Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Penumbra's The White Card is a Must See

White people especially need to prioritize attending this gripping drama depicting the devastation caused by microaggressions

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

It doesn't happen too often, but once in a while I witness a piece of theater that directly reflects some of my experiences and I visibly cringe.

The White Card, now showing at the Penumbra Theatre, is just such a show - and man, did I cringe HARD. Authored by the magnificently talented author Claudia Rankine (if you haven't yet read Citizen, her unmissable treatise on police brutality published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press - RUN, don't walk to get it), The White Card peels back the layers of privilege, ignorance and internalized racism that runs throughout the black-white dynamic in America today into an uncomfortable exposé of what is wrong with simply resting on good intentions and armchair activism.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

The entire play takes place in the stylish living room of a very wealthy couple, Charles and Virginia, who are famous art collectors. Their art dealer Eric connects them with a young black female artist and rising star, Charlotte, as she completes an eagerly awaited new photography collection. Upon arrival, Charlotte uneasily contemplates the couple's inimitable private art collection, most of which features daring, expensive, rare work by black artists exposing violence they experienced in American society. She reveals that her coming work is a look into the unseen devastation of the Charleston church shooting, instantly exciting the eager collectors.

Charles and Virginia's liberal activist son Alex crashes the dinner party halfway through, essentially dropping a lit Molotov cocktail into an already tense emotional environment. Many unsavory details about the source of Charles' wealth and Virginia's understanding of life outside of her white bubble are revealed in explosive fights, causing Charlotte to experience her own identity crisis. Who is her art really for? Does intention negate impact? By making black suffering the focus of her work, has she fetishized it into something unrecognizable and inhuman? The play closes on a reveal of Charlotte's next project, which is takes a completely different approach to the problem she initially set out to solve.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

This cast is tight, and bravo for their steadfast portrayals of nefarious characters who can't have been pleasant to portray. Bill McCallum brings layers to the role of Charles, and I think he's the character who will singlehandedly feel the most familiar to audiences. Michelle O'Neill is viciously brilliant as Virginia, with a whiplash delivery that had several audience members appearing visibly struck. Jay Owen Eisenberg is the perfect choice for Alex, shining a mirror on all well-intentioned activists. John Catron snugly wears the social climbing Eric's role, truly defining the rationale against the #notallmen movement through his performance. And Lynnette R. Freeman brings heartbreak and hope to her role of Charlotte; she is a strong, new-to-me anchor in the storm of this show, the blazing arrow pointing out the effects of microaggression to all of us. It's a brilliant cohort, and I appreciate the hard work they put in on a tough script.

Tavin Wilks brings a searingly clear vision to his role as director, and it's thanks to his straightforward vision that the layers of The White Card can unfold. Chelsea M. Warren's gleaming, chic scenic design looks plucked straight out of a Vogue spread, and it's an appropriately blank canvas for the gruesome dialogue to unfold within. Marcus Dilliard's clean lighting design makes the most of Warren's bright staging, as do Kathy Maxwell's impactful projection designs. Mathew LeFebvre's costume design is equally stylish, luxe and comfortable; once again I coveted several of the pieces he chose. And special note to Abbee Warmboe's carefully selected properties design, the well-intentioned elements of which provide critical context to The White Card's overall undertones.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

There are several reasons The White Card feels like a surprising choice for an African American-focused theater to produce during Black History Month, chief among them that all but one of the cast members is white. I think, however, that therein lies the brilliance of the plot overall. What does blackness, especially the experience of being black in America, really mean without whiteness? You can't have one without the other. We should all be familiar by now with the endlessly violent suffering and trauma porn of the African American experience that is splayed across television and social media feeds daily. But at which hands does that suffering occur? Where is the root of that adversity? Why don't we ever seem to see that part, unless it's the end of a police officer's gun (notoriously rarely showing a face)?

Maybe because, as The White Card brilliantly depicts, modern racism takes more subtly insidious forms than that which we've been trained to identify. A burning cross, white hood or lynch knot are rare to see these days. But when talking about people of color, do you ever notice yourself utilizing a language of "us vs. them"? As a white person, are the only times you engage with black people when they are serving you (whether as actual maids or hired help, or as janitors or servers or baristas)? Do you purposely, meaningfully seek out stories about black people that are positive, violence-free and hopeful - or is the extent of your engagement with news stories highlighting poverty, drugs and violence? Do you call out the color of skin or texture of hair on a black person while never mentioning it with your non-black compatriots, especially when in mixed company? Have you ever said or heard any of the things on this list?

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

The trouble is, not everything I just listed can seem like an offense, and to be clear: I don't mean this review to become a preachy treatise. I raise my hand here as a transgressor in many of these ways; I constantly seek to un-learn the internalized language, habits and thought processes that inflict such microaggressions on my fellow citizens of color. The endless amount of irony of sitting as a white reviewer in an almost all white audience that was audibly gasping throughout The White Card only to drive back to our cozy safe homes and punch out a bunch of preachy messages about race on social media was not lost on me for a second.

And that discomfort I experienced, the mental dissonance, is the reason why The White Card is a must see for white audiences for me. In the hundreds of plays I have seen over the years, almost always with audiences who are overwhelmingly white, it is exceedingly rare that I have seen a play so effectively turn the gaze back upon us. How did we get here? What layers of privilege have allowed us access to the arts? What are we doing - actually, actively doing - to solve the problems we proclaim to identify with so severely? Like Charles and Virginia and Alex, are we really just indulging in trauma porn, or are we meaningfully making the world more equitable? I touched on some of these thoughts in my review of West Side Story a couple years ago, but they remain as (if not more) relevant than ever.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

So in honor of the enduring strength and perseverance of the black community and the sea of work that still needs to be accomplished among my own white-skinned compatriots, please, please go watch The White Card. Non-white audiences will find a lot to like here as well I'm sure - the performances are excellent, the set is beautiful, and I'm sure a lot of the subject matter will feel at least tangentially familiar - but those of us who are privileged enough to see a lot of theater and have discretionary income for the arts owe it to society to turn unflinchingly towards that which will make us better, even (perhaps especially) if it makes us intensely uncomfortable first. Claudia Rankine's intimately detailed The White Card is just such a work. Click here for more information or to buy tickets before The White Card closes on March 8. I leave you with these words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Once On This Island Heats Up the Ordway

And the gods heard her prayer... 

Photo by Joan Marcus

If you're feeling "over" the Minnesota winter but don't have the cash money for a beachside escape, you're in luck - the next best thing has hit #tctheater stages at a fraction of the price.

Photo by Joan Marcus

First came Children's Theatre Company with Bob Marley's Three Little Birds, transporting audiences to a sunny island filled with reggae music and folklore. The Ordway Center has quickly responded by hosting their own version on the other side of the river - the traveling Broadway production of Once On This Island, which comes to Minnesota for the first time ever.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Think of Once On This Island as a more politicized, folkloric version of The Little Mermaid. Set on the island of Haiti, it tells the story of a beautiful orphan named Ti Moune who is raised by an elderly couple named Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie after she washes on their beach in an enormous storm. Ti Moune's story is closely followed by the gods of the island - hospitable Agwé, water powered Asaka, fearsome Papa Ge, and the kind, beneficent Erzulie - who grant her wish for true love as she gets older. The only catch? The gods never give you exactly what you want. Each places a condition on granting her wish, including the harshest of all from Papa Ge: that Ti Moune must choose between herself and her love as a test of whether her commitment is true.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Ti Moune unfortunately falls for Daniel Beauxhomme, son of the island's legendary (and legendarily wealthy) Beauxhomme dynasty. Against the advice of her family and friends Ti Moune nurses Daniel back from the brink of death, even going as far as to bargain her life in favor of his in a ghastly trade with Papa Ge. Ti Moune follows Daniel back to his faraway home in the city, where she becomes his mistress to the great disapproval of the Beauxhomme crew. Comprised of mixed folks descended from white French settlers and their Black servants, the Beauxhommes are a highly colorist and classist tribe who have no interest in Ti Moune and make no secret of getting rid of her. Heartbroken, Ti Moune stays long enough to see Daniel marry Andrea, another Haitian elite, and is unable to kill him to revenge herself with Papa Ge. The gods finally have pity on Ti Moune and free her from her mortal longing by turning her into a beautiful tree who watches over the island and Daniel's family as it grows.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I'll be honest: the moral of this story was lost on me. Ti Moune was so pure and so lovely, and all she got was becoming a tree in the end?! Seams like a crummy deal. What wasn't lost on me, however, was the fabulous work of this highly talented cast. Courtnee Carter is insanely talented as Ti Moune, with the kind of wide eyed wonder and explosive voice that made Cynthia Erivo such a star. Tamyra Gray was a quick favorite as Papa Ga, slithering around the stage with full confidence and creepiness. I enjoyed Kyle Ramar Freeman's smooth voice as water god Asaka and Jahmaul Bakare's lithe vocals as earth god Agwé. Tyler Hardwick has the sweaty abs and confident carriage Daniel Beauxhomme requires and it was hard to watch him break Ti Moune's heart. Cassondra James brought shades of Glenda the Good Witch to her role as Erzulie, the goddess of love, and often provided the story's most peaceful moments. And by far my favorites were Phillip Boykin and Danielle Lee Greaves as Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie, respectively. These two have vaunted, thunderous voices that wash over the audience like waves of the deep sea; they blend beautifully and I could have watched an entire show featuring just their work.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I believe the original staging of Once On This Island in New York City had the audience seated in a 360 degree formation with the stage at the center. Unfortunately that option is not available here, so as a remedy the production team has placed some seats on stage. I found the presence of the audience there a bit distracting, but the set is already quite busy so it is not completely unbalanced. I LOVED the vibrant, dynamic costumes - the colors truly pop and the movement gives such grace to the equally charismatic choreography. And there are several clever lighting tricks that make the stage really shine - a starry night sky, a lit fire on the beach, a gleaming firefly - and make the most of what is otherwise a pretty straightforward staging.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I grew up loving mythology and fairy tales. It was a pleasure to live on Haiti's shores for a couple of hours, warming up to island beats, learning about the Haitian gods, and seeing a stage filled with Black faces during Black History Month. The ending did confound me a bit - I wanted to see Ti Moune thrive, and she seemed cheated to me here - but that has nothing to do with execution; the show is beautifully produced and a really unique piece of traveling Broadway. Once On This Island is a true célébration de la vie, a fête for the ages. It bears the timeless qualities of all good lore and fables and will fill you with joy despite the story's innately unhappy ending. I'd love to see more national tours of such diverse casts and crews, and for that reason alone I think this is an important one to fill seats for. Once On This Island has a very short run through February 9 at the Ordway in St. Paul; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Thrillist: Best Places to Travel in 2020

Look ma, I made it! 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

I cannot describe how thrilled I was when Thrillist decided to include my pitch about a smalls lice of my African honeymoon in this year's 20 top destinations list! It's the most in-depth piece I've written for travel sections by far, and I'm really proud of how it turned out. Here is the link to the full series; my summary is excerpted below. I'll be doing a focus post on my work on Cape Verde in a following post, so please keep an eye out for that. Thanks for following everyone!


Cape Verde
Multiracial culture and soulful music are a backdrop to a beach getaway like nowhere else

Cape Verde has all the usual trappings of a tropical beach getaway: sparkling beaches with sand of every shade, historic colonial towns, green mountaintop vistas, shipwrecks to explore, and whales to spot. But this gorgeous island nation, 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, goes deeper. Influenced by the rich & nutty stews of Senegal, colonial heritage of the Portuguese, party-loving spirit of Brazil, democratic ethos of Ghana, and wine expertise of the French, Cape Verde is one of the world's most unique cultural mixes.

Arid and uninhabited when the Portuguese landed here in the 15th century, Cape Verde has weathered deep struggles to forge a truly modern culture across 10 stunning islands, each with its own character. Music is everywhere -- listen closely to the mournful, beautiful tones of morna, Cape Verde’s national musical style, and you’ll hear joy, sorrow, struggle, and celebration all bubbling at once. Born of the windy natural soundscape combined with the lonely songs of enslaved people at port through the island's colonial history, morna is the specialty of world-renowned Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora, who sang:

The sky has cleared
Consciousness has brightened
The time has come to face reality
A suffering people
Have soothed their pain
To live in peace and progress

Tourism is fast on the rise among Europeans, especially Brits, who have quietly visited for decades. But despite being closer to the East Coast than Hawaii, Cape Verde flies under the radar for Americans. Plan it right and airfare can be found for under $600. -- Becki Iverson

Meet the writer & start planning your trip to Cape Verde.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Theater Mu's peerless Stands On Its Own

The dark saga of teen girlhood continues on

Photo by Rich Ryan

What is it about teenaged girls that imbues our society with such a primal fear?

Photo by Rich Ryan

There is a rich heritage of horror narratives about girls around the age 16 mark. Sometimes they're heroes (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, natch), but more often they are complicated villains (here's looking at you Heathers and Mean Girls) or even veer towards to outright horrifying (think Stephen King's gruesome Carrie or the all-male Lord of the Flies).

Photo by Rich Ryan

The latest new work from Theater Mu (now showing at the Gremlin Theater in St. Paul through February 16) stands smack on the Carrie end of the spectrum. peerless details two sisters who are nearly identical in appearance and are well on their way towards achieving lofty ambitions despite their young age. When they are not accepted immediately into the prestigious Ivy league college that is the foundation of their future plans, the sisters panic and take drastic (and I mean DRASTIC) action to eliminate their competition, both among school peers and even a former boyfriend. They soliloquize plenty of soul crushing assumptions about race, class and gender along the way, and learn with the help of a clairvoyant classmate that even accurate predictions do not always result the way they seem they should and that no one can be trusted.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The small cast here often performs double duty, with exception of our leading sisters M and L. Francesca Dawis plays M and Isabella Dawis plays L. They are eerily similar in appearance, and once they got into a flow they seemed like an uneasy mirror of one another. Their yin and yang dynamic tugs the audience through an emotional upheaval, and the Dawis sisters have no fear in taking their characters' darkness all the way. Meredith Casey is convincingly unhinged as the oracle, aka Dirty Girl, whose sickening predictions set the whole wheel of disaster in motion. Kenyai O'Neal is sadly lovely as M's doomed boyfriend BF, and I wished we saw a bit more of his character throughout. Neal Beckman was the bright spot as the charmingly cursed D; his appearances were often the sole spot of humor in the show, an element peerless sorely needed.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The scenic design by Joe Stanley is multitasking and innovative, featuring revolving walls, benches that also serve as beds and TV consoles, and hidden lockers. I enjoyed watching the seemingly simple setting continue to expose new tricks, and it works really well to keep the action fast-paced. Karin Olson's lighting design and Kevin Springer's sound design are dramatic and lend the full creepy feeling to the show. I loved Khamphian Vang's vibrant, color-blocked costuming; it's very vibey and may even have been my favorite element of the whole play.

Photo by Rich Ryan

peerless is self-described as Macbeth for modern teenagers but exploring race issues, and I think that's about right. It's Lily Tung Crystal's first time directing since she was named Theater Mu's artistic director last year, and it's a striking debut. For myself: I have to be honest - peerless was not my flavor of the week. I've enjoyed many texts in this genre, but something about the Jiehae Park's script felt disconnected to me. There are several moments of shocking revelation, especially in the sisters' relations to people of other races. I understand why they were included the way they were and the point they were trying to make, but the resolution of the play to me felt too bare-boned for the complexity of the problems and assumptions named throughout the script. The issues peerless raises are deep and darkly internalized for a lot of us, with devastating consequences for their real-life victims; I really hoped for an honest confrontation about them to help the audience learn from the sisters' mistakes, rather than a simple slash and burn approach to justice (which felt like the easy way out).

That said, if the horror genre is your jam then you will probably find many elements of peerless to like and it seemed much of the audience found this funnier than I did - so why not check it out? peerless was a bold choice for Tung Crystal to open her leadership with, and I'm excited to see what she has next in store. For more information or to get tickets, click on this link.