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Nia Barge’s stageplay “Last Call” Review by Michael Poandl 5 Stars ***** !

by Michael Poandl on May 30, 2014

FIVE STARS

In Washington, D.C., there is probably no more sensitive and emotionally laden topic than gentrification.

So it is refreshingly relevant that the new company Nameless chose to premiere the first show in its “Happy Hour Theatre” series, Last Call, which directly confronts gentrification in D.C., in a club in the heart of Adams Morgan. Heaven and Hell, located on 18th Street NW, is smack dab in the middle of a part of the city where gentrification is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. After all, Adams Morgan was one of the first epicenters of the Great Neighborhood Redevelopment of Washington, D.C. Since joined by Columbia Heights, H Street Northeast, Petworth, Navy Yard and so many other neighborhoods, Adams Morgan is practically a monument to what comprehensive and large-scale redevelopment looks like.

This is critical to the core of Last Call, because although the subject of gentrification has been explored before on D.C. stages (see Bruce Norris’ groundbreaking Clybourne Park) Nameless asks the audience to go a step further in actually travelling to a gentrified neighborhood to see the show. In a way, Director Nia M. Barge has made the entire neighborhood the setting of Last Call. The play itself, written by A’Leighsha C. Butler, is staged in one half of Heaven and Hell’s upper level (Heaven, presumably…) using an actual bar and a few tables and chairs as its set. This too is pertinent because the play takes place – where else? – in a bar in a rapidly changing neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Last Call 5
(left to right) – Sierra Edwards (Dottie), Alexis Graves (Joceyln, Dominque Spencer (Jordan), Tia Da (Ms. V), Adiyb Muhammad (Mike,) Samantha Sheahan (Jenna), Katherine Jessup (Molly), Donta Hensley (Todd), and Darren Rabinowitz (Tod). Photo by Travis Riddick.
(left to right) – Sierra Edwards (Dottie), Alexis Graves (Joceyln), Dominque Spencer (Jordan), Tia Da (Ms. V), Adiyb Muhammad (Mike,) Samantha Sheahan (Jenna), Katherine Jessup (Molly), Donta Hensley (Todd), and Darren Rabinowitz (Tod). Photo by Travis Riddick.
The fictional bar is called “Mike’s Place,” a staple of “the neighborhood” (meant, of course, to stand in for any of the numerous gentrified D.C. neighborhoods), run by Mike (Adiyb Muhammad). His restaurant has adapted in recent years, however, due to pressure from the influx of younger, wealthier, and whiter residents. Folks like Molly (Katherine Jessup), a sarcastic yoga instructor who wears the mandatory thick-rimmed glasses, and Tod (Darren Rabinowitz) and Todd (Donta Hensley), a well-educated gay couple, have convinced Mike to make certain changes to the bar, like replacing his father’s traditional fried fish sandwich with a hummus platter. Even Mike’s daughter, Jocelyn (Alexis Graves), who grew up in the neighborhood, is sympathetic to the redevelopment happening around her. But when Jordan (Dominique Antonio Spenser), a troublemaking young man who grew up with Jocelyn but only recently returned to D.C. arrives as Mike’s new employee, he objects to the changes he sees in both the neighborhood and his once-girlfriend, Jocelyn. It is clear Jordan and Jocelyn have their own personal baggage, and the chemistry between Ms. Graves and Mr. Spenser crackles from the start. Their Sam-and-Diane relationship parallels the larger story about neighborhood redevelopment. Just as Joceyln has changed, so has the neighborhood, and Jordan (like so many of the original residents) feels confused, resentful, and left behind.

If Jordan represents the disaffected neighborhood Old Guard, then the aggressive agents of change are epitomized by Jenna (Samantha Sheahan), a blaringly Caucasian new resident who storms into the bar, demanding answers about the whereabouts of her lost Chihuahua, Petunia. In short order she accuses “homeboy” Jordan of kidnapping her beloved pet, and strong-arms Mike into holding a mock trial right there in the bar, with Jordan as the indignant defendant.

But of course, it is not just Jordan who is on trial here. It is the whole huge subject of Who Owns The Neighborhood that is really at stake. As the farce of who stole Petunia unfolds, the real drama is between the old residents and the new. Dottie (Sierra Edwards) is the former Advisory Neighborhood Commission chair, ousted by Jenna in the previous election. As Jenna agitates for butterfly gardens and Whole Foods in the neighborhood, Dottie reminds her about what is lost in “redevelopment”. The so-called “empty spaces” where neighborhood residents would hang out, play chess, and get to know each other are now expensive condos and frozen yogurt shops. People like Dottie, Mike and Ms. V. (Tia Dae) are outraged that their community seems to be being invaded by people who see their neighborhood as an eyesore that needs to be torn down and renovated.

To her credit, Ms. Butler did not write Last Call as a one-sided polemic against gentrification. Jenna, Molly, and the gay Tod(d)s may be outsized caricatures of The New D.C., but they do fight back against the accusations that they are insensitive invaders. During one particularly powerful moment, Todd, who is black, eviscerates Jordan for telling him that this is not his home. Todd fires back that as a gay man, he can’t go home to West Virginia, and that this neighborhood, where he and his fiancée are building a life, is their home. Todd and Tod are not usurpers or colonialists; they are residents, and just because they are new and have a penchant for organic food and a beefed up police presence doesn’t make them evil or racist.

The layers of complexity surrounding gentrification, and the heavy emotional baggage that goes with it, is told elegantly and with great humor by Ms. Butler and Ms. Barge. I was impressed again and again by how these deeply serious issues were woven invisibly into a story that moved quickly and with razor-sharp comedy.

The entire ten person ensemble did an exemplary job of communicating both the comedy and the drama of Last Call, and they deftly avoided the trap of becoming caricatures. I was watching real people on stage, and it was this authenticity that made the show so funny and so touching. I must single out Ms. Dae (Ms. V.) and Ms. Edwards (Dottie) for their particularly endearing and hilarious performances.

I also commend the director, Ms. Barge, for her smart and creative staging choices. Although most of the action occurred on the L-shaped “stage” in front of the audience, the actors walked amongst the audience when it suited them, and often broke the fourth wall. In effect, the audience became a part of the show, and this effect was even sharper given the site-specific nature of the performance.

I must say, as a new resident of D.C. who enjoys Fro-Yo and Whole Foods, there were some uncomfortable moments of white guilt for this reporter. But, strange as it sounds, I enjoyed those self-conscious moments as much as any other in the show. At one point in the show, an “Old Resident” (James Wingfield) emerges from his covert position in the audience to launch a diatribe against gentrification. As the rest of the cast looks on in shock, Mr. Wingfield repeats again and again, “No spaces… no places” before he is escorted out of the theatre by the director herself. This bit of Brechtian staging was inspiring, depressing, and provocative all at once. Theatre should make people uncomfortable; it should make them think. I commend Nameless Theatre Company for presenting a show that is innovative, in-your-face, and funny as hell. Residents of neighborhoods all over D.C., old and new, need to hear the story that Nia Barge and A’Leighsha Butler is telling. Maybe then we can learn to get along a little bit better.

Running Time: It runs 90 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Last Call has its second and final performance on June 5, 2014 at Heaven and Hell -2327 18th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Michael Poandl
About Michael Poandl
Michael Poandl graduated American University as a Theatre: Performance major in 2013. He is currently an intern in the Grants Department at the Arts Council of Fairfax County.

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(Michael Parsons) DC Filmdom review on Anthony Greene’s Crime-Thriller “THICK” 3.5/5 Stars

DC Filmdom Screenshot
DC Filmdom

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Thick
ON MAY 29 | IN MOVIE REVIEWS | BY MICHAEL PARSONS | WITH NO COMMENTS

SUMMARY:

3 ½ out of 5 stars

“The only thing that ever got in crime’s way were the criminals”.

Stone-faced crime boss Theresa James (R & B artist/actress Tia Dae) delivers a lengthy allocution on criminal behavior to Marcell (Dominique Spencer), an underling who has unknowingly been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Her words are wise, even poetic, though it seems like an awful lot of wisdom (and creativity) to waste on someone who’s about to get waxed. “Welcome to your future,” she says as he meets his demise.

thickIt’s to be expected, I suppose. These guys never seem to pick up on insinuation, even when they know they’ve messed up (an exception would be the guy from “Lethal Weapon 2” who wanted to make sure he wasn’t standing on plastic when summoned into the boss’s office). And almost invariably, the turgid speech that precedes their punishment serves only to emphasize the unhealthy ego of the speaker – often an overblown or cartoonish villain with little substance to their words.

If “Thick” starts off looking a touch self-important, it quickly finds its equilibrium within the stage-worthy performances and a script that has something to say. Dae’s monotone Theresa is less sinister than pragmatic, possibly a metaphor for the country’s pre-occupation with work and financial stress, among other things. She fits the bill as the steely-eyed crime boss, virtually disconnected from anything that might distract her or expose a weakness. Her position, as we see, is a precarious one, and somewhere beneath the virtually expressionless demeanor lies a deep-seated paranoia, which bubbles over when her wife Roni (Pascale Piquion) shows even the slightest hint of independence.

The film is part “The L Word”, part “King of New York”, and Dae’s character, who is both protagonist and antagonist, owes a little something to Christopher Walken’s Frank White, who occasionally liked to unload his intellectual side on a disloyal employee or two before burying them with their betrayal money. But this ain’t the ’80s, and a relatively meager $500,000 in “get out” money stashed in Theresa’s house suggests that times are tough, even for less legitimate business enterprises.

Scheming employees, dirty cops, and a deteriorating personal life are part of this nasty equation. Trusted advisor “Lefty” Eggleston (Ronald Benson-El) plots to take over the empire while assassin Nina (Chaseedaw Giles) plans to run off with Roni , with whom she’s been having an affair. And the crooked detectives in Theresa’s pocket (Caleb Jackson and Mick McGuire) are looking for an early out, and a hefty retirement package to boot.

It might sound like it’s gearing up for a finale like “True Romance”, but “Thick” is definitely more chess match than bloodbath. The characters, though, are no less cut-throat than in more violent contemporary urban crime dramas. Save a few requisite executions, which are carried out in shadowy Washington, DC area settings like a sewer tunnel or in the back seat of a car, we mostly watch our characters manipulating their way to what they want. Local writer/directors Cheryl Brown and Anthony M. Greene (“The Henchman’s War”) have crafted something that looks like a CliffsNotes for an HBO drama series, tightly cinched in a 70-minute package. The micro-budgeted “Thick” covers a lot of ground while never appearing overly ambitious, with fine editing by Omar Juarez (who is also the cinematographer) and Manuel Santos. There are many earmarks of a great crime saga here, and it will be interesting to see if Brown and Greene revisit the material.

about the author: michael parsons

Husband. Father. Ex-salesperson. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema. During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”). The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis. Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment. A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It’s been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving. Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues. (Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).
Thick Theatrical Poster