Wonderful women in Word for Word’s Aunt Hagar

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The cast of Word for Word’s All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones includes (from left) Kehinde Koyejo, Jia Taylor, Khary L. Moye, Sheila Balter and Margo Hall. Below: The Young Man’s (Khary L. Moye) elders (Margo Hall, left, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, seated, and Velina Brown) ask an urgent favor. Photos by Julie Schuchard

What you remember from Word for Word’s production of All Aunt Hagar’s Children, a full theatrical adaptation of the short story by Edward P. Jones, are the women. Such women. They make an impression on the audience the way they make an impression the story’s narrator, a nameless young man who returned to his native Washington, D.C., nine months ago after serving in the Korean War.

The young man is in a transitional phase, working a file clerk-type job until he can join a war buddy in Alaska and strike gold, but mostly he’s giving himself license to celebrate (i.e. drink) and dream of a life beyond what he already knows. As he puts it: “And I, a veteran hearing Alaska singing, didn’t want to ask any big questions and didn’t want anybody asking me any big questions. I was twenty-four and just starting to dance away on the easy side—a little soft-shoe here, a little soft-shoe there.”

Living a quiet, alcohol-soaked life isn’t quite panning out for the young man. Drama finds him in the form of a strange incident involving a Jewish woman who practically dies in his arms on the street, muttering an enigmatic Yiddish phrase with her final breath. And in the form of a murder that he reluctantly agrees to help and solve.

With that latter, Jones’ story falls into some familiar, noir-ish rhythms, although the young man, who worked as a military policeman in Korea, is not at all a detective. What his investigation does is let him cross paths with some extraordinarily interesting women, and that’s where the heart of the story lies.

As in all Word for Word productions, the company has not changed a word of Jones’ story, which originally appeared in the New Yorker in 2003 and then served as the title story in a collection of his short stories in 2006. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for his novel The Known World, Jones delivers an unusually told story that is both intimate and epic, a short story that feels crammed with incident and history and interpersonal connections. It’s one man’s story that is continually taken over by the women he encounters, some of whom are close family members, others he barely knows and still others who are strangers on the street.

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Director Stephanie Hunt (working with co-director Margo Hall, who is also a standout in the uniformly strong cast) has the disadvantage of working on the cavernous main stage at Z Space rather than the more intimate Z Below in the basement. Set designer Sean Riley creates a striking image of brick buildings in a northwest Washington neighborhood, but most of the action is confined to a much smaller platform plagued with door frames whose logic is not always observed by the actors. There’s a lot of time spent bringing furniture on and off this platform, which tends to slow the action.

And if there’s one thing plaguing this 100-minute one-act production it’s pacing and a tendency to be too literal in the interpretation of Jones’ prose. The writing is evocative enough without having to see every little thing (especially at the end with a striking image that is probably best left to the imagination rather than being rather clumsily realized).

Khary L. Moye makes for an arresting narrator who is at once charming in his assessment of his life and surroundings and confounded by the same. Except for Joel Mullennix in a series of smaller roles (a nefarious bad guy from the past, the young man’s lawyer boss), the other six members of the cast play all the wonderful women our narrator encounters in his quest to solve a mystery and discover the meaning behind the words uttered to him by the dead white woman he tried to help.

Velina Brown is piercingly funny and moving as the young man’s mother, a stern, sharp-tongued woman with a deep love for her children and her two best friends from childhood (Hall as Aunt Penny and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe as Miss Agatha), with whom she suffered some significant trauma as little girls in Alabama. The ghost of that trauma haunts the present (1950s) narrative in a most intriguing way.

Sheila Balter plays both of the Jewish women who factor into the young man’s intrigue: the woman who dies on the street and the woman who connects him to the dead woman’s final words. Just as the connection with his mother’s past weighs on the young man, so does his post-World War II interactions with these two very different Jewish women. Nothing is overly explicit in Jones’ writing here – it all adds to the emotional, cultural and even historical complexity of the young man’s experience.

Many of the other woman are those who assist in the murder investigation in some way. Hall is hilarious as Minnie, a neighbor of the murder victim who’s skill at flirtation is almost as pronounced as her talking bird’s ability to surprise with bizarre exhortations (“I’m only flesh and blood” or “There’s more to come, somebitch!). Kehinde Koyejo memorably plays the bird.

Jia Taylor plays the romantic interest from whom the young man is uncomfortably trying extricate himself as well as one half of a duo (Koyejo plays the other) who help the budding detective the trajectory of his investigation (he hasn’t quite figured out that he should visit the scene of the crime even though it happened some two years ago).

Storytelling is important to characters in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, just as their stories themselves are powerful in the telling. One character says of her father, “He used to tell me stories when the world got too much. Comforting, you know. Keeping the world away.” Jones’ has that effect while also bringing the world in closer for a better, more intriguing view.

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You can read Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children on the New Yorker website here.

Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children continues through Dec. 11 in a Word for Word production at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $33-$58. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.zspace.org.

SF Mime Troupe rocks the boat in Ripple Effect

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Lisa Hori-Garcia (left, as Jeanine Adenauer), Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (center, as Sunny Nguyen) and Velina Brown (as Deborah Johnson) in this year’s San Francisco Mime Troupe free show Ripple Effect. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

I must admit that for a while there, I ceased looking forward to the July Fourth debut of the latest San Francisco Mime Troupe show at Dolores Park. The productions were feeling slack or worse, forced. The writing was off and the politics came off as strident or silly rather than relevant or even entertaining.Happy to report that this year’s show, Ripple Effect, is a major improvement. Much of the credit must go to writers Tanya Shaffer and Eugenie Chan, who co-wrote the show along with the Mime Troupe’s Michael Gene Sullivan. Very smart to tap two of the Bay Area’s most interesting playwrights.

I reviewed Ripple Effect for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a sampling:

This year’s offering, “Ripple Effect,” which opened, as tradition dictates, in Dolores Park on the Fourth of July, could be full of rage, disgust and an overwhelming sense of injustice. And it is, to a degree. But it’s wrapped in a brightly written, laugh-laden, altogether chipper package that makes it one of the most enjoyable Mime Troupe outings in recent memory.

As written by Michael Gene Sullivan, Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer, “Ripple Effect” takes its time working the audience into a fit of San Francisco outrage (about life in San Francisco no less), but by the end, fists are pumping and everyone’s chanting, “Justice rules and the Earth comes first!”

Though tech companies, outrageous rents and the displacement of San Francisco’s working class are the obvious fuel for this year’s show, the focus is personal.

Read the full review here.

And one of the best parts of this year’s Mime Troupe experience: bringing Fanny, the original Theater Dog, who doesn’t actually get to see much theater. She had a splendid time as well.

Fanny Mime Troupe

San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Ripple Effect tours Bay Area and Northern California parks through Sept. 1. Shows are free. Call 415-285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org.

Review: `Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party’

The cast of Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party performs an elaborate opening number in the SF Playhouse world-premiere production. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.


History, politics, utter zaniness collide in Honest Abe’s `Dance Party’
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Aaron Loeb’s world-premiere play Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party at the SF Playhouse embraces adventurous theatricality. There’s drama, comedy, dancing, politicized fourth graders, absurdity, murder, betrayal, romance, insanity, corruption, rampant homosexuality and even more rampant conservatism.

In short, this is an ambitious play that includes just about everything you can think of. By rights, the play shouldn’t work. With so much going on, the focus should be shot and the play’s intentions scattered all over the place.

But the great thing about Loeb, working with director Chris Smith (former artistic director of the Magic Theatre), is that he’s a ferocious entertainer. As he demonstrated last year, also at the SF Playhouse, with First Person Shooter, he builds plays with a sort of maniacal energy that helps them careen from scene to scene and back again.

Abraham Lincoln, which opened Saturday, is above all else, a hugely entertaining show. The fact that it has something serious on its mind is less immediately apparent when the cast of seven – all dressed as Abraham Lincoln — is performing an elaborate dance number (choreography by Kimberly Richards and Tom Segal) that pays goofy homage to the likes of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.

There’s even a gimmick afoot to complicate the proceedings. The cast invites the audience to vote on the order of the three acts (with two intermissions). As we hear about the “trial of the century” in Menard County, Illinois, we’re asked if we want to hear first from the defense attorney, the prosecuting attorney or the reporter covering the trial for the New York Times.

On opening night we began with the defense attorney, Regina (Velina Brown), a black Republican senator with designs on the governor’s office (hard to imagine anyone at this moment in history wanting to be governor of Illinois). Her mentor and dear friend, Tom (Joe Kady), a disgraced senator of the Regan vintage, has surprised her by wanting the governor’s chair for himself.

Tom is using the bully pulpit of a county courtroom to stage his comeback. He’s prosecuting a fourth-grade teacher (Lorraine Olsen) for allowing her students’ Christmas pageant to claim that Abraham Lincoln liked to sleep with men and was likely in love with his friend Joshua Speed (as some historians have claimed).

Not to be outdone by Tom’s grandstanding, Regina and her trusty assistant, Tina (Sarah Mitchell), head for the cornfield county and proceed to play dirty and grab some headlines for themselves.

Loeb plays fast and loose with styles here. On Bill English’s highly efficient, Lincoln-plastered set full clever compartments and cupboards, action shifts quickly. We have realism in the offices of the politicos, then we have broad slapstick, as with the members of the press. The hayseed reporter, Sparky McGee, is a rube with flashes of brilliance. The blogger is a Bluetooth-y ass. And the New York Times reporter, Anton (Mark Anderson Phillips, above right, with Michael Phillis), arrives wearing a kingly cape amid reverent huzzahs.

It turns out that Anton will become an actual character in this drama, and his story was the second one we saw on opening. He arrives in Menard with his best gal pal, fashion photographer Esmeralda (Brown again in a zesty comic performance) and immediately makes a beeline for Tom’s pie shop-owning son, Jerry (Michael Phillis). If Tom is so insistent on continuing the gay witch hunt he began in the Reagan administration, Anton is going to make sure there are no useful secrets in the former senator’s family closet.

Anton’s story is the most poignant of the three because of his interaction with Jerry, a sensitive young man trapped by family in a painfully untenable situation. The two men have a heated scene in the thick of a corn field (English’s set triumphs yet again), and Loeb’s writing crackles with intelligence and intensity.

The third act on opening night was told from Tom’s point of view, and this proved to be the trickiest of the trilogy. Tom’s anti-gay crusade is never fully explored, and as issues of mental health enter into the picture, his motives become even fuzzier. Still, Kady gives an extraordinarily full performance as the troubled family man who isn’t above hiring a Karl Rove-like operative (Brian Degan Scott) to smooth the way to the governor’s office.

It’s hard to overstate the skill of this ensemble. Everyone plays multiple roles, and they all zip from comedy to drama and back (not to mention all the dancing) with ease. They all have individual moments to shine, but the greatest impression comes from their work together. There’s real connection here, and that’s another element that helps this scattershot approach adhere.

That said, Phillips and Phillis do extraordinary work together, and their characters both end up being far more interesting than first impressions would indicate.

Through it all, Loeb keeps returning to Abraham Lincoln, whose iconic visage permeates the entire production, both in serious and comic ways. A statesman, a humanitarian, an enigma and, perhaps most importantly, an American, Lincoln lends a certain gravitas to the evening. Even at its zaniest – and things do get zany – there are serious issues, both political and personal, being thrown around.

But here’s the thing: Loeb and this fantastic production aren’t on any soapbox. They’re throwing an all-American bash, and we’re all invited.


Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party continues through Jan. 17 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Review: `Red State’

Opened July 4 in Dolores Park

The cast of the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Red State includes (from left) Lisa Hori-Garcia, Lizzie Calogero, Robert Ernst and Adrian C. Mejia. Photos by David Allen

Great songs make Mime Troupe’s `Red State’ sing

This Fourth of July, at the premiere of SF Mime Troupe’s latest opus, Red State, petitions were circulating to get a local sewage plant named after George W. Bush. Another group was fighting the push to charge $115 for replacement library books. Cindy Sheehan was there, so were giant dragonflies dancing over the heads of the theatergoers/revelers, and even the sun made intermittent appearances.

With the impending presidential election, this is prime time for a nearly 50-year-old lefty-loony theatrical troupe with satire on its collective mind.

Written and directed by Michael Gene Sullivan, Red State forgoes the big, easy targets and focuses on the little man. Specifically, the show is about the dying Kansas town of Bluebird, where the hospital, the public schools and the farms are all kaput.

It’s Election Day 2008, and by some bizarre twist, the results are tied, with only one district not reporting any results. Yes, little Bluebird – with its late-arriving ballot machine and dwindling population – holds the key to the nation’s highest office.

Though it bears a strange resemblance to Swing Vote, an upcoming Kevin Costner film about a regular guy who holds the deciding vote in the presidential election, Red State is sharp for most of its 90 minutes. There’s a dull patch in the last third, but things pick up by the end.

The real high point of the show is Pat Moran’s score. He has written some great songs about struggling Americans. In “How Much” a woman trying to sell her last few possessions sings, “What’s the use of memories when you can’t make enough to get through the day?”

And in the showstopper, Velina Brown (above with Robert Ernst), as Miss Rosa the librarian, sings “Leaving Town.” Soulful and with a hint of ’50s blues, the song bemoans a country where the educated are in the minority and the priority is bombs over brains. In the end, Miss Rosa sings that she’s just another over-educated, unemployed old woman whose country doesn’t want anything she has to offer.

Red State lives up to its name during a fantastic fantasy sequence in which the son of a diehard union man (Ernst) gets swept away by a twister and wakes up in an alternate socialist reality in which his town is thriving, health care is paid for, the pencil factory is still running and no families are living in their Oldsmobiles.
Seems this pithy scene is worthy of a show all its own, but when the man returns to the real world, his heart beats with socialist fervor as he sings the praises of “Bein’ Red.”

Also in the perky cast are Noah James Butler (whose funniest character is God-fearing Wendell, a man trying to sell a giant crucifix), Lizzie Calogero (hilarious as a creaky homeless granny), Lisa Hori-Garcia (as a dutiful mom trying to keep her family afloat while her husband fights in Afghanistan) and Adrian Mejia (as a hometown boy turned soldier just back from the Middle East).
Red State gets its message out there with plenty of laughs to cut the sting. As one man says: “Fighting just keeps you tired – too tired to realize you might be fighting the wrong fight.” Ouch.

Red State continues its free park tour through Sept. 14 and is likely coming to a park near you. Visit www.sfmt.org for a complete schedule or call 415-285-1717.