July 26, 2010

Black Theater Company Tackles Intolerance (Black Radio Network)

NEW YORK -- Negro Ensemble Company (www.necinc.org), America's legendary black theater company, will present "With Aaron's Arms Around Me and The Mire," an evening of two one-acts by Sophia Romma, a Russian-American playwright, both on the theme of intolerance. The first play, "With Aaron's Arms Around Me," is directed by Negro Ensemble Company's Artistic Director, Charles Weldon. The second, "The Mire," is directed by Yuri Joffe of the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theater in Moscow. Both plays deal with eternal themes of intolerance from an émigré's perspective. Performances are December 3 to 19 at Cherry Lane Theatre (Studio Theatre), 38 Commerce Street.

"With Aaron's Arms Around Me" is a one-act, directed by Charles Weldon, in which two émigré women, one from Jamaica and one from Russia, are thrown together for an interview through a creative writing class at NYU. They tease out the secrets of each others' love affairs, both of which are tests of tolerance to their families, sharing the hardships of love and being young and very much alive. Tanya, the interviewer, is Russian Jewish and in love with an Italian Catholic man, for whom she has been baptized (to the agony of her parents). Madeleine, the interviewee, is Jamaican and in love with a Jewish man who is the son of a Holocaust survivor. She happened to be raised without religion, so her only ethnic "badge" is the color of her skin. To marry Aaron, she must assimilate into the closed culture of his family, in which Jewish identity is a high-stakes issue. The play portrays love, to the émigré, as a sort of universal value and asks, in a country without borders, is love actually unifying or must it submit to the harsh divisions of ethnic identity?

"The Mire," directed by Yuri Joffe, is a one-act play inspired by Anton Chekhov’s 19th century short story of the same name. It spins a stark tale of a vixenish young Russian Jewish émigré, Svetlana Moiseyevna, who captures the heart of a twenty-eight year old renegade Lieutenant, James Perso Arrivederci. The Lieutenant, an Iraq veteran and dissident, visits Svetlana to collect a monetary debt she owes his brother, who coincidentally is her married ex-boyfriend. Arrivederci faces court martial for his opposition to the war and needs money to wed his poor youthful fiancée back in Corpus Christi, Texas. His brother has promised him that if the collection effort is successful, the money will be his. Svetlana speaks in riddles and veiled allusions. She is a devil of a woman who shakes him up so that he falls head over heels in love even though he fully comprehends that she is far from heavenly. Prejudice also rears its ugly head. He loves her beyond reason, yet he resents her for being Jewish.

The AWOL lieutenant pays our heroine numerous visits, finding that he is unable to escape the "Jewess’s charms" and is reeled deeper and deeper into the haunting chambers of her tumultuous family life. Svetlana’s grandparents provide comic relief. They are pearls of pleasure, a delightful caricature of those hilarious immigrants who rarely make it to the stage: fanatical Russian intellectuals who are ideologically conservative and obstinate against assimilation. At their Hannukah table, within the walls of the family’s loony world, the hero arrives at a credible illuminating sanity, one which he had never possessed before. By the culmination of the play, the temptress Svetlana shows the Lieutenant that life is a grotesque practical joke, constantly tugging at the strings of human dignity and reason--but that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The play is meant to be an explosively liberating, funny and maniacal assault on the banality of materialism and the hypocrisy of war, together with a celebration of unearthly, unexpected and untimely love.

"With Aaron's Arms Around Me" is a world premiere. "The Mire" was first produced by the Midtown International Theater Festival as a work in progress with the title "A Sweet Word Of Advice" in July, 2010 at The Jewel Box Theater in Manhattan. It was directed by Maxine Kern.

"With Aaron's Arms Around Me" will be performed by Naomi McDougall Jones as Tanya and LaTonia Phipps as Madeleine. Ms. Jones played Svetlana in "A Sweet Word of Advice," the workshop predecessor to "The Mire," in July, 2010. Her casting in both Russian Jewish parts is a unifying concept of this evening. 

"The Mire" is performed by the cast of its July, 2010 workshop, with Naomi McDougall Jones as Svetlana, Tosh Marks as the Lieutenant, Allan Mirchin as the Grandfather and Carolyn Seiff as the Grandmother.

In both plays, set design is by Inna Bodner and sound design is by Dimitri German.

Director Charles Weldon ("With Aaron's Arms Around Me") has been Artistic Director of Negro Ensemble Company for six years. He has directed the Company's productions of "Colored People Time" by Leslie Lee, "The Waiting Room" by Samm-Art Williams, "Savanna Black and Blue" by Raymond Jones and "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" by Lonnie Elder. Other directing credits include "Futurology" by Anthony Dixon for National Black Theatre (NYC), "Waiting to End Hell" by William Parker for Shadow Theatre Co. (Denver) and "The Offering" by Gus Edwards for RipRap Theatre Co. (N. Hollywood). Weldon began his performance career in 1960 as lead singer with The Paradons, a Doo-Wop group from Bakersfield, CA, and co-wrote and recorded the smash hit "Diamonds and Pearls." He performed in the original San Francisco production of "Hair" and the Broadway musical "Buck Time Buck White" with Mohammed Ali. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company in 1970 and acted in many of its its classic plays including "The Great McDaddy," "The Offering," "The Brownsville Raid," "A Soldier's Play" and the Company's Broadway production of "The River Niger." His films include "Stir Crazy," "Serpico," "The River Niger" and "Malcolm X." He won an Audelco Award for Best Supporting Actor in "Seven Guitars" by August Wilson at Signature Theater. He co-founded the Alumni of the Negro Ensemble Company.

Director Yuri Joffe ("The Mire") has been a director of the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theater since 1976, where he has overseen the production of over thirty stage plays. He earned his Doctoral Degree in directing from the prestigious Gitis Academy of Theater Arts and has directed plays by world-renowned authors including Babel, Ostrovski, and Mrozeck. In 1994, President Boris Yeltsin personally awarded Mr. Joffe with the highest honorable medal for outstanding direction in Marina Tsvetayevna's "Theater". In 2003, he received the Stanislavski Award for his co-direction of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" with the celebrated Head Director of the Mayakovsky Academic Art Theater, Sergei Arzibashev. He frequently collaborated with one of Russia's most famous theatrical Master Directors, Andrei Goncharov. Mr. Joffe has been a Professor for more than eighteen years at the Gitis Academy of Theater Arts where he runs a Master Class in the Art of Acting and Directing.

Playwright/director Sophia Romma (who also writes under the name Sophia Murashkovsky) emigrated with her parents from Russia 30 years ago. She received her MFA at NYU and her Ph.D. from the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. She is author of the film "Poor Liza," directed by Slava Tsukerman ("Liquid Sky") starring Oscar Winner Ben Gazzara, Oscar Winner Lee Grant and Barbora Babulova. The film adapts a classic Russian story by Nikolai Karamzin about a beautiful peasant girl who is seduced and forsaken by a young nobleman. "Poor Liza" won the Grand Prix Garnet Bracelet for best screenplay at the Gatchena Literature and Film Festival in St. Petersburg in 2000. She has had three productions at La MaMa E.T.C.: "Love, in the Eyes of Hope, Dies Last" (1997), a journey through contemporary Jewish/Russian immigration in a series of eight playlets, "Coyote, Take Me There!" (1999), a surrealistic work on the ordeal of immigration and the corruption of the American dream, and "Defenses Of Prague" (2004), a story of revenge set among the gypsies in 1968, on the brink of the Soviet invasion of Prague.

In "Shoot Them in the Cornfields" (2006 at the Producers Club Theater), a fictionalized family history time tripped between World War II, The Khrushchev Reign, and the heady days of the Coup d'etat of 1991. Her "Absolute Clarity," a tale of a teenage heroine--a white raven and rebellious young artist searching for love and absolution--was presented Off-Broadway at the Players Theatre in 2006. In 2007 at the Cherry Lane Theater, her play "The Past is Still Ahead," about the famed Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, had its American debut.

In 2005, Romma's anthology of poetry, "God and My Good" was published by the Gorky Literary Institute. In 2006 her collection of poems, "Garden of the Avant-garde" was published by Noble House. Ms. Romma has co-directed her play "Defenses of Prague" with Obie-winner and Tony Nominated playwright, Leslie Lee. She has also directed Mr. Lee's one-act play, "You're Not Here to Talk about Beethoven." Ms. Romma instructs classes in Playwriting and Screenwriting at the Schomburg Center in conjunction with Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center.

This production is one of three productions in Negro Ensemble Company's 2010-2011 season that continue its mission to explore and expose intolerance and bigotry. In the past, the focus has been on intolerance that primarily affects the African America community, using characters in various plays as spokespersons for a whole society. Intolerance and bigotry exist, however, within ethnic groups and cultures themselves, to equally damaging degrees. So this season, the NEC's mainstage productions widen that exploration.

"Rising," a play by Professor Carolyn Nurstrand, professor of Africana Studies at University of Michigan at Flint, will be produced by NEC in March, 2011. On the eve of Lincoln's drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, Helen Bruce, a young African American school teacher from Baltimore, travels to St. Helena Island to begin a night class for Gullah field women, designated as contraband by the Union. This is the story of men and women who discover not only what freedom and citizenship mean in America, but are introduced to their own misconceptions, misunderstandings, and intolerances toward the underclass--the same people they have gone to help.

"Soleda," a play written by Raymond Jones, a police Lieutenant assigned to the Bronx DA's office, will be produced by NEC in May, 2011. The play is a portrait of a freewheeling, decorated Latina policewoman who jeopardizes her status and reputation on the force when she falls in love with a black jazz musician who is witness to a murder she is investigating. Compounding her problems are the objections of her family to her wanting to marry an African American because of the ongoing difficulties that still plague the relationship between Blacks and Hispanics 


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