A Story by the Storyteller—a Review of “Dragon Lady”

By Claire DeMarco

Sara Porkalob invites you into her world to see, hear, and feel her stories about the maternal side of her family in “Dragon Lady.” Her maternal grandmother, Maria the “Dragon Lady” is the center of this adventure into her past.

As Maria’s 60th birthday approaches, she feels the need to pass on details of her life and her confidant is Sara Porkalob. As her story unwinds, its apparent that she has quite a few secrets to unveil, from a brief career as a singer in a tawdry club to a pregnancy (the child is Sara’s mother, also named Maria), a kidnapping and a murder. But through all the drama associated with her life, Maria is a fighter and a survivor (with a sense of humor).

Maria’s life changes again as this young Filipina woman immigrates to the Pacific Northwest. Her oldest child (Porkalob’s mother) is to care for her siblings. Now, without a husband, Maria works several jobs, often leaving her young daughter in charge of not only the running of the household but also caring for her siblings. The ramifications of this situation are that young Maria often isn’t able to attend school. This situation causes the resentment and rift that exists between the young and old Maria. That tension is highlighted at Grandmother Maria’s 60th birthday party.

Sara Porkalob goes full throttle on stage at the O’Reilly Theater.

Porkalob’s performance is brilliant, stunning, and creative! This is not just a solo performance, but many as Porkalob plays the parts of those relatives and acquaintances who are part of her narrative.

Her timing is impeccable as she smoothly reinvents herself as her grandmother, mother, her mother’s young brothers, and any character that’s part of her story. Reinventing also includes not only the vocal pitch of those she’s portraying, but their unique mannerisms as well. Great comedic timing, excellent facial expressions, and a beautiful voice elevate those roles.

There are not enough superlatives to describe this unique, stimulating, and wonderful performance by Sara Porkalob.

Porkalob created the Dragon Cycle, a trilogy of works about her grandmother (“Dragon Lady”), her mother (“Dragon Mama”), and Porkalob herself (“Dragon Baby”–still in development).

The set is striking with a modicum of stage props. The center stage is highlighted and framed as an intricate lounge setting for musical numbers. Different stage levels allow Porkalob to move up and down, often showing a different location and/or time as her story unwinds.

Excellent music by Hot Damn Scandal: Pete Irving, Jimmy Austin and Mickey Stylin.

Kudos to Scenic Designer Sasha Jin Schwartz.

Expert direction by Andrew Russell.

-CED

“Dragon Lady” is a production of the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Performances run from February 7 through February 25. For more information, click here.

The Power of “Black Flowers”

By Gina McKlveen

Along the Allegheny River, beneath the Fort Duquesne Bridge, a garden of greatness is blooming right before our city’s eyes.

Cameron “Camo” Nesbit, the Artist Resident responsible for the 12 portraits of local Black artists, leaders, and entertainers, “see[s] this site as having the potential to grow into a public art mecca for the city of Pittsburgh, and beyond.” The faces of these colorful portraits stare across the waters towards the North Shore, intertwined with images of various bright flowers and brilliant monarch butterflies that break up the industrial feel of the bridge’s beams and invite the viewer to picture a nourished culture. Among the portraits of Black excellence are the familiar faces of the Artist Resident himself, and other well-known Pittsburghers, like Billy Porter, the Broadway and movie-star actor, Wiz Khalifa, the Grammy nominated rapper, Dr. Ayisha Morgan Lee, founder and CEO of Hill Dance Academy Theatre, Alma Speedfox, the “Mother of Pittsburgh’s civil rights movement.”

A portrait of Billy Porter.

 

A portrait of Alma Speedfox.

The project, which was established in 2021, grew out of a previous Black Lives Matter mural created along this same pathway by another group of Pittsburgh mural artists following the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. In concert with those mural artists and in conversation with Pittsburgh’s Office of Public, Camo sought to engage the community around the subjects of healing, strength, and enlightenment. In his artist statement, Camo declared, “I believe Pittsburgh is ready for this: a place for people to gather and celebrate new voices and a new style of street art and murals.”

A portrait of Dr. Ayisha Morgan Lee.
Camerin “Camo” Nesbit

Nourished by its location at the riverfront and sponsored by the Office of Public Art, Riverlife, and Pittsburgh’s Cultural Trust, Camo’s “Black Flowers” is hopefully the first of many art gardens in Pittsburgh where community and conversations around culture, civil rights, and contributions thereto can flourish. “Black Flowers,” in particular though, is a perfect bouquet—a dozen faces—all picked to honor lives and legacies that were at one point or another rooted right here in Pittsburgh. This writer was fortunate enough to experience this beautiful arrangement on the warmth of a recent February weekend, which served as a reminder that as the weather turns closer towards spring by the day soon the City of Pittsburgh will also be in full bloom.

“Black Flowers” is located along Three Rivers Heritage Trail, approximately a half mile from Point State Park, and discoverable by GPS at “Ecstatic RiverFront.” For more information, click here.

-GM

Made to Order? – a Review of “The Perfect Mate”

If you can’t find the perfect mate, why not create one? After all, it is 2063 and technology has advanced to a new level.

Joan Sweete (Autumn Hurlbert) still wants true love with a human but as she pursues the dating scene, no one she encounters passes the test. Humans are letting her down. Her bubbly enthusiasm as she meets new possible love interests dwindles with each new encounter.

Susan Botelli (Josey Miller), a savvy business woman, intent on promoting and gaining funds for her idea, wants to create a humanoid, someone who looks like a man but can be programmed to have the qualifications required by that specific client.

Note: One of those techie advancements but not on the level of a humanoid is HomeBody (Ryan Cavanaugh), a human-looking robot built like a man but with an arm appendage that is a sweeper nozzle. He diligently (with appropriate sweeper sounds) earnestly cleans everything in sight.

Sweete finally agrees to the creation of a humanoid. Kenna and others (Jimmy Nicholas), based on Sweete’s criteria is programmed and created.

The perfect mate is perfect for a short period of time. He is agreeable, maybe too agreeable, doesn’t move much, possibly even boring. He is deprogrammed and Sweete agrees to another incarnation of her perfect mate with perhaps more realistic changes. This perfect mate comes to life as an Elvis-type gyrator who never stops moving and prancing. Another perfect mate
bust!

What does Sweete decide to do after these fiascos?

Note: I think we’ll leave the finale unknown. Come and see this funny, music-filled world premier rom com musical and you’ll find out!

Autumn Hurlbert gets ready to meet her match.

Hurlbert shines as the young woman looking for love (sometimes in the wrong places). Her character evolves from a bubbly energetic woman to one who becomes more frazzled as her experiences in finding the perfect mate reach a dead end. It becomes apparent that she really doesn’t know what she wants. Hurlbert also has a lovely voice and “Ready for Love” exemplifies
that.

Nicholas is excellent as the multiple perfect mates. He is endearing and agreeable in one of his incarnations and extremely humorous as a gyrating Elvis-type in another version. He has great comedic skills and timing and his facial and body movements contribute to his delivery.

Miller does a great job of portraying Botelli as the dominating business woman intent on obtaining funds to produce the perfect mate. She is overbearing at times but she’s on a mission.

Buchheit as Moya delivers with the song “Moya’s Opinion”.

Only making a brief appearance as HomeBody, Cavanaugh is delightful as the human-like robot with the sweeper nozzle arm who consistently exclaims: “I love dirt”! “I love dirt.”

The set’s backdrop is a huge computer with multiple buttons and flashy lights. In front of this mammoth mechanism is a bulky and very large desk. Behind the desk are three people who at first glance appear to be computer operators. It is apparent as the show begins that this large
desk partially hides the fact that the musicians are on stage.

Wonderful direction by Carolyn Cantor.

Hats off to the Pittsburgh CLO Band.

This world premiere of Rom Com Musical of the future was developed and made in Pittsburgh, with book, music, lyrics by Dan Lipton and David Rossmer.

Its genesis is the result of SPARK, an initiative dedicated to the development of new small musicals.

-CED

“The Perfect Mate” is a production of the Pittsburgh CLO Kara Cabaret Series. Performances at the Greer Cabaret Theater run from February 2 through March 17. For more information, click here.

Blues is the Roots and Everything Else is the Fruits – a review of “Blues is in the Roots”

By Lonnie the Theater Lady

This world-premiere biographical musical about Willie Dixon, opens in a courtroom in Chicago in 1977. Willie Dixon (Sam Lothard), his wife Marie (Michele Bankole) and Muddy Waters (Nickolas Page) are suing Chess Records because of a financial dispute.

From the courtroom, the audience is transported back to Willie’s childhood to trace the sequence of events leading up to the courtroom scene. From an early age, Willie spoke poetically and often in rhyme, foreshadowing his songwriting career. His mother Daisy (Angelique A. Strothers) gave birth to fourteen children, of which Willie was number seven. (The inspiration for the song “I’m The One They Call the Seventh Son”). His mother stressed the importance of education to her children as well as the role that their ancestors played in laying the foundation (roots) of who they would become.  Willie started singing in the church choir when he was only four years old. He later spent time in a prison farm when he was just thirteen years old–after being convicted of a fabricated misdemeanor.

He was a heavyweight boxer, a jailed conscientious objector, a producer, musician, vocalist, and musical arranger. He was a prolific songwriter, with over 500 songs written. All of his accomplishments, however, take a backseat to the textured music in this show. This is not simply a play about Willie’s life. It’s a concert/musical revue that entertains and captivates. In addition, it’s a sometimes excruciatingly painful look into Jim Crow laws and the historically brutal treatment of African Americans in this country.

Left to right: Kevin Brown, Angelique Strothers, and Mils MJ James sing.
From left to right: Sam Lothard, Nickolas Page, Cole McGlumphy take the stage.

Sam Lothard is perfectly cast as Willie. He is marvelous in this role. Not only is he comfortable and totally natural in his embodiment of Willie, but he is having the time of his life. It’s a joy to watch him as he confidently enjoys himself on stage. And, oh, yeah, he can sing the blues–with real emotion, — in fact, he owns the blues. I love his rendition of “I’m Ready” as he playfully flirts with Marie, his future wife. He kills it with every one of his musical numbers.

Nicholas Page  (Muddy Waters) exudes charm. His pompadour wig and period costume (Deryck Tines Mitchell, designer) contribute to his striking resemblance to Muddy Waters.

Kevin Brown plays his multiple roles smoothly with sophistication and aplomb. His portrayal of Otis Rush singing “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a show-stopper.

Michele Bankole as Etta James is comically entertaining as she sings Hoochie Coochie Man– her beautiful, rich voice shines in this and in all of her numbers.

Mils “M.J.” James as Sonny Boy Williamson performs a rendition of “Back Door Man” that is steaming hot—–ever so sexy—phew!  He later transforms into Chuck Berry—singing “Maybelline” as he accurately impersonates many of Chuck’s distinct dance moves. His spirited performance is a real crowd-pleaser!

Angelique A. Strothers beautifully sings Koko Taylor’s hit “All Night Long.” It’s a number that one could listen to all night long. (on repeat and be perfectly happy). Her voice is stunning in every one of her numbers.

Jenny Malarky plays multiple roles–both male and female–she does them all with panache that showcases her great versatility.

The entire cast and ensemble, (too numerous to mention) is strong, energetic and engaging. Every musical number, without exception, is sung with passion and without inhibition. The director, Herb Newsome, brings out the best in all of the actors, in their acting, movement, and vocals. He makes sure that every magical moment is used to its full advantage.

The playwright, Charles Dumas, is not only the first tenured Black professor (now emeritus) in the Penn State Black School of Theater but is Willie Dixon’s great nephew, as well. His loving tribute to Willie is bound to be a hit that withstands the test of time. I think it’s reasonable to expect to see this playing on Broadway in the not-too-distant future.

This production by New Horizon Theater is an exceptionally well-acted musical masterpiece that is not to be missed. It’s a show that begs to be seen, and savored, more than once!

-LTL

“Blues is in the Roots” runs until February 18 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall – 621 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

-LTL

“Blues is in the Roots” runs until February 18 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall – 621 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

Hooked on Phonics – a review of “My Fair Lady”

by Michael Buzzelli

Down and out Eliza Doolittle (Anette Barrios-Torres) becomes a guinea pig in an experiment concocted by Professor Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert) and his colleague, Colonel Hugh Pickering (John Adkison) in the Lerner and Loewe classic musical, “My Fair Lady.”

The show is based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which is based on a Greek myth of a Cypriot sculptor who carves a beautiful woman out of ivory, and falls in love with his own creation.

Higgins believes he can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse with the power of proper pronunciation (say that three times fast). He invites Eliza into his home, where he begins to teach her phonetics. She spends the majority of her days reading and enunciating her vowels.

His experiment is a success! But, like Pygmalion, Higgins falls in love with his creation.

Eliza, however, is now more uncertain about her future than ever, finding no place to fit in, and runs off with Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Nathan Haltiwanger), a young man who has been mooning after Eliza since he first met her.

Eliza confides in Henry’s mother (Becky Saunders) in her atrium. When Henry goes to tell his mom that Eliza has fled, he finds her there and the two have an epic confrontation. It’s one of the many will-they-or-won’t-they moments that keeps you on the edge of your seat (skip the liquids, this show is three-hours long).

Side note: There’s a subplot with Eliza’s father, Alfred (Michael Hagarty) and his cronies, Harry (Nicholas Carroll) and Jamie (Ryan Farham)  that has very little to do with the main story, but has some of the best songs. “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get me to the Church on time” are completely superfluous to the plot, but are absolute highlights of the show.

Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert) gets ready to take Eliza Doolittle (Anette Barris-Torres) to the Embassy Ball.
Higgins takes Doolittle out for a spin in her first event with high society, a horse race.

Barrios-Torres is an amazing Eliza. She has an incredible vocal instrument, and she is lovely…er…”loverly.”

Adkison’s Pickering is a total joy. He plays the man with an effete allure. Its hard to nail nuance when you’re playing to the back row, but, somehow, Adkison manages it.

Hegarty is marvelous as the drunken lout of a father. He gets to perform two of best numbers in the show. “Get me to the Church on time” is a glorious tribute to excess. It’s a showstopper.

Haltiwanger’s “On the Street Where You Live” is a masterpiece.  Haltiwanger is a delightful Freddy. He is handsome, poised and a masterful singer. Let’s hope the character falls in love again.

Higgins’s mother is the kindest of high society matriarchs. The antitheses of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley. Saunders plays her to perfection.

Additional show highlights include Christopher Isolano as the wickedly funny Professor Zoltan Karpathy, and Maeghin Mueller’s Mrs. Pearce.

Let’s face it, Professor Henry Higgins is a disagreeable fellow, Frasier and Niles Crane (“Frasier”),  Charles Emerson Winchester, III (“M*A*S*H*”) with a touch of Oscar the Grouch (“Sesame Street”) rolled into one. He treats Eliza like his prize pig at the county fair.  Grunert plays him comically broad, but seems to lack the charm he needs to win her back. The writing is partially to blame here. The chauvinism doesn’t age well. In every other way, there is a beautiful timelessness to the production.

Fantastic sets by Michael Yeargan matched with flawless costumes by Catherine Zuber.

Special shout out to sound designers Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake. On opening night there wasn’t one glitch or popped P.  The sound was crisp and clear and it sounded like we were in the Higgins household.

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. Fall in love all over again at “My Fair Lady.”

-MB

“My Fair Lady” runs from January 30th to February 4th at the Benedum Center, 237 Seventh Street, between Penn and Liberty, downtown Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here

A Strange Maze to Navigate – A Review of Crave

By: Joseph Szalinski

As much as theatre echoes the tried and true, as rehearsing is paramount in mounting productions, it can also be an art form full of experimentation. And I don’t just mean improv. Works that challenge not only the mores of society, but also the art form itself, are equally powerful and important, in addition to being difficult to helm. This makes ELSEWHERE Theatre Company’s rendition of the late Sarah Kane’s play, Crave, now running at Carnegie Stage, much more remarkable.

Katy Chmura directs this particular production, bringing the infamous show to life in tandem with a terrific cast and crew. Kane’s scripts have always been controversial, usually on account of violence, but her last two works, of which Crave is one, drew attention for the subject matter while also because of their unorthodoxy. There’s no story, per se, aside from some brief narratives that are shared randomly. Even the dialogue is without much, if any, context, leaving the delivery and intonation almost totally up to the actors and Chmura. Despite traditional theatre’s ability of being able to demonstrate a director’s abilities more clearly, abstract art is still reflective of their talent and style, and this production bears Chmura’s influence.

In keeping with the unusual approaches this play warrants, there are two casts for this show, which makes for an interesting dynamic. Unfortunately, this review only covers the first cast used, which consists of A (Joe York), B (Samantha Hawk), C (Jamie Rafacz), and M (Kauleen Cloutier), characters who are then portrayed by Amanda Weber, Marisa Rose Postava, Abbie Siecinski, and Harper York, respectively. It takes a special kind of thespian to tackle a role like these. Memorizing one’s own lines in the correct order would be hard enough, let alone having to remember them in relation to the equally random lines from one’s castmates, requires a great deal of skill, and deserves commendation, especially considering the reprehensible character(s) one plays, or at least characters who discuss a multitude of reprehensible things. It’s no small feat. Another strength of the cast is their physicality, whether that’s their coordination as a group, moving in dizzying trajectories or contorting their bodies into odd postures to better elicit a response from a line or expression.

Even for being a production that relies heavily on its cast and director, the crew as just as invaluable, as they are with everything else. The stage is simple: a perimeter of lights fencing off stations of varying heights for the performers to stand on and move around. While an uncomplicated setting can allow greater accessibly, which would attract more interest in staging said show, a more basic arrangement can serve as a gauge of the technical brilliance of a company too. Working within constrictions and embracing the minimalistic elements of this show are crucial in delivering a production that stands out. Lighting and sound were also done sparingly and tastefully, elevating the performance(s). The technical aspects of the production really helped bring audiences into the world being realized onstage.

Weird theatre is important, not just for theatre itself, but also for the artistic communities and artists in the area weird theatre is done in. It’s a great change-up from an oversaturation of overdone staples, musical or otherwise. Discussions are spurred; uncomfortable ideas are mulled over; we get to exist in uncommon emotional states. Theatre is more than just escapist entertainment, it’s an experience, a way to confront the awful parts of life, and Crave most definitely echoes this.

-JS

For more information, click here.

 

The High School Drama Award Winners are announced

 

By Michael Buzzelli

On January 29, the Prime Stage Theatre company filled the New Hazlett Theater with kids competing for the High School Drama Awards.

Monteze Freeland, who credited his start in theater to Prime Stage, hosted the event. Local luminaries, who handed out awards, included Scenic Designer, Tony Ferrier; Saturday Light Brigade’s Larry Berger; Playwright Gab Cody; Playwright and actor Matt Henderson; Theatrical Power Couple, Daina Griffith and Dan Krell; Post-Gazette’s Performer of the Year, Wali Jamal; and Prime Stage co-founder Wayne Brinda, among others.

Several schools competed for the Best Drama Award. They were Avonworth High School, Carlynton High School, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School, North Allegheny Intermediate High School, Thomas Jefferson High School, Shady Side Academy Senior School, Pine-Richland High School, Deer Lakes High School, Quaker Valley High School, Penn Hills High School, Hampton High School, and Fox Chapel High School.

Throughout the ceremony, several high school’s performed scenes from their nominated shows.

A scene from Shady Side Academy Senior School’s production of “Macbeth.”

 

A scene from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart’s production of “We Are the Sea.”

The winners are:

Best Overall Production: Shady Side Academy Senior School for Macbeth in “Macbeth.”

Best Actor: Lincoln Marshal from Fox Chapel Area High School for Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Best Actress: Jay Zhu from Shady Side Academy Senior School for Macbeth in  “Macbeth.”

Best Supporting Actor: Gavin Windows from Deer Lakes High School for Brett in “Winter Break.”

Best Supporting Actress: Elise Schaeffer from Deer Lakes High School for A.J. in “Winter Break.”

Best Student Director: Kiley Vande Geest & Andrew Kaehly for Hampton High School’s production of “Puffs.”

Best Student Stage Manager: Alec Mahathey  & Madeline Potts for Thomas Jefferson High School’s production of “Trap.”

Best Student Scenic Design and/or Fabrication: Jacob Baker, Margaret Sager & Lily Stalewski for Hampton High School’s production of “Puffs.”

Best Student Lighting Design and/or operation: Brandy Bandik for Thomas Jefferson High School’s production of “Trap.” Bandik also took the award for Best Student Use of Creative Special Effects.

Best Student Makeup Design and/or Application: Marena Miller for Our Lady of the Sacred Heart’s production of “We are the Sea.”

Best Student Sound Design and/or Operation: Laren Mutmanksy & Jeremy Thompson for Thomas Jefferson High School’s production of “Trap.”

Best Student Backstage Run Crew: Alexander Bi, Sam Davidheiser& Ada Lin for Shady Side Academy’s “Macbeth.”

Best Student Poster Design or Fabrication: Kaylee Dunham for Fox Chapel High School’s production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

 

For more information about the Drama Awards, please click here.

Barbara Luderowski: She’s Better Known For the Things She Did At the Mattress Factory

By Gina McKlveen

Last Friday, the Mattress Factory opened up its doors to the public to celebrate the birthday of its founder, Barbara Luderowski, who passed away in 2018 at her residence on the top floor of the six-story building she turned into North Side’s premier contemporary art museum.

The Mattress Factory nestled in the Mexican War Streets on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Luderowski was introduced to Pittsburgh first as a student at Carnegie’s Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, though she completed her formal education at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she remained until the early 1970s. Working primarily as an architect and designer in those days, Luderowski returned to Pittsburgh to pitch a public works project, but ended up catching an interest in the city’s North Side community. Insistent on contributing to this community and effectuating its culture, Luderowski packed up her Michigan life and headed east, eventually landing the old Stearns & Foster Mattress Firm building as her joint residence and studio space.

Barbara Luderowski talks about the Mattress Factory.

In her lifetime, Luderowski frequently pushed back on the idea of being a visionary; however, she undoubtedly had a clear vision for the Mattress Factory from conception to present day. As a special exhibit for the founder’s birthday, the Mattress Factory replayed a video of Luderowski explaining the museum’s significance to Pittsburgh’s North Side. In the founder’s own words, she described her goal as making “a building that housed creative people of different disciplines” and though many nay-sayers suggested, “Pittsburgh is a rotten city…not for creatives,” she emphasized that “creative people are drawn here based on the energy put out” by the museum.

The Mattress Factory’s most famous exhibit, Yayoi Kusama’s 1996 mirrored room “Repetitive Vision.”

To this day, the Mattress Factory has done just that, touting over 55,000 annual visitors, generating close to one million in earned income, and exhibiting upwards of 500 artists across various disciplines, nationalities, and backgrounds since its founding just shy of 40 years ago. Two of the museum’s most notable exhibiting artists Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell, each have iconic works displayed on the museum’s third and second floors respectively, and are part of the permanent collection. The energy Luderowski first envisioned for this space filled up an abandoned corporate relic and transformed it into an artistic playground that surpassed the interior walls and has extended to annex buildings scattered about the North Side neighborhood, translating this small community into a large community within an even bigger community.

“Catso, Red,” by James Turrell.

Luderowski’s own work as an artist was similarly inspired by the city of Pittsburgh. She once compared her work as a sculptor to the typography of Pittsburgh, referencing how the city “interlocks little pieces that fit together and go on hills” almost like a puzzle. More than likely that same sentiment developed her interlocutory or interdisciplinary approach to the Mattress Factory, which is much less like a formal art gallery with rigid rules and more so a place where visitors are encouraged to break from convention and metaphorically jump on the mattress.

-GM

Not to be confused with The Original Mattress Factory, the Mattress Factory, art museum, is located at 509 Jacksonia Street in Pittsburgh’s North Side, and is open Thursday through Sunday from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM and from 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM on every Wednesday.

This Time She Said No – a Review of “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott!”

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By Claire DeMarco

It was a day like any other as Rosa Parks (Chelsea Davis) waited for the bus ride home after working all day.  She knew the routine and the rules on how she had to enter the bus.  Access required from the side door, not the front door.  Proceed to the back of the bus for the section titled “For Colored Only.” As an additional affront if there were more whites than available seats in the front of the bus, blacks in the back of the bus had to vacate their seats.

Rosa had seen this scenario many times before and had been a victim of it previously.  On this ordinary bus ride home, a white passenger required a seat.  Bus driver (Ken Lutz) ordered Rosa and three other passengers to vacate their seats.  Three people obliged.

But on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama Rosa Parks said no!

Rosa was arrested.  Attorney Edgar Nixon (Nick Page) defended her and through his vision the Montgomery Bus Boycott started a few days after her arrest.  The boycott affected thousands of blacks as busing in Montgomery was their main means of transportation and many walked to work instead of riding the buses.

Many other civil rights activists and organizations also existed at this time and Rosa herself had been involved in civil rights initiatives prior to the boycott.  It was Edgar Nixon and a little-known minister (at the time) named Martin Luther King Jr. (Jake Moon) who pulled their resources together to coalesce around the boycott, elevating it and the hideous rules associated with segregation to national attention. Virginia Durr (Rebecca L. Godlove), a white anti-segregationist and Rosa acquaintance provided additional support.

The non-violent boycott went on for over a year and ended in a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on the Montgomery bus system was unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks’ story didn’t end with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Her activism continued throughout her life.

Rosa Parks (Chelsea Davis) with the real Rosa Parks in the background.

Davis shows the many sides of Rosa Parks. She is poised but determined. Always with a hat, gloves and the ever-present purse, Davis captures the dignity, grace and subtle strength of Rosa Parks.

Godlove is the empathetic Virginia Durr, a white southern woman who fully supports the anti-segregation movement.  She plays Durr as an outspoken, charismatic character, unconcerned what her southern neighbors think of her.

Dallas provides comedy relief as the aged Sister Rogers.  Leaning on her cane, shawl over her shoulders and eyes squinting to see a few inches in front of her, all her feelings erupt in a sassy and funny explosion of pent-up anger.

Moon does a great job as Martin Luther King Jr., emulating his cadence and speech mannerisms.

As part of the ensemble Lutz plays a myriad of roles and easily transitions from the segregationist bus driver to the supportive Pastor who encourages and lends voice to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Page is strong as Nixon, the civil rights activist whose influence helped in the implementation of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Ensemble actor Ameriah Fisher is effective as the youthful Claudette Colvin, member of the boycott effort.  She is also easily convincing as a mature Coretta Scott King.

Note:  There was a religious component to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and interspersed among the production are hymns and spirituals like “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine” sung by the actors.

The set consists of several lined-up kitchen chairs specific to the time period.  The chairs are used for the bus scene and as the area where many meetings occur.   A round table front of stage serves as another center of activity during the boycott.

This is a wonderful production of “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott”.  There is so much more to learn about Rosa Parks after her involvement in the boycott.  She is truly an American hero and icon.

Excellent music selection and direction by Music Director Toni Schlemmer.

Kudos to Director Linda Haston.  When asked why Rosa’s story is so important, Haston replied that “People who think they know the story, don’t!  It’s more than just the bus.”

-CED

“Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott” runs from January 19 – 28 at the New Hazlett Center for Performing Arts, 6 Allegheny Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.  For more information click here.

He brought me flahrs- a review of “South Side Stories”

By Michael Buzzelli

Tami Dixon portrays a plethora of characters in “South Side Stories Revisited.” Whether you’re in the Flats or on the Slopes, or just an occasional South Sider, Dixon has recognizable characters spinning yarns about the colorful Pittsburgh neighborhood.

If you’ve seen “South Side Stories,” a decade (gulp!) ago, you should know that “South Side Stories Revisited” is a much different collection of stories than the original, much like the difference between a pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut, or a pierogi filled with potato, jalapeno and cheese.

P.S. There was an editorial decision made to use the more conventional Mrs. T’s spelling of pierogi and not the frequently seen on South Side church sign spelling, “pyrohi/pyrohy.”

The playwright/actor goes back out into the streets and speaks with members of the community. Some praise the neighborhood, others malign it.

Dixon makes the point that the South Side is not the same place it was ten years ago. It is not. In the last ten years, poisonous forces rolled into the neighborhood like an evil fog, Trump, COVID, gun violence. A new America arose after 45, and Dixon doesn’t shy away from making a political stand.

The playwright dives deep into the recent conflicts and controversy surrounding the beloved ‘hood. The added conflict and darkness add more depth and meaning to the subject.

Speaking of controversy, Dixon sings an ode to the mysterious and spooky South Side Burger King, the seediest of seedy (and we’re not talking sesame seed buns). It’s a veritable flame-broiled fever dream of a song, but it’s hilarious (because it’s true).

Tami Dixon hangs out in the iconic Pittsburgh neighborhood, the South Side.
Tami Dixon on stage in “South Side Stories.”

Dixon has always been a remarkable talent, but she is at an entirely new level here.  Her character work is brilliant, turning from one accent to another, creating dialogue between different and disparate characters.

It should be noted that she worked with Sheila McKenna as her dialect coach. Yinz should know that both should now be considered experts in the much-maligned Pittsburghese.

David Pohl’s projection design is brilliant. He sets up quirky cartoon bits foreshadowing the upcoming character turns.

Kudos to DIxon and director Matt M. Morrow for finding the deepest, scariest parts of the South Side and putting them on full display.

Because MLK Day just passed, Dixon reminds us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only the light can do that,” and she has shone a light where it is needed most.

Sad Side Note: Stepping into the City Theatre so recently after the death of the Director of Development Dianne Duursma is a sad cloud hanging over the space. She was always a bright, shining bundle of joy at every premiere. She will be fondly remembered and always missed.

Fun Side Note: The lobby space was decorated with tiny folding chairs on each of the metal tables to delight patrons sipping cocktails waiting for the doors to open.

The show is a brisk 80 minutes but manages to cover a lot of ground, from Station Square to Arlington Heights.

“South Side Stories Revisited” is a must-see play for anyone in Southwestern Pennsylvania, or frankly, for anyone who has made the trek down Carson Street (sober or otherwise). To say more would spoil this magnificent piece of theater.

-MB

“South Side Stories” runs until February 18th, 2024. For more information, click here.

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