Cortez L. Johnson (left) starred in "The Ballad of Emmett Till." Photo courtesy of ion theatre
Powerful commentaries on race, two world-premiere dramas and a couple of exciting musical revivals distinguished what was a memorable year in San Diego theater.
The Ballad of Emmett Till, ion theatre: The lynching in 1955 of a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till stunned the country and added fuel to the early civil rights movement. Ion Theatre’s production of Ifa Bayeza’s play was a wrenching re-creation of the events that led up to the murder of the boy known as “Bobo,” and at the same time a reminder of the unwavering spirit of the family left behind who made sure his story, in all its tragedy, was told. An indelible theater experience.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, New Fortune Theatre Co.: The San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Space hosted this lush and tres sexy realization of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play. New Fortune Theatre Co. artistic director Richard Baird co-directed (with Kaitlin O’Neal) and starred as the rapacious Vicomte de Valmont, with Jessica John Gercke deliciously in league with him as the Marquise de Merteuil. From its lush period costumes (by Howard Schmitt) to its lyrical scene changes, Les Liaisons Dangereuses was dangerously enticing.
Blue Door, Moxie Theatre: Cortez L. Johnson, who portrayed Emmett Till at ion theatre in July, earlier co-starred (with Vimel Sephus) in Moxie Theatre’s staging of Tanya Barfield’s one-act about the racial divide and personal conscience. Here, Johnson inhabited the spirits of multiple black men who were tormented and/or killed, with Sephus a college professor wracked with doubt after having declined to participate in the Million Man March. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directed the cerebral and evocative production.
Ballast, Diversionary Theatre: In this world-premiere play by Georgette Kelly, a wife (Jacque Wilke) struggles to come to terms with the gender transition of her spouse (Dana Aliya Levinson) who is also a church pastor. Incredibly, that was only one layer to a complex and deeply personal narrative that Diversionary Theatre presented with grace and honesty. While Kelly’s script leaned heavily on metaphor right down to its title, Ballast told a story whose underpinnings are both significant and timely.
On the Twentieth Century, Cygnet Theatre: For sheer screwball fun, the Twentieth Century Limited to New York – by way of Old Town – was just the ticket. It was there that Cygnet Theatre revved up a delightful revival of the 1978 musical by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Cy Coleman, all of them Broadway royalty. A stellar cast led by Eileen Bowman, clever choreography by David Bannen and a nostalgic set by Sean Fanning made this a trip well worth taking.
Into the Heights, Moonlight Stage Productions: Those under the spell of Hamilton may regard Into the Heights as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “other show,” but Moonlight showed why this high-energy musical, which opened on Broadway in 2008, still rocks. Everything about this summertime staging, from James Vasquez’s direction and the choreography of Carlos Mendoza, to the passion of the ensemble cast, clicked. For a few memorable weeks, the Vista night air was filled with the sounds of salsa-meringue and hip-hop.
Margin of Error, Roustabouts Theatre Co.: A new theater company, the Roustabouts, debuted impressively in Horton Plaza’s Lyceum Theatre with this smart, caustic world-premiere play by Will Cooper. Roustabouts co-founder (with Cooper and actor-director Phil Johnson) Ruff Yeager starred as a narcissistic physicist with issues in the ethics department. Tense and effective dramatic support came from Joel Miller, Roxane Carrasco and notably Rose Reynolds, daughter of this taut production’s director, Rosina Reynolds.
Father Comes Home from the Wars, Intrepid Theatre Co.: Count on Christy and Sean Yael-Cox’s Intrepid Theatre Company for at least one Top 10 show every year, and this was it – a lyrical staging of a three-act drama by Suzan-Lori Parks. The storytelling takes place during the Civil War and focuses on a slave-turned-soldier (Wrekless Watson) in search of freedom and understanding of self. Among the many outstanding performances, one stood tallest: Tom Stephenson as a cruel slave owner.
Skeleton Crew, Old Globe Theatre: The Old Globe’s Powers New Voices Festival first presented this intense play by Dominique Morisseau three years ago. Its return, this time as a co-production between the Globe and Moxie Theatre, was an opportunity to watch a dedicated cast (Tonye Patano, Brian Marable, Amari Cheatom and Rachel Nicks) transform the break room of a Detroit auto plant, one about to be shut down, into a frank and sometimes painful series of encounters about life’s hardships.
Falling, InnerMission Productions: Though hard to watch at times for its candid portrayal of the challenges of raising a severely autistic teenager, Falling was a profoundly rewarding hour and a half. Much credit went to Robert Malave for a fearless performance as 18-year-old Josh, and to D. Candis Paule and Steve Schmitz as the parents whose faith, love and endurance are mightily tested. Inside InnerMission’s tiny blackbox performance space, there was no escaping the emotional freefalls.
Honorable Mention: North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Of Mice and Men, New Village Arts’ Awake and Sing, Moxie Theatre’s Ironbound, Lamb’s Players Theatre’s Shadowlands, Diversionary Theatre’s 2.5 Minute Ride. (Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/27/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat