Zoomed “Blues” Still Sweet

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” premiered at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2016. The cast (with one replacement) re-assembled last week for a remote Zoom reading of the play, streaming through 7PM on Thursday, July 30 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfQBkKxkep0 . The following is culled from my 2016 review with comments on the Zoom reading.    

It is hard to believe that “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s first full length play. (His Obie-winning “Lackawanna Blues” was a solo show.) Line-by-line and scene-by-scene, the play rivals that of many an established playwright. Having previously directed August Wilson’s “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running” at Two River, Santiago-Hudson also assumed that role at Two River, as well as remotely for the Zoom reading.

Dealing with Black resentment of white tone-deafness, “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” on stage was as subtle as a thunderstorm. Tweaked in the interim, it is even more unsparing now (despite the excision of the pungent line about white privilege being “the longest ass-whippin’ in the history of civilization.”) Set in 2002, the play begins with an exchange between Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden), a Black pick-up man for a used-clothing charity, and Judith (Merritt Janson), a white donor, in her upscale NYC apartment.

Merritt Janson and Brandon J. Dirden (The painting becomes significant.)

Their friendly bantering is not without undercurrents. Beautifully written and highlighted by a competitive riff on white vs. Black jazz musicians, the scene hints at a mutual attraction. (On stage, they touched once…fleetingly, but tellingly.) The scene ends with Judith inviting Zeke to join a dinner party that evening, explaining (“Why did you invite me to dinner?”) that she is writing a New York Times magazine article about Black under-achievers, as she has him pegged.

When other dinner guests cancel, the event becomes a sort of awkward double date, pairing Judith with her white friend (demoted from fiancé in the stage version) Randall (Andrew Hovelson), and Zeke, by default, with Judith’s apolitical Black friend Janeece (Roslyn Ruff). Things do not go well. Despite claiming to be a capital-L Liberal, Randall is a condescending boor (“African-American is too much to say”), while Janeece is put off by Zeke’s assertiveness. A racially-charged debate boils over into an actual physical altercation, shown on Zoom with flashes of photos from the stage version. It works.

Roslyn Ruff and Andrew Hovelson [2016 photos: T. Charles Erickson]

It may be partly because the actors’ faces were right in mine, but Zeke’s vitriol is more intense and his assertions and comebacks to Randall’s smack are more piercing in Santiago-Hudson’s update. Considering how much on-topic stuff has gone down since 2016, it is not a surprise. It does not make the dinner scene any easier to digest, but that’s the point.

The play ends in a change of scene, to the unusual living quarters of Mr. Zebedee, an elderly Black man with a harrowing past and a guilty secret. Exquisitely rendered by Glynn Turman, Zebedee’s final monologue is devastating. (Turman replaces actor and Negro Ensemble Company leader Charles Weldon, who died in 2018.)

The stage acting, scrupulously directed by the author, was nigh perfect. The fine-tuned foursome, working beautifully together, were uncommonly good. Necessarily restrained in Zoom boxes, they still are. For starters, while it is a “reading,” they are all fully memorized, allowing them to act and react from the shoulders up without encumbrance and, damn, they all do it well. The play flows smoothly through its 110 minutes, with efficient tech support that occasionally breaks up the four-box setup with full-screen shots of each actor. (There is no intermission, but you can pause the Zoom for a bathroom break, a drink refill or just to catch your breath.)

There is no finer working American actor than Brandon J. Dirden. He was brilliant as the young Martin Luther King, Jr. in “All the Way” on Broadway in 2014; his performance in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Two River in 2016 was shattering; last year’s Brutus at Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn was astounding; and he is slated to appear on Broadway next spring in the Covid-delayed revival of  “Take Me Out.” If you are reading this you are theater-centric to one extent or another. Do not pass up this limited opportunity to see Dirden work his magic up close.

“Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” is an impressive achievement. It questions a lot and answers some: no pandering, no easy answers, no preaching (well, maybe a little). Through Zebedee’s final monologue, Santiago-Hudson offers a hopeful conclusion. Assuming that is his intention, it is Mission Accomplished.

Sunday evening’s Zoom was a ticketed event, but the reading is free-streaming until 7PM Thursday, July 30 at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfQBkKxkep0  (Tax deductible donations to Two River Theater are encouraged.) Granted, it is not live, but I’ll go down fighting anyone who says it’s not Theatre.

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Zooming Across The Pond: “Lungs” at The Old Vic

How’s this for minimalism: Playwright Duncan Macmillan’s instructions for the staging of “Lungs” specifies a bare stage with no scenery, no furniture, no props, no mime and no costume changes. Nor should light and sound be used to indicate a change in time or place. The absence of a full stop at the end of a line, he informs, indicates “…a trailing off or an interruption of thought.”

Further, other than forward slashes (/) to indicate overlapping dialogue, and a comma (,) on a separate line to indicate “a pause, a rest or a silence, the length of which should be determined by the context,” there are no stage directions or character hints in the “Lungs” text. Not one. (Beckett’s spare “Waiting for Godot” has a couple hundred.)  Zoom-streamed last week from the Old Vic Theatre in London, the Covid-mandated empty auditorium might as well have been an extension of Macmillan’s instructions. Nonetheless, stripped as it is of theatrical contrivance, “Lungs” is as rich and complete a play as any that is dense with descriptive aids.

Over ninety minutes, a couple, identified only as W and M, converse in variously open and guarded intimacy at different stages of their relationship in a dozen or so locations. Some lines of dialogue signal the end of a conversation thread and the start of another simultaneously: “Come straight home…and bring cake.” “Okay.” “…Cake.” “I missed you.” But there is never any doubt about where they are or at what juncture in their relationship or about what is revealed – or obscured – in their assertions or evasions.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith on The Old Vic stage

Claire Foy and Matt Smith are an actor-couple to reckon with. W and M are diametric opposites from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, whom they played in “The Crown” on Netflix. “Lungs” is contemporary not just in time (It premiered in 2011), but in attitude, tone and distinctly non-Royal language. (Multiple R-rated bombs, but not gratuitous.)

The play opens with an exchange about how having a child might affect their relationship…

“A baby?” “Breathe.” “A baby?” “I was just thinking.” “About the future.” “We’re having a conversation.” “You’re having a conversation.”

That deeply personal conversation occurs, we learn, while they are on the checkout line at Ikea. (“that kid with the panda is staring.”) Offbeat humor like that is sprinkled throughout the otherwise serious piece. It felt a little strange to laugh out loud at my iPad, but only the first couple times.

Later, the environmental impact of adding a new being to the planet is a consideration:

“I could fly to New York and back every day for seven years and still not leave a carbon footprint as big as if I have a child. Ten thousand tons of CO2. That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.”

While there is considerable back-and-forth on the parenting issue, the topic is as much a window into the pair’s overall psyches as it is a plot-point. (It does ultimately factor in. Think Chekhov’s baby.) Foy and Smith find remarkable emotional depth in mostly clipped lines; there are only a few extended speeches. So many quick exchanges make incontrovertible sense:

“Don’t tell me what I need to hear.” “I don’t know what you need to hear.” “Then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

There is also eloquence in Macmillan’s pauses (those separate-line commas). One such, waiting for M to drop a one-word clarification, is a study in hold-your-breath anticipation. Their drawn-out silence speaks volumes, especially when presented in close-up.

Which brings us to the staging and the viewing experience. Overseen by Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus (“God of Carnage” and “Matilda” on Broadway), “Lungs” was ideally suited to be the first in The Old Vic’s “In Camera” series of Zoom-streamed performances (more below).

There were three cameras: One, sparsely employed, projected wide shots from the front stalls; the other two were in tight, one on each actor, projected on a split screen. Foy and Smith are on stage together – occasionally one is seen crossing through the other’s space – but in a nod to social distancing, they do not actually embrace – or touch in any way. Marvelously staged by Warchus (and a tech-savvy crew), the actors seemed to be close, even leaning against each other back-to-back across the split. By the time W and M appeared to be romantically intimate, the fact that they were really at least two meters apart never crossed my mind.

Okay, it’s not like actually being there (even with the pre-curtain audience buzz), but with the brilliant Claire Foy and Matt Smith interpreting Duncan Macmillan’s fascinating play in close-up, my iPad was the best seat in the house. More than just drawn in, I was mesmerized – by the play, the performances, the technique. And grateful, under the circumstances, to be back, even virtually, in a theater.

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[ The Old Vic’s “In Camera” initiative will continue with a series of rehearsed play-readings Zoom-streamed live with the empty auditorium as a backdrop. With minimal staging and accessible only via camera, the series is an exciting creative experiment and, based on “Lungs,” one well worth the price of admission. “Lungs” tickets ranged from 20 to 60 British pounds. (I paid 40, about $55US.) For information and to register for timely notifications: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on ]

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Quality Time Spent With Willy Loman

July 29, 1949 Playbill. Gifted to me by a friend who found it in a thrift-shop desk drawer

Since its premiere in 1949, when it won all six of its Tony Award nominations (and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” has had four Broadway revivals, all of which I am fortunate to have seen: in 1975 with George C. Scott as Willy Loman; 1984 with Dustin Hoffman; 1999 with Brian Dennehy; and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2012.

This piece is prompted by an item in the New York Times about a film of the 1984 revival, which is streaming on several platforms. Not a review or a detailed analysis of the play, this is more a rumination on time spent with it.

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What Would You Do?

A column by Ginia Bellafante in the Metropolitan Section of  the  Sunday May 31 New York Times about last week’s Central Park incident between bird-watcher Christian Cooper, who is black, and white dog-walker Amy Cooper (unrelated) reminded me of an exchange with the Times from twenty years ago.

In the Central Park contretemps, after Christian C asked her to leash her dog (required by law), Amy C unleashed her inner vitriol in an hysterical 911 police call against a bogus color-coded threat. (Google either name for details.) In her column, Ms. Bellafante suggested more temperate options that Ms. Cooper could have employed: rolling her eyes while complying; dissing birds in general; and “giving him the finger and moving on.”

Twenty years ago, on Sunday, July23, 2000, another Times column about action-and-reaction choices was headlined “What Would You Do?”  In it, columnist Peter Applebome presented what he called “a little real-life morality play about suburban life and manners.”

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“It’s Better Than the Movie”: Memories That Linger

With no Theatre to cover due to this nasty fellow…

A New Yorker toon (From 10-12 years ago!)

…I’ll share a few excerpts from “It’s Better Than The Movie,” my work-in-progress anecdotal memoir:

July 1956: I was an apprentice (as interns were then called) at Theatre-by-the-Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island, one of the New England summer theaters then on the weekly star-package circuit. Unlike resident stock companies, where the same actors appear in a slate of plays back-to-back, the “packaged” shows toured intact, with complete casts except for small roles which were played by each venue’s own people, who also built the sets to specifications. (An advance director would cast and rehearse the locals a few days prior.)

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Politics As Usual? Not in “Radio Golf”

All ten of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays are not created equal, but just as the non-star players on a championship team are essential to its success, so are all the plays integral to Wilson’s monumental achievement. Precious is as precious does, and treating each of the plays with equal regard is the key to honoring the canon. Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey sets that standard.

Even ardent fans of the Cycle are unlikely to ferret out a production of “Radio Golf” among the mazes of “Fences” and “Jitney,”  so it behooves those Wilsonphiles to get themselves to Red Bank, where “Radio Golf” is running until March 22. The lesser-known Wilson play is Two River’s sixth in their drive to join the clutch of Regional venues to have produced all ten Cycle plays, a mission I suspect they will accomplish in 2024. As they have done since inaugurating their quest in 2013 with “Two Trains Running,” Two River has assembled a fine cast and engaged dynamic director Brandon J. Dirden to mold them into a superb unit.

Amber Iman and Carl Hendrick Louis [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

Premiering between 1982 and 2005, each Cycle play chronicles aspects of the African-American experience in a particular decade of the Twentieth Century. Nine of the ten, including “Radio Golf,” are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s own origin city. Coinciding with the decade it represents, the 1990s, “Radio Golf” was also the playwright’s last-produced Cycle chapter. It premiered in April 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre; August Wilson died the following October from liver cancer at age 60. (The Broadway opening was in April 2007.)

While specific to their time and place, Wilson’s themes resonate universally, much as do Shakespeare’s (a not ill-advised association). A drama about conflicting personal values and political expediency, “Radio Golf” certainly speaks to our current time.

Harmond Wilks (Carl Hendrick Louis) is campaigning to be Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. As prime mover of the redevelopment of the blighted Hill District, he has a pretty good shot. His campaign-manager wife Mame (Amber Iman) and realtor-partner Roosevelt Hicks (Robbie Williams) share his confidence. With Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods and Starbucks already signed on, what could go wrong?

Partners? Maybe. Harmond Wilks (Carl Hendrick Louis), left, and Roosevelt Hicks (Robbie Williams)

Enter Elder Joseph “Old Joe” Barlow (Wayne DeHart), who, backed by self-employed contractor and neighborhood handyman Sterling Johnson (Nathan James), claims ownership of a house on the re-development site that is slated for demolition. The crux of the story concerns the acquisition and subsequent disposition of the house, whose historical and cultural significance exceeds its modest dollar value.

In the interest of preserving the mystery, a genre in evidence, we’ll say only that a conflict of wills and values arises between those who would proceed under questionable ethics and even legality, and those for whom fairness and the rule of law are paramount concerns. The several debates on those topics are stirring and engrossing. It is not just a case of good vs. bad or right-and-wrong; compelling points are made on both sides and the outcome, as in all of Wilson’s plays, is inevitable.

Greeting Elder “Old Joe” Barlow (Wayne DeHart)

Also as in all the plays, there is an abundance of humor.  Roosevelt’s preoccupation with his golf game, which he extols on a radio broadcast, and him needing to keep his parked car in sight are lampooned, and Old Joe, seeming a bit dotty but really sharp as a tack, is a master of the non sequitur. “I have something for you,” Harmond tells him. “It ain’t no bread pudding, is it?” Joe replies, apropos of nothing. “I was just thinking about some bread pudding.” Mr. DeHart’s timing is exquisite. Mr. Louis exposes Harmond’s ambition and ambivalence, while Ms. Iman’s Mame is alternately encouraging and critical. Their political marriage is as real as any in today’s news.  And it all plays out on designer Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s expansive set, a fully realized real estate/political campaign office.

Mr. Williams plays Roosevelt’s go-along to get-along philosophy airily until the pot boils over and he goes all-in. Sterling is the odds-defying defender of principle. Mr. James’s rapid-speak can be problematic, but he is a compelling Cochise avatar.

Brandon J. Dirden is a master of the August Wilson book. At Two River alone he has acted in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and directed “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II.” Under his sure hand, the tension, humanity and humor of “Radio Golf” coalesce into a gripping whole. The play and playwright could not be better served.

Through March 22 at Two River Theater, Bridge Avenue, Red Bank NJ. Wed at 1pm and 7pm; Thurs & Fri att 8pm; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3pm. For further info and tickets ($40-$70): 732-345-1400 and online at www.tworivertheater.org 

Embedded in Wilson’s plays are pearls of wisdom – profundities, couched such that you don’t question the source. Late in “Radio Golf,” Harmond tells Sterling “I know how the game is played. I know the rules.” “But do you know when the game is over,” rebuts Sterling. “When you in an argument the best thing to do is to stop arguing.” Referencing a difference he’d had with someone, Sterling concludes “He ain’t had enough sense to see what I was saying, so I say ‘You right.’ And walked away.”    Wouldn’t [any of us] be better off following that advice.

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