“Danai Gurira has built a Hollywood brand playing characters known for their physical and mental strength. In television shows such as AMC’s The Walking Dead, and blockbuster films like 2018’s Black Panther, Ms. Gurira commands attention with portraits of women who can love and be loved, while also kicking ass and making important decisions. Ms. Gurira has become an icon for the #MeToo era as women work to create safer, more powerful and public spaces for themselves, as well as a global HIV advocate. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about going full General Okoye on a street harasser?
Yet I confess that until recently, I was unaware of Ms. Gurira’s accomplishments as a prolific and celebrated playwright. Is there nothing this woman can’t do? I’m an excited fangirl all over again after attending the opening of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s newest production, a mounting of Ms. Gurira’s 2015 play,Familiar. With humor, sharp dialogue, physical comedy and, not incongruently, large helpings of emotional heft, the work engages questions of identity, family dynamics, and the immigrant experience.
All productions as successful as this one start with great source material. Familiar drops in on the Chinyaramwira family, Zimbabwe-Americans living in Minnesota. In climate and culture, the Midwestern locale couldn’t be more different from life in the African nation, and Ms. Gurira looks at a wide scope of contrasts with remarkable balance. For every obvious benefit of material wealth and comfort, the play argues, there’s a tradeoff. These various concessions are explored through the play’s philosophically diverse characters, and they are brought together through an enduring trope of emotional volatility: the family wedding.”
“Red Theater Chicago’s production of An Oak Treehas a lot of good ideas. Written as it were by Tim Crouch, the semi-improvisational script tackles themes of loss, guilt and the ways one might manipulate reality to manage overwhelming experiences. It also leverages a handy and creative metaphor for that exploration.
Featuring Gage Wallace as First Actor, or Hypnotist, the play’s action occurs a year after a tragedy for which the Hypnotist is partly responsible. The family-friendly practitioner of the occult has lost his mojo, a development he reveals honestly and exhaustedly to his latest audience. When the Hypnotist seeks volunteers to participate in his ‘act’ (word very carefully chosen), his eyes fall upon a man he does not recognize, but should. Without giving away spoilers, the actor who takes a seat upon the Hypnotist’s stage is intimately involved in last year’s tragedy, and the two characters begin a cerebral, transcendental verbal dance that slowly exposes their respective suffering.
Here’s the script’s creative rub. Second Actor, or the individual who raises his or her hand to be hypnotized, is played each night by a different performer. Per An Oak Tree’s press packet, ‘the second actor will discover the play and their role at the same time as you [audience members] do.’ Actors and actresses who’ve agreed to take on the role are announced the Tuesday before the production’s weekend performances.”
“The work begins promisingly, casting Shriner as a small-town, high school show choir nerd who loses her virginity to an elusive, emotionally unavailable boyfriend. While the man-child proves disposable, Shriner’s love for the sexual chase and experience becomes one of the “10,000 pieces” that compromise her character. Branded by her peers in Indiana, and into her undergraduate college years at Millikin University in Central Illinois as a “bad” girl of dubious morals, Shriner makes the (seemingly) conscious decision to let her freak flag fly.
But then a #MeToo reckoning is squeezed into a momentum-slowing fashion between its riotous setup and compromising denouement. While painfully authentic and emotional, the sudden pivot to a plotline involving a past sexual assault undercuts what is previously served up as a narrative of female agency. As a feminist writer who urgently believes that more complicated, messy stories for and by women are needed across the entertainment spectrum, it pains me to see the production’s structure as an inadvertent capitulation to the very patriarchy it critiques. The subsequent upshift to a final 10 minutes of sex comedy ends with Shriner’s proscripted, heteronormative conclusion. It’s not what we’re lead to expect and it feels like a cheat.”
“The script from two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage (2009’s Ruined and 2017’s Sweat) also leaves open the distinct and tantalizing possibility that his wife’s ghost isn’t the only spirit Godfrey is fleeing. Lily, sister of the deceased, makes a reappearance on the relocated Crump doorstep that leaves everyone breathless. Loud, unabashed and full-on woke, in an era when Jim Crow laws and separate-but-equal instructed African-Americans to “know their place,” Lily is unafraid to take up space and speak her mind. For the damaged Crump family, this is both enticing and threatening.
The unvoiced dialogue between Godfrey and Lily is suggestive of a more complicated and intertwined past between the two. Their immediate and still-palpable chemistry sends Godfrey fleeing in yet another direction — right into the chaste arms of Gerte (Emily Tate), a recent white, German immigrant that Godfrey meets on the subway. Charmed by her submissiveness and willingness to follow the teachings of the never-seen Father Devine, Godfrey impulsively marries Gerte and installs her in his crowded and emotionally charged Brooklyn basement flat.
Within the cramped rooms of the Crump apartment, religious, racial and sexual tensions flare as Ernestine prepares to graduate high school and transition to adulthood. While all of the cast members acquit themselves well and present the audience with a complicated and authentic slice of Eisenhower-era Americana, it is Ms. Buckley who completely commands our rapt attention.”
“Steppenwolf’s production, helmed by Director Jonathan Barry, keeps what is great about the original staging mostly intact. For example, the work is no musical, but it definitely has rhythm. Movement Consultant Dan Plehal turns ensemble cast members into fulcrums and pulleys, deployed effectively to lift Christopher into the air in concert with manic descriptions of his dreams and wishes. For example, in Act I, Mr. Bell is balanced on an actor’s feet as Christopher describes the weightlessness and pleasant solitude he might enjoy as an astronaut. In these scenes, the audience is reminded that Christopher is a complex genius, but also still very much a child. Even the most literal of young minds still has a capacity for fancy.
By the end of the play, Christopher has physically and emotionally stretched himself in new directions that none in his circle could have rightly anticipated. He enacts change within his family circle, community, and his own formerly very rigid and linear worldview. To be spoiler-free in this review, it’s enough to say that his fractious parents Ed (Cedric Mays) and Judy (Rebecca Spence) find themselves outwitted by Christopher, leading them toward better versions of themselves and allowing them to serve as more persuasive behavioral models for their son.”
“Featuring a top-drawer ensemble cast, the four men attempting to engage society with a red “P” (for pedophile) permanently attached to them by the sex offender registry are Gio (Glenn Davis), a young man with corporate ambitions previously convicted of statutory rape; Dee, (K. Todd Freeman) a gay man and self-styled group home mother hen found guilty of repeatedly assaulting a 14-year-old boy; Fred, (Francis Guinan) a gifted pianist who served years in prison for exploiting his students; and Felix, (Eddie Torres) the quietest and perhaps most reviled member of the household. In addition to the horrendous crime of pedophilia, Felix is guilty of incest perpetrated on his young teenage daughter.
This is all disgusting, right? Mr. Norris’ unrelenting script won’t make it that easy on us. Gio, Dee, Fred and Felix are all men facing different challenges with differing levels of self-awareness and remorse factoring into their respective ambitions for social acceptance. Trying to navigate this complex terrain and manage the men’s parole restrictions is Ivy (Cecilia Noble), a weary, tough but empathetic officer balancing the protection of neighborhood children with even a criminal’s basic need for dignity. Her job is unenviable.
The cast, featuring Steppenwolf ensemble members Mr. Davis, Mr. Freeman, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Guinan, is beyond reproach, even if many of their characters are not. The actors and their prodigious talents are part of an exclusive artistic ensemble known all over the world with good reason. Because these players have performed together so many times, their offstage familiarity and chemistry lend an additional wow factor to the acting. An ability to make the heinous look, feel and sound organic is no small achievement.”
“Caroline, or Change, a 2004 Tony Award-nominated Best Musical (with music by FunHome‘s Jeanine Tesori), is an amalgamation in all of the best American theatrical ways. Part blues rock opera with its finger on the pulse of the Civil Rights movement, part celebration of post-World War II Jewish survival and culture, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame, the work absolutely demands that audience members sit up and pay attention. It has a lot to say, much of it with a Southern Gothic aesthetic evocative of Tennessee Williams at his best.
Much of the Western world’s mid-20th Century social tensions are channeled through Caroline Thibodeaux (Rashada Dawn), a divorced mother of four and domestic worker serving in the employ of the Gellman family. The Thibodeauxs and the Gellmans are galaxies apart on the relative privilege spectrum, but both clans know loss, grief and of course, the experience of being culturally ‘othered.’ As the curtain lifts, audiences are exposed to the strange, but special relationship between 39-year-old Caroline, who confines her moments of spiritual peace to one cigarette per day, and eight-year-old Noah Gellman, who enthusiastically lights Caroline’s smokes and idealizes her as ‘stronger than a man.’
This characterization is both more and less true than the young, motherless Noah can fathom. Caroline’s internal struggles are expressed via song and short, terse verbal communications devoid of warmth. A domestic violence survivor with broken dreams who supports her family by taking her weary seat on the segregated bus to ‘wash white people’s clothes,’ the only kind of ‘change’ Caroline has known is the kind that asks her to do more with less.”