Thursday, June 24, 2010

Intermission Talk

Intermission Talk June 29, 2010

Look Behind "Fences"

With Lloyd Richards

by Tony Vellela

"The misconception about this character is the one you feel when you're walking down the street, alone, in the middle of the night, and see a figure coming toward you, who turns out to be a black person, a black man. That moment, and the next few moments, are what it's about." The speaker is the late director Lloyd Richards. The character is Troy Maxson, from August Wilson's "Fences."

I spent several afternoons talking with Lloyd during the years before he passed away on June 29, 2006, his 87th birthday. And now that the current revival of this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama has officially won a fistful of Tony Awards, giving it the added boost to its marquee star power in having Denzel Washington play and garner a Tony Award as Troy, Lloyd's observations recall some of the initial views he held, as its premier director in 1988.

"This play takes place in 1957, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. I did not know it existed until I worked on this play," he told me, and since I'd also visited the Hill, we shared memories of the small wood frame houses with front porches and back yards, dirt alleys and Mom and Pop stores that still define the neighborhood. "Troy's major wish for his life was to play in the big leagues of baseball, but he never made it. He believes that racism is the reason. His wife points out that, because he was forty when he tried out, he was too old. Probably some of both. He did play in the Negro leagues, but was never invited to the national leagues. He could never understand why Jackie Robinson was selected and he wasn't. It enraged him. And, he had been in jail. Who wasn't? No major offense. He didn't kill anybody. But he did his time."

The luminous Viola Davis plays Troy's wife Rose, another Tony winner for this role. "Rose saw in Troy - possibility - a possibility for being an extraordinary person in terms of what he had to contribute to life." She sees more than the man who walks behind a garbage truck every working day. "She is the most precious thing he has ever had. He's had a lot of women, but she was different, very different. She stood out from the women who hung out after the baseball games who had a good dinner waiting for you if only you went home with them. Rose was special because she gave of herself in a special way."

His best friend and co-worker Bono, played by the remarkable Stephen McKinley Henderson, unjustly bypassed by the Tony Awards judges, met Troy in prison, and sees the humor behind Troy's often aggressive, gruff demeanor. He protects, in some way, Troy when he steps over the line or even disciplines him. Bono, like Rose, values Troy as a story-teller. That's what happens to people who don't read that much, who don't have library access. Maybe they never went to school, were never taught to read, never took the time. So they learned to read the things that were important - 'Checks Cashed' - like that. You learn what a red light is, what a green light is, and that that sign says 'Welcome,' but it doesn't mean it."

Richards first burst onto the national theatrical scene in 1959, when he became the first African-American director to helm a Broadway play, Lorraine Hansberry's classic "A Raisin in the Sun." He went on to work with Wilson several times, starting when the young poet was accepted at the Yale School of Drama, where Richards was Executive Director. The two men became friends as well as collaborators. He considered the character of Troy, first played by James Earl Jones, one of the most interesting and complex he ever encountered. "Troy contained a great deal of rage, as do many black people who grew up under the imposition of the rules of segregation." In "Fences," Troy questions the city's policy of having only black men on the street crew and only white men as drivers. And despite all his short-comings [reading challenged, no driver's license], he becomes the first black driver on the sanitation patrols.

"Fences" follows the lives of a few people in Troy's orbit, as he marauds through their needs and gifts, lifting them up and trampling them at will. "Troy is a man with tremendous physical stature," Richards continued. "What he did with that physical stature, a large person like that can be, has a potential for violence, and you can sense it and see it in them. But they also have that potential for extraordinary violence. His large hands were used in ways that could make someone feel very good when they were touched by Troy. That strength attracted, excited or frightened people. This was a man who unsuccessfully deals with barriers, with fences. They were meant to keep him out, and they were successful." As Troy tries to finish building his own real fence at the back of his yard, and as his son pulls away from helping him, his attitude toward obstacles contrasts markedly with that of Rose. At the start of scene two, she is dutifully hanging clothes from the line, and sings to herself "Jesus, be a fence around me every day."

The core of this tale lies in a corroded father-son relationship, as Troy tries to dissuade his teen-aged son from becoming caught up in the chance to attend college on a football scholarship. Even when one is offered, the parent refuses to sign the consent forms that would free the child to craft his own future. "Troy was not exposed to a father. Troy loves his son, but love has many ways of manifesting itself. He was never trained to have a son. He is not a father who can say to a son, 'I love you.' The training he has is that he will bounce him around, give him a whack, and let him fend for himself."

Richards recalled this directing experience with great joy, especially the Sunday afternoon audiences. "That's when so many black people go to the theatre. They couldn't go during the week, because they had to get up early in the morning. So they are usually coming from church. Jimmy [James Earl Jones] was very upset when some audience members erupted when Troy came into the back yard holding the baby his mistress Alberta had. One man jumped up and said 'That's me! That's me!' But there were Rose lovers, who were in support of her, enduring all she did to keep her marriage and family together. And there were Alberta lovers, rooting for this woman who did not have a husband, had an out-of-wedlock child, and died in the process. Overall, it made people feel that they were part of the culture that they were seeing in the play."

Details, specific moments, well-timed beats, deep understanding of each character's emotional and physical life, plus an original jazz/blues score by Branford Marsalis, all combine to make this current production sublimely memorable. [Note the rusted window screens on the bedroom windows.] Director Kenny Leon has carried on the glory of Lloyd Richards' landmark production, and one can only hope that some entity such as HBO takes the star power, the awards creds and the long-overdue timing to turn this production into the great film it can be.

On Book

One of America's greatest playwrights, August Wilson the writer and the man, can be explored in two fascinating books. Mary L. Bogumil's "Understanding August Wilson" digs deep into five of his legendary ten-play cycle, and she includes "Fences" in that line-up. In "I Ain't Sorry For Nothin' I Done - August Wilson's Process of Playwriting," Joan Herrington digs into how he created many of his striking, historic works. And before or after you get yourself up/down/over to the Cort Theatre, read this play. The language sings itself into your brain. It's not a very happy song, overall, but it's a hit.

Now - the Summer. Why not select a few reading list titles that take place when the livin' is easy? What, you say?

Well, yeah, 'Porgy and Bess,' to be sure. And while we're in the South, spend some quality time with Tennessee Williams. Both "Summer and Smoke" and "Suddenly, Last Summer" will serve up a fair share of chills to cool you down. Even his "Spring Storm" will take your mind off the humidity.

The temperatures rise as political wills clash in Lanford Wilson's skillful "Fifth of July." And for the mother lode of personal clashes, there's nothing more red hot than Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County." You could spend that whole month chewing over this one.

A small town in Kansas in the early '50s can be quite a steamy place. As summer gets ready to bow out, the annual Labor Day "Picnic" that William Inge created provides the catalyst for that steam to burst through the surface and scald everyone in its proximity. Years later, Inge rewrote his play, calling it "Summer Brave." He chose the new title from a line in a Shakespeare poem, "Age like winter weather; Youth like summer brave." If you read both versions, you can see that # 2 ratchets up the humor, but retains the pathos, heartbreak and lust that made "Picnic" the classic it is.

And speaking of the Bard, take a merry romp once again into the comfortably languid, shamelessly ingenuous "Midsummer Night's Dream." Allow yourself to laugh out loud.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series "Character Studies" about great contemporary theatre classics. He haw written several plays and musicals, including is political drama "Admissions," published by Playscripts, which was awarded Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival. He has covered theatre for many years, for dozens of major publications. He teaches at the legendary HB Studio in the Village, and also conducts coaching sessions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

POW! (Play Of The Week)

From Up Here
by Liz Flahive

The dysfunctional family. Sometimes you just want to say it’s redundant, all unhappy families are alike, and move on. Then along comes an irresistible play, From Up Here by Liz Flahive, which takes the ancient topic and makes it absolutely mysterious and new.

Unpopular high school senior Kenny has done something terrible. So heinous that he’s become a prisoner of his affluent white suburb. On his first day back to school his backpack is searched, he can’t go anywhere without adult supervision, monitors watch his every move. The other students shun and stare. And the now infamous Kenny must deliver a speech of apology to the entire student body and staff. The cause? Something about a gun…

In Liz Flahive’s debut play, she examines the impact on Kenny’s family as they struggle to deal with him and his crime. His cold, career-driven mother, Grace, is about to crack; and her new younger husband, Daniel, functions more like a sweet new wife who packs lunches for the kids and picks up the dry cleaning. Also a high school outcast, Kenny’s loyal younger sister, Lauren, has become prematurely promiscuous and cynical. Even the pets are messed up—hapless Kenny is bitten by his own dogs. Blood may be thicker than water but this is one thirsty family.

The family is knocked sideways by the arrival of Kenny’s exuberant, untamed Aunt Caroline, a member of the Peace Corp who blows in from the Himalayas to support him— although she insists on camping outside in her tent. To her disgust, Lauren is pursued by Charlie, a naïve senior who courts her with innocent charm and dreadful songs on bad guitar. Meanwhile Kenny is mentored by exemplary classmate Kate who uses Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky speech to prep him for his public apology. In truth, Kate’s befriended Kenny in order to sell his story to the press.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly familiar territory. Flahive doesn’t dabble in clichés. Themes of love, identity, risk, failure, bullying and the troubled lives of white American values are explored with rare insight, compassion and humor. Her generous humanity is conveyed through short, tight scenes, dead-on dialogue and the rare ability to render valid every character’s point of view.

Can Kenny be saved when his isolation, despair and rage are titanic? Will the family survive intact? The play is open-ended. Flahive delivers a terrific package but she doesn’t tie any bows.

Cast: 3M, 4W

Monologues for Kenny, Charlie, Grace, Caroline. Two-person scenes throughout.

Reviewed by Helen

Monday, June 07, 2010

Hot Off The Press!

Elephant's Graveyard
George Brant

“The script—based on a true story about a traveling circus that, in 1916, stumbled into gory disaster in a muddy Tennessee town—is, like the best art, microscopically specific with echoes that radiate outward across time. It conjures a world with its own atmosphere and terrible internal logic. It’s mesmerizing... symphonic in its emotional variations on a tragic theme. Elephant’s Graveyard buzzes with truth about the consequences of misunderstanding, the invisible but enormous gap between artists and their audiences, and the infernal beauty of vaudeville.”--The Stranger, Seattle

“A theatrical masterpiece.”--Columbia City Paper

“The most striking production in the (NSDF) festival.”-- Times of London

“Deeply moving…has the audience in stitches at the open and tears at the close.”--

Elephant’s Graveyard is the true tale of the tragic collision of a struggling circus and a tiny town in Tennessee, which resulted in the only known lynching of an elephant. Set in September of 1916, the play combines historical fact and legend, exploring the deep-seated American craving for spectacle, violence and revenge.

Winner of the 2008 Keene Prize for Literature
Winner of the 2008 David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award

Character Descriptions:

The Circus

RINGMASTER – obsessed with the bottom line
TRAINER – loves his work
BALLET GIRL – a showgirl in control
TOUR MANAGER – bit of a bully
STRONGMAN – a proud muscleman from Europe’s far-off shores
CLOWN – a comedian with an inferiority complex
DRUMMER – keeps the beat

The Town

HUNGRY TOWNSPERSON – African-American, a steel-trap memory
MARSHAL – keeps the peace
MUDDY TOWNSPERSON – a haunted widow
PREACHER – doggedly hopeful
STEAM SHOVEL OPERATOR – looking for escape
YOUNG TOWNSPERSON – excitable dreamer

The Railroad

ENGINEER – confident Time is on his side

Drama. 10m, 3f, flexible casting (Roles may be played by any race or gender except when specified.). Acting Edition $9.95

Thomas Bradshaw

"[Bradshaw's] most daring and mature work to date!"--The New Yorker.

"You will enjoy this latest visit to the unsettled world of Thomas Bradshaw, where people misbehave without the cushion of guilt or the filter of psychology. ****4 Stars! Critics' Pick "--Time Out New York.

"Bradshaw's best play! It will be a sad statement about the NYC theatergoing public if there is one empty seat in the house for the rest of this show's run."

Dawn revolves around Hampton, an abusive alcoholic who has completely alienated his wife and children. Can he stop drinking and make up for the past, even amidst some very dark revelations of incest and pedophilia? Dawn is one father's story of redemption and reconciliation — with a twist. Bradshaw was named Playwright of the year by the theater blog KUL-That Sounds Cool and Dawn was named among the best performances of Stage and Screen for 2008 in The New Yorker.

Character Descriptions:
HAMPTON - 60, A successful businessman
SUSAN - 40, His wife
NANCY - 60, His ex-wife
STEVEN - 33, Hampton and Nancy’s son
LAURA - 36, Hampton and Nancy’s Daughter
CRISSY - 14, Laura’s Daughter

Drama. Simple Set. 2m, 4f, plus 1 male or female character and 1 male voice over. Acting Edition. $9.95.

Southern Promises
Thomas Bradshaw

"Slowly, almost single-handedly, a twenty-eight-year-old black playwright named Thomas Bradshaw has been taking on the idea of race in the theatre. At the same time, he has sliced open the pretensions of the white avant-garde with a wittily glistening axe. In his new play, Southern Promises (at Performance Space 122), one can catch a glimpse of Bradshaw's anarchic gifts."--The New Yorker.

"It's a striking, challenging piece that studies the abuse of power and the liquidity of morality."

"Likely to leave you speechless"--The New York Times.

"Thomas Bradshaw's deeply twisted, coolly brutal period drama Southern Promises" --Village Voice.

When the master of the plantation dies, he wills his slaves to be freed, but his wife doesn't think that good property should be squandered. Pandemonium ensues. The play is inspired by the true story of Henry Box Brown who escaped to the north by mailing himself in a box. Southern Promises provides a unique portrait of the old south. Bradshaw was named Playwright of the year by the theater blog KUL-That Sounds Cool and Southern Promises was named among the best performances of Stage and Screen for 2008 in The New Yorker.

Character Descriptions:
- 32, the Master of the plantation
ELIZABETH - 28, his wife
DAVID - 30, Isaiah’s brother
JOHN - 32, Elizabeth’s brother, a minister
BENJAMIN - 32, a loyal slave
CHARLOTTE - 30, Benjamin’s wife, a light-skinned mulatto slave. She should look almost white.
PETER - 37, a slave, Benjamin’s friend
MAN # 1
MAN # 2

Casting note: The role of Man # 1 can be played by the same actor who plays Isaiah. The roles of Doctor, Clerk, and Man # 2 can be played by the same actor. The role of Imaginary Slave should be played by the same actor who plays Peter. A total of 8 actors are needed.

Drama. Simple Set. 6m, 2f, with doubling. Acting Edtion. $9.95

Cat Delaney

Esmerelda Quipp is 80, still of sound mind, but her body is beginning to “come unglued”, as she puts it. Having spent her working life as an actress, age pushing her gradually out of the business, she now faces the fact that her meagre government pension is insufficient to support her, even with her minimal needs. When she is arrested for attempting to bury her dead cat in her landlord’s yard, she finds that there is some sense of community, not to mention free room and board, within the prison system. She devises a plan to get herself sent back to jail; she robs a bank. But a well-meaning public defender gets the charges against her dropped. Esmerelda Quipp is undeterred! Using money she gets from returning stolen wine bottles to a recycling depot, she buys a toy gun at the local dollar store, and commits armed robbery. Knowing that she will be convicted because she will plead guilty, she assumes that she can spend the rest of her days living free, hanging out with other women, and being fed decently in a women’s prison. But the system that has failed her also wants to forgive her because of her age and general health, and the public defender wants to use an insanity plea to get her off. How will Esmerelda convince the legal system she should be incarcerated, literally, for life?

Winner of the 2009 Samuel French Canadian Playwriting Competition

Dramatic Comedy. Simple Set. 1m, 7f, Larger Cast Possibilities. Acting Edition. $9.95

People vs. Friar Laurence: The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet,
Ron West and Phil Swann

“Hysterical—West and Swann have shrouded the tale with witty story devices and a bright cloak of catchy songs that add to the ribald humor while moving the story along in the best traditions of musical theatre.”--Chicago Sun Times

A musical comedy spoof starring the Friar of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet! Friar Laurence is behind bars, charged for the ‘murder' of the lovers. As the trial progesses, mayhem and silliness are abound with bits, songs, and scenes equal parts Vaudeville and Bard. A “load of laughs” (Chicago Sun Times, highly recommended), The People Vs. Friar Laurence: The Man who Killed Romeo and Juliet is sure to leave both Shakespeare scholars and low-brow humorists rolling in the aisles!

Comedy. Simple set. 6m, 3f. Acting Edition. $9.95.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Thurs, June 10 @ 6:00 P.M.: FREE Acting Class with Actress and Acting Coach Sybil Lines @ The Drama Book Shop

Introduction to “Shakespeare to Shepard”

For actors intrigued, nervous, or thrilled at working on Shakespeare’s characters, this workshop is a free sample class with Actress/Coach Sybil Lines. Her visceral approach makes it suitable for beginners as well as more seasoned professionals.

“Shakespeare to Shepard” is a six-week acting course that explores the similarities and differences in tackling Shakespeare’s works compared to modern American playwrights. There will be scene study work on modern writers (Mamet, Albee, Miller, etc.) and Shakespeare. Sybil encourages the exploration of the primal needs that prompt a character to speak. She encourages an actor to do the detective work into the character by analyzing the use of the words. The class uses exercises that help the actor find the psychological and emotional intensity. There are also exercises to develop the energy and appropriate physical power for classical texts. Exercises from her classical course, “Shakespeare from the Loins” will also be included in the workshop. Through them, the actor will be more comfortable with heightened language and meter, while avoiding phony tonal qualities and singsong delivery.

When writers choose to write a drama over a novel or poem, they entrust the completion of their communication to an actor. It is up to you to fulfill that trust with an approach that focuses on organic specificity, modulation and new thought while honing technical skills that enable the full expression of a passionate imagination. The next six-week Shakespeare to Shepard course is scheduled to begin soon.

SYBIL LINES has appeared on BBC television and was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company as and is a veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Every Monday night at 9:00 p.m.! LATE NIGHT OPEN MIC at The Drama Book Shop

Staff member, Matt Alspaugh runs a LATE NIGHT OPEN MIC at The Drama Book Shop every Monday night at 9:00 p.m.! Read below for more info on this great weekly night of comedy!

Why Cry when you could laugh? Come watch some of New York's top up and coming stand up comics, performing at the world famous Drama Book Shop.

Stand Up Comics = 6 mins for $5
Audience = FREE

Every Monday night, 9-11 pm. Sign up is on a first come, first serve basis, starting at 8:30 pm. Contact Matt Alspaugh for further details.