Thursday, December 2, 2010

"African-American Shakespeare Company's production of 'Cinderella' enchants and delights"

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

San Francisco actor Khamara Pettus often plays characters that possess a sinister nature. She recently portrayed Ashley, a member of a chain saw touting, pool of office workers at the Cooney Lumber Mill, who collectively kill a lumberjack once a month, in the Crowded Fire Theater Company’s production of “The Secretaries,” a satirical comedy by New York’s The Five Lesbian Brothers.

For this holiday season, she’ll play the antithesis of such a personality when she stars as the endearing, ball gown and glass slipper wearing lead in the African-American Shakespeare Company’s new production of “Cinderella,” directed by Velina Brown and opening Dec. 3. This presentation of the classic fairytale promises to be magical, humorous, whimsical and with a soulful flavor.

“I actually do a lot of dark comedy work and a lot of character work, so Cinderella was a refreshing change for me personally,” Pettus says. “It gave me a different way of working on a character because my characters are usually so outlandish and Cinderella is sweet and charming and light—that’s what I like about her.”

Cinderella (Khamara Pettus) loses her glass slipper.
Photo by Lance Huntley

Featuring a 20 person, ensemble cast, the story shifts between the here and now and the magical kingdom of an African American monarchy where Prince Charming (Matt Jones) lives.

Cinderella (Khamara Pettus) finally meets her Prince Charming (Matt Jones).
Photo by Lance Huntley

“It’s been really fun to put on the dress; it’s been really fun to do the photographs, the whole process,” she says. It’s been a fairytale come true for me personally.”
Actor and director Velina Brown decided to direct this version of “Cinderella,” after L. Peter Callender, the company’s new artistic director, approached her about it. Fellow actors, the two have worked together throughout the years at the American Conservatory Theater and other companies.

“The basic tale is the same but with the African American Shakespeare Company they do the classic with color so that’s the main difference,” Brown says. “It’s with an African American Cinderella and Prince Charming and that is something that I’m really excited about sharing with the little ones.”

She changed up aspects of the production, adding Afrocentric elements to it, casting women as the two stepsisters and presenting them as attractive. In the past, the company has cast men and portrayed the siblings as homely. Brown is doing so to emphasize fortify the lesson of the significance of internal beauty.
“I decided that I wanted them to be women because I wanted to have the conversation about ‘pretty is as pretty does,’ and ‘ugly is as ugly does,’” she says.

The African-American Shakespeare Company presents “Cinderella,” Fri.-Sun., Dec. 3-19. Buriel Clay Theatre, African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco. $10-30; special gala event $50. (800) 838-3006,

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"San Francisco Trolley Dances offers a mirthful ride"
Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

As Sara Shelton Mann choreographed a work in the San Francisco Botanical Garden, she didn't expect a troupe of boisterous squirrels to become her muses.

"When I went there to rehearse, there were these squirrels, so I named all of them Fred, and it's about Fred the squirrel," she says. "Through a process, I just built a lovely little piece that I hope people will enjoy, based around leaning and falling and running around and jumping into people's arms and the joy of being outside."

For it, the dancers will move to Norman Rutherford's aptly named score titled "Fred."

Part of the San Francisco Trolley Dances, an outdoor festival linking dance, public transit and the city's neighborhoods, it's one of several free (with purchase of Muni fare), site-specific performances by groups including Epiphany Productions, Ensohza Minyoshu, Joe Goode Performance Group, Christine Bonansea-2x3 Project and the Sunset Chinese Folk Dance Group.

Each embraces influences taken from the locations where the rides begin and end - the Harvey Milk Center for Recreational Arts, Duboce Park and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.

Kim Epifano, who produces and organizes the event through her Epiphany Productions, developed the idea for this unusual public fete after seeing the Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater do the Trolley Dances down south.

During Epifano's mixed piece this year, more than a dozen dancers will take to the Great Meadow at the Botanical Garden, where Epifano tapped into historical, emotional and landscape aspects. She imagined sand dunes and horse-drawn carts, the loneliness of a person sitting on a bench seeking refuge or contemplating a situation and the nature of the garden.

"You really feel like you're out in nature in a wonderful way. I'm in that meadow with the beautiful cypress tree. One day it can be hot and sunny, then foggy and cold. How the weather is, changes the personality of the piece," she says. "The other fun thing is the animals, the wild Canadian geese and the red-shouldered hawk. I lived here for 25 years and I had never been to the botanical gardens."

11 a.m.-2:45 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Free with paid Muni fare. Tours leave from the Harvey Milk Center for Recreational Arts at Duboce Park (Scott Street at Duboce Avenue), S.F.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aurora Theatre’s “John Gabriel Borkman,” mixes powerful performances with melodrama

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

Although Henrik Ibsen wrote “John Gabriel Borkman” in 1896, its story of Borkman (James Carpenter), a greedy, power hungry banker suffering from delusions of grandeur still resonates today given what happened with Bernie Madoff and the recent upheaval in the U.S. banking industry. Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre presents a fresh version of this Victorian era drama written by David Eldridge and a taunt production wonderfully directed by Barbara Oliver.

In the opening scene, we see Borkman’s wife Gunhild (Karen Grassle) living in the downstairs of a dark and thoroughly depressing home, while her husband Borkman lives upstairs in his bedroom. After serving time in prison for embezzling funds from his customers to build his own personal empire, this disgraced bank manager still isn’t free. He refuses to go outside, instead choosing to spend each day of the last eight years pacing back and forth, recounting his mistakes and plotting his comeback.

Meanwhile, the embittered Gunhild, who declines any contact with her husband, has turned her energies toward destructive means and placing all of her ambitions with their son Erhart (Aaron Wilton). She works diligently to persuade him to reject his father and take up her cause to restore the Borkman name to the respectable standing it once held in local society. Extremely possessive of her son and intent on punishing her husband for causing her to live such a horrible, meager existence, Gunhild doesn’t consider that perhaps Erhart may have other plans.

Enter Ella Rentheim(Karen Lewis), Gunhild’s estranged twin sister, whom she despises because Erhart looks upon her as a beloved aunt and because Gunhild’s sudden poverty forced Erhart to be raised by Ella, whose wealth remained untouched by Borkman. Now Ella is demanding to take Erhart to live with her for reasons we have yet to learn.

James Carpenter's commanding portrayal of Borkman makes for an engrossing and chilling performance, bringing this delusional, biting and power obsessed villain wonderfully to life. Karen Grassle gives an intense, emotional performance as the harsh, embittered Gunhild. Karen Lewis portrays Ella with tenderness and vulnerability.

Jack Powell gives a sweet portrayal of Vilhelm Foldal, an aspiring poet and the only loyal friend Borkman has left. Aaron Wilton plays the carefree, young Erhart with the perfect level of joie de vivre. Pamela Gaye Walker gives a delightful performance as the effervescent Mrs. Wilton, the woman helping Erhart plan his escape from the tight clutches of his mother and aunt. When she enters the theater, it’s as if someone opened a window, allowing fresh air into the staid atmosphere of the Borkman’s dreadful abode.

While Eldridge’s script contains some absorbing scenes, at times it drags and the melodrama reaches such levels that it elicits unintended laughter from the audience.

“John Gabriel Borkman,” plays through May 9 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets call (510) 843-4822 or visit Photo by David Allen.