Who: Heather Christian, Mykal Kilgore, Carla R. Stewart, Ali Stroker, Marinda Anderson, Cassie Beck, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Reed Birney, Aya Cash, Kirsten Childs, Milo Cramer, Sarah DeLappe, Larissa FastHorse, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Peter Friedman, Dave Harris, Lucas Hnath, Michael R. Jackson, Sylvia Khoury, Taylor Mac, Matt Maher, John-Andrew Morrison, Kelli O’Hara, Annie Parisse, Pedro Pascal, Max Posner, Tori Sampson, Rhea Seehorn, Lois Smith, Paul Sparks, Jeremy Strong, Sanaz Toossi, more
What: Fiftieth anniversary virtual gala
Where: Playwrights Horizons online
When: Wednesday, June 23, free with RSVP (donations encouraged), 8:00
Why: Over the course of fifty years, seven Pulitzer Prizes, thirteen Tony Awards, and forty-seven Obies, Playwrights Horizons has lived up to its mission as “a writer’s theater dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers, and lyricists and to the production of their new work.” On June 23 at 8:00, PH will celebrate its golden anniversary with a virtual gala featuring appearances by a wide range of creators with connections to the company, which is based on West Forty-Second St. The evening will be highlighted by a quartet of performances: Carla R. Stewart singing “Lifted" from Tori Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka, Mykal Kilgore singing “Memory Song” from Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, Heather Christian delivering "Recessional" from Prime: A Practical Breviary, and Ali Stroker singing “Her Sweater” from Kirsten Guenther and Ryan Scott Oliver’s Mrs. Sharp. In addition, among those wishing PH a happy anniversary will be Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Reed Birney, Sarah DeLappe, Larissa FastHorse, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Lucas Hnath, Taylor Mac, Kelli O’Hara, Annie Parisse, Pedro Pascal, Lois Smith, and Paul Sparks.
Who: Lisa Banes, Jordan Boatman, Eleanor Burgess, Kimberly Senior
What: Virtual reading and discussion
Where: Broadway on Demand
When: Online streaming extended through June 27, free with RSVP
Why: “It’s a dangerous time, and this is a play that ignites those thoughts and makes you look at yourself and makes you look at your place in the world,” Lisa Banes says in a brief recorded conversation about Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties, which is streaming in a sizzling online version through June 27. “I mean, every time we had talked to the audience after the play, we were asked as human beings, not just as actors, Where do you stand on this?” Sadly, Banes will no longer be answering these questions; she died on June 14 at the age of sixty-five after being hit by a scooter on the Upper West Side; the perpetrator has not been found. This production from MTC’s Curtain Call series and the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston is the last play featuring the extraordinarily talented Banes.
Banes and Jordan Boatman had reunited for the virtual reading; they starred in the two-character play when it premiered at MTC’s Studio at Stage II at City Center in 2018. The two-act, one-hundred-minute play has been moved from an American history professor’s office at a prestigious university to Skype, where Janine (Banes), a tenured teacher, is offering advice to one of her students, Zoe (Boatman), who’s working on a paper about radical revolutions. Janine is white; Zoe is black. The discussion does not go as expected; what was supposed to be a productive session turns into a ferocious confrontation about how the past and the present define and regard colonialism, slavery, political protests and marches, constitutional democracy, racial oppression, the concept of freedom, and the Supreme Court. “I love critical dialogue; I’m listening,” Janine says. But Zoe argues that she is not being heard.
“You have a contempt for your students, and particularly your students who think different from you,” Zoe explains.
“Differently,” Janine corrects.
Zoe: “You use your intelligence to critique and belittle people who have less power than you. Like your comments on my paper. Do you think that’s helpful? To take a person who’s trying to put forward an underrepresented point of view and criticize them until they feel like they might as well give up because you’ll never understand?”
Janine: “I didn’t tell you to give up. . . .”
Zoe: “Listen, there is one appropriate way of responding to a woman of color who says I have an idea to assert. And that is to shut up and listen, because she has experiences you cannot possibly know and insight you can learn from.”
Janine: “To shut up and listen, as you so rudely put it, would be doing you a disservice.”
Three weeks later, they are dealing with the aftermath of their fierce exchange, but while much has changed, much has not as they continue to disagree about personal and public aspects of dignity, equality, and compromise.
The Niceties is set in the spring of 2016, during the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Original director Kimberly Senior (Disgraced, Sweat) helms this virtual iteration, which is ablaze with passion while including artful little touches: Janine drinks out of a Hillary Clinton mug, even after Zoe expresses her fondness for President Obama, and Janine has a framed portrait of George Washington on her wall, whereas Zoe has a poster of The Color Purple behind her. And KRS-ONE’s “Sound of Da Police” plays during the five-minute intermission, preparing viewers for a highly volatile second act.
Obie winner Banes (Look Back in Anger, My Sister in the House, Isn’t It Romantic?) and Boatman (The Good Fight, The Path) are electrifying, picking up right where they left off at Studio at Stage II; this is no mere reunion reading but a thrillingly performed work that takes on issues that have only grown more complex since 2018. Banes is elegant and refined as the meticulous woman forced to defend her career, while Boatman is fervent and intense as a tenacious student fighting to be heard. If The Niceties doesn’t get your juices flowing, then you haven’t been paying attention to what has been happening across the country, and around the world, these past few years.
“I was so, so happy to do this,” Banes says in the talk. “It came at just the right moment. I feel like we started our engines and got ’em going, and now I can’t wait for the next thing.” Banes, who also appeared in such films as Cocktail and Gone Girl and the television series Son of the Beach and Royal Pains, is survived by her wife, Kathryn Kranhold. Anyone with information about the tragic hit-and-run that took her life is urged to call NYPD Crime Stoppers at (800) 577-TIPS.
Who: Jordan Klepper, Fred Armisen, Maura Tierney, Thomas Sadoski, Arian Moayed, Annie McNamara, April Matthis, Vin Knight, Young Jean Lee, Joel Perez, Yo La Tengo
What: Virtual gala
Where: Elevator Repair Service online
When: Wednesday, June 23, $25-$500, 7:30 (private virtual cocktail reception at 7:00 for donors of $2,500+)
Why: During the Trump era, comedian Jordan Klepper has been one of the funniest, move insightful television journalists around, in his “Fingers the Pulse” segments on The Daily Show, in which he fearlessly goes straight into the heart of the MAGAverse, speaking with Trumpists who are not in on the joke. He has also hosted his own satirical series, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, as well as the influential special Jordan Klepper Solves Guns. On June 23 at 7:30, the Michigan-born Klepper, a former member of the Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade, will be hosting The Tonight Zoom with Jordan Klepper A Celebration of Live Theatre (remotely) (and partially pre-taped), a virtual gala benefiting New York City experimental theater stalwarts Elevator Repair Service.
Founded in 1991 by artistic director John Collins, ERS has developed a unique theatrical language over its thirty years, presenting collaborative works that often reimagine literary classics into something new and unpredictable at such venues as the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, the New York Public Library, and PS122. Among their shows are Marx Brothers on Horseback Salad, The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928), Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf, The Select (The Sun Also Rises), Measure for Measure, and their widely acclaimed Gatz, an eight-hour adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
At the virtual gala, Klepper will interview ERS company members Vin Knight, April Matthis, and Annie McNamara as characters they have portrayed in the troupe’s productions; there will also be appearances by Fred Armisen, Maura Tierney, Thomas Sadoski, Arian Moayed, Young Jean Lee, Joel Perez, and Yo La Tengo. It might be called “a celebration of live theatre,” but, in true Klepper/ERS style, they are pointing out that it will take place remotely, with some prerecorded segments. Tickets start at $25 and go up to $10,000 for the Gold Virtual Table, which includes a preshow cocktail reception for twelve people, tickets to ERS’s upcoming adaptation of The Seagull at the Skirball Center, and select merchandise.
A few minutes into Woolly Mammoth’s stream of Heather Christian’s pandemic-filmed Animal Wisdom, I grew terribly upset with myself: How in the world did I miss this remarkable show when it premiered at the Bushwick Starr in 2017?
Extended on demand through June 27, this new iteration of Animal Wisdom is an intimate and rapturous confessional of music and storytelling, an ingenious journey into the personal and communal nature of ritual and superstition, of grief and loss, of ghosts and, most intently, the fear of death. Presented by DC’s Woolly Mammoth and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, the 135-minute show is a movie/theater/concert hybrid and a melding of public séance and stirring revival meeting, with film direction by Amber McGinnis and stage direction by Emilyn Kowaleski. They create a unique and special experience that the audience can feel a part of even though they are at home watching a recording, which is especially enhanced if they follow Christian’s request that each viewer gather four elements so they can participate in the proceedings.
“This performance was never supposed to happen on film,” Christian says directly into the camera early on. “I guess that’s obvious. But contrary to what it looks like, it wasn’t supposed to happen in a theater either. It was supposed to happen in a defunct church or holy space, but houses of any kind are deconsecrated and reconsecrated all the time, so I guess we’re not so far off. Anyways, maybe at least yours is already haunted.”
Singer-songwriter and pianist Christian is joined by her band, guitarist and cellist Sasha Brown, bassists Fred Epstein and B. E. Farrow, percussionist Eric Farber, and violinist Maya Sharpe, as she travels back to her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, sharing tales about her deceased grandparents amid original songs that range from country and blues to folk and gospel, with such titles as “Well Made Fish,” “Wild Thing’s Daughter,” “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), and “Libera Me,” eschewing conventional hook-laden sing-along pop and standard theatrical orchestrations. She makes regular comparisons between her relatives and such animals and insects as mosquitoes, birds, coyotes, elephants, cicadas, and cats, which explains the name of the work.
“When I say ‘Love is in the garden,’” she says after singing that song, “I mean that. I mean that because: When my grandma Heloise died, she up and put herself in the plants, and so I go to the garden to talk to her and rip up weeds when I am heartbroken. When I say ‘Grandmother’s a red bird’ — I mean that too. When my grandmother Geraldine died, she threw her ghost into a cardinal. As a bird, she was hard to pin down for conversation so I tattooed a red feather on my arm. Hasn’t totally worked if Imma be honest. When I say Grandaddy’s in the car, he is, and when I say ‘Praise be the wrecking ball,’ I mean my brain. That one’s a metaphor. I don’t know about you but my brain is a wrecking ball.”
She later admits, “The women in my matrilineal line are New Orleans Catholics who are also musicians who suffer migraines and talk to dead people. There are three of us. Ella, Heloise, Heather. Skipped my mom. Don’t know what that’s about.”
Director of photography Aiden Korotkin follows Christian — primarily wearing a “Lux Aeterna” T-shirt, the communion antiphon for the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass — as she moves about Christopher Bowser’s intricately designed stage, from pianos to a carousel slideshow with theater seats, from a small table with an old telephone (with a cord) to a shrine to her grandma Ella, from various lamps and candles to a soda vending machine and other unexpected items, centered on a circle of overlapping rugs to give it a homey feel. She and the band also wander through Woolly Mammoth’s hallways and lobby, reminding us of the physical space of theater.
An NYU grad, film composer, and leader of the band Heather Christian & the Arbornauts, Christian is spellbinding in Animal Wisdom, capturing our attention from the very beginning and never letting go as she openly and honestly details critical moments in her life, her dark eyes and round face captivating. Christian is a multitalented creator who has recently released the audio work Prime: A Practical Breviary for Playwrights Horizons and the video collaboration I Am Sending You the Sacred Face for Theater in Quarantine on YouTube, and she will premiere the Covid-delayed Oratorio for Living Things at Ars Nova next spring. She leaves nothing behind in Animal Wisdom, one of the best virtual shows to come out during the pandemic, baring her heart and soul, a magnetic force in full command of the stage, her supporting cast, and her bewitched audience.
“I’m gonna tell you what I think about the soul,” she says to us. “So we should make friends real quick, ’cause that’s heavy. Hum with me like this?” I dare you not to listen to her and hum along; it’s impossible to not join Christian on this fabulous interactive ride through metaphorical and metaphysical ghosts that haunt us all.
CREATIVE TIME: THE PEOPLE’S PLATFORM
Through July 4, free (some events require advance RSVP and in-person sign-in)
Since June 5, the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time as been hosting live events in Astor Plaza in celebration of the reopening of New York City and the return of live performance in front of audiences. “Amidst an ongoing global pandemic and multiple human rights crises that have kept the world in isolation and grief, Rashid Johnson’s Red Stage is an emergency call to artists and creatives to experiment, collaborate, and gather in an act of resurgence,” Creative Time associate curator Diya Vij said in a statement. “The minimalist sculpture — akin to a bandshell stage — is rendered in steel and powder-coated in a color Johnson describes as ‘alarm red.’ Its simplicity is imbued with life: The entirety of the surface is marked by Johnson’s hand and the structure holds a vibrancy of thriving living plants. Stewarding this work requires a commitment to engender and nurture life-affirming futures.”
Chicago-born artist Johnson filled the first two weeks of Red Stage with a wide array of events, including Ethan Philbrick’s 15 cellists, Emily Johnson’s The Rising Stomp, Papi Juice’s The Portal, Jason Moran and Total Freedom, poetry, a dance party, karaoke, and community discussion. Coming up are an audio installation, a painting demonstration and workshop, a farmer’s market, a participatory marathon reading, a commencement ceremony honoring the end of the school year, a special Black trans Pride empowerment, and other presentations.
“As the world unevenly experiences the impact of Covid-19, and New York City begins to economically and socially reawaken, Red Stage affords us the opportunity to come together in this complexity to question the idea for a new normal and to envision the potential of truly engaging in public space,” Vij continued. “Red Stage establishes a temporary public-led public space for artists, organizers, and agitators. It is a proposition to the public to occupy space through movement — activation of the body in dance, the breath in song, the fist in protest, and the collective in revolutionary potential.” Everything is free, although some programs require advance RSVP to attend and/or take part in. Below is the full schedule as of June 19.
Monday, June 21
Graphic reading: The People’s Platform, 10:00 am–2:00 pm
Brooklyn Music School, with vocalist and faculty member Emily Tepe performing original works, 3:00- 5:00
An Exploration in Still Life Movement with Black Painters Academy, led by artist and academy founder Azikiwe Mohammed, painting supplies available for first ten people, 5:30 - 6:30
Meditation Journey for Renewal & Emergence with Lana Homeri, 6:00 - 8:00
The first sky is inside you: A sound experience by sunlove, 7:00 -7:45
Tuesday, June 22
GrowNYC Farmer’s Market, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
Wednesday, June 23
Graphic reading: The People’s Platform, 10:00 am
Thursday, June 24
Echo Location by Charlotte Brathwaite, intimate public marathon reading of Alexis Pauline Gumb’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, embraced by song, initiated by Brathwaite in collaboration with Sunder Ganglani and y.o.u., 10:00 am – 10:00 pm
Friday, June 25
Graphic reading: The People’s Platform, 10:00 am–2:00 pm
Commencement: A Procession & Ceremony of Gratitude, Reunion, Celebration and the Closing of School Year led by Tiffany Lenoi Jones, 3:00 - 4:30
Graphic reading: The People’s Platform, 5:00
Saturday, June 26
Arts on Site, with the Bang Group, ARKAI Music, Jamal Jackson Dance Company, BOiNK! Dance & Film, and Dual Rivet, 2:30 - 3:30
Live Arts Pride 2021: The House Party, with DJ THELIMITDOESNOTEXIST, Switch n’ Play (Divina GranSparkle, K.James, Nyx Nocturne, the Illustrious Pearl, and Zoe Ziegfeld, hosted by Miss Malice), Bubble_T (Sammy Kim, Keekai, Sina, Kiko Soiree, Snix), Oops! (Chiquitita & West Dakota), Ragga NYC (Shawn Neon, Viva Ruiz, Batalá New York), and Linda La & the Perfect Poison (Linda La, the Perfect Poison, Rozay LaBeija, and guests), introduced by Bill T. Jones, free with RSVP, 4:00 - 8:00
Sunday, June 27
Stonewall Protests Takeover: Black Trans Liberation, with special guests, 10:00 am –
Sanford Biggers’s monumental sculpture Oracle will continue to reign over Rockefeller Center through June 29. Weighing more than seven and a half tons and rising more than twenty-five-feet high, a bronze depiction of a mythological figure with an oversized head, holding a fiery torch in his left hand and making a symbolic gesture with his right hand. Wearing a swirling robe and sandals, he has a small lion at each of his feet, offering protection. His hair in the back falls into a ritual object. Oracle is a continuation of Biggers’s Chimera series, recently on view at Marianne Boesky, sculptures that explore classical narrative and power by reimagining traditional Greco-Roman and African sculpture and concepts of art history into something new. “The imposing figure of Oracle combines elements of an ancient depiction of Zeus with an Africoid mask-bust figure that’s a composite of several masks and busts from different African cultures,” Biggers says about the work, which evokes Simone Leigh’s High Line plinth Brick House and Kara Walker’s massive A Subtlety installation at the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory. Presented by Rockefeller Center in partnership with Art Production Fund, Oracle is part of “Art in Focus,” a series of site-specific works that previously featured pieces by Oliver Jeffers, Lucy Sparrow, Hein Koh, Hiba Shachbaz, and Lakela Brown, with Hilary Pecisk, Maurice Harris, and Lisa Congdon to come.
A former b-boy, breakdancer, DJ, and graffiti artist who was born in Los Angeles in 1970, the Harlem-based Biggers has been making politically charged art for decades, exploring racism, police brutality, and what it’s like to be a Black male in America. His 2020–21 exhibition “Codeswitch” at the Bronx Museum consisted of fifty quilts that delved into African American history and storytelling modes, while Blossom, now in its own space at the Brooklyn Museum, is a piano jutting out of a tree, playing an instrumental version of “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. Biggers, who also leads the five-piece band Moon Medicin, has created a special “We Are the Oracle” playlist for Oracle, which includes tunes by Raphael Saddiq, Brittany Howard, Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers, Prince, Radiohead, Charles Mingus, Donovan, and David Bowie that you can check out here.
OHIO STATE MURDERS
Goodman Theatre online
June 17-20, $25
It might have taken a pandemic lockdown and national protests against racial injustice for eighty-nine-year-old Pittsburgh-born playwright Adrienne Kennedy to be rediscovered, but we’re all the better for it. Last November, the Round House Theatre in Maryland and the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton kicked off “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence,” featuring four productions filmed onstage at the Round House. It was a deep dive into Kennedy’s growing legacy, dealing with police brutality, racism, white supremacy, sin, bigotry, and murder. One of the plays has become a touchstone for past and present societal ills that have been front and center during the Covid-19 crisis.
“I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work; bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus,” Kennedy alter-ego Suzanne Alexander explains directly to the camera at the start of the hourlong Ohio State Murders. “The chairman said, we do want to hear about your brief years here at Ohio State but we also want you to talk about violent imagery in your stories and plays.” There’s a good reason for Kennedy’s use of violent imagery in her work.
First produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival in 1992 with Ruby Dee as Suzanne, the play made its New York premiere in 2007 at the Duke starring LisaGay Hamilton. Round House and McCarter’s 2020 online version featured Lynda Gravatt in the role, while Broadway’s Best Shows’ benefit livestream reading for the Actors Fund earlier this month had six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as Suzanne, directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon. Now the Goodman Theatre in Chicago is presenting five live productions June 17–20 that can only be experienced in real time, as it happens, filmed live by three mobile camera operators, with no audience in the seats.
Jacqueline Williams is exquisite as Suzanne, delivering her speech in an almost matter-of-fact manner as she moves about the Goodman stage, watching scenes from her past unfold before her eyes. It’s essentially a memory play, with Suzanne detailing her time at Ohio State — Kennedy’s alma mater — when she was a student (portrayed in flashbacks by Eunice Woods) studying English with white professor Robert Hampshire (Shane Kenyon) and sharing a room with musician Iris Ann (Destini Huston) in a dorm where there are only twelve Black girls among six hundred female students. Suzanne displays a profound interest in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles while also learning about Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, but her options at college are limited because she is Black.
When she becomes pregnant, her relationships with the men in her life — her father, her friend Val (Ernest Bentley), and Hampshire — change dramatically. She is treated unfairly by dorm head Miss Dawson but is supported by her aunt Louise and widowed landlady Mrs. Tyler (all three of whom are portrayed by Dee Dee Batteast), and she grows close with law student David (Bentley) after horrific tragedy strikes.
Director Tiffany Nichole Greene (Between Riverside and Crazy, Blood at the Root) and video director Christiana Tye bring the tale to the computer screen superbly, creating a compelling hybrid presentation that has the exciting feel of live theater, or at least as much as you can get streaming at home. Greene also makes the play’s exploration of loss, trauma, mourning, race-based suppression, and unexpected violence relevant to what has occurred over the last fifteen months in America. When Hampshire reads King Arthur, the words hit hard: “‘Till the blood bespattered his stately beard. / As if he had been battering beasts to death. / Had not Sir Ewain and other great lords come up, / His brave heart would have burst then in bitter woe: / ‘Stop!’ these stern men said, ‘You are bloodying yourself!’ / Your cause of grief is cureless and cannot be remedied. You reap no respect when you wring your hands: To weep like a woman is not judged wise.’”
Director of photography Gabe Hatfield and cameramen Matt Cozza and Eugene Hahm, wearing the complex equipment on their backs, calmly navigate Arnel Sancianco’s comfortable set, which consists of library shelves, a desk and chalkboard, a dorm bedroom with two mattresses, a few chairs, and piles of books that look like they might tumble over at any moment. They follow the older Suzanne’s point of view as she shares her story, moving in and out of her old life without strong emotion but instead a kind of perceptive acceptance and admirable grace. In one memorable shot, Hampshire peers at the younger Suzanne from the shadows, suspicion palpable. The lighting is by Jason Lynch, with costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg and sound by Melanie Chen Cole. The cast is exceptional, led by Williams and Woods portraying the same character at different points in her life, revealing that time doesn’t necessary heal all wounds, especially as the world fails to change nearly enough over the decades.