March 28, 2014
“This play is about our innate need for a beloved,” said director Charlie Newell to the assembled cast for David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, which starts previews May 8 at Court Theatre. “What we as human beings do to have our beloved, and why we viscerally need one in order to know who we are.” Newell is speaking about Hwang’s character of René Gallimard, a French ambassador who falls in love with a Peking Opera star, Song Lilling, and entertains a decades-long romance with her before he discovers the secrets she’s been hiding: not only is she a spy for the Chinese government, she’s also a man. Needless to say, Newell points out, M. Butterfly depicts “just how enmeshed and complicated that need for a beloved can get.”
Based on an incredible true story, M. Butterfly opened on Broadway in 1988 and became an instant classic of the American theatre. Playfully taking its title from Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, Hwang borrows Puccini’s famous characters—the American Pinkerton and his Japanese Butterfly—to make a savvy critique of East/West stereotypes and cultural imperialism, dramatized with a compelling and witty post-modern verve. It won the Tony Award for Best Play and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, launching David Henry Hwang on an incredible career in the American theatre that has included plays like Yellowface and Chinglish.
“The more terrified I am about taking on a project,” admits Newell, “the more excited I am to do it.” Staging M. Butterfly is a tall order for any director; not only do the events of the play jump around across disparate time periods and locations, the performance requires a pastiche of movement styles, from Peking Opera to Japanese Kabuki. That’s why the cast and crew are meeting three full months before the play opens—the actors will spend a week learning the complicated gesture and movement of traditional Chinese opera from the choreographer, Jamie Guan, who also choreographed the original Broadway production of M. Butterfly. Also in attendance is Judith Zeitlin, a University of Chicago professor who specializes in the history of Chinese opera. It was Zeitlin who originally inspired Newell to direct M. Butterfly, after he learned that she was curating a museum exhibit on images of Chinese opera at the Smart Museum, right next door to Court Theatre. Now, Court’s production and Smart’s exhibit are headlining a months-long festival at the UofC, Envisioning China: A Festival of Arts and Culture.
Despite all of the production’s moving parts, M. Butterfly is, according to Newell, essentially “a memory play, like The Glass Menagerie or Travesties.” The events of the story are recounted by Gallimard (played by Sean Fortunato) in his jail cell as he awaits trial for treason; as the music of Puccini’s opera plays, characters from the past enter and exit the theater of his mind. The goal of learning Chinese opera movement, explains Newell, is not to create a museum exhibit but to depict with robust theatricality Gallimard’s memories of his romance with Song. “Here’s this man on trial in his jail cell,” says Newell, “and like in An Iliad, tonight’s performance is his effort to tell his story in the single best way possible so he never has to tell it ever again. And because it’s all in his imagination, the theatrical rules are wide open.”
Performances for David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly start May 8.
February 6, 2014
Water by the Spoonful’s Path to the Pulitzer
If on April 15, 2012, you had asked playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes if she was going to win a Pulitzer Prize the next day, she probably would have laughed. Her play, Water by the Spoonful, had been submitted to the Pulitzer committee for consideration, but neither she nor the critics thought she had any chance against the other top contenders for that year.
Hudes was not a stranger to the Pulitzers: Water’s chronological predecessor, Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, had been a finalist in 2007, and she made the shortlist in 2009 for In the Heights, which she had co-written with Lin-Manuel Miranda. While Water by the Spoonful had been praised by critics, only a very small number of critics had actually seen the play: at the time, it had only had its debut at Hartford Stage, and there were no plans for a New York production.
Of course, on April 16, 2012, Water by the Spoonful did win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, perhaps surprising no one more than the playwright herself. While it was an unlikely candidate for the award in terms of popularity or publicity, the success of Hudes’ moving drama probably surprises no one who has seen or read her work. Weaving together the stories of an Iraq war veteran and the inhabitants of an online chat room/support group for substance addicts, Hudes’ play tackles difficult, extremely personal subjects – many of which were inspired by her own life.
Water by the Spoonful was commissioned by Hartford Stage as part of Hudes’ 2008/2009 Aetna New Voices Fellowship, and debuted there in 2011. While Hudes says that Water took her about three years to write from the beginning of her research process to its first production, the roots of the play go back many years earlier, when as a child she watched her own family struggle with addiction and recovery.
Hudes is a carefully researched and extremely personal writer, and began her process by interviewing members of her own family. The character of Elliot, who unites the plays of her trilogy, is based on a cousin (named Elliot Ruiz), and many of the events of the story are taken directly from real life events. He first appeared in Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, but upon completing the play, she realized that the character was actually meant for what she called a “coming of age trilogy” (A Sort of Homecoming, TCG). Water by the Spoonful followed, which introduced more of Elliot’s family. The characters of Odessa and Yaz in Water were also inspired by cousins, though many have drawn parallels between Yaz, an adjunct professor of music, and Hudes’ musical background. Hudes is careful to draw a line between representing people she admires onstage and airing the family’s dirty laundry, and many aspects of the series – including a major event in Odessa’s past, which is revealed in Water – are fictional. But Odessa’s struggles with addiction were inspired directly by Hudes’ relative, and were taken from careful conversations that the two cousins might otherwise have never had.
When her research extended beyond the members of her family, Hudes continued to draw information from interviews on extremely difficult topics. She approached the staff of the Institute of Living, a mental health facility in Hartford, where she spoke with many counselors, many of whom had chosen their careers because of personal experiences with addiction.
Water by the Spoonful opened to positive reviews, both from critics and from Elliot Ruiz and her cousin who inspired the character of Odessa. Both family members attended the opening, and despite the deeply personal nature of the subject matter were proud of their involvement with the script.
When the time came, Hartford Stage sent Hudes’ script to the Pulitzer committee for consideration. The Pulitzer Prize is unusual in that finalists and winners are announced at the same time, but despite the relative air of mystery around the award, it was expected to go to the Broadway hit Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz. Baitz’s comedy-drama about the California family of an old-guard Republican couple had made the shortlist, as had Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, which had had a successful off-Broadway run the year before. While Hudes knew her play was under consideration, she had written off any chance of it winning the award.
And so, the day the Pulitzer Award winners were to be announced, Hudes was teaching a writing seminar at Wesleyan University. She had completely forgotten about the Pulitzer announcement, and had silenced her phone to teach her three-hour class. When she finally returned to her phone, she’d received 200 emails, 70 voicemails, and more texts than she could count – all congratulations from people who knew of her success before she did.
Since winning the Pulitzer, Water by the Spoonful had its New York premiere at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre in early 2013. Hudes also completed the final installment of the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, which debuted at the Goodman Theatre last spring. And now, Water by the Spoonful has come to Chicago in Court Theatre’s premiere production.
January 28, 2014
By Jamila Woods
If you’ve ever seen August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, you know that the story is steeped in the cultural backdrop of Pittsburgh’s African-American community. Often called “the Bard of The Hill,” nine of August Wilson’s collection of ten “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays vividly portray African-American life & culture in the city’s historically black Hill District.
Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay once called this district “the crossroads of the world,” referring to the area’s heyday in the 1930s–1950s. During this period, The Hill was a multi-ethnic melting pot neighborhood with locally owned restaurants, beauty shops, barbers, theaters, grocers, butchers, bakeries, clothing stores, book stores, schools, churches, social clubs, and night clubs. A city within a city, The Hill experienced its own vibrant jazz renaissance, as its thriving nightclub scene served as a pivotal stopping point for jazz artists travelling between New York and Chicago. The area was also home to several champion African American basketball and baseball teams.
While August Wilson brought characters from The Hill to life on stage in his plays, Charles “Teenie” Harris documented the lived experiences of African Americans in The Hill in his photographs. Harris worked as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s oldest black newspapers, from the 1930s to the 1970s. His archive of over 80,000 photographs provides a detailed and intimate view of the lives of Hill residents. Viewing Harris’ photos in conversation with Wilson’s Seven Guitars provides an interesting view into the lives of African-Americans living in black enclaves in Northern cities in the late 1940’s the midst of the Great Migration.
Teenie Harris with his camera, c. 1938
Nicknamed “One Shot Harris,” Teenie was most often seen wearing his trademark fedora hat, an overcoat with pockets stuffed full of flash bulbs, and carrying his camera. He had a characteristic way of chatting up his subjects, putting them at ease with a joke or funny dance move, all the while checking out angles and setting up the shot without them noticing. Once he got the angle right, he would then snap a single photo. He rarely did any retakes, as film was expensive in those days. In his words: “I’m just taking one photograph so I have to get it right.”
August Wilson was quoted saying, “What I want to do is place the culture of Black America on stage, to demonstrate that it has the ability to offer sustenance.” Wilson also said he believed his plays offered white Americans a different way to look at black Americans. Similarly, Harris’ photographs show a side of African-American culture, community, and spirit that was simply not shown in American mainstream press during his time. As one of the soldiers of the black press in mid-20th century America, Harris’ photos for the Courier served as a humanizing and nuanced portrayal of black people in a climate of segregation and racism.
The following photographs are from the Carnegie Museum’s archive of Teenie Harris’ work.
Little boy boxer, possibly in Kays Boy’s Club, c. 1945
Woman outside Kays Valet Shop, c. 1940-1950
Children on Halloween in The Hill, c. 1941
Barbershop in The Hill, c. 1952
Read more about Charles “Teenie” Harris and see more photos at his archive website here.
January 17, 2014
Last week in The Guardian, Emma Brockes argues that Broadway (and, more broadly, the theater world) “is the last bastion of a certain kind of thinking, which is: if it hurts, it must be working.”
For many of us, going to the theatre is still bound by notions leftover from school that art is occurring and we’d better knuckle down and enjoy it, or else. If it’s uncomfortable, all the better, and everything is set up to encourage this mindset: making you wait outside the theatre, no matter the weather, until the last possible moment.
Even in the West End, where the seats are as small but the tickets at least cheaper, you’re allowed to mill in the foyer long before showtime – and then marshaling you brusquely across the threshold, past the bar where you can drop $20 for a gin and tonic and on to your seat, where, getting up to let others pass, you threaten to pitch forward into oblivion, never to return. (Unless you’re in the expensive seats, where all you suffer is the indignity of a chest or knee bump with the person you’ll be listening to breath for the next two hours.) At the end of the performance, you are chucked out a side-door into an alley by the dumpster.
The odd thing is that these conditions persist in an age when all forms of entertainment are subject to such fierce competition. As the tech expo, CES, has been demonstrating this week, the sophistication of home entertainment is such that it is a wonder any of us ever leaves the house. Even going to the movies, at $20 a shot, looks increasingly unappealing in the face of new 4S screen technology: “four times sharper than HD”, say the releases, which Netflix among others will be filming in this year and will presumably make reality look like a shabby also-ran.
Certainly, Court isn’t the West End (to begin with, our theater is much more comfortable, I would argue), nor does it even try to be, so many of her criticisms aren’t directly applicable to the experience of going to Court. But I do think she raises some interesting questions about going to the theater in an age where so much entertainment is cheap or free and constantly evolving with technology. Her conclusion, though, is about the experience of watching live theater, not so much the experience of being in uncomfortable seats, and I think she makes a great point that any theater-goer can agree with:
None of which is to denigrate live performing. You are paying for the frisson that comes from the possibility of error, and for the ineffable sense that you are experiencing something that can’t be captured, repeated or manipulated. You are also, perhaps, paying for that rare sense of collective propriety that makes, say, looking at your phone impossible. Oh, and the fact that when it’s good at the theatre, it’s better than anything. You will put up with a lot of unaugmented reality, for that.
January 16, 2014
If you’ve seen Seven Guitars, you know how much of the play is steeped in the sounds of the Blues. From the lines of the play to the music chosen by the sound designer to the songs the characters sing themselves, the entire experience is a musical one.
Songza provides playlists that are curated by the professionals - critics, DJs, musicologists, and the like. If you haven’t checked out Songza, it’s worth a look, but I thought we’d dive into the world of Seven Guitars a little with some musical context for the play. If you’re having a Blues-y sort of day, the following playlists will give you an introduction to the music that the characters talk about, play, and sing, as well as take you a little ahead of their world into the iconic Chicago Blues.
Early Delta Blues
“Dating back to 1930s, these are some of the earliest recordings of blues music. Though it had humble beginnings, the blues music of the Mississippi Delta paved the way for rock & roll.”
Lady Sings The Blues
“Classic female blues singers from the 1920s through the ‘50s, from the lowdown dirty Beale Street blues to the sanctified gospel of the storefront churches.”
“Essential songs born out of 1950s Chicago blues. Influenced by the rural, Delta Blues, Chicago’s bluesman introduced amplification and electric instruments into the genre which led to the birth of rock ‘n roll.”