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    Dominique Morisseau Pulls Play From L.A. Theater, Citing ‘Harm’

    The playwright ended a run of “Paradise Blue” a week after it opened at the Geffen Playhouse. The theater acknowledged “missteps.”The playwright Dominique Morisseau has ended the run of her play “Paradise Blue” just a week after it opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, saying that Black women who worked on the show had been “verbally abused and diminished.”Morisseau did not specifically describe what happened. But in a 1,100-word Facebook post on Wednesday, she said that members of the creative team had been “allowed to behave disrespectfully,” that she had demanded an apology from one member of the team and that “instead of staunchly backing this, the Geffen continued to enable more abuse.”“Harm was allowed to fester,” Morisseau said in the Facebook post.“I gave the theater an ultimatum,” she added. “Respect the Black womxn artists working on my show, or I will pull my play.”In a statement about the cancellation, the Geffen Playhouse said that officials had “apologized to everyone involved” and acknowledged having “fallen short” in its commitment to artists.“An incident between members of the production was brought to our attention and we did not respond decisively in addressing it,” the theater’s statement, released on Wednesday, said. “As a result of these missteps, some members of the production felt unsafe and not fully supported.”“Paradise Blue,” which is set in 1949, is part of Morisseau’s trilogy of Detroit plays, which have been widely produced at theaters around the country. It played Off Broadway in 2018; the Geffen production had opened to strong reviews on Nov. 18, and had been set to run through Dec. 12.“Skeleton Crew,” another play in the trilogy, is scheduled to begin Broadway performances on Dec. 21.The theater declined to comment beyond its written statements. Morisseau did not respond to a request for additional comment.Morisseau’s decision to pull the play over what she described as the mistreatment of Black artists and the dismissal of their complaints comes as theater continues to grapple with how to reform itself and improve its culture.The protests over the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 ignited a nationwide reckoning over racism and inequality in America that resonated in the theater world. As artists prepared to return from the long pandemic shutdown, some have grown more outspoken about what they say are pervasive problems in the industry.This summer Broadway power brokers signed a pact pledging to strengthen the industry’s diversity practices as theaters were preparing to reopen.In her Facebook post, Morisseau — who earned a Tony Award nomination as the book writer for “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”— said she had been “gutted” by what had transpired with “Paradise Blue.”She urged the theater industry to “look inward and acknowledge a pervasive culture of anti-blackness, anti-womxness, and anti-black-womxnness.” More

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    American Ballet Theater Taps Beyoncé Associate as Chief Executive

    Janet Rollé, general manager of Beyoncé’s entertainment firm, will lead the dance company as it works to recover from the pandemic.A leader of Beyoncé’s business empire will serve as the next chief executive of American Ballet Theater, the dance company announced on Tuesday.Janet Rollé, general manager of Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé’s media and management company, will in January assume the role of chief executive and executive director of Ballet Theater, one of the nation’s most prestigious ballet companies. Rollé, 59, who is Black, will be the first person of color to lead the company.In a statement, she said she would seek to “preserve and extend the legacy of American Ballet Theater, and to ensure its future prosperity, cultural impact and relevance.”“To come full circle and be in a position to give back to the art that has given me so much is a source of unbridled and immense joy,” said Rollé, who has long had an interest in dance and was 8 when her mother, an immigrant from Jamaica, took her to her first class.Rollé will face several immediate challenges, including helping Ballet Theater recover from the turmoil of the pandemic, which resulted in the cancellation of two seasons and cost the company millions of dollars in anticipated ticket revenue and touring fees. The pandemic has brought fresh urgency to the company’s efforts to attract new audiences and expand its pool of donors.The company is also searching for an artistic director to replace Kevin McKenzie, who plans to leave next year after three decades in the position.Andrew Barth, chairman of Ballet Theater’s board, said Rollé’s experience in marketing and strategy would be an asset. She has spent most of her career in the media sector, holding senior positions at CNN, Black Entertainment Television and AOL. She also sits on the board of BuzzFeed.“She is brimming with ideas to lead A.B.T. into the next decade, all while respecting Ballet Theater’s history and legacy,” Barth said.Rollé succeeds Kara Medoff Barnett, who stepped down earlier this year to take a role at First Republic Bank. More

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    The Real Surprise of ‘Passing’: A Focus on Black Women’s Inner Lives

    By making the lesbian attraction between the main characters more explicit, the drama moves beyond mainstream Hollywood’s white gaze.Midway through the new drama “Passing,” Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), the light-brown-skinned, upper-middle-class protagonist, offers a unique insight into her psyche when she says to her friend Hugh, “We’re, all of us, passing for something or the other,” and adds, “Aren’t we?”Until now, Irene has successfully maintained her cover as both a respectable wife and proud African American woman. But when Hugh (Bill Camp) challenges her by asking why she does not pass for white like her biracial childhood friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), her response is a revelation, startling me almost as much as it did him.“Who’s to say I am not?” she snaps back.In that moment, I realized that what I had considered the B-plot of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing,” had risen to the surface in the writer-director Rebecca Hall’s adaptation, giving us a narrative that remains all too rare in Hollywood today: the interior world of a Black woman’s mind.When I teach Larsen’s novel to my undergraduate students, I usually start with the obvious: its racial plot and the ways in which Clare finds refuge from racism by identifying as white, only to be tragically alienated from her Black family and community.But I mainly teach “Passing” through what I think is the novel’s real central conflict: same-sex female desire and the paranoia that begins to overtake Irene, and for that matter Larsen’s story line, as a result of her unconsummated relationship with Clare. In a 1986 essay on Larsen’s novel, the critic Deborah E. McDowell explained why this longing had to appear secondary to the emphasis on race. “The idea of bringing a sexual attraction between two women to full expression,” she wrote, was “too dangerous of a move” in 1929. Instead, “Larsen enveloped the subplot of Irene’s developing if unnamed and unacknowledged desire for Clare in the safe and familiar plot of racial passing.”Rather than explore the ways that Irene comes into her sexuality, racial passing — at the height of segregation in America — was considered a far more urgent and thus more conventional theme than that of Black women’s inner lives. As a consequence, Larsen’s novel ended up passing, too, eventually taking “the form of the act it implies,” McDowell concluded.Visually, Hall compensates for the novel’s restraint through stolen glances, flirtatious phrases, and lingering touches and kisses between Clare and Irene. As Irene’s tension mounts, the film externalizes it through other symbols: a loudly ticking grandfather clock, a pot of water boiling over and even her breaking a teapot at a midday social in her home. In these hints, we see both Irene’s desire to break free from the illusion of middle-class domesticity and heterosexuality that she performs, as well as the threat that Clare’s presence poses to Irene’s sense of control.But, to externalize Irene’s internal thoughts and her sublimated identity, the movie makes what is suggested in the novel far more explicit. For example, Irene’s confession to Hugh never actually happens in the book. Hall opted to amp up that moment, she explained in a video for Vanity Fair, because she wanted “to highlight the latent homosexuality and power dynamics” underlying their shared secret.But for all that movie does so very well — its subtle swing jazz score; its beautiful black-and-white montages evocative of the photographers Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems; and the delightful cat-and-mouse performances by Thompson and Negga — it deliberately limits how much access we have to Irene. Such restrictions, after having a glimpse of Irene’s full personality, further reminded me of how few stories about African American female sexuality and subjectivity have been told on the big screen.In other words, at this moment, when Black artists are being celebrated and validated as never before, what does it mean to invest in films that fully move us beyond a racist or sexist gaze and into their innermost thoughts?Five Movies to Watch This WinterCard 1 of 51. “The Power of the Dog”: More

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    ‘In the Southern Breeze’ Review: A Dark Night of the Soul

    In Mansa Ra’s heart-bruised new play, racism is a lethal force that menaces generations of Black American men.The script for Mansa Ra’s heart-bruised new play, “In the Southern Breeze,” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, has two epigraphs — one from the Amiri Baraka poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” the other from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”Those opposing impulses — despair and perseverance — duel over the course of this dramatic dark night of the soul, which opens with a nameless contemporary American (Allan K. Washington), named simply Man, arriving home and stripping off the smile he wears, of necessity, in the hostile world outside.It’s the expression he calculates, as a Black man, to signal that he’s both nonthreatening and educated enough not to be messed with. “The Obama Deluxe,” he calls it.That little slam gets a big laugh. Only a few minutes in, humor is already a tension release in a show that will talk of suicide, slavery and the lethal force of racism in Black men’s lives throughout United States history. And Ra, like this show’s excellent cast of five, proves adept at lightning-quick switches between the crushing and the comical.Tormented by anxiety, depression and panic attacks, the isolated Man is struggling to carry on. Submission to the unseen, ever-present noose that hangs over him — “Every Black man’s boogeyman,” he calls it — has begun to seem like a comfort.“Sometimes it beckons me,” he says toward the end of that first scene, which, hearkening back to Baraka’s poem, Ra titles Volume 19. Volume 20 is this play’s other bookend. The longest of the three scenes — the surreal and moving center, in which Man does not appear — is Volume 1.In a handsome production by Christopher D. Betts, all of it takes place on a grassy expanse stretching into the distance, with a spiritual, “Fare Ye Well,” as a solacing aural motif. (The set is by Emmie Finckel, the lighting by Emma Deane, the costumes by Jahise LeBouef and the sound by Kathy Ruvuna.)As the play shifts into Volume 1, the wary, eager Madison (Charles Browning) enters, looking for the caravan that will take him north to meet his wife. It is 1780, as far as he knows, and he is running from slavery, barefoot.But the first person he encounters is Lazarus (Victor Williams), a Tennessee sharecropper from 1892. Then a 1970s Black Panther named Hue (Biko Eisen-Martin) stumbles in, followed shortly after by Tony (Travis Raeburn), a young AIDS activist from the early 1990s. It takes most of them a while to figure out why they’re all gathered there, under that unseen noose, and how many eras have collided.“Hold the phone,” an incredulous Hue says to Madison. “You really a slave?”“Hold the what?” a baffled Madison replies.“In the Southern Breeze” pays tender tribute to previous generations of Black Americans and bears unblinking witness to the white violence that has marred and menaced them. Hearkening back to that quote by Dr. King, it also acknowledges the progress toward justice through the ages.This play is a more formally ambitious, far-reaching work than “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” with which Ra made his New York debut in 2017, when he was known as Jiréh Breon Holder.What stumps him here, in Volume 20, is how to let his unnamed 21st-century Man reject existential exhaustion in a way that doesn’t seem pat. Like Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” rewritten for its recent Broadway run to allow more space for joy, this play wants to illuminate an uplifting path out of pain. But its final section turns muddled and didactic, its poeticism forced.Finding hope, it turns out, is the tricky part.In the Southern BreezeThrough Dec. 12, in person and streaming, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Manhattan; rattlestick.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes. More

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    Review: Three Generations Awaiting Justice in ‘Cullud Wattah’

    Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s play follows one family of women affected by the water crisis in Flint, Mich.Water can be a force for life or death. That the municipal supply of Flint, Mich., is slowly killing three generations of Black women living under one roof isn’t a dramatic revelation, but the grim, yearslong reality embodied in Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s “Cullud Wattah.”In a haunting and eye-opening production, directed by Candis C. Jones and which opened on Wednesday at the Public Theater, the playwright excavates the human costs behind familiar and devastating headlines.“Lead in thuh wattah,” five actors sing as the show opens. A riff on the spiritual “Wade in the Water” aligns present-day woes with Black traditions of perseverance. Emerging from the darkened periphery with jugs in hand, they recount the circumstances of the crisis like morbid poetry: When the city switched its water supply, who is responsible, how tea began to smell of sewage and rashes spread across their bodies.Urgency in the face of deadliness, “Cullud Wattah” points out, is not afforded to Black communities on the margins. The setting is November 2016, 939 days since Flint had clean water, and the repercussions continue to cascade.Marion (Crystal Dickinson) is a third-generation union assembly worker at General Motors, the city’s flagship employer. Her pregnant sister, Ainee (Andrea Patterson), is in recovery from crack addiction. The slight but indomitable Big Ma (Lizan Mitchell) keeps everyone in line, including Marion’s daughters, Reesee (Lauren F. Walker), a queer freethinking teenager with spiritual ties to the continent, and a sly 9-year-old named Plum (played by the adult actress Alicia Pilgrim), who has been undergoing treatment for leukemia.Out of both love and necessity, the women support and care for one another. Marion adjusts Plum’s wig before her first day back at school. Ainee applies lip liner to her sister when tremors in Marion’s hands flare up, from illness or nerves about dating again after her husband’s death.The set design, by Adam Rigg, suggests a house stripped to its raw wood foundations, with hundreds of bottles of murky water lined up and suspended in the air, one for each day it continues to flow from the tap. Bottles of clean water sit atop the refrigerator. (A filter promised by the city should arrive any day now.) The lighting design, by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, is anxious and spectral, while Kara Harmon’s costumes lend the women an everyday earthiness.From left, Mitchell, Patterson and Dickinson in the play, which, our critic writes, excels most when generating heat from familial conflict.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesHow many bottles of water are needed to do things that most people take for granted — washing Thanksgiving vegetables, for example (26) — is the kind of granular detail the play brings into focus.The plot stirs around the effect that toxins have had on the family, both internally and externally. “We all marked,” says Ainee, who walks in the house one day with a flier containing information about a class-action suit. Marion’s job at GM, and a potential promotion to management, means she would risk their livelihood if she were to get involved — the moral compromise of capitalism and the weight of personal responsibility coming to a head.Dickerson-Despenza’s lyrical prose is laced with humor, and she creates lively and warmhearted characters. Which makes it all the more enraging to watch them struggle against a steady poisoning. Her narrative mode is one of querying the past, not so much to expose fresh facts as to ensure that what should already be known is also deeply felt.While the playwright generates affecting emotion throughout, a fair portion of the dialogue is used to deliver exposition and impassioned proclamations about the impact of contaminated water, even when characters are relating to each other. Jones’ fluid and intimate direction mostly keeps the text from feeling too bogged down in these details.“Cullud Wattah” excels most when generating heat from familial conflict. Performances by the winning ensemble members are nimbly attuned to the language of mothers and sisters, from knowing shrugs and sideways glances to the straight-on withering glares. And in the hands of Dickinson and Patterson, fireworks light up the story at its climax, when long-silenced resentments finally detonate in the sort of blaze that only arises from love.Inseparable as real-world calamity has become from the realm of art, Dickerson-Despenza’s “Cullud Wattah” is especially suited to a moment of environmental unrest. After the play comes to an abrupt end, the cast stands in silence before leaving the stage. They don’t return for a bow, as if this had not been a performance but a call to account.Cullud WattahThrough Dec. 12 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. More

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    Ed Bullins, Leading Playwright of the Black Arts Movement, Dies at 86

    He wrote not for white or middle-class audiences, but for the strivers, hustlers and quiet sufferers whose struggles he sought to capture in searing works.Ed Bullins, who was among the most significant Black playwrights of the 20th century and a leading voice in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, died on Saturday at his home in Roxbury, Mass. He was 86.His wife, Marva Sparks, said the cause was complications of dementia.Over a 55-year career in which he produced nearly 100 plays, Mr. Bullins sought to reflect the Black urban experience unmitigated by the expectations of traditional theater. Most of his work appeared in Black theaters in Harlem and Oakland, Calif., and perhaps for that reason he never reached the heights of acclaim that greeted peers like August Wilson, whose plays appeared on Broadway and were adapted for the screen (and who often credited Mr. Bullins as an influence).That was fine with Mr. Bullins. He often said that he wrote not for white or middle-class audiences but for the strivers, hustlers and quiet sufferers whose struggles he sought to capture in searing works like “In the Wine Time” (1968) and “The Taking of Miss Janie” (1975).“He was able to get the grass roots to come to his plays,” the writer Ishmael Reed said in an interview. “He was a Black playwright who spoke to the values of the urban experience. Some of those people had probably never seen a play before.”Though Mr. Bullins was a careful student of white playwrights like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, he rejected many of their conventions, pursuing a loose, rapid style that drew equally on avant-garde jazz and television — two forms that he felt put him closer to the register of his intended audiences.He won three Obie Awards and two Guggenheim grants, and in 1975 the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named “The Taking of Miss Janie” the best American play of the year.Not everyone was enamored of his work. Some critics, including some in the Black press, believed he focused too heavily on the violence and criminality he saw in working-class Black life, and reflected it too brutally — “The Taking of Miss Janie,” for instance, opens and closes with a rape scene.But most critics, especially in the establishment, came to respect Mr. Bullins as an artist who was both passionately true to his source material and nuanced enough in his vision to avoid becoming doctrinaire.“He tackled subjects that on the surface were very specific to the Black experience,” the playwright Richard Wesley said in an interview. “But Ed was also very much committed to showing the humanity of his characters, and in doing that he became accessible to audiences beyond the Black community.”Genia Morgan, left, and Alia Chapman in a 2006 production of Mr. Bullins’s “The Taking of Miss Janie,” which was named the best American play of the year by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle in 1975.Gerry GoodsteinEdward Artie Bullins was born on July 7, 1935, in Philadelphia and grew up on the city’s North Side. His father, Edward Bullins, left home when Ed was still a small child, and he was raised by his mother, Bertha Marie (Queen) Bullins, who worked for the city government.Though he did well in school, he gravitated toward the North Side’s rough street life. He joined a gang, lost two front teeth in one fight and was stabbed in the heart during another.Mr. Bullins dropped out of school in 1952 and joined the Navy. He served most of the next three years as an ensign aboard the aircraft carrier Midway, where he won a lightweight boxing championship.He returned to Philadelphia in 1955 and, three years later, moved to Los Angeles. He attended night school to earn a high school equivalency diploma, then attended Los Angeles City College, where he started a magazine, Citadel, and wrote short stories for it.In 1962 he married the poet Pat Cooks. She accused him of threatening her with violence, and they divorced in 1966. (She later remarried and took the surname Parker.)Mr. Bullins’s later marriage, to Trixie Bullins, ended in divorce. Along with his third wife, he is survived by his sons, Ronald and Sun Ra; his daughters, Diane Bullins, Patricia Oden and Catherine Room; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Four other children, Ameena, Darlene, Donald and Eddie Jr., died before him.Restless and unhappy with his work in Los Angeles, Mr. Bullins moved in 1964 to San Francisco, where he plugged into a growing community of Black writers. He also switched from writing prose to writing plays — in part, he said, because he was lazy, but also because he felt that the theater gave him more direct access to the everyday Black experience.His first play, “How Do You Do,” an absurdist one-act encounter between a middle-class Black couple and a working-class Black man, was produced in 1965 to favorable reviews. But he remained unsure of his decision to write plays until a few months later, when he saw a dual production of “The Dutchman” and “The Slave,” two plays by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, a leading figure of the Black Arts Movement.“I said to myself, I must be on the right track,” Mr. Bullins told The New Yorker in 1973. “I could see that an experienced playwright like Jones was dealing with these same qualities and conditions of Black life that moved me.”In 1967, Mr. Bullins became artist in residence at the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem. The work he produced, mostly there, over the six years represented the peak of his career.The Black Arts Movement, then still primarily an East Coast phenomenon, was a loose affiliation of novelists, playwrights and poets whose work sought to reflect the modern Black experience on its own terms — written and produced by Black people in Black spaces for Black audiences.Mr. Bullins had found his community and, through it, his voice. He fell in with a circle of Bay Area writers, actors and activists, who began performing his work in bars and coffeehouses.Among them was Eldridge Cleaver, who, after his release from prison in 1966, used some of the proceeds from his memoir “Soul on Ice” to found Black House, an arts and community center in San Francisco, with Mr. Bullins as its chief artist in residence.Black House also became the city’s headquarters for the Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Mr. Bullins became the party’s minister of culture.But his role in the Black Panthers was short-lived. The party, from his perspective at least, saw art solely as a weapon, and he chafed at Mr. Seale’s insistence that he create didactic, often explicitly Marxist plays. He also grew frustrated over the party’s interest in building a coalition with radical white allies, when what he sought was a movement wholly independent of white culture.“I have no Messianic urge,” he told The New York Times in 1975. “Every other street corner has somebody telling you Christ or Mao is the answer. You can take any Ism you want and be saved by it. If you’re part of some movement and it fulfills you, that’s cool, but I like to look at it all.”He left the party in late 1966, just before Black House shut down.Mr. Bullins considered moving to Europe or South America, but he changed his mind when Robert Macbeth, the founder of the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem, invited him to be the artist in residence there.He arrived in New York in 1967, and the next six years of work, mostly at the New Lafayette Theater, represented the peak of his career. The theater was a complete package: a 14-member acting troupe, 14 musicians, several playwrights and directors, and an affiliated art gallery, the Weusi Artist Collective, that produced sets.Mr. Bullins also led workshops for aspiring playwrights, many of whom, like Mr. Wesley, went on to become significant voices among the next generation of Black theater artists.Kim Sullivan and Shirleen Quigley in the New Federal Theater’s 2013 production of “In the Wine Time.”Gerry GoodsteinA year after arriving, he completed “In the Wine Time,” his first full-length play and the first of a series he called his “Twentieth Century Cycle” — 20 plays that told the story of postwar urban life through a set of friends. In 1971 he won his first Obie, for “The Fabulous Miss Marie” and “In New England Winter.”He left the New Lafayette Theater in 1973, shortly before it closed for lack of funding. His work in the 1970s appeared in the New Federal Theater, La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, the Public Theater and elsewhere.In 1972 he got into a war of words with the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, which was putting on his play “The Duplex.” Though he had initially endorsed the production, he later said in an interview that “the original Black intentions” of the play had been “thwarted” and “its artistic integrity stomped on,” turning it into a “minstrel show.”He traded attacks with the producer, Jules Irving, and the director, Gilbert Moses, in The Times and elsewhere, but in the end the play went on. It received mixed reviews.That episode, fairly or not, gave Mr. Bullins a reputation for being hard to work with, one of the reasons he cited for returning to the West Coast in the 1980s. He continued to write plays, but he also produced work by others, including Mr. Reed, at his Bullins Memorial Theater in Oakland, named for his son Eddie Jr., who died in a car crash in 1978.Mr. Bullins returned to school, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English from the San Francisco campus of Antioch University in 1989 and a master’s in fine arts in playwriting from San Francisco State University in 1994.Mr. Bullins in 1999, when he was a professor in the theater department at Northeastern University in Boston.Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesThe next year he moved to Boston, where he became a professor in the theater department at Northeastern University. He retired in 2012.By then he had long since changed his mind about his audience, in large part because he and others in the Black Arts Movement had succeeded in their mission to build a Black cultural canon.“Of course Black writers can write for all audiences,” he told The Times in 1982. “My feeling is that the question of whether Black theater should appeal to whites was more valid a decade ago. Since then, Black theater has taken off in all directions.” More

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    A Rare ‘Othello’ Puts the Spotlight on Race

    With a Black-led production of Shakespeare’s play, an Austrian theater hopes to jump-start a conversation about racism and the need for diversity on the country’s stages.ST. PÖLTEN, Austria — “Speak of me as I am,” Othello urges in the wrenching final scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Yet for centuries, those words — a plea for accurate representation — were spoken, by and large, by white actors.Nicholas Monu, who stars in a new production of “Othello,” running through Dec. 4 at the Landestheater Niederösterreich here, is pretty sure that he is only the second Black performer to play the role in Austrian theater history. The last time was nearly 170 years ago, in 1853, when the pioneering African-American actor Ira Aldridge held Viennese audiences spellbound as the Moor of Venice.As directed by the young Black British director Rikki Henry, this new “Othello” breaks ground in a country where artists of color remain a rarity onstage.The majority of Austria’s population of around nine million is white and was born here, although the percentage of foreigners and people with migration backgrounds has been rising steadily in recent years. Like its larger and more ethnically varied neighbor Germany, Austria has a robust system of state-funded theaters that employ full-time acting ensembles; these, like the country at large, are overwhelmingly white.From left: Michael Scherff, Tim Breyvogel, Laura Laufenberg, Nicholas Monu, Marthe Lola Deutschmann, and Tilman Rose in “Othello” at the Landestheater Niederösterreich.Alexi PelekanosWith its new “Othello,” the Landestheater is jump-starting a conversation about racism in Austrian society and the need for diversity on the country’s stages. According to the theater, there has never been a German-language production of “Othello” with both a Black director and star before, and it seems significant that the first is taking place not in a major cultural metropolis, but in St. Pölten, a small city 40 miles outside Vienna.“It’s often said that innovation comes from the provinces,” Marie Rötzer, the Landestheater’s artistic director since 2016, said in an interview. Recently, her playhouse has been punching above its weight, with productions including a stellar 2019 staging of the Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek’s allegory of the Trump presidency, “Am Königsweg,” and a 2020 “Hamlet” that was Henry’s house debut, and which won a Netroy, the prestigious Austrian theater award.“With this ‘Othello,’ we’re addressing wounds,” said the Landestheater’s director, Marie Rötzer. “The wounds of racism, hostility towards refugees, xenophobia and the isolationism that you often find in Austria.” David Payr for The New York TimesAlthough Shakespeare has long been venerated in the German-speaking world, “Othello” is a comparative rarity on its theater programs.“Normally, nobody here wants to touch it,” said Tim Breyvogel, the German actor who plays Iago, in an interview after a recent matinee performance. In the wrong hands, he said, an “Othello” production can legitimize stereotypes about Black men. And then there’s the issue of casting, he added: Even in Austria, most theaters now realize that presenting the title role in blackface was unacceptable.Rötzer said she knew her theater’s “Othello” must have a Black actor in the title role. After Henry’s success with “Hamlet,” she approached him about directing the show. Henry and Monu’s experiences as Black men helped the theater to “develop an awareness about how to treat topics that are part of the Black community,” she said.“With this ‘Othello,’ we’re addressing wounds: the wounds of racism, hostility towards refugees, xenophobia and the isolationism that you often find in Austria,” Rötzer said.Henry, 33, said in an interview that it was “a challenge to try to work out what the story would now tell in Austria — because, of course, race relations are different in Austria than they are in England.”Monu, left, and Tim Breyvogel, playing Iago. The production is set in the world of professional boxing.Alexi PelekanosHis strikingly contemporary production is set in the world of professional boxing, where Othello is a heavyweight prizefighter. “My idea was of someone who was incredibly lonely and someone who was isolated,” Henry said.That sense of exclusion and alienation, the director said, was something that everyone, regardless of their skin color, could relate to. The boxing frame also helped to motivate Iago’s machinations and reveal the character’s racism, he added. “Iago’s manipulations and reasonings became more alive, because boxing is so competitive and relies on intrigue,” Henry said.The Black Lives Matter movement was heating up as he worked on the show last year, but Henry said he was careful not to take the production in an overtly political direction. “We didn’t want to say to the audience, ‘You’re racist!’” Henry said. “Theater isn’t supposed to be accusing anyone. It’s supposed to be supporting and maybe ennobling them in some way.”Rikki Henry, the production’s British director, said it was “a challenge to try to work out what the story would now tell in Austria,” adding, “race relations are different in Austria than they are in England.”Michael Obex“Maybe it just sparks some interesting questions that you haven’t asked before, like, ‘How do I treat that brown person who delivers my mail every morning?’” he added.Monu, 56, who was born in Nigeria but lives in Salzburg, Austria, said that racism in Austrian society largely lay beneath the surface. “People don’t give it a lot of thought. There hasn’t been that journey that America has been forced to make, because of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. — or that Germany has been forced to make, because of the Second World War,” he said.“It’s not an aggressive form of racism,” he added. “You’re just not taken seriously or not seen as on quite the same level as a human being.”Monu, who began his acting career in England, is a former ensemble member of two of the most significant theaters in the German-speaking world: the Schaubühne in Berlin and the Burgtheater in Vienna. Yet despite having benefited from the ensemble system, he said it would need updating if it hoped to reflect the increasingly multiethnic reality of Europe today.Europe’s ensemble system, in which theaters have a troupe of permanent actors, was “a fantastic system, designed for brothers like this,” said Monu, right, referring to Breyvogel, left.David Payr for The New York Times“It’s a fantastic system, designed for brothers like this,” he said, gesturing toward Breyvogel, who sat next to him during the interview, “to be able to go from here to Berlin to Vienna, and be able to fit straight in, because the system is pretty much the same everywhere.”In order for things to change, Austrian theater administrators and audiences will need to become more familiar with seeing actors of color and hearing different accents onstage, Monu said. He saw some encouraging signs, he added: When he joined the Burgtheater in the early 2000s, he was the only Black actor in the ensemble; today, there are three.“If you’re going to be truly diverse, then you’ve got to open up your doors towards people who don’t sound like you, look like you,” Monu said. “Sometimes the journey’s going to be unpleasant or uncomfortable.”Monu said he hoped that this “Othello” might inspire local audiences take that journey. “I can try my best to touch as many people as I can, just by saying, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m the first Black guy you’ve ever seen onstage — and speaking German.’” More

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    On Paris Stages, Black Directors Forge a New Course

    Representation for dramatic artists of color is improving, but few Black creators get to be their own bosses. Two recent productions show what France’s mainstream theater is missing.PARIS — On a recent Sunday evening, Paris played host to a theater troupe that had come a long way. The Grand Théâtre Itinérant de Guyane traveled from French Guiana, nestled north of Brazil on the Atlantic coast of South America, with its latest production: “Bernarda Alba From Yana,” staged by the company’s director, Odile Pedro Leal.Yana, here, means Guiana. In this shrewd adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” the repressed sisters at the heart of the Spanish play speak Creole and dream of men who farm sugar cane. And for the first time I can recall in over a decade of theatergoing in Paris, the audience around me was predominantly Black — a situation that shouldn’t be so rare in such a racially diverse city.Yet “Bernarda Alba From Yana” was performed only once, and not in a major Paris playhouse. Instead, it was presented at the Maurice Ravel Conservatory, a training institution, as part of Le Mois Kréyol (Creole Month), a festival dedicated to promoting artists from France’s numerous overseas territories, which include once colonized islands and regions dotted around the world, from the Pacific to the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.Since these territories are home to many people of color, Le Mois Kréyol, which was created in 2017 by the Caribbean-born choreographer Chantal Loïal, also celebrates French Blackness — and is a reminder of what the country’s mainstream theater is missing. Broadway’s power players signed a sweeping diversity pact in August; in France, overseas theatermakers and their peers of African origin remain shut out of leadership positions.Of France’s five national theaters and 38 “national dramatic centers,” none has a Black director — not even the national dramatic center in La Réunion, a multicultural French island near Madagascar. Although representation is slowly improving onstage, with more diverse drama school cohorts and regular instances of colorblind casting, it has yet to translate to Black creators being their own bosses.The dancer and activist Josephine Baker, who will be interred in the Panthéon, France’s storied tomb of heroes, on Nov. 30, is the subject of two productions this winter; neither of them is directed by a Black artist. Just this season, the lives of Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis made it to the stage in similar fashion; and in a country that prides itself on being colorblind, asking why Black directors weren’t considered is taboo.From left, Irène Bicep, Jean-Marc Lucret and Ophélie Joh in “Bernarda Alba From Yana.”Peggy FarguesAll of these shows may turn out to be good, but “Bernarda Alba From Yana” and a new production by the Guinea-born playwright Hakim Bah, “Out of Sweat” (“À Bout de Sueurs”), point to a richer way forward. It was obvious that both were steeped in an intimate knowledge of the cultures at hand. The acting palette also departed from French norms to embrace local accents, which tend to be erased elsewhere in favor of a “neutral” delivery, as well as a greater range of body language.In Pedro Leal’s hands, this makes “Bernarda Alba” a warmer proposition than usual. In lieu of the strait-laced grief often associated with García Lorca’s play, in “Bernarda Alba From Yana,” the women sing and dance through their pain. The mourning scene for Bernarda’s second husband, early in the play, is a vivid ritual, set to a Guianese song: The matriarch’s five daughters assemble around her, chanting, clapping and writhing on the floor. Later, two of the sisters, bored by the complete isolation that the domineering Bernarda has forced on them, shimmy and sway their hips in a dance-off.In that scene and elsewhere, Sarah Jean-Baptiste makes a mercurial Adela, and there is a delightful sense of mischief to many of the actors’ performances. Micheline Dieye and Pedro Leal shine as the family’s willful servants, as does Jean-Marc Lucret in a cross-dressing take on the role of Martirio. Far from altering the play’s dynamics, the contrast between the characters’ impetuous physicality and the atmosphere of repression is made all the more acute.Pedro Leal made subtle tweaks to the text to emphasize the Guianese setting. (García Lorca’s frequent references to heat offer built-in help.) Creole is so rarely heard onstage that it’s a treat to listen to performers getting lines in the language, with enough context that their meaning is clear to non-Creole speakers. Since French was imposed as the official language on many overseas territories, there is something slightly meta about hearing Bernarda (Maïté Vauclin) repeatedly berating her daughters when she hears them slipping into Creole, with the angry demand: “French in my house!”The set was presumably designed for ease of touring: curtains, some wire fence and a few seats, including a crescent-shaped Saramaka stool, must do the job from start to finish. Nevertheless, “Bernarda Alba From Yana” is a milestone for such a young company. While Pedro Leal has worked as a director in mainland France and in Guiana since the 1990s, the Grand Théâtre Itinérant de Guyane was founded only in 2017, and it is now supported by public funding. It is a part of French culture, and deserves to be seen.From left, Diarietou Keita, Vhan Olsen Dombo and Claudia Mongumu in “Out of Sweat,” directed by Hakim Bah and Diane Chavelet.Raphaël KesslerThe same could be said of the work of Bah, 34, who lives alternately in France and Guinea, where he co-founded a theater festival, Univers des Mots (Universe of Words). Bah’s plays have earned him several distinctions; “Out of Sweat,” the latest, won the 2019 Laurent Terzieff-Pascale de Boysson prize, which comes with a spot in the lineup at the Lucernaire theater.The pandemic delayed the premiere twice, but “Out of Sweat,” directed by Bah and Diane Chavelet, has now found its way to the smallest of the Lucernaire’s three stages. It is masterfully, economically built around just a handful of scenes and characters, who are from an unspecified African country. Fifi, who has immigrated to France, returns home for a fleeting visit. There, she convinces Binta, an old friend saddled with an unfaithful husband, to seduce a Frenchman online, in the hope of securing a better future.Even though the end of the play was inspired by a real-life tragedy, Bah’s approach is more poetic than realistic. What drives “Out of Sweat” is the inner logic and musicality of each scene. When Fifi and Binta are reunited, they repeat each other’s names again and again, with a mix of surprise, growing recognition and suspicion, truncating sentences in ways that build up to an intriguing rhythm.Diarietou Keita (Fifi) and Claudia Mongumu (Binta) play up both the comedy and the pathos in their relationship with vivid physicality. As Binta’s unfaithful husband, Bachir, on the other hand, Vhan Olsen Dombo is withdrawn, then suddenly destructive. In a monologue set in an airport lounge, his performance morphs into spoken word and ends in stomping and piercing cries of frustration, his pace closely mirrored by a live guitarist and electronic musician accompanying the action, Victor Pitoiset.Yet even when their behavior is extreme, all the characters in “Out of Sweat” feel rooted in a nuanced understanding of the two worlds they inhabit. Like Pedro Leal and her company, Bah is obviously ready for bigger stages. When will French theater give them, and other Black directors, a permanent seat at the table?Le Mois Kréyol. Festival directed by Chantal Loïal. Further productions around France through Nov. 28.À Bout de Sueurs. Directed by Hakim Bah and Diane Chavelet. Le Lucernaire, through Dec. 5. More