Entries in James DeVita (2)

Friday
Jan102014

COMMENTARY: First Stage Reprises A Midnight Cry for Wisconsin Series

The initial conception of the First Stage Wisconsin Series began about 15 years ago, when Artistic Director Jeff Frank commissioned James DaVita to write a story about Caroline Quarlls-Watkins, One of the first slaves to escape though the underground railroad in 1842 Wisconsin, DeVIta delivered her story as this unfolded in A Midnight Cry and becomes inspiration for all those seeking freedom from oppression in a contemporary context, a story worth reprising.

During the commissioning and planning of the first 2003 production, “the genesis of the significant Wisconsin Series began” Frank explains. He enjoyed the process of creating new theater for young audiences so thoroughly, and after the premiere, A Midnight Cry completed a national tour with the Dallas Children’s Theater through the play’s distribution with Dramatists Publicists. However, revisiting A Midnight Cry a second time made Frank think, “What a testament to how good a play Jimmy wrote.”

As the third edition in the First Stage Wisconsin Series, these new works are commissioned to combine the culture, drama and history of an event or person unique to the state. The series also presented the World Premiere of Y York’s adaptation of artist Della Well’s childhood in Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly, which garnered Distinguished Play Recognition from the American Alliance of Theater Education. Next year, the series continues with a play by Alvaro Sarr Rios, who adapted Lois Ehlert’s successful Mole Hill Stories, in a play titled Luchadora and reflects the state’s Latino culture.

In each of these plays from the Wisconsin series, a difficult topic might be explored or examined through a youthful perspective. In regards to A Midnight Cry, a story about slavery and the undue suffering this caused, Frank admits he was asked: Why produce a play (or plays) about such a painful time in the state’s or a country’s, history?

“This play [and in general, the Wisconsin Series], speaks to the perseverance of the human spirit,” Franks answers with confidence.  “What do you do when you need to leave your loved ones behind? You carry their strength with you so you can conquer the obstacles ahead, in front of you.”

Lida is the young girl in the play who escapes to the North for freedom. In the powerful script before she must leave, her father attempts to encourage her before her frightening and solitary journey ahead. “When you feel alone, we’re right here,” her father says as he pats Lida's heart before she suddenly disappears on her journey for freedom through the Underground Railroad.  

To develop the marvelous, evocative tenor in the plays, an element of music connects the audience to the specific cultural community presented on stage. In this play, Music Director Sheri Williams Pannell and Percussion Director Jahmés Tony Finlayson worked with musicians to tweak the original 2003 performances  with original songs from the African American spiritual tradition. “Music,” Frank explains, “Underscores the production and we usually have little more than 90 minutes, so the score, the music helps the audience move emotionally through the play."

For the audience who will be attending A Midnight Cry for the first time, Frank describes how very realistically the play documents how slaves were treated. “A heart wrenching production,” he says, “To honor Caroline and the other nameless, faceless people who went through those experiences….palpably real.”

To begin 2013, A Midnight Cry returns to First Stage in the Todd Wehr Theater and runs through February 9. In several talkbacks during the opening week, Kimberly Simmons, the great, great, great granddaughter of Caroline Quarlls-Watkins will be here to illuminate and give her insight on this dangerous and yet, as she says, shining moment of history, when people worked together for the slaves who were called the freedom seekers. Where the young girl Lida learns in her perilous journey that, as Frank puts it, “Some people will close a fist, others with push her away, or a very few will open a hand.”

If one missed this miraculous play remembering the pain and joys on the road to freedom, the time is now to journey to First Stage with Lida and the company. Discover these complex, rich new works being commissioned and reflecting Wisconsin history, and have been adding to the repertoire of Theater for Young Audiences, a crucial component to culture and our society. Why do these plays become significant as live theater? Frank offers two closing comments: “To read about these happenings is one thing, to see and hear the sounds makes the experiences very real to the audiences.”

If someone needs any more inspiration to see the acclaimed A Midnight Cry, Frank praises this particular production when he adds, “These actors and musicians are incredible. We have an outstanding cast that bonded over the importance and relevance of the play that still rings with truth.”

First Stage presents A Midnight Cry by Wisconsin playwright James DeVita at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through February 9. For further information or tickets, please click the First Stage link to the left.    by Peggy Sue Dunigan

 

Monday
Apr082013

PREVIEW: First Stage Children’s Theater Believes in “Jackie’s Nine”

What exactly is "Jackie’s Nine?" Could this be one of  baseball star Jackie Robinson’s greatest nine inning games? First Stage Children’s Theater looks ahead to summer’s baseball season and the life of Hall of Fame player Jackie Robinson in their final selection at the Todd Wehr Theater Jackie and Me. The April 12 opening of the production’s run coincides with the first weeks of America’s 2013 baseball season and the film debut of 42, a biography named after Jackie Robinson’s iconic number stitched on his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. To finish this triple hit, April 15 was officially named Jackie Robinson day.

As the first Negro, or African American professional baseball player, Jackie embodied the personal character and athletic skills to become this groundbreaking figure who broke color barriers in professional sports. Robinson paved the way for others including Hank Aaron and Rickie Weeks. Perhaps more than his physical prowess, Robinson lived by what his daughter Sharon wrote about in her book “Jackie’s Nine:” citizenship. commitment, courage, determination, excellence, integrity, justice, persistence and teamwork. 

First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank believes that in Jackie and Me the main character Joey Stoshack travels back in time with the help of a baseball card to learn about how Robinson faced the challenges in his life, breaking into major league baseball and white culture with incredible integrity. Joey encounters his own struggles as a white boy dealing with anger, a temper and family insecurity. Meeting Robinson in his own time frame challenges Joey to choose, to choose and live according to Jackie’s nine principles. However, when Jackie travels back into time, Joey appears as a young  black boy to every one who sees him instead of the while, Polish American he is. 

This gives Joey unique insight into Robinson’s life and professional sports on multiple levels, A story that Frank admits, “ shows the best and worst of American life, “ and carries the audience on the same journey, also one of “the immense possibilities in any one life and that dreams do come true.” Frank explains the play speaks to several big league character issues and says, “We all need to look inside and find inner strength to face challenges, now and in the future.” 

In the production Jackie and Me, Joey and Jackie eventually discover a way to make a difference in their respective lives. Frank adds, “While Jackie played a game, an American game, he became a powerful example, and a conduit for change.” Frank continues, “We look back so we can look forward, and see what needs to be done yet.” 

These principles speak to First Stage’s new 2013-2014 season recently announced with the theme “Discover.” In an effort to continually challenge audiences and actors while pushing theatrical boundaries, the company will feature Shrek, The Musical, a theater for young audiences adaptation from the Broadway production.  A reprise of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever followed by a tenth anniversary production of James DeVita’s A Midnight Cry will include selections by Sheri Williams Parnell in the third play from the company's Wisconsin series.  

Afterwards several world premieres appear, a theatrical treat fast becoming a hallmark of First Stage. One world premiere features Wisconsin’s own John Maclay, Lee Becker and James Valcq as composers and writers for the musical Anatole, based on the beloved children’s classic. Another premiere ends the season for mystery fans with the classic tales of Carolyn Keene’s female sleuth in Nancy Drew and the Biggest Case Ever, written by First Stage artistic staff Jeff Frank and John Maclay combined with a score by Milwaukee’s Willy Porter.

And in between, the First Step series features A Cat in the Hat, a production for ages 8 and up at Todd Wehr titled Crash, a zombie holiday production for teenagers, Maul of the Dead, and a collaboration with the Young Company in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. With this exciting line up, First Stage also embodies Jackie’s nine, a proverbial home run for the season that leads into live theatre performances transcending age classification and then transforming lives. 

Everyone needs adventures to discover, ones with heroes and First Stage addresses these concerns for all those over the age of three, boys and girls, no matter what their ethnicity. Jackie and Me is only the current production that will inspire athletes of either gender with these compelling experiences featuring John Brotherhood and Seth Horne, the young performers who play Joey. Chauncy Thomas, last seen in Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly, inhabits Jackie Robinson for a story that requires the young performers to be on stage almost the entire play, often narrating the story while Jackie mentors the young Joey.  

In his career, Jackie embraced baseball and brave nobility, a true sense of character with integrity to transform a country’s thinking on integrating professional sports. Frank reiterates First Stage strives to accomplish this with each production, in this current season and in 2013-2014, with theater as magical to compete with any sport. He concludes when he says, “The arts have the power to change people, so they think more deeply, so a person can change their perspective and ultimately their actions.” 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Jackie and Me at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in sponsorship with the Brewer Community Foundation. April 12 through May 5. Sharon Robinson’s Book “Jackie’s Nine” will be on sale in the theater lobby. Help First Stage have a Grand Slam year and subscribe with season tickets for 2013-2014, which may be purchased at a discount through June 30. For tickets or information please call 414.273.7206 or click the First Stage link to the left.       by Peggy Sue Dunigan