TESTIMONY’S AMBITIOUS SISTER

By Bob Abelman

In this era of fake news – just as in other times of trial and tribulation – many serious theater artists are making sure there is an element of authenticity in their storytelling by merging journalistic principles with dramatic theatricality.

Referred to as documentary dramas, these plays are built from historical and archival materials such as trial transcripts, interviews, newspaper reporting, personal or iconic visual images, government documents and autobiographies. They provide a dramatic narrative to often random or isolated factual details, resulting in a powerful theater experience bolstered by historical fidelity.  

Documentary dramas tend to surface when and where they are needed most.

Many serve to recognize and mend past injustices in societies newly recovering from a legacy of colonialism or religious persecution. Such is the case with post-apartheid South Africa’s “He Left Quietly” (2002) by Yaël Farber, grounded in the words of a man who spent three years on death row for a crime he did not commit, and post-conflict Northern Ireland’s “Des” (2000) by Brian Campbell, a one-man memoir about a radical West Belfast priest. The act of sharing the stories of past atrocities demands that a society confront its own recent brutal past while acknowledging that all involved must continue to live side by side. 

Some of these plays tell stories to guarantee those atrocities are never forgotten or repeated, such as the hundreds of works culled, verbatim, from interview transcripts of Holocaust survivors now cataloged at the National Jewish Theater Foundation in Coral Gables, Fla. They offer the theatrical narratives of ordinary individuals responding to extraordinary circumstances and give voice to the countless others whose stories would not otherwise be told.

Documentary theater has become, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African cleric Desmond Tutu, “testimony’s ambitious sister.”

Leading the charge locally is Cleveland Public Theatre, whose home is in the Gordon Square Arts District in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, and Playwrights Local, which operates out of the Creative Space at Waterloo Arts in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood.

Living newspapers

In America, documentary drama got its start under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939), which was established as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was aimed primarily to provide relief to out-of-work actors and other theater professionals, but the funding of performances brought art and theatrical truth-telling to Americans who were suffering economically during the Depression. 

The content of these early American documentary dramas – labeled “living newspapers” by FTP national director Hallie Flanagan – was typically drawn from everyday life, particularly the experiences of first- and second-generation working-class immigrants. The storytelling needed to be inspirational as well as reflective and offer, according to Flanagan, “re-thinking rather than remembering.” And so their form was decidedly modernist, embracing collage, montage and expressionism. And, because of limited financing, they were and are decisively minimalist.  

One example is “One-Third of a Nation” (1938), a play inspired by FDR’s second inaugural address statement that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Rather than tell a story, the play presented a subject – the abject state of housing in Depression-era America – which was illustrated by testimonials of its victims, slum statistics recited over loudspeakers and the performance of verbatim sections of floor speeches by U.S. senators. The play ran for nine months in New York City, where it was seen by more than 200,000 people, and it was performed 7,600 times on a nationwide tour on a shoe-string budget.

Documentary plays have flourished since.  

In the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and global economic upheaval compelled a new generation of theater artists to question and comment on media and government reporting about these events. In 1978, for instance, El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, Calif. staged “Zoot Suit,” which retold the story of World War II-era riots in Los Angeles among Chicano youths and white American servicemen over a contested murder trial. 

From left, Rose Portillo, Daniel Valdez, Evelina Fernandez, Edward James Olmos, Rachel Levario and Mike Gomez in the 1978 world premiere of “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. / Photo by Jay Thompson

In the 1980s, many artists used the documentary form to tell more singularly personal stories of identity formation and the struggle against oppressive ideologies. Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice” (1985), for example, chronicled the case of Dan White, who assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone and openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk.

More recently, Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” (2000) offered a breathtaking collage of monologues devised from interviews with townspeople from Laramie, Wyo., where a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming had been kidnapped, beaten and left for dead. 

Anna Deavere Smith’s critically acclaimed “Fire in the Mirror” (1992) examined the Crown Heights riots, “Twilight: Los Angeles” (1994) exposed the tensions surrounding the LA riots and her “Notes From the Field” (2016) called out America’s criminal justice system and the centuries of injustice it’s built upon. It was based on interviews with more than 250 people touched by this injustice.  

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s celebrated play “The Exonerated” (2002) is composed of interviews with individuals who have been released from death row.

Closer to home: Cleveland Public Theatre 

According to executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan, the mission of Cleveland Public Theatre is to “raise consciousness and nurture compassion through groundbreaking performances of new and adventurous work by Northeastern Ohio artists. And this can be accomplished through stories that are factual as well as fictional.” This has resulted in staged world-premiere productions of original, locally generated documentary dramas, including “Johanna: Facing Forward” (2015) and “Incendiaries” (2015).

Written and directed by Tlaloc Rivas, “Johanna: Facing Forward” is based on the award-winning newspaper series “Facing Forward” by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell. The articles were published in September 2007 and chronicle the story of local teen Johanna Orozco, who just months before was sexually assaulted and shot in the face by her ex-boyfriend, Juan Ruiz. Grounded in Dissell’s reporting, the play explores Orozco’s early life, the complexities of her relationship with Ruiz, the shooting, the surgery, the recovery and the trial. Orozco’s tireless activism after the shooting and its impact on domestic violence legislation are also touched on.  

“I wanted to create a theatrical companion piece to The Plain Dealer series,” recalls Rivas, “which only the power of the stage can convey. I wanted to have audience members engage in a shared experience with a story that took place in their own city.” 

From left, Courtney Brown and Tania Benites in Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Johanna: Facing Forward.” / Photo by Steve Wagner

The script was written in both Spanish and English to add an additional layer of authenticity to the people involved with Johanna’s personal, medical and legal journey from victim to survivor. But also, according to the playwright, “it was to make sure that the most important voice in the play was always going to be Johanna’s.”  

“Incendiaries” explores the race riots that tore through Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood on July 18, 1966, after a racially charged incident took place at Seventy-Niners’ Café. In the aftermath, 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.

Conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson, this play – which transforms historical text, actual trial transcripts and documented citizen accounts into riveting theater – asks audiences to reflect upon the social injustice that happened in the past with the understanding that it is happening still. The play dramatically reenacts six days of Cleveland history using nothing more than seven actors, three chairs and a table.  

“I hope that our work can help build understanding and empathy that is much needed in these challenging times,” suggests Robertson. 

And who knows? If one event on the southeast corner of Hough and East 79th Street can spark tensions that escalated into riots, “then perhaps one play taking place at CPT (at) 6415 Detroit Ave. … can spark the kind of dialogue between white and African-American members of the community that will keep this from happening again.”

Closer to home: Playwrights Local

During rehearsals for “Incendiaries,” 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police just across the street from the Cudell neighborhood apartment of one of the CPT cast members. A documentary drama about the impact and aftermath of the shooting, titled “Objectively/Reasonable” (2015), was created by an ensemble of local artists – Mike Geither, Tom Hayes, Lisa Langford, Michael Oatman and David Todd – and given a world premiere production at Playwrights Local, an incubator of new works.

Although there were some limited public protests about the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, the city never exploded into fiery riots the way Baltimore did after Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. In fact, its response was oddly tepid. Playwrights Local felt that a play using the actual voices of anonymous neighbors, friends, legal experts, activists, law enforcement officers and community leaders could help offer insight and perspective, ease the remaining tension and generate a healing emotional response. The result was slice-of-life monologues strung together to form a narrative of the tragedy, which offered a variety of shades of anger and disillusionment that did not shy away from ardent social commentary.  

From left, Samone Cummings, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Francis Renee Miller, LaShawn Little, Christina Johnson, Corin B. Self, Kali Hatten, Nathan Tolliver and Phillia in Playwrights Local’s “Objectively/Reasonable.” / Photo by Tom Kondilas

“Theater has always provided a place for truth-telling,” says Todd, who is also Playwrights Local’s artistic director. “But much of it takes the form of a sustained analogy like ‘The Crucible,’” which was set during the Salem witch trials of 1692 but offered perspective on the McCarthyism and House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that were taking place in 1953, when the play was penned. “When you remove that layer of metaphor,” as was done with “Objectively/Reasonable,” “you get to a pretty stark reality.”

“This play is not just about entertaining, educating and informing,” suggests production director Terrence Spivey. “It’s a call for action and speaks out for those who suffer in silence.”

Which is precisely what documentary dramas have done since their inception. And will continue to do when the world needs them most. CV


On stage

Upcoming documentary dramas on Cleveland stages

• “Live Bodies for Sale” by Christopher Johnson will make its world premiere from Nov. 22 to Dec. 15 at Playwrights Local, 397 E. 156th St., Cleveland. Roughly 4.5 million people worldwide are trapped in forced sexual exploitation. This documentary-style work captures the human trafficking crisis in present-day Ohio, presenting monologues and scenes derived from interviews with real-life survivors, empowerment advocates, law enforcement agents and legal professionals.

• “The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Southgate” by Nina Domingue-Glover will make its world premiere from May 16 to June 6, 2020 at Cleveland Public Theatre’s James Levin Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In 2002, Joan Southgate – a retired social worker and Cleveland-area activist – left the small town of Ripley, Ohio, to perform a 519-mile walk across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Canada. She did this with one goal in mind: to highlight the courage and resourcefulness of freedom seekers and conductor families who risked everything on the Underground Railroad. This play is based on personal interviews as well content from Southgate’s memoirs and YouTube footage of her lectures.


Lead image: Wesley Allen takes center stage during Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Incendiaries.” / Photo by Steve Wagner

The executive artist

Raymond Bobgan • executive artistic director, Cleveland Public Theatre

By Bob Abelman

When Raymond Bobgan, now 52, took the reins at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2006, after years of it serving as his artistic home, he inherited an organization rooted in the urban-revitalization vision and social justice mission of James Levin. Levin, who returned from New York City in 1981, was determined to form an experimental, risk-taking, community-rooted theater group similar to Off-Broadway’s Cafe La MaMa, where he worked as an actor and director.

But Bobgan also inherited an organization riddled with debt and located in a rough Detroit–Shoreway neighborhood on the West Side of Cleveland, with no viable plan for fiscal or creative survival, least of all success. And so he went to work.

“For a while,” he recalls, “I was executive director and technical director of the theater.” He was also a grant writer, applying for and winning financial support from the state of Ohio and a range of foundations, as well as the overseer of the continuing renovation of CPT’s 1912 home, the Gordon Square Theatre, which is the oldest operating venue in the city.

But Bobgan, who lives a short bike ride from his theater, is also a passionate artist who has been pushing the boundaries of conventional theater for decades, starting as a student at the University of California at Irvine, where he studied under experimental theater giant Jerzy Grotowski. It was his artistic vision, sense of innovation and bold creativity that led to the theater’s metamorphosis and its current state of success. 

“We may be near collapse, but let’s stop trying to compete with the LORT houses in town – the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater,” he told his colleagues, referring to the League of Resident Theatres, a professional theater association. “Let’s be good at what we do … work that nobody else in Cleveland is going to try. And I want to create an environment for artists, for creators, that feels safe and challenging at the same time.”

So, rather than Bobgan-the-executive-director pulling programming as a logical cost-saving effort, Bobgan-the-artist initiated even more and even riskier theater to solidify the CPT brand.

He sought to reinforce the word “public” in the theater’s name by expanding artistic collaborations, launching Teatro Público de Cleveland –
a 35-member ensemble of Cleveland’s Latino theater artists – and escalating community engagement that connects the Arabic and Asian-Indian communities to theater. As a result, CPT is one of the few non-culturally specific professional theaters in the country that regularly produces seasons with 50% or more representation of women and 50% or more representation of artists of color.

Raymond Bobgan and Cleveland Core Ensemble, plus other performers, in rehearsal for “Red Ash Mosaic.” / Photo by Steve Wagner

He has produced new scripts by local playwrights that were deemed outside the comfort zone of other theaters in town, such as Jen Silverman’s “Akarui” (2012), a sprawling tale of sexual identity, and Eric Coble’s “My Barking Dog” (2011), a wonderfully bizarre piece of storytelling, physical comedy and inventive wordsmithing about the ramifications of civilization’s continuing encroachment on the wild. And he has staged his own work in partnership with other artists, including “Red Ash Mosaic” (2017), an inventive piece inspired by ancient texts such as “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” as well as the works of the mystical Persian poet Hafiz.  

Bobgan recently affiliated his theater with the National New Play Network, an alliance of professional theaters that collaborate in innovative ways to develop, produce and extend the life of new plays. In 2018, he was appointed president of its board of directors.

His efforts have generated many honors, including the 2017 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio, for which he was singled out for his “sustained, impactful and visionary leadership.” The Cleveland Foundation presented him with its 2018 Homer C. Wadsworth Award, which is given annually to a local leader who has “demonstrated creativity, innovation, risk-taking and good humor in a civic, volunteer, nonprofit or public sector role.”

“For the first eight years, I kept thinking that running the theater would get easier when we grew to a certain size, achieved some notoriety and stopped worrying about the roof leaking or the electricity being turned off,” admits
Bobgan. “But some things are harder. It’s the art that makes it all worthwhile.” CV


On stage

Cleveland Public Theatre world premiere of “Masks of Flight,” a visceral and dynamic meditation on humanity’s desire for freedom and love amid our incessant tendency to control and manipulate. Created by Cleveland Core Ensemble (Raymond Bobgan, Faye Hargate, Holly Holsinger and Darius J. Stubbs) and directed by Raymond Bobgan, the production will be staged from May 29 to June 13, 2020, at 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.


Lead image: Photo by Robert Muller


Meet the Scene Stealers.

Making bold statements

Lisa Langford • Playwright

by Bob Abelman

In the play “Rastus and Hattie,” black friends visiting white friends are served dinner by two black robots, the titular characters that are salvaged prototypes of a kitchen appliance developed by Westinghouse in the 1930s. The play was selected for the prestigious National New Play Network’s (NPX) National Showcase of New Plays, was a 2019 finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco, and according to an NPX press release, “offers a playground that makes some pretty bold statements about race and history.”

The surreal “The Art of Longing” follows the lives of three graveyard shift security guards at the Cleveland Museum of Art, all the while playing with various stereotypes of blackness and gender identity. The play was a finalist for the Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Performance Writers, a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 2017 National Playwrights Conference and received its world premiere in the fall of 2017 at Cleveland Public Theatre. 

The 10-minute play “The Bomb,” a dark comedy about two ex-lovers who run into each other at a Black Lives Matter protest, has been published in “Black Lives, Black Words,” an anthology that aims to explore the black diaspora experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world.

These are among the innovative and daring works created by 2018/2019 Nord Family Foundation Playwright Fellow Lisa Langford.

Langford, 53, earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. – “most of my writing is inspired by something historical,” she adds – and studied acting at The Juilliard School in New York City. She completed her theater training at the American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard. Langford worked with Maya Angelou to develop Angelou’s line of social expressions, “Life Mosaics.” Later, she received her MFA in playwriting from Cleveland State University’s NEOMFA creative-writing program, which provides writers with a platform to hone creative skills, explore the finer details of the craft and expand the scope of their creative energies across four participating universities.

“I had great professors, many of them local playwrights, directors and novelists who opened me up to a whole new way of storytelling,” Langford says. “And I made lifelong friendships with people whose artistic feedback helps me grow as a playwright.”

From left, India Nicole Burton as Samir, Nailah Mathews as Kreesha and Greg White as Grady in Cleveland Public Theatre’s “The Art of Longing.” / Photo by Steve Wagner

Further development came from Dobama Theatre’s Playwrights Gym, a place, she says, “that always makes me smile. It’s reassuring to know you have a place to hear your work come to life. I wrote ‘Rastus and Hattie’ because I needed something to read on the night I signed up for – and that’s a play that’s given me some great opportunities, like the 2019 Joyce Award, which is shared with Cleveland Public Theatre.” 

That award is given by Chicago’s Joyce Foundation for collaborations between talented, socially-engaged artists and equally dedicated cultural organizations in the Great Lakes region. “We believe Lisa is one of the most important voices emerging in American theater,” says Raymond Bobgan, CPT’s executive artistic director.

“Toni Morrison, my favorite writer ever,” says Langford, “became an author because the books she wanted to read hadn’t been written. She inspires me to write roles I’d like to play as an actress, particularly older characters with agency. I want to see that onstage.”

Langford believes Cleveland’s evolving theater scene is ready to take greater chances and produce more original plays by local playwrights. 

“I live in Cleveland Heights, which is ‘Playwrights Central’! I run into Eric Schmeidl, Eric Coble, George Brandt, Christopher Johnston, Amy Schwabauer, Faye Sholiton, Juliette Regnier and others,” she says. “And Dobama, Karamu and Ensemble Theatre are minutes away from where I live. Sounds like a good matching to me.” CV


On stage

Lisa Langford’s play “Rastus and Hattie” will receive its world premiere Oct. 5–26 at Cleveland Public Theatre’s Gordon Square Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.

Lead image: Photo by Steve Wagner


Meet the Scene Stealers.

Tania Benites and Jason Estremere in Tlaloc Rivas’ “Johanna Facing Forward,” which was part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Teatro Publico de Cleveland. The play was based on the story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who survived a gunshot wound to the face from her abusive boyfriend. Photo | Steve Wagner

Several Northeast Ohio theater artists are using their stages to tackle issues such as racial discrimination, mental health and the opioid crisis

By Bob Abelman

Throughout history, artists have created work that does more than entertain. Art can call attention to causes, give voice to sociopolitical injustices, provide a catalyst for protest and serve as an agent for change.

Playwright Aristophanes may well have been the first theater activist. Weary of the Peloponnesian War that had been raging for years, his “Lysistrata,” first performed in 411 BCE, encouraged a sex-strike by all of the women of Greece as a demonstration of their dissent and solidarity.

This past summer, New York’s Public Theatre, Shakespeare Dallas, the Washington, D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company, and other troupes across the country staged provocative productions of “Julius Caesar” intended to stimulate discussion about modern-day populist leaders with a fondness for executive power.

Feminist street theater performers in New York publically called out art galleries and museums for their lack of female artists.

In Spain, performance artist flash mobs staged unannounced Flamenco dances in bank lobbies and the Andalusian parliament to passionately denounce the banking crisis and the austerity measures resulting from European bailouts.

Here in Northeast Ohio, activism by theater artists ranges from overt to incidental and from political to very personal.

Raising consciousness:
Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan

Nonprofit theaters perform a balancing act when reacting to politics. They can’t hold rallies and they can’t make endorsements without endangering their tax-exempt status. But they most certainly can tell stories.

Raymond Bobgan – who is celebrating his 11th season as executive artistic director of the Cleveland Public Theatre – is all about the storytelling.

Bobgan received the 2017 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio for his “sustained, impactful and visionary leadership” while championing the diverse voices of local playwrights and the minority communities they represent.

In CPT’s multi-theater complex in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, Bobgan launched Teatro Publico de Cleveland, a 35-member ensemble of Cleveland’s Latinx theater artists, and is laying the groundwork for a similar initiative with Cleveland’s Middle-Eastern and Arabic communities.

He brought “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays” to the CPT stage to open hearts and minds to marriage equality when the issue was before the Supreme Court. And CPT’s Station Hope – an annual one-night performing arts event in April or May that celebrates the Underground Railroad and explores contemporary issues of social justice – is perhaps the best example of this theater company’s brand of activism. 

“Social justice is about empowering marginalized and minority groups to tell their own stories,” Bobgan says.

Sparking connections:
Interplay Jewish Theatre’s Faye Sholiton

Tom Fulton and Laura Perrotta in Anat Gov’s “Oh God” by Interplay Jewish Theatre. Photo | Elaine Siegel

Tom Fulton and Laura Perrotta in Anat Gov’s “Oh God” by Interplay Jewish Theatre. Photo by Elaine Siegel

Founded in 2011 by Beachwood playwright Faye Sholiton, Interplay Jewish Theatre offers free staged readings of plays that view the contemporary world through a Jewish lens.

Interplay’s first performance was a reading of Deborah Margolin’s drama “Imagining Madoff,” which examined the human capacity for greed. Since then, Sholiton has produced a series of works by a range of living Jewish artists who explore the Middle East conflict, racism and Holocaust denial, among other hot-button topics.

“We don’t choose scripts specifically meant to spark action,” Sholiton says. “It’s more to spark a connection. We want to touch people, provide new insights into the human condition. As playwright/director Aaron Posner told a group of theatermakers a few years ago, ‘The days of sit back, relax and enjoy a show are over. It’s now sit up, lean in and engage.’”

Early on, the company was itinerant. But since 2013, Interplay’s primary partners are Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Beachwood’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

“Whether audiences are moved to social, political or religious action, I don’t know,” Sholiton says. “But they certainly become more aware of their own fragility, and we make these discoveries together in a safe and welcoming space.”

Reflecting the good intentions of many other local theater artists, Sholiton adds, “I like to think the work makes us more thoughtful citizens and more compassionate neighbors. Turning those values into action is icing on the cake.”

Denting stigmas:
improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

Improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, whose experiences led her to create and perform a monthly live show called “Mental Illness and Friends.” Photo | Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

Improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, whose experiences led her to create and perform a monthly live show called “Mental Illness and Friends.” Photo by Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

If academic credit could be earned through real-life experience with suicidal depression and electro-convulsive therapy, then comedian/improv artist Deena Nyer Mendlowitz has a master’s in mental illness – and her thesis is the one-woman show “Funnel Cakes Not Included.”

The comedy is a deeply personal excavation of how depression colors a person’s day-to-day existence and serves to distinguish between sadness and depression in the hope of putting a dent in mental health stigma and discrimination.

It was first performed to sold-out houses in 2014 at the Cleveland Public Theatre and has since been staged at the Dobama Theatre’s Playwrights’ Gym, Miami University in Oxford, Arcade Comedy Theater in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. 

The positive response to this production launched a live show called “Mental Illness and Friends,” which takes place every month at Bar Louie on West Sixth Street in downtown Cleveland. Mendlowitz, who was trained at The Second City and Annoyance Theater in Chicago, begins each performance with a new opening monologue, seamlessly weaving together mental illness, real life and laughter. Guest comedians, improv artists, actors and the occasional musical guest perform and share a bit of their own mental health history.

The evening ends with an improv session based on topics from that evening’s discussion, resulting in hilarious, healing and – hopefully – attitude-changing entertainment.

“When life is rough,” says Mendlowitz, “create new stuff.”

Raising awareness:
none too fragile’s Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky

Sean Derry and his daughter, Seá, who has Rett Syndrome and inspired her parents to stage one performance per production that caters to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time. Photo by Sean Derry

Sean Derry and his daughter, Seá, who has Rett Syndrome and inspired her parents to stage one performance per production that caters to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time. Photo by Sean Derry

Co-artistic directors Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky are performing a very personal form of activism by initiating “relaxed” performances at their Akron-based none too fragile theater.

“Seá’s Night,” named after their 18-year-old daughter with Rett Syndrome, caters one performance per production to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time.

“Our other children enjoy attending shows as well as helping backstage or on stage,” says Derry, “but Seá has not been able to do so. Until now.”

By opening the door to special needs attendees and making their theater more inclusive, Derry and Romansky are spreading awareness of Rett Syndrome – a rare non-inherited neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls and leads to their inability to speak, walk, eat and breathe easily – and other debilitating diseases to their patrons. And all profits from “Seá’s Night” performances are donated to the Rett Syndrome Research Trust.

Confronting the devil:
playwrights on the front line of opioid addiction

Christopher Bohan in Greg Vovos’ “How to be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner

Christopher Bohan in Greg Vovos’ “How to be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner

Following in the footsteps of activist-minded theatermakers who penned heartbreaking plays about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” several local playwrights have been tackling the state’s surging opioid crisis.

Emily Sherin and Zach Manthey are students at Kent State University who co-wrote “(In)dependent: The Heroin Project” in response to the much-publicized news photo of an East Liverpool woman and her boyfriend slumped in the front seat of an SUV after overdosing on heroin. The woman’s 4-year-old grandson was in the backseat.

The drama – based on some 50 interviews with heroin users and family members, counselors and paramedics, and written in the powerful first-person style of Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” – recently premiered at the Akron Civic Theater. On stage, “when you have someone in front of you showing you the effect this epidemic has, it opens your eyes,” said Sherin in a recent article in The New York Times (nyti.ms/2hgXcB8). “Confrontation is key to communication.”

Premiering at Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus in Parma, Greg Vovos’ one-man, 90-minute play “How to be a Respectable Junkie” follows a similar path. It is based on extensive interviews with a recovering white-collar heroin user.

“I was blown away by his sense of humor, intelligence and how engaging he was,” says Vovos. “It made me realize that our communities were losing so many great people, and I needed to write about that.”

The play unfolds as stream of consciousness commentary by 30-something Brian. According to a Plain Dealer review (bit.ly/2hagp3S) of its recent Dobama Theatre production, “How to be a Respectable Junkie” prescribes empathy as an antidote and “speaks to addicts, their parents and loved ones numbed by disappointment … and those lucky enough to have watched the numbers of (overdoses) rise and rise without ever having to attend a funeral.”

“A person approached me after one show,” recalls Vovos, “and said I’ll never write a more important play in my life.”

As a grassroots initiative, theater can bring communities together, give voice to the marginalized, articulate issues and push to the forefront problems we otherwise choose to ignore. Every time theater artists like these challenge the powers that be and established ways of thinking, they prove that art and activism are more powerful together than apart. CV

Anne McEvoy contributed to this story.


Lead image: Tania Benites and Jason Estremere in Tlaloc Rivas’ “Johanna Facing Forward,” which was part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Teatro Publico de Cleveland. The play was based on the story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who survived a gunshot wound to the face from her abusive boyfriend. Photo by Steve Wagner

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

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