“Call the understudy, I can’t go on tonight,” is the closing theme from the cult television comedy “Slings and Arrows.” The show about backstage drama at a theater company debuted in Canada in 2003, but in the ensuing decade, the refrain has become a bit dated.
These days, it’s not “call the understudy,” it’s “text the assistant stage manager.” And post-recession, there may well not be an understudy to call.
Jessica Soriano, an assistant stage manager at Theater J, got the dreaded text message Feb. 4. The actor sending it was Al Twanmo, one of the leads in the play “Yellow Face.” He was at the hospital, being treated for a broken ankle after falling on black ice. Soriano then e-mailed (still no phone call involved) the production team with the bad news.
With little deliberation, Wednesday night’s show was canceled (ticket holders received refunds), but the actors were called to the theater. Director Natsu Onoda Power had an idea to make sure the show would go on sooner rather than later.
First, she re-blocked the entire play, allocating many of Twanmo’s lines to the four other actors in the ensemble who play multiple roles. But replacing Twanmo’s main character was going to be tricky. David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” is a satirical comedy about racial stereotypes. The lead character is Chinese American, as is his father, who Twanmo was playing. The only Asian actor Theater J found who could read for the role on short notice was, in the words of artistic director Ari Roth, “30 years too young.”
Undeterred, Power turned to Roth.
“There was just one person who knew the part, who is not Asian, and who the audience would accept in this role, and that’s Ari,” she said late Thursday night after Roth, a 50-something Jewish playwright, made his professional stage debut playing an elderly Chinese American banker.
Roth maintains that he wasn’t actually acting, “I did this as a reading, everyone else was up there acting,” he protested, adding that he was “doing Al” and did his best to match Twanmo’s cadence.
The part of the father is written in broken English, with lots of stubborn humor, given Twanmo’s character is an immigrant who worked his way up from a laundry worker to the chief executive of Far East National Bank. Before his fall, Twanmo had received praise for his work in “Yellow Face”; Post critic Peter Marks called his performance “beguiling” in his review of the show. Roth will not be nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his one-night stint as a substitute, but what he will take away is a bouquet of yellow roses, and some insight into life outside an artistic director’s office.
“I have never spent so much on my personal grooming,” Roth said, “At 5 p.m., I stopped doing my computer work and started preparing for the show.” Those preparations included both streaking his hair with gray and spending some time in front of the mirror trimming nose hairs. He came away not only with more respect for his actors but also for the stage managers and others working behind the scenes at Theater J.
“I have been running this theater for 171 / 2 years,” Roth said, “and I’ve never been backstage watching for an entire show.”
When Roth did come out onstage, it was in a wheelchair, a change Power kept when Twanmo returned to the stage Saturday. In Act II, the script calls for an ensemble member to play the father’s doctor. In Power’s revision, the doctor (played by Mark Hairston) will always wheel Twanmo out. But there’s still a major challenge that they’ll have to deal with until the show closes Feb. 23: a massive set of file cabinets surrounds the stage, and only one entrance is wide enough for the chair.
“The scenery is not wheelchair-accessible,” Power said.
Theater J learned its lesson in staging accessible theater the hard way, but several other theaters in the Washington area are deliberately seeking to be more inclusive in their casting, and are succeeding artistically as a result. At Studio Theatre, Nina Raine’s play “Tribes,” about a deaf son in a dysfunctional family, has been extended through March 2. Out in Herndon, NextStop Theatre Company is mounting a well-reviewed production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” with a deaf actor, Ethan Sinnot, starring as the murderous monarch.
Also worth noting: Deaf actor Hector Reynoso is a company member at Synetic, and next month’s World Stages international theater festival at the Kennedy Center will include Israel’s Nalaga’at Theater for deaf and blind actors.
Locally, the two leads in “Tribes” and “Richard III” share an interesting connection: Sinott is chairman of the theater program at Gallaudet University, and James Caverly, who plays the lead in “Tribes,” is one of his most successful graduates. Yet until he drove out to Herndon recently for a dress rehearsal, Caverly had never seen his former professor act. Caverly loved the concept — and the performance.
“It was brilliant!” Caverly wrote in an e-mail message. “For so long, I’ve thought of Richard III as it was written in the text: a hunchback, hobbled, and writhed villain who’s sole ambition was to destroy those who had more power over him. I never perceived him to be deaf. And it does make sense when you correspond it to a real-life scenario. Most of the royal court chose to seclude him because of his deafness, which eerily echoes with the daily basis of deaf people everywhere. . . . This is a big step for the DC theater scene, and [I’m] proud to be part of something bigger.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.