My review of the new musical “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story” at the Alliance Theatre

Review: “Born for This” is all heart and no grit

Detroit holds an important place in American musical history, not only because of Motown, but also because of the long list of gospel music singers who emerged from the motor city. Singing families such as the Staple Singers, Clark Sisters, Hawkins Family and the Winans shaped the sound of gospel music in the latter part of the 20th century, and in the case of the Winans, they pushed the limits of what gospel could be by infusing pop and R&B sounds into their songs. The entire Winans family has musical talent, and they have recorded albums, but the breakout stars are BeBe and CeCe. The brother and sister duo got their start in the 1980’s singing on the “Praise the Lord Club” (PTL) TV show with televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. From there, they catapulted to super stardom as a duo and then as solo artists. To date, BeBe Winans has released seven solo albums and won six GRAMMY Awards.

It is his start from humble beginnings, as the seventh of 10 children, to the verge of fame after PTL that is the basis of the new musical “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” which runs at the Alliance Theatre through May 15. Winans wrote all of the music and Charles Randolph-Wright wrote the book and directed the show. Unfortunately, a Google search would yield more information about Winans than Wright’s script. To play himself, BeBe cast his nephew Juan Winans, and his niece Deborah Joy Winans portrays his sister CeCe. Both have beautiful voices, but the utter lack of story does not give them much substance to work with as actors, and as a result makes it hard to see BeBe as a sympathetic protagonist.

For a musical that is supposed to be inspirational, it falls completely flat, because Winans’ greatest conflict onstage is thinking he is going to hell for seeing “E.T.” after his Pentecostal parents have told him that cinema is sinful. The production brings up racial tension while the siblings are in North Carolina singing on PTL, jealousy between their brothers and a rift in their relationship when CeCe gets married, but these things are mere mentions and given no dissection and the stakes are way too low. The best part of the opening night performance was the curtain call, where Winans called his siblings, teenage crush Penny and the real Jim Bakker onstage, and they all sang the show’s closing song “He Signed My Name” with the cast.

Despite the thin plot, the musical does have some high points. Kudos go to choreographer Warren Adams, who fills the stage with movement that is as graceful as it is visually interesting, as well as music supervisor Donald Lawrence and musical director Steven Jamail who would be well served by a cast recording.  Jim Bakker (Chaz Pofahl ) and Tammy Faye Bakker (Kirsten Wyatt) are a hoot and a holler from the time they enter the stage until the lights go down—so much so that the show becomes all about the Bakkers and not about the Winans family at all. Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston (the late songstress was a close friend to the Winans) has a beautiful voice and also gives an outstanding performance, however there is a mid-show Whitney memoriam where she sings a “Greatest Love Of All” type song called “Applause” that is gratuitous and out of place.

Winans has some work to do if he wants his story to have a place in the American musical canon. There is nothing like “Born for This” on Broadway stages, but in the end it is like going to a church with a good choir and a bad preacher.

What makes a person guilty or innocent?

“I only write if I get really bothered by something and I wouldn’t let it go. Writing a play is a way for me to write my way through whatever is bothering me.”  –Lee Nowell
           Troy Anthony Davis was executed on September 21, 2011 after a lifelong battle trying to prove his innocence. Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail was killed on August 19, 1989, and Davis was convicted of murdering him in 1991. From there, more than two decades-worth of appeals followed. Davis insisted that he was innocent and, as the years went on, eye-witnesses who had fingered Davis as the killer recanted their statements.
          Was Troy Davis innocent or guilty?
          Only him, God, and officer McPhail know the answer to that question, but Lee Nowell’s play Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project is less concerned with Davis’ innocence or guilt, and more concerned with the legal system and the processes that led to his execution. In the script, Nowell extrapolates actual evidence from the case (she read all 2,000 pages of trial transcripts) for the audience and allows the court of public opinion to draw its own conclusion. I spoke with Lee a couple of weeks before the play opened at Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta.  Read the full interview here.
          After watching the play on opening night, I have to admit that I wasn’t sure whether Davis murdered McPhail. If McPhail wasn’t a police officer, I have a feeling that Davis could have gotten a plea deal for second degree murder or manslaughter, but we prosecute the murders of civil servants differently than other people in this country. It seemed unlikely that he acted alone, but that doesn’t make him innocent. Then there’s the question of whether one bad decision should end a man’s life. I’m ashamed to say that I have never given the death penalty much thought, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. If Davis was guilty, did he deserve to die? Maybe? I still don’t have a definite answer, but I am happy to see a contemporary woman playwright make room on the stage to tackle this tough moral issue (the last one I can think of is Harper Lee). Hopefully, there won’t be another 50 years after Lee Nowell before a woman forces us to ask ourselves, ‘what makes a person innocent or guilty?’

Is it dance or is it theater?

Recently, I spent about a month calling artistic directors, dancers, choreographers, and producers across the country asking them the same question: How do you define dance, theater, and dance/theater? It’s no marvel that everyone I spoke to gave me a different answer. Some said art has no definition. Others said that theater is more narrative based and dance is more movement based. More often than not, they said that the blurring of the lines between disciplines was an artistic dream come true.

I started asking this question, because I was writing an article for the March issue of American Theatre magazine and the whole issue, which has Mikail Brayniskhov on the cover, is about dance/theater. My feature in particular is about dance/theater trends across the country and the ways in which cross-disciplinary collaborations were being used as a way to attract millennial audiences to performing arts venues. Gone are the days of 90-120-minute fourth wall realism and here we are in a time of audience participation and experiences that are worth tweeting about.

Is it dance or is it theater? You decide, or just say yes.

Be sure to pickup a copy of the March issue of Atlanta magazine and read the article here: http://www.americantheatre.org/2016/02/23/dance-or-theatre-yes/.

Reflections after attending the National Critics Institute

I spent the past two weeks at the O’Neill Theatre Center in New London, Conn. at the National Critics Institute— the only writing workshop for early and mid-career theatre critics. In a cottage in New England I pondered about the state of theatre, the state of journalism, writing about people of color, how to incorporate dining content into theatre journalism, and how to find my voice. The latter was my greatest revelation– the disconnection between the way I speak and the way that I write hinders my ability to develop my voice as a writer. This voice is critical to me making this a career, so I better invest a good chunk of my time into finding it.

I left with a sense of clarity and action items. I am going to meet with my mentor, put together a pitch for an arts column, and use the friends I have with telecommunications degrees to help me put together an interview reel, so that I can pitch myself to cover the arts in broadcast news outlets.

Here are some gems from the Institute:

“Theater is about getting under the skin of different types of people.” -Linda Winer, Theater Critic, Newsday

“Be good to yourself as a critic when you watch a show. Be in a place that is fair to the work and to your ability to respond to the work.” -Matt Wolf, Theatre Critic, The Guardian and The Times London

If you’re doing something worthwhile, isn’t it worthy of analysis? If you’re not supporting criticism, what are you saying about your art form?” -Robert Simonson, Cocktail Writer, New York Times

“Competition is good, but if it flatlines, then no one knows what’s going on. Criticism is good, because it makes you better.” -Ann Nyberg, WTNH, ABC Affiliate, Connecticut

“Travel widely. Explore lots. Read lots. Eat lots.” -Sam Sifton, Deputy Food Editor, New York Times

“Appetizers are the off-Broadway of the food world” -Chris Jones, Theater Critic, The Chicago Tribune

“I didn’t get into this business to kill art; I got into this business to create art.” -David Stone, Producer, Wicked, If/Then, Next to Normal

“I don’t buy the idea that a good, solid play that does not wow the New York critics will not have a life a life after that.” -Dan Sullivan, retired theater critic, LA Times

“Theater that is not written about well is not going to make people want to go.” -Charles Isherwood, Theater Critic, New York Times

“Broadway is mostly singing animals and movie stars.” -Charles Isherwood

“Make yourself an interesting autobiography.” -Linda Winer

Pearl Cleage revisits “Blues for an Alabama Sky”

I had the opportunity to meet playwright/novelist Pearl Cleage for the first time while I was a contractor for the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. At the time, I was helping the theatre re-imagine its community engagement programs, and Pearl was hosting a series called “Page to Stage with Pearl Cleage.” “Page to Stage” was a pre-show talk Pearl conducted with the audience about an hour before each show. I remember watching her and thinking, wow this woman really loves what she does. I could tell that words were her friends and that Atlanta was her didactic playground. I recently had the opportunity to formally interview Pearl about the 20th anniversary production of Blues for an Alabama Sky, which opens at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta this week. She wanted to make sure that the production still “stood up after 20 years,” and based on the feedback I’ve been hearing from previews, it does.

Read it here: http://www.americantheatre.org/2015/04/16/blues-for-an-alabama-sky-celebrates-its-20th-birthday-at-the-alliance-theatre/

Q&A with Rain Pryor

rainpryor

I interviewed actress, singer, and comedian Rain Pryor, daughter of famed comedian Richard Pryor, about her one-woman show Fried Chicken and Latkes. Here’s a taste of our conversation:

ArtsATL: Do you remember your first school play?

Rain Pryor: The first school play I ever did was Winnie the Pooh and I played the ass Eeyore, because — this should be in my play, but it’s not. I auditioned to play Raggedy Ann, but I didn’t get to play Raggedy Ann, I got to play a gingerbread girl, because they were like, “There are no black Raggedy Anns.” Winnie the Pooh was always played by a white boy, so it wasn’t like I was going to get to play Winnie the Pooh.

 

“theatre is “a white invention, a European invention and white people go to it””

Acclaimed British actress and director Janet Suzman probably wishes she could rewind back to the time where she said “Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare.” Talk about a shit show.

As someone who has worked doing marketing and public relations for non-profit theatres, I can say that getting people of color to become a recurring part of the audience is a challenge that theatres have faced for 30 years. However, to say that ethnic minorities do not go to the theatre because theatre is a white invention is uninformed. I know plenty of Asians, Latinos, and black people who enjoy going to the theatre, and do so frequently. What I don’t know of is many theatre companies who produce work starring and written by Asian, Latino, and black people.

People like to see people who look like them onstage, and they like to see stories that they can relate to onstage. Doing one play with a black person does not guarantee a black audience. Not all people in any ethnic group have the same interests or experiences. I’d like to know what media outlets and community engagement events/programs the Print Room used to promote this play.

I have a feeling that Suzman did not intend to be offensive when she made these comments. She was probably just frustrated, as most artists are, by the lack of ethnic audience representation in the theatre. However, to simplify theatre as a white man’s invention is silly. There are many socio-economic, education, and political barriers that keep people of color away from the theatre in colonized countries. However, that does not mean that they are not creating their own theatre outside of the white establishment. Where there are people of any race/religion/culture/ethnicity, there will always be theatre. That has been the truth since the beginning of time.

Below are links to two responses that leave her without a leg to stand on:

Janet Suzman says black people aren’t interested in theatre. How ridiculous by Bonnie Greer

Theatre does not have one simple definition, of course. People of African and Asian descent have been making it for thousands of years, in open spaces, in temples and on the road.”

“To have a mature career as a theatre-maker of colour is practically unheard of, and so a tradition, a way of being, cannot be passed on, cannot be taught. We are always “in development”; “vibrant”; “emergent”. Our voices are at the mercy of others. We must always explain. Start again.

Actor Janet Suzman criticised for calling theatre ‘a white invention’ by Dalya Alberge and Mark Brown

“The sharing of stories between performers and audience stretches across every single civilisation beginning with the oral tradition of re-enacting folk tales or religious myths, graduating into more formalised forms of structured staging. But this shouldn’t be an argument about what theatre is or who ‘invented’ it. This is a more profound discussion about the relevance of the stories we tell and for whom we tell them.”