A dynamite cast and a solid lineup of compelling material make for a fine night of theatre in Denver
In our surreal world of new-normals, The Betsy Stage’s new production Being Here checks all of the boxes confronted by theatre these days: temperate check at the door, masked audience members, cast wearing face shields, and a tiny audience (10 tops) appropriately spaced and seated around the perimeter.
But we’re an adaptable species, and a few minutes in, all of those things fall away as this delightful and disturbing show unfolds. Being Here is comprised of 13 songs and monologues that range from storytelling to poetry to angry testimonials and mini-scenes performed by a strong, diverse cast and artfully directed by Betsy stalwart Samantha McDermott. Many of the pieces could all stand on their own, but the over-arching theme, as the title suggests, is about living here in America, right now, during a pandemic while profound issues of race, leadership, justice and climate color every facet of our lives.
Kicking off the show is Denver’s favorite “Actor-vist” Lisa Young, who portrays a griot — an African storyteller. “The People Could Fly” is a story by children’s author Virginia Hamilton, and Young’s adaptation of it has her using her formidable presence in grabbing the full attention of the audience right off the bat.
Imagine a slave, a young woman with a baby slung on her back, being forced to work the fields in the hot sun while the overseer cracks his whip as the child cries. Her most fervent wish would be to fly away, out of reach of her oppressors. The story taps into what that might look and feel like, with another slave, Toby, possessed of a magic that could literally lend wings to her and others in the field.
Young portrays all of the characters in the story in what is the longest of the evening’s pieces. It’s a powerful performance perfectly suited to Young’s talents, and it tees up the remainder of the show with its depiction of injustice, oppression, helplessness and, finally, freedom — however tenuous or fictional it may be.
This and most of the other pieces presented in the Betsy’s tiny black-box theatre is augmented by the use of video projected on a large screen upstage. I was impressed by how well done this was — it’s not an easy thing to pull off. The video choices matched and enhanced the material, and the technical aspect of syncing the sound and imagery went off without a hitch. Kudos to McDermott’s choices and to Christopher Wells running the board.
Here’s a look at the remaining chapters of the show:
“A Walk in the Park” — written and performed by Todd Katke. A nerdy young man attached to his smartphone misses much of the outside world surrounding him in favor of texting inanities to his partner and giggling at cat videos. Young’s a tough act to follow and this placement wasn’t ideal. But Katke’s piece is a pointed and relevant indictment to all of us missing the world around us in favor of the screen in our hand.
“Mus Be De Massa’s Son” — written and performed by Artie Thompson. This gritty condemnation of society’s ills finds a riveting Thompson wondering aloud where it all went wrong. Whose fault is it? Maybe it’s that rich kid, the massa’s son, who never had to work a day in his life but has the power to keep his boot on the necks of the oppressed.
“Used to Be Easy” — written and performed by James Brunt. A lament by a young Black man, comparing his seemingly idyllic childhood watching cartoons on TV with the reality that set in once he reached his teens. He’s no different inside, why does his outward appearance, the color of his skin, also color the perception and treatment of him by whites? Brunt’s piece is a strong, sad first-person testament that sharply illustrates the underpinnings of the Black Lives Matter message.
“20 Dollar Bill” by Tom Prasada-Rao, Jr. — sung by Rekha Ohal. The song, written as a testament to George Floyd, is powerfully sung by Ohal and serves as yet another marker in the landmark incident that inflamed a nation.
“Memorial” — written and performed by Erin Slimak. This one stayed with me both for its odd and unsettling topic and the quirky manner in which Slimak delivers it. She’s mourning a dead hamster in a shoe box, trying (and failing) to soothe a child about the death while wildfires rage outside. Was it the smoke that killed Mr. Fluffybutt? Slimak’s unhinged character isn’t sure, but it’s a darkly comic bit that hits the mark.
“Whistleblower” by Kenya Fashaw — performed by Adrienne Martin-Fulwood. Portraying a scientist who decides to live-stream a warning about subjects being sacrificed to develop a vaccine, Martin-Fulwood delivers a striking performance that’s enhanced by her screed being directed into her phone and projected on the screen.
“Hero Dad” by Laura Jaqmin — performed by Sydney Fullmer. It only takes a few seconds for Fullmer to establish that she’s a woman in a clinic about to get an abortion. When her not-so-serious boyfriend calls her to protest, she lays out the stark reality of the choice that confronts them both. This quick slice of reality manages to poignantly depict not only the difficulty of her situation but also the unmentioned, looming threat from forces wishing to take away her choice.
“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” by Jerian Franco. Featuring Lisa Young, Rekha Ohal and James Brunt, this reminder of the many homeless people on the street in America at any given time takes place on the subway. The three actors each tell their story of how they became homeless as they inhabit a world where those around either ignore or disdain them.
“Wooden Shoes” — written and performed by Michael Gurshtein. This one’s based on a Voltaire quote: “History is full of the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.” Gurshtein portrays a Russian man whose family immigrated to the U.S. after the fall of the Soviet Union, and he’s fully expecting and ready to see the U.S. fall apart as well. It’s a scary scenario all but unimaginable four years ago but all too relevant today as we head toward the November election.
“Still I Rise” — performed by Artie Thompson. Thompson is a natural to perform this Maya Angelou poem about the power of Black women. “Does my sexiness upset you?” she demands, stroking her thighs and challenging the accuracy of history. Thompson’s arresting presence and intense delivery is a fine homage to one of Angelou’s most famous poems.
Michal Andrew Meyer
“Sewing Circle” — written and performed by Michal Andrew Meyer. This one’s an indictment not only of the fashion industry but of all of us who blithely buy and discard clothing. As the lithe Meyer peels off layers of clothing and describes the problem, some of the alarming stats of our sartorial malfeasance are displayed on the screen. It’s more of an acted-out opinion column than a traditional monologue, but Meyer’s earnestness gives the message heft.
“Home” — music and lyrics by Rekha Ohal. This closing song is a plea for unity in a world that seems starkly without these days. It’s a fitting finale to the evening as Ohal sings: