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Tall Tales, White Lies, Local Color, and Monumental Views: Stories From the Nation’s Capital

Collected by Jon Spelman

Directed by Howard Shalwitz

At the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater to February 26

A Raisin in the Sun

By Lorraine Hansberry

Directed by Seret Scott

At Ford’s Theater to March 12

There are a million stories in our (fiscally) naked city, and Jon Spelman and Co. will be telling a few of the choicer ones through Sunday.

Spelman is the fellow who, long before the term “performance art” was coined, was soloing in such shows as War Stories: Vietnam, On the Bedpost Overnight, and Frankenstein—evenings that mixed autobiographical, biographical, quasi-fictional, and out-and-out fanciful narratives. With 18 hours of such material now stored in his cranium, he’s sort of a home-grown, mustachioed Spalding Gray, capable of impersonating a world’s worth of quirky individuals by himself.

In Tall Tales, White Lies, Local Color, and Monumental Views: Stories From the Nation’s Capital, however, he’s acting as a storyteller’s Ziegfeld, providing a showcase at the Terrace Theater for nine other raconteurs whose skills and techniques vary. Some—notably former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy—are such old hands at waxing poetic that they can establish audience contact with nothing more than a quick glance at the crowd. Others choose to work harder, using dance, props, and costumes to embellish their narratives. Not all are successful, but the ones who are compensate for the show’s occasional slack spots.

The best stories tend to deal with disenfranchised iconoclasts—gay dancers, intellectual Africans, homeless State Department workers, liberal politicians—whose tales illuminate why they’re fish out of water in D.C. This may be happenstance, but it lends the evening a through-line of sorts, linking the experiences of folks whose lives don’t otherwise intersect.

Take the evening’s two first-person immigration stories. Namu Lwanga hails from Uganda, while Rome Quezada danced his way here from Guam, and their stories and storytelling methods could scarcely be more different. Lwanga is an actress and playwright by profession, and is gregariously at ease interacting with the audience. She begins by stepping down from the stage to teach patrons a Ugandan greeting, then launches into a sardonic narrative that recounts the indignities she suffered at the hands of various race-conscious idiots (one employer who couldn’t pronounce her name decided to call her Dottie, “which in my language means a fart”). Her manner is conversational, her text unfailingly hilarious.

Quezada, on the other hand, dances onto the stage, clad in a tailored gray vest, work boots, and boxer shorts, to describe both in words and movement how “Fag Boy” met his prince after escaping the island of Guam (which a sailor told him was an acronym for “give up and masturbate”). Alternately stomping and leaping, thrusting his hips suggestively on phrases with sexual overtones, Quezada begins by mocking the “wanna-be wonk” of his dreams, then dances his way through their failed relationship to chronicle the impact that AIDS and gay-bashing have had on his freshly expansive world-view. Though Quezada’s storytelling technique may seem unorthodox to patrons unfamiliar with the work of choreographer Liz Lerman (Spelman’s wife, whose word-dance methods clearly influenced the overall shape of the production), it is both effective and rending.

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Understandably, the more conventional stories don’t pack the same sort of punch. When Quique Aviles arrives onstage in white stockings and an embroidered peach dress to impersonate a Latina mother who takes care of other women’s children so her own kids can have a better life, there’s never much doubt where his story is headed. The fact of his putting on earrings and softening his gestures until they turn convincingly feminine ends up seeming more intriguing than the tale he’s telling. Robbie McCauley’s story about her common-sensically heroic mother, who stood up to racism while working in the halls of Congress “feeding the men who make the laws,” was obviously heartfelt but less affecting than it should have been on opening night as McCauley kept doubling back on herself distractedly, often in midsentence.

An insistent drumbeat helps put across the percussion-punctuated, African-inflected contribution of Jamal Koram, while dancer Peter DiMuro uses masking tape efficiently in converting an empty stage into the basement room his father filled with newspaper clippings and other detritus. On occasion, two or more of the players work together to create an ensemble scene, of which the most successful is the communal retelling of an erratic mailroom worker’s nude exploits on Capitol Hill.

Former Senator McCarthy is incorporated into the proceedings as a sort of found object, placed on a stool in a soft pool of light to ramble winningly through a poem or three. Fortunately, he explains political subtexts from the ’60s and ’70s as he goes, because they’d otherwise be a bit obscure at this late date. At the opening, a deer-hunting-with-Lyndon story that preceded one of his poems was amusing enough to stand on its own, so that capping it with a bit of telling, surprisingly elegant wordplay counted as a pleasant bonus.

Celebrity poetry notwithstanding, Tall Tales, White Lies… is the sort of locally based, minority-conscious evening one doesn’t usually find at the Kennedy Center, and for that reason, it’s a laudatory addition to the Center’s “Something New” series. Yes, it’s uneven, and it isn’t high-powered by any stretch of the imagination. But it does stretch the imagination.

The mounting of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at Ford’s Theater feels so right, both for play and playhouse, that despite production flaws, I can’t help wishing the show SRO houses from here to Memorial Day. If a serious drama were ever to click at Ford’s—and few could be more appropriate to the auditorium where Lincoln was shot—producer Frankie Hewitt might finally be tempted to forsake the tourist-attracting dreck that’s long made the chairs in the city’s most elegantly historic house seem even more stiff-backed than they are.

The last time I can recall feeling that the words bouncing off Ford’s rafters were worthy of the house’s architecture was when Arthur Miller’s All My Sons played there eight years ago. That production was a pickup from the Long Wharf Theater, and it packed such an emotional wallop that a thousand shows later I still vividly remember Jamey Sheridan slugging out the play’s father-son battle with Richard Kiley. They fought as if Oedipus had never trod the boards and mythic theater needed to be freshly invented.

A Raisin in the Sun is from that same era of sturdily built American melodramas—a time when audiences went to the theater expecting to hear language that was at once real and heightened, and to see stories that were substantial. The 28-year-old Hansberry was the first African-American woman ever to have a play open on Broadway, and with this particular play she set quite a standard. Raisin‘s tale of the arrival of a $10,000 insurance check in the Chicago apartment of Lena Younger and the impact it has on her family’s dreams and fortunes, especially those of her son Walter Lee, was to spawn an entire genre—one that playwright George Wolfe was to skewer in The Colored Museum as “Mama-on-the-couch plays.”

Sheila Gibbs is the Mama on Ford’s’ battered, life-soiled couch, and she provides the evening with a rock-solid moral center. Grounded and naturally authoritative, she’s unfortunately surrounded by performers who’ve adopted a more rarefied, affected acting style. Scott Lawrence’s Walter Lee Younger starts at such a fevered emotional pitch that by the time he has to register despair in the final scenes, the only way he can do it is to fall on his knees and pound the floor. And the laughter that greets Tyrone Mitchell Henderson’s stuck-on-himself college boy has as much to do with sitcom stereotypes as with the character. Maduka Steady’s take on the sexist but stable African student who courts Lena’s youngest daughter is stronger, and if Brenda Pressley can just refrain from flailing when she’s trying to register joy, her devoted wife to Walter Lee will become quite affecting.

Atkin Pace’s well-worn setting is way too spacious (especially the extravagantly proportioned kitchen someone describes at one point as “a closet”). But Brian Nason’s lighting is evocative, and Karen Perry’s costumes appropriate to the play’s period and social circumstances. The production, in short, isn’t all it might be, but is nonetheless effective—not least because the racism and frustration the Younger family must endure feels all-too-discouragingly contemporary.