TheatreFirst reveals short, powerful HeLa

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Day and Henrietta Lacks (Khary Moye and Jeunée Simon) in happier days before Henrietta’s illness in the TheatreFirst world premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy’s HeLa at Berkeley’s Black Oak Theatre. Below: A scientist (Akemi Okamura) comes to the home of Deborah (Desiree Rogers) and only wants a little bit of blood. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

For decades, hardly anyone knew the origin of the HeLa cancer cells that were being used to study cancer, cure polio, research AIDS and function in any number of vital scientific projects. All they knew about this “immortal” line of cells is that they reproduced quickly and were invaluable components of scientific progress. They did not know that the original cells, which have generated some 20 tons of cells for research purposes, were taken without the consent (or knowledge) of the terminally ill woman in whose body they resided: Henrietta Lacks.

Chances are good that, unlike so many scientists for so many years, you have heard of Henrietta Lacks, whether from Rebecca Skloots’ best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or, more recently, the HBO movie based on the book starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter Deborah. The story continues to be told, this time for the stage, in the world premiere play from TheatreFirst: HeLa by Bay Area playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy.

There are so many ways you can go with this story: heavy family drama, intense scientific victory, yet another chapter in the exploitation of African Americans. Gunderson and Reddy’s HeLa, named for the history-erasing name given to Lacks’ cells, goes in all of those directions, but does so in an expedient way that somehow even manages, amid the sadness and anger, to find some lightness and depth.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this nearly 70-minute one-act is the almost effortless way it makes Lacks’ story part of the epic African-American struggle. “We live on a history of taking,” one character says, and that taking extends from human beings taken from their native land, sold and enslaved to cells from Lacks’ cancer-ridden body taken, studied and regenerated for decades (to the present day) to the tune of billions of dollars while Henrietta’s family members – the husband and five children she left behind and then her grandchildren and great grandchildren – struggled to afford their own healthcare.

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That notion of taking resonates throughout this short play, which weaves a thorough portrait of Lacks and her legacy, its issues and its triumphs, without being weighted down by too many details, either biographical or scientific, though there are plenty of both.

At the start, director Evren Odcikin’s energetic production feels like it could be veering into Hallmark Channel sweetness as we meet the Lacks family. But that slow dance in front of a sink full of dishes is short-lived, as Henrietta quickly succumbs to cervical cancer, though her presence continues to dominate the play through a warm, passionate portrayal by Jeunée Simon. Where Henrietta’s cells go, the spirit of Henrietta follows, sometimes to comic effect, as when she and her petri dish accompany a canine cosmonaut (played by ensemble member Sarah Mitchell) on a space research mission.

Odcikin moves his adept cast around the small stage with verve and efficiency, as years tumble by and we begin to comprehend the vastness of the research and scientific accomplishment achieved thanks to Henrietta and the HeLa cells. But then comes the emotional weight borne by her family when they begin to learn what became of Henrietta’s cells and how they – and in a way her – have become immortal (and made certain people rich in the process).

The family’s emotional connection to Henrietta and the legacy to which she was only able to contribute her physical matter is embodied in a grounded, complex performance by Desiree Rogers as Deborah, one of the five Lacks children. We get to age with Deborah, from a little girl at her mother’s feet to a grandmother, and we feel the absence of a mother in her life and the perplexing, wrenching and unexpected return of that mother in the form of millions of cells in a lab.

Except for an attractive and intriguing backdrop (by Bailey Hikawa) that resembles a giant mass of bubble-like cells that effectively catch the lighting design by Stephanie Anne Johnson, the stage is bare of anything other than actors – most playing multiple roles – and a few chairs. Khary Moye is Henrietta’s husband, Day, and Richard Pallaziol is the doctor who has to tell Henrietta she’s dying, but then in an unsettling monologue, is able to reach into the future and discuss the ways she will be exploited without her ever knowing it. In later years, Akemi Okamura is a young scientist who needs to extract blood (just a little!) from the family and unwittingly reveals Henrietta’s involvement in the science community for the past two decades.

There’s a cumulative power to this story that feels both intimate and epic, another chapter in our history of taking that tells an essential story that should keep being told.

Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy’s HeLa continues through June 17 in a TheatreFirst production at the Black Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Visit

TheatreFIRST gets tempest tossed in Bagyó

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Miranda (Grace Ng, center) learns the truth form her Sisters (Marsha Dimelanta, left, and Jennifer Jovez) in TheatreFIRST’s Bagyó at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. BELOW: Lintik (Ed Berkeley, left) and Palarin (Richard Robert Bunker) scheme. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

When one of the Bay Area theater scenes most reliably inventive, resourceful and rewarding directors takes over a theater company and begins making changes, you pay attention. Jon Tracy is now at the helm of the Berkeley-based TheatreFIRST, a small but ambitious company that has had bumps and triumphs over the last 20 years while building a reputation as a haven for actors and playwrights to share voices from around the world.

The company’s new season – complete with a new mission to give “voice to all communities” guided by the principle of “aggressive diversity” and telling the world’s stories through “a mix of centralized and decentralized viewpoints” – officially launched on Monday with the world premiere of San Francisco playwright Rob Dario’s Bagyó, a fantasia inspired by The Tempest and the history of Southeast Asia.

Simply but elegantly designed by Noelle Viñas (set), Kevin Myrick (lights), Miyuki Bierlein (costumes) and Lorin King (sound), this 95-minute one-act is more intellectually intriguing than it is emotionally satisfying.

The most powerful moments come not in the lyrically obtuse dialogue from playwright Rob Dario but in the dance moments staged by director Bridgette Loriaux. One particularly dazzling dance has all the performers wielding sabers/sticks adorned with little lights (let’s call them lightsabers) and another sees a lost young woman (Grace Ng as Miranda) falling in love with an American soldier (Soren Santos as Danny).

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There’s also great beauty in the singing we hear, particularly by Jennifer Jovez and Marsha Dimalanta as sisters (Miranda’s sisters? Spirit sisters? Cooking show host sisters?). When they sing a lullaby in Tagalog (written by Dimalanta) all the confusion that’s built into the story – is it a dream? is it theater? is it extended metaphor linking the conflicts of history and families? – melts away and the Live Oak Theater is awash in beauty.

Trying to follow Bagyó with The Tempest as a guide only takes us so far. “Bagyó” means storm in Tagalog, so there’s that. There’s a direct parallel with Shakespeare’s Miranda and with this one, although Dario’s heroine is a warrior in her own right attempting to slice through the fog of her confusion. Palarin, Miranda’s father, played by Richard Robert Bunker, is a mean and magical presence à la Prospero, but his true function as “governor of the island” is never clear. The hulking warrior Lintik (Ed Berkeley) is Ariel-like, and Iwaksi (Wes Gabrillo) has his Caliban-ish moments but is definitely human, though he’s referred to as monstrous. Certainly soldier Danny is a Ferdinand stand-in, although his best moment comes in the show’s more historical vein when he delivers speeches related to the U.S. relationship with Southeast Asia, first as President William McKinley, then as LBJ and finally as President Obama.

But the historical blur is just that – blurry. Given that it never feels we’re on an island related to a specific country and that the represented invaders – Spanish, French, Chinese – are rather clownish, notions of war and colonization never quite come across seriously.

The biggest blur, however, is the one obscuring the relationship between Miranda and her father. Apparently there’s a buried-in-the-past secret involving her mother (a ghostly Krystle Piamonte who gives birth, at the start of the show, to a … pineapple). Although that secret is supposedly revealed, I have to say I’m not clear exactly what it was or what actually happened or if it relates to the story in a strictly personal way to Miranda and Palarin or if there’s historical significance as well.

There’s a lot of that confusion here, much of it intentional as multiple languages mix with music and dance and modern and ancient, and that can be entertaining, especially as embodied by the appealing and talented cast. But by the show’s end, confusion wins out over any kind of clarity characters might have achieved (or not) as they worked their way through storms both literal and figurative.

Rob Dario’s Bagyó continues through Nov. 5 in a TheatreFIRST production at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25 or visit

TheatreFIRST seeks leadership

No one ever said running a small theater company was easy.

Last summer, TheatreFIRST founding artistic director Clive Chafer handed leadership of the company over to Dylan Russell and Allison Studdiford as artistic director and producing director respectively.

Last month, this passing of the baton was celebrated at a gala event at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.

The story does not end there.

A press release sent out today stated that on Nov. 6, Russell and Studdiford resigned their positions. The release did not cite any reasons but did add that the TheatreFIRST Board of Directors “accepted their resignations with regret and wished them well in their future artistic endeavors.”

This leaves TheatreFIRST without a leader or a director for its spring production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, so now the company is searching for both.

Inquiries about the position of artistic director should be sent to Christine Dover, Board President, at; inquiries about the position of director for the spring production should be sent to Clive Chafer at

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

TheatreFirst reboots

Oakland’s TheatreFirst, the intrepid troupe led by founding artistic director Clive Chafer that has managed some fantastic shows in the face of an impossibly nomadic existence, is moving into the next phase of its existence.

Chafer is stepping down as artistic director and Dylan Russell and Allison Studdiford are stepping in as the new artistic and producing team.

The management change comes along with news that TheatreFirst is in negotiation for a permanent theater space in the Uptown Arts District of Oakland near the Paramount Theatre.

“This was the perfect opportunity to hand over to new leadership,” Chafer said in a statement. “I have been at the helm since 1993, and it’s time for a new vision to guide the company on the next stage of its journey.”

Russell has been a freelance director in the Bay Area and directed two TheatreFirst productions: World Music and last spring’s Future Me. Studdiford has been acting in the Bay Area for 25 years and has worked with TheatreFirst in Future Me, Death and the Maiden and Racing Demon.

“TheatreFirst could not be in better hands,” Chafer said.

For information visit

TheatreFirst moves again

Seems like we’ve written this sentence before — because we have.

TheatreFirst, the intrepid small theater company that just will not give up, is moving again.

The itinerant troupe always seems to find itself without a home after having been promised a permanent home. After bouncing from rec room to church to make-shift theater space, Clive Chafer’s group finally found a home in the Oakland YWCA. That worked out …until it didn’t.

Then they nabbed a storefront space in Old Oakland. That worked out … until it didn’t.

But Chafer (above with L. Peter Callender) is not one to give up. He recently announced that TheatreFirst will present the U.S. premiere of Stephen Brown’s Future Me, a London hit that had its premiere in a pub.

And where will the show go on? Chafer says that he has entered negotiations for a building in the nascent arts district of uptown Oakland (near the Paramount Theatre).

“If all goes well,” Chafer writes, “the company hopes to announce a four-show season there, opening in the fall of 2008.”

Meanwhile, “Future Me” will open at the Berkeley City Club on April 4 (after a preview on April 3) and continue through May 4. Tickets are $23-$28 (previews are $10). Patrons younger than 25 are half price.

The Berkeley City Club is at 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Call 510-436-5085 or visit

Bay Area critics hand out awards

The Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle’s 2006 award winners were announced last week, and the recognition was spread out pretty evenly. American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and California Shakespeare Theater all received four awards, while Aurora Theatre Company, SF Playhouse and San Jose Repertory Theatre each received three.

In the musical category, Broadway by the Bay led with nine awards, and Foothill Music Theatre had five awards.

The outstanding drama award was shared by Berkeley Rep’s The Miser (left, which actually originated at Minnesota’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune) and Aurora’s Salome.

Outstanding musical awards went to three winners: Broadway by the Bay’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Foothill’s Urinetown and TheatreWorks’ Vanities.

In the dramatic acting categories, principal performance awards went to Rita Moreno (below left, The Glass Menagerie, Berkeley Rep), Susi Damilano (Reckless, SF Playhouse), James Carpenter (The Master Builder, Aurora) and L. Peter Callender (World Music, TheatreFirst). Supporting awards went to Delia MacDougall (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cal Shakes), Nancy Carlin ( TheImmigrant, San Jose Rep), Sue Trigg (Noises Off, Willows Theatre) and Dan Hiatt (The Immigrant, San Jose Rep).

In the musical categories, principal performance awards went to Jessica Raaum (Annie Get Your Gun, Foothill) and Rick Williams (1776, Willows). Supporting awards went to Tiffany Marie Austin (Miss Saigon, Broadway by the Bay), Mary-Pat Green (Putting It Together, SF Playhouse), Maureen McVerry (Pardon My English, 42nd Street Moon), David Settler (Miss Saigon, Broadway by the Bay) and Paul Araquistain (Miss Saigon, Broadway by the Bay).

Director awards went to Barbara Damashek (Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Center Repertory Company) and Alex Perez (Miss Saigon, Broadway by the Bay). Ensemble awards were given to San Jose Rep’s The Immigrant, Center Rep’s The Marriage of Figaro and Berkeley Rep’s Passing Strange.

Touring productions cited for excellence were Doubt, Hairspray and Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

For a complete list of winners, visit

Review: “Nathan the Wise”

TheatreFirst stirs up Middle East drama in compelling Nathan the Wise
three 1/2 stars Wise and wonderful
(opened Feb. 9, 2007)

At the close of Friday’s opening-night performance of Nathan the Wise, TheatreFirst artistic director Clive Chafer thanked his audience for coming and, with some hesitation, mentioned that his 13-year-old company is facing some dire financial difficulties. Any help, he added, would be greatly appreciated.

Now, small theater companies are almost always facing dire financial difficulties, but this one sounds serious, and that is distressing, particularly in the wake of such an astute production of Nathan the Wise, a play that nobody but TheatreFirst would tackle.

With a mission to produce international drama and “throw light on the art and culture of diverse nations, while providing our patrons with high quality entertainment,” TheatreFirst, which performs in a vacant storefront space called the Old Oakland Theatre, fills a theatrical niche in the Bay Area. Rather than mindless entertainment, TheatreFirst is mindful, quite often provocative and almost always fascinating _ on a global scale.

Nathan the Wise is the perfect example of the company at its best. Here’s a 1729 play by German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing that explores the relationships between Jews, Christians and Muslims in 12th-century Jerusalem.

The original German version ran upward of 4 1/2 hours, but Chafer here uses Edward Kemp’s 2003 adaptation, which runs a much more manageable 2 1/2 hours.

So much time has gone by since the play was written (let alone when it was set), and so little has changed. One of the characters marvels at the Middle East _ where everyone in the world is thrown together.

War, money and religious intolerance all take their positions in the plot, but what makes Nathan the Wise really interesting is, as the title suggests, its wisdom. Lessing’s objective here seems to be a desire to rise above the squabbling and the deep-seated differences and think about humanity in a more open-minded, all-encompassing way.

Over here we have Nathan (Will Huddleston), a wealthy Jewish man who trades exotic goods and loans money. Then we have Saladin (Terry Lamb), the sultan, a Muslim, who needs money to finance his wars. And then we have a Knight Templar (Christopher Maikish), a Christian soldier, who falls in love with Nathan’s daughter, Rachel (Megan Briggs).

To successfully navigate all the Shakespearean twists and turns of the plot _ the convoluted ending is even goofier than anything Shakespeare could have dreamed up _ Lessing must keep his preaching for religious tolerance prominent in each scene.

That’s what keeps the play from stumbling on the melodrama of its plot. For instance, Nathan and the Knight Templar have a fascinating discussion about religious differences that peaks when Nathan says: “It is enough to be a man.”

And then, in the central scene of the play, when the sultan has summoned Nathan in an attempt to trick the man out of his money, comes a fascinating parable.

Saladin asks Nathan: “Which faith have you found most enlightening?” Thinking that among Judaism, Muslim and Christianity there can be no right answer, Saladin has all but stuffed is hands into Nathan’s pockets. But this man is not called “the Wise” for nothing and responds with the story of a father, his three sons and three rings that is astonishing in its power and clarity.

Director Soren Oliver works with a strong cast _ which also includes Jessica Powell, Clive Worsley (right, with Huddleston) and Sandra Schlechter _ to present Lessing’s play in as brisk and as straightforward a manner as possible. This allows the play’s intellect to flourish.

Nathan the Wise is a fascinating play that has lost none of its power over the centuries. To be without TheatreFirst or this kind of first-rate, thought-provoking theater would be a tremendous loss to the Bay Area.

For information about TheatreFirst and Nathan the Wise, visit