by Jill Sweeney
published Friday, June 22, 2018
Dallas — Sad to say, it’s probably significantly more difficult to find a person whose life hasn’t been touched by breast cancer in some way than it is to find someone with no connections to it whatsoever. So it’s hard to imagine the person who couldn’t find some meaning or relevance in Soul Rep Theatre Company’s production of local playwright and Soul Rep co-founder Anyika McMillan-Herod’s moving The Monarch, based on McMillan-Herod’s experience battling—and thankfully surviving—Stage 3 breast cancer. The quartet of powerhouse actresses in the piece explore the many varied emotional responses to each stage of cancer, from anger to despair to humor and, finally, to hope.
It’s been a bit of winding journey for this piece. With material sourced from McMillan-Herod’s journals during her experiences with cancer, the show was originally performed as a staged reading six years ago in Dallas. The Monarch was then workshopped in 2015 before being performed as part of Soul Rep’s New Play Festival that same year. Excerpts were then performed as part of Echo Theatre’s “Echo Reads Series” in March of this year. Clearly the piece made an impression, given that when a slot in Echo’s season opened up unexpectedly, Echo immediately offered it to Soul Rep, as a co-production.
Co-directing The Monarch are Tonya Holloway, the Co-Artistic Director of Soul Rep, and the playwright herself. In its final form, the piece is a series of 10 vignettes (with a recorded prologue and epilogue), whose characters and settings vary wildly, but whose connecting thread (of course) is women’s experience of breast cancer. The play’s guiding metaphor for how cancer transforms survivors is the monarch butterfly’s life cycle, information about which acts as a framing device for the show and serves as the source of the play’s title and character’s names. Subsisting in its infancy on plant life that’s toxic to other creatures, the monarch enters its chrysalis and emerges eventually as something battle-scarred, but beautiful.
It would be an exercise in futility to try and single out one performer from the piece, as each actress turns in a uniformly excellent and very distinct performance, showcasing different strengths and embodying many different facets of the cancer experience.
Morgana Wilborn (The Egg) offers up several raw performances, notably her initial character’s agonized confrontation of the loss of her breast and a searing monologue as a woman who beat cancer, but whose husband then left her via note. Chris Sanders (The Caterpillar) partners with Wilborn as the nurse fitting her character’s prosthetic who has scars of her own. She scintillates in a monologue regarding post-cancer sexuality, swinging between sensual memories of her past experiences with her husband, and her hope of reclaiming that part of herself as she heals. Monique Ridge-Williams (The Chrysalis) dominates the stage in a sort of self-dialogue (half-spoken, half-dance) with Guinea Bennett-Price (Soul Rep’s Co-Artistic Director) as a sort of warrior alter-ego of a woman spiraling into what ifs after her diagnosis, and later gives an aching turn as “Joy,” who turns to alcohol and shuts out the world after being diagnosed. Bennett-Price has some of the funniest moments. Despite the seriousness of the segment, her turn as Joy’s persistent friend is both natural and hilarious, and her final performance in the solo vignette in “Damn Kale!” is funny enough that it would be criminal to spoil its punchline. An ensemble scene titled simply “Chrysalis,” with recorded dialogue from Sanders, is almost uncomfortably intimate, but beautiful, and the final visual of the four women entwined in a sort of four-person Pieta was arresting.
The set itself is simple, mostly consisting of various configurations of crates and boxes, but executed well (all the performers do double duty, also making their own costume changes and striking and rebuilding the set for each scene, which they managed with only a few very minor hiccups). Elements of traditional African garb, vocalization, and dance are used sparingly, but very effectively, and tie in with the overarching sense of spirituality threaded through the piece. Michelle Graves provides percussion throughout, and despite being essentially onstage with her instruments, is never overpowering.
While the play strives throughout to try and portray different aspects of the cancer experience, and to explore differing viewpoints of women at each stage of the disease and its aftermath, the show’s ending is unabashedly hopeful, with any dissenting views expressed earlier seemingly stripped away.
This may not speak to everyone’s experience with cancer, but the piece is, after all, autobiographical. It’s the playwright’s journey we’re on, and her act of transformation in turning her pain into hope expressed through her art that the audience is invited to witness. A true labor of love and a testament to the talents of the two theater companies who brought it to life, The Monarch not only speaks, she soars
Q&A: Anyika McMillan-Herod
The Soul Rep Theatre co-founder and breast cancer survivor on her new play The Monarch, co-produced with Echo Theatre.
by Martha Heimberg
published Monday, June 11, 2018
Dallas — Soul Rep Theatre Company, celebrating its 11th season of plays centered on the soul and spirit of black culture, is teaming up with Echo Theatre, founded in 1998 to produce the works of women playwrights, to produce The Monarch, the world premiere and latest work by Soul Rep Co-Founder Anyika McMillan-Herod.
The production opens June 15 at the Bath House Center, and is co-directed by the playwright and Tonya Holloway, Soul Rep’s co-artistic director and co-founder.
TheaterJones talked with the playwright about the genesis of her new play, its development, and Soul Rep’s collaboration with Echo Theatre.
TheaterJones: The Monarch is about breast cancer. What brought you to write the play and how long did it take?
Anyika McMillan-Herod: I was diagnosed with cancer 11 years ago and journaled throughout the treatment and recovery. I’ve been in remission for 10 years. Two years after remission I wanted to write a play. My blog posts during treatment seemed to really speak to people, so I decided to make a play of my experience. a natural progression, since I’m a playwright.
Can you describe the development process of this play?
The first reading was six years ago at South Dallas Cultural Center, and it was wonderful for me in continuing the healing process. In 2015, I signed up to participate in Dallas Theater Center’s Dallas Playwrights Workshop, led by Will Power, and spent several month working with him on The Monarch. I started with a large cast of 10 women and men and 15 scenes. Later that year in Soul Rep’s’ New Play Fest we did excerpts of the play with voices of other women who made the journey, and I whittled it down to three actors. After that, I saw that the entire play needed paring down. The most work for me, and for many playwrights, has been making the work shorter. I had to release the men from the play. Even my husband told me to let the men go. The finished play is simply a prologue, an epilogue, and four women performing monologues, poems and stories about their personal journeys, and how each survived breast cancer.
Do you deal with issues of racism, sexism and economic disparity in the play?
Because I’m an African-American writer, the play reflects aspects of my culture, but in The Monarch I touch more on relationships than those specific social issues. It’s about the changing responses of women to the disease, from anger to acceptance. Some women choose not to face the diagnosis. Some are super optimistic, and some women commit suicide. In March, when Echo Theatre did a reading of the play, a diverse audience of men and women reacted powerfully to the play. That’s the beauty of the piece—the recognition that cancer doesn’t select certain people based on race or age. Young women and grandmothers can develop cancer.
Many women confronted with a potentially disfiguring disease like breast cancer have talked about how their self-image suffers. Do you speak to that aspect of cancer in your play?
We do address how women facing breast cancer view their bodies through the four different phases in the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Actors play an egg, a caterpillar, a chrysalis and the adult monarch butterfly. During this transformation, the women are trying to be in their bodies again, sometimes with one breast or no breast or new breasts. There are no male characters in the play, but men figure strongly in the play as women try to regain intimacy with their husbands. One woman is not ready for it, and another’s marriage has fallen completely apart.
What has your co-director, Tonya Holloway, brought to the show?
Tonya has a great eye. She’s able to look at the work itself and beyond me and my personal experience. She looks at the characters more objectively, and that lens is invaluable to the process of bringing out the different layers of experience I’m presenting. We’ve been collaborating since we were in college, and I love working with her.
What is Echo Theatre’s role in this co-production?
All I can say is thank God for [Echo Theatre Artistic Director] Terri Ferguson and Elly Lindsay. Elly was my teacher at [Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts], and we’ve stayed in touch. She encouraged me to send The Monarch to the Echo Reads Series. After the reading this past spring, Terri was enthusiastic. She said, “We have dates, we have money and we want to give the play a full production.” They’ve provided the platform, the funding and the media support to get the word out about the play. It’s been a wonderful collaboration with Echo.
Can you comment on the cast you have assembled?
This cast is incredible. [Soul Rep co-founder and co-artistic director] Guinea Bennett is an amazing actress, and during rehearsals she talked about having lost a good friend to breast cancer. Guinea is performing this play in honor of her friend. Monique Williams is a television actress who’s moved back to Dallas from California, and is performing the butterfly in its transformative stage. Morgana Wilborn is director of education at the Dallas Theater Center, and is performing her third show with us this season. Chris Sanders is an enormously talented new graduate of Southern Methodist University. Hopefully Dallas will put her to work, and she’ll stay here. Dallas has a thriving and robust arts community at this time, and it’s wonderful to be a part of it.
What are the implication of the play’s title?
How that came about is actually a wonderful story. After diagnosis, I was sitting outside the hospital in the car. A monarch butterfly came and landed on the window, and I thought, that’s my sign. I’ve embraced the monarch as my spirit creature ever since. I didn’t know at that point that women before me in the pain and transformation of cancer have identified with the butterfly’s journey.
What are you hoping the audience takes away from the play?
I hope those who have experienced breast cancer will walk away inspired by what they have seen. I hope people with friends and relatives dealing with the disease acknowledge and celebrate those women for their strength and courage. Art for me is healing. I’m not an entertainer; there has to be a purpose behind the craft. Theater is sacred for me, and I hope people come with open minds and hearts to the play. It has been a spiritual journey for me. My mind and body have grown stronger through cancer. I’m a better artist and a better person. That’s the gift cancer has given me.
by Richard Oliver
published Monday, May 7, 2018
Dallas — The story of our nation is a uniquely commotional one. Ours is a troubled history, characterized by racial indecencies. Since our inception a comparatively short time ago, the struggle of African-Americans—from slavery, through Jim Crow, to segregation and discriminatory police brutality—has been etched into our DNA. It is an ever-present part of our growing pains, and it is important that we as citizens take every chance we get to self-reflect on that in order to better understand the direction of our path forward.
Soul Rep Theatre Company offers one such opportunity with their revival of The Freedmans in the Wyly Theatre’s Sixth Floor Studio Theatre as a part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s The Elevator Project. First performed 20 years ago and again in 2013, the show was originally produced to commemorate the opening of the Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial in Dallas. This current run has been dedicated to one of the original playwrights, nia akimbo, who passed just before the show’s opening.
Freedman’s Town, located in the present-day Uptown area, was a community of newly freed African-Americans founded shortly after emancipation in the late 1800s. It had virtually disappeared by the 1980s due to commercial development, save for a historic cemetery, which was unearthed by construction crews during the expansion of Central Expressway between Lemmon Avenue and Hall Street.
The Freedmans gives life to the disinterred bones in what director and Soul Rep co-founder Guinea Bennett-Price calls a “gift to the past from its future.” Featuring a 12-person cast, the work is a “ritualistic choreo-poem”—a collection of nine compelling poems with prologue and epilogue, all written by members of the Soul Rep Writing Consortium (akimbo, Chris Herod, Anyika McMillan-Herod, and Keith Price), and set against music and dance. Each poem conjures up true and imagined stories from the lives of those who lived, loved, and died during the height of Freedman’s Town’s existence.
The characters play to audience members on either side of the raised stage. The venue is intimate, so every gesture in the body and expression in the face is in full and clear view, driving the emotional impact of each vignette with surety. The set is minimal so as not to distract from the action, with branches strewn along the edges of the stage, and stumps and old wooden chairs set in the back for the players’ use when not taking center stage. Overhead hangs an unassuming white sheet, upon which images are projected to augment the text and dialogue.
The most ornate object on stage is the Dice Girl’s (Alexis Williams) harp, which she plays with a haunting sort of artistry during the entering procession and between certain movements. Her music is often augmented by the intoxicating movements of the Dancing Spirit (Dane Hereford), who covers the stage with interpretive dance—a fusion of what seems to be ballet and African tribal movements.
The scenes range effectively in drama and spectacle. For example, “Violet and Silus,” portrayed by La-Hunter Smith and Irwin Daye respectively, is a beautiful story of two young lovers at leisure; and “The Reunion of Mother and Child” details a quaint conversation between a mother (La-Hunter Smith) and her adolescent daughter (Joi Johnson) as they ponder a name for the newest addition to their family. The nuanced simplicity of these anecdotes offers a brilliant dynamic against the more powerful and moving scenes throughout the production.
“Cato’s Fire” evokes feelings of pain, anger, and vengeance as the ghost of Cato (Keith Price) recounts his experience of being forced back into the cotton fields, even after being made a free man. Here, sound operator Nash Farmer adds shock to the display with well-timed pops of the slave master’s whip, and as Cato receives his lethal punishment for fiery rebellion, lighting and set designer M. Scott Tatum utilizes chilling overhead visuals to call up the very harrowing reality of lynching in our nation’s history.
Stand-out performances came from the Dice Woman (Rene Miche’al) and The Hanging Tree (Monique Ridge-Williams). Miche’al’s portrayal of the mystic medium offered a connection between each vignette and offered the audience crucial moments of internalization and reflection. The subtle twitches in her hands and a desperate glimmer in her eye suggested a true connection to the ethereal plane wherein our characters dwelled.
It was “The Hanging Tree” that truly sold the production for this viewer. Written by Keith Price, this scene features the lamentation of a uniquely pointed and poignant perspective. Adorned in a crown of brambles and thorns, Ridge-Williams portrays an ancient tree—an extension of nature and the natural law itself—saddened by the perversion set upon it by men in the act of lynching. She implores her tormentors to put her to better use, to chop her down and use her as firewood so as to no longer be “a home for discontented ghosts.” The delivery is powerful and upsetting, while still leaving room for the immenseness of time and wisdom to settle over the drama.
“The Freedmans” amounts to an intensely engaging experience. It does well to gesture toward a crucial aspect of American identity, which is a much needed-effort during these highly polarized times. With beautiful music and dance and potent poetry, the members of the Soul Rep Theatre Company serve their mission well: “To provide quality transformative Black Theatre that enlightens the imagination, the spirit, and the soul.”
Nancy Churnin, Theater Critic
It's not easy being a small, black theater company without a permanent home in Dallas.
But Guinea Bennett-Price, Anyika McMillan-Herod and Tonya Davis-Holloway didn't start Soul Rep Theatre Company because they thought it would be easy. They did it because they felt it was necessary.
They're readying their signature 1998 production, The Freedmans, for a run at the Wyly Theatre's Studio Theatre, where it is one of the shows in the Elevator Project, presented by AT&T Performing Arts Center and Dallas' Office of Cultural Affairs.
And they're thinking ahead to a future that they hope will include a permanent home, professional status and publication of company-developed scripts like The Freedmans that can be performed around the country.
They didn't pick the show because it was easy either. They picked it because this original show about real and imagined lives of people buried in Dallas' Freedman's Cemetery represents their mission and determination to tell the stories of the black community in Dallas and to give black artists a place to shine.
"We don't want what happened to the Freedman's Cemetery to happen to us," says McMillan-Herod. "We don't want Soul Rep's legacy paved over and erased. We must continue to tell the story of African-American voices."
For Bennett-Price, who will co-direct the show again with Ed Smith, it's been "a labor of love."
"It has many layers of meaning for us because we were making history by documenting true stories when the Freedman's Cemetery opened 20 years ago. It came out of wanting to know more about our past and where our families are from."
The company was inspired to develop the piece after the segregated burial ground, which included graves of black people from the Civil War to the 1970s, was rediscovered during the expansion of North Central Expressway. McMillan-Herod, Chris Herod, Nia Akimbo and Keith Price wrote short scenes and monologues that told the story of a former slave enraged by a farmer who tries to force him to work in the field again; an old woman who grows confused as she thinks about the African village where she was born; and a young couple, parted by slavery, who are striving to find each other again.
They've updated the production by performing it in the round and adding a young seer to complement the existing character of an elder seer, with a scene that explores what would have happened to the Freedman community if it had never been touched by development or the Jim Crow laws that discriminated against black people.
McMillan-Herod and Bennett-Price are graduates of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where Bennett-Price teaches. Davis-Holloway, who is from Fort Worth, grew up on the stage of Jubilee Theatre.
They founded Soul Rep in 1995, with Bennett-Price and Davis-Holloway ultimately moving into their current roles as co-artistic directors and McMillan-Herod as managing director. In 2003, the company went on hiatus as the women married and took time to work better-paying jobs and raise children. Ten years later, in 2013, one of the first shows they did in that first year back was The Freedmans. They have performed at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park and are now the resident theater company at South Dallas Cultural Center.
The new production is full of memories from the women's personal past.
Davis-Holloway's daughter, Demoreia Holloway, now 19, played an infant in the inaugural show.
Bennett-Price's sons, Emir and Esau Price, and McMillan-Herod's daughter, Layla Herod, performed in 2013. Emir Price caught the acting bug during that run. He's now a Booker T. High School senior and one of 60 nominees for the 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts.
While their children grew up with the stories told in the show, Davis-Holloway points out that many young people didn't.
The last time Davis-Holloway was at the cemetery, "I saw people casually walking to and fro and I had the feeling that the city doesn't know why this land is blocked and gated. This is a site where people should stop and tour and tell stories. It's a vital part of Dallas that needs more awareness."
The women are also determined to turn Soul Rep Theatre Company into their legacy — something like the Freedman's Cemetery Memorial, that can be a repository of history, but also a vehicle to tell stories of the present and future generations of black people in Dallas.
McMillan-Herod envisions Bennett-Price's son, Emir Price, as someone who might return to Dallas, after professional training, ready to take up the baton at Soul Rep Theatre Company.
"We want to build something that will last and be a gift and a light in our community," McMillan-Herod says. "We want something that we can ultimately pass on to another generation."
by Janice L. Franklin
published Friday, April 13, 2018
Dallas — The Soul Rep Theatre Company season closes at the South Dallas Cultural Center with Ramona King’s folktale, Steal Away. The play is not a dramatization of the Negro spiritual of the same title, but each employs the themes of secrecy and concealment, and each is rooted in the black church.
The historical significance of the church in black communities cannot be overstated. Church pastors, who were typically male during the 1930s, were very highly regarded. They received public recognition, and the lion’s share of the communities’ respect and praise. Pastors were the faces of the organizations. But the real work of the black churches, especially fundraising, was more often shepherded by the women. Steal Away is the story of five Chicagoan churchwomen who’ve got game, and just enough sass to make things interesting.
TracyAda (D’Lisa VaShawn), having recently graduated from college, has returned home to her grandmother Stella Kyzer’s house (Guinea Bennett Price). Stella is a member of a churchwomen’s organization which each year, identifies a deserving young girl to send to college. Today is ceremony day in celebration of Tracy, their most recent protégé. Redd (Tonya Davis-Holloway), Blu (Yolanda Davis), Jade (Anyika McMillan-Herod), and Sudy (Kenja Brown) have come by Stella’s house to collect them for the celebration, and to discuss fundraising strategies because it is now time to identify another young woman for the award. Funds are low, so monies are needed. In the past, the churchwomen always held bake sales to cover this effort, but a couple of the women are tired of selling pies and want to do something different. Selling pies to people during the Depression is a losing proposition. Tracy shares an idea she was developing during her last year or so in college: they can rob a bank. Thus, the crux of the play: how can five black churchwomen during the 1930s enter a bank undetected, rob it and get away unscathed?
Price is ideal as the stubborn Stella, rooted in her ways and resistant to change. Perhaps the strongest personality among them is Blu and Yolanda Davis has her clearly defined. Brown is well-suited for the presentational style of Sudy, in stark opposition to nervous-as-a-cat Jade whom McMillan-Herod portrays with hilarity. Davis-Holloway’s Redd is like the middle-child, bridging the gaps that pop open between and among the other women. VaShawn is appropriately lovely as Tracy, though she spends a lot of her time observing or standing in the shadows of the churchwomen.
Part of this story unfolds in Stella’s home, but the heist occurs in the bank. For the heist scene, director Dee Hunter-Smith utilizes Charlie Chaplin-style black-and-white film (by Tonya Davis-Holloway). That is a fantastic idea and resultingly, the film is the strongest and funniest visual element of the production. Nash Farmer provides the voice of the post-robbery radio announcer.
Hunter-Smith has crafted the rest of the action on a stationary two-level set (by Guinea Bennett-Price and Douglas Carter), a choice that is not without a few challenges. The upper level was not masked for sound. As a result, the actors’ dialogue is competing with the sounds of character heels clunking around that level, and up and down the rake that bridges the two levels.
Otherwise, the actors’ performances create a sense of familiarity with the characters, pulling attention toward the story and away from any little slips in the script.
An implausible plot? Yes, but such is the stuff of folktales—a stretch here, a tweak there in the retelling. Overall, Steal Away is an enjoyable story by a woman about women that barrel through implausibility to accomplish magnificent feats. In this way, they are not unlike millions of women creating how’d-they-do-that moments today.
by Janice L. Franklin
published Tuesday, February 6, 2018
Dallas — Colorism. Outside communities of color it is a conversation about skin color as an element of prejudice and discrimination. Within these communities, colorism becomes much more, an intra-racial issue acknowledged but not often discussed outside the group. Dael Orlandersmith picks at the experience scab of light-skinned and dark-skinned black people in Yellowman, a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Anyika McMillan-Herod directed the Soul Rep Theatre Company production of this five-part memory play, now onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center. Pulling at the thread connecting all of Orlandersmith’s works, Yellowmanexplores the extent to which the sins of the parents damage the children.
We enter the lives of Alma (Monique Ridge-Williams) and Eugene (Angelo Reid) as they are playing together as children during the 1960s in South Carolina. Alma lives with her mother, Ophelia, among the Gullah/Geechee people of Russellville. Eugene lives on the more prosperous side of town with his parents. One of his grandfathers is still alive, but does not become a part of Eugene’s life until Eugene is an adult. There are other characters, such as Eugene's childhood friends, but Alma and Eugene are the main characters of this narrative. Ridge-Williams and Reid assume all of the other roles, transitioning among character clips and distinguishing them through gesture, physicality and vocal inflection.
The tension in the story slathers forth from the colorism separating the communities and families because of skin tone; some are darker skinned, others are lighter, or "high yellow." Because of these distinctions Alma and Eugene are not supposed to become a couple; Eugene is not supposed to find a darker-skinned heavier-set woman appealing and Alma is not supposed to leave her Gullah world or find her voice. In Yellowman we glimpse two worlds forced apart by decades of the molten sludge of slavery-induced resentment and self-hatred.
This is not an easy play.
Alma is the product of abuse, abandonment, and despair. Ridge-Williams is brave and compelling, adroitly switching back and forth between her drunkenly abusive mother and herself. Her narration and dramatization of the day she met her bio-dad and her mother’s reaction, is stilling.
Reid manages the difficult task of portraying a gentle lover, a bitter father and a mother in denial within the same scene, building toward the story’s unexpected yet understandable climax. Together, Ridge-Williams and Reid cover 20 years in the lives of their characters with honesty and understanding.
M. Scott Tatum’s lighting design is beautifully dramatic, warmly enveloping the action on Douglas Carter and McMillan-Herod’s smartly simple set. On Friday, opening night, the production would have benefited from faster pacing, which has hopefully tightened up in subsequent performances. McMillan-Herod has also added an intermission into a work usually played without one, which adds to the evening's length.
Of her own work Dael Orlandersmith has said humanity exists within a bleak story and we find that humanity through exposing the darkness. Thanks to the performances by Ridge-Williams and Reid, Soul Rep's production meets that challenge.
by Janice L. Franklin
published Friday, December 8, 2017
Dallas — “Creating opportunities for children of color to experience theater that is reflective of their culture” is one of the hallmarks of Soul Rep Theatre Company.
RE-TALES: The Flyest Fairy Tales Ever Told attempts just that by taking classic fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters and pushing them through an urban and R&B lens. Mary Mary Quite Contrary, Lil’ Red Riding Hood and Pinnochio are but a few of the characters that were turned a little upside-down in translation. The retales are “The Spry Lady,” “Pinnochi-Toe,” “Mary and Kid,” “Lil’ Red Rides the ‘Hood,” and “Sherry Perry’s Garden.”
RE-TALES is actually a refreshed version of a resurrected older piece (Rep Tales) written by company co-founder and artistic director Guinea Bennett-Price and her husband Keith Price. For this retelling, they changed a few characters and added music written by Professor Keyz and Keith Price.
The best elements of this production are the children in the cast, most of whom are experienced though young. They are excited, energized, confident and appear to be having fun. Thanks to a Racial Equity grant from the Communities Foundation of Texas, and an ongoing relationship with the South Dallas Cultural Center, Soul Rep is able to have performances for elementary and middle school children in the South Dallas area.
Children in the cast are: Dustyn DeWayne Carter (Kid/Flower), Te’a Casa (Mary contrary, Flower No. 3 and Wolfette), Jaylon Mobley (Wolf Pack/Driver/Flower), Qaadir Muhammad (Lil’ Red), and Esau Price (Pinnochi-Toe). Two actors have portrayed Spry Lady: Carrington Whigham and Jori Jackson. Leading the ensemble and in the title role is Jaquai Wade-Pearson as Ms. ReTale. The role of Sherry Perry is carried by Morgana Wilborn. Douglas Carter (Poppa Puppet Maker), Gabrielle Gray (Mama Red/Wendy) and Irwin Daye (Wolf Man) round out the cast.
Structurally, the script needs work, as does the soundtrack which leaves a few of the actors’ singing abilities unnecessarily exposed. Awkward. Some of the conceptual disconnect may have resulted from having two directors, Guinea Bennett-Price and Daylene Carter.
But for its struggles organizationally, RETALES holds together because of the children. Tonya Holloway and Shirley Tyler’s costumes help clarify the identity of the characters without exaggeration.
RETALES is about an hour long, which is perfect for families with small children.
by Janice L. Franklin
published Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Dallas — Greetings from Sunny South Dallas! That is the welcoming graphic for Soul Rep Theatre’s Southside Stories, a festival of 10-minute plays about events, people and places in ZIP code 75215. The plays are onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
The premise for the festival is intriguing. The first step was in deciding on an oft-misunderstood and maligned geographical region of Dallas. ZIP code is important in clarifying the historical nucleus of the area politicians sometimes refer to as “the southern sector.” For more recent area residents, zip code 75215 is Southern Dallas, but for those whose familial roots extend back generations the area has been, is and will always be, South Dallas. The Southside.
The next step was to employ a thematic thread, one that not only connects all the plays but also reflects the struggle for the community—Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed. Boal was interested in contemporary social and political issues and used forum theatre for those expressions. He believed that each participant was an actor and an observer or audience member, a “spect-actor.”
Inspired by his pedagogy, two different audience participation theatre games have been inserted into the evening’s programming. This audience engagement exercise while entertaining was also one of the contributing factors to the extended program run-time from its announced one-and-a-half hours to three. Presenting 10 plays in one evening has its challenges.
Not to be minimized in importance is the festival’s focus on the year 1984, which functions like a musical drone, part of the underpinning of the program. There is the culture of 1984 in America and in Dallas, Texas, specifically, which cannot avoid a comparison with the class struggles addressed in Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Playwrights were each assigned a topic and given two weeks to write a play. Writing for the festival are: diannetucker, Soul Rep founder and producer Anyika McMillan-Herod, Chris Herod, recent BTWHSPVA alum La’Needra LuLu Cornelius, IV Amenti, Emir Price (current BTWHSPVA student) and Keith Price. Directing the various pieces are Jordan Story, Dee Smith, Jiles King, Natalie King, Rene Miche’al and IV Amenti.
Forming the company of actors (in order of program lineup): Morgana Wilborn, Maggie Ward, Domenique Smith, Michael Bowman, Kyndra Mack, Trenton Williams, Destiny Rey, Takenya Banks, Jori Jackson, Aaliyah White, Jerrold Trice, Esau Price, Nate Thurman, Alexandria Warfield, Nicole Romero, Cain Rodriguez, J.R. Bradford, and Ke’Vondrea McKinney.
Among the stories are those of the region’s Jewish heritage, the tension experienced by architect William Sidney Pittman, homelessness and South Dallas’ tent city, the story of Dallas’ popular pre-hip-hop group, the DART rail murder of a 19-year old by several tweens, and the Wah-Wah Chinese eatery.
The festival’s premise works. As would be expected some of the plays are more successful than others, but each lands reasonably well.
Most successful is The House Special, written by Keith Price and directed by Dee Smith. This piece seems fully fleshed out. It effectively reflects the complicated relationships at the core of South Dallas’ perseverance. The exchanges between Wah-Wah (Morgana Wilborn) and Woman (Jori Jackson) are very funny.
Communion, written and directed by Anyika McMillan-Herod, goes a few hours into the life of Ruby (Maggie Ward), a homeless woman. Whatever unevenness exists in the script is offset by Ward’s performance. She boldly flashes through the complexities of her character’s emotions, calling attention to the nagging question of whether anyone really chooses to remain homeless.
Writer Chris Herod goes into the shadowy world of religion and racketeering with Father Brown’s Vitality Tonic. This piece avoids the pitfall of preachiness through lightly infused humor nicely executed by Takenya Banks. It is one of the stronger plays in the festival.
LuLu Cornelius’ Black Boy Groove, directed by Jiles King, is an ensemble piece that explains what happened to one of Dallas’ most promising music groups of the 1980s. This is one of the pieces in the festival that could be expanded and still maintain its pointedness. Given the recent success of NWA’s story in the film Straight Outta Compton, now is a pretty good time to tell these stories of groundbreaking hip-hop groups.
Juan Y Maria by IV Amenti is a simple yet not-so-simple love story set in 1984. It is about aspirations and love and the courage to pursue both in a new world. This South Dallas story stands as evidence of the needlessness of fear of immigration and language.
Pace and timing issues aside, the festival is enjoyable. The concept is an excellent idea, presenting dramatizations of South Dallas history that is too infrequently highlighted. The Southside Stories are about collaboration, survival, resilience, family, and love.