Tag Archives: social justice theater

In & Out of Oz

Detail of a mural at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City

I felt I’d walked right into Oz last month when I entered the Gershwin Theatre to enjoy the Broadway musical “Wicked” with my 18-year-old daughter Lizabeth. Giant murals of scenes from “Munchkinland” and the “Emerald City” line an expansive theater wall. Props from the original film are exhibited inside the theater. Families gather at a special photo booth for pictures set in the land of Oz. And there’s no shortage of green — or sparkle.

We’ve seen the musical “Wicked” several times now, and will happily see it again at every opportunity. The touring production returns to ASU Gammage next year for a Feb. 15-March 11 run. Tickets go on sale Nov. 28. So while others are distracted by “Black Friday” sales, Broadway lovers will be waiting for “Green Monday.”

Folks familiar with books by Gregory Maguire are eagerly awaiting his Nov. 14 appearance at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe — where his new book titled “Out of Oz” will be featured during a discussion, Q & A and booksigning. It’s the final installment of his four-part “Wicked Years” series.

Other books in the series include “Wicked,” “Son of a Witch” and “A Lion Among Men.” It’s his first book that inspired the Tony Award winning musical “Wicked.” In “Out of Oz,” a once peaceful and prosperous Oz is “knotted with social unrest” and “wracked by war.”

I’ve always found the social justice piece of “Wicked” its most fascinating strain, so I’m eager to read Maguire’s tale of “the Emerald City mounting an invasion of Munchkinland.”

Still, “Wicked” is for most the tale of two witches — one who sparkles and shines while enjoying glowing popularity, and other scorned for her green skin and less-winning ways. It’s a morality tale with important lessons about friendship and the perils of judging those around us. But first and foremost, it’s a magical spectacle of stagecraft and storytelling.

— Lynn

Note: “Wicked” is one of many shows participating in the 2012 “Kids Night on Broadway” program in NYC. Click here for details. Click here to learn about the wicked women of Goosebottom Books (and watch for a future review of two new titles). And click here for a sneak peek at the “Storytellers 2012” calendar featuring Gregory Maguire.

Coming up: Broadway’s “Theater Hall of Fame,” If you give a mouse a musical…


White noise

Years ago the airwaves were full of infomercials for white noise generators — nifty devices that supposedly produce something capable of drowning out other distractions. I never tried one, though, since sound has been such a profound part of my parenting experience.

I wonder at times whether my children developed their own white noise force fields as teens — because it sometimes felt like everything I said bounced right back to me before making that split second journey from ear canal to brain.

White Noise, A Cautionary Musical is now on stage in Chicago

Recently I learned of a musical titled “White Noise” — currently playing at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. The news came across my desk with a host of other alerts from the “Teaching Tolerance” program of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I was disappointed by the timing of my discovery, which came just days after Lizabeth returned from Chicago, though harrowing hamster tales and tidbits she shared about dark moments from another show did serve to slightly assuage my guilt.

Lizabeth saw “God of Carnage” at the Goodman Theatre over the weekend, and even thought to get me a souvenir pen for future writing ventures. She revealed that her dad, not a giggling sort of a guy, laughed throughout — and that they also enjoyed their time together at the Art Institute of Chicago.

After James and I first married in Southern California more than two decades ago, both our homes and his offices were decorated with prints of famous pieces of art — many from the Art Institute of Chicago collection. I imagine he was especially pleased to visit the museum with one of our three children.

“Chicago” is one on a small list of shows he didn’t want Lizabeth to see when it came to the Valley several years ago — fearing she was too young for some of the content. But she’s grown into all sorts of mature-content theater since then.

God of Carnage is part of the 2011-2012 season for Arizona Theatre Company

“God of Carnage” is being mounted next season by Arizona Theatre Company — which Lizabeth expects will do it great justice. And Broadway World reported recently that a film adaptation to feature Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet (as two moms of children who have a bit of a playgound tussle) is in the works.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking for ways to see “White Noise,” which is being produced by Whoopi Goldberg. The cautionary tale is described as “an edgy new rock musical about a white separatist singing duo.” The musical “challenges conventional notions of free speech, media and the power of pop culture.”

An educational guide for working with high school and college age students has been developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center — which says the musical “raises important issues about the power of hate speech in our culture and should inspire people of conscious to call out those who engage in it.”

It feels particularly timely as tragic events continue to unfold in the aftermath of one man’s decision to burn a book held sacred by millions across the globe. Sometimes we fight on the playground, other times on the world stage.

I’m grateful for works like “God of Carnage” and “White Noise,” which help us hear the hate — then work together in peaceful ways to not merely mask it, but to eradicate it from our personal and collective lives.

— Lynn

Note: Scottsdale Community College presents the next film in its “The Many Faces of Hate” film series on April 27, 6:30-8:30pm in the Turquoise Room on the SCC campus (take the 1o1, exit at Chaparral, then head east to land at SCC). The documentary, “Strange Fruit,” will be followed by a moderated discussion.

Coming up: Musings on “Macbeth” from Valley students

Definition of a dream

Call those babysitters! The 2011 Phoenix Fringe Festival starts tonight!

Many of us wake up every day in warm, secure houses with pantries full of food and closets brimming with clothes. We dream of smarter phones, faster computers, bigger television screens.

But the dreams of homeless teens are very different. You can get a rare glimpse into the lives of homeless youth in Phoenix by attending a play titled “Definition of a Dream.”

It’s being presented April 1-3 by homeless youth who developed the original work in conjunction with Sarah Sullivan and the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development. The Center describes the work as follows:

“Through the artistic experience, young people take their stories to the stage, looking to change the conversation about homelessness in Phoenix, one show at a time. This year’s play takes a look at dreams — the dreams we have for ourselves, for the people in our lives and our community as a whole.”

“Definition of a Dream” asks a powerful question: “What are the things we have to fight for and against to make these dreams a reality?”

The play is one of many thought-provoking works being presented as part of the Phoenix Fringe Festival, which runs April 1-10 at various downtown Phoenix venues.

Tickets for tonight’s performance of “Definition of a Dream” were not available online when I checked Friday afternoon, but tickets for the Sat, April 2 (5:30pm) and Sun, April 3 (8pm) performances may still be out there — but don’t delay in checking the Phoenix Fringe Festival website if you’d like to attend this or other works.

“Definition of a Dream” is being performed at “Modified Arts” at 407 E. Roosevelt in Phoenix. Additional venues for 2011 Phoenix Fringe Festival performances (most appropriate only for mature audiences) include Phoenix Theatre: Little Theatre, Third Street Theatre, Soul Invictus, Bragg’s Pie Factory and Space 55.

You can check out the full “Fringe” schedule (which also includes after-parties and such) at www.phxfringe.org. After reviewing the schedule the other day, I noticed that there are works dealing with religion, sexuality, border issues and a whole lot more. Even Greek myth and Shakespeare manage to get in the game.

Several “Fringe” works, including “Twisted: Greeting Card Moments Gone Bad” by “Tom T. and Twisted Tidings,” are presented by a single artist. Some are presented by local artists, others by artists from other regions (including Australia). A few include students from Arizona State University.

You can get a good feel for the festival by considering the titles of some of the pieces being performed. Schreibstuck. Oppressed. Borders and Bridges. Hamlet Machine. The Panic Opera Sacraments. Too Close to the Sun. Your Teacher Never Told You….

There’s even “Confessions of a Mormon Boy,” which may hold special appeal for those of you who, like myself, have yet to snag tickets to the new Broadway musical titled “The Book of Mormon” (billed by some as an atheist love song to believers).

The Phoenix Fringe Festival is an edgy, off-the-beaten-path experience that’s fun for date nights, outings with friends or solo adventures. Think of it as a way to up the job numbers for all those babysitters out there.

Consider an afternoon, evening or weekend out with the “Fringe.” You might be offended. You might be educated. You might be inspired. But I doubt you’ll be bored. It’s a great way to explore our smaller community theater venues, enjoy affordable performance art and meet folks who probably wouldn’t recognize a remote control if they saw one.

— Lynn

Note: Attend the Phoenix Fringe Festival and you can save $10 off your ticket to “Liz Lerman Dance Exchange: The Matter of Origins” Monday, April 11, at ASU Gammage (use the code FRINGE when ordering tix from the ASU Gammage box office or 480-965-3434).

Coming up: Jellly bean dreams, Chicago envy?

A work in progress

Five panels of an Annette Sexton-Ruiz piece being used in a poster to promote a short-play festival featuring student and other works on the topic of immigration

Playwright James Garcia has worked for years with students at Carl Hayden Community High School on robotics and other projects.

Garcia says he learned “by coincidence” that some of the students had written a play titled “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” with teacher Trish Galindo Kiser — and that the work has themes similar to plays he’s assembling for an upcoming festival.

Garcia, who founded the New Carpa Theater Company in Phoenix, is organizing a “Performing 1070 Short-Play Festival” featuring works “centered on themes related to immigration.”

The festival will include 12 plays, chosen from 70 submissions, which vary in length from four to 12 minutes. The list of works being presented was finalized earlier this month — and you’ll have two opportunities to view them.

The “Performing 1070 Short-Play Festival” takes place Wed, March 30 at Arizona State University West (as part of an annual event examining “border justice” issues) and Thurs, March 31 on the lawn of the Arizona State Capitol.

Students from Carl Hayden High School will be working with Garcia and their teacher this week to consider which vignettes from their piece would best compliment the other plays. Chosen vignettes will be performed by students during the festival.

Works being presented by Arizona playwrights include “Freedom Trail” by Terry Tess Earp, “In Old Arizona” by Guillermo Reyes, and “Joe Arpaio Meets La Virgen de Guadalupe” by Stella Pope Duarte.

Playwrights from California, New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania and Idaho are also represented. Most, says Garcia, have “awards and/or professionally produced plays under their belts.”

Garcia notes that New Carpa is “especially honored” to present an excerpt from a new work by Josephina Lopez titled “Detained in the Desert.” Lopez authored the play “Real Women Have Curves” — and co-wrote the screenplay for the film version featuring actress America Ferrera.

“The purpose of this short-play festival,” shares Garcia, “is to highlight the effects of a series of state-based immigration-related legislation enacted or proposed in Arizona over the last decade.” 

Garcia describes the festival as “a non-partisan, grassroots, community-based theater project…on one of the most compelling human and civil rights issues of our time.”

Admission to the festival is free, but Garcia notes that “donations to the nonprofit New Carpa Theater Company will be accepted.” Click here for event details.

— Lynn

Note: The festival’s title refers to SB1070, an immigration-related piece of legislation signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010.

Coming up: East Valley high school students sound off about “Macbeth”

Dance & domestic violence?

Having a hard time choosing which Valley events to attend this weekend? When in doubt, support a good cause — like domestic violence prevention.

A new dance company, Dias Dance Life, presents a piece to benefit domestic violence prevention

Dias Dance Life presents a domestic violence project called “Don’t Give Up! Moving On!” Sunday, Oct 3, at the newly renovated and re-opened Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix.  Tickets for the 3pm or 7pm show run just $15.

The company specializes in “community-wide participatory events which explore new forms of expression and address issues of cultural, social, and political concern.” Sunday’s performance is “targeted toward mature audiences due to some scenes containing simulations of domestic violence themes.”

Season offerings for several arts organizations feature fare with a social justice flair. Here’s a brief sampling:

The Paradise Valley Community College Theatre Department tackles issues of government regulation and corporate monopolies as it presents “Urinetown: The Musical,” a work that considers the “pay-to-pee” policies of a futuristic city struggling with severe drought. It’ll run Nov 12-21 at the PVCC Performing Arts Center (call the box office at 602-787-7738 for tickets).

The South Mountain Community College Theatre Department presents two social justice works this season — one based on a classic Harper Lee novel published nearly 50 years ago and another based on a new work written by Patricia Loughrey (with music by Thomas Hodges).

Julie Warren created this "Dear Harvey" painting for Diversionary Theatre in San Diego

SMCC presents “Dear Harvey,” a new theater work celebrating the life and accomplishments of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978 along with San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone. It runs Nov 3-6 at the SMCC Performance Hall in Phoenix. They’ll present “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a work set in 1930s Alabama that explores issues of race, class and inequality — April 13-16, 2011.

Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix demonstrated their commitment to social justice theater with their production two years ago of an Elizabeth Swados musical titled “Runaways” — based on the lives of runaway youth living on the streets during the late 1970s. They also offer a theater arts course dedicated to theater and social justice issues.

Next year they’ll present “Triangle,” a play that examines the plight of immigrant and child laborers working at a New York City factory that burned to the ground in 1911 — as well the fire’s aftermath and its effect on people and policies.

Playwright Christopher Piehler (in association with Scott Alan Evan) uses eyewitness accounts, court transcripts and other archival material to recount and reflect upon this lesser known New York tragedy fueled by industrial greed. ASA’s production is scheduled for Apr 28-May 1, 2011.

*Artwork depicting the NYC Triangle Factory Fire of 1911

Several Valley venues will present Holocaust-related art exhibits and performances in the coming weeks and months, so look for tomorrow’s post dedicated to the art of Holocaust remembrance.

— Lynn

Note: If your arts organization is presenting a dance, music, theater or visual art piece with a strong social justice component, please let our readers know by offering a brief comment below. Click here to learn about Domestic Violence Awareness month events taking place at Mesa Community College.

Coming up: The art of Holocaust remembrance, Fall break art camps, Theater by and for youth, “Waiting for Superman” review

*Detail, “History of the Needlecraft Industry” (1938), by Ernest Feeney, High School of Fashion and Industry (A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union)

The fine art of fences

For Arizonans, the word “fence” might conjure many meanings. There’s the importance of pool fences in drowning prevention. The controversy surrounding fences along our border with Mexico. Even the fences some parents use in childproofing their homes.

When I hear talk of “fencing,” two things come to mind. Fencing as a college student studying in Heidelberg, Germany. And seeing one of the world’s more infamous fences, the Berlin Wall, before its demise.

Turns out the Berlin Wall is one of “the seven fence wonders of the world” according to an article appearing on the North American Fence Builders Association website. The Great Wall of China, where I enjoyed one of my more memorable walks as a 20-something, is another.

I got to thinking about “Fences” the other day when I came across a 2010-2011 season brochure for The Black Theatre Troupe while getting Lizabeth to an ASA “Lucky Stiff” rehearsal at Phoenix Theatre.

The esteemed theater companies are collaborating this season on a Dec 1-12 production of “Hairspray” — “a social commentary on the racial injustices of American society in the 1960’s” — to be held at Phoenix Theatre.

But first up for The Black Theatre Troupe, embarking on its 41st season of “preserving the past and embracing the future,” is August Wilson’s “Fences” directed by David J. Hempill. The work is one in a ten-part collection of Wilson plays titled “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”

The troupe’s season brochure describes the play as “both a monumental drama and an intimate family portrait.” The Pulitzer Prize winning work follows the tale of Troy Maxson, a garbage man in 1957 Pittsburgh, who once played for the Negro baseball league but “was excluded by segregation from the major leagues during his prime.” They also note that “Troy’s bitterness takes its toll on his relationships with his wife and son, who now wants his own chance to play.”

“Fences” was first performed in New York during 1987, with James Earl Jones in the role of 53-year-old Maxson — whose life is rife with conflicts centered on the issue of responsibility. The 2010 revival of “Fences” at the Cort Theatre on Broadway starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, earning each a Tony Award for their performance. “Fences” was honored as best revival of a play.

It’s a rare treat to enjoy such an esteemed work right here in the Valley so soon after the Broadway production closes. (Equally impressive is the Phoenix Theatre production of “Avenue Q” to open in the Valley Feb 23-March 20 of next year.)

“Fences” is one of the must-see Arizona productions of the season. It’s a tale of relationships and regret that resonates with people of all races — and The Black Theatre Troupe will surely deliver a powerful and profound performance.

Other 2010-2011 season offerings by The Black Theatre Troupe include not only “Hairspray” (Dec 1-12 with Phoenix Theatre), but also “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” by Lynn Nottage (Feb 18-27), “My Secret Language of Wishes” by Cori Thomas (April 1-10) and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” by Lanie Robertson (May 13-22).

In the words of David Hemphill, executive director for The Black Theatre Troupe, “we invite you to travel with us to experience the full meaning and power of stories, people and places that beautifully shape the values of our commonality.”


Note: The Black Theatre Troupe performs at The Playhouse on the Park, located on the ground floor of The Viad Tower at 1850 N. Central Ave. in Phoenix (enter the parking lot from Palm Ln.). Performances are held at 8pm on Friday and Saturday evenings and 3pm on Sundays. “Second week only” Saturday matinees begin at 2pm.  (“Hairspray” will be performed at Phoenix Theatre.)

Coming up: The season’s best offerings with social justice themes

School is a feeling place

School is a feeling place… 

It’s one of many pearls shared by actor and playwright Nilaja Sun of New York, who’s performing her critically-acclaimed one-woman, self-authored play “No Child” through Sunday, May 9, at the Herberger Theater Center. 

Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director for Actors Theatre in Phoenix, says the company chose “No Child” because there’s “something special about bringing out an original voice and artist.” 

“This is an important play for our community at this time,” reflects Wiener. “The work is very appropriate for Arizona given our educational world. It has something to say without being an ‘I told you so’ or judgment thing.” 

Wiener diplomatically refrained from elaborating but I suspect many of you can fill in the possible blanks here. Lousy funding for education. Low appreciation for the importance of arts in education. Little regard for the value of diverse voices. Take your pick. 

Nilaja Sun of "No Child"

Sun’s play is populated by people you’d find in a public school in the Bronx, which is the setting for her riff–both reflective and riotous. “No Child” follows a teaching artist as she engages students who’ve been written off by others and, in many cases, themselves. 

There’s the janitor, who opens and closes the play—all the while pushing a wide broom as he sings a blues song that alludes to finding one’s way to a brighter day. There’s the new teacher thrown into a world that might as well be galaxies away—and others. 

Sun says she chose to open the work with the school janitor as an homage—she uses the term “love letter”—to all those unsung heroes in our schools: the janitors, cafeteria workers and crosswalk guards among us. 

And there are the students. They’ve been through several teachers just this year alone, but warm after a time to the woman who tells them “From now on, we are nothing but thespians.” (It’s a line one of her students repeatedly meets with “Lesbians?”) 

Sun’s mission is to journey with the students through a six-week teaching gig that culminates in the presentation of a school play about a group of convicts. The play is titled “Our Country’s Good.” 

It doesn’t take long for students to recognize the parallels between low expectations of convicts and low perceptions of students–or for Sun to wonder whether preparing students to be convicts might be what some of our schools seem to do best these days. 

The students complain of hunger, too many rules and boredom—which prompts Sun, in her role of teaching artist, to offer the following: “Boredom, my love, usually comes from boring people.” 

There’s nothing boring about this play. It’s saturated with subject matter that matters. It’s a humanizing force in a world where students are too often viewed as a collective mob rather than individual muses. 

The students Sun portrays, all compilations of students she worked with during eight years as a tenacious teaching artist in New York’s toughest classrooms, have distinctive dialects, physical movement and views of the world. 

During a post-performance talk back with the audience Sunday afternoon, she likened switching between characters to snapping fresh, crisp asparagus—noting her director’s insistence that there be a clean, clear break at every juncture (even if a character’s only contribution might be a glance or a sigh). 

Sun’s generosity of spirit is evident in both her performance and her attention to the details of each audience member’s question. She’s a captivating channel for a world few of us may ever experience in a time where it matters to each and every one of us. 

Make space in your world for “No Child.” If you’ve ever been a teacher, in any sense of the word—or a student—this work will resonate with things you’ve felt, wondered about and imagined. 

Theater, thanks to Sun, is a feeling place—and we’re all better for it. 


Note: “No Child” contains mature language (including racial slurs hurled between students of different ethnicities), so be prepared to address this element of the work if you chose to take your child or teen to see this production. 

Coming up: Review of Arizona Theatre Company’s presentation of “The Second City Does Arizona, or Close, But No Saguaro”—being performed at the Herberger Theater Center through May 16.

Today’s tidbits: FREE concert tonight featuring South Mountain Community College Community Band and Jazz Ensemble with young musicians from Valley schools–NFL YET Academy, Bernard Black Elementary School and Cloves C. Campbell Elementary School. Concert is at 7pm at SCMM, located at 7050 S. 24th St. in Phoenix. Info at www.southmountaincc.edu or 602-243-8353.