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.
On the eve of the American Revolution’s final battle at Yorktown, as portrayed in the musical Hamilton, Lafayette and Hamilton cross paths and, in a brief exchange, these two freedom fighters share a private moment of mutual admiration. “Immigrants,” they shout in unison as they high-five each other, “we get the job done.”
I had the incredible good fortune to be sitting right in the front row (my husband and I won tickets through the online lottery) and the audience reaction to that exchange is one I’ll never forget. A roar of individual voices let loose such a fiery mix of shout outs, cheers, that’s right, yeah’s, hoots and hollers, I immediately realized everyone wanted in on that high five. Myself included. Lin Manuel Miranda may have authored the stage moment, but its truth belonged to all of us. Of course, that was in October. Four weeks before the election.
Just eight months earlier I had met up with fellow filmmaker and long-time friend Arthur Vincie to discuss a script he had just completed for a ten-part web series on immigrants in New York City called Three Trembling Cities. He lifted the title from E.B. White’s famous 1949 essay “Here is New York.” In what is essentially a love letter to New York, White observed that it is the settlers – those who come in quest of something – that give the city its passion. It is the immigrants, he understands, that make New York tremble with hope.
When Arthur invited me to come onboard as a producer, I didn’t hesitate. Back in February, the political rhetoric around the word immigrant had already hardwired into a freakish schizophrenia. Immigrants were increasingly labeled as either the source of all our ills or at the heart of what makes America great. The word itself, so burdened with outsize meaning, had been reduced to code for “other.” In that capacity, it was headlined almost nightly on the evening news.
What I liked about Arthur’s script was his choice to build an ensemble of characters whose “otherness” is explored without resorting to the easy pitfalls of narrative extremes or self-conscious stereotype correction. He presents his characters through the shared humanity of their everyday struggles while infusing each with enough of an “immigrant” backstory to sharpen the prism through which we see them as individuals.
For example, Behrouz, a first-generation Iranian-American, whose parents sacrificed everything to give him a chance at the great American dream, feels compelled to constantly rationalize his choice to be an artist to his sister Azin, a high-powered lawyer. Babacar, a jewelry maker from Senegal, is forced, through no fault of his own, to negotiate his living in the shadows because his father brought him over with fake papers. And Madha, a Guyanese-American waitress, whose mother’s citizenship secured her own, watches helplessly as her roommate fails his merit hearing, leaving her in the hell that New Yorkers know as searching for a new apartment.
Arash Mokhtar as Behrouz
We crowdfunded the budget online, with donations coming primarily from the immigrant community, and by early spring we were casting. Putting out a call for actors to play everything from an Eritrean refugee to an aspiring chef from Kenya to a PhD candidate from India, like the musical Hamilton, emphasized the underutilized reservoir of talent that exists here in New York. The shooting took us all over the city – Sunset Park, Bushwick, Jackson Heights, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and the lower east side –and by mid-summer all ten-episodes had been shot. By early fall we were ready to release season one. We knew the production was solid and hoped that despite having a shoe-string publicity budget, we could coax a slow build for the series online. Then the election happened.
The earthquake of the Trump Presidency spread a tsunami of fear and uncertainty across the city. Swastikas defaced a playground named after the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. A transit worker wearing a hijab was pushed down the stairs at Grand Central. And an Arab-American policewoman and 16-year veteran of the force was verbally harassed, accused of being a member of ISIS and told to go back home.
By releasing our ten-part web-series for free on multiple web platforms – Amazon Direct, Brooklyn on Demand, Rikaroo, Stareable and Vimeo – we hope it can serve not only as a worthwhile piece of filmmaking but also as an educational tool and starting point for dialogue that can breakdown the stigma of the “other” and remind everyone what E.B. White recognized 67 years ago:
There are roughly three New Yorks… the New York of those who were born here… the New York of the commuter… and the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities, the greatest is the last – the city of final destination… Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
-E. B. White, Here Is New York
I like to imagine that E.B. White, perched in some kind of fantastic writer’s heaven, has checked out the musical “Hamilton” and feels that Layfayette and Hamilton’s high-five belongs to him, too.
Top photo: Madha (Pascale Piquion) and Babacar (Yacine Djoumbaye)
Three Trembling Cities, a new ten-part web series on New York City immigrants, is now available on Amazon.com, Rikaroo.com, Brooklynondemand.com, Stareable.com and Vimeo.
While I grant that culture depicted here is relatively unknown to me, I don’t for a minute attribute my opinion of the play’s success to novelty. Author Quiara Alegria Hudes’s detailed, multicultural characterization and unexpected plot lines make the bar setting an apt canvas rather than a cliché. There isn’t a false, pandering, or extra word. The piece is lively, humorous, dramatic and affecting.
Hudes, it should be noted, won a Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful and wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights. The latter was directed by Thomas Kail, responsible for both Hamilton and this new work.
Daphne’s North Philly Bar/Lounge is the kind of old fashioned, neighborhood watering hole patronized by family and odd ducks for whom the place is a second home. Sentences begun by one are finished by others, jokes are “in”, history is shared. Owned by its grounded, wry, Puerto-Rican namesake (Vanessa Aspillaga), as is the rundown building housing questionable tenants, Daphne’s welcomes a core of regulars including:
Vanessa Aspillaga and Matt Saldivar
Struggling artist, Pablo (Matt Saldivar), currently a dumpster-diver in service of paintings depicting the discard of people’s lives; Jenn (KK Moggie), a passionate and literally colorful activist with a self avowed ‘Messiah Complex,’; and, Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a middle-aged, hippie motorcyclist who picks up physical labor to support his travels- though completely credible, the least well realized participant. Daphne’s sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who married a community-minded, up-and-coming businessman and her husband Acosta (Carlos Gomez) are also omnipresent. These two are economically better off and geographically better situated, yet loyal and generous.
Vanessa Aspillaga and Samira Wiley
When an upstairs apartment is raided by police and DEA who cart off drugs, guns and its inhabitants, the tenants’ 11 year-old daughter, Ruby (Samira Wiley), jumps out a window. She’s found, bruised and cowering, behind the building. Daphne first shelters then reluctantly adopts the emotionally broken girl, but, in essence, Ruby acquires six parents. Over a period of 17 years, framed by the Ruby’s informing us how old she is at the start of each scene, fates, relationships, and some personalities radically alter.
Jenn, whom Ruby identifies as her only honest friend (Jenn has no boundaries), grows increasingly more radical and then unhinged in her attempts to raise awareness about the state of the world. Both Ruby and Daphne develop strong, unforseen bonds with her. Acosta rises in politics eventually yielding to proffered temptations, risking his marriage. Ruby becomes a smart, enthusiastic student, yet her underpinnings are shakier than what’s publicly apparent; she eventually makes a surprising choice. Painful secrets about Daphne and Inez indirectly relate to Ruby. Pablo achieves a kind of fame, yet stays his course. Rey is Rey.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Vanessa Aspillaga
At an hour forty-five with no intermission, one never feels restless. Director Thomas Kail keeps flow consistent and smooth. Lights dim; evocative piano music by Michel Camilo is heard with such pristine clarity it seems to get inside one (Sound Design – Nevin Steinberg), an efficient swarm of stagehands adjust Donyale Werle’s splendid, weathered Set.
Physical acting adds insight. Pablo is graceful in his skin, while Jenn’s natural eurhythmy seems provoked. Daphne is always aware of gravity. Acosta carries himself with calm confidence. Inez moves in spurts. Ruby is defensive. Ray lolls. Kail serves a cast who knows how to listen, utilizing his staging area with authenticity and creativity. Small business illuminates, the creation of banners and tending to a symbolic plant work particularly well. A parentheses of dancing captivates.
Matt Saldivar, Samira Wiley, Carlos Gomez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Costume Design (and, one presumes, wigs) by Toni-Leslie James suit place, people, period, and status. Representation of Pablo’s artfully insouciant combinations and Jenn’s various off-the-wall ensembles is inspired.
Vanessa Aspillaga’s Daphne bears a palpable undercurrent of emotion and power that serves as ballast. When she briefly erupts later in the piece, disclosure has all the more effect.
KK Moggie first manifests Jenn as an insubstantial, well meaning spirit, then shepherds her evolution into someone obsessed. The actress might be a bit more frightening.
Carlos Gomez (Acosta) exudes sympathetic warmth and masculinity. Daphne Rubin-Vega (Inez), a thoroughly appealing Matt Saldivar (Pablo), and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Rey) feel completely genuine.
Samira Wiley’s Ruby is always sure the earth will open up beneath her feet. Wisely the actress delivers an unaffected 11 year-old. As the character grows to maturity, Wiley increasingly lets her inhabit her skin. This includes subtle signs of increased alcohol use and volatility. Well performed.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Gordon Joseph Weiss, Matt Saldivar, KK Moggie, Samira Wiley
Signature Theatre presents Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegria Hudes Directed by Thomas Kail Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street Through June 12, 2016
Part Master Class, part jamboree and about as much fun as you can legally have at an evening of musical theater, this high test extravaganza shares, one gathers, but a smidgen of material jettisoned from what we now enjoy at the St. James Theater. Authors Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick wrote 54 songs for Something Rotten!
What was eventually chosen is arguably not only swell but best serves the piece. Cleverness of songs currently relegated to the brothers’ trunk, is, however, formidable. Though some are “site” specific, others could successfully be performed by cabaret and concert singers. Many of us in the sold-out crowd at Feinstein’s/54Below tonight, as well as those exiting the Broadway production, would be surefire customers for a CD of alternates, replete with Karey’s entertaining, explanatory, anecdotal repartee.
For those of you unfamiliar with the rollicking show (see my review), it concerns brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom “struggling in the shadows of that well known rock star Lin-Manuel Miranda – I mean Shakespeare.” (Karey) Welcome to the Renaissance/With poets, painters, and bon vivants…the original cast company sings. “I remember hearing that song and thinking it doesn’t sound much like Sondheim, but so many have told us they can’t get it out of their heads.” Right on, Karey. Part of the audience mouth the lyrics, many clap in time.
For tonight’s presentation, the gracious and very funny Karey, also on piano, acts as raconteur, while Wayne plays piano and guitar. Both writers, by the way, can sing. Also on piano is Musical Director Mat Eisenstein who manages an entirely new, complex production for this jam-packed, two-off performance.
At the beginning, “we went trolling through Shakespeare and wrote songs but didn’t have a plot.” By 2010, wondering whether the concept was viable, Karey and Wayne approached Kevin McCollum (producer of Rent). When he responded positively, the Kirkpatricks brought in John O’Farrell as third collaborator, “an incredibly funny writer who also knew a lot about Shakespeare, which meant less reading for us!”
“Words You Never Heard,” which calls out some of the many Shakespeare introduced into the English language, was one of those songs initially pitched. Broadway’s current Bard, Christian Borle, who won both Drama Desk and Tony Awards for his inspired performance, takes the stage with character swagger. After all, “he put the I am in iambic pentameter.” When he doesn’t have a word, the Bard makes it up. Some of those originated are: pander, pageantry, obsequious, stealthily, bedazzled…Borle delivers a full-out, cocky turn, punctuated by provocative fanny wag. There’s not a flicker of unfamiliarity with new material.
Next, Karey tells us about the origin of the now blockbuster production number “A Musical.” The unheard-of genre is foretold to Nick Bottom by Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) so that the underdog can compete with Shakespeare. We hear an initial rendition, then the more up-tempo version requested by Director Casey Nicholaw.
Nostradamus (Spoken):It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops/And the plot is conveyed through song. Nick (Spoken): Through song? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Wait, so an actor is saying his lines and out of nowhere he just starts singing? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Well that is the (Singing) Stupidest thing that I have ever heard/You’re doing a play, got something to say/So you sing it?… The dizzying number is a mash-up of familiar musical tunes with lyrics tailored to the moment. At the St. James, it has all the glitz and glamour one could wish for. Our grinning audience bounces in their seats.
John Cariani (Nigel Bottom) offers the deep-sixed “Nigel’s Lament,” dear to the authors’ hearts because it’s about a writer who thinks he’s no good: It all comes down to this, I suck, I suck/I hold my quill, but it still runs amuck…The company provides a choral arrangement including sucky, sucky, suck, man, you suck (in grave-faced harmony). Cariani’s (Nigel’s) eyebrows are knit to a point in utter humiliation.
A rejected celebration of romantic poetry that features Nigel (Cariani) and love interest, Portia (Kate Reinders), arrives as a 1970s Elton-Johnish number: love, love, love, love, magical, mythical love…the pair sing with tangy period flavor and infectious pseudo-gravitas. The two voices are terrific together, expressions priceless.
David Hibbard (Standby for Brian D’Arcy James’s Nick Bottom and three other roles) performs “On the Top” (which became “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top”)…’om not gonna stop/until the Bottoms are on the top…An excellent vocalist, he also, as Nick, palpably vibrates with frustrated ambition.
Company member Marisha Wallace, with Cariani and Hibbard, sings a discarded “Right Hand Man,” as Nick’s wife Bea. Originally written as if ditsy support filled with obtuse insults, the number evolved into a demand for recognition of equal strength/ability. Wallace has a clarion voice we’re sure to hear in future outings and conveys the feckless woman exactly as the Kirkpatricks first envisioned her. The men are deadpan funny.
Heidi Blickenstaff (Bea) joins Cariani, Reinders and Hibbard for the very pretty “Lovely Love” in which we see all four actors occupy their roles. Blickenstaff closes her eyes and sighs into it, Cariani looks like a hopeful puppy, Reinders clasps hands at her breast overcome with pleasure, Hibbard expands with the possibility.
Karey and Wayne play the argumentative Nick and Nigel in an abandoned “The Trouble With You” whose consummate wordsmithing, like volleys of verse across a net, is an admired hoot. Nor, on the Broadway stage, did we see Nick and Nigel in the stocks among other prisoners, tap dancing (from the waist down) to “Desperate Times,” a metaphoric and currently politically apt complaint by those undeserved of such punishment.
We close with “Omlette” (the musical) and visions of dancing eggs. The Kirkpatricks wrote ten iterations of this! Sections from several range from rock n’ roll to the Andrews Sisters for inspiration. Alas, poor yolk, I know thee well…You make wine from sour grapes/ You got a flat pancake, hey, call it a crepe/When life gives you eggs, make an omelette…Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Omelette…Who needs sugarplums?!
A chorus of company members throw themselves into this evening with gleeful abandon (as well as professionalism), enjoying it almost as much as the audience, dropping not a single new stitch. These include: Matt Allen, Elizabeth Early, Linda Griffin, Courtney Ivantosch, Aaron Kaburick, Tari Kelly, Beth Nicely, Aleks Pevec, Angie Schworer
The subversively instructive shenanigans were joyous and brimming with talent.