Town Hall: What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?, Monday, October 19, free with RSVP, 7:30
October 20-25, Working Theater, suggested $30
October 27 - November 1, Hartford Consortium, suggested $25
November 10-15, Marin Theatre Company, price TBD
“It’s a game. It’s a show. It’s AmERica!!!” an announcer declares at the beginning of American Dreams, an interactive online play that skewers US immigration policy and ethnocentricity in funny, clever, and, ultimately, harsh ways. With the country in the process of deciding whether to give President Donald Trump, a former reality TV star, another four years in the White House, the show is on a virtual nationwide tour, stopping October 20-25 at New York City’s Working Theater. First staged at the Cleveland Public Theatre two years ago, Leila Buck’s play has been reimagined for the internet, set up as a game show that gives one of three immigrants the chance to win American citizenship.
Cohosted by the deceptively smarmy Christian White (Jens Rasmussen) and bright and perky Sherry Brown (Buck), who are over-the-top gleeful until they turn the tide, the game show is divided into four sections: “How America Works,” “America’s Favorites,” “Aliens with Extraordinary Skills,” and “American Dreams.” Battling it out to live in the United States legally are Adil Akram Mansour (Andre Ali Andre), a chef and philanthropist from Bethlehem (“not the one in Pennsylvania”); Alejandro Rodriguez (Andrew Valdez), a former National Guard medic from Mexico; and Usman Bhutt (Imran Sheikh), a Pakistani illustrator who loves Star Trek. “For the past two seasons,” Sherry says, “we have been offering once-in-a-lifetime chances to people searching for a brighter future in the land of freedom and opportunity. And while this season we can’t be in your town halls, theaters, and auditoriums, we are so glad to be welcomed into your homes.” Chris adds, “On each show, three contestants compete for the equivalent of Columbus’s gold.” Sherry: “One lucky winner will receive, right here, tonight, immediate citizenship to the greatest nation on earth. Our online studio audience has been approved by the highest levels of our government to be the people —” Chris and Sherry: “— who choose the people.” Sherry: “So your votes will determine our contestants’ destinies, as you decide who has the chance to live the American Dream.” It's more than their destinies that are at stake.
Bree Coffman (India Nicole Burton), deputy director of culture for the US, keeps in touch with the audience throughout. “We all have the power to help shape and control the future of this country — one citizen at a time,” Coffman explains early on. As the game continues, you’re likely to find out that these immigrants know more about America than you do, but that is not necessarily going to mean they’re on the path to citizenship as various roadblocks, arbitrary and not, interfere with their quest, mimicking real life.
Co-commissioned by ASU Gammage and Texas Performing Arts and presented by Working Theater as well as Round House Theatre, Salt Lake Acting Company, Marin Theatre Company, HartBeat Ensemble, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, and University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Center, American Dreams achieves its goal of making the show a communal experience; the audience, visible in Zoom boxes, gets to fill out surveys, ask questions, cheer, and vote. Director Tamilla Woodard (Men on Boats, La Ruta) uses split screens to make it look like the contestants are in the same studio, even though they’re beaming in from wherever they’re sheltering in place; Woodard mixed Zoom, Skype, and other platforms to create what she refers to as a “beautiful monster.” The cast has a lot of fun, especially during one segment that is heavily improvised, making each performance unique. Even at ninety minutes, American Dreams feels too long, but you might want to stick around for the talkback anyway, which offers further insight into the development of the play. At one point, a prerecorded announcement tells us, “Your participation is key to protecting our democracy. If you see something, say something. The security of the greatest nation on earth depends on you.” As Buck points out, if only it were that easy.
In conjunction with the show’s run at Working Theater, there will be a free, virtual town hall on October 19, at 7:30, held in partnership with Portland’s Boom Arts, addressing the question “What does it mean to be a citizen?” featuring a keynote by actor Carlo Alban, followed by a panel with Nura Elgmagbari of the Portland Refugee Support Group, Richard Lujan-Valerio of the Latino Network, Juanita Sarmiento of Rural and Migrant Ministry, and actor, playwright, and native communities advocate DeLanna Studi (Cherokee), moderated by North Star Fund deputy director Elz Cuya Jones. Tune in and make a difference. Oh, and vote.
Who: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jason Dirden, Wendell B. Franklin, Nikiya Mathis, Adesola Osakulumi, Caroline Clay
What: Virtual reunion reading
Where: Atlantic Theater Company YouTube
When: October 22-24, free (suggested donation $25)
Why: The Atlantic Theater kicks off its virtual Fall Reunion Reading Series with Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, which had its world premiere in 2016 at Atlantic Stage 2. Four live readings will take place October 22-24 over YouTube, featuring original cast members Jason Dirden as Dez, Wendell B. Franklin as Reggie, Nikiya Mathis as Shanita, and Adesola Osakulumi as the dancer, with Caroline Clay replacing Lynda Gravatt as Faye; Ruben Santiago-Hudson is back as director. The play, which transferred to the Atlantic’s bigger Linda Gross Theater, is set at an automobile stamping factory during the recession of 2008; it is part of Detroit native Morisseau’s Detroit Project, a trilogy that also includes Detroit ’67 and Paradise Blue. In addition, on October 25 at 4:00, for “Live with Atlantic! Remix,” two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage will interview Morisseau, who has also written Pipeline, Sunset Baby, Blood at the Root, and Follow Me to Nellie’s as well as the book for Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations. The series continues November 5-7 with Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, with Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed.
“I haven’t had a Trump-free twenty-four hours in, oh, I think it’s been over a year,” Allie says in Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017, a satiric audio drama streaming for free from the Public Theater. She has no idea what she’s in for. Shipwreck premiered in February from DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and was scheduled to run at the Public as well, but it has now been repurposed by Washburn and original director Saheem Ali for online listening, divided into three parts in addition to an introductory program note and a water cooler discussion. The show takes place in an eighteenth-century upstate farmhouse, where a group of liberal friends have gathered in the wake of James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017. Jools (Sue Jean Kim) and Richard (Richard Topol) have invited Mare (Mia Barron) and Jim (Rob Campbell), Luis (Raúl Esparza) and Andrew (Jeremy Shamos), Lawrence (Bruce McKenzie), and Allie (Brooke Bloom) to spend the weekend at their new country home, as they agree and disagree about such topics as white privilege, Lord of the Rings, the big bad city, conspiracy theories, chaos voters, Comey’s personality, racism, Jim Jones, liberal dreams, the rule of law, and what’s for dinner. Also making critical appearances are Comey (Joe Morton), George W. Bush (Phillip James Brannon, sounding more like Barack Obama), and Donald J. Trump (Bill Camp), along with his secretary (Jenny Jules). Washburn (Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play; A Devil at Noon) gets the absurdist tone just right, nailing sarcasm and irony, hypocrisy and elitism by a group of friends who are sure they know best, especially when they find out that one of them might not have voted blue in 2016. “Who are those self-obsessed white people?” my wife called out at one point from the other room, not knowing what I was doing.
One of the key exchanges, and a terrific example of Washburn’s knack for incisive, realistic dialogue, occurs when a conversation uncomfortably turns to Black people and Trump. Allie begins, “You know who wasn’t surprised by all this? The Black people. They saw Trump coming.”
Mare: “Yeah . . .”
Andrew: “Yes, so I read in the media.”
Allie: “When we were all so freaked out, how could this happen!? They were like: Yeah . . . we know why.’ And now all heads swivel towards the Black people: What else do they know?”
Andrew: “Is that what the heads are really doing?”
Richard: “Racism systemic racism played a part, it totally played a part obviously but big obvious scapegoats aren’t going to help us out of this situation.”
Andrew: “Okay wait wait can we hold up for a moment. ‘The Black People.’ ‘The Black People. . . .’”
Jools: “‘The Black People. . . .’”
Jim: “Nope Allie, it doesn’t sit right.”
Allie: “I mean yes, of course it doesn’t. There’s a certain deliberate . . . tart irony there, no? Like we’re all so woke we can — I can’t, I don’t know if I can fully unpack it but no, I’m not saying ‘the Black People’ like I think it’s okay it’s so obviously not-okay.”
Mare: “So ironic racism is fine is what you’re saying.”
Jools: “Didn’t we have that little talk about using ‘unpack’ in normal conversation among actual humans?”
Allie: “Sometimes jargon is useful. . . . Black People. Black People saw this coming. That sounds weird to me like pseudo-mythic: ‘Black People,’ ‘Green People,’ ‘People of the Mist,’ ‘Zoners.’”
Andrew: “African American is an option.”
Allie: “Obviously, only African American is kind of I mean I know it’s not my place but it’s a lot of syllables and it’s a little bit formal like you’re trying too hard and I thought didn’t we have an unspoken agreement that we were as a group implicitly avoiding that brand of ultra-performative white liberalism also because there’s no distinction there and do Black people or people who are ‘black’ use the term? I’m confused about that and okay I know this is my own personal private but there’s no distinction between people who were brought here in chains three hundred years ago in the hold of a ship and and all of that and people from, like, Namibia who wandered over twenty years ago and sure it’s racist here but they have generations of intact cultural identity for back-up these are not the same people.”
Mare: “Okay, Allie . . .”
Jim: “Oh you’ve forgotten Colonialism.”
Allie: “I mean yes, Colonialism, yes, but it’s not the same. Colonialism doesn’t eviscerate . . . ‘black people’ sounds like, flat and kind . . . yes yes you’re right Colonialism can I mean it depends on who but no but in general, yes, Colonialism, terrible but it isn’t the same it’s just not but ‘black people’ that’s . . .”
Andrew: “I kind of beg to differ . . .”
Allie: “. . . crude . . . maybe I mean crude . . . they’re — no one’s black nobody’s white it’s a built-in oppositional it’s absurdly reductive when we’re all just, when we’re really all just . . . a spectrum of tan.”
At more than two and a half hours not including the intro and postshow talk, the play requires patience on the part of the listener, especially as we’re all so bombarded with 24/7 images from television and the internet and addicted to our phones. Radio plays were once an important and necessary form of entertainment, and the Public is doing what it can in these pandemic times to bring it back, first with its presentation of Richard II in July, which suffered because of commercials on WNYC, and now with the superior Shipwreck, a history play about today, and tomorrow. Get those headphones ready.
Who: TheaterWorks Hartford, TheatreSquared, the Civilians
What: Live site-specific theatrical digital experience
When: October 20-24, $20.20, 7:30 (available on demand October 25 - November 2)
Why: I’ve just watched the first part of Alex Gibney’s Agents of Chaos, a frightening documentary about Russian interference in American elections, primarily through troll farms spreading misinformation and disinformation over social media. Award-winning American playwright Sarah Gancher delves into that ever-growing issue in her new play, Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy. Production on the show began prior to the pandemic, so Gancher (The Lucky Ones, Hundred Days) has reimagined it as a “site-specific work for the internet,” with TheaterWorks Hartford in Connecticut and TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in association with the Brooklyn-based troupe the Civilians. The play, inspired by actual transcripts from the government-owned Internet Research Agency, aka Glavset, will be performed live on Zoom October 20-24, with tickets going for an appropriate $20.20; the five performances will then be archived for on-demand viewing October 25 - November 2, the eve of the election. “The trolls are out in full force right now,” Gancher said in a statement. “I want everyone on the right and the left to be able to spot them and to see what they’re doing — or at least wonder: What happens to a democracy when the voices of real citizens are drowned out by fictional characters?” The fab cast features Danielle Slavick as Masha, Mia Katigbak as Ljuba, Haskell King as Egor, Ian Lassiter as Steve, and Greg Keller as Nikolai; the play is directed by Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson, with sets and costumes by Brenda Abbandolo, sound and music by Andre Pluess, and lighting by Amith Chandrashaker. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting down for the second part of Agents of Chaos; wish us all luck.
Who: Jelani Alladin, Jacqueline Antaramian, Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, Kim Blanck, Ally Bonino, Danielle Brooks, Jenn Colella, Elvis Costello, Daniel Craig, Alysha Deslorieux, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Holly Gould, Danai Gurira, Stephanie Hsu, David Henry Hwang, Oscar Isaac, Nikki M. James, Alicia Keys, John Leguizamo, John Lithgow, Audra McDonald, Grace McLean, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kelli O’Hara, Mia Pak, Suzan-Lori Parks, David Hyde Pierce, Phylicia Rashad, Liev Schreiber, Martin Sheen, Phillipa Soo, Meryl Streep, Trudie Styler, Sting, Will Swenson, Shaina Taub, Kuhoo Verma, Ada Westfall, Kate Wetherhead
What: Virtual celebration and fundraiser
Where: Public Theater, Facebook, YouTube
When: Tuesday, October 20, free (donations accepted), 8:00
Why: Originally planned for June 1 but delayed because of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Public Theater is now holding its gala fundraiser online on October 20. “Forward. Together.” features appearances and performances by a wide range of actors, musicians, playwrights, and other creators, sharing songs and stories, from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Antonio Banderas, Elvis Costello, Daniel Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and John Leguizamo to Danielle Brooks, Jenn Colella, Audra McDonald, Phillipa Soo, Meryl Streep, and Suzan-Lori Parks, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. One of the highlights will be Jelani Alladin performing a brand-new song from the Public Works production of Hercules. The cochairs are Kwame Anthony Appiah, Candia Fisher, Joanna Fisher, Laure Sudreau, and Lynne Wheat, honoring Audrey and Zygi Wilf and Sam Waterston; the evening is directed by Kenny Leon, with music direction by Ted Sperling.
Admission is free but donations will be accepted; twenty-five percent of the proceeds will go to eight Public Works partner organizations and Hunts Point Alliance for Children. You can also participate in the online auction, where you can bid on such items as a virtual conversation with Queen Latifah and Lee Daniels, a coffee chat with Liev Schreiber, ten years of premium reserved tickets to the Delacorte for Shakespeare in the Park, a private Zoom cooking class with Andrew Carmellini, and lunch (on Zoom or in person) with Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. The Public has presented several outstanding productions during the pandemic, including The Line, What Do We Need to Talk About?, and the current audio play Shipwreck, so give if you can to help support this ongoing dream from Joe Papp.
Who: V (formerly Eve Ensler), Ed Blunt, Connie Britton, Rosario Dawson, Stephanie Hsu, LaChanze, Liz Mikel, Rosie O’Donnell, Billy Porter, Dale Soules, Marisa Tomei, Monique Wilson
What: New streaming play
Where: BAM YouTube
When: October 15 - November 3, free (donations encouraged)
Why: Ten years ago, playwright and activist V, formerly known as Eve Ensler, went public with her diagnosis of uterine cancer. “I am lucky. I have been blessed with a positive prognosis that has made me hyper-aware of what keeps a person alive,” she wrote in the Guardian while relating it to the work she was doing with City of Joy in Democratic Republic of Congo to help young survivors of gender violence. “How does one survive cancer? Of course — good doctors, good insurance, good luck. But the real healing comes from not being forgotten. From attention, from care, from love, from being surrounded by a community of those who demand information on your behalf, who advocate and stand up for you when you are in a weakened state, who sleep by your side, who refuse to let you give up, who bring you meals, who see you not as a patient or victim but as a precious human being, who create metaphors where you can imagine your survival. This is my medicine, and nothing less will suffice for the people, for the women, for the children of Congo.”
V, in collaboration with James Lecense, is now paying tribute to the purveyors of such care, nurses, whom she calls “radical angels of the heart,” in the new virtual play That Kindness: Nurses in their Own Words. The seventy-five-minute piece, streaming on BAM’s YouTube channel, features Ed Blunt, Connie Britton, Rosario Dawson, Stephanie Hsu, LaChanze, Liz Mikel, Rosie O’Donnell, Billy Porter, Dale Soules, Marisa Tomei, and Monique Wilson portraying real-life nurses sharing stories about who they are, what they do, and why they are in their profession; the dialogue is based on conversations and interviews V, whose previous work includes The Vagina Monologues, The Treatment, and her 2018 one-woman show, In the Body of the World, did with these front-line health care workers. Divided into such sections as “What Is a Nurse?,” “Things I Am Most Proud Of,” “Morally Wounded,” and “‘We Are Not Expendable,’” the narrative shifts from nursing in general to the more specific situation of the Covid-19 crisis as the nurses dig deeper into themselves and the importance of genuine care, especially at a time when so many hospitals are going private, being run like corporations, even during a pandemic. The show, reminiscent of the Public Theater’s The Line, which consisted of the words of doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other brave heroes during the coronavirus crisis, was produced in partnership with National Nurses United and California Nurses Association; BAM’s presentation is free to watch through November 3, but donations are requested for the Brooklyn Hospital Foundation’s Covid-19 Fund. Be sure to stick around for Morley’s closing song.
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
Saturday, October 17, 11:00 am - Sunday, October 18, 11:00 am, $5 - $400 (pay what you can)
Osaka-born multidisciplinary artist Yoshiko Chuma celebrates the fortieth anniversary of her collective, “The School of Hard Knocks” (SOHK), with the live, twenty-four-hour virtual work Love Story, streaming through La MaMa beginning at eleven o’clock in the morning on October 17. SOHK debuted at the 1980 Venice Biennale and became an official company four years later; the troupe has traveled the world with such shows as AGITPROPS: The Recycling Project, 7 x 7 x 7, and Pi=3.14 . . . Ramallah-Fukushima-Bogota Endless Peripheral Border, many of which were developed and premiered at La MaMa as well as PS122 and Dixon Place here in New York. A durational performance installation that incorporates dance, music, film, visual art, and narrative storytelling, Love Story deals with such timely topics as immigration, national security, and war; Chuma, who has been based in the United States since 1977, will also be looking at her personal and professional past, present, and future, focusing on the idea of borders, which have taken on a whole new level of importance under the Trump administration while also impacting how art is now created online as well as how Chuma has shunned the limitations of genre in her career.
Love Story — which consists of live and prerecorded segments, with part of the show taking place in La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre — was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Chuma, working with artist liaison Ai Csuka, creative producer and musician Ginger Dolden, actor Ryan Leach, Middle East specialist Ruyji Yamaguchi, and dramaturgs and designers Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughan. Among the cast of more than fifty international performers are Deniz Atli from Turkey, Agnè Auželytė from Amsterdam, Los Babuinos from Venezuela, Sahar Damoni from Palestine, Tanin Torabi from Iran, and Martita Abril, Mizuho Kappa, Heather Litteer, Devin Brahja Waldman, and zaybra from New York, with live, original music by Robert Black on double bass, Jason Kao Hwang on violin, Christopher McIntyre on trombone, and Dane Terry on piano.
“This week I was supposed to be in New York for performances celebrating Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks’ forty-year anniversary,” Auželytė recently wrote on Facebook. “While my physical body will stay put in Amsterdam for a long while to come, I will still be there, online and energetically, sharing the screen with a group of artists, some whom I had the opportunity to get to know for a long time already and some whom I only ever met on Zoom! (How weird is that? Is it still weird?) I am also touched to see some of them physically at the theater at La MaMa, which has been closed to the public for seven months now! We’ve had a lot of late-night conversations during this process and it continues to make me think about how to reimagine theater in the era of self-isolation and Zoom life. What does local-global mean anymore? Where are our bodies? What are our bodies?”
The list of collaborators on Love Story is long and impressive. In addition to those listed above, there will be choreography by Yanira Castro, Ursula Eagly, Allyson Green, Jodi Melnick, Sarah Michelson, Anthony Phillips, Peter Pleyer, Kathryn Ray, Steve Recker, and Vicky Shick; poetry by Kyle Dacuyan, Bob Holman, and Anne Waldman; music by Mark Bennett, Tan Dun, Nona Hendryx, Christian Marclay, Lenny Pickett, and Marc Ribot; film and video by Chani Bockwinkel, Jacob Burckhardt, Rudy Burckhardt, Andrew Kim, Jonas Mekas, and Charlie Steiner; photography by Robert Flynt and Dona Ann McAdams; set designs by Tim Clifford, Alex Katz, Elizabeth Kresch, and Elizabeth Murray; and appearances by Barbara Bryan, Rachel Cooper, Mark Russell, Yoko Shioya, Bonnie Sue Stein, Laurie Uprichard, David White, Donald Fleming, Dan Froot, Kaja Gam, Brian Moran, Nicky Paraiso, Harry Whittaker Sheppard, Gayle Tufts, Sasha Waltz, David Zambrano, Nelson Zayao, Emily Bartsch, Peter Lanctot, Kouiki Mojadidi, Emily Marie Pope, Isaac Rosenthal, and Aldina Michelle Topcagic. Of course, it takes a lot of work to fill up 1,440 continuous minutes of performance, and Chuma has assembled quite a team.
You can get a sneak peek and behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative project on October 15 at 8:00 when La MaMa will present a livestream preview that includes archival footage, sketches, and rehearsal clips. In preparation for Love Story, La MaMa has also been hosting such live Saturday morning Zoom events as “Secret Journey: Stop Calling Them Dangerous” and “SML: Zooma — Dead End” in addition to evening shows that give a taste of what we’re all in for from Bessie Award winner Chuma and her unpredictable troupe, a virtual hybrid that should offer, at the very least, a twenty-four-hour respite from this school of hard knocks we are living through in 2020.