Onstage / Talking with Dominique Morisseau and exploring WILDE TALES at Shea’s 710
Wilde Tales photo by David Cooper; Bodyguard photo by Joan Marcus
Blood at the Root
Coproduced by Paul Robeson Theatre and Buffalo State’s Casting Hall Productions
By Dominique Morisseau
Director: Aaron Moss
Dominique Morisseau is enjoying popularity in Western New York, where the first of her Detroit Project trilogy, Detroit ’67, ran last season at both Paul Robeson and Chautauqua. This season, Blood at the Root is in coproduction between Paul Robeson and Buffalo State, and the third Detroit play, Skeleton Crew, appears at Paul Robeson later this season. There isn’t another playwright whose had so many plays professionally produced in the region in such a short time, but it seems to be mirroring Morisseau’s success across the country.
“I’m not sure what’s doing it,” says Morisseau. “Obviously, there’s a season for any playwright, but I’m also finding this thing happening where things I’ve written about a while ago or am in the process of writing, the world is sort of horribly catching up to them, even when they take place in the past. That’s nothing I have control over, but things I’m passionate about and interested in, the world is starting to reflect and find a passionate response to right now. We’re just having this kismet moment of being in conversation with each other.”
Blood at the Root is an older play based on the Jena Six—six African-American students who were charged with attempted murder after being provoked by nooses hanging from a tree on campus—that was commissioned for students. It’s made the rounds internationally and on the college circuit, as per its original intent, but, with Morisseau’s other works being staged so prolifically, it’s starting to show up in regional theaters, which makes it a perfect coproduction for Paul Robeson and Buffalo State.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Project—which does for Detroit (in some ways)what August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle did for the Steel City—shows have gotten incredible play. “I write my work for the working class, and it’s been out in the communities in various ways,” says the playwright. “So for Skeleton Crew [which is about a factory closing down], there have been initiatives to get the work into the working class community, general factory workers, and, suddenly, we have talkbacks with workers. We’ve taken bare bones versions and done it at community centers. We’re going into Detroit communities with Detroit ’67, during the fiftieth anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion, and, in New York, we’re creating initiatives to get educators to Pipeline [a play about the perils of the public school system].
“All work should be witnessed in diverse communities, putting people of different backgrounds together to enjoy a piece of art,” Morisseau continues. “We should all have a concern when the people who are on the stage do not match the people who are in the audience; if there’s nobody in the audience who is on stage, we should be concerned. The more we can get various voices onstage, but, also, the more we can get various audiences in the houses to see the work, we can start an intercommunity dialogue, have intersectional conversations about art, and the issues my art brings up.”
As executive story editor for Showtime’s Shameless, Morisseau has the opportunity to reach an even wider audience, albeit with more constraints than she has as a playwright. “I don’t have quite the same goal on Shameless as I do on Pipeline, but there is some crossover,” says Morisseau. “We’re reaching such a wider audience, which doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a wider perspective, because it depends on what the network wants, but, in our case, we definitely want to include and have a very specific focus on a particular marginalized group of people, and giving that very specific group of people voice. Anyone who interacts with them, we’re helping to add color to their perspective of this community, which is a poor, working class community in a particular region of Chicago. I love working on the show, and the subject matter is important to me, poverty and how we’re dealing with a meritocracy. It’s becomes a good fit, even though I didn’t think it would be a show I’d write on. But we find the common ground in the wild writing and situations and circumstances; my mind has never been able to think like this before!”
In all cases, Morisseau hopes that communities are able to have healthy conversations around the work, and share ideas about solutions. “What I really hope is that people don’t watch my work and think the task of fixing some of the problems is on one section of people,” she says. “[Rather], that it becomes all of our problem, that we can see ourselves in each other as human beings, and issues that affect other communities impact them and they impact us. It becomes all of our job to create solutions around it and not jump ship when stuff gets deep for one community of people.”
Blood at the Root runs through October 7 in the Donald Savage Theater on the Buffalo State College campus (africancultural.org, 884-2013, and through Buffalo State).
Wilde Tales: Stories for Young and Old
Produced by the Shaw Festival at Shea’s 710 Theatre
By Oscar Wilde, adapted by Kate Hennig
Director: Christine Brubaker
Cast: Marion Day, Emily Lukasik, PJ Prudat, Sanjay Talwar, Jonathan Tan, Kelly Wong
Even when its mission was in its purest form, the Shaw Festival has always found Oscar Wilde fair game, and has presented ten of his plays in thirty-five seasons, several more than once. It wasn’t until this year, however, that the festival delved into his children’s fare, which proved to be a good match for new artistic director Tim Carroll’s bent toward interactive theater.
It was Carroll who presented the idea, along with his four favored stories (all from The Happy Prince and Other Tales), to teacher/actor/director/writer Kate Hennig. Hennig favored the same four, who then sought to create a holistic experience incorporating all of them. “I wanted to make it one play, and not just short story theater, as it were, you know?” she says. “When I was younger, I did a lot of cabaret work, and, for me, that connective tissue through a variety of material is important to making the theatrical experience a whole one. So ‘The Remarkable Rocket’ story became the glue that holds the rest of the material together. Then I [put] the sun, the moon, and the stars in, because Wilde uses those metaphors often throughout his writing. Creating a gutter as the place where the Remarkable Rocket lands, and all of the other creatures end up landing, is where my imagination got really creative.”
As mentioned in the August review of this production, some of the stories get a little dark, but Hennig says that doesn’t faze the kids at all. For example, in “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a nightingale sacrifices itself to help a young man win a girl’s love, but the girl spurns him anyway. “Sometimes, they talk to their parents about it, or the parents will ask them, ‘What about the nightingale? What did you think about that story?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, I liked the rocket,’ and usually divert away from it. They don’t really understand the nightingale story, but, at the same time, they’re not frightened by it. They just accept it; it’s kind of cool that way.”
Hennig’s favorite story is “The Happy Prince,” a story of mutual sacrifice to the death (I told you: dark), featuring a swallow puppet. “I played the happy prince when I was in grade five, and I remember it very clearly,” says Hennig. “I absolutely adore the swallow. It’s such a beautifully crafted character and what Kelly Wong has done with the swallow [puppet] is magnificent. Every story has something: I could watch Sanjay [Talwar, who plays the Remarkable Rocket] make [fizzle] fart noises a million times. I could watch PJ [Prudat] as the moon until the cows come home, or Jonathan Tan’s frog jumping around. Everyone has their moments of glory, because they’re all working so hard all the time. With every ounce of energy in their bodies, they have committed wholly to this as an interactive experience for the audience, for the play, and for the words of Oscar Wilde. It amazes me.”
Would-be attendees should note the show’s subtitle: Stories for Young and Old. “It’s an accessible show to all generations of theatergoers,” Hennig promises. “In fact, one person who saw it said it was one of the most effective multigenerational theater experiences they’d ever seen. At one point, we considered marketing that if two children bought tickets, they could bring their grandparents for free; the idea didn’t manifest, but the idea of it is accurate, which is that while kids are the central focus of our audience participation, it’s really wonderful for adults to engage with the children inside them as well. Some of our most enthusiastic responses are from older people.”
Wilde Tales, transferring from the Shaw Festival, has a limited engagement at Shea’s 710 Theatre, October 24–28 (sheas.org, 855-797-3952)
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Music recorded by Whitney Houston
Former Secret Service agent turned bodyguard Frank Farmer is hired to protect superstar Rachel Marron from an unknown stalker. Fans of the 1992 film remember Kevin Costner in his heyday, and Whitney Houston belting one of the biggest-selling songs of all time, “I Will Always Love You.” And now, it comes to the stage.
“I saw the movie when it came out, and enjoyed it,” says Jonathan Hadley, who plays press agent Sy Spector and has previously been on the Shea’s stage in tours of Jersey Boys and Fiddler on the Roof, and says he can’t wait to see what’s happened in Buffalo since 2010. “But, when I read the script and heard it was being made into a musical, I felt it was perfect material, and thought it would be a hoot to be a part of. In the staged version, they’ve added a whole bunch of Whitney Houston songs, so Deborah Cox sings thirteen Whitney songs almost back-to-back. You get a Whitney/Deborah Cox concert!”
The play hews closely to the movie, according to Bradley, with the suspense and thriller aspects intact, even if a few characters are combined and the plot streamlined. “We’re an audience pleasing sort of evening of entertainment,” the actor says. “If you like the movie, you’re not disappointed. If people are critical of the movie, they will be of the musical as well, but it is different in that there’s more Whitney music. I really enjoy listening to Deborah sing, and, as many times as we’ve all heard ‘I Will Always Love You,’ she puts her own spin on it, and gives it a different take every night. It’s so exciting to hear her sing.” Next to playing his role as “some say sleazy, but I don’t necessarily think he’s sleazy” Sy, it’s Hadley’s favorite moment.
Hadley also warns that if you’re the type who sneaks out during the curtain call, don’t: “There’s this fantastic finale that’s a surprise.”
OPENING THIS MONTH
Visiting Mr. Green opens at Jewish Repertory Theatre October 19 (jewishrepertorytheatre.org; 716-688-4033).
ALSO PLAYING (in order of closing)
The final performance of Sons & Lovers at Buffalo United Artists is October 1 (buffalobua.org, 886-9239).
The Producers finishes its run at Kavinoky October 1.
John wraps up at Road Less Traveled Productions October 1 (roadlesstraveledproductions.org; 629-3069).
New Phoenix closes My Old Lady October 7 (sheas.org, 855-797-3952)
The world premiere adaptation of cult classic Killer Rack continues at Alleyway until October 7 (alleyway.com, 852-2600).
Noel Coward’s Design for Living closes at Irish Classical Theatre October 8 (irishclassicaltheatre.com, 853-4282) .
MusicalFare’s final performance of Peter and the Starcatcher is October 8 (musicalfare.com, 716-839-8540).
Dear World continues at O’Connell and Company until October 22 (oconnellandcompany.com, 848-0800).
Bunnicula continues at TOY through October 29 (theatreofyouth.org, 884-4400).
Playwright Donna Hoke’s play Son & Lovers finishes its run at Buffalo United Artists October 1.