The legendary Cicely Tyson has passed away. She leaves behind a prolific award-winning career in film, TV, and the stage. She was a trailblazer who opened the door for other black actresses that followed. Moreover, she used her work to show how multidimensional black women are and their deserving of respect. I’ll remember her most for the dignity and poise she possessed. Like a regal queen. She always seemed sure of herself and what she wanted from the world. Recently, Miss Tyson completed her memoir, Just As I Am. I’m looking forward to reading it and learning more about this incredible woman.
Activist and writer Larry Kramer passed away yesterday at 84. Over the years, his writing was critically acclaimed and won many awards. But he’ll be remembered most for his unbridled activism. Kramer was on the frontlines when the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s. He helped to form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later the more militant ACT UP. His approach was usually abrasive and confrontational. However, that anger was necessary in order to get people in power to implement changes. I enjoyed Kramer’s book Faggots and was moved by his play TheNormalHeart. I’m also very thankful for the battle he fought and the lives that it saved.
Burn/This is a simple, yet powerful, play. Set in 1980s New York, it begins with the death of Robbie, a young dancer. He leaves behind his friend/roommate/dance partner, Anna (Keri Russell). There’s his other roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), a gay advertising exec. And Anna’s screenwriter boyfriend, Burton (David Furr). The three are still dealing with Robbie’s death when Pale (Adam Driver), his brother, comes crashing into their lives. Things get flipped upside down with his arrival. He comes between Anna and Burton, while seeping into Larry’s life as well. Over the course of a year, the play deals with these complicated relationships, grief, and identity.
Driver’s Pale is hilarious and tragic at the same time. He doesn’t
know what to do with his pain, so he vomits it all over the stage. His character
says some fucked up things and you want to hate him. But then he makes you
laugh again and you feel for him. At times, Driver chews the scenery, but he
reels it in and makes Pale more of a person and less of a caricature.
Russell has a much quieter character. But Anna doesn’t fall
into Pale’s shadow. She is able to go toe-to-toe with him. The story is just as
much about her evolution, as she attempts to figure out who she is personally and
professionally. And Russell brings out all of Anna’s layers and emotions beautifully.
There are also great performances from the two supporting
actors. Larry is often the comic relief in the play, but Uranowitz brings a
great deal of heart and depth to the character as well. Similarly, Burton could
easily be categorized as a douchey yuppie. But, Furr makes him three dimensional
and not just another cliché.
Lanford Wilson’s script is extraordinary and holds up years later in this revival. Plus, director Michael Mayer brings new life to it with his staging. I also have to point out the amazing set design. The stage is transformed into an authentic NYC loft, complete with balcony. The windows, alone, had me.
You wouldn’t think that a real-life tragic event could make
a great musical, but The View Upstairs manages to do just that. The play is loosely
based on a horrific hate crime that took place in the 70s. At that time, the
UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. On June 24,
1973 an arsonist set a fire that caused the death of thirty-two patrons. Adding
to the devastation, victims were mocked and ridiculed by the community. In some
cases, bodies were not claimed by their family members for fear of people
learning they had gay relatives.
In 2013, playwright Max Vernon created The View UpStairs,
paying homage to these people lost in the fire. It would go on to be staged
Off-Broadway, around the US, and overseas.
In the musical, Wes, a young self-centered designer/entrepreneur/influencer,
purchases the building that once housed the UpStairs Lounge. After snorting a
good amount of cocaine, he’s suddenly transported back in time to when the bar
was open in 1973. Once there, he meets the regulars. Patrick, a good-looking
hustler; Buddy, a closeted 50-something piano player; Willie, the optimistic
matchmaker; Richard, a priest who holds services for the gay community at the
bar; Henri, the tough but motherly lesbian bartender; Freddy, a fabulous drag
queen; Inez, Freddy’s accepting mother; and Dale, a bitter resentful outsider.
Over the course of the show, Wes gets to know and love the
people he meets at the UpStairs, especially Patrick who he quickly falls for.
He loses his callous edge and begins to feel like he’s part of a family. Unfortunately,
as in real-life, things take a tragic turn.
I saw a production of the show at the New Conservatory
Theatre here in San Francisco and was quite entertained. The premise can be
hard to digest, but after awhile you go with it no matter how off-putting the
time travel hijinks can be. You can forget about that and let the music take
you on a journey. Some song standouts are “Are You Listening, God?”, “World
Outside These Walls”, and “Theme Song”. That last song in particular moved me
with its intensity.
It’s hard to single out one actor because they are such a
strong ensemble, building off each other. Everyone is given a song and an equal
chance to shine. I will say that Coleton Schmitto, Anthony Rollins-Mullens,
Linda Dorsey, and Jessica Coker gave particularly strong performances.
I also have to point out Devin Kasper’s impressive scenic
design. The theatre is quite small, but he was able to do so much with such
little space. You feel like you’re transported back in time, along with Wes, to
1970s New Orleans. Big points for the nude Burt Reynolds Cosmopolitan poster.
The show overall is a nice mix of fact and fiction. So, it
provides a history lesson without hitting you over the head with it. It honors
the victims of the tragedy and celebrates the LGBT community. The main message
is that of acceptance and finding your chosen family. Something that most
everyone should hear and take in.