The Justice Theater Project - Art Inspiring Change
Wit by Margaret Edson

Classical Voice of North Carolina by Andrea McKerlie Luke

Black Nativity 2013 Review by Boom Magazine

Black Nativity:

Boom! Bits. December, 2013

Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity is a boffo, once again by Justice Theater Project at Titmus Theatre on NC State campus.
By Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle

It’s the drums that get you. The lights drop down, then the stage lights barely come up and the four piece band seats itself to the audience’s right and then the percussionist begins a little paradiddle. Jade Arnold, our narrator for the evening replies with a one-handed argument and the conversation begins. It’s a lively, rhythmic conversation, and upon conclusions Carly Prentiss Jones fills the room with arpeggios that carefully turn into O Come O Come Emmanuel, and soon 38 people fill the stage and their voices fill the auditorium, as this age-old Advent hymn is presented, as from heaven, a cappella. Somehow, as the narrative moves through Joseph and Mary’s problem finding somewhere for her to have her baby one gets the sense that there is a symbolism here of the black experience in America. And as the birth occurs there is sudden flood of ten children onto the stage, children who will return again and again. Just delightful children.

As with last year part of the enjoyment of the show is the audience response, with murmurs of “Oh, yes,” and “Tell us,” rising up spontaneously as Arnold tells the story. Five dancers often accompany the hymns and carols, choreographed by the renowned Chuck Davis, founder of the African-American Dance Ensemble, and their joyful performance is exquisite. And during the song Jesus What a Wonderful Child, featuring Monét Noelle Marshall, there was an awe-inspiring moment where the unity of the 38 troupers as well as their individuality seemed apparent; just one of many beautiful moments in the evening.

The great performances of the first act were given by Maria Barber who fronts He’s Already There, Sandra Dubose who solos No Room in an Inn, Jarius Copeny, a talent to be watched, and children singing Little Babe, Jamal Farrar and Jones performing Mary Did You Know; Carolyn Colquit, the musical director and pianist does a stunning duet with Loretta Vinson on Go Tell It On The Mountain, Dr. Joy L. Bryant, on Rise Up Shepherd and Follow, Louise Farmer and Vinson duetting Still, Still, Still and Sweet Little Jesus Boy.

In the second act Allen Brown fronts The Presence of The Lord is Here,and makes us feel that presence, Connie McCoy Rogers teams up with Barber, Genine Grant, Drina Dunlap, Karyn Rahn, TJ Swann and Farrar for Changed, Lynette Barber solos Leak In This Old Building. Dexter Morgan leads Get Away Jordan, and Je T’aime does Call Him Up. Dr. B. Angeloe Burch, Sr. exhibits his astounding ability to direct the choir as they sing Let Everything That Hath Breath. The Black Nativity Band, consisting of musical director Carolyn Colquit with Latif Ezekial Jr., Rick Lindsay and Sam Peterkin combine with the fabulous chorus to back up all these works.

Director Deb Royals has also done the set design, great swooping streams of fabric cascade from the skies, abstract light rays, perhaps and a central cross-shaped star enclose a couple of tiers of runway. The whole sense of glory is represented in this set. The costumes by Brenda Allen are unique for each of the 40 performers in this show, the only minor exception is that the quintet of dancers wore costumes of the same design, but each was a different color. Two of them occasionally also appeared as a duet in flowing white garb. Tom Wolf ably designed the sound and lighting for this show. All in all this is an exciting and inspiring welcome to the Christmas season. This show has become an annual event for Justice Theater Project, a welcome addition to the Christmas tradition in the Triangle area.

Justice Theater Project provides free admission and, through Arts Access, audio description for people who are visually impaired.

‘Ragtime’ helps Justice Theater Project fulfill its mission
By Roy C. Dicks

Correspondent June 19, 2013

Sometimes a theater’s status can change with just one production. The Justice Theater Project’s mission of calling attention to the marginalized and oppressed has often been more admirable in its intentions than in its end product. But its staging of “Ragtime” establishes a new level of excellence that will be the company’s benchmark from now on.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 1998 Broadway musical is a sprawling epic about America at the turn of the 20th century when the worlds of the sheltered rich, African-Americans and European immigrants came into conflict.  With more than 40 cast members, a wide range of period costuming, numerous changes of scene and precise choreographic and choral requirements, “Ragtime” would tax the most professional of theaters.Thus it’s all the more remarkable that director Deb Royals stages the piece so satisfactorily within the limitations of a church recreation hall and the company’s minimal resources. The production’s commitment and polish more than make up for a few compromises and deficiencies.Four lead roles are double cast.

On Saturday, Allen Brown, as Harlem piano player Coalhouse Walker, and Connie McCoy Rogers, as Sarah, the mother of his child, made warm, sympathetic characters, their several duets the highlights of the show. Representing the upper class, Jason Hassell’s Father was appropriately at sea over the changes in his world, while Mary Kathryn Walston’s Mother astutely demonstrated what happens when change is embraced. Coty Cockrell made immigrant Tateh a likable entrepreneur, determined to carve out a better life. Ian Finley brought moving obsession to Mother’s Younger Brother, finding purpose in fueling rebellion.

Among the script’s many historical figures, Alison Lawrence’s fierce Emma Goldman, Jade Arnold’s majestic Booker T. Washington and Morgan Parpan’s Kewpie-doll Evelyn Nesbit stood out.Lex von Blommestein’s massive unit set allowed easy scene changes, but the awkward steps and landings slowed crossings and exits. His lighting design too often left major characters in shadow. Music director Carolyn Colquitt had every cast member impressively prepared, but the piped-in, synthesized musical accompaniment frequently covered the un-miked voices. But aided by Deb Cox and David Serxner’s fine costuming and Carrie Santiago and Aya Wallace’s vibrant choreography, the joyful and poignant elements of “Ragtime” came vividly to life, fulfilling the company’s mission commendably.

Read more here:


It Made Our Christmas

Black Nativity
by Langston Hughes
Presented by Justice Theater Project
Saturday and Sunday, December 22 & 23, 8pm 2012

Review by Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori

 “And please, everyone, remember to shut off your cell phones and anything else that makes noise. Thank you.” With that announcement she leaves the stage. The stage represents the stable as well as the community, the community of the world, perhaps. Hay surrounds the foot of the stage and a sweeping arc of walkway fills the center, with several risers along the sides. The lights drop and then the clear ringing voice of Carly Prentis Jones inspires us with its joy, and the lyrics of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Our next impression is from the drums. A conversation, a lyrical, musical conversation, perhaps an excited announcement of the coming of the awaited one, perhaps an argument about it, which ends decisively. And thus, Black Nativity, by Langston Hughes, performed by The Justice Theater Project at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, begins. Now we are awed by the costumes, rich in African styles and colors, made the more exciting by the movements of the dancers, and the spirituality of the music.
It was a privilege to be present for this electrifying performance. The audience was joyfully responsive and spontaneous, it was almost like being in church, in fact, for two hours, this was a place of worship. In the first act the story of the nativity is narrated “griot” style, with choirs and soloists, dancing of hosannahs, poetic enactments from shepherds and Magi announcing Jesus’ birth.
Rozlyn Sorrell’s full bodied dramatic rendition of “No Room At The Inn” with the talented dance ensemble displaying Chuck Davis’ notable choreography were an early highlight. A wonderful theatrical moment occurred with the heroic continuation of the youthful trio Jarius Copeny, Johnathon Martinez and Olivia Martinez after a head-mike mishap forced them to sing unamplified. Equally memorable was “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” sung by Terra Hodge and Choir, featuring a drum accompaniment. Deb Royals’ arrangement of “Still, Still, Still,” with syncopated lyrics, sung by Louise Farmer and Loretta Vinson simply rocked, only to be followed by the Choir closing out the act with smashing gospel renditions of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Emmanual.”
While Act One told the story of the advent and birth of the Messiah, the second act testifies to the impact it had in the world, through the witness of believers, in the opening piece, “The Presence of the Lord Is Here,” sung by Allen Brown and Choir. While the second act, as the entire show is vibrant and exciting, the performance of Lynette Barber and Choir of “Leak in This Old Building” got into our souls. Here’s gospel jazz at its peak, soaring, moaning, swooping, crying, rejoicing in love, life and faith. Next Dr. Barry Angeloe Burch Sr. led the Choir in “Let Everything That Hath Breath,” based on the One Hundred Fiftieth Psalm, another deeply moving, exciting experience. As you watch this show, glance at the pianist from time to time, whose focus and involvement in each piece deserves notice.
The show has seats available for Saturday night, the 22nd at 8pm, and Sunday, the 23rd at 2pm. Sunday’s show will be audio-described for the visually impaired by Arts Access. Best call for reservations, it’s going to be a hot ticket! Call The Justice Theater Project at 919-264-7089 or go to
Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori are freelance writers and avid theatergoers. 2012 ©.

“Frost/Nixon’s” David Henderson and John Honeycutt Twinkle Brightly for Justice Theater Project

Posted by Robert W. McDowell • September 15th, 2012 

The Justice Theater Project will perform “Frost/Nixon” on Sept. 7-9, 14-16, and 21-23 at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in north Raleigh, NC You could probably see them from space, David Henderson and John Honeycutt twinkle so brightly as the title characters in The Justice Theater Project’s stellar production of Peter Morgan’s 2006 historical docudrama Frost/Nixon, which will conclude its three-week run on Sept 14-16 and 21-23 in Clare Hall at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in north Raleigh, NC. Henderson is charming and charismatic as the shaggy-haired, casually dressed, amiable, and amusing British television talk-show host David Frost, whose forte is lobbing softball questions to instant celebrities enjoying their 15 minutes of fame.

Honeycutt may be a star of a lower magnitude than Henderson in the Triangle acting firmament, but his nicely gravelly voiced nuanced performance as disgraced but immaculately dressed Republican President Richard M. Nixon is a gem. Indeed, with his forced geniality that never completely camouflages the ex-president’s paranoid personality and discomfort in television-interview situations, Honeycutt’s stiff and thoroughly buttoned-down Nixon proves to be the perfect foil for Henderson’s laid-back Frost. A master of political debate, with his skills honed at nearby Duke University, Nixon is cursed with a perpetual five o’clock shadow and an upper lip that perspires profusely when the studio lights subject him to the sort of third degree that drives him to drink … more.

If Frost is a broadcaster with ants in his pants, Nixon is a politician with snakes in his boots — and he cannot drown them in oceans of alcohol. Moreover, Nixon’s large and intensely loyal staff cannot protect him from himself; and the late-night call that an obviously intoxicated Nixon places to Frost on the eve of their videotaped showdown over the Watergate scandal suggests that it is way past time for the former president to enter a 12-step program. A number of crisp cameo performances heighten the backstage drama before, during, and after the 1977 Nixon/Frost interviews.

Mike Raab and especially Ryan Brock contribute crusty characterizations as American investigative reporter Bob Zelnick and American author and Nixon expert Jim Reston, respectively. (Reston also doubles as the show’s Narrator.) Also capturing the audience’s attention are the energetic efforts of Mary Floyd Page as Frost’s actress-girlfriend Charlotte Cushing, Jack Prather’s reptilian portrayal of long-time Nixon friend and ersatz agent Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar, Mark Olexik’s urbane portrait of Frost’s British producer John Birt, and Tanner Lagasca’s low-key portrayal of Nixon’s ever-present manservant Manolo Sanchez. Director Carnessa Ottelin also deserves an A-/B+ grade for her snappy staging, and Shannon Clark’s superlative set — with its banks of unblinking TV screens — suggests a television studio during the controlled chaos during a live broadcast, but also allows the characters to quickly step into other non-broadcasting locations when necessary.

Frost/Nixon is particularly timely as this fall’s presidential campaign heads toward a boiling point. If a bare-knuckled brawl ensures, replete with “dirty tricks” and “enemies lists,” pundits will make inevitable comparisons to the skullduggery of the Nixon years. There are plenty of lessons in Frost/Nixon for a 21st century electorate to absorb.

SECOND OPINION:Sept. 13th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Spencer Powell:; and Sept. 12th Durham, NCIndependent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 out of 5 stars):

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Justice Theater Project presents Joel K Bourne author of "The Spill"
Award winning journalist, Joel K Bourne, author of National Geographic article "The Spill" speaks on the Gulf Oil disaster.
Tuesday, June 09, 2012
Light on the Horizon in Clayton News - Star
Courtesy of Michael Kauffmann Jason Hassell, left, and Carlos Massey appear in a scene on a shrimp boat during The Justice Theater Project's "Light on the Horizon."
By Lori D.R. Wiggins
The Justice Theater Project’s “Light on the Horizon” brings us entertainment and education – and cool perks.
The original stage play was written by JTP artistic director Deb Royals. Based on research and visits to the Louisiana Gulf communities before and after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, the production punctuates JTP’s 2011-12 theme, “Our Planet. Our People. Our Plight: Stewardship of the Environment.”
The production started Friday, with shows through June 24 at The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi. The show opens with history and ends with hope as Royals connects us to the BP oil disaster. It’s a message born from a sermon by St. Francis Friar David McBriar, who used “addiction” and “excess” in reference to the BP oil spill.
McBriar’s preaching led Royals’ assessment of her own reliance on fuel and the underlying reasons the disaster happened, claiming lives and livelihoods.
“In this country, we do have an addiction to fuel,” Royals said.
“That pipeline goes through the Gulf to all the states,” she said. “When something like that happens there, it really affects every single one of us.”
“Light on the Horizon” takes us back to the history of the oil industry, from its late-1940s offshore start to its boom of acceptance two decades later.
“The audience gets a sense of where we came from, where we are now and where we’re going, to understand the way in which the offshore drilling has come to be in southern Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico,” Royals said.
One symbol of oil’s role Royals notes: In 1967, the Shrimp Festival became the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.
“So many things could have gone another way, but we took the path we took,” she said.
“People live from being shrimpers, or riggers, or something to do with the oil industry. It’s how they survive.”
Royals encountered other stories in the sustained grief around the fatalities: the plight of the Brown Pelican, Louisiana’s once-endangered state bird; the decline of the shrimp industry amid oily waters and ballooning gas prices; and the further rise of suicide rates that had increased after Hurricane Katrina.
“It still is crippling,” Royals said. “As much as we speak the language of recovery, it’s going to take a long time to be better, if it ever really is.
“They’ve been healing for years. They’re still healing,” she said. “The people who live there really get that they are still surviving because of the oil industry.”
Quoting a man she met along her way, “Like the Brown Pelican, we will always be here,” Royals recalled. “We’ll figure out a way.”
That breathes hope. “They are strong-willed,” she said. “They don’t call it Sportsman’s Paradise for nothing.”
Social justice mission
We’ll also benefit from JTP’s mission as a social justice theater company with chances to serve and be served. It’s how JTP turns social justice issues into discussions – and action, said Melissa Zeph, JTP’s Managing Director.
Today’s $10 matinee is a JTP signature offering. New, though, is a chance to drop off old electronics for recycling by American Greenz from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. At 1:20 p.m., a free pre-show features Bill Holman, director of state policy at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Gov. Bev Perdue’s appointee to the Science Advisory Panel on Offshore Energy will discuss the future of offshore drilling in North Carolina.
Father’s Day Sunday, JTP and Seedraleigh will provide free baby-sitting. The day’s pre-show discussion, “Faith and the Call to Care for Creation,” will be led by Sheila Read from St. Francis’ Justice and Peace Office.
On June 24, the final pre-show discussion will be led by Joel Bourne, author of National Geographic’s 2010 cover story “The Spill.” In 2006, Bourne revealed a decades-old oil industry secret by reporting results of the only test well ever drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At all shows, Arts Access will provide Audio Description for the visually impaired, who will be admitted free, along with their drivers. We can also help families fighting childhood cancer with a visit to the show’s official Wish List drop-off site for Fight Like Paxton,
Hope lives on
Royals hopes “Light on the Horizon” sparks a conversation here as the possibility bubbles of offshore drilling along our own coastline.
She urges us to pause and ponder what she figures is the root of southern Louisiana’s affair with the oil industry: the promise of more money for the rich and poor – and the American Dream.
“It made me sad,” she said, “but I’m hopeful.”
Tuesday, January 03, 2012
Black Nativity in Raleigh News and Observer 2011
An 'off the charts' look at the nativity
By Lori D.R. Wiggins
By the time you read this, it'll likely be too late to get tickets for The Justice Theater Project's inaugural production of Langston Hughes' Christmas classic, "The Black Nativity."
You see, when I talked early last week to Melissa Zeph, JTP's management director, only 150 tickets remained for the last of four shows scheduled to run Dec. 16-18 at St. Mary's School 340-seat Pittman Auditorium.
She expected those to sell out in two days - tops.
"This is off the charts," Zeph said, emphasizing that the matinee sold out in ticket pre-sales, "which goes to show how desperately the city of Raleigh needed a professional, multicultural holiday offering."
"Next year, we may have to offer more shows or find a bigger venue."
"The Black Nativity" retells the story of Jesus' birth, combining scripture with Hughes' poetry - all amid contemporary, traditional and original gospel music, as well as verse and dance.
On Dec. 11, 1961, it became one of the first plays penned by an African-American person to get a Broadway stage.
JTP's production of the musical features a multicultural chorus of 40 - some of them whole families of moms, dads and children - and an all-black cast, as Hughes intended.
"It's just a beautiful chorus of angels, which is exactly what heaven would look like, right?" Zeph queried rhetorically. "It is just gorgeous."
I'm not surprised JTP is bringing it to us in downtown Raleigh.
Established in 2004 by artistic director Deb Royals-Mizerk and Megan Nerz, The Justice Theater Project is an activist theater group based in North Raleigh that uses dramatic art to call public attention to the needs of our poor, marginalized and oppressed neighbors.
Each year, JTP chooses a topic of social concern for its main stage performances.
On the heels of the death penalty and immigration, this year's focus is the environment.
Royals-Mizerk always wanted to add a fourth show to its annual offerings, supported by funding from the N.C. Arts Council, the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County and the City of Raleigh Arts Commission.
"I can't think of a better story that addresses an issue of social concern than that of Christ is born into poverty," Royals-Mizerk said.
"There was no room at the inn; no room for a poor family to stay because they had no money, regardless of the fact that she was getting ready to give birth to a baby."
Performed annually all over the country, Hughes' musical is more than mere entertainment, more than a writer's turn of story.
It's a statement both of preservation of history, culture and religion and of the promise of progress toward equal acceptance.
Lots of little black children nurtured in Christianity - including me many years ago and our daughter fewer years ago - are encouraged to imagine ourselves in God's image.
We're encouraged to know it's possible, despite social assumption and traditional art, that Jesus was black, or otherwise "colored," with hair like wool and skin like brass, "as if burned in a furnace," as scripture tells us.
"Why not have this as another way of understanding the Christian story?" Royals-Mizerk asked.
"It's arousing. It's lively. We're experiencing something different, and what's wrong with that?
"Why not call ourselves out; call attention to a story that may not be the same.
"I'm really happy we're doing it."
So is musical director Carolyn Colquitt, a former music director at Baptist Grove Church.
Colquitt was quickly enthralled by Hughes' ability to weave prose, scripture and music to support messages in the production.
She has reveled in the creative license Hughes granted future directors to use or replace music according to their audience and era.
"And that's what we've done," said Colquitt, who began working on the production with Royals-Mizerk in June.
"Our interpretation is fresh and it's new. It's been quite a journey."
The journey will continue, Royals-Mizerk said, noting even non-Christians will enjoy the ride.
"It's a spiritual way to come together and fellowship and be part of a production that is very uniting; that pulls together a collective soul," she said.
"My hope is there's something that happens to people because of the production, from just being in it or from just seeing it.
"We need to rock our soul."
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
“Unmaudlin ‘Morrie’ Avoids Excess”
by Roy C. Dicks, The News and Observer
RALEIGH Mitch Albom's 1997 memoir, "Tuesdays with Morrie," became a best-seller because of its loving portrait of a dying college professor who teaches a former student about life. Despite its popularity, the book is often criticized for its sentimentality and its catalog of sampler-ready aphorisms.
The 2002 stage version in many ways improves upon the book. In The Justice Theater Project's current production, two fine actors and a savvy director humanize the characters and make the best possible case for the life lessons that Albom offers.
Albom was a student of sociology professor Morrie Schwartz at Brandeis University in the late 1970s. Although the pair bonded strongly at the time, Albom did not keep up a connection with Schwartz once he graduated, taking up the hectic life of a sportswriter.
Sixteen years later, Albom saw a "Nightline" program on which Ted Koppel interviewed Schwartz, who was dying with Lou Gehrig's disease. Albom decided to go see Schwartz, who asked Albom to keep visiting on a regular basis. Albom did so until Schwartz's death, finding that Schwartz's clear-eyed views on the meaning of life forever changed his direction and priorities.
With co-author Jeffrey Hatcher, Albom has crafted an intimate character study that distills the book's essence into a focused, 90-minute one-act. The Albom character speaks directly to the audience as he shifts props and furnishings to set the scene, reflecting on remembered events with wise and humbled hindsight.
Neat little phrases
On paper, the piece has the potential of being maudlin and manipulative, especially with the abundance of Schwartz's neat little phrases ("It takes dying to learn how to live," "we are all running in the human race").
But director Andy Hayworth works rigorously against excess, underplaying the sentimentality and concentrating on the characters' flaws and wounds. His in-the-round staging is vividly simple and the pacing bracingly tight.
David Henderson plays Mitch's initial harried existence believably and expertly shows the character's gradual relaxation and change under Morrie's tutelage. John Honeycutt turns in a career-best performance as Morrie, beaming the character's warmth and unquestioning love with engaging charm. The two work wonderfully together, allowing the emotions in the piece to build naturally, culminating in an extremely affecting performance.
There were few dry eyes at Sunday's performance, and a Kleenex concession would not have gone amiss.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
“supremely well thought-out production”
Justice Theater Project’s Our Town — 2010-11 Season
Stresses Home and Community
by Alan R. Hall
September 10, 2010, Raleigh, NC:: The Justice Theater Project introduced its new season and its new home this past weekend as it opened Thornton Wilder’s classic three-act play, Our Town. As did I when I heard about it, you may be asking, “Why is the Justice Theater Project doing Our Town?” The show is the first of the three-show 2010-11 season, whose theme is “Home and Community.” The classic theater work opened Friday night at the Clare Hall, on the grounds of St. Francis of Assisi, on Leesville Road in North Raleigh. The church will be the home of the JTP for the next few years.
As all those who are familiar with it know, Our Town is not so much a play about people as it is a play about place and time. The time is the turn of the century, and by that we mean the turn of the twentieth century. "Our Town” is Grover’s Corners, NH, in the year 1901. Stop and think: there is electricity but no running water (except for hand pumps); the streets are dirt, no sidewalks; no cars during act 1, too many cars by the end of the show, a dozen years later. The main source of news is the newspaper, a biweekly publication run by Editor Webb (Jack Prather). The Webb household is one of the two centered upon in Grover’s Corners; the other is the house of the town’s doctor, Doc Gibbs (Stephen LeTrent). Doc and his wife (Suzannah Hough) and kids, George (Lucas Campbell) and Rebecca (Kate Brittain), live right next door to the Webb household, which is run by Mrs. Webb (Megan Mazzocchi), and houses another two kids, Emily (Ali Hammond) and Wally (Brian Driskill).
The whole of the play is overseen by the Stage Manager (J. Chachula), a sort of father-figure narrator who keeps the play rolling and gives commentary on what is going on in town. He also gets to play the drugstore shopkeep and one of the many pastors who people Grover’s Corners. It is the Stage Manager who sets the tone for the play, presenting a friendly and knowledgeable voice that could not be better done by anyone than Chachula. The only thing more I could have asked for would be a gentle New England accent.
The entirety of the show is peopled by a scant 22 people, a number that seems small only when you realize that this cast manages to populate a town of 2000 folks. The ensemble cast includes the church choir of 10 and their director, Simon Stimson (Ian Finley). It also encapsulates the entirety of the Grover’s Corners cemetery, who witness the burial of Emily Webb Gibbs in act 3. This ensemble could not have been better. The tone is captured wholly and uniquely by this cast, who take us back in a time capsule over one hundred years with the ease and steady hand of a master.
Because the play is so much dependent on tone and not character, the biggest thing to note is that most of the play is done in pantomime. This is true in every case for a production of Our Town, for the introduction of completely cooked meals and a live horse onstage would completely upstage the show otherwise. Which makes it worth mentioning that, in this production, Emily’s visit in act 3 back to the world of the living is done .....THIS PART DELETED TO NOT SPOIL THE ENDING...... makes the ghostly visit of act 3 that much more poignant and deserves a special mention for its WOW appeal and perfect execution.
The Justice Theater Project continues its opening play for the 2010-11 season through September 26 — for details, see our calendar. It is a supremely well thought-out production, smoothly and quietly (quite a compliment for this show) performed by this ensemble. This one is well worth the trip. The directions to St. Francis of Assisi (linked from the church's website) are quite easy for those who wish to see a truly well done tribute to Thornton Wilder’s nod to a simpler time.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Summer Camp Fun in the News
Check out a review of the Emily K Camp in Durham that just ended. 60 campers learning Shakespeare and adding their own hip hop spin to the Bard... under the able direction of Freddie Lee Heath, Deb Royals, Barbette Hunter, Coty Cockrell, Andrea Twiss, Brett Stegall, Christi Senari and Kevin Zeph.
Friday, February 19, 2010
‘There’s a man I want you to meet…” Byron Woods review, Independent Weekly
Justice Theater Project's Fences
By Byron Woods
The Justice Theater Project
at Pittman Auditorium, St. Mary’s School
Through Feb. 28
There’s a big man I want you to meet. His name’s Troy Maxson.
As fully embodied by John Rogers Harris under the direction of Deb Royals (with an able assist from Herbert Eley) in the current Justice Theater Project production of August Wilson’s Fences, he towers over the Pittman Auditorium stage at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, an angry, profane, drunken god, hurling Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning invective like thunderbolts, wielding a pint of gin as if it were a crystal scepter. And when he puts it down and picks up his old, gray baseball bat, be advised: Troy Maxson intends to make a point—one way or another.
This show gives us the gift of an outsize character with outsize proclivities and tastes. Troy’s passion for his wife, Rose, is truly as pronounced as his thirst for drink. And when the inevitable morning after comes, his hangover is equally profound. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a character as large or as vividly drawn on any regional stage, no matter the size. In a time of economic—and, apparently, aesthetic—downsizing in local theaters, it’s refreshing to see an actor and a company unafraid to swing for the rafters.
Not, I should probably add, that Royals and Harris manage to score every single time at bat in this production. Their interpretation of Maxson, the middle-aged garbage truck driver whose dreams of major league baseball were cut short by racist policies in the time of the Negro Leagues, veers, on a couple of occasions, toward bathos. But with what I’d calculate as an .800 batting average for this production, you really ought to check it out.
A mostly strong supporting cast abets this urban titan. As Rose, Barbette Hunter gives as good as she gets, convincing us as a middle-aged woman trying to convince herself that she’s in the best of all possible marriages. She frets about Troy’s drinking, his broad gestures and his tall tales. She also registers fear for her children when he gets out of hand. But in a second-act crisis, Rose stands her ground.
The other uncanny character in this production is Thomasi McDonald’s take on Gabriel, Troy’s permanently shell-shocked brother. Choreographer Joy Williams gives McDonald’s Gabriel a series of tics and shudders, upper-body contortions and locomotion by exaggerated crouches and high steps that at different points recall a sanctified church dance, documentary footage of voudoun ceremonies and Baba Chuck Davis’ ethnographic research into the tribal dances of West Africa. McDonald’s sepulchral voice and offbeat timing reinforce the notion of a man convinced he’s been handed a trumpet that can open the gates of heaven—since he believes he’s already died.
Lester Hill fights an unhelpful stiffness early on as Troy’s drinking buddy, Jim Bono. An inexperienced Tyrone Hicks mimics Branford Marsalis with only partial success as Lyons, one of the sons of Troy and Rose, while Jade Arnold demonstrates more believable velocity than range as Cory, the son who ultimately challenges the big man. A young Maya Bryant alternates with Rachel Woods Barnes on different nights of this production as Maxson’s daughter, Raynell.
To counter the harsh realities clearly depicted in Royals’ run-down set, Wilson sculpts a brash character unafraid to call out Death or the devil, as Troy does in several scenes. His Maxson is no saint; his miscalculations of the heart ultimately set him apart from almost everyone he loves. But Troy finds the courage to meet his fate on his own terms. More than once he says, “I don’t intend to go quietly,” before he finally accepts the gravest responsibility for his own acts. Wilson suggests, in a moving closing scene, that when one man can rise and do that, others can follow.
Friday, October 16, 2009
The Justice Theater Project to Win National Award for Advocacy
The Justice Theater Project will be honored by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (PFADP) at the group’s 15th anniversary awards banquet in Greensboro on November 7.
PFADP will present The Justice Theater Project (JTP) with its Community Service Award, which recognizes outstanding efforts at educating and mobilizing people to act for alternatives to the death penalty. Deb Royals Mizerk, the organization’s artistic director, will accept the award. The award will be presented by Father David McBriar, OFM, Associate Pastor of The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh, NC and a current advisory board member of JTP.
“The Justice Theater Project offers a national model for using art to engage one’s community on issues of social justice,” said Stephen Dear, executive director of PFADP. “The company’s creative and provocative productions on the death penalty have led and challenged thousands to look at the death penalty in a new light.  JTP is helping to change our culture away from an ethic of retributive justice and towards restorative justice.”
The Justice Theater Project is a nonprofit advocacy and activist theater group. Its mission is “to use the dramatic arts as a way to call to the fore of public attention the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.”  JTP strives to create a dialogue that encourages patrons to explore both sides of an issue of social justice relevance.  JTP has produced three plays on the death penalty including “Dead Man Walking,” “A Lesson Before Dying,” and two productions of “Still… Life,” an original drama written by the Justice Theater Project based on three years of interviews with people living on North Carolina’s death row.  Each show incorporated discussions hosted by area experts in the field including Alan Gell, after his release from Death Row, and Mark Kleinschmidt of The Fair Trial Initiative. 
In 2004, JTP staged an additional performance of its production of “A Lesson Before Dying” before 400 school children and community members in Duplin County. While walking out of the theater after watching the production, a sheriff’s deputy stopped and silently signed a petition calling for a halt to executions in North Carolina.
“Still…Life” traveled to nine locations throughout the Triangle, with each performance accompanied by a photo presentation by Scott Langley of Amnesty International. A question and answer session between the audience, Mr. Langley and the cast of “Still…Life” followed.
“Dead Man Walking” incorporated an educational/experiential guide with a student performance and pre-show educational seminar for Cardinal Gibbons High School senior Theology students.  Sister Maureen Fenlon of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project held a question and answer session for the cast after visiting Raleigh and viewing a performance.  Sister Maureen discussed the relevance of the piece during our current national death penalty debate, and applauded the cast and artistic staff for what she felt was one of the best adaptations of the play in the nation.  Later that year, the cast met with Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking”, and discussed how being a part of the play affected them as artists and activists.
People of Faith Against the Death Penalty will hold its 15th anniversary awards banquet at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro on November 7. Also honored at the event will be long-time PFADP leader Brian Goldberg of Greensboro, and New Creation Presbyterian Church located in Greensboro. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton will be the keynote speakers. They are authors of the New York Times bestseller Picking Cotton, which tells the story of Thompson-Cannino misidentifying Cotton as the man who raped her when she was a student at Elon University. Cotton spent 11 years in prison before being exonerated.
PFADP is a nonprofit organization based in Carrboro, NC. PFADP’s mission is to and mobilize faith communities to act to abolish the death penalty in the United States. Since 1994, PFADP has organized hundreds of public events on the death penalty and mobilized tens of thousands to take action on the issue. Next year in Atlanta, PFADP will hold the first national conference on religious organizing against the death penalty this century.
PFADP’s banquet will be held at Temple Emanuel, located at 1129 Jefferson Rd. in Greensboro.
Tickets for the banquet are available at or by calling (919) 933-7567. 
Justice Theater Project’s Production of Laundry and Bourbon Is as Potent as a Triple Shot
by Robert W. McDowell
September 12, 2009, Raleigh, NC: The Justice Theater Project’s current production of James McLure’s Laundry and Bourbon is as potent as a 180-proof triple shot of bourbon whiskey, straight. Ostensibly a knee-slapping Southern-fried comedy about three gossipy housewives in tiny Maynard, Texas, this three-character play takes a serious turn when their freewheeling conversation turns from catty comments about each other, their feckless husbands, and their irritating kids to sober speculation on what’s wrong with Elizabeth Caulder’s hard-drinking, skirt-chasing husband, Roy, who hasn’t been home in two days.
Roy Caulder is the much-discussed but never-seen “Elephant in the Room” — in this case, the cluttered back porch — of the rundown clapboard house that he shares with Elizabeth when he’s not out, tooling around Maynard in his cherished pink 1959 Thunderbird convertible, ogling other women, and looking to drown his Vietnam flashbacks and his current worries in an ocean of Lone Star beer. Roy hasn’t been right since he came back from Vietnam two years ago, and he is about to step on Elizabeth’s last nerve, while he is drinking himself into oblivion. Yet she loves him anyway, truly, madly, deeply; and there are growing signs that Roy is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome — but the problem of PTSD is not yet well known on the scorching summer afternoon in 1974 when the play takes place.
Betsy T. Henderson portrays the increasingly troubled Elizabeth Caulder with admirable grit and a reservoir of feelings that run bone deep, passions that are not often expressed out loud. Elizabeth is watching her circle the drain, and grasping desperately for any straw that can rescue it from the whirlpool of sex and alcohol into which Roy has plunged headfirst.
Henderson is the perfect straight (wo)man for Canady Vance Thomas, who is a pip as Elizabeth’s potty-mouthed lifelong best friend and confidant Hattie Dealing. Having dumped her little no-neck monsters Cheryl and Vernon, Jr., on their hapless grandmother, Hattie is ready for an uninterrupted afternoon of girl-talk with Elizabeth, sitting outside, because the Caulders’ A/C is broken (again) and sipping bourbon and Coke while watching “Let’s Make a Deal” on the back-porch TV and poking mean-spirited fun at the over-caffeinated contestants on that popular game show.
Hattie is quite a handful, and Canady Thomas devours this meaty role with gusto, while Betsy Henderson paints her portrait of Elizabeth in subtler hues, only hinting at the heartbreak and desperation that lie just below the surface of her outward calm.
The arrival of stuck-up and snobbish Maynard socialite Amy Lee Fullernoy (played to prissy perfection by Rachel Green) interrupts Elizabeth and Hattie’s tête-à-tête and gives them a common enemy to mock. The surprise visit of the self-righteous Amy Lee is completely unexpected, not to mention unwelcome; and her real reason for being there has more to do with spite — she wants to drop the bomb on Elizabeth that Roy’s been seen all over town with other women not his wife — than with her claims that her family’s air-conditioning repair business dispatched her to deliver a new filter for the Caulders’ air-conditioner.
Justice Theater Project co-founder and artistic director Deb Royals-Mizerk stirs up the raw emotions in Laundry and Bourbon like a master chef, leavening belly-laughs with somber realizations that unless he changes his wanton ways, Roy and Elizabeth are on the verge of D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
The show’s ramshackle set and costumes, both designed by Royals-Mizerk, are fit for a trio of what Martha Stewart used to call Wal-Martians, before the giant discount store chain hired her. And sound designer Julie Jones accents the honky-tonk heartbreak of Laundry And Bourbon with classic country songs, such as Patsy Cline’s version of “Your Cheatin Heart” and, of course, “Stand by Your Man” by Tammy Wynette.
In Laundry And Bourbon, playwright James McLure captures the bloodied-but-unbowed spirit of rural small-town Texas while creating three of the funniest female characters to grace this or any other down-home comedy. Your evening (or afternoon) with Elizabeth, Hattie, and the insufferable Amy Lee will be well spent.
Laundry and Bourbon continues Sept. 18-20 and 25-27 in Pittman Auditorium at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh. See our Theatre Calendar for details.
Note 1: On Saturday, Sept. 26th, Dr. Greg Inman and Ray Koval of the Raleigh Veterans Association will lead a preshow discussion, starting at 7:30 p.m. Note 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC will audio-describe the 2 p.m. Sept. 27th performance.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Like 19th-century U.S. poet Walt Whitman in LEAVES OF GRASS (1855), I hear America singing in WORKING, The Justice Theater Project's season-ending show. WORKING is a an eyebrow-raising 1978 Broadway musical based on the 1974 oral history by Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel (1912-2008), who interviewed a representative cross-section of the blue- and white-collar workers and recorded their “carols” -- about their jobs, their hopes, and their dreams. Four years later, composer, lyricist, and librettist Stephen Schwartz and cohorts, including one of Chapel Hill, NC's favorite sons, 20th-century troubadour James Taylor, set some of the pithiest sentiments of these Salt of the Earth characters to music.
WORKING, which concludes its three-week run in the Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center on June 19-21 and 26-28, features compelling characterizations by LeDawna Akins, Susan Burcham, Bing Crosby Cox, John Honeycutt, Barbette Hunter, Byron Jennings, Kevin Lawrence, Andrea Schulz Twiss, and Deb Royals-Mizerk -- each of whom contributes vivid vignettes in their multiple roles.
Byron Jennings gives passionate portrayals of “Lovin' Al” the parking-lot attendant, Frank the long-haul trucker, Ralph the salesman, Roberto, and Tom the fireman. Andrea Schulz Twiss, who broke her left wrist on opening night and bravely eschewed a sling for Saturday night's performance, is the epitome of the old theatrical adage that the show must go on. Her personable portraits of Roberta the Hooker and Delores the waitress are especially powerful.
Barbette Hunter likewise makes the most of her moments in the spotlight as Amanda the project manager, Babe the supermarket checker, Candy the political fundraiser, and Enid the telephone solicitor. Deb Royals channeled Norma Rae as Grace the millworker, and LeDawna Akins brought Maggie the cleaning woman and Sharon the telephone operator to full, glorious life.
Susan Burcham has her memorable moments as Rose the schoolteacher, but is also good as Heather the telephone operator and Kate the housewife; and Bing Crosby Cox gives gritty performances as Mike the ironworker, Anthony the stone mason, and Rex the corporate executive.
By adding more snippets of Studs Terkel's trenchant observations from his 1974 book WORKING: PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY DO ALL DAY AND HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT WHAT THEY DO to the script, Justice Theater Project's artistic director Deb Royals-Mizerk beefs up John Honeycutt's role in The Justice Theater Project production. Not only does Honeycutt create a memorable portrait of Joe the retiree, sort of an Everyman in a funny old-fashioned hat and high-riding pants, but the Triangle stage veteran also impersonates the irascible Studs himself as he saunters through the set, candidly commenting on the deep-seated feelings about working that the Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian coaxed out of his interviewees.
Director Deb Royals-Mizerk and choreographer Freddie Lee Heath keep the cast constantly moving and gesturing, sometimes in motions that cleverly mimic a manufacturing process. Production designers Thomas Mauney and Julie Jones' have concocted a striking minimalist multilevel set, whose bare bones gives the show a building-under-construction ambiance, complete with painter's plastic drop cloths and carpenter's plywood panels propped against the back wall; and musical director/pianist Coty Cockrell, standup bass and acoustic guitar player Kevin Lawrence, and drummer Chuck Kuhlmann provide perky accompaniment and help the seasoned cast sing as well as they sling the bull. Cockrell also adds a couple of colorful cameos as Charlie the ex-newspaper copy boy and especially as Conrad the UPS deliveryman.
The Justice Theater Project scores big with WORKING, creating an entertaining musical for the masses while simultaneously raising the audience's consciousness about workplace issues and the plight of the working class. The Raleigh-based theater's heady mix of theatricality and social activism once again proves to be a crowd-pleasing combination.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Strong performances found in Studs Terkel musical
RALEIGH -- The 1978 musical "Working," based on Studs Terkel's 1974 book, might seem outdated for today's workplaces and careers. But as seen in the Justice Theater Project production, the show still has a lot to say about what jobs mean to people and how they affect their lives.
The show is a series of monologues taken from interviews in Terkel's book. Funny, moving and insightful, these vignettes, from a parking attendant, fireman, secretary, migrant worker, trucker, and a dozen others, are still surprisingly relevant, voicing concerns about pensions and physical safety, age, race and gender discrimination.
The songs, composed by Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked"), James Taylor and four others, range from blues and gospel to folk and show tunes. Some are more effective than others, but the lyrics also come directly from the interviews, supplying an authentic ring.
The creators have updated the musical several times over the years to include e-mail, bar codes and mobile phones. Some of what's left in shows the play's age, but most sections are universal enough to transcend any time frame.
The production's five women and four men (counting music director-pianist Coty Cockrell's occasional participation) gamely cover the wide range of roles and songs, their singing and acting skills sometimes tested, but each getting moments to shine. Bryon Jennings gives a chilling account of a policeman's near-fatal confrontation and poignantly renders a father's hopes for his son's future. John Honeycutt's Terkel-like narrator and lonely widower Joe register strongly, while Bing Cox finds a haunting simplicity in the mason's song.
Deb Royals memorably voices a mill worker's gripping description of numbingly repetitive tasks. LeDawna Akins lets rip a sassy cleaning woman's anthem; Barbette Hunter amuses as a series of phone operators and office workers; and Susan Burcham makes a warm-hearted teacher and humble housewife.
Andrea Schulz Twiss became the reluctant participant in a true the-show-must-go-on moment at Friday's opening when she took a misstep in Act One, fell and broke her wrist. EMS workers put her in a temporary splint during intermission, and she came back to perform her big waitress number as if nothing had happened. (She has since had surgery and will continue in the role.)
Royals, doubling as director, gives the show a nicely casual feel in keeping with its revue-like nature. Freddie Lee Heath supplies cleverly choreographed sequences, although some are more stylized than befits the down-to-earth material.
Cockrell adds polished vocals to several songs and confidently leads the three-piece band in all the requisite styles. Thomas Mauney's construction-site setting of platforms and levels is distractingly messy and contributes to some awkward staging.
Opening night's understandable tentativeness should be overcome by now, allowing the production's simple pleasures and intimate nature to entertain and enlighten.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me
The reviews are in! "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me"...."showcases clever directing by Carnessa Ottelin and the well-cast, dynamic trio of performers..." Megan Stein, The Independent.
Thursday, January 01, 2009
Justice Theater Project makes the “Best of Theater” list for 2008
Best Lead Performances of 2008
Elizabeth Corley (Mother Courage), Mother Courage and Her Children, Justice Theater Project
Best Music of 2008, Honorable Mention
Virginia O'Brien, Derrick Ivey, Mary Floyd Page, Mother Courage, Justice Theater Project
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Mother Courage Soldiers On
In Mother Courage and Her Children, The Justice Theater Project has "given themselves a tough assignment". Adman Sobsey, The News and Observer
‘Mother Courage’ soldiers on
By Adam Sobsey - Correspondent
Published: Tue, Oct. 28, 2008 12:00
CHAPEL HILL—The theme for the Justice Theater Project’s 2008-09 season is “Human Dignity.” “The dignity of the human person,” states the company’s recent news release, “underlies the belief that every one of us has the ability to live life to the fullest.”
For the season’s first production, Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” they’ve given themselves a tough assignment. Mother Courage must be one of the least dignified protagonists of the modern theater. The play’s thesis is that war is interminable and inescapable and in the end ruins everybody. It’s why no one lives life to the fullest.
Bringing the play out here and now amplifies the war fatigue of “Mother Courage”—especially through the English playwright David Hare’s 1995 adaptation, which is loaded with mordant, pithy aphorisms: “War is like love: It finds a way.” “If you’re clever, there’s no need to be brave.”
The difficulty with “Mother Courage” is that it becomes unpalatable if played too straight, swallowed by its hopelessness and cynicism. It’s Brecht’s radicalism and weirdness that give his plays energy, and the best parts of Joseph Megel’s generally restrained, modest staging for Justice Theater Project are the oddest ones.
Some of these are probably not quite intentional: anachronistic costumes that may have been chosen out of impecuniousness; the quirky surprises in Derrick Ivey’s choreography (he also brings his fierce gravitas to the character of the Cook); a few brazenly strange character choices (and challenging accents) for some of the smaller roles, played by a large, diverse ensemble that ranges from seasoned local performers to high-school ; and especially the gifted Thomas Mauney’s ingenious set design, which pulls off Brecht’s war epic on what appears to have been a five-dollar budget.
But the play stands or falls on the performance of its lead actress. Mother Courage, that “hyena of the battlefield,” is a huge role, and Elisabeth Lewis Corley is undaunted by it.
She hacks her way through the physical mess and moral muck of the war like a machete, her chesty, deep voice delivering the Brecht-Hare bad news with steely imperturbability. When on occasion emotion peeks out—at the death of one of her children, for example, or when she sings in her surprisingly sweet voice—it’s jarring.
That was surely Brecht’s intent, and Corley can fulfill it more often—as can the production as a whole—with a heightened sense of excitement. Despite the demoralization of a long war, the spirit of battle is actually intense and rousing—theatrical, in fact. At 2 gloomy hours, which is awkwardly divided into a 90-minute first act, intermission, and a 40-minute second act, “Mother Courage” sometimes drags.
Surely part of that drag owes not to Mother Courage’s fatigue but to ours. More than six years into the Iraq war, we are less demoralized by it than desensitized.
And with the deepening global financial crisis, it’s hard not to crack a resigned, tired smile near the end of “Mother Courage,” as the cast shoves open the big loading-dock doors to some unseen escape route, and someone says, “You live off the war. We all do.”
Thursday, June 05, 2008
In the Wings:  Border Issues Come Into Play
By Orla Swift
The border of the United States and Mexico is as dramatic a setting as you could ask for in a timely stage drama, particularly as our presidential contenders debate (or ought to be debating) immigration issues.
So Justice Theater Project artistic director Deb Royals-Mizerk knew "The Line in the Sand: Stories from the U.S./Mexico Border" would make a compelling season closer.
Written by a group of actors and writers from , the play uses a documentary format to illuminate arguments on both sides of the border-control debate—much like “The Laramie Project” did with the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.
But reading “The Line in the Sand” was one thing. Going to the border was something else, says Royals-Mizerk, who recently went to the Mexican town of Nogales and other border sites as part of a course offered by Duke University’s Center for Documentary .
“It was intense,” says Royals-Mizerk, who performs in the play.
“I was blown away by the reality of what’s going on,” she says of the complex tangle of poverty, abuse and corruption. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for that. ... At one point, I just stood there and was like, ‘This is insurmountable. What do you do?’”
Royals-Mizerk hopes “A Line in the Sand,” as well as a related “Border Wall Project” art exhibit and post-show discussions with guest speakers, will inspire audiences to consider solutions.
Friday, January 04, 2008
“Grapes of Wrath” Top Ten of 2007
JTP's August 2007 production of The Grapes of Wrath was recently chosen as one of the Top 10 Theater productions in the Triangle area by the News and Observer. Congratulations to the amazing team of actors, crew and volunteers that made this possible!
Saturday, September 01, 2007
Orla Swift on the Best in Theater
You'd think that after almost 70 years, the ills of this nation that John Steinbeck described so eloquently in "The Grapes of Wrath" might be behind us. But we are not that wise a nation.
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
JTP 2004 Indy Awards
In the Wednesday, January 5, 2005 edition of the Independent Weekly, The Justice Theater Project’s “A Lesson Before Dying” won the “Special Achievements in the Humanities” Award.
Monday, December 27, 2004
Best Theater
Theater doesn't get more relevant than The Justice Theater Project's "A Lesson Before Dying." On the stage was a drama about a wrongly accused prisoner awaiting his execution. In real life, a month before the play opened, there was North Carolina death row inmate Alan Gell, exonerated six years after a jury had found him guilty of murder. To underscore the connection, Gell introduced the play at one of its three Raleigh performances.
Throughout this election year, Triangle companies shed dramatic light on timely issues by staging plays with strong political resonance, from PlayMakers’ Repertory Company’s “Not About Heroes” and “The Tragedy of King Richard II” to Manbites Dog Theater’s “Nixon’s Nixon”, The Justice Theater Project’s “Nickel and Dimed” as well as “A Lesson Before Dying,” and Theatre Or’s staged readings of little-known Israeli plays.
On that note, we ring in the new year with a look back at the Top 10 locally produced shows of a stellar 2004:
“A Lesson Before Dying,” The Justice Theater Project. With Alan Gell’s release and with
the Legislature considering a moratorium on the death penalty, this drama felt ever more chilling and urgent. Director Deb Royals demonstrated the power of activist theater with a poignant and haunting production.
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Nickel and Dimed Dramatizes Life
When author and social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich decided to look at the rising tide of poor people in America, she realized that the best way to understand what was so troubling about the situation was to experience it first-hand. So she set a few basic rules for herself and then, leaving her upscale Florida neighborhood and rather confused boyfriend behind her, she set off for places where she would be unrecognized and set about learning what "minimum wage" really meant. The , which was supposed to be merely a Harper's Magazine article, developed into a full-scale non-fiction book, which spent two years on The New York Times best-seller list.
Her study, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, has been turned into a play by adapter Joan Holden. Ms. Holden attended the closing weekend of the play as it had its North Carolina premiere in Cary this month, presented by Raleigh’s Justice Theater Project. Directed by the JTP’s artistic director, Deb Royals-Mizerk, Nickel and Dimed relates directly to the audience what kind of difficulty, suffering, and even humiliation is experienced by nearly all those who are forced to work for what is (as many have tried to tell the government for years) laughingly termed a living wage.
The play and its protagonist, “Barb” (Ehrenreich’s cover), launch a full-scale attack on those who insist on pretending that “minimum wage” and “living wage” mean the same thing.
Barb (Betsy Henderson) works and lives in three different locales across the country: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. Though she has told herself that she will work a month each place, her first experience, as a waitress at “Kenny’s,” only lasts a week. She cannot accept it, not the treatment (by both bosses and customers), not the low-rent living conditions that are still too expensive, and not the woes of her cohorts which—being who and what she is—she wants to assist, but cannot.
Barb is aided in her complex tale by an excellent ensemble of actors who play a gamut of roles, from fellow employees and poor, to snobbish clients, nasty customers, cynical bosses, and even—to her own horror—a social worker she must visit for housing and food. The full cast including Henderson only numbers nine, but they fill the stage with a multitude and cross-section of the people who live in the areas she visits. Only two of the cast, Sean Brosnahan and John Honeycutt, are male; when one stops to consider, however, that most of the working poor are single mothers trying to support a family, it is not surprising.
Henderson plays the wise-cracking, acerbic Barbara with a tremendous understanding, and a great deal of off-hand wit. She is both shocked and dismayed by what she witnesses, but she uses her anger to blast the people who are getting rich off of the situations she encounters. Henderson allows us to see the strong character that Barbara has, but also how, when faced with these inequities, she is shaken to her very core.
Barbara meets, in turns, Gail (Yolanda Batts), the waitress who has many small children at home; Joan (Jackie Marriott), the hostess who lives in her van; Holly (Rebecca Nerz), the young team leader of a maid service who is pregnant; one of the rich women who hires “Magic Maids” to clean her (huge) house (Patricia Phillips); a too-cheerful social worker (Rachel Green); and a “Mall-Mart” customer from hell (Christy Throndson). But these are only a few of the seemingly universally unhappy people she confronts on her journey through this economic underbelly. This fine ensemble assembles a full 25 characters on-stage with excellent control and aplomb.
This particular production sports not only a very apt array of songs for preshow and intermission, but also a duo which performs original music to underscore the work, written by Francis Dyer. The play pulls no punches; it indicates in words addressed directly to us the whys of the situation: those who cannot turn down the chance to work, combined with those who are determined to take full advantage of them. This remarkable cast made it work on a stage as very nearly empty as a Shakespearean set, with characterizations that made us care for these individuals and want to do more for them.
An excellent play has been written for an excellent reason, and it is bare-faced, direct and completely impossible to ignore.
Editor’s Note: Alan R. Hall is a Chapel Hill, NC freelance writer, reviewer, novelist, and poet. He has written theater reviews for the Georgia State University System and the online writers’ network “Themestream.” For 11 years, he wrote reviews on theater, music, dance, and film for The Chapel Hill News.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Justice Theater Project Stages a Timely Production
DUBLIN, NC—When you get a first look at Bladen County, they don't exactly seem to be hurting for space. Farmland stretches out on either side of Highway 87 once you finally get past Fayetteville, as the road ambles south by east toward the coast. The 's flat; the cloudless sky is broad. Even by the most ambitious driving you're still an hour away from shoreline, but the soil already reflects the change, as Piedmont red increasingly gives way to loamy shades of black, gray and white. The corn's a little less than hip-high just now; the tobacco is still pretty low to the ground.
But when it comes to civic space—a neutral place where a people can come together to deliberate and lay hands on the issues of the day—Dublin, population 250, home of the Houston Peanuts outlet store, the S&J Grill, Bladen Community College and little else besides, is just as short on it as—well, as we too often are.
The modest community college campus is all but deserted Friday morning, May 21, as
Raleigh’s Justice Theater Project sets up shop inside the auditorium, a ‘70s-style brick, painted iron and cinder-block affair. Inspection has revealed three working electrical circuits and eight functional lighting instruments. Hundreds of folding chairs have been placed on the broad pine floor between the theater’s permanent seats and the stage—a floor on which a basketball court is marked out in fresh green and yellow paint.
It’s not the most minimal venue in which the Project has staged A Lesson Before Dying in recent months. That would have been the cafeteria in Jacoba Hall at Raleigh’s Franciscan School, where we caught the group the weekend before. Folding chairs were set up in a semicircle around the open entrance to an antechamber used as a chapel. Improvised floodlights shone down on three simple scenes before the entrance. A park bench stood off to the left, a table with two chairs far right. Between then, in front of three gray panels, a jumble of crates and boxes stood behind another wooden table and a couple of folding chairs, to represent an unused storeroom in a jail.
On that humble but sufficient set, under improvised tech in a similarly improvised venue, unfolded what was arguably the region’s strongest show of the season.
Regular readers will note this production achieves the first five-star rating since we instituted this system last September. It is our highest recommendation, and denotes uninterrupted excellence across a production, in script, direction, ensemble, individual acting and stagecraft. Such work provides a clear example to audiences and the community of practice—not only of what regional theater is capable of at its best, but why none of us should be ever fully satisfied with anything less: When theater works, it’s this good. When it is this good, what seems at times to be an insurmountable distance between lives and peoples can be reduced.
Which is why it’s particularly ironic that this production has had to seek shelter in the area’s churches and schools, in three one-and two-night stands at Cardinal Gibbons High School and The Franciscan School, before the invitation came last month to visit Dublin. Company management hopes to bring this production back to the region for its first conventional two-week run in June—but can’t confirm the dates or venue at this writing.
The electricity that crackled in the opening scene between Torrey B. Lawrence (as teacher Grant Wiggins), Jackie Marriott (Miss Emma, godmother of the condemned) and Michael Keough (as racist Sheriff Guidry) put all on notice of what was to come. As keenly developed and directed by Deb Royals, their sharply defined characters remained in conflict over the treatment of prisoner Jefferson (Kareem Nemley). Further fireworks came when Reverend Ambrose (memorably played by Antuan D. Hawkins) squared off against a humanist Wiggins over what a dying man should be taught. Rock-solid support from Barbette Hunter and Sean Brosnahan enhanced an existential world in which death may be as certain as injustice, but human worth and dignity can yet be salvaged.
Before the show in Dublin, another guest spoke with unique authority on life under such circumstances. After his retrial and release from Death Row in February, Alan Gell returned to Dublin to advocate for a moratorium on the death penalty. After the show, I asked him for his reaction to A Lesson Before Dying:
AG:I saw it for the very first time in Raleigh and I’ve got to admit it was disturbing. Basically what I’m watching is an innocent man being executed. Being sent to Death Row, I saw a number of people executed. Some I had befriended. To again see somebody executed just kind of reopened up a wound.
The Independent:You obviously have an insight into this world that I and my readers don’t have—
I would hate for you to ever have to see the things I’ve seen. I know we’ve had some really, really bad things happen. I know we have a system that’s willing to kill innocent people in order to keep the secret that they were innocent.
If there’s a moment in that play you could say, “There, they really got it right…”
The whole play, really. One of the worst parts of the play for me was where they find out that the guy is actually innocent. We saw the cop was sitting there. He’s heard that he was innocent. He hears every bit of it. He hangs his head—and he’s sad to hear it.
But he doesn’t run to the sheriff. He doesn’t run to the courthouse. And that’s exactly the way things worked for me.
Everybody heard it. Everybody knew it. But nobody did anything about it. That’s got to be one of the most accurate parts of the play for me.
If I ask you what the show got right, I have to ask you what doesn’t show up on stage—maybe what can’t show up there.
The pain of the person that’s innocent sent to Death Row. The pain his loved ones and parents have to go through. When an innocent person is sent to Death Row, you’re creating two victims. The person that was killed and the person sent to death row to die.
I don’t think there’s any way to convey that pain I went through on Death Row.