D.C. Black Theatre Festival works the whole scale

July 2, 2012

The D.C. Black Theatre Festival was founded in 2010 to celebrate all aspects of African American theater arts, from avant-garde to gospel-laced fables to morality tales to Tyler Perry’s brand of bawdy family comedy with a message. A four-show sampling of the just-
completed 2012 roster revealed the wide range of styles and quality and featured a couple of impressive acting turns.

David D. Mitchell, a Baltimore-based actor and theater educator, set Woolly Mammoth’s intimate rehearsal hall ablaze with his portrayal of jazz piano legend Thelonious Monk in a poetic piece by Washington’s Max Garner titled “Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story.” The premise, workable if less than subtle, allows Monk to tell his own story from beyond the grave in a posthumous psychoanalytic jam session with a jazz-loving shrink (LaShawn Sharp). Monk and his therapist verbally riff on his struggles with what’s now called bipolar disorder, substance abuse and emotional chasms in his life. Mitchell paced the stage, his eyes glowing like a tiger’s in the night when he spoke about his revolutionary approach to music.

“The Name Game,” by Mary Stone Hanley, mixed urban sensibilities with a moral message and a dash of the avant-garde and magic realism, nicely blended by director Deidra LeWan Starnes. Before the play began, two male dancers (Reggie Glass and Marvin Anani), masked and clad in black, moved athletically across the stage (again in Woolly’s rehearsal hall) in a mix of break dancing, ballet and gymnastics. Then a seemingly unhinged homeless woman named Eartha (Patricia Dugueye) took over, her “home” a sparsely furnished few square feet next to a picket fence. Into her world tore a teenager (played by Shawn Naar when this reviewer saw the play; he alternated with Mercelles Weathers) in a hoodie, a wannabe rapper who called himself EZone. He seemed tough at first, but Eartha, far saner than she first seemed, picked up on the boy’s literary instincts and reflexive good manners. With a dash of magic and spiritual persuasion, she pushed him onto a better path. Naar’s subtle, explosive performance as the young man held much promise.

Actress/writer/singer Mzuri Moyo performed her own piece, “The Fannie Lou Hamer Story,” as part of the festival’s Living Legacy Series in Arena Stage’s Cradle. In a floral print dress, Moyo tells the story of Hamer’s hard life in rural Mississippi and the white hostility she encountered when she tried to register to vote. Part history lesson, part spiritual concert — Moyo possesses a strong alto voice — and part motivational speech, the piece’s structure gave Moyo leave to interact with her audience and exhort them to continue the fight.

“Livin’ Fat,” a comedy dating to the mid-1970s, was the least well-realized production of the four sampled here. The late Judi Ann Mason, who penned the broad farce while still in college, went on to be a highly successful television writer, as well as a screenwriter and playwright. A troupe visiting the festival from Atlanta, SoReal Productions, performed in the Naval Heritage Center’s theater. The bare-bones staging wouldn’t have mattered if the performance had seemed well rehearsed, but cast members were shaky in their lines and amateurish in their characterizations. In the play, a college-educated young man reduced to working as a bank janitor witnesses a robbery and picks up $15,000 the robbers dropped. His eccentric parents, grandmother and friends all feel they’ve struck it rich. The question of whether they have a right to keep the cash hovers over the sitcomish hijinks.


JoAnn Williams, Daron Stewart and Addison Switzer in African Continuum Theatre Company's ‘Day of Atonement.’ (Valerie Russell)

Unaffiliated with the festival but exploring some of the same themes was a workshop production of “day of Atonement” by Washington’s own professional black troupe, African Continuum Theatre Company. The play by Michael Payne Moss ran at H Street Playhouse concurrently with the festival’s final weekend. Still without a full-time artistic director and trying to right itself financially after several years of struggle, African Continuum has been doing one full production per season (though it had to postpone “Sty of the Blind Pig,” which was scheduled for June), plus readings of new plays and theater education in the community.

Set in 1995, “day of Atonement” visits a family in Washington just before the Million Man March. The older brother (Addison Switzer) is a successful lawyer, but his younger sibling (Daron Stewart) is just out of prison for drug dealing and looking to go straight, as long as he can make a quick buck. Their mother (JoAnn M. Williams, African Continuum’s executive director) has a soft spot for her wayward child, and an oft-sipped flask in the handbag she clutches.

All four actors in the workshop staging (DeJeanette Horne played a drug dealer), which was directed by Shirley Basfield Dunlap, showed sparks of fully realized characters. But they were hampered by insufficient rehearsal, repetitive rhythms that made the many scenes too similar, and way too much exposition crammed into the dialogue. A good third of the lines were lost because the actors did not pitch their voices to overcome the loud whir of the air conditioning at H Street Playhouse.

Then again, noting the shortcomings of the Playhouse seems churlish, now that the space is expected to close next Feb. 1, leaving at least three professional companies and other community theater groups to scramble for new venues.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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