I hate to think what the New Orleans theatre scene would look like without its student shows. Yes, you have to make allowances for talent that’s still maturing, also squint at twenty-somethings playing characters twice or more their age, but there’s an adventurousness in the university theatre departments – in presenting new material, and works that are commercially unviable, particularly from other cultures – that we’d be much the poorer without. Serious theatergoers have to add the halls of edication to their itineraries.
The Lion and the Jewel
Cook Theatre, Dillard University
Dillard's Cook Theatre is one of the best-equipped big rooms in town. Following up its effective co-production of Freedom Summer, Dillard is now two-for-two this fall with its official season opener, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s evocative, lyrical The Lion and the Jewel. The work is a romping fable that deepens into unexpected complexity in its meditation on tradition versus modernism. The plot centers on the “Jewel” Sidi (Ariel Lucius), a vain and flighty young beauty of a Yoruba village ruled over by the ferocious chieftain “Lion” Baroka (Rahim Glaspy), who at age 62 seeks to make her the latest of his many wives. Baroka’s rival is the naïve but passionate schoolteacher Lakunle (Leon Delorch), representative of the forces of Westernized progress. The other principals are Baroka’s sly head wife Sadiku (LaSharron Purvis) and Ailatu (Destani Smith), his former favorite, who loses her place with Baroka because of her jealousy.
In recasting a sweeping cultural clash as a mere romantic triangle Soyinka advantages himself of the same reductiveness that writers have relied on forever. Yet, with the The Lion and the Jewel Soyinka restores much breadth and depth to its subject through the expansive poetry of his writing. Soyinka’s characters simply can’t stop talking about who they are, what they believe, what they want… and it’s not exhausting, because his lyricism rivals Shakespeare’s. (No, I’m not kidding.) This is gorgeous stuff, and the Dillard students are just equal to it.
Yes, that “just” sounds damning, but really: It’d take actors with years of training and decades of experience to milk these words for all they are worth. If you can’t follow all of them – this isn’t dialogue such as our ears are accustomed to, rather alternating soliloquies – trust that the structure of the story is simple enough that you won’t lose your place.
Glaspy as Baroka fares best, with an Act One finale that is one of the most bravura comedy scenes I’ve seen this year. (Sadiku must sooth his dangerous fit of temper at being thought too old for Sidi by giving him a foot massage until his ranting fades.) Purvis and Smith both cut striking, and amusing, figures. Lucius captures the crucial duality of Sidi’s girlish allure alongside her exasperating egotism. It’s the latter, really, that cues us that she’s the perfect match for the chieftain. Both of them monsters of vanity, they’d overwhelm anyone else with whom they tried to mate.
I’m giving nothing away. There’s no way a traditional story like The Lion and the Jewel is coming down in favor of modernism any more than, say, Fiddler on the Roof is going to do so. By the time of his speech celebrating fallen trees and paved roads in Act Two Lakunle is no longer a plausible candidate for Sidi’s affections, and having the cards stacked against him like this hampers Delorch. In the toughest role and somewhat younger than the rest of the cast, his performance is the most uncertain. By now, I hope, he’s let his obvious charm take charge.
After several difficult opening minutes, department head Ray Vrazel’s direction flows with assurance and appropriate simplicity. Dances and tableaux (choreographed by India McDougle) please the eye, and the set and costumes (by Cortheal Clark and Jerry L. Johnson) are just lovely. Whoever is running the board needs to turn down the volume a bit, though. I was startled out my seat twice at least.
All I ask of a night at the theatre is to be shown some part of the world in a way that’s new to me. (For the familiar, there’s TV.) The Lion and the Jewel transports.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
NOCCA at Mid-City Theatre
Leave it the theater department of NOCCA to offer one of the most delightful shows of the season, probably of the whole year. Their production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, by Rachel Sheinkin [book] and Rebecca Feldman & William Finn [music], is pretty much everything I want in a commercial musical: polished and well-sung, briskly paced, witty. And possessed of just enough dramatic ‘throw weight,’ entertaining without being mindless. There’s no sour “what was the point of that?” aftertaste here.
There’s also no need to judge it by junior standards. If a qualitative difference exists between the professionals in the cast – shiny Amy Alvarez as the contest moderator; precision-tuned Blake Coheley as the vice-principal; sly Kevin Murphy as the grief counselor, there to escort the losers from the stage – and the students, it’s imperceptible. Fairness probably does require that I laud these exceptional kids as a group only. There are alternating student casts, and I won’t be able to return to see the second team. Coldin Grundmeyer, Charis Gullage, Alexis McQuarter, Ross Quinn, Jake Weaver, and Olivia Worley each delivered sharply timed, grounded performances, and sang the roof off in both group numbers and solo turns, under Jefferson Turner’s expert – and onstage – musical direction.
Director Dan Pruksarnukul’s contribution does deserve some wordage, however. As Mid-City has grown into its institutional voice as the successor to the much-missed Le Chat Noir, the main impediment has been the limitations of the stage in this otherwise comfortable and attractive venue: a single entrance, almost no wing space, an institutional-looking brick back wall that’s difficult to disguise. Spelling Bee is unusually well-suited to the space but Pruksarnukul, in addition to succeeding by the typical measures of a director’s work (pace, blocking, tone), also delivers an object lesson in how to get the most out of the Mid-City stage. He even finds a great comedic purpose for the pillar in the center of the room. Other directors who plan to work there may want to check out how he blocks entrances and exits through the house.
So it’s all good. And although I’m not much the fan of interactive theatre, usually finding it to be a lazy way to fill time and paper over weaknesses (the straight-theater equivalent of that stand-up comedy call to arms, “The more you drink, the funnier we are!”) I will say, 'If you have the chance to be part of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, take it.'