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Friday, July 19, 2024

Theater Night

In the dark early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was raided by the NYPD and became ground zero for a queer revolution. After years of police harassment, patrons of this seedy, Mafia-owned bar and nightclub ‒ a refuge for New York City’s queer community ‒ finally had enough.

What followed was two days of protests that sparked gay pride marches, inspired the publication of queer-focused literature and birthed LGBTQI+ activist movements and organizations.

In June, we commemorate not only this momentous night, but the many individuals both before and after who sacrificed so much in this ongoing battle for equality. This month’s column previews theater that highlights queer culture and life. We’ve also included an exclusive, behind-the-curtain look at the revamped Folger Shakespeare Library to open on June 21.

In the Spotlight

“Where the Mountain Meets the Sea,”

Signature Theatre

Showing May 27-July 7,  sigtheatre.org

In cultures across the world, tales of epic journeys abound. Think Homer’s “Odyssey” or the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” Playwright Jeff Augustin’s “Where the Mountain Meets the Sea” brings this ancient narrative formula to vivid, contemporary life as it tells the story of Jean (a Haitian immigrant) and his queer son Jonah, who traces his father’s cross-country journey in a quest of self-discovery.

“Where the Mountain Meets the Sea,” directed by Timothy Douglas. Photo: D’Ambrose Boyd.

Originally commissioned for the 2020 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theater of Louisville, this play will see its third time before an audience, and for its DC debut it’s being directed by Timothy Douglas (Signature Theatre’s “The Color Purple,” Arena Stage’s “King Hedley II” among many others). “This is inherently a story about a Black father and son coming to terms with each other, specifically, around the son’s queerness,” says Douglas, who confesses he feels an affinity for the subject matter. “More than 50% of the productions I’ve directed over my career at core deal with a Black father-and-son relationship.”

Katerina McCrimmon and Izaiah Montaque Harris in “Funny Girl” at the National tour of “Funny Girl.” Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Augustin draws his creativity from Haitian mythology and folklore. As the first-generation child of a Haitian father, storytelling flows through his blood, with music being a crucial component of his work. The first two productions of “Where the Mountain Meets the Sea” incorporated the live musical stylings of a husband-and-wife duo, the Bengsons, whose lyricism is as evocative of the Southern US as it is of Haitian twoubadou ballads. Douglas’ interpretation, however, casts Jim Morrison and Awa Sal Secka in these roles, alongside Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell as Jonah and Robert Cornelius as Jean.

Display of First Folios and oak printing press at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Photos: Lloyd Wolf.
201 E. Capital St SE
Washington DC 20003
Includes first folios, fantasy map, light press, gardens, Puck statue, interactive displays, gift shop

Douglas has worked hard to craft a liminal, meditative space in this production, within which the varied perspectives of the performers can act as catalysts for a performance that differs markedly from what has come before. “It’s a grounded story but experienced ethereally,” Douglas explains. “It’s a meditation on mortality and the afterlife. It has a particularly meditative pace to it. This piece defies description. It’s not a traditional play by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a not a musical, but music is an essential driver and participant in the storytelling.”

Display of First Folios and oak printing press at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Photos: Lloyd Wolf.
201 E. Capital St SE
Washington DC 20003
Includes first folios, fantasy map, light press, gardens, Puck statue, interactive displays, gift shop

For Douglas, the emphasis of the play is on the relationship between Jean and Jonah. “In the end, it’s the very personal story of father and son discovering one another with perspective and distance. There’s a lot going on, and actually not very much!” he says, laughing. “It’s really in the end a very simple story.”

Coming Attraction

“Funny Girl,”

Kennedy Center Opera House

Showing June 25-July 14,  kennedy-center.org

Display of First Folios and oak printing press at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Photos: Lloyd Wolf.
201 E. Capital St SE
Washington DC 20003
Includes first folios, fantasy map, light press, gardens, Puck statue, interactive displays, gift shop

“Hello, gorgeous!” What is it about the musical “Funny Girl” that cemented it (and Barbra Streisand) firmly in the hallowed halls of queer culture? The Broadway National Tour of “Funny Girl” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stars Katerina McCrimmon as tough-as-nails Fanny Brice, who falls head over heels in love with bad boy gambler Nicky Arnstein. While ostensibly not a queer story, Brice teaches us that standing out isn’t a bad thing and that within our differences we can find strength. Important lessons in today’s world.

Written by Isobel Lennart and directed by Michael Mayer with original music by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (“Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People”), this one isn’t to be missed.

Behind the Curtain

Renovation of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Open June 21,  folger.edu

At the end of May, Michael Witmore (director) and Peggy O’Brien (director of education) ushered me through the softly lit exhibition halls and sparkling corridors of the newly renovated Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, as part of a special preview for Hill Rag readers of an impressive $80.5 million, four-year revamp.

“We did some research over a year. All kinds of focus groups and community groups, including families on the Hill and further afield including Ward 8,” O’Brien tells me, as she gestures to the beautifully curated collections housed in the new exhibition hall. “The results were consistent: people didn’t know what we are or what we did and whether we were open to families. That informed a lot of what this looks like now. We wanted to show a lot of things to a lot of people.”

The first thing visitors will see is a quote by lauded African American poet and essayist Rita Dove inscribed along the new garden path: “Clear your calendars. Pocket your notes …” ‒ an invitation to open your mind and enter the world of William Shakespeare. A new work by artist Fred Wilson – commissioned by and for the Folger by Witmore – calls upon patrons to enter the new Shakespeare Exhibition Hall. Wilson has crafted a Venetian Murano glass mirror in shades of smoky ruby red, set against a crimson wall. In its faceted surface, you’ll see reflections of the iconic Sieve portrait of Elizabeth I (painted by George Gower in 1579), which Wilson has placed in conversation with a depiction of actor Ira Aldridge, who at age 17 in 1825 was the first African American to play “Othello” in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name.

This contemplative work sets the tone for what to expect as you move deeper into this new world: interactive exhibits for kids and adults alike, and objects, artworks and ephemera that remind us how words can forge entire worlds. Pages copied from various articles within the larger collection embellish the walls like jewels; visitors are encouraged to touch and interact with them. “The visitors are their own interpreters. We don’t think of ourselves as interpreters,” O’Brien says. Display cases covering the history of Shakespeare’s work in DC (don’t miss the links to Howard University and Frederick Douglass) are a special feature, along with a handmade oak printing press built by Alan May according to instructions by Joseph Moxon written more than 340 years ago.

Arguably, the stars of the show are 82 original First Folios – some marked by Henry Clay Folger himself in order of preference – that have for the first time been brought out of storage for public view. These copies of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays were first printed in 1623, and the impressive glass display case allows you to delve deeper into them based on whether you want to be a detective, storyteller or collector.

Witmore is stepping down as director this summer, so in a very real sense this reimagining of the Folger Shakespeare Library is his swan song. “Changes in words over there change people’s lives,” Witmore tells me as he points to the Capitol building less than a mile away. “It’s appropriate to have a place like this here. This has been hugely emotional. Hugely gratifying. I’ve been fortunate to have a group of people around me who not only wanted to go there, but are now out ahead of me, and that makes me feel good about being done.” 

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