Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Untold Stories In Times of War

While Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical, Hamilton, has broken ground in many ways, the show's use of non-traditional casting may make the most indelible impression on audiences simply because of its visual impact. Although the creative team's initial goal may have been to bring America's Founding Fathers to life using the faces and bodies of people of color who make up today's racially diverse population, as Leslie Odom, Jr. (whose portrayal of Aaron Burr won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical) stated, "It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it. We are saying we have the right to tell it, too."

In some ways, Hamilton has been riding the crest of a new wave of African-American playwrights and dramaturgy about the contributions of African Americans to our nation's history and culture.
Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen) 

Under Jon Tracy's artistic guidance, TheatreFIRST has redefined itself as a community resource aimed at producing new works that share stories from artists within the San Francisco Bay Area's theatre community. Whereas some companies might set their goals on performing established plays, TheatreFIRST has embarked on an ambitious and challenging season of four world premieres.

Written by Cleavon Smith, Stephanie Prentice, and Reggie D. White (with dramaturgy by Maryam Obaidullah Baig), Vs. takes place during the American Revolutionary War in and around what now constitutes Monmouth County, New Jersey. The drama explores some lesser known parts of slavery's American history with particular emphasis on the relationships between Quakers and their slaves and how some black men reacted when the British offered them their freedom in exchange for their willingness to fight against the American rebels.

KT Masala (Martha), Edward Ewell (Tye) and Tierra Allen (Tilly)
 in a scene from Vs. (Photo by: Andrew Schmidt) 

In order to help audiences understand the history behind Vs., TheatreFIRST's resident dramaturg, Kim Tran, explains that:
  • John Murray (the Fourth Earl of Dunmore) was the last royal governor of Virginia. In 1775 he formed the Ethiopian Regiment from 800 men who had escaped slavery. Because the British army was severely understaffed, freed slaves provided a way to perpetrate economic and ideological warfare. The regiment was not formed with the intention of liberation for the enslaved, but with aspirations to restore the British Crown (slaves did not unequivocally join or disavow the regiment). Ultimately, some 100,000 African Americans escaped, died, or were killed during the American Revolution; many who fought with the Loyalists were sold back into slavery.
  • With options few and far between for enslaved Americans who sought freedom, Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment became an attractive source of employment despite its limitations. One of their most prominent leaders was a runaway slave known as Colonel Tye. Emblazoned on their uniforms was the motto, "Liberty to Slaves." 
  • Magnanimity among slave owners was rare; it frequently reinforced slavery by providing slaves with incentives to behave and work hard. By 1776, there were approximately 6,000 slaves in New Jersey and half a million in the United States. 
  • Quakers, called the Society of Friends, eventually found slavery to be immoral. While some (but not all) supported and even participated in abolition, Quakers primarily wanted to eradicate slavery, but not racism. Freed slaves were not warmly invited into Quaker congregations. 
  • A common sentiment was that slaves were fit for freedom, but not for friendship. A Quaker abolitionist from a free black family in Philadelphia named Sarah Mapps Douglass argued publicly that many more blacks would attend Quaker meetings if they were not asked to sit on the segregated back bench and treated with coldness. It wasn't until 1947 that all Quaker schools in the United States admitted black pupils.
Juliet Heller as Sarah Corliss in a scene 
from Vs(Photo by: Andrew Schmidt) 

The protagonist of Vs. is a slave with a birth name of Titus Cornelius who is known to family and friends as Tye (Edward Ewell). While his sister, Tilly (Tierra Allen), was born as a free woman of color, educated, and now teaches some of the children in their community, Tye's reading skills are still at the level of sounding out words one by one. Even without being literate, Tye senses that his best hope is to flee Monmouth County and head north to New York, where greater opportunities await him.

While Tye's mother, Martha (KT Masala), understands her son and has no desire to stand in his way, Tilly wishes he would remain with them until the Quaker family to which he is beholden grants him his freedom. After Tye flees the farm, Sarah Corliss (Juliet Heller), tries to act friendlier than usual to Martha and Tilly. Her efforts are icily rebuffed by Tye's relatives, who understand that there is no real hope for friendship with the Corliss family.

Edward Ewell appears as Tye in Vs.

As Tye's continued absence creates more work for Mr. Corliss, Sarah's frustrations begin to mount. During a fierce confrontation after Martha and Tilly reject some food Sarah has brought them as a gift, it becomes obvious that there is no love lost between these women. Later, during a tense scene between the two black women, Martha explains why she was never able to save enough money to purchase Tye's freedom from his owner, Mr. Corliss.

Meanwhile, Tye's travels have brought him in contact with Salem (Cameron Matthews), a young man who is willing to fight for whichever side will feed and pay him. The two black men eventually join up with the British and, as they approach Monmouth County, Tye finally realizes that his goal is not just to burn down the Corliss farm, but to kill Mr. Corliss.

Edward Ewell and Cameron Matthews in a
scene from Vs. (Photo by: Andrew Schmidt) 

As with the company's first world premiere, Bagyo, the choice of material leads to a curious imbalance. Rather than working with proven scripts, the company is putting its emphasis on the birthing process for new works. After two productions, it's pretty obvious that certain areas of running a small theatre company (dramaturgy, lighting, sound design, scenery, costumes, and community outreach) are on solid ground. Most of the acting has been impressive.

In the case of Vs., Rotimi Agbabiaka's stage direction is a model of efficiency and dramatic strength. As with many new plays, Vs. demonstrates a surplus of earnestness but needs more work with regard to its script and musical elements. I expect these areas will pull together as the company develops a rhythm for creating new work. The talent is there. It just needs time to mature, blossom, and continue to be nurtured.

* * * * * * * * *
Productions from the Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall, England, have been regular guests at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For this year's holiday show, the company is presenting 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a play with music adapted by Emma Rice with Michael (War Horse) Morpurgo from one of his children's books. As directed by the ever-inventive Rice, theatre fans may well wonder who in their right mind would begin a play's title with a strange number like 946. For the answer, one needs to learn about a painful piece of American history that has been conveniently forgotten: 946 American soldiers lost their lives during Exercise Tiger, the military training operation held near the seaside village of Slapton that preceded the D-Day invasion of Utah Beach in Normandy.

In her program article entitled Fighting for the Double V: Black Soldiers in World War II, Sarah Rose Leonard explains that:
  • At the beginning of World War II, fewer than 4,000 black soldiers were in the military. Only 12 had become officers. 
  • In 1941, pressure from the NAACP and threats of a march on Washington, D.C. led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 (which prohibited racial discrimination in the national defense industry).  
  • In 1942, the black newspaper, Pittsburgh Courier, launched the Double V campaign. The Double V (referring to the “V for Victory” sign) encompassed the Allied slogan “Victory over aggression, slavery, and tyranny,” but added a second victory for African Americans fighting abroad and on the home front
  • The Double V campaign  was created in response to a letter to the editor from James G. Thompson, a young cafeteria worker who wrote that “Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life? Is the kind of America I know worth defending?"
  • Before training for Exercise Tiger began, the only American ground troops in the midlands of England were all-black units who supported the Air Force
  • By 1945, more than 1.2 million black Americans had served in the military. The United States Armed Forces were finally desegregated in 1948.
Ncuti Gatwa (Adi) and Nandi Bhebhe (Harry) in a scene from
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

In the course of his research, Morpurgo came across a surprising human interest story:
"In 1943, three million Americans came over here, ready for the liberation of Europe (which was to be the following year in June 1944). Britain was pretty wobbly in that stage and the Americans brought all this optimism and wonderful music and a positive way of being. And they had stuff -- chocolate, stockings, and things that were difficult to get hold of. When working on the piece I discovered that many of the U.S. GIs found the British way of life rather primitive. In the rural areas where many were posted, few had refrigerators. Many U.S. soldiers found us 'backward.' Some of the black GIs recognized similarities in the living conditions, the hardships endured, and the poverty. Very real and deep friendships were made at this time and there is lots of very touching verbatim evidence to support this. These young black soldiers really were taken into the heart of the British countryside."
The cast of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
(Photo by: Steve Tanner)

How does one attempt to balance issues of racial discrimination, forced relocation, the painful losses of war, and a tragic military miscalculation with a coming-of-age story for a young girl? In Rice's case, the answer involves hauling out every theatrical device at her disposal and letting the audience see the story unfold through the eyes of a bratty young girl whose cat has run away from home.

Katy Owen as Lily Tregenza in a scene from
946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

While all kinds of wartime statistics can be woven into the storytelling (along with music which reflects the period), having adults pretend to be children (or get dressed up in drag) goes a long way to throwing the standard narrative off balance. Toss in some bicycles, puppets, sympathetic African American soldiers, the depiction of a major maritime battle using toy boats and washtubs, and the production starts to coalesce around a surprisingly feel-good story.

As with many Kneehigh productions, the cast members take on numerous responsibilities that range from being the band's blues singer (Akpore Uzoh) to reappearing late in the show as the elderly version of one of the black soldiers from World War II; from dancing up a storm while dressed in a military uniform (Nandi Bhebhe) to manipulating a cat puppet. An actor like Chris Jared can take on such varied roles as the local Vicar, Lily's Dad (when he returns home from the war), and the present-day Grandad just as easily as Mike Shepherd can alternate between portraying Grandma Present and Grandad Past.

Mike Shepard (Grandad) and Katy Owen (Lily) in a scene from
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

Whether driving a mock tractor across the stage or racing around with a set of handlebars and a giant headlight to simulate a motorcycle, the members of Rice's ensemble never fail to disarm the audience. In one moment, Ewan Wardrop can perform a delightful Savoyard turn as Lord Something-or-Others before showing up in drag as Mrs. Turner, a club singer who has come to visit her nerdy son, Barry (Adam Sopp), who was sent to live on a farm in Slapton while his mother entertained the troops.

Ncuti Gatwa doubles as the young black soldier named Adi (and subsequently reappears as Adi's grandson, a medical student). Other parts of the story fall to Emma Darlow as the widowed Madame Bounine (a French schoolteacher who frequently rides her bicycle with her underwear visible to all) and Lily's Mum (Kyla Goodey), who finds herself fiercely attracted to a handsome black soldier while her husband is away in the military.

Adebayo Bolaji (Blues Man) and Katy Owen (Lily) in a scene from
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

As seen in flashback, much of the story focuses around the character of Lily Tregenza (Katy Owen), a young girl who must put up with the sudden insertion of Barry into her life and her never-ending quest to retrieve her cat, Mr. Tips. Even with bombs falling nearby, Lily rarely loses her focus on Mr. Tips. All in all, it's a very "tickety-boo" affair.

This Kneehigh production has been blessed with Lez Brotherston's ingenious set and costume designs, Malcolm Rippeth's lighting, and Simon Baker's highly atmospheric sound design. "Seeing big events through a small lens can make them easier to grasp and often more powerful," stresses Emma Rice. "Facts and figures can become just that, faceless statistics. But through the gaze of an animal or child, we feel our own humanity bubble. We drop our guard, the chinks in our armor open a little, and we let things in that we try to hold at bay."

Performances of The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 15 (click here for tickets).

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