"Inherit the Wind" at The Justice Theater Project

September 18, 2019|ARTS ★★★★1/2 By Michele Okoh Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

The first thing I heard when I stepped out of my vehicle was, “Welcome to Hillsboro!” As I looked up, I saw Douglas Kapp (Elijah) shouting with all the conviction and unrestrained passion of a fire and brimstone preacher. The theatre entrance was his street corner. There were others too; all vying for my attention. Instinctively, I blocked them out and ushered past them. Before I had found my seat, or even entered the building, the performance had already begun. 

Inherit the Wind, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is loosely based on the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, where a high school teacher was accused of violating a law that made it illegal to teach evolution in public schools.

Jerry Sipp masterfully directs this production of Inherit the Wind and clearly understands the importance of communicating that the message behind this play can apply to any place and any time. It is as relevant today as it was when it was first produced in 1955. Sipp stages Inherit the Wind so that you become part of this play the moment you arrive. You become a spectator to the ensuing media spectacle. 

The set design is simple but impactful. The stage is divided into three sections, but transitions throughout are seamless. Scene changes flow from one section of the stage to another like water flowing through a creek in summer. Sipp uses basic lighting (designed by Darby Madewell) and the flow of the actors’ movements to direct our attention throughout this play. The costumes (designed by Sally Beale Hatlem) are very Southern and rural, but are also timeless. The stage is balanced with platforms on either side, reminiscent of the scales of justice. The props (by Erin Folk) accentuate the small town feel of this production. 

All the modest details, including the unbearable heat and poor ventilation of a courtroom during summer are conveyed in this production without the unpleasant business of actually having to experience them. Within the courtroom, the ensemble is crammed into limited seats to observe the trial, and everything that can be used to conduct air is turned into a fan, including clothing. There is a certain heaviness that overtakes the body and discomfort of being around others on hot humid days that the actors communicate in how they slump and shift themselves in their chairs. They are restless, but their anticipation is subtle enough not to distract from the events of the trial.

The most powerful performances come from Byron Jennings (Henry Drummond) and Paul Wilson (Matthew Harrison Brady). It is their dance of conflict that defines this play. Wilson and Jennings portray the intense rivalry between these men while also depicting the subtle intimacy and respect that flows between them. However, it is the ensemble as a whole that brings this play together. 

The performance of Nan L. Stephenson (E.K. Hornbeck) seems a bit disconnected at times. Her lines seem to be delivered more as asides than to the person with whom she is having a conversation. However, that seems to be the point.  Her approach to journalism is not one of objectivity but as the announcer of a sideshow. This approach affects how she relates to other characters. There is humor throughout this show, but it is her dry wit that elicits the most laughs. By the end of the show, you will come to have a different view of this humor and perhaps your own.

At times, it is difficult to hear Michael Parker (Bertram Cates), Jess Barbour (Rachel Brown), and Linda Carnes (Judge), but this is not detrimental to their performances. They take a soft spoken approach to their characters, but the meaning of what they are communicating is not lost because of this. The tenderness between Bertram Cates and Rachel Brown is still shown through their hesitant gazes and wayward glances. As a member of the peanut gallery, you can still feel the weariness communicated by the stoic demeanor of the Judge. 

This play boasts a large cast, and all are deserving of praise. As a former prosecutor myself, the performances of Randy Jordan (Meeker), Joey DeSena (Tom Davenport), and Thom Haynes (George Sillers) especially ring true to me. Brook North (Rev. Jeremiah Brown) also provides a strong performance as the spiritual leader of the town. However, one of the greatest delights of this play is how this ensemble as a whole contributes to the success of this play. From whispered conversations during the trial to sideways looks, this cast brings a life to this production that is never outshined by any single performance. -- M. Okoh

JTP’s Presentation of Inherit the Wind Is an Important Play for the Whole Family


Once again, I must implore you to take your kids to see The Justice Theater Project’s production of Inherit the Wind, starring Byron Jennings II as defense attorney Henry Drummund and Paul Wilson as prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady. Even if you’ve seen Inherit the Wind in the past or have seen the 1960 film version of the 1955 Broadway historical drama, it will give you an opportunity to expose a new generation to an important American work. Not only will you and your family get to see great acting and direction at a convenient and inexpensive local theater, but you will also get to see an important story.

Inherit the Wind is a dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which took place in 1925 in Dayton, TN. The State of Tennessee was prosecuting a teacher for the “crime” of teaching Evolution. It was a small case in a small town, but it became a lightning rod for the battle over education vs. religion. Baltimore Evening Sun reporter H.L. Mencken, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Scopes defense attoney Clarence Darrow and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan helped to turn this case into a national debate.

The play, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee some 30 years after the trial, loosely follows the event, ramping up the drama for the stage. It is as relevant today as it was in 1955 and for that matter, in 1925. It is a fine demonstration of both civil and uncivil discourse: something dominating our culture today.

JTP’s version, deftly directed by Jerry Sipp, is cleverly staged to fit the venue. The audience is split on opposite sides of the room, with the action taking place in the middle. I could see everything from where I was sitting, although some patrons may have had a portion of their view blocked by the courtroom gallery. As it is general-admission seating, I would recommend sitting closer to the front of the room.

The casting was modernized with regard to race and gender; and I feel this added, rather than detracted, from the delivery. For instance, the part of the reporter, E.K. Hornbeck, traditionally a male role, was played by Nan L. Stephenson, who added a sharp and cynical touch. There was some evidence of opening-night jitters through some fumbled lines and mistimed dialogue delivery, but nothing to distract from the power of the script. I particularly liked Michael Parker as Bert Cates the defendant and Randy Jordan as Meeker the bailiff.

My most important takeaway from this production by The Justice Theater Project is its value as an educational tool for young people. The Umstead Park United Church of Christ is a perfect venue to expose young people not only to quality local theater, but a story that can be discussed and even researched as a family. This is like a “Law & Order” story literally “ripped from the headlines,” which has stayed relevant for over a century. Bonus points go to any parent who can explain to Junior the subtle theme of the dangers of McCarthyism. Another reason to bring the kids is that The Justice Theater Project charges only $5 per ticket to students for this and most of their other productions.

RDU ON STAGE by Kim Jackson:Theater Review: Justice Theater Project’s Immersive Production of ‘Inherit the Wind’ Cross-Examines Blind Faith

When a high school science teacher attempts to teach Darwin’s theories of evolution in a small southern town, where the Bible is considered the gospel, he has not only committed heresy, he has broken the law. The Justice Theater Project opens its season with an immersive production of the 1955 play, Inherit the Wind. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, it is a fictional dramatization of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” that pitted famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, against three-time failed presidential candidate and orator, William Jennings Bryan.

Jerry Sipp competently directs this show with an eye towards audience engagement. Upon entering a large area in the Umstead Park United Church of Christ, the audience is welcomed by “the townspeople,” not merely as witnesses to some big event, but as participants in the drama that is about to unfold.

Bertram Cates has dared to challenge the religious beliefs of the town and is about to go on trial. Michael Parker plays Bertram Cates, the teacher at the center of the trial, with the right mixture of restrained frustration: he knows he has the right to think even if others lack curiosity. His girlfriend, Rachel Brown, played with a sweet, reserved innocence by Jess Barbour, is also the daughter of the local Reverend Jeremiah Brown, portrayed by an impassioned Brook North. It is only Rachel and Meeker, Bertram’s jailor, played with a charming folksiness by Randy Jordan, who side with Bertram and don’t treat him as an agent of the devil.

The arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady, famous for his knowledge and defense of Biblical literalism, is celebrated by the town. Paul Wilson effectively embodies this hearty, yet past-his-prime, bombastic prosecutor. As the lawyer for Cates, Henry Drummond, Byron Jennings delivers a polished and captivating performance. Wilson and Jennings’ lively interaction, as they fight over intellectual freedom, makes for some compelling courtroom drama.

This large ensemble wonderfully conveys the stifling July heat in the days before air-conditioning, and act as a sort of chorus for the trial proceedings. A reporter for a big city paper, E.K. Hornbeck, modeled after the prominent cultural critic of the time, H. L. Mencken, and played by Nan Stephenson, offers up considerable cynicism and caustic commentary. In a role traditionally cast as a man, Stephenson provides some of the best and most memorable descriptions of the action. 

What resonates with this production are the arguments around blind faith. Allegiances can be suffocating and questioning may lead to divided loyalty, or worse, a collapse of beliefs, weighty issues that will stay with you long after the play ends.

After the show, an audience member remarked, “It’s troubling that we humans have such capacity for small thinking.” Perhaps that is why this play has an impact nearly 65 years after its debut.

In "Inherit the Wind," the Scopes Monkey Trial Is Litigated in the Church, Not Just the Courtroom

By Byron Woods. September 20, 2019


Umstead Park UCC, Raleigh

We still can’t consider the 1925 “Monkey Trial” of schoolteacher John Thomas Scopes a historical one-off, nor can we consider its dramatized account, the Tony-winning 1955 play Inherit the Wind, a period piece. Not with continuing conservative and corporate resistance to climate change and ongoing religious opposition to chemical contraception and stem cell research.

These and other scientific advances dating back to Galileo were all initially opposed by those in power, who responded with attempts to forbid or legislate against them. Small wonder that playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee refused to pin down the era of their drama, saying instead, “It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.”

Artistic director Jerry Sipp’s robust season-opening production for Justice Theater Project emphasizes the sense of community in this thrice-told tale. A cast of twenty-seven enfolds us in the town square as three historical protagonists make their entrances: Brady, the stand-in for prosecuting populist politician William Jennings Bryan (an appropriately pompous Paul Wilson); Drummond, the Clarence Darrow character for the defense (a sharp Byron Jennings); and Hornbeck, for cultural critic H.L. Mencken (Nan L. Stephenson), who provides the gleefully sardonic play-by-play throughout the trial.

Inherit the Wind reminds us that the Scopes trial—and many others, before and since—was litigated simultaneously in the local churches. As Rev. Brown, actor Brook North deftly transforms a public prayer meeting into something far more sinister as he calls down hellfire and a curse, with his congregation’s approval—not only on schoolteacher Bertram Cates (a sterling Michael Parker), but also on his own daughter, Rachel (a fine Jess Barbour), when she interrupts the public condemnation with a plaintive plea for mercy.

The moment when she does remains the eeriest point in this production, as a mob that’s been aroused to fury slowly, silently, turns and looks at her. Anything could happen in that moment. And, as Lawrence and Lee remind us, anything still can, whenever fear and superstition supersede reason and compassion.


RDU on Stage June 19, 2019 Review:

Justice Theater Project’s ‘Caroline, or Change’ is a Master Class in Musical Theater

By Lauren Van Hemert

A decade after Part One of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America opened on Broadway, Tony Kushner’s semi-autobiographical Caroline, or Change opened at The Public Theater. Kushner co-wrote the show with Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) and said: “Of anything I’ve ever done, I’m proudest of Caroline, or Change.” It’s a complex, through-sung masterclass in musical theater that defies traditional conventions and challenges its audience. And Justice Theater Project’s production of it exceeds expectations.

The year is 1963 and the winds of change are beginning to blow through Lake Charles, Louisiana. Here, students have torn down a Confederate statue in the center of town. But that story takes a back seat to the breaking news that President John F. Kennedy has been shot. For Caroline Thibodeaux though, change doesn’t come easy. She’s been a maid for 22 years and spends most of her time “16-feet beneath the sea” in the Gellman family’s basement, doing laundry and ironing clothes. Most days her only companions are the radio, washer, and dryer, that is until young Noah Gellman comes home from school and rushes down to the basement to light her cigarette. The bond between Noah and Caroline is a curious one. Noah, who is still grieving the loss of his mother, idolizes Caroline. He dubs her President Caroline and even dreams of what it would be like to run away from home and live with her. Caroline, on the other hand, has more pressing matters to think about, like how to provide for four kids as a single parent. The relationship between the pair is threatened when Rose, Noah’s new stepmother, implements a new rule to teach him a lesson about money. And as Caroline finds out, change, pocket or otherwise comes at a cost.

In this production, Danielle J. Long plays Caroline. Her impassioned, expressive, steady performance billows towards a stunning climax that renders the audience breathless. Vocally, she is at the top of her game, and hers is hands down one of the strongest performances I’ve seen this year. Equally captivating is Kyma Lassiter as Caroline’s progressive friend Dotty, Qualia Holder-Cozart as Caroline’s high-spirited, rebellious daughter Emmie, and Leslie-Anne Ball as Noah’s unsettled stepmother Rose. Additionally, there are some fine, melodic sounds coming from The Radio (Micaela Sanyce Bundy, Lauren Foster-Lee, Germona Sharp), Washing Machine (Maria Barber), and The Dryer (Taufiki Lee), not to mention The Moon (Dr. Joy L. Bryant).

Director Terra Hodge’s well-thought-out staging and music director Jackson Cooper’s attention to timing accentuate key moments. Consistent, straightforward blocking and lighting make the characters, especially the so-called inanimate ones, easily identifiable. Sounds strange, I know. But in a show as complex as this one, the director becomes an interpreter, tasked with not dumbing down but decoding the material in such a way that it’s accessible. Hodge and Cooper have done that admirably. That’s not to say the audience doesn’t bear some responsibility too. Theatergoers who do their homework, i.e., skim through the synopsis, listen to the soundtrack, or even read the libretto, will have an advantage over those who don’t.

Set against the tumult of the civil rights movement, the unresolved way in which Kushner presents issues of race, ethnicity, and class is telling and marginally optimistic. Tesori’s score is contemporary, a hybrid of genres fused together to create a masterwork. And although she is seemingly stuck in one place, Caroline is a strong woman. She effects change not overtly, but in small, subtle ways, a poignant example of how “change come fast, and change come slow, but everything changes.”

Caroline, or Change runs through Sunday, June 23rd. 

Caroline, or Change ★★★

Justice Theater Project

June 7 - 23, 2019 by Naveed Moeed June 13, 2019 Chatham Life & Style

How do you humanize one of the most turbulent times in American History? By making your story as human as possible. Justice Theater Project’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change achieves this admirably. With healing as its central theme, it is a fitting end to their 2018-19 season “S/HE IS: Becoming Whole”.

Kushner’s book is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The story describes the delicate balance between two lost souls: eight-year old Noah Gellman, whose mother died from cancer, and the household maid Caroline Thibodeaux. Noah, portrayed excellently by Andrew Farmer, idolizes the single mother of three, spending all his time playing in the laundry and lighting her cigarettes. Caroline, played by the highly talented Danielle J. Long, tries her level best to raise three children on $30 a week. His stepmother Rose (Leslie-Ann Ball) juggles maintaining a household, nurturing  his grief-stricken father, Graham (James Hale) and trying to help Noah overcome the loss of his mother. Hale and Ball’s performances communicate well both the anguish of grief and the humility that should come with being privileged. The three Thibodeaux children – performed strongly by Qualia Holder-Cozart as Emmie, Ricardo Razon as Jackie and Quinn Gray as Joe – sharply contrast the mindset and struggle of their elders. A gutsy Emmie gives voice to the nascent civil rights battle of the times and the realization of her own black identity in the face of centuries of discrimination. 

Kushner is known for his use of anthropomorphism (Angels in America). Thankfully not as caricatured as Disney animations, his use of inanimate objects to relay story elements is marvelous. This production has cast these solidly. In particular, the use of people of color to represent the appliances is a subtle recognition of how black people were seen at the time. The chorus line is represented by a Radio, portrayed by a feisty vocal trio of Micaela Shanyce Bundy, Laren Foster-Lee, and Germôna Sharp. The washing machine is played by the highly versatile Maria Barber, Taufiki Lee is a beautifully bold dryer, and a shining and ethereal Dr. Joy L. Bryant plays The Moon. Last, but by no means least, Sound Designer Juan Isler doubles up as the Bus. What I would have given to have more of his deep bass in the production! 

The syncretic rhythms of blues, Motown, classical, and Yiddish folk music in Jeanine Tesori’s score interweave the individual stories to make a whole. Such melodic diversity requires strong musical performances which Music Director Jackson Cooper elicits from both band and cast. Isler’s smoothly-operating sound design combined with Arthur Reese’s large, meticulous and versatile period set, let the audience feel immersed in the story. 

Our only criticism here: the band, to the right of the stage, were sometimes so loud for nearby audience members that it was hard to hear the voices on stage. Then again, you are staging a Broadway musical in a church. Adding details through lyrics, and intent through music, is hard work. Overall, Tesori’s score and Kushner’s book are strong. However, there were moments, such as at the end of Act I, where the mishmash of words and melodies left us more confused than enlightened.

Justice Theater Project has accomplished well  its mission, this season, to address the complex stories of women through the lens of empowerment, growth and transformation. Artistic Director Jerry Sipp’s vision of showing women at the crossroads of their journey is exemplified in this play’s conflict: what happens when Caroline is allowed to keep the change found in the unwashed laundry, including $20 of Hanukkah gelt that Noah forgets in his pants? 

For all the joviality on the surface of the Gellman and Thibodeaux households, the underlying tensions of the time build throughout the show. References to the beheading of a confederate statue, the assassination of JFK, the lack of resources available to people of color, and the lengths white people will go to in order to avoid their discomfort all stack up as a precarious house of cards which comes crashing down in the climatic exchange of racial slurs. 

The real power of the play comes in the moments after this. Rather than provide us a gentle, self-indulgent, catharsis in the form of a happy ending, the truths are laid bare. Noah will grow up with his white privilege. Emmie “ain’t got no tears to shed for no dead white guy”. Caroline and Noah “weren’t never friends”. For all her good intentions, Rose’s good was just that: intention. Referring to the state being below sea level, a line repeated throughout the musical becomes strangely apt, both for that time and for now: “nothing ever happens on the ground in Louisiana, only under water”. Our state of racial politics is no different today: nothing happens on the surface; only beneath it do tensions still simmer.

JTP’s Caroline, or Change Is a Lyrical Trip Through Its Characters’ Hearts and Souls

by MELANIE SIMMONS • JUNE 10, 2019 Triangle Arts and Entertainment

OBIE, Lucille Lortel, Theatre World, Tony®, and Drama Desk award-winning musical Caroline, or Change just might be The Justice Theater Project’s most ambitious production yet. With a soaring score that is almost entirely through-sung, Caroline is more opera than standard musical. Weaving together the musical styles of rhythm and blues, old spirituals, classical music, and the occasional Jewish klezmerCaroline takes the audience on a lyrical journey through the hearts and souls of its characters.

The story centers around Caroline Thibodeaux (played by Danielle J. Long), a victim of domestic abuse who fights back one day and is rewarded with abandonment. Left alone to care for four children in mid-20th century Louisiana, Caroline takes on some of the only work available at the time to African-American single mothers; she works as a maid for the Gellman family.

Along with doing laundry in a broiling basement — the only basement in town, as most of the area is below sea level — Caroline is charged with caring for Noah (played by bright-eyed Andrew Farmer), a quiet eight-year-old boy grieving for his recently deceased mother. Noah harbors a fascination with his taciturn maid, who allows him to light her cigarette once per day.

Desperate to belong, Noah begins leaving his allowance money change in his pants pockets for Caroline to find. This drives his stepmom Rose (Leslie-Anne Ball) to distraction; and as punishment she allows Caroline to keep the spare change. Underpaid and overworked, Caroline swallows her pride and takes the change, “pennies from a baby” as she puts it, much to Noah’s delight. That is, of course, until he leaves a large sum — his Hanukkah present — in his pants by accident, and racial and class issues reach a boiling point.

Set against the backdrop of the Kennedy Assassination in 1963, the show dives deep into the complicated inner lives of Americans going through a time of tremendous upheaval. The intense complexity of the score had some members of the cast visibly struggling, but most of the cast rose to the challenge with great effect.

Danielle Long does an excellent turn as Caroline, delivering emotional range along with the vocal acuity required of this landmark role. Leslie-Ann Ball shouldered a load herself, making the well-intentioned Rose both sympathetic and adversarial. Qualia Holder-Cozart shone as Emmie Thibodeaux, Caroline’s oldest daughter and far too much like her mother for there to be anything but contention between them.

Holder-Cozart’s clear vocals and sparkling stage presence made Emmie a delight to watch. Especially fun were the inanimate objects brought to life by actor characterizations. Maria Barber opens the show as the saucy Washer, and Taufiki Lee turns the heat all the way up as the Dryer. Dr. Joy L. Bryant entranced as the luminescent Moon, with soaring operatic vocals. The Radio (played by Lauren Foster-LeeMicaela Shanyce Bundy, and Germona Sharp) also brought a lot of fun to the show, blending intricate harmonies with Tristan André Parksdeft choreography. Among the regular characters, James Hale’s touching performance of widower Stuart Gellman moved, and Kyma Lassiter’s Dottie brought some wonderful comic relief to the languid mood of the show.

Music director Jackson Cooper leads the live orchestra well through this massive score, and together with Terra Hodges’ intuitive direction, the play moves well through both acts. The sprawling set provides multiple layers of locations, from the Thibodeaux house in the bayou to the pristine Gellman home, complete with basement area and upper bedroom for young Noah. Lighting effects by Latrice Lovett keep the audience focus moving through locations and characters; the moon effect was especially magical.

Through the intertwining of characters, this show is ostensibly about change — pocket change, changes in culture, changes of heart. On a broader scope, however, it explores the true meaning of value … and what kinds of change we can no longer afford to ignore. JTP’s production of Caroline, or Change runs through Sunday, June 23rd, at the Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, NC.

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


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