Archive for August, 2014

Review: August Wilson’s “Fences” at Gloucester Stage

August 26, 2014

By Robert Israel

If he were alive today, African-American playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) would probably have grimaced if he learned that Eric C. Engel, a white director, was at the helm of the Gloucester Stage Company’s production of Fences. Yet Engel gives Fences an insightful and nuanced production. So a few words of perspective on Wilson follow.

In 1976, I met Wilson at Penumbra, an African-American troupe, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He had not yet embarked on playwriting, but during our chat it was obvious that it wouldn’t take him long to discover his métier. He possessed a fierce intelligence, deeply set, glowing eyes, and an arresting brilliance fueled by anger and raw talent.

Almost a decade later, Wilson and I chatted again at Yale Rep in New Haven, Connecticut during the pre-Broadway tryout of Fences, which starred James Earl Jones. Wilson said he had only a vague recollection of meeting me, though otherwise he displayed an eidetic memory: standing on a busy downtown New Haven street corner, he recited lines of the play we saw in St. Paul, spoken by not one, but several of the characters.

Wilson’s fierce wellspring of anger was rooted in attacks of racial prejudice he had personally endured as a young man, hostility that forced him to leave his native Pittsburgh – where Fences is set — before his high school graduation. In the ensuing years he learned to tap into that rage through art, penning plays that chronicled the epic expanse of the African-American experience, from the time of blacks’ forced arrival in the United States as slaves and beyond – one decade at a time – throughout the twentieth century.

Fences was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Anger blazes in almost every scene. And that ferocity explains why Wilson would have objected to the Gloucester Stage production: he insisted that only African-Americans direct his plays. His rationale: black directors understood his work the best. Also, by fighting to give African-American directors opportunities to direct, they would excel, as he did, in a field dominated by white men and women. In 2009, a media conflagration erupted when a white director was chosen for a production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, prompting a noted black director to accuse Lincoln Center in New York of committing “institutional racism.”

Regardless of this controversy, Engel has done Wilson’s difficult script proud, thanks to a gifted, all-black cast, who collectively deliver the grit, the poetry, and subtleties of Wilson’s characters.

The plot revolves around Troy Maxson (Daver Morrison), a Pittsburgh sanitation worker in his early fifties who has led a rough and tumble life. Through a series of interwoven stories, we learn that Maxson has migrated north to Pittsburgh, sired a son, Lyons (Warren Jackson), from a previous marriage and another son, Cory (Jared Michael Brown,) from his present union with Rose (Jacqui Parker). He has served time in the penitentiary where he met his friend, Bono (Gregory Maslow). It is 1957, and relations between whites and blacks are abysmal.

Wilson’s distinctive gifts as a playwright are rooted in his use of characters are storytellers. His figure’s tales are not only interesting in and of themselves, but they serve as complex dramatic devices that reveal — consciously and unconsciously — the speaker’s conflicts and blind spots. Troy’s circumlocutionary way of spinning his stories is theatrically compelling, but also revelatory of his psychological weaknesses. At one point, he tells a heroic yarn that goes off on tangents, mixing in scenes from the Bible, his past, a meeting with Death, the Devil, his past and current dreams, his failures, and his brief moments of triumph. Morrison skillfully blends these fragments of desire, frustration, and fantasy together, melding the protagonist’s harsh side with his obvious sensitivity. In his portrayal of Troy, Morrison suggests, early on, the character’s randy sexuality, the root of the contradictions that become pivotal in the play’s second act. James Earl Jones, who acted the role of Troy on Broadway, towered over the other members of the cast, casting them into the shadows. Morrison’s performance is more subtle and thus more inclusive — he blends in with the ensemble.

The cast performs admirably. Parker is particularly wonderful as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose; she brings an admirable restraint to the role. Still, Fences is a weighty play, and the performers sometimes buckle under that weight. There are several moments in the production when they deliver their lines without sufficient punch or sass or their placement on the stage is awkward. (Perhaps the occasional clumsiness is due to Gloucester Stage’s demanding and accelerated rehearsal time. By the time the production moves to the latter part of its run, the cast will most likely be firmly in Wilson’s groove.)

I was particularly impressed by Jermel Nakia in the role of Gabriel, Troy’s war-damaged brother. The performer’s frantic pacing on stage, his twisted limbs and scuffing feet, are mesmerizing to watch. He seems to be channeling his character’s madness, making his anguish palpable. I only wished the last scene, in which Gabriel blows upon a broken trumpet, was staged with the same attention to nuance that is found throughout the rest of the production. This is a pivotal moment, when Gabriel’s insanity brings forth a celestial blessing. The timing of Russ Swift’s lighting was off, so the scene misses its forceful mark.

Given the unrest that is still smoldering in Ferguson, Missouri, Wilson’s perspectives on America’s racial tragedy are needed now more than ever, as we continue to grapple, as a nation, with how to ensure dignity, freedom, and human rights for all our citizens.

This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).


Humanizing Messages in Technology Journalism

August 17, 2014

By Robert Israel

As president and CEO of Horn Group, Sabrina Horn has helped numerous start-up technology companies and older brands communicate their messages through technology journalism and become more agile in an ever-evolving marketplace. Based in New York City, she has also navigated the agency she founded 23 years ago through many technology changes.

I recently spoke with Horn about the changes she’s noticed in tech journalism and how brands, publishers, and content creators alike can brace themselves for even more disruption in the industry.

Question: Many decision makers at top-tier technology organizations say they are having trouble embracing new-world tactics to reach audiences. Increasingly, they are finding it difficult to get content discovered and to scale programs that work. Is this the result of a cultural shift? How can brand marketers better position their messaging?

Answer:For the past couple of decades, we have seen several periods of transition, many of which are the results of economic swings that change the way we communicate. Now, we are going through a period of transition. Ten years ago, everyone was saying that technology journalism would do away with beat reporting. That’s not true. Nothing is ever dead. It is evolving. Getting messages out there has become more complicated. I’ve often said that if you’re not a technology company, you have to become one. You can’t be resistant to change. You have to learn to use it to succeed.

Q: In what specific ways is communication evolving?

A: Years ago, technology companies focused heavily on product news, such as getting word out about what a product does. There is a different emphasis today. Things have shifted from telling “what” to telling “why and how.” Messaging has to be more visual, more social. You have to tell a story, and humanize that story. For example, we had Forbes as a client and worked to show how that company, even with its long history, was acquiring a new technology platform and how it is staying in the game. We told the story through technology journalism that covered the company’s past while making sure to show its new face, too.

Q: Is technology journalism evolving to keep up with these evolutionary shifts?

A:Because technology touches everything in our world, we are seeing more generalists emerge among technology journalists today. A generalist might report on how technology is influencing politics, for example, and how it is helping a candidate win an election. There are always going to be reporters who cover specific beats, like digital security. These reporters are experts, steeped in this world day in, day out. That is not changing—and the emphasis placed on having a strong news hook is not changing either. But there is less emphasis on exclusivity and more emphasis on quality reporting.

Q: Given these changes, how can companies get messages out there?

A:Increasingly, you need to ask how an audience is going to react. It goes back to humanizing a story. It’s important to tell stories that reach people. In many ways, it requires that you return to the basics: telling a story well, describing why something is useful, and showing how it is different.

Q: Does this require a change within companies in how they disseminate messages?

A:Yes. Today, there are many more social channels to consider, as well as events and conferences. There is also the visual medium to consider—making sure videos inserted into websites tell stories clearly. There is print and online content to manage. The role of the chief marketing manager is transforming into the role of chief communications officer. Because there are so many channels, the person in this role has to stitch them together and make sure the people that report to him or her get the messages out effectively and in a timely manner.

Q: Companies are now using more than one public relations agency to get their messages out. Take Postano, for example: They hired Horn Group for a specific role, but have also hired other agencies for other tasks. Is this a recent development?

A:It is not a new development, exactly. We noticed this shift around five years ago. We’ve become accustomed to working with other agencies, and we do so all the time. It is important to make sure boundaries between agencies are clearly defined—”who’s on first,” and all that.

Q: So, effective messaging is really looking at the whole while also managing the sum of its parts?

Yes. There are many layers of the onion, and with brand awareness, you have to think of the whole as well as the layers and how they work together to ensure you have a seat at the table and achieve a greater presence.

A previous version of this report appeared in The Content Standard, published by Skyword, Inc. (Boston).

Review: ‘4000 Miles’ by Amy Herzog

August 4, 2014

By Robert Israel

I approached the Gloucester Stage Company production of Amy Herzog’s two-act comedy 4000 Miles with trepidation. Three years ago I saw her play Belleville, which had been commissioned by her alma mater, the Yale University Repertory Theatre. What attracted me to the Yale Rep premiere production was the promise of hearing a highly praised new voice in American drama. Let me recount the ways Ms. Herzog had been lauded for 2011′s 4000 Miles: an Obie Award, strong reviews from the New York critics, a nomination as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, several national productions, and a $50,000 Whiting Writer’s Award (previous winner: playwright Tony Kushner). Yet Belleville failed in all the ways that 4000 Miles had apparently succeeded. The story was lugubrious, ponderous, and contrived. It drew a slew of negative reviews (including mine). The production was ultimately trucked down to New York, only to garner more lukewarm notices. While it hasn’t stopped the 36-year old wunderkind from cranking out new scripts, the experience suggests that early bouquets don’t rule out later brickbats.

This brings us back to 4000 Miles. The play is a showcase for Ms. Herzog’s quirky sensibilities and canny insights into family dynamics; the script provides her with ample opportunities to turn her sharp eye (and ear) on the trials and tribulations of dysfunctional people. And it is is being given a strong production at the Gloucester Stage Company.

Set in a crowded apartment in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, we meet Vera Joseph, (Nancy E. Carroll), a self-described member of an octogenarian club whose only living members are Vera and an unseen neighbor across the hall. The rest of the over 80s club, we soon learn, are long gone, including Vera’s two husbands.

As the play opens, Vera’s grandson Leo (Tom Rash) arrives. He’s sweaty and pungent after a long-distance bike ride that began in Seattle. Bearded, boyishly handsome, Leo has a glint of mischief in his eye. He has endured his share of tragedies, but he seems to have weathered the worst of them. The latter is the accidental death of his friend and co-bicyclist Micah. He’s also dealing with the impending breakup with his girl friend Bec (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) and, farther along in the play, there’s a fumbled attempt at coitus with a new flame Amanda (Samantha Ma). Yet he gets through all the trauma. His youthful vigor helps; the marijuana joints he puffs on also keep him relaxed.

Leo moves in with his left-leaning grandmother, availing himself of her hospitality, her money, and her memories. Over the course of two-acts, we learn just how, by turns, fuzzy or clear these memories can be. She shares stories of her philandering husbands, peace rallies, a commie cell she frequented, estrangement from her children, and the oddball friend across the hall that, despite the proximity of their apartments, remains inaccessible behind closed doors. Life for Vera is a slow whittling down to the nub. The death’s preliminary rounds have been fought and lost: loss of hearing, loss of teeth, loss of “finding the right words,” as she explains to her grandson when she is unable to finish sentences. As played by the highly capable and deeply entertaining Nancy E. Carroll, we are taken into Vera’s ever-encroaching world of loss without feeling an overplayed sense of pathos. This is the way one’s life ends: a whimper, yes, but accompanied by a sigh.

Leo is a helpful companion and Vera doesn’t want him to leave the roost. Manhattan, she tells him, has museums, night life, and fun stuff to do. Leo wants nothing of Gotham: he’s an outdoorsy type with his bushy whiskers and his disheveled mop of hair. He’s charming. He seems to have a way with the ladies, too, even though during the course of the play he fails to win any female hearts, at one point confessing that he made a stoned attempt to kiss his adopted sister back in St. Paul.

No defeat or humiliation for either grandson or grandmother comes off as grievous, despite the inevitable indignities that come with the approach of death. It’s the aura of mortality (he’s not as obvious as the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, but he’s always lurking behind the clutter and the drapes) that gives 4000 Miles its tantalizing edge, though even with eternity hovering in the wings the Herzog’s writing can come off as too neatly packaged at times.

The set by Ryan Bates lets us catch glimpses of the two bedrooms, where Vera and Leo lay down their burdens. These spaces are connected by cut away hallways that allow for a visual access to other rooms as well. The lighting by Russ Swift makes ample use of shadows and dusk, creating a powerful mood of other-worldliness when Leo recounts the bicycle accident on a highway in Wyoming that claimed the life of his best friend.

The trepidation I felt for Herzog’s work vanished at the final curtain. The grandson and grandmother, off to greet life’s inevitabilities, realize that the bond they have with one another is strong. They both have lives worth living, but they share the bitter knowledge that each day will be a battle to make the most of what they have.

This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Nancy E. Carroll as Vera and Tom Rash as Leo, her grandson, in the Gloucester Stage Company production of “4000 Miles.” Photo: Gary Ng.

Nancy E. Carroll as Vera and Tom Rash as Leo, her grandson, in the Gloucester Stage Company production of “4000 Miles.” Photo: Gary Ng.