“The Wanderers” by Ann Ziegler (Theater J)

The play opens w/ an almost 40, married couple who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn w/ their two young kids- Abe (a secular Jewish man) and Sophie (from Jewish and African-American heritage). Abe and Sophie talk re: growing up together. We learn that though they are both authors, Abe is more well-known/critically-praised (having won several awards before turning 30). Sophie decides to start writing again, so Abe will have to help out w/ the kids more. Both of them are somewhat dissatisfied w/ their marriage; Abe starts emailing Julia, a famous actress (who recently came to one of his readings). Sophie hears Abe (a man of many words) go on praising Julia, but she doesn’t seem jealous or even concerned. Abe comes off as insecure/neurotic (as one might expect of a writer), Sophie is more grounded and sensible.

Next, we meet a seemingly different pair- Schmuli and Esther- who are a wide-eyed couple in their 20s. They also live in Williamsburg, but as part of an insular/tight-knit community of Satmar Hasidic Jews. They met only once before their wedding; Schmuli was so shy that he just looked at Esther’s shoes. In time, they have two daughters, and the constrained life of a housewife starts getting to Esther. She wonders if she could also have a job, and Schmuli is shocked. Esther recalls the very different life her best friend, Rifka, chose. Esther, pregnant w/ her third child, goes to visit her old friend up in Albany. Rifka has a newborn who will be her last child. Esther is very surprised when Rifka explains to her re: birth control pills. She had always thought that God was the only one who decided re: such matters!

You don’t need to know anything re: Judaism to watch (and enjoy) this play; its themes and situations are universal. It’s not only about marriage, it also has much to say re: being a creative person (writer), connection (or disconnection) from one’s roots/religion, the effects of one’s relationship w/ parents (incl. absent ones), and the allure of celebrity. I think most viewers will find something to relate to in this story. Esther and Abe face the same question- will they stay in their current life or choose another? And will that choice make them happier?

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!

Fairview (Woolly Mammoth Theatre): SEPT 9-OCT 6

Beverly insists the celebration for Grandma’s birthday be perfect. But her husband is useless, her sister is into the wine, and her daughter’s secrets are threatening to derail the day. Meanwhile, a group of spectators has put them all under surveillance. Soon the voyeurs launch an invasion on the festivities, forcing the family to battle for their very identities-Synopsis from Woolly web site

I didn’t know much re: this play (written by Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury) when I went to see it (w/ my gal pal) on a recent Pay What You Can Night (PWYC) night. Two DC-based actors I’d seen several times before (Shannon Dorsey and Cody Nickell) were in the cast. Dorsey has been in recent Woolly productions; she’s a talented young lady under 30. Nickell is an experienced actor in his 40s; I’ve seen him perform before at The Folger (focused on Shakespeare).

Fairview is divided into 3 sections and runs w/o an intermission. In the first section, we see a domestic drama (w/ moments of humor) set in the home of an educated, upper-class black American family. The mom, Beverly (Nikki Crawford), is cooking dinner and worrying about making her mother’s 70th birthday special. The dad, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), is trying to help, yet also has time for joking around and being playful w/ his wife. He is relaxed and easygoing; they are still very much in love. The auntie, Beverly’s younger sister- Jasmine (Dorsey)- comes over w/ a bottle of wine and starts telling her sis to calm down. She starts to drink, complain, and stuff her mouth w/ cheese (which she was avoiding on a recent diet). The 17 y.o. daughter, Keisha (Chinna Palmer- a recent graduate of Howard), comes home after school and starts chatting w/ her aunt. Keisha is looking forward to college (she’s a good student, plays sports, and has several other extracurricular activities); she confides in Jasmine that she wants to take a year off. A call comes in from the uncle, a lawyer, whose flight will be late. This causes more anxiety for Beverly- a perfectionist- who still has veggies to cook and a cake to bake. They talk, laugh, and even dance around the house some. Suddenly, Beverly falls to the floor!

In the second part of the play, everything we just saw is acted over again, but w/o any dialogue (from the black family). Instead, we heard the (disembodied) voices of others observing this family. At first, I thought these were the voices of those who created this family drama story- producers, director, writers, etc. The most dominant voice is that of an arrogant white man, Jimbo (Nickell), who asks the others: “If you could be any race, which race would you choose? Why?” The first female voice is of Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), a white woman who is (from her commentary and tone) someone who considers herself to be “liberal” and “woke.” Another voice joins in, Mack (Christopher Dinolfo), declaring loudly and proudly that he wants to be Latino (or “Latinx”); he is a young gay man. The last voice is of Bets (Laura C. Harris) who is an immigrant from Russia w/ a strong accent; she has her own views (and points out that “everything in America is about race”). She would like to be a Slav (which is a different ethnicity, not race); this answer confuses the others. Jimbo wants to be black, as does Suze; she tells a story of how she was raised by a black nanny (who she loved). Yes, this play takes on The Help (written by Katherine Stockett), along w/ many other tales from pop culture (incl. The Cosby Show, Tyler Perry movies, various stereotypes- positive and negative- of black Americans).

In the third segment, the play really amps us, as the (white) voices we just heard insert themselves into the story of the black family! Jimbo takes on the role of the uncle, dressed like he belongs in a hip hop music video, and speaking as if straight from “the streets” (African American vernacular). This made the audience laugh and also cringe, recognizing the (blatant/persistent) ways black men are portrayed in media even today. Keisha goes upstairs to get her granny for dinner- Suze emerges wearing a classy white gown and turban-style headdress decorated with gold. She walks slowly down and joins the family at the table. Suze is appalled by the way Jimbo is talking, of course. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door; Mack (dressed in neon colors, wearing blonde fake braids) dances into the story. He is meant to be Keisha’s classmate- a girl– who is on the track team and her best friend. It was hinted before that Keisha may have feelings for this girl. Mack is so flamboyant that the audience cringed (yet had to laugh). This is an unique story! The black family and the observers sit down to eat, but tensions arise, and tempers get hot. Mack declares that Keisha is pregnant, pulling out a home pregnancy test. Keisha is shocked, as her friend was bringing over some homework. Beverly is stunned and disappointed. Suze tries to stay calm, saying she will accept what happens, and be supportive of her family.

Keisha knows something is wrong, but what exactly!? Bets pops out from behind a large family portrait, declaring herself to be the grandmother! She is dressed in a tight gold gown w/ matching turban; underneath, she is wearing an (obvious) fake butt. By this point, a few of the audience is still confused; others are howling w/ laughter (recognizing the ridiculous ways these white characters are trying to be part of the story which doesn’t belong to them). Suze and Bets get in a fight, as Suze objects to this version of the grandmother. Jimbo and Mack get into it also; they run about yelling and breaking apart the set (the family home). There is noise and mayhem for some moments. Keisha, as well as the audience, is trying to figure out what happened and how the story will end! Finally, Keisha confronts Suze- the white feminist/woke ally- and declares that she’s tired of being living under scrutiny (“the white gaze”).

Why are these white voices/characters turning this nice family story into a stereotype? This was one of my thoughts at the start of the third section. Then I realized that maybe the family was already a (positive) stereotype at the start of the play? Near the end, Keisha realizes that these white people have taken over her family, her story, and her future (as she imagined it)! Why can’t she (and other people of color) just tell their own stories, and white people (majority culture, esp. here in the US) give them some space? Why do we POC have to live our lives as if being watched (and judged) by whites? When is it our time to control the narrative? The play ends in an (unexpected) way; I haven’t seen anything like that before!

Fourth Estate Film Series (AFI): All the President’s Men, Broadcast News, Network, The Front Page, & His Girl Friday

AFI Silver and Washington Monthly magazine presented a series of films that investigated the world of journalism recently (May-June 2019). Below are my thoughts.

All the President’s Men (1976)

“Follow the money.” Deep Throat’s (Hal Holbrook) words have guided reporters in the 40+ yrs since Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred as “hungry” young Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovering the Watergate scandal. The all-star cast also includes Jack Warden, Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men), Jason Robards (then in his waning yrs battling alcoholism), Jane Alexander, and Ned Beatty.

There was a post-screening Q&A with Bob Woodward (it was a full house, of course) moderated by Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris. There are a lot of phone calls, knocking on doors, as well as research depicted in this film. Though journalism has changed over the years (along w/ technology), Woodward pointed out that nothing beats in-person interviews where reporters can build trust w/ their subjects. Woodward is still going strong; in fact, he recently interviewed individuals who haven’t even spoken to Robert Mueller- WOW!

Broadcast News (1987)

This is one of my favorite films, as I’ve written before. It’s set in a DC TV network news bureau where the lives of three individuals are intertwined: ambitious producer Jane (Holly Hunter), telegenic anchorman Tom (William Hurt), and brainy field reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks). All three are fully fledged out characters, no one is a typical bad guy, and there is sparkling chemistry between both pairs- Jane/Aaron and Jane/Tom. Jack Nicholson (not billed) has a cameo as a powerful anchorman based in NYC. It launched the career of Hunter and was nominated for seven Oscars, incl. Best Picture.

There was a panel discussion with Academy Award-winning filmmaker James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, The Simpsons, etc.) and New Yorker Staff Writer Jane Mayer, moderated by Washington Monthly Digital Editor Eric Cortellessa. Though the work life/personality of Jane was based more on Susan Zirinski (who now heads CBS News), the love triangle was inspired by incidents in Mayer’s personal life; she had trouble choosing between a man who was “like a schlubby best friend type” (like Aaron) and another guy. Neither one was right, she admitted (LOL)! This film is more of a workplace comedy, not a rom com, as it puts career over romance. Albert Brooks (who plays Aaron and also worked on the screenplay) was the first one cast; they waited 6 mos to get Hurt; Hunter was cast a few days before filming started.

James L. Brooks considers this one of the best-written scenes:

There is also an alternate (happy) ending to the Jane/Tom romance:

Here is my earlier review: https://knightleyemma.com/2010/11/14/two-movies-ive-seen-recently/

Network (1976)

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran news anchor w/ slipping ratings, is informed that he is being let go, he launches into a rant (on live TV) proclaiming his intention to commit suicide on his next broadcast. The network’s execs (incl. Robert Duvall) decide to keep Beale on and exploit the ratings boost. Beale’s closest/oldest friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden), thinks that he may truly be ill (going mad); he tries to care for Beale. Director Sidney Lumet’s examination of the news media depicts a cruel, ratings-obsessed world, in which populist sentiment is exploited for profit. One of the must-see films of the ’70s, Network earned 10 Oscar noms, incl. acting wins for Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, and the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky.

There was a panel discussion with Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Beth Reinhard, a local veteran film critic, and moderated by Glastris. I used to see Page on the PBS commentary show- The MacLaughlin Group– along w/ other TV journos; he appears on MSNBC these days. The rise of Trump (UGH) was compared to what happened w/ Beale. Dunaway’s character would also fit in w/ the people making policy around Trump. Page also recommended another film, A Face in the Crowd, for those who enjoyed this one.

Here are my reviews:

https://knightleyemma.com/2018/07/31/network/

https://knightleyemma.com/2016/10/09/a-face-in-the-crowd/

Mr. Jensen (the scene-stealing Ned Beatty) explains to Beale how money makes the world go around in one of the iconic scenes from this movie:

The Front Page (1931)

Newspapermen-turned-playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur made their names with the 1928 Broadway play The Front Page. Adapted for the screen in 1931, this is the story of star crime reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien), fed up with his manipulative editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), and about to quit his job to marry his sweetheart Peggy (Mary Brian). But when a big story breaks, Hildy can’t resist covering it, even if it means putting his honeymoon on hold. The play was expertly re-arranged by director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer in 1940 with their adaptation- His Girl Friday (see below). I watched it last year, but will check it out again (see the link to YouTube below).

His Girl Friday (1940)

This Howard Hawks’ remake of The Front Page (see above) with reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) recast as a woman, her love-hate relationship with hard-driving editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) now complicated by the fact that they were formerly married. These were career-defining roles for the actors in one of Hollywood’s greatest screwball comedies. There was a panel discussion with The Atlantic’s Film Critic Christopher Orr, New Yorker Staff Writer Margaret Talbot, and Washington Post Media Reporter Paul Farhi, moderated by Cortellessa. They touched on topics ranging from the rom com genre, portrayal of journos, Chicago history/politics, feminism (as it pertains to smart/clever/career woman Hildy), casual racism (at least in two scenes), and the enduring popularity on this film (the theater was nearly full, yet again).

Here is my earlier review: https://knightleyemma.com/2019/01/11/awfultruth-girlfriday/

New African Film Festival: Selected Trailers

NOTE: This film festival (now in its 15th year) runs from March 7-17 at AFI in Silver Spring, MD. Click here for more info!

Deep End (FRI, 3/8: 5PM & SUN, 3/10: 5:15PM)

This South African spin on Bend it Like Beckham substitutes surfing for soccer to explore the coming-of-age journey of Sunitha Patel (Carishma Basday), a young woman from a traditional Gujarat family in Durban who aspires to be a surf champion.

Nigerian Prince (FRI, 3/8: 8PM)

When troubled Nigerian-American teenager Eze (Antonio J. Bell) is sent away to his mother’s native Nigeria against his will, he quickly finds himself entangled in a dangerous web of scams and corruption…

The Mercy of the Jungle (SAT, 3/9: 3PM)

Set in 1998 at the outset of the Second Congo War, this movie (2018 TIFF Official Selection) about a pair of Rwandan soldiers lost behind enemy lines between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. When experienced soldier Sergeant Xavier (Marc Zinga, DHEEPAN, THE UNKNOWN GIRL) and fresh recruit Private Faustin (Stéphane Bak, ELLE) are accidentally left behind by their battalion just as Congolese militia begin swarming the area, they only have each other.

Pili (SUN, 3/17: 11AM)

In this BAFTA-nominated first feature, Pili (Bello Rashid) lives in rural Tanzania, working in the fields for less than $1 a day to feed her two children and struggling to manage her HIV-positive status in secret. When she is offered the chance to rent a sought-after market stall, Pili is desperate to have it.