Friday, August 16, 2019

"Somebody's Baby, Somebody's Child"

52 Letters

Regina Evans and Rashida Chase Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

Written and performed by Regina Evans
Vocals by Rashida Chase

Ubuntu Theater Project
The FLAX Building, 1501 MLK Jr. Way, Oakland, CA

Until August 25, 2019

By Christine Okon

"52 Letters" is more than a play.

It is a prayer, a poem, a cry, and an impassioned call to action to acknowledge a terrible wrong that is all too common yet invisible: the sex trafficking of young girls. Ubuntu Theater Project gives space to artist, activist, and poet Regina Evans to proclaim her message in a stage play that also won the Best of San Francisco Fringe Festival in 2013.

Like an angel of truth, a stunning woman (Rashida Chase) in a regal white dress and headdress enters singing “Motherless Child” with a deep and mournful voice that creates a sanctifying effect sustained throughout the play. Evans begins to tell the stories of young victims, each one “somebody’s baby, somebody’s child.”

Regina Evans Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

As a former victim herself, Evan uses her voice, body, and soul to convey her message, writhing and moaning as if reliving her own nightmare. Poetry flows from her like cleansing water from a deep, natural spring, immersing us in vivid and visceral descriptions of the degradation, suffering, and entrapment of young girls who are abducted, “processed,” and transformed into instruments of profit for their “handlers.” A real horror is how organized and collaborative traffickers are, smoothly moving girls like product from city to city, state to state, country to country. The recent exposure of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of young girls made the news, revealing that the crime crosses all socioeconomic boundaries. But how many such stories remain invisible and unheard?

Regina Evans and Rashida Chase Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

Like a wise medicine woman who knows the path to healing, Evans traces the journey from the hell of slavery to the hope of renewal. This is her mission in life: to help young girls find their way back to themselves and society. Evans is the founder of Regina’s Door, a non-profit that helps trafficking victims learn new skills in retail and fashion, and she joins in the voices of other organizations dedicated to helping young victims.

Each performance of "52 Letters" is followed by a guest speaker from one such organization. For example, former victim Sarai Mazariegos tells us that “we don’t sit on our trauma,” meaning that the goal of the S.H.A.D.E. movement she founded is to help victims realize their power to “thrive, not just survive.”

Center: Sarai Mazariegostion of S.H.A.D.E Photo by Christine Okon

Many more organizations exist, and "52 Letters" urges us to not only learn about the reality of sex trafficking but to take action to help. In this way, theater can indeed be an instrument of change.


"52 Letters," written and performed by Regina Evans at Ubuntu Theater Project, The FLAX Building, Oakland, CA, through Sunday, August 25, 2019. , Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com/letters

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Come to This Cabaret

Cabaret


John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Book by Joe Masteroff; Based on the play by John Van Druten 
and Stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Susi Damilano
San Francisco Playhouse

Until September 14, 2019

By Christine Okon

I saw “Cabaret” about 10 years ago at San Francisco Playhouse in a powerful production that showed how joy could be decimated by encroaching, fascistic powers that be. “Good thing we’re not in Nazi Germany,” I thought naively ruminating on the history lesson of how a whole country changed.

How the world has changed, with our democracy threatened from within as never before. In San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of the musical “Cabaret,” a subtle pulse of apprehension about the growing swell of fascism before WWII beats with the fabulous music about the lives of people in “a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world.”

John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Like a thousand moths beating their wings madly before the light goes out, this “Cabaret” is rich with story, dance, and songs of dark irony and warm poignancy. The scenic design (Jacqueline Scott) transforms the theater into the decadent Kit Kat Klub where the devious-trickster Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) insists that you can “leave your troubles outside” because “in here, life is beautiful...”  The Cabaret Girls, Cabaret Boys, and emcee raise the heart rate with "Willkommen" to show they are “happy to see you..” Fosse-inspired choreography by Nicole Helfer and the live music directed by Dave Dobrusky spark every dance number, and all of the dancers are decadently precise in their movements.

Kit Kat Klub Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Clifford Bradshaw (a gentle and convincing Atticus Shaindlin) rides the train into Berlin where he hopes to make his mark as a novelist. He is befriended by the uber-suave, powerful German businessman Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn Jr.); with a smile on his face and ice in his veins, Springhorn embodies a dispassionate character who later turns dangerous.

Ernst takes Cliff under his wing and finds him a place to stay at the run-down boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick). In many ways, the real story of "Cabaret" is the story of Fräulein Schneider, an ordinary German woman way past any semblance of youth, who must “learn how to settle” for what she gets, bemoaning that “it will all go on if we’re here or not / So who cares? / So what? / So Who Cares?”

Jennie Blick and Louis Parnell Photo: Jessica Palopoli

If you wonder how a “whole nation” could support Hitler, consider Fräulein Schneider’s choice between resistance and resilience. Jenny Brick brings a fullness to Fräulein Schneider; even the ill-fitting wig is in character to present a woman just trying to keep it together. Fräulein Schneider is courted by the sweet Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz who woos her with gifts of sweet Italian oranges and other delights. Louis Parnell is a lovable Schultz, and as the two grow in love for each other we root for them as they begin to choose happiness over loneliness.

One of the tenants is Fräulein Kost (a lithe and strong Mary Kalita). She has many visitors, mostly sailors, who are all somehow “related.” Although Schneider clucks disapproval, she must look the other way or else lose the rent money. Kost shows up later as the dangerous arm candy of Ernst as he sports a swastika armband. She sings the rousing nationalist theme “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” as well as a loving “Heirat”  but also casually informs Ernst of Herr Schulze’s religion. Things turn ugly and the audience is filled with dread as arms are raised in the Nazi salute before intermission.

At the Kit Kat Klub, Cliff meets Sally Bowles, the British expat headliner of the cabaret show. Melissa WolfKlain creates an energetic Sally with a strong, moving voice that brings a lot of heart to the role. It's exciting to watch her lead the Kit Kat Klub dancers in a knockout, acrobatic "Mein Herr" complete with teetering chairs and floor-slapping. When Sally sings the final song "Cabaret," it is not as a joyful invitation to fun, but a sad, ironic reference to just the opposite. Watching WolfKlain in this scene is like watching a wounded creature dying, robbed of hope, and trapped in a stillborn dream.

Ambiguity and contradictions thread through the story. So many things hang in the balance between male-female, neighbor-enemy, trust-suspicion, poverty-wealth, compliance-power. This "Cabaret" taps into a dark desperation that transcends its time to convey the fear and  uncertainty of living on the brink of change.

"Cabaret," Book by Joe Masteroff; based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by Susi Damilano, San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco, through September 14, 2019. Info: sfplayhouse.org

CAST
Jennie Brick* as Fräulein Schneider
John Paul Gonzalez as Emcee
Carlos Guerrero as Victor
Mary Kalita as Fräulein Kost
Melissa Wolfklain* as Sally Bowles
Zachary Isen as Bobby
Jean-Paul Jones as Texas
Nicole Helfer* as Frenchie
Louis Parnell* as Herr Schultz
Atticus Shaindlin* as Clifford Bradshaw
Will Springhorn Jr.* as Ernst Ludwig
Zoë Swenson-Graham as Helga
Shaun Leslie Thomas as Max
Joe Ayers as Rosie

*Member, Actor's Equity

CREATIVE TEAM
Susi Damilano  DIRECTOR
Dave Dobrusky MUSIC DIRECTOR
Nicole Helfer  CHOREOGRAPHER
Jacquelyn Scott  SCENIC & PROPERTIES DESIGNER
Abra Berman  COSTUME DESIGNER
Michael Oesch  LIGHTING DESIGNER
Teddy Hulsker SOUND DESIGNER
Laundra Tyme  WIG DESIGNER