The Post-Show: Men on Boats, The Justice Theater Project

It may not come as a surprise that there’s something about going to see a play called Men on Boats that makes you believe you’re going to encounter both men and boats. This play has neither men nor boats.

Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Men on Boats or the Triangle’s Justice Theater Project. So before embarking on an assignment to write about its production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s original play, I started my due diligence to establish a general direction for the piece.

It was through that due diligence that I discovered the basics: the story centers around the 1869 expedition of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who is famous for this three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers; this journey included the first official U.S. government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon; the play made its debut in 2015; and to see any boats, the audience must rely solely on their imagination.

As part of this initial research, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Justice Theater Project’s Producing Artistic Director Jerry Sipp, who explained to me that Men on Boats was part of a larger theme driving the direction of the theater’s 2018-2019 season.

The theme, “S/He Is. Becoming Whole”, encompasses six shows that focus on women. You may be wondering what a show called Men on Boats is doing in a lineup like that. I know I was. Well, there are no men in this production. While Men on Boats tells the story of ten white male characters, it does so with one important twist—through the voices of a cast made up only of actors identifying as female, transgender, and/or non gender-conforming. In fact, the playwright is adamant that these characters are portrayed by anyone but white males.

As Sipp explained, when the board chose the theme last spring, they wanted to ensure they didn’t take a laissez-faire approach. It would have been easy to say they wanted the season to focus on women, pick a few female-centric scripts, and call it a day. Instead, they explored plays that looked at women through many different lenses, through different races, ethnicities, and genders. Sipp said these decisions were made early in the winter of 2018 before the “Me Too” movement, noting the board’s uncanny ability to anticipate social conversations.

“The board decided that they did not want to just have a season about women, and especially not about women who have been victimized,” Sipp said. “Instead, they chose to say let’s feature the woman who is empowered, who is a strong woman, who is willing to stand up and fight for herself and fight for women in our society.”

Men on Boats may not center around this type of character, but it certainly centers around this type of cast.

So, on a particularly warm Sunday afternoon in late February, I set out to see the Justice Theater Project’s last performance of Men on Boats armed only with these facts and a lingering cough from a week-long cold. Nervous to disturb other audience members with my incessant coughing, I chose a seat on the edge of a row at stage right.

It was immediately clear that the set was minimal, but it wasn’t simple. It was beautifully constructed of various shapes and colors of wood against the backdrop of floor-to-ceiling sheer curtains. While I thumbed through the program to familiarize myself with the cast, the lights went down and Faye Goodwin stepped on stage as John Powell. I was immediately transported to the Wild West of 1869.

Thanks to the direction of Jules Odendal-James and an outrageously talented and diverse cast, the next 100 minutes were a journey of comedy, conversation, and anticipation — a bending of history and gender set against the rapids and waterfalls of the Colorado and Green Rivers.

It would be easy to assume that a small theater company like The Justice Theater Project, housed in a modest building tucked into a commercial area near Umstead Park, may not offer a high caliber of production. But, if you think that way, then you would be very wrong in that assumption. The quality of production for plays like Men on Boats needs no frills. It speaks for itself, and through the sheer talent of its actors.

The cast of The Justice Theater Project’s Men on Boats had great dialogue with which to work, but it takes a special talent to perfectly execute comedic timing, and this cast nailed it.

And that’s an important thing to nail for this particular script. Because, as I discovered on my journey with Powell and his crew, Men on Boats isn’t just a fun, different way to tell this historical story, rather, Backhaus deliberately uses this diverse, gender-bending cast as a comedic social commentary on America’s white male-dominant history.

The American history we learn in school has long been skewed toward a favorable and highly romanticized story, which in reality was brutal and violent. From the reality of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Americas in 1492 — despite the presence of a culturally rich and well-developed indigenous population — to a group of Black female mathematicians who played a pivotal role in creating opportunities for humans to explore space being casually disregarded until a 2018 film attempted to give them their due, there can be no doubt that America’s history is rich with controversy and rage. Sometimes we choose to cope with this truth through anger or directed action. Sometimes, we choose to cope through the raw human expression of humor and art. This is exactly what Backhaus did.

Remember when I said that Powell’s expedition included the first government-sanctioned passage through the Grand Canyon? That small detail is actually an important part of this story. Backhaus notes it in her dialogue as Powell tells his crew about the people who have taken this journey before, to which one of the crew members responds “I thought we were the first.” This scene in particular was a stand out example of Goodwin and the rest of the Justice Theater Project cast’s talent.

Watching Powell’s long, perilous, and slightly frustrating journey could get old fast, but with a cast like those at The Justice Theater Project, this play was entertaining to the very last waterfall drop. And judging by the standing ovation, I would say the rest of the audience agreed.

Men on Boats won’t change history, but it does allow us to look at it through a different lens. It does bring to light a new way of thinking for the future, which is why as an organization that focuses on having conversations about social issues with the community, it was a perfect fit for The Justice Theater Project.

“We try to have a more in-depth conversation, a year-long conversation about the intricacies in one issue because we live in very much of a sound byte society these days,” Sipp said. “We think that the issues we’re tackling require a deeper and more nuanced discussion between us and our audiences and communities. That’s why we approach things in the way that we do.”

Of course, Sipp told me, The Justice Theater Project, like most theaters at their core, wants to produce engaging and entertaining theater. But, they also want people to continue thinking about the show long after they leave. I have to say, it’s working.

“It requires a lot of extra work, a lot of extra thought,” Sipp said. “I’m proud that the organization is willing to do all of that to not only enrich the experience, but to kind of change the world, just a little bit, one show at a time.”

The Justice Theater Project unveils its 2019-2020 season theme “From Monologue to Dialogue” this month. Real Women Have Curves, the next show in the S/He Is. Becoming Whole series, will begin its run April 5, 2019. Read more about The Justice Theater Project here.

The Post-Show: MAKE/BELIEVE by Culture Mill

On a recent Friday, I attended a performance of MAKE/BELIEVE by Saxapahaw-based nonprofit, Culture Mill. Eager to be on time, I left the office early to make my way from Durham to Graham for the 5pm start time. I’m a frequent attendee of Culture Mill’s summertime series “Trust the Bus,” wherein passengers climb onto a Bluebird school bus and are transported to a surprise location for an undisclosed art performance. MAKE/BELIEVE is a new hybrid version of this approach. Half of the audience began with a walking tour of downtown Graham, and half were transported on the bus from Saxapahaw.

As I rolled through Graham’s version of rush hour traffic, it occurred to me that there are only about three blocks in between “where is this place?” and “oh, I’m literally in the middle of the town now.” Traffic was bustling for a small town, but I was able to swing into a parking spot directly in front of Press Coffee & Crepes, where I had arranged to meet a friend before the performance. Press has a surprisingly lush interior and a distinctly hipster vibe. From a late cold spell, we had tumbled straight into blistering Carolina summer, which hit hardest that afternoon, and the café’s cool, dark interior was a welcome relief.

As five o’clock drew closer, we wandered out into the still-searing sunlight and made our way around a traffic circle which encompassed an extremely stately courthouse—clearly the center of civic activity around these parts. We passed by the unmistakable Dana Marks, Managing Director of Little Green Pig and well-known local actor and musician, lounging on a bench in a black evening gown. I gave her a big grin and wave, but ever the consummate professional, she remained stern-faced and unaffected. We realized that we had made our way to the southwest corner of the circle, and not the specified southeast corner, so we crossed at a highly official looking crosswalk, exaggerated in scale considering the small road and minimal traffic it officiates. But I got that impression about a lot of Graham—that it has been laid down in excess, as if someone was planning something.

We joined the small crowd milling about outside of a shuttered storefront and were checked off a list by Lauren Monroe, Culture Mill staff and production manager for MAKE/BELIEVE. The heat was stifling, and I broke out a cheap folding fan. This was not my first Culture Mill rodeo. Their performances have always been enjoyable, but rarely air-conditioned. At one past event the heat was so terrible, bags of ice were distributed to those deemed elderly or infirm. I came prepared.

After a time, Lauren directed us around a corner, to where dancer and Co-Director Murielle Elizéon stood on a folding chair in a gravel lot, wearing a black satin evening gown. She beckoned us with her arms to gather around. “Closer” she said. “Closer, closer… Not too close!” she chastened suddenly, eliciting quiet laughter as she threw up her hands. She gently invited us now, “before we begin,” she said, to take exactly one minute to turn exactly 360 degrees and notice everything around us. With the rest of the group, I rotated slowly, overestimating the length of a minute in my head. As we circled, she spoke to us about place. What is a place? What is this place? If a place is composed of the people there, what effect are we having right at this very moment? As we came around again, she asked us to actively “notice” and to point to anything we noticed in particular. She raised her hand and pointed slowly, gracefully, and directly at me. I had stepped slowly back from the crowd in order to snap a surreptitious picture and was caught! She smiled though and pointed with her other hand towards the courthouse. We moved on.

Arms outstretched as if beckoning us along with her like little ducklings, she led us back around the traffic circle. We passed an old brick building and she invited us by wordless example to come up and lay a hand upon the wall. Stepping into the generous crosswalk, she guided us to the courthouse steps, where she prostrated herself for a moment on the warm concrete. One man, inspired by the brick-touching exercise, reached down and placed his hand on the concrete as well. Elizéon rose up and invited us to close our eyes and focus our attention on the shaded northwest corner of the block, where cellist Shana Tucker was seated and began to serenade us. The music was beautiful, but the audience stood facing directly into the sun, and the fear that my cheeks might actually burst into flames became somewhat of a distraction.

Still shepherded by Elizéon, we forged through traffic again, strolling past a local restaurant patio, where we were observed with polite amusement by the locals, and with unabashed curiosity by the children, who loudly asked “who are they?!” “I think they’re on some kind of tour” shushed the parents. I wanted to lean over and whisper “don’t worry… it’s art”; a panacea of a statement which always seems to both calm fears and end inquiry.

We paused again, waiting obediently for a moment until we were beckoned forward. As we walked, the Culture Mill bus pulled up beside us in a sunny gravel lot overlooked by a lofted warehouse space. The bus doors opened, and as the guests who had arrived by bus joined us in the lot, a disembodied voice began humorously narrating the scene from a speaker in the corner. “The crowd turns.  Who are these people from the bus? Where is this incredibly talented man that is speaking to them?” the voice said.

A moment later a pair of barn doors in the warehouse loft overlooking the lot opened up, and a tall man in a tuxedo revealed himself. Patience, an actor known for work with Little Green Pig (among other projects) spoke poetically to the crowd about the history of the building, which had been used for various types of agricultural auctions. He talked about “value” and “place” and “history,” as well as the buying and selling and assigning of value. He referenced but slid obliquely past the topic of the buying and selling of people. There were also a few comical moments as he answered his cell phone or spoke to an individual offstage. These interludes eased the somewhat ridiculous spectacle of several dozen people standing in a hot parking lot staring up at a guy in a tuxedo waxing poetic about tobacco farming.

As his remarks came to a close, two small children in formal wear, like mischievous elves, appeared behind us and beckoned us to follow them. They dashed ahead impatiently, waiting just long enough so as not to lose us. We circled the building and headed up a flight of decrepit stairs to a wide open room with a few rows of folding chairs. Lauren and Dana offered us water and paper fans (a nod to the intense heat that followed us as we settle into the space). I responded to the offer of a fan by brandishing my own. Dana laughed, “You’re a smartie!” As we took our seats Dana continued this banter with the audience, but as we settled in, her teasing and questioning morphed into a sort of stylized auction.

In a row facing the audience, Patience (now drumming) was seated next to Tommy Noonan (soon dancing), and Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins sat next to his trademark marionette, followed by Murielle Elizéon and Shana Tucker. Lined up in front of us, each stood and performed in turn as Marks called them out. Meanwhile she exhorted the audience “five dollars? Ten? Do I hear fifteen?” As she spoke, she wasn’t just auctioning the performances, though; she was auctioning the concept of art. “Okay Shana, play that cello in the real-est, most authentic way possible!” Dana chanted to us over and over “Is it real? Is it worth it? Do you buy it?!” Will you buy it, she asked but also—do you believe it? Do you buy into it? I couldn’t help but remember that this was a free performance. What did she mean? What was being asked of us, if not money? The auction ended dramatically at $200. It was unclear what transaction had taken place.

Noonan then launched into a spoken word piece, with accompaniment from Tucker. The heat had started to fade and his voice and Tucker’s cello were hypnotic, as he spoke about the history of Graham and of past generations working in the fields. He painted a nostalgic picture, not idealized so much, but detailed, real, and very much a picture of a lifestyle that has passed away.

After Noonan finished his piece, the performers filed out while the crowd sat for a moment looking about wondering “is this it?” until the two children from earlier reappeared. They beckoned us down the stairs, miming impatiently as if to say “What’s the holdup? Come on guys!” Back out on the street, the performers posed on the other side of the road, giving us a moment for applause before disappearing into the scenery.  I couldn’t help but notice the looks on the faces of the folks driving between us, the audience on the west side, and the formal-wear clad performers on the east. Half a dozen vehicles drove slowly through, visibly noticing, looking from side to side, and tilting their heads in confusion. Again, I wanted to whisper to them “Don’t worry, it’s just art”.

Stuck in that dreamy post-performance haze, and not quite ready to return to the real world, I walked back towards the coffee shop where I had started and opted for Fitzgerald and Faulkner, a cocktail bar located upstairs. As I wrote up my notes on the performance, I listened to the bartender’s banter about Michelin Stars and fine wines and obscure garnishes. They seemed to be lifelong service industry types, the kind with copious tattoos and very specific opinions about foie gras. I asked them what they thought of Graham. They said they love it; they think it’s the next big thing. I had to ask if they were from Graham. Not at all; they were from Florida and Asheboro respectively. I asked them if anyone was actually from Graham. Oh no, they said, not anyone that comes in here, anyway.

I was reminded of Murielle’s musings from earlier. What is a place? What effect are we having right at this very moment?

Preview: The Bipeds, “54 Stange Words” at The Fruit, June 21-24

The Bipeds is a new project from Curtis Eller and Stacy Wolfson. A combination of musicians, stage performers, and dancers, “54 Strange Words” is not only a performance like no other, it is also the title of their debut album. I hesitate to use genre classifications here because what you will see from The Bipeds at The Fruit is a collision of mediums–live music, theatre, and interpretive dance–coming together to bring your Nightmares to the stage in manner best described as a hypnagogic what-just-happened experience.

The Bipeds came to be after the serendipitous meeting of Curtis and Stacy through their children. If you have recently seen Curtis Eller perform, then you may have noticed the added element of dancers/back-up singers–including, of course, Stacy.

In preparation for this preview piece, I sat down with Stacy and Curtis over coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon. There we conversated about how The Bipeds came to be–everything from the whiskey-fueled creative process to bizarre anecdotes: one day they were playing gospel 78s backwards to generate ideas for sounds when suddenly a mouse ran out into plain view, seized up, and died right there on the floor. “That’s when you know you’ve got something,” Curtis said.

The creative process which produced “54 Strange Words” was every bit the experience as the show itself. “He came in with maybe a chord progression,” Stacy told me. “But we knew what we wanted to do.” “54 Strange Words” is, in the simplest terms, the acting out of nightmares. Members of the group, as well as friends, and various audience members at Little Green Pig performances were asked to jot down their recurring nightmares on notecards–fodder for ideas for lyrics, sounds, costumes, dances. Drawing inspiration as well from psychedelic 60s music and the comedy and body movements in silent film, many dissociated mediums have found their way into this project.

Movement and music: the body is an instrument too. As a dancer, Stacy had not explored using her body as a musical instrument before this project. “The lungs are part of your body. Let’s choreograph that,” Curtis said. This logic struck a chord with Stacy (and with me too). Yes, the body is an instrument, every bit as musical as Curtis’s banjo, but thinking of the body this way brings about a different approach to the diversity of instrumentation. “54 Strange Words” takes the idea of instruments and smashes  it against a wall to see where the pieces fall. Don’t control the process–let it unfold naturally. In many ways, they have not created this project, so much as the project made itself using Curtis and Stacy and the Bipeds cohort as the tools of its own creation.

I went to one of their rehearsals to see for myself this hypnagogic-threshold-of-consciousness nightmare-inspired performance. I sat quietly in a corner writing and watching Curtis and Stacy and two of their fellow dancers work through their routines, bit by bit, coordinating their movements: “what count should we step on?” Communication is key across the performance arts–the mutual understanding of nods and cues between performers can make or break a show. People could learn a lot about effective communication by watching artists from different mediums interact with each other and sort out how to work together. But chemistry, comfort, a sense of being liberated–The Bipeds have this in spades, in part, I suspect, due to the organic nature of the creative process.

Sitting in that rehearsal space watching them go over a part and back over it and then moving forward slightly and then back over it again and then forward a little more, reminded me a bit of my own writing process. I rely heavily on the stream of consciousness method to produce the words you read. From those thoughts to conversations with others to the toil of writing and working through a piece, going back over it, adding a little here, moving forward into new paragraphs, and then back again… I can’t help but feel connected through my own artistic process to the way The Bipeds have come to create their art. What they have created is very much a product of a similar kind of being possessed of an idea, following it where it leads… how to make music mimic movement.

“54 Strange Words” opens this week and will run for four days at The Fruit. I cannot tell you what to expect. “Even the people in the show have no idea,” Curtis said. I can tell you that the album, both ethereal and nightmarish, is wholly inspired. A banjo-led tour de force of unearthly dreamscapes, this album forces you to leave your conceptions of genre at the door. Buy a ticket in advance or pay $15 at the door and go have an experience you won’t be able to describe to your friends. Hell–bring your friends. And afterwards, over whiskey (of course), figure out for yourself what just happened.

Photos courtesy of The Bipeds. Photo Credit: Kim Walker.

MOOGFEST Exclusive Local Preview: sister,brother

For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken.
It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.
–D.H. Lawrence

Every once in a while as a music journalist you will encounter a band who steals your heart. On that rarest of occasions you will experience a breed of noise you know from that first live set needs to be BIG. Some music is so impactful that it will make you fall on your ass while walking down the street in stumbling enamored bliss after a show… all without spilling that road soda. Those are the sounds that burrow inside of you and make a home. Because sometimes you just know.

Sister,brother is truly something. I have spent a good deal of time with Mark and Alison in the weeks leading up to Moogfest. Both are seasoned musicians who came up through the ranks of serious music scenes. Mark Hanley originally hails from my own native Massachusetts. He cut his teeth as a battle DJ in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Boston. After that, he made his way through numerous music projects as a guitarist. A wayward soul and intensely creatively-minded, Mark landed in Durham four years ago, where he would eventually bump into future bandmate and close friend Alison Martlew.

Alison was born in England, raised in the Bahamas, and came to the U.S. for college at NC State. She has been here ever since. Known by many local scenesters as a former member of The Butchies, Alison has participated in several music projects over the years. Since the age of four, she has been playing music. From classical piano as a child, to guitar during her college days, today Alison has found her home in the bass. And she is exceptional.

Together as sister,brother Mark and Alison are at the height of who they are. Unencumbered, total comfortability, unspoken inside jokes playing out in facial expressions and wild gesticulations, the descriptor “they have chemistry” would be a painfully brutish attempt to explain the electric synergistic dynamic they share. Mark’s creative intensity translates into an extraordinary emotional outpouring of high-pitched almost clown-like ear-shredding vocals. With Alison’s excellent bass-playing and her cool and reserved attitude, sister,brother is a mélange of characters and sounds that draw upon everything they have ever experienced, repurposed and reformed into something completely new.

Have you ever felt punctured soul-deep and liked it?

Some music exists to poke your soul. The musings of sister,brother speak to the part of you that doesn’t go out in public. You know, that little piece you keep for yourself… That’s the part of you that will be tickled by their sounds. That’s the part of you that should be listening.

They are loud. You have to want to use your ears to hear them. Listen. They are trying to tell you something. Expose yourself to their noise and you will know what raw really means.

That is something I have gleaned from my time with sister,brother.
Be unencumbered
or die
Be riotous
or sleep
Be real
or don’t be anything at all

This band makes me need to write poems. Interacting with and writing about sister,brother has brought out a tremendous affection in me.

And yet,
I am not a poet.
Nor was meant to be.₂

Still, I find myself scratching words on tiny papers half drunk at a dimly lit bar at 1AM on a Monday night unconcerned with the obligations of tomorrow because my soul has been infiltrated by a noise I can’t stop hearing–I don’t want to stop hearing it. So I can’t stop writing, even when a I hear the echo of a friend shouting, ‘Hemingway, come have a smoke with us!’ I hate it when he calls me that. I’m not a dead white asshole. Not yet.

If you’re reading this, then chances are you either know Mark and Alison too, have heard of sister,brother in some capacity, or are in town for Moogfest and you’re curious.

Good. Be curious. Seek out that sense of wonder in yourself. Find a way to be vulnerable and go see them at The Pinhook for their Thursday evening set.

You know that feeling after really great sex–the exhausted panting bliss of cathartic everything? That’s how you will feel after sister,brother’s live performance. It’s not about the sex. Come on. Don’t be so transactional. Give yourself over to the noise. Let your heart be broken and fall into the crack.

Watch Part Two, The Video, HERE.

“Pomegranate.” Selected Poems, by D. H. Lawrence, New Directions Books, 1947.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Wasteland and Other Poems, by T.S. Eliot, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1934