Onstage / No asterisks required
A conversation about the 19–20 theater season
The cast of TWO TRAINS RUNNING at Paul Robeson Theatre (left to right): Vincenzo McNeil, Roosevelt Tidwell III, Hugh Davis, Debbi Davis, Fisher, Al Garrison, understudy Russell Holt, and Michael Hicks
photos by kc kratt
Even though the theater season ended abruptly in mid-March, it was more than half over—which means there’s still a lot to talk about!
Kathleen Rizzo Young and Donna Hoke
Katheen Rizzo Young: So many shows were canceled when the season ended. The good news is that it sounds like some of them will be rescheduled for 21–22.
Donna Hoke: I think almost sadder than the shows that got canceled completely (or, maybe postponed; we’ll see when theaters announce their next seasons) are the stellar shows that were shuttered after one or two performances or, in the case of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a preview. Reviews on so many of those were deserving four-star accolades—Indecent, Kiss of the Spider-Woman, Hand to God, The Outsiders, for example—and I know there was some real grief for those casts, as well as for patrons who never got to see them.
KRY: Kudos to the many theatergoers who not only did not ask for refunds for canceled shows but instead made donations.
DH: If they have a chance to remount before the sets have to come down, there’s a chance, but it’s iffy. Fingers crossed.
KRY: Meanwhile, there were some terrific, memorable productions and performances in the truncated season.
DH: Definitely! If we held the Arties tomorrow [note: the 2020 Arties are indefinitely postponed], the winners’ slate would be 100 percent worthy, no asterisks required.
KRY: That would be a great title for this piece!
DH: You got it!
KRY: The season kicked off strongly with those amazing 2019 summer shows.
DH: Right, because so many shows are pushed into late May and June, the Artie cut-off excluded a lot of shows that were technically last season, but for Artie purposes became this season. With more summer shows, the lines are getting blurry. It used to be only Shakespeare that had to be held until the following year. Passing Strange and Fun Home in May 2019 seem forever ago.
KRY: After seeing Fun Home on Broadway, I worried the local production couldn’t hold up, but it was marvelous. Susan Drozd is a wonderful director and should be working constantly. At the same time, Lorna Hill hit a home run with Passing Strange, the inaugural show at Ujima’s new home on Plymouth Avenue. Preach Freedom was an electric charismatic Narrator; I still think about that production. It really struck me when I reviewed my favorite shows of 19–20—eight of ten were musicals. That is not a reflection of preferring musicals over drama; it’s a reflection of the high quality of musical productions being done.
DH: I saw fifty-six shows locally in this season, and I know you probably saw at least that many, so that’s a high percentage! I just did a quick tick-through and four out of my top ten are musicals, and that’s from someone who generally doesn’t prefer them.
KRY: It was an extraordinary year for musicals. The Kavinoky continued their run of quality sold-out musicals with Hairspray, which featured a “blow the roof off” performance by Lorenzo Shawn Parnell as Motormouth Maybelle that was the talk of the town.
DH: My daughter and I turned to each other with our jaws dropped. Literally showstopping. The Second Generation musical entries—Nine and Toxic Avenger—were amazing. Having seen the Toxic movie in the eighties and not being a Toxic cultie, I was so happily surprised at how much I liked it. The talent was outstanding!
KRY: The two shows could not have been more different, yet were equally entertaining. I saw Nine twice, which I usually only do if I have a relative in it.
DH: Ha! I did have a relative in it, and I only saw it once! Musicals notwithstanding, my two favorite plays of the season were Pipeline at Ujima and Two Trains Running at Paul Robeson. Pipeline is a perfect example of the kind of work I love: contemporary and smart and well-produced. The script was fabulous, but so was the cast; I loved seeing Mary Moebius in a part that fit her like a glove. And then Two Trains Running... I was spellbound. There was so much talent poured into that show and of all the August Wilson cycle I’ve seen at Paul Robeson, this was one was by far my favorite script. I just loved it.
Jerai Kahdim and Samatha Cruz in Ujima’s Pipeline
KRY: I look forward to the August Wilson shows at the Robeson every year. Although written decades ago, Two Trains felt fresh. Pipeline was so timely and relevant.
DH: I wish theaters beyond Ujima would see that kind of work as relevant. As Buffalo theaters attempt to program with an eye toward making casts look like the makeup of this city, we see the same faces over and over. Ujima and Paul Robeson and Raíces are doing the hard work of welcoming, inviting, and working with anybody interested. I hear people say “We need more depth in the acting pool,” but they fail to see that, for so long, actors of color were not welcomed and so they retreated. It will take active work to welcome them in.
That can be a segue to usual rant that it also takes work to program plays by women and BIPOC playwrights, because these are mostly going to be newer plays. Which means looking beyond to off-Broadway or even more important, the regions, to find out what work is being done in theaters that seek to produce a range of voices. In Buffalo, four out of five voices we hear on stage continue to be white men.
KRY: Regarding the talent pool, we are fortunate to have high quality theater programs at UB, Buffalo State, Niagara University, Fredonia, etc., that cultivate and develop terrific talent for our community.
DH: Subversive’s Mercury Fur and Pipeline were both good examples of that, and I hope that demographics in those programs continue to diversify.
I want to make a special note about some of the standout comic performance we saw this year. Jenn Stafford and Dan Urtz killed it in those dual roles in Toxic and Hand to God, but they didn’t surprise me; I know they’re both amazing comic performers. But Raphael Santos and Dylan Zalikowski in Toxic? Ricky Needham in The Boys Upstairs? James Cichocki in Bright Colors Bold Patterns? Peter Horn in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Chris J. Handley in The Tempest? It was an incredible season for comedy.
KRY: Yes, in these dark, theater-free months I find thinking back on those laugh-’til-you-cry performances really brings me joy.
DH: We agree that the production values and talent here are producing a lot of satisfying theater. But what do you think we can be doing better—aside from better representation of voices and bodies onstage?
KRY: Play selection is a challenge. In a year with probably more four-star reviews than ever, I’m not sure the houses reflected that. Even a brilliantly produced show is a hard sell if no one is familiar with it. It’ll be interesting to see what choices are made post-COVID.
DH: I know at least Road Less Traveled is planning to just move their entire season to next year; Shakespeare is planning to do the same. I think I heard Second Generation is planning to reschedule Three Tall Women, and Curious Incident is slated for February at 710. So maybe the answer is there won’t be much effect on choices.
In the meantime, I appreciate the theaters attempting to engage with virtual platforms. Alleyway’s annual Quickies were produced live online, Road Less Traveled released an archival video of Jon Elston’s ProJect, Torn Space released the audio-experience Passage, O’Connell and Company is doing readings, and MusicalFare is streaming concerts.
KRY: I love how several are celebrating their histories by posting photos of past productions via social media. A number are also doing workshops or lectures online showcasing their company members’ various areas of expertise.
DH: What would it take for you to go sit in a theater?
KRY: I was hoping I could sit six feet away from someone on the hill and enjoy Shakespeare this summer, but it was not to be. Now, I am carefully watching what happens as people go back to work and shopping and much of their normal lives wearing masks and washing hands to see if there is no surge.
DH: Same; I am going to need some hard fact reassurance if there is no vaccine. I see too many situations where social distancing is promised but not carried out. But, in any case, I think the industry as a whole is looking at next spring at the earliest. There’s a lot of concern around audience confidence and that coming back too soon could be detrimental.
KRY: As Artie Committee members, we see over ninety shows a year—some in very small spaces and others in large buildings—all presenting their own social distancing challenges.
DH: In some theaters, even the bathroom situation presents an impossible obstacle to social distancing.
KRY: Broadway actors like Patti LuPone have been vocal about changes they need to return to work, such as cleaner backstage spaces and dressing rooms, a good takeaway for all theaters.
DH: I think we’re going to see a lot of experiments going forward both virtually and in reality. Outdoor theater will likely be the first to make a comeback attempt. I’ve heard creative ideas from around the country. I’ve also seen a friend post about rehearsing on Facebook, and lots of people were commenting about how they couldn’t wait. Then again, I also see packed parking lots and restaurant patios. I think we’re going to see a lot of fits and starts.
KRY: We are having this conversation in early June and I just saw a CBS Sunday Morning piece on the ghost light—the lamp that glows in the Broadway theaters when the theater is dark. The sentiment was, the light is still on, that theaters are waiting for us to return. I love the message that has appeared throughout the pandemic, “this is only an intermission.”