Women of the Arts 2019: Jessica Jennings: Continuing a Theatrical Legacy

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On West 54th Street, there stands a theatre next to a bustling police station. A simple colored banner waves at ongoing traffic. Not an unusual thing in New York? Well, this one is. It’s the legendary American Theatre of Actors. The “ATA” is one of the last standing theatres that ushered in the off-off Broadway movement of the 60s and 70s (reaching a pinnacle in the 1980s). The theatre is still run by its founder, James Jennings. Standing with him is his daughter, Jessica Lynn Jennings, a theatrical luminary in her own right as a director, producer, and founder of numerous arts organizations, including the world-philanthropic Ripple Effect Artists.

The ATA will serve as host for another milestone. The Green Room, a new musical that will have its East Coast premiere in September at the historic space. Intimate in nature (four characters), but powerful in scope, this paradigm shift in American musical theatre will feature Jessica Jennings at the helm as director.

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Ms. Jennings with ATA founder … and her father … James Jennings

Opening the fall 2019 season, this anticipated musical journey has been compared to Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” but with the sense and sensibilities of the 21st century millennial artist. THE GREEN ROOM is the story of four friends who want to NOT be on Broadway – but want to take the more intellectual OFF-Broadway by storm.

It takes someone who understands the heart of the artist and the power that Off-Broadway now has … even over Broadway. Ms. Jennings has that in her DNA!

Tell us about yourself. 

I have a diverse background in dance and theatre. I pull on my full range of experiences and skills when I take on directing. Each script calls for it’s own set of needs, so drawing from different techniques is useful.  I like to ask myself: what are the rules of this world? Are we in reality? Are we in a metaphysical landscape? Is there an era or culture that we must pull from?  These kinds of questions help me determine how I proceed.  But ultimately the actors are creating characters and they must be fully physically involved.

Your own story reads like that of the great vaudevillians. 

I was raised in the theatre by theatre parents right here in Hell’s Kitchen. I was put on stage before I could walk.  I did a lot of theatre and commercials.  My earliest stage memory was being in a production of “King John” at age 4 and calling for line during a performance. 

I really gravitated toward dance.  I spent my childhood investing most of my time in that arena. I danced with Neubert Ballet at Carnegie Hall; a production of “Cinderella” at City Center with Ft. Worth Ballet; traveled to a The Edinburgh Festival with Cumberland Ballet; at 12 I danced for Sean Curran.  Then, as a teenager, I really got into modern dance.  Training at the Martha Graham School and then at University of the Arts (UArts, BFA).  I went on to form a dance company from 2005-2006 before I decided my body needed to retire.

My background in dance was really very saturated and high level.  I received some lovely accolades for my choreography, and a Dominic  DiPaolo Award from UArts for my Senior Thesis choreographic work “Plunging for Acquiescence.”  During college I kept returning to stage every summer.  I’ve done over 20 Shakespearean productions.  It wasn’t until 2010 that I put all my skills together and started directing.  It was really a very natural and obvious transition.  I enjoy it immensely and I think my skills in dance are very telling with my work.  I love moving actors on stage.  Martha Graham said “the body never lies” and that’s become my litmus test as I direct. I have a knack of physically spoting where the actors’ bodies are in or out of character.  It could be as simple as the way they hold a cup, or how they hold their head.

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From L to R: Creators, Chuck Pelletier and Stephen Foster with Jessica and Miller-Coffman Prods. artistic director, Stephen Miller.

What inspires you about GREEN ROOM? 

This is such a fun fun fun piece. I had a smile plastered on my face when I first listened to the music.  The music is inspiring and uplifting and witty.  I think all theatre people will have a fondness for this musical.  It portrays our story; it’s a glimpse into our world.  That inspires me. 

Share with us, your creative process. How you work with living composers/writers possibly sitting right next you you! Not to mention, building your staging, working with singers, etc. 

When you have living writers you have to respect their vision and their words more than with public domain works.  The creativity I bring as a director MUST be collaborative.  So I simply ask questions about the work, about the background.  In this case we have a tried and true musical that’s been successful around the country and also in Ireland.  Minor changes to update the text and lyrics were discussed, and agreed upon: for example, the political commentary has been updated over various versions to address the Clintons, then the Obamas.  Our version will mention the Trumps.  It has to or else we are dated.  

Chuck and Stephen have been more than generous with their time and collaboration.     I met them first through a conference call.  I asked questions about their expectations and their vision.  I needed to know if there was any nuance from past versions that should be adhered to or if I’d have the reigns completely.  (I have the reigns!)  I mentioned I would like to have some diversity in the casting when we bring it to NYC.  We worked together to agree on how to achieve that, on where there was freedom and where there was limitation.  Our producer also had a very clear vision that the character ‘Divonne’ should be ‘of weight’; he wants to show body diversity and it was very easy for all of us to get on-board with that.  

Casting?  

Casting is the tricky part.  When there are four creatives who have a say we each deserve to be heard.  I think we achieved that by the end of the process – everyone getting a say in why X actor will not work, why Y actor has a chance.  I came to the process very wide-eyed, knowing there were certain parameters, and also knowing that we’d have to make tough decisions.  We had brilliant talent in the room, but, for example, when our top-choice actor looks 35 years old and you’re casting for 18-22 yrs, you have to make a choice to either cast everyone up in age or everyone down in age.  

Working with singers?

I have a musical director, David Fletcher, who is working with them a week before I begin.  I am jazzed to have them put their own spin on the songs and I look forward to digging in to that work.  These actors will need more vocal warm-up, but ultimately the soul of the work is always the emotional work. 

You’re doing double-duty as the set designer?

Here we have a tried and true piece and many past-production designs that are all very similar to one another.  Our physical stage plays a role in how the set can be.  For example, we do not have a thrust or proscenium and so we have come up with two solutions that will work for the play-within-the play.  I can work with either final concept as long as the couch on stage is set at an angle and not squared off to the front.   

Give us your take on your characters – what does it mean to be a 20 something in the 21st Century. 

I’m a little older than that.  Being 20 something has always been a proving ground.  A time you start adult-ing, making tough and life decisions, sometimes messing it up.  Trying to prove your worth and separate yourself from being a kid.  I ‘think’ being 20’s nowadays means you are also proving to older adults that you have depth.  For better or worse everyone older is judging them for growing up around so much technology and want to know that they can be detached from a phone and social media.

Personally, what does the show mean to you?

“The Green Room” is like a walk down memory lane.  An homage to my youth and my days in college.  It’s cathartic. 

What’s next? 

Next… I won a Puffin Grant for the American Theatre of Actors to bring Phil Paradis’ plays on climate change to stage.  The project, “Cloudy with a Chance of Dystopia,” will rehearse in October and run in November.   The main event is his play “Footprints of the Polar Bear,” together with a few of his short plays that include “Natural Rarities Up for Bid,”  “The Perfect Place,” and a few others.  I will direct one or two of these works.

THE GREEN ROOM make its New York Premiere SEPTEMBER 25th – OCTOBER 26th at one of the original theaters that brought about the storied off-off Broadway movement, THE AMERICAN THEATRE OF ACTORS (314 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019).

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This Recent Tragic Event is a True Learning Experience

Edited by Natasha Dawsen

89491650437842e3a49a454f8ec22b98.jpgSet the night after September 11, 2001, Recent Tragic Events follows a blind date happening in the shadow of a tragedy.

Written by Craig Wright, and directed by Jake Lipman, this fateful date has been arranged between an attractive advertising exec, Waverly (played with intellectual intensity by Jaya Tripathi) and a tentative and bookish bookstore manager, Andrew (the excellent Matt Gibson).

But this is not just an ordinary blind date, filled with awkward pauses and sizing up of appearances. Each of the blind daters seem inextricably stuck together in this moment in time: Waverly is tethered to her phone, waiting for an important call while trying to flirt with Andrew, while Andrew ricochets from chair to perusing her books to staring deep into her eyes, all the while making multiple unsuccessful attempts to leave the confines of her apartment.

As the company’s stage manager (Loralee Tyson) informs the audience at the top of the show, the events of the piece could go in two possible directions; she invites an audience member to flip a coin, and from there, a tone is sounded for the moments where the action could go one way or another. This conceit was slightly distracting for me in the beginning, but it should be noted that the playwright is known for twisty television writing for shows like “Lost,” and it does eventually play out in the second act.

eda2f34a77607ca3e5d0b35884bd9199.jpgFrom this tense beginning, the play makes a left turn into an almost sitcom-like territory, complete with a group of quirky friends and neighbors. Next door neighbor and musician Ron stops by, (the hammy yet likable William Douglas Turner) and invites himself in, along with his depressive girlfriend (Jake Lipman, a lot of fun to watch), making for the weirdest of double-dates and much of the play’s sillier moments.

While Recent Tragic Events vacillates between dramatic and comedic moments, it poses philosophical questions about the role of fate versus free will in the course of our lives—which the play never fully answers. But maybe that’s the point—seeing this play nearly two decades after 9/11, I was struck by how little we know today about the events and actions taken leading up to this national tragedy, and yet the not knowing does not change the fact it happened.

Thanks to this ensemble of gifted actors, Tongue in Cheek’s production of Recent Tragic Events is an effective one, filled with moments of real warmth, humor, and connection.

Recent Tragic Events is currently running May 8-18 at The Bridge Theatre, Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th Street, 12th Floor. For tickets, go to http://www.tictheater.com

Inola McGuire reviews The Buffalo Hero

The Buffalo Hero of World War I

A play written and directed by Kenthedo Robinson

The American Theatre of Actors 314th West 54th Street, 4th Floor, NYC

The first performance of the actors in this historic and enlightening period piece was dynamic, and the audience was elated to see the heroic character of a fallen Buffalo Soldier hero by the name of Wayne Miner of the 92nd Division of WWI.  The actors in this play are the following:  Darrell Wyatt, Ms. D, Bereket Mengistu, Challeane Mullgrave, Mark J. Robinson, Shatique Brown, and Timothy Patrick Walsh.

The audience sees the characterization of the soldiers, and in a few scenes, Private Wayne Miner exemplifies in honor and courage to the core of his being.  On the other hand, Private Seymoure’s character joins a rigid military with a history of institutional racism with his preconceived mindset that is very confrontational through the eyes of his fellow privates, his lieutenant, and his captain.  Captain Blu, III is a Caucasian man with a southern background, and he tells the privates what he thinks about them in the harshest forms of insults about their race.   Nonetheless, Private Rucker’s character, a functional illiterate who hails from the state of Texas, finds himself in the military.  There is room for everyone!  Private Miner teaches him some basic skills.  His encounter with the racist captain reminds him of all of the racism he had experienced and what was prevalent before, during and after WWI in the United States of America.  As a reminder, the privates find themselves in the state of Iowa of all places.

Private Seymoure’s character stays defiant and Captain Blu assigns him to the cleaning of the latrine on the army compound as a form of punishment for his insubordination to his superior.  Unfortunately, the private finds himself stuck in the latrine for a considerable period of time, and his constraining to inhale urine and feces becomes the brunt of the jokes among the Captain and his white counterparts.  This experience forces him to curb his enthusiasm and halt his militancy.  The audience witnesses his transformation in awe!  The uppity private becomes a much humbler soul.

Private Miner shares a spiritual connection with his mother, and he communicates with her in a special way when he is alone.  He discusses his experiences with her, and her wise words of comfort fortifies his spirit.  Yet, from time to time, he and the other privates receive mails from their home states; but Private Rucker’s character accepts help with the reading of his mail from Private Miner.

As the play progresses, the audience sees the blatant inequality in the treatment and the lack of preparation for combat for the private soldiers.  Lieutenant Clark who is a college graduate tries his best to standup to Captain Blu.  Captain Blu uses his caring nature for his men to manipulate any advantage he seems to gain over him.  The audience surmises that the military’s intention is to keep the privates as stevedores around the base.  With the insistence of the lieutenant on the privates’ behalf, there are substantial changes, but Captain Blu continues to delegate his orders to the lieutenant without hesitation.

In an environment where there is a war, there is the presence of the Red Cross to care for the wounded and the sick; and the American military had incorporated nurses of African descent to assist its soldiers.  Private Miner and his fellow soldiers find themselves in France, although they are not fully trained for combat.  Captain Blu continues his ill treatment of them, but Lieutenant Clark attempts to curtail his unreasonable behavior towards Private Miner and the other men at times.  Captain Blu’s states his requirements for unity, loyalty, and courage from his men.   Both Captain Blu and Lieutenant Clark stay in constant contact via radio with their superiors, and the soldiers on the front line suffer heavy casualties.  Now, the decision for the removal of the wounded and the dead in the trenches falls on the backs of Privates Seymoure and Rucker.  With the inability to drink to calm his nerves, Private Rucker becomes helpless and he is unable to cope with the situation around him.   Private Seymoure gets shot and Private Rucker leaves him at the site, but he returns to base and he reports to Captain Blu and Lieutenant Clark the latest development.

Captain Blu becomes irate and he begins to hurl insults at Private Rucker who ignores him.   Private Rucker seems frozen with fear and his ill preparedness for the misery of war.  Lieutenant Clark reminds Captain Blu of all the things that are wrong in their situation, and Private Miner offers to rescue his colleague, Private Seymoure with success as the audience observes his agony before he dies.  Yet, there is another problem to be solved by Captain Blu and Lieutenant Clark wants him to reconsider his actions.  Captain Blu wants to make a name for himself for a promotion in rank.  The shortage of ammunitions on the battle field, and the urgency for the delivery to the soldiers with the machine guns, can be the ideal opportunity for his promotion.  Private Miner volunteers to take the ammunitions to the soldiers.  Despite being wounded on his way to the battle field, he manages to deliver the supplies safely to the troops before he succumb to his wounds.  His effort saves the day!  Private Miner’s bravery allows his feat to live on as a Buffalo Soldier until the end of time.

The audience realizes that Private Wayne Miner died from his injury or injuries, and after his mother receives the notification of her son’s death; she instructs the officer to bury him in France.   The military surely complied with her wish.  Private Miner’s grave site is known to the public in France!

The reviewer’s response to the play and the developments that transpired during and after WWI in America.  African-American women gained acceptance in the Red Cross at the end of the war.   The play shows us that the more we think that things have changed in America, there is still a current of bigotry permeating among people of influence.  In the year 2019, America is divided and the politicians have not addressed this issue whole heartedly in order to enact lasting change.

I will surely recommend the play, “The Buffalo Hero, The Wayne Miner Story” to fellow theatre goers.  It is a must see production.  They are going to learn about the courage and honor of one man whose action probably change the course of history in WWI.  The playwright did an excellent job with his research and the storytelling of a hero’s story.