Oppressed, Bothered, and Bewildered

10/28/2017 12:24 pm ET

Many a song has been cut from a musical during its pre-Broadway tryout or its journey from stage to screen. Some songs failed to find their place in history because a show closed without making an original cast recording. Nonetheless, some musical numbers have found new life in cabaret acts and anthology recordings (such as Lost in Boston, Unsung Sondheim, Broadway Bound, and Unsung Musicals) as well as staged revivals and concert performances aimed at restoring a show's musical score to its original format. A classic example would be Jerome Kern's"Misry's Comin' Aroun," which was cut from 1927's Show Boat during its out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C. According to Wikipedia:

"Kern was reportedly so incensed by the deletion of "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun" that he made it the principal motif of Show Boat's original overture and asked orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett to work sections of it into the background music as well, where it is now played by the orchestra during some of the dialogue scenes involving the mixed race actress Julie La Verne. The song, which runs about five minutes, is an African-American lament of foreboding and impending doom sung by Queenie, the cook, and the African-American chorus, and, in the show, drives Julie, who has been passing as white, to near hysteria. It is supposed to be sung at the beginning of the rehearsal scene, which contains the sequence in which Julie and her white husband are revealed to be guilty of miscegenation by the local sheriff, who tries to arrest them. The complete song was not restored to the show's score until EMI's exhaustive 1988 3-CD recording of the show's score with its original lyrics, orchestrations and vocal arrangements, and performed onstage complete for the first time since the Washington D.C. tryout of Show Boat when producer Harold Prince included it in the 1994 Broadway revival."

Like Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun, the following three songs communicate the depths of depression and oppression suffered by people caught in the grip of an unjust society and/or economy.

There's little doubt that, over the course of the past decade, our nation has backed away from the progress made on multiple sociopolitical fronts. Today, racism, misogyny, homophobia, income inequality, and fear of the "other" are increasingly divisive forces in our culture. From those who are disrespected and disenfranchised by institutional biases to those who are dishonored and dehumanized by the President of the United States, prejudice is eating away at basic human rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution to its citizens. TheatreFIRST's revival of The Farm (as well as last year's staging of It Can't Happen Here at Berkeley Repertory Theatre) help to remind audiences of John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton's warning that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Two new dramas produced by small, politically progressive theater companies in Berkeley focus the audience's attention on disavowed and dehumanized people who struggle for their rights, struggle to survive, and may subsequently struggle to live with their survivor's guilt.

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Written by Susan Sobeloff and directed by Jan Zvaifler, Strange Ladies takes the audience back to the early 20th century, when women suffragists were struggling to secure the right to vote. Originally commissioned by Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco, this play is receiving its world premiere production from Central Works, with musical direction by Milissa Carey, costumes by Tammy Berlin, lighting by Gary Graves, and sound design by Gregory Scharpen.

Milissa Carey, Renee Rogoff, and Gwen Loeb, portray some early 20th century suffragists in <em><strong>Strange Ladies</strong
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
Milissa Carey, Renee Rogoff, and Gwen Loeb, portray some early 20th century suffragists in Strange Ladies

Because this year marks the 100th anniversary of the imprisonment of the Silent Sentinels (a group of women who were arrested in June and July of 1917 and sent to Occoquan Workhouse Prison after picketing the White House and demanding the right to vote), their story occupies a bittersweet place in today's America as Republicans escalate their pursuit of the hateful agenda of their War on Women. As Sobeloff explains:

"Strange Ladies is a work of historical fiction that tells the story of a courageous group of women fighting for the right to vote. Their brutal treatment and subsequent hunger strike earned them the epithet of the “Strange Ladies” and forced the issue of Woman Suffrage into the national consciousness. In researching the Suffrage movement, I found myself in awe of these women's commitment to gaining the right to vote. I realized I mistakenly believed that American women were given (or simply suddenly "won") the vote. I came to understand how hard and unceasingly American women fought to be included in the nation's political life and how the Suffragists' political strategies still inform contemporary social justice movements."
Nicol Foster, Regina Morones, Gwen Loeb, and Radhika Rao in the hunger strike scene from <strong><em>Strange Ladies</em></str
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
Nicol Foster, Regina Morones, Gwen Loeb, and Radhika Rao in the hunger strike scene from Strange Ladies

The six women who form the Central Works ensemble for Strange Ladies start off on an optimistic note, resolved that following the tragedy of 1911's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and their continued inability to get any action out of President Woodrow Wilson, it's time for them to take an stronger stand for voting rights. Unfortunately, their plans are sabotaged by self-doubt, deaths in their families, and the entry of the United States into World War I following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

  • Alice (Renée Rogoff) is the group's strong-willed strategist who finds it difficult to accept the commonplace human needs and family responsibilities of her sisters in feminism.
  • Lucy (Regina Morones) is forced to leave the group temporarily when her sister dies, leaving behind an infant who must be cared for.
  • Harriet (Milissa Carey) is still very much caught up in worrying about the group's need to be perceived as "proper ladies" rather than rabble-rousers.
  • Rose (Gwen Loeb) is a feisty activist with a thick New York accent.
  • Vida/Phyllis (both played by Radhika Rao) are two sisters (one of whom dies, leaving the other to pick up her feminist torch).
  • Mary (Nicol Foster) is an African American woman who has experienced plenty of discrimination based on her race and whose daughter fears for her physical safety.
Mary (Nicol Foster) is an African American suffragist who faces a violent mob while picketing outside the White House in a sc
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
Mary (Nicol Foster) is an African American suffragist who faces a violent mob while picketing outside the White House in a scene from Strange Ladies

While this six-woman ensemble fights nobly against an uncaring patriarchy until they are arrested (and determine that a hunger strike is the only remaining option that can draw attention to their cause), these women are battling two issues which, despite the show's short running time, seem very much beyond their control.

Because the audience must always imagine the obstacles placed in their path by uncaring men, these women seem stuck fighting an enemy who, like some diseases, is essentially invisible. Without the increasing level of suspense inherent in crime fiction, maintaining high levels of idealism and earnestness (against all odds) can be exhausting. While there is no question that the threats leveled against these ladies are real and take a physical toll on them -- or that the women's demands to secure the vote are fully justified -- as their situation worsens, their hunger strike saps them (as well as the drama) of the strength needed to continue the battle.

Vida (Radhika Rao) and Rose (Gwen Loeb) take a break from the picket line in a scene from <strong><em>Strange Ladies</em></st
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
Vida (Radhika Rao) and Rose (Gwen Loeb) take a break from the picket line in a scene from Strange Ladies

The other issue is a physical one that comes with the performance space in which Strange Ladies is being presented. The seating in the Berkeley City Club is a three-quarter-round setup which, in most Central Works productions, allows for smooth scenic transitions. However, in Strange Ladies, the blackouts between scenes (which allow the cast to regroup and make some quick costume changes) cause the play to badly lose momentum.

What this show needs is a stronger timeline. Prior to his death from AIDS on May 13, 1993, my friend Scott Heumann was employed as the dramaturg for Houston Grand Opera. The company's March 1984 staging of Simon Boccanegra offered a prime example of the difference an alert dramaturg can make. Before opera companies adopted the use of Supertitles, Verdi's opera could be extremely confusing for audiences that had not read the plot synopsis (or had forgotten what it said). With the new technology at his disposal, Scott decided to flash a title above the proscenium during the brief scene change between the opera's Prologue and Act I. Although the title consisted of only three words ("25 Years Later..."), it made an astonishing change in the audience's understanding of Francesco Maria Piave's complicated libretto.

A similar solution applied to Strange Ladies would be to flash a series of chronological messages on the empty wall above the fireplace during each blackout. Doing so would (a) tighten the action, (b) give more propulsion to the story, (c) strengthen continuity, and (d) distract the audience from the actors for just long enough to keep the show's momentum going. It's a simple technique (used to great effect in many productions of Gypsy) that works like a charm.

Performances of Strange Ladies continue at the Berkeley City Club through November 12 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *

Presented as a co-production of The Mitzvah Project and PlayGround, Roger Grunwald is starring in the world premiere of a new one-man show at the Potrero Stage. The Obligation introduces its audience to characters who experienced the tragedy of World War II through the time they spent in Nazi concentration camps.

From innocent Jewish schoolchildren living in the ghetto of Bialystok, Poland to an exhausted Jewish man on a death march from Auschwitz who welcomed death as a release from unimaginable misery, Grunwald paints his characters with a variety of accents and innocence. After being liberated from Nazi death camps, some Jews finally make it to America where they are miraculously given an opportunity to start their lives over. One man, however, cannot handle the memories and the guilt of surviving. Feeling that he died back in Auschwitz, he jumps to his death in front of a subway train in New York in 1965.

Roger Grunwald stars in <strong><em>The Obligation</em></strong>
(Photo by: Leonardo Correa)
Roger Grunwald stars in The Obligation

Shifting body language and accents with ease, Grunwald proves that no matter how many stories one has read about the Shoah (or seen in documentaries and historical fiction films at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) there is always another tale of human misery, defiance, defeat, and remembrance waiting to be unveiled before new audiences. As the actor/author explains:

“In the beginning of The Obligation, a character by the name of Schmuel Berkowicz, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, is speaking to a room full of students. Both my mom and dad were German Jews. Like Schmuel and many others, my mom, a survivor of Auschwitz (now deceased), regularly spoke to young people. My dad, unlike my mother, never experienced a concentration camp. He fled Germany in 1933 and made his way to the Philippines which, at the time, was one of a handful of places in the world that admitted Jewish refugees. He remained in the Philippines until shortly after the war.”
Roger Grunwald stars in <strong><em>The Obligation</em></strong>
(Photo by: Leonardo Correa)
Roger Grunwald stars in The Obligation
“About 10 years ago, after restarting my acting career, I visited my mother’s sister in Los Angeles and spent several days interviewing her, learning about her life and wartime experience. Aunt Annie (who turned 103 in April) is a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. At one point during my interview, she gave me a book: Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military by Bryan Mark Rigg. Although I considered myself fairly well read on the period, I had no inkling about this aspect of the German-Jewish experience. Even before I was finished reading Rigg’s book, I started to write and a character began to emerge -- a German half-Jew who was a First Lieutenant in Hitler’s army. I named him Christoph.”
Roger Grunwald stars in <strong><em>The Obligation</em></strong>
(Photo by: Leonardo Correa)
Roger Grunwald stars in The Obligation

Lovingly directed by Nancy Carlin, The Obligation includes an American comedian who sounds just like Groucho Marx as well as a deeply conflicted SS officer named Christoph Rosenberg, a "mischling" who was allowed to serve in Hitler's army despite the fact that he was descended from one or two Jewish grandparents.

The material covered in The Obligation remains astonishingly relevant to the social tensions and growing anti-Semitism in the United States today. “The theater is a way you can touch people emotionally (something you can’t do in the same way with a talk). That’s one of the skills I have; one of the things I’ve learned about the power of performance. The Obligation is s not just about stopping Nazis. We have to stop making a demon, a devil, out of the other," stresses Grunwald. "As the son of a survivor the question I put to myself is, with my mom’s generation dying out, who’s going to continue the teaching of the Holocaust and how? The Obligation represents a promise to my mom and my aunt to keep in focus the history that humanity must never forget."

Performances of The Obligation continue through November 5 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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