Theater Night

Metamorphoses: Cast of Folger Theatre’s Metamorphoses. Photo: Peggy Ryan. Amm(i)gone:

Where do you come from? What stories does your grandma tell at the weekend family barbeque? Heritage, history, and what we choose to remember or forget about our past can reveal a lot about who we are. The month of May marks Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Jewish American Heritage Month and National Preservation Month, so this column examines theater that deconstructs heritage, history, identity, and what we inherit from those that came before us. Read on for our curated selection.

In The Spotlight

Metamorphoses, Folger Theatre
Showing May 7 – June 16

It’s hard to believe that anything positive could come from the brutal slaying of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Tennessee police in January of last year. To Director Psalmayene 24, this tragic event was yet another example of the disregard for Black life prevalent in American society, but inherent in this act of violence was the potential for creativity.

Heritage and history are slippery concepts. They are weaponized by politicians but can also be sources of pride. Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses – a modern interpretation of Ovid’s classical poem by the same name – is a lesson in how we are all much more alike than we are different. Themes of struggle, triumph, tragedy, and transformation touch all of us, regardless of our different heritage and histories. We laugh and cry together, Metamorphoses teaches us, and the opportunity for Psalmayene 24 to carry this important message into the world after Nichols’ death through his exegesis of Zimmerman’s work at the Folger Theatre was too irresistible to pass up.

“The police killing of Tyre Nichols was the impetus behind how we decided to interpret this production, working with an all-Black ensemble. It’s how we chose to frame the piece, but I didn’t want grief to overshadow the production. It’s proved a rich starting point in terms of the casting.” Psalm elaborates. “Black culture is being inserted into every element of the design of the play. The costumes are inspired by clothing from the African Diaspora. The music is a survey of Black music; tipping our hats to the origins of Black music. It shows up in the scenic design and setting of this world.” The all-Black cast of 11 (a first in Folger’s history) was chosen purposely by Psalm to emphasize the inherent value of Black culture and as a celebration of life rather than a meditation on death. “We’re transcending grief. This is a celebration of Black culture and the African Diaspora.”

One of the key themes in Metamorphoses is transformation. It’s sprinkled liberally throughout the 11 vignettes in various forms, both literal and metaphorical. In this election year, there’s never been a more important time to remind ourselves that transformation and change is always possible.

On Right Now

Mosaic Theater Company
Showing May 16 – June 15

Did you know that in the mid 19th Century about 10,000 enslaved African Americans chose to head south to Mexico to seek their freedom, instead of north?  Men, women and children fled plantations in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, braving the arid conditions of the Nueces Strip and risk of capture or attack to seek refuge through Mexico’s anti-slavery laws, passed in 1821. They were helped along the way by sympathetic Mexicans from all walks of life that believed in equality, freedom and protection from unjust persecution.

This month, Mosaic Theater Company has partnered with Baltimore Center Stage to interpret this little-known chapter of American-Mexican history through a live-looped hip-hop musical. Brian Quijada and Nygel D. Robinson’s Mexodus shakes the dust off what we think we know about our history and heritage. “This show is about the untold story of the Underground Railroad that went south to Mexico. The overarching theme is Black and Brown solidarity and using this story to talk about all the ways we’re in solidarity with one another.” says Robinson. Historians like Alice Baumgartner, Mekala Audain and Kyle Ainsworth have started excavating the archive of collaboration between Black and Brown people on what’s called the “Southbound Underground Railroad,” and Mexodus is a contemporary, intensely personal and vitally important contribution to this field of study. 

Mexodus: Brian Quijada (L) and Nygel D. Robinson (R) in the Baltimore Center
Stage production of Mexodus. Photo: J Fannon Photography.

Quijada explains that Mexodus’ subject matter is close to his heart both creatively and spiritually. “I write a lot about the border, about immigration, about my parents crossing the southern border. This is an immigration story I’m familiar with, it’s just a reverse border story.” Both he and Robinson have worked hard to avoid any stereotypical representations of enslaved people, or what Quijada refers to as “trauma porn.” They do this through the collaborative act of contemporary music-making (which underscores the spirit of co-operation that inspired the play) and via a raw, heartfelt exposition by Robinson that sets the scene for the action.

Why don’t we know more about this shared heritage between America and Mexico? Perhaps, as Robinson points out, it’s because those that fled and created new lives were so successful at integration that their narratives are like well-guarded family secrets; retold around the dinner table at special occasions or during celebrations like Día de los Negros, the Mexican version of Juneteenth.

If after watching Mexodus you’d like to learn more about the Southbound Underground Railroad, read Alice Baumgartner’s South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.

Catch before Closing

Woolly Mammoth Theater Company
Showing April 20 – May 12

Director, Playwright and Performer Adil Mansoor’s new play Amm(i)gone – presented in association with Kelly Strayhorn Theater and co-directed by Lyam B. Gabel – asks a fundamental question many of us have grappled with: What happens when who you are is at odds with your family’s heritage and history?

Playwright Adil Mansoor as a child. Photo courtesy Adil Mansoor.

Antigone is a play by the ancient Greek Tragedian Sophocles, written around 441 BCE within a cultural context of ancient Greek heritage and early democracy, so themes of morality, honor, duty, and love abound. Of course, there’s much more under the surface, Mansoor says, who has reimagined this classic work to tell an intimate story about himself and his Pakistani-born mother. “The play is attempting to complicate what it means to come out and what coming out can look like. The ways in which ‘silence’, ‘veil’ and ‘closet’ function. I love Sophocles’ Antigone. I brought it up with my mom and she loved it.”

Through various ephemera connected to a dialogue about Antigone with his mom (old childhood photos, audio recordings, pieces of text), Mansoor lays bare the vulnerability of both mother and eldest child through the tracing of an evolving journey of both growth and acceptance. “The play itself is the project. My mom started wearing a hijab in the late 90s. In photos from my early childhood, she isn’t veiled, so we had to come up with ways of sharing those photos in the play that still respect her faith. It’s become an artistic launching pad for much of the project.” I ask Mansoor whether his mom has watched it. “She hasn’t officially seen the work. The invitation is there though.”

Amm(i)gone has been incarnated in various forms since 2019, when Mansoor first began experimenting with it, but this will be the first large-scale production so be sure to catch it before it closes.