Familiar by Danai Gurira (Wooly Mammoth Theatre)

Familiar is written by Tony-nominated playwright Danai Gurira (who was born in the US, but raised many years in Zimbabwe). She can be seen in the newest Marvel movie- Black Panther.  (Listen to a recent NPR interview w/ Gurira here: https://www.npr.org/2018/02/17/586172340/danai-gurira-on-her-black-panther-role-she-protects-what-we-would-have-been). Familiar is Wooly’s entry into the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. The play is directed by Theater J artistic director, Adam Immerwahr (one of Gurira’s long-time collaborators).

Donald (Kim Sullivan), a low-key lawyer and partner in his firm, and his high-strung scientist wife, Marvelous (Inga Ballard), are getting ready for the wedding of their older daughter, Tendi (Sharina Martin). Their younger daughter, Nyasha (Shannon Dorsey- I’ve seen her in All the Way and Octoroon), has recently returned from Zimbabwe, and is full of excitement and stories. Unlike religious/straight-laced lawyer Tendi, the much younger Nyasha is a free-spirited musician still finding herself. (Nyasha reminded me of Beneatha Younger, the idealistic/Afrocentric college girl from A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.) 

Two sisters of Marvelous have come over for the wedding: Margaret (Twinkle Burke)- an adjunct professor who loves wine and Anne (Cheryl Lynn Bruce)- a traditional woman (who stayed behind in the old country). Tendi invited Anne to help w/ the roora (bride price) ceremony, despite the fact that she and her mother don’t get along. Marvelous is shocked, as she does NOT approve of roora. However, Tendi and her white fiance/nonprofit worker, Chris (Drew Kopas), want to honor the elders in this way. It turns out that Chris needs a go-between for the ceremony, so he brings in his younger brother/former soldier, Brad (Andy Truschinski). Misunderstandings, sibling rivalries, hurt feelings, secrets, and a LOT of hilarity ensues! 

I was lucky enough to get tickets (online) to see this play on a pay-what-you-can performance. I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in the theater before! It’s NOT just about jokes, there are some VERY touching moments (some of which grow out of a long-hidden family secret). I highly recommend it to anyone in the DC area; it’s playing until SUN, MAR 11th (https://www.woollymammoth.net/event/familiar).

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She’s Gotta Have It (2017)

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for the Netflix comedy series. 

[1] The soundtrack to this series is amazing! Spike really did his thing with the song selection. Second, the shots and cinematography were great. Spike and his crew really make Brooklyn come alive in this series. 

[2] Nola is getting a steep discount from her godmother to stay in the gentrified neighborhood she grew up in, and she still doesn’t manage to get the rent on time. They constantly talk about her hustle, yet she really isn’t ever truly desperate or truly hustling.

Gentrification is a legitimate issue, and I see the commentary Spike was going for, but it fell quite short. 

[3] The characters remain mostly undeveloped and the story, while it has its high points, is largely pointless and unresolved. 

[4] The infamous American director and producer always stood strong by telling the stories of minorities in all his films. Nola Darling doesn’t like labels and she doesn’t like to be owned…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Do you remember the black and white 1986 film of the same title directed by 29 y.o. unknown Spike Lee? I saw it about 10 yrs ago, and wasn’t that impressed; lead actress (Tracy Camilla Johns) looked rather uncomfortable in front of the camera. Lee (who also played Mars Blackmon- to save money on actors) was memorable; he had the catchy phrase: “Please baby, baby, baby, please!” Lee refers to Mars as “the original sneakerhead” (someone who collects, trades, or admires sneakers as a hobby). Critics complained that the film was too much from a man’s POV (which Lee admitted; he was inspired by male friends who dated several women at the same time).

As a more mature man, as well as a husband and father, Lee re-imagined the story of Brooklyn artist Nola Darling (the gorgeous DeWanda Wise, recently seen on Shots Fired and Underground). Lee is aided by a cadre of strong, successful African-American women: his wife Tonya (a producer), his sister Joie (who plays Nola’s supportive mom), Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, as well as other female writers and directors. Wow, this is an impressive group! And I MUST note how well Joie Lee is aging, too. 

The three men in Nola’s life (NOT to be referred to as “boyfriends!”) are played by some fine (and fine looking- LOL) up-and-coming actors, most notably Anthony Ramos (Mars), who was in the original cast of Broadway’s Hamilton. Ramos (who is of Puerto Rican heritage) brings an innocence, sense of fun, and lightheartedness to his part of the story.  Though he still lives w/ his older sis in the projects, Mars has a job fixing bikes at a hipster coffee/bike place. I was also impressed by Lyriq Bent (who plays the slightly older/wealthy/married father- Jamie Overstreet); this actor hails from Canada and is very believable in the heavier/emotional scenes. Without Jamie’s (financial) support, Nola wouldn’t be able to support herself as well as she does. We also get a sense that Jamie is the one that will fall for Nola in the end; he’s in a (now loveless) marriage, but a good role model for his preteen son.  Rounding out the main male leads is Cleo Anthony (biracial, French-speaking, model/photographer Greer Childs). This seems like the man that gets Nola’s lifestyle the best; he is focused more on his career and playing the field, not finding a serious relationship (unlike Mars and Jamie). But wait, there aren’t ONLY men involved w/ Nola!

Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera) plays a slightly older woman, who is also an entrepreneur (running a nursery) and single mom (by choice). Nola (who is in her late 20s) looks up to Opal, feels close to her emotionally, and is very attracted to her as a person. As their relationship goes on, we see how Opal has her life together; Nola is a BIT of a mess in many regards. They make a great couple, though ONLY for a short time. The other women in Nola’s life are her close friends: artists’ rep/yuppie Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham), cocktail waitress/single mom Shemekka Epps (Chyna Lane). and the redheaded/Afrocentric white woman Rachel (Elise Hudson).

Nola decides to go to therapy w/ Dr. Jamison (Tony winner Heather Headley); this is someone who can be objective re: Nola’s (complicated) life. Not ONLY does Nola juggle lovers, she has several jobs (incl. a dog-walker and part-time art teacher at a junior high school). I esp. liked the scenes w/ the school kids and their no-nonsense/loving principal, Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza); I used to sub in NYC area. She has to hustle (though some viewers felt NOT too much) b/c she doesn’t want to end up like her high school friend/war vet, Papo (Elvis Nolasco). This man also grew up in Fort Greene, had a LOT of potential, and fought in the Middle East for Uncle Sam. Papo was never the same after he came back; he still creates art, BUT out of trash (which annoys Nola’s gentrifying/new white neighbors). The long-time residents of the block call him “The Mayor” of the neighborhood (this is a call-back to the iconic Ossie Davis’ role in Do The Right Thing).  Nola’s understanding landlady/godmother is played by Pauletta Washington (wife of Denzel); I can’t believe that it took me a few mins to figure that out! 

There are MANY things to admire, such as the color (the hairstyles, costumes, and accessories are really cool), diversity (of black individuals and their experiences), and the tacking of MANY timely issues (hmmm, maybe too much?) Yet, there are also disjointed things, such as the use of hashtags for ep titles (after all, Nola is NOT much of a social media user or internet dater, unlike MANY millennials). This is NOT a show for everyone, BUT I’d recommend it for Spike Lee fans.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, & David Niven

The only people who grow old were born old to begin with. -Dudley says to Julia

Episcopal bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) has been working for months on plans for a cathedral which he hopes will be paid for by his wealthy new parishioners, including cranky widow- Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). He is losing sight of his family, wife Julia (Loretta Young) and young daughter, Debbie. Dudley (Cary Grant), an angel who everyone seems to admire (incl. Matilda- the family housekeeper), comes to assist Henry w/ his work. Julia tells Dudley about when the family lived in a different (more humble) neighborhood, where Henry was connected w/ the people; she misses their life in that parish. They go on outings together and become friends (though Dudley begins to wish it were more). Dudley even manages to warm the heart of Mrs. Hamilton by uncovering something from her youth. Henry begins to believe that Dudley is trying to replace him!

We all come from our own little planets. That’s why we’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting. -Dudley explains to Julia and Prof. Wutheridge

This movie was remade as The Preacher’s Wife (1996) starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, and Courtney B. Vance. I thought that Julia (Houston) was much more interesting; she performed charity, sang in the choir, and (eventually) decided to take in her young son’s friend. Loretta Young’s character doesn’t really get to do much; she is a pretty, elegant woman who is kind to others. 

Originally Grant played the bishop and  Niven the angel. When original director left the film, Henry Koster replaced him, then realized that the actors were in the wrong roles. Grant wanted the title role of the bishop; he eventually accepted the change and his role as the angel was one of the most widely praised of his career. Robert J. Anderson, one of the kids throwing snowballs in the park played young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Debbie is played by Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life).

[1] The special effects are wonderful for a time when special effects were pretty much in their infancy.

[2] …Niven gets to showcase his British stiff upper lip while at the same time display some very funny slapstick pratfalls. It’s a charming movie that has lots of holiday atmosphere. 

[3] …its presentation of the characters, especially Dudley and Henry, ring true. You can believe that Henry, underneath his bitterness and myopia, really loves his wife. He’s just… forgotten his direction in life, is all. 

[4] Cary Grant is so underrated, but here he does some fabulous acting even when he’s not speaking. His face is even more expressive in his younger years which works to his advantage and is a sign of good directing as well.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews