Four rising theater stars to watch this spring

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, February 21, 2024


Four rising theater stars to watch this spring
Talene Monahon, whose latest play, “The Good John Proctor,” blends history and fiction to give voice to previously marginal figures or to connect historical events to our moment, in New York, Feb. 10, 2023. Actors turned playwrights like Monahon are all able to excavate meaning from their personal histories to create works that will arrive on the stages of New York City in the coming months. (Avery Norman/The New York Times)



LONDON.- Growing up in the then-modest neighborhood of Hackney here, Arinzé Kene and his four siblings were convinced they were going to be the new Jackson Five.

“We would learn dance moves from music videos and perform them in the living room,” Kene said. “It was the beginning of knowing I wanted to be an entertainer.”

Kene, 35, was chatting before a rehearsal of “Misty,” his almost one-man show (two musicians accompany him) that will arrive at the Shed in New York City on March 3. The piece, which mixes spoken word, music, surreal comedy and performance, tells a tale of gentrification, racial tension and male identity. But it also humorously stages the pitfalls a Black actor faces in telling this tale, via disapproving messages from his friends about racial stereotyping.

“Misty,” directed by Omar Elerian, is the sixth play Kene has written. His acting career has encompassed varied roles, including Bob Marley in the musical “Get Up Stand Up!” and Biff Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

The critics have swooned. “As much bumbling clown as muscular force to be reckoned with, by turns endearing and commanding,” Dominic Cavendish wrote of “Misty” in The Daily Telegraph after it transferred to the West End.

Kene, who exudes a combination of energy, focus and charisma, said he was “constantly creating” when growing up, writing songs and putting out mixtapes and an EP. But he began acting only after stumbling on a teenage drama group near his home. He was also a talented sportsman and academically accomplished; his parents, a taxi driver and a nurse who emigrated from Nigeria when Kene was 4, hoped he would become a doctor.

He tried to let them down gently. “Even after I got a three-month gig in the Boney M. musical, ‘Daddy Cool,’ they still thought I was going to university,” he said.

University didn’t happen, but regular acting jobs did, and at 21 he was playing a leading role in Ché Walker’s musical “Been So Long” at the Young Vic. That was the moment he began to believe in himself as an actor.

He was also writing, creating his first play, “Estate Walls,” during a writers course at the Royal Court Theatre. He spent two subsequent years in a whirlwind of writing and acting while participating in more writing and directing programs.

“Misty” emerged from a 2012 commission from Madani Younis, then the director of London’s Bush Theatre. (He is now the chief executive producer at the Shed.) For three years, Kene struggled to write, eventually offering to return the commission fee. Younis refused. Kene then “began to scribble” about his experience of moving back to Hackney, which was now undergoing rampant gentrification.

“The music just started happening,” he said. “I didn’t always know where the story was going, but I suddenly had a wellspring of information because it was my upbringing, my home.”

Although Kene’s plays have all drawn on his own experience, he hadn’t appeared in any of them. But after the actor performed the piece (before a small audience of the Bush artistic team, in the theater’s kitchen), Elerian persuaded him to take on the role.

“I was self-conscious about it,” he said. “Why would anyone care about my experience? But what I learned is that specific is interesting, honesty is interesting. If it’s the truth, people may lean forward.”

— ROSLYN SULCAS

Talene Monahon

In Talene Monahon’s “Jane Anger,” William Shakespeare is portrayed not as an envy-inspiring wordsmith but as a pompous misogynist struggling with writer’s block during a plague.

“Every time I go into quarantine, I’m expected to be more prolific and timely than the last time,” he whines to his assistant.

Unlike her fictional Bard, Monahon had a most productive pandemic. Besides “Jane Anger,” she wrote “The Good John Proctor”; the Bedlam theater company production of the show begins previews March 12 at the Connelly Theater in New York City. Billed as a “prequel” to “The Crucible,” the play is a reimagining of the events leading up to the Salem witch trials, as experienced by four girls who spend much of their time discussing one another’s menstrual cycles and mysterious dreams.

It also hints at darker themes.

“I’m interested, for the purposes of the play, in childhood and girlhood and how trauma manifests in a society where there is no language for it and only language about the devil and witchcraft,” Monahon said over a video call this month.

“The Good John Proctor” shares DNA with Monahon’s other plays, which thoroughly emulsify history and fiction to give voice to previously marginal figures or to connect historical events to our moment.

“I think about this quote from Hilary Mantel all the time: ‘History is not the past — it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past,’” she said.

Monahon, 32, who grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts, attended Dartmouth College and now lives in Brooklyn, attributes her interest in history to her Armenian heritage. Family members had lived through the Armenian genocide, and she grew up with an awareness that historically grand narratives have a way of eliding certain events.

“From an early age, I was interested in what histories get taught, what doesn’t get taught, who teaches history, who controls the narrative,” she said.

Writing came relatively late to Monahon. As a child, she performed in musicals at her Unitarian Universalist church, and her professional acting credits have included productions at Roundabout Theatre Company (“Bobbie Clearly”) and Playwrights Horizons (“Log Cabin”).

“Writing was always something I kind of just did for myself,” she said.

The chance to do more of it presented itself during the pandemic, when Monahon worked on virtual playlets for the 24 Hour Plays. She likened the experience to going to graduate school for playwriting.

“I started figuring things out for myself about structure and form,” she said, “and I think that my writing improved.”

“The Good John Proctor” began its life as an exercise at the 24 Hour Plays. She fleshed it out with research — reading Stacy Schiff’s “The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem,” and traveling to Texas with Tavi Gevinson (who stars in the new play) to read through Arthur Miller’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Her play joins a few others, like Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem” and Kimberly Belflower’s “John Proctor Is the Villain,” that wrestle with the legacy of the trials and of Miller’s canonical play.

Monahon stressed that her play is not a takedown of Miller’s.




“There’s so much in ‘The Crucible’ that I love, and there are also things that really frustrate me,” she said. “I feel excited to think about these events from a different angle.”

— RHODA FENG

Ryan J. Haddad

In his past shows, writer and performer Ryan J. Haddad has ingratiated himself with audiences, using jokes to put spectators at ease. In his new one, “Dark Disabled Stories,” which begins performances at the Public Theater in New York City on Feb. 28, he takes a different approach.

“I try to make disability funny so that nondisabled people can understand it and open themselves to it and realize that it’s not so scary, so dark,” Haddad says early in the play. “Not tonight. I don’t feel like it.”

A one-man show with a difference, “Dark Disabled Stories” recounts Haddad’s journey through a world that doesn’t always accommodate his disability (cerebral palsy, which requires a walker and leg braces) or the disabilities of others. The stories are his own — some he experiences as a protagonist, others he simply observes. But he is joined onstage by Dickie Hearts, who performs the same tales in American Sign Language, and Alejandra Ospina, who provides audio description. The theater also offers expanded wheelchair seating, making “Dark Disabled Stories” the rare show that is accessible to all.

That’s a happy thing. But “Dark Disabled Stories” isn’t designed for uplift. It does not supply what Haddad, 31, refers to, with appropriate derision, as “inspiration porn” — tales of disabled people triumphing in the face of obstacles internal and external. He doesn’t believe that hope is what he owes an audience. What he owes them, he feels, is truth.

“We’ve been starved for stories about us,” Haddad said over breakfast in the lobby of the Public Theater. “What I’m telling, what I’m giving is a really honest portrait. And it’s a portrait of me.”

Nervy and emphatic, Haddad grew up in a Cleveland suburb, the youngest of three boys. His older brothers were star students and star athletes. But Haddad’s passion was theater, musical theater in particular.

While a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, he acted in the theater department’s plays, but he realized that if he wanted a more robust career, he would have to create work for himself. He debuted his solo show “Hi, Are You Single?” just after college and has written several other pieces, all of them autobiographical.

“Dark Disabled Stories” has some of the provocations of his earlier work. (The first story finds Haddad in a club’s restroom, a stranger’s hand down his pants.) But he has pushed himself to go deeper. The first time he tried out the piece, he could feel the energy in the room change.

“I knew it was a little relentless,” he said. “I also knew I should be able to tell the darker stories without having you pitying me.”

That “you” implies an able-bodied spectator, but “Dark Disabled Stories” is designed to serve both those with disabilities and those without. For those without, he hopes the work will urge self-inquiry about each person’s relationship to disability and the disabled. And for audience members with disabilities, the show offers an invitation to relate their own experiences to Haddad’s. But neither community is guaranteed an easy ride.

“I could be taking care of both sets of people,” Haddad said. “But instead, I’m saying, ‘We’re going to sit here and in the messiness of this together.’”

— ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Guadalís Del Carmen

Playwright and actor Guadalís Del Carmen was supposed to go to law school. At least that was her mother’s plan for her.

“She wanted me to go to Northwestern,” Del Carmen said by phone one morning this month, and laughed affectionately. “She was very, very specific about that.”

Born and raised in Chicago, the daughter of Dominican immigrants who were educators before they came to the United States, Del Carmen passively resisted the law school path. She took the LSAT without studying for it, lest she score high enough to get in.

But her new play, “Bees and Honey,” scheduled to start performances May 4 at the off-Broadway MCC Theater, offers her mother a consolation prize. Its heroine, Johaira, is a lot like Del Carmen: a sharp, funny, driven Dominican American living in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. Johaira, though, is also a lawyer — passionate about her job, and stressed by it.

A comic drama, “Bees and Honey” focuses on the relationship between Johaira, a feminist prosecuting a sexual assault case, and her husband, Manuel, a good guy who is also, as Del Carmen says, “a low-key misogynist.”

Talk of sexism was very much in the air when she started writing the play in 2017, the year of the women’s marches and the rise of the #MeToo movement.

“I’ve kind of always been interested in our interpersonal relationships during times of cultural shifts,” she said from Louisville, Kentucky, where she was in actor mode, rehearsing for “La Egoista,” a play by Erlina Ortiz. “And also, you know, I really wanted to see a love story between two people that looked and sounded like me.”

In 2012, seeing Dominican characters in “In the Heights” gave Del Carmen a life-altering jolt. Still living in Chicago, already an actor, she realized that playwriting was also a possible avenue. Her first play, “Blowout,” had its premiere in 2013.

As a Black woman of Latin American descent, she said she had never truly felt accepted in Chicago; people there routinely asked why she spoke Spanish, the language she’d learned at home. To them, she didn’t look Latina.

Moving to New York in 2016, she found a sense of belonging among the large Dominican community in Washington Heights. But she was surprised to find that Dominican playwrights weren’t being produced on the city’s English-language stages.

“Bees and Honey” is part of her effort to change that. The Sol Project, which elevates work by artists of Latin American descent, developed the play at its SolFest in 2018 and is coproducing the run at MCC.

Melissa Crespo, the play’s director, said Del Carmen’s artistry lies in her deftness at interweaving comedy with difficult topics like “mental health and misogyny and colorism.” There is also her ear for dialogue, which Crespo believes is “why TV is trying to scoop her up.”

Del Carmen spent last summer on the writing staff of an HBO Max prequel to Stephen King’s “It,” she’s been working on other projects with Amazon and FX, and she has already written the pilot of a possible TV adaptation of “Bees and Honey.” Her career has been going so well that it’s been more than a year since she’s worked at her fallback occupation: dental hygienist.

She isn’t certain that she’s hung that up for good, though; a screenwriters strike may be looming. But she’s positive she made the right call in snubbing a career in law to build a life as an artist.

“The funny thing is, when I was doing hygiene, I would get a lot of lawyers,” she said. “And not one of them was happy.”

— LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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