A Good Script and a Superior Cast Make The Justice Theater Project’s Staged Reading of Real Women Have Curves Delightful

by MARTHA KERAVUORI AND CHUCK GALLE • APRIL 7, 2019

It is suggested by Justice Theater Project artistic director Jerry Sipp that we ordinarily think of a “staged reading” as one where actors sit on stools, often dressed in black, in front of black music stands, only moving when they rise to speak. However, The Justice Theater Project’sstaged reading of Real Women Have Curves that we watched recently was quite different. The actors move around in their blocked positions freely on a well-designed set. They are also garbed in obviously appropriate costumes. They carry non-cumbersome scripts; and during the Friday, April 5th, opening-night performance of Real Women Have Curves didn’t noticeably begin to rely on their scripts until well past mid-show.

Playwright Josefina López should be very pleased with the performance that we saw Friday night. This show is an excellent contribution to JTP’s theme for the 2018-19 season: “The Woman, Empowered.”

Even though we learned about the lives of these Latinas, we also laughed with them and cried with them. Director Gustavo B. Schmidt found a perfect cast, courageous in several respects, willing to bare their souls, their passions, and their bodies, and also to undertake a production such as this, with minimal rehearsals. Schmidt’s direction results in a snappy, fast moving show, with moves through a tangle of dress-making equipment carefully choreographed, and quick repartee among the characters.

Costume designer Sally Beale Hatlem has dressed the women from the skin out, providing work-time clothes and “nice” clothes, as well as one burst of “elegant” clothing. The set represents a tiny sweat shop where lady’s high-end dresses are assembled.

The workers are paid less than minimum wages, including Estela (played by Marina Enslen), who owns the business and still owes on it. Scenic designer Cory Arnold has built a cramped, uncomfortable workspace for the five women — it oozes suffocation and discomfort. And it turns out to be the blast furnace in which the stereotypes of Latinas (mother, virgin, or whore) are blown asunder.

The quintet of excellent actors are a true ensemble, melding together so it almost seems they could all shift parts in a flash. Valery Arevalo plays Ana, an introspective young woman, bent on education and aiming herself at the field of writing. Carmen, the mother of the owner and seven other children, all scattered afar, is played with charm by Jenny Doyle. She handles the switching from Spanish to English commandingly, trying to mother all the young women.

Her own daughter, Estela, portrayed by Marina Enslen, is in great fear of ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), because she has two infractions of laws. She stays on constant lookout, and needs desperately to save money for a lawyer as well. Rosali, who works the most complicated machine, is brought to life by Jamie Gonzalez, who brings to the role an alluring air of innocence as she works for a size-two body. Carol Machuca plays Pancha, the fifth of the seamstresses, with a sturdiness of character and a stern discipline.

A combination of a good script by an excellent and informed playwright and this superior cast makes for a delightful 90 minutes of entertainment and, perhaps, a bit of insight as well.

Justice Theater Project's Men on Boats Has No Men and No Boats, but Intriguing Slant on Male-Dominated History

By Roy C. Dicks

February 8, 2019 - Raleigh, NC:

Jaclyn Backhaus' 2016 Men on Boats is, at its core, the true story of John Wesley Powell's 1869 geologic expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers to the Grand Canyon. But, by being told through the contemporary construct of having no men in the cast and the theatrical conceit of having no actual boats on stage, the play filters both history and theatre through a kaleidoscopic lens. The Justice Theater Project's cleverly staged, visually arresting production ranks as one of its best in terms of consistency and professionalism.

Powell had been an intrepid geological explorer from his early 20s and, despite losing his right arm in the Civil War, he continued to explore the American West. In 1869, he and nine other men set out from Wyoming on the Green River in four wooden boats on what was to become a frustrating, often perilous three-month journey. Powell published his journal about the trip, writing about being the "first" to discover and name various geographical sites, although he acknowledged that some earlier white men had passed through the areas and that Native Americans had also known the landscape.

The idea that white men in privileged positions were the ones who got to write official history is what Backhaus set out to explore with a 21st century viewpoint. She also wanted female-identifying actors to have the chance to play characters requiring physical and emotional responses normally unavailable in female roles. In addition, the playwright sought to create the visceral thrills of daring adventure in a uniquely theatrical fashion.

Backhaus attempts much in her play, and if it all doesn't register equally or in as much depth as it might, it deserves a lot of credit for being just what it is. The piece can be appreciated on a number of levels, satisfying interest in U.S. history, feminist theory, theatrical inventiveness, and engaging storytelling.

Director Jules Odendahl-James, long established as a visionary artist in the Triangle, gets confident performances from a cast with wide-ranging experience and background, drawing a distinctive characterization from each actor. She hasn’t pushed them to be stereotypical male in physical or vocal mannerisms, instead offering fascinating personalities neither male nor female, yet together.

Odendahl-James is aided mightily by choreographer Denise Cerniglia, who makes the depictions of the explorers' negotiations of rapids, rocks, whirlpools, and waterfall vividly realistic. The actors line up as if in separate boats, using their bodies to react to the turns and spins and intense shouts of navigation and warning to convey the terrors of making their way into the unknown. Although some productions suggest the boats with ropes, miniature bow fronts, or tubular outlines, here the staging is all the more impressive because the audience "sees" the boats without any material indications. The times when crew members go overboard are particularly gripping, the actors believably indicating flailing and struggling.

Opening night found the actors firm in their staging, timing, and characterizations. Faye Goodwin's Powell emphasized his upbeat optimism and unshakeable conviction of success, which came in direct contrast to Mara Thomas' Dunn, a hunter-trapper who sees only the dangers and reasons for failure. The pair's confrontations supplied much of the personal drama in the piece.

Jessica Flemming gave a memorable performance as Powell's brother, Old Shady, whose stoic, steady support grounded the often-fractured atmosphere among the discontented crew. Sarah Koop supplied a jolly presence for Goodman, an Englishman who joined the project for a bit of adventure but soon found it required more grit than he realized. Page Purgar made Hawkins, the expedition's cook, a funny, no-nonsense workhorse, while Marleigh Purgar McDonald filled young Bradley with naïve excitement and readiness.

Candace Hescock's quiet, pragmatic Hall, Tori Grace Nichols' glum but cooperative Sumner, Johanna Burwell's laconic mapmaker (and provisions thief) O.G., and Ariel Griffin Smith's agreeable Seneca rounded out a very likeable cast.

The production boasts fine technical elements, from Juan Isler's sound design of rushing water and Bart Matthews' atmospheric original music to Emily Johns' character-enhancing costuming (particularly the individualized hats) and Jenni Mann Becker's beautiful lighting, especially the striking reds for canyon walls and rich blues for dawn and nightfall.

Sonya Drum turned in another creative set design with a concept that the production was taking place in the backstage area of a museum's diorama section, where one depicting Powell's expedition is being constructed. The audience sees the plywood backs of the display's setting of mountains and canyons, along with prop tables on either side of the set.

According to a recent interview, Odendahl-James' concept was that history is always being constructed and that the female museum staff decides to act out history from their own perspective. The idea had possibilities, but was curiously not referenced specifically, except at the beginning when the actress playing Powell appeared with a clipboard as though checking off all the diorama elements. After that, the cast simply appeared in costume and proceeded to play the script without further indication they were at the museum, making the setting confusing without any real context.

Further quibbles include the overuse of the ambient sounds of rushing water and campfire crackling, especially at a volume that competed with the more soft-spoken cast members. The performance space at Umstead Park United Church of Christ does not have ideal acoustics, which made some of Odendahl-James' staging decisions questionable by positioning actors facing upstage to deliver important dialogue.

Despite these minor flaws, the production is a fresh, intriguing take on traditional storytelling and casting, with a script that appropriately confirms the Justice Theater Project's mission of creating community dialogue and giving voice to social concerns.

A Doll’s House, Remodeled ★★★★1/2

October 12 - 28

by Dustin K. Britt, Chatham Life and Style

October 18, 2018

4.5 stars (out of 5)


Black Ops Theater artistic director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell just kicked open the door on The Justice Theatre Project’s “S/He Is: Becoming Whole” season. Co-written with Aurelia Belfield, A Doll’s House, Remodeled is the result of an intellectual wrestling match with Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 proto-feminist masterpiece, A Doll’s House (if you have not read it, you should take the time).

Ibsen’s Torvald Helmer holds his wife, Nora, figuratively captive, manipulating her in the most seemingly benign of fashions. She is a doll in her own home: dressed, admired, doted on, and controlled. She walks on eggshells until her famous door-slamming exit from the house--a bombshell of a statement for a late nineteenth century Norwegian audience. 

Holloway-Burrell and Belfield change lanes in their 2018 “remodeling” of the tale, placing Nora more confidently in the driver’s seat--though the car is unmistakably Ibsen’s. 

The artistic stakes are high. The theatrical concept of “modernize it and throw in technology” is becoming as worn as a faded, threadbare rug and you have about five pages to convince your audience that you have something new to say. Trimming Ibsen’s slow-burning, three act play down to 90 minutes requires a steady hand, lest the surgeon toss aside too much meat with the fat. If you dare to lift Nora and Torvald out of late nineteenth century sexual politics, you cannot just drop them any old place; you run the risk of losing the point entirely.

But this insightful adaptation, emboldened by audacious direction, accomplishes the task set before it. Almost-impossible, letting content drive form. Rather than “A Doll’s House as a reality show sounds fun,” our shrewd co-authors say “A Doll’s House is still relevant. What is Ibsen trying to say and what are the contemporary parallels?” A timely, provocative, and loyal reimagining is the answer to that question. And, against all odds, we now have one.

Our new Nora (a lusty, confident, and inspiring Lakeisha Coffey) is not simply a doll in a doll’s house. She built the damn thing herself. Now she just has to take ownership. This carefully-developed concept--unique to the “remodeling”--builds to an intense, rapturous, and satisfying conclusion. 

A cast of magnificent women surround Nora: a cool, smooth Drina Dunlap as gal pal Christine, a brazen and unshakable Kyma Lassiter as pseudo-antagonist Niles Krogstad, and a charming Sarah Koop, who makes much of little stage time as assistant Helene. 

John Honeycutt is the unassuming Dr. Rank, who appears emotionally vacant for much of the play. This looks like a bad acting call, but an important revelation provides an adequate excuse for his lethargy near the play’s end. Our co-authors walk a razor’s edge with Torvald’s temperament. He is a loathsome, misogynistic techni-bro who deserves a comeuppance. But he is not a super-villain or a dragon to be slain (a common trope of lazier writers). He isn’t that powerful. He is a roach that must be squashed. With heels. Germain Choffart’s convincing, understated performance of said pathetic weasel makes this quite clear.

Stage manager Cory Arnold, assisted by Camron Graves, scales a mountainous task in any space, especially a non-theatrical one: calling sound and lighting cues in tandem with pre-recorded audio-video content. As we rapidly switch between the stage world and the reality TV broadcast, the absence of hiccups or glitches of any kind is something to behold.

Arthur Reese’s detailed and stylish set is a perfect runway for Brenda L. Hayes’s chic and well-suited costumes and Holloway-Burrell’s upmarket props. Reese’s well-planned lighting minimizes disruption when we switch to the TV feed, featuring talking-head interviews captured precisely by videographer Nick Karner. Sound designer Juan Isler achieves smooth transitions between screen and stage, while subtly mixing a range of tech-based sound effects.

Some of the talking-heads are insightful--helping to flesh out character and reveal hidden relationships--but others are unnecessary interruptions, jammed in to weakly hold up and already strong structure.

Surprisingly, Holloway-Burrell’s reality show framework is neither gimmick nor crutch. The story point does not simply throw glitter in your face and step aside, it is the story--embedded and vital. And reinforced by its relevance:

A jealous person becomes furious when their attractive partner earns millions of likes on Instagram...a startup engineer skyrockets to the top after designing a successful app...false feminism is used to sell products...women are excluded from executive positions...queer relationships are simply a fact of life...people use media to release their inner demons.

The not-so-subtly embedded “get out the vote” message definitely pulls one out of the story, and the involve-the-audience-in-social-media angle falls flat. But even with minor imperfections, the adaptation does a tremendous service to Ibsen’s work and is an important contribution to women’s theatre. These carefully-designed renovations to A Doll’s House add ample value to The Justice Theatre Project’s property value.

Oliver! The Justice Theater Project’s Immensely Entertaining Multicultural Production of Oliver!Features an Impressive Cast and Crew. by MELANIE SIMMONS • JUNE 13, 2018

The Justice Theater Project’s mission is to connect audiences with theatrical productions that promote social awareness in order to educate, inspire, and entertain. JTP’s current production of Oliver!, the final show of their 2017-18 season, is a fitting one to end their seasonal theme of “Equity and Identity” on a high note. JTP’s Oliver! is immensely entertaining, and the cast and crew display an impressive amount of talent in bringing this Charles Dickens-based classic musical to life.

Enough cannot be said about the large cast of children and adults, deftly directed by Jerry Sipp and choreographed by Heather J. Strickland into a fine spectacle of song and dance. The talent of the children is truly inspiring, as they handle often complex dance moves and large musical numbers with great skill, easily equal to the seasoned adult performers.

The story follows Oliver Twist, an orphan boy in mid-19th century England, played with a satisfying blend of innocence and pluck by Andrew Farmer. His clear and earnest vocals combined with a natural awkwardness that made for an endearing Oliver that we wanted to root for.

Oliver grows up in an orphanage with only gruel for food, under the indifferent cruelty of workhouse caretakers Mr. Bumble (played by Taufiki Lee) and the Widow Corney (Ann Forsthoefel), whose strong vocals delivered well on musical numbers but got a bit shrill during spoken dialogue. Oliver makes the unfathomable mistake of asking for seconds at dinner one day, and is promptly sold off to undertakers Mrs. Sowerberry (Kathleen Jacob) and Mr. Sowerberry (an appropriately cadaverous Thom Haynes). There, Oliver endures more abuse, prompting him to run away to the dirty streets of London to seek his fortune.

Oliver is quickly recruited by a pick-pocketer named the Artful Dodger (played with great aplomb by Vincent Bland, Jr. ) to work for his overseer Fagin. Splendidly performed by director Jerry Sipp, Fagin is equal parts manipulative and vulnerable, an opportunist and alternative-moralist. He cons, inspires, houses, and misuses the boys in his care, all the while doing so with such charisma that the audience can’t help rooting for him as well.

Oliver also meets Nancy (played with powerful vocals by Leslie-Ann Wickens), the ill-fated lover of famed sociopathic brute Bill Sikes (Juan Isler), and a mysterious wealthy upperclassman Mr. Brownlow (played by the indefatigable Jim O’Brien), who may have clues to Oliver’s true identity.

The set (designed by Jeffrey Nugent, with props by Erin Folk) is impressive, covering the majority of the stage space with a wide downstage framed by an arching bridgeway that spans the performance area. This not only supplies an appropriately utilized literal separation between the upper and lower classes, but also creates a simplified fly system beneath the bridge area that allows for some very creative set changes.

A detailed backdrop transports the audience to a wintery Industrial Age England. Cast members move set pieces and, indeed, sections of the main set itself in order to create the orphanage, upper and lower areas of London, Fagin’s lair, Brownlow’s estate, and many other locations — all with with seamless creativity.

Darby Madewell designed the most ambitious lighting rig that this reviewer has seen to date in this JTP space, using color, special effects, and isolated lighting areas to highlight the drama and keep the flow of the show moving well. A small orchestra (led by music director Ronzel Bell) is also concealed beneath the bridge part of the set. (The live musicians contributed greatly to the musical numbers, but their volume — at times — drowned out some of the dialogue.

Indeed, the sound levels proved a bit challenging throughout the evening, with some moments lost to microphone levels that were either too high or too low. This is sure to smooth out during the run, however, under the capable stage management of Alyssa Petrone. The costuming by Brenda Hayes was exceptional, with every detail from the stuffed bellies of the wealthy to the tattered rags of Fagin adding greatly to the characters and the story.

Like the original novel Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy’s Progress, English playwright, composer, and lyricist Lionel Bart’s 1960 West End and 1963 Broadway musical doesn’t rest solely on its child protagonist’s woes, but uses his circumstances to take a broader look at society at large. The class gap here is stingingly apparent, as the wealthy “proper” citizens live a charmed life of privilege and relative comfort, while the ne’er-do-wells are imprisoned in a system of abuse, crime, and disadvantage. JTP has wisely expanded upon this to include highlighted themes of identity, acceptance, and morality.

The musical itself shines a light on these less pleasant themes, but it falls short of a truly satisfying conclusion, allowing the wicked to get their just dues while ignoring, perhaps, the reasons that led them into such a position in the first place, and opting for a Cinderella-like ending that is uplifting ,albeit somewhat unrealistic. Still, JTP is to be commended for continuing to push social awareness to the forefront of its production choices. It is, perhaps, the job of our own current generation to come up with the real solutions.

This musical is not entirely gauzy, dealing with such subject matters as toxic relationships, abuse, crime, and social inequality. But the tale does end on a high note that brought the audience to their feet at the rousing final number.

All in all, this is a wonderful revival of a solid classic. The moving score, unforgettable characters, and timely social commentary combine with a stellar multicultural cast, an inspired vision, and high production value to deliver a delightful evening of quality entertainment. The Justice Theater Project’s production of Oliver! runs through Sunday, June 24th.

News & Observer review of "Ragtime"


‘Ragtime’ helps Justice Theater Project fulfill its mission
— Roy C. Dicks, News & Observer

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.

 

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com