Tag Archives: production

Renaissance Theaterworks sings ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’

In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till didn’t do anything wrong. 

While visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, he spoke to a young white married woman at a small grocery store. Several nights later, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, took Emmett from his relative’s home to a small barn where they beat him and gouged out an eye before shooting the boy. After all of that, Emmett’s body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River, weighed down with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with a barbed wire. 

The body, mutilated and disfigured, was discovered three days later and sent home to Emmett’s mother in Chicago. She was overcome with grief, but also outraged at what had happened to her son. To make sure that her son did not die in vain, she requested that he have an open casket funeral so that the world could see what injustice had been done to a young African American boy while visiting Mississippi.

Emmett Till’s story has resonated with those seeking social justice for 60 years.

Emmett’s story has been immortalized in countless history textbooks, documentaries and magazines, but perhaps one of the most poignant and thought-provoking adaptations is Chicago author Ifa Bayeza’s 2008 musical The Ballad of Emmett Till, which is being presented by Renaissance Theaterworks as the first production of its 2015–16 season.

“Every year, our company tries to do shows that examine the complexities of the human heart,” said Renaissance artistic director Suzan Fete in a recent email interview. “This season, we have chosen three shows based on real events, true stories about ordinary heroes. We were shocked at how few people know about Till’s story as it is an essential part of history.”

The musical tells Emmett’s story from his perspective, haunting and tragic as it is. A single actor, Marques Causey, plays Emmett, known as Bo to his friends. The other five actors on stage, three men and two women, play Emmett’s family, friends and his killers.

Fete says the poignancy of this show comes from the fact that Emmett, a boy of 14, is telling much of the story on his own. “The story begins very joyful, and then takes a turn. It’s very powerful. Playwright Ifa Bayeza uses contemporary prose, jazz and gospel music when telling his story. It really grabs the audience,” Fete adds. 

To keep the audience focused on the performance, director Marti Gobel decided to keep her set intentionally sparse. “This show is about the actors telling a story. We don’t want it to get bogged down by over-teching it,” she said in a recent email interview.

The show will feature a three-piece band, with a blues guitarist, harmonica player and percussionist tapped to support the performers. Gobel says the show borrows from numerous styles including jazz, doo-wop and even some Delta blues. 

In addition to the performance itself, Renaissance Theaterworks is offering informal talkbacks after several of the shows. The company also has partnered with Milwaukee Public Library to offer a workshop and tickets to select at-risk youth reading groups. In addition, they have partnered with PEARLS for Teen Girls, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting teen girls of color in Milwaukee, to offer a workshop in conjunction with a private performance for 70 girls. 

Gobel’s goals for the production can be summed up simply: “I hope that people leave with a desire to make sure our country never falls on such times and social philosophies again. I want us to take pride in how far we come, but be angry at what still needs to be changed.” 

The Ballad of Emmett Till is a powerful story for all to see, and one that is not to be missed.

ON STAGE

Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of The Ballad of Emmett Till runs Oct. 23-Nov. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $38, with student and senior discounts available and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or r-t-w.com.

Hulu plans series based on Stephen King’s ’11/22/63′

The internet TV service Hulu plans to stream a nine-hour series based on Stephen King’s time-travel book about the Kennedy assassination.

Hulu announced its plan for “11/22/63,” produced by King and J.J. Abrams, on Sept. 22.

King said in a statement that if any of his works cried out for “long-form, event TV programming,” then “11/22/63” is it.

In the 2011 novel, a high school teacher goes back in time to try to prevent the killing of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald.

The release date for the series was not announced. The cast also was not announced by Hulu or Warner Bros. Television.

State, federal subsidies for fossil fuel production top $37 billion

Federal and state subsidies for fossil fuel production in the United States tops $37 billion a year, according to a new report from Oil Change International.

“Cashing in on All of the Above: U.S. Fossil Fuel Production Subsidies under Obama” outlines the subsidies going to the fossil fuel industry. In total, the report catalogs more than $37 billion in U.S. federal and state support for the fossil fuel industry in 2013.

The report focuses on exploration and production subsidies, which are tied to the “All of the Above” energy policy in the United States.

Much of the increase in the value of fossil fuel production subsidies can be attributed to the increase in oil and gas production in recent years, according to OCI. Federal fossil fuel production and exploration subsidies, for example, have grown in value by 45 percent since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

“While scientists implore world leaders to leave fossil fuels in the ground to avoid a climate catastrophe, our analysis has found that billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to digging ourselves a bigger climate hole every year,“ David Turnbull, campaigns director of Oil Change International, said in a news release. “Rather than putting down the shovel, our government is using even more taxpayer dollars to buy a backhoe.”

Shakuntala Makhijani, the report’s author and a researcher at OCl, said, “The science is clear that at least two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate impacts — it is time for the U.S. government to show leadership and immediately end the massive subsidies that encourage their production.”

The organization credited the Obama administration with attempts to reduce subsidies and criticized Congress for stymying those efforts.

The report notes that in 2011-12, the fossil fuels industry spent $329 million in campaign finance contributions and received $33 billion in federal subsidies for that same period, marking a 10,000 percent return on investment for the industry.

“The ‘All of the Above’ energy strategy is not only climate denial — it’s climate denial that is funded with more than $20 billion in taxpayer support each year.” said Steve Kretzmann, OCI’s executive director. “Until our representatives in Washington and around the country find the courage necessary to put people’s interests ahead of rich polluters, this theft of our tax dollars is likely to continue. The next step for saving the climate should be clear: Stop funding fossils.”

The report can be found at http://bit.ly/2014FFSubsidies.

Skylight succeeds with a personalized ‘Les Miz’

Les Misérables isn’t exactly traditional holiday fare. But Skylight Music Theatre’s production, which opened Nov. 22, is a true holiday gift — a thrilling night of musical theater.

Few musicals equal Les Miz in blending a strong storyline, a soaring musical score and a compelling cast of characters. No wonder the musical’s return to Broadway in March is being so eagerly anticipated by fans. An astonishing 65 million people worldwide have already seen a stage production of Les Miz, and millions more have seen the film version starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.

Set in 19th-century France during a time of revolution, the story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. It follows the journey of Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, Valjean is rejected by all except a kind clergyman. The clergyman’s singular kindness makes such a strong impression on Valjean that he is transformed. He vows to spend his life correcting injustice. 

He has his work cut out for him, as there is injustice aplenty in Les Miserables. The young mother Fantine has been abandoned by her lover and must work to pay another family to care for her daughter. Then she’s fired by a factory manager after spurning his sexual advances. On her deathbed, Fantine pours out her heart to Valjean, who has by now become the successful owner of the factory in which she toiled. She fears for her daughter’s future, and Valjean vows to find and raise the girl.

But hot on Valjean’s heels is the police officer Javert, who will spend the rest of his life attempting to put Valjean back behind bars. 

Also part of the plot is a group of young men who vow to liberate Paris from what they see as a corrupt government. Their stirring commitment to freedom is brilliantly realized under director Marie Rhode’s direction. The young fighters literally create a barricade before the audience’s eyes as they deliver a rousing rendition of the anthemic “The People’s Song.” 

Rhode deserves credit for taking Les Miserables to a personal level. Her production depends more on character development than on splashy scenery. She dresses her cast in bland, sand-colored outfits. As the cast sings its way through the opening number “At the End of the Day,” some actors don military uniforms while others put on prison outfits. This makes for a seamless transition to the scene in which Javert first confronts Valjean in the prison yard. 

The cast is uniformly superb, led by Luke Grooms as the escaped convict Jean Valjean, and Andrew Varela as his pursuer Javert. A polished, operatic tenor, Grooms easily masters the challenging score. He is a big man whose physical presence matches his importance to the story. He can lead the production numbers with his booming voice, but he can also sing sweetly and tenderly when offering a prayer.

Equally impressive is Varela. His strong baritone lends Javert his authority. Varela’s every movement is spot-on as well, probably due to his prior engagement as Valjean in Broadway’s Les Miz. He’s also played Javert before — in the 25th-anniversary tour of Les Miz.

Despite her hideous, Goldilocks-style blond wig, Susan Spencer as Fantine does a fine job of delivering the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Melissa Fife shows off a spectacular voice as Eponine. Her unrequited love for the dashing Marius (played by a very good-looking Kevin Massey) is given more prominence than usual in this production. This makes her plight, as well as her death scene in Marius’ arms, even more compelling.

Eponine’s parents, the Thenardiers, do their part to lighten the proceedings. These bawdy, crude and money-grubbing innkeepers are played to the hilt by Eric Mahlum and Rhonda Rae Busch. They give “Master of the House” all the gusto it requires.

Cabot Theatre’s intimacy is its most charming feature, but its small stage is not equipped to handle the set demands for Les Miz. Rhode was able to dodge this problem when directing her former Skylight blockbuster Sound of Music. She never attempted to duplicate the Alps, for instance.

But in Les Miz, once the massive barricade appears, it never really goes away. Even the clever lighting can’t compensate during scenes that contain only one or a few characters.

This is a slight drawback to an otherwise exceptional show that will create memories that linger throughout the holiday season.

Onstage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Les Miserables continues in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, through Dec. 29. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or go to www.skylightmusictheatre.org.

Rhonda Rae Bush as Mme. Thénardier in Les Misérables. — PHOTO: MARK FROHNA

Complaint: Porn filmed in Florida lacks condoms

An HIV/AIDS organization that successfully pushed for a Los Angeles County law mandating condom use in the adult film industry has filed a complaint about a porn movie made in Florida after it says filmmakers started shifting production to other states to avoid the law. 

The California-based organization, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, formally requested an investigation in a letter to Florida’s Department of Health. The complaint claims that a Florida production took health risks by making pornography without condoms.

AHF President Michael Weinstein said that California-based porn producers are trying to get around the new L.A. county law, known as Measure B, by having actors perform outside the state.

“We are not going to allow the industry to play a shell game in order to evade the laws we have. It’s not going to work,” Weinstein told reporters in a conference call. “Our concern is the health and safety of the performers.”

The filming was done by North Miami Beach-based D&E Productions on a contract with San Diego Boy Productions, according to D&E co-owner David Adamson. He said California porn makers are outsourcing work in which actors don’t wear condoms to filmmakers in other states, like him. Florida, especially the areas around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, has long had a robust pornography industry.

“The state of Florida, they don’t care. There’s nothing on the books regarding condom use,” Adamson said, adding that all his actors are over age 18 and do the work voluntarily.

“Anybody who does condom-less porn, we get them tested and we make sure they are clean,” he added.

The AHF complaint asks state health officials to investigate the D&E production as a “sanitary nuisance,” which involves actions by individuals or companies that might cause spread of disease. AHF wants universal condom use to protect porn performers from AIDS, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases – and they say testing of actors isn’t enough.

A Department of Health spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In 2010, AHF filed similar complaints in Florida but was told there was no way to prove the productions were made in Florida.

This time, Weinstein said, the proof comes from the pornographers themselves.

AHF initially filed a complaint in February against San Diego Boy with the California Department of Industrial Relations, which regulates workplace safety issues for that state. In its response, San Diego Boy said the material in question was done on contract by D&E in Florida. The company even provided invoices detailing the work done by actors with names like “Vince & Marcus” and “Clark & Texas.”

“We hope to get a better response from the state of Florida as a result,” Weinstein said.

The Los Angeles County condom law was approved by voters there last November and survived a legal challenge by porn producers when a federal judge last month upheld its constitutionality and said supporters provided sufficient evidence that it would alleviate health risks.