Every now and then a theatrical experience comes around that breaks the mold. It’s no simple task to categorize Gideon Irving’s performance piece running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Part musical, part stand-up comedy, (very small) part magic act, and part intriguing night in a complete stranger’s living room, My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually is far from a one-trick pony. On the contrary, the hour-and-45-minute show is constantly surprising audience members with laughs, gasps, songs and even snacks!
Frederick Douglass said, “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” It felt like the spirit of Douglas was downtown at the Gene Frankel Theatre, inspiring all who hear the call to go see Pappy on Da Underground Railroad. This heartrending one-man show, developed by cabaret performer Richard Johnson, under the direction of Keith Allan with musical accompaniment by Terry Wallstein is in honor of Black History Month. Johnson soulfully weaves the tales of trials and tribulations on the trail to freedom with Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad. With honest, down to earth direction and staging, this charming piece found its perfect venue at the Gene Frankel Theatre.
Raw, vulnerable, intuitive, fiery, wise, and out smarting, Pappy is the culmination of all the heroes of that dark time in American history. Soulfully singing some of the old classic spirituals such as “Wade in the Water” and “Steal Away” Johnson, as Pappy, explains how Harriet Tubman used song to guide runaway slaves to freedom. Through Johnson’s characterizations, we learn about the spirit of a people who were willing to pay the price for freedom and how it takes courage and determination to continue to fight for it.
Long-time cabaret performer Johnson authentically brings to life a part of our past that should never be forgotten. In the storytelling tradition of Haley’s Chicken George or Walker’s Celie, without overacted characterization, Johnson shows us the passion of a powerful survivor in his magnetic Pappy. With pathos, he comically impersonates his giggly first love, Mary, who pined for another. He mimics her obsession for, “Jacob! Jacob! Jacob!” and then tenderly reveals she killed herself by drinking lye after her lover was beaten to death for killing the master’s son who raped her. What hits to the core is how Johnson weaves Pappy’s memory with his heart-rending vocal of “Balm in Gilead,” accompanied by the mournful piano rendering of musical director Terry Wallstein.
Johnson’s subtle interpretation of Harriet Tubman is truly inspired. There is never doubt that Pappy is an authority on Tubman. He tells of his first meeting with the sassy Tubman and how she convinces him to come with her on the freedom trail. With hands on his hips, and a molasses sweet voice, he mirrors her command, to go back south to get her mother.
With assistance from technical crew, Stephon Legere, Luis Rivera and Cesar Perez, Allan uses a minimal set, allowing Johnson’s own energy to create the time and place. Small wooden platforms transform from tree stump to safe house cellar doors to a boat on the river, to train tracks to the north. Johnson guides us by the North Star and the sounds and signals along the riverbanks to freedom. The use of haunting sound effects enhances the menace in the moment, further heightening the historical significance of Pappy’s story.
As Johnson sings the doleful spirituals of those times and interweaves the stories of survival and escape to the Promised Land of Canada, he paints a clear picture of those heroes and villains he deals with along the way. Speaking to the audience as if they were his new group of runaways, Johnson creates the suspense and urgency of the time and place in a very internal and organic way, making his audience feel very much the eminent dangers of the ghostly swamps, in the pitch black night.
Perhaps one of the most suspenseful moments was when Johnson transforms into the racist slave hunter and his dog. As the slave hunter reveals his reasons for hating runaway slaves so much—his favorite boyhood mammy was sold off because of her runaway son—the crescendo of his anger rises with the sound of the barking of his dog. This brilliant direction really enhanced the danger of that moment in the journey to freedom.
Johnson really draws in his audience as his partners on the Underground Trail. When Johnson illuminates on the hidden meanings of the railroad terms, he also sheds light on how significant the building of the railroads were to the emancipation of slaves. Sitting comfortably Indian style, Pappy decodes the meaning of the symbols of the quilts and reveals the ingenuity and sophistication of a people intend on gaining freedom. With the eerie sounds of the river flowing in sync with Johnson’s rich vocalization of the classic, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” he elucidates on how each symbol will be signs along the way to guide his motley runaways to safety in Canaan, which Pappy declares is the name for Canada. On reaching the Promised Land of Freedom, Pappy leaves us with a sense of hope for the future, as long as we never forget those champions of the past.
In these tumultuous times, Johnson’s exploration of the past is very significant. It encourages us to be as brave and determined as people like Harriet Tubman and all the unsung heroes of that time. In order to change history, we must learn from it. Johnson, in his poignant characterization of Pappy, leaves us with the great message that the heroes of yesterday can inspire the heroes of tomorrow. As Alice Walker said, “Harriet Tubman was not our great-grandmother for nothing.”
Pappy on Da Underground Railroad's last performance was Feb. 27 at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond St. between Bowery and Lafayette St.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit brownpapertickets.com.
What is the definition of HTI—Hug Transmitted Infection? Mike Spara tells you in his wordless solo sketch, "Give That Guy a Hug," one of more than 14 that constitute his show Conversations With ... Body Language. In the “Hug” sketch, Spara portrays a man who wants to give out free hugs. In the background, words on a projection screen explain that the man who is trying to give away free hugs is “totally clean and free of STDs: Sexually Transmitted Diseases, or to use the less archaic term, STIs: Sexually Transmitted Infections.” They state that the man just wants to spread love and bring peace to people across the world, while Spara assures the audience that there is no such thing as an HTI.
Spara has written and directed this wordless solo comedy as a dedication to the art of silent comedic legends Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His show combines live sketches and pre-recorded pieces shown on a projection screen. He uses the projection like a vintage movie screen displaying title cards with dialogue but also as a prop. For example, one bit includes pre-recorded footage of a man jogging around a neighborhood and climbing fences like Spider-Man. At one point, the man stops to grab a cup of coffee. In creating the illusion that the character has jumped off the screen, Spara then jogs into the theater with the coffee in hand.
In another sketch with the title of "Interlude," singer-songwriter Sia’s music video Chandelier plays in the background as Spara proceeds to perform a two-finger puppet show. His finger puppet humorously mimics Sia’s dance moves in the video.
Even though Spara’s characters are silent, this does not mean that they are emotionless. Spara’s hard work shows extreme dedication with his distinctive character choices and physical actions. His eyes are very expressive and his physical movements are pertinent to each of his characters.
Spara is an artist willing to push boundaries to make his characters real. This includes eating some unappetizing foods and making love to a life-size Buzz Lightyear balloon. In the sketch, "A Day in the Park," Spara portrays a dog who is exploring the park on his own. The dog brings a bag of Beggin’ Strips treats with him to the park. He finds people in the park (audience members) to feed the treats to him. Spara actually eats the dog treats. That shows the actor's true commitment to each character.
Spara certainly applies Buster Keaton's statement, “I always want the audience to out-guess me, and then I want to double-cross them” in his own comedic artistry. Each sketch is well-written, witty and unpredictable. At surface value, the various sketch plots (i.e. a conductor conducting a symphony, a boxing match, and a father and son playing baseball) appear uninteresting and simple. However, Spara makes them entertaining by using visual comedy, very specific props, and musical sound tracks that complement the action and obscure twists.
One notable plot twist was during the sketch, "Special Delivery," where Spara’s character receives a large package via a toss by the courier instead of a hand delivery. After a strenuous struggle to open the package, Spara finds an eye patch. Although Spara's character doesn't need an eye patch, he puts it on and starts dancing flirtatiously and winking at all the ladies as disco music sets in.
Spara displays his vulnerability on stage in the versatility of each sketch character. His wordless sketch comedy embodies Charlie Chaplin's quote: “Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” Spara can be seen making a glorious fool of himself at the 10th annual FRIGID Festival.
Mike Spara's Conversations with Body Language's last show is Saturday, Feb. 27 at 8:50 p.m. at the Under St. Marks Theater (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Ave. and Avenue A). Tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for students/seniors and free for military, police and firefighters. For tickets, visit www.horsetrade.info.