Actor’s Express opens its 29th season in July with Stephen Sondheim’s Company and closes it a year later with the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks.
And that’s not the only Pulitzer Prize-linked piece in the lineup. In October, artistic director Freddie Ashley leads Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, described as a “Southern Gothic sizzler.” Jacob-Jenkins, a Brooklyn-based playwright who grew up in Washington, D.C., was a 2016 Pulitzer nominee for his Gloria, described by the Pulitzer committee as “a play of wit and irony that deftly transports the audience from satire to thriller and back again.”
The Express, almost always a go-to theater, is coming off one of its best seasons in recent memory (especially praiseworthy for its thematically diverse double dip of Blackberry Winter and The Thrush & the Woodpecker by Atlanta-bred, Los Angeles-based playwright Steve Yockey and the award-winning Serial Black Face by Janine Nabers).
Ashley, beginning his ninth season as the intown company’s artistic director, seems to have found a successful mix of new work, early-career playwrights, classics, musicals and crowd-pleasers. Here’s how 2016/17 stacks up, in chronological order.
JULY 30-SEPT. 4. Music by 11-time Tony Award winner Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth. This musical is firmly rooted in the 1970s, but the Express promises a “modern makeover.” It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds.
At the show’s core is an unmarried New Yorker named Robert, whose friends — all married couples — are eager to celebrate his 35th birthday. Sondheim, now 86, wrote this piece when he was in his late 30s/early 40s. (The Express this season staged his Sweeney Todd.)
Company, a six-time 1971 Tony Award winner, includes such songs as “Another Hundred People,” “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “Being Alive.” Longtime Express theatergoers might remember a previous staging, which included then-artistic director Wier Harman (2000-2003) in its cast. Ashley directs this go-round.
OCT. 29-NOV. 20. This 2014 Obie Award winner for best new American play is, the Express says, “a Southern Gothic sizzler with more secrets than you can shake a stick at.” In addition to winning the Obie, an award for off-Broadway theater, it was a Lucille Lortel Award nominee, an honor bestowed by the Off-Broadway League. (It lost to Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj.)
Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a domestic drama with dark comedy leanings. It concerns the adult children of a recently deceased Southern patriarch, who begin to believe that dear daddy might have been a KKK member.
Jacobs-Jenkins, said The Washington Post, evokes issues of racism without creating a single black character. He “appropriates, makes his own, a story of white America,” wrote Post critic Peter Marks. “This presages a more hopeful time when the ethnic identity of a playwright might not prompt a mention.”
Appropriate seems an especially smart choice considering the success of the Express’ recently closed Serial Black Face, which also dealt with issues of race. Ashley, who’ll be extra busy early next season, directs.
JAN. 21-FEB. 19, 2017. Ashley and company promise “a visceral new production” of this Arthur Miller masterpiece about the 1690s Salem witch trials (and McCarthyism in 1950s America).
The 1953 play by one of America’s greatest dramatists (Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, After the Fall) won the Tony Award for best play and has been revived on Broadway five times with such actors as Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Martin Sheen, Michael York and Philip Bosco in key roles.
The most recent Broadway revival, onstage at the Walter Kerr Theatre through July 17, features film actor Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones, a 2007 Oscar nominee for Atonement) in her Broadway debut. Ashley again directs.
The Legend of Georgia McBride
MARCH 18-APRIL 16, 2017. A musical comedy by Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man) that asks, “What do you do when your Elvis act gets the ax?” For a man named Casey, who has a pregnant wife, an empty bank account and an eviction notice, it means trading your jumpsuit for sequins and strutting your stuff as the Florida Panhandle’s newest drag queen.
You might recall that the Alliance Theatre staged Lopez’s The Whipping Man, a drama about a Jewish Confederate soldier and two former slaves, in 2013. The award-winning piece has been one of the most widely produced new American plays of the past several years and, obviously, is stylistically quite different from Georgia McBride.
The New York Times called Georgia McBride “a stitch-in-your-side funny first-rate production full of sass and good spirits” and said that “Mr. Lopez displays a remarkable range. … We are in the hands of a playwright who wants to mess with our viscera.”
Georgia McBride, which premiered last summer at New York’s MCC Theater, has been extended through Oct. 11. This past weekend it won off-Broadway Lucille Lortel awards for best featured actor (Michael McGrath) and costumes (Anna Yavich), with nominations for choreography and lighting. New York-based Portia Krieger directs the AE staging.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
JUNE 3-JULY 2, 2017. Mark your calendars now for this acclaimed trilogy by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks‘ (Topdog/Underdog), an amazing accomplishment and one of the most celebrated American plays of the past decade. Father won off-Broadway’s 2015 Obie Award for playwriting and was a Pulitzer finalist, losing to Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherf**ker With the Hat).
The plot updates Homer’s The Odyssey to the American Civil War, mixing history, hip-hop and contemporary language along the way. “It’s not the History Channel,” Parks has said.
A slave named Hero is offered his freedom if he’ll fight for the Confederacy, so he follows his master into battle. His epic journey takes him through the skirmishes of war, and he comes to discover the cost of freedom, the heartbreak of love and the enduring power of home. Hero has a dog named Odyssey, aka “Odd See,” so named for eyes that go this way and that. The pooch, played by a human actor, talks. A lot.
Writing in The New York Times, critic Christopher Isherwood said, “The wonder of Ms. Parks’ achievement is how smoothly she blends the high and the low, the serious and the humorous, the melodramatic and the grittily realistic.”
The drama, he said, “swoops, leaps, dives and soars across three endlessly stimulating hours, reimagining a turbulent turning point in American history through a cockeyed contemporary lens…. Father is at once an epic dramatic poem, a moving personal drama about one man’s soul struggle, and a seriocomic meditation on liberty, loyalty and identity.”
This play with music is beginning of what Parks intends to make a 10-piece saga. Martin Damien Wilkins directs.