Saturday, September 28, 2019

I'm a Little Bit Racist

The October 7, 2019 issue of People magazine arrived in my mailbox yesterday. I've somehow accidentally subscribed to a magazine I never read. Most issues have gone straight to a pile on my bookcase. Who knows, maybe I'll need magazines for a collage or something? But this latest issue caught my eye: A photograph of Felicity Huffman with the caption "Facing Her Fate." Huffman is facing prison time for her role in a college admissions scandal - cheating to get her own children into elite schools. 

TheatreLAB opens its 2019-2020 Season - Power and Privilege - with Admissions, which may as well be the Huffman scandal but set at Hillcrest, an elite co-ed college prep school. 

Joshua Harmon's award-winning play is a scathing critique of power, privilege, and hypocrisy where passionately held views collide with personal experience. In the hands of Director DeeJay Gray and a stellar cast of some of Richmond's most talented actors, the show comes alive and the audience is left questioning their values, beliefs, and behaviors.  I left the show feeling uncomfortable. Am I a racist?

 Sherri Rosen-Mason (Donna Marie Miller) is the admissions director who has made it her life's mission to make Hillcrest's milky white student population more diverse.  When their diversity numbers hit eighteen percent, she celebrates with her husband, Bill (David Clarke), the progressive headmaster and English teacher at the Academy. They drink champagne, and stroke their egos for all the good and heartfelt work they've done.

But when their son, Charlie (Tyler Stevens) is wait-listed at Yale, and his good friend Perry - who happens to be biracial - gets in, their hypocrisy is exposed. Charlie goes on a verbal rant that is spoiled, white privilege personified.  Stevens' self-pitying, spoiled-rich-boy monologue is one of the standout moments of the show. 

Charlie and Perry are friends. But Charlie knows he's the superior student.  So there must be another reason that Perry got in and he didn't. Another standout moment happens when Ginny (Sara Collazo), Perry's mom, confronts her good friend, Sherri, and calls her out on her white privilege. Ginny demands Sherri acknowledge that whether she likes it or not, she does believe that Perry got the spot at Yale . . . because he's black. 

Photo Credit: Tom Topinka

Providing comic relief is comedienne extraordinaire, Jackie Jones as Roberta, an older administrator at Hillcrest who is charged with compiling pictures for the school catalogue. When Sherri informs Roberta  the catalogue doesn't reflect their student population, and that she needs to get more representative photographs,  Roberta awkwardly navigates the new lingo of political correctness. We squirm as Roberta tries to get clarity on what her boss wants. Roberta states that she doesn't see color - a phrase about as cringe-worthy as 'I'm not racist, I have black friends.' Trying to understand her boss's concerns, she further puts her foot in her mouth, asking clarifying questions such as "do you mean darker ?" 

I am not color blind. I do see color. And sometimes that makes me an unintentional racist. I truly believe my heart and convictions are in the right place. But as a woman who grew up in an upper middle class mostly white neighborhood I've internalized some racist tendencies. I'm not proud of it, and I work hard to overcome those tendencies. I'm reminded of the song from Avenue Q: Everyone's a Little Bit Racist.

From costumes and set to extraordinary performances by Donna Marie Miller, David Clark, Tyler Stevens, Sara Collazo, and Jaqueline Jones, Admissions knocks it out of the park.  If this production is any indication, we're in for one hell of a season at TheatreLAB. Be prepared to squirm and have to face your own power and privilege in the mirror.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Games We Play

Forrest Gump was wrong. Life is like a game of chess. We play by the rules, and the roles - king, queen, rook and pawn - are set by a society that likes order and conformity. But what happens when there are too many queens, or the pawn makes an unexpected move? The board is upended and we are left crawling on our hands and knees to reassemble the pieces into love....messy, complicated, chaotic. But real.

It is 1979 and Act One of Falsettos opens with the quartet of Marvin (Matt Shofner), Whizzer (Durron Marquis Tyre), Jason (Rowan Sharma) and Mendel (Dan Cimo) romping around the stage bitching about their quirky, unconventional lives. The opening musical number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," is hilarious, and upbeat, and sets the bar high - fantastic singing and lightening-paced choreography.

Marvin is a self-absorbed, rich business man who has left his wife, Trina (Casey Payne) and their son Jason for his gay lover Whizzer. Add in Mendel (Dan Cimo) who is Marvin's therapist and you've got a complicated game-board. Which gets even more complicated when Mendel falls in love with Trina, and neurotic Marvin loses a his shrink.

Bring the tissues for Act Two. By now we are invested in the characters - warts and all - It is 1981 and so much has changed in three years. Marvin has matured. He lives in an apartment where Jason spends his weekends, befriends the neighboring lesbian couple (Kelsey Cordroy as Dr. Charlotte and Rachel Marrs as Cordelia) and co-parents Jason with Trina and Mendel. This cobbled-together chosen family has completely captured our hearts as we build towards Jason's Bar Mitzvah. But by 1981 the landscape has changed in the gay community and something bad is happening. Dr. Charlotte is increasingly distressed by the patterns she is seeing as a hospital internist. When Whizzer collapses during a game of racketball the frightening, mysterious disease hits close to home.

Falsettos is marvelous. Bravo to Debra Clinton for directing and choreographing one of the most moving pieces of musical theatre I've seen. I was 11 in 1981. But 10 years later I would lose my dear friend Chris to A.I.D.S. For those of us in the audience who have experienced that devastating loss, Falsettos takes on a deeper level of meaning.

The performances never let up. As an ensemble the cast of Falsettos is the Gary Kasparov of musical theatre. And each individual performance was stellar. I sat next to Rowan Sharma's mom. She commented on the pressure of being the only kid in a show full of superbly talented actors. Ms. Sharma, Rowan held his own every step and note of the way.

There was no one standout performance; each actor had their own standout moment: Shofner's angelic voice soared with "I Never Wanted to Love You," Ms. Payne gutted me with "I'm Breaking Down," and I'm still not over Tyre's "You Gotta Die Sometime."

My only issue with the show was with the set. It felt cobbled together, too. I'm sure the crooked, empty frames on the walls the characters rearranged from time to time had a purpose. But I didn't get it.

Falsettos earned every second of the standing ovation. This morning my heart is still aching, but is more full, too. Here's to upending the game board of life and crawling on our knees through the muck and stink and chaos of life. Here's to upending our prescribed roles, and turning the game of life into a song of love.

Falsettos continues through October 5 at Richmond Triangle Players' Robert B. Moss Theatre. To purchase tickets, click here.