‘Wig Out!’ At Muhlenberg

Allentown, PA — Muhlenberg College takes a stroll down the runway and into drag ball culture, as the Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance Department presents Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Wig Out!,” March 30 – April 2. Rarely produced since its 2008 premiere, “Wig Out!” offers an outlandish and high-style glimpse into the tight-knit world of Harlem drag balls. Muhlenberg theater professor Troy Dwyer directs.

“I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything quite like this on our stage,” Dwyer says. “It’s going to be an extremity of design — and a leap-of-faith undertaking for the department. It’s also an opportunity to accommodate our population of truly gifted students of color, who aren’t just actors, but a variety of theater-making artists.”

“Wig Out!” focuses on the intense personal connections of  “houses,” the family units at the heart of drag culture — families that typically include a mother, a father, and a group of “children,” while also upending traditional nuclear family roles in favor of something richer and more complex. At the core of “Wig Out!” is the fictional House of Light, with mother Rey-Rey (Cameron Silliman) and father Lucian (Alan Mendez).

“’Wig Out!’ is a quick Alice in Wonderland trip into this topsy-turvy world that’s nothing like ours but very much like ours,” McCraney says. “One of my professors who saw the original run said, ‘I have no idea what’s going on, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.’”

Drag balls trace their roots to Harlem in the 1860s, flourishing during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Today’s drag ball culture took shape in the 1960s, as black drag queens began hosting predominantly black drag events. In 1990, the drag scene achieved mainstream recognition with the release of the documentary film “Paris Is Burning,” along with pop star Madonna’s drag-inspired hit “Vogue.” The balls themselves are extravagant competitions, in which contestants “walk” and are judged on a specific set of criteria, including the “realness” of their drag, their movement and dance abilities, and their fashion choices.

“What I think is so vital about ‘Wig Out!’ is that it not only makes visible sides of queer culture that aren’t typically part of mainstream culture,” Dwyer says. “It shines a more inclusive light than, say ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ which is about the extent of many people’s familiarity with drag culture.”

“Wig Out!” was first produced at the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in New York City, and the same year at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It has been fully produced only once since, in any venue.

Playwright McCraney’s film “Moonlight” received 2017 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film was written by McCraney and director Barry Jenkins, based on McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play. McCraney was also recently appointed chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, beginning in July. His plays have been produced by Steppenwolf Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others.

McCraney got together with the Muhlenberg production’s cast and creative team in February, via Skype. He shared some insights, answered questions, and engaged with the actors’ responses to the play.

Dwyer has surrounded himself with an accomplished creative team — which he says has somewhat allayed his concerns as a white director about taking artistic leadership of this project, in which most of the characters are people of color.

“What feels risky to me is making sure my white male privilege doesn’t upstage the heart of the story,” Dwyer says. “I was committed to having the story told, thinking it was probably okay for me to be a creative leader, but not by myself. I’m so fortunate to have some really brilliant, passionate artists of color around me, who are significant creative leaders on the piece.”

The production team includes managing dramaturg Dr. Sharrell Luckett, a Muhlenberg theater professor; accomplished costume designer Andy Jean; and Broadway wig and hair designer Bobbie Zlotnik. Samuel Antonio Reyes, who choreographed last summer’s acclaimed Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre production of “In the Heights,” and a veteran of the ballroom scene himself, has created the show’s extensive choreography.

The show also features makeup design by Joe Dulude II, who designed make-up for the Tony Award-winning Broadway productions of “Wicked” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” Dulude is the Baker Artist-in-Residence for the 2016-17 academic year, thanks to a grant from the Dexter F. & Dorothy H. Baker Foundation. He says his own involvement in the drag scene heavily influences his approach to the work.

“My drag is often about playing with the masculine and feminine,” Dulude says. “Since my own experiences in drag and working with other drag queens is so diverse, that’s what I’m bringing to the show: not just one style of drag but a combination of styles.”

Muhlenberg Junior Evan Brooks, who plays Ms. Nina/Wilson, one of the children of the House of Light, says the production is a vital performance opportunity for theater students at Muhlenberg.

“At this moment in our nation’s history, being able to participate in this production is nothing less than a gift,” Brooks says. “I think it’s essential to provide theatrical and educational experiences for under-represented artists, who aren’t acknowledged in the same way as majority-identifying students — and that’s what the production is doing.”

Dwyer says the show’s second act will feature a drag ball performance for which audience members will be invited onstage to serve as the crowd for the ball. The production also will feature a lobby display about the history of drag, coordinated by Luckett, and a uniquely interactive intermission.

“We want the audience to leave with an appreciation for drag culture, in all its spectacular diversity,” Dwyer says. “The mainstream gets an exceptionally narrow version of queer culture, when they get any version at all — and often it comes at the expense of other, more marginalized versions. We want to broaden their horizons a bit.”

“Wig Out!” plays March 30 – April 2. Showtimes are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Regular admission tickets are $15. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8. The production is recommended for mature audiences.

Tickets and information are available online at muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg College is a highly selective, private, four-year residential college located in Allentown, Pa., approximately 90 miles west of New York City. With an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, sciences, business, education and public health. A member of the Centennial Conference, Muhlenberg competes in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theater program in the top twelve in the nation for eight years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.

ACLU Defends Brownsville High ‘Harlem Shake’ Video

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Fayette County

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Fayette County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A version of the Harlem Shake performed by students at Brownsville High School last month continues to reverberate.

Thirteen students at the Fayette County high school were given two-day suspensions in February for their involvement in filming a 29-second Harlem Shake video and posting it online, part of a popular song-and-dance craze that has swept through the Internet in recent weeks.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the National Coalition Against Censorship emailed a letter to Philip J. Savini Jr., Brownsville Area School District superintendent and Rocky Brashear, school board president, urging the district to revoke the suspensions and expunge the students’ records.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/region/aclu-defends-brownsville-high-harlem-shake-video-678338/#ixzz2MtMmBTIL

Sherman Hemsley Of TV’s ‘The Jeffersons’ Dies

Editor’s note:  George has moved on up!

EL PASO, Texas — George Jefferson was a bigot.  A loudmouth.  Rude.  Obsessed with money. Arrogant. And yet he was one of the most enjoyable, beloved characters in television history.

The Jeffersons in 1984

The Jeffersons in 1984 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much of that credit belongs to Sherman Hemsley, the gifted character actor who gave life to the blustering black Harlem businessman on “The Jeffersons,” one of TV’s longest running and most successful sitcoms — particularly noteworthy with its mostly black cast.

The Philadelphia-born Hemsley, who police said late Tuesday died at his home in El Paso, Texas, at age 74, first played George Jefferson on the CBS show “All in the Family” before he was spun off onto “The Jeffersons.” The sitcom ran for 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985.

With the gospel-style theme song of “Movin’ On Up,” the hit show depicted the wealthy former neighbors of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens as they made their way on New York’s Upper East Side. Hemsley and the Jeffersons (Isabel Sanford played his wife) often dealt with contemporary issues of racism, but more frequently reveled in the sitcom archetype of a short-tempered, opinionated patriarch trying, often unsuccessfully, to control his family.

Read more: http://www.pottsmerc.com/article/20120725/ENTERTAINMENT01/120729573/sherman-hemsley-of-tv-s-the-jeffersons-dies&pager=full_story

Pottstown TriPAC’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” – A Review

I had the pleasure of attending the Sunday matinée performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Pottstown’s Tri-County Performing Arts Center yesterday afternoon.  I must say it was one of the best things I have seen thus far at the TriPAC and the afternoon flew by!

This production is being done in the smaller theatre on the third floor.  There are no bad seats!  The performance was sold out!  I believe it was announced all three weekend performances sold out.  My comment to you is, call now and see if any tickets are available for next weekend!

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a musical.  In fact it is almost entirely sung. Although there is scarcely any dialogue, a story is told nonetheless!  The cast of five actors is phenomenal and the musicians, who are also integral to this performance, are second to none!  Our story takes place in Harlem in the 1930’s.  Appropriately the entire cast is African-American as well as most of the musicians and the director.  I must comment that the level of talent here is amazing!  If you like the music of that era you will be beyond pleased with the high musical standards in this production.

In addition to superb music, I laughed until I cried.  The “looks”, “stage whispers” and innuendo are priceless.  This production is nonstop singing and dancing and the cast barely broke a sweat.  The ease of the performances and the level of confidence displayed by the actors and musicians is professional.  Kudos to Director, Zuhairah McGill for her excellent leadership.  A good Director is worth their weight in gold and Ms. McGill definitely falls into that category!

There were three songs that I especially liked (I loved them all).  Two were funny and one was very moving.  When the Nylons Bloom and The Viper’s Drag were hysterical!  Again, laughed until I cried.  Black and Blue was one of those songs that run the gamut of emotion.  It was a very sad song about the struggles of African-Americans during segregation.  While the cast was singing, there were poignant pictures being displayed on the back wall of a segregated America.  For Caucasians it is embarrassing and painful to watch, nevertheless “keeps it real” and reminds us how far we have come and how far we still have to go as a nation.  I am old enough to remember segregation and remember the great turmoil and pain our nation went through before and after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.  Yet I didn’t feel preached at either.  The point was made and we moved on.

I give a huge shout out to all five actors:  Denia Gibson, Mia Mbuy, Alexa Morefield, Marc Sherfield and Isiah Robinson.  Alexa, Marc and Isiah are TriPAC veterans.  Denia and Mia were in their first TriPAC production.  Stellar cast!  Mr. Sherfield got a golden ticket to Hollywood on American Idol this season!  How impressive is that!  I would say that validates my comments on the talent level.  Evidently Randy, Jennifer and Steven would agree, at least on 1/5th of the cast!  You are all stars!

Another huge shout out goes to the orchestra!  Ben Bullock’s piano skills are nothing short of amazing.  Ben is the Minister of Music at Invictus Church and I am sure they are thrilled to have him there!  The amount of playing is almost nonstop.  Other than the intermission the production is two hours of music!  I was very pleased to see Louis Rieger in the orchestra on string bass.  Mr. Rieger owns the High Street Music Company and I applaud his community involvement!  Louis has “mad skills” on the string bass and I thank him for sharing his considerable talent in this production.  Mr. Rieger walks the talk!  We like that here at Roy’s Rants!  Mega kudos to orchestra members: Lewis Ben on drums, Aaron Gould on trombone and Barb Newberry on reeds. Great job all around!

The production staff did an excellent job as well.  Everything went off without a hitch and it was a professional production all the way around.

One more shout out to the Red Hat Society who showed up in a big group.

I give this production two Roy’s Rants thumbs up.  If had more thumbs they would all be up!

There are three more performances left:  Friday, February 17th, Saturday, February 18th and Sunday, February 19th.

ADULT: $17
STUDENT / SENIOR (65+): $15
CHILD (12 & under): $13

Groups of ten or more receive a $2.00 per ticket discount!

The Tri-County Performing Arts Center is located at 245 E. High Street, Pottstown, PA. 

Voice: (610) 970-1199

Internet:  http://www.tripac.org