Friday, April 11, 2008

Waiting Indeed

There’s an intriguing line in the New Yorker’s review of Japanese artist-entrepreneur Takashi Murakami’s show at the Brooklyn Museum. Critic Peter Schjeldahl says that with this show “New Yorkers” – and by extension, all Americans – “have a chance to absorb our new geo-spiritual fate, as provincials in a world of creative paradigms that no longer entreat our favor. That has to be good for us.” This encapsulation of the universal within the specific is just one of many reasons I love The New Yorker.

For some reason, this line made me think about “Waiting to be Invited,” the production by the African American Repertory Theatre that was reviewed in the T-D earlier this week. To make a full disclosure here, I’m pretty sure I have only seen two productions by this company, and that was back when it was still Living Word. But based on those productions and on everything I’ve heard from others since, there may be some creative paradigm at work with AART that I don’t understand. There are ways in which the “rules” of theater can be bent or even broken that are challenging and enlightening or even disturbing. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if theater just isn’t very good, well, then it just isn’t very good. I try to keep my outlook positive and think that they are working toward what may eventually blossom into something awesome. But my fear is that they just aren’t doing very good theater. Does anyone else have an alternative view?


Anonymous said...

Dave, I'm confused. You say you haven't seen much of their stuff (and neither have I). So why the blanket type statement? Can you expand on what paradigms you think they are challenging, or attempting to challenge? It seems like they do pretty straightforward and standard material, to me, although I didn't see Mr. Smith's autobiographical production.

Two of the people mentioned in the not particularly bad review, Derome Smith, and Toney Cobb, are, in of course, just my personal experience and opinion, very talented.

It may be that the organization can't support the vision of the artists, for whatever reason.


Anonymous said...

I will gladly give my thoughts on the African American Rep. Theatre. I am struck by the fact that you, David, have formed an opinion about a theatre company and then expressed it too people without first having much direct observations of the theatre company. For the normal citizen, that is perfectly fine– but for someone like you who is paid to be an opinionator— who people look to for opinions and guidance with respect to what theatre has to offer in town, I think it is irresponsible to give the opinion without any context. Which two plays did you see? When? I note that in June 2007, Mary Buruss, your colleague, wrote a positive review on one of their shows.

I will answer your question as an actor— I have performed at every theatre in town with the exception of Henley Street. I have been in two plays for the AART— A Soldier’s Play and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (The Dogwood Dell version of last summer). AART is as professional as any theatre company in town. I say this because: actors often have their lines memorized before rehearsals, which start on time, I might add. The focus of the actors is on telling the story not on any agenda the actor might have or any desire the actor might have to pull from his or her bag of tricks. There is a noticeable lack of a “scaled up ego” in any company member. One half hour before curtain, the dressing room is silent, so those actors that wish, which is usually everyone, can review their script— that certainly never happened in any other theatre I’ve worked with in town. Derome and the company have create a very supportive environment. Oh yes, they pay as well or better than the other theatres with the exception of Barksdale.

On top of all of that, there are some very talented actors in the company, including Tony Cobb— as professional as any actor in town– there is no one with whom I have had the opportunity to work with, who is as focused and as diligent in his creative process. (and can deliver the goods). There are others in the company that also do a very good job– Kesha Oliver, Sam Willoughby to name just two.

However, in the African American community in Richmond, there may not be the same size talent pool from which to cast as there is for white actors. There is a long history of community and semi-professional and professional theatres that have employed white actors. When I first moved here in the early 70s, I got cast at Stage Center on Laurel Street doing Brecht. From Stage Center, you can draw a family tree of sorts for small theatre companies that includes Experiential Theatre Company, Theatre IV’s adult theatre in the 80s, Firehouse in the 90s. If you are old enough, like me, you’ve been able to perform at all of them. These theatres provided a place to learn the craft and to develop relationships that led to future productions. For the African American actor, there has not been nearly as many opportunities to develop the craft and develop a love for the craft.

I could go on— but its not my blog. But I totally refute your statement that the AART does not do very good theatre.

I might add, since the topic is the AART, this Monday night at 8pm, OBIE award winner Amira Baraka will be at UofR’s Modlin Center– he is the pioneer of contemporary African American Theatre– as well as a political activist and poet. His presentation will be preceded by a reading of The Dutchman, one of his plays, by the members of the AART.

Christopher Dunn

Dave T said...

Thanks for your comments. They are exactly the kind I was hoping to get. As I said, I have not seen many productions of AART's and so am admittedly uninformed. I opened the forum for response and am glad to have received it. As to my irresponsibility, I stated clearly the limitations of my insight and very carefully posed my statements as "my fear," not as "this is what I believe." Perhaps I was skimpy on context; some more on that below.

Here is some more: I wrote this post because, while I have not seen an AART production recently, I have spoken to a number of people who have, people whose opinions I respect. To put it mildly, they have not been impressed. One couple I know walked out on a production. But that was their experience. I posed the issues in my post because, while I don't have much firsthand experience, it is my fear (as I said) that they are just not doing a very good job. I posed the alternate possibility that maybe they are going for something that I (or my friends) just didn't get. There are of course other possibilities: that they are like many companies -- they do some good and some bad and I just haven't seen -- or heard much about -- the good ones. The final question in my post was posed as an opportunity for others to enlighten me.

I believe AART is an asset to the community and I hope they continue to improve the quality of their productions and the size of their audience. My greatest hope would be to go to their next production and have any and all of my preconceptions proven unequivocally wrong.

Anonymous said...

You finally got it said. It took you 6 years, but you finally got it said. You have just now stated what your actions have been saying to me for the past six years. Funny that Henley Street, who performs there season on the same stage as we do, and has only been doing so since September of 2007, has managed to attract you to more of their performances in 6 months than we have in six years. You state in your blog that you have been to two of our shows…if I’m not mistaken, it’s only been one. And, it took you until our third season, when we partnered with Theater IV, to do that. It’s clear that “Black Theatre” in this town is an after-thought, even with your blog…your actions speak that far louder than anything you could ever say. And please understand that when I say “Black Theatre” I am speaking of theatre produced by African Americans, which is a very new, if not rare phenomena in this town.

I’ve been black all my life so I’ve learned to deal with that kind of racism. I can even deal with the fact that I have to create a culture that doesn’t yet exist in Richmond or any other part of Virginia…the culture of a supported, vibrant Black theatre that is intended to share its stories with people of all races. But how can we share our stories when people like you spend time on the outside looking in. And, like I said earlier I can deal with that. But when you make comments as you have I must step in and voice my own concerns. As with my Henley Street example it’s quite clear to me that you are more interested in all of the other theatres in town than you are with ours. Actively bloging, viewing and reviewing every move of those theatre in Richmond.

My concern is that you are responsible to the theatre community, but as far as AART is concerned you have been very irresponsible, even racist. If you want to base our theatre on the merit of its reviews then I say to you…what about all of the solid reviews from the RTD, even from Styles own D.L. Hintz back in our early days? Bottom Line, we’ve had some great reviews and we’ve had some not so great reviews. What theatre hasn’t? What theatre hasn’t had shows that people have disagreed on…from the content to the quality; even walking out on. I know I have…even here in Richmond. So does that mean we should bring in to question the overall quality of the theatre…its artists?

Yes, you finally got it said, so let me finally say this…if you really want to know what African American Repertory Theatre is all about come and spend a season with us. I challenge you to do that. If you want to know what I’m all about talk to me, experience my views and opinions first hand not from the horses mouth.

Dave T said...

Mr. Smith,
I don’t really know you and you don’t know me and my goal is not to get into a public spat about this. I posted about your production as part of the ongoing discussion I try to foster with this blog. As such, I appreciate your response. But I do feel the need to clarify some points.

If you want to complain about how often I attend your company’s productions, stand in line. I have seen two shows by your company – “Daughters of Zion,” which I reviewed in 2004 and “Crowns” in 2005 that I did not review but attended simply because it seemed like a good show. I have seen exactly one show by Henley Street. I haven’t seen a show at RTP since “Breathe” more than three years ago. It’s been even longer than that since I’ve been to CAT. You could make as much of an argument that I’m homophobic or anti-Northside Richmond as you could that I am racist.

Below are some lines taken from the last four Style reviews that I could find on their website over the past couple of years -- written by others so any bias of mine is not reflected. Here is my point: remembering lines and hitting cues are the basic requirements of ANY theater production, high school, community, and certainly professional.

So you challenged me; I’ll challenge you. I am planning to come to “Charcoal Street.” I cannot say whether a review of it will appear in Style as that is not my decision. However, if you deliver a production in which no actor drops or muffs a line, no cue is missed, and no technical problem is obvious (all within the reasonable margin of error that I extend EVERY production), I’ll be more than happy to write glowing remarks about it in this space at least. As I said in my comments, I would be delighted to see an AART production and have any and all negative preconceptions of mine dispelled. I’ll see you – or at least your production – in June.

November 14, 2007
Review of “A Lesson Before Dying” by Mary Burruss

“That pace, set by director Derome Scott Smith, is so slow that the actors seem to be listening to each other from headphones, causing a lag in line-response time reminiscent of conversations between Houston and the Apollo crews.”

June 13, 2007
Review of “The Rocks Will Cry Out” by Mary Burruss

“The production I saw realized its own trials with some technical difficulties, prop mishaps, missed cues and dropped lines.”

November 1, 2006

Review of “Steel Magnolias” by Amy Biegelsen

There were muffled lines and snags in the timing…Here’s hoping the quality of the product catches up with the importance of the project.

February 8, 2006
Review of “God’s Trombones” by Amy Biegelsen

The full-throated majesty of the sermons gets drowned out. We are left in a blur of symbols without a story, more pageant than play.

Anonymous said...

I have to chime in. I work with Henley Street and therefore, as Derome mentioned, we share the space. I have talked with Derome and I feel that he understands what theatre is about, he knows what he is trying to achieve and most of all, he is great to work alongside. I think another consideration is the Pine Camp Stage and especially the booth situation. The technical flubs etc. are probably because a) you couldnt see through the tinted glass, b) you can't hear through the same glass c) one of the lighting circuits stopped working, or d) the is no crossover space. (I could keep going but these are the major ones.) It is a very tough space to work in and I have to give them credit for doing it and making it work. But I think I also need to tell you how professional that Derome and all have been with us. They have been very gracious in sharing the theater as well as information, and I have never worked with people any more willing to give, share and help another group as much as they have. AART is definately here for the good of Richmond Theater.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't D.L. Hintz actually David Timberline??

Dave T said...

Yes he was. Or I was. Or we were. Or whatever...

Anonymous said...

Had to do some diggin, but hope this helps

Review of Lesson Before Dying – Richmond Times Dispatch By SUSAN HAUBENSTOCK
African American Repertory Theatre opens its first season under its new name (it was formerly Living Word Stage Company) with a well-realized production of the best-seller that was Richmond's "Go Read" book in 2002...'A Lesson' proves a moving drama…. Derome Scott Smith directed the slowly paced but moving drama with careful attention to the details.
Review of Steel Magnolias – Richmond Times Dispatch By SUSAN HAUBENSTOCK

The ensemble works wonderfully, with six strong performers. Rhonda Jackson-Smith is subtle and moving as M'Lynn, mother of a severely diabetic daughter. As that daughter, Erin Nollie is lively and sympathetic, and Chanel Porter provides her with a good counterpoint as the woebegone yet plucky Annelle. Sharalyn Porter's Clairee shows spunk, and Joyner's Truvy exudes a palpable love and caring.

And most fun of all is Diana Carver as the cantankerous Ouiser, whose bluster conceals, of course, a soft center. This is a terrific character role with lots of zingers, and Carver eats it up. "I've just been in a bad mood for 40 years," she tells her beauty shop pals.

Review of God’s Trombones – Richmond Times Dispatch By SUSAN HAUBENSTOCK

The talented Living Word ensemble performs with power, easily capturing the music in [James Weldon Johnson]'s words. Kesha Afrika Oliver, Erin Nollie, Toney Q. Cobb, Gordon W. Craig II, Keith L. Davis and Darius Epps merit the honorific "elder" in their vocal and emotional mastery of Johnson's stirring verse.

Review of From the Mississippi Delta – Richmond Times Dispatch By SUSAN HAUBENSTOCK
…thereis no doubt that this works as theater, particularly because the three women onstage give courageous and thrilling performances, bringing 32 characters to life. All three are marvelous singers as well as actresses…. AART's production includes a simple and elegant set by Smith, including slide projections between scenes.


Bruce Miller said...

Lots of valid points have been made. Here's an additional, longwinded (sorry) perspective.

I believe the African American Repertory Theatre is an irreplaceable asset within our community. I believe AART is better positioned for artistic and managerial success than any of its predecessors. To me, this is a huge accomplishment. The admirable predecessors I’m referring to included, but were not limited to, Soweto Stage Company, Tony Cosby's Theatre and Company (still alive, I think), Marguerite Austin's faith-based theatre company, Ernie McClintock's Jazz Actors Theatre, Theatre for a Change, and the Gilpin Stage Company.

Please don't think I'm trying to denigrate any of those proud theatres. Soweto Stage Company did some amazing work in the 70s, I love and admire Tony Cosby's talent and commitment (full disclosure - Tony is a good friend), the late Marguerite Austin inspired me with her passion and drive, Ernie McClintock was a force and a talent to be reckoned with, Theatre for a Change represented the best of intentions of some very talented actors, and Gilpin Stage Company (with which I was affiliated) was a noble effort even though it fizzled out quickly.

Is there a different paradigm at work with black theatre as opposed to Eurocentric theatre? I don't know. But there are cultural differences, it seems to me, that heighten the attraction of black theatre, just as there are cultural differences that can make attending a black church service soul shattering or confusing, depending on your point of view. In black theatre and black church services, there is or can be, on occasion (can you feel me tiptoeing on thin ice here?), a reliance on and access to personal passion that can make Eurocentric stage/church practice seem irrelevant or downright quaint. If viewed through a different lens, it can also leave the Eurocentric observer grasping for a standard practice to hang on to. Whatever. It’s all good.

The bigger issue to me is this. The three factors that every new theatre needs to succeed are these:

1. The founder(s) has to be in it for the long haul (at least ten years) with little or no expectation of financial reward. In other words, you have to be willing to work at least 40 hours per week on your theatre, at least 50 weeks a year, for at least a decade, with minimal compensation.

2. The founder(s) has to be committed enough to attract others to the team, and congenial enough to sustain their involvement. The founder(s) has to be confident enough to attract others who are more talented that (s)he is, and give them opportunities to soar and receive all the credit they deserve.

3. The founder(s) has to want to create a company that’s all about the community and very little about him/her. The founder(s) is ill-advised to make decisions based on what will best showcase his/her talents as a director, actor or playwright. The founder(s) should make decisions based on what will best advance the institution and serve the various constituents.

When you look at those who have succeeded in this very tough field (Michael Gooding, Grant Mudge, Carol Piersol among others), they all have demonstrated these three factors. To my way of thinking, Derome Scott Smith also demonstrates these three essential strengths.

Is African American Repertory Theatre where Derome would like it to be? I in no way presume to speak for him, but I suspect the answer is a screaming NO! Are either Theatre IV or Barksdale Theatre anywhere near where I would like them to be? NO!! Maybe that’s the fourth ingredient that is needed for success. The artistic and managing directors must never be lulled into thinking that their theatre is anywhere near as good as it needs to be.

I think African American Repertory Theatre is in an excellent place on the continuum, both artistically and managerially. I think they have what it takes to get better and better, to succeed and survive to an extent that has been out of the reach of their predecessors.

Lastly, I don’t think David Timberline deserves to be called a racist (full disclosure – he is a longtime friend). There are a LOT of shows he doesn’t see and a LOT of shows STYLE chooses not to review, including lots of the shows produced by Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. It is no more Dave’s job to see everything than it is my job to see everything (or Derome’s, or Michael’s, or Grant’s, or Carol’s). If any of us committed to see everything we’d spend every waking minute in a theatre and completely and irresponsibly ignore our family and friends.

When someone like Dave launches a conversation about the pros and cons of any theatre company and/or any theatre genre, it should really be a free speech thing, regardless of which company and which genre is being discussed. To me, it would be more “racist” if he failed to talk about AART because he was afraid of being called a racist. Big picture, I think this discussion benefits AART—it’s certainly made me feel deservedly guilty for not regularly seeing more of their work.

Particularly within our theatre community, I think we should all keep incendiary language out of our discussions. Let’s feel free to express our frustrations and rant when someone says something not to our liking (Lord knows I have and do). Let’s express ourselves openly and vent when we need to vent, but let’s also give each other the benefit of the doubt. Let’s talk with each other with respect, even when, especially when, we disagree.

Full disclosure - I’m a big fan of Derome Smith, African American Repertory Theatre, and David Timberline.

--Bruce Miller

Anonymous said...

Admittedly, calling you a racist may have been over the top. I would like to retract that statement. And, I’d like to thank you for this forum; we all work very hard at what we do and having a place to discuss even touchy subjects is healthy. Bruce, I thank you for your insight and words of wisdom. At times being the only “Black” theatre in town can be a very isolating experience. But realizing that we are also a part of the many “Theatres” in town is always refreshing. I thank you all for the discussion.

Derome Scott Smith

Anonymous said...

Very cool of Mr. Scott-Smith, big of him I mean, to admit to going over the top. And yet a thorough explanation of why that reaction came to him.

Hope for Richmond theatre, very encouraging indeed.

Kudos also to Mr. Miller for helping it along. On this blog and in the community.

From a fan of Smith, Miller and Timberline all 3!