Talent transplant: Riverwest: A Rhapsody!

‘Once upon a time’ used to draw readers into prose insatiably, thankfully, that just won’t do anymore. Young playwrights like Eric Theis take a different route. A native of Wisconsin’s thumb-pit region, Theis traveled and lived his share of the States, settling in the-now-a-days-oft-mentioned Riverwest neighborhood for 5 years. Having had it with the place, referred to as New Brunswick by a friend of mine from New Jersey, Theis made his way to Madison, WI. Before leaving the bitter-sweetness of his experiences in Milwaukee behind, Theis etched a tale of two ‘hoods in his original work Riverwest: A Rhapsody! Yes, exclamation point Rhapsody!, not just ‘rhapsody’. Yes, musical Rhapsody!, with singing. Yes, exclamation point, musical Rhapsody, with singing about a neighborhood in Milwaukee, performed in Madison.

I saw the play last Sunday and before I give due, let me begin by reiterating Riverwest: A Rhapsody! is an original musical play about a neighborhood in Milwaukee. David S. Ward filmed Major League in Milwaukee, Milwaukee inspired Kentucky Fried Movie (I made that up, fine, not really), and the Fonz has a bronze statue down by the river… but has there been…? No there hasn’t so you can stop racking your brain about it. These sort of efforts make Milwaukee shine (on Madison), and not on account of solar panels on five houses within the City limits.

In My Neighborhood

The play centers on Audrey (Sabra Katz-Wise), a witty and gritty twenty something processing her loss of naivety living life in an urban neighborhood on the fly. Bryan (Collin Erickson) and Dre (Odari McWhorter) revolve around Audrey juxtaposed as focal characters with opposing modus operandi, both with their own crosses to bear. Tensions surface when Bryan and Dre’s differing ideologies collide. The unsubstantiated love triangle the three players form infuses a significant-other versus paramour layer to the underlying drama.

Older supporting characters Clyde (Chuck Mielke) and Lois (Betsy Wood) lend balance to the extremes found in the struggles we witness Audrey, Bryan and Dre encounter in the throws of their youth. Introducing a third dimension, Thies incorporates a common enemy into the story with which the youth must deal. The portrayals of conceivable actions, clear contradictions, conventional wisdom and no-win situations, do not let the audience’s conclusions go here, nor there, very far without challenge from the action in the next scene.

Inquisitive Motions

Complexity in the interplay of character types tweaks the audience’s expectations. The story craftily escapes traditional theatre’s four walls, decorating them with great performances of song. Theis’ work, rooted with intent to promote social justice, displays strength in taking on big social justice issues such as how does one escape terrible life circumstances with limited resources and maintain their dignity? How does one authentically advocate for justice and avoid Radical Chic? Where does one’s commitment to causes end and self-righteousness begin? How can you truly empathize with others’ experiences in a society with deliberate and institutionalized social structures that predetermine status and privileges based on phenotypical qualities beyond one’s control?

The resolutions presented at the conclusion of Riverwest: A Rhapsody! to a degree play into social fantasies and preconceived notions. However, since fictional works carry no requirement to transform accepted realities (and if only a tad “campy” at times) good stories and innovative dramatic presentation, with quality performances from actors, are well worth the extreme value offered by Broom Street Theater’s price of admission.

In Solidarity

The issues of injustice Riverwest: A Rhapsody! deliberately tries to address are unfortunately over shadowed by the current political climate in Wisconsin. Even so, Theis’ work ties quickly to disenfranchised peoples’ fight for rights, from all walks of life. At the performance I attended, Theis offered a talk-back with the actors as an added bonus for those, like my-self, who enjoy idea sharing.

The players of Riverwest: A Rhapsody! take the stage Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm until April 10th at Broom Street Theater.

Riverwest Follies: Staying true

Conversations about neighborhoods will inevitably take verbal exchanges past the landmarks of Riverwest, the neighborhood no one can agree upon. Known traditionally as Milwaukee’s melting pot, Riverwest’s legacy of community engagement, activism and acceptance of anti-mainstream lifestyles faces escalating jeers complaining of endemic crime and infestation of suburban social apathy. Saturday night at the Polish Falcon, the 6th annual Riverwest Follies put much of that controversy to rest. A loosely assembled group occupied the Polish Falcon gathering hall for Riverwest Follies, a variety show benefit for Riverwest Currents.

Clad in a tuxedo and rabbit fur hat one performer, a local music engineer Pauly S (“The only Pauly you need to know”), enacted a futuristic rendition of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer while modulating his voice with a midi device. Unfortunately, the preceding description does not do the performance justice, as some experiences one must witness first hand.

The Riverwest Ninja made a stealth appearance dressed in a snug all black clothy “ninja suit” to lead chants of the protest mantra “Tell me what democracy looks like!” Not quite a crowd at the State Capitol, those in attendance obliged replying “This is what democracy looks like!” Shamelessly making her point visually, the Riverwest Ninja’s medium was the message. She proposed using force of will to overcome inhibitions, while making your voice heard; a needed departure from the affective domain of social interaction. Among other performers Astral/Subastral provided upbeat melodies for reveling frolickers. To their credit there is little doubt the coming of the spring is at hand, but enough about the performers. The people supplied the real grist of the Riverwest Follies.

Parents with their kids, romantic items clutching hands, costumed characters, modest bakers and craftspeople alike tossed aside being hip, image-conscious, oblivious, paranoid and/or cynical and embraced having a good time. The kids helped clarify the people part of the neighborhood equation, by collectively declaring “to hell with being entertained!”, freely running around during a skit promoting Riverwest Currents. The kids get it right most of the time: the running never ceased. The next time Riverwest comes up, know that the modest and socially conscious working-class roots of the neighborhood still thrive without pretense.

Riverwest Currents is a monthly print and online news publication focusing on issues affecting Riverwest and its neighbors.

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August in the Powerhouse Theater, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

What’s brewing at the The Milwaukee Repertory Theater? New Artistic Director Mark Clements percolated several productions so far this season providing a full-bodied experience, although possibly slightly acerbic to some palates. Despite the immediate impression on the drinker’s taste, as all good cups do, your metabolism gets agitated even if by placebo. However, Clements’ is not serving any decaff at The Rep.

Unlocking an African-American contribution to theatre arts, on the first day after Black history month, created a pleasantly surprising buzz of Powerhouse Theater regulars and patrons with specific interest in play-write August Wilson’s work. The production, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, incarnated a story dramatizing an episode of renowned Blues singer Ma Rainey’s career as a musician. Set in a Prohibition-era Chicago recording studio, the audience meets producers Irving and Sturdyvant and soon after make acquaintances with Rainey’s band (Slow Drag, Levee, Cutler and Toledo). Similar to overhearing gossip, the producers and the band dish a little on Ma Rainey, appetizing the viewers for her entrance. Drama unfolds as beguiling antics wrought with the lively mundane banter of old colleagues and band-mates keeps the audience off-guard, for unanticipated moments when deeper social commentary arise.

The Mirror

Written in 1982, Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom capture stereotypes that border on truth for all parties involved. The play’s characters embody racial archetypes and tell a story we have heard before: injustice, exploitation, abuse, irreverence and self-destructive; long-suffering, under achieving, intelligent, god-fearing and forgiving. What the audience gets to witness is the personified interaction of these forces in time-lapse and in social proximity that does not normally occur on a daily basis. In genius form, Wilson weaves into commonly accepted narratives of America’s historical social tragedy insightful and unexpected commentary on social norms scathing to both whites and blacks.

The dialog on stage may make some uncomfortable or embarrassed. From the beginning of the production, lack of social progress is apparent more in the Black social-sphere than in American society. Taking into account when he authored the play, Wilson elicits this moral of the story, with intention, purposefully and skillfully. To his credit, Wilson’s balances his narrative whether it be the accounts of wrong doing against blacks perpetrated by whites or seeing black stereotypes hit close to home. Wilson makes his audience address these issues with presence of others. When blacks and whites share the house the technique is particularly powerful.

I Ain’t the One, I Ain’t the N***A

The “N-word” has prominence in the vocabulary of the black characters. In light of the recent controversy over editing the “N-word” out of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, it was encouraging to note that as difficult as it is to hear, director OJ Parson includes the term. Most importantly, the connotation used in the play is not endearing.

Conspicuously, the white characters don’t use the term in situations where one might expect the word’s use by a white person, during a time when racism was more aggressive and overt. The deliberate lack of usage of the “N-word” by white characters may imply, to critical thinkers, that there is some risk of losing the origin of the word’s usage. If white characters do use it in the play as Wilson wrote it, to edit those exchanges out of the script gives the production a revisionist interpretation at the mercy of people’s sensibilities. It is important that we move past this period in American history. However, in thought provoking literary work, confronting realities should not come at the expense of sensibilities. Pardon the editorial, but should we edit diseased authors’ works to fit our tastes?

Keeping it 100

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom leaves the audience fully entertained, enlightened and frankly impressed. Quality set design and stage direction lay the foundation for this work. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom settles old scores, like who founded the woman’s voice in American Blues Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith. Some issues Wilson leaves unresolved as the play comes to an abrupt end. One must also ask why some things just don’t seem to change. Wilson assigns that question as homework. If not for anything else, hearing the cast utter the super cool nicknames of the band is worth the price of admission. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened March 1, 2011 and closes March 27, 2011.

Picture Milwaukee, Downtown City Scapes

A medium lacking opacity, chilled air hovering in Milwaukee’s Downtown held fast to architectural structures planted in East Town. Milwaukee’s downtown at night possesses serenity mostly reserved for remote forest lands. Stone, metal, and light-emitting-filaments posed in the dark, kept company by a hand full of passing cars, exchange gestures with the concrete below.

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People’s Books Co-op, DIY baggie style

A corridor of books leads to a small card table covered in plastic shopping bags. Two young women dressed for cold weather, kept company by an overflow of shopping bags sitting on the floor, busy their hands manipulating scissors to trim excess plastic into likable shapes. One of the two, Flannery Steffens, temporarily transplanted from New York, got this crazy idea to organize an activity not involving beer suds on a Saturday night at People’s Books Co-op.

Sparked by the recollection of a batiking project and the sight of numerous plastic bags hanging around, Steffens went looking for a clothes iron. Her theory would prove correct that, with a precise amount of heat, layers of bags fuse together to form a fairly durable and pliable fabric. Melting plastic bags allows desecration of corporate labels, no matter the weight and texture of the bag. The brand image is not completely destroyed however, it blends with the other colors and images printed on the other bag layers in a “new and improved” motif. A tad of alchemy helps the process along too. Id est, when in doubt experiment.


Steffens, now guided by her ambition as a playwright, admits to pursuing painting at one-point. Less about art and more about reuse, a night of creating also serves as a conduit to interacting with crafty people. People’s Books Co-op has a coziness that Steffens intends on sharing at other “Do-it-Together” functions.

Books do not always draw enthusiasm, but making things should. Just ask Elis, the Honduran who also stopped by the event. He plans to share this technique with his family that remained there, when he left 17 years ago. The discovery of an everyday use for fused bag material would deem Steffens an inventor of modern-day fire, in the world according to local lore.

In March, the next “Do-it-Together” session will take on old magazines, newspapers and what-have-yous, in a bout of collage making at People’s Books Co-op on East Locust Street.