Thursday, January 30, 2020

No Blue Memories—The Gist of Manual Cinema

No Blue Memories: The life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Chicago’s Manual Cinema is theater that combines poetry, shadow puppetry, acting, and original jazz. Commissioned by the Poetry Foundation of Chicago, the work premiered in November 2017. The Dresser had the privilege of seeing this extraordinary experience January 24, 2020 at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland.


Since 2010, Emmy Award-winning Manual Cinema, a performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company has been combining handmade shadow puppets, actors, cinematic techniques, innovative sound and music to create engaging stories. They use vintage overhead projectors (yes, those old machines used in the Twentieth century classroom to show students something such as a poem or a picture or a set of rules), multiple screens, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, multichannel sound design, and a live music ensemble. For those sitting closer to the stage, one sees not only what is projected on the screen but the whole beehive of workers who are setting up the imagery or acting for the cameras. It’s an evening’s lesson in theater and a philosophic breakdown of reality.

[Photo by Maren Celest: Co-Artistic Directors (left & clockwise): Julia Miller, Kyle Vegter, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace and Ben Kauffman]


The Dresser also partook of the pre-show event which included a short lecture by scholar of Washington, DC literary history Kim Roberts and a series of poetry readings hosted by Dwayne B. More with area poets—Morgan Butler, Brandon Douglas, and Marjan Naderi. Roberts spoke about three Black women poets and writers with ties to Washington, DC—Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966), May Miller Sullivan (1899-1995), and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). What these three artists had in common was that each was actively engaged in advancing the writing life of others. From 1921 to 1928 at her house on S Street NW in Washington, DC, Johnson hosted a weekly writers’ workshop known as the Saturday Nighters, which nurtured such writers as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, May Miller, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others, especially women of color. Influenced by attendance at the Saturday Nighters, May Miller went on to help establish the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as from 1960 to 1980 running her own writing salon for writers, such as Toni Morrison. In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American woman appointed as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, during which time she encouraged teenage, prison, and senior writers.


As multi-media/multi-arts performances become more prevalent, No Blue Memories: The life of Gwendolyn Brooks written by Crescendo Literary (Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall) stands out as a memorial to an industrious and giving writer of consequence and as an accessible, engaging educational experience of high quality in keeping with the philosophy of the writer being celebrated. While puppet shows are often thought of in the Western World as children’s entertainment, puppetry goes back thousands of years as a method of reaching a general audience, sometimes for political purposes, educational approaches, and always entertainment.

Poetry is a hard sell to American audiences because most Americans haven’t been brought up reading, reciting, writing and therefore appreciating poetry. No Blue Memories ably addresses how Brooks, a seemingly ordinary person—just like the audience who comes to see this experience of theater—gets involved and deeply committed to writing poetry, making this puppet show a seamless educational event. Stories about poets tend to draw a literary crowd made primarily of women. It’s a type of bias that was not at all evident from the nearly sell-out crowd at Strathmore Music Center. If the subject elicited a particular political or racial leaning it was this—it was a general audience that seemed predominately Black in the orchestra where the Dresser was sitting. It goes without saying that puppet shows pitched for adults pique audience curiosity, raising this question: what’s the hidden message but never what do I need to know before I see this?  Audience expectation is oh, this will be fun. Yes, No Blue Memories was fun and thought-provoking.

The Dresser assumes that part of the audience draw was the music initially with cool jazz elements by sisters Jamila Woods and Ayanna Woods and as sung mesmerizingly by their sister Kamaria Woods. Cool jazz developed after World War II and is characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter tone as opposed to the complex bebop of that era. In an email interview completed January 29, Ayanna Woods wrote, “Jamila and I wanted to model the sound of No Blue Memories after the type of music Brooks would have heard growing up. In the beginning of the play, we drew from jazz standards. As the play goes on, we introduced elements of funk and hip-hop.” When asked about the source of the words, Ayanna answered, “The text is a combination of Brooks' words, Jamila's words inspired by the poetry, and Haki Madhubuti's words (from his poem Gwendolyn Brooks).” Hats off to the musicians handpicked by Ayanna and Jamila—Red/Kai Brown on drums, Ryan Nyther on a beautifully plaintive, sometimes muted trumpet, and Brooklynn (Brooke) Skye on base guitar. The Dresser was particularly interested in Skye who was exceptional and without a biography in the printed program. Ayanna offered, “Brooke Skye is an amazing 18-year-old bassist and guitarist who attended Chicago High School for the Arts. She plays with a wide range of Chicago bands in the jazz & hip-hop scenes, including Malcolm London… Chicago is full of incredible Black musicians, and we wanted our band to celebrate that.

The Dresser applauds the collective behind this theater creation for not shying away from racism and racial issues. When No Blue Memories introduces the fact that Brooks has won the Pulitzer Prize, two shadow puppets who are white women discuss that a “Negress” has won this prestigious prize and they go to her door to see who she is. Their mocking tone seems much like the uneducated, socially backward cartoon family of the Simpsons. What is remarkable about Gwendolyn Brooks is that she wrote poetry that appealed to the highly educated and she created work that spoke to teenagers who preferred the pool hall over school. This is a show for everyone and in keeping with who Gwendolyn Brooks was.



We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

by Gwendolyn Brooks

Photo credit:Julia Miller except where noted otherwise. 
Photographer of Gwendolyn Brooks at typewriter unidentified.

The next performance of No Blue Memories will be February 22, 2020, at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Check the calendar on the Manual Cinema website at

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Dulce et Decorum of Glory Denied

Glory Denied with words and music by Tom Cipullo based on the book by Tom Philpott is a thoroughly engaging 90-minute chamber opera that has been aired starting in workshop format since 2004 in New York City Opera’s VOX series. The Dresser saw, or should she say experienced, this work January 17 at Washington, DC’s Keegan Theatre in a new production with only four performances by UrbanArias under the able baton of Robert Wood and direction by Kristine McIntyre.

The Dresser says experienced because the emotional load is heavy. It’s a story about a soldier who spends nine years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam while his wife, lacking any other information, believes he is dead and moves on. However,  the opera is also stressful because it goes back and forth quickly between past and present, is presented predominately in ensemble singing with only a few arias which ratchets up the intensity, and because the UrbanArias has employed exceptionally good singers whose voices are sometimes bigger than what the Keegan Theatre can handle, adding a vibration to the auditory overload.

The way Cipullo manages the rapid transitions from past to present is by using a cast of four where the soldier and his wife are represented by younger and older characters. The younger Thompson sung by tenor John Riesen is seen throughout the opera in bare feet and disheveled battle fatigues. The younger Alyce (Thompson) sung by soprano Cree Carrico is costumed in a pink dress with a hairbow and is very pregnant with their fourth child. She continuously  scurries around the stage in her heels without ever giving birth and seems to represent the ultimate teen-aged girly girl. The older Thompson sung by baritone Timothy Mix is at first is seen in formal military uniform and later his formalism is toned down by the removal of his jacket and substitution of a sweater. Because Mix is much taller and broader than Riesen, it was a little hard to see Mix as the older soldier until it dawned on the Dresser that the anchoring character was the older Thompson and the younger versions of himself and his wife were only how the current day Thompson pictured himself and his wife. Likewise the older Alyce sung by mezzo-soprano Caroline Worra who is dressed in pants and sweater is a much bigger woman than Carrico.

Exceptional moments in the opera were Riesen singing the lyrically heartbreaking Psalm 23 from his inhumanly cramped cell, Mix performing a tour-de-force survey of what had changed in America since he was last home, and Worra pouring forth with “He went through Hell, but so did I.” Several times Carrico sings the opening lines of a letter to her husband that begins “My darling.” The first notes of the music for these letters are languid and yearning and Carrico delivers these openings in a moving way that reminds the Dresser of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.

Scenically, the words of Alyce’s letters are often projected in lights on the stage floor. The lighting and projection design of Kathy Maxwell is exceptionally creative. She uses two opposing walls on either side of the stage to project scenes from Vietnam as well as home-based family snapshots and film footage.

In Joe Zealburg’s poem “Apocalyptic Drone,” the Dresser is reminded of what the older Thompson has come face to face with when he returns to civilian life and it clearly seems apocalyptic to him. Here is Thompson’s tirade:

I missed so much I can’t catch up, I can’t catch on.
Ev’ry single fact I knew or thought I knew, is diff’rent now.
Ev’ry thing has changed somehow.
John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, astronauts, moon shots.
Heiress robber Patty Hearst, soldiers coming home get cursed.
Fad diets, Chicago riots, Watts, Newark, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, My Lai,
Kids get high, Men can cry, Wives can lie.
Terrorists at the Munich Games,
Athletes now with Muslim names.
Credit cards, fast food, Music’s vulgar, movies lewd.
a nation become crude and callous,
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alyce!
Turn on. Tune in. Freak out! Welcome home!
Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, Pentagon Papers, Kent State. Welcome home.
Leonard Berstein’s radical chic, Betty Friedan and her damn mystique. Welcome home.
Failure to communicate, college students demonstrate. Home!
Japanese cars, topless bars, Traitors pass for movie stars. Home!
Home to a regained life. Home to a stained wife. Home. There’ll be Hell to pay.
Home. Who remembers Veterans Day?
Turn on, Tune in, Drop out, Cop out, Right on, Sit-in, Love-in, Come on, Give in, Give out,
Put out, Put on, Right on, Hang-up, Uptight, Far out, Sell-out, Burn out, Freak out.
Welcome ---------home!

While Thompson’s complaints about how things have changed emphasize loose morals, it is pitched in technological advances like getting to the moon and use of credit cards. The you in “Apocalyptic Drone” is a soldier much like Thompson and is especially experienced in the fragment Dulce et decorum est which alludes to the quote from the Roman poet Horace Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, meaning it is sweet and right to die for one’s country. Both the poem and text of Thompson’s tirade about how things have changed makes us ask the question what have I given up for my country and was it worth what has happened or will happen to me?


Of course you don’t want to die,
but the drone is coming today.
The drone that delivered your meals, Amen.
The one that pressure-washed your house,
walked your three poodles,
and trimmed your azaleas and sago palms.
The drone is coming today.
It delivered three call girls
and Viagra to your home last week.
By now you’ve received
those benzodiazepines to ease your fear of laserization.
It’s already towed away your driverless car.
Your lupus? Too costly to treat.
As you require dental implants to chew a good steak,
your work is done, your strength is weak.
Remember, you voted for this in 2019.
The drone is coming today.
Repeat the phrase, thy rod and they staff
These words shall bring solace your way.
The drone is soon to arrive. Amen.
Smile. Laugh. Profess your last prayer.
Relax. Rest. Dulce et decorum est.
The drone is coming today.

by Joe Zealberg
from Covalence

Photo credit: Nicholas Karlindr

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

WNO’s Skinny Operas

In the eight year of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, the three engaging twenty-minute operas premiered on January 10, 2020 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater all had an educational theme. All three also feature music that provides tonal access. Conductor Anne Manson did a seamless job in coordinating the musicians and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists who make up the singing casts. These are collaborating teams of composers and librettists worthy of being watched.

Woman of Letters by composer Liliya Ugay and librettist Sokunthary Svay depicts a father-daughter relationship that is on the verge of changing. As an immigrant, Sam, (sung by bass baritone Samuel J. Weiser) who works at a Manhattan university, constantly brings home books to his daughter Sonya (soprano Marlen Nahhas) to give her the advantage he didn’t have himself and to keep her busy and safe at home. She is an excellent student and loves these books. Consequently, she is accepted on full scholarship to a university in England. This upsets Sam who still hasn’t made peace with the death of his wife and mother of Sonya. Complicating this event is a visit by Sonya’s friend Dara (soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) who extols the benefits of going away to study.

The opening music of Woman of Letters appropriately strikes a soundscape of Sonya’s yearning. Dara who is studying opera provides the giddy excitement of a teenage girl with her bel canto singing. While the Dresser liked this piece, she questions the wisdom of making Sam a bass baritone. His heavy voice tended to drag down the energy of the overall work in an exaggerated way.

Admissions by composer Michael Lanci and librettist Kim Davies addresses a real day scandal in the arena of college admissions. Mother (mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms) has paid off various people to get her daughter (soprano Marlen Nahhas) and son (tenor Matthew Pearce) into schools of their choice. As the opera opens, Father (bass baritone William Meinert) and Mother are driving home from court while their kids are discussing where their absent parents are.

The repartee in the libretto is cleverly written and ably delivered by this outstanding cast. Moreover the ensemble work  provides a wonderfully layered counterpoint of voices and concerns.

In the category of “school of hard knocks,” Night Trip, by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Sandra Seaton, features two black WWII veterans—Uncle Wesley (baritone Joshua Conyers) and Uncle Mack (tenor Joshua Blue)—who arrive at the home of their sister in Chicago to pick up their niece teenage Conchetta (mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell) who is unschooled in the ways of the world. The uncles drive Conchitta to see her grandmother and aunts who live in a small town in Tennessee. Set in the summer of 1958, things turn very racist when they ask to use a gas station restroom in the south. They angrily leave the gas station without paying and are quickly overtaken by a police officer and the accusing gas station attendant. Conchetta is manhandled and in danger of more egregious assault so Uncle Wesley offers to pay off the two men with money being sent from Conchetta’s hard-working mother to her Tennessee family.

The music beginning with the overture is jazz inflected. Rehanna Thelwell infuses her role as an innocent, unworldly teen with joyful enthusiasm, making for a memorable evening of new operatic work.

To the Dresser, Truth Thomas’ poem “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pen” evokes the adage that the pen, an implement of learning and wisdom, is mightier than the sword. Thomas directs his message to “children of wooden bellies” (Thomas says wooden bellies refer to the holds of wooden ships that brought Africans as slaves to America and that his poem “attempts to encourage people of color to boldly esteem themselves…in a country that has taught…black folks to hate themselves”) and to “children of Cinque’s sword” (possibly old methods as summoned by a cinqueda which is a short sword of the Italian Renaissance that is five fingers wide). Written as a Skinny (eleven lines where lines one and eleven have the same words and in between the other lines feature one word with a prescribed repetition), this is a form invented by Truth Thomas. The Dresser finds this poem a perfect final word on WNO’s AOI festival of three new operas, all of which deal with issues of speaking truth and overcoming the obstacles of learning. Additionally, Thomas’ title “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pen” suggests the James Brown song “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Thomas demonstrates (as if he is standing on one foot), as do the collaborators of these new short operas, that a lot can be communicated in a short space of creative work in which many limitations are set.


Speak truth on the good foot—say it loud
speak truth on the good foot—say it loud.

by Truth Thomas

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Wistful Liveliness of The Dead

Coming late—January 2, 2020—to Scene Theatre's and Robert McNamara’s seamlessly lyrical production of TheDead, an award-winning musical by composer Shaun Davey with book by Richard Nelson based on James Joyce’s short story by the same title, the Dresser is grateful to have experienced this wistfully lively show with musical direction by Greg Watkins. Set at Christmas and during a Christmas party at that, it is the perfect winter holiday story. Everyone sings at this party, even the housemaid and the hired man who helps serve the dinner.

Everything about this production staged at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC pleased. Carl Gudenius’ set showing the audience three areas of a house—entrance hallway, grand living room with piano and window with an alcove bench, and dining room with a large formal table and chairs—included lots of eye-catching details like a handsome area rug in the living room. The costumes by Alisa Mandel offered realism and flair, particularly in the lovely lace worked into many of the women’s blouses and, of course, the Irish are known for their handmade lace.

What carried the show was the fluid music and dance performed by an able cast of thirteen.

The story at the heart of this musical involves a man named Gabriel Conroy, played by Louis LaVoie, who serves as the narrator, filling in what is not imparted by the musical numbers. He is very much in love with his wife Gretta, played by Danielle Davy, whom his doting and elderly spinster aunts—Aunt Julia Morkan (Andrea Hatfield) and Aunt Kate Morkan (Rosemary Regan) tend to discount, calling Gretta country cute. Nearly everyone at the party initiates a song. Gabriel and Gretta sing “Adieu to Ballyshannon,” a lilting tune in waltz tempo that the partygoers all love even though the couple has sung the same song in other years. Later, Gretta moved by Bartell D’Arcy (Leo Delgado), the special guest who is an opera singer, says she will sing a song that she is reminded of and which, she tells her husband who offers to help her sing it, he has never heard before. She strikes a far away look of radiance and sings in a mesmerizing delicate voice about a lost love of hers by the name of Michael Furey. Initially, Gabriel thinks she is singing about him, but later to his abject disappointment discovers not so. He is sadly angry that she has never told him about this man whom she then reveals died at the age of 17 hopelessly in love with her.

There is lots of fun choreography including a heel-clicking dance to the tune of "Three Jolly Pigeons" by a drunken young man named Freddy Malins (John Gerard Healy).

A subplot is the failed lives of the elderly aunts who live their whole lives through performing and teaching music. At the end of the party, Aunt Julia, dying, is visited by a younger apparition of herself, played by the intriguing looking Antonia Romm, who might have the face of medieval angel.

In Rocky Delaplaine’s poem “Watching Romeo and Juliet,” the narrator is reminded of a past romance with a man who is still the handsomest man she knows. Unlike Michael Furey, the handsome man of Delaplaine’s poem is still out there driving nails and building houses but the poet has chosen another man, her current husband, to build a family with. In James Joyce’s story, the reader never gets to know if Greta would have married Michael had he lived. Therefore, The Dead is a bittersweet story.


Tall oaks frame a make-shift stage.
Families gather at River Bend Park
on a warm August night to picnic
and see their kids in a Shakespeare play.
A half-moon rises over the Potomac.
The platform—twelve sheets of plywood
propped on two-by-fours. Staring
at this pared-down set, I think of a man
I left long ago, a carpenter and homebuilder
by trade. Why did I leave, exactly?
At 60 he’s the handsomest man I know,
can still drive a nail through without
hitting the wood. The night I left him
he howled as though his leg were caught
in a steel trap. Never, I vowed, never again.
And who is this man next to me now,
our daughter edging up a few rows to sit
with friends? When the young lovers kiss
I envy their passion, but not their impatience.
At intermission the director reminds us,
If they marry, it’s a comedy, if they die,
it’s a tragedy. On the drive home,
our thirteen-year-old wonders out loud,
It’s both, isn’t it? Yes, I say, it’s both.

by Joanne Rocky Delaplaine
from The Local World

Next play by Scena is Ajax by Sophocles and directed by Robert McNamara from March 20 to April 19, 2020.

Photo credit: Jae Yi Photography