Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Sulayman Al Bassam’s Petrol Station, which will have its world premier at the Kennedy Center this Friday (followed by performances Saturday and Sunday only), is an extraordinary new play that arrives at our nation’s capitol with such uncanny timing it will make your head spin. The work is feverishly in-tune with both the unhinged state of our political life and the chaos that rages throughout much of the Middle East.
A Kuwaiti playwright, celebrated for his fearless explorations of political and religious issues roiling the pan-Arab world, Al Bassam’s choice to cast only American actors in a story set in the no-man’s land of an unnamed Arabian Gulf state will reverberate with the viewer long after the play is over in profound, unexpected ways.
The story unfolds at a desert petrol station where two half-brothers – the Cashier (a country national) and the Trafficker (a dual national) – compete for control of a gas pump whose meter is lost, while their indentured servant (read slave) Joseph, carrier of family secrets, serves seemingly at their command. Their aging father, aware that fuel is being illegally siphoned off to militias fighting in a nearby country’s civil war, commands his sons to find the missing meter in the belief that it will reinstate order at the station and possibly liberate them and their country from the stranglehold of oppression.
The Meter has been lost and in its place,
comes abuse and fear that tatters sleep.
Evil has taken root in this Station;
corruption, like cancer, has seized its bones.
…find the Meter, the bell of truth will toll.
And so the search begins. The meter must be found. The Manager, a Bedoon (stateless Arab and bastard son), directs his migrant workers Bayu and Khan (Al Bassam’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), to dig. Into this charged oasis, come two refugees, a brother and sister, fleeing the neighboring civil war.
As the Trafficker and Cashier’s war-profiteering collides with the refugees’ psychic trauma and desperate dreams, the specific geography of the petrol station disappears, allowing the space, as well as the actors’ performances, to become global stand-ins for any place tyranny rules and makes humanity expendable.
The playwright signals this global resonance by layering his actors with a mix of accents – African, Latino, Arab, Texan – and featuring, in his all American cast, actors that define America’s diversity and our own citizens’ personal connection to the contemporary global stage.
Although the play, like the world right now, is certainly bleak, Al Bassam understands where hope and change will come from and doesn’t shy away from it. The refugee Girl wraps her every word in fight and spite, summoning her own resistance:
…I’m not lining up to join the ranks of the dispossessed.
I’ve a people that need me, a country on the slaughter rack,
seized in the pains of a terrible becoming…
Out of this bloodshed, out of this suffering
a child is being born;
…I’ve pledged my life to this unborn child
and vowed to teach it all I know and
all I love and all I wish for. That is my alphabet.
For anyone who feels their outrage weakening as the deluge of “Trumpian” disturbances continues with no end in sight, Petrol Station offers the best kind of reprieve. Art, in this case political theater, can be clarifying for the soul in times like these, and Petrol Station does just that.
Petrol Station will be performed in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on March 24 and 25 at 8:00 p.m. with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on March 26. A post-performance discussion will be offered following the March 24 performance.
For more information please visit the Kennedy Center website, in-person at the Kennedy Center box office, or call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
Douglas Taurel has never served in the military but he possesses deep empathy for the soldier and the families of the soldiers. It is not an inactive empathy. Though a successful actor in his own right (he got into acting because he wanted to impress a girl!), seven years ago he felt compelled to begin working on a project which eventually turned into The American Soldier, a one-man play which he has been performing at theaters and festivals over the past year. Residents of the tri-state area who were unable to see the play previously will have another opportunity to see it at Mile Square Theater in Hoboken from September 9 -11.
I reviewed the play last year at 59E59 Theaters when it debuted (click here for the review) and had the opportunity last week to talk with Taurel about the play as he gets ready for the Hoboken run.
There were a few catalysts that drove Taurel create The American Soldier. First, he has always been fascinated with American history and has always spent time trying to understand history through characters. Second, as an avid reader, he read stories of veterans with PTSD and he was very troubled by them. And finally, as a husband and a father and an actor, he could really empathize with the pain of losing a child or a spouse. At a certain point, he wanted to do something. He wanted to give back. The American Soldier is the result of all that active empathy and intellect. “What I really wanted to do was to give a sincere thank-you to our soldiers and to their families,” said Taurel.
In The American Soldier, Taurel wanted to represent the war from all perspectives and the play provides a kaleidoscope of experiences. Soldiers are obviously represented, but there are also mothers, fathers, children, and siblings of soldiers. Not surprisingly, PTSD is a theme that comes up and seems to have resonated the most with audience members, but that is only one layer of the experience that Taurel was trying to convey. “I find it heartbreaking and moving to know that a son is not going to play with his father again,” said Taurel. “Or how a wife can get into bed without her husband for the rest of her life.”
These are experiences that can resonate with everyone, but it is the power of Taurel’s writing and acting that allows everyone to access those traumatic and heartbreaking experiences. It is because of this that the play has had a much longer life than he anticipated, something that is especially gratifying to Taurel. “It’s like the show that won’t die,” he told me. After an initial run at 59E59 Theaters, he took it to the Edinburgh Fringe where it won a 4-star rating and was nominated for the UK Amnesty International Award for Theatre excellence. The show started to sell out and people urged him to continue to take the show elsewhere. So from Edinburgh to Houston, and then later to the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York. Now it is Mile Square Theater in Hoboken, and he is also scheduled to reprise it in November in upstate New York in performances solely for veterans. To cap things off, he is also in discussions with the Kennedy Center to perform it there early next year.
Of course Taurel is pleased with the success of the show, but he is more pleased with how the show has been able to reach people and open up conversations that were closed down beforehand. He shared with me the letter of one veteran whose wife had never understood the military and held harsh views on it and the soldiers who joined. After seeing the show though, she apologized to her husband for their previous fights about the military, started to express an interest in his military experience, and then told him that she was proud of him. This is just one of many individual testimonials that Taurel has received.
Taurel called the show The American Soldier because it was based on actual letters by and to American soldiers. (He would build characters based on actual people, but fictionalize the stories since he didn’t have licensing rights.) But he believes that the themes and experiences he explores are universal to soldiers, regardless of country. He experienced this directly when he brought the play to Edinburgh. He admits that he was a little worried about bringing this play, blatantly titled The American Soldier to another country. He worried, rightly, that it would smack of American arrogance. Instead he found that the play was able to transcend the American boundary, and give cause for the stiff British upper lip to quaver a little. In England, he told me, no one was talking about these issues. Once the play started to sell out in Edinburgh, he would start to see mothers of U.K. veterans in the audience. And after the play, they would come up to him and thank him for doing the play and bringing these issues to light. Taurel believes that he would receive this reaction in any country.
If the soldier’s experience is universal across nations, it is also universal across time. Taurel was amazed once he started doing his research how he would find almost the same phrases and descriptions in letters from the 1700s to letters of today. The biggest pattern he found across all wars was the inability to sleep after killing innocent people. But this was just one of many, the others including loss and anger and post-traumatic stress.
And that is the power of the play. The ability to take military experiences across time and wars and countries and weave them together—through characters—in a way that resonates with both soldiers and non-soldiers, and more importantly, allows people to grieve or understand or simply be a little more at peace and able to move on with life.
If the shows moves on to the Kennedy Center next year, Taurel feels that would be a fitting way to end the great run. But when I asked him what is next, he almost sighed and said, “Oh, there are so many…” The two that are most important to him outside of the military are race and immigration. If Taurel is able to take on those issues as well as he has the military one, then I will eagerly be on the look out for those. For now though, he is busy enough with the final productions of The American Soldier as well as his regular acting work to even think about the next big project. However, I can’t help but think that Taurel, with as much active empathy as he has, will be back at some point to tackle another big issue. And that one will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, there are still another few productions of The American Soldier to savor before we see his next big project.
“The American Soldier” will be playing at the Mile Square Theater in Hoboken from September 9-11. For more information, visit: www.milesquaretheatre.org.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe was a controversial figure in his time recognized as much for his arrogance as he was for his talents as a jazz pianist and composer. Jelly Roll Morton, as he was known professionally, boasted that he invented jazz, a claim rejected by historians and fellow musicians. There’s no doubt, however, that he contributed mightily to jazz’s growth and made significant contributions to the genre’s songbook. Jelly’s Last Jam, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, brings to the stage a talented group of performers to celebrate his life and legacy.
Mark G. Meadows with the cast
Signature Theatre is transformed into the Jungle Inn nightclub, the Washington, D.C. bar where Morton worked and managed in 1935. (The actual address for the bar was 1211 U Street, NW, adjacent to what is now another D.C. landmark, Ben’s Chili Bowl.) An intimate atmosphere is created, small lamps with fringed shades adorn a dozen or so round tables that ring the stage providing seating for some audience members. (We almost expect to see waiters running around serving drinks.) Decorative chandeliers evoke the feeling of a dance hall. Side runways link the back stage to two circular platforms in front where several of the production’s stunning dance numbers are performed.
When the musical opens, Morton is dead and, aided by the enigmatic “Chimney Man” (Cleavant Derricks), is looking back on his life, warts and all. While Morton possessed incredible talents, he was also misogynistic and racist, insulting and often cruel to those around him. Born into a wealthy mixed-race Creole family in New Orleans, Morton was drawn to the music being played in the streets of his native city, mostly by poor blacks. His conflicts about his ancestry – he rejected his African American heritage, claiming to be of French descent – damaged both his personal and professional relationships. He left his mark on jazz, yet we’re left to wonder how much greater would his influence have been if he had not alienated so many along the way.
Mark G. Meadows
Young Jelly, played by Elijah Mayo, is tossed out from his home by his strict grandmother (Iyona Blake), who disapproved of his musical aspirations and particularly disliked the seedy bars he was playing in. With few options left, Morton becomes a traveling musician, but his family’s slight will continue to haunt him. As the adult Morton, jazz pianist Mark G. Meadows brings the many facets of this complicated entertainer to life. While Meadows’ jazz credentials are stellar, including popular albums, concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and many other venues, and accolades for his performances from the press, this musical marks his acting debut. Hopefully, this won’t be the last role he tackles.
Guy Lockhard and Mark G. Meadows
Having an actor who can play the piano and sing results in a fuller portrayal of Morton. But Meadows displays his acting skills during some of the most challenging scenes, including one which involves a confrontation with perhaps Morton’s best friend, “Jack the Bear,” played by Guy Lockhard, another standout performer. What transpires is so searing there were audible gasps in the audience and then silence.
Mark G Meadows and Felicia Boswell
Jelly finds the love of his life, Anita (Felicia Boswell), when he vies for a job in her club. While she’s impressed with his talents, she’s put off by his hubris and makes him work for her approval. Morton wins the job as well as her heart, but he sabotages the relationship before it can get started. Meadows and Boswell have a natural chemistry and their duets are thrilling to watch. Boswell, whose Broadway credits include playing Josephine Baker in Shuffle Along, infuses her strong voice with so much emotion that we feel her joy when she falls in love with Jelly and her heart-wrenching pain when he verbally abuses her.
Despite the dark moments from Jelly’s life, the musical is uplifting entertainment. The leads are backed up with an exceptional cast of singers and dancers. For fans of tap dancing, don’t miss it! Because these dance moments take place on those circular platforms, the audience can witness up close the energy and technique displayed by each dancer. Incredible choreography by Jared Grimes.
Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan
Dede M. Ayite’s costume design reflects the time period with the glittery flapper dresses worn by the female trio of Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, and Eben K. Logan, and the dapper suits sported by Meadows and the other male actors. Derricks’ Chimney Man costume presents as both authoritative and foreboding, consistent with his role in raking over Jelly’s many transgressions that may lead to a less than desirable life after death.
Director Matthew Gardiner has once again staged a Broadway-worthy show that is hugely enjoyable. And because of Jelly Roll Morton’s connection to the area, one that should interest local audiences.
Photos by Christopher Mueller Top: Mark G. Meadows, center, with the cast
Jelly’s Last Jam Signature Theatre 4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, Virginia 703-820-9771