Cast gives strong performance in U-M’s "Blood at the Root"

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High school is a tough time in anyone’s life. It’s a time when we invent ourselves several times over and never get it quite right. Throw some deep racial tension into the mix and things can become explosive.

In 2006, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, La., was beaten by six black students. The beating followed a racially charged week. A new black student at the high school dared to sit under a shade tree unofficially reserved for whites only. The next day, three nooses were hung from the tree. More incidents followed, including a damaging fire at the school. The six students were arrested and initially charged with attempted second-degree murder, later reduced to aggravated battery. The events led to a protest against what some thought were excessive and discriminatory treatment of the six students.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau uses these events for Blood at the Root, a fictional story that explores how the young students, black and white, react to these events and how they struggle to define themselves beyond the broad stereotypes they’ve been assigned. The play deals with the protests, but Morisseau, who is black, is more interested in the emotional impact of these events on young adults trying to find themselves.

U-M’s "Blood at the Root" challenges audiences to deal with race

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Blood at the Root

Left to right: Kathleen Taylor (Toria), Eddie Williams Jr.(Justin), Erin Croom (Raylynn), Elyakeem Avraham (De'Andre), and Kevin Corbett (Colin) in U-M's production of Blood at the Root by Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
--Abel Meeropol

In 2014 Stori Ayers was a graduate student in acting at Penn State University. She had the rare opportunity to be the first actress to play a key role in Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root, which had been commissioned by the university. She and other cast members worked with the author to develop the play

After performances at Penn State, she continued to perform the role of Raylynn in a touring production across the United States and internationally.

Ayers, who now teaches at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, will direct a U-M production of the provocative play, Nov. 16-20 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

It’s the silly season at PTD Productions with "Farce of Nature"

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PTD Productions, Farce of Nature

PTD Productions' Farce of Nature offers more ham than Easter dinner.

Hee-haw! Rural comedy is still alive, kicking, and knee slapping in the PTD production of Farce of Nature.

In a note to the audience, directors Janet Rich and Dennis Platte write, “We wish for you to take time to set aside the troubles of the world, to smile, and to be silly.”

The directors keep the silliness moving along at a quick pace and have encouraged the cast to bring on the ham.

Brass Tacks nails Shakespeare's dense & difficult "Measure for Measure"

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Brass Tacks Ensemble, Measure for Measure

Brass Tacks Ensemble has workshopped Measure for Measure for 10 months. Photos by Aaron C. Wade.

Nearly every play that is performed for an audience is a culmination of many people’s collective time and effort. A play is often a culmination of countless hours of rehearsals; of actors having learned the basics of their blocking and memorizing their lines, only to then attempt the feat of embodying becoming other people; of a director grappling with ideas and how to bring their artistic vision to a stage.

But rarely is a play a culmination of almost 10 months of other workshops and productions. Measure for Measure, a Brass Tacks Ensemble show that runs Nov. 10-19, is precisely that.

Down by Law: David Wells' "Resisting" world premieres at Theatre Nova

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Resisting at Theatre Nova

Brutal truths: David Wells' Resisting explores justice and systemic racism.

“Resist” is not only a rallying cry of our political times; it was the seed of Ann Arbor-based playwright David Wells (“Irrational,” “Brill”) latest world premiere play at Theatre Nova.

Resisting, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 19, grew out of a news story Wells read about what’s called “broken windows policing.” Born in New York City in the ‘90s, “It’s essentially a zero-tolerance approach, that was combined with ‘stop and frisk,’” said Wells. “(Broken Windows) started with a scholarly paper that suggested that ... if one window in a building is broken, and it’s not fixed immediately, all of them will be broken. ... So the police were compelled to start ticketing or arresting people for every little infraction, no matter how small -- whether it’s jumping a turnstile, or jaywalking, or spitting in public. This led to a more antagonistic relationship between the police and the citizens they were supposed to serve. And these policies also only seemed to be applied in low-income neighborhoods.”

The comedy "Nice Girl" is Redbud Productions' latest family affair

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Redbud Productions' Nice Girl

Nice Girl breaks the mold for Redbud Productions: "We have a reputation in Ann Arbor of doing these darker, heavier dramas,” said director Loretta Grimes. “This one is funny."

Redbud Productions shows are truly a family affair. My interview with Loretta Grimes -- who is directing Nice Girl at Kerrytown Concert House, Oct. 26-28 -- along with her husband and Redbud collaborator, Tim Grimes, was one of the warmest interviews I've conducted. Like the archetype of a loving married couple, Loretta and Tim -- who is the Events Manager at AADL -- finished many of each other's sentences during out chat in their rehearsal space, which is the basement of their home. It has been converted into an acting space complete with spike tape (to signify where the boundaries of the stage are), the set for their new show, and framed posters from their 19 years of previous productions.

"River in Our City, the River in Our Veins" celebrates the Huron

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The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins

U-M's Christianne Myers said River in Our City... is "a combination of performance and museum" -- with music and puppets.

The 130 miles of the Huron River have inspired everyone from poets and writers to biological researchers and naturalists. Now, it’s serving as inspiration for The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins, a processional performance at 12 noon on Friday, Oct. 27, in celebration of the University of Michigan’s bicentennial.

“Part of it was wanting to find something that impacts everybody on campus,” said Christianne Myers, associate professor of theater (costume design) and head of design and production at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. She’s also one of the event’s organizers. “Whether it’s actually something people are studying or doing research on, or if its just students riding inner tubes. It can be a lot of things to a lot of different people."

Civic Theatre prepares a "Cabaret" for our unsettled times

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Civic Theatre, Cabaret

Trish Fountain takes on the traditionally male role of the Emcee in Civic Theatre's updated version of Cabaret. Photo by Lisa Gavan.

When the musical Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966, memories of World War II and revelations about Nazi concentration camps were still fresh for the majority of Americans. The story of Weimar Germany’s plunge into nihilism and the rise of the Nazi Third Reich resonated with audiences as a reminder of how insidious evil can be.

Kat Walsh and Jennifer Goltz-Taylor hope their production of Cabaret for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is equally relevant for our troubled times.

“When Jennifer and I first proposed the show, we were looking at how polarized people are around a number of issues in our country and around the world,” said Walsh, the show’s director. “There’s a feeling of being unsettled on all sides of the political world. When we looked at the cabaret world in the 1930s, there was that same feeling of unsettledness. David Mamet said we’re here to engage with our audience and create a community, to ask what in the hell is going on it this world.”

Youth Theater Productions: Fall 2017

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High School Musical

So literal: The Pioneer High School musical cast of High School Musical.

Area high school drama clubs and other youth-theater ensembles are about to stage their annual fall productions. Below are descriptions of the shows provided by the theaters and production companies.

They Did It: Nearly 4,000 Rosies riveted down the world record

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Rosie the Riveter

A gathering of 3,755 Rosie the Riveters in Ypsilanti smashed the previous record of 2,229. Photo by Sherlonya Turner.

I was on a bike ride with a friend when he told me about the Saturday, Oct. 14, attempt to reclaim the Guinness World Record for the biggest gathering of women dressed as Rosie the Riveter. My knee-jerk response was that this wasn’t my scene. I’m not a fan of crowds, and more specifically, a bunch of women coming together at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center to dress up like Rosie the Riveter was definitely not my scene.

Rosie the Riveter is a representation of the women who worked in factories during World War II to support the war effort. The character is based on several people, including Rose Will Monroe, who worked as a riveter at Ypsilanti's Willow Run Aircraft Factory building B-24 bombers. But Rosie's didn’t resonate with me personally. I come from Southern black stock, and the women I am descended from always did some sort of work, primarily domestic, outside of their homes, paid or otherwise. Also, it’s in my nature to take icons and popular narratives and complicate them; it’s what I was taught as a history student, and it has become second nature. I didn’t think that there was anything here for me.

However, my friend’s prompting had given rise to a question, “Who are these women. Whose scene is this?”