Tag Archives: women performers


Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play, directed by John Doyle in a visually and emotionally stirring revival at Second Stage, is a rather expressionist American drama with an emotional resonance that seems even more relevant now, when we know so much more about how accidents of the brain can affect cognition and expression.

In Kopit’s vivid one-act, Mrs. Emily Stilson suffers a stroke in the play’s first moments. As we watch, the book she’s reading, comfortable in her quiet solitude, tumbles to the ground as her brain suffers its sudden, inexplicable trauma. The rest of the 90-minute production charts her way back to language and to life from her perspective, representing a newly rearranged world in which what she thinks she’s saying isn’t necessarily what people hear and vice versa.

Kopit’s text calls for imagistic enactments of the character’s ordeal, rather than realistic depictions, since the play concerns is what it feels like to suffer a neurological event that so profoundly compromises a person’s ability to express herself or to make sense of what’s being communicated. In her masterful, moving performance, the consummate performer Jan Maxwell delivers Emily Stilson’s experience with haunting, moving precision, delivering her garbled words with the conviction that she and her interlocutors know exactly what she’s saying. The devastating sadness of understanding that she’s a perfectly intact mind trapped in a body that can’t communicate makes Stilson’s situation wrenching, and Maxwell’s empathetic, dignified portrayal riveting to watch.

Doyle is the perfect interpreter for Kopit’s play, adept as he is in the kinds of schematic stagings that distill a work to its emotional core with sharply drawn visual metaphors. His reconceptualized productions of Sweeney Todd and Company, both mounted on Broadway within the last several years, cut those Sondheim musicals to the bone of their edgy meanings, presenting Sweeney as a Grand Guignol of bloodlust and an incisive critique of social power, and Company as full of the animating resentments of heterosexual imperatives.

Likewise, with Wings, Doyle sees in the center of Kopit’s play a universal struggle to communicate from the isolation of our individual subjectivities. All we know of Emily Stilson is present in how she sits reading peacefully in her chair at the outset, her blue silk shirt and black pants gracing her middle-aged, comfortable body, her shoulder-length blonde hair falling onto her forehead as she turns the pages. Although her posture, stance, and costume don’t change throughout, Maxwell demonstrates by how she reacts to what’s happened to her the tragic consequences of losing a connection to others and to the world. Her emotional response is both subtle and deep as she struggles to reclaim language, to make herself understood beyond her humiliating objectification by doctors and nurses who with all good will but inevitable condescension, try to reach her after what they call her “accident.”

In this era of debates about health care, hospice care, and end-of-life treatment, and when we know that if you catch a stroke early, you can treat it with medication that forestalls the worst of its consequences, Stilson becomes a universal representation of patient-hood, in which the subject becomes diminished by the very medical establishment that wants to restore her to full health.

When the stroke attacks, Maxwell sits alone center stage on a simple black chair, lit with a sharply delineated spot that begins the symphony of light Jane Cox designs so beautifully to accompany and illustrate Emily’s journey. As Emily feels her brain waves veer out of control, the upstage wall is washed with projections (designed by Peter Nigrini) that represent exploding veins and wayward blood seeping over her cortex. Although they’re imaginative rather than graphic, the projections provoke the illusion of a brain bathed in a riot of uncontrolled, intruding electricity and fluid. The disorientations of these images concretize Emily’s pain and confusion. Occasionally, the shadow of a face is projected above her, as voices ask if she can hear them, if she knows her name, if she knows the year or the president. Doyle and his designers use the stage to emblematize the ravages of a stroke. The visual field becomes expressionistic, an insurgency of uncontrollable neurological events too over-stimulating for a coherent emotional response.

When Emily begins to sense her surroundings, she can feel that she’s not alone in the room whose dimensions she can barely perceive at the edges of her consciousness. In her attempt to narrativize what’s happened to her, she tells herself (and the audience, to whom she speaks directly throughout) that she’s been captured, dropped behind enemy lines among people who want information from her. She regards the doctors and nurses who swarm around her warily, refusing to respond to their questions or feeding them misinformation. She hears herself speaking clearly; they hear garbled speech or mis-chosen words through the aphasia that short-circuits her communication.

Doyle and set designer Scott Pask open metals slats in the back wall, like a stage-wide, two-level, vertical Venetian blind, to reveal the blindingly white-clothed medical personnel and their machines, who are choreographed in a frantic dance that swirls around Emily. They push mirrored steel panels and tables ahead and behind them to surround and frame their patient. Their chaotic activity externalizes what she sees and feels as she strives to understand. That the mirrored panels at times reflect the watching audience only underlines that the spectator’s work resembles Emily’s, as we all try to make meaning of what we see and hear, while we’re manipulated by forces beyond our control.

As Emily gains more command over her words and her ability to communicate, the production’s pace calms to the sometimes maddening speed to which Emily must slow down her speech and her thoughts as she tries to re-marshal her vocabulary and her ability to create sentences. Her speech therapist, Amy (January LaVoy) is a precise, controlled young woman, about whom we know nothing. All we see is her presentation of guarded warmth, presumably from Emily’s point of view. Although she figures more prominently in Emily’s recovery, Amy, like all the other characters, is schematic and two-dimensional, a pleasant, bland figure whose only purpose is to help Emily heal.

Wings is a play about language, about how precarious is our ability to communicate. Kopit and Doyle clarify that without communication, an individual’s solitude becomes unbearable. Wings’ group therapy scene, in which stroke victims at various stages of rehabilitation come together to practice speaking, is one of its more excruciating, as four very well-intentioned and otherwise capable people try to say what they mean and only come up with close approximations of words or imperfect substitutes.

The most capable among them is Billy, a chef who’s baked Amy a cheesecake and teases her about paying him for it. But even in his more adept framings, his words stop short of perfect sense, leaving holes he can’t navigate that demonstrate how even the smallest miscommunications devastate our ability to interact successfully. That each of the therapy group’s participants can recognize one another’s mistakes but can do so little to correct their own is the session’s wrenching illustration.

All Kopit’s script shares of Emily Stilson’s past is that she was a wing-walker, a stunt pilot who flew airplanes and walked out on their wings in mid-air. She remembers for the audience the exhilaration of flying, of feeling the air across her face and sensing the admiring crowd down below, who were unaware of the tether that held her to the plane. She describes grasping the steel cables she used to keep her balance, as the plane circled and banked, turning her topsy-turvy. On the plane’s wings, Emily is free, accomplished, and alone in her feats of daring but supported by the crowd she feels below her. Her soaring solo independence provides a poignant counterpart to her dismal earth-bound solitariness post-stroke. As the play moves her between these two poles, her fear, solitude, and brokenness become that much more heart-breaking.

Maxwell never asks the audience to pity Emily, even as she delivers such a precise and moving portrait of her dilemma. The performance feels almost private, so adept is she at creating what is indeed Emily’s capture by forces well out of her control. Maxwell’s masterful performance anchors the production, and Doyle’s sense of style and the images he carves from space and time flesh out what’s really a picture of a very private experience.

Exactly that challenge could make or break a production of Wings, as the play’s action is confined to a woman’s reconstruction of her own subjectivity and her ability to stand fully within it. The narrative has little shape or trajectory; that is, Emily moves from profound trauma to a semblance of “normal” life, but the play’s end even throws into doubt the fullness of her recovery. The play holds little suspense; the other characters are two-dimensional diagrams of the people-effects who now populate Emily’s world. Much of the dialogue is Emily’s ruminations about what’s happened to her, or her slowly reestablishing reminiscences about her past, about the stuff and substance of who she was and may or may not be again. The images are keen and poignant, but much of the language is gibberish, as Emily and her fellow stroke victims try to work through their aphasia.

I felt tense throughout the preview performance I saw on October 9, 2010, not sure if the audience felt as gripped as I did by the painful determination of an accomplished woman struck down through no fault of her own. In fact, two-thirds of the way through the performance, two men left their seats in the second or third row and rudely crossed in front of the stage apron to leave the theatre, directly in front of Maxwell and the other actors. Theirs seemed a bold statement of displeasure, one I worried other spectators shared.

But at the curtain call, people cheered for Maxwell and the cast, rising to their feet to applaud her sensitive, moving portrait of an experience we all know could someday be ours. Her dignity and strength, her persistence even from within her sadness, her willingness to probe her own vulnerability as a corollary to Emily’s own, all provide a remarkable experience of theatre as a distillation of a life.

The Feminist Spectator

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Let Me Down Easy

Anna Deavere Smith in Let Me Down Easy at Second Stage Theatre (photo Joan Marcus)

Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy represents a departure from the typical tone and trajectory of her “On the Road” cycle of monologues. Smith established her talent in the early ‘90s, after many years working in regional theatres, as an artist/anthropologist who interviews people in community settings and then performs their words verbatim. She argues that people’s language and their voices—their syntax, their inflections, the rhythm of their words and their cadence—reveal their character, and that through meticulously recreating their speech acts in the context of often vexed or conflictual community relations, something of the larger character of America is also revealed.

Smith’s first major success, Fires in the Mirror, for instance, addressed the civil strife between the African American and Chasidic communities of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after the chief rabbi’s motorcade inadvertently hit and killed a young black boy named Gavin Cato.Smith spent time in Crown Heights interviewing people about the incident, all of whom were involved to varying degrees and spoke from opposing points of view. She also interviewed people who simply shared a unique perspective on the tension, including Al Sharpton and Cornel West.

Smith channeled the voices of all the people she interviewed through her own body and vocal impersonations, editing the time she spent with each one into a meaningful bite of sound and then weaving them into a tapestry of character and viewpoints on the central conflict. Smith doesn’t presume to “become” any of these (real) characters. Conventional actors typically ask the audience to suspend its disbelief while they make interior emotional connections that allow them to identify psychologically with the fictional character. Smith works from the outside in, mimicking the complexity of individual language and voice as a way to reveal something human, surprising, and true about people we might suspect of being stereotypical and predictable.

In her second large-scale piece, Twilight, LA, Smith brought a similar anthropological outlook to the civil uprising in Los Angeles after local courts returned a “not guilty” verdict to the police officers accused of beating Rodney King for a traffic violation. For Twilight, Smith’s interviews ranged across and among an even larger community of people, as the Los Angeles uprising crossed community lines and included African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Asian Americans, and white people as subjects with keen perspectives on the events. In a nuanced reference, “Twilight” refers both to the liminal moment between day and night, the in-between time in which crisis perhaps gives rise to social change, and to the gang member whom Smith interviewed as part of the palate of citizens whose perspectives enlightened her and her audiences about the LA events.

Subsequent productions never quite gelled as much as these notable, groundbreaking earlier works. House Arrest, for which Smith interviewed various political players in Washington, DC, during the Clinton administration, felt like a demonstration of her own access to power more than it offered a trenchant view of the operative mentality of those running the nation.

Let Me Down Easy, though, breaks the mold of Smith’s work by foregoing her usual immersion in communities rife with conflict. No “us v. them” structures the play, and no sense of traditional dramatic agon pulls the show from crisis to resolution. Instead, the social crisis of the American medical establishment motivates Smith’s examination; as she notes in the program, the play began as a commission for the Yale School of Medicine. (See also the feature piece by Susan Dominus published in The New York Times MagazineSunday, October 4, 2009–on the internet September 30, 2009–at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/magazine/04smith-t.html?scp=2&sq=anna%20deavere%20smith&st=cse. I also wrote about an earlier version of this piece, presented at the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin, Texas, in The Feminist Spectator.)

But the people she interviews and impersonates demonstrate more subtle and complex perspectives in a social investigation that winds up addressing death, dying, and what we make of our lives before we get there more than it does the failing medical system that purports to give us care. The show, as a result, doesn’t ask the audience to take sides or to consider deeply opposing points of view, as did Fires and Twilight, but lets us muse together for 95 minutes on what defines us as human beings in the face of our inevitable demise.

The people Smith weaves together into this thoughtful human tapestry vary wildly not just by occupation and profession, geography and locale, or by their relative relationships to social power, but also in temperament and character, gender and race, class and accent, which makes each impersonation a pleasant surprise. The play’s theme doesn’t predict who Smith will consult for opinions, and the juxtapositions of speakers’ preoccupations and voices are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always fascinating and compelling.

In the first six portraits alone, Smith performs James Cone, a famous African American theologian who loves to think about language and what it means to his community and provides Smith with her show’s title; Elizabeth Streb, a white post-modern dancer who accidentally sets herself on fire while performing for her female partner’s birthday party, and finds in her trauma the astonished, boastful pride of a survivor; Lance Armstrong, who sees his body as a nearly mechanical balance of weight and power that demands the most minute calibrations; Sally Jenkins, a sports writer who describes how athletes are driven to burn themselves up in the effort of exertion they make look easy; Eve Ensler, the feminist theatre artist famous for writing the now ubiquitous Vagina Monologues and the V-Day activism that supports annual readings of the play, who shares with Smith her suspicion that anorexia is a plot to rob women and girls of their power, since, as she says, it’s difficult to get much done when you’re only eating a raisin a day; and Brent Williams, an Idaho rodeo rider who wears a cowboy hat and pulls on a beer while he tells Smith about his high threshold for pain.

These characters alone provide a rich collection of stories, insights, accents, and body types.In fact, thinking back, even though Smith is costumed (by Ann Hould-Ward) only with a striped sports jacket for one person, a couple of rings for another, or a hat of some sort for a third, I can see the bull rider’s lanky height, Armstrong’s arrogant muscular slouch, Ensler’s stolid feminist force, Streb’s physical euphoria, Cone’s expansive girth and gestures, and Jenkins’ firecracker countenance and humor as clearly as I remember Smith’s white shirt and black trousers, the neutral palette onto which all these people’s personalities are painted.

In Let Me Down Easy, even more than in her earlier virtuosic performances, Smith seems to have settled in to her informants’ stories and the possibilities of what they might mean, knit together into an evening. She seems to have less of an ax to grind here, ironically. In an historical moment when health care is debated on the front page of every newspaper, and the fractious debate over public options spouts from so many lips, this show doesn’t directly engage the terms of that dispute. As a result, Smith—who vehemently protests her objectivity in productions in which it’s impossible not to presume she doesn’t take one side or the other—appears even-handed and magnanimous with her characters. She seems to enjoy playing them, speaking as them, sharing their insights. The implicit—and sometimes overt—didacticism of Fires and Twilight is absent in Let Me Down Easy.

In fact, Smith’s performance seems filled with an outsized joy, which flatters her virtuosity by almost understating her talent. Each character’s name and the title of their monologue is projected as a superscript on the frame above the stage. Smith (directed by Leonard Foglia) moves fluidly among them, reaching the final comment of each monologue that usually punctuates and often titles the idea at hand. Then she takes off the character’s defining costume piece or prop, lifts the next from the hands of a nondescript female assistant who enters and exits the stage—barefoot, like Smith—delivering each object or bit of apparel, drapes herself in its spell and launches into the spirit she inhabits next. You can see Smith in the interstices between characters. She’s a thoughtful, purposeful, precise presence, the guiding spirit of the piece who’s moved by her appreciation of the people to whom she gives voice and embodies.

Let Me Down Easy is as trenchant a political commentary as any of Smith’s shows, but because she creates an “us” or a “we” instead of the binary of conflicting “thems,” the production feels generous and forgiving, its humor poignant instead of pedantic. Points of view accumulate onstage, rather than replacing one another. The costume pieces and props that index each person literally litter the stage by the play’s end, as each character is haunted by those preceding him or her. The collection of things points to a collectivity of people and perspectives that’s oddly comforting. The show is about death and dying, loss and grief, but also about how we live in the meantime. As each character Smith performs eats, drinks, smokes, and chats, we see people extremely different from one another nonetheless sustaining themselves in simple, basic ways that seem familiar and communal.

Smith had a head cold the afternoon I saw one of the last preview week performances (September 30, 2009). Because she removed the same blue hanky from her pocket to blow her nose as she performed several different characters, it seemed as though they all shared the same cold, an inadvertent but moving coincidence. The gesture also made it easy to remember Smith’s presence, although in this show, she doesn’t seem to want us to forget that she’s there, mediating these stories, providing the vehicle that drops each character into our lives and carries them too quickly back out.

The beautifully crafted production offers a lovely backdrop to Smith’s impersonations. The spare set (by Riccardo Hernandez) includes a modern white couch and coffee table stage right, offset by a white dinner table and chairs stage left, at which several characters take their meal. The warm, intimate setting is framed by five tall screens/mirrors that tilt from the top over the set, vaguely diffusing what spectators see reflected. Sometimes, Smith is seen live in the mirrors, although her image is swirled by some surface distortion; other times, Smith’s character is projected onto the surface as though he or she is looking into a camera. The woody, golden aura is sculpted by subtle, architectural light (by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), and a soft soundscape textures the play’s aural mood.

The Wednesday matinee audience with whom I watched the play seemed to appreciate Smith’s observations and insights, and she spoke directly to them under the guise of character. Her impersonation of the now late, former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, who nonchalantly describes how she has to preserve her “chi” for herself is a memorable crowd-pleaser, but spectators also responded enthusiastically to the lesser-known characters. Ruth Katz, a patient at Yale New Haven Hospital whose file is lost through staff ineptitude, garnered particular appreciation, as did the plight of physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, describing how she waited to be rescued with her patients at Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Katrina hit, and her dawning realization that no one really did care about the poor, elderly people of color for whom she cared.

Toward the play’s end, a few of the monologues seem superfluous, although thinking back, I can’t imagine Let Me Down Easy without any one of the stories. But the 95 minutes feel a bit long by the end, the stories a bit repetitive, even in their differences. Or maybe it’s that the string of tales makes your heart a bit too tender to bear the narratives for much longer.

The penultimate monologue, Trudy Howell’s story about a dying young girl in an orphanage in South Africa who packs her suitcase to go off to see her already deceased mother, leaves an indelible image. Likewise, Smith ends the play performing a Buddhist monk, who demonstrates how life finally runs out by overturning a full tea cup into his palm and letting the liquid pool on the stage floor as the lights around Smith turn green and deep blue.

Let Me Down Easy does justice to its title and to its audience, delivering us into the pointed grace of its ending.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Wiz

City Center’s Encores! series has recently extended its season of staged readings of rarely revived musicals into the summer, outside of its typical three-show run in the spring. Two years ago, a summer remount of Gypsy triumphed with Patti LuPone in the lead, in a production directed by Arthur Laurents that went on to garner multiple Tony Awards during its subsequent Broadway run.

Hopefully, their latest summer production, a revival of The Wiz, will have the pleasure of a similar fate, despite Charles Isherwood’s less than charitable review in the Times. Directed by the talented Thomas Kail, who also directed In the Heights, musical directed by Alex Lacamoire (who also did In the Heights), and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (currently represented on Broadway by 9 to 5), the production teems with talent and energy, offering a dazzling evening of great fun from a talented, infectiously delighted cast.

Even though the show was first produced in the 1975, this production didn’t smell a whiff out of date. Some of the language, on closer scrutiny, might seem anachronistic. A few bon mots suspiciously close to “here comes the Judge” are rattled off by an earnest cast that’s fully behind them, never pausing for a moment to be suspicious or snobby about the phrasing’s provenance (this despite the fact that many of the cast probably weren’t alive in the 70s).

Kail, himself a young Wesleyan University graduate, puts his shoulder behind the music and the dialogue, creating a fast-paced romp from Kansas to Oz in a musical retelling of the classic story with an African American spin that stamps the music with an erstwhile Motown idiom.

Perhaps because it was first produced in the 70s, when feminism was very much in the air, women dominate the musical. Ashanti, the Grammy Award-winning pop singer, plays Dorothy, and LaChanze matches her fame in the double role of Auntie Em and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. The show’s best numbers are sung by these two and the supporting women. Dawnn Lewis plays Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, the first to meet Dorothy in Oz. She enters decked out in denim dotted with colorful patchwork quilt accents, wearing tall hats stacked on top of each other and horizontal striped stockings that somehow elongate legs that already tower on platform shoes.

Addaperle’s number, “He’s the Wizard,” promises that Dorothy will find her way home with his assistance, which begins her quest. But since we know the story, it’s the song’s delivery, and Lewis’s interpretation of Addaperle as sweet, well-meant, but addled that makes the number such fun. (Like a failed student at Hogworth’s, she can’t get her wand to work.)

Paul Tazewell’s imaginative, campy costume design—along with the hair and wig design by Charles G. Lapointe and makeup design by Cookie Jordan—distinguishes all the characters in this production, and provides much of the evening’s fun.

Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Tichina Arnold) also sings a show-stopping number, for which she dons the fabulously red, richly textured and layered outfit of a modern-day devil, wearing a tight-fitting body suit in a red and black paisley print, over which she pulls a hoop skirt, half covered with a fringey dress, topped by a red and black wig styled in long curly dreads. The whole campy effect gives her a devil-may-care-if-I’m-a-devil attitude thatArnold delivers with energetic panache. Her song, “No Bad News,” forbids anyone in her court to tell her anything she doesn’t want to hear, which eventually means the flunky who announces Dorothy’s arrival meets a comically bad end.

LaChanze has the pleasure of the first and the penultimate number in The Wiz, first as Auntie Em, singing a maternal ode to her niece as she hangs laundry on the clothesline while that foreboding wind kicks up. Even wearing Auntie Em’s shapeless housedress, LaChanze is a riveting presence with the best voice in the cast. When she returns as Glinda, wearing a diaphanous sky-blue gown with a silken turban wrapped around her head, LaChanze is luminous, glowing with the promise that if Dorothy believes in herself (as Glinda’s song goes), she’ll get home to Kansas and control her own destiny. LaChanze puts over the anthem to 1970s-style self-actualization like she’s announcing the one true religion. How can Dorothy not get back to Kansas, given LaChanze’s faith-full notes?

Ashanti is the production’s weakest link, but then, Dorothy isn’t the most interesting character in The Wiz. After she’s displaced by the tornado—which happily, Kail doesn’t try to reconceptualize by referring to Hurricane Katrina or any other available current event—Dorothy arrives in Oz, where she mostly reacts with either wonder or dismay at its marvels.The role is one long reaction, and Ashanti’s expressions shift—or not—accordingly. But her responses seem practiced, rather than spontaneous; her face looks stiff and too carefully arranged.

She’s cute and earnest but bland, and lacks that glowing musical theatre-person presence that her co-stars exude. Ashanti acts like the pop singer she is, a girl who’s accustomed to being technologically mediated and much more amped up than she is here. Ashanti’s voice, though, is gorgeous, and she gets her songs’ tone and spirit just right. She’s also a very game; for some reason, she doesn’t dance, but she’s happily led around the stage by chorus boys and girls, and vamps in place with the other characters.

Ashanti is also the lightest skinned person on stage, whatever that might mean to the politics of race, which this production downplays. Since no white characters appear in The Wiz, the African American characters and cast create a world in which their race is the norm and goes without comment. Ashanti stands out in this context, although perhaps her exceptionalism makes sense for Dorothy, who is indeed different in Oz.

Ashanti never gets in the way, but she never stands up to the sparkle and shine of the other performers. She’s upstaged by each new character Dorothy meets. The Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion each get their own tour-de-force number, which they put over with skillful aplomb. Christian Dante White is all floppy limbs as the Scarecrow, in a wonderfully physical and relaxed performance. Joshua Henry, as the Tinman, taps his heart out for his “Slide Some Oil to Me” solo. James Monroe Iglehart, as the Lion, is a big teddy bear of a performer, who inhabits his furry suit with the appropriate aw-shucks charm. Iglehart manages to wrangle a bit of heart from Ashanti, who seems to enjoy his company. Warmth radiates between them that doesn’t spark between the lead and her other co-stars.

Orlando Jones, as the Wiz himself, is intermittently effective, handsome in his bedazzled emerald coat and fantasy make-up when the wizard deploys shock and awe, and later, unapologetically matter-of-fact about his fall from power. He’s charming at the end as he goes about solving everyone’s problems, making each of the principles happy but Dorothy, whom he leaves on the ground as his hot air balloon takes off (or here, is blown sideways offstage) without her.

Dorothy doesn’t return to Kansas at the end of The Wiz to reveal the real-life identities of all her Oz friends. Instead, she sings “Home,” gesturing toward a happy end to her journey, and the curtain rings down. Perhaps because Ashanti can’t quite fill the moment emotionally, the ending feels a bit inconclusive.

But these minor defects don’t mar what’s otherwise an entertaining evening.Blankenbuehler’s terrific choreography evokes the story’s high drama. The black-clad dancers embody the tornado in a stunning coup-de-theatre. They fly about t he stage, putting their arms through the shirts hanging on Auntie Em’s line and wreaking havoc with her house. The set, designed by David Korins, comes apart creatively; the dancers create the damage of gusting winds by uprooting each piece of the house and planting them in odd parts of the stage, as if the weather explodes Dorothy’s home into its constituent parts.

The dancers’ choreography accomplishes many of the set changes. They create the yellow-brick road by appearing with small suitcases painted in a brick-like pattern that they put together like blocks, passing them under the feet of the actors as they “ease on down the road” to Oz. Dancers comprise the dangerous poppy field, twirling around the principles in form-fitting green sheaths and wearing bright red fright wigs.

As the munchkins, they sit on rolling chairs that halve their height, and wear hoop-skirt costumes that cover their bodies from chin to toe, while extravagant Koosh-ball shower caps adorn their heads. The flying monkeys, who get a kind of Michael Jackson Thrillertreatment, threaten the company with their sinister moves.

And Toto, of course, is adorable.

The audience loved the high energy production the night I attended (a preview performance on 6/13/09). In the Bush years, the failed wizard might have been reminiscent of W., with his empty insistence on missions accomplished, and the sham promises of a few last left-over miracles that never transpire. But by this production’s end, the Wiz sounds more like Obama as he delivers his gentle, yes-you-can moral, the everything-you-need-is-within-yourself boosterism on which The Wiz, like The Wizard of Oz before it, stakes its happy ever after claim.

In a production like this one, though, watching the talented ensemble tell the old story, the moral feels a lot more like yes-WE-can. That works for me.

The Feminist Spectator

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Susan Boyle: Self-Made Icon

But of what, might be the question? Mark Harris, one ofEntertainment Weekly’s best columnists (who happens to be Tony Kushner’s husband), remarks this week (5-8-09) that Boyle’s internet success sounds a hopeful note in an otherwise cynical and self- serving celebrity scene. Here’s a woman who attests that her only dream is to sing professionally. As Harris notes, she doesn’t want to be a “star”; she only wants to do what she loves.

The friend who sent me the link to the Boyle’s YouTube clip (www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxPZh4AnWyk) added a note that extolled the virtues of the event, suggesting how hopeful it made her feel in an historical moment in which there’s so much to worry about. Why has this ordinary woman from a tiny village in the UK inspired so much affection and adoration? What does she say to or about people that encouraged her video to be seen by over 120 million people around the world?

What does it mean that the horrible, churlish deprecation of the Britain’s Got Talent audience changed to frank admiration and wild enthusiasm once Boyle sang through a few bars of “I Dreamed a Dream” fromLes Mis? That art triumphs over the “misfortune” of homeliness and poor fashion sense? That faith and desire are really all that matters to raise someone from the relative boredom of a daily life spent caring for an aging mother into the unexpected adulation of an anonymous public more typically hungry for the facilely cutting humiliations of cruel reality show hosts like the despicable Simon Cowell?

I was as moved as the next viewer by watching Boyle sing on my computer screen. Most touching was Boyle’s faith in her own ability, her innocent certainty that nothing but her voice—not her appearance, her age, her hair, her infamous (and now tweezed) bushy eyebrows (see the “before” photo, above left)—would matter once she opened her mouth to sing.

I was moved by Boyles’s ingenuous resilience, her uncoached, open answers to Cowell’s miserable, insinuating questions, and her apparent belief in the essential goodness of man (well, “men”). Her delight in her public conquest, and her subsequent demurrals of anything but happiness about not being immediately booted off the show, are, as Harris suggests, refreshing anti-celebrity behavior.

Does it matter, then, that she was whisked off by a “family friend” to have her hair styled and colored, and those notable eyebrows plucked (see “after” photo, above right)? What to make of this “mini-makeover”?Does it matter if her unstylish frock will now surely be replaced with more fashionable clothing, as more recent photographs of Boyle suggest she’s been urged to purchase? Will her voice sound as pleasing if her looks are more conventional? Or was it the incongruity of the package and the voice that created the magic the first time around?

Was the television audience shamed by its knee-jerk judgment of Boyle’s appearance once she began to sing? Was its uproarious response to her song expiation of its own guilt at how they had already dismissed her? Harris says people are now acting toward her like she’s a “cute pet hobbit” to be infantilized and exoticized. I think she’s being treated like a “wild child,” someone who’s lived outside of civilization and its restrictive customs.

Harris reports that some spectators think her refreshed appearance will rob her of the authenticity that prompted her initial appeal. God forbid she should look like any other conventionally made-up and neatly dressed middle-aged woman and still sing like an angel. What would happen to the media hook if that were the case? No one cares about conventional middle aged women, whether or not they can sing so well.

The sexism—not to mention the “looks-ism” and ageism—of spectators’ response to Boyle’s audacity (as in, How dare a woman who looks like her think she could compete on a show like this?) makes her triumph bittersweet. On the basis of watching her sing, reading about her in People Magazine, and catching one or two minutes of television interviews after her appearance, Boyle seems to me like a nice enough, perfectly ordinary woman.

Her bravery and desire has thrust her into extraordinary circumstances from which she’ll most likely not escape unharmed. I don’t relish watching the media work its black magic, turning Boyle’s fairytale into something sordid and distasteful, something that will no doubt soil what appears to be her genuine desire to make herself and others happy with her voice.

Perhaps she should have stuck to singing in the shower.

The Feminist Spectator

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