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Lester Cook: Emerging

Lester E.D. Cook Interview

  Ercole and Megara is a deeply personal true story of love and family in the face of a partner transitioning. The staged reading of this compelling piece will take place on May 11th at Playwright’s Horizon’s Downtown at 6 p.m. with catered meal being served one hour before the performance.  Lester E.D. Cook is the playwright and lead actor.  We had an opportunity to chat with Mr. Cook.  We appreciate the time he took to share insights about his life and career with us and the candor with which he shared them.

     “I’m probably the guy who is more eclectic in my approach.  I will admit, I’m really drawn to the Suzuki method. Because I am mostly a physical person as my wife tells me, “You have a kinetic intelligence that is uncanny.”   I’m a huge admirer and fan of the golden age of both Broadway and Hollywood; particularly of the musical aspects of that time whether music itself or the dancing aspect.   I’m the guy who will say what everyone else is thinking and yet no one will say it aloud.   I’m the guy who isn’t interested in stereotypes or believes in monolithic voices.  I believe that everything and anything is a complex and complicated story.  Because we go by what we see in our society. We all have an inherent bias and theatre is supposed to challenge that bias and the stereotypes that media generally wants to tell us about ourselves as a whole society.   I want to focus on what we can’t see.  Being a singer as well I’m really drawn to any kind of music.  One of my biggest concerns around my transition was what would happen to my voice and my ability to sing. Thank the Goddess I can still sing, and my voice is getting back to where I want it to be.  I have an amazing vocal coach in Adam Baritot, and he makes sure I understand my instrument and how it works and how to take care of it.   A second voice change is common for men of transexperience.  I never use the terminology that is reductionist and is biomedical and doesn’t really encapsulate the experience of transitioning.  I was born deformed, and this is just me addressing what I see as an impairment.  The issue becomes there is the physical transition, there is also however, emotional, mental, racial and gender norms that you must adjust to when you begin being read as the gender you knew you were always meant to be.”

     Sometimes having to take required courses in college can be a drag.  In Mr. Cook’s case it led to a poignant piece of theatre and a long and productive relationship with a theatre professor.  “Funny you should ask how this came to be; it was a final classroom assignment, and you write it over the course and turn it in at the end of the semester.  If you are theatre major at the City College of New York you are required to take Play Writing, this is how this play came into being.  I had spoken with my professor who is today the dramaturg for this play, Dr. Kathleen Potts. I had many questions, about what I could and couldn’t do.  “What are the rules exactly of play writing?”  Kathleen taught me rules and I wrote.  The only question I ever asked was, “Can I have two protagonists?”  For me, knowing I wasn’t the only one in transition is why I wanted to write and give voice to one group of people who are completely ignored, silenced, and invalidated and are considered important support systems for us, yet they have no supports of their own, no services offered to them.  They

are given platitudes and are told condescending cliches as if their concerns aren’t valid.” 

      Mr. Cook’s creative process is multi-layered and includes cerebral, physical and visceral components.  “My creative process is weird as it isn’t linear.   I have an idea and I will let it percolate with me for quite some time till I take pen to paper.  I still do my 10 minutes a day of free writing like I was taught to do when I was becoming a field researcher.  I have a moleskin and a particular type of pen I use when I write.  I may use my iPhone and write some notes there and expand on those notes when I can get to paper and put it down on hard copy. My creative process involves using ½ a gummy at night.  My process involves I must be physical and get alone time so I can sort things out, listen to the voices, and lessons my characters are trying to convey to me.  I always ask, “What or why is this important to my character to say?”   My process usually includes long bike rides.  I ride about thirty miles a day and early in the morning and I must have my time near the water. There is something about the water that provides both clarity and adventure.  The biking provides me the ability to sweat and that sweat provides a detoxing component I need and cleansing my soul and body needs.  My process always includes research when I’m playing other characters whether Ezekiel Cheever or the Narrator and Mysterious Man.  I will find those answers either on the internet or in the script itself.  The Crucible gave me many answers on the internet.  With Into the Woods the answers I needed were in the script to create my background story and it was in the script I discovered I was the villain. And of course my process has a ton of music in it.”

     “I take the character creation part of my work very seriously and I am adamant that by day one whether memorized or not I should be ready to work when I show up at the studio.  I have auditioned and impressed folks and still didn’t get the part because you need to make bold choices no matter what.  I’m not ever afraid to make bold choices.  Every audition is a learning experience and I see it through that lens, so I am never disappointed no matter how an audition goes.”

     Mr. Cook is hoping that the audience gets the message of the piece and leaves the theatre having profound meaningful conversations about what they saw.  “FIRST!  THIS IS NOT A TRANS STORY!! This is a story about 2 people who choose to stay together. And I resent professionally and personally the constantly believing and the categorizing that it is.  And the reason I’m so strongly committed to the narrative that it isn’t a trans story because if we change the context and talk about for example a circumcision that went wrong and that man was forced into being raised as a woman only to turn around and live as nature made him; would we still call that man, “trans”? I know that this definitely who I was born to be.  Would we categorize the veteran who was hurt in the war and lost his phallus and had to have it replaced, “trans”?  We know that we don’t view it through that lens and my story is no different except for its context.  I want people to walk away and go to their barbershops and discuss it, go to a 12-step meeting, and discuss it.  I want people to begin to have this conversation in diners and colleges and family dinner tables.  There is no place I don’t want this to be a part of a larger conversation as it is part of the human experience.  I want people to wonder more about our partners and their stories.   I want our partners to be supported and not constantly be dismissed, so maybe, just maybe our relationships can be part of a bigger story in society in general where we really are viewed through the lens we are just like other folks.  We have children and we have problems with respect, life choices and other things that happen.  It is about looking through something through someone else’s lens. I want them to also look at what’s being done to women who are born anatomically female.” 

     Mr. Cook weighed in with his opinion of the strides made in the transgender community.  “I have very strong opinions on this subject.  First issue, is you can’t marginalize a group of people twice. We are currently doing that by how we are treating women of transexperience in sports.  We marginalize anatomically born women twice once by being women, and then the coercing of their spaces to accept people that weren’t born anatomically female, and I believe this about men as well.  I’m an egalitarian, and I think that’s an important distinction to make.  I’m referred to quite often as a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) we aren’t talking about bathrooms here, we’re talking about peoples lives.  I think what is most notable is the absence of the men’s voices and I’m willing to bet that if men of transexperience are beating anatomically born men in competition that they are too ashamed to discuss it because of how masculinity is viewed in our society. The derogatory comment I’m sure is, “What?  You couldn’t beat the “tranny”?  You couldn’t even beat the he/she.”  When we speak of the “strides” exactly about whom are we speaking?   If we’re talking about women of transexperience, then yes, there have been strides made there however, what strides exactly?   Women of transexperience are more likely to be in television however, the question becomes in what capacity?  Most times, we see them as convicts, sex workers or the victims of crimes or the perpetrators of crimes the sociopath who hasn’t been able to transition, think Silence of the Lambs.  As far as men are concerned, we aren’t even on the highway that leads to the parking lot to be part of the conversation.   Women of transexperience are always part of the mainstream conversation.  When I look at Chloe Cole, I think about all the years of reparative therapy I endured.  I think why the media focus on those kids who are being coerced into “reparative therapy.” And for the love of all that is decent tell me, why we haven’t also focused on the kids who are happy?  Why haven’t we found adults like me and tell those stories.  If we’re going to make strides, then the conversations need to be more inclusive and driven by men of transexperience.  If there is no voice speaking out, then it becomes the obligation if given a platform to start to a whisper for men of transexperience I’ve given them a big platform where they can begin to whisper among themselves about the biggest medical decision they will ever make.  The one about whether they need or want to also have a phallus.  I see it as my obligation to give them a place to start real conversations.  I pass and I recognize what a privilege that is.  So, to whom much is given much is expected.  I want our collective whispers to get louder.  I want us to have equal billing.  Till we are as much a part of the conversation as women are we are erased from the conversation and ergo erased from the society writ large.” 

     This is a highly personal and emotional project for Mr. Cook.  He not only wrote it, but he is starring in it too.  He discussed how he feels about sharing his life with the public on this level.  “I’ve always wanted to live stealth which means I never admit I transitioned, and I try to bury, erase any part of my former life.  That said, there’s no way I can live stealth anymore. It was too important not to tell this story.  I also wanted to give couples of transexperience some validation and give them a place to start discussions around bottom surgery.  Bottom surgery especially phalloplasty as a surgery is its own beast.  It requires much from the couple and can surely test their resolve as a couple to see this process through together. If I can help one couple stay together then this was worth it.  If men of transexperience begin to have conversations in their own communities around their physical and emotional journeys, then I did something right.  If we can stop lesbians telling men of transexperience they betrayed their communities then that’s an important part of this process.  I want people to know they aren’t alone and that things are more complicated than they appear.    I want everyone to have a voice and I want all those voices included.  I want people to hear the experience of some of the horrors that happen on an inpatient unit.  I was raped on an inpatient unit and although I don’t mention it in my monologues I did have it in there and then my wife Debbie who does all my editing insisted I remove it. I mean people are going to talk and people are going to criticize, me, I just rely on what Teddy Roosevelt said about the critic and being the man in the arena.  I’m grateful for the strong woman my wife is that I have someone who knows how to help me shut out the outside chatter and make sure only what needs to get through does.  I’m a high maintenance man and there’s no doubt there are times I need to be managed.  Someone must be bold enough to take a stand and say I will not be moved or silenced.  My truth and voice, my humanity is as important as anyone else’s.”

     Mr. Cook has a lot of artistic and educational plans to keep him busy for the foreseeable future including potentially being addressed as Dr. Cook.  “I do want to take this play, cut an album, and turn it into a musical.  I have a history college professor who is very much in my corner and wants me to write a play about the history of Eugenics; since that is what I specialize in social welfare and public policy.  Eugenics, disability, and child welfare.  I want to act and get some background work, get other work that is related to the stage versus the screen and eventually do both.  I also need to prepare for the eventuality that I will return to school to pursue my Ph.D.”  

Lilli Meizner picks The Fruit Trilogy

I entered The Triad Valentine’s eve with a hunger for the raw authentic perspective of women
and people AFAB in relation to the reclamation of their sexuality and freedom.

The Ripple Effects Artists are well known for their presentations of media uplifting women as well as
highlighting the subjugation of them. The Fruit Trilogy by Eve Ensler was a visceral
representation of the toils of sexual violence, objectification, and control of women and femmes.

Pomegranate opened the show with grim minimalism; an intentionally vague plot was revealed
through establishing dialogue between the two characters: one being a bubbly optimist with
hope for societal retribution, and the other an unforgiving realist with a cold outlook to their
inevitable fate. They ponderously debate whether it was possible to forgive men for the trauma
they inflict, and whether there are any innately good people left alive. The piece highlights a
struggle; the battle between the desire to be wanted and the realities of living in a world where
to be wanted is to be owned.

Avocado followed and quickly shifted the mood from vague analogy to literal musings of an
adolescent woman experiencing a range of PTSD symptoms that kept me captivated from start
to finish. The retelling of her upbringing was intense, oscillating rapidly between
lightheartedness and the gruesome representation of psychological and physical torment the
character endured. A fair warning to any would-be avocado viewers, this monologue is about
sexual violence and minors.

Coconut closed the show by first grounding you from the whirlwind of emotion that was the
show prior. This was done effortlessly with comedy and comfort. The actress starts out slow,
enjoying the meditative act of massaging herself, and slowly it transforms into a reminder of
what womanly traumas haunt her. To connect with yourself is to connect with the good and the
bad. There is also a desire to be observed without judgment or to receive anything from it.
Ultimately Coconut is about escaping the male gaze, and experiencing life, joy, and pleasure
purely for yourself.

Much like the Vagina Monologues, these fruity stories, although hauntingly bleak, are meant to
inspire hope and motivate change; they foster a sense of unity in the audience. They transcribe
and retell important stories that need to be shared. One thing that would have been appreciated
was more content warnings, if one wasn’t familiar with the Vagina monologues or content
similar, it could be triggering.

Visit https://rippleeffectartists.com for more information on their season and body of works, including an upcoming reading of ROE. https://www.facebook.com/events/556062866484005?ref=newsfeed

Hari Bhaskar: A Man for All Stages (Part I)

Hari Bhaskar Interview by Jen Bush

Bhaskar is a multi-faceted actor on stage and screens.  Between a combination of his lineage and the geographical location he happened to end up in, Mr. Bhaskar was destined for a career in the arts.  We had a chance to chat with him and find out all about what’s going on in the life of this interesting artist.

“I’m originally from Kerala, India, which is a very cultural place in terms of it having many influences, and that is reflected through its art and cuisine. My family is also very culturally inclined, with my maternal grandfather being an amateur actor, and my parents both proficient in singing and dancing. I was always in love with the spotlight, which was I always tried being the class clown, and my objective was always to make people’s lives memorable, which I’m glad I could hear when one of my friends said that after we graduated. I never wanted to be known as “the academic”, which was why I wanted to enter this field, but it was also I felt my true calling.”

Acting is a collaborative endeavor.  It can be invigorating to be around a plethora of creative energy which often leads to positive relationships among artists.  This is exactly what happened to Mr. Bhaskar in high school which started him on his artistic path.  “I did a production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in high school, where we had late night recording sessions that went from 11 am to 1 am the next day. The camaraderie that I developed over there with my fellow co-actors made me realize that acting is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Part II: Coming to America, in OuterStage.com

Lillian Meizner entered ELLIPSES orbit

Everything has been the same for millennia. There has always been the bleakness of the void, a single father trying to keep his children fed and safe, and the control strained on them as a result.

The Milky Way Theatre company is founded for and by students to shed well deserved light on young artists across the country. On January 26, 2023 author David Quang Pham was given the opportunity to debut his first project Ellipses, directed by indie arts veteran, Jay Michaels, and excited chatter filled the audience as everyone found their seats. The owners of the 71st Theatre first came to thank everyone and gave insight on their journey renovating a church into a beautiful venue. Just before the show began a heartfelt appreciation for the production was also given from artistic director Jamiel T Burkhart.

Ellipses is an interstellar musical about the birth of a new era and a new onset for a family who has been stuck in the comfort of stagnancy. Metaphors for familial struggle, insecurity, and growth are wrapped in the concepts of our universe in an intelligent yet whimsical way.

Before the big bang we are introduced to our otherworldly family. Singularity is a strong father figure who wants the best for his young ones, and that includes keeping them from exploring the depths of the cosmos around them. For most, that’s just how it’s always been, but for HD1, the eldest galaxy with an unquenchable desire for the unknowable, it’s unacceptable.

With the encouragement of the family pet Gravity, HD1 decides to reach the edge of the universe by any means necessary, even if that means starting something irreversible. And thus the big bang is initiated, rocketing the family apart in more ways than one. The other galaxies are left in the wake of a scuffle between forces and try to pick up the pieces without any direction. This narrative also follows the youngest galaxy, Milky Way, on their journey of growing past adolescence into puberty, and how they haven’t been taken seriously yet.

Each actor gave a stellar performance both in singing and monologue save a few moments of lines being delivered too quietly. You could tell the cast had a sense of comfort working together in the read through. HD1 (Isaac Williams) had palpable emotion in each line and song, the viewer rooting for them to find what they’re searching for. Milky Way (Yasmin Ranz-Lind) depicted the struggle of growing past adolescence in a very relatable way. These two characters shared a frustration of not being seen in different aspects, and that connected them in a beautiful way.

One scene, which had a particular emotional resonance, depicted the planets orbiting the Milky Way, throwing insecurities that shifted almost imperceptibly into heartfelt compliments. This representation of internal struggle was played out aesthetically in both acting and placed onstage.

One small complaint was how many lines relied on specific astronomical and mathematical terminology. This can be charming and funny in smaller doses, but if one didn’t have prior knowledge on the semantics of space you may find yourself a bit confused.
Otherwise it was easy to absorb yourself into the delightful sidelines of even non main characters, like Whirlpool (Kristen Amanda Vargas Smith) and Cartwheel (Karina Ordóñez). The two of them were an electric and hilarious duo that bounced off of each other seamlessly. The score was beautiful, tense, and powerful. It captivated attention from the first tentative notes that welcomed the cast into their first pose.

The collaboration of Musical Director (Simon Brooke) is extremely impressive, it gave a new personalized depth to the project with magical results. Even in moments without song, the added effects of sharp staccato notes and intense drums kept the viewer fully invested in the plot.

Ellipses is ultimately a story of acceptance. Accepting that you cannot quantify or calculate fear, puberty, or family. The search for the edge of the universe represented the wish for freedom. Insecurity manifests as the aspiration to be seen as who you are. No family is perfect; not even the celestial bodies themselves, but they find harmony through working together. Leaving the theater, you’re left with an understanding of the beauty of nothingness.

Nothingness is an opportunity to create anything.

Nothing “mezzo” about this Soprano

Amanda Reckonwith Returns Review by Jen Bush

A countertenor is a type of male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to a female contralto or mezzosoprano.  It is the rarest of all voice types and David Sabella happens to be one!  According to his bio, he is cited as one of the “originators of the American countertenor sound” and the only one working in the popular music genres of Broadway and the Great American Songbook.  His wildly impressive 4-octave range affords him the ability to sing in a traditional male breadth as well. 

Sabella’s biography is vast and impressive to say the least.  Here are some highlights.  He originated the starring role of “Mary Sunshine in the 1996 revival of Chicago and remained in that role on Broadway and with the touring company for a decade.  He won the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition.  He’s performed throughout the world in opera companies, has done voiceover work and has performed in extensive cabarets.  Just to drop a few names, he’s worked with Ann Reinking, Joel Grey, Patrick Swayze, Chita Rivera and countless others.  As I found out tonight, this award-winning artist is indeed a man to reckon with!

David Sabella has an equally talented alter ego named Amanda Reckonwith.  Amanda graced the stage of Pangea this evening and brought down the house with her vocal prowess and comedic ability in Amanda Reckonwith Returns.  Amanda’s story is that she has been “away” for 25 years.  Tonight was her triumphant return to the stage but she seems to be living in the past.  Political correctness seems to have escaped her which led to some of the funniest moments in the show. 

The set began with How Lovely to be a Woman from Bye Bye Birdie.  Amanda energetically jutted through the audience, established the lighthearted tone of the evening and immediately revealed what a talented entertainer she is.  Next, she teased the audience a bit with opera classic, O Mio Babbino Caro opting out of all the high notes with ingenious humor. 

The 13-song set consisted of a mix of Broadway, Opera and the Great American Songbook.  David Sabella deeply connected with the captivated, super enthused SOLD-OUT audience.  His ability to hit the high notes and to hold the notes is just astonishing.  He is a vocal powerhouse who can belt like nobody’s business and then bring a tear to your eye with a tender ballad.  The comedic elements in the storytelling were both clever and saucy.  Amanda could easily be Dame Edna’s more skilled singing cousin or Angela Lansbury’s naughty little sister.  Sweet and subversive all in one package.  Case in point and a nod to the costuming, in the first half of the set, Amanda wore an elegant sparkly cocktail dress.  By the end of the show she was in a leather outfit with a flowing kimono and holding various dominatrix implements.  In between songs were stories told by Amanda but that were biographical to David Sabella’s life.  Amanda Reckonwith Returns was a fabulously fun foray into song and storytelling delivered by a versatile luminary in the entertainment industry.  He brought the sold-out crowd to their feet as they praised him with deafening applause and cheers.  Amanda Reckonwith Returns will return to Pangea on April 15th.  Do yourself a favor and snag a seat early before they’re all gone.  David Sabella and Amanda Reckonwith are both forces to be reckoned with in the best possible way.

A Star Studded Cast bids us all, “Bon Jour”

Richard Hackley’s new musical, “Bonjour Mon Amour the Musical,” scheduled for two special showings – 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. – on Thursday, February 16 at CAM Studios, 115 West 45th Street, Suite 603, in New York City (visit www.bonjourthemusical.com for further information), sports a star-studded cast:

James D. Gish plays the lead, Mike Mercy, a 21st century everyman, whose life includes a rocky love life and a stressful job. Gish currently appears on BROADWAY in WICKED and has been on the national tours of Les Mis and Beautiful.

The cast also includes Alec Michael Ryan (NATIONAL TOUR: Jersey Boys, REGIONAL: From Here To Eternity); Emily Trumble (OFF-BWAY: Soft Power, TOUR: Sound Of Music, Something Rotten); Rob Richardson (BROADWAY: Jekyll and Hyde, A Tale of Two Cities, OFF-BWAY: Kinky Boots); Haley Swindal (BROADWAY: Chicago, Jekyll and Hyde, OFF-BWAY: Sweeney Todd); Max B. Ehrlich (BROADWAY: Aladdin, TOUR: Miss Saigon, King and I); Joseph Peterson (NY: It Shoulda Been You, Angel of the Amazon, Save The Palace); Leah Platt (TOUR: Fiddler on the Roof, REGIONAL: The Prom, Which Way To The Stage).
 
Hackley’s clever domestic dramedy, sporting a 70’s/80s rock style score, is directed by Jamibeth Margolis, whose theatrical directing credits include Broadway/Off-Broadway and regional. Jamibeth served as assistant director to Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks on The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (Broadway) and also on Jules Feiffer‘s A Bad Friend (Lincoln Center Theatre). She has also helmed developmental productions of the following new musical works: Save The Palace, Owl Creek, Great Googly Moo, and Warsaw.

Andrew Wheeler serves as Musical Director
Jared Six is the stage manager

Bonjour Mon Amour, the Musical, is a contemporary story that follows Mike Mercy through ups & downs of love & life. Mike has two friends showing him both sides – an older neighbor with advice to clean up his act or risk losing the love of his life; and his burnout buddy’s much more relaxed opinions.

Richard Hackley is a distinguished member of Broadway producer Ken Davenport’s acclaimed TheatreMakers Program.

For further information or to request an invitation to the presentation, please contact Jay Michaels Communications at 646-338-5472 or at jmcommnet@gmail.com.

Rommell Sermons: From the Bronx to Off-Broadway

Rommell Sermons Interview by Jen Bush

Rommell Sermons is an enthusiastic artist about to take to the stage at The American Theatre of Actors in Resurrection.  When other teens were running around sports fields or reading comic books, Mr. Sermons was developing his craft in a theatrical youth ensemble.  Mr. Sermons was gracious enough to give us some time to discuss this current project and his art.

“My name is Rommell Sermons. I am from the Bronx USA, where I was first introduced to acting, performing in the teenage ensemble: The Temple of Youth, at Lehman college. As the saying goes, I was bitten by the bug. Years later I completed my BA in performing arts at SUNY NEW PALTZ University.   I’ve been performing for over three decades, and I’m still amazed and in awe every time I step on the stage, I become that kid all over again. Theatre is my true passion. I love the interaction between the actor and the audience.” 

Mr. Sermon’s creative process entails building a character starting with a blank canvas as well as making the character a part of himself.  “I like to approach each character with a clean slate. Which is not easy, but I try to ignore any preconceived notions or prejudices I might have. I try to walk in the character’s shoes and try to understand and justify their actions. It’s a type of symbiosis where there are two people in one. I’m at the wheel you can say, but the character is giving me directions, I listen and get out of the way as much as possible, but I can’t let us both drive off a cliff.” 

Mr. Sermons would like to audience to take away the knowledge that the tragic events of this play really happened and the repercussions that they had on history.  “First off, we want them to understand the historical significance of Black Wall Street. This is not an isolated incident it’s part of American history and culture that was pretty much buried and is now being dug up.  If you would have asked someone 10 years ago about Black Wall Street, you might have received a lot of blank stares. But now people are becoming more aware. I feel like this play not only informs but it can also help their audience empathize and understand the impact of this tragedy.”

This play is dark and tragic.  One can’t help but feel the emotional impact in some negative ways.  “I think for me this experience has been very somber. I mean I love working with my fellow actors and director. But reliving this tragedy night in and night out is very taxing. The idea that these people really fought for and feared for their lives and were killed, many in a horrific fashion. Really brings on a sense of melancholy not only for the character but for me Rommell the actor. The only solace I have is that once I walk off that stage I can return to my normal life but the actual victims of Black Wall Street never had that chance.”

 Being a part of this theatrical experience had a positive effect on Mr. Sermons.  “It refocused my dedication and enthusiasm as an artist not only as an actor but to the arts as a whole. This is an independent production so we don’t have all the resources that major theaters and companies have. As a member of this production, I can’t just focus on strictly acting, saying my lines and going home. Sometimes other things need to be done or someone needs a helping hand. If that means putting up a set or help making flyers and postcards and really trying to get the word out and advertising the show. It’s a matter of getting in where you fit in, whatever needs to be done. You do it. I never participated that fully in any productions I worked on prior.” 

Mr. Sermons feels a strong sense of responsibility to rise above stereotypes in the characters that he plays.  “As an African American actor I feel a certain responsibility in portraying characters that are not considered stereotypical. I try to stray away from playing drug dealers or criminals let’s say because I always felt like that is what is expected of me from the larger society. One of the reasons why I became an actor was because as a child I rarely saw my reflection on TV or in the movies. They were very few opportunities back then for black actors to portray characters that were treated humanely and with dignity.”

“I remember one night watching TV with my grandmother and a Sidney Poitier movie came on and whatever she was doing she stopped dead in her tracks. I believe it might have been lilies of the field. And I just remember her being enthralled by this dark skin man on the black and white screen. I never saw her have a reaction like that to anything or anyone so I was determined to figure out who this Sidney Poitier guy was.  But yet and still he was somewhat of a lone figure. It was truly an event for my family growing whenever a movie or TV show with a predominantly black cast or a black protagonist or even sidekick appeared on the screen.

And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories around the fire. That will make people who look like me proud of their culture and heritage.”

Mr. Sermons is hoping that Resurrection has a long theatrical journey.  What’s next for this talented artist?  “Hopefully the return of the Resurrection.”

You can enjoy the talents of Mr. Sermons and the rest of the brilliant cast from February 8-12 at The American Theatre of Actors in Resurrection.

“Job” well done!

BeLonging review by Jen Bush

A Film by Gauthier-Charbel Raad

Director: Gauthier-Charbel Raad

Writers: Gauthier-Charbel Raad and Pamela Saadeh

Cast: Romain Kachaner, Jihad Saade, Jill Alexandria, Gassia Shahabzian, Gauthier-Charbel Raad

Going on a job interview can be nerve wracking.  Being uncomfortable in a vulnerable situation is par for the course.  In BeLonging this discomfort was taken to a whole new level.

In BeLonging we meet a man who goes on job interviews in the filmmaking industry in four different countries.  The interviews take place in French, Lebanese, American and body language.  We’ll get to that!  This interviewee had a stellar CV (resume), two master’s degrees, a wealth of international experience and was fluent in multiple languages.  For most employers this person would be a goldmine and he would be snapped up immediately.  These particular interviewers asked wildly inappropriate questions.  They focused on ridiculous things like the job seeker’s name, a personal issue with a film he made and questioning how he would fit into American culture.  My favorite line in the movie came from the American interviewer who asked the character, “When Easter comes up, will you be angry?”  Cultural differences aside, the Easter Bunny and a handful of chocolate eggs can put a smile on anyone’s face!  The fourth and final interview was nearly wordless but spoke volumes.  The interviewer was blatantly smitten with the interviewee.  She stared seductively while batting her eyelashes and suggestively played with her hair before and after she removed her head covering.

BeLonging shows the surreal side of job interviews and the difficulties that can be experienced when there are cultural differences.  This 11-minute film is highly relatable because most people have been on job interviews.  It contains themes of multi-culturalism and trying to fit in.  The filmmaker’s innovative use of camera angles successfully built tension with some extreme close-ups making some of the interviewers menacing.  The film was well cast, and the material was well executed by each talented actor.  Kudos to Gassia Shahabzian who uttered only two words but got the message across loud and clear.  The humor in the film is subtle but you will find yourself laughing at the absurdity of the situations.  Job well done!  You’re hired!

Robert Viagas looks back on some powerhouse productions of the end of 22

Proudly displaying his latest book, “Good Morning, Olive: Haunted Theatres of Broadway and Beyond,” at the Theatre Circle shop on West 44th Street in Times Square, theatre icon Robert Viagas penned the followqing list of notables that wowed the holiday tourist throngs last month.

& Juliet

How amazing that after more than 400 years, William Shakespeare’s plays continue to intrigue and inspire, not just audiences but writers of all kinds. The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is & Juliet—not a typo. Librettist David West Read worked with widely-heard but little-known songwriter Max Martin to use his hit pop songs to continue the story of Romeo and Juliet, but with a clever twist. We meet Shakespeare (Stark Sands) and his wife, Anne (Betsy Wolfe), who are at odds about the ending of what is perhaps his most famous play. Anne insists that Juliet (Lorna Courtney) should not die at the end. So, Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare set to collaborate on a full sequel to chronicle Juliet’s rollicking and romantic post-Romeo adventures. The result is pure musical fun, full of sparkling and  newly-“woke” escapades, told with familiar (and some not-so-familiar) songs including “I Kissed a Girl,” “Love Me Like You Do,” “I Want It That Way,” “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” and “Oops!… I Did it Again.” An import from London, the show was directed by Luke Sherman, with joyous choreography by Jennifer Weber and lively orchestrations by Bill Sherman.

Some Like it Hot

The only new show with more pure energy than K-POP is one that is likely to stay around a lot longer: Casey Nicholaw’s blazing staging of the new musical Some Like It Hot. It’s based on the 1959 film comedy of the same title, but with a diverse cast and a timely rewrite of the central story. Nicholaw and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Mary Poppins Returns) bring old-fashioned Broadway razzmatazz to the story of two Prohibition-era musicians on the run from the mob. The pair (Christian Borle as Joe/Josephine and J. Harrison Ghee as Jerry/Daphne) hide in plain sight, disguising themselves as women in an “all-girl” band. Yes, this is another stage adaptation of a movie with drag characters. But unlike Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, Some Like It Hot brings the story’s sensibilities up to date. Thanks to the dynamic new book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, the story is not just played for cis-gendered laughs. Ghee finds that he likes being a girl, and on a trip to Mexico with his suitor, the millionaire Osgood (the unquenchable Kevin Del Aguila), comes to realize that he may have crossed more than one border. Nearly every song in the score lands solidly, and the title number offers a classic showtune that takes its place proudly with the classics. It’s old-fashioned in the best possible sense. PS: Other than its source material, the new Some Like It Hot bears no connection with the 1972 musical Sugar adapted from the same film, which has a score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.

Ohio State Murders

Audra McDonald returns to Broadway in this quietly stunning murder mystery with powerful racial overtones. The play marks the long overdue Broadway debut of 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy, who has been poleaxing audiences with her daring dramas since the 1960s. In this 90-minute one-act, the main character, a stand-in for Kennedy herself, answers an interviewer’s question about the source of the violent imagery that pervades her oeuvre. Ohio State Murders is a narration of her early life as a black student in a nearly all-white campus in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She has an affair with a white professor who spurns her when she becomes pregnant. Their tiny twin daughters suffer horrific murders. Though the story unfolds slowly—at times very slowly—McDonald keeps the narrative thread taut by bearing witness with a barely-controlled fury throughout, leading to the spectacularly violent climax. The supporting cast, including Bryce Pinkham and Abigail Stephenson, speak rarely and sparely. They move in and out of the action like ghosts. McDonald plays the living, breathing central character as if she has a scream of pain perpetually stuck in her throat.

The Old Man and the Pool

Comedian Mike Birbiglia is a master of all media, having had success in movies, sitcoms, TV dramas, talk shows, clubs, music videos, podcasts, and as the author of books. But he is perhaps most completely at home on the stage. His latest monologue shows why this standup comedian gets a full evening at Lincoln Center and not 15 minutes at the local comedy club. He has used previous solo shows to explore sleepwalking and other weaknesses of the flesh, and to share his adventures in the world of romance. This latest solo show takes what might seem to be an unpromising subject—diabetes, a weak heart and the approach of middle age—and spins it into comic gold, using his familiar bemused old-buddy narrative approach. The backbone of the piece is the story of how his doctor is pressing him to take up swimming despite the fact that he had several comically traumatic pool experiences as a child. It may sound low-key, but, trust me, he’s hilarious. He makes you laugh, then touches your heart.

Kimberly Akimbo

This sweet little black-comedy musical tells the story of the eponymous Kimberly (Victoria Clark), a high school student who struggles to have as normal a life as possible despite three colossal millstones around her neck. Millstone number one: her family is utterly dysfunctional, with two battling parents (Allie Mauzey and Steven Boyer) who don’t love her, and a crazy aunt (the showstopping Bonnie Milligan) who is incapable of staying within the law. Millstone number two is even worse: Kimberly suffers from progeria, a genetic disease that causes her to age prematurely. She looks 50 but is actually only 16. Which bring us to millstone number three: Life expectancy for the disease: 16. Despite all this, Kimberly Akimbo is, as I said, a generally sweet musical comedy. But, as adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play, the musical nonetheless has a serious problem. Although we cheer for Kimberly’s desire to escape her miserable home and hit the road for one last great adventure with her boyfriend (Justin Cooley), it’s hard to get fully on board with the way she chooses to pursue it. The cheerfully amoral aunt enlists Kimberly and her friends to perform a scam: fishing retirees’ checks out of the mailbox, changing the name, and cashing them. What would you call that? A crime? Yes, a crime. Kimberly then runs off with the proceeds to finance her grand farewell fling. Despite the charming songs (music by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori) and dances (by Danny Medford), the audience is left with a sour taste in its mouth.

A Christmas Carol

Actor Jefferson Mayes can do pretty much anything. He proves this by tackling projects where he plays multiple roles, including both men and women of all ages. He embodied all eight murder victims in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, created no fewer than 50 roles in I Am My Own Wife, and now, in a holiday season production of A Christmas Carol, enacts virtually every single character as he recites, from memory, most of the original text of Dickens’ well-known novella. Though illustrated with sets and costumes by Dane Laffrey, lighting effects by Ben Stanton, sound by Joshua D. Reid and hair by makeup by Cookie Jordan, the central strength of this production is Mayes’ power as a pure storyteller. At a moment’s notice he can switch from a truly horrifying embodiment of Jacob Marley’s damned ghost to a quivering, terrified Scrooge. His tour-de-force moments come when he is jumping back and forth among members of a crowd, such as Fezziwig’s Christmas party, the Cratchit family dinner, and the gathering at his nephew’s home. Mayes contains multitudes, and they all get their moment to shine in this “spirited” production.

A Sherlock Carol

On the other hand, for those who have seen A Christmas Carol so many times they are ready to say “humbug” to yet another retelling of the story, A Sherlock Carol offers a thoroughly charming, witty, new take on this classic. Two classics actually. Mark Shanahan’s fast-paced script offers a mashup of Dickens’ classic with the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective Sherlock Holmes. They have more in common than you might think. The story opens on a world-weary Holmes (Drew McVety) whose life has lost its purpose since the death of his nemesis, the “Napoleon of crime,” Moriarty. At this moment—on Christmas Eve, of course—comes the thump of a cane. It’s Dr. Timothy Cratchit (Dan Domingues), yes the onetime Tiny Tim who has survived and grown into a successful adult doctor, helping others like himself. It seems that his old friend and benefactor Ebenezer Scrooge (Allen Gilmore) was found dead in his study that very morning. Natural causes are assumed by most people, but no-longer-tiny Tim suspects it was murder. This sets off a chain of events, including visits from supernatural Spirits, and various live subjects, touching on all the best-known tropes, characters and catchphrases from both classics, cunningly intertwined. The protean five-person cast manages to play the dozens of characters with fast-changes and fresh accents. McVety sometimes rattles through his lines too quickly, but Shanahan’s direction helps keep the audience oriented through the story’s many delightful plot turns and surprises. Here’s hoping it becomes a perennial on the New York stage.

Leopoldstadt

The Holocaust has inspired its own rich and sorrowful literature. Its horrors have been retold again and again in the nearly 80 years since it ended, on the theory that they must be retold lest they be forgotten and repeated. Well, looking at the news about antisemitic violence from around the world and even here in the U.S., it appears that their terrible lessons are indeed being forgotten. Into this breach comes much-laureled playwright Tom Stoppard, who tells the semi-autobiographical story of his own family, successful and seemingly fully-integrated Austrian Jews, who once enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life in the largely Jewish Viennese suburb of Leopoldstadt. The play covers a sweep of their lives from 1899 to 1955, suffering crushing dehumanization and violence at the hands of the very people whose culture they had so trustingly embraced. It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking drama, performed by a dedicated 38-actor ensemble who are determined to tell the tragic story one more time, in defiance of the threatening headwinds of history.

K-POP

K-POP came and went on Broadway all too quickly, though it sometimes suffered from being  its own worst enemy. Wildly popular in South Korea, the aptly-named K-pop music has drawn an international following, especially among young people. The musical, which originated Off-Broadway before COVID-19, attempted to give the music a dramatic context, in the form of a backstage story of several K-pop groups and stars, RTMIS, F8, MwE and RBY, as they nervously prepare for a big concert. The bright, young attractive cast (including 18 Broadway debuts, primarily of Asian and Asian-America artists) radiated energy as they performed songs by Helen Park, billed as the first Asian composer on Broadway. But most of the talented singers/dancers were weak in the acting department, and were not helped by Max Vernon’s lyrics, which were sometimes unintelligible, nor by Jason Kim’s book, which was filled with painfully stiff dialog. Despite these issues, the show seemed to inspire wild enthusiasm from younger audience members. It had the ingredients of a smash, but somehow the positive word-of-mouth didn’t get out in time.

Ain’t No Mo’

With this savage new comedy, 27-year-old Jordan E. Cooper has established himself as one of the most interesting and daring young playwrights. The overall premise is that the American government has offered all black residents one-way tickets “back” to Africa. In a series of mad, bitingly satirical vignettes, we see the resulting chaos—and relief. In one, an outspoken airline boarding agent tries to get black passengers to board a jet piloted by former president Barack Obama. The agent is performed by the author in drag. Like Hamilton author/star Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is the best interpreter of his own material. In another, a black preacher (Marchánt Davis) offers a lively eulogy in front of a coffin containing the remains of “Brother Righttocomplain.” Another vignette offer the imaginary reality show, “Real Baby Mamas of the Southside,” which savages people like Rachel Dolezal who claim to be black but aren’t. Some of the scenes run on too long, but all stick long daggers into the heart of American racism. Too bad the wickedly fun Ain’t No Mo’ didn’t find a commercial audience. Never mind. The play already won an Obie Award for its 2019 Off-Broadway premiere and will get lots of productions around the country. Cooper has already created a daring TV sitcom, “The Ms. Pat Show,” and will likely return to the stage with something new that will dazzle us again.

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Angela Theresa Egic reviews The Buffalo Hero of WWI by Kenthedo Robinson at the American Theatre of Actors

My arrival at the American Theatre of Actors was memorable. It is a space this reviewer, as an actor, has performed at some time ago. At the end of the hallway, I was told there were two performances. The man at the box office informed me, The Buffalo Hero of WWI, was cancelled due to a sick Lighting Person, or Sound Person. The actors and crew only learned about it an hour before. Before I left, I told the friendly box office volunteer I was here to “review the show”. He allowed me to go in for what would be a dress rehearsal. The first time the cast would be in the bigger theater.

My first impression as the only audience member, until there were two when my friend arrived; I was impressed with the changes in this theater. The last time I was in this space, a few years ago, there was no balcony or spiral staircase. What a great space, and doing my own plays there, danced in my mind.

I walked in early enough to catch the Writer/Director, Kenthedo Robinson, a truly talented man. Also, the Lighting Technician and various cast members preparing. Ms. D (Mamma Miner) being in full rehearsal on her own.

The assistant, whom, I’m sorry to say, I did not remember to identify between Mark Robinson or Michael Banks. One was absent and they are both noted, respectively, in the playbill as Sound, Lighting and Projection. The playbill lists them both twice each. If the gentleman there was another person, it is not noted, or one is not identified in the paper playbill.

During this dress rehearsal, the lights were used, and the sound was spoken, by the assistant (on book), when there was no sound set-up.

The missing person, and the cancelation of the performance for audience, much like sound and a missing props, here and there, marked the overall performance. It is an interesting true story of Wayne Miner, the last soldier killed in World War I. Mr. Miner was an African American Kansas City fallen Buffalo Soldier Hero. Mr. Miner was boldly portrayed by the handsome and excellent actor, Alton Ray. He fit what I would imagine this hero to be, a strong performance in every way.

The Cast of The Buffalo Hero of WWIThe cast is strong, throughout, and Mr. Ray I would say a great lead for this play. All entrances and characters were strongly identified by the actors. Particularly in Act I. Some small uneven moments in scenes as the play progressed, not as distracting to most audience members, I would think. Just as a theatre professional, fixable with tightening; the unevenness could be removed by a bit more focus to the story. Michael Julius who had a wonderfully diverse character as Franklin B. Seymour, fantastically portrayed an act of being abused very well. Yet, in describing the actual horrid act by fellow white soldiers, he lost a bit of the anger of the act. Where it seemed his anger should be growing, his ebbed during the description of the act. The event that drove him to the anger. I would have liked to see that description itself to be expressed even more strongly. Julius chose to express it more like an observer, at the moment, it would seem better to grow more there, instead of using it as calm recall.

Kassime Fofana, as Rafius Rucker, driven into shell shock and fear and cheating on his wife, was fully a great performance into this type of mental illness. There were a couple of moments, seeing the true angst on his face, softened into clear vision. I would have liked to see the incredible coming insane fear stay on his face until his decision to do what he must do, to end his internal terror.

Some may be excused due to last minute changes; for example, coming ready to perform for an audience and ending up in a dress rehearsal. Secondly, moving from a smaller space to a much bigger space. Considering this, the cast, without full sound and having some of it just being read from the front row out of the script, it was excellent. There were only a few small stops and delays, to find a missing prop or get to the right light cue.

They ran almost straight through, with a needed intermission. I would say the ending was a bit lengthy. I would not want to have missed the information, yet it felt like The Buffalo Here of WWI could have been shorter, a little long to get to the end.

Nicolas Dodge as Captain Quincy Blu is to be commended for his performance as the prejudiced, closed-minded Captain! His changes felt natural and never broke who he was as a person. He was truly the guy you hate, and eventually, almost understood he was merely the victim of his time and may have changed by the end of the war. Maybe he told the story of these men he lost?

Ms. D played way beyond her years. I felt every time she was on stage. I felt the love for her son. And if not for her performance, I would have thought, she is too young to be the mother she portrayed.

Shani Tabia as Angelica was a joy every time, she entered the stage. Her energy was the glue and if there were any lags, her performance brought up the room. Overall, the energy of all the actors was fantastic. Ms. Tabia had this and more reminding us of our purpose, no matter what others may say. That can do and will do attitude.

Final Thoughts 

Although this about a time before any of us were born. It is proof that we have not grown as much as we’d like to believe. How history, in some ways, repeats itself and even though, from the prejudice Captain Quincy Blu to the ideology of Myles Marable as Lt. Clark guiding us so beautifully, as our guru of taking people from where they are and guiding them to illuminating where we can be, with one step at a time. Marable played that he, as this character, would, ideally, have written this story of the possibilities of the future by meeting people where they are.