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Year in Review: Theater productions elevate amid the pandemic struggle

Theater exists in the moment and reflects its time. 

Theater in 2021 was especially poignant, for audiences weren’t sure if and when they were going to receive it live and on stage, rather than virtually. Artists sidelined for 18 months returned in earnest to live performance beginning in late summer with new safety protocols, socially- distanced seating and vaccine-card checks at the door. Shows with smaller casts were staged to minimize risk of illness. Trips to the theater may not feel quite normal yet, but audiences are quite grateful. 

With trepidation and determination, Atlanta tried to reclaim what had been lost in the pandemic, things that had been taken for granted before because theater had always been there. Additionally, in response to the reckoning for racial equity from summer 2020, the stories told in 2021 came from more diverse casts, marginalized voices and theater companies urged to create more inclusive working environments. There were stories of isolation, struggle and pain. Even shows that had been an annual tradition returned with new approaches.

This resulted in a lot of solid work during a very strange year. ArtsATL theater critics Benjamin Carr, Jim Farmer, Alexis Hauk, Pierre Ruhe and Kelundra Smith have selected the best in shows, presented here in alphabetical order.

A Christmas Carol, Alliance Theatre

Andrew Benator as Scrooge and Matthew Morris as Jacob Marley (Photo by Greg Mooney)

“The poor are poor because we made them so!” cries the repentant Ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol. That pearl of cultural-economic wisdom — as true in Victorian times as in our own — is what drove the Alliance Theatre’s new script (by David H. Bell) and deluxe new production (directed by Leora Morris) of the beloved ghostly classic. Andrew Benator’s Scrooge never quite held the center, but he was surrounded by a stellar cast who inhabited their characters with intensity and also sang favorite carols beautifully. The November-December production, which we’ll be seeing for years to come, was loaded with abundant charms and delights, overstuffed like a Christmas goose, and it was a nostalgic treat. — PR 

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare Tavern

The all-female Shakespeare Tavern production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in August-September played up the humor even more than the romance, and the result was a surprisingly gangbusters second act. The play-within-a-play, staged by an acting troupe of buffoons, was so funny that it became impossible to tell if the actors or characters onstage watching the show were snickering at the antics. Either way, it was hilarious. Destiny Freeman, Cameryn Richardson and Jasmine Renee Ellis were standouts in the production. — BC

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An Iliad, Theatrical Outfit

Lee Osorio is one of the best actors in the city. Period. Playing The Poet who tells a one-man epic in An Iliad at Theatrical Outfit in September-October, Osorio commanded the audience’s attention for nearly two hours.

In his best moment, Osorio’s Poet listed seemingly every war in human history from the Trojan War to the present. The goal was to show the audience the immense toll of these endless battles. The list was not a history lecture. It was not a joke. It was a heartbreaking tragedy. — BC

Lee Osorio as The Poet in “An Iliad.” (Photo by Casey Gardner Ford)

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Beautiful Blackbird Live, Alliance Theatre

As the old saying goes, “Birds of a feather must funk together.” And funk they did in the Alliance Theatre’s Beautiful Blackbird Live!, a family-friendly outdoor concert in April that led the company’s socially-distanced Under the Tent series.

This sweet 30-minute venture was based on the Coretta Scott King Award-winning book written by acclaimed author Ashley F. Bryan. It featured toe-tapping tunes scored by Eugene H. Russell IV — who also portrayed the band’s frontman, er, front-bird — and inventive plumage by costume designer Lex Liang. Best of all, it offered an uplifting message of self-acceptance, drawn from a traditional Zambian fable about how we should all love and celebrate our unique strengths, talents and gifts. — AH

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Black Women Speak, Horizon Theatre

Horizon Theatre Company held readings in October and November of selected early-draft scenes to showcase its innovative initiative, the New Georgia Woman Project: Black Women Speak. Led by associate artistic producer Marguerite Hannah, Horizon commissioned nine playwrights — four relatively established writers and five emerging talents — and gathered more than 150 Black women from metro Atlanta and across the South to join a series of group conversations to help forge this new work.

The plan is to nurture the plays toward full-fledged productions over the next five years. The four established playwrights — Candrice Jones, AriDy Nox, A’ndrea J. Wilson and Shay Youngblood — will have full readings of their plays early in 2022. The five emerging playwrights — Tramaine Brathwaite, Amina McIntyre, Chiwuzo Ife Okwumabua, Kelundra Smith and Dana Stringer — will have their work read publicly for the first time next summer. — AH

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DATA,
Alliance Theatre

DATA Alliance May 2021
Cheech Manohar in the virtual production of “DATA.”

In May, the Alliance’s website streamed Matthew Libby’s dystopian drama DATA, which won the 2021 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. Directed by Alliance artistic director Susan Booth and shot at the Creative Media Industries Institute at Georgia State University, DATA isn’t your typical film — the five actors were never actually side by side. They delivered their lines in front of a green screen, with background images added later. Intentionally, it all looks artificial, like a sterile lab experiment. 

Libby’s intricate script and the geeky awkwardness of the cast makes everything a feedback loop on itself, where a Silicon Valley tech firm gets a government contract to develop democracy-ending software. What could possibly go wrong? DATA is as much about ethics and philosophy as sci-fi and acute observations on human nature. Add the weirdness of the production, and it made for a memorable, oddly compelling show. — PR

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Hamlet, The Tiny Theater Company

I’ll admit that Hamlet is not my favorite Shakespeare play. Since I first read it in high school, Hamlet’s whining and unwillingness to let go of anything — no matter who he destroyed in his path — irked me. However, founder Cyd Prather and The Tiny Theater Company ensemble have found a way to make Shakespeare relevant for a new generation. Their April staging of Hamlet, a guest production presented as part of the Alliance Theatre’s Under the Tent series, featured an all-Black cast and incorporated some contemporary language, dance, movement and elements of African American culture to breathe new life into the play. I thoroughly enjoyed this version of Hamlet, which captured the protagonist’s youth and may have earned some sympathy points with me. Turns out, the play’s still the thing. — KS

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Hometown Boy, Actor’s Express

Keiko Green, a playwright and grad student originally from Marietta, returned to Georgia with Hometown Boy, a fictional tale of family secrets, and Actor’s Express developed and staged the premiere in November with a set that literally split the fam’s old home in two. When the secrets are spilled, the play comes alive with energy, building to a terrific climax involving another family.

The original work was reminiscent of August: Osage County and Buried Child, yet it centered on an Asian American family in the South. But the script wasn’t about racism or oppression explicitly. It was a relatable story about messed-up people who must cope with the damage they’ve done to each other. — BC

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Marie and Rosetta, True Colors Theatre Company

True Colors Theatre Company gave audiences a two-hander girl power musical that rocks with its production of Marie and Rosetta, directed by veteran actress Andrea Frye. Playwright George Brant’s script follows the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her accompanist Marie Knight, as they tour their swinging gospel revue across the South. True Colors had planned the production for spring 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic. It then became the first play in the company’s Sankofa-themed 2021–22 season, comprised of three plays celebrating Black women in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Amitria Fanae was magnetic as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She portrayed her as witty, sexy, ambitious and free during a time when women in the church weren’t always allowed to be those things. Jasmine Ellis as Marie had a voice pretty enough to sing the phonebook in this energetic jukebox musical. Their chemistry was undeniable, and the musical is a great introduction to these gospel legends for Gens X, Y and Z. — KS

“Marie and Rosetta” co-starred Jasmine Renee Ellis (left) and Amitria Fanae. (Photo by Greg Mooney)
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Red Speedo, Actor’s Express

Actor’s Express stuck the landing and brought home the gold with Lucas Hnath’s 2013 Obie-winning, four-person, chlorine-soaked pressure cooker of a show about an Olympic hopeful (played with depth and charisma to spare by Marlon Andrew Burnley) facing a potential doping scandal. And though it would have been enough to simply glide through with the immensely strong cast and strong material, the August-September production of Red Speedo brought out new and interesting dimensions for 2021.

In a year in which star athletes such as tennis champ Naomi Osaka and GOAT gymnast Simone Biles opted out of situations that threatened their mental health, Red Speedo explored the question of who owns athletes’ lives and images and whether so much self-sacrifice is ever worth it. Punctuated by a spectacular fight scene, it proved to be a fascinating, provocative and moving story and a strong start to the return of live theater. — AH

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The Bluest Eye, Synchronicity Theatre

Toni Morrison was one of those rare writers who could hold a reader in the palm of her hand with one sentence. Her way with descriptive language is no doubt what made her the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, is about a group of  girls living in a rural community in Ohio while starting to confront puberty, colorism and sexuality. It centers on Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old girl who fantasizes about blue eyes taking her away from poverty and an abusive father. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond adapted the novel for the stage in 2004.

Synchronicity’s September-October production, deftly directed by Ibi Owolabi, captured the humor of coming of age and the haunting events in Pecola’s life. Brittany Deneen Hines shined as the spunky, precocious narrator Claudia. The production also carefully showed how colorism seeps into the psyche in ways that are hard to articulate, particularly in the scene where Claudia and her older sister Frieda fight light-skinned Maureen Peal, who was rendered with humor and sadness by Aminah Williams. Synchronicity has a knack for ensemble work with strong female characters, and The Bluest Eye was right in its wheelhouse. — KS

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The Exterminating Angel, Vernal & Sere Theatre

Joseph Yang (from left), Megan Poole, Katerina Eichenberger and Joe Sykes in “The Exterminating Angel.” (Photo by Mariana Novak)

Vernal & Sere’s Theatre’s The Exterminating Angel was surreal and crazy. But it showed what artists who commit to brazen, big ideas can accomplish when they dare to risk. A cast of 21 well-rehearsed actors played guests at a disastrous dinner party where they eventually discover they can not leave the dining room. Staged at the Windmill Arts Center in October, this adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s film by playwright Sawyer Estes made the audience feel just as trapped as the characters. The show was full of spectacle and chaos, and it was a must-see. — BC

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You Better Call Your Mother

As he prepared for his 60th birthday, actor and MetroFresh owner Mitchell Anderson decided to knock an item off his bucket list. The stage veteran had never been part of a one-man show or a cabaret, and, with the help of longtime Atlanta performer Courtenay Collins as director, decided to give it a go with his You Better Call Your Mother in November.

The production featured a healthy assortment of Anderson’s favorite songs, yet it was his stories that really made this work so warm and memorable. After coming out as gay in an era where there were few other out performers, he quickly became an activist. Yet the actor best known for TV work, including Party of Five, made some bold moves in his career — eventually moving from Los Angeles to New York to focus more on theater and then, post 9/11, relocating to Atlanta to be with partner Richie Arpino and to start a new career as a restaurateur. Full of optimism and insight, You Better Call Your Mother was a heck of a calling card for its headliner. — JF

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