The Brother / Sister Plays (McCraney)

I think it was the Steppenwolf fan non-fiction biography that put me in the mood to read some plays. I saw the first, In the Red and Brown Water, at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. I could tell then that there was something new and exciting about this playwright, though I can’t claim that I forecast his being the source for something like the Oscar-winning film Moonlight. Like Suzan-Lori Parks, he is playing with what to me are conventions of drama. There are multiple occasions when he simply puts the name of the character in the script. For example (from the third play, Marcus) –

MARCUS

OSHA

SHUA

How, as a director, are you meant to honor that on stage? Should our focus shift from one to another? Does this anticipate McCraney’s camera eye? The camera, in this case, should move from Marcus to Osha to Shua?

McCraney also has the characters narrate their own stage directions. From In the Red and Brown Water

EGUNGUN

She wanna be friends with us?

ELEGBA

Smiling like the light of the night.

Ask her.

 

Note that ‘smiling like the light of the night’ is neither italicized nor is it in parentheses. There is, in fact, no real spacing between the two lines. Elegba is meant to say the words.

I think it’s cool.

The stories, the first two of which are set in the ‘Distant Present’ and all of which are set in a fictional bayou town in Louisiana, are filled with water. There is a coming storm. There is also unnerving dream that is filled with water. There are multiple intertwined generations. There is love of all kinds. There is even a character named Terrell in Marcus. Granted, it’s spelled differently than the author’s name, but it’s an interesting choice, especially since the character is not such a nice guy. The stories are not so much the calm before the storm as the tension between the calm and the actual storm. I hope that someone decides to produce all three plays together.

 

Father Comes Home From the Wars: Parts 1, 2 & 3 (Parks)

It takes just a look at her stage directions to be reminded that Parks is one of our most original writers working today. She is experimenting – in both small and large ways – with the form of plays. Note the musical selections she includes at the back of the script.

This nod to the Odyssey, both in style (note the use of the chorus) and form (journey), is layered and thought-provoking. I also admire its deceptive simplicity. Not much is needed here in terms of staging and props, though the elements that are required are essential. Parks raises questions without belaboring them and leaves the reader / audience to infer parallels and connections. I am looking forward to seeing it.

Father Comes Home from the Wars @ the Goodman Theatre in Chicago

Between Riverside and Crazy (Guirgis)

This is a tremendous and timely play. Though some may see it as a response to current events regarding the police, I think that would be missing the point. It is not only more complicated than that about the police, it is much more nuanced play in general. There are elements on the surface and those underneath.  Rent control, the (mis)use of the ‘n’ word (I don’t want to spoil anything here), the power of belief, race and racism, etc..  And there’s a multi-layered issue about Jewish stereotypes that angered and entangled me. There are also classical elements here – fathers and their children. It comes as no surprise to me that it won the Pulitzer. But when I saw it at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (check out this pretty cool preview), the last two scenes drove me crazy. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t know how you direct these two scenes without revealing a key stage direction. But maybe Guirgis doesn’t want it revealed? At Steppenwolf, the ending came off as kind of dream-like. Is that the goal? If so, then the previous scene seems not to work. We’ll see what happens Cleveland Playhouse’s upcoming production.

 

Uncle Vanya (Chekhov, trans. by Schmidt)

I have often wondered about what makes something a classic. Such a label, I think, must have something to do with the passage of time. But the persistent admiration of two playwrights in particular – Chekhov and Noel Coward – just mystifies me. Do they matter anymore? Although I’ve seen it many times, I finally read Vanya. Say what you will about the influence Chekhov has as a writer, I just don’t get the resilient appeal of this play. What’s new here? What still resonates? How is this play different from all of his other plays?

The only thing I learned this time is that Vanya is the same age as me, which is kind of depressing.

If you are going to see it, I recommend this version. You should also pay attention to the great soundtrack that Joshua Redman provides.

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All (Wright)

Go ahead. Say that title 10 times fast. I’m not sure what it’s about. A celebration of the quotidian, perhaps. More likely, I think it’s a catalog of words that Wright enjoyed (she died about a year ago). This collection has joy just oozing out of it. The recurring poem, “In a Word, a World,” is Wright digging in with pure relish to celebrate words in all of their shapes, sizes, and syllables. There is not only joy in her poetry, there is urgency, a reminder of its urgency. “I propose,” she writes, “we all keep looking. I propose it is an unyielding imperative for the poet to do so.” The poem, “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer,” is as funny as its title and a call to not arms, but words, for any poet. Poets are responsible, in Wright’s words, for “trueing what is seen.” This is an inspiring and urgent collection. If you are no fan of prose poetry, you may want to sample before you buy. Everyone else should buy it, read it, and be reminded.

C.D. Wright – Poetry Foundation

Buy it here!

fire this time. (Washington)

Washington calls this an extended essay. I’m not so sure. I think it defies genre. It’s an essay, a poem, a novel, a play. There are even some autobiographical elements. And philosophy. I was energized its hybrid nature. It’s challenging.

The only thing I can say about all of it – even the parts I am not sure I understood – is that it burns. The intensity is relentless. Inspired, I think, by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Washington is not angry. “I AM,” the prologue opens, “Rage.” And this book (I think it’s safe to call it that) which was written over two days takes us on the jagged rivers of this rage. It’s a book that deserves to be held close, re-visited. It’s a reminder, a reckoning. Open it at any point. The words will fly off the page. Pay attention.

https://guidetokulchurcleveland.com/

http://www.cleveland.com/music/index.ssf/2010/01/ra_rafiq_washington_-_artist_p.html

https://guidetokulchur.com/fire-this-time-ra-washington

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Durang)

I am not a Chekov fan. I think I may have seen too many Chekov plays in a short stretch of time, and I just grew tired of their sameness, the longing or yearning. So I went cold turkey. A recent outstanding production of Vanya. . . at the Cleveland Playhouse (http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com/shows/2014/vanya-and-sonia-and-masha-and-spike) reminded me, with a gentle wink, what there is to cherish about Chekov. Vanya and Sonia, well, all of them have longings too, but unlike Chekov’s characters, the first three are able to see more than just despair. There is humor here – a knowing humor. (How many cherry trees does it take to make an orchard?) And a modern humor. This is a play that requires footnotes because of all of the allusions. Will they lines about Entourage 2 work in 10 years?

The first scene, featuring Vanya and his adopted sister, Sonia, is pitch perfect. It’s a master class of writing. And there is a monologue in the second act that, like some of E.M. Forester’s work, is a manifesto for connectedness and most certainly not a connectedness that requires electronic devices. Vanya, perhaps serving as Durang’s voice, longs for the human connection. Apparently, Durang initially wrote a much longer speech for Vanya here. Though he was probably wise to cut it, I would still love to see the original version and its evolution.

Durang writes his stage directions as suggestions. “It could be this. Or that.” The role of Cassandra is outstanding. Though Durang notes in his character descriptions that he didn’t have any particular race in mind, in both productions I’ve seen, the role was played by a black actress. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but there’s one scene of hers in particular that I have a hard time imagining a white actress doing.

The play is funny and poignant on stage, and it reads that way, too.