go on to his next gig. We’ll live longer, he says, if we know our lines for whites, but we can do improv with other Negroes. He’s been part of a three-man troupe–another hoofer and a front man who can pass for white–but after a horrific lynching, described in nauseating detail, he finds himself traveling alone. His partner just couldn’t take it any more. But Abel is younger and wants “to have the money not to live like a nigger even I have to play one on stage to get it…I keep dancin’ and smilin’ and they pay me for that.”  Then he quotes Paul Laurence Dunbar: “let the mask hide my eyes.”

This section is the most fully fleshed of the play. It began as Craft’s response to the painting by Rose Piper, Slow Down Freight Train, in the Ackland Art Museum collection. “The Minstrel” was directed by Joseph Megel and acted by J. Alphonse Nicholson, in the Ackland gallery; eventually the minstrel’s tale multiplied into the five incarnations of Abel Green. None of the other sections is lacking–“The Snitch” is particularly strong–but none is quite as thoroughly massaged as “The Minstrel.”

Craft’s writing is finely honed, full of poetry, but J. Alphonse Nicholson breathes life into the still syllables. Nicholson is a natural, which is not to say he is not continually honing his art. Perhaps because he started so young, before his heart had had time to harden and wall itself in, he has an almost uncanny ability to assume the characters he plays. But this performance goes far beyond his previous work. In 99 minutes, he takes on and radiates out the pain of generations and the exquisite philosophic particularity of the individuals who felt it, and every single minute feels true. His memory is prodigious–on opening night I heard one tiny stumble. In addition to being empathically talented, tall, dark and handsome, he can sing, dance and drum. FREIGHT takes on an even greater load of poignancy with this young actor portraying not just the minstrel, but an 80s film actor whose success involves being killed in various ways on-screen by the “white vigilante hero.” I want to say that big, big success is Alphonse Nicholson’s to throw away–but have a few years changed America enough to let him bloom forth? You wouldn’t know it from following the news. Even in the post-performance glow, and now even more, I’m haunted by the idea of this cheerful ambitious young man being torqued or broken by the same cruelties and corruptive associates that account for assorted suicides and other deaths in Craft’s script.

One reason Nicholson has been able to build his skills so rapidly is Joseph Megel, who is as delicate and unflinching in his direction as a neurosurgeon. Megel, the artistic director of StreetSigns and artist-in-residence in performance studies at UNC-CH, directed Nicholson his first time out, in 2009, in Howard L. Craft’s Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders(after nurturing the play at UNC), and later in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot ; also in The Brothers Sizeand in the Activated Art project at the Ackland Museum. So a lot of trust has been built up, over years, among director, actor and playwright. That trust makes this quality of art possible.

Megel and producer Elisabeth Lewis Corley put together a design team who completed the experiential package and transformed the gloomy studio in Swain Hall. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting is very fine, and Eamonn Farrell’s video and sound are essential to powerful fiction of time travel. Marissa Erickson created communicative costuming that also allows Nicholson to morph from Abel to Abel with speed and grace. Derrick Ivey designed the wonderful set with its arches, spans and sliding train cars. You can buy your ticket here.

*An earlier version of this review had erroneously described Caleb Calypso as Craft’s first full-length play. In fact, Craft had written several plays before that, and his earliest full-length work is The House of George, which received a production in 2002. Several of Craft’s works were produced at NCCU before anyone on the other side of the Durham Freeway paid any attention. A new one-act by Craft will be included in the forthcoming REDBIRD festival at the Carrboro ArtsCenter in March, 2015. The Star regrets the error.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey's fine set.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey’s fine set.

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