Historical events, when presented as a series of statistics and dates, have far less impact on us than they do when integrated into a human story.
This is why, of course, history is the backdrop for so many movies, plays, television shows, and novels. These entertainments let us briefly experience what it was like to be living when a specific historical moment was unfolding around us. And most recently, in our own backyard, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots/Rebellion -- depending on who’s telling the story -- spawned a number of creative works that helped us revisit this pivotal moment in the Motor City’s history.
University of Michigan graduate (and Detroit native) Dominique Morisseau got a bit of a jump on things, premiering her play, Detroit ’67, in New York in 2013. The drama -- now being staged by Eastern Michigan University’s Theater Department -- won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, and ended up being the first in a Morisseau-penned trilogy focused on Detroit’s past. (Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew were the second and third.)
The Penny Seats Theatre Company has never been afraid to produce shows that are daring, out of the mainstream, or sometimes both at once. The troupe's upcoming production, Matt & Ben, written by Mindy Kaling of The Office and The Mindy Project fame, with her friend and The Office writer Brenda Withers, combines both of these elements. The play, set in 1995, tells a hilarious story: then struggling actors/writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, receive a fortuitous boon when a script (which becomes Good Will Hunting, the movie which launched both of their careers) falls from the sky into the apartment they share.
Kaling and Withers, who starred as Affleck and Damon respectively, in the original Off-Broadway production of Matt & Ben, wrote the satire with the intention that the two male roles be played by women. This, combined with the absurdity of the plot, creates an evening of theatre that is sure to have the audience thinking, considering social norms, and laughing uproariously, all at once.
I spoke with Allison Megroet and Allyson Miko, who will play Matt and Ben in the Penny Seats production, which opens at Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in Ann Arbor on April 5.
It’s amazing how, when a brilliant script is masterfully executed, three and a half hours can seem to pass in the blink of an eye.
Yet that’s the experience you’ll have if you’re lucky enough to catch the University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches -- which is so terrific that it’ll remind you all over again why the play has earned its status as a timeless masterpiece.
“I hate to see de ev'-nin' sun go down.”
When Bessie Smith sang those opening lines of "St. Louis Blues" the world took notice. Here was a voice to be reckoned with -- deep, resonant, and profoundly emotional.
Smith proclaimed herself "The Empress of the Blues" as a taunt to Ma Rainey’s "Queen of the Blues" title. No one would ever dispute Smith’s right to the crown. But popular music’s first great diva lived out those blues in a life that was both a celebration of free living and a reckless disregard for the dangers of that freedom.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is part cabaret show of Smith’s music and the alternately comic, melancholy, angry, and defiant story of Smith’s life from a shack in Tennessee to become one of the first major recording stars of the 1920s, as told by the irrepressible Smith herself.
Did you know that Greek sun god Apollo was a cat guy?
Yvonne Rainer, called a “true interdisciplinary artist” by Ann Arbor Film Festival Associate Director of Programs Katie McGowan, gave her Penny Stamps lecture/performance at the Michigan Theater on March 22. Speaking as the oracular god, Rainer delivered a multi-part letter titled "A Truncated History of the Universe for Dummies" chronicling Apollo’s quest to help the mere mortals of Earth.
Dressed in a shirt matching the ruby red curtain behind her, Rainer hypnotized a mixed audience of students, professionals, and appreciators of art for more than 40 minutes with vivid and violent imagery.
What makes someplace feel like home?
That’s the main question that threads throughout Lin-Manuel Miranda’s semi-autobiographical musical In the Heights, a story about the neighborhood Washington Heights and all of the people who live there. Miranda is best known for creating Hamilton a few years back, but he first rocketed to Broadway fame as the writer and lead actor in In the Heights.
“It’s unbelievable how he was able to encapsulate this whole community into music,” said Bruna D'Avila recently, the director of an entirely student-produced and acted University of Michigan Musket production of the show that runs March 16-18.
Taking a beloved hit movie and transforming it into a stage musical is standard practice these days. One look at current Broadway listings -- Aladdin, Anastasia, Frozen, the soon-to-open Mean Girls, and Waitress, to name a few -- proves how often the stage artists are borrowing from the screen.
But of course, not every translation works.
What made School of Rock -- the youth version of which is now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- a bona fide hit (and a Tony Award nominee) instead of a B-side flop?
“I’ve been part of a team producing it three times now, including the first production and this current one,” explained Joanna Hastings, playwright and creator of Fabula Rasa, an Ellipsis Theatre production at Bona Sera Underground on March 9 and 10. “The second time was when we cut out the major dance element and also the character of the Sphinx, which was taken from one of Kamrowski’s paintings, changed from being a storyteller to being a predator/psychopomp/healer. The revenge Archimedes exacts on Castor and Pollux has intensified with the different iterations of the play.”
If this all sounds slightly confusing at first glance, it’s meant to.
“When we put ourselves in positions of risk, interesting things happen,” says choreographer Honji Wang. She is talking to me on the phone from Minneapolis about the upcoming performances of Company Wang Ramirez -- the group of dancers she leads with partner Sébastien Ramirez -- at Ann Arbor’s Power Center, March 9-10, as part of UMS's season. Our conversation is shot through with Wang’s references to what is interesting, and it reveals an ongoing passion for illuminating the unexpected and the provocative through dance.
Even terrifying at times.
That first date can make you sweat.
That’s the premise of the chamber musical First Date, book by Austin Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner.
Aaron C. Wade will direct the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of First Date, March 8-11, at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the north campus of the University of Michigan.