The lights dim. A brilliant blue rose projects onto the scrim. The orchestra kicks up. That familiar slightly haunting music plays, underscoring a deep, rich-toned voiceover. And with that, the show begins.
We all know the setup: The unkind prince turns away a witch in disguise who transforms him into a Beast. Enchanted roses, fall in love, and so on. In this stage production, where one might expect the text of the Prologue to be acted out before us with some standard flashy movement and flourish, we get instead, a wave of dark fabrics, rippling and bubbling along with voiceover. They take great form--starting small, growing, and rising high towards the lighting grid. The magic of the castle (and this story) roars to life as if we’re gathered over the smoking embers of a fire. A captivating sight in and of itself, the minimally lit fabric spectacle feels intentionally spare, dampening our visual senses in favor of our auditory ones. It’s a wonderfully bold move that shatters our comfortable memories of what the show is, erases our expectations of what it should be, and asks us to redefine what it means to listen. For if we are to experience the show in a new way, we mustn't just watch the show, we must also listen deeply. The towering fabrics subside. And this is where we get our first departure from the beloved story that we’ve come to know so well. For as the Prologue concludes, we already know that we’re not in for the same old “tale as old as time.”
Let’s be clear: There is much to be said about the production as a whole. Staging, lighting, sound mix, music direction, choreography, set, and costumes all get their moments to shine. But the true stroke of genius--and the focus of much of what’s to follow--is director Jay Woods’ casting of the show.
In the theatre, good casting and intentional directorial choices can pull from the text “something there that wasn’t there before,” or perhaps, something that was always there, but has been overlooked. And with all the Black, brown, and non-white bodies that will fill the stage and take up space for the next two and half hours, 5th Ave’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast manages to do just that.
The Disney Broadway musical’s based on the classic animated film that’s based on the 1740 French fairytale (La Belle et la Bête, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve). However, the casting of Belle and her father Maurice as Black people elevates the story, transforming the narrative into something that feels akin to a modern African-American folktale that imbues the story with just as much intention, depth, and meaning as it does entertainment. African-American folklore is a tradition that functions as an expression of group knowledge of culture, beliefs, and shared experience. It bonds the community, preserves history, teaches morality lessons, and offers ancestral wisdom about surviving in the United States. And with that in mind:
As the villagers flood the stage to sing the opening number (“Belle”), they side-eye Belle, and passively talk about how odd she is. One can’t help but be pulled into a triggering memory of being one of the only--if not the only Black person in the room at a social or work event, or in the mini mart, or classroom, or sitting in a theatre watching a musical. The feeling of being “othered” and having people up in your business is a common experience for Black people in America, particularly in Seattle. Add to this that the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality within American society unfairly place a unique set of challenges onto Black women as a group. They are among the most educated groups in America, are the most imitated, the most leaned upon as saviors and supporters, while simultaneously being the most unprotected and disrespected group in our society--with some aspect of their identity being challenged and threatened in virtually every space they enter. In this context, “Belle” suddenly takes on more weight. Here’s a smart, driven Black woman saying, “I want more than what is here and offered to me,” and a town full of intersecting identities retorting, “We don’t like that. Stay in your lane,” attacking her intelligence, her ambition, and her audacity to dream, all the while secretly envying her.
Later, when Belle (a powerhouse Porscha Shaw) confides in her father (a chaotic and endearing Reginald André Jackson) about her experiences in town, he comforts her with the sweet “No Matter What.” The song becomes a powerful affirmation of Black Excellence with lyrics like “it’s my intention, my invention shows the world out there one day just what we’ve got. No matter what.” Moreover, in the context of a Black father and daughter singing to uplift each other when they need it most, the song pulls double duty in driving home the power and importance of Black people being in community with each other. When Maurice sings, “No matter what the pain, we’ve come this far,” that comes from bonding over a culturally-shared lived experience: The insidious nature of racism in all its forms, the toll that injustice and continued loss of life at the hands of police violence takes on the soul. The “pain” that Maurice sings about is recognized immediately and felt deep in the bones. And when we consider that Black women are criticized and dehumanized on the daily for everything from their physical appearance to their mere existence, the following line, “I pray that you remain exactly as you are,” feels like a father giving his daughter strength to continue to stand tall and in her truth in the face of an unjust world. The sentiment is particularly poignant if you are a Black person who finds themselves constantly having to navigate predominantly white spaces. And in the end, the song calls hope, pride in ancestry, and communal connection into the space, perhaps channeling shades of Kendrick Lamar's “Alright.”
Later in the second act, we see the evolution of the father/daughter dynamic in a great payoff when Porscha takes center stage to sing a ballad (“A Change in Me”) that moves one to tears as you watch Belle grow into herself right before our eyes. This song was added four years into the original Broadway run, when the show was courting singer Toni Braxton to play Belle. When Menken and Rice agreed to write her a new number, she signed on. The resulting song being what author Thomas S. Hischak characterizes as a “moving ballad,” saying of the lyrics, "[the song is] about being at peace with oneself and how it’s expected as you grow up.” Now let’s recap Belle’s journey: losing her home, her connection to her family, being imprisoned and learning to survive in a new environment, navigating a complicated relationship with her captor, everybody in that new environment depending on her to save them and make their lives better, getting her freedom and then trying to reconcile all of that and define a new life for herself. Yup, that sounds like the Black American experience to me. And given what we know about the song’s genesis, to then harken back to Hischak’s read, it’s no wonder that the ballad feels like a song about finding peace with oneself, it was actually written for a Black woman.
Beyond the Belle and Maurice casting, this production works toward representation and emotional depth, and actively fights against stereotypes and tropes.
You’ve heard of the Black Best Friend trope, right? In a story, there’s a white lead who gets plenty of character development, has obstacles, goes through changes, and gets a full story arc. And then there’s the Black friend or character with a minor role (let’s call it the “minor minority”) who gets little development, only shows up when the white lead needs support, guidance, or quick lesson about racism, and typically doesn’t have a real arc.
In the entertainment industries, assumed whiteness is still the standard practice when it comes to casting. This frustrating practice often relegates BIPOC actors to sidekick and minor minority roles, and disqualifies us from consideration for lead roles in narratives that have non-specific requirements with regards to race and casting, while giving white actors those bigger, more highly coveted roles. Because of this there are three character pairings in Beauty and the Beast that could very easily end up looking like this: White Gaston, Black LeFou; White Lumière, Black Cogsworth; White Mrs. Potts, Black Madame de la Grande Bouche. Here, though, the production feels aware of the industry's casting pitfalls and instead, casts each of those pairings in reverse, not only avoiding, but actually subverting the Black Best Friend trope.
Jaysen Wright’s Gaston is a treat to watch, and what a voice! John David Scott’s vaudevillian-esque LeFou is good for a whole evening of entertainment. “Be Our Guest” is a classic. Nicholas Japaul Bernard’s Lumière shines brighter than his own damn candelabra torches, and plays well off of Jason Weitkamp’s uptight and entertainingly nimble Cogsworth. Lisa Estridge’s Mrs. Potts will have you screaming with laughter in one moment and in tears the next, giving you all the feels with the title number, while Madame de la Grande Bouche is a fabulously luxurious cameo for beloved Seattle treasure, Anne Allgood. This kind of decentered approach to casting makes for equitable storytelling with BIPOC actors getting the more hefty roles, including lead protagonists, and white actors getting the less hefty roles that still allow them to strut their stuff, still get their flowers, and still get their bag without dominating the spaces and narratives. See: Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross in Black Panther.
Speaking of the castle’s knick-knacks and what-nots. Disney is a perpetrator of a growing Hollywood trend known as the transformation trope, where lead characters of color in animated films are transformed into non-humans or animals for a large portion of their screen time, effectively negating much of the representation value that the film might have offered. Well-intentioned or not, the creative decisions of these animation studios have real life impact. If you’re acutely aware of the trope, then at first glance, 5th Ave’s casting of Riley Brack and other several actors of color as the Beast and his castle objects, might appear to fall head first into the transformation trope. But trust and believe that when the whole castle is belting lyrics like “I can’t wait to be human again,” what might’ve felt like a trope lands like a protest statement. A call for the full breadth of our humanity to be seen, heard, and represented.
Other details that really launched the production into the stratosphere:
The music direction felt like there were efforts made to really empower actors of color to sing the score with their unique voice--how they might sing it in the family living room. In theatre training programs, there tends to be a focus on “neutralization” of the voice and body in an attempt to widen an actor’s range and marketability, which includes asking actors to literally change the way they speak and sing. This practice of demanding that students eradicate their uniqueness can cause harm and stunt growth and progress. It did my heart good to hear parts of the score of Beauty and the Beast sung with soulful texture, syncopation, and tone-slides.
The costuming of the utensils and other castle things during the absolute showstopper that is “Be Our Guest” felt like the production was pushing to break free of gendered norms. Here, the hard lines for what “men's” and “women's” costumes should be felt disregarded and queered in such a wonderful way. More of this, please. Whether it’s pants, skirts--it doesn’t matter. If the actor is comfortable and they look and feel good, that’s all that matters--especially when we’re talking about anthropomorphized eating utensils.
The choreography hits it big with an inspired step section (shout out Be Russell!), showcasing the talents and vibrancy of different cultural styles of movement and dance.
Lastly, many of the actors of color in this cast have been grinding for years without the recognition they deserve. Those of us who have been watching them on smaller stages and in living-room workshops, we already knew, but it’s truly special to see these talented-ass artists and wonderful humans crush it in front of 30,000 people--a culmination of years of dedication, sacrifice, patience, trust, time, and effort paying off before our eyes. And one of the most rewarding experiences one can have is seeing those who deserve to shine, SHINE.
5th Avenue Theatre’s production of Beauty and the Beast is an act of defiance. It stands to show just what talented folks can do when they are given the opportunity, support, and space to create. It’s a statement for people of color living in a predominantly white metropolitan city. To see each other and be seen, build community, feel represented. It’s an important reminder to children that odd does not equal unworthy or bad, that they don’t have to be a size zero, that natural hair is amazing, and that they are worthy of being royalty.
I write this piece in hopes that producers, theatres, theatre critics, and theatregoers see just how instrumental this kind of work is to reshaping the theatre industry and adding to the vibrancy of our city and its communities. My greatest hope is that we not only understand the value of this level of depth and intention of the work, but to then continue to produce it, and fund it, and write about it, and talk about it, and see it. I implore that we continue to do it better and better and better until we have forged the kind of equitable, diverse, and inclusive culture of the future.
“When they say casual dress and you show up to the party in fur, stunna shades, and Louis Vuitton shoes . . . that’s extra.” That’s what I love about the word extra. It's the perfect descriptor for people who are just doing the absolute most. Language is amorphous, it should ebb and flow with the culture, always meeting us where we are, extra included. Extra has undergone a subtle redefinition—of context, not meaning. Essentially, extra went from meaning “an unnecessary surplus” to “unnecessarily exaggerated and over-the-top.”
Even though this usage of extra isn’t new (see Urban Dictionary), its recent bump in popularity could be attributed, in part, to the fact that we, as a country, have traded normalcy for daily over-the-top shenanigans. This is a world in which satirical sketch comedy shows desperately struggle to find better material than that of real life happenings, where being a child molester is barely enough to keep you out of office, and where people place their right to assault weapons over the lives of children. Let’s face it, we officially live in Toontown, constantly questioning, “Is this even real life?” We needed something; a new way to re-contextualize our increasingly zany world. Enter extra, with belly laugh-inducing memes and gifs, boldly giving us a vocabulary to help fend off madness. It was redefined and updated, taking on more contextual real estate than ever. Extra became, well . . . extra.
What I hate about extra: For Black and Brown people, its connotation went from good to bad. When I was a kid, I got to lick the extra batter from the mixing bowl once the brownies were in the oven. If I finished my homework early, I got extra TV time before bed. There was a time when extra meant reward. But now . . . look y’all, as a Black person in America, I’m just trying to live my best life. Oftentimes, that entails being extra. But we have to remember that even though we’re living in extra times, there are still socially enforced standards of “civilized” behavior at play. Because of this, my Blackness becomes inextricably linked with my extra-ness.
Comedian KevOnStage’s exasperated defense of Black people dressing up for the opening weekend of Marvel’s Black Panther hits on something interesting: “Extra seasoning, extra sauce on the chicken nuggets . . . the way we dress, the way we are, the way we play music—we just a extra people.” Besides pointing out the double standards Black people are held to on the daily, he suggests that there’s pride in being who you are, not shame. Black people live life extra because we’re making up for lost time; for going for so long being impoverished and without. We live extra because we don’t know if we’re going to live to see tomorrow, so we’ve got to cram two and a half days of living into twenty-four hours. Living extra means seeing more clearly, hearing more crisply, feeling more deeply, and living more fully.
To you, it might be extra. To me, it’s just enough.
*Published by Thalia's Umbrella, 2018
Here in Seattle, this past season was truly a wonderfully diverse year in the theatre. One event that stands out for me was the Seattle Beckett Festival, a citywide event that produced many performances and more from over seventeen arts and theatre organizations throughout fall a season long celebration of Samuel Beckett.
I attended local fringe theatre West of Lenin’s contribution to the festival, LIFE=PLAY: An Evening of Short Works and Rarities by Samuel Beckett, and left the theatre feeling reinvigorated, inspired, and simply human. This evening of shorts managed to embrace the weird and strange, the playful, the ugliness of humanity, and the overly dramatic nature of the mundane. Such a wide range of pieces made for an entertaining, thought provoking evening.
As a writer, I was struck by how different each piece was in its construction. Each short had its own unmistakable world and set of governing rules.The diverse methods of storytelling really convinced me to reexamine the infinite possibilities in which a story could be told. One of the shorts, Acting Without Words Part I, was a mime piece that explored the rise and downfall of man. We watched man come into existence, use basic tools, fight for survival, invent, dilly dally, fight some more, then concede, leaving us to our own open-ended interpretations. All of this: one actor, simple fly rigs, acting blocks, and a few props. What really inspired me was that this piece exemplified a major writing standard: don’t tell us, show
us. There were no words. Just props, a whistle, and the actor. It wasn’t just those realities that made it fascinating to watch, but rather how they interact to tell a compelling story that gives you the feels, a few chuckles and makes you think.
Another highlight in the evening was the production of Krapp’s Last Tape, done entirely in French with English subtitles projected on monitors. This piece worked because your experience of the play changes in relation to how your senses interpret what’s happening. As you watch Krapp move and hear him speak french, you get one interpretation. Then you sit with the subtitles on screen, and suddenly your mind processes everything in a completely new manner. New meaning is created in literally every moment. Looking at the construction of Krapp’s, we are fed the play in fragments. It’s a little muddled, but by the play’s conclusion, you see the whole picture, and that is where Beckett is masterful. Even though conventions such as flying objects, projections, and subtitles aren’t by any means new advents, they serve as perfect reminders to us stuck in our head writers of the limitations (or lack thereof) of any space and how to best utilize and smash them, the impact of the human senses on the experience, and also just how darn entertaining it is to watch an actor do battle with physical obstacles. Takeaways: Find a variety of ways to establish the world. Find power in simplicity. And finally, the triumph of the dramatic moment
*Article Published in the June 2015 edition of The Dramatist
So, I recently received an email from an old music teacher who was truly crucial in helping put me on the path to the arts. I was touched by the message and just had to do a little video! Sometimes words can't explain just how much something means to you and you have to find alternative modes to express it. Here's what I came up with. Thank you, Mr. Kelly. I am eternally grateful.
A few months ago, I accepted the position of Regional Youth Ambassador for the Dramatists Guild of America. "What the heck is a Regional Youth Ambassador???" you might find yourself wondering. "What shall I have for lunch?" might be another question bouncing around in your head. Regardless the query, here's the deal.
The Dramatists Guild of America is implementing a new program called The Young Ambassador Program, which is essentially a program geared towards getting younger writers involved in the Guild. As a Regional Youth Ambassador, my job is to assist our Regional Representative, Duane Kelly in creating programs and events that both interest and help young playwrights. The program is in its infancy, so there is much brainstorming to be done. Duane and I are already at work, but seeing as how the Young Ambassador Program is being tailored to all of you young artists out there, we want to hear from you! If you have any ideas about programs you'd like to see or any prospective events that make you all tingly inside, please EMAIL ME or comment below. I'll leave you with a few questions to ponder and to get a conversation going!
What kinds of programs might interest you? Writing groups? Showcases? Theatre and writing workshops? Something else?
As young artists, which kinds of information do you find to be most valuable or helpful? Which kinds of information are not?
Are there any upcoming events that interest you?
What kind of events would you like to see occurring and to be apart of?
In which ways, do you feel unsupported/Are there any areas in which you could use more support?
Your voices are the most important and valuable assets we have, so let's use them. Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to hearing from you and getting the ball rolling on this exciting new program!
Close to five months ago, before I had even graduated from college, way back in May, I began work on this process: The Intiman Summer Theatre Festival. Not even fresh out of school and I was about to embark on a journey far greater than I had ever imagined. To say that the Intiman Theatre Festival internship was life-changing, is simply not enough. The people I've met, the lessons I've learned, and the experiences I shared with so many incredible people...I cannot begin to articulate how grateful I am. Brian Culbertson best described it when he called it "Theatre Bootcamp". While he slightly jokes, there is truth present. You learn very quickly whether or not this is something you want to do as a profession. Surrounded by working professionals, you are challenged on the daily to be the best you can be. Being immersed in this world of working artists, you embrace the business aspect and really start to find your own unique branding as you strengthen your methods of networking. All of this has proved invaluable as I move forward in my career.
I have to say thank you to everyone who was involved with the festival. All of you wonderful people...I can honestly say that as a result of this experience, my family has just gotten bigger. Thank you to every single person who came out and supported it. Thank you to my family and friends who may have dealt with my anxiety and general craziness throughout the last few months. TROUBLE IN MIND...what an incredible way to breakout into my professional career. Thank you to Valerie Curtis-Newton. Day one, she said to the cast, "I won't let you look bad." I appreciate her sticking to that and kicking my ass. Thank you to Andrew Russell, I swear, he must never sleep, in order to do what he does. Thank you to Alice Childress for writing such an incredibly powerful piece of theatre. I hope we've done you justice.
It's never easy to say goodbye to something you've become attached to, especially when it is something that has profoundly changed the way you look at yourself, the world, and how you exist in it. Having said that, I know I must yield to the old adage "All good things must come to an end" and truck forward, as we all do in our daily lives and especially in the life of a practicing artist. So, this is my official farewell. Below, I've put together a nice little scene to bookend this amazing chapter in my life.
Well...I see you've got your bags packed and the door open...Toodaloo, Trouble in Mind and Intiman Theatre Festival...It's been life-changing.
"If you make the effort to start something, you damn well better finish it."
^ My positive affirmation for the day.
You know, it's true. I discovered that one of my problems is starting a great many things, but never really seeing them through to conclusion. I have experienced many occasions in which I would be in the moment and suddenly, an idea for a new piece of work would erupt from my soul. Sometimes, I write them down and develop them, other times, they are almost immediately forgotten. Forever lost. This realization got me wondering: what creates this loss of faith? Is it the idea itself? Or is it something more sinister? I don't think it's out of boredom that I don't pursue the idea, but possibly from lack of direction, confusion, discouragement, or I simply lose faith in the idea. Perhaps that's an exact progression of what occurs. This is something I struggle with and must overcome, because what became clear is that one's work (however you define "work") can only go as deeply as you are willing to dig. If you stay at the surface, near the crust, it crumbles and collapses under a shaky foundation of half-formed ideas and questionable, unsure logic.
And so I say:
Mean to mean. If you don't know what you are trying to say, keep investigation alive, it will become clear.
Intend to affect. If you are going to pursue something, pursue it like it matters--like you give a damn.
Stand by your beliefs. If you don't even have faith in your work, how can you expect others to? You are enough.
This calling is for you...answer with bravery, unmatched. Cast caution to the wind and capture the moment that quickly fleets, because it doesn't linger. An idea is an idea because of the universe. The circumstances of the situation, the past, the future--even the weather comes together in one perfect moment and delivers unto you "the idea." The Big Bang Theory of innovation and invention, which most of us would just simply entertain. We do what we always do: Greet the idea POLITELY, of course, 'cause that's how we were raised. We chat with it for a few minutes..ask how the wife and kids are annnd time for bed. That's about the extent.
But how often do we invite the idea in?
How often do we sit down with our ideas and attempt to cultivate? To plow land, plant seed, water and nurture--THAT'S how we bear fruit fit for a harvest! So, why then, do we glance at the packet of seed and only fantasize about the most perfect crop you've ever seen? We salivate just thinking about what could be instead of making a concerted effort to actualize. This lifestyle is hazardous. Dangerous. Deadly. For those who glaze over and become passively enchanted by the idea, do not feast on the harvest, only salivate and starve of malnutrition.
And so, we come full circle. Finish the thought. Follow it all the way through to the end, leaving nothing unexplored. Take responsibility for your own happiness, your craft, and especially your mind. The mind is beautiful, powerful and it is essentially, you. In a culture that seems to be much concerned with perception and multiple identities (physical and online), steeped in half-truths, masking, and coerced acceptance, why purloin yourself of one of the few things you have full ownership of? My advice? Finish the race.