In a close-fitting brown pinstripe suit, snappy suspenders and a straw fedora, Tony Borhani looked as if he were sent to Arena Stage by Central Casting. But looks, theater fans, can be deceiving.
Borhani isn't an actor. He owns a cigar factory in Nicaragua and came to Arena under the auspices of W. Curtis Draper, a tobacconist at 14th and G streets NW. The Iranian-born Borhani and cigar roller Felix Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican native from New York, were there to show actors in "Anna in the Tropics" how to look as if they had been making cigars all their lives. Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning melodrama, set in a Tampa cigar factory in 1929, opens Oct. 1.
Borhani said he gave up running discos in Costa Rica after he fell in love with cigars -- both the smoking and the making of them. He talked of his "love of the aromatic leaf" and meant it.
In a rehearsal hall at nearby Waterside Mall, while actors watched, Rodriguez showed how to devein a tobacco leaf, wet it and smooth it out to be the "binder," then shred and lay in "filler" tobacco, roll it up and cut the ends. Don't expect to become proficient, Borhani told them. "I have people who've done this for 30 years and they don't call themselves masters," he said. His factory produces "boutique, ultra-premium cigars" and the brevity of the crash course at Arena clearly caused him pain.
Director Jo Bonney wanted her cast to learn the rhythm of the job, the wrist and hand motions. "It's very ritualistic," she says of the process. With a cast member interpreting his Spanish, Rodriguez told them, "You can't rush it. You have to take your time."
After he rolled several cigars, a few actors sat down to try. Michele Vazquez finished one to a round of applause from her peers. Doubtless the connoisseur Borhani was thinking: Close, but no cigar.
Finding the Right Tune
It was a hint of bigger things to come when William Knowles, now 34, set a poem by Langston Hughes to music as a University of Massachusetts grad student years ago. The Washington-based composer and musical director recently composed 24 tunes for "Tambourines to Glory," using lyrics Hughes wrote for the 1963 Broadway show (based on his novel) about two women who struggle over good and evil influences as they prosper at the Harlem church they found.
True Colors Theatre Company of Atlanta is presenting "Tambourines" at the Lincoln Theatre through Sunday. The company, headed by Broadway director Kenny Leon (whose recent revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" was a hit), plans to bring its new productions of classic plays by African American writers to the Lincoln for limited runs two or three times a year.
Knowles, a Howard University alum, says the original show had a score by Job Huntley, but the Hughes estate told him the sheet music was lost. So apart from three traditional hymns ("When the Saints Go Marching In," "What He's Done for Me" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"), Knowles had to set Hughes's lyrics to new melodies.
He worked in several styles, from gospel to jazz to Latin, noting that Hughes has "a lot of colors in his lyric writing and my goal was to echo that." The Harlem Renaissance poet died in 1967, so the score for "Tambourines" couldn't be a typical collaboration. Yet Knowles, who shared a 2001 Helen Hayes Award for musical direction of "Dinah Was" at Arena Stage, found Hughes's lyrics "easy to set."
Backing up the cast at the Lincoln is a "volunteer" pool of 33 singers from area gospel choirs. Both Knowles and vocal arranger J. Michael are up there with them -- Michael directing the choir and Knowles playing keyboards and leading a three-piece combo.
Lessons On- and Offstage
Even in this age of colorblind casting, it is surprisingly rare that actors of color and white actors get to join forces in plays that deal directly with race, says David Charles Goyette of African Continuum Theatre Company (ACTCo). "We were sort of shocked that 'A Lesson Before Dying' hadn't been done in this city. There aren't a lot of opportunities for actors of color and other artists to work together and discuss issues," he notes.
ACTCo is presenting Romulus Linney's adaptation of the novel by Ernest G. Gaines through Oct. 10 at the H Street Playhouse (1365 H St. NE). In it, an African American man in rural Louisiana in 1948 is condemned to death for murders he didn't commit. A teacher is asked to help him find a semblance of inner peace before the awful day.
"In the end, it is the teacher who is ultimately taught the lesson by this young man," director Goyette says. "[He] ends up teaching the whole community how to be a person with dignity."
Goyette is in his third season as ACTCo's associate producer. He worked as an assistant at the Shakespeare Theatre and Arena Stage and interned for ACTCo producer Jennifer L. Nelson while a graduate student at the University of Texas.
The 31-year-old Goyette, who is white, says working at ACTCo has raised his consciousness. "There are white people and African American people in the cast and crew and design staff [and] it's been this amazing conversation that we've had about what problems still exist and how we perceive the world -- how it's different and how it's the same."
* The experimental Rude Mechanicals players will present another weekend of "Hamlet" Thursday through Saturday at D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. Call DCAC at 202-462-7833 or Rude Mechanicals at 301-317-9438, or visit www.rudemechanicals.com.
* The Kennedy Center's free Millennium Stage will show all six parts of the upcoming PBS series "Broadway: The American Musical" on a big screen Oct. 7-12, at 6 p.m. The series by Michael Kantor will air Oct. 19-21.
* Backstage gave an incorrect number to call for tickets to Trumpet Vine Theatre Company's "Desire," which opens Saturday at Theater on the Run in Arlington. The correct number is 703-912-1649.