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.
What if there is no hell? As a Christian, how would that revelation shake the foundation of your faith?
In The Christians, the pastor of a megachurch delivers a sermon that stuns his congregation and leads to much soul searching among his followers. “I don’t believe in hell so I was very much in alignment with that,” said Caroline Stefanie Clay, who plays the pastor’s wife, Elizabeth, a woman shaken by her husband’s pronouncement. “For the 90 minutes that this play exists, I have to believe in Elizabeth and in her belief system. And it’s a pleasure. That’s why we become actors, to inhabit experiences close to our own and completely foreign from what we know.”
Although the playwright, Lucas Hnath, grew up in an evangelical church, he has refrained from talking about his own beliefs, leaving it up to the audiences to carry on those discussions. The play had its New York premiere last fall at Playwrights Horizon. The Washington, D.C. premiere, directed by Gregg Henry, will be presented at Theater J from November 16 through December 11. The production includes a gospel chorus, and through the efforts of Artistic Director Adam Immwewahr, top choirs from the D.C. area will participate. “I love what Adam’s doing,” said Caroline. “I can’t think of a better way of engaging the community than by bringing in a new choir for every performance.”
Caroline, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, grew up in Washington, D.C., “a proud product of the D.C. public school system.” She attended Lafayette Elementary, Alice Deal Middle School, and in tenth grade auditioned for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she now teaches as an artist in residence. After high school, she went to the University of the Arts In Philadelphia. “Philly is a great theater town,” she said, describing the city as “faster than D.C., but not quite as fast as New York, a great in between place. That’s really where I got my professional feet wet.” She appeared in a production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, alongside several New York-based actors, who encouraged her to move to the Big Apple. “That’s where I would make my artistic home for the next 20 years,” she said.
In 2010, her mother became ill and Caroline made the decision to move back to D.C. “The healing powers of the returning child,” she said, with a laugh. “My mother is now doing much, much better.” While Caroline was prepared to put her career on hold, determined to place her mother first, she didn’t have to make a choice. “My agent said that family is first so do whatever you have to do and know that you’re not risking losing representation, which is often very real for actors,” she said. “I’ve had so many examples of this in my life, in people believing and seeing things In me that I have not even seen for myself. That in so many ways is the definition of grace.”
Caroline was accepted into an MFA program at the University of Maryland. “They were looking for people who literally had had a professional career and were now at a transition where they wanted to consider something new,” she said. “Up to that point I had done what most actors do. My agent calls me, I go and audition, I book the gig. That’s where I was able to build my resume, my technique, all of those kinds of things. But as I became older, I became more conscious, not just as an artist, but as an artist of color, about not seeing my voice represented in ways that I would do it. I had to really take agency and say, `wait a minute! I’ve got to be that voice that I am not hearing.’ I have no problem identifying the void. What am I doing to fill it?”
Once she began writing her own work, Caroline found that a whole new world opened up to her. “I knew that my life as an artist was not based on my agent calling,” she said. “I could create my own work. In many ways I am still working within an institutional system of artistic directors, managing directors, and producers, but the more that I could generate for myself, the more that I would never be sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. That was so freeing as an artist and it’s really been fostered in this area in a way, that I really have to say, it wasn’t fostered in New York, because in New York I simply didn’t have the time.”
So far, Caroline has created two one-woman shows. “I pride myself that when I write my pieces, the subject matter is usually what I call `unsung heroes,’ the people that you haven’t heard of,” she said. Sepia Sculptress – The Life and Times of Edmonia Lewis is about a 19th century African American and Native America sculptor, who was born on a Canadian reservation, went to Oberlin College, and lived mostly abroad, including many years in Rome. “She has left behind amazing sculptures of abolitionist, historical figures, and she was amazing,” Caroline said. “But you don’t see a coffee table book with her work.”
Caroline in Sense and Sensibility at Folger Shakespeare Theatre
Another such person is Florynce Kennedy, an attorney, activist, civil rights advocate, lecturer, and feminist. Caroline was watching an HBO documentary about Gloria Steinem when the camera caught security guards battling with a woman who was saying, “get your hands off me.” That woman was Florynce, and Caroline’s interest was piqued. “I was captivated,” she said. “I had to know everything about her.” The piece, Let it Flo! The Life and Times of Flo Kennedy, Radicalism’s Rudest Mouth, became Caroline’s dissertation. Steinem has seen the show and, according to Caroline, has been “an amazing advocate and patron of the work.” Caroline will premiere the show on February 17 in New York.
Caroline, who was an understudy for the Broadway production of Doubt, won the Helen Hayes Award, Best Supporting Actress, for her performance at the National Theatre. Right now, her plate is very full. Until November 13, she’s appearing in Sense and Sensibility at Folger Shakespeare Theater. Performances for The Christians will begin on November 16 and when we spoke, the cast was beginning rehearsals. She’s excited about the opportunity to work with Gregg Henry. “I’m so glad that Theater J has taken on [The Christians],” she said. “What I love is that Greg and the artistic team made no assumptions about any of our own spiritual proclivities.” Caroline said she will be listening to a podcast about a pastor who actually had the revelation that there is no hell and paid a dear price for that belief. “He questioned the nature of the dogma that they have been taught,” she said. “That is the essence of great drama. Talk about conflict!”
The Christians Written by Lucas Hnath Directed by Gregg Henry Theater J The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater 1529 16th Street, NW 202-777-3210
Top Photo: Courtesy of Theater J The Christians – Illustration by Donald Ely Sense and Sensibility photo by Teresa Wood
“America is the worst place for the Jews. Except for all the other places.” Shylock in District Merchants
What a year it has been for Shakespeare fans. Theaters celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death have staged his works in many forms. The Folger Theatre (home of the Folger Shakespeare Library) last gifted us with the very humorous William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), and now presents a contemporary version of The Merchant of Venice.
The title – District Merchants – is the first tip off that we’re not in Venice in the 1500s. Playwright Aaron Posner said that after reading a passage of Shylock’s about slavery, “it made me wonder how this story would function in post-Civil War America.” District Merchants is set in the 1870s in Washington, D.C., but the issues dealt with – immigration, racism, anti-Semitism, income inequality, and the marginalization of women – are incredibly relevant, particularly in light of our current presidential campaign. We see a society in transition. Virtually ever character in the play is on the outside looking in, eager to become part of the new order, but struggling to fit in. As one character says: “People like me don’t have the code. We’re not in the game, so we lose every time.”
Craig Wallace and Matthew Boston
The scenery signals the beginning of reconstruction, with massive columns and iron girders filling the stage and the sounds of building echoing throughout the theater. Shylock (Matthew Boston) is still a Jew, but rather than a Venetian moneylender, he’s now an immigrant who lost his wife and some of his children to disease during the long journey to America. He dotes on his surviving daughter, Jessica (Dani Stoller), but his anxiety to keep her safe threatens to stifle her emerging womanhood.
Shylock’s counterpart is Antoine (Craig Wallace), a black who proudly tells others that he was born a free man, a legacy of his father who fought and died a hero in the War of 1812. Although Antoine dresses like a prosperous businessman, he doesn’t have the resources of Shylock and borrows three thousand pounds to help his protege, Benjamin Bassani (Seth Rue), woo the wealthy Portia (Maren Bush). When Antoine fails to pay the money back on time, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. The dramatic court scene will determine the outcome.
Dani Stoller and William Vaughan
Shakespeare’s Merchant is still jarring to modern audiences; it’s portrayal of Shylock and its themes seen as anti-Semitic. Posner doesn’t water down these xenophobic comments, rather the audience gets a dose of what it’s like to withstand a constant barrage of slights and insults. During each performance, Boston points to someone sitting in the audience, asks the person’s name, then proceeds to use that name in a sneering, disrespectful way. (At the performance I attended, the person singled out was named David who admitted the barbs felt “nasty.”)
Shylock notes that during the reconstruction period in America, there were 1,500 Jews living in Washington, D.C. A parallel is drawn between the discrimination experienced not only by the blacks, but also by Jews like Shylock. The confrontations between Shylock and Antoine come off as a game of one-upmanship – who has suffered and continues to suffer the most.
(Left to right) Seth Rue, Dani Stoller, William Vaughan, and Maren Bush
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots plays out in the love affairs of the two young and seemingly mismatched couples. Lorenzo (William Vaughan), an uneducated and unpolished country boy, is attracted to the beautiful and intelligent, Jessica, who agrees to steal all her father’s cash and gold and flee with her beau to, of all places, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Maren Bush and Celeste Jones
Meanwhile, Portia, who has conflicted feelings about blacks, is falling in love with Benjamin, whom she believes is white. Portia’s servant, Nessa (an excellent Celeste Jones), is loyal to her mistress but critical of her opinions. “She was born with blinders on and every day people tell her she has perfect vision,” Nessa says. When Benjamin finally tells Portia he’s black, Bush makes the most of the moment – her facial expressions changing from joyous to sadness several times before she delivers her final decision.
Despite the heavy themes, District Merchants has humorous moments, thanks not only to Vaughn’s antics as Lorenzo but also to Akeem Davis who plays Shylock’s mistreated servant, Lancelot. Director Michael John Garcés keeps this talented cast moving at a lively pace. There’s rarely a moment when we aren’t entertained or challenged by what we are witnessing on stage.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in `t.” Hamlet
The world is celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and the Folger Theatre has joined in with a production that would probably have the Bard himself laughing in the aisle. For fans who appreciate all things Shakespeare, the Reduced Shakespeare Company needs no introduction. Those just discovering this troupe are in for a treat. The new production, a premiere of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), continues the group’s humorous and creative way of weaving together Shakespeare’s plots and characters with contemporary references thrown in. The result is a lightning-fast, razor-sharp laugh-fest.
The fun starts immediately as the three sneaker-clad actors – Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, and Austin Tichenor – bound onto the stage, holding aloft the famed lost play, half a foot thick, the pages loosely bound together. We’re told about all the references within this “faux-bio,” – 101 Venetians, The Real Merry Housewives of Windsor, and, of course, CATS. The many references to Disney are certainly funny but also underline how Shakespeare’s influence is a cultural phenomenon. Spencer, who spends time dressed as the Little Mermaid, Ariel, calls Walt Disney “a modern day Shakespeare” and runs down the similarities between Will’s plays and Walt’s films. The Winter’s Tale? Frozen!
This scripted play has the feel of improv, particularly those bits that involve audience members. Two arrive late and incur the players’ rebuke and empathy: “You rue the day you took the Metro.” Since the two offenders left during intermission, we surmise they were plants. But two others – dubbed Dale and Gale – were obviously not, called onto stage during one segment to wave blue fabric to create the sea while the actors shot water pistols into the audience. (If you are not inclined to participate, make sure you’re not in the front row.)
The costumes add to the frivolity, particularly those that have the actors cross-dressing. The changes are made in rapid fashion so that the flow of the play is never affected. Particularly appealing are the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, one a puppet that is manipulated by Tichenor and resembles the witch from Disney’s Snow White.
Part of the fun is seeing characters from different Shakespeare plays interact. We have Puck (Martin) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a grudge match with The Tempest’s Ariel (Spencer); Hamlet up against Lady Macbeth; and Viola (Twelfth Night) alongside Richard III.
My one quibble is that the play runs a tad too long – one hour and 45 minutes with an intermission. Although the actors maintained their energy in the second act, several of the scenes, particularly those with Puck and Ariel, began to seem repetitive. Trimming fifteen minutes and presenting the entire thing in one act would have been a better approach.
Still there were plenty of laughs up to and including the end. And these days, heaven knows, we can all use a good laugh.
Photos by Teresa Wood
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) Folger Theatre 201 East Capitol Street, SE 202-544-7077