From Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks comes a remarkable story of an African-American man who looks just like Abraham Lincoln and can be shot by would-be John Wilkes Booth for a small fee. “The America Play” sees Lincoln disappear into the “great hole of history” as his wife and son go to find him.
Questions of race, family, legacy and the act of theater itself play out in a surprising and emotionally stunning journey, as the world premiere of two short plays “Other American Cousins,” named for the one Lincoln was watching when he was shot, examine America’s place in today’s world and serve as prologues to “The America Play.” This surrealist depiction of American history lands in Plays & Players Skinner Studio April 4-21.
“The American Play” stars local actor Steven Wright as The Founding Father. A graduate of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, Wright says he’s been planning to become an actor since he was a little boy.
“I was always big on watching everything on television and then imitating what I saw,” he said. “In fact, my mother said I was two when it started and I never left the set, although I think I did make it outside every now and then.”
He must have, because as he grew, he sang in his school choirs, helped build sets, performed in the ensembles of his high school musicals, and even appeared in summer stock.
He headed for New York after college graduation, but soon returned to Philly, where he found work, friendship and a theater scene that keeps growing every day. Today, having appeared in many local productions, he is thrilled to be making his Plays and Players debut, especially in this unique production.
“The character I play has been told all his life he looks jut like Abraham Lincoln, and so one day he decides to go off and try to capitalize on that fact.” Wright explained. “Everything starts from there, and I think there’s something for everybody.”
The play, he continued, “touches on our ideas on how we see ourselves, how we see others, the important points in our lives, and how we should view each other. It’s about being true to yourself and not gong too far astray with lofty ideas.”
Having to identify with Lincoln has created some challenges for this actor, especially because “the way the piece is written makes me have to dig a lot deeper than I normally would to find the common thread between me and the man. In doing a character I try to find certain parallels so that I can breathe life into the character, making him real for the audience.”
Doing that with Lincoln wasn’t always easy, Wright said, “especially because I disagreed with some of the things he did. But I had to find the universality of the piece, something that exists in the real world, something that connects us all.”
Two world premiere 10-minute plays, both titled “Our American Cousin,” will alternate as prologues to “The America Play.” Written by local playwrights Quinn D. Eli and Kimmika L. H. Williams-Witherspoon, the plays will reflect contemporary notions of African-American identity as a response to the original play of the same name.
“All in all, these plays reflect on why we actors do what we do,” Wright concludes. “We start our by wanting to be on stage and entertain people, But then there’s some kind of complete joy that takes over, and we actors have to navigate through the entire process until we are able to tell a story that comes to life and is a joy for everyone.” For times and ticket information call (800) 595-4849.
“Permanent Collection,” an award-winning play inspired by events surrounding Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, is being staged by InterAct Theatre April 5-May 5. The show continues InterAct Theatre Company’s 25th anniversary season as it grapples with conflicting perspectives on race and art.
As relevant now as when it was first produced in 2003, the play explores the controversy provoked when a suburban museum’s newly appointed African-American executive director puts forward a proposal to change the permanent collection.
Deftly maneuvering through the emotionally charged conflicts that ensue, the play compels us to question our consumption of fine art while engaging issues of racial politics and journalistic integrity.
Lynette Freeman takes the role of Kanika Weaver, assistant to the foundation’s executive director. Freeman, who holds an MFA from Brown University/Trinity Rep Conservatory, acknowledges that she knew nothing of the Barnes Foundation or the controversy that surrounded it until she got the role.
“Kanika is new to her job and a wonderful assistant for Sterling North, the new executive director,” Freeman said. “But this is a new environment for her and a new line of work, and working for Sterling begins to open her eyes to a new way of dong things. Actually, she just wants to exist and be herself, but throughout the play she begins to realize what kind of place this is. Many of the issues in the play bring up things that force her to figure out what she stands for on a variety of things.”
Founded in 1922, the foundation became embroiled in controversy in the 1990s due to a financial crisis partly related to longstanding visitor restrictions imposed by the original trust and to the location of its facility in Lower Merion. With North’s discovery of significant African sculptures tucked away in storage and his proposal to add them to the public galleries, a bitter struggle ensues. “Permanent Collection” is an examination of racial politics that ultimately asks how much space — literally and figuratively — the white world gives to African Americans. And what is the cost of failing to view the world through another’s eyes.
Said Freeman, “Looking at race through the artistic lens provides a forum to view different people’s experience with it. Kanika, having been through higher education, is able to look a the world from a very intellectual perspective because over the years she’s had lots of friends of all different races, so race is not necessarily a point of focus for her.
“But,” Freeman continued, “she soon realizes that as a Black woman she almost has to walk this line between what is expected of her because she is Black, and what is expected of her because she’s so progressive. Kanika just wants to be the young woman she is and not be embroiled in controversy. Ultimately, she bristles at the fact that she is, as Sterling tries to remind her she has to pick a side although she doesn’t want to.”
Interestingly, Freeman says she’s able to identify with her character. “I feel I’m very much like Kanika in many ways. The fact is that I have grown up with a multicultural perspective, but at the same time also coming from an Ivy League education. Many of the conversations that come up in the play, are things I have been privy to numerous times in my life.”
Often, she concluded, she tries to avoid too much controversy by remembering what her grandfather told her when she was quite young. “In terms of politics especially, he always said to let things that are important to other people be important to them. I carry that thought with me in all aspects of my life. Of course, if I see a wrong being done, I will step up and say something, but I know I can’t really change others.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 568-8079.
Call it a win-win for legendary tap dancer Savion Glover and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts as Glover’s newest work, “Dance Space,” is premiered on March 30 at the Academy of Music.
Commissioned by the Kimmel, “Dance Space” is being presented as part of Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA), which runs from March 28 to April 27. The improvisational solo tap dance and percussive piece features Glover performing in a setting complete with a fiberoptic curtain and illusory lighting to give the audience the sense of being outside looking up at the night sky.
“I was asked by the Kimmel Center if I wanted to do something for this event,” Glover explained. “I felt honored that they trusted me enough to present an idea I’ve been thinking about for some time. So I happily accepted the invitation.”
“Dance Space,” he continued, “is an idea that has been going around in my head for a long time, and I hope to give audiences a chance to ‘hear’ the dance. We’ve seen tap dancing for a long time, but I think it’s rare that people can just hear it. This is my way of letting audiences close their eyes and hear what tap dancing can be by learning to use their imagination.”
Glover, a tap and percussive dancer, choreographer and actor who is best known for developing his own dancing style, which he dubbed “freestyle hardcore,” has been astonishing audiences worldwide since he was just a child.
His 1996 Broadway tour de force, “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” chronicled the role of music and dance in the African-American experience. He both choreographed and starred in the show, which won him the Tony Award for Best Choreographer. Glover also starred on Broadway opposite famed dancer Gregory Hines in “Jelly’s Last Jam,” a role for which he made history as the youngest ever recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
And there’s been more, much more that highlights the life and work of this Newark native, who says he does what he does without too much thought to what the critics might say.
“I’m not concerned with creating something that people will like,” he volunteered in explaining his current work and all the others that have gone before or might be done in the future. “I’m just honored to be in a position where I’m able to do something I want to do and to be able to express myself.”
And the Kimmel Center is honored to have him do just that. Says Kimmel Center vice president of programming Matt Wolf, “Savion Glover represents the highest level of artist and has a very intimate relationship with Philadelphia, He is living history, transforms himself into an instrument and is taking his art form into uncharted territories.”
Glover says he knows he can’t please everyone, and that is not his intention. “I just want to carry on the tradition of the dance and make sure the men and women who came before me are satisfied with what I do. My main mission or goal is to push the envelope so that the importance of the dance can be seen and also heard. I think the sound of the dance is where I am best expressed at this point.”
Glover concluded his recent phone interview by emphasizing once again how honored he feels to be given a chance by the Kimmel Center to express himself. “Their openness and willingness to allow me, the artist, to explore versus trying to present something that would satisfy everyone, is most appreciated. I believe those of us who consider ourselves a work in progress, also known as artists, will never be able to please everyone. We can only express where we are and how we feel at this moment in our journey. And those who allow artists to express themselves as they are in the moment are very much appreciated.”
Visit PIFA.org for more information on ticketed events throughout Philadelphia.
“Sister Act,” winner of five 2011 Tony Award nominations, comes to the Academy of Music on April 2-7.
First set in San Francisco, the new touring production now takes place in 1977 Philadelphia, and leading man Kingsley Leggs says the whole company is looking forward to our city’s reaction, especially when leading lady Ta’Rea Campbell opens the play with the line, “Hello, Philadelphia!”
This family-friendly, over-the -top spectacle with nuns who rock — and roll – tells the story of disco diva Deloris Van Cartier who discovers that her affiliation with Curtis (played by Leggs), her married gangster lover, may not have been a wise choice. After auditioning for him and his three yes-men stooges, she witnesses a murder committed by Curtis. She runs to the nearest police precinct, where a police officer decides to put in protective custody in the only place cops are sure she won’t be found: a convent.
Eventually, using her fabulous disco-ness and killer voice to inspire the choir, Deloris breathes new life into the church, but in doing so blows her cover.
Based on the original Alan Menken/Glenn Slater score with a vast inspiration of musical styles from Motown, soul and funk to great big disco anthems and Barry White inspired musical comedy, Leggs says the show hasn’t change that much since the Whoopi Goldberg film or the time he’s played his role on Broadway.
“Curtis hasn’t changed much over the years,” says Leggs, who originated the role on Broadway. “He’s still the bad guy. He’s still brandishing his guns and chasing nuns. If the show has changed at all it’s in the fact that we are a different company with slightly different specs in terms of the set and so on. Some tweaking has been done with staging and the script, but for the most part, this is the exact same show.”
Leggs, who grew up in St. Louis, admits that watching old movie musicals with his grandmother, helped fuel his desire to become a performer. Later, performing in high school musicals, he was encouraged by one of his teachers who later mentored him and urged him to attend Benedictine College in Kansas.
Upon graduation, Leggs returned to St. Louis, later moving on to Chicago where he felt there would be more opportunities. After amassing many regional credits, he says his first big break came when he appeared on Broadway in “Miss Saigon” and later in “The Color Purple” as the original Mister.
“I’ve only played two real bad guys in my career,” Leggs says “Actually, I have the reputation of playing mostly good guys. So here I am as Curtis, who is bad but not the same kind of bad guy as Mister. And even though Curtis is sort of bad, he’s not really that bad. In fact, he thinks he’s bigger and more scary than he is.”
Today, after 30 years in the business, Leggs admits the best part of it all is “that I’m still here, still able to do something I love doing, and, hopefully, bringing joy to people. I think that’s an important art of what art is. I don’t know if art always lives up to that responsibility, but I feel it’s important to always keep that in mind.”
Leggs ends by saying that there’s still more to do. “I’m so glad I’m still around and that people want to give me a job. You know, I’ve played some pretty wonderful parts, at least parts for this African-American guy to play. And I think there’s still time for me to do lots more.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 790-5883 or (866) 276-2947.
Azuka Theater, in partnership with The American Poetry Review, presents “The Day Lady Died” at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, March 28-April 7. Taking audiences back to 1959, the world premiere of “Everyone and I” offers a glimpse into renowned poet Frank O’Hara’s elegiac poem, a reaction into the death of jazz great Billie Holiday.
According to Kimberly Fairbanks, who takes the role of Holiday in this one-act offering, this play gives insight into the extraordinary character of O’Hara, the impetus behind the art of his words, and his love for the music of the great Holiday. While the audience gets a glimpse into the life of O’Hara, this poetic new work also takes a peek into the haunted world of Holiday and the passion behind her music.
Fairbanks, who has appeared in past Azuka productions, admits, “It’s extremely difficult to portray Holiday because she’s an icon and people have their own idea of who this woman was. And not only do they love her music and feel her music, but because her music is filled with such deep emotion and angst, there’s always a line of sadness that tugs at people’s hearts.” For those reasons, Fairbanks continued, “It’s very difficult for me to come out and portray her. Not only are there iconic images of her— a gardenia in her hair and her unforgettable voice — but people think they know who she was and have created their own sense of a life for her even though her life story was horrific. So for me, creating the character has to come from a place of authenticity to do justice to the woman and her memory.”
Fairbanks shares the stage with Mike Dees, who portrays O’Hara. “And even though they seem so different, there’s a lot of commonality in their lives,” she explained, “in that both these two people are looking for a way to be accepted and loved. That’s a universal theme that can touch everyone.”
Fairbanks, who holds a master’s degree in theater from Villanova University, says she grew up always wanting to be an actor. Toward that end, she was forced to hold some odd jobs along the way, even though she attended a private performing arts school in Philadelphia, and went on to major in theater at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Over the years, she has been able to display her acting talent in off-Broadway as well as regional productions, and even garnered a Barrymore Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical. Additionally, she was a 2011 Irene Ryan national finalist and recipient of the National Partners American Theatre Classical Acting Award. She’s also been seen in film and on TV.
“Both my parents are and have always been very supportive of my desire to act, and come to see all my performances,” she said. “I think they are my biggest fans and I thank them for making lots of sacrifices to allow my dream to become a reality.”
With future dreams of having a recurring role on a network TV series, and maybe even a role in a strong drama on Broadway, Fairbanks notes that she has one more dream.
“Portraying Holiday has led to new insights,” Fairbanks said. “For example, playing her gave me the opportunity to flex my muscles, a chance to play this iconic character that became such a part of the music business.”
“Understanding all her trials and tribulations and the woman she was, a woman who managed to overcome almost insurmountable odds, made me think,” Fairbanks concluded. “With all the talent she possessed, to end up with just 78 cents in the bank, is a lesson that life is meant to be cherished every moment. It’s a lesson that none of us should take things for granted, and to live life to the fullest because you don’t know how it will all end.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 546-PIFA.