Double Review: Br'er Rabbit - Columbia Children's Theatre and NiA Theatre

BrerRabbit Thumb Theatre review by Melissa Swick Ellington

A NiA production in collaboration with Columbia Children’s Theatre is a sure sign of clever family entertainment, and the current offering of Br’er Rabbit will delight audiences of all ages. Written by Darion McCloud, H. Loretta Brown, and Heather McCue, this version of the trickster’s tale celebrates music and rhythm, vibrant characters, audience interplay, and cunning creativity. Recognizing the complex legacy of Br’er Rabbit in his director’s notes, McCloud envisions an approach to the folk character that “really does belong to all of us.” With this production, NiA and CCT present an interpretation of the tale which delivers “that upshot of joy.” (Further observations on the history surrounding the “Br’er” tradition are explored in the accompanying interview by young Kat Bjorn.)

A master storyteller himself, the magnetic performer McCloud is perfectly cast in the storytelling role of Anansi the spider. McCloud’s interaction with the young audience members seems natural and genuine. Even his dynamic facial expressions foster an atmosphere of encouraging warmth. As the crafty and appealing Br’er Rabbit, Bonita Peeples plays the resourceful trickster with quick-witted glee. Peeples draws in the audience with admirable skill, made evident by children’s eagerness to cover for Br’er Rabbit when the other animals realize they have been fooled by the rascal. At the performance attended by this reviewer, kids insisted “She’s nowhere!” and “Run for your life!” in their efforts to help the beloved main character. (An added treat: audiences even get to appreciate her glorious singing voice!)

The entire ensemble delivers first rate performances which include McCue as the brainy and sassy Br’er Tiger, Charlie Goodrich as Br’er Bear, Michael Clark as Br’er Lion, and Jimmy Wall as Mr. Man and Tar Baby.  Supported by percussionist Don Laurin Johnson, this talented group weaves a captivating web of magical sounds and sights. Moments of aural symphony encourage audience members to clap along, and in the case of my preschooler, offer an enthusiastic “Yeah!” At certain performances, alternate actors appear in the roles of Br’er Lion (Clark Wallace), Br’er Bear (Brown), and Mr. Man/Tar Baby (Julian Deleon and Goodrich).

An innovative approach to physical theatricality pervades the production. From the beguiling staging of the opening spider sequence to the finely tuned collaboration of Peeples and McCue in the big chase through the rousing group dance in the final scene, these performers embody characters and story with boldness and flair. Adults will particularly enjoy the pop culture references (check out that Scarecrow!) and wordplay such as the “arugula” jokes, while the kids relish the opportunity to offer ideas on sticky substances for the Tar Baby (peanut butter and jelly, gum, melted candy, and marshmallows were popular choices).

McCloud provides creative vision as director, costumer, and sound designer, and Wall conjures effective visuals as makeup designer. Costumes evoke animal identity while also inviting children to imagine. McCue (company manager), Crystal Aldamuy (stage manager), and Jim Litzinger (sound and light technician) contribute to a cohesive production team.

As one youngster declared early in the performance, “I knew it was going to be funny!” Columbia families have come to anticipate high quality theatre at CCT, and the collaboration with NiA to produce Br’er Rabbit is an enjoyable success. Treat yourself to the rollicking good time of Br’er Rabbit, and you will likely agree with my preschool son’s post-show exultation: “That was FUN!”

(l-r): Heather McCue (Br’er Tiger), Jimmy Wall (Tar Baby), Darion McCloud (director, Anansi), Thespian Formerly Known as Scarecrow, Charlie Goodrich (Br’er Bear), Michael Clark (Br’er Lion)

 

Rising Second Grader Interviews Cast of Columbia Children’s Theatre Br’er Rabbit by Kat Bjorn (with some help from her Papa, Arik)

 

Kat’s Papa:  Hey folks, technically this part isn’t a review of Columbia Children’s Theatre’s current production, Br’er Rabbit, but seriously, you have to see this show—even adults without kids.  You see, there’s a Scarecrow Formerly Known as Prince; Br’er Lions & Tigers & Bears, oh my!; plus more Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Da than you can shake a briar patch at.  Also—

Kat Bjorn:  Papa, shhh!!  I’m starting the interview now.

Papa:  Okay, time to go be scribe.  Seriously, see this show!

 

Kat Bjorn:  What does “Br’er” mean?

Darion McCloud (Anansi the Storyteller):  That’s a good question.  It means “brother,” but it can be used for boys and girls—all humanity, really.

Heather McCue (Br’er Tiger):  Lady tigers thank you!

 

Kat Bjorn:  (pointing at Br’er Lion) Are you a lady?

Michael Clark (Br’er Lion):  Are you referring to my fabulous wig—I mean mane?

 

Kat Bjorn:  Take off your mane.

Br’er Lion:  Don’t mind if I do; it’s getting hot in here.

 

Jerry Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director:  He’s not even a natural blonde.

Kat Bjorn:  If “Br’er” means “brother,” and they’re brothers, how come Br’er Lion, Br’er Tiger and Br’er Bear are always trying to kill Br’er Rabbit?

Br’er Tiger:  Do you have any brothers and sisters?  I have a sister, and we fight like cats and dogs.

 

Anansi the Storyteller:  Also, let’s face it, they’re predators.  And rabbits taste good.

Kat Bjorn:  The characters, right?  People don’t really eat people.

 

Anansi the Storyteller:  Correct.  NiA Company does not endorse cannibalism.

Jim Litzinger, CCT Managing Director:  Nor does Columbia Children’s Theatre!

 

Kat Bjorn:  Next question.  My Papa says the Br’er Rabbit tales were sometimes codes for African-Americans a long time ago.  What does this mean, and what’s a code?

 

Anansi the Storyteller:  A code is when people say one thing but mean something else.  And your Papa is right.  During slavery, black people were treated really badly.  They used these stories to feel better.  Br’er Rabbit was code for black people; Br’er Fox and the other Br’er predators were the slaveholders.

 

Br’er Tiger:  It had a lot to do with power

Anansi the Storyteller:  Right.  They had to speak in code or risk getting punished.

 

Kat Bjorn:  Why does Br’er Rabbit carry a knapsack in the show poster but not in the play?

Anansi the Storyteller:  Um, director’s choice, I guess.

Papa whispers to Kat.

Kat Bjorn:  Did it have anything to do with budget?

Jerry Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director:  Knapsacks definitely would have broken the bank.

 

Kat Bjorn:  I’m pretty good at crafts.  I could make a knapsack pretty cheap.

Anansi the Storyteller:  We’ll have to hire you next time as a financial consultant.

 

Kat Bjorn:  Excuse me, Mr. Scarecrow, can you tell us about “Purple Rain”?

Anansi the Storyteller:  Actually, that’s the Actor Formerly Known as Scarecrow.  The scarecrow’s real name is Button-Bright.  It’s named after a character in L. Frank Baum’s Sky Island.  The Prince mask is another story altogether.

 

Kat Bjorn:  In the book we’re reading at home, Uncle Remus is the storyteller.  But in this play, it’s Anansi the Spider.  Why?

Anansi the Storyteller:  Actually, many of the Br’er Rabbit stories were originally African folktales.  And in Africa, Anansi the Spider narrates the tales.

 

Br’er Lion:  Well, I never got there, did I—thanks to Br’er Rabbit!  So we’ll never know!

Kat Bjorn:  How do you prepare to act like an animal character?

 

Bonita Peeples (Br’er Rabbit):  I use my imagination!  I try to think childlike.  And rehearsal is a great place for me to practice my imagination!

Kat Bjorn:  What was your favorite part of the show?

 

Jimmy Wall (Tar Baby):  When they’re planning to cook Br’er Rabbit.

Br’er Rabbit:  When Br’er Rabbit interrupts Sister Moon in the shower.

Br’er Lion:  The Tar Baby story.

 

Kat Bjorn:  Final question:  How come Br’er Rabbit always outsmarts Br’ers Lion, Tiger & Bear, but isn’t smart enough to realize Tar Baby isn’t really alive?

Br’er Rabbit:  You can’t be smart about everything—but I did get myself out of that jam, didn’t I?

 

Bre’er Rabbit runs June 12-21 with performances at the following dates and times:  Friday, June 12 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 13 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, June 14 at 3 p.m.; Saturday, June 20 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, June 21 at 3 p.m.  Tickets are $10 for adult and children 3 and up.  Seniors & Military ticket prices are $8.  Tickets are $5 for the Saturday 7 p.m. performance.  The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive).  Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access.  Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups.  To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

 

 

 

 

 

Preview: NiA Company Brings Back the Complex Slavery Tale The Whipping Man for an April 11-13th Run

11072297_834054930001388_3878248336643888339_o By Haley Sprankle

So often, when the topic of slavery arises, many make the rash assumption that all slave owners were bad and that all slaves hated their masters. It is assumed that slavery is solely an issue of racial prejudice. This clouds our understanding of slavery, all of its complexity and paradoxes, and how it ultimately comes down to incredibly personal and fraught relationships.

Fortunately, Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, which the NiA Company is performing once again after a 2013 production, breaks that pattern.

The Whipping Man is on the surface about a Jewish Confederate officer that returns home at the end of the Civil War to find two of his former slaves waiting among the ruins,” says Charlie Goodrich, who plays Caleb, the aforementioned office. “However, more specifically, I think that it is simply about a family, one that exists beyond biological or socio-economical barriers.  The three men that appear on stage fight, poke fun, celebrate, and enjoy each other’s company as members of a family do.  No matter the political circumstances, the familial bond still exists between them.”

The play revolves around three characters; Caleb, John (played by Michael Clark), the elder of the two remaining slaves of Caleb’s family, and Simon (played by Darion McCloud), the younger of the two. The three characters celebrate the traditional Jewish holiday of Passover together as they attempt to ascertain the nature of their new relationship.

The Whipping Man addresses how it was possible for believers of a Faith that reveled in its celebrations of freedom could live with, condone, and put into practice an institution that vehemently juxtaposes itself against what they believed in the first place,” Goodrich explains. “Foremost, the play takes place during Passover in April of 1865.  The Jewish Festival of Passover commemorates the Israelites exodus from their enslavement in Egypt.  The three characters celebrate Passover with a Seder meal not long after the two former slaves were freed.  Throughout the dialogue leading up to this meal, various characters address what it meant to exist in the Jewish Faith as slaveholder and slave, and how this existence proved to be sometimes problematic in their understanding of this faith.”

Aside from the religious aspect, the play also calls into question not only the humanity of the situation the characters face, but the humanity of each character.

“Playing the aforementioned Confederate soldier has created an interesting crossroads between my personal feelings and the history of my family in this state,” confesses Goodrich. “It’s no secret that I’m a pretty liberal individual who has not always felt at home in a state that has historically been primarily conservative.  So, it’s no shocker that I went into the production thinking that a Confederate soldier would probably be a total 180 from myself.  However, a portion of my Grandmother’s family has been in this state since the 1690’s.  Towards the end of the 18th century, a portion of them moved from the Lowcountry to York County.  Most of this land, near the town of McConnells, is farm country, and my ancestors owned and ran plantations.  Coming across some of their wills in my ancestral research years ago, I discovered that they were slave owners.”

“This discovery got me to thinking: while I am liberal now, how would I have thought 150 years ago?  While I, in no way, support slavery or oppression, would I have gone along with my family then or rebelled against them? It’s so easy for me to judge slaveholders now, but how do I know what my ancestors in the same situation were thinking? Did they like owning slaves or was it just Southern tradition that they were observing?  To make a long story short, researching my ancestors has opened me up to approaching Caleb without bias.  He’s just a man, and like every other man, he has strengths and weaknesses as well as assets and flaws.  He makes mistakes and is faced with a lot of the same life decisions that exist to this day. I’ve even been able to find parts of myself within him, and vice versa. Becoming Caleb has proven to be not just a fascinating and rewarding experience, but a relevant one as well.”

Throughout the production, the cast and crew have partnered with Historic Columbia, Columbia Commemorates, One Columbia, and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia in tandem with the end of Historic Columbia’s Burning of Columbia celebration that began in February.

“Partnering with all of these institutions has been highly beneficial, most especially in bringing in different audiences to see our show.  Columbia Commemorates and Historic Columbia will bring in history buffs; One Columbia will bring in artists; while Unitarian Universalist will bring in an entire congregation of people that are curious to see the play that will be produced in their sanctuary.  Unitarian Universalist also used to be a synagogue, and performing the piece there will add to the atmosphere of the play.  Furthermore, all of our rehearsals have been at the Unitarian church as well, and the staff and members there could not have been more kind, receptive, and helpful. It has been a pleasure to work with them in such close proximity,” Goodrich says.

So now we ask, what did it mean to be a slave? What did it mean to be a slave owner? What does it mean to be a family?

With some intriguing answers to such questions, The Whipping Man runs April 11-13 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. Tickets can be purchased through reservations@historiccolumbia.org or at the door.

“I hope the audience will leave with a stronger insight into what it meant to be a slave or a slaveholder at the time of the Civil War,” Goodrich concludes. “Also, I hope audience members leave with a better understanding of what it truly means to be a ‘slave.’  The word is not, for a lack of a better phrase, all ‘black and white.’  There are countless ways that people can be enslaved or enslave themselves, and the playwright does an astute job of bringing up this issue.”

Timely, relevant, and thought-provoking - a review of the NiA Company production of David Mamet's "Race" - by Jillian Owens

race

David Mamet is a playwright that has no problem leaving you feeling uncomfortable.  The NiA Company  production at the Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre of his play, Race , is no exception.  Mamet is known for his dark, fast-paced dialogue and sinister plots.  Characters deceive and manipulate each other, all in a struggle for power.  They aren’t motivated by a desire to do what’s good or right per se, but by a desire to win.

(L-R) Nathan Dawson, Ericka, Darion McCloud, HArrison Saunders; photo by Race opens Thursday, April 10th Shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays start at 8pm. The Sunday matinee on April  13th  will be at 3:00pm. The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain,  and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.  Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and  tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org .  The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street,  behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street.  The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side  of the building.    For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6  pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info. PHOTOS BY: Rob Sprankle

The setup of Race is simple.  Three lawyers are defending a white man for an alleged crime against a black woman.  One of the partners is a self-made black man named Henry Brown (played by Darion McCloud).  He is juxtaposed by the slick, snarky, and white Jack Lawson (played by Harrison Saunders).  And because the issues brought up by sex are just as interesting as race, they are joined by their third partner, Susan (played by Ericka Wright), who happens to be black.

The brutal one upmanship that is so common in a Mamet play is more subtle in Race.  There is a level of camaraderie and respect among Brown, Lawson, and Susan (curiously, the only character without a last name).  Usually, when watching a Mamet play, I feel disturbed.  His characters are usually so shockingly sociopathic that you can’t help but feel squeamish.  They seem capable of anything.  The characters in Race don’t quite reach this level.  This would be fine if his characters were written in such a way that they’re given somewhere to go developmentally, but they aren’t.  The language is fast and edgy, with plenty of racial and sexual epithets to keep the audience on its toes – but none of the character’s actions seem all that surprising, and this makes establishing suspense difficult.

race2Race feels like an exercise in how our prejudices affect our perception of reality.  Was Susan offered her position because she was a woman and black?  Does Lawson truly believe is client is innocent?  Is Brown afraid to voice his own doubts about the innocence of his client out of fear of seeming racially biased himself?  Are any of these people self-aware enough to be concerned about any of these things?

race3As I said, this is a difficult script, and in my opinion not necessarily Mamet’s best.  Director Heather McCue could have gone with a much easier play, but this is not what the NiA Company is about.  They seek to challenge their audience and themselves, which is commendable.  This puts a great deal of pressure on the actors.  They were all very good, but the text they’re working with doesn’t do them any favors.  McCloud is the most explorative actor in this show as Henry Brown, who is both believable and compelling.   Saunders is quick and cunning as Lawson, but there are moments where he perhaps could have made the choice to give his character moments of weakness that would have made Race much more suspenseful.  The same can be said of Wright’s Susan.  As she never seems to reach a point where she’s in serious danger of losing anything, whether emotionally or professionally, I found it difficult to feel much suspense or surprise at her actions.   Nathan Dawson plays Charles Strickland, a rich and arrogant man who may or may not be a rapist.  Dawson, an Australian, opted for an American accent for this show, although not altogether successfully.  Nevertheless, I commend him for offering moments of vulnerability that left me feeling uncomfortably sympathetic for his character.

The small black box space of the Side Door is completely ideal for this type of small production that takes on some very large issues.  Race is a timely and relevant work that if nothing else, will encourage a lively discussion between you and your friends after the show.

~ Jillian Owens

Race runs for four more performances, April 16-19.  The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain, and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students. Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org . The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street. The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side of the building.  For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info.

"Puss in Boots" is the cat's meeow! A review of the new show at Columbia Children's Theatre

boots1 Columbia Children’s Theatre brings back a hit play from their very first season, and audiences will enjoy a wild and clever journey with the current production of Puss in Boots. The lively tale chronicles the adventures of a suave cat and his master Tom as adapted from the original Perrault story by director Jerry Stevenson. In Stevenson’s version, Puss and friends cavort through the Old South, complete with lavish costumes and splendid scenic elements. Cast and crew deliver high quality performances at CCT, and this solid production is no exception. Children will enjoy sassy Puss in Boots and his companions, relishing the rollicking slapstick humor and broad characterizations, while adults will snicker (and snort, truth be told) over the more sophisticated wordplay.

Columbia’s beloved storyteller Darion McCloud played the title role at the performance I attended. His infectious charisma infuses the character with irresistible charm and saucy swagger. With McCloud at the helm, the entire cast achieves energetic commitment and memorable magnetism. In the central role of Tom, Paul Lindley II creates an appealing character that pursues “riches beyond compare” through a riotous escapade guided by the wily Puss in Boots. Along the way, the pair encounters a vivid assortment of villains and heroes portrayed by top-notch actors, including Denzel Devereaux (Lee O. Smith), Miss Sassafrass St. Simmons (Toni V. Moore), Prissy Pat (Elizabeth Stepp), Voodoo Vickie (Kendal Turner), and Governer O’Grovener (Julian Deleon). Matt Wright and Stepp deliver memorable performances as Tom’s dim-witted brothers Buford and Shuford. Bonita Peeples plays the role of Puss in Boots at certain shows, and her captivating portrayal of several other parts in the performance I attended suggests her certain success in the title role.

(L-R) Julian DeLeon, Darion McCloud, Paul Lindley II

Stevenson (Director) and Evelyn Clary (Assistant Director) have crafted a strong production that looks great and will “wow” audiences. Clever staging, inventive scenic design, and impressive costumes invite viewers into an entertaining version of the Old South. Donna Harvey and Stevenson achieve considerable success with costume design and construction, particularly with many actors playing more than one role. Crew members pull off a complicated production with nary a hitch, thanks to stage manager Crystal Aldamuy and light board operator David Quay.

Julian DeLeon and Darion McCloud

While physical humor abounds in this production, the cunning use of words provides much hilarity as well. McCloud’s rapid delivery of a speedy recap of the entire plot is astonishing. Word-based jokes (“catastrophe,” “catapult,” “catwalk”) appeal to viewers of all ages. During the “chipmunk” sequence, my preschooler laughed himself silly; the kid actually exhausted himself with full-on belly laughs. (Go see the show and you just might do the same.) As the actors keep young audiences engaged with visual surprises, they also challenge children’s minds with thought-provoking words. My six-year-old guffawed at wordplay with “Grovener” and “red rover,” while her parents chuckled at Gone with the Wind references. The convoluted plot can be a bit perplexing to follow, especially during the fast-paced conclusion, but this will not diminish audience affection for Puss in Boots.

Opportunities for audience involvement include children providing Puss and Tom with “gifts for the Governor” as well as more informal moments, such as an onstage drum roll that inspired my four-year-old son to join in with his own impromptu drumming. After a vibrant performance, actors demonstrate admirable energy when interacting with the young audience members during the post-show autograph session. (This “meet and greet” opportunity has become such a highlight for my kindergartener that she now proclaims “Time to get autographs!” during every curtain call.)

Check out Puss in Boots and add a delightful spark of warmth and laughter to your winter weekend. At CCT, theatre artists love kids, and they inspire kids to love the art of theatre. Visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com for ticket information; the show runs through Sun. Feb. 16.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

"The Whipping Man" - Jillian Owens reviews the NiA Company/Off Off Lady Series production at the CMFA ArtSpace

At the end of the Civil War, a young Jewish soldier (Bobby Bloom) returns to his once-grand plantation in Virginia—now in ruins. The only remaining inhabitants of his childhood home are two of his former slaves, Simon (Darion McCloud) and John (Mario McClean), who were also raised as Jews in the DeLeon home. As they come together to celebrate Passover, secrets are revealed, alliances are severed and forged, and the meaning of freedom is explored. niA

As newly-free men, Simon and John are now left to discover how to fend for themselves when the only world they’ve known has crumbled around them. Simon, the older and gentler of the two, intends to stay on with the DeLeons as a servant—and to be well-paid for it.  John, wild with freedom, loots and ransacks the empty mansions around him.

“What’s all this?”

“Things.”

“Whose?”

“Mine now.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Own it.”

“Why?”

“Because I can.”

He plans on moving to New York City to make his fortune.  But do either of these men really see these dreams as possibilities, or are these just the stories they’ve told themselves in order to cope with the loneliness, hopelessness, and famine of their war-ravaged surroundings?

When Caleb returns in dire need of medical attention, questions of loyalty arise.  Why should Caleb expect the help from the men he used to own-- and even have whipped-- now that they are free?  It is possible for men of different races to truly be friends when one of the races has been repressed by the other?  How can one race with a history of being enslaved justify enslaving another?  As these men gather to literally break bread together, these questions are explored.  While it’s initially surprising to seeing two black men of Jewish faith in 1865, this isn’t all that strange for the time.  The tie-in to their observance of Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, is fitting, but it’s beaten to death (no pun intended) in this play. We get it.

Thankfully, Matthew Lopez’s script is deeper than this over-explored metaphor.  The secrets these three men share and keep from each other twist around them, chaining them to their ruined home.  While technically all “free” men, none of them can leave.  There is no emancipation from the sins of their pasts, and the sense of impending doom almost seems to play a fourth character in this play.

Darion McCloud delivers a beautiful performance as the kind and loyal Simon. You may be familiar with Mario McClean’s work as a local singer/musician. I would have liked to have seen a subtler take on the character of John, whose non-stop angry energy becomes more bombarding than moving at times. Bobby Bloom’s Caleb had a Southern accent that came and went and he yawned noticeably several times. Despite these distractions, Bloom’s performance was still powerful.

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez is a great fit for the NiA Company, whose mission is to bring actors of all colors and cultures together.  As the “Where’s Waldo?” of the Columbia theatre community, it’s challenging to find some of their venues, but the CMFA Artspace houses this show nicely.  I recommend sitting a few rows back to overcome the sight line issues of a stage that is too high for the first couple of rows to see well.

Co-directed by Darion McCloud and Heather McCue, The Whipping Man is a thought-provoking story of shame, regret, faith, and redemption.

~ Jillian Owens

The Whipping Man runs through Friday, March 22 at the CMFA ArtSpace at 914 Pulaski Street. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, and tickets may be purchased at the door.

 

“The Whipping Man” by the Trustus Theatre at CMFA March 12-22 by Giesela Lubecke

  Cast of The Whipping Man -- Mario McClean, Darion McCloud, and Bobby Bloom

 

The Trustus Theatre’s performance of Mario Lopez’s awarding-winning Civil War play opens at the Columbia Music Festival Association 7:30 p.m. March 12.

 

The Whipping Man continues Trustus Theatre’s Off-Off Lady Street Series, an experiment to bring theatre to nontraditional venues across Columbia. The series began  last August at Tapp’s Art Center with Robbie Robertson’s “The Twitty Triplets.”  For The Whipping Man, Trustus Threatre partnered with the CMFA and the NiA Company, a theatre group committed to bringing artistic programs to minorities, at-risk youths and economically challenged groups.

 

The Whipping Man is set shortly after the end of the Civil War. Confederate soldier Caleb, played by Bobby Bloom, is a Jewish plantation owner who has returned from the War. When he comes home, he finds that his family is missing, and the only people left are his former slaves John and Simon (played by Mario McClean and Darion McCloud, respectively).

 

“There’s three characters, and I don’t know, I wouldn’t say there’s a single main character,” said Bloom. “It’s about all three of their relationships with each other.”

 

Together, Caleb, John and Simon must work through their differences as former master and slaves while they celebrate Passover, a holiday celebrating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

 

“It’s a great story that takes place in such a short period of time,” said McLean. “It’s really heavy material, but it keeps you captivated. I think I was just overwhelmed by the  history of it.”

 

Bloom, like McLean, was also struck by the historical facts the play bases itself on. “The fact that there were Jewish slave owners in the South I had never really considered, just because Judaism is based around being freed from slavery,” said Bloom.

 

Both Bloom and McClean expressed their dedication to preparing for their challenging roles. McClean, who has performed in several musicals, admitted he initially felt a bit out of his element getting into the mind of former slave John.

 

“It was terrifying, but it’s so much more work that I was looking forward to getting into about acting, because in musicals, you’ll have a musical number that carries you through and songs that pretty much tell you how to feel. This being my first non-musical, it was a big challenge.”

 

Bloom, who was introduced to the script two years ago by cast mate Darion McCloud, said that his biggest challenge was learning how to communicate with an off-screen character.

 

Cast of The Whipping Man from left to right Mario McClean, Darion McCloud, and Bobby Bloom

“There’s a letter in this show, and I’ve actually never had a letter onstage before,” said Bloom. “I’ve had to create an entirely new relationship with someone who is not even there,

and there’s not even a person playing that character. I’ve had to approach a lot of things differently than I usually approach them.”

 

Performances of “The Whipping Man” will continue for the next week. The show will take a break on the Sabbath, return to the stage March 16, and end its run March 22, three days before Passover. Tickets to “The Whipping Man” are $10 and can be purchased at the CMFA door.

8 Questions with Sam McWhite of Trustus Theatre's "Passing Strange"

Jasper first met Sam McWhite when he and the great storyteller and actor Darion McCloud performed an audience engaging couple of songs at the Studios in the Arcade building for the release of the third issue of our magazine. We told him then that we wanted to spend some more time with him soon, and we got that opportunity on Friday night when Jasper attended the opening night of Passing Strange at Trustus Theatre. Sam plays the lead role of Stew in the play, singing, dancing, cavorting, and drawing all kinds of depth and emotion from his brother and sister characters. It's always nice to get to know the person behind the character, especially when that character is as powerful as Stew is.

To that end, let's spend a few moments getting to know Sam McWhite.

 

1. You are acting as the narrator in the Trustus play, Passing Strange. What about the part felt natural to you?

I feel connected with Stew's external conflict with artistic conformity. His expressions seem both primal and sophisticated. I think Stew and I are both ferocious and gentle artists with a sense of when to wax and wane in between. To me, he is more of a griot [a West African storyteller - ed.] than a singer or musician. I try to tap into to that energy when I become him.

~*~

2. What felt unnatural or uncomfortable and how did you overcome it?

I felt uncomfortable with my inability to play guitar. I thought that would be a detriment to the production. I know it seems trivial but that bothered me a lot! But as I did more and more character study, I realized that the guitar does not make the rock star, the rock star makes the rock star. It would have probably got in the way anyway. Knowing me, I probably would have waved it around like a battle-axe not having played a single note! (Chuckles)

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3. Your vocals are impressive. Where did you get your chops?

Thank you so much! Truthfully, I am not really satisfied with my singing ability yet. I grew up singing parts, not solos, in church choirs. That became a bit boring to me. Things really got interesting when I joined the high school band. Being in the band allowed me to listen to an ocean of textures and forms. I learned to listen to how a song develops emotion without words. When I got to college I joined the concert choir as well the wind ensemble. I was a trombone major. Because I was not technically a vocal major, I had to study vocal pedagogy on my own. I would spend nights in the practice rooms listening to vinyls over and over again. Sometimes I got locked in! Then my band director gave me an opportunity to be a lead singer in the college's big band. That's where I got staging techniques from. I sang jazz, blues, soul, country, you name it. For the past year I have been studying blues and American folk music. I incorporate a lot of those elements in my singing.

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4. Where were you born, raised, and where did you go to school?

I was born and raised in Florence, SC. I went to West Florence High School. I started at Claflin University but later transferred to South Carolina State University.

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5. Other than Passing Strange, what is your all-time favorite play?

August: Osage County is my favorite play.

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6. Other than Passing Strange, what has been your favorite role that you have played?

Other than Passing Strange, I loved playing "the Man" in Crowns. I played different manifestations of the spirit Esu/Elegba of the Orisha pantheon. I was brother, a father, a preacher and suitor.

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7. Passing strange boasts an amazing cast of characters – who is your favorite character and why?

My favorite character is Mr. Franklin. There was a person very dear to me who was just like him. He was the director the community youth choir I sang on and played trombone for when I was growing up. Growing up as a latch-key kid in a single parent household, my mother saw to keeping me active in community organizations to keep me out of trouble. My father died before I knew him so the youth choir director was one of my paternal substitutes. He was so dynamic and charismatic. He could play, sing and electrify an audience! There was about two hundred kids from 5 to 18 years old on that choir and man could we sing! He was like a firecracker lit inside of paper box. His name was Kenneth "Jab" Windom. He died a couple of years ago. I miss him a lot. Often, when I am singing, I imagine his voice of correction and laughter so I can harness untapped energy reserves. He was relentless.

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8. If it’s Friday night in Columbia and you aren’t in a play or attending a play, where are you most likely to be?

If it is Friday night...., see here is the thing. I am not very good a predicting where I'll be or what I'll be doing. It might be anything from listening to Dean Koontz audiobook to sitting in on trombone or singing with a band. It just depends on my mood I guess.