From left, Darius Stubbs, Adam Seeholzer, Faye Hargate, Holly Holsinger, Raymond Bobgan, and Colleen McCaughey. Photo | Steve Wagner

CPT’s haunting ‘Red Ash Mosaic’ takes a deep dive into poetic theater

By Bob Abelman

“Indelible and idiosyncratic.”

“A wide array of styles from vast corners of the globe, often intermingled together in ingenious ways.”

“A seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic.”

“An expression of beauty, strength and endurance, despite the grim subject matter.”

These are quotes from reviews of Paul Simon’s quintuple-platinum album “Graceland” which, on the surface, have nothing whatsoever to do with Cleveland Public Theatre’s production of “Red Ash Mosaic” – a haunting, esoteric and original experiment in theatrical form that is targeted, according to a press release, for “the bold, the curious, the brave.”

But upon entering CPT’s Gordon Square Theatre, I overheard that Simon would soon be performing at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. And so my head was filled with the geographically disparate musical strains and vibrant tunes from my favorite album, “Graceland,” as the lights faded and the performance began.

Soon those words and melodies were replaced by the intriguing sights and sounds devised and performed by Raymond Bobgan and members of his Cleveland Core Ensemble – Darius Stubbs, Faye Hargate, Adam Seeholzer and Dionne Atchison – along with performers Holly Holsinger, Colleen McCaughey and Sarah Moore. Bobgan also directs the work.

At the center of “Red Ash Mosaic” is a scene that takes place in a video store as patrons go about their business as a storm builds and rages outside. One patron – a Muslim woman dressed in black, traditional garb – leaves a backpack in a corner of the store, which generates fear and hatred that mysteriously accesses alternative timelines, otherworldly dimensions and deeper states of being.

Inspired by ancient texts, such as “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” as well as Henry Corbin’s “Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi” and the works of the mystical Persian poet Hafiz, Bobgan and crew explore what it means to live and what it means to die.

But rather than providing a running narrative, they do so by taking us on a sensory and sensuous journey filled with interweaving and contradictory narrative threads, riveting spasmodic movement, a cappella singing and chanting that is rhythmically, harmonically and melodically captivating, acrobatic flying and excerpts from poetic texts. All of which is accompanied by an evocative soundtrack composed by Matthew Ryals and dramatic lighting designed by Benjamin Gantose.

And so Paul Simon’s “Graceland” – though more mainstream and accessible – comes to mind, for it pushes the boundaries of storytelling by merging ’50s R&B with mbaqanga, township jive, shangaan music, zydeco and chicano rock, offering recognizable rhythms through unfamiliar vocalizations that are accompanied by unusual instruments. So does “Red Ash Mosaic,” which delivers “… a seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic.”

Each song in “Graceland” creates a distinctive image that somehow connects to the work as a whole. So does each “… indelible and idiosyncratic” movement in “Red Ash Mosaic.”

While the album addresses apartheid, “Red Ash Mosaic” is “… an expression of beauty, strength and endurance, despite the grim subject matter” of death.

“Graceland” proved harder to love than any other Simon album, yet it managed to sell more than 10 million copies because of the artist involved and the quality of the work being offered.

In the world of collaboratively devised and exploratory theater, Raymond Bobgan is the artist of note. He is surrounded by exceptionally talented and fully committed performers. And the quality of “Red Ash Mosaic” is superb.

On Stage

WHERE:  Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through June 17

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $30.  Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 4, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Darius Stubbs, Adam Seeholzer, Faye Hargate, Holly Holsinger, Raymond Bobgan, and Colleen McCaughey. Photo | Steve Wagner

From left, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla, Scott A. Campbell, Tonya Broach, Ray McNiece, Teresa DeBerry, Maryann Elder, and Sally Groth. Photo | Steve Wagner

Cleveland Public Theatre offers a savory, saucy ‘Barbecue’

By Bob Abelman

Playwright Robert O’Hara has an affinity for laying bare issues of race, class and culture in America by poking all kinds of audacious fun at them.

In “Bootycandy,” seen last year at convergence-continuum, O’Hara explored the stigmatization of homosexuality in African-American culture by presenting it as TV sketch comedy. And, by doing so, he managed to also call attention to the egregious portrayal of blacks in TV sketch comedy.

In “Barbecue,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 2015 and is on stage at the CPT, he showcases similarities in white and black lower-class family dysfunction by having it unfold in the familiar format of the Hollywood domestic comedy. And, by doing so, he manages to also call attention to the egregious portrayal of the lower class in domcoms.

In both plays, which are loaded with ferociously funny one-liners, the outrageousness sometimes gets the better of O’Hara’s good intentions and his efforts to cover so much ground occasionally hits a bump or two. “Barbecue” is particularly problematic in that its first act is rubbed with vinegar and char-grilled on an open flame while its second act is slow-cooked and basted with molasses.

Although this CPT production under Beth Woods’ direction has some difficulty reconciling these inconsistent stylings by being particularly plodding after intermission, it is nonetheless a savory and satisfying offering.

As the show opens, four O’Mallery siblings (Teresa DeBerry, Ray McNiece, Maryann Elder and Sally Groth) have gathered at the local park to share some barbecue and scared-straight talk with their youngest sister Barbara (Jill Levin). Barbara’s out of control drug and alcohol addiction and bad behavior have forced them to confront her in the hope that she will agree to a visit to rehab. Of course, this confrontation is backed up by a Taser set to medium-high. And their hope is bolstered by white-trash ignorance with a Jack Daniel’s chaser and addictions of their own.

The small patch of ill-kept park area (designed by Ryan T. Patterson) – with its dead tree and dying grass, no-frills grill and chain-link entrance – is the perfect place for this ill-planned, open-air intervention to occur.

Just as Barbara shows up at the park, the stage goes to blackout. When the lights return, the white O’Mallerys have been replaced by their black counterparts (Tonya Broach, Scott A. Campbell, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla and Katrice Monee Headd), and the conversation continues where it left off.

Everything is the same – the tacky wardrobe (designed by Inda Blatch-Geib), the setting (lit by Benjamin Gantose), the comedic antagonism and the character-defining addictions – except for the characters’ culturally disparate dealings with their sister and the expletives they readily employ.

The acting – which flies just north of caricature – is magnificent and, when matched with the surreality of juxtaposed O’Mallerys, keeps the audience laughing nearly nonstop.

Watching DeBerry and Broach’s small yet significant tweaks in their respective white and black portrayals of Lillie Anne, the oldest sister who orchestrates the intervention, is a particular pleasure. They are wonderful.

And the price of admission is justified just from witnessing Groth and Aquilla out-do each other as the remarkably addled Marie.

If only a smattering of Cleveland’s own Hot Sauce Williams’ dry spice could have worked its way into the second act of “Barbecue,” which features an intriguing meeting between the two Barbaras. It could certainly use something to hasten its heartbeat and add some much needed heat before all the dysfunctional O’Mallerys take to the stage once more to make a final satirical statement.

O’Hara’s work is an acquired taste for sure, and one certainly worth sampling at the CPT.

On Stage

WHAT:  “Barbecue”

WHERE:  Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through March 11

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $30.  Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 25, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla, Scott A. Campbell, Tonya Broach, Ray McNiece, Teresa DeBerry, Maryann Elder, and Sally Groth. Photo | Steve Wagner

Kim Sias as Principal Beverly Long. PHOTO | Steve Wagner

Cleveland Public Theatre carves out powerful ‘Lines in the Dust’

By Bob Abelman

“The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. … The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break. … The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. … Then they asked, ‘What’ll we do?’”

This excerpt from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” lays bare the quiet desperation of poor families driven from their homes by drought, dust and the economic hardship of the 1930s. And it shows us the things despondent people will do to survive with dignity.

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

This excerpt comes from George Wallace’s inaugural address, delivered in 1963 following his election as governor of Alabama. And it shows us the things defensive people will do to keep others from surviving with dignity.

Crossing a dividing line in the dust that separates a better life from those who desire it is a high-risk endeavor, regardless of whether it is drawn in the dead corn fields of Depression-era Oklahoma, the cold concrete portico of the civil rights-era Alabama State Capitol building or — as demonstrated in Nikkole Salter’s 2014 play — in the war-zone classrooms of contemporary Newark, N.J.

“Lines in the Dust,” at Cleveland Public Theatre, finds Denitra Morgan (Nichole Sumlin) losing the charter school lottery for her daughter and having to find another way to escape their woefully underperforming neighborhood school. Illegal district-jumping to the nearby upper-class white suburb seems the most viable option until the Morgans, who are black, fall under the scrutiny of Millburn High School’s investigation into school residency fraud.

The investigation is spearheaded by black interim principal Beverly Long (Kimberly Sias), a sympathetic Newark native and Princeton graduate. Hired by the school board to conduct an enrollment audit that will result in student expulsion is Mike DiMaggio (Skip Corris), a white, blatantly bigoted private investigator personally vested in the Millburn neighborhood.

At first glance, “Lines in the Dust” is one of those issue-driven, pontificating public-service plays that are more edifying than entertaining. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In this commissioned work by New Jersey’s Luna Stage, the playwright was asked to use the life and work of Robert L. Carter as inspiration. Carter had a significant hand in many historic legal challenges to racial discrimination, none more momentous than Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision abolishing legal segregation in the public schools.

The script, which fictionalizes the current state of apartheid schooling in our country while infusing it with plenty of facts about functional illiteracy and its ramifications, is long. It contains lengthy speeches filled with admonishment that are meant to be loudly delivered. And, according to the New York Times review of the world premiere production at Luna Stage, the work is “unsatisfying” and “heavy-handed.”

Not in this CPT production. Under the compelling direction of Beth Wood, “Lines in the Dust” is wonderful.

The work is tempered by immense artistry that finds a calming rhythm for the play’s impassioned argumentation, bolsters the smaller, personal moments cowering amid the politics and community outreach, and milks all the drama in the diatribes.

Set designer Douglas Puskas helps filter out much of the oppressive realism in the script by devising an airy impression for the play’s locations. A wall-less principal’s office with an empty archway for a door is created for Beverly, bordered by appropriate artifacts like whiteboards and diplomas that are suspended from the ceiling. On both sides are islands with one or two pieces of furniture that represent other settings.

In the background, running the height and length of the performance space, is a chain-link fence that, when backlit by Wes Calkin, makes for a dramatic rendition of the line in the dust between Newark and Millburn. When characters precariously cross it during scene segues, they are accompanied by an effectively haunting, pulsating soundtrack devised y Daniel McNamara.

But what turns the play’s education into entertainment are the three incredible actors, who not only give voice to cogent arguments but do so with honest expression, raw emotion and layers of complexity and creativity. Sias, Sumlin and Corris make both sides of the line seem viable, which makes for great theater. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Lines in the Dust”

WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through June 18

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org.


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 10, 2016.

Lead image: Kim Sias as Principal Beverly Long. PHOTO | Steve Wagner

The cast of “Incendiaries.”
PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography

CPT’s exceptional ‘Incendiaries’ uses drama to spark discussion on issues of race in Cleveland

By Bob Abelman

“This happened.”

These are the final words in the play “Incendiaries,” which explores the race riots that tore through Cleveland’s East Side Hough neighborhood in the late 1960s. Gunfire left four dead and dozens injured. Hundreds of fires swept through the area as looters trashed stores, causing millions of dollars in damage. More than 2,000 Ohio National Guardsmen were brought in to restore peace.

But the hope of the play’s creators is that these won’t be the last words when it comes to public discussion about the conflict that exists between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

Conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson and receiving its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, “Incendiaries” asks audiences to reflect upon the social injustice that happened in the past with the understanding that it is happening still.

In fact, during rehearsals for this production, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed across the street from the apartment of a cast member.

The play’s subject matter and timeliness most certainly inspires contemplation, discussion and debate. But what is particularly remarkable is its ability to transform historical text, actual trial transcripts, and documented citizen accounts into riveting theater.

The 60-minute production employs seven actors — Brittni Shambaugh Addison, Wesley Allen, Ashley Aquilla, Laprise Johnson, Daniel McNamara, Randi Renee, and Chris Walker — who dramatically re-enact six days of Cleveland history using nothing more than three chairs and one table. Their performance is seen through a wispy mist of smoke that creates both the haze of past-tense remembrance and the realization that the city’s on fire.

Rather than projecting archival news footage and aiming toward stark realism, “Incendiaries” dramatizes events and theatrically reimagines those involved in the Hough riots, so it steers clear of any semblance of overtly educational public service programming. And, by choosing artistry over authenticity, Robertson adds weight and intensity to the storytelling.

The play unfolds in sequential scenarios that seamlessly morph from one location in Hough — a bedroom, a storefront, a paddy wagon, a hospital bed — to the next with a clever adjustment in the placement of the table and a chair, accentuated by Benjamin Gantose’s lighting and Darryl Dickenson’s sound designs.

Actors climb on, around and through the furniture with the dexterity of the Pilobolus dance troupe, and become passionate witnesses or frightened victims in one scene and angry mobs or angrier police officers in another. They are wonderful in all that they do and only falter when the fever pitch of some performers’ anger occasionally overtakes the words spoken by others.

Even with some words obscured, this is a powerful production. And who knows: if one event at Seventy-Niners’ Cafe on the southeast corner of Hough and East 79th Street on the evening of July 18, 1966 can spark tensions that escalate into riots, then perhaps one play taking place at Detroit Avenue and West 65th Street can spark the kind of dialogue that will keep this from happening again. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Incendiaries”

WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Jan. 23

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in January 2016.

Lead photo: The cast of “Incendiaries.” PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography