Every now and then a touring show rolls through the Marcus Center that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. The big budget shows blast theeir way across the main stage making way too much money and tiny, little touring acts of far greater substance get ignored altogether. Thankfully, there was a respectably sizable crowd at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall for dancer Jade Solomon’s one-night-only public Milwaukee performance of Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger. A series of short narrative dances were punctuated in the middle and at the end with a couple of conversations about the nature of the word. The latest performance in Jade Solomon Curtis’ tour was at times deeply moving and disturbingly thought-provoking.
The show opens with delicate movements against a large video projection featuring an aerial shot of wind through tall grasses. There was a serene warmth in the visuals accompanying slow, hopeful music while a snowstorm whipped around in the Milwaukee winter evening outside the venue. The simple summery movements of tall grasses in the background establish the immensity of the backdrop the dancer is working with. It’s a nice place to start in a journey that jolts over into some deeply disturbing territory. The video screen behind Solomon is a large wall of visuals that also act as interstitial extensions on the theme. Some of the visuals are more powerful than others. It's particularly disturbing to see dash-cam footage of cops being overtly racist on a screen that large.
Anatomy of a Moment: Colored on the Wall
Disturbing shock isn’t the sort of thing often played on in small stage theatre. It’s difficult to get an overwhelming visceral jolt to come across in the context of a performance. When it’s carried across with the kind of power Jade Solomon is working with, it can be very powerful stuff.
The second piece on the evening is “Colored on the Wall.” Jade Solomon Curtis appears in a neon green hoodie and baggy shorts of the same color which glow dazzlingly in Reed Nakayama’s cool blue light. Solomon Curtis’ balletic hip-hop dance movements assert themselves with inspiring power and confidence that never quite edges over into aggression or violence. Solomon Curtis glides across the stage with a beautifully graceful dominance amidst techno beats from VIBEHEAVY. Solomon is a beautiful silhouette in radiant green. It's hypnotically gorgeous stuff amidst moody dance music until the boom is lowered in a powerfully visceral emotional gut punch. The dancer hits the ground screaming. The music switches to the upbeat power of the Otis Day and the Knights’ celebratory 1978 cover of “Shout.” The massive video screen backdrop explodes in lightly animated archival photos of blacks hung from trees. The video has the tragic victims from those old photos slowly swaying amidst the upbeat celebration of Otis Day while Solomon screams. The layering of scream, upbeat music and grizzly images from history had me picking my jaw up off the floor. In ten years of going to over 1100 shows, I can scarcely remember a more viscerally jarring moment in a theatre seat. This sort of emotional assault is attempted so rarely and it’s so rarely done well. I’m still getting chills writing about that moment, which will likely haunt me through the rest of the winter.
Jade Solomon dances with a lot of other weighty themes in the course of the program. “A Star Named Nigga,” analyzes the stereotype of hip-hop culture with Solomons’ distinctly precise and passionate balletic fusion. “Under Fire” is an exploration into aggression and self-destruction. The dancer’s passion and intensity are strikingly unflinching.
Direct Discussion in Two Parts
It’s all abstract movement except for the conversations. There’s one in the middle of the program and a more traditional talkback at the end of the show. There’s a kind of fearlessness in holding something that feels like a talkback in the middle of a program...but it’s more than that. Local talent and others including educator Walter Beach III and the show’s sound designer DJ Topspin discuss the word at the heart of the program. Mics are available to the audience to join-in the discussion. It may be obvious that the word is vulgar and oppressive regardless of who speaks it, but there ARE more complex issues that make an open discussion of the word an interesting exercise at times.
The Marcus Center performance of Black Like Me is the last date listed on Jade Solomon’s tour schedule. For more information, visit Jade Solomon Online.
Cabaret Milwaukee makes a classy splash into February with a swinging retro variety show. Cream City Crime Syndicate: Ransom is Relative continues the group’s heroic historical serial about Milwaukee’s Mayor Daniel Hoan in an era of prohibition and organized crime. Cabaret Milwaukee’s mix of music, comedy and hardboiled action drama feels a bit more balanced than it has in the past. The large ensemble brings a diverse and complex retro world to the historic space of the Astor Hotel bar.
Tall, smooth Marcus Beyer plays classically poised radio host Richard Howling. Once again he introduces the show and welcomes the audience back from intermission with the velvety jazz of crooner Cameron Webb, who sings jazzy pop to establish the retro mood of the show.
Written by David Law, the central Ransom is Relative serial that winds through the show is another fun heroic take on history as charismatic Josh Scheibe plays a humble Mayor Daniel Hoan. This episode has Hoan helping his aid Oscar (Stephen Wolterstorff) get his daughter back from kidnappers looking to bring a key and iconic part of Milwaukee’s lakefront into private hands. Rob Schreiner is ruggedly gritty as hardboiled detective hero Jack Walker, who Hoan enlists to get Oscar’s daughter back. Carrie Johns gives a defiant edge to the victim Dotty. Andrea Roedel-Schroeder has engagingly sophisticated power as Dotty’s friend Liv, who is caught-up in the conspiracy. There’s a vulnerability to Liv that Roedel-Schroeder cleverly delivers to the stage. Roedel-Schroeder's a talented addition to the Cabaret Milwaukee ensemble.
Back-up drama and comedy populate the edges of the action in between segments of the central story with Sarah Therese, Rebecca Sue Button and Liz Whitford Helin sing radio ad jingles as vintage ingenues. Between the tunes, they’re dealing with certain issues that continue to be tragically topical today. Laura Holterman and Michelle White continue to provide some of the most appealing provocative supporting material in the show as vintage radio homemaker Mrs. Millie and her thoroughly modern younger sister Billie. On the surface, it’s simply humor, but Holterman and White bring a hell of a lot of interpersonal characterization to the stage with Millie and Billie that strikes on a number of different themes. As with the best stuff in the show’s main serial, Holterman and White’s material cast the past in a light that resonates insightfully into the current world beyond the stage.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s Ransom is Relative continues through Jan. 22 at The Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Brownpapertickets.com
Adam Bock’s A Small Fire plays out on dual tracks of drama and horror. Like any good drama and most good horror, the underlying power in the journey lies in its tribute to human survival. David Cecsarini directs a small, stellar cast of Milwaukee theatre icons in a very gripping story of a woman who is slowly becoming disconnected from the outside world.
Mary MacDonald Kerr is deeply inspiring as Emily Bridges. Emily has a very strong sense of drive and direction about her. She’s the head of a construction company who deals with a million problems at once. Kerr deftly manages the task of maintaining an appealing and approachable presence in her portrayal of a person who is also very abrasive and totally immersed in work. As Emily, Kerr is, "gruff but lovable." Not many actors can truly pull that off. It’s impressive when it works. It’s particularly impressive here as it is the case that Emily gradually loses her senses over the course of 75 intermission-less minutes. She first loses her sense of smell. Her sense of taste goes with it. Then she loses her sight. Finally she loses he hearing. It’s never really explained what’s going on. Evidently doctors just don’t know. There’s very, very deep horror in that. Kerr sits in a room completely unable to see or hear anyone else in it. She’s had her senses to rely on her whole life. Now they’re gone. It’s difficult to imagine anything more horrifying than that.
Jonathan Smoots plays her husband John. He's a nice guy who works in H.R. Smoots taps-into an endearing empathic energy as a man very much in love with his wife who is challenged to help her in whatever way he can. Smoots finds a valiant middle ground between powerlessness and restless compassion that serves the production well. Smoots’ heroism as John matched Kerr’s as Emily. John’s selflessness also speaks to a vulnerability that Smoots is able to articulate with breathtaking fluidity.
No one seems more struck by John’s devotion to Emily than their daughter Jenny. Emily Vitrano wisely takes elements of compassion from Smoots and elements of driven self-sufficiency in the role of Jenny. There’s a very natural sense of family about the three actors and it has a lot to do with the way Vitrano links them all together. Her mother’s abrasiveness seems to have kept Jenny at a distance her whole life. She’s getting married to a man her mother doesn’t like. She’s concerned that her father’s devotion to her mother is unhealthy. Vitrano treads the delicate border between bitterness and love for her mother in a very sophisticated portrayal of someone trying to move on with her life as her mother’s falls apart.
The family dynamic between Kerr, Smoots and Vitrano is given further definition by Mark Corkins in the role of Emily’s workplace assistant Billy Fontaine. Corkins summons an irresistible workin’ guy charm to the stage dynamic. What appears to be a minor supporting role early-on adds a striking depth to the story as Emily’s condition worsens.
The drama plays out on a minimal stage co-designed by Rick Rasmussen and Cecsarini. It’s a very cleverly thought-out stage design that allows just enough detail to give the impression of Emily’s world as it slowly dissolves around her. Aaron Sherkow’s lighting design and Cescarini’s sound design profoundly punctuate Emily’s sudden losses of sensation with notable impact. It’s delicately finessed. Those moments of loss are never over-rendered with production elements. Bock’s script never leans-into them with a whole lot of dialogue. This is deeply terrifying in its own way. There’s no warning when losses occur...they just happen. The cast does a brilliant job of exploring the emotional impact of those losses.
Next Act’s production of A Small Fire runs through Feb. 23 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.