Friday, April 29, 2016

Memphis Playwright Ruby O'Gray Hosts a Booksigning

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:51 AM

After 40-years, and numerous awards Ruby O'Gray's still got a few worlds left to conquer. Saturday, April 30, she's hosting a signing party for her new book Running Away to Home, which tells the story of Kathleen, a 17-year-old basketball fan who leaves Memphis for New York in 1966, looking for adventure and opportunity. 

A portion of the proceeds from each book sold will benefit the Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis, which O'Gray founded. 

The book signing takes place at TheatreWorks. 5:30-6:45.
O'Gray also founded the Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company, currently producing Gus Edwards' play, The Offering, which runs through Sunday, at TheatreWorks. 

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sweet & Sour: Hattiloo's "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" has its ups and downs

Posted By on Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 11:08 AM

Sometimes I feel like a broken record.

Like so many plays I've reviewed at the Hattiloo Theatre in recent years, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet shows incredible potential. A fine group of actors have come together for the last chapter of Tarrell Alvin McCraney's groundbreaking Brother/Sister trilogy, and with the help of director Dennis Darling, they share many fine moments. Unfortunately, all of those moments happen in blue-gelled darkness, obscuring faces, and hiding the twinkle and the terror in the actors' eyes. There's no front light to speak of, and very little texture. It's a superficial problem, but one that makes it difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend a piece of theater I'd normally want to stand up and cheer about. 

McCraney's a certifiable wunderkind who writes stylized family dramas overlaid with ritual. His sense of community calls to mind the August Wilson canon, but formally speaking, the two writers couldn't be more dissimilar. McCraney's scripts borrow from African mythology, with dialogue so musical his characters sometimes have no choice but to burst into full-throated song. In many regards, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet is the most conventional play in a set that includes In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size. But it's hardly conventional. Dream sequences weave in and out of an already dreamy narrative while ghosts and confused lovers follow one another through a swampy Louisiana landscape. In some regards it's a lot like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but with all of the old fairytale's original mystery and danger restored. 

Marcus tells the story of a young man's sexual awakening, and an accompanying compulsion to learn more about his father. Marcus is "sweet" — a euphemism for effeminate. Maybe he's gay. Maybe it's more complicated than that. At any rate, he's trying to learn secret codes that exist in a tightly knit African-American community where homosexuality is kept on the DL. He wants to make connections, not only with new friends and lovers, but with history, and also to some much bigger ideas. You don't need to be familiar with the other Brother/Sister plays to follow the action, but the show will be richer for those who are. Even more so for those who've gone the extra mile to learn about the thunder gods and gender-bending trickster deities McCraney alludes to throughout. 

Cameron Yates is so vulnerable as Marcus — able to stop hearts with quiet reticence and warm them again with shy, schoolgirl laughter. He's strongly supported by Mary Ann Washington (Oba), Hannaan Aisha Ester (Shaunta lyun), Derrick Johnson (Shua/Oshoosi Size), and an able ensemble cast that is collectively responsible for some of the season's most satisfyingly human interactions. What's surprising though, given director Darling's background as a musician and conductor, is how all of these interactions occur in the context of a production wanting for shape and dynamics.

I get that much of Marcus' action occurs at night. The challenge, obviously, is to create the illusion of evening and shadow while still framing the characters and punctuating the action with light.  But instead of blossoming into the sunflower it's supposed to be, this production just kept audiences in the dark. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

When Shakespeare Was Small: The World in 1616

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 3:56 PM

Galileo goes before the inquisition for expanding the Copernican heresy.

What's the deal with 1616?

Well, Shakespeare died in England, obviously. Cervantes kicked the bucket in Spain. But celebrity death's not all that interesting, in and of itself. 1616 was a time of enormous contradiction. Old dynasties crumbled while a new world was being plundered. The Earth was growing larger and smaller at the same time. A slave trade and smallpox flourished in the places where where sea monsters once appeared on flat world maps. Science advanced brave new ideas while the church doubled down on its authority and witches were hunted with renewed fervor. Globalism was in its infancy, as were global corporations. Applied arts and sciences found themselves at odds with establishment values.

Thomas Christensen's book 1616: The World in Motion is an entertaining and enlightening romp through the early modern era, when Spanish Galleons delivered silver from Acapulco  to China and exchanged it for silk and spice. Christensen's a first rate storyteller, with a curators eye for art and artifact. He's also the keynote speaker for the 1616 Symposium at Rhodes College this week. Although it's been made possible by the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, the symposium uses Shakespeare's death as a pretext to assemble scholars from different disciplines to discuss a world that was, quite literally, on the move. 
Louise Bourgeois, the Royal Midwife
  • Louise Bourgeois, the Royal Midwife

Christensen's book covers a lot of ground. In less than 400 heavily-illustrated pages he touches on a little bit of everything from major world events to a power struggle that escalated between a French midwife, and the king's physicians because the latter group had, "No knowledge of the placenta and the womb of a woman, either before or after her delivery." 

"Shakespeare's Sisters," a chapter devoted to women in 1616, is especially fascinating. More "rational" views of the natural world had curious consequences. Witch hunting, for example, had once swept up equal numbers of men and women. By 1616 accusations were leveled primarily at older women who were more likely to be herbalists, and keepers of folk traditions. Christensen elaborates on reasonably well known stories about Pocahontas' visit to Europe, the reign of Nur Jahan over the Mughal Empire, and the trials and artistic triumphs of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. My favorite part, however, is Christensen's  juxtaposition of the life of two crossdressing women: Mary Frith (AKA Moll Cutpurse), a pipe-smoking pimp known as the "Roaring Girl," and Catalina de Erauso, a Basque soldier who aided in the conquest of the Americas, and was later given special dispensation by the pope to dress in men's clothing.

Erauso, who first dressed as a man to escape life as a nun, served as the right hand man to her brother who never recognized her.  She was eventually transferred to a heavy combat zone after the siblings came to blows over another woman. 
Gorgeous double-paged spread from 1616: The World in Motion
  • Gorgeous double-paged spread from 1616: The World in Motion

As far as Shakespeare is concerned, he was quite the innovator in his day, but it would be another hundred years before his Romantic makeover as the great lion of Western literature. As his fame grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, the man himself became harder and harder to see. Like Rhodes professor Dr. Scott Newstok explained in a recent interview for Memphis Magazine, the "fixation on Shakespeare occludes the way he actually worked."

To that end the 1616 symposium doubles as a reverse-engineered portrait of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi.
  • Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Caravaggio.
  • Judith Slaying Holofernes by Caravaggio.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hattiloo Invites You to a Free Performance of "Mahalia" at the Cossitt Library

Posted By on Fri, Apr 15, 2016 at 4:00 PM

Gospel artist Mahalia Jackson is truly inimitable, but Deborah Manning Thomas challenges that theory. She and Sameka Johnson star in Mahalia: A Gospel Musical originally performed at the Hattiloo Theatre. Tuesday, April 19 at 7 p.m. Mahalia moves into Downtown's Cossitt Library for a free one night only performance. 
(Long empty upstairs area).

For something completely different, Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet, the third play in Tarrell Alvin McCranney's Brother/Sister plays runs at Hattiloo through May 8.


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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Monarch Notes: Theatre Memphis’ Abbreviated Shakespeare is Inspired Silliness

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 12:00 PM

click image (l to r) Meghan Lisi,Joshua Hitt and Kevar Maffitt take on the Bard in the rollicking farce, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged,April 8 -24 n the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • (l to r) Meghan Lisi,Joshua Hitt and Kevar Maffitt take on the Bard in the rollicking farce, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged,April 8 -24 n the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis

Don’t go to Theatre Memphis’ production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) unless you like good acting, stupid gags, and Falstaff-sized belly laughs. It’s a perfectly entertaining night in the theater, and I’m more than a little surprised to find myself typing those words. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s signature piece with its abundant (sometimes dated) pop culture references, and glib approach to the material. But Theatre Memphis’ production is completely current, with enough heart to comfort like sunshine after rain.

You don't have to know very much about Shakespeare to get the jokes here. And, in spite of the title’s promise, audiences won’t leave the theater knowing any more about the plays and poems than they did when tickets were purchased. This is an improv-based comedy show using Shakespeare’s lingering notoriety as a jumping off point. The sonnets are acknowledged, but unaddressed, the histories are lumped together in a football-inspired sketch full of handoffs, interceptions, and skullduggery. And, in a gag about Shakespeare’s most recycled plot devices, many popular comedies, and most of the obscure works are lumped together and presented as if they were a single, and singularly ridiculous play. It’s fun stuff, but it’s not going to help anybody fake their way through cocktail party conversations about Timon of Athens. (Like that’s ever happened).

Put a sock in it! - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • Put a sock in it!
A more honest title for this slow-starting, but ultimately satisfying literary romp, might be Shkspr’s Greatest Hits (Abridged), as Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet ultimately get the most love, and the latter is literally performed both forward and backward. (“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.) Although metatext is left unspoken, the shows thesis is inspired by the original Man in Black’s sage advice to actors: “Suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” Only, in this case, the goal is to see how much fun you can have un-suiting the action to the word. Cheap theatrics abound, sock puppets steal the show, and, as is the case with most roller coaster rides, somebody will be thrown up on. Possibly more than once.

There’s nothing harder to pull off than scripted spontaneity, but director Jeffrey W. Posson has brought together a fine trio of actors, able to break in and out of character, and through the theater’s invisible fourth, fifth, and sixth walls like soldiers born under mars. It’s a tight ensemble able to solo like Coltrane, when their turns come around. Meghan Lisi brings a lot of Shakesperiance to the table. She shines throughout, though maybe not as brightly as in the real thing. Joshua Hitt gives a fun, unfussy performance, playing himself as an affable dork caught up in circumstances beyond his control. And by “circumstances,” I’m referring primarily to the antics of Kevar Maffitt who’s been given the evenings silliest and most sincere moments. He nails every bit of it. “What a piece of work is man,” indeed.

“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.

One of the best things about this production is how it’s energetic and forward-moving without ever being rushed. It’s an object lesson for those who think screwball comedy needs to be performed at breakneck speed. In the spirit of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, Posson & crew take the time required to let “real things” occur. Remarkable how fascinating it can be, in proper context, to just sit back and watch a wind up toy wind down.

I still like pieces of the Compleat Wrks better than the whole. But with deft direction, great acting, and top-notch design by Jack Yates and Kristen Redding, Theatre Memphis’ production is the compleat package. Nothing abridged about it. 
Your basic wrecking ball. - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • Your basic wrecking ball.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Magnificent Disasters: Voices of the South Brings Rebecca Fisher Back to TheatreWorks

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 12:04 PM


21 years ago, Emily Fisher, wife, mother, socialite, and celebrated patron of the arts, was beaten and stabbed in her Central Gardens home. The murder, and the harrowing trial that followed, quickly turned into a media feeding frenzy. Prosecutor Jerry Harris choked back angry tears as he described and redescribed every aspect of Fisher's murder in painstaking detail. Defense attorneys Glenn Wright and Loyce Lambert were no less emphatic in swearing that the case was being tried in the media, and their innocent clients — who were eventually acquitted — were being rushed to a guilty verdict. It was, needless to say, not an easy time for Fisher's children.

in 2007 Rebecca Fisher, Emily's writer/actor daughter launched The Magnificence of the Disaster, a solo performance chronicling not only her mother's murder and her brother Adrian's subsequent overdose but also the icy disaffections that can sometimes pass for familial love in a big white house in one of Shelby County's more privileged neighborhoods.

It's been 8-years since Fisher brought her critically-acclaimed and award-winning show to TheatreWorks, in conjunction with Voices of the South. VOTS has been marking its 20th-anniversary by reprising landmark performances, and The Magnificence of the Disaster returns to Memphis and TheatreSouth for performances April 9, 10, 14, 16, 17. 

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Visit April in Paris with Marie-Stéphane Bernard

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 11:11 AM


Do you know how to tell if you're a real diva or not? If you've never been dropped on stage by a helicopter, you're probably not a diva. Unlike Memphis treasure, Marie-Stéphane Bernard, whom you can see airdropped in the video below. 

From The Merry Widow, Opéra Comique, Paris.

Bernard's a native Parisian, who began her violin and voice studies in France and pursued her passions at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. She's played the great opera halls of Europe but lives just a stone's throw from the Mississippi River. She is currently appearing at Playhouse on the Square in L'heure espagnole, for Opera Memphis' Midtown Opera Festival, and tonight (Wed., April, 6) she'll perform a concert titled "April in Paris," which takes audiences on a tour of France in the 1950s via the music of Édith Piaf, Josephine Baker, and Charles Trenet. "The idea came from my presence here in Memphis and from being French," she says, describing the street singers she enjoyed so much as a little girl. "We threw pennies from the windows, and they were happy," she recalls.

To sample some romantic melodies gorgeously performed, you might consider throwing some pennies in Opera Memphis' general direction. 

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Friday, April 1, 2016

What's Up With Midtown Opera Festival's Tragedy of Carmen?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 1, 2016 at 2:09 PM

“A stage space has two rules: (1) Anything can happen and (2) Something must happen.” — Peter Brook

Opera Memphis' General Director Ned Canty has never been one to mince words. "If a singer can’t act it’s hard for me to hear them sing," he says. Canty developed the Midtown Opera Festival as an opportunity to present works that benefit from the intimacy of a small space, and give singers a real chance to show off their acting chops. That's what makes Peter Brook's The Tragedy of Carmen — a condensed, uniquely theatrical distillation of Bizet's popular opera — such a good fit.

Brook, a compulsively progressive artist, famous for his work as head of the Royal Shakespeare Company's experimental wing, had strong ideas about the strengths of opera, and the weaknesses of the art form. He developed The Tragedy of Carmen as an experiment to see how opera could be more theatrical. To do so he focused on just the four main characters, making them as believable and real as possible and spent 9-months rehearsing the piece in his usual collaborative style.

Joshua Borths, who directed The Tragedy of Carmen for Opera Memphis likes how Brook played with audience expectations, re-arranging the score for a smaller orchestra, but calling for a recording of the full orchestra playing the overture at the end of the show.

Brook has always seen words as the castings of impulse, and understood how even the finest points of view are relative, expiring shortly after they're expressed. To that end, he's shown a special gift for using context and theatrical devices to sharpen edges dulled by changing sensibilities.

"While it is all the same music and the same characters it’s a very different theatrical experience than seeing the full Carmen with a chorus and ensembles that bring a lightness to the piece," Borths says. "This is a much darker take on the story." And that's saying something, considering how shocked French audiences were by the immorality, and lawlessness on display in Bizet's original. 

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Don't Be Afraid of Hecklers: Another side of Memphis Comedy

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 2:34 PM

Don't be afraid of Josh McLane. Or do. Your call.
  • Don't be afraid of Josh McLane. Or do. Your call.

Consider this as an addendum to this week's cover story about the Memphis Comedy Festival, and the indie comedy scene that birthed it. It's hard to address everything in 3000 words, and I thought it might be fun to include a few sentences about Memphis audiences. I also wanted to share an annotated version of Mitchell Dunnam's fantastic cover for this week's Memphis Flyer. Mitchell plugged a lot of local comedians into a parody of the movie poster for National Lampoon's Animal House, and this is the key to figuring out who they all are.  

Comedian Tommy Oler had barely started his set at RockHouse Live when the heckler started yelling at him. An older gentleman, later identified as one of Elvis' former attorneys, yelled, "You suck!" He wasn't a very good heckler. That and, "You still suck!" was pretty much all the material he had. Oler took it all in stride, suggesting that his comedy might improve while his critic wasn't getting any younger. 

RockHouse Live is cave-like, and committed to darkness. The Wednesday night open mic, hosted by Amanda Walker can sometimes leave audiences wondering if they should laugh or call 9-1-1. "Even the bartenders heckle you," MaryBeth Poppins says. "Like, if you tell a joke about daiting and you aren’t telling it bad enough, they'll correct you. Or jump in with their stories. It can be obnoxious." But, if you're a comedian born, insults can also be inspiring.

Poppins is a very serious (and seriously funny) stand-up hobbyist literally created by the Memphis Comedy Festival. A comedian insulted her, as comedians will, and she thought, "I can be funnier than that guy." Bada-bing, bada-boom. And open mic nights — an important part of the comedy ecosystem — are like a box of chocolates in the wild west. You never know what you're going to get. And what you get can be rowdy. Open mics are places where you can see experienced comics like Rob Love or Harold King working out the kinks in their freshest material back-to-back with newbies, schmucks, and punchbowl turds. It's like Blacksmith Comedy's Benny Elbows says, "At open mics you really start to see how much craft goes into this. When you see somebody out there being funny it's easy to assume they've always been funny. But most of the time that's just not the case." 


Even at open mics, where anything can go down (and often does), heckling's not the worst thing that can happen. Neither is soul-crushing silence, which means people are listening, at least. Memphis audiences seem to enjoy one another's company, and if they think you're no good they'll just talk to the person next to them. Loudly. Unless, that is, Josh McLane's performing.

McLane's a badass drummer who's played in too many bands to mention. He's a part time wrestling announcer who got his loudmouth start as a strip club DJ. He says he doesn't really think of himself as a comedian, but it's not hard to draw straight lines between McLane, Mouth-of-the-South wrestling luminary Jimmy Hart, and the angry, screamier side of Bill Hicks. So punchlines do find their way into his firey political rants. He's also the host of Don't Be Afraid of... Memphis' longest continuously-running stand-up comedy showcase. If there's a ground zero for Memphis comedy's increasingly unified hype strategies, it's probably Don't Be Afraid...".
Paying your dues: Aspiring comic MaryBeth Poppins takes door for the You Look Like a Comedy Show show.
  • Paying your dues: Aspiring comic MaryBeth Poppins takes door for the You Look Like a Comedy Show show.

Like many local comics McLane got his start doing open mic, and has been regular at the P&H since the days when he worked at the bar doing whatever needed to be done. He knows what it's like to come off stage, change out of his comedy suit, and empty ashtrays for customers who were very recently threatening to kick his ass. "That's humbling," he says. But wrestling's in McLane's blood. He knows how to generate heat, and when audiences turn, he's been known to make some risky choices.

One night McLane was performing on stage at the P&H and two women sitting front and center wouldn't stop talking. So he flicked a switchblade: "I haven't been to prison in a long time," he said, brandishing his weapon at a safe distance. "And right now I'm really missing the taste of a dick." The talkers were shocked into silence.

"But they came back every week for a long time and became big friends of Memphis comedy," McLane says. Don't be afraid indeed.

This month's installment of "Don't Be Afraid"  is produced at the Hi-Tone Cafe in conjunction with the Memphis Comedy Festival. 

And now for something completely different...

While working on this package I was smitten by Mitchell Dunnam's comedy posters for showcases like Tuesday Show Comedy and the Black Nerd Power Comedy Hour. They were pop culture parodies with the faces of local, and visiting comics plugged in. So I asked him if he'd create a parody of the Animal House movie poster for this week's cover, and he really outdid himself. Here it is again with a guide to all the comics represented on the cover. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Q&A with Into the Woods' Wicked Witch, Renee Davis Brame

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2016 at 11:40 AM

Renee Davis Brame (right) as The Witch in Into the Woods at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, March 11 - April 3, 2016. Lee Gilliland (left) as the  Baker holds his child and the Baker’s Wife, Lynden Lewis, looks on from the shadows. - JCK YATES
  • Renee Davis Brame (right) as The Witch in Into the Woods at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, March 11 - April 3, 2016. Lee Gilliland (left) as the Baker holds his child and the Baker’s Wife, Lynden Lewis, looks on from the shadows.

Memphis actor and reluctant cat owner/blogger Cary Vaughn has interviewed his friend and occasional costar Renee Davis Brame who's currently casting quite a spell over audiences as the witch in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods

Renee Davis Brame:
I have an enormous fear of pretension.

Cary Vaughn: I know.

RDB: I have a feeling this is just going to sound that way.

CV: Just speak up and don’t use any big words.

RDB: Like “pretension”? Too late.

CV: So I know that you’re level of interview probably wants to deal with the themes of sexism in Sondhiem, but I want to go straight to what I really want to know: Girl, how long does it take to put on that makeup before a show?

RDB: That’s why I just pulled glue out of my hair.

CV: Oh, okay. I thought that had something to do with your kids.

RDB: It never leaves.

CV: Really? You get glue all up in your –

RDV: It’s everywhere.

CV: Because of the prosthetics you have to wear. What are your prosthetics?

RDB: The prosthetic is full face. So it’s two pieces. One is glued to my upper lip, and then a piece here [indicating lower half of face because she forgets this is not a video interview], so my lower lip is exposed.

CV: How long does it take?

RDV: It doesn’t take long. There’s a dream team: Eric Quick of Mid-South Effects (who made the prosthetic), Buddy Hart, and Buddy’s two assistants, Rence and Ariel. Between the four of them, it takes 20 to 25 minutes. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long.

CV: You know what’s funny is how some actors complain, “Oh my God, I still have mic tape on my neck.” And you’re, like, pulling glue out of your fucking hair.

RDV: This is off the chain crazy. Buddy and his team get as much of the glue off as they can. They don’t get it all, just as much as they can.

CV: Nobody can complain about mic tape ever again.

RDB: Never again. Sorry about your mic tape neck. I have prosthetic face.

CV: Have your children seen [Into the Woods], yet?

RDV: Mmhmm.

Sometimes you've got to meme a witch.
  • Sometimes you've got to meme a witch.

Okay, please tell me what [your 4-year-old daughter] Calliope thought.

RDB: She’s a connoisseur of Into the Woods. She’s known the show as long as I’ve known of the show. We sort of learned it together. We watched the video, and we listened to the CDs together so she knows it as well as I do. [My family] came to see a dress rehearsal, and she sang the whole show next to [my husband] Aaron. They’ve only seen the first act. I don’t know if [my son] Rocco will come back for the second act, but Calliope will. If we don’t let her come back, she’s going to call an Uber and show up at the theatre and sneak in anyway, so…

CV: Has she given you any feedback?

RDB: Um, yeah. She tells people I’m a witch; though, out of context doesn’t sound very good.

CV: Like at school or church?

RDB: Exactly.

CV: How is it working with [director] Ann Marie? I’ve never worked with her before.

RDB: Really?

CV: No.

RDB: I have been on stage with her and I’ve also been directed by her before, so we’ve worked together in both capacities and we’ve probably known each other 15 years. So we’re really comfortable with each other. I like her methods.

CV: Is she collaborative.

RDB: Oh yeah. To a point. Early in the rehearsal, she’ll tell you that “I collaborate and I want to know what you think and I want to figure out the blocking together, but then at a certain point, it has to become ‘You go here because I said so’ and we don’t have time for discussion. If you don’t feel a motivation you need to figure that out.” And I appreciate that.

CV: Oh yeah. Absolutely. There’s nothing worse than falling behind schedule because somebody is being a diva.  So what are you doing next?

RDB: What show am I doing next?

CV: Do you know?

RDB: Mommy.

CV: What?

RDB: I’m going back to mommy.

CV: Oh. Yeah. You’re not only a mother of two, but a wife of one…(one right?)

RDB: Yeah. At this point.
Renee & Cary: So happy together.
  • Renee & Cary: So happy together.

CV: …actress…

RDB: …two cats….

CV: …voice over work, writer, and associate producer/marketing director at Germantown Community Theatre. You’ve got your hands full. I don’t see how you balance all this.

RDB: My family and I are all in this together. That’s how we do everything. Aaron is in grad school, and he’s been in grad school for a couple of years now so when he has to be somewhere, too, we work it out. And there’s no judgment, there’s no, “I can’t believe you’re doing this.” Every inconvenience, there’s a greater purpose behind it, and we both know that. So we support each other because we know if he can’t write and I can’t be in shows that we’re just not going to be happy people. But we do certainly limit ourselves. I’m not auditioning for everything in the world. When I had my kids, I didn’t do anything, but when Rocco was 5, I did Ruthless. That was the first show I had done in five years. So since that time, I’ve done Ruthless, Company, The Boy from Oz, and this.

CV: So in other words, this is a comeback.

RDB: No. (laughing) Please don’t call it a comeback.

CV: You are the John Travolta of Memphis.

What is a Green Room feature? It's actors, directors, and designers hanging out talking to other actors, directors, and designers. Sometimes these pieces take the form of a traditional interview, but Green Room features may also be more casual and intimate conversations between people who know each other very well. They might focus on current theater projects, or not at all. The goal is to be fun and informative, and to put local theater artists where they belong— in the spotlight.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"All the Way" Comes Up Short at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Mar 10, 2016 at 1:34 PM

All the Way isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. It’s not a piece of naturalistic theater you can just stage. It’s not a musical either, but with grand themes, leitmotifs  of venality and an orchestra-sized cast, this overstuffed sausage-grinder about Lyndon Johnson’s first 11-months in the White House needs to be conducted like a tense modern symphony full of explosive tragedy and punctuated by brassy squawks, and soaring metaphoric strings. If careful attention isn’t paid to the show’s desperate melodies, and ever-shifting time signatures All the Way turns bloodless, like Disney World’s Hall of Presidents without the Morgan Freeman gravitas. Playhouse on the Square has transformed the show into a fashion parade of gorgeous vintage suits, and unconvincing wigs on a pink (marbled?) set that looks for all the world like it was wrapped in prosciutto. It’s a remarkable showcase of extraordinary talent grinding its wheels in a low-stakes historical pageant. When actors as sharp as Delvyn Brown and George Dudley can’t make historically large characters like Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson interesting, there’s something powerfully wrong with the mix.

I’m a fan of director Stephen Hancock, but have noted occasions where concept muddled clarity. The opposite is true this time around. Kennedy’s assassination can’t be treated like melancholy Camelot nostalgia. All the Way may open with a funeral march, but it needs to be bathed in horror and bubbling over with chaos that threatens to grow worse as the play progresses. The Gulf of Tonkin incident isn’t an aside, it’s an explosion. Every provision cut from the 1964 Civil Rights bill in order to get some version of the legislation passed before the election has to bleed real blood and stink of the strangest fruit.

George Dudley is a pleasure to watch. He’s whip-smart, and even when he’s badly used the man’s a damn powerhouse. But everything is different this time around. He’s not surefooted like he usually is. Like so many of the actors in All the Way, Dudley seems unfocused, and not entirely in control of his lines. Still, you can’t act height and vertical advantages aside, he’s still the only actor in Memphis I can imagine capturing Johnson’s crude and conflicted brand of Texas idealism. And when he’s on, he’s on fire.

For all of its shortcomings, All the Way is something of a landmark. I can’t recall when I’ve seen such a gifted assemblage of swinging D plopped down on a single stage. With a handful of exceptions, every noteworthy Memphis actor has been called on to do his patriotic duty, and most have answered with gusto. Curtis C. Jackson and John Maness stand out as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Greg Boller relishes his time inside the skin of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Michael Detroit makes a sympathetic, if never entirely convincing, Hubert Humphrey and John Hemphill, Sam Weakly, and John Moore all do some fine character work. The women of the 60’are finely represented by Claire Kolheim, Irene Crist and Kim Sanders, but they are outnumbered, outgunned, out shouted, and pushed to the edge of the picture. It’s an historically appropriate dynamic, of course, but it could stand crisper translation to the stage.

Regretfully, Robert Schenkkan’s script requires more than quality acting.

All the Way is a fourth wall breaker. At the end of the show Dudley asks the audience if anybody was made to feel uncomfortable about by the things they witnessed as ideation becomes legislation, slaw, then law. He asks if we wanted to hide our faces or look away. That moment should be the key to reverse engineering an American "teaching play" that lists ever so slightly toward German Lehrstücke. It should make us want to look away. Not because of the sad black and white photographs projected on enormous screens behind the actors, but because when politicians “make the sausage” people are the meat in the grinder.

And it’s always the same people in the grinder.

There’s a frequently repeated line in All the Way about how Johnson is the most, “sympathetic president since Lincoln [to African Americans].” It’s ordinary sloganeering, of course, and an uncomfortable truth when considered from even a relatively short distance. It’s also a helpful line for considering how easily mimesis fails this kind of play where dynamic interpretation makes the difference between horrorshow and hagiography.

Face full of Johnson. Michael Detroit and George Dudley in All the Way at Playhouse on the Square.
  • Face full of Johnson. Michael Detroit and George Dudley in All the Way at Playhouse on the Square.

All the Way isn’t bad, it’s worse than that. It’s boring. It's a play that should make us see that soldiers are blown up in boardrooms not on battlefields, and how even progressive politics can play out like a slow motion lynching. It should make us flinch and look away often. But it never does.

It’s an election year, of course — in case anybody out there in Flyer-land hasn't noticed. I suspect there's a certain crowd caught up in the pageantry who are in the perfect mood for a three-hour reminder of the “good old" "bad old" days when even an oil-funded politician as crude and bullying as Donald Trump could dream of a "more perfect union" and get elected. Once, anyway.

Even political junkies and policy wonks may wish to spend cocktail hour chugging coffee. 


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Thursday, March 3, 2016

George Dudley Stars as LBJ in "All the Way" at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2016 at 5:27 PM

Mike Detroit and George Dudley
  • Mike Detroit and George Dudley

The first words out of my mouth upon hearing that Playhouse on the Square was set to produce the political drama All The Way: "I hope they can get George Dudley to play LBJ." Sometimes wishes really do come true, and here's a clip of one of Memphis' most sophisticated performers talking about his role as the big guy from Texas. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Theatre Memphis Announces its 2016-17 Season

Posted By on Tue, Feb 16, 2016 at 2:55 PM


Theatre Memphis' 2016-17 season includes a healthy mix of musicals, comedies, and dramas with regional premieres like Sideshow and The City of Conversation and chestnuts like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and South Pacific.

Summer Musical Showcase

Debbie Sings: Judy, Just for You
Theater Memphis' executive director sings songs popularized by Judy Garland. Conceived and directed by André Bruce Ward, Musical direction by Gary Beard, Performed by Debbie Litch

July 15 - 31, 2016
Lohrey Stage 


Beauty and the Beast
A beauty falls in love with a beast. Also, magic stuff.
September 2 - 25, 2016

The City of Conversation – REGIONAL PREMIERE
Washington D.C. where the political animals talk... and talk... and talk
October 21 – November 6, 2016


A Christmas Carol
Ghosts torment jerk.
December 2 – 23, 2016 Theatre Memphis’ 39th Annual Production
39 Steps
A Hitchcock pastiche with 4 actors playing over 100 characters. 
January 20 – February 5, 2017

Side Show
The freaks come out at night. 
March 10 – April 2, 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Mississippi football hero likes whiskey more than his wife. 
April 28 – May 14, 2017

South Pacific
A wartime romance by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
June 2 – 25, 2017

Next Stage


The man with the candelabra is back. 
September 30 – October 16, 2016

One Ham Manlet - ORIGINAL WORK
Solo Shakespeare. 
November 10 - 20, 2016

Sense and Sensibility
Remember what Jane Austen stories were like before the zombie apocalypse? This is one of those. 
February 10 - 26, 2017


Rasheeda Speaking – REGIONAL PREMIERE
Office politics collide with race politics. Drama happens. 
April 7 - 23, 2017

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Hattiloo Theatre to Expand.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 9, 2016 at 10:15 AM


The Hattiloo Theatre has come great distance in only 10 years. Ekundayo Bandele’s black repertory theater launched in 2006 in a cramped but lovingly converted storefront on Marshall Avenue just north of Sun Studio. Eight years later, following an innovative capital campaign, Bandele moved his company into a new, custom-built playhouse on Overton Square. Now, only 18 months — and not quite two full performance seasons — after the big move, Bandele and his board of directors are preparing to undertake the Hattiloo’s first major expansion.

Longtime board member Cardell Orrin says the need to expand physical resources became apparent during a strategic planning effort. “We thought about our mission and the kind of staffing we’d need to meet these goals,” he says. “And it became clear that we were already bursting at the seams in terms of multiple plays on stage, multiple plays in rehearsal, and everything else.”


$750,000 in funding is already in place, and plans have been developed to build a two-story, 3,200 square-foot Development Center just off the northwest corner of the existing theater building at 37 S. Cooper at Monroe. “We’re calling it the D.C.,” Bandele says. The list of contributing benefactors for the expansion is only four names long: An anonymous Friend of the Hattiloo Theatre, The Assisi Foundation, The Hyde Family Foundation, and The City of Memphis.

“Of course the first question we had to answer was why so quick?” Bandele says. “That answer was simple. The new building generated a level of growth — or more accurately a pace of growth — that we weren’t prepared for. “We’ve always done a lot, but we’ve done it with so little,” Bandele explains. “We had to make compromises.”

The Hattiloo has never been a playhouse only. It has doubled as a teaching space, cultural center, and hub for artists. Since its move to Midtown, the theater has hosted everything from book clubs to film festivals to conversations about social justice. Orrin describes the Hattiloo as “This dream of what Memphis could and should look like.”

Ambitious programming found the rapidly growing company with one play open and running on its main stage, a second play in technical rehearsals in the adjoining black box theater, a youth program rehearsing in the lobby, and no space available for anything else. To accommodate all the activity many rehearsals moved off site to Rhodes College or the Urban League on Union Avenue. “The real problem with all these locations is that a parent takes their kids to a rehearsal at the Urban League one night, then to Rhodes the next night, then Hattiloo,” Bandele says. “There’s been no consistency. So whenever we were rehearsing or doing programs, it was a full-time job just figuring out where things are being placed. Now everything we do is going to be on the same campus.”


Like the Hattiloo, the D.C. is being designed by Barry Yoakum and the design team at Archimania. The new space will be divided equally into two 1,600 square-foot stories. There are 10 small office spaces, a modest conference/rehearsal room, and a smaller office/meeting room on the first floor. The second floor is dedicated primarily to the development center — a large open room with an adjoining lobby and green room. Although it is laid out like a third performance space the D.C. won’t be used as a venue for additional programming. “I mean, where would we rehearse then?” Bandele asks. “We might do an occasional showcase there or something like that but nothing else. That would defeat the whole point.”

“Archimania has done a fantastic job of building a lot into a small space,” says Orrin. “They figured out how to grow it from one to two stories and put in an elevator.”

Bandele sees the new building as both a solution to his growth problems and as a chance to create more opportunities for theater education and community engagement. “We are definitely going to amp up our youth theater program,” he says. He also anticipates growing a program the Hattilooo started for young adults with special needs.

Oluremi (Loo), Bandele’s youngest daughter, has cerebral palsy. “I noticed that, as soon as a young person with special needs graduates from high school, their entire social circle just collapses,” he says. “So not only will this allow young adults with special needs to continue to have a social life, it helps in the same ways theater helps everybody. It’s going to help with speech, with the expression of emotion, and with their bodies.”

There are also plans to relaunch the Hattiloo Theater School for adults, which focuses on playwriting, directing, and acting.

If all goes according to plan, construction on the Hattiloo’s Development Center should begin before the end of the first quarter and be complete before the end of 2016.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Love Changes Everything: Opera Memphis Presents Kallen Esperian in Concert

Over the years the adventurous singer has tried her hand at everything from Verdi to Aristocrunk and Led Zeppelin

Posted By on Wed, Feb 3, 2016 at 3:53 PM

Behold a diva, y'all
  • Behold a diva, y'all

In February, 1984 Memphis Culture critic Edwin Howard penned a column about a promising young voice student who’d just won the Metropolitan Opera’s Mid-South regional opera competition. “It’s a good thing Kallen Esperian is taking geography at Memphis State University this semester,” Howard wrote in the pages of Mid-South Business. “Because this lovely, young, brunette mezzo-soprano is going places.”

Howard wasn’t just whistling “Dixie.” Two years down the road Esperian was singing in front of motion picture cameras in China with the immensely successful Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

Esperian, who is appearing in Love Changes Everything, a one night only concert produced by Opera Memphis, specialized in Italian classics and went on to perform alongside many of the leading lights of modern opera including Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. If you're keeping score that's all three of The Three Tenors. 

Love Changes Everything is an evening of “opera’s greatest hits,” featuring the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and “special guests.” Cocktails and snacks will be served at a post concert reception for ticket holders who can also pick up an Esperian-autographed concert poster.

While a concert showcasing “Opera’s greatest hits” sounds entirely delightful, no Intermission Impossible post about Esperian is complete without some mention of her more musically adventurous side. Her buttery soprano was the cherry on top of Lord T & Eloise’s Aristocrunk CD.

But the most fun recording in the history of time? It’s got to be Esperian’s take on a Led Zeppelin classic. Click that link and discover the meaning of true happiness. 

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