“There’s a big gift that a mentor gives a mentee,” says Jonathan Tolins, whose Secrets of the Trade is currently receiving its world premiere at L.A.’s Dahlia Theatre. “The extra confidence you get when someone important or someone that you look up to gives you that time and attention is a boost that helps you to do something on your own.”
In the play, Tony Award winner John Glover portrays a famous playwright/director named Martin Kerner, whom Tolins describes as “having a tough time staying relevant” as the 1980s hit. He receives a letter from 16-year-old Andy Lipman (played by Edward Tournier) that “somehow touches him. He’s this kid who is what Martin Kerner must have been like when he was younger — ambitious, sensitive, talented, and fun to be around,” says Tolins.
The play delves into both the positive and problematic aspects of mentoring. For example, Andy’s mother suspects there’s more to the relationship than what she’s been told, while Andy himself wants more than may be offered. “Sometimes the mentor gets into the excitement of this relationship, and might be careless with the things he or she says,” remarks Tolins. “So there comes a point when expectations aren’t met — where the mentee hears promises that aren’t necessarily intended.”
The playwright drew from his own experience and those of a number of people he knew when crafting the play. “There’s a scene in Act One when Kerner takes Andy to lunch for the first time — the dynamics of that lunch, Andy’s eagerness, and the way he regroups whenever he says the wrong thing and then tries to say the right thing, is really painful for me to watch,” says Tolins. “I was amazed by how many people had similar stories. They would give me details of their experience that would inspire me to put those things in the play. All my plays [which also include Twilight of the Golds and The Last Sunday in June] are sort of autobiographical and sort of not, but this one is very close to me.”
Many people’s perspectives on hip-hop are stuck in a box of commercial culture that barely scratches the surface, but this year at the Humana Festival, Marc Bamuthi Joseph says that he and his collaborators are, “pushing the boundaries of how hip hop is used as a theatrical form” in the break/s. The show, which gets its title from a ubiquitous track by Kurtis Blow from the early 1980s, is a globe-trotting collection of stories from places as diverse as Bosnia, West Africa, Europe, and Cuba that Joseph describes as “designed like a really good mix tape.”
On stage with Joseph — who began his career at age 5 acting in commercials — are master turntablist DJ Excess with Tommy Shepherd aka Soulati, beatboxing and playing the drums. In the wings are a host of other designers — including a documentary filmmaker — who have contributed to this multimedia experience. “It examines hip hop culture, and closer to the marrow, what it means to be an American in the time of globalization and overarching multiculturalism, and how identities shift with geography,” says Joseph of his work. “I want to help draw as many lines as possible to the content so everyone has some kind of connective tissue, because that makes the content alive.”
When asked what it was like to be the only piece of hip hop theater at Humana, just as he sometimes is in a theater’s season, Joseph explains calmly: “Sometimes it’s a little lonely, but it’s very important that we include as many voices as possible in our cultural dialogue.”
Tashkent, Uzbekistan is exporting one of its most exciting theater companies, Ilkhom Theater Company, to Washington this month. The company is presenting two pieces of an extensive and eclectic repertoire, written and directed by its late founder, Mark Weil, in a multi-city tour beginning at Seattle’s A.C.T. Theatre. White White Black Stork is a Romeo and Juliet-like story of a young boy and girl in a forced marriage, where the girl is in love with another boy and the boy is also in love with another boy; while Ecstasy with the Pomegranate is about painter Aleksandr Nikolaev, and his love of Bacha, an extinct form of Uzbek dance that only boys were allowed to perform.
“Mark always focused on showing different sides of a person,” says Maxim Tumnenev, the company’s translator. “He wanted to show that a person has a freedom of choice, can love whoever he or she wants, and cannot be oppressed by society or traditions, but can overcome them.”
Ilkhom performs in Russian and Uzbek, and will use supertitles to help the audience understand the action. “When you use supertitles, you have to make a choice, and if you look at the text, you lose some of what’s on stage,” admits Tumenev. “But In Stork, audiences need to understand what people are talking about. In Pomegranate, it’s a rich visual; we use video art and projection and it’s quite easy to follow without looking at the supertitles.”
Kurt Beattie, artistic director of A.C.T., is excited about presenting the company. “One of the core aspects of their training is Lecoq Technique. It’s about masks and supporting character image; a way of working from the outside in, as opposed to working from the inside out.” Importing 31 company members and these plays took three years to put together. Beattie believes those who have the opportunity to see them will be very impressed, “due to the brilliance of their storytelling.”