Eclipsed demands attention at the Curran

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The cast of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed at the Curran Theatre includes (from left) Adeola Role, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Stacey Sargeant, and Ayesha Jordan. Below: Photos by Little Fang

Danai Gurira’s intense, harrowing drama Eclipsed really only appeals to two kinds of people: those who care about women and those who care about basic human decency. Anyone else should stay home (or in the White House).

The history of humanity has not been kind to either of those groups, and Gurira offers a stark reminder that our so-called evolution hasn’t progressed very far. Set in the early 2000s in the final days of Liberia’s second civil war, the play examines war from the point of view of women, specifically four women who are essentially sex slaves to an unseen Commanding Officer. One of the unnamed “wives,” as they are known, has turned herself into a fierce soldier fighting for the CO’s rebel group, while another, at 15, is new to this hideous world but like the women around her, she’s figuring out how to survive.

Only the second production at the stunningly refurbished Curran Theatre, Eclipsed follows a triumphant Fun Home and serves as an indicator of the kind of shows the Curran and leader, Carole Shorenstein Hays will be bringing in: important, powerful and risky. You don’t go to a play like Eclipsed for a rollicking good time. This is impeccably produced theater, but it’s challenging and disturbing. The play was first produced at the Public Theater in 2015 before moving to Broadway last year. That’s the production, with some of the actors who were involved with the show in New York, now at the Curran, and it’s a historic production: the first Broadway play to have a cast, playwright and director who are all black women.

Director Liesl Tommy, who was briefly the associate director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, keeps the focus on the women but relies on set designer Clint Ramos (who also won a Tony for the vibrant and varied costumes) to convey the stark reality of the bullet hole-riddled shack in which the wives live and work (they do the CO’s cooking and his laundry). The lighting (by Jen Schriever) and sound (by Broken Chord) conjure some of the natural beauty of the land, but they really come into play as the story intensifies and the harsh reality of war becomes more vivid.

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Though an ensemble piece, the story’s trajectory follows the character known simply as The Girl (Ayesha Jordan), who is hidden by the other wives #1 (Stacey Sargeant) and #3 (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) to keep her away from the CO, but he finds her and makes her Wife #4. Unlike the other women around her, The Girl has had some education and can read (she entertains the other wives by reading from a tattered book about Bill Clinton). Her intelligence makes her susceptible to Wife #2 (Adeola Role), who has gone from enslavement to ferocious militarism. With her gun slung across her shoulders and a kind of power the other women cannot access, The Girl sees the advantages of becoming a fighter. As we see, those advantages come with tremendous cost.

The outside world is represented by Rita (Akosua Busia), a member of the group Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that is attempting to negotiate a ceasefire among all the warlords. She represents not only an escape route for the women but a strong maternal force attempting to reconnect them to their humanity (and the names they were born with, which have ceased to be used).

What’s deceptive in Act 1 of this nearly 2 1/2-hour play is that its rhythms feel natural and familiar: women talking, working, squabbling and joking. Then, when one of them is selected by the CO to satisfy his sexual pleasure, we’re reminded what’s really going on. These women (one of whom is pregnant) are prisoners and subjected to sexual assault on a regular basis. The fact that they are managing some semblance of normal existence together is astonishing. Things become more harrowing in Act 2, and Jordan especially as The Girl, is so powerfully good it’s almost hard to breathe watching her struggle through her attempt to reconcile her anger and ferocity with her basic humanity.

All the performances are wrenching, but they have to be. The glimmers of hope here come from the way the women care for each other and from the possibility that even in the worst of circumstances, all is not completely lost. During an eclipse, after all, light is only blocked temporarily.

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed continues through March 19 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$140. Call 415-358-1220 or visit

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Party People at Berkeley Rep: Necessary

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Steven Sapp (right) as Omar leads an ensemble cast in UNIVERSES’ Party People, a fusion of story and song that unlocks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords at Berkeley Rep. Below: J. Bernard Calloway (left, asBlue), Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita, background), and C. Kelly Wright perform in the extraordinary historical musical number that opens Party People. Photos courtesy of

There are ovations and there are ovations. The opening of an envelope gets a standing ovation these days, so the stand and clap doesn’t really mean much anymore. But at the opening night of UNIVERSES’ Party People at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the audience was instantly on its collective feet at show’s end, applauding thunderously, shouting and hooting. The appreciative cast bowed, expressed gratitude and exited the stage. The house lights came on, and still the clamor continued. A few audience members exited the theater, but mostly the noise grew in intensity until the surprised cast had to return to the stage and bow yet again.

It seemed a fittingly over-the-top reaction to an ambitious, over-the-top show that leaves you feeling moved by the wheels of history and the vagaries of the human heart.

Party People was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle and had its premiere there in 2012. Created by UNIVERSES, a creative and social force comprising Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz, aka Ninja, and director Liesl Tommy (who is also Berkeley Rep’s associate director), the show is ostensibly about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, two revolutionary groups born of the tumult of the 1960s that aimed to change the world and, in the face of powerful opposition, ultimately failed in their mission.

What’s extraordinary about Party People is how powerfully it works on its own terms. It can be kaleidoscopic and collage-like as it blends music (original compositions by Broken Chord) and video (live and recorded, beautifully designed by Alexander V. Nichols) and self-conscious art making with concise and incisive history lessons and, perhaps most importantly, human-scale stories that, individually and collectively, bring it all together and connect the audience to the past, present and future of this country.

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That’s not to say that Party People is perfect – it seems unlikely that something this sprawling, rambunctious, fiery and beautiful could be. Some of the dramatic monologues are too long and don’t connect as powerfully as they might, but missteps are rare in this 2 1/2-hour fantasia on race, revolution and justice. From the extraordinary opening musical number that creates historical context for this intertwining story of the Panthers and the Lords, we become caught up in the flow of revolutionary zeal – free meals for kids, education reform, fighting police brutality and racism, recovery programs – and quickly see how egos and conflicts and violence can explode the truest of intentions.

On an urban two-level set (sturdy and graffiti covered design by Marcus Doshi who also designed the dazzling light show) covered with video monitors, we slip in and out of the present, where two children of the movement, Malik ( Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (Ruiz), are processing their complicated legacy in a multimedia show. It’s opening night, and they have invited a wide assortment of personalities from back in the day, some of whom bring troubled and troubling histories with them.

Tension and conflict run high as these former revolutionaries (some are still active, even if only in their own minds) take an uneasy stroll down a memory lane littered with ideals and betrayals, rage and regret. This mash-up of nostalgia and minefields can veer to the melodramatic, but then real fire bursts forth as when C. Kelly Wright as Amira, a former Panther and wife of a Panther wrongly convicted and imprisoned for the murder of a police officer, lashes out at Malik and Jimmy and their generation of naval-gazing, Internet-obsessed “revolutionaries.” But then Malik lashes right back, and it becomes clear that the generation gap is a major force affecting communication and perception in this particular crowd.

So many sections of the show stand out, not the least of which is an incredible monologue by Sapp as troubled former Panther Omar accompanied by the other men in the cast exerting themselves in a powerfully athletic (and seemingly exhausting) display of the choreography by Millicent Johnnie. There are also some gorgeous voices to be savored here from Ruiz-Sapp, Amy Lizardo, Reggie D. White and Sophia Ramos.

As relevant and as thought-provoking as it is, Party People is also mightily entertaining. Humor, music and dance go a long way toward keeping this narrative afloat, even when the weight of history and sacrifice bear down heavily. These may be some of the most invigorating sad stories you experience. History is not over-explained, and nothing is emotionally tidy. We don’t get a concisely wrapped up ending, but we do feel like connecting with the past makes for a more powerful present and, in glimmers, a more hopeful future.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed UNIVERSES member Steven Sapp about creating Party People for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

UNIVERSES’ Party People continues an extended run through Nov. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Cal Shakes ends season with a moody Hamlet

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Julie Eccles is Queen Gertrude and Leroy McClain is the title character in Hamlet, the California Shakespeare Theater’s final show of the 2012 season. Below: McClain’s Hamlet meets the remains of poor Yorrick in the graveyard. Photos by Kevin Berne

On exactly the kind of temperate night for which they invented outdoor theater, California Shakespeare Theater opened the final show of the summer season. Hamlet, directed by Liesl Tommy (best known for her direction of Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in spring of last year) clocks in at about 3 hours and 10 minutes, and there are some glorious things in it. But on the whole, this Hamlet left me curiously unmoved.

But first here’s what’s good. Leroy McClain as Hamlet delivers a fascinating performance, pouring his heart and mind into the torrent of words that continuously pours out of the moody Dane’s mouth. You don’t have much of a Hamlet if you’re not riveted by the title character, and McClain certainly puts on a good show, especially when he’s affecting madness to upset the court. Director Tommy does some interesting things with the text, the most intriguing of which involves the famous “To be or not to be” speech, which Hamlet now delivers to Ophelia (Zainab Jah) as he clutches her in his arms. Given Ophelia’s fate in the second half of the play, having her hear this speech is a bold choice.

McClain is a nimble actor with charisma to spare, all of which he needs for a marathon like this. He (and the production) really springs to life with the arrival of the Players (Danny Scheie, Nichoals Pelczar and Mia Tagano). In addition to being a showcase moment for the comic heights and dramatic depths of Scheie, the Player scenes crackled with energy, perhaps because they were so overtly theatrical, when the production as a whole seems somehow strangely untheatrical.

But more of that in a minute.

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The other scene that pulsed with life and passion was the bedroom scene between McClain’s Hamlet and Julie Eccles as his mother, Queen Gertrude. The emotional honesty and intensity of this confrontation, simply played out on and around the queen’s bed, told the story of a disintegrating family better than any other in the production.

Dan Hiatt as a pompous but likeable Polonius wrings laughs and poignancy (except when he has to join the ghost parade with a bloody gut), and because it’s always good to see Hiatt do anything, it’s nice to have him back toward the end as an unsentimental gravedigger.

I liked that the ghost of Hamlet’s father (played by Adrian Roberts, who also plays newly crowned King Claudius) was turned into a jittery zombie with gore peeling off his face, but I found Jake Rodriguez’s eerie sound design much scarier than the ghost himself.

So with all these strong performances, why did this Hamlet only come alive in fits and starts for me? I think it has mainly to do with the concept behind the production – or maybe lack of a clear concept. Clint Ramos’ set is like a post-apocalyptic Holiday Inn, a dreary cement bunker and an empty swimming pool littered with junk ranging from chairs, tattered pink lawn flamingoes, thrift store lamps, stacks of books, children’s toys and the kind of heavy-duty lights you see on construction sites. But then Ramos’ costumes are slick and stylish, beautifully tailored modern gowns and suits. I just plain didn’t get it and never felt the production did anything to clarify the characters, their stories or their landscape, emotional or otherwise.

For this reason, I would say that to enjoy this Hamlet you should be fairly well versed in Hamlet before you get to the theater. It’s pretty apparent something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but just what that something is remains more cloudy than clear.


California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet continues through Oct. 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from Orinda BART. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Ruined but resilient, horrifying but beautiful

Oberon K.A. Adjepong (left) and Tonye Patano star in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Below: Carla Duren is restrained by Kola Ogundiran (left) and Okierete Onaodowan. Photos courtesy of

The evil that men do – and have done and continue to do – certainly does live after them. Shakespeare was so right about that. It lives and festers and poisons and leads to more evil.

This is incredibly apparent in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre.

Acts of unspeakable, incomprehensible violence occur, but it’s the echoes of those acts that ring most loudly in this compelling, ultimately shattering theatrical experience. There’s a war depicted on stage, but it’s not the chaotic, constantly shifting free-for-all of militias and government forces in East Africa. Rather, it’s the war waged on the bodies of thousands of that region’s women.

A part of a campaign of terror (and due in no small part to the centuries-old tradition of men in packs behaving like savages) soldiers of all stripes brutally rape and torture the women in their perceived purview.

Taking inspiration from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, another tale of a resourceful woman surviving in wartime, Nottage gives us the morally ambiguous Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), proprietor of a jungle whorehouse, where the beer and the orange Fanta sodas are cold and the women are…well, ruined.

To be ruined in this culture is to have been with a man other than your husband – even if that man abducted and raped you. These women, victims as much of their culture as the violence of men, become refugees, and Mama Nadi offers them something of a safe haven.

They get food and a place to sleep. In exchange, they pleasure miners and militiamen, rebel leaders and fast-talking traders. It’s a living – one level of hell traded for another.

Act 1 of director Liesl Tommy’s powerful production is slow to start. The plot doesn’t really kick in until the more emotionally gripping second act, but we get a strong sense of place from Clint Ramos’ set, with the encroaching jungle creeping into the rustic interior of Mama Nadi’s establishment.


With nine men in the cast overpowering the four women, we immediately feel the precarious nature of the world these women inhabit. On an average night at Mama Nadi’s they are handled like useful garbage, roughly pawed and groped in the better moments and taken offstage for the worst moments. We may not see what happens, but we feel it.

That’s the power of Ruined. Nottage takes her time telling the story – primarily of Mama Nadi and two newly arrived girls, Salima (Pascale Armand) and Sophie (Carla Duren). Each of these women has an unfolding story of violence and resilience, and each of these formidable actors brings the depth and compassion these stories deserve. And boy do we feel the pushing and pulling of their lives

There are scenes and stories in this 2 ½-hour play (a co-production of Berkeley Rep, Huntington Theatre Company and La Jolla Playhouse) that are hard to watch. But then you think about how Nottage traveled to Uganda to interview Congolese refugees and how sharing their stories, as wrenching as it may be to watch them, is nothing, nothing compared to living them.

Such horrors are nothing new in the shameful history of mankind, but these atrocities are happening on our watch. Experiences like Ruined aren’t about instilling guilt in Western audiences as much as they are about raising awareness and inciting compassion.

The wonder of Ruined emerges in moments of beauty – whether in a song performed by Sophie (backed by musicians Adesoji Odukogbe and Alvin Terry), an athletic dance performed by the male patrons of Mama Nadi’s (choreographed by Randy Duncan) or a flash of brave compassion from a surprising source.

In the face of mankind at its worst, there can be sparks of beauty and enlightenment, of fleeting joy amid horror. Those sparks – much like extraordinary pieces of theater – are what we aim for.


Ruined continues through April 10 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.