South Africa's dismantling of the system of apartheid included the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a judiciary system established to bring restorative justice to the country. Many of the militants who fought to keep the country segregated came before the TRC to give testimony in return for amnesty consideration in civil and criminal prosecutions. In public opinion, Eugene de Kock, known as "Prime Evil," was among the most notorious of the criminals who chose to testify.

In a surprising turn of events, de Kock requested an audience with the widows of two black police officers who were killed by C10, the secretive police unit he commanded. Surprised by de Kock's frank testimony and request, TRC member Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed the commander about his experiences. A research professor specializing in trauma, memory, and forgiveness, she was interested in probing both de Kock's memory and his feelings towards apartheid, the trials, and his incarceration. Their conversations, recorded over a five-year period, formed the basis for her book A Human Being Died that Night, which Nicholas Wright adapted to create the play.

Jacqueline Thompson transforms herself into the captivating and persistent Gobodo-Madikizela. With a spot on accent and reactions that reflect her character's changing perspective, she remains curious and nonjudgmental -- a surprise to both de Kock and the audience. She wants to know what happened under de Kock's leadership, how it made him feel, and, as importantly, why de Kock asked to speak with his victims' widows. There's an effortless empathy to Thompson's performance, ensuring we see the process and emotions Gobodo-Madikizela experienced. When she twitches with remembered pain, you wonder why she doesn't strike out. When she pointedly bites her tongue, you wonder where she finds the courage to continue. Thompson imbues every line with a sense of urgency and personal power, resisting the natural desire for retaliation with grace and refusing to be intimidated by de Kock. 

Christopher Harris is equally strong and filled with ambiguity as Eugene de Kock, easily moving from disturbing description to reflective thought. Though he is chained to his chair as well as locked behind bars, his mind is unencumbered. He casually describes his former reality in ways that seem at once callous and deeply convicted. Harris doesn't shy away from de Kock's ambiguities, making it clear that, despite his many crimes, he relied on an internal moral compass of sorts. This persistent, if flawed, morality leads de Kock to turn on his commanders and the resulting conversations are all the more fascinating for the apparent dichotomy, which Harris deftly conveys.

De Kock is inherently unsympathetic, but his intelligence and acknowledgement of his crimes is compelling, willing the audience to listen and asking us to suspend judgment without facts. In contrast, we expect Gobodo-Madikizela to be angry and accusatory, even vengeful, towards de Kock. Instead, Thompson fills her portrayal with genuine interest and a deep need for understanding over retribution. She truly seems to operate without a personal or political agenda.

Gobodo-Madikizela's story is presented in the form of a lecture with flashbacks that dramatize the conversations between her and the imprisoned de Kock.  Her lecture is enhanced with video projections, designed by Michael Dorsey, of scenes from South Africa. Some show the natural beauty of the country and its people, others remind us of the very real destruction and horror of apartheid. The video screen is actually a sliding wall, a part of Patrick Huber's effective set design that opens to reveal the visitors' room at the grey, colorless prison where de Kock is incarcerated.

Director Patrick Siler brings clear vision and a sense of purpose to the story, ensuring that each perspective is delivered with a smart, nonjudgmental touch. In light of recent history in a region that not so long ago felt the sting of racial disparity in very real and violent terms, it can be hard to be open to this story. Wright's script conveys historic and personal significance that reverberates without feeling preachy and Siler and the actors respond to spectacular effect. 

Unless we approach the lessons of history with a sense of shared humanity, we are doomed to repeat them. And perhaps the most important lesson we need to learn is that each of us, no matter our actions or motivations, are human beings first and foremost. Gobodo-Madikizela communicates this point in her poignant and moving book and Upstream Theater brings that story to life in fully connected performances that resonate with truth. Unsettling as it may be, A Human Being Died that Night, running through May 28, 2017, offers important insight into a tragic history in a fascinating, thought provoking show. 

 

 

Most fans of esteemed American playwright Tennessee Williams will quickly agree that his characters are among the most interesting aspects of his work. Unmistakably complex and often existing on the fringes of "acceptable society," they frequently feel more profoundly and see and understand much that is unseen by others. Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? pushes this idea with an interconnected narrative that blends the real and imagined in convincing fashion.

The primary story presents the three stages of woman: burgeoning sexuality; marriage and motherhood; and aging widow. There's a twist in the plot however, as Louise, the mother, is also a young widow. Louise is doing her best to maintain a proper household for herself and teen daughter Gloria, but it isn't always easy. Nora, their neighbor and a widow herself, tries to help the two as best she can, sharing food, gossip, and an interest in the spirit world with Louise. Still beautiful and in her prime, Louise nonetheless seems lost within herself and fundamentally stuck in meaningful repetition.

Both women long for the comfort of companionship that neither can provide for the other, and while Nora seems resigned to the idea that opportunity has passed her by, Louise clings to hope. The widows spend their evenings conjuring ghosts as Louise awaits the return of Mr. Merriwether, a handsome boarder that has captured her heart in desperate fashion. The two often compare notes regarding their spiritual visitors, apparitions that impart wisdom, poetry, and aesthetics with an air of authority even as they amiably question why they've been called forth. 

Louise does her best to control her daughter's need for attention, particularly from young men, but a part of her aches for that same touch. Her nerves seem frayed, but she carefully keeps up appearances as she waits for the return of her suitor. Her daughter, filled with hormones and a thirst for something more, spends her free time at the library writing essays for class and flirting. While her mother pines for a love far away, Gloria is motivated by an infatuation with a particularly handsome, but shy, young man. Their enthusiasm cannot be contained as they fumble and explore their bodies in a sensual pas de deux. 

Julie Layton is emotionally compelling as Louise, almost feverish in the belief her love will soon return, but she moves with purpose and dogged certainty. Kelly Weber's Nora is a doting mother hen with a comically long list of spiritual visitors and Molly McCaskill is filled with blossoming sexuality and a hint of rebellion as daughter Gloria. The three are also the only characters in the play that we're certain are real. Jacob Flekier, as the handsome young man, speaks with a stutter but finds confidence in Gloria's attention. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey are delightfully varied as multiple visitors from the spirit world; and their appearance as the three crones is earthy, comic, and telling. The apparitions, delightful characters from history and mythology, add texture and interest to the play, though their purpose remains vague. The performance is punctuated by Jack Wild's banjo, an instrument that adds voice and emotional texture to the complex story.

The story winds its way through the rooms of the Stockton House, the setting for the play, and the spirit visits interweave with Gloria and the young man's sexual exploration in a way that feels like an artfully choreographed dance. Director Jef Awada creates an atmosphere where the real and conjured characters insect without distraction, giving the entire production an ethereal dreaminess. The approach underscores the layers of emotion and need inherent in the script, creating a satisfying visual and sensory tapestry without sacrificing the plot.

A sense of ambiguity and spiritual curiosity is ever-present in the entertaining Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?, as is the sensuality of young love. The story moves effortlessly through a world that is not fully corporeal, yet remains authentic as it examines the emotional impact of loss and longing. The play, running through May 21, 2017 as part of the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, presents characters that society would often prefer to ignore and imbues them with a fragile grace that begs our attention. Without judgment or criticism, Williams questions prevalent morality and asserts the very human and fundamental need for the love of a companion.

 

 

This glorious old play by Garson Kanin was the vehicle that launched Judy Holliday into stardom in 1946. She played that archetypical not-so-dumb blonde, Billie Dawn. (Her reprise of the role in the 1950 movie won her the first Golden Globe.) Born Yesterday was revived in 1989 with Madeline Kahn playing Billie, then again in 2011 with Nina Arianda in the role. (Miss Arianda had wowed the world the previous year in Venus in Fur.) 

So that's some pretty tough competition for anyone taking on the role of Billie. But Heather Sartin carries it off with the same level of sheer perfection that stunned me two summers ago when she played Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. Vocally it's as if she were channeling Judy Holliday; the Bronxy, bright, energetic voice of this former show-girl just grabs you and swings you along into the story.

The story takes place in a posh hotel suite in Washington, D.C. Harry Brock, a rough-and-tumble junkyard mogul and multi-millionaire, has come to Washington to make sure that the senator he has bought comes through on some de-regulation that will allow Harry to reap mammoth profits on all the scrap iron cluttering up Europe after the war. Of course Harry brings along his doxy, Billie. Now Billie ain't exactly the most refined of ladies, and in order to polish her up a little so they can mix with the appropriate powerful folks Harry hires a nearby journalist to give her lessons in "couth". Big mistake! Paul Verall, the journalist, helps Billie to understand the newspaper, then books, then art museums, then more books. And there's a dangerous chemistry between these two. Now Billie had always thought that after she had two mink coats there was nothing left to wish for; but now she becomes addicted to thinking! And she's smart! ("Smart"! That's the word that best defines Miss Sartin's whole performance.) 

But Miss Sartin is not alone on the stage. She is wonderfully supported (well, maybe "battled" would be a better word) by Joe O'Connor as Harry Brock. Mr. O'Connor is a native New Jerseyite, and his accent is perfectly reminiscent of all those movie mobsters. Harry has "lived his life at the top of his voice," and Mr. O'Connor lavishly embodies that. What a tour de force! He bullies and bosses with wonderful power. Yet at moments he makes it heart-breakingly clear that he truly loves Billie. 

Now Harry, for complex tax purposes, has made Billie the legal owner of much of his empire. She normally just signs whatever papers he puts in front of her. But what's to happen when the now-enlightened and conscientious Billie realizes that much of that empire is corrupt, immoral, and perhaps illegal? 

The casting of this production is sublime! Mark Neels, a fine actor (and director) plays Paul. Tom Moore plays Ed, Harry's subtly boozy consigliore with just the right touch. Will Shaw, as Senator Hodges, looks every inch the part -- and really makes us believe this demoralized politician.

All in all, director Sam Hack has created a resounding success. Occasionally the pace could have been pumped a bit, but it was a happy evening of most solidly gratifying theatre. I thank the Clayton Community Theatre and its founder Sam Hack for bringing us quality productions of great American plays. I hope that many young theater-lovers will attend Born Yesterday to see what a truly well-made play, splendidly produced, is really like.

 

 

Humans are curious, pernicious animals, incredibly resilient and capable even as their lives spiral in and out of their control. We experience a full range of emotions and can be as profoundly moved by pain as by beauty; but just as often, we hide behind convention and seek comfort and the familiar over the genuine. Playwright Tennessee Williams explores the insistence of human nature in the deeply confessional and occasionally unsettling Small Craft Warnings

Set in Monk's bar, a rundown dive on the coastal shoreline, the story introduces us to a cadre of broken individuals who nonetheless retain the will and fire to connect with others and experience the fullness of life. These are not the lives of the comfortably well off or aspirational working class, but rather the perpetual struggles of people who live on the margins. The crowd at Monk's on this particular night includes high functioning addicts, the displaced, and the underemployed. People you pass by on the street and try not to notice for fear of being asked for a contribution or ending up on the barstool next to them yourself.

Peter Mayer's pleasantly gruff Monk does his best to keep the place up, but he's slowly losing ground and there's a palpable sense of loneliness in his demeanor. He's generous to his customers and perhaps too softhearted to do much more than get by. He moves slowly and deliberately, wanting to keep the peace among his regulars and almost suspicious of newcomers to his little hole in the wall. Mayer gives the barkeep a tender disposition, but he's tough when he needs to be and knows just how to smooth things over with the local police.

Elizabeth Townsend's deeply troubled Leona is the center of the story simply by force of personality. By turns prodding, cruel, and inconsolable, she's on a bender to mark the anniversary of her bother's death and no one escapes her aim. A transient hairdresser, she's also come to the conclusion that she's spent too much time in this town and bar, but she's not leaving until everyone hears what she needs to say. Townsend gives Leona steely determination, acerbic wit, and a "take no prisoners" attitude that is at times abrasive and unkind, but filled with an undercurrent of need. 

Local lothario Bill gets a confidant swagger from Eric Dean White. He's on the prowl, looking for solace and sexual sympathy after a falling out with Leona. Magan Wiles' Violet needs a drink, a meal, and a place to stay. Though she's much abused by Leona, it's clear her own choices have landed her here, all her belongs in the suitcase at her feet and all her hopes in the sympathy of the other regulars. Jared Sanz Agero, as Steve, openly pines for Violet, but is resigned to playing second-fiddle to her whims. John Bratkowski's Quentin and Spencer Milford's Bobby share a different romantic disappointment, one masked in vaguely defined expectations and mistaken pretense. 

Finally, there's Doc, played with the mannerisms and predilections of the playwright by Jeremy Lawrence. The good doctor has lost his license but that doesn't prevent him from administering to the local population, most of whom are too poor to afford reliable care. A man with a deep appreciation for the miracles of birth and death, he continually finds bits of wisdom at the bottom of his shot glass. Together, these companions share the drama that's found on the edges of existence, where a drink may be the only bright spot in a day of struggles.

These are not the most sympathetic of characters, each is full of faults, but their stories resonate with genuine realism. We may not like them. We may look at them and consider ourselves lucky not to be in their position. But deep down, we recognize them. The need for connection, the desire to live life fully, and the contrasting fear of the pain -- these feelings are frequently unpleasant, but absolutely necessary to our existence. The ensemble finds the poetry in Williams' hard luck stories and makes us care what happens even as we thank our lucky stars that these situations are far from our own.

Director Richard Corley skillfully guides the actors, peeling back the carefully constructed masks they wear for the rest of society and revealing heartbreaking truths. Though we only see one side of their personas, we quickly get the sense that some of these characters are more able to blend in than others. It's a subtle demarcation that results in an unstated hierarchy -- one that works to fantastic effect. The rundown dive bar, designed by Dunsai Dai, has a recognizable quality to it; when combined with Michael Sullivan and Michael Perkins' lighting and sound design the result is a space filled with a haunting loneliness and sense of authenticity.

Small Craft Warnings, running through May 14, 2017 as part of the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, openly questions our will and ability to continue to press on no matter the circumstances. The characters are compelling if not always appealing, and buoyed by excellent performances and strong direction from Corley that brings their stories to life.  The result is a surprisingly intimate and moving production that captivates even if it occasionally makes you cringe. 

 

 

The second annual Tennessee Williams Festival -- St. Louis kicks off this weekend and promises to continue its exploration of the celebrated playwright's St. Louis roots, including special exhibits and events focused on his painting and short story work.

As many fans of American theater and literature are aware, playwright Tennessee Williams spent his formative years in St. Louis. Though he couldn't get far enough away, fast enough, the city left an indelible mark on the young man, with an influence that permeated, and provided a setting for, his later work. An important aspect of the festival in St. Louis are the panel lectures, exhibits, and additional activities, many of them free to the public, that provide a sense of the playwright, his philosophy and driving motivations, and his relationship to St. Louis.

This year, the festival launched the Tennessee Williams New Playwright Initiative and will host a reading of winner Jack Ciapciak's Naming the Dog as part of the opening weekend. The second annual "Stella Shouting Contest," an unexpected highlight at last year's festival, is planned for Saturday afternoon and the 1961 movie adaptation of Summer and Smoke, starring Laurence Harvey, Geraldine Page, and Rita Moreno, will be playing in the Public Media Commons throughout the weekend.

Among the highlights of the festival is "Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter," an exhibit of the author's work at the St. Louis University Museum of Art hanging from May 5 through July 30, 2017. The exhibit will be featured in an opening weekend panel discussion at the .ZACK on Saturday, May 6, 2017. A second panel, "Magic of the Other" is planned, as is an exhibit of the photographs of Ride Hamilton featuring eye-catching glimpses of actors, in character, at their entrances and exits from stage. 

Williams is known for his plays, however; and the festival will present seven shows this year, including Williams' original plays Small Craft Warnings and Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? These shows open during the first weekend of the festival and continue through May 21, 2017. "Bertha in Paradise," a musical tribute based on the character introduced in The Rooming House Plays at last year's festival, kicks off the festival on Wednesday, May 3, 2017, and continues through May 14, 2017.

Several performances are scheduled to run only during the opening weekend of the festival. Deseo, a reinterpretation of one of Williams' most celebrated plays with a Cuban perspective, in Spanish with English super-titles, is the festival's first international entry. Students from Theatre Program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will present St. Louis Stories, a compilation of unpublished short stories written by the author and adapted by Tom Mitchell. ensemble 2.0 a dramatic reading based on Francesca Williams' collection of family letters; and a Tennessee Williams Tribute Magic of the Other, featuring scenes, songs, and poetry, are other highlights from the festival's first weekend.

The Tennessee Williams Festival -- St. Louis aims to distinguish itself by offering unique events in addition to the performances and with scholarly panel discussion of the enigmatic writer. A bus tour highlighting significant St. Louis locations that impacted Williams during his formative years and a tribute featuring local performers are also scheduled for opening weekend. Reviews of the festival plays will be posted after the first weekend. Complete information on the festival, ticket purchase, and additional events such as the New Orleans Jazz Brunch can be found on the festival's website.

 

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