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Toys in the Attic: Arena Stage is doing a festival of Lillian Hellman's work. They've previously done single-author festivals of two mainstage plays plus readings, lectures, and other events focused on "American Giants" of the theatre. Albee, Miller, O'Neill. Hellman is the first woman. I caught The Little Foxes at the beginning of the season (Marg Helgenberger as Regina, really quite good for someone who hasn't been doing stage work for so many years), and came in Wednesday for a reading of Toys in the Attic because a) who produces Toys in the Attic? and b) Taffety Punk does! For a few readings, Arena has partnered with other companies in town. The Punks did Toys in the Attic, Howard University is doing Children's Hour (which I'm skipping unfortunately because fuck weekend metro), and there's some other stuff going on. How much do I love the Punks? SO MUCH. Tonya Beckman completely stole the show, this play is absolutely full of WTF with some deliciously drawn characters, and since it revolves around a fuck up of a "businessman" who keeps getting bailed out of failed "deals" convinced he's finally hit the real estate jackpot (spoiler: he didn't), that part of the plot turned out to be eerily prescient. Lise directed. Nice opportunity for Kim Schraf and Craig Wallace to get to play a couple onstage. (they're married in real life but don't get cast much in interracial relationships: the characters they were reading here are a wealthy white widow and her black partner in segregated Louisiana. Hellman's hitting on a lot of taboos in this script: interracial relationships, passing, domestic violence, and respect for women.) Couldn't hang out after, but at least Marcus saw me and waved so he knows I was there.

Caroline: Round House is doing a "Tony Kushner Festival" with both parts of Angels in America earlier this year (Tom Story as Prior and Kimberly Gilbert as Harper: I cried my eyes out) and Caroline is just now in previews. This is my second production: Studio did in 2006. So this is my Jeanine Tesori fix before Fun Home comes to town. I've forgotten how wonderfully layered the score is. Easily the best thing I've seen Nova Payton do. I've not been on the Nova bandwagon - she's got a voice, for sure, and she's a lovely person, but in most of her roles, I've found her fine rather than compelling. But I do think all that work put in here (her professional career prior to coming home to DC and getting involved in theatre was as a back up singer) has given her the stage experience that has finally translated into actually compelling work. She's too young for Caroline (33, I think - the character is 39, and that cusp of 40 is important), but she hits the weariness and anger and desire so well that the disconnect between her "well-preserved" appearance and her actual reality adds an additional level of sympathy. Like she goes through life without even getting the credit for suffering.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my grandmother, and all that really hit home with the show because my grandmother had a lot in common with Caroline that she'd probably never have acknowledged due to her white privilege. Married a man for love who couldn't actually support her, then he ran out in the late 1940s leaving her with four living kids and relying on service work to get by. Caroline could go out to work because she wasn't keeping a special needs child, but she's also living with the constant violence of being black in Louisiana in 1963. My family turned out all right because doors weren't automatically closed to them; Caroline's kids (and the actors playing the younger boys are adorable) won't have that feeling of belonging in the parts of society that can be upwardly mobile. (this is the part Dad doesn't understand about white privilege, that his sister could apply to be a bank teller and actually get somewhere in life, while a black eighteen year old in 1961 may not have made it through the interview even in a town that was comparatively diverse and welcoming for the area. One of the black track stars in my dad's class ended up living with the white track coach for a while when his family situation went all to hell, and it was in large part that that allowed him to graduate and end up doing well in life. The difference between known individuals like this and systemic racial bias completely eludes him.)

Anyway, Caroline this time around got me totally wrapped up in my own head, in my own family history probably because of conversations over the holidays that came directly out of our current political context. And while I wonder if I'm whitewashing my own damned reaction, it's a piece by two white people. But it's also interesting that Round House, under Ryan Rilette's direction, has been deliberately programming female voices: they did Caroline as their second Kushner. It falls right in between a couple comedies: a Jane Austen fan fic focused on Mary Bennet written by a couple of female playwrights and a piece on Aphra Behn, also by a female playwright. Three pieces in a row focused on female characters set in three different eras prior to what we consider the modern feminist movement written by post-Second Wave feminist writers. IN A ROW. Programmed by a male artistic director. Not presented as anything other than a season of plays. The festival part is Tony Kushner, and Caroline doesn't work as an emotional pieces without Jeanine Tesori. Her voice is integral to the piece. Three women's voices in the heart of the season, no attention drawn to it. Because Ryan gets it and has been working hard for it every season since he arrived. (Last year's Uncle Vanya was the Annie Baker version, which is a good reminder to classic theatres that there are women translators and adapters who help your parity numbers while expanding US knowledge of European and Asian classic stage work.)

Caroline has different context than when Joy programmed it at Studio the first time around as the regional premiere, and it's a rather interesting one.
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Mme Bahorel

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