Thursday, February 14, 2019

OMGWTF: Sister Agnes is Back and Bleeding All Over Theatreworks

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2019 at 2:29 PM

Susan Brindley, Mariah Chase and Kim Justis Eikner - CHASE YARWOOD-GUSTAFSON
  • Chase Yarwood-Gustafson
  • Susan Brindley, Mariah Chase and Kim Justis Eikner
To understand Agnes of God, a "psychological/supernatural thriller" from 1979, maybe it's helpful to look a little harder at the more ancient and epic battle it represents. On the surface, John Pielmeier's drama seems to be a psychobabble-laden tug-o-war between believers and a damaged, analytical mind fallen away from the church. Structured primarily as a series of arguments between a nun with secrets and a shrink with secrets, Agnes of God may not be about the innocent, simple-minded young sister who appears to have murdered an unwanted baby. Sure, that's the show's sensational hook, but this highly actable, if frequently problematic script, wants to grow into a full throated Platonic dialogue rehashing the 500-year-old grudge match between empirically verifiable "facts" and that which was once determined by the church to be "truth."

Even with all the news about "fake news" we take the primacy of facts for granted these days, but all in all, they're a relatively new concept. As emerging sciences elevated empirical knowledge during the Renaissance the very idea of fact-based learning challenged and chipped away at the church's supreme authority. Progressive minds were often imprisoned or excommunicated or worse for subverting "truth" but little by little all absolutes buckled under the terrible weight of relativism and "facts" emerged as the frequently assaulted measure of everything that matters. To this end, Agnes of God seeds its struggle between faith and scientific inquiry with doubt, bias, and a great deal of manipulative woo-woo! A critic writing for The Chicago Reader once called it the "anti-Inherit the Wind," and while I might be a bit more charitable, the description's not so far off base that I'm not going to appropriate it. And like the American criminal court system, the script's apparent aim isn't to prove that divine miracles can happen, only to insert a gore-spattered habit's worth of reasonable doubt.

More frustrating: As the play's ancient polemic reveals itself, the more apparent it becomes that Agnes, a helpless creature who's been raped by her author if by nobody else, has little meaning to either side of this debate outside of how she might serve self interest or self-preservation. To that end she's both the title character, and a walking, talking McGuffin. This makes it exceedingly difficult to like anybody in this play enough to care about who wins the fierce debate. It's pretty evident from the beginning that whether Agnes is declared competent to stand trial or not, it's certainly not going to be this doe-eyed and free-bleeding jumble of ignorance and anxiety who may or may not be a virgin mother and saint.

What Agnes of God does that we can all be thankful for is provide three women with some extremely showy acting opportunities. New Moon Theatre's cast and crew delivers all the fireworks you could possibly hope for. It's a remarkable convergence of talent with Kim Justis stepping into the part of Dr. Livingston, Susan Brindley as Mother Miriam, and Mariah Chase as Sister Agnes.  Bringing these three strong performers together under the direction of Pamela Poletti, is a special occasion to be celebrated, even if the material's more sensational than satisfactory.

That's a fact. 
Event Details Agnes of God
@ New Moon Theatre Company
At TheatreWorks, 2085 Monroe
Overton Square
Memphis, TN
When: Fridays, Saturdays, 8-10 p.m. and Sundays, 2-4 p.m. Continues through Feb. 24
(901) 484-3467
Price: $20 adult; $15 senior, student, military
Buy TicketsBuy Tickets
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Most Chill — Be More Chill is Super Fun, Pretty Vacant

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2019 at 10:38 AM

Be More Chill
  • Be More Chill
Be More Chill’s so exciting I’m already thinking about the possibility of a sequel. Call it Most Chill. Or, Be More Chill With a Vengeance. Whatever it’s called, It should be self-referential, telling its own true story about a relentlessly upbeat wannabe Broadway musical that debuts in Jersey to no big whoop, then closes (also to no big whoop), but records a cast album anyway and that blows up huge on the internet, winning the hearts and minds of 15-year-olds from coast to coast.

Be More Chill
’s immense online popularity practically insured a sellout when the show was resurrected off Broadway. Flash forward less than a year, Be More Chill is commencing previews for a proper Broadway run, there’s a movie version in the works, and best of all for Memphis theater fans, thanks to a quirk of BMC’s unusual path to glory, a locally-produced take on the zeitgeist-y show is also currently available in the 901, courtesy of a forward-thinking University of Memphis theater department.

It’s hard not to love Be More Chill's clever lyrics or its bubblegum-crashed-into-a-video-game soundtrack. I’m not so sure about the complete package, though. It’s relentless adorability can't be underestimated, but what sounded so fresh as a disembodied cast recording comes off a touch too derivative in three dimensions. Think: Little Shop of Cyrano Meets Every Teen Makeover Movie Ever + TRON — The Musical! Or, something like that.


Be More Chill introduces us to protagonist Jeremy Heere. He's a loser-gamer-nerd-bro crushing hard on drama geek Christine and looking to level-up his real life social game with the aid of a black market pill filled with mind-altering, anthropomorphic nanotech. The writing teeters on the edge of camp but turns on absolute sincerity. It's most effective when tapping the endlessly convergent reserves of teen anticipation and awkwardness evident in numbers like "Two Player Game," "Rich Set a Fire (The Smartphone Hour)", and "Michael in the Bathroom at a Party." 

Inside Be More Chill's fat package of infectious ear-memes, “Michael in the Bathroom” stands up and stands out. It's a great little pop song in its own right and the scene it spans is the one unforced part of a show that wants to be loved just a little too hard. But when Jeremey's best friend, Michael, finds himself flying solo, hearing all the action he's hiding from and reflecting on his pitiful predicament, the show gets the breathing room it needs. All conflicting sensibilities fall away and for a minute or six everything is perfect. So much sound-sugar stirred into one cup can feel contrived but "Michael in the Bathroom" is rich, fragile, forever young, and completely alive.


I’m not yet so old and creaky that I don’t enjoy Be More Chill's super-now, digitally-enhanced vernacular. I do worry, though (LOL), that the book's particular language (smiley face, poopy face, kitty paw) may usher this musical into premature period-piece status. But, the U of M’s loving, lighting-forward production has the air and energy of a cultural moment similar to the school’s storied early run of Hair. Only with adderall, smart-tech, and social media standing in for Vietnam, LSD, and sunshine.

But who can complain about a show with such an exuberant ensemble that's clearly having that much infectious fun? And when’s the last time I’ve been in the middle of an audience that showed up knowing all the lyrics and nobody was dressed up like Tim Curry? I've got to admit, it's kind of nice when that happens. Once you endure its charm flood and Be More Chill's hoary themes of self- acceptance, there may not be much there. But, as is the case with many great pop songs that have taken our pulse, burned down the charts, then vanished into deep nothingness, sometimes all you need is a good hook.

I don’t review as many college shows as I used to once upon a time. It's hard for an outside observer to know enough about student needs to comment too specifically without running the risk of affirming a bad habit or accidentally trampling over personal growth. But a lot of good, progressive-minded work happens on campus and, because of its weird history and potentially bright future, I wanted to write more than I normally might about this one. If nothing else, watching Be More Chill reminded me that student actors rarely get to play characters roughly their own age, living right now, with such familiar and (sigh, yes) relatable problems. Even if the show is something less than the sum of its songs, it’s a great fit for the school and for the moment, and a tremendous opportunity to see a lot of young talent swinging for the fences. 
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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Memphis Theater Community Says Goodbye to John Rone

Posted By on Tue, Feb 12, 2019 at 1:01 PM

John Rone. Promotional image from GCT.
  • John Rone. Promotional image from GCT.
John Rone sent me messages sometimes. Maybe just a "happy birthday," greeting. Or maybe he'd tell me about a play he'd seen at some festival. Now and then he'd sign these notes, "Love, Dad," or some variation on the theme. Now that he's gone, I'd like to set the record straight: This man was not my father!  Sure, fathers are awesome and all, but in the strictest sense, everybody's got one. Next to mothers and mystery novels they're the most common things in the world. And, while John Rone certainly loved a good mystery, there wasn't much else common about him, or the friendships he forged across the span of a life well- lived.

No doubt John will be remembered for his elegance, erudition, and wit. I especially appreciated the way he met and worked with people on their own terms. This was true whether he was working the day job at Rhodes College or putting on his director's cap to coax his ensemble through a difficult scene. Or maybe he was just responding to a smart-assed alum who'd promised/threatened to liven up an artist's wine and cheese reception with whoopee cushions. 
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Too much? Maybe a little. But I'm so damn tired of writing obituaries — stuck in the anger stage of grieving, if you will — and something tells me Mr. John Howard Rone would rather we laugh or snort or blush and avert our eyes or feel anything at all other than sadness or madness that he's left us so soon. Like I said up top, there's no one else I can think of quite like this eager, loyal, loving, dapper and slightly devilish man of Memphis. My heart could drop an epic. The fingers may only manage to type a few, insufficient paragraphs.

The longer I sit, looking back over 34 years of acquaintance, trying to boil a rich, multi-faceted life down to pure essence, the more my mind is drawn to a moment in 2017 when John and I met in the Paul Barrett Jr. Library on the Rhodes campus for a wide-ranging talk about the history of Germantown Community Theatre wherein he compared the rapid succession of executive directors to ancient Rome. “There are all these Caesars that come in, and some of them don’t stay very long,” he said rattling off a list of names that went on and on like the closing scene in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. That's when he told me he was delighted to be able to identify himself as "a full-time theater director" now that he'd retired from his Rhodes position as director of the Meeman Center for Continuing Education. He was working for GCT at the time, staging Arsenic and Old Lace and looking forward to bigger and more demanding projects. I'm stuck on this image and the false promise of a best that wasn't yet to come.

As an actor John could flit from classic to contemporary at the bat of an eye. Larry Shue's perpetually relevant comedy The Foreigner was a signature show, but John moved fluidly from Shakespeare's tragedies to Tom Stoppard's oddities, and seemed most at home in the role of director. Tennessee Williams and I Am a Camera author John Van Druten were favored playwrights, but behind the scenes he showed a special flair for teasing out dense plots and finding the life in stories more literary than dramatic.


I know I just referenced Cymbeline like it was a well known show that everybody's familiar with, but I'm going to guess most readers haven't seen or even studied Shakespeare's Disney-ready tale of Imogen, a royal badass who sticks it to the patriarchy and marries for love. It isn't done very often, in part, because the infamous last scene stretches out toward infinity in an unlikely cascade of confession and coincidence that ties every loose thread into a comic, practically post-modern tapestry of too much resolution. In an early 1990's production for the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes, John treated that scene like the shaggy dog gag it is. His cast, a healthy mix of student and community actors, made the dreaded denouement sing. It's still one of the best stuck endings I've had the pleasure to witness, and an exemplary sample of John doing what he did best.


A few more paragraphs might be generated listing honors and achievements. Instead I'll link to other sources and only note that John and his equally remarkable and universally beloved partner Bill Short are both Eugart Yerian Lifetime Achievement Award honorees, marking decades of fierce, fully committed devotion to Memphis's theater community. That represents a lot of collective service. 

To bring all of this full circle, John did play my father once, in a lewd and lovely romp through Oliver Goldsmith's naughty 18th-Century comedy, She Stoops to Conquer. In that role he took wicked delight in spanking my Marlowe's badly-behaved bottom with whatever object he happened to be holding in his hand. Sometimes he used a cane, but it might be a riding crop, hair brush, or what have you. He was quite skillful with the "what have you," I seem to recall, and from that time forward, the sinister (but loving) threat of a surprise cuff, cudgel or swat lurked whenever "dad" was near. I don't think I'm going to miss that, honestly. But I'll miss damn near everything else.

A private service for family has been scheduled at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church,Thursday, February 14th. Although the date hasn't been set, a more public celebration of Johns’ life will be held at Theatre Memphis sometime in the near future.

Donations in John's memory can made to Rhodes College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, or — of course — a favorite theater company.
John Rone, Claire Orman in "Lunch Hour."
  • John Rone, Claire Orman in "Lunch Hour."

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

"A Song For Coretta" Sounds Good But the Timing's Off

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 2:41 PM

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At first I blamed the material. And then it hit me: Pearl Cleage’s odd little one act may end with, “This Little Light of Mine,” but A Song For Coretta is a funeral dirge. It presents as the intertwining stories of women standing in line, patiently waiting to pay their last respects to Civil Rights icon, Coretta Scott King. It’s really the allegorical story of voices that have forgotten how to harmonize and of five individual fingers that have forgotten how to make a fist.

For starters, A Song for Coretta isn’t a musical. It’s a play about generation gaps. We meet a proper, older matriarch, full of bootstraps stories, proud to have participated in Civil Rights events with her parents and satisfied with how far her generation has come. King died in 2006, so millennial bashing wasn’t a thing yet, obvs. But the elder is quick to scold anybody younger and ungrateful enough to complain about anything. We're also introduced to a free-thinking artist and Hurricane Katrina survivor; an ambitious reporter; and a younger, directionless woman from the neighborhood, who’s easy to dismiss but almost impossible to refute.

The secret gag is that this show has very little to do with Coretta Scott King or her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s not about the movement and what’s been won or what’s yet to be achieved. It’s about missing pieces. Things like a common purpose and leaders binding everybody together like glue.

A lot’s changed since 2006. Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the Oval Office, riding in on a wave of hope and change. He’s since been replaced by the overtly racist Donald Trump. In this time the spirit of protest has rekindled and movements like Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15, and #TakeEmDown901, have restored at least some  lost momentum. That spirit was just beginning to smolder again to the moment of King's death, as America was slid into an era of endless war and rapidly expanding income equality. Long story short: There may be plenty left to learn and laugh over in Cleage’s script, but some if its complaints ring at least a little less true today than they might have, even a few years ago. That’s no knock, but something to consider in production design.

Speaking of ... Hattiloo’s flat, storybook set is a good-looking charmer, but maybe too much. It’s a shame, at any rate, that so very little of the designed space is ever really used by the actors. And even two weeks into the run, the show’s cast seemed less than confident with blocking and lines. Even the nicest individual performances were incomplete and the relationships never clicked. A Song For Coretta might clip along with all the quirk of an absurdist farce, but in this environment, it limps forward, wounded by an absence of crispness and clarity.

I didn’t think I liked A Song for Coretta till I sat down and wrestled with it for a while. But the more I struggled the more I came to regard it as a special little gem searching for the right setting and a whole lot of polish. Hattiloo solved one of these wants, but not the other. 

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Theatre Memphis Reminds Us, "It's a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird."

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 10:43 AM

To Kill a Mockingbird, Theatre Memphis - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Theatre Memphis
Theater Memphis’ production of To Kill a Mockingbird is handsome thing, lovingly lit, and costumed. It faithfully follows the story told in Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 novel and director Kevin Cochran’s production team has treated it like a classic. But the cast, while fully committed, is sometimes tragically uneven. Pacing was nonexistent and on opening night tensions never built. I felt particularly bad for young actors whose honest work needed to be slowed down or amplified for clarity’s sake.

When Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s messy early draft and/or sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was published (for better or worse) in 2015, fans were horrified to discover that Lee’s unforgettable character Atticus Finch was, in addition to being a perfect dad, first rate attorney and model citizen, was also racist and the kind of person who might attend a Klan meeting. The outrage was silly because of course he was! Even for a progressive Southern lawyer in 1935, it would be far stranger if he wasn’t. And for all of Atticus's apparent wisdom, you can see the darker biases, even in the original’s most famous passages — written, as they were, when the idea of race was still concrete, and understood to be a catalyst preceding racism, not an artificial distinction created and preserved by white supremacy.

“The truth is this: Some Negroes lie,” Atticus says. “Some Negroes are immoral. Some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white.” In spite of what you might assume from these lines, he’s defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of raping a white woman. “This is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men,” Atticus concludes, putting forward the good Christian notion that all men are flawed while enshrining a fundamentally racist paradigm and the question it turns on: “Is this the good kind or the bad kind?”

In polarized times, To Kill a Mockingbird might appeal to a sense of nostalgia for some mythical age when men of principle argued in good faith, and even against their own nature or political ideology. A time when stand-up guys like Atticus Finch at least tried to raise their children to be better than themselves. But the applause lines in Atticus’s big address to the jury — and our proxy jury, the audience — must be understood as naive and as much a part of the white biased system as Tom Robinson's accusers. So,as good a man as Atticus may be, absent some critical perspective it’s hard to valorize his best intentions or frame his moral victory as an act of pure heroism, without also affirming and valorizing its racist architecture.

The actor cast as Atticus is Bob Arnold. He has been a generous, and under-appreciated contributor to Memphis’s performing arts scene. Before anybody had heard the word “podcast,” he was the indefatigable driving force behind Chatterbox Audio Theater, an audio performance troupe that brought area talent, and a mix of classic and original stories right into our earphones by way of digital broadcast and occasional partnerships with WKNO radio. It’s an understatement to say I’m a fan of the man and his work. That being said, I can’t say much good about this performance.

With his soothing, radio-ready baritone, Arnold narrates the role of Atticus more than he inhabits it. He brings more life to act two when the story shifts toward courtroom drama, but barely. Arnold trudges through the role with perfect diction, and loads of heart but little sense of urgency, place, or purpose.
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Following on a streak of great work in shows like All Saints in the Old Colony and The Flick, John Maness doesn’t disappoint as classic yokel, Bob Ewell. Despite the character’s lack of dental hygiene and grooming, there’s not a hair out of place in Maness’s performance. As his daughter Mayella, Hailey Townsend is even better. It's horrible stuff but great news for a stiff production that's never able to work up the momentum or sense of urgency it needs. It’s also a problem.

White America still struggles to understand the racism it creates and sustains apart from classist signifiers like trailer park teeth and overtly racist behaviors like those embodied by Lee's Ewell family. To Kill a Mockingbird, being of its time, reinforces a false dichotomy by making Bob Ewell and Atticus adversaries but not two sides of the same white supremacist narrative.

The best moments in this To Kill a Mockingbird still arrive courtesy of Maness and Townsend and a few other secondary roles, with strong character turns by JoLynn Palmer, Mario Hoyle, and Annie Freres.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. But as much as it may have meant to book lovers and justice-loving progressives in the 20th Century, it’s very much a product of that century and ultimately a story of white struggle and sentimentality written inside a culture of supremacy. It’s not the boldest choice for Theatre Memphis, and honestly, maybe even a little tone deaf for the place we live and this particular moment in time.

In 98 years Theatre Memphis has hired so few African Americans to direct its main stage subscription shows, you can count them all on one hand with fingers left over. Even when producing August Wilson, a playwright who asked theaters to find black directors for his work — White directors. To Kill a Mockingbird would have been as good a place as any to start growing that embarrassing number. No matter whose story it may be, ultimately, I can’t imagine we’d have gotten a show where the black life at stake — and the life eventually lost — wouldn't be pushed more to the center, and made to matter at least as much as a white attorney’s social and moral struggles or his young daughter’s disillusionment.

This show was chosen by the wonderful John Rone, and he was supposed to direct it before becoming unavailable. So I know Theatre Memphis's To Kill a Mockingbird didn't play out as intended. As a loving tribute, it may serve some completely separate community function that's only tangentially related to the show's content. But the content needs serious attention.   

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Eternity on Stage: Tuck Everlasting is Lush & Lovely

Posted By on Tue, Jan 22, 2019 at 3:34 PM

Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square
Tuck Everlasting's never going to be my cup of magical realism, but I've got to admit, it's an awfully pretty thing. And it's also nice to see a story about regular people struggling with the ups and downs of eternal life for a change instead of another bunch of hot vampires. Here's how it all plays out: A long time ago every member of the Tuck family drank from a hidden forest spring and became immortal, but each one is forever stuck with all the tropes of their frozen age. The parents manage middle-aged ruts and middle-aged spread and snoring marital monotony. Lost love burns like it only can in youth. Teen angst and pimples also last forever. Neighbors also tend to notice when you never age, so be careful what you wish for, and all that.

Life gets even harder if you're essentially decent folk who  know what could happen if people who aren't decent folk ever get their hands on a spring of eternal life. People like the mysterious Man in Yellow who blows into town with the carnival, chasing rumors of magic and mystery. So what's an unkillable clan to do when a charming young runaway like Winnie Foster stumbles into the family's life and onto its secrets? 

Tuck Everlasting is too much like Playhouse on the Square's favorite and most frequently revived show, Peter Pan — with actor Curtis C's flamboyantly malevolent Man in Yellow filling in for Pan's flamboyantly sinister Captain Hook. Both musicals tell the story of strong young women who ultimately reject immortality and a magical life outside of time and decay. Only Tuck abandons all of Pan's high flying fairy mayhem, swashbuckling pirates, and general sense of deviltry for mundane concerns and long conversations about the meaning of life and death, with lyrical dance passages illustrating the same.

Is Tuck Everlasting magical enough to make a good fairy tale? Maybe not. Nobody flies or spins flax into gold. A deep sincerity undercuts the story's Twilight Zone-like ironies, and conflicts never test the play's subjects enough to pass for allegory. The musical's songs are almost instantly forgettable, and the book's more sweet than convincing. But director Dave Landis has assembled a  terrific cast and his design team has outdone themselves, building a world of green parsley stalk trees and purple "magic hour" skies, where a big round sun is eternally stuck in the rising position. Or the setting position, hard to say. 
Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square
Gia Welch's voice has never sounded as rich or full or uniquely hers as it does in this show. If you've read previous previous reviews of the young artist, you'll know that's no small compliment. Even though she's a little too old to convincingly pass for an 11-year-old, her performance as Winnie is never anything short of winning. Welch leads a tight, talented ensemble of local favorites, including Michael Gravois, Lorraine Cotton, and Kent Fleshman. Even if you don't emerge from the theater able to remember the words to any of Tuck's songs — a distinct possibility — these voices follow you home.

This is the part of the review where I remind readers that I'm not not the target audience for most family musicals, and Tuck Everlasting's no big exception. The show presents like a philosophical meditation on the meaning of life then opens and closes like a Hallmark card with no personal inscription. Thankfully, POTS' creative team has built a production so lush and lovely it's easy to watch and listen to even if you can't bring yourself to care about any of the characters or what they choose to do with their time, magic water, and pet toads. 

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Addicted to Capote? Cloud9 and Mark Chambers tell Tru Stories

Posted By on Tue, Jan 15, 2019 at 1:37 PM

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Things are seldom about the things they seem to be about. Take Tru, for example. This solo performance by the mighty and all-powerful Mark Chambers, would appear to be a dramatic portrait of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s author, Truman Capote, but it’s not really. While Capote is clearly the subject, this brief, intimate and fantly gonzo encounter, brought to us courtesy of Cloud9 Theatre, is a fully developed play about the slippery multifaceted nature of addiction.

Tru introduces us to a man keenly aware of expiration dates. He's planning a comeback built on weight loss, plastic surgery, and fine hats to hide an expansive forehead where shaggy locks had hung. This is Capote at his lowest; he was more famous for being famous than for the extraordinary sentences he used to spin out of dust and memory and diamonds and horror. Now he’s just a drunk and an A-list gossip who’s been delisted for telling tales and naming (a few) names.

Tru’s still giving Tiffany for Christmas, but he’s getting flowers in aluminum buckets. Hard candy for a naughty boy who’s grown accustomed to spending his nights at Studio 54 and his days with folks able to produce $50-million, “ready money.” He knows there’s meaning here, but chooses to drink it away, chasing booze with pot and pills.

The real addiction, though, is celebrity. It’s no good for Capote the writer and artist , but he craves it. He wants it for himself and he wants to be near it. In Tru, celebrity is the lens through which Capote’s addictions are most clearly viewed. If the play’s primary struggle isn’t about this, transcending the tropes of Capote’s own fame, what’s left is mere tribute artistry. 
Ann Marie Hall (seated) and Mark Chambers in The Mystery of Irma Vep
  • Ann Marie Hall (seated) and Mark Chambers in The Mystery of Irma Vep

Thankfully, Mark Chambers is every inch the actor I remember from our overlapping time in Memphis. He is no mere mimic. He’s revived this show four times now, and it's evident in this revival at The Evergreen Theatre, that he is very comfortable in Capote’s uncomfortable skin. Tru could still stand fine tuning to tease out narrative threads, connect the dots of conflict and addiction, and make it drama-forward, but all the raw material is all there, and hardly insufficient.

Chambers, who longtime Memphis theater fans may remember as the sweet transvestite in two separate Playhouse on the Square productions of The Rocky Horror Show, is a professional member of Actor’s Equity. But it’s probably more important to point out that Cloud9 is community theater. I don’t say that to trigger memories of Waiting for Guffman, but as a reminder that this, and other companies exist to correct for institutional deficiencies. Cloud9, for example, helps to account for the limited number of great roles available to older actors in Memphis. That’s exactly how community theater should work and Chambers has often described Tru as “a good show for this time in [his] life.” I don’t disagree and won’t complain a bit about how Cloud9 does its thing, but as I watched Chambers do his thing, I kept thinking there would be a lot more great roles available to older actors if more people thought Dr. Frank-N-Furter would still be a good part for him, “at this time in life.”

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

New Comedy Takes Us "Back When Mike Was Kate."

Posted By on Wed, Jan 9, 2019 at 3:07 PM

Astrid and Kate
  • Astrid and Kate
There's a specific Chicago train platform where Howard goes to connect with his past. That's were he meets Mike and, after first mistaking him for a panhandler, it's where Howard learns that this bearded transit stop vagrant is the same person who broke his heart four years ago. Only back then Mike was a woman named Kate.

Filled with questions, Howard becomes immediately desperate to rekindle romance where there was never more than friendship in the first place. It's awkward for a number of reasons, but primarily, because he's theoretically cis/hetero and already married to Astrid, an unsatisfied artist with a "stripper name" and a history of dancing her problems away. Howard's basically a nice, confused doof of a guy, who wants to make his fantasy crush work out for everybody without hurting anybody, or making things weird for the people close to him. He does both of the things he doesn't want to do pretty quickly.

How weird does it get, you ask? Aprons and fuzzy handcuffs weird.

Back When Mike Was Kate is a promising little play that might be better as a quirky little film with art direction bordering on OCD and a vintage indie rock soundtrack. Ben Kemper's script whips elements of mystery, suspense, coming of age, and farce into a kind of romantic comedy with easy charms that almost make up for stiff expository dialogue and plot points that test belief. Also, Astrid's not very likable, Howard is either clueless or selectively insensitive, and while Mike's presented as something of a pleasant cypher, Kate's so cool and complete it's hard to imagine why he might want to enter/re-enter these evidently unhappy lives. 
Howard and Kate
  • Howard and Kate

In keeping with past POTS@TheWorks premieres, Back When Mike Was Kate contains top notch  performances by a tight ensemble comprised of Joshua LaShomb (Mike), David Hammons (Howard), Brooke Papritz (Astrid), and Ronnie Karimnia (Cameron the transit guy), with a terrific performance by R. Franklin Koch,* whose Kate is the grounded "old soul" tying the whole play together.

Mike/Kate may be the titular character but Howard and Astrid are the play's dueling protagonists. It may even be Astrid's play, ultimately, though she's also the least developed among principle characters. 

Director Claire Rutkauskas' production doesn't draw hard lines between present action and things that happened four years ago. It's only a short temporal span, sure, but a disproportionately big leap forward in terms of where all the characters are in life. This huge juxtaposition of time-versus-change brings a faintly surreal and potentially lovely edge, like something by Sarah Ruhl, minus the flights of poetry. These possibilities are unfortunately never rigorously explored in a show that tidies up and refines threads that might want to be woolly and teased out.

Following deliberately provocative scripts like Crib, extraordinary productions like All Saints in the Old Colony, and well-crafted plays like Evan Linder's Byhalia, Mississippi, this latest winner of Playhouse on the Square's New Works@TheWorks series feels a little undercooked. It knows where it wants to go, but not always what it wants to say or how to accomplish its goals believably. New works are often still works in progress — even after the "world premiere." It could be that the script remains a draft or two away from done or maybe there were some finer points glossed over in this finely acted but often chilly production. Maybe it just needs enough warmth to mistake for heat. Either way, it's nice when playwrights find new wrinkles in old storylines, and nicer still that POTS is identifying nifty new scripts with potential to grow and go places outside the 901.

And I do hope this romcom makes it to celluloid eventually, where it can build past relationships out of something other than words and recollection.
Mike
  • Mike
*UPDATE: R. Franklin Koch was originally identified as Rebekka Koch per the cast list on the Playhouse on the Square website. Intermission Impossible sincerely regrets the error. 

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Quark Theatre Announces New Season, New Nonprofit Status

Posted By on Tue, Jan 8, 2019 at 11:54 AM

Sims v the Detective in Quark's "The Nether"
  • Sims v the Detective in Quark's "The Nether"
In only a few short seasons, Quark Theatre has built a reputation for producing thoughtfully staged work that's conceptually ambitious, intellectually challenging, and technically do-able: little plays full of big ideas. Keeping with the Quark tradition, Season Four is exploring themes like the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning of meaning, and what all that means. It marks the company's fifth year of making theater together, and its first as a nonprofit.

September, 2019 
WAKEY, WAKEY by Will Eno

Wakey, Wakey is a funny, sad, tragic, comic examination of life and the leaving of it. In the first line of the show, GUY, the protagonist, seems to rouse from a nap and says “Is it now? I thought I had more time.”

And then we’re off to an examination of GUY’s life as he comes to the end of it. But it’s not a wake we’ve come to attend, but rather a celebration of GUY’s life, and OUR lives, too. A funny, thoughtful, at times tearful examination of what it means to be human.

The New York Times called “A glowingly dark, profoundly moving new play.”

March, 2020
A NUMBER by Caryl Churchill

When an adult son confronts his father about the reality behind his existence and identity, a dark world of truths, half-truths and lies is exposed...and nothing will ever be the same. The son learns he is but one of a number of clones, each with his own distinct personality and life. When multiple versions of a person exist, how can he be sure the love of his father is real?

The New York Times called it “A gripping dramatic consideration of what happens to autonomous identity in a world where people can be cloned.”

Quark's next show is Radiant Vermin. The comedy by Philip Ridley opens March 15th. 
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Friday, November 30, 2018

A Philosophy of Magic: Memphis’s Newest Conjuror Has a Mission

A Conversation With Lawrence Hass

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2018 at 8:53 AM

Lawrence Hass
  • Lawrence Hass
"Let me tell you, it almost never goes up the sleeve." Veteran educator and practicing sleight-of-hand artist Lawrence Hass drops some information on the audience in a TEDx talk. The PhD and former professor is working toward a philosophical understanding of stage magic. He wonders how magic performance can be so ancient and universal without having ever been seriously addressed by Western philosophy.

Hass was professor of humanities at Austin College before moving to Memphis with his wife, Rhodes College President Dr. Marjorie Hass. In addition to academic duties, he's been known to teach magic to magicians at Jeff McBride's Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas. In his TED talk, he works toward a sturdy definition that separates magic from the the idea of "tricks." He asks if techniques developed by magicians are somehow more manipulative, deceptive, or dishonest than any other kind of art or stagecraft. Magic, he ultimately determines, is "The artful performance of impossible things that generates energy, delight, and wonder."

For Hass, who makes his Memphis debut at Beth Sholom Synagogue Saturday, December 1st, the live performance of stage magic constitutes a message of hope and transcendence. "As we live our lives, we constantly confront limits," he says, listing the usual suspects: sickness, loss, death, and transition —  things we want but can't have, and things we wish were true but aren't.

Then performers like Harry Houdini come along and show us we can escape. Illusionists like David Copperfield defy gravity and levitate. Magicians get their audience thinking big while working on a smaller scale. Hass is a prestidigitator, a card manipulator, and a conjurer, able to bring inanimate objects to life in his hand.

Impossible, you say? That's the point. "When everybody wins in the world, that's real magic," Hass concludes, after one of his online card tricks. It's a good line. It also seems to be a reasonable summation of this newly minted Memphian's performance philosophy.

Intermission Impossible: Memphis is still relatively new for you. How are you adjusting?

Lawrence Hass: We really love it. We came to Memphis because Marjorie was hired as the new president at Rhodes College. We came in June of 2017. Since then we've really settled in — both into Memphis, the larger community, and also the Rhodes College Community. We've been very warmly welcomed and just love the city. There's so much energy and culture and art. Memphis is on the rise, and we're really happy to be a part of it.
I was surprised to discover you didn’t take up magic until you were an adult with a PhD. And children of your own. There’s so much manipulation— so much manual dexterity required. I think of it like violin: Most of the folks who practice magic started training when they were very young.

That question’s very perceptive actually. You understand there's this whole physical level to magic. And it has to work at a very high level. I sometimes think of myself, as being like an athlete, or a musician in terms of, there's all this body work going on. And you have to stay after it pretty much every day. So when I came to magic, I was 34 years old. That's older than most people, as you say.
I learned over time that, I think I have uncommon coordination. At first I had no perception of it. But as I started teaching magic to others, I realized that I could very intuitively and quickly do things with my hands that other people ... they just didn't have the same facility for. The other part of it, I was a musician back in the 1970s. I played guitar and piano, so obviously that was part of the picture too. I understood practice and rehearsal. Also, I came to magic as a philosopher. I studied art and aesthetics. So already, I was ahead of the game. I had the dedication and discipline to really keep after it, and I also had a vision, or sense of what artistry was. From the very beginning I wanted my magic not to be commonplace, but artistic.

In the TEDx you're obviously connecting your ideas with narrative. But I also saw a lot of storytelling in your online videos. Is this exclusive to teaching magic or teaching people about magic, or is storytelling a regular part of the act?

It's a part of the act. Some magicians that we see, it's all about the props. Here's the cup and here's the ball and now the ball is gone from the cup, and so on and so on. And I find that tedious. It's all purely visual and, “Fooled you! Made you look!” From the very beginning I wanted my magic to be about things that matter to people. In the show I’ll be performing Saturday night, I will have two “Once Upon a Time” kinds of stories that are Illustrated with magic. But even when it’s not about stories, what I do hopefully inspires or affirms the ways in which everyone is a magician.


When I watched your TEDx, I was reminded of directing Ubu Roi at Rhodes several years ago, which is an unrealistic piece. I bring it up because students would sometimes fall into traps of “naturalism” and I’d find myself asking, “Why lie to the audience? Do you really think they believe you are this character? That this crazy stuff is really happening?" The challenge to forego pretense gave actors access to problem-solving tools they didn’t have before. And one of your main points is all about breaking down pretense — magic isn’t about lying to the audience, or tricking them — It's not suspending disbelief, but engaging imagination. I love this, obviously.

One of the things that hangs up contemporary magic is the notion that it's about tricking people or fooling them.

Theater too, I think.

This is a very old, long association about magic, often from religious authorities and philosophical authorities who were trying to denigrate magic. When we shift to the recognition that magic is a theatrical art, and is engaged in creating astonishment, not lying to people or tricking them, everything about this changes. Because just like the actor isn't lying to people, the magician isn't either. What we're doing is using techniques to create an entire experience — a theatrical experience. I think what happens, both magicians and non-magicians confuse the con artist with the theatrical artist. So, when I teach magicians, this is one of the things I say: ‘You are a theater artist, not a con artist. If you want to be a con artist go out and play three card Monte in the street. But if you want to perform theatrical acts of magic, you need the skills that come along with the theater.’

Right. And obviously performers like Harry Anderson, who built so much of his act around classic geek shows and cons, instinctively get this.

Yes. The 'street thing' is the character. And Harry was so smart about that. Penn and Teller are the same way. Their show is about the con games and the fun of the con. But I happen to know Penn and Teller, and they are very smart, dedicated theatrical artists. That's just part of their presentation. I admire it greatly. My presentation is about helping people connect with magic as an affirmation.

Was that approach something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning, or was it something that evolved as magic came into contact with your other life in philosophy.

I believe the answer is, as a philosopher, I was always concerned with truth-seeking. I didn't always get there But I was always concerned with revealing more or less true things about the world and how we might live in it. So I never would have gone into magic if it was all about lying to people to take advantage of them. I have zero interest in that. But once I understood that magic wasn't about truth or lying, it was about creating a rich theatrical experience, then I realized those theatrical experiences could be inspirational and affirmational rather than, ‘made you look!’ And I realized that 'made you look,' aspect of it, which some magicians do, was really not essential to magic. It was a choice they made. So this grew out of my deep commitments as a philosopher. And just like Harry Anderson performed as a con artist, I performed as the philosopher magician. So it's a very different show from what other people do, because there really is no other philosopher magician.

I was also surprised by your discussion that, as ancient and universal as stage magic is, it's been so widely ignored by philosophy and academics.

It's such a fascinating part of the story. When you study the history of magic and how we got into this place where there is no academic department of magic, anywhere in the world, that is itself a mystery. Because, as you say, magic is an ancient and universal art form. It's very primordial in our psychology to conceal things — to make them hide and make them appear. Every infant plays peek-a-boo. Magic is primordial and yet somehow, it's absent. The story of that, I believe, is the story of authorities not liking the energy and delight, and astonishment that magic creates. Religious authorities, scientific authorities, philosophical authorities, political authorities ... and when we look back through the history all the way back to the Greeks, and even earlier than the Greeks, you can see magicians are distrusted. Magicians are held out as ‘the other,’ or the thing we don't want to be. There are some unbelievable tracts in the history of religion, and the history of science, and history of philosophy, that are polemics against magic. So the modern-day magician has a lot of historical baggage to overcome, to help people appreciate this primordial art form. I'll be very honest, it's part of my vision. It’s part of why I do what I do. Because magic — It's not just fine, it's great. It's energy. It’s delight and wonder.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Katori Hall Strip Club Drama To Begin Production

Posted By on Wed, Nov 28, 2018 at 3:36 PM

Katori Hall
  • Katori Hall
P-Valley, a Starz series adapted from Memphis playwright Katori Hall's strip club drama Pussy Valley, has been ordered to series, Variety reports. 

Like the script it's based on, P-Valley tells the story of a rural Mississippi strip joint, the girls who work there, the customers who visit, and Uncle Clifford, a trans man connected to the club. Hall will serve as showrunner.

Hall who served briefly as artistic director for Memphis' Hattiloo Theatre, was recognized as a writer of note in 2009, when her play, The Mountaintop, won an Olivier award. She's also the author of Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Pussy Valley was originally produced by Mixed Blood theater in Minneapolis in 2015. It has been in development as a Starz series since 2016. A Memphis area talent search was conducted in July.

Variety describes P-Valley.

It tells the story of a little-strip-club-that-could and the characters who come through its doors—the hopeful, the lost, the broken, the ballers, the beautiful, and the damned. It will star Brandee Evans as Mercedes and Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford. Shannon Thornton and J. Alphonse Nicholson will appear as series regulars.

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Can You Spell Fun? Theatre Memphis Hosts a Lively Bee

Posted By on Thu, Nov 8, 2018 at 10:29 AM

putnam_county_spelling_bee.avatar.jpg
The midterm elections are over — hooray! But nobody's catching a break from our national shit-show. The race for 2020 is on like Fox News in a waiting room! Jeff Sessions is out as Attorney General! The Constitutional Crisis Clock is now set at one minute 'til midnight. Everything only gets worse. Wouldn't you like to get away? Maybe spend some time in a place a little more like Norman Rockwell's America? Only funny?


I've seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee too many times. The jokes shouldn't work. But they do. The Tony-winning one-act combines all the elements of a traditional musical with all the unexpected surprises of improvisation and audience participation. It's the rare show that can be exactly the same from night to night while providing a completely different user experience from audience to audience

The musical's characters represent a broad spectrum of adolescent privilege and insecurity. Chip's been told he's not so smart. Olive made friends with a dictionary because her parents were never there for her. Even perfect Miss Marcy Park who plays piano, twirls baton, speaks six whole languages, and spells like a champion is struggling with the personal cost of overachievement. Angst, acne, and unfortunate erections are on parade. It's only a fraction of the freaky, geeky goodness packed into one of the most purely entertaining musical comedies of the past two decades.

Winners all. - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • Winners all.
Bee's an actor-driven show. It's the kind of thing a solid company of players could do well with almost no physical resources. But that's not how Theatre Memphis rolls. It's certainly not how director Cecelia Wingate (usually) rolls. This one's a monster of detail with Jack Yates' immersive set dropping audiences on the sidelines in a school gym so convincing you can practically smell the tube socks. Lighting designer Mandy Heath skillfully, and unobtrusively illuminates a good, old, cutthroat American spelling bee. If you ever went to school, you know all these kids. And you know right away, there will be blood. And hugs. And juice boxes.

Something about this modest ensemble show always brings out the best in character actors. Theatre Memphis' production is no exception. Jenny Madden, Jimbo Lattimore, Jared Johnson,  Ryan Gilliam, Javier Peña, Nichol Pritchard, and Miranda Tonkin all give fun, first-rate performances. But there's a little something extra that happens between Kevar Maffitt's unapologetically weird William Barfee and Jenny Wilson's nearly spectral take on poor Olive Ostrovsky, who seems to have fled some awful story narrated by Lemony Snicket. He's over-the-top. She's just barely there. Together they're perfect.       

Did I mention at any point that everything is awful? Because that's not correct. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is anything but awful. If anything, it's an antidote for awful. While you're watching it, anyway.
  

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Nightmare Before Christmas: Tennessee Shakespeare Closes Macbeth

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2018 at 2:28 PM

Michael Khanlarian (Banquo), Paul Kiernan (Macbeth), and the Witches. Through Nov. 4. - TENNESSEE SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
  • Tennessee Shakespeare Company
  • Michael Khanlarian (Banquo), Paul Kiernan (Macbeth), and the Witches. Through Nov. 4.
Hard as it may seem to believe, winter is coming. It won't be long before area playhouses roll out stock scenery and turn their attention to holiday favorites. Theatre Memphis opens The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee this weekend. And there are still a few more opportunities to catch Agatha Christie's enduring mystery The Mousetrap at Germantown Community Theatre. But if there's anybody out there who's not quite ready to put Halloween away just yet,Tennessee Shakespeare Company performs Macbeth through November 4th.

Shakespeare's witchy meditation on ambition and evil is directed by TSC's founder Dan McCleary and performed by a company of nine actors. How dark do things get? Here's what McCleary had to say via the TSC website:

“The witches are our masked Chorus, and a sacrifice is offered to cleanse a world of crimes against humanity. The sacrifice is a man who Shakespeare clearly defines as noble, generous, un-ambitious, indecisive, overly kind, incapable of lying with skill, morally incapable of imagining his own corruption or wrong-doing, courageous, patriotic, regretful, and a good husband and friend. Macbeth is the best of us. What is horrific is that we might be able to explain how he becomes the very worst of us.”
 

Very scary.

Thursday night's performance is Free Will Kids night. That means up to 4 kids (17 or under) are admitted with one paid adult ticket. 

Tennessee Shakespeare follows Macbeth with a  large cast production of  As You Like It Nov. 29-Dec. 6

General Admission tickets are $39. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mixology: Ballet Memphis gets Unapologetic

Posted By on Tue, Oct 30, 2018 at 12:24 PM

bm_1819_fallmix.png
If you savor local flavor, Memphis music and musicians are lovingly entwined with the dance works in Ballet Memphis’ Fall Mix that continues through this weekend.

Every October, Ballet Memphis presents a series of new, or newish, works that often give the young dancers and sometimes new choreographers a chance to do contemporary and sometimes experimental movement. Steven McMahon, the company’s associate artistic director, says Fall Mix re-launches The Memphis Project, an off-and-on series that puts the focus on the creative and cultural soul of the city.

The effort is a triumph of programming and performance. The opening work is something of an epic oldie, Trey Mcintyre’s “Memphis Suite,” reworked from its debut 20 years ago. The dances are song-length short stories soaked in Memphis sauce and with a soundtrack of classic tunes and local performers starting with Elvis, and moving through Ike Turner, Al Green, The Staples Singers, Roscoe Gordon, Rufus Thomas, B.B. King, Pat Hare, and John Lee Hooker.

The next piece by dynamo Alia Kache is “Unrest,” and is, fittingly, overlaid by the music of Memphis singer/songwriter Julien Baker from her “Turn Out the Lights” album. Baker is a poet of unrest and Kache’s choreography, dark and constrained at first, finds a fascinating deeper expression throughout.

McMahon choreographed the final piece, “Unapologetic,” in collaboration with Unapologetic LLC, the innovative record label and brand that travels the sonic edge while treasuring enough of the traditional to keep you guessing. Headed by record producer IMAKEMADBEATS, the group — Cameron Bethany, Kid Maestro, C Major, PreauXX, and Aaron James — is at the back of the stage, interacting with the dancers. The ballet, like the music, endeavors to take some risks and give the spirit of Memphis some complex, energizing expression.

Fall Mix is a thrilling program grounded in Memphis history and Memphis today, and celebrating the bounty of creativity in the city.

It's performed at Ballet Memphis, 2144 Madison. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Nov. 1 (with a spark discussion beforehand), 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 8 p.m. Nov. 3, and 2 p.m. Nov. 4. Tickets are $25 evenings / $15 matinees. Go to balletmemphis.org or call 901-737-7322.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Memphis Actor/Comedian Harold Foxx Makes Off-Broadway Debut

Posted By on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 5:01 PM

Hanging with Harold Foxx - OUR AWESOME SERVER
  • Our awesome server
  • Hanging with Harold Foxx
The Old Testament character Job had his share of problems. He lost his home, his livelihood, his health, and his family. Craig Lucas' play I Was Most Alive With You, which recently took its last bows at Playwright's Horizons, may borrow heavily from the troubling Bible story, but none of that tragedy's rubbed off on Harold Foxx. The Memphis-born actor may have made his Off Broadway debut in Lucas' Job-inspired play, but he looks like a man on top of the world. Sitting in the Buffalo Wild Wings on Manhattan's W. 47th ("the one close to Playwright's Horizons"), Foxx' broad face practically glows with confidence.

"Did you see my New York Times spread," he asks by typing the words out on his phone and holding it up for me to see. I indicate that I have and tell him it looked great. He then types out a message saying he's waiting to see if the attention results in more work. If it does, he'll get excited about it.

Foxx is realistic about life as a working actor. He grew up in Orange Mound and graduated from White Station where he played football and made citywide headlines. Foxx is completely deaf. He's mostly silent. He's currently a professional actor, who lives in Los Angeles where he studies improv comedy with the Groundlings and auditions as often as possible. He doesn't think a Netflix special is out of the question. There's no reason to believe he won't get a shot at being in the next Black Panther movie. Nothing's for sure, but Foxx believes. He points to his personal inspiration, the deaf actor C.J. Jones who recently made his film debut in Edgar Wright's Baby Driver.

"My agent's good," he types.

Harold Foxx and Craig Lucas - COURTESY OF HAROLD FOXX
  • Courtesy of Harold Foxx
  • Harold Foxx and Craig Lucas
Foxx is as expressive as any silent film star. Every wrinkled brow or nostril flare writes a whole new story on his face. He describes this expressiveness as an artifact — something that just happens when you're in the deaf community. But there's precision to every eye-roll or pursing of the lips. There's timing, and it's good. You don't always need to read ASL to get the gist of his messaging. Critics noted his skills in I Was Most Alive With You, where the play's main speaking characters are mirrored by a shadow cast who perform a somewhat modified version of the show in ASL.

I caught up with Foxx in Manhattan, during the last week of his run at Playwright's Horizons. We "talked" about many things over wings, but did our official Q&A in a typed format. Here's a lightly edited version of that conversation.

Memphis Flyer: Wondering about life in Memphis. Did you know you wanted to act and do comedy when you were still living there?

Harold Foxx: Born and raised in Memphis. Native of Orange Mound. It’s funny how my comedy starts. Every morning the school bus picked me up. It was sorta of long ride. Then one day all of us kids on the bus just start to making jokes. From there I started doing comedy storytelling. That was in elementary school. And everybody laughs. Then, after school, when the bus takes us back home, everybody asked me for another comedy storytelling. And I start doing it again. Then somehow it became daily on the school bus, on the way to school and after school. Only difference is that I didn’t get paid that time. Since then, everybody sees my talents. Not only in comedy, but in acting too. Even my teachers in elementary school got me in school talent shows for dance and sign music. Plus, when I was in elementary school, the national theatre for the deaf came to my school and performed for us and I really looked up to them. Not only that. My former theater teacher Rita Grivich, who runs Deaf Drama & Theatre at White Station, always had a show. And when I was young, I'd always go there and watch the older kids perform. And I knew it would happen for me someday and glad that I was part of it.

MF: Memphis only has limited opportunities for actors, and the comedy scene has only begun to mature in the last few years. Guessing Paulette Reagan was a theater teacher at White Station? Were there many opportunities to experience and participate in comedy or theater?

Yes, Paulette Reagan and Rita Grivich were my theater teachers at White Station. Honest with you, I’m thankful to have had them as my teachers at White Station. When I was there, I was heavily involved in theater and it actually helps. It applies to what I’m doing today as an actor.

MF: When did you decide on comedy and acting as a career? And was there an obvious path for deaf performers or did you have to make your own?

Actually with all my experience and background as an actor from White Station High school under Paulette Reagan and Rita Grivich, they taught me a lot on what it takes to be an actor. When I graduated from White Station in 1999, I went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.,  where I graduated and also played college football there. Everybody expected me to join the theater at Gallaudet University but I didn’t get involved in theater productions. I focused on football. But I took a couple of theater courses at Gallaudet. So, when I graduated, I started to work as a football coach, personal trainer, and physical education teacher. Somehow my acting passion hits me again one day and I started doing some comedy sketches on Vine apps. It changed my whole life. Now I’m doing acting/comedy as a career, full time. Most of all I started this out on my own from looking up to my role model like CJ Jones, John Maucere, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, etc..
Past show flyer
  • Past show flyer
MF: I love silent film, and your comedy reel was a joy to watch because it has the expressiveness of great silent comedy. Funny enough to transcend any biases hearing audiences might have. Curious as to which actors and comics might have inspired you?

I started on Vine Apps. Of course, as deaf person, I can’t hear a sound or music. Most of my sketches were based on body language and physical comedy so it can be accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. It started similar to silent film — like my favorite comic who did all amazing in silent film, Charlie Chaplin. Then I started my internship at DPAN.TV (Deaf Professional Arts Network) where I learned to make better quality work — script, film, edit. Plus, they have a sound engineer who installs all sounds and music. My comedy video went to a whole different level. That’s when I started getting recognized for my work and getting opportunities in acting and comedy.

MF: How did you land the role in I Was Most Alive With You? And was working on it like anything you’ve done before? Looking at the behind-the-scenes videos, the process looks like it must have been unique and difficult.

Yes. It’s different from what everybody's already seen from my work as a comedian or doing sketches on the video. I was in a production of Our Town last year by Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre. That’s where everybody recognized my work on stage in theater. I’m not only limited to comedy. I can do variety range of work as an actor. Actually how did I land the role? I was in Jamaica doing stand up comedy and then I got an email from my agent. They asked for my video audition, but at that time I wasn’t really interested because I didn’t want to move to NYC. I’m still new in LA. Then one friend convinced me. Said, "It’s Off Broadway." And that’s a good start for my career. So I decide to do the video audition and I got offered the job. So, I’m thankful for this opportunity because I got to work with amazing talented of actors and actresses plus Craig Lucas and Tyne Rafaeli.

MF: Do you think the show’s accurate in its depiction of hearing impaired people, and culture?

We do both as English spoken and ASL, it’s a very heavy play and powerful at the same time and it’s very accessible to both audience.

MF: Has the run been rewarding? And is it difficult to put away as closing night approaches?

We had a very successful run, but at the same time we wish it could be extend more.

MF: Has the run of this show resulted in more opportunities, or is it back to the audition grind?

I’m hoping this production will get me more opportunities. I mean, it’s not easy as deaf actors/actresses because we don’t get a same opportunity as hearing actors/actresses. They might get an audition daily when we, as deaf actors and actresses, are probably lucky to get 2 or maybe 3 auditions a month. But for me, it’s all about hustling. Show your work out there and create your own work. That’s why I created a bunch of short comedy sketches. Now I’m writing my new stand up comedy material and working on a film script. Who knows, I might produce a feature film and act in it someday instead waiting for someone to offer me the opportunity. Always have your own work ready to go.


MF: I know you’ve been training with The Groundlings — which is great! But wondering what’s next, and if you have a preference for sketch/standup over other kinds of performance?


Right now I’m still in training and taking classes at the Groundlings. Sometimes I put it on hold if I get an opportunity like Off Broadway in NYC. But now my agent and I are working on something. Be aren’t sure yet. But for the Groundings, my training continues. Who knows? Maybe one day I will end up on SNL or Comedy Central.

MF: Do you ever make it back to Memphis? What’s the best way for folks back home to experience what you do?

I finally made back to Memphis last summer after seven years. I did a homecoming standup show there and am hoping to do it again soon. Memphis is my hometown, roots, and where I started. One thing I would tell Memphis folks, if they are pursing what I’m doing, it starts with passion and hard work. Create your work and get some training with a top acting or improv class to develop some network.

Click here for more on Harold Foxx

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