As the wise and mysterious Autumn, host of a poetry cafe in Studio Theatre's "Slam!," Chandra Currelley is a stage magnet, drawing the eyes and ears of theatergoers straight to her. When she lends her limber, honeyed contralto to "Open Your Eyes," Autumn's wrenching ballad about losing two sons to urban violence, audiences catch their breath and weep.
"People always talk about how much they remember 'Open Your Eyes,' and I think it's because I have a son," Currelley said last week of the emotion she brings to the song.
She comes to "Slam!" from a varied jazz and R&B singing career that hasn't included as much acting as she'd have liked. Though she was encouraged to develop her musical gifts while growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., and Atlanta, she noted, "I didn't care about that; I just wanted to be a ham."
Only David Bell, who cast her as Katisha in his "Hot Mikado" on the West Coast, and Thomas W. Jones II, who wrote, directed and co-composed the songs for "Slam!," saw her as an actor who also sings. For that she's grateful.
Jones had been a fan for years, listening to her in Atlanta clubs and casting her in shows staged by Jomandi Productions there. On the phone last week he laughed when recalling Currelley's reaction to the "Slam!" script. "She said, 'Tom, I trust you; I don't have a clue what it's about.' "
Currelley said she's since discovered a direct link between the older art of scat, at which she's also an expert, and the newer ones of rap and poetry slamming. "I was familiar with rap and I understood that the spoken word was really coming back, but that it was really associated with music," she explained. "It seems relative to how we scat . . . because it's almost the same thing--improvisation."
The play sprouted in Jones's brain about two years ago, when he attended an erotic-poetry slam. "I was, like, wow, this is amazing! The folks who were in there spanned races and generations. It didn't matter whether the work was good or bad; it was about this kind of public meeting ground where this public conversation was happening." Jones saw "a whole generation of white and black men and women who considered themselves rappers redefining themselves as spoken-word artists."
After Currelley finishes "Slam!" (now extended through July 18), she'll spend some time with her husband, Larry Young, a popular gospel singer and radio host in Atlanta, and their 6-year-old son, Agap-e (Greek for "unconditional love"), before heading to San Francisco for a production of "Hot Mikado."
A Source of Space
Source Theatre Company has offered its newly refurbished 14th Street space to the soon-to-be-homeless Washington Stage Guild for next season. The deal, which has yet to get the imprimatur of Source's board, would allow the Stage Guild to present a reduced season of two plays between Source's productions.
Source Managing Director Lisa Rose Middleton said the idea was "to find a way for us to work together and survive--because nobody wants to see a theater go dark."
The Stage Guild is awaiting the outcome of two different downtown development proposals before making plans for a permanent home.
When Source Artistic Director Joe Banno called, "it was just a feeling of, 'Isn't this sweet!" Stage Guild Executive Director Ann Norton said. "I think there's a fabulous opportunity for cross-pollination of our audiences."
Meanwhile, Source's 19th annual Washington Theatre Festival of new plays, most by Washington writers, begins tomorrow and runs through Aug. 7.
Opening the festival and running tomorrow through Saturday, are "Jesus Christ vs. Godzilla" by Michael T. Folie and "Banquo's Dead, Jim," Kathleen Akerley's "Star Trek"-inspired take on "Macbeth." Christopher Wall's "No One Talks to the Mailman," described by Banno as "a white trash murder incest comedy," plays July 11-14.
Among other productions, noted American University playwright Caleen Sinette Jennings will offer her latest, "Celeste Spends Summer in Her Own Backyard," in which a scholar is haunted by the ghost of her father, who exhorts her to finish his great opus on Shakespeare's "The Tempest." It runs July 22-24.
The big finish is the 10-Minute Play Competition. Some 40 new mini-works will be presented Aug. 3-7.
Call 1-800-494-8497 for tickets, or 202-462-1073 for a complete schedule.
(Speaking of festivals of new plays, the Contemporary American Theater Festival opens Friday in Shepherdstown, W.Va., presenting four new plays in repertory through Aug. 1. Call 1-800-999-CATF.)
The Fall of the Irish
It'll be all Irish all the time at Ford's Theatre this fall. "A Couple of Blaguards," by Frank and Malachy McCourt, will run Sept. 15-Oct. 31. Frank McCourt, of "Angela's Ashes" fame, and brother Malachy created "Blaguards" in the early 1980s as a reminiscence of their impoverished upbringing in Limerick and subsequent move to New York. The piece, which includes music and poetry as well as stories, has been presented in expanded form in Dublin and New York. Malachy, who's an actor, will play himself, and Mickey Kelly will play Frank. From Nov. 2 to 14, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland will present fables and myths of the Celtic land with music, dance and storytelling. After that comes Ford's perennial musical, "A Christmas Carol," Nov. 21-Jan. 2. Call 202-347-4833.
* The Free Summer Shakespeare Festival at Olney Theatre Center will feature "As You Like It" tomorrow through Saturday. Call 301-924-3400 for reservations.
* If you fancy A.R. Gurney's two-character readers' theater piece, "Love Letters," you can see it twice next week. The Shakespeare Theatre will present Hal Holbrook (currently Shylock in the theater's "Merchant of Venice") and wife Dixie Carter in "Letters" Monday at 8 p.m., a benefit for the theater's education programs. Tickets are $75 for members of the Shakespeare Theatre Guild, $125 for nonmembers. Call 202-547-3230, Ext. 2712.
* Then at the Corcoran Gallery on July 13 at 7:30, Jerry Whiddon, artistic director and lead actor at Round House Theatre, and Kathryn Kelley, another Round House star, will put their spin on the play as part of the Corcoran's performance series. Tickets are $10 for Corcoran members, $15 for nonmembers. Call 202-639-1770.
* Rorschach Theatre, a young troupe announcing its dedication to plays with "humor, passion, intelligence and a dose of good-natured chaos," will bow with Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape" Thursday at the Cecile Goldman Theater in the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 16th and Q streets NW. Thursday and Friday are pay-what-you-can previews. Call 202-298-9515.
* The Center Company, based at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, will have two staged readings this month. Israel Horovitz's "Today I Am a Fountain Pen," about the coming of age of a preteen piano prodigy, will run Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3. Veteran Washington actor Irv Ziff will star in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" on July 24 and 25. Call 703-323-7965.
CAPTION: Hal Holbrook stars in the Shakespeare Theatre's "Merchant of Venice."
CAPTION: Chandra Currelley as Autumn in Studio Theatre's "Slam!"