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New York State 2019/20 Season in Review
John F. Kennedy, Victor Morales, Monish Bhattacharyya, Timothy Coseglia, and Suzie Hibbard in the Navigation Theatre Company production of The Kindness of Strangers. Photo by Compass Performing Arts Center.
John F. Kennedy, Victor Morales, Monish Bhattacharyya, Timothy Coseglia, and Suzie Hibbard in the Navigation Theatre Company production of The Kindness of Strangers. Photo by Compass Performing Arts Center.

Even with the season cut short, New York State still celebrated several world premieres. 

     In September, Creative Action Unlimited opened MICHAEL KENNEDY’s Whitewashed: the racism project at the Arts Center of the Capital Region. The company’s productions focus “on moving audiences to create social change as the result of theater that educates and inspires,” says Kennedy. “Over the course of seven months, using a documentary theater approach, the playwright/director and a cast of seven Black actors brainstormed essential topics to include, researched historical documents, and contributed personal monologues and spoken word pieces and added songs.” This show is designed to tour and performed to sold out houses at local theater venues, community organizations, and churches until bookings were halted by social distancing; the company hopes to pick up performances this fall.

     Also in September, in Buffalo, actor and fledgling playwright Heather Fangsrud created and premiered her one-woman show, Knock, Knock, Jesus Calling, about growing up as a gay Jehovah’s Witness. “I never meant to be a playwright. When [Brazen-Faced Varlets Artistic Director] Lara [Haberberger] suggested writing a show based on my own experiences and life, I balked. But once I got down to writing it, it came a little easier than I expected. I don’t know that I have a second play in me, but the first one made me feel pretty empowered,” says Fangsrud. “It was amazing knowing that I had written the show I was performing, with all the self-doubt that came along with it... thinking I wasn’t explaining things properly or was getting too caught up in unimportant details. But hearing the audience’s responses made me realize just how much we had in common, if not in the same experiences, then in the whole human experience.”

     Also in Buffalo at the start of the season, Paul Robeson Theatre premiered Ladies Swing the Blues, with book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and music by William A. Knowles. In what is described as a Jazz Opus Folklore in the Key of Swing, four jazz icons gather in the famed Birdland club in 1953 to celebrate the life the recently passed Charlie Parker. Performers portrayed Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald as they chronicled the lives of the most influential music makers of the twentieth century—and the conspiracy to silence them. 

     “Ladies Swing the Blues was welcomed with open arms by our patrons,” says PRT Artistic Director Paulette D. Harris. “Every evening, our patrons shared personal stories about the times they attended Birdland. The music, dancing, and ambience provided a sense of nostalgia. To provide a story about our jazz greats whose music is timeless never gets old. It continues to entertain and educate. Finger popping, singing along with the cast, and plenty of smiles made this a great season opener.”

     Lucky playwright MARK HUMPHREY had two world premieres scheduled this season in Buffalo, but only one of them, The Kindness of Strangers, made it to the stage, premiering at Navigation Theatre Company in October/November. In the play, an actor accused of murder meets a man willing to take the blame for it. “When I wrote Kindness, my main focus was not to change the world or start a huge conversation. What I wanted to do was entertain; sometimes we lose that in our writing. Listening to my audience, and watching them after the show, I think I achieved that,” Humphrey says, adding, “Watching one of my shows tends to be an organic process in that I still want to make some changes in the script, and sometimes the actors or the director does something that makes me say, ‘I’m gonna keep that for next  time.’” 

     This marks my last entry in The Dramatist as regional representative for New York State (formerly Western New York), but not my departure from my beloved Guild! As I pass the torch geographically to someone in another area of this vast state, I will happily transition to Western New York ambassador to continue serving my immediate region and assisting the new regional rep in any capacity. It has been my honor to serve you since 2012 and I look forward to doing more of it in this new position; please feel free to continue to reach out to me at any time!

donna@donnahoke.com

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