Review: Chicago One-Minute Play Festival (Victory Gardens)

  
  

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New Festival Showcases Short Works by Local Artists, Sampler-style

 

by Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

This May 15-16, Victory Gardens premiered Chicago’s first One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF), a benefit event that featured bite-sized works by an eclectic mix of prominent and upcoming local theater artists. Creator and “curator” Dominic D’Andrea originally debuted the series in New York in 2007, where it has since grown to San Francisco and Los Angeles . For its first ever stop in the Midwest, considering the event’s magnitude–50 playwrights, 10 directors, and nearly 60 actors–this year’s showcase demonstrated promising potential for an exciting annual Chicago theater institution.

That is, if it finds a stronger footing. Micro-plays are nothing new, especially in the Windy City, long-time home to the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light and Second City; one set the bar for two-minute plays, and the other made one-joke flash bits a sketch trademark. D’Andrea and producer Will Rogers’ OMPF also rides off the larger 10-minute play trend. Their efforts to boil down theater even further, though, prove to be fruitful–sometimes even enlightening. Below is a list of the night’s highlights.

Paper Airplane, Aaron Carter  

     
   The finest piece in the festival. A young boy expresses his anguish over his father’s looming death while tossing folded paper planes across the stage. His ability to speak is limited to the papers’ flight, leaving him choked and frustrated with each audible crash landing. In less than a minute, Carter encapsulates the panic of grief, and animates the cruel handicap children endure to express pain. Those planes approached visual poetry.

Two Vegans, Robert Tenges

     
   A couple engaged in love making–some of it hilariously acrobatic–get their kink on by dirty-talking their favorite (or to cool things off, least favorite: (“raw kale…raw kale!”) foods. At first, it’s funny nonsense. Then, after you uncomfortably internalize your own link between taste/sexual satisfaction, it’s hysterical.

A Play, Kristoffer Diaz

     
   You’re the hero in this monologue. The audience member to your right is the protagonist. Your left, the antagonist. Diaz’s simple, straight-forward instructions don’t feel like a gimmick. His inconclusive end ponders some sophisticated ideas about the broader implications of storytelling, ones that resonate long after the play’s 60 seconds are up.

The Last Walk, Lisa Dillman

     
   Sad pets are an easy go-to for emotional impact…but that doesn’t make using them any less effective. A dog reminisces about the good days with her very recently deceased owner. Confused, she brushes up against his dead body for affection…and if you don’t cry a little at the thought of that, then you’re a monster. Only a few high-pitched “aw’s” were heard in the house during an otherwise hushed fade-to-black.

Inequity, Jake Minton

     
   Penis envy comes early for two little boys (played by full-grown adults, of course) in a school bathroom: One stands proud, pants down and bare-butted at a urinal, while the other sits devastated, hiding his…well, you know. Minton makes a nice little joke about men’s biggest insecurity.

Haiku Fight, Caitlin Montanye Parrish

     
   A couple hashes out an argument by having a refereed 8 Mile-style slam, with Japanese poetry filling in for hip-hop. It’s a simple, wonderfully clever juxtaposition of the writing form’s serenity versus the needling aggravation of a relationship fight.

This Just In, Stephen Louis Grush

     
  Liberal sensibilities about prejudice get turned over on their heads when one easily dismissible stereotype gets paired with one that’s equally unfair, but–for many viewers–may hit a little closer to home. Those might sound like the makings for a didactic issues play. With the right amounts of humor and levity here, they aren’t.

Bag Thief, Laura Jacqmin

     
   A mix-up at an airport luggage carousel leads to suspicion and accusations. Jacqmin doesn’t quite know how to end her play–what she settles for lets the air out of its balloon and betrays her otherwise solid work. Up until the final seconds, though, it’s fun stuff watching two men calmly navigate each other’s logic and contemplate one another’s mind games.

Blackout, Chisa Hutchinson

      
   As the name suggests, Hutchinson’s play takes place with the house and stage lights off. Her monologue discusses nyctophobia (fear of darkness) in friendly, clinical terms. Once she starts in about the ghastly things you could be imagining, it’s hard not to nervously giggle and realize you’re an adult who’s once again–briefly–afraid of the dark.

In Not Our Finest Hour, Andrew Hinderaker

     
   You can spot a gag coming within the first few seconds of this context-free comedy. A line of actors take a swig from a water bottle and pass it on. Anticipation builds; titters slip. The fact that the punch line is exactly what you’d expect compounds the simple humor in this satisfying, straightforward piece.

Wisconsin, Andrew Hinderaker 

     
   Anyone who’s experienced the unique isolation of a rural Midwest winter can attest to the truth and melancholy spoken in this eloquent monologue. A young man describes a blackened hand rising out of the snow. Hinderaker’s vivid image is striking on conflicting levels–it’s unsettling, somber, and in its own way, serene.

Free, Zayd Dohrn

     
   A United States Marine quietly bemoans the chaos of modern war and rejects America’s authoritative façade. His speech is upsetting for all the obvious reasons, and for some less common: notably, the futility of humanitarian efforts and the false hope instilled by the military’s hierarchy.

A Short Story, Emily Schwartz 

     
   A narrator gives up on his own story, much to the protagonist’s chagrin. Schwartz’s non-story leaves the nameless hero waiting and frustrated as the nonchalant storyteller signs off on her would-be adventure. Smart, funny metatheater.

Love Play for Two Chairs, Seth Bockley 

     
   When you think about chairs having sex (though in any other context, why would you?) the word “whimsical” probably doesn’t come to mind. And yet, like an x-rated Fantasia, Bockley and director Jeffrey Stanton achieve just that. Annoyed by the noise of his enchanted furniture getting it on, an apartment owner sets out to end his two chairs’ tryst. His solution is delightfully absurd–the fact that it’s irresistibly adorable makes matters even stranger.

Unsolicited Advice for Next Year’s Fest

Now that the One-Minute Play Festival has taken its first entertaining, successful baby steps in Chicago, here’s what we at we’d would like to see from the show in its future incarnations…

A Greater Assortment of Styles:

Only a few plays in 2011 were noteworthy for really bucking traditional conventions. The message in Gloria Bond Clunie’s Falling about resilience in the face of natural disasters, for instance, wasn’t particularly moving or inspired, but her play stood out from its peers for its striking use of projections and puppetry. That left us with a question: How can the other works of 50 unique artists have looked so homogeneous? Talking animals, inner-monologues, contentless scenes and gripes about public transit bore the brunt of too many shows. No movement pieces? No one-minute musicals? Festival organizers take pride in the lack of dictated thematic guidelines for the playwrights (as they should). Still, there has to be a way to commission a more diverse body of work.

Super-titles:

Many of the short plays benefited from having the names of the shows known; some even took on new light. Dimmed houselights and tiny program font made seeing them impractical–unless you were really straining, you had to do without. An inexpensive or creative way to integrate the show names could further enrich the work.

Clear Intent Behind Curation:

Was there or was there not an intended arc to the evening? We couldn’t tell. Directors took on about 10 plays each, and their pieces were presented together in ten unique “clumps.” The order that clumps were presented in and the plays within them, though, did not have an obvious flow. Perhaps one wasn’t intended–regardless, having one might keep the night as a whole engaging.


The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival is produced as a benefit for Victory Gardens Fresh Squeezed, their alternative programming and audience engagement initiative. With a shared mission, both Fresh Squeezed and the festival aim to represent a wide and diverse range of playwrights, actors, and directors working in the great city of Chicago.

Reviewers: Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

     
     

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REVIEW: The Good Negro (Goodman Theatre)

Bringing humanity to an inconceivable time in history

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Goodman Theatre presents
 
The Good Negro
 
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by
Chuck Smith
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $22-$71  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A despicable act by the police impassions a spontaneous response by the community. It’s really not that black and white. The Goodman Theatre presents The Good Negro, a play about the back story on the movement to end segregation. Three black leaders are looking for a publicity moment to instigate a non-violent protest against discrimination. A four year old girl and her mother are arrested for using the good-negro11 restroom for whites. Because the mother is ‘a good Negro,’ attractive and well-spoken, the incident is prime to rally the troops. This illustration of history would have been poignant enough. A Good Negro adds in other complexities like wire-tapping, marital infidelity, and the KKK – becoming a multi-dimensional story of the internal and external strife of the civil rights movement. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson tells the powerful untold story of the politics… government, hierarchical, sexual… that interfered in the quest for racial equality in the 1960’s.

Under the direction of Chuck Smith, the cast makes an unimaginable time in history relatable. Nambi E. Kelley’s portrayal of a mother (Claudette Sullivan) in anguish is heart-breaking. Billy Eugene Jones appeals as the flawed charismatic leader James Lawrence. Struggling with his own identity issues, Teagle F. Bougere (Minister Henry Evans) effectively engages the audience with his motivational sermons. In minister mode, Bougere adds a little comedy relief as he tells a late intermission returner to ‘sit down.’ Although it’s unclear whether his character is ‘a good Negro’ or not until Act II, Demetrois Troy is perfect as the socially awkward, behind the scenes guy Bill Rutherford. Tory O. Davis (Pelzie Sullivan) portrays the simplicity of his character with surprising depth. Karen Aldridge (Corinne Lawrence) elicits applause in a pivotal scene of strength. Dan Waller (Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.) exploits the lunacy in a KKK recruitment speech based on scientific facts that ‘colored people’s blood can kill.’ The spooks are stereotypical ‘by the book’ nonsense with Mick Weber playing straight-laced and John Hoogenakker as the wise cracking sidekick.

 

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Set designer Riccardo Hernandez has gone floor to wall churchy with wooden planks covering every stage space. It effectively places the audience in a pew to watch the drama. Embedded along the back wall are strips of lighting – Robert Christen’s haunting lighting design illuminates a cross shape during congregation scenes to build the religious ambiance. Throughout the show, projected fortune cookie-like slogans prophesize a scene with ‘This is the something’ and ‘Do what you have to do.’ Mike Tutaj (projections designer) uses a biblical font to reinforce the secular foundation of the movement. Tutaj also flashes iconic imagery of photojournalist Charles Moore to set the time period. Powerful!

Realizing that, less than fifty years ago, discrimination led to unbelievable acts of cruelty to the black community – makes The Good Negro an important show to see. We can’t forget the sacrifices civil rights leaders made to forge the evolution of thought on equality. The Good Negro is an important illustration of an inconceivable time in American history.

  
 
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission

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REVIEW: The Lost Boys of Sudan (Victory Gardens Theatre)

Rhyming verse, didactic storytelling hinder production

 (from left) Leslie Ann Sheppard, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Namir Smallwood, Kenn E. Head, Ann Joseph, Adeoye, Latricia Sealy and Nambi E. Kelley.  Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens presents:
 
The Lost Boys of Sudan
 
Written by Lonnie Carter
Directed by
Jim Corti
at
Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

(from left) K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood) and T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) . Photo credit: Liz LaurenFrom the Sudanese desert to the frozen plains of Fargo, Lonnie Carter‘s The Lost Boys of Sudan is epic in scope. The story of three displaced Sudanese teenagers, the play uses the central plot of the boys’ search for a home as a stepping-stone to discussing such varied topics as religion, colonialism, and poaching – but Carter’s critiques often diminish the emotional intensity of the core relationship between the boys. The best parts of the play are when the boys are faced with the trials that come  from their circumstances: escaping crazed oil riggers, encountering twelve year old foot soldiers, boarding the plane to Fargo.  But the juxtaposition of this powerful storytelling versus generalized rants about the “Palinolithic age” only serve to derail the production.

The writing switches between prose and rhyming verse, and the shift is often jarring and unnecessary. Rhyming words become the ear’s focus and distract from the action of the play, and sometimes the rhymes feel like a stretch so that they can fit into the script (main offenders: "wet noodle" and "caboodle"; reciting "the itsy bitsy spider").

The efforts of director Jim Corti and his talented ensemble balance out the flaws of the writing, creating a final product that is technically impressive and incredibly polished. All of the actors have a great handle on the difficult African dialects, and as maligned as the verse may be, the entire ensemble approached the language with confidence. Narrator Ayoun (Nambi E. Kelley) does a great job connecting with the audience, delicately controlling the script’s wordplay and adding depth to the occasionally purple prose.

The boys, T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), have great chemistry together, firmly established in those first moments where they must band together to brave the dangers of their hostile environment. The three actors do a great job of playing roles considerably younger than their actual ages, and as the characters mature you can hear the changes in their voices and see it in their bodies.

(front, w/gun) Adeoye plays a Sudanese guerrilla fighter, who confronts three Lost Boys (rear, from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I.Josh (Namir Smallwood) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo: Liz Lauren) (from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), and K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. is one of three teens who makes an extraordinary passage from Sudan, to of all places, Fargo, North Dakota, in Lonnie Carter's "The Lost Boys of Sudan" (photo: Brett Neiman) lost-boys3

Sheppard gives a stand-out performance as K-Gar, the girl whose mother dresses her up as a boy to escape rebels razing their village, proving herself this season’s go-to girl for playing younger characters (The Hundred Dresses, The Snow Queen). K-Gar finds strength in her masculine disguise, one powerful scene has her taking up arms against men looking to enlist them as child soldiers, and this power stays with her even after she reveals herself and begins her life as a woman in America. After graduating high school, she refuses to stay in the sheltered United States, instead returning to Sudan so that she can counsel children like Twelve (Latricia Kamiko Sealy), a gun-toting preteen killer.

In Carter’s high concept script, Twelve is the concept that works the best. She appears at the start of the production to kill A.I. Josh’s father, later returning as a radio operator and finally a student at the camp where the lost boys are rescued. Twelve is the voice of all the children of Sudan, and Sealy plays the character with a ferocity that transforms into vulnerability as her immature mind copes with the terrors she committed. Twelve reveals the life the main characters would have if they had not escaped the various threats they encounter, and serves as a fantastic foil for the main characters, a lost girl that is never rescued.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

(front, from left) Nambi E. Kelley, Leslie Ann Sheppard, LaTricia Kamiko Sealy, and (rear, from left) Adeyoye, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Kenn E. Head and Ann Joseph (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

 

      

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REVIEW: Blue Shadow (Lifeline Theatre)

A joyous “Blue Shadow”

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Blue Shadow

by Nambi E. Kelley, with Xavier Kelley
music and lyrics by
Joe Plummer
directed by Ilesa Duncan
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 2nd (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

There are so many tests in life. As children, some of the first we have occur on the play lot and then later in school, ranging from how to make friends to how to make it off of the playground without being teased. Back in the day, there weren’t many guides for this kind of stuff; if a child was not popular then the dice often fell the same way your entire life. These days, we are encouraged to celebrate our differences and somehow find common ground. It was from this premise that I took my niece Lexie and my nephew David to see The Blue Shadow at the Lifeline Theatre.

I grew up on shows like “Captain Kangaroo” and “Garfield Goose”. Questions of national origin were never addressed (although I suspected something subversive about Mr. Green Jeans). By the time “Sesame Street” and “Zoom” came along, I was well into junior high and getting plenty of doses of cold reality thanks to the world seemingly getting smaller via the evening news.

BlueShadow2The Blue Shadow, by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, is lovingly adapted for the stage from a book written with her nephew Xavier Kelley. When walking up the to theatre, there was a gaggle of excited kids racing us to the door. I got the book and CD for my young guests (which I recommend as a fine way to continue the positive energy of the production after going home). I introduced Lexie and David to Ms. Kelley and her nephew Xavier, who both autographed the book. It was a good example to set for the children – something to aspire to in perhaps writing their stories.

When we were ushered to our seats, it wasn’t long before members of the cast, in character, filtered through the audience. Dawn Pryor  sat down in the aisle next to my nephew and introduced herself as her character Zuri. Her exuberant smile and bouncing braids immediately enthralled David. Ms. Pryor engaged him in a conversation and I admit to being charmed as well. When Miguel Nunez introduced himself as Ernesto, I scoffed at his claim of being ten years old. Mr. Nunez retorted with a very convincing “uh-huh I’m ten!” It was a clever means of involving the young audience and then focusing them on the stage.

Ben Chang plays the role of Wei – a cool kid wearing headphones who launches into an audience participation rap. Wei is joined onstage by Africa (Pryor), Meso-America (Nunez), and the European Roksana (Mallory Nees). A teacher is heard in a booming voice-over, telling the children to take their seats and welcome the new student Shadow (Susaan Jamshidi). Jamshidi plays Shadow with perfectly awkward rebellion and tentative shyness at the same time. Bursting onstage wearing a heavy metal tee shirt and dark glasses, the other schoolkids immediately make negative presumptions about her. But the students warm up to her as Shadow impresses them with her Wikipedia knowledge. As the children introduce themselves, they share their origins on a giant inflatable globe. Shadow does not know how to explain her ancestry so easily as the other kids and becomes quite blue. The song “Shadow’s Blues” is funny and forlorn as the audience is reminded that one does not have to get their heart stomped on to have the blues – the blues can come from a yearning to recognized and to belong.  (The music and lyrics by Joe Plummer are a welcome respite from the bleating bubblegum drivel usually peddled to children.)

What follows is a colorful array of tales from the human diaspora. The cast brought my Rand McNally childhood memories to life, traversing the globe with folktales and songs familiar yet new. I admit to a love of the story of Baba Yaga featuring Vasilisa (Nees), the put-upon stepchild in the Russian version of the Cinderella story sans Prince Charming. The entire cast is involved in each tale but this was a wonder of identity switching and snappy dialogue with a great gross-out depiction of Baba Yaga’s meal request. I bow to the props department on getting an ‘ewww!’ from everyone.

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Each story is told to discover Shadow’s origins. After hearing tales from around the globe, she recalls a tale from her childhood of how moccasins were fashioned from buffalo skins. It is a story of mud and bunions with a great cameo by a buffalo that will delight all age groups.

The performances are full of such childlike exuberance that one forgets that these are adults on the stage performing as children. The cast embodies a frenetic energy that sincerely enjoys the material.  The musical performances are broadly drawn; designed to remain in a child’s mind well beyond the production’s close. The use of shadow puppets and great papier mache masks lends a wonderful live cartoon vibe that draws one further into each folktale; inspiring flights of imagination.

At the play’s conclusion, all sections of the globe are filled in and everyone has a story of discovery. The writing inspired curiosity for learning about other cultures for my niece and nephew. There is a trip to the Field Museum in my near future as well as a tour through the family tree and photo albums.

Ms. Kelley, the playwright, has an impressive theatre resume here in Chicago as well as on both coasts. I have fond memories of her performances and am very excited to see her coming accomplishments on the writing side. I’m also looking forward to following the blossoming talents of Kelly’s nephew, Xavier, who adapted “The Muddy Foot” – the pivotal story in finding Shadow’s cultural identity. Xavier is all of ten years old and quite an impressive young man.

Director Ilesa Duncan has staged a flowing and fast paced production with The Blue Shadow. Never once does the direction condescend to the young audience, which ranges from four years old and up. I am always amazed at the stagecraft of the productions at Lifeline Theatre. This is but one of the reasons that Chicago is America’s theatre leader.

 

Rating: ★★★

“The Blue Shadow” run Saturdays at 1:00pm and Sundays at 11:00am and 1:00pm through May 2, 2010. There are no performances on Easter Sunday, April 4th, 2010.

Ticket information is available at 773-761-4477 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1371 As always more information is available at www.lifelinetheatre.com

Please note that the cast is available after the performances to sign autographs and take pictures. Also the book and CD are available at the box office.

 

 

Video courtesy of Lifeline Video Library

BET presents its 5th-Annual Black Playwrights Festival

 

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Black Ensemble Theater presents

The 5th-Annual Black Playwrights Festival

DECEMBER 7-14, 2009

Jackie Taylor, Founder and Executive Director of Black Ensemble Theater, is proud to announce the 5th Annual Black Playwrights Festival, produced by the Black Playwrights Initiative (BPI). running from Monday, December 7 through Monday, December 14, 2009.

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The Black Playwrights Festival was created by playwright Jackie Taylor to provide adequate exposure to the members of the Black Playwrights Initiative (BPI), offer a professional platform to have members’ works produced, and bring attention to the high quality of work that African American playwrights from Chicago have to offer. The BPI is a program created and developed by Taylor for the purpose of highlighting Chicago’s rich community of African American playwrights and to help strengthen the pool of Chicago playwrights by providing a forum for play readings, year round classes, workshops and resources. Additionally, the BPI was created to provide a continuum of scripts for the Black Ensemble Theater, helping to expose playwrights on both a local and national level.

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Highlights of the Black Playwrights Festival include readings of “Nothin but the Blues” written by Joe Plummer and David Barr; “The Dancesical, a play performed through dance choreographed by Rueben Echoles; and “The Clark Sisters” written by Dawn Bless Mitchell.

All performances will take place at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon St. Single tickets are $10.00 per night. A “Playwrights Pass” can be purchased for $30.00 and can be used for entrance to any night. Valet Parking is available for $8.00.

Below the fold is a complete schedule for the 5th Annual Black Playwrights Festival. All plays are works in progress and the first acts will be the only acts presented for the reading. Audiences will have the opportunity to discuss each reading with the writers and offer feedback and reaction to each work.

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