Live theater isn’t usually one of the factors that lands the Triangle on yet another “Best Places to Live” listing, but it should be. More than 50 theater presenters offer nearly 200 productions annually, many with emphasis on diversity and relevance.
Area presenters are recognizing that theater can bring about understanding of everyone’s lives. Productions about disabilities (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Durham Performing Arts Center), LGBT issues (“Bright Half Life” at Manbites Dog Theatre), and white male privilege (“Straight White Men” at Sonorous Road Theatre) are just some of the topics being explored in this spring’s offerings. Two other categories have particular focus in the next few months, plays with African American subjects and works about women in the military.
It’s a mark of the theater community’s maturity that plays by and about African Americans are no longer confined to Black History Month. Seven productions for adults are scheduled from now through June, something that represents progress to JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, artistic director of Durham’s Black Ops Theatre Company. “We purposely don’t schedule anything in February,” she says, “because I don’t want to trivialize what we do by reducing it to a month.” Although she has had to cancel an evening of short plays slated for March because of an out-of-state directing internship, this fall her company will stage works by Amiri Baraka, the poet, writer, teacher and political activist who died in 2014.
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Sherri Holmes is also delighted there are so many black theater productions this spring. As the founder and director of Triangle Friends of African American Arts, she keeps tabs on relevant area events, including theater. By her count (including children’s shows and one-time events), there are 13 productions now playing or coming this spring. “It’s an amazing opportunity for audiences, as well as playwrights, actors and directors,” Holmes says. “For companies to progress and grow, they need to make sure their audiences are made up of all the people in their community.”
Among the seven adult-oriented shows, only one could be labeled “classic.” Now called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” the version being staged by Justice Theater Project is the 2011 Broadway revival, which Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks revised to make the musical more appealing to contemporary audiences.
Two other plays are brand new. Theatre in the Park’s “N” is a premiere by area playwright Adrienne Earle Pender, based on the true story of black actor Charles S. Gilpin’s battle with Eugene O’Neill over the offensive word. Durham playwright Howard L. Craft’s “The Miraculous and the Mundane” premieres at Manbites Dog Theater, examining the disintegration of a black family after the patriarch falls ill.
Other productions that explore race include Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” (Burning Coal Theatre), about a black boxer in 1905 dreaming of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, and “Mr. Joy” (PlayMakers Repertory Company), looking at a Harlem neighborhood’s reaction to the closing of a Chinese immigrant’s shoe shop.
The other special-focus category is the mini-festival “Women in War” at Raleigh Little Theatre. The three-part series came about as RLT’s artistic director Patrick Torres was planning the current season. He wanted to do Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart,” which follows six women over a 20-year period as they reminisce about their military service in the Vietnam war. “RLT has a history of honoring the military,” Torres says, “so we looked around for other complementary pieces that explore women’s wartime experiences.”
The week after “A Piece of My Heart” finishes, RLT will host a return engagement of Sonorous Road Theatre’s “Grounded,” about a female fighter pilot serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the first Triangle staging of area playwright Mike Wiley’s “Downrange: Voices from the Homefront,” a play about military spouses coping with repeated deployments in the post 9/11 era.