Relationships

Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun

Stop for a second and think about the way in which one interacts with one’s family, the way one assimilates to one’s society, how one honors one’s ancestors, how one speaks one's truth, and most importantly, how one heals oneself. Familiar, written by Obie Award winner Danai Gurira, challenges its audiences to think of all these situations. However, it is also a play that one must watch in order to fully understand how it can be powerfully healing and a life-changing experience for the audience.  

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, Familiar tells a story of a Zimbabwean family living in Minnesota. The eldest daughter, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), is getting married in a matter of days, and her rehearsal dinner is in a matter of hours. As the family prepares for the rehearsal dinner, Tendi and her fiance Chris (Joby Earle) announce to the family that in addition to a traditional Christian wedding, they are including a Zimbabwean ritual. This unexpected turn causes secrets to be revealed, old wounds to reopen, and forces the family to speak the truths about the past.

With a natural build of suspense and ability to hold an audience's attention, this play focuses on a black family whose main goal is not to assimilate but rather to heal their own lives. This strong message explores issues such as how families cope with assimilation to societal norms in the United States, how they deal with the struggle between balancing cultural traditions and religious traditions, as well as how they heal after experiencing traumas from a homeland filled with pain and death.  

Although not based on her life, Gurira draws upon her own experience to create a credible script. Similarities between her life and the script includes how her Zimbabwean family also moved to the U.S. and how she was raised in Iowa while the family in the play live in Minnesota. In addition, the script allows the actors to unapologetically speak Shona as she presumably also did in her household. Unlike other shows that often translates anything other than English, Familiar takes advantage of an opportunity to be authentic, as well as give any audience member who speak Shona a small taste of home.

The ensemble includes, the father Donald, played by Harold Surratt, who grounds each scene with subtle facial expressions and dialogue. Myra Lucretia Taylor as Anne, Tendi’s aunt, is a strong and demanding presence on stage that is the main person connecting the family back to Zimbabwe heritage and ancestors. Anne’s sister Margaret, played by Melanie Nicholls-King, is the glue that keeps the family under control, even when she might feel her own life is falling apart. A definite gem in the performance by being the character that continually handles her sisters Anne and Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), as well as continually attempting to keep everyone calm. Ito Aghayere as Tendi’s sister, Nyasha, whose relentless need to bring the family back to their traditions heals the family.  Her energy and enthusiasm propels the play forward and brings it back to a nourishing place.  

The ensemble's chemistry and impeccable timing is a tremendous success to the production. Ruff and Tunie exhibit the vulnerable bond between mother and daughter. To balance them out are the future family members, “white boy from Minnetonka,” Chris (Earle) and his brother Brad (Joe Tippett). Their natural comedic interactions add to the play and cause the audience to laugh and scream in enjoyment. Overall, it is the ensemble’s conversations and arguments that encourage open discussion about past family issues, current events and pushes the audience to question their own lives.

One of the great things about Gurira’s script is that it allows talented black actors to play fully developed characters who aren't afraid to broadcast their powerful voices. This adds to the production because it facilitates deeper conversations about real issues that occur within Zimbabwean families, African families, black families and even to an extent, indigenous families that live in the U.S. This gives audience members accessibility to a larger topic and awareness to the constant struggle families have between assimilation and preserving their culture.
 
There are moments within the play that may be seen as unrealistic. This includes the very dramatic change from the comedic, light-hearted first act to the serious and dramatic second act. It includes a spontaneous flirtation between Brad and Nyasha after bonding between a hilariously over-dramatized situation. Gurira also introduces mouth-dropping, over-the-top scenarios during the second act that allows character’s such as Marvelous and Tendi to become vulnerable in order to see how they overcome obstacles and heal themselves.
 
This production could not have been done without the talented eye of Taichman. Her vision along with the tedious work of the designers brought the text to life which lead to a spectacular performance. This includes the immaculate timing of jokes, the build towards the emotional confessions, the authentic Mbira music, as well as the healing and freeing traditional dancing that took place. Her attention to details brought unity and fluidity to every aspect of the production.  

From any seat, the audience can see all aspects of the highly-detailed set designed by Clint Ramos. Marvelous’ and Donald’s house is two floors with hallways, real doors and family pictures lining the wall. It is a breathtaking set that anyone would want to live in, including the audience who sit in comfortably cushioned seats, as if sitting on individualized mini couches. To support this design, Obie Award winner and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau incorporates the lights into the structure of the set to allow it to seem natural. Even the window is lit so that it appears as if looking out on a snowy day in Minnesota.  

Another noteworthy design element was the sound design by Tony Award winner Darron L. West. During intermission, the recordings of celebratory Mbira music by the Shona people of Zimbabwe filled the theater. With a very hectic and hilarious ending to Act One, the traditional music played during intermission is a great way to gently introduce the audience to Zimbabwean music, as well as connects with the Mbira that is presented by Nyasha during the performance.  

With accurate details of Zimbabwean culture and some cliché subplots, Familiar takes the discussion about race and culture to the forefront, as well as ignites a necessary conversation about the shaming and blaming of one’s heritage. 
 
Familiar has extended their run until April 10 at Playwrights Horizon’s Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $75 to $90. To purchase tickets, visit www.TicketCentral.com and www.Facebook.com or call 212-279-4200.
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Q&A: King Brings Web Series to Theater

Carleton King grew up in Brooklyn, had head shots as an infant and was pushed toward the profession by his parents. Even so, he always knew he had a knack and evolved with the craft by studying acting and theater at St. John's University and Long Island University. After a number of acting credits over the last decade in theater, film and TV, King developed the web series Why Not Just Tell The Truth. With a few thousand subscribers across the globe, King has decided to go Off-Broadway to gauge whether he should add to the 11 episodes already in the can. Either way, coming clean is at the heart of his inspiration.

Carleton King: Honesty is a very deep rooted idea. Most people hate to be lied to but sometimes we even lie to ourselves. This can leave you in a lot of trouble when you’re in denial or being dishonest in interpersonal relationships. So I wanted to explore some of those situations.

OffOffOnline: Taking a look at some of the episodes, I see characters with some heavy weaponry and situations that go on beyond just lying to your girlfriend.

Carleton King: Yes, some of the characters allow certain situations to become bigger than normal life and stem mostly from Tracey (Ana Araújo). Her father was a mafia boss, and her mother comes from a Cuban crime family. That causes her to have this weird dichotomy of a personality, but her friendship with Jason helps drive the plot. So anyone who disrespects him has to worry about her coming after them.

OffOffOnline: Jason is your character. Tell me about him.

Carleton King: He’s a good guy. He believes in love, marriage and making things work. That can work to his detriment because he’ll try to make a bad thing work when he probably just needs to let it go.

OffOffOnline: I guess that includes his marriage.

Carleton King: I’ll just say it. Kathy (Charese Annel) is a bitch. He got his heart broken in college by Janette (Margaret McDuffy and Inayah Burton). She was the one that got away and this left a lingering hole in his heart. Unfortunately, he ends up filling it with the wrong person.

OffOffOnline: Denial—if you will?

Carleton King: Yes… She is evil but hopefully people get to understand what makes her the way she is.

OffOffOnline: She sounds more suited to Tony, the player.

Carleton King: He’s in denial in the sense that he doesn’t want a real relationship or love.

OffOffOnline: Why?

Carleton King: All the characters have their face value and their underlying value. In other words, the things that make them what they are. He’s in denial in the sense that he doesn’t want a real relationship or love.Tony (Patrick Jackson) has all these women, and it’s so easy for him. But why does he chase love like that? We just hope people can come to understand what makes a player a player.

OffOffOnline: How much does Jason relate to your life?

Carleton King: If you know my life, you really wouldn’t get the correlation. But a lot of the situations were inspired by the feelings that these scenes are based on. So if you follow the emotions, then you get the idea where the inspiration comes from.

OffOffOnline: How much is New York City a character?

Carleton King: This play could take place anywhere but it does come into play in the background of the characters. Mariah (Janelle Stein) is a reformed hood girl from the projects. That’s a very specific thing because projects in other cities are not the same. The ethnic mix in New York is also different. So the intermingling in our melting point is inherently different and represents itself in the characters.

OffOffOnline: Are you using the same actors from the series?

Carleton King: Except for me, it’s a whole new cast.

OffOffOnline: What was it like converting from the web to a play?

Carleton King: You don’t have the magic of editing and multiple takes. Then we had to break things down to their basic level and rearrange to fit a more natural order so they flow better.

OffOffOnline: What will be the impact of doing this live?

Carleton King: There’s so many things that I put into the show—it wouldn’t be the same if I tried to record it. The scenes had to be done right there in front of an audience because it’s more of an interactive thing… I’ll just say I plan to raise a few eyebrows.

OffOffOnline: What do you hope people take away?

Carleton King: The truth can be a very powerful thing that shouldn’t be lost in translation, and hopefully people can have the courage to be honest in the first place.

Performances of Why Not Just Tell The Truth run on Friday, Feb. 19 at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at The Tato Laviera Theatre (240 East 123rd St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting https://www.eventbrite.com/e/why-not-just-tell-the-truth-the-play-tickets-19703885853.

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Love is a Dangerous Game

The small stage where Almost Mata Hari: Lovers, Letters and Killers by Eva Dorrepaal which explores the life of Mata Hari, the infamous courtesan-cum-spy, as well as parallels to the dangerous loves in her own life, is tucked away in the basement of Theater for the New City. This venue has many theaters; two are in the basement on opposite sides of the building. But the spectator is rewarded with the discovery of finding the right door. And descending the dark staircase is the perfect entrée to Dorrepaal’s world. Set as a living room, it looks as if it will explode with one false move: clothing and bric-a-brac are strewn everywhere. Short directives such as “Breathe” are pasted everywhere, as are Dorrepaal’s notes about Mata Hari: a timeline of her life and lists of men. The feeling is potentially claustrophobic and one wonders if Dorrepaal has been reading up on the avant-garde theater provocateur, Antonin Artaud’s concept of a “Theatre of Cruelty” which called for the "communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism (…) to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world.” Artaud was known to stage plays or scenes in isolated places where, one person who attended an Artaud play in the '60s, claims, “there could have been a murder and no one would have known.”

Dorrepaal appears debased at first—her clothing is disheveled, and she is harried and seemingly uncomfortable. She recalls an early abusive relationship: a broken jaw leads her to a dentist whom she eventually takes up a relationship with. Dorrepaal’s play begins in an emotionally Artaudian vein: two hours of listening to stories about violent relationships would have definitely felt entrapping and scary. She briskly changes pace and shifts the focus.

As an actress, Dorrepaal is fidgety, breathless and wide-eyed, which gives the impression of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. However, there are interesting angles being worked which reveal three distinct layers: how an actress prepares (Dorrepaal refers to the method acting approach of using sense memory), her personal stories about past lovers, and her response as both an actress and woman to the story of Mata Hari’s life. The premise of Dorrepaal’s show is that she is an actress writing a play about Mata Hari. However, Dorrepaal inserts herself into the performance, and comments on the difficulty of acting, as well as the role of Mata Hari. Under the guide of a less gifted actress, this triadic approach could have been confusing, but Dorrepaal is a masterful performer. And funny too. In one scene, Dorrepaal is playing Mata Hari as a dancer and courtesan. She changes in front of us and puts on an Indian dance costume, with a spangly bra and a full skirt. As Mata Hari she’s dancing, but after awhile Dorrepaal, the woman, gets fed up and screams: “She’s so crazy” (about Mata Hari) and “Fuck, I’m going to have to hire a choreographer” (about herself as a performer). There are many more moments like this that lift the show from a purgatory exploration of women’s abusive relationships to a true exploration of the complexity of being a woman, of love and of being an actress.

Dorrepaal brings to light the dangerous nature of love. Mata Hari had many lovers—particularly military men in high commanding positions—and was rewarded richly with money and goods. She was known to be a spy but no one knew whether she did it for the money or because she could. In the end, she was convicted to death by a firing squad for being a spy; supposedly betrayed by one of her lovers. Dorrepaal informs us that “she died like a man” because she refused a blindfold. Dorrepaal also experienced dangerous love, first with the man in her early years who broke her jaw, and then with Dragan Zabek, an “irresistible mystic who worked as a street performer.” Dorrepaal leaves Holland, her native land, when she wins a green card only to learn that Dragan killed his former girlfriend—viciously strangling her and dragging her from one place to another—and then hung himself in prison.

Dorrepaal is an intriguing actress. She is tall and thin and looks like she has lived life. Her natural hair, which is a wiry reddish brown, often behaves like the wig she dons when she portrays Mata Hari. When she flips it over to one side, it stays there. Other times, it flairs around her face, making her look angry or seductive depending on the angle. Dorrepaal is a shape-shifter as a performer.

In another actor, this could prove frustrating or make her seem uncommitted to her role, but in Dorrepaal, we see a range of emotion pass across her face in a small time span. Sometimes she looks beautiful, other times tormented. This shape-shifting of emotion seems more true to life in the face of dangerous love, which heightens the senses so that desire, fear and uncertainty exist simultaneously.

Almost Mata Hari: Lovers, Letters and Killers, written and performed by Eva Dorrepaal, runs until Jan. 24 at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave. between East 9th and 10th Sts.). Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 212-254-1109 or visiting www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

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An Interplanetary Love Odyssey

Is Peter Story, the star of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live!, an actor or a stand-up comedian? Audience members may be surprised to find that although Story uses his real name, he is in fact performing a scripted one-man play at New World Stages.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! tells the story of a man, named Peter Story, whose life was changed when he saw author John Gray speak about his best-selling book by the same name. This life-altering book explains many of the differences between men and women in the hopes of making married couples throughout the world more in-sync with their feelings. Story intimately shares with the audience how the lessons from this book have affected his marriage. With perfectly-timed jokes, hilarious physical comedy and a laugh-out loud funny script—Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! is raucous in its relatability.

Though the stage is set with a couch, end table and stool—none of it is necessary. Story needs no lights, no set and no soaring orchestrations to have everyone in the audience nodding in understanding, clapping in collusion and laughing along with his illuminating realizations about relationships. The two-hour show flies by with a broad range of topics—from vulnerability to trust to things done behind closed doors. As the story is told by a man, the show may focus a little more on the irrational ways women behave (“I have nothing to wear”) but it is all done in an extremely tasteful manner.

However, the author of the book is not to be upstaged by Story. Gray makes a cameo appearance in two video clips shown during the play and these videos are two of the most brilliant moments of the evening.

First, Gray explains how serotonin and dopamine levels differ in men and women and cause different reactions to stress. Gray simplifies a complex scientific explanation with the help of extremely clever animations. 

Second, Gray tackles the “points system” used by women. A bouquet of roses equals one point to signify a nice action by their spouse. A single rose also equals one point. And women also award themselves points throughout the day, making it harder for a Martian to measure up.

The evening isn’t all jokes though. A touching moment comes when Story reflects on the instant he knew he would marry his partner. Gray’s videos are truly informative and educational. And while the audience can laugh at Story for his error in asking his wife, “Do you think maybe it’s that time of the month?,” the true value of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! is in challenging men and women to think about their relationships in a smarter, more attentive way. Relationships will never be perfect but they should always be a priority. 

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! is running at New World Stages (340 West 50th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan through Nov. 29. Performances are at 8 p.m on Nov. 12, 14, 19, 21, 23, 25 and 28 and at 7 p.m. on Nov. 15 and Nov. 29. Tickets are $79. To purchase tickets, call 212- 239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.

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