@WildProjectNYC hosts a spirited, supportive theater benefit for @NYCLU

by Anne E. Johnson

The Wild Project is a venue in New York’s East Village, hosting theater, film, and other performance genres. It is also a community center of sorts, where artists and art-lovers of every stripe and style join to keep the light of self-expression burning in these dark times. On January 18, two days before the presidential inauguration, they hosted “Freedom of Art,” an evening of performances to benefit the New York Civil Liberties Union (the regional voice of the ACLU).

The atmosphere at the 89-seat theater was by turns defiant and joyful. Wild Project

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Marie Faustin and Sydney Washington (photo: Jose de Quesada)

artistic director Ana Mari de Quesada first introduced Pamela Zimmerman, Leadership Gifts Officer of the NYCLU. Zimmerman explained the importance of not only supporting, but also participating in her organization, which shares all contributions evenly with the national group.

After that sobering message, the real fun commenced. The evening’s MCs were the comedy duo Marie Faustin and Sydney Washington. These two women combined the perfect ratio of feistiness and friendliness — not to mention real enthusiasm — to guide us through the hefty program. The acts, all volunteering their time, were too numerous to detail completely here, and that in itself speaks volumes about how the arts community is rallying together. Here are a few highlights:

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Ryan F. Johnson (photo: Jose de Quesada)

Two writers represented Poetic Theater Productions, both revealing outrage and determination from an African-American perspective. Ryan F. Johnson read from his work We Lost Ourselves, and Teniece Divya Johnson shared her poem Baltimore Is Burning.

Group theater works spanned a wide range of styles. Broken Box Mime Theater offered three touching vignettes. Two members of Cherry Picking performed And the Law Won. In this piece, Charlotte Rahn Lee’s insightful script laid bare the difficulty white liberals sometimes have in grasping the social issues facing African-Americans.

There was music in the mix, too. Composer and electric guitarist John King played his Requiem for Eric Garner, astonishing the crowd with his skill at live sampling and looping on a gadget he called the wacky box. (Co-MC Marie Faustin mined some comedy gold out of that phrase.) And in an understated, haunting voice, composer Eve Beglarian sang What Justic Looks Like, the true story of Esther Hobart Morris, who became a justice of the peace in 1870 in Wyoming.

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Eve Beglarian (photo: Jose de Quesada)

Other performers included composer Paula Matthusen, comedian/writer Jill Pangallo, the Brooklyn Actors Troupe, composer Angela Di Carlo, cabaret performer Nicholas Gorham, composer Randy Gibson, and trombonist Will Lang.

“Freedom of Art” was a happening in the 1960s sense, giving performers the chance to explore, appreciate, encourage, support, and protect each other, their community, and the wider world. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of this spirit over the next few years.

 

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David Yazbek’s ‘The Band’s Visit’: A gentle look at Arabs and Israelis…as people

by Anne E. Johnson

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Tony Shalhoub

When Tony Shalhoub first took the stage as Tewfiq, conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra in David Yazbek’s new musical The Band’s Visit at the Atlantic Theater, he quietly reminded his players that they were representing Egypt on their trip to an Arab cultural center in Israel.

The band is trying to get to the city of Petah Tikva, but accidentally ends up in the small town of Bet Hatikva. The show covers the day and night the Egyptians are stranded in the wrong place. We watch them getting to know a few residents and revealing themselves in the process.

There are moments of tension between the Muslims and the Jews — sexual, economic, political. There are moments of love, understanding, epiphany. And there’s some captivating music by the chameleon Yazbek, who’s as comfortable writing R&B and American popular standards as he is writing Israeli folk songs and Arab classical pieces. Much of it was played onstage by multitalented cast members such as trumpeter Ari’ El Stachel, violinist George Abud, and clarinetist Alok Tewari. Powerhouse singer Katrina Lenk played Dina, the owner of a coffee shop and a lost soul happy to welcome any breath of the new into her little town.

Although at its surface The Band’s Visit is merely sweet, this is an important musical. Profound, even. It’s a tender approach to the Israeli/Arab question; Yazbek’s focus on relationships rather than relations suggests that peace might be attainable, at least at the level of individuals.

One of Roger Rees’ lesser-known roles

by Anne E. Johnson

As a besotted fan of the late Welsh actor Roger Rees, I collect the many works to which he contributed. Audiobooks and made-for-TV movies are especially fun ones to find. Yesterday I acquired a TV film called God’s Outlaw, about proto-Protestant William Tyndale, who risked his life to translate the Bible into English during Luther’s early days.
 
To be honest, I was dreading it, but I braved a viewing out of love for Roger. With the story’s shamelessly subjective bent in favor of Church of England (apparently only the Catholics ever did anything ill advised or selfish), it should have been unwatchable nonsense, yet it was surprisingly well done. Then again, when you people a cast with nothing but classically trained British character actors, there’s only so bad a piece can be. I particularly enjoyed Keith Barron as the fickle and irascible Henry VIII.
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Roger Rees as William Tyndale in “God’s Outlaw.”