Tag: Namir Smallwood
In a theater community as diverse and talented as Chicago’s, every aspect and genre of stage productions can be found throughout the city on a given week. 2015 was no exception to this fact, as one can see from our reviewers’ picks of the year’s greatest and most memorable works.
Grit and sass can’t carry a play
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|The Hot L Baltimore|
|Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Tina Landau
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through May 29 | tickets: $20-$73 | more info
Reviewed by Keith Ecker
For the most part, there are two types of plays: character-based and plot-based. But the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s new production, The Hot L Baltimore, exemplifies a third category—the thematic play. Rather than focus on fleshing out characters or exciting the audience with a compelling story, this third category aims to meditate on a concept. What plays out is a dramatic allegory that is rooted more in poetry than prose.
And although there certainly is beauty to be found in such an ethereal script, there’s not a lot of meat. The Hot L Baltimore, which was written by recently deceased playwright Lanford Wilson, features a cast of more than a dozen characters. With so many personalities and such surface level characterization, it’s difficult to develop a fondness for anyone in particular. And the story, which revolves around the impending demolition of an old hotel, is definitely existential in nature. But rather than having the absurd charm of a Waiting for Godot, The Hot L Baltimore is a slice-of-life. So we’re stuck in this realistic drama, left to watch the hotel’s inhabitants wait. And watching a bunch of people wait doesn’t really fuel a play forward.
The Hot L Baltimore centers around a once grand hotel that has become old and dilapidated. It has been announced that it will be demolished, which riles up its eclectic cast of inhabitants, including a number of prostitutes, a sickly kvetching old man and a brother-sister duo with big dreams. The motley crew interact in the hotel’s lobby, their sad pasts and unfortunate presents always undulating beneath each conversation.
Not much really happens throughout the course of the play. A few incidents arise that register a slight uptick on the EKG meter of entertainment. For instance, a young man (Samuel Taylor) arrives looking for information on his missing grandfather. Suzy (Kate Arrington), one of the hotel’s hookers, gets into a fight with a client. Meanwhile, Jackie (Alana Arenas) and her brother Jamie (Namir Smallwood) discover, to their chagrin, that the farmland they purchased is as fertile as the Sahara.
Don’t get me wrong. These are interesting people. And the parallel between the tarnished glitz of the hotel and the residents’ destitute lives is an interesting metaphor. But that’s just not enough steam to power this locomotive. And so by the end of the very long first act, I hoped that what I just saw was lengthy exposition and that the pay off would come in act two. But the pay off never came. The play just ends, as eventfully as it started.
As esteemed as Wilson may be, I fail to see how this is a good script. It’s got a lot of potential. Attitude, sass, grit and humor. But these things are intangibles. Without a character or a story to ground us, all the sass in the world can’t save a play.
Director Tina Landau, who is also incredibly accomplished, faced a challenge with bringing this work to life. I enjoy the simultaneous action she injects into the production. Characters meander around the two-story set, exemplifying the vibrancy that inhabits this dying hotel. But there is something lost here that not even Landau can find, and that’s providing an explanation for why we should care. Landau tries to address this by spotlighting characters and underscoring monologues with sappy music. But these devices come off as awkward and contrived.
If there is any reason to see this play, it’s because of the acting. The entire cast delivers fantastic performances. Standouts include de’Adre Aziza as the feisty smart-talking call girl April, and Namir Smallwood as the feeble young man who is in the custody of his hotheaded sister.
The Hot L Baltimore is one of those plays that has lost its relevance with time. The grit of yesterday is today’s old news. And the concept of a dying America has been portrayed more artfully. Meanwhile, Landau’s heavy-handed treatment isn’t much of a help. At least some redemption can be found in the cast.
The Hot L Baltimore continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 29th, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Wednesday matinees on May 11, 18 & 25 at 2 pm. Tickets are $20-$73, and can be purchased online or by calling (312) 335-1650.
Rhyming verse, didactic storytelling hinder production
|Victory Gardens presents:|
|The Lost Boys of Sudan|
|Written by Lonnie Carter
Directed by Jim Corti
at Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln (map)
through April 25th (more info)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
From the Sudanese desert to the frozen plains of Fargo, Lonnie Carter‘s The Lost Boys of Sudan is epic in scope. The story of three displaced Sudanese teenagers, the play uses the central plot of the boys’ search for a home as a stepping-stone to discussing such varied topics as religion, colonialism, and poaching – but Carter’s critiques often diminish the emotional intensity of the core relationship between the boys. The best parts of the play are when the boys are faced with the trials that come from their circumstances: escaping crazed oil riggers, encountering twelve year old foot soldiers, boarding the plane to Fargo. But the juxtaposition of this powerful storytelling versus generalized rants about the “Palinolithic age” only serve to derail the production.
The writing switches between prose and rhyming verse, and the shift is often jarring and unnecessary. Rhyming words become the ear’s focus and distract from the action of the play, and sometimes the rhymes feel like a stretch so that they can fit into the script (main offenders: "wet noodle" and "caboodle"; reciting "the itsy bitsy spider").
The efforts of director Jim Corti and his talented ensemble balance out the flaws of the writing, creating a final product that is technically impressive and incredibly polished. All of the actors have a great handle on the difficult African dialects, and as maligned as the verse may be, the entire ensemble approached the language with confidence. Narrator Ayoun (Nambi E. Kelley) does a great job connecting with the audience, delicately controlling the script’s wordplay and adding depth to the occasionally purple prose.
The boys, T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), have great chemistry together, firmly established in those first moments where they must band together to brave the dangers of their hostile environment. The three actors do a great job of playing roles considerably younger than their actual ages, and as the characters mature you can hear the changes in their voices and see it in their bodies.
Sheppard gives a stand-out performance as K-Gar, the girl whose mother dresses her up as a boy to escape rebels razing their village, proving herself this season’s go-to girl for playing younger characters (The Hundred Dresses, The Snow Queen). K-Gar finds strength in her masculine disguise, one powerful scene has her taking up arms against men looking to enlist them as child soldiers, and this power stays with her even after she reveals herself and begins her life as a woman in America. After graduating high school, she refuses to stay in the sheltered United States, instead returning to Sudan so that she can counsel children like Twelve (Latricia Kamiko Sealy), a gun-toting preteen killer.
In Carter’s high concept script, Twelve is the concept that works the best. She appears at the start of the production to kill A.I. Josh’s father, later returning as a radio operator and finally a student at the camp where the lost boys are rescued. Twelve is the voice of all the children of Sudan, and Sealy plays the character with a ferocity that transforms into vulnerability as her immature mind copes with the terrors she committed. Twelve reveals the life the main characters would have if they had not escaped the various threats they encounter, and serves as a fantastic foil for the main characters, a lost girl that is never rescued.