Across the country, lots of theaters mark the shortest month of the year as an occasion to put August Wilson’s name on their marquees. Or Lorraine Hansberry’s. Or, if a city is lucky, a current black playwright like Suzan-Lori Parks or Terrell McCraney.
Washington is a lucky city year-round: We don’t need Black History Month to see people of color onstage in complex, satisfying roles. (Fela! at Shakespeare and Trouble in Mind at Arena Stage are just two of this season’s examples.) All the same, February just happens to be the month where, inevitably, some local theaters program according to the diversity calendar. Both Ford’s Theatre, that bastion of Civil War-era dramaturgy, and MetroStage, a scrappy Alexandria theatrical outpost, have chosen to celebrate Black History Month by producing shows about famous black Americans, thinking, perhaps rightly, that a good way to get butts in seats at new plays is to put enigmatic characters onstage.
As both shows demonstrate, however, fascinating lives are not surefire fodder for a fascinating two and a half hours of theater. In Necessary Sacrifices, Ford’s has assembled two charismatic Americans—Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass—and saddled them with pedantic public policy dialogue only a history buff could love. In Josephine Tonight, MetroStage may have itself a show with legs, but it will take a few tweaks before this musical about vaudeville dancer Josephine Baker lives up to its showstopping subject.
History records that Douglass and Lincoln met just twice for extended tête-à-têtes. Why not make a play imagining these meetings? Because they got together to discuss matters of great historical wonkiness. In Act 1 of Necessary Sacrifices, Lincoln implores Douglass to help recruit more freedmen to fight in Union forces, while Douglass would rather the army provide an escape route for Southern slaves. Neither plan comes to fruition. So in frustration, Lincoln invites Douglass back to the White House in Act 2 to discuss whether the Emancipation Proclamation can be reversed if George B. McLellan is elected president.
Which—spoiler alert—he isn’t.
So while in 1864 formidable matters were at stake for the nation, no stakes are raised in Richard Hellesen’s play, which is essentially a two man-show. (Michael Kramer makes a brief appearance as a different cabinet member at the start of each act in an attempt to clarify the given circumstances.) James Kronzer has created a stately White House façade covered with a celestially suggestive backdrop of clouds. When David Selby initially rolls forward, sitting behind a messy presidential desk, his voice and mannerisms come as something of a shock. In Selby’s mind, Honest Abe is no statuesque orator, but a crotchety, hunched-over guy with a blue tongue and a hick Southern accent. He’s immensely engaging, and Hellesen gives Selby zingers 21st century locals will love. Lincoln: “What do you think of Washington?” Douglass: “It’s magnificent.” Lincoln: “It’s a mess!”
Craig Wallace, as Douglass, is not amused. It’s unclear whether coming to the role sooner would have made him a better sparring partner for Selby. (Ford’s announced just a week before opening that Wallace would replace an ailing David Emerson Toney.) At least the actor playing Lincoln has a desk full of props to play with. All Wallace does is stand around looking self-important while wearing an uncomfortable-looking amount of facial hair. In short, he portrays Douglass as stoic stick-in-the-mud. That may be historically informed, but it doesn’t allow for much of a character arc, or even pathos. The performance I attended was ASL-interpreted, and during Douglass’s monologues, I found myself watching the interpreter “speaking” for Wallace, not because he was distracting, but because he conveyed a broader range of emotion. His face and gestures were full of sadness as he related wrenching stories about Douglass’ escape to freedom, the death of his daughter, and the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow. Morally, historically, and humanly, Frederick Douglass may have the upper hand, but Wallace doesn’t onstage, and an actor cannot hold an audience’s attention with ideology alone.
Josephine Tonight Book and lyrics by Sherman Yellen; Music by Wally Harper Directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines; At MetroStage to March 18
At MetroStage, there’s no battle of wills written into the script. A talented, hardworking cast of five plays all 20-some parts in Josephine Tonight, which feels like a well-funded workshop of a promising musical. Artistic director Carolyn Griffin brought in Maurice Hines, the Broadway tapper who in 2010 helmed Sophisticated Ladies at Arena Stage, into directing and choreographing Josephine Tonight.
Never heard of Josephine Baker? Do yourself (and me) a quick favor: Go to YouTube, and type in her name and “banana dance.” All it takes is 67 seconds of crude film from 1927 to be curious about this dancer who embodied the verve of Cotton Club, the grace of the Ballets Russes, and the eroticism of a burlesque.
It’s hardly a criticism to say that Zurin Villanueva, a Howard University grad, seems like a shadow of the woman she’s playing, particularly when it comes to dancing. But she’s an exact replica of Baker’s lithe body, deemed in one song as “too young, too black, and too thin.”
The witty book and lyrics by Sherman Yellen that are the show’s strength. The music, as played by an able jazz quintet, is pleasant but not memorable. (Composer Wally Harper died in 2004, so he’s not around to revise.) There’s no set—just well-designed projections. The costume designer appears to have gone shopping at Ross, thanking God that drapey cardigans and lace-up boots are back in style. But the show’s biggest shortcoming is antithetical: There’s little dancing in this musical about a famous hoofer choreographed by a tap-dance legend.
James T. Lane, who plays Josephine’s first- and second-act love interests, gets just one fleeting tap number in the entire show. This makes no sense, as he is damn good. And other than a quick tap duel, he and Villanueva never dance together.
This is just Josephine’s second professional staging. Should the show get the off-Broadway treatment in New York, Aisha de Haas is the cast member most likely to move forward. In the dual role of Josephine’s mother, Carrie, and Bertha, her vaudevillian mentor, de Haas has ample chance to sing sweetly and speak tartly. You’ll miss her whenever she hurries offstage to change. And while she’s gone, you may wonder what this actress who appeared on Broadway in Rent and Caroline, or Change is doing singing on this tiny stage in Alexandria. Then you remember: She’s probably here for the same reason why new shows like Josephine are so important.